The Odyssey- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆☆

Homer’s The Odyssey is one of the great texts of Western Literature. In tackling it, Bristol favourites Living Spit, known for their anarchic, slap-stick takes on histories great and infamous figures, ascend to the next level of ambition. Yes, this Odyssey still has all the silliness, poo jokes and Carry On entendres its fan base has come to expect, but in adding to the team the luscious velvety tones of singer Kate Dimbleby, it adds a level of sophistication previously hinted, but never made explicit in their work.

Dimbleby portrays Penelope, destined to wait in Ithaca for 20 years for the triumphant return of her heroic husband Odysseus. Yet as he returns in triumph at the end of the prologue of the show, he interrupts her yearning, aching lyrical lament. She stops him and makes her stand, she will finish what she has started before the guys can do their hero thing. She will reclaim some of the agency Penelopes lost from Homer’s original phallic centred take.
What follows is Odysseus’ account of how he found himself delayed on his return from the battlefields of Troy. It is episodic in tone, but there is little that can be done; after all a tale that takes us from a cyclops cave to the land of the dead to a seven-year tryst with the nymph Calypso hardly has linear momentum. A narrative smoothness isn’t part of the package.
What it does allow though is bucket loads of memorable set-pieces, from a never-ending Chinese buffet to a one-man tour de force rendition of twenty men being slaughtered using nothing more than a torch. Meanwhile, I’ve probably not seen a more visceral moment in theatre this year than the sacrificial slaughter of a soft-toy sheep and goat which made its audience audibly groan and laugh in equal measure on the night that I saw it.
Stu McLoughlin and Howard Coggins are their expected great value, the former multi-rolling to great effect around his featured role as Minion number 1 while Coggins demonstrates some real depth and a dulcet voice as the returning hero reclaiming his lands and his wife. Both are upstaged though by Dimbleby, ably assisted by musician Sam Mills, whose sultry tones, supported by a loop, drift around the Tobacco Factory space and who uses her raconteur charms to bring Penelope to vivid life, a women who has created something for herself in the years her husband has been away and now profoundly afraid whether their relationship can survive such an enforced absence.
There are moments where the steady jokes a minute count drops but this can be excused in a work that also finds pathos within its sketch format. A South West institution, Living Spit’s fouteenth show is their richest yet.

Earthquakes In London- Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio ☆☆☆

Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London has only got more pertinent in the close to a decade since it originally premiered at the National. Its preoccupation with the effects of m climate change and the future left to the next generation was more a dinner table conversation cleanser rather than inciting Extinction Rebellion protesters to storm the barricades (or tube platforms) and Greta Thunberg to worldwide fame. Then it felt urgent. Now it feels essential! Its meshing of the political and personal catapulted Bartlett from promising miniaturist to one of the kings of the current scene with Baftas and Oliviers to back up the hype. It is in short, exactly the kind of piece you hope a school with the resources of Bristol Old Vic would revive.

And by and large, they make a good fist of it. The tale of three sisters and one absent father sprouting philosophies about the need for sweeping changes to save the world from his American Ivory Tower breaks into four episodic strands that tumble back and forth from the swinging sixties to some undefined Arctic future. Oldest sister Sarah (Charlotte East) is a Lib Dem Government Climate Change Minister overworked and overwrought and finding herself growing ever distant from her downtrodden husband Colin. Middle child Freya is nervous about the world she will bring her child up in and finds herself wandering the Heath one afternoon. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Jasmine gives political protest Burlesque performances and finds herself as part of a blackmail plot to get in the ear of her oldest sisters.
On the first viewing of the BOVTS class of 2020 amid a host of good work some performances stand out. East does a terrific job of portraying the career women who has lost sight of the firebrand activist she once was. As her husband, Michael Dodds carefully essays the journey from jobless and hopeless to a man back in charge of his agency thanks to a sharp suit and some high revelations. As the spiky, eccentric father Mark Milligan brings biting wit and a no-nonsense approach to the academic that couldn’t stand to stay with the girls once he found himself a widower.
Meanwhile, Olivia Edwards is terrific as a teenage tearaway who is a terrific coup de theatre transforms into future freedom fighter while Elias Ado and Isobel Coward
both bring terrific value to a number of their ensemble roles
Cressida Brown’s production doesn’t have the same awe dropping audacity that Rupert Goold’s original brought. You can see the kinetic energy that has been carefully plotted, yet it doesn’t always translate from thought to action. Sometimes the transitions feel lifeless, even with the cast working overtime to spark them into life. What this does is place more focus on the text and reveals a few creaky elements. Bartlett’s ambitious trip into the future still doesn’t feel as fully realised, as for example, the ones Tony Kushner produced in Angels In America, and in a slightly condensed form some of the relationships don’t feel as fully fleshed out as they originally were.
Similar to Clybourne Park last year it reveals this modern classic to be a highly accomplished piece of work, but one that perhaps has been elevated to a higher state by a sensational original production. It is worth seeing though, both for its essential thesis and the sheen provided by the next generation of stage and screen talent.

