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


Kid Carpet and the Noisy Animals at Bristol Old Vic


From the moment he appeared on stage, Kid Carpet had the audience captivated with his zany mix of quirky songs and conversations with toy animals! And with the audience full of excited kids (and equally excited parents in my case!) from as young as 2 up to 10, that was quite a feat!

Using a clever set up of a video camera and lights, Kid projected all his “conversations” with his toy animals on to a screen behind him, something I’d never seen before and that really added another dimension to the fun and believability.

The highlight of all the original self-penned songs from Kid Carpet’s journey to the local dance contest was definitely Bears Like to Poo in the Forest – we were all still singing it when we left the auditorium!

All in all, a fantastic show for kids of all ages, and the parents enjoyed it too, brilliant!


– Review by Lou Eddins

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason at Bristol Old Vic


You don’t expect to sit on stage in the Studio of Bristol Old Vic when watching a performance.  You don’t think you’ll see an apple in a glass on your small round table. But tonight we’re here for Twisted Theatre’s Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason, where a lot is familiar. But then it isn’t.

The creators of this piece, Hannah Martin and the cast of 5 we see before us, have taken popular nursery rhymes and explored their dark, historical origins, which they share with us musically, through song, ditty and poem.  The stage we share also houses a set of drums, a viola, a violin, a cello, a glockenspiel (what is that moving underneath throughout the performance, anyone know?) and a microphone for each member of the cast.  Children’s toys scatter the floor, mingled with cider bottles.

Nursery Rhymes.  We’ve known all this since we were children, haven’t we?  Ah, but not like this; this is for adults.

Yes, I’d heard of the provenance of Ring o Roses and Mary Mary, Quite Contrary before but never in words so sweetly melancholic, never with voices so powerful (great harmonies), never through musicians so accomplished.  Nuala Honan can really belt them out and her delivery of Jill’s texts to Jack, a comedic and ever so sad modern interpretation of Somerset folklore, is possibly my favourite part of the show.  Though that could be matched by Pop Goes the Weasel‘s drudgery of an everyday working life (“Just because it’s no longer 1805, doesn’t mean things have changed” – I paraphrase), led with power by violist Emma Hooper.

There is a dab of glitz here and a more than a glimmer of rough.  Glamour and squalor. Fun and horror.  The performance would be suited to a pub/music venue (in a jazz style) as much as a theatre. More, probably.  Which is why we’ll likely go and see it again when it comes to the Fiddler’s Club in October!


Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason is at Bristol Old Vic until 10th May


– Review by Becky Condron

The Tinderbox at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Paul Blakemore

Photo by Paul Blakemore

A couple of weeks ago, when Co-Director and Producer of War Horse said in the main theatre of Bristol Old Vic that we were very lucky indeed to live in (near) a city with so much young theatrical talent, he wasn’t wrong and, with The Tinderbox, the Bristol Old Vic Young Company has 100% proved this rule.

Consider for example, Silva Semerciyan’s script, which takes a seven page fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen and turns it into a two hour trip to the Old Vic’s Studio.  We’ve read this tale several times and its lack of depth or analysis always surprises (read annoys) me – why does the soldier act as he does? Why does he even want to get close to a locked-away princess he’s never met?  Why should this be prophecy?   Sermerciyan’s excellent adaptation finally gives answers to those questions left by Andersen’s original.  And this, on the 100th anniversary of the Great War!  “There are no winners; we are fighting each other!”  Very, very poignant.

Or take Hettie Feiler’s accompanying piano throughout the performance – that’s something to shout about, as is Lorenzo Niyongabo’s deep, melodic singing voice in his portrayal of a suitably sinister King, who is always lurking and whittling.  His wife, the Queen, is played with regal strength and maternal melancholy by Beth Collins.  Man, she’s got issues!  Nah, I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of these two.  Their poor son, the Prince, is brought up to be scared, to desert, to run, Jack Orozco Morrison looking every inch the frightened 19 year old soldier, sent to the front to face death, just like every single other man under the despots’ rule.

How about Dale Thrupp’s Lady in Waiting?  You just know that this woman would never have had her own family and Thrupp brings a comically woeful element to the piece. He fails in his job to guard the Princess, a young woman who is in love with geometry and, although she is famed for her beauty (or at least she’s ‘good-looking’), she has a fine mind indeed.  Krista Matthews plays a very believable pissed-off, eager and inquisitive 16 year-old Princess, who is horrified on uncovering the truth about her Kingdom.  And it’s Fennar Ralston, our Common Soldier, “a Nobody” who, through the prophecy and that there Tinderbox, helps her to realise the misery that her family is responsible for.  Princess, he won me over too – well played.

But all of this would have been a whole lot less without the tightness of the ten actors in the excellent Ensemble, who are inner voices, the townspeople, boy soldiers called Tom and royalty from far-flung places, firmly giving an extra thud of energy to the whole show. They are Life.  And Death.

Erm, no-one on that stage is over 25 years of age?  And many of them a whole lot younger than that?  That really is extraordinarily impressive.

Ooh, and may I just add that I took my 7 year old daughter to see The Tinderbox?  It’s recommended for age 12+ but, with the odd bit of violence (no blood or gruesomeness) and a couple of swear words (I caught a ‘bollocks’ and a ‘bastard’), it was neither laborious nor unsuitable for her.

The Tinderbox plays in the Studio atBristol Old Vic until Saturday 26th April

Photo by Paul Blakemore

Photo by Paul Blakemore


– Review by Becky Condron

Pigeon English at Bristol Old Vic


There was a palpable friendly buzz about the Bristol Old Vic last night for the opening of Pigeon English, a collaboration between Bristol Old Vic Young Company and the National Youth Theatre.  The production was ever so slightly delayed due to a couple of accidents, on and off stage, revealed the play’s director Miranda Cromwell and minor changes would have to take place.

