Reviews: Theatre

Clash of the mums: Elizabeth McGovern as Veronica and Amanda Abbington as Annette in God of Carnage

RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE – THEATRE REVIEW: vomit, violence and how to bring up your children in a lively production of Yasmina Reza’s black comedy God of Carnage at the Theatre Royal Bath

God of Carnage, Theatre Royal Bath

The knives (or rather the sharpened spears) are out in Yasmina Reza’s savage black comedy which sets two sets of parents at each other’s throats. An assembly of spears hangs above the stylish round lounge designed by Peter McKintosh in Lindsay Posner’s production of Reza’s God of Carnage. The four characters continue to plunge their savage verbal spears into each other over their petty disputes which widen into politics and beyond as the insults fly. Husband against husband, wife against wife, couple against couple.

The 80 minute clash begins when Alan (Ralph Little) and Annette (Amanda Abbington) visit the home of Veronica (Elizabeth McGovern) and Michael (Nigel Lindsay) to discuss how to deal with a violent dispute between their respective 11-year-old sons. And the fall-out never really ends although Reza moves it to the point of concluding at times only for an ill chosen parting shot to restart the arguments.

The Theatre Royal Bath production of God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

Reza constructs the play so that each of the four parents becomes the protagonist as they round on one or all of the others taking it in turns to trigger another round of arguments, accusations and tirades. Vomit, violence and too much rum follows as a range of issues spill out from the adults as they resort to childlike insults and clichés. From racism to homophobia and from misogyny to feminism and from moral choices over dodgy medicine to how to bring up your children Reza slips in big topics to reveal the flimsiness of society’s superficial views.

Getty nasty: Nigel Lindsay as Michael and Elizabeth McGovern as Veronica. Elizabeth is Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey

The cast convinced from the opening moment with the cracks begin to show between businessman Michael and his left leaning wife Veronica while Annette was clearly irritated by Alan’s addiction to his mobile phone. First class performances in a play that uses the awkward silences as well physical clashes and those throw away lines that have devastating consequences. It’s at times excruciating, shocking and surprising with so much fun derived from our recognition of the naked truth of how we all behave.

God Of Carnage:  Pics by Nobby Clark

So much is packed into the tightly constructed living room bust up with shocking incidents and many a home truth that the 80 minutes races through to perhaps an inconclusive finale leaving the questions raised unanswered. Unless, you agree with Alan’s analysis of life and his belief in, the God of Carnage.

Harry Mottram

Reviewed at the Saturday matinee, September 15th, 2018.

Originally written in French and set in Paris by Reza the play at Bath was translated by Chrisopher Hampton. The 2006 drama has previously won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and the Tony Award for Best New Play with different casts. This 10th anniversary production was part of Theatre Royal Bath’s summer season which concluded on September 15th.

A film version in 2011 was well received by critics with the title of Carnage and featured Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christopher Waltz and John C Reilly with a screenplay by Roman Polanski who also directed the movie which was moved to an American setting.

For more details visit www.theatreroyal.org.uk

For more reviews from Harry visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/?page_id=91

Follow Harry on Twitter @HarryTheSpiv, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook for more stuff.

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Nice sets, shame about the script

RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE – THEATRE REVIEW: Trevor Nunn directs a long lost play by Harvey Granville Barker called Agnes Colander (lovely sets, but er… best not to mention the script)

Agnes Colander. Ustinov Studio, Bath

Stiff, awkward and a period piece that’s been left behind by events. Harley Granville Barker’s 1900 play Agnes Colander is a story of a woman trying to find herself in a society where women don’t even have the vote. Directed by Trevor Nunn, the titular character Agnes is difficult to like and her male admirers less so. Whether it’s the dialogue which at times made little sense and felt contrived in places or the idea that that an upper middle class woman with servants could hold the attention of an audience as she pontificates upon her life it is difficult to decide. It was probably the script.

The sets by Rob Jones were brilliant – an artist’s studio and a French seaside villa – and lighting (Paul Pyant) and sound (Fergus O’Hare) were exceptional. Despite being revised by Richard Nelson the play felt like a first draft which needed to be rethought or even filed away in a drawer (which it was). Left unproduced for a century time hasn’t served the play well. But as an insight into how a young man saw the world through a woman’s eyes in 1900 it succeeds as a sort of playwright’s history lesson.

Harry Mottram

The play continues at Bath’s Ustinov Studio until April 14, 2018.

For more information visit https://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/whats-on/?ven=10

For more theatre reviews visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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The Cherry Orchard is at the Bristol Old Vic before moving to The Royal Exchange Theatre

RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE – THEATRE REVIEW: Boyd’s pitch perfect production of The Cherry Orchard without a cherry tree in sight (but is Owusu’s Lopakhin a prediction of a future Putin oligarch?)

A drowned child, the ever turning world and not a cherry tree in sight. Michael Boyd’s production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Bristol Old Vic is set on a minimalist turning circular stage but with a surprising mirror of the auditorium that features a full scale recreation of the seating and dress circle positioned on the stage turning the Bristol Old Vic into a theatre in the round.

First staged in 1904 the drama looks back to the past and forward to the unfolding events of the 20th century with an uncanny ability to suggest the themes of change taking place in Russia as it emerged from a semi feudal past. The universal themes of change and the brevity with which Chekov conveys so much has made this play part of the 20th century canon. It is a play that is frequently included on the curriculum for students at school and college to study as part of their English and drama courses because of those themes, the well-defined characters who represent strands in society and its language. All schools and colleges in the region should take their students to see this production due to its adherence to Chekov’s original script and the clarity with which it is presented.

Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu in The Cherry Orchard

 

Mrs Lyuba Renevsky was brought to life with a reflective subtlety by Kirsty Bushell who balanced her continuing grief over her drowned son with her insufferable inability to accept change. Chekov’s dialogue is in tune as to how we listen and answer. Any difficult question posed to one of the characters is ignored and deflected and Renevsky is the prime example as she changes the subject if she detects where the conversation is going. Who wants to admit they are a fool? Renevsky is the mistress of denial.

The other protagonist is the upwardly mobile Yermolay Lopakhin the business man from humble stock who is enterprising and has none of the baggage of Renevsky and her like. Jude Owusu was a believable and exasperated Lopakhin who desperately tried to convince Renevsky to sell the orchard for profit as holiday lets. Listening to conversations in the interval as to the merits of casting black actors in a turn of the century Russian drama (Owusu is black) I couldn’t help but thinking how theatre had changed for the better and how this was a production for our time. Why is there even a discussion about colour or race when nobody as far as I know in the cast is Russian or attends the Orthodox Church services in Bristol? The idea is nonsense as the discussion should be about the acting and in Lopakhin we have perhaps one of Putin’s 21st century cronies in the making as he boasts of being rich. And although Owusu cuts it as a competitive and ruthless business man, when he describes the auction there’s no hint he may use nerve gas to bump off rival bidders.

Rosy McEwan as the snubbed Varya

There was a surprise before the play began with the sudden appearance on stage of the theatre’s artistic director Tom Morris who explained that due to illness the eccentric character of Charlotta (Anya’s governess) would not be played by Eva Magyar but instead the bearded assistant director Evan Lordan would step in. Initially Morris said Boyd was not sure if Lordan could pull it off since he had a beard and was a man, but after thinking about it agreed. Lordan played it straight despite his beard and (what must have been an inner urge to panto dame it) Lordan got away with it – and since Charlotta was from a circus background – it was just about believable. Charlotta is one of Chekov’s characters who you know will survive the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions as she is pragmatic – a 20th century person who will adapt – unlike poor old Firs.

The old retainer Firs dressed immaculately and played with an elegant frailness by Togo Igawa fusses with a maternal affection for his master over Gayev’s dress sense ringing humour from his sparse lines. Pompous Gayev (Simon Coates) was perfect as he railed against change praising the book case for its long service but failing to do the same for the put upon staff. Another bit part character who was spot on was Jack Monaghan as the clumsy Yepikhodov knocking over a side table and entering with unfeasibly squeaky boots – every inch the idiot – while Yasha (Hayden McLean) was excellent as the good time toy boy leaching off the fading aristo’s money. Verity Blyth as Anya gave a pitch perfect performance balancing naivety with entitlement, empathy with selfishness. And with her sunray pleated skirt and assorted fin de circle outfits (and it must be added Yasha and Lopakhin’s sexy tight fitting tailored suits) it is full marks to the costume department.

Two protagonists who represent two different centuries

Harry Mumblestone as the threatening vagrant represented the just-under-the-radar-underclass that haunted Russia then and now as well as Britain today – as society pretends homelessness doesn’t exist – while at the other extreme flick through the pages of the Financial Times you will find the equivalent of Boris Simeyonov-Pischik (an on form Julius d’Silva) who despite his stupidity survives and prospers in part because of his inherited wealth, luck and connections. Rosy McEwen’s stoic interpretation of Varya was strangely agonising as she is ignored in love by Lopkhin.

The publicity image for the show

Emma Naomi (Dunyasha) had a sensual stage presence but was also an essential support to Anya’s pampered lifestyle and was fittingly brushed off as below the salt by the young aristocrat but somehow conveyed that hurt that could manifest its revenge in the 1917 Revolution a decade later. Enyi Okoronkwo as the eternal student Trofimov was fittingly angry, confused, articulate and a sociably inept visionary who at times appeared to predict the future. Characters like Trofimov can be hard to portray but Enyi pulled it off with his quivering voice and ability to sound genuine. And the inclusion of a child by Boyd in the cast to play the lost seven-year-old son of Ranevsky was in turns enchanting and also haunting in this brilliant co-production by Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Harry Mottram

The play continues to April 7, 2018.

  • The Cherry Orchard is at The Royal Exchange Theatre from April 19 to May 19, 2018.

For more details visit https://bristololdvic.org.uk

www.royalexchange.co.uk

For more about the stage design by Tom Piper of the show visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwKw5H6kQLQ 

For more theatre reviews from Harry visit www.harrymottram.co.uk


Low res 003_Crimes Under the Sun_Pamela Raith Photography low res

Crimes Under The Sun: Heather Westwell and Feargus Woods Dunlop in the comic drama

RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE – THEATRE REVIEW: from frightfully posh to terribly common in the swish of a mop – a glorious send up of the island whodunnit in Crimes Under The Sun with New Old Friends

Crimes Under The Sun. The Ustinov, Bath

A dramatic start as the show is delayed after a member of the audience is taken ill – or were they bumped off? Looking around at some of those packed into the intimate seating of the Ustinov Theatre in Bath it’s hard not to conclude that certain individuals look like potential murderers. Take that tall chap with the beard and that woman wearing shades. And then there is the little old lady who nips up the stairs to the theatre like a 20-something. Surely she’s in disguise. It’s all a bit Agatha Christie.

And the latest New Old Friends theatre production of Crimes Under The Sun borrows and lovingly sends up much of Christie’s style borrowed from her novel Then There Were None or A Caribbean Mystery in a riotous farce and a spoof of the island whodunit. With only four actors playing 14 roles the drama has to rely on the audience being in on the joke as the costume changes (or non-changes) become increasingly crazy. With numerous running gags and humorous physical details Crimes Under the Sun directed by James Farrell is a pacey, pun-filled frolic of a show that has the audience chuckling throughout its 90 or so minutes of plot twists and turns.

Jonny McClean as Alcazar is inspected by Jill Myers as Artemis and Feargus Woods Dunlop in the play. Pamela Raith Photography

Jonny McClean as Alcazar is inspected by Jill Myers as Artemis and Feargus Woods Dunlop in the play. Pamela Raith Photography

Feargus Woods Dunlop is the main creative force behind the company and the unfeasibly tall actor who plays at least three characters. He’s at his best as the stiff upper lip Major Peavey and the nerdy Nelson Cholmondeley who believes foreigners are: er… well, foreign.

The play is anchored by the narrator and self-confessed amateur sleuth Artemis Arinae played by Jill Myers who recounts the story and introduces the characters and is occasionally caught up in the events. She holds the chaos together as she retells the story of that crime filled weekend on an island when a group of eccentrics are marooned by a storm. And in a Poirot-esque accent she completes the drama as she whittles down the long list of suspects at the conclusion. The comic drama doesn’t start with a bang and takes a few minutes to warm up but hits top form in a wonderful song and dance routine composed by Kathryn Levell about the joys of being beside the seaside. A couple more musical interjections wouldn’t have taken anything away from this frightfully British production. British in the best tea and cucumber sandwiches type of tradition.

Crimes Under The Sun featured a song and dance routine about the joys of the seaside

Crimes Under The Sun featured a song and dance routine about the joys of the seaside

The strength of the show lies in the cast who switch roles at an increasingly frenetic pace rattling out the story from Woods Dunlop’s script. An elastic faced Jonny McClean is the hilarious weird boy Lucien as well as the enjoyable drunk ‘I’m like an animal’ Redwood. And he doubles up as the manic waiter Alcazar and sexist Caledonian Inspector Aquafresh.

Crimes Under the Sun: the crime spoof drama is on a nationwide tour

Crimes Under the Sun: the crime spoof drama is on a nationwide tour

One of the many stand-out moments was Heather Westwell playing three policemen at the same time in a drama that had elements of stand-up and improvisation which all added to the mix. Westwell’s scene stealing cleaning lady was a scream while her ability to slip into her various personas was a lesson in character acting as she went from terribly posh to frightfully common in the swish of a mop.

With so much comic content, superb timing and clear diction from a cast who seem to be enjoying the show as much as the audience it really is a crime not to see Crimes Under The Sun.

Harry Mottram

The play runs at the Ustinov in Bath until February 24th before a nationwide tour ending in May.

For more details visit https://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/your-visit/ustinov/ and for the nationwide tour see www.newoldfriends.co.uk and for more reviews visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

You can also follow New Old Friends on Twitter on @newoldfriends and Harry Mottram at @harrythespiv and on Facebook, YouTube and Linked In.

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Love to hate you baby: Beverly and Laurence in Abigail's Party

Love to hate you baby: Beverly and Laurence in Abigail’s Party

Back to the future in the soiree from hell with the new middle classes of England in 1977

Abigail’s Party. Alma Theatre, Bristol

Set in the 1970s Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is still a play about us. Fashions transform and house prices rise, but people don’t change that much. It is the reason why the tragic comedy about the soiree from hell that gripped the nation in 1977 continues to make us feel uncomfortable with its unpicking of social norms in its uncompromising exposure of how we behave.

Socially things haven’t changed much since Beverly threw open her front door to her neighbours for an evening of nibbles and talk of property prices. Set in aspic are lower middle class Tony and Angela, middle class Sue and aspiring middle class Beverly and Laurence.

The hero of the social occasion featuring non-stop G&T top ups and cheese and pineapple on sticks is Angela played with perfect awkwardness by Jennifer Jope complete with a cringingly submissive compliance to her bullying husband Tony. For NHS nurse Angela takes charge first when Sue is sick and then when host Laurence (Adam Elms) takes ill, banishing social norms and asserting her authority in the drunken emergency. Her ex-professional footballer Tony was played with moody masculinity by Ryan Gilks who had an alarmingly convincing sexual chemistry with Beverly (Anna Friend) but sees his authority reduced as the crisis grows. Diane Lukins as the excruciatingly polite Sue was at once bullied, manipulated and insulted by Beverly, but in reality was breaking all of Beverly’s unwritten social rules. She was a single divorced mum who allows her rebellious teenage daughter Abigail to have an unsupervised party and even more shockingly: to have a pink streak in her hair. Well it was 1977.

Anna Friend as Beverly in Abigail's Party

Anna Friend as Beverly in Abigail’s Party

So much of what we discuss today is there in this period piece of four decades ago: the power relationships between men and women, what is life really about, materialism and consumerism, the social status and salaries associated with different jobs, and the social does and don’ts of You and Non You. The role of women has changed to some extent since the play was first staged. Now Sue wouldn’t be thought of as so unusual as a divorced mother and Angela would most likely have demanded to be allowed to learn to drive. And quite possibly Beverly would have had a job – and vaped rather than smoked – but Laurence’s social pretentions would likely to be unchanged. It is certainly a play that leads to considerable discussion afterwards because as I have mentioned – it’s about us.

The Schoolhouse production at Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre was directed by Anna Friend and co-directed by Holly Newton who clearly had enjoyed taking the cast back to the flock wall paper and shag pile carpet era when it was OK to smoke indoors. It is a highly enjoyable and faithful production but as Friend has allowed each character to have a new lease of life. Leigh’s dialogue flows so naturally that he must have attended quite a few soirees in order to take notes while the play’s construction with is shocking black humour of a climax still surprises – but is also so appropriate in bringing the evening to a perfect close.

Harry Mottram

The cast and crew of the show

The cast and crew of the show

It is interesting to note the drama began through improvisation before it was staged with great success at the Hampstead Theatre is April 1977. Then a version was made for television for BBC Scotland in the series A Play For Today and was broadcast in November of that year. It featured Alison Steadman as Beverly, Tim Stern as Laurence, Janine Duvitski as Angela, John Salthouse as Tony and Thelma Whiteley as Sue. Thelma Whiteley’s role was played by Harriet Reynolds when it was screened on TV.

For more details visit:

http://www.almatavernandtheatre.co.uk/theatre/what-s-on

http://schoolhouseproductions.co.uk/

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There’s more theatre at www.harrymottram.co.uk under Rapscallion Magazine. Follow Harry on Twitter, Facebook and God knows what else!

The Wife of Bath gets into her saucy stride in the late evening sunlight

The Wife of Bath gets into her saucy stride in the late evening sun light

Telling Canterbury Tales staged outdoors is a very un-PC saucy 70s romp of a production in which Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a journey into Merry Olde sex-mad England

Canterbury Tales. Compton House, Axbridge

With fart jokes, complex Medieval social satire, a multitude of characters, heavy drinking and lots of sex, putting Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century tales on stage is always going to have its challenges. And by and large the Taunton Thespians directed by Jane Edwards and Nicola Dawson pulled it off.

Staged on the lawn of Compton House in Axbridge under a threatening sky and a brisk wind the actors’ projected their voices well, were swift with their entries and exits and with their colourful Medieval costumes looked and sounded the part. To stage all of Chaucer’s tales would have been impossible and so the amdram troupe performed versions of just four, the best known one being The Wife of Bath’ Tale. The others being the Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

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The costumes were excellent – including the ones of hens in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

The evening opened with some fine period music from Gibby Swaine who could have done with more musicians as live music and singing always adds to a production. After an initial introduction from The Host played by Michael Gilbert it was time for Lindsey Cran to play her part at The Wife of Bath. Dressed mainly in red Cran swanked and sauced around the stage engaging with the audience and being a perfectly believable woman of the world and four times a widow. If she returned to this era you imagined her driving a red sports car, shopping in Harrods and appearing on TV’s Housewives of Camelot.

Her story featured the quest of the Knight (played by Peter Meredith) whose task was to find the answer to the question of ‘what do women really want’ in order to save his neck after a rape conviction in the court of King Arthur. This Knight looked as though he’d done rather too much entertaining and feasting rather than crusading but he used his body and voice to comic affect especially during a striptease demanded by Queen Guinevere. The female monarch who had a touch of the Linda Snell’s of The Archers about her, was brought to life by a stately and classy Lorna Evans who could have been in a slightly different play.

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In the court of King Arthur in the Wife of Bath’s Tale

The violated damsel in the tale was played by Natasha Carter whose mass of hair and youthful good looks didn’t get in the way of her casting as the Chaucerian wench who seemed far too interested in sex for her own good adding to the tone of Jeremy Secker’s Up Pompeii! style 1970s script. Secker adapted the tales from Chaucer’s difficult to read Middle English into a sort of un-PC saucy 70s romp. Cran acknowledges in her programme notes that this version has “a touch of Carry On” about it. Gone is the Wife of Bath’s lengthy prologue surfeit to say a neat rhyming introduction, and out goes the pages of her story about the lusty knight who takes the maid anon’s maidenhead and in comes a more jaunty modern version which is much easier to follow although inevitably loses much of the original text. Well it is called Telling Canterbury Tales rather than The Canterbury Tales after all.

The Miller’s Tale with the love rivals Absalon (Ben Jordan) and John (Jack Ward) who battle to bed the Miller’s wife featured the famous buttock kissing scene and much trickery. It also featured Andy Busby as the suitably slow of wit Miller and an energetic performance from Dona Bullion as the maid. The Reeve’s Tale was again well acted with Jordan and Ward combining as the students bent on revenge after being ripped off by Symkyn the Miller (Peter Meredith) and his wife (Rebecca Beard). The final tale showcased avian inspired costumes as several members of the ensemble cast became hens in the fable of Chauntecleer (Andy Busby) and the fox (Des Pollard).

With about three hours of unremitting earthy humour the Canterbury Tales can wear a bit thin since there’s no overall narrative, but rather in this production it is reduced to four one act plays. The directors managed to bind them together using Chaucer’s own framing device of the stories told on the way to the Kent city and in general it worked. Stand out moments were the beauty contest put on for the Knight, the music of Swaine, the Knight’s striptease, the hen’s costumes and an excellent finish with the whole cast creating a chorus line to complete the show. Outdoor theatre is a challenge due to the acoustics – and this is where the actors excelled as they all had good projection and diction as they battled a brisk wind, distant traffic and the odd motorbike.

Harry Mottram

The play continues at a number of outdoor venues across Somerset. For details see http://www.tauntonthespians.org.uk/

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Modern dress: Julian Glover as Julius Caesar at the Bristol Old Vic

Modern dress Romans from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School add pace and energy to Shakespeare’s tragedy as they dispatch Julian Glover as Julius Caesar and get stuck into civil war, infighting and er… suicide

Julius Caesar, Bristol Old Vic

Julius Caesar was at the height of his powers when he was assassinated – a powerful, charismatic general, astute tactician, a chancer and a bully. A demagogue who made enemies on his way to the top. In this production Julian Glover is a tired looking, overweight Caesar who would have blended into the benches of the House of Lords where he could have a snooze.

Simon Dormandy’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy set in modern dress had a similar unevenness to the previous production of King Lear in which a core of established actors were surrounded by the students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS). A blend that worked with John Hartoch’s Soothsayer and Lyn Farleigh’s excellent Calpurnia but misfired with Glover. As he looked across at the moody looking Cassius played by Edward Stone, Glover’s delivery of Caesar’s line: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” could have been a commentary on the contrasts in performance. The BOVTS cast were vibrant, energetic and up for it, while miscast Glover seemed to be in a different play.

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Student support: the play benefited from a large cast of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students who created atmosphere and energy

Full of sound and fury, the director relied on the cliché of machine gun wielding battle dressed soldiers appearing between the battle scenes signalled by explosions, dry ice and flashing lights. Having said that once Glover had been dispatched the cast came into their own. Ross O’Donnellan’s Irish tinted Mark Anthony gave a creditable speech at Caesar’s funeral while the other members of the Triumvers, Rosy McEwen as Octavia and Rudolphe Mdlongwa as Lepidus gave strong support and should have bright futures – as did Freddie Bowerman’s portrayal of the complex Brutus tormented by his loyalty to Rome’s Republic and his admiration of Caesar as he justified his part in the assassination: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

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Irish Rome: passion was delivered by the young cast

And it was the large cast of new blood from the BOVTS that brought this production to life. Alice Kerrigan doubled up as Lucia and the unfortunate poet Cinna who is mistakenly killed by the mob, Afolabi Alli impressed as Metellus as did Eleanor House as Casca. Rosie Gray as Decia enjoyed her role while Chris Jenks muscled in and doubled up in support – and Harley Viveash as Trebonius added depth. Sarah Livingstone was an Ivana Trump-esque Portia continuing Dormandy’s modern day theme while John Hartoch’s aged Royal British Legion style soothsayer was bang on.

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The sooth-sayer was excellent

In his notes Dormandy draws parallels with the rise of Trump, Le Pen and Putin as populist leaders in our own age with that of the Roman Republic’s nemesis in Julius Caesar. There is much merit in the theme and the production adopts the visuals and tones of our time but a demagogue needs charisma and to instil fear in those around him – something that didn’t happen here.

Harry Mottram

Reviewed on Wednesday, 14 June, 2017.

Bristol Old Vic: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School: www.oldvic.ac.uk

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All the President’s Men: suited and booted ready to stab the dictator in the back… and front

 

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Nell Gwynn is a nice girl in this production

Nell Gwynn is a nice girl in this production

A politically correct romp through 17th century Restoration England with a very nice Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn, Theatre Royal, Bath
Nell launches into the playwright Dryden: “Yet again some gallant falls for a waifish, wilting woman, without a bean of personality or a single funny line, but hey, it doesn’t matter because she’s pretty. and what does this flimsy whimsy want from life, adventure? Respect? No.”
Poor Mr Dryden in Jessica Swale’s politically correct romp through Restoration England he is reduced to a quivering wimp while Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell castigates him and William Shakespeare for their failings in portraying women in drama.
Juliet is nothing more than an empty vessel who without a man is nothing. While Nell is everything that Shakespeare’s flimsy whimsy is not according to Swale. All agreed on that one but then the playwright gives it all away in her airbrushing of the harshness of the times. In her programme notes she decided against writing in language of the time as: “I thought it would be alienating (and a little perverse) to use archaic language…” We don’t have trouble with the Bard’s language of 50 years earlier but Restoration language is a barrier it seems. No, she just saw the play as a farce: “so that’s what it is.” A modern British farce but without the 17th century grit.
Perhaps it may be a case that the language of the time would have more accurately represented the attitudes of the court circles Nell had entered into – and potentially alienating the full houses of liberal minded audiences Swale is more interested in? Nell wouldn’t have worried about that aspect of theatre as she was a natural when it came to the stage – a pre-music hall performer who could hold the audience in her hand unlike the wonderfully musical and charming Laura. Her Nell was nice, girl next door-ish – not the charismatic character who grabbed centre stage with a ruthlessness born from poverty.
In this version of the life of the 17th century actor, wit and orange seller Nell is almost accidentally thrust into the limelight. Sans vulgarity, sans sexuality, sans Coal Pit Yard.
Gone are the more caustic aspects of her personality, her sister (Pepter Junkuse) is under played and Charles II (Ben Righton) is a reasonable cove, happy to chat away like some 21st century chap who has been mistakenly thrust into power as head of state. As historically accurate drama goes it is so much hogwash – the harshness and also the fascination of Jacobean society is homogenized into a modern day blandness for the audience drugged by a glass or three of house white.
Despite the travesty that is presented Christopher Luscombe’s production is brilliantly directed, lavishly presented with live music from Emily Baines, Arngeir Hauksson, Sharon Lindo and Nicholas Perry. We don’t mind the modern language but please don’t take out the dirt and the religious viciousness of an era soaked in gin, poverty and sectarianism. Nell’s mum (Joanne Howarth), Lord Arlington (Michael Cochrane) were allowed to bring the grime into the production – thank goodness.
It skips along with pace, panache and exuberance but as the critic once wrote all plays are 20 minutes too long. This one certainly is.
Harry Mottram
The play continues in London at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 May.

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The Mentor: it's all about to go wrong as the writers fall out

The Mentor: it’s all about to go wrong as the writers fall out

Mentor’s hate of new writer ends in marital bust up and a pond dunking

The Mentor. Ustinov Studio, Bath

Four frustrated arty types battled it out for the title of the most arty type of the year award in a leafy courtyard. They were: held-back Gina, ambitious Martin, has-been Rubin and arts administrator Erwin.

And it was the arts administrator (officially the least arty person there) Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) as a frustrated artist who appeared the most honest about his work and even threw in his job to be a painter. Now that’s passion for your art.

Erwin had an unenviable task in Daniel Kelmann’s The Mentor at the Ustinov, for he had to humour two ego centric writers along as the old, very rude and arrogant Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) was supposed to be helping develop the new young writer Martin Wegner with his work. Instead he did the opposite, much to Erwin’s frustration. The young writer (Daniel Weyman) was priggish, selfish and annoyingly self-opinionated. The mentoring session was never going to work especially when Rubin discovered to his horror they were both being paid the same amount of money for the mentoring session. This was art ludicrously priced as a commercial commodity – a point well made by Kelmann.

And then there was Martin’s two dimensional wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) who after despairing of her husband holding her back in life appeared to be about to have an affair with the old, oily, egotistical, bombastic Rubin just because he was famous. Oh, and the fact her husband in a moment of self-loathing made a fool of himself by tearing up his play script and jumping in a duck pond. Grounds for a blazing row perhaps, but an affair? There was sympathy for the exasperated Erwin as he attempted to serve tea or coffee or the wrong sort of whisky to the old bore Rubin. So far, so funny and Cullen’s physical comedy with these domestic duties were well paced by the director Laurence Boswell.

