Saturday 20 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Grand Gesture at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

You’re never entirely sure where you are in The Grand Gesture, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet-era play The Suicide, but somehow it doesn’t really matter. In the company of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s newest graduates, you spend an enjoyable couple of hours trying to work it out.
Simeon Duff lives with his wife Mary and mother-in-law Sadie in a rundown boarding house somewhere in the north of England. Unemployed and all out of hope, he decides to kill himself, only to find his popularity increasing exponentially. Suddenly he’s in demand, with a succession of visitors – from political activist to Catholic priest – all trying to convince him to turn his suicide into a grand and noble gesture which will simultaneously further their cause.
The Factory Theatre has been transformed into a grimy living space by Sam Wilde’s ingenious set of dingy doors and windows and sparsely mismatched sticks of furniture and, being welcomed in through the back of the stage by the actors, the audience immediately feels drawn into the story. This is a production brimming with ideas: so Simeon’s dreary, fruitless days spent job hunting are introduced using a papier mâché puppet man and dog. There are also musical interventions by chorus, a harpist on an illuminated trolley and a bevy of dancing housewives in floral headscarves and pinnies.
These ideas all work well individually and the play’s comedy is mined for its full potential. Tilly Steele as a batty Irish mother-in-law in the Mrs Brown’s Boys mould provides an engaging contrast to Martha Seignior as her harassed daughter Mary, increasingly anxious over her husband’s well being. Simon Riordan plays Simeon as an endearing everyman, lit by the phosphorescence of a new scheme – learning to play the tuba – which he’s sure will earn his fortune, before sinking back down into depression. Harry Egan is suitably hapless as George, the Marxist postman, mainly concerned that landlord Al – played with great charisma by Marcus Fraser – is too busy womanising to open up the shooting range where he and his fellow posties would like to brush up on target practice, ready for the revolution. Kate Cavendish is bustlingly watchful and determined as Al’s current love interest, Maggie.
Yet, coupling this anarchic comedy with the slightly incongruous fit of Soviet-style idealists transferred to a northern boarding house, can add up to a slightly less than cohesive whole. In this mix, it’s never really clear where the stream of visitors turning up at Simeon’s door have come from or what they could realistically achieve. The audience goes along with it in an absurdist way, but it does mean that the moments of potential emotional depth, where the value of a life over a death is contemplated either by monologue or the exchange of views, are less effective than the comedy.
Nevertheless, there’s certainly plenty of entertainment value to be had and, under Gwenda Hughes’ direction, the pace is slick and never slackens. A wide range of accents is delivered effectively by the company and musicality is a strength. This talented group of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School actors performs comfortably and very pleasingly together, providing a certain cohesion even where the play itself might not.
Reviewed on Friday 5th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke


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