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.
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Malory Towers- Passenger Shed ☆☆☆

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Photo by Steve Tanner.

For playing the source material of Malory Towers with a relatively straight bat Emma Rice has performed probably her most subversive turn in years. You go into a Rice show with a certain expectation, an idea that what you are going to see could only be dreamt up from the fertile imagination of this one of a kind artist. Yet watching Wise Children earlier this year there were some nagging voices that her work was beginning to feel a little trope. So along comes Malory Towers, its material,  for both good and bad, lifted wholesale from Enid Blyton’s book. It feels- even with an unnecessary prologue and epilogue- very old fashioned.

Rice writes movingly in her programme notes about her Mothers educational journey through a school very much like Malory, Lord Digby’s School in Sherborne. So, Blyton’s series of novels, about a group of girls who attend a castled boarding school on the cliffs of Cornwall (did JK Rowling ever get around to sending that royalty check) is close to her heart. In a present political and social-economic climate that tends towards the chaotic, it is clear as well that Rice has latched onto its message of kindness and tolerance as the ones we should be teaching our young people everywhere.

Yet the evening felt too twee, too on the nose, all jolly hockey sticks and clipped tones that stick it into alien territory. Its plotting is gentle and deliberately slow, akin to curling up on a Sunday evening to watch a show that will allow you to wallow in the nostalgia of a different time. The plot, what little there is, consists of friendships being made and broken, the girls going for a swim, and a clifftop ‘cliff-hanger’ before wrapping up with a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where more life lessons are learnt. Life and art definitely moved at a different pace once upon a time.

Rice, still creates one or two winning stage moments within her respectful production. The girls plunge into the sea is cleverly staged and the clifftop dangle builds tension. Yet ultimately, it’s the seven-strong, diverse cast that makes the work. Six alumni Izuka Hoyle’s Darrell is our likeable guide through the piece, quick to temper but with a big heart and great set of pipes on her, as does other past Six performer Renée Lamb as the wisecracking Alicia. Rose Shalloo is sweetly determined as the shy, nervous Mary Lou while Mirabelle Gremaud is a contortionist Irene. Rebecca Collingwood drips rich posh girl silver spoon, even if she also eventually finds redemption while Vinnie Heaven is a dashing horse mad Bill. But its Francesca Mills’ Sally who ultimately delivers the best lines, especially as she becomes the despotic director of The Dream, throwing out that if Shakespeare had wanted finger puppets, he would have written them into the script.

On a sweltering night in The Passenger Shed the company deserve great plaudits for putting their all into such a high-intensity show. A charming piece but one that undoubtedly feels like minor-key Rice.

Malory Towers plays at The Passenger Shed until the 18 August.

Amelie-Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

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The city of Paris is usually represented in one of two ways in culture. There is the romantic, exploding technicolour version as seen in the likes of An American In Paris or French Cancan and then there is the colder side prominent in films like Trouble Every Day or What Time Is It There. When Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie came out it was clear that his interest was in exploring the city as fairy-tale, a whimsical delight that played up the idea of French-ness, launched Audrey Tatou to the world and became one of the top-grossing international films in British cinematic history.

The Watermill theatrical version, now stopping off at Bristol Old Vic, arguably pushes the whimsy even further. Its actor-musician cast doesn’t only portray the denizens of the Montmarte café that the story mostly plays out in, but also take up their instruments and play Daniel Messé’s pretty, tuneful score with a bohemian flourish. If it’s a long way from portraying the real multicultural City that Paris is, the playing up of the cities ‘hits’ is mostly the point.

What the production scores highest on is in casting Audrey Brisson in the titular role. This BOV regular is a little firecracker of a performer, possessor of huge lungs and a honed physicality that harkens back to her days as a Cirque de Soleil performer. She has always enchanted me, whether in the original casts of two of my favourite works Grinning Man or Dead Dog In A Suitcase or patchier pieces like Flying Lovers or La Strada, but the role of the lonely waitress who decides to bring happiness to others in life while running away from her own, fits her like a glove. She brings an otherworldly quality to her, one that allows its audience to both view her as a star burning bright and also as one who can’t quite fathom the real world and so drifts into her dreams.

