Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Theatre Review: Half Life at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

When memories fade, what is there left of us? John Mighton’s play examines issues of memory and identity; how reality blurs with age, the balance shifts and we become more diminished by what we have forgotten than defined by our recall of the past.

It’s a subject matter that reflects the themes of Florian Zeller’s The Father, which received its UK premiere in the Ustinov and went on to great acclaim. But Half Life, first seen in Toronto in 2005, contains the sweetness of new beginnings, too; love blossoming, in the sterility of a Canadian nursing home, between two elderly residents who may or may not have enjoyed a previous relationship.

Patrick and Clara meet over a game of hangman in the dayroom; Patrick was a wartime code-breaker and can still master such activities with ease. But Clara is more overtly fragile, her memories ephemeral, dissolving and reforming as she reaches out to grasp them. It seems they may have met before, gone dancing during the war. They develop a tender, protective relationship, childlike in its devotion, but then it is for their grown up children, Donald and Anna, to determine what their future should be.

Mighton writes with humour and empathy for the elderly couple; in a rapid succession of vignettes, Nancy Meckler’s direction always allows space for their dignity and relationship to develop. It is Donald and Anna, both divorced and grappling with the present, who are posed the greater challenge. Anna seems able to adapt to the idea of her father being happy in a new relationship but Donald, who worshipped his own recently deceased father, is more reluctant to permit his mother a life that might no longer encompass his own.

Helen Ryan is radiant and luminous in her portrayal of Clara, endlessly long-suffering and patient – truly an angel as she’s often described by her nurse. Patrick Godfrey as the irascible Patrick has fewer lines – and less room – to develop his character, but their relationship is entirely believable. Patricia Potter as Anna is at ease with herself and convincing in her support for her father’s new relationship. It is Ustinov regular Raymond Coulthard who has the most difficult task in communicating Donald’s distress at his loss and his mother’s new love, disguised in concern for her dementia-ridden vulnerability.

Janet Bird’s set is ingenious in its adaptable design, casting shadows and shifting perspectives to suggest both presence and absence. There are chairs that disorientate on the walls and ceilings, while the simple drawing of a hospital curtain is enough to change the focus of each scene. Mighton’s work throws up ideas aplenty, contrasting memory with the development of artificial intelligence, the endless variance of human life and death with mathematical constancy.

Yet, these ideas are not always carried to a satisfactory conclusion and ultimately, there is a sense of ambiguity; of questions unanswered and a gradual loss of momentum. Perhaps this – as in life itself – is the point. Still, in the confines of 90 minutes of theatre, there remains the uneasy sense of needing something more.

Runs until 5 November 2016 | Image: Contributed

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Book Review: Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel Keep You Close hooks you from the very first paragraph and gradually reels you in:
Before she opens the door - before she even sets foot on the drive - she is on her guard. She knows he's there, he'd told her he would be, and yet the house is dark. If he'd left for any reason, he would have texted - Gone to buy wine. Back in ten - but when she checks her phone, there's no message.

Successful young artist Marianne Glass is discovered with her neck broken, frozen and dead in the snow that carpets her Oxford garden. The police declare it an accident - that she slipped from the roof. There's no evidence to suggest otherwise.

But her former friend Rowan knows this can't be true. There may only be one set of footprints leading to the front door of her home, but Marianne had vertigo and would never get so close to the roof's edge. Rowan is motherless, her father a distant and frequently absent shadow in her life, so her friendship with Marianne led to her being welcomed into the Glass household. Her fallout with her best friend also estranged her from the family warmth she was embracing for the very first time.

News of Marianne's death plunges Rowan back into memories and relationships that were abruptly severed over a decade ago - with Marianne's mother Jacqueline and brother Adam. It may be too late for her to be reconciled with Marianne now - but she's determined to find out what really happened to her. 

That opening paragraph throws up so many questions: what's going on here and who is involved? And reading on poses more: what happened between Rowan and Marianne to break up their friendship? Were Marianne's sketches really being taken from her home, as she thought? And, as Rowan moves in to look after the property while she's studying for her PhD, will the same intruder threaten her, too?

Lucie Whitehouse has already won acclaim for her previous novels; Before We Met was a Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick. Her latest tale of secrets and lies at the heart of academia is deftly paced and skillfully woven to reveal just enough - often throwing up more questions than it answers. There's the mystery of the car crash that killed Marianne's father and the relationship between Marianne and Michael Cory, the controversial portrait painter whose subjects so often take their own lives. As Rowan, with Cory's help, edges ever closer to the truth, we begin to wonder about both of their motives.

It's a tense, chilling and satisfying read. Clues are hidden in plain sight but Whitehouse keeps you guessing from beginning to end - with enough shocking and explosive twists to make you question where your loyalties lie.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published in paperback by Bloomsbury. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Theatre Royal Bath

 This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Dream TR Bath

Blue-daubed fairies prance and writhe, furious lovers claw and fight under a huge forest moon as one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies – the one so many of us cut our teeth on at school – is given a captivatingly contemporary and imaginative treatment in this new production from the Theatre Royal Bath.