The format of a set piece argument followed by a bust up and the resulting fall out was agreeably comic. As the barbs flew there were occasional sharp intakes of breath from the packed audience. Kehlmann’s script gave some enjoyable lines. Martin announces: “I’m an artist and have different standards,” when challenged by his wife about his childish antics. Guffaws all round. Then there’s his wonderfully empty and meaningless statement along the lines of: “I still want to want, what I want without wanting to want, knowing what I want, to want,” to which Rubin says sarcastically, “did you write that line?” More chuckles at the put down as Martin’s face fell. And perhaps my favourite line came from Erwin who stormed: “Who wants to be an arts bureaucrat, it’s a profession for those who are dead inside.”

Cullen was excellent, Frederick and Weyman made the grade but F Murray Abraham seemed to be almost going through the motions. He had the lines from Kehlmann but didn’t seem nasty enough for such an old so and so.

For 80 minutes it falls slightly short as a traditional drama. An interval could have prompted a what’s going to happen next moment. Instead there’s a steady increase in the two writer’s dislike of each other and although we reach a sort of climax as Martin has a break down it’s somehow not quite enough. They shy away from a punch up as Martin suggests he’d win in a fight as he goes to the gym, and we don’t see the suggested affair between a lightly sketched Gina and unlovable Rubin. For a play about writers it could have done with more of a plot and without the predictable ending – as enjoyable as it was.

Harry Mottram

The Mentor by Daniel Kehlmann, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, directed by Laurence Boswell. 6 April – 6 May 2017

www.theatreroyal.org.uk

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Crimes Against Christmas Pamela Raith Photography

Crimes Against Christmas Pamela Raith Photography

All a bit frenetic in crime caper

Crimes Against Christmas, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

Too fast, too frenetic and too difficult to follow. Or maybe that’s the point. Craig Sander’s Crimes Against Christmas slapstick comedic romp promises a parody of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery mixed with a Five Go Murdering in Dorset story and ends ups with a rather a hyperventilating comedy which falls between two genres.

The New Old Friends’ production of Feargus Woods Dunlop’s black humour farce is difficult to keep up with as the main protagonist Aldridge rattles through the plot which concerns 12 characters who are invited to stay on an island and who are mostly bumped off in between empty glasses of whisky. The murders and the reasons for the sudden deaths are difficult to comprehend due to the break neck pace of the dialogue and breathless narrative.

That said the four actors: Heather Westwell, Feargus Woods Dunlop, Dan Winter, and Jonny McCleancome zip through the script creating an array of characters, accents and delivery. All good. There’s the butler with his contorted face, the rapper and his girl, the Russian Princess with knobbly knees and Artridge the narrator and detective played by Feargus Woods Dunlop in an ill-fitting suit. His costume aside it was the direction that needed some forensic work to introduce moments of summing up and reflection as is required in all good whodunnits. Like the perfect murder it was all good on paper. It was just the delivery that needed attention.

There is little attempt to interact or engage with the audience in this take it or leave in production which is a shame as there is a lot to enjoy. It’s funny, it’s fast and it’s farcical as it send ups Miss Marple, Agatha Christie, Dick Barton and a country house full of cliches regarding the implausible world of murder mysteries. You are left wondering what was the point.

Produced by the criminal clique of the Lichfield Garrick, and the humour motivated New Old Friends company the two hour show is packed with fun, frivolity and in-jokes but stays stuck in the decades it intends to parody. Which is weird. The best of the show features an excellent dance routine, the tongue twisting maid, Carl Davies’ revolving doors set and a sharply written script with throw away lines. It has its moments but sadly falls short of a comedy classic. Despite its shortcomings the show just about crosses the line between Crimes Against Christmas and crimes against the theatre.

Harry Mottram

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Having a good laugh at repressed sexual feelings, the upper class and… the French

French Without Tears is a co-production between the English Touring Theatre and the Orange Tree Theatre

French Without Tears is a co-production between the English Touring Theatre and the Orange Tree Theatre

French Without Tears. Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

Take five ex-public school boys, a grumpy bearded French teacher, a blonde seductress and add alcohol. And you have Terence Rattigan’s sparkling 1930s comedy set in a French country house where a group of English chaps are trying to learn the language of the Gauls but whose testosterone hampers their studies.

The Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre co-production of French Without Tears is fast, fun and has a fat phrase book full of comic Franglais lingo. A largely young cast excel in doing their best to further widen the divide between them on that side of the English Channel and us over here in Blighty. The chaps are thrown together to learn French to enhance their job prospects but end up mainly falling in love with desirable Diana or prim and proper Jacqueline (played by the excellent Beatriz Romilly) who is the voice of reason when it comes to relationships and character.

The chaps: they are supposed to learn French but their homework is the last thing on their minds

The chaps: they are supposed to learn French but their homework is the last thing on their minds

Director Paul Miller got the pace just right with the drama hitting vitesse supérieure immediately and only slowing down for the corners for the moments d’émotion as the characters open up about their feelings. Feelings that are so bottled up it takes a boozy fancy dress ball for the boys to open up, while for the females’ inner feelings are more easily aired. And that’s the main theme of the drama: stiff up lip chaps unable to communicate or emotionally mature women who can.

Seduction: Diana casts her spell on the hapless Kit in the play - and manages to wear very little much of the time

Seduction: Diana casts her spell on the hapless Kit in the play – and manages to wear very little much of the time. Alan however sees through her plans

Ziggy Heath as Alan Howard in his first professional stage role is a real find as the self-confident cock-sure frustrated writer who sees through Diana’s ploys from the off. Tim Delap’s nervous tick of a voice was comically nautical as Commander Rogers and Joe Eyre’s eccentric physical take on the emotionally constipated Kit brought guffaws from the near packed Exeter audience.

Sweeping almost all before her was Florence Roberts as Diana who could seduce for England if it ever became an Olympic sport (and why not) managing to sashay her way around Simon Daw’s set in a variety of Holly Rose Henshaw’s superbly chic costume designs. A set that consisted of one room complete with table and chairs but with a backdrop of words and phrases scribbled across someone’s French homework.

David Whitworth as Monsieur Maingot excelled in his role of grouchy langue modern tuteur telling off Kenneth (Alistair Toovey) for his French homework. Kenneth is nominally Diana’s brother but Rattigan gave little hint of this in his writing and the brother and sister seemed to be a plot device to explain Diana’s presence.

Blonde: Diana at work teasing the Commander

Blonde: Diana at work teasing the Commander

Another theme in the drama is class divide, and poor old Marianne (Ariane Gray) is barely recognised by the upper class twits due to her role as servant. Rattigan also fails to give her much to say or do relegating the lower classes to near-silent bit players in his view of the world. Alex Large as Brian completed the cast as the mustachioed easy going under achieving student – a character recognisable in today’s terms. French Without Tears is a period piece but with its battle of the sexes and class differences it still chimes along with the British public’s enjoyment of laughing at the French.

Harry Mottram

Four Stars

The play is on tour until November 19, 2016. Details: www.ett.org.uk

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Tyke takes centre stage as the elephant in the room at the Edinburgh Fringe in a story of whips, chains and beatings

Elephant: Tyke is on at Silk, Venue 444, in Edinburgh's Fringe Festival

Elephant: Tyke is on at Silk, Venue 444, in Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival

Tyke, Silk, Venue 444, Edinburgh Fringe

In the darkened rooms of a nightclub within the shadow of Edinburgh Castle an elephant is reaching breaking point. Beaten, whipped, chained-up and forced to do circus tricks, Tyke the elephant is the mute character at the centre of Rebecca Monk’s play. The 40 minute drama is inspired by the tragic death of a circus elephant in Honolulu in 1994. The true story of Tyke is one of animal abuse, the death of the elephant trainer, injuries to others and the shooting dead of the maddened animal. Recriminations followed and the affair created something of a milestone in ending animal cruelty in circus rinks.

Monk works in a love story, a bullying employer and sexually charged eroticism in the form of beatings, chains and whips. In a tightly scripted story, the lovers Stefan (Andrew Armitage) and Veronica (Madison Maylin) are caught in a moral dilemma about the way Tyke is abused for public entertainment. Their relationship was delivered with passion and power, revealing the impossible position they were in which was set up by shouty, menacing and aggressive ringmaster played by Joe Lewis Jager. The plays strengths were in two areas: the constant confrontations between the protagonists and the puppetry of the elephant. Although only a head and two legs Blake Barbiche and Lucy French animated the theatrical representation of the noble beast with conviction.

A film projected on a wall showed the real moments of horror from Honolulu as Tyke attacked her keeper which seemed in some ways at odds with the production. The play was powerful enough as a stand-alone and visually looked different from the grainy footage from 1994. With costumes from the 1990s, a slower build up to the relationship between Stephan and Veronica along with a more three dimensional ringmaster could take this drama into a new life as a longer and stronger play. As it is, Tyke takes centre stage in this shocking story of power and control.

Tyke continues to August 27, 2016. Unticketed, free but donations welcome.

Harry Mottram

Four Stars

More details at https://www.facebook.com/WeAreTheBlackSheep/

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Shakespeare in the garden – with a real teenager playing Juliet complete with Pre-Raphaelite haird

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Lovers: Romeo and Juliet meeting up in a Somerset garden

Romeo and Juliet. Compton House, Axbridge.

Under a darkening sky and beneath the walls of Compton Manor in an enclosed garden a bitter quarrel took place between the warring Capulets and Montagues. Played out in front of a large audience, seated on picnic chairs, Taunton Thespians staged a traditionally dressed version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Directed by Peter Norbury, the cast brought the story of the star-crossed lovers to life with just a lawn, some bushes and two gazebos for a set. In Juliet the production had a real teenage lover in the Pre-Raphaelite-esque Natasha Carter who at 15 looked and sounded the part with her flowing locks, while her Romeo (Ben Jordon) although a little older carried the heavy mantel of leading man with a surprising lightness since this was his stage debut. The lovers’ body language was perhaps not as close as one might hope but by the final scene they seemed to have warmed to their mutual wooing which did justice to their starring roles.

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Fight: the Capulets and Montagues have anger management issues

Acting outdoors can be very testing for the most seasoned actor with the danger of rain, the sound of wind, distant traffic, sirens, barking dogs and passing helicopters. In this regard the cast did not come up short with excellent projection and very clear diction. It was a joy to hear the beautiful speeches of the tragic tale whether it’s the witterings of the Nurse or the strutting arrogance of Tybalt. Voice coach Christine Winter take a bow.

I certainly wouldn’t like to meet Maat Ward on a dark night. His young Meat Loaf look-alike Tybalt was spoiling for a fight from the off as he brushed onto stage with his sword. Meanwhile Mercutio (Michael Gilbert) was less of the youthful free spirit and more aging rock star who delivered his pithy lines with the ease of man happy with a pint in his hand. Jack Ward as Romeo’s more sensible mate Benvolio was a classy affair with his Renaissance good looks and cloud of gloom captured in his face as things go from bad to worse.

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Star: the Nurse played by Martine Davies makes an entrance

There were several more outstanding performances in what at times was an uneven production which was hampered by perhaps too wide a performing space meaning some delays in exits and entrances. With a voice of one part arthritic hip, one part dyspeptic ulcer and one part cider vinegar Martine Davies excelled as the gossipy chatty Nurse, while Peter McGuire as the Prince had the air of an exhausted Somerset supply teacher apparently at the end of his tether with the antics of the citizens of Verona who behaved worse than a classroom of disruptive third formers.

Duncan Wright as Lord Capulet was excellent value as the over active dad-in-denial head of the household desperately trying to keep tabs on his daughter. It was open to question as to whether he was on his third or fourth wife as he had married a much younger Lady Capulet (Charlotte Newman) who carried off her role as Juliet’s mother with considerable class. Brian Lewis gave Friar Laurence an element of sleekness with his golden locks and confident body language. Not the bumbling priest but more a metropolitan agony aunt.

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Brrr: a member of the audience dressed for the evening

The production also featured the watchmen played with earthy tones and rustic movement by Katy Whitaker, Joe Greenslade and Dave Levi, while soulful Patric Maine was the Chorus, Piers Gorick was a suitably youthful Balthasar and Rowan Evans as an unfeasibly deep voiced Paris who claimed in the programme he originally wanted to play Juliet suggesting his next role should be as a panto dame.

Entrances: the play begins with a dust up in the streets of Verona

Entrances: the play begins with a dust up in the streets of Verona

Des Pollard as the pompous Lord Montague, Nina Clark as his stately wife completed the cast of a production that has been enlivening the open gardens of Somerset for the last few weeks. A testament to the skills of the director who brought slightly more than two hours of traffic across the stage – to mangle the words of the Bard.

Harry Mottram, Four Stars

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king lear

Grumpy: Timothy West plays the title role in King Lear

Bristol Old Vic serves up some decent fights, eye popping eye gouging and a French invasion of Brexit Britain during a clash of generations in King Lear

King Lear. Bristol Old Vic.

From Paul Scholfield to Juri Jarvet there have been many great King Lears. Shakespeare’s “flawed pyramid of a play” as Kenneth Tynan once described the tragedy, is a vast mountain peak to climb every night for the actor cast as the former king of Britain. Some play the aged monarch as wildly mad others as suffering from dementia or as a neo demonic ex-dictator castrated of all his powers. Timothy West’s version in Tom Morris’s production at the Bristol Old Vic is more of a grumpy grandfather who despairs of the younger generation for their selfishness, greed and ruthlessness.

Torture: the eye-gouging scene didn't disappoint with its horror and gore

Torture: the eye-gouging scene didn’t disappoint with its horror and gore. Pic: Simon Annand

At 81 West looks and sounds the part as he resigns as head of state and splits the spoils between his daughters, “Conferring them on younger strengths while we, unburdened crawl toward death.” He takes umbrage at Cordelia’s honesty but despite his fit of pique somehow West doesn’t quite convince he’s left her without a penny – his stage demeanour is just a little too kindly.

Fight: there was some clever choreography in the battle scenes

Fight: there was some clever choreography in the battle scenes

He’s paired up with Stephanie Cole as the fool who also plays her role in the school of cosy old folks’ home acting. Amusing, surprising, but lacking the sharpness of the character in her subtle portrayal of Lear’s sidekick.

The production features Cole and West as the senior members of the cast together with David Hargreaves as Gloucester who had the feel of a very concerned academic who sees his institution falling apart and is frustrated to distraction as nobody listens to him.

Conflict: these two look like they are spoiling for a fight - and they are

Conflict: these two look like they are spoiling for a fight – and they are. Pic Simon Annand

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students made up the rest of the cast providing energy, power and the edge that the play needs. Set within Anna Orton’s versatile minimalist set and strikingly lit by Rob Casey the play featured some decent fighting directed by Jonathan Howell and music and sound by Dave Price. With a large cast movement and choreography was vital to prevent traffic jams or confusion from one scene to another. Jane Gibson as movement director had her work cut out keeping the drama flowing with strong pieces of physical theatre – especially in the battles but also in the notorious eye-gouging scene. The ensemble sections were excellent.

Drama: the story is about the clash of ideas between fathers and their offspring

Drama: the story is about the clash of ideas between fathers and their offspring

Although some exits and entrances were made through the audience there was little attempt to connect with the audience other than to engage them with the story of parental conflict with their children. Perhaps some of the soliloquies could have been made more directly within the seating areas or to the circles such as when Edmond at the start of Act 1 Scene 2 says, “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund… …now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

The trio of sisters were played with contrasting viciousness and faithfulness as befitted their characters. I wouldn’t like to meet Michelle Fox’s Regan on a dark night since her performance blended high octane hautiness and high volume evil with one part glamour in her velvet crimson gown and swept back hair and one part Cruella de Vil. Her sister Goneril played by Jessica Temple should also be on the Jacobean male protection list as she relished her vicious verbal attacks and casual commands: “Pluck out his eyes.” Both actors should not be allowed to play the Ugly Sisters in Cinderalla for fear of traumatising family audiences of the future.

Staging: the set was minimalist but effective and symbolic

Staging: the set was minimalist but effective and symbolic. Pic Simon Annand

Poppy Pedder, dear sweet Poppy Pedder as Cordelia was simply perfect as the wronged and goodly daughter who pays a heavy price for her honesty. In fact she is possibly one step on the road to being a national treasure and should be hot shoed into playing Florence Nightingale or Elizabeth Fry immediately despite her back door plans to allow a French army to land in Brexit Britain. There’s more to her than meets the eye – and Pedder is clearly someone who can hold their own in such hallowed company on stage. And she’s light as even King Lear managed to carry her at one stage.

Emotions: Poor Tom and King Lear converse

Emotions: Poor Tom and King Lear converse

Danann McAleer gave an enjoyable, physical and lively performance as Lear’s stalwart supporter Kent relishing his stint in the stocks and duffing in Gonerill’s steward Oswald played with an entertaining campness by Joey Akubeze, who was almost alone in managing the odd laugh in the harrowing tale of family feuds and national bloodletting. Akubeze: that’s not bad.

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Thrown: the three sisters who fall out over the future of Lear’s Britain

Cornwall (James Sidwell) is a nasty piece of work and should never be allowed to handle dangerous torture implements. As Goneril’s trusty he pops out Gloucester’s eyes leading the audience to squirm on their seats and also to wonder how they did it with all that blood squirting over Hargreave’s shirt. A five star baddie if ever there was one in contrast to Goneril’s husband Albany (Brad Morrison) who convinced as the spouse with a conscious but terrible judgement in choosing women.

Light weight: King Lear carries Cordelia during the climax of the play

Light weight: King Lear carries Cordelia during the climax of the play. Pic: Simon Annand

The brother against brother conflict played out between good brother Edgar (Tom Byrne) and bad brother Edmund (Alex York) is one of the play’s brilliant hormonal sub plots. Byrne’s performance as Edgar (and his disguise as Poor Tom) was first class displaying a commitment to getting very muddy and writhing half naked on the heath’s floor in a neo Christ-like pose. And talking of the Bible, Edmund’s Cain style jealousy was equally engaging as an almost likeable bad ‘un – displaying a boyish enjoyment in his role as the twisted illegitimate sibling.

Good one: Cordelia is the only sister who is honest and pays a price for it

Good one: Cordelia is the only sister who is honest and pays a price for it

Jenny Haynes as the doctor was under used and it would have been good to get her take as the fool for which she was the understudy. Maanuv Thiara as Burgundy was suitably shallow as he ditches Cordelia as soon as she is cut out of the family fortune, while Daniel Bogod, Dylan Wood and Will Kelly all helped to complete a cast which more than matched their famous colleagues and suggested much is to come from the acting school’s class of sixteen.

It’s not an easy play to follow if you’ve not read the story due to the complex narrative and numerous characters but as a spectacle it works for the uninitiated with some memorable scenes. The opening carving up of the map of Britain, the fights, madness on the heath and the torture scene all gripped – although I’d like to have seen leaves and twigs blown across the stage in the storm sequence. Those ancient storm machines they used were quirky and fun – but you can’t beat modern high tech special effects. Yes the play was noisy and entertaining but like the storm – didn’t quite blow the nearly sell-out audience away.

Harry Mottram

Four stars

The play continues to July 10.

For more information visit http://www.oldvic.ac.uk/ and http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/kinglear.html

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New faces: Will Kelly with the cast of The Ugly One

New faces: Will Kelly with the cast of The Ugly One. Pic: Toby Farrow

Sex, facelifts and being ugly in Sarah Bradley’s near masterpiece of comic theatre

The Ugly One. Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol.

“I love me” is the dying refrain in Marius Von Mayenburg’s tragic comedy The Ugly One given an epidermis-full of energy by director Sarah Bradley in this Directors’ Cuts season by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS) students.

Particularly impressive was the way the black box of a space at the Alma Tavern was transformed by Natasha Mortimer into a clinical office utility zone with its mobile filing cabinets, hot desks, brief cases and domestic kitchen. Two further strengths of the show were the choreographed balletic movement and freezes along with the improvised sound effects from the cast. These were quickly applauded by the sell-out audience in the studio theatre above the Clifton pub as were the comic timing of lines between the cast of four.

Will Kelly was excellent value as the ugly-transformed-to-handsome Lette, while Josh Finan flipped effortlessly from priggish boss to wide-boy surgeon, and Jac Hayliss as Karlmann convinced as spoilt son, Gaylord fop and overlooked worker. Lily Donovan as Fanny conquered decades in slipping from aged plastic surgeon’s delight in mummy to hard-done-by Fanny, wife of Lette in an energetic performance that included Olympic qualifying snogging with the rest of the cast. Indeed, oral sex, sex in all its forms and good old fashioned snogging was one of the theatrical devices used by Sarah Bradley to add a certain frisson to the proceedings. Sex and theatre often seem to work.

Relationships: will Lette's new face change him asks his wife Fanny

Relationships: will Lette’s new face change him asks his wife Fanny. Pic: Toby Farrow

For this was a play about how “a little bit of work” can alter our looks – for better or for worse – in that better brings with it new problems. It can transform us from nearly rans to winners with beautiful faces – until everyone copies you.

“I love you for what you are,” says Fanny to Lette when he ponders the idea of plastic surgery after being told he’s too ugly to “sell, sell, sell.” He confronts his wife in a heart to heart after he discovers everyone thinks he is ugly. To paraphrase she says: “You have a lovely voice and are a beautiful person.” After the wonderfully comic and theatrical operation that was neatly choreographed with flashing lights, hair dryers and pretend syringes in a masterpiece of physical theatre Lette goes from ugly to beautiful and the world falls at his feet. And there is the problem: you can be too good-looking for your own good.

It was an enjoyable and at times laugh-out-loud-production with only the over-long suicide monologue in Von Mayenburg’s script near the end that took a little steam out of the full-on production.

There was much to admire including the sound (Jessica Edkins) and the actor’s use of a mini electronic piano, microphone and techno-beat music from Jac Baylis that effortlessly supported the show and had the audience tapping their feet. Coupled with Layla Lagab’s lighting that made use of flashing lights, spotlights and moody colour washes this was a production of the highest standards given the tiny space.

The graphic used to promote the show

The graphic used to promote the show

Sharp timing, pace and clearly defined changes of character were expected and delivered by the cast, with some well-judged moments of high comedy that can be lost without a deft touch. Lily Donovan’s stretched frozen faced sex-mad mum was a delightful horror while Josh Finan’s posh boss was welcome comfort-comedy fun. Comedy is definitely a gift the cast possess. Hold on to it – it could be a future pay cheque.

Von Mayenburg’s tilt at celebrity culture, business ethics, the shallowness of visual attraction and the plastic surgery industry in general also probed personal relationships and the question of who we are. “Is that really me in the mirror?” asks Lette, “or is it someone else?” Make-up, hair and clothing can change us superficially, but in the end we are still that person our friends and family recognise – but if we are so transformed into an Adonis or goddess – what happens then?

Funny yes, creative yes, full of energy and several moments of near-perfect theatrical comedy are part of an entertaining 70 minutes of neatly crafted theatre. And as a showcase for the students of BOVTS this was pretty polished stuff. Credit to the director and to the ridiculously good-looking Will Kelly for his high octane performance and to his trio of actors who made the Ugly One handsome.

Harry Mottram   Four stars

The play continues to April 30.

Reviewed April 26, 2016

For more details of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School visit www.oldvic.ac.uk

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Unhappy couple: Sue Hughes and Chris Jarman as Kate and Joe Keller in ACT's production of All My Sons

Unhappy couple: Sue Hughes and Chris Jarman as Kate and Joe Keller in ACT’s production of All My Sons

Familiar American family setting suits the suits and fitted dresses of Axbridge’s actors in Arthur Miller’s moral drama about greed, lies and cover-ups

All My Sons. Axbridge Town Hall.

Cover-ups, complicity, concealment. Welcome to the great American corporate scandal where greed overturns good business practice and eventually brings down the mighty. In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons staged by Axbridge Community Theatre (ACT) in the town hall thoughts of dodgy diesel emission readings, iffy tumble driers prone to bursting into flames or Enron’s accountancy practices come to mind – but pale compared to the crime committed by Joe Keller.

“He murdered 21 pilots,” said his son Chris Keller. The ‘he’ Chris referred to in Act One is not his father, but his father’s former business partner (and potentially his future father-in-law) Steve Deever who is doing time for covering up defective airplane parts bound for the US Airforce. The parts were turned out by their factory at the height and panic of the Second World War – leading to the deaths of 21 pilots when their aircraft crashed as a result.

It’s the way Miller unpicks the scandal in the back yard of a typical Middle-American family that makes the play so compelling. A chance comment by Kate Keller about her husband’s health and her belief her missing-in-action son Larry will return, along with the digging of Steve Deever’s son George slowly unpicks the seemingly unassailable patriarch Joe’s standing. It’s a slow burn but the warning signs are there – from the symbolism of the fallen tree to the barbed comments of Sue Bayliss who along with others, suspects the truth that Steve took the rap for the scandal and Joe the profits.

Sharp words: Sian Tutill as the outspoken Sue Bayliss in the play

Sharp words: Sian Tutill as the outspoken Sue Bayliss in the play

The town hall was transformed by the work of Dave Parkin and Dave Moore into the decked veranda of a cosy American home and garden complete with bench and easy chairs. In particular the lighting was evocative and helped define the change from sun washed day to eerie twilight while the costumes helped to fix the drama in the late 1940s with the stylishly fitted dresses for the women and heavy suits for the guys.

Directed by John Bailey the production’s strength was its adherence to Miller’s universal moralistic story of how covering-up a crime is almost as bad as the crime itself. By careful casting the director managed to bring out the full depth of each character including the lighter moments which brought laughter from the audience and also some of the more complex speeches where difficult themes are conveyed in everyday words. This deftness of touch is something few productions are fortunate enough to have from their director.

A full cast was completed with two actors taking on the role of Bert with Jess Willis playing the unsuspecting juvenile for two nights and Tebu Domingo for the last two performances. A small part played with youthful innocence and total confidence by both actors to reinforce the realism of the play – but for Miller a chance to reveal the hidden gun in Joe’s house (and vital plot point) along with his imperfect roll as a law-abiding citizen.

Tebu as Bert

All American boy: Tebu Domingo convinces as Bert in the drama

Chris Jarman as Joe Keller had the right balance of flipping between the grumpy thin-skinned business man ready to defend himself at the slightest hint of criticism and the genial family man he’d prefer to be seen as. In a very strong performance as his wife Kate, Sue Hughes convinced as the woman who wants to turn the clock back, who is complicit in the scandal and in denial that her son Larry won’t be coming home from the war. Her inner turmoil was etched in her face as she wrestled with the impossible.

Peter Honeyhands as their son looked and sounded the part and managed the American accent with skill using his core accent as a base for the trans-Atlantic vowels – a trick difficult enough for the most seasoned actor – especially in a full length play. Another member of the honorary order of genuine Yanks was Sarah Kendall as the sleek love interest who gave a classy performance as Miller’s device to create tensions within the Keller clan by hitching up with the brother of their lost son.

Her legal brother-in-arms was George Deever played by Tony Wilson who with his hat and heavy suit looked for a moment to have stepped out of a Philip Marlowe novel. Miller gives George the mission to expose the truth which Tony Wilson achieved with relish in calling to account the lies of Joe Keller along with the evils of unfettered capitalistic greed.

Film noir: Tony Wilson enjoys himself as lawyer George Deever

Film noir: Tony Wilson enjoys himself as lawyer George Deever

They could be described as the odd couple but there was considerable enjoyment in the twinning of Phil Saunders as Dr Jim Bayliss and Siân Tutill as his wife Sue. This Jim was clearly from down south with his rustic drawl, but despite his agricultural appearance and easy going nature is the play’s philosopher telling Kate Keller that her disillusioned son Chris would: “…come back. We all come back Kate. These private little revolutions die. The compromise is always made. In a peculiar way Frank is right – every man does have a star.”

Siân Tutill gave a sharply barbed and show-stopping performance as Jim’s brusque, blunt speaking wife as she spelt out the truth to a disbelieving Ann Deever in a delightfully bitchy scene as Sue rounds on Ann’s Chris. “I resent living next door to the Holy family,” she says and goes in for the kill: “Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail.”

Star gazer: Nigel Newton as Frank Lubey seeks answers in astrology

Star gazer: Nigel Newton as Frank Lubey seeks answers in astrology

Miller added the characters of Frank and Lydia Lubey to give both reality and fantasy to the proceedings. Air-head Frank is convinced lost son Larry Keller is alive as he peddles astrological evidence of his existence to desperate Kate Keller. He represents the hopes of thousands of post war families searching in vain for missing relatives and his attempts to help only stir the pot of disquiet. Nigel Newton conveyed the boyish blankness in his nonsensical beliefs – a sort of bland everyman who fails to make sense of the world around him – while his wife Lydia represents the equivalent female in society who in 1940s America tried to stay positive as eternally happy home-maker and baby producer. Lydia was played with a wholesome, your-dinner-is-on-the-table spirit by Anna Hind in the supporting role. But she reminds us with her baby talk that we were seeing Miller’s moral fable of doing the right thing within the universal setting of a family.

