Theatre review – Dr Semmelweis

Mark Rylance (Dr Semmelweis) and the Mothers. Photo by Geraint Lewis

Imagine a world where the existence of germs was still unknown and hand-washing was considered a burden? Imagine being the person who makes the connection between unclean hands and patient deaths, and tries to convince the medical profession that soap and water could save lives?

Stemming from an idea by Mark Rylance from the true story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna in the 19th Century, the play has been developed by playwright Stephen Brown, director Tom Morris and the company at Bristol Old Vic have created a show of drama, peril and human heartbreak. With Ti Green’s pared-back split-level set that makes the most of a rotating floor and transforms with artful lighting design by Richard Howell, we’re inserted into a world where women could expect to lose their lives to childbed fever soon after giving birth.

DR_SEMMELWEIS_company. Photo by Geraint Lewis

Dr Semmelweis, played with an extraordinary range and depth of emotions by Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall, The BFG), wants to know why the women directed to the midwives’ ward are so much less likely to die that those taken to the doctors’ ward. We watch him make leaps in understanding with our hearts in our mouths, all while the ensemble of ‘mothers’ die, dance and writhe around him. The eeriness is present throughout, keeping the 19th Century awareness of mortality close. The musicians, dressed as ‘mothers’ and employing all the uncanny spinetingling spookiness provided by strings, contribute to this mood.

Choreography by Antonia Franceschi and sound design by Jon Nicholls serve to keep the audience tautly in tune with the troubled doctor as he fights to save more women joining the ghosts who haunt him.

 Mark-Rylance-and-Clemmie-Sveaas-DR.SEMMELWEIS.-Photo-by-Geraint-Lewis.

Mark Rylance and Clemmie-Sveaas with the ‘mothers’.

Yet there are smatterings of humour too – we open on a scene of Dr Semmelweis playing chess with his pregnant wife Maria (Thalissa Teixeira), a scene that shows off his wit and sharpness with dizzying swiftness. Interactions with his colleagues and friends (Felix Hayes, Sandy Grierson, Daniel York Loh), also bring some light relief. Nurse Anna Muller, played with brilliant forthrightness and feeling by Jackie Clune, while earnest Franz Arneth (Enyl Okoronkwo) and doubter Johann Klein (Alan Williams) provided opposing energies for Rylance to shine against.

Towards the end, it’s Thalissa Teixeira as Maria who won much of my focus, as she struggles to keep her husband from insanity as the medical profession turned their back on him despite the evidence.

Thalissa Teixeira and company of Dr Semmelweis. Photo by Geraint Lewis

It’s Maria who has the final word, standing centre stage and reminding us of how grateful we should be to Dr Semmelweis today. Teixeira shows such compassion throughout that through her character’s eyes we can see the vulnerability and humanity in the sometimes difficult and occasionally cruel genius of Semmelweis.

This is a powerful powerful slice of medical history that feels particularly on point in a time when we’ve been continually urged to wash our hands to save lives. Add to that the beauty of the staging and direction alongside Rylance’s exquisitely nuanced performance and you have a challenging truth gift-wrapped in artistry that makes this a fully sensory experience.

Photos by Geraint Lewis.

Dr Semmelweis is on at Bristol Old Vic until 19th February 2022. Find out more and get your 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. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Theatre review – Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest

Dorian Simpson (JJ), Tom England (Will Scarlet) Pic Craig Fuller Seeking a festive show with love, laughter and unexpected poignancy? Attending Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show is a firm festive tradition for many families, and 2021’s offering meets and surpasses all expectation. In collaboration with the Wardrobe Ensemble, this retelling of Robin Hood is as imaginative and visually spectacular as you’d expect. In the hands of directors Tom Brennan and Helena Middleton, the production also unexpectedly moving in a way that ensures it lingers.

We open with twelve-year-old school boy JJ (played brilliantly by Dorian Simpson, who succeeded in making me forget his six-foot+ frame so that at times I was truly concerned for the little child’s safety). JJ is a die-hard fan of Robin Hood and, as mentioned in a passing comment, of Oceans Eleven. When he opens a mysterious handwritten book about his favourite folk-hero, he is magically transported back in time to the 13th century.

What follows is a glorious mash-up of medieval adventure and Hollywood heist. If you’ve seen any of the Wardrobe’s previous film re-imaginings, you’ll be unsurprised by how beautifully this works.

Robin’s Merry Crew have long since disbanded due to a tragedy no one wants to talk about. That leaves JJ with the task of getting the gang back together, which requires family man Will Scarlet (a witty and urbane Tom England), a really angry Maid Marion (the convincingly lethal Katya Quist), and drunken, gambling Friar Tuck (embodied by Jesse Meadows with fabulous comic aplomb).

Jesse Meadows as Friar Tuck.

Jesse Meadows as Friar Tuck.

But the first task is to convince Robin Hood that she actually wants to step back into the role of hero.

Bristol Old Vic and the Wardrobe Ensemble are never too concerned about sticking to gender norms, and in this case , Kerry Lovell is the perfect casting for the troubled ex-outlaw as she unwillingly reunites with her former friends under JJ’s ebullient insistence and absolute belief.

Kerry Lovell (Robin) and Dorian Simpson (JJ), Pic Craig Fuller

Kerry Lovell as Robin and Dorian Simpson as JJ

JJ’s determination that they should all wear bright green tights adds to the visual humour (not least at Meadows Friar Tuck somehow manages to tuck her robes into hers, creating the portly figure earlier incarnations have presented.

The Sheriff of Nottingham is on the brink of celebrating his 29th birthday for at least the second year, while fleecing his subjects of every hard-earn penny. With a page-boy wig that keeps his evil persona comic rather than terrifying, actor James Newton expertly crafts a spoilt but deadly rich boy who craves love but only knows how to inspire ridicule and fear.

James Newton as The Sheriff with the company. Pic Craig Fuller

James Newton as The Sheriff with the company.

There are nods to the film productions JJ and much of the audience grew up with, as well as more modern movie and TV references, not least a sing-off and a dance-off. Look out for Will Scarlet ascending from above the stage in a lime-green body suit, plenty of sword-fighting from Robin and the Sheriff, and some exceptional slow motion running from the full Merry Crew. There’s also an outstanding kiss that will make you want to cheer.

Original compositions from Tom Crosley-Thorne alongside some familiar tunes had the audience clapping along, and there was a sense of being part of the story throughout.

This is a hugely enjoyable theatrical extravaganza crammed with jokes, drama and a few tears as well as a strong message about friendship and self-forgiveness. Exactly what’s needed on a dark winter’s day.

Photos by Craig Fuller.

Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest is on at Bristol Old Vic until at 8 Jan 2022. There are specific socially-distanced performances, signed, captioned, relaxed and audio described performances during the run. Find out more and get your 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. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Theatre review – Wuthering Heights

Kandaka Moore (Zillah), Ash Hunter (Heathcliff), Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor), Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Witney White (Frances Earnshaw:Young Cathy). Credit Steve Tanner

Kandaka Moore (Zillah), Ash Hunter (Heathcliff), Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor), Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Witney White (Frances Earnshaw:Young Cathy). Credit Steve Tanner.

Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights contains all the energy, humour and darkness you’d expect from the love child of Emily Bronte’s novel and Wild Children’s imaginative prowess. As with all the company’s productions to date, the first thing you’ll notice is the spectacle.

Puppetry, cleverly minimal sets, mood-altering lighting, original music and some truly stirring dance choreographed by Etta Murfitt, all serve to drive the story and setting directly into your veins.

TJ Holmes (Robert), Tama Phethean (Hindley Earnshaw:Hareton Earnshaw), Witney White (Frances Earnshaw:Young Cathy) Ash Hunter (Heathcliff) and Jordan Laviniere (John). Credit Steve Tanner

TJ Holmes (Robert), Tama Phethean (Hindley Earnshaw:Hareton Earnshaw), Witney White (Frances Earnshaw:Young Cathy) Ash Hunter (Heathcliff) and Jordan Laviniere (John). Credit Steve Tanner.

Not to mention the fact that one of the cast members is credited as the Leader of the Moor.

It feels only fitting that the landscape with such a crucial role in the story should have an aspect in human form, with Nandi Bhebhe crowned as the Leader, while often surrounded by other actors contributing to the sense of stormy weather and, perhaps unexpectedly compassion for the characters. In fact, every cast member other than Ash Hunter (Heathcliff) and Lucy McCormick (Catherine) takes their turn, while Heathcliff and Catherine embody the wildness of the moor in their own particular way.

The play opens as the book does with Lockwood (Sam Archer, who is also a wonderfully nuanced Linton) arriving in futile hope of a hospitable welcome at Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff is master, and his daughter-in-law Cathy (Catherine’s daughter, played with endearing warmth by Witney White) and her cousin Hareton (Tama Phethean) live in fearful servitude. As the storm makes Lockwood an unwelcome and unwilling guest, he soon discovers that the place is haunted by more than chilly draughts and Heathcliff’s tempers.

Ash Hunter (Heathcliff) and Katy Owen (ISabella Linton:Linton Heathcliff). Credit Steve Tanner

Ash Hunter (Heathcliff) and Katy Owen (ISabella Linton:Linton Heathcliff). Credit Steve Tanner

As he flees the ghost of Catherine, Lockwood, and the audience, learns the story of Wuthering Heights from the Moor. Violence, betrayal and death are ever present, but comedy rears up at every opportunity, not least in Katy Owen’s marvellous portrayal both of Isabelle Linton and her son Little Linton. If you recall Katy Owen’s performance as Grandma Chance in the company’s debut production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, you won’t be surprised by her apparent ability to shapeshift between these roles.

Early on a nod is made to the confusing multitude of names and connections. Each death is trailed by a character carrying a chalkboard showing the deceased’s name, while the evocative digital screen at the rear of the stage shows a flock of birds taking off with each final breath.

There are no ends to the ingenious means employed to tell this story, and the cast, band and creative team’s skills are showcased throughout. Under Emma Rice’s direction, Ash Hunter and Lucy McCormick expose a possessive, obsessive love as disturbing as Heathcliff’s dogged revenge against all who have wronged him. Lucy McCormick’s vocal exertions are sometimes sweet, sometimes eerie and often powerfully emotional, not least her song in the first half as she chooses between comfort and love. The musical performances provide the sense you’ve attended a gig as well as a play.

Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor, Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Kandaka Moore (Zillah). Credit Steve Tanner

Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor, Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Kandaka Moore (Zillah). Credit Steve Tanner.

As the Moor sings in the start of act two, this is not a love story – if we want love we should go to Cornwall. Yet despite this, there is hope for happiness at end. With such beauty, verve and vivacity in every scene, you’ll emerge buzzing.

Wuthering Heights is on at Bristol Old Vic until 6th November 2021 and runs at York Theatre from 9th-20th November and the National Theatre from 3rd February-19th March 2022. Live broadcasts will be available to watch from home from 4th-6th November. 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 – The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter cr Jack Offord2

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter photo by Jack Offord

We may not be able to make it out to theatres this festive season, but Bristol Old Vic has come up with an ingenious way for you to get your cultural Christmas fix from home, and support them in their efforts to keep their noses above the snow.

The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter is a visual and musical feast that I originally reviewed in December 2015. To tempt you to take a look, I’m re-publishing this review here.

While aimed primarily at tiny tots aged 2-6, like all the best children’s fiction, it includes plenty of humour for grown folks too, thanks to the talents of the three multi-tasking performers, Clare Beresford on the double base, Miriam Gould on the violin, and Dominic Conway playing guitar, banjo and ukulele.

Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway in The Night Autumn Turned To Winter Photo by Jack Offord

Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway. Pic cr Jack Offord

The show is a collaboration between the celebrated Little Bulb Theatre, Farnham Maltings and Bristol Old Vic, and is crammed with moments to treasure, regardless of age. Keen on opera-singing rabbits? They’ve got those. A moral conundrum between a fly, a frog and a spider? It’s in there. A Scottish owl quoting poetry by Robert Burns? Absolutely (and this one is a particular pleasure). There’s also a smattering of audience participation as we aid the woodland wardens (who happen to be fairies, though not of your usual fey and Disney-fied variety) in helping the animals prepare for the long winter ahead, but just enough to keep the smaller audience members entranced.

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter photo by Jack Offord

Miriam Gould and Clare Beresford as opera-singing rabbits. Photo by Jack Offord

As clever lighting shifts the timescale from day to night, one final treat may be in store – a glimpse of the winter unicorn. Give yourself up to the magic of the spectacle and you’ll feel a shiver run down your spine as it finally trots into view…

To invite the wonder into your home, you can buy the Bristol Old Vic At Home Season Pass and watch The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter along with four other stellar Bristol Old Vic productions (including their extraordinary A Christmas Carol), for just £12.99. Alternatively, you can rent The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter on its own for 48-hours for just £4.50.

Find full details here.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget and Ethan Kai as Alan.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.