This House- Tobacco Factory Theatres ****

This House ensemble © Craig Fuller

James Graham is the theatre’s chronicler of the nation, taking over from the position that David Hare used to revel in. His state of the nation plays throw us into the hub of the establishment and reveals the beating heart of the UK in both the political and the personal. His name establishing This House (2012) makes those who operate at the heart of politics feel both heroic and ridiculous. In a time when we feel particularly isolated from those who govern us, Graham’s play has done a bang-up job of humanising the power players in the Westminster bubble.

Originally conceived at the time when David Cameron and Nick Clegg played happy couples in the Rose Garden, Graham’s play looked at the previous time a minority government was formed after a divisive general election. 1974-1979 was a rocky time for a Labour Government that constantly fluctuated between -18 to +3 majorities. A time that political historians decried as a major loss for Labour and one in which they would eventually find themselves swept away by a grocers daughter from Grantham, the strength of Graham’s work is that he shows the almost heroic task the whips did in keeping a party in power who struggled to find an ounce of stability.

A dramatized re-telling of a chaos-filled five years, Graham’s play takes us into a chamber where old pairing rules are removed as the gloves come off, punches are thrown at key votes and Michael Heseltine spins a mace around in protest of what he views as a cheat. The faked death of an MP and the real-life shocking statistic that 17 Labour MPs passed away during their time in Government seem par for the course. The conflict of opposition parties is spelled out as Humphrey Atkins (Tommy Belshaw) the chief Tory whip states that the gap between government and opposition benches is exactly the width of two drawn swords. Democracy and parties coming together for the good of the nation come second to an adversary pull. It’s both a painful realisation and thrillingly theatrical in its demands.

Nik Partridge’s propulsive production gives the play a flowing energy. Tables and chairs are spun, choral singing gives fresh energy to classic seventies songs and the ensemble comes together to ensnare a haunted MP in their wave. It’s a long evening, but one that constantly keeps its clarity of storytelling alive in the space.

Within its 15-person ensemble, there are particularly powerful performances from Louise O’Dowd who switches accents and personas with aplomb, and Christopher Williams who imbues the lifelong Labour politician who is prepared to sacrifice his life for the political cause with a deep sense of pride and then pain as he realises his absence has cost them a vote of confidence. As the whips, Peter Burley and Tommy McAteer bring out the gruffness and kindness of the red side looking to keep a steady ship while Belshaw is all entitled leadership as the Blue chief whip. Yet ultimately, it’s the two deputy whips, Archie Fisher’s Conservative and Francis Redfern’s Labour who become the heart, two men with ideological differences but over five years of sparring find a mutual admiration. It’s interesting that in a play that doesn’t offer its own author’s politics, it’s the Tory who is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

It all takes place in Marta Sitarz’s Big Ben backdropped set, with Joe Stather’s projections conjuring up debating chambers and Miami beaches. It’s a cracking evening of theatre, one that shines a light on Britain’s political past while reminding us of our turbulent present.

Emilia: Circomedia ****

Emilia photos by Craig Fuller

Emilia Lanier née Bassano was declared the first women poet in England with her collection published in 1611 at the age of 42. She may have been the Dark Lady that Shakespeare famously etched in his sonnets. She is the subject of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s’ idiosyncratic, irreverent, all-female identifying led biographical dash through the life and times of a woman finding her place and voice in a patriarchal society. In all honesty, there is something a little on the nose in Malcolm’s play, we are still in a world that favours men, but are the problems the same, are the parallels she draws between then and now, a little glaringly obvious? Subtle it isn’t, but what it offers are incendiary girl power and a rollicking good time. 

Sally Cookson’s production for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, demonstrates that there is further life to this 2018 play, which went from Globe to Shaftesbury Avenue to three Olivier statuettes. It’s one of a clutch of recent plays from Nell Gwynn to Shakespeare In Love that frames the female battle for equality in the world of Elizabethan theatre and struck a rich vein. This Emilia, whether Shakespeare’s mistress or not, deserves to be known. Morgan’s play makes a case for this and then some.

