Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Theatre Review: Frogs - The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The Ancient Greek god Dionysus went to hell and back. Now Hecate Theatre have taken his original subterranean quest and updated it for a modern audience.
According to Aristophanes, Greek tragedy was in decline after the death of the playwright Euripides, so Dionysus was sent from Mount Olympus down to Hades to bring him back. In Hecate Theatre’s Frogs, this journey has been comically adapted by writer Charles Scherer, with Dionysus now crossing the river Styx to arrange an unlikely showdown between William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, to determine which one is the greatest writer of all time.
The story is observed by a Greek chorus of frogs; Hecate Theatre’s five female members, daubed in green paint, ribbit and hop about a swampy landscape of rubbish, nets and the odd abandoned hub cap. In turn they transform into its main characters; Gemma Reynolds dons shades and a fur stole to become Dionysus, god of drama, while Hannah-Marie Chidwick becomes her sidekick slave Xanthias. Kate Mayne delivers a virtuoso performance as the cussedly no-nonsense boatman Charon, as well as Pluto, in charge of the Underworld, while Bella Fortune and Alice Chalk slug it out as Shakespeare and Austen respectively.
Programmed as part of the 2015 Bath Comedy Festival, this hour-long play fizzes with inventiveness and modern references, from Fifty Shades of Grey to zero hours contracts. Under Abbi Davey’s direction it gets off to a slightly slow start in establishing the potentially unfamiliar premise (perhaps an introduction could be given in the programme notes?), but really springs into life when the gnarled and grouchy Charon reluctantly agrees to transport the wine-swigging Dionysus and Xanthias across the Styx for a strictly set fee.
The contest is an energetically comedic centre-piece, with the initially reverential Austen turning on Shakespeare to put up a proper fight for the title of greatest writer. Shakespeare pompously dismisses her works as essentially plotless; her argument that too much happens in his plays (which he may not even have written) is supported by a very droll froggy re-enactment of some of his best known death scenes.
Designer Charlotte Cooke’s set deserves special mention, with credit being given in the programme for the number of video tapes destroyed in its creation. All in all, this is an endearing and fun family-friendly interpretation of one of the most ancient of classic tales.
Reviewed on 9th April 2015.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Opera Review: WNO's Chorus! at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In staging an operatic showcase where the chorus is the star, Welsh National Opera is surely playing to its strengths. Coupled with a fluidly dramatic set design, thrilling costumes and a guest soloist in the form of soprano Lesley Garrett, WNO’s chorus shows why it has so often been the highlight of previous productions.
What at first appears to be a diverse selection of pieces – ranging from Wagner to Weill – at second glance has more coherence. Themes emerge as Prokofiev’s celebration of patriotic identity crystallises into the murderous lynch mob of Peter Grimes, intent on destruction at all costs. In the late Johan Engels’ stunning design, black costumes are gashed with red scarves, the blood of the dying in Verdi’s Macbeth Murderers’ Chorus dissolving into the Communist red of the workers in his Anvil Chorus. Following this is the cumulative power of massed voices heard quietly in the enchanting Hush, No More from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the Humming Chorus of Madama Butterfly.
Some of the pieces, by contrast, are less successful. Verdi’s Rataplan from La Forza del Destino (which also introduces Garrett to the audience) strikes a jarring, comedically strained note, while the sequence encompassing the vices of the night (The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky and Weill’s Alabama Song) is uneasily centred on a boxing match. Elvis, played by dancer Chris Tudor, makes an appearance at a wedding. Yes, it is very much tongue-in-cheek, but it also feels under-powered with some of Garrett’s lower register being drowned by the orchestra. 
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a squad of policemen seduced in their locker room by Carmen’s cigarette smoking factory girls. This delicious scene is a feast for both eyes and ears, as a languid hand emerges from behind the locker room door to plant a cigarette in a dazed policeman’s mouth. This time the comedic note is exactly right in A Policeman’s Lot from The Pirates of Penzance, followed by the vision of Garrett, languishing on a sofa resembling a pair of red velvet lips suspended from the ceiling, in Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. 
This resurgence continues after the interval. A surreal staging of Les Voici from Carmen which includes The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Andy Warhol and a teasing striptease by Tudor gives way to Garrett emerging in a nun’s habit in Verdi’s La Vergine Degli Angeli. Wrapped in a blue sheet, Tudor transforms into an angel with a cheeky nod to the audience, who are fully aware that only seconds before he was cavorting around devil-may-care in only his scarlet underpants. 
The WNO orchestra, conducted by Alexander Martin, is as faultless as ever throughout and the chorus prove their versatility – if it were in any doubt – with a rendition of Handel’s Messiah, followed by Musorgsky’s Wailing Chorus from Khovanshchina. After Garrett’s tour de force, The Impossible Dream, the conclusion is a rousing finale of Candide’s Make Our Garden Grow.
For all the fluidity of the choreography, there is a slight feeling by the end of having overdosed on a feast of fine snacks rather than a truly substantial three course meal. Yet Chorus! is a great taster menu of operatic possibilities and there is also the refreshing satisfaction of the chorus being placed centre stage. This last currently scheduled performance of this production, which combines with The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel to form WNO’s Spellbound programme, undoubtedly provides an entertaining evening for opera lovers and newcomers alike.
 Reviewed on 8th April 2015. Picture courtesy of WNO.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Book Review: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Aki Ollikainen's award-winning fiction debut opens with a sort of premonition:
Two skinny pikes lie at the bottom of the boat. They look more like snakes than fish. They no longer twitch; the cold has made them stiff. Their jaws gape, still trickling blood, which blends in slender swirls with the water around Mataleena's feet.  
Food is already in short supply in the remote isolation of northern Finland for Juhani, Marja and their two children Mataleena and Juho. The cold is setting in and their way of life, at best a sort of subsistence, will have no defence against the devastating famine of 1867.

