Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Theatre Review: Pride and Prejudice at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Regent’s Park Theatre’s revival of its 2013 open-air Pride and Prejudice comes to the Theatre Royal in Bath, following in the literary footsteps of its previous productions To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies.

In a city that claims Jane Austen as one of its own – with a dedicated centre and festival – Simon Reade’s adaptation needs to do more than just re-hash a storyline already so familiar, not only from the novel, but also the multitude of film and television versions it has spawned. And he does this in style; enlarging from page to stage via Max Jones’ wrought iron, two-storey revolving set that brings an elegant fluidity and dynamism to its scenes.

The 2017 tour sees a new cast for this production; Felicity Montagu is the embodiment of bustling busybody Mrs Bennet, delivering Austen’s ‘truth universally acknowledged’ with sincerity, as she frets over the unmarried state of her five daughters. Montagu avoids the trap of farce and provides much of the play’s narrative drive; a chivvying, frantic ball of energy. And for good reason; without marriage, her family’s property will be entailed away and her daughters left destitute. All very well for Mr Bennet to sit and criticise with caustic asides, delivered with perfect timing by an on-form Matthew Kelly.

Tafline Steen as Elizabeth Bennet is a vital new force; finding the full range of Elizabeth’s determination – tantamount to foolishness in her day – in refusing not one but two marriage proposals. Steen’s Bennet is charming, refreshing and quick witted, never cowed by greater wealth or social status; it’s easy to see why Benjamin Dilloway’s Mr Darcy falls for her against his better judgement, even as she veers towards the headstrong and unmodishly opinionated. And yet, the development of this central relationship is not completely satisfactory; Darcy doesn’t unbend quite enough towards Elizabeth here and their animosity works better than its reverse. At the end, an essential chemistry seems lacking between them.

Other notable performances come from Steven Meo as a suitably ridiculous and oleaginous Mr Collins, providing many of the play’s comic highlights in his role as the cipher of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and Kirsty Rider, making an impressive professional debut as the waspish Caroline Bingley.

Inevitably, there are aspects missing; Wickham becomes little more than a plot device and, despite best efforts, it’s impossible to capture fully Austen’s authorial voice and her characters’ interior musings.

Still, Deborah Bruce’s direction brings clarity to the condensing and reordering of complex themes and many enjoyable touches, such as the family’s synchronised flourishing of napkins at the dining table. Tom Piper’s costumes are stylish and versatile in effortlessly accommodating changes to scene and occasion, while Lillian Henley’s original composition enhances the atmosphere. Regent’s Park Theatre has produced an attractive and pleasing staging of a much-loved classic that never fails to entertain.

Reviewed on 17 January 2017, touring until 25 February 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Book Review: Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson

For Dark Iceland regulars, returning to Siglufjördur for the fourth in the series is like revisiting an old friend; familiar on the surface, but with a barely suppressed turmoil threatening to shatter the smooth veneer.

Ragnar Jónasson's atmospheric thrillers centre around this small, isolated fishing town encircled by mountains in the far north of Iceland. Cleverly, he avoids hiking the crime rate to Midsomer Murders levels by setting many of his books' dark misdeeds in the surrounding terrain.

In RuptureSiglufjördur is once again cut off, reversing the recent accessibility of new tunnels with the quarantine of deadly infection. Worse still, its inhabitants are staying indoors and the claustrophobia police officer Ari Thór Arason experienced on first arriving in the town is back.

As a questionable means of staving off disquiet, Ari Thór investigates an old case of two young couples who moved to the uninhabited neighbouring fjord of Hedinsfjördur over fifty years ago. The sudden death of one of the women was written off as an accident and the survivors moved away. But the unearthing of a haunting new photograph shows the couples may not have been alone in their remote farmhouse, after all.

Ari Thór enlists the help of news reporter Ísrún, based in Reykjavik, who made her first welcome appearance in Jónasson's previous novel BlackoutÍsrún, a young woman with a backstory every bit as complex as Ari Thór's, is increasingly caught up in a tangled web of her own; an unexplained murder and a child taken away from his mother in plain sight. Besides the personal and social tragedy, a political scandal looms; the repercussions of her journalistic investigation threaten to reach to the very top of Icelandic government.

