2018: A Year In Review

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2018- a year where football almost came home and one in which the cards came down mostly flush in my personal life. Yes, Brexit chipped away at the nations’ soul, but it was almost possible to forget the country’s plight when sat in darkened auditoriums being transported into other worlds and stories.

Maybe I’m softening as I gradually hit my mid-thirties, but five stars abounded this year. Bristol Old Vic, in the year they completed renovation, especially shone with three shows that got the full garlands from me in The Cherry Orchard, A Monster Calls and A Christmas Carol. Looking back, none of them feels a life changer- though A Monster Calls comes close- but it’s a sign of the confidence BOV have been working with as it enters its new era, supported by a knock out front of house design by theatre architect extraordinaire Steve Tompkins. Alongside the five star shows the theatre also took a bold step in its promotion of diversity in casting Jamie Beddard in the title role of The Elephant Man, alongside a graduating cohort of BOVTS students, letting a disabled actor (Ballard suffers from cerebral palsy) own the space and show what acting may become in the 21st century. Not everything worked, Twelfth Night played up the comedy at the expense of the melancholy and Touching The Void felt a little bit of a damp squib to re-open the theatre with. Still, it is excellent news that the Studio- the hub of new work in the City- has reopened and we have already seen excellent work there in the touring The Mountaintop.

2018 was the year Mike Tweddle really got his feet under the table at the Tobacco Factory. His production of A View From The Bridge was exceptional, led by two titanic performances by Katy Stephens and Mark Letheren, and he followed that up with a charming revival of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. Both shows included community groups, a USP that the TF would be wise to continue moving forward. If Tweddle’s show were beautifully constructed other directors had less luck, Macbeth was fine if rather grounded in Adele Thomas’ mud splattered production (though Stephens was brilliant again as Lady M) while Nik Partridge’s The Borrowers gave less Christmas magic then hoped. One of the most memorable nights of theatre this year came from the RashDash team, whose Three Sisters took aim at the great white man and who has the right to give voice the classics. Messy, scrappy and rather brilliant it furrowed deep into the mind in the months since it played.

Furrowing deep has become a habit at the Ustinov, a theatre whose work has the unerring ability to appear small in the moment but expand in size the more that its thought about. If it’s a shame to see Laurence Boswell’s canny programming shrink over the past few years from six shows a year to only three in 2018, each of the works featured beautiful playing and sleek, luxurious productions. Trevor Nunn’s Agnes Colander may only have been a minor rediscovery from Harley Granville Barker but was blessed with terrific work from Naomi Frederick, a performance topped by Shuler Hensley and Rosie Sheehy in the monumental- and not just in the weight of Hensley’s obese teacher- The Whale. Boswell capped the year with another fine production in The Model Apartment, another work whose quiet style hid major emotional troughs.

Very quickly Jonathan Church has turned the Bath Summer Season into something interesting. He has the contacts book to bring stars down to the City and has the knack for finding the right material for them. This year we saw Phyllis Logan in thriller Switzerland, which quickly transferred to the West End, Robert Lindsay and Tara Fitzgerald in Rattigan’s elegiac In Praise Of Love and David Suchet in The Price. In the moment I was relatively non-plussed by what I saw as middling Miller but it has really stuck with me, Suchet elevating his supporting role to star billing and Brendan Coyle giving a low-key central turn as the police officer who gave up his life for the family. I have a feeling it will gain a lot of love in its West End run in 2019. Church also provided a home for Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory, for their first foray into the theatre after the retirement of their founder and AD Andrew Hilton. There was plenty to like in Henry V, most pertinently Heledd Gwynn’s Imperator Furiosa inspired Princess Katherine.

The best Shakespeare I saw this year though was Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet in the deserted lido of Eastville Park. I have long thought Hannah Drake one of the finest classical directors in the region and this production was another string in the bow for her, led by terrific work from Jessica Temple and Pete Edwards as the two lovers. Its baffling to me why one of our flagship venues still haven’t offered her a gig.

