Mmm Hmmm at Brewery Theatre

mmm hmmm

At the Brewery Theatre, we’re plunged into darkness, which is really quite thrilling before anything else even happens. And then the sound of female voices. In the dark. Until the stage lights come on to reveal three women, who appear to be in some kind of agony. Writhing, moving, crawling.

This is Mmm Hmmm, a three woman acapella show written and directed by Bristol-based Verity Standen. She’s joined by the equally Bristol Ellie Showering and Dominie Hooper, who together form a trio of high octane, harmonic devilment.

Everyday, banal situations are turned into something really quite incredible. Ordering chocolate at the First Great Western buffet carriage or drinking tea with a pal (Darjeeling is near-orgasmic, apparently), are given a beauty they probably don’t deserve. The pedestrian is bejewelled, star quality lavished upon it by voice.

Voice. And energy. Blimey, these women are working hard and, by the end of the show, sweat seeps through their very impressive dresses that morph into a whole series of dresses. Harriet de Winton, please will you be my costume designer too? I would really, really like one of these outfits. Any colour. I want to transform myself into a monk or a crazy human pogo stick (at least that’s what I saw) just like these three.

Some of the audience laugh out loud whenever the cast make a mad dash around the stage. I don’t but I’m aware that I’m grinning widely for most of the performance. Mmm Hmmm is eccentric and holds a certain Britishness, as much for the lyrical content as the off-the-wallness of it.

Just when you think it can’t get any sillier, our doyennes of vocal expression take the weirdest tea-break you’ve ever seen as they scoff on dry biscuits (digestives I think), spitting out the dust. Really? As if this piece of theatre wasn’t difficult enough to achieve, they then go and dry their mouths out to such an extent that, surely, it should be impossible to speak let alone come out with those notes? But no, they more than succeed and, actually, go on to perform my favourite part of the evening with ‘You Made me Love You,’ a number to which they seem to lose every inch of self-control and sanity.

As with all enjoyable shows, there is an extra, unseen member of the cast in the Lighting Designer and without James Mackenzie, this show wouldn’t have been quite so clever. He illuminates to create subtlety or intensity, highlighting the talent of these women.

The show is shorter than we expect, which is hardly surprising – any one of them could have collapsed if they’d tried to eek out any more songs. But this is 45 minutes of pure joy and, as they take their bows, I find myself laughing, ‘incredible’ the first word to come out of my mouth. Then, walking down the Brewery stairs, I can’t prevent myself from la-la-la-ing. Once at home, I have to play Kate Bush’s ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’ (though Mark said they reminded him of Bjork and Laurie Anderson).

My only regret of the night was that I didn’t take my daughter so I could show her how funny, innovative and powerful we women are. I might go again.

Mmm Hmmm is on at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 29th November

– Review by Becky Condron

Advertisements

William Tell at The Bristol Hippodrome

william tell apple

Only this year have I been introduced to opera, William Tell at The Bristol Hippodrome being my fifth experience in almost as many months. In that time, I’ve seen two productions courtesy of BP Big Screens outdoor events, beamed live from Royal Opera House, and two scaled down classics at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre.

Welsh National Opera’s production of William Tell at the Bristol Hippodrome was always going to be my first real operatic experience, i.e. actually sitting in the theatre AND witnessing an opera complete with a full orchestra, a larger cast and, perhaps most importantly, not in English (both La Traviata and Madame Butterfly at Tobacco Factory had been translated into my native tongue). But could I bear to sit on one chair for 3 hours, with just one interval to punctuate the four acts? Would it hold my attention?

William Tell is a Swiss patriot who has incurred the wrath of Austrian governor Gesler. Tell won’t tolerate Austria’s tyrannical rule and, after helping a fellow countryman to escape the oppressors, his village is destroyed and its patriarch, Melcthal, is murdered. Melchtal’s son, Arnold, vows to avenge the killing, wiling to sacrifice his love for Austrian Noblewoman, Mathilde, in doing so.

Captured by the authorities, Tell is forced to shoot an apple off the head of his only son, Jemmy, in order that they both be allowed to live. He is successful but, upon learning of a second arrow reserved for the governor, Gesler orders his imprisonment and sentences him to death.  The peasants rise up, aided by Arnold and his knowledge of the whereabouts of a cache of weapons. The rebellion is a triumph and Gesler is killed by Tell’s expert marksmanship. Arnold and Mathilde celebrate their love and the villagers rejoice in victory.

That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Well, yes it is. Gioachino Rossini’s final opera is sung in French, so, of course, it is aided by surtitles in English, which made all the difference to my understanding and enjoyment of the performance. Rather than struggling to understand English lyrics, I was able to sit back and enjoy the music and stage action.

Our conductor for the evening is Carlo Rizzi, a charismatic man with all the necessary passion for his craft, who leads his accomplished orchestra with zeal, the score both dramatic and dreamlike. Rossini’s extremely well known Overture gets us all very much in the mood.

Raimund Bauer’s set is minimalist, a tall perspex frame that evokes the mountains of Switzerland dominating the stage. The fact that the audience can see the cast scaling the frame from behind is a little off-putting but seemingly deliberate. This point of the structure becomes clear when it is turned around for act III, for me the most enjoyable and powerful act, where every single cast member, dressed almost relentlessly, yet suitably, in the drab grey of the oppressed/oppressor, comes together to express a mixture of woe, dismay and power.

David Kempster gives good voice in the lead role. And stature (if you have an image of a Welshman in your head, it’s probably someone looking and sounding like Kempster). The WNO chorus is strong and the crowd scenes necessary to the vitality of the storytelling. The six dancers (three male, three female) put a modern slant on the production and, on leaving the theatre I heard someone say, “When I saw that Hosseinpour was Choreographer, I knew the dancers wouldn’t be pretty traditional maidens.” And she was right – Amir Hosseinpour has attached beauty and grace to this tale of oppression and patriotism. At times I couldn’t decipher the exact message of those dancers, not that it matters; they are an absolute pleasure to watch. But, at others, the meaning is clear, particularly in the marriage scene and then as the peasant women are being raped by Austrian soldiers, a scene that is disturbingly mesmerising.

Mention should be made of both Gisela Stille as Mathilde and Clive Bayley as Gesler. Stille’s voice is among the strongest on stage and Bayley is comically menacing as the tyrant. If there were a prize, however, it would go to tenor Barry Banks as Arnold, who tells his story with conviction and honesty, his voice soaring above all others. Banks seems to dominate the stage and either Arnold’s role is the largest, or Banks makes it appear so. A very loud hand clap to him.

So, I not only survived the experience but it left me ready for more opera. Bravo!

Welsh National Opera returns to the Bristol Hippodrome with Spellbound in the spring, a season I very much look forward to.

William Tell is part of WNO’s Liberty or Death! Autumn Season, which is currently touring

– Review by Becky Condron

War Game at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by ShotAway

Photo by ShotAway

11th November 2014. It’s Armistice Day – exactly 96 years since the signing of the treaty that ended the long and tired Great War. And here we are, in the Studio of Bristol Old Vic, watching a show about Everyman enlisting to fight in France, to smile for his country, to extinguish the enemy.

This year has seen the centenary of the start of that war and the commemorations have been necessarily relentless. Necessary not for the celebrations of ‘our’ so-called victory but for that reminder of the futility of war, for all those lost men, born in so many countries. For the remembrance of a burden placed heavily upon young shoulders, encouraged to stand for their nation in the place of bureaucrats and landlords.

War Game heightens not only that sense of pointless loss and grief but makes us realise that it all could have been very different for millions of people. And for a few hundred soldiers, a few months in, for a few hours, it was.

1914. Will is a Suffolk country boy; his only real, yet playful, beef is with the neighbouring village’s football team. Football is his passion, you see, and one day he will play for England. And then, suddenly, enlisting with his pals, Will goes off to faraway France for ‘an adventure,’ which, everyone says, will be over be Christmas anyway! Will travels through a land that looks the same as the one he just left, cheered on by English and then French folk, who line the streets to pass food and love to the young men.

And then it all changes …

War.

We have seen a good few one-actor shows this year but the team effort in this production may well beat them all into the ground.

Robin Hemmings as Will instantly drums up a friendship with us, playing with an invisible but very real football and leading us back to that Suffolk village 100 years ago. Everything is familiar yet strange at the same time, to us and to Will, giving a dreamlike quality that informs us where we are and what we might expect, each layer unravelling as we go. But we’re never entirely sure because boyish, upbeat Will isn’t either.

Hemmings is expert in leading us through a few months of his life, as he introduces us to his mates, to Kitchener, to his superior and, finally, to his brand new buddy, Hans the German, with whom he strikes up a bond on the famous Christmas day football match in No-Man’s Land.

We, the audience, are truly part of this production – the creative team have made sure of that. On stage, alongside Will, sits a very 21st Century Rebecca (Becky) Marie Loxton, Stage Manager. Equipped with her macbook and software, Becky records us cheering, looping our voices so that we become the crowd on Will’s journey. We sing a very well know war song and then, on Christmas Day 1914, a day that you feel had the potential to change the world forever, we join forces in an international Christmas carol. For a very short, beautiful moment, the past and present intermingle: enemies become friends; horror, joy: despair, hope … war, peace.