Juhani begins refusing food so that his family can eat, but this leaves him weakened and close to death. Marja is angered:
It was not generosity that motivated Juhani's decision, but cowardice.
He should look after himself, she thinks, so that he can look after his wife and children.

It is Marja who makes the heart-breaking choice to set off on foot through the snow with the two children, leaving Juhani behind. The travellers find shelter from the cruel winter in the house of a neighbour, but must venture much further afield - as far as St Petersburg, they are told - to find a place where bread is more plentiful.

In each new village they are greeted warily; there may be a shortage of food but there's never any shortage of beggars. At times they are shown great kindness - given hard-to-spare bread and shelter for the night - but, at others, great brutality. The relentless cold and hunger deprives people of their humanity; in desperation they are prepared to slay each other for morsels of bread or meat. It takes its toll on the already weakened Marja and her children.

White Hunger has been compared in style and subject to Cormac McCarthy's The Road; its descriptions of poverty and starvation also remind me of Émile Zola's Germinal, although there the grinding misery in a mining village is brought about by industrial rather than environmental factors.

Still there is a common economic thread. In White Hunger, politicians stand accused of not doing more to alleviate the suffering of their people and they in turn blame businessmen for not getting emergency supplies of grain out in time.

Ollikainen has won a slew of awards for this remarkable, piercing novella in his native Finland, where the suffering endured in this famine is still etched on the national psyche. His writing comes with a warning from Meike Ziervogel of independent publisher Peirene Press:
There will come a point in this book where you can take no more of the snow-covered desolation.   
And so it felt to me, despite this being a slim volume of less than 140 pages. Ollikainen writes pared-back, beautiful but unsparing prose which, although rooted in real historical events, has a timeless, apocalyptic quality. The book's translation by mother and daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah conveys all the harshness of the barely imaginable conditions, a battle for survival that is painful and vivid.

About two thirds of the way through, I wasn't sure whether I would be able to carry on with this eloquent but relentless bleakness. Yet the moment at which all hope has been extinguished is also a turning point where the first hint of spring can be glimpsed on the horizon. The ending is masterful and leads you to reconsider the whole of this novella in its light.

Pictures courtesy of Peirene Press and many thanks to them too for my review copy.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Theatre Review: The Harvest at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Ustinov Studio regulars have become accustomed to taking their comedy black, following an autumn 2014 season which culminated with Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King. But The Harvest, the first production of the Ustinov’s spring 2015 World Theatre season and a UK premiere for Belarusian writer Pavel Pryazhko, promises to be different. A comedy, certainly, but one which at first suggests a lighter sort of madcap mayhem.
Egor, Ira, Valerii and Lyuba are busy in the orchard at harvest time, picking apples and packing them into crates. A task which at first seems straightforward, pleasurable even, rapidly descends into farce as they discover they may not have been handling them with due care. It will only take one bad – or even slightly imperfect – apple to infect the rest of the crate, a realisation which leads our fruit pickers to a detailed re-examination of all the apples that have so far been packed. But then the crates which carry them prove not to be up to the job either – and attempts at nailing them back together lead to a comedic ratcheting up of the tension with bloodshed and a general descent into chaos.
The set, designed by Madeleine Girling, is simple yet extremely effective, an orchard of apples suspended individually on strings from above and four ladders which are climbed to pick them. The cast of four is flawless and mines all the comic potential of the piece as the actors effortlessly inhabit the different levels. The two young men Egor and Valerii (Dafydd Llyr Thomas and Dyfan Dwyfor) ascend to pick the fruit and then compete to hand it down and show off their prowess – or lack of it. Valerii asserts himself as something of an expert on apple handling and so Egor must retaliate by taking the lead in crate repairs. They are alternately goaded and assisted, flirted with and mocked, by the two young women Ira and Lyuba (Beth Park previously seen in Exit the King and Lindsey Campbell who was in another Ustinov UK premiere,The Big Meal) with often hilarious results.
Under former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd’s direction, the pace is beautifully judged as the fallout of the fruit-pickers’ labours becomes increasingly funny and messy. The simple task of hammering a nail into a crate takes on epic proportions and the wastage rate of the harvest becomes exponentially high. There is a delicious scene where the foursome realise that all the apples they have rejected as damaged no longer need to be handled with care – the ensuing melee almost giving the front row of the audience a taste of the action.
Pavel Pryazhko has already garnered a cult following for his work in the “New Drama” movement in Russia and the post-Soviet nations and his hour-long play can be interpreted on many levels. It’s a wry and succinct take on the borderline bureaucracy inherent in even the simplest of processes in Soviet and post-Soviet society. It’s an indictment of modern day Belarus with its stagnant economy where, after Chernobyl, the young fear being outside too long and need increasing amounts of medication. Yet in many ways this hapless foursome could almost be migrant fruit-pickers in the UK, facing the all-encompassing hostility of a foreign land as they stare fearfully into the distance. Above all, in focusing on a supposedly simple task of fruit picking, The Harvest creates a microcosm of human existence – a striving for supremacy, a storm of flirtation and love, jealousy and in-fighting, all wrapped up in the humour necessary for survival. The bleakness may be hinted at rather than explicit, delivered with absurdist belly-laughs, but all the depth of the Ustinov’s previous season is still here.
Runs until 11th April 2015 | Photo: Simon Annand

