Off Peak- Weston Studio ☆☆☆

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In its ninth year, the Made In Bristol scheme has been nothing but an unqualified success. If not all the companies have gone on to the West End success of The Wardrobe Ensemble, the list of theatre-makers spread over both the local and national theatre ecology is proof positive that the scheme is spinning gold.

Play The Goat’s Off Peak suggests that there is a whole new host of talent to add to the scene. The fictional activist group ‘Felix’ may be out to cause total global happiness in the Bristol Parkway to Reading commuter train, but the company seem as destined to ensure they provide their audience with as rollicking a time. It’s a blast of a 55-minute piece, one that feels very ‘Bristol’ in its energy, although wisely not as obviously influenced by the creative practitioners who work with them as they usually are, and an ode to a celebration of living in the moment.

Of course, as with most first pieces of work, it could probably do with a sharp editors pen, to ‘kill the darlings’, those rehearsal room moments that become company favourites, but don’t necessarily translate to the stage. Yet there is enough imagination to override these caveats, a host of great songs, some clever tableaux that demonstrate the modern curse of our smart devices, and a wonderful piece of staging that signifies the train chugging along on its journey as a pair of wittering old ladies.

Its late lurch into thriller territory doesn’t fully coalesce but there is much to feel excited about with this 2019 company.

Off-Peak plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 6 July.

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Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs)-Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

 

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There’s something about watching Kneehigh’s Dead Dog In A Suitcase at Bristol Old Vic that just feels like a major work coming home. Apart from its own Cornish base the Asylum, no theatre feels like the spiritual home of the anarchic company quite like this King Street Venue. It comes alive in the splendid Georgian jewel of a space, and Bristol, now conditioned after a decade of Tom Morris’ programmed work that has embraced the playful and musical nature of theatre, embraces it like a favourite child.

It’s a mixture of the bawdy and the lyrical, stirred with some of its classical origins and finished off with a sprinkling of Portishead and ska, is an adaptation from writer Carl Grose, director Mike Shepherd and composer Charles Hazlewood of the original John Gay British musical The Beggars’ Opera.

On this, its third visit, it still remains a marvel, one that I dubbed my favourite show of 2014, and one that still possesses a majority of its cast from that run. Often overlooked about the risk-taking Cornish company, is how in tune with the European rep system they are. Plays in this country, often work their short runs and then disappear; if they’re lucky potentially receiving a revival a few years later to confirm their place in the repertoire. Kneehigh shows go a different route, dusted off and reimagined slightly every few years which allows them to play into the national consciousness. Think of Tristan and Yseult. Or its Brief Encounter. These are works that have now become school set texts as can be demonstrated by the hordes of school groups willingly flooding into the auditorium minutes before curtain up.

It is also fascinating to see performers evolve and deepen their performances. Take Dominic Marsh’s charismatic anti-hero MacHeath. Five years ago, he brought boyish charm to the part of the contract killer whose wandering eye keeps him in trouble. Now, he brings something different, more years of living behind him, a dead-eyed glaze that suggests he has seen a lot of life and found it wanting. He’s gone from boyish rock front man to the weary stop the world I want to get off veteran. Same performer, same role, but it changes the whole energy of the evening.

As the two women MacHeath betroths himself too, Angela Hardie and Beverly Rudd play the archetypal virgin and the harlot but with an added agency. Hardie especially goes through a journey as the heart-broken Polly finds her damaged artery turning to stone. Meanwhile, Rina Fatania returns to her role as the homicidal matriarch and is just as terrifyingly funny as before. Yet the stand out performer in a whole squad of them is Georgia Frost’s Filtch. Undoubtedly one of the stand out students of my years spent reviewing BOVTS it is brilliant to see her talent being now recognised by our national companies. Her powerful vocals, her clowning that reminded me of Keaton, it’s almost criminal how many facets she possesses and if there is any justice she is going to be a big star for years to come.

In the wrong hands, the whole thing could fall into a convoluted mess, with its multiple switching of suitcases, double crossings and Punch and Judy pier shows. But through all its broad mayhem, Shepherd’s production keeps its narrative clarity clear and it’s pacing spot on. He keeps his piece de resistance to last, its final moments an iconic moment of 21st-century theatre, as a violinist plays ever more frantically as the world collapses behind her. It’s a showstopping moment in a work fully in tune with what I feel theatre should be. I hope they revive it forever.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

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Marine Laurencelle Photo by Mark Dawson.

