Sunday, 28 April 2013

Adolf & Winston

The fabulous Living Spit duo are back at Bristol Old Vic. Howard Coggins and Stu Mcloughlin are regulars in the King Street theatre (in recent years, they’ve been in productions including Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Coram Boy and their own TheSix Wives of Henry VIII), and it’s a pleasure to see them back with one of their self-penned productions.

Following in the footsteps of last year’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (in which Stu played all six wives to Howard’s Henry, to hilarious effect), this time they’ve decided that – based on the fact Howard looks a little bit like Winston Churchill – they will recreate the story of Winston and Adolf Hitler, in a whistlestop 70 minutes of gleefully inaccurate history.

The clear highlight of this is without a doubt the timed 15-minute tour through the entire Second World War – mostly via the medium of song. And the clear highlight of that is Hitler’s rousing rock pomp as he demands respect in an entertainingly weird power ballad.

But there’s plenty to enjoy here – whether it’s Howard’s Winston chilling out in the bath, smoking a cigar and wearing his Union Jack Speedos. Or Stu’s brilliant BBC radio announcement – accompanied by a crackling crisp packet.

Howard and Stu are both true Bristol theatre stars. Quite rightly, they seem to be working constantly and this can only be a good thing for lucky theatre audiences.

Adolf & Winston is performed in Bristol Old Vic’s Basement until May 11 at varying times of day. Click here for information and tickets.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

'Mess' at Bristol Old Vic

One of the highlights of last year’s theatre calendar in Bristol was Caroline Horton’s one-woman show You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy. It was a genuine joy from start to finish: it was uplifting and it was touching, and Caroline herself is clearly a very gifted and imaginative performer.

So when I heard that she was bringing her second show, Mess, to the Bristol Old Vic, I knew I needed to see it. And Caroline didn’t disappoint.

Although a show about her personal experiences of anorexia doesn’t necessarily sound like fun, Mess proves that Caroline has the rare talent of taking a stigmatised and often misunderstood mental illness and turning it into an enjoyable, informative and, shock, entertaining piece.

In Mess, Josephine (Caroline’s character) is supported on stage by Boris (played by Hannah Boyde) and musician Sistahl (played by Seiriol Davies). Both supporting cast members are inspired choices, providing ways to externalise Josephine’s thought processes, and bringing much needed light relief to what would otherwise be a deadly serious topic.

Sistahl, in particular, is a creation of comic genius. With Sideshow Bob hair, and a Liberace costume, Sistahl is positioned behind a bank of keyboards and laptops, and flanked by a mock Roman pillar and a billowing spider plant. In addition to the music, he voices Josephine’s thoughts, he provides sound effects, and he pulls brilliantly funny faces. The absolute highlight is his impersonation of an idiotic and uncomprehending GP: “It’s a lovely day, why don’t you have a strawberry Cornetto. Just a tiny one.” You cannot fail to adore Sistahl.

While the Boris character flits between being cloyingly protective of Josephine, and devastatingly kind towards her, there’s also something a bit irritating about the character. I feel horrible saying it. I don’t know if it’s the bizarre Roy Chubby Brown-style flying hat, or the jolly-hockey-sticks style of speech… or maybe we’re meant to find Boris irritating, in the way that Josephine would have found him irritating in his determination to help her. I don’t know. However, through Boris, Hannah does an excellent job at countering Josephine’s serious nature.

With Mess, Caroline is putting herself on the line by sharing her valuable first-hand experience of an illness that is often so devastating, and of demonstrating how much it affects those around the patient as well. It’s an important work, and one that has been carefully delivered – it’s no surprise to hear that the eating disorders organisation Beat was involved with the production.

Please go to see Mess. Caroline Horton is a name to watch.

Mess is on at Bristol Old Vic until 27 April. Click here for information and to book tickets. For information about other Mess dates around the UK, please click here

Friday, 19 April 2013

Running Like A Girl

Part running memoir, part handbook, Alexandra Heminsley’s book Running Like A Girl is entirely a positive, upbeat and inspirational encouragement to women all over the world… to just give running a try and see how it goes. You don’t need to be the fastest or the best, but just give it a go. You don’t need the flashiest trainers or the fanciest kit, just get out there.

I’ve had a mixed relationship with running myself. In my mid-late 20s, I was a committed gym addict, going four times a week and regularly running 5km was very much a part of my routine. But about five years ago I fell out of the habit, and although I’ve tried to get back into running a few times, I’ve never quite managed to make it stick. Alexandra’s book has made me determined to give it another go.

