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

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

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

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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

Grounded at Arnolfini

Thanks to Gate Theatre for the image

Thanks to Gate Theatre for the image

The moment I walked into the studio theatre space at The Arnolfini, I knew we were in for something special with ‘Grounded’ written by George Brant and performed by Lucy Ellinson, a show presented by The Bristol Old Vic. A woman stands before us already on the stage as we file in and find our seats. She resides within a cage like structure with a mesh front and eerily lit by green lights. I feel strangely voyeuristic at first, like I shouldn’t be looking at her. After a few minutes, I am unable to take my eyes off her, and the show has not even begun. Ellison begins her monologue with a sudden ‘pow’ of a start, and I remain unable to tear my eyes away from her for the rest of the performance. Dressed in the uniform of a pilot, she immediately draws you in with her ‘tough guy’ persona. She is cocky, confident, brash and so very… well, male in her demeanour. Our heroine is a fighter pilot, in love with her career which is so clearly much more than just a job to her and also in love with ‘the blue’, and the feeling she has when she is in the sky, so powerful and in charge. She boasts of drinking sessions with her ‘boys’, of how men are afraid to approach her in bars. She is beautiful, yes, but also a little terrifying. It would take a man with real balls to approach her. But one does, and she likes him. They fuck, her description of it so refreshing. Its about the pleasure of it, its not romance. He wants to do it while she wears her uniform. She describes it in such a typically… well, ‘male’ way. I liked that too, it sometimes feels like woman are not allowed to feel like that about sex. But hey, we like to fuck too, right?! The macho swagger shifts a little as we learn of her unplanned pregnancy with this man. But she keeps the baby, she tries to make a life with him. You feel her relief as she goes back to her love, her work, her life. OK, so she is going to be a drone pilot, so she will be one of the ‘chair force’, nowhere near her beloved ‘blue’. But she gets to see her family every night, she kisses her baby and her man goodnight every night. Thats a good life. Its not so bad. Is it? 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. A certain kind of order, yet a certain kind of madness. Remotely controlling a plane, she is removed by distance from any kill she makes, yet strangely feels much more involved. Her decent into the pit of despair feels horribly predictable, yet depressingly mundane. The explosive finale is impossibly hard to watch, yet compelling, sad and an important reflection on modern warfare and the sheer futility of it all.

I found this show incredibly powerful. The character played by Elinson pushed and pulled me. I thought could not relate to the bits of her that were so very masculine. Yet, as a working mother who ties herself up in all sorts of knots about how I feel leaving my babies in the care of others, I could relate to her struggles. I have my own versions of her need for blue sky and freedom. I know how it feels to be grounded. The mundane nature of her life outside of work repelled me and made me want to gather my family, quit my job and run for the hills. But I am also aware of my own personal paradoxes. I know if I did not follow my own passions, if I spent every moment with my kids, I would go slightly insane too. The overriding masculinity and brashness of her character made the moments of tender motherhood we glimpsed in our heroine all the more vulnerable and heart wrenching when we witnessed them.

When the performance ended, I, like many of my fellow audience members felt emotionally wrung out and exhausted. There were tears. Plenty. But I urge you to see this. It is a hard ride, challenged me in ways I found uncomfortable, but was utterly mesmerising. Lucy Elinson gave life to a character who challenged my views on masculinity and femininity, and made me question my own life choices and decisions. She left me stunned and incredibly moved. I’ve looked at dronewars.net as Elinson suggested we do at the end of the show. I was troubled by it, but you should look too. But, more than anything else, I urge you to see this show. Maybe it is an exaggeration to say I feel changed through watching it. Maybe. But maybe you might feel the same way too.

Grounded is at Arnolfini until Saturday 31st January

– Review by Karen Blake

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

The Little Table of Delights at Bristol Old Vic


little table

Theatre Damfino have created a vibrant and memorable family show, which all four of us would highly recommend.

The children were welcomed into the basement at The Old Vic and seated around a long ‘Hogwarts’ style table. They settled happily and after a quick wave to their parents behind them on the balcony, turned their attention to the show.

Directed by Katy Carmichael and ‘starring popular Old Vic regular’ Tristan Sturrock (as French Head Waiter), The Bristol Post describes The Little Table of Delights as ‘’another innovative Theatre Damfino collaboration, with chefs Matt Williamson and Claire Thomson of Bristol restaurant Flinty Red…’’

A white screen displayed a montage of brightly coloured photographs, depicting the journey of food from field to plate. Facing the children stood the actors in a line, dressed in chef whites. To one side stood ‘Banjo Brian’ (aka Benji Bower, the genius behind the music of this year’s Old Vic production of Jane Eyre), his Music trolley arrayed with a fine assortment of instruments. Behind him, under the balcony, hung a row of musical pans.

One of the actors leapt onto the table, promising to wait on the children, tell enthralling tales about their food and get the chef to transform these foods into delectable dishes for them to try. With a flourish, the lid covering a golden domed platter in the centre of the table, was lifted to reveal the head of the ‘Le Maitre Dee’ himself. Surrounded by a wealth of artisan breads, the ‘head waiter’ introduced the first act.

The show was divided into five acts:

Act 1 – The Story of Bread, an ancient art, invented in the Stone Age and                  perfected throughout the ages.
Act 2 – The Heart rending Tragedy of the Love Struck Beetroots
Act 3 – The Explorers in search of rich spices
Act 4 – Milk, Cheese and Eggs – The Circus Show
Act 5 – The Honey Bee

A recurring theme throughout the performance was the adept use of rhyme in the style of ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ – ‘This is the field, which grew the crop, the farmer cut to harvest the grain, the miller ground to make the flour, the baker used to make the bread…’ You get the idea…

Many props were used to dramatic effect, like the sheaf of wheat and the covered platter of soil. The children happily tucked into samples of food during each of the acts, while ‘Banjo Brian’ entertained with his wide variety of musical styles: some rousing and catchy, like the reggae song: ‘Breads of the World’ and some solemn and soulful, as befitting the untimely demise of the dancing beetroots in Act Two, my favourite part.

‘Banjo Brian’ took his guitar, and in Spanish style, sang a serenade to a specially chosen member of the audience, who was also presented with a goblet of ‘wine’, a rose and the golden, domed platter. As the cover was removed, the actors appeared shocked to find a pile of soil beneath. They apologised profusely before speedily removing the platter.

Act 2, take two, saw two of the actors begin to cajole a couple of beetroots and launch them into ‘a full-blown beetroot animation’.

‘’Let us introduce you to Betty and Bert, two beetroots with their roots in a long line of root vegetables’’, they began with a laugh. ‘’Betty and Bert fell in love.’’, they continued. ‘’They ventured through the rain and over mountains…’’ The actors marched the beetroots up and down the length of the table, whilst menacingly, in the background, a couple of chefs began to sharpen their knives. The actors continued with these dramatic words, “Little did they know what the farmers had in store for them…’’ words which Matthew could recall by heart, and which made him shudder to repeat!

And thus it was that the beets met their ‘bloody’ end. The chef whipped Betty and Bert onto the chopping board and sliced them up. At this point, the actors raised a white sheet to shield the children from this gruesome sight. Thus ended the tale of Betty and Bert. At which point, to lighten the mood, the children were served a portion of beetroot jelly and chocolate cake on a white plate. We were told that, ‘’Never before had there been two beets, whose hearts beat as Betty and Bert’s,’’ and ”That was the cake and jelly made from our two beets called Betty and Bert.’’ Here ‘Banjo Brian’ played a soulful lament on the saxophone.

I looked at the line of faces smiling across the table. What a cleverly crafted show this was turning out to be.

Matthew’s favourite part was the storm in Act 3 – The Explorers in search of rich spices.

The children were told how explorers travelled thousands of miles across the world to carry these spices home. An actor paced up and down the table to illustrate this journey to the sound of the harp and the chimes. When he mentioned Christopher Columbus, Sarah’s face lit up. We had been talking about him on the journey up. With Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, he set sail on an expedition from Lisbon on the 18th July 1497. They returned home with some of the spices we know today.

An actor had the children spellbound as he began to chalk the route they took along the table, handing out flags at the countries where they docked along the way. When he reached the end of the table, a small wooden flagship lay in wait. This ship was passed back from one child to another along the same route.

As the ship made its return journey, a wild storm blew up. A ghostly voice repeated the word ‘scurvy’ over and over again and pronounced the death of many sailors from the lack of ‘their five a day!’

Matthew thought ‘’the part where the ship was travelling back through the storm was quite scary!’’ He told me that ‘’the sounds of the storm were made by a large hamster wheel’’ rattling and whirring beneath the gallery. He loved the fact that they used water pistols to depict the driving rain and waves.

At last, the explorers brought back their bounty. The actors walked around the table with Arabian silk scarves tied round their heads. They carried spices in mortars for the children to savour, wafting the fragrances toward them with a fan. They brought round pepper, cinnamon and cumin, followed by its ‘good friend’ the ‘citrusy’ coriander (found even in the tomb of Tutankhamun). A heady scent filled the studio.

Act 4 Milk, Cheese and Eggs – The Circus Show was full of tricks and silly jokes:      ‘’…What is an eggs least favourite day? – Fryday!’’ (My children enjoyed them anyway).

Effortlessly, the clutter was cleared away; the children held up their spoons; the actors ran forward to cover the table with a clean white sheet and the sound of bees filled the studio.
And so we came to the final Act 5 – The Honey Bee, which was Sarah’s favourite part of the show.

Flowers were projected onto the cloth, the lights dimmed and a bee keeper in full regalia walked in slow motion towards a hive at the other end. Haunting words followed his every step: ‘‘No bees, No pollination – No more humans!’’ followed by Einstein’s prediction about a world without bees…

On reaching the hive, the keeper lifted out a glass frame and held it up to the light. In time to slow, solemn music, he raised a clear jug of golden honey and slowly poured the rich, sticky, gloopy contents into a glass bowl. The hypnotic song continued and I noticed one child joining in with the ‘buzzing’ chorus. The other children appeared to be transfixed, paying close attention to the bee keeper – all caught in the glow. The keeper handed the bowl of honey to the chef, who was to mix it with his custard and turn it into delicious honey ice cream for the children to taste.

Miss Honey the Queen Bee dancer was presented to the children as the final act. Dressed in a long, sparkly, golden, sequined gown, with fur lined train and wings of fine netting, she stepped onto the table. To Sarah’s delight, while Miss Honey swayed and sang her deep, swinging song, the children were handed bee bopper head bands and the rhythmic clapping and dancing continued. Miss Honey declared that there was only one thing left to do: ‘’Thank the farmers, thank the miller….’’, she continued down the list. Finally she ordered the children to stand up and follow the drones, with the startling words‘’ Buzz off out of my hive!’’ And so the show was brought to an exuberant finale, as the children filed out, bopping away with their bee bands.

I think we are all still buzzing from the memories of a vibrant and exciting show, which had an important tale to tell about the origins and value of our food.

The Little Table of Delights is on at Old Vic Studio until 4th October

– Review by Mary Stoppard, with insights from her children, Matthew and Sarah