Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Theatre Review: Brideshead Revisited at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Evelyn Waugh’s captivating novel of the privileged but doomed Flyte family, as retold through the memories of Captain Charles Ryder, is given a bold and striking pared-back treatment in English Touring Theatre’s new production. It promises much, yet doesn’t quite deliver to that promise.

Set in that glittering, lost era between the two World Wars, Brideshead Revisited has already been famously adapted for film and television, with the 1981 Granada TV version casting a particularly long shadow. Castle Howard has remained widely regarded as the original Brideshead ever since, especially as Waugh himself apparently visited the formidable stately home in 1937.

This ETT production, in association with York Theatre Royal, sensibly doesn’t attempt to recreate the grandeur of that setting. Instead, looking out into the auditorium as he revisits Brideshead during the Second World War, Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson) compels us to imagine it for ourselves. On stage is a brightly-coloured back projection of light – blue, red or green in different scenes – shaped into larger or smaller rectangles by the cast shifting black panels in front of it. In this way we are in an Oxford quad, the chapel at Brideshead, a storm at sea or an art gallery. It’s an imaginative and simple interpretation from director Damian Cruden, but not enough on its own to sustain the story.

The cast are fluid in their scene setting and multi-roling, only hampered at intervals by having to position a microphone to highlight important exchanges; an attempt to introduce an amplified, dream-like quality at key points that ends up being a distraction.

Brian Ferguson is a clear narrator who ably carries the piece, while not always succeeding at switching instantly into the role of Charles in the scenes he’s describing, particularly as his younger self. Christopher Simpson is a sweetly conflicted Sebastian and yet the chemistry between the two is lacking. Their relationship seems to both flourish and falter too quickly – the story too compressed in a two-hour sitting for this to be satisfactorily developed.

Shuna Snow mops up all the best character roles of Bridey Flyte, Rex Mottram and Kurt – they may be caricatures but then that’s predominantly how they appear in the book. Rosie Hilal is spirited and touching as Julia – seeming to grow and mature before our eyes – and produces a performance that induces empathy for her plight.

Yet, overall that’s the flaw here. While there’s plenty to admire in Sara Perks’ stage design, the clarity of storytelling and the movement of the cast, it never really makes us feel enough. The eloquent tone and beauty of Waugh’s prose remains elusive, as does the novel’s latent humour and youthful sensuality. And, as these elements don’t quite coalesce, its themes of philosophical conflict and loss are obscured, leaving a sense that this production – while innovative and interesting – could be so much more.

Reviewed on Wednesday 4 May 2016 | Image: Mark Douet


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Book Review: Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom

Ursula Bloom was one of the most popular and prolific authors of the 20th Century, publishing more than 500 books in her lifetime. An astonishing feat, for which she earned herself a place in the Guinness Book of Records. So why, today, have her novels been largely forgotten?



Perhaps it was simply that, given the onset of the Second World War, her style of accessible and escapist storytelling fell out of fashion. Or maybe it's because her writing was primarily viewed as romantic - a categorisation that disregards her warm, insightful wit and dismisses her as a writer without intrinsic literary merit.

Whatever the reason, independent publishers Corazon Books are now reissuing some of her extensive backlist - beginning with Wonder Cruise, Bloom's 1934 story about a woman whose life takes a new and unexpected direction when she embarks on a Mediterranean holiday.



Ann Clements is 35 years old and single, in an age when ideas of a woman's fulfilment are still caught up with marriage and domesticity. Life as she knows it has settled into a rut, her days devoted to an office job and her evenings to a spinster's dull routine in spartan and uncomfortable 'diggings'. Nothing exciting is destined to happen to Ann - until she unexpectedly wins a considerable amount of money in a sweepstake. 

Confounding the advice of her colleague, Miss Thomas - who thinks she should invest for retirement - and brother, Cuthbert - who considers it her duty to leave the winnings to her goddaughter (who also happens to be his daughter) - Ann impulsively spends most of her windfall on a cruise. Having never left England before, everything is an adventure; departing from the dockside at Tilbury, she takes in all the exoticism of Gibraltar, Marseilles, Naples and beyond and discovers a life with infinitely more possibilities than her previous sheltered existence.

