Monday, 6 July 2015

Gloriator at the Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

If there was ever an award for the best use of cardboard in a show, it would have to go to Gloriator, a supremely silly reinvention of the Oscar-winning film Gladiator by French/English female comedy duo Spitz & Co. The set and many of the props and costumes – from Roman armour to Emperor’s laurel wreath – have been constructed out of cast-off boxes in a blaze of inspired recycling.

The laughter begins early on, as hapless tour manager Josephine sells lottery tickets to support French actress Gloria Delaneuf’s mission to bring the arts to a deprived community in the depths of the Kungalunga jungle. Apparently, Gloria is a household name in France and Josephine gives us a short presentation of her most famous films (projected, of course, on to cardboard) before the icon herself sweeps imperiously on stage, announcing she will be re-enacting the role made famous by Russell Crowe, while giving greater voice to other previously overlooked female characters in the film.

There then follows an inventive and eye-moppingly funny play-within-a-play, full of clowning, mime and physical comedy, as a just-about recognisable version of the story is performed. The cardboard is supplemented by a flurry of wigs, sackcloth and a nowhere-to-hide white leotard; whether bedecked in a bear costume or stripped down to their underwear, this duo displays great on-stage chemistry and an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves. Pauline Morel as Gloria maintains a comical hauteur throughout; she issues forth a stream of commands to Susie Donkin’s puppyishly enthusiastic – but often ineffective – Josephine, who rushes around providing costumes and props, mopping up spills, translating Gloria’s French and playing all the minor roles from horse to ghostly visitor. 

They’re not afraid to interact with the audience, either. "Is he a plant?" wonders my teenage daughter, as a young man called James is given both the women’s phone numbers in a subversive act of love rivalry on Josephine’s part. It’s his birthday and, invited onto the stage for a crucial scene, he’s rewarded with an unrehearsed chorus of Happy Birthday from an appreciative audience at the end. 

Silliness seems to come as naturally as breathing to this show; there’s a convincing appearance of anarchic spontaneity which must belie all the thought and timing that’s gone into its creation. Gloriator is like the workout for the facial muscles it at one stage portrays – on the way home, I realise mine are still aching from the relentless laughter of the last hour. 

Reviewed on 17th June 2015. Photo courtesy of Spitz &Co.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Book Extract: The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland

You may already know Jonathan Freedland from his journalism in The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle. Or, like me, you may be a devotee of The Long View on Radio 4, a programme where he takes contemporary events and seeks out their historic parallels. 

What you might not realise (well I didn't, until now) is that Freedland, who also has a track record of writing best-selling thrillers as Sam Bourne, has penned a novel under his own name. Journalists are often able in fiction to expand upon a premise they might be prevented from exploring in fact, and this makes The 3rd Woman (published on 2nd July by HarperCollins) - with its backdrop of the inexorable rise of China as a world power - all the more intriguing.  

Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing lies and corruption, but never thought she'd be investigating her own sister's murder. She refuses to accept the official police line that Abigail's death was an isolated crime and uncovers evidence that suggests Abi was the third victim in a series of killings hushed up by the US government. 

I haven't read The 3rd Woman yet (my review copy was lost in the post), but this thrilling extract from Chapter Three really has me hooked:

