Thursday, 16 July 2015

Theatre Review: Around The World In 80 Days at The Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

All the sweaty and exotic exhilaration of the travel of yesteryear is evoked in New International Encounter’s interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. As Phileas Fogg sets off on his quest to win a wager by circumnavigating the globe in record time, he and his faithful manservant Passepartout must make their way by cab, train and ocean liner – not forgetting the occasional elephant. It helps, of course, if you can throw money at a trip; when a boat is missed, Phileas and his carpet bag of cash have the resources to charter another one. Anything to avoid the ultimate indignity for a Victorian English gentleman of having to break into a run. 

New International Encounter’s classic comedy travelogue – first performed as a family Christmas show in Cambridge last year – sticks closely to Verne’s original 1873 story; unsurprising, given its enduring popularity. The inventiveness comes from this talented ensemble of actor-musicians bringing a contemporary slant; there are delays caused by leaves on the line and an unfinished track, thanks to austerity cuts. For the children in the audience, their clever wordplay extracts every ounce of mirth from lines such as “Passepartout, call me a cab!”

Under Alex Byrne’s direction, NIE also make comically creative use of their musical instruments and set; the piano, in particular, is reinvented as a counter in the British consulate, the body of an elephant and the prow of a ship, for leaning back against Titanic-style. And the potted palms are deceptive too; it may look like they’re there for a bit of Victorian gentlemen’s club scene setting, but rustling and pushing them aside from the actors’ faces recreates a place where the train track has run out in the midst of the deepest, darkest Indian jungle. 

There’s no shortage of audience involvement, as our fearless hero and his sidekick clamber up through the allegedly jungle-infested seating, inviting parrot imitations and participation in magic tricks. This endearing cast can be forgiven the occasional wandering accent; in a selection of so many it’s all part of the fun. Martin Bonger, recently seen in Bristol as Fat Man, makes a very upright and obsessive Phileas, while Stefanie Mueller, complete with big fake moustache, is a delightfully authentic Passepartout. Ben Frimston perspires deliberately and disgustingly as the seedy Inspector Fix from Scotland Yard, on a mission is to arrest Phileas for having allegedly robbed the Bank of England. 

Occasionally, it feels as though the production could be pushed a little further; greater pace at the beginning and a heightening of the drama towards the end might introduce at least a little doubt about the outcome in the audience’s mind. But there are some magical ideas – most entertainingly, a less-is-more balloon flight that could teach the extravagant helicopter scene in Miss Saigon a thing or two – which easily justify this Christmas show being revisited all year round.

Runs until Saturday 18th July 2015 | Photo: Christa Holka

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cover Reveal: The Evolution Of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Paul E. Hardisty's The Abrupt Physics of Dying (you can read my post here).

Since then, this absorbing and adrenalin-fuelled debut has been shortlisted for the 2015 Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger for best crime novel by a first-time author. But rather than sitting back and resting on his laurels, Paul has been writing a sequel.

The Evolution of Fear introduces the next episode in the life of Claymore Straker, hero of The Abrupt Physics of Dying. If, like me, you want to find out what happens next to the maverick I described as a cross between Bond and Bourne, then this is for you. 

I also mentioned in my review that here we have a novel, a writer and a publisher to watch (not something to say lightly). And so, I'm absolutely thrilled to be able to reveal the striking new cover:

And here's the lowdown:

Claymore Straker is a fugitive with a price on his head. Wanted by the CIA for acts of terrorism he did not commit, his best friend has just been murdered and Rania, the woman he loves, has disappeared. Betrayed by those closest to him, he must flee the sanctuary of his safe house in Cornwall and track her down. As his pursuers close in, Clay follows Rania to Istanbul and then to Cyprus, where he is drawn into a violent struggle between the Russian mafia, Greek Cypriot extremists, and Turkish developers cashing in on the tourism boom. As the island of love descends into chaos, and the horrific truth is unveiled, Clay must call on every ounce of skill and endurance to save Rania and put an end to the unimaginable destruction being wrought in the name of profit. Gripping, exhilarating and, above all, frighteningly realistic, The Evolution of Fear is a startling, eye-opening read that demands the question: How much is truth, and how much is fiction?

