Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


With controversy over Trump-as-Caesar raging in New York, the latest collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and its theatre school seems set on a similar theme. As an examination of a society in the process of destroying itself, their contemporary production of Julius Caesar feels at least as relevant to the political situation on this side of the pond.

Following on from last year’s King Lear, which combined the experience of Timothy West and Stephanie Cole with the zestful enthusiasm of 2016’s new graduates, this year’s choice Julius Caesar sees Julian Glover in the eponymous role. Lynn Farleigh is Calpurnia and John Hartoch the ‘beware the Ides of March’ Soothsayer, with all other roles played by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 2017 students.

The sleek, statesman-like dignity of Glover’s proud Caesar, returning to Rome in triumph from battle, is in stark contrast to the impassioned urgency of the youthful conspirators led by Cassius (Edward Stone) as they seek to recruit Caesar’s loyal friend Brutus (Freddie Bowerman) to their cause.

Stone is a suitably urbane Cassius, while Bowerman’s central performance as Brutus is one of convincing nuance and plausible, if ill-conceived, moral reasoning, as he wrestles with his conscience. Finally, we see him persuaded of his patriotic duty to participate in Caesar’s assassination, to prevent the harm that might be inflicted in future on the people of Rome.

Ross O’Donnellan’s Mark Antony is commanding, while other performances of note include Eleanor House’s waspish Casca and Rosie Gray’s silver-tongued Decia. The assassination plays out as a viscerally ritualistic orgy, its power-suited perpetrators stunned and triumphant in the brutality of their actions. This is neatly juxtaposed with the fizzing unpredictability of the street protestors in tracksuit tops and leggings, exploding like Molotov cocktails in the spaces around the auditorium, storming the stage, spraying graffiti and switching allegiances back and forth in the duration of a single speech.

The talents of the theatre school students are also much in evidence in the production’s distinctive creative design. The simple monolithic panels of Sarah Mercadé’s set, sparingly accessorised to accommodate scene changes from a raging storm to Caesar’s residence, combines with Jessica Edkins’ raucous sound design – the sirens and gunshots of approaching mob rule – and strong, mood-intensifying lighting from Paul Pyant.

After the interval, there is a little space for quiet contemplation as Caesar’s ghost revisits the battle-ground of the warring factions and Brutus reflects upon his deeds. Then the battle scenes erupt into life and suicidal recriminations begin. It’s to the young company’s credit that this phase of the play, so often messy and anti-climactic, is held together with taut and crisp action.

Subtle this Julius Caesar generally isn’t and clarity of verse may be occasionally lost in the melee, but under Simon Dormandy’s direction it never lets up on the engrossing entertainment. This energetic production not only showcases the best of Bristol’s emerging talents and gives them the chance to learn from established practitioners, it also proves thought-provoking and relevant in its own right.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Simon Purse


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Theatre Review: While We're Here at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


A typical suburban living room in Havant plays host to Barney Norris’s latest excursion into the lives of the lonely and unfulfilled. Carol and Eddie were lovers many years ago and meeting up again, seemingly by chance, she takes him in; no small gesture for Carol, whose existence has become contained. She has remained in one place, ‘hefted like sheep’ to her surroundings, while Eddie has drifted – to Nigeria and back again. She has a broken marriage and a daughter too busy to talk to her or visit; his whole life is packed up in a few supermarket carrier bags. There’s so much pain etched under the surface of both lives, at times it’s hard to look.

This is Norris’s heartland. He’s already been recognised for the success of his previous plays with theatre company Up In Arms; Eventide toured to great acclaim to the Tobacco Factory’s Brewery Theatre in 2015. He’s recently published his first novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, exploring intersecting lives in the aftermath of a car crash in Salisbury. Now While We’re Here, delicately directed by Alice Hamilton, once again examines the minutiae of humdrum lives; two characters trapped like rabbits in the headlights of previous hurt and disappointments. Awkward and uncertain but finding a spark still exists between them, they begin to circle tentatively around where this might lead – if only they could let it.

