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

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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 Gigantic Beard that was Evil at Bristol Old Vic

Image by Shot Away, with thanks

Image by Shot Away, with thanks

It was with great excitement I went to watch the opening night of The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil put on by The Bristol Old Vic Young Company. I have to say I was impressed with the enthusiasm and energy the group of youngsters put into the production.

The story is an adaptation of a book. However, I have not had the opportunity to read it so I am unsure how true to the book it is.

I watched intently as a young man living in a neat community suddenly grew a beard.
The method created to depict the growing beard was inventive and fun. There were a few songs within the play as well that were sung with great competence. I particularly enjoyed ‘Eternal Flame’ by the Bangles, although I would have enjoyed hearing more of it (secret Bangles fan).

The play would appeal to a younger audience, maybe 8 -12years. I did take my 15yr old son and he agreed with this. There were comedic moments that appealed to all ages and in particular the bearded men of the audience. My son recalled an older bearded man in the audience finding the offensiveness of the beard particularly humorous.

I am still trying to work out if there was a hidden message in the story and what that might be. There probably isn’t and that may be the point.

The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil shows at Bristol Old Vic’s Studio until 10th January

– Review by Catriona Daynes

Theatre Uncut at Bristol Old Vic

uncutTheatre Uncut was born in 2010 as a response to the coalition’s announcement that public spending in the UK would be cut. A group of playwrights were invited to pen their reactions to these government proposals and their work became downloadable and performable by anyone, rights-free, for a week, the idea being to create ‘mass theatrical action.’

Since then, Theatre Uncut has grown. This year, the company has produced five short plays with the theme ‘Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Change,’ written by five UK playwrights, all downloadable for a month in 2014 (NOW!), all owned by everyone, internationally. These political plays have been performed in over 20 countries by thousands of people and, furthermore, Theatre Uncut is also piloting a production tour of them.

And, lucky us, Bristol Old Vic’s Basement is hosting the tour for 4 nights.

The Old Vic’s Basement is stark, dark and not particularly comfortable, an alternative to the ornate obviousness of the stunning theatre upstairs. It’s underground, the perfect setting for political theatre such as this, a leftist backlash to the mainstream. Yet, if you just listen to the ideas and opinions that are given voice by the four actors in front of us, this IS mainstream. Or at least, it should be.

The Finger of God by Anders Lustgarten is set in the very-near future, a future in which the masses are manipulated by those with financial and political power. Sound familiar? The National Lottery is losing profit and what better way to kick it into shape than to hand out punishments as well as rewards? After all, ‘The British will accept anything.’ Highlighting the power of social media and a celebrity status for Everyman, this is a powerful Brookeresque tale of greed and manipulation.

Pachamama by Clara Brennan screams pain, as a stream of words and short sentences are spoken, whispered and shouted by the actors standing in a line, trying to make sense of what is happening around them. This is a distressing last cry for help from Mother Earth, “Can’t you see what you are doing to me? What if I were to change the game? What would happen then? How would you cope?”

Reset Everything by Inua Ellams asks how to handle the ‘bedroom tax,’ that financial penalty imposed upon thousands of households that have one more room than they actually ‘need’. Simple, blow up said room! Bang! Everyone can see that – the widowed father, the aching son, the urban healer and even the woman who works for the local housing office. A humourous spin on a serious issue, this highlights the absurdity of rules and regulations that affect the lives of so many.

The Most Horrific by Vivienne Franzmann concentrates on what it is that makes us tick. What do we talk about in everyday life? What do we give credence to and what do we filter out? What is acceptable and what is too painful or complicated to let in? Can’t we just listen and see what is happening all around us? Bankers may well be cunts but what about that Ugandan Lesbian fighting for her survival in Yarl’s Wood, her life depending on immigration law? This piece is raw in the extreme and the subject matter gives us all a (much needed?) slap around the face.