You can tick off the misdemeanors done against her. A mistress to the Lord Chamberlain, a man a great many years older than her, she fell pregnant with his baby, before being paid off and set up into an unhappy marriage with her cousin. Yet this Emilia is punchy and funny, a woman who storms the stage in protest when she thinks her words have been stolen by the Bard and teaches the backstreet workers of London to find feeling in poetry.

Emilia photos by Craig Fuller

Cookson’s production is blessed with a searing trio of performers who essay Emilia at different points of her journey. Gaia Ashwood, Assa Kanouté, and Sumāh Ebelé bring innocence, knowing, anger, and tenderness to the role, demonstrating a woman who brought multiple competing facets to the world she faced. Individually they are a force, together, in the moments they shape themselves around Alice Sales’ multi-leveled set, they become unstoppable.

There are some wonderfully observed male caricatures within the ensemble. The preening, peacocking raft of men who trade in wealth and power is gloriously caught, and Sophie Charlton’s Shakespeare is the struttingest cock of them all, foolish in his early vanity but becoming more dangerous as wealth and influence are draped over him, allowing him to declare the Globe, my gaff.

Cookson’s production has fun combining the past with the present and its young cast throws themselves wholeheartedly into the dance routines, a mix of camp kitsch like Gaga thrown into an Orlando time machine. The last speech, delivered by Ebelé as a call to arms for women everywhere lifts the temperature a degree or two. There may be nothing subtle in this entertaining rollercoaster, but its message hits deep.

Emilia plays at Circomedia until the 25 February.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead: Bristol Old Vic ****

A Complicite show is event theatre. Previous works such as A Disappearing Number, An Encounter, and The Master and Margarita are locked in a pantheon of the great works of my lifetime. They produce the kind of mind-bending excellent that explores theatre at its most challenging and intellectually stimulating. They have been offered creative homes across the world and have been awarded numerous theatrical prizes from the establishment. As the great Emma Thompson has been quoted as saying, they are genuine theatrical trailblazers. So, it’s no surprise to learn that I admired their latest work Drive Your Plow Ove The Bones of The Dead immeasurably. What I didn’t do, was fall for it.

A theatrical adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009  Polish mystery novel, which received an International Man Booker Prize nomination in 2019 following its translation into English, the book’s themes around environmentalism, valuing human life over animal, forming our community, feels as pertinent now than it did when it was published. A Polish Miss Marple, Tokarczuk’s (anti) heroine Janina begins her investigation into the deaths of the hunting community in her hometown. Could she be right in her assertation that the animals are taking revenge on those who bleed them for their sport?

The extraordinary Kathryn Hunter takes on the role of Janine, the William Blake sprouting philosopher who rallies against a society that fails to acknowledge her views. Like Blake, there is something of the mystic in Janie as indeed there is in Hunter, an other-worldly presence, whose small stature is wielded like a weapon, and whose gravelly voice gives her the pull of a deity. Hunter has always fared best as the embittered outsider, think of her Timon or Lear rallying against the dying of the light, and again here, as the ensemble tower over her clad in black, we see the fate of the older women, overlooked by the society around her. Theatre is all about offering the extraordinary on stage and Hunter is an artist of powerful magnetism. Her performance makes you wish that theatre created more roles for women in their artistic prime, a lifetime of work coalescing into a brilliant present.

Simon McBurney’s production is beautifully executed, from Paule Constable’s brutalist lighting design of monochrome spots and blindingly violent flashes of light to Dick Straker’s video design, showing flashes of quotations from Blake’s works alongside sketches of crime scenes, though the reflection of the auto-cue is an unfortunate distraction. Each action is elegantly staged by McBurney, a dark, gothic echo chamber of a painting, but at three hours it begins to feel like an endurance test. A book can be luxuriated in, a certain sentence or paragraph re-read for understanding or to breathe in its rolling cadences. Here it just keeps coming for you, a bombardment of words and ideas, metaphysical questions, and spiritual quotations. The pace never lets up and it begins to strangle the air out of the piece. The reveal of the mystery when it comes feels anticlimactic and the relationships between Janie and her group of misfits haven’t built up enough for us to feel the confusion and betrayal. Ultimately theatre must hold  head and heart in its embrace. Here, the head is given a workout, but the heart doesn’t break a sweat. One to admire but not quite to love.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead plays at Bristol Old Vic until February 11 and then tours

