The Taming Of The Shrew- Circomedia ☆☆☆

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Director Bill Alexander seems to be on a mission to tackle Shakespeare’s problem plays with graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Previously we have had a brutal take on The Merchant Of Venice and a Two Gentleman Of Verona by the way of Fresh Meat. This year, it’s what most commentator’s state is the Bard’s most misogynistic play.  Lay your money down on a Troilus and Cressida next year. Along as some of the more unpalatable material in Bill’s work, his early material also provides a host of other challenges, poetry that more often hums rather than sings, stock characters that annoy rather than enlight and plots that seem to climax at the point he gets bored with writing them. Hamlet or Lear may present their own challenges but the majesty of the text can help these productions along even in the iffiest of productions. The earlier work needs a fine production to make up for deficiencies in the text. It’s far too easy otherwise for an audience to wish they are watching Cole Porter’s majestic musical spin offKiss Me Kate which used the Shrew as a Launchpad.

Alexander’s production has many fine things going for it. It explores, better than any I’ve seen, the thinking behind the prologue that sometimes awkwardly fits into the play, with drunkard Christopher Sly and his tricking by Lords who discover him on the street into watching a play within a play. Here it is staged as though Pirandello had made an edit of the text, as watcher and performer begin to gradually intersect and the hypocrisies within the Count’s court, here defined in a sleek living room with leather sofas and drinks aplenty, are cast alight within the text. This work still climaxes with Katherina’s controversial speech about the need to be a good and willing wife but here it plays more as a call to arms for the stylish ladies who languishly slip onto the furniture and sip their cocktails sultrily while watching the play, about the need for respect and value within a relationship, not just being a sleek plaything for the moneyed aristocracy to be enjoyed.

It makes a case for this play being an ensemble piece, characters that are never mentioned when talking about the canon, are here given highly defined, highly enlightening work. Baptista is given a gender switch and turns into a fawning sexpot in Hannah Livingstone’s endearingly high energy performance while Felix Garcia Guyer is a highly physical presence as Grumio, physically imposing his rugby player frame into any situation that threatens to spin out of control. Charlotte Wyatt makes something of her stock country servant while Micky Dartford has fun with his, a Cockney wide boy pretending to be Lord. Meanwhile Marco Young turns his Lord into a Servant producing an entertaining turn as an Italian music tutor when he slips in to try to woo his intended Bianca.

With all the fun and invention the ensemble bring to their work, the central relationship feels a little bit of an afterthought here. Both give fine individual performances but the chemistry is lacking, the idea of two bulls clashing heads and being mutually turned on by the antagonism doesn’t fully translate. George Readshaw is a swaggering, slightly manic Petruchio and with his flowing locks has the Shakespearean lover look down pat. Kate Reid brings an intelligent reading to Katherina, a women intellectually on a different plane to what is around her and so consequently always swimming against the tide. What she lacks though is fire and ice. She always is, regardless of the behaviour Shakespeare thrusts at her, a little too well behaved.

The grandeur of St Paul’s Church Circomedia lent itself well to natural spectacle if exposing some flaws in a couple of the students techniques. Volume and clarity were issues that kept occurring in a space that doesn’t easily allow voices to bounce off the architecture. This may improve as the run continues.

Still, all in all, it’s a very solid take on a work that in an era of #MeToo has become ever more complex. Working with an accomplished director as Alexander is obviously paying off in other ways as well.  A number of graduating students have moved onto to the RSC in recent years. A Shakespearean education doesn’t come much more thorough than this. For student or audience member alike.

The Taming Of The Shrew plays at Circomedia until the 24 February

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Things I Know To Be True- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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Things I Know To Be True is a strange hybrid- a work that offers both the high art of Frantic Assembly’s now syllabus physical style and a text from Australian Andrew Bovell that wouldn’t look out of place on the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders. It makes for a partially enriching evening; plenty of style to make one crow and enough incident to keep one entertained, in the same way an Albert Square barney is always worth tuning in for.

It starts with a phone call, a call that will change life for ever. Like the prologue in Romeo and Juliet, its climax is spelt out to its audience at the beginning. For this seemingly tight knit family, shown at the start supported and united in lifts, it seems a moment designed to tear the heart out of it. By the time it returns to this moment in its climatic final moments that conception has shifted. Everything has already changed.

Rolling back to the start Kirsty Oswald’s Rosie has her heart broken by an exotic European while she tours through Berlin and immediately decides to book her flight home in Australia, to her cosy family nest where ‘the one guarantee is nothing changes.’ Yet behind any family there is secrets, no family exists without drama. No family can ever be truly perfect. And so Bovell chucks the kitchen sink of issues at the work: in brief order we are confronted with infidelity, gender identity, fraud and the need to fly the coop and become truly independent. Each of these are worth a play on their own and this is the works major flaw, it becomes increasingly obvious how each scene will go. One by one each family member exposes their secret, has a tense and angst confrontation with one or other of the parents (each has their favourite, each has a black sheep that appears to be a younger version of themselves) and then breaks away from the family cycle, step by step each member flies the nest, the nucleus breaking down. 6 family members, 5 family members, 4, 3, 2….1. Like a soap we are in a constant cycle, the narrative spinning over and over again. Each scenes construction mirrors the next and we’re never more than 20 minutes from an all-encompassing, tears and screams family row.

