A Christmas Carol- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

A Christmas Carol returns to Bristol in style.

It’s best, to begin with, a slight mea culpa. A year ago I took to social media and slammed Bristol Old Vic when they announced A Christmas Carol was coming back a year after its first season. In a small city, with only a couple of options, I thought it was important for the flagship venue to be giving something new to add to the seasonal offerings. But in an almost completely recast production, this Christmas Carol feels like its returning for a homecoming, another Made In Bristol work that can be added to the hall of fame of work created under Tom Morris’ watch.

A year ago I described Felix Hayes performance as Scrooge as one that strode into greatness, a performance that in some ways dwarfed the production as a whole. Stepping into his rather giant shoes John Hopkins is a more vulnerable turn, one who makes you believe that his dreams would haunt him and would be inclined to buy the whole audience a round at the bar as one cheeky punter suggested, even if he lacks the sonorous bass that so hypnotized the theatre last year.
What his slightly less-dominating turn does is allow the merits of the production to take centre stage. And Lee Lyford’s glorious production more than measures up. Its Dickens infused with the gothic imagery of A Grinning Man, a point made even stronger with the casting of Ewan Black, making his return to the city for the first time since he appeared in that masterpiece. Tom Rogers’ set is a world of blacks and greys, that bursts into gloriously ribbon technicolour in a now Bristol Old Vic copywrit coup de theatre.

Gwyneth Herbert’s score drips deeper into the soul on a second listen and the use of children from the audience to inhabit the roles of a young Scrooge and Tiny Tim is inspired. Recent BOVTS graduates Shane David-Joseph and Mofetoluwa Akande both are terrific in their roles, as are other grads George Readshaw and Black, showing that the conveyor belt from school to the theatre is alive and kicking.

It’s a thrilling festive show, one that if I was BOV I’d be looking to cash in and roll out to other regional theatres around the country. Christmas is about familiarity. The return of A Christmas Carol feels right. It allows more of the city to get to see its majesty and has converted me, like Scrooge, from bah-humbug sceptic to floss dancing proselyte.

A Christmas Carol plays at Bristol Old Vic until 12 January 2020.

Earthquakes In London- Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio ☆☆☆

Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London has only got more pertinent in the close to a decade since it originally premiered at the National. Its preoccupation with the effects of m climate change and the future left to the next generation was more a dinner table conversation cleanser rather than inciting Extinction Rebellion protesters to storm the barricades (or tube platforms) and Greta Thunberg to worldwide fame. Then it felt urgent. Now it feels essential! Its meshing of the political and personal catapulted Bartlett from promising miniaturist to one of the kings of the current scene with Baftas and Oliviers to back up the hype. It is in short, exactly the kind of piece you hope a school with the resources of Bristol Old Vic would revive.

And by and large, they make a good fist of it. The tale of three sisters and one absent father sprouting philosophies about the need for sweeping changes to save the world from his American Ivory Tower breaks into four episodic strands that tumble back and forth from the swinging sixties to some undefined Arctic future. Oldest sister Sarah (Charlotte East) is a Lib Dem Government Climate Change Minister overworked and overwrought and finding herself growing ever distant from her downtrodden husband Colin. Middle child Freya is nervous about the world she will bring her child up in and finds herself wandering the Heath one afternoon. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Jasmine gives political protest Burlesque performances and finds herself as part of a blackmail plot to get in the ear of her oldest sisters.
On the first viewing of the BOVTS class of 2020 amid a host of good work some performances stand out. East does a terrific job of portraying the career women who has lost sight of the firebrand activist she once was. As her husband, Michael Dodds carefully essays the journey from jobless and hopeless to a man back in charge of his agency thanks to a sharp suit and some high revelations. As the spiky, eccentric father Mark Milligan brings biting wit and a no-nonsense approach to the academic that couldn’t stand to stay with the girls once he found himself a widower.
Meanwhile, Olivia Edwards is terrific as a teenage tearaway who is a terrific coup de theatre transforms into future freedom fighter while Elias Ado and Isobel Coward
both bring terrific value to a number of their ensemble roles
Cressida Brown’s production doesn’t have the same awe dropping audacity that Rupert Goold’s original brought. You can see the kinetic energy that has been carefully plotted, yet it doesn’t always translate from thought to action. Sometimes the transitions feel lifeless, even with the cast working overtime to spark them into life. What this does is place more focus on the text and reveals a few creaky elements. Bartlett’s ambitious trip into the future still doesn’t feel as fully realised, as for example, the ones Tony Kushner produced in Angels In America, and in a slightly condensed form some of the relationships don’t feel as fully fleshed out as they originally were.
Similar to Clybourne Park last year it reveals this modern classic to be a highly accomplished piece of work, but one that perhaps has been elevated to a higher state by a sensational original production. It is worth seeing though, both for its essential thesis and the sheen provided by the next generation of stage and screen talent.

