Tuesday 7 July 2020

Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

If it's a sharp, witty and richly textured skewering of a marriage in crisis that you're after, then look no further than Fleishman is in Trouble. Struggling, like so many of us, with concentration waxing and waning during lockdownmy reading has become something of a hit and miss affair. Yet Taffy Brodesser-Akner's incisive and unexpectedly affecting dissection of a failing relationship between two forty-something New Yorkers had me hooked from the off. 

Thematically, there is so much to unpack in what is incredibly her debut novel. There's the unsettling, revelatory parade of sexual availability through online dating, where body parts are shared more readily than small talk. Then there's a female narrator telling a story written through the prism of a male protagonist - because that might be the only way to get it taken seriously. Not to mention the envy of the merely affluent for the lifestyle of the uber-rich and the struggle of working mothers to balance the requirements of a demanding job with family life. And that - because, after all, this is a blog post and not a dissertation - is just for starters. 

Toby Fleishman is a hepatologist in a New York hospital; born into a Jewish family based in Los Angeles, he has become successful on his own terms. He's an excellent doctor to his patients, well respected in his field but earning only a fraction of the salary of the Wall Street bankers and financiers in his social circle. He's taken primary responsibility for the upbringing of his two young children - Hannah who is almost twelve and nine-year-old Solly - because his wife Rachel has a stellar career as an agent who represents emerging and established artists of stage and screen. 

As the novel opens, Toby and Rachel are recently separated and Toby is feeling his way in an unaccustomed world where he is an object of intense sexual desire - courtesy of his newly acquired online dating app. But this astonishing trajectory is curtailed when Rachel disappears unexpectedly, leaving him with the children she was supposed to be taking on holiday to The Hamptons. Cue child-care upset and the trauma of siblings already having to deal with a parental break up, not to mention unwanted complications for Toby and his current prospects for promotion at work.

All this is recounted to us by Toby's old friend Elizabeth, who layers his story with her own interpretation. Elizabeth weaves the history of their own relationship into her retelling of Toby's current dilemmas - their travels as students in Jerusalem with their mutual friend Seth, their falling apart and back together again across the passage of years. Then, finally and adroitly, Elizabeth inverts her viewpoint to Rachel.

As a staff writer for The New York Times magazine, Brodesser-Akner is used to interviewing subjects and presenting multiple perspectives, and it shows. This is deft, dense and masterful prose. If there is a critcism, it is that it can be hard to care about two self-absorbed characters who seem to have it all and whose chief dislike - apart from each other - is reserved for those even more privileged than themselves. Of course, whether you really need to like the characters in a novel is a matter for a whole other debate. There's always the pleasure of realising you can have plenty and still be miserable. But, whatever you do, keep on reading: the conclusion is perfectly formed and surprisingly poignant.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is released in the UK in paperback by Wildfire. Many thanks to the publishers and Anne Cater for my review copy

Thursday 21 May 2020

Theatre Review: The Red Shoes at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes was a landmark of its time, a surreally visual cinematic feast in an era of realism, with an extended ballet sequence at its core. Based around the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, it tells the story of an ambitious young dancer torn between art and love.

Now, more than three years after its world première at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Matthew Bourne has revived his Olivier Award-winning dance production of The Red Shoes for a UK tour. And, as you would expect from New Adventures, there’s no holding back or compromising on the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes and set just because this is a touring show. Long-time Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston’s design incorporates a traditional curtained proscenium arch that frames the performers for the audience, before revolving to reveal their moments backstage or moving to the side in rehearsal, uncovering all the agony and ecstasy of a dancer’s life.

It’s a perfect setting for the story of Victoria Page, a rising star in the fictional Ballet Lermontov, danced on press night by Cordelia Braithwaite with a lyrical and expressive grace in the role originated by Ashley Shaw. Victoria’s big break comes when the ballet’s prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured and she is selected by domineering impresario Boris Lermontov (Glenn Graham) to dance the principal role in his new show—a dark fable of a girl who covets a pair of red ballet shoes, only to find that, once she puts them on, they have a mind of their own and dance her to her death.

This ballet-within-a-ballet is demarcated by a series of grey-toned projections onto a kaleidoscopic white dreamscape, with dancers in monochrome costumes in stark contrast to Victoria’s vivid blood-red shoes and dress. Her increasingly frantic series of steps, as her character begins to realise her fate, comes to reflect her own swirling and chaotic state of mind as she finds herself more and more riven by Lermontov’s ferocious and controlling demands and her love for the ballet’s composer Julian Craster (tenderly portrayed by Dominic North).

Set to Bernard Herrmann’s evocative golden age music, gleaned by Terry Davies from a number of films including Fahrenheit 451 and Citizen Kane, the story moves from London to the dazzling Riviera glamour of Monte Carlo and Villefrance-sur-Mer, before diving into the tongue-in-cheek seediness of an East End music hall, complete with comic sand dancers and world-weary showgirls.

There are so many detailed references in Bourne’s choreography—from the ballet Les Sylphides through to Le Train Bleu—that it is virtually impossible to decide where to look first. You could spend all your time watching for the next gently lampooned classical pastiche and witty aside or—equally satisfyingly—just sit back and enjoy the ravishing spectacle. Like the film, the second act seems to rush too quickly towards its conclusion, but perhaps this is because you simply don’t want it to end. From the passionately wrought pas de deux between Victoria and Julian, to Lermontov’s controlling stillness, the company’s stunning ensemble pieces, the cascade of astonishing sets, and inventive sound design layering applause onto audience applause, this is a stirring extravaganza for all the senses.