The Week In Theatre: Radium Girls

Radium Girls: Bristol Old Vic Weston Studios ***

The Levelling Up agenda in the latest NPO list has been cruel to Bristol. Some great companies have been rewarded, Theatre Ad Infinitum among them but what more could a company like the Wardrobe Ensemble do to get in having over a decade turned into a company of national importance and now turning their focus into education work as well? Bristol Old Vic suffered a slight drop, Tobacco Factory Theatres standstill funding, while the likes of Action Hero, Theatre Bristol, and Travelling Light have seen their NPO status removed. While the talk in the media has been about the destruction of the arts in London, it feels like Bristol theatre is also currently licking its wounds. It may be an opportunity to go away, reconsider and rise again like a Phoenix, something the Arnolfini did with great success in 2015 after seeing its grant removed and now back in from 2023, but you wonder how much the theatrical landscape will change as new artistic regimes step into a tougher than ever financial situation for our theatres and companies.

It’s also been a challenging time for drama schools recently with the drama education sector also struggling to deliver what it needs on the funding models it’s sustaining. It feels on the brink at the moment, a time when the old models are being reconsidered. The likes of the Bristol School of Acting are delivering a thrilling range of shows with a diverse range of students while expanding the training of theatre makers, Fourth Monkey has also made Bristol a home. The illustrious BOVTS no longer holds the monopoly. But a school that has trained a who’s who of the great and the good of the British arts industry still knows how to develop and send talent out into the world, Billy Howle, currently playing Hamlet in Bristol is only one of many who has blossomed into the industry. So it is always enticing to see a new year group for the first time.

Ellie Jack and Kurtis Thomas Radium Girls Photos Craig Fuller

In the early 1920s, a number of women in a New Jersey factory suffered radiation poisoning while painting watch dials with self-luminous paint. DW Gregory’s 2000 play Radium Girls captures the dawning self-realization of these women that the jobs they had innocently gone to eventually will contribute to their illness and death. It is carefully constructed, though a little workmanlike in form, though it builds compellingly enough as the women fight back about the corporations who are trying to shut things down.

Director Nel Crouch marshals her 15-strong ensemble well, though it feels a more intimate work than its large cast size would suggest. Front and centre is Ellie Jack as Grace Fryer, who goes from a young idealist happy to be earning a crust in the post-war years to a woman old before her time, her sickness writ large on her stooped body but staying graceful, even as life and dreams seep away from her. It’s a highly accomplished performance from Jack, in her first graduation show she holds the piece together in a role that in its writing is a bit one-note, a bit too crusading hero without facets to keep the role compelling. As her antagonist, Conor Doran brings a fascinating mix of cold self-interest and desperate guilt as the full realisation of what his company has done to these women, even as he battles to keep the company from going under.

It’s a long, old-fashioned dialectic piece of work in many ways and a sense of restlessness kicks in as it runs over the two-and-a-half-hour mark. From a new set of graduating actors Lucy Pascoe as a fellow radium girl and Kurtis Thomas as her husband-to-be make their marks and are early ones to watch. You just wish the students could have been given something a bit more dynamic to demonstrate their talents with.

The Week In Theatre: Revealed/Noises Off

Daniel J Carver & Dylan Brady in Revealed

After six years Mike Tweddle took his leave of The Tobacco Factory last week. His time there has been hampered by Covid but there have been some real highlights during his tenure, the community choir lighting up Beautiful Thing and his production of A View From The Bridge, one of the great Bristol shows of the past decade among them. His last week saw the opening of Daniel J Carver’s Revealed, a piece the theatre marketing team has urgently heralded as the most important work the space has ever presented. Perhaps the pitch pushes this conceit a little far, but what is presented is a cracking three-hander that explores what it means to be a black man in contemporary Britain. As riots tear up the streets, three generations of one family take refuge in their Jamaican restaurant LoveIt where bonds are made, secrets revealed and history is brought blazingly to the surface. Over the course of one-night Grandfather Sidney, his son Malcolm and Grandson Luther all try to make sense of a culture that is rapidly changing.

