Make More Noise- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆


Beyonce’s ‘Who run the world- girls’ is at the forefront of Bristol Old Vic Young Companies latest show Make More Noise, that places 21stcentury feminism and its explorations at the epicentre. Marking 100 years since women were first granted the vote, it’s a celebration of the women who dared to be different, and a call to arms to finally eradicate gender inequality for good. It is a smart, bracing, angry, funny and startling work that confirms the community projects at this theatre, can produce pieces as impressive as anything seen in the main season.

Expectations are subverted right from the beginning in Lisa Gregan’s always impressive production. The stage is dressed in pastoral green with flowers bursting from the stage in Anna Orton’s design (one of four shows I have seen designed by her in a matter of weeks- what is she on and can I have some?!) and we see groups of women in swim suits coquettishly taking bites out of blood red apples. Milton’s fall of man and the nymph under the male gaze which this image alludes too, are suddenly flipped as these women burst forward and explain how terrifying it was to agree to start the play in swimsuits, how the feeling of being judged is intense, but how they wanted to do it. For themselves.

It’s a work bursting with ideas, mostly from a younger generation whose idealism hasn’t been chipped away at. There is nothing here that will surprise, its arguments already being articulated left, right and centre in columns and political soap boxes, but it is heartening to see young people be so political and have strong opinions from the gender pay disparity to the rights of trans women. Sure there is a feeling that they are preaching to the choir in an audience that I would tip at 95% left leaning liberals and probably similar numbers on the stage. They address this elephant in the room by admitting that the company on stage is mostly white, cis females and so some stories can’t be told but it does highlight one of the continuing issues theatres have in attracting audiences and participants from different social, racial and economic classes.

But what has been really exciting over the past couple of years is seeing the company putting on devised work that has put the young people’s ideas at the forefront and convinced those of us who are watching that this generation can only lead to the world being a better place. WhatTh**nk You and now this have in common is that they really listen to what young people are grappling with and then create theatre that articulates it perfectly.

There are two segments where the work truly buzzes. The first is where the women come to the forefront of the stage and describe a woman who has inspired them in some way; icons, family and then friends. From Frida Kahlo to the friend who makes the world seem a better place, each individual is given a moment in the spotlight and a hymn to them is given. The second interrogates the #MeToo argument in more detail, as one of the girls explains her love for Quentin Tarrantino movies and her idolisation of Mia, Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. As she recounts in detail the dance scene in Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant as Thurman jives alongside Travolta, she also explains that during the course of the shoot, Thurman was subjected to a sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein and threatened that if she spoke her career would be over. Now watching this, she explains, she looks at Thurman’s face and wonders if it’s still ok to love this iconic moment. There are no easy answers. Art and morals have never gone hand in hand.

Occasionally voices are lost in an unbalanced sound score and in a show that generally plays complex its physical incarnation of the patriarchy is a bit of a blunt instrument but these are minor quibbles in a short, sharp blast of a 65-minute work that gives theatrical articulation to a celebration of all those who classify themselves as female.

Make More Noise plays until the 4 August at Bristol Old Vic


Romeo and Juliet- Insane Root at Eastville Park ☆☆☆☆


If Shakespeare promised his audience in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet two hours’ traffic of our stage’, Insane Root do one better and knock out, probably the world’s most famous play, in 100 minutes. It’s Shakespeare done right; freshly minted, funny, accessible and cut to its key elements and provides a welcome jolt to a play that many who studied it at school could recite by heart. For those who think Shakespeare isn’t for them, Insane Root are the company to change those minds.

