Theatre review – A Christmas Carol

Ensemble and Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint LewisOver the years, Bristol Old Vic has set expectations high with its inventive, ingenious takes on classic Christmas shows. The production of A Christmas Carol met those hopes head on with a bundle of exceptional touches:

  • A multi-talented cast
  • Infectious music
  • Light audience participation
  • Magical lighting
  • Creative sets
  • Impressive puppetry
  • Gender swapping

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick and tick.

Full Company in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Adapted by Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, Dicken’s spooky, marginally gloomy tale of redemption is revved up into an exultant spectacle. Scrooge is misanthropic and menacing (helped by actor Felix Hayes’ height and undeniable stage presence), but delightfully droll. Wry asides ensure that at times we’re almost on his side for eschewing the glitz and kitsch of Christmas in favour of a bit of peace and quiet…

Felix Hayes, Saikat Ahamed and Nadia Nadarajah in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Nadia Nadarajah’s Bob Crotchet, shown far right above, converses entirely in British Sign Language, which serves both to enhance the physical exuberance of her performance, and to keep Scrooge at one remove as he struggles with and largely turns from what he refers to as “wavy hand language”, at least initially.

Saikat Ahamed and ensemble in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

The majority of the cast members play multiple roles, with the audience invited into the theatrical mischief – snow is delivered in handfuls from the top of a rolling staircase, and when stepping from his nephew Freddie’s home to that of the Cratchit family, Scrooge passes Freddie the bonnet belonging to Mrs Cratchit, commenting, “You’ll be needing this”, and reminding us of actor Saikat Ahamed’s dual role.

Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

More doubling up occurs with several of the ensemble also providing the original musical score, right up to musical director and composer Gwyneth Herbert, who also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Full Company of A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Designer Tom Roger’s set is equally adaptable and dynamic – as well as the staircase mentioned above, there are doorways on casters and Scrooge’s four-poster bed, with Anna Watson’s skilful lighting adding atmosphere in spades. Humour is woven throughout, but never more so than in the scenes of revelry, including the Fezziwigs Christmas party where dance moves include flossing. The British Sign Language for ‘dance’ is incorporated as another enthusiastic move.

Audience participation  includes a brief singalong near the end, which, while fully optional, gives the audience a chance to release some of the giddy joy that has inevitably been building up throughout.

In many senses, Dicken’s story is a moral coming of age tale. With the Bristol Old Vic treatment, this production ramps up this theme, as Scrooge is reminded of the power of the imagination he’s set aside since his school days, as well as the love he let slip by and the value of human connection.

A gorgeously rambunctious and imaginative production.

Production photography by Geraint Lewis.

A Christmas Carol is on at Bristol Old Vic until 13th January 2019. Find out more and book tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Seven days of books

Alison Uttley A Traveller In TimeA while ago my sister tagged me on social media to share the cover of a favourite book every day for a week. In the shopping frenzy that precedes Christmas, I thought I’d share those recommendations here.

1 On day one I chose one of my favourite childhood books: Alison Ottley’s A Traveller In Time. This book captivated my imagination. We lived in an old house and I often thought I could feel the vibrations of the people who’d lived there before us. Uttley’s words gave these fantasies vivid realisation, as well as introducing me to Mary Queen of Scots.

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer was another favourite at this time.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories2 I knew I wanted to include some short stories, but picking just one writer was a problem.  The Persephone Book of Short Stories came to my rescue.

It comprises 30 stories by women writers, with their original publication dates spanning from 1909 to 1986.

Amongst this number are an array of excellent stories including gems by Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Whipple and Diana Athill.

Plus it’s a really beautiful book.

The Bone People by Kerry Hulme

 

3 It’s a long time since I read this book, but I was really keen to include The Bone People by Keri Hulme. It’s a truly magical blend of Maori and Christian fables wound into a suspense-filled narrative – begun as a short story before blossoming into a self-published novel that ended up as a Booker prize winner in 1985.