Carver’s play is classical in structure, kitchen sink realist in execution, and as political as it is personal. Across two hours, his characters tackle a range of big subjects, from racism to black masculinity, homosexuality to the place of fathers in family dynamics. His piece gradually drops in the revelations but also leaves room for those things not said. There are times when the theatre becomes a pressure cooker, ready to explode at any minute. The violence when it kicks in feels both inevitable-a release from emotions that can’t be released in other forms-and heart-breaking mistakes repeating each other generation after generation.

Carver’s writing pitches into melodrama at points, but who, from Shakespeare to O’Neill, can’t have that accusation leveled at them, but Jay Zorenti-Nakhad keeps the drama ticking over with an exquisitely paced production. There are times when is naturalism drifts into theatricality, the flares from the streets, the haunting sirens, the actors slowly drifting into the space and staring at each other, looking into their souls as if for the first time. He draws out performances that brim with vigour and pain. Everal A Walsh as restaurant owner and Grandfather Sidney uses joviality to mask the sense of regret of not always being there for his family, writer Carver brings out the toxic masculinity that can erupt when someone feels lost and trapped and in an impressive professional debut Dylan Brady gives hope as the next generation who are discovering a different world for themselves. On Amanda Mascharenhas’s convincing restaurant set, the three characters pace, dissect, explode and perhaps find some hope. It’s been a tough few years for the Tobacco Factory but at a time of change with Heidi Vaughan-Thomas about to take over, Revealed shows us why it is such an important space.

Felicity Kendall, Jonathan Coy & Joseph Millson in Noises Off at Theatre Royal Bath

Is there a more perfectly constructed play than Michael Frayn’s Noises Off? Now celebrating 40 years with the writer in attendance on press night at the Theatre Royal Bath, Lindsay Posner’s production, first seen at the Old Vic in 2012 is richly cast in this revival and still purrs along in its exquisitely handled stage business and sense of each mechanism landing perfectly in place. What this production is particularly blessed with is Joseph Milson.

Milson’s work has always been a recommendation of high quality, finding class in mediocrity (Love Never Dies) or danger in unpredictability (The Rover) and he is in his element here as Garry Lejaune, bringing a desperate suaveness as the matinee idol past his prime finding terrific physical comedy, as he hops upstairs, shoelaces tied together by his vengeful ex and eventually takes a tumble down the stairs that earns a spontaneous round of applause. It’s the kind of performance that if there is any justice would catapult him to the premium actor of his generation.

Not that his is the only impressive performance, what with the Rolls Royce casting of solid pros Felicity Kendall, Matthew Kelly, Jonathan Coy, Tracey-Ann Oberon, and Alexander Hanson. Each brings years of craft to Frayn’s theatrical archetypes, from Kendall’s ‘darling’ Dotty to Hanson’s director, bringing Trevor Nunn-like flair and wardrobe to the stage. Frayn’s piece understands the inner workings of theatre people, and how drama messily intersects with life. Its three acts take us from tech to backstage to the final performance blowing up. You don’t know how it can sustain its energy, but it does and then raises it over and over again. A perfect evening of entertainment.

Revealed TF Theatres ****

Noises Off Theatre Royal Bath *****

Opal Fruits- Weston Studio ☆☆☆

The autobiographical monologue is potentially the knottiest of theatrical art forms to get right. If we see theatres function to in effect blend the two p’s together, the political and the personal, a form that has the potential to get lost in the personal at the expense of the political is loaded with issues that can trip up any artist.

Holly Beasley-Garrigan, writer and performer of Opal Fruits, playing at Weston Studio after an Edinburgh run at the Pleasance, appears aware of the complexities this work poses. After all her ACE funding is in place because she is making a show about the working classes, and she touches on the complex relationship modern theatre has with their fetishization of council estate stories. A queer, working-class female Beasley-Garrigan talks in her program bio about reclaiming spaces for stories from artists like her. Yet arguably there is a bigger challenge, these stories are now seen in studio theatres across the country. It’s the main stage where these stories still struggle to be seen. If at one point she rails at the idea of independent theatres’ inability to feed a family, it struggles to ascertain how this work could break into the mainstream. During a sold-out performance, the space crackles with a love that allowed the piece to take flight but also difficult not to feel like its playing to the converted, the audience at The Lion King, a musical that this show touches upon, brings in a diversity that this or indeed almost all independent theatre can’t begin to touch.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect a show shaped for Edinburgh, 70-minute run time and all, to be able to find answers but here it edges towards asking the questions and then shying away from them. It remains messy and unresolved politically.

