Sunday, 23 April 2017

Opera Review: WNO's La bohème at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was written for The Reviews Hub


Welsh National Opera (WNO)’s evocative 2012 production of Puccini’s La bohème returns to the stage for a well-deserved revival, as part of the company’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Here, Annabel Arden’s original combination of strong vocal performances, atmospheric staging and clear storytelling is continued under the direction of Caroline Chaney.

In a fin de siècle Paris recreated from projected rooftops and star-lit skies, the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, both penniless, meet on Christmas Eve and fall in love. There’s an instant chemistry between Jessica Muirhead’s Mimi and Matteo Lippi’s Rodolfo that convinces from the start; both are dramatically and vocally assured, as they combine with passion in the duet O Soave Fanciulla (Oh Loveliest of Maidens). Muirhead’s sweet soprano soars above the orchestra with a celestial purity that foreshadows her demise, while Lippi embraces the complex range required for an empathetic portrayal of Rodolfo.

To celebrate, they leave the humble garret Rodolfo shares with his fellow bohemians and join the warmth and excitement of Café Momus in the Latin quarter. Here, Rodolfo’s artist friend Marcello is reunited with his former love Musetta, who has tired of her elderly, rich admirer. In this most tempestuous of relationships, Gary Griffiths as Marcello is a charismatic presence, well matched with the flirtations of Lauren Fagan’s spirited Musetta, who waits until the final Act to reveal her tenderness of heart.

There are delightful supporting performances from Jihoon Kim as the philosopher Colline and Gareth Brynmor John as the musician Shaunard, who provide a palpable sense of friendship and joie de vivre alongside their technical skill. Act II in the Café Momus is a visual feast, festooned with coloured lights. WNO’s always admirable chorus is richly detailed and augmented by the lively, skittering presence of a group of children, in thrall to the toy seller Parpignol (Michael Clifton-Thompson) and his wares.

Design and lighting by Stephen Brimson Lewis and Tim Mitchell contrast the riotous colour of the café with the snowy austerity of the tollgate in Act III, as Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship sours under the weight of his unwarranted jealousy. Conductor Manlio Benzi’s interpretation ensures that WNO’s orchestra always enhances the rousing emotions on stage, as Mimi’s illness takes hold and she is reunited in Act IV with Rodolfo and his friends for one final, fleeting time.

WNO’s La bohème may not push the boundaries of what opera can do, but its traditional retelling focuses on the beauty of Puccini’s score and vividly brings to life the tragedy of the lovers’ story. This is a memorable revival that sates the senses, imprinting in the mind both the searing joy of friendship and love and the poignancy of loss.

Reviewed on 29 March 2017 | Image: Robert Workman


Monday, 10 April 2017

Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, and this brand-new version of What the Butler Saw, a joint production between Theatre Royal Bath and Leicester Curve, commemorates his final full-length play. But as a dark farce, this work is now showing its age; shocking at the time for its anti-establishment sentiment, today the aspect that strikes the most jarring note is the inherent sexism and gender stereotyping of the 1960s.

Viewed through this filter, there’s still enjoyment in a story that takes place entirely in the white box of a psychiatrist’s clinic. Here, the initial calm and order quickly descend into mayhem, as Dr. Prentice’s attempted seduction of his new secretary is thwarted by the untimely arrival of his voracious wife, fresh from her own suspect dalliance with a bell-boy in a linen cupboard.

Characteristically, it’s the cover-up that provides the greatest comedy; the handiest solution to most problems being to adopt a cross-dressing disguise that involves plenty of farcical stripping-off and trouser-dropping. A vase becomes a useful receptacle for all manner of clothing and there are moments of exquisite hilarity with the flowers it should innocently contain. Doors are entered and exited at great speed. Throw in a maniacal government analyst, a none-too-observant police sergeant and a diagnosis of insanity; the accompanying strait-jackets, guns and bloodshed all provide a galloping inevitability.