This was one of the best productions staged by ACT so far – partly due to the maturing nature of the company – but also due to the nearness of the setting. We are familiar with the American way of life through television and films and this drama with its realistic setting and dialogue suited the cast by and large. Yes, some of the accents were nearer to Lundy Island than Long Island but professional movie stars have had the same problem in holding a consistency of vocal control. And in places some members of the cast were acting their characters rather than slipping into the fabric of the person they were portraying giving moments of stiffness in the proceedings which faded from the initial dress rehearsal to the last night when increasingly they sounded and looked more comfortable. A longer run would clearly solve that issue.

One other point was sound. Diction and projection were fine but since much of the action was outdoors there could have been occasional background noises such as distant traffic, the wind or birdsong to add to the realism. Small points but worth including – in what was a convincing, enjoyable and extremely well presented production. And a production from a company that continues to draw audiences from outside of the town as their reputation grows.

Harry Mottram

More in Rapscallion Magazine at: www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Rebecca Vaughn in her show Austen's Women

Rebecca Vaughan in her show Austen’s Women

More in Rapscallion Magazine at: www.harrymottram.co.uk

Dressed in her underwear Jane Austen gave voice to the quirks, the quibbles and the asides of her characters

Austen’s Women, Bridgwater Arts Centre

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single actress in possession of a considerable talent, must be in want of an audience, and in Bridgwater’s Arts Centre Rebecca Vaughan had an appreciative one. As Jane Austen in all her cream underwear she introduced us to the quirks, the quibbles and the asides of some the her more memorable characters and along the way pronounced on life, love and the human condition with a dressing table full of good sense.

The one woman show by Dyad Productions of Austen’s Women directed by Guy Masterton and performed and adapted from the novels and letters of Jane Austen is a 70 minute emersion into the mind of the novelist as we visit her bedroom while she prepares for a night out. It’s not a high octane show with singing or dancing, and no major action. Instead it is more like a dramatized talk -but one in which the actor never slips from her character, never allows time to drag or for the audience to become restless. Witty, funny, well-paced and beautifully performed by Vaughan the strength of the show is her seamless changes of characterisation and the script which allows Austen to cast her candle light on the foibles of those in her novels and perhaps all of us in general.

We know Elizabeth Bennett so well that is was as well for the play to start with the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, but Vaughan manages then to take us on a tour of the good, the bad and the gossipy as she illustrated the moods and the emotions of Marianne Dashwood, Mrs Norris and of course the impossible Emma Woodhouse. We meet Elizabeth Watson who warns of the poisonous Penelope, Harriet Smith who is always in love and the selfish Fanny Dashwood.

Mrs Norris is comically disdainful of all around her, while the selfish Mary in Persuasion persuades herself that she can go out for the evening and leave her sick son with the maid – reminding us that when we want something we can conjure up the reasons to justify our desires. And so to the wonderfully empty headed Catherine Moreland who’s dotty minded teenage brain in so brilliantly captured by Vaughan as she explains how she is often inattentive and sometimes very stupid. A character whose frankness is hard to resist.

Dressed in corset, slip and evening gown designed by Kate Flanaghan and with a simple set of square carpet, dressing table chair and wooden vanity screen for her costume changes the production is stripped down to its essentials for what Masterson describes as the contract of imagination with the audience. A production where the audience and the actor are as one – and where Jane Austen came alive for an hour or so in Bridgwater.

Harry Mottram. 4 stars

The show is on tour nationally until April 1. For details visit www.dyadproductions.com

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CONFUSION: Olivia played by Sue Hughes in the ACT production of Twelfth Night confronts Malvolio (Chris Jarman) and Maria (Sian Tutil)

CONFUSION: Olivia played by Sue Hughes in the ACT production of Twelfth Night confronts Malvolio (Chris Jarman) and Maria (Sian Tutil)

Music and colour to the fore in ACT’s Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, Axbridge Town Hall. November 21, 2015
This was a softer and gentler Twelfth Night with its haunting music, masquerade make-up and vivid Mediterranean colours.
Music was the central core thanks to the work of Stella More on harp and Anna Hind’s arrangements. Her soft and emotive voice textured the show with soulful interludes that gave this production a particular vocal beauty.
Directed by John Bailey the Axbridge Community Theatre production was also noted for its artistic visual impact. Wendy Mace designed the colour scheme and the costumes using as inspiration the bright hues of the Adriatic Sea and the coast of Illyria. There were turquoises and flame reds, blues and yellows and lots and lots of scarfs. With a combination of illusion and mystery – in a play that has disguise as its theme – the striking make-up blended the style of the harlequin and the masked balls of a Venetian night to great effect.

INSTRUCTIONS: Janie Gray in the ACT production of Twelfth Night with members of the cast

INSTRUCTIONS: Janie Gray in the ACT production of Twelfth Night with members of the cast

There were excellent performances from Chris Jarman as Malvolio and Sarah Kendall as Viola although it was the Grayson Perry-like figure of Peter Honeyands as Sir Andrew Aguecheek who got the laughs with his impossible wig and bright red lips.
Chris Jarman was comfortable in what appeared to be his natural skin of the emotionally constipated Englishman who doesn’t get the jokes and vows vengeance at the last. It was his awkward jerky C-3PO movement, his silent asides and raised eyebrows, his exits and his entrances – combined with a fluctuating voice full of restrained anger – that so compelled.
Peter Honeyands was excellent value as the blustering blade and cowardly buffoon who still has our sympathy as he displays his foibles and his feelings for all to see. When it comes to stage presence Peter has it in spades.

 

COMEDY: Sian Tutil and Peter Honeyhands

COMEDY: Sian Tutil and Peter Honeyands

Sarah Kendall gave a wistful and knowingly knavish performance in her role as lost twin and cougar bait. The tone in her voice and occasional raised eyebrow gave a lie to her real gender as she schemed her way in the court of the Count and the heart of Olivia.
Sue Hughes as a middle-aged Olivia gained some unexpected and smutty chuckles from the audience with her hormonal advances on anyone who wore matching white chemises and purple sashes. A striking figure in her blue gown this was her best performance yet for the community theatre group.
Trieste and Venice must be twinned with Junction 25 of the M5 when it came to Tony Wilson’s Italian accent. He threw himself with gusto into the role of Orsino as he proclaimed ‘if music be the food of love, play on,’ as he plots the wooing of Olivia. An enjoyable performance from an actor itching to play a mafia boss but harnessed by John Bailey into his character of love sick bachelor.
Feste played by Anna Hind had the most beautiful voice any fool could have as she gave a feminine take on the part of the court’s jester in her blue and black outfit and matching cap.
There were also strong performances from Sian Tutill as Maria in her Tarentella inspired outfit and Phil Saunders as an estuary-vowelled Sir Toby Belch, as well as Janie Gray as a gravel voiced Antonia. David Parkin as the captain, Wendy Mace as Curio and Carole Maclean as Valentine were all good value while Greg Tyrrell as Sebastian enjoyed a coming of age appearance as confused cougar-bait Sebastian.
And there were excellent appearances by David Maclean, Maggie Stanley, Nigel Newton, Robin Mace, Janet Gwinn and Charmaine Fulbrook who made up the remainder of the cast.

LOVER: Tony Wilson takes centre stage as Orsino

LOVER: Tony Wilson takes centre stage as Orsino

To be critical for a moment the production needed more pace. The switch between scenes was at times clunky and slow while some of the dialogue was ponderous in its delivery. Shakespeare can be delivered at speed without losing the gist. And there was a case for editing some of the text to shorten the play. But these are minor points.
Twelfth Night is a comedy with cross dressing, gender swapping and practical jokes. There is also perhaps in Malvolio a hint of the Puritan backlash and civil wars to come. Certainly Chris Jarman’s final speech seemed an omen for that future reckoning while the comic trio of Peter Honeyands, Sian Tutill and Phil Saunders were the anti-dote to Malvolio as the Lords of Misrule.
A symmetrical set entwined with ivy and brightly lit created a space that was practical as well as evocative of an imagined Illyria – which we assume is somewhere on the Dalmatian Coast although with the accents perhaps lies closer to the A38. Despite the hiccup of the Thursday night cancellation due to the illness of John Kendall this was a highly successful production warmly appreciated by the audience and another creative milestone passed in the evolution of ACT.

Miranda Cornwallis    

Four Stars

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Comedy of marital home truths still sparkles after all these years

The film was different from the play

The film was different from the play

Blithe Spirit. Axbridge Town Hall.

Noel Coward’s light comedy written in six days in North Wales during the war was recreated in the confined portals of Axbridge Town Hall by the community’s drama group with spirit and commitment.

Directed by Phil Saunders the play was a showcase for some of the town’s actors to sparkle – and sparkle they did. Sarah Kendall as Ruth had the cut glass vowels and acid lines that can mortally wound a chap at 50 paces. Her husband played by Peter Honeyands was the perfect foil being the exact opposite – managing to insult Ruth without meaning to and spending a lot of time saying sorry. The duo created a relationship for the audience to identify with in a series of set piece arguments containing an abundance of truisms about relationships, marriage and insane jealousy.

dr 001

Divorce yourselves from the David Lean film, as the drama stays within the drawing room of the Condamine’s country home where Charles inadvertently is caught up in a war of wills between his ex-wife Elvira and his current wife Ruth following a séance. Lean also altered the ending of the play trimming its plot and bringing it to a conclusion slightly quicker and arguably more successfully than the original script.

The town hall was neatly converted into a theatre by Axbridge Community Theatre complete with tables, chairs and French windows opening onto a garden created by a behind-the-scenes team of Dave Moore and David Parkin while the drama was produced by John Kendall.

Blithe 1 001

Sarah Kendall kept the entire production on course with the ease of a pre-dinner gin and tonic while her uncomfortably abrupt maid played by Charmaine Fulbrooke added unfashionable laughter over the problems with servants.

Blithe 2 001

Anna Hind as the bitchy Elvira in her silver gown bitched and chipped away at her husband’s new relationship. I would have paid good money to see her have a fight with Ruth as I’m not sure who would come out on top. The acidic Queen of the drinks cabinet or the Wagnarian warrior with her flame red hair and frightening vase smashing routine.

Peter Honeyands 001

Sarah Duncan as the batty Mrs Bradman enjoyed herself in the sparkling 1940s comedy of marital manners – and she just about managed to keep her wig on during the seance scene. Her husband Dr Bradman (Robin Mace) was so convincing as the family medic I was tempted to ask him about my hormonal issues.

Madame 001

While Madame Arcadi played by Wendy Mace appeared at times to be looking into her crystal ball for her lines such were the gaps between her sentences, although I think it was all part of her idiosyncratic character that triumphed in the end as she pushed the drama to its improbable conclusion.

The play continues until Saturday.

Miranda Cornwallis

Four Stars

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Marital strife: Mary lays into Simeon in The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Marital strife: Mary lays into Simeon in The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Showcase of talents in a grand gesture by a Russian dissident

The Grand Gesture. Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Only as he lies in his coffin does serial loser Simeon Duff discover the wonders of life.

A midnight desire to eat sausages causes a marital bust between Simeon and his long suffering wife Mary resulting in a misunderstanding that he’s about to shoot himself. The crossed lines propel the drama into a farce through to its surprising end.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of 1930s Russian dissident Nicolai Erdman’s play The Suicide transformed into The Grand Gesture by Debrah McAndrew is quirky, funny and full of youthful energy. Except for Tilly Steele who brilliantly plays Simeon’s Irish mother-in-law with the yenergy of a spritely OAP on Sanatogen, busy blessing the Saints and making egg flips as she shuffles around the scruffy flat.

Femme Fatale: will he die for love? The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Femme Fatale: will he die for love? The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

There’s much to enjoy in this showcase of talents which in truth gets off to a slightly sluggish start but picks up momentum by the interval and races through the farcical events of the second half with a deftness of touch from director Gwenda Hughes.

Firstly Sam Wilde’s set with its wrinkly decollage newspaper trimmings and dingy doors and windows fixes the context of Simeon’s life set as it is in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in an unnamed time. Then there is the ensemble cast who each get under the skin of their various characters, whether it was the body language of the undertakers or the drunks celebrating Simeon’s suicide the following day.

Ensemble theatre: the production includes lots of singing The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Ensemble theatre: the production includes lots of singing The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

It’s also a neat and witty farce with a series of set pieces, some wonderful lines and a perfect climax and haunting musical ending. But it is the acting that left its indelible mark on the production.

Simeon played by Simon Riodan as a slightly angrier version of TV’s Not Going Out’s Lee Mack had it all to do as the protagonist and by and large he held it all together. Initially it was hard to decide if he was simply an enjoyable idiot, a comic or a disgruntled husband. But by the end his disillusionment with his suicide gesture gave the drama the edge it required as his anger spilled out.

Martha Seignior was on top form as his Liverbird wife Mary as she struggled to come to terms with the fact she’d married Simeon – a dilemma faced by many a married woman – while her mother Sadie made for a perfect double act as she always looked on the bright side of life. A funeral – that means a new hat.

Physical theatre: the drama has high comedy moments The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Physical theatre: the drama has high comedy moments The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Marcus Fraser as landlord Al should find work in the professional theatre with his rich voice, stage presence and subtle changes of mood as he looked to take advantage of each situation. Erin Docherty and Peter Edwards played various roles and always added some physical comedy as they swept, cleaned or silently played out Simeon’s previous life at the start of the play.

The pompous Victor who most wanted to profit from Simeon’s gesture was believably boastful and full of himself and there was an exceptional turn form Harry Egan as the Marxist postman George complete with nervous ticks and contentious views which were perhaps the reason the original playwright was exiled to Siberia.

 

Booze up: the play includes a drunken night before the suicide. The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Booze up: the play includes a drunken night before the suicide. The Grand Gesture Pic Graham Burke

Kate Cavendish vamped it up as Maggie in her negligee and tumbling hair while the striking looking Anna Riding was excellent value as the woman determined to make Simeon die for love. Fervent Joel Macey as Pugh, Zed Josef as jaunty Father McLead and Rebecca Hamilton as the feisty Rosie all added their diverse personalities to the unfolding narrative and didn’t trip over each other’s lines.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the production were the songs and music, and the humorous way they were staged. Morning Has Broken with its mobile illuminated harpist, flapping birds and angelic faces set the tone, while the Ballad of Simeon Duff was essentially the play’s theme tune.

‘Life is beautiful’ says the landlord to Simeon in the opening scene, but it takes two hours of plot twists and turns for the protagonist to realise the truism is… true. True that is once you’ve paid all the bills.

Harry Mottram

Four stars

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Cant-Pay-Wont-Pay-Poster web

Back to the future with Darrio Fo’s sparkling script and a youthful cast firing on all shopping bags

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Cygnet Theatre, Exeter

With zero hours contracts, the minimum wage and exorbitantly high rent and utility bills Dario Fo’s comedy about hard-up housewives is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

The high speed Marxist-inspired farce was taken by the scruff of the boiler suit and raced through at machine gun speed by the cast of five at the Cygnet Theatre by the students of the Cygnet Company.

Their youthful enthusiasm and energy made up for a somewhat basic set and at times a lack of polish, most notably in the finale. The drama stands and falls on comic timing and pace. Director Alistair Ganley’s production had both and it was in part due to a cast that made the most of Fo’s sparkling dialogue and the play’s neatly constructed plot and numerous speeches.

Sofia Castro as the main protagonist Antonia has a breathless quality to her voice, as though she was always in a dash whilst swallowing the remains of a meal of pasta. This role suited her well as the thinking-on-her-feet Milanese housewife struggling to explain away her sudden accumulation of free food in the autoriduzione shopping movement. Her accomplice in crime Margherita played with a series of enjoyable expressions ranging from the tragic to the exasperated by the malleable Jessica Parsons worked well as a double act as they tried to explain their way out of trouble.

Jake Sullivan as Giovanni was splendidly dead pan as the less than bright husband with his unfeasible sideburns and ability to enjoy the delights of rabbit head soup. Guy Dennys as Luigi gave strong support while Henry Hocking with a number of walk on parts threatened to steal the show with his posturing policeman, his flamboyant undertaker and doddery old man.

A quick fire cast but an exceptional script with its in jokes, its running jokes, its political truths and farcical construct. It’s a production that deserves a larger audience and a longer run.

Harry Mottram

Four stars

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The opening and closing sequence from The Absence of War

The opening and closing sequence from The Absence of War

Bitching, back-biting and a punch-up: the perfect warm-up for the General Election

The Absence of War. Bristol Old Vic.

Is George Jones going to win the election? Can Ed Milliband beat David Cameron in May? Would Trevor Fox manage to remember his lines? David Hare’s play inspired by Neil Kinnock’s failure to win the 1992 General Election had an extra twist in this performance when Reece Dinsdale who plays the leading role of Labour opposition leader took ill thrusting Trevor Fox into the role at the last minute. You would never have guessed it as his performance was flawless as he paced the stage and poured out his heart during the rigours of campaigning and sounding at times a bit like Terry in a more thoughtful version of The Likely Lads.

In 1992 John Major narrowly held off the challenge of Labour to win a modest Conservative majority. The result was a surprise as the polls predicted a small Labour win and it was the rally held by Neil Kinnock in Sheffield that seemed to some over-triumphant that commenters felt was the turning point. Whether that was the case perhaps we’ll never know but it did lead to a lot of soul searching and eventually a Labour Government under Tony Blair.

The Absence of War is a thumping good show. Slick, stylishly directed by Jeremy Herrin, with stunning lighting, sound and film to support a cast on top form. Bitching, back-biting and even fighting, the back room staff of would-be Prime Minister George Jones keep up a ferocious pace of dialogue, argument and angst ridden speeches from the moment Conservative Charles Kendrick (Don Gallagher) goes down the Mall to see the Queen.

The play hinges on Jones’ perceived character flaw of not connecting with the public on the big occasions. In private he’s witty and passionate, but goes bland and bombs in front of cameras. This weakness leads Jones to clash with his would-be chancellor Malcolm (Gyuri Sarossy) as election day looms in a testosterone fuelled encounter.

The drama is packed with great lines: Malcolm was far too disloyal to be disloyal we are told, election advisor Lindsay is a perfect member of the party as she manages to make four enemies in five minutes, and Labour stands for justice – but no two people can agree on what that means.

Maggie McCarthy as Jones’ secretary had some great one-liners and new how to time the jokes, James Harkness as his minder was early 90s man personified, Cyril Nri as an adviser upped the tempo when it was needed and Ameira Darwish as his press officer irritated brilliantly as the sycophantic flunky. Don Gallagher enjoyed himself as the vile Linus Frank and a word for Barry McCarthy who was brilliant as the old Labour front bencher.

It’s funny, punchy and comfort theatre for Guardian readers who look back to those far off pre-Blair days with affection when socialism was still used to describe policies and Margaret Thatcher had finally left office. Shouty politics and shouty theatre. The perfect warm-up for this May’s election.

Harry Mottram

4 stars

The play continues to Saturday

For more details: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/

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Enjoyably smutty as Quentine sweeps all before her in a confusing story of Georgian prostitution

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill. Bristol Old Vic Theatre

How many times do you get it a night? Five times? Six? Seven? Or more? The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is a busty, sexy and heavily petti-coated madam of a drama that gives lots of sex for a shilling a time – without revealing much. No boobs, only a glimpse of a bum, and despite all the talk, no willies and no pubic hair. A play about sex, without any sex. Instead sex is talked about, symbolised, spoofed and sent up.

We are back in 1748 London where cheap gin is the drink, children starve on the street and men can have sex in unregulated brothels where female sex workers were treated as sex machines. And as for under age sex… well it appears by the age of 16 prostitutes are old timers. It’s Georgian England in all its dirty breeches and soiled skirts.

Bristol Old Vic’s recreation of John Cleland’s epistolary story isn’t exactly flacid but it doesn’t quite achieve a fully erect version of the notoriously naughty novel. The acting is excellent, the staging superb and the production values first rate. It’s just the story that goes a little floppy. The original novel of the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is reimagined for the stage by April de Angelis. The rambling narrative is condensed and repackaged into a two hour drama by de Angelis but unfortunately she reinvents it into an equally rambling and confusing story.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill

Instead of hanging the story around Fanny’s love affair with Charles, or even Fanny’s carnal education, this adaption is about a Fanny who uses the articulate prose that flows out of the mouth of Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth) in order to create a saucy book for a bullying publisher played with a dead pan sinister relish by Mawgan Gyles. She refuses to give up the copyright and the question of intellectual ownership is a running theme throughout the play. Is it a story of moral downfall and degradation, a copyright battle, or a narrative of how men dominate women, or indeed of how Fanny manages to turn the tables on her male clients using humour and ridicule? Well, all of these and that’s the reason for a sense of clutter.

The novel’s noted pornographic prose are treated with a theatrical creativeness that manages not to shock, disgust or repel. Director Michael Oakley produces an entertaining show, with excellent movement and choreography, lots of fabulous wigs and gowns, vast amounts of dialogue, and some theatrical gems including the ‘swinging from the chandeliers’ scene. And along the way as Fanny notes: there are enjoyable alliterations, metaphors and examples of onomatopoeia.

Caroline Quintin is commanding (and surprisingly athletic) in a corset as Fanny, as she spills out her story of how an innocent country girl is corrupted into a life of prostitution. She dominates the stage with a strong and evocative singing voice for the play’s unexpected musical sequences. Frankly, I’d have liked more of this aspect of the drama.

Fanny’s recollections are voiced through the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Welsh accented Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth) who plays the young come-hither Fanny, while Phoebe Thomas convinced as the seen-it-done-it-and-got-the-corset Louisa. Nick Barber as the disgusting and yet engaging Dingle and Rosalind Steele as Fiddle completed the cast.

It’s fun, it’s enjoyably smutty, but fails to create the orgasm it promises.

Harry Mottam

Four Stars

The play continues to March 7, 2015.

For more details: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/

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First Women in Theatre Cygnet

More headgirl than orange seller

Playhouse Creatures. Cygnet Theatre, Exeter
The lime light and the low lives. The highs, followed by the desperate depths of depression. Yes, the ecstasy of a good performance and the despair of rejection were some of the themes touched upon in Playhouse Creatures at Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre directed by Amanda Knott.
In many ways an actor’s life is unchanged from the era of the Restoration to that of today. There’s the exhilaration of performance and the plaudits that follow to the black doom of unemployment and a life in the shadows. So it is in April De Angelis’ drama about early English actresses in the late 17th century.
The actresses in question were Nell Gwyn (Sofia Castro), Mrs Farley (Helen Kirk), Mrs Betterton (Kaja Pecnik) and Mrs Marshall (Jessica Parsons).
Their lives were linked together by the droll and deadpan persona of Mrs Betterton’s dresser and char lady Doll Common (Rosalind Williams) whose prosaic pronouncements on theatre, bear pits, drink, corsets and pregnancy kept the audience chuckling throughout the two act play.
For students of English Literature and drama this is a rich era with the first generation of female actors cast in Shakespearean revivals, Restoration comedies by John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege amid the murky world of Georgian society where actresses were mentioned in the same breath as prostitutes.
Williams as Doll Common was a masterclass in character acting with her drab persona and earthy comments on life in 17th century London. She shuffled around the wide stage rearranging the racks of costumes and various props with an air of ‘I’ve seen it all before’ and ‘I’ve done it all before.’
Also outstanding was Kaja Pecnik as Mrs Betterton who despite her youth was able to powerfully convey the frustrations of an actress whose fading beauty were rejected by her actor husband. And a husband who humiliated her as she was forced to see a younger Mrs Betterton usurp her position. The issue of older women on stage is something the 21st century still wrestles with today.
There was strong support from the rest of the cast but the earthy humour, street wit and sensual body language of Nel Gwynn was replace by an ever smiling Sofia Castro who was more head girl than courtesan, but kept the drama spinning along with a feeling we were watching posh girls being a bit naughty rather than experiencing the true smut of the 1660s. Castro’s Anglo Saxon repartee was more received Dictionary of Slang rather than the feel of the bawdy-house.
The stories were well-told even though much of the earthy reality was missing. Kaja however provided some memorable moments with her Lady Macbeth’s “out damn spot” speech which in particular seized the audience’s attention with a powerful portrayal of a woman on the brink of insanity.
Not bad and at times hitting some dramatic highs. An entertaining and rewarding student show with its universal theme of an actor’s life with its highs and lows. As Doll Common always says, “an actress must always have an audience.”
Harry Mottram
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Never work with babies or dead dogs: puppets triumph in Kneehigh’s frenetic show

Includes babies: Dead Dog in a Suitcase at the Bristol Old Vic. Pic: Steve Tanner

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love Songs). Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Main House

A creative, comical, kaleidoscopic, cacophonie of sound, smoke, music (and lots of shouty acting) Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love Songs) is entertaining from explosive start to destructive end.

The Bristol Old Vic was pretty well full with fans of Cornwall’s unofficial national theatre company. They mainly came in anticipation of a follow up production to the company’s outstanding Tristan and Yseult that incorporated the hallmarks of Kneehigh’s style: namely comedy, live music and song, modern and classical cultural references, dance and physical theatre; plus high production values of sound and lighting and even higher drama. Dead Dog comes close but didn’t quite match the creativity or the contemporary tone of the Celtic tragedy with its dramatic shifts in mood and spectacular dance and circus skills. Instead what it lacks in subtlety it makes up with its exuberant and frenetic pace.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase - Picture by Steve Tanner (3sm)

Based on John Gay’s 1728 anti-opera musical satire The Beggar’s Opera, Carl Grose’s production takes the raw ingredients and recreates and resets them in a late 20th century world of ska music, disco, dubstep, travel cases, dark glasses and leopard print clothing. Despite the claims of the producer Paul Crewes that we “still observe a world where bankers destroy lives yet still collect bonuses, where power of wealth and celebrity is completely distorted, where the Law is often found to be corrupt…” there were few obvious identified targets for all this anger. We have a could-be-in-any-party politician shot for daring to expose a pilchard scam (true to the Cornish company’s roots but with no obvious political equivalent such as the scandal over weapons of mass destruction); a corrupt mayoral election (but with no indication that this was a dig at today’s elections where investigations into postal votes have caused concern); and despite director Mike Shepherd’s programme notes about his concerns over the rise of UKIP, the Syrian war and the increasing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” it was hard to identify any specific contemporary targets in the play. Instead it had the feeling of a rant at the political state of the nation but without singling out anyone to lampoon. Farage, Cameron, Clegg, Assad, Netanyahu and Lord Stevenson to name but a few.

Instead the satirical drama was updated with music, high-octane energy and the fast paced story of the fall and fall of gangster hitman Macheath played with good-humoured charm by Dominic Marsh and his peerless love interest Polly Peachum (Carly Bawden). Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum was enjoyably obnoxious while testy Lucy Lockit was given a punchy persona by Audrey Brisson. The ensemble cast were all box-office value giving excellent performances. Giles King as Colin Lockit the policeman, worked his kilt off, while brilliantly badly dressed Les Peachum (Martin Hyder) was a credit to the wardrobe department run by Jacquie Davis.

For pure entertainment the show was a hit with never a dull moment with its gyrating disco dancers, fabulous singing and complex chorography aided by a slide to shoot the cast onto stage and mobile platforms that were constantly moved to create anything from a scaffold to a sitting room. Apart from the songs and stunning final climax the puppetry threatened to steal the show. Sarah Wright’s Punch and Judy, the eponymous dog (and flies) and in particular her babies (memorable in an absent father come Child Support Agency scene) blended the puppets perfectly with the action.

Four Stars

Harry Mottram

The show continues until Saturday, 25 October 2014 at the Bristol Old Vic. Details at www.bristololdvic.org.uk/ and also at www.kneehigh.co.uk Reviewed on 9 Oct 2014.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs), A New Beggar’s Opera was written by Carl Grose, with music by Charles Hazlewood and was directed by Mike Shepherd – and it was a Kneehigh with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse production.

http://vimeo.com/99840551

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Hey Ref! when sport is both funny and a little bit pathetic - Hoke's Bluff. Pic Paul Blakemore

Hey Ref! when sport is both funny and a little bit pathetic – Hoke’s Bluff. Pic Paul Blakemore

Off-side: Hoke’s Bluff brings out sport’s humour in a bitter sweet tribute to the team games

Hoke’s Bluff. Bristol Old Vic Studio Theatre

Welcome to Cat Country where Tyler is having trouble at releasing the ball for team Wild Cats. Exactly what sport he’s playing is irrelevant in this bitter-sweet part send-up and part celebration of the language and attitudes of small town American sport. It was all played out on a traverse stage without an American accent. It didn’t matter as Gemma Paintin as Connie and James Stenhouse as Tyler, gave it their all playing multiple characters depicting the coaches, the cheerleaders and the players in the red and yellow sporting world of Hoke’s Bluff.

