Othello- Tobacco Factory Theatre ****

Originally written for Whats On Stage

It ends with a gut punch. Richard Twyman stages one of western literature’s most brutal scenes with terrifying crystalline clarity that dares its audience to continue watching but left many, including myself, unable to look at the carnage unfolding in front of them. The image of the towering, vengeful, fooled Moor standing over his broken lover will be etched on my retinas for years. It is just one of many powerful moments in Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory’s wonderful production of Othello.

No one had his finger on the pulse of contemporary zeitgeist as much as the Bard of Avon and Othello’s themes are still depressingly relevant. It may not be the colour of his skin that marks this Othello out as different but his rolling out of the mat to perform Salah prayers does. He’s ‘an-other’ leader at the top of the pack, unable to partake with his lads on tour regiment and his position is as easy to topple as a pyramid of cards. The ‘other’ is constantly placed on pedestal. Hayat Kamille’s Bianca is held up by the men as a sexy exotic creature until an assassination attempt occurs and her qualities now see fingers pointed, accusations thrown and the word ‘whore’ bandied about. These are people defined by those around them as caricature and as nationalities rather than individual three dimensional flesh and blood. Sound familiar?

The catalyst for the tragedy is the ensign Iago, here an easy figure to overlook. He is awkward to his surroundings, as much an outsider to the world he finds himself in as the one he tries to overthrow. It is marked by his grey hair in a world of youth, it is marked in his awkward dangling hand that he proffers for a handshake before being grasped in a bear hug by the general who he soon will betray. Mark Lockyer is the genial face of malice, an ugly soul costumed in normality. Later as Othello’s mind is turned into believing his love has betrayed him, Lockyer brings him in for his own hug like a python consuming his pray. It is a chilling, brilliant turn played with terrifying good cheer and dead eyed remorselessness.

Recent RADA graduate Abraham Popoola has two thirds of Othello down pat; he is both playful gentle giant, prone to scooting the tiny frame of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Desdemona into his massive arms, and terrifying vengeful lover scorned. But he doesn’t feel like a leader among men, a poet and a warrior – the great man that is brought down. This isn’t helped by some garbled speaking on press night though it does feel like a performance that will grow over the course of the run.

Lopez-Holden is a girl growing up fast in a distant land with her lover, her flirting with Cassio (Piers Hampton) nothing more than playfulness, her protectiveness towards her lover even after he has smote her still so sadly relevant. The wonderful Katy Stephens as Emilia shows that the foolishness of love doesn’t just reside in the young, her own blind feelings for Iago implicate her in the tragedy as well. There is the occasional over-reliance on throbbing orange lights to mark the soliloquies that proves more a distraction than revelation but this is the one misstep in Twyman’s terrific work. It is a rich night of theatre with an ending that even after 400 years blindsides you and argues persuasively that Othello may be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

Othello runs at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until 1 April.

Our Town- BOVTS at Circomedia ***

our-town

A sense of community is at the heart of Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools production of Our Town. It starts from the moment you enter the space at Circomedia and find actors and audiences mingling together: a hug and a kiss for a parent, a laugh and a joke with a friend, an introduction and engagement of the rules to strangers. The actors are out of character but in a focused pre-playing state, its audience starting bashful but soon relaxing into the world it has found itself in, it is a clever decision by director Paul Clarkson and his cast, a gentle introduction to the meta-theatrical world that Thornton Wilder’s play throws everyone into while embedding its audience into the community at the heart of the fictional town of Grover’s Corner.