The Evolution of Fear will be available in ebook format in December 2015 and in print on 15th January 2016.

Many thanks to Karen Sullivan, publisher at Orenda Books, for supplying the images and details. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Theatre Review: Love For Love at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Following Deborah McAndrew’s contemporary play The Grand Gesture, which has just finished its run at the Tobacco Factory, the other Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate show in town is William Congreve’s restoration comedy Love for Love – and at first glance it couldn’t be more different.
This is a fiendishly complicated comedy of manners, where the protagonists seem not to fall in love so much as lust after the fortunes of the marriageable. One exception to this rule is Valentine, who has sunk into debt through his wooing of Angelica, even though she has never offered him any real encouragement. Driven to desperate measures, Valentine agrees to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother Benjamin, in return for an immediate bailout from his father Sir Sampson. This makes Benjamin an eminently eligible bachelor and although, after returning from three years at sea, it has been arranged for him to marry Miss Prue, there are other schemes afoot. Mrs Frail, a single woman about town, hatches a plan with her sister Mrs Foresight to marry Benjamin and capture his fortune for herself.
If the plot becomes ever more labyrinthine and difficult to follow in detail, this is made up for by the atmospheric candlelit setting – which evokes thoughts of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse or the recent RSC productions of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – and delicately coloured period costumes, not to mention the fine array of acting talent, musicianship, choreography and movement on display.
At first, despite the beautifully executed formal bows, fan language and character-driven scene changes, the sheer amount of exposition in the play is over-long and difficult to disguise. But, once various scenarios have been set up, the performance is enlivened by nicely timed comic pratfalls, song and dance. Of particular note is the rousingly nautical tableau of Benjamin’s sailor song at the end of Act III.
After the interval the pace really picks up; witty asides to the audience and physical comedy abound, with Valentine throwing himself into a pretence of madness in a final desperate attempt to win Angelica’s affections and nullify the punitive deal he’s made with his father. Timothy Innes as Valentine carries this off with bravura but Pippa Moss as the spirited Angelica is more than a match for him. Karl Wilson as Sir Sampson is to be commended for portraying a character so much older than himself with convincing weight, while Ryan McKen puts in a hilarious turn as the tall, bearded nurse in a dress. But there isn’t a weak link in this ensemble – after spending so much time together learning their craft, this talented company works as an intuitively attuned and coherent whole.
It may not quite have the incisive sparkle of more familiar restoration plays such as Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, but the obsessively status-driven and gossip-fuelled world of Love For Love still resonates with a 21st Century audience; reminding us – as in The Grand Gesture – that at its essence human nature changes very little, but there’s always room for love if we make it.
Reviewed on Tuesday 16th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke

Monday, 6 July 2015

Gloriator at the Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

If there was ever an award for the best use of cardboard in a show, it would have to go to Gloriator, a supremely silly reinvention of the Oscar-winning film Gladiator by French/English female comedy duo Spitz & Co. The set and many of the props and costumes – from Roman armour to Emperor’s laurel wreath – have been constructed out of cast-off boxes in a blaze of inspired recycling.

The laughter begins early on, as hapless tour manager Josephine sells lottery tickets to support French actress Gloria Delaneuf’s mission to bring the arts to a deprived community in the depths of the Kungalunga jungle. Apparently, Gloria is a household name in France and Josephine gives us a short presentation of her most famous films (projected, of course, on to cardboard) before the icon herself sweeps imperiously on stage, announcing she will be re-enacting the role made famous by Russell Crowe, while giving greater voice to other previously overlooked female characters in the film.

