Translunar Paradise- Tobacco Factory, Bristol ****

It has been a week to pull out the hankies in the Bristol theatre scene. After Kneehigh got the tear ducts flowing with their take on the great love affair between Tristan and Yseult it is now Theatre Ad Infinitum’s turn to tug at the heart strings with their little gem of a show Translunar Paradise, playing at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Saturday.

No words are spoken but much is said in this 75 minute work conjured from the mind of the multi-talented George Mann and his performer accomplice Deborah Pugh. The work follows an old man William- played by Mann with the use of a mask to differentiate old and young- as he heads home from the hospital having bid a final goodbye to his wife and lifelong companion. Unpacking the suitcase she took to the hospital with her, filled with a lifetime of accoutrements brings back recollections of a life lived with love; full of the happiness, laughter, tears and fury that it brings and provokes in turn.

It is a play partly about the mourning process, of getting used to two becoming one. He makes tea for two. He sits blankly at the table, the silence dragging intermittently on where once there would have been chatter. It’s the kind of show to make you grip your loved ones close and call those who may now be alone. It’s a work to remind you that nothing matters as much as cherishing every moment you have to those who you love most. It is in short both exquisitely painful and tremulously beautiful.

Both Pugh and Mann were trained at the École International de Theátre Institute in Paris and the Lecoq based training they received there is at the heart of the work devised. The two are balletic in their movement, switching from the hunched arthritic older couple contemplating their final goodbye and then zooming back to the couples early days where the heady rush of romance promises a lifetime of possibility and they are a musical break away from being in a dream ballet devised by Agnes de Mille. The masks used to convey the older couple are gnarly wrinkled but still possess neutrality, it is only when they breathe into them and take on the physicality of the old that they truly work their magic. Drama school students across the country dread trying to bring these masks to life in exercises where they feel lumpen and uninspired, but here those countless hours of exertion in the safety of the classroom pays off. The exercise has turned into exquisite art.

Accompanying them every step of the way is Sophie Crawford providing a live scoring on stage using accordion and vocals. It is has the dreamy otherworldly feel of East European folk music, mixed in with the odd whistle of something closer to home, Vera Lynn in the background as William is forced into a first separation from his wife for example.

It’s a show revived as part of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ten year anniversary but is a work that will not age, do not be surprised if it continues breaking hearts in the tenth, twentieth and many further anniversaries as well.

13- Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at TF Theatres ****

13

A country split down the middle. A passionate orator with idealised beliefs rousing crowds of young people to be politicised at political rallies. A female Tory Prime Minister losing her grip on her previously water type public image. Mike Bartlett’s 2011 play 13 has only gained in resonance in the last six years and arrives at Tobacco Factory Theatres as part of Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools graduation show feeling timelier than it did at its premiere. On original showing the critics were measured; respectful of Bartlett’s form and ambition but less blown away than they had been for his previous work Earthquakes In London.  Viewed later, from a distance, with less remembrance of Rupert Goold’s propulsive production of the latter, it feels a more complete work, prophetic in ways that even Bartlett couldn’t predict.

Originally premièring in the cavernous Olivier it is a state of the nation play that few modern playwrights get the opportunity to write. Taking us from the highest offices of power into the life of those at the bottom of the rungs it reminded me both of Shakespeare’s Henry IV  and Richard Curtis’  It shares some of that film’s contrivances, so all the characters in the work, from PM’s to cleaners and the powerful prophet are firmly linked. We may all only be six degrees from Kevin Bacon but here there is a suspicion of schematics joined a little too neatly.

It’s a minor quibble though for a work that spreads its debates fiercely across the political spectrum and doesn’t find any easy answers. A Tory Prime Minister (Laura Waldren) is contemplating supporting a US war in Iran but finds herself opposed by a charismatic backpacker, John (Billy Harris with the boyish idealism and quiet conviction that will produce followers), back after a number of years in the wilderness. He builds his support on a soapbox, through YouTube clips and social media feeds. Soon his speeches are a revolution, a prophet raised to a God. It all builds to a climactic debate in a Number 10 backroom where the personal and political intertwine.  The right is poorly represented in the theatre but Bartlett articulates it here, arguments floated about economic policies helping the country and how balance and compromise,’the best choice’ stabilises the country more than the myth of right and wrong. Bartlett never fully reveals who he feels is his antagonist and protagonist, the characters spar like Bolingbroke and Richard bouncing power and righteousness between them.

