Thursday, 12 January 2017

'The Love of the Nightingale' at Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
While the famous Bristol Old Vic building on King Street is undergoing extensive renovations, the team is using the opportunity to take the shows that would have been in their (currently out of action) Studio on walkabout to other venues in the city. 

As such, this production of The Love Of The Nightingale from Bristol Old Vic's Young Company is being performed in the Bristol Bierkeller on All Saints Street (which claims to be Bristol's oldest nightclub and, since 2012, has also functioned as a theatre as well as a live music venue). It's charmingly German retro in here as the name suggests: all low artexed ceilings, cavelike arches, tiled floor and long benches. 

All in all, it seems the perfect location for the Young Company to perform their production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play The Love Of The Nightingale, which here is directed by Miranda Cromwell, after having first been written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. The play is a contemporary and feminist re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of the rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law Tereus, and the silencing of women in the face of gender power struggles. Despite this obviously being based on a centuries old tale, the themes sadly still ring very true today. 

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
(Please note: the plot summary below contains a few spoilers.)

Athens is at war with Thebes over land. And after the king of Thrace, Tereus (Toby Robertshaw, playing a most unenviable role with conviction), steps in to help, he takes the king of Athens' daughter Procne (Hannah Hecheverria) as his bride. In doing so, he rips Procne away from her beloved younger sister Philomele (Imogen Downes) and the rest of her family, and takes Procne all the way back to Thrace with him where she must learn to live with her loneliness, as well as her new role as a mother to their son Itys (Jacob Rayner Blair). 

After five years, Tereus agrees to return to Athens to bring Philomele to make Procne happy. While on the return voyage, all of Tereus' soliders and Philomele's chaperone Niobe (Alexandra Wollacott) can sense the danger looming as a result of Tereus' strong sexual attraction to the innocent Philomele - which ultimately leads to him raping her in a truly shocking scene (while the audience obviously doesn't see anything graphic, the screams of Philomele are genuinely haunting). 

What ensues is Tereus telling each sister that the other has died, and when an already enraged Philomele discovers the lie she finds the strength to rant at Tereus about what a small, cowardly, pathetic man he is... only to be silenced in the most brutal way. An act that ultimately leads to his own downfall.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
This a brave, no-holds-barred performance from the Bristol Old Vic's Young Company, which has a long tradition of not shying away from tough topics. As Philomele, Imogen Downes shows herself to be an actor really worth keeping your eyes open for - her performance was strong, impressive and powerful. Given everything that Philomele endures, this wasn't a role that just anyone could have carried off, but Downes more than does the part justice. 

However, I did feel the production would have benefitted from a little trimming. The slightly confusing actions of the first half could have been summed up in a much shorter period, as it is in the second half of the performance where The Love Of The Nightingale really comes into its own in a much tighter script.  

Sensitively handling issues such as rape, consent, revenge and gender struggles is no small ask, but in this production director Miranda Cromwell has found a way to convincingly put across how relevant and important all of these are. The way the sisters are treated as commodities, the lack of attention paid by the male characters to the wishes or opinions of any of the women, the apparent irrelevance of consent to the powerful men... all of these issues are addressed with care and consideration here. 

So bravo to the Young Company for a strong and innovative piece of feminist theatre. 

The Love Of The Nightingale is performed at Bristol Bierkeller until 13 January. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Please note, the Bierkeller is a cash-only venue.

Friday, 9 December 2016

'The Snow Queen' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Mark Douet

Steampunk cannibals, animatronic aristocracy and flower power. These are just a few of the styles in the Bristol Old Vic’s slightly sinister new show for winter 2016.

Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, The Snow Queen (directed by Lee Lyford) is set in an idyllic village where neighbouring children Kai and Gerda have grown up side by side to become the very best of friends, with their hearts as pure as the whitest snow.

But when the tranquility of the village is rocked by the devastating disappearance of child after child, Kai and Gerda are the last two remaining… and the villagers realise that the legend of the wicked Snow Queen (Gwyneth Herbert) - who feeds off the souls of naughty children - might be true after all. So when Kai (Steven Roberts) ultimately falls under the Snow Queen’s spell, Gerda (Emily Burnett) must set out on an adventure to find her friend and bring him home.

The inspired stage design by Tom Rogers is just fantastic - an imaginative and ever-changing combination of rural villages, spiky ice castles, psychedelic florals and more. And the use of projections (both pre-filmed and live) was delightful and effective. Continuing the trend for incorporating the onstage musicians as part of the show, composer Gwyneth Herbert was brilliant as a multi-instrumentalist, conductor and the commanding voice of the Snow Queen.

