How My Light Is Spent- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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The Bruntwood Prize is arguably British Theatre’s most essential prize (and not just because last time out Brizz fave Timothy X Attack won with Sharon Clarke receiving a judge’s recommendation). It’s premise that any unperformed script can be submitted by a writer at any point in their careers means that the quality is sky high. Anna Jordan, Simon Fritz and Alistair McDowell have been discovered from it. Yet ultimately what stands out is the range of stories told, free of a commission that sends writers down avenues they may not wish to explore. A rom-com, magical realist, storytelling indie set in Newport, Alan Harris’ How My Light Is Spent is certainly an original.

Jimmy is 34, works at the only drive-through doughnut shop in Wales, still lives at home and calls a sex line for exactly nine minutes every Wednesday night when his Mum heads out to the Salvation Army. Kitty lives with her older landlord, has a passion for snooker and aims to save the money she makes talking dirty to study psychology at University. Jimmy usually takes exactly three minutes to hit a climax on the phone. Kitty finds out more about her client in the other six prescribed minutes he has to pay for. Jimmy takes orders from the Autocom at work until he hears a voice he has heard before. Kitty altruistically leaves money for the car behind to make their own doughnut order.

It’s a small piece designed as a real crowd pleaser. It occasionally lacks in sophistication, it’s metaphor that Jimmy is literally disappearing after he loses his drive-thru job to a machine is perhaps a little too on the nose and some of the lines have that same thudding feeling, but it is rare to see a play prove so hopeful and determined to give a happy ending whatever the cost.

What Nikhil Vyas’ production brings out is the power of two performers totally in sync with each other. It is hard not to fall in love with Jonathan Oldfield’s ruffled Jimmy and Eva O’Hara’s sex line worker Kitty. The two possess such an easy-going charm with each other, whether shifting from chorus playfully teasing the odd stumble to the rounded valley cadences of these two lost souls that you are rooting for them from lights up.

The piece may eventually end up focusing more on Oldfield’s Jimmy then O’Hara’s Kitty who can feel a little like a Newport version of a manic pixie dream girl, but O’Hara brings her vividly to life as well as the other women (mother, daughter, job coach) that swarm around Jimmy’s life. Both of them may be too attractive and vivacious to really convince as weathered, forgotten ‘been around the block a few times’ souls but the moment they dance together in the space, joy flooding every pore, it’s clear these two are meant to be.

There are a number of striking moments like this in Vyas’ production that pushes its theatrical effects to the max. When the two speak on the phone, they talk through microphones, a distancing effect that separates the easy-going patter of their speech, with the physical tension that befalls them when they first come face to face. He understands that this is a work for voices, and stages the last scene in the fading light as the two decide their future in a car park. As space bleeds to black, the voices grow softer and more hypnotic through the mics. It’s a beautifully realised piece of direction that helps turn a scene that feels a bit tacked on (there is an argument the play could have finished 20 minutes earlier with a tighter, though less feel-good ending) into something beautiful.

It’s a fitting end to another fascinating director’s cuts season. For some of the smartest work, created by some of the industry players of the future, the Wardrobe Theatre is the place to be every May.

How My Light Is Spent is at Wardrobe Theatre until 25 May

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The Remains Of The Day- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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It’s funny how a theatre’s programming affects how you view the work presented there. Take Out of Joint’s The Remains Of The Day. Its sombre, well-made structure feels alien in a space that usually sprinkles joy and theatricality at what it presents. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a venue that fits the old-fashioned feel of the world completely, Lily Arnold’s strikingly imposing set bleeding into the Georgian architecture of the auditorium; it’s just that a theatre’s default is made up of the memories of work that has previously played here. The last production that I can remember that strayed from what I would classify as the Bristol Old Vic aesthetic was Richard Eyre’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A theatre’s programming conditions audiences and there was something wary about the one leaving their seats after press night. What lands in Bath, doesn’t necessarily do the same in Bristol.

That’s not to say there are no other reservations to be had. Barney Norris’ adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel, can’t hope to bring out all the subtleties and nuance that the original literature does. It also doesn’t have the majesty of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson to portray everything in a single glance which traps Norris with the age-old problem about how to make passivity fascinating on stage. Shakespeare managed it with Hamlet. Stoppard has wrung it out once or twice. Yet many dramatists have failed in their attempts and I’m not sure Norris firmly gets on top of it. Stephen Boxer as butler Stephens is a fine actor, but his clipped inability to show emotion comes across as more mannered then moving, his interactions with his dying father (Pip Donaghy) causing more titters than tears, it’s only in the piece’s climatic dining room scene that he finally gets to play beyond stiff upper lip.