Yet the soapy construct is elevated with physicality of breath-taking beauty. Ewan Stewart’s calm, composed patriarch at a moment of high anguish leans his whole body forward and demonstrates a man staring over the edge of an abyss. As Rosie falls in love/lust with a Spanish man in Berlin she is lifted high up, the sensation of feeling like you’re flying up, up and away perfectly captured. Transitions between scenes are exquisitely realised, chairs being pushed across the stage until they skid to a stop inches from the family dining table and where an actor plops themselves down. It makes you long for all work to focus so heavily on these moments, the dead moments that kill the momentum of so much work.

Stewart is the stand out performer here, not only in his aforementioned physicality but also in the way that his quiet dignity, his quiet contemplation, sets him out as the clear power behind Cate Hamer’s more explosive, heart on sleeve, head of the table, Fran. Oswald, Matthew Barker, Seline Hizli and Arthur Wilson all have their moment to shine as the four children even if it is only Oswald who gets a chance to build a character away from the issue that each of the other three are saddled with.

It’s rare for a new production to be demonstrably better than its source text but this one by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham shows it can happen. Alongside the strong performances contained within and the occasionally breath-taking movement work there is a knock out lighting design by Geoff Cobham that makes art of the changing of the seasons. As the family flies and the reaper eventually comes knocking the colour fades away. Yet at that moment as the light darkens the family entwine together, united against the bumps in the road. The cord that binds them may be frayed but family is a tie that can never be fully snapped.

Winter/Spring 2018 preview

From Shakespeare to Chekhov, to Williams to Miller, Bristol and Bath are well served with the heavy hitters this Winter and Spring season. As theatres get back into the swing of things after the takeover of Christmas, rich programmes are promised across the board. Tobacco Factory shuts for renovation as it begins to build its studio but a quiet season for them is offset by their work with the first Factory Ensemble, a group of actors, most sourced locally, who will tackle two contrasting plays. Bristol Old Vic gets ready for its own presentation of its space but before it does offers a director steeped in Russia, his first opportunity with a Russian master. Bath Theatre Royal has its strongest touring rota in a long time while presenting two fascinating pieces in the Ustinov while Bristol Hippodrome brings the big commercial shows to the city. There really is something for everyone so let’s get stuck right in.

The Wedding- Bristol Old Vic 17-20 January

Ipswich based physical theatre company Gecko open round two of their latest show in Bristol before embarking on a UK tour. The Wedding looks at what it is to be human, a contract all of us are bound up to, and queries whether it is ever possible to ask for a divorce? Blending imagery, physical movement and provocative narratives Gecko are a company as distinct in the UK theatre scene as any. This revised production should make quite a statement.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-wedding.html

Wicked- Bristol Hippodrome 31 January-03 February

Everything that needs to be said about Wicked has already been uttered. With big musical theatre anthems, two powerhouse female leads and a show whose motto is to be true to yourself, this is a show that seems destined to run forever. Now headed out on its second UK tour while it continues to play in the West End, it features ex-Eastender Aaron Sidwell as Fiyero along with Amy Ross and Helen Woolf as the two witches finding friendship in pre Dorothy Oz.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/wicked/bristol-hippodrome/

Things I Know To Be True- Bristol Old Vic  06-10 February

Following a tour of the UK and Australia in 2016 Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company’s production of Andrew Bovell’s play is back. Riding the crest of a string of golden reviews the work explores the intricacies of family life, and has been described by the critics as both beautiful and haunting. The stunning vistas of Britain’s oldest working theatre should complement it perfectly.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/things-i-know-to-be-true.html

The Play That Goes Wrong- Bath Theatre Royal 12-17 February

Mischief Theatre are bringing the chaos back to Bath! In one of the great theatrical success stories of this or any time, this play that started above a pub is now flying high on the great white lights of Broadway, produced by one JJ Abraham. You can now see the hilarious work that got the director of Star Wars to cough up, or go again, after all witnessing unmitigated theatrical disasters, as Michael Frayn once proved, is one of life’s great pleasures

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/The-Play-That-Goes-Wrong/1521

SEXY- Wardrobe Theatre 13-17 February

‘What do you find sexy? What does sexy even mean?’  Brilliant performance poet Vanessa Kissule looks at the eternal question and delves into our relationship with our own and others bodies in a work being presented at the Wardrobe Theatre as part of Bristol Old Vic’s walkabout season. She’s a real firecracker, smart and provocative. Expect this show to follow suit.

