Thursday, 26 June 2014

'Wild Men' – at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Matt Collins
Having previously seen shows called Wild Oats and The Wild Bride at Bristol Old Vic, I certainly had to see Wild Men to complete the triptych.

Directed by Samuel Bailey, Wild Men is delivered by the new Hotel Echo theatre group and is a part of Bristol Old Vic’s Made In Bristol project: a training scheme for young theatre makers.

An inventive project, Wild Men ties into the centenary events marking the anniversary of the start of the First World War, and successfully links the innocence of young Bristol men – many still teenagers – drafted up for the fight with their bewilderment and naivety as they face tough decisions in France.

Having previously stood united as choristers in Bristol Cathedral, the small group of young Bristol men find themselves reunited on a reconnaissance mission in the church of a small French village while war rages all around them. The village is largely deserted, save for the elderly and infirm… and the shadow of approaching German soldiers is looming close over their heads.

Combining careful choreography with choral music, Wild Men engages some imaginative physical theatre to show the unity and discordance that quickly begins to seep through the small group of Bristolians, bewildered by a situation they never thought they’d find themselves in.

What is also striking is the harsh reality for their wives left behind. As Edith, Kat Stokes is convincing when she struggles to put on a brave face while facing gruelling manual labour on the farm, and pining for her new baby who she barely sees from one week to the next and is cared for by her parents-in-law. The pain of the scarcity of letters and news from her husband Frank, Chanelle Bernard, is something Edith struggles to hide from those around her, who are all juggling their own strung out emotions.

As a debut show from Hotel Echo, Wild Men is a strong example of our younger theatre makers embracing and marking important historical events, and not being afraid to take bold steps while doing so. The play was inspired by a plaque in the corner of Bristol Cathedral commemorating the choristers who fought in the war, and Wild Men is a fitting tribute to their bravery.

Wild Men is performed at Bristol Old Vic until July 28, before touring in Scotland. For more information or to buy tickets, please click here. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

'London Road: A Musical' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Graham Burke
When it opened at London’s National Theatre in 2011, London Road: A Musical was met with rapturous reviews, critical acclaim and a sold-out run. So quite what happened in transition to Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre I’m not sure.

Directed by Nicholas Bone, London Road is a brave attempt to combine verbatim theatre with musical theatre to retell the true story of a series of brutal murders using the speech and inflections of those who were there.

Verbatim theatre uses exactly the same words as were spoken by a person as part of the performance – so in this case, Alecky Blythe interviewed the real-life residents of Ipswich’s London Road to gain their perspectives of the notorious killings of five local sex workers in 2006. Complete with repetitions, fillers, malapropisms and unfinished sentences, those interviews are repeated here on the stage by actors. And following the natural rhythm of the Ipswich accent, composer Adam Cork has set this to music, performed by a live band.

It just doesn’t work. The actual narrative of London Road and the stories of those affected by the murders becomes secondary to the self-conscious and all-consuming performance style of tedious repetition and overly intrusive live music. With one or two lines repeated over and over during a three or four minute song, it takes a very long time for the narrative to move forwards, and essentially very little happens in what should have been a fascinating story.

The effects on neighbours of living next door to serial killer should be gripping. The paranoia, the suspicion, the change of habits, the curtain twitching, the press intrusion, the propulsion onto the nation’s TV screens… But this production of London Road allows none of this.

With a cast of 12 actors playing 66 characters, there is no empathy or development for any character, meaning there’s no room for the audience to build a connection of identification with any one person. So it is impossible to single out any one actor for their performance. Couple this with the patronising portrayal of these characters – who, let’s not forget, are real people. The murders happened in 2006, meaning this is recent history. So why the inhabitants of London Road are dressed like stereotyped characters from a 1970s sitcom set in a community centre I do not know. Why are they dressed in socks and Birkenstocks? Why are the men wearing zip-up cardigans? Why does their furniture look like it was found on a skip in the 1970s? This is patronising and it is not realistic.

Unfortunately London Road: A Musical does not sit comfortably. What could have been a fascinating and imaginative narrative, putting a new spin on existing genres, ended up as a frustrating and tedious performance that fell short of the mark.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

'Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide To The Media'

The enthusiasm of Vagenda creators Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter cannot be denied. I’ve heard these women speak, and the passion for their favoured topic of pointing out the stupidity of the women’s magazine market is rampant. But after reading a whole book in ‘Vagenda-speak’ (ie shouty hyperbole, gleeful and self-referential yoof phrases, and droll asides) I felt both exhausted and old (I’m only 36).

On every level, I agree with their points that the women’s magazine industry is an advertising-led, manipulative, contradictory, shallow and deceitful one. And I say this as someone who spent most of her 20s working for a lot of the magazines ripped to shreds in the Vagenda book, and recognising pretty much every stereotyped media character brought to life in its pages.

But even though this was a book I agreed with and supported the stance of, I was left feeling deadened – not by the force of Cosslett and Baxter’s arguments, but by the volume of their language. While I appreciate every writer needs to have a voice, I think there’s a distinction between being overly chummy and between good writing practice. More importantly, I think the tone and language used in a short blog post needs to be tempered for a full-length non-fiction book.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I don’t think I’m that much older than the authors. However, the Vagenda book wasn’t speaking to me. It was speaking about a culture I worked in until recently, and an industry I still buy into (heck yes, I know women’s magazines are evil but I still something trashy to read in the bath, but please don’t make me feel bad about that, Vagenda ladies), but I couldn’t get my head around the volume of noise coming off the printed page.

Perhaps a little more time in an editor’s hands would have helped, but as it is, sadly the Vagenda book reads like one that was rushed out to cash in on a successful blog and a pleasantly buoyant demand for young feminist literature. But at the risk of sounding like an old-fashioned school report, Cosslett and Baxter are capable of producing a much better book than this.