Theatre review – Wise Children

Wise Children company, credit Steve Tanner (3)Vibrant, comical and moving, Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic is a joyfully dizzying swirl of an end-of-pier helter skelter with a vein of minty gravitas spiralling through the middle.

Etta Murfitt, Gareth Snook in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner

Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook as Nora and Dora Chance

We meet twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance (Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook) as they prepare to celebrate their 35th birthday, then zip back through time to meet their paternal grandparents. Some theatrics, debauchery and a spot of violence orphans their father and his twin brother, and so a pattern is laid out for the sisters before they’re even born.

Bringing Angela Carter’s last novel to wriggling, whooping, high-kicking life is director Emma Rice, the creative whizz behind the enchanting The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, among others. The production is the first from Rice’s new theatre company, also named Wise Children, and it’s a fabulous indication of the treats to come.

Wise Children company1, credit Steve Tanner (2)

The small cast conjure a whole world, with earlier incarnations of the sisters and their fathers appearing throughout, sometimes as ghostly memories and other times in a change of costume as a lover, pier comic or stagehand. Gender is fluid, and morals even more so. The recommendation is that performances are best suited to ages 14 and up. Sex is portrayed with cartoonish vigour or fleeting tenderness, and education on this theme from Grandma Chance is accessorised by bagels and sticks of seaside rock.

Katy Owen as Grandma Chance in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner (2)

Katy Owen as Grandma Chance

The youngest Nora and Dora (apart from Lyndie Wright’s puppets) are performed with boisterous wide-eyed enthusiasm by Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones, while their showgirl personifications, played by Omari Douglas and Melissa James, exuded sex appeal and vulnerability in equal, overflowing measure.

Melissa James as Dora, Omari Douglas as Nora in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner

Melissa James as Dora and Omari Douglas as Nora

 

Katy Owen is magnificent as the girls’ ever-tipsy, often unclothed (apart from golden nipple tassels) grandma, while the elder embodiments of their father and uncle, (Paul Hunter and Paul Rider) manage to smudge the bravado of their younger selves (Ankur Bahl and Sam Archer) into the wistful, somewhat melancholy humour of old age.

Bettrys Jones, Katy Owen, Mirabelle Gremaud in Wise Children1, credit Steve Tanner

Bettrys Jones as young Dora, Katy Owen as Grandma Chance and Mirabelle Gremaud as young Nora

The sisters long to be acknowledged by their father Melchior, who abandoned their pregnant mother, but settle instead for the intermittent adoration of his brother, Peregrine. Dashing and affectionate, young Peregrine is also the instigator of one of the production’s most chilling scenes.

Taking place in a moment of quiet between 13-year-old Dora (Bettrys Jones) and her uncle, while other action takes place around them, it’s skilfully handled enough that we questioned whether we’d really seen what we thought we’d seen – a unnerving parallel to the reality of such instances.

Melissa James as Showgirl Dora in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner (2)

Laughter, song and dance coupled with the vivid set (including an ingenious turning caravan and some exquisite projected animation) plus enticing costumes by Vicki Mortimer keeps the tone on the right side of fun, but this dark core thread draws us towards the shadows beyond the glitz, if only for seconds at a time.

Wise Children is on at Bristol Old Vic until 16th February 2019. Find out more and book tickets. Production images by Steve Tanner.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Theatre review – A Christmas Carol

Ensemble and Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint LewisOver the years, Bristol Old Vic has set expectations high with its inventive, ingenious takes on classic Christmas shows. The production of A Christmas Carol met those hopes head on with a bundle of exceptional touches:

  • A multi-talented cast
  • Infectious music
  • Light audience participation
  • Magical lighting
  • Creative sets
  • Impressive puppetry
  • Gender swapping

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick and tick.

