Theatre review: Golem, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1)

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Written, directed, animated and largely performed by the often off-beat, always on-point 1927, Golem is shaking up the conservative West End with its gleeful, quirky and wonderfully imaginative comment on the technology takeover of our age.

In Jewish legend, a golem is a creature made from inanimate material, usually clay (in Hebrew, golem means shapeless mass), that is magically instilled with the power to take commands from its master. In legend, a golem usually becomes ever more powerful and ultimately destructive, in Golem, our clay man becomes a nightmare embodiment of our relationship with technology – like Frankenstein’s monster with an iPhone.

Golem’s master is Robert Robinson (a fantastic turn from Shamira Turner), a nerd who loves binary code and brown clothes. His instrument of choice in his sister, Annie’s, band – Annie and The Underdogs – is a keytar. Robert and Annie, a former librarian from a time when libraries existed, live with their Beethoven and knitting-loving grandmother. Robert has a mundane job in the Backup Department, “backing up the backup”, with four other like-minded geeks, writing out binary codes to existing computer programmes in preparation for the day the power goes out. He fancies Joy (a delightful Rose Robinson who plays Gran with equal relish), the Backup Department’s stationery cupboard manager who is wonderfully odd and whose dream it is to one day visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Robert’s world is changed dramatically the day he bumps into an inventor friend who persuades him to take home a clay golem he’s been tweaking, promising that this lump of clay will make his life far simpler. Golem, who looks like a, erm, very adult Morph, is animated onto the screen along with the projections of a city from a future that could be ours, with derelict buildings abandoned by the Russian oligarchs and hipster restaurants where the food is served in aspic.

Robert sets put Golem to work – literally, he’s now backing up the backup – but unbeknown to Robert, a sinister corporate company have also recognised the power of Golem and one day take over Golem’s mind. Like Dr Frankenstein, Robert soon discovers that his creature isn’t as pliable as he’d like and he’s soon in thrall to his powers.

Golem is simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge. It has a fringe feel to it, but is as slick as any West End musical. Suzanne Andrade’s script is shot through with wit and poetic and knowing popular culture nods.  In among the fun and the surreal charm, are lots of on-point messages about modern life – the power of advertising, social media, those unseen trend makers and, of course, our slavish devotion to technology that is drilling holes in our communities, big and small.

Paul Barritt’s animation is more than simply a projected set, it’s an integral piece of a production that encompass several art forms including a jaunty live score (the drums and piano are played by Lillian Henley and Will Close respectively) that hints at Robert and Annie’s jazz-obsessed father.

I loved the numerous imaginative touches – the broken 7″ in punk fan Annie’s hair, the moth that rises up from the table when gran bangs it in frustration. I also enjoyed the hugely funny parodies of the more ridiculous aspects of modern life; Joy’s interview for her role at the Backup Department sent up job description cliches so perfectly and my friend and I were knowingly amused by Robert’s dalliance with internet dating (or what passes for internet dating in this production) after Golem persuades him to ditch Joy for being “a frumpy 35-year-old who is going to trick you into having a baby”.

Golem reminded me of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and was every bit as joyful, clever and thoughtful. The message may be stretched a little, but wrapped up in such wit and originality, Golem could have been saying nothing and it would have still been tremendous fun.

Golem | Trafalgar Studios | Until 22nd May

by Suzanne Elliott

Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

I could pick holes bigger than a haystack in Thomas Vinterberg’s reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be churlish when I enjoyed it so much. My reasons aren’t terribly scholarly, but everything and everyone looked so sumptuous, it was as intoxicating as a balmy Pimm-drenched English summer evening.

Shamefully, I’ve never seen the 1967 Julie Christie-starring John Schlesinger film of Thomas Hardy’s brooding Dorset novel (if only Hardy had written more books along these lines). And, despite describing myself, when asked – which is never – as a Hardy fan, I hadn’t read the book. Of course, I knew about the bit with the sheep, and that shabby, handsome Alan Bates rather paled in comparison to dashing Terence Stamp as they both courted Julie Christie in her luminous prime.