Reviewed on 3 March 2020 | Images: Johan Persson

Thursday 30 April 2020

Theatre Review: Once at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Based on John Carney’s 2007 indie film, the musical version of Once was a multi award-winning hit on both sides of the Atlantic, transferring from Broadway to the West End in 2013. Now this sweetly melancholic love story between a Dublin busker and a Czech pianist has reached Bath on the latest stop of its UK tour.

The music—a medley of rousing Irish folk harmonies, spirited torch songs and yearning ballads—reigns supreme from the first. Greeted by a foot-stomping pre-show gig from the ensemble of actor-musicians, we are already sold—even with the omission of the immersive on-stage bar that featured in the original production.

As the story unfolds, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s compositions, many of them written for the film in which they also starred, exert all their heart-stopping emotional pull. Guitar-playing Guy (Daniel Healy), who works in his Da’s hoover shop and peddles songs of his own unrequited love, is about to give up his musical dreams until he meets a young immigrant with a complicated past, simply known as Girl (Emma Lucia). Stunned by his talent, she persuades him to sing his latest creation with her in the piano shop where she is a regular visitor in return for mending her vacuum cleaner. From the first mesmerising bars of “Falling Slowly”, it is clear that this will be a fusion of souls as well as voices.

Healy and Lucia are captivating as the couple drawn together by their shared love of music and innate sense of harmony: an alchemy created over five turbulent days. As Guy gradually lets his guard down and Girl reveals the sadness underpinning her outward confidence, their richly textured voices blend beautifully but are equally strong alone in solo numbers such as “Leave” or “The Hill”.

In the Dublin pub setting, songs break out with seeming spontaneity, the multi-talented cast sitting around tables for all the world like seasoned regulars at a lock-in, whipping up a storm on a range of instruments including fiddle, guitar, drums, cello and mandolin. They also step in as characters in the story, with notable performances from Dan Bottomley as the anti-capitalist piano shop owning lothario Billy, who injects a dose of earthy humour into the wistfulness, and Ellen Chivers as Reza, in whom he more than meets his match. Peter Peverley brings a thoughtful solemnity to Da, while Samuel Martin mines all the laughter as the guitar-playing bank manager invited to become part of the band—just so long as he doesn’t sing.

Libby Watson’s design is centred in the confines of the pub, with its picture-filled walls and mismatched assortment of furniture. It’s like a story being told over a casual pint, with scenes set elsewhere imagined in the same room simply by wheeling on a piano or a bed. At times, with the seats filled by the cast awaiting their next cue, it feels almost too claustrophobic—which makes the elevation in the second act to a view over Dublin all the more entrancing.

Though Enda Walsh’s book—unlike the original film—seems in places over-reliant on quips as a shorthand to move the story along, there are many endearing moments of pause and quiet: “If You Want Me” and the a cappella version of “Gold” are both exquisite. As past mistakes and lost opportunities coalesce to write the couple’s future for them, it would take a very hard heart not to be affected in the closing moments of this tender, bittersweet and ultimately uplifting show.

Reviewed on 2 March 2020 | Images: Mark Senior

Thursday 16 April 2020

Theatre Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

First staged in 1962, Edward Albee’s play of marital drama set on an American college campus is widely hailed as a classic. Adapted into a film in 1966 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it has been regularly revived over the decades, notably in the West End in 2017 with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in the leading roles. And for a reason: this funny, visceral, intense and ultimately devastating play, unlike many of its contemporaries, has stood the test of time.

Now director David Mercatali—previously at the Tobacco Factory with productions of Blue Heart and Radiant Vermin—brings this landmark work to the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre. Over a daunting but utterly absorbing running time of three-and-a-half hours, we witness all the raw humour and gladiatorial savagery of Martha and George’s confrontational marriage unravelling in compelling close-up.

It’s an alcohol-soused spiral into the void as, returning wearily home from a faculty party in the early hours, the couple settle down for a nightcap. At first, they seem like any other long-married pair, bickering, teasing and goading—knowing each other’s flash points only too well, inhibitions extinguished through hours of hard drinking. But when Martha announces that she has invited two of the party guests back because her Daddy—who is president of the inauspiciously named New Carthage College—said she should, darker undertones emerge. The naïve younger couple Nick and Honey become drawn into their game-playing: first as voyeurs but later as active participants, out of their depth in an arena with seasoned competitors.

Albee’s words are so finely honed, his psychological observation so acute that he leaves actors nowhere to hide, demanding nuanced and meticulous performances. And this quartet really delivers: Mark Meadows is astounding as George, stooped and downtrodden as he paces the stage, bruised and battered by his lack of advancement as an associate professor in the History department and his wife’s subsequent taunting and infidelities. But clever, lively and vindictive, his pugilistic essence endures; stung by Martha’s interest in the younger man, he squares up to biologist Nick, needling him about a geneticist’s narrow vision of the future, withholding truths and weaving fictions, making weapons of confessions and turning his own self-loathing outward.

