Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – The Reader on the 6.27

Posted by lucypopescu on June 23, 2015

The readerEvery day, Guylain Vignolles catches the 6.27am train to a job he detests. Guylain works at a book pulping factory, destroying what he loves the most. At the end of the day, he rescues pages of books from the murderous pulping machine that he refers to as “The Thing”. He dries them out and the following morning, on his daily commute, reads aloud from random sheets. He loathes his supercilious boss, “old Fatso”, and bigoted workmate Brunner. His one comrade is Yvon the factory’s security guard, who loves declaiming poetry and speaking in alexandrines.

Outside work, Guylain’s life revolves around feeding his goldfish, Rouget de Lisle, and visiting his solitary friend Giuseppe, formerly chief operator at the factory. Giuseppe lost both his legs in a horrific accident when “The Thing had devoured his lower limbs, right up to his mid-thighs”. An obsession with collecting copies of a particular book, Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days, made from the recycled paper pulped the day he lost his legs, offers Giuseppe some comfort. One morning, Guylain discovers a memory stick. He opens it to find “72 text files called only by their respective numbers”. From this unpromising start comes the diary of a young woman, Julie, who works as a lavatory attendant in a shopping mall. Every day, she counts the tiles in her miniature kingdom, describes the regulars and their habits, and dreams of finding Mr Right. Guylain finds himself unexpectedly smitten and begins to share pages of her diary with his fellow commuters. Meanwhile, Giuseppe decides to help locate Julie for his friend.

The Reader on the 6.27 is a delightful tale about the kinship of reading. Jean-Paul Didierlaurent explores the redemptive power of books, and plays with the notion that everyone can spar, find poetry in, tempt or seduce with words, whatever one’s station in life. For Giuseppe, books become the legs he lost. Guylain beguiles his fellow travellers and is then begged by members of the local old people’s home to read for them.

It’s also a love story. Much of the book’s charm resides in the simplicity of Didierlaurent’s prose and his vivid characterisation. Ros Schwartz’s translation perfectly conveys the warmth and eccentricities of his memorable cast. Already a bestseller in France, The Reader on the 6.27 looks set to woo British readers and become a book club favourite.

Originally published by The Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – Testament of Youth

Posted by lucypopescu on June 23, 2015

 

Testamount of YouthJames Kent’s magnificent feature debut, Testament of Youth (2015), based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir about the First World War, is a real tearjerker that should move male and female audiences alike and appeal to fans of Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Love, Rosie) focuses on Brittain’s coming of age – from the rural idyll where she grew up, through the hallowed halls of Oxford, to the horrors of war – the loss she endured and the carnage she witnessed. All naturally led her down the path of pacifism.

Vera (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), is desperate to study at Oxford but her father (Dominic West) disapproves of her academic ambition. He’d prefer to see her married off as soon as possible. Persuaded by Edward (Taron Egerton), Vera’s beloved younger brother, he finally relents and allows Vera to sit the entrance exam. At the same time Vera falls in love with Edward’s school friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington, TV’s Game Of Thrones). Both share a love of poetry, have literary ambitions and are determined to go to university together. But the First World War intervenes and Roland volunteers. One by one the men in Vera’s life leave for the front shattering her hopes and dreams.

Vera starts at Oxford but finds it increasingly difficult to study knowing that men are dying every day for their country. Against the advice of her blue-stocking tutor (Miranda Richardson) Vera volunteers as a nurse and experiences for herself the full horror of war and its casualties. During home leave, Vera and Roland become engaged but tragedy strikes before they can marry. Vera then has to endure the death of her brother and another friend Victor (Colin Morgan). She returns to Oxford grief-stricken and slowly begins to rebuild her life.

Brittain’s memoir is about the devastating effects of the First World War and the colossal waste of life over four brutal years. Kent forcefully brings this home in two scenes: In one, soldiers in the trenches, unknown to us or any of the characters, stare silently back at the camera; in another, cinematographer Rob Hardy pans over a vast field of the dead and dying lying on stretchers. Vera ends up working in a Casualty Clearing Station in France, where she nurses German soldiers – the experience teaches her humility and real, unwavering compassion. Here she realises the full extent of the bloodshed and has to deal with an overpowering sense of guilt. In return for Edward cajoling their father into sending her to Oxford, she had persuaded him to send her brother to war.

