The Little Table of Delights at Bristol Old Vic


little table

Theatre Damfino have created a vibrant and memorable family show, which all four of us would highly recommend.

The children were welcomed into the basement at The Old Vic and seated around a long ‘Hogwarts’ style table. They settled happily and after a quick wave to their parents behind them on the balcony, turned their attention to the show.

Directed by Katy Carmichael and ‘starring popular Old Vic regular’ Tristan Sturrock (as French Head Waiter), The Bristol Post describes The Little Table of Delights as ‘’another innovative Theatre Damfino collaboration, with chefs Matt Williamson and Claire Thomson of Bristol restaurant Flinty Red…’’

A white screen displayed a montage of brightly coloured photographs, depicting the journey of food from field to plate. Facing the children stood the actors in a line, dressed in chef whites. To one side stood ‘Banjo Brian’ (aka Benji Bower, the genius behind the music of this year’s Old Vic production of Jane Eyre), his Music trolley arrayed with a fine assortment of instruments. Behind him, under the balcony, hung a row of musical pans.

One of the actors leapt onto the table, promising to wait on the children, tell enthralling tales about their food and get the chef to transform these foods into delectable dishes for them to try. With a flourish, the lid covering a golden domed platter in the centre of the table, was lifted to reveal the head of the ‘Le Maitre Dee’ himself. Surrounded by a wealth of artisan breads, the ‘head waiter’ introduced the first act.

The show was divided into five acts:

Act 1 – The Story of Bread, an ancient art, invented in the Stone Age and                  perfected throughout the ages.
Act 2 – The Heart rending Tragedy of the Love Struck Beetroots
Act 3 – The Explorers in search of rich spices
Act 4 – Milk, Cheese and Eggs – The Circus Show
Act 5 – The Honey Bee

A recurring theme throughout the performance was the adept use of rhyme in the style of ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ – ‘This is the field, which grew the crop, the farmer cut to harvest the grain, the miller ground to make the flour, the baker used to make the bread…’ You get the idea…

Many props were used to dramatic effect, like the sheaf of wheat and the covered platter of soil. The children happily tucked into samples of food during each of the acts, while ‘Banjo Brian’ entertained with his wide variety of musical styles: some rousing and catchy, like the reggae song: ‘Breads of the World’ and some solemn and soulful, as befitting the untimely demise of the dancing beetroots in Act Two, my favourite part.

‘Banjo Brian’ took his guitar, and in Spanish style, sang a serenade to a specially chosen member of the audience, who was also presented with a goblet of ‘wine’, a rose and the golden, domed platter. As the cover was removed, the actors appeared shocked to find a pile of soil beneath. They apologised profusely before speedily removing the platter.

Act 2, take two, saw two of the actors begin to cajole a couple of beetroots and launch them into ‘a full-blown beetroot animation’.

‘’Let us introduce you to Betty and Bert, two beetroots with their roots in a long line of root vegetables’’, they began with a laugh. ‘’Betty and Bert fell in love.’’, they continued. ‘’They ventured through the rain and over mountains…’’ The actors marched the beetroots up and down the length of the table, whilst menacingly, in the background, a couple of chefs began to sharpen their knives. The actors continued with these dramatic words, “Little did they know what the farmers had in store for them…’’ words which Matthew could recall by heart, and which made him shudder to repeat!

And thus it was that the beets met their ‘bloody’ end. The chef whipped Betty and Bert onto the chopping board and sliced them up. At this point, the actors raised a white sheet to shield the children from this gruesome sight. Thus ended the tale of Betty and Bert. At which point, to lighten the mood, the children were served a portion of beetroot jelly and chocolate cake on a white plate. We were told that, ‘’Never before had there been two beets, whose hearts beat as Betty and Bert’s,’’ and ”That was the cake and jelly made from our two beets called Betty and Bert.’’ Here ‘Banjo Brian’ played a soulful lament on the saxophone.

I looked at the line of faces smiling across the table. What a cleverly crafted show this was turning out to be.

Matthew’s favourite part was the storm in Act 3 – The Explorers in search of rich spices.