Niamh Cusack is unfortunately even more cast adrift. Her frequent ‘Mr Stephens’ eventually become a mere parody, as though French and Saunders have run wild on Downton Abbey, though again she brings it all back with that beautifully etched final scene. Here, the two look back on what could have been if only feelings had been articulated. Guilt is the overall theme throughout the night. The guilt these two potential lovers feel for what could have been is mirrored by the guilt of a nation who only saw too late the dangers that Hitler and his Nazi party would inflict all over Europe.

This parallel mirroring also plays into the works best decision which is to view the piece through the lens of a memory play so we see Stephens’ journey for his climactic meeting with flashbacks to the home he runs over twenty years previously. Characters flick in an instant from locals to memories. Hued in shadows and eerie blue in Mark Howland’s evocative lighting, the past feels like a prison for which there is little escape.

Christopher Haydon’s production is imposingly efficient and played with intelligence and heft by an ensemble that includes the aforementioned Donaghy and Miles Richardson as the German sympathising Lord Darlington. Yet ultimately, the whole feels a little muted. Above the stage, sixteen bells look down upon the action but never ring. Perhaps we’ve all grown accustomed to the bells and whistles that BOV usually provide.

The Remains of The Day plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 25 May.

Poison- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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This Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Directors Cuts season has started with big, knotty works that have tackled and explored complex ideas around the eradication of porn and the taking down of the ‘great’ male ego in art. The third work of the season, Poison by Dutch dramatist Lot Vekemans, is infinitely more stripped-back and provides the strongest work so far.

Vekeman’s subject, in a sensitive English language translation by Rina Vergano, is grief and how it unspools over the years. He (Will Fletcher) and She (Darby Hannon) are reunited close to a decade after he walked out on her, as the cemetery their young son is buried in is closing and his grave needs to be relocated. She is still trapped in perpetual grief, going about day to day life as an empty shell, trapped in routines that don’t begin to replace the empty void at her heart; He has ostensibly moved on, a new wife and soon to be family, a planned book about his experiences at losing a child. Yet though Vekemans originally seems to cast the characters in the same primary colours as the archetypal names she has given them, it gradually unfolds that there is more lying behind the surface.

Fletcher’s He may at first come across as a bumbling public-school boy, stumbling through life and generally hitting oil, but his decision to walk away and start again, to meet her misery with distant philosophical abstraction, comes not from a place of callow heartlessness but from an inability to face up fully to the tragedy that has engulfed him. The moment where he opens up, his voice catching and pitching up an octave is heart-breaking, a man ten years on finally beginning to come to terms with some of the pain that has come to define him.

Hannon, one of the MFA International Acting Students, is a tour-de-force as ‘She’, starting as a bottled-up husk, her arms stiffly by her side, and her shoulders constantly slumped in exhausted wretchedness, over the course of the 80 minutes she slowly begins to find hints of the women she used to be. The moment when she removes her boots and playfully spars with her ex-husband shows us that intimacy isn’t necessarily removed even after many years. In the last moments, she begins to take agency of her life again, it’s not a blossoming exactly, but a sign that life can now find some meaning again.

Sara Aniquah Malik’s production carefully modulates the minor shifts in key, the playing out of the conversation as coffee turns to wine and cheese. Oscar Selfridge’s set plays up the lifelessness of a waiting room that is used to grief while a clock counts down the long day’s journey into night. At the end, the couple were given nine minutes to say goodbye to their son. The clock counts it down. Nine minutes pass in the blink of an eye. Nine minutes stretch for an eternity. Beautifully etched work all round.

Poison plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until the 18 May.

The Greatest of The Greatest- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

We’re saturated with the idea of the great male artist; the kind who sit on a higher pantheon, can make the impossible possible before they’ve had their morning coffee and count the notches on their bedpost as a form of valediction. For centuries their apparent ‘greatness’ was seen as more interesting as the work they made, biographies covering their complicated love lives and temper tantrums in much more forensic detail than the work which always ended up a distant second. But in the wake of #MeToo, things have begun to change. Rather than be applauded, the whole thing now has that slightly whiffy smell of the ridiculous. It’s time for these statues to be shot down.

