Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire- Marble Factory ☆☆☆☆

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Pantomime season may be rolling to a close, but a new decade starts with a bang with Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, pushing audience interaction to another level entirely. There is no ‘he’s behind you’ here, instead, the audience is expected to give the full-blooded belt to a range of karaoke classics. Indeed, we are having too much of a good time to be paying much attention to the bloody power plays that sends Mr Ubu and his wife Mrs Ubu to the top of the food chain. When the world is going to hell in a handcart, we might as well party to wade off the impending catastrophe. Sound familiar?

 

Kneehigh has always managed to make theatre feel populist; like a proper rollicking alternative to the latest Marvel blockbuster, or Champions League tie; the international sensations who have run further than anyone in modern drama to hark back to the tenets of John McGrath or Joan Littlewood. Yet, within oodles of fun, the serious point lies just underneath the surface. It is in the admonishment of the audience of how easily they are prepared to go to war, one side against another, with no real idea why they are spraying artillery fire against those who minutes earlier they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with. It is there in its closing moments when an audience in unison point their fingers and sing Lou Read’s haunting lyrics ‘You’re Going to reap what you sow’ and absolve their sins in an instance of pack mentality. In an era where more and more of us want to take responsibility for the future well being of our planet, it is a stern reminder that it does not take much for us to fall happily back into the pack. There is an intellectual rigorousness constantly prodding beneath the fun.

 

Carl Grose has provided an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu trilogy that so scandalised the theatre community at the tail end of the 19th century. It inevitably perhaps cannot produce the depth of feeling that the original did, which incited its audience to riot, but it manages to stay fairly faithful to the original in its use of the scatological obsessed Ubu’s, who find ever-increasing metaphors to describe their genitals and appear to blunder their way to power before in-fighting and vanity soon sees the downfall of these power-obsessed megalomaniacs. As the programme notes observe, any reference to those currently in power is very much intentional. One can only hope that those who currently hold the top offices find themselves similarly the cause of their downfall.

 

As Mr Ubu, Katy Owens is a mass of blonde mop and wiry self-importance, puffed up to the max with a toxic masculinity. Owens’ has been a true standout over the past few years, most recently in Emma Rice’s Wise Children and it is terrific to see her hold the stage as she does here. Her Welsh inflexion gives a lyricalness to all that she delivers, even as she up’s the ante in a desperate attempt to hold the crown. Her version of My Way descends into a punk rejection of learning any lessons from history; a legacy that Jarry predicted and saw come to pass with the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Ceausescu burn and slaughter their way through the 20th century. As his wife, Mike Shepherd (who also co-directs with Grose) finds a playful and then touching vein as the women who finds her agency ignored for too long.

 

The songs range from the aforementioned Reid to Britney Spears, Elton John to The Sex Pistols with a bit of Pharrell Williams to boot. Led by the brilliant Nendi Bhebhe and the house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats it’s a playlist designed to play well for an up for it Friday night crowd. Admittedly the whole evening loses a bit of momentum in a show that could do with a 20 minute trim and sometimes it does fall into a bit of self-indulgence but that is par for the course with a Kneehigh piece and can be easily forgiven in a night that provides terrific entertainment. In the long, dull January stretch, Kneehigh will take you straight to hell in the most rollicking of ways.

A Christmas Carol- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

A Christmas Carol returns to Bristol in style.

It’s best, to begin with, a slight mea culpa. A year ago I took to social media and slammed Bristol Old Vic when they announced A Christmas Carol was coming back a year after its first season. In a small city, with only a couple of options, I thought it was important for the flagship venue to be giving something new to add to the seasonal offerings. But in an almost completely recast production, this Christmas Carol feels like its returning for a homecoming, another Made In Bristol work that can be added to the hall of fame of work created under Tom Morris’ watch.

