Theatre Review: Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Theatre

Di and Rose and Viv

Gina Mckee, Tamsin Outhwaite and Anna Marie Maxwell in Di and Viv and Rose

There’s nothing earth-shatteringly inventive or innovative about Amelia Bullmore’s tale of three women’s decade straddling friendship, but Di and Viv and Rose has more impact that most po-faced Plays With A Message. Absorbing and compelling, it fulfills the ultimate critical cliché of being snortingly funny (I confess to finding the more risqué lines especially funny imaging what the post-60 crowd – the vast majority of the audience – made of it) and mascara-troublingly sad. It was so moving in fact, that I struggled to gain my composure even as the lights came up.

Female friendship has been explored in books, films and plays before, although not as often, truthfully or as warmly as such a rich subject matter should demand. I was struck as I watched this how little I’ve seen honest, realistic portrayals of women, particularly on stage. There are even fewer with no agenda. Bullmore doesn’t ask us to judge her characters or force a theatrical lesson down our throats, we’re simply asked to laugh and cry along with these three young women whose friendship begins in the cold corridors of a university halls of residence in the 1980s and survives into the 21st century, conquering childbirth, an ocean, rape and heartbreak.

Di (Tamsin Outhwaite) is a straight-talking term-time lesbian (we never do learn whether she eventually comes out to her mum, but it’s not important) who brings bubbly sex-mad Rose and uptight bookish Viv together in their first year at university. The three mismatched friends go on to share a house where they eat food from wobbly bowls and drink-dance to Prince (the soundtrack is fantastic). But it’s not all warm and cosy; there’s a huge change of pace and tone as horrific real-life events force there way (literally) into the girls’ carefree world. The actors respond brilliantly to the jarring turn, absorbing the effect the events have on their characters without being mawkish or overly-dramatic.

All three actors were fantastic, I particularly warmed to Anna Marie Maxwell’s Rose whose posh frivolousness could have been deeply irritating but who Maxwell instilled with a hugely likable naivety and warmth. A lot is demanded of Outhwaite’s Di and the former EastEnders actress more than delivered; Di is no one dimensional ‘tough girl’, Outhwaite plays her with the right dose of vulnerability, self-belief and self-awareness. Gina McKee’s quietly ambitious Viv is an introvert with a steely confidence, you might not immediately warm to her but McKee’s natural gentleness will win you over (also, I LOVED her ‘war’ wardrobe, it was also a great way of moving the play away from being too much of an 80s period piece).

Di and Viv and Rose has finished its run at Hampstead Theatre, but I’ll bet you a Prince CD that it won’t be long before it makes it to the West End.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Book Review: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

In her latest novel, Pat Barker re-visits the same time and territory that she captured so compellingly and powerfully in her Regeneration trilogy.

Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and the Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road told the story of First World War soldiers, amongst them war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, receiving treatment for shell shock at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital. Toby’s Room, a non-sequel sequel to her 2007 novel, Life Class, shifts the attention from the mental anguish of the Great War to its physical impact, and focuses too on the fallout for those left behind in Britain.

The Toby of the title is a doctor and an officer who is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ on the battlefield. We first meet him in 1912 at the rambling family home in the bucolic English countryside where we’re also introduced to his sister Elinor. The pair have a claustrophobically close relationship that becomes inappropriately intimate one scorching hot summer’s day (English summers are always so wonderfully hot in novels, oh, if only life imitated art more often).

Skip forward five years to 1917 and Elinor and the Brooke family receive the telegram that everyone with a son or brother in France dreaded. Elinor, a starchy, tenacious and rather unsympathetic character, finds grief almost impossible to succumb to without knowing how, or if, her brother died.

She sets out to unearth the truth and in the process becomes entangled in a war she was hoping to ignore. In her search for answers, she is also forced to rekindle a dying friendship with the abrasive, and now, nose-less, Kit Neville, a contemporary of Elinor’s at the famous Slade art school where they studied under the tutelage of the formidable Henry Tonks. Elinor also enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Paul Tarrant, now a war artist, all three lives now fated to be forever messily and painfully intertwined in Elinor’s search for answers.

While Elinor may never end up on the frontline of the Sommes, she is forced to confront the horror of the Great War when she becomes an artist for Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, an institution that specialised in re-building the shattered faces of soldiers, including Neville’s.

As in Barker’s previous First World War novels, real life people get walk on parts. Elinor briefly spends time in the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell where she does little except insult the ‘conchies’ and annoy Virginia Woolf who looks on with her acerbic eye. There’s also a nod to the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, whose face has a particularly startling starring role at one point.

Unlike Sasson and Brooke, Barker is no poet. Sometimes her prose is plain banal and clunky. Eleanor’s diary, a rather odd occasional narrative device that serves little purpose other than to fill in some unexplained (if you haven’t read the unofficial prequel, Life Class that is) background, is a jarring change in pace and tone.

