Casting the Runes at Tobacco Factory Theatres

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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

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

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

Who is Dory Previn? at Tobacco Factory Theatre

Dory-Previn_for_web-480x360I have a confession to make. I didn’t think I was going to think much of ‘Who is Dory Previn?’ which I saw last night at the Tobacco Factory Theatre. Here was a show about a lyricist who found fame in the 60’s, someone I knew nothing about. After reading about the show, I guessed I would probably like Dory, but I also predicted that it would be good, but not something that would blow me away. How very wrong I was!

Singer and storyteller Kate Dimbleby accompanied by Naadia Sheriff on piano and vocals, takes us on an exploration of the life of this cult songwriter, with the show running for two nights only. Part cabaret, part gig and part theatre, this performance was different from anything I had seen before, but it really worked beautifully. When Dimbleby walked onto the stage, it was almost palpable how much the audience immediately liked her and warmed to her. She moved seamlessly back and forth between being in character as Dory, and being ‘Kate’, telling the story. And this is probably not really relevant to the review but Kate? You really, really have the most fabulous legs! I don’t know the singing voice of Previn, but according to overheard reflections of my fellow audience members, Dimbleby really had her off to a tee. And me? Well, I just thought her voice was fantastic. The songs of Dory Previn are really a gift to any singer, with lyrics that are so rich, expressive, heartbreaking, wise, witty and full of colour, but Dimbleby really did them justice. It’s important here not to forget about Naadia Sheriff, who also had a lovely voice, and held the performance together with her accomplished piano playing and supporting vocals.

Dory Previn was not exactly dealt a winning hand in her life, with a troubled childhood that culminated in her father having a nervous breakdown and holding the family prisoner in their own home at gunpoint for several months. It was no surprise then that Previn had demons of her own to battle, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and episodes of incarceration in psychiatric institutions throughout her life. She was however, a woman who very much knew love, both the intense, almost unbearable pleasure of it, and the heartbreaking bleakness of it when it goes wrong. But she loved fearlessly and wholeheartedly, and I loved her and related to her because of that. Famously married to composer Andre Previn who she collaborated with on many tracks, her heart was broken for the first time when he left her for actress Mia Farrow. But she survived electroconvulsive therapy after being hospitalised again, and went on to write more introspective and confessional songs about love, sexuality and her own story. I’m not ashamed to say I cried on hearing some of these songs for the first time. What power to move her lyrics had! She also went on to love again, as we hear about her struggles with her love for a younger man in ‘Lemon Haired Ladies’. Lastly we learn of the last love she shared her later life with, artist Joby Baker, who she lived with in contentment until she died aged 86 in 2012. On Valentine’s Day. How appropriate for a woman who lived a live full of love, and lived it richly, painfully and creatively BECAUSE of love.

So who is Dory Previn? Well, for me she is someone I fell in love with a little last night. I admired her creativity and talent. We learnt that Dory decided in the end to stop her medication and give voice to the spectres of her schizophrenia, and ended up winning, writing some of the best music she ever had. It touched on my fears that sometimes, as an artist, I create my best work when I am in a difficult headspace or going through some sort of trauma, and I find this a little troubling. She is someone I could relate to, that probably most people who have ever fallen madly and passionately in love could relate to. She is someone I want to know better. She is someone who showed that happiness, love and contentment are there to be grabbed, even under the most difficult of circumstances. I adored her music, and plan to listen to more of it. Dory Previn was a complex, damaged but wonderful woman. And Kate Dimbleby? Well she is pretty bloody fabulous too. Go see this show if you can catch it anywhere else on tour. I really urge you to. You might just fall in love with it as much as I did.

– Review by Karen Blake

Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatre

image by farrows creative

‘Filter is at the forefront of contemporary theatre-making as a deviser of new pieces.’ So, for someone unversed in the works of Shakespeare, this is a good thing, right?

Filter have teamed up with Tobacco Factory Theatre to bring their ‘playful’ version of Macbeth to Bristol audiences. Now, my knowledge of Macbeth is next to none but surely the very last adjective anyone would attach to it is ‘playful’. In fact, so base is my understanding that I felt a quick search on Wikipedia was in order before the performance, just so I would know the outline of the story. And, my God, I’m glad I did!

The stage is a square of walkways, in the middle of which is piled an array of sound equipment operated by Twenty First Century Weird Sisters at work, making a cacophony of high tech sounds. Enter Macbeth and (a female) Banquo and let the story begin.

Filter have brought Macbeth bang into today (or even into the future?): no grand costumes, a can of Coke, party poppers, a baby monitor and Skips crisps. The language, though, is of Shakespeare. The actors are obviously well accomplished; they speak clearly, project well. But I don’t know this language and 100 minutes in a comfy Tobacco Factory Theatre seat isn’t enough for me to get The Code.

Maybe there’s too much going on? Does madness beget confusion? Could be that I’m just not concentrating enough? But I wasn’t really with it, didn’t get it.  The lights jar slightly as does the static conveyor belt of a stage. I did enjoy that music, though, which adds to the weirdness and madness that must be Macbeth’s lot. And Poppy Miller gives some clarity: I understood her role as Lady Macbeth and could tune in with her somehow.

I left Tobacco Factory Theatre with an uneasiness that didn’t stem so much from the brilliance of performance but from my own self-doubt. Am I really not intelligent enough to understand Shakespeare? Should he remain elitist? Why bother? No, actually, Filter’s production has made me determined to watch other versions of Macbeth and prove to myself that this classic really can be accessible to all.

 

Macbeth plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until Saturday 20th September

 

 

– Review by Becky Condron

 

 

 

 

Strawberry and Chocolate at Brewery Theatre

Photo by Max Johns

Photo by Max Johns

Strawberry and Chocolate at Brewery Theatre, Bristol, opens to the sound of Silvio Rodriguez’s Ojalá (If Only). On the stage is a clever arrangement of books, religious iconography, a chair and three men. Welcome to 1970s Havana, a place of revolutionary fervour, sugar quota madness and machismo; a dangerous place for a gay man to be.

The revolution has offered David the chance to study at university and his ambition is to be a writer in his beloved Communist Cuba; Diego is an older man, finely attuned to the world outside of the island, a purveyor of beauty. He is homosexual; the young David is not. After a chance encounter at Coppelia ice creamery, David is lured back to Diego’s apartment and, though uncomfortable there, he returns, convinced by fellow communist youth activist, Miguel, to spy on a man who is an apparent traitor of the revolution.

And so it seems … traitor he must be. In an anti-Religion State, Diego is Catholic. He drinks contraband whisky, reads banned books from all over the globe, courts foreign diplomats. But most outragously of all, he wants sex with men.  He gives David a key to his home and the boy is smitten by Diego’s hidden, flamboyant world in a country of uniform and uniformity.

I watched the 1993 film Fresa y Chocolate in Santiago de Cuba during the mid-90s, where I hung around with mostly Cuban university friends, half of whom were gay. Although prosecution of homosexual acts had become decriminalised in Cuba in 1979, it seemed to me that the release of this film had only very recently allowed the gay community to breath a collective sigh of relief and host One Big Coming Out Party. In my circle of friends, gayness was to be celebrated. That this film was jointly Cuban made and uncensored in a Special Period ‘Socialist Revolutionary’ Cuba, where life had taken a dramatic, though temporary, downturn since the fall of the Soviet Union, is important. It appeared to be an apology for those earlier years of persecution of homosexuals, many of whom had been sent to correction camp and sentenced to forced labour on the sugar plantations. It was a cry of ‘we now welcome difference; let’s band together to make this maldito thing work!’

Strawberry and Chocolate is a love story that tries to make sense of that younger revolution. It is a discussion about what the new Cuban Man should be. You can feel the blossoming friendship between Craig Fuller (Diego) and Matt Jessup (David), who, at first seem to be different and, as the story progresses, less so. Jessup plays the slightly scared, then eager, boy well. Fuller is wholly believable as the sort of man you’d want in your life: a man of passion and intelligence. And Ryan McKen as the macho Miguel is dislikable (which he is supposed to be) but his actions are also understandable in a country rife with anti-gay, anti-religious and anti-capitalist propaganda. A good job by all and thank you for not trying to adopt Cuban accents; the ‘street’ versus ‘posh’ speak did the talking.

If I could change one thing, it would be a slight injection of wit. This is achieved in the film by a camper Diego and, though Fuller plays him beautifully, the extra puff of the lips and wink of an eye might complete his character.