Having initially found the cover of this book slightly offputting, I very quickly became absorbed in the story;  drawn in by the deftness of Bloom's writing to sympathise with the tedium of Ann's current existence and cheer her decision to embark on a different course.

I particularly enjoyed all of Bloom's droll and succinct character studies, from capturing Cuthbert's judgemental opinions to the odiousness of some of Ann's fellow passengers:
Mr Spinks was extremely mean, though he wished to give the impression of being lavish with his riches. He was a little man with such untrimmed and bushy eyebrows that he gave the impression of an inquiring shrimp. A little round man in a black velvet jacket, and carrying a large cigar. It was an expensive cigar, and he wished everybody else to know that it was an expensive cigar, and what was more he'd have them understand that he could afford it.
Wonder Cruise draws its reader into the social moirés of the time, with many innocent descriptions couched in terms like 'queer' or 'gay'. As with the books of Evelyn Waugh, it displays some of the casual racism of the 1930s - especially in the cruise passengers' suspicions of every foreigner they meet. Given that the outbreak of World War Two is only a few years away, there's surprisingly little mention of any unrest in Europe - just the odd encounter with a fascist that's best avoided. Indeed, Ann's main concern at the beginning of the book is that her life is never going to change - escapist stuff indeed, given the turmoil that was about to engulf so many lives.

Leaving aside the perfect vision of hindsight, however, Wonder Cruise is a highly engaging and entertaining book which is prevented from becoming overly-saccharine by the quality of Bloom's writing. It's encouraging to see another publisher besides Persephone focusing on neglected women writers of the past and Ursula Bloom certainly has a substantial backlist to choose from.



Wonder Cruise is published  in the UK by Corazon Books and is available here: many thanks to them for my review copy. Images courtesy of bbc.co.uk and Corazon Books.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Dance Review: Stomp at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


It’s an incredible 25 years since Stomp was first seen at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, born out of the street comedy musicals created by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas for the Edinburgh Fringe.

Since then, it’s become an international phenomenon; a celebration of the percussive possibilities of everyday household objects that has entertained over 15 million people worldwide. But, as the world has changed out of all recognition since 1991, so it might be difficult to imagine how a show that previewed in the last millennium – a commercial juggernaut that has taken up residence in both the West End and New York – can maintain its relevance for a contemporary audience.

That Stomp still achieves this is due to its language of rhythm, dance and comedy that plays out with barely a word being spoken. So universal is its reach, so exhilaratingly infectious its energy, that it doesn’t really matter if you sort of know what to expect. The swishing brooms are here, as are the iconic dustbin lids, topping and tailing the show. Saucepans, paint cans, kitchen sinks, supermarket trolleys, sections of rubber hose and even rustling paper bags all become instruments that add to the layers created in Mike Roberts’ intricate sound design.

Sandwiched in between is inventive new material and contrasting moments of quiet with synchronised Zippo lighters, as well as plenty of audience interaction and laughter that batters down the fourth wall. In a show that runs for an uninterrupted 100 minutes, you seldom feel the lack of an interval as it builds towards its conclusion.

The eight performers – six men and two women in this touring company – make it all look effortless, belying the complexity of their dazzlingly quicksilver and quirkily inventive routines. While always part of a team, their personalities – ranging from put-upon to devil-may-care maverick – are also given the chance to shine through with individual moments in the spotlight.

It’s possible to be a bit nit-picky; the show’s tight choreography detracts from a feeling of organic growth rising up from the streets. Its visual humour, though always well-timed and accessible, can occasionally descend into laddishness. Puzzlingly, the higher tier of the impressive industrially-landscaped set – stunning when in use – is ignored for whole sections of the performance.

It may lack some of the cutting edge it possessed when first unveiled, but Stomp has successfully traversed the decades from fringe festival to London’s 2012 Olympic closing ceremony. Undoubtedly, it’s still a vibrantly failsafe crowd-pleaser; a life-affirming party for all ages that is sure to bring a little more rhythm to your step next time you put out the bins.

Reviewed on 19 April 2016 | Image: Contributed


 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Book Review: The Evolution of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty

Faster than a speeding bullet - and there's never any shortage of those - The Evolution of Fear picks up Claymore Straker's story where it left him at the end of The Abrupt Physics of Dying; in the Cornish cottage that has become his enforced hideaway.