While Britain was still by and large producing drawing room comedies, Wilder was drawing his influences from Europe, particularly Pirandello, and here creates a three act homage to township, love and death. In 1938 it must have shook up its Broadway audiences and duly walked away with the Pulitzer prize for its efforts. Almost 80 years later it has lost some of its ability to shock and innovate, but now finds charms in the small-scale stories of love and kinship instead. Its focus mostly falls on two families, the Webbs and the Gibbs,and the relationship that develops between Emily (Rosy McEwen) and George (Rudolphe Mdlongwa). Its a play built on ceremony, the first the everyday procession of a town going about its lives, the second a wedding, the third a burial. Each of these is played low-key, its a town used to measuring its lives in the rising and setting of its sun, not in the incidents that befall them. Yet its linear goes back and forth in time and to the other-world; to the discussion that forms a marriage, to the ghosts of the town overlooking its inhabitants. It’s daring is in bringing these styles together and its challenge for those making it is in blending them together.

Which by and large succeeds. Setting the play in promenade works both for and against it: at its best when you are right up against it, witnessing the stories inches from you, your own personal close up. McEwen especially is great at playing to these pressures, an actor with the subtlety and wherewithal to be truthful in her moments of anguish, a face that a camera would love. Other moments though get lost, the vibrancy of the first act getting jolted as we as an audience get turned left and right, and up and down. Its only later as Clarkson chips away and focuses on the smaller moments, on the stillness of the piece that it finds some of the power.

Vocal coach Gary Owston has done a sterling job of honing the New Hampshire accents and the cast tackle it with verve, a sound that is not wholly American and speaks of the European ancestry that piled in on the boats. Alongside McEwan there is particularly striking work from Niall Wright (soon to appear in Jez Butterworths The Ferryman at the Royal Court and West End) as the warm-hearted newspaper editor of the town, Gina Ruysen as his kindly wife and Herb Cuanalo as a number of the towns residence Meanwhile Ross O’Donnellan tackles the central role of the stage manager who guides us around the town with diffident ease, reminding my guest of Kevin Spacey’s bombastic turn in Clarence Darrow.

The whole is played with great delicacy and its setting at the former church Circomedia allows the wedding act in particular to look spectacular. Yet it never fully sparks into life the way that great productions do, I left feeling charmed but not particularly moved,

2017 Winter/Spring Preview

So after the lulls of the Christmas period theatres begin to lurch back into action as the seasonal shows pack away their wares for another year and the winter/spring seasons really kick into gear. 2016 was a pretty high quality year all told but there is plenty coming up in the first few months of the year to suggest we could have an equally strong year this one. Here are just a few of the things designed to tempt you out from winter hibernation in the next couple of months.

Chitty Chitty Bang BangBristol Hippodrome 25 Jan- 04 February

Jason Manford, Phil Jupitus and Charlotte Wakefield lead the cast of this touring production, its final destination after a year on the road. There are plenty of great toe-tapping numbers to keep people of all ages entertained from the title number to Me Ol’Bamboo and Hushaby Mountain. And if this doesn’t convince you a ticket is surely worth the purchase to see the titular car in action.

In Between Time FestivalVarious venues 8-12 February

Bristol’s bi-annual live art festival has a number of shows worth your attention playing over its five days. With Mayfest taking a year out this year it is the only opportunity for those of a theatrical vent to immerse themselves in festival madness this year. Some of the shows to keep an eye on The Record by 600 Highwaymen, Nic Green’s Cock and Bull,  Dickie Beau’s Lost In Trans, a performance piece by Tim Etchells and Lucy McCormick’s Triple Threat.

The MiserBath Theatre Royal 8-18 February

Sean Foley is one of our foremost comedy writers/directors so his free adaptation along with Phil Porter of Moliere’s play should hit plenty of funny bones. Add in the comic populism of Lee Mack and Matthew Horne and a return of two time Olivier award winner Griff Rhys Jones to the stage and this has this years One Man Two Guvnors written potentially all over it. For a different take on Moliere Andrew Hilton will present his own adaption of Tartuffe for Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory from 6 April- 6 May.

