Sunday, 24 February 2013

‘Riot’ at Bristol Old Vic

“An ëpic tale of viølence, greed and chëap sofas”

Riot was a sell-out success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and has since toured all over the UK and US. Now it’s back at the Bristol Old Vic, where it’s creators The Wardrobe Ensemble debuted it in June 2011.

It’s another sterling example of the kind of home-grown talent we’ve come to expect from the excellent Bristol Old Vic and it’s various programmes that encourage and nurture young theatre-makers.

Riot is based on a true story of a flatpack furniture superstore (no prizes for guessing which one) that hopes by opening 24/7 it will meet the demand of bargain-hungry Londoners eager to snap up an amusingly-monikered lamp and a sofa bed.

Directed by Tom Brennan, Riot has a brilliant cast of nine who combine comedy, acting, song, dance and mime to recreate the horror show of the grossly over-crowded Edmonton furniture store, which thought it had followed all the necessary safety guidelines.

All of the cast bring something special to the show, but particular stand-out performances come from Tom England (as the unfortunately named James Blumpt) and Jesse Meadows (in a delightfully understated role as the confused Swedish sales assistant Janna). The absolute highlight for me was the amazingly choreographed fight/dance between Fiona Mikel and another cast member… mind-boggling in its intricacy.

The Wardrobe Ensemble is one to keep an eye on. For sure.

Riot was performed at Bristol Old Vic. 

The Wardrobe Ensemble returns to the Bristol Old Vic with 33 from July 10-13.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Notes from an unemployable person

I lost my job as a magazine editor in November (an industry I’ve worked in for 15 years). And since then I've been in the miserable world of job seeking. A world that is spearheaded by Pauline from A League Of Gentlemen.

I’ll be honest, the job hunt is proving fruitless. I’ve applied for countless jobs since November, and had no interviews. Most companies don’t even acknowledge receipt of application forms (even the ones that require you to spend hours – sometimes days – answering their endless, open-ended questions), never mind tell me I wasn’t successful. I just deduce it from their silence.
It’s rather dispiriting needing to edit both of my hard-won MAs and quite a lot of my senior work experience off application forms in order to make myself look more suitable for jobs that I’m dramatically over-skilled and over-qualified for, but which I’d gladly do as I’m sick of being skint… and, more stressfully, we’re in the fortunate position of having a mortgage to pay (secured before knowing I’d lose my job).

I am completely unemployable
But what’s becoming apparent is that I am completely unemployable in 2013. In the eyes of prospective employers, I am over-qualified and unsuitably skilled to be a dinner lady, retail assistant, office administrator etc. Yet I'd really like a job like this, that I could do well and competently, but which I wouldn't take home with me, enabling me the mental capacity to plug on with trying to grow my own events business in my spare time.
Similarly, I can't get jobs doing what I actually want to do, which is events organisation and promotion. Because even though I've been running my own (tiny, non-profit making) events business for a year, I'm competing with people who've been made redundant from senior jobs, which means I haven't a hope in hell unless I work for free. And that’s not going to put food on the table or keep the mortgage company from our (or, as it’s fast becoming, their) door.

Companies who expect you to work for free
And it’s this business of companies expecting desperate individuals to work for free (with the vague notion that this will increase the likelihood of them considering you for a job, one day, in the unlikely future) that offends me the most. Throughout my 20s, I worked my socks off to get good experience, build my career, and pay my way as an independent person. For a few years, I held down three jobs at once (working 9-6 in magazine offices, nights pulling pints in a bar, and weekends doing magazine sign-off shifts), so I’m hardly work shy. At that stage, it was very rare for anyone to ask me to work for free – and I wouldn’t have done it if they had.

However, more recently, it’s expected that you will work for free… and worse, that you’ll be grateful for it. In my industry (journalism and writing), I blame the rise of websites such as the Huffington Post, that are populated by unpaid articles, mostly by students desperate to fill their (virtual) tear-sheet books. It’s insulting that these sites (and there are many of them) expect talented, trained and professional journalists to work for free, when five years previously the same people would have received several hundred pounds for the same work. That said, I’ll admit I’ve done it on occasion and will probably do it again – and then hate myself for continuing to chip away at the ethics of credible journalism.

Six weeks' unpaid work with no promises
Today, I was shocked afresh by what a prospective employer told me… Upon applying for casual work invigilating GCSEs, I was told I needed to have at least six weeks of classroom experience before they’d even consider me for handing out papers. I explained I wasn’t a teacher so didn’t have any classroom experience. And was told that I’d need to do six weeks of unpaid work in a classroom before they would consider putting me forward as a possible candidate to be a casual exam invigilator. In short – work six weeks for free, and we’ll consider putting you forward for a few hours of work on the minimum wage. Oh, and your Job Seekers’ Allowance will be stopped for those six weeks that you work for free.