Full Company in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Adapted by Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, Dicken’s spooky, marginally gloomy tale of redemption is revved up into an exultant spectacle. Scrooge is misanthropic and menacing (helped by actor Felix Hayes’ height and undeniable stage presence), but delightfully droll. Wry asides ensure that at times we’re almost on his side for eschewing the glitz and kitsch of Christmas in favour of a bit of peace and quiet…

Felix Hayes, Saikat Ahamed and Nadia Nadarajah in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Nadia Nadarajah’s Bob Crotchet, shown far right above, converses entirely in British Sign Language, which serves both to enhance the physical exuberance of her performance, and to keep Scrooge at one remove as he struggles with and largely turns from what he refers to as “wavy hand language”, at least initially.

Saikat Ahamed and ensemble in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

The majority of the cast members play multiple roles, with the audience invited into the theatrical mischief – snow is delivered in handfuls from the top of a rolling staircase, and when stepping from his nephew Freddie’s home to that of the Cratchit family, Scrooge passes Freddie the bonnet belonging to Mrs Cratchit, commenting, “You’ll be needing this”, and reminding us of actor Saikat Ahamed’s dual role.

Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

More doubling up occurs with several of the ensemble also providing the original musical score, right up to musical director and composer Gwyneth Herbert, who also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Full Company of A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic, credit Geraint Lewis

Designer Tom Roger’s set is equally adaptable and dynamic – as well as the staircase mentioned above, there are doorways on casters and Scrooge’s four-poster bed, with Anna Watson’s skilful lighting adding atmosphere in spades. Humour is woven throughout, but never more so than in the scenes of revelry, including the Fezziwigs Christmas party where dance moves include flossing. The British Sign Language for ‘dance’ is incorporated as another enthusiastic move.

Audience participation  includes a brief singalong near the end, which, while fully optional, gives the audience a chance to release some of the giddy joy that has inevitably been building up throughout.

In many senses, Dicken’s story is a moral coming of age tale. With the Bristol Old Vic treatment, this production ramps up this theme, as Scrooge is reminded of the power of the imagination he’s set aside since his school days, as well as the love he let slip by and the value of human connection.

A gorgeously rambunctious and imaginative production.

Production photography by Geraint Lewis.

A Christmas Carol is on at Bristol Old Vic until 13th January 2019. Find out more and book tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Theatre review Twelfth Night

(L-R) Brian James O'Sullivan, Meilyr Jones, Jade Ogugua, Dylan Read. Photo credit Mihaela BodlovicRe-envisioned amid the bacchanalia of an everlasting 1960’s house party, Twelfth Night (possibly the 12th night of these revelries) at Bristol Old Vic is a colour-saturated feast for the ears and eyes.

Shakespeare’s popular comedy of gender-swapping and mistaken identity makes perfect sense against this backdrop of unbridled debauchery. Director Wils Wilson has unleashed a cast of exuberant talents, where light, sound, set and movement conjure all the passion and magic of a world where love is a bargaining tool, music the food of said love, and every act fringed with mischief.

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes

The set design, led by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, is the first ingredient of this heady mix, creating the illusion of a grand country house, complete with a grand piano, sweeping staircase, and several holes cast members can appear through at unexpected moments. Weave in strands of soul-stirring music courtesy of Dylan Reid (sensational as wit-fuelled fool Feste), Meilyr Jones (Curio, in a pair of spectacular shocking pink trousers), and Brian James O’Sullivan, among others, and you have an audience riveted by every scene.

L-R Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O'Sulllivan. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Dylan Reid, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O’Sullivan

When twin brother and sister Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) and Viola (Jade Ogugua) are separated by a tempest that wrecks their ship, each assumes the other has drowned. Viola dresses as a boy for easier passage, so that when the two reach the same court, they are constantly mistaken for one another. Larks!

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua

The tenuousness of this element of the plot is emphasised beautifully in the production, where each sibling is played by a woman of different races and statures. We’d effectively urged to collude with the cast in agreeing the two are identical, and choosing who appears male and who female.