BOVTS graduating group of 2018 produced a chilling, erotic, sold out version of Dracula in the tunnels beneath Temple Meads and a muscular version of Welcome To Thebes at the Tobacco Factory. The annual Directors Cuts season, always a delight this year included the delightful Four Play, a modern day take on relationships played to its hilarious hilt. Names to look out for in the years to come; Jyuddah James, Grainne O’Mahony and George Readshaw. The 2019 batch wrapped up the year with a charming new musical Mrs Beeton Says which I’d expect to get a London run next year.

The bi-annual Mayfest ran this year, bringing contemporary performance to Bristol (and Weston )I only saw a small amount of work this year but was blown away by the destructive Palmyra, the toe-tapping Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story and the trailblazing We Are Lightning! which celebrated live music in all its forms, combing brass bands with teen emo and everything in between. Even Tom Morris could be seen tapping his feet.

The Wardrobe Ensemble produced Great Western this year, a homage to their homeland and one which offered plenty of zany fun, if less heart than usual while I was knocked out by a host of touring work this year including Shakespeare In Love, A Streetcar Named Desire and Things I Know To Be True. And then right at the end of the year, the Wardrobe Theatre produced another killer Christmas Show in Oedipussy In Boots.

So plenty of very good work in 2018 and a year in which the future of the region’s theatres seemed to grow brighter with studios being reopened and Bristol Old Vic feeling like a major flagship venue again. It could spell a very lively 2019 and beyond.

Best Supporting Performance

1)David Suchet- The Price Bath Theatre Royal

It’s difficult to define what star quality is but you know it when you see it. David Suchet exudes it from every pore. It’s in the ease of all his choices, the demeanour that demands all eyes remain on him throughout. In a supporting role, Suchet stood centre, the crack star in an all killer, no filler ensemble. A lifetime of stage experience behind him, it was the level of detail in every mannerism that astounded.

2) Heledd Gwynn- Henry V Ustinov Studio

Princess Kathryn is usually pretty dull, a simpering thing to be wooed by Henry. Not here, dressed in black leathers and hair shorn Gwynn essayed the war-hungry Dauphin and made perfect sense of the double. It was the most startling take on a character all year, risky and full of reward.

3) Rosie Sheehy- The Whale Ustinov Studio

Going head to head with that great actor Shuler Hensley was always going to be a tough task but recent RADA grad Sheehy tackled it with aplomb. She was the quintessential lost teen, angry and frustrated, both wanting to be heard and needing a guiding hand. The father/daughter dynamic was perfectly caught, a vast chasm between them slowly chipped away at the eleventh hour.

4) Dawn Sievewright- Twelfth Night Bristol Old Vic

Toby Belch, that great carouser of literature has never likely been funnier and certainly never funnier than in Sievewright’s gender-switched take on Tobie. The work focused on hitting the funny bone and no one consistently hit them as much. She made a character that can feel wearisome come alive and speak to the perpetually stuck 20 something party animal of today.

5) Phoebe Thomas- Beautiful Thing Tobacco Factory

There was so much to love about Beautiful Thing, not least the community choir whose radiance probably deserved a best supporting nod all on their own. Yet Thomas stood out, a fiery redhead bestriding the TF space, the de-facto highness of the Thames Mead estate, who lovingly accepts her teenage son for who he is. It could so easily have just turned into a characterture but in Thomas’ performance, it became so much more.

6) Grainne O’Mahony- The Elephant Man Bristol Old Vic

2018 theatre school graduate, O’Mahony was a striking ethereal Mrs Kendal in Lee Lyford’s production of The Elephant Man. From her first flinching introduction to Merrick to disrobing like Phyrne in a moment that Merrick explains is the ‘greatest of his life’, she charted a fascinating journey for this celebrated Victorian actress. She is a name to watch moving forward.

Lead Performance of the Year

  • Katy Stephens- Macbeth and A View From The Bridge Tobacco Factory

Stephens was the performer of the year for her work across two plays in the first Factory ensemble. This underrated talent, a focal point of the RSC long ensembles was a mesmerising Lady M, tracking the trajectory from ambitious First Lady to the killer to broken. She then followed it up with a quieter but no less tragic take on Beatrice, watching on from the sidelines as her family fell apart. Why she is not hoovering up all the lead roles right now is a mystery. Bristol and the Tobacco Factory were lucky to get her for a few months.

