Tosca- WNO at Bristol Hippodrome ☆☆☆☆


Every opera company requires productions of their big hitters to become repertoire staples if they want to ensure a healthy bank balance. Welsh National Opera has done better than most to be able to pull out strong La Boheme’s, Dali inspired Magic Flute’s and classically Oriental Madame Butterfly’s out of the closet every few years and delight audiences anew. The formula by and large is to play straight, solid takes on the tales that tell the narrative cleanly and don’t leave its audience questioning why this Carmen is set on a council estate in Bradford. Michael Blakemore’s production of Tosca plays out with a straight bat, period appropriate, detailed sets and clear delineation of character. He lets Puccini work his magic, each act building in tension and wrapping up on cliff-hangers that make you long for the next act like your latest Netflix binge.

It’s a production that is pleasingly realised then and one that is careful to allow musicianship to take centre stage. Claire Rutter has sung Tosca for opera companies all around the world and her take on the diva is sure and steady. She is effective as the jealous mistress in the first act, spitting out her distaste of her lover Cavaradossi’s painting of another women but takes us on a journey that turns her into a form of avenging angel. Her second act aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ is a moving evocation of a women fearing her God has abandoned her and her third act reconciliation with her tortured lover and then damning realisation that she has been tricked are as movingly acted as vividly sung.

Making his role debut as Scarpia Mark S Doss is deep of voice but is not yet chilling enough as the sadistic chief of police that arrests the painter and then dangles this pawn to try to seduce Tosca. His ‘Va Tosca’ sung over the Te Deum lacked sufficient power to fully send shivers down the spine. His interpretation played up the Inspector as refined gentleman; decked up in his periwig and sipping glasses of wine; and seems less keen to turn him into the sadistic monster that Puccini promises.

Of the trio it’s Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Carvadossi who is the standout, his thrilling tenor ringing out on ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ and finding more lyrical tones in his third act showstopper ‘E Lucevan Le Stelle’. His acting is broad brush-stroked but effective, light as a lark in Act 1, bloodily defiant in the second and resigned in the third. Jones, like Rutter, is a veteran in the role and he conveys that in a performance rich and true and one that deserved the ringing cheers he received at the company bow.

Timothy Burke brings out the best of the WNO Orchestra, the strings finding untold depths and the set pieces ringing with absolute clarity. The chorus have rarely sounded better than there work in the first act religious song ‘Te Deum’. Ashley Martin-Davies’ sets conjured an impressively sturdy Sant’Andrea dell Valle and a luxurious home for Scarpia’s devious machinations. Mark Henderson’s lighting came into its own with an impressive third act blood red sundown as the bodies come to rest.

This is a safe but incredibly sturdy version of one of opera’s big hitters. It ensures one would suspect WNO countless revivals in the future. If the musicianship stays this good, few will complain.

Tosca plays another performance at Bristol Hippodrome on the 13 April and then moves to Venue Cymru 18 & 20 April


Dracula- Loco Club ☆☆☆☆


Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Dracula, currently playing at the Loco Club, a series of tunnels situated under Temple Meads, is not for the faint hearted. A three hour promenade work requiring, complete black outs, a sound design that rumbles and screams and a late blossoming of plenty of claret ensures this is a piece designed for the sturdy in mind. It is also, without question, the best stage version of Bram Stoker’s tale that I have seen.

Confession, I love the novel with a passion others reserve for Tolkien or Potter. I love the films; Christopher Lee’s Hammer version and Gary Oldman’s romantic take in Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic version. Even the TV version in Penny Dreadful got me slathering in anticipation. Yet on stage, so often it fails to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.. The Gothic usually turn camp, Dracula’s bloody cravings as terrifying as Count von Count reciting his numbers in Sesame Street. John Walton’s production, using the full expanse of tunnels, takes the tale seriously. When this Count bares his fangs you feel the bite.