Which is what Eva Johansson and Louise Löwenberg’s satire has done so well. Basing their work on the true-life tale of two powerhouses of Swedish Theatre, actor Mikael Persbrandt and director Thommy Berggrrenn- who in 2010 announced their intention of staging ‘a masterpiece’ based on Persbrandt’s life, before dropping it without explanation- it explores what happens when two massive egos collide.

Yet, like all satire, it only works on a surface level. Though it’s very good at unpicking the common quirks of these ego driven men; the boorish self-centredness, the competitive friendship, the wary side-eyeing of success; over the course of an hour, it doesn’t delve deep enough to explore where this comes from. They’re caricatures, funny ones, and crafted to give a cold shiver of recognition to all who have found ourselves falling into some of these tropes at times, but not fully explored beyond their surface appearance. Over the course of an hour, you long to discover more.

Rosie Taylor-Ritson and Sophie Walter are however both thrillingly good at bringing these two egos to life. They bring to the table two sides of the alpha-male, Taylor-Ritson all coiled stillness and sudden violent explosiveness, Walter long angular movements and using language as a means to control a room. It’s a public dick swinging competition writ large, sometimes literally so as both performers take to pivoting their hips when it’s time to one-up their opponent.

Director Charissa Martinkauppi keeps the tension up, each shrill ring of a mobile from a frantic producer building the pressure cooker. It is no coincidence that this producer is female, nor that the stage management team that both dismiss are also so. It makes a point that while men are engaged in pointless points scoring, it’s the women with their hands on the tiller, ensuring we get to the destination. It’s a centuries-old game that’s got boring. As Walter lets her hair down and removes her padded paunch at the end, the sense of relief that she’s moved from a tired old man to confident, vibrant young woman is palpable. It’s a different world now and it’s about time.

The Greatest of The Greatest plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until the 11 May

Barber Shop Chronicles- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

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Theatre is tackling a constant diversity issue, a key component being how to attract an audience that rarely feels the theatre is open to them. Barber Shop Chronicles is the kind of work that should open some doors, a work inclusive to all but speaking loudly to a community rarely given a focus in mainstream theatre. Above that though, and surely the key to ever change is that the work is truly excellent, the resources of the National Theatre and Fuel blending together to produce theatre of the first rank.

Inua Ellams, whose previous work An Evening With An Immigrant, seen at Tobacco Factory Theatres, promised much, has surpassed himself here, with a work that flies, barbershop to barbershop from Lagos, Johannesburg, and Accra to Kampala and South London. Each shop may be separated by oceans and across continents, but the conversation doesn’t change in language and culture; of jobs and women, sons coming to terms with the legacies of fathers, an older generation schooling a younger one in respect. All the while an important Barcelona vs Chelsea Champions League game plays on the TV.

Ellams apparently recorded over sixty hours of conversation to help shape his play and it shows. The work has that patter of speech as it’s spoken, not as it’s shaped, and the terrific ensemble all give colour and texture to its rhythm. Whether it is debating the merits of pidgin language in the form of protest or discussing Luis Suarez penchant for biting opponents, it all feels very true, demonstrated by a whoop that escaped from the stalls when one character describes whether it’s best to date a white women or black women when you’re in a dead end job.

Bijan Shibani’s production plays at a ferocious pace, the world of the barber moving at a different rate than the 9-to-5 grind, with scissors flashing and clippers being deployed for every dandy, chancer or playa who walks in. It appears that wherever you are in the world, a sharp sartorial style and a freshen up provides a leg up in the world.

What narrative there is revolves around the untold familial and business tensions that simmer in the London barbers which eventually results in a cracking climatic scene where roosters come home to roost. Yet the work isn’t really about that narrative tale, however, interesting the telling of it. Instead, it’s about how barber shops shape a generation of men who may go in for a trim but come out with a perspective. ‘They’re like our pub’ as one client says and in a culture that has lost much of that community shaping with the closure of many a local, it’s fascinating to see how businesses and a mingling of generations can enrich and shape each other.

It’s twelve-strong ensemble are all terrific and break out some thrilling dance moves to the likes of Stormzy, but it’s Anthony Ofoegbu who most takes the plaudits, as the barber who turns active listening into an art form and who later reveals a steely inner core. The play’s position is to ask what is a strong black man today? The answer may start with your local barber.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the Bristol Old Vic until the 18 May

We Want You To Watch- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

Originally published in Bristol Post.