Over the past few years, the company led by Artistic director Hannah Drake, producer Justin Palmer and composer/musical director Ellie Showering, have produced adaptations of classics in well-chosen site specific works dotted across the City. The discovery of the old swimming pool in Eastville Park, two miles East of the City Centre, proves an inspired place to plonk this tragedy of young love. A Victorian swimming bath with modern shrubbery billowing from its cracks, it’s an ideal space to combine the historical with the modern and architecturally allows Drake to space out her energetic, fluid work. Its stone steps provide an amphitheatre for the action to play out, a space for the brawls to kick in and vows to be made. The shadowed corners allow forbidden love to be declared, letters to be exchanged and aching chorales to be sung. As the teenage extravagances of the early stages make way for the painful tragedy, sunshine turns to dusk, dusk to night. The natural lighting provides the perfect state to illuminate the work’s ever darkening moods.

Drake and Palmer’s adaptation, cuts out excess fat and mixes some lines up, so for example parts of the prologue delivered as a final eulogy to the fallen lovers in the tomb. While some Shakespeare purists may sneer, it feels perfectly in keeping with the mantra that Jan Kott expounded over 50 years ago, of making Shakespeare our contemporary. With careful, thoughtful editing, the play takes a slightly different journey than the original without committing cultural vandalism. Shakespeare, the most collaborative of writers from what the history books suggest, would no doubt have been pleased to alter.

The work use original compositions from Showering to colour the atmosphere, a party composition that includes some only slightly cheesy audience interaction, a wedding hymn that incorporates some of Will’s most famous lines all led by the ringing clarity of Amy Gardyne’s lyrical voice, working on ever darkening folksy compositions. Acoustically the space works well, the verse is clear and voices bounce lightly through the space.

It is great to see a number of recent BOVTS graduates stepping up to take on the classics. Jessica Temple’s take on Juliet is a thing of wonder, a bouncy teenager who giggles at the idea of Romeo uncovered and can’t stop her gawky limbs from flailing. Temple plays her as an innocent fourteen, a young girl who turns to women in an instant when love and death strike one after another. Her verse speaking is beautiful and like a Rylance or Kinnear she has a way of making 400 year lines sound like a fresh thought. In a play where Juliet usually struggles to break free of the roles constrictions, Temple is the star attraction, a performance so full of pathos and humour that one almost wishes that this time the potion may take a different effect and this life isn’t struck out quite so quickly.

Opposite her Pete Edwards pitches his Romeo as a heady, impulsive and romantic young man who discards love as soon as a new opportunity presents itself and who goes full blitzkrieg when his best mate is killed in the street. The last Romeo I saw was Paapa Essiedu’s star creating turn for Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory so Edward’s has a difficult task, but it is to his credit that he makes his Romeo something close to the roles I have previously admired him in from Pink Mist to Robin Hood, a likeable, slightly unhinged romantic who has a tendency to act before he thinks.

With two strong performances in its leads the work already has a winning hand but it straight flushes it with a number of skilfully etched supporting turns, from Deborah Tracey’s West Indian Nurse, doling out advice at a hundred miles an hour to Dan Wheeler’s sardonic Mercutio, a man whose tongue eventually costs him his life.

It all adds up to a fair Verona where you are happy to spend a couple of hours. Clean, concise and fresh Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet finds a new mix to play for these two star-cross’d lovers.



South Western- Wardrobe Ensemble at Tobacco Factory ☆☆☆


It has been a heady time for Bristol’s The Wardrobe Ensemble, their last two Edinburgh shows have won public acclaim and Fringe Firsts and it is now taking up residency this August at the National Theatre with their rather charming family show The Star Seekers So maybe they have become victims of their own success. For each new show this dazzling young company creates, now feels like an event; where the great and the good of the theatre scene mingle with a crowd who are there based on their love of the brand expecting greatness every time. So when it is only good, as South Wester undoubtedly is, it can produce flutters of disappointment inside. Is this it?

