Friday, 31 October 2014

Bristol and the First World War

As you cannot have failed to have noticed, 2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War and the extensive Bristol 2014 programme has been marking this with a year-long calendar of events all around the city.

Two elements that go hand-in-hand are the Moved By Conflict exhibition at the city’s M Shed museum, and the Bristol and the First World War book that is being distributed free all around the city as part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014.

Moved By Conflict (open until 1 March 2015, £2.95-£3.95) is a fascinating, interactive exhibition detailing the myriad ways in which Bristol’s residents became entwined with the war – whether fighting on the front line, working in mustard gas factories or repurposing landmark buildings to create makeshift hospitals for the wounded. What’s particularly pleasing about this exhibition is that in contrast to many stuffy museums, many Moved By Conflict pieces have notices that actively state ‘Please Touch’ next to them.

While the stories of love stories cut short and young men blown to pieces will be echoed in similar exhibitions in cities all around the country, there are a huge array of elements that root Moved By Conflict firmly in Bristol. One such part is the almost-forgotten White City. This city-within-a-city was Bristol’s contribution to the International Exhibition, designed to celebrate the British Empire, and engineered before war was even on the horizon. Doomed to fail financially, it opened mere months before war was announced, and the area