Bristol Old Vic Theatre School produce terrific graduates for theatre and the screen but they could make a killing if they offered their services to the art of Christmas Carolling. The sounds emanating from the Redgrave Theatre at 10am on a Saturday morning cheered even this Christmas fatigued (and slightly hung-over) heart. It’s a little commented part of the schools ethos, but almost all their public showings incorporate musicality and close harmonies, led by musical director Pam Rudge, these are always sharp and on-point. It does make one long for an annual musical to be incorporated into their repertoire.
If the music charmed, the nativity that followed is a little more hit and miss under Chris Donnelly’s workmanlike direction. At the end of a run that had seen it play across primary schools in the Bristol area, it still felt a little slack in places, cues not being picked up quickly enough, timing a beat or two out. Occasionally the staging left it unclear about what should be focussing on. Thieves and creatures wandered onto the stage with so little fanfare only Argus would have noticed them. On an early Saturday start it felt a little like the actors were straining to connect to a lukewarm audience. The Redgrave is a big theatre, the work here not made for such a space with its intimacies consequently swallowed up. From halfway back the work feels distant. In an assembly hall it may play differently.
John Hartoch’s adaptation has fun with source material. The three Kings are each old school buffoons, Herod’s guard’s dim witted irritants constantly being tricked and harried by citizens as bolshie as those in Pythons Life Of Brian . More time is spent with the shepherds and their issues with a couple of dodgy sheep rustlers than with Mary (Eva O’Hara) and Joseph’s (Amukelani Mastena) trip to Bethlehem and conception in a manger. Like Brian, it’s a well rhapsodised event seen from an outsider’s perspective.
It’s a perfectly pleasant way to pass an hour. What makes it worth the ticket price though is fourteen bright eyed and bushytailed students breaking into a rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
We may be seeing awkward first dates and dastardly ugly sisters with cutting ‘Daddy’s’ playing the Tobacco Factory in Beauty and The Beast and Victorian fairy tales with a powerful punch at Bristol Old Vic but the show that will really get you into the Christmas spirit this season is Bristol Old Vic theatre schools The Wizard Of Oz, a five-star hit that leaves you beaming ear to ear from the moment Liyah Summers Dorothy first opens her mouth to sing the iconic ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ all the way through to the final refrain of ‘Follow The Yellow Brick Road’ which elicits a genuine standing ovation. The MGM version may be required viewing each Christmas but this is a show that demands repeat viewing itself. It should be prescribed on the NHS to cure bah humbug disorder.
There are very few people who aren’t at least somewhat familiar with the plot, either with L. Frank Baun’s 1900 novel or the MGM film that catapulted its leading lady Judi Garland to stardom. Yet for those who are not farm girl Dorothy and her beloved dog Toto are swept up in a Tornado, end up in the Technicolor world of Oz and a feud with the Wicked Witch Of The West, meeting the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion on route along the Yellow Brick Road while learning there really is no place like home. Its familiarity allows you to just sit back and luxuriate in the famous melodies and set pieces that this RSC version gobbled up practically whole from the 1939 movie. It’s no surprise that the work is a family classic, with lots of fun, classic tunes, a few moral truths handled lightly and just enough peril to scare the little ones without giving them nightmare for years. It’s a show in truth difficult to get wrong.
Yet what makes this one so right, under the direction of Peter Leslie Wild, is how fully the 16 strong ensemble embrace the world they create. It’s rare for such a big show but each member of the cast gives telling detail here, from Felix Garcia Guyers saxophone wielding Emerald City Guard to Marco Young’s zombified Winkie, face contorted into drooping gormlessness. Summers is an open hearted Dorothy, admittedly stronger in her vocals in the middle of her range then the top but with a warm honeyed sound that makes the songs her own even under the shadow of Garland’s vocals, while Gráinne O’Mahony is an ethereal Glinda designed to make little girls and boys want to dress in sparkly dresses this Christmas. She is pitted against Bonnie Baddoo’s Witch, clearly having a ball playing evil.
Cecilia Crossland as Tin Man, Pedro Leandro as Scarecrow and Alex Wilson as the Lion all make telling contributions as the friends of Dorothy gathered on the way, Wilson especially makes a mark as the pugilistic lion who lacks machismo but never heart. For this year’s premier Bristol Christmas show the Redgrave is the place to be. Bristol Old Vic Theatre School always produce a good Christmas show but this is my favourite yet. Follow The Yellow Brick Road right along to the box office.
The Wizard Of Oz plays at The Redgrave Theatre until the 19 December.
Just as you begin to feel like you have a handle on how Christmas shows should operate trust Emma Rice to come along and turn things on its head. Sure, there is plenty of silly jokes and manic set pieces to keep the little ones entertained but Little Matchgirl And Other Happier Tales has a serious moral at its heart and is never prepared to let it be pushed to the side. It makes for a slow burning night, one that doesn’t automatically reveal its rewards but keeps plugging its riches long after the curtain has gone down.
Rice, the most playful director and one who brings great joy in her work with Kneehigh and at The Globe, has created a show where darkness constantly threatens to permeate the festivities of Christmas. Original fairy tales went to some pretty dangerous places, modern life (as demonstrated here) isn’t all tinsel and calorie loading joy either. As Black Friday and New Year bashes grow exponentially, child poverty in the UK is on the rise. The Little Match Girl may have her origins in the Victorian era and snow flecked tales of Hans Christian Andersen but that child can still be found today in most towns and cities across the country today.