They’re helped by poet Liz Lochhead’s celebrated 1985 adaptation which stays close to the source while finding its own voice. In truth it takes a while to warm up, unlike the novel, we do not get to delve into Vlad’s castle until close to the end of the first act. What we see instead is the burgeoning relationships back home, between novice lawyer Jonathan Hawker (Charlie Suff) and Madeleine Schofield’s earnest Mina Westerfield engaged to be married, and the blossoming romance of Max Dinnen’s Arthur Seward and Ioanna Kimbook’s Lucy Westermann. These initial scenes play out like like a Victorian drawing room comedy without the wit of a Wilde to keep it motoring. It always feels like we are waiting for our main event.

What this initial schematic allows Lochhead to do though, is to frame the narrative closer to the themes she wishes to explore. Her version keeps the Westerman sisters and their newly discovered, Vampire assisted, carnality front and centre. Schofield’s Mina may start the play chiding her sister for contemplating sex before marriage but once she has succumbed to Drac’s bite her base desires froth to the surface. Kimbook’s Lucy feels even more the protagonist of the piece, her early childish innocence, caught as she floats on a swing singing to herself, turns to a women who demands her doctor beau spends the night with her. What is implicit in the book becomes explicit here.

It may take awhile but once the thrills and spills start there is rarely any let up. Walton’s training at Ecole Phillipe Gaullier ensures the physical score of the piece is always effectively demonstrative. There is an especially effective set piece when the brides of Dracula stake out Harker, edging ever closer, erotic and terrifying all at once and lit, full of chilling looming shadows by Rachel Stinton. Similarly the climatic scene,so often eliciting laughs for its operatic heightened emotions is given full gory effect here.

The acting, as is always the case with BOVTS graduating students is first rate. The four lovers all effectively portray the decadent collapsing of their moral compasses while Taheen Modak ensures his vampyre stays just the right side of cliché. Best of all though is James Bradwell’s Renfield, a highly physical and committed performance, sweatily effective in making us feel for a servant literally possessed by his masters.

The run sold out before opening (Bristol does like its events) but its worth trying to pick up a return. The fear was that the tunnels may have made the show little more than a gimmick but instead it opens up the work and lets us get a close up view of one of the enduring works of literature. Four bloody fangs.

Dracula plays at Loco Club until the 17 March.


The Cherry Orchard- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆


The year of change is coming to Bristol Old Vic. A new £9 million pound front of house renovation will be unveiled come September along with a shiny new studio that the city has much missed. This distinguished Georgian playhouse, described by Daniel Day Lewis as ‘the most beautiful theatre in the world’, will motor into its future, more sure than ever. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard seems an ideal first play to tackle with that theme in mind, a play that looks very much into its past while peeking delicately into the future. And Christ, what a staging Michael Boyd has given it, a piece that teases, tickles and eventually cracks. It doesn’t spin the wheel with its staging, it’s very much of its time, even if the translation by Rory Mullarkey has a modern vernacular, but it shines a light anew on Chekhov’s last masterpiece. Like his work with Shakespeare, Boyd makes the classics, with their long histories and memorable performances, feel freshly minted. This is an elegant, complex, funny and extraordinary night of theatre. It is one of the best staging’s BOV have produced in the past few years.

It also presents the richest acting ensemble here since Pink Mist. There are 14 individual portraitures all teeming with inner life and technical dexterity. Chekhov, much more than Shakespeare, produces characters as equal and as alive as each other. Not one role feels less than fully inhabited, there are no spear carriers or messengers here. Kirsty Bushell’s Ranyevskya is the beating heart of this production and is heart-stoppingly good. This is no over privileged airhead blindly charging into disaster but a women who sees clearly where her world is headed, but is too distraught, too trapped in a cycle to be able to change it. She gives money away because she sees others need it more, she above all realises there is only ever one way her financial woes can go. Yet even as her past collapses around her- a child gymnastically vaults around the stage as a constant reminder of the son now drowned0 and she stares into the abyss of her future she is still always a riveting character, funny and seductive, it’s no wonder Jude Owusu’s Lopakhin has carried a torch for her since he was a child.

