Thursday 31 October 2019

Theatre Review: Posh at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

As Laura Wade’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished work The Watsons transfers to Menier Chocolate Factory for a much anticipated London première, her 2010 play Posh has been revived for a UK tour.

Based on the antics of Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, whose past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, Posh is an incisive, funny but ultimately unsettling exploration of elitism and entitlement. With a grammar school Prime Minister swept aside this year in favour of yet another old Etonian, the play feels as relevant today as it did almost a decade earlier.

Ten rich and privileged young men, all undergraduates of Oxford colleges, meet for an evening of reckless abandonment where dinner is only the beginning. This time, The Riot Club has been warned to tone it down; their last termly meeting reached the pages of the Daily Mail and ex-members in the upper echelons of power are displeased with the coverage. So, the club has chosen to dine in an out-of-the-way gastropub under the improbable alias of a group of young entrepreneurs.

Director Lucy Hughes handles the pace well in her professional debut, as the evening unfolds in a series of arcane and ritualistic toasts, bravado-filled high spirits and increasingly bigoted views. Club members reinforce their own sense of superiority over the common man; it isn’t easy being posh, after all, what with all those poor people and their huge plasma-screen TVs getting in the way. And the National Trust taking over one’s home and inviting everybody in for cream teas and souvenir thimbles.

Among a well-matched young cast that believably builds to a foul-mouthed, alcohol-fuelled crescendo of violence, Tyger Drew-Honey of Outnumbered fame impresses in his first stage performance as the obnoxious but troubled Alistair Ryle. Adam Mirsky as Guy Bellingfield is impressionable but foolish in his ambitions to become the club’s next President, while Joseph Tyler Todd bumbles ineffectually as the intellectually challenged but almost likeable George Balfour.

The ‘commoners’ who facilitate the evening make only fleeting appearances, with the reactions of the ruby-wedding party next door left to the audience’s imagination. Though she has little opportunity for character development, Ellie Nunn makes the most of her cameo as the smuggled-in escort Charlie, whose scrupled refusal to do the boys’ bidding undermines their arrogant supposition that anybody can be bought with enough cash.

Thoughts of restraint fly out the window as Will Coombs’s realistically detailed set design of a private dining room is progressively and almost thoughtlessly trashed in the course of a meal—just another of the high-octane evening’s traditional ceremonies that even brushes with the supernatural. But the laughter ends abruptly when the boys’ contemptuous goading of the pub’s landlord and his waitress daughter crosses a line.

Like the primal tribalism of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the denouement becomes uncomfortable to observe. Maybe this time, these deeply unpleasant characters cannot simply buy themselves out of the consequences of their actions and must take their share of the blame. Yet, perhaps most disquieting of all—considering our current crop of politicians—is the young men’s elastically self-serving relationship to the truth. Normal rules simply don’t apply here; this sharply observed, questioning piece of political theatre continues to shine a penetrating light on establishment shortcomings.

Reviewed on 23 September 2019 | Images: Photo Tech

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Theatre Review: The Lion King at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

With over 100 million people having seen The Lion King worldwide, the most successful stage musical of all time needs little by way of introduction. Now Disney is marking the 20th anniversary of the show’s run at the Lyceum Theatre in London by embarking on a tour of the UK and Ireland, kicking off in Bristol.

There can hardly be a more theatrically dazzling opening sequence than the gathering of animals at Pride Rock to celebrate the birth of Simba, the lion cub destined to be king. To the soaring strains of “Circle of Life” accompanied by a live orchestra, they assemble on stage from all corners of the auditorium: leaping gazelles, prancing zebras, stilted giraffes and swaying elephants depicted by majestic masks and fluid, graceful puppetry.

How do you follow such spectacle? As this well-known story of family betrayal and redemption with its roots in Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins, the show borrows heavily from Disney’s much-loved 1994 animated film. Sections of the dialogue are instantly recognisable when, in the shimmering heat of the Serengeti Plains, Scar plots to rid himself of both his brother, the current King Mufasa, and Simba, Mufasa’s impressionable only cub.

While some characters swerve towards impersonation, others strive to echo rather than recreate their film personas. Members of the new touring cast have been drawn from around the world and South African Thandazile Soni is simply outstanding in voice and interpretation as the eccentric mandrill seer Rafiki.

Jean-Luc Guizonne exudes leonine strength and dignity as Mufasa, while Young Simba and Nala, portrayed on press night by Hunter Del Valle Marfo and Minaii Barrowes, are impressive and endearing in their professional debuts. As the cubs set off in search of adventure and encounter the menacing hyenas for the first time, there’s another stunningly choreographed performance from the ensemble among the piled skeletons of the elephant graveyard, culminating in Scar’s bleakly rousing rallying song “Be Prepared”.

Comic asides are provided by neurotic courtier Zazu, played by Matthew Forbes, and Timon and Pumbaa double act Steve Beirnaert and Carl Sanderson. There’s even the odd regionally-based quip to give the touring show some pantomime-style local resonance—with Zazu joking that one of the backdrops resembles a shower curtain from Bristol’s St. Nick’s market.

The production is visually breathtaking throughout; aside from director Julie Taymor’s combination of African masks, Japanese Kabuki costumes and Indonesian shadow puppetry, the striking costumes and lighting design reflect the colours and heat of the African savannah. As Simba discovers his father’s demise and escapes to his jungle refuge, he grows into Dashaun Young’s initially tentative adolescent lion, emboldened through his reunion with Josslynn Hlenti’s courageous young lioness Nala to return to the pride lands and claim his inheritance.