Testament of Youth is a compelling, poignant drama with extraordinary central performances from Swedish actress Vikander and Harington, as well as solid support from British stalwarts Egerton, Morgan, Richardson, Emily Watson as Vera’s mother and West.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

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Silenced Voices – Jason Rezaian, Iran

Posted by lucypopescu on May 26, 2015

jason RezaianThe trial of a Washington Post journalist detained in Iran for almost 10 months opens behind closed doors.

Freedom of expression and access to information continue to be restricted severely in Iran. Journalists and bloggers are frequently arrested, websites are blocked and a number of news outlets have been shut down. Hundreds of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists remain in prison, some without facing trial. One of these is Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was arrested in July last year after Iranian security forces raided his home.

Rezaian, a 38-year-old American-Iranian dual national, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, Iran correspondent for The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, were arrested at gunpoint at their home on 22 July 2014. Salehi was released in October and warned not to work as a journalist again. Rezaian has been held without trial ever since. He has not been able to meet the defence lawyer hired by his family and his health has deteriorated as a result of over five months’ detention in solitary confinement.

Rezaian moved to Iran from California in 2008 and worked as a freelance journalist, based in Tehran, for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, GlobalPost, Slate and Monocle. He has been the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent since 2012. His last story for the Post was about the growing popularity of baseball in Iran.

Rezaian was reportedly charged in January 2015 with national security offences. Since then, Rezaian’s lawyer, Leila Ahsan, told Iranian state media that her client had been charged with “espionage, collaboration with hostile governments, gathering classified information and disseminating propaganda against” Iran. Many believe President Hassan Rouhani has little control over the country’s powerful security and intelligence agencies, which, since his election, have continued to crack down on the media and critics of the regime. At the time of Rezaian’s arrest, Reporters Without Borders noted:

Arbitrary arrests, illegal summonses, for example by intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guards, are a daily reality for journalists in Iran. Media workers, particularly foreign journalists based in Tehran, are most often accused of spying. They are the victims of a policy of demonizing the foreign media, which is aggravated by the settling of scores among different groups engaged in a power struggle.

Rezaian’s trial opened today in Branch 15 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court, which deals with national security and political crimes. His case has been assigned to Abolghassem Salavati, a hardline judge known for delivering harsh sentences, including lashings and executions, who has been under European Union sanctions since 2011.

Iran does not recognise dual nationality and so Rezaian has not been granted any consular assistance. Rezaian’s family hired a high-profile Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafii, who has experience of handling national security cases, to represent him. However, the court did not accept their choice of lawyer, instead appointing Ahsan, who also represents his wife. Rezaian was only allowed to meet her in March. A month previously he was allowed outside medical treatment for the first time and received some care packages. He was finally prescribed antibiotics for infections in his eye and groin area. He is currently being held in Evin prison in Tehran, where torture and other forms of ill-treatment are rife. The family has set up a petition on Change.org, where further updates to Rezaian’s case can be read. So far, the petition has collected over 230,000 signatures from more than seventy countries. United States Secretary of State John Kerry and boxer Muhammad Ali, a Muslim American like Rezaian, have called for his immediate release.

According to PEN, over twenty writers are currently detained or are on trial in Iran for the peaceful expression of their opinions. Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention and protects the right to freedom of expression and fair trial. Iran has a history of arbitrarily detaining dual nationals, including academics Ramin Jahanbegloo, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh in 2006 and 2007, and journalists Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari in 2009.

Readers might like to send appeals urging the Iranian authorities to release journalist Jason Rezaian immediately and unconditionally if he is held solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression; calling for him to be granted regular access to all necessary medical treatment and to his family; requesting clarification of the charges against him; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all other writers and journalists currently detained in Iran in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.