Director David Mercatali’s production is full of striking visual imagery, from 12 figures standing in shadowy blue that drew an intake of breath at its introduction to the ensemble playing imagery of chaos from their smart devices. His previous work at the Tobacco Factory Blue Heart was all about the small details, a flicker of an eye, a brush of the arm;, the cadence of the line; here he opens up his canvas and paints in broader brushstrokes. Some of the minor roles are a (admittedly entertaining) caricature and there is a suspicion that as the work ratchets up towards its climax, it is only the ones in power that keep Bartlett’s attention.

In their final show as students the BOVTS ensemble does a fine job, there are-as the cliché goes- no weak links. Waldren and Harris are determined opposing forces who scrap over policy and faith until she tops him at his own game and there is terrific support from Ellis Duffy as an arrogant lawyer ready to do battle with the feminists, Euan Shanahan as a gruff Scottish lecturer cum political advisor spewing out political incorrectness while nailing some fundamental truths and Gina Ruysen as a cold-eyed American diplomats wife who finds her life changed after an airport encounter with the preacher. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Georgia Frost who even in a small supporting role still dares the eyes to look away.

It’s a chewy night of theatre that asks a number of searching political questions and refuses to give its audience an easy solution. It’s a fitting climax to the very fine graduating class of 2017.

 

Summer Season Preview 2017

Summer in theatre land is where we usually find pickings most sparse. Yet 2017 theatre here in Bristol and Bath doesn’t seem to have picked up the memo, the seasonal brochures are filled to bursting with work that I think might be worth booking. Here, in date order are the shows that have caught my eye.

Medea- Bristol Old Vic playing until 27 May

Already causing stirs and critical divide opinion is most definitely split on George Mann’s and Chino Odimba’s reimagining of Euripides original Greek myth. For me the style doesn’t land and its politics frustrate (perhaps intentionally). Be prepared to be stirred, for either good or ill

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/medea.html

While We’re Here- TF Theatres 9-10 June

Playwright Barney Norris’ miniaturist plays are full of massive heart. Having brought previously his terrific Eventide to Bristol in 2015 this new work sees two past lovers reunite on a park bench and find that there is a spark that still burns between them. His regular collaborator Alice Hamilton for Up In Arms directs.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/while-were-here/

Julius Caesar- Bristol Old Vic 9 June-1 July

If last year was all about Lear, this year, almost inevitably is taken up with Shakespeare’s political thriller of the overthrow of a powerful Emperor. In what one hopes is now be a yearly project, the graduating students of Bristol Old Vic will get the opportunity to share the stage with acting royalty, this year Game Of Thrones’ Julian Glover while being directed by Simon Dormandy who has already helped nurture the career of Eddie Redmayne among others when he was head of Drama at Eton College.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/julius-caesar.html

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time- Bristol Hippodrome 13 to 17 June

The National Theatre smash hit adaptation of Mark Haddon’s cult book returns to Bristol again as part of its second UK tour. With the long running West End runcoming to an end, it may be the last opportunity to see this production for a while and so is sure to once again be a hot ticket.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time-2017/bristol-hippodrome/

Kirk vs Ming- Wardrobe Theatre 13-17 June

The team behind the Wardrobe Christmas hits come together to bring two other cult characters in a battle to the finish. If you’ve ever seen one of the Christmas shows you know what to expect, load up on the booze, catch up on the films and go in expecting a night of reverent and irreverent fun that should be a perfect excuse to drag you from a beer garden for a few hours.

http://theatrebristol.net/whats-on/2017/6/13/kirk-vs-ming-the-wardrobe-theatre-bristol

Racing Demon- Bath Theatre Royal 21 June-8 July

The Bath Summer Season kicks off with arguably David Hare’s greatest work and with the magnificent David Haig front and centre. New Artistic Director Jonathan Church made a success of his running of the Chichester Festival, and if his first season in Bath looks very much like what has come before- handsomely mounted, star driven canon pieces- its seasons that work very much to its target audience. Expect more work than ever before to make the move to the West End.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/Racing-Demon/1470

13- TF Theatres 23 June- 1 July

The second of BOVTS graduating shows is Mike Bartlett’s powerful, profound and epic play 13. Director David Mercatali, who did such profound work last year on Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart will be at the helm of a play that was much praised for its ambition when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2011.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/13/

Translunar Paradise- TF Theatres 4-8 July

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s work about love, death and enduring love has toured the world and now comes back to Bristol, the city artistic directors George Mann and Nir Patel now call home. This 75 minute work of physical theatre and mask work should suit directors Mann’s vision, his work in studio theatres feel particularly charged.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/translunar-paradise/

