Theatre review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson1

George and Martha invite Nick and Honey to join them for a nightcapIt’s way too late in the evening, but what do they have to lose?

So reads the description on the Tobacco Factory Theatres’ website, and the answer is really quite a lot. Dignity, trust and self-respect are just a few of the traits that will be ripped to shreds by the end of the three act, three-hour and 15-minute performance.

Martha (Pooky Quesnel) and George (Mark Meadows) are already deeply embedded in the academic community that Nick (Joseph Tweedale) and Honey (Francesca Henry) have just joined, so perhaps it’s natural that the younger couple accept an invitation for a post-party party at Martha and George’s. But even the hosts aren’t prepared for the toxic darkness of the games that unfold between the four players.

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as nick and Honey in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The drama is almost entirely semantic (despite some exuberantly comic dancing from Henry). In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  language is weaponised, and aimed to cause maximum damage. Director David Mercatali says “When I first read it, I couldn’t believe words could be so exciting.” His four-strong (extremely strong) cast make the most of Edward Albee’s scorching lines, veering from joyful to tearful and vindictive to protective on the head of a pin. At the heart of it is a couple disappointed by circumstance, and displacing that onto each other despite a deep burning love. Without the affection and evident flickers of adoration, the cruelty might be impossible to bear.

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

Quesnel eases us in with a double-feat of performing Martha doing an impression of Bette Davis, with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor thrown in. George already has his slippers on before she announces they’re expecting guests, delivering her first kick to George as he berates her for “springing things on me all the time.”

Meadows delivers George’s commentary with razor-sharp humour.

“In my mind you are bedded in cement up to the neck,” says George to Martha in an acerbic moment. “No, up to the nose, it’s quieter.”

The laughter, anecdotes and snarky remarks grow increasingly frantic as the booze flows and each individual makes admissions that they’ll most likely regret. A gun presents a joke and flowers become missiles while a broken bottle crushes to dust under their feet.

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round space presents the ideal arena for the challenges, with Anisha Fields’ minimal set providing only the essentials – two chairs, a long low backed (thankfully – for those sitting behind it) sofa with books strewn beneath it, a side table with a record player, and a well-stocked bar. It paints the era without fuss, and keeps our focus on the couples.

Quesnel is startling and unnerving, veering from welcoming hostess to seductress to weeping child desperate for love. Meadows is equally adept, revealing George’s underlying rage in small parcels between entreaties and insults. Over the course of the play he refers to Martha as his “yumyum”, and a “cyclops” without missing a beat. And when Honey coyly asks to use the bathroom, George says to Martha: “Show her where we keep the euphemism?”

Tweedale’s Nick holds his own against George, defending both his own wife and Martha against the barbs that come their way, even as the alcohol reduces him to a jocular jock, leaning into the toxic tomfoolery. Henry’s Honey is keen to like and be liked by all, slipping in observations that strip away the veneer momentarily. Her comic timing lifts some bleaker moments into laughter, keeping us on the right side of this emotional juggernaut of a play.

It is long, and could perhaps benefit from having a few lines shaved off here and there, especially in act two. But it’s hugely enjoyable too. Even as you squirm in your seat for those on stage, feeling your own adrenalin heighten, you can’t help being aware of the glory of seeing sharp minds battle it out and wonder who if anyone will make it out alive.

A searing indictment of thwarted ambition, with deep sadness and enduring love at its heart.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, until 21st March 2020.

Images: Mark Dawson Photography.

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, get in touch.

Theatre review – A View From The Bridge

A View From the Bridge_l2r Mark Letheren as Eddie, Laura Waldren as CatherineArthur Miller’s powerful human drama examines the loves and loyalties that can threaten to destroy us, if we let them have their way.

In the second production from Tobacco Factory Theatres’ inaugural Company season in Bristol, director Mike Tweddle has forged a suspenseful examination of the layers that make up a family, and the forces, both internal and external, that can threaten it.

Eddie Carbone works tirelessly at the piers of 1950s’ New York to provide for his wife Beatrice and the niece, Catherine, he has raised as a daughter.

A View From the Bridge4Catherine is seventeen, almost a grown woman, and Eddie’s protective side is struggling with the fact she’s increasingly attracting admiring gazes as she walks down the local streets. If he had his way she would remain a child forever. “Katie, you are walkin’ wavy! I don’t like the looks they’re givin’ you in the candy store. And with them new high heels on the sidewalk – clack,clack, clack. The heads are turnin’ like windmills.”

A View From the Bridge_Mark Letheren as EddieActor Mark Letheren inhabits Eddie as a man seething beneath the surface, while projecting himself as a man at ease within his neighbourhood and adept at out-manoeuvring any difficulties that arise.

Everything accelerates when his wife’s cousins arrive from Italy as desperate illegal immigrants.

A distinctively pared-back set by designer Anisha Fields represents the Carbone home and dockside – with just a few blocks, chains and sparse pieces of furniture, a whole world is conjured. As meagre as Eddie and his fellow pier-workers’ incomes are, these are the wealthy relatives compared to those still in Italy, where jobs are so scarce that babies are fed water when they cry.

The two men who arrive couldn’t be more different, despite being brothers. As Catherine points out, one is as dark as the other is light. And as Eddie observes, “Marco goes around like a man,” while his brother, Rodolpho, played by Joseph Tweedale, prefers to sing, cook and sew – details that palpably discomfort Eddie.

Catherine, on the other hand, is instantly charmed.

A View From the Bridge3

Laura Waldren, fresh from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, is a delight as the beloved niece who unwittingly sets this story on its tragic journey. Lively and expressive, she portrays a young girl struggling to grasp the changing expectations of her. “It’s wonderful for a whole family to love each other, but you’re a grown woman and you’re in the same house with a grown man. So you’ll act different now, heh?” urges her aunt Beatrice (a beautifully nuanced role from Katy Stephens, last seen as Lady Macbeth in The Tobacco Factories’ breathtaking first Company production).

