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Posts Tagged ‘Bristol Old Vic’

I clearly remember the moment twelve years ago when I gasped as an army officer raised his gun to shoot a horse. A puppet horse. In the Olivier Theatre. Almost the entire audience gasped with me. In the second half of this play I winced as a man with a broken leg in a makeshift splint crawled across moraine high in the Peruvian Andes, all imaginary. Thats the magic of theatre.

This must be one of the most unlikely stories to make it onto a West End stage, but then again it’s put there by Tom Morris, one of the creators of War Horse, and adapted by one of our finest playwrights, David Greig. You can write about your survival after a near fatal climbing accident, and you can film where it happened and take testimony from those involved in a documentary, but how on earth do you stage it? The answer is imagination, of the survivor as we hear what’s in his head and his dreams, and in the staging where you take the audience on a journey where they suspend disbelief.

Designer Ti Green uses just tables, chairs, pub features and a hanging frame to create both worlds. Movement with lighting, music, and a soundscape add tension and atmosphere. Four hugely talented young actors – Josh Williams as survivor Joe Simpson, Angus Yellowlees as his fellow climber Simon & Fiona Hampton as Joe’s feisty sister Sarah who he talks to in his head, all three in very athletic performances, and Patrick McNamee lightening the tone as backpacker Richard looking after basecamp. Greig’s structure and Tom Morris’ creative staging enables the story to be told like a thriller, even though you know the outcome.

I wasn’t convinced I wanted to see this, it’s not really my genre, but the buzz changed my mind and proved to be true. Great to see the work of three regional theatres working together to create something so good and being rewarded with a West End transfer that broadens the options for theatre-goers. Definitely one to recommend.

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This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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The 2011 illustrated children’s novel by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobahn Dowd, who had cancer at the time, has already been made into a successful film, released only 18 months ago. It’s harder to imagine a stage adaptation, but this has been entrusted to theatre-maker Sally Cookson, responsible for the NT’s Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, also co-productions with Bristol Old Vic, who’s got plenty of imagination.

Teenage Conor is very close to his mother, and is struggling to cope with her cancer. His dad, who visits, is separated from Conor’s mum and has a new family in the US. His grandmother is practically supportive but emotionally somewhat distant. Conor is being bullied at school. He has fantasies revolving around the yew tree visible from his room (a tree associated with death and from which cancer treatments have been derived). It appears to become a monster and wake him with a nightmare at the same time each night, telling him stories to teach him lessons that will help him come to terms with the situation. In parallel, in reality, Conor has violent outbursts trashing his grandmother’s house and severely injuring his school bully.

Cookson places the story on a white stage in front a white wall. The nightmares are created by projections and a soundscape and the yew tree and monster by ropes and shadows and they are both extraordinary. The live music by Benji Power and Will Bower is integral to the piece. A terrific cast of thirteen play all of the roles, led by Matthew Tennyson, who gives a deeply moving performance as Conor. I engaged more with the story of the illness and its impact than I did with the fantasy, though it often took my breath away. Maybe that’s because I’m not the child it was intended for.

This is creative, captivating storytelling that shouldn’t really work on such a big stage, but does, as Cookson’s work has also done in the Olivier. The younger members of the audience were initially their usual fidgety selves, but in the second half were silent, which tells you a lot about the effectiveness of the storytelling. Under Matthew Warchus, The Old Vic is heading in a very different and fascinating direction, and I’m enjoying the ride.

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This is the play that started my obsession with the work of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, more than thirty years ago in a Jonathan Miller production with Jack Lemon as James Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as James Tyrone Jnr. I was the same age as James Jnr. Now I’m the same age as James Snr. Subsequent productions had Timothy West and David Suchet as James Snr. The 2000 West End production had Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, with Olivia Coleman as the Irish maid. Now its the turn of Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.

It’s O’Neill’s most biographical play, which he insisted wasn’t published until 25 years after his death, and never staged, but his widow didn’t honour this wish. It’s a long play, 3.5 hours in this Richard Eyre production, part of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary programme. It takes place over one day and night in one room in the Tyrone home. James is a Shakespearean actor, drinks a lot and is a bit of a bully. His wife became addicted to morphine during her recent illness. Youngest son Edmund is seriously ill. His elder brother has followed his father into acting, more by default than anything else. The only other character is Cathleen, the Irish maid, whose scenes bring some light relief to what is otherwise a rather depressing piece.

Rob Howell’s impressionistic design is beautiful, also lightening the gloom of the play. The performances were a touch tentative at first, but became more natural as the play unfolded. Jeremy Irons’ James is an appropriately charismatic presence as James. The wonderful Lesley Manville navigates Mary’s decline delicately, with carefully controlled emotionality. Rory Keenan plays a spiky James Jnr, under the influence of alcohol most of the time, and Matthew Beard a fragile Edmund, both excellent. I very much liked Jessica Regan’s cameo as Cathleen.

This is a high quality revival and its good to see another Bristol Old Vic production in the West End, but it didn’t engage me emotionally or maintain my attention as it should, probably more to do with me and the night I went. Don’t let me put you off.

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Victor Hugo was fond of outsiders, and the grinning man seems to be the hunchback’s lesser known brother. Written in 1869, it has subsequently been adapted as a film six times and for the stage four times, twice as a musical, like this new one from Bristol Old Vic. He may also be the inspiration for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Here the tale gets a suitably Gothic telling in a brilliant production by Tom Morris.