Cyrano- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

It’s been many years since Chris Harris brought pantomime to the Bristol Old Vic and who would have thought then that it would be the French who brought it back. Or to be more specific, who would have thought that Edmond Rostand’s poetic lover and also fighter Cyrano de Bergerac would be the one to bring a very English form back to the King Street venue. It would be unfair to say the whole show falls into panto, but early on Tom Morris’ production suffers from a surfeit of toe-curlingly unfunny comedy. It’s only when the location moves to the battlefield and the production is allowed to breathe and the poetry to sing that the production finally begins to come into its own.

For the French, the poet with the conk is as iconic as Hamlet. A showman with pizzazz, who duels with the same style as he dashes off sonnets, the contradiction at his heart is his shame at his perceived physical deficiency. For while he can outwit or outfight any man, his rather large snout stops him from declaring his love for his childhood friend Roxanne. When the young, handsome but inarticulate Christian catches her eye, he resolves to provide the soul to the charming outward shell of his young friend.

When played to its depths, it is one of the great love stories, telling of one man’s lifetime devotion to one he believes is beyond him. At its best, we should be plunged deep into the soul and Tristan Sturrock gives it his all to get us there. His is a rather terrific Cyrano, fleet of thought and foot, he dominates the stage in a charismatic turn that eclipses almost everything else we see on stage. It’s a technical bravura turn, but one where the production around him doesn’t fully let us see the pain within. The moment he believes and then is denied a declaration of love should be heart-breaking. Here it feels a temporary set-back.

Most of this can be laid at the feet of a work that mostly lays down its comedy with a thud. It just isn’t particularly funny and the mugging doesn’t help it. When the pathos eventually comes it’s asking its audience to do too much to meet it on equal terms. The work is much better when they let Peter Oswald’s poetry sing, the rhyming couplets zinging with particular relish. The scenes on the front line are also beautifully realised, as Richard Howell’s lighting and Ti Green’s barricade darkens to resemble an over-the-top charge from the Somme.

In many ways it feels like a valedictory show; if not of Morris’ reign (there has been no suggesting this is coming) but at least of an era. It’s an all-star cast of the Morris years, with all seven players having taken part in these years’ greatest hits. Yet few truly stand out apart from Sturrock and Felix Hayes, who puts that deep bass rumble (the best voice in theatre right now?) to good use as the villain of the piece De Guiche.

By the end, the piece’s deliberate switches between comedy and tragedy seem to have defeated a game but flagging cast. The greatness of the piece is never fully revealed even if in the swaggering Sturrock, moments are fitfully illuminated.

Cyrano plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 16 November.

Extraordinary Wall Of Silence- Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio ☆☆☆☆

There seems to be a driving ethos every year as part of the Bristol Old Vic programming and for 2019 this has been a focus on work that embraces a community not particularly well served by theatre over the years, the deaf. Back in May, Dreadful Deaf from the Horrible Histories team aimed at the obscene decision at the 1880 Milan convention to force all deaf people to study orientalism, better known as oral education, and ban all sign language from schools. In Extraordinary Wall Of Silence, Theatre Ad Infinitum shows that these decisions still ricochet through the lives of those born deaf over the next century and a half.

Taking the form of three stories from the 70’s to the present day, the work, five years in the making and supported with over 40 hours of interviews with deaf people is a rather shaming watch in how little understanding there has been and continues to be for those who suffer hearing impairment. Graham is mocked and ridiculed at school, bullied by his teachers and shunned by his God-fearing parents. Hannah has a cochlear implant inserted aged two, suffers from constant tinnitus and embraces the times she gets to spend with her Dad feeling the vibrations of the guitar. Meanwhile, Alan finds himself sacked from his first job on his birthday, battered by bullies and considers suicide.