October 1994 and he's been holed up there for eight-and-a-half weeks - and now there's a price on his head. Hit-men are closing in and Clay's not the only one they're after. The murder of his best friend and the bloody threat the killers left behind convince him that Rania, the woman he loves, is also in mortal danger.

So begins Paul E.Hardisty's sequel to his CWA Creasy New Blood Dagger award short-listed debut.You need your wits about you to keep up with the twists and turns of Clay's blood-soaked misadventures; in Hardisty's writing, there's rarely any let up in tension or pace. Battle-weary and damaged both physically and psychologically, Clay flees his sanctuary and struggles to Istanbul via Spain, finding Rania only to lose her again, as she pursues a journalistic story of ecological devastation and murderous land-grab on the divided island of Cyprus.

The Evolution of Fear is more than a simple page-turner. From a storm off the westernmost coast of France to fire in an old farmhouse, Clay must face up to the most terrifying elemental forces and fight his way through them. Some of his biggest battles are internal, the mental scars left by his part in an Angolan massacre resurfacing to haunt both his dreams and waking hours:
Eleven years ago, he'd put the piece of bloodied skull into his pocket, checked his R4 and, crouching low, started out across the grass towards the white church, the crack of rifle fire coming from the treeline, the mechanical hum of de Koch's MAG loosing off burst after burst, AK47s banging in response, the air above him alive with metal. And afterwards, standing there in the smouldering ash of the village, the bodies of the Himba women and children and the old bushmen scattered about like discarded toys, they had agreed, all of them, never to speak of it again.

In the eye of the storm, Clay's inner turmoil seems Lear-like, but it's a copy of Macbeth he carries with him; external manifestation of the damage mined by past actions into the depths of his soul. His moments of reflection, between adrenaline-fuelled gun-fights with the agents of a Russian oligarch, find him longing for a way back from the abyss; a forgiveness of misdeeds that will allow him to love Rania as she deserves.

Clay's ex-commander and compatriot, the aptly nicknamed Crowbar, becomes a much bigger player in this  sequel, his motives far from clear; has he betrayed Clay and sold out to the highest bidder? And, alongside Rania in exposing these hard men's softer underbelly, is scientist Doctor Hope Bachmann, a one-woman defender of Cyprus' endangered turtle population. More than a token presence, these women (while admittedly still managing to appear annoyingly attractive even under great duress) are integral to the plot and their personal relationships weave yet another layer of complexity into its tangled web.

The body count in The Evolution of Fear  - as well as the sheer volume of weaponry - may be higher than I'm usually comfortable with, but it doesn't feel gratuitous because of the clear consequences of violence. Nor, on its own, is violence ever enough.

Despite its panoramic scope - personal, political and cultural -  this worthy sequel to Hardisty's gripping debut is never a difficult read. If one or two plot twists are signalled, many more are side-swipingly unexpected. Building on the strengths of The Abrupt Physics of Dying, it hooks you in from the start and challenges you to try putting it down before - breathless and exhausted - you reach its shocking and satisfying conclusion.


The Evolution of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty was published in the UK on 5th May 2016. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my review copy.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Book Preview: The Body on the Doorstep by A J MacKenzie

Writing is traditionally seen as such an isolated pursuit that it's exceptional for a book to be the work of more than one person. A misconception perhaps; just reading the acknowledgements page of any novel reveals a team of family, friends, editors, publishers and publicists who have all helped breathe it into life.

Still, I was fascinated to find that The Body on the Doorstep was written as a collaboration between Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, an Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo, under the pen name of A J MacKenzie. You can read more of their writing challenges and triumphs below.

The first in the series of Romney Marsh mysteries, The Body on the Doorstep particularly caught my eye when it was mentioned in the same breath as one of my all-time favourite books to review, M J Carter's The Strangler Vine.



Kent, 1796. Smugglers’ boats bring their illicit cargoes of brandy and tobacco from France to land on the beaches of the Channel coast.

Shocked to discover a dying man on his doorstep - and lucky to avoid a bullet himself - our alcoholic Reverend Hardcastle, with a colourful past, finds himself entrusted with the victim's cryptic last words.

Who is the young man? Where did he come from, and who killed him? Why, five minutes later, was a Customs officer shot and killed out on the Marsh? And who are the mysterious group of smugglers known as the Twelve Apostles and why is the leader of the local Customs service so reluctant to investigate?  

