Wednesday, 12 April 2017

La Strada - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo - Robert Day 

"If you spend long enough on the road, you forget what home is", or so says Zampanò in this new production of La Strada.


I mean, really, what’s not to like? Directed by Sally Cookson? Check. New musical score by Benji Bower? Check. Starring Audrey Brisson? Check. Yep, everything is in place to make Bristol Old Vic’s latest production La Strada a hit.

Based on the 1954 Federico Fellini film of the same name, La Strada (aka The Road) is set in Italy in the years after World War Two and follows a young woman called Gelsomina (Brisson) whose mother sells her to a cruel and intimidating strongman street performer named Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin). Given that Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa on the road and that Rosa had perished within a year, her mother was utterly desperate or she would not have allowed her to go.

Zampanò takes Gelsomina on the eponymous road and by brute force teaches her to work in the carnivals, but his cruelty takes its toll on her spirit. When they hole up in a circus and Gelsomina befriends another street performer, the kindly but mischievous Fool (Bart Soroczynski), the tale unwinds.

It is hard to imagine anyone more perfectly cast as the innocent Gelsomina than Brisson. In a beautiful homage to the emotional yet slapstick performances of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Brisson manages to convey the willing enthusiasm and big heart of Gelsomina, combined with a feisty determination to keep true her promise to her mother and to ultimately do the right thing. In many ways, Gelsomina is Chaplin's Little Tramp in female form. Despite being on stage for virtually every scene, Gelsomina has remarkably few lines compared to the overbearing Zampanò, yet she steals every moment with the expressions she conveys via her facial gestures and body language.

In addition, Bower’s musical score performed by the cast of actor musicians perfectly supports the narrative without being intrusive, and without realising it the audience are tapping their toes in the stalls… and still humming a few bars as they leave the theatre.

Sally Cookson as a director is a good choice for this production of La Strada. Via Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Sleeping Beauty, she has already shown us her flair for imaginative productions with strong female leads - something theatre generally needs a hell of a lot more of. And in her hands, the theatrical version of La Strada is a tour de force.

Photo - Robert Day
La Strada is on at Bristol Old Vic until 22 April 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Long Live The Great Pottery Throwdown

Farewell to The Great Pottery Throwdown for another series. While millions wax lyrical about The Great British Bake Off and are angsting about its move to Channel 4, I’m much more excited about its younger BBC2 cousin The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Despite having no particular interest in pottery and absolutely no desire to get my hands dirty myself, I bloody love this show. Presented by the joyful Sara Cox, and judged by pottery giants (or so I’ve learned) Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, The Great Pottery Throwdown is the televisual equivalent of putting on your comfiest PJs and curling up to spend an hour reading a Persephone book under a fluffy blanket.

Each week, the contestants are tasked with one mammoth make (anything from an entire dinner service to a, err, toilet) that takes days, as well as two surprise tasks: a spot-test (where they are judged on skills including sponge decorating or sculpting the torso of a finely toned man), and an against-the-clock quick-fire task with a special judge (Johnny Vegas turned up one week with his one-minute teapots, which was a delight).

You know the formula, you’ve seen it in a load of similar shows (sewing, painting, baking, cooking…). And it’s easy to see why it’s so popular - with a bubbly host, passionate judges, and contestants we come to care about, it’s a gentle escape from the tedium of everyday life. We watch people who are, to all intents and purposes, just like us, but doing impressive things that we dream we might be able to do with a bit of effort (there is nothing stopping any of us from throwing a pot, if only we’d get off our sofas and attend a pottery class) but we can relax safe in the knowledge we know it’s unlikely to happen.

But the reason I watch The Great Pottery Showdown over any of its sibling shows (full disclaimer - I find Bake Off extremely dull: I know I’m in the minority but I find watching cakes bake as dull as watching paint dry) is the personalities. I love Sara Cox. I love her Radio 2 ‘80s show, I love it when she fills in for Chris Evans on the breakfast show… she’s fab. So I watched the first series of The Great Pottery Showdown simply because of Sara. And I watched it all in one go one day when I was off work ill - it was perfect, and compelling, and I was devastated when it ended. I genuinely felt like I was left with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, despite the essentially gentle nature of the show.