I adored the set design and all credit to Max Johns for it. The ramp of books served as focal point to Diego’s ornamental apartment, whilst symbolising El Malecón, the esplanade and seawall, the beginning of the divide between Cuba and her imperialist enemy, 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. I understood every last reference in the play – from the Virgin de la Caridad and her sunflowers to the madly bustling Coppelia. I expected to feel a strong twang of longing for that country I once lived in but, no, that didn’t really happen, not while I was at the Brewery Theatre. Now, however, the morning after, I have an urge to watch that film again and to dig out some Cuban poetry, maybe cook up some Moros y Cristianos.

Almost the entire cast and creative team involved in Strawberry and Chocolate is a product of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And, so, they do it again; this city really does have a remarkable amount of talent!

 

Strawberry and Chocolate is on at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 13th September

 

– Review by Becky Condron

 

 

 

La Traviata at Tobacco Factory Theatre

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I’m no seasoned opera goer. In fact, the only one I know is La Traviata and that’s only because we bumped into it by accident last week in London’s Trafalgar Square, to where it was being transported from the nearby Royal Opera House for consumption by the wider public, most of us sitting on inflatable white cushions, gazing up at the huge screen with Nelson’s Column as a rather impressive backdrop.

So another first for me.  But even I can see the massive difference between that throw-every-penny-at-it production and this, Opera Up Close’s opera-in-a-box.

So, yes, we know the story, which is a propitious start for my girl, the only child in the audience of the main auditorium of Tobacco Factory Theatre, and me. “It looks different in here,” she says upon entering. Indeed it does and the set excites me.

This isn’t 19th Century Paris!  This Violetta is a woman surrounded by the glitz of 1920’s New Jersey – if you’re thinking Great Gatsby, you are spot on.  A veranda, movable windows, a chaise longue, liquor, a gramophone (!), more than a hint of the Charleston in the midst of prohibition.

Even though there are only five people at this party, I prefer the intimacy of it to ROH’s bustling stage. I feel as though I too am a guest here and I’m pretty sure I’ve met the coquettish Flora before, played so well by Zarah Hible. Warm, fun-loving, beautiful, loyal Flora, a woman anyone would want as her best friend. Even when Hible isn’t throwing her clarity of voice around, I can feel her strength. Would Violetta ever have survived so long without such a friend?

The women completely own this show and, given the subject matter, so they should. Violetta is just lovely; Louisa Tee plays her with such honesty.  A brave, genuine heroine, you can see why Alfredo would fall in love with her. Tee’s voice is clear and strong, her look perfect and her character sincere. Her strength beats poor Alfredo into the ground – would a woman like that really go for such a meek man?  But, ah, this story is about the inequalities of the sexes and Violetta is a fallen woman, here a gangster’s moll, riddled by sickness. She has no right to demand love, she’d never really dreamed of it. Though, look, here is a chap declaring a love strong enough to defy all that – he’ll be there for her always.

What should she do? Freedom has its price, after all, and this is powerfully highlighted as Violetta weighs up her options, “Always free. I will be free. I will be free!”

She grabs this last chance at happiness, ready to leave the glamour behind. Until that interfering father of his urges her to leave Alfredo. David Durham’s Germont is easily the strongest male performance, his maturity shines, his voice flies. A politician, Germont is also a concerned father; Violetta’s relationship with his son is ruining his family, scuppering his own daughter’s own chance of marriage. And, perhaps more importantly, it is damaging his career. She MUST leave him and he plays beautifully to her vulnerability, “Just picture it one year from now, the honeymoon is over, your beauty is familiar and he is bored.” What an arse.

Opera Close-Up’s La Traviata is an English version, another stroke of luck for a couple of opera newbies. And Robin Norton-Hale has made a good job of it. During the interval, I heard someone in the audience wonder whether this was how it is for Italians, being able to understand every word, not having to work hard at all to enjoy the performance. She thought it banal; I would say insightful.

The trio of cello, clarinet and piano, led by Elspeth Wilkes, is not the grand orchestra you’d expect for Verdi’s masterpiece but it compliments the size of the theatre and the scaled-down cast perfectly.  The girls did good 😉

At the close of La Traviata, it was Zarah Hible who got a ‘whoop-de-whoop” from me. Louisa Tee was alway going to get a great deal of that from everyone else.

La Traviata plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until may 31st

– Review by Becky Condron