She is well supported by Danny Mac, who brings his matinee idol looks and vocals to the role of the photographer that Amelie falls in love with from afar, while Kate Robson-Stuart’s highly driven turn would make anyone want to pick up a violin. Meanwhile, Caolan McCarthy is the second RADA graduate this year to offer a high-profile Elton John turn, his take on a tribute song for Amélie bringing the house down at the end of Act One.

This is one of many quirky stage moments that litter the production that also takes in child puppets, actors wearing full-body fig suits and a trail of blue arrows created by the ensemble wearing gloves. If anything, Michael Fentiman’s production could be accused of being too busy, never letting the action truly breathe, although in fairness this all leads to a moment of exquisite beauty as the action completely stops and silence takes hold as the two lovers share their first tender moments.

If the sound balance is off, meaning the instrumentals occasionally drown out the vocals of everyone bar the big brassy Bresson I’ll put this down to being the first night in a new venue. If I didn’t fully find love within the piece there was enough potential to suggest a second date could be forthcoming.

Amelie plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 20 June.

Off Peak- Weston Studio ☆☆☆

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In its ninth year, the Made In Bristol scheme has been nothing but an unqualified success. If not all the companies have gone on to the West End success of The Wardrobe Ensemble, the list of theatre-makers spread over both the local and national theatre ecology is proof positive that the scheme is spinning gold.

Play The Goat’s Off Peak suggests that there is a whole new host of talent to add to the scene. The fictional activist group ‘Felix’ may be out to cause total global happiness in the Bristol Parkway to Reading commuter train, but the company seem as destined to ensure they provide their audience with as rollicking a time. It’s a blast of a 55-minute piece, one that feels very ‘Bristol’ in its energy, although wisely not as obviously influenced by the creative practitioners who work with them as they usually are, and an ode to a celebration of living in the moment.

Of course, as with most first pieces of work, it could probably do with a sharp editors pen, to ‘kill the darlings’, those rehearsal room moments that become company favourites, but don’t necessarily translate to the stage. Yet there is enough imagination to override these caveats, a host of great songs, some clever tableaux that demonstrate the modern curse of our smart devices, and a wonderful piece of staging that signifies the train chugging along on its journey as a pair of wittering old ladies.

Its late lurch into thriller territory doesn’t fully coalesce but there is much to feel excited about with this 2019 company.

Off-Peak plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 6 July.

Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs)-Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

 

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There’s something about watching Kneehigh’s Dead Dog In A Suitcase at Bristol Old Vic that just feels like a major work coming home. Apart from its own Cornish base the Asylum, no theatre feels like the spiritual home of the anarchic company quite like this King Street Venue. It comes alive in the splendid Georgian jewel of a space, and Bristol, now conditioned after a decade of Tom Morris’ programmed work that has embraced the playful and musical nature of theatre, embraces it like a favourite child.

It’s a mixture of the bawdy and the lyrical, stirred with some of its classical origins and finished off with a sprinkling of Portishead and ska, is an adaptation from writer Carl Grose, director Mike Shepherd and composer Charles Hazlewood of the original John Gay British musical The Beggars’ Opera.

On this, its third visit, it still remains a marvel, one that I dubbed my favourite show of 2014, and one that still possesses a majority of its cast from that run. Often overlooked about the risk-taking Cornish company, is how in tune with the European rep system they are. Plays in this country, often work their short runs and then disappear; if they’re lucky potentially receiving a revival a few years later to confirm their place in the repertoire. Kneehigh shows go a different route, dusted off and reimagined slightly every few years which allows them to play into the national consciousness. Think of Tristan and Yseult. Or its Brief Encounter. These are works that have now become school set texts as can be demonstrated by the hordes of school groups willingly flooding into the auditorium minutes before curtain up.

It is also fascinating to see performers evolve and deepen their performances. Take Dominic Marsh’s charismatic anti-hero MacHeath. Five years ago, he brought boyish charm to the part of the contract killer whose wandering eye keeps him in trouble. Now, he brings something different, more years of living behind him, a dead-eyed glaze that suggests he has seen a lot of life and found it wanting. He’s gone from boyish rock front man to the weary stop the world I want to get off veteran. Same performer, same role, but it changes the whole energy of the evening.