A year ago I described Felix Hayes performance as Scrooge as one that strode into greatness, a performance that in some ways dwarfed the production as a whole. Stepping into his rather giant shoes John Hopkins is a more vulnerable turn, one who makes you believe that his dreams would haunt him and would be inclined to buy the whole audience a round at the bar as one cheeky punter suggested, even if he lacks the sonorous bass that so hypnotized the theatre last year.
What his slightly less-dominating turn does is allow the merits of the production to take centre stage. And Lee Lyford’s glorious production more than measures up. Its Dickens infused with the gothic imagery of A Grinning Man, a point made even stronger with the casting of Ewan Black, making his return to the city for the first time since he appeared in that masterpiece. Tom Rogers’ set is a world of blacks and greys, that bursts into gloriously ribbon technicolour in a now Bristol Old Vic copywrit coup de theatre.

Gwyneth Herbert’s score drips deeper into the soul on a second listen and the use of children from the audience to inhabit the roles of a young Scrooge and Tiny Tim is inspired. Recent BOVTS graduates Shane David-Joseph and Mofetoluwa Akande both are terrific in their roles, as are other grads George Readshaw and Black, showing that the conveyor belt from school to the theatre is alive and kicking.

It’s a thrilling festive show, one that if I was BOV I’d be looking to cash in and roll out to other regional theatres around the country. Christmas is about familiarity. The return of A Christmas Carol feels right. It allows more of the city to get to see its majesty and has converted me, like Scrooge, from bah-humbug sceptic to floss dancing proselyte.

A Christmas Carol plays at Bristol Old Vic until 12 January 2020.

Snow White- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

Snow White Tobacco Factory ©Mark Dawson Photography

A show both international and with Bristol vibes this Snow White is charming even if it grows ever baggier as it goes along.
A Gallic filled Beauty and The Beast. A Baltic tinged Snow White. As the country prepares to go to the polls, in an election mostly driven by Brexit fever, New International Encounters Christmas shows determinedly embrace our European heritage. This is a Snow White bang up to date, with its talks of walls and quotas, veganism and activism, it’s the most Stokes Croft show you’ll see this festive season. Alex Byrne’s production rolls along nicely harking closely to the original Brothers Grimms narrative and propelled by Joey Hickman’s sensational melodic score. If its second half becomes a little baggy and repetitive there is still plenty of charm here, though its a show that may appeal to the adults in the audience more than the children.

Call it the Wicked effect but shows have realised their interest lies mostly in the villain. Stefanie Mueller’s (who pulls double duty as show designer as well) Queen is the central turn of the evening, resembling Helen Mirren in a shimmering black nightdress, she is the fox whose best days are coming to an end. As the magic mirror proclaims Snow White on her seventeenth birthday as the fairest in the land, Mueller unleashes a howl of agony, through blues-inflected song, of a woman who feels she has lost her power through her fading glamour. This villains motive is clear to see, a woman who feels she is losing her agency through every passing year. If she is going to milk every song, every line, it is because she fears to draw breath in case the world moves on again in the silence.
As Snow White, Jodie Davey doesn’t push too much into cloying Disney princess. Her physicality and facial expressions convey gawky teenage awkwardness softening into a young women’s beauty. Abayomi Oniyide gives the hunter who doesn’t stop looking for his childhood friend some genuine heart.
There are no dwarves here, simply a numerical confused commune, who have turned their forest-dwelling, using the Tobacco Factory pillars and some ragged rugs into something of a festival gathering. If the second-half runs out of steam (turns out Snow White has more lives then Jason Voorhees) Rina Vergano’s and Mike Tweddle’s script is always good-natured enough to keep its audience on side.
There is nothing as crowd-pleasing here as the first dates scene from Beauty and The Beast but it provides a constant stream of light chuckles and playful family entertainment. A show that feels both very Bristol and international in the same tonic. A soothing balm in our troubled times.

Beauty and The Beast plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 19 January 2020

The Snow Queen- Redgrave Theatre ☆☆☆☆


The Snow Queen may not be as familiar a Christmas tale as many (at least until Frozen came along and changed all that) but it is easy to see why theatre’s latch onto it for their Christmas extravaganza. A tale of adventure, memorable villains and multiple exotic locations, it allows plenty of comedic moments in among the lessons learnt and (mild) scares. The last production to hit Bristol was Lee Lydford’s disappointingly over-complicated take for Bristol Old Vic that gave lots of spectacle but little narrative thrust. Safe to say BOVTS production of Theresa Heskins adaptation is a much more solid bet, particularly in the riotous actor-muso production Paul Clarkson brings.