But complaining about Barker’s occasional heavy hand is like moaning at Woolf’s aversion to full stops. Barker has never been about delicate prose; her power for storytelling and unflinching truths is what draws you in and sucks you in like a quagmire on a battlefield. The pace (bar the slight derailment at each of Elinor’s diary entries) is cracking, the story fizzing along with growing expectation. In anything, rather than stripping the novel of emotion and tension, Barker’s no nonsense style heightens the drama. Importantly (and this is far rarer than it should be) Barker doesn’t disappoint as the novel reaches its climax. The characters remain solid; they may never reach Mrs Dalloway levels of realism and depth, but they are people you can believe who don’t dissolve in a weary puddle as the author panics at the looming deadline.

Toby’s Room may not hit the high notes of the Regeneration trilogy, but it’s still a wonderfully evocative, gripping novel that is taut and tight and utterly compelling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright

Eliza-Lynch-in-her-Queen--001

Eliza Lynch

Anne Enright is one of with my favourite contemporary writers. Having gobbled up The Gathering, her Booker prize winning tale of a family imploding, the beautiful Forgotten Waltz and her collection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, I thought I’d worked my way through all her fiction back catalogue.

Impatient for more, I was delighted to discover there were still a couple of her novels I hadn’t yet read, including this, her 2003 book based on the life of the notorious Eliza Lynch.

Set in Paraguay in the 19th century, Eliza was an Irish woman who became the unofficial Queen of Paraguay as the mistress of Francisco Solano López the dictator of this landlocked South American country. According to this article in The Guardian, Lynch has gone down in history as a gold digging prostitute who encouraged her paramour down a path that would lead to the bloodiest war in South American history. Her reputation is such that she featured alongside Lucrezia Borgia in a 1995 book called The World’s Wickedest Women.

Lynch catches López’s eye in Paris and takes her back to his hometown of Asuncíon on a journey across a tumultuous ocean and a meandering river. On arrival this unmarried foreigner is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the locals. The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is Enright’s attempt to wrestle the much maligned woman’’s reputation from the swamp of history, but her true character remains rather murky. All the characters are (deliberately?) shadowy, even the Scottish doctor William Stewart who watches over the novel through a drunken haze, never feels fully formed. Eliza’s ambitions and pleasures are equally as nebulous.

As one of Enright’s earlier published works, the novel reads like an author getting to grips with their talent; it’s a rambling, non-linear, repetitive work that at times feels as if Enright spewed up a thesaurus, the language as dense and at times as suffocating as the Paraguayan heat.

But while the novel is erratic and confusing, there are hints of the greatness that Enright would go on to achieve in her later works.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

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James McAvoy as Macbeth

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth is the inaugural play in a season of work for Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios and it’s a brutal, intense, powerful and physical piece of theatre that’s restless and electric from the minute the three witches emerge from trap doors.

The ‘stage’ is a post-apocalyptic vision – all upturned metal chairs and utility tables; the characters in filthy army fatigues – in a non-determined time that could be the near past or near future. It was very 28 Days Later; the starkness adding its own neurosis to Shakespeare’s play about the occult and the blood-thirsty and power-hungry.

Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t need histrionics to stir the emotions and get the heart thumping, but the savagery of the newly configured stage and the physicality of this production sidelines the hocus pocus and brings out the bloodiness and horror behind the witches and ghostly daggers.

This has been billed as a James McAvoy vehicle, but it’s far more than that. If anything, McAvoy threatens to be overshadowed by both the powerful staging and the other actors. There’s been some debate (well, an article in The Independent) as to whether McAvoy is too young to play Macbeth. Shakespeare never specifies his age, but the character has traditionally been played by those in their late 30s or older. McAvoy – and his partner in crime Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth for that matter – might not be too young, but they look it, and their baby faces do make it harder to believe that these are two power-hungry tyrants who go around thrusting daggers through children’s heads. But while McAvoy might not quite convinced as a warrior, he does mad very well, writhing on tables and spitting out his demons with a rabid intensity.

Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for the ultimate malevolent wife, but she’s not purely evil. An ambiguous character, she’s a woman who begs to be bad, but ultimately isn’t bad enough – the last remaining speck of goodness is what ultimately leads to her demise. Still, she’s manipulative enough to persuade her husband to kill the King of Scotland while many women can’t even persuade their partners to make them a cup of tea so she’s no sweetheart.

The super slight Foy though, doesn’t look like a grand manipulator and I’m not sure whether it was her youthfulness that meant I didn’t quite believe in Foy as Lady Macbeth. A great angsty actress, Foy rather struggled to fill Shakespeare’s great villaness’ well-worn shoes, never quite seeming powerful and strong enough for a woman who could encourage her husband to commit regicide. For an actress who usually excels in shouty parts, Foy was at her best during the sleepwalking scene when she caught the vulnerability and fear of the Lady’s
nocturnal stirrings very movingly.

McAvoy and Foy were ably supported by a brilliant cast with standout performances from Forbes Masson as Banquo and Jamie Ballard as Macduff while Allison McKenzie’s brief turn as his about-to-be-murdered wife was eye-catching.