  • Kirsty Bushell- The Cherry Orchard Bristol Old Vic

I described Bushell as heart-stoppingly good when I originally reviewed her in Michael Boyd’s sublime The Cherry Orchard. A woman well aware of how she is bringing her family down but too consumed by grief to stop it, she played Rayevskya with all her shades, from petulant and bull-headed to funny and seductive.

  • Felix Hayes- A Christmas Carol Bristol Old Vic

Felix Hayes strode into greatness as Ebenezer Scrooge in the BOV seasonal offering. He’s always been a memorable player, a key part of Sally Cookson’s ensemble but here it felt as though he was in a production built around his leading man credentials. From the bass rumbles of his humbugs to his light as air realisation of the joys of Christmas, Hayes did not put a foot wrong all night.

  • Shuler Hensley- The Whale Ustinov Studio

American musical star Hensley turned a grotesque into something inherently moving in a production where his 600-pound English teacher reconnects to his daughter in his final days while gradually eating himself to death. The suit Hensley wore could have felt a gimmick, so big that the 6’4 Hensley was dwarfed by it, but as the performance went on and the pain was essayed, the suit almost fell away in front of our eyes and the man behind the bulk, in all of his grief, came to the fore.

  • Mark Letheren- A View From The Bridge Tobacco Factory

On the Thursday matinee that I saw this production, a school group roared in unison as Letheren’s Eddie forced kisses on his niece and her intended. It proved that Miller’s play, some fifty years after its premiere, still had the ability to shock. This Eddie was a decent man, driven to insanity by a changing world, one in which hard graft may be overtaken by flash. An award-worthy performance in a production full of them.

  • Jamie Beddard- The Elephant Man Bristol Old Vic

The charismatic Beddard handled the role of Merrick (played by among others David Bowie and Bradley Cooper) with aplomb, delivered by a performer with a lifetime of looking from the outside in. In a year where diversity is rightly being trumped, here talk was stripped away for action. Seeing a disabled performer take centre stage and owning the country’s oldest working theatre was special, a powerful opening up of what theatre can and should be

  • Jessica Temple- Romeo and Juliet Eastville Park

Temple was always a stand out while at BOVTS but her take on Juliet took her to another level. Her take was a stroppy child turning teenager, closer to the thirteen-year-old that is specified than much more mature Juliet’s we see. From sniggering about love to her gradual awakening into adulthood through love, Temple’s unique take on the role was a triumph.

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Best Production

1) A Monster Calls– Bristol Old Vic

Sally Cookson worked her magic once again in a show that can probably lay claim to being her finest work to date. Patrick Ness may have created the material that got the tear ducts flowing, but Cookson’s highly theatrical adaptation weaved magic from Benji Bower’s enchanting score to a brilliant ensemble including Stu Goodwin, Marianne Oldham, Felix Hayes and Matthew Tennyson. Nothing else hit with quite so much emotional heft or enchanted with quite as much magic as Cookson’s wonderful piece.

2) A View From The Bridge– Tobacco Factory Theatres

Arthur Miller’s bruising chamber piece felt right at home in the round at the Tobacco Factory. Mike Tweddle’s first production for TF was pitched just right, the intensity building throughout and with just enough lightness that the tragedy when it comes really hit home. As the Carbone’s Mark Letheren and Katy Stephens gave colossal work and there was also a highly impressive professional debut from BOVTS Laura Waldren as young niece Catherine caught up in her Uncle’s possessive, incestuous desires when she falls for an immigrant ship worker.

3) The Cherry Orchard-Bristol Old Vic

Put one of our great theatre directors along with one of the finest writers and magic is likely to fall. What was so impressive about Michael Boyd’s production though, aided by an impressive translation by Rory Mullarkey, is how while staying in its period it had relevance and urgency that felt very much of today. Keeping to Chekhov’s maxim that the play is a comedy in four acts, the laughs kept on coming until they stuck in your throat. A thrilling cast led by Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu gave the work full clarity and conviction. If rumours are to be believed Boyd has only just gotten started with the Chekhov repertoire. Lucky us.