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

Crimes Under The Sun- Ustinov Studio 13-24 February

Award winning theatre company New Old Friends present another high jinks night of pleasure that looks to spoof the works of Christie, Hitchcock and detective stories set on the glamorous Riviera. The Ustinov visiting company’s season is always piled high with interesting work, but a return to an old stomping ground for this funny bone company is sure to prove some interest.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/Crimes-Under-The-Sun/1595

The Taming Of The Shrew- Circomedia 17-24 February

Former RSC director Bill Alexander is an ideal mentor to help guide the latest graduating students of BOVTS. He seems to have a thing for the difficult plays, previously having tackled anti-Semitism in The Merchant Of Venice and early career stutters in Two Gentleman Of Verona. He now tackles the delightfully complicated battle of the sexes that is The Shrew. The poster, already on display outside the venue highlights the girls the men barter for, so expect a take that gets right to the heart of the matter in a post #MeToo World.

http://www.oldvic.ac.uk/whats-on/THE-TAMING-OF-THE-SHREW.html

Macbeth- Tobacco Factory Theatres 22 February- 07 April

The Tobacco Factory begin a new adventure with the first show of their new repertory company the Factory Company, which help open auditions for professional actors who reside in the area. It doesn’t get more challenging than presenting the Scottish play, a work notoriously difficult to pull of, though previous studio productions would suggest that the in the round space is an ideal venue for it. Rising star Adele Thomas, already a regular at Shakespeare’s Globe, directs.

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

Winter Solstice- Ustinov Studio 28 February-03 March

Having previously created a buzz after its run at co-producers the Orange Tree Richmond, Actors Touring Company now tour this play from Germany’s most performed playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. It’s a work that looks at how incendiary political positions can be inflected on any household in this razor sharp comedy. ATC work is always brilliantly challenging, for those who miss the Ustinov’s brilliant programming of the best of European plays, this should tide them over in the meantime.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/Winter-Solstice/1596

Booby’s Bay- Wardrobe Theatre 01-03 March

Henry Darke’s debut play comes to Bristol- the Old Vic helped in its development-after an earlier run at the Finborough. As summer season hits Cornwall a former fisherman decides to make a stand even if no one is listening. Darke was connected to BOV through the ‘Open Session’ and this play was developed through the programme. It will go to its spiritual home, Cornwall, after its Wardrobe run.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/boobys-bay.html

The Cherry Orchard- Bristol Old Vic 01 March-07 April

Former RSC boss Michael Boyd, after a directing career the best part of 30 years and which began with a training in Moscow, has his first stab at Chekhov. Boyd’s productions normally thrive with a meticulous level of detail and the Russian’s last great masterpiece surely will provide plenty of riches. Adapted by playwright of the moment Rory Mullarkey and with initial casting including the brilliant Kirsty Bushall and Jude Owusu this could prove, all being well, to be one of the richest nights of theatre this year.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-cherry-orchard.html

Dracula- Loco Club 09-17 March

Bram Stoker’s tale of a Transylvanian count is probably my favourite novel bar none, and the dark, gothic ambience of the Loco Club, under Temple Meads should be an ideal venue in which to see Liz Lochhead’s award winning 1985 adaptation play out. The final year BOVTS students should take great pleasure in performing what is a most anticipated spooky delights.

http://www.oldvic.ac.uk/whats-on/DRACULA.html

Best Of BE Festival- Circomedia 15-16 March

Mike Tweddle, before he took the reins of Tobacco Factory Theatres, helped set up the BE Festival in Birmingham and it appears lucky Bristol now gets the annual pleasure of its highlight package on tour. A mask piece from Spain, André and Dorine that looks at the onset of Alzheimer’s and the old couple battling to remember what holds them together appears particularly poignant.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/best-of-be-festival-2/

Agnes Colander- Ustinov Studio 15 March-14 April

Trevor Nunn makes his Ustinov debut, directing a world premiere production of Harley Granville Barker’s ‘lost’ play, discovered in some library papers in 2016. Lost plays are normally ‘lost’ for a reason so it’ll be interesting to see if it can stand on the shoulders of Barker’s undoubted masterpieces The Voysey Inheritance and Waste. It’s core creative team, which also includes US playwright Richard Nelson submitting revisions to the original, suggests that there may be something behind this lost curio.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/Agnes-Colander/1583

Bristol Improv Festival- Bristol Improv Theatre 16-17 March

A 26 hour marathon. The best of the Bristol improve scene. Anything can and is likely to happen from Friday to Saturday night in a now annual marathon. It’s on my theatrical bucket list to tackle as much of this as I can this year. Expect the unexpected.

http://thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/bristol-improv-marathon/

This House- Bath Theatre Royal 19-24 March

The play that propelled James Graham to be labelled as Britain’s foremost political playwright comes to Bath for a week as part of its UK tour. It is a gift of a play, one that made government policy, party whips and 1970’s Parliament thrilling and accessible. Bath Theatre Royal have some terrific touring work visiting, very little should be as fine as this.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/This-House/1577