Much Ado About Nothing- Tobacco Factory ☆☆☆☆

Beatrice (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Benedick (Geoffrey Lumb) Photo by Mark Douet)

There was a worry when founding artistic director Andrew Hilton announced his retirement from Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory and the company found themselves shifted from the Spring into the Autumn by the Tobacco Factory programming that it may have been the beginning of the end for the company. Thankfully, their landing of Elizabeth Freestone to direct the work since Hilton has left seems to have been something of a coup. Following a highly entertaining, though sometimes scattershot dive into Henry V, Much Ado hits a higher level of excellence again. It is SATTF operating at their best, clean, concise storytelling that places the actor at the heart of what they do. You often hear of work that is described as ideal for a Shakespeare novice. What is harder to do is produce work that appeals to virgin and connoisseur alike. This ticks all the boxes and provides their best work since Romeo and Juliet introduced Paapa Essiedu as a star in the making.

Bristol seems to be going through a period of assessing what regional theatre’s USP should be at the moment and finding that a key element is in the nurturing and support of local talent. Graduates of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School dominate the cast list; from the more experienced leads of Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Geoffrey Lumb to newer standout graduates Hannah Bristow, Georgia Frost and Alex Wilson. The city is lucky to have such an excellent school at its heart and the classical nous is clear for all to see, with actors who can confidently playoff and riff confidently on the iambic. One of the great things about the company, which may be lost when it moves on (it plays Wilton Music Hall in November) is the sense of family and returning to catch-up time and time again with old friends. Most of the cast are repeat returnees and though thirteen may be unlucky for some its not for Chris Bianchi whose 13th exploration for them is producing his finest work to date as Leonato: he charts Hero’s father’s journey with subtle sympathy so that when he disowns his daughter when he thinks she has been unfaithful to her husband-to-be it hits him and us with the force of a sledgehammer.

His detailed work bleeds into the whole ensemble. Too often the work feels like a canvas for the two leads to dominate, but this production- more than any other I have seen of it- adds detail beyond the caricature. Take Zachary Powell’s Don Pedro, who here turns the part into a bellowing robust captain displaying deep humanity beneath the blokey sheen.

The real coup is in attracting Myer-Bennett back to the company and her Beatrice is a delight. Without adding anything particularly new to the role, she makes her irresistible just by finding the truth in her every utterance. From deploying her wounding wit in her sparring matches to the bubbling up of long-suppressed emotions as she discovers that Benedick truly loves her, she has a knack of bringing an audience onside, most particularly when she sits in the audience and delivers her soliloquy directly to a punter. Her command of ‘kill Claudio’ still elicited the usual laugh from an audience unsure of how to receive the change of temperature, but there was ice cold specificity behind it, demonstrating a woman not to be trifled with when it comes to matters of the heart.

Lumb initially struggles to keep up but comes into his own during the galling scene, as he energetically flings himself between hiding spots to ever hilarious effect. His is a Benedick who is more at ease in his declarations of love than the world-weary armour of wit that we initially encounter. By the end, he is a more than worthy match for her.

Freestone’s production doesn’t quite get everything right. She can’t quite nail the laughs with the watchmen and there is a sense of the air leaving the room after the brilliantly realised disruption of the wedding. It could do with one final knock-out moment. Still, this is a mighty fine piece of work. On a chilly, Autumnal night, when the football made parking all but impossible, there is no greater praise than people leaving with a jig in their step and a song in their heart. The city’s love affair with the company continues.

Cyrano- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

It’s been many years since Chris Harris brought pantomime to the Bristol Old Vic and who would have thought then that it would be the French who brought it back. Or to be more specific, who would have thought that Edmond Rostand’s poetic lover and also fighter Cyrano de Bergerac would be the one to bring a very English form back to the King Street venue. It would be unfair to say the whole show falls into panto, but early on Tom Morris’ production suffers from a surfeit of toe-curlingly unfunny comedy. It’s only when the location moves to the battlefield and the production is allowed to breathe and the poetry to sing that the production finally begins to come into its own.

For the French, the poet with the conk is as iconic as Hamlet. A showman with pizzazz, who duels with the same style as he dashes off sonnets, the contradiction at his heart is his shame at his perceived physical deficiency. For while he can outwit or outfight any man, his rather large snout stops him from declaring his love for his childhood friend Roxanne. When the young, handsome but inarticulate Christian catches her eye, he resolves to provide the soul to the charming outward shell of his young friend.