4) The Whale– Ustinov

If one of the key elements in theatre is to let us view the world from someone else’s vantage then Samuel D Hunter scored a knockout. If going in, a man wearing a six-hundred-pound fat suit sounded like a gimmick, Shuler Hensley’s performance grounded the grotesque and found the humanity of a man gradually eating himself to death. Aided by a second knock out performance by Rosie Sheehan as the teenage daughter reconnecting to him- for spiritual or monetary reward is never revealed- Laurence Boswell’s production was as rich as any work he’s produced in his wonderful spell at the Ustinov.

5) A Christmas Carol– Bristol Old Vic

Felix Hayes strode into greatness as Ebenezer Scrooge in the BOV seasonal offering but there was plenty more to love alongside. From the Grinning Man tinged songs, to the inclusive signing led by Nadia Nadarajah this Carol hummed with the spirit of the Bristol scene that Tom Morris has built up in his decade at the helm of BOV. Lee Lyford’s work this year at the helm of both this and The Elephant Man should not go overlooked, he has begun to catapult himself into a director with a national profile.

6) Romeo and Juliet– Insane Root

The best Shakespeare I saw all year; well spoken, fluid, clean, concise and exciting. Hannah Drake is a great classical director and our flagship venues should be signing her up to create work in their spaces. Two recent BOVTS graduates, Pete Edwards and Jessica Temple impressed in the title roles and the whole thing just sang with youthful verve and plenty of energy. Insane Roots production encountered problems throughout its run but hopefully, they will be back soon for another full-length run. I’ve been promised a Titus at some point, perhaps there’s a bakery somewhere that could offer pies and a play.

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Oedipuss In Boots- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆☆

Oedipuss

Originally published in Bristol Post

The Wardrobe has done it again. Oedipuss In Boots is the best fun you can have with your clothes on this Christmas season, an adult festive delight that finds the specificity in silliness and comes across like a mix of Monty Python at their zaniest and Trey and Matt Parker at their filthiest.

Over the past seven years, the team behind the Wardrobe Theatre have made their own tradition creating an alternative to the regions festive cheer. In past years they have thrown franchises together to see what sticks; Die Hard and Muppets, Tarantino and Cats, Rocky- both the boxing franchise and the horror show. This year they tackle just the one tale, although it’s a Grandaddy, the Greek myth of Oedipus, destined to kill his father and marry his Mum, as Fate sultrily tells us ‘if anyone knows their Greek theatre, bodies will be piled up by the end.’
In some ways only having one source material can be seen as a disappointment, one of the chief pleasures of Wardrobe shows past, has been seeing how the team put the two source materials together. Yet by only having to focus on one throughline, this time they can focus on just the laughs. If film critic Mark Kermode judges a comedy on a six laugh test, by my reckoning Oedipuss hits a belly laugh about once every 15 seconds. Over 85 minutes? By my calculations somewhere around 340 guffaws. It’s no wonder some members on Twitter have complained about aching ribs on the way out.
Director Chris Collier, composer and lyricist Kid Carpet and the four-strong cast have obviously had a ball making this show. As the patricide destined and mother loving moggy, Adam Blake’s shaggy hair exterior blends right into his puppet made body. He blends teenager gormlessness and attitude to perfection, as kitten turns into big cat. This moment of transformation, with Andrew Kingston’s Jocasta, may be the most graphic sex scene I’ve ever seen upon a stage, it certainly is the funniest. You have been warned.
Jannah Warlow is a slinky chanteuse fate, commentating on everything and always at hand to play another instrument while the ever funny Harry Humberstone threatens to steal everything in another riotous turn.
So if you want to ‘bah humbug’ A Christmas Carol and feel sick at the charms of Cinderella, this is probably the show for you. Just be prepared for your sides to ache for days afterwards.

Mrs Beeton Says- Redgrave Theatre ☆☆☆☆

Beeton

Originally published in Bristol Post

There’s always a frisson of excitement about a new musical premiere and Mrs Beeton Says has all the ingredients to go on and have a future life. Eamonn O’Dwyer and Helen Watts, commissioned by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, have created a chamber music about the life and works of Isabella Beeton; Victorian journalist, writer and homemaker extraordinaire’, and her journey creating Mrs Beetons Book Of Household Management, the first textbook on how to run a home.