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Jade Ogugua

In fact, their subsequent love interests, Duke Orsino and Olivia, are also both played by women, respectively Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Lisa Dwyer Hogg. The face that in this version of the play, Olivia’s Uncle Toby is transfigured into her defiantly rowdy cousin Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright), adds to the blurring of the sexes in a most delightful way.

Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright1. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright

It’s a cunning strategy, as we become part of the seductive high japes on stage. The joyousness of the performance rings out in ripples we spectators can’t help but be caught up in. By the end of the show, you’ll feel positively tipsy.

Production photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

Twelfth Night is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 17th November. Find out more and book tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Theatre review – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls11There are some stories that seem seeded in the emotional centres of our imaginations, where grief is almost made bearable by the multitude of disguises we hide it behind. In Patrick Ness’ exquisitely painful A Monster Calls, the stories themselves take on characters, revealing truths about our lead, 13-year-old Conor, while offering him a way to grapple with the tragedy unfolding around him.

A Monster Calls4

Director Sally Cookson has taken this tale, itself inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and worked with the ensemble and writer in the room Adam Peck to create a play that gives voice to our darkest fears.

A Monster Calls13

Conor’s mum (Marianne Oldham, shown left) is seriously ill, and everybody knows it. What they don’t know, because he’s working so hard to hide the fact, is how much the situation is taking its toll on him.

In the role of Conor, actor Matthew Tennyson is extraordinarily expressive, embodying the fear, rage and determined self-delusion with heartbreaking vulnerability. Unusually, the ensemble remains on stage throughout, offering the impression of a world populated by unseen beings who guide or trip us – when Conor needs a bowl for his breakfast cereal, one is held out to him, and his school tie is placed unceremoniously over his head. It highlights the skill of the cast, as well as the director and set designer Michael Vale, that this seems at once normal and oddly moving.

A Monster Calls5

Vale has devised a set that leaves our imaginations free to unfurl, where chairs and ropes perform a multitude of functions.

While the monster itself is performed with visceral otherworldliness by Stuart Goodwin, the immense, ancient yew tree he represents takes shape thanks to an assortment of artfully strung ropes, which the actors clamber through with unnerving agility.

A Monster Calls1

From the start we find ourselves in the midst of Conor’s nightmares, where screened visuals, the physicality of the ensemble, and powerful use of sound, plunges us into a storm-torn horror that leaves the actor, and us, fighting for breath.

A Monster Calls24

Cookson has created a skin-shiveringly immersive show, aided by a soundscape from Benji Bower and Will Bower, that adds infinite atmospheric layers. We, the audience, may remain in our seats, but as Conor battles demons, both real and metaphorical, including a trio of school yard bullies (John Leader, Hammed Animashaun and Georgia Frost) we’re pulled along with him every step of the way.

A Monster Calls23

Selina Cadell is compelling as the grandmother torn between her own distress over her daughter’s illness and the challenges of a largely non-communicative, anguished grandson. Her home is signified by a swinging pendulum and relentless ticking that probably feels familiar to anyone who’s ever visited a grandparent’s house. The ticking heightens tension, which the possibility of an actor being accidentally flattened by the vast pendulum only adds to.

A Monster Calls10

Time is a prevalent theme in the story, with the monster only ever arriving at 12.07, and the terrible sense of time running out for Conor’s mother.

Throughout the play, this is the awful truth that no one quite dares speak. And yet, as the monster reminds Conor, right and wrong, true and false, and, above all, belief, are all complicated, ambiguous things. Not unlike an ageless yew tree that walks when called, represented by an armful of rope.

A Monster Calls is on at Bristol Old Vic until Sat 16th June 2018. Suitable for ages 10+.  Find out more.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

All aboard the Spooky Ship

Dorothy Collins as Emily Lancaster, The Spooky Ship 2017. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ss Great Britain, moored at Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, is a wonderfully intriguing vessel. Populated with impressively realistic models of people and animals, it also has a hint of the uncanny about it.

