Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Theatre Review: Wink at The Mission Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There’s a nostalgia to the opening of TopButton Theatre’s debut production Wink as video images from a previous decade, of two young boys and their families enjoying birthday treats, flitter across the central projection screen.

It seems to hark back to an innocence lost in an online world today awash with social media, easy-access porn and ubiquitous cat memes. A world that those two boys John and Mark, now teacher and pupil in a smart private secondary school, unquestioningly incorporate into their everyday lives.

Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s funny and intelligent dissection of the perils of negotiating online and offline relationships teeters at the boundaries of credibility plot-wise but sharply draws together its disparate strands into an affecting resolution. Mark (Gabriel Howell), having recently lost his father, idolises his French teacher John (Matt Harwood) and searches him out on Facebook. There Mark finds he can reinvent his own online identity and make a connection through the unlocked profile of John’s long-term partner Claire that has consequences far beyond his initial intentions.

In this exploration of modern-day male identity, both Mark and John are misfits in the world they inhabit. Mark, burdened by unspoken grief, only has his place in the school thanks to a sports scholarship. John approaches his job with a cynicism that papers over the cracks of his own insecurities, while casually cheating on Claire – often using text exchanges with one lover to fuel his passion for the other, all the while doubting the feelings and fidelity of both.

Faye Elvin’s direction brings strength and purpose to the piece, particularly in the sections of fast-paced, choreographed physicality as the actions of these two young men’s trajectories collide. A padded office chair is pivotal: propelled around the stage, connecting home with school, exchanging ownership as John and Mark’s fractured stories overlap and foreshadow each other. There’s neat use of projected images to communicate online screens and absent characters and an effectively integrated sound design, all by Harry Jerome.

In the tumult of words, some clarity of dialogue is occasionally lost, especially in the opening sequences. Aside from this, both Howell and Harwood are totally convincing and engaging in their portrayals of young men confused by the complexities of life where so much is available at the touch of a button: searching for identity both online and off, envying the outside of other people’s lives while struggling with the inside of their own.

TopButton’s stated mission is to promote discussion around subject areas that are often neglected, such as men’s mental health, indeed in developing this project they have worked with the charities Mind and Dyslexia in Action. This layered and thought-provoking production of Wink proves they are off to a very promising start.

Reviewed on 25 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Book Review: The Other Twin by L V Hay

In a post-truth world, it becomes increasingly impossible to define a single reality. But there are occasions - like when your sister has fallen to her death from a bridge in mysterious circumstances, for example - when it is imperative to discover what really happened.

This is the premise of L V Hay's The Other Twin, as Poppy - troubled and estranged from her family for reasons that are initially unclear - finds out that her younger sibling India is dead. Returning to her home in Brighton for the first time in years, she comes face to face with parents who are unravelling and traces of her sister - in her online blog and digital communications - that are difficult to reconcile with the innocent girl Poppy once knew.

But this world of social media cloaks a tangled web of relationships as old as time itself - full of jealousy, manipulation and deceit. India had uncovered a scandal - so it seems - that she alludes to in online posts full of references to fairy tale characters such as the Frog King, the Wicked Witch and the Wolf.

The narrative is peppered with definitions of millenial slang, for example:
Bitch slap (noun. A blow with an open hand. Related words: strike, whack)
as well as text messaging and Facebook profiles. But in essence, while presenting multiple viewpoints, the contemporary setting disguises a good old fashioned whodunnit that peels back the layers of a suburban existence to reveal its dark, beating heart. Who is Jenny and why was India always so protective of her? Why did India make such an enemy of JoJo, previously her best friend? And can Poppy trust that her passionately resurrected relationship with former boyfriend Matthew - not to mention his evasive twin sister Ana - is all that it seems?

It's a sultry, sexy tale that tantalises as it witholds. There are implausible moments and false leads aplenty, but the enjoyment and anticipation never diminishes in this taut and fast-paced thriller.

The Other Twin was published on 1 August 2017 in paperback by Orenda Books. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre Review: Goldilock, Stock & Three Smoking Bears at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

It may be July, but that doesn’t stop The Wardrobe theatre company from reprising its 2015 Christmas show, this time in the Factory Theatre.

