Little One at Brewery Theatre

Image by Graham Burke, with thanks

Image by Graham Burke, with thanks

This year, the students at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School showcase their work at Brewery Theatre with a series of plays by its four graduating directors. First up in these ‘Directors’ Cuts’ is Little One, directed by Laura McLean and written by Hannah Moscovitch.

Little One is the story of two adopted siblings, Aaron and Claire, brought together in a house in Ottawa by their two new well-meaning parents. Aaron is aware of his orphaned history; Claire might or might not remember hers. Aaron knows his given name; Claire represses hers.

A neglected or abused early life has left a legacy of instability in Claire, who must never be asked certain questions about her background, according to the ‘psyches’. Aaron is in charge of making sure she’s OK, being the older, less unhinged brother. And he seems to do his best – sacrificing some of the things he loves for ‘family unit time’ and generally doing the right thing by his little sister.

But, “She’s a monster,” he tells us almost from the off.

Kate Cavendish as Claire and Sam Woolf as Aaron address the audience alternately throughout the hour long production and Emily Russell’s lighting design is key here, illuminating each actor in turn, yet holding the other one there, within reach, often subdued but never obscured. What is interesting though is that, while Aaron recounts his life (obsession?) with his sister, she only talks about the neighbours, the Tech Guy and his mail-order Vietnamese bride, thus weaving us into the world of two families.

Cavendish displays versatility, switching from eager-to-please bouncy kid to throwing out her hauntingly worrying death stare. Woolf engages with authority so that we really want to find out how the whole thing ends!

A vital message of Little One is that nothing is exactly as it might seem; people are too complex for straight paths. At some point you feel sympathy with every character in the script, even, maybe especially, the ones we don’t meet (Roger, Kim-Li, Mum and Dad). I felt for Aaron in his protector guise and at times I wanted him to break and admit to his parents that he just couldn’t play this role anymore. Claire is unusual but, in her, I caught more than a glimpse of the pushing, questioning, stubborn, annoying, loving, insecure child that we have all known.

There is a dark humour in Moscovitch’s intelligent writing and other audience members laughed at the appropriate times, but I couldn’t even bring myself to snigger because the underlying subject matter is too painful and important. McLean’s direction has pulled all of the elements together, showing us that delicious promise and talent at BOVTS. Has it ever been any other way?

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Directors’ Cut Season 2015 runs at Brewery Theatre now and throughout May and is well worth your support!

Little One shows at Brewery Theatre until 2nd May

– Review by Becky Condron

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Birdsong at Bristol Old Vic

Image by Jack Ladenburg, with thanks

Image by Jack Ladenburg, with thanks

A nation’s favourite novel, Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, has received some serious restructuring by Rachel Wagstaff, whose stage version is remarkably accessible.

The tale of Stephen Wraysford and his 1910 love affair with Isabelle, the wife of his French host, intersperses in flashback form with his horrors of leading scores of men into the deathly Battle of the Somme, six years later. As preparations are made on the Western Front, the hidden story of the the ‘sewer rats’, men who tunnelled in near-dark and unimaginably inhumane conditions, making tracks to be used as surprise attacks on the enemy, from right under their feet, unravels.

During the past couple of years, as the centenary of the First World War is commemorated, we’ve seen an army of stories about soldiers march through Bristol theatres. Some of them have been devastating to watch, capturing minuscule snippets of the brutality of the fighting, the spectacular wastefulness of young lives and the bloodymindedness of their ‘leaders.’ Birdsong left me a little wrung out, particularly at the end of the first half – in large part thanks to the fierceness of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design. But, as someone known by my friends to get emotional at the theatre, this time I didn’t cry at the mind-blowing ridiculousness of that war. In five months of constant fighting, with somewhere in the region of one million men (of both sides) killed, the British and French forces progressed a mere six miles. Just knowledge of that fact makes anyone want to burst into tears, surely?

But this isn’t a treatise on the futility of war; it’s a theatre review.

Victoria Spearing’s set works particularly well at the Old Vic, bringing to life those cramped spaces down below, making real the ladders to the graveyard-like Front, hinting at a pre-war French house. The love affair between Emily Bowker’s Isabelle and Edmund Wiseman’s Wraysford appears true. At times, Wraysford’s apparently confused mind leaves you wanting to help him out a little but, as the havoc becomes greater, his resolve and clarity become stronger.

For me, the most poignant story here is the one of the tunnellers and the strength of these skilled men, who spent years never knowing whether their tunnel would meet a corresponding one, dug by the Germans, coming from the opposite direction. Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace has impressive fortitude, both as an actor and in his character. Jack is a person who always puts others first, never faltering in his conviction to do the very best job. Back home, his boy is ill and he’d like leave to visit him, maybe even to say “Goodbye” and this could be the most powerful part of the play: “When will the war end?” “When can we go home?” We know; they didn’t.

The cast fits together and their swift, choreographed rearrangement of the set is neat. Musician James Findley brings sweet, painful sorrow with his Melodeon and Violin and he is a vital member of the team – this production benefits massively from his presence of voice and musicality.

Would I recommend Birdsong? Yes, I would. If you go and see one show during the next couple of months, this is probably the one!

Birdsong plays at Bristol Old Vic until 9th May

– Review by Becky Condron

Casting the Runes at Tobacco Factory Theatres

Casting-The-Runes-Robert-Lloyd-Parry-618x330

While I enjoy a good performance or story telling session, I don’t usually go out of my way to engage in the ghostly or horror genre. Memories of bed time ghost stories as a child are still a little too fresh – The Monkey’s Paw and other such delights.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to review Casting the Runes; two ghost stories by M R James. I read the title story in preparation before the show and was pleasantly surprised – it was as much thriller as chiller and very well written. James was a scholarly gentleman who, despite his inclination towards writing dark stories, had a sociable and contented nature.

The first (and title) story tells of rejection of a manuscript which is taken badly by the author, the unpleasant Mr Karswell. His intentions are malicious and indeed as it comes to the attention of the reviewer of the manuscript, this is a person not to be crossed.

Robert Lloyd Parry sets the tone well. An armchair and a candle take centre stage, setting off the Victorian feel with a crystal decanter. This one man show is appropriate for the material – the story could almost be a radio play. The audience are quiet and the lights dim.

Casting the Runes is well told, with the majority of the story recounted faithfully from James’ original (which is worth a read). As the story unfolds, we are swept along with the flow, hoping that Mr Karswell will not get the upper hand. The story telling is engaging and the tale ends with an abrupt conclusion. An interval breaks the two stories.

The second half, the tale of ‘The Residence at Whitminster’, has quite a different feel. Whether because the story was not known to me or just that it was darker, it feels more foreboding. I and others in the audience jump at one point when Parry shouts out aloud (prickling the hair on my skin!). Most of the story telling, however, is calmly told, much like Tales of the Unexpected for those who remember the 1980’s TV series.

Set in the Victorian era (author James’ era), this second tale does not end with such a definite conclusion. So we leave the theatre with some unanswered questions (at least myself and my companion did) which seems strangely appropriate for a ghost storytelling session . . something lingers on and there still more to be known.

Parry clearly enjoys the language used by the author and delights in the detail; between them they set a good scene. The show was scheduled to be a one off though due to popular demand, there’s been an extra afternoon performance.

There is something very satisfying about having a story relayed well and Robert Parry holds his audience captive. These ghostly tales were told with a good balance of humour in between the hair raising bits. I’m just glad I’ve some company walking home!

– Review by Francesca Ward