The Little Mermaid- The Egg ☆☆☆☆

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The early to mid 90’s saw Disney turn fairy tales iconic. For those of us born in the years preceding this juggernaut, our first exposure to these tales was in the animated movies that saw French singing candlesticks, Robin Williams wisecracking granter of wishes and a terrifying but alluring (in human form at least) sea witch. Consequently its difficult for those of my generation to see these tales in any way but in their animated form. Fairy tales as fixed entities. Yet these tales weren’t plucked by the studio fully formed, the origins were passed through many generations being added and chipped away at. While the framework stayed the same, the narrative and characters altered depending on the teller telling it. Like a tall tale told well, details were shifted to gain the best results.
Something similar is going on in the Egg Theatre and Pine and Needles Christmas telling of The Little Mermaid. Writer Bea Roberts has subtly altered the tale within the overall framework and as a result you watch it not knowing exactly where it is going to end up. A happy ending is likely guaranteed- it is Christmas after all even if Hans Christian Andersen may have had other ideas- but by altering the love story to girl meets girl and not giving us a villain in the obvious sense it is never obvious where the tale will take us next. Roberts, whose Infinity Pool turned Bovary on its head, does something similar here. She takes a tale that is highly familiar and ploughs her own path, sticking to its main beats and asking us, its audience, to view it afresh. Its Fabreeze fresh and impressively original which challenges the preconceptions taken into the auditorium. Changing our view of classic literature seems to part of Robert’s mantra.
Yet it takes awhile to work its magic. On this, the second preview- where the creative team were still huddled together looking at trimming the excess fat- it doesn’t fully come together until the final moments of the first act. This Mermaid takes a long time to rise to the surface. Anna Wheatley’s Princess Morgan, the youngest of her sisters and fourth in line to the throne, may be attracted to the allure of the shore but so are we. Act One takes its time setting up its characters, spunky Morgan, Jordan Whyte’s weary Queen, Megan Treadway’s chanteuse black sheep Celeste, but it doesn’t have enough light, enough jokes, enough charm. It leaves its target audience restless. Family audiences are best in telling its creators if they’re getting it right, there is no polite hiding of emotion when what is being presented is not connecting. The shuffling feet and demanding of sweets tell you what you need to know.
And then, with a sudden shift, the magic happens. Morgan is sent up to the surface, given six days to live life as a human. Her ascent is choreographed in breathtaking style in Emma Earle’s and Cameron Carver’s production, bodies and sheets and lights coming together to enchant. She breaks through the waves and muted blues make way for dazzling light. Its theatrical alchemy just at the point it needed it most. The second half continues much more in this vein if never quite hitting the same highs, all the hard work of building the characters up in the first half mean we generally care about the characters in front of us in the second. Expectations are turned on their head. Evil is not where we expect it to be. The posh boy prince is discarded for the more humble cabin girl with dreams of being a captain. This mermaid isn’t voiceless, just not able to speak the same language as the people around her. Suddenly you can hear a pin drop, not one child is asking for a wine gum anymore.
Unfortunately, performances are occasionally uneven which means the script doesn’t always fly as well as it might. There is telling work from Wheatley who gives this Little Mermaid much more of a voice than the anaemic presence at the heart of Disney. This is a heroine to root for. Georgia Frost as the love interest and in a host of other clearly delineated cameo’s expands on all the promise she showed as a student at BOVTS while Timothy O’Hara is a hoot in every role he plays.
It will gain in power as the run goes and the first half, in particular, is tightened. Yet it is not quite yet a Christmas classic. The jokes appear more aimed at parent then child and only achieve knowing nods rather than belly laughs, while the 80’s setting, Rick Astley and George Michael et al. is as distant as the middle ages for most of its young audience. These humans are almost as mystical as the creatures beneath the sea.
It’s a bold take and one that ultimately and with patience pays off.I came out buzzing with the ideas but less in sheer exhilaration the way the best Christmas shows offer. Perhaps that is to come. All new tales need time to bed in.
The Little Mermaid plays at The Egg, Bath on the 14 January 2018.

