Sunday, 30 June 2019

My Year in Books 2019: June

I only got chance to read three novels this month, sadly, as other stuff kept getting in the way. I'm halfway through a fourth one at the moment, but since there's only six hours of the month left, I think I'll have to save that one for my July post!

So, here's my (shorter than expected) post about the books I read in June. In case you're interested, you can see the posts from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

Back to the pile of books I bought on a tour of charity shops in Bakewell (and I’ve still got quite a few to get through!). Despite having read a few duffers, I’m definitely enjoying the surprise factor with the books I’ve read this year. I’ve been consciously avoiding reading reviews, and only skimming blurbs, when I choose titles, so I’m going into most books with no real expectations. This was the case with Gillespie and I – a stonking book (the edition I read was over 600 pages long) set in late Victorian Glasgow. I’ll be honest, surprise factor aside, this one was a bit of a disappointment. The narrator is Harriet Baxter, an unmarried woman in her 30s who travels to Scotland from London after the death of her aunt. Arriving in Glasgow for the International Exhibition, Harriet stumbles into the lives of Ned Gillespie, an artist, and his family. She becomes close to the Gillespies, but tragedy is just around the corner. Or rather, not quite around the corner, because it’s around 250 pages before anything dramatic actually happens. There’s a fantastic conceit at the heart of Gillespie and I (no spoilers, but remember I do love an unreliable narrator), but the execution just didn’t do it for me. It’s extremely slow-paced, and once you’ve twigged the game Harris is playing (which I did, sadly, quite early on), it feels even slower. Sadly, I have to say that this one was just too much of slog for me.

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths (2018)

Briefly breaking off from my Bakewell purchases to read a book my mum lent me. She’s become quite taken with Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway series, ever since I lent her The Janus Stone. I think she’s been catching up with the whole series, but I seem to just be dipping in and out. I’ve read the second and ninth titles; The Dark Angel is the tenth book, so at least it wasn’t too jarring a leap from the last one I read. This book sees Ruth Galloway travel to Italy to help out Italian archaeologist Angelo Morelli with a perplexing find. Ruth once had a one-night-stand with Morelli – of course she did! – so the book, like the previous titles, is just as concerned with the investigators’ private lives as with any murder or mystery. In fact, this was even more pronounced in The Dark Angel. The creepy archaeological enigma outlined in the blurb and preface is brushed away almost immediately (a massive disappointment), to be replaced with a rather bloodless tale of a murdered priest. This death is almost entirely eclipsed by the ongoing saga of marriages, affairs and pregnancies that proliferate throughout the series. This time, it’s Ruth coming to terms with Harry’s wife Michelle being pregnant, and Shona thinking about cheating on Phil. In truth, it’s more like a soap opera than a crime series, and I just found The Dark Angel a bit of a let-down. Might leave this series for my mum from now on.

A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore (2010)

Back to the books I bought in Bakewell charity shops… and I’m really not sure I read the blurb on this one carefully at all. Turns out that A Place of Secrets is much more of a romance than I normally read. But hey! surprise factor! The book tells the story of Jude, a woman with a PhD in eighteenth-century studies who works for an auction house. Jude is asked to handle the sale of a collection of books at Starbrough Hall in Norfolk, which (coincidence!) is the estate on which her grandmother grew up. Jude travels to Norfolk, reconnects with her sister and niece, and discovers that the latter is suffering from the same bad dreams that troubled her as a child. As Jude delves into a mystery in the rare book collection – a missing teenager from the 1700s – she also tinkers around with a puzzle from her grandmother’s past, possible supernatural occurrences related to an old folly on the Starbrough estate, the potential sale of said folly by a dastardly landowner, her grief over her dead husband, and her feelings for a hunky writer/animal-lover who lives in the cottage where her grandmother once lived. There is a lot going on in this one, but it’s handled with a light-hearted, almost fluffy, touch… and a helluva lot of coincidences. The way the solutions to the various mysteries dovetail is almost too much to swallow… but I still found the story rather charming, in its own way. Maybe I’m mellowing.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Review: The Basement Tapes (Zanetti Productions)

Tuesday 25th June 2019
HOME, Manchester (Incoming Festival)

I was at HOME Manchester again this week to see The Basement Tapes, one of the productions on this year’s Incoming Festival programme. I’ll be reviewing the show for North Manchester FM next week, but in the meantime here’s the full version of my review…

Now in its sixth year, the Incoming Festival takes place in London, Manchester and Bristol, and showcases the work of emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond. The Basement Tapes is a piece by New Zealand’s Zanetti Productions. It was performed in Manchester on 25th June, before moving on to London on 27th June and Bristol on 29th June, as part of a UK tour.

