The Theatre Week: WINNERS

WINNERS: Wardrobe Ensemble ☆☆☆☆

The last time I saw The Wardrobe Ensemble it felt like they had hit a crossroad. Reviving their first show Riot for their 10th anniversary a few months after a slightly lacklustre attempt with The Last of The Pelican Daughters to push into more mainstream orbits, it wasn’t clear where the company may go, the burgeoning reputation and talent of the various ensemble members sending them down disparate routes, but potentially taking their focus away from the ensemble. Well, an 18-month COVID enforced break has allowed them to reinvent themselves, and it’s their best look yet, the crusader of the independent South West theatre scene.

Theatre On The Downs, the festival they have launched with support from the cultural grant, is magical. It brings the bohemia of Latitude and the adventure of Edinburgh and plonks it down into a pop-up tent at the bottom of Clifton Down. Until the end of September, the blue tent will see a mix of family shows during the day and a cacophony of shows in the evening, featuring the likes of FullRogue, Living Spit, and Action Hero, plus an open commissioned show yet to be announced and due to play a week’s run in some format at the end of September. It’s a massive statement from the Ensemble and one that should be applauded from the rafters.

Opening the space with their brand-new work WINNERS, is also a smart move, allowing the space to generate a buzz from the off. Taking aim at capitalism, over 90 minutes it rushes through the history of man, big ideas and systems designed to make the ‘special ones’ rich at the expense of all others and the good of the world at large. Sketch like in format, it’s fun and has some sharp points to make, if, almost inevitably in this format, occasionally missing its target. It’s never less than entertaining, but it can never quite hit the mountains of the one-two punch of 1972: The Future of Sex and Education, Education, Education that propelled them into the elite bracket.

Ruby Spencer-Pugh’s bright Americana diner is symbolic of the American dream, the mantra that anyone with an idea and a work ethic can make it. From the carvings of a hierarchical society in the Stone age, through feudalism, the Elizabethan explorers, Victorian factories, Marx, Elvis, and the fast-food empires, it whizzes through time and ideas at ever dizzying speed, narrated by an over-caffeinated Mr. Winner, brought to slightly unhinged life by Tom England. Over the years, England has emerged as an ever-impressive versatile character actor, but he’s never been better than he is here, his eyes popping wildly, a grin stuck and stretched across his face like a Messina painting, his body in perpetual motion, his voice cracking into shrill pitch as his ideas grow ever larger. The dreamer is sent mad by power and money, spiralling as bigger, better, faster demands come from above, descending into terrifying grandeur, a human representation of the cost to all of capitalism’s razor grip.

 Hanora Kamen’s lusty Elizabeth I is another highlight in a show that ends on a brutal full stop. Humankind is fucked. Yet perhaps, if we believe as the company does that most people are decent, not dickheads, it’s not too late to change. Perhaps we can kill the idea of capitalism, though whether as brutally as here is never fully explored or explained, it’s perhaps a slightly hedged ending, its nihilistic comma slightly ill at ease with the entertainment that has come before and so this full stop required. But decency feels at the heart of the ethos of the ensemble and so the benefit of the doubt can be granted.

It’s a sparkling enterprise and a rip-roaringly entertaining first show back. The second decade for a Bristol success story will surely flourish. And it’s worth a trip over to the Downs to support in the next month.

Winners plays at Theatre on the Downs until the 28th August and the festival continues until the 2nd October.

The Theatre Week: The Three Seagulls

The Three Seagulls: Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

Amelia Paltridge (Nina) © Craig Fuller

Is there a better choice for a grad show than Chekhov’s The Seagull? An exploration of what it means to be a young theatrical artist, where idealism is quashed against the reality of an industry that chews and spits out most who dare enter it. It’s in the pantheon of great plays, unimpeachable in its mix of narrative drive, philosophical exploration, and memorable characters. Like Shakespeare, there is a reason why the Russian tragi-comedist cum doctor is rarely off our stages. It’s probably the play that comes with me on the desert island.

It’s arguably too perfect for a theatrical deconstruction to reveal more layers to it and that is the fate that befalls Sally Cookson’s version, fascinating though it proves over its 105 minutes runtime. The Three Seagulls takes on a trio of adaptions; from Christopher Hampton, Anya Reiss, and Aaron Posner and features a trio of actors tackling the younger roles (Konstantin, Nina, and Masha) which just about works, though it doesn’t cohere logically when it also casts two Trigorins, for no other reason it appears than casting opportunities. There is a sense of a large-scale first-year text project hanging over the evening, though given a sheen by Cookson whose productions are always inventive and theatrically surprising.  