It’s a relationship played out with studied and detailed tenderness by the two actors. Tessa Peake-Jones portrays Carol’s every fleeting emotion with naturalistic clarity, her compassion for Eddie’s plight and desire to reach out curtailed by the instinct to protect herself. She’s been hurt by relationships before, particularly this one: “I know where I am on my own,” she declares.

Andrew French as Eddie still has glimmers of the charismatic swagger he must have carried as a young man, a façade that peels away in crucial moments to reveal the torment beneath. He’s worn down by the burden of never having belonged; a black child fostered by white parents, always searching for his roots, denied the care he needs by a tick-box NHS system he never really fitted.

While We’re Here is an intensely character-driven, intimately drawn play that encompasses all the nuances of everyday existence. In the larger Factory Theatre, it does feel as though it loses some of the potency of a small studio space; the audience is observing the minuscule shifts in Carol’s relationship with Eddie at a distance, as if through glass, rather than taking a seat in her living room. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Eventide, then this is still another Up In Arms production (co-produced with the Bush Theatre and Farnham Maltings) of rare empathy, the play’s deceptively simple, heart-wrenching ending emphasising the quiet drama of the human condition.

Reviewed on 9 June 2017 | Image: Mark Douet


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

There may be no shortage of blockbuster psychological thrillers around at the moment, but - let's face it - they're not always all that well written. Many rely not so much on plot twists as complete reversals of fortune to keep readers turning the pages. It may work in the short-term, but feels manipulative and ends up distancing the story from any contact with reality.

Of course, there are exceptions and I'd count among those Liz Nugent's gripping Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait, as well as Amanda Jennings' tenderly affecting In Her Wake. And now there's another title to add to this list of exceptional domestic noir: Exquisite, the debut thriller from Sarah Stovell.



The story revolves around two women: Bo Luxton, best-selling author with a family and home in the Lake District and 25-year-old Alice Dark, a talented young drifter with a first class degree in English Literature and a dead-end boyfriend. They meet at a writers' retreat in Northumberland; Bo is teaching and Alice is the most promising of her students, reminding Bo of her younger self. During the week, Bo takes Alice under her wing, leaving the starstruck Alice with a dread of returning home to Brighton:
This train was the hinge between the creative, seductive week I'd just had and the life I was going back to. Already I could feel my spirits starting to sag. Jake the Waster was waiting for me, half-drunk on Special Brew, his clothes unwashed, tobacco down his trousers. I wasn't sure I could bear it.
A flood of emails builds intensity. Bo invites Alice to stay with her. After the visit it's clear their friendship is tipping into obsession:
Upstairs the spare room stood empty and bare, nothing left of Alice save the wrinkle of an untidy bedspread. I took the duvet cover off and started a wash pile in the middle of the room. I could smell her in the bed linen - the warm, broken and beautiful heart of her, ingrained in the fibres. And I couldn't help myself: I stood and stared at the empty space on the mattress, knowing her imprint would be fixed in the memory foam below; and then I climbed into the bed, curled up and wept. 
The women take turns to narrate sections of the book; though there are twists, Stovell's novel is primarily an examination of their increasingly sinister relationship. Has their closeness cascaded into a life-changing affair? Who is telling the truth and whose writing the fiction of an unreliable narrator? Their versions of events vary ever more markedly as the story unfolds, only fusing in their recollection of one single, memorable night.

Bo previously had a stalker, which means her husband opens all the post and reads her emails, but it's unclear whether she was really a victim or the puppeteer pulling the strings. Both women have shadows in their past; unreliable mothers, broken relationships, failed attempts to settle down. It's what draws them together and ultimately threatens to tear them apart. Stovell keeps her readers guessing to the end; each section begins with a narrative from a women's prison in Yorkshire, but it's impossible to discern whether the words belong to Alice or Bo.