This dual time line is made explicit upon the Bristol Old Vic stage where three modern buskers hover around a fire keeping the chill out, while the tales told are presented by an Edwardian theatre troupe led by Niall Ashdown’s Master Of Ceremonies Ole Shuteye. Over the course of the two hours of traffic upon the stage three tales are told each time a match is struck:Thumbelina– which gets the whole of the first act to weave its tale of the little girl making her way in the world; The Princess And The Pea where love is questioned and spoilt by tests, and best of all The Emperor’s New Clothes in which hipsters get to work on creating an outfit au naturale for a vain Empire- Ashdown again in side splitting form.
Having premiered last year at The Globe it plays Bristol this Christmas before embarking on a National tour in the first part of 2018. A brand new cast manage to take ownership of roles that the original actors would have taken agency off during rehearsals (always tricky) and there is especially convincing work from Katy Owen as a bossy Thumbelina and a Shoreditch fashionista and Karl Queensborough whose strong tenor helps make art out of Stephen Warbeck’s score.
It’s a work that never talks down to its young audience, its darker moments ensure it is really only appropriate for those 10 years and above, while giving them plenty to roar at, a certain costume shows men’s dangly bits can be funny across the generations. It’s a show that I admire more than love but for a deeper Christmas experience The Little Matchgirl is hard to beat.
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 14 January 2018 and then continues to tour.
Kid Carpet has brought a snow globe from his old mate Gary Barlow and all he needs now is for it to snow to guarantee a white festive season. The only problem is- as explained by the helpful weather presenter who turns up- there’s only a pea sized chance of any snow falling. Will he get the happy ending he deserves? Will the droll talking refrigerator completely steal the show from his human counterparts? Will Ronaldo or Messi win out as the ultimate sporting idol? Will the packed crowd of 3-7 year olds completely take over and create anarchy in the Lantern this Christmas?
For Kid Carpet’s latest show for the younger generation at BOV is packed full of questions like this. Children’s theatre may be seen as the poor relation to the more grown up stuff by some of the more sniffy members of the fraternity, but they should try standing up and perform in front of a baying pack of children. Watching as a single male adult from the back row is both a terrifying but thoroughly invigorating experience. You will never find a more honest audience. Bore them and they riot. Enchant them and you have them in the palm of your hand. There is only success or failure. Nothing else will do.
Thankfully Carpet is an experience hand at this, his show a constantly moving blend of colour, interactivity and dancing. Along with Susie Donkie of Spitz and Co who takes on roles as diverse as weather forecaster, Kylie Minogue (not sure of her traction with this generation- nor Barlow for that matter) and the Portuguese football star with slick backed hair and rock hard abs the two throw every trick of the trade to keep the young ones enthralled. There is no narrative to speak off, just one set piece after another a surreal game of tennis,a Mexican/Portuguese wave, nursery rhyme songs giving a hip mash up. Does Carpet get his wish at the end? Does snow fall this Christmas? Well it is the festive season, what do you think?
Highly accomplished and masterfully executed it is a show that puts as much thought and effort into pleasing its audience as the big Christmas show down the road on Kings Street. The kids have spoken. A joy.
Snow Globe plays at the Lantern, Colston Hall until 7 January 2018
In a year when the live action movie musical of this tale sits atop the box office charts its reassuring to find it can do just as well without Alan Menken’s musical score and Emma Watson’s auto-tuned vocals. New International Encounter’s production, in a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres this Christmas after a successful run with other co-producer Cambridge Junction last year, may lack the budget and the sterling show tunes of the film, but more than makes up for it in heart and originality. If Christmas shows are measured by the smile it puts on our faces and the gales of laughter elicited from the younger ones then this is a stone iron smash.
Low on budget it may be but director Alex Byrne and his five strong actor-musician cast make virtue out of necessity. They manage to turn the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory into the fully realised world imagined by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original tale- of dilapidated cottages in the woods and gothic grand castles. Destined to remain in bestial form until someone loves him, having been cursed by an old crone centuries before, this beast, played by Martin Bonger, prowls the space with a restless physicality, centuries of loneliness and self-hatred about his physical appearance having turned him feral. It’s only when Sara Lessore’s Beauty enters the castle that the soul underneath is reinvigorated, the dining scene courtship between the two, as the Beast learns to be human again is both hilarious and touching, like the best episodes of First Dates where the outcome hangs in the balance.
The whole enterprise is so touching and pure that it’s impossible not to be swept up in its charm. Its populist family entertainment, full of the magic of rough and ready storytelling, with Gallic infused folk music, pantomime villains and love conquers all mentality. All five performers are terrific; Bonger is cultured and beastly, a man whose lost his identity when he sees the fur and the horns in the mirror, while Lessore is winningly winsome and full of self-agency as Isabella whose kindness and purity of soul helps spark life back into the beast. Playing goodness on stage is tricky, finding a naturalism while doing it even more so. Yet when she laughs at the beast’s stand-up routine, or as the realisation dawns that she loves her bearish host, there is truth in her dawning reactions. She may be the best Christmas heroine I’ve seen.
There are a pair of terrific ugly sisters from Elliot Davis and Samantha Sutherland whose ‘Daddy’ refrains when things don’t go their way (often), are honed like a nuclear weapon mapped to inflict maximum damaged while Gregory Hall and Benjamin Tolley also provide strong support. The singing is a dream, audience interaction pitched just about right. In recent years TF have held the advantage of the Christmas shows in the region over their more glitzy and glamorous rivals and Beauty and The Beast sets out a strong marker for 2017. Bristol Old Vic-over to you
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. .
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.