It’s a work of moments which is the fate of many deconstructions; some technically excellent lip-synching, some dodgy Dad dancing, three cabaret chanteuses’ crooning an introduction, a moving finale in which the grads look at what comes next and an astonishing monologue from Dewi Wykes that doesn’t just push through the fourth wall but takes a sledgehammer to it and smashes right through. It reminded me a little of Pride and Prejudice *sort of, but where that play used its theatrical audaciousness to reframe the story, here the device’s get in the way of theatrical perfection more than it does illuminate the core elements of the story.

Emma Hadley Leonard (Masha), Jake Kenny-Byrne (Konstantin) and Lionelle Nsarhaza (Masha)

As always with Chekhov, it works best when it rides the wave of the psychological truth of the text. The confrontation between Mum and son, the seduction of an innocent by a bored writer, the final painful meeting between old lovers, each of these moments are mini-arias of love and pain dashed off in miniature. These are the moments when fireworks truly happen.

 The class of 2021 contains a range of strong performers, that fingers firmly crossed, make an impression, on this industry over the next few years. Having only been allowed to witness their work from a laptop screen this year, it is a relief to report that they can expand their performances out to fill the theatre with as much confidence as they can play to the camera. If I was to predict one name to look out for this graduating year it is Tessa Wong, who stole the work in cameo form during Hedda, but here runs away with the evening as Arkadinia, balancing the ridiculous Ab Fab caricature of the fading leading dame, with the emotional fear of the women being left behind in a world she doesn’t fully understand and no longer notices her. Across a couple of shows, I haven’t seen Wong hit a false note, there is a level of emotional truthfulness that shines on camera or in the auditorium. The hulking Theo Spofforth, the boyish Wykes, Emma Hadley-Leonard, and Lionelle Nsarhaza are other names to watch out from, though it’s a strong year all around.

There is always a boldness to the last show that BOVTS produces, a level of professionalism that means that they can lure theatre critics down from London and kickstart their careers. All the cheers then for a 5-star Telegraph review. It may not quite hit that level for me, a rung or two behind Nicholas Nickleby or King Lear, but after the slings and arrows they have received during their training, a fitting send-off, one that should be applauded from the rafters.

The Theatre Week: Copenhagen

Haydn Gwynne and Malcolm Sinclair
Haydn Gwynne and Malcolm Sinclair
© Nobby Clark

Copenhagen: Bath Theatre Royal ☆☆☆☆

Inevitably perhaps in such uncertain times, the return of theatre has felt tentative. There has been a heart-warming rush to be back sharing space with actors and audience alike, but intellectually at least, little has stretched. So, it’s a joy to report that Michael Frayn’s 1998, knotty, thorny masterpiece Copenhagen has finally landed in Bath. This alone deserves our plaudits. Originally programmed for the theatre’s return last Autumn, in a production directed by Polly Findlay, a new lockdown was announced while the show was still in tech, the show getting only as far as a dress rehearsal before being put back into storage, returning with assistant Emma Howlett having now taken over the mantle of steering the ship.

This turnover appears to have done no harm to the production, which confirms the work as one of the great late 20th Century plays, and provides platforms for some excellent performances, in particular from Haydn Gwynne and Malcolm Sinclair as Margrethe and Niels Bohr, a Danish scientist and his wife, who received an officially documented visit from former protégé Werner Heisenberg (Philip Arditti) in 1941 in Copenhagen.

What exactly was discussed at this meeting in which a fracture between the relationship seems to have occurred, has always been clouded in mystery and is at the heart of Frayn’s text. Heisenberg, the bright young thing of scientific discovery, the pioneer of the uncertainty theory, and at the heart of Nazi Germany’s nuclear programme, never created an atomic bomb for the Nazis. Was this a heroic attempt to bluff a dangerous paymaster to save the catastrophic destruction of many? Or a fateful misjudgement in his calculations that meant he had decided it was all but impossible? There is a Brechtian spin on a work that posits that the Allie Bohr was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima, having assisted the allies in supporting the creation of the bomb, while the Nazi working Heisenberg was not responsible for a single death. What could have become a dry thesis play, has knotty propositions like this all night.

Frayn’s play spins it into ever-increasing expressionistic circles. The three characters are reunited in the afterlife, to replay, rethink and re-explore that fateful evening in 1941. When the characters want to view the incident again from another angle, a different viewpoint, they ask for a ‘different draft’. Findlay and Howlett’s production, finds something of this spiritual outpost where time and place don’t exist, in some neat stage pictures, the characters debating in triangles in Alex Eales, stripped back set, the theatre’s back walls exposed in another Brechtian nod.

Sinclair is all fatherly kindness, a constant hand going to the back of his young protégé, as a decent man-made to reckon with his life hand, not only in his contribution to a weapon that ended a war but to the death of his son in a drowning incident. You feel the symbiotic importance of the relationship with his young German colleague, to who Arditti invests a nervous energy, ideas spilling out of him at a pace almost too quick for him to comprehend. Gwynne meanwhile is impervious- she is a magnificent stage creature- constantly blocked to be at the base of the debate, but gradually taking on its moral centre. All decisions are personal she exclaims, getting to the heart of Frayn’s work, that takes on big questions of science and finds an intimate touch. It’s a night where concentration is imperative, but one where you leave the theatre with mind racing at the ideas and debates and with a stronger sense that finally, theatre, in all its knotty complexities is back.