It’s witty, original and poetic, performed by a cast of three with much physical theatre and mime to create the movement of sport and along with the atmosphere with loud rock music, popcorn, flags and pom-pom razzamatazz that wouldn’t be out of place at Ashton Gate.

Laura Dannequin underused as the referee gave a committed performance breaking the dialogue and action with her whistle and explanations of the various transgressions in the imagined games. Paintin’s rant at the referee’s rulings was one of the enjoyable highlights of a play that contained several emotional climaxes even if at times the narrative wasn’t always that clear in a production of many voices. Its strength was the writing with its lists of modern cultural references and its satire of sporting jargon that kept the audience chuckling to the final whistle.

Three Stars Reviewed on 8th October 2014

Harry Mottram

The show is on tour until the week of 10th December 2014. For tour dates and venues: http://www.actionhero.org.uk/events/

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Triumph of the Celtic myth’s Love Spotters, Royal sycophant Frocin and Wagnarian climax

Tristan and Yseult at Bristol Old Vic Kneehigh Theatre

Tristan and Yseult. Bristol Old Vic.

Observe the world of the unloved – for they observe the world of the loved and the lovers. With their plastic macs, binoculars and balaclavas they twitch away making notes on the love goddess Yseult and her rampant affair with Tristan. The Love Spotters may only score a soggy biscuit on the Love-ometer but in Kneehigh’s love letter to the lonely they care for her and for those caught up in the tragedy based on the Dark Age Cornish legend.

With its vibrant storytelling the play makes use of all available disciplines of the dramatic arts: stunning lighting, music, dance, song, slapstick and physical theatre. This is a production that makes you fall in love with theatre all over again. As soon as Giles King as hyper active royal sycophant Frocin threw off his specs and danced with wild abandonment we knew this was going to be a show that you couldn’t second guess. What delight will happen next? Every scene springs a surprise from the mass brawl between the Irish King Morholt and his stooges with King Mark’s men to the stunning ending with its Wagnarian climax. I was in awe of the energy, the inventiveness and sheer exuberance of the company – and the way they kept the audience involved.

The story was neatly told. King Mark sends Tristan off to bring back his chosen bride Yselt by boat – but on the way back the duo fall in love and after the marriage they continue the affair. When Mark discovers he’s been cuckolded he banishes Tristan – who waits for his lover to join him.

It’s packed with theatrical detail. There’s constant humour between the dramatic events and desperately romantic sequences – and much of it is delivered by the Unloved in their macs and ever more elaborate balaclavas along with the maid Brangian (played by a pythonesque Craig Johnson) who adds a comically earthly dimension to Yseult’s marriage to Mark. He is also able to transcend what could have been a one dimensional pantomime dame of a character by adding a depth of feeling in his emotional retelling of the wedding night in which Brangian plays her part.

The lovers Patrycja Kujawska as Yseult and Tristan Sturrock who played his namesake didn’t just swig the love potion plot device they appeared to have bathed in it. If Kneehigh can market the potion they could become very rich.

The ensemble cast of eight plus musicians Stu Barker, Ian Ross, Lizzy Westcott and Myke Vince appeared greater than their constituent parts throughout. Constant costume changes and doubling gave the appearance of much larger show and only at the final curtain did I realise so much was produced by so few. Director and adaptor Emma Rice had a vision which mixed the tone of a 1950s night club with its Roy Orbison songs, flickering lighting and three in the morning atmosphere, with the much more mundane but somehow familiar twitchers dressed in their wonderful ordinariness, along with a much grander view of the universal love story adopted by just about every nation since the Middle Ages.

Using several of the main protagonists as narrators including the pivotal Lady Whitehands (a cool and composed Carly Bawden) who spoke in rhyming couplets using simple and yet poetic language we are swept along in a celebration of Kneehigh’s ability to deconstruct and reassemble a multitude of theatrical disciplines. Tristan and Yseult is a feast for the senses. Mike Shepherd fleshed out gruff King Mark’s character, Patrycja Kujawska’s Yseult was angry and passionate in equal measure, and Giles King as Frocin fired high octane energy into Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s script.

Five stars (out of five)

Harry Mottram

Reviewed on Tuesday 9 July 2013.

House: close to full with a mixture of ages.

Tickets: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/ Box office 0117 9877877

Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol

Tristan & Yseult runs from 3-20 July. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat matinees, except Thu 4) £5-£30. Groups of 10+: £2 off top three ticket prices. Schools: £12.50/£7.50. Signed performance: 13 Jul at 2.30pm. Audio described performance: 20 Jul at 2.30pm (signed and audio described tickets are just £10, available by calling box office only). Ages: 10+

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The Last Days of Mankind at the Bristol Old Vic

Review: The Last Days of Mankind. Bristol Old Vic

Apparently 10 Downing Street doesn’t have a toilet and the English are barbarians. This was one reason for war in 1914 – according to the trio of Viennese society ladies in Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind currently staged at the Bristol Old Vic. Seen through the eyes of the Austrian playwright the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire also had its fair share of savages. His two hour long anti-war diatribe has brought to the stage in a new version by co-directors (and co-adaptors) John Retallack and Toby Hulse by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the main house of the Old Vic. It’s a stage ideally grand for the large scale multi-cast ensemble production of what is essentially a series of quick fire sketches, set pieces and storytelling through scores of characters with a number of narratives entwining the drama. At times you felt slightly confused by the explosive succession of scenes and characters although thankfully there were a number reappearing stalwarts whose personal stories gave shape and commentary to the play. It’s a period piece brought up to date in this pulsating and at times repetitive production – but rings true a century after the drums of war beat across Eastern Europe as Syria goes up in flames and our leaders talk of military intervention.

Kraus (1874–1936) was a proactive liberal pacifist fighting for freedom of speech and expression through his newspaper, plays and articles in Austria. He accurately foresaw that war with the Allied powers would spell disaster for the Austrians and result in another war and the rise of a militarised Germany neatly portrayed in the play by a goose-stepping Adolf Hitler being born. Played with a strident self-belief in his opinions by Christopher McKay he appears throughout the drama in conversation with Sidi (Juliet Fox) who confidently bats back his ideas – at first discussing the play’s implausible length with its hundreds of characters and evils of war and the demise of a once great Empire. It was interesting for us barbarian English to get an Austrian perspective on the war defined normally by the trenches of the Western Front, the war poets and the paintings of desolated war scarred landscapes in France by John and Paul Nash. The Austrians appeared to dismiss the French as a joke, the English as unwashed, the Russians as cannon fodder, Serbs as dirty peasants and the Italians as a chance to spread the war still further in 1915. And war is what we got – with the word emblazoned on piles of newspapers that were tossed around the stage and used as chairs, tables and machine gun nests.

This collaborative production between the Old Vic Theatre School and the Old Vic itself bodes well for the renewed relationship. The theatre’s got the space and the school’s got lots of actors. The Last Days of Mankind explodes into life following an introduction by the playwright with an exuberant cast dancing and creating huge movement and life on stage. It may have seemed a chaotic story of the chaos of war but its strengths in this production were the visual and audio presentation and stylish choreography. Paul Chantry and Rae Piper along with Gail Gordon created a series of breath taking sequences: soldiers appearing ominously in the distance, queues of hungry Austrians waiting for hand outs, mass Viennese waltzes and groups of citizens in a frenzy of excitement celebrating the outbreak of war.

The set was a basic layout of wooden floor boards disappearing into a distant ski slope of a hill – and large letter press type on vertical strands symbolising how the printed press could distort the truth of what the conflict was about – the egos of the leaders of unsustainable empires.

It’s a searing dissection of patriotism. The hypocrisy and lunacy of the conflict and its backing by the Catholic Church turned Kraus the converted Jew from Catholicism to cynicism about religion: “We Germans, who still have ideals, should continue working to bring about better times, to fight for justice, fidelity, and morality. We want to live in friendship with our neighbours, but first the victory of German arms must be recognized. The year 1917 with its great battles has demonstrated that the German people have an unfailingly dependable ally, the Lord. ”

Kraus’s depiction of war is obviously brutal but unlike Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War or Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children there are few (if any) songs to uplift the audience from the relentless bad news. However black humour is in abundance – with characters such as the Simple Soldier expressively played by Darren Seed, and Alec Fellows-Bennett as the divorced-from-reality general complaining to the ever patient café owner (Nina Logue) about the lack of cream for his coffee and cakes.

There were lots of real baddies who snarled and barked orders or constantly justified the war. Lindsay Dukes cut through the smoke of war as an evil nurse, while Laura Dale as Alice (a war junky journalist) was beguiling with her soft blonde locks, silk blouse and nationalistic rants, and Todd James enjoyed himself as the vicious editor of the New Free Press who twists every story into a lie strutting about the stage spiv-like in his black and white shoes – the give-away motif of a baddie. And speaking of costumes there was a beautiful balance of colours, tones, textures – and characters defined by their outfits. For instance there was the complicit Ladies of Culture – Jennifer Clement, Nina Logue and Angelina Woods – with their sunglasses and colour coordinated clothes; the yellow belted soldiers and their yellow pistols; and the red costumes of the wife (Bebe Sanders) and mother of the Simple Soldier (Jennifer Clement); and finally the Austrian infantry in their great coats gave a blend of period and contemporary.

In a stunning final sequence of hanging corpses and the burning flames of hell the satire built to a climax. As Syria continues to tear itself apart, and the allies talk of military supplies to the rebels, and as the orphans of war queue up in transit camps on the Turkish border this 100 year old play holds up a warning: don’t go to war.

The play runs until 29 June.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

Theatre: Bristol Old Vic Theatre, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED England. Box Office: 0117 987 7877 tickets@bristololdvic.org.uk Website: www.bristololdvic.org.uk

Attendance: About 80% full – a mix of all ages – mainly younger people in their 20s.

Reviewed: Thursday 20 June, 2013

Run: 18-29 June. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (matinees on Thu 20, Thu 27 & Sat 29)
BSL signed peformance: 28 June, 7.30pm
Audio described performance
: 29 Jun at 2.30pm
£8-£18
£10 previews
: 18, 19, 20 (matinee) Jun
Groups of 10+: £2 off top three ticket prices
Schools: £2 off top three ticket prices

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Axbridge Community Theatre’s evening of Tom Stoppard plays

A Separate Peace, and The Real Inspector Hound. Town Hall, Axbridge

Pontificating, posh and pearl adorned, Sue Hughes is the theatre-struck Moon, a second string critic who enthusiastically takes over the play she is supposed to be reviewing. It’s a dream role: all theatre critics secretly want to take to the stage and sort out the actors, the script and the plot. “Does this play know where it’s going?” she asks. But like the old description of reviewers, we are like eunuchs – we have seen it all, know what is supposed to happen but somehow can’t do it ourselves. And as a result the second one act play of the evening ends in recrimination and confusion as Moon becomes embroiled in the comic plot.

Axxbridge Community Theatre’s (ACT) Tom Stoppard double bill is accomplished, well-rehearsed and entertaining. The dramas directed by David Parkin were dedicated to James McKay – a founder member of the acting group who died last month. He would have enjoyed the quirky tone to Stoppard’s two period piece one act plays written in the early 1960s. A Separate Peace was about one man’s mental agony steeped in the delayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder created by the war and a childhood accident.

Mr Brown played by a slightly startled looking Phil Saunders tricks his way into a private hospital rather than book a hotel room in pursuit of the peace he craves for. He is surrounded by scenes of bucolic peace he paints on the walls: “The hospital routine in a pastoral setting – perfect.” He paints to escape with striking Van Gogh and Cezanne style images (actually painted by Cathy Plummer) and Frank Dobson-esque landscapes of rolling English farmland. (There was further work by Katie Weir and Tracy Britton in decorating the set designed by the director and Dave Moore.)

Strong performances by Cathy Plummer as the doctor, Maggie Stanley as the matron, and Janet Gwinn as the nurse contributed to an enigmatic drama in which you were left guessing as to what it was all about. Nurse Maggie played by Anna Hind attempted to tease out of the strange Mr Brown’s past – why he had checked himself into the hospital with a suitcase stuffed with ten pound notes. Was he train robber? An inspector? Or a madman? Or was the play deliberately mysterious and was really about resisting conformity in an age when individuality had been stifled. Macmillan’s Britain with its compulsory National Service, the threat of nuclear war, post war bombed out town centres and the feeling the world was on the brink of change seemed to be the influences. But as so often with Stoppard the play leaves you with more questions than answers.

Part two of the evening, The Real Inspector Hound was more accessible – a send up of the fashionable country house murder combined with Stoppard’s experiences as a critic at the Western Daily Press in Bristol when he reviewed plays at the Bristol Old Vic. Sue Hughes as pretentious understudy reviewer Moon threw herself into the role and found herself on stage asking the questions: “where is Higgs? Perhaps he’s dead at last.”

Sarah Kendal as the impossibly dramatic Cynthia “you’re a cad Simon” continued to impress as a dynamic and versatile actress who is worth the ticket money alone. And the production values of the company transform the pannier market of a town hall into a believable theatre. It’s a most enjoyable setting complete with fixtures and fittings to grace any country house – and echoing across the space is the Home Service voice of Martin Cavender who continually warns that there’s a mad man on the loose.

There’s some excellent moments. Major Muldoon’s thunderous entrance in a wheel chair (Phil Saunders) and Mrs Drudge’s (Janie Gray) many telephone descriptions to callers, “the charming but somewhat isolated house” and “the drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s house one spring morning.” And there was Peter Honeyands appearance through the French window as the sinister Simon Gascoigne which was worth a round of applause for his range of facial expressions alone. Flouncy Felicity with her variety of hormonal mood swings was played by Anna Hind while Robin Mace as the stuffy critic Birdboot declared “it’s a good clean show without a trace of smut.” And finally of course there’s the eponymous Inspector Hound played by Pete Harding who reminds the characters gathered in the drawing room that “it takes more than bad weather to keep the police from their duties.”

Harry Mottram

The plays continue nightly at 7.30pm in Axbridge Town Hall until Friday 15 June. Tickets from the village Chemist and Post Office – with more details at www.axbridgecommunitytheatre.org.uk

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Trash Cuisine in Bristol – “uniquely brilliant”

Review – Trash Cuisine: The Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol.

Brave, bleak and brilliantly inventive, Trash Cuisine unapologetically serves up some unpaletable truths about the dark political motivations behind the all too real horrors of torture and capital punishment in our modern and supposedly enlightened society.

Writers Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada explore a subject not for the faint hearted – that of our own mortality – through inventive dance and uniquely performed narrative that make the critically acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre so unique. Trash Cuisine exposes the human price that victims of political violence pay, often unseen underneath the media sheen of modern reporting, with the blackest of humour including a TV compare who does impressions of people in their final throes after being sentenced to execution.

Much of the dialogue is taken from genuine conversations with executioners, inmates, human rights lawyers and the families of the deceased. Trash Cuisine (the follow up to the Belarus Free Theatre’s equally thought provoking ‘An Answer to Kathy Aker’, which played at Mayfest last year) uses a vivid and unflinching style to reach the audience in a way that few other productions can. The cast and writers are both brutal and kind in their telling, stripping away the layers of meaning we attach to mortality and bringing it back to expose the bare bones of the painful and cruel nature of one human life being extinguished by another.

Without subtlety but with a gripping honesty Trash Cuisine forces us to acknowledge the convenient ways in which we distract ourselves from horrors and atrocities that occur all over the globe every day. What the atrocity is committed in the name of isn’t the issue here; what matters is that both the perpetrators and the victims are as human as we are. A TV chef acts as a sort of omnipotent narrator throughout, serving the audience their last meal without any of the embellishment and flair that his French accent promises.

The use of genuine words spoken by the people who have been deeply touched and affected by these brutal events is horribly provocative, and the use of food as an analogue is as creative as it is confrontational.

Trash Cuisine is not easy viewing, but it is definitely worthwhile viewing, and the Belarus Free Theatre are without doubt a valuable and uniquely brilliant company worth watching.

Natalie Burns

Trash Cuisine moves to the Young Vic in London. For details http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/trash-cuisine

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Wed 22 May. Theatre review: our verdict on Fifty Words at the Ustinov Studio in Bath

From Harry's note book on the evening

From Harry’s note book on the evening

Fifty Words Ustinov Studio, Bath

A calm and domestic scene: she on the phone and he preparing supper. An evening ahead of romance for perfect middle-class New York couple Adam and Jan – secure and relaxed in the knowledge their son is away on a sleepover leaving them all alone. And then it all went wrong. For the next 100 minutes we were treated to an extremely entertaining marital row. There are shouting matches, sulks, screams, slaps and things getting smashed. It was gripping, it was shocking, it was very entertaining. And at times it was very funny with some killer lines and so much insight you wondered if the couple were talking about your relationship rather than their’s.

Once Adam (Richard Clothier) and Jan (Claire Price) started on the wine and they began to blow on the embers of a fire made from the kindling wood of their niggling relationship irritations, the quiet romantic evening turned into the relationship bust up from hell. There is something voyeuristic in eves-dropping on someone else’s bust-up – which is partly why Michael Weller’s play in the Ustinov’s American Season is so enjoyable. Fifty Words is an entertaining play for grown-ups who have been there and thrown that across the kitchen – or at least thought about it. Like all good arguments it’s balanced. First one person in the two-hander play appears to be winning – and then the phone rings, or another revelation slips out – and their partner manages to grab back some of the moral high ground before screwing up their argument with a bout of hypocracy, duplicity or selfishness.

Then there’s the first rate performances from Clothier and Price in this Bath Ustinov production directed by Laurence Boswell. The couple are annoyingly believable, irritating in the extreme but also so true. Clothier on a high seems a 30-something God – pumped up with a washboard stomach and biceps to die for – before shooting himself in the foot with another crass confession when he creases up into a frail skeletal wreck – all wrinkles, ticks and grey hair. While Price projects her self-pronounced superiority complex from behind her laptop with a self-satisfied glow that can only be deflected by an anti-radiation suit. And then she too crumples returning to her spoilt teen inner self spitting threats and insults as though in a hormonal Vodka induced spat.

Their characterisation when not speaking (but simply being) is excellent – their chemistry is about right – indeed they come across as the perfect un-adorable couple as Weller intended. And their kitchen – put it this way – once again the Ustinov’s production values are excellent.

“Every time I touch you, you flinch,” complains Adam who wants to have sex before he catches the early plane in the morning. But having irritated Jan with his less than subtle approach he gets angry when she insists on finishing some work first. “You are such a disappointment,” she snarls when he behaves like a spoilt child – but then swings the audience’s sympathy in Adam’s direction by playing the priggish over-protective “mom” who doesn’t allow her son to be a normal boy or to attempt to understand Adam’s blokishness. Once ignited the argument swings backwards and forwards with Weller’s insightfulness into how married couples know how to hurt each other.

“The marriage is over,” screams Jan. “I wish you weren’t a withholding bitch,” he replies as he pours out his heart. He continues: “I fucking hate feeling so shut out. I can’t stand you.” To which she returns: “You’re pathetic. I hate you.” And so it goes on – but always with a certain dark adult humour. When Jan cut her foot on a broken mayonnaise bottle (that she has smashed when throwing it at Adam) she immediately tells him off: “ I told you not to put glass jars at the front of the fridge.”

Husband and wives going 12 rounds with each other have been one of the stock in trades of theatre for centuries. Think Katherine and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew or Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginnia Woolf? Or even Nora and Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. We love seeing couples work each other over – thinking “there but for the grace of God go we”. And so I entered the cool night air of Bath afterwards and thought – maybe my relationship isn’t so bad after all. Thanks Weller.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Five stars (out of five)

Theatre: Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Sawclose, Bath, North and East Somerset, England BA1 1ET. Box Office: 01225 448844. Website: www.theatreroyal.org.uk

Attendance: Close to a house – mostly a mix of couples and groups of friends aged 30-75.

Reviewed: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Run: Thu 16 May-Sat 15 June

Preview

Adam is a successful New york architect. His wife, Jan is preparing to start an online company. Their beloved nine year-old son Greg (and his hamster, Smoky) is away on his first sleepover. This will be the first evening they’ve had to themselves in years. Time to crack open the Champagne, devour a Chinese meal and get down to rekindling the fires of passion… But this is one extraordinary night wihich will change Adam and Jan’s marriage forever.

This is the night when they say everything there is to say, reveal every dark secret which had been kept hidden and reach new heights of passion and intimacy.

Filled with the humorous banter of a married couple who know exactly which buttons to press, Fifty Words portrays their relationship with searing honesty and in beautifully observed and amusing detail.

Writer: Michael Weller

Cast

Janine – Claire Price

Adam – Richard Clothier

Info

Evenings: Monday – Saturday 7.45pm

Thursday Matinees: 23rd, 30th May, 6th, 13th June 2.30pm

Saturday Matinees: 18th, 25th May,1st, 8th, 15th June 2.30pm

Press Performance: Thursday 23rd May 7pm

Post Show Discussion Thursday 30th May (After evening performance)

Tickets: £19.50 / £14.50 Discounts Preview Performances: (16th-23rd May) and Mondays: All seats £10

Directed by Laurence Boswell

Designer – Simon Kenny

Lighting Designer – Richard Howell

Associate Lighting Designer – Jo Humphries

Sound Designer – Fergus O’Hare

Evenings: Monday – Saturday 7.45pm

Thursday Matinees: 23rd, 30th May, 6th, 13th June 2.30pm

Saturday Matinees: 18th, 25th May,1st, 8th, 15th June 2.30pm

Press Performance: Thursday 23rd May 7pm

Post Show Discussion Thursday 30th May (After evening performance)

Tickets: £19.50 / £14.50 Discounts Preview Performances: (16th-23rd May) and Mondays: All seats £10

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)

Fifty Words Ustinov 2013

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Fri 10 May. Theatre Review: our verdict on Ours Was The Fen Country

Ours was the fen country BOV 2013

Theatre Review: Ours Was The Fen Country at Bristol Old Vic Theatre

When I first heard that Bristol Old Vic was showing a play about the fens involving interpretive dance, I was a little sceptical. A play entitled ‘Ours was the Fen Country’ performed in a theatre in the city seemed to have the potential to be at best, a little patronising to the people of the fens, and at worst, to have totally missed the point of what life there is all about.

I say this because I grew up in the fen country, and the theatre and the fens simply don’t mix. As the promotional literature for the play says, ‘it’s a place of unforgiving winds, black soil […] and a scattering of people whose life is on the edge of existence’. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true, and creator Dan Canham has expressed it well. Old farming industries are fast dying out, and the fens themselves are sinking and blowing away.

Far from making the fen folk appear as other, or the subject of pity, Canham uses their own stories, told in their own words to make the fen experience accessible, and to inspire in the audience an understanding of a lifestyle that is so rarely seen, and so rarely shared with outsiders. The fen folk the play represents, by their own admission, simply want to be left alone. The bare, bleak and flat (so very flat) nature of the fens is described in simple, no nonsense terms by the people who call it home. The scene is set with projected photographs of the great expanse, and then dismantled. The four person performance makes the stories available, and understandable, by speaking the fen folk’s words verbatim to the audience through characters that make their accents and idiosyncrasies more recognisable, and makes their stories in a way more poignant.

Their words become haunting, as if spoken by apparitions through a medium, from far away. The ubiquitous language of the fens, so rarely heard outside it, reveals a wisdom and a bleak poetry that is so unique and close to being lost. It’s the poetry of people who have no time for poetry, who are too busy farming, eel catching, and struggling to make a living out there unseen. The performance and stage is unembellished, and the actors portray beautifully through barely more than words (and dances to the rhythm of those words), the stubborn, hardy pride and sense of tradition that has been passed down through generations of fen folk for thousands of years.

The traditions they speak of are sinking and fading away with the fens themselves, and secrets so rarely written or heard, sinking with them into the black peat soil. So what a great thing to have these words documented and unchanged, and brought to an audience who would most likely be unaware of these people who so rarely and begrudgingly leave their home. The power of this performance is that there is so little added, and nothing taken away. There is a wonderfully apparent respect for nature and the land that is so different from the more palatable hippie view that gets so much more attention – this is the view of the people who actually work the land, and whose livelihood so completely depends upon its retreating surface.

This understanding of nature and the unique skills that have been honed and passed down for so many years is not often heard because the people who possess them so rarely have either the opportunity, or the inkling, to speak about them. The performers brilliantly show thorough dance, dialogue and bleak white lighting that the fen folk will tell their stories, but they don’t care what the city folk, or the theatre goers think about it. Their stories are simply a statement of fact, told as they see it.

Thankfully, and clearly with great empathy and respect as well as an iceberg tip of understanding, Canham and company took the time to listen. As someone who grew up in just the places they are describing, I highly recommend this performance, and hope people see it before all the old wisdom blows away like so much of the fen dust, and becomes lost and forgotten.

Natalie Burns

The play continues tonight and tomorrow with a matinee on Saturday.

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Natalie Burns is a writer and reviewer and lives in Bristol. To find out more about her work visit:

www.knowledgeporridge.co.uk

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2013

Review. Death, dad and video tapes: my verdict on Perle

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Perle. The Brewery at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol. (Review for the Bristol Post. http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/REVIEW-Perle-Tobacco-Factory-4-5-Harry-Mottram/story-19919956-detail/story.html)

When someone you love dies you go into a state of shock. Anger, resentment, confusion follow. Eventually you let go. Out go the clothes, the books, the keepsakes. The charity shop, the recycle centre and jumble sale become the repository of their material past. But inside you keep their spirit alive – a glowing pearl light bulb of memory – so your loved one lives in your head forever.

And so it is in Dancing Brick’s Perle directed by Valentina Ceschi. A bitter-sweet story of one man’s poignant experience of bereavement staged with no dialogue and no tears. There’s a TV set with Serge Seidlitz’s simple but effective illustrations, a neat symbolic set, the actor Thomas Eccleshare and Harry Blake’s evocative sound and lighting. A simple idea – staged with disarming restraint. Inspired by Perle, a Medieval poem, it follows the dreamlike thoughts of a young dad whose wife has died in hospital leaving him with their baby to care for. He seeks answers through a self-help book and friendly advice but as in the poem his search for his “precious perle without a spot” is something he must achieve alone.

Eccelshare’s performance is both understated and believable. He reaches out and involves the audience in a little gentle participation. His mood swings of depression and reflection add pathos and moments of human frailty and even comedy. The set with its pearl lamps, video tapes and white circle focus on the man’s insular world. And the words of the ancient poem flash up as we journey from his green garden in search of his lost love across the water.

For those who have experienced the pain of loss this comic book style production will connect. For others it may seem more like the film The Artist – a single idea simply done – but with room for more content. Instead of staying in and watching telly you could go out and watch a man and his TV – and a story of gentle humour and originality.

Perle continues until Saturday, October 12, 2013.

Four out of five stars.

Harry Mottram.

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Wed 10 July. Theatre review. Our verdict on Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult at the Bristol Old Vic

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Tristan and Yseult. Bristol Old Vic.

Observe the world of the unloved – for they observe the world of the loved and the lovers. With their plastic macs, binoculars and balaclavas they twitch away making notes on the love goddess Yseult and her rampant affair with Tristan. The Love Spotters may only score a soggy biscuit on the Love-ometer but in Kneehigh’s love letter to the lonely they care for her and for those caught up in the tragedy based on the Dark Age Cornish legend.

With its vibrant storytelling the play makes use of all available disciplines of the dramatic arts: stunning lighting, music, dance, song, slapstick and physical theatre. This is a production that makes you fall in love with theatre all over again. As soon as Giles King as hyper active royal sycophant Frocin threw off his specs and danced with wild abandonment we knew this was going to be a show that you couldn’t second guess. What delight will happen next? Every scene springs a surprise from the mass brawl between the Irish King Morholt and his stooges with King Mark’s men to the stunning ending with its Wagnarian climax. I was in awe of the energy, the inventiveness and sheer exuberance of the company – and the way they kept the audience involved.

The story was neatly told. King Mark sends Tristan off to bring back his chosen bride Yselt by boat – but on the way back the duo fall in love and after the marriage they continue the affair. When Mark discovers he’s been cuckolded he banishes Tristan – who waits for his lover to join him.

It’s packed with theatrical detail. There’s constant humour between the dramatic events and desperately romantic sequences – and much of it is delivered by the Unloved in their macs and ever more elaborate balaclavas along with the maid Brangian (played by a pythonesque Craig Johnson) who adds a comically earthly dimension to Yseult’s marriage to Mark. He is also able to transcend what could have been a one dimensional pantomime dame of a character by adding a depth of feeling in his emotional retelling of the wedding night in which Brangian plays her part.

The lovers Patrycja Kujawska as Yseult and Tristan Sturrock who played his namesake didn’t just swig the love potion plot device they appeared to have bathed in it. If Kneehigh can market the potion they could become very rich.