Jeff waited while she threw on the first clothes she could find before leading her to his car. He spoke throughout, telling her what he knew but she digested almost none of it. The only words she heard were the ones that replayed themselves over and over. It’s your sister. Abigail. She’s been found dead.
She was plagued by pictures of Abigail as a child. No matter how hard she tried, she could not see her sister as an adult. One image recurred more than any other: Abigail aged five or six, clutching the doll Maddy herself had once played with, that had, like everything else, been handed down from sister to sister to sister. And in her head, variations on a sentence that would not quite form itself: I let you down, Abigail. I let it happen again. It was never meant to happen again.
They had been driving less than ten minutes when Maddy suddenly sat bolt-upright, heart pounding. It took a moment for her to understand. Even if only for a few seconds, she had fallen asleep. Microsleeps, they called them. They happened to all insomniacs. She knew she was especially vulnerable after a shock; it could prompt her system to shut down. It had happened once in college, after some jerk she had fallen for dumped her, the pain sending her into brief unconsciousness.
Arriving at LAPD headquarters helped. Like a muscle memory, she knew how to walk and talk and carry herself here. She shook off Jeff’s attempts to guide her like the walking wounded, a hand on her waist. She made for the entrance, determined to function like Madison Webb, reporter.
Later she would struggle to remember the exact sequence of those next few hours, even though individual moments were etched in her memory. She remembered pleading with Jeff, asking him to pull whatever strings he could to break the usual protocol and allow her to visit the coroner’s office. Once there, she would never forget the grey-white sheet pulled back to reveal the frozen mask of her sister’s face, her lips a faded purple now, though Maddy had been told they were cold and blue when Abigail’s housemate had found her. Nor would she forget the way the doctor on duty had lifted her sister’s right arm, as casually as if it were the limb of a manne­quin, gesturing to a fresh needle mark. And she would never forget his words, dully announcing to her the provisional verdict based on the state of the body when found: that the deceased had died of a drugs overdose, specifically caused by a massive injection of heroin into the bloodstream.
A silent, glared rebuke from Jeff had prompted the physician to apologize for his use of ‘the deceased’ about a woman who until a few hours ago had only ever been known as Abigail – a vital, joyful, beautiful force of nature. But there was no room in Maddy’s heart for anger about that. She was too numb to feel anything as direct as anger. Besides, she had covered enough murders to know that that was how death worked. You could be energetic, smart and sexy, an Olympic athlete or a Nobel-prize-winning genius, but it made no difference: within a moment you became meat on a slab. The staff in the coroner’s office spoke and acted the way they did because that was all they were looking at. They couldn’t see Abigail. They could only see a corpse.
Finally, Jeff ensured Madison got to meet the detective assigned to the case, Barbara Miller, a former partner of his. Brisk and businesslike, she gave them an initial briefing, describing the way Abigail’s body had been discovered: lying straight on the floor, on her back. An initial, brief search of the apartment could not confirm any forced entry. There were a few marks on the neck and back, but nothing that suggested a struggle.
It was past four in the morning when Maddy left, Jeff still at her side.
‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice a whisper.
‘You don’t have to thank me. You’ve just had the most terrible shock a person can have.’
‘I don’t believe it, you know.’
‘I know. It’s impossible to take in.’ He opened the passenger door for her, touching her elbow as he eased her into the seat.
‘I mean, I don’t believe it. Not a single fucking word of it.’
‘Of what?’
‘What your friend the detective was implying. In there.’
‘What was she implying?’
‘Come on, Jeff. No “confirmed” sign of forced entry. “Nothing to suggest a struggle.” I used to write that shit. We all know what it means. It means your friend thinks this was an “accident”.’ Maddy indicated quote marks with her eyebrows.
‘I don’t—’
‘I’ve seen that look you guys get when you talk about this stuff. She’s made up her mind that this was some kind of druggie sex game that went wrong.’
‘She didn’t say that.’
‘She didn’t have to. No forced entry, no struggle: it means consent. But I’m telling you, I know my sister, Jeff. I know who she is. She teaches elementary school, for Christ’s sake. She is not a fucking junkie.’
Jeff said nothing, so Maddy said it for him. ‘She was murdered, Jeff. Not killed by accident. Murdered. Someone murdered my baby sister.’
Then the words she thought but did not say out loud: I will find out who did this to you, Abigail. I broke one promise to you, but I will not break this one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing this extract from The 3rd Woman, to be published on 2nd July 2015. Photo of Jonathan Freedland by Philippa Gedge.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Theatre Review: Current Location at The Trinity Centre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