The Theatre Week: Four Quartets

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets
Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets
© Matt Humphrey

Four Quartets: Bath Theatre Royal ☆☆☆

Mid last year producer David Pugh tweeted out that one good way of ensuring regional theatres survived the pandemic was for star actors to commit to touring the regions. It appears that Ralph Fiennes heeded the memo, it’s been a long while since an actor of his ilk has taken to the road, opening his one-man recital of TS Elliot’s Four Quartets in Bath before touring the country. It is undeniably a good thing for the regions which have taken a battering and one worth getting to, especially if you can obtain a seat up close.

What makes the evening worthwhile is being able to see his virtuosity up close. Every atom in his DNA seems finely calibrated towards delivering consistently excellent performance. The eyes, slightly watery as though fountains of tears could be expelled at any moment, a glint of roguish charm or danger; his body, physically expressive and limber (you understand why he made a film about Nureyev); that voice, every vowel and consonant hitting right to the back of the upper circle. Any one-person work performed on a big stage instead of a studio space is an exercise in technical accomplishment. Fiennes, who also directs himself, trusts in his tools and the text to do the work for him. His movement is precise and considered, he is prepared to use stillness to hone the focus. There is a transfixing quality to the night, and it is coming from his centre. In this contemporary age, the cult of the great stage actor has mostly been eradicated, watching Fiennes on stage feels akin to what it must have been like to watch Olivier or Maggie Smith in their prime.

Which is just as well as I’m not sure I can count Four Quartets as successful drama in its own right. Elliot’s – whose own plays, Murder At The Cathedral and The Cocktail Party have mostly disappeared from our stages – 1943 quartet of long poems, four meditations on man’s relationship to time, the universe and the divine, are many things, but works of theatre they are not. Astonishing from a literary point of view, blending both Western Catholicism and Eastern mysticism, with a sense of great anger and despair of the war tearing the World apart in Little Gidding, they lack a sense of conflict, the key to all theatre. Fiennes works hard to try to find this within and succeeds to a certain extent, but as the evening wears on, there was a sense of the words and rhythms rolling over its audience, I noticed heads drooping onto chests rather than leaning forward in anticipation. Even at a shade under 80 minutes, it begins to feel a slog.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set of wooden table, chair, old radio mic, and three towering blocks at the back of the stage, rotated between each poem to show perhaps the continuous spinning of time, allows Fiennes the chance to delineate the shifts in action. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin takes us from the shade of light that represents the era, to the blazing fire of damnation, while Christopher Shutt’s particularly effective sound design brings a modern edge to what can at times feel like an old-fashioned evening.

It’s a weird night. One to say you have been as close to greatness as you can in a forgettable platform. An extra star for the enterprise though. Fiennes’ audience won’t be disappointed.

The Theatre Week: Touching The Void

Touching The Void: Bristol Old Vic, ☆☆☆☆☆

Leave it to Tom Morris and the ever-enterprising Bristol Old Vic to return with a bang. Opening up again after 14 months (with a very short Christmas season derailed before it had even warmed up) its first show feels like a real statement of intent. Financially things may have been changed, things are certainly going to be tighter for a while, but the policy of continual discovery as to what theatre can achieve is going nowhere under the Morris fiefdom.

For make no mistake, David Grieg’s adaptation of Joe Simpson’s astonishing memoir Touching The Void, adapted into a BAFTA award-winning documentary film by Kevin Macdonald feels like it should be unstageable. How, for instance, do you stage Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates, tackling the Western face of Siula Grande, the 20,814-foot mountain at the heart of the Peruvian Andes? How do you convey the horror of Simpson dangling over a crevice, snow-storm biting leaving Yates with the impossible decision of whether to cut the rope and send his partner into the abyss or die along with him? How to convey a heroic battle for survival as Simpson crawls- shattered leg, frostbitten, starving, dehydrated- back to base camp? Most would have probably slammed the book closed on the first page. Yet isn’t there a saying about you should only commit to an artistic project if it scares you.

May be an image of outdoors

I think on a first watch I was slightly blasé about Grieg’s treatment of the memoir. It felt like a clever technical exercise, how do you find a framework to tell this story, rather than a fully realised emotional drama. Mea culpa, the text may be the work’s biggest strength. Grieg has framed the play around Joe’s (false) mountainside hallucination, showing his sister attending his wake in some depressing highland pub and learning the tragedy that befell him. Sarah, given a terrific ballsy performance by Fiona Hampton, becomes our and Joe’s guide, learning about the thrill of climbing, discovering the truth of the disaster, and finally cajoling, urging, and bullying her brother, inch by painful inch to his survival. In real life, she wasn’t even aware of the incident until weeks later, but here she becomes the play’s centre. It’s a brilliant way of reframing the narrative and bringing the strands together. For early on there is a lot of narrative lifting that Grieg’s text has to make, a definite no-no in the ‘how to’ playbook, and yet as if by magic, by the second half it has emotionally invested its audience to the character fate and its last moments provide a real sense of catharsis.