What I didn’t know was that it was positively a rom-com – or, indeed a novel by David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay – compared to Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene is pretty badass for a Victorian era woman, especially in Carey Mulligan’s hands who relishes her character’s rebellious side. She also got to wear some terrific hats after she inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes lady of the manor, not bad for an orphan who we first meet toiling the land on her aunt’s farm in what looks like an H&M denim dress.

On her first day as mistress of the farm, her barn and harvest are saved from a ravishing fire by none other than Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who asked her to marry him in her lowly farm girl days (Gabriel looks like Matthias Schoenaerts so this was Bathsheba’s first mistake). He’s had a run of bad luck (that sheep bit) and is currently homeless and jobless. But his fortuitous fire-fighting skills secure him a job as chief shepherd on Bathsheba’s farm where he is free to look longingly at his mistress.

Bathsheba gains another admirer, her next-door-neighbour, a 40-year-old bachelor farmer, William Boldwood (played by the ever wonderful Michael Sheen). To amuse herself (these were the days before X Factor) Bathsheba sends Boldwood a Valentine’s card as a joke that misfires in typically terrible Hardy fashion. Hardy LOVES a coincidence and he enjoys the tricks that the cruel hand of fate plays on us mortals. For all of Bathsheba’s independence, she’s still a plaything for the gods, and a slave to her own fatal flaw.

Her fatal flaw arrives in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a redcoat who is recovering from a broken heart after being jilted at the alter. Sturridge’s Frank is one of the haystack-sized holes I mentioned early. He is allegedly 29, but looks like he couldn’t order a pint of Scrumpy without being asked for ID. He’s a good-looking lad, but his Frank lacks the sex appeal that would lead an otherwise strong-willed, independent woman to lose her head (and knickers and farm). To be fair, it’s not really Sturridge’s fault; his Frank is almost a side note, his role cut down to one-dimensional size to fit the restrictions of a 119-minute production. This is a shame, but it’s not disastrous as it gives us more time for sun-tinged scenes of haymaking and broad-shouldered Belgium Schoenaerts making doe-eyes at Bathsheba (some might gripe that Schoenaerts’s Wessex accent is a little, erm, continental, but I’ll let that one go. See aforementioned doe-eyes).

As with all adaptations of classic novels, Vinterberg’s film of Hardy’s 1874 novel is also very much of its own time. David ‘One Day’ Nicholls’s script lifts Hardy’s characteristic gloominess to acceptable 21st century tolerance levels and Cary Mulligan – who largely is excellent – injects the odd modern intonation into some of her carefree pre-marriage dialogue. And, while it may not be a classic, leaving a cinema smiling after a brush with Thomas Hardy is as pleasant as a stroll along a Dorset cliff dusk (mad sheepdog incidents aside).

Far From The Madding Crowd | Released 1st May 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

First performed at the National Theatre in 1997, Closer was written in a time when popular culture was teeming with studies of overly-sexed, overly-stressed, overly-self-obsessed people and their relationships. This was an era of This Life and Queer as Folk, TV programmes where the world for the under 35s was both hugely fun and horribly messy and hurtful.

Marber’s tale of sex and love has survived the best part of two decades better than many of us, in fact, in a time when internet dating and Tinder seem to magnify the differences between what men and women want, Closer could be seen as even more pertinent. In 20 years, men and women are still doing badly timed dances around each other because ultimately neither gender knows what beat we’re dancing.

Closer is about love, sex and London – and not the shiny Michelin star laden capital of the 21st century, but the slightly bleary eyed city that saw out the millennium. Against this slightly grubby background is this weary, crude and poignantly funny tale of four people trying to reconcile the ultimate mundanity of love. The two female leads were transformed into glamorous Americans in Steven Soderbergh’s 2004 film, but they make far more sense as spiky British women more used to failure.

Marber’s story directed by David Leveaux’s on Bunny Christie’s stark set should be a depressing watch – essentially, it’s saying, heterosexual men and women may be deeply attracted to each other, but they are doomed to misunderstand each other. But the script is shot full of enough wit and Leveaux keeps any arm-flailing at bay for it to be an absorbing and intelligent watch.