We Want You To Watch begins with a bang. Pulling back two plastic sheets that resemble a butcher’s shop we are thrust headfirst into an interrogation of a man, by Pig (Holly Carpenter) and Sissy (Anna-Kate Golding) accused of mutilating and murdering a young dental student. The list of atrocities he has been alleged to committed veer worryingly close to the violent porn videos that he frequently observes. Yet as he ruefully observes, millions of people watch violent porn, then ‘go and do a fun run for Cancer Research’ or give up their spot on the bus for an old man. Fantasy does not always bleed into reality. We seem to be set for an evening of nuanced debate about the role of pornography in the 21st century. Yet the piece, disappointingly, takes an absolutist turn, one that is admirable in its revulsion for many of the ills the proliferation of violent online material has created, but one that seems unwilling or unable to confront the difficult questions.

Originally created by rising stars Alice Birch and RashDash the work veers dangerously close to a polemic, an all-bells-and-whistles one admittedly, but a piece that doesn’t have space or will other than pitching its original thesis, that all porn should be eradicated. Discussion about female gaze work or the feminist movement to reclaim at least part of the industry are shifted away into blunt scenic metaphors, each individually entertaining but all adding up to being smacked around the head.

So, we see a Victorian Queen hymning to the joy of consensual frolicking; an internet entrepreneur asking the girls to do ever degrading things in order to get the internet switched off and Hugh Hefner throwing copies of the Marilyn Monroe Playboy across the stage. It’s only in the scene where the girls narrate the growing up of baby into father that the hairs begin to rise.

For all the problems with the work though it is admirably staged by director Claire O’Reilly, and given heft by the four well-drilled performers. Carpenter and Golding have been stand-out performers of the 2019 BOVTS alma to date and are both thrillingly committed again here, you really can’t take your eyes off them whether they are performing burpees or writhing around on the floor. There is something fascinating about the way Pig and Sissy move, a curving of a hip or a crawl across the floor that suggests that the material they have been subjected to has bled into their psyches more than they think.

We Want You To Watch certainly has a powerfully potent point to make but only illuminates it fitfully.

We Want You To Watch plays at The Wardrobe Theatre until the 4th May

Our Country’s Good- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

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Originally published in the Bristol Post.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is an unquestionable modern classic. This is at least the third major production of this play seen in Bristol over the past four years, a work that is now firmly entrenched in the theatrical canon. So, you can understand the thinking behind Tobacco Factory Theatre’s pairing it with A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a pair of big hitters in their Spring Rep season. But like their Dream, this is a work that only produces intermittently, a production that stifles as much as illuminates the piece.

Wertenbaker’s 1988 play was based on true testimony of a group of convicts who were sent to the penal colonies of Australia in the 1780s and decided to put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer to the rest of the camp. It asks highly important questions, still as relevant today, about what and who the theatre is for. Part of the reason the work is so beloved is it shows the moment that life takes on meaning when putting on a play, the eureka moment that has taken so many of us by storm. The work’s final lines, spoken in turn by each member of the company ‘tomorrow’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘tomorrow’, are inherently moving, as each of these people, who seem to possess little hope, realise they have something to wake up for.

Director Anna Girvan has set her play in what appears a modern prison/institute. All nine actors wear grey jogging bottoms and white trainers, they are lit from above by six strip lights. As part of their research into the play the company visited a prison and found that the reconviction rate from inmates who attended their drama lessons were zero. Drama really does turn around lives. Yet by setting it in a modern context, it adds more questions than it answers. Why are male and female inmates holed up together? Are they rehearsing the play Our Country’s Good? I found its anachronisms jarring.

She runs with the Brechtian theory’s built up around the play, actors speaking the scene surtitles into mics and commentating on the action more than inhabiting the roles. It sends the play, that works best when it displays the stifling heat, the tear of skin against whip and thirsting desire into something slightly cold and clinical. The acting being patchy doesn’t help, although there is another striking turn from Dan Wheeler as a vicious Scottish Officer and Sasha Frost who shows stillness is usually at the forefront of powerful acting.

The play still grips, it would take a very poor production indeed to ruin that, but you can’t help feeling that Girvan hasn’t fully got to grips with this one. Theatre does change lives, but this production is unlikely too.

Our Country’s Good runs at Tobacco Factory Theatre’s until the 11 May.