Tristan & Yseult- Bristol Old Vic 4-15 July

This Cornish company are basically taking residency at BOV this year. Alongside a return visit of Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (9-12 May) and an eagerly awaited Autumn production of The Tin Drum, first we are presented with arguably the companies greatest hit. It’s a show that Lyn Gardner claims has to be loved by anyone who has even a passing interest in theatre. Be sure to find out.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/tristan-and-yseult.html

Goldilocks, Stock and Three Smoking Barrels- Wardrobe Theatre 20-28 July

Christmas comes early with a return visit of perhaps The Wardrobe’s most successful seasonal show to date before it takes up residency North of The Border for the Edinburgh festival. As previously mentioned, grab a pint, a mate and expect to laugh until you cry at this mashup of Guy Ritchie and three sleepy bears.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/goldilock-stock-three-smoking-bears/

North By Northwest- Bath Theatre Royal 21 July- 12 August

Jonathan Church’s brief sojourn to Sydney may not have worked out, but luckily for us does mean he is bringing over one of Australia’s biggest hits from the past couple of years. Promising spectacle, thrills and laughs, if this draws strong reviews expect it to get further life. It’s the show I’m most excited by this season.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/North-by-Northwest/1472

Young Company Show: Bristol Old Vic at St Brendans Sixth Form College 2-5 August

The young company at BOV are surely among the finest in the country. Their work is always daring, full of challenges for its members and this latest work, that explores the relationship between youth and power, sounds fascinating. It deserves an audience far beyond that of friends and family.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/young-company-show.html

Looking at Lucian- Ustinov Studio 3 August- 2 September

A great actor in Henry Goodman tackles a great artist in Lucian Freud. Polymath Alan Franks- journalist, musician, writer- has been a feature writer for The Times and The Guardian amongst others and so has got up close and personal with many famous faces. Let’s hope that this experience to burrow deep within his subjects allows him to craft a play full of insight and not meaningless celeb worship.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/Looking-at-Lucian/1474

Sister Act- Bristol Hippodrome 7-12 Aug

Alexandra Burke dons the habit in Alan Menken’s musical of the hit 1992 film. It’s a show that doesn’t seem to have stopped playing since its original West End run in 2009, both touring and in amateur circles, a sure fire sign that we have a feel-good populist hit.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/sister-act-2017/bristol-hippodrome/

A Brimful Of Asha- Tobacco Factory Theatres ****

 

Never act with children or animals the late, great WC Field was fond of quoting, but he missed the last show stealer from the list. As shown in Why Not Theatre’s A Brimful Of Asha, it’s the matriarch you have to look out for. For all the hard work performer Ravi Jain puts in; setting the show up, carrying the narrative and then driving it on towards its end game; it’s his Mum Asha, a lifelong housewife with no previous performance experience, who walks away with the show.

With her sly intelligence and high wattage mischievous smile she allows the (mostly Western European) audience an illuminating access to her viewpoint. Her son Ravi has just come back to Toronto having studied theatre in Paris for several years. She wants him to work in finance. He wants to set up a theatre company. She wants her son married. He wants to get noticed on the Toronto theatre scene. She wants to ensure he remains close to his Indian heritage by marrying into a family that still resides there. He just wants to fall in love.  So we’re set on a conflict between generations, cultures and heritages. When he goes off to Calcutta to host a theatre workshop he soon finds himself in a trap laid out by his parents to procure him a wife. It constantly feels like an elaborate game of human chess. Ravi only a step away from being placed in check mate. The end game hangs in the balance. Asha doesn’t fully understand what Ravi does making theatre. So he turns their collective experience into a piece of theatre and gets her to perform in it. Could there be a more elaborate fight back. A final charge into the fray which has created a rollicking ride of a show, a thoroughly entertaining ninety minutes of theatre. The Jain’s welcome us as family  with the offer of Samosa’s and handshakes when we enter the space, it is to the shows credit that by the end we feel a member of this crazy loving clan.

There’s a fascinating thesis to be written about the use of non-performers in modern theatre from Bryony Kimming’s using her partner and niece in her latest auto-biographical shows to Dead Centre’s audience plant in First Chekhov that completely changed the rules of that production. You feel the success of this ploy is down to the feeling of risk it engenders. However well-drilled the show (and this one has played for five years now) there is always the sense that anything can happen when a non-performer is chucked in the deep end, not trained to deal with the unexpected. They identify that risk here; at the start Asha in heavily accented English explains that she may go blank when she tells her tales. It draws the audience onside, even though it’s a clear set up. Just one of the many lovely moments contained within this little gem is just how protected she is by her son. At one point she snaps ‘You don’t know what it means to be happy’, and he replies ‘I’m learning from doing this show.’ You can’t help but be charmed.

