A Christmas Carol- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

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Originally published in The Bristol Post

There is greatness striding through the heart of Bristol Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol and it comes in the shape of Felix Hayes’ Ebenezer Scrooge. Hayes, a favourite for Bristol audiences for his work as Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and The Father in A Monster Calls among others, climbs into the top pantheon of actors with this, his bass rumbles perfect for delivering a well-timed humbug. As the true meaning of the festive season is shown to him, the bass becomes tenor, happiness floating from him in a higher key, his huge frame angling into childish wonderment, Victorian formality dissipating in a moment. It’s his tale and you can’t take your eyes off him.

This would be reason enough to hit King’s Street this Christmas, but this Carol has other treats in store. Lee Lyford’s production gives the whole thing a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, the stage initially shrouded in so much fog that it isn’t just Scrooge who can’t see the wood from the trees. As Dicken’s most famous creation revels in making money, the stage is a mass of monochrome, all joy sucked out in pastels of black.

As the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come visit, colour is gradually added to the aesthetic, until, in its final technicolour moments, the whole-theatre is decked out in reds, purples and yellows. The device they use to achieve this may be familiar to anyone who saw Swallows and Amazon’s or The Grinning Man, and as such is becoming a bit of a trope here, but as its Christmas, I will give them a pass. After all, there is something heart-warming about the familiar.

There is something of a Bristolian all-star game with the cast they have assembled, not only with Hayes but the always reliable Saikat Ahamed, the returning composer Gwyneth Herbert and three recent theatre school graduates in Crystal Condie, Beau Holland and George Readshaw. The festive season is all about family reuniting, and there is something cheering about seeing so much talent who have called Bristol home, coming together to weave magic.

Lyford’s all-inclusive production plays another trump in the casting of deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah, whose expressive signing shines right up to the upper gantries. Lyford has had a fine year working with extraordinary artists with disabilities- he also directed Jamie Ballard in the Elephant Man here- and his work should be a direct challenge to cast the net wider when scouting for talent.

It follows the dark aesthetic that seems to have become an in-house style for BOV Christmas over the past few years, but with Hayes giving the performance of the year it’s hard not to fall in love with it. My Christmas gift to the Old Vic? A full five stars!

A Christmas Carol plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 13th January 2019

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Welcome To Thebes- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

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The Ancient Greek myths are relocated to a modern day civil-war torn state in Moira Buffini’s highly literate and increasingly impressive Welcome To Thebes. Played in the National Theatre’s Olivier in 2010 Richard Eyre’s original production suggested Thebes was an African state decimated in its bloodshed. This setting of Thebes is a little vaguer: less specific, more in keeping with the mythical. Thebes is a country where the women have now been forced to take power. Led by Eurydice (a strong, three dimensional moral centre from Emma Prendegrast), widow of Creon and newly elected democratic leader and her cabinet of female ministers, a country whose bodies are still burning is forced to look to its future. To rebuild her country will require support though, support that has to come from the wealth and power of Athens and its blazingly hip all high-wattage smiles leader Theseus (Alexander Mushore who combines the dashing charm of Obama with the sheer vanity of Trump) and his ingratiating pile of hangers on. The see-saw of power changes frequently between the two as the future of Thebes hangs in the balance. In the background, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young- nervously spitting out venom), spurred on by his Lady M like mistress Pargeia (Lucia Young) plots to take control. Meanwhile Antigone (Bonnie Baddoo) vows to bury her brother, decreed a traitor to the state while trapped in a form of love triangle between her sister Ismene (Anna Munden) and blinded Haemon (James Bradwell).

It’s almost as though Buffini had predicted the Netflix box set form before it truly became popular. LikeDickensianGotham or Marvel’s The Defenders, much of the fun comes from encountering characters from across the myths interact in a new landscape. For Greek myth geeks, the play is a delightful collection of Easter eggs.  Theseus calls home, worried about his younger wife Phaedra and ordering his son Hippolytus to look after her. The final phone call home should not be a surprise to anyone with a passing reference point to Euripides or Ovid.

