Arabian Nights at Brewery Theatre

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“Was it a mistake to bring the iPad today?” I think, as she sits in Mark’s Bread below Southville’s Brewery Theatre, making a list of all the buildings she’s spotted on the journey, plotting how she can fit them into her new Minecraft world, taking note of where a skyscraper might be best placed.

We’ve arrived at North Street early, partly by design, partly due to the rigidity of the WsM-Bristol train time table. This is always a bonus, as it means that we can take time in this lively, friendly bakery and have some tea and cake, while we watch the busy bakers through the window, revealing mouth-watering smells as they open ovens, uncovering fine-looking pastries and bread. She polishes off her Mendip Moments ice-cream (this place keeps it local) and declares, “A theatre! My world needs a theatre!”

And, really, what would life be like for us without the theatre? Particularly one that brings us productions like Story Pocket Theatre’s Arabian Nights, a show that really fires the imagination in all of us.

Luke Pitman is the actor on stage, watching the audience stream in to take their seats. He smiles and then begins to interact with us so that we are wrapped up fully in the show before it even starts (don’t get there late if you embarrass easily). He introduces himself as the storyteller.

The storyteller!

There are 3 actors in this version of Arabian Nights and, let me tell you, they are all excellent storytellers. And, anyway, Arabian Nights is about storytelling, isn’t it? It is but, from the many incarnations I’ve seen in my life, not everyone is that good at interpreting Sheherazade’s 1001 tales.

But these guys are naturals, keeping the kids and adults spellbound throughout the hour-long show. As the actors morph from one character to another with ease and persuasion, it becomes clear why the printed programme does not assign each of them any one character. Sheherazade’s cunning and skill must save her life and Story Pocket Theatre has decided to concentrate on four of those stories, which the cast tell through multiple roles.

Expect fun! William Forde is hilariously Monty Pythonesque, particularly in his role as Abanazar, Aladdin’s evil ‘uncle’. At times, Luke Pitman appears to be Jim Carey doing Rik Mayall – so very expressive with a gorgeous dose of slapstick – and Yasmin Goodwin brings clarity to the show, helping to pull it all together with wit and elegance.

The set is dominated by a crown-like white structure, reminiscent of a Moorish castle, which obeys those magic words … Open Sesame … and acts as a screen for the cast, at one point transforming itself into a boat.  And there is unexpected chair puppetry in The Little Beggar, a heartwarming tale of community responsibility, or lack thereof.

Arabian Nights is fast-paced, tight and funny. It’s half term fun for the very young (there are three-year olds loving every second) to adults who seem to have come without kids!

We loved it and, after all, Minecraft is just one way to imagine a whole new world!

Arabian Nights is at Brewery Theatre until Sunday 2nd November

– Review by Becky Condron

The Great Big Story Mix Up at The Bristol Old Vic

GBSMU carouselThe Great Big Story Mix Up

“Are we off to see Goldilocks today Mummy, or a play about a king? Because the poster doesn’t seem to know WHAT the story is today!” said my 5 year old girl on getting to The Bristol Old Vic where we were seeing ‘The Great Big Story Mix Up‘. Truth be told, I couldn’t answer. You see, the play we are about to see has not been rehearsed, as it is up to us, the audience, to decide who the characters will be, what the props are and how the story will unfold. We are promised a mix of improvisation, songs and general silliness, which sounds alright to me.

We enter the studio performance space and are confronted by a stage that is littered in different props, with a bulging rail of different costumes. Our band of likeable actors then enter the stage and introduce themselves to the storymakers, and explain how things will work. The audience participation is immediate, with children being invited to chose cards which would determine what characters were going to be in the story. One child was put in charge of the ‘Horn of Song’, with another the ‘Horn of dance’. (If you want to know what these are, you will just have to come along and see for yourself!). My girl was thrilled to be chosen to pick a card, and even more pleased when she picked the Three Little Pigs. For one actor to play at the same time. This brought on lots of giggles on her part, which continued throughout.

The actors Robin Hemmings, Toby Hulse, Jesse Meadows and Lauren Saunders improvise their roles with wit and comic timing, often bursting into laughter as they attempt to make up rhymes that sometimes don’t quite work, are not quite able to find the right word or go off on an unexpected tangent. But it is slick enough and silly enough to please both the adults and the kids in the audience.

We can’t say what your show will be like, as no two shows can be the same. But you should try and catch it nevertheless, as it is gentle, comic, silly and lots of fun.

The great Big Story Mix Up is on until Saturday 1st November at The Bristol Old Vic.

By Karen Blake

The Gruffalo at The Bristol Old Vic

Gruffalo-600x283On the way to the Bristol Old Vic theatre today to see ‘The Gruffalo Live’ my 5 year old girl loudly proclaimed “Mummy, I am too old for The Gruffalo now. I am NOT going to enjoy it.” Well, she enjoyed the train ride to Bristol. She enjoyed drawing in her book and eating her cheese sandwiches. She loved that I bought her an ice cream BEFORE the show started. And once in the theatre, I saw her face light up, and her curiosity stirred as she chatted about the deep dark wood that had been recreated on the stage. “Mummy, is there going to be a real Gruffalo? Not that I’m scared…”

‘The Gruffalo Live’ is a production by the ‘Tall Stories’ company, comes to Bristol fresh from a West End season, and is (obviously) an adaption of the classic book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. I also learnt today that this book is 15 years old. Really?! This is a perfect little show for kids and their grown ups. Perfect in length at 55 minutes, any longer in my experience and my little girl gets twitchy. Enough scariness to make her hug me in places but not so scary that it was too much for her. Sweet and funny, with enough audience participation to keep the children’s interest but not too much that the adults then wish it would stop! We both loved the wonderful interpretation of the party loving snake with his glitter, hip shaking and maracas. After the show, she collapsed into giggles, and when I asked her why she said she kept thinking of the ‘funny man pretending to be the funny snake’. She said her favourite character was the mouse, I felt like the main narrator and eventual Gruffalo stole the show with his comic asides and silly ‘nut map’ dance. We both really enjoyed it, and, as for my grown up little 5 year old who initially was refusing to enjoy it, she clapped, cheered, roared like a Gruffalo and laughed along with the best of them.

The one thing I would say is that the +3 age range is probably about right. Although nothing particularly scary happened, it was noisy, and a few of the younger members of the audience did have a few tears in places. That said, nobody expects a show full of a few hundred under 7’s to be quiet, so it really didn’t matter.

So, did she enjoy it? Yes, we both did. But don’t just take my word for it, here is her own mini review.

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‘The Gruffalo’ runs at the Bristol Old Vic until Thursday the 7th, go to the website for more info and tickets.

By Karen Blake

Strictly Balti at Brewery Theatre

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‘Our lives are full of boxes’ says Saikat Ahamed as he opens the stage at Brewery Theatre for Strictly Balti, his one-man tale of life as a second generation Bangladeshi boy in Birmingham.

And the set is just that, a series of boxes that Bristol-based Ahamed sits on, jumps on and upturns throughout the show, never quite managing to ever fit into one. And why should he? How could he? At home he is Saikat, at school he is Sid and, on a family trip to the Motherland, he is the English boy. His parents want the best for him, “to be a doctor!” and, though he’s an accommodating boy, he doesn’t always understand the sacrifices the older couple have made in order to improve their son’s life.

Brought to us by the excellent Travelling Light Theatre Company, this is the (autobiographical) story of anyone who has ever had to grow up, regardless of their parentage, because it’s a story about the absolute need to fit in. Everyone argues with their parents, most of us had a first crush, many kids struggle with identity issues, we’re all made to do things we’d rather not do.

Sometimes monologues can be delivered with anger, even brutality, but Saikat’s journey is told with gentle humour and honesty. He loves his parents, that’s plain. But, blimey, they can be set in their ways, demanding, out of touch with what it really means to be ‘English’. I liked the man Saikat, I would have liked the boy. He kept my attention and I don’t think I missed a word he said.

As we follow Saikat through primary and then secondary school, we can relate to him and his life, even though not one person in the audience seems to have a strand of Asian in them. Some of us, however, will know what it means to be second or third generation Irish, say. We might have felt the pull of dual, sometimes seemingly opposing, communities or that talk of ‘home’. We may have experienced the suspicion of others (though racism, interestingly, is never mentioned by Saikat) and the inner battles of otherness.

We stayed on at the Brewery for the short Q&A with our protagonist, which I throughly recommend you do if you get the chance. This gave us a fuller insight into the performance (not that it needs explaining; there’s nothing complicated about the ideas or the delivery) and connected us more strongly to this character, this actor who never became a doctor.

Due to popular demand, Tobacco Factory Theatres have added extra dates for Strictly Balti so, if you’re lucky, you still might get the chance to see it.

Strictly Balti is on at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 25th October

– Review by Becky Condron

L’apres-midi d’un Foehn – Version 1 at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Jean-Luc Beaujault

Photo by Jean-Luc Beaujault

I could tell this was going to be something a little out of the ordinary upon reading the title, which, let it be known, I had to research.

L’apres-midi d’un Foehn is a play words, taken from Claude Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’une Faune, to which, among other Debussy compositions, this piece of theatre is set. The French composer’s work, in turn, was the inspiration behind Nijinsky’s ballet of the same name in 1912.  And now, here, in Crying Out Loud’s contemporary mime, the word Faune (faun) has been replaced by Foehn, which is a dry, warm Mediterranean wind.

So …

So, this is still ballet but with a difference. It’s a ballet performed by Jean-Louis Ouvrard and a dozen or so plastic bags; the cheapest-looking, most disposable plastic bags that you are likely to find. The sort that you put your potatoes in and they fall out of the bottom to lollop and roll around on the lower deck of a London bus, while fellow passengers try to rescue them with you. No? Just me then?

We enter the Old Vic Studio Pit to find our human performer pacing a circle with solemnity, as if he’s sussing out the set up, looking at what’s available to him, wondering what he can do with the two pink, thin plastic bags and six electric fans available to him. We take our seats around the circle as he contemplates and, once we’re all also pondering his next move, he takes out a pair of scissors and some clear tape to display how these two bags can be fused to create a near diaphanous figure.

The lifeless bag-person is placed in the middle of the circle and the six fans switched on, one by one. Ouvrard retreats to a mixing desk of sorts, where he manipulates the flow of air emanating from each fan. And the dance begins.

Our plastic bag takes on a life like no other you’ve ever seen; unfurling, twirling, swirling, dancing, prancing, skating on invisible ice and up, up high, flying, laughing, inviting others to join him. And they do.

This is a magical, extremely clever puppet show. All the puppets are crafted exactly as the first, none of them has strings but are given movement solely by controlled air. Or wind (that Foehn, see?) The performance is beautiful and gasp-inducing, complementing the music perfectly. Ouvrard is a skilled ballet master and his ballerina bags follow his choreography with ease and grace.

My 8 year old kept turning round to me (the kids sit on benches at the front of the audience for maximum view) to make sure I was also seeing what she was witnessing, checking that it wasn’t a trick. She wants to recreate her own plastic bag puppet – who wouldn’t?

Don’t think for a moment that this show is only for children. More than half the adults there were without. I bet they’re all still smiling too.

Read Crying out Loud’s interview with Bristol Old Vic here

– Review by Becky Condron

Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly-Farrows Creative-60-pressThis is not a review per se as I wasn’t supposed to be reviewing the show Madame Butterfly at The Tobacco Factory on Friday, but I have been asked by Vivienne to write down my thoughts to compliment the review by Becky Condron.

I’m not going to go over the storyline or talk about the company who performed Madame Butterfly, if you want to know this, then read Becky’s review. However, when we left the theatre, I believed that Becky and myself were coming from completely different places with how this opera made us feel. On reading her review, I realised we were coming from the same place in a lot of ways but that it just provoked strong, differing reactions.

My heart was broken several times during the performance. Madame Butterfly, so young, so lacking in choices or possibilities because of the world she was born into. Losing her father at such a young age in such tragic circumstances. My own past experience meant I could very much relate to her because of that. Yes, I felt angry at the patriarchy for creating that world she inhabited, that she never fought against. But sometimes, if you don’t know any other way, how can you fight it? She came to love the man who took her as his wife, despite her tender age of 15. Just a child. Perhaps her love was misguided and not really real. Perhaps if she had been given the chance to find love for herself, she would have been able to truly appreciate what love was. But, she did love him. Longed for him when he was gone. A scene plays out where Madame Butterfly is alone on the stage, poised in her wedding gown awaiting the arrival of her love after his ship came in. He had been away 3 years, and she had born his child. The music from the orchestra illustrated for me the turmoil she was going through, trying to wait patiently for him. Seeming to be patient in her quiet stillness. Probably going mad with desire for him to come through the door, wanting him so badly but not getting her wish. I felt the moment her heart broke after she discovered his new wife and that he was not returning for her. I knew before she did that they had returned to take her child away from her, to give him a ‘better’ life. I wanted to shout out, beg them not to take away her baby and break her heart for the second time, and break it in a way that would not be repaired. When she killed herself, I felt angry with her for doing that to her child, doing to him what her own father had done to her. But I felt so sad that her world had made her feel that this was her only choice. I also felt extremely grateful that I was born into the world and era I have been. I felt angry about the treatment of women throughout history. That it was seen as acceptable, as noble even that a child could be bought, even if this was to save her from a life of prostitution. But with an awareness of how many women remain in forced servitude, are forced to work in the sex trade, who are oppressed by things that either are, or seem beyond their control in the world we live in today. In the country I am fortunate enough to live in.

Despite all this, the character who broke my heart the most was Suzuki, the loyal handmaid of Butterfly. I remember early on the jolt I felt when she was introduced to the soon to be husband of Butterfly and he was told she had dedicated her life and love to servitude. She was the sort of woman men would immediately dismiss. Perhaps the love Madame Butterfly experienced was not real, was unsatisfactory and then broke her heart. But at least she had the chance to love, whereas Suzuki had not, and probably would not. A life without love in it, even love that breaks your heart? Unthinkable! I felt the saddest and angriest of all for Suzuki, and raged against her imprisonment in a world that offered her so little.

With my reviewing head on, I would have preferred the opera NOT to have been translated into English. Much as the language allowed me to better understand the storyline, it was jarring at times as it took away from the beauty of the music. I didn’t love this production; I thought I did at the time as I was so swept up in the story. But what it has done is made me want to seek out more opera, to discover what I like about it and don’t like. I feel grateful that I have been opened up to it. And, most of all, it made me fondly remember my Dad. A working class Irish boy, the sort of person who might have felt like opera was too highbrow for him. But he didn’t. Opera was a genre of music I grew up with, as he really loved it, amongst a myriad of other musical genres too. I smiled at the memory of him loudly singing Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ in the garden, sunbathing and plugged into his Walkman. He really, really was a bad singer, but he used to give it his all! Perhaps my familiarity with this art form made it easier to watch. Becky? You shouldn’t feel angry at yourself if you felt you didn’t ‘get’ it. I don’t think it is about ‘getting’ it, you either like it or you don’t, it either moves you or it doesn’t and either response is OK, because of that old cliché. Something to do with the world being richer because of us all experiencing it in different ways and liking different things. But the irony is that, in my opinion, by translating something into English that is meant to be in Italian in order to give it a wider appeal, makes it rather LESS appealing. Or maybe that is just me!

I feel grateful I am able to watch things like this, thanks to the generosity of my friends. I never take it for granted that I have the chance to see performances, good, bad, indifferent or amazing. And one that sparks the kind of debate and thought this performance did? Yeah, I’m really lucky.

By Karen Blake

 

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at Tobacco Factory Theatre

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I left the Tobacco Factory Theatre feeling angry: angry at the way women through the ages have been treated by the patriarchy, angry at those women for letting it happen and angry at myself for, once again, attending a piece of ‘high art’ and not getting it.

Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly is based on an 1898 short story by John Luther. It tells of a young geisha, Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly), who marries Lieutenant Pinkerton, a US Navy officer stationed in Nagasaki. She thinks this partnership is for life; he knows that a month away from his new bride will see the marriage become null and void in the eyes of Japanese law. Disowned, cast out by her relatives, Butterfly now only has Pinkerton, for whose return from sea she waits for three years, having given birth to his son during his absence. He finally does come back but with his American wife and for the purpose of taking away the boy. Butterfly cannot go back to the world she once knew and so she kills herself with her dead father’s ceremonial sword.

Tragic, isn’t it? So why didn’t I feel an ounce of warm emotion? This is opera, dammit.

The performances certainly didn’t leave me cold. Far from it. In the title role, Stepanie Corley’s subservience annoyed me; the tiny, shuffling steps of her aunt, mother and cousin irritated me and the demureness of every one of them exasperated me.

Written in exactly the year of the Spanish-American War, when the United States really began to show its muscle, this tale was probably a cautionary one to both those ancient cultures who were in danger of being raped by these impatient, have-it-all imperialist teenagers and to America itself, “Be careful of the chaos you cause for ye shall reap what ye sow.” This latter sentiment is echoed by the American Consul, Sharpless, in his warnings to Pinkerton, concerned as he is by the officer’s lack of respect for Butterfly’s strength of feeling towards him.

A friend who attended the same performance couldn’t even bare to applaud John Pierce’s Pinkerton, so vile did she find his character, so well does he play his role. So, yes, it worries me that I quite liked him and I almost felt sorry for this man with such a dearth of empathy, whose gun-ho approach to ‘the other’ (nationality, gender, culture) must surely end in tears of blood. Is he so self-centred as to not foresee, nor care about, the consequences of his (of his country’s) actions?

The conductor, Jonathan Lyness, says in the programme that “The action of the opera centres wholly on Butterfly – the other characters, including Pinkerton and Sharpless, could be regarded as peripheral, Sharpless and Suzuki acting almost as a Greek chorus.” I disagree. For me, the main characters were the men, the women were in their place, as they would expect to be. They struggle without confrontation, they are submissive. They have no choice.

And that poor Suzuki! Played by Miranda Westcott with a wholehearted deference to not only the big boys but also to her Madame Butterfly, Suzuki really is at the bottom of the ladder. The hierarchy in this entire piece is so tangible that I’d like to climb its rungs and pour a WAKE UP bucket of cold water over the lot of them to show each character exactly what they are all a terrible, ugly part of.

So, it’s the storyline that I’m resentful of, right? It’s history that I’m so pissed off with, wouldn’t you think?

Opera Project’s production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is, I suspect, scaled down to the bare bones in order to bring such a classic to the small stage. I attended my first opera only this year when we saw La Traviata at Tobacco Factory Theatre in what was probably the anti-thesis of Madame Butterfly, in that the women were strong and the production didn’t appear to suffer from its minimal cast and orchestra.

Madame Butterfly, I fear, needs a grand stage – it must benefit from glitz and over-the-top beauty. At the Tobacco Factory, we can all see the cracks, the heaviness of that make-up and the blatant boyishness of that big man but, instead of ingesting glamour, I could taste a hint of pantomime. Just the slightest whiff …

Translated into English by Amanda Holden, I found myself concentrating on the words and then the whole experience became only about lyrics and voice – I barely heard the orchestra and forgot, until the very end, to pay attention to the acting so I can’t tell you, in truth, whether the dramatic performances were any good. My favourite part of the evening was the musical interlude between Parts I and II of Act II – I just wish that I’d been able to concentrate on that music more. How aggravating.

And when Cio-Cio San finally kills herself, I simply didn’t care.  But, actually, this really is art, this production does provoke thought, it’s just that my energy went elsewhere – into that anger over the injustices of the wider picture, of a world out of kilter.

Wanna fight?

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is on at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 25th October

– Review by Becky Condron

– Image by Farrows Creative