As the two women MacHeath betroths himself too, Angela Hardie and Beverly Rudd play the archetypal virgin and the harlot but with an added agency. Hardie especially goes through a journey as the heart-broken Polly finds her damaged artery turning to stone. Meanwhile, Rina Fatania returns to her role as the homicidal matriarch and is just as terrifyingly funny as before. Yet the stand out performer in a whole squad of them is Georgia Frost’s Filtch. Undoubtedly one of the stand out students of my years spent reviewing BOVTS it is brilliant to see her talent being now recognised by our national companies. Her powerful vocals, her clowning that reminded me of Keaton, it’s almost criminal how many facets she possesses and if there is any justice she is going to be a big star for years to come.

In the wrong hands, the whole thing could fall into a convoluted mess, with its multiple switching of suitcases, double crossings and Punch and Judy pier shows. But through all its broad mayhem, Shepherd’s production keeps its narrative clarity clear and it’s pacing spot on. He keeps his piece de resistance to last, its final moments an iconic moment of 21st-century theatre, as a violinist plays ever more frantically as the world collapses behind her. It’s a showstopping moment in a work fully in tune with what I feel theatre should be. I hope they revive it forever.

Nicholas Nickleby- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

Cast of BOVTS Nicholas Nickleby. Photo by Mark Dawson.

 

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Nicholas Nickleby is a phenomenal achievement, a total theatrical triumph and without doubt the best Drama School production I’ve ever seen. Over the 7 ½ hours of theatre divided into two parts, 26 graduating actors play over 150 roles in David Edgar’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s serial novel, inhabiting a broad panoply of Victorian life.

In the close to 40 years since the play was first staged so famously by the RSC, it has become only more in tune with the times. Now with sprawling box sets on demand, its faithful novelistic approach to putting the whole of the page on stage seems more likely to win a loyal audience prepared to binge. Edgar understood the debt that Dicken’s felt to the theatre, and no book probably encapsulates that better than the one about the Nickleby family. The couple of hours we spend in the company of the Crummies theatrical troupe could be a full-length play in itself, culminating in a Romeo and Juliet that, with its knockabout farce and happy ending edits, challenges the Mechanicals Pyramus and Thisbe as the best play within a play to ever be written. As the piece also later whisks itself off to opera houses and gives Shakespearean epitaphs to characters, it does feel fitting that this is the Dickens that got the full theatrical marathon treatment.

Directors Jenny Stephens and Geoffrey Brumlik have marshalled something extraordinary to the stage, one that juggles both the intimate in fleeting dabs and the epic in broad brush strokes. From its thrilling first image, you know you are in safe hands, as the lights snap up and the whole graduating year group stand grouped on stage, ready to narrate the tale. It drew an admiring gasp from a group of school children in the upper circle, a reminder that the magic of theatre really does come from the simplest of resources.

As Nicholas and his sister Kate, Kel Matsana and Eva O’Hara prove that goodness doesn’t necessarily translate to dryness. Matsana is perfectly cast as Nick, his boyish tenor perfectly translating into a boy learning to become a man. Carrying a play which is fundamentally about him yet where he is responsible for few of the inciting incidences is challenging but Matsana brings so much charm to bear that he vaults its challenges.  O’Hara is a striking presence, with her high cheekbones and flaming red hair, for great portions of the day she resembles her namesake Scarlett if she had taken to mourning dress. As she falls victim to a society that sees woman as collateral in men’s business doing’s, her Kate stands firm, taking each blow of life’s misfortunes but refusing to wilt.

As their Uncle Ralph, Will Fletcher gradually turns more skeletal as his quest for revenge against his nephew takes shape, a reverse of Scrooge where a miserly moneylender eventually turns further to the dark side. In Dickens’ tale of good vs evil, there are also some cracking villains from Lawrence Haynes as an original Bullingdon boy and Finnbar Hayman as a predatory old man.