Ira Provitt and the Man by Hayley Squires questions the fundamental essence of a person. When and how do we ‘go bad’?  As an official in the Department of Education gets prepared to push through a paper that will further automate and standardise our already burdened school children, he struggles with his conscience. But should he listen to his inner self, let that voice in? Can one person really make the lives of millions better (or at least, not make them worse)? Relentlessly probing, this last short play of the evening leaves us with as many questions as it answers, while demanding the change that only we can make.

And all of these plays concern our ability to listen. To listen and to be aware; to understand and then to take action. All the information is out there: if only we would slow down and take note, we would see that the pain and madness is all around and maybe we could even help to find a way to help lessen it.

Faith Alabi, Ruairi Conaghan, Ruth Gibson and Conor MacNeill do a superb job of flitting between characters, donning different accents, moving around this set made of boxes in-between plays. Each actor displays the versatility necessary to make this intense experience a memorable one too.

The four actors come together particularly well in The Finger of God, where Gibson and Conaghan play the confident, champagne swilling money-men-in-control, while Alabi and MacNeill are the target market for this new, devastating game. They make you want to shout something like, “Don’t be so ridiculous! Can’t you see what you’re doing?”

The stand out performance (and play) is Faith Alabi as the stand-up comedian in The Most Horrific. Here is a woman trying to understand what is acceptable to share, driven half crazy by real life events that are so shocking, so distressing and so unbelievable that they’re almost funny. Alabi is in tears by the end of her performance, seemingly wiped out by the hideous truth of it all, snot tickling her lips. I have to breathe deeply so I don’t break down too and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I will be seeking out a lot more political theatre; it’s a place I feel comfortable. Who doesn’t want to question to the world? Certainly, we all need to.

Theatre Uncut deserves to be seen by a wider audience so that we can all sit up and take note of what these exciting writers are telling us. I urge you to hop over to their website, see how you can get involved. Keep your eye on these guys; they make sense.

Theatre Uncut is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6th December

– Review by Becky Condron

Swallows and Amazons at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Simon Annand, with thanks

Photo by Simon Annand, with thanks

You can rely on Bristol Old Vic to pull out a Christmas show that gives little mention of Christmas – The Little Mermaid in 2013, Peter Pan in 2012 and Coram Boy in 2011. This year, with Swallows and Amazons, the team revisits a production first performed at the theatre during Christmas 2010.

I didn’t see it then and, though I remember enjoying the film as a child, all I really recall are boats. So this was a blank canvas for my 8 year old and me – no expectations (apart from excitement of being at the Old Vic for a Christmas show! In THAT theatre!).

Director Tom Morris introduces the show, noting that some important people are missing and then bigging up St Peters CoE Primary School from Portishead, when row upon row of children line the stage to sing a one-off performance of their winning entry to BOV’s School Choir of the Year award. Bravo!

And we’re off to a flying start, as these local children take their seats to enjoy this lovely, really lovely, show with us.

Set and written in the last year of the 1920’s, Arthur Ransome’s story is one about childhood dreams of adventure. Now, I wouldn’t have wanted my healthy, always warm and well-fed child to have had to grow up during those dismal inter-war years of depression but it must be noted that, in 2014, never would we let our young people take off for days on end in a boat in order to camp on a small island without an adult in sight, as they do in Ransome’s summer of ’29. We are very good at bemoaning the present and idealising the past but, honestly, I know which era I’d rather live in.

But let’s enjoy the fantasy because it really is done beautifully here.

The set is minimalist, allowing the deceptively small cast of twelve to roam their space; they are constantly moving, exploring, using every part of the stage as if it were, indeed, a mysterious place of infantile possibilities.

