Absence of War at The Bristol Old Vic

Absence of War

Last night, I went to see The Bristol Old Vic to see ‘Absence of War’, a play by David Hare, directed by Jeremy Herrin and Presented by Headlong, Rose Theatre Kingston and Sheffield Theatres. The play scrutinises the UK political system from the perspective of those inside the Labour Party. It is a reflection on leadership, and a character study of a charismatic yet essentially flawed man and the sacrifices he must make as he leads his party into the election battleground. Here are men with no real war to fight, but who must believe that the political war they wage is equally as important and purposeful. But, aren’t all wars full of folly and futility?

With the imminent General Election that looks likely to be the most unpredictable in recent times and where neither of the two usual suspects are confident of outright victory, the revival of ‘Absence of War’ seems particularly timely. Putting the somewhat 90’s style power dressing of one of the female characters aside, the play feels like it could have been written about the current political climate that we find ourselves in today, yet I was really surprised to learn that the play is actually 22 years old. Maybe it just highlights that, depressingly, nothing really changes in the games they play in politics.

The play is inspired by real events of an election campaign, after Hare spent time with the main players of the Labour Party during the run up to the 1992 General Election. This was the first election I really remember, although I was not quite old enough to vote in it. My Dad was a staunch Labour socialist, so he influenced my own political leanings at the time. I remember the feeling that Neil Kinnock as the leader of that time might just do it. I remember that famous headline in The Sun newspaper on the day of the election, the one about the last one out of the country turning the lights off. This year was also the first time I remember being outraged by journalistic bias. I remember the dismay I felt when the Tories got in yet again, and Labour remained the political party who appeared unelectable. Things have changed since 1992. The Labour party have won three general elections since the play was written, so they are no longer the seemingly unelectable party they appeared to be at the time. Possibly that is because they have become more like the Tories than ever before, but I promised myself this review would not turn into a political rant, so I am stepping away from my own personal feelings! What hasn’t changed is the notion of how carefully controlled and crafted image is within politics. Here in Labour leader George Jones is a man who in private in likeable, strong and charismatic, yet he cannot seem to get this across to the voters. But his own personal battle is this; if he is allowed to remain true to himself, will the voters and the respect he wins be worth the damage he may do to the party? What about the united front he has worked hard for the party to present? What IS more important to George Jones, his own integrity, or doing what is best for the party? And, for him, how closely are these two things tied anyway?

The cast of ‘Absence of War’ were all strong, but credit must be given to Trevor Fox who was drafted in at very short notice to play George Jones after Reece Dinsdale was unavailable due to illness. We were told he would be holding a script throughout the performance due to his limited rehearsal time, and I wondered how this would impact on my enjoyment of the show. There was no need to worry, Fox managed to make this into a prop, and he hardly appeared to even glance at it in the first half. His performance was strong and full of gravitas. Had he not managed to fill the shoes of George Jones fully the play would have been lost. It is a credit to his acting that he not only filled the shoes, he made me trust him completely in the role.

The staging of this show was perfect. From the very first second the backdrop was visually striking, and the movement and energy of the scene changes kept the pace of the play fast and engaging. The lack of mobile phones was striking, and the use of Ceefax on suspended monitors placed it in the 90’s too. (If you need to ask what Ceefax is, then you really weren’t there!) Clever use of camera, having the actors on TV screens and large-scale monitors as well as on the stage gave the play of a sense of immediacy, like we were watching the events of the election campaign as they happened.

I was pleasantly surprised at the humour to be found within this play, which acted as light relief to the seriousness of the content. Many might feel that political theatre is not for them, but I would urge them to take a risk with this show, as it is interesting and thought provoking. In a few months time we will all watch the real performance unfold before our eyes. I think ‘Absence of War’ is infinitely more entertaining than that circus will be!

Absence of War is on at The Bristol Old Vic until the 14th March.

Reviewed by Karen Blake


The Experimentrics at Blackwood Miners’ Institute

“science made simple has a mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to embed science and engineering within popular culture,” says Wendy Sadler, Founder of science made simple. And, whoa, do they achieve this in The Experimentrics, a live show where art and science hurtle towards each other and collide with all the energy of exploding stars, giving birth to something really rather beautiful.

Gaz and Debbie are like a slapstick double act; clown and scientist, constantly trying to outdo each other, get the upper hand. This is a performance that never once uses the spoken word, making you feel that you are witnessing a ‘silent’ Laurel and Hardy film but in extreme technicolour and with music that makes you want to get up and dance.

The Experimentrics is extremely visual, presenting science for children in a way that is fun and ultra engaging. It enthused me so much that I had to take notes, not for review purposes but so we could expand on some of these experiments back at home. Think large screen light shows, lasers, banging tunes, smoke, fire, photography.

Where can we experience shapes in everyday life? What happens when water boils? How can we make a musical instrument out of a straw? What do sound waves look like? How do lasers work? How many reflections can you make with three mirrors? What happens when you combine the three primary colours of light? Often it feels like illusion but, actually, everything has a logical, scientific explanation.

The technology employed here is wide – really, you can put a microscope and camera just about anywhere! We have a couple of apple macs and a turntable for vinyl. Gaz’s music choices are excellent and you can see that he is clearly having a ball (I particularly enjoyed T-Rex’s Children of the Revolution, playing loudly when the pair investigate everything that can possibly spin! And The Prodigy’s Firestarter when creating a spiral of flames).

As you can tell from my terminology, I am as far from a scientist as it is possible to be but this had my brain ticking. Oh, sorry, the kids? They barely stopped ‘wow’ing or gasping or laughing. “I feel like we’re at a carnival,” shouted my 8 year old daughter.

I’ve long understood that an incredible amount of learning can take place via the arts, in general, and the theatre, in particular. The Experimentrics has cemented this knowledge. Both of us are inspired – let’s grab whatever objects we come across and experiment with them. Let’s trial and error it. Let’s have fun with science!

Please, please, please, science made simple – can you travel over the Severn Bridge and share your wonderfulness with Bristol and Somerset? I can think of a couple of local theatres that you’d fit into, like a magician and his glove.


– Check out The Experimentrics website for some simple activities you can try at home

– Review by Becky Condron

The Heresy of Love at Bristol Old Vic

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If ever you were in doubt that Bristol’s emerging talent is poised to burst fully flowered onto the city’s stages, make sure that you visit the Studio of the Old Vic this week, where BOV Theatre School performs The Heresy of Love.

Set in late Seventeenth Century Mexico, The Heresy of Love follows the story of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun who, like the rest of the country, lives under the yoke of Spain and the Catholic Church. For years, this beautiful and clever woman has been able to balance her devotion to God with her remarkable talent for writing and her aptitude for learning. Her intellect has attracted the attention and friendship of the Viceroy and Vicereine of Mexico, for whom she writes plays, and of courtiers, who commission her to write poems of love so they can woo other women. And of course, she pens hymns for the Church. However, a new Archbishop brings with him strict censorship laws and Sister Juana’s writings are too decadent in the dark days of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. She must be stopped!

Helen Edmundson’s telling of Sister Juana’s (true) story focuses on love: the love of God; sororal love; romantic love; unrequited love, forbidden love and the love of learning. Though often told with humour, this play is, ultimately, a tragedy. It is a story of ambition, betrayal and the power struggles between men and women, God and the State.

Directed by Jenny Stephens, the cast of twelve is uber-strong and could easily hold their own in the larger BOV theatre. At almost three hours long (including interval), you’d never know it and I barely lose a word, so convincing is each character and so obvious is their torment in a world were freedom seems to be merely a word. Dominic Allen’s Bishop Santa Cruz is (initially) likeable and you’re glad he’s on our heroine’s side, while Joel Macey’s self-flagellating Archbishop is fresh-creepingly menacing.Tilly Steele’s slave Juanita owns the stage whenever she speaks and Erin Doherty plays Sister Juana with a certain glow that you just know the intellectual nun must have possessed.

However, the one character that I am constantly aware of is Sister Sebastiana, played by Anna Riding. Her expressions of jealousy and connivance are so real that you can almost see her brain working. From behind the bars that must separate these women of the convent from their Courtly visitors, she watches. Whilst reciting the Catechism and singing hymns with her sisters, she calculates. Feigning visions right there in the middle of Elizabeth Rose’s opulent yet essentially prison-like set, she convinces, helping to secure the nail that will hammer Juana into submission.

But not into oblivion. Sister Juana is an icon of female identity and strength in present-day Mexico. An activist who challenged the patriarchy and who pushed for equality between the sexes, she certainly has not been forgotten. And thank you to the team at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for bringing her life and to the forefront of my mind with such persuasion.

The Heresy of Love plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 14th March

– Review by Becky Condron

Radiant Vermin at The Brewery Theatre

Radiant Vermin

‘Radiant Vermin’ is the latest offering from writer Philip Ridley, creator of the critically acclaimed ‘Dark Vanilla Jungle’, which was performed at The Brewery Theatre this time last year. My friend watched that show and said it was dark and powerful. Radiant Vermin is billed as being a wickedly comic satire. I was very much looking forward to the performance ahead of me last night.

I smiled as I took my seat in the packed Brewery Theatre auditorium. Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ was playing, followed by ‘Our House’ by Madness. The atmosphere felt playful. I sensed the show might be a little racy, it certainly sounded interesting. The staging was intriguing. A large white stage floor, backed by four large, white canvas stretchers to suggest a room. I’m right in the middle of preparing for a show of my own art work, so blank canvasses fill me with a little bit of distress in my current mood. Little did I know quite how much distress I would be in by the end of it all…

Ollie and Jill ( played by Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan) want to tell you about their dream home. Its clear they are not proud of the things they did to get their dream home, but they want you to know they did it all for their baby. For his future. But just how far did they go, are they prepared to go, to get everything they have ever wanted?

At first, I thought I would relate to our young couple. I am a mum of two small children. Creating a stable world for them is important to me. There are plenty of things I would probably do to give them the things they need, actions that might not seem palatable to others, if I really had to. So I thought as the play went on I could forgive them, whatever it was they had done. As it turns out, I couldn’t have felt less empathy, less connection with two characters who should have had my sympathy. I’m actually struggling to think of any characters who have felt quite so repugnant to me. Perhaps that is because I never saw it coming. On first meeting with Ollie and Jill, they seem unremarkable. Normal. The sort of people you could easily dismiss, but that you would also probably quite like. You might have ended up being friends with them, but would probably always feel that there was something missing from the friendship that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. But they are ‘nice’, so you wouldn’t question it too much. The fact that these ‘nice’, normal people become so repellent, so vile, so disgusting in their depravity just to possess ‘things’ is testament to both the writing and the acting.

The acting? Yes, Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan should be applauded. I am assuming we were meant to hate the characters, to feel no empathy with them. (That is my hope, anyway.) If the audience were meant to come away troubled and questioning, then they did their job in spades. There was a particular scene that will stay with me, where our leading man and lady bring a whole raft of equally repellent, materialistic neighbours to life in a frantic, energetic scene that left me reeling with its speed and ferocity. Perhaps the scene went on too long, it certainly had me wishing for it to end. I sensed Ollie was clinging on to his carefully crafted mask of normality, and was struggling to justify how far he had gone. I felt his panic, and felt my own rise as his did. It was all I could do not to yell “SHUT UP!” at the top of my lungs in that packed theatre, just to make them both stop their tirade. As I left the theatre, I saw myself in a mirror and realised my chest and neck was covered in a heat rash. I wasn’t hot, I think it was the sheer force of the emotions I felt that were coming out in a physical reaction. In a compliment to Gemma Whelan, I learnt that she is a character in the popular TV drama series ‘Game of Thrones’. I’ve never watched it, but after seeing her performance I am curious to see her in another guise, so I might just give it a go.

The play was a study of our modern society and its fixation and obsession with consumption, our never satiated need to buy bigger, better, more expensive, more luxurious things; to have more and be better than our neighbours and friends. My problem with the play was not so much the writing or the acting (which, as I have said was excellent) but was more that I felt there was a general assumption from the writer that this is how we ALL feel. We all feel a need to fill our vacuous lives with ‘stuff’ to feel better. I can’t (and have never) been able to understand this. How can someone get so passionate and animated about a luxury kitchen? About a home that always looks beautiful? Sure, I want my family to live in a secure, homely, comfortable environment. But this play made me feel glad for the setting of my own moral compass. It might sound like I hated this play, and I suppose I did. But not for the writing, the fine acting and the interesting if a little far fetched storyline. These were all commendable, although a criticism would be that I felt it would have been much a more rounded and interesting piece if the crime the couple had committed had been somehow more subtle, more insidious, somethings more of us could ACTUALLY imagine doing. No, I hated it as it made me feel sick to my stomach about the emphasis much of society places on consumption. My flesh crawled at the mere thought that nice, normal people would stoop so low just to have ‘nice’ things. Maybe other audience members felt differently. Maybe they felt a certain amount of sympathy for the pressure this young family were under, to secure their future, to have all the good things they mistakenly believed would bring happiness. I certainly did not. ‘Radiant Vermin’ made me grateful for my messy home which I never have the time to ‘renovate’ as its just not that important to me. Grateful for some of the friendships and relationships I have nurtured, particularly since I have had my children. I’ve met some of the most important people of my life, made connections based on mutual like, love, interests and a similar outlook on the important things in life. Not a love of or comparison of all the stuff we have accumulated.

OK. I’ve decided, I’m going to give away most of my worldly possessions, keep what is important and take my little family off to go live a travelling life in a van. Who is with me?!

Radiant Vermin is on at The Brewery Theatre until Saturday 7th March. Its not an easy watch, but it will certainly get you thinking.

Review by Karen Blake

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