Morris uses a career of utilising the imaginative qualities of the stage to turn the impossible into a reality. Ti Green’s paper-mache, climbing frame representation of a mountain, lit exquisitely by Chris Davey so the shadows loom threateningly across the stage, still feels oppressive, even on a TV, helped by Jon Nicholls all-encompassing sound design help convey the scale and the impossibility of the situation these climbers find themselves in. The moment when the cracking of bone is conveyed by an axe going through a chair is particularly flinch-inducing.

Joe Williams- who along with Hampton and Patrick McNamee’s comic third man Simon, providing meta-theatrical one-liners and some sweetly sung folk, has been with it since the beginning- and Angus Yellowlees, are earning their salaries and then some, crawling and clambering around the set as their expedition goes further and further south. Williams especially feels like he is committing to a marathon each performance.  Yet for all the technical inventiveness of the Andes scenes, the thrilling moment of the evening is when a DIY lesson in the thrill of climbing takes place in the pub, as tables and theatre boxes are used in a hair-on arms rising moment.

Before the curtain raised, director Morris bounced onto the stage, his trademark silk scarf swooshing behind him to welcome its audience back, both in the auditorium of their King Street home and the hundreds and thousands watching from around the world. A promise within that live streaming will become a new normal. Great news for improving accessibility; if nothing can quite match the joy of being there, this version of Touching The Void, shows that a stream is a more than worthy alternative.

The Theatre Week: BOVTS Directors Playground

I Hate Alone ☆☆☆☆

Silk Road: How To Buy Drugs Online ☆☆☆☆

Chef ☆☆☆

Katie Johnstone ☆☆☆

Toy Plastic Chicken ☆☆☆

Kyoto ☆☆☆

In a year where we have been starved of theatre, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools Director’s Playground season, streamed into our homes just before lockdown restrictions ease, offers a full-on banquet to whet the whistle before theatres reopen for in-person work. For three nights live, six one-act plays, produced by six MA directing & designer students, performed by a mixture of acting students across the school tackled work ranging from authoritarian farce to angry punk protest. With Edinburgh looking less likely for tourists this year, Bristol produced its own fever-pitched fringe.

Slightly rejigged from previous years there are overarching themes across the works that give a sense of the themes and preoccupations that have been prevalent in the indy new writing scene over the past few years. The works are mostly angry with a Northern tint; a strong sense of communities seeing their futures washed aside by austerity with a metropolitan elite turning a blind eye. Women are at the forefront, standing centre and screaming to be heard and for change. Like in festival season, each work stands independently and in conversation with each other. Like at the fringe this both magnifies the strengths; a flourishing of new talent with something important to say, an interrogation of theatrical form; and weaknesses- a structure that sometimes shrinks rather than enlarges the bigger political argument as the canvas never broadens out.

The work that sang most to me, quite literally, was I Hate Alone by Ellie Brammar, originally seen in a Middle Child Theatre production and now revived by associate writer of the company Jessy Roberts. Gig confessional plays have been a part of the theatrical DNA since David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, the journey of a setlist aligning perfectly with the drip-feed of information that theatre requires. Danielle (Evie Hargreaves) and Chloe (Rebecca Hyde) have been friends since early childhood. Their connection is the only grounding thing in their lives, helping them both to dream beyond the hardships of the lives they find themselves in but also suffocating and stifling. Their dependency upon each other could lead to a form of salvation but it could also lead to destruction as they push further and further away from ‘normal’ society. Setting off to take revenge on anyone they feel has wronged them, the two deliver some cracking tunes while exonerating in bodily release and engaging in a spot of corpse kidnapping. Roberts cracking production, helped by performances in equal part angry and sympathetic, flies past, though the distancing of watching on a laptop blocks the sense of danger you feel it could possess if experience in person.