Our Town- Circomedia 10-18 February

Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical masterpiece will be brought to life in a promenade production by the students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Which should allow us to get to know the residents of Grover’s Corner close up. Alongside seeing stars of the future the theatre school allows you to see parts of the repertoire rarely touched by regional theatres due to budgetary reasons and so consequently are always worth a punt. Later on Bill Alexander (former RSC and Birmingham Rep AD) returns to direct early Shakespeare comedy The Two Gentleman Of Verona (24 Feb-3 Mar)

The Episode- Wardrobe Theatre- 16-18 February

Wardrobe Ensemble member Tom Brennan’s latest play about fashion, power and cataclysmic disaster sounds like it’s worth a watch. Brennan’s work recently on 1972: The Future Of Sex and Rocky: A Horror Story has marked him out as a director who has moved on from promise to accomplishment. Hopefully this work will provide more of the same.

OthelloTF Theatres 16 Feb- 01 April

This was already one of my highlights of the year having seen a number of great Richard Twyman productions over the last couple of years and his elevation to the role of Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre has proved a real coup to Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory with a cast to die for. Recent RADA graduate Abraham Popoola plays the Moor in a reassuringly diverse company but it is in the casting of experienced Shakespeareans Mark Lockyer and Katy Stephens that suggest the company well and truly have their mojo back.

PlasticUstinov Theatre 23 Feb-25 March

There’s been a couple of ho-hum years from the Ustinov after their blazingly hot 2014 but the omens look good with their Spring season of new European plays. Marius von Mayenburg’s works are normally lively affairs and this play about political correctness in the middle classes has the potential to make the citizens of lovely Bath squirm slightly in their seats. Matthew Dunster as director is a man who rarely holds back on his punches so expect this to be darkly comic stuff.

Junkyard- Bristol Old Vic 24 Feb-18 March

How do you follow up Harry Potter? For playwright Jack Thorne its going back to his roots with a musical piece about a playground in Henleaze with a score by Academy Award winner Stephen Warbeck. It’s a big co-production but opens at its natural home in Bristol and will be the first look at where the theatre goes now after its stonking 2016.

Sunny AfternoonBristol Hippodrome 7-11 March

The Stones and The Beatles may have been the biggest acts but for plenty of music connoisseurs the Kinks were the band of the sixties. This musical with book by Joe Penhall and direction by Edward Hall follows the same formula as the smash hit Jersey Boys and was garlanded with awards over its two year West End run. If nothing else it definitely will have the best score of any show this season.

Letters To Windsor House21-25 MarchTF Theatres at Wardrobe

Sh!t Theatre bring their brand of anarchic Total Theatre award nominated show about the housing crisis to the Wardrobe Theatre as part of TF Beyond.  Expect the political and the personal to intersect in a show with songs, poetry and humour from those who live in Project Rent.

Escaped Alone 22-26 MarchBristol Old Vic

Time Out’s number one show of last year comes to Bristol as part of its national tour. Caryl Churchill has always been our most adventurous of playwrights and this concept sounds a corker, as four women sit in a garden and talk as an impending apocalypse takes place around them. Described as intimate but vast, domestic and wild it plays with form and structure and has given us a reminder if any was ever needed that no one does it better than Caryl Churchill.

Bristol Improv Marathon- 25-26 March- Bristol Improv Theatre

26 hours. Over 20 performers. One epic play. Its an endurance for audience and performer alike but drop in or out or stay and watch the whole preposterous thing in this its third annual marathon event.

What The Butler Saw- 27 Mar- 1 Apr- Bath Theatre Royal

This is a play that seems to pop up time and time again in recent years but that is because it can lay claim to be one of the great funny plays of modern theatre. Yet Joe Orton’s subversive sex comedy seems to become more and more pertinent in each run in its blurring of sexual identities and the role of psychoanalysis. Rufus Hound and Dakota Blue Richards star in this Curve Leicester production stopping off in Bath before its presumed West End run.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes- 4-8 April- Bristol Hippodrome

Britains foremost story dance maker brings his latest work to the Bristol Hippodrome and it seems a match made in heaven. With influences both from the original fairytale by Hans Chrtistian Andersen and some of the glamour of Powell and Pressburger’s film. It’s themes of the sacrifices people make for art should ring as loud and clear as ever. Expect this to dance on to box office gold.

