Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre Review: The Real Thing at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing dazzled when it was first produced in 1982, both for the intelligence and precision of his writing and the performances of Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the leading roles. Thought to be one of his most autobiographical plays, its themes of marital infidelity and the pursuit of enduring love are so universal that, today more than 30 years later, they should surely still resonate.

And, against an evocative soundtrack of vintage chart hits, Stoppard’s wit and wisdom do emerge as sharply observed as ever, as life and art become inextricably interwoven. In a play penned by her husband Henry (Laurence Fox), the foremost writer of his generation, Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) is portraying a woman trapped in a failing marriage. Her on-stage partner Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) suspects her of being unfaithful, yet it is Max’s wife Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) who is embroiled in a real-life affair with Henry.

As always, this is a polished production from Theatre Royal Bath, in conjunction with Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston, incorporating Jonathan Fensom’s sleek and minimalist design. What a pity then, that – despite the laughter induced by Stoppard’s clever lines – it misfires, thanks to an uneven overall performance. Fox’s Henry most noticeably lacks the clarity and conviction of delivery that his central character demands, especially in the early scenes.

Although he does show some measure of Henry’s progression from the detached observer in the first Act to desperate cuckold in the Second, it seems a puzzling directorial decision from Stephen Unwin that an actor of Fox’s stature should portray Henry in this underpowered way. While the Second Act is an improvement, this still drains energy from a production that consequently achieves little variety of pace. It distracts attention from other excellent performances, particularly by Spencer-Longhurst and Jackson-Smith, as well as recent RADA graduate Kit Young in the cameo role of Billy.

Although it doesn’t feel as tender and moving as it should, there’s still some satisfaction to be gained, as The Real Thing’s clever construction gradually reveals itself. When Annie decides to perform in a play written by her pet cause Brodie (Santino Smith), an unjustly imprisoned soldier, Henry’s comparison of the writing process with the skillful creation of a cricket bat is compelling.

Henry’s original play becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that echoes through the years, with honesty and trust being repeatedly eroded. Is lasting love ever achievable or simply an unattainable ideal pursued through a succession of relationships? Though the authentically detailed late 20th Century vinyl LPs and manual typewriter pin this play to the time of its first staging, it’s never in danger of feeling dated.

While Stoppard’s play is eminently watchable and emerges as a modern classic, this production sadly misses the mark. It’s early in the run and there’s still time and room for improvement, but it can’t yet be described as the real thing.

Reviewed on 20 September 2017 | Image: Edmond Terakopian


Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Readers of this blog may know I've reviewed several novels by Ragnar Jonasson in the Dark Iceland series, translated by Quentin Bates and published by Orenda Books. My review of his latest book Rupture can be found here.

Jonasson's novels are set in Siglufjördur in the far north of Iceland; a remote town of atmospheric winter darkness. Now from the same independent publishing and translating stable comes another Icelandic author, Lilja Sigurdardottir, whose thriller plays out primarily in the country's bustling capital, Reykjavik.



Both authors examine Icelandic society at a pivotal time, after the banking crash that devastated the country and the catastrophic eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Snare begins in November 2010; there's the taste of ash in the air and many lives are in turmoil.One of these is Sonja's, victim of an acrimonious divorce, now caught in a net of cocaine smuggling as a mean of supporting herself and battling for custody of her young son, Tomas.

Sonja is the novel's central character and, despite her morally questionable occupation, Sigurdardottir makes it easy to identify with her. Sonja's back is against the wall; she's renting a shabby apartment and just about making ends meet. Her ex-husband Adam seems to hold all the cards and Tomas' well-being is threatened by the ruthless drug dealers who keep her smuggling to ensure her son's safety. Her choices are limited; Sonja is truly caught in a snare.

To complicate matters further, Sonja is in a relationship with a woman, Agla, a high-level bank executive embroiled in the fallout of the financial crash. Agla has her own professional connection to Adam and her own demons to battle. Unlike Sonja, Agla refuses to acknowledge her sexuality and, despite her obvious desire, resists taking their relationship to a deeper level.

As the pressure builds for Sonja, she begins to attract the attention of seasoned customs officer Bragi at the country's international airport. Forced into carrying ever bigger consignments, Sonja's meticulous planning begins to unravel and Bragi closes in. Sonja attempts to wriggle free from the trap that ensnares her, but in doing so, puts herself and her son at ever greater risk.