Appeals to be addressed to:

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei

The Office of the Supreme Leader

Islamic Republic Street – End of Shahid Keshvar Doust Street

Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Email: info_leader@leader.ir

Twitter: @khamenei_ir

 

President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Hassan Rouhani

Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square

Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Email: media@rouhani.ir

Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English)

 

The ambassador’s post is currently vacant, but readers can send copies of their appeal to info@iran-embassy.org.uk

This is an updated version of an article published in the Literary Review in March 2015

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Book Review – The Happiness Industry

Posted by lucypopescu on May 26, 2015

The Happiness IndustrySocial media offer a platform for us to acknowledge our changing moods and encourage an unnatural obsession with how our wellbeing and happiness affect our working lives. Today, we can buy gadgets and apps that measure our sleep or assess the benefits of our physical activities. Self-help books about how to be happy proliferate and ensure that we remain fixated on the subject. There are even organisations which use cameras to track our smiles. Rather more worryingly, this technology and knowledge is being harnessed by corporations, policy makers and governments. According to William Davies, the science of happiness “has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management … the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place”.

In his impeccably researched book, Davies traces the history of the happiness industry back to the work of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher and social reformer who believed human actions should promote happiness for the greatest number. Davies also examines the work of Gustav Fechner, a theologian and physicist who founded psychophysics; the economist William Stanley Jevons; the physiologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt; and the animal psychologist John B Watson whose research eventually led him to join the U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He illustrates how these disciplines overlapped and how happiness studies became entangled “with economic and medical expertise”.

His main criticism of “the science of well-being” is that it encourages us to blame ourselves while ignoring political and economic contexts, Futhermore, those in power exploit the science for “private profit” or “social control”. As Davies underlines, “unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies with strongly materialist, competitive values”. The opinion poll Gallup estimates that “the unhappiness of employees costs the US economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health care costs.” No wonder wealthy states are so interested in measuring happiness. But the solutions offered, Davies argues, further isolate the poor.

It’s an erudite and far-reaching study but, because Davies covers so much ground, The Happiness Industry can be difficult to unpack. Davies suggests that the positive psychology movement (aimed at improving everyday happiness) has advanced to the detriment of more subjective methods geared towards identifying what constitutes emotional wellbeing. His conclusion is that only through “understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being” can we challenge them. Rather than allowing our emotions to be bought and sold, we need to stop focusing on our inner lives and train our minds “outwards upon the world”.

 A shortened version was published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

Syrian NotebooksIn mid-January 2012, the American-French author Jonathan Littell travelled to Homs in Syria with his colleague Mani, a photographer and translator.

They were smuggled into the city by opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army and spent three fraught weeks bearing witness to the regime’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and snipers picking off innocent civilians.

Littell was there to write a series of articles for Le Monde. On his return he realised that his extensive notes could also make a book documenting a pivotal moment in the conflict. Littell’s own emotional journey follows the sad trajectory of the opposition’s resistance.

At first he appears almost buoyant in his macho naming of the guns and weaponry used by both sides and their likely provenance. Littell adopts a nom de guerre, drinks whisky, the preferred panacea of hardened war journalists, and never complains about the discomfort of sleeping in bombed-out houses with the sound of gunfire all around. Gradually though, as the violence escalates, Littell starts to tire. He can’t shake a bad cough and becomes obsessed with meal times. He finds it increasingly hard to bear witness to the atrocities being committed day and night.

Listening to the numerous accounts of activists, fighters, doctors and ordinary citizens, Littell and Mani (aka Ra’id) have to sift through the information and decide what is fact and what may have been embellished. Some members of the FSA are suspicious of them, wary of it being reported that civilians have joined their ranks in case it supports the regime’s claims of “terrorism”. Others claim every death is regime-orchestrated.

A doctor describes in graphic terms how the wounded, both civilians and fighters, would be taken to the military hospital where he worked and were brutally tortured. He offers them evidence filmed on a camera-pen. “There were two torture tools,” he tells them, “an electric cable and strips of reinforced rubber.”

The YouTube videos the activists share with the journalists are gradually replaced by the physical bodies of the wounded and the dead. Littell conveys his sense of horror in stark, fragmented prose. After one particularly brutal day, his despondency is reflected in his writing and deteriorating health: “The coughing fits… undo me completely, leave me empty and trembling for a long moment.”

