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 immersive performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering, drawn from the depths of the ship’s history…This year The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked focuses on the night in 1846 when the ss Great Britain ran aground.

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

Previously, 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.

The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked is on from 31 October until 2nd November 2019.

All photo by Jon Rowley. Find out more and book tickets at https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/spooky-ship-shipwrecked.

Theatre review – Malory Towers

Malory Towers production photography by Steve TannerEmma Rice revels in the high jinks of vintage boarding school fiction, with a typically shrewd yet tender take on the Enid Blyton ‘Malory Towers’ classics.

Riddled with song and dance numbers, oozing energy and awash with acts of heroism shored up by a compassionate heart, Wise Children‘s second production, in collaboration with York Theatre Royal and in association with Bristol Old Vic and Bristol City Council, is as complex, entertaining & irresistible as any of the characters.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Staged within the impressively adapted Passenger Shed at Bristol Temple Meads, (which happily includes a popup by Storysmith bookshop, and a bar – what a fabulous combination, as well as plenty of tiered seating), Malory Towers is conjured with a simple set by Lez Brotherstoni (who also designed the costumes), featuring rolling desks and pull-out dorm beds.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner5With the outline of the turreted school doubling up as a perilous cliff top, you’ve got everything you need to provide the backdrop to a story full of jollity, treachery, heartbreak and forgiveness. The costumes are deceptively simple, comprising burgundy blazers and pleated tunics, boaters, virgin socks and patent leather t-bar shoes.

Projected animations add to the atmosphere, from the steam train journey to head mistress Mrs Grayling (voiced by Sheila Handcock). It’s a trick that makes much of little, and allows the focus to remain firmly on the pupils, including gorgeous ‘Bill’ Robinson, played with swagger by Vinnie Heaven.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson

Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson, centre.

If you attended the company’s debut production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, you may recognise Mirabelle Gremaud, who plays Irene Barlett, who turns backflips at the slightest provocation, and supplies much of the music composed by Ian Ross, along with pianist Stephanie Hockley.

Francesca Mills as Sally Hope delivers that character’s sensible lines with a comic touch, and reveals her megalomaniac side and “fearful heart” with such verve you can’t help but delight. Alicia Johns, played by Renee Lamb, is the class clown hiding her own secret shame beneath her humour.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey

Rebecca Collingwood as Gwendolyne Lacey, centre

Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey is possibly the biggest challenge – a truly unpleasant piece of work who is sneakily spiteful to Rose Shalloo’s meek but sweet Mary Lou Atkinson, while Izuka Hoyle’s Darrell Rivers is the fierce bestie who’d you wished you’d had on your side at school. The characters each reveal the strength wound through with vulnerability that makes them relatably comparable. This is girl power in a time before the Spice Girls claimed the phrase, a applying equally well to men with that core strength of fallibility.

Inevitably, the dramatised version has a slightly tongue in cheek tone, not least when Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle, pictured below with Francesca Mills), comments on how Alicia Johns’ is ‘deliciously naughty.’

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner3

In true Blyton style, there’s a convenient storm for our school chums to rush recklessly out into (perhaps a teacher who is more than a silhouette would have been helpful at this point), and a horse to ultimately save the day (although, the girls claim the hero is in fact “working together as a team.”)

The only weakness in the plot is that it begins in the present and deposits us here again after a superfluous foray into the school pals’ attempt at staging Midsummer Night’s Dream (a nod to Rice’s brief tenure at London’s Globe Theatre?). It these bookends were deleted, the story would hold together seamlessly, but as it is they feel like unnecessary distractions.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner10

The play neatly encapsulates the idea that each rock-solid friendship group, production company, or, let’s take a leap and say board room, benefits from a diverse and varied assortment of skillsets and points of view.

As with the Wise Children play, the power bolstering Malory Towers lies in the empathy the characters demand from us and from each other. In fact, compassion surrounded by drama, laughter and song, is becoming something of a this flourishing theatre company’s trademark.

Malory Towers is on at Bristol Old Vic until 18th August 2019 and will then be touring the UKFind 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 – Equus

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan, Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Keith Gilmore. Image The Other RichardThere’s an explosive power within the play Equus, currently on stage at Bristol Old Vic. Peter Shaffer wrote it in 1973, inspired by a crime involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses. Why would someone do that? The question resounds throughout the script, again and again, gaining intensity as we learn of Shaffer’s imagined boy’s deep-rooted love of horses.

There’s no doubt that Shaffer was a visionary, and his words hold their own more than four decades on, but the freedom given to English Touring Theatre’s production, directed by Ned Bennett, feels like an intoxication. The resulting creation is a sensuous and cerebral tour-de-force forged in horse sweat and breath.

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The set is minimal to the extreme, with three vast plain curtains containing the space, while contributing to the atmosphere of the scenes. At times, figures or props emerge through them, silhouettes of the horses are shown through use of backlighting, and on one occasion psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, performed with startling sensitivity by Zubin Varla, twitches up a section to reveal Alan sitting behind.

Played by Ethan Kai, Alan is a wonderfully complex character. Initially communicating only in advert jingles (sung excruciatingly out of tune), his gradual willingness to open up is believable and moving.

And, yes, there is full frontal nudity. Perhaps, especially following the notoriety of he ‘naked Harry Potter’ production of 2008, if there had not been the audience would have felt short-changed.

What there is not, in this fresh production, are horse masks. Instead the actors embody horses through movement directed with masterful insight by Shelley Maxwell. In the pre-show talk Assistant Director Denzel Wesley-Sanderson and English Touring Theatre Producer James Quaife explained that while they tested masks in the show’s development stages, they decided they weren’t necessary.

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget and Ethan Kai as Alan.

It’s a wise choice, as it ensures no barriers stand between us and the performers. Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nuggets melts from man to horse through subtle shifts in stance. Hands become hooves, and the harrumphs of horses breathing become almost a form of communication. In a sense, it leaves interpretation of the worship elements of the story wide open, adding to the levels of this already richly layered script.

EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

There are moments of sheer magic, not least when Dysart asks Alan, “What’s your first memory of a horse,” and we’re relocated to a seashore via the addition of six sandcastles that slide on stage fully formed. The production leaves it up to us to make sense of what we see. This trustfulness invites us to participate in envisioning the play, adding details and scope from our own frames of reference.

EQUUS. Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard.

Alan refers to horses as slave-gods, and speaks of the remarkable fact that horses allow us to control them when their size equips them to crush us in moment, if they wanted to. This idea of strength in submission pushes us to question ingrained ideas more deeply, a path Dr Dysart leads us further down in the second act as he queries his patient’s madness in contrast to his own perceived sanity. Alan’s confusion and vulnerability acts as a field into which Dr Dysart’s, and our own, can be thrown and examined.

EQUUS_Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart). Image The Other Richard.

Rubin Varla as Dr Martin Dysart

The second act takes things up a pace, as we rocket through revelations or increasing emotional intensity. The play touches on so many themes – devotion, loyalty, passion and guilt are just a few – that by the exquisitely disconcerting finale, you may find yourself ready to interrogate your own heartfelt or socially imposed beliefs.

Equus is on at Bristol Old Vic until at Saturday 20th April 2019. Find details of cast and ticketing here.

All images by The Other Richard.

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 – Orca

Orca play at Bristol old VicMatt Grinter’s powerfully understated play Orca, directed by Chloe Masterson, opens on a scene of excitement as fourteen-year-old Fan (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) prepares for her village’s annual ritual of choosing a girl to play the role of the Daughter and protect precious fish stocks from marauding orcas. Each of the village’s young girls vies for the privilege to re-enact the Daughter’s sacrifice of leaping into the ocean and the orca’s jaws to save The Father and the village.

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan and Sam Henderson as The Father in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller.jpg

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan and Sam Henderson as The Father in Orca

Fan has her dress all but ready, the flowers for her hair and her performance down pat, but there’s one obstacle. Her sister Maggie, who was chosen as the Daughter years earlier, shamed her family by telling ‘lies’ about what happens to the girls taken out to sea. The family – Maggie, Fan and their carpenter father Joshua (Finnbar Hayman) has been struggling to get by ever since.

Fan is certain that being picked as the Daughter herself will help to re-establish the family’s position in the village. But Maggie is scared that what happened to her will happen to her little sister, far out from shore where nobody can help her. It wasn’t that no one believed her, she says, but rather that no one dared or wanted to believe.

Sam Henderson as The Father and Heidi Parsons as Maggie in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Sam Henderson as The Father and Heidi Parsons as Maggie in Orca

This is the premise that has sanctioned the misdeeds carried out by men with the mindsets of Harvey Weinstein for centuries. Even Maggie’s own father dares not believe her, but she sees that there’s doubt in his heart.

Finnbar Hayman as Joshua and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Finnbar Hayman as Joshua and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Portrayed by a cast of five exceptionally talented acting students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, each character is wonderfully nuanced and human, from our hero Maggie, played with blazing determination by Heidi Parsons, to Sam Henderson delivering The Father with a skin-creeping blend of charm and threat.

Set designer Robin Davis keeps scenery pared back and humble, with a table and two stools representing the house, and bare, salt-stained boards becoming the island exterior. Lamps flicker into life to add atmosphere, while sound designer Daniel Harvey adds in the soft sound of surf keeps our minds on the sea. Matched to costume designer Oscar Selfridge’s rustic knitwear.

Heidi Parsons as Maggie and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Heidi Parsons as Maggie and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Holly Carpenter as Gretchen, a girl pulled from the waves with rope burns around her ankles, adds a palpable sense of urgency to the narrative, showing Maggie that The Father’s actions are further reaching than she suspected. Maggie never wavers from the truth, despite the pressures put on her by the community and by her own family.

Gretchen and Maggie have both had encounters with the orcas everyone professes to dread, and both feel this fear is misplaced. As the play races towards its crescendo, clarity rises from the depths of every heart, but has it come too late?

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Orca is a gut-chilling reminder that the smallest communities have room for danger, and that often the biggest risks come not from nature, but from the people who claim to want to keep you safe.

Gloriously atmospheric, rich textured and riddled with uncomfortable truths, this is a drama that will seep beneath your skin and remind you to question the society that shelters you.

Find out more at https://www.oldvic.ac.uk/events-shows/orca/

Orca is on at Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio until Saturday 16th March 2019 and is part of the New Plays in Rep season. Photos by Craig Fuller.

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 – 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.