Personally, though the piece comes to life, telling a beautiful inter-generational familial story of generations of women all being brought up in the same estate. With the Opal fruit flavours standing in for Grandmothers, sisters, and nieces, and recordings of the voices filling in the blanks, we get a sense of the dynamic that turned Beasley-Garrigan into the artist she is today. Thrust into the world of drama school where her classmates wear sports gear ironically, she finds even the poor can perform Shakespeare and ballet, even if this doesn’t cut the mustard with classmates who are working security at Tesco.

With stories of ‘Keef’ and ‘Mick, the Crim’ sawn-off shotguns and caravan dismemberment it could all threaten to get a bit, Guy Ritchie. Yet it’s family that continues to be the connecting through line of the piece. Through squabbles and misunderstandings, bafflement, and acceptance, what comes out is the complexity of being a working-class artist, feeling both pride and tackling the sense of not belonging in a world where privilege rises to the top.

Stripped literally in white underwear and metaphorically in revealing vulnerability Beasley-Garrigan is an incendiary charismatic presence throughout. Under Maisie Newman’s carefully considered production, it never drops into longueurs and lands several cracking set pieces that entwine with its intellectual rigorousness. Its climax when The Lion King and Singing In The Rain merge with Garage beats is particularly thrilling.

It may not be able to answer some of the questions its set-up suggests it’s going to, but there is no doubt that Opal Fruits, four years on from its first showing at Vaults Festival is worth every penny that ACE originally granted it. Now time to get the main house.

The Theatre Week: A Midsummer Nights Dream; BHP Edinburgh Double Bill

If anyone needed reminding of how tough creating theatre still is as we slowly climb out of this pandemic Insane Roots A Midsummer Night’s Dream (**) is a reminder that creating good art is a precarious business. Its press night was originally washed out, at the rescheduled performance I saw three actors were down with COVID and the following days’ performances were cancelled. So it’s hard to make a full judgement, especially with a company that I know has the potential to strike theatrical gold. Indeed what had felt exciting in the rain, as performers and audience alike pushing through and battling down the hatches as torrential rain fell, felt slightly stolid on one of those summer evenings that stretched out in golden hues and slowly descending violet nightlight. 

Eastville Park Victorian abandoned swimming pool, wrapped in long-grown foliage and with echoes of memories past and present in its graffiti-laden walls had worked perfectly for the swaggering, tragical world of Verona in their Romeo and Juliet, night falling as the lovers breathed their last, but strangely lacks the same sense of identity here. The cutting between worlds, from the palace to forest, from mortals to fairies lacks specificity and wonder, its family sepia tone ensuring the darker complexities of the piece lay underexplored but its jokes do not land enough to compensate. It’s Pyramus and Thisbe scene, so often an anarchic delight to wrap up the evening here feels a little dull. When tackling a classic there needs to be some sense of urgency to it, why this piece, why now? In Hannah Drake’s production, this doesn’t come through.

Still, there are some striking performances to catch the eye. Elizabeth Crarer is thrillingly effervescent as the frequently trampled Helena, her verse speaking carrying the evening with total clarity and power. Lily Donovan appeared like she would have been an excellent foil as Hermia in the 40 minutes I saw of her. Alan Devally stepped in for the indisposed Byron Mondahl as Bottom and is delightful, mixing the languor of Dylan Moran in Black Books with the strut of Bill Bailey nailing a passé doble in Strictly. Ellie Showering’s Accapella music provides a sense of the otherworldly but this is a Dream that fades from view as soon as you wake.

