Originally published on Reviews Hub
So, a new year and a new batch of Bristol Old Vic acting students heading into their final year before graduation and plunging headfirst into the heady world of the acting profession. Though we’re all guilty of going along to these shows with a little bit of star hunting in mind, the graduate shows also give us an opportunity to see plays that rarely, if ever, get showings in our theatres due to economics of cast size or the sheer lack of commercial interest in the work. Thomas Kilroy’s The Madame Macadam Travelling Theatre, even for an avid theatre historian like me, is a rarity – go on Google it, there is nothing there about it. Having watched it, the reason for this neglect becomes clear; it’s simply not a very good play.
Although it’s a real ensemble piece and gives opportunities for a number of actors to get their teeth into highly characterful roles – you can understand why director Jenny Stephens has chosen the work – Kilroy’s play about a travelling English theatre troupe casting their van down in a small Irish town during the early years of the Second World War is full of clichés and lines that more often hit a bum note rather than a soaring one. You can hear the exertion from the playwright, the clunking keys of the typewriter rather than the poetry of the real.
Each character exists in their own hackneyed space, the damaged juvenile lothario, mooning schoolgirls, a ham leading man, the titular Madame Macadam who runs things with good common sense and a wise word. We know these characters from a thousand and one works and none of them over the course of its two-and-a-half hours do anything to surprise you. Even if Kilroy talked at the time of writing the play about the danger that can be created in the theatre, this is a work that feels safe and is not helped by Stephens’ rather conservative production.
Still there are positives to take. The acting by and large is strong, with only the odd waver on the ‘Oirish’ accent reminding us that this is not perhaps their native sound. There are standout performances; from Will Kelly, a taller, more English spit of Christian Borle, as the old school actor who is always performing perhaps to the detriment of his career and personal life; from Jessica Temple whose voice fills the studio with old school ease and a tone that suggests she could find a career working through Coward’s women and from Poppy Pedder as the earnest teenager who falls into lust with the damaged actor.
There is also a striking set by Dawn Allsop which places the tour van centre-stage and decorates the rest of the stage with the beauty of the Irish woodlands, assisted by Tim Streader’s subtle lighting design. It’s a play that introduces us to a brand new set of talent in Bristol and so can be recommended even if the play itself rather sinks without trace.