This gave us a chance to take in the loveliness of the Old Vic for longer than we normally would and to notice the diverse Bristol audience that Pigeon English had attracted.

Based on the novel by Stephen Kelman and adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan, Pigeon English relays the story of Harri, newly arrived to England from Ghana with half of his family yet to afford the journey across continents.

A boy is killed.  With his school-friend, Dean, twelve year old Harri embarks on a sleuth-like investigation into the violent death, looking for clues, snooping where maybe they oughtn’t.  Told through the eyes of a boy approaching very early manhood, this tale of inner city life, troubled youths and knife crime is much sweeter and less gritty than you might expect.

The cast of 13 feels like a whole lot more actors, many taking on multiple roles.   The stage is constantly alive and some of the most enjoyable parts for me are when any number of characters burst into spontaneous dance.  This is interspersed with beatboxing,  a touch of free running and a script that allows the individuality of each actor shine though.

As Harri, David C. Johnson brings the piece together with his narration and warmth – his dance moves are endearing and the rapport he shares with his new best friend Dean, played with Frank Spencerlikeness (much better than it sounds) by Brandon Cook, feels very real.

There is a lot of interaction between characters in a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone else.   Harri and his sister, Lydia, just want to fit in, to belong. Who doesn’t?   Lydia is befriended by the milkshake-wielding gang girl, Miquita, a probably misunderstood young woman, played by Lara Simpson.   She stands out for me – ruthless, warm, a little lost.

The changes?  Felix Pilgrim already has three roles in Pigeon English but an injury meant that he also stepped in to play Mr Frimpong – a touch of genius in my book and a role he should keep.

Solid performances, a good script and well-choreographed.  Yeah, I’d go again.

Pigeon English is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 10th August

– Review by Becky Condron

33 at Bristol Old Vic

Directed by Tom Brennan

Devised and performed by ‘The Wardrobe Ensemble’

We arrived at the beautiful Old Vic in Bristol to a queue waiting to go in to the ‘Studio’. I was surprised at the age range in those queuing. There were the over 60’s to families with kids. We went in and took our seats. Whilst waiting, a young lady came over and started to talk to us. She asked what we remembered about the mining disaster. I told her I remembered the guy who had a wife and mistress waiting for him. It turns out she was one of the cast and mentioned my memory on stage as did a couple of other cast members!

The production was beautifully choreographed, very well thought out and the special effects worked a treat. Without giving too much away they all helped me to believe they were the miners trapped in that mine.

The cast is made up of fairly young members but all performed with confidence and believability. I was very impressed with the changes in costume and character seen throughout.

We were taken on a funny, desperate and at times sad journey through the mining disaster. We saw a perspective of what was happening above and below ground. My favourite moment is a scene involving ‘Edison’ one of the miner running through the mine. The way this was done was inspired, just a brilliant moment.

The production is playing all week and there is a matinee on Saturday. It lasted about an hour which was just right. The group will be taking the performance to the Edinburgh Fringe where I have no doubt it will do very well.

The cast should be very proud of what they have created, this was the premier and I have no doubt it can only get better.

I thought it magnificent and would happily go again.

33 is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 13th July

– Review by Catriona Daynes

Tristan & Yseult at Bristol Old Vic


On Thursday the 4th of July, I was lucky enough to take my seat at The Bristol Old Vic to watch Kneehigh Theatre’s Tristan and Yseult. This is a tale of love in its many forms that has received rave reviews across the board, so I was excited to see what the night would bring.

Set in Cornwall, we are introduced to King Mark, who manages to resist Irish invaders to his land and defeat their leader Morholt. Mark then decides he wants revenge and to possess the thing Morholt loves most. He sends his most trusted knight Tristan to seek out and capture Morholt’s sister Yseult so he can make her his wife. The spark of passion is immediate when Tristan and Yseult first meet, but this soon gives way to hate when she realises Tristan is the killer of her brother. But neither of them banked on what would happen when a love potion and wine are recklessly consumed, and passion yet again takes hold.

The show is seen through the eyes of The Unloved, a group of comic characters so charming and nerdy that, ironically, you couldn’t help loving them. Wandering the stage and the auditorium with their binoculars, they observe the lovers, the betrayal and heartache, but perhaps their plight of being unloved is the most painful of all.

It is hard to pick out a standout performance with such a strong cast. Tristan Sturrock and Patrycja Kujawska were wonderful as the hedonistic, passionate, yet flawed Tristan and Yseult. Carly Bawden was magnificent as Whitehands, our narrator who led us through the story. However, if I had to be drawn, I would pick Craig Johnson’s cross dressing performance of Brangian, maid to Yseult as my favourite. This comedic character could have been one dimensional, but Johnson managed to bring surprising vulnerability and tenderness to the role when Brangian is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for Yseult.

A seamless blend of comedy, tragedy and high drama, with energetic dance routines and music that made me want to jump up out of my seat and dance. It shouldn’t work having a story about passion, betrayal and desire mixed with such physical comedy and sheer silliness, but Kneehigh seem to pull it off effortlessly. Tristan and Yseult was a riot for the senses, and I left wanting to see it again straight away. Sexy, funny, moving, heart wrenching and as near to perfect as anything I have seen on the stage. I left the theatre on a real high as it was practically impossible to not be swept away in the sheer exuberance of it all This is absolutely sensational theatre and I urge you to go and see it if you have the chance.

Tristan and Yseult? I am in love.

Tristan and Yseult is at Bristol Old Vic until July 20th

– Review by Karen Blake