Pooky Quesnel’s Martha matches him in spirit with her frustrations and hinted-at personal sorrows. Cast in a 1960s role of stifling domestication, her influence deriving from her position as a powerful man’s daughter, she is ill-reconciled with being a less successful man’s wife. She’s fighting back every inch of the way, boiling with scorn for George but seductively suggestive to Nick, until he also disappoints her. Capable of arguing with her husband about everything, including whether the moon is up or down, in the final gut-wrenching act, Quesnel reveals a Martha finally stripped of all artifice. With mascara tears staining her face, her vulnerability and quiet desolation at her loss of illusions is shattering.

Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey underpin the central performances with strong support: as their optimistic veneer is peeled away, they are revealed as another couple with hidden demons. Initially arrogant and sure-footed, Tweedale’s Nick begins to find himself on less-than-certain ground, while Henry’s coltish, guileless Honey (the most underwritten of the four characters) veers from innocent delight in her hosts’ no-holds-barred behaviour to the dawning realisation that she is one of the victims of their vitriol.

This play was conceived in the era of the Cold War, at a time of explosive social and political upheaval, its black humour and domestic strife seemingly a microcosm of greater power struggles that are no less relevant today. On designer Anisha Field’s deceptively cosy and detailed living room set, for all its lamps, door chimes, books and much visited drinks table, it feels as though World War Three is breaking out—and, as with all momentous events, it’s impossible to look away.

Reviewed on 25 February 2020 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Thursday 9 April 2020

Theatre Review: Her Naked Skin at Circomedia, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Though the National Theatre Company gave its initial performance in 1963, astoundingly it was not until 2008 that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin became the first full-length work by a living female writer to be seen on its Olivier stage.

Here performed by the graduating actors of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the play begins with arguably the single best-known event in suffragette history: the death of Emily Davison as she stepped in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. Director Sarah Bedi’s striking aesthetic uses black-and-white film footage of the moment, projected onto the set’s raised walls of windows at either side of Circomedia’s traverse stage, with a soundscape reflecting the ensuing terror and pandemonium.

From this historic springboard, Lenkiewicz delves into the personal relationship between two active suffragettes from very differing backgrounds: Lady Celia Cain, a veteran of the movement bound by convention in marriage to a man she doesn’t love, and young Limehouse machinist Eve Douglas, a new and eager recruit to the cause.

As both become increasingly caught up in the gruelling cycle of protest and imprisonment, with its attendant horrors of hunger strike and force-feeding, Celia takes Eve under her wing and an erotically charged relationship develops. There are strong performances here that promise much for the future; as Celia, Clementine Medforth portrays all the ease and confidence of her class, even as she navigates her conflicting choices between sexual and political fulfilment and the material comforts of her social standing.

Chanel Waddock is riveting as spirited working-class Eve, awakened to the possibilities of her own sensuality by the freedoms afforded to her through activism. As her liberty is taken away, her love unravels and she is ultimately subjected to the most degrading and graphically depicted act of state-sanctioned brutality. Kiera Lester has real gravitas and charisma as the veteran campaigner Florence Boorman and Charlotte East portrays hints of humanity lurking behind a stern carapace as prison officer Briggs.

Lenkiewicz’s writing never shies away from imperfect characters who embrace a cause for a variety of less than altruistic reasons and who might compromise their principles and exploit others in the face of heart-wrenching choices. This unflinching realism can obscure the direction of her narrative intent—of easy recognition of a character’s goodness or badness—but fundamentally reveals their humanity in all its slippery messiness.

That said, the majority of men written in this play tend towards the archetypal in their braying disregard: a group of politicians expressing their disdain over the furore caused by Davison’s death, or talking out attempts to debate the suffragettes’ demands in Parliament. But Jake Simmance as Celia’s husband William encapsulates the inner turmoil and bewilderment of a man struggling to reconcile his relationship with his wife to his position in society. And Akshay Khanna is chillingly convincing as the cruel doctor willing to mete out the harshest of punishments.

This is a hard-hitting and astute choice of production that joins with BOVTS’s The Laramie Project at Bristol Old Vic to highlight LGBTQ issues. Edoardo Lelli’s costumes are spot-on, while Oliver Wareham’s sound and Joel Williams’s lighting design bring real drama and tension to Benjamin Thapa’s film-footage projections and simple but effective multi-level set. Bedi’s direction of this absorbing play links the suffragettes’ struggles to contemporary protest movements and oppression, not seeking easy solutions but framing questions about how we might personally react to such intolerance, whether of ourselves or of others who dare to defy the conventions of the day.

Reviewed on 18 February 2020 | Images: Ed Felton

Saturday 4 April 2020

Book Review: I Am Dust by Louise Beech

It feels odd in these unprecedented times to be doing something as normal as reviewing a book (let alone publishing one). Though the birds are still singing and the trees blossoming with the onset of spring, for many of us in lockdown, life is very much curtailed.

Usually, I have the shape of what I want to say in my head long before I begin to type, but right now words are proving elusive. Luckily, discussing a book by someone whose writing I've come to relish makes the task considerably easier.

I've previously written on my blog about Louise Beech's Call Me Star Girl and (my personal favourite to date) The Lion Tamer Who Lost. Now, never an author afraid to switch between genres, she has penned a supernatural murder mystery thriller with a twist of romance: I Am Dust is set in a theatre suffused with ghostly apparitions, magic, and unexplained events.