If its structure is less complex than expected, the stories played out one after another, themes mirroring and refracting each other but layered one on top of another without splicing, its form is powerful in the way that most Ad Infinitum provides. There are three forms of communication demonstrated within, signing, oral and the physicality of the performers and by the end, it is unclear which of these is communicating most and which form we are receiving our information from. It’s a work that shows us that one form does not play the alpha, for what is lost in sound is made up in the details of the signing.

It’s a piece that the four performers David Ellington, Matthew Gurney, Moira Anna Mcauslan and Deborah Pugh are deeply committed to and each of them provide strong insightful work. Ellington, in particular, is a wonderful actor, demonstrating both the fear and frustration of studying as a deaf student in the ’70s brought.

George Mann’s slick and swift production also features clever sound design by Sam Halmarack that enhances the turmoil that all three key characters face. If it all sounds very worthy and serious Mann also chucks in the cringiest and funniest sex scene this year, a hilariously awkward tumble between the sheets where what is being demanded gets lost in translation.

Yet ultimately what it provides is a clarion call that there is still much more to do to fully incorporate the deaf community into everyday society. What this show makes clear is how essential deaf clubs have become for providing the hearing impaired a space to be and embrace who they are. Are these also a space to learn more about the culture and the basics of signing? An important, thoughtful work that packs a punch.

Pride and Prejudice *Sort Of- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

The reclaiming of narratives is hot right now. Bristol Old Vic currently is hosting two such works with Wild Swimming in the studio looking at the battle of the sexes through history with a female gaze while in the main house Blood of the Young are tackling the rom-com with a similar punkish attitude. It may not be Pride and Prejudice as seen by the servants as the marketing proclaims it- it is simply a device to allow the six to fling on a range of costume to run the whole range of Jane Austen’s characters- but it is a story that makes sure that the female roles stand front and centre, there is no chance Mr Darcy coming out of the lake in billowing white is going to eclipse them here.

Which is as it should be. After all, Austen’s novel is about five sisters and their mother, caught in a society that tells them that getting married to a suitable suitor is the only skin in the game they need. Here these six stand centre stage, even Darcy feels peripheral to their strong sisterly bond. Much like Six, that pushes King Henry to the sidelines to place the spotlight on his long-suffering wives, here the Bennett sisters get to take complete ownership of the stage and the story they tell.
Isobel McArthur’s adaptation is a riot, keeping the structure and narrative joins of the original, showcasing the robustness of the original, but freeing the language from the clipped, restrained Regency tone of Austen’s original for something earthier and expletive-filled. Karaoke tracks are littered throughout, from ‘I Think I Love You’ to the wonderfully pertinent ‘You’re So Vain’, dripping in dry Ulster cadence from Meghan Tyler’s heroine Elizabeth Bennett to Mr Darcy, the first time she encounters him.
McArthur’s adaption and Paul Brotherston’s production gives us the full English of the tale, every letter, ball and meeting in the wood is present and correct, which leads to a slightly convoluted running time that stretches close to three hours. It could afford to be braver in jettisoning some of the material to get closer to the griselled centre of the piece.
Yet its impossible to not be won over, with its Puckish energy and strong female voices rocking the Old Vic stage. Tyler, who is having a cracking 2019, after her play Crocodile Fever lit up the Traverse this Fringe, is a very modern Elizabeth, her arched eyebrow and dry humour marking her out as a worthwhile sparring adversary and romantic partner to Darcy. McArthur pulls off a great double, as the dour lover and garrulous Mrs Bennett, too fond of a drink and akin to shooting her mouth off. There is also fantastic turns from Tori Burgess as the song obsessed youngest Mary and Hannah Jarrett-Scott who as Tillie suggests that her desire may not lay with men in breeches and who also essays both of the Bingley siblings, who so dazzle the Bennett clan.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita design frames the action in a grand Regency staircase which explodes with colour and sound as the evening wears on. This production, in association with The Tron and The Lyceum, feels punchy and urgent. It brings Austen into the heart of the contemporary world and makes a case for her continued popularity, a world away from the cosy Sunday night dramas most associate her with.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice #Sort Of is a cracking good night of theatre and one well-worth taking a punt on