There has been a range of articles recently discussing the dearth of homegrown musicals in the face of the American transfer, the financial implications of getting a new musical to the stage prohibiting anything but the most polished of work from making it. So, this new model from BOVTS should be applauded, giving the chance for composer and writer to be in the room with creatives and actor, making it happen away from the commercial pressure and where art can be the main focus.

In truth, it’s not the kind of work that will probably be packing them in at the rafters and achieving millions of hits on Spotify. This is a gentle work, with gentle melodies, although it’s Sunday teatime feel hides a powerful feminist message underneath. Beeton, with her zeal and never-ending optimism, not only created a book that became a brand, but gave women the shot that not only could they become better cooks and homemakers, but there was more to achieve more as well.

Here the women are crafted as forces of nature, driven, hard-working, great friends and with a never give up countenance. The gents don’t stand a chance, weak-willed chancers, hustlers and sleazes who profit on their wives’ weary devotion.

As the titular character Beshlie Thorp shines, her vocal line steady throughout, with a warm timbre and comfortable in both her top and middle registers. She makes decency interesting on stage, a tricky task for anyone, and is one to watch out for moving forward. The rest of the female ensemble; Anna-Kate Golding, Karla Kaucky, Eva O’Hara and Heidi Parsons also all get their moments to shine and the vocal harmonies produced are strong. The men are slightly shakier, but Lawrence Haynes has a strong tenor and a playful stage presence in a multitude of roles.

Paul Clarkson’s production is confident and ever-aware of the shifting moods and it plays out fluidly on Bronia Houseman’s multi-functional set, being shared with The Railway Children.

It’s impossible not to be charmed by this new musical, whose palette ranges from Gilbert & Sullivan to Sondheim, and, rare in a new musical, has tunes you can come out humming.  Fingers crossed that O’Dwyer and Watts receive the best Christmas present of all this year and this little gem gets a future life.

Mrs Beeton Says plays at The Redgrave Theatre until the 13th December

A Christmas Carol- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

carol

Originally published in The Bristol Post

There is greatness striding through the heart of Bristol Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol and it comes in the shape of Felix Hayes’ Ebenezer Scrooge. Hayes, a favourite for Bristol audiences for his work as Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and The Father in A Monster Calls among others, climbs into the top pantheon of actors with this, his bass rumbles perfect for delivering a well-timed humbug. As the true meaning of the festive season is shown to him, the bass becomes tenor, happiness floating from him in a higher key, his huge frame angling into childish wonderment, Victorian formality dissipating in a moment. It’s his tale and you can’t take your eyes off him.

This would be reason enough to hit King’s Street this Christmas, but this Carol has other treats in store. Lee Lyford’s production gives the whole thing a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, the stage initially shrouded in so much fog that it isn’t just Scrooge who can’t see the wood from the trees. As Dicken’s most famous creation revels in making money, the stage is a mass of monochrome, all joy sucked out in pastels of black.

As the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come visit, colour is gradually added to the aesthetic, until, in its final technicolour moments, the whole-theatre is decked out in reds, purples and yellows. The device they use to achieve this may be familiar to anyone who saw Swallows and Amazon’s or The Grinning Man, and as such is becoming a bit of a trope here, but as its Christmas, I will give them a pass. After all, there is something heart-warming about the familiar.

There is something of a Bristolian all-star game with the cast they have assembled, not only with Hayes but the always reliable Saikat Ahamed, the returning composer Gwyneth Herbert and three recent theatre school graduates in Crystal Condie, Beau Holland and George Readshaw. The festive season is all about family reuniting, and there is something cheering about seeing so much talent who have called Bristol home, coming together to weave magic.

Lyford’s all-inclusive production plays another trump in the casting of deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah, whose expressive signing shines right up to the upper gantries. Lyford has had a fine year working with extraordinary artists with disabilities- he also directed Jamie Ballard in the Elephant Man here- and his work should be a direct challenge to cast the net wider when scouting for talent.

It follows the dark aesthetic that seems to have become an in-house style for BOV Christmas over the past few years, but with Hayes giving the performance of the year it’s hard not to fall in love with it. My Christmas gift to the Old Vic? A full five stars!

