The Theatre Week: The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up; Far From The Madding Crowd

Roustabout Theatre’s The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up

So just like that, the theatres shut again. In many ways lockdown 3 feels the toughest one for our industry yet, all the hard work done by the theatre community up and down the country obliterated in another government briefing. Just before Christmas I was lucky to get to Bristol Old Vic to see Living Spit’s Beauty and The Beast in person and wasn’t surprised to see it purr with more energy from the King’s Street venue, hearing an audience’s laughter float around the auditorium as one, rather than the lonely emptiness of the sound when uttered singularly makes a huge difference when encountering comedy. Who knew…?

 First the tiers on the 26th, then the shutdown barely a week later; it feels inevitable now that we are looking at months until audiences will be gracing an auditorium again, even with stringent social distancing measures in place. So, for the foreseeable there appear to be two types of theatre audiences can access for their theatrical fixes. The empty auditorium Livestream or the interactivity of a zoom. Both have their positives, and both have their negatives. Both are no substitute for the real thing. Yet you can only doff your cap at any theatrical artist, company or building currently making work regardless.

 Take Roustabout Theatre’s, The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up played live via zoom from the Wardrobe Theatre over the Christmas period (the one live in-person show scheduled was cancelled before they got an audience in). If losing most of the Christmas theatrical season means the heartbreak of a generation of young people not being introduced to their first taste of theatre, this Zoom provided a welcome tonic. Things feel much better when you can see the delighted faces of its young audience, eagerly putting in suggestions when asked; pushing their cherubic features up close to their webcams as if by doing so would allow them to be sucked into the story playing on the screen., Hopefully, these memories are for life, not just for the festive period.

Improvised theatre can be a danger, ideal for tapping into the creative spirit of any potential drama student, liable to fall off a cliff and into self-indulgence if not carefully charted in the live form. Yet the team of Robin Hemmings, Toby Hulse and Shaelee Rooke are vastly experienced at taking the unexpected (here including ninjas, a cowboy stealing the North Pole and a cameo from Rudolph) and making some form of coherence from it. The fun is in seeing how they will get out of ever convoluted plot twist they get themselves into and the trio is witty and inventive enough to respond to most with verve and likeable enough to be forgiven for any plot point that doesn’t get a satisfactory full stop.

Will Monks video design smartly uses the audiences own hand-drawn pictures as the set design and flips the screen upside down when the dastardly plot to switch the North and South Pole takes hold. Each show is significantly different, that is part of its appeal, but this hour-long show is smart and engaging enough to hold any youngsters attention.

Opening some six months later than planned Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools version of Far From The Madding Crowd, originally slated to be the second year touring show, was instead live-streamed from the Redgrave Theatre at the beginning of December. Internet issues led to me catching it later on Bristol Old Vic’s very well done on-demand service, with the ability to pause, rewind and go back. Does theatre miss out on something when the audience knows it has this luxury? Is part of the contract around the theatre that for the few hours playing on the stage, both the actors and the audience are giving each other their full attention and without this, is it theatre at all? Theatre has an even more challenging time ahead of it, trying to keep its audiences focus when they’re watching from their office/home/bed.

Jake Kenny-Byrne (Gabriel Oak) and Amelia Paltridge (Bathsheba Everdene) in BOVTS Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

I suspect Paul Chesterton’s originally conceived production would have felt more epic, utilising the entire year group instead of the eight seen in this version. Thomas Hardy’s original novel thrums with a sense of community, this version understandably lacks that, it’s hard-working cast multi-rolling well but sometimes feeling swallowed up on the vast expanses of the Redgrave stage. Adaptor Mark Healy’s version, originally commissioned by English Touring Theatre, tightens the original novel down to the personal rather than the societal, with its focus on its protagonist, the pioneering farm owner Bathsheba Everdene and the three men (the older bachelor, the rake, the childhood friend who inevitably is right for her) who vie for her hand. Admittedly, with the twists and turns of the great 19th century novels, without the social context the novel allows, this does carry the danger of turning everything soapy, Emmerdale farm plonked into the West Country, but Chesterton’s production has enough lyricism to overcome this.

Drama school works are a chance to test and stretch the young students about to enter the industry and it’s to the school’s credit that most of the time the casting choices fit their students like a glove. Here, however, there is a sense of some miscasting and consequently a display of uncomfortableness in some of the performances. Amelie Paltridge is excellent in the leading role though, carefully plotting Bathsheba’s arc and complexities in a way that can be tricky when transferring this heroine from novel to play. She is ably supported by Jake Kenny-Byrne’s Gabriel Oak, who may look more Byronic poet than simple farmhand, but gives a good account of Mr Right, consistently waiting in the wings, ever-supportive to eventually win his true love’s heart. There is top-notch work also from Theo Spofforth as a burly, jovial farmhand whose tender vocals provide a production highlight and Katie Dorman as the naïve and tragic Fanny Robin, jilted and then outcast.

The company of Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

At close to three hours, it asks a lot of its audience and its cast to hold a live stream. However, in a year when so much has been scuppered, it’s worth celebrating the show must go on mentality that allowed the piece to finally get an airing in the annus horriblis that was 2020. Buckle up folks, online is here to stay for a while yet.

The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up: Wardrobe Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆☆

Far From The Madding Crowd: Redgrave Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆

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