Maybe the subject matter should have given notice that the latest show would lack some of the richness of the previous works. Having tackled the blossoming of teenage sexuality and baby boomers in 1972: The Future of Sex, and the British comprehensive system and New Labour in Education, Education, Educationthe new work is a celebration of South West heritage, from Bristol to Sedgemoor Splash, Blackdown Hills to Truro, the Pagans, landlords and officers who make up the glorious tapestries of the mystical and mirth-ical the West Country provides. Alongside this, a loving homage to Sergio Leone and John Wayne, Stetsons and Holsters, when baddies wore black and the Sherriff restored order. The source material fits, but it just doesn’t offer the company as much to play with as previous works

That’s not to say we don’t have a good time getting to the end result. In many ways South Western feels the obvious fourth part of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s The Cornetto film series. There is an evident love and exploration of the Western genre, right down to its firmly entrenched narrative beats, familiar to anyone who has ever settled down for a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV.  So we see Mae Corman (Helena Middleton), heading across countryside to avenge the death of her father by one Walter Lucas (Jesse Jones), cooped up with wife, brother and family in the Wayfarer Arms at Lands End. Her journey throws the perils of the ‘Wild West’ at her, from rail replacement works at Parkway to roadworks at Cabot and expired young people’s rail cards that threaten to derail her journey. Her only hope of making it to her final destination/destiny seems to be the shambling wanderer Anne (Jesse Meadows), a woman with secrets in her closet and a weary eyed gaze of a world that has betrayed her. Sound familiar?

It’s smart and sharp and puts a feminist slant on the most macho of genre’s. It also has Kerry Lovell having great fun as a mad Bonnie banshee, mowing down anyone who crosses her path. There is a tint of Mischief Theatre’s Comedy About a Bank Robberyabout the way they go about framing the action, lo-fi, high energy shoot outs, mist being sprayed down on burst blood capsules to create more gore than the average Tarrantino yarn, audience interaction complete with Monster Munch at a pub quiz.

If they had left it at that we could have celebrated a non-taxing but fun night at the theatre. Yet in striving for something more, it trips up. Ben Vardy’s Professor calls the action from the side line, a lecturer of film, exploring the conventions of the Western. This, and program notes discussing narrative theory, suggest an original concept that the company originally wanted to explore but perhaps ran out of time on. It slows up the plot and isn’t witty or insightful enough. It’s a device that ultimately ends up going nowhere.

South Western is still a night well worth the cash, though it certainly isn’t as funny as either Future of Sex or Education x3. In fact, it feels much like the genre movies it tries to ape, a more than satisfactory way of burning a couple of hours but one that won’t leave any lasting feeling.

South Western plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 27 July

Mad Forest- BOVTS at Wickham Theatre ☆☆☆☆


There’s no one quite like Caryl Churchill working in British Theatre today. Take Mad Forest, commissioned in the months following the Romanian Revolution by the Central School Of Speech and Drama and premiered at the small Embassy Theatre in London, when many would have been expecting her to be following up on her Broadway smash hit Serious Money with something a little larger. It was a smart move though. Work created for drama schools can lead a writer the opportunity to branch out, experiment away from the commercial pressures that even the subsidised monoliths are prone too. And Mad Forest is definitely experimental. What it also provides, is another one of her like-clockwork masterpieces, work rich in fantastical imagery and thrilling verbatim speech. Given a rich staging by director Max Key, working with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School International MA students, it’s a night of theatre that enriches intellectually and viscerally.

Its structure takes a three act form: the first following two families in the months leading up to revolution as one family is blacklisted due to the daughter wanting to depart her motherland to marry her American lover and one family flourishing teaching the briefings of Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu, the second merges eye witness accounts of the violent uprising in Bucharest over Christmas 1989 as the citizens riot and the dictatorship falls, and the final third act sees the two families come together to celebrate a wedding and the scars and schisms between the two suggest that a revolution doesn’t necessarily beget a bright new day.

It’s a sharp piece of writing encompassing three very distinct styles. The first act focuses on episodes within a regime, very much Brechtian in approach, as we see citizens lining up to buy meat, broken conversations at bus stops, lessons within a school and conversations around the dinner table. Parts of narrative are shown without being fully explained, little life moments that blend together to make a whole. It’s lit and dressed in drab colours, a world of grey shrouded in constant suspicion and one in which any contact with the outside world will lead to punishment.