Set in 17th century England, young Gwynplaine’s mouth has been mutilated and now has a rather spooky perpetual grin. He rescues an infant girl when her mother is frozen to death and they are taken in by carnival proprietor Ursus, where Gwynplaine uses his misfortune to make his living in freak shows. The infant is named Dea and she’s blind. When she’s in her teens, they fall in love, but Gwynpaine is lured away to the royal court where he is destined to marry into royalty, but instead he returns to the carnival, which proves tragic.

Jon Bausor’s transformation of the problematic Trafalgar Studio I is terrific and his Gothic design and Jean Chan’s costumes combine to make a great look. Finn Caldwell & Toby Olie’s puppetry is highly effective, particularly Ursus’ pet wolf, where an actor seems to be a part of the animal. Tim Phillips & Mark Teitler’s music has a darkness to it and is unlike any other musical theatre score I’ve heard since The Tiger Lillies’ Shockheaded Peter almost 20 years ago. It’s a big book and Carl Grouse has done a fine job creating a much shorter, clear narrative.

Louis Maskell is excellent as Gwynpaine, though we never see his real face, and I loved Sanne Den Besten’s fragile, blind Dea. Their exit at the end took my breathe away. Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro and Sean Kingsley as Ursus are both outstanding and Mark Anderson brings a lighter touch to Dirry-Moir, the royal suitor Gwynpaine deposes.

It’s another breath of fresh air for the West End and I do hope it finds its audience there; on the night I went, they loved it, as did I.

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Though I’ve seen screen, TV and stage adaptations, I have to confess I’ve never read Charlotte Bronte’s clearly autobiographical book. Sally Cookson and her company and creative team here deliver a Kneehighesque Complicite-like staging. It uses every trick in the minimalist book (apart from puppets!) – bare wooden stage, platforms steps & ladders, frames & lightbulbs, fire & smoke, ‘movement’ & music. It proves to be a highly effective, lucid, nicely rounded production.

It’s a touch slow to take off and to settle, but I was shocked when I realised at the end of the first half that 100 minutes has passed; it didn’t feel like it. Mind you, it took us from Jane’s birth through her miserable childhood with her aunt, schooling and teaching at Lowood to Thornfield and her position as governess, and the seeds of her relationship with Mr Rochester. I thought her period as teacher was rushed and the passion between her and Rochester played down, but it was very good storytelling nonetheless. The 70 minute second half covers a much shorter, more intense period as the relationship evolves as an emotional roller-coaster, returning to birth, of Jane’s child. It held me throughout, though it didn’t move me as much as I would have expected (though the lady next to me was in tears, normally my default position).

Ten actors and musicians play all of the roles. Madeleine Worrall’s journey from feisty child to defiantly independent woman is very well navigated. Laura Elphinstone manages five characterisations including brilliant performances as school friend Helen and Rochester’s French ward Adele. Felix Hayes has a commanding presence as Rochester and Maggie Tagney doubles up as the evil aunt Mrs Reed and the more empathetic housekeeper Mrs Fairfax and does both very well. Oh, and Craig Edwards is a superb dog (amongst other roles)! There’s a very eclectic selection of music from Benji Bower (including Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy!) most played live by his on-stage trio and it adds much to the success of the evening. The wonderful Melanie Marshall’s singing is heavenly.

I was worried that this style might be a bit lost on the Lyttleton stage (I kept imagining it in BAC’s Grand Hall, its natural home), but that was less of an issue than I thought, at lease from mid-stalls. I was also worried the NT audience might not take to it, but the ovation proved me well and truly wrong. A very welcome co-production with Bristol Old Vic, whose Artistic Director brought Jerry Springer – The Opera, Coram Boy, A Matter of Life & Death and War Horse to the NT’s stages – what a track record!

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It’s 35 years since I first saw this rarely revived Hugh Whitemore play about the poet Stevie Smith and I recall being rather captivated by it, perhaps as much by the performance of Bristol Old Vic regular June Barrie as much as anything else. Unlike most recent revivals, I’m afraid this hasn’t stood the test of time, though again I was captivated by Zoe Wanamaker in the title role.

Today, it seems odd to write a major play about a minor poet; perhaps that’s the crux of it – the play has faded as the poets legacy has? What seemed a beautifully written biographical piece now seems a bit ordinary. It’s largely a monologue, Stevie telling us her life story interspersed with her poems and interrupted occasionally by her beloved aunt and some of the men in her life. The later life in the second half is more interesting than the early life in the first, perhaps because the actual life was too. However, I was left thinking why would you write a play about her?

What is not in question is Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Stevie, transformed by frumpy frocks and schoolgirl hair. She often seems to be talking to you personally as she scans the audience, making eye contact and drawing you in to her story. There’s excellent support from Lynda Baron as the aunt who shares her life and Chris Larkin as all of the men who are ‘extras’ in her life story, and at times as narrator. Simon Higlett’s huge period Palmers Green living room is finely detailed, becoming expressionistic as the top left seems to morph into the trees outside, but it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense to go to for a pay that is so static, hardly using such a superb creation.

I’d like to see more Whitmore revivals (Breaking the Code anyone? More timely!) but on this form I wonder if his style has indeed had its day. The school-kids in the front row of an extended arc configuration seemed to be totally unengaged (which must have been as distracting for Zoe Wanamaker as it was for me). Worth seeing for the fine performance, though and for once a play that is as conservative as the Hampstead Theatre audience!

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