I Hate Alone by Ellie Brammar: Danielle (Evie Hargreaves) & Chloe (Rebecca Hyde) © Craig Fuller

The other big discovery for me was Alex Oates’ Silk Road (How To Buy Drugs Online). Propelled by a wonderful solo performance by 2021 grad Dewi Wykes, Oates’s play is an exploration of the murky world of online drug selling. Bruce is a go-nowhere teen from the North East, pining for a schooldays romance with a girl who has outgrown him and living at home with his no-nonsense Nan. Until one day he finds a way to make something of his life, smuggling cocaine out of tea cosies and using Royal Mail to send his packages out across the UK. Best known as a television writer, Oates’s piece has a thriller-like momentum as Bruce finds himself tumbling further into the underworld and a revenge coda that would give a satisfying ‘thunk’ if Netflix ever decides to make it a new original. Mixed in with this are the quirks that only seem to make sense in the theatre, the amateur theatre-loving bouncer whose Curly was a revelation, the MJ loving Gangland Kingpin, the raucous matriarch whose Bruce’s only constant. Rachael Walsh’s production allows Wykes to sketch in each of these characters and add heart to them giving them a life beyond caricature. Paced with a hand firmly on the tiller, her production builds and builds to something like an operatic aria as the flame is lit.

Silk Road by Alex Oates: Bruce (Dewi Wykes) © Craig Fuller

If nothing else gripped me as much as these two works, each of the other works were still worth more than a cursory glance. The last time I saw Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef, I was at Latitude and Jade Anouka’s performance was treated with the same kind of ecstasy that headliner Noel Gallagher received on the Obelisk. Consequently, Ruby Ward’s performance feels sadder and more muted, but also feels appropriate to a piece in which dreams of yellowfish sashimi and Michelin stars clash against the reality of life outside of the kitchen. On Maria Terry’s detailed chef table, Ward talks us through both her hopes and the crushing reality of not being able to escape her past. Imy Wyatt Corner’s production shrinks in on itself as surely as the prospects of its protagonist. Also trying to push away from her past is Katie Johnstone, the young girl with dreams of Luke Barnes’ play of the same name. Blessed with strong performances from two of this year’s stand out graduates, Amelia Paltridge as the girl with dreams bigger than Tesco and Emma Hadley-Leonard multi-rolling as her Mum and best friend, Frazer Meakin’s production allows us to will Paltridge’s Katie to success but can’t quite transmit the energy that seems so palpable in the theatre through to our living rooms. Consequently, it feels 20 minutes too long.

Johnstone would not be seen dead working in an airport baggage check like Ross (Max Guest) and Emma (Katie Dorman) do, whiling away their tedium with just a hint of will they, won’t they chemistry. When Yazmin Kayani’s passenger Rachel, looking forward to a holiday in Turkey, toy chicken is mistaken for a bomb, writer Uma Nada-Rajah’s Toy Plastic Chicken begins to fly. With hints of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist, this play gives heart to its bureaucratic security guards, showing how even decent people can behave like fascists when box-ticking exercises take on a more sinister reality. William Byam Shaw’s production is best in the easy-going chemistry between Guest and Dorman and in a devastating late scene when the violation of a full-body search is made explicitly clear.

Kyoto by David Grieg: Lucy (Eliza Smith) and Dan (Michael Drake) © Craig Fuller

David Grieg’s Kyoto is a funny beast. It’s a work fully in miniature, beautifully written, beautifully directed by Hope Thain, and beautifully played by Michael Drake and Eliza Smith, in Cat Fuller’s pitch-perfect anonymous hotel room. But like a small dish, however well cooked and marinated, it still leaves you with a sense of wanting more across its 35-minute running time. It’s not the actors’ fault that they physically can’t quite represent the sense of their past being more golden than their futures as they ruminate over paths not taken, but they both go hell for leather in the climate debate that hots up as the affair cools down which only feels more prescient 12 years after its premiere. The joy of seeing it in such a concentrated period with five other works is that I can be thankful I had the opportunity to catch it, while not feeling short-changed. As usual with the Director’s season, the whole is almost always richer than the individual components. I already am looking forward to catching next years in person.

The Theatre Week: Best of BE Festival; Sherlock In Holmes 2: Murder On The Ice

During lockdown 3 and with live in-person events still a few months off, it appears the online theatrical experience has broadened out into three strands. There are the streams (both archived and live), the made for zoom and there is the interactive. Over the past year, I’ve seen countless works across the triptych. Streams are functional but by-and-large a little dry (the live ones at least have the frisson of things potentially going wrong); recorded zoom works have just made me wish I was bingeing another Married At First Sight: Australia, and so it has been left to the interactive pieces to provide the highlights of my starved theatrical diet.

Francesc Serra Villa Recall

So it’s no surprise that it’s an interactive piece that provides the highlight of the Virtual Best Of BE Festival 2021 online tour, that last weekend came to the SW in partnership with Tobacco Factory Theatre and Circomedia. Francesc Serra Vila’s Recall (☆☆☆☆) was a 15-minute one-on-one experience that connected the performer to his audience and then stretches its gaze to a wider community. In a lockdown where isolation feels more pertinent than ever, where even friends have started to appear like strangers, there was something poetic in sharing memories and dreams with a stranger and listening to fragments of life from another, a person that we will never know but been privy to their thoughts and dreams. Vila’s face is never seen, just his gloved hands and warm Spanish tone, a home-made space becoming a memory bank. He asks us to talk for four minutes about our day yesterday, our initial awkwardness (because who has enough content right now to fill four uninterrupted minutes) bleeding into something deeper. Like therapy, as we talk, description turns to thought turns to feeling. This uninterrupted stream of consciousness becomes fragments cut out, to be shared with another. I came out feeling as though I’d had a cathartic experience.