Eddie’s disturbed when Catherine and Rodolpho begin to spend time together, and believes Rodolpho is only after the papers he needs to begin his US citizenship. But his distrust, his wife believes, is less to do with Rodolpho than his own feelings towards Catherine.

A View From the Bridge, Aaron Anthony as MarcoAlongside this is Marco (played by Aaron Anthony, (another Bristol Old Vic graduate, who played Banquo in the afore-mentioned production of Macbeth), who says far more with action than with words and bristles with unspoken levels of familial devotion and angst.

This is a story of possessiveness and machismo, where a man’s good name is worth the world. As Eddie’s fear of losing Catherine rises to the fore, his humour disappears and we see a man riddled with jealousy. The transformation isn’t a pretty one. Eddie becomes a man trapped within his own lies to himself, building up an elaborate network of reasons for not wanting his niece to be with Rodolpho.

Simon Armstrong as Alfieri the lawyer says, it was “a passion that had moved into his body, like a stranger.”

A View From the Bridge5

There are moments of sheer majesty in the production – scenes that will stay you, resonating with unuttered tension. A chair lifted is a warning from of one alpha male to another, while a few lines of a song can make you shiver with the richness of the loss echoing in the space.

All images in this review are by Mark Dawson Photography.

A View From The Bridge is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol until 12th May 2018. Book tickets and find out more: www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/view-bridge-arthur-miller/

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 Light Princess

The Light Princess3 cr Farrows Creative

The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Based on a 19th century Scottish fairytale by George MacDonald, The Light Princess tells the story of a princess cursed to have no gravity, either physical or emotional.

In Tobacco Factory Theatres‘ joyful interpretation of the tale, produced in association with Peepolykus and directed by John Nicholson, the princess (played with charming delight by Suzanne Ahmet), has been afflicted by her slighted aunt to drift away at the slightest gust of wind, and find the humour in every situation.

Suzanne Ahmet as The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Suzanne Ahmet as The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

While this may seem more a gift than a curse, the girl’s enduring frivolity is reducing the kingdom to a mockery as people are inspired to do as they wish, rather than what they ought. More worrying still, as her mother The Queen wisely points out, how can you ever fall in love if you cannot fall?

When the royal family take a boat ride on their lake, the princess takes to the air until a breeze blows her in to the water, where she discovers a wonderful thing – while she can’t stay earthbound, water gives her gravity, at least physically. But how will she find her emotional gravity?

Amalia Vitale in The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Amalia Vitale in The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

The seven cast-members play a remarkable assortment of comic, melancholy and evil characters, from philosophers to a trainee witch (the impressive Amalia Vitale, shown above) to court conductor Verity Standen who leads a capella harmonising that add such texture and atmosphere to the tale.

The Light Princess1 cr Farrows Creative

The prince and his horse, The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Then there’s the serious, long-faced prince seeking a princess worthy of his love, who falls for the princess and ultimately finds a way to save her, and her kingdom.

No spoilers here, just a hint of a giant snake who gets crowned king, a talking horse (or is that a man dressed as a horse), some fantastic punnery and one of the finest water fights ever staged.

The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Richard Holt and Suzanne Ahmet in The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Gorgeous costumes, family rivalry and abdication, puppetry, heart-breaking film footage and a grief scene as powerful as any Shakespearean tragedy, and you’ll be swept away by the action from beginning to end. Gloriously irreverent, inventive, and spilling over with colour (and water), this show is a visual, literary and musical treat.

At its heart, The Light Princess is a story about balance – light versus dark, and levity versus gravity. Because, as even The Light Princess must ask, can you ever be capable of true happiness is you’re unable to feel sad?

The Light Princess is produced by Tobacco Factory Theatres in association with Peepolykus. It’s on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 10 January 2016. Book tickets and find out more at www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com.

Review – Triple Bill at the Tobacco Factory Theatre

Polly Crockett-Robertson cr Films.Gb

Polly Crockett-Robertson © Films.Gb

The latest show from Third Stage Dance Company at The Tobacco Factory offers up three delightfully different acts making use of dance to tell stories that stir, intrigue and engage.

The first, justWORDS, begins with a dark stage with fleeting moments of light, illuminating a lone woman dressed in black while words, spoken in German, murmur overhead. As a writer, I’ll admit I wished the words were in English, as the only one I grasped fully was ‘liebe’ – ‘love’. Perhaps that was all that was needed, though…

The stage illuminated fully, and I felt we’d entered the woman’s dream. Dancers took turns on centre stage, before a familiar trio, Polly Crockett-Robertson, Sara Mather and Luke Antysz, began to spell out tales of tenderness, betrayal and reconciliation while other dancers flooded in and off stage. Recurring motifs, some of which were achingly sensual, contributed to the dream-like feel.

Triple Bill1 cr Films.Gb

© Films.Gb

The second act, Invitation Only, presented work by guest choreographers and dancers, including the impressive RISE Youth Dance Company who exhaled energy and emotion – particularly in the breathtakingly angst-filled last set. Stunning.

In the final act, Never Brought To Mind, the dancers, dressed in pastel-pop shades of lemon, peach, aqua and palest green, waited at a railway station for a delayed train.

Live music from the Ryan O’Reilly Band provided a folksy soundtrack for a series of dances that showed off the talent of this innovative company. It was a cheery, visually compelling note to end on, with some standout performances (Gudrun Derrick dancing to the song ‘Elizabeth’ was simply gorgeous), and made me wish delays were always so entertaining.

I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out to see what Third Stage gets up to in future.

Triple Bill cr Films.Gb

© Films.Gb