The ensemble cast of eight plus musicians Stu Barker, Ian Ross, Lizzy Westcott and Myke Vince appeared greater than their constituent parts throughout. Constant costume changes and doubling gave the appearance of much larger show and only at the final curtain did I realise so much was produced by so few. Director and adaptor Emma Rice had a vision which mixed the tone of a 1950s night club with its Roy Orbison songs, flickering lighting and three in the morning atmosphere, with the much more mundane but somehow familiar twitchers dressed in their wonderful ordinariness, along with a much grander view of the universal love story adopted by just about every nation since the Middle Ages.

Using several of the main protagonists as narrators including the pivotal Lady Whitehands (a cool and composed Carly Bawden) who spoke in rhyming couplets using simple and yet poetic language we are swept along in a celebration of Kneehigh’s ability to deconstruct and reassemble a multitude of theatrical disciplines. Tristan and Yseult is a feast for the senses. Mike Shepherd fleshed out gruff King Mark’s character, Patrycja Kujawska’s Yseult was angry and passionate in equal measure, and Giles King as Frocin fired high octane energy into Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s script.

Five stars (out of five)

Harry Mottram

Reviewed on Tuesday 9 July 2013.

House: close to full with a mixture of ages.

Tickets: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/ Box office 0117 9877877

Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol

Tristan & Yseult runs from 3-20 July. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat matinees, except Thu 4) £5-£30. Groups of 10+: £2 off top three ticket prices. Schools: £12.50/£7.50. Signed performance: 13 Jul at 2.30pm. Audio described performance: 20 Jul at 2.30pm (signed and audio described tickets are just £10, available by calling box office only). Ages: 10+

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Fri 21 June. Theatre Review: our verdict on The Last Days of Mankind at the Bristol Old Vic

The Last Days of Mankind stage

Review: The Last Days of Mankind. Bristol Old Vic

Apparently 10 Downing Street doesn’t have a toilet and the English are barbarians. This was one reason for war in 1914 – according to the trio of Viennese society ladies in Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind currently staged at the Bristol Old Vic. Seen through the eyes of the Austrian playwright the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire also had its fair share of savages. His two hour long anti-war diatribe has brought to the stage in a new version by co-directors (and co-adaptors) John Retallack and Toby Hulse by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the main house of the Old Vic. It’s a stage ideally grand for the large scale multi-cast ensemble production of what is essentially a series of quick fire sketches, set pieces and storytelling through scores of characters with a number of narratives entwining the drama. At times you felt slightly confused by the explosive succession of scenes and characters although thankfully there were a number reappearing stalwarts whose personal stories gave shape and commentary to the play. It’s a period piece brought up to date in this pulsating and at times repetitive production – but rings true a century after the drums of war beat across Eastern Europe as Syria goes up in flames and our leaders talk of military intervention.

Kraus (1874–1936) was a proactive liberal pacifist fighting for freedom of speech and expression through his newspaper, plays and articles in Austria. He accurately foresaw that war with the Allied powers would spell disaster for the Austrians and result in another war and the rise of a militarised Germany neatly portrayed in the play by a goose-stepping Adolf Hitler being born. Played with a strident self-belief in his opinions by Christopher McKay he appears throughout the drama in conversation with Sidi (Juliet Fox) who confidently bats back his ideas – at first discussing the play’s implausible length with its hundreds of characters and evils of war and the demise of a once great Empire. It was interesting for us barbarian English to get an Austrian perspective on the war defined normally by the trenches of the Western Front, the war poets and the paintings of desolated war scarred landscapes in France by John and Paul Nash. The Austrians appeared to dismiss the French as a joke, the English as unwashed, the Russians as cannon fodder, Serbs as dirty peasants and the Italians as a chance to spread the war still further in 1915. And war is what we got – with the word emblazoned on piles of newspapers that were tossed around the stage and used as chairs, tables and machine gun nests.

This collaborative production between the Old Vic Theatre School and the Old Vic itself bodes well for the renewed relationship. The theatre’s got the space and the school’s got lots of actors. The Last Days of Mankind explodes into life following an introduction by the playwright with an exuberant cast dancing and creating huge movement and life on stage. It may have seemed a chaotic story of the chaos of war but its strengths in this production were the visual and audio presentation and stylish choreography. Paul Chantry and Rae Piper along with Gail Gordon created a series of breath taking sequences: soldiers appearing ominously in the distance, queues of hungry Austrians waiting for hand outs, mass Viennese waltzes and groups of citizens in a frenzy of excitement celebrating the outbreak of war.

The set was a basic layout of wooden floor boards disappearing into a distant ski slope of a hill – and large letter press type on vertical strands symbolising how the printed press could distort the truth of what the conflict was about – the egos of the leaders of unsustainable empires.

It’s a searing dissection of patriotism. The hypocrisy and lunacy of the conflict and its backing by the Catholic Church turned Kraus the converted Jew from Catholicism to cynicism about religion: “We Germans, who still have ideals, should continue working to bring about better times, to fight for justice, fidelity, and morality. We want to live in friendship with our neighbours, but first the victory of German arms must be recognized. The year 1917 with its great battles has demonstrated that the German people have an unfailingly dependable ally, the Lord. ”

Kraus’s depiction of war is obviously brutal but unlike Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War or Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children there are few (if any) songs to uplift the audience from the relentless bad news. However black humour is in abundance – with characters such as the Simple Soldier expressively played by Darren Seed, and Alec Fellows-Bennett as the divorced-from-reality general complaining to the ever patient café owner (Nina Logue) about the lack of cream for his coffee and cakes.

There were lots of real baddies who snarled and barked orders or constantly justified the war. Lindsay Dukes cut through the smoke of war as an evil nurse, while Laura Dale as Alice (a war junky journalist) was beguiling with her soft blonde locks, silk blouse and nationalistic rants, and Todd James enjoyed himself as the vicious editor of the New Free Press who twists every story into a lie strutting about the stage spiv-like in his black and white shoes – the give-away motif of a baddie. And speaking of costumes there was a beautiful balance of colours, tones, textures – and characters defined by their outfits. For instance there was the complicit Ladies of Culture – Jennifer Clement, Nina Logue and Angelina Woods – with their sunglasses and colour coordinated clothes; the yellow belted soldiers and their yellow pistols; and the red costumes of the wife (Bebe Sanders) and mother of the Simple Soldier (Jennifer Clement); and finally the Austrian infantry in their great coats gave a blend of period and contemporary.

In a stunning final sequence of hanging corpses and the burning flames of hell the satire built to a climax. As Syria continues to tear itself apart, and the allies talk of military supplies to the rebels, and as the orphans of war queue up in transit camps on the Turkish border this 100 year old play holds up a warning: don’t go to war.

The play runs until 29 June.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

Theatre: Bristol Old Vic Theatre, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED England. Box Office: 0117 987 7877 tickets@bristololdvic.org.uk Website: www.bristololdvic.org.uk

Attendance: About 80% full – a mix of all ages – mainly younger people in their 20s.

Reviewed: Thursday 20 June, 2013

Run: 18-29 June. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (matinees on Thu 20, Thu 27 & Sat 29)
BSL signed peformance: 28 June, 7.30pm
Audio described performance
: 29 Jun at 2.30pm
£8-£18
£10 previews
: 18, 19, 20 (matinee) Jun
Groups of 10+: £2 off top three ticket prices
Schools: £2 off top three ticket prices

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Wed 12 June. Theatre Review: our verdict on Axbridge Community Theatre’s evening of Tom Stoppard plays

The Real Inspector Hound 2013

A Separate Peace, and The Real Inspector Hound. Town Hall, Axbridge

Pontificating, posh and pearl adorned, Sue Hughes is the theatre-struck Moon, a second string critic who enthusiastically takes over the play she is supposed to be reviewing. It’s a dream role: all theatre critics secretly want to take to the stage and sort out the actors, the script and the plot. “Does this play know where it’s going?” she asks. But like the old description of reviewers, we are like eunuchs – we have seen it all, know what is supposed to happen but somehow can’t do it ourselves. And as a result the second one act play of the evening ends in recrimination and confusion as Moon becomes embroiled in the comic plot.

The Real Inspector Hound Sarah Kendal 2013 001

Axxbridge Community Theatre’s (ACT) Tom Stoppard double bill is accomplished, well-rehearsed and entertaining. The dramas directed by David Parkin were dedicated to James McKay – a founder member of the acting group who died last month. He would have enjoyed the quirky tone to Stoppard’s two period piece one act plays written in the early 1960s. A Separate Peace was about one man’s mental agony steeped in the delayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder created by the war and a childhood accident.

Mr Brown played by a slightly startled looking Phil Saunders tricks his way into a private hospital rather than book a hotel room in pursuit of the peace he craves for. He is surrounded by scenes of bucolic peace he paints on the walls: “The hospital routine in a pastoral setting – perfect.” He paints to escape with striking Van Gogh and Cezanne style images (actually painted by Cathy Plummer) and Frank Dobson-esque landscapes of rolling English farmland. (There was further work by Katie Weir and Tracy Britton in decorating the set designed by the director and Dave Moore.)

Strong performances by Cathy Plummer as the doctor, Maggie Stanley as the matron, and Janet Gwinn as the nurse contributed to an enigmatic drama in which you were left guessing as to what it was all about. Nurse Maggie played by Anna Hind attempted to tease out of the strange Mr Brown’s past – why he had checked himself into the hospital with a suitcase stuffed with ten pound notes. Was he train robber? An inspector? Or a madman? Or was the play deliberately mysterious and was really about resisting conformity in an age when individuality had been stifled. Macmillan’s Britain with its compulsory National Service, the threat of nuclear war, post war bombed out town centres and the feeling the world was on the brink of change seemed to be the influences. But as so often with Stoppard the play leaves you with more questions than answers.

The Real Inspector Hound Janie Gray 2013 001

Part two of the evening, The Real Inspector Hound was more accessible – a send up of the fashionable country house murder combined with Stoppard’s experiences as a critic at the Western Daily Press in Bristol when he reviewed plays at the Bristol Old Vic. Sue Hughes as pretentious understudy reviewer Moon threw herself into the role and found herself on stage asking the questions: “where is Higgs? Perhaps he’s dead at last.”

Sarah Kendal as the impossibly dramatic Cynthia “you’re a cad Simon” continued to impress as a dynamic and versatile actress who is worth the ticket money alone. And the production values of the company transform the pannier market of a town hall into a believable theatre. It’s a most enjoyable setting complete with fixtures and fittings to grace any country house – and echoing across the space is the Home Service voice of Martin Cavender who continually warns that there’s a mad man on the loose.

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There’s some excellent moments. Major Muldoon’s thunderous entrance in a wheel chair (Phil Saunders) and Mrs Drudge’s (Janie Gray) many telephone descriptions to callers, “the charming but somewhat isolated house” and “the drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s house one spring morning.” And there was Peter Honeyands appearance through the French window as the sinister Simon Gascoigne which was worth a round of applause for his range of facial expressions alone. Flouncy Felicity with her variety of hormonal mood swings was played by Anna Hind while Robin Mace as the stuffy critic Birdboot declared “it’s a good clean show without a trace of smut.” And finally of course there’s the eponymous Inspector Hound played by Pete Harding who reminds the characters gathered in the drawing room that “it takes more than bad weather to keep the police from their duties.”

Harry Mottram

The plays continue nightly at 7.30pm in Axbridge Town Hall until Friday 15 June. Tickets from the village Chemist and Post Office – with more details at www.axbridgecommunitytheatre.org.uk

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Sun 26 May. Theatre Review: our verdict on Trash Cuisine in Bristol – “uniquely brilliant”

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Review – Trash Cuisine: The Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol.

Brave, bleak and brilliantly inventive, Trash Cuisine unapologetically serves up some unpaletable truths about the dark political motivations behind the all too real horrors of torture and capital punishment in our modern and supposedly enlightened society.

Writers Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada explore a subject not for the faint hearted – that of our own mortality – through inventive dance and uniquely performed narrative that make the critically acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre so unique. Trash Cuisine exposes the human price that victims of political violence pay, often unseen underneath the media sheen of modern reporting, with the blackest of humour including a TV compare who does impressions of people in their final throes after being sentenced to execution.

Much of the dialogue is taken from genuine conversations with executioners, inmates, human rights lawyers and the families of the deceased. Trash Cuisine (the follow up to the Belarus Free Theatre’s equally thought provoking ‘An Answer to Kathy Aker’, which played at Mayfest last year) uses a vivid and unflinching style to reach the audience in a way that few other productions can. The cast and writers are both brutal and kind in their telling, stripping away the layers of meaning we attach to mortality and bringing it back to expose the bare bones of the painful and cruel nature of one human life being extinguished by another.

Without subtlety but with a gripping honesty Trash Cuisine forces us to acknowledge the convenient ways in which we distract ourselves from horrors and atrocities that occur all over the globe every day. What the atrocity is committed in the name of isn’t the issue here; what matters is that both the perpetrators and the victims are as human as we are. A TV chef acts as a sort of omnipotent narrator throughout, serving the audience their last meal without any of the embellishment and flair that his French accent promises.

The use of genuine words spoken by the people who have been deeply touched and affected by these brutal events is horribly provocative, and the use of food as an analogue is as creative as it is confrontational.

Trash Cuisine is not easy viewing, but it is definitely worthwhile viewing, and the Belarus Free Theatre are without doubt a valuable and uniquely brilliant company worth watching.

Natalie Burns

Trash Cuisine moves to the Young Vic in London. For details http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/trash-cuisine

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Wed 22 May. Theatre review: our verdict on Fifty Words at the Ustinov Studio in Bath

From Harry's note book on the evening

From Harry’s note book on the evening

Fifty Words Ustinov Studio, Bath

A calm and domestic scene: she on the phone and he preparing supper. An evening ahead of romance for perfect middle-class New York couple Adam and Jan – secure and relaxed in the knowledge their son is away on a sleepover leaving them all alone. And then it all went wrong. For the next 100 minutes we were treated to an extremely entertaining marital row. There are shouting matches, sulks, screams, slaps and things getting smashed. It was gripping, it was shocking, it was very entertaining. And at times it was very funny with some killer lines and so much insight you wondered if the couple were talking about your relationship rather than their’s.

Once Adam (Richard Clothier) and Jan (Claire Price) started on the wine and they began to blow on the embers of a fire made from the kindling wood of their niggling relationship irritations, the quiet romantic evening turned into the relationship bust up from hell. There is something voyeuristic in eves-dropping on someone else’s bust-up – which is partly why Michael Weller’s play in the Ustinov’s American Season is so enjoyable. Fifty Words is an entertaining play for grown-ups who have been there and thrown that across the kitchen – or at least thought about it. Like all good arguments it’s balanced. First one person in the two-hander play appears to be winning – and then the phone rings, or another revelation slips out – and their partner manages to grab back some of the moral high ground before screwing up their argument with a bout of hypocracy, duplicity or selfishness.

Then there’s the first rate performances from Clothier and Price in this Bath Ustinov production directed by Laurence Boswell. The couple are annoyingly believable, irritating in the extreme but also so true. Clothier on a high seems a 30-something God – pumped up with a washboard stomach and biceps to die for – before shooting himself in the foot with another crass confession when he creases up into a frail skeletal wreck – all wrinkles, ticks and grey hair. While Price projects her self-pronounced superiority complex from behind her laptop with a self-satisfied glow that can only be deflected by an anti-radiation suit. And then she too crumples returning to her spoilt teen inner self spitting threats and insults as though in a hormonal Vodka induced spat.

Their characterisation when not speaking (but simply being) is excellent – their chemistry is about right – indeed they come across as the perfect un-adorable couple as Weller intended. And their kitchen – put it this way – once again the Ustinov’s production values are excellent.

“Every time I touch you, you flinch,” complains Adam who wants to have sex before he catches the early plane in the morning. But having irritated Jan with his less than subtle approach he gets angry when she insists on finishing some work first. “You are such a disappointment,” she snarls when he behaves like a spoilt child – but then swings the audience’s sympathy in Adam’s direction by playing the priggish over-protective “mom” who doesn’t allow her son to be a normal boy or to attempt to understand Adam’s blokishness. Once ignited the argument swings backwards and forwards with Weller’s insightfulness into how married couples know how to hurt each other.

“The marriage is over,” screams Jan. “I wish you weren’t a withholding bitch,” he replies as he pours out his heart. He continues: “I fucking hate feeling so shut out. I can’t stand you.” To which she returns: “You’re pathetic. I hate you.” And so it goes on – but always with a certain dark adult humour. When Jan cut her foot on a broken mayonnaise bottle (that she has smashed when throwing it at Adam) she immediately tells him off: “ I told you not to put glass jars at the front of the fridge.”

Husband and wives going 12 rounds with each other have been one of the stock in trades of theatre for centuries. Think Katherine and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew or Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginnia Woolf? Or even Nora and Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. We love seeing couples work each other over – thinking “there but for the grace of God go we”. And so I entered the cool night air of Bath afterwards and thought – maybe my relationship isn’t so bad after all. Thanks Weller.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Five stars (out of five)

Theatre: Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Sawclose, Bath, North and East Somerset, England BA1 1ET. Box Office: 01225 448844. Website: www.theatreroyal.org.uk

Attendance: Close to a house – mostly a mix of couples and groups of friends aged 30-75.

Reviewed: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Run: Thu 16 May-Sat 15 June

Preview

Adam is a successful New york architect. His wife, Jan is preparing to start an online company. Their beloved nine year-old son Greg (and his hamster, Smoky) is away on his first sleepover. This will be the first evening they’ve had to themselves in years. Time to crack open the Champagne, devour a Chinese meal and get down to rekindling the fires of passion… But this is one extraordinary night wihich will change Adam and Jan’s marriage forever.

This is the night when they say everything there is to say, reveal every dark secret which had been kept hidden and reach new heights of passion and intimacy.

Filled with the humorous banter of a married couple who know exactly which buttons to press, Fifty Words portrays their relationship with searing honesty and in beautifully observed and amusing detail.

Writer: Michael Weller

Cast

Janine – Claire Price

Adam – Richard Clothier

Info

Evenings: Monday – Saturday 7.45pm

Thursday Matinees: 23rd, 30th May, 6th, 13th June 2.30pm

Saturday Matinees: 18th, 25th May,1st, 8th, 15th June 2.30pm

Press Performance: Thursday 23rd May 7pm

Post Show Discussion Thursday 30th May (After evening performance)

Tickets: £19.50 / £14.50 Discounts Preview Performances: (16th-23rd May) and Mondays: All seats £10

Directed by Laurence Boswell

Designer – Simon Kenny

Lighting Designer – Richard Howell

Associate Lighting Designer – Jo Humphries

Sound Designer – Fergus O’Hare

Evenings: Monday – Saturday 7.45pm

Thursday Matinees: 23rd, 30th May, 6th, 13th June 2.30pm

Saturday Matinees: 18th, 25th May,1st, 8th, 15th June 2.30pm

Press Performance: Thursday 23rd May 7pm

Post Show Discussion Thursday 30th May (After evening performance)

Tickets: £19.50 / £14.50 Discounts Preview Performances: (16th-23rd May) and Mondays: All seats £10

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)

Fifty Words Ustinov 2013

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Fri 10 May. Theatre Review: our verdict on Ours Was The Fen Country

Ours was the fen country BOV 2013

Theatre Review: Ours Was The Fen Country at Bristol Old Vic Theatre

When I first heard that Bristol Old Vic was showing a play about the fens involving interpretive dance, I was a little sceptical. A play entitled ‘Ours was the Fen Country’ performed in a theatre in the city seemed to have the potential to be at best, a little patronising to the people of the fens, and at worst, to have totally missed the point of what life there is all about.

I say this because I grew up in the fen country, and the theatre and the fens simply don’t mix. As the promotional literature for the play says, ‘it’s a place of unforgiving winds, black soil […] and a scattering of people whose life is on the edge of existence’. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true, and creator Dan Canham has expressed it well. Old farming industries are fast dying out, and the fens themselves are sinking and blowing away.

Far from making the fen folk appear as other, or the subject of pity, Canham uses their own stories, told in their own words to make the fen experience accessible, and to inspire in the audience an understanding of a lifestyle that is so rarely seen, and so rarely shared with outsiders. The fen folk the play represents, by their own admission, simply want to be left alone. The bare, bleak and flat (so very flat) nature of the fens is described in simple, no nonsense terms by the people who call it home. The scene is set with projected photographs of the great expanse, and then dismantled. The four person performance makes the stories available, and understandable, by speaking the fen folk’s words verbatim to the audience through characters that make their accents and idiosyncrasies more recognisable, and makes their stories in a way more poignant.

Their words become haunting, as if spoken by apparitions through a medium, from far away. The ubiquitous language of the fens, so rarely heard outside it, reveals a wisdom and a bleak poetry that is so unique and close to being lost. It’s the poetry of people who have no time for poetry, who are too busy farming, eel catching, and struggling to make a living out there unseen. The performance and stage is unembellished, and the actors portray beautifully through barely more than words (and dances to the rhythm of those words), the stubborn, hardy pride and sense of tradition that has been passed down through generations of fen folk for thousands of years.

The traditions they speak of are sinking and fading away with the fens themselves, and secrets so rarely written or heard, sinking with them into the black peat soil. So what a great thing to have these words documented and unchanged, and brought to an audience who would most likely be unaware of these people who so rarely and begrudgingly leave their home. The power of this performance is that there is so little added, and nothing taken away. There is a wonderfully apparent respect for nature and the land that is so different from the more palatable hippie view that gets so much more attention – this is the view of the people who actually work the land, and whose livelihood so completely depends upon its retreating surface.

This understanding of nature and the unique skills that have been honed and passed down for so many years is not often heard because the people who possess them so rarely have either the opportunity, or the inkling, to speak about them. The performers brilliantly show thorough dance, dialogue and bleak white lighting that the fen folk will tell their stories, but they don’t care what the city folk, or the theatre goers think about it. Their stories are simply a statement of fact, told as they see it.

Thankfully, and clearly with great empathy and respect as well as an iceberg tip of understanding, Canham and company took the time to listen. As someone who grew up in just the places they are describing, I highly recommend this performance, and hope people see it before all the old wisdom blows away like so much of the fen dust, and becomes lost and forgotten.

Natalie Burns

The play continues tonight and tomorrow with a matinee on Saturday.

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Natalie Burns is a writer and reviewer and lives in Bristol. To find out more about her work visit:

www.knowledgeporridge.co.uk

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2012

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Review: Away with the Fairies. Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol

At first I thought Isobel was talking to me. I was sat in the front row of the Alma Tavern Theatre and the main protagonist in Away with the Fairies seemed to be accusing me of all manner of mischief. Then I realised the batty Scottish farmer (Jasmine Darke) was addressing an invisible troll who appeared for much of the drama to be just a few inches away from me.

The confusion continued in Gill Kirk’s story of grumpy old women as we were introduced to Isobel’s accountant Barbara (Kirsty Cox) and her mother the annoying attention seeking artist Stanley played by Meg Whelan. Which led to a misunderstanding as Stan was commissioned by Isobel to create a sculpture – thinking Stan was a man. This theatre of confusion dealt with misunderstandings between the trio, misconceptions about each other’s nigglesome traits and attitudes. It also lampooned artistic pretentiousness, reversed the roles of mother and daughter and made gentle fun of losing one’s marbles in one’s 50s. Which was all fairly understandable – as to the invisible troll – I think I missed something there.

A split stage with lighting to match, depicting a London art studio and a Hebridean kitchen neatly marked the two lives of the women. And a brisk pace set on the opening night by the actors prevented any awkward moments. Indeed, the trio of actors were good value – at once larger than life and at the same time horribly normal. You could walk past a dozen such women in Boots on any day of the week.

It was lightly amusing and at times poignant. But what this 60 minute long theatre of confusion did do was to… er, confuse. By the end I wasn’t quite sure of the overall point and not totally sure I had followed the story. Other than we discovered the daughter wished to move to rural Scotland, Isobel had almost been ripped off and Stanley made a complete idiot of herself. Perhaps it was me, or perhaps I too was away with the fairies.

Three stars (out of five)

The play runs nightly at 8.30pm until Tuesday, March 31.

Harry Mottram

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2011

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Reviews 2011

Plays are judged on the space, resources available, material, performance and overall artistic interpretation.

5 stars: Brilliant. Theatre at its best – hard to find anything to criticise but everything to praise.

4 stars: Above average production well worth going to see. Some excellent moments.

3 stars: The bench mark of theatre performance. Everything was done well.

2 stars: One or two aspects that let down an otherwise good production.

1 star: Various failings led to a disappointing production – but some positive points.

0 stars: Not yet good enough to be performed – either due to content, script, acting, production or direction.

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Bane 1+2. The Brewhouse Theatre & Art Centre, Taunton, Somerset, England

Joe Bone gives a remarkable performance in this salute to comic book heroes. A true professional of his art, what unfolds before you, as he races about the stage, is a parody of the American gangster movie genre, complete with shoot-outs, fist-fights, poisoning, revenge, and of course the obligatory female distractions. Remarkable it is, because Joe is a solo performer who depicts over 50 characters with no props; using mime and voice alone. His soundscape is outstanding as he voices everything, from the sound of lighting a ‘cigarette’ (so convincing I actually thought I saw smoke!), to an opera diva, to the giant raw of a…..now that would be telling too much. Atmosphere and tension is created with inserts of live guitar, courtesy of Ben Roe.

Writer and creator, Joe tells the story through the eyes of our anti-hero: hard-boiled hired hand Bruce Bane, as he goes about his bloody crime with the fearless tenacity of those boyish comic book capers.

For those of you who might have already seen Bane 1 as a complete production, Bane 2 becomes an extension of the story, essentially the second act of the production. Over two hours of blood, sweat and tears is provided for our entertainment. This is pure theatre: pacey, exhilarating, and raw. In fact, the only thing lacking was a deservedly bigger audience.

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Diane Lukins

Date: Reviewed on Monday, September 19, 2011.

Running Times: Both plays 2hrs; curtain up 7.45pm, interval 8.45pm; restarted 9pm; ended at 10.00pm; 1hr first half, 1hr second half.

Audience: Less than 100 of the 352 seats occupied.

Company: Whitebone Productions. http://www.whiteboneproductions.com; http://www.brucebane.com

Cast:

Bane Joe Bone

Other characters Joe Bone

Musician Ben Roe

Production:

Various guest directors have included Ben Roe, Christian Ebert, William Hartley and Dom Stone

Writer: Joe Bone (1984-)

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches.

Theatre company notes: Bane is a one-man show with a live guitar soundtrack. There are three Bane theatre shows, each follow anti-hero Bruce Bane.

Bane premiered in 2009, Bane 2 in 2010 and Bane 3 in 2011 as part of a Brighton Dome and International Festival commission. Bane was featured on Claudia Winkleman’s BBC Radio 2 Arts Show and BBC Radio 3’s The Verb in May 2011.

Heavily inspired by film and graphic novels, the performance uses mime, gesture and sound effects to conjure the setting, with multiple character switching to create a filmic tapestry on stage that is funny, engaging and at times moving.

Writer and creator Joe Bone plays all of the characters across the trilogy, bringing his comic antihero and tale of bloody revenge to life with just his body, his voice and a stunning live guitar soundtrack from Ben Roe. The shows can be seen separately, either way around, or one after another, and can be booked as stand alone shows or as part of a double bill or trilogy.

Tour Dates: Bane Part Three at Upstairs at Three and Ten, Brighton between Tue 15 November 2011 and Sat 19 November 2011.

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The Crucible. The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The paranoia at the heart The Crucible rings as true today as when it was first performed in 1953. Dissent brings accusation, trial and injustice. From playwrights and actors caught up in a 50s hunt for reds under the bed, to those arrested for trying to tell the truth about The War on Terror, or peace campaigners in Northern Ireland silenced long before the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles. When a society (or a society within a society) decides everyone must conform then truth and justice are casualties along with those who object to the madness.

Written at the height of hearings by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee, Arthur Miller’s brilliant demolishment of the arguments of intolerance centres on the false accusations of witchcraft made by frightened and sexually frustrated teenage girls. These unreliable witnesses are believed by the power hungry clerics in the 17th century America settlement of Salem who wish to glorify themselves in the eyes of their God.

In the recreated Lyric Theatre’s opening production Conall Morrison directs a faithful and gripping version of Miller’s lengthy and at times preachy modern classic in Sabine Linehan’s symphony in wood panelling set. The new auditorium’s timber panelled interior merges into the claustrophobic setting of John Procter’s home, courtroom and prison.

The cast give the production its strength with the subtle and not so subtle human emotions that convincingly bind the relationships together. Patrick O’Kane as a darkly clad sexually attractive John Procter dominates proceedings as the farmer who is slowly drawn into the insanity of the witch hunt through his involvement with his family’s maid the sexually proactive Abigail (Aoife Duffin) as she tries to draw him away from his nice but dull wife Elizabeth (Catherine Cusack).

