Romeo and Juliet at Tobacco Factory Theatre

Image by Craig Fuller, with thanks

Image by Craig Fuller, with thanks

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is probably one of the best known stories of all-time and an explanation of its plot is unnecessary. But what happens when you introduce an 8 year old to this tale of tragic love, violence, hope and hopelessness?

Well, that probably depends on which production you take her to. Armed with little more than a couple of viewings of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film and a handful of pages of the very helpful Orchard Classic Shakespeare Stories for children, we sit in the auditorium of the Tobacco Factory staring at a wooden roundabout on stage and discussing the four paint/blood splattered supporting pillars. “They’re going to have to paint it all again when the play finishes,” she says astutely.

And, before Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s run of Romeo and Juliet is out, there is going to be an abundance of red used and an awful lot of cleaning to do. So much blood! But all in the right places.

Under Polina Kalinina’s direction, this production is set loosely around the events of the 1968 student uprisings in Europe, a time of upheaval and change in a continent where those born to war-weary parents were coming of age, an era when the nature of conflict was being re-evaluated. Verona’s Prince has the back up of police heavies, armed with tear gas, in response to those teenagers who run amok and tear up their own playground to use as weapons, while the older generation attempts to retain the status quo.

Emma Bailey’s set and costume design really captures the feel of the late sixties/early seventies, and never more so than in the dazzling masked ball scene, which is reminiscent of the opening sequence of (the film) Blade, with a delicious glug of glam rock added – sequins, glitter and gas masks abound. Here, where the two lovers first meet, is a riot of music and dance, executed with delight by the entire cast and in a wonderfully energetic piece of teamwork. And it’s a part of the story my daughter was eagerly awaiting.

But she was probably even more impatient for the death of Mercutio. Oliver Hoare gives Romeo’s friend and the Prince’s kinsman an antagonistic edge as a liquor swilling youth who is ready for the fight. I’m not saying that he deserved it but the only unfortunate part about his killing is the out of control spiral of tragedy that ensues. Jonathan Howell’s fight and dance choreography is rich in togetherness, yet each actor is afforded the individuality to be true to his or her own natural movements. Cue another fight! Yet Craig Fuller’s convincing Tybalt is so obviously distraught at his irretrievable actions that his own death at the hands of Romeo is almost inevitable.

Oh, Romeo! Our hero is in love with love itself and Papa Essiedu is a handsome a Romeo as you’re likely to encounter. Essiedu plays Romeo with swagger, so clearly having fun with his role, flirting with the audience, whilst pledging his love to Juliet, his sun in the east. Daisy Whalley, as Juliet, was my daughter’s favourite character and you can understand why – just five years between them and yet a world apart. Whalley completes Romeo and their on-stage chemistry is strong.

For me, two characters stand out. The hippy Friar, played by Paul Currier, is the crossover between the light and dark, which are such an integral part of this play. Complete with yogic sun salutations, here is a man that you feel any teenager would confide in; he’s that understanding youth worker. And, like Currier, Sally Oliver brings what Shakespeare could have made a marginal character to the forefront. As Nurse, Oliver is brash, truthful, resolute and caring. This is a part wonderfully acted and Oliver is maybe even a stage stealer. Plus she really does have the best outfits, including those rollers!

The double suicide climax didn’t leave either of us crying but we were thoughtful and a little worn out at the pure exuberance of this production.

It’s hard to say what my 8 year old made of it all as she hasn’t yet said that much. She was the only child in the audience, though there were plenty of teenagers present. The blood, violence and love scenes didn’t ruffle her and, if you have a young one, only you will know what they can handle and what you want them to see. I can say that, although she didn’t get every word (nor did I!), she knew the bones of the story and understood what was happening. Today, the morning after our Romeo and Juliet theatre outing, she had no hesitation in popping on the film again and quoting a few lines of Shakespeare at me: “‘I dreamt a dream tonight!’ Romeo said that. ‘Bosom of the North,’ Mercutio!”

However versed in the Bard you may be, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory will make your heart beat fast. It is nothing short of stunning!

Romeo and Juliet plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 4th April

– Review by Becky Condron

Red Riding Hood at Brewery Theatre

Image by Andy Sapey, with thanks

Image by Andy Sapey, with thanks

We’ve seen a few theatre productions that include puppets, which use them to bolster a performance rather to BE it. But Red Riding Hood by Norwich Puppet Theatre, in collaboration with Peter O’Rourke, is pure, undiluted puppetry. And brilliant it is too.

The Brewery stage is a collection of wooden beams that are cleverly rearranged and slotted into new positions throughout the show to become a forest, a garden or Granma’s house. The lighting is sometimes foreboding, while at others it is used to illuminate and create figures in silhouette. Ben Glasstone’s music is powerful, at times menacing, in turn joyous, while the songs add lightness to the dark.

The puppets are almost old-fashioned. At the end of the show, we asked one of the puppeteers where we could acquire such a creature but of course we can’t; they’re custom-made. Carved of wood, you want to caress them, feel the smoothness of their round faces and discover how they move so gracefully.

I counted nine puppets in all, controlled by two puppeteers. Puppeteers – is that even the right word? These people are skilled actors and my eyes flitted between the ever-changing expressions on their faces/the movement of their bodies and the masterful way they both brought to life those wooden figures, manipulating them into telling this very well-known folk tale. Beautiful.

Tim Kane’s script is fresh and builds upon the many versions of the story that have gone before. The conversations add to the humanness of the piece and give supporting characters a biography of their own. When the wolf has swallowed Granma and Red gets to meet the carnivorous aggressor in her cottage bed, I realised that the build-up had me wringing my hands, clenching my jaw and then … you’ll see.

A twist that had some of the kids belly-laughing! Yes, this production is well worth a visit.

Recommended for age 4+, I was at first worried that Red Riding Hood might be too ‘young’ for my 8 year old. Then, I reasoned, if I like puppetry how could she be out of the age range? And, absolutely, there is enough material here to keep any adult entertained. The child next to us was probably 2 years old – don’t do it, really! This production does take a little concentration and I might even put the recommended age up to 5 or 6 years?

About ten minutes after we left the Brewery Theatre, we found a craft shop on North St, where we bought a stick of willow for 50p, because my daughter is determined to turn one of her dolls into a real, breathing puppet. THAT is the lasting review here. And this:

Red Riding Celeste

Ooh, and I absolutely adored Granny’s Herb Song. As I sat listening to it, I wondered whether I could get hold of a copy of the words and, whoppee!! – this and a host of educational resources and activities are available on Norwich Puppet Theatre’s website 🙂

Red Riding Hood is at Brewery Theatre until Sunday 22nd February. And then on tour

– Review by Becky Condron and Celeste

Detective O and the Cold Case Caper at Bristol Old Vic

Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks

Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks

Today we went to the studio of Bristol Old Vic, which was teaming with excited children about to watch Detective O and the Cold Case Caper.

Before the performance proper had even begun, Corina Bona, Creative Director and Performer, made every single member of her audience feel at ease, engaging them and really letting them know that they were an integral part of the show. Actually, it seems more than fitting that my 8 year old daughter take over from here:

Detective O 1

The kids felt that they were included in the search for the missing Thumbelina every step of the way. Incorporating puppets, song, a variety of props and plenty of audience participation, Bona connects with children and adults alike and Kid Carpet’s musical direction is another reason to shout, “Thank you!”

This is a fun, well-paced piece of theatre for anyone over the age of 4. And it’s on for the rest of this half-term break!

Detective O and the Cold Case Caper is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 21st February

– Review by Becky Condron and Celeste

The Life & Times of Fanny Hill at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Photo: Helen Maybanks

‘Extraordinary’. Its not a word that is in use very often in my vocabulary. But this was the word that seemed to be the right one for me to sum up ‘The Life & Times of Fanny Hill’, which I watched at the Bristol Old Vic last night.

Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis from John Cleland’s infamous 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the show is directed by Michael Oakley and stars Caroline Quentin. We are told the tale of Fanny Hill, a prostitute who is charged with writing her memoirs for a princely sum by an outwardly respectable but inwardly lustful benefactor. Struggling to get her creative juices flowing, she enlists the help of two younger women named Louisa and Swallow who act out, recreate and reimagine Fanny’s colourful past experiences.

Fanny Hill was everything I expected it to be, in that it was bawdy, raunchy, laden with innuendo and funny. I couldn’t belly laugh about it though, as I always had in the back of my mind that we were watching women who were not always in the position of sexual power that they were trying to portray, who were often quite powerless and at times vulnerable. But that leads me on to the elements of the show that made me sum it up with the word ‘extraordinary’. I liked the first half. I didn’t love it. It was funny, engaging, titillating. But I felt like something was missing, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then the second half came, with twists, more bawdiness, and real emotion that had me and some of my female companions actually sobbing. I felt guilty for not giving these women more credence in the first half, for being more interested in the naughtiness than the real women and their stories who existed behind all the debauchery. Both parts made sense together, and turned this into a well rounded, interesting and thought provoking tale. I know that myself and at least one of my companions found a character we could relate to better than others, and it was probably a different character for each of us, as we were all bringing our own sexual and life experiences to our view of the show. Maybe the characters reminded us of a more extreme version of bits of ourselves. Maybe they shone a torch into some darker, more unfulfilled and lesser explored aspects of ourselves. Or maybe they reminded us of just how lucky we are, and how good we have got it.