4 Emily Hinshelwood’s On Becoming A Fish is the poetry collection I turn to when asked to read something aloud that I haven’t written myself. I love poems than encompass journeys, and Emily’s invite us to accompany her on a series of meandering strolls through the coastal landscapes of west Wales. Read my full review of On Becoming A Fish.

Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland

5 Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland contains her revitalised fairytales interspersed with thoughtful writing on Britain’s great ancient forests, month by month. There’s also a sentimental reason for including this book, as my dad and I went to hear her read twice and got her to sign this volume to us both.

Sara also wrote the wonderful A Book of Silence.

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

6 By chance, Terry Pratchett is the only male author to make it onto this elite list. The Carpet People (ironically photographed here against bare floorboards) opened up the possibilities of what grown ups will accept in their fictions – in other words, quite possibly anything, providing it’s done with incomparable skill and daring. Written prior to his Discworld Series, this debut is fabulously bonkers and was an early indication of his imaginative genius.

Beakless Bluebirds and Featherless Penguins by Sister Barbara Ann

7 It was a challenge to decide what to post  ton my final day. My heaving shelves of books all seemed to have an opinion! So I decided to share what I was reading at that time, and in retrospect it was an excellent choice.

Beakless Bluebirds & Featherless Penguins by Sister Barbara Ann is a book I discovered in a remarkable bookstore while visiting my American cousins. It’s part journal, part nature writing, with a passion for flora and fauna expressed with wry common sense and a light touch of humour.

Put simply, it’s like spending a weekend in the rural cottage belonging to a favourite, slightly eccentric aunt.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Art review – RWA Open Exhibition 166

Daydream by John Huggins. Photo by Judy DarleyThe galleries at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) have a grandeur about them that rivals many of the world’s finest art museums. Their annual open exhibition opens up those spaces to any artist with vision and talent. I adore the democratic nature of this annual show, where anyone can submit their work for the possibility of seeing it selected to see it hang or stand among notable creations ranging from the famous, to the infamous.

The 166th open exhibition lives up to those aims, with paintings crowding walls to the extent that at times you’ll be crouching, and at others balancing on tiptoe. Inevitably, this leads to some being more difficult to view, and more than once, I was asked by older gallery visitors to read out the small notices revealing artist and exhibit name.

Offerings (Earth) by Jenny Leigh_Photo by James Beck

Offerings (Earth) by Jenny Leigh_Photo by James Beck

Sculptures gathered in unexpected groupings too, from totem-esque found and assembled materials, to a transparent bin bag crammed with what resembled rubbish, amid elegant creations such as Yurim Gough’s Four Elements. Invited artists Jock Mcfadden RA and Carol Robertson provided anchor points, while the RWA’s own Academicians offered some familiarity.

The whimsical Octavia (below) by Caroline Taylor summoned up memories of myths – we sorely wanted to take her home, but found had already sold. Other favourites included Clouds, Fields, Moor by Andrew Hardwick and John Huggins’ Daydream, shown at the top of this post.

Octavia by Caroline Taylor

Octavia by Caroline Taylor

In other instances, it was human figures who enchanted us, in ceramics, bronze, ink and paint. A quizzically tilted head or the choice of a cabbage and pigeon as a crown was enough to elicit charmed giggles.

Altogether, despite the number of landscapes and abstracts on offer, this is a very congenial exhibition. The majority of the selected items brim with personality. Whether inspired by human, by animal or by a playful or startling blend of the two, the artworks on show given the impression of freezing momentarily as we enter, and continuing their conversational chatter after we depart.

Mule Head by Dorcas Casey_Photo by James Beck

Mule Head by Dorcas Casey_Photo by James Beck

The less characterful creations are, for the most part, equally enticing. I saw a child zone in immediately to this sculpture below, drawn by its bright colour and resemblance to a familiar toy.

RWA Open Exhibition 2018. Photo by James Beck

RWA Open Exhibition 2018. Photo by James Beck

To me that’s much of the magic of an assembled exhibition like this, where serious themes give way to the joy of originality. It invites us to remember the delight of creating – of letting our imaginations loose to rambunctiously play. This is an open exhibition that celebrates art in all its forms, and invites us to bring our own openness to the mix.