The four-hander follows (deeply, or just normally?) two flawed couples over several years, all grasping for love that they can never quite seize. Daniel Woolf  (Oliver Chris) is at once a hopeless romantic and an utter rat in the way these two characteristics are often flipsides of each other. He meets Alice Ayres (Rachel Redford), a young, beautiful orphan, when he scraps her off the street after she’s knocked down by a taxi. Dan, an obituary writer who dreams of becoming a novelist, takes her to hospital where Alice chooses to fall in love with him because he cuts the crusts off his sandwiches. He’s bewitched by her youth and kookiness and despite having a girlfriend, believes her to be the one. Alice is briefly treated by Larry (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist who, in one of the many coincidences the play hangs on, Dan will, a few years later, set up with Anna – who he is now in love with – via a very funny exchange in an internet chat room. Dan first met Anna when she was taking his picture for the sleeve of his forthcoming novel that he’s finally written it. As he is prone to, Dan has become infatuated with Anna and so begins a circle of obsession and attraction between the four characters.

The characters are pretty damning representation of the human race, but they are not cardboard cutout villains, their very human flaws don’t distract from the appeal and the brilliance of a script full of those moments that resonant so much that you want to punch the air and shout ‘Yes. This’.

Marber’s brutal dialogue requires some pretty robust acting and the cast largely handler the script with conviction. Nancy Carroll was captivating as Anna, whose brittle efficiency hides a vulnerability that Carroll’s expressive eyes give away and I loved Rufus Sewell as Larry, a nice comic cadence cutting through the self importance of the other characters.

The Donmar’s production of Closer was good enough that the play’s niggles (the idea that Anna wouldn’t run a mile from a strange man in an aquarium who calls her a “cum-hungry bitch” even if he did look like Rufus Sewell; the beauty of the two women being so central to the story; what do these people talk about when they’re not arguing or snogging?) didn’t grate. As the production comes to an end, it remains to be seen if Marber’s play can survive another 17 years will as much spirit.

Closer | Donmar Warehouse | Until 4 April 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Game, Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida reputation as a company that pushes theatrical boundaries continues apace with Game, the new play by Mike Bartlett in which the audience are voyeurs in an unorthodox response to the housing crisis.

The game in Game places a young, unemployed, homeless couple in a brand-spanking new house complete with a hot tub. The catch? They consent to be shot with tranquiliser darts by people behind glass panels who have paid for the sheer pleasure of using poor people as target practice. Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble), who are keen to start a family, decide that this is an inconvenience worth putting up with for the sake of a roof over their heads – and, of course, that hot tub.

As the audience, we are part of the game, viewing Carly and Ashley’s life through the glass panel and the CCTV monitors above our heads as the punters stand amongst us to take their pot shots. In the beginning, Ashley and Carly are protected by rules that allow them some privacy and limit where and when they can be shot. But the novelty of the game soon wanes for the snotty snipers and the ante is upped to appeal to an increasingly bloodthirsty audience. Watching all this with weariness and disgust is David (Kevin Harvey), employed to train and oversee the shooters. David is a laconic former army man who struggles in the face of this new conflict, his revulsion helping to prevent the audience slipping into neutral.

Although Harvey’s stoic performance didn’t entirely prevent me from feeling the same fatigue as the amateur snipers. Game leaps out of the starting blocks and at the beginning it is tense and thrilling. But Game’s clever conceit is also it’s problem and it soon plateaux; like the characters in the house, there is no where for it to go. And I was confused by its theme – it’s billed as a play about the housing crisis, but I felt that was more a comment on the class system. Choosing to have an unemployed couple from Liverpool seemed a deliberate decision to shine the spotlight on the disparity of the class system, a point further compounded by the shooters being largely parodically posh.

Bartlett’s writing is as on point as ever, the Shakespearian tone of Charles III swapped for a realistic, pared down dialogue. The acting is excellent across the board, but Game was rather one note and the helplessness of Carly and Ashley was frustrating. Would they not have discussed their options once life became unbearable? Were there really no avenues available to them to even contemplate? When it was on form, Game was entertaining and shocking, although it’s not so much the violence that appalls, but the attitudes of the shooters themselves – spoilt, rich, stupid and banal, they could have been shooting rabbits (only one participant did have the decency to question her actions).