Chloe Dee works as an usher in the Dean Wilson Theatre, a venue infamous for the murder of leading lady Morgan Miller at its opening production of the musical Dust more than 20 years ago. As with so many theatres where superstition abounds, the Dean Wilson has a reputation for being haunted, with Morgan waiting in the wings for her final cue or searching the passageways for her killer.

Like many an usher before her, Chloe dreams of being there to do more than simply 'pick up the glitter'; she is writing her own play, which she would one day love to perform. But she also has a facility for tuning into other-worldly happenings - strange voices over the radio waves or doors that lock of their own accord. And when it is announced that Dust will be returning to the theatre for another run after all these years, memories are stirred as the new cast includes a face from Chloe's past in the iconic leading role.

Alternating with this present-day story is an earlier narrative strand from 2005. Over the course of one feverishly hot summer holiday, the teenaged Chloe becomes drawn into playing 'The Game': talking to the spirit world through the medium of a Ouija board, together with Jess and Ryan, two friends from her youth theatre's production of Macbeth.

Relationships within the trio are complicated; confused teenage emotions and jealousies abound. Then, as portents coalesce and the messages from the other side become more frequent and urgent, Chloe begins to discover the extent of her powers. But why has she forgotten so much of what happened that one formative summer? And why are those memories only now resurfacing, warning that the three former friends should never again be together under one roof?

As an avid theatre-goer and reviewer, I was attracted to this novel by its authentic depiction of life in a regional theatre; the artistic egos and outsized personalities contrasting with the everyday pressure of an usher's role in selling programmes, curtailing mobile phone usage and putting out the rubbish after a show. Initially, at least, I was less intrigued by the world of magic and the supernatural, yet because of Beech's clever structure, knack of always writing from the heart and characterisation skills, my perceptions quickly changed. What might have been melodramatic becomes believable in her hands and I found myself increasingly invested in Chloe's plight; fragile, sensitive and damaged she may be, but you can't help but root for her as she gradually begins to discover her own underlying strength and talents.

Then there's the theatre noir conundrum of who really did murder Morgan Miller: all those false leads, dovetailing into Chloe's own fate, prove a perfect distraction from the real world right now - one where live theatre has gone dark. I Am Dust will fuel your curiosity, capture your imagination and tug at your heart-strings, while its intriguing and satisfying ending brings with it a welcome sense of completion.

I Am Dust is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 16 April 2020, or already available in ebook format. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater for my review copy.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Theatre Review: Mid Life at The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Why is there so little recognition that mid-life, particularly a woman’s, might be an age of exuberance, creativity, self-awareness and acceptance? While now emerging from the shadows of things-that-should-not-be-publicly-discussed, menopause is more usually viewed through the prism of loss; youth and fertility left behind amid a bomb-blast of hormones and hot flushes.

Not that the three women at the centre of this notionally one-woman show skirt around the perils of being either side of fifty. Claire, a company director, who in her 1982 heyday was the south east of England disco dancing champion, describes days when it’s all she can do to keep breathing in and out. It’s not something she wants to dwell on, though. This is meant to be her moment, except she keeps being interrupted by plain-speaking gay rights activist Karen, supposedly booked as an audio-describer, but who instead heckles Claire’s opening narrative with her own trenchant views.

Then there’s Jacqui, BSL signing the performance, but tired of delivering other people’s words without having her own voice and having to suppress her true feelings, for fear of being dismissed as an ‘angry black woman’. These three women thread their own individual backgrounds and stories through a performance that is by turns intimate, poignant, affecting and hilarious, prompted by Kandaka Moore—an ethereal on-stage presence, part-enabler part-seer—who hands out props and underpins the storytelling with snatches of pure-voiced song.

Developed by Diverse City with the support of Bristol Ferment, this production pays much more than lip-service to inclusivity, showing how it can be done without feeling preachy or contrived. There are voices from the older generation, describing their own mid-life experiences and dispatching advice and reflections on the pain of losing a parent. Lucy Richardson’s direction splices together the individual strands and mood swings into a coherent whole, with only the occasional moment between scenes when the pace seems to slacken as the performers regroup.

There is so much to recognise here, suitcases plucked from a wall of luggage at the back of the set, representing the baggage the women have carried in their lives as unpaid carers, housekeepers, parents, grand-parents and general mopper-uppers. These cases are unzipped with trepidation, for fear of letting too much emotion escape in one go.

The effect is cathartic, even with the acceptance of more troubled times ahead, of future diminishments and losses. Ultimately, this is a show of fierce and funny women who have made it through dark and messy times: they stand strong and proud of where they are now, inviting the audience to join with them in a gloriously uplifting celebration.

Reviewed on 14 February 2020 | Images: Chelsey Cliff

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Theatre Review: The Realistic Joneses at The Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, performed on Broadway in 2014 to widespread acclaim, is the latest play from across the pond to receive its UK première in Bath’s Ustinov Studio.

There’s a very small-town American feel as it opens in the backyard of Bob and Jennifer Jones’s house, with the couple contemplating the heavens on a starlit night, their conversation as habitual and intermittent as any other middle-aged, long-married pair. Hints that all is not as it seems—that Bob has difficulty in expressing himself—are set aside as they are visited by their new young neighbours John and Pony, who happen to share the same surname.