It’s a drama in itself. Will the pots crack in the kiln? Will Keith cry? How many times will Ryan mention his granny? Will Coit ever get anything into the drying room on time? Who will go at the end of the episode? The tension!

And I disagreed with the judges. (I’m assuming you’ve seen the final, if not, look away as I’m mentioning the winner in a moment). While I had Ryan pegged as the winner from the first episode, I also had Clover and Richard down to leave in early weeks. I had Nam down as a finalist (and I think he would have been, if he hadn’t ballsed up his Russian dolls), and Freya deserved to go through as well. But what do I know? I’m a humble viewer. Not a master potter like Kate and Keith.

So long live The Great Pottery Throwdown. Please return for a second, third, fourth and more series. Please put Sara Cox in front of our TV cameras all the time - the world needs more joy and she delivers it in spades. And I’m glad that the right potter won last week.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

'Crooked Heart' by Lissa Evans

Like a cross between Elisabeth Roberts' fabulous 1973 story of a carefree childhood, All About Simon And His Grandmother, and Barbara Noble's 1946 tale of a wartime evacuee, Doreen, Lissa Evans' newest novel Crooked Heart is an utter joy.

While All About Simon And His Grandmother is a warm children’s story of a strange little boy and his madcap adventures with his eccentric and fun grandmother, Doreen is the tale of a wartime evacuee who is torn between missing her mother at home in London and settling into her new life with strangers in the countryside.

Crooked Heart meets these two books in the middle, and throws in a helping of suffrage pride. There should always be a helping of suffrage pride in a novel. Deeds not words and all that.

Our hero is ten-year-old Noel who is growing up with his eccentric and joyful godmother Matty, a former suffragette, in a book-filled, art-strewn home in Hampstead. Without hammering home the suffrage message, Crooked Heart subtly informs us of Matty’s fight alongside her sister suffragettes, her prison experiences and what she went through to earn her WSPU medals. All of this instills in Noel a strong grounding in wilful, intelligent rebellion.

But then the war comes, bringing death with it. And Noel is evacuated to the country and the care of single mother Vera, who lives with her lazy son, mute mother and does whatever she must to keep a roof over their heads. Initially dismissing Noel as not-very-bright due to his quietness, Vera soon comes to discover she has met a kindred spirit in him… one with whom she has much more in common that she would ever have first thought. Together, the two come up with a variety of schemes to live on just the wrong side of the law, and ultimately Noel comes to wrestle with his conscience when an elderly lady’s hard-won suffrage medals come into the equation.

Crooked Heart is a fun and fascinating, fast-paced story of survival and rebellion. Delightfully, Lissa Evans hasn’t resorted to creating a subplot of romance for Vera anywhere, which is an enormous relief in a market overloaded with books filled with pointless romantic subplots. And in the Dorothy Whipple vein of storytelling, Evans has subverted the interloper story to show that not all outsiders are bad news. Indeed, with Noel, Vera’s life improves a thousand fold.

'Every Good Deed' by Dorothy Whipple

What cannot be made better by reading a Dorothy Whipple book? A classic hot-water-bottle author, becoming engrossed in a Whipple means becoming enveloped in a warm and captivating story of wrong-doing, good vs bad and, more often than not, women triumphing over men. A Whipple is not necessarily well-written in the sense of an accepted literary classic, but it is definitely well-written in the sense of an immediately gripping and compelling story - which, to my mind, is far superior to the former idea. A Whipple is a guarantee of a good book.

So thank goodness that Persephone Books has been making it its business to diligently re-publish every single piece of Whipple writing it can get its hands on. (For clarity, Persephone publishes lots of other forgotten women writers as well - but Dorothy Whipple remains one of their consistent best-sellers). And having just read their latest collection of her short stories, Every Good Deed, I am now up to speed on their Whipple offerings so far. Which puts me in a good position to reliably inform you that Dorothy Whipple has never written a bad book.

The story that lends this latest collection its title, Every Good Deed, is actually a novella, coming in at just over 100 pages and occupying most of the first half of this volume. It’s a classic Whipple construction: two elderly and kind spinster sisters live in luxury in a nice English village. And then their home is overtaken by an outsider: an adopted wayward teenage girl who exploits their kindness and bank balance. Being good eggs, the sisters won’t give up on the girl, no matter how tempting it must be, and time and again they show how good triumphs over bad. Until the girl pushes them one step too far… Brilliant! Classic Whipple!