Mike Bartlett clearly has a bee in his bonnet about the housing crisis; he’s written about it previously in the rather irritating Love, Love, Love. Game is a far more penetrating piece of work and his leads far more sympathetic, but I’m still not sure he’s quite got to the heart of the matter, although he does nearly hit the mark this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Game | Almeida Theatre | Until 4th April

Book review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro  published by Faber & Faber

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber & Faber

With the release of his seventh novel The Buried Giant, I realised I’d rather neglected Kazuo Ishiguro’s back catalogue. The only work I’d read of his was Never Let Me Go a rather gloomy sci-fi novel that was a long way from the musty Merchant and Ivory air that I’d always rather associated with him. Conversely, When We Were Orphans appealed because I needed the bracing air of a costume drama,  a trip into the well-written past. Plus it was the only Ishiguro in the library.

Ishiguro is not a showy writer. I thought that the science fiction coolness of Never Let Me Go encouraged his brisk prose, but it turns out this is just how Ishiguro writes. His cold, odd style fits nicely with When We Were Orphans’ protagonist Christopher Banks who is a rather strange, slightly shady creature who’s, nevertheless, rather endearing. Written in the first person narrative, Christopher is our good friend the unreliable narrator. As is the Ishiguro way, much of Christopher’s true personality is hidden from us, but we do get a few clues from childhood friends (“My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school”) that reveal our narrator may not be as well balanced an individual as his smooth delivery suggests. But, then Christopher is a literary detective and so obliged to be an odd ball.

Set against the backdrop of the opium trade and the rumblings of war, When We Were Orphans is part detective novel, part love story (with, it’s true, very little romance). It reminded me of Graham Greene in his spy drama moments as well as JG Ballard, partly for the Shanghai element and partly for the prose which, like Ballard’s, is beautiful in its plainness. There’s an old-fashioned tone to it that I enjoyed and a commitment to a tight narrative even when the plot heads a little off centre.

The story starts in 1930, although we don’t stay there for long. After an early childhood in the international settlement in Shanghai, Christopher Banks is living in London, a man with an increasingly successful career as a detective. He is reminiscing about one afternoon in 1923 when he bumped into an old friend  who invites him to a party where he sets eyes on the mysterious Sarah Hemming. He is captivated by her despite being warned by a fellow party guest that he’s far too insignificant to peak her interest. She pops up several times in the novel to prove this man wrong.

Banks is presumed to be an orphan, both his parents having disappeared when he was a boy in Shanghai within days of each. His mum was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign alongside ‘Uncle’ Philip and wasn’t afraid to challenge Chinese warlords and British big businesses about their actions that had led to thousands of helpless local addicts.  Was she killed to silence her? And what was Uncle Philip’s involvement?

Brought back to England by the kindly Colonel Chamberlain, Christopher is brought up by his aunt in Shropshire. The mysterious case of his missing parents casts a dark shadow over his life that he can never quite escape – it shapes his childhood games and choice of career. The novel revisits those years in Shanghai in the run up to his parents’ disappearance where we also meet Akira, Christopher’s childhood friend. We swing backwards and forwards between the past and present  – as the years move on, Christopher’s reputation as a detective continues to rise and, after inheriting a nice little sum from his aunt, his life is comfortable (he even picks up a little Canadian orphan to play families with). But, as he tells the Colonel during a brief reunion in the early 1930s, the past is “where I’ve continued to live all my life. It’s only now I’ve started to make my journey from it”. He must return to Shanghai to discover the truth.

Ishiguro doesn’t believe When We Were Orphans is his best work, and it’s not perfect. The plot rather descends into chaos when Banks returns to China and starts tearing around chasing ghosts and Sarah (who arrived several months before with her buffoon of a husband) in a blur of a rushed end and strange turns that set off the beggars-belief alarm. But despite the that-would-never-happen klaxon, I was taken with Christopher, his unreliable memory and his attempt to flee the past by hurling himself right at it and soaked up Ishiguro’s crisp prose with relish.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.

Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.

With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.

Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.