The black slave Tituba (Angela Phinnimore) is brilliantly unsettling as she desperately tries to wriggle out of the accusations of devilry, while there are further fine performances from Lalor Roddy as Giles Corey and Alan Stanford as Judge Danford adding humour, pathos and injustice in equal measure. Added theatricality is given by the dramatic scene changes incorporating music, sound and lighting as the back wall spins around to reveal another equally darkly timbered setting for the unfolding drama.

Ruairi Conaghan enjoyed himself as the evil witchfinder Rev Hale as he finds the devil’s work practically everywhere – and skilfully conveyed the 18th century biblical arguments that seem so ridiculous today. The firebrand evangelist coupled with a number of Ulster accents in the cast gave uncomfortable overtones of the politics of the last three decades of the province when tolerance of dissenting voices has not always been witnessed. These were perhaps the only reference Morrison makes to the theatre production’s backdrop.

The choice of the troubling story of paranoia in a religiously bigoted community is a pertinent one for the new Lyric Theatre, perched on its dramatic slope overlooking the River Lagan. With Martin Lynch’s Dockers and Janet Behan’s Brendan At The Chelsea to follow, the theatre looks set a successful opening season.

The Crucible continues until 5 June.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Audience: over 90 per cent full house

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Equus. The Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, Somerset, England.

One fights and fornicates, the other analyses and agonises. One fits and swears, the other argues and articulates. Two protagonists: teenage horse mutilator Alan Strang and child psychiatrist Martin Dysart square up to each other in Peter Shaffer’s 1970s psychological drama and brutally deconstruct each other. Or rather the essential story lies in the one unpicking the other and then unpicking himself to a state of nervous collapse.

Michael Cabot’s production for the London Classic Theatre was marked by its ability to command the complete attention of the audience of a packed Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton. A striking amphitheatre set by Kerry Bradley of mock marble curved seating and horses’ heads brilliantly lit by Paul Green is set before a suspended circle of hay and vast crucifix while below are an ever present ensemble cast of eight, dressed in muted colours and casually appropriate costumes. They create a strangely hypnotic atmosphere with their downcast faces – an atmosphere that doesn’t let up until the interval.

Malcolm James as Martin Dysart is dry, direct and disarming as the doctor who attempts to unravel the complexities and contradictions of Alan Strang, played by Matthew Pattimore – a hyper tense knot of contorted teenage angst, constricted by his parents and by his inner sexual demons that mixed in unequal portions Christianity, sexuality and a passion for horses.

Exceptional performances came from Carole Dance as Heather – Dysart’s confidante – Steve Dineen as the bombastic father who bullies and misunderstands his son and Jamie Matthewman as Harry, while Anna Kirke as Alan’s mum added depth to a woman who could have been two dimensional. Aidan Downing was brilliant at the horse Nugget while Helen Phillips as Jill brought a warmth and humanity to her role that so nearly rescued Alan.

It’s a stunning play, known for its nudity and its erotic equestrianism. It’s a modern classic. And in this production the powerful script is combined with a sense of theatre too infrequently experienced.

The production tours nationally until late November. For details and dates visit http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Tuesday, October 18, 2011.

Running Times: 2hrs 5mins; curtain up 7.45pm, interval 8.50pm; restarted 9.20pm; ended at 10.05pm; 1hr 10mins first half, 45 mins second half.

Audience: Around 320 of the 352 seats occupied on its first night.

Company: London Classic Theatre. http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk

Cast:

Nugget Aidan Downing

Alan Strang Matthew Pattimore

Martin Dysart Malcolm James

Nurse Helen Phillips

Hesther Salomon Carole Dance

Frank Strang Steve Dineen

Dora Strang Anna Kirke

Young Horseman Aidan Downing

Harry Dalton Jamie Matthewman

Jill Mason Helen Phillips

 

Production:

Director Michael Cabot

Designer Kerry Bradley

Lighting Designer Paul Green

Costume Designer Katja Krzesinska

Horse Head Construction Julia Jeulin, Fiona Gourlay

Production Manager Kris Snaddon

Technical Stage Manager Kate Wilcock

Assistant Stage Manager Fiona McCulloch

Writer: Peter Shaffer (1926-)

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches.

Theatre company notes:

In a Hampshire stable, a youth blinds six horses with a metal spike.

Convicted of this appalling crime, seventeen-year-old Alan Strang is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist assigned to him, begins to probe Alan’s past in an attempt to understand his motives. Initially the boy is silent and uncooperative, but as Dysart digs deeper, he gradually gains Alan’s trust and the truth begins to emerge.

As Alan struggles to be free of his demons, he must first relive the events of that terrible night.Inspired by a true story, Peter Shaffer’s unique psychological thriller explores the complex relationships between worship, myth and sexuality.

Following in the footsteps of the immense success enjoyed by the play’s West End revival in 2007, Shaffer’s powerful, absorbing drama will the tour the UK in autumn 2011, with a vibrant new ensemble breathing fresh life into his theatrical masterpiece.

Peter Shaffer was born in 1926. His award-winning plays include The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Black Comedy (1965) and Amadeus (1979). Equus won the Tony Award and New York Critics Circle Award for Best New Play in 1977.

DATE VENUE/WEBSITE BOX OFFICE 8-10 September Gala Theatre Durham 0191 332 4041 13, 14 September Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy 01592 583302 15, 16 September Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed 01289 330999 17 September Queen’s Hall, Hexham 01434 652477 20, 21 September Norwich Playhouse 01603 598 598 22-24 September Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield 01484 430528 26-28 September Courtyard Theatre, Hereford 01432 340555 29 Sept – 1 Oct Connaught Theatre, Worthing 01903 206206 4-8 October Oldham Coliseum 0161 624 2829 10-12 October Key Theatre, Peterborough 01733 207239 13-15 October Harlow Playhouse 01279 431945 18, 19 October Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton 01823 283244 20-22 October Theatre Royal, Winchester 01962 840440 1-3 November Lighthouse, Poole 0844 406 8666 4, 5 November Landmark Theatre, Ilfracombe 01271 324242 8, 9 November Buxton Opera House 0845 127 2190 10-12 November Civic Theatre, Chelmsford 01245 606505 14-16 November Central Theatre, Chatham 01634 338338 17-19 November Lincoln Performing Arts Centre 01522 837600 22, 23 November Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre 01429 890 000 26, 27 November Marina Theatre, Lowestoft 01502 533200.

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The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. The Kings Theatre, Cheddar, Somerset.

With its cabbages, cups and colanders, The Fiztrovia Radio Hour is a delightfully dexterous piece of choreography of domestic objects and clipped accents. The objects in question being everyday household items employed to create sound effects for the quintet of spoof radio plays that lovingly send up the era of Special Agent Dick Barton and the Adventures of PC49. Set in the style of a 1940s radio station where dress code is black tie and the actors have plums in their mouths the hour is in fact nearer 85 minutes of high speed comedy.

Set in an On Air radio studio, the cast of five work with scripts in hand to keep the show on the road by speaking rapidly into vintage microphones whilst desperately preparing the next prop and sound effect. It’s highly entertaining for an hour so as the actors bring to life Nazi Firemen in London, The Four Minute Mystery and The House of Clocks amongst other mini dramas as well as adverts for tea and whisky in between.

And that’s it. It’s seamlessly put together with tip top performances from a suave pencil moustached Phil Mulryne, a demure Dorothea Myer-Bennett and a verbally athletic Dan Starkey. The facial expressions of Alex Ratcliffe and Fiona Sheehan particularly enhanced the stories – and more importantly added nuances to the characters’ relationships as they jostled to be on cue and on time. They were simply breath-taking in their comic complexity.

The audience immediately warmed to the pastiche of Empire and the BBC Home Service with its references to tiffin, tea and Johnny Foreigner. Germans are funny, the French even funnier, and as for working class northerners – well they are a hoot from start to finish. And although the show contained a certain amount of irony, implying these ancient stereotypes were ridiculous, the writers didn’t carry it through and debunk them completely. Instead we were only taken so far in the send up of 1940s attitudes.

The show didn’t have a narrative for the five actors who played all the roles. There was no story about the storytellers that could have freed it from the static drama where nothing happens other than the radio plays. This all may seem a little unfair considering the expertise amongst the cast but the Fitzrovia Radio Hour can’t move to another level unless it becomes a play about a play. Or rather plays. It’s essentially an extremely funny sketch that repeats itself for 85 minutes.

It’s warm, it’s affectionate and it’s brilliantly acted. It just needs a story.

The production tours nationally until November 15, 2011. For details and dates visit http://www.fitzroviaradio.com.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Wednesday, November 2, 2011.

Running Time: 40mins first half. 20 min break. 50mins second half.

Times: curtain up 7.35pm, ended at 9.25pm

Audience: Approximately 75 per cent of the 180 seats occupied

Company: Fitzrovia Radio Hour

Cast included: Phil Mulryne, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Alex Ratcliffe, Fiona Sheehan, Dan Starkey.

Director: Phoebe Barran

Writers: Phil Mulryne, Alex Ratcliffe, Martin Pengally, Tom Mallaburn, Jon Edgley Bond.

Script Editor: Martin Pengally

Notes: Show started on time after generous plugs for future shows by promoter.

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The House of Bernarda Alba. The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter, Devon, England

It was hot, claustrophobic and intense. And I’m not talking about the brick-lined underground confines of Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre. Sue Colverd’s take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba stressed the stifling clamminess and the suffocatingly oppressive rule of the family dictator Bernarda Alba (Jude Emmet).

Red Dog’s production centred on the complex rivalries and relationships between the sisters and their mother the dictatorial woman in black. From the opening scene the characters were strongly portrayed by a cast who gave committed and powerful performances despite there being no attempt to give any Hispanic nuances to their accents. The flavour of Iberia was conveyed by music, lighting, film, costume and props. The fans, the shawls and even the chairs were enough to suggest location while Colin Sell’s music and Corin Hayes’s lighting design added further texture to the home of the matriarch whose idea of bereavement was a collective punishment for her daughters and servants.

This was a thoughtfully textural production where the church bell chimed with the lives of those in the household, where singing and dancing blended with the drama to take the audience out of the theatre into the wider space of the Spanish countryside where freedom beckoned. Particularly effective were Barney Haywood’s films which made use of the back screen of Corin Hockley’s neat squared and arched set. Fields of corn*, crowds of cloaked villagers and gushing sea water combined to create the overall sensual atmosphere sought by the director in order to tell the tragic story.

Set in pre-civil war Spain, Lorca’s drama concerns the aftermath of the death of Bernarda’s husband. The widow emotionally punishes her daughters and servants with enforced mourning using violence and humiliation to assert her unreconstructed medieval views of how the world should run. Lorca laced the story with rich symbolism, creating a black and white world in which colour is seen as a sign of rebellion, where water and thirst become confused with repressed sexuality and a desire for personal freedom. It’s a statement against repressive authority; it’s about a backward looking society that fears change, reform and modernisation – a society where women are generally second class citizens kept in a state of servitude. Where marriage is seen as an escape, where female education is not considered; a world ruled by men – or in this case by a compliant widow.

Lace headed Jude Emmet was key in convincing as the dominant Bernardo Alba. She possessed a sense of arrogance in her manner and lizard like look as she snapped and slapped her way around stage, unrealistic in her determination that her daughters would conform to her archaic ideas of womanly duty. Emmet’s strong dry voice and steady look were enough to quash any rebellion.

Colverd used doubling to portray the play’s dozen or so characters with only five actors. Jude also played Magdalena as did Saskia Portway who was also a servant and the eldest daughter Angustias. Saskia as the frustrated and anguished big sister had the necessarily permanent look of someone who was about to be slapped in the face at any moment – eyes cast down from a flushed complexion from the face of a victim. If you could bottle female frustration – then Portway’s performance could be a source.

Kim Hicks spent much of the play scrubbing floors as Poncia – the duplicitous housekeeper. Part family confidant and part lethal informer the character demanded an earthiness that Hicks found with hobbling movement, gossipy voice and a deft ability to stuff food into her pockets as soon as her mistress’s back was turned. A first class performance.

Lorca peoples the play with the damaged and the unconfident. Kate Abraham as the brow beaten Martirio – literally martyr – is in love with the one character we never see – Pepe el Romano. Her portrayal as the grumpy and defensive sister was all twitches, nervous ticks and scratchings. An unlovely but genuine personality desperate for love but destined to disappointment in Abraham’s rustic rolling aproned folds was cringingly true to life.

Speaking of aprons and costumes the outfits were inventive – if a little understated. Choosing mainly black and white colours chimed with the play’s themes of mourning and tradition. Hockley introduced some lovely authentic accessories such as veils and shawls – and the sister’s neo obsession with fabric was strongly conveyed. However the specially printed patterns on the skirts to symbolise the sisters’ interests were perhaps too subtle to catch. The use of fabric on several occasions as physical theatre and as props was one of the show’s strengths.

The fifth member of the cast was Amy Enticknap who doubled up as a beggar woman and the sisters Amelia and Adela. Her main role however was as rebellious Adela, the youngest sister who shocks everyone by wearing a sleeveless green dress embellished with symbolic roses designed by Hockley. Enticknap’s Adela was fired by a combination of fiery temperament and youthful energy, flipping from tears of frustration to sensual lust as the hormonal moments that punctuate Lorca’s script projected her into one set-piece confrontation after another. One moment calm and unflustered, the next an emotionally charged tangle of hair and flaying limbs. Enticknap had the stroppy girl nailed.

Five extremely convincing performances, a director using all aspects of theatre to good effect and a long neglected play that still has something to say about the world. Should it have been updated to an Islamic family in London, a catholic matriarchy in Dublin or a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding extended family in Essex? Perhaps. It would certainly have grabbed more publicity. Instead, Red Dog Theatre chose to give a classical interpretation combined with contemporary performing arts skills to provide an accomplished and polished production in homage to the playwright murdered by fascists in 1936.

The production tours nationally until late November. For details and dates visit http://www.reddog.org.uk

Rating: Four stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Wednesday, October 12, 2011.

Running Time: 1hr 15mins first half. 15 min break. 35mins second half.

Times: curtain up 7.30pm, ended at 9.35pm

Audience: Approximately half full on its second Night.

Company: Red Dog Theatre.

Cast included: Jude Emmet, Kim Hicks, Saskia Portway, Kate Abraham, Amy Enticknap.

Director: Sue Colverd.

Writer: Federico García Lorca. 1898-1936. Spanish.

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches. See separate Q & A on blog. Translated from the Spanish by Kate Littlewood.

*On a technical note my companion on the evening pointed out the fields of corn shown in the film was a modern crop without any weeds. In 1930s Spain the corn would have had a mixture of other invading plants mixed with the corn he said.

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Julius Caesar. Boiling Wells, Bristol, England.

In a wooded valley near St Werburgh’s City Farm, Bristol, I heard the sound of distant screams. Was it some sinister assault on an urban Saturday night in the gathering gloom? Or was it the sound of something unimaginable in the wooden amphitheatre of Boiling Wells?

Suddenly, a large group of scantily-clad young women appeared shouting and screaming threats. Their faces were painted in tribal swirls and in their hands they carried spears. It was the entrance of the Amazons in the Bristol-based theatre group Thrice Three Muses’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Taking a gender flip, all the male parts of the tragic story of Rome’s first dictator were played by women, and the few female parts were acted by slightly timid looking chaps. But then so would you if you were surrounded in a forest by 20 nubile wenches bearing arms and bearing teeth. The testosterone-fuelled drama lost none of its bite in director Ben Hughes-Games’ hands, but instead had a new assertive female dynamic.

This was a fiery production with a series of fast paced tribal gatherings, arguments and confrontations between the famed protagonists. It was more Lord of the Flies than the swords and sandals clichéd versions, with female shrieks and Wimbledon grunts as the Amazonians battled for Rome.

All the main characters gave strong performances. Anna Baker as Julius Ceasar convinced as she dithered and hesitated in entering the senate to meet her killers. And there were excellent characterisations by Jasmine Smart as the tortured Mark Anthony, Sineidin O’Reilly-Nelson as a passionate Casca, and Leanne Everitt as Brutus – giving an impassioned speech in the market place.

Ella Gonzales as Octavius Caesar with her flame-coloured headdress and Sioux Indian feathers gave a wonderfully animated (if at times incomprehensible) performance while Lydia Elizabeth Wilde contrasted as the scheming wily Cassius.

It was refreshing to experience this new femme-friendly version and to see the male actors reduced to supporting roles –Martin Whatley in particular seemed vulnerable as Portia.

Although the fighting is well-choreographed, some of the fights didn’t seem vicious enough, and more violence is needed in the deaths and suicides for the show to live up to the screams and shrieks of the advancing Amazonians. With its hessian and cotton short tunics, dramatic tribal make-up, beaded and plated hairstyles and general leggy Amazon chic, this is a creative and thoughtful take on the fall of Julius Caesar.

The play is part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival and continues until Saturday, July 30, before transferring to the Edinburgh Festival in August.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Three stars.

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Rosie Wilby. The Studio, Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, Somerset, England

Vintage Champagne sipped from a chipped mug is the best way to describe the enjoyably eccentric Rosie Wilby. With her self-deprecation and spiteful bitchy asides Rosie Wilby’s Pop Diary blended delicious volumes of vocals and sparkling stand-up humour. The singer songwriter who achieved modest success for her reflective acoustic sounds at the height of 1990s Britpop, chatted, joked and sang her way through an hour long pre-Edinburgh set in the trendy studio in Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre.

Rosie’s material is essentially her own life with its angsts, oddities and lesbian love affairs – with lots of local colour and modern cultural references from the decade of the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur. Her voice is one part blackberry, one part honey and one part Burgundy – sharp, rich, emotive and slides over the audience with a spellbinding seductiveness.

Alone on stage, save for a few props, a projector and her guitar, Rosie lays bare the missed opportunities of her life and her various fractured relationships. It was just enough but with more plastic 90s props, slides of recognisable 90s icons and maybe more Dillie Keane-esque humour in her songs this could become a five star show. Wilby certainly has the potential for her Champagne of a show to be served in a flute.

Rosie’s Pop Diary continues its tour at the Rondo Theatre, Bath, on Saturday, 17 July.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Two Stars.

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Tom Jones. Redgrave Theatre, Bristol, England.

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s romp through Henry Fielding’s comic 18th century novel is, fun, frenetic and a little confusing. Joan Macalpine’s adaption of the rambling narrative laces the bulging corset of a story into three acts. Act one is essentially a dramatised monologue, act two a bedroom farce and act three the concluding drama – which is fine but director Christopher Scott chose to cast three different Toms for the leading role as well as three Sophia Westerns – the love of his life.

The touring production is a showcase for emerging actors but this generosity of casting meant that inevitably the audience begin to compare one Tom with another rather than concentrating on the plot. For the record Mark Donald in act one has the charm and stage presence for the likeable rake. Isaac Stanmore (act two) has the most sex and comedy, while Jonathan Gibbon in act three is more matinee idol than lusty West Country lad – but then he drew the short straw as he faces the hangman’s noose.

Leigh Quinn as Susan seized the audience’s attention in her comic portrayal of the much put upon but much tipped maid in the coach house in act two. Also bursting with character was Daniel Quinn as the jealous and dangerous Captain Fitzpatrick as he hurled himself into one fight after another, while the disarmingly disheveled Francesca Cundy as Mrs Waters added the tumbled out of bed sex appeal to the socially critical story of illegitimacy, poverty and wealth.

Rebecca Rose’s shadow puppetry was as beautifully evocative as it was unexpected, and like the fights, music and dance sequences it left you wanting a bit more. With lots of local West County references, fabulous costumes and tomorrow’s bright young things, it’s impossible not to enjoy the youthful exuberance of a cast in full bodice-ripping form.

The show is on tour throughout the West Country until early July. For details visit www.oldvic.ac.uk.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

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Treasure Island. Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Bristol, England

There were buccaneers in the toilets, pirates in the bar and scurvy seamen buying ice creams. Some of them were only six years old. With tricorn hats in every row, it was clear the audience were up for a few sea shanties and a Yo-ho-ho and a Bottle of Rum or two.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century novel was staged out in the open seagull-squawked-punctuated air of King Street – just an anchor rope length from the Llandoger Trow – the dockside tavern where old sea salts gave inspiration to many a boy’s own adventure story including Treasure Island.

Sally Cookson’s version strips away much of the narrative and instead stylishly dramatises the fabric and texture of the novel through costume, music, movement and Phil Eddols’ ship-shaped set. Gone are Long John Silver’s negress, the imperial overtones and the muscular Christianity. Instead dramaturg Mike Akers created a collaborative and textural story concentrating on the pirates and in particular the sinuous and salt-stained character of Long John Silver played by Tristan Sturrock.

Sturrock sways and rocks like a seasoned coastal ketch catching the tidal rip in the Bristol Channel. He swoops, he lollops, he spins round. One moment he’s arguing the toss with a glint of menace, the next he’s charming and full of warm words. Dumping the baggage of a century of pirate clichés overboard, Sturrock brings a new and street wise Silver to the stage complete with Cornish accent reminding us of his Knee High Theatre roots. And the director wasn’t afraid of Silver the killer. Twice we see him commit brutal murder – something that both shocked and grabbed the children in the audience. Sturrock is the show’s great success.

A slightly hesitant Jonny Weldon as Jim Hawkins failed to reach out to the children in the audience at first. It was only as his relationship with Silver developed that the children around me began to identify with him. And his meeting with Ben Gunn (plyed with suitable eccentricity by Saikat Ahamed) was a cross roads for his character with the realisation he was actually smarter than the adult Gunn – a feeling that all children experience sooner or later. By the end he was the young adventurer whose escapades have inspired many a childhood fantasy.

In an ensemble production Zara Ramm had a neo-balletic death as the suspicious Israel Hands, Howard Coggins was a wonderfully camp Squire Trelawny, while Craig Edwards was the earnest Dr Livesey and Ian Harris (Captain Smollet and Captain Flint) completed a strong cast with a schooner full of personas.

The lasting theme of this exciting production is the haunting and at times jolly blend of traditional and original music of Benji Bower. Fifteen men on a Dead Man’s Chest, Marry Me, Marry Me Rose, and I’ve Got A Secret That’s Never Been Told, were performed with such power and feeling, that the audience leaves the specially constructed theatre singing, humming and tapping the tunes. Not a bad endorsement.

It’s one of the best things the Bristol Old Vic has done in terms of children and family theatre in recent years – and something they must do again to make the most of the cobbled and gabled setting of King Street.

The show continues until 26 August.

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

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2010

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King Lear

(RSC)

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Reviewed 3 March 2010. Rating: 5 stars

Run time: 3 hours 35 mins with 20 interval

Dates: until 26 August. Reviewer: Rupert Bridgwater

All kings need a fool, and in Kathryn Hunter, David Farr has found a fool for all time. Male and yet female, old and yet young, quirky but classically turned out – complete with jester’s hat. A fool’s fool. A fool of a fool. A fabulous fool. And with her rickett-riddled form, she neatly couples up with Greg Hicks as a raggedly robed King Lear to create a visually stunning rain soaked duo on the drenched heath of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

This is a sensuously rich production where sound, lighting and design combine to evoke the dark world of truth, lies, deceit and disguise. A set that revels in its grunge as it changes from earthy shabbiness to industrial harshness and decay.

Evocative crackling lighting and sharply defined sounds that matches the words, the speeches, the mood and the ebb and flow of the story, so precisely. This is a magnificent all round production.

To contrast the old and the new, the past and the future, King Lear’s contemporaries were dressed in early medieval garb of a mythical Albion, while the inheritors were clothed in early 20th century costumes ready for trench warfare or Edwardian drawing rooms. The three sisters wore medieval inspired romantic evening gowns that blended with both eras.

Greg Hicks’ fluent and emotive voice dominated the auditorium. A King Lear that reached the heights of self-loathing and the depths of base bile and vivid vindictiveness with a breath-taking range. Charles Aitken as Edgar transformed from jaunty jovial innocent to neo-naked Old Testament nakedness as Poor Tom. Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater) also seized attention in his vicious treatment at the hands of the sadistic Cornwall (Clarence Smith) and Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and his search for blind redemption on the cliffs of Dover.

Katy Stephens as Regan and Kelly Hunter as the ungrateful sisters established their characters with fearful clarity and an easy evil elegance. Their younger sister, the truthful Codelia whose refusal to flatter her father leads to the earth shattering fall-out was given a righteous dimension in her final scenes of battle and capture.

Here was a cast that told their stories with clarity – an ideal production for students and seasoned fans alike. From Hunter’s flipparty fool to the vocally muscular Darrell D’Silva as Kent, each actor played their part in this most epic and most complex of tragedies. A story well-told.

Cast list

BEN ADDIS – King of France
FRANCES BARBER – Goneril
ADAM BOOTH – 1st Knight
ZOE BOYLE – Goneril’s Lady in Waiting
RUSSELL BYRNE – Doctor
NAOMI CAPRON – Maid
MONICA DOLAN – Regan
ROMOLA GARAI – Cordelia
WILLIAM GAUNT – Gloucester
RICHARD GOULDING – Knight
JULIAN HARRIES – Albany
JOHN HEFFERNAN – Oswald
PETER HINTON – Duke of Burgundy
JONATHAN HYDE – Kent
MELANIE JESSOP – 2nd Gloucester Servant
GERALD KYD – Soldier
SEYMOUR MATTHEWS – Curan
SYLVESTER McCOY – Fool
IAN McKELLEN – King Lear
BEN MEYJES – Edgar
DAVID WESTON – Gentleman
GUY WILLIAMS – Cornwall
PHILIP WINCHESTER – Edmund
Creative team
Director TREVOR NUNN
Designer CHRISTOPHER ORAM
Lighting NEIL AUSTIN
Sound FERGUS O’HARE
Music STEVE EDIS
Fight Director MALCOLM RANSON

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2009

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We All Fall Down. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

It’s a frightening tale of a child all alone in an adult world. A child called Simon who must outwit Lucifer himself and return to his village with a cure for the plague.

For a small child We All Fall Down may be a little bit too scary. The cast frequently shout out their lines and create threatening scenes of violence and death – all in the interests of a good story you understand. But there’s a lack of subtlety in the show’s structure where the many bangs, crashes and raised voices could have done with the quieter scenes being given greater length, depth and dialogue to provide contrast. Children may have short attention spans, but not as short as the director Amy Leach clearly feels.

Enmasse Theatre’s production style is exuberant and imaginative. Using basic props they tell the story at high speed and great gusto. Their movement and characterisation are brilliant. John Biddle as Simon and Alexandra Maher as Chino mesmerise, while the rest of the cast of Celia Adams, Oliver Birch, Christopher Doyle and Erica Guyatt give all they have: their ensemble and individual performances were outstanding. Live music, song, dance, physical theatre and puppetry are used to convey not only Simon’s journey, but numerous earthy in-jokes and running sub-plots that appeal to children and adults alike.

The dark scenes of Hell provide some of the memorable moments: all done with out anything more high tech than masks and cloaks.

The show is at The Egg Theatre, Bath, 12-17 October.

4/5

Harry Mottram

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2008

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Blue/Orange. The Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

A trio of testosterone-powered protagonists. Humourless earnest Doctor Bruce who is convinced mental health patient Chris is a suicidal danger to society, and smoothy consultant Robert who wants to free up a bed by discharging Chris early.

Essentially, to quote Robert, Joe Penhall’s blistering argument of a drama “comes down to semantics”. It’s how the two white medics interpret vulnerable black fantasist Chris’s language and how he sees the world and himself, while he in turn fails to understand their banter, jokes and post colonial prejudices of the noughties. With just a water cooler for company, and some chairs, Danielle Bassett’s set looked like any office meeting room. A perfect stage for the 100 minute set too. Funny, witty and always to the point, director Sam Berger unleashed the cast and let them slug it out to the compulsive, gurgling, bubbling, blue-oranged sucking end. Christopher Tester as Bruce was suitably unspeakable, Colin Dunkley as Chris was unsettling convincing as the sectioned patient, and Chris Bianchi enjoyed himself as the suave careerist Robert who had all the best lines and represented everything that’s wrong in the NHS.

The play continues until Saturday.

Harry Mottram. 8/10

Murder most cosy

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

And Then There Were None. Theatre Royal, Bath, March 10-15, 2008.

I knew who the murderer was. He was in the bar at the interval. His moustache and distinguished appearance were give-aways. Or was it the slightly over-excited lady having a coffee next to him? She looked a bit manic. I’m sure she knew how to use a dagger. And there was a gruff looking bloke standing on his own with a gin and tonic. Obviously a maniac with a penchant for using blunt instruments or piano wire to dispose of unwelcome guests.

It was quite alarming. All around there were suspects. I gripped my wife Linda’s arm and hoped none of them would think I should be bumped off. That’s the trouble with Agatha Christie, you end up suspecting everyone.