There then follows an inventive and eye-moppingly funny play-within-a-play, full of clowning, mime and physical comedy, as a just-about recognisable version of the story is performed. The cardboard is supplemented by a flurry of wigs, sackcloth and a nowhere-to-hide white leotard; whether bedecked in a bear costume or stripped down to their underwear, this duo displays great on-stage chemistry and an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves. Pauline Morel as Gloria maintains a comical hauteur throughout; she issues forth a stream of commands to Susie Donkin’s puppyishly enthusiastic – but often ineffective – Josephine, who rushes around providing costumes and props, mopping up spills, translating Gloria’s French and playing all the minor roles from horse to ghostly visitor. 

They’re not afraid to interact with the audience, either. "Is he a plant?" wonders my teenage daughter, as a young man called James is given both the women’s phone numbers in a subversive act of love rivalry on Josephine’s part. It’s his birthday and, invited onto the stage for a crucial scene, he’s rewarded with an unrehearsed chorus of Happy Birthday from an appreciative audience at the end. 

Silliness seems to come as naturally as breathing to this show; there’s a convincing appearance of anarchic spontaneity which must belie all the thought and timing that’s gone into its creation. Gloriator is like the workout for the facial muscles it at one stage portrays – on the way home, I realise mine are still aching from the relentless laughter of the last hour. 

Reviewed on 17th June 2015. Photo courtesy of Spitz &Co.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Book Extract: The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland

You may already know Jonathan Freedland from his journalism in The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle. Or, like me, you may be a devotee of The Long View on Radio 4, a programme where he takes contemporary events and seeks out their historic parallels. 

What you might not realise (well I didn't, until now) is that Freedland, who also has a track record of writing best-selling thrillers as Sam Bourne, has penned a novel under his own name. Journalists are often able in fiction to expand upon a premise they might be prevented from exploring in fact, and this makes The 3rd Woman (published on 2nd July by HarperCollins) - with its backdrop of the inexorable rise of China as a world power - all the more intriguing.  

Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing lies and corruption, but never thought she'd be investigating her own sister's murder. She refuses to accept the official police line that Abigail's death was an isolated crime and uncovers evidence that suggests Abi was the third victim in a series of killings hushed up by the US government. 

I haven't read The 3rd Woman yet (my review copy was lost in the post), but this thrilling extract from Chapter Three really has me hooked:

