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Posts Tagged ‘Bristol Old Vic’

For the second year running, the most original and enjoyable Christmas show in London hails from Bristol. Last year it was Swallows & Amazons from the Old Vic; this play with music (no, it’s not a panto) is from the Tobacco Factory, in a co-production with Travelling Light.

Similar folk tales exist around the world, and this adaptation is a mash-up, with the German (Grimm) and Chinese one’s to the fore. It’s darker and quirkier than what we’re used to. Ella’s mum dies in childbirth and her dad soon after he marries his obnoxious second wife, who has a son & daughter rather than two daughters. Ella first meets the prince – a twitcher – in the forest and a flock of magical birds replace the fairy godmother. The wicked stepmother puts her son in a frock for a second chance of bagging the prince as a son-in-law and the slipper becomes a rather cool jewel-encrusted boot.

It’s a little slow to take off, but when it does it charms you. Two multi-instrumentalists, Brian Hargreaves & Adam Pleth, provide a superb soundscape, music and songs. Katie Sykes design is shabby cool, with trees made from plywood, a lot of large paper lanterns & a mirrorball and everyone wears Doc Martens. The costumes, particularly the ball gowns of the step-mother, sister and son, are great. Sally Cookson’s staging has echoes of early Kneehigh – creative, minimalist, captivating.

The five performers play all roles (and birds) brilliantly. Craig Edwards is as nasty a step-mother as you could wish for, Thomas Eccleshare is a terrific nerdy prince (who handled the audience’s impromptu but inappropriate panto interruptions with wit and aplomb), Lucy Tuck & Tom Godwin take the step-sister and step-brother on a journey from nasty to nice and Lisa Kerr is a sweet tomboyish Ella.

This is far too good for kids; get yourself there pronto.

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Six days in and we already have the first treat of 2012, back at the Vaudeville where Potted Panto, the last treat of 2011, was. This Bristol Old Vic production by Tom Morris is about as far as you can get from the big show values of Shrek & Matilda and the traditionality that is panto. The Walker children go off on their own by boat to an island in the lake to play. Here they fight the pirates of the Blackett sisters, who they eventually become real chums with. Even the adults, Walker mother and Blackett uncle are caught up in this imaginary world of play.

Arthur Ransom’s early 20th century story is adapted well by Helen Edmundson and given a somewhat appropriate homespun production on a simple stage where the props are assembled from everyday objects (the parrot is a tri-colour feather duster and pliers!) and the sound effects created live on stage. There’s a charming score from Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) played by on-stage musicians doubling up as actors in what has now become a familiar style. The children are played by adults.

It takes a while for your imagination to engage and your inner child to emerge, but by the end you really wish you could go back to that den in the bushes with your bestest friend and play. For it is imagination that is the essence of this show, and it completely captures what happens (well, used to happen) when children occupy themselves for hours on end in worlds they create in their heads. 32-year old actor Stewart Wright really is youngest brother Roger, those ribbons waving are a lake and the feather duster and pliers that talk really is a parrot. There is a beautiful sequence at the end where the audience join in with the ‘play’ to assist the boats on their journey.

Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akita Henry and Stewart Walker are terrific as the Walker children, with great chemistry between them. Celia Adams and Sophie Walker are lovely as the Blackett sisters. Seven other actors play all other roles, every instrument, sing and create the sound effects. They look like they’re having as much fun as you are and it’s all very infectious.

It was the quietest family audience I’ve been in for some time, which might have something to do with their ages and backgrounds, but in my opinion has more to do with the fact that they, like me, were lost in this imaginary world, oblivious to all around them. I remember the moment when 1100 people gasped in the Olivier Theatre as a puppet horse was about to be shot, and you get the same feeling here – theatre really is magic.

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This isn’t a panto, but a made-for-TV musical by the masters of the form. It starred Julie Andrews and when it was aired in 1957, some 100,000,000 watched – 60% of the US population! Though it has been on stage before, outings are rare. I saw a lovely production at Bristol Old Vic almost exactly 8 years ago, but I’m not sure it has been in London in the 30 years I’ve lived here. So off to Turnham Green we go…..

They haven’t changed the age-old story, but it’s stripped down to nine characters, with an excellent Helen Colby here doubling-up as the Stepmother and the Fairy Godmother, and an ensemble of two! The music isn’t their best, but better than much (and certainly better than any panto version I’ve seen) and its played really well here by a 5-piece band (which sounds a lot bigger). Christopher Hone’s design is superb, working wonders with the tiny Tabard Theatre space in very inventive ways that themselves make you smile and Alex Young’s direction is very sure-footed indeed.

Kirsty Mann and Vlach Ashton are excellent romantic leads and Brendan Matthew & Sarah Dearlove very good as the King & Queen. I loved the interpretation of Cinderella’s sisters – Kate Scott as a somewhat manic Joy and Lydia Jenkins with rather more ‘attitude’ as Grace. The prince’s Steward Lionel was given a bit of a camp makeover by Josh Carter to good effect.

Given the time of year (and this was a matinée too), this somewhat sophisticated entertainment was played to rather too many young children I’m afraid and the seat kicking, crisp & sweet eating and fidgeting rather wore me down. This is far too good for kids (and in my opinion certainly not suitable for under 7’s) and maybe an evening performance would have been better. That said, congratulations to the Tabard for quality alternative seasonal fare.

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