If the second in the double bill Shen Shui (☆☆☆) brought by Edurne Rubio and Maria Jerez can’t quite scale the heights of Recall, it is because it’s offering a passive experience. Using everyday objects from home to paint a landscape without paintings, it brings the sound of nature into the confines of home. It plays more art installation than theatre, and though technically highly impressive, it immersed me while failing to move me. Peter Brook talks about all you need to make Theatre is one actor, one spectator and a shared space. Digital has allowed that space to increase in distance but the transaction between the actor and the spectator still must happen. If the work occurs without the audience shaping it in some way than it lacks the vitalness that makes theatre such a powerful art form. Rubio and Jerez were exploring these ideas as a theatrical piece before translating the commission for digital and I hope to see it in person one day, maybe during the Festival 22 tour.

Not a formal review as I caught it in a dress rehearsal but Sharp Teeth theatre company has had a hit over the past few months with its version of Sherlock In Holmes: Murder At The Circus (playing until the end of March). Like all smashes, it now has a sequel Sherlock In Holmes 2: Murder On Ice. A highly interactive, cracking couple of hours with brilliant improvisers gently pushing its audiences into the right areas to feel like we do deserve to wear a deer-stalker and puff on a pipe. I’ve not had a more enjoyable theatrical experience since lockdown.

Best of BE Festival

Sherlock in Holmes: Murder At The Circus:

The Theatre Week: The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up; Far From The Madding Crowd

Roustabout Theatre’s The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up

So just like that, the theatres shut again. In many ways lockdown 3 feels the toughest one for our industry yet, all the hard work done by the theatre community up and down the country obliterated in another government briefing. Just before Christmas I was lucky to get to Bristol Old Vic to see Living Spit’s Beauty and The Beast in person and wasn’t surprised to see it purr with more energy from the King’s Street venue, hearing an audience’s laughter float around the auditorium as one, rather than the lonely emptiness of the sound when uttered singularly makes a huge difference when encountering comedy. Who knew…?

 First the tiers on the 26th, then the shutdown barely a week later; it feels inevitable now that we are looking at months until audiences will be gracing an auditorium again, even with stringent social distancing measures in place. So, for the foreseeable there appear to be two types of theatre audiences can access for their theatrical fixes. The empty auditorium Livestream or the interactivity of a zoom. Both have their positives, and both have their negatives. Both are no substitute for the real thing. Yet you can only doff your cap at any theatrical artist, company or building currently making work regardless.

 Take Roustabout Theatre’s, The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up played live via zoom from the Wardrobe Theatre over the Christmas period (the one live in-person show scheduled was cancelled before they got an audience in). If losing most of the Christmas theatrical season means the heartbreak of a generation of young people not being introduced to their first taste of theatre, this Zoom provided a welcome tonic. Things feel much better when you can see the delighted faces of its young audience, eagerly putting in suggestions when asked; pushing their cherubic features up close to their webcams as if by doing so would allow them to be sucked into the story playing on the screen., Hopefully, these memories are for life, not just for the festive period.

Improvised theatre can be a danger, ideal for tapping into the creative spirit of any potential drama student, liable to fall off a cliff and into self-indulgence if not carefully charted in the live form. Yet the team of Robin Hemmings, Toby Hulse and Shaelee Rooke are vastly experienced at taking the unexpected (here including ninjas, a cowboy stealing the North Pole and a cameo from Rudolph) and making some form of coherence from it. The fun is in seeing how they will get out of ever convoluted plot twist they get themselves into and the trio is witty and inventive enough to respond to most with verve and likeable enough to be forgiven for any plot point that doesn’t get a satisfactory full stop.

Will Monks video design smartly uses the audiences own hand-drawn pictures as the set design and flips the screen upside down when the dastardly plot to switch the North and South Pole takes hold. Each show is significantly different, that is part of its appeal, but this hour-long show is smart and engaging enough to hold any youngsters attention.

Opening some six months later than planned Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools version of Far From The Madding Crowd, originally slated to be the second year touring show, was instead live-streamed from the Redgrave Theatre at the beginning of December. Internet issues led to me catching it later on Bristol Old Vic’s very well done on-demand service, with the ability to pause, rewind and go back. Does theatre miss out on something when the audience knows it has this luxury? Is part of the contract around the theatre that for the few hours playing on the stage, both the actors and the audience are giving each other their full attention and without this, is it theatre at all? Theatre has an even more challenging time ahead of it, trying to keep its audiences focus when they’re watching from their office/home/bed.

