It’s been an odd year in theatre terms with plenty of strong productions but only a few that have felt full on must see. The biggest show this year was probably Mrs Henderson Presents but though there was plenty to like, it felt a little rocky on its first incarnation, though one imagines lots will have been tidied up when it hits the West End. There was plenty of Restoration works this year too, although I did end up feeling a little burnt out by them, Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factories School For Scandal was a well drilled, beautifully realised production as well and only just fails to make the list.
5. Life Raft- Bristol Old Vic Youth Company Bristol Old Vic
I thought I had a handle on the work of Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company. Clever direction under upcoming directors, a style inspired by the work that has been seen in the building recently and with lovely warm performances from an always talented and versatile ensemble of young player. Then under Melly Still’s genius guidance they produced a thriller from Georg Kaiser’s work, adeptly adapted by Fin Kennedy. Brutal, tender, funny, its a reminder that youth theatre can and should be held up to the very highest standards. When it fires on all cylinders it produces real theatre magic.
The London Cuckolds- Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Tobacco Factory Theatres
I was approaching fatigue syndrome at this point when I arrived for yet another restoration romp (it was the strange fad of the season). Three hours later my enthusiasm had returned and then some. Filthy, a little sexy and Fun with a capital F!! There are very few plays that I would book for a second time straight after but this was one of them. Even more impressively, the International MA Students at Bristol Old Vic managed to master a style that feels quintessentially British and provided probably the most rollicking evening in the theatre this year.
Romeo and Juliet- Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory & Tobacco Factory Theatres
I’ve always found the story of star-crossed lovers a little grating, the romance feeling a bit forced and the second half always falling apart after the massive rumble. In my mind West Side Story is the superior work, it has the tunes to carry the implausibilities of its own second half. Director Polina Kalilina didn’t fully solve the second half conundrum, but boy was that first half exciting; a kinetic thrill ride through fights and raves and first passionate lovemaking nights. Boosted by a star is born performance by Paapa Essiedu this was a Romeo and Juliet that the city of Bristol deserved. Full of fury, intelligent and bursting with youthful zestiness. It would be great to see Kalilina deliver another Shakespeare here soon.
The Mother- Ustinov Studio
Last year everyone raved about The Father and I felt a little lost in the celebrations outside of acknowledging the superb work of Kenneth Cranham. This year I thought the companion piece was a superb achievement and a more accessible work (maybe I’d just grown accustomed to the style) and hardly anyone batted an eyelid. Gina McKee was sensational in the leading role, as pale and vulnerable as any actor I have seen on the stage and making us question again whether what we were seeing was a cruel trick played out by a duplicitous family or simply the jumbled thoughts of a women losing her mind. Ably supported by the smooth as treacle Richard Clothier (who made a great impression as well in The One That Got Away) this was a production that saw the Ustinov, which in many respects had a shaky year, produce their customary finest work under the guiding hand of the superb Lawrence Boswell.
Pink Mist- Bristol Old Vic
I walked out in the interval of this show and declared it a masterpiece. Looking back six months later I concur with my original statement that its simply one of the best plays anywhere this year, not just in Bristol. The young ensemble, comprising three professional debuts, took their opportunity with aplomb and blended unforgettable imagery with Owen Sheer’s tough, sculpted like granite, flying high poetic text. It was impossible not to love this piece, to stand outside and shout from the rooftop that this is a play that deserves to be seen, that shows just why there is nothing like theatre when it goes right: urgent, contemporary and an ‘I was there moment’. On a number of top 10 lists this year and with upcoming dates at the Bush and rumours of a film, this is without a doubt one of the success stories of the theatre under Tom Morris. If you missed it the first time it played in Bristol see it when it returns. If you did see it the first time then you’ve already brought your tickets again right?