When played to its depths, it is one of the great love stories, telling of one man’s lifetime devotion to one he believes is beyond him. At its best, we should be plunged deep into the soul and Tristan Sturrock gives it his all to get us there. His is a rather terrific Cyrano, fleet of thought and foot, he dominates the stage in a charismatic turn that eclipses almost everything else we see on stage. It’s a technical bravura turn, but one where the production around him doesn’t fully let us see the pain within. The moment he believes and then is denied a declaration of love should be heart-breaking. Here it feels a temporary set-back.

Most of this can be laid at the feet of a work that mostly lays down its comedy with a thud. It just isn’t particularly funny and the mugging doesn’t help it. When the pathos eventually comes it’s asking its audience to do too much to meet it on equal terms. The work is much better when they let Peter Oswald’s poetry sing, the rhyming couplets zinging with particular relish. The scenes on the front line are also beautifully realised, as Richard Howell’s lighting and Ti Green’s barricade darkens to resemble an over-the-top charge from the Somme.

In many ways it feels like a valedictory show; if not of Morris’ reign (there has been no suggesting this is coming) but at least of an era. It’s an all-star cast of the Morris years, with all seven players having taken part in these years’ greatest hits. Yet few truly stand out apart from Sturrock and Felix Hayes, who puts that deep bass rumble (the best voice in theatre right now?) to good use as the villain of the piece De Guiche.

By the end, the piece’s deliberate switches between comedy and tragedy seem to have defeated a game but flagging cast. The greatness of the piece is never fully revealed even if in the swaggering Sturrock, moments are fitfully illuminated.

Cyrano plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 16 November.

Extraordinary Wall Of Silence- Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio ☆☆☆☆

There seems to be a driving ethos every year as part of the Bristol Old Vic programming and for 2019 this has been a focus on work that embraces a community not particularly well served by theatre over the years, the deaf. Back in May, Dreadful Deaf from the Horrible Histories team aimed at the obscene decision at the 1880 Milan convention to force all deaf people to study orientalism, better known as oral education, and ban all sign language from schools. In Extraordinary Wall Of Silence, Theatre Ad Infinitum shows that these decisions still ricochet through the lives of those born deaf over the next century and a half.

Taking the form of three stories from the 70’s to the present day, the work, five years in the making and supported with over 40 hours of interviews with deaf people is a rather shaming watch in how little understanding there has been and continues to be for those who suffer hearing impairment. Graham is mocked and ridiculed at school, bullied by his teachers and shunned by his God-fearing parents. Hannah has a cochlear implant inserted aged two, suffers from constant tinnitus and embraces the times she gets to spend with her Dad feeling the vibrations of the guitar. Meanwhile, Alan finds himself sacked from his first job on his birthday, battered by bullies and considers suicide.

If its structure is less complex than expected, the stories played out one after another, themes mirroring and refracting each other but layered one on top of another without splicing, its form is powerful in the way that most Ad Infinitum provides. There are three forms of communication demonstrated within, signing, oral and the physicality of the performers and by the end, it is unclear which of these is communicating most and which form we are receiving our information from. It’s a work that shows us that one form does not play the alpha, for what is lost in sound is made up in the details of the signing.

It’s a piece that the four performers David Ellington, Matthew Gurney, Moira Anna Mcauslan and Deborah Pugh are deeply committed to and each of them provide strong insightful work. Ellington, in particular, is a wonderful actor, demonstrating both the fear and frustration of studying as a deaf student in the ’70s brought.

George Mann’s slick and swift production also features clever sound design by Sam Halmarack that enhances the turmoil that all three key characters face. If it all sounds very worthy and serious Mann also chucks in the cringiest and funniest sex scene this year, a hilariously awkward tumble between the sheets where what is being demanded gets lost in translation.

Yet ultimately what it provides is a clarion call that there is still much more to do to fully incorporate the deaf community into everyday society. What this show makes clear is how essential deaf clubs have become for providing the hearing impaired a space to be and embrace who they are. Are these also a space to learn more about the culture and the basics of signing? An important, thoughtful work that packs a punch.

Rumpelstiltskin- The New Room ☆☆☆

Insane Root has sought to seek out the most interesting nooks and crannies of Bristol to set their work in. Writer Matt Grinter can spin an atmospheric yarn that stifles the air, as evidenced in his Papatango award-winning Orca. So, the chance to see the two of them join forces with the gothic fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, as the nights close in and Halloween rolls closer, is one to get the pulse-raising. Yet its reality doesn’t quite meet the (admittedly lofty) expectation, it is well-done, thoughtful fare, but never gets close to chilling the blood or raising the temperature of the room.

Grinter’s writing focusses on how we tell the tales of yore. Words are the key, the magic of ‘once upon a time’, and how we both tell and receive these tales. Performers Norma Butikofer, Katie Tranter and Dan Wheeler are never better than when they act as narrators, whether clambering on chairs to open the show, or weaving in additional detail of this Germanic folklore tale, made famous when the Brothers Grimm included it in their 1812 collection.