Owusu plays the part with exactly the right virtuosity. At a time when Bristol is tackling its own problematic past with slavery, Boyd casts the former surfs turned gentry with a black and mixed race cast. It ensures the politics are to the fore as Lopakhin’s speech, delivered moments after his purchase of the cherry orchard starts in wonder and ends in something close to glee. This is a man barely able to comprehend his new position, from a child seeing his ancestors bend their knees and now holding dominion over his former masters. Hayden McLean’s Yasha starts as a cheeky jack the lad stealing kisses and ends a cigar puffing big man breaking hearts without a second glance. As these men see their own fortunes change it’s only Enyi Okoronkwo school teacher Trofimov who can predict the violent repercussions to come (Chekhov’s seeming insight only came into effect some years after his death with the 1919 Russian revolution taking out, mostly literally, the ruling classes of Russia.)

It is also great to see Bristol made talent get a chance to shine. Recent theatre school graduates and Peter O’Toole winners Verity Blyth and Rosy McEwan are terrific as the Ranevsky children, the former all innocent sweetness turned hard and the latter fierce  and austere until love turns her fragile. What a delight as well to see Harry Humberstone, a Wardrobe Theatre Christmas show standout, take a different, rougher turn as part of the ensemble.

Moving on to the Royal Exchange, Manchester after Bristol means that designer Tom Piper has had to turn the Bristol Old Vic’s gilded proscenium into an in the round delight. Its two tiered seating structure on stage, an exact replica of the Georgian auditorium turns the space into something resembling a dolls house theatre. It looks beautiful. The Exchange has many virtues to it but this production won’t look as breath-taking as it does here in Bristol

Boyd’s production sticks close to the label Chekhov prescribed as a comedy in four acts. From the vaudevillian squeaky shoes in the first act to Julius D’Silva’s heightened take as the neighbour on the make it keeps up a fairly regular chuckle quota. Yet Boyd, a master of staging, can turn the mood in an instant, witness the moment as D’Silva thinks he’s lost a bag of money at a party and his world falls apart. It’s a brief moment, all of thirty seconds long but contains in it a world of meaning. The whole 150 minutes is choka full of them.

This is a production that showcases Boyd, his ensemble, Chekhov and Bristol Old Vic at its very best. God I love the theatre when it’s this good.

The Cherry Orchard plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 7 April and then at Manchester Royal Exchange from 19 April- 19 May.

Macbeth- Tobacco Factory ☆☆☆


All hail the new Factory Ensemble, swooping in and playing the spring season at Tobacco Factory Theatres that used to be the preserve of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. In many ways Macbeth, feels like more of what Andrew Hilton previously instigated, a young director getting the opportunity to make a mark on Bill’s greatest tragedies. So after Polina Kalinina’s Romeo and Juliet and Richard Twyman’s Othello, we now get Adele Thomas’ take on the Scottish play. Of the three, this is by far the least revelatory. Though it boasts some strong ideas- the witches are a genuine skin crawling delight- and one superb performance from Katy Stephens as Lady M, it is, all told, a solid rather than enlightening evening.

Its central concept makes a mark, Anisha Fields has created a Mad Max style wasteland of burnt tires mushed into soil; an industrial war zone where soldiers in fatigue enter soaked in dark clarets of blood. It’s a visual look similar not only to George Miller’s tetralogy but also to Ralph Fiennes’s filmed version of Coriolanus, but the macho atmosphere is not expanded on in the acting, the warriors here distinctly poetic rather than road warriors playing out gladiatorial games.

Jonathan McGuiness’ Macbeth struggles to bring out the poetry within the role, distinctly underwhelming in the early scenes where Macbeth’s humanity, the poet of the soul encased in warrior body, gradually darkens as the witches prophesies set him on the path to destruction. From the moment he is alone with Stephens, he is like a mouse ready to be consumed by a python, this is a relationship whose power dynamics are clearly in the court of the fairer sex. He improves as the evening goes on and Macbeth’s tyranny takes hold, though he never possesses the chill factor that the best performers bring to the role. It’s only in his ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ where he finally seems to get on top of the material, here we get glimpses of the man finally returning to take over the increasingly dark shell.