Exquisite is a well-constructed psychological novel with flawed but believable characters. There's never any sense of being short-changed; I found myself devouring Stovell's intriguing, incisive prose in a couple of sittings. It's a compelling debut thriller from a creative writing lecturer who has obviously put her own teaching to good use.

Exquisite is published in paperback in the UK by Orenda Books on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to Karen and Anne at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre Review: Medea at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



Of the many interpretations of the classical Greek myth of Medea, only Euripides’ version has survived in full. A woman driven to extremes, delivering the ultimate act of vengeance on the man who betrayed her for another, and consequently demonised as an unnatural she-devil.

George Mann, director of Bristol Old Vic’s bold new all-female staging, seeks an alternative portrayal. His vision is of a woman who rises above the wrongs heaped on her by her husband; seeking justice but, above all, equality. To relate this to a modern audience, Mann’s production intertwines Medea’s ancient story with a contemporary tale of newly single mum Maddy, written by Chino Odimba.

While Maddy’s story of her bullying ex-army husband Jack’s affair begins in spoken word, the lines from Euripides are sung, power-ballad style, in a musical fusion co-composed by the company and Jon Nicholls. African influences permeate the Greek. Performed by a young company of six, this sounds like it shouldn’t work but, on balance, it does. The frame story may be a little crudely grafted onto the classical tale at times, but as the twin narratives progress there’s an increasing fluidity bridging old and new.

In large part this is due to a magnificent central performance from Akiya Henry, as both down-trodden Maddy from Gloucester, drawing strength from a discovered copy of the translated text, and the wrathful Medea. Henry embodies both vulnerability and regal power in equal measure, seamlessly portraying the transformation between the two. Stephanie Levi-John as Jack and Medea’s husband Jason struts the stage full of bombast and blather, and there’s strong support from the committed chorus – Michelle Fox, Eleanor Jackson, Kezrena James and Jessica Temple – creating rainfall with finger-clicks and chanting unearthly acapella harmonies as they switch between characters.

Shizuka Hariu’s glossy white set builds ingeniously through the piece, from minimalist bed to towering stairway, in line with Medea’s transcendence. In the second half, the question of the story’s resolution looms large. Will Maddy’s revenge embody the violence of Medea’s wrath? The potential for anti-climax is huge and it’s all credit to the company that, with the dizzying heights of Mount Olympus and a final lingering chorus, there comes a palpable sense of justice being soundly delivered.

Mann’s Medea may not quite possess the clarity and dynamic physicality of his previous Bristol Old Vic work Pink Mist, but what emerges here is a tantalising, occasionally frustrating but more frequently illuminating hybrid of stories and styles, that brings an original focus and feminist resilience to a classical tale of retribution.

Reviewed on 11 May 2017 | Image: Jack Offord


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Book Review: Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe

After tackling the dictatorship of the professional kitchen in his Costa shortlisted debut Chop Chop, Simon Wroe sets his sights on a different sort of tyranny. Here Comes Trouble, his second novel, explores abuse of power on a state-sponsored scale in the fictitious crackpot nation of Kyrzbekistan. A toxic mix of Russian oligarchs, hamstrung press and far-right populism makes this a parable for our turbulent times. But it's also a coming of age tale that combines hormonal confusion with acerbic observation, conjuring up a darkly humorous world brimful of cataclysmic absurdity.



Expelled from school for an act of rule breaking, 16-year-old Ellis Dau is sent to work at the Chronicle. His father Cornelius is editor of this last remaining remnant of a free press, overseeing a crew of squabbling reporters and unbowed in his determination to speak truth to power. Not that Ellis is initially all that impressed:
Journalism, as far as he was concerned, was a lot of people making a big deal out of stuff that wasn't a big deal. That, or they squashed an actual big deal into a small space, or said the big deal was exactly this or that, or claimed they were experts on the big deal with the absolute definitive take when they'd first heard about it five minutes ago. Or they used the big deal to flog their own hobby horses because when you thought about it wasn't this what the big deal was actually about. And all the while, in every instance, they pretended the big deal was not chaotic and constantly changing but fixed and orderly, which was never true or in any way the case.  
Ellis' interests consist of gaining underage access to the Chicago Pub with his best mate Vincent and trailing round after Joan, the beautiful daughter of a local business magnate. But a brick through the office window, with a cryptic misspelled message wrapped around it, wakes him from his teenage solipsism; the newspaper and all it represents is under threat. Now it's down to Ellis to make a stand and, with the narrative written from his perspective, he proves to be an endearing, doubt-filled protagonist.