There is more urgency in Black Hound Production’s one-man monologue Alright? (***) In Thomas Price’s powerful performance, we see Noah struggle with the pressures of growing up, flitting between school where the school councillor sees him as just another number wandering through during the lunch hour, and home where his single Dad struggles to connect, and Gran builds relationships through the odd hip flask of whisky. Price is a likable presence who keeps us engaged even as his character becomes more and more lost. Writer Patrick Withey balances humour and despair and produces a rather touching and realistic conclusion while director Cordelia Tarbrooke keeps the action flowing. The scenes of partying and flirting in the long summers between exams feel particularly powerful and pulse with a young voice that you sense the company is sometimes wary of exploring, which can be seen in Seeds of Memories (**)which will be following Alright? in moving on up to Edinburgh. Seeds is a less engaging piece of work, also by Withey, about grief and memory set in the garden where grandson and grandfather bond over their love of growing things and whose purpose can be spelled out within 2 minutes. Though there is some engaging puppetry work, its metaphors are a trite thudding, and it rolls along with a drowsy Sunday evening energy, with a spell it out for you coda. Still in their infancy, expect BHP to create something truly thrilling when they find their urgency.

A Midsummer Nights Dream plays at Eastville Park swimming pool until the 20th August

Alright and Seeds of Memory play at The Space, Edinburgh from the 22nd-27th August

Bugsy Malone: Theatre Royal Bath ☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Mia Lakha and Gabriel Payne in Bugsy Malone
Mia Lakha and Gabriel Payne in Bugsy Malone
© Johan Persson

Seven years after reopening the Lyric Hammersmith and some 30-plus years since Alan Parker’s film was released, Bugsy Malone begins its UK tour in Bath before a rumoured West End residency. If the electric buzz on press night is any indication, Sean Holmes’ finely realised production, aided by Drew McOnie’s sparkling choreography, will prove a summer hit.

Parker was famously against giving professional stage rights to his iconic 1976 film. Yet, as many have experienced from schooldays on and offstage, there is something inherently charming about a show that turns gangland warfare into playground games and bloody massacres into splurge gun gunk. If Holmes’ production doesn’t shy away from the darkness, always lingering an extra second on bodies splayed on the floor, it’s not long before the performers are back up on their feet, dusting themselves off, throwing themselves into the next set-piece.

The plot could be dashed off on the back of a postcard. Rival hoodlums Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are engaged in turf wars, while driver Bugsy falls in love with aspiring actress Blousey. When Bugsy is offered cash from Sam that will help him take her to Hollywood, the stage is set for these two plot strands to inter-merge. Even at a shade under two hours, the plot is stretched but it comes alive in Paul Williams’ knockout score and McOnie’s propulsive dance numbers that turn “So You Wanna Be A Boxer” and “Down And Out” in particular into showstoppers.

Holmes’ best idea is to multi-cast the leading roles with young performers and add an adult ensemble to provide ballast to the group numbers. It really works and gives the production both ragged charm and polished sheen. Generally, the singing from the young cast is stronger than the acting but Mia Lakha is a serious one to watch as Blousey, utilising her soulful voice to turn “I’m Feeling Fine” and “Ordinary Fool” into torch songs. Gabriel Payne is all huge charisma in a little frame as Bugsy while Jasmine Sakyiama’s Tallulah is wisely less vamping than Jodie Foster’s filmed take, but still shows us a showgirl actively yearning for a different life. Albie Snelson is vaudevillian fun as Fat Sam, seeing his empire falling apart one hit at a time, while Aidan Oti dances with insouciant grace as the janitor hoping for his big break.

Jon Bausor’s stripped-back set shows us the theatres’ walls, suggesting both backstage dramas and the kind of place where Al Capone took out his rivals in his pomp while providing plenty of space for tumbles, acrobats, and vaulting in the athletic choreography.

Ultimately, Bugsy Malone is a good, not a great, musical, but there is something intangible about it that means it’s almost failproof. Yet given a terrific production, as it is here, it compels an audience to rise to its feet, with or without its deliberate mega mix finale that gives its young performers one last chance to shine and leaves its audience beaming at the sheer talent that will stock the West End for generations to come.