He starts as he means to go on, with the first trilling on skates since Andrew Lloyd Webber chose to make locomotives musical stars. It’s a prologue not encountered in the original text but gets to the heart of the piece, Rory Alexander’s tongue-tied Soren charming Heloise Lowenthal’s, sweet Karen. But when the ice cracks on Bronia Houseman’s suitably wintry set, tragedy befalls them and Lowenthal is soon transformed into the icy Queen, demonstrating a powerful singing voice that reverberates around the Redgrave. In providing a tragic motivation, the pain behind her machinations is given a much sharper focus, allowing us to view two characters lost from their soul mates and trying to call them back.
As the other half of the equation, Jo Patmore gives Gerda an inquisitive nature with a bit of Blyton spark and a whole lot of drummer showmanship determined to find her best friend Kai no matter what the cost. Ashley Woodhouse gives him a gawky, endearing quality, Housman’s costumes demonstrating a boy growing quicker than his clothes can contain him.
It is in truth all a little episodic, from Gerda being lured into a flowery nirvana, which looks to ensnared her for life, to a gang of outlaws squabbling that leads to the mother of all punch ups! Clarkson punctuates each of these with gleeful joy, his productions always imbued with a sense of the populist. Chanel Waddock is the embodiment of this within her numerous ensemble roles, bringing a keen sense of Commedia to each.
Clarkson brings it all to a close with a magicians dash as time is turned and events of the last two hours whirl backwards. What is a Christmas show without a happy ending and here Haskins ensures we get two. As the cast break into their customary Christmas medley, it is impossible not to feel the holiday spirit wash all over you.

Wild Goose Dreams- Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆

Over the years the Ustinov has brought us drama that covers the connection of human beings from across the globe. From the rain-swept streets of Chicago to the chaotic family entanglements of Argentina and the chic Parisian apartments of Zeller, its programming has always been bold and at times brilliant. If Wild Goose Dreams is more former than latter, Hansol Jung’s surrealist love story takes us on a fascinating exploration of the solitary lives some Koreans, from both the North and South divide, face.
Guk Minsung (London Kim) is what is known as a goose man, a South Korean who works away from his family, holed up in a small studio to send most of his salary back home to his wife and kids. Lonely and bored he forges a link to Yoo Nanhee (Chuja Seo) over a dating app. Namhee has previously escaped the North by boat but is haunted by the father she left behind. What begins as a tentative romance soon blossoms into something more, as both come to terms with feeling adrift from their homelands.
Jung’s always fascinating piece, detours constantly down different alleys to tell its story, from its use of a Greek chorus to portray the non-stop interruption of technology on our lives, to penguins bursting out of toilets. Some moments truly stand out, nothing more so than when Minsung’s ballad becomes a viral hit, the numbers ratcheting up until they hit the high millions.
Yet though Michael Boyd’s staging is tidy, it also feels too big for the stage that’s carrying it. The fairly straightforward story at its heart gets overwhelmed in all the works devices. Though the cast is uniformly excellent, it all feels like it needs to come down a notch. Kim and Seo play it straight and find moments of real depth but they are asked to go to war against a text and production that is always wanting more.
It is wonderful to see an all Asian cast (arguably those most underserved by mainstream stages) firing on all cylinders so that it almost feels perverse that both Kim (though admittedly UK born) and Seo have been drafted in from the States to play the two central protagonists. Though both are strong- Kim, in particular, has charm and comic timing to take command of the stage- it seems a dereliction that two UK based performers couldn’t have been contracted for the parts. For all that it is great to celebrate an experimental, entertaining Korean story playing in Bath, more needs to be done to promote actors from all ethnicities to step up into its leading roles.

Wild Goose Dreams plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 22 December.

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.