The joy of watching Bristol Old Vic Theatre School shows isn’t just in the opportunity to view industry players of the future, but also getting the opportunity to watch works that, for budgeting reasons alone, are unlikely to grace our regional playhouses but once in a blue moon. As a prescribed Brechtian, who believes him only below Shakespeare in the theatrical Mount Rushmore, it is always a treat to get to see his masterworks hit the stage. Unfortunately, in Jesse Jones’ production for the MFA International Students, the fallibility of directors’ theatre came to the core, its concept blocking any attempt at clean storytelling.

It starts strongly, as the audience enters the space to be met with a local community protesting the gentrification plans of a local property developer. With North Street just a few yards down the road from the Tobacco Factory space and ex-mayor George Ferguson occupying a floor just above the theatre, it’s not difficult the imagine these very protests could have happened in this very space. Yet, ultimately, it’s not grounded in any sense of time, place or location. The costumes suggest a mix of Seattle grunge and the 40’s, and the characters a mix of everything from Irish travellers to New Jersey made men to European gold-diggers.

This is the challenge Brecht set to his actors, his epic style stretching them to invest in vastly different characterisations across multiple theatrical forms. Many academics place Brecht and Stanislavski at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what they required from their actors, but I’d disagree. At the heart of both is specificity, and here the work is just not specific enough. The accents aren’t always immediately placeable and though the fourteen strong cast sketch outlines for their roles there is too little colouring in. The challenge is doubled by them having to constantly find moments in a stage that is a constant blur of motion, you just long for it to focus and let it breathe in close up for a second.

Jones has produced some wildly inventive work with The Wardrobe Ensemble but here there feels a lack of interrogation. Killing your babies is a useful maxim for all theatre-makers, and here there are too many instances where, although it is understandable where the idea comes from it ultimately gets in the way of a clean story. It’s lack of tightness in the thinking also bleeds into some of the action, across the evening there were multiple mishaps or dropping of lines that suggest it isn’t as yet fully drilled.

All of which isn’t to say there aren’t moments to latch onto. Marine Laurencelle heroine Gruca, grows from a young servant girl rescuing a babe on impulse to a self-sacrificing Mother who ultimately gets a happy ending in Frank McGuiness’ salty translation. Her climbing of mountains, by stepping up and down from a wooden box, demonstrates an audience’s enthrallment around actors physical endurance and her quieter tender moments with James Costello Ladanyi fiancée soldier are the most emotionally effective moments of the evening.

It’s the Act 2 emergence of Alice Birbara’s Dionysian, pan-sexual judge Azdak that the night really comes alive. Her Coke snorting, rock star inflected turn brings out the key Brechtian elements of showbiz razzmatazz and a cocked eyebrow to its audience as if to suggest complicity in its abundance. There is also a thrilling soundtrack, composed by musical director Jack Drewry and delivered by Jessie Fahay, Darby Hannon and Claire Shenstone-Harris that utilises the same punkish spirit

If Brecht picked the wrong side of history in plumping his sympathy down for Stalin and communism, he knew how to wrap up a fairy-tale, as good triumphs over evil and a mother gets both child and man.  Its second half leaves its audience with enough good will, but at three hours this messy, inventive, meandering, sexy and occasionally wrong-headed evening pulls and tugs all over the place.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 29 June.  

One Night In Miami- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD HUBERT SMITH Miles Yekinni, Matt Henry, Conor Glean, Christopher Colquhoun

 

On the 25th February 1964, four men met in a drab downtown motel room, just hours after young Cassius Clay had shocked Sonny Lister and become World Heavyweight Champion of the World. It seems scarcely credible that Clay, shortly before converting to Islam and becoming Muhammed Ali, political activist Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and American football player Jim Brown would all end up in this one room in Miami, yet truth, as so often, proves stranger than fiction.

Originally seen on these shores in 2016 at the Donmar Warehouse, this Nottingham Playhouse originated production, now seen at Bristol Old Vic, allows regional audiences a chance e to see a buzz-worthy new work, not long after its original showing. Back in the days of rep, this was common practice, but now most new work disappears long before it gets a chance to play into the repertoire so it is good to see Kemp Power’s play get this early revival. However, this new production, directed by Matthew Xia, reveals it to be lacking a knockout punch, as interesting as you’d expect when four giants of black culture come together, but also static, wordy and apart from a few golden moments all related to Matt Henry’s thrilling vocal turns as Cooke, lacking in theatrical vitality.