Until 25th November 2018 at the RWA, Bristol.

Seen, read or experienced anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut

Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky GrutIn her debut short story collection Live Show, Drink Included, Vicky Grut reveals her knack for summoning up characters so real they’ll follow you around your house, loitering in your kitchen as you make a cup of coffee until you almost feel you should offer them one too. Her protagonists crackle with unspoken preoccupations that often verge on somewhat unsettling obsessions. These are people you might see marking the perimeter of a social gathering, being avoided largely due to the air of discontentment, and even, resentment, that they exude.

Yet their delivery through Grut’s carefully selected words is deeply relatable. With her skilful hand, she renders them comedic, lyrical, or a shining blend of the two. We eavesdrop and enjoy their conundrums while being glad, for the most part, not to share them.

Continue reading

Milk Poetry review

Tom DenbighUnfolding in Foyles Bookshop Bristol as part of Bristol Festival of Literature, Milk Poetry wound through our ears, hearts and minds, reminding us that words have a life beyond the page. This group of skilful poets and their guests each imbue their lines, rhymes and musings with startling individuality and honesty.

Malaika Kegode founded Milk Poetry in January 2015. “Milk Poetry was conceived to be a friendly, nurturing night that treated all performers with equal respect, warmth and room for growth,” she says. “The impetus behind the night was to offer equal billing and opportunity for up and coming poets, with a focus on artist development. Many poets can get stuck in limbo after performing for a couple of years; not quite a headliner but creating work more advanced than standard open mic fare. So Milk Poetry was created to bridge that gap and offer chances for people to hone their skills on stage and perform shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘big name’ acts, so they can feel like the true artists they are!”

She adds: “As Milk Poetry has grown, I think that nurturing backbone has just become stronger, and some artists who started performing for the first time at Milk Poetry have gone on to be major players in the poetry world.”

Tom Sastry

The evening opened with the wit and self-depreciating humour of Tom Sastry. Tom is one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice poets. He brought us the first and only use of the word “ersatz” and wrote of “ganging up on our past selves who we secretly love” and “dead cakes in cellophane.” Many of his poems were a whisper away from being reclassified as flash fictions, pouring whole lives into our ears distilled down into a few vivid lines.

Malaika Kegode. Photo by Judy Darley

Next up, Malaika Kegode’s poem rattled through and over us, drawing us into a train journey, a relationship gone awry, and an ending so tragic that it made my teeth shake. There’s something powerfully filmic about her composition, so that you see the train carriage and its passengers, see the passing fields with their excess of sheep, and see the moon and the sun each highlighting what went wrong.

Next up, multiple slam winner Tom Denbigh (picture at the top of this post) delivered a story in the form of a poem, setting word choices at curious angles that created a sense of eavesdropping, and getting caught. He brought us the evening’s first use of the word “cardigan.” Offbeat and comic, the poem twitched with a sense of the search for identity, and of trying to solve the puzzles that make up the people we encounter.

Sam Grudgings. Photo by Judy Darley

Milk co producer Sam Grudgings, who describes himself as a poet perpetually on the edge of collapse, had rather delightfully brought his granny along. Taking us collectively by the hand, Sam led us on an excursion into a haunted house, speaking not to us but to the ghost herself, with her “arson fingers.’ Exquisite imagery drew us into a gloriously painterly scene, pegged with emotion.

Beth Calverley. Photo by Judy Darley

The potent Beth Calverley, co producer of Milk and Chief Operator of The Poetry Machine, performed Witchcraft, a poem laced with tenderness. Her words glimmered as though lit from within, with echos sounding quietly on the peripheral of our hearing. As Sam said in introducting Beth, her poetry is comprised of layers of meaning – there’s far more here than a single read or listen can reveal.

Rebecca Tantony. Photo by Judy Darley

Our final poet Rebecca Tantony shared a set of poems rooted in the complexities of family. Visceral, raw and compellingly intimate, Rebecca’s poems sent tremors oscillating the bookshop’s air, rustling pages and ricocheted empathetic shivers down listeners’ spines.