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella- Bristol Hippodrome 20-24 March

The King of dance theatre brings his much loved World War II set Cinderella to Bristol. Very little more needs to be said, tickets will be gobbled up double smart in what is always an annual treat.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/matthew-bournes-cinderella/bristol-hippodrome/

Beautiful- Bristol Hippodrome 03-07 April

Carole King’s Tapestries is routinely voted one of the most influential albums of all time by those talking heads of music. This jukebox show is wall to wall hits including ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’  as gawky teenager becomes one of the great.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/beautiful-the-carole-king-musical/bristol-hippodrome/

Mary Stuart- Bath Theatre Royal 04-14 April

Lia Williams and Juliet Stephenson toss a coin at the beginning of each role to see who plays which warring Queen in wunderboy Robert Icke’s take on Schiller’s tale. Heading to Bath after a sojourn in the West End it’s a chance for audiences in the West to get a first hand look at the explosive programming currently coming out of Islington’s Almeida. With director of the moment and two great actresses, no other tour is more eagerly anticipated this season.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/Mary-Stuart/1539

WNO Spring Residency- Bristol Hippodrome 11-14 April

The twice yearly residencies from WNO are always a treat and this one follows the usual formula. Two classics, in this case Tosca and Don Giovanni are presented with a more obscure third, Verdi’s La forza del destino. Musicianship and stagecraft are always sumptuous, its Bristol Hippdrome’s classiest nights of the year.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/wno-tosca/bristol-hippodrome/

Polly- Wardrobe Theatre 16-17 April

A sequel to John Gay’s The Beggars Opera sounds right up my street and this adaptation, a highly physical work inspired by Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny version, should be well worth catching in this work in progress showing created by Bristol creatives, Stephanie Kempson, Marie Hamilton and Ben Osborn.

http://thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/polly/

DollyWould- Wardrobe Theatre 18-21 April

I saw this production at Latitude last year and was highly taken by Sh!t Theatre’s inventive homage to the icon herself Dolly Parton.  It may not be as coherently powerful as their award winning Letters To Windsor House but these girls know how to tell a story, wonderful tangents into modified genetics and all.

http://thewardrobetheatre.com/whats-on/

A Streetcar Named Desire- Bristol Old Vic 17-21 April

English Touring Theatre combine with the Nuffield and Theatre Clwyd to present Tennessee William’s scorching hot classic. Directed by 2017 RTST Peter Hall Director Award winner Chelsea Walker it’ll be an opportunity to see a young director tackle a classic in the main houses of regional theatres around the country. Not many details have been released for this yet, but expect it to be strongly cast, Blanche Dubois is one of the great roles for women, Gillian Andersen and Rachel Weisz are two of the actors to tackle it in recent years.

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/a-streetcar-named-desire.html

A View From The Bridge- Tobacco Factory Theatres 18 April- 12 May

The second production in the Factory ensemble sees TF Artistic Director Mike Tweddle finally get his hands dirty with his first production of Arthur Miller’s great American Drama. With memories of Van Hove’s iconic production still burnt into the synapses of all who see it, it will take something truly special to make the same kind of impression, but the community chorus, recruited and taking part in drama classes over the Spring before appearing in the show, promises a sense of community that is such an important part of the work.

https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/view-bridge-arthur-miller/

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain- Bath Theatre Royal 25 April-5 May

Robert Powell plays the great Holmes in a new theatrical adventure for the doyen of Baker Street which promises a final case for the great man. Simon Reade writes the piece for Bath Theatre Royal Productions and it also stars Liza Goddard as Mary Watson. Don’t expect the post modern concept of the Moffat and Gatiss BBC version, this should be a classical treat.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3028/Sherlock-Holmes-The-Final-Curtain/1580

The Whale- Ustinov Studio 26 April-26 May

The Ustinov will close its spring season with a production of Samuel D. Hunter’s Lucille Lortel 2013 award winning play, continuing its commitment to the US repertoire. A 600 pound man, seemingly intent on eating himself to death, finds a chance of redemption when his estranged daughter reappears. Ustinov AD Laurence Boswell directs. After a quiet couple of years for the Studio after its wall to wall critical hot streak a few years ago, this is hopefully the year when this South West powerhouse discovers its mojo.

http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/The-Whale/1584

Punk Rock- The Lantern ☆☆☆☆

 

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We always discuss as adults being given a second chance. Flop at a dream job interview. There will always be another one. Strike out on Tinder. The love of your life may just be around a corner. Get stuck in a dead end job. Well go out and change things. Being an adult is all about overcoming adversity, turning bad situations to ones in your favour.  Samuel Beckett summed up the journey we all attempt to take in adulthood. ‘Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.’

Which is why the ethos of our modern education system seems so out of sync. Young people are told from an early age that success is all. Succeed and the world is your oyster. Fail and a life of misery lies ahead. Some of the most stressful days of life are undertaken in exam halls when the latest English paper decides if you can go on the journey you feel destined for. Success or failure. There is no in between.