Here Comes Trouble is based on Wroe's experiences in accompanying reporters for the online news site kloop.kg on their stories. He may take on the serious misuse of power, but isn't afraid to poke fun at the ludicrous logic of its perpetrators. Corrupt law enforcers spout their own crazy reasons why free speech is the real enemy of the people and even the shocking spectacle of a summary execution is delivered with a sideswipe of farce.

The far right nationalist Horsemen movement is lethal and inept in equal measure:
'Burn the flag, Rolo,' said Grotz.
An acned henchman stepped forward, tricolour flag in his hands. 'Take this, Russians', he said.
That's the Dutch flag,' said Joan. 
'I don't think so,' said Grotz.
'It is,' said Joan.
Grotz, seeing Rolo falter, told him, 'Don't listen to her. Ignore this negative thinking. Be the bigger person.'
Rolo lit one corner and the flag went up.
'See how foreigners are?' Grotz asked his men. 'It's always someone else's fault. "That's not our flag." They could have just gone along with it. Didn't have to be so difficult about it.' 
One misstep is that - as in Chop Chop - the few female characters, particularly Joan, feel underwritten. But there's a particular catharsis in laughing at events too close for comfort and Here Comes Trouble provides this in spades; a feel-good apocalypse for our times.


Here Comes Trouble is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Monday, 29 May 2017

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

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


The Ustinov Studio, under artistic director Laurence Boswell, has garnered a well-deserved reputation for unearthing significant international works to present to a British audience – and then attracting top-flight actors to appear in them. Productions like The Father, with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role, have transferred to London’s West End and beyond. And yet, there’s still been a noticeable buzz, in anticipation of Academy Award Winner F Murray Abraham’s appearance in Daniel Kehlmann’s comedy The Mentor.

Kehlmann is a literary phenomenon in Germany, particularly renowned for his novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), but this is the first time one of his plays, translated with a sure and light touch by Christopher Hampton, has been performed outside his native land.

Abraham plays Benjamin Rubin, an embittered writer who presented his seminal work to the world aged 24 – and has been in slow decline ever since. Having dabbled in novels and screenplays to cover the cost of homes and ex-wives, he’s now accepted the fee of 10,000 Euros from a cultural foundation to mentor young prodigy Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman). But, from the outset, this isn’t a harmonious relationship; Rubin swiftly discovers his mentee, described as ‘the voice of his generation’, far from feeling honoured, is being paid at the same rate.

Unlike his character, Abraham’s portrayal comes from an artist at the top of his game; full of depth and nuance with the subtlest of comic delivery. Rubin heaps demands – more pillows, Speyside malt, no television – on the foundation’s representative Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) as though he were a waiter, before demolishing the basis of Wegner’s work and setting his sights on the writer’s successful art historian wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick).

Abraham’s performance is matched by the rest of the cast, with Weyman and Frederick the epitome of a golden young couple – all light colours and chic accessories, in contrast with Rubin’s wardrobe of black – until Rubin throws a critical grenade in their path and uncovers the fault lines beneath the smooth exterior. Cullen’s Rudicek is a painfully convincing exploration of compromise, as a failed artist turned administrator, whose heart lies elsewhere.

Polly Sullivan’s light and shade design suggests a bucolic retreat, complete with flowering blossom, but the insistent chorus of frogs in the pond is an early indication that this is far from a haven of tranquillity.