The Tempest: Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Nicholas Woodeson and Dickie Beau in The Tempest
Nicholas Woodeson and Dickie Beau in The Tempest
© Hugo Glendenning

It seems a fitting tribute that in the week we lost the mighty Peter Brook, a different theatrical explorer began her reign in Bath. Under previous artistic director Laurence Boswell, the Ustinov Studio played host to a string of shows that hit big nationally and internationally. For a few hot years in the mid-2010s, it was arguably the most exciting theatre in the country. The new boss in charge, Deborah Warner, is changing up the programme. We are promised classical plays, adaptions from novels, fully-staged song recitals, dance, and at least one full opera a year. It explores what theatre can be – something you’d expect the maestro sitting in his pantheon to nod sagely at.

The Tempest is a strong opening statement. It’s theatre loaded with imagination, alive and messy, and alone that places the actor at the heart. What Warner does very quickly here is to show us what to expect of her reign. Years of creative exploration find a home in this studio theatre in cozy Bath.

Not that she manages to get to grips with all of the challenges Shakespeare’s late valediction play possesses. The opening lengthy exposition scene that lays out all the key players and their place in Prospero’s story still stretches time intermittently and the final release of Ariel feels oddly muted. What she does manage is to bring all the disparate strands together into one cohesive vision and most excitingly bring a real sense of magic to the play while also stripping it back to feel elementally theatrical.

The core creative team of designer Christof Hetzer, lighting designer Jean Kalman, sound designer and composer Mel Mercier, and video designer Torge Møller bring a European aesthetic to its look. A white sterile set that floods with golden light, which is desecrated with mud and liquid, and whose projections at one point provide a jump scare worthy of Blumhouse, it is minimalist in design and maximalist in execution. If you want to see world-class theatremakers engage in fringe theatre methods, this is the show.

Nicholas Woodeson is a mishmash of a Prospero, terrifying as the revenging sorcerer, twisting and turning his puppets, but muted in his forgiveness. He, alongside the rest of the cast, speaks the text beautifully, the metre and iambic observed and riffed, but he is not the dominant figure. Instead, it’s Dickie Beau’s Ariel and Edward Hogg’s Caliban that become the heart of Warner’s vision. Lip syncing performance artist Beau is particularly magical as Ariel, his eyes dead but calibrating his mouth and face so the sprite takes a multitude of voices though his persona remains trapped in the firm grip of his master. We first encounter Hogg’s Caliban flinging faeces at his captors, and it’s a fully committed performance capturing both the wildness of the original native and the voice of the romantic when he feels he may, at last, have some freedom. The sympathies in this production are for those who find their homes invaded and overrun by outsiders.

Tanvi Virmani makes a promising debut as Miranda, her wide-eyed joy at seeing other human life being sweetly matched by Pierro Niel-Mee as a slightly bumbling but endearing Ferdinand. Warner has assembled a veritable smorgasbord of character actors to play the various courtiers and clowns of Milan who find themselves washed ashore. In particular, Finbar Lynch’s inscrutable Antonio and Stephen Kennedy and Gary Sefton’s clownish double act are fascinating mirrors in the minimalist/maximalism framework this show possesses.

It ends with Shakespeare’s goodbye speech extolling the virtues of creating and entertaining an audience. It works almost as well as a statement of intent of what its audience can expect moving forward. The Ustinov, under Warner, may be about to land on another golden period.

The Theatre Week: Jumpers for Goalposts/How My Light Is Spent/Bull/Girl In The Machine

It’s the joy that wins out in the second week of the Directors Festival. It’s to be found in Hull and Newport, five-a-side football teams, and doughnut shops. It’s love and acceptance that shines strongest, delivered with fizzing lines and a filthy cackle.

