So 2016. What a year it was. A proverbial level of shit rained down from above and brought us Brexit and Trump, the grim reaper took out his axe and waded through a number of names to create a great big party occurring somewhere where we are not invited. Yet for those of us who spend a large proportion of our time manning the stalls, 2016 in the Bristol and Bath area was a pretty special year all round.
It was a year of anniversaries, both for Bristol Old Vic which celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary and also for the theatre school which hosted its own seventieth anniversary shin dig. The two organisations teamed up to present King Lear which pitted generation against generation in one of this year’s most thrilling pieces of work. BOV’s whole year was a treat, starting with returns of previous big hitters, Jane Eyre and Pink Mist, a mega star wattage Long Days Journey Into Night which, while strangely subdued, still possessed a couple of the performances of the year, before a frequently funny take on Madame Bovary from Peepolykus and then a premiere of Emma Rice’s final Kneehigh show The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk before her curtailed Globe run. It was during the final part of the year though when their program really took flight, a barnstorming young company show Under The Cardboard Sea that saw over one hundred young people take to the stage, a rollicking fun The Rivals from the great theatre director Dominic Hill and then the glorious, ambitious and terrifying The Grinning Man my show of the year. If I wasn’t much keen on The Snow Queen that wrapped up the year it was still an all-round astonishing year for Bristol Old Vic.
Which means that the Tobacco Factory kind of went under the radar this year, which is a shame as director Ali Robertson programmed a terrific final year before leaving for pastures new with his new position at Kneehigh. In the spring they brought some of the best touring work of the year, Aoife Duffin’s searing turn in A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Mark Bruce’s interesting if not always successful The Odyssey, In-Yer-Face’s Trainspotting, so successful that it came back for a second run, and alongside this helped bring Bristol based The Wardrobe Ensemble to The Wardrobe Theatre with the sensational 1972: The Future Of Sex. Their work along with Travelling Light saw them bring back Into The West and Cinderella both blissful nights of family theatre. In the Autumn Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart was revived by director of the moment David Mercatali and wrapped up its audiences in its layers, while its co-production with Opera Project of Mozart’s Don Giovanni saw opera stripped back to its essence, the human voice and the glorious melodies gaining power as a result.
Bristol finally got the third theatre it deserved this year with the Wardrobe moving into funky new premises on Old Market and capitalising on the enforced closures of both the Old Vic and Tobacco Factory Studios to become the smaller scale work theatre de rigéur. From George Mann’s breath-taking solo work The Odyssey to its relationship with The Wardrobe Ensemble, its alternative Christmas show movie mashup and its central hub of Mayfest programming 2016 felt like just the start of what is truly a success story.
The Bristol Hippodrome with its bigger commercial shows rarely gets covered here so doesn’t feature much on this list but Welsh National Opera’s revival of Kiss Me Kate was probably the most fun I had in a theatre all year. If you’re going to see the big classical musicals then you need to see them like this, a big band, towering sets and even more so voices, a combination of opera and musical theatre, to die for.
The normally red hot Ustinov Studio in Bath was for the second year running slightly muted this year though the work it produces is always worth a look even if its not quite hitting the monumental highs of a few years ago right at this moment. Their year was bookended by terrific work Right Now was exciting and funny and ultimately found something tender within its madness. Tanya Moodie delivered another performance of high sheen and vivid in emotions in Trouble In Mind. Worrying their program has dropped from six to four productions a year, a sign perhaps that economically it’s not paying its way, though a production next year featuring Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham should help with this.
Meanwhile the annual Bath Summer Season was just kind of there. It featured some big stars, stylish plays and lush sets but nothing really set the pulse racing. Best of the bunch was A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an accomplished turn from Phil Jupitus as Bottom and Shakespeare gravitas supplied by both Katy Stephens and Darrell D’Silva though it says everything that it was only the third best of the Dreams I saw this year, with the BOVTS touring production and Action To The Words erotic take both living longer in the memory. Jonathan Church is taking on the reigns as artistic director from this summer and this should help create more sense of a thought through program as a result.
Event Of The Year
Runner Up: Mayfest- There was so much to love about this year’s festival from the showpiece events First Chekhov and Complete Deaths, which surpassed expectations to the little gems like Jamie Woods O’No! that took on and conquered all my suspicions about audience interactions. The festival is taking a year off this year before it goes bi-annual in 2018. May, and its associate little bubble, will not feel the same.