The conversation plays out awkwardly between the four of them, but under Simon Evans’s direction it does so naturalistically—realistically even—in fits and starts, like any newcomers taking each other’s measure. Sharon Small, in particular, nails the character of Jennifer: alert and astute, sensitive to Bob’s moods and neuroses but equally tuned into the quirks and affectations of her younger guests. She is the mother in the room and on occasion could afford to be even more knowing.

Corey Johnson is convincingly monosyllabic as Bob, while Clare Foster as Pony—contrastingly anxious and consumed with restless, nervous energy—deflects attention by asking John (Jack Laskey) to say one of his ‘things’. But John’s tense, unfunny anecdotes repeatedly fall flat; socially he is off kilter. He mentions a company that transcribes audiobooks; “wouldn’t that just be the book?” Jennifer fires back.

Peter McKintosh’s set design of sliding patio doors is economically arranged as the backdrop to both houses, revealing and concealing their inhabitants and slivers of unseen secrets. Brown cardboard packing boxes are reconfigured as the props for each scene—tables, chairs, cupboards and a fridge—perfectly encapsulating John and Pony’s newly arrived status (even though partway through they celebrate having got rid of their last box with a show of fireworks) but less apt for the long-settled homeliness of Jennifer and Bob. Or, are those boxes perhaps representative of life’s transience, no matter how long you’ve lived in one place?

There are layers of meaning here in Eno’s verbally acute focus on everyday routine and his meditation on the shades and reality of human existence. The experience of the older couple becomes mirrored by that of the younger, as attractions and complications arise between them. In this play of words, the loss of the ability to use them effectively becomes more obviously cruel for both generations.

Yet, as the initial gathering gives way to a series of two-handers between different members of each couple, in this production the pace of storytelling begins to flag. Scenes become increasingly static, barely differentiated by lighting or props, and there are too few glimpses of the play’s underlying depth of emotion. Though there is still humour to be found in Eno’s darkening narrative, its nuance is often obscured.

As the couples come together once more under the stars, the ending becomes more fluid and affecting, each individual beginning to accept their lot and the realities of their shared futures. In this production, the Joneses work better together than apart; like life itself, it has its flights of glory, but also moments when it struggles to rise above the mundane.

Reviewed on 12 February 2020 | Images: Simon Annand

Monday 9 March 2020

Book Review: Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

I've been tackling a fair amount of German literature in translation recently: Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin being the latest (both thanks to my wonderful book club). Each an absolute classic of their era and completely rewarding the time invested in reading them. But for something more contemporary - and arguably more accessible - I find myself turning to Simone Buchholz and her series of gritty Hamburg-based crime thrillers, with no-nonsense state prosecutor Chastity Riley at their core.

These books are like catnip to me - well like catnip is to a cat, but you know what I mean. I reviewed Buchholz's Blue Night and Beton Rouge last year - her first two novels, translated by Rachel Ward, to be published in the UK by Orenda Books. Now here's a third: Mexico Street sees Riley investigating a series of arson attacks on cars being torched across Hamburg and beyond.

There's an apocalyptic feel, with reports coming in of vehicles being set alight, not only in Germany but also in countries across the globe. Yet the focus is personal, as Buchholz weaves her narrative around a singular story: the burning car that contains the body of Nouri Saroukhan, disowned son of a complex Bremen clan. As a homicide is declared and facts are uncovered, the investigation moves from Hamburg to Bremen and back again. We're drawn into a dark and sinister world, from which the tender love story of Nouri and his relationship with the enigmatic Aliza emerges in tantalising fragments.

I love Bucholz's writing, from her chapter titles that read like scraps of street poetry - 'lay your head in my sand' or 'sucking on shards' - to the way spaces talk back at their inhabitants - 'hello, this is your hole of an office speaking'. I love Chastity's hard-edged voice, fuelled by her own experiences but laced with humanity: 'Stepanovic is the cold-beer from-a-can-type. You can only drink canned beer with dignity if you know what rain in the gutter tastes like'. And these Hamburg law enforcers really can drink; the plot is fuelled by beer, spirits and endless cigarettes.

Food as well; 'In front of me is grilled halloumi with a spicy sauce. I can always rely on warm cheese to stick together some of the cuts inside me, temporarily at least'. Riley is the sticking plaster sort, not wishing to analyse her flawed past nor change the way she approaches her challenging present, refreshingly sure of her own uncertainty and past hurts.

Ultimately, the plot of Mexico Street feels less resolved than its predecessors, more an intriguing slice of other lives than a narrative that neatly ties up all its loose ends. But then life isn't all about seamless endings anyway, and certainly not where Chastity Riley is concerned.

Mexico Street was published in paperback by Orenda Books on 5th March 2020. Many thanks to Orenda and Anne Cater for my review copy. 

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Theatre Review: Living Spit's Swan Lake at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

No sooner had the dust settled on their condensed version of Homer’s Odyssey than Living Spit duo Howard Coggins and Stu Mcloughlin return to the Tobacco Factory with their own unique take on Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Having collaborated for the Greek epic in a threesome with songstress Kate Dimbleby, they now see fit to introduce not one but two professional dancers to this family-friendly retelling. Who knows, for their next production, they may decide to cram in a whole chorus.

Living Spit’s Swan Lake comes with a particular ornithological bias, framed by the Wetland Avian Council (WAC for short—they do love an acronym) convening on Swan Lake for their regular meeting. The members of WAC are the various birds living on the lake, represented by Coggins and Mcloughlin in breeches and flippers, and the audience divided into different species—ticking the Arts Council application diversity and audience participation boxes, as Coggins crows with satisfaction.

