Thursday, 23 October 2014

Stones in His Pockets at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Stones in His Pockets has enjoyed phenomenal success since its Irish debut in 1996, with award-winning runs in the West End and on Broadway. Now this entertaining and bittersweet two-hander is returning to tour with its original director, Ian McElhinney, in charge.
A quiet backwater in Kerry has been taken over as a Hollywood film set and its villagers recruited as extras, feasting on the catering facilities and spending their £50 daily reward in the pub. This unfolding story is seen through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, two of the film’s hired crowd of the dispossessed. As its star, Caroline Giovanni , struggles with her atrocious Irish accent, she visits the pub to pick up some local direction and set in motion the most tragic chain of events.
Conor Delaney and Stephen Jones play not only Jake and Charlie but also all the other characters, from sultry Caroline to Mickey, the lifelong extra. Jake has recently returned home from New York and realises that Caroline is only interested in him for his Irish dialect; he shamelessly channels Seamus Heaney and is not unduly put out to be uncovered as a fraud. But young Sean is another matter; drug-dependent and disillusioned with life in rural Ireland, he’s more than ready to be seduced by Hollywood glamour and completely pulled apart by its rejection.
As circumstances change and the locals threaten to boycott filming, the mood darkens to one of resentment with the villagers beginning to reassert themselves against their tyrannical employers. Yet the thread of humour is never lost and unwanted flowers are transported from wedding to funeral, leaving a trail of hay fever in their wake.
Delaney and Jones have both appeared in Stones in His Pockets before, although never together until now. They are a superb combination, inhabiting the play’s fifteen roles with split-second timing and never better than in the dance which brings together so many of their creations. Their freedom of interpretation is enhanced by the minimal backdrop of clouds on a screen, a traditional Irish soundscape and a couple of boxes which they manoeuvre around the stage.
For all its heritage and skill, the ending of this play feels a little too neatly wrapped up. There’s a sense of the space here being too big for the performance and a distance which would be have been naturally overcome in more intimate surroundings. Yet this is still an enjoyable exploration of the triumph of aspiration from the ashes of failure, in the virtuoso company of two fine actors and the world of characters they create.
Reviewed on 19th October 2014.
Stones in his Pockets is on tour in the UK until 18th November 2014, details are here

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

I loved Rachel Joyce's bestselling first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about a man who walks the length of England to save the life of an old friend. Harold's literal and metaphorical journey is a warm, witty and inspiring tale, radiating a sense of hope that it's never to late to atone for past mistakes.


Written from the point of view of the woman who must wait for him, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is Harold Fry's hotly anticipated companion. Queenie is dying of cancer and living out her remaining days in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, when she learns of Harold's walk. She hasn't seen him for more than twenty years and there's still much that has been left unsaid between them.

Queenie may have been robbed of her voice by illness, but with the help of a new volunteer, she quietly and insistently makes herself heard. It's through writing down the truth in this last, heart-rending letter that she comes to believe she can hang on until Harold arrives.

She has moments of doubt that she can make it:
I can't wait for Harold. I am here to die.
 But Sister Mary Inconnue, the nun transcribing her scribbles, doesn't let Queenie off the hook:
Pardon me, but you are here to live until you die. There is a significant difference. 
In between the unfolding chapters of Queenie's life we meet the nuns who are helping to look after her, as well as the other residents of the hospice. There's the irascible Scotsman Mr Henderson, blind Barbara and her escaping glass eye, the Pearly King and loud and colourful Finty. Other patients come and go and Queenie finds herself becoming increasingly used to the sight of the undertaker's van on the drive.

It's possible to read this novel without first knowing Harold Fry's story, but if you do then the episodes of Queenie's past fill the gaps in Harold's with the gratifying precision of a well-cut jigsaw. It seems that Queenie has not so much stood on the shoulders of a giant, as leant her frail weight against Harold's tall frame. But still she still has some resistance of her own:
I didn't want support. I had hosiery for that. I wanted love.
Queenie's discussion with Harold's son about the ordinary ways of loving reminded me of W. H. Auden's O Tell Me the Truth About Love
When it comes, will it come without warning 
Just as I'm picking my nose? 
Will it knock on my door in the morning, 
Or tread in the bus on my toes? 
while her intimate knowledge of every inch of her beach house garden in Embleton Bay made me think of Tove Jansson's innate love of her island in The Summer Book.