In reality, you could pick out all and any of the ensemble for special praise, but over the course of the day it was difficult not to pick out the wonderful Anna-Kate Golding whose Fanny Squeers was a comic masterclass in pathos and vanity, Holly Carpenter whose range went from drunk stage managers to even more sozzled Glaswegian and Tom Briggs who delighted in multiple character etches.

Oscar Porter has probably the most challenging role of the evening, attempting to step into the role that made David Threlfall a star. His Smike is, perhaps wisely, less physically exerting than the one Threfall created, but he is perhaps just as touching as Nicholas’ loyal friend, rescued from the clutches of the Squeer’s brutal school and becoming a lifelong travel partner. Whether helping the ladies with their bags or trying to learn the apothecary speech, Porter is a sweet, winning presence.

Oscar Selfridge’s inventive, layered, set takes us from Yorkshire to London and onto Portsmouth while Alana Ashley has worked wonders in her costume design, from the flamboyance of the theatricals to the black pall of the mourning Nickleby’s. It’s only in Rob Casey’s lighting design that a tight time schedule really shows, as sometimes the actors struggle to find their light which makes some audible a little tricky. He does, however, create a stunning late shadow tableau, as three characters head out on pilgrimage, another beautiful moment in a day loaded with them.

There are days and shows in the life of a theatregoer that will last with them forever. This is one. As the final curtain came down at 11 pm, some nine and a half hours after the first light up, the actors took their final bow and fell, exhausted and elated into each other’s arms. You wanted to go up and join them. A fitting end to a brilliant year group. Bravo.

In The Willows- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

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Call it the Hamilton effect. Ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda turned the constitution sexy, hip-hop is in vogue for telling tales from the past. Who could have predicted that Kenneth Grahame’s genteel Edwardian tale about riverbanks and hot buttered toast would translate so well to Metta Theatre’s grime infused retelling? I went in sceptical; I came out converted by one of the freshest, most original pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year.

This Mole is a new starter at school, scarred by the slaying of her twin in a senseless knife crime. Victoria Boyce infuses her with the timid innocence of a newbie. Her blonde hair and home countries accent mark her out as different in this rough neighbourhood, but just like in the original she learns to acclimatise to the world and her new friends around her. As her traditional musical theatre sound begins to infuse with the rapid-fire beats of Rattie (Zara MacIntosh-excellent) we see a community as tight and as full of love as anything in the pastoral original.

Poppy Burton-Morgan’s adaptation is as whip-smart as the production she stages. Each character has been etched beautifully, contemporised while keeping the spiritual links to their original, Badger becomes an inspirational teacher, Toad decked out in green tracksuit and chain, inspired by his fraudster father serving a long stretch inside. Meanwhile, the head weasel leads a gang from another rougher school, linked to Mole in a sense of shared tragedy.

It may eschew the deliberate longueurs of the original tale, this Riverside doesn’t quieten down for a second, but it hits all the story beats you would expect, the initial tentative steps towards friendship, the crime and punishment of Toad, a prison break and a final battle with the Weasels that here becomes a thrilling dance battle for Toad Hall.

The performances are as vibrant as the tale it tells, not only in the aforementioned Boyce and MacIntosh but across the ensemble. Harry Jardine possesses as much brass as the bling he wears as Toad but also a more sensitive side that is brought out in his devotion to his goldfish. Former X-Factor contestant Sean Miley Moore brings snap and glamour to his owl while at the other end of the scale Olivier Award winner Clive Rowe brings his velvet baritone to a couple of anthemic like songs.

The casting that brings this work up to another level though is deaf dancer Chris Fonseca as Otter. Whether teaching Mole to sign or signing the lyrics with the rest of the ensemble in the big group numbers, thrillingly choreographed by Rhimes LeCointe it shows how integration can help lift artistry. In the access performance I saw, BSL interpreter Laura Golden sparkled with as much energy as any of the hard-working cast.

A couple of years back a very forgettable musical version of Wind In The Willows hit the London Palladium. This is the version that should have hit the West End. A revelation.

In The Willows plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 1 June.