Orton’s text is dense with fast-paced words and wit and – apart from one or two fluffed lines in this performance – the timing in Nikolai Foster’s production is generally immaculate. Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell as Dr. and Mrs. Prentice are well matched in both sexual predilection and quick delivery, while Jasper Britton revels in his role as Dr. Rance, the single-minded spin-doctor of a pre-determined outcome: ‘I’m not interested in your explanations, I can supply my own!’ Dakota Blue Richards is a study in the downward spiral from enthusiastic young employee to gibbering, casually abused wreck.

Michael Taylor’s curved, raked set is a thing of beauty; adapting first to the width of Leicester’s Curve Theatre and now the traditional proscenium in Bath, it accommodates the unfolding story – and its requirement for doors to burst in and out of – while denying any specific time frame.

If only the narrative of this otherwise plot-driven, witty work could do the same. What must have been subversive in the 1960s verges on jaded in the twenty-first Century and its relevance is hard to discern. In this unadulterated form, What the Butler Saw resembles a misogynistic period piece lacking context, presenting rape as an acceptable extension of intense sexual desire and incest as its jolly consequence. The fine performances and clearly delivered merriment may still find an appeal with lovers of the genre, but ultimately this farce feels uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed on 28 March 2017 | Image: Contributed




Monday, 3 April 2017

Book Review: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Kjell Ola Dahl is known as one of the founding fathers of Nordic Noir but, unlike the widely translated thrillers of Jo Nesbø or Henning Mankell, opportunities to read his crime fiction in English have been limited. Now Faithless, a new translation by Don Bartlett of one of Dahl's best known Gunnarstranda and Frølich series, takes a step towards bringing his complex, twisty police procedurals to a wider audience.


Inspector Frank Frølich of the Oslo police is devastated when the victim of a brutal murder is identified as Veronika, fiancée of his oldest friend, Karl Anders. His colleague Gunnarstranda is brought back early from holiday and, as the investigation takes shape, lines between the personal and professional are increasingly blurred. Karl Anders' alibi doesn't seem to stack up and his relationship with the dead woman is far from straightforward. There are secrets she was withholding that the police must uncover to find her killer.

Why was Veronika arrested shortly before her death on a drugs charge? Who is the unidentified man who seems to have been stalking her? And is there any connection to a similar murder several years earlier in northern Norway? The possibility that the police have a serial killer on their hands adds even greater urgency to finding him before he has the chance to strike again.

Meanwhile, Frølich also has to grapple with the case of a beautiful young Ugandan student, who arrived in Norway to attend a university summer school but quickly went missing. Under pressure to downgrade the importance of this investigation, he finds it dredging up distressing memories of a night many years ago, that led to his long estrangement from Karl Anders.

As Faithless is not the first book in the series, there's an established back story to the flawed relationships between the characters: Frølich, Gunnarstranda, and their co-workers Lena Stigersand, Mustafa Rindal and Emil Yttergjerde. Their methods of policing rely heavily on instinct; they gossip between themselves and try to palm off the banalest of tasks. Yttergjerde is routinely too busy studying the pictures in Autocar to answer the phone. The bubbling undercurrents become clearly discernible as you read, and the novel still works as a standalone.

The narrative crackles with atmosphere; the oppressive heat and long sunshine hours of an unusually warm Norwegian summer swelter and daze its protagonists, only breaking in a symbolically dramatic storm towards the end. And, reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus thrillers, music adds an important element;  Frølich listens to the Dandy Warhols while Gunnarstranda favours Mack the Knife as sung by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett. 


Faithless is an elaborately plotted, well-constructed and gratifying read that questions the basis of friendship and reflects on wrong actions being taken for the right reasons. Dahl always has a confident grasp of his material, even while he is demonstrating the eggshell-thin fragility of the line between good and evil.

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett) is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format on 15 May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre Review: Escaped Alone at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


It’s all too easy to dismiss four women of 70 years or more, sitting in a garden on a summer’s afternoon. At this time of life, women are often condemned to a cloak of creeping invisibility – good for a little childcare, but otherwise functionally irrelevant. In a compelling 50 minutes, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone turns this trope on its head; enriching her all-female cast with profound interior lives and the jaggedly recurrent theme of an apocalypse, as told by an elderly woman sporting baggy leggings and a self-inflicted haircut.