Queenie Hennessy may be reflective and almost unbearably sad, but it captures the warts-and-all humour of life while remaining addictively readable. Rachel Joyce has a rare ability to write about profound ideas with an enviable lightness of touch; any doubts I might have felt about the almost heavenly surroundings of Queenie's last days were swept away in the impact of her story's ending. Building on the spirit of Harold Fry's renewal in the first novel, by the end of the second there's a satisfying sense that Queenie Hennessy's life has finally come full circle.


The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is now out in hardback, published by Doubleday Books. 
Thanks to Transworld Publishers for my review copy. 
Images courtesy of rachel-joyce.co.uk and the Guardian.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Reading the Classics: Franz Kafka

After wrestling too long with Herman Melville, it's with relief I turned to Franz Kafka for Week 4 of my MOOC*, even if he has been called 'the coldest writer of them all'.

In a course about relationships, it's a fascinating prospect to study a writer who had such trouble with them. The only work of his I've read to date is The Trial, so I've been looking forward to extending my knowledge.

Professor Weinstein describes Kafka as triply alienated; a German-speaking Jew living in Prague. His two stories The Metamorphosis and A Country Doctor both illustrate this sense of otherness, where anything can and will happen. The protagonists are shipwrecked in their own changing bodies, just as we all may be through the aging process of debilitating diseases and decay.

*If you haven't read these two stories, there are spoilers*


The Metamorphosis (1915)

The tale of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into 'a horrible vermin', is one of Kafka's best known works.



Gregor is a conscientious employee and his first prosaic concern is that he'll be late for work. He clings to the normality of routine, the reality of his new situation only dawning once he's managed, with difficulty, to open his bedroom door. There he confronts the horror of his parents and sister Grete, as well as the chief clerk who has arrived to berate him for not turning up in the office.

After the initial shock, Grete takes on the maternal duties of feeding and looking after him and Gregor gradually becomes more comfortable with his insect body, climbing the walls and ceilings. But he's unable to communicate with his family and stays shuttered away in his bedroom lair, listening to their discussions of how they will cope, now he can no longer provide for them.

Kafka was humiliated by his father and Professor Weinstein suggests this tortured relationship is mirrored in The Metamorphosis, with Gregor, originally the family breadwinner, in turn ignored, attacked and fatally injured by a father rejuvenated through his son's misfortune. We already recognise that for Kafka, writing was a priestly act not compatible with relationships. It may be that it was also a form of therapy, a way of reasserting himself against his father's tyranny.

As Gregor increasingly 'exits the human', there is a question mark over how his family interpret him. Is he still their son and brother? Grete doesn't think so:
I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong.
They don't have the access to his internal perspective that the reader does and have no way of communicating with him. Increasingly, they view him as a burden and a pest.

Gregor is fatally injured by his father's apple-throwing. He stops eating, another theme commonly found in Kafka's work, where many protagonists have problems with food. In his 1924 story A Hunger Artist,  for example, the fasting man laments that he only does so
because I couldn't find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content
Similarly, Gregor has been denied his humanity. The only form of nourishment he can find is through his sister's violin playing and this will not sustain him. He dies because of a failure of empathy which, Professor Weinstein argues, is how genocide occurs.

Gregor never asks how or why this has happened to him, so we as readers ask instead. Was he already an automaton, a slave to his job, so that his transformation is from one form of mindlessness to another? Or does he represent an artist, living a weird, individual existence and shunned by those around him?

The family don't mourn Gregor's passing as they surely would if he had died in a more conventional fashion. As he is discarded with the rubbish, they decide they can move to a smaller flat now and Mr and Mrs Samsa notice for the first time how Grete has grown into an attractive young woman. Professor Weinstein suggests an interpretation of Gregor as a sacrificial, Christ-like figure, giving his life so his family can recover theirs.

A Country Doctor (1919)

A doctor having to urgently attend a sick young patient on a winter's night is stranded because his only horse died the night before. In this absurdist tale it seems there's no hope, until a groom unexpectedly emerges from the disused pigsty with a crack team of horses. But there is a Faustian pact to be made because, as the doctor speeds away to his house call, he realises that the groom will rape his maid, Rosa, while he's away.


Kafka's surreal story has the texture of a dream and it is this doctor's nightmare - one where he surrenders control. In arriving at his patient's bedside, he first diagnoses him as being completely well, before realising he has a gaping wound in his side.