Once again translated by Quentin Bates, Jónasson plays to his strengths in Rupture. His writing has taken on the confidence and suspenseful skill of a master craftsman perfecting his piece; layer upon layer of meticulous detail patiently added and left to unsettle the reader's mind. Each character and event adds to the mix; there is no superfluity here. As a resolution to dark secrets approaches, through a combination of his characters' ingenuity and a writer's sleight of hand, Jónasson leaves you wanting to know more.

Will Ari Thór's twisting relationship with his girlfriend Kristín work out this time? Can Ísrún overcome her personal problems to find a measure of  tranquillity? It's testament to his seamless characterisation that, by the end of the novel, these questions are as critical as the resolution of the crimes.

Rupture is published in paperback on 15 January 2017 by Orenda Books, an ebook version is already available. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Theatre Review: Crimes Against Christmas at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
If you’d prefer to hang on to the festive spirit for as long as possible, fighting back against the January gloom, then Crimes Against Christmas, a New Old Friends and Lichfield Garrick co-production, is an intriguing prospect.

A good old-fashioned, grown-up antidote to the traditional family pantomime, this new caper from the pen of Feargus Woods Dunlop takes the golden age of murder mystery and plays it for laughs. Take Agatha Christie’s classic thriller And Then There Were None, recast it in a 12 Days of Christmas mould and you get the idea. A group of strangers, mysteriously invited to spend the festive holiday on a remote island, begin to meet their fates in increasingly quick succession and suspiciously Yule-related ways.

An oil baron discovered packed into a drum and a chef suffocated by their own piping bag. As the body count mounts in implausible circumstances, it’s not looking too good for art detective Pete Artridge, faced with a rope and a nearby pear tree.

The premise is a little lengthy in set up but, once established, zips along at a breathless pace with outstanding bursts of verbal dexterity. Woods Dunlop plays the pivotal role of Artridge; penniless, down on his luck and tasked by a shadowy visitor to his detective agency with preventing the theft of a priceless Christmas bauble. He acts the intrepid hero with great relish while narrating an unfolding tale of dastardly deeds and throwing in a few contemporary references for good measure.

Conjuring up a 13-strong guest list from a cast of just four is no mean feat; the other three members of the ensemble take on their mostly convincing multiple roles – from aged resident Duke (Jonny McClean) to nice but dim son-in-law to pampered Russian princess – with such lightning adaptability, it’s hard to believe there isn’t a bigger cast on stage. McClean’s range in interpreting a panoply of characters, including an Italian Don and swaggering street poet, is particularly distinctive and droll.

Don’t expect subtlety; the simple set’s revolving doors spin to their farcical maximum and could at times be offset with direction of greater visual variety and physicality. The clever use of torches to search the island is one welcome interlude and could be taken further. Events become necessarily contrived, but there’s fun to be had in working out the next victim’s untimely demise and satisfaction in finally discovering the true identity of the murderer behind the mayhem.

Reviewed on 3 January 2017 | Image: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Back in 2014, I was keen to get my hands on Ali Smith's latest novel How to be Both - we'd just chosen it as our next book club read.

In a flurry of optimism, given the Man Booker isn't generally my favourite prize, I bought one of those bundles of the whole shortlist. There were a couple of other titles I thought I might read before the prize was announced.

Needless to say, the only one finished was How To Be Both (which I loved), with the rest of the books consigned to the depths of my TBR pile. Earlier this year I ferreted out Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and was blown away by that, too.

Since then, my eye has repeatedly been drawn to the eventual winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. How stunning must it be to have beaten two such strong contenders? Only one thing for it - read it myself and find out.

Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, captured by the Japanese in the Second World War, is imprisoned in a jungle camp where POWs are forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway. Here, Dorrigo and his Aussie camp mates endure the most gruelling physical and mental privations. Prisoners have few rights and are treated no better than slaves; malnourished, beaten and literally worked to death. Cholera is rife; despite this, Dorrigo must stand by as his patients are dragged out of hospital to make up work gangs and he's reduced to performing operations without surgical instruments or anaesthetic.

Flanagan writes with sensitivity and authenticity; the frequently harrowing passages in the squalor and monsoon rains of the jungle vividly detail the mental and physical struggle to survive. In their communal suffering, the motley crew of men from the furthest-flung corners of Australia are spirited but never saintly. Tiny Middleton works at such a rate that he sets an unachievable target for the rest of the men, while Rooster MacNeice harbours a festering resentment over the perceived theft of a duck egg.