The second act follows thirteen voices over the first initial days as violence flared and the Ceasecu’s were tried and executed for crimes of genocide and corruption. Verbatim work was already being seen by 1991 but it wasn’t to the fore the way it is now, and arguable no one was weaving art into everyday conversations the way Churchill managed here. Whereas the nightly news and print broadsheets were telling the stories from those at the epicentre of power, Churchill builds the narrative from the students and artists, workers and helicopter pilots that were at the centre as the Ceausecu’s finally faced their reckoning.

It’s in the final extended act that the piece works its most pertinent magic though. From its glorious intro as a vampire sweeps in to taste the blood on the streets and gets into a conversation with a stray dog, to the terrors of the hospitals in the immediate aftermath it all builds up to a big family celebration where events come to a head. Like the argument between sisters in Top Girls, extended to an eleven-way brawl at a wedding, the scene thrums with joy and guilt, changing fortunes and blunt appraisals. In the years after Brexit the split between the younger and older generation about the future of the country feels especially pertinent.

Key is especially confident marshalling his ensemble in these big moments, and this final act is thrillingly realised. It’s real ensemble work for these 13 MA students, all giving detailed and well considered characterisations and there is especially telling work from Sasha Dominy as the girl who finds America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Kaiya Jones as a student shot on the streets and Thomas Williamson III as the son rebelling against his state serving parents. But really you could name each and every one. It’s a work that allows every student to grab their role with both hands (not surprising when the work has been created originally for drama students).

It’s strange, Mad Forest is one of those plays that had completely passed me by and on watching it you wonder why it isn’t better known and constantly revived. It confirms once again the derring-do of one of our greatest writer’s period, and it is all excitingly realised in a crack production. What’s not to like?

Mad Forest plays at the Wickham Theatre until the 21st July

Welcome To Thebes- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆


The Ancient Greek myths are relocated to a modern day civil-war torn state in Moira Buffini’s highly literate and increasingly impressive Welcome To Thebes. Played in the National Theatre’s Olivier in 2010 Richard Eyre’s original production suggested Thebes was an African state decimated in its bloodshed. This setting of Thebes is a little vaguer: less specific, more in keeping with the mythical. Thebes is a country where the women have now been forced to take power. Led by Eurydice (a strong, three dimensional moral centre from Emma Prendegrast), widow of Creon and newly elected democratic leader and her cabinet of female ministers, a country whose bodies are still burning is forced to look to its future. To rebuild her country will require support though, support that has to come from the wealth and power of Athens and its blazingly hip all high-wattage smiles leader Theseus (Alexander Mushore who combines the dashing charm of Obama with the sheer vanity of Trump) and his ingratiating pile of hangers on. The see-saw of power changes frequently between the two as the future of Thebes hangs in the balance. In the background, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young- nervously spitting out venom), spurred on by his Lady M like mistress Pargeia (Lucia Young) plots to take control. Meanwhile Antigone (Bonnie Baddoo) vows to bury her brother, decreed a traitor to the state while trapped in a form of love triangle between her sister Ismene (Anna Munden) and blinded Haemon (James Bradwell).

It’s almost as though Buffini had predicted the Netflix box set form before it truly became popular. LikeDickensianGotham or Marvel’s The Defenders, much of the fun comes from encountering characters from across the myths interact in a new landscape. For Greek myth geeks, the play is a delightful collection of Easter eggs.  Theseus calls home, worried about his younger wife Phaedra and ordering his son Hippolytus to look after her. The final phone call home should not be a surprise to anyone with a passing reference point to Euripides or Ovid.