And why not, when this seasonally ubiquitous mash up of Guy Ritchie’s 1998 cockney gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy-tale has proved to be such a Bristolian hit.

Even if your recall of the original stories is too fuzzy to pick up all the self-referencing jokes, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this comic caper devised by director Adam Fuller and his four-strong cast. Goldilock (Emma Keaveney-Roys), a struggling East End market trader, finds herself short of cash and takes on a seemingly straightforward furniture delivery job for local mobster Vinnie (Andrew Kingston). Unwittingly, she becomes entangled in the seedy card-sharping underworld of gangland boss Harry (Harry Humberstone) and his sidekick Barry (Lotte Allan).

The four players blast their way through multiple roles as Goldilock seeks to recover a mistakenly appropriated chair from the dingy pad of three very privileged and drug-addled bears. Throw in a family of extreme Scottish porridge providers flogging hipster takeaway breakfasts and you have the recipe for multiple plot threads colliding with riotous results.

It’s all very meta, as Goldilock undoes her own storyline by questioning the physics behind the porridge’s drastic temperature variation and deciding her bed at home is more comfortable. Meanwhile, Ritchie’s slow-motion character introductions and card game sequences are ingeniously invoked with help from Edmund McKay and Ben Osborn’s lighting and sound design.

The cast maintains the madcap energy throughout, with only the occasional moment of quiet self-reflection pervading the succession of high-octane scene and costume changes. Keaveney-Roys keeps the complex narrative clear and strong while Humberstone excels in comedic physicality and characterisation. Harry’s ongoing bromance with Allan’s none-too-bright Barry is the show’s standout storyline, both hilarious and oddly touching in turn. The three bears – Winston, Rupe and Paddy – are similarly well-defined, with only the Scottish porridge makers outstaying their stage-time, never rising above the two-dimensional while seeming to add little to the plot.

Perhaps this is something to work on before the show continues its upward trajectory with runs at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and The Drum in Plymouth in December. It doesn’t detract overall though from a clever, silly and uproarious show that may be short on subtlety but is always long on laughs.

Reviewed on 21 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

Friday, 28 July 2017

Book Review: Dying to Live by Michael Stanley

Dying to Live is the latest thriller by South African writing duo Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) to feature Botswanan detective David 'Kubu' Bengu. You can read my review of Deadly Harvest, an earlier book in the series, by clicking on the title link.

This new instalment plunges straight into the sweltering heat of the Kalahari desert, where a Bushman's body is found near a road to the game reserve. Back in Botswana's capital Gaborone, where he is taken for an autopsy, a puzzle emerges. The deceased is white-haired, frail-boned and clearly very old, yet his internal organs appear to be those of a much younger man. What's more, there's a bullet lodged in one of his muscles - yet no sign of an entry wound.

Although the case is being investigated locally, Kubu can't help looking into it - especially when he feels inquiries are drawing to a premature close. He discovers the Bushman had been much sought after because of his oral storytelling abilities and profound knowledge of the Kalahari's healing plants - of particular interest to anthropologists, international drug companies and local witch doctors alike.

Once more, the narrative mixes police procedure with Kubu's home life - where his adopted daughter Nono, HIV positive from birth, is suffering from the complications of her condition. Kubu's mother advises traditional remedies but he and his wife Joy are determined that modern Western style treatments will prevail - until a crisis causes an unexpected rift between them.

Kubu's dedicated young colleague Samantha Khama begins investigating a separate mystery: the disappearance of a renowned witch doctor rumored to offer a powerful traditional medicine or muti promising eternal life. Then the Bushman's body is stolen from the morgue and the two cases begin to overlap. The detectives find themselves enmeshed in a complex web of greed, corruption and murder, spanning the continents as far as America and China and back again.

The vibrancy of Gaborone and insights into Botswanan life - the clash of ingrained traditional beliefs and modern thinking - once again provide a compelling backdrop. Kubu is as thoughtful and endearing a central character as ever, hiding his steely determination and incisive mind behind the guise of a family man and food-lover who rarely misses a meal, no matter what comes up - yearning for that second portion of bobotie or rifling through his office drawers for snacks. My only quibble is that the authors introduce a few too many new characters to grapple with late on in the plot, threatening to confuse what is otherwise another intriguing and involving slice of  'Sunshine Noir'.