Songs from the film written by Elton John and Tim Rice are supplemented by an additional score and Lebo M’s rousing African vocal arrangements. With each performance featuring 232 puppets and six African languages spoken or sung, The Lion King is an epic carnival of diverse styles. On occasion, the fusion can jar rather than blend, but this does not detract overall from a spectacular must-see celebration of the age-old triumph of good before evil.

There are still further tour dates to be announced: if you can’t catch it in Bristol, the show returns to the region during July and August 2020 at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre.

Reviewed on 12 September 2019 | Images: Disney

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Theatre Review: Wild Swimming at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, FullRogue returns to Bristol Old Vic with Wild Swimming, the show that made its scratch debut as part of 2019’s Ferment Fortnight artistic development programme.

Annabel Baldwin plays Oscar and Alice Lamb is Nell, two childhood friends whose meetings on the same Dorset beach span 400 years of English history. It begins in the Elizabethan era: think of an anarchic cross between Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and David Nicholls’s One Day with an added frenzy of edible snacks.

Sharply written by Marek Horn, this playful hour-long production simmers with ideas of gender privilege. Oscar returns from his first year at university with his head crammed full of romantic poetry and swimming the Hellespont, but Nell has never been away. She may come from an affluent family and have the upper hand in the sharpness of their verbal jousting, but she must wait at home to be married while Oscar enjoys the roving life of a young gentleman.

Despite their differences, Nell and Oscar’s destinies are intertwined. They challenge each other’s ideas and assumptions but, as they gallop through the centuries and audience-assisted costume changes, there’s a natural teasing warmth between the two. FullRogue’s stated aim is to “stress test” new works—even potentially destroying them—in live performance; Julia Head’s direction frequently (it could be argued too frequently) delves into the meta, with bouts of intensive line delivery punctured by seemingly impromptu discussions of their merits.

Though the two characters remain consistent in their relationship throughout the years, shifts in tone and perspective occur in each era as Nell finds greater opportunities in the world beyond the beach. From reading Jane Eyre in the 19th century, her voice finally emerges in the hiatus between the two World Wars, just as Oscar is losing his. Amid the boisterous, energetic fun of this idiosyncratic race through history, his quiet diminishment after fighting at Gallipoli is palpable.

While Nell refuses to bow before a soldier’s reverence for sacrifice or countenance a madcap scheme to avoid the present day, Oscar retaliates that she views him as an oppressive idea rather than a fallible individual struggling to exist in a world he no longer understands. A refreshing and taut exploration of gender politics delivered with deceptively relaxed wit and silliness; Wild Swimming may only have snacks on offer, but this production provides more than enough food for thought.

Reviewed on 11 September 2019 | Images: The Other Richard

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Book Review: Cage by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Having devoured Snare and Trapthe first two books in Lilja Sigurdardottir's Reykjavik Noir trilogy, I've been drumming my fingers impatiently for the final instalment. Once again translated by Quentin Bates, Cage picks up the threads in April 2017, almost six years after the final chapters of Trap, with financier Agla now coming to the end of her prison sentence for her part in Iceland's banking collapse.

Agla is far from happy at the prospect of parole; after her incarceration, the freedom it promises seems overwhelming and she's still suffering from the heartache of her abrupt abandonment by former lover Sonja. But she becomes drawn into a friendship with an ex-junkie prison mate and finds her interest further piqued when the representative of a foreign business consortium asks her to investigate a potential world market price-fixing fraud.

Who knew the hazards of global aluminium storage could be so riveting? As before, the narrative is female-led, but this time Cage is Agla's story more than Sonja's. Both are resourceful, self-reliant women, beset by vulnerabilities but battle-scarred and increasingly adept at making the strategic first move in a dog-eat-dog world traditionally dominated by men.

Prison proves no barrier to Agla's investigations - she knows the rules well enough by now to evade them. Shrewd as ever, she recruits her nemesis Maria, formerly of the state prosecutor's office and now an investigative journalist, to go where she cannot. As she sets off on a trail that stretches to a metal storage facility in the United States and back again, Maria for once finds herself at the heart of the action. Threatened then captured, her very existence put in doubt, she might just be out of her depth.

Though Reykjavik is Iceland's capital city there's a small-town feel to the connections between many of the characters and, as with the first two books, there are plenty of enticing subplots. Agla's path again crosses that of the merciless entrepreneur Ingimar, still out to protect his own interests at all costs. Yet Ingimar's home life could prove even more explosive; against a background of mounting nationalism, his son Anton plans to impress his girlfriend on her birthday with a uniquely devised celebration.

Reappearing after a long absence and catching Agla unawares, Sonja has her own dilemmas to resolve. Though she has risen through the ranks of the drug-dealing underground, she fears those above her are trying to cut her out of the network - and knows only too well how the superfluous are ruthlessly eliminated. Back in Iceland she turns once more to retired customs officer Bragi for reassurance: 'They understood each other. He was her conscience and she was the black stain on his.'

Sigurdardottir always skewers her characters with deceptively crisp prose, yet is so adept at revealing the flashes of humanity beneath the chess game of survival, that you find yourself in sympathy with the brutality of their decision-making. As usual, convincing detail is coupled with twists and turns aplenty, the complex threads weaving together into a satisfying conclusion of retribution, tinged with hope for a brighter future alongside regrets of what might have been.

Cage by Lilja Sigurdardottir, translated by Quentin Bates, is published in the UK by Orenda Books. Thanks to the publishers and Anne Cater for my review copy.