 

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Wizard Of Oz- BOVTS at Redgrave Theatre ☆☆☆☆☆

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We may be seeing awkward first dates and dastardly ugly sisters with cutting ‘Daddy’s’ playing the Tobacco Factory in Beauty and The Beast and Victorian fairy tales with a powerful punch at Bristol Old Vic but the show that will really get you into the Christmas spirit this season is Bristol Old Vic theatre schools The Wizard Of Oz, a five-star hit that leaves you beaming ear to ear from the moment Liyah Summers Dorothy first opens her mouth to sing the iconic ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ all the way through to the final refrain of ‘Follow The Yellow Brick Road’ which elicits a genuine standing ovation. The MGM version may be required viewing each Christmas but this is a show that demands repeat viewing itself. It should be prescribed on the NHS to cure bah humbug disorder.

There are very few people who aren’t at least somewhat familiar with the plot, either with L. Frank Baun’s 1900 novel or the MGM film that catapulted its leading lady Judi Garland to stardom. Yet for those who are not farm girl Dorothy and her beloved dog Toto are swept up in a Tornado, end up in the Technicolor world of Oz and a feud with the Wicked Witch Of The West, meeting the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion on route along the Yellow Brick Road while learning there really is no place like home. Its familiarity allows you to just sit back and luxuriate in the famous melodies and set pieces that this RSC version gobbled up practically whole from the 1939 movie. It’s no surprise that the work is a family classic, with lots of fun, classic tunes, a few moral truths handled lightly and just enough peril to scare the little ones without giving them nightmare for years. It’s a show in truth difficult to get wrong.

Yet what makes this one so right, under the direction of Peter Leslie Wild, is how fully the 16 strong ensemble embrace the world they create. It’s rare for such a big show but each member of the cast gives telling detail here, from Felix Garcia Guyers saxophone wielding Emerald City Guard to Marco Young’s zombified Winkie, face contorted into drooping gormlessness.  Summers is an open hearted Dorothy, admittedly stronger in her vocals in the middle of her range then the top but with a warm honeyed sound that makes the songs her own even under the shadow of Garland’s vocals, while Gráinne O’Mahony is an ethereal Glinda designed to make little girls and boys want to dress in sparkly dresses this Christmas. She is pitted against Bonnie Baddoo’s Witch, clearly having a ball playing evil.

Cecilia Crossland as Tin Man, Pedro Leandro as Scarecrow and Alex Wilson as the Lion all make telling contributions as the friends of Dorothy gathered on the way, Wilson especially makes a mark as the pugilistic lion who lacks machismo but never heart. For this year’s premier Bristol Christmas show the Redgrave is the place to be. Bristol Old Vic Theatre School always produce a good Christmas show but this is my favourite yet. Follow The Yellow Brick Road right along to the box office.

The Wizard Of Oz plays at The Redgrave Theatre until the 19 December.

http://www.oldvic.ac.uk/whats-on/the-wizard-of-oz.html

 

Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

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Just as you begin to feel like you have a handle on how Christmas shows should operate trust Emma Rice to come along and turn things on its head. Sure, there is plenty of silly jokes and manic set pieces to keep the little ones entertained but Little Matchgirl And Other Happier Tales has a serious moral at its heart and is never prepared to let it be pushed to the side. It makes for a slow burning night, one that doesn’t automatically reveal its rewards but keeps plugging its riches long after the curtain has gone down.

Rice, the most playful director and one who brings great joy in her work with Kneehigh and at The Globe, has created a show where darkness constantly threatens to permeate the festivities of Christmas. Original fairy tales went to some pretty dangerous places, modern life (as demonstrated here) isn’t all tinsel and calorie loading joy either. As Black Friday and New Year bashes grow exponentially, child poverty in the UK is on the rise. The Little Match Girl may have her origins in the Victorian era and snow flecked tales of Hans Christian Andersen but that child can still be found today in most towns and cities across the country today.