Find Milk on Facebook.

Seen, read or experienced anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

 

Poetry review Bragr by Ross Cogan

Bragr by Ross CoganBragr is Ross Cogan’s collection of entrancingly personal poems inspired by Norse mythology. Quite simply he picks up Earth and its neighbouring galaxies, gently placing them where we happen to sit or lie so that we nestle with wonders.

I found myself reading most poems more than once – firstly for the pure beauty of the word choices and secondly to drink in the meaning of the piece.

In Part 1, The Beginning, And The Rest sweeps us beyond the presentation of a creative act – writing, painting or music – and draw us to the exquisite nature of the silence just beyond that last fading note.

There’s a playfulness to the assortment – from the evident delight of selecting the perfect phrase to conjure a scene or emotion, to the joy of regarding the world and its surroundings, to summon up origin stories of time and humanity and pin them to the page.

Continue reading

Theatre review Twelfth Night

(L-R) Brian James O'Sullivan, Meilyr Jones, Jade Ogugua, Dylan Read. Photo credit Mihaela BodlovicRe-envisioned amid the bacchanalia of an everlasting 1960’s house party, Twelfth Night (possibly the 12th night of these revelries) at Bristol Old Vic is a colour-saturated feast for the ears and eyes.

Shakespeare’s popular comedy of gender-swapping and mistaken identity makes perfect sense against this backdrop of unbridled debauchery. Director Wils Wilson has unleashed a cast of exuberant talents, where light, sound, set and movement conjure all the passion and magic of a world where love is a bargaining tool, music the food of said love, and every act fringed with mischief.

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes

The set design, led by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, is the first ingredient of this heady mix, creating the illusion of a grand country house, complete with a grand piano, sweeping staircase, and several holes cast members can appear through at unexpected moments. Weave in strands of soul-stirring music courtesy of Dylan Reid (sensational as wit-fuelled fool Feste), Meilyr Jones (Curio, in a pair of spectacular shocking pink trousers), and Brian James O’Sullivan, among others, and you have an audience riveted by every scene.

L-R Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O'Sulllivan. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Dylan Reid, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O’Sullivan

When twin brother and sister Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) and Viola (Jade Ogugua) are separated by a tempest that wrecks their ship, each assumes the other has drowned. Viola dresses as a boy for easier passage, so that when the two reach the same court, they are constantly mistaken for one another. Larks!

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua

The tenuousness of this element of the plot is emphasised beautifully in the production, where each sibling is played by a woman of different races and statures. We’d effectively urged to collude with the cast in agreeing the two are identical, and choosing who appears male and who female.

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Jade Ogugua

In fact, their subsequent love interests, Duke Orsino and Olivia, are also both played by women, respectively Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Lisa Dwyer Hogg. The face that in this version of the play, Olivia’s Uncle Toby is transfigured into her defiantly rowdy cousin Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright), adds to the blurring of the sexes in a most delightful way.

Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright1. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright

It’s a cunning strategy, as we become part of the seductive high japes on stage. The joyousness of the performance rings out in ripples we spectators can’t help but be caught up in. By the end of the show, you’ll feel positively tipsy.

Production photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

Twelfth Night is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 17th November. Find out more and book tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review – Down in Demerara by Mike Manson

Down In Demerara coverFelix Radstock isn’t an instantly likeable protagonist. Fumbling his way through the unfamiliarity of Guyana, the best way to describe him might be as a tropical fungus – he’ll grow on you, whether you want him to or not.

It’s 1999, and the world is anticipating an ‘end of days’ scenario courtesy of the Millennium Bug. Felix has been sent to Guyana, a South American country described as ‘culturally Caribbean’ by Wikipedia, to gather evidence on the country’s economy and, he assumes, make suggestions to improve it. He regards himself as a whizz-kid with data and numbers – seeing colours in the information that highlight patterns that could lead to solutions.

In truth, to start with, he seems a bit of a waste of space, floundering around missing his girlfriend Aurora. As he reminisces about his first meeting with his love, in Bristol Zoo’s butterfly house, she offers up the line: “You have to be still and let them get used to you.”

Continue reading

Beautifully balanced Chicago flavours

Cafe Robey Gnocchi

Set on the corner where North, Damen and Milwaukee Avenues meet in Chicago’s Wicker Park Bucktown neighborhood, Café Robey is just one ingredient of the immense art deco tower that also houses the hotel of the same name.

The wait staff are as attentive as America has taught us to expect, with a soupçon of elegance layered on top. Our water glasses never fall more than a half inch below brimful, and Mr J is called Sir so often he has trouble holding onto his composure.

Cafe Robey Ford Model cocktail

I start with the Ford’s Model cocktail, a reference to the Chicago Assembly, Ford Motor Company’s longest running manufacturing plant. It may not sound like the most mouthwatering premise, but the cocktail itself, with Hibiscus Ford’s Gin, Chareau, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, cucumber and 11th Orchard Pine Bitters, is as refreshing as stepping into an air-conditioned store after a stroll down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, aka North Michigan Avenue.

Mr J opts for a beer, taking advantage of America’s flourishing microbreweries. We find ourselves discussing the beauty of the glassware between sips and feeling just a touch Great Gatsby.

The menu is pleasingly simple, with each dish sporting a single word description to whet your appetite: Gnocchi, Scallop, Pork, Duck…

Mr J starts with the Pork Belly, a treasury of braised pork belly, almond mole, charred pineapple gel (gel proves to be a key a feature on this menu), corn fritters, spiced cabbage and pickled radishes. He describes it as “tenderly glazed”, and “perfectly balanced.”

Cafe Robey Prawn

I opt for the head-on prawn with fried green tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, Acqua Pazza, Three Sisters’ Grits and fresh basil. The grits are crisp, the prawns deliciously meaty and the Acqua Pazza (yes, I had to Google that) delightfully light, but unexpectedly, it’s the heirloom tomatoes that steal the show, with a delicate juicy flavour that sweetly asserts their fruit status.

Mr J chooses the gnocchi as his main, and raves about their crunchy exteriors and soft, moist centres.

Cafe Robey Duck

I can’t resist ordering the lavender-cured duck breast, accompanied by duck consommé, faro (a whole grain) fava bean succotash and kumquat marmalade. The whole dish taste wonderfully nutritious, the antithesis to the burgers and deep pan pizzas more commonly associated with Chicago cuisine. The duck is utterly luscious, while the succotash and faro add just the right amount of bite.

Cafe Robey Honeycake

For dessert I’m all about the toasted cardamom honey cake, served in glistening wedges with moreishly rich pistachio custard, raspberry gel, zingy raspberries and thyme and lavender salt. It’s a texture and taste bonanza; my mouth has rarely been happier.

At the end of our meal, we’re each brought a shot of milk and a cookie. Glancing around, I spot diners across the restaurant cosying up with their own cookies and milk. It’s an unlikely touch of comfort at such a chic establishment, but one received with as much appreciation as the finest gastronomic mouthfuls on this indulgent and imaginative menu.

Find Café Robey at 1616 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL, USA,
872 315 3084 https://www.caferobey.com.

Got an inspiring venue, event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud(dot)com.

Book review – If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

If I Die Before I Wake coverEasing a reader into the viewpoint of a protagonist is every writer’s greatest magic trick. Emily Koch managed something remarkable with her debut novel, enclosing us in the mind of a man suffering from undiagnosed locked in syndrome.

Unable to move or speak, Alex lies in his hospital bed, wishing he could let his friends, family and medical attendees know that he’s aware of everything that happens around him, that he feels pain, hunger and pleasure, and hears and smells each person who visits. From their point of view, he’s in a vegetative state, and the kindest thing to do might be to let him slip away.

More than a year into his ordeal, he wants nothing more than to die. But something isn’t quite right. Alex knows a climbing accident led him to hospitalisation. He was an experienced climber with confidence in his equipment, so what went wrong?

Continue reading