Lilja Sigurdardottir has written a taut, tense and highly engaging thriller that delivers characters you care about - precisely because they have been backed into a corner.

She delivers several twists - some anticipated and others a genuine surprise. As Snare is the first of a trilogy, Sigurdardottir necessarily leaves some threads undone - which can be frustrating if you're looking for neat resolution. But if, like me, you've become invested in the characters and want to know what will happen to them, there's an impatient pleasure in anticipating the next compelling episode in this series.

Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir is published by Orenda Books, many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Theatre Review: Living with the Lights On at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Mark Lockyer portrayed a convincingly complex Iago in the Tobacco Factory’s Othello earlier this year, unleashing the dark and destructive forces of a master manipulator on those most deserving of his loyalty. Now he returns to the Factory Theatre in his one-man show Living with the Lights On, recounting his own personal encounter with the Devil in a performance of unflinching, soul-baring honesty.
In this Actors Touring Company production, Lockyer welcomes his audience into the theatre with disarming ease – offering the tea and Hobnobs of a typical village hall gathering. There isn’t any barrier or theatrical artifice – the lights, quite literally, are always on. He sets the scene with humour and pathos, but mental illness isn’t cosy or inclusive. His story soon turns to the very public breakdown he experienced as Mercutio in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet.

Under Ramin Gray’s nimble direction, Lockyer’s delivery switches from manic intensity when meeting the Devil – who is bizarrely dressed as a Californian beach boy – on a country walk near Stratford, running amok on the RSC stage and being unfaithful to his long-term girlfriend, to moments of quieter reflection on the consequences of his actions. He deftly characterizes those he loves or meets along the way – his mother, the doctors and the RSC landlord who frowns at the pizza boxes and saucers of ‘Holy water’ he has strewn around his bedroom.

As the tale of his disintegration continues, the moments of lucidity become fewer. His actions spiral into self-destruction and a reckless relationship with a can of petrol. Lockyer maps out the all-consuming suffering of his existence with such clarity that at times it’s difficult to keep watching. Most remarkable, but sadly not surprising, is how lightly his plight is brushed aside by the authorities; not only missing the clues but actively looking away, as he is sent home alone from hospital after a stomach pumping because there are no beds available.

It’s a cathartic, compelling 80-minute bombardment of pain, leavened by Lockyer’s flashes of bleak and self-deprecating humour. After descending into the depths of hell, the help he was crying out for is eventually at hand and he begins to find a path back to his former life. If it seems miraculous that Lockyer is now back on stage, this clearly took years of small steps to recovery that are summarised a little too quickly. Perhaps this is because these steps are still being taken and this show is a part of that. As a one-man embodiment of the fall from the precipice of sanity, it’s a courageous and insightful reminder of how close we all live to the edge.

Reviewed on 19 September 2017 | Image: Simon Annand

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


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

Private investigator Varg Veum is back, and this time he's in real trouble. As readers of Gunnar Staalesen's previously translated Nordic noir We Shall Inherit the Wind and Where Roses Never Die will know, Veum has been plunged headlong into despair by the loss of his long-term partner Karin. If you haven't read either of these titles yet, there's enough backstory in Wolves in the Dark to make his predicament clear.


Hauled into Bergen's police station for questioning after an early morning raid, Veum is astounded to find himself accused of accessing child pornography online. A cache of incriminating material has been found on his computer and he's remanded in custody as a suspected member of an international paedophile ring.

After three and a half years of trying to obliterate his grief with alcohol and one-night stands, Veum has recently met Sølvi and found some solace in their tentative new relationship. But he's still over-reliant on his bottles of Aquavit as a crutch, and there are too many holes in his memory.

Yet, despite the blackouts, Veum is convinced of his own innocence. Will he be able to remember enough to identify the person who hacked into his computer and planted the evidence?

He has no shortage of enemies, indeed his confrontational style is destined to ruffle plenty of feathers. Now it seems there's a dearth of sympathy from those already decided on his guilt. So, when an unexpected chance to escape presents itself, Veum grabs it with both hands. On the run, he now has a fraught and hazard-strewn opportunity to clear his name and solve his most testing case of all.

Staalesen's writing, translated from the Norwegian with accustomed fluency by Don Bartlett, is as tense and spare as ever and his gruelling subject matter is treated with sensitivity. Veum is humanised by his self-deprecating acknowledgment of a flawed past, in contrast to the repulsive and amoral - but always believable - inhabitants of Bergen's murky underworld. There's a palpable sense of place as Veum crisscrosses city streets while ducking away from the police and Staalesen introduces enough twists, turns and dead ends along the way to keep intrigue levels smouldering nicely. Gripping and satisfying, Wolves in the Dark is proof that this father of Nordic noir has lost none of his enduring powers.