Monday, 23 March 2015

Book Review: Indian Magic by Balraj Khanna

Hope Road is an independent publishing company that supports voices too often neglected by the mainstream - multicultural literature with a special focus on Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. One of their titles is Balraj Khanna's Indian Magic, a novel which follows an immigrant's life in Swinging Sixties Britain.

Ravi Mehra arrives at Victoria Station, London from India with a work permit and five pounds in his pocket. He's young, good looking, educated and full of optimism but naïve about London life. His boundless enthusiasm for the Mother Country takes a severe drubbing when he meets reactions ranging from at best indifference to at worst open hostility. Racism is endemic, and most accommodation comes with the stark warning; No blacks. No Indian. No Irish. Jobless, homeless and starving, his luck eventually changes when he's hired as dishwasher in an Indian restaurant and stumbles upon a room to let without the usual prohibitions.

Life begins to look up as the affable Ravi finds favour with Mr Swami, owner of the Indian Magic restaurant, and is promoted to a permanent position as a waiter. He's invited into the traditional Swami household but also discovers the freedoms of 1960s London. In this typical east meets west culture clash, Ravi relishes the new; girls as eager as boys to have a good time and parties aplenty. Soon he's breaking his solemn promise to his mother to avoid the demon alcohol.

Indian Magic has elements of autobiography, as Balraj Khanna himself arrived in London in 1962 to continue his studies in English Literature at Oxford University. Due to the turmoil in India caused by the war with China, papers from his university never arrived and he was unable to resume studying. But he didn't let this defeat him, instead becoming a foreign correspondent, painter and author of both fiction and non-fiction.

This novel is full of insights into the immigrant experience in 1960s London. There are plenty of humorous moments, with enjoyable banter and rivalries between the restaurant staff and plenty of misunderstandings with the Swamis, who want to bend Ravi to their will. The traditional Indian dishes prepared in their home (but not in the restaurant where English people only want to eat generic 'curry') by Mrs Swami and her extended family sound mouth-watering, but the occasions on which they are served often descend into farce.

Racism is not a preserve of white people. Ravi's room is in a house in the Finchley Road affectionately known as the Subcontinental or Sub, and while Ravi makes lasting friendships:
Where my friends were concerned, their Sub was an island in the vast ocean of loneliness. Home politics were never discussed, though we sometimes said to each other that if Indians and Pakistanis could live happily together here, why couldn't they back home? The irony of it was not lost on us. We had to travel five thousand miles to find out. 
Ravi becomes embroiled in danger as a result of dating Jane, a white English girl, against the wishes of her violent and abusive father, but these darker episodes are not fully explored and, even when his life is threatened, it never really feels as though things will end too badly for him. Indian Magic reads like an intriguing romantic comedy and indeed would make a great film in this genre. You suspect that everything is going to turn out alright in the end, but it's no less enjoyable and engaging an experience for that.