High on the agenda is the mystery surrounding the name of Swan Lake, given that no swans actually live there. Cue dancers Josh Hutchby and Francisca Mendo to re-enact selected pas de deux from the story, as the star-crossed lovers Prince Siegfried and Odette. Their stunning movement on the intimate stage is exquisitely choreographed by Holly Noble with particularly impressive pointe work from Mendo. It’s all the more elegant when seen so close up, and for its juxtaposition with Coggins and Mcloughlin’s panto-style buffoonery in the other roles—from the villainous magician Von Rothbart to Siegfried’s domineering Mum and his laddish best mate who presents him with a crossbow for his birthday.

Narrating in rhyme, the pair prove themselves once again to be masters of invention, clever wordplay and general silliness, and their improvised chorus work is a guffaw-inducing highlight in the closing moments of both acts. Their delight in questioning the convoluted logic of the ballet’s storyline, accepted without a raised eyebrow in classical productions, is a droll and accessible primer for newcomers young and old getting to grips with the work and its alternative sad or happy endings—as long as nobody takes the concept of anti-drowning pills too seriously.

However, on occasion, what lies beneath the frivolity does feel perilously two-dimensional; the princesses introduced as potential brides at the ball, for example, are only differentiated by a series of wigs and all too readily dispatched. The bird species divisions established in the audience at the top of the show could be carried further. And the inclusion of an interval in a production with a running time of a little over an hour feels intrusive and unnecessary.

That said, Living Spit has a strong community-based ethos and is always warmly—in this instance rapturously—received by Bristol audiences. This production is jointly presented with North Somerset performing arts charity Theatre Orchard, with whom they also manage the Theatre Shop in their hometown of Clevedon. It’s easy to imagine their Swan Lake being even more of a micro-ballet cackle of contrasting classical-meets-farcical styling, when it transfers billing to the Tobacco Factory’s smaller Spielman Theatre for the final (already sold out) days of this run.

Reviewed on 31 January 2020 | Images: Camilla Adams

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Political History of Smack and Crack at Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Political History of Smack and Crack traces the present-day glut of hard drugs awash on the streets of Manchester and other British cities back to an explosion of availability in 1980s Thatcherite Britain, arguing its root cause was a combination of Tory foreign policy and the desire to subdue the riots catching light in urban working-class districts across the land.

If that sounds like a treatise of abstract polemic then, in fact, it’s anything but: this urgent and energetic 80-minute two-hander—winner in Edinburgh 2018 of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award—threads this history through a deeply personal love story of addiction, recovery and the struggle to get clean of drugs, drawn from writer Ed Edwards’s own personal experiences.

Mandy and Neil are childhood friends and lifelong addicts, born and bred to deprivation and abuse in Manchester’s Moss Side. Between them, they narrate the story of their lives, fluidly weaving past with present in an ongoing cycle of dependency and rehabilitation, where shoplifting, prostitution and robbing from chemists alternate with sessions at Narcotics Anonymous and the support of friends.

It’s gritty and often tough to watch but also endearingly warm and funny, made so by riveting performances from Eve Steele, sure-footedly reprising her role as Mandy from the show’s previous runs, and newcomer William Fox taking over from Neil Bell in the role of Neil. The two break out of their narration to characterise other players in the story: instantly we are with Irish Tony watching a policeman being attacked in the riots, Mandy’s mother with a broken arm walking home from A&E to save the fiver a doctor gave her for a taxi, or Martin offering a spare room and lashings of unheeded advice. Nimbly switching back into the story, they are unapologetic but vulnerable, caught in a purgatory between life and death with confusion and self-loathing pock-marking their back-and-forth bravado and debate.

On the Weston Studio’s unadorned stage, Cressida Brown’s direction focuses intensely on the actors, their fleet physicality filling the space but supporting rather than overwhelming the storytelling. Similarly, Richard Williamson's lighting and Jon McLeod’s sound design are unobtrusive in the main, used with sparing intensity to highlight moments of particular tension.

Such is the pull of this absorbing and affecting tale of mismatched love and survival even after death that the political elements, though cleverly spliced into the action, can occasionally feel intrusive. But the play’s message is a shocking and hard-hitting one, leading you to question and want to find out more, ultimately inseparable from the characters whose lives it touches.

Reviewed on 22 January 2020 | Images: The Other Richard

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Theatre Review: God Of Carnage at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Building on the reputation for sharp social observation established with her 1994 comedy Art, Yasmina Reza strips away the veneer of middle-class pretension and politeness in God of Carnage to expose the savagery that lies beneath. First performed in 2006, the play went on to garner a clutch of awards on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as an adaptation into the 2011 film Carnage, reset in Brooklyn and directed by Roman Polanski.

Now the production that featured in Theatre Royal Bath’s 2018 summer season has been revived by its director Lindsay Posner and is back prior to a West End run, with Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame—currently with one arm in a sling due to injury—reprising her role as Veronica.

The play opens with two London-based couples convening to discuss the playground fight between their children, eleven-year-olds Freddie and Henry, which resulted in Freddie knocking out two of Henry’s teeth. Henry’s parents Veronica and Michael are the hosts and instigators of the meeting, while guests Annette and Alan are the parents of perpetrator Freddie.