No one delivers that fuzzy feeling quite like Tom Wells. From Stuff to The Kitchen Sink to his assortment of Lyric Panto’s he knows exactly how to tackle sensitive subjects with an entertainer’s eye. In Jumpers for Goalposts (*****) we follow the five aside team of Barely Athletic across their season in a local gay league. As heavy defeats turn to 1 and then 3 points, we see the quintet come to terms with grief, finding one-twos through a spark, learning to accept each other as teammates, as family. It may be deliberately sentimental with an ending too neat, but like a Richard Curtis flick, though you can see what it’s doing you can’t help but fall for its charms anyway. In Robbie McDonnell’s convincing changing room set, director Becks Granger ekes out every line of comedy, every nuance dug out and sent scuttling into the world. If young, hungry graduates can’t always convey the disappointments and burdens that life can drop on you, they are great companions for an hour. Evie Hargreaves is all brash bluster as team coach Viv kicked out of the lesbian team for her abrasive style and trying to support her brother-in-law through their collective bereavement. As the token ‘straight’ Peter Burley brings dim-witted kindness, Josh Penrose and Ajani Cabey have a touching romance. Yet it’s Max Guest’s Geoff, prone to sleeping with the opposition but always with a smile etched on his face, who lights up the stage with guitar in hand. Whether pinging out the Smiths, Go West, or the Kop anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, the songs match with joyful form and leave its audience rising to its feet.

Jumpers for Goalposts ©Craig Fuller Peter Burley, Josh Penrose, Max Guest, Ajani Cabey, Evie Hargreaves

How My Light is Spent (****) Alan Harris’ Bruntwood prize commended play is clearly a popular choice as a graduating work, it’s the second time I’ve seen it run as part of the director’s festival. That’s not surprising, Harris’ play for a duo but made up of a multitude of voices, has the collage tone of a contemporary Under Milk Wood with a strange, ethereal beauty tucked below its laughs and its struggles. This is a community at sea metaphorically, of young(ish) people lost in towns that time forgot. 34-year-old Jimmy is disappearing, his zero-hour contract at the doughnut shop terminated, his footprint on the world barely sketched in. His only connection holding him to the world is his nine-minute minimum calls with phone-sex worker Kitty, hoping to earn enough money to fund a degree, falling into a relationship with her landlord over snooker. Harris’s play is both a love story and social deconstruction, Anna Sophia-Tutton and Bill Caple astounding as the two lost souls gradually come together, while Tobias Millard’s production hurdles on laughter for the second deserved standing ovation of the day.

How My Light Is Spent ©Craig Fuller Anna-Sophia Tutton & Bill Caple

Mike Bartlett is laying claim to be the most prolific playwright in Britain. His work surprises and surpasses. His form constantly mirrors and challenges the masters. This is why Bull (***) is so surprising in that it doesn’t contain any twist, any third act reversal. Instead in a three-way battle where only two jobs will remain, a ganging up by two to exclude the third just builds and builds until complete annihilation is the only endpoint. Ben Nash’s production kicks off in too high a gear, the early micro-aggressions already containing too much venom, too much sting. Some of the gas is let out long before its climax. Yet Joséphine-Fransilja Brookman and Tom Mordell are viperish as the two antagonists, using privilege and politics to secure their place. In the face of constant sniping; over his suit, over a mark on his face, on his comprehensive education, Tom Atkinson folds. Yet, Bartlett purports, is there something in our culture that demands this blood sport. Patrick McAndrew’s boss is all Alan Sugar wide boy patter, ‘You’re Fired’ reverberating around us, all in the name of entertainment.

Bull ©Craig Fuller Tom Atkinson & Tom Mordell

It can be difficult to fully combine the big idea with an emotional cleft. Stef Smith’s Girl In The Machine (***) is interesting in its exploration of the role of technology in all our lives, but less effective in making us connect with the relationship drama of its central protagonists. Its conclusion is bloody but not teary. Yet who can say they’re comfortable watching a character struggle to switch off from technology, who isn’t worried about how much of us is linked to the online world. Smith’s play is both intimate in form and large in scope. The relationship strains as the wider world burns. It is doing too much in its short, condensed form. Chiara Lari and Joe Edgar are believable as the solicitor and the nurse who begin to view the world from different lenses. Yet in Ellie Jay Stevens’s production, given a sleek futuristic twist by Hugo Dodsworth’s design, it’s Alex Crook’s sinewy, intoxicating voice that turns sci-fi into horror. We’re a long way from Go West here.

Girl In The Machine ©Craig Fuller Alex Crook & Chiara Lari