The sixth form common room in Simon Stephens pulsating Punk Rock is an incendiary point ready to spark. The seven sixth formers the play introduces us too are standing on an edge of a precipice, no longer children but still trapped in  limbo where their exam results will decide how they enter adulthood. These young adults are still discovering themselves, yet also have the pressure of exams hoisted upon them. Success. Failure. Once the fuse is lit an explosion is waiting to happen.

Stephens’ characters cover the gamut of awkward teenage adolescence.  New girl Lily is a beguiling mix of sexual confidence and self-harming uncertainty to fantasist William, while Bennett, the epiphany of classic public school bully, takes his confusion over his sexuality out on those around him. His girlfriend Cissy has the status of being the ‘it’ girl but is balancing the pressure of needing straight A’s and being stuck in a loveless relationship with a guy that doesn’t respect. Meanwhile Tanya dreams of a stable country cottage and children with her teacher, a world away from the whirling pressure of the common room. Finally Nicholas and Chadwick represent polar opposites in social situations, the level headed former being the teenager we all dreamed we could be; calm, cool and not afraid to raise his head above the parapet, and the latter- almost certainly on the Autistic spectrum- delivers an apocalyptic speech that demonstrates the teenagers dramas are but a footnote in the world while deliciously skewing those trying to play top dog.

It’s a work that really gets to the heart of teenagers. It doesn’t overtly put them on a pedestal, these teenagers are mouthy, headstrong and know best but it does celebrate them in all their fresh faced possibilities. As many a teacher knows, sixth formers are often the best company, lacking the cynicism of adulthood and enthusiastically taking in the fountains of knowledge, learning about their place in the world. Stephens’s characters are shades of grey, just like a normal day in schools across the country, all have moments that leave you breathless in admiration and in the same breath leave you wanting to shake them in frustration.

Director Lisa Gregan has assembled a terrific cast. Previously I’ve seen the roles played slightly too old, young looking 20-21 year olds draped in school uniforms. This shows that up as a mistake. It may not seem much, but those years between late teen and early twenties are the defining moments for young people. It’s when they learn who they are going to be. A 21 year old is no more that 17 year old, than she is her 60 year old future. It’s an age more specific that the early to mid-20’s blur.

Tom Davies is a revelation as William, an awkward teenage fantasist whose anxieties take a darker turn. He is someone who has come through the ranks of the young company and now has been given a role that allows him to stretch his talents far. It is both highly credible and chillingly unnerving. Nell O’Hara has the poise and a sparkle in her eye to show why Lily cuts such a swathe through the boys at her new school. She learns her own lessons, to be kind can also to be cruel, her gentle rejection of William, not wanting to hurt him when she is actually seeing Ben, makes the later revelation of their relationship even more painful. Jack Orozoo Morrison, Hannah Tudge, Oscar Adams, Hannah Hecheverria and Toby Pritchard are all also first rate.

This production plays its explosive scene gentler than others I’ve seen. Before I’ve been struck with nausea when I’ve seen it, needed to escape the space, desperately wanting to avert my gaze while being compelled not to. This is quieter, still violent and nasty but less immersive. People drop, innocent and guilty alike. Some escape who you don’t expect. Many fall who shouldn’t. Violence is random. Fate plays a hand.

It all ends with a coda. A sense of normality after the devastation of before. The pressure of exams now unimportant. A distant past. Life events have a way of making things that once seemed the centre of the universe mean less. Stephens plays a trump here. Dreams tend to shrink and change as life extends. The dreams of conquering the world can simplify into just having a normal life. Children. An interesting job. The teenagers here have been forced into growing up. The Bristol Old Vic Young Company have matured with it and consequently have done Stephens play proud as a result.

Punk Rock plays at The Lantern, Colston Hall until the 13 January

2017 Year In Review

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 Regional Show Of The Year

  1. Beauty and the Beast- Tobacco Factory Theatres

In a year where the Disney live action version set the pace at the UK cinema box office, NIE and the Tobacco Factory’s Christmas show stripped it right back to basics but still found the great pleasures inGabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve tale. With dating etiquette for beasts, two ugly sisters that made the word ‘Daddy’ a deadly honing missile and the loveliest heroine around in Sara Lessore, this Beast won the battle of the regions Christmas shows, in fierce completion with the Egg’s Little Mermaid and all the vintage pleasures of The Wizard Of Oz at the Redgrave. Yet this Gallic infused tale won both heart and mind providing a refreshing storytelling alternative to the Disney sparkle.

  1.  Junkyard- Bristol Old Vic

Who would have guessed that this play with music concerning the building of an adventure playground in 1970’s Lockleaze could be so much fun? Jeremy Herrin’s production in a co-production between BOV, Headlong, Rose Theatre Kingston and Theatre Clwyd confirmed the ever increasing reputation of theatre school graduate Erin Doherty who shone as the central point in a group of misfits, discarded by society but finally finding purpose as the adventure playground is assembled. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t flashy but Jack Thorne’s play slowly built up a community that its audience cared about with some catchy tunes from Stephen Warbeck to boot. If it lost some steam in the second half as Doherty’s character was somewhat side lined, it still left me grinning from ear to ear, a big hearted work that defined Bristol at its best.

