How To Win Against History- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆☆

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Occasionally the pick of the fringe can fall a little flat when seen in the cold light of day as they trudge along on nationwide tours on the buzz of their Fringe Firsts and five star reviews. It is easy to see why Seiriol Davies’ flamboyant chamber opera got everyone talking at the Edinburgh fringe. It’s the kind of work that will enliven a night as well as any tequila slammer. You couldn’t imagine a better show to help finish a six show day without the need for any narcotic. What is heartening is that on a cold November night in Bristol it still sparks with theatrical fire, another five star night in an autumn season filled with them.

Only the British could have produced as flamboyant and controversial a character as Henry Cyril Paget, the Fifth Marquis of Anglesey who lost his family fortune to a blitz of frocks and jewels and a desire to make theatre for the people. And only the British could provide an entertainment framework to support this historically dubious biography with its mix of Gilbert and Sullivan, Monty Python and Victorian and Weimar music hall. Paget may have died penniless at the age of 29 in Monte Carlos but he blitzed a trail all of his own. It’s a reminder that life doesn’t have to go down the path that seems pre-ordained, that other choices are available. It also cleverly is a warning to artists to ensure that they place their audience at the heart of what they do.

For as Henry’s self-appointed acting trope head across country to produce vehicles for the Marquis in Shakespeare and Wilde, who and why art is created for is interrogated. He may originally state that he wants to create art for all, for his work to be ‘mainstream’ but as the audiences refuse to flock, the actors get more and more obsessed with making fun for themselves. If the contemporary theatre scene can sometimes be criticised for artists talking and responding only to themselves, this purports that this way ruin comes. As the ideas become bigger and baggier, the designs more opulent, the song goes from how the audience reacted to how the actors felt. How often has this talk rung through restaurants and pubs across the land at post-show drunken debriefs?

Not that losing its audience is a problem How To Win Against History faces. Its 70 minutes are deliriously entertaining, a mix of absolute lunacy and lyrical mastery. If the writing reminds me of Tim Minchin at his most subversive ‘E-ton E-ton/ pull up a peasant to put your feet on’, it also benefits from a frenzied and fully committed performance from Davies himself. Supported by Dylan Towney on keyboard and the wonderful Matthew Blake playing all other roles it’s a work that demands performers right on top of their material and speed of dialogue being rat-a-tatted out at a pace that hasn’t been required since Noel Coward hung up his pen. Davies’ Henry is a fabulous Queen with a constant flash of fear behind the eye, as though he is aware that at any time the glitzy edifice that he has built up will come crumbling down. When it inevitably does its ending is painfully poignant, a slide from frenzy to introspection.

It is, all in all a full-on-gem, a-laugh-a-minute riot that addresses society and queer identity but never for a second slacks in offering its audience a good time. Paget may have been forgotten for a long time but one would expect he would have been tickled pink with this glittery, subversive tribute.



Education, Education, Education- Wardrobe Ensemble at Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆


There are nights at the theatre where you feel the ideas being presented on stage are deliberately opaque, asking its audience to wade through treacle to a conclusion they never have any hope of comprehending. And then there are works that feel like ‘wow’ this is created specifically with me in mind. If we were playing A Desert Island of theatre than Wardrobe Ensembles Education, Education, Education would be what I would ask for. It ticks all the boxes I most love when I go to see a piece of theatre, salient political points and riotous knockabout comedy with a banging soundtrack that leaves you smiling in a way only a belter of a night out can have.
I previously raved about 1972: A Future Of Sex which seemed to be the conclusion of the first stage of the companies early career where promise turns into fully established accomplishment. Education confirms that: if anything it’s even better; more laughs, more anger, more inspired stagecraft. Admittedly I am the exact target audience, starting secondary school in the Autumn of 1997 a year after Gazza was a toe away from putting England into a European final and a few months after New Labour took power and a brighter tomorrow seemed like a very distinct possibility. So this work, that takes place in a secondary school the day after Blair won the polls feels like a distinct case of deja vu as Tamagotchis, shag bands and Katrina and The Waves all get shout outs/
The laughs keep on coming in a tightly condensed 70 minutes that is like the best of Teachers in the Andrew Lincoln days before it nosedived spectacularly. So we see furtive bunk up’s, aborted interactive lessons, a staffroom punch up and a bouncy castle that- like Chekhov’s gun- is eventually designed to come into play. Funny bones are in the DNA of the Wardrobe, each joke lands with full guffaw force. Earning more than his fair share of these is James Newton’s dry German TA Tobias, dropping each zinger in full deadpan mode that confirms his place as the foremost theatrical farceur in the city.  The wreaths can be shared though for this is an ensemble where every member comes to the fore and ensures gold across the board. Tom England as genial headteacher Hugh and Kerry Lovell as a strict disciplinarian destined to get to the top, find themselves at polar opposites in regards to how to deal with a student involved in a violent altercation and the writing as their ideologies are pushed against each other becomes as rich as the debates David Hare inserted into his classic state of the nation trilogy almost 30 years ago. Both sides have valid points, there are no black and white only compromised shades of grey and it shows what a heroic profession teaching really is.
It takes all sorts to provide  an education and Jesse Meadows quirky eccentric English teacher stands at the heart of the issue. Not suited to the box ticking of exams but dedicated to ensuring a genuine love of learning into her students, it asks, like Alan Bennett does previously with Hector in his wonderful The History Boys, whether a teachers role is in ensuring students get to tick all the exam requirements or really make a difference. Is she letting them down by not preparing them sufficiently for the exams that will define their future even if she is genuinely making them fall in love with their subject? Surely she is the kind of teacher we should be asking for than Greg Shewring’s bored disinterested Paul who sets off a chain of events when he bans Emily Greenslade’s unruly student from the school trip to York. Meanwhile, Ben Vardy’s PE teacher hopelessly tries to provide supply for French while ensuring his students Tamagotchi remains alive until the end of the day.
So much is crammed into 70 minutes yet each is given time to breathe in Bea Roberts sensitive dramaturgy and in the propulsive production co-directed by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton. All the stories converge into a climax that is both heartwarming and furious at a government that is cutting funding drastically and removing love of learning in order to tick boxes. The company transition perfectly from studios into the cities main house and it was heartening to hear that tickets as part of their homecoming were almost sold out. With a blue plaque unveiled at the theatre this week and a recent announcement that they will become a Complicite associate company the future looks to be as bright as their past has been. I don’t know what the next steps will be but I know I will follow them anywhere. If theatre forges allegiances the way that football does then I know the Wardrobe Ensemble are, for better and worse, my team. This is a championship winning work.


People Places And Things- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

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If the National Theatre is struggling at the moment to find too many hits for its South Bank base, Bristol is currently demonstrating its five star best with two hits playing little more than a stone’s throw to each other. While War Horse continues to pack in the crowds at the Hippodrome, People, Places and Things provides a buzz to its audience as strong as any narcotic that actor Emma gobbles down in Duncan Macmillan’s 2005 breakout play.

With the original cast now reprising in New York it’s left to Lisa Dwyer Hogg to step into the huge shoes that Denise Gough has vacated for the UK tour. If the role of an actress checking into rehab and trying to learn who she is, provided Gough with a role to take her to the level her talent deserves, it should do a similar trick for Hogg, her performance slightly less manic and more restrained than Gough though both pierced the heart long before the end. It’s been a good while since a modern play has given a women the kind of role that will turn heads and make a career. Emma is a role to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rooster from Jerusalem. It wouldn’t surprise me in years to come if female actors mention the role in conversations about dream roles in the same way their male counterparts do Hamlet. It is in short a gift.

Starting off delivering Nina’s famous speech from TheSeagull which soon breaks down owing to a binge fuelled haze Emma is never off the stage, both literally and metaphorically. For this is an actor in all facets of life. If she slips comfortably into a 1,000 roles the only one she hasn’t, the only one she can’t master is herself. Every word that she utters is a deflection, the line between truth and fiction blurred so even she no longer seems sure what is fact and what is a fabrication. Who is the real women at the heart and what if she, as her mother cruelly and bluntly states, is only interesting with the drink and drugs inside her.

Confession, I was living my own theatrical hedonism in London a few years back, pushing everything too hard. The highs were unimaginable, glorious nights where anything seemed possible. The lows- the hangovers, the guilt, the shame- were increasingly painful.  So much rings true, only feeling worth something when wrecked, not fully sure who the real person was beneath the dreams and the myths. If you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the insight Macmillan casts, I mention it to highlight just how complete the piece is realised.

