Thursday 28 November 2019

Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory celebrates its 20th anniversary season in some style with a second production of Much Ado About Nothing. In her modern dress interpretation, director Elizabeth Freestone mines all the play’s sharp-tongued humour and disquieting duplicity to create a contemporary romantic comedy with a dark heart.

She has assembled a strong cast, including returning regulars and alumni from Bristol Old Vic’s theatre school, to deliver the tale of soldiers coming back from war to Leonato’s court in Messina. Zachary Powell is on commanding form as their leader Don Pedro, hatching plots to bring about the liaisons between Claudio and Hero and Beatrice and Benedick that underpin the play’s dynamic.

There are shades of a general seeking to keep his men on track in the aftermath of conflict, with light-hearted subterfuge helping them readjust to civilian life. By contrast, Georgia Frost’s Don Jon demonstrates the bleaker side of war’s profound psychological disturbances, as a soldier intent on darker deceits—slandering Hero’s virtuous reputation and causing Claudio to shame her—to avenge past perceived wrongs.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett delivers a beautifully judged Beatrice; intelligent in her fiery wit while verbally jousting with Benedick, she is alternately comic in falling for her friends’ playful deception of her sparring partner’s supposed declarations of love, then raging at her powerlessness as a woman in a man’s world. Whenever she’s on stage, it’s hard to look elsewhere, but Geoffrey Lumb’s convincing Benedick matches her in spirit. Though often outdone by Beatrice’s wit, Lumb finds depth beyond Benedick’s initial combination of charismatic swagger and gullibility, to declare his love with truthful sincerity and rally to her entreaties to right the wrong of Hero’s fate.

At times, the production feels as though it is veering too far into comic cliché with the masked ball, where many of the initial plans are laid, becoming a distracting superhero costume party. After the interval, the local Watch uncovering Don Jon’s connivance in full-on health and safety mode, complete with hard hats and high-viz jackets, feels rather over-worked. But Jean Chan’s minimal set and costumes are bright and summery, and there’s a joyous energy throughout, both in the dancing and in the musical interludes provided primarily by Bethan Mary-James as Hero’s maid Margaret—who gets away surprisingly lightly with her central role in her mistress's undoing.

After so many comic interludes and festive wedding preparations, the outcome of Claudio and Hero’s nuptials is brutally shocking; Imran Momen’s previously restrained Claudio is vicious in his rejection of Hannah Bristow’s sweetly trusting Hero. Equally outrageous to modern sensibilities is Leonato’s response in dismissing his daughter’s pleas of innocence and wishing she were dead. In a moving portrayal, Christopher Bianchi brings believability to Leonato’s short-lived paternal outburst, tumbling into sorrow and remorse as he accepts that she has been wronged.

As with many a Shakespeare play, it seems a long way back from here to a happy ending, with further deception, identity switching and a whole dose of forgiveness required to reunite the lovers. But Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s reputation for clear and compelling storytelling lives on; particularly in the latter stages, this dynamic yet thoughtful and nuanced interpretation treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy with consummate ease.

Reviewed on October 25 2019: Images: Mark Douet

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Theatre Review: Me & Robin Hood at the Spielman Theatre,Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Me & Robin Hood is the second of Hoipolloi’s Loose Change trilogy examining inequality and the relative values we ascribe to life and art, while raising money for the charity Street Child United. It follows on from The Duke: Shôn Dale-Jones’s one-man tale of a porcelain family heirloom, that saw him seated at a desk, cueing up his own music and sound effects from a laptop.

For Me & Robin Hood—after his customary handshake greeting at the door—Dale-Jones appears on a stage that is empty aside from his water bottle. Yet, in this stripped-back setting, his storytelling has even more room to flourish. He needs the space to create his narrative—to imagine the front room of his childhood home in Anglesey, a football match he played for his local Llangefni under-11s team or a confrontation with a bank manager after an impromptu one-man demonstration with a placard.

Beneath his genial demeanour and charismatic wit, his personal worries about his mortgage and stress-induced skin condition, Dale-Jones is angry—about the inequality that exists in a world that accepts millions of children living on the streets and the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor stretching back to the Thatcher years. It’s time to invoke the spirit of his fictional friend Robin Hood—whom he first met in 1975, watching the six-part TV series as a seven-year-old, at home with his family and best mate.

In his eyes, Robin was a true radical, gainsaying the authority of the Sheriff of Nottingham and robbing the rich to give to the poor. If he were here today, he wouldn’t be propping up the system by helping in his local charity shop, he’d be exploding the shared myths of society, plundering banks to redistribute cash and rewriting the story of money.

Weaving fact and fantasy together so seamlessly that the audience is left guessing where one finishes and the other begins, Dale-Jones questions our commonly held perceptions of what is acceptable in society. He admits he too is complicit, a product of the boarding-school education his Thatcher-supporting greengrocer father strove to provide for him, that chafes against the social conscience of his grandmother. But his show is raising money for street children and the challenge is there for us all to do what we can.

Looping back and forth through multiple threads, Dale-Jones is such a gifted storyteller and his tale so skilfully crafted that not a moment of this 70-minute monologue sags or drags. Reaching from the 12th century to the present via his childhood exploits, Me & Robin Hood encompasses friends and family, bank managers and robberies, a run-in with the police and an idiosyncratically off-kilter course of therapy. On an empty stage, Dale-Jones pushes at the boundaries; playful, challenging and seething with ideas.