Wolves in the Dark was published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Simon Purse


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

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

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed on 9 June 2017 | Image: Mark Douet


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

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

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



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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre Review: Medea at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed on 11 May 2017 | Image: Jack Offord


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Book Review: Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe

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



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

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

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


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

Monday, 29 May 2017

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

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed on 13 April 2017 | Image: Simon Annand


Monday, 8 May 2017

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Book Review: Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone's Strange Heart Beating has one of those singular covers that never fails to draw comment, even though reactions in my small sample veered between captivated and unconvinced. Maybe its contents will prove equally divisive, but I for one adored this striking debut novel from a bewitching and deceptively complex young voice.


Leda Kauss has perished in a bizarre North London boating accident involving a swan. From the outset, her death has an air of inevitability. Women in her family frequently die young in unusual circumstances; freezing to death in the 'javelin of a pine tree's shadow' or from the sepsis caused by the shard of a fallen chandelier.

Leda's husband Seb, the story's narrator, is undone. Robbed of a future with his beautiful, sophisticated artist wife and struggling to cope at work, he lashes out at those around him. He is alternately arrogant and apathetic, driven to extremes by his grief. Sunk in a morass of memory, he begins to research Leda's Latvian childhood:
I've taken it upon myself to learn more about her. Even in death, why shouldn't I get to know my own wife? I'm unlikely to find a woman to interest me more. I take a trip to the library. It's the first time I've set foot in the place, even though I signed a petition to save it.
Sifting through her belongings, he comes across photographs of people he doesn't know and a packet of unopened letters from Olaf, a man Leda never mentioned. He decides to travel to Latvia, to find out more about the enigmatic woman he married.

This is a book of layers to become immersed in, tumbling away from the sharp edges of reality down the rabbit hole of Leda's origins. The title is taken from W B Yeats' poem and references to the classical mythology of Leda and the Swan, are threaded through the narrative, although - as Seb discovers - it is his wife's identity that appears to have changed its shape.

Seb's narrative is interspersed with extracts from Leda's adolescent diary; meeting those she grew up with, he becomes increasingly unsettled by what he didn't know, finding more fresh questions than answers. At the same time, he is absorbed by Leda's forested homeland, so different from his own intellectual life in London. Finding Olaf, he is gradually drawn into the sinister and near-feral tensions of an exclusively male circle of hunting friends.

Strange Heart Beating is distinctive in its imagery, filled with the bitterness and melancholy of lost love, darkly witty and immersive from the first page. Eli Goldstone, a graduate of the City University Creative Writing MA, has produced a remarkable debut. She anatomizes grief from the inside out, stripping it back to the sinew, hinting at the magical realism of Angela Carter's writing but establishing a penetrating and fearless style that is firmly her own.


Strange Heart Beating is published by Granta Books on 4 May 2017. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Opera Review: WNO's La bohème at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was written for The Reviews Hub


Welsh National Opera (WNO)’s evocative 2012 production of Puccini’s La bohème returns to the stage for a well-deserved revival, as part of the company’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Here, Annabel Arden’s original combination of strong vocal performances, atmospheric staging and clear storytelling is continued under the direction of Caroline Chaney.

In a fin de siècle Paris recreated from projected rooftops and star-lit skies, the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, both penniless, meet on Christmas Eve and fall in love. There’s an instant chemistry between Jessica Muirhead’s Mimi and Matteo Lippi’s Rodolfo that convinces from the start; both are dramatically and vocally assured, as they combine with passion in the duet O Soave Fanciulla (Oh Loveliest of Maidens). Muirhead’s sweet soprano soars above the orchestra with a celestial purity that foreshadows her demise, while Lippi embraces the complex range required for an empathetic portrayal of Rodolfo.

To celebrate, they leave the humble garret Rodolfo shares with his fellow bohemians and join the warmth and excitement of Café Momus in the Latin quarter. Here, Rodolfo’s artist friend Marcello is reunited with his former love Musetta, who has tired of her elderly, rich admirer. In this most tempestuous of relationships, Gary Griffiths as Marcello is a charismatic presence, well matched with the flirtations of Lauren Fagan’s spirited Musetta, who waits until the final Act to reveal her tenderness of heart.