It is a bracing night full of characters facing up to their struggles and pushing on. Life is hard, life without comfort blankets almost unimaginable; but these characters come to mean so much to the audience because they finally identify and face their troubles head on. In a play that casts a sympathetic eye and ear over characters you would cross the road on the street to avoid, it also makes heroes out of the carers and psychiatrists who care and aid their recovery.  Matilda Ziegler portrays councillor and psychiatrist with a mix of soft spoken firmness and calm understanding. As Emma’s mother this turns to anger and bracing recriminations. All their scenes together are riveting, mirrors of women gradually and subtly calling bullshit on Emma’s lies.

Jeremy Herrin’s production matches the searing nature of the script. It constantly spools forward never gasping for breath as Emma goes from meeting to meeting, gradually chipping away at her wall of protectiveness, as though any gasp for air, any pause in proceedings, will pull the process of recovery back to starters.  His staging of heavy nights is particularly effective; pounding music, fragments of memory, a building sense of things getting increasingly out of control. His ultimate coup de theatre sees countless doubles of Emma bursting out of the walls and bed of Bunny Christie’s terrific set, a mass of bodies where the real women can no longer be spotted. It’s a visual representation of a woman lost to herself as well as a pulsing piece of stage business. It’s a neat trick that only an organisation with the resources of the National Theatre can pull off.

It doesn’t need it from me but this is an unqualified hit, one of the great plays of the decade to date. With its mix of forensic writing, brilliant stagecraft and an unforgettable central performance from Hogg it is a night that will burn bright in this mind for a long time to come. Unmissable!

Quick tip: I had a stage seat for this and would thoroughly recommended. It gives the work the intimacy of the Dorfman where the work premiered that is going to be missed by sitting in the auditorium. The acting up close is masterful. And at £13.50 a seat for Saturday matinee it’s a snip.

People Places And Things Plays At Bristol Old Vic until the 28 October and continues to tour to Exeter, Southampton, Liverpool and Cambridge until the 25 November


Waiting For Godot- TF Theatres ☆☆

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Premiered in 1953 in France and 1955 in London Waiting for Godot was immediately dismissed by a majority of the London intelligentsia as a work of pretentious twaddle. After Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan flew to its rescue in the Sundays it soon found its place as a major work of 20th century theatrical canon. There’s no getting away from it, Beckett’s work about two tramps waiting for a titular character who never arrives is capital ‘C’ classic. However, like many of the greatest works of dramatic literature, the getting them right on stage is hard. The plays say so much, have so much historical baggage behind them, that a competent job in production- absolutely fine in 95% of cases- isn’t enough. The greatness of the text swallows the rote-ness of the staging.

So it is with Tobacco Factory Theatre’s production. Director Mark Rosenblatt has shifted the action into some vague 21st century context: his two tramps in a hotpotch of clothing, Estragon in baseball cap and ill-fitting t-shirt, his club foot dragging along behind him; Vladimir a more traditional look in his battered clothing and cap. Instead of a tree we get a metallic lamppost that magically spurts leaves in the second half. A wooden plank acts as a seesaw, tape is plastered across the floor like a crime scene. Janet Bird’s design is ugly and flat and it is a mistake. It takes away the magical realism of Beckett’s instructions and flattens the central focal point of the tree and consequently deadens the space. The actors are forced to work harder to conjure something as a result.

Yet the rhythms are just slightly off. I was blessed that my first Godot was Peter Hall’s 50th anniversary restaging, a work that showed this is a play whose magic is in the verbal music, that the patterns and rhythm that the characters find is everything. Halls production, long remembered and revised over countless years and experience hit every beat, pulse and pitch, a maestro with a world class orchestra at his disposal. Rosenblatt’s on the other hand has the same notes and score but cannot inject the final element into it.  Hall knew the play was the star, the second time I saw it with Ian McKellen and the late great Roger Rees felt wrong, two stars taking advantage of a text to showcase themselves and losing in turn the sparkle of Beckett’s text. This one sits somewhere in between, yet at times feels like a lightweight (the production) boxing a super heavyweight (the text) in a fight it cannot hope to win.