The Mentor- 6 Apr-6 May- Ustinov Studio

The starriest event of the season with the announcement that Academy Award winner and Homeland star F . Murray Abraham to Bath’s small studio space. He stars in German sensation Daniel Kehlmann’s work as a distinguished writer who in his mentoring of a young star sees massive ego’s clash over arguments about art and the nature of fame. If there is not enough distinguished talent on display, the play has been translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Ustinov Artistic director Laurence Boswell.

La Strada- 11-22 April- Bristol Old Vic

Sally Cookson’s latest project is a musical adaptation of Fellani’s iconic film with Audrey Bresson in the leading role of Gelsomina who finds herself at the centre of a love triangle in the travelling circus she joins. Cookson is one of our most playful theatre directors and this production should allow her to create a world that jostles all our senses. With commercial West End producer Kenny Wax on board expect this to be another rung on the ladder for Sally Cookson’s theatrical power play.

2016 Year In Review

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 FraserLong 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 EdwardsCinderella 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 BeattieRight 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 MarshallHamlet 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-OwensThe 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 WestKing 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 ManvilleLong 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 WestTobacco 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 HeartTobacco 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 SexWardrobe 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.

Robin Hood- The Egg ***

There is plenty of good fun at the Egg this Christmas with Robin Hood providing a different family treat for those who don’t fancy their Christmas treats overly schmaltzy. Greg Banks version is in no danger of doing this, if anything it’s a little on the grungy side as Robin and his band of merry men go out to liberate Nottingham from evil King John. There is a political point encased in Banks version of the tale, it begins with four modern homeless people huddled round a fire storytelling but he never nails the point to hard, he is more interested in keeping the action flowing, the jokes coming and the songs on point.

Playing in the round of the lovely Egg space, its episodic structure doesn’t allow the piece to build to a fully satisfying climax but there is plenty to love within. Banks is an expert in crafting terrific family theatre and he ensures that there is enough action to keep everyone, there are sword fights, flights of escape, archery competitions and jokes that don’t make you groan. Best of all are the all-female ska band The Maranette’s whose music is infectiously catching even if the four performers grabbing mics to help accompany reminded me most often of the unintentional satirical greatness of Goldie Looking Chain.

Its four strong cast are each given plenty to work with, Peter Edwards plays the title role with the straightest of bats as the do-gooding outlaw while Rebecca Killick, reuniting with her Pink Mist partner, has plenty of spunk and a deadly eye with a bow as Maid Marion while Nik Holden is boo-hiss personified as a leather coated Sherrif Of Nottingham who struts around the theatre as though he owns it. Best of all though is Stephen Leask who slips between the light and the dark as both a non-to devout Friar Tuck and a bathing in dirty money King John. If his comeuppance is rather bodged by a too hurried end the build-up before has been more than worthwhile.

Be aware though of where you sit, not all the views in this round are created equal and there is a tendency to play the action end on to a raft of seats at the opposite end to the entrance. If you can get in early pick those seats. A show this much fun after all deserves to be seen from the best vantage point. .

 

Cinderella- TF Theatres & Travelling Light *****

There are good Christmas shows and then there is Sally Cookson’s Cinderella, a 2011 show that sprinkles joy from the start. Its the show that probably truly began the reign of Cookson, without this there would be no Peter Pan at Bristol Old Vic, no Pan no invite to do Jane Eyre at the King Street address and then a transfer to the National with it, which in turn led to the invite to recreate the boy who never grows up for the monolithic South Bank venue.

Her budgets may have got larger but the magic she generates with this work can hardly be topped. Though I claimed at the time that Jane Eyre was a trim away from being a masterpiece (though strangely the one part version I had pined for never felt as complete for me as the two part one did) little did I realise at the time that she had already created one in a splicing together of various versions to create a new take on the tale that is less syrupy then Disney and with enough gruesome glee to appease the most hardened of Grimm fans.