What begins with pleasantries over coffee and clafoutis cannot of course remain that way, and tensions quickly surface, both between and within the couples. McGovern’s Veronica, an American author full of earnest sensitivity and underlying waspishness whose current subject is Darfur, seems to have little in common with her hardware merchant husband Michael, played by Nigel Lindsay as an out-and-out East End geezer—so much so that you wonder how they got together in the first place.

Annette and Alan (she in wealth management, he a prickly commercial lawyer) might appear better matched but soon begin sparring over his constant taking of work-related mobile phone calls. She, it seems, is given all the responsibility on the domestic front, while he is totally absorbed in the professional. Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day are both convincing in their individual characterisations, she pained and long-suffering, he soulless and callously corporate. Yet, despite the revelation of an endearingly embarrassing nickname, it’s hard to imagine them ever having had enough chemistry to get hitched.

That neither couple seems to completely gel undermines the credibility of the ensuing comedy of manners. That said, as bourgeois civility begins to break down, the play’s farcical elements are well delivered with laugh-out-loud moments to savour. There’s a devastatingly ruinous attack of gastric upset and a rum-swigging session that finally puts paid to any lingering social niceties. Allegiances between the quartet form—the women siding together over the Neanderthal tendencies of their husbands, the men reminiscing over their time in playground gangs—and just as quickly implode over the next newly perceived slight.

As the decibel level and physical wrangling spiral, Peter McKintosh’s ceiling hanging design of African spears suspended above the chic living room becomes increasingly apt. This is little short of war in a domestic setting, the parents’ behaviour worse than their children’s, the passive aggressive comedy pierced by an underlying tragedy of desperation.

Caught up in the primeval vitriol are themes concerning the relative importance of local and global issues, the raising of children and the ways in which we say one thing and mean another. It’s a shame that, despite strong performances—particularly from McGovern—some of the subtleties of Reza’s clever construction ultimately become lost in the fever-pitch of hysteria.

Reviewed on 21 January 2020 | Images: Nobby Clark

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

After a sell-out festive season in 2018, A Christmas Carol returns to the Bristol Old Vic main stage, with new casting that sees John Hopkins replacing Bristolian favourite Felix Hayes in the role of the money-grubbing miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

Though he has big shoes to fill, Hopkins fits them commandingly: huffing and impatient, peppering the stage with furious barbs, pressing his debtors until they are broken and embodying Scrooge’s misery in his unwavering rejection of anything vaguely celebratory. Much of his rage is directed towards his employee Bob Cratchit, played by signing actor Stephen Collins; "I don’t speak wavy language", Scrooge grouches, flapping away his kindly, mild-mannered clerk to do his bidding.

Charles Dickens’s perennially performed classic dates back to the Victorian era’s sentimental re-invention of Christmas, but Tom Morris’s adaptation, once again directed by Lee Lyford, brings a freshness and energy to its narrative. With a gothic, steampunk aesthetic and captivating puppetry, it is a retelling richly redolent of Bristol Old Vic’s 2016 production The Grinning Man.

When Scrooge is visited by the luminous Ghost of Christmas Past, though this segment does in places feel over-long, the simplicity of paper folding and shaping his favourite Sinbad story from Arabian Nights captures the power of the imagination. When he visits his future in a Christmas yet to come, the ghost is a macabre Grim Reaper who introduces Scrooge to the pitifully clinging puppet infants Want and Ignorance, strengthening his dawning realisation that he has been living a wretchedly empty, isolated life "like a beetle in a box".

Gwyneth Herbert’s contemporary live musical score is exquisite, her ballads haunting and expressive, contrasting with the raffish exuberance of livelier numbers where the audience is invited panto-style to sing along. She also reprises her role as the convivial Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge how his own nephew Freddie and family are celebrating without him and the close family bonds of Bob Cratchit’s clan, despite the depths of their deprivation.

A strong cast takes on multiple roles; Shane David-Joseph splendidly captures Freddie’s constant joie de vivre, while Rebecca Hayes gives a sensitive portrayal of Scrooge’s late-lamented sister Little Fan. Mofetoluwa Akande’s singing voice is strong and pure and she shines as his lost love Belle, whose story in this version shifts to centre-stage.

In true festive show tradition, young members of the audience become involved in the storytelling, called upon to play a primary school-aged Scrooge and the pivotal role of Tiny Tim. When the scales finally fall from Scrooge’s eyes and he reopens his heart to the joys of empathy and love, his conversion to a man of generous social responsibility takes place largely in the stalls—accepting the suggestion with good grace on press night that he should buy a round of drinks for all in the bar.

As Scrooge’s Christmas evening party gets into full swing, the dank blacks and greys of Tom Rogers’s skeletal multi-storey set are banished, to be replaced by bright ribbons of colour. The celebrations extend out into the audience, ending a captivating production on a high of much-needed ebullient seasonal celebration.

Reviewed on 4 December 2019 | Images: Geraint Lewis

Thursday 23 January 2020

Theatre Review: Snow White at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

New International Encounter has playfully updated the familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Snow White into a magically captivating story with redemption at its heart. Previously seen at Cambridge Junction in 2018, the original six-strong cast of actor-musicians reprise their performances for the Tobacco Factory in a show full of laugh-out-loud humour and audience asides, bound together by an effervescent and verbally dexterous live score.