This dual time line is made explicit upon the Bristol Old Vic stage where three modern buskers hover around a fire keeping the chill out, while the tales told are presented by an Edwardian theatre troupe led by Niall Ashdown’s Master Of Ceremonies Ole Shuteye. Over the course of the two hours of traffic upon the stage three tales are told each time a match is struck:Thumbelina– which gets the whole of the first act to weave its tale of the little girl making her way in the world; The Princess And The Pea where love is questioned and spoilt by tests, and best of all The Emperor’s New Clothes in which hipsters get to work on creating an outfit au naturale for a vain Empire- Ashdown again in side splitting form.

Having premiered last year at The Globe it plays Bristol this Christmas before embarking on a National tour in the first part of 2018. A brand new cast manage to take ownership of roles that the original actors would have taken agency off during rehearsals (always tricky) and there is especially convincing work from  Katy Owen as a bossy Thumbelina and a Shoreditch fashionista and Karl Queensborough whose strong tenor helps make art out of Stephen Warbeck’s score.

It’s a work that never talks down to its young audience, its darker moments ensure it is really only appropriate for those 10 years and above, while giving them plenty to roar at, a certain costume shows men’s dangly bits can be funny across the generations. It’s a show that I admire more than love but for a deeper Christmas experience The Little Matchgirl is hard to beat.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 14 January 2018 and then continues to tour.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-little-matchgirl.html

 

Snow Globe- Bristol Old Vic at the Lantern ☆☆☆☆

Kid Carpet has brought a snow globe from his old mate Gary Barlow and all he needs now is for it to snow to guarantee a white festive season. The only problem is- as explained by the helpful weather presenter who turns up- there’s only a pea sized chance of any snow falling. Will he get the happy ending he deserves? Will the droll talking refrigerator completely steal the show from his human counterparts? Will Ronaldo or Messi win out as the ultimate sporting idol? Will the packed crowd of 3-7 year olds completely take over and create anarchy in the Lantern this Christmas?

For Kid Carpet’s latest show for the younger generation at BOV is packed full of questions like this. Children’s theatre may be seen as the poor relation to the more grown up stuff by some of the more sniffy members of the fraternity, but they should try standing up and perform in front of a baying pack of children. Watching as a single male adult from the back row is both a terrifying but thoroughly invigorating experience. You will never find a more honest audience. Bore them and they riot. Enchant them and you have them in the palm of your hand. There is only success or failure. Nothing else will do.

Thankfully Carpet is an experience hand at this, his show a constantly moving blend of colour, interactivity and dancing.  Along with Susie Donkie of Spitz and Co who takes on roles as diverse as  weather forecaster, Kylie Minogue (not sure of her traction with this generation- nor Barlow for that matter) and the Portuguese football star with slick backed hair and rock hard abs the two throw every trick of the trade to keep the young ones enthralled. There is no narrative to speak off, just one set piece after another a surreal game of tennis,a Mexican/Portuguese wave, nursery rhyme songs giving a hip mash up. Does Carpet get his wish at the end? Does snow fall this Christmas? Well it is the festive season, what do you think?

Highly accomplished and masterfully executed it is a show that puts as much thought and effort into pleasing its audience as the big Christmas show down the road on Kings Street. The kids have spoken. A joy.

Snow Globe plays at the Lantern, Colston Hall until 7 January 2018

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Beauty And The Beast- TF Theatres ☆☆☆☆

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In a year when the live action movie musical of this tale sits atop the box office charts its reassuring to find it can do just as well without Alan Menken’s musical score and Emma Watson’s auto-tuned vocals. New International Encounter’s production, in a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres this Christmas after a successful run with other co-producer Cambridge Junction last year, may lack the budget and the sterling show tunes of the film, but more than makes up for it in heart and originality. If Christmas shows are measured by the smile it puts on our faces and the gales of laughter elicited from the younger ones then this is a stone iron smash.

Low on budget it may be but director Alex Byrne and his five strong actor-musician cast make virtue out of necessity. They manage to turn the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory into the fully realised world imagined by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original tale- of dilapidated cottages in the woods and gothic grand castles. Destined to remain in bestial form until someone loves him, having been cursed by an old crone centuries before, this beast, played by Martin Bonger, prowls the space with a restless physicality, centuries of loneliness and self-hatred about his physical appearance having turned him feral. It’s only when Sara Lessore’s Beauty enters the castle that the soul underneath is reinvigorated, the dining scene courtship between the two, as the Beast learns to be human again is both hilarious and touching, like the best episodes of First Dates where the outcome hangs in the balance.