On his return, Littell warned Alain Juppe, then French foreign minister, that “the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair the Islamist temptation was growing but had yet to gain any serious ground.” Tragically, Islamic State is one consequence of the West’s inaction.

At the time, Littell was not to know that Homs would be bitterly fought over until last May, when rebel forces evacuated the city. But he clearly foresaw that “playing the extremists against the moderates” would serve President Bashar al-Assad’s regime well. More importantly, he realised that if nothing was done to curb the bloodletting, Islamist extremism would take hold.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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Theatre Review – Lampedusa

Posted by lucypopescu on April 18, 2015

LampedusaLast year an estimated 4,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape hardship or persecution in perilously unsafe boats. Despite the risk and terrifying statistics, thousands of migrants continue to head to the Italian island of Lampedusa, perceived as the gateway to Europe.

Anders Lustgarten’s vital, poignant play explores the perils of deprivation. Stefano (Ferdy Roberts) a former fisherman, serves as a coastguard, retrieving corpses from the sea. It’s “the job no one else will take”.

Running parallel to Stefano’s story is that of Denise (Louise Mai Newberry) who also works in a profession few can stomach. In Austerity Britain, the unemployed have fallen further into debt. Denise, mixed white and East Asian, funds her degree by working as a debt collector for a payday loan company. She is spat upon and sworn at: “Middle-class people think racism is free speech now,” she complains.

Stefano and Denise deal with desperate people and learn humility. They realise that migrants are erroneously lambasted as a drain on resources and welfare scroungers. Both characters start out cynical and prejudiced, but the kindness of strangers helps nurture their compassionate side.

Steven Atkinson immerses the audience in the action. Sitting on uncomfortable wooden benches, surrounded by fellow audience members, we are made to feel as though we are on a boat.

The actors emerge from our midst, reminding us of our shared humanity. Thankfully, this terrific play ends with the redemptive power of hope.

Soho Theatre Upstairs

UNTIL APRIL 26

020 7478 0100

Review originally published in Camden Review

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Book Review – The Last Pier

Posted by lucypopescu on April 15, 2015

The Last PierBorn to a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, Roma Tearne left Sri Lanka when she was just 10 years old. Displacement, exile and migration are frequent themes in her fiction so The Last Pier, focusing on an English family in Suffolk just before the outbreak of the Second World War, is something of a departure.

On the Maudsleys’ orchard farm in Bly, “a coastal backwater”, 13-year-old Cecily is curious about everything to do with her family and her surroundings. She is forever-listening behind doors or inadvertently hearing adults talk while playing outside. She yearns to be as beautiful and grownup as her 16-year-old sister, Rose, who has many admirers.

Cecily also has a secret crush on Carlo Molinello, youngest son of a local Italian family befriended by the Maudsleys. Things take a sinister turn when an outsider, Robert Wilson, arrives in their midst, claiming he is there to work on the agricultural survey for East Anglia and plan farming efforts in the event of a war. But why does he keep giving Cecily’s Aunt Kitty a bunch of seven Sweet Williams and why is Rose so scornful of his actions?

As she has done in previous novels, Tearne vividly depicts the devastating impact of war on ordinary lives. While the Maudsleys are forced to face a personal tragedy, an indirect consequence of the impending conflict, the Molinellos have to deal with the political fallout when war is declared. Originally from Tuscany, Anna and Mario Molinello have settled in Suffolk and own a successful ice-cream parlour. Despite swearing allegiance to their adopted country, Mario, his British-born sons, and his brother, Lucio, are treated as enemy aliens.

The Last Pier features a large cast although some characters are mere walk-ons. There’s a filmic quality to how Tearne circles around her subjects before moving in for the close-up. Often her characters’ hopes, desires and disappointments are revealed to us through what is unspoken. “Children aren’t supposed to have feelings,” Cecily complains to her diary. Tearne writes perceptively about Cecily’s growing pains – her fragile sense of self, her desperate desire to catch up with her beautiful sister, her unexpressed love for Carlo, the vague unease she feels about her family – and how grief feeds guilt.