Dole scum
Which brings me onto the Job Centre. Every week, sometimes two or three times (and last week, twice in one day) I am obliged to attend the Job Centre to justify why I'm entitled to £71.80 a week (less tax) to live on. And they really make me work for it. But even the Job Centre doesn't know what to do with someone like me as I don’t fit the tick boxes on their computer.
So I'm made to feel like scum by the Job Centre: like a fraud, like a lazy piece of shit because someone with my qualifications and experience is still unemployed after three months. Well, it’s not for the want of trying, DWP! I'm also told that if I haven't found a job in the next three months, they'll stop my small benefit completely, because my husband (on a short term contract) earns "too much". (NB: anything over £17,000 is deemed "too much" for a couple to live on by the DWP.)

RIP to the DLA
And there’s an extra complication. I also have three types of disability – all unseen, and all of which, independent of the others, qualified me for DLA a few years ago. But now, even collectively, are not recognised by the DWP in any way, shape or form. Meaning that my only source of financial help is if I’m a committed and proven Job Seeker. Despite my doctors advising me not to work for the sake of my health.
Welcome to Britain, 2013.
To quote Yozzer Hughes: “Giz a job. I can do that.”

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings

Two Kneehigh productions at the same time in the one theatre? Oh, Bristol Old Vic, you are truly spoiling us.

While Steptoe & Son continues to preside over the main theatre, downstairs in the Studio Bristol audiences are indulged with a second helping from the Cornish theatre company, and this time it’s something completely different. As always with Kneehigh, you must expect the unexpected, and A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings delivers surprises by the bucket load.

Inspired by the work of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, A Very Old Man… incorporates the theatricalities of Kneehigh with skilled puppetry from Little Angel to create a beautiful and majestic piece of inspired theatre.

Set in an unnamed small fishing town, we meet the inhabitants… who are miserable due to the crabs running riot all over the place, their stagnant lives and the child who is getting sicker and sicker. When out of nowhere, a strange creature flies over and lands in their midst… he is a very old man with enormous wings. And their world changes in an instant.

The crabs vanish, the child gets better… and many more miracles start to take place. So many that the townspeople become convinced that the sad creature they’re keeping cooped up in the chicken pen is in fact an angel.

What unfolds is a tale of morality, greed, desire for celebrity and fortune. As visitors flock from across the world to meet the ‘angel’ for themselves, the once humble townsfolk start to get ideas above their stations… and something needs to change.

A Very Old Man… is an utterly delightful show, performed by four extremely skilled puppeteers (Sarah Wright, Roger Lade, Avye Leventis and Rachel Leonard) who all blend seamlessly into the set design to control the enormous constitution of puppets that have been so carefully constructed. From a priest to a chicken, and a small boy to a cycling aide, all of the many puppets are created with such attention to detail and great charm. With music from Kneehigh regulars Ian Ross and Benji Bower added into the mix, this is truly a show to cherish.

Having never seen a full-length adult puppet show before, I am now a complete convert and will definitely be seeking out more.

For more information and to buy tickets (or to take advantage of one of the several Bristol Old Vic offers surrounding this show), please click here.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Suffrage Plays – edited by Naomi Paxton

As regular readers will know, there’s nothing I like more than a book about the suffragettes. And the latest such book to land on my desk is a particularly exciting one because it is looking at an aspect of the movement that is rarely covered – and even more rarely covered in such depth.

The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays has been carefully edited by Naomi Paxton, and alongside the scripts for eight short plays written during the suffrage campaign, is a considerate and detailed introductory essay by Naomi about the origins of the plays, plus introductions and photos to each play about the authors. It’s a compact little tome at just 136 pages, but there’s still a heck of a lot crammed into those pages.

Perhaps the most well known of suffrage plays is How The Vote Was Won, which was written by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John in 1909. It’s a wry little vignette set in a well-to-do drawing room of an ‘anti’, who is suddenly invaded by various female relatives who seek sanctuary with him because (according to the government) they have no independent rights.

And alongside a few other short plays of a similar nature, there are also a handful of monologues. The Mother’s Meeting by Mrs Harlow Phibbs, from 1913, sees Mrs Puckle dressed in the suffrage colours of green, whit and purple, and talking enthusiastically about the hard work she does in order to even be recognised as the mother of her children. On the other side of the coin is the monologue An Anti-Suffragist by HM Paull from 1910, which features an ‘anti’ setting out her stall about why votes for women are an abominable idea – while, of course, actually selling the idea to her audience.

What’s most notable from these plays as a whole is the wit, warmth and humour within them. Even though the writers were all so passionate about securing votes for women (and many endured prison and force feeding along the way), they manage to keep their senses of humour to help spread the message about how important the franchise is. Such an attitude also flies in the face of the commonly touted idea by the ‘antis’ that suffrage campaigners were a bunch of frumpy, lumpy old witches with no sense of joy.

This book of Suffrage Plays is a very important one, and Naomi has carefully unearthed a huge treasure trove of valuable material that is crucial to helping historians understand better the work of our foremothers in the campaign for the vote. What’s even better is that now eight of these plays are available in this book, it means theatre groups now have the script to be able to perform these plays again and ensure the message is never forgotten.