  1. Iceland- Wardrobe Theatre

The annual director’s cuts season presented by the MA Theatre Directing Students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School is always a good way of seeing the best of contemporary theatre writing in the city. Rarely has it been as accomplished as Geoffrey Brumlik’s production of his fellow Canadian writers Nicholas Billon Iceland, a tight, taut thriller that built up to a devastating climax. Three interlocking monologues delivered smartly by Bradley Banton, Verity Blyth and Sarah Livingstone explored the effect of rampant capitalism on a landscape gradually collapsing under its greed. None of the characters fell under angel or demon, all hogged that middle ground that makes up human nature. It was unexpectedly one of the highlights of my theatre going year. The school must have agreed, over the summer Brumlik became a full time member of staff there.

  1. Education, Education, Education- Wardrobe Ensemble at Bristol Old Vic

If theatre companies accrue supporters like football team than my colours are nailed firmly to Bristol’s own The Wardrobe Ensemble. If their last work 1972: The Future Of Sex showed a company now fully in its stride, Educationx3 continued on its same gold standard vein. 1997 was the year Blair took control promising brighter times ahead, Spice Up Your Life dominated the air waves and Tamagotchi’s threatened to hijack lessons. A work that made me nostalgic for my own school days it saw the first ever Made In Bristol Company take to the main stage of the theatre that moulded them and demonstrated the top class artistry that led to a blue plaque raised in their honour. It will return to Bristol in 2018 as part of another nationwide tour and should provide more sell out success.

  1. Othello- Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

It was SATTF founder Andrew Hilton’s last year in charge before he took a well-deserved retirement having created work for this company since 2000, and he signed off with a highly entertaining modern take on Moliere’s Tartuffe but it was Richard Twyman’s blazing production of Othello that gave him a well-deserved retirement present. Combining razor sharp interrogation of the text, a production that made us look at Shakespeare’s work anew-Islamaphobia and all- and towering performances from among others Mark Lockyer, Kate Stephens, Nora Lopez Holden and Abraham Poopola, it was an outstanding work, criminally overlooked by the critical community come end of year. With a change of date for 2018 it was a fitting end to a decade and a half of rigorously produced spring classics that got the Tobacco Factory noticed as a national organisation in its own right.  Sublime.

 

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Performances Of The Year

  1. Georgia Frost- The Two Gentleman of Verona/Crave/13/The Little Mermaid Various

The graduating class of 2017 from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School were a pretty strong bunch all told but no one held the attention quite like Georgia Frost. A natural comedienne with an elastic, expressive face she also broke hearts with an intense turn in Sarah Kane’s tone poem for four voices. Her impressive work continued after she graduated, she stood out again in the Egg’s joyful and bold take on The Little Mermaid. BOVTS have produced a range of fascinating female performers in the last few years; Erin Doherty, Pearl Macky and Faye Marsay among them. I have a feeling Frost’s career trajectory will follow a similar path.

  1. Audrey Brisson- La Strada Bristol Old Vic

Brisson is an old fashioned throwback, with a Louise Brooks’ bob and Jean Arthur funnies. Her diminutive frame doesn’t hold back any of her large scale talent, right now there are very few more interesting actors around. She moved on from her sparkling turn last year in the Bristol Old Vic run of The Grinning Man to provide a Chaplin-esque gait as the waif fought over by a circus strong man and unicyclist in this stage adaption of Fellini’s La Strada. There are few modern performers who would slip quite so easily into a work that harks so much back to its time and period, but Brisson was the beating heart of a musical adaptation that put Fellini’s masterpiece through the prism of director Sally Cookson’s fertile imagination and discovered fresh riches.

  1. Henry Goodman- Looking at Lucian Ustinov Studio

It was a so-so year for the Ustinov and Theatre Royal Bath productions. Very little was particularly bad, but nothing really moved much beyond the middle ground either- a little staid all told. Alan Franks monologue was a case in point- a work that read like a fascinating long form profile but one that never justified its need to be turned into theatre. The reason to cough up for a ticket was Goodman, who convincingly made the painter, grandson to Sigmund, both charm personified and a monster bubbling to get out. It is a turn likely to be overlooked from most people’s end of year list, coming in a work that felt so slight but it was as precise and as honed as any work he has previously given. The Ustinov hosted some big turns from star actors this year (in work that was by and large a few rungs beneath them), there were also striking contributions from Hollywood star F Murray Abraham in The Mentor, Greg Hicks in The Open House and Niamh Cusack in the damp squid Christmas Eve.