Alexandra (@hemmo on Twitter), is a journalist and broadcaster, who took up running six years ago to combat a broken heart. And this Sunday she is running her fifth London Marathon, having run innumerable and unimaginable feats in between… including a fabulous sounding synchronised light display on an Edinburgh mountainside as part of the Fringe Festival.

Running Like A Girl is entirely realistic about what you’re likely to encounter on your running journey, though. Alexandra is honest about the battered toes, the friction burns from bra straps, and the fact that running sometimes REALLY makes you need the loo! And what’s most refreshing is that this book is an accessible running guide – it’s not weighed down in scary jargon and it doesn’t assume the reader knows anything already (like a lot of online articles or other books do). It’s just an honest, open collection of thoughts to get you up and on to your feet.

And it’s funny, too. Alexandra doesn’t claim to be the best, and she admits to having had periods of self-doubt. But what keeps coming through is her determination to finish what she started, and how the support of her friends and family is what really propels her forwards.

Running Like A Girl is inspirational. I’ve already created a new playlist of '80s power ballads for my iPod to get me around the park on the first of my new runs.

Alexandra is running the London Marathon on Sunday for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Her sponsorship page is here.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Please don't take advantage of small businesses

The chances are that you wouldn’t even think about taking advantage of a big business like Ticketmaster or Odeon (however much you may want to)… so why do some people insist on trying it on with what is obviously a very small, independent, non-profit-making business? One that’s run as a labour of love?

I run What The Frock! Comedy, which is a tiny, one-person enterprise that promotes women comedians. My business currently relies on a great deal of generosity and people volunteering their time and skills in order to exist. And one of the most amazing things in the 18 months or so since I started What The Frock! has been seeing how willing people are to donate their time and talent. They tell me they do it because they firmly believe that What The Frock! is a strong proposition, and one day it will be a big success. And I love them for it!

But I’ve noticed a baffling trend, especially in recent months, of ill-natured people wanting to take advantage of a tiny business. In ways that you wouldn’t even bother to try with an established business. For instance…

One woman arrived to buy a ticket on the door. The door price was £12, which was widely advertised. She expressed horror and said she couldn’t possibly afford it as she was on all kind of benefits… Although she’d already let slip that she’d driven over from her home in posh Clifton, and that she was going to the Tobacco Factory Theatre later. She wheedled and wheedled, and in the end I offered her a ticket for £6… only to be told that she had nothing smaller than a £10 note, meaning I let her in for £5 (as I was short of change). 

Seriously – would you try that in The Hippodrome? No. You would just accept that theatre is a luxury and if you can’t afford it, you can’t go.

Two women once demanded a refund after an open mic act because they didn’t find her funny. (Comedy, of course, is a matter of personal taste.) I politely explained that, along with every other events business in existence, we don’t offer refunds or exchanges, and suggested they stay a bit longer to see the main acts, who have more experience. They declined. I explained that What The Frock! exists to help nurture up and coming female comedians, who are denied a platform by most other clubs. And I also explained that our ticket prices are among the lowest in the city. They became rude. So I paid them off to be shot of them, which is of course why they became rude. 

But would you ask for your money back from the cinema if you didn’t like the first 20 minutes of a film? No. You’d just shrug your shoulders and accept you tried something and didn’t like it.

One woman arrived at the door with two tickets that she had bought in advance. She said that her friend wasn’t feeling well, so could they both have a refund as she didn’t want to come in anymore. 

No. You wouldn’t buy tickets to the Hippodrome and then ask for a refund because you didn’t feel well on the day of the show. You’d just accept that this happens sometimes.

"£8 for a ticket! Daylight robbery! You must be raking it in, you greedy cow!" This has actually been said to me. And words to that effect. Several times. And clearly by people who have never put an event on, or realise the expense that goes into it. 

That £8 ticket price goes towards: paying the acts (between four and six per show), sometimes putting acts up in (cheap) hotels, public liability insurance, venue hire, designing posters and flyers, printing posters and flyers, marketing, printing tickets, distributing tickets, website hosting, business telephone costs, petrol costs to get to gigs... and a million other boring things.

Am I raking it in? Err, not at £8 a ticket I'm not, no. Which is why tickets are going up to £10 in June. Sorry about that. But we'll still be cheaper than pretty much every other comedy night in Bristol.

On two occasions, I’ve had tickets bought in advance from people who I’ve noticed live around the corner from me. So I’ve hand delivered their tickets within 30 minutes of them being ordered. Only to come home to an email asking for their 50p postage fee back. Which I returned, although I also sent polite emails explaining that the 50p postage fee doesn’t even come close to covering the combined costs of PayPal, ticket printing, admin etc.