The remainder of this collection is filled with short stories that also follow the classic Whipple vein: a husband who tires of his exhausted wife and demanding kids so plans to run off with his mistress (the twist in this is magnificent); a middle-aged spinster who runs away to show her cruel relatives just what she’s capable of (triumph over adversity); the kind couple persuaded to run a boarding house that is then destroyed by one overbearing guest (the snowball effect of fate). And I defy you not to be broken-hearted by the bitterly cruel hand dealt in the grossly unfair story Susan, which i found the most powerful story in this whole collection.

Whether in her short stories of her long novels (and I delight in the great length of novels such as The Priory, They Were Sisters and Greenbanks), Whipple has a talent for cuckoo-in-the-nest stories: an outsider comes in and upsets the previous harmonious home with disastrous consequences. And nine times out of ten, that dastardly outsider will be a man (boo, hiss!). It’s wonderful, it’s compelling… it’s exactly what I want to read.

If you are yet to read a Whipple (and oh, how I envy you, how I would love to have all those books to read for the first time), then I urge you to start with Someone At A Distance (also published by Persephone). It was the book that got me reading again after a period of ill-health where I had been unable to focus my attention on any book at all for six months or more. I picked up a copy of Someone At A Distance, and was hooked within pages, finishing the entire book within days. A classic Whipple about the fragility of the family, the superficiality of the male psyche, and - of course - an interloper in the home.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

'The Radical Eye - Modernist Photography', Tate Modern

'Glass Tears' by Man Ray

It's probably not a mammoth surprise to discover that pop legend Sir Elton John is a massive collector of vintage photography. But what is a surprise is that in contrast to his somewhat garish and over-the-top tastes in fashion and interior decor (those who've seen at-home interviews with him will know exactly what I mean), Elton's taste in photography is spot on. And in the spirit of generosity, he has shared the highlights of his collection with the everyday public in this exhibition at London's Tate Modern.

The Radical Eye (which is on until 1 May 2017) focuses on photos from the first half of the 20th Century, when photographers were particularly experimental and adventurous with this still-new medium. And if you're really keen, you can even listen to the audio guide from Sir Elton himself as you wander around the exhibition - although I chose to go without. 

There are some very famous photos in the exhibition, including Man Ray's 'Glass Tears' (above) and Dorothea Lange's powerful portrait of 'The Migrant Mother', which is surely one of the most captivating and heartbreaking pictures ever taken. 

But there are plenty of lesser known and unusual pictures here, too. Including an absolutely tiny one of an underwater swimmer by Andre Kertesz, which is about the size of a postage stamp, but is utterly mesmerising. It's hard to believe that this image was taken in 1917 given how fresh and contemporary it seems today, 100 years on. The reflections of the water, and the dappled effect on the swimmer's skin is really extraordinary.

The Radical Eye is themed into different rooms around movement, experiments, portraits and so on, and there is also a five-minute film from Elton in which he explains where his passion for photography stemmed from, and which shows the pictures on display in his own home. Despite my rejection of the Elton audio guide, the film is actually a really useful and interesting tool to put the exhibition into context. Having watched the film, the exhibition is no longer the indulgent folly of an overly wealthy pop star with too much money on his hands, but becomes a means of expression for an ex-addict who has found a way of using other people's art to inspire him. 

As a bonus, The Radical Eye is housed inside Tate Modern's new space The Tanks - well, it's new to me but it's clearly been a year or two since I last paid a visit here. This new space fits well with the original power station structure, and the raw concrete is actually very charming and soothing to spend time in. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Adventures in Moominland - Southbank Centre

Who remembers the Moomins? Possibly better loved now than back when I was a child, these mysterious white creatures were (to me, at least) simply a cartoon on TV when I came home from school. But going into adulthood, Tove Jansson's adventurous and gentle souls have claimed a large chunk of our grown-up hearts, thanks in no small part to her wonderful story books and illustrations of the Moomin family and the magic and imagination behind them. 

And now you can take a visit to Moominland yourself by visiting the lower ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall at London's Southbank Centre, and climbing through the pages hidden behind the giant book cover downstairs...

