Saturday 31 August 2019

Theatre Review: Amélie The Musical at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Those who remember the 2001 French film Amélie with affection will thrill to this musical theatre version, playing at Bristol Old Vic on the latest stop of its UK tour before heading to London. Extensively rewritten by Craig Lucas after a limited Broadway run in 2017, Amélie the Musical captures all the whimsical charm and romantic yearning of the original movie.

Amélie Poulain grows up an unhappy child in the care of her emotionally repressed parents. Convinced that she has a heart condition, they insist she is home schooled in isolation, her only friend a suicidal goldfish. As a young woman, Amélie escapes to work as a waitress in a café in Montmartre where, despite the kinship of her employer and regular customers, she remains socially awkward and alone.

From Audrey Brisson’s previous appearances in Bristol in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and The Grinning Man, it comes as no surprise that she is exceptional in the title role as a young woman living primarily through her imagination. Brisson captures Amélie’s essential quirky appeal, combined with pitch-perfect vocals and seamless physicality. She is supported by an outstanding ensemble of actor-musicians who, under Michael Fentiman’s assured direction, propel the story forward with a combination of spoken narrative, episodic interludes, fluid movement, puppetry and joyous folksy musicality.

As Amélie is inspired to perform small acts of kindness that enhance the lives of others, she moulds herself in the image of Princess Diana. It is the shocking news of Diana’s untimely death in Paris that inspires a departure from the score’s previous harmonious melding of accordions, violins and double basses to a storming Elton John pastiche from Caolan McCarthy, bringing the first half to a thunderous close.

Though the reference to Diana tethers the setting to 1997, Madeleine Girling’s enchanting, stylised design and sepia-toned costuming harks back to an earlier era, an artisan Gallic bubble that has drifted into the late 20th century. Amélie’s kindnesses are simple, low-tech missions of human connection, from attempting to restore a memory box to its boyhood owner to transforming a grumpy greengrocer through hilarious intervention by taunting life-sized figs and coaxing her father out of hermithood in pursuit of his revered family gnome. But, while she succeeds in solving problems for those around her, she is still unable to directly resolve her own.

Danny Mac turns in a winsome and nuanced performance as Amélie’s love interest Nino, collector of discarded photo booth pictures and unlikely sex-shop worker. Having met in the maelstrom of act one, their developing relationship takes on a meandering quality after the interval, as Amélie sets a succession of puzzles and tests for Nino so that she can avoid the reality of a meeting. Though there is some padding here that could be sharpened, it is a measure of the chemistry established between the two actors and the audience’s immersion in their story that their eventual, inevitable union after so much song and movement is greeted with a still, hushed silence.

The rapturous reception of Amélie the Musical in Bristol bodes well for the production’s London transfer in December. There is so much to enjoy in this sweetly charming and uplifting celebration of life’s simplest but often forgotten possibilities, seen through the dreaming eyes of a singular, yearning young woman.

Reviewed on 16 July 2019 | Images: Pamela Raith Photography

Monday 26 August 2019

Theatre Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Never let it be said that Bristol Old Vic Theatre School lacks ambition. Having recently concluded a marathon production of The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby with its graduate class, now those completing the MFA for international Professional Acting students take on Bertolt Brecht at the Tobacco Factory.

Written in 1944, The Caucasian Chalk Circle remains one of Brecht’s most accessible and popular works. Here, in Frank McGuinness’s modern translation, rather than beginning with two peasant communities in a land ownership dispute, the setting moves to an urban environment and the conflict between a local community and a property developer hell-bent on thinly-veiled gentrification. It’s an apt scenario in an area of Bristol where so much redevelopment has and is still taking place, lending added authenticity to the cast member activists greeting the audience at the door with flyers.

There’s much to enjoy as a group of travelling performers then invade the Expert’s presentation to hijack events and present a morality play over the rightful parentage of a baby, echoing Solomon’s biblical judgement. The youthful cast has an energetic life-force behind it and, under the direction of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Jesse Jones, injects well-choreographed pace and verve into the story. The musical narration is engaging and there’s a tangible sense of mischief in many of the performances, with over-the-top archetypes of the landed elite receiving their comeuppance in the chaos of civil war, while the peasant underclass exploits their desperation, extracting a living any way they can.

At times, though, the buffoonery becomes too frenetic at the expense of narrative clarity, as eclectically adopted accents wander and some of the lines become difficult to hear when yelled with full force. But it does provide a meaningful contrast to the poignant central story of Grusha, a young servant girl who risks everything to save an abandoned baby from the war’s ravages.

