Monday, 10 June 2019

Review: Yvette (China Plate)

Friday 7th June 2019
The Studio, Royal Exchange, Manchester

On Friday, I attended a performance of Yvette at The Studio, Royal Exchange, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a version of this review on this week’s A Helping of History, but here’s the blog version…

Written and performed by Urielle Klein-Mekongo and directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, Yvette is a one-woman show that uses original music and spoken word to convey a powerful story about growing up with a secret. (You may remember that I reviewed Obisesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen last year.) The production is presented by China Plate.

In the intimate setting of the Royal Exchange’s Studio space, a simple – but very effective – stage is set. A room in a house is conjured by the use of screens and door, with a coat stand to one side, a bath to the other, and single mic stand in the middle. It is to this microphone that Klein-Mekongo heads when she makes her entrance.

The show is about Evie, a thirteen-year-old black girl, growing up in Neasden with her mother. From the first moment she takes the mic, Klein-Mekongo is completely convincing as a young teen – the way her school uniform sits awkwardly on her body, the shyness with which she initially faces the audience, the buoyant joy she takes in creating and performing music, all serve to create a strong sense of character before the audience have heard a single word. Although the show is, in many ways, dominated by vocal and verbal performance, I found Klein-Mekongo’s embodiment of Evie to be one of the real strengths of the play, as her quick switches between joyful, childlike confidence to discomfort (and even disgust) perfectly capture the instability of teenage physicality and identity.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Evie’s story is told through musical performance, spoken word and acted vignettes. Klein-Mekongo uses a loop pedal throughout to create a soundtrack that, at first, is up-beat and rhythmic, inspired by garage and R+B and accompanied by happy dance moves that, again, are movingly evocative of early teenage femininity. We learn quickly that Evie loves music, Pokemon… and boys. She has a fractious relationship with her mother – a character who ‘appears’ on stage when Klein-Mekongo switches register – who is convinced Evie is on a bad path.

Evie has a crush on her friend Lewis, and is beginning to suspect that he might feel the same way. She has decided that she wants to lose her virginity to him at a party. Again, musical performances (including a hilarious number in which Klein-Mekongo ‘duets’ with herself to give a flavour of Evie and Lewis’s friendship) convey this part of the story.

However, there is another, darker story shadowing this innocence and exuberance. Evie’s narration is periodically interrupted by a sharp burst of white noise, which visibly overwhelms her and – at one point – causes her to shout out in protest at an unseen figure. ‘You’re trying to make me talk about it,’ she says, before calming herself and counting down from five until the static subsides.

This use of white noise as an intrusion and disruption of narrative connects Yvette to the other play I reviewed this week: dressed., which not only touches on some of the same themes, but is also (like Yvette) based on a true story. This use of the same auditory technique to signal the disruptive incoherence brought about by trauma suggests some comparison between the two productions – both plays are concerned with representing the effects of sexual trauma on the female body, and the impact this has on a sense of identity – however, they are very different shows, based on very different stories.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

There are hints from the beginning as to what the other story in Yvette entails. A man’s jacket hangs ominously on the coat stand; Evie talks about an ‘uncle’ who has come to stay; she makes reference to her desire to be loved. Another aspect of this is the play’s engagement with race and colourism, and the way this erodes the young woman’s sense of self-worth. Evie is mocked and – eventually – humiliated by a girl called Patrice, who she describes as a ‘lighty’. This antagonistic colourism – with the darker-skinned Evie being denigrated by the ‘lighty’ girls – coupled with her mother spitting that she ‘looks like [her] father’ builds to a painful and searing exploration of the true fragility and vulnerability of the young girl.

And it certainly is painful. Yvette builds to two climactic and intertwined sequences that are breath-taking in their visceral representation. Klein-Mekongo’s powerful physical performance, along with a far darker use of the show’s ubiquitous loop pedal (now sampling spoken lines and looping them, literally ad nauseam), pulls no punches. It is perfectly staged, but incredibly difficult to watch. Unlike dressed., in which the moment of assault is narrated in complete darkness at the beginning of the production, Yvette’s trauma is staged in raw and unflinching detail – with the audience’s attention being directed to the embodiment of this trauma, in a very arresting way. In dressed., the audience is asked to close their eyes as the story is told; in Yvette, it is impossible to draw your eyes away.

Yvette is described as a show about ‘a stolen childhood’. The audience watches as a seemingly happy and innocent girl is torn apart and broken down. One of the difficulties of the play is that there is no staging of her healing. While there is some reflection on subsequent events, and a commandingly beautiful song about self-worth and identity at the end, this is not a show about the process of rebuilding that identity. Ultimately, Yvette is a show about survival, rather than rebirth or transformation, which is underlined by the bodily transformation that is notable when comparing the first and last musical performances. With a sustained and compelling performance from Klein-Mekongo, creative and effective music and musical technique, and pitch-perfect direction from Obisesan, Yvette is an assured, assertive and intense piece of theatre, with a thought-provoking rawness that will stick with you after you’ve left.

Yvette was on at The Studio, Royal Exchange from 6th-8th June.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Review: dressed. (This Egg)

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of dressed. at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version of the review…

dressed. is an award-winning piece of theatre, co-created and performed by Josie Dale-Jones (This Egg), Lydia Higginson, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris. Combining music, dance, physical theatre, and – perhaps most significantly – costume, dressed. is a powerful show about trauma, healing and friendship. It is thought-provoking in the way it intertwines these big ideas, and in the way they are staged, emphasised and interrogated.

As the audience arrive, the four performers are already on stage, and upbeat music is playing. Dressed in loose-fitting grey costumes, Dale-Jones, Higginson, Mahdavi and Norris dance around the stage, laughing with each other and messing about like a group of friends who know each other well. There is a real intimacy to this introduction, which will continue throughout the production. When the performance proper begins, each woman takes the mic and introduces another, sharing little inconsequential nuggets that suggest a long (and strong) acquaintance. They met at a dance class when they were ten years old, we learn, and then they perform a little bit of the routine from that class.

While this opening is certainly tender and cute, it has an interesting twist – it’s all true. The performers are not playing fictional characters – they have indeed been friends since they were children. dressed. is a collaborative and autobiographical piece, which utilizes the individual performance styles and talents of the four co-creators to tells its story and explore its message (or, rather, messages). The buoyant opening sequence foregrounds the theme of female friendship, before we move into the story. The four performers take their places at the front of the stage area, the music stops and the lights drop…

In 2012, Higginson was stripped at gunpoint. As a way of healing from this trauma, she began to make clothes – redressing herself by spending a year creating an entire wardrobe from scratch. dressed. is the story of this process – though it touches on broader ideas around trauma, healing and dressing. The audience is asked to close their eyes as Higginson recounts the incident itself, the only sounds being her own voice and the removal of clothing. The contrast to the piece’s opening sequence is stark. Higginson ends the narration with a simple statement: ‘You can open your eyes now.’ Again, there is a peculiar intimacy, as the line is not dialogue as such, but rather a conversational request.

What follows this is an energetic and hard-hitting run through the complex and messy process of responding to an assault of this kind. The women dress in costumes made by Higginson in the immediate aftermath. Mahdavi dons a floaty pink cocktail dress, in which she performs a searing torch song; Norris wears a dramatic black evening dress, and gives a furious and unnerving dance performance, filled with rage and a slight sense of menace; Dale-Jones is a clown, dressed in circus attire and comically gambolling round the stage like a puppet. Higginson stands aside, dressed as a piratical warrior. The costumes signify various aspects of a (particularly female) response to trauma, and it is significant that we see Higginson literally lacing her co-performers into their outfits. But I was especially struck by the way in which the women embody these costumed personas through physical movement, mannerism and vocal performance – they become the costumes.

For me, the real strength of dressed. lies in the combination and development of the performances. Mahdavi’s voice is unexpected and striking, bringing a haunting quality to the songs she performs. Norris’s physical movement around the stage is assured, unsettling and evocative, and Dale-Jones has impeccable (if rather off-key) comic timing. And, of course, these individual performances are stitched together by the story coordinated by Higginson, and it’s no surprise when she climbs onto a sewing machine table, observing and conducting the scene before her.

As the pace increases, the women’s performances escalate and fragment into near-incoherence. This is not a criticism, but rather a reflection on the deliberate styling of the show. At various points, dialogue and vocal performance is overlaid by the intrusive sound of white noise. Mahdavi’s song loses its pitch, descending into a discordance that becomes a scream of pain. Norris’s fury becomes almost terrifying in its disjointed attempts to vocalise… something. And Dale-Jones’s comedy routine pulls no punches, addressing the audience in a particularly uncomfortable way.

The latter was one of the most arresting parts of the show, for me. The sheer discomfort of Dale-Jones’s pseudo-stand-up routine was impressive, and I appreciated the way dressed. refused to relent by throwing a ‘#NotAllMen’ bone to audience members. There is a rawness in this that, along with Mahdavi’s disintegrating melody and Norris’s pained contortions, packs a real punch.

Nevertheless, an adjective that is used a lot in reviews of dressed. is ‘tender’. While the show doesn’t hold back in showing pain, it also stages moments of recovery and healing – all the while presenting recurring images of friendship, performance and clothing. One sequence, in particular, in which Mahdavi performs a musical number to a prone Higginson buried in a pile of costumes, draws these three images together in a moving and – dare I say it? – uplifting way.

The overall message of dressed. may be up for some debate – indeed, the show itself offers some meta-commentary on the reception and interpretation of the show, and of its relationship to the #MeToo movement. In many ways, this is an unusual piece of theatre, constantly referring to things outside its own staging (for instance, Higginson’s blog project, Made My Wardrobe) and to its own reviews. In doing so, the show tries (perhaps a bit too hard) to offer its own interpretation of itself. Indeed, it’s difficult to write a review of the show, knowing that certain adjectives and phrases have been incorporated into the piece itself, with the suggestion that these were not the responses its creator/subject was hoping for.

Nevertheless, this meta, self-reflective commentary is also part of the fascination of dressed. The question of how to process and interpret stories such as this is returned to time and again, with Dale-Jones’s stark and angry shout of ‘Is this helping?’ referring to so much more than the immediate narrative moment. It is an interrogation a much broader picture, and it’s notable that neither Higginson nor the production as a whole give a definitive answer to the question.

dressed. is not always easy to watch. Its finale made me cry, and some of the questions asked do not have an easy answer. But it is utterly compelling in its confident and competent staging and performances, and convincing in its message of solidarity, friendship and healing. It is tender and intimate, discomforting and confrontational. And I highly recommend it.

dressed. is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 8th June.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

My Year in Books 2019: May

Another month of book reviews from me. I found a bit of time to read a selection of genres, though I seem to be quite fixed on female authors. Maybe I need to challenge myself to read more male authors? Something to think about, perhaps...

In case you're interested, here are the other posts from 2019 so far: January, February, March, April

And here are the books I read in May...

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2006)

I picked up The House at Riverton from the charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket – probably the last title I’ll get from there, as it’s pretty much depleted now. I don’t really know much about Kate Morton, and this is the first of her books I’ve read. The House at Riverton is a Gothic-inflected-but-not-quite-Gothic tale of a long-ago tragedy that still haunts its survivors (or, rather, survivor) in the present day. The narrator is Grace – now in her late nineties – who was once a housemaid at Riverton. She is approached by a filmmaker who is producing a film about the tragedy, and this encourages Grace to remember and reflect on what happened all those years ago. As a narrative conceit, I quite like this one. And I will admit that the book is engaging and entertaining (though a little overlong). However, its more interesting features are sadly thoroughly derivative, and Morton doesn’t quite do a good enough job of masking the direct influences. The most apparent, for me, was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a book that I have to say I enjoyed far more. There are also shades of The Remains of the Day, Titanic and Upstairs, Downstairs, which occasionally made themselves too apparent. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad story, and I did enjoy it. I think I would have enjoyed reading Grace’s own story more – the two daughters (the Mitford… I mean Hartford sisters) of the eponymous house at which she works are just less interesting.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones (2008)

This next one was one of the books I picked up in Bakewell in April. I’ll admit I skim-read the blurb, and I assumed it would be kinda along the same lines as The House at Riverton – tragic secret tears a family apart, past comes back to haunt the present. However, The Outcast doesn’t quite go along those lines. The book begins in 1957, with a young man called Lewis Aldridge being released from prison. The story then jumps back to 1945 – and the return of Lewis’s father from the war – before moving through the decade between his father’s homecoming and his arrest. The book’s second half returns to 1957 and focuses on the weeks following Lewis’s return home. I have to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. The version of the 1950s here is a bit of cliché – no one talks about their emotions, everyone is repressed, and appearances are all that matters. The characters are, on the whole, pretty unpleasant, and the horribleness is unrelenting (until the incongruously upbeat ending, which comes out of nowhere). Part of the problem is that the story hops from school holiday to school holiday – we never see Lewis at school, or in prison for that matter – making it difficult to fully engage with him a character. Instead, he is simply an unlikable young man doing unlikeable things in a village full of unlikeable people. Dark storylines are fine by me, but this one lacks even a glimmer of warmth or wit.

One Click by Andrea Mara (2018)

I got an Amazon Prime free trial (needed one-day delivery on a gift), and thought I’d see what eBooks are available with the service. I didn’t think I’d find anything to my taste to be honest, but then I saw One Click and liked the cover design. (I know, don’t judge a book… etc. etc.) I guessed from the blurb that it was a domestic noir with a twist – and yes, I know I’ve sworn off those – but I was still interested. And I was right to be – I really enjoyed One Click. The story is about a psychologist called Lauren who runs a photography blog on the side. On holiday in Venice, Lauren takes a quick pic of a woman on the beach and posts it to Instagram with a cheeky hashtag. She doesn’t give it much thought until the picture starts to get traction, and the comments start rolling in. Amongst the comments is an anonymous message demanding to know who the woman is… and the poster is not letting it go. Things escalate to nastier trolling, and Lauren begins to wonder if someone is watching her. And if, somehow, it’s got something to do with the woman on the beach. Admittedly, the red herrings are a tad far-fetched and there’s a whopper of a coincidence to get over, but One Click is still really good. The social media aspect is well-handled and realistic (a rare thing). I read this in a single sitting and definitely recommend it.

The Sculptress by Minette Walters (1993)

Needed a comfort read, and since I read The Shape of Snakes last month, I decided to reread The Sculptress (okay… maybe it’s a bit odd to describe Minette Walters as a ‘comfort read’!). I loved The Sculptress when I first read it, but I was really surprised how quickly I went through it the second time. The eponymous sculptress is Olive Martin, a morbidly obese woman in prison for the brutal murders of her mother and sister. Author Rosalind Leigh is pressured by her publisher to interview Olive and write a book about the case. Roz is reluctant at first, but on meeting Olive she becomes intrigued by the case… but also by the woman herself. Olive pleaded guilty and offered no defence, but no one has ever been able to determine why she killed her mother and sister. Roz initially plans to discover the woman’s motive, but instead becomes fixated on the inconsistencies in the original investigation. This leads her to cross paths with Hal Hawksley, the arresting officer in the Olive Martin case, and to a subplot involving Hal’s failing restaurant. I didn’t quite enjoy The Sculptress as much the second time round, but I think that’s because it was just such a revelation when I first read it. I still rate it as a brilliant book with an amazing ending (but you need to hang right on to get it). The Sculptress isn’t a murder mystery as such, but it’s a wonderfully dark and unsettling thriller.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey (2012)

This isn’t the sort of book I normally read – I’m not a massive fan of pop history, especially not ‘dramatic’ tales of the aristocracy. However, we had a trip to Haddon Hall in April, and after a (rather silly) conversation with my other half, I was curious when I spotted The Secret Rooms in the gift shop at the hall. All around Haddon Hall are testaments to the wonderful life’s work of the ninth Duke of Rutland, who restored the hall after it had lain abandoned for nearly two centuries, and yet the gift shop was selling a book that promised to reveal the deep, dark secrets of that very duke. Although I read the book out of sheer curiosity, I thoroughly enjoyed it. While The Secret Rooms is indeed an exposé of the shameful secrets of the ninth Duke of Rutland, Bailey’s book is packed with detail and context that are just as interesting as its main line of research. This is an examination of the uses and abuses to which the aristocracy put their mind-numbing privilege and status. While Bailey keeps a balanced tone – even sympathetic, at times – the final reveal of the Duke of Rutland’s secret is presented with a disdain that I fully shared. I found The Secret Rooms utterly gripping, and Bailey does a good job of avoiding the melodramatic tone that could so easily have been adopted. All in all, this book was a big surprise, and I’m really glad I picked it up.

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters (1994)

Since I’ve read a couple of Minette Walters’s books this year and really enjoyed them, I thought I’d give The Scold’s Bridle a go. This one is much closer to a standard murder mystery: an older woman named Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bath, wearing a scold’s bridle (a historic torture device used to punish women for speaking) on her head. Although the police initially think her death was suicide, there are suggestions that someone else might have been involved. If it was a murder, the suspects seem to be Mathilda’s daughter and granddaughter (who didn’t like her very much), the local GP Sarah Blakeney (who did), and Sarah’s artist husband Jack (who probably did). For all its ‘classic’ set-up, The Scold’s Bridle goes to some pretty dark places, and there’s an unsettling story that lies beneath the (admittedly) larger-than-life characters and domestic unrest. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as The Sculptress or The Shape of Snakes (by far the best book I’ve read so far this year), but that’s mostly because the story unfolds like a particularly demented episode of Midsomer Murders. However, Walters’s characteristic rug-pulling isn’t completely absent. It was well worth sticking with all the back-and-forth of Sarah and Jack’s marriage problems to get to the truth about Mathilda Gillespie. As with the other two books by Walters I’ve read, I’m very glad I didn’t skip the last page. Walters is definitely the queen of unreliable narration – and that’s absolutely fine by me!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Behind the Mask Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 18th December 2015
Platform: PC

I did intend my next post to be a Poirot Project one (I’m up to ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ now), but I haven’t quite had time to finish it yet. I have played another HOPA game though, so I’m sneaking in a quick review of that before I get back to Hercule.

I’m still working my way through the Phantasmat series. I’m just playing the games in the order they were released, though I’m not definitely sure yet if I’m going to keep going until the latest release. I like the series, but it’s no substitute for Mystery Case Files (my true love). I think part of the problem is that, while the Phantasmat games (so far) are well-made and fun to play, I miss the recurring characters from Mystery Case Files. Each Phantasmat game is, essentially, a standalone adventure, and there’s no suggestion that you’re playing as the same character from one game to the next (in fact, I think it’s pretty clear that you’re not supposed to be the same person). Still, as standalone games, they’re good fun, and Phantasmat: Behind the Mask (from Eipix Games again is a decent (if slightly confused) instalment in the series.

The game begins with you receiving an invitation to a family reunion from your cousin Patrick. There’s something a little bit off about the invite – the details of the party seem a little vague – but you set off in your car nonetheless. Surprisingly for a Phantasmat game, you manage to get there without crashing your car, but the Ward Mansion is all locked up when you arrive. Patrick calls you on your mobile to ask you to let yourself in, and that’s when the puzzles start.

I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say that, when you get into the Ward Mansion, you run in to some fellow party guests. They… aren’t dressed in a contemporary style. If you’ve played the previous games in the series, you’re already expecting at least some of the characters to be ghosts, so this isn’t too much of a surprise (again, I don’t think this is a spoiler, as there’s no way you’d imagine that these characters are alive). The curious part is trying to work out why you’ve been invited to this family reunion, and what Patrick is up to. Things begin in an unsettling way, but soon get a bit darker.

There’s a lot of really good stuff in the Behind the Mask storyline – including some grimly bizarre stuff at one point – but it’s also a bit of a mess. The Patrick plotline seems to be the main thrust of the game, and you solve puzzles to resolve this (it all seems to have something to do with a clock). However, about half an hour/an hour into the game (probably about the point the demo ends), you resolve this – at which point it’s revealed that there’s something else entirely going on. I liked both aspects of the story, but I struggled to see how they fit together. By the end of the game – including the bonus chapter (more on that shortly) – I understood what was going on in the main storyline, but I’m totally confused about Patrick and the clock. What was he trying to achieve? What was the significance of the clock? Turns out… that’s not really important.

I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed with the storyline in this one. As I say there are some great aspects, but it just doesn’t hang together. I’m happy to be a bit baffled by HOPA storylines – I’ll even forgive glaring plot holes – but I don’t like it when I just can’t follow the story at all. The Patrick subplot in Behind the Mask was just too inexplicable for me.

Storyline aside, the game is beautifully designed. It’s got that classic Eipix style, with each scene illustrated in a stylish and detailed way. However, it’s not quite of the same standard as the previous instalment, Dread of Oakville. NPCs are well-drawn (on the most part), but not fully animated, and the dialogue animations are a little stilted. The cutscenes are interesting – not fully animated, but drawn with an off-beat style that I enjoyed. The music is as you might expect from a HOPA, but it doesn’t really stand out, which is a shame given one part of the plot. Again, though, the design is a bit disappointing after playing the previous instalments of the Phantasmat series. One of the things I’ve really liked about the games (which I’ve mentioned cryptically in previous reviews) is the subtlety with which the NPCs alter as the game goes along (trying really hard to avoid spoilers). Sadly, that subtlety is absent in Behind the Mask, and the NPCs go from ‘normal’ (and reasonably well-illustrated) to ‘evil’ (cartoonishly rendered) in the blink of an eye. There are a couple of egregious examples of this, which really made me miss the light touch of earlier games.

I feel like this is quite a critical review, so I do want to say that I did enjoy the game. It’s just not a standout HOPA for me. The gameplay in the main game is fairly straightforward and logical. You move between rooms, picking stuff up, using inventory items, interacting with NPCs. Inventory items were, on the whole, used intuitively – though I was frustrated with finding that a fountain pen was intended to lever open a drawer at one point, and the bonus chapter gets more convoluted and unclear about next steps. But in the main game I found that I barely had to use Hint (and never Skip), as the gameplay was so straightforward.

Perhaps… just perhaps… the gameplay was a little bit too straightforward. Behind the Mask isn’t a particularly difficult game. The HOGs look great, and everything is nice and clear, but there isn’t much challenge with this one. I completed some of the HOGs easily in less than a minute, and the mini games were similarly simple. It is a tricky balance, though, and on the whole I think I prefer this level of difficulty to the more impenetrable challenge of other games, which has you over-clicking the Hint button.

Behind the Mask has some gameplay features that are expected from Eipix, and from the series at this point. There are four difficulty levels, including Custom (yay!). I played with no tutorial, minimal black bar hints, minimal sparkles, and medium mis-click penalties, Hint and Skip. There is also a jump map, which you discover in-game part way through, but you probably won’t need to use it too much, as the back-and-forth is limited here (it’s always quite clear when you’ve ‘finished’ a room). As with previous instalments, there is the option of playing Match-3 instead of HOGs as well.

The NPCs in Behind the Mask are pretty important to the story, and very much present in the game. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the hanging-around-asking-for-help type (à la Gregory Logain, my HOPA nemesis). In this one (and I don’t think this is really a spoiler), the NPCs are the antagonists. Once you get past the pesky Patrick-and-the-clock plotline that opens the game, you meet the assembled ‘family reunion’ guests in turn: Abigail (a herbalist and orchid-grower), Claude (a musician), Norman (a big game hunter), Lisbeth (an artist), Patrick (he’s back!), and then… the other one (definitely no spoilers for that one though!).

Unusually for a HOPA, the NPCs function almost like end-of-level bosses, or at least as close to end-of-level bosses as you’d get in a HOPA. As the game progresses, you meet each of the members of the Ward family, find out a little bit about their backstory and the threat they pose, and deal with them. The backstories are, mostly, the best bit of the game – though that tells you something about my tastes, to be honest. They’re tantalizing revealed through oddly-illustrated cutscenes, and they’re generally really disturbing. Claude and Norman’s, in particular, are the stuff of proper horror fiction. It’s almost a shame how straightforward it is to neutralize them.

Sadly, though, these ‘end-of-level bosses’ get progressively easier and quicker to investigate. The amount of time you spend with Claude is much longer – and more developed – than the time you spend with Lisbeth. Still, it’s an interesting twist on the format, and one that I’d like to revisit in a future game.

I played the Collector’s Edition for this one, and so there were some extras. Firstly, there were morphing objects and collectibles. These were pretty easy to find so didn’t detract too much from the main gameplay. The CE has some limited Achievements (I think there were four altogether), and a Souvenir Room. There’s no endgame with the collectibles or Souvenir Room, but they add a couple of extra tasks to the game. The bonus content includes replays on HOGs and mini-games, and a second chance to find any collectibles you missed first time round. You can also replay Match-3 for a while, if you fancy it.

The main attraction of the CE is, of course, the bonus chapter. I have mixed feelings about this one. Story-wise, it’s great and really adds an extra dimension to the plot of the main game – though I think if you played the SE (without this additional material), you’d be even more baffled about what’s going on than I was. However, the gameplay leaves a bit to be desired. It’s far less intuitive and logical than the main game, and I found myself constantly reaching for Hint to explain what I had to do next.

I do feel that I’ve been quite negative about this one, which I didn’t intend. It’s a fun game, and some of the backstory is wonderfully dark and brutal. It’s just not the strongest instalment in the Phantasmat series, and some features felt a bit phoned-in. If I compare Behind the Mask to a lot of the other HOPAs I’ve played, it certainly comes off well. But compared to the rest of the series so far (and to my beloved Mystery Case Files), it’s a bit of a let-down. I haven’t decided yet whether the next game I play will be the next instalment of the Phantasmat series. The completist in me wants to keep going with them in sequence, but it might be time for a break. I’m not sure… but even if I do play a different game next, I’m sure I’ll come back to the series again in the future.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Dread of Oakville (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 10th July 2015
Platform: PC

I’m continuing my journey through the Phantasmat series with the fourth title: The Dread of Oakville. The series is still in the competent hands of Eipix Games for this title, and this one really has a ‘classic Eipix’ feel about it (in the best possible way). Unusually for me, I played the Standard Edition of this one (because I had a free game coupon that was only redeemable on SEs) – it’s been a while since I played an SE!

So… surprise, surprise… The Dread of Oakville begins with you driving down a dark mountain road, as a storm begins to gather. Suddenly, a landslide forces your car off the road, and rocks block the way behind you. Of course it does. You find yourself in a tunnel, a locked gate in front of you, and a blocked road behind. The only way to continue is to find a way to unlock the gate and enter the town on the other side.

The town is Oakville and, as in other instalments of the Phantasmat series, it is deserted. There are missing person posters scattered around, and you quickly find the driving licence of a young woman called Josie Grimes. What happened to the people of Oakville? And how are you going to escape? It’s not long before you meet one of the residents who seems friendly, though if you’re familiar with the previous titles in the series then you’ll have a good idea what to expect from him.

The storyline in this one had so much potential. There’s a creepy woman, an apocalyptic prophecy, an ancient entity contained in a tree, and a sinister puppet called Mr Nightingale. However, the execution is rather fragmented, and it’s not particularly clear how the elements fit together. For the first time in the series, I was left a little confused as to which characters were alive and which were dead, and I couldn’t quite work out which ones were working together (and what the intended to achieve). There was a bit of a paint-by-numbers quality to the storytelling in this one, with the Big Bad (Mae Grimes) pretty much being bad for the sake of it. It’s a shame, as some of the apocalyptic elements (see below) worked so well (and I’ll even admit to enjoying the jump scares in this one), but the narrative just wasn’t quite coherent enough for me.

Although the storyline of The Dread of Oakville was weaker than some of the previous instalments of the series, I loved the design of this one. It is really excellent, and definitely Eipix at their best. Scenes are beautifully detailed, and the HOGs were clear and well-designed. The soundtrack is also a real plus point, with evocative and atmospheric music that doesn’t loop too much. I do enjoy it when the soundtrack shifts with the action of the game (not all HOPA soundtracks do this), and the music here does just that. The cutscenes (though there aren’t many) are well-illustrated and integrated into the narrative.

But the real highlight of the design in The Dread of Oakville is the impending apocalypse. In my reviews of the earlier Phantasmat games, I mentioned how much I liked the way the design of the NPCs shifts as you learn more about what they are. The Dread of Oakville takes this to a different level, with a really unsettling shift early on in the game. Without giving too much away (there are a few shocks and scares early on in the game that it would be a shame to spoil), the design of the not-quite-living characters in The Dread of Oakville is classy and cinematic.

However, it’s the rain that really makes this game. In mad Mae Grimes’s prophecy/plot, the apocalypse is due to come in the form of a cataclysmic storm that will destroy the world (or destroy Oakville – Mae’s a little unclear on that one). When you first arrive in the town, it’s overcast but still fairly dry. By the time you meet your first NPC, dark clouds are gathering… and then the storm starts. Now, The Dread of Oakville is far from the only HOPA to include constant rain as a backdrop to gameplay, but it does do it so well. It builds up gradually, with rumbling thunder, before driving down in a relentless torrent for the second half of the game. The sound design is great, with the rain effects balanced well with the music, and the storm is beautifully illustrated. I know it might sound a little odd, but the rain was probably my favourite part of the game!

In terms of gameplay, The Dread of Oakville is pretty standard HOPA fare. You move from screen to screen, clicking stuff, picking stuff up, using items from your inventory. It’s fairly intuitive and logical (though the fragmented storyline meant that I occasionally lost track of what I was doing and had to use Hint). There are three difficulty settings, plus Custom (yay!). I played with my preferred Custom options (no tutorial, no sparkles except on HOGs, longer recharge on Hint and Skip), and this worked well for me.

My main criticism of gameplay would be that the HOGs and mini-games are on the easy side. In fact, some are very easy to complete. I enjoyed the variety with HOGs – there are straight item lists, morphing objects, items to be assembled and silhouettes – and the fact that there are no repeats, but there just isn’t quite enough challenge. The mini-games are fun and well-designed, but again they just aren’t particularly challenging. It’s a tough balance to reach, though, as I’m aware I’ve grumbled in previous reviews about mini-games that are too difficult. I also know that all players are different. Nevertheless, as I’d completed the game within three-and-a-half hours, I just don’t think there was quite enough gameplay in The Dread of Oakville.

And now it’s time for my regular rant about non-player characters in HOPAs… I’m a bit frustrated, to be honest, as I’ve been rather impressed by the use of NPCs in the Phantasmat series so far. As you may remember from previous reviews, my biggest pet peeve about HOPAs is NPCs that set you a task and then stand around watching you complete it. Why don’t they help you?? At least with Phantasmat, it seemed that some explanation was given for why the people you encounter weren’t too keen on helping you out.

Sadly, though, we move towards Gregory Logain territory in The Dread of Oakville, and that’s guaranteed to wind me up a bit. At first, it seems like things are progressing nicely: you meet a suspiciously friendly resident who encourages you to stay in Oakville for a while, and a creepy little girl who sings a horrible nursery rhyme at you and then disappears. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t continue. You soon end up hooking up with Josie Grimes and her dad, who have that irritating tendency to say things like ‘We’re going to need fuel for the Limo. I think there’s a barrel in the basement.’ Before standing stock still and watching you. Sigh. I’ll go down to the basement and look then, shall I? And I’m guessing I’ll also need to search the house for a funnel and a hose. Jeez. To make matters worse, the lack of full narrative coherence means that it’s not always completely clear who you’re meant to be helping, and why. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was going on with Ansell Grimes – exacerbated by the fact that a bit of dialogue skipped at a key moment, so I didn’t get to see the full interaction. Despite this – and this is definitely a personal gripe – I will say that the NPCs are illustrated very well, and the voice acting is very good throughout.

I just really don’t like being told to do stuff by NPCs in a game where you can’t answer back.

As I said above, this was a rare Standard Edition for me, so I didn’t get chance to try any bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has a bonus chapter (which I didn’t really miss, as these haven’t been a strong point of the series so far), a jump map (again, I didn’t miss this), Match-3 options for the HOGs, collectibles and achievements.

Overall, an enjoyable game, but not the strongest instalment of the Phantasmat series. Design-wise, The Dread of Oakville is excellent, with some really stylish and impressive features. But it’s let down a bit by a fragmented narrative and lack of challenge in gameplay. Still, it’s not put me off the series, and I imagine I’ll keep going with Phantasmat for a while yet.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Review: Richard III (Headlong Theatre)

Tuesday 30 April 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a (slightly shorter) version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III came to HOME, Manchester this month. It’s a bold, energetic and unsettling adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which uses set design, costume and performance to present a darkly compelling study of a man’s pursuit of power and sovereignty.

Expertly directed by John Haidar, this Richard III actually begins with a scene from the end of Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of Gloucester kills King Henry. This, of course, sets up the audience for the murders and intrigue to come (and there will be lots of murders), but it also allows for a direct introduction to the character of the future King Richard III – the play begins, not with the ‘winter of discontent’, but with Richard’s ‘I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear’ speech, leaving us in no doubt that we are about to watch a very bad man do some very bad things.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

And Richard here is a very bad man. Tom Mothersdale is both repulsive and mesmerising as the twisted, cruel and power-hungry Gloucester. Snarling, spitting, grasping, cajoling and mocking, this Richard III is a monster rather than a tyrant. And yet… Mothersdale’s delivery is so captivating that it’s impossible not to warm ever so slightly to this version of Shakespeare’s famous villain. His delivery of Shakespearean dialogue is excellent, rendering even the most verbose monologues immediate and accessible – aided by knowing nods and asides to the audience that make us feel almost complicit in his nefarious plots. It takes an accomplished actor to get laughs from a contemporary audience without undermining either the gravity or the literary style of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but Mothersdale is more than up to the task. However, he’s equally up to the task of making the audience’s skin crawl.

As with most modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not the complete Richard III. Some scenes are excised or abridged, and the cast of characters is substantially streamlined. We jump from one monstrous act to another with hardly a breath and little time to ponder motive or purpose. For instance, Richard’s plan to marry Elizabeth of York (who doesn’t appear on stage in this production) is even more hot-on-the-heels of her brothers’ deaths than is usual, and he shrugs off her mother’s accusation of incest as though it’s completely irrelevant. He is, after all, a very bad man. While Shakespeare’s play gives some time and space to considering broader questions of statesmanship, sovereignty, sin and consequence, this production focuses more on the facets of a repellent individual – it is a portrait of vileness, in all its glory.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Admittedly, while this is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s histories, the audience learns little of actual history from this production. You would be forgiven if your understanding of the Wars of the Roses, or the messy succession of the English crown, was not expanded by seeing this play. Indeed, this seems like quite a deliberate stylistic choice. Obviously, Bosworth Field is mentioned (though only once), but the play resists adding any signposting of who Richmond will become once he has taken the crown from Richard. This is not simply faithful adherence to Shakespeare’s text, but rather a stylistic decision to present a more timeless story of corruption and power that transcends the rigidity of historical context.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner
While the play is very much a study of its title character, with Richard appearing on stage in almost every scene, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other excellent performances. Stefan Adegbola makes a fascinating Buckingham, transforming the character from the start into a slick, smiling and untrustworthy spin doctor, before crashing hard into Richard’s betrayal. Derbhle Crotty and Eileen Nicholas play Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, exuding almost tangible anger and pain. Nicholas’s Duchess has a powerful scene with Richard in the second act, which is made all the more complex by the earlier inclusion of Richard’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 – a subtle hint that Richard has been missing a mother’s love. I should also give full admiration and credit to the young actors playing Prince Edward and York – Headlong have taken a bold decision by including child actors in such an intense adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but the performances of the younger cast members definitely justify the decision.

Caleb Roberts’s performance as Richmond is rather curious. Delivering his calls-to-arms and regal monologues with pious grace and innocence, this Richmond stands in as sharp distinction to the grotesque Richard as it’s possible to be. However, there is a sense that he is too pious, too good and, occasionally, a little too wet behind the ears to really carry off the final dramatic act of murder and renewal. In the absence of overt signposting of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of Richmond here. And, in fact, we’re given little time to dwell on this – the ‘good guy’ wins, but the play actually ends on an image of the tormented and defeated ‘bad guy’ that is far more memorable.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

There is a stylised quality to the production that further suggests this Richard III has a more timeless quality about it. Characters appear in not-quite-contemporary suits, and the gender of some characters is switched (for instance, we have Lady Hastings – played by Heledd Gwynn – who sports formalwear, high heels and bright pink hair). Chiara Stephenson’s set design adds to the effect: a dungeon-like castle forms the backdrop, with mirrors on every side. These two-way mirrors become an integral feature, not only of the set, but of the performance – Richard becomes reflected in a distorted kaleidoscope effect at times, but at others his ghostly victims appear behind them.

In addition to the mirrors, the first act of the play makes interesting use of the crown. Suspended from a wire in the centre of the stage, the coveted object descends a little with each murderous act, edging ever closer to Richard’s grasping hands until the pre-interval climax. It isn’t a subtle image, but it’s well-done here and recurs towards the end of the second half, when we see the monarch literally begin to lose his grasp on the crown.

The stylisation extends to sound design (by George Dennis) and lighting (by Elliot Griggs). This is particularly apparent when acts of violence occur. The harsh red light and screaming sound effects that punctuate the performance when murders occur are jarring – which is an effective, if disconcerting, technique. In the same way, the movement of actors too and from the stage – as well as the adeptly choreographed movements on stage – is both unnerving and gripping.

Overall, this is a dizzying and intense production that builds to a high-pitched climax (and an incredible final image). It’s unpleasant, nasty and nightmarish in places – but isn’t that the allure of Richard III? Headlong’s vivid and forceful production brings Shakespeare’s villain and his ruthless (but ultimately futile) quest for sovereignty to life in a way that is both captivating and grotesque. I highly recommend it.

Richard III is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 4th May.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My Year in Books 2019: April

I'm carrying on my blog review project for another month... though I've pretty much gone back to crime fiction and some favourite authors for this month. No domestic noir for me in April!

In case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from 2019: January, February, March. But here are the books I read in April...

Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain (2016)

I discovered Jo Spain in December, when I bought a copy of her first novel (With Our Blessing) in a charity shop. I enjoyed the book and passed it on to my mum. She enjoyed it so much, she immediately went out and bought two more of Spain’s novels. And now she’s passed those on to me. Beneath the Surface is the second book in the detective series, so it features the same team of detectives as With Our Blessing. D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate a murder at Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament. Ryan Finnegan, a highly-regarded government official, has been shot – and the suspects are made up of the great and the good of Irish politics. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as With Our Blessing, but that says much more about my tastes than Spain’s writing. I loved the Gothic atmosphere of the snowed-in convent at Christmas in the first book, and the world of politicians, civil servants and lobbyists wasn’t quite as creepy and evocative. However, Spain’s writing is great, and Beneath the Surface is definitely another page-turner. I also really liked the good balance Spain struck between political intrigue and murder mystery (even if I did spot the killer a little bit too early!). The detectives here are easy to like, and their personal lives don’t dominate too much. A warning though… there are With Our Blessing spoilers in this one, so best to read the books in order.

Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (2017)

I decided just to go straight to Jo Spain’s next book – also lent by my mum. Sleeping Beauties is another mystery for D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team, though at first it seems to be quite a different sort of crime novel to Beneath the Surface. The book begins with the discovery of a woman’s body at the tourist spot of Glendalough. The body has been buried in a shallow grave, and the detectives quickly work out that it’s missing woman Una Dolan. But they also realize that there are four other grave sites in the same area – Reynolds’s team are faced with a serial killer. While Sleeping Beauties does tread familiar ‘hunt for a serial killer’ ground – there’s some profiling, lots of working out the ‘type’ that the victims adhere to, some pretty grisly and unsettling details – it is still a mystery. As in her previous books, Spain is keen to follow the same rules of detective fiction that you might find in older mysteries (the killer is always someone who has appeared in the story before, for instance). There are also some neat clues – one in particular that I really liked (no spoilers!) – that make this a proper whodunit, rather than a procedural thriller. Again, Spain strikes a good balance between the case and the detectives’ private lives, though I must admit I found myself really rooting for one non-case-related storyline a bit more than I thought I would. A well-written and compelling read – definitely recommend this one.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths (2017)

I read one of Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels last month, after buying it from a charity book sale at the supermarket. This month, I discovered another book in the series on the same shelf so I thought I’d give it a go. It was kind of a weird experience. The previous book I’d read was the second in the series (The Janus Stone), but The Chalk Pit is the ninth – so I was picking up with characters nearly seven years after I’d last seen them. However, the basic set-up remains the same: Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who helps the Norfolk police out with their investigations. D.I. Harry Nelson is the lead cop for the series (and his relationship with Ruth is… complicated). In The Chalk Pit, bones are discovered on an underground building site (which is also how The Janus Stone kicked off, but that’s fair enough, since there’s very little other reason to bring in a forensic archaeologist) – certain markings on the bones lead Ruth to suspect something very sinister has been going on under the streets of Norfolk. When Nelson’s team are contacted about a missing homeless woman, the picture starts to look even creepier. This is an entertaining read, with some interesting bits about tunnels and catacombs (and some virtuous commentary on homelessness and rough sleeping). However, as with The Janus Stone, the book tends to get a little bogged down in the ongoing (increasingly complicated) soap opera of the detectives’ private lives.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)

I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels (though weirdly not, as I discovered last year, of her Jackson Brodie books). Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books of all time, and I really loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins – now there’s a book with a twist. Like Life After Life and God in Ruins, Transcription is partly set during WWII, though (as with the other two) there’s a good chunk that takes place after the war as well. Transcription is a spy novel, and it follows the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited into the Secret Service to help with an operation to root out Fascist sympathizers in Britain. As befits a spy novel, the task Juliet is given is sometimes murky and uncertain, and the chain of command isn’t always clear. The story moves between 1940, when Juliet is working for MI5, and 1950, when Juliet is working for the BBC; however, the war casts long shadows, and the 1950 storyline sees figures from the past coming back to confront Juliet. Transcription is written in Atkinson’s characteristic style, so it’s full of things that are unsaid, unclear and confusing. Everything is connected, though, and the book builds towards an ending that is full of revelations. And yet, it’s also a spy novel, so that ending also leaves some questions unanswered. The historical details in Transcription are really captivating, and Atkinson draws you into Juliet’s world with her usual brilliance.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (2000)

Don’t know where to start with this one – this book devastated me (I literally stayed up all night to finish it, so I’m shattered too). I really enjoyed The Sculptress, but haven’t actually read any other books by Walters. So I thought I’d give The Shape of Snakes a go. The book begins in Richmond in 1978, with the death of a woman known as ‘Mad Annie’. Annie is the only black person on the street and has suffered a variety of torments at the hands of her white neighbours. As we learn early on, Annie also has Tourette’s (hence the ‘Mad’ soubriquet), and drinks to self-medicate. Annie’s death is recorded as an accident, but the narrator (known only as ‘M’ or ‘Mrs Ranelagh’) believes she was murdered. And she is not for letting that go, even when the neighbours turn on her. However, all of this happens before the story really begins – the bulk of the book takes place in 1999, when M returns from overseas ostensibly to investigate, but actually to resolve the unsettling situation. You may know that I’m fond of unreliable narrators – and M is just that. There is so much to the story that the narrator is withholding from the reader in this one. It’s a deeply disturbing book (with violence, sexual assault, racism and animal cruelty – be warned), but so incredibly well-constructed and well-written that it completely blew me away. The last page reduced me to uncontrollable tears – that’s how you write an ending!

Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh (1941)

I recently had a bit of charity shop binge while we were staying in Bakewell (there’s a lot of charity shops in Bakewell). The Shape of Snakes was one of the books I bought – the next one on the pile was Surfeit of Lampreys, which is quite a different kettle of fish. I haven’t read a huge amount of Ngaio Marsh – I’ve never rated the Inspector Alleyn books quite as high as some other Golden Age detective fiction – but I’ve enjoyed the books I have read. And Surfeit of Lampreys is certainly enjoyable. The book introduces the Lamprey family, a gaggle of charming eccentrics who coast from financial crisis to financial crisis without getting particularly ruffled about it. The early section of the book is mostly concerned with setting up the characters (the many Lampreys, and their friend Roberta Grey) and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. However, things take a darker turn when the Lampreys’ boring (but rich) Uncle Gabriel is murdered at their London flat. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out whodunit. Surfeit of Lampreys is a curious book: the fatuous, fashionable silliness of the Lamprey family is juxtaposed with a particular brutal and grisly murder, and the investigation takes place almost entirely at the scene of the crime. It’s a wonderful – and very entertaining – character study, with some light-hearted commentary on the finances of the landed gentry, but the puzzle at the heart of it isn’t quite as fiendish as it first appears. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.