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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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

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

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 Forbidden Door at Tobacco Factory Theatre

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On my way to Bristol tonight to see ‘The Forbidden Door’ , I was accompanied on my journey by the most beautiful full moon. A moon that keep disappearing behind clouds, and then reappearing, showing its face to me, distracting me and drawing me in. Which was a bit tricky, as I needed to keep my eyes on the road, being the driver and all. As I settled into my seat and into our night of theatre, it felt only right that the story began with the love affair between the moon and the sun. How they loved each other so passionately. How they created the Earth. How this made the cracks in their love deepen (many a knowing laugh from the audience as we reflected on how having kids can do that to a relationship), and how they eventually came to a place where they orbited their child, but rarely saw each other. The moon, she hid her face from her lover, much as she did to me on my journey this evening.

What would you sacrifice for the one you love? That is the main question that is explored throughout the tale that was weaved for us at The Tobacco Factory tonight. We also explored the ‘don’ts’. The hare who was told not to open the black box. The three sisters who are told under no circumstances to open the forbidden door. As soon as we are told they shouldn’t, we all know they will, and that misfortune will befall them. Therein lies the fodder for the story that is shared. A tale of love, sacrifice, loss, legend and make believe that made me laugh, repelled me in places, (don’t ask me about the pig) made me sad, but most of all entertained me greatly.

Daniel Morden is a wonderful storyteller, crafting his tale in a very traditional style. The musicians Sarah Moody, Dylan Fowler and Oliver Wilson-Dickenson are accomplished and polished, and the music adds to the ambiance and mood of the piece. I am yet again awed at the skill of a solo actor who can memorise that much information with barely a falter. The Forbidden Door is traditional in its storytelling technique, but managed to make this ancient art fresh and accessible to a very eclectic audience. Proof that stories are not just for children, you should catch this show tomorrow night if you can and be transported to another world.

The Forbidden Door is on at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until Wednesday 4th February 2015.

– Review by Karen Blake

Peter and the Wolf at Tobacco Factory Theatre

Peter and the Wolf x4

Image by Peter Stevenson, with thanks

Peter and the Wolf is a well-known and much-loved children’s story by Sergei Prokofiev, who composed both its narrative and easily recognisable music.

It’s a tale about of a brave young Russian boy called Peter, who against his grandfather’s wishes, not only approaches the big bad wolf lurking in the forest beyond the peaceful meadow but, with his friend the blackbird, contrives a plot to ensnare him. The composition was written by Prokofiev in under a week and the key is in its simplicity, with each character given his own identifiable score, allowing even the youngest of children to follow the plot with ease.

The Little Wolf Gang theatre group’s version of Peter and the Wolf is scaled down, with a cast of four players: Fiona Barrow on violin; Edward Jay on accordion: David Adams on bassoon and storytelling by Martin Maudsley, each performer being as crucial to the whole as the next. The teamwork in this production is solid and every cast member is keenly aware of with the others, maintaining a fluidity and playfulness that is beyond impressive.

Peter and the Wolf nestles between two shorter Russian folkloric tales. The one about a fiddler and the devil is a face-paced whirl of a story, in which the musical chemistry between Barrow and Jay is palpable. The other, named Bear-lero, is about a woodcutter whose insatiable appetite for greatness leaves him unstuck. Set to the music of Ravel’s Bolero, the moral is understood and the music entrancing.

Martin Maudsley storytelling is upbeat and fun, his diction clear and his voice completely audible, even above the booming and powerful sound of our reduced orchestra. Adams adds to the visuals, injecting a playful menace into the production, particularly when he uses his bassoon as a hunter’s gun. Jay’s musical arrangement is spot-on, perfect for this younger generation, and my eight year old and I both enjoyed both listening to and watching the heartfelt spectacle in the auditorium of the Tobacco Factory.

Peter and the Wolf and other wild musical tales is recommended for those aged 6+, though there were younger children in the audience and, really, don’t feel that you can’t go without children as adults will love this as much as the kids. In a word … beautiful.

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Peter and the Wolf and other wild musical tales is at Tobacco Factory Theatre until Saturday 31st Jan.

Check out The Little Wolf Gang’s website for samples of their music and storytelling

– Review by Becky Condron and Celeste