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