The whole enterprise is so touching and pure that it’s impossible not to be swept up in its charm. Its populist family entertainment, full of the magic of rough and ready storytelling, with Gallic infused folk music, pantomime villains and love conquers all mentality. All five performers are terrific; Bonger is cultured and beastly, a man whose lost his identity when he sees the fur and the horns in the mirror, while Lessore is winningly winsome and full of self-agency as Isabella whose kindness and purity of soul helps spark life back into the beast. Playing goodness on stage is tricky, finding a naturalism while doing it even more so. Yet when she laughs at the beast’s stand-up routine, or as the realisation dawns that she loves her bearish host, there is truth in her dawning reactions. She may be the best Christmas heroine I’ve seen.

There are a pair of terrific ugly sisters from Elliot Davis and Samantha Sutherland whose ‘Daddy’ refrains when things don’t go their way (often), are honed like a nuclear weapon mapped to inflict maximum damaged while Gregory Hall and Benjamin Tolley also provide strong support. The singing is a dream, audience interaction pitched just about right. In recent years TF have held the advantage of the Christmas shows in the region over their more glitzy and glamorous rivals and Beauty and The Beast sets out a strong marker for 2017. Bristol Old Vic-over to you

How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found- The Station ☆☆☆☆

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Funny how some plays can disappear completely and take awhile to be found . When Fin Kennedy won the John Whiting award for this work not one theatre had responded to its open submission, only after the work won was it subsequently picked up and performed in Sheffield, before promptly vanishing again. Which makes Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s rediscovery of it highly satisfying. For it confirms a work that in a different timeline, could, indeed should, have been a modern classic. It casts a beady suspicious eye on the modern world and finds it lacking. Work hard and play hard might be the mantra us millennials have had lectured into us since a young age but Kennedy’s work screams this rule may not be all its cracked up to be. Yet even if all have had a moment a daydream about what it would be like to just disappear and start again flutters into being, the thesis here is stark. A life without a past, without human connection is a life destined for the scrap heap.

On the one level the work is an identity theft thriller as city boy Charlie tires of his life of too much work and too much substance and begins to dream of a new life as drifter Adam. Yet its also more spiritual than that, he begins the play being pulled on in a gurney. He talks to a gatekeeper- of TFL Lost Property or a pearly gate? A pathologist wants to give him her number to talk, she’s never had a patient like him before. Moments of his life are played out in heightened states, the party with a Made In Chelsea set, the meeting with American investors, the morning tube crush. It weaves in and out of different realities, different time lines, David Lynch Twin Peaks crossed with Phoebe Wallace Bridge’s Crashing. It starts opaque and ends up gut-punching you. Imagery is as important as word, James Schofield Charlie/Adam always one step removed from an interchangeable fluid ensemble, a man lost in a world that doesn’t have the time nor inclination to hold him close.

Kennedy isn’t a complete nihilist, there are little rays of hope dangle dto remind its to seize onto life. Its there in the kindness of the vengeful dealer who instead of breaking his legs offers him a coat and his shoes when he finds him trembling alone in his pants; it is there in the advice of Max Dinnen’s expert fraudster Mike, who states life isn’t a series of fireworks and explosions but is about seizing and appreciating the little moments. Life isn’t experienced in one long narrative-that comes later- but in a series of encounters, experiences and moments that make up a whole.

It’s always an exciting time witnessing the graduating class of BOVTS take on their first public performances. The class of ’18 give detailed-monstrous, humorous,sympathetic- charactertures that bleed together to form a snapshot of a society that looks straight through a man floundering and continues about their day. Schofield is a sympathetic presence, an empty soul who gradually strips himself bare of everything until he is a man trembling on the street, alone and forgotten. If the ensemble play surface snapshot instead of soul its there to service Jenny Stephens fluid, exciting production and Kennedy’s dynamic text. There are telling contributions in the ensemble from amongst others Denning, Anna Munden as the inquisitive pathologist, Charlie Suff doubling as the lost property man and Charlotte Wyatt as a haughty Sloane and market stall holder.