This story is hard for the reader to understand, too. The shaped of the wound suggests a sexual dimension which seems to refer to Rosa's ordeal, reinforced by the horses neighing frantically at the windows. Is there a purpose to the suffering and the wound itself? Professor Weinstein quotes Kafka's violent imagery
Art is the axe for the frozen sea within us
So is this wound 'art', the breaking of one code of logic, in order to create another?

Finally, the doctor becomes a sacrifice, stripped of his clothes and laid beside his patient. If he can't save a life it seems he must be killed. Professor Weinstein draws a comparison with King Lear, who tears at his own clothes in his madness and proclaims to Edgar that
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art
The doctor has lost his trappings of authority and is reduced to the same lowly status as his patient. In the completion of another form of metamorphosis, he has realised that writing a prescription is easy, but coming to an understanding with a fellow human being is hard.


*Massive Open Online Course, The Fiction of Relationship.
Images courtesy of Feed Books and Koji Yamamura Films.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Opera Review: Madame Butterfly at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Opera Project first performed in the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre in 2003, and proved so popular that the company has been returning every autumn since with a fresh production. This year, they’ve chosen to stage Madame Butterfly, sung in English and with a new orchestration for 13 players.

Puccini’s popular masterpiece, first seen in 1904, is set in Nagasaki and tells the story of Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old geisha known as Butterfly. She weds the American naval officer Pinkerton for love, not realising he’s bought her as part of a match-maker’s package and that, for him, it’s a marriage of convenience.
Japanese laws of the time allowed for a husband’s absence, even for a month, to constitute divorce. In defying her family and stubbornly wishing to stay married, Butterfly finds herself abandoned and alone with a son Pinkerton isn’t even aware of.
Madame Butterfly is a deceptively simple tale of unrequited love, full of the emotions derived from Puccini’s richness of expression. Staging such an exotically imagined story on a small scale in the round focuses attention on the quality of musicality brought to the piece by Jonathan Lyness’s new arrangement.
The central role of Butterfly in this performance is sung by Stephanie Corley, although it is alternately taken by Catriona Clark. Corley’s soprano is rich in tone and her range is fluidly effortless. As her family’s outrage at her desertion of her ancestral religion is made clear by Julian Close’s terrifying portrayal of her uncle, she clearly expresses all of Butterfly’s growing love for John Pierce’s Pinkerton. Their duet after the wedding is full of tender hope for the future, even as Pinkerton knows he has no intention of staying with his new wife.
The intimacy of the setting only highlights the confines of Butterfly’s trapped existence, as she takes small, balletic steps around the central raised wooden dais which defines the corners of her world. Waiting and watching the harbour, Corley pours bittersweet longing into Butterfly’s aria of the beautiful day that she will see her husband’s ship returning. Comforted only by her maid Suzuki, sung by Miranda Westcott, their voices blend seamlessly as she believes that Pinkerton has returned to her and the house must be filled with all the flowers of the garden.
Craig Smith is imposing as the upstanding American consul Sharpless, horrified by Pinkerton’s dishonourable behaviour. Butterfly’s lonely vigil as she waits for her husband is emphasized by the wistful orchestration of the humming chorus.
Ultimately though, it’s Corley’s moving performance as the devastated and deserted wife, so close to the audience that we could reach out and comfort her, which brings home all the power and lyricism of Butterfly’s most unhappy of choices. The orchestration and staging may have been successfully pared back, but by the end of the evening it’s clear that there are no limits to the emotional intensity of this exhilarating production.
Runs until 25th October 2014. Photo: Farrows Creative