The children were told how explorers travelled thousands of miles across the world to carry these spices home. An actor paced up and down the table to illustrate this journey to the sound of the harp and the chimes. When he mentioned Christopher Columbus, Sarah’s face lit up. We had been talking about him on the journey up. With Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, he set sail on an expedition from Lisbon on the 18th July 1497. They returned home with some of the spices we know today.

An actor had the children spellbound as he began to chalk the route they took along the table, handing out flags at the countries where they docked along the way. When he reached the end of the table, a small wooden flagship lay in wait. This ship was passed back from one child to another along the same route.

As the ship made its return journey, a wild storm blew up. A ghostly voice repeated the word ‘scurvy’ over and over again and pronounced the death of many sailors from the lack of ‘their five a day!’

Matthew thought ‘’the part where the ship was travelling back through the storm was quite scary!’’ He told me that ‘’the sounds of the storm were made by a large hamster wheel’’ rattling and whirring beneath the gallery. He loved the fact that they used water pistols to depict the driving rain and waves.

At last, the explorers brought back their bounty. The actors walked around the table with Arabian silk scarves tied round their heads. They carried spices in mortars for the children to savour, wafting the fragrances toward them with a fan. They brought round pepper, cinnamon and cumin, followed by its ‘good friend’ the ‘citrusy’ coriander (found even in the tomb of Tutankhamun). A heady scent filled the studio.

Act 4 Milk, Cheese and Eggs – The Circus Show was full of tricks and silly jokes:      ‘’…What is an eggs least favourite day? – Fryday!’’ (My children enjoyed them anyway).

Effortlessly, the clutter was cleared away; the children held up their spoons; the actors ran forward to cover the table with a clean white sheet and the sound of bees filled the studio.
And so we came to the final Act 5 – The Honey Bee, which was Sarah’s favourite part of the show.

Flowers were projected onto the cloth, the lights dimmed and a bee keeper in full regalia walked in slow motion towards a hive at the other end. Haunting words followed his every step: ‘‘No bees, No pollination – No more humans!’’ followed by Einstein’s prediction about a world without bees…

On reaching the hive, the keeper lifted out a glass frame and held it up to the light. In time to slow, solemn music, he raised a clear jug of golden honey and slowly poured the rich, sticky, gloopy contents into a glass bowl. The hypnotic song continued and I noticed one child joining in with the ‘buzzing’ chorus. The other children appeared to be transfixed, paying close attention to the bee keeper – all caught in the glow. The keeper handed the bowl of honey to the chef, who was to mix it with his custard and turn it into delicious honey ice cream for the children to taste.

Miss Honey the Queen Bee dancer was presented to the children as the final act. Dressed in a long, sparkly, golden, sequined gown, with fur lined train and wings of fine netting, she stepped onto the table. To Sarah’s delight, while Miss Honey swayed and sang her deep, swinging song, the children were handed bee bopper head bands and the rhythmic clapping and dancing continued. Miss Honey declared that there was only one thing left to do: ‘’Thank the farmers, thank the miller….’’, she continued down the list. Finally she ordered the children to stand up and follow the drones, with the startling words‘’ Buzz off out of my hive!’’ And so the show was brought to an exuberant finale, as the children filed out, bopping away with their bee bands.

I think we are all still buzzing from the memories of a vibrant and exciting show, which had an important tale to tell about the origins and value of our food.

The Little Table of Delights is on at Old Vic Studio until 4th October

– Review by Mary Stoppard, with insights from her children, Matthew and Sarah

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Elizabeth I: Virgin on the Ridiculous at Brewery Theatre

Elizabeth I: Virgin on the Ridiculous by Living Spit

Photo by Graham Burke

Photo by Graham Burke

lving spit elizabeth

Photo by Graham Burke

“It’s a comedy about Elizabeth I, virgin Queen of England.” I told my Dad when asking him if he wanted to come with me to review it. “What – like Blackadder?” was his answer, and why not.

So the deal was done, my father and I were heading to the Brewery Theatre in Bristol for a night of medieval mayhem. Now, my father is a sprightly 68 year old who has seen a thing or two, but upon entering the Brewery Theatre he became a proper bumpkin and acted like he had never seen electricity, let alone been to the theatre. He was like a child that didn’t know the rules of the theatre and in the interval he got a massive fit of giggles that drew everyone’s attention.

At the start of the second act, one actor asks us to make a big thing when the other actor comes on stage because he is feeling a ‘little insecure’, and my Father shouts out “Don’t worry, we were going to already.” Note to self – explain about the forth wall to Father on way home. Additional note to self – actually, see if Father will babysit next time so the wife can come.

Elizabeth I: Virgin on the Ridiculous is a 2 man show where silly comedy comes in spades. The opening song has a bloke with a beard in a dress playing a guitar, while another bloke in a dress stands on a chair and sings the opening line “I am a woman, who is obviously not a man.” OK, let me just hold my suspension of disbelief and see where this nonsense leads. It’s fun, and very silly.

Basically, it is the story of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen of England. It starts with her in jail about to be beheaded, then follows her rise to Queen, how the Privy Council forbade her from marrying the man she loved and her decision to therefore remain a virgin, married to the throne. It includes Sir Walter Raleigh and potatoes, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Spanish Armada (Armada from the Spanish, ‘fleet’ – I didn’t know that) and some bloke who ended up married to a lettuce. My personal knowledge of Elizabethan history isn’t 100%, so I will keep quite about the lettuce until I know better.

The actors (Stu McLoughin and Howard Coggins) play actors playing the characters, so there is a lot of ‘falling out of character’ and asides to the audience and each other, which generates a lot of laughs. Howard keeps on referring to how he played Henry VIII in the last play (and he does look the spit of him), but how he is giving Stu a shot at the limelight. Unfortunately his actions speak louder than his intentions and he is constantly trying to ‘out do’ Stu, despite his promises.

Although it is a historical play with a good share of historical facts, there are lots of Shrek-like inclusions of modern life, such as the King of Spain leaving courtship messages on Elizabeth’s answer phone (along with sexy messages from Stephen Hawking!), pregnancy tests, playing Angry Birds on iPads and Big Brother Style Diary Room monologues.

There is a great line when Elizabeth is thinking she will have seven children and name then Chris, Mike, Lee, Chas, Daniel, Mark and Suggs. But no – that would be Madness! There is even a big bit of audience participation because “The Arts Council love that type of rubbish!”

So, what did my Dad think of it all? He said “I am a peasant. I know what I like and I don’t like being educated or lectured – but I am thoroughly enjoying this. If I had seen a poster advertising a ‘comedy’ musical about Elizabeth I, I would have never considered watching it – but I like the banter between the actors and I love the songs. I wish I could buy the CD.”

“Dad, you can, for just £5.” “Great!, I’ll do that” – and he did – the first music collection he has bought since Elvis died.

It is a fun and very silly night out that was somewhere between The Office, Shrek, Big Brother and Black Adder. Historical? More like hysterical.

Elizabeth I: Virgin on the Ridiculous is on at Brewery Theatre until 4th October

– Review by Ade Bowen, Action Pussycat

Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatre

image by farrows creative

‘Filter is at the forefront of contemporary theatre-making as a deviser of new pieces.’ So, for someone unversed in the works of Shakespeare, this is a good thing, right?

Filter have teamed up with Tobacco Factory Theatre to bring their ‘playful’ version of Macbeth to Bristol audiences. Now, my knowledge of Macbeth is next to none but surely the very last adjective anyone would attach to it is ‘playful’. In fact, so base is my understanding that I felt a quick search on Wikipedia was in order before the performance, just so I would know the outline of the story. And, my God, I’m glad I did!

The stage is a square of walkways, in the middle of which is piled an array of sound equipment operated by Twenty First Century Weird Sisters at work, making a cacophony of high tech sounds. Enter Macbeth and (a female) Banquo and let the story begin.

Filter have brought Macbeth bang into today (or even into the future?): no grand costumes, a can of Coke, party poppers, a baby monitor and Skips crisps. The language, though, is of Shakespeare. The actors are obviously well accomplished; they speak clearly, project well. But I don’t know this language and 100 minutes in a comfy Tobacco Factory Theatre seat isn’t enough for me to get The Code.

Maybe there’s too much going on? Does madness beget confusion? Could be that I’m just not concentrating enough? But I wasn’t really with it, didn’t get it.  The lights jar slightly as does the static conveyor belt of a stage. I did enjoy that music, though, which adds to the weirdness and madness that must be Macbeth’s lot. And Poppy Miller gives some clarity: I understood her role as Lady Macbeth and could tune in with her somehow.

I left Tobacco Factory Theatre with an uneasiness that didn’t stem so much from the brilliance of performance but from my own self-doubt. Am I really not intelligent enough to understand Shakespeare? Should he remain elitist? Why bother? No, actually, Filter’s production has made me determined to watch other versions of Macbeth and prove to myself that this classic really can be accessible to all.

 

Macbeth plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until Saturday 20th September

 

 

– Review by Becky Condron

 

 

 

 

Strawberry and Chocolate at Brewery Theatre

Photo by Max Johns

Photo by Max Johns

Strawberry and Chocolate at Brewery Theatre, Bristol, opens to the sound of Silvio Rodriguez’s Ojalá (If Only). On the stage is a clever arrangement of books, religious iconography, a chair and three men. Welcome to 1970s Havana, a place of revolutionary fervour, sugar quota madness and machismo; a dangerous place for a gay man to be.

The revolution has offered David the chance to study at university and his ambition is to be a writer in his beloved Communist Cuba; Diego is an older man, finely attuned to the world outside of the island, a purveyor of beauty. He is homosexual; the young David is not. After a chance encounter at Coppelia ice creamery, David is lured back to Diego’s apartment and, though uncomfortable there, he returns, convinced by fellow communist youth activist, Miguel, to spy on a man who is an apparent traitor of the revolution.

And so it seems … traitor he must be. In an anti-Religion State, Diego is Catholic. He drinks contraband whisky, reads banned books from all over the globe, courts foreign diplomats. But most outragously of all, he wants sex with men.  He gives David a key to his home and the boy is smitten by Diego’s hidden, flamboyant world in a country of uniform and uniformity.

I watched the 1993 film Fresa y Chocolate in Santiago de Cuba during the mid-90s, where I hung around with mostly Cuban university friends, half of whom were gay. Although prosecution of homosexual acts had become decriminalised in Cuba in 1979, it seemed to me that the release of this film had only very recently allowed the gay community to breath a collective sigh of relief and host One Big Coming Out Party. In my circle of friends, gayness was to be celebrated. That this film was jointly Cuban made and uncensored in a Special Period ‘Socialist Revolutionary’ Cuba, where life had taken a dramatic, though temporary, downturn since the fall of the Soviet Union, is important. It appeared to be an apology for those earlier years of persecution of homosexuals, many of whom had been sent to correction camp and sentenced to forced labour on the sugar plantations. It was a cry of ‘we now welcome difference; let’s band together to make this maldito thing work!’

Strawberry and Chocolate is a love story that tries to make sense of that younger revolution. It is a discussion about what the new Cuban Man should be. You can feel the blossoming friendship between Craig Fuller (Diego) and Matt Jessup (David), who, at first seem to be different and, as the story progresses, less so. Jessup plays the slightly scared, then eager, boy well. Fuller is wholly believable as the sort of man you’d want in your life: a man of passion and intelligence. And Ryan McKen as the macho Miguel is dislikable (which he is supposed to be) but his actions are also understandable in a country rife with anti-gay, anti-religious and anti-capitalist propaganda. A good job by all and thank you for not trying to adopt Cuban accents; the ‘street’ versus ‘posh’ speak did the talking.

If I could change one thing, it would be a slight injection of wit. This is achieved in the film by a camper Diego and, though Fuller plays him beautifully, the extra puff of the lips and wink of an eye might complete his character.

I adored the set design and all credit to Max Johns for it. The ramp of books served as focal point to Diego’s ornamental apartment, whilst symbolising El Malecón, the esplanade and seawall, the beginning of the divide between Cuba and her imperialist enemy, 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. I understood every last reference in the play – from the Virgin de la Caridad and her sunflowers to the madly bustling Coppelia. I expected to feel a strong twang of longing for that country I once lived in but, no, that didn’t really happen, not while I was at the Brewery Theatre. Now, however, the morning after, I have an urge to watch that film again and to dig out some Cuban poetry, maybe cook up some Moros y Cristianos.

Almost the entire cast and creative team involved in Strawberry and Chocolate is a product of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And, so, they do it again; this city really does have a remarkable amount of talent!

 

Strawberry and Chocolate is on at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 13th September

 

– Review by Becky Condron