Almost every member in the audience that night, seemed indistinguishable from the cast of And Then There Were None. I’ve never seen so many blazers, handlebar moustaches, twin-set and pearls, colonial safari jackets and evening gowns. It appeared the clock had been turned back and we were transported for an evening back to a more elegant age. A time when gentlemen dressed for dinner and women in silk gowns discharged revolvers with deadly accuracy, after a glass of sherry in the drawing room.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production of the eponymous author’s whodunnit played to a packed (if slightly elderly) audience in Bath’s Theatre Royal. The set was the elegant front room of a country house located on an island off the Devon coast. The simplicity of the story relies on the isolation of the island being cut off from civilisation, a single room as the set, and of a cast of ten people who are slowly bumped off one-by-one throughout the play. There’s no detective. The characters are left to try and work out who it is amongst them that is the murderer. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the director Joe Harmston failed to make use of all of the ingredients. This story should have gripped from the beginning, and with all the resources of the theatre available, the play should have had us all on the edge of our seats from the off. It was only the final third of the drama that succeeded in producing the necessary tension. Up until then, I was not the only person to feel I was being lulled into an early evening sleep as the motionless cast outlined the complex plot. Not enough movement or action. It was all a little too cosy and comfortable. After all, we are supposed to be witnessing the deaths of nine people.

The cast were however (without exception) excellent. The distinctive creaking-door-type voice of Gerald Harper as Sir Lawrence Wargrave gave just the right edge to the sinister character’s stage persona, while Alex Ferns enjoyed himself immensely as the gung-ho Captain Philip Lombard. Denis Lill was enjoyably ridiculous as bent-detective William Blore, and Chloe Newsome relished her troubled-female-with-a-past as Vera Claythorne. Mark Wynter’s mad doctor was suitably unhinged, as was the dotty spinster played with clicking knitting needles and clipped vowels by prim Jennifer Wilson. The audience particularly liked the high tempo wizard-whizz voice and character of Bob Saul (who had all too short a role before being done-in), while Peter Byrne as an old codger, Micahel Gabe as the boatman, Gary Richards as the butler and Doris Zajer as the cook all convinced.

Simon Scullion’s set was particularly impressive. It’s an enormous space to fill at the Theatre Royal, and I have seen some unconvincing interiors designed for the stage there, but this one succeeded. Partly with help from Mark Howett’s lighting, the set didn’t overwhelm the cast, and made use of a large circular French window overlooking the sea. It somehow seemed to create the intimacy needed.

Agatha Christie’s novels suck you into their sinister world – all the more scary as they are set in such comfortable surroundings. But here, the comfiness got in the way. More shock, more horror and more blood were needed along with a bit more movement and pace – especially in the opening scenes.

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2007

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Asian Comedy Night, Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Under rehearsed and underperformed. The Asian Comedy Night’s warm-up for Edinburgh was far too much like work in progress. It was taken as read that it would be a bit rough in places and lacking a little polish but with the annual fringe festival only days away, one hopes the three comedians on the bill will sparkle in Scotland rather more than they did in Southville.

First up was Jason Kavan whose came across as a likeable bloke-down-the-road character but who seemed completely hung up on race and women. Although he had a neat delivery of stories from his own life his set never really got going as his stories relied too much on accidental female put-downs. One really good story well told would have been preferable to various bits and pieces. He needed to give his set some structure and character as he didn’t give a clear impression of his stage persona.

Ayesha Hazarika was the second performer and she quickly told us she was a Glaswegian Moslem using her unusual upbringing for material. Like Kavan however, she kept apologising for her background which kept getting in the way of her material. Although she had a stronger stage presence and was more polished than her predecessor, she needed to move onto different subjects instead of harking on about racial prejudice in Scotland and her life as a racially abused school girl.

Paul Chowdry topped the bill with a patchy performance. At times he seemed to have got the audience on his side, whilst at others he alienated them. Why a comic feels he must pick on people in the audience for no reason I don’t know. It makes you feel on edge and embarrassed for them – and in Paul’s case it just didn’t work – killing the humour dead.

All three had a slightly patronising tone towards their Bristol audience. The Tobacco Factory’s patrons are sophisticated urban theatre goers who aren’t impressed by people who say they live in London. All they wanted was for the comedians to concentrate on their material and give polished performances. Instead we had three stand-ups who needed to work a lot harder if they want to crack the fringe.

Two stars.

Harry Mottram

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Black Atlas. Kuumba Arts Centre, Bristol.

This is a black diamond of a show. And with a little TLC, marketing and more money it could and should be a worldwide hit. The writing is crisp, the presentation powerful, the acting is strong and the singing of Roger Dunklee is out of this world. It’s that rare and beautiful thing: a play about black male masculinity. Yes, it’s a play about slavery, racism and the brutality of 17th century society. But it’s more than that. It goes to the heart of what makes a man tick and how he can express himself through his body and mind.

Black Atlas is the story of the boxer Tom Molineaux, (Fabian Spencer) an American slave who wins his freedom in the ring. It charts his rise and fall as he moves to England where he eventually fights the champion boxer Tom Cribb. Adapted by Bruce Wall from the novel of the same name by George McDonald Fraser, the play is performed ensemble style with an all male cast of eight, supported by two musicians including the composer Tim Williams on electric piano. Performed by members of The London Shakespeare Workout, the cast wore the same black trousers and white t-shirts with a minimum of costumes and props relying on their voices and bodies to bring the numerous characters to life. The use of the cast to interchange and to add emphasis to particular words and phrases gave the production a power and an accent that kept the audience on its toes. Darren Raymond as Tom’s manager had presence, Bristol Old Vic Theatre school graduate Oliver Hume was on vowel crunching form as the rascally captain Buck and Peter Eastland as Tom’s trainer, hit the right tone as a the street wise, all knowing Paddington Jones.

Four stars

Harry Mottram

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Cider with Rosie. Exeter, Rougemont Gardens.

The cast could have done with a little more cider such was the flatness of much of Steve Bennett’s production. Laurie Lee’s sojourn into the Gloucestershire poverty of his childhood may have been sentimental but it is filled with intoxicatingly evocative images of a lost rural age. But this pastoral and folklore filled world for long periods of the Northcott Community Company’s dramatisation of Cider with Rosie seemed to evaporate in the vast setting. Too many small voices and performances on a large set which evoked little of 1920s England. The set had been previously used by the Northcott’s production of Macbeth, and had not been altered enough to even give a hint of the Cotswolds, without a dry stone wall, hay bale or blade of grass in sight. We didn’t expect a thatched cottage, but the odd visual clue could have helped take us mentally to the Slad valley. Other disappointments included the lack of music and dance in a production that only really came alive during the few moments of ensemble work.

The recollections are seen through the eyes of the narrator under-played by Andrew Dean, who lacked the charisma and stage presence to pull off the central roll. Fortunately Tom Welch as Loll (the young Laurie) was strong and extremely energetic – a performance that just about saved the production from disaster. His two brothers, Jack (Peter James) and Tony (Noah Mosley) were also excellent, and together with the three sisters (Terry Charles, Lucy Townsend, Georgina Trevor) created some strong interaction in the many domestic scenes. However, Laurie’s mother played by Frankie Woodhams, simply didn’t have the volume to fill the outdoor arena, with many of her words disappearing behind the competing sounds of seagulls and magpies.

Claire Redwood as the eccentric singing baroness made the most of her moment, and Annabel Potter was consistently strong in her various roles as a school girl and Mrs Pimbury.

Steve Moore as Spadge Hopkins was good value although his death scene was directed with a limpness that took away the shock of the latent rustic violence of the villagers.

Highlights included the social duel between Granny Trill (Janet Hookway) and Granny Wallon (Gill Cree) with an excellent funeral scene using the entire cast to create the type of ensemble work one had had hoped for in the play. Other scenes that worked well included the day trip to Weston-super-Mare and the finale where the cast emerged out the beautifully lit backdrop of the garden’s arboreal canopy of trees.

Unfortunately not enough was made of Loll’s moment of fumbling lust with Rosie played by Liz Clark. Nothing wrong with the two actors, but the time and attention devoted to this the title scene, was like a jug of non-alcoholic cider: it need a bit of “oomph”. It’s a short scene but a pertinent one and it summed up this production. It promised much, but like so much rural teenage sex, didn’t quite live up to its billing.

Harry Mottram

Three stars

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High farce or high fluff?

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

How The Other Half Loves at the Bath Theatre Royal. Directed by Paul Farnsworth.

Alan Ayckbourn’s swinging sixties farce is like those compilations of 60s hits. Fun, but ultimately nothing but fluff, without everything else that gave the decade its meaning.

In this, the last play in the Sir Peter Hall season at the Bath Theatre Royal, we get a rattling good production directed by Alan Strachan who has a cast you could stake your life on, such is their sublime skill. Nicholas le Prevost as dopey but upright Frank seemed born to the role of the cuckold who gets the wrong end of every stick. His wife Fiona played by a supremely elegantly dressed Marsha Fitzalan had vast depths of shallowness with which to serve up at her dinner party of embarrassments.

Ayckbourn hit on a brilliant idea. Take two households and have them share the same set but act in different time zones inter-twining the conversations because they centred in general on the hapless Featherstones. Paul Kemp and Amanda Kemp gave the required caricatures for this pathetic but hilarious couple, superbly illustrating a husband-rules-the-roost relationship that was all too common 30 years ago. It was often their expressions and movement which brought the biggest laughs.

The play reminded my of Schafer’s farce, Black Comedy, in the simplicity of its main theatrical conceit. Instead of a powercut we get a split set so we can see both homes at the same time. Designer Paul Farnsworth pulled off the us-and-them set, with slobby second-hand furniture for the Phillips and what passed for class in the decade that gave us plastic furniture in the Foster’s home.

Richard Stacey and Claudia Elmhirst as the Phillips, lent the drama a certain kitchen sink grittiness with much shouting and tea cup throwing, but their love-hate relationship was never allowed by the writer to let reality get much of a look in.

So what was it all about? Incredibly, the main plot is completely lost in the drama. Fiona has a one-night stand with Bob and they both come up with the same alibi: the social outcasts, the Featherstones. Unwittingly they choose people who have just been thrust into the limelight due to Mr Featherstone’s promotion at work. Fiona and Bob tell their separate partners they met up with either William or Mary for a drink and chat. They add for authenticity’s sake that they understood the Fetherstone’s relationship was on the rocks. Believing them, bungling Mr Foster and interfering Mrs Phillips, decide to invite the Fetherstones to dinner on different nights. The conniving lovers’ story quickly falls apart and we are taken along all manner of diversions in a comedy of manners and misunderstandings. Indeed, the complexities of the plot take precedence to the point that the original story is left undigested like Mrs Phillip’s chicken noodle soup.

The first half is fast and furious with so many laughs that you are left feeling exhausted by the interval. Then the play seemed about to really get going with randy Bob seemingly pursuing Mary the mouse. It never happens and soon we are back in the farcical comings and goings which require doors to be opened and shut to allow for the never-ending entrances and exits. It’s funny, but it kind of runs out of steam as you realise it’s only a farce and not a serious take on the sixties, just fluff.

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Hoof. The Egg, Bath.

Clip, clop, clip, clop. Enter Niki McCretton as a pony with a problem. Her little girl owner has turned into a teenager and finds boys more interesting than ponies. She’s a neglected mare, who escapes from her wooden paddock and sets off to find a herd in America. McCretton is a polished, likable and versatile performer. Switching effortlessly between storyteller, puppeteer, dancer and actor with the swish of her tail.

Playing to a sell out audience of reception aged children and their parents, the show followed her previous one-woman show Muttnik, The First Dog In Space. Directed by Amit Lahav and Helen Baggett, the show didn’t quite have the versatility of Muttnik or the structure. However there was much to appreciate and the audience were entertained by the boundlessly energetic performer.

The presentation was faultless but the story rambled and became too involved with a puppet called Inchhigh Cowboy Guy, and some flies. It was during Niki’s stumbling conversations with these characters that the audience of tinies became slightly restless. Their interest always picked up with any audience participation and became transfixed when the performer did what she is best at: dancing and telling the story through movement of a pony on a journey of self-discovery. .

7/10.

Harry Mottram

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Little Nell. Bath Theatre Royal.

Harry Mottram saw Sir Peter Hall’s production at Bath’s Theatre Royal and wondered if a more intimate setting would have helped the adaption of Simon Gray’s radio play.

Simon Gray took 35 years to write Little Nell and frankly he shouldn’t have bothered if it was meant to be staged on this scale. There’s so little drama in the play, the story maybe perfect for radio but on the stage it becomes becalmed. It’s a play of looking back and of reflection and regrets – not action.

Partly inspired by Claire Tomalin’s book, The Invisible Woman, The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. Sir Peter Hall’s production lacks movement and remains as confined and restricted as the Victorian’s whale bone stays that so confined and restricted the role of women in 19th century society.

Save for a couple of trees and a bit of park railing plonked in the middle, the set is a legal office complete with desk and chairs, oak panels and piles of leather bound books. It represents Sir Henry Dickens’ (Barry Stanton) office. Who the Dickens is he? Apparently he’s the son of the great novelist behind Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Christmas Carol and The Old Curiosity Shop. That’s the one that features Little Nell. She lives in a shop with her grandfather and the couple are persecuted by relatives and swindlers which eventually leads to Little Nell’s death. However, we mustn’t confuse this Little Nell with Little Nell of the title of Simon Gray’s play. She merely shares the same nickname.

The Little Nell in this play is Nelly Ternan (Loo Brealey), who in real life had a 13 year long hooped-petticoat-fumbling affair with Charles Dickens (Michael Pennington), mothering little Geoffrey (Charles’ wife had already given birth to several drawing rooms full of tiny Dickens) and remained his lover until his death.

Simon Gray’s drama concerns her relationship with the writer and her feelings of guilt and pre-liberated female frustration with her complex life. For after the writer died of a stroke in her arms he was whisked back home to officially snuff it in the bosom of his family. This tells you all you need to know about their relationship.

Victorian society was a hypocritical patriarchy in which women were denied a voice and a meaningful role. No vote, no property rights, not much influence. Today Nelly would have had control over her own fertility and a choice through education and employment opportunities through which to express herself as an actor or anything she wanted to be. She was a bright young thing. Instead she was caught in an impossible situation.

A smart, pretty and witty actor, she hooked up with the world’s most famous man. He was infatuated with her. Dickens was the father figure of safe and respectable families. It was a lie. Instead he was funding secret homes in Slough and Peckham where he could carry on his clandestine affair with Nelly. He was 45, married with a family, while Ellen was 19.

Set in Sir Henry Dickens’ office the narrative is a conversation between Henry (Dickens’ son) and Geoffrey (his illegitimate son from his affair with Ellen). Geoffrey (Tim Piggott-Smith) wants to know about his parent’s relationship, and Henry obliges by telling him the story of their affair. As he does so, a series of incidents from the past are acted out in front of them. They disappear into the gloom while other parts of the office are lit for the rest of the cast to bring the story to life. The acting is brilliant. Barry Stanton as Sir Henry and Tim Piggott-Smith as Geoffrey maintain a sensitive and revealing conversation, Michael Pennington manages to not send up Dickens and Loo Brealy as Nelly Ternan steers a course between coquettishness and genuine affection, coupled with soul searching later in the play.

I couldn’t help feeling the play needed a more intimate setting. A small studio theatre would have allowed this play of adult angst with little dramatic action to achieve greater resonance rather than in the grand setting of Bath’s Theatre Royal. It’s a thoughtful play which doesn’t really grip, despite the subject matter. And beware, the 90 minute drama doesn’t have an interval, you might find yourself nodding off or wishing you hadn’t had that second glass of wine.

The play continues in rep until July 28.

Harry Mottram

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Othello. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Iago should make you shiver. One part charm, one part scheming and two parts evil, the manipulative and poisonous ensign should leave an audience with the feeling they are watching a premier division baddie at work. But Chris Donnelly’s Iago leaves one wondering why a group of seemingly intelligent Venicians could be so stupid to fall for his unconvincing plans. To fool the great warrior and charmer Othello the Moor into believing his wife was unfaithful takes some cunning. Perhaps I’m being harsh but unless you are close to the stage it is hard to see the actor’s facial expression. Seen from afar this Iago wouldn’t have convinced Othello that Desdemona cheated at cards.

Playing the part in the round, the actor’s face was clearly Iago but his body language was static and lacked expression. He really needed to put himself about a bit. And there’s plenty of space to do it on Chris Gylee’s simple patio set. In contrast Saskia Portway as Desdemona was the wronged woman from her toes to her lustrous Pre-Raphaelite hair. And as for her father Brabantio (Paul Nicholson), I’m quite convinced he was her dad such was his wrath at being awoken in the middle of the night to be told his daughter was “making the beast with two backs” by Iago.

Shakespeare In The Tobacco Factory’s production of the bard’s tragedy of jealousy and spite peppered with a toxic potion of racial tension is set in the late 19th century, complete with frock coats and high collars, corsets and bustles, and acres of facial hair. Director Andrew Hilton speeds the story on its way with efficiency, simplicity and a deft touch in utilising every inch of the space in The Tobacco Factory. The flagstone floor layout arrangement with an audience on four sides meant everyone could see most of the action – even if some of the most exciting sequences seemed to always take place behind a pillar.

And excitement was the word. The play has ample opportunity for action and Hilton didn’t miss a trick. Desdemona’s death scene was stunning in its horror. I knew Othello was going to strangle her but I still suddenly shrank back in my seat at the injustice and violence. And Kate Waters take a bow. The fight director designed one of the best sword fights you’ll see in a theatre – with tables and chairs flying and the clash of steel just inches away from the front row.

And what about the sexy lovers, black Othello and desirable Des? Well, they weren’t exactly trying to get into each other’s knickers but they made a handsome couple. Leo Wringer as Othello and Saskia Portway as Desdemona were first rate. In this production Othello was not so much a green-eyed monster, but a strutting, salivating one as he sprayed the cast with globules of spittal during his frequent outburts. It may not be good manners but it showed he cared.

Lucy Black as Iago’s wife Emilia, “the villainous whore” and Saskia, gave us some high octane moments of drama, especially the scene where they talk about adultery in act four. Girls, you didn’t let us down. They simply acted their hairpieces off.

Philip Buck was in fine form as the honourable lieutenant Cassio who pips Iago to promotion, while tubby new comer Bryon Mondahl was excellent as the twittish Roderigo who falls for every ruse Iago pulls. Alan Coveney’s face should be set in clay as the theatre’s mask emblems of tragedy and comedy, so deeply engrained are his smile and grimace lines. As the Duke and also Montano he only has to appear on stage to know there’s drama afoot. Phoebe Beacham as Bianca, would in the real world surely have no problem landing Cassio, but in this story he’s impervious to her honeyed charms. There was also strong support from John Walters as Gratiano, Russell Bright, Nicholas Gadd and Morgan Philpott as soldiers, and Paul Currier as Lodovico as the Venetician, who has to metaphorically wash the duvet of all the blood and spit at the end. A big job in Hilton’s audience pleasing production.

Harry Mottram

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The Play What I Wrote. Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton. Four Stars.

As brilliant as Kim Metcalf is at playing Kim Metcalf, I felt Anthony Hoggard did her better. The former Eastender (Sam Mitchell) and Andrew and Greg’s special guest was treated to a whole range of characterisations from the soap opera by Hoggard. Like all the celebrities who appeared in Morecambe and Wise’s shows she was teased, cheeked and generally treated like she was someone awful.

This play about a double act about a play about a double act was effectively an ode to the amazing ratings of 1970s comedy. In particular it celebrated Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who dominated the Christmas viewing figures for the best part of decade, managing to notch up 28m viewers in 1977. The near sell-out audience of mainly 40 and 50 somethings lapped up the neo-Morecambe-and-Wise-isms in a drama about two men trying to find success and artistic integrity.

Andrew Cryer wants to do a tribute show about the famous duo while Greg Haiste wants to perform his Ernie Wise-type play about the French Revolution complete with a special guest. Anthony Hoggard kept the plot spinning along with a series of hilarious characterisations and asides. A witty script, as many of Morecambe and Wise’s most famous jokes and sketches that could be performed by four people and of course heart-warming songs like Bring Me Sunshine lit up the faces of the audience.

With such rich material, the 20th century’s most popular double act, many visual gags and a few surprises (the appearance of Kim Metcalf to name but one), this is a show that sends you out into the night laughing, and wondering what ever happened to that innocent age when there were only three television channels.

The Play What I Wrote, has been a smash hit since it was first penned by Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, using much of Eddie Braben’s TV material, gaining an Olivier Award and a run on Broadway. Kenneth Branagh was the original director. Michael Gyngell was the man at the helm in this production, and he maintained the spirit of Morecambe and Wise and the era they seemed to sum up with consummate ease.

Harry Mottram

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Ramayana. Bristol Old Vic Theatre. April 11-28, 2007.

David Farr’s Ramayana goes about as far east as the white cliffs of Dover. The writer and director kept his production firmly planted in a familiar Anglo Saxon world complete with regional accents and earthy expletives. Stephen Ventura as the King of the monkeys, set an enjoyable and accessible style of language set several thousand miles away from the poet Valmiki’s 24,000 verses written more than 2,000 years ago. More mystery play than Hindu poetry, the story rattles along with much knock about humour, occasional mystic moments and the exotic mythical world of ten headed kings, loyal brothers and an incredibly stupid woman called Sita played by Vanessa Ackerman. Which is where this reviewer takes issue with the production. Only two female actors in a cast of seven? Women seemed under-represented giving the whole play a rather masculine feel. Sita was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. When you think of all the possible amazing effects that make-up, hair and costume can produce, poor Vanessa Ackerman was under equipped for her role as siren of the forest. She simply didn’t convince us that she had starved herself for three months at one stage, when she clearly well fed. Eve Magyar was also strangely cast. As the stroppy Keikey, she seemed perfectly selfish and manic, but then was given the role of lusty old Ravana who is determined to rape Sita. Meanwhile, his sister Shurpanhaka was played by Stephen Ventura in a scene which defined the production. A pantomime dame attempting to seduce male members of the aristocracy. It was very funny, and took us away from any pretence of a purist ode to the works of Valmiki. To give us a feel of the original setting the director used music provided by Shrikanth Sririam and a set of bamboo poles representing a jungle.

So what’s Ramayana all about? It’s essentially several books of poetry the adventures of the noble moralist prince Rama in trying to liberate his wife beautiful Sita from the clutches of the evil Ravana who keeps her captive on an island. Without an army of his own, Rama enlists the help of Sugriva (Ventura) and his army of monkeys to do battle with Ravana’s soldiers. Eventually Sita is freed, but has to be burnt on a fire to prove her love for her husband – which is testing loyalty to extremes.

The monkeys really help to make this production come to life. Richard Simons, Nicholas Khan and Stephen Ventura had their monkey personas just right. Comical, physical and always ready to fall over the monkeys were the stars. They also provided an excellent battle scene involving the entire cast with some lovely knock about business.

What puzzled was that the rest of the characters had so little movement and physicality in comparison. When you consider the wonderful styles of dance and movement from India (just hink Bollywood) there was definitely a feeling of stiffness about much of the movement – except for the monkeys of course. Kolade agboke as Rama’s loyal brother Lakshman was the exception, as he angrily stomped around the stage condemning the foolishness of his blue-blooded piers.

With such material and subject matter I was surprised to see such a low sari count in the audience. Considering Bristol’s large asian community I had expected a little more interest from residents with an Indian subcontinent heritage. There was strong applause at the end but it was slightly muted as the finish comes as a slight surpise. In such a rambling story, there is not the usual circular narrative shape that propels the story to a dramatic conclusion.

Harry Mottram

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Riverdance. Bristol Hippodrome.

Two conflicting feelings. One was of disappointment at the tired formulaic nature of the show. The second was of complete awe at the brilliance of the dancers.

Contradictory and confusing, yes. With its over-hyphed iconic status in modern culture, not surprising.

Riverdance is undeniably a historic landmark in modern dance shows, of Irish culture’s global influence, and of how television and can change our perceptions of people and countries. I remember watching Eurovision in 1994, the night Riverdance was first screened as the interval entertainment during the televised competition. Ireland had won Eurovision and were hosting the finals live on TV. Instead of a safe and predictable piece of entertainment, Riverdance swept away conventions and made Celtic culture cool. It was dance, rythmn, different and subtely sexy. Led by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, the dance performance was simply a sensation. I called out to my wife Linda who was making a cup of tea to come and watch the show. With the high kicking, enchanting mesmerising drum and fiddle music, the thighs and the flowing hair, the flat stomachs and the youthfulness of the dancers, the show had that X-factor: Celtic mysticism. It was intoxicating.

The rest is history. Michael and Jean became superstars. The stage show was born, and the Riverdance phenomenon has toured the world and has spawned all manner of offshoots and tribute shows.

And so it was with this heritage that I sat down in a sell-out (and slightly too warm) Hippodrome to watch the famous dance show.

This time there would be no Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, but a troupe led by Niamh Eustace and Alan Scariff.

Using graphics featuring the sun and the moon as linking motifs, the voice over narrative linked together a series of scenes stretching from Ireland to New York and from Spain to Russia.

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The Seed Carriers. Tobacco Factory.

Enter the strange world of Stephen Mottram’s puppetry and you enter into nightmarish vision of mankind. Eerie music and sound, gothic shadows and lighting, a sinister and threatening atmosphere, a world inspired by the plague masks of Medieval Europe and visions of a Dante-esque hell. Masked predators catch and consume human-like creatures and empty their bodies of life-giving contents. New creatures are created out of their body-parts: wading birds, hens, spiders. These in turn take their place in a cycle of life and death. And it’s all controlled by the puppet master and manipulator: Stephen Mottram. His deft touch, his pace and his subtlety of movement create the pace, the emotion and the darkness. Who is this black-clothed man who is seen throughout the production moving his puppets, adjusting the set and putting the Seed Carriers to work? Is he a darkly sinister manipulator of a hellish vision of the future? Somebody who you wouldn’t want to invite round after dark in case he snapped your body in two and turned you into an insect?

No. Afterwards, he gave a talk about what he described as puppets as sculpture. A charming and thoughtful artist who brings a new dimension to Bristol’s International Puppet Festival at the Tobacco Factory. An artist who reminds us that puppetry is an art form in its own right that can convey complex narratives and themes using traditional theatrical crafts.

8/10

Harry Mottram (no relation).

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Space 50. ICIA Theatre, Bath.

Niki McCretton got lost in space. With fellow performer Jamie Wood, the duo’s multi media exploration of man’s journeys into the cosmos became cut off from the mother ship of innovative theatre and floated aimlessly around in the weightless conditions of self-indulgence. Space 50 needs drastic editing and a director to give the show some focus as it is asking a lot for an audience to sit for two hours without a break to see a show where so little happens. Presented as a mixture of projections, animation, storytelling, dance, physical theatre and live installation the production is essentially a personal view of space travel by McCretton.

Having produced such brilliant shows in recent times such as Muttnik the First Dog in Space and Relative, her meander into the world of space travel was a crushing disappointment. Without a clearly defined central narrative the show didn’t grip and director Guy Dartnell’s lethargic and sloppy handling of the show’s action allowed plenty of time for me to yawn and look at my watch and wonder how long it would last.

There were however many flashes of inspiration. The lighting by Phil Mead was creative and evocative, Paul Riordan’s music was excellent, Adam Vanner’s animation and Kathy Hinde’s video work were a huge plus and James Lewis’s set was full of surprises and neat ideas.

It is 50 years since the first manned space craft orbited the earth (hence the play’s title). Niki McCretton has had an enduring fascination with the subject collecting lunar craft models and space ship kits, and even writing a school project on Skylab, the first space station. She wove her feelings and recollections about the various Russian and American rockets and moonshots into the drama. With humorous asides, physical wit and visual jokes the Dorset-based performer produced a child-of-the-70s view of the masculine and high-tech world of space travel. But like space itself, the show had some fascinating details but was set within a vast emptiness.

Two stars.

Harry Mottram.

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Still. Alma Tavern, Bristol.

Relationships can be like watching England under 21s playing Romania at Ashton Gate. After two hours you want to kill yourself, such is the frustration and heartache they both engender. And suicide was the fate of one of the protagonists in Steve Lambert’s latest play at the Alma.

Max Theatre’s production of his new two-hander, Still, examined an unlikely relationship between middle-aged dull David (played by the playwright) and raunchy young Jo played by Rebecca Tantony.

David gives Jo a lift and they spend the first half of the drama playing out a slow but feisty courtship as Jo strips away the veneer of David’s conventional life. In part two, we’ve moved on ten years and now it’s time for bitter recrimination.

Two hours of two people arguing ending in tears. It’s very familiar, almost like being at home, except the duo kept the audience glued to the action as they slog it out. This was largely due to a brilliant performance by Rebecca Tantony who acted as though her life depended on it, which in a way it did. Director Nicola Ryan needed to coax rather more emotion from Steve Lambert who failed to convince initially, remaining too grey and wooden as he was outgunned by Rebecca. By part two he began to catch up, only becoming her equal in the last quarter.