Stephens Lady Macbeth is the reason to buy a ticket. Here is an actress performing at the very top of her (considerable) game. Shakespeare provides a challenge for all lead actors, providing so many facets that no performer can ever hope of giving a definitive performance. Stephens’s interpretation plays more notes than most. This is a women defined by her lack of child, as she cuddles Banquo’s son we see the women she could have been in a parallel universe. It’s the lack of motherhood in her life that drives her towards a different purpose: family is all; her reasons for pushing her husband is driven by her love for him, needling him into doing the bloody deed to give him the advancement she thinks he deserves. As she begins to lose him, first in the banquet scene when he envisions the ghosts of his victims, later when he coldly shuts her out, we see the last strand of sanity leave her. The sleepwalking scene, never played better, has a sad state of inevitability to it, a women who has lost the final thimble of family she has left. Her technique, enhanced by a number of years at the RSC is flawless, her clarity and beat on the iambic a lesson to all students on how to speak Shakespeare. I’ve seen a few Lady M’s but Stephens has got closer than any I’ve seen to toppling Dench as the Queen to rule them all.

It’s inevitable perhaps that other performances get left in the shade, with no one really getting much stage time to make an impression, though former SATTF regular Simon Armstrong makes a cool and dead eyed assassin alongside his stern Duncan.

Thomas’s production has conjured witches that unnerve the senses, faceless spectres who incant in what sounds an Easter European gypsy tongue, hauntingly amplified around the theatre. A silent epilogue, inserted into the production, is enough to keep you up at night as they silently engulf their chosen on their way to make a brand new prophesy. She is also good on giving action to the psychological elements, the wiping of hands a near constant through the action as characters continually wipe blood from them. For all her good work though the two hardest scenes in this play are bodged, the porter scene dropped in and out as quickly as possible like director and performer had no idea what to do with it and the dreaded England scene still dragging on interminably and holding up the action North of the Border. There is little shade here, what humour there is in the text dropped in favour of building up this bleak world.

Macbeth is an obvious box office draw for the theatre, which is particularly important as they go about renovating the space and adding a studio to their venue again, and the work is fundamentally solid which should go down well with the school groups. It’s hard to shake the feeling it’s all a little safe but one propped up by a performance that Bristol should be talking about for years.

Macbeth plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 7 April. A View from the Bridge will continue the season from 18 April-12 May.

Crimes Under The Sun- Ustinov Studio ☆☆


There are few nights at the theatre more satisfactory than a new comedy landing all its punches. There are few more painful nights than comedies that land flat. New Old Friends latest Crimes Under The Sun, opening at the Ustinov before embarking on a lengthy UK tour, is, at least so far, a night distinctly under-nourished, under-written and under-rehearsed. There are moments within which suggest that this is a work that will improve with playing, that they’re not completely flogging a dead donkey, but it needs some TLC before we get to this stage

The time seems ripe to spoof Christie. After all her Witness for the Prosecution is packing them in at the County Hall London, Branagh brought Poirot and that ripe moustache to cinema screens in an all-starMurder On The Orient Express and the BBC have cleared their Christmas schedules for the foreseeable future to bring her adaptions onto the air. In our hectic modern times, the period murder mystery is very much in vogue.

Yet pastiche and spoof need specification if they are to work their full effect. Jill Myers who plays memoirist cum-sleuth Artemis Arinae has a Belgian accent that wanders via the Estuary. As she conducts her writing on the sunny Riviera she finds herself, just like Christie’s favourite amateur sleuth Marple at the epicentre of another crime scene. A former actress, turned deep sea diver has been found dead on the beach. Was she offed by her upstanding, very British husband who we find out has killed before in a bar fight. Her American rival, now promoted to number one in the world with her death. A spiv gent on the make. A women looking to off her to steal her husband. A hard working cast of three portray all these and more and impress. They just need material that gives them more. Jokes land with a thud. Set pieces don’t come off. The script in general seems more focussed on clarifying its twisty narrative than ensuring belly laughs. Feargus Wood Dunlop, who also writes, throws himself with considerable gusto into every role he plays but for every role he nails- his delivery of a very English bar fight is top notch- there are also moments that are less defined- his voyeuristic Irish priest is very one note.