Monday, 13 October 2014

Theatre Review: Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other Love Songs) at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Make no mistake, exuberance is in town. Kneehigh have arrived in Bristol with their highly stylised version of The Beggar’s Opera and, in the spirit of the original, it’s a loud, nihilistic and outrageously funny commentary on the ills of today’s society.
You don’t need to be familiar with John Gay’s satirical plot from 1728 to enjoy this adaptation, because Carl Grose has updated it with a 21st Century urban myth. Macheath is now a contract killer, quickly despatching not only Mayor Goodman but also his dog, who would otherwise have been a witness to the murder.
Before the audience even reaches the auditorium, the scene is set with ten pound notes exploding from a filthy-looking front of house toilet and placards plastering the walls. On stage, there’s more than a whiff of corruption, as the honourable Mayor’s demise leaves a hole quickly filled by local business magnate Les Peachum, who just happens to have paid for the crime. His wife is the real brains behind it all, but when their daughter Polly marries Macheath, her carefully-laid plans may be about to unravel.
Charles Hazlewood’s score both complements the action and lifts it to a higher level, seamlessly fusing musical styles, from punk notes reminiscent of Ian Dury and the Blockheads to electro, disco and ska. There are nods to eighteenth century composers like Purcell and touching ballads, as Polly Peachum realises she may not be Macheath’ s only love.
The outstanding cast of actors effortlessly inhabits designer Michael Vale’s all-encompassing world of scaffolding and ramped planks, which they fluidly scale and manoeuvre. They collaborate in multiple roles, sliding down poles to take their place in the spotlight before merging back into the shadows. There’s a lot of slick suitcase-switching, dances fizz with energy and their musicianship shines throughout.
Dominic Marsh is cheeky and charismatic as the lovable rogue Macheath, who’s getting away with murder. Rina Fatania may have appropriated more than her fair share of bawdy lines as Mrs Peachum, but she delivers them with a knowing swagger. Andrew Durand brings high comedy to the much put-upon go-between Filch, especially in a tightly choreographed scene where he’s beaten up in slow-motion. And in the broth of festering corruption, Carly Bawden introduces a refreshing purity to the role of Polly Peachum, even though she will undergo her own metamorphosis.
Kneehigh’s use of Punch and Judy puppetry introduces a seaside sense of the familiar, while the babies Macheath discovers he has littered about the Slammerkin club more than hold their own, creating some of the loudest laughs of all.
Mike Shepherd’s production, in collaboration with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, has been receiving glowing reviews in both Liverpool and Kneehigh’s native Cornwall. The swift mood-change towards the end may not be enough to explain the anarchic onslaught of the climactic final scene, but it’s nevertheless a dazzling piece of theatre. Beg, steal or borrow one of the remaining tickets to see this; you’ll be happy that you did.
Runs until 25th October 2014. Photo: Steve Tanner

Friday, 10 October 2014

Reading the Classics: Herman Melville

I've been planning to tackle the great American novel Moby Dick for ages, although when mentioning this to anyone who's read it, I detect a flicker of horror shadowing their face.

Taking on Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener and Benito Cereno for Week Three of my MOOC*, I'm beginning to see why. Judging by these two (long) short stories, he's not the most accessible of writers, especially when read electronically on Project Gutenberg.

Professor Weinstein insists these are two more examples of literature from an earlier period, which shine a light on our own understanding. I'm hoping his analysis will focus a torch beam on mine.

* If you haven't read these two stories, there are spoilers*


Bartleby, The Scrivener

This tale of mid-nineteenth century Wall Street is narrated by an elderly lawyer who already employs two scriveners to copy out legal documents by hand. Increased business leads him to take on Bartleby, who initially appears to be a diligent worker.

Having already done 'an extraordinary quantity of writing', when requested to help proofread a document Bartleby replies, much to the lawyer's astonishment, with the now-iconic words:
'I would prefer not to'
Over the coming weeks, Bartleby repeats this phrase whenever he's asked anything; from divulging the details of his personal life to so many aspects of his job that, finally, he's not working at all. What's more, he's taken up residence in the office and will not easily be removed.

This story was a puzzle to me. I failed to understand Bartleby's passivity and found the other scriveners to be one dimensional caricatures. Only the narrator emerged from the page as an engaging personality, which didn't make up for a dismal and unsatisfactory ending.

Professor Weinstein's analysis brings some clarity. In the lawyer, we have a narrator who goes so far beyond unreliability that he doesn't have a clue about the story he's telling. This raises the theme of 'getting it wrong ' and how common an occurrence it is, as we strive to make sense of our lives.

Although I thought the lawyer showed patience and consideration in trying to help his errant employee, the Professor suggests he's representative of the Wall Street establishment and sympathies are traditionally with Bartleby (mine weren't).

Bartleby is 'the copyist who refuses to copy' and in rejecting his work he can also be seen to be rejecting capitalism, with echoes of civil disobedience calling to mind Thoreau and Emerson. Professor Weinstein even compares Bartleby to Lucifer refusing to uphold the order of things (non servium - I will not serve). His words are contagious and the other office workers, including the narrator, begin using them too.