Ably assisted by the ingenious Mrs Chaytor, Reverend Hardcastle sets out to solve the mystery for himself. But smugglers are not the only ones to lurk off the Kent coast, and the more he discovers, the more he realises he might have bitten off more than he can chew.


And here's Marilyn and Morgen's take on writing as a duo: 

Writing as a husband-and-wife couple has its own special challenges. One of the big ones is actually quite prosaic: finding the time to work together. Both of us have very busy schedules: Marilyn marks exams, is a school federation governor, a member of deanery and diocesan synods and helps to run two choirs, while Morgen lectures, is a trustee of a charity dealing with drug and alcohol issues, and a lay member of the ethics committee for our local police force. Even though we live in the same house, carving out time to sit down and work together is not always easy!

Adapting our ways of working to each other also requires some thought. For example, we use different software; Marilyn prefers WordPerfect whereas Morgen uses Word (he doesn’t particularly like Word, but it is necessary for his other work). We also listen to music when we work alone, but our musical tastes are quite different. When we sit down to work together, the music gets turned off.

With two people thinking about and working on the same plot and same characters, it would be easy for one of us to go off at a tangent and start imagining things quite differently (‘That character has red hair.’ ‘No, he doesn’t.’ ‘Yes, he does’, etc, etc.). This isn’t usually too difficult a problem to solve, a conversation and a few cups of tea usually gets us back into alignment. (Keeping a ‘bible’ of key details about characters, places and so on, giving us something to refer back to, is a big help too.)

That brings up another point, which is the need to be selfless. If one of us has an idea, but the other has a better one, it is up to the first person to give way gracefully. At the same time, the second person has to be diplomatic when putting their point forward. Killing someone else’s darlings has to be done gently. The point we always come back to is: what is best for the story?

All that said, we don’t find working together to be hard work; far from it! The sheer pleasure of being able to do the thing we both love, together, is hard to describe in words. We are very fortunate to be working together, and we know it.

The planning and thinking and writing and editing processes are full of ‘Eureka moments’. There is a wonderful feeling when, after hours of working on a plot problem or a knotty line of dialogue, we finally crack it. Here is where working with a partner really does help. If one of us has a problem or an idea and is unsure, we take it to the other. Two heads usually provide a solution a lot quicker than one.

And there is nothing, nothing at all to beat the feeling when the copies of our first book arrived. We still have a little stack of them sitting on the dining room table, and we reach out and pet them when we walk past, as if expecting them to purr. Actually, it’s us that does the purring.

The Body on the Doorstep is published in the UK by Zaffre; many thanks to them for my review copy and to Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel for sharing their writing experience as A J MacKenzie.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Theatre Review: The Herbal Bed at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


As contemporary headlines scream for transparency and the gap between public and private is narrowed, the themes of Peter Whelan’s 1996 play The Herbal Bed seem more relevant than ever.

In 1613, James I has been on the throne for ten years. Post-Reformation England is full of social upheaval, as the Puritan movement challenges the Church of England’s more traditional Protestantism. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is married to John Hall, a respected physician and Puritan sympathiser – but he appears more devoted to his work and herbal remedies than to his wife. She seeks solace in her relationship with local tradesman Rafe Smith, himself trapped in an unhappy marriage, only to find her morality and sexual health questioned by her husband’s disaffected apprentice, Jack Lane.

Based on real events over a summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, Whelan’s historical speculation weaves a tumultuous tale as Susanna challenges Lane for defamation in the ecclesiastical court. James Dacre’s production for English Touring Theatre, Royal & Derngate and Rose Theatre is finely nuanced; in upholding her family’s reputation and her husband’s God-given duty to go on saving lives, Susanna constructs a public mask of half-truths and omissions and proves herself to be as good a dissembler as her father.

Emma Lowndes is upright and virtuous as Susanna; it helps her case in court that she is easier to believe in as a respectable wife and helper to her husband, than as a passionate woman with a colourful past and current lover in all but technicality. Yet, in her relationship with Smith (Philip Correia), she seeks much more than simple romance; questing after the poetically transformative power of love as alchemy. Charlotte Wakefield as the family servant and Matt Whitchurch as the feckless Lane provide many of the lighter moments, in welcome contrast to Michael Mears’ chilling portrayal of the Bishop of Worcester’s tenacious and unforgiving Vicar-General, Barnabus Goche.