A Christmas Carol plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 13th January 2019

The Borrowers- TF Theatres ☆☆☆

Borrowers

Originally published in The Bristol Post

Tobacco Factory Theatres have well served Bristol festive audiences over the years, including one bona fide theatrical masterpiece in Sally Cookson’s Olivier award-winning Cinderella. Alas, not every show can have Cookson and not every show can fly, and so it proves with The Borrowers, which resolutely stays grounded.

If the slow-burning piece picks up momentum and invention as it goes, for those with an ear to the ground its rhythms are slightly off, its pacing creaky. The workmanlike effort starts at its source. Adaptor Bea Roberts, whose splendid Little Mermaid at the Egg last Christmas spun Hans Christian Andersen tale into modern relevance and gave a kick-ass 80’s soundtrack to boot, reigns it in and produces a relatively faithful adaptation of Mary Norton’s 1952 original tale. The edge and drive that was so apparent in Bath has been blunted a little here. So the story of Pod, Arrietty and Homily, little Borrowers who live under the floorboards of the house of the prim and proper Mrs Driver, and the unlikely friendship that forms between Jessica Hayle’s young Arietty and the big boy who goes to stay with his Aunt, Eddie, is told with a straight bat and with just a side dollop of whimsy.

All the set pieces that a certain generation will remember best from the BBC show are here, from the threat of a hoover to the final Ratcatcher scene as the little family are threatened with extinction. These are staged with some invention by director Nik Partridge, the vacuum cleaner scene and in particular, a moving crisp packet is particularly niftily done.

Designer Rosanna Vize has created an adventure playground within the confines of the studio, two ladders hanging from the rafters which the family occasionally clamour on, though the cost per climb ratio makes you wonder if it could have been put to more frequent use.

The performances are perfectly adequate. Simon Armstrong, a fine classical actor, with many year’s service to Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is a relatable narrator as the adult Eddie looking back on his past, comfortable in his interactions with the audience, but lacking a front man’s charisma when he picks up a guitar and sings. Hayles, Peta Maurice and Bristol favourite Craig Edwards are pleasant enough but not really given anything to stretch them. It’s left to the ever-reliable Lucy Tuck to come in and take the plaudits, her Liverpudlian Aunt, a real monstrous highlight, brandishing her garish pink hoover like a shotgun.

Christmas shows are big beasts in the regional theatre economy and there’s enough here to satisfy over the month ahead. Yet the very best Christmas shows sprinkle a little magic over proceedings and that isn’t the case here. You can see the hard work and joins when really it should appear effortless.

The Borrowers plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 20 January 2019

The Railway Children- BOVTS Redgrave Theatre ☆☆☆☆

Railway

Originally published in Bristol Post

Christmas in the theatre usually kicks off at the end of November as shows for all the family bed in for long festive runs. My first show of the season, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, The Railway Children, showed why, as Andy Williams once crooned, ‘it is the most wonderful time of the year’. A midweek matinee crowd of mostly seven- and eight-year-olds sat entranced by the lo-fi stage magic director Toby Hulse weaved into the theatrical adaptation of E. Nesbit’s classic children’s novel.

This was likely these youngsters first introduction to a work that has captured the imagination of many generations since the novel was initially published over a century ago. Its tale, of a well-to-do London family moving to a sleepy Yorkshire railway town after their Dad mysteriously goes on ‘a trip’, may have brought life and death petticoat waving to the masses, but its celebration of the resilience and resourcefulness of children and the importance of community to support each other through the hard times is what has kept people going back to it again and again.

Mike Kenny’s Olivier winning adaptation keeps its episodic plot moving lightly and Hulse is the right director to spin its ripping yarn on the stage. They may not have the resources that put a real-life steam train on stage in the original, but Hulse, designer Bronia Housman and the graduating ensemble still manage to convey the enormity of a chugging locomotive with smoke machines, live sound effects and physical movement.

As the three children whose lives are turned upside down Emer Heatley, Kel Matsena and Rosie Taylor-Ritson are superb. Heatley brings an air of wisdom and grown-up authority as the eldest daughter Bobbie, while Matsena brings an impish, cheeky energy to the only boy in the pack Peter. Meanwhile, Taylor-Ritson is a scene-stealing delight as youngest daughter Phyllis, delivering laugh after laugh with a comedian’s precision.