You might be offered orange juice and cake on entering the light, bright space of the Trinity Centre, but there's little of the welcoming church hall feel to FellSwoop Theatre's adaptation of Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s Current Location. Written in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the tone is apocalyptic from the start, as choir members gathering for rehearsal discuss the rumours of their village’s destruction; that the blue cloud seen in the distance could be fulfilling an ancient prophecy of disaster, as the rainfall and drinking water from the local lake begin to turn toxic.
There may be a storm gathering around them, but day-to-day life in the village still carries on. Using a naturalistic style and minimal props of a few folding chairs and a functional table, the all-female cast displays a range of reactions to the impending doom; from a compulsive need for discussion to out-and-out denial. On the brink of disaster, each one finds their own precarious way of coping, until their familiar foursome is disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer – albeit one who has lived in the village all her life. Hannah unsettles existing relationships and increases anxiety with the questions she raises and each member of the group must find a solution to her intrusion and a means of suppressing the fear she creates.
Ranged along both sides of the long, tall room the audience follows the dialogue that pings back and forth like spectators in a catastrophic tennis match. It’s an immersive experience, enhanced by Ben Osborn’s evocative, original soundscape, but one which seems closer to science fiction than reality for us, despite extensive rewriting. For Okada’s Japanese audience though, after the events of Fukushima, it would have been anything but.
The performances by the five actors (Charlotte Allan, Caitlin Ince, Emma Keaveney Roys, Roisin Kelly and Pia Laborde Noguez) are excellent. Dressed in dull, muted colours, relieved by only the occasional flash of red, they already have the frightened-rabbit look of those glancing over the edge of the precipice. Their reactions to the rumours swirling around them may vary but they are all urgent, convincing and chilling in equal measure. And when the time comes for action of the most shocking kind, the original group proves they can still close ranks and act as one.
There are flaws in this present interpretation of Okada’s work, however. The script is quite fragmented, which makes it difficult in places to follow. That the choir is also writing a play is introduced in a confusing manner and then forgotten again, making it seem more like a convenient plot device than something woven into the story. Some scenes, such as the debate over a costume for this play, seem to take too long but others, like the denial of their own actions, are rushed through and unclear. Some seemingly allegorical references to ways out of the crisis are too much of a puzzle and the time frame being covered is never really certain.
This all leaves an impression of an original, thought-provoking work which at times lacks the necessary cohesion to live up to its promise. No doubt FellSwoop Theatre will continue to develop this adaptation as the show is prepared for Edinburgh and unquestionably it has the potential to create a truly haunting and unforgettable production.
Reviewed on Saturday 6th June 2015.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Grand Gesture at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