The Best Of BE Festival- Circomedia ****

The Best Of The BE Festival, playing at Circomedia as part of the Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond season, feels important in disruptive times. In bringing a trio of European works to our shores it allows its audience to connect with ideas and philosophies currently preoccupying theatre-makers across the Channel. It provides an illuminating evening of work, packed full of ideas and shows the connection between us and our European brethren.
Situation With Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn is the knottiest and most complex of the three works. A performance essay that tackles the image of the Hitler salute, it looks at the most infamous of physical gesture and places it in its historical context. We hear a voice /read the surtitles, discussing the ‘salutes’ place in Ancient Rome, its place in historical paintings, its moment in an 1899 Broadway production of Ben Hur, before its subjugation to fascism, initially being used by Mussolini before eventually becoming a key image of the Nazi party. The works performer named only as Sara strides the stage pulling and holding the gesture for minutes at a time. It becomes an endurance feat as much as a statement. She shakes as she holds it. Through physical pain? Yet also perhaps in disgust. For even seventy years later it still has a capacity to shock. Like something we should shy away from. In Germany using it in public can still be a criminal offence. This show, scheduled originally at a theatre in Munich not far from Hitler’s residence in 2014, found itself cancelled as the powers that be were worried about the effect it may incite The gesture still matters. It still hurts a nation’s psyche. Yet in this work, Zahn effectively tries to reclaim it. Whether he should or not is another matter? It’s a shame that the glare of the stage lighting makes the surtitles from my vantage sometimes difficult to make out.Yet it is the work that will stay with me longest.
That’s not to say the other two works aren’t full of their own rich merits. Overload by Italian company Sotteraneo is a real crowd pleaser, a work full of Commedia Dell’Arte influence that tackles modern society’s problem with information overload. Ideas spin out of control, word associations take us into other realms. It is knock about and surreal, moving at a hundred miles an hour; from beauty pageants to gospel choirs; one moment asking its audience to chuck vegetables at the performers like they are Medieval travelling players then incorporating an image of a man dressed as a goldfish drowning. It’s a densely packed half hour that whiles away the time but leaves no lasting impression, a deliberate choice that argues cleverly that in giving all the entertainment and information we need at a click of a button that we no longer find it easy to connect with anything for more than a minute or two at a time.
It is one of the reasons why theatre is so essential. A place where an audience come together as a communion and give undivided attention to what is happening on stage Vacuum by Cie. Phillipe Saire, a work where bodies flick in and out of shadow and light, could be observed in a gallery but it’s in its audiences concentrated attention span that it gains its power. A work that celebrates the beauty and strength of the male body, a Michelangelo sculpture seen through the prism of light and shade. In the most breathtaking moments, audience and performer feel as one. A shared vision. Important.
Best Of BE Festival plays at Circomedia until the 6 May and continues to tour.

The Mentor- Ustinov Studio ***

mentor

One of the great true-isms is that those in the industry love work based in their own little bubble. This year La La Land was garlanded for its tale of romance and jazz clubs set in Hollywood. In theatre one only needs to think The Producers, Noises Off, 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. Massive hits, with plots set backstage (and onstage) in the creation of theatre. Yet the success of these works lies in the ‘making’, the rehearsals and blood, sweat and tears that make the work. They are fundamentally about ‘action’. When a play is concerned purely with the writing of a play, it comes up against a large road block Here the action is contained only in debate. Tom Stoppard solved this problem in The Real Thing using the smart conceit of plays within plays. Here there is only brief touches of fantasy.

Laurence Boswell’s production is constantly entertaining and sculpted of the highest sheen, but the work feels light. As someone who feels nothing but mediocre when sat at a keyboard, it’s easy to nod in recognition at some of the fear of the writer hidden behind grandstanding rhetoric but its overall stakes feel low.  Martin (Daniel Weyman) and his wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) have travelled to a dilapidated villa somewhere in Germany for five days of mentoring by legendary playwright Benjamin Rudin. Portrayed in something of a coup for the Ustinov by F Murray Abraham he is a writer trapped in the past, feted for his first work at the age of twenty four and never been able to top it since. It’s hard not to think that German literary star Daniel Kehlman, also covered in accolades young, has certain fears he wishes to wrestle with here.