Joey Hickman and Elliot Davis’s compositions set the scene from the start. In a time before Wi-Fi, mobile phones and Game of Thrones, in a song rhyming Daily Mail with curly kale, Jodie Davey’s Snow White prefers the outdoors to the cold confines of her castle home but is bound by the conventions of her day. For her sixteenth birthday party, she is reluctantly primped and preened by her stepmother the Queen, a woman whose vanity sets conventional beauty above all else.

This wicked stepmother is no mere one-dimensional embodiment of evil, however. Instead, Stefanie Mueller steals much of the show with a portrayal full of emotional complexity, casual amorality and hysterically funny audience-involving deliberations. Her full-length oval looking glass is less of a mirror and more of a portal into another world—a frame that, Alice-like, she steps through daily for the ensemble’s ethereal voices to reassure her she really is fairest of them all until, on Snow White’s seventeenth birthday, the message changes.

The ensemble makes the most of the simple staging—also designed by Mueller—to recreate the storybook castle and its gardens with a chaise longue, carpet and sliding stands of branches, with props descending from the ceiling. When Snow White is warned by the Huntsman (Abayomi Oniyide) that he has been sent to kill her for surpassing her stepmother’s beauty, she makes her escape into the forest where yarn-bombed pillars and rattan rugs set the scene for her new yurt-style home, occupied by a hapless band of numerically challenged vegans.

Director Alex Byrne explores the full parameters of the Factory Theatre’s intimate space, with cast members clambering through the audience and descending from the aisles. Even if there is noticeably more padding in the second half—the collective obsessively and inaccurately recounting their number and repeated attempts by the Queen to kill Snow White—then the energy and momentum never lets up. Mueller embraces her various disguises with gusto and her final attempt, with a poisoned apple that she declares most definitely organic, is the most hilariously apt of all.

For all its light-hearted references to vegan stew and recycling, this homespun fable’s nuanced contemporary morality acknowledges the difficulties of aging in its rejection of vanity and the temptation to build artificial walls and borders in its counterargument for tolerance, inclusivity and forgiveness. The Tobacco Factory has a strong tradition of uplifting family Christmas productions and Snow White is up there with the best; a show that bubbles over with entertainment for both adults and children, carried through by this tightly knit ensemble’s inherent warmth, wit and charm.

Reviewed on 3 December 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Monday 13 January 2020

Theatre Review: Wild Goose Dreams at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Ustinov Studio’s new season features three UK premières of plays originating in the USA, beginning with the off-Broadway Korean love story Wild Goose Dreams. Written by Hansol Jung, it peels away the façade of an ever-more integrated world to explore the human disconnection that lurks behind, in the shape of two people from the opposite sides of a divided peninsula.
Guk Minsung (London Kim) is a ‘goose father’: a man whose wife and daughter have flown overseas in search of a better life. He subsists in a tiny Seoul apartment, sending the bulk of his salary to fund their expenses in Connecticut. Yoo Nanhee (Chuja Seo) has escaped the rigours of North Korea, searching to improve her lot in the South. But she misses her father (Rick Kiesewetter)—teller of bedtime folk tales—and, in her loneliness, is tempted when a message from an online dating site pops up on her screen.
The two begin hesitant communications against a backdrop of overwhelming Internet clamour, recreated by an ensemble of six performers crowding and sliding between them, jumping out from behind hatches to interrupt the most intimate moments. This fluid chorus delivers the hectic, easily recognisable staccato of the digital age: binary ones and zeroes, likes, reboots, deletes and emojis, peppered with traffic updates and random clickbait articles (“why Footloose was the Frozen of the ‘80s!”).

The lead couple is compelling throughout, beautifully judged in their tentative relationship, as their real-life meeting stirs up raw emotions both new and old. They each wonder whether their misunderstandings are down to cultural differences (“is that a North Korean joke?”), while Nanhee questions her desirability as a woman over 30 without plastic surgery. She is visited by sudden visions of her father: often goading her, advising on her new boyfriend and even appearing in the form of a penguin—a flightless bird—from the toilet. But there are darker aspects: repeated gunshots and the appearance of a troop of North Korean soldiers indicating something more disturbing and sinister.

Meanwhile, Minsung tries desperately to keep in meaningful touch with his family, connecting with his teenage daughter Heejin (Jessie Baek) on Facebook but unable to navigate the etiquette of their online relationship. Heejin replies from the height of a balcony, the distance of generational divide layered over the growing gaps of culture and technology.
Michael Boyd’s direction finds the light and shade in Hansol Jung’s vivid, audacious prose and interlinking themes; beneath the clashing demands of family and freedom and the tumult of everyday existence, there lies the humour of a quirkily expressive love song and simple moments of quieter intimacy when the stage is plunged into darkness. Jean Chan’s pale, pared-back set design encompasses the rudiments of a life largely sacrificed for others; a pull-out bed and few essentials cramped together, a backdrop to sporadic video projections and multi-screen sequences.

As the protagonists separate only to search for each other again and the claims of their families extract their toll, Wild Goose Dreams proves itself to be a play of contemporary aspirations; of never being fully alive and complete in your own present, but always wishing to be where you are not. At times, like modern life, it can feel too overwhelming; a point well made by this clever and multi-faceted production, crowded with ideas and chock-full of captivating and well-balanced performances.
Reviewed on 27 November 2019 | Images: Simon Annand