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.

Brilliant!

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

– Review by Becky Condron

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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 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

‘Peter Pan’ at Weston-super-Mare Playhouse

peter panIt’s that time of year again, as the Panto comes to The Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare. This year’s tale is Peter Pan, and is also the first time that the yearly pantomime has been an in-house production, with Mark Thompson and Martin Cleverly producing the show. We are transported to Neverland, where Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, battles his arch enemy Captain Hook, with Wendy, Micheal, John, Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys and the Pirates along for the ride. I’m pleased to report that this show had all the usual ingredients we have come to expect from Panto, with glitz, innuendo, audience participation, dancing, men dressed as women and terrible gags that you can’t help but titter at.

Dean Gaffney and Gemma Bissix, both ex-Eastenders stock, provided the star turns in this year’s Panto. I can’t say I am a massive fan of Gaffney so wasn’t expecting his performance to grab me. However, he proved to be a really quite likeable villain who had the audience booing and jeering with gusto, and who acted with good comic timing alongside Steve Bennett, our Panto Dame Mrs. Smee. When I asked my five-year-old daughter who her favourite character was, she confidently replied ‘Captain Cook’, although when pressed on why this was, she could only giggle and say it was because of the bit where he wiggled his bottom. Gemma Bissix was a fine sidekick, playing Mrs. Darling, Chief Squatting Cow and Mermaid Mia. For me, I thought she also stole the show with her performance of ‘Strong, handsome man’ as Mermaid Mia, showing off her singing talent and catching the attention of the dads in the audience in her skimpy costume. Steve Bennett provided our panto dame for the evening, and was everything that a dame should be, saucy, flirty and just a little bit rude. My one critique here would be that I would have liked the costume designers to have been much more flamboyant with the costumes for Mrs. Smee. In previous pantos, I have been left giggling at the sheer silliness and extravagance of the dame’s costumes, but here they were perhaps a little lacking. It didn’t take away from Bennett’s performance though, as he was funny and charismatic.

The supporting cast proved to be superb, and was the backbone of the show. Jordan Fox was a handsome, graceful and perfect Peter Pan, and Sophie Adams was Wendy off to a tee. Both had lovely singing voices, and the beautifully choreographed flying scenes were stunning. Clever use of video imagery projected onto large screens really made the two look they were whizzing over London and then up into the stars, and was wonderful to watch. The supporting dancers were fantastic, and it was great to see some potential stars of the future from the Tina Counsell and Carlea theatre arts dance schools, both local to Weston.

Overall, this show was much more of a traditional panto than last year’s offering featuring George Samson, where much of the action was tailored to showcase his dancing skills. This was no bad thing, because although I felt it took the audience a little bit longer to warm up this year, I preferred the way this production flowed and it seemed a little bit more rounded. By the second half, the audience was nicely warmed up and everyone was joining in with the action. Maybe that was because some of the adults had a little bit of lubrication at the bar during the interval, but the auditorium was drowning in shouts of ‘He’s behind you!’ and “it’s a ghost… A GHHOOOOSSSSTTT!!’ as adult and children’s inhibition alike vanished.

Some may say that the Bristol Hippodrome Panto is the one to see this year after their coup of getting Pudsey and Ashley; ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ winners as their star turn this year. Well, I’m pleased to report that Bristol is NOT the only local panto that can boast of a dancing dog…

Silly, sweet, funny and a treat for all the family, ‘Peter Pan’ is on a The Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare until January 4th 2015.

101 Dalmatians at Tobacco Factory Theatre

Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks

Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks

This year, the Tobacco Factory Theatre has once again teamed up with Bristol’s Travelling Light Theatre Company to produce a Christmas Show that would have any audience laughing until its face aches.

Dodie Smith’s children’s classic, 101 Dalmatians, might at first seem an unusual choice of play for a relatively small stage. I mean, how on earth could you get all those dogs in that space? All that energy and frolicking? It doesn’t take us long to find out as Pongo and Perdita, played by Tristan Sturrock and Lucy Tuck respectively, bound onto the stage, wiggling their bums (wagging their tails), panting and lolloping all over the place. On meeting in Regent’s Park, they promptly fall in love, as do their owners, Mr and Mrs Dearly, also played by Sturrock and Tuck, and they all move into together in a big house of bliss, jollity and, very soon, puppies.

But Mrs Dearly’s old school acquaintance, Cruella De Vil (Carla Mendonça), wants those puppies for a De Vil original coat and her doting furrier husband (Felix Hayes) can procure it for her. We can’t help but hiss and boo, in panto style, at Mendonça’s devilment: the woman doesn’t even have a conscience, no misunderstood criminal mastermind here! She’s simply deliciously evil.

Enter theft, chase, mayhem. Fun. Riotous Fun.

Directed by Sally Cookson, designed by Katie Sykes, with Benji Bower as Musical Director and a five-piece cast including Saikat Ahamed, as a perfect Nanny Butler, 101 Dalmatians is a lesson in Bristol theatre royalty. And it is probably the best Christmas show I have ever seen (“Yeah yeah!” I hear you mutter. “What about TFT’s Cinderella: A Fairytale? And then there was Hansel and Gretel?”)  True, they were brilliant too because the Tobacco Factory Theatre really does excel in these shows and, if possible, they seem to get better – really, just look at that cast!

Every single one of them!

Never have you seen a range of expressions as funny as those that Felix Hayes can pull. How can such a handsome man even look like that? As Mr De Vil, he is a grim, weedy, smitten, manipulative man; as Jasper Baddun, a criminal with a big heart and as Clarabel the Cow, an all-too convincing heifer, a born nurturer. And then the dogs!

Each cast member (including the 3 piece band) plays multiple roles and they really do do dogs well. They pour so much energy onto the stage, taking on canine characteristics that I’ve seen in the park or on WsM beach too many times. Tristan Sturrock is hilarious as Pongo, while we all feel for the wonderfully maternal Perdita and everyone wants to hug Ahamed’s Lucky the puppie. Dogs everywhere! This is a story fabulously told by actors who are clearly having a great time, Marc Parrett’s puppetry, dizzyingly quick costume changes and music.

Benji Bower, the man who brought us Jane Eyre earlier this year has joined forces with Will Bower and Ian Ross in a 1950’s style band, one that you can imagine populating the BBC radio waves, vintage microphones galore. Bower has suited the music so well to the story, fitting in with Sykes’ costume, prop and set design, the pair creating a feel true to (what I imagine to be) Dodie Smith’s original work.

My favourite scene might be the one where Cruella gives chase to the pack on her motorbike, immense scarf trailing in the wind. Or when our anti-heroine teams up with the band to sing of her lust for fur and we are transported to a smoky London club in 1956.

But the brilliance of this production is with the oneness the team, their love of theatre shining through and grabbing hold of all of us.

Aged 6+, this recommendation is probably about right, although there were many younger children in the audience. 101 Dalmatians is a fast-paced, uproarious treat and my 8 year old and I can’t fault it!

celeste dalmatian

101 Dalmatians is on at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 11th January 2015

– 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