If Kennedy writes powerfully about a disappearing protagonist its a shame that the play has befallen a similar route. Its to the credit of the school that they have given it a chance to be rediscovered. There is always a sliver of hope. Nothing is completely unrecognised or forgotten.

How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found is playing at The Station, Bristol until 17 November

The Tin Drum- Kneehigh at Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

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Never let it be said that Cornish theatre company Kneehigh lack in ambition. Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum has accrued significant cultural acclaim since its publication in 1959, gaining its author the Nobel Prize in Literature and later being turned into a film that won both the Palme D’or (sharing the accolade with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) and the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Adapting a capital ‘C’ classic comes loaded with challenge, especially when it’s a work that many, myself included are not aware of as they should be.  Any work that demands its audience go back to its source material is always a positive. My bank balance is a little smaller this morning.

In many ways this production is happy to stands toe to toe with the works legacy. On a night that started with director Mike Shepherd and Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris sheepishly take to the stage to announce technical issues with the lighting, it was heartening to see that its visual power was not diminished. The city of Danzing, claimed by both German and Pole and lying at the heart of the work, is displayed in all its crumbling majesty, orange hues casting sinister shadows, and a permeating gloom (that may not all have been deliberate) that suggests the brighter day promised by a rising dictatorship is much further away than originally forecast.

Refusing to grow after his third birthday Oskar grows up in a 1930’s Germany being eaten alive under the clouds of Fascism. His mother juggles two lovers, her artistic cousin Jan (Damon Duanno giving a clumsily charming turn) and dull chef Alfred, either of whom could potentially be father to Oskar himself. As the years pass Jan becomes a revolutionary, Alfred a Fascist, everyone in their small community eventually destroyed by a force that none of them could predict. All the while Oskar continues to bang a drum gifted to him on his third birthday. He alone will march to his own beat.

Visually stirring and full of the usual playfulness-often imitated, never bettered-the main issue I took with the work is in its narrative handling. For better or worse the story is not as known as others in the classical canon, as a result the work could do with a sharper storyteller’s eye to help its audience along. Even though the work (like the film) only adapts around half of the novel, there is a lot going on and sometimes the whole is in danger of being lost at the heart of innovation.

Pacing is also an issue, by the close of the first act, some 80 minutes in, we have been served up little more than a prologue about how Oskar was conceived. If the first half seems to take its time revelling in family detail and the intimate ins and outs of the city, its blown up in a second half that piles incident-upon-incident; corpse-upon-corpse. It’s clever, the Nazi party after all moved with puma like speed after invading Poland, the previous years of build-up helping them propel forward at a speed that almost swept the world before anyone knew what had hit it. Yet even though I could see what writer Carl Grose and director Shepherd were surely driving at, I also couldn’t help but notice baffled and slightly frustrated punters at the bar in the interval. If you lose your audience its difficult to get them back.

Still even slightly flawed Kneehigh is better than 95% of the theatre out there and the stage thrums constantly in a state of theatrical play and clever illustration. Oskar is conceived as a demonic puppet child by Sarah Wright, his unmoveable features always portraying the evil of the world he is seeing outside. Patrycja Kujawska is a chilling General, cased in shadow and mixing Gaga and Sia, turning the community around her into dancing marionettes. Les Bubb goes from cardigan’d bore into cold trooper in little more than a flash.

Craig Hazelwood’s score, almost completely sung through is discordant yet tuneful; if they’re not ear worms as such, there is a catchy pull to some of them that are positive reminders of his last musical with the company Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs). If I don’t love this show on first sight as I did there there is still plenty that felt close to mastery going on in front of me. It may be like that difficult rich movie that requires multiple viewings to get to its heart. I suspect it may need a second spell in a rehearsal room to prune, snip and expand to release its full potential. The drum, surely, will keep on beating on this for some time to come.