At its best director James Farrell’s production shows what could and perhaps can still be: the introduction of Jonny McClean’s brattish youngster reciting witchcraft is a real showstopper as are the three plodding policeman portrayed by Heather Westwell with little more than a stoop, a moustache and a pair of glasses.  Best of all the patter routine, composed by Kathryn Lovell is a sly delight, bringing up memories of Seriol Davies’ seriously terrific How to Win against History which sent up everything in glorious anarchic form. New Old Friends production is of a more restrained vein. My advice, a bit more music, a little less plot.

Crimes Under The Sun plays at the Ustinov Studio until  24 February and then tours the UK until May

The Taming Of The Shrew- Circomedia ☆☆☆


Director Bill Alexander seems to be on a mission to tackle Shakespeare’s problem plays with graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Previously we have had a brutal take on The Merchant Of Venice and a Two Gentleman Of Verona by the way of Fresh Meat. This year, it’s what most commentator’s state is the Bard’s most misogynistic play.  Lay your money down on a Troilus and Cressida next year. Along as some of the more unpalatable material in Bill’s work, his early material also provides a host of other challenges, poetry that more often hums rather than sings, stock characters that annoy rather than enlight and plots that seem to climax at the point he gets bored with writing them. Hamlet or Lear may present their own challenges but the majesty of the text can help these productions along even in the iffiest of productions. The earlier work needs a fine production to make up for deficiencies in the text. It’s far too easy otherwise for an audience to wish they are watching Cole Porter’s majestic musical spin offKiss Me Kate which used the Shrew as a Launchpad.

Alexander’s production has many fine things going for it. It explores, better than any I’ve seen, the thinking behind the prologue that sometimes awkwardly fits into the play, with drunkard Christopher Sly and his tricking by Lords who discover him on the street into watching a play within a play. Here it is staged as though Pirandello had made an edit of the text, as watcher and performer begin to gradually intersect and the hypocrisies within the Count’s court, here defined in a sleek living room with leather sofas and drinks aplenty, are cast alight within the text. This work still climaxes with Katherina’s controversial speech about the need to be a good and willing wife but here it plays more as a call to arms for the stylish ladies who languishly slip onto the furniture and sip their cocktails sultrily while watching the play, about the need for respect and value within a relationship, not just being a sleek plaything for the moneyed aristocracy to be enjoyed.

It makes a case for this play being an ensemble piece, characters that are never mentioned when talking about the canon, are here given highly defined, highly enlightening work. Baptista is given a gender switch and turns into a fawning sexpot in Hannah Livingstone’s endearingly high energy performance while Felix Garcia Guyer is a highly physical presence as Grumio, physically imposing his rugby player frame into any situation that threatens to spin out of control. Charlotte Wyatt makes something of her stock country servant while Micky Dartford has fun with his, a Cockney wide boy pretending to be Lord. Meanwhile Marco Young turns his Lord into a Servant producing an entertaining turn as an Italian music tutor when he slips in to try to woo his intended Bianca.

With all the fun and invention the ensemble bring to their work, the central relationship feels a little bit of an afterthought here. Both give fine individual performances but the chemistry is lacking, the idea of two bulls clashing heads and being mutually turned on by the antagonism doesn’t fully translate. George Readshaw is a swaggering, slightly manic Petruchio and with his flowing locks has the Shakespearean lover look down pat. Kate Reid brings an intelligent reading to Katherina, a women intellectually on a different plane to what is around her and so consequently always swimming against the tide. What she lacks though is fire and ice. She always is, regardless of the behaviour Shakespeare thrusts at her, a little too well behaved.