The pressure on their Japanese captors is also well drawn; driven by a code of honour that sees death as a preferable alternative to imprisonment and always battling to fulfil the ever increasing demands from high command. Yet, the Japanese still show vestiges of respect to fellow officers, and Dorrigo is able to mitigate the worst of their orders by daily negotiating down the numbers of men required in the gangs. Concentrating on leading by example, on being 'the Big Fella' to his men, he's haunted still by the intense love affair he had before the war with Amy, young wife of his uncle. An affair which ended as Dorrigo was leaving to fight and already promised to another woman.
While captivated and horrified by the graphic events in the jungle, I struggled to engage with Flanagan's narrative outside of them; the post-war difficulties of the Australian survivors returning home, the rehabilitation of their Japanese captors into family men. While this sounds equally engrossing, for me the prose veers here towards the overblown. Most importantly, Amy simply doesn't ring true in my imagination as a living, breathing character. While the depiction of suffering in The Narrow Road to the Deep North recalls Sebastian Faulks' First World War saga Birdsong, the claustrophobic intensity of the affair Faulks describes between Stephen Wraysford and the married Isabelle seems lacking in Dorrigo and Amy's story.

A significant work and a contender, certainly, but this wouldn't have been my pick as winner. Only three more of the shortlist to read and, finger on the pulse, I might be finally able to form a definitive view of the Man Booker Prize for 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is published in paperback by Vintage.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Book Review: The Mine by Antti Tuomainen

In The Mine, Antti Tuomainen threads together two contemporary narratives to challenge the traditions of Scandinavian crime writing. This is Finland as a spent dystopia; elements of noir fused with the eco-thriller polemic of Paul E. Hardisty's The Abrupt Physics of Dying or David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, to create a fiction that subtly subverts the genre.

Janne Vuori, investigative journalist for Helsinki Today, receives a tip-off about the hazardous practices of a mining company in Finland's frozen north. He's plunged deep into a black-and-white world of darkness and ice, where the snow must be forced to give up its secrets. Sifting through his findings, Janne becomes certain he's uncovering an environmental disaster. One that may have already claimed the life of a reporter, and that convinces him he's being followed back home in Helsinki.

When the mining company's directors die one after another in mysterious circumstances, it seems militant activists are taking matters into their own hands. But Janne's investigations are muddied, as unresolved elements of his past come crashing back to haunt him. And he must confront the most modern dilemma of all; how to combine his obsessive pursuit of the truth with personal responsibilities - as the father he never had to his young daughter Ella and husband to Pauliina, who has a career of her own.

Tuomainen, translated into English by David Hackston, writes with pace and style, weaving Janne's first person story together with blogs, emails and news articles and a second, off-kilter narrative that gradually comes into focus.There are similarities with Ari Thór Arason in Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series; Janne and Ari Thór are both young men with disturbed pasts, in search of resolution and their own identities. As Janne is confronted with a series of impossible dilemmas, he has to decide where his own morality lies and what it is that he holds most dear.

For lovers of fictional journalists (my favourite probably being Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American), Janne Vuori is a gift:
Writing was thinking, a way of bringing order to the world. By writing I worked out what I was actually doing, formulated my true opinion on things. When I was writing, I could shut off everything around me...When I didn't write, it soon started to show...Everything began to become patchy. And the longer I didn't write, the more scattered and restless my mind became.
You can forgive a man like that quite a lot, even if you disagree with his choices. In the heart of the narrative are moments of humour, as Janne unexpectedly finds himself grappling with the logistics of twerking. But for the most part, Tuomainen keeps his reader on a tense, tight rein.

Maybe it's for another story, but I wanted to know more about the women in Janne's life  - his wife and mother - apart from their relationship to their men. They are both called on to make significant sacrifices of their own; what do they think of each other, how do they get along? It's an indication of Janne's personal struggles and single-minded pursuit of his own agenda, that there's still so much more to know.

The Mine by Antti Tuomainen is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Imagine being limited to speaking just 140 words a day; that’s exactly what happens to Bernadette and Oliver in this accomplished production from the University of Warwick’s recently-formed Walrus Theatre company. Words – tumbling and jostling with all the force of a white-knuckle ride – are the essence of this bare stage two-hander from the pen of Sam Steiner. Apparently, an average person uses 123,205,750 of them in a lifetime; here their loss is all the more starkly felt as they’re ruthlessly legislated away.