There are obvious comparisons with Abraham’s film role as Salieri in Amadeus, although it’s unclear whether Wegner’s talent soars anywhere close to the genius of Mozart or is nothing more than pretentious drivel. As with Plastic, first play in the Ustinov’s season, The Mentor raises questions of life, art and ego; who sits as judge over artistic value in any endeavour? How much comes down to self-belief? At one stage, Gina tells her crestfallen husband, ‘even if he’s right, he won’t stay right’.

Of the two plays, it’s Plastic that examines the subject with greater complexity, but there are witty layers of challenging ambiguity to savour in The Mentor, too; does Wegner ever go on to award-winning heights, or is this, like so much, an illusion? Discover for yourself in this second accomplished and unmissable work in the Ustinov’s outstanding 2017 German season.

Reviewed on 13 April 2017 | Image: Simon Annand


Monday, 8 May 2017

Book Review: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Strap yourself in for a white-knuckle ride because Claymore Straker is back, in the third of Paul E. Hardisty's thrillers to feature the justice-seeking action hero. The Abrupt Physics of Dying saw Clay tackle environmental disaster and corporate corruption in Yemen, while by The Evolution of Fear,  he was fleeing for his life across Europe - in search of Rania, the woman he loves - only to become enmeshed in ecological devastation and murderous land grab on the divided island of Cyprus.

Now Reconciliation for the Dead takes us back to the beginning of Clay's story and his involvement as a callow young South African soldier in the Angolan border war of the 1980s. For those who've read the first two books, this is particularly satisfying; fleshing out events that shaped the flawed but driven man we've come to know, scarred both physically and mentally by the atrocities he witnessed. Yet, if this is your first encounter with Clay, the story still stands alone as an immersive and gripping thriller, that never lets up on the tension.


At the novel's opening, we find Clay returning to South Africa in the 1990s to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about events leading to his dishonourable discharge from the army and enforced exile. He has a debt to pay, to tell the truth on behalf of those who died for their beliefs. But, at the same time, he's forced to face up to his own actions 15 years earlier and to question whether he could have done more to save those he loved.

It's 1981 and the Cold War is at its height. As young paratroopers, Clay and his friend Eben are fighting the communist insurgency in Angola that threatens South Africa's Apartheid regime. Deep in enemy territory, they find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that undermines a previous unthinking faith in their country's cause. Bearing witness to ever greater and more visceral inhumanity, unable to stand by passively, they begin to reconsider their own allegiances. It sets them on a trail delving into a web of such unimaginable immorality, not only their own survival but that of an entire population is at risk.

What's really shocking is that the cold brutality depicted here is not the product of an unusually febrile and twisted mind, but, like Hardisty's previous books, based on true events. The level of detail from this ignominious period of South Africa's history is astonishing; from the terror and confusion of battle to the precise and horrific reasons for having specific items of equipment in a laboratory. It brings the story vividly to life; a corrupt regime doing whatever it can to protect its ideology. Those in positions of power killing without compunction to hold on to what they have. Faced with such ruthlessness, how far is Clay justified in using violence himself to defeat it?

Such philosophical questions raise Reconciliation for the Dead from being merely a hard-hitting, entertaining read to something more profound. It's interspersed with transcripts from Clay's interviews with the Commission; is he a reliable witness or has post-traumatic stress warped his memories and confused what really happened? The Commissioners seem divided; we find out little about them, but by their names discern they might be adopting different positions along ethnic lines.

There's less romantic distraction than in the first two books, with Rania only featuring at the beginning and end. Clay's relationship with fiancée Sara is unpromising - you can tell this, from the moment she visits him in the hospital and 'she looked heavier than he remembered her.' The most prominent female protagonist Vivian is a likely candidate but comes with her own troubled background and agenda.The storyline is all the better for it, concentrating instead on what Hardisty does best; tautly written, meticulously researched action and reaction in a spiraling collision of opposing forces, that has you hooked until the final page.


Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E.Hardisty is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30th May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.