  1. Erin Doherty- Junkyard Bristol Old Vic

Already mentioned above, Doherty is destined to be a star. It was obvious from the moment she held the stage in Heresy of Love in her graduating work as part of BOVTS and we have been lucky to witness some of her early career milestones play out in the area. If she was a standout part of the ensemble of Pink Mist she was the leading player of Headlong Theatre and Bristol Old Vic’s raucous, joyful play with musicJunkyard. So powerfully did she hold the stage as dissatisfied teenager Fiz that when she left the stage for a majority of the second half the show slumped a little as a result. Since then Doherty has seen her status skyrocket. Let’s hope we get her back soon before the inevitable awards and television roles turn her into a future Dame.

  1. Mark Lockyer- Othello Tobacco Factory Theatres

It was a year where a great actor returned to his best and provided the most terrifying turn of the year. His Iago, in Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory’s Othello, was a sardonic mass of fury, as liable to choke in grief as he was ready to explode into violent action. His was a sarcastic Lieutenant, ignored for the top position and turned psycho as a result. He was both a stand-up comic and Lucifer himself. In the intimate surroundings of the Tobacco Factory it was terrifying to see the embodiment of evil in man so close up. In a night filled to the brim with great performances- Katy Stephens was riveting even in the small role of Emilia while Abraham Poopola and Nora Lopez Holden were daring and refreshingly young as the doomed lovers- Lockyer was the glue to hold it all together and delivered the year’s most memorable performance as a result. The fact he then followed this up with a riveting one man show Living With The Lights On that explored his own grapples with mental health ensured that 2017 was a sparkling one for Lockyer

 

 

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The best touring and non-regional work seen this year

This was a year where the work touring in to Bristol and the work I saw in Latitude, London, the cinema and New York dazzled. This is a list of 10 (actually 13 but that would be too unlucky) shows that I fell in love with this year.

  1. Dickie Beau: Re-Member Me/Hot Brown Honey (Latitude Festival)

Latitude’s joy is usually in the total immersion of culture that it gives but this year’s festival brought two of the best pieces of work I saw all year and provided a panoply of what the festival offers. Hot Brown Honey raucously took down stereotypes and blasted the roof off the theatre tent with their cabaret/party. It showed women at their most powerful, political, sexy best. Meanwhile Dickie Beau took on the legacy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a show that delved into the psyche of the Danish Prince and those actors who have tackled the role. The poses and facial tics was extraordinary, his Ian McKellen turn as memorable a moment as has been on stage this year. As quiet a work as the troupe from Australia were exuberant, it was a theatre geek’s paradise, a show you just slipped comfortably into and hoped never to leave. It was probably my show of 2017. I’m still hoping its picked up for next year and seen in Bristol, perhaps as part of Mayfest.

  1. The Grinning Man- Trafalgar Studio

My top show of 2016 has to be included in my round up of best shows of 2017 as well. Cleaned up and clearer in its West End run, its melodies and discordant harmonies are even more ravishing now. Louis Maskell has improved on an already impeccable turn as the young man with a Glasgow smile and Julian Bleach is a macabre delight as a psychotic court jester. It’s a unique West End prospect, darker and grittier than the usual Shaftesbury Avenue Fair but it truly deserves to be a hit. On its third showing it knocked me out as much as its first. Bristol Old Vic has come to the heart of the establishment and scored a bull’s eye.

 

  1. Tristan and Yseult – Kneehigh at Bristol Old Vic

Kneehigh were barely away from Bristol in 2017 and ensured the city was constantly being fed with theatre that dazzled senses. IfThe Tin Drum was a flawed but fascinating scale of a mountain and Flying Lovers a low-key turn, Tristan and Yseult was five star joy from first to last. Making us look at the classic tale from afresh, no other show brought such joy this year. Returning to a company’s greatest hit its always worrying if the work doesn’t live up to expectations. Yet over two and a bit hours innovation after innovation pile up until one was left with no alternative but to stand and applaud a rightly appointed modern classic. Emma Rice on form is arguably one of the greats, no one since Joan Littlewood has caught that sense of pure rigour and utter joy at the possibilities of theatre. With the creation of her new company Wise Children being based in Bristol, expect plenty more nights of joy in the years ahead.

  1. People Places and Things- Headlong at Bristol Old Vic

 

Even without Denise Gough’s much heralded central performance PPT fizzed. Lisa Dwyer Hogg brought her own talent to the role of Emma, an actress checking into rehab and confronting her demons, a performance less explosive but no less sad and full of exquisite painful in a virtuoso turn by an under the radar performer. If a great performance is at the heart of the work and been much discussed in the reviews, it’s also writing of the highest order. Duncan McMillan’s play scorches, no-missed beats or clunky lines here, building to a climax and familial confrontation that left its audience breathless in its seats. Seating on stage seating, facing directly into the stunning BOV auditorium it was a treat to see writing and acting of the highest order mere inches from your face. It gave you the intimacy of a Netflix show with the scope of the best of theatre .Bunny Christies inventive designs and Jeremy Herrin’s precise direction completed a clean sweep of a work that should justly become a modern classic.