Yet if the convoluted explanation of the plot here has left you needing a chance to check your references, the play suffers from some of the same issues. The first Act lacks rhythm, narratively heavy and hampered by awkward staging from director Lucy Pitman-Wallace  and a lighting design from Joe Stathers that over lights the space and resolutely refuses to provide focus on the key players. If the original production could rely on all the wizardry of the Olivier to jump-cut locations and provide a sense of the epic, the Tobacco Factory Theatre, presenting the work in the round, feels just too squeezed to comfortably host the 18 actors on its stage. Angles are ever important when staging in the round and its just clumsy that at one point there were 4 actors in a diagonal all blocking the speaker from this audience member‘s sight lines.

Eventually though the plot machinations take hold and the plot becomes truly gripping, as power plays are made and justice for past misdeeds is served. If the first act clunks, the second half rushes to its thrilling conclusion. For this graduating class of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it is a final chance to work together before the profession beckons. Bradwell delivers another finely tuned performance in a year full of them, as does James Schofield with another slightly unhinged turn, and George Readshaw as the prophetic Tiresius, while the expressive features of Badoo suggests a bright future for her. Look out too for Felix Garcia Guyer whose Miletus displayed a poetic core that contrasts sharply with his rugged shell.

Thebes is an epic undertaking that starts slowly but eventually finds its drive. Thousands of years later the Greeks have lost none of their capacity to thrill and surprise.

Welcome To Thebes plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30 June 2018.

Three Sisters- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆☆


In a discussion with a director on how to progress their career, RashDash were told ‘to engage with the classics.’ Well, they’ve certainly done this here and much more besides, engaged, provoked and smashed through the strictures of Chekhov’s play to make their own statement about who gets to decide what the classics are. It’s raucous, sexy, angry, funny, messy, baggy and a whole heap of fun. Its statement theatre that doesn’t forget the showbiz, play as much as gig, lecture as much as burlesque. Smartly however, they haven’t committed cultural vandalism with the 1901 piece, for anyone remotely familiar with the tale of theSergeyevich sisters the pieces overall aesthetic quality is caught well and there are echoes of the plot dotted throughout frivolity.

So the director’s advice has been followed to a point. It is clear the play has been studied, discussed and given a vision. A very RashDash one where the girls sing rock, strip out off and back into a number of limited and limiting outfits, try to de-pants each other and pose in perfect reproductions of the original Moscow Art Theatre tableaux’s. In the corner there is a bust of Chekhov’s head facing them, whether you read this as reproaching or encouraging is surely based on how much you think a radical of his time would take to a full on raiding of his work and ideals. Even he may have arched his eyebrow at being breast fed though.

If anyone is expecting a full on frontal assault of a past master, they will come away surprised. The work is more subtle than that. At one point they even provide cheerleaders for the Russian, running on stage in perfect unison to give an ode to Chekhov’s genius. Instead, what they query is who has the right to present and indeed evaluate the classics. In one terrific episode, we are presented in song, newspaper reviews from a man, about a man presenting a man’s work. The Three Sister’s performances are swept to the side, the women at the forefront mansplained away by the usual cultural gatekeepers. In order to tackle this they argue, surely women need to plow on the front foot, writing the classics for the future which provide a different gaze.

I’m not sure all its points hit home. Early on, they sit in vast skirts, in casual ennui and despair and despair about how Chekhov couldn’t write women; yet the proof is in the pudding; there are many terrific roles for women in all of his great plays, admittedly vastly different to the behaviours of the modern feminist, but placed in the context of the political and social situations probably no less relatable than the roles of the men from the same writer.  The women they throw up here, variations on the original sisters, Sloane types yearning for the country, bemoaning homelessness, and heartbreak and creating feel no more relatable to many than the original characters.

It is also a little on the long side at 90 minutes, the company perhaps falling into the trap of becoming specialist 60 minute fringe creators and struggling to expand their material up by another half an hour. Yet ultimately it doesn’t stop the night from feeling vital and alive. Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Becky Wilkie, the core trio of RashDash put 21st century women, their agency and confusion, their desire and fragilities to the fore and demand an audience. Chekhov and his ilk, the work seems to suggest, are important but so are they: right here, right now. RashDash are the present and women will be creating the classics of the future. Look out Chekhov.