The Walker Children are played by adults, each one believable in his or her role: Stuart Mcloughlin, as 12 year old John, is the gangly ‘Captain’, so obviously on a road trip here as he tries to do what’s best for his siblings, not always getting it quite right; Bethan Nash plays Susan, First Mate (aged 11), with a sweet, blossoming maturity and an eagerness to do the right thing; Jennifer Higham is the funnest person you may ever meet in her role as the effervescent 9 year old Titty and what’s there to say about Tom Bennett’s Roger? Comedy! An almost 8 year old with a beard, Bennett gets a great deal of laughs throughout the show as he flits between that inquisitive little boy and a mature, wise man (he was my girl’s absolute favourite, while I thought Titty was, in the parlance of the day, simply marvellous). Each and every member of that family plays the age of their given child almost to perfection.

And then there are the Amazon pirate girls: full of wildness and enviable energy. Millie Corser and Evelyn Miller are delightful as the local kids who have been stomping this ground all summer, making the most of time without an uncle who is too busy to pay them attention. Constantly playful, they invent scenarios, surveying the waters from their own boat. It is their island. Who are these interlopers? This must mean war!

And so is told a tale of innocence, growth and friendship. As the kids learn to depend on one another, we, the audience, are very aware of the help they get along the way. There are no barbarians (aka adults) on Wild Cat Island but the place doesn’t belong to the younger generation entirely. Pirate hats off to Toby Sedgwick, Director of Movement, because the ‘Players in Blue’ are the cement of this production, playing the parts of those grown-ups on the mainland or at sea, whilst moving around props, becoming a telescope, acting as the sea itself, diving on the floor to spit out waves, breathing life into the stage and forming a small but perfectly formed orchestra.

Because, ah, the music! Composed by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, the music is such an important part of Swallows and Amazons. So many songs that will leave you humming all the way home, his lyrics informative, helping to express the cast’s emotion at each turn, at times sad and at others joyful.

The whole package is a fun-filled family adventure, the kind that Bristol Old Vic does remarkably well. Swallows and Amazons is guaranteed to give you a warm glow on a cold December evening.

Swallows and Amazons is at Bristol Old Vic until 17th January 2015

– Review by Becky Condron

War Game at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by ShotAway

Photo by ShotAway

11th November 2014. It’s Armistice Day – exactly 96 years since the signing of the treaty that ended the long and tired Great War. And here we are, in the Studio of Bristol Old Vic, watching a show about Everyman enlisting to fight in France, to smile for his country, to extinguish the enemy.

This year has seen the centenary of the start of that war and the commemorations have been necessarily relentless. Necessary not for the celebrations of ‘our’ so-called victory but for that reminder of the futility of war, for all those lost men, born in so many countries. For the remembrance of a burden placed heavily upon young shoulders, encouraged to stand for their nation in the place of bureaucrats and landlords.

War Game heightens not only that sense of pointless loss and grief but makes us realise that it all could have been very different for millions of people. And for a few hundred soldiers, a few months in, for a few hours, it was.

1914. Will is a Suffolk country boy; his only real, yet playful, beef is with the neighbouring village’s football team. Football is his passion, you see, and one day he will play for England. And then, suddenly, enlisting with his pals, Will goes off to faraway France for ‘an adventure,’ which, everyone says, will be over be Christmas anyway! Will travels through a land that looks the same as the one he just left, cheered on by English and then French folk, who line the streets to pass food and love to the young men.

And then it all changes …

War.

We have seen a good few one-actor shows this year but the team effort in this production may well beat them all into the ground.

Robin Hemmings as Will instantly drums up a friendship with us, playing with an invisible but very real football and leading us back to that Suffolk village 100 years ago. Everything is familiar yet strange at the same time, to us and to Will, giving a dreamlike quality that informs us where we are and what we might expect, each layer unravelling as we go. But we’re never entirely sure because boyish, upbeat Will isn’t either.

Hemmings is expert in leading us through a few months of his life, as he introduces us to his mates, to Kitchener, to his superior and, finally, to his brand new buddy, Hans the German, with whom he strikes up a bond on the famous Christmas day football match in No-Man’s Land.