Beckett asks a lot of his actors. They are required to have the soul of a poet and the lightness of foot of a clown. Although originally written and performed in French its influences are the music halls, pantomimes and vaudevilles of Britain. I have a sneaky suspicion that casting the work with stand ups would be more successful but when this was done in America with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, it flopped, so perhaps not. But in a 21st century staging it’s the knockabout comedy, the fart jokes and the hat routine that get the best response from its audience. The actors attack these routines with gusto but they’re not natural clowns and the laughs they raise are polite rather than uproarious.

It’s the structure that remains most fascinating here, two acts of six sequences that refract everything back to us. The boy who enters from stage left in Act One comes in from stage right in the second, Estragon grows frustrated with him in the first act, in the second it is Vladimir. Pozzo struts on as Lord and Master of Lucky in the first half, in the second he is sightless and relies on the kindness of his servant to guide him. Things shift incrementally. Is this the next day as the tramps posit or an indeterminate point in the future? Are they really just waiting by a tree or caught in a permanent state of purgatory? Beckett’s text is littered with mystery and symbolism, a work that will never reveal all its answers however much you shake at its tree. Each production needs to interrogate and answer these questions for itself. Rosenblatt never articulates his company’s discoveries to its audience. Maybe he feels he doesn’t need to. Yet the work remains murky and opaque as a result.

David Fielder feels most at home in this milieu, his Vladimir an ever hopeful optimist, a small boy trapped in an old man’s body and still convinced his pot of gold- in the form of Godot- will come. Estragon is a man of a different, younger, generation with a quick to rise temper that threatens to bubble over into proper violence. Colin Connor’s Irish tones paint the words in a way that shows Beckett works best when in the tongue of his fellow countrymen but he has a tendency to over push in the relative intimacy of the Tobacco Factory. This is not something that befalls TF veteran Chris Bianchi who starts Lucky’s famous state of consciousness address with precision and builds it up into a manic wail of desperation. It deserves the mid-scene applause it rendered. John Stahl, pimped up in bowler and fur cloak is a smooth, unpleasant Pozzo who finds himself, like Gloucester before him, given insight when he loses use of his eyes.

Now 65 years old it may not have the shock value it once did. Yet Waiting For Godot still challenges its audience with a work that eschews narrative for philosophical and theological rambling while chucking in old school variety for good measure. If this one didn’t really work for me it is still always a joy to wrestle with all its meaty complexity.

Waiting For Godot plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 4 November 2017 and then tours to The Dukes Lancaster 7-11 Novemer and Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 22-25 November

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Ice Road- Jacobs Wells Baths ☆☆☆


The crème of Bristol artistic talent has come together for Ice Road, an immersive work at a former Victorian bathing house near the centre of town, places its audience directly into the terrible siege of Leningrad in 1941 where it was estimated over 800,000 people died, many from starvation.

The four orphans whose story playwright Sharon Clarke adopts definitely look the worst for wear. Tucked away in the wreckage of an old destroyed apartment building, they scramble to survive, fighting off unwanted intruders and sharing out any hard won food they can find. Performers Heledd Gwynn, Elin Phillips, Roanna Lewis and Alex York are fully engaged in their work; bruised, vulnerable and a little bit feral, they fully convince as citizens of a Soviet Union left to rot by a world that has abandoned them to their fate.

If these performances never quite hit the heart, it is less to do with their work and more to do with structure that sees the performances get lost in the industrial sized  Jacobs Wells Baths. Conor Murphy’s cavernous set rises 100 feet in the air, some moments of action playing perilously high above us as though Cirque De Soleil aerial acts have taken to the sky for a death defying plunge. To fill the space the four performers are forced to scramble, climb and run in almost constant motion, it is dizzying and occasional disorientating and director Kate Hewitt cannot hone in on the moments the audience need to focus on. The 70 minutes pass in a blur, its narrative never always being immediately clear and the fate of its character never fully gripping.

It’s a shame as the whole is so close to being something momentous. Animation by Aardman, projections by Limbic Cinema and a sound design that shakes the very foundations by Timothy X Atack are all astonishing, as is the deep coated snowfall that audience and performer alike trudge in. You feel the cold of the place, even on an unseasonably muggy October evening.