Guided by the fantastic Chloe, our group of about ten explorers (interestingly: all adult, all female) reverently followed Chloe through the pages of the huge book and onto the paths of Moominland. 

Complete with a narration by Sandi Toksvig (who else?!), sound and lighting effects, and Chloe's bubbling enthusiasm, we spend an hour or so following in the footsteps of Moominpapa, Moominmama, Moomintroll, Little My and friends... we sit in their camp, we explore their woodlands, we find Tove Jansson's drawing room, we see magic golden butterflies, we travel on a raft... We see original drawings, Tove's own possessions (her handmade floral crown is a treat) and special Moomin models... 

Adventures in Moominland is just wonderful. Seemingly such a simple creation, let yourself be carried away by the magic of it and you really will see where your imagination can take you, and discover the benefits of having a magical imaginary friend like Tove did. (And luckily, there are no signs of the Hattifatteners, who terrified me as a child!)

For more information, please click on this link.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

'The Love of the Nightingale' at Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
While the famous Bristol Old Vic building on King Street is undergoing extensive renovations, the team is using the opportunity to take the shows that would have been in their (currently out of action) Studio on walkabout to other venues in the city. 

As such, this production of The Love Of The Nightingale from Bristol Old Vic's Young Company is being performed in the Bristol Bierkeller on All Saints Street (which claims to be Bristol's oldest nightclub and, since 2012, has also functioned as a theatre as well as a live music venue). It's charmingly German retro in here as the name suggests: all low artexed ceilings, cavelike arches, tiled floor and long benches. 

All in all, it seems the perfect location for the Young Company to perform their production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play The Love Of The Nightingale, which here is directed by Miranda Cromwell, after having first been written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. The play is a contemporary and feminist re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of the rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law Tereus, and the silencing of women in the face of gender power struggles. Despite this obviously being based on a centuries old tale, the themes sadly still ring very true today. 

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
(Please note: the plot summary below contains a few spoilers.)

Athens is at war with Thebes over land. And after the king of Thrace, Tereus (Toby Robertshaw, playing a most unenviable role with conviction), steps in to help, he takes the king of Athens' daughter Procne (Hannah Hecheverria) as his bride. In doing so, he rips Procne away from her beloved younger sister Philomele (Imogen Downes) and the rest of her family, and takes Procne all the way back to Thrace with him where she must learn to live with her loneliness, as well as her new role as a mother to their son Itys (Jacob Rayner Blair). 

After five years, Tereus agrees to return to Athens to bring Philomele to make Procne happy. While on the return voyage, all of Tereus' soliders and Philomele's chaperone Niobe (Alexandra Wollacott) can sense the danger looming as a result of Tereus' strong sexual attraction to the innocent Philomele - which ultimately leads to him raping her in a truly shocking scene (while the audience obviously doesn't see anything graphic, the screams of Philomele are genuinely haunting). 

What ensues is Tereus telling each sister that the other has died, and when an already enraged Philomele discovers the lie she finds the strength to rant at Tereus about what a small, cowardly, pathetic man he is... only to be silenced in the most brutal way. An act that ultimately leads to his own downfall.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
This a brave, no-holds-barred performance from the Bristol Old Vic's Young Company, which has a long tradition of not shying away from tough topics. As Philomele, Imogen Downes shows herself to be an actor really worth keeping your eyes open for - her performance was strong, impressive and powerful. Given everything that Philomele endures, this wasn't a role that just anyone could have carried off, but Downes more than does the part justice. 

However, I did feel the production would have benefitted from a little trimming. The slightly confusing actions of the first half could have been summed up in a much shorter period, as it is in the second half of the performance where The Love Of The Nightingale really comes into its own in a much tighter script.  

Sensitively handling issues such as rape, consent, revenge and gender struggles is no small ask, but in this production director Miranda Cromwell has found a way to convincingly put across how relevant and important all of these are. The way the sisters are treated as commodities, the lack of attention paid by the male characters to the wishes or opinions of any of the women, the apparent irrelevance of consent to the powerful men... all of these issues are addressed with care and consideration here. 

So bravo to the Young Company for a strong and innovative piece of feminist theatre. 

The Love Of The Nightingale is performed at Bristol Bierkeller until 13 January. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Please note, the Bierkeller is a cash-only venue.