You’re never entirely sure where you are in The Grand Gesture, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet-era play The Suicide, but somehow it doesn’t really matter. In the company of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s newest graduates, you spend an enjoyable couple of hours trying to work it out.
Simeon Duff lives with his wife Mary and mother-in-law Sadie in a rundown boarding house somewhere in the north of England. Unemployed and all out of hope, he decides to kill himself, only to find his popularity increasing exponentially. Suddenly he’s in demand, with a succession of visitors – from political activist to Catholic priest – all trying to convince him to turn his suicide into a grand and noble gesture which will simultaneously further their cause.
The Factory Theatre has been transformed into a grimy living space by Sam Wilde’s ingenious set of dingy doors and windows and sparsely mismatched sticks of furniture and, being welcomed in through the back of the stage by the actors, the audience immediately feels drawn into the story. This is a production brimming with ideas: so Simeon’s dreary, fruitless days spent job hunting are introduced using a papier mâché puppet man and dog. There are also musical interventions by chorus, a harpist on an illuminated trolley and a bevy of dancing housewives in floral headscarves and pinnies.
These ideas all work well individually and the play’s comedy is mined for its full potential. Tilly Steele as a batty Irish mother-in-law in the Mrs Brown’s Boys mould provides an engaging contrast to Martha Seignior as her harassed daughter Mary, increasingly anxious over her husband’s well being. Simon Riordan plays Simeon as an endearing everyman, lit by the phosphorescence of a new scheme – learning to play the tuba – which he’s sure will earn his fortune, before sinking back down into depression. Harry Egan is suitably hapless as George, the Marxist postman, mainly concerned that landlord Al – played with great charisma by Marcus Fraser – is too busy womanising to open up the shooting range where he and his fellow posties would like to brush up on target practice, ready for the revolution. Kate Cavendish is bustlingly watchful and determined as Al’s current love interest, Maggie.
Yet, coupling this anarchic comedy with the slightly incongruous fit of Soviet-style idealists transferred to a northern boarding house, can add up to a slightly less than cohesive whole. In this mix, it’s never really clear where the stream of visitors turning up at Simeon’s door have come from or what they could realistically achieve. The audience goes along with it in an absurdist way, but it does mean that the moments of potential emotional depth, where the value of a life over a death is contemplated either by monologue or the exchange of views, are less effective than the comedy.
Nevertheless, there’s certainly plenty of entertainment value to be had and, under Gwenda Hughes’ direction, the pace is slick and never slackens. A wide range of accents is delivered effectively by the company and musicality is a strength. This talented group of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School actors performs comfortably and very pleasingly together, providing a certain cohesion even where the play itself might not.
Reviewed on Friday 5th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Opera Review: Carl Rosa Opera's Die Fledermaus at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Carl Rosa Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus has been a staple of the Shoreditch company’s repertoire since relaunching in 1998 and this week it is exclusively restaged and mounted for the Theatre Royal in Bath. Johann Strauss’s light-hearted operetta was first performed in Vienna in 1874, when its comic take on the perils of adultery and deception proved an instant success.
Gabriel von Eisenstein is about to face eight days in prison, thanks in part to the incompetence of his lawyer and, at the beginning of Act One, his wife Rosalinde is at home, preparing to use this time to reacquaint herself with her former lover Alfred. She gives her maid Adele the evening off and doesn’t appear too perturbed when her husband is persuaded by his friend Falke to enjoy one last night of freedom at Prince Orlofsky’s ball.
In Carl Rosa’s interpretation, these plot points are relayed to the audience in English, in a narration written by the playwright Ranjit Bolt. Clever and witty, it places Prince Orlofsky, played with a sure touch by Beverley Klein in the breeches role, at the heart of the action. It’s an interesting alternative to the introduction of surtitles for the German libretto.
This heavy reliance on narration, particularly at the beginning, does have a downside though – in that the other cast members, rather than carrying the story, have few lines of dialogue and concentrate instead on moving into the correct position to sing. This can make the performance in Act One static at times and also produces a hybrid which is a little uncomfortable, with narration and dialogue spoken in English, but the words of the songs remaining (without surtitles) in their traditional German.
This does improve in Act Two though; at Prince Orlofsky’s ball the cast is resplendent in colourfully traditional costumes based on 1875 designs and, with much less narration, walzes graciously around the stage. The entrance of a masked Rosalinde who – having seen her lover carted off to prison in a case of mistaken identity – proceeds to seduce her own husband in the “watch duet” while disguised as a Hungarian countess, is a high point in the drama.
Strauss’ music is sublime, conducted with precision by Martin Handley and played with delicacy by the orchestra. There is great vocal talent on display; at press night Lorna Rushton has a full-bodied, rich tone as Rosalinde while Victoria Joyce impresses as Adele, the maid with aspirations to the stage and her own moment of Eurovision-style dress reveal. Robin Pieta as Alfred takes on the tenor role with roguish wit and great stage presence and the chorus combines harmoniously throughout.
As the production reaches its dénouement at the prison in Act Three, double deception is unveiled thanks to the novelty of a repeating pocket-watch, and Falke – the bat of the title – sees his plan for revenge on Eisenstein for an earlier prank take an unexpected turn. The finale “O Fledermaus” provides a suitably rousing conclusion; on this entertaining evidence, Carl Rosa Opera company promises much if it succeeds in resuming a schedule of national touring later in the year.
Reviewed on 1st June 2015.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Book Review: Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson

Lettie Quick is full of missionary zeal. By taking Marie Stopes' vision of family planning to the furthest reaches of 1930s England, she wants to release a generation of married women from the relentless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth. But, in the face of suspicion and hostility, her mission has become covert; arriving in a quiet backwater of Cornwall, she dispenses her revolutionary advice behind the cloak of respectability that is the Silkhampton Mothers' Clinic.

The biggest scandal surrounding her is that she's lodging with the upper class Miss Norah Thornby in the square:
What would the old lady have said - why, it didn't bear thinking about - dear Lord, what a comedown there!
Norah has been living in the shadow of her snobbish dead mother for so long, that her reservations about taking a lodger are only overcome by financial necessity. Soon though, Lettie's forthright friendship becomes a catalyst for change:
Just two women, ain't we? Let's keep it simple - see how it goes?
This down to earth philosophy gives Norah the courage to share her love of movies and take her first tentative steps towards independence.