Directed by Laurence Boswell, better known for showcasing international plays to great acclaim in next door’s Ustinov Studio, his A Midsummer Night’s Dream creates a magical kingdom at once both familiar and new: physical, visceral, sensual, funny and above all endlessly entertaining.

This romantically interwoven play can become messy and confusing if the elements don’t gel; the unevenly matched lovers, quarrelsome fairies and ragtag rude mechanicals putting on a play to celebrate a wedding in the Athenian court. Here bold, intelligent vision combines with minimalist staging from designer Jamie Vartan to create a cohesive whole.

In pre-publicity, there has been much talk of Phill Jupitus’ Bottom; he acquits himself well in his Shakespearean debut, delivering prose with relish in his larger-than-life characterisation of the domineering weaver. His transformation into an ass at the hands of Simon Gregor’s astonishingly nimble and menacingly exuberant Puck is perhaps less strikingly characterised than some, but he and his band of amateur players exploit all the comedic potential of their roles. Their performance of the play-within-a-play at the end is the farcical highlight it should be; Oscar Batterham as Frances Flute is a hilariously over-the-top Thisbe and Ekow Quartey charms as Snug’s hopelessly ineffectual lion.

The lovers are an explosively well-matched quartet; Maya Wasowicz and Eve Ponsonby as Helena and Hermia bicker and spar as only old friends can, bewildered by the inconstancy of their spellbound suitors, Lysander and Demetrius, played by William Postlethwaite and Wilf Scolding. Together, they bring such energetic physicality to Shakespeare’s central premise that to fall in love is to fall out of control – punching, clinging and tearing away garments – that it’s almost a disappointment when their plight’s neat resolution is brought about.

Katy Stephens, commanding, haughty and beautifully moderated as Titania, is all the more convincing in her metamorphosis into Bottom’s silkily seductive admirer, while Darrell D’Silva’s lowering and quixotic Oberon is always master of the ultimately benign games he plays with the lives of mere mortals.

Jon Nicholls’ echoing sound design and contemporary composition, together with Colin Grenfell’s lighting, brings layers of atmospheric complexity to the set’s clean lines and hidden doorways. With this production’s all-out theatricality, Boswell has conjured up a parallel universe of unique and accessible enchantment; no matter how well you might already know the play, it’s an unexpectedly refreshing and vibrant place to visit.

Reviewed on 10 August 2016 | Image: Contributed 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Book Review: The Museum of You by Carys Bray

Carys Bray's A Song for Issy Bradley was a heart-breaking and memorable debut; shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize, it marked her out as an author to watch. If you haven't read it yet, you can find my review here, together with a reading group guide.

Bray's second novel, The Museum of You, mines many similar themes to her first: a family tragedy that finds those left behind struggling in its aftermath, a young person's perspective on the grown ups in her world and an adult's wrong-headed assumptions about a child's needs. In this and its use of the close third person, it has echoes of another recently published novel, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Twelve-year-old Clover Quinn lives with her Dad, Darren, in a magpie house full of stuff he never quite gets around to sorting. It's the summer holidays, the first where Clover is allowed to be on her own; in previous years, she's had to stay with Mrs Mackerel next door while Darren is out working as a bus driver. Clover is  enjoying her new-found freedom - watering plants in the allotment, riding her bike and now, trying to find out more about the past events that are constantly shaping her present.

Meanwhile, Darren watches and worries about his daughter and tries to think of everything she'll need. He surrounds her with things: a skateboard, guitar and plenty of bargain books for her shelves. What he still can't bring himself to give her are answers to the questions she doesn't dare ask, but most wants to find out; ones concerning Becky, the mum she never got to know.

The Museum of You feels as though it has a more playful tone than Issy Bradley. While both are a poignant mixture of laughter and tears, the grief here is older, less raw; a hum that underlies the noise of everyday life. The story's protagonists, Clover and Darren have - in different ways - learnt to live with their loss, but that doesn't make it any less present or overwhelming.

Much of the humour comes from the busybody next door, Mrs Mackerel - a real Mrs Malaprop in her pronouncements:
'LOOK AT YOU' Mrs Mackerel interrupts. 'So GROWN UP all of a sudden. All that HAIR. You're the SPLITTING IMAGE OF YOUR MOTHER, God forgive her. ' 
Clover nods. Hoping for more.
'And your POOR FATHER - the way he put her on a PEDAL STOOL.'

The Museum of You is animated by Bray's feel for creating endearing characters, authentically realised in their day-to-day dealings with the minutiae of loss. Darren is selfless, doing the best he can in a life that turned out so much differently than he thought. Not only is he bringing up his unexpected daughter alone, he's also looking after his wider family.

But it is Clover - the clever, perceptive and funny emotional centre of this story - that you quickly take to your heart; navigating a tentative course towards adolescence without her Mum's help, she finds her own touchingly quirky and pragmatic ways to begin filling in the spaces that Becky left behind.

The Museum of You is published in the UK by Hutchinson. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub