Half-Term Takeover at Bristol Old Vic – Squashbox Theatre

Today is a double whammy at Bristol Old Vic, as Cornish educator extraordinaire, Craig Johnson of Squashbox Theatre, delivers 2 different but equally entertaining shows.

Curious Creatures is aimed at kids aged five and over and is jam-packed with pretty much everything.   Zoo attendant, Craig, has been left, unexpectedly, to oversee his Uncle Jeremiah’s Wildlife Park, while the older man is stuck somewhere in the middle of the Congolese Jungle.  Trouble is that Craig is more used to cleaning up poo than administering any sort of care to the animals.  That’s fine; he can call on a number of friendly experts to help out.

Cue a parade of wonderful puppets and (barely) disguised Craigs – experts on bugs, mammals, reptiles and those more unusual creatures, such as the Yeti and the Beast of Bodmin.  Facts are given to us without the fear of overload and laughs are plentiful as humour is used throughout the 50 minute show – an audience-watering elephant who is scared of mice, alligators trained by humans, Brendan the super flea.  Chaotic.  The squeezebox comes out on a couple of occasions and the song Evolution causes my seven-year old to ask, “So, I was a jellyfish?”

After the performance, she wrote her own illustrated review.   Accompanied by drawings of all manner of animals, including the ever-so-clever orang-utan, she says, “I loved it very much. I loved the part where the chicken was supposed to be scary.”


The second show of the day is Universarama, a journey through space, hosted by Professor Johnson of the Squashbox Theatre Astounding and Amazing Astronomical Research Society, or STAAAARS.

This is pitched at those of eight years and over and is faster paced than Curious Creatures.   We get to study the solar system, our galaxy and the whole damned universe, meeting Astronomy’s historical figures, from Copernicus to Galileo to Newton, each one endearing and amusing.  This is a mix of puppetry, music (accordion and ukulele), disguise and chat.  A humble OHP with slides is used to terrific effect and we learn fair amount, both adults and kids.  I know more about nebulae, the size of our solar system (illustrated to us with vegetables) and the death of a star than I did before the show plus I can tell you a Uranus joke or two.

Universarama really gets my daughter’s brain ticking.  She chooses to draw as our one-man show darts around the stage, doodling pictures of emerging stars and the order of the planets as he disappears once again to transform himself into someone else.  He must be bloody exhausted!

Craig Johnson is a talented natural teacher and oodles of fun.  Go and see him!

Find out more about Squashbox Theatre here

Half-term Takeover runs at Bristol Old Vic until 3rd November

– Review by Becky Condron



HAG at Bristol Old Vic


I entered the Pit at the Old Vic; this stage is becoming a favourite. The Pit is set up so the seats all look down onto the stage area. The stage was set with a semi circle of hanging skulls a gas fire and rubbish mound, adorned with an old lady chair, covered in blankets. In the background a folk tune played on string instruments. The atmosphere was building.

As the lights dimmed, the Hag, Baba Yaga, came out. Baba Yaga’s costume is ingenious; the longer I watched the more convincing it became. The old Glaswegian accent reminded me of visits to my scary aunt as a child. For me the accent helped build the tension and fear, but I think that’s my personal experiences.
In the play there are eleven characters, yet there are only four actors. I was incredibly impressed at how this was achieved. The play is a mixture of dark folk tale and comedy. Both are here in equal measure. The cast successfully draw you into the tale with the believability of the characters.
At one point I was brought almost to tears, the sadness palpable. This was soon replaced again by laughter. The story is reminiscent of several tales from my youth but different from all.  
I would happily go to see this play again and I do not think it is too dark for children, nor does it go on too long for them to sit through but this may depend on how sensitive your little ones are. Mine were all made of fairly sturdy stuff and would have been more concerned about me being scared :).
Please go and see this fabulous folk tale it is a perfect pre halloween treat.
HAG IS on at the Bristol Old Vic until 26th October.
– Review by Cat Daynes

The Open Sessions – Bristol Old Vic


Scene Changes

Today’s show was composed of extracts from new plays collectively called Scene Changes. Each of the four pieces, all by a different writer, had a unique feel and flavour. The rough sketches, sometimes with script in hand, were brought vividly to life by director by Sita Calvert Ennals and a team of 6 actors.

The first play, Handful of Ribbons, paints the picture, via monologue, of a middle aged man looking back on his life. There an air of regret. As a hedonistic youth he spent long hours with his gay friend, with whom he now no longer wants contact. He reminisces on their days spent trying to get what they could out of life often at the expense of others. The picture is scripted well by writer (and performance artist), Tom Marshman, of an unfulfilled older man who wishes to escape the ‘dark cavern of the past’. There are ironies; once a shop lifter in department stores, the main character is now a lowly employee of such a shop. Despite technical difficulties with a video link at the end this was an atmospheric start to the evening.

The next play, Man Diving, took the perspective of two Bosnians during a time of civil conflict. The scene painted is desperate; ’35 000 mouths to feed and nothing to give them’. Portrayed with some cynical humour the two men are scathingly dismissive of the Croatian ‘enemy’ and the two English ‘peace keeping’ armed forces who came to assess the situation. The gulf between parties is huge; The writer (and poet) Tom Phillips gives a script that is sharp and punchy.

A military theme follows with the third play, Army Boy. The dialogue, funny and poignant in places gives a sketch between a young army recruit about to go on a tour of duty and his civilian friend. We are given a window into their banal conversation, crude and ludicrous at times. Scriptwriter, Ellen Smith, manages to impart a good balance between light-heartedness (drawing a lot of laughter, especially from the females in the audience!) with a glimpse of the sombre nature of being sent away to war.

The final piece, Hooligan nights, takes us back to nineteenth century London. A journalist, writing a book about the gang underworld, is getting drawn in further than intended when he takes a shine to a gangster’s girlfriend. Established playwright Shaun McCarthy portrays a seedy side of London in 1898 with parallels to crime in the modern capital. Together with the talented cast, a wonderful, dangerous picture is painted.

The actors Alex Dunbar, Kesty Morrison, Oliver Jenkins, Simon Jenkins, Ed Browning and Philip Perry (also assisting director) play convincingly. Praise goes to the whole team who managed to pull the performances together in amazingly little time. And watch this space for further emergence of scriptwriting talents.

– Review by Francesca Ward

Saturday Stories at Bristol Old Vic


This second Saturday Stories at Bristol Old Vic features Charlie and Lola creator, Lauren Child.  The first was with former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpugo.  Nothing shabby about the Old Vic is there?

Event number two and the main theatre is about three-quarters full with families.  At just £4 a ticket, I reckon, it should be at least that!

Two chairs and a small table are placed at the front of the stage, a large screen with a pair of eyes and the name “Ruby Redfort” behind them.  The interviewer, James Peries, enters and tells us the format of the show – for 45 minutes he will ask Lauren Child questions and then he’ll hand over to the audience for about the same amount of time.   After minimal fuss, James welcomes the successful author and immediately begins to ask about her work.

My seven-year old daughter doesn’t seem too bothered by the applause that bursts from the auditorium; she’s busy drawing in her notebook.   We home-educate and I’ve learnt by now that drawing whilst listening is one of the ways she absorbs.  At least I think it is.

Ruby Redfort is a series of books for older children.  Ruby herself is 13 and, very cleverly, has been developed from a marginal character in Child’s Clarice Bean, whose audience will one day outgrow Clarice and require something more substantial to suit their age group.   The privileged audience here discovers that Ruby and her family were borne of the author’s own childhood fixation with Hollywood glamour and we get a glimpse of how her house may look.  But really it’s up to us, the readers, to decide those finer points, she points out.

We learn a lot about Lauren’s fictional characters.  Lola, for example came about as the result of a train ride in Denmark – a real little girl with captivatingly pointy eyes, very blond hair and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  Her brother, Charlie, is based on a friend of his creator, while Lola’s invisible friend, Soren Lorensen, is also real (in an imaginary way).

Lauren Child is friendly and interesting and she must be inspiring so many of the kids here, listening to her talk.  And so many of the adults.  Questions are answered fully, wittily, sometimes going off on relevant tangents.  She tells us about her earlier-life “Chandeliers for Poor People,” a venture with her friend Andrew that, though it collapsed as an enterprise, left her with all this material, some of which became the backdrop to the Charlie and Lola series.  We hear how she wasn’t an overnight success as a writer (“not many people are”) and she tells us about those painful rejections from publishing houses.  She explains the “low-tech, high-tech” quality of her work and we get to see some of her early illustrations.  Throughout the talk, we are able to look at hand-picked images, projected on that screen behind.

There are more Q & As from the audience than Lauren has time to answer but, Boy, she gives it a good go.  We hear about the importance of gerbils in her younger life and how they came to appear in so much of her work, about her grandmother’s lumpy mash and eyelash gravy and that she loves to write sitting up in bed.  We are given an insight into this writer’s life and work.  It is a truly lovely way to spend a Saturday morning.

And, after all, did my daughter get anything out of it?

After the interview, over cake in the Arnolfini café, she draws a picture of her own imaginary friend, Hillary, and challenges me to ask questions about him.  Hillary has been around for five years but this is the first time that I’ve ever seen a representation of him or even been allowed to find out more about his life.    We spend the rest of the day in Bristol and when we get home some hours later, she rushes to the ipad, heading straight for Netflix to watch Charlie and Lola, a show I thought she’d recently grown out of.  She must have been thinking about it all day.   I’m in the kitchen, “Mum! Come here!!”  She’s paused the screen to show me – “Look! Lauren Child. It says Lauren Child!  We met her today!”  So excited.   She watches pretty much until bedtime.

I have no idea whether Bristol Old Vic will continue the Saturday Stories series, as none are currently being advertised.  I can only hope that more quality interviews, like this one with Lauren Child, are brought to the people of Bristol and its satellites.


– Review by Becky Condron

Alice in Wonderland at Tobacco Factory Theatre

We pass through the door of the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s auditorium to a sign that reads, “Warning, this production contains lot of hay”.   Actually, 84 bales of hay, according to Paul Davies, the director of Volcano’s touring Alice in Wonderland.  Hhmm, a set made entirely of hay (so much so that I can still feel my nose tickle)?  Our interest is raised and so are our eyebrows when we find ourselves sitting next to cast member, Jenny Runacre, asleep under a book, hugging the bundle of hay on her lap, which turns out to be Dinah the Cat.

“… and what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” she muses, yawning, passing her cat to a member of the audience, before clambering over those in the seats in front of us.

So, this is Alice?

Well, yes.  Yes it is but so are the other four women who appear on stage, hidden until now behind the ubiquitous hay, a face here, an arm there.  All the Alices use their own unique set of movements, jerking, crawling, legs sprawling – a glimpse of, a nod towards, other characters in Lewis Carroll’s classic story.

This version of Alice in Wonderland is a gloriously riotous affair.  There is no sweet girl in a pinafore dress but there are women in back-to-front braces.  It takes me half an hour to realise that Alice, all of her/them, wears her trousers inside out, another half an hour to notice that her top is the same.

This Alice tells the story of Woman.  Woman and dreaming.  I asked Mark how it worked for a man, “It takes a strong man to be comfortable watching that,” he replied (and yes, he was, by the way).  The whole play is crazy mad but there is a particularly manic, inspired scene, set to Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” when we are taken through the stages of a woman’s lot, each Alice representing a phase in her life: baby; adolescent; young woman; mother, old age and death.

It is impossible to choose a stand-out performance amongst these five actors.  We agreed that, of all of them, Ashleigh Packham did something for us; though it’s hard to pinpoint what – her beauty, sex, talent, promise?  Holly Rivers’ head movements are unnerving and well-timed, being accentuated by her white Mohican, which sometimes you see, while at others it seems to disappear, blending into the hay set.  And Holly’s rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is worth hearing.  Why have I never before listened closely to the lyrics of that song?  Reaya Sealey reminded me of a Charlie Brooker character, menacing yet gentle.  She has a dancer’s soul, for sure.  Mairi Phillip’s plays an excellent drunk Queen of Hearts and Scottish Nationalist, a real heart and soul performer.  And, my, that woman is strong!  Jenny Runacre adds maturity of years and experience, so essential to the success of the play that I wonder how it would have worked without her.   Jenny’s yogic headstand as the Caterpillar is applause worthy and she manages to maintain dialogue in this pose for a few minutes.

In fact, physicality is the name of the game as far as Volcano’s Alice goes!   The actors sweat, pant, run, laugh, crawl over the audience (literally), throwing it sweets. They play wind instruments, dance, chat, scream, confer, cry.  They introduce us to the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, Dormouse, Flowers, Gardeners, Packs of Cards, Mad March Hare, Baby as Pig – all of Carroll’s characters are here.  We witness the Tumble, the Caucus Race, the Executions, the crazy, crazy Tea Party, The Trial – a much-loved tale interpreted so as to make you spin out.  But it’s all here.  And more.

As we left the Tobacco Factory, I felt sorry that the (maybe bemused?) smaller-than-it-should be audience gave our Alices a warm and friendly but reserved applause.  Now I wish that I’d jumped up on stage to hug them, shouting as loudly as I could, “You are wonderful.  We are all wonderful!”

But, of course, I didn’t.

Alice in Wonderland runs at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 12th October

– Review by Becky Condron


Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic


Condensing one of Dickens’ best loved novels down into an eagerly awaited stage production is an ambitious undertaking, but this is what Neil Bartlett and the nine cast members of Great Expectations have chosen to do this autumn at the Bristol Old Vic.

I arrived at the theatre with the classic 1946 movie looming large in my mind and a great deal of curiosity as to how this production could possibly rise to the twin challenges of competing with its iconic predecessor and bringing Dickens’ vast world to life. In answer to the first, it cannot; although given that it is such a different beast it is perhaps ill advised to go expecting it to.

With regard to the issue of conjuring up the world of Dickens’ novel, much of the atmosphere is generated by an eerie soundscape and striking lighting design, most notably for me during the hunt for the escaped convicts out on the open moors and to depict Miss Havisham’s horrifying death scene. There was no attempt throughout to hide the vastness of the Old Vic’s stage, which is impressive and worth seeing in itself. Scenes were made using only a few tables, chairs and old doors, moved about by the cast in choreographed sequences that invite the audience to use their imagination to construct everything from a horse and carriage and Pip’s humble blacksmith home, to Miss Havisham’s labyrinthine mansion and the stews of old London town. On a couple of occasions the doors are used to create reveals that are as pleasing as any good magic trick however, the use of microphones to amplify certain lines over others felt clunky to me, as did some of the scene changes where the cast seemed to struggle with unco-operative tables on wheels.

Miss Havisham, played by Adjoa Andoh in a manner that at times brings to mind a mutant hybrid of giant spider and Wicked Witch of the West, steals the show. “She’s creepy!” whispered one of the children closest to me, and indeed she is. Tom Canton as Pip, and Laura Rees as Estella did a passable job of playing their characters from childhood through to adulthood, although some of the more exaggerated childish mannerisms rang false and ultimately grated. A far more subtle stage presence comes from Tim Potter’s skillful portrayal of his dual roles as Joe Gargery and Mr Jaggers, and Timothy Walker’s haunting Magwitch.

The action takes its time to build through the first half, only for the pacing to pick up to a frenetic level after the interval. I was seated with a number of groups of young people of various ages and it became clear that they were struggling to keep up with the twists and turns of the story. A number of times I heard “I don’t get it” and just after Miss Havisham’s demise, one child turned to his parent to ask “Is she still alive?” The play had lost quite a few of them by the time a curtain fell, judging by the increased level of whispering and fidgeting.

Ultimately, I found the production unsatisfying. Some excellent performances and effects couldn’t make up for the times when my ability to suspend my disbelief became strained or was entirely broken by the awareness that I was watching a cleverly staged play. By the end I just wasn’t engaged enough to mind that the quiet denouement of the piece was accompanied by a young audience member rustling her way into a chocolate bar

Great Expectations is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 2nd Novemeber

– Review by Sam Maher

Peter’s Friends at the Tobacco Factory Theatre


Review of Peter’s Friends, Tobacco Factory, 6th October 2013

Peter is a magician and Peter has friends.  All Peter’s friends are magicians as well.  This gave Peter a great idea.  Peter invites his friends to the Tobacco factory to do some magic shows once a month, and we can all watch.

The Tobacco Factory is a fantastic venue.  We arrived on a Sunday evening and it was thriving.  The lounge bar was full, people were rehearsing in the studios, and a sell out crowd was waiting patiently for the magic performances to start.  Very cosmopolitan – I could get use to this!

I took my dad, because he loves magic as much as I do, and he wanted me to say how comfortable the chairs are with (and I quote) fantastic lumbar support.  So, if you have a dodgy back, then you can come here in confidence that it will not be your aching back that makes you walk out of the show.  My dad is so rock and roll.

Bang on time, Peter walks out onto the stage with a big smile.  He explains that it is a cabaret evening of magic and laughter, before embarking on a lovely little card trick.  My dad and I have chosen seats close to the front and off to one side.  So we have a pretty good view of the action, and we can’t work out how he does the trick.  Straight of the block, we are impressed.

First guest act is Andi Gladwin, who preformed at President Obama’s Inauguration ceremony, no less (http://www.illusionist.co.uk).   He used to be a computer programme, but now he does magic, he tells us.  He is good and he has some mightily cringe worthy and geeky jokes.  “I have invented a new game,” he tells us.  “You try to drink a cup of coffee while on the back of a jumping donkey.  It’s called Starbuckaroo!”

With my knowledge of magic though, I can tell most of his magic uses self working tricks.  There is nothing particularly clever in the routine, but it is funny and well delivered.  His final act involves him getting inside a big balloon and doing a silly dance.  Not magic as such, but funny to watch.

After the interval, we are introduced to Alan Hudson (www.alanhudson.net).  We are told that Alan has performed on the TV show ‘Penn and Teller Fool Us’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFnh_pDRCMc), and has performed for the Beckhams.  Alan tells us it was much harder to fool Penn and Teller – no surprises there!

Alan is immediately likable.  He works the audience well, he has a wit that reminded me of Lee Mack.  By the end of his first trick, I have tears of laughter rolling down my face, which makes it even funnier for me when I was chosen to help with the second trick.  This involved the two of us wearing pink gift bags over out head (Alan asks the audience “if someone walks in, please tell them this is not the gay branch of the klu klux clan”) and me popping coloured balloons and him guessing which colour it was – which he did correctly.  I have no idea how he did it, and I’ve watched him do the trick online since when the balloons are popped in a different order and he still gets it right.

That’s magic!

The jokes come thick and fast, the magic was seamless and his rapport with the crowd was brilliant, and very cheeky in places.  His delivery was confident, his magic was original and I was impressed!

Peter’s Friends is back on Sunday 3rd November with 2 different magicians.  Tickets are priced at £13 (£10 concession).  Book by phoning 0117 902 0344 or online at www.tobaccofactorytheatre.com.  If you like comedy and magic, then it is a great night out.  I’ll be going back for sure.  See you there?

– Review by Ade Bowen
Action Pussycat and wanna be magician.