This carefully-balanced revival of a play originally produced to great acclaim by the RSC, avoids the temptation to descend into hand-wringing melodrama and gradually reels you in. The fulcrum comes in the gripping penultimate court scene in the cathedral, ethereally lit from a high window by Malcolm Rippeth in Jonathan Fensom’s stunning set design. In Goche’s examination of souls as well as deeds, The Herbal Bed foreshadows the firestorm of witch trials depicted in The Crucible or Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s recent Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. None are spared as the Hall household falls under forensic scrutiny and their lives turn on a willingness to find a form of compromise in words.

Thoughtful and multi-faceted, this production skilfully exposes the universality of Whelan’s themes. It invites its audience to reflect on that starkest of choices; between uncovering the depths of a soul’s hidden desires at all costs and accommodating a collaborative version of reality that might ultimately reflect a greater truth.


Runs until 16 April 2016 as part of a tour | Image: Mark Douet


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Book Review: My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal's debut novel introduces her nine-year-old central character so vividly, he seems to step straight off the page.



For one so young, Leon already has more than his fair share of troubles; an absent father and a neglectful mother who loves him but can't cope with her responsibilities. Yet, taken into care and passed between social workers, his life still revolves around an overwhelming purpose. He needs to look after his baby brother, because - as Leon informs Maureen, his new foster parent - nobody knows Jake as well as he does:

Leon tells her everything. How if you want Jake to go asleep you have to keep stroking his head or the side of his cheek. How Jake puts everything in his mouth and you have to keep both eyes on him all the time so sometimes you can't even watch the telly. And how sometimes it's too hard.

But Jake is a baby and white, while Leon is neither, so now it seems they may not even be able to stay together. There's a new family who want to adopt Jake, leaving Leon behind.

The story is set in the 1980s and the grown ups, when not whispering about Leon's situation behind closed doors, are busy preparing for the celebrations of Prince Charles' and Lady Di's wedding. But Thatcher's Britain is a place of simmering social tensions and juxtaposed with street parties are the inner city riots that directly touch Leon's life.

De Waal's writing encompasses the sadness of one family's broken circumstances; a feeling of their falling between the cracks that reminds me of Nick Hornby's About A Boy or the Jacqueline Wilson novels I used to read with my daughters. There's grief and anger too, building within Leon to a pent-up rage that has no safety valve.

Yet, despite the aching chasm of love for Jake and his mum, the leaving behind of beloved Action Men and lonely succession of new schools, Leon can still find glimpses of happiness. Fuzzy-haired Maureen provides comfort and Curly Wurlies after the latest prickly visit from a well-meaning social worker. Her no-nonsense sister Sylvia tells him hilariously unsuitable bedtime stories that had me laughing out loud on the train. And he's given a BMX bike that he loves to ride downhill as fast as he can; while dreaming of finding what he's lost, it also helps him to discover new friends and unforeseen opportunities.

Most of all there's his awakening joy in watching the Scarlet Emperor runner beans he's planted popping their heads up through the soil. A sense of renewal and hope that transcends the everyday injustices and struggles just to get by.



Kit de Waal has years of experience in working for Social Services and My Name is Leon is a compelling and often witty endorsement of the old maxim that you should write what you know. Her characters have a three-dimensional substance rooted in observation and Leon's situation feels sadly all too real.

If occasionally - especially early on - I forgot the book was set in the 1980s and wondered why he wasn't constantly on his mobile phone, this is because Leon is living life with the immediacy of a nine year old, rather than noticing the token details of the decade he's growing up in. In this way, his predicament becomes even more urgently universal. As de Waal said in a Guardian interview in February: 'I know you don't tell those stories casually: it really matters.'

It's rare to find a novel - especially one not written in the first person - so strongly inhabited by its clever and lovable young protagonist. Such is the impact of Leon - brother, son and foster child - that in stepping off the page, he walks right into your heart.


My Name Is Leon will be published in the UK on 2 June 2016 as a Viking hardback. It will also be available as a Penguin eBook and audiobook. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy | Images courtesy of kitdewaal.com and Penguin Random House.