Most pleasingly the heroine isn’t some young girl waiting to be whisked to happiness by her Prince but an adventurous, mischievous wit who prowls the land in her Doc Martens and calls out to the birds with a number of impressive different hues. Isabella Marshall, a returnee from last years Birmingham cast, has already made a striking impression in Bristol this year, with an Ophelia that ranks alongside the best I’ve seen. Her Ella has some of the same characteristics she brought to Hamlet’s doomed lover, a tower of strength that even in tragedy shines bright like a beacon and an open hearted determination to find the goodness in the world. It’s little wonder that Joey Hickman’s Prince is smitten at first glance.

Hickman’s ornithologist is a delight, a boy becoming a man with his book of birds and a desire to take to the stage and sing do-wap for his guests at the ball. A geek with a heart, its another sign of Cookson’s revisionism that hero’s can take many forms. Yet though he may find his inner hero he is no match for the splendid hissable villainy of Craig Edwards, a drag Mother In Law from hell, made up like the figuring of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, intent on ensuring her prim and proper offspring advance at the expense of her unwanted daughter in law. He dangles the role just the right side of terrifying for the easily terrified in the audience, though his self-administered solution to fit his daughters foot into a slipper definitely had some squirming in their seats in delighted nausea.

Lucy Tuck elastic limbed step sister and Dorian Simpson as the son who finds his own place and an ally in Ella are also both superb while musicians Brian Hargreaves and Alex Heane keep the whole night rolling along with a number of jaunty tunes that stay in the head for days afterwards. The two hours are a genuine delight, highlight after highlight, set piece after set piece piled on until you get dizzy with the sheer exuberance of it all. Christmas is the life blood of most theatres and one hopes Tobacco Factory Theatres and Travelling Light can ride the wave of this one for a number of years to come. Christmas shows really don’t get any better than this, a real life affirming piece that will be enjoyed by tot and granny alike. Magical.

Treasure Island- Redgrave Theatre BOVTS ****

Bristol is always well served in its Christmas theatrical offerings but the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School have found their own niche in the market with their large scale ensemble works of the classics of children literature. Recent shows have included Alice In Wonderland and A Lion, A Witch And A Wardrobe but stories rarely come more rollicking than Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island and this years graduating students play it to maximum effect in a constantly riotous and always enjoyable Christmas treat.

For those who have never read the book or watched a Muppets Treasure Island, Stephenson’s follows young Jim Hawkins (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) and his coming of age adventure on board The Hispaniola and then a search for buried treasure ,with a whole host of larger than life characters, particularly the dominating villainous Long John Silver, here given both a gender swap and a performance of real dash and definition by the big voiced and charismatic Verity Blyth. She has the style down pat, a heightened level of awareness that never strays quite into panto but always on top of its slightly ridiculous and campy quality.

Normally by the end of the academic year the school has produced graduating actors of top calibre ready to tackle the turbulent industry head on, but this years group already seem especially strong. Philip Monks adaptation makes the tale a real ensemble piece and each of the students grabs their moment to shine. Alongside Blyth’s show-stealing work Mdlongwa makes an endearing hero, a boyish smiling inn boy who grows into a man through his adventures. Georgia Frost, a particularly memorable Bottom earlier this year in the second year tour, proves she has real deal comic chops as a thick as a plank of wood pirate while Harley Viveash provides early chills a Blind Pew whose black spot warning to an inn resident sets the whole plot in motion. There is also particularly strong work from the very tall, very pretty Rachel Partington as a Mrs Hawkins who has set her sights on a higher social standing with her flirtations with Euan Shanahan’s likeable Squire John Trelawney.

Jenny Stephens production does lose some steam in the second half, undoubtedly affected by the small grey crowd for this Wednesday matinee that didn’t really want to engage in the slightly forced crowd interactions. Yet for those who are looking for an alternative Christmas adventure the Redgrave Theatre and its host of pirates and heroic derring-do is the place to be.