Friday, 25 April 2014

'The Tinderbox' at Bristol Old Vic

This reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s seven-page short story The Tinderbox into a two-hour 16-strong ensemble theatre piece is certainly ambitious. Grand in scale, vision and cast, The Bristol Old Vic Young Company has left no stone unturned in its quest to produce a meaty production worthy of the illustrious footsteps they are following in.

The story of The Tinderbox has classic fairy tale fare – a princess locked in a tower, a cruel king and queen, anthropomorphic wolves, magical objects and forests. In a nutshell, when the king and queen (Lorenzo Niyongabo and Beth Collins) learn of a prophecy that their treasured baby daughter will be assassinated by a common solider (Fennar Ralston), they are so horrified that they engineer a war that can never be won so that all the young men of their country are permanently on the battle fields killing each other. But after the war has raged for 17 years, some of the soldiers start to grow disillusioned and rebel… and where you have dissent, you will find strength. In this case, through the discovery of a magical tinderbox.

In many ways, the story reminded me of the recent production of Arcadia at the Tobacco Factory – with the genius daughter closeted away and protected from the salacious evils of the world by overbearing and foolish parents, and the emphasis on gardens and woodlands to the narrative.

Directed by Lisa Gregan, with a script adapted by Silva Semerciyan, this new production of The Tinderbox shows great promise, but in its enthusiasm it felt rather crowded with plot devices, convoluted dialogue and heavy symbolism from the use of wooden chairs – which were intended to represent a huge manner of different objects and emotions throughout the whole show. Within about 15 minutes of The Tinderbox starting, I knew the perpetual clattering of the chairs (oh, the chairs!) was going to grate on me…

However, there were some lovely moments within the performance. For instance, a beautifully choreographed scene where blindfolded ladies in waiting dress the princess (Krista Matthews): although it was unclear why the ladies needed to be blindfolded, as an isolated scene it was delightful to watch. As an aside, I remain confused as to why the princess’ dedicated lady in waiting was played by a man (Dale Thrupp) since there was no shortage of female actors in the ensemble cast.

The use of masks to represent the three wolves was impressive, and the wolves themselves provided a genuine air of menace and magic to the whole piece, which moved the production up a level. The masks themselves were well crafted, and the movements by the puppeteers was impressive.

While The Tinderbox was a powerful and fun play, this production would benefit from some hefty script editing. One side effect of the overloaded script was that some of the actors garbled their words, and several speeches by the princess lost their effect as her words were almost inaudible – when sadly these could have been very effective plot devices as the speeches were to underscore her muted intelligence.

The moral of The Tinderbox? Be careful what you wish for!

The Tinderbox is being performed at Bristol Old Vic until 26 April. For more information, please click here.

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