The Basement Tapes is a one-act play, performed by Stella Reid and directed by Jane Yonge, which takes place entirely in the eponymous basement. A young woman is faced with the task of clearing out the cellar after the death of her grandmother. As she sifts through old clothes and cheesy records, she uncovers an old tape recorder… and then a tape recorded by her grandmother. She’s shocked to hear her relative’s voice again, but then sits down to listen to the tape. A story begins to emerge that is equal parts mysterious and unsettling.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Basement Tapes – it’s a skilful, well-crafted and expertly performed piece of theatre, with surprises – and even shocks – that I did not see coming. Billed as a ‘mystery’, this play is much more than that – but it would be unfair to give too much away about the story! Suffice to say the story has a few curveballs that I didn’t expect, and a creepiness that went beyond what I was anticipated. (If you’ve read stuff on my blog before, it should go without saying that ‘creepiness’ is a very good thing in my book!)

It is rare to see horror tropes tackled successfully on stage – it’s really not an easy genre to perform live, and in such intimate surroundings as Theatre 2 at HOME, but Zanetti Productions are more than up to the task. The Basement Tapes hits all the right notes to create a thrilling and disturbing tale, which left me feeling genuinely unnerved by the end. The trajectory of the creepiness is just right; the tension is built subtlety and competently. So competently, in fact, that inanimate objects on stage begin to feel imbued with a sense of menace.

The play opens on a deceptively simple set, designed by Oliver Morse – a pile of cardboard boxes to the back, with a few apparently inconsequential objects scattered around in front. However, the work to which this set is put is quite remarkable. Reid moves, empties, fills and throws away the boxes, which take up different places on the stage, ready for later interactions. While Reid appears to treat the boxes in a rather cavalier fashion, the underlying precision of her performance is revealed by the lighting, which picks out objects on the stage at various points. Everything we’re seeing is a deliberate part of the storytelling, moving us inexorably towards the play’s climactic denouement.

The sound design (by Thomas Lambert) and lighting are excellent throughout. While The Basement Tapes is not afraid to ‘go big’ on some effects (bright and colourful lighting, blaring music), it also makes skilful use of darkness and silence – some of the more striking moments come when there was no light, or no sound – as well moments of warmth and quietness. It would be tempting in a story of this sort (which the blurb describes as ‘Twin Peaks meets Serial’) to try and create cinematic techniques; however, The Basement Tapes is all theatre. This is not a piece that feels like a short film enacted live, but rather a production that truly belongs on the stage, created by a company that knows how to use the theatre space (with its opportunities for lighting and sound) to its full potential.

But what really impressed me – and what I enjoyed the most – is the storytelling. A single act is a short space to present a fully developed tale, but The Basement Tapes manages it. The script gives just enough information to conjure a clear backstory, weaving a convincing backdrop to the main ‘mystery’, which is revealed through the atmospheric narration provided by the tapes found in the cellar. Tiny fragments of backstory are scattered throughout, from an empty sherry bottle to a camel-coloured coat. Again, there is a deceptive simplicity to this – without the careful and deliberate contextualizing, it would be difficult to imagine an audience sitting quietly, watching a woman on stage listening to a tape. However, by the time the granddaughter hits the ‘play’ button, we’re just as intrigued as she is.

While the mystery and horror elements are, perhaps, the most striking aspects, the use of humour is also very well-done. I particularly enjoyed some of the nods to… erm… slightly older members of the audience, as the central character negotiated such archaic technology as tape recorders and landline phones.

Reid gives a stunning performance as the granddaughter. She is endearing and engaging throughout, ensuring that the audience feels that we know (and like) the young woman she’s playing. Reid begins the performance with a boisterous dance routine, and variously moves between brash comic turns, sentimental reminiscences, manic curiosity and mounting anxiety as the story on the tape begins to unfold. On occasion, these moves happen quickly: there’s a brilliant bit with a cookbook that captures an abrupt – but completely believable – swing from affectionate mockery to tearful nostalgia, which perfectly evokes the mixed emotions of bereavement and its aftermath. Again, Reid’s captivating performance encourages a feeling of intimacy and familiarity, which is a key part of the play’s story development and resolution.

In case this rather effusive review hasn’t made it clear, The Basement Tapes is an excellent piece of theatre – highly recommended. It’s a play that really stays with you after you’ve left the theatre and undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve seen on stage this year.

The Basement Tapes was on at HOME Manchester on 25th June, as part of the Incoming Festival. The Incoming Festival takes place at HOME Manchester, New Diorama Theatre, London, and Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, on 24th-30th June 2019.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Review: The Hired Man (Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch/Hull Truck Theatre/Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 20th June 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at Oldham Coliseum for the press night of The Hired Man, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I played the shorter version of my review on this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version...

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Howard Goodall’s 1984 musical adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, The Hired Man, comes to Oldham in a new revival. Co-produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, this production is directed by Douglas Rintoul and Jean Chan.