Dying To Live is published on 30 July 2017 by Orenda Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Racing Demon at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Jonathan Church’s inaugural summer season for Bath’s Theatre Royal signalled changes from the moment his programme was revealed – without any hint of the usual Shakespeare or Coward. Instead, it opens with a revival of David Hare’s 1990 play Racing Demon, a meditation on the state of the Church of England, complete with a heavyweight cast.

The production takes a while to get into its stride. At its centre is Lionel Espy, played by David Haig, a priest who has essentially lost his faith but retains his conscience. He’s out tending to his south London flock at all hours – without wanting to specifically mention God or Jesus, for fear of putting them off. Haig, infinitely adaptable and always watchable, here portrays a tortured soul cloaked in the cassock of a self-effacing man of the people – more comfortable with A4 summaries of good intentions than specifics of sacrament and doctrine.

Contrast this with Paapa Essiedu’s firebrand young curate Tony, who has little patience with Lionel’s reticence and advocates an evangelical approach. Essiedu proves that his recent stellar trajectory has been no fluke as he portrays Tony’s single-minded insistence on delivering change while giving glimpses of inner conflict. He’s all direct action and filling the pews, at the expense of Christian tolerance in his personal relationships, especially with his forbearing partner Frances (Rebecca Night).

It’s difficult to know where Night can go with Frances, less of a character in her own right and more of a canvas for others to project upon – as is Lionel’s neglected wife Heather, played by Amanda Root, bringing a heartbreaking reticence to the role. But ultimately, in a church that in the 1990s is baulking at ordaining women bishops, it’s all about the men.

Here, there’s much to admire, both in the profound performances and David Hare’s incisive writing that juxtaposes rival forces in a Church struggling to maintain its position. The soliloquies, as each character shares their innermost thoughts with God, are revealing and affecting. Arguments intensify from the theological to the personal as the authoritarian Bishop of Southwark (Anthony Calf) seeks to enforce his will. There’s a light-hearted interlude as Lionel’s colleagues Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon (Sam Alexander) and Harry Henderson (Ian Gelder) defend his livelihood while drinking too much tequila at the Savoy. Most poignant of all are the moments when Tony re-examines his shattered childhood and Harry tranquilly comes to terms with the impossibility of his own situation, while still encouraging Lionel to fight.

Simon Higlett’s understated and subtly lit design effectively evokes the surroundings of church and synod, yet it does feel as though the play is creaking a little at the seams, compared with issues tackled so astutely in the recent television sitcom Rev. Women’s ordination and homosexuality remain contentious in some quarters but events have moved on – to discussions of same-sex marriage and scandals centring around abuse. Racing Demon is a work that remains firmly set in 1990, harder to relate to now than some of Hare’s other plays of the era, such as his dissection of the political establishment in The Absence of War. Seen through this prism, though, it remains a compelling examination of personal and institutional turmoil.

Reviewed on 29 June 2017 | Image: Nobby Clark

Monday, 24 July 2017

Ballet Review: Coppélia at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Based on the stories of E T A Hoffmann, Coppélia is the lightest and most fragile of confections; the tale of a mechanical doll who entrances and enrages in equal measure. Yet the enchantment of this enduringly popular 19th Century work is underscored by this classical production from Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Not for this company a touring set of a few two-dimensional scenery flats; their Coppélia is a sumptuous creation of pastoral idyll and opulent costumes, designed by the late Peter Farmer and delivered to Bristol by a fleet of articulated lorries. There’s a complete (and lengthy at times) scene change between each of the three Acts.

It’s an exquisite backdrop for the story to unfold, as Swanilda (Céline Gittens) meets her lover Franz (Tyrone Singleton) in the village square, only to find him distracted by the beautiful lifelike doll that eccentric toymaker Dr Coppélius (Michael O’Hare) has placed on his balcony. Gittens is a beguiling Swanilda, her dancing lyrical and expressive, in complete control of the technical challenges of the role. Her mime is full of a spurned sweetheart’s fury as she admonishes her flirtatious fiancé and questions his faithfulness, followed by darting mischief as she and her nervous friends steal into the toymaker’s workshop to find her mysterious rival.

