Wednesday 29 January 2020

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

After a sell-out festive season in 2018, A Christmas Carol returns to the Bristol Old Vic main stage, with new casting that sees John Hopkins replacing Bristolian favourite Felix Hayes in the role of the money-grubbing miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

Though he has big shoes to fill, Hopkins fits them commandingly: huffing and impatient, peppering the stage with furious barbs, pressing his debtors until they are broken and embodying Scrooge’s misery in his unwavering rejection of anything vaguely celebratory. Much of his rage is directed towards his employee Bob Cratchit, played by signing actor Stephen Collins; "I don’t speak wavy language", Scrooge grouches, flapping away his kindly, mild-mannered clerk to do his bidding.

Charles Dickens’s perennially performed classic dates back to the Victorian era’s sentimental re-invention of Christmas, but Tom Morris’s adaptation, once again directed by Lee Lyford, brings a freshness and energy to its narrative. With a gothic, steampunk aesthetic and captivating puppetry, it is a retelling richly redolent of Bristol Old Vic’s 2016 production The Grinning Man.

When Scrooge is visited by the luminous Ghost of Christmas Past, though this segment does in places feel over-long, the simplicity of paper folding and shaping his favourite Sinbad story from Arabian Nights captures the power of the imagination. When he visits his future in a Christmas yet to come, the ghost is a macabre Grim Reaper who introduces Scrooge to the pitifully clinging puppet infants Want and Ignorance, strengthening his dawning realisation that he has been living a wretchedly empty, isolated life "like a beetle in a box".

Gwyneth Herbert’s contemporary live musical score is exquisite, her ballads haunting and expressive, contrasting with the raffish exuberance of livelier numbers where the audience is invited panto-style to sing along. She also reprises her role as the convivial Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge how his own nephew Freddie and family are celebrating without him and the close family bonds of Bob Cratchit’s clan, despite the depths of their deprivation.

A strong cast takes on multiple roles; Shane David-Joseph splendidly captures Freddie’s constant joie de vivre, while Rebecca Hayes gives a sensitive portrayal of Scrooge’s late-lamented sister Little Fan. Mofetoluwa Akande’s singing voice is strong and pure and she shines as his lost love Belle, whose story in this version shifts to centre-stage.

In true festive show tradition, young members of the audience become involved in the storytelling, called upon to play a primary school-aged Scrooge and the pivotal role of Tiny Tim. When the scales finally fall from Scrooge’s eyes and he reopens his heart to the joys of empathy and love, his conversion to a man of generous social responsibility takes place largely in the stalls—accepting the suggestion with good grace on press night that he should buy a round of drinks for all in the bar.

As Scrooge’s Christmas evening party gets into full swing, the dank blacks and greys of Tom Rogers’s skeletal multi-storey set are banished, to be replaced by bright ribbons of colour. The celebrations extend out into the audience, ending a captivating production on a high of much-needed ebullient seasonal celebration.

Reviewed on 4 December 2019 | Images: Geraint Lewis

Thursday 23 January 2020

Theatre Review: Snow White at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

New International Encounter has playfully updated the familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Snow White into a magically captivating story with redemption at its heart. Previously seen at Cambridge Junction in 2018, the original six-strong cast of actor-musicians reprise their performances for the Tobacco Factory in a show full of laugh-out-loud humour and audience asides, bound together by an effervescent and verbally dexterous live score.

Joey Hickman and Elliot Davis’s compositions set the scene from the start. In a time before Wi-Fi, mobile phones and Game of Thrones, in a song rhyming Daily Mail with curly kale, Jodie Davey’s Snow White prefers the outdoors to the cold confines of her castle home but is bound by the conventions of her day. For her sixteenth birthday party, she is reluctantly primped and preened by her stepmother the Queen, a woman whose vanity sets conventional beauty above all else.

This wicked stepmother is no mere one-dimensional embodiment of evil, however. Instead, Stefanie Mueller steals much of the show with a portrayal full of emotional complexity, casual amorality and hysterically funny audience-involving deliberations. Her full-length oval looking glass is less of a mirror and more of a portal into another world—a frame that, Alice-like, she steps through daily for the ensemble’s ethereal voices to reassure her she really is fairest of them all until, on Snow White’s seventeenth birthday, the message changes.

