A few years ago, Bristol Old Vic hosted a family show called Hey Diddle Diddle in which the characters from beloved nursery rhymes are set free. Well, in Death & Treason, Rhyme & Reason the same company (Twisted Theatre) takes those same characters one step further in what can best be described as the very opposite of a family friendly show.
Many people know that the Ring A Ring O’ Roses rhyme was inspired by the millions of grisly deaths at the hands of the plague, but did you also know that Mary, Mary Quite Contrary was about the troubled reign of Mary Queen of Scots and her inability to produce an heir? Or that Pop Goes The Weasel is apparently about the deaths of the working classes from poverty-induced hunger?
In Death & Treason you revisit these well-known characters from your childhood, but they’re not looking quite so rosy cheeked or blooming as they did when you sang their stories in nursery school. The origins of nursery rhymes are in dispute and there are no definite answers, but the Twisted Theatre group brings to life some of the suggestions and sets them to a brand new score of heyday nightclub music (with a backing band of violin, viola, cello and many types of percussion).
Led by enigmatic Australian Nuala Honan, the group engages in a playfulness and interaction that, while clearly very scripted and rehearsed, is reminiscent of the abandoned glee of the nursery school… with an added delightful darkness. The recurring refrain of “dead eyes see for seven seconds” has the brilliant coda of Nuala’s eyes maniacally spinning around her sockets like a demented Victorian doll.
The Brizzle version of the Jack and Jill rhyme is a highlight… recounting Jack’s cider-induced seduction of Jill in the apple orchard via the medium of spoken text messages and SMS slang. The death of Jack in the original rhyme bears a more poignant meaning in the Twisted Theatre version… with calamitous repercussions for poor Jill. And while on face value the Brizzle tones could be thought to play to the Bristol Old Vic audience, one version of the origins of the story refer to it being inspired by the 1697 events in a Somerset village when a local spinster becomes pregnant after her amour falls down a hill and dies after smashing his head on a rock… and her own subsequent death in childbirth. It’s all a lot less jolly than you thought it was, eh?
It’s fun trying to work out which original nursery rhymes the Twisted Theatre versions are playing to, and in some cases I couldn’t figure it out. So it would have been good to have a signpost in the narrative to help locate the new songs in memory and time. Because of this confusion, it felt like we were at times presented with a formless collection of enjoyable sleazy music and performances, but one that was somewhat dislocated due to not having the context in which to put them.
But ultimately? Death & Treason is silly, but it’s fun.
Death & Treason, Rhyme & Reason is performed at the Bristol Old Vic until 10 May. For more info, please click here. The show is also touring around the South West in September and October. For more info, please click here.