However, an absolute highlight was a song by a sad reindeer (Dylan Wood) who had lived his whole life in captivity, performed pitch perfectly in the style of The Smiths… although, slightly, depressingly, perhaps the inclusion of The Smiths in a Christmas family show is a nod to the fact that most people of our age are now old enough to be parents. Argh, I suddenly feel very grown up! But it was delivered magnificently and had me in stitches. Bravo.

Photo: Mark Douet
I loved the animatronic Snow Queen, I really did. As a terrifying and monstrous creation, the mammoth puppet (maybe 9ft tall?) was extremely effective. With a face like an alien, white spikes jutting out all over her and gaping holes through her huge ghostly rib cage, in silhouette she was even more frightening than when revealed. Fantastic! And bravo to her various puppet masters who controlled her excellently throughout, as well as designer Marc Parrett.

Another delight were the goblin scientists who worked the wicked Snow Queen’s magic for her… with the lead scientist Dr Boffin (Joanna Holden) inventing all kinds of gadgets to make the Snow Queen even more villainous. Dr Boffin’s sidekick Apprentice (Dylan Wood again) was the perfect foil for her scatty professor schtick. And my scientist friend in the audience reliably informed me that this was an exact recreation of the kind of shenanigans scientists get up to in the lab all day. Who am I to doubt this?

Although a little frightening in places for junior audience members (it may contain scenes of what DVDs euphemistically call “mild peril”), The Snow Queen is yet another Bristol Old Vic triumph. The annual Christmas show from this favourite theatre has become a highlight on the cultural calendar, but after the soaring heights of Swallows & Amazons and Peter Pan it has taken a few years for them to produce something good enough to match. While The Snow Queen is not quite up there with the dizzy heights of Peter Pan (surely the finest Christmas production ever?), it is the Bristol Old Vic’s strongest Christmas show for several years. Enjoy!

The Snow Queen is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 15, 2017. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

'The Accidental Dictionary' by Paul Anthony Jones

You know who you need on your pub quiz team? Paul Anthony Jones, that's who. Seriously, this guy seems to be a fount of all lesser-known obscure yet fascinating wordy facts. 

Some 18 months after the Haggard Hawks language blogger published his book Word Drops (reviewed by me here), Paul Anthony Jones publishes this, his fourth etymology book. This time, his focus is on words that have since done a volte-face, with surprising and often comical results. 

For instance, 'buxom' originally meant 'obedient', a 'penguin' was originally an 'auk', and 'noon' used to mean '3pm' (I think this is an idea we should swiftly return to, I mean, who doesn't need more time in their day?).

Jones' level of detail is commendable and one can only presume this is a man who lives beneath a towering collection of very dusty archaic dictionaries in the British Library. I mean... just how does he find all this stuff out?

Most charming of all? 'Tiddlywink' used to refer to an unlicensed pub. 

There's no need to know any of this... but it sure makes life a lot nicer to find these things out. 

The Accidental Dictionary is published now by Elliott & Thompson.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

'The Day Before Yesterday' - Noel Streatfeild

While waiting to get some keys cut in the market a few weeks ago, I had a rummage around the secondhand book stall and immediately my hand fell upon a lovely green hardback boasting the name of Noel Streatfield. Well known to many as the author of Ballet Shoes and all the subsequent spin-offs, Streatfield is a much-cherished writer whom many women of my age hold a very soft spot for. 

The Day Before Yesterday is a fantastic idea and an even more fantastic concept. Published in the 1950s, Streatfield realised that society was changing so fast that it needed to be recorded and it needed to be recorded by the people who had lived through those times. So with a focus on the period 50 years prior to publication, she asked all manner of people to share their stories of what life was like for them. And the ensuing book is presented at all stages of a girl's life, and crossing the class boundaries - for it is clearly a female reader for whom this book is intended. 

So we start with a Victorian nursery nurse, and move on to a school teacher, and a barely-teenage housemaid. We learn about the changes in transport, as the granddaughter of a coach king shares how her grandfather's empire grew from a few horse-drawn coaches to a fleet of thousands of motorised omnibuses that monopolised the London transport system. We heard first-hand from a suffragette on the frontline, in what is possibly my favourite segment - which is all the more poignant because it is not written by a 'famous' suffragette, but by a woman whose contributions and achievements to the women's rights cause might well otherwise be forgotten. 

This is a truly delightful book. A wonderful snapshot into the history of a long-gone ages that really wasn't so very long ago. As an added curiosity, the book I bought had originally been a school prize from a fee-paying girls' school in Bristol, won by a pupil in 1956. I wonder what happened to the woman who won this book and if she felt as inspired by it as I did, 60 years later?