But there's more to Lettie than meets the eye. Why was she so set on coming to Silkhampton in the first place and what is her interest in the old black and white photographs of the square on market day? And how is she connected to the glamorous but enigmatic Rae Grainger, a movie star hiding away in an isolated former orphanage deep in the Cornish countryside?

As the narrative shifts between each of these women, a confusing frame gradually comes into focus and it becomes clear that Silkhampton is a place with more than its fair share of secrets. But the biggest mystery of all is yet to be uncovered, as the town wakes up to find it has a killer in its midst.

Aren't We Sisters? was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize and is Bristol-based writer Patricia Ferguson's fifth novel, following on from her highly acclaimed The Midwife's Daughter. Her experience in nursing and midwifery brings great authenticity to her writing and, as well as being an absorbingly interwoven story and gripping thriller, Aren't We Sisters? also serves up an intriguing slice of social history; an insight into a time altogether distant, yet not that long gone, when a married woman's lot was to bear children and face the very real possibility of dying in the process.

It took me a while to get around to reading Aren't We Sisters? because I was initially put off by its cover - only to find the reassurance on Twitter that I shouldn't be. Since finishing, this absorbing tale of sisterhood has been lent enthusiastically between friends, so much so that I haven't seen my copy for a while - and surely there can be no better recommendation.

Aren't We Sisters? is published in the UK by Penguin Books; thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Mother at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

A mother’s job is to love and let go – gradually loosening the reins without unravelling herself. And this most precarious of balances is at the heart of Florian Zeller’s play The Mother, receiving its UK premiere at the Ustinov Studio.
For those who saw The Father last year, with Kenneth Cranham as the patriarch losing his faculties to dementia, then this, with Gina McKee playing Anne – the mother of the title – is its much anticipated companion. But while Cranham’s character deteriorated as part of the ageing process, Anne’s damage is apparently self-inflicted. Or so at first it appears.
Anne and Peter have been married for twenty-five years. Peter is a suited-and-booted office worker, his life a hectic schedule of meetings and deal closing. Anne stays home, looking after the house and mourning the empty spaces where her grown up children used to be. Her daughter she can live without, but her son is a different matter. Nicholas is her breath, her orbit. Now he’s moved away, she repeatedly leaves messages on his phone and frets when he doesn’t call back. His girlfriend Élodie she considers vulgar, not good enough; really it would be better if he left her and came back home.
As with The Father, Zeller creates not just one reality, but many possibilities. Scenes are played and replayed; Anne is at first angry with Peter for his lateness, convinced that his weekend seminar in Leicester is cover for an affair. Next time round, she’s gloomy and lethargic, apparently detached. Then, does Nicholas really return home in the middle of the night or is this a longed-for figment of Anne’s drug and drink-addled imagination? Zeller once again plays with his audience’s perceptions, building his narrative on sand. As identities become interchangeable, outcomes shift and we experience Anne’s confusion for ourselves.
Gina McKee’s harrowing performance captures all the desperation and longing of addiction; a mother unwilling and unable to let go, the pain of separation written in the pallor of her face despite its medicated numbness. William Postlethwaite’s Nicholas is finely nuanced, alternating between the bond with his mother and the need to escape from her suffocating obsession and into the arms of his lover. Richard Clothier’s Peter gives little of his real motivation away; outwardly the long-suffering, devoted husband, can he really be a duplicitous philanderer? We only know what Anne knows – that there’s more to him than meets the eye. And Cara Horgan captures all the arrogance of youth and vitality in her portrayal of Élodie.
Mark Bailey’s predominantly white set is minimalist and sterile, with the few splashes of colour – some cushions, a red dress – almost shocking in their intensity. As a blackout curtain descends between scenes, it plunges the audience into the stuff of Anne’s own nightmares, overlaid with Jon Nicholls’ fractured and discordant sound design.
Once again Christopher Hampton’s translation from the French is seamless, even though it can initially feel more difficult to empathise with Anne than with the central character in The Father. Perhaps you need to be the mother of boys – or a son. Yet, under Laurence Boswell’s sure direction, as it moves towards its disturbing conclusion, this is an ending you can’t look away from; watching The Mother is ultimately like crawling into the void of one woman’s soul.
Runs until Saturday 20th June 2015 | Photo: Simon Annand