Henry, Olivier award winner and MBE, is without question, the star of the evening. His Cooke has the charisma to burn and a voice that turns all that he sings into platinum gold. The moment when the lights fade on Grace Smart’s deliberately beige motel and turn into Vegas floorshow for Henry to parade out into the auditorium are the moments when the work suggests what it could have been if it had been prepared to turn fantastical a bit more often. Yet for most of the evening, there is a stultifying effect as vivid as the one the men feel, trapped in the room while they really want to go out and party.

They are hemmed in by the two bodyguards outside posted by the Islamic brotherhood guarding (or keeping prisoner) Malcolm X. Christopher Colquhoun imbues him with the quiet charismatic thoughtfulness that made him such a vital weapon in the civil rights battle and his debates with Cooke are the highlight of the night. While Malcolm accuses Cooke of selling out by playing to white audiences, Cooke argues for cultural infiltration. Running back Brown (Miles Yekinni) and heavyweight star Clay (Conor Glean) arguably do the same, allowing their voices to be heard above the parapet by rising to the top of their respective sports.

If Power’s writing doesn’t fully find a voice for Clay, arguably the greatest sportsman in history and leaves the Islamic brotherhood as slightly anaemic presences, Xia’s production is thrown somewhat with an awkwardly placed interval. For some reason, a decision has been made to input an interval in an obvious 100 minute straight through the piece, and even more puzzling it comes as we’re into its final movement. It breaks all momentum and makes loose the plays gradually tightening screws.

Henry’s vocals alone make it worth a visit, but this revival doesn’t make a case for it being a work to rival something like the Mountaintop that visited Bristol last year. This brings four giants together (by a year later two of them would have had their lives cut short) but doesn’t generate almost as much magic as you’d expect.

One Night In Miami plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 29 June.

Nicholas Nickleby- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

Cast of BOVTS Nicholas Nickleby. Photo by Mark Dawson.

 

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Nicholas Nickleby is a phenomenal achievement, a total theatrical triumph and without doubt the best Drama School production I’ve ever seen. Over the 7 ½ hours of theatre divided into two parts, 26 graduating actors play over 150 roles in David Edgar’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s serial novel, inhabiting a broad panoply of Victorian life.

In the close to 40 years since the play was first staged so famously by the RSC, it has become only more in tune with the times. Now with sprawling box sets on demand, its faithful novelistic approach to putting the whole of the page on stage seems more likely to win a loyal audience prepared to binge. Edgar understood the debt that Dicken’s felt to the theatre, and no book probably encapsulates that better than the one about the Nickleby family. The couple of hours we spend in the company of the Crummies theatrical troupe could be a full-length play in itself, culminating in a Romeo and Juliet that, with its knockabout farce and happy ending edits, challenges the Mechanicals Pyramus and Thisbe as the best play within a play to ever be written. As the piece also later whisks itself off to opera houses and gives Shakespearean epitaphs to characters, it does feel fitting that this is the Dickens that got the full theatrical marathon treatment.

Directors Jenny Stephens and Geoffrey Brumlik have marshalled something extraordinary to the stage, one that juggles both the intimate in fleeting dabs and the epic in broad brush strokes. From its thrilling first image, you know you are in safe hands, as the lights snap up and the whole graduating year group stand grouped on stage, ready to narrate the tale. It drew an admiring gasp from a group of school children in the upper circle, a reminder that the magic of theatre really does come from the simplest of resources.

As Nicholas and his sister Kate, Kel Matsana and Eva O’Hara prove that goodness doesn’t necessarily translate to dryness. Matsana is perfectly cast as Nick, his boyish tenor perfectly translating into a boy learning to become a man. Carrying a play which is fundamentally about him yet where he is responsible for few of the inciting incidences is challenging but Matsana brings so much charm to bear that he vaults its challenges.  O’Hara is a striking presence, with her high cheekbones and flaming red hair, for great portions of the day she resembles her namesake Scarlett if she had taken to mourning dress. As she falls victim to a society that sees woman as collateral in men’s business doing’s, her Kate stands firm, taking each blow of life’s misfortunes but refusing to wilt.