Quentin was wonderful in the role of Fanny, with a heaving bosom to be spectacularly proud of and a sparkling star quality. The standout memorable scene with Quentin involved some of the most gymnastic cunnilingus I’ve seen and the creative use of a chandelier that has had me eyeing up my own light fittings throughout the evening! Superbly supported by Phoebe Thomas, Gwyneth Keyworth, Rosalind Steele, Nick Barber and Mawgan Gyles, each bringing their own wit, humour, sexiness and occasional tenderness to the show. The live music played was composed by Bellowhead’s Pete Flood and performed by Steele as the overlooked musician Fiddle. We never get to hear her story, even though she tries to offer it up to Fanny who promptly shoots her down. Although I initially dismissed her too, strangely she is the character I am thinking about the most as I am writing this. She didn’t have a voice in this story of love, lust, fulfilment, pleasure, pain and sadness, and maybe that is the saddest thing of all.

Would I see it again? Well, actually, yes I would and yes I am going to. My tickets are booked, and this time I am going to take my man with me. I want us to see it together, and then I can unpick it and experience it again, find out what he thinks of it and how that impacts on my thoughts and feelings. We are going to be in the second row from this stage this time, so I won’t be left feeling quite as disappointed that I left my glasses at home for this performance, particularly during the chandelier scene…

‘The Life & Times of Fanny Hill’ is on at the Bristol Old Vic until March 7th 2015.

Review written by Karen Blake

The Government Inspector at Brewery Theatre

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Last night I went to see Flintlock Theatre perform The Government Inspector at the Brewery Theatre.

This was an eccentric, wonderfully weird four person show with Klezmer music providing a fast, frantic soundtrack to the rapidly moving story. It’s a simple tale; a corrupt mayor and his dodgy accomplices become aware that a government inspector is coming to their district incognito, and that they are potentially in a lot of trouble. Their attempts to hide their tracks seem to be in trouble when they find that a mysterious official looking person has been in residence in the town for two weeks already. This leads them to welcome the stranger into the mayors home, where he is wined, dined and given numerous ‘loans’ of money. It is only after the stranger has become engaged to the mayors daughter, and driven off in the mayor’s car to get his uncles permission for the betrothal, that it becomes apparent that he was in fact just a young man who’d run out of money and couldn’t believe his luck.

Most of the actors played more than one role, and audience members provided an extra couple of characters (this really isn’t a show where introverts should sit at the front!). The changes between characters were slick, and I particularly liked Jeremy Barlow’s Charity Commisioner, a truly grotesque character who also elicited a moment of true sympathy with his pathetically sad exit after his trumpet was taken away. Sam Davies as the Mayor was wonderful, particularly his portrayal of frantic activity in just a few yards of what for want of better words I’d have to describe as a silly walk. Robin Colyer’s rich boy on the make was an arrogant twit, who did a beautifully collapsing drunken fall, and Francesca Binefa’s Bobchinksy was a joy, particular when he was bellowing at a poor audience member to ‘stop interrupting!’.

More than anything, what I loved about this show was the physical acting, from the exaggerated and wonderfully comic facial expressions to the truly skilled bad dancing. Overacted movement , ridiculous gaits and frantic gesturing combined with Robin Colyer’s text adapted from the Gogol play made for a really enjoyable, crazy, funny experience. I’d definitely recommend this for a real feel-good experience, as well as the lesson it carries about human stupidity and venality.

The Government Inspector is at the Brewery Theatre until 14 Feb.

– Review by Gin Gould

The Forbidden Door at Tobacco Factory Theatre

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On my way to Bristol tonight to see ‘The Forbidden Door’ , I was accompanied on my journey by the most beautiful full moon. A moon that keep disappearing behind clouds, and then reappearing, showing its face to me, distracting me and drawing me in. Which was a bit tricky, as I needed to keep my eyes on the road, being the driver and all. As I settled into my seat and into our night of theatre, it felt only right that the story began with the love affair between the moon and the sun. How they loved each other so passionately. How they created the Earth. How this made the cracks in their love deepen (many a knowing laugh from the audience as we reflected on how having kids can do that to a relationship), and how they eventually came to a place where they orbited their child, but rarely saw each other. The moon, she hid her face from her lover, much as she did to me on my journey this evening.

What would you sacrifice for the one you love? That is the main question that is explored throughout the tale that was weaved for us at The Tobacco Factory tonight. We also explored the ‘don’ts’. The hare who was told not to open the black box. The three sisters who are told under no circumstances to open the forbidden door. As soon as we are told they shouldn’t, we all know they will, and that misfortune will befall them. Therein lies the fodder for the story that is shared. A tale of love, sacrifice, loss, legend and make believe that made me laugh, repelled me in places, (don’t ask me about the pig) made me sad, but most of all entertained me greatly.

Daniel Morden is a wonderful storyteller, crafting his tale in a very traditional style. The musicians Sarah Moody, Dylan Fowler and Oliver Wilson-Dickenson are accomplished and polished, and the music adds to the ambiance and mood of the piece. I am yet again awed at the skill of a solo actor who can memorise that much information with barely a falter. The Forbidden Door is traditional in its storytelling technique, but managed to make this ancient art fresh and accessible to a very eclectic audience. Proof that stories are not just for children, you should catch this show tomorrow night if you can and be transported to another world.

The Forbidden Door is on at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until Wednesday 4th February 2015.

– Review by Karen Blake