Would you haggle with Ticketmaster over their booking fee (which is close to £5)? No, because they're so big you can't get hold of them. And they'd never hand deliver your tickets within 30 minutes of you booking them anyway!

Someone filled in our recent feedback survey and, when asked if they thought the current ticket price of £8 was reasonable, they said: “I don’t have to pay as I’m a club member, so I get in for free. Wahey!” That’s true, Square Club members do get in for free – but I don’t get any money from them being a club member, and by coming in for free they mean I’m unable to sell a ticket to someone who would pay, meaning that I'm automatically £10 down. 

On the other hand, there are one or two Square Club members who have chosen to pay because they recognise I’m a small business, they like what I'm doing and want it to succeed. Those people are fab (and they know who they are) because, without anything being said, they recognise that I can't afford to let people in for free.

And so it goes on. These are just a handful of recent examples of the way a small minority of people try to rip off a new business. I could give you more.


What The Frock! ticket prices are among the lowest for comedy in Bristol, especially for a line-up of between four and six comedians a night. While the more established comedians get paid (as they should do), they are the only ones who do. 

My friend who works on the door doesn’t get paid; my friend who takes the photos doesn’t get paid; my graphic designer didn’t get paid for a year and now works for peanuts; my website designer doesn’t get paid; my accountant doesn’t get paid; and many more people who happily offer their time don't get paid…

I also don’t get paid and I work seven days a week, often way past midnight, to make What The Frock! happen. And I do that because I have no other job to pay my bills (having lost my job in November), and because I fervently believe in the importance of what I’m doing. But I’m well aware that I’m only afforded the luxury of TRYING to make What The Frock! work because my husband has a job.

That said, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that one day What The Frock! has the potential to be a strong independent business. And when that day comes, the first thing I will do is find some way to repay the fabulous people who have donated time and talent to help me get there. The people like Gaby, Emily, Kellie-Jay, Hannah, Paul, Paul (another one)… and a whole chorus of other superstars.

NB: I should stress that it’s only a very tiny percentage of audience members who’ve taken advantage (or tried to) of my small business. The vast majority of my audience members are lovely, loyal, friendly and supportive people – many of whom come to almost every show, many of whom send me appreciative messages afterwards, many of whom realise how much hard work goes into doing what I do and even thank me for doing it. And if it wasn’t for brilliant people like them, I wouldn’t keep doing this. To those people, I take my hat off.

The Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal

One of Persephone’s latest books is a previously unpublished work by Austrian writer Elisabeth de Waal set in the early 1950s and following five exiles returning to Vienna 15 years after the Anschluss (when Hitler’s troops marched in to ‘claim’ Austria in March 1938).

Elisabeth wrote The Exiles Return only a few years after the time in which it is set, which gives the piece and the characters a sense of fragility and rawness that might have been hard to recapture if written more recently.

Our five protagonists are all wildly varying in their stories. One is an eminent professor struggling to fit back in after 15 years working in New York, where his marriage crumbled. Another is a wealthy Greek businessman who is determined to rebuild the luxury pre-war existence he loved, while attempting to disguise his homosexuality. And Prince ‘Bimbo’ Grein is the man he is secretly in love with. Although Bimbo has inadvertently become entangled with American teenager Resi, who is staying with her Austrian family, leading to awful consequences. Lastly, there’s laboratory assistant Princess Nina, who brings a new layer of emotion to the professor.

The Exiles Return is not an easy read. And as much as I love Persephone books, this was one of only a few that I’ve struggled to finish. From a style perspective, it needs some gentle editing to iron out a few narrative niggles. And from a reader’s perspective, I found myself getting tangled up in knots with all the many different characters, the many secondary characters, and how they all interwove.

However, this is clearly a very important book, and it’s essential that we learn as much as we can about what is still very recent history. The reverberations of the Second World War are still sounding, and Elisabeth’s novel is a stark reminder of how damaging the war was not only to buildings and cities, but to the persecuted individuals who were forced out of their homelands for more than a decade.

In this respect, the professor’s story is the most chilling. While teenage Resi’s story is equally saddening for different reasons – while, at 18, she was too young to know the Austria she was taken away from, she returns as a confused and na├»ve young woman who gets caught up in a world that nobody knows how to prepare her for.

Royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to the Refugee Council.

Click here to visit the Persephone Books website for more information.

Ablutions – at Bristol Old Vic

Based on Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s highly regarded 2009 novel, Ablutions is the sorry tale of an unnamed Los Angeles bartender (played by Eoin Slattery) who spends his shifts drinking himself into oblivion, and swallowing pills to “take the edge off”. Everything in his world is crumbling apart – his wife is leaving him, his bar manager is a coke-addicted thief, and he himself is a helpless alcoholic.

