It’s a sign of the strength of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School class of 2015 that with each production they play, its different performers that draw the attention. They’ve formed a solid ensemble, think of Chelsea but with different players getting to be Hazard, Fabregas and Costa each time. It’s almost a shame that they are now forced to break apart to seek their fortunes in this most fickle of vocations: the troupe they have formed over the past 2/3 years; with the trust built up, the shorthand they have developed; is the envied position of theatre companies since Shakespeare’s day. Some of this year’s graduating group sign off with Deborah McAndrew’s The Grand Gesture, an entertaining cross that lies somewhere between Mrs Brown’s Boys and a Chekhov short story. Like that suggests this production is a hotpotch of styles and performance. It encompasses a number of enjoyable episodes but without fully coalescing into a fully realised whole.
Simeon Duff (Simon Riordan) is depressed. No job, being kept by his ever patient and understanding wife, he is a man who throws himself into ideas without wanting to do the legwork. When his dreams of making his fortune as a tuba player fall apart on lesson 2 he resolves to put an end to his life. This sets in chain a number of visitors who all want to claim his grand gesture for their cause. Should he die for for love, for academia, for the church, for the topless students currently holding their demonstrations?
McAndrew’s 2013 adaption of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide remounts the play originally set in Stalin’s Russia to a modern Northern city. Director Gwenda Hughes has blended the timeframe of the original with the modern update, so we get to see a Russian tenement building and pub in Sam Wilde’s immersive design that rather impressively takes over the whole of the Tobacco Factory space; and mixes with costumes from the Soviet era, from the French nouvelle vague, from modern British trends. This approach is used in Shakespeare but what works in his epic, universal style doesn’t fully convince with writing that demands a fully realised world it can pin its episodes to. These are enjoyable with the feel of the old time variety: toe-tapping musical interludes, puppet show prologue, men in drag forming a kick line but they’re entertaining diversions; asking for more connection to the world Hughes has set the piece in.
Some of the performances strain, Tilly Steele gets the best lines but never manages to dispel her youth as the mother in law throwing out Hail Mary’s, whilst Riordan has an everyman hangdog charm but a tendency to utter every line as proclamation. The stand out performance come from Marcus Fraser whose sonorous tone and charismatic turn, as the tenement landlord who wishes to turn Simeon’s suicidal impulse into a business transaction, suggests that his casting in the Kenneth Branagh West End company is well deserved. Martha Seignior grounds the piece as the long suffering wife and there is great support from Anna Riding as the wannabe French muse and Harry Egan as the gormless postman who views life through a Marxist lens. Kate Cavendish chips in with another eye catching turn as a jealous neighbour keeping the recently bereaved landlords bed warm whilst also plucking winningly on a harpsichord in the funniest set piece of the night
It’s an entertaining two and a half hour ride that loses some steam in its second half. Still there are some great character turns which these graduate actors grab with both hands and show they’re match fit for the next step in their journeys.