Three Sisters plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 16 June

A Monster Calls- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆


A few years ago, on first encountering Sally Cookson’s two-part Jane Eyre, I wrote that it was inches away from being her masterpiece. Now, with a Monster Calls, we have that show. A total-theatre instant classic, Cookson’s production thrills the senses and breaks open the hearts of everyone lucky enough to be in its orbit. It is a work still in development, with another week of rehearsal pencilled in before its opening at the Old Vic though it hardly needs it, this is a show already ready to conquer London and a West End transfer will surely beckon for a show that leaves its audience, like the best type of cocktail, shaken and stirred.

Patrick Ness’ novel slips perfectly into Cookson’s fertile theatrical imagination. Its split-focused tale of cancer wards and midnight hour fairy tales suit Cookson’s gifts, for genuine human emotion and beautifully intricate theatrical imagery. Supported by her usual team; set designer Michael Vale, costume designer Katie Sykes, composer Benji Bower and writer in room Adam Peck, she turns a tale, already a hit in the mediums of novel and film, into something inherently theatrical. Each chord strummed, each rope climbed, every chair sat on and dispatched violently to the floor has been explored and developed for maximum theatrical expression. It’s a work thriving with invention, but all at the service of telling its narrative cleanly and letting the works heightened emotion soar out. It’s alchemy that comes off in theatre a lot less than those of us who attend regularly would like. So often invention falls bravely flat and too much is played safe in the hope of not getting found out. Not here. Its emotions are earned, its trust built up. I’m trying to think of any night I’ve spent at a theatre where its final 20 minutes have been accompanied by a powerful symphony of sobbing emanating from all corners of the auditorium as it does here.

The process she and her company work in, which entails devising the production in the rehearsal room from scratch, means the ensemble complete own the material. From Cookson regulars such as Stuart Goodwin and Felix Hayes to Matthew Tennyson’s school boy Connor, breaking apart as his Mum slips away from him, the acting is uniformly good, occasionally excellent. Tennyson looks painfully young and vulnerable in his school uniform, teenage hormones and grief combining to create a boy who is angry, bull-headed and sympathetic all in one. To make us care for Connor, who spends a lot of the work railing against the world and turning his back on everyone who cares for him, is a tough task, and one which Tennyson skips over with ease. Also tasked with a tricky role, Goodwin uses his lean muscularity to make Monster both imposing and neutering as all the best father figures are. His Monster starts towering above the stage on ropes, moves on to stilts and ends up at stage level, as his terrifying night visits, in which he tells three tales of witches and Princes, apothecary’s and invisible men, all begin to come into focus. Meanwhile Marianne Oldham brings courage and inner strength to the Mum whose prognosis gradually worsens, Felix Hayes brings a loucheness bumbling uselessness to a Dad with a new life in the States while John Leader is snakily vile as the school bully making Connor’s life a misery.

There are perhaps one or two moments that could still be sharpened before it finds its final form. The one song in the piece, although delivered beautifully by Nandi Bhebne seems a little out of step with the overall aesthetic of the piece, there is a moment of acting in a breakdown that didn’t ring true and the Monster’s final speech may be a little on the nose, although true to the book, if any of the audience had been fully paying attention to it through the tears. But these are minor areas of note, easy to sort out and unable to put a dent on what is a staggering achievement.

Cookson’s ascent has been steadily building. Her Cinderella, the best Christmas show I’ve seen, got the attention, her Peter Pan and Jane Eyre cemented it and sent her to the National. A couple of years have been spent working on commercial pieces that didn’t fully come off but by all accounts her Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, was a game changer at West Yorkshire Playhouse and this is another. All hail Sally Cookson. A director changing the game of what British theatre can and should do. Essential.

A Monster Calls runs at Bristol Old Vic until 16 June and then at the Old Vic, London from 7 July- 25 August