Children trying to make sense of adult lives while coming of age is a familiar story, but Tearne offers some unexpected twists and creates a palpable sense of danger lurking in the shadows. She also employs a dual narrative as Cecily returns to the family farm in 1968 in an attempt to make sense of her fractured childhood memories and to understand what actually happened during that long, hot August of 1939.

There are some typos and inconsistencies regarding dates and characters’ ages that an editor should have picked up, but this evocation of a world on the brink of change is so engaging that these minor slips are soon forgotten. The Last Pier is an atmospheric page-turner and Tearne keeps the reader guessing to the end as to the various fates of her characters.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – The Face of an Angel

Posted by lucypopescu on April 1, 2015

face of an angelMichael Winterbottom’s latest feature, The Face of an Angel (2014), explores the intersection of beauty, youth, sex and violent crime. Inspired by Amanda Knox’s alleged murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Italy, Winterbottom offers a perceptive, but at times plodding, take on the media’s sensationalised coverage of her trial.

Thomas Lang (Daniel Bruhl) arrives in Italy to research and write his next film. He meets Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), a journalist who been following the trial of American student Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt), imprisoned for the murder of her flatmate Elizabeth Pryce  (Sai Bennett). Thomas hopes to adapt Simone’s book on the case. “Make it fiction,” she urges him. “You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction”. They travel to Siena together to visit the scene of the crime and attend Fuller’s appeal. Simone introduces him to the journalists and locals following the trial and attempts to teach him the various intricacies of the Italian legal system.

The more Thomas becomes embroiled in the gossip and media speculation surrounding Fuller’s alleged crime, the harder he finds it to write the story envisaged by his production team in London. Strung out on cocaine, Thomas’s paranoia and nightmares, involving cartoon monsters, stabbings and cannibalism, become increasingly fantastical (and unbelievable). These scenes sit uneasily within the film’s docu-drama framework.

Thomas’s only respites are skyping his young daughter Bea (Ava Acres), who lives with his estranged wife in LA, and an unlikely friendship with Melanie (a promising debut by Cara Delevingne), another idealistic young English student, working in an Italian bar studying arts and, like Fuller and Pryce, stunningly beautiful.

Although there is much to admire in The Face of an Angel, the topical subject, Hubert Taczanowski’s cinematography and the central performances, it’s overly focussed on the youth and beauty of its young protagonists. Winterbottom even casts an award-winning fashion model as Thomas’s “saviour”.

The frequent close-ups and fetishisation of the young women (Bennett, Delevingne and Gaunt) become irritating after a while. The motivations behind Thomas’s change of heart – he starts reading Dante and, won over by Melanie’s playful exuberance, decides that he wants to make a film about love and innocence – lack credibility and as the film changes direction the tension peters out. Obviously intended as a brooding thriller, The Face of an Angel falls slightly wide of the mark. It’s well-intentioned but an uneven crime drama.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Theatre Review- Frozen

Posted by lucypopescu on March 29, 2015

FrozenBlueprint Theatre’s welcome revival of Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play follows the intertwined fates of three characters dealing with the brutal murder of a ten-year-old child.

In 1980, Nancy’s daughter Rhonna disappeared on the way to visit her grandmother. Ralph is later found guilty of her murder and six other children. He is discovered with a stash of paedophile porn videos in the lock up shed where he buried his victims. Agnetha, an American psychiatrist, suffering her own bereavement, comes to England to study Ralph and his motives. Agnetha compares the criminal mind to the “arctic frozen sea” and describes the emotionally detached Ralph as “icebound”.

Lavery’s laying bare of her three characters psyches is insightful and compelling to watch. This beautifully spare production allows the full force of her writing to take hold.

Ian Brown draws out terrific performances from the small cast. Sally Grey conveys all the anguish and fury of a mother who has lost her child to a monster. As her marriage falls apart, she struggles to connect with her older daughter. Mark Rose is terrifying as the unrepentant Ralph whose only regret is that “killing girls is not legal” while Helen Schlesinger also impresses as the cool, measured psychiatrist, adept at analysing others, but falling apart inside.

Lavery’s unsettling work has lost none of its resonance. The issues she explores are as vital as ever and this first rate production is not to be missed.

Running at the Park Theatre until 11 April

Originally published by Camden Review

 

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