Thanks to Hope Road Publishing for my review copy. Photos courtesy of

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Theatre Review: Wuthering Heights at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

More than 150 years after it was first published, Wuthering Heights needs very little introduction. The only novel written by Emily Brontë, it tells of the destructive passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, brought up together in the Earnshaw household but driven apart by divisions of class and status and the elemental forces of life and death.
This adaptation from Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre strips the action back to just two actors; Alison Campbell and Jeremy Fowlds not only take the parts of Cathy and Heathcliff but play all the other characters as well. The play opens as Mr Lockwood, a tenant of Heathcliff’s at Thrushcross Grange, visits his landlord at his remote moorland farmhouse, Wuthering Heights. Compelled by bad weather to stay the night, he finds himself haunted by a nightmare of Cathy’s ghost at the bedroom window.
Back at the Grange, his housekeeper Nelly Dean tells him the story of Heathcliff and Cathy’s doomed and vengeful love and its wider repercussions for the next generation. Dougie Blaxland’s adaptation pares back some of Emily Brontë’s minor characters while still keeping the full sense of her complex plotlines – embracing the comedy of the squabbling Linton children as well as Heathcliff and Cathy’s greater tragedy.
Under Ian McGlynn’s direction, in the intimate setting of The Rondo, the two-handed approach works well, with generally clear transitions between characters and scenes linked by Lockwood and Nelly’s narration. When one of the actors plays two characters at once, the conversation is portrayed by their leaping back and forth between two sides of the stage; Fowlds faces greater demands in the number of rapid switches he has to make and just once or twice the roles of Heathcliff and Cathy’s brother Hindley become blurred.
Lighting and sound are understated, although particularly appropriate is Donna Summer’s I Feel Love playing before the beginning of the production. The set is minimal and Campbell’s simple full-length Victorian dress and Fowlds’ white shirt and dark coat serve to represent all their incarnations. Although it is not possible to mine the depths of each character in this way – showing the full extent of Cathy’s tempestuous wilfulness for example or Heathcliff’s brooding malevolence  – what we do get by a change of voice and mannerisms is a good representation of each and a pacey unfolding of the story.
This appealing adaptation of Wuthering Heights is part of Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre’s acclaimed Brontë season which includes a one-woman Jane Eyre (also starring Alison Campbell) and another two-hander in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In today’s often risk-averse arts climate, it’s refreshing to see this collaboration unafraid to take on such an ambitious programme and tackle it so effectively.
Reviewed on 14th March 2015.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Theatre Review: The Absence of War at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

In this election year 2015, many of the themes of David Hare’s The Absence of War are so contemporary, it’s hard to believe this play originally premiered in 1993. A man who has risen to the top of the Labour Party sacrifices the authentic voice which got him there, in order to make himself electable. In private charismatic, in public he’s unable to get his message across.
Today we might think of Ed Miliband, yet here, as Labour leader George Jones is undermined at every turn by his shadow chancellor Malcolm Pryce, Hare also foreshadows the querulous relationship that is yet to come between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Similarly, he anticipates the curse of spin, fencing in a new generation of career politicians, as George’s non-elected adviser Oliver Dix seeks to keep him on message. George must steer away from the economy and focus on healthcare, suppressing everything he wants to say from the heart.
In other ways, The Absence of War can be viewed as a period piece. A Labour party still daring to speak the name of socialism, yet to become New Labour and steal the centre ground from the Tories. There are no mobile phones to be checked obsessively – Ceefax appears on TV screens and MPs are told the official party line by pager. Most strikingly of all, cigarettes can still be smoked in the office.
Headlong’s new revival, in association with Sheffield Theatres and Rose Theatre Kingston, began its UK tour in Sheffield, home of the infamous speech which is reputed to have cost Labour leader Neil Kinnock the election in 1992. In Bristol, due to illness, Trevor Fox replaces Reece Dinsdale in the role of George Jones.  These are big shoes to fill, but Fox is convincingly more than just a stand in, delivering a genuinely caring leader tortured by his inability to put his point across succinctly when it comes to the crunch, too quick to anger and undone by a betrayal close to home.
The rest of the cast provide strong support; Cyril Nri excels as the detached and calculating Oliver who insists that George sticks to his agreed strategy at all costs. Charlotte Lucas gives a polished performance as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine and Gyuri Sarossy is ruthlessly conniving as the shadow chancellor who never pays more than lip service in his support for his leader – Malcolm’s showdown with George in the heat of the campaign is the most mesmerising scene of all.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction gives the piece much pace and visual flair, the landscape of designer Mike Britton’s TV screens reflecting the outside world in terms of news broadcasts, the simple coloured backdrop creating a stunning silhouette in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations.
With fighting in Ukraine, Syria and other fronts threatening to bring terror to our streets, it feels as though today’s political vacuum has been created not so much by a lack of war but by our failure to find a coherent response to its fragmentation. Yet Hare’s writing is prophetic in so many ways and has retained all of its scintillating sharpness, despite the passage of time. Much may have changed, but The Absence of War reminds us there’s still a fundamental need to ensure that genuine conviction of belief is not extinguished in the ruthless pursuit of power.
Runs until 14th March 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Mark Douet