But while Ablutions is an important piece about the tragic consequences of alcoholism and how it rips so many lives apart, it’s clear that the stars of this show are not Eoin Slattery, but his supporting cast of Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone.

Slattery’s self-pitying, self-destructive, cynical barman is a pretty unlikeable soul who ends up as little more than a narrator for the show-stealing character pieces from Mikel and Humberstone. Ben Osborn provides acoustic musical accompaniment throughout the whole show, which adds another level of depth to Slattery’s barman.

Mikel in particular is the runaway star of this production. As the lone female in the cast, she is called on to play everything from the drunken barman’s long-suffering nurse wife, to the Sybil Fawlty-esque wife of the bar manager, and even a drunken lush giving a blow job in a bar toilet. She effortlessly flits between these characters, and brings real emotion and depth to Ablutions.

While Humberstone’s wiry form is perfect for providing the comic relief we desperately need in a story as sorry as this. Whether he’s doing hilarious hipster dance moves as an ex-model-turned-bar-manager, or playing a snide desert bartender, Humberstone uses his body for great comic effect. And nowhere better than in the absolutely genius scene where Slattery goes to a health food shop and Humberstone morphs into a simpering, weasely, slithery sales assistant who almost wraps himself around Slattery.

Aside from being a great example of how sad a disease alcoholism is, what Ablutions also confirms is how women are always the ones who drive the narrative – even if relegated to supporting roles. In Ablutions, Mikel’s many characters are the ones who care for our self-indulgent bartender… they’re his wife, his nurse, his boss, the ones he rips off, the ones he uses for sex… But despite these less than appreciated roles, Mikel remains the stand out star of this piece.

Ablutions will be at Bristol Old Vic until April 18, after which it tours the UK. Click here to book tickets to see it at the Old Vic, and here to see where else the show is being performed.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Bloody Ballad of Mary Maid

Have you ever wondered what Happy Days would be like if it was set in an abattoir? Well, wonder no more because The Bloody Ballad is the show for you.

Bristol Old Vic’s basement Studio space has been transformed into a hick village in 1950s southern America. With a four-piece backing band (aka The Missing Fingers), Mary (played by scriptwriter Lucy Rivers) steps on to the stage in a blood-soaked nightie to tell us all about the terrible weekend she’s just had. She looks like Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers, and that’s clearly the inspiration.

Poor Mary has had a crappy start to life. Abused by her father since she was a child (we’re told this via a chirpy country song called What My Daddy Done in A Minor, ouch), her mother hung herself, and sour Mary is left rotting behind the till in her father’s petrol station. When in wanders Connor (Oliver Woods) to sweep her off her feet.

But of course, all is not as it seems. After falling in love with Connor, Mary kills his three brothers in self-defence after they break into her house to rob her. Leading to a helter-skelter situation where Mary goes from a country bumpkin whose never been kissed, to a full blown murderer in two short breaths.

And all of this is delivered in a raucous rockabilly performance, with a backing band (aided by Tom Cottle and Den Messore), fun 1950s costumes and a hell of a lot of theatrical blood.

With strong women a-plenty (Rivers herself, and Hannah McPake as Connor's cunning mother), The Bloody Ballad had every potential of being a strident feminist theatre piece, and indeed some may still say it is. “I won’t be bullied by no man,” cried Mary. But here’s why I say it isn’t…

What troubled me was the casual way that Mary’s childhood abuse was glossed over with a jaunty song. For a girl who’d been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by her father since she was tiny, perhaps it’s not so surprising she’d turn out troubled, but then why wasn’t her murderous streak directed at her father (who the script had invested time in telling us about) rather than three strangers? Why wasn’t the revenge motif for her years of rape explored in any way? Hmm. I felt the issue of child abuse was dismissed too lightly and that made me uncomfortable. Even within the light tone of this show, it could have been explored further, which would have had more credibility. But as it stands, the casual attitude appeared disrespectful and sensational. Or worse, that child sex abuse is normal and therefore doesn’t need discussion.

I have to admit, the plausibility of Mary’s character suddenly turning so vicious so quickly left me a little unconvinced, even if I suspended my disbelief. And the actual mechanics and reasoning behind the murders themselves was so convoluted and uninvolved that I was left wondering what happened and why.

The Bloody Ballad was a great fun show, delivered in a blood-slick, high energy way. It’s got enormous potential, but to my mind there are a few big plot holes that need smoothing over first.

The Bloody Ballad is playing at Bristol Old Vic until April 6. Click here for more information and to book tickets.