Though Brecht’s emphasis is on alienation and social commentary, wanting audiences to engage in critical thinking rather than pure emotion, Grusha’s moral dilemmas are this play’s essential core and Marine Laurencelle brings endearing integrity to the role. Her tentative moments of love with her soldier fiancé Simon, played with touching warmth and understanding by James Costello Ladanyi, are the most affecting of the production, as Grusha remains true to her conscience and growing love for baby Michael, despite the great personal sacrifice entailed.

There’s effective use of projected backdrops and simple wooden crates on wheels to provide instant changes of levels, as Grusha escapes across rivers and over the mountains to the relative safety of her brother’s house. Other aspects of the staging using inflatable chairs and space-hoppers feel bizarre, though arguably adding to the aura of Brechtian absurdity. One of the most bleakly funny scenes plays out when Grusha marries Adam Troyer’s dying farmer in a bid to afford Michael protection, only to find her groom springs miraculously back to life once the war is over and he is no longer in danger of being called up.

Alice Birbara endows the wily judge Azdak with wild coke-snorting licentiousness, combined with an underlying hunger for justice that sees the chalk circle being invoked as she decides on Michael’s future parentage. Freja Zeuthen provides a comically outrageous portrayal of the spoilt, pouting Governor’s wife Natella, only interested in reclaiming her son when she realises the inheritance he will bring. This year’s students should be commended for their achievements; their production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is memorable for some fine performances, pleasing musicality, committed ensemble work and the intensity of its retelling.

Reviewed on 26 June 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Thursday 22 August 2019

Book Reviews: Blue Night and Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz

I first heard of German crime fiction author Simone Buchholz when Blue Night was one of the picks for 2019's Around the World in 10 Books, a fab Bath Festivals event that celebrates world literature.

Not only did the thriller sound right up my street, but its English translation by Rachel Ward has also been brought to the UK by one of my favourite independent publishers, Orenda Books, who very kindly sent me not only Blue Night but also its sequel Beton Rouge. I romped through both volumes during a slightly soggy week's holiday and so here, dear reader, are two reviews in one.

Rather than receiving recognition for skewering a corrupt superior, Hamburg state prosecutor Chastity Riley finds herself demoted to the monotony of witness protection. Out of luck and out of sorts, she tries a weekend break in the country, only to find that - a city-dwelling fish out of water - she needs to be rescued by an old friend.

Back in Hamburg, Riley is called on to protect an unidentified man lying in a hospital bed, badly beaten and under police guard. Her instincts tell her he's embroiled in something big: as the man who calls himself Joe begins to recover, she does all she can to gain his confidence. Joe reveals just enough to arouse Riley's suspicion of a major drugs deal and, though it's not really her job to investigate, she sets off on a trail to Leipzig. There, with the help of an enigmatic police officer, she uncovers a murky world of depravity and corruption stretching far into Eastern Europe, pointing back towards a notorious Albanian drug dealer now respectably settled in Hamburg.

Riley's unusual name arises from her heritage: her father was part of the American army stationed in Germany. A survivor of a troubled childhood, she now calls Hamburg - a city she was originally passing through - her home.

Here she has created her own eclectic family of friends - cops, reformed criminals and those seeking a better future - outsiders all and in some way damaged. Much of the novel's action is set in the colourful harbour district of St Pauli, with its famous Reeperbahn nightlife; the book's title refers to a club run by Riley's current love interest.

Blue Night is unflinching, pacy and darkly atmospheric with a ferocious, hard-drinking protagonist whose words are sharp as tacks - describing her own driving as like 'a cow on ice', judging a solitary visit to the countryside as akin to 'eating Sellotape'. Though this is the first Chastity Riley novel to be translated into English, it is the sixth book in the series. Inevitably, there is a backstory to catch up on, neatly incorporated by interspersing chapters with snippets of past thoughts of other major characters. It's a clever structure that informs while adding to the intrigue, without feeling too onerous or exposition-heavy. 

Beton Rouge picks up the grit where Blue Night leaves off, still mining the seamier underside of Hamburg's respectable veneer. One innocuous September morning, a man is found unconscious in a cage outside the magazine publishing office where he works; he's been tortured and is barely alive. He's soon identified as one of the company's senior managers but sympathy for him amongst his co-workers seems in surprisingly short supply.

Three days later, another manager is targeted in the same way and, as Riley probes into their past, deeply disturbing details of their shared boarding-school days gradually emerge. Bullied for years and subject to repeated humiliation, could this be the revenge of a shadowy and almost forgotten victim on his tormentors?

Where Blue Night's German noir hooks you, Beton Rouge's short, pithily-titled chapters reel you in. It's a page-turner shot through with black humour and the everyday dramas of Riley's life - cooling relationships and divided loyalties - play out against the mounting tension of a race against time to avoid a murderous conclusion.

Blue Night and Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz (translated by Rachel Ward) are both published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to the publisher for my review copies.