The ensemble makes the most of the simple staging—also designed by Mueller—to recreate the storybook castle and its gardens with a chaise longue, carpet and sliding stands of branches, with props descending from the ceiling. When Snow White is warned by the Huntsman (Abayomi Oniyide) that he has been sent to kill her for surpassing her stepmother’s beauty, she makes her escape into the forest where yarn-bombed pillars and rattan rugs set the scene for her new yurt-style home, occupied by a hapless band of numerically challenged vegans.

Director Alex Byrne explores the full parameters of the Factory Theatre’s intimate space, with cast members clambering through the audience and descending from the aisles. Even if there is noticeably more padding in the second half—the collective obsessively and inaccurately recounting their number and repeated attempts by the Queen to kill Snow White—then the energy and momentum never lets up. Mueller embraces her various disguises with gusto and her final attempt, with a poisoned apple that she declares most definitely organic, is the most hilariously apt of all.

For all its light-hearted references to vegan stew and recycling, this homespun fable’s nuanced contemporary morality acknowledges the difficulties of aging in its rejection of vanity and the temptation to build artificial walls and borders in its counterargument for tolerance, inclusivity and forgiveness. The Tobacco Factory has a strong tradition of uplifting family Christmas productions and Snow White is up there with the best; a show that bubbles over with entertainment for both adults and children, carried through by this tightly knit ensemble’s inherent warmth, wit and charm.

Reviewed on 3 December 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Monday 13 January 2020

Theatre Review: Wild Goose Dreams at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Ustinov Studio’s new season features three UK premières of plays originating in the USA, beginning with the off-Broadway Korean love story Wild Goose Dreams. Written by Hansol Jung, it peels away the façade of an ever-more integrated world to explore the human disconnection that lurks behind, in the shape of two people from the opposite sides of a divided peninsula.
Guk Minsung (London Kim) is a ‘goose father’: a man whose wife and daughter have flown overseas in search of a better life. He subsists in a tiny Seoul apartment, sending the bulk of his salary to fund their expenses in Connecticut. Yoo Nanhee (Chuja Seo) has escaped the rigours of North Korea, searching to improve her lot in the South. But she misses her father (Rick Kiesewetter)—teller of bedtime folk tales—and, in her loneliness, is tempted when a message from an online dating site pops up on her screen.
The two begin hesitant communications against a backdrop of overwhelming Internet clamour, recreated by an ensemble of six performers crowding and sliding between them, jumping out from behind hatches to interrupt the most intimate moments. This fluid chorus delivers the hectic, easily recognisable staccato of the digital age: binary ones and zeroes, likes, reboots, deletes and emojis, peppered with traffic updates and random clickbait articles (“why Footloose was the Frozen of the ‘80s!”).

The lead couple is compelling throughout, beautifully judged in their tentative relationship, as their real-life meeting stirs up raw emotions both new and old. They each wonder whether their misunderstandings are down to cultural differences (“is that a North Korean joke?”), while Nanhee questions her desirability as a woman over 30 without plastic surgery. She is visited by sudden visions of her father: often goading her, advising on her new boyfriend and even appearing in the form of a penguin—a flightless bird—from the toilet. But there are darker aspects: repeated gunshots and the appearance of a troop of North Korean soldiers indicating something more disturbing and sinister.

Meanwhile, Minsung tries desperately to keep in meaningful touch with his family, connecting with his teenage daughter Heejin (Jessie Baek) on Facebook but unable to navigate the etiquette of their online relationship. Heejin replies from the height of a balcony, the distance of generational divide layered over the growing gaps of culture and technology.
Michael Boyd’s direction finds the light and shade in Hansol Jung’s vivid, audacious prose and interlinking themes; beneath the clashing demands of family and freedom and the tumult of everyday existence, there lies the humour of a quirkily expressive love song and simple moments of quieter intimacy when the stage is plunged into darkness. Jean Chan’s pale, pared-back set design encompasses the rudiments of a life largely sacrificed for others; a pull-out bed and few essentials cramped together, a backdrop to sporadic video projections and multi-screen sequences.

As the protagonists separate only to search for each other again and the claims of their families extract their toll, Wild Goose Dreams proves itself to be a play of contemporary aspirations; of never being fully alive and complete in your own present, but always wishing to be where you are not. At times, like modern life, it can feel too overwhelming; a point well made by this clever and multi-faceted production, crowded with ideas and chock-full of captivating and well-balanced performances.
Reviewed on 27 November 2019 | Images: Simon Annand