The Hired Man opens in Cumberland in 1898, at a hiring fair. The cast take to the stage, singing out their desire to become hired men and work on the land. One man, John Tallentire, emerges triumphant, being offered sixteen shillings to work for a man named Pennington. Newly-married John is happily waiting for his wife, Emily, to join him, as the job includes a cottage, where he hopes they will be able to begin their life together.

The Hired Man is the story of John and Emily’s life together, told through musical numbers that offer snapshots that span over twenty years. It is the story of John and Emily, but also of the world in which they live and work. John toils as an agricultural labourer, then leaves the land for the coal mines, before signing up to the army in 1914. Agriculture declines, coal mines thrive, trade unions are formed, war breaks out and ends, tragedy and disasters loom – all in the course of two acts.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

This method of storytelling is unusual for musical theatre. On the one hand, it lends the narrative an ‘epic’ or ‘saga’ quality, moving the audience through the vicissitudes of early twentieth-century working class life, and the changing fortunes of the central characters. On the other, it glosses over the developments and motivations in individual relationships. Emily’s relationship with Jackson Pennington, for instance, is presented through a couple of scenes and songs, but the complexity of emotional dilemma is obscured.

While the story moves quickly through two decades, Oliver Hembrough (as John) and Lauryn Redding (as Emily) do an excellent job of conveying the change in age and circumstance of the central couple, without makeup or significant costume change. Hembrough’s John moves from the enthusiasm of youth to an obsessive dedication to toil, to an almost stoic insistence on just getting through the business of life in a way that is both believable and engaging. Months (and sometimes years) pass between numbers, and so it is a credit to the performances that these transitions aren’t too abrupt or jarring.

However, it is Redding’s Emily that really carries the passage of time. Beginning as an effusive and optimistic young woman (apparently very young, as the number ‘Now for the First Time’ tells us), Emily gains maturity, experience and something of hard edge before our very eyes. Redding performs this expertly – though I was left feeling I wanted to see much more of Emily’s perspective. The Hired Man is very much focused on the life of the eponymous character, but an interesting counter-narrative – that of Emily – is hinted at, and I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the things that are left unexplored (e.g. Emily’s later decision to work in a bobbin factory). In many ways, this is credit to Redding’s strong and commanding performance.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

The cast are all actor-musicians, and so bring instruments onto the stage in various combinations throughout the show. This lends a spontaneity to proceedings and gives the show an air of folk entertainment, in-keeping with the atmosphere of the music and script – but it also means that the cast is really put through its paces.

Lloyd Gorman plays Jackson Pennington – the boss’s son who falls for Emily – with a sort of hapless charm that is really rather endearing. The contrast between Jackson and John is clear, making Emily’s dilemma a plausible one. James William-Pattison and Lara Lewis are enjoyable in the second act as Harry and May, John and Emily’s children, and Samuel Martin and T.J. Holmes offer strong supporting performances as John’s brothers Isaac and Seth. While mostly offering comic relief in the first act, Holmes shines in the second as trade unionist Seth, particularly in the number ‘Men of Stone’ (an anthem to unionisation belted out with near-Bolshevik fervour by Holmes).

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Jean Chan’s design for the production is interesting. The set is sparse, with the only backdrop being a painted screen depicting the Cumbrian countryside. The production uses a revolving stage, which is utilised to very good effect. In ensemble numbers, it creates a sense of the crowd; in duets, it moves us between differing perspectives. It is in the second act when the staging and design really comes into its own. Transporting us from a kitchen, to the trenches, to a mine shaft, to a country fair, small alterations to the set’s design belie its apparent simplicity.

The Hired Man is very much a show of two halves. The first act, which takes place entirely in the Cumbrian countryside, is in distinct contrast to the dynamic shifts of the second, in which the hidden complexities of Chan’s set design are revealed. In particular, the scenes and numbers depicting the trench warfare of WWI are very well-done, with the space around the revolving stage allowing for multiple perspectives (the men in France and Emily back at home) to appear simultaneously. This clever staging is another real strength of the production.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Overall, this is a very well-produced and performed production of The Hired Man. Admittedly, the story is rather sentimental in places, with some of the ‘big picture’ commentary (on the situation of the working class in the early twentieth century) seeming rather hurried. The truncated storyline can be a little frustrating at times, leaving you wanting to see more of what happened in the missing years between numbers, but this does not detract too much from a story that is both bucolic and biting. Rintoul’s capable direction, along with some first-rate performances from the cast, carry us through the story with style and charm.

If you’ve never seen a production of The Hired Man before – or even if you have! – this revival is definitely a good one to watch. I recommend this one.

The Hired Man is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 6th July.

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)

Tuesday 4th June 2019
HOME, Manchester

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.