The feedback starts with asinine comments on misplaced apostrophes but soon he admits he hates the play: or does he? Is Martin’s play a work with nothing useful to say, with no voice to claim as its own, or is it a form of sabotage,; one older writer scared to step away and pass the buck to a new generation? The answer is never decisively given, though there is a heavy lean towards sides when Gina focuses her own lit crit. on the play.  None of these three characters are particularly likeable but worse they are not overly interesting either, Martin is too trapped in his own ego to begin objectively looking at whether his work is any good or not and to immature to tackle his own relationship problems, while Gina, portrayed as a sophisticated clear-headed intellectual, seems to fluster to easily to a writer who she worshipped as a schoolgirl. Meanwhile Abraham always plays Rudin with a twinkling charm but can’t alter the fact that he comes across as a bit of an egomaniacal b*stard and never fully gets to grip with whether he was a genius who then was unfairly shunned or simply a hack who got lucky. He is a terrific actor but there are mannerisms to his performance here that go along with the charisma that is the mark of a strong stage beast.

So it winds up being Jonathan Cullen’s Erwin who becomes the beating heart of this production.  An administrator at the trust fund that has set up this tete-a-tete together he is believably flustered as a man who sees his life drifting into mediocrity arranging conferences and handing out awards. Cullen, so fantastic last year as the director in Trouble In Mind is even better here, a frustrated artist who paints moods and dreams of doing something more worthwhile with his life.

His choice of attire for this summer rendezvous is just as classy as the production around it. From Christopher Hampton’s slick translation to Polly Graham’s luxurious European bolt hole of a design lit in warm hues by Colin Greenfell, it proves that no theatre does style better in the South West than the Ustinov. Yet while the play is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes it is unlikely to find its way onto any school reading lists in years to come like the fictional play at the heart of this work.

 

Jesus Christ Superstar and The Messiah and the biblical spur to genius

With Easter fast approaching it’s the time of the year when theatres stage the tale of Jesus Christ- his life, death and resurrection. In the past week I have seen two vastly different versions, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tackled with impressive aplomb by Yeovil Amateur Operatic Society and Handel’s oratorio The Messiah given a beautiful semi-staged production by Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris and performed with staggering aplomb by the baroque English Chamber Orchestra and the haunting voices of the Erebus Ensemble.

What similarities can there be between these two works I can hear some ask. Well only that in telling a story about Christ, two behemoths of popular music in their times created their ultimate masterpieces. Lloyd Webbers take on the last days of the Messiah fills his score with screeching guitars and falsetto rock screams but also finds moments of grace and fragility within the bombast. There may be no better song in all of musical theatre then Judas’ ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ and though the show structurally struggles to ever top the issue that the best moment in the show occurs barely a minute into the work, well, what a problem to have. Meanwhile Handel’s work splits the biblical tale into three parts; the prophecies, the passion and the death and finally the acclimation of Christ to heaven. History tells us that this was performed on the BOV stage in the eighteenth century and it was unlikely to ever sound as beautiful as it does now, with the tingling sound of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ especially filling this glorious playhouse with aching grandeur.

Morris keeps it simple. His staging is unobtrusive and makes sure the music takes centre stage. A guest actor takes on the role of The Beloved each night. On press night Theatre Ad Infinitum’s artistic director Nir Paldi took on probably the easiest role he’s ever been asked to play, for a great majority he kicks back and stays down on a slab, before indulging in some foot washing, before being lifted as to the heavens late on. The four soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Joshua Ellicott, Brindley Sherricott and Julia Doyle all make their mark, another high point of a highly polished minimalist take on a work that was first seen at the Bristol proms and makes Morris’ promise of accessible classical musical to the masses a reality.

Meanwhile YAOS have thrown their not inconsiderate amateur theatre resources at their production. You can positively smell the budget in Jeremy Tustin’s production.  From the sight of Christ being raised up upon the cross, to the gaudy Vegas of Herod’s world and the Michael Jackson pomp of the titular song, there is plenty of spectacle on display here, matched by performances remarkably high in a show that demands so much of its performers, Luke Whitchurch’s Judas wouldn’t leave you feeling short changed next time Kenwright’s version rolls around, while Stephen Robert’s Annas cold tenor gives the villain a terrifying demented edge. They are the standouts but only because you can imagine these performances on a professional stage. Across the board the performances are highly impressive.

So two works of high artistic merit depicting the conclusion of Christ on earth. Christmas may feel like the most important time in a theatres calendar, but there’s something about the Easter narrative that fits just as well. And finally a thought. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Handel’s well documented challenges in developing The Messiah? Now that’s a scenario to make a theatre fan salivate.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Octagon Theatre until the 8th April

The Messiah runs at Bristol Old Vic until the 9th April.