The screams of delight from the adolescents in the audience (of which there were many) is testament to the pull of a Hollywood star, but this is far more than a one-man show.

Macbeth is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April 2013. For ticket information, including £15 Monday tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre, London

ImageA recent Guardian survey identified Great Expectations as the nation’s favourite Charles Dickens tale, and, with two movies, a BBC mini-series and a Charlotte Rampling-starring tv film all having been released in the last 15 years, there’s no denying Great Expectations pull. It’s Charles Dickens’ Pride and Prejudice.

The latest take on this enduring classic is Jo Clifford’s adaptation for the stage whose 1998 script was updated by director Graham McLaren for Dickens’ bicentenary last year and now makes its London debut at the Vaudeville Theatre.

So what is it about Great Expectations that catches people’s imagination more than any of Dickens’ other works? I suspect that the allure lies with the doomed romanticism of the cobweb-covered Miss Havisham, perhaps Dickens’ most beguiling character. This production certainly seems to think the jilted old lady lies at the heart of our fascination with the story, setting the entire play in Satis House as an older omnipresent Pip (Paul Nivison) watches over the ghosts of his past.

Condensing a novel as complex and long as Great Expectations meant extracting the essence, dispensing with the subtitles and trimming the characters down to their bare bones, which this production did with mixed results. The wonderfully daft Herbert Pocket becomes a small, if rather amusing, turn on a mantlepiece while the dastardly Bentley Drummond gets consigned to fondling Estella over a table for five minutes. The other minor characters fare better in most cases, Chris Ellison’s menacing Magwitch was a particular standout while Jack Ellis as Jaggers walked just the right line between caricature and characterful. Paula Wilcox’s Miss Havisham (pictured) was as bitter and desperate as we’ve come to expect, but was rather underused.

The set is the show’s trump card, a magnificent, dusty creation with all the cobwebs and moudy wedding cake of our imaginations vividly brought to life. The atmosphere is gloomy and sinister although the gothic feel is more Camden Market than Victorian, not helped by the ‘ghosts’ wearing black nail varnish and a young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) resemblance to Placebo frontman Brian Molko.

As visually delightfully as this production was it felt, ultimately, as cold as Estella’s heart. The very stagey, ‘am-dramminess’ of it that made it a theatrical spectacle stripped the story of its sincerity and warmth. The emotion seemed forced – there was a lot of moments when the actors strained to bring tears to their eyes when a more subtle and less desperate direction would have been more moving. And what was with the constant use of the characters’ names (“I know Joe”, “yes, Pip”, “It’s not right, Joe”)? The affection came across like a nervous tick.

A fun, frivolous piece of theatre that is absorbing if ultimately rather unfulfilling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Ballet Review: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Sadler’s Well Theatre, London

matthew bourne's sleeping beautyOnce the bad boy of ballet, Matthew Bourne is now as much a part of the ballet establishment as a pink tutu. His takes on ballet classics have become a hugely popular Christmas tradition at Sadler’s Wells and beyond. But while he is now practically an old master, his ballets remain as fresh and invigorating as they were when his first production leaped, sans en-pointe, onto the stage in 1998.

This year, Bourne completed the trio of Tchaikovsky works he began with Nutcracker and Swan Lake with his retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a story of prince charmings, princesses and bad verses evil. The story is slight, but Bourne’s version offers enough twists served up with a dollop humour to give this fairy tale a very 21st century feel without losing any of the original magic. In Bourne’s version, the bad fairy dishes out her very own brand of IVF; Prince Charming is now a gardener who Aurura was in love with pre-nap time (which neatly skips around the rather icky business of a strange man in white tights waking you up from your long slumber with a kiss and then having to spend the rest of with him) and the good guys are vampires. Best of all baby Princess Aurora is a puppet – all too realistic – doll that is so lifelike and charming that it threatens to steal the show.

There’s more than a touch of the Tim Burton’s about Bourne’s larger than life ballet with it’s fantastical set (think a sugary Pemberley) and opera-tastic costumes, and there is unmistakable drama to Sleeping Beauty. Bourne choses dancers who can act which makes all the difference in a ballet that has abandoned the pirouettes in favour of theatrics. At no point do I feel like I’m watching bad mime.

It’s all terrifically good fun, but despite the almost cartoonish set, the vampires, magic realism and bare feet, the dancing can still enchant even if it doesn’t spellbind in the way a traditional Sleeping Beauty can. Hannah Vassallo as Aurora is captivating while Chris Trenfield is adept, if a fairly blank canvas for Shaw, as her beau Chris Leo. Ben Bunce as the bad fairy Carabosse is every bit as menacing when he returns as her son Caradoc.

The story rather tempers off in the second half, giving way to Bourne’s imagination – a velvety, plush yet seedy nightclub, vampire angst and sleepwalking forest dwellers as Bourne takes a hefty edit to the (recorded) score.

I love a pas de deux as much as the next person (and there were a couple of lovely ones in this production) but Bourne’s ballets are less about pirouettes and more about pure pleasure. And that’s no bad thing

 by Suzanne Elliott