Set in David’s secret hide-out by a river, the play has a beautiful set by designed by Stuart and Paula Bennett and lit by Sara Mercer. Staged upstairs in the Alma Tavern’s tiny studio theatre, Still, is a powerful and entertaining war of words between two consenting adults. It’ll ring bells with anyone who has loved, been dumped on or been unfaithful. Which is about everyone. It may drive you (like the England football team) to distraction.

The play runs until Saturday. Tickets, £6, available on 07825585733.

Three Stars.

Harry Mottram

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The Unsinkable Clerk. Wedmore Village Hall, Somerset.

Like many of the audience I collected my decent house red wine and sat down ready to give The Unsinkable Clerk a positive reception. Jaunty retro music from a world of privet hedges in a forgotten surbia set the tone for the quirky comedy.

Mr Plumley wakes at seven everyday, breakfasts, performs his ablutions and goes to work. His clockwork existence is a reflection of everyone stuck in a hamster’s wheel of work and more work. Network of Stuff’s absurdist’s two hander about the repetitive nature of life was performed with huge vigour by Felix and Tom, directed by Chris George. Promoted by the rural arts scheme for Somerset, Take Art, the 90minute Waiting For Godot-esque play drew a near packed audience in the recently renovated 19th century hall of mostly 40 and 50-somethings.

The drama concerns the Python-esque Mr Plumley who is swept out of his commuter train into the stomach of a whale where he meets his opposite: the anarchic and uncouth Jonah. The duo eventually escape and meet a number of characters that the two perfomers brought to life with huge physical dexterity.

However, after 20 minutes of compulsive physical theatre of the highest quality I thought: “what’s this all about”, and “do I care?” Billed as a comedy, the audience were not really invited to laugh, rather than encouraged to admire the professional performance skills of the company. There was plenty of pauses and moments when the couple could have allowed the spectators to show their appreciation but these were passed over.

Felix and Tom (there was no programme on offer and the website only gave first names) gave strong characterisations of the various people who populated the circular story. Their range of voices and contortionist antics persuaded the viewer to enter their world. Music and lighting appeared to happen in unison to their performance, I presume there was someone else backstage supporting them.

The Unsinkable Clerk was slick, professional and convincing. It went down like good house red. Good but not vintage.

Harry Mottram. Three stars.

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Victory. Review from Harry Mottram.

Blame it on the past – not the burglars

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

Victory by Athol Fugard. Directed by Cordelia Monsey. Bath Theatre Royal until 25 August 2007.

Victory’s a crime-driven story about three people who meet one night during a bungled burglary in a large house in a village in the Karoo Desert in South Africa. Athol Fugard’s confrontation between two extremes of wealth and race in Mandela’s rainbow nation is predictable, didactic and dated. There’s simply not enough tension in what should be a claustrophobic drama. Was it the fault of the cast, or the director Cordelia Monsey, and or the California-based ex-pat South African playwright? A bit of all three, although I feel the director could of upped the anti by making the violence (and the threat of violence) more believable.

As soon as Freddie (Reece Ritchie) started smashing things up in Paul Farnsworth’s stylishly cluttered set (which made the most of the stage’s height with soaring bookcases), we knew somebody had to die. Or at least the sixty minute play would end in tears because there was nowhere else for it to go.

Black teenage tearaways Freddie and Vicky (Pippa Bennett-Warner) break into the home of elderly widower Lionel’s home, in search of cash and anything of value. Despite Freddie urinating on a pile of discarded books, smashing family photos and throwing ornaments around somehow there was a lack of menace about him. He should have put the fear of God into the audience but didn’t. When he and Lionel (Richard Johnson) square up to each other the two adversaries’ body language didn’t contain enough edginess. And the drama over the hand gun was so unbelievable, I felt I could have jumped onto the stage and grabbed the weapon, such was the character’s lack of possession over the focal point of the action.

The play concerns a dialogue between the three as the theft goes wrong when the kids discover ex-English teacher Lionel hasn’t much to steal. The one surprise was the revelation that Lionel’s wife employed Vicky’s mother as a cleaner which gave Vicky an insight into the property. This act of betrayal by Vicky seemed to put her in the dock, letting the two men off the hook. (One was a thief and the other was rich – hardly get-out clauses – but that’s how it was presented.)

Vicky (born on the day Mandela was released from jail which gave the play its ironic title) later confesses to having been sexually abused as a child which apparently absolves her from all responsibility. Freddie’s behaviour is explained by poverty, being coloured and being disenfranchised. And Lionel was just white. It was all very unconvincing. Surely testosterone, teenage bravado and immaturity were as much to do with the teen’s behaviour rather than a century of racial segregation?

So what was it about? An explanation of the violence demonstrated by poor coloureds and blacks in the republic? A demonstration of how when mothers die their families fall apart? Or was it to reveal how disappointed people are in the new post-apartied South Africa?

My theory is: Fugard in real life was repeatedly burgurled by teenagers when he lived in South Africa. Like anyone who has had their home violated he was left in a state of disbelief and anger. Victory is how he articulated his feelings. This explains the somewhat bleak and unsatisfactory ending. Thus it is not so much a drama about the Nelson Mandela’s democracy, but rather a play about what it feels like to have your home broken into. It doesn’t make for uplifting theatre – instead I left the auditorium in fear of my life as every teenager I passed I was convinced was about to mug me.

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2006 Reviews.

Eggshell Blues. Alma Tavern, Bristol, England.

Theatre West’s third production in their autumn season at the Alma Tavern saw another one of actor Julia Gwynne’s many personas in Sarah Curwen’s futuristic story of survival. In this Atwood-esque tale echoing some of the themes of the novel, the Handmaid’s Tale, Gwynne played Grace, a gaunt and feisty survivor of a global virus. Her hollowed face, manic expressions and survivalist body language were just right for Sarah Curwen’s lacklustre script. For the story was predictable and two-dimensional with no humour, little explanation and despite the publicity, less hope.

It was set in the laundry room of a compound occupied by the survivors of a global virus that had reduced the outside world to chaos. An unseen governor rules the roost with his pick of the women. Evelyn (Dee Sadler) dressed as a sort of washed-up 1980s Madame, prepares and conditions the surly Grace for him to breed from. Suddenly wimpy ornithologist Rob (Paul Mundell) breaks up their routine of hanging out the smalls and mutters a great deal about breeds of birds and the importance of hatching an egg he has saved from the destruction outside.

Stunning lighting from Olly Hellis, great costumes by Penn O’Gara and a simple but effective set designed by Ann Stiddard were used to advantage by the director Caroline Hunt. It was a slick and professional production but somehow it remained locked in the confines of laundry room along with its story of a patriarchal society in which women must do what they must do to survive.

Rating: Two stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: October 28, 2006

Company: Theatre West

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Fetch. Rondo Theatre, Bath, England

Barking, bewigged and bursting with ideas. Big State’s contribution to Bath’s Fringe Festival at the Rondo was like meeting a friend who had already downed two glasses of wine. They were well ahead of the evening before it had started. It took the audience a good quarter of an hour to catch up and tune into their seemingly insane theatrical style and the absurd storyline.

Set in a shortly to be demolished tower block the circular narrative concerns Lula the agency dog walker, played by Julie Black, who meets an eccentric group of residents. More importantly the skyscraper appears to be filled with zoo animals: that’s right, I said it was barking.

Mark Bishop and Ashley Christmas both had an ark full of polished voices and persona’s. At times the speed of their character changes confused but they always amused. Which of course is the point. Big State announced the devised work as a comedy. From my view there was a constant chuckle in the packed audience breaking into giggles at times hitting the heights of guffaws only occasionally. A young boy near the front was in constant fits of laughter while most people had regular outbreaks of sniggers. The performers moved so quickly from scene to scene that they didn’t always allow the audience to laugh. The certainly didn’t milk the laughs which was a pity as this is a very original and imaginative show. Using dialogue, film, slapstick, physical theatre and mime the show demonstrated the consummate theatrical skills of the cast of three.

Directed by John Nicholson of Peepolykus fame the beige and maroon costumes were a cross between the style of silent movies and cartoons. The set was like a backdrop to Top Cat with lots of little windows and doors to allow numerous interjections and surprises from the cast when they were off stage.

Julie Black had a wonderfully innocent set of expressions as she battle with the insanity of her client Mrs Thing, played by Ashley Christmas, while Ashley had a larger than life comic presence. This was a sharp and finely tuned performance by three gifted performers.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date reviewed: Friday, June 9, 2006. Three stars.

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Hedda Gabler. The New Theatre, Exeter, Devon, England.

Manic, manipulative and mysterious. Vicky-Jo Eva gave Ibsen’s feisty femme that unhinged quality that has made the name of Hedda Gabler an in-joke among divorced men. Her character is an enigma: rejecting the roles she is given by her male admirers but unable to create a positive liberated female life for herself in the socially stifling middle class world of late 19th century Scandinavia. Vicky-Jo had the presence and the menace, but perhaps needed more of the steely understated sexuality of the character who could make men do almost anything to be with her.

Paul Davies as Hedda’s bumbling husband Jorgen gave an accomplished and believable performance. Focused throughout, Davies retained the essential irritating fussiness of the character whose doomed relationship with Hedda is obvious to everyone but himself. Taran Wiseman gave a studied portrayal of Jorgen’s aunt Juliane with her grey wig and dowdy clothes. The body language was just right despite clearly being far younger than the character she was playing.

Particularly impressive for the same reasons was Kate Sharp as the maid. We believed in her persona – body language, demeanor and status were all well observed. This was a fine piece of work by Sharp.

For me David Lockwood as the hyper-sensitive writer Ejlert Lovborg wasn’t close enough to the edge. He was moody and jumpy, but it was more stroppy teenager than man on the brink of a break down. Lockwood’s sequences with Hedda and Mrs Elsved worked well – suggesting the actor would shine in relationship based dramas including comedy.

Judge Black played by Wesley Magee was oily and creepy but perhaps lacked some of the menace required. He looked the part despite his youth and convinced in his stalking of Hedda. Lizzy Dive shone as Mrs Elsted. Here is a performer who must make it professionally as a character actor. In the mode of Patricia Routledge or even Brenda Fricker, Lizzy has a seemless professionalism in her approach to her character that convinces you she is that person. Dive is one to watch in the future.

Directed by Alistair Ganley the production was clear and neatly presented. The set in particular worked well. Two small sofas at the front of the apron space set the scene with a small central table allowing the action to switch to this second area, with a partly draped smaller space to the rear suggesting another room. It was a lesson in how to present a play on a limited budget.

Ibsen’s drama explores the choices given to a woman by society, herself and those around her. In many ways it has become a period piece in the sense that women are now empowered to take control of their lives in a way Hedda Gabler seems uable or unwilling to do. The strength of the central character still however holds creedance. She is both repulsive and charming, a bubbling schizophrenic cauldron of nerves, opinions, moods and impossibilities. The stunning conclusion of her dramatic suicide was the only finish Ibsen could give – and a triumph of the Cygnet Theatre’s special effects and make-up departments.

The company produced in Hedda Gabler not only a drama worthy of the professional stage but a clear and well-defined illustration of Ibsen’s social realism. A must for students of both drama and literature.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date reviewed: May 23, 2006.

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The Keith Ashton Experience. The Alma Tavern, Bristol, England

Theatre West’s second play in their autumn season is a cringingly funny comedy featuring Alexei Sayle clone Simon Winkler. Keith Ashton is some sort of social guru who claims to sort out people’s lives. Is he unhinged, a nihilist or simply misguided? He apparently tricks two members of the audience into becoming his interviewees – of course they are not – they are members of the cast.

Using a bullying style of interrogation he uncovers the Totterdown lives of Jez (Paul Mundell) and Lisa ( Julia Gwynne). Branding them middle-class social climbers he castigates them for their snobbish views on Bedminster chavs and anyone considered working class. Instead of telling him to mind his own business the duo are drawn into an argument that finally ends in tears. Lisa attempts to leave the theatre, they both try to get the play stopped and finally Keith punches Jez to prevent him switching on the lights. In a manic deconstruction of Keith’s life and the lives of Jez and Lisa, the drama spirals towards a neat conclusion.

Although snooty Lisa and Jez have their lives put through the mincer by Keith Ashton, the main protagonist is not really given the verbal kicking he deserves by the writer Kark Breckon. I felt Keith was let off the hook too often. The couple turn on him on occasion but they never really put the boot in. His Ben Elton-type rants that date to somewhere in the coalminer’s strike of Thatcherite 80s Britain seem dated and tediously repetitive. Which is fine of course as Keith Ashton is supposed to be some sort of washed up social sage pointing out the error of our ways.

It would be hard to better Julia Gwynne’s performance as the arty, has-bagged-her-man-primary school teacher with one eye on her bio-clock and the other on moving to Cotham. With good body language, and excellent reactions throughout, she was entirely believable. Simon Winkler as Keith had a fluid patter and ease of delivery that carried the show and remained in control of his role as interviewer. Perhaps he could have been even more manic and weird, but this was the second night and I suspect he will turn into a monster by the end of the run. He was noticeably quick on the adlibs, as the show has several areas which allow the audience to chip in, and this aspect didn’t phase him. It could even be developed as Winkler was quick on his feet with the responses.

Likable Paul Mundell as Jez maintained the plausibility of the production with his portrayal of the want-to-be-loved accountant and frustrated musician. Directed by Pameli Benham the Keith Ashton Experience is a theatrical experience that will appeal to Bristolians with their roots in the first-time buyer world of Totterdown and Southville. The play runs until October 14.

Rating: Four Stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

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The Rain Has Voices. Ruishton Village Hall

Outside it was a clear moonlight night, inside it was raining. With the constant drizzle on the back drop of the set of The Rain Has Voices, you could be forgiven for thinking the roof of Ruishton’s Village Hall was leaking. Shiona Morton’s drama was awash with stories that resonated with the audience. There was the run-away angry teenager Lizzie, played by Rebecca Hulbert, the Turgenev-esque father and son conflict between farmer Thomas Fear (Michael Strobel) and his high visibility jacket clad son Simon (William Bateman), and the confused old woman Sarah (Maggie Tagney) grieving for a lost child.

It’s an intense complex play with few laughs and a broken dream-like narrative that flits from one conversation to another. Each member of the cast played more than one character and worked as an ensemble by singing, providing sound effects and supporting voices in each scene. The strength of the play was the overall impression: people’s lives brought into focus by a flood on the Somerset Levels. Rarely is a title so apt: the rain really did have voices, with some believable West Country vowels wrung out of the cast. Performed in the round, the set consisted of a blue and white floor covering and a number of props such as chairs and baskets which were put to good use through out the story. There were also several strategically placed Perspex poles which symbolised the withies, measuring poles and even church pillars.

The audience remained mesmerised by five very strong performances including that of Maggie Tagney as Sarah who seemed to capture perfectly the universal persona of an elderly rural lady being confronted with her tragic past.

This is not an easy play to watch or even understand, but it is a thoughtful piece of writing stylishly brought to life by director Chris Fogg.

The play is at Under The Edge Arts, Wotton, Gloucestershire, tonight; Slimbridge Village Hall tomorrow; and the Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, on Saturday night.

Harry Mottram

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Treasure Island. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Dan Danson, cleared the decks unfurled the sails and brought Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate story to life with a brace of pistols and whole cellar full of rum. Richard da Costa (complete with charming talking parrot) was commanding as Long John Silver and Kate Blair did exceptionally well as a believable Jim Hawkins. Christina Lecker enjoyed herself as the always right Captain Smollett and Richard Cunningham was perfect as the pompous Squire. The cast was exceptionally strong and being the Tobacco Factory it is a joy to be so close to the performers. Dan Winter in particular excelled as Ben Gunn giving the eccentric castaway a personality that children related to.

Set partly in Bristol, the story concerns a search for treasure on a Caribbean island and a band of double-crossing pirates led by Silver. Young Jim Hawkins is the sober hero, who manages to stay ahead of the rum soaked pirates at every flash of a dagger. He’s a character that children will readily identify with: a child winning in an adult world without the help of mum or dad.

Treasure Island is a simple story that even younger children can follow, although adaptors da Costa and Danson had to discard much of Stevenson’s prose. The murky, misty set worked well for the onboard ship and pub scenes but didn’t adapt well for the brilliance of a Caribbean island with its tropical light and vegetation.

Malcolm Newton’s songs led by Harry Smith as Israel Hands and older Jim was a neat way to convey the spirit of the sea shanty times and added an unexpected dimension to a drama that could have got becalmed with too many “shiver me timbers”. A near sell-out audience (of approximately forty per cent children) remained transfixed as the pirates were out thought and out witted by a very earnest young Jim Hawkins.

With a shipload of pirates at the Hippodrome in Peter Pan and swashbuckling Musketeers at the Old Vic, Bristol is ringing to the sound of sword fights this Christmas. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Harry Mottram

Four stars.

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We’re going on a bear hunt

Bristol Old Vic, Studio

You have to be a brave little person to go on a bear hunt. With determined and stoical faces Craig Edwards, Marc Parrett and Stevie Thompson donned dungarees and bowler hats and set off through long grass, water, snow and down a tunnel in search of the eponymous bear. The giant furry creature’s paw prints and growling were the only clues to the closeness of the mammal. Like over excited five year olds the cast used comic dance, movement, song, physical theatre and a range of emotions to connect the simplicity of the story to their equally excited young audience. Inventive and lively with a winning title song this is a show that knows its audience. The performers came down to the childrens’ level and held their attention throughout in this simple (but well told) story, set in the round. If the Three Musketeers is for older children, then this 50minute drama is ideal for tiny tots and reception years; and indeed anyone who has ever loved a teddy bear. The play based on Michael Rosen’s book aptly appeals to the senses. Touch, texture, sound and lighting were every bit important as the dialogue and songs, with some haunting moments. The snow scene in particular captured a neo-Slava Snow Show sequence while the water scene appealed to every child who has ever taken pleasure in spending a penny. Taking the play from start to bedtime was the music composed and played by Benji Bower (who also appeared in Papa, Please Get The Moon For Me). It was atmospheric, appropriate and plumb-on. In addition the musician enters into the action as an occasional extra member of the cast, while his array of traditional and adhoc instruments will fascinate those in love with sound. Grrr. Grrr.

Harry Mottram

Four Stars

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Venice Monologues. Merlin Theatre, Frome.

Polished, professional and delivered with aplomb. Annette McLaughlin, Jan Shepherd and Laura Harvey gave voice to the monologues recorded by American playwright Eve Ensler a decade ago. The Venician Monologues is a series of stories about women and their attitudes to their venicians. Some are old, some are sex workers, some have been raped and others are simply relating their attitudes to the most untalked about organ. It was funny, feisty and very female. Indeed men were divided into those who were sympathetic shall we say, the Bobs of this world. Bob being a character in one of the stories, and non-Bobs: I guess the majority of men.

There was a certain triumphalism which the cast shared with the overwhelmingly female audience. Aparently the crete has twice as many nerve endings as the pencil – or was it blood capillaries? Who knows – but it seemed to be important for the near sell-out audience at the neat auditorium in Frome. Surely it’s not how many nerve endings you’ve got but what you do with them?

Having read the play I thought that I knew what stories I was in for. Some were harrowing, some were revealing, and some were frankly hilarious tales of the female ‘down there region’. The drama followed the text as I recalled, it but I was caught out by the connection the subject had with the audience. They identified with every revelation, emphathised with every secret, visualised each fantasy and laughed raucously with the numerous in-jokes. Much of this was a puzzle to me as I was in a tiny minority in the theatre: I was a man. It is the only time I’ve felt slightly uncomfortable, even exposed, at a production. Despite using my imagination and trying my hardest to understand Ensler’s world: I don’t have a venecian.

Laura Harvey’s precise Scottish vowels were a perfection of clarity and her enthusiasm and range of voices swept me away into the world of tampons, sanitary towels and six from a female point of view. Annette McLaughlin sat in the middle of the three actors and was the only one of the trio to wear trousers – mainly because of her energetic demonstrations of female climaxes. Hers was the most gutsy of the performances winning the audience over with a somewhat earthy style of delivery. Jan Harvey came across as the friendlier and most one-of-us type of person – even though she also had a range of voices and stories to portray.

The play was performed in a static style. There were three performers, three chatshow type stools, three spotlights and a glitzy backdrop and carpet. The actors remained seated for virtually the whole play.

This was never going to be a depressing or didactic drama. It was uplifting, even liberating, and for me revealing. To borrow from the play’s origins based on interviews with real women, the performers spoke into microphones as they made their confessions, used notes as props which they didn’t seem to use, and took it in turns to bring Ensler’s script to life. They never appeared to slip or have any wobbly moments. It was an impressive piece of theatre which attracted a wide range of women of all ages and seemingly social backgrounds – most of whom were dressed up for a girl’s night out. The few men (I counted about 15) appeared to be partners or husbands – I couldn’t imagine this play to be an idea for a lad’s night out despite the subject.

By the interval I decided I needed a drink. Downing a pint of strong cider I got talking to one of the few chaps there. We immediately bonded and found ourselves talking about the off-side rule in football, our ears closed, as all around women talked in earnest tones about their venecian experiences. Put it this way: the evening was an education.

The Venecian Monologues will be at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre, on December 5-6.

Harry Mottram

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Waiting For Godot. Theatre Royal Bath.

It was so quiet you could hear tummies rumbling, hearing aids pinging and legs crossing and uncrossing. There are long moments in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, when nothing happens. As someone once said, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” Strictly speaking the tragic-comedy is not without form or even plot. It begins and ends with a certain symmetry allowing the audience to understand the basic premise: that life is beyond our control, we take part without knowing why or where life will take us. We are all waiting for Godot.

If the play is a metaphor for life’s absurdities then Beckett takes his time in revealing the simplicity of the idea. It starts and ends with two down and out men waiting for Godot – of whom we learn little. The main action is the conversations they have with each other and also with two bizarre characters they encounter during their vigil by a rock and a tree. Sir Peter Hall must know the text back to front and upside down as he has been directing the controversial play since 1955 when he made his name with it at The Arts Theatre in London. The critics were split: some thought it nonsense, while others felt it redefined theatre for a modern world. It now sits comfortably into the canon of contemporary drama as a classic piece of work – even if it’s viewed by many theatre goer’s like a difficult elative who is coming to stay the weekend. It’s part of our world but not necessarily cherished like a favourite aunt. It has not however (unlike Look Back In Anger) become a period piece.

The two tramps, Estragon (Alan Dobie) and Vladimir (James Laurenson) have all the best lines and moments. The duo were immensely watchable as a kind of absurd comic double act. They rage against each other, criticise each other but also help and care for each other in what at first appears to be a post nuclear war landscape. In fact it’s simply their space – with little attempt to make it look realistic. Milking every line, these two say everything you have ever thought about life – if you are prepared to listen to them for two hours. Witty and poetic, their language is the core of the play’s success and they were inch perfect for the parts.

Also impressive as Lucky (Richard Dormer) who is a kind of slave to Pozzo (Terence Rigby). He imposed his salivating soul upon us all with a powerful piece of physical theatre. When he spoke it was all the more extraordinary as he launched into a poetic rant about life – and it drew a round of applause for a play with few recognisable dramatic highlights or set pieces.

Terence Rigby’s portrayal as Lucky’s master Pozzo had perhaps too much bluster, making it difficult to catch all his dialogue at times. He perfectly illustrated the unspeakable ruling classes he symbolised and their total reliance and attachment to their workers.

You don’t come away thinking what a fantastic play – but you do depart to discuss what you’ve seen with friends in the vein of “what was that all about?” Reactions that Beckett was after in making us all wait in vain for Godot.

Harry Mottram

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Blue Remembered Hills. Axbridge, Town Hall.

Quite simply this was the most accomplished production Axbridge Community Theatre (ACT) has created in the six years of its life. It may not have been the most popular with the public, the most challenging for the director or even the most inclusive for ACT, and it is not an original script: but it is the most crafted piece of work to date by the production’s artistic supremo John Bailey.

Dennis Potter’s childhood tale has been seized upon by amateur drama groups for several reasons. The play lasts around an hour, it is a standard text for schools, it has a small cast with each character having a sizable role, its material resonates with all generations and there is the unusual and immediately comic aspect of adults portraying children. Its dark themes of bullying, pecking orders, savagery, prejudice and abuse are disguised by an innocent humour that is best underplayed to evoke the subtleties of Potter’s sub-text.

ACT’s artistic director John Bailey coaxed strong performances from the cast of seven and etched his trademark freezes into the drama. This was a very touchy-feely interpretation with the cast looking and behaving like a group of close friends rather than potentially evil adversaries. This bonding was a strength, the only problem with it was the cast’s wonderfully gormless personas accentuated the comic aspects of the play, sometimes at the expense of the violence. The death of the squirrel for instance, didn’t quite capture the Lord of the Flies savagery of that brutal moment.

The exception was Janie Gray who played the outcast misfit Donald Duck who liked to play with matches. She seemed to be in a different, rather darker production such was her style. Gray captured the bleakness of an abused and confused young life so skilfully that a gap opened up between her and the rest of the cast: a gulf that Potter had wanted, but not perhaps like this. As she lit match after match in the barn, there was a palpable feeling of danger in the air. It was one of the production’s finest moments. Another highlight was the ghastly girly duo of Angela and Audrey, played by Lorraine McKay and Cathy Plummer. They had no problem finding the vindictive and unpleasant child within themselves. Coquettish one moment, bitchy the next.

Tony Wilson too had the right energy and boyishness for his part as the not very bright bully Peter – and he injected a vibrancy the other boys lacked. Mike Day as Raymond and Phil Sweet as John looked the part but at times their natural body language came to the fore when more cringing personas were required. This was also partly true of Chris Jarman who played Willy, whose voice on occasion dipped, making it hard to catch the lines. There was again in places a conflict between what Jarman was saying and how his body conveyed this. These may be somewhat nitpicking points, but we know the play so well, are familiar with its themes and Potter’s group of seven-year-olds who spent an idle afternoon in the Forest of Dean one afternoon in 1943.

This is the third production I have seen of the play in the last 12 months and none have been able to capture successfully the horror of the play’s pen-ultimate scene: the barn fire. Indeed, I think it impossible to do so conventionally within the confines of a theatre if realism is sort. Remember, the play was written for television, a medium that lends itself to such action. However, Janie Gray delivered the required pathos of desperate Donald, the cast created a memorable freeze by the barn and the lighting technician Peter Homewood lit the moment perfectly.

The overall impression was of a cast who were enjoying telling the story, an audience who readily identified with the characters, and of a director who had broken the play neatly in a series of freezes and speedy action sequences making this interpretation very much his own.

To complete the play, A E Houseman’s lines (that lend their words to the play’s title) were delivered with style by Chris Jarman. He reappeared as an adult to place what we had just seen in context: we can all look back to the happy highways of our youth, but can only return there through memories.

Blue Remembered Hills was played in the round using a minimalist set designed by Roger Parker. The play transfers to Scotland for two performances on October 25-26.

Harry Mottram

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Improbable Fiction. The Mission Theatre, Bath.

With it’s cosy bar and café, rustic stone stairs and cushioned seats, the Mission Theatre is an ideal space for the quintessentially English Alan Ayckbourn’s work to be staged. In this case, Ann Garner’s polished production of Improbable Fiction, takes us into the quirky world of creative writing. Arnold (Steve Leanaghan) writer of instruction manuals hosts the meeting where lesbian farmer Jess (Claire Rumball) has writer’s block, and grumpy teacher Brevis (George Gent) is turning Pilgrim’s Progress inappropriately into a musical. Meanwhile Vivvi (Jane Lawson) can’t get her detective novels published, Grace (Caroline Groom) can’t write but can draw and Clem (Richard Matthews) writes atrocious science fiction (or fact as he says).

The first act sees the writers bicker as the painfully silent Isla serves them tea and mince pies, but as they disappear into the night something strange happens. Ayckbourn produces a wild fantasy where all the stories of the underachieving writers come alive in a crazy second act where murder, seduction, intrigue and aliens are mixed up in a confusingly comic farce. The mayhem was helped by George Gent as Brevis hamming it up in various roles including a starched butler, and aided and abetted by Richard Matthews who enjoyed himself as the detective. Hayley was a worryingly convincing nutter, Caroline a brash American, Claire a believably frustrated romantic novelist and Jane convinced as a nymphomaniac. The one character who didn’t turn into a phantom of his fiction was the disarmingly mild and affable Arnold played with the familiarity of an old cardigan by Leanaghan.

Ayckbourn’s plays so often promise so much, with huge wit and skilful construction, but one is left feeling the characters don’t develop, but rather continually display various facets of their inner fantasies. But it is very enjoyableThe play continues until Saturday.

Four stars

Harry Mottram