Unicorns, Almost- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

When playwright Owen Sheers and director John Retallack last brought poetry to the front line the result was the sensational Pink Mist, that played Bristol Old Vic three times and went on two national tours and could play claim to be the most successful new play under Tom Morris’ watch. Unicorns, Almost plays at a much lower key, not only in the comparative stillness of the production when placed against the propulsiveness of Mist but also in the emotion, it evokes within its audience, its gentler tone refusing to burrow in and tear at the heart.
This may be reflective of the poet Keith Douglas, that this biographical work explores. His work was extrospective, discussing external impressions rather than inward emotions and his critics have accused him of bringing callowness to his poetry scribed in the barracks. That doesn’t come across in this 60-minute piece, but a certain coldness does. Douglas’ matter of fact approach to life and death doesn’t allow its audience to get within an arms reach. On the 75th anniversary of his death at Normandy, there is still a sense of a man hidden behind his words.
Sheers work tries to get closer to him. We see the poetic temperament of a man who constantly falls in love, discussing being waved off by his 16-year-old sweetheart or falling into lust with the Spanish/Italian Milena before finding himself spending his last days of leave wooing the literary secretary of TS Elliot. It’s a reflection of a young man whose flame burns briefly, not fully grown into the man of letters he would have likely become if his life hadn’t been cut tragically short at 24.
As expected, Sheers play is awash with beautifully heightened language. It would work wonders as an audio drama, its visuals almost distracting from allowing us to luxuriate in the form Sheers has produced for it. Some bits hit hard, as when Douglas states that his would-be publishers don’t understand that his first collection of poetry could also act as his lifetime work.
Dan Krikler, a Pink Mist alumni, embodies the all Oxford boy who scribbles away on the front line. Softly spoken and delivering the poetry with a good sense of its musicality- as Ben Pickersgill lighting darkens to a blueish hue-and possessing a resemblance to the real Douglas, Krikler manages to portray both the boyish nature of a young adventurer and the hardening nature of a man who has seen too much too soon. He brings his musical theatre background to the role’s physicality, his moments when he takes us onto the dancefloor as he woos is one of the highlights of the production.
A coda talks about a moment when ten years after the poet’s death his Mother goes into a bookshop to find all six copies of his book still on the shelf, unopened and untouched. Douglas states that he hoped his words would allow him to live on. Sheers play brings him back into consciousness. It may not be a piece that shakes you in the way of Pink Mist, but in bringing the words of Douglas to its audience, Sheers has proved a willing literary executor.

Unicorns, Almost plays at Bristol Old Vic until 7 September.

The Three Musketeers- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

At a time when so many independent companies are questioning how to shatter the glass ceiling and move from the studio setting to the main house, it is heartening to see Le Navet Bete on the main stage of Bristol Old Vic in The Three Musketeers. The Exeter based company, who have previously played Bristol in venues such as The Tobacco Factory and the Redgrave finally take a step up to the Old Vics hallowed ground in a production that fits its larger playing field like a glove.
This is mostly down to the talents of writer/director John Nicholson (who has co-written with the company and co-directed with movement director Lea Andersen) who has honed and sharpened Dumas’ much-loved novel to the stage. He wraps its dashes of romance, adventure and intrigue around the framing device of childhood memories and long summers where childhood friendships develop into lifelong bonds. Ti Green’s multi-level design is reminiscent of childhood dens as well as representing the high palaces and dens of iniquity of Paris and the country estates and ports of Britain.
Nicholson’s script sticks close to the novels narrative beats while chucking in plenty of silliness. Lines like ‘I’ve been stabbed in the croissant’ abound while the Musketeers ride about on BMX’s, another nod to its Goonies lite aesthetic. The production is sleek and sharp, the actors 112 costume changes in a little over 90 minutes of stage time never distracting from the main source of action. Some of these changes veer close to genius, such as when the Musketeers duel with the Kings Guard in a blaze of blue to orange tunic switching. Yet Nicholson also finds time to throw in a bit of literary criticism, my favourite joke of the evening was the moment the titular heroes realise they don’t possess much agency in driving the plot forward.
What takes it to the next level though is Matt Freeman’s portrayal of Milady de Winter. Strolling on with a black bob wig that pitches Milady somewhere between Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace and Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko. Making a strong play of being one of the oldest and greatest femme fatales, Freeman’s lightens up the stage, whether sparking up after every tumble in the hay or playing every man she comes into contact with, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. Lightly sexy and proving that villains do get to have all the fun, it’s a tour-de-force of a performance.
If I wish the company would get away from the scripted corpse, that audiences seem to love but get in the way of clean storytelling, it is a work that proves that these Plymouth University graduates deserve their step up. The Three Musketeers is great, late summer escapism, with plenty to appeal to young and old alike. One for all and all for one indeed.