Adapted from Michael Foreman illustrated book for young readers, the set of War Game is a wall of bandages, at times acting as the trenches, through which Will can access any number of props, though it must be said that the most impressive props are those we can’t see, those that we must imagine. Some of the audience are invited to play with the invisible ball, shoot an illusory gun. We are IN this uplifting yet ultimitely terrifying story.

Along with his team, Toby Hulse, as Director, has done a superb job in sharing his love of fusing naturalism with the unexpected, creating a powerful piece of Brechtian theatre that will stay with us.

My 8 year old, as ever, asked lots of questions. Another one-man show, another piece about war, another sublime production. She hasn’t yet said much but I reckon that, for an hour there, as with all those school children who attended performances earlier in the day, she was propelled into a world of certainty and, at the same time, of what ifs. Through War Game, the fragility of history touches all of us. And so it should.

War Game is a heart-warming, upbeat story of any soldier who ever stood in a trench. For love of humanity and the joy of going to the theatre, this one is a must!

War Game shows at Old Vic until 22nd November

– Review by Becky Condron

An Elephant in the Garden at Brewery Theatre

An_Elephant_in_the_Garden_image_only-535x400

We follow the A370 to South Bristol, accompanied by shards of every colour streaking the evening sky, booms aplenty, and we bump into the odd patch of smoky air. It’s Bonfire Night and the soundtrack gifted to me by my 8-year old is, inevitably, Katy Perry’s ‘Firework.’ All the bloody way, from Weston to Southville!!

Relieved to get out of the car, I take her hand and we head to Brewery Theatre for tonight’s performance of Poonamallee Productions’ An Elephant in the Garden, a story of the last days of the Second World War, told from a German girl’s perspective.

Reading the programme, I tell her that this is another monologue; there’s just one actress on stage, Alison Reid.

‘Oh no, not again!” she says. “I prefer, say, three actors.”

But, I remind her, we very much enjoyed Private Peaceful and Toro! Toro!, other one-actor shows we’ve seen at Tobacco Factory Theatres this year, both also involving war (and, the latter, an animal), both also written by Michael Murpurgo and both also adapted by Simon Reade. Surely, here, with An Elephant in the Garden, we are in the safest of hands.

It’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is being demolished; 60 year old Lizzie is there and, in a blink, she takes us back to her childhood. Born in 1929, she never expected war. But it came. Lizzie’s narrative really picks up pace on her sixteenth birthday, that day in February 1945, when her home town of Dresden was all but annihilated by British and American bombers, killing around 25,000 of its inhabitants. Lizzie and her mother escape the unbearable destruction, with Marlene the elephant in tow.  Saved by Lizzie’s mother, who works at Dresden Zoo, Marlene becomes a symbol of strength, otherness and hope.

As with all solo performances, Alison Reid has a large script to memorise. And this, she does. I am able to follow her performance easily and become glued to this rather beautiful story. I’m a little concerned about my companion, however: does she understand this? She doesn’t yet know a great deal about the Second World War (‘Is it set in Poland?” before the showing) and the pace is fast, the changes in character not always obvious.  But she stays mostly quiet, concentrating, asking a few questions along the way: “Is that War?”; “Is he American?” “Where’s the elephant?”

Reid gives a good performance and we like Lizzie, we want her to flourish and be happy. Maybe more could be made of Marlene though – more shadows? Louder footsteps? Or perhaps it’s not necessary; my daughter could picture her well enough, could see her surroundings (she imagined her in the barn of the farm we go to often, she tells me).

Matthew Graham’s lighting certainly helps the story along – the string of flashing lights to illustrate the rudeness of bombs is particularly effective – and Jason Barnes’ sound works really well in places, though the reality of all those Bonfire Night fireworks popping and bursting in the city around us seems the real stroke of unintended and uncontrollable genius.

The recommended age for An Elephant in the Garden is 8+, though, once again, I might put this a little higher. It would do wonderfully for anyone who has a basic knowledge of the Second World War and wants to explore it further. This is a well-produced piece of entertainment, with a captivating storyline and the message that, regardless of where we live and which ‘side we’re on’, we’re all fundamentally the same. We just want to live. And love.

An Elephant in the Garden most definitely fired up my daughter’s imagination and our return journey was highly interesting. Being late, I switched the car dial to Radio 3 and the next half hour became an unleashing of her inner mind, interpreting the music we were listening to, fitting it to the story unravelling as I drove. We turned it off, at last, as the composition was making her “too sad.” A little post-theatre research tells me that we had heard Polish Composer Panufnik, who fled Warsaw just before the uprising there in 1944. What we had experienced, according to the BBC, was music that ‘conjures up a “boundless landscape which evokes melancholy”. How apt!

An Elephant in the Garden shows at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 15th November

– Review by Becky Condron