The New Room, also known as John Wesley’s Chapel, is certainly an atmospheric venue in which to play, the oldest Methodist chapel in the world, with its rows of pews and benches a fitting venue in which to see the dark tale play out (though a shin breaker if you’re not careful when entering the space as this critic found out). Yet director Hannah Drake hasn’t found a way to stop the sightline problems the venue poses, although the information stresses audience can feel free to wander the space, there feels very little opportunity to do this once the action begins. You are almost guaranteed to not be able to see at least one of the actors at any one time.

Grinter keeps his telling on point, brisk and brief with odd hints of Low Saxon language spilling in to harken back to its origins. Rumpelstiltskin holds a funny place in fairy tale lore, being a fairly famous title, whose plot may not be as familiar as many of the other Grimm’s tale. So, the story of a peasant girl (Tranter) who is forced to spin straw into gold to save her fathers (Wheeler’s) life from a tyrannical king (Butikofer) with the aid of a mysterious figure (also Butikofer) who claims her unborn child in payment feels fresh.

The idea of making the creature some form of golem rather than the usual elf also adds an additional layer, though arguably it would have worked better as an unsighted demon rather than the ungainly puppet that designer Samuel Wilde has created. By pulling double duty as King and creature Butikofer shows the toxic masculinity that Tranter’s sweet country girl has to face, switching from the puffed-out Regent to slippery creature in the blink of an eye. Wheeler, who is having a great 2019 after his stand out turn in the Tobacco Factory Ensemble, offers a study in goodness as the simple countryman who helps discover the creatures name and ensure a happy ever after.

It’s worth a watch, as everything from this company inevitably is, but it feels low-key Insane Root, a piece to keep the juices flowing until the next big piece is ready to go.

Rumpelstiltskin plays at the New Room until the 2 November.

The Barber Of Seville- Tobacco Factory ☆☆☆☆

A year after their capital project reopened a studio theatre at Tobacco Factory Theatres it has been a rather quiet time artistically for the North Street venue, a couple of middling rep company shows and a low-key set of touring work rather overshadowed by a bumper year at the Old Viv. However, the Autumn season promises to change this, a strongly cast Much Ado courtesy of Shakespeare At the Tobacco Factory and a return of NIE for a Christmas Snow White as well as some promising studio shows suggests an Autumn renaissance. And they’ve started with a bang, The Barber of Seville, a co-production with Opera Project fits seamlessly Hearing voices of this calibre in such intimate surroundings is something that all should be privileged too.

It is rumoured that Rossini tossed this adaptation off in 9 days, and this speed and lightness of touch echoes through the material. The intimate surroundings the Tobacco Factory provides seem to do justice to the comic bouffant, in a way the darker material Opera Project previously have explored haven’t. It’s to do with playing styles, the darker edges that were seen in a work like Tosca, for example, overexpose any hint of overplaying or melodrama on behalf of the singers but the commedia dell’arte stylings here positively Basque in its over-stray.

Its plot of a barber helping a Count steal a ward directly underneath a lecherous doctors’ nose is nothing to write home about, but its classic score certainly is. From Figaro’s opening aria ‘’Largo al factotum’’ to the quintet of Act 3 ‘Don Basilio’, it is a work that is easy on the ear, a perfect introduction to the form for an opera novice. Director Richard Studer is aware of keeping the action brisk and fast and marshals the in-the-round sightlines well, the singers never feeling like they are trapped in no-man’s land.

It’s a work that lives or dies on the strength of its Barber and Philip Smith is a terrific one. His Figaro dominates the action, a glint in his eye and a winning smile shows us a servant that knows how to win the game of life as he mixes with an echelon of class above his humble own. Vocally he is at ease, throwing colour and light into his velvet baritone, his voice soaring above others in the group numbers, a reminder that this Figaro is a level above any he comes into contact with.

As Rosina, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones brings both a dash of teenage vanity and a huge helping of first love tremors as she preens at hearing heightened poetry about her beauty and throws herself gladly at William Wallace’s earnest but virile young count. Her soprano is well controlled, her playing of the music scene very funny. As Dr Bartolo Nicholas Folwell sometimes struggles to stay on top of the rhythm of his patter number but nails the comedy and pathos of an older man lusting after his young ward. Julian Close’s bass rumbles through the depths of the Tobacco Factory impression and Jana Holdsworth makes a strong impression in the smaller role of a servant.

After a year away one can only hope that Opera Project gets back to becoming an annual residency. It’s almost impossible not to be charmed by it all. And those voices in such an intimate surrounding are worth dropping things for and rushing out to get a ticket.

The Barber of Seville plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 5th October.