These three may be the beating heart of the production, but Hulse is an expert at delivering ensemble led shows. The eleven-strong cast, supplemented by two onstage Assistant Stage Managers, are always sat around the action, or delivering sound effects, whether cooing birds or the chug of an engine through microphones scattered at the back of the stage. And in one breath-taking moment, they come together to show child’s play in a thrilling dash of acrobatics and tumbling that suggests this year’s cohort of students may have been plucked directly from the British gymnastics team.

The Railway Children is innocent entertainment for all the family. I would suspect one or two more steam trains will be on Santa’s wish list before this run is done.

The Railway Children plays at The Redgrave Theatre until 13 December

The Model Apartment- Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆☆

Enyi-Okoronkwo-Emily-Bruni-Ian-Gelder-Diana-Quick-The-Model-Apartment-at-the-Ustinov-Studio.-Credit-Simon-Annand

The nouns that best define Laurence Boswell’s time as the AD of the Ustinov Studio are ambition and courage. This little gem in the South West, with a seating capacity of just 126, has over the past seven years presented UK premieres of the best of North American and European writing, works that don’t necessarily whet the commercial appetites of big producers (though Boswell’s starry address book certainly helps in that respect) but thrum with the big ideas and the weightiest of themes under conventional play structures.

Donald Margulies The Model Apartment is a typical choice for the Ustinov, a work whose meaning and its overall effect will continue to burrow under the surface of its audience members for weeks to come. In the moment, it’s the rich acting from its four-strong cast that keeps you glued. It is only later- when waking in the middle of the night, thoughts rushing through your head- that you realise Margulies thesis (about how the effects of the Holocaust trickle down, not just from the original survivors but for the next generations) has hit hard right in the solar plexus.

It is 1985 and retirees Lola and Max have escaped New York for a condo in the sunshine state of Florida. Their new home is a few days away from being ready, so they have been assigned a model apartment for a few nights, a suitably generic, pristine place of ‘luxury’ in designer Tim Shortall’s impeccably realised set. Yet it is soon revealed that the surface sheen is empty, the refrigerator not working, the television set without a back, as ashtray glued to the table. Just like Max and Lola appearances can be deceptive.

Soon their daughter Debby bursts onto the stage, hurling insults and marking her territory over her weary parents. An early life of being beat down means that they still do not have the vocabulary or the emotional strength to fight back against their oppression. The atrocities may have changed from Nazi death camps to abuse spewing relatives, but their emotional stoicism to trauma has not shifted. Emily Bruni’s daughter is a wild mix of American obscenity and mental fragility as the daughter who has left her med centre and her pills in New York, brought her homeless lover along for the ride (Enyi Okoronkwo brings his charming innocence to bear again) and continues to haunt her parents every waking moment. Her padding to convey the obese daughter may not be as fully realised as the one we saw Boswell utilise in The Whale earlier in the year (she looks like a thin women padded up), but Bruni makes something of a character that on the page, with its mix of rambling monologues and shifting emotional levels, feels nigh impossible to play.

As Lola and Max Diana Quick and Ian Gelder give the high-quality performances that have now become de riguer at this BA1 venue. Like the apartment, there is a surface gentility to the characters that hide something wrong underneath. When they make love, it is with a pawing intensity, as though savouring their last moment of joy on this earth. Both seem at their happiest when they slip into fantasy reminiscence, Lola with her oft-told tale of being close confidant to Anne Frank and Max in his dream-like encounters with the beautiful, mysterious and fragile Diana, also played by Bruni.

As the play reaches its third act Margulies keeps shifting perspectives and asking the hard questions. Has a lifetime of being exposed to stories of the Holocaust atrocities damaged their daughter beyond repair? Has America helped mend or just simply cut Lola and Max off from their emotional cores in this land of impeccable design and empty emotionality?

It’s a work that suggests that the damage of the Holocaust is still stretching its tentacles wide, a piece that gnaws away so you don’t realise what it’s doing until reflection afterwards. In short, it’s another Boswell triumph, a play that will not gain the garlands come awards season but one that will stay swirling in the subconscious of those who see it.

The Model Apartment plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 22nd December.