We, the audience, are truly part of this production – the creative team have made sure of that. On stage, alongside Will, sits a very 21st Century Rebecca (Becky) Marie Loxton, Stage Manager. Equipped with her macbook and software, Becky records us cheering, looping our voices so that we become the crowd on Will’s journey. We sing a very well know war song and then, on Christmas Day 1914, a day that you feel had the potential to change the world forever, we join forces in an international Christmas carol. For a very short, beautiful moment, the past and present intermingle: enemies become friends; horror, joy: despair, hope … war, peace.

Adapted from Michael Foreman illustrated book for young readers, the set of War Game is a wall of bandages, at times acting as the trenches, through which Will can access any number of props, though it must be said that the most impressive props are those we can’t see, those that we must imagine. Some of the audience are invited to play with the invisible ball, shoot an illusory gun. We are IN this uplifting yet ultimitely terrifying story.

Along with his team, Toby Hulse, as Director, has done a superb job in sharing his love of fusing naturalism with the unexpected, creating a powerful piece of Brechtian theatre that will stay with us.

My 8 year old, as ever, asked lots of questions. Another one-man show, another piece about war, another sublime production. She hasn’t yet said much but I reckon that, for an hour there, as with all those school children who attended performances earlier in the day, she was propelled into a world of certainty and, at the same time, of what ifs. Through War Game, the fragility of history touches all of us. And so it should.

War Game is a heart-warming, upbeat story of any soldier who ever stood in a trench. For love of humanity and the joy of going to the theatre, this one is a must!

War Game shows at Old Vic until 22nd November

– Review by Becky Condron

L’apres-midi d’un Foehn – Version 1 at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Jean-Luc Beaujault

Photo by Jean-Luc Beaujault

I could tell this was going to be something a little out of the ordinary upon reading the title, which, let it be known, I had to research.

L’apres-midi d’un Foehn is a play words, taken from Claude Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’une Faune, to which, among other Debussy compositions, this piece of theatre is set. The French composer’s work, in turn, was the inspiration behind Nijinsky’s ballet of the same name in 1912.  And now, here, in Crying Out Loud’s contemporary mime, the word Faune (faun) has been replaced by Foehn, which is a dry, warm Mediterranean wind.

So …

So, this is still ballet but with a difference. It’s a ballet performed by Jean-Louis Ouvrard and a dozen or so plastic bags; the cheapest-looking, most disposable plastic bags that you are likely to find. The sort that you put your potatoes in and they fall out of the bottom to lollop and roll around on the lower deck of a London bus, while fellow passengers try to rescue them with you. No? Just me then?

We enter the Old Vic Studio Pit to find our human performer pacing a circle with solemnity, as if he’s sussing out the set up, looking at what’s available to him, wondering what he can do with the two pink, thin plastic bags and six electric fans available to him. We take our seats around the circle as he contemplates and, once we’re all also pondering his next move, he takes out a pair of scissors and some clear tape to display how these two bags can be fused to create a near diaphanous figure.

The lifeless bag-person is placed in the middle of the circle and the six fans switched on, one by one. Ouvrard retreats to a mixing desk of sorts, where he manipulates the flow of air emanating from each fan. And the dance begins.

Our plastic bag takes on a life like no other you’ve ever seen; unfurling, twirling, swirling, dancing, prancing, skating on invisible ice and up, up high, flying, laughing, inviting others to join him. And they do.

This is a magical, extremely clever puppet show. All the puppets are crafted exactly as the first, none of them has strings but are given movement solely by controlled air. Or wind (that Foehn, see?) The performance is beautiful and gasp-inducing, complementing the music perfectly. Ouvrard is a skilled ballet master and his ballerina bags follow his choreography with ease and grace.

My 8 year old kept turning round to me (the kids sit on benches at the front of the audience for maximum view) to make sure I was also seeing what she was witnessing, checking that it wasn’t a trick. She wants to recreate her own plastic bag puppet – who wouldn’t?

Don’t think for a moment that this show is only for children. More than half the adults there were without. I bet they’re all still smiling too.

Read Crying out Loud’s interview with Bristol Old Vic here

– Review by Becky Condron