  1. How To Win Against History– Wardrobe Theatre as part of Tobacco Factory

 

Seirol Davies cabaret/revue concerning the flamboyant sixth Duke of Anglesey had been an Edinburgh smash hit twice over and sparkled just as brightly as part of its UK tour on the back of those reviews. Okay it had the feel of a clever undergrad show at times, but students haven’t had the wit and droll irony in such stores since Fry and Laurie headlined Footlights. It was a work that blended high camp style and witty pastiche with big heart and ultimately probing insight. It’s a show I would have remained in my seat to gorge on again straight away. A marvel.

  1. Groundhog Day- August Wilson Theatre Broadway

Polish, sheen and spectacle. Nobody does it better than Broadway. Add Tim Minchin’s witty book and Matthew Warchus clever staging and Groundhog Daywas just one caffeinated dose of pleasure. Andy Karl made sleaze and arrogance charming, his hard working turn not even hampered with a leg injury picked up on press night. It may have had a short run on 42nd street but this is a show much better than its commercial run suggests. An Olivier for Best Musical will hopefully ensure it won’t be long until this is back in the West End. Bill Murray, the star of the original film ensured he had his own Groundhog Evening, seeing it on consecutive nights. It really wouldn’t be a bad way to get trapped.

  1. War Horse- Bristol Hippodrome

Slightly streamlined for the 2017 tour it may have been, but War Horse still feels a game changer all these years later. Joey is without doubt the most iconic character of 21st century theatre, up there with Lear and Mother Courage, his transformation from foal to stallion still enough to bring goose bumps to the back of the neck. This is the show that every theatre- both commercial and subsidised- are looking to find. One that secures legacies both financially and critically. Ten years on Joey still reigns supreme.

  1. Amadeus/Angels In America/Follies (NT Live)

It may have been a fairly ropey year for the Nat but viewed from a little distance and with their big hitters playing as part of NT Live it still seemed like a pretty good year all told for this monolith of the South Bank. Amadeus with Lucian Msamatti (a belter) was just the beginning of the epic work seen their this year, the 7 ½ hours of Angels In America with Andrew Garfield and Russell Tovey especially breaking hearts and Follies hauntingly realised proved that nowhere does it better for the big classics of world theatre.

 

  1. Die Flaudermaus- Welsh National Opera at Bristol Hippodrome

Strauss’ opera was a charmer, a full on romp from the first note of its overture to its resolution filled conclusion. With no musical on offer this touring year for the WNO, it felt like orchestra, chorus and principals let their hair down with this crowd pleasing operetta instead. This was opera for everyone, a night of pure music theatre that dazzled the ear along with the heart.

  1. The Winters Tale- Cheek by Jowl at Bristol Old Vic

I have never seen the concluding scene bettered then in Cheek by Jowl’s ravishing version of Shakespeare’s late tragi-comedy. So much of the work was exquisite, both in performance and in design, that it made the Bohemia scenes especially jarring, a mess of a middle that fell off a cliff. Still, it couldn’t stop a work so rich from falling onto this list.

A Starry Night- BOVTS at Redgrave Theatre ☆☆☆

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Bristol Old Vic Theatre School produce terrific graduates for theatre and the screen but they could make a killing if they offered their services to the art of Christmas Carolling. The sounds emanating from the Redgrave Theatre at 10am on a Saturday morning cheered even this Christmas fatigued (and slightly hung-over) heart. It’s a little commented part of the schools ethos, but almost all their public showings incorporate musicality and close harmonies, led by musical director Pam Rudge, these are always sharp and on-point. It does make one long for an annual musical to be incorporated into their repertoire.

If the music charmed, the nativity that followed is a little more hit and miss under Chris Donnelly’s workmanlike direction. At the end of a run that had seen it play across primary schools in the Bristol area, it still felt a little slack in places, cues not being picked up quickly enough, timing a beat or two out. Occasionally the staging left it unclear about what should be focussing on. Thieves and creatures wandered onto the stage with so little fanfare only Argus would have noticed them. On an early Saturday start it felt a little like the actors were straining to connect to a lukewarm audience. The Redgrave is a big theatre, the work here not made for such a space with its intimacies consequently swallowed up. From halfway back the work feels distant. In an assembly hall it may play differently.

John Hartoch’s adaptation has fun with source material. The three Kings are each old school buffoons, Herod’s guard’s dim witted irritants constantly being tricked and harried by citizens as bolshie as those in Pythons Life Of Brian . More time is spent with the shepherds and their issues with a couple of dodgy sheep rustlers than with Mary (Eva O’Hara) and Joseph’s (Amukelani Mastena) trip to Bethlehem and conception in a manger. Like Brian, it’s a well rhapsodised event seen from an outsider’s perspective.

It’s a perfectly pleasant way to pass an hour. What makes it worth the ticket price though is fourteen bright eyed and bushytailed students breaking into a rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

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 Pins 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.