Reviewed on 2 October 2019| Images: Murdo Macleod

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Book Review: Violet by SJI Holliday

Crime fiction author SJI (Susi) Holliday has followed up her creepy Gothic novel The Lingering with another psychological thriller. In Violet, she explores the far-reaching consequences of a friendship forged during a fateful train journey traversing the vast open territories between Beijing and Moscow.

When Violet and Carrie bump into each other in a Beijing travel centre, it seems like a match made in heaven. Violet is desperate to buy a ticket for the Trans-Siberian Express, having split from her boyfriend in Thailand. Meanwhile, Carrie has one to spare after her best friend Laura had an accident and couldn't make their round-the-world trip.

The two women hit it off and, after a few drinks, Carrie impulsively offers her second ticket to Violet. Their friendship is cemented by exchanging snippets of previous failed relationships and they board the train to Moscow via Mongolia in a haze of optimism. But, of course, all is not quite what it seems; Violet is the novel's ultimate unreliable narrator, choosing what she hides and what she reveals, dangling tantalising glimpses of past lives and obsessions that raise many more questions than they answer.

Carrie, by contrast, unveils her innermost feelings in a series of emails to Laura back home in Scotland. But she too has her mysteries; what happened between Carrie and her boyfriend Greg before she left home? And how exactly did Laura meet with her untimely accident? As the claustrophobic intimacy of the railway carriage gives way to the vast open steppes of Mongolia, the two women are alternately attracted and repelled by each other, manipulating their own versions of the truth as their newly woven bond threatens to spectacularly unravel.

There are scenes of Shamanic festivals and Mongol horse-riding, of drug and booze-fuelled partying, but to tell more would be to tell too much. Holliday deftly ratchets up the tension - from an adventure charting the highs and lows of ill-advised excesses to something much more sinister and unhinged. Coupled with a travelogue that makes you want to ditch your day job, pick up your backpack and head off across the world - though hopefully avoiding the darker chills of this twisting tale.

I read this novel in a single sitting, gripped by its encroaching menace, as the trip of a lifetime strays into a cross between Single White Female and shades of Killing Eve. Certain events defy belief by the end and are more loosely sketched than the detailed character work of the novel's central relationship, but it's a nail-biting, high-octane ride along the way.

Violet by SJI Holliday is published in the UK in November 2019 by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Anne Cater for my review copy.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Theatre Review: Reasons To Stay Alive at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Rumi’s words "the wound is the place where the Light enters you" are quoted in this insightful adaptation by April De Angelis of Matt Haig’s bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive. The phrase encapsulates the spirit of a play—jointly produced by English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres—that charts the depths of pain caused by anxiety and depression but ultimately finds joy and inspiration in the world.

Aged 24, Matt’s young life collapses while he’s working in Ibiza. Suicidal feelings drive him to the edge of a clifftop, where he’s ready to jump into the void. While thoughts of loved ones—his girlfriend Andrea and his parents—pull him back from the brink, the agony inside his head continues. Medication doesn’t help and, back home in England, even a trip to the shops to fetch milk becomes a journey of despair.

Director Jonathan Watkins has woven stylised physicality through the more naturalistic scenes of Matt’s unravelling, choreographed around Simon Daw’s design of a fragile, fractured skull-like shell. Composed of three sections, the set serves as a scaffold for the cast to clamber over and rotate, a visual representation of Matt’s mind spinning out of control.

The imagery is striking, though perhaps more suited to the intimacy of a studio theatre than the scale of Bristol Old Vic’s main stage. Similarly, De Angelis’s neat narrative device, framing the play within a conversation between Matt’s older and younger selves, sometimes slackens the tension by providing the younger, disoriented Matt with a steadying voice of reassurance too early on. The most powerful moments are when we find him grappling to make sense of his frenzied, hostile world, clinging only to his stalwart Andrea for support.

There’s a pleasing chemistry between Mike Noble’s rawly vulnerable younger Matt and Janet Etuk’s patient but not saintly Andrea, occasionally exasperated but always steadfast. When Andrea herself needs help in one scene, it’s imaginatively provided as she leans on a succession of supportive bodies. Meanwhile, Connie Walker and Chris Donnelly as Matt’s baffled parents provide moments of lightness as they try to find comfort in the storm—Matt’s favourite fish pie for supper, a trip to the theatre to watch Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Though on this occasion, Matt is beset by demons—ingeniously represented by Dilek Rose’s fiend licking his cheek—he does begin to experience moments of calm. With the love of those around him, he discovers that running soothes his mind, while art and literature—from Emily Dickinson to Stephen King—gradually help him to scrabble out of the vortex.

Matt’s self-help lists from the book are theatrically flagged with props and chants: things that generate more sympathy than depression, famous people who have suffered mental illness and, all importantly, those reasons to stay alive.

Medical intervention may be given little credit for Matt’s personal rehabilitation, but there’s an emphasis on every recovery being unique and ongoing. As younger Matt grows stronger, Phil Cheadle’s previously equable older Matt—despite the weapons he has learnt to arm himself with—experiences his own moments of relapse and there’s a poignant coming together of the two versions of himself.

Mental illness is treated with great sensitivity throughout Reasons to Stay Alive; this informative and illuminating piece of theatre remains true to the book not only in exposing the havoc wreaked by depression, but also by offering the prospect that it can be overcome.

Reviewed on 1 October 2019 | Images: Johan Persson