Jake Kenny-Byrne (Gabriel Oak) and Amelia Paltridge (Bathsheba Everdene) in BOVTS Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

I suspect Paul Chesterton’s originally conceived production would have felt more epic, utilising the entire year group instead of the eight seen in this version. Thomas Hardy’s original novel thrums with a sense of community, this version understandably lacks that, it’s hard-working cast multi-rolling well but sometimes feeling swallowed up on the vast expanses of the Redgrave stage. Adaptor Mark Healy’s version, originally commissioned by English Touring Theatre, tightens the original novel down to the personal rather than the societal, with its focus on its protagonist, the pioneering farm owner Bathsheba Everdene and the three men (the older bachelor, the rake, the childhood friend who inevitably is right for her) who vie for her hand. Admittedly, with the twists and turns of the great 19th century novels, without the social context the novel allows, this does carry the danger of turning everything soapy, Emmerdale farm plonked into the West Country, but Chesterton’s production has enough lyricism to overcome this.

Drama school works are a chance to test and stretch the young students about to enter the industry and it’s to the school’s credit that most of the time the casting choices fit their students like a glove. Here, however, there is a sense of some miscasting and consequently a display of uncomfortableness in some of the performances. Amelie Paltridge is excellent in the leading role though, carefully plotting Bathsheba’s arc and complexities in a way that can be tricky when transferring this heroine from novel to play. She is ably supported by Jake Kenny-Byrne’s Gabriel Oak, who may look more Byronic poet than simple farmhand, but gives a good account of Mr Right, consistently waiting in the wings, ever-supportive to eventually win his true love’s heart. There is top-notch work also from Theo Spofforth as a burly, jovial farmhand whose tender vocals provide a production highlight and Katie Dorman as the naïve and tragic Fanny Robin, jilted and then outcast.

The company of Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

At close to three hours, it asks a lot of its audience and its cast to hold a live stream. However, in a year when so much has been scuppered, it’s worth celebrating the show must go on mentality that allowed the piece to finally get an airing in the annus horriblis that was 2020. Buckle up folks, online is here to stay for a while yet.

The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up: Wardrobe Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆☆

Far From The Madding Crowd: Redgrave Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆

The Theatre Week: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas; Beauty and The Beast; Bea and the Winter Winds

As London shuts down, a small blossoming of light for the South West theatre scene. If Christmas is not the same as usual, both in a societal or in a theatrical sense, there is still work out there to charm young and old alike this festive season.

Marcus Hendry (Father Christmas) in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas

 By far the strongest is Lyric Hammersmith and Pins and Needles streamed production of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas (****), presented in digital partnership with Tobacco Factory Theatres. Bristol’s Pins and Needles have been responsible for the beautifully crafted, original egg Christmas shows over the past few years (The Little MermaidThe Scarlett Pimpernel), and their take on  Briggs 1973 picture book is a delightful warm Christmas treat. Taking place over Christmas eve, Noel and Boxing day, we watch as Saint Nick; prepares for, executes and then recovers from his round the world, big present giveaway. Marcus Hendry is a grouchy delight as Santa, good-heartedly mumbling complaint and ailment as he goes about his duties Zoe Squire’s beautifully versatile set takes us from outside privy to reindeer stable to, well, the whole world while Stacey Ghent provides lush melodies and some cheeky foley artistry on a platform above. Emma Earle’s production balances the sweet and the wondrous, the innocence with a little bit of toilet humour designed to get all the family from Granny to Danny grinning ear to ear. In a curtailed year, there has not been a more magical stage moment then when Father Christmas fires up his sleigh and begins his magical festive journey. Highly recommended.

Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin in Beauty and The Beast

All cheers for Bristol Old Vic and Living Spit who held their nerve and were rewarded with a first live in-person audience since second lockdown yesterday evening. The night before saw them premiere their new show on the Bristol Old Vic streaming platform, Beauty and The Beast (***). For fans of the Living Spit boys, you know exactly what to expect, some well-calibrated silliness that promises nothing but a bloody good night out and some cracking original ditties. Both are on full display here, as Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin tackle the entire piece over 105 slapstick filled minutes that sticks closer to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original fairy-tale than the Disney corporations animated and live-action remake, even if talking household utensils still play their part. There are some lovely elements within Craig Edwards’ pun-filled production, the boys puffing on pipes to provide some metatextual analysis resembling the master of Hitchcock Presents, the deftly handled silly but surprisingly sweet falling in love montage, the charming text exchange replete with lols and emojis as they realise their feelings for each other. Perhaps there is a sense of knowing what you’re getting with a Living Spit show, a sense of not being surprised or as dazzled by anything as you are with the first encounter. Yet in 2020 of all years, isn’t there something reassuring about falling into the embrace of something that will cheer you up and get you chuckling warmly for a few hours. 

