Friday, 13 September 2019

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

Last Christmas, when Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris announced they had a production of Pride & Prejudice coming up in the autumn schedule, I was starting to glaze over before he said, “No, hang on… it’s something else.” And my word, Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) really is something else. 

While the bare bones of Jane Austen’s famous 1813 story of love and social climbing is still there, it’s merely the scaffolding that holds together this joyous, hilarious and heart-bursting all-female production written by the very talented Isobel McArthur (who also plays Mrs Bennett and Mr Darcy). 

Soundtracked by karaoke renditions of pop gems (everything from Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello to I Think I Love You by Voice of the Beehive, with a wonderfully appropriate rendition of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain in the middle), and decorated with glitter balls, disco lights, laundry baskets and a Vienetta, I truly can’t think of one thing to fault Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) on. Not one. And I love to criticise things.

There is so much attention to detail here. The six female cast members each take on a range of characters from Austen’s classic story, and the ease with which they slip between chartacters is seamless. They are supported in their endeavours by an armchair adequately playing the useless Mr Bennett and a life-size plastic horse on wheels. Amazing. 

I especially enjoyed Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s double performance as the buffoon Mr Bingley and his scheming sister Caroline, who becomes so monstrous that she’s an absolute joy to watch. While Christina Gordon is exemplary as both mild-mannered Jane Bennett and the gargoyle-ish Lady (in red) Catherine de Bourgh: mother of Mr Darcy and, of course, Chris de Burgh. 

Meghan Tyler is clearly having a hoot as wild-eyed Elizabeth Bennett, singing and stomping her way through unwanted proposals, while poor sister Mary (Tori Burgess) gets the sharp end of the stick as the overlooked and underrated one. And don’t forget Felixe Forde, who shines as the contemptuous Mr Wickham, intent on ruining the reputation of young girls everywhere until Mr Darcy puts him in his place. 

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is so, so, so much fun. Honestly, please go to see it. I have seen so many Pride & Prejudice productions (and read the book) over the years - including the faithful BBC adaptation with Colin Firth, the Bridget Jones films with Colin Firth and the always joyous Austentatious improv shows (without Colin Firth), but Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) puts a brand new spin on the story, whirls it into the 21st Century and I can’t wait to see it again. 

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 28 September. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Malory Towers

After the unprecedented success of the wonderful Wise Children, director Emma Rice’s theatre company of the same name was always going to have a tricky task with its follow up production, Malory Towers.

For the summer, the temporarily converted Passenger Shed by Bristol Temple Meads is home to this new production, while other shows continue at the King Street theatre as usual. Complete with a pop-up bookshop run by the delightful Storysmith, a fully stocked bar in the makeshift lobby and the erection of raked seating in the centre, the Passenger Shed is a truly versatile space. If a rather hot one… the recent heatwave has turned the venue into a massive oven, so you’d be advised to take a fan with you and a big bottle of water.

Enid Blyton’s much-loved school series Malory Towers is set in an all-girls boarding school in Cornwall, just after the end of the Second World War. Our plucky heroines are all dressed in boaters, blazers and tunics (in this heat!) as they board the train from Paddington, ready to embark on their new school adventure and all the hi-jinks that will entail. Stepping out of the pages of the books, our heroes are hot-headed Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle), sensible Sally (Francesca Mills in one of the stand-out performances in the show), class clown Alicia (Renee Lamb), nervous Mary Lou (Rose Shalloo), musical Irene (Mirabelle Gremaud), horse-mad Bill (Vinnie Heaven) and spoilt brat Gwendoline (Rebecca Collingwood).

The plot of Malory Towers, which is advised for ages eight and upwards, is the simple one of a new class of schoolgirls arriving at boarding school, struggling with bullying and cliques, and putting on a ramshackle end-of-term production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (presumably a dig from Rice at her former employers at the Globe Theatre). The anti-bullying/just-be-kind message feels rather rammed home, and the easy forgiveness the girls show to cruel Gwendoline is extraordinary - given just how wicked and nasty she has been. While the extremely diverse choice of the seven cast members (given the production is set in a 1940s English boarding school) is very self-aware and would have worked better if the production had been moved to a more contemporary period: there was no reason to keep this version of Malory Towers as a post-war production other than nostalgia.

The seven young performers make up the entire cast, although the ever-wonderful Sheila Hancock voices their teacher Mrs Grayling (seen only in animation) and Kneehigh Theatre Company’s Mike Shepherd is the voice of the train announcer. However, the absence of any adults as either teachers or parents in a school setting is very noticeable. The occasional animated shadow of Mrs Grayling (as delightful as it is to hear Hancock) feels awkward, a bit like the heard-but-not-seen ineffectual figure of Nanny in Muppet Babies  - the headmistress displays no sense of rule or control over her students, never telling them off when they misbehave, never instructing them in a classroom, and never coming into their dormitory to tell them to just shut up and go to sleep! Having had an all-girls boarding school education myself, I recall the fear of knowing an adult was always just around the corner, waiting to march in and tell us off.

However, as always with an Emma Rice production, the music is exquisite throughout. And with the talented Ian Ross (who Kneeigh audiences will know and love well) as Director of Music, the score is in good hands. 