Winner BOV Anniversary Weekend– It was a busy month last May for Bristol theatre with the aforementioned Mayfest and then this; the three day celebration over May Day weekend. The people of Bristol took to the stage, the auditorium was open to all in a free performance and stars like Toby Jones, Sian Phillips and Tony Robinson took to the stage in a wonderful gala performance that celebrated two hundred and fifty years of theatrical life. It was an event that reminded us that this theatre belongs to the people and was a celebration of all those who have kept it going, sometimes against all the odds. Here’s a glass to the next 250.
Top Supporting Performances
6 Hadley Fraser– Long Days Journey Into Night
A long time star of the musicals who is now consciously taking a different step, his turn here as the older of the Tyrone brothers lost in a bottle was bleak and brittle, his confrontation with his father (Jeremy Irons) one of the the high points of a revival that never fully revved up even with such illustrious pedigree. It was another step on the rung for Fraser who now sees his career go in a different direction again as the co-writer of a musical opening at the Donmar Warehouse in 2017.
5 Craig Edwards– Cinderella and Into The West
He is a bit of a Bristol institution with his work as director Living Spit and his memorable dog turn in Jane Eyre but in two performances this year from Travelling Light presented at the Tobacco Factory he showed his full range as an actor. As Father, the King of the Gypsies, in Into The West Edwards was all bruised masculinity at the bottom of a bottle, yet it was his terrifying cross dressing mother in Cinderella that was my favourite of his turns, garbed like the figure from Edvard Much’s The Scream and with a particular talent for phalanges mutilation.
4 Maureen Beattie– Right Now
She started as a wittering Mrs Doyle and ended up a predatory cougar. This distinguished Scottish actor swallowed up all before her in this fine piece of work that seems to have been unjustly forgotten as we reached years end.
3 Isabella Marshall– Hamlet and Cinderella
Ophelia is a notoriously tricky part to pull off, to be the embodiment of the perfect women laid low by her love of a damaged prince who then goes mad with grief. Yet Marshall’s interpretation was the best I’ve seen, poised and in control early on, she runs rings around her gloomy Prince before she invests the mad scenes with genuine danger. She then brought some of these qualities to her role as Ella, a heroine you could truly root for in Travelling Lights magical Christmas treat.
2 Julian Bleach- The Grinning Man
Have there been many more terrifying villains in theatre than Bleach’s vicious, insinuating, creepy narrator cum antagonist. The fact he is also so damn funny is one of the performances greatest achievements. When- and it really needs to be a when- this gets its London transfer expect Bleach to be well in the running for one of those Olivier awards.
1 Lucy Briggs-Owens– The Rivals
Like Bleach there was so much risk taken in Briggs-Owens go at Lydia Languish, part Made In Chelsea rich girl ennui and part Vicki Pollard on speed. It could have gone so badly wrong but instead her interpretation flew and she was the best thing about a highly enjoyable take on this Restoration comedy. It was high definition, high risk acting and there were very few performances that could match it this year.
Best Lead Performances
5 Audrey Brisson- The Grinning Man
She is like a throwback to a different era, a Louise Brooks lookalike who possesses some of the same impish magic that elevated Audrey Tatou to the top and seems to be making inroads in her own career as well. Here as the blind girl Dea in love with the scarred hero she took a part that could have been saccharine and found something grounded and genuinely good in the part. She was the best thing about Kneehigh’s patchy Lovers Of Vitebsk earlier in the year and she will return to the region next year as the lead of Sally Cookson’s musical take on La Strada.
4 Louis Maskell – The Grinning Man
In all great performers there is theIR USP. For Maskell it’s his voice, a baritone of great flexibility and depth. It was a voice that stood from his superb Tony in West Side Story a couple of years ago but it was so much different here, less controlled, deliberately more rabid and dissonant a voice that conveyed so much; pain, despair, forgiveness. It was a musical full of depth but nothing was more haunting than his second act rendition of Labrynth.