The grandeur of St Paul’s Church Circomedia lent itself well to natural spectacle if exposing some flaws in a couple of the students techniques. Volume and clarity were issues that kept occurring in a space that doesn’t easily allow voices to bounce off the architecture. This may improve as the run continues.

Still, all in all, it’s a very solid take on a work that in an era of #MeToo has become ever more complex. Working with an accomplished director as Alexander is obviously paying off in other ways as well.  A number of graduating students have moved onto to the RSC in recent years. A Shakespearean education doesn’t come much more thorough than this. For student or audience member alike.

The Taming Of The Shrew plays at Circomedia until the 24 February

Things I Know To Be True- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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Things I Know To Be True is a strange hybrid- a work that offers both the high art of Frantic Assembly’s now syllabus physical style and a text from Australian Andrew Bovell that wouldn’t look out of place on the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders. It makes for a partially enriching evening; plenty of style to make one crow and enough incident to keep one entertained, in the same way an Albert Square barney is always worth tuning in for.

It starts with a phone call, a call that will change life for ever. Like the prologue in Romeo and Juliet, its climax is spelt out to its audience at the beginning. For this seemingly tight knit family, shown at the start supported and united in lifts, it seems a moment designed to tear the heart out of it. By the time it returns to this moment in its climatic final moments that conception has shifted. Everything has already changed.

Rolling back to the start Kirsty Oswald’s Rosie has her heart broken by an exotic European while she tours through Berlin and immediately decides to book her flight home in Australia, to her cosy family nest where ‘the one guarantee is nothing changes.’ Yet behind any family there is secrets, no family exists without drama. No family can ever be truly perfect. And so Bovell chucks the kitchen sink of issues at the work: in brief order we are confronted with infidelity, gender identity, fraud and the need to fly the coop and become truly independent. Each of these are worth a play on their own and this is the works major flaw, it becomes increasingly obvious how each scene will go. One by one each family member exposes their secret, has a tense and angst confrontation with one or other of the parents (each has their favourite, each has a black sheep that appears to be a younger version of themselves) and then breaks away from the family cycle, step by step each member flies the nest, the nucleus breaking down. 6 family members, 5 family members, 4, 3, 2….1. Like a soap we are in a constant cycle, the narrative spinning over and over again. Each scenes construction mirrors the next and we’re never more than 20 minutes from an all-encompassing, tears and screams family row.

Yet the soapy construct is elevated with physicality of breath-taking beauty. Ewan Stewart’s calm, composed patriarch at a moment of high anguish leans his whole body forward and demonstrates a man staring over the edge of an abyss. As Rosie falls in love/lust with a Spanish man in Berlin she is lifted high up, the sensation of feeling like you’re flying up, up and away perfectly captured. Transitions between scenes are exquisitely realised, chairs being pushed across the stage until they skid to a stop inches from the family dining table and where an actor plops themselves down. It makes you long for all work to focus so heavily on these moments, the dead moments that kill the momentum of so much work.

Stewart is the stand out performer here, not only in his aforementioned physicality but also in the way that his quiet dignity, his quiet contemplation, sets him out as the clear power behind Cate Hamer’s more explosive, heart on sleeve, head of the table, Fran. Oswald, Matthew Barker, Seline Hizli and Arthur Wilson all have their moment to shine as the four children even if it is only Oswald who gets a chance to build a character away from the issue that each of the other three are saddled with.

It’s rare for a new production to be demonstrably better than its source text but this one by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham shows it can happen. Alongside the strong performances contained within and the occasionally breath-taking movement work there is a knock out lighting design by Geoff Cobham that makes art of the changing of the seasons. As the family flies and the reaper eventually comes knocking the colour fades away. Yet at that moment as the light darkens the family entwine together, united against the bumps in the road. The cord that binds them may be frayed but family is a tie that can never be fully snapped.