The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets.  I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April

Theatre review: Antigone, Barbican

Obi Abili, Juliette Binoche and Patrick O'Kane performing in Antigone. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld/HO/EPAFresh from his success in the director’s chair of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – now triumphantly transferred to the West End – director Ivo van Hove transfers his skills to the Barbican’s adaptation of Sophokles’ Antigone.

Swapping a 20th century tragedy for one written in 441BC van Hove’s employs many of his directionally flourishes that worked so well in Arthur Miller’s tale to this Classical text, but with far less success. The stark staging that allows actors to casually sit and the loud soundtrack that made such an impact in A View from the Bridge, both seem out of place in Antigone, as if the stage notes had got muddled with another, far punchier, production.

If nothing else, van Hove still has the story which of course ticks all the Greek tragedy boxes, including fratricide, despotic rulers and amusing messengers. Antigone’s life was probably never destined to be great, after all as the daughter of Oedipus, her mother – Jocasta – is also her grandmother. If that wasn’t enough, her brothers – fighting for opposing sides – kill each other in fighting to rule. The new ruler, Creon, declares that Etecoles – whose death meant he got to be king – will be honoured while his brother, Polyneices, will be left to rot where he fell. Reasonably, Creon decrees that anyone attempting to bury Polyneices will be killed. Antigone, no stranger to family drama, is determined to defy the rules and give her brother the send off he deserves. Her sister, Ismene, isn’t very keen on the idea and the play opens with a sisterly spat that sees them fall out for ever. All alone in the world, Antigone, is determined to put blood-ties before her own survival.

I was gripped by the story, my knowledge of Greek theatre is poor, but on this occasion my ignorance served me well as Anne Carson’s retelling of Sophokles’ ancient tale was probably the highlight. The opening scene, when Juliette Binoche’s black clad Antigone walks out onto a sandstorm for her confrontation with Kirsty Bushell’s secretarial-like Ismane is wonderfully dramatic and evocative. But once the wind machine was turned down, the production seemed to lose the wind from its sails.

For a genre that is famously tense with emotion, this production of a Greek classic, was rather cold and lacking in spirit; it was difficult to believe these characters would have enough passion to disobey an over zealous traffic warden who’d put a parking ticket on their chariot, let alone their leader at pain of death. The lack of connection, I think, can be partly explained by the play being visually contemporary, but there being no effort made to make the story relevant to modern day audiences. I wasn’t sure whether we were meant to be understanding this from an ancient Greek point of view (never easy at the best of times) or from a 21st century mindset where our references would have been different.

Binoche as Antigone gave a very considered performance, but whether this is a curse of the do-gooding daughter role (see also King Lear’s Cordelia) was a little dull. In fact few of the performances were loaded with personality, Obi Abili as the guard was a brilliant exception, his comic timing bringing a welcome shot of humour in a production that was otherwise a little one note.

Antigone | Barbican Centre | Until 28 March 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Nominated for the Bailey’s Prize longlist and winner of the Costa first novel award, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was the big publishing story of last year. The marketing campaign has been huge – piles of the book greet you at every bookshop door and even the front cover is as much a campaign as design, covered as it is in hyperbolic praise from established authors and newspaper critics.

The marketing push and the enticing cover lines all promise intrigue and an up-put-a-down-ableness so beloved of reviewers. You are going to love this book says everyone.

Only I didn’t.

Elizabeth is Missing has plenty of fans, particularly at Penguin who won a nine day bidding war to secure the rights, wooing Healy with handwritten notes from employees who loved the book (and, presumably, a nice fat advance).

I wanted to be one of those note-writing fans, mysteries with a benign old lady at the centre of them being right up my tweed-lined Marple street. But while Healey is clearly a talented writer who honed her skills on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA, her talents are no match for the overstretched plot she set herself.

Maud is a woman in her 80s who is suffering from dementia. The novel is narrated from her point of view which is clever, but difficult to pull off considering Maud has no short term memory so, um, how does she remember all the things that have happened? Of course this literary device helps enormously when her short-term memory loss allows Healey to be vague about things when she realises the plot isn’t quite slotting together.