Raucous have been a very welcome addition to the Bristol scene and this is a work that deserves to be seen for sheer ambition alone. Each individual element is rich in detail and execution, what it lacks is a guiding steady hand to blend it all together. An impressive technical achievement but one that lacks drama

Fossils- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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Science and the arts; as diametrically opposed on first glance as water and fire, lead and gold. Where art is all about exploring and empathising with the unknown and the grey areas, science is driven in fact-quantifiable evidence, black and white. Artists are generally seen as social creatures, the day to day gig helping them become socially empathetic and able to make small talk. Scientists…. not so much.  Yet the joy of Bucket Club’s Fossils playing at the Wardrobe Theatre until Saturday is that it takes the forensic focus that is science’ life blood and tunes it, making a work as laser focused as it is charming. For all the play at the heart of this show- with intentionally dodgy accents, winks to the audience and plastic dinosaurs- there is something technically assured and clear at its base. Writer/Director Nel Crouch never allows it to veer too far off course, the science and the art always in balance, the exploration as clear as the research Vanessa undertakes on a daily basis.

At 28 years old and having spent almost all this in the lab, Vanessa is used to structure, discipline and fact. Yet haunting her daily life is the disappearance of her father when she was 16, missing in action as he hunted for the mythic Loch Ness Monster. When Nessie hits the tabloids, Vanessa retraces his steps hoping to make her own essential discovery. In all honesty, the narrative is not the works strongest element, there are no surprises here, no explorations into the magic realist realms you might expect the work to make, science is built on solid element, not fancy forays into the mythical.

What makes the 70 minute work so charming is its assured sense of stagecraft. Helen Vinten shows both the dedicated scientist and the little girl lost as Vanessa, her ferocious work drive never fully hiding the fear, the disapproval of her father’s letters still turning her into a little girl lost. Her exploration to find out what happened to him feels as futile as finally getting to the bottom of what is at the bottom of the Loch. Adam Farrell and Luke Murphy play both the two PHD students she shares her Lab with and other assorted characters with gleeful ease and provide the haunting live soundscape at the heart of the work. The staging makes the most of the lo-fi elements, a little toy dingy being placed in a glass case of water is especially effective. On little resources they build up a world as rich in meaning  as that of Paulo Coelho.

Even with the short running time Crouch never rushes, always prepared to allow the work to take its time, reflect on the results of each action. Like the best science, it doesn’t rush to come to its conclusion, like the best art it engages the emotions early and never lets up. Recommended.

Tosca- TF Theatres ☆☆☆

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They say villains get all the best tunes and this is certainly the case in The Opera Project and Tobacco Factory Theatre’s co-production of Puccini’s Tosca.Nicholas Folwell’s terrifying chief of police Baron Scarpia prowls the stage like a vengeful Napoleon, a physically diminutive man hooked on power and sensual pleasures. It is a performance masked in grubbiness, of a sad little man with the power of a fiefdom surrounding him. The body may be small but the voice is a rumble, a bass roar that speaks of the monster hidden underneath the surface. When charm doesn’t work in his appeals to Mari Wyn William’s Tosca brutality takes over. It is difficult to remove your eyes from him. A performer who has made a name as Alberich in Ring Cycle’s around the world this Scarpia can be pinned to his operatic villain resumes.

If I spend the beginning of the review honing in on Folwell’s work, it’s due to it being the only performance that comes close to fulfilling the passion and romanticism of a work that was described on first viewing as ‘a torrid little thriller.’ If the musicianship, as to be expected by this company now firmly ensconced in the Bristol theatrical calendar, is always exemplary, the production itself feels a little Middle England. If it’s a common complaint that we Brits have too much repressed feeling, it’s at the detriment, of a work that needs more scorching sensuality and more sense of impending violence.

William’s Tosca is prim of costume and of manner. She may be the girl you could take home to your mother, but she doesn’t scream out opera star to rouse passionate ardour in all the men who orbit her. Similarly Robyn Lyn Evans comes across less as heroic as a little bit of a drip in need of mothering. While last year’s Don Giovanni always felt seductive and purring with danger, this production, directed by Richard Studer is safe, a little paint by numbers. It hits all the requisite beats but never feels particularly pertinent or thrillingly urgent.

Thankfully though there is always the music. Listening to Puccini’s score, played by a surprisingly muscular orchestra of 12 under the baton of Jonathan Lyness, is a joy. Williams tone is always sure and occasionally golden, while Evans tenor makes up for in heroism what his performance lacks. When the two come together vocally the fireworks soar. A tentative recommendation then, for strong musical styling’s that overcome production anaemia