I wanted to enjoy Malory Towers a little more than I did, especially based on the many strengths of Wise Children and Rice’s well-deserved reputation. But it felt like a show with too many unsubtle messages to deliver and not enough space to explore anything in any depth. That said, it was of course lots of fun, with a strong cast, excellent music and you certainly won’t leave the Passenger Shed feeling like you made the wrong choice to attend. Wise Children was always going to be a tough act to follow, and it will be very interesting to see where Rice takes Wise Children for its third production. 

Malory Towers is performed at the Passenger Shed, the summer home of Bristol Old Vic this year, until 18 August. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Dead Dog in a Suitcase

What the hell is the world coming to?

Good news, everyone. Kneehigh theatre company is back at Bristol Old Vic with a revival of its hit 2014 show Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs). Anarchic, angry and apocalyptic, this re-telling of John Gay's 1728 satire The Beggar's Opera is a blistering assault on the senses. And a right royal kick up the bum. 

What the hell is the world coming to?

After contract killer Macheath (a firey Dominic Marsh) shoots Mayor Goodman (arf, the only good man in the script) and his dog dead, we quickly find out he is acting on the orders of trumped-up millionaire tycoon Les Peachum (Martin Hyder) and his conniving wife (Rina Fatnia: quite possibly my favourite cast member in this production). But, oh, it gets much more complicated than that. Macheath is married to Peachum's daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), the police chief's daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd) is pregnant with his child and he's finding it harder and harder to evade arrest. 

What the hell is the world coming to?

Written by Kneehigh stalwart Carl Grose, Dead Dog is a lot of fun but it also has a lot of messages to tell us. Although a Kneehigh production often feels like the circus has come to town, there are always messages a-plenty. John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera to lampoon the class divide, the injustices of society and political corruption of his day. Alas, such is the state of the world that Carl Grose could have got away with doing very little to update the production for a 2019 audience. So these societal injustices and hypocrisies are exactly what he shows in Dead Dog... in all their grotesque forms. 

Composer Charles Hazelwood's music is, of course, bang on, and Kneehigh regular Patrycja Kujawska's performance is an absolute highlight in her role as the widowed Mrs Goodman: her '80s-esque electro-pop solo is spine-tingling, and her fevered violin performance at the climax is exquisite. The final scene with smoke, ticker tape, papers blowing into the auditorium and whirling, deafening, all-encompassing angry music reminded me of the KLF's anarchic performance at the BRITS in 1992 - where they stood in kilts and fired machine guns into the audience to a soundtrack of Extreme Noise Terror. And that's certainly not a bad thing.

There are a lot of things going for Dead Dog and you'd be advised to snap up a ticket and soak it all up for yourself. And if you're put off by the title, don't be. No dogs were harmed in the making of this show.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase is performed at Bristol Old Vic until July 13. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Friday, 31 May 2019

'Milton Place' - Elisabeth de Waal

My beagle with the book
Regular readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Persephone Books. I was first introduced to them in about 2005 and have been a committed admirer of their work ever since, because there is something reassuring and informative about well-written historical novels. They are comforting guides to the relatively recent past, they help to inform us about who we are and where we came from and, more often than not, they fill in gaps in our social history. 

While I've spent the past few years researching more than 500 old dead women (as I affectionately call them) who have been unfairly left out of most other history books for my The Women Who Built Bristol series, there are many times I've been reminded of plot details from different Persephone books: a reminder that these are not just stories, they are also based on lived realities. 

One of the most recent Persephone titles is Milton Place by Austrian writer Elisabeth de Waal, whose previous book The Exiles Return was reissued by Persephone in 2013 (my review is on that link). It seems astonishing that the two books were written by the same woman, as I found them so wildly contrasting and certainly enjoyed Milton Place much, much more. Both books are concerned with the idea of the alien: the newcomer, the outsider, the interloper, the misplaced person. Both books are about their protagonists dealing with the horrific fallout of war. But The Exiles Return was a tough read and not one I particularly enjoyed. 

So I was surprised to love Milton Place so much. It is a book that you look forward to picking up again in the evening, you root for the characters and at times I found myself skimming paragraphs ahead anxious about what I feared might happen and just unable to wait another minute or two to see if I was right. It is astonishing that Milton Place was never published in Elisabeth's lifetime and that it has only seen the light of publication now thanks to her son passing the manuscript to Persephone. It would make a wonderful film. 

We follow Austrian Anita who has endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis during the war. Desperate for escape, in the early 1950s she follows up an old flame of her dead mother's and invites herself to stay at Milton Place, a fading country house in the UK, where she becomes good friends with Mr Barlow, who had adored her mother decades before. Throw in Mr Barlow's two unpleasant adult daughters, his naive grandson Tony and the problem of what to do with a decaying grand mansion, and you have all the makings of a brilliant country house novel. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that Milton Place is as close as you can get to reading a Dorothy Whipple (sigh, Dorothy Whipple) without actually reading a Dorothy Whipple itself. 

Put simply, please read Milton Place. It is a joy of a book and you will be captivated from the first page. After all, this is a novel that opens with one of the protagonists receiving an unexpected letter from a stranger... which is a very hopeful start and it only gets better from there.

PS: You can buy the book direct from Persephone by clicking here. Given there are fears that Persephone may not be able to continue post-Brexit (you can read more about this on their website), it is so important to support this wonderful women's publisher while we still have the opportunity.