Gittens' performance is matched by Singleton’s charismatic Franz, more loveable rogue than love rat, despite his roving eye. Singleton dances with strength and fluidity and his on-stage chemistry with Gittens is persuasive throughout. This is combined with an assured comedic touch as he tiptoes across the village square with a ladder to climb up to Coppélia’s balcony, then ineffectually tries to evade capture by the angry Doctor.

The story may be featherweight and the outcome never in doubt, yet Delibes’ incurably romantic score, sensitively interpreted by the Birmingham Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy, is impossible to resist. The central second Act of magical discovery in the toymaker’s workshop is captivating, as the individual dolls are wound up and come to life and Coppélius tries to capture Franz’s spirit to transform his most prized creation into a living, breathing woman.

No less impressive are the set piece dances; the gypsies are a whirl of scarlet and green and the Eastern European Mazurkas and Czárdáses a highlight of Act I. Daria Stanciulescu is imposing as the gypsy temptress who dances with Franz despite Swanilda’s protests. Equally spectacular is the succession of celebratory dances in Act III’s Masque, particularly the gravity-defying Call to Arms.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s uplifting and technically assured production embraces the traditional interpretation of Coppélia derived from Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti’s late 19th Century choreography. It’s a spellbinding setting for family-friendly comedy and fairy-tale devilry, beautifully told through ravishing colour, passionate dancing, and unashamed romance.

Reviewed on 28 June 2017 | Image: Andrew Ross

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

If it’s light-hearted escapist entertainment you’re after then the jazz age Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Strictly Come Dancing’s Joanne Clifton asserting her musical theatre credentials in the title role, could just fit the bill.

Be warned though, around the edges, it does feel dated. In this revival of the 2002 musical, based on the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Millie Dillmount from Kansas arrives in the 1920s metropolis of New York. Determined to be a ‘modern’ girl, she undergoes a rapid flapper makeover – all bobbed hair and fringed hemline – takes a room in a women-only hotel and decides her future lies in getting a job that will allow her to marry the boss.

Most charmingly, she seems to spend her time falling for the enticing but impecunious Jimmy Smith, played by a debonair Sam Barrett, instead. Less charmingly, there’s a questionable sub-plot centring around white slavery that involves the hotel’s proprietor Mrs Meers (Lucas Rush) and two Chinese helpers (Nick Len and Andy Yau). These scenes have their comedic moments but don’t sit comfortably with the present day, either in the storyline or racial stereotyping.

Clifton proves she can sing and act as well as dance with pleasing on-stage presence – although her Millie, like many of the production’s characters under Racky Plews’ direction, is a broad-brush stroke creation veering towards the overly-dramatic. One shining exception to this is Jenny Fitzpatrick as Muzzy Van Hossmere, who elevates the closing moments of the first half with her luminous performance of Only in New York. Many of the show’s amusing highlights involve Graham MacDuff as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon: dictating letters at speed, falling head-over-heels in love and portraying a flailing comedy drunk with all the co-ordination of a flamingo on an ice-rink.

At times, the pacing flags and scenes feel protracted, particularly in Act One. It’s the ensemble numbers that really zing with clever choreography; the title song Thoroughly Modern Millie is an obvious highlight. Then there’s the desk-dancing, swivelling stenographers of Millie’s workplace and Forget About the Boy, the rousing opening number in Act Two.

The colourful and glittery sequinned flapper costumes look as though they’ve been borrowed straight from Strictly’s wardrobe. Morgan Large’s art deco set neatly captures the New York skyline as well as doubling as a hotel lobby and workplace, even if by the end it feels as though it has run out of surprises. But the small surtitles, providing occasional Chinese translation, are both a distraction and difficult to read in a large venue and, on press night, there are some occasional problems with clarity of sound.

If Thoroughly Modern Millie is not generally held up as a classic of musical theatre, then this production will do little to alter that view. Overlook certain aspects of the plot though and it does provide plenty of good old-fashioned entertainment and a toe-tapping distraction from current reality.

Reviewed on 20 June 2017 | Image: Darren Bell