3 Timothy West– King Lear
It was a year of Lear’s but West’s fourth attempt at the role was a colossal scaling of Everest from an actor who had spent the previous couple of years on Albert Square. This was a King who already had slipped into kindly grandpa from the start, which made his fall seem even harsher at the hands of the cruel, heartless younger generation brilliantly portrayed by the graduating students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He built up the role incrementally, layer upon layer suggesting a man’s memory fading away. There were plenty of haunting similarities to a previously great performance by Kenneth Cranham’s dementia ridden The Father.
2 Tanya Moodie- Trouble In Mind
Everyone has a favourite performer and mine undoubtedly is Moodie. Her Willetta began as a cypher both as a women and as an actress, sprouting out advice about how to stay the right side as a performer of colour to ensure you are employed again before gradually finding her political and social voice. She is a performer who uses every element in her arsenal, her body as controlled as a dancer, a voice with the range of an operatic star. Please can the Ustinov cast her in something every year?
1 Leslie Manville– Long Days Journey Into Night
It may have been Jeremy Irons that caught the headlines but it was Manville that ran away with the acting plaudits. It’s a shame the show didn’t have further legs if only because it would have been a dead cert that Manville would have added another Olivier statuette to her shelves. Her Mary was a women destroyed by addiction, the glue who held the family together now the one in need of care but without hope as the family unit implodes around her. Her final haunting scene, her long grey hair flowing down to her waist like the figure of Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’ oil painting, remained imprinted on the mind after three plus gruelling hours of O’Neill’s masterpiece.
Top 6 of 2016
6 Cinderella/Into The West– Tobacco Factory Theatre
It was a year of two great revivals from Bristol’s venerable young people’s theatre company Travelling Light both presented at Tobacco Factory Theatres. In a year when its Artistic Producer Jude Merrill announced her retirement it was great to see two of the company’s greatest works getting extended runs in the city which it calls home. If these two productions showed anything it is that great theatre isn’t just the preserve for older people but for all ages. Twice this year I remembered what made me fall in love with theatre as a child, one hopes many more children did over the course of the year as well.
5 Right Now- Ustinov Theatre
The theatre and the erotic have always been bedfellows but rarely has so much sexual frisson been created before the characters give in to carnal lust. RSC director Michael Boyd, fast becoming part of the Ustinov extended family, gave us a production that had enough twists and turns to rival any Netflix binge watch. It ended with a gut punch that truly took the breath away, Right Now was the early highlight of 2016 in Bath.
4 Blue Heart– Tobacco Factory Theatre
Britain’s greatest playwright has never been one to rest on laurels and in David Mertacali’s blistering first major revival of Caryl Churchill work, it revealed itself to be as influential to modern writers as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was for a different generation. Funny and exquisitely painful, bizarre and experimental it teetered on the edge of a rope that threatened to go slack at any time but somehow remained taut. It also gave terrific roles to a number of older actors which Amanda Boxer, Amelda Brown and Maroussia Frank grabbed with relish.
3 1972: The Future Of Sex– Wardrobe Ensemble at Wardrobe Theatre
This was the valediction show for this Made In Bristol success story, where all the promise of previous work came to fruition in a work full of sophisticated story-telling and banging tunes. A play that looked at the confusion of sex for the younger generation through the prism of the 70’s but still very much connected to the present it was a piece of work that rang true to every generation who flooded to see it. In most years this would have run away with my favourite show of the year. This year it only gets on the podium.
2 King Lear- Bristol Old Vic
In my eyes nothing the Bard wrote ever topped King Lear which is the greatest accomplishment of Western Drama. Tom Morris’ take did it more than justice. Pitting the older generation of Tim West, Stephanie Cole and David Hargreaves against the younger generation of the 2016 graduating theatre school students the production was epic and heart-breaking in equal measure with another thrills and spills to keep the momentum driving along. It featured one of West’s career defining performance a King losing both his status and his mind, his fourth attempt at the summit of Lear proving as much a highlight as anything we saw all year.
1 The Grinning Man- Bristol Old Vic
There was nothing in the theatre that I saw in 2016 which matched the daring creativity and sheer guts of this brand new musical. Five years in development, it perhaps still needs one more rewrite before any future life but it’s a sign of a great show that on a second viewing for this critic it had grown in its richness. With music that bleeds into your soul and leaves you humming its earworms for weeks after and visual images that have been scorched onto the retina’s, this was theatre at its best; daring, risky, original and very much its own crazy thing. A real triumph for regional theatre.