Each year in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, these characters are brought to life in an eerie succession of performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering.

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship - 2016 - Photos by Jon Rowley

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Last year I had the chance to go along, bringing a friend with me to hide behind if necessary. We were expecting something along the lines of a haunted house, but what we got was so much more, as our guide led us through the impressive architecture of the ship to witness vignettes from a pitiful bride, a broken soldier from the Crimean war (Scott Bayliss), a vengeful nun (Kirsty Asher) and a ship’s butcher (Hal Kelly) who happened to enjoy his work just a little too much.

The ship's butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ship’s butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

We paused in the first class dining saloon where a 19th couple (Julia Head and Matt Landau) were feasting and gossiping – all good and fine until one confessed to chowing down on a plague-ridden rat and the other commented on the deliciousness of the ship’s pudding-faced cat, then turned their eyes hungrily on us.

The atmosphere was heightened by overhearing fragments from early set scenes – while Sister Benedict talked of the fallen women she despised, shrieks from the distressed soldier rose through the floor. Our guide fed us titbits of the histories that gave the performances their foundations, while cabins fitted out as they would have been in previous centuries, complete with realistic figures in the midst of their own frozen adventures, added to the creepiness.

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Many of the tales pulled at the heart strings, such as that of Mrs Gray (played by Stephanie Kempson), who arrived at docks to welcome her husband Captain John Gray home only to discover he’d mysteriously disappeared a month earlier when the ship was still at sea. Her wailing grief sent shivers through the crowd.

The story of Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins – shown top of post) was particularly disturbing. Crouching on a flight of steps beneath the dry dock, she told us how she’d succumbed to the pox and been flung overboard before she was dead. Her anger and sorrow was palpable, enhanced by the wonderful setting.

The mix of frights, facts, horrors, dark humour and laments, all staged in and around the ship, made this a fabulously immersive Halloween voyage.

Look out for the Spooky Ship when it returns to Bristol Harbour this weekend. Who knows what or who you’ll encounter!

All photo by Jon Rowley. Buy tickets at www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-spooky-ship.html.

Theatre review – What if the plane falls out of the sky?

What if the plane falls out of the skyThree dysfunctional siblings invite us to examine our fears in this raucously comedic tragedy.

Heron (Susie Riddell), Magpie (Adam Fuller), and their little sister Feral Pigeon (Emma Keaveny-Roys) have been left to fend for themselves, and are struggling to keep their inner dread at bay. To face their terrors head-on they’ve devised a multi-step reward programme of badges and affirmations, and some eerily familiar dance moves.

As we took our seats, the siblings asked us for our fears. A curious number of audience members mentioned audience participation. And yes, as you might expect, there was plenty of that to go around. One pair got to try froggy bagging (don’t google that. I just did and cannot unsee what I have seen). For the rest of us the participatory element mainly involved partaking of a complimentary in-flight snack and drink, then doodling the things that scare us.

What if the plane falls out of the sky_inflight refreshments

The play was a tableau of exquisite moments, occasionally switching from humour to pathos in the twinkling of an eye. The afore-mentioned dance routine began lightly enough, but piled in the tension as Heron’s darkest thoughts rose to the surface. Co-director and performer Susie Riddell’s talents shone as she portrayed Heron’s slowly shifting mood through subtly modified dance moves and an increasingly distressed expression. As her brother and sister faltered to a halt, the whole room fell silent.

The emotional peaks and troughs were breathtaking, a roller-coaster equivalent of hitting reset whenever the hilarity or the grief veered to the brink of hysteria.

At one point we were instructed to blow our anxiety into brightly coloured balloons. My friend’s balloon burst four breaths in, releasing a gale of giggles, but the rest of us released ours in a gorgeous moment of synchronised farty rainbow childishness.

What if the plane falls out of the sky

Talking of rainbows, Magpie overcoming his dual qualms about glitter and intimacy was a vision to behold. I’m just hoping the glitter was applied with oil, not glue, as he’s a somewhat furry man and the removal later could be excruciating.

Presented by experimental theatre company Idiot Child as part of Bristol Old Vic‘s Studio Walkabout Season, the show featured too many perfect moments to share them all here. In short, a dizzyingly cathartic show that will imbue you with a sense of joy you hadn’t known you were missing.

In Bristol, What if the plane falls out of the sky? took place at The Loco Klub. The show is also travelling to Shoreditch, Brighton, Birmingham and beyond.

I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Theatre reviews – Bristol Old Vic Christmas shows 2017

The Snow Queen and Boffin Goblin (Joanna Holden). Photo by Mark Douet

The Snow Queen and Boffin Goblin (Joanna Holden). Photo by Mark Douet

Bristol Old Vic has been undergoing a lot of changes in its 250th anniversary year. A mammoth building and restoration project has put its smaller studio theatre out of action and rendered backstage front of house. And yet, none of this matters – they’ve found ways to keep the smaller productions going by forging relationships with venues throughout the city, and the creativity is as vivid and original as ever.

Jesse Meadows as Little Tim. Photo by Jack Offord

Jesse Meadows as Little Tim. Photo by Jack Offord

Take their festive rendition for under-sevens. Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain is a joyfully rambunctious performance staged at The Lantern at Colston Hall. Based on the book by Edward Ardizzone, it’s a Bristol Old Vic and homegrown talent The Wardrobe Ensemble co-production, this is a mariner’s tale of huge imagination, beginning with a small boy in a bathtub playing with his toy ship and fish.

Tim, played with brilliant conviction by Jesse Meadows, is obsessed with the sea and soon finds a way to pursue his nautical dreams. Emily Greenslade, Kerry Lovell and Ben Vardy play an assortment of characters including rowdy sailors, a stern but fearless sea captain, and a multitude of magical sea creatures, all engaging their young audience to marvel at the scenes before them, and get involved as much as possible.

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Photo by Jack Offord

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Photo by Jack Offord

By the end of the hour-long show, we all had our sea legs and were qualified sailors. What more could you want at Christmas time?

The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic - Zara Ramm and company. Photo by Mark Douet

The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic – Zara Ramm and company. Photo by Mark Douet

The second show of the season, for ages seven and up, is The Snow Queen, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale and directed by Lee Lyford.

Steven Roberts as Kai and Emily Burnett as Gerda) with Zara Ramm. Photo by Mark Douet

Steven Roberts as Kai and Emily Burnett as Gerda) with Zara Ramm. Photo by Mark Douet

 

This enchanting story focuses on two friends, Kai (Steven Roberts) and Gerda (Emily Burnett). When the Snow Queen (voiced by Gwyneth Herbert) charges her goblin army with stealing naughty children so she can feast on their bad moods, Kai and Gerda are soon the only kids left in their village. Then Kai is taken, and it’s up to Gerda to save her friend, and in the process, the whole world from an eternal winter.

Miltos Yerolemou as Flower Witch with Jessica Hayles as Parrot. Photo by Mark Douet

Miltos Yerolemou as Flower Witch with Jessica Hayles as Parrot. Photo by Mark Douet

Along the way she meets an extraordinary array of characters, from the flamboyant Flower Witch (Miltos Yerolemou on spectacular form) to Olive Owl (Joanna Holden) and Marty Magpie (Zara Ramm). There are moments of darkness and fear – the Snow Queen puppet is a giant skeletal being, and when she leant over the stage to sniff the audience to check for children, I was glad to not to be sitting in the front row! These are tempered by lashings of colour, laughter and magic – a cast of talking flowers and a reindeer who does an fabulous Morrissey impression are just a few of the treats on offer.

Steven Roberts (Kai) Dylan Wood (Goblin Apprentice) and Joanna Holden (Boffin Goblin) Photo by Mark Douet

Steven Roberts (Kai) Dylan Wood (Goblin Apprentice) and Joanna Holden (Boffin Goblin). Photo by Mark Douet

In a cast of only ten, including musicians, there was plenty of doubling up, so that most played three or four characters and the final curtain call felt shockingly small. The breadth of talent was wonderful, backed up by a wonderfully nuanced script by Vivienne Franzman that ensured every individual had their own preoccupations wavering in the background, adding layers of interest and believability.

Emily Burnett as Gerda. Photo by Mark Douet

Emily Burnett as Gerda. Photo by Mark Douet

The moral at the heart of the tale, about accepting and loving others as they are, was presented lightly enough to be absorbed with ease, without ever detracting from the delight of the performance. Lighting and projection by Richard Howell and Will Duke transformed the set while presenting the illusion of scale, especially humorously in flight scenes when the cast often ran on the spot while projections on the scenery moved around them.

As in any grand theatrical production, the team behind the scenes far outnumbers those on stage, ensuring every moment was full of life, atmosphere and emotion. A hugely enjoyable show with a fantastically strong heart.

The Snow Queen is at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until 15th January 2017.
 Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain is on until 8th January 2017. 
Find out more at www.bristololdvic.org.uk.

Theatre Review – The Rivals

The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic Theatre. Photo by Mark DouetAs part of its 250th anniversary celebrations, Bristol Old Vic is showcasing The Rivals, an 18th century comedy of pretence and frippery all in the name of snaring a spouse.

The play emphasises the vanity of late 1700s, with women sporting bustles and anyone of note wearing towering wigs, where social status is as much about the person your contemporaries believe you to be as who you actually are.

the-rivals_julie-legrand-desmond-barrit-lee-mengo-and-keith-dunphy-photo-by-mark-douet

Julie Legrand, Desmond Barrit, Lee Mengo and Keith Dunphy in The Rivals

Enter Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch, a posh boy passing himself off as a penniless soldier in order to win the affections of the splendidly named (and splendidly performed by Lucy Briggs-Owen) Lydia Languish. One of the running themes of the play is the idea that reading can damage women’s minds, a fancy perpetrated by Lydia’s apparent brainwashing by romance novels into craving a life of poverty.

In addition to her affair with ensign Beverley, Lydia has unknowingly inflamed the desires of Captain Jack’s pal Bob Acres (Lee Mengo), while her maid Lucy (Lily Donovan) is passing love notes between her aunt Mrs Malaprop and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, the latter of whom she has duped into believing he’s receiving them from seventeen-year-old Lydia.

the-rivals_nicholas-bishop-as-faukland-and-jessica-hardwick-at-julia-photo-by-mark-douet

Nicholas Bishop as Faukland and Jessica Hardwick as Julia

Then there’s Faukland (Nicholas Bishop) who is in love with Julia (Jessica Hardwick), a straightforward match complicated by Faukland’s paranoia, which results in him testing his sweetheart’s affections until she is at her wits, and patience, end.

In short, all the ingredients of a delightful farce, set against the charmingly over-the-top opulence and theatricality of the era.

The set, designed by Tom Rogers, aptly conjures up the sense of a doll’s house, with oversized wallpaper prints and vast paintings of 18th century Bath. The impression of art, and artifice, is enhanced by a clever use of frames, from doorways to hollow mirrors – even the chair backs are left empty to provide additional glimpses.

Towards the rear of the stage, pianist Henry Everett provides suitably tinkly musical accompaniment to the scenes.

It all weaves together the atmosphere of a place and time full of passion, much of it woefully misguided.

The Rivals_Jessica Hardwick as Julia and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lydia. Photo by Mark Douet

Jessica Hardwick as Julia and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lydia in The Rivals

Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lydia is comically adept, bringing modern-day teen melodrama to her character’s lines. At times in her fervour it looked as though her wig might take flight, while her ability to slouch and swoon her way around the set belied the constrictions of her 18th century garments.

Julie Legrand as Mrs Malaprop masterfully delivers lines packed full of misattributed words: at one point she urges her niece to “illiterate’ ensign Beverley from her memory, while at another praising Captain Jack as the “very pineapple of politeness.” In some sentences there are so many false words that the only way to get the gist is through Legrand’s effusive performance: the sentiment is always clear, even if the actual meaning has slipped awry.

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Rhys Rusbatch as Jack Absolute and Julie Legrand as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals

And yet, occasionally her word choices are particularly telling, as when she describes her niece as  “a deliberate simpleton.”

In Dominic Hill’s interpretation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s script, the gender divide becomes a shrewd part of the comedy. While the men thrust and parry their way through the show, the women get on with living, using the men’s underestimation of them as an advantage. Maidservant Lucy is making a fine extra income through sharing carefully selected eavesdropped morsels, while the ever-resilient Julia quietly prepares for every eventuality. Even Mrs Malaprop shows some astuteness when she recognises that Captain Jack’s “good-breeding” has not prevented him insulting her through letters written as ensign Beverley.

This is a play in which the men rampage as rambunctious fools, while regarding their women as air-headed children, while in truth the females steer every twist and turn of the plot. Quite simply, a really entertaining, understatedly forward-thinking historical show.

The Rivals is a Bristol Old Vic, Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Playhouse co-production. It will be at Bristol Old Vic until 1 Oct
 2016. Tickets from £9.50. Find details and book tickets.

All photos are by Mark Douet.

Writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Director Dominic Hill
Designer Tom Rogers
Lighting Designer Howard Hudson
Composer Dan Jones
Assistant Director Ed Madden

I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Theatre review – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall and Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk_credit Steve TannerEvery love affair has the potential for greatness, but only a select few achieve this, and fewer still have the spirit of their passions captured on canvas for all the world to see for eternity.

Many of Marc Chagall’s exuberant paintings featured himself and his first wife, Bella, often with Bella taking flight as though in joy. In Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic’s vivacious production, written by Daniel Jamieson, the couple’s love affair and life is displayed in wondrous technicolour, with lighting, sound, an inventive set, dance and song all playing a role. As director Emma Rice says in the teaser video on the Bristol Old Vic website: “I’m finding the whole piece is like painting a picture. It’s like we’ve got a palette of things and we’re mixing our colours and mixing our ideas, and making a new art form.”

Audrey Brisson in Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk - Photo by Steve Tanner

Performed with boundless energy by Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson, we witness the pair’s first meeting and follow them through the years that follow, as they explore their love, face some of the darkest times in recent Russian and European history, and eventually make it to the United States.

Music director and composer Ian Ross
 and musician James Gow ensure the stage always feels full, even when populated by a lone actor. The wedding is a particular comic joy, beginning with Bella strolling the stage greeting guests we cannot see and admitting time and again, “Yes, yes he is a Jewish painter,” and enduring the uninvited sympathy of her relatives on one of the happiest days of her life.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk_credit Steve Tanner

Ian Ross has mined the traditional, classical and “the Rusco Romany element of folk music in Russia” to imbue scenes with atmosphere, while lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth shifts moods with an injection of colour entirely in keeping with Chagall’s paintings. The screen at the back of the stage that captures these colours also serves to show the shadowy figures of anyone standing and dancing behind it, adding another enticing layer to the texture of the show.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk_credit Steve Tanner

There are countless moments of laugh aloud humour, thanks largely to the physicality of the two actors, but also heart-breakingly tender scenes, as when Chagall is battling depression and Bella does her best to draw him out of it, and later, when Bella is taken ill.

Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall and Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk - Photo by Steve TannerSome of their darkest moments are barely touched upon however, such as their arrest and escape during World War II, when the Jewish population of their hometown, Vitebsk, has already been eradicated. At times, details like these are mentioned by a character, almost in passing, but with so much beauty and interest present on stage, the emphasis is on enjoyment – dwelling too much on the bleakness would create an entirely different play. As Audrey Brisson says: “You don’t get to see the whole thing, but you get this beautiful arch through the story.”

I fell for the art of Chagall when I visited the Marc Chagall/Dario Fo exhibition in Brescia last year, and now feel I have fallen in love all over again. Emma Rice and her team have more than done his extraordinary talent justice and brought to exquisite life one of the artworld’s greatest duos.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is on at Bristol Old Vic until 11 June 2016. Find details and buy tickets here.

All images by Steve Tanner.

Writer Daniel Jamieson
Director 
Emma Rice Assistant Director Matt Harrison
Composer and Music Director 
Ian Ross Musician James Gow
Designer Sophia Clist Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth
Sound Designer Simon Baker
Choreographer Etta Murfitt
Marc Chagall Marc Antolin Bella Chagall Audrey Brisson

I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Theatre review – Dark Land Light House

Dark Land Light House_credit Paul Blakemore3The scene opens on a tall metal structure and a single figure apparently fixing things. As the audience files in and takes its seats, he carries on – we are irrelevant. All that matters is keeping the lighthouse working and preventing ships from being drawn into the dark land below.

The man is Parcival (Derek Frood) and he has been here alone for ten years. Then Teller (Jessica Macdonald) arrives and takes the helm.

Dark Land Light House_credit Paul Blakemore

This is a story about loneliness in its biggest sense – the human race has dispersed throughout the universe and Teller is very much afraid that we truly are alone. However, as she is about to discover, there is one far more frightening possibility – that we are not alone.

Using footage, haunting lighting, sound and music by North Sea Navigator & Timothy X Atack, and even smell (courtesy of the dry ice), the play is a mastery of suspense and wonder. Jessica Macdonald is compelling as the woman left to keep the lighthouse working, with only a sentient computer, Hypatia (voiced by Laura Dannequin of Hardy Animal) for company.

Hypatia is a source of much of the wry comedy in the piece, trying out turns of phrase that seem out of place, but have been harvested from each of the preceding lighthouse keepers. There are times, however, when she also adds a thread of horror, not least when she takes too long answer, and then answers: “Sorry, I was reading a book.” Then fumbles and says, no, that’s not right. She was looking at something and now it’s gone.

There’s something deeply chilling about a machine revealing its frailties, particularly when that machine is the only thing standing between you and death.

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The dark land itself holds its own menacing presence – threatening, unknown and inexplicably enticing. Parcival calls it a siren. Teller gazes into the audience as she stares at the dark land so we get the full power of her awe face-on.

Jessica MacDonald is superb – she has us enthralled throughout, drawn in by her passion, her humour, and, towards the end, her raw distress. Derek Frood’s rough-edged Parcival is the perfect balance – the moment when they crouch together muttering about the end of the universe isn’t all easy to follow, but the depth of emotion rings true.

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We believe in these characters and care about Teller’s fate. More than that, though, you may find yourself considering the stars above you, and wondering what you could overcome and what you would give up for the thrill of travelling among them.

Eerie, thought-provoking, moving, exquisite – Dark Land Light House is a reminder of all that theatre can achieve, when done well and with a dauntless imagination.

Dark Land Light House is on at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until 30th April 2016. To book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/darkland.html. Presented by Sleepdogs, it’s produced by MAYK and is a Jerwood Charitable Foundation & Bristol Old Vic Ferment Commission.

Creative Team
Writer Timothy X Atack
Director Tanuja Amarasuriya
Original Music and Sound North Sea Navigator & Timothy X Atack
Production Design Rosanna Vize
Lighting Design Ben Pacey
Projection and Video Design Rod Maclachlan
All photography Paul Blakemore