Maud is convinced her friend Elizabeth has disappeared. Of course nobody believes her, including me (are we really meant to?), but her search for her friend stirs up painful memories of her sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946 and the two mysteries run in tandem throughout the novel. Maud’s obsession with her missing friend unravels the clues behind her sister’s disappearance and ultimately the two stories clunkily collide and lead to a (frustrating) conclusion. The way the two stories were fused was almost laughable cartoony at times – 82-year-old Maud seeing, say a, pub and being reminded “of the time I met Frank (Sukey’s husband) for a drink”, cue a return to 1946. I expected the page to wobble in front of my eyes.

The post-war story is by far the most interesting of the two tales, although annoyingly bity, just when it hits its grove, we were jolted back to the present day where Maud is repeating her Elizabeth is missing refrain and making another cup of tea that she’ll never drink.

That’s not to say present day Maud isn’t moving, but the one character I really thought Healey caught well was Helen, Maud’s daughter, her exasperation, sadness and fear seeping through the layers of Maud’s muddled mind onto the page and right off it again.

There’s a lot of heart behind Elizabeth is Missing, but the better story is Healey’s own fairytale from 16-year-old school leaver to celebrated author via five years of hard graft where she fitted in writing around her full-time job. Are we more lenient towards debut authors? Are we so impressed by their dedication that we mistake quite good novels for brilliant ones? Maybe (incidentally, Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which would have wiped the floor with the rest of the Costa first book award noms). Maybe in time Healey will write one as good as the marketing people told us Elizabeth is Missing is.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Taken at Midnight, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

About to end its all too brief stint at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Taken at Midnight is a gripping thought-provoking production that is as enthralling as it is moving.

Set in 1930s Germany, Mark Hayhurst‘s new play tells the true story of Hans Litten, the man who had the courage (arrogance?) to reduce Hitler to size in the witness stand at the trial of SA men in 1931. Hitler’s anger and subsequent revenge comes from him being cut down to human size by Litten; Hitler wanted to be a deity, above reproach or mistake, but that day Litten exposed his humanness and for that the lawyer pays a heavy price.

But hope is not entirely lost, Litten has a vocal cheerleader in the world outside of his concentration camps. His mother, Irmgard, beautifully played by Penelope Wilton, pushes her way into the office of Gestapo chief Dr Conrad to campaign for her son’s release. Soon her visits are frequent, the pair of them enjoying cups of tea as Irmgard’s increasingly angry pleas get bolder.

Taken at Midnight is full of emotion without being mawkish, intelligent without being aloof, Hayhurst’s script is a highlight in a play full of them. I seen several plays recently where words are seemingly thrown out in the vain hope that they will magically slot together and make sense and it was wonderful to hear Hayhurst’s thoughtful, clever script. The play is riveting with an easy rhythm that allows the actors to tell the story without melodrama. That’s not to say emotions are subdued, if anything Taken at Midnight is more intense because it’s not all hysterical hand-wringing.

Competing in the ‘best of…’ category is Penelope Wilton (this week nominated for best actress at the Olivier Awards), whose Irmgard is, in contrast to the turmoil of the story, so stoical and still, her fists clenched beside her body, her jawline holding her anguish. She’s brilliant in the role, beautifully composed, but her determination and courage are never in doubt.

Wilton’s not alone, the whole cast are excellent; Martin Hutson is charming as Hans Litten, capturing his brilliance and the arrogance that accompanied it, while John Light as Dr Conrad reimagines the Gestapo chief as an ordinary man, playing him as a human being not a cardboard cutout, goosestepping monster.

Stories set in Nazi Germany, particularly those that tell true stories of individuals suffering in concentration camps can be relentlessly grim, but Taken at Midnight, while it won’t have you rolling in the aisles, has genuine moments of humour. Wilton, who honed her comic timing in Ever Decreasing Circles, a sitcom I was semi-obsessed with in my childhood (Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers!), puts it to excellent use here. She’s not playing for laughs, but the amusing lines help make this story even more human.

Jonathan Church’s subtle direction enhances the horror of the final few minutes of Taken by Midnight – there were gasps from the audience at the events before curtain call, no mean feat for a true story.

by Suzanne Elliott

Taken at Midnight | Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until Saturday 14 March 2015