Jeff waited while she threw on the first clothes she could find before leading her to his car. He spoke throughout, telling her what he knew but she digested almost none of it. The only words she heard were the ones that replayed themselves over and over. It’s your sister. Abigail. She’s been found dead.
She was plagued by pictures of Abigail as a child. No matter how hard she tried, she could not see her sister as an adult. One image recurred more than any other: Abigail aged five or six, clutching the doll Maddy herself had once played with, that had, like everything else, been handed down from sister to sister to sister. And in her head, variations on a sentence that would not quite form itself: I let you down, Abigail. I let it happen again. It was never meant to happen again.
They had been driving less than ten minutes when Maddy suddenly sat bolt-upright, heart pounding. It took a moment for her to understand. Even if only for a few seconds, she had fallen asleep. Microsleeps, they called them. They happened to all insomniacs. She knew she was especially vulnerable after a shock; it could prompt her system to shut down. It had happened once in college, after some jerk she had fallen for dumped her, the pain sending her into brief unconsciousness.
Arriving at LAPD headquarters helped. Like a muscle memory, she knew how to walk and talk and carry herself here. She shook off Jeff’s attempts to guide her like the walking wounded, a hand on her waist. She made for the entrance, determined to function like Madison Webb, reporter.
Later she would struggle to remember the exact sequence of those next few hours, even though individual moments were etched in her memory. She remembered pleading with Jeff, asking him to pull whatever strings he could to break the usual protocol and allow her to visit the coroner’s office. Once there, she would never forget the grey-white sheet pulled back to reveal the frozen mask of her sister’s face, her lips a faded purple now, though Maddy had been told they were cold and blue when Abigail’s housemate had found her. Nor would she forget the way the doctor on duty had lifted her sister’s right arm, as casually as if it were the limb of a manne­quin, gesturing to a fresh needle mark. And she would never forget his words, dully announcing to her the provisional verdict based on the state of the body when found: that the deceased had died of a drugs overdose, specifically caused by a massive injection of heroin into the bloodstream.
A silent, glared rebuke from Jeff had prompted the physician to apologize for his use of ‘the deceased’ about a woman who until a few hours ago had only ever been known as Abigail – a vital, joyful, beautiful force of nature. But there was no room in Maddy’s heart for anger about that. She was too numb to feel anything as direct as anger. Besides, she had covered enough murders to know that that was how death worked. You could be energetic, smart and sexy, an Olympic athlete or a Nobel-prize-winning genius, but it made no difference: within a moment you became meat on a slab. The staff in the coroner’s office spoke and acted the way they did because that was all they were looking at. They couldn’t see Abigail. They could only see a corpse.
Finally, Jeff ensured Madison got to meet the detective assigned to the case, Barbara Miller, a former partner of his. Brisk and businesslike, she gave them an initial briefing, describing the way Abigail’s body had been discovered: lying straight on the floor, on her back. An initial, brief search of the apartment could not confirm any forced entry. There were a few marks on the neck and back, but nothing that suggested a struggle.
It was past four in the morning when Maddy left, Jeff still at her side.
‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice a whisper.
‘You don’t have to thank me. You’ve just had the most terrible shock a person can have.’
‘I don’t believe it, you know.’
‘I know. It’s impossible to take in.’ He opened the passenger door for her, touching her elbow as he eased her into the seat.
‘I mean, I don’t believe it. Not a single fucking word of it.’
‘Of what?’
‘What your friend the detective was implying. In there.’
‘What was she implying?’
‘Come on, Jeff. No “confirmed” sign of forced entry. “Nothing to suggest a struggle.” I used to write that shit. We all know what it means. It means your friend thinks this was an “accident”.’ Maddy indicated quote marks with her eyebrows.
‘I don’t—’
‘I’ve seen that look you guys get when you talk about this stuff. She’s made up her mind that this was some kind of druggie sex game that went wrong.’
‘She didn’t say that.’
‘She didn’t have to. No forced entry, no struggle: it means consent. But I’m telling you, I know my sister, Jeff. I know who she is. She teaches elementary school, for Christ’s sake. She is not a fucking junkie.’
Jeff said nothing, so Maddy said it for him. ‘She was murdered, Jeff. Not killed by accident. Murdered. Someone murdered my baby sister.’
Then the words she thought but did not say out loud: I will find out who did this to you, Abigail. I broke one promise to you, but I will not break this one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing this extract from The 3rd Woman, to be published on 2nd July 2015. Photo of Jonathan Freedland by Philippa Gedge.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Theatre Review: Current Location at The Trinity Centre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

You might be offered orange juice and cake on entering the light, bright space of the Trinity Centre, but there's little of the welcoming church hall feel to FellSwoop Theatre's adaptation of Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s Current Location. Written in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the tone is apocalyptic from the start, as choir members gathering for rehearsal discuss the rumours of their village’s destruction; that the blue cloud seen in the distance could be fulfilling an ancient prophecy of disaster, as the rainfall and drinking water from the local lake begin to turn toxic.
There may be a storm gathering around them, but day-to-day life in the village still carries on. Using a naturalistic style and minimal props of a few folding chairs and a functional table, the all-female cast displays a range of reactions to the impending doom; from a compulsive need for discussion to out-and-out denial. On the brink of disaster, each one finds their own precarious way of coping, until their familiar foursome is disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer – albeit one who has lived in the village all her life. Hannah unsettles existing relationships and increases anxiety with the questions she raises and each member of the group must find a solution to her intrusion and a means of suppressing the fear she creates.
Ranged along both sides of the long, tall room the audience follows the dialogue that pings back and forth like spectators in a catastrophic tennis match. It’s an immersive experience, enhanced by Ben Osborn’s evocative, original soundscape, but one which seems closer to science fiction than reality for us, despite extensive rewriting. For Okada’s Japanese audience though, after the events of Fukushima, it would have been anything but.
The performances by the five actors (Charlotte Allan, Caitlin Ince, Emma Keaveney Roys, Roisin Kelly and Pia Laborde Noguez) are excellent. Dressed in dull, muted colours, relieved by only the occasional flash of red, they already have the frightened-rabbit look of those glancing over the edge of the precipice. Their reactions to the rumours swirling around them may vary but they are all urgent, convincing and chilling in equal measure. And when the time comes for action of the most shocking kind, the original group proves they can still close ranks and act as one.
There are flaws in this present interpretation of Okada’s work, however. The script is quite fragmented, which makes it difficult in places to follow. That the choir is also writing a play is introduced in a confusing manner and then forgotten again, making it seem more like a convenient plot device than something woven into the story. Some scenes, such as the debate over a costume for this play, seem to take too long but others, like the denial of their own actions, are rushed through and unclear. Some seemingly allegorical references to ways out of the crisis are too much of a puzzle and the time frame being covered is never really certain.
This all leaves an impression of an original, thought-provoking work which at times lacks the necessary cohesion to live up to its promise. No doubt FellSwoop Theatre will continue to develop this adaptation as the show is prepared for Edinburgh and unquestionably it has the potential to create a truly haunting and unforgettable production.
Reviewed on Saturday 6th June 2015.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Grand Gesture at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