There are delightful supporting performances from Jihoon Kim as the philosopher Colline and Gareth Brynmor John as the musician Shaunard, who provide a palpable sense of friendship and joie de vivre alongside their technical skill. Act II in the Café Momus is a visual feast, festooned with coloured lights. WNO’s always admirable chorus is richly detailed and augmented by the lively, skittering presence of a group of children, in thrall to the toy seller Parpignol (Michael Clifton-Thompson) and his wares.

Design and lighting by Stephen Brimson Lewis and Tim Mitchell contrast the riotous colour of the café with the snowy austerity of the tollgate in Act III, as Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship sours under the weight of his unwarranted jealousy. Conductor Manlio Benzi’s interpretation ensures that WNO’s orchestra always enhances the rousing emotions on stage, as Mimi’s illness takes hold and she is reunited in Act IV with Rodolfo and his friends for one final, fleeting time.

WNO’s La bohème may not push the boundaries of what opera can do, but its traditional retelling focuses on the beauty of Puccini’s score and vividly brings to life the tragedy of the lovers’ story. This is a memorable revival that sates the senses, imprinting in the mind both the searing joy of friendship and love and the poignancy of loss.

Reviewed on 29 March 2017 | Image: Robert Workman


Monday, 10 April 2017

Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, and this brand-new version of What the Butler Saw, a joint production between Theatre Royal Bath and Leicester Curve, commemorates his final full-length play. But as a dark farce, this work is now showing its age; shocking at the time for its anti-establishment sentiment, today the aspect that strikes the most jarring note is the inherent sexism and gender stereotyping of the 1960s.

Viewed through this filter, there’s still enjoyment in a story that takes place entirely in the white box of a psychiatrist’s clinic. Here, the initial calm and order quickly descend into mayhem, as Dr. Prentice’s attempted seduction of his new secretary is thwarted by the untimely arrival of his voracious wife, fresh from her own suspect dalliance with a bell-boy in a linen cupboard.

Characteristically, it’s the cover-up that provides the greatest comedy; the handiest solution to most problems being to adopt a cross-dressing disguise that involves plenty of farcical stripping-off and trouser-dropping. A vase becomes a useful receptacle for all manner of clothing and there are moments of exquisite hilarity with the flowers it should innocently contain. Doors are entered and exited at great speed. Throw in a maniacal government analyst, a none-too-observant police sergeant and a diagnosis of insanity; the accompanying strait-jackets, guns and bloodshed all provide a galloping inevitability.

Orton’s text is dense with fast-paced words and wit and – apart from one or two fluffed lines in this performance – the timing in Nikolai Foster’s production is generally immaculate. Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell as Dr. and Mrs. Prentice are well matched in both sexual predilection and quick delivery, while Jasper Britton revels in his role as Dr. Rance, the single-minded spin-doctor of a pre-determined outcome: ‘I’m not interested in your explanations, I can supply my own!’ Dakota Blue Richards is a study in the downward spiral from enthusiastic young employee to gibbering, casually abused wreck.

Michael Taylor’s curved, raked set is a thing of beauty; adapting first to the width of Leicester’s Curve Theatre and now the traditional proscenium in Bath, it accommodates the unfolding story – and its requirement for doors to burst in and out of – while denying any specific time frame.

If only the narrative of this otherwise plot-driven, witty work could do the same. What must have been subversive in the 1960s verges on jaded in the twenty-first Century and its relevance is hard to discern. In this unadulterated form, What the Butler Saw resembles a misogynistic period piece lacking context, presenting rape as an acceptable extension of intense sexual desire and incest as its jolly consequence. The fine performances and clearly delivered merriment may still find an appeal with lovers of the genre, but ultimately this farce feels uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed on 28 March 2017 | Image: Contributed




Monday, 3 April 2017

Book Review: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Kjell Ola Dahl is known as one of the founding fathers of Nordic Noir but, unlike the widely translated thrillers of Jo Nesbø or Henning Mankell, opportunities to read his crime fiction in English have been limited. Now Faithless, a new translation by Don Bartlett of one of Dahl's best known Gunnarstranda and Frølich series, takes a step towards bringing his complex, twisty police procedurals to a wider audience.


Inspector Frank Frølich of the Oslo police is devastated when the victim of a brutal murder is identified as Veronika, fiancée of his oldest friend, Karl Anders. His colleague Gunnarstranda is brought back early from holiday and, as the investigation takes shape, lines between the personal and professional are increasingly blurred. Karl Anders' alibi doesn't seem to stack up and his relationship with the dead woman is far from straightforward. There are secrets she was withholding that the police must uncover to find her killer.

Why was Veronika arrested shortly before her death on a drugs charge? Who is the unidentified man who seems to have been stalking her? And is there any connection to a similar murder several years earlier in northern Norway? The possibility that the police have a serial killer on their hands adds even greater urgency to finding him before he has the chance to strike again.

Meanwhile, Frølich also has to grapple with the case of a beautiful young Ugandan student, who arrived in Norway to attend a university summer school but quickly went missing. Under pressure to downgrade the importance of this investigation, he finds it dredging up distressing memories of a night many years ago, that led to his long estrangement from Karl Anders.

As Faithless is not the first book in the series, there's an established back story to the flawed relationships between the characters: Frølich, Gunnarstranda, and their co-workers Lena Stigersand, Mustafa Rindal and Emil Yttergjerde. Their methods of policing rely heavily on instinct; they gossip between themselves and try to palm off the banalest of tasks. Yttergjerde is routinely too busy studying the pictures in Autocar to answer the phone. The bubbling undercurrents become clearly discernible as you read, and the novel still works as a standalone.

The narrative crackles with atmosphere; the oppressive heat and long sunshine hours of an unusually warm Norwegian summer swelter and daze its protagonists, only breaking in a symbolically dramatic storm towards the end. And, reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus thrillers, music adds an important element;  Frølich listens to the Dandy Warhols while Gunnarstranda favours Mack the Knife as sung by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett. 


Faithless is an elaborately plotted, well-constructed and gratifying read that questions the basis of friendship and reflects on wrong actions being taken for the right reasons. Dahl always has a confident grasp of his material, even while he is demonstrating the eggshell-thin fragility of the line between good and evil.

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett) is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format on 15 May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre Review: Escaped Alone at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


It’s all too easy to dismiss four women of 70 years or more, sitting in a garden on a summer’s afternoon. At this time of life, women are often condemned to a cloak of creeping invisibility – good for a little childcare, but otherwise functionally irrelevant. In a compelling 50 minutes, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone turns this trope on its head; enriching her all-female cast with profound interior lives and the jaggedly recurrent theme of an apocalypse, as told by an elderly woman sporting baggy leggings and a self-inflicted haircut.

It begins with Linda Bassett as the seemingly unshakeable Mrs Jarrett, spotting three women she vaguely knows behind a high garden fence, and popping through the gate to join them. After hardly a murmur, she’s accepted by the others; Deborah Findlay’s Sally, who used to work in medicine but whose charming exterior masks an extreme aversion to cats; phlegmatic ex-hairdresser Vi (June Watson), who doesn’t like kitchens any more for murderous reasons that will become apparent and shy retired office worker Lena (Kika Markham), who thinks it would be better to be in an empty room because ‘then there’s fewer things to mean nothing at all’.

Under a blue sky, they sit and chat about grand-children and TV serials, but their conversation is elliptical, sentences unfinished and pauses non-naturalistic. Then, as the others fade away into darkness, each woman has their own moment in the spotlight to portray their innermost thoughts and deepest anxieties. When it’s her turn, Mrs Jarrett is the least articulate, only able to utter of her ‘terrible rage’.

Her words, it seems, have already been spat out in the episodic retellings that punctuate proceedings; director James Macdonald combines with designer Miriam Buether, as he did in The Father, to create a sharp blackness framed by a coil of sputtering light, in stark contrast to the serenity of the garden. Here, Mrs Jarrett speaks of an apocalypse; ‘songs were sung until dry throats caused the end of speech’; ‘the obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers’. She conjures up a dystopia that Margaret Atwood might be proud of, but a bewildering one; is this a parallel universe or a prediction of future destruction? Churchill leaves it to her audience to decide.

As an established director of her plays, Macdonald knows how to bring out Churchill’s playful moments, too; in one joyous scene, the perfectly attuned cast sing The Crystals’ 1960s hit Da Doo Ron Ron, as well as discussing aspirations of flying to Japan. These women possess authority, look forwards as well as backwards in their lives and encompass both the domestic and the anarchic. Escaped Alone may be short, often perplexing and obscure, but long after you’ve left the theatre, it still contains a whole world of complexity to contemplate.

Reviewed on 22 March 2017 | Image: Johan Persson