Yet if the convoluted explanation of the plot here has left you needing a chance to check your references, the play suffers from some of the same issues. The first Act lacks rhythm, narratively heavy and hampered by awkward staging from director Lucy Pitman-Wallace  and a lighting design from Joe Stathers that over lights the space and resolutely refuses to provide focus on the key players. If the original production could rely on all the wizardry of the Olivier to jump-cut locations and provide a sense of the epic, the Tobacco Factory Theatre, presenting the work in the round, feels just too squeezed to comfortably host the 18 actors on its stage. Angles are ever important when staging in the round and its just clumsy that at one point there were 4 actors in a diagonal all blocking the speaker from this audience member‘s sight lines.

Eventually though the plot machinations take hold and the plot becomes truly gripping, as power plays are made and justice for past misdeeds is served. If the first act clunks, the second half rushes to its thrilling conclusion. For this graduating class of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it is a final chance to work together before the profession beckons. Bradwell delivers another finely tuned performance in a year full of them, as does James Schofield with another slightly unhinged turn, and George Readshaw as the prophetic Tiresius, while the expressive features of Badoo suggests a bright future for her. Look out too for Felix Garcia Guyer whose Miletus displayed a poetic core that contrasts sharply with his rugged shell.

Thebes is an epic undertaking that starts slowly but eventually finds its drive. Thousands of years later the Greeks have lost none of their capacity to thrill and surprise.

Welcome To Thebes plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30 June 2018.

Kiss Me- Bristol Old Vic Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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A woman lies on a single bed, reading; the lights fade; the sound of the trenches pound through the speakers; and the women slowly arches her back, sensuous and aching. It’s a bravura start to Richard Bean’s two-hander play Kiss Me, cleverly summing up the pieces main themes of loss and desire in an aural/visual shorthand. It rather sums up the strengths of Katharine Farmer’s production, whip smart and guided by a steady hand allowing its hold gradually tightens. It’s a small piece of work in many ways; keeping its focus tight on its two protagonists and its ideas confined to its small bedsit; but is given a supremely sure staging. If a director’s main job is to ensure the work on the page gets the best possible realisation on a stage than you couldn’t ask for better than Farmer provides.

The women who we see arched on the bed is ‘Stephanie’, a First World War widow nervously awaiting her first encounter with ‘Dennis’ a man who has come to her small room for a pre-arranged assignation. Stephanie, alone and already assigned to the shelf in her mid-twenties is ready for a child. Dennis is doing his bit to repopulate a nation decimated at the trenches of Ypres and the Somme. How many children has he created Stephanie queries early on? ‘202 through 711 meetings’ is the answer. These are women whose lives stopped the moment their own men fell on the Western Front. This man potentially their only chance of having a family that war has denied them.

Bean started off as a miniaturist before the mainstream delights of One Man Two Guvnors sent him stratospheric, and before his work as a playwright, he did the rounds on the comedy circuit. His past is at the forefront of this play. His humour keeps the play, whose premise sounds leavening, spritely and sprung. ‘Where’s the weirdest place you’ve had sex?’ ‘Stoke Newington’. It’s the little one liners, the moments of humour between the pair that keeps it motoring. Both have secrets, aliases, things locked up inside. Stephanie never even had time to discover if she loved her husband, two innocents with a two-week honeymoon in dank, damp Wales, a little unsatisfactory ‘wham bam thank you mam’ and then a lifetime of being a widow. Dennis, a quintessential English gent in bowler and cut-glass vowels, is ashamed that he never went to the Front, never fought, his family’s business keeping him wealthy and safe.

These two souls, both broken and lost, form an attachment, the business arrangement soon making way, the mechanical dissection of what must occur ‘no kissing’, soon makes way for passionate clinches and talks of the future. Bean keeps one final rug pull behind though, one that hits hard when it arrives. Farmer layers it up, keeping the action brisk (it runs at a very commendable 60 minutes) and allowing the two to escape their reserve and find something more. Its last moments, as backs stiffen and upper lips applied are painfully realised.

Stephanie Booth and George Readshaw chart the rise and fall of this relationship beautifully. Booth tumbles out words as if to stop and contemplate will kill her, a woman with plenty to say and no one to say it to. War has turned her modern, hardened and open in her desires. She drives a truck. She makes jokes about fucking. The demure Catholic schoolgirl pre-war has evolved into the kind of women we see today. Booth allows us to see both sides of this women, the blowsy exterior hiding the women lost beneath. Readshaw’s Dennis meanwhile uses class as his disguise. His accent and manners suggest breeding but his eyes give nothing away. His motives are never fully clear, is he genuinely in love with this woman or is it all an extended seduction technique. What motivates a man to bed 700 women, patriotism or sex addiction. Bean never answers. It should cause debate in the bar after.