You’re never entirely sure where you are in The Grand Gesture, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet-era play The Suicide, but somehow it doesn’t really matter. In the company of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s newest graduates, you spend an enjoyable couple of hours trying to work it out.
Simeon Duff lives with his wife Mary and mother-in-law Sadie in a rundown boarding house somewhere in the north of England. Unemployed and all out of hope, he decides to kill himself, only to find his popularity increasing exponentially. Suddenly he’s in demand, with a succession of visitors – from political activist to Catholic priest – all trying to convince him to turn his suicide into a grand and noble gesture which will simultaneously further their cause.
The Factory Theatre has been transformed into a grimy living space by Sam Wilde’s ingenious set of dingy doors and windows and sparsely mismatched sticks of furniture and, being welcomed in through the back of the stage by the actors, the audience immediately feels drawn into the story. This is a production brimming with ideas: so Simeon’s dreary, fruitless days spent job hunting are introduced using a papier mâché puppet man and dog. There are also musical interventions by chorus, a harpist on an illuminated trolley and a bevy of dancing housewives in floral headscarves and pinnies.
These ideas all work well individually and the play’s comedy is mined for its full potential. Tilly Steele as a batty Irish mother-in-law in the Mrs Brown’s Boys mould provides an engaging contrast to Martha Seignior as her harassed daughter Mary, increasingly anxious over her husband’s well being. Simon Riordan plays Simeon as an endearing everyman, lit by the phosphorescence of a new scheme – learning to play the tuba – which he’s sure will earn his fortune, before sinking back down into depression. Harry Egan is suitably hapless as George, the Marxist postman, mainly concerned that landlord Al – played with great charisma by Marcus Fraser – is too busy womanising to open up the shooting range where he and his fellow posties would like to brush up on target practice, ready for the revolution. Kate Cavendish is bustlingly watchful and determined as Al’s current love interest, Maggie.
Yet, coupling this anarchic comedy with the slightly incongruous fit of Soviet-style idealists transferred to a northern boarding house, can add up to a slightly less than cohesive whole. In this mix, it’s never really clear where the stream of visitors turning up at Simeon’s door have come from or what they could realistically achieve. The audience goes along with it in an absurdist way, but it does mean that the moments of potential emotional depth, where the value of a life over a death is contemplated either by monologue or the exchange of views, are less effective than the comedy.
Nevertheless, there’s certainly plenty of entertainment value to be had and, under Gwenda Hughes’ direction, the pace is slick and never slackens. A wide range of accents is delivered effectively by the company and musicality is a strength. This talented group of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School actors performs comfortably and very pleasingly together, providing a certain cohesion even where the play itself might not.
Reviewed on Friday 5th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke