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.

EQUUSR~4

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 – 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.

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 – Jungle Book by Metta Theatre

Jungle Book - Photo5 by Richard DavenportWhether you’re a fan of the Rudyard Kipling original, Disney’s animated version or the more recent life-action release, Metta Theatre’s street dance extravaganza adapted and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan offers something completely new.

Exploding onto the stage at Bristol Old Vic until 29th July, the set is minimal, the cast compact and the story stripped right back, but the energy is overflowing.

Jungle Book - Photo1 by Richard Davenport

Raw, ruthless and stark, the world we enter blurs nature and the urban jungle, with each animal group represented by a different gang. Bagheera (Kloé Dean) is a street artist armed with a spray can, the wolves are skateboarders (Matt Knight and, aptly, Ellen Wolf), and Baloo (Stefano Addae) is an endearingly comical street sweeper. Streetlights double up as trees and crowd control barriers create different areas of conflict and confinement.

Jungle Book - Photo4 by Richard Davenport

Costumes merely hint at the characters we’re witnessing – jackets and hoods with strips of fur, or a slinky shimmer of green in the case of Kaa (Nathalie Alison). More striking are the movements employed by each animal tribe – their postures and rhythms immediately let you know the species being shown.

Shere Khan, played by the disturbingly flexible and double-jointed Kaner Scott, fills the stage with tension every time he limps on. As the lighting by William Reynolds alters hue to hike up the atmosphere or change setting entirely, he picks up pace to chase a mother wheeling a pram off stage, and the sense of something terrible about to happen is palatable.

Jungle Book photo by Richard Davenport

Mowgli, in this instance a girl played by the spirited and charismatic Alfa Marks, brings the opposite mood on stage – bringing humour, light and a great deal of charm. We watch her being tutored by mentors Baloo and Bagheera in the dances that will help her survive jungle life, with each gang having its own particular moves, from sinuous Kaa to the raucous and mischievous monkeys.

The suited humans have their own language, depicted through frenetic, almost robotic steps. Their light is also far colder than that of the more feral parts of the jungle, adding another sinister thread to Mowgli’s survival story.

It’s all enormous family-friendly fun, carrying us through scene after scene on a wave of sizzling vivacity. The scene where Mowgli tries on different formal clothes and samples a series of formal dances shows off the breadth of her talent as well as heightening the contrast between jungle and so-called civilised living, with a healthy dose of comedy. The circus skills, particular those performed by Mowgli and Kaa, are extraordinary to watch, with aerial choreography masterminded by Alfra Marks.

Jungle Book - Photo2 by Richard Davenport

This is a performance that reaches beyond words to attain something far more emotive, animalistic and elevated. My only quibble? Mowgli’s closing speech urging us to use our words to stand up for what we believe in. It’s a confusing conclusion to a play where body language takes precedence so powerfully.

Jungle Book is at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until 29th July 2017.
 
Find out more at www.bristololdvic.org.uk.

All photos by Richard Davenport.

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 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.

the-rivals_rhys-rusbatch-as-jack-absolute-and-julie-legrand-as-mrs-malaprop-photo-mark-douet

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.