As their Uncle Ralph, Will Fletcher gradually turns more skeletal as his quest for revenge against his nephew takes shape, a reverse of Scrooge where a miserly moneylender eventually turns further to the dark side. In Dickens’ tale of good vs evil, there are also some cracking villains from Lawrence Haynes as an original Bullingdon boy and Finnbar Hayman as a predatory old man.

In reality, you could pick out all and any of the ensemble for special praise, but over the course of the day it was difficult not to pick out the wonderful Anna-Kate Golding whose Fanny Squeers was a comic masterclass in pathos and vanity, Holly Carpenter whose range went from drunk stage managers to even more sozzled Glaswegian and Tom Briggs who delighted in multiple character etches.

Oscar Porter has probably the most challenging role of the evening, attempting to step into the role that made David Threlfall a star. His Smike is, perhaps wisely, less physically exerting than the one Threfall created, but he is perhaps just as touching as Nicholas’ loyal friend, rescued from the clutches of the Squeer’s brutal school and becoming a lifelong travel partner. Whether helping the ladies with their bags or trying to learn the apothecary speech, Porter is a sweet, winning presence.

Oscar Selfridge’s inventive, layered, set takes us from Yorkshire to London and onto Portsmouth while Alana Ashley has worked wonders in her costume design, from the flamboyance of the theatricals to the black pall of the mourning Nickleby’s. It’s only in Rob Casey’s lighting design that a tight time schedule really shows, as sometimes the actors struggle to find their light which makes some audible a little tricky. He does, however, create a stunning late shadow tableau, as three characters head out on pilgrimage, another beautiful moment in a day loaded with them.

There are days and shows in the life of a theatregoer that will last with them forever. This is one. As the final curtain came down at 11 pm, some nine and a half hours after the first light up, the actors took their final bow and fell, exhausted and elated into each other’s arms. You wanted to go up and join them. A fitting end to a brilliant year group. Bravo.

Blithe Spirit- Bath Theatre Royal ☆☆☆☆

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There is something particularly satisfying in seeing a well-made play click together as well as it does here. Noel Coward famously penned Blithe Spirit in six days while on holiday, and saw it playing on tour a little over five weeks after first sitting down at his typewriter to work.  For a piece crafted in a blaze of frenzied activity, it’s plotting couldn’t be tighter. How many plays today, with their litany of workshops and literary managers feel quite so tightly constructed? It’s not in truth a ‘great’ play, as one see’s Private Lives, but as the original patrons had to climb over boards in Blitz strewn London to see its premiere at the Piccadilly it more than fulfils its function as a great divertissement.

Richard Eyre’s luxurious production for the Theatre Royal Bath Summer Season highlights this even further. It screams its inevitable West End transfer, from Anthony Ward’s scrumptious towering library set to the casting of national treasure Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. Star casting can sometimes take a little bit of a beating but this is how to do it writ large. If her first entrance almost invites an entrance round (one that thankfully wasn’t forthcoming) the eyes barely leave her whenever she is on stage. We all know what a fantastic comedy actress she is, what took me by surprise a little is how much a creature of the stage she is.  Without over-egging it she musters laughs from her every utterance and finds that sense of the physical absurdity- legs akimbo on the sofa, or buried under the coffee table- that one expects to see in her most famous creation, Eddy. It’s a performance that both gives the audience what it wants without tipping the balance away from the rest of the piece.

For, in reality, the play is about suave author Charles Condomine and the complications that arrive for himself and his second wife Ruth when a séance brings back his dead first wife Elvira. For while Ruth brings the stability and comfortable life of middle age, Elvie is the glitz, glamour and danger of a younger man. Coward, just turned 40 at the time of writing, must have been aware of his ageing boy wonder tag and tackled the fear and regret inherent in the artist coming to a crossroad. The final act can be seen as misogynistic, but if one views it in a kinder light, it could be argued that it is a call for an artist to abandon both his youth and his stifled middle-aged slump and forge a new path for himself.

As Charles, Geoffrey Streatfield brings the lightness of touch and a way with a barb that would have marked him out as a leading man from another era. His sparring with second wife Ruth, the luminous Lisa Dillon, is a highlight, though Dillon is far too glamorous in her stylish wardrobe, also designed by Ward, to convince that their days of glitz are behind him. As first wife Elvira, Emma Naomi at first seems a little marooned around the clipped tones and saddled with a terrible wig, but comes into her own as the play goes on, a sensual presence that makes Streatfield’s delight in seeing her again, an obvious one. Along with a scene-stealing turn from Rose Wardlaw’s maid, the performances are a constant delight.

