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.
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.