Bernadette (Beth Holmes) is a trainee lawyer and Oliver (Euan Kitson) a musician and political activist when they meet in a pet cemetery for the funeral of a cat. At first, they’re uninhibited, able to use all the free-flowing words they want. Bernadette questions Oliver’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, while her profession obviously rankles with him. But, as their relationship deepens, the shadow of the Hush Laws looms over them, limiting their speech. Bernadette – practical, career-focused and, like so many of us, in denial that it will ever happen – doesn’t foresee the devastating consequences. Idealistic Oliver senses danger and goes on protest marches that ultimately prove useless. As the Orwellian laws are introduced, the couple rush to spill out their last uninhibited words of freedom, an ‘exorcism’ that raises more questions than it has time to answer.

Holmes and Kitson are engaging and likeable as they circle the stage and their two unadorned microphones, flexing together and apart in moves tightly choreographed by director Ed Madden to sometimes reflect, sometimes challenge each other. As the timeline zips back and forth – one minute they’ve just met, the next they’re each announcing the number of words they have left over from their day – we see their relationship move from infatuation and love through to boredom and disillusionment. Without the adequate number of words, they struggle to express themselves, to resolve issues and move on.

Through this everyday couple’s on-stage chemistry – polished now by repeated performance – the focus of the personal convincingly illuminates the social, political and philosophical consequences of such draconian limits. Bernadette, when in court, is allowed a special dispensation of additional words, dividing society into verbal ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. When each word needs to count, its meaning matters. A qualifier like ‘really’ becomes thoughtless and extravagant, two words like ‘love you’ run together to make a saving. And yet, one of the most endearing moments is when the couple spontaneously bursts into a gloriously wasteful rendition of the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

A show honed to great acclaim on the tiny stages of Edinburgh is in danger of wallowing in the relative size of the Factory Theatre, but still it works. Despite an ending that tries to wrap things up a little too neatly, it’s a clever and incisive exploration of free speech and the power of words.

Reviewed on 18 November 2016 | Image: Contributed


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Book Review: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

In The Exiled, police detective Anna Fekete takes a break from the cold of Finland to return to Kanizsa, the Balkan village of her birth. But, what's meant to be a relaxing holiday turns into a fresh investigation, as her bag is stolen and the thief found dead next day in the mud of the riverbank.

Anna can't help but get involved - even though her intervention is not entirely welcomed by the Serbian authorities. Details of their investigation don't ring true and she suspects something is amiss. As she probes more deeply into the background of the dead man - a Romany living on the marginalised fringes of society - she becomes more and more convinced that his death was no accident. She finds evidence of traffickers taking advantage of the thousands of refugees trying to cross the border into Hungary, of corruption and cover ups by officials. And, most frightening of all, a trail that leads back to her own family, that threatens to reopen the wounds of hurt and grief from her past.

Anna is a complex character - as readers of Kati Hiekkapelto's previous two Fekete novels The Hummingbird and The Defenceless will already know. Living in one country with her roots in another, she finds it hard to feel fully at home in either. Her policeman father was killed on duty while she was still a child and, in following in his footsteps, she's driven to extremes in her singular dedication. Her mother wants nothing more than for Anna to settle down with a family of her own - the accepted feminine role in traditional Kanizsa - but she is unwilling and unable to conform.

As in The Defenceless, Hiekkapelto mines themes that resonate with the world today; of migrants forced to flee from war, enduring the most abject conditions in their desperate scrabble for survival. Of racism, prejudice and playing politics with people's lives. Of a village fighting to retain its values and identity. In the midst of this she places Anna and her family, her loss of her father and older brother and renewed friendships with villagers who have never left Kanizsa.

Hiekkapelto writes in her signature taut, gritty and unsparing style - translated once again from the Finnish by David Hackston - though at times it feels like the insights into Anna's home life are weighing the story down. For me, it takes longer than in previous books for all the elements to come together - there are too many new friends and family members to fully get to grips with, perhaps. But the help she receives from Finnish colleagues leads to breakthroughs and her new relationship with Péter, a man she only began flirting with for information, becomes an intriguing aside. In the last third of the book, the tension mounts as the enormity of the crime is uncovered, leading to a shocking and satisfying conclusion.

The Exiled is published in paperback and ebook by Orenda Books. Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.