Bea and the Winter Winds

 The lovely market town of Frome already has one great company residing within it in Mark Bruce Company whose latest work Return To Heaven, dense in terrifying imagery could not even begin to replicate the horrors we’ve all faced this year when it played back in January. There may be a second in the years to come if the promise of Black Hound Productions Bea and the Winter Winds (***) comes to play out. This painfully young, vigorous and daring company would deserve plaudits simply for having made work this festive season for a live audience against the odds. The fact that it’s so theatrically sophisticated as well, demonstrates nous beyond their years and meant plenty of beaming faces behind the masks of the Merlin’s first live crowd in months. An original take on a Bulgarian folktale that follows a traditional classical structure, young Bea must head off on a journey to stop villainous Jack Frost from casting a permanent winter over the world. On the way she is helped along by new-found friends, learning life lessons before good overcomes evil and the world is set to right. Co-writers Patrick Withey and Benjamin Hardy-Phillips script structurally needs a little bit of work, folding into tangents that drift or rushing through narrative plot too quickly, but apart from that, there is joy aplenty to latch onto. Hardy-Phillips compositions are proper little earworms, given full value by the talented performance team, while Withey’s set design, replete with striking tree and multiple levels allows the production to move from location to location swiftly. Both are also strong performers, Hardy-Phillips proving strong of voice as the troubadour ailing brother that Bea must try to protect, Withey as the kilt-wearing Scottish trilling Alistair McNutty that helps Bea on her quest. Anabella Fairgreave is a convincing heroine while joining late to the cast Tiffany Rhodes is also an energetic delight. Keep an eye on these names and what comes next.

Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas plays until the 24 December online.

Beauty and The Beast plays at BOV until the 9 January.

Bea and The Winter Winds played at the Merlin Theatre until 19 December

Oleanna- Ustinov Studio ☆☆

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Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) in Oleanna ©Nobby Clark

David Mamet. If one name is bound to draw critical theatrical sniping in 2020 it’s the Chicago polymath whose last London premiere united almost all critics in declaring it the absolute pits of 2019. In the current political and cultural climate, Mamet, the writer of such masterpieces as The UntouchablesAmerican Buffalo and one of the great acting books True and False feels out of place and if a certain subsection of Twitter is to be believed, cancelled. TRB’s production of his 1993 two-hander Oleanna, demonstrates the two sides to his art; both the master craftsman who can glue his audience to their seats with the blazing intensity of dialogue and the twists and turns of the narrative and the slightly thornier side to his politics, which feels at times like the privileged gatekeeper screaming out at the persecution of his kind.

For make no mistake, Oleanna does not stack its deck equally for both its gladiatorial combatants. Soon to be tenured English professor John may be slightly smug, a little too glib in his ascertains that higher education may be little more than performance but there is little doubt that Mamet views him as his tragic hero, brought down by a consoling hand on the shoulder, sticking to his ideals in the face of downfall, a slightly less butch version of Miller’s John Procter. It’s not that he’s written or played heroically, Mamet is too smart a writer for that (or at least was during the early ’90s before all subtlety went out the window) and Jonathan Slinger demonstrates that there is something uncomfortable and unknowable about a professor slipping into supine on the sofa as he invites his female student to weekly 1 to 1’s and pushes his intellectual superiority in between phone calls that show all the trappings of mid-career success. It’s more the fact that Rosie Sheehy’s struggling student Carol feels like an avenging beta, overthrowing the alpha using base emotion rather than the idealised mind. There is something of the stereotype to both of them.

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Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) in Oleanna ©Nobby Clark

For the play to truly work you’d guess, each need to be equally balanced between right and wrong, palatable and unpalatable but Mamet’s writing pushes her towards villainy. Her frustrations about his use of language, clouding rather than illuminating concepts gives way to long missives where it’s clear she followed every word, her journey from confused, innocent, emotional undergrad to cold, colourless and laser sharped persecutor feels unearned and so consequently like John is walking right into a trap. Sheehy produces fine work, and especially in the first act a number of shades to the character, but this becomes deliberately one-note as it goes along and so loses any sense of balance.

The production has already taken a number of steps since being announced, with a different director, leading man and theatre. It’s trip from the Main House to the Ustinov feels like gain, granting its audience an intimacy that would be lacking in the larger auditorium and allowing its audience to almost be able to read the spines of the academic tomes in designer Alex Eales book bound office set. Yet you wonder what original director Nicole Charles and originally announced actor John Heffernan would have brought to it. Slinger is a fine actor, one of the best we have, but his take drifts into middle-aged disappointment and burn out, there is a frisson missing that may have pulled student and teacher closer to equal combat. Lucy Bailey’s direction doesn’t always go for the jugular either with the closing moments verging on pantomime, so what we end up with is a well-made 80 minutes that doesn’t create the electricity, debate or controversy that the original offered in spades.

Oleanna plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 22nd December and then again from 4-16 January.