It’s funny how great theatre often comes round in cycles. Just a couple of days after declaring that King Lear at Bristol Old Vic had rushed to the top of the leader board in my show of the year, Travelling Light’s Into The West returning to Bristol as part of its twentieth anniversary and immediately steps up to the plate to challenge it. King Lear with cast of nineteen, running time of three hours and cosmic world building is as far away from this as can be; with its cast of three, 70 minutes straight through and small, uncluttered staging. What both works achieve though is to tell their stories on an epic scales. Both also have that feeling that this is work that truly belong to this city.
I have joked with friends and colleagues enough about what I would classify as the Bristol style. It has been influenced by Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic’s AD Tom Morris’ previous explorations at Battersea Arts Centre and can be mostly summed up as straightforwardly robust, generally comic storytelling, songs, actors essaying animals and a general air of inclusivity. It’s rare a week passes where you don’t see a show here that doesn’t incorporate most of these tropes. Too often, when it has not been interrogated thoroughly enough, it can be a frustrating experience for its audience, but here in Travelling Lights careful hands, they use the style to tackle something massive in scope with the smallest of resources. It’s a show that put the company on the map, toured the world and may have been the precursor of the work now presented on almost all the stages in this city. Nothing can top the original though, its a thoroughly conceived piece of family theatre that thrills and charms in equal measure.
It tells the story of two Irish children Finn (Adam J Carpenter) and Ally (Nina Logue) who discover a glorious white horse Tir na n’Og as it appears out of nowhere from a sea mist. Making a home for it on the fourteenth floor of this Dublin tenament building soon gets the attention of the local police force and a corrupt officer who wishes to make a sweet penny from the horses jumping ability. Cue a journey to the West and an awakening in their drunk father (Craig Edwards) a former King Of The Travellers who has found his escape from his demons at the bottom of a bottle.
It’s themes of broken families rebuilt, of the intrusions between mythical folk tale and the hard dank streets of Dublin cause the heart to soar and the eyes to water. Carpenter and Logue both convince as children without resorting to generalities while Edwards reprises his famous dog routine from Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre while imbuing the dad with a fragile machismo that threatens to shatter like glass at any moment and a kindly Grandad who weaves tales about his son’s proud history. All the while Thomas Johnson’s musician strums his guitar at the back of the stage conveying a haunting, Celtic world a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Greg Banks’ production strips everything back with the three actors flicking between their main roles, other bystanders and on occasion Tir na ‘Og. Utilizing lighting, the physicality of his actors and the scaffolding on the set he has created a horse that goes head to head with that other glorious theatrical equine Joey.
Family theatre at its best it is a welcome return to a production that has inspired so much of this cities working practice. It deserves to be a hit again.