The works restraint is quintessentially British, repressed emotions bubbling to the surface but never being released. Farmer and her cast help release its cumulative power. It ends up bruising. A fascinating play with Britain on a cusp of change is pitched beautifully. Recommended.

Kiss Me plays at Wardrobe Theatre until 19 May

The Taming Of The Shrew- Circomedia ☆☆☆

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Director Bill Alexander seems to be on a mission to tackle Shakespeare’s problem plays with graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Previously we have had a brutal take on The Merchant Of Venice and a Two Gentleman Of Verona by the way of Fresh Meat. This year, it’s what most commentator’s state is the Bard’s most misogynistic play.  Lay your money down on a Troilus and Cressida next year. Along as some of the more unpalatable material in Bill’s work, his early material also provides a host of other challenges, poetry that more often hums rather than sings, stock characters that annoy rather than enlight and plots that seem to climax at the point he gets bored with writing them. Hamlet or Lear may present their own challenges but the majesty of the text can help these productions along even in the iffiest of productions. The earlier work needs a fine production to make up for deficiencies in the text. It’s far too easy otherwise for an audience to wish they are watching Cole Porter’s majestic musical spin offKiss Me Kate which used the Shrew as a Launchpad.

Alexander’s production has many fine things going for it. It explores, better than any I’ve seen, the thinking behind the prologue that sometimes awkwardly fits into the play, with drunkard Christopher Sly and his tricking by Lords who discover him on the street into watching a play within a play. Here it is staged as though Pirandello had made an edit of the text, as watcher and performer begin to gradually intersect and the hypocrisies within the Count’s court, here defined in a sleek living room with leather sofas and drinks aplenty, are cast alight within the text. This work still climaxes with Katherina’s controversial speech about the need to be a good and willing wife but here it plays more as a call to arms for the stylish ladies who languishly slip onto the furniture and sip their cocktails sultrily while watching the play, about the need for respect and value within a relationship, not just being a sleek plaything for the moneyed aristocracy to be enjoyed.

It makes a case for this play being an ensemble piece, characters that are never mentioned when talking about the canon, are here given highly defined, highly enlightening work. Baptista is given a gender switch and turns into a fawning sexpot in Hannah Livingstone’s endearingly high energy performance while Felix Garcia Guyer is a highly physical presence as Grumio, physically imposing his rugby player frame into any situation that threatens to spin out of control. Charlotte Wyatt makes something of her stock country servant while Micky Dartford has fun with his, a Cockney wide boy pretending to be Lord. Meanwhile Marco Young turns his Lord into a Servant producing an entertaining turn as an Italian music tutor when he slips in to try to woo his intended Bianca.

With all the fun and invention the ensemble bring to their work, the central relationship feels a little bit of an afterthought here. Both give fine individual performances but the chemistry is lacking, the idea of two bulls clashing heads and being mutually turned on by the antagonism doesn’t fully translate. George Readshaw is a swaggering, slightly manic Petruchio and with his flowing locks has the Shakespearean lover look down pat. Kate Reid brings an intelligent reading to Katherina, a women intellectually on a different plane to what is around her and so consequently always swimming against the tide. What she lacks though is fire and ice. She always is, regardless of the behaviour Shakespeare thrusts at her, a little too well behaved.

The grandeur of St Paul’s Church Circomedia lent itself well to natural spectacle if exposing some flaws in a couple of the students techniques. Volume and clarity were issues that kept occurring in a space that doesn’t easily allow voices to bounce off the architecture. This may improve as the run continues.

Still, all in all, it’s a very solid take on a work that in an era of #MeToo has become ever more complex. Working with an accomplished director as Alexander is obviously paying off in other ways as well.  A number of graduating students have moved onto to the RSC in recent years. A Shakespearean education doesn’t come much more thorough than this. For student or audience member alike.

The Taming Of The Shrew plays at Circomedia until the 24 February