Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Road to Huntsville - Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Men who kill and the women who love them, despite – or because of – their spending 15 years or more on death row. State-sanctioned homicide by lethal injection in the heart of small town Texas. It’s a huge subject to tackle in an hour long, one woman show; Stephanie Ridings, now touring after a successful 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, shapes it with a perspective that crosses the line between objective research and deeply personal involvement.

With imagery and video projected onto a large white screen behind her, Ridings engages the audience with her deceptively simple, open style. She quotes facts and figures about the men sentenced to death in America; frequently serial killers and rapists many times over. Yet, in representing the ‘ultimate alpha male’, these men are also strangely attractive to some women. On dedicated websites, they are befriended as pen pals; this is just what Ridings does, in the interests of researching her theatre piece.

She has a rocky relationship with her long-term partner Stompy – so called because of the way he moves around their house – an addiction to cat gifs and a gaping hole in her life. One that it seems a penfriend called Jonny might be able to fill. Never mind that he’s committed murder during a robbery; after an exchange of letters, suddenly Ridings is there in Huntsville with his sister. Combining tourist snaps with pictures of the apparatus of death, standing outside the walls of the prison, bearing witness to another man’s execution.

Ridings, it seems, becomes what she is investigating, taking on the morality she set out to question. Her relationship with Jonny grows increasingly surreal, while the much berated Stompy becomes the ever-patient voice of reason. How much is authentic and how much fabricated in the name of research? Sometimes difficult to unpick, it feels as though there are more ideas to explore here than Ridings knows what to do with. Her tone is often jovial, potentially desensitising the audience and filtering their reactions.

Ultimately, The Road to Huntsville is a quietly disturbing piece of theatre for incidental, unexpected reasons; questioning the boundaries in research conducted in a distant domestic setting, every bit as much as the legitimacy of capital punishment in a claustrophobic corner of a Texan prison.

Runs until Friday 17 March 2017 as part of a tour | Image: Graeme Braidwood

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Book Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

With her hotly anticipated second novel Greatest Hits, due for release in June 2017, Laura Barnett has created another innovative structure for her fiction. In her debut, Sunday Times bestseller The Versions of Us, she wove together three separate versions of the lives of Eva and Jim, whose paths cross when they are nineteen and students at Cambridge. Her taut fork-in-the-road storytelling was likened to the film Sliding Doors, Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life and David Nicholl's One Day. 

In Greatest Hits, Barnett chronicles the life of singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler, through the choices of tracks she makes for her new compilation album. During a single day in her recording studio at home in Kent, Cass selects the sixteen songs that mean the most to her personally; each one starting a new chapter in the book and recalling an important episode of her life. Because Cass' songs are autobiographical - often revealingly, painfully so.

Cass' unhappy childhood as a girl called Maria, her parents' loveless marriage and mother's betrayal all inform her first track Common Ground. By her second choice, Architect, she is already reinventing herself, moving to live with her aunt and uncle and becoming Cassandra:
I was an architect
I changed my name
With just a pencil and line
I'm going to knock it down
Build it back up from the ground
In her third track, Living Free, she is discovering her talent and ambition, collaborating musically and falling in love with Ivor, the man who sets her on the road to stardom. 

Cass becomes famous in the 1970s, an English Joan Baez or Carly Simon in an era of hippies and psychedelic drugs. Cleverly, Barnett has collaborated with Mercury Prize nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams to create Cass' tracks. An album is due for release at the same time as the book; hearing these songs promises to layer the narrative with fresh perspective.  

Cass' renown as a solo artist accelerates and she tours relentlessly:
So this, it seemed, was success.
Mornings waking in a featureless succession of hotel rooms, unsure of where she was, drawing gradually back into the present. The next city; the next town; the day's ever-changing schedule of commitments replacing the free, formless landscapes of her dreams.
Cass has a daughter, fashions in music change and life with Ivor requires compromises that take their toll on a long but fractured relationship. Then tragedy strikes, causing Cass to shut herself away for many years, the music that was always in her head replaced with silence. Choosing tracks for this new album promises a fresh start, the chance to forgive herself and move on. It's intriguing to discover whether she can finally do so. 

Greatest Hits is a compelling story with an authentic cast of rounded characters; none more so than Cass herself, broken from childhood yet still determined to stand tall. Barnett's writing is always absorbing, particularly during Cass' early years. Occasionally, I found the plethora of session musicians and producers involved in the decades of her career too many to hold in my head. Yet, I was always invested in Cass' struggles to overcome setbacks, reaching tentatively for new relationships despite the fear of further hurt. If you like your fiction well-structured and accessible, poignant but ultimately life-affirming, then Greatest Hits is for you. 

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published in hardback/ebook by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 15 June 2017. Songs from the novel Greatest Hits by Kathryn Williams and Laura Barnett is released in June 2017 through One Little Indian. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Theatre Review: Plastic at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The ambition behind Marius von Mayenburg’s Plastic is dazzling: using the artifice of theatre, its shared space and storytelling communion, to question the boundaries between art and life. If you listen to the narrative of the play’s central character Serge Haulupa, conceptual artist and orchestrator of domestic mayhem, that is. The play has other, complex identities: the middle-class couple, striving to get to grips with everyday existence: the teenager facing the onslaught of puberty: and the cleaner whose role is pivotal, but often overlooked.

Michael and Ulrike are a married couple whose comfortable life is falling apart. He’s a doctor, looking for meaning in a wider context and she’s an artist and Haulupa’s personal assistant. Neither seems capable of coping with their teenage son, Vincent, preferring to buy in the services of Jessica, cleaner, housekeeper and general dogsbody, instead.

In the beginning, Jessica is an awkward presence; the couple argue over leaving money in their home where she might take it, bicker about her personal hygiene and patronise her abilities. Then Haulupa, deciding his next conceptual performance will centre around the contents of Michael and Ulrike’s fridge, discovers Jessica for himself. She becomes not only his muse, but also the reluctant confessor to the family’s most intimate revelations, who gives little of herself away.

Von Mayenburg’s writing is razor-sharp, acerbic and bleak, with Maja Zade’s translation from the German capturing its satire; darkly probing the disconnect between affluent contemporary lifestyles and the equally pretentious artistic values that undermine them. Steve John Shepherd as Haulupa is a relentless, restless presence; full of disruptive and outrageous creative self-absorption. Charlotte Randle and Jonathan Slinger as Ulrike and Michael bicker and deride each other with the suppressed fury of a couple on the brink of divorce; that there is still love left in their marriage when Michael announces his intention to work with Doctors Without Borders (‘but you’ve got borders all over the place!’ declares Ulrike) comes as a surprise. Ria Zmitrowicz is the unruffled, matter-of-fact Jessica with just the hint of an exterior life (‘I don’t imagine things when I’m at work’) and Brenock O’Connor is a suitably truculent but vulnerably pubescent Vincent.

Matthew Dunster’s direction is fast-paced and crisp, while Jean Chan’s set of minimalist hard edges is vividly brought to life by Richard Howell’s imposing lighting design. A TV screen suggests performance art installations as well as more mundane after-school programmes. There’s plenty to sink your teeth into, even if the much-anticipated food fight ends up being little more than a few strands of spaghetti slithering down a paint-splattered overall.

Von Mayenburg came to prominence in the UK in 2007 with The Ugly One at the Royal Court. Now this UK premiere underlines his talent and continues the Ustinov’s reputation, in its new German season, for unearthing European plays of rare quality. Plastic is a scintillating comedy of modern manners that circles within circles, questioning which is the greater artifice; one family’s self-image and lip-service to liberal ideals or the solipsistic superficiality of the artist. Food for thought, indeed.

Runs until 25 March 2017 | Image: Simon Annand

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre Review: Othello at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF)’s new version of Othello brings the Bard’s tragedy of malign manipulation and jealous, destructive rage right into the present-day. It’s immediately apparent that the entrenched racism, misogyny and religious intolerance of the 16th Century still resonates in a setting of mobiles, microphones and concrete basement strip lighting.

Abraham Popoola’s Othello is a Moor who has converted to Christianity in name only; he and Desdemona marry in a Muslim ceremony and only then does he stow away his prayer mat and take up his crucifix instead. This adds a new layer of complexity to his portrayal; bold, physically imposing, yet always an outsider striving to assimilate himself in Venetian society by paying it lip service. Othello’s gullibility in relying on Iago’s advice and falling for his web of falsehoods is at once more believable. Popoola, fresh from RADA, does well to capture these nuances in his performance, though his verse-speaking occasionally loses some clarity.

Overlooked for promotion in Othello’s ranks in favour of Cassio, Iago is the scheming central puppet-master out for revenge. Mark Lockyer plays him with convincing, restless energy; pacing, quick witted, malevolently delighting in his own capacity for invention, as he provokes Othello’s suspicions about his young wife’s faithfulness. Lockyer’s splinter of humour, exuding bonhomie as Iago strides the stage and addresses the audience, renders his pathological ruthlessness in plotting innocent deaths even more chilling.

The testosterone is palpable, much of it arising from the black-clad soldiers who display all the barely suppressed anger of Fascist bully boys, swearing and chanting in a pack. Against this is contrasted the welcome warmth of Desdemona’s purity; Norah Lopez Holden brings a freshness and vitality to the role as she turns from the giddy excitement of a new bride to bewilderment at Othello’s unwarranted jealousy. There’s profound feeling in her relationship with her husband and compelling camaraderie with Iago’s wife Emilia, vividly drawn by Katy Stephens.

Richard Twyman, artistic director of English Touring Theatre, retains all SATTF’s renowned clarity of storytelling and grasp of Shakespeare’s verse here, while introducing an underlying urgency and some memorable set pieces. The storm when sailing from Venice to Cyprus is strikingly invoked by the ensemble in sou’westers and rain capes, ranked under a central rectangle of down-lighters while thunder and lightning rages round. Othello takes out his frustration at Cassio’s supposed betrayal by practising his boxing skills on a leather punchbag suspended from the ceiling. It might not be the subtlest interpretation, but it’s effective against the backdrop of an otherwise empty stage.

Twyman’s Othello starkly demonstrates how easily the thin veneer of civilised society can be peeled away, once the seeds of divisiveness are sown. This is an intense and absorbing production with real depth, that signals the play’s continuing relevance in holding a brutal, unflinching mirror to contemporary society.

Runs until 1 April 2017 | Image: The Other Richard

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger

Nordic Noir is alive and well; for proof look no further than Thomas Enger's Cursed. Despite it being his fourth novel revolving around Norwegian journalist Henning Juul, Cursed also works as a gripping, multi-layered crime thriller in its own right.You might just need to concentrate a little harder to catch up with the twisty but well-integrated backstory, if you haven't already read the first three instalments in the series.

Henning Juul is barely existing; living on the edge in Oslo after losing the family he loves. His young son Jonas was taken from him in the most painful of circumstances and his ex-wife Nora has a new partner, Iver. But, as a fellow reporter, her investigation into the disappearance of a friend unexpectedly overlaps with Henning's attempts to discover the facts behind the night that devastated his life. The estranged couple have more reasons than ever to talk to each other, however difficult that might be.

When Hedda Hellberg doesn't return after a three-week trip to a retreat in Italy, her husband establishes she'd never been there in the first place. He calls on Nora, as an old school friend, to delve into the conundrum and she quickly becomes absorbed in the tangled relationships between generations of the wealthy Hellberg family. What connects Hedda's disappearance with the murder of an old man in his own woods in Sweden? Nora forensically uncovers a trail leading back to events of the Second World War, only to find herself enlisting Henning's help as their investigations converge.

Henning and Nora's alternating narratives are the heart of this novel; two people floundering in the aftermath of a tragedy that drove an insurmountable wedge between them. Both flagrantly disregard their own safety in pursuit of the truth. Nora sought comfort in Iver, but has only succeeded in weaving more complications into her life. Yet, while he doesn't exactly seem like the settling-down type, Iver redeems himself by rescuing Henning from a new threat. A fascinating love triangle is established, one that underpins every twist and turn of this intriguing and all-too-human tale.

Enger has written a complicated, skilfully-drawn story that rewards your close attention. This translation by Kari Dickson captures all the pared-back Nordic style of The Bridge or The Killing, combined with the most compelling chapter-end hooks I've encountered since reading Harry Potter to my children.

There are the streets and suburbs of Oslo and the beauty of the islands nearby; in this setting, the elemental perils of fire and water combine with the dark underworld lurking beneath the mask of wealthy Norwegian society. Menace and brutality abound, morality is skewed, but there is also intense humanity in the complex web of relationships. Finally, there's a conclusion that hints at redemption and seems to settle matters, before ripping them open again with a shocking new revelation that must surely lead straight to Book Five.

Cursed  by Thomas Enger is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books on 1 March 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Theatre Review: Spillikin at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The full title of this 90-minute play from Pipeline Theatre is Spillikin, A Love Story. It combines the theme of an identity lost in the debilitating chasm of dementia with the technological innovation of an on-stage robot, becoming both substitute companion and treasurer of a lifetime’s experiences. What emerges is ultimately a very human story, a testament that what survives of us is love.

Sally’s husband Raymond is away at a conference, she thinks. He’s always away at a conference, despite his age and infirmity, because he’s an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence. She appears well-groomed and together, but looks can be deceptive. Her mind is fading fast and it seems that Raymond’s absence may be the permanent kind. What he’s left behind is an extraordinarily patient and reactive robot, filled with his memories of their first meeting and marriage; an offering of consolation extending beyond the grave.

Interspersed with Sally’s decline is the unlikely story of how she and Raymond first met in the 1970s and fell in love; she liked Blondie and he liked physics, but he had kind eyes and she loved the softness of his neck. Hannah Stephens as the bold, facetious younger Sally and Mike Tonkin Jones as shy, geeky young Raymond have great chemistry; they spark off each other and, despite their differences, under Jon Welch’s tightly choreographed direction, their mutual attraction is believable, hopeful and impulsive.

Judy Norman plays the older Sally with the bitterness and frustration of a woman whose mind is unravelling; alternately raging at her robot companion and treating him with the tenderness of renewal. Gradually losing her orientation, her hair becomes wilder, her clothing disordered, her vocabulary diminished. Through an evocative soundtrack, clever projection and symbolically emptying bookshelves, we realise Sally and Raymond’s long marriage was not always a happy one; childless and with shades of infidelity, yet a residual love endured.

The robot itself, a repository of older Raymond’s memories, remains almost infuriatingly calm throughout; played by a remarkable ‘Robothesbian’ designed by Will Jackson of Engineered Arts to mimic human movement. Seated and omnipresent, it assimilates Raymond’s personality and habits just as Sally is losing hers; exhibiting an eerily nuanced range of expression and movement, as well as the ability to sing along to My Funny Valentine. It may not be able to replace humans quite yet, but Spillikin raises intelligent questions about how developments in robotics could help, or indeed threaten, future generations, as our ageing population inevitably declines.

Several productions exploring human frailty and the devastating loss of identity in dementia sufferers have been staged at the Ustinov in recent seasons, including The Father and Half Life. Spillikin moves the debate forward by examining the role of technology; the strength of human bonds might prove impossible to replicate, but artificial intelligence could still provide comfort as well as functional support. The answers are far from clear-cut, but this riveting piece of theatre brings an insight and substance of its own.

Reviewed on 7 February 2017 as part of a UK tour until 7 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Theatre Review: Airswimming at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Here’s a shocking premise for a play; that women who don’t conform to convention should be shut away in an institution and left to decay. And yet, in early 20th Century Britain, this was too often their fate; from unmarried mothers to those who simply didn’t fit in, exclusion from society could be brutally sudden and final.

by Charlotte Jones, the writer best known for Humble Boy and creating the ITV series The Halcyon, focuses on the lives of two compelling representatives of this injustice. Most productions of this 1997 play use just two actors to portray young Dora and Persephone and their older alter egos, Dorph and Porph. Here, Old Bag Theatre Company clearly delineates the younger and older characters by having four.

Dora, played by Phoebe Mulcahy, is mannish, down to earth and working class. She’s already a dab hand at polishing baths and staircases and treats these daily chores with all the precision of a military operation. She’s joined by a new recruit, Serena Dunlop’s Persephone, an upper-class debutante with no knowledge or aptitude for housework, certain she will soon be rescued by her family. Both are dressed in 1920s maids’ uniforms but their residence, rather than a grand old country house, is St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

It’s hard to reconcile these fresh-faced, still hopeful young women with their older counterparts Porph (Jane Lawson), larger than life with her facial tics and Doris Day wig and Dorph, ostensibly the voice of reason, played by Liz Hume with stoic calm and occasional shades of a Dawn French character.

With a simple set of a tin bath and a couple of stairs and the help of some of Doris Day’s greatest hits, this bleakly funny and poignant story shifts backwards and forwards in time to cover the 50 years of the women’s incarceration. All four actors are evenly matched and do justice to their unfolding relationship; as hope turns to despair, they comfort and cling to each other to survive. There are moments of madness, with the women’s grasp on reality beginning to slip away through extended isolation. There’s a deep vein of humour, mainly played out in Porph’s growing obsession with Doris Day and Dorph’s alternating exasperation and weary acceptance, as well as the moving, magical originality of the air swimming of the play’s title.

Directors Andy Cork and Emma Firman handle the subject matter and Jones’ sensitive writing with insight and compassion. Towards the end of the play, the downside of having two versions of each character on stage is that events are harder to follow as young and old converge. The intimacy of the stage begins to feel almost crowded and yet, despite this, it still works; emphasising the passage of years and adding another dimension to a story that, for all its cruel intolerance, ultimately celebrates the boundless capacity of the human spirit for friendship and survival.

Reviewed on 1 February 2017 | Image: Contributed