Here ahead of his time, Melville is playing with the traditional narrative form; creating Bartleby as a character who is essentially a void, and an ending which leaves the reader to make sense of it all.


Benito Cereno


Melville wrote this tale of slave revolt in 1855, six years before the American Civil War. It's based on real events and Amaso Delano, captain of the ship which discovered the drifting San Dominick, really existed.




This is another story of a narrator who fails to understand what's in front of him, because what he sees is scripted by what he knows. He believes the slave ship to be in a forlorn state due to the Old World incompetence of its Spanish captain Benito Cereno, while he holds a 'noble savages' view of the slaves.

Did you see it coming? asks Professor Weinstein. I certainly understood what was happening long before Captain Delano and I'm sure others did too, arguably because we now read in a sophisticated manner, on the look-out for reversals of plot.

When you realise who's in charge of the ship, you begin to interpret this story in an entirely different way. The grisly demise of the slave owner Don Alexandro and the the central shaving scene both take on a particularly chilling air.  At the time of Melville's writing, this would have overthrown what was seen as the the natural, God-given hierarchy of power in the most shocking of ways.


Learning about the context and analysing the themes of both these stories has helped my understanding, but the verbosity and language of Melville still makes him a difficult read. I'm afraid Moby Dick will be waiting a while longer on the shelf.


Next week, Kafka: The Metamorphosis and  A Country Doctor.

*Massive Open Online Course



Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Book Review: The Strangler Vine by M J Carter

M J Carter has chosen an evocative setting for the opening of her debut novel The Strangler Vine; the seething morass of humanity that was Calcutta in 1837. The city was a major outpost of the East India Company, an organisation so powerful it controlled much of the sub-continent through its own private army.


Against this colourful backdrop, Carter introduces William Avery, a junior officer from Devon. He's kicking his heels, drinking heavily and losing at cards, until unexpectedly sent to accompany the irascible Jeremiah Blake into the mofussil or outback.

Special Inquiry Agent Blake's mission is to track down missing writer and national hero Xavier Mountstuart, rumoured to be studying a murderous sect of Kali-worshipping Thugs. But Mountstuart has recently published a controversial novel and, with many of the Company unwilling to even mention his name, the circumstances of his disappearance appear increasingly sinister.  

As they venture deeper into the mofussil, it's evident that Blake is no archetypal Company man. Initially, Avery's concern is the discomfort;
It became clear we would not be staying in a dak bungalow such as Europeans usually stayed in...but in small native tents which Mr Blake expected me to help to erect. Of course, with only a few natives, I realized that I would have to abandon any notion of Calcutta levels of service and that if I did not help we would all become even wetter and hungrier than we already were. And so I laboured, tired, sick, resentful and drenched.
The pace of the story really begins to build as they travel from the whispering insurrection of Benares to the opulence of Doora. Hardship fades into insignificance when the mismatched duo find themselves facing one threat after another, often from the most unpredictable of quarters.
For mile after mile the strangler vines choked the sal trees, one grey trunk encircling another, until the whole jangal appeared like some terrible tangled knot in which it was impossible to tell murderer from victim.
As the Thugs are said to strangle their victims, so Company men with their attitudes of entitlement are intent on choking out the existence of the independent princely states within their territories. But nothing is as it seems and Avery and Blake must put personal animosity behind them to fight together for their very survival.


In The Strangler Vine, Carter tells Avery's story with an atmospheric sense of place and a well-researched grip on the realities of pre-Victorian India, as you'd expect from a writer better known for her journalism and non-fiction. There's many a vibrant tableau, an enthralling tiger hunt and no shortage of derring-do. If occasionally the descriptions of resplendent court scenes are a little over-long, the twists of the plot make up for this through intrigue and fast-paced entertainment.

The protagonists are completely believable, but with such a large cast of characters, some of the more minor ones are bound to be sketchy. Avery's relationship with Helen Larkbridge could have been more fleshed out, although Carter may be saving this for her sequel, The Infidel Stain. Other than this, it's wholly satisfying to see Avery maturing from a callow youth brimming with Company attitudes into a stronger, more worldly-wise man, while his tenuous bond with Blake is the central thread which stitches their epic misadventures together.


Thanks to Penguin for my review copy.