It begins with Linda Bassett as the seemingly unshakeable Mrs Jarrett, spotting three women she vaguely knows behind a high garden fence, and popping through the gate to join them. After hardly a murmur, she’s accepted by the others; Deborah Findlay’s Sally, who used to work in medicine but whose charming exterior masks an extreme aversion to cats; phlegmatic ex-hairdresser Vi (June Watson), who doesn’t like kitchens any more for murderous reasons that will become apparent and shy retired office worker Lena (Kika Markham), who thinks it would be better to be in an empty room because ‘then there’s fewer things to mean nothing at all’.

Under a blue sky, they sit and chat about grand-children and TV serials, but their conversation is elliptical, sentences unfinished and pauses non-naturalistic. Then, as the others fade away into darkness, each woman has their own moment in the spotlight to portray their innermost thoughts and deepest anxieties. When it’s her turn, Mrs Jarrett is the least articulate, only able to utter of her ‘terrible rage’.

Her words, it seems, have already been spat out in the episodic retellings that punctuate proceedings; director James Macdonald combines with designer Miriam Buether, as he did in The Father, to create a sharp blackness framed by a coil of sputtering light, in stark contrast to the serenity of the garden. Here, Mrs Jarrett speaks of an apocalypse; ‘songs were sung until dry throats caused the end of speech’; ‘the obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers’. She conjures up a dystopia that Margaret Atwood might be proud of, but a bewildering one; is this a parallel universe or a prediction of future destruction? Churchill leaves it to her audience to decide.

As an established director of her plays, Macdonald knows how to bring out Churchill’s playful moments, too; in one joyous scene, the perfectly attuned cast sing The Crystals’ 1960s hit Da Doo Ron Ron, as well as discussing aspirations of flying to Japan. These women possess authority, look forwards as well as backwards in their lives and encompass both the domestic and the anarchic. Escaped Alone may be short, often perplexing and obscure, but long after you’ve left the theatre, it still contains a whole world of complexity to contemplate.

Reviewed on 22 March 2017 | Image: Johan Persson


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Book Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

In Six Stories, Matt Wesolowski tears apart the traditional narrative thread of murder mystery and challenges the reader to pull it back together, piece by piece.


The unexplained death of a teenager in remote woodlands twenty years ago is the subject of investigative journalist Scott King's latest series of podcasts. Tom Jeffries' body was found near an outward bound centre in Northumberland's haunting Scarclaw Fell. The official verdict was misadventure, but too much is still unknown.

Concealing his identity, the enigmatic King specializes in investigating unsolved cases and in six podcasts, interviews those closest to Tom during that fateful excursion to the fell. With each episode, he examines different testimonies of events leading up to Tom's disappearance, recounted by witnesses from Derek, the trip's organiser, to Harry, the centre owner's son, who stumbled across the body a year later.

King builds a picture of tension among a group of teenagers; drug and alcohol misuse, petty jealousy and resentment. But, does this reflect the normal behaviour of a typical group of young people, or something more sinister? What is the involvement of vulnerable local misfit Haris Novak, initially the prime suspect in the case? And is there any truth in the tales of horrific supernatural encounters with a creature known locally as the Beast of Belkeld?

As the podcasts become an Internet cult sensation, the story twists with insidious revelations that wrong foot and unsettle the reader, leading to an explosive final instalment that calls into question the whole basis of what's gone before.


What English tutor Wesolowski has created in his debut novel is a tense, dark tale of destruction, delivered with innovative style. Initially, the narrative in its podcast format with frequent changes of viewpoint and typography can be difficult to unpick, although there's no doubt it would make an instantly accessible audio book. However, it's worth sticking with the printed version, not only for the eerie beauty of its cover but also because you become drawn ever deeper into the secrets unlocked in each suspenseful episode and finally gratified by Six Stories' devastating ending.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

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.