It’s a defiantly old-fashioned evening, the curtain comes down at the end of scenes and John Leonard’s sound design is a little too on the nose, but it is also a guaranteed crowd pleaser. It’s not going to change your life but for a chance to see a national treasure and to wallow away from the pressures of the real world for a couple of hours, Blithe Spirit ticks all the boxes.

Blithe Spirit plays at Theatre Royal Bath until the 6 July.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike- Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆☆

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Beware the well garlanded American play that descends to our shores, is a well-trodden word of advice from any prospective theatre producer looking to bring an American hit over here. So many have crashed and burned that it mostly seems a fool’s errand. Fortunately, Jonathan Church has a showman’s eye for the popular and it’s a relief to report that Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike provides a strong start to another Bath Summer Season. If it’s 2013 Tony Award feels a bit overexposed in this tiny studio in Bath, it rattles along at a fair pace- supported by six terrific performances in Walter Bobbie’s production- as though a Neil Simon play has been transported to a Chekhovian milieu.

Mind you, Christopher Durang’s play gets off to a shaky start. As gay bachelor Vanya and adoptive, depressed sister Sonia sit making breakfast time conversation, we get the worst kind of exposition as siblings who have lived together all their lives layout in blunt form how their professor parents named the three of them after Chekhov characters, how their sister Masha decamped to Hollywood and how they feel being left behind. No sense of drip feeding here, just a full-on exposition dump, the kind that would make the late great Stephen Jeffrey’s shake his heads in exasperation.

Yet maybe Durang realised he had to get that information out so the fun could start. The moment that Janie Dee as movie star Masha hits the stage, the momentum starts rolling and never really lets up. Along with her toyboy lover Spike, all floppy haired boyish gawkishness in Lewis Reeve’s charming performance, Masha has come home, both to attend a fancy-dress party and to inform her siblings, that the house, replete with its cherry orchard (well at least the ten odd trees they have in their garden) will be sold.

For those keeping up with these Chekhovian allusions, it probably won’t come as a huge surprise that an aspiring actress called Nina also enters the scene (doe-eyed and uncynical Aysha Kala) and eventually reads ‘Uncle Vanya’s’ experimental play to the bored, slightly perturbed extended family. For those that know their Fedotik’s from their Yepikhodov’s, it’s an array of theatrical in-jokes though the strength of the play is that it works just as well on its own merits.

Ultimately, it’s a play about family and how your roots will always act as a form of a homing pigeon. Each of the three siblings looks back in regret, Vanya of a lifetime of not chasing what he wants, Sonia of being perpetually ignored and Masha afraid of growing older and never having the chance to prove her mettle as an actress.  Yet over the course of 24 hours each of them discovers a new, potentially positive direction. Because Durang, unlike Chekhov, doesn’t leave them facing the abyss but instead tackling the world through a different prism. So whether its Vanya finding a voice away from his general passivity, Sonia finding confidence as she channels her inner Maggie Smith in a glittering green ball dress, or Masha accepting a film role as a Grandmother, each of them look out on a more positive tomorrow as the Beatle’s Here Comes The Sun plays out at its climax.

Dee is the star of the show, bringing the self-absorbed actress to glittering life. Looking every inch, the movie star in her hemmed jumpsuit and killer heels, her voice husky and full of grit, she manages to make us care even when she is at her most frustratingly blinkered. I’m not sure there’s ever been a bad Dee performance but this one is pitched at her glittering, charismatic best. Mark Hadfield as Vanya makes schlubby passivity endearing rather than frustrating and, as Sonia, Rebecca Lacey’s Maggie Smith impression is worth the price of admission on its own, long before she both breaks hearts and makes one punch the air in one phone conversation. Reeves and Kala both bring youthful charm and pretty looks as the youngsters dragged into the chasm of middle-aged ennui while Michelle Asante does what she can with the overtly kooky maid.

All-in-all it’s a fun night at the theatre, a throwback to when commercial plays dominated the Great White Way. Perhaps it’s all a little saccharine for my taste but I predict a hit.

Vanya and Sonia and Spike and Masha plays at the Ustinov until the 6 July.