Trainspotting Live- Loco Club ☆☆☆☆

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Originally published in Bristol Post.

Some seven years, 900 performances and multiple tours that have gone as far afield as Australia and New York, Trainspotting Live is an undoubted theatrical phenomenon. It’s not difficult to understand why, there is still little theatre quite like it; a high-energy, gross-out, audience-interactive work that gives a rush not seen since club nights at 1990’s Astoria.

It’s not for the faint of heart with liberal uses of nudity, bodily fluid being tossed around and actors getting up close and personal but the City of Bristol has taken it to heart- this is the third time the tour has hit the Loco Club underneath Bristol Temple Meads. On this, my second viewing, the strengths and weaknesses of the work come even more to the core.

It’s a work that sticks close to the episodic nature of Irvine Welsh’s novel, scenes bleed from pub to street to flashback with little recourse to narrative clarity, but Greg Esplin and Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s adaptation also celebrates the heritage of Danny Boyle’s iconic British movie, we get in full for example the iconic, ‘Choose Life’ speech as Underworld’s Born Slippy blares around the space. It’s both a help and a hindrance, reminding us that the movie did something truly extraordinary in turning a deliberately messy sprawling tale into something scalpel sharp and artistically rich.

This theatrical version is a work of two halves, the first dirty and flirty, as soiled bed sheets are flung around, audiences chatted up and the iconic toilet scene is played up close and personal, as desperate Renton wades into Edinburgh’s worst toilet liberally splashing the contents around the up-close audience. This is what the audiences have come for, a loaded toilet version of Disney’s Splash Mountain

Its second act moves into darker territory as the grim reality of being addicted to smack comes to the fore. Yet in a work that only lasts 70 minutes we have not had time to connect on a personal level with these characters, to feel their pain or mourn their loss; what should elicit as much response in its audience as flung excrement never quite hits the same spot.

Trimmed down in numbers and tightened since it was last here, its five-strong cast deliver brave in-yer-face performances, but its Andrew Barrett’s Renton who stands out most, bringing boyish charm, so that even as he plunges into the depths of despair, there is still a twinkle that suggests he will manage to get out of this self-inflicted hell-hole

Trainspotting Live is a theatrical experience like little else. It may not hit the heart like it does the gut but most will be far too caught up in the ride to care.

Trainspotting Live plays at the Loco Club until 23 March.

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Noughts and Crosses- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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Originally published in Bristol Post

Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses was something of a sensation when it was first released in 2006, marking the first surge in YA fiction and helping spawn the likes of Twilight and The Hunger Games series. Suddenly books could be sexy for young people, talk in the playground could be about Sephy and Callum’s love affair across the racial divide. Theatre lacks in brilliant work for teenage audiences, so this stage adaptation, adapted by theatre poet Sabrina Mahfouz is needed.

 Yet it’s a work that doesn’t fully justify itself, 400 pages of narrative heavy lifting condensed into 140 minutes of stage time. Incidents come and go, but none of them lands emotionally. It’s all enjoyable enough, without ever getting close to landing the knockout blows of the novel.

Many will already be familiar with the basic killer tenet of Blackman’s scintillating series; imagine if power was held, not by the white population, but by the black, the elite Crosses signified by the wealthy Hadley family stretch across the stage, in sharp suits and striking dresses, while the poor McGregor’s, members of the Noughts are crammed together centre stage, not even being able to buy plasters that match their skin tone. Yet things are beginning to change, Noughts are being admitted to the same schools as Crosses, and there are whispers that some will head on to university.  The relevance to the Civil Rights movement is obvious, Blackman also penned the standout episode of Doctor Who’s latest series, featuring Rosa Parks.

The Romeo and Juliet story is as old as time, and, spoiler alert, tragedy hits its teenage protagonists here. Yet having to tell so much story means we don’t get time to really understand the psyche of the characters, Billy Harris as Callum moves so quickly from idealist teenager to General of the Noughts Liberation army to a self-sacrificing love that an audience can never fully empathise with him. It’s good to see Harris, a theatre school graduate, back in the City, but for all his boyish charm he never quite brings the character fully into view.

That sense of identification instead comes from Heather Agyeong’s Sephy, a character that in her bravery and open-hearted emotion, became an icon to a generation of young readers. Ageyong pitches her just right, a protagonist we can root for as we did Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen.

Esther Richardson’s production for Pilot Theatre is brisk but her staging of key incidents feels more workmanlike than show-stopping. This is left to designer Simon Kenny’s ominous staircase, death an inevitability as soon as characters begin to ascend

It’s solid work and one that hopefully suggests more teenage-focused stories being told in the theatre moving forward.

Noughts and Crosses plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 16 March.

Orca- Weston Studio ☆☆☆☆

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Originally published in Bristol Post.

Matt Grinter’s Orca has already gained plaudits, winning the annual Papatango Prize in 2016 and consequently playing a well-reviewed London run. It’s pleasing to note that the work still stands up on revival, less whimsical than I was expecting and more coilingly intense, a work that bears all the hallmarks of folk horrors like The Wicker Man, right down to its bitingly bleak conclusion.

Set on a remote, rural Cornish fishing village, cut off from the modern world, each year the village crowns A Daughter, a teenage girl who stands in as the girl of local myth, one who was lost to the Orca’s years ago. Yet something does not sit right as the eve of the ceremony grows closer, last year’s Daughter Gretchen is washed up on shore bound and half-drowned, and a previous Daughter, Maggie, is now ostracised. Her Dad can barely look at her, his anger rising every time he sees her that her ‘lies’ have cut the family further away from the community. Meanwhile, younger sister Fran is hoping to emulate her sister and be crowned The Daughter. Time is counting down and the dark reaches of the village start tightening their tendrils.

In the years since Grinter’s work premiered its themes have become ever timelier, with the stories of powerful men getting away with heinous crimes as others choose to blindly look away. Finnbar Hayman’s Joshua feels he has no choice but to ignore his daughter’s claims, aware that to give credence to them would put the rest of them in danger. What he says and what his pained eyes express are two different things, his body coiled in guilt as he tries to will out the truth that is staring him in the face.

As Maggie, Heidi Parson’s brings a blazing conviction to her role of a girl aged before her years because of her experiences and with nowhere to turn. Hard-edged and angry, Parson’s brings enough sense of the girl she was before in her tender interactions with Fran, Rosie Taylor—Ritson who shines with an innocence that you can’t help clinging too.  Sam Henderson’s village Father takes the air out of the room as soon as he enters it, he may overpitch the villainy but he is terrifying in his calm composed demands. Holly Carpenter’s Gretchen breaks in front of our eyes, a girl who plucks the kitchen knife from the table in a bit to cut off terrible memories.

Accents occasionally wander but the intentions are always clearly delineated in Chloe Masterton’s detailed production. Paired in rep with Shirley Mason, another Bristol Open Season winner, it shows that the written word is still alive and well in the South West.

Orca plays in rep at The Weston Studio until the 16 March

Richard III- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

 

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Truly great acting is rare to see on stages these days, the type that elevates good work into a higher form of art. Yet right now at Bristol Old Vic, Tom Mothersdale’s Tricky Dicky, Richard III, is music, verse and sculpture of the highest order. Switching from joviality to death skewing psychotic in one basilisk stare, Mothersdale’s ‘poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ can join Olivier, Sher and McKellen on the Mount Rushmore of truly great Crookbanks.

Mothersdale has been slowly making waves over the past couple of years, a director’s actor who over the past two years alone has found himself working with Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and James Macdonald. Yet here, stepping up into a showpiece role, he graduates from one of our most interesting young actors to the gold standard, one that other actors will worship at the altar of. From our first introduction to him, standing with his back to us, alone, centre stage and gradually curving himself into twisted, deformed shape you can’t take your eyes off him. This version does not begin with the ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech but with Richard assassinating Henry VI in the tower. It reminds us that the play is not a stand-alone piece but a concluding part of a tetralogy, a Game of Thrones box set hundreds of years before that behemoth took hold. It also shows us that this is a Richard as terrifying as any Night King.

What makes Mothersdale’s work so astonishing is its detail of approach and clarity of demonstration. Every line reaches the back of the house, each change of thought and move of intention crystalline clear. He has that uncanny knack, like a Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale, of making the language seem fresh minted, that he is free-forming language as quickly as plans pop into his head.

He juggles both sides of the theatrical mask so well. His is a truly funny Richard, every raised eyebrow or aside raising more hoots than most comedic plays I’ve seen. It’s like if Lee Evans decided one day to murder his way through the House of Windsor and provided stand-up as he ticked his way through. Yet for all the laughs it’s in the death stares that the real man comes out, looking right through a person to his final goal, all collateral damage on the way to the throne.

Once he obtains the crown there is nowhere further to go, a game player who has reached the summit and finds it is lonely at the top. From this point on he turns tragedian, a man destroyed by his Mum, haunted by his victims and left alone on the final battlefield. Caking himself in mud, he fights his final battle with weary resignation that his time has come. A final neck snap is a definitive way to bring his reign of terror to an end. My only slight caveat would be that the rest of the ensemble gets rather lost in Mothersdale’s rear view mirror though Steffan Adegbola’s smooth operator statesman Buckingham has his moments and Heledd Gwynn is as watchable as she was last year in Henry V, though slightly wasted.

Mothersdale reigns supreme then but John Haidar’s smart production isn’t completely overshadowed. Working with designer Chiara Stephenson and lighting designer Elliot Griggs, they have put a wall of mirrors at the back of the stage that reflects twisted Richard back at him every time he turns around. It is little wonder he is so front facing. Played at a brisk pace, each mirror becomes both entrance and exit, a revolving door system that suggests a world changing at an ever-increasing pace, and of an opportunist riding an elevator that shows no sign of slowing. Only in the battle as he tries to escape to the mirrored doors remain resolutely shut. Suddenly Richard can’t move onto his next thing, he has to confront the present, a man always living for the next step suddenly finding there is no place further to go.

Each act of ever-increasing violence is heightened with a jump cut of light and a rumbling sound, be it a heart attack, stabbing or gunshot. The violence is visceral and bloody, in one moment Richard clamps down on Hastings’ neck like Nosferatu smelling blood. The final fight between Richard and Richmond is scrappy and nasty; gouges, headbutts and chocking, two men scrapping for their lives. It’s theatre that is alive and exciting, deliberately messy at times but well-thought through and allows Shakespeare to compete on the same level of any prestige Netflix show. Haidar, in his first big main stage production, has grasped his opportunity with both hands and delivered spectacularly.

Before the show, Tom Morris AD of Bristol Old Vic talked about the challenges regional theatres faced in making work that can become industry talking points. Well, this Richard deserves to be seen far and wide, a night where an actor took a step to becoming a great and a Shakespeare that gives as much bang for your buck as any Marvel movie. Regional theatre is alive and well and Richard III proves it.

Richard III plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 9 March and then returns from the 2-13 April

The Dissociation of Shirley Mason- Weston Studio ☆☆☆☆

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Originally published in Bristol Post.

The Bristol Old Vic Open Session has been running for five years and allows writers from the South West each June to send in scripts unsolicited. From there, five writers are chosen to spend a year working with the literary department. It’s a great scheme, but one that hasn’t, until now, allowed the fruits of their labour to play on the BOV stages. Yet now, working with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School on a New Plays In Rep season, two full works alongside four workshop productions, will showcase some of the best local writing around.

It starts with persuasive conviction with Isabella Culver’s The Dissociation of Shirley Mason, a biographical exploration of a real-life case, in which an American art teacher was diagnosed with 16 different personalities. Culver’s text is a knotty, thoughtful exploration, as told in a controversial 1973 book Sybil and later challenged by a number of experts, worried about discrepancies and certain moral issues in regard to her psychoanalysis Cornelia B. Wilbur.

Were the 16 personalities always inside Shirley, or were they drip fed to her in sessions, a hysteric suffering blackout being given too much amobarbital and suffering the effects as a result? Did the 11 years doctor and patient spend working together help bring her back to one or force her to display all these characteristics in the first place? There are no easy answers and Culver’s writing doesn’t land on either side.

Like a lot of early plays though it is leisurely, urgency lacking until it heads unto climax. Peter Leslie Wild’s production emphasises this, in such a subject it’s wise not to make it sensationalist, but it can sometimes feel more reportage than drama. It’s in its end-game that Culver demonstrates her talent as a dramatist, as analysist is challenged by her profession and then Shirley receives one final sting in the tail.

It’s ten-strong cast become a Greek chorus, staying on the stage, stepping into roles or watching intently from the sideline. Kara Kaucky as Shirley catches the everywoman aspect of one with an astonishing tale to tell, her cheery Christian demeanour at odds with a tale that would change psychiatry. Yet it’s Sophie Walter’s Cornelia who really takes home the plaudits. Dressed in scarlet, she is a woman who knows her worth but struggles to assert in a man’s world. When she gets the case, she can see the possibilities open up, whenever she leaves the space, she grasps the rail as though she is dizzy with what this work could mean.

It makes for a fascinating evening, one that stirs the cerebral more than the gut, but in a work fascinated by the brain, that feels appropriate.

The Dissociation of Shirley Mason plays at the Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic until the 16 March.

No Kids- Spielman Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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Originally published in Bristol Post.

Nir and George are partners, artistically and in real life. Over the past decade they have built up their company Theatre Ad Infinitum to a position of stability and respectability and are now ready to ask one of life’s most pressing questions; is it time to have a baby? Their smart new work, No Kids, takes us on a journey both into the practicalities of raising a child together as a gay couple in 21st century Britain, while delving into the difficulties of creating theatre together when your creative partner doubles as your life partner.

Previous work such as Translunar Paradise and The Odyssey have been highly physical, featuring the impressive LeCoq trained precision of George Mann, under the careful directorial eye of Nir Paldi. This is the first time both have appeared on stage together, and inevitably considering their subject, it becomes their most personal show to date.

It takes the form of a highly theatrical staging of the conversations, R&D and rehearsal room rigmarole that comes with both making a major life decision and creating a new piece of art. Within minutes of entering the rehearsal room, both are rowing about how to proceed and the implications seem clear, the two can’t even work together to decide on what path the work should take, let alone the path to creating a family. Nir is a worrier; what happens if the surrogate changes her mind at the last minute, or if their child violently rebels against having two Dad’s, teenage resentment ending up in the bloodiest conclusion. George is more positive, envisioning a child who grows up achieving whatever he wants in a loving, supportive family environment.

They interrogate their own childhood memories, of coming out and their school days when bullying was rife and contemplate if they can advise and guide a child through their own adolescence. They are left stumped when they have a Skype conversation with a professor that explains that our rapid procreation is depleting the world of its natural resources and if we want to save it everyone needs to consider having one less child than they were planning. Yet if you only were planning for one, minus one leaves you with zero.

The work is at its best when the two let their physicality soar, Mann portraying all the energy of a little boy excitingly telling his Uncle about dinosaurs or Paldi enacting school day beatings. Oa second viewing the work has got tighter, more compact. At an hour it is perfectly paced, a constantly fascinating piece; one that articulates a liberal generation’s worries and desire in creating a familial unit in 21st century Britain.

No Kids plays at Spielman Theatre Tobacco Factory until the 9 March

A Midsummer Night’s Dream- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

 

Photo by Mark Dawson

Originally published in Bristol Post

There is plenty to like in Tobacco Factory Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a brisk, crisp and fully accessible take on the play that should provide perfect introductions to a Shakespeare novice. Played in the round, lovers switch, fairies enchant and a group of workers meet to rehearse a play. It is easy to see why it is Shakespeare’s most popular text, light, dark and magic combine to produce a work that, when it fully fires on all cylinders, has all the hazy feel of a dream.

Director Mike Tweddle, returning after his hugely successful 2018 A View From The Bridge and  Beautiful Thing, has again crafted a well-conceived, thoughtful production. His main innovation is to gender switch two of the lovers, so Lysander is now portrayed by the terrific swaggering Evlyne Oyedokun and Helena has become Helenus and given vivid life by Joseph Tweedale’s, slightly hysteric, oft-abused lover. This works well, making sense in a modern world of why Lysander may be banned by Egeus from marrying his daughter, and ensuring that the forest scenes between the quartet become a sexuality fluid flow through the spectrum.

Yet maybe because this is a version designed to play to a schools crowd, it’s a version that lacks heat. Lovers may change and a Queen may become enamoured of an ass but- bar one oral joke- it feels a little chaste, a world away from the boisterousness of the Elizabethan Globe. In the best versions of the play I’ve seen, the anything-goes nature of the forest contrasts well with the stuffy confines of the court. The forest here isn’t wild enough, more Butlins weekend camp than an Ibiza bender.

There have also been better-spoken versions of the Dream. Some are natural speakers of the iambic, running through the lines and ensuring both rhythm and clarity are hit. Others swallow and garble it, meaning that though it’s played at a constant clip, the works natural rhythm is broken.

Still, there is plenty here to enjoy. Tweddle stages the Mechanicals play with gleeful invention, a love letter to the show must go on, as costumes malfunction and actors improvise frantically. He also turns one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing creations, Hippolyta, (she of 14 lines and usually little agency) into one who gets the final say in the court.

The ensemble, who later will also tackle Our Country’s Good are by and large solid with stand-out work from the already mentioned Tweedale and Oyedokun, while Dan Wheeler makes a touching Flute, discovering his voice while playing in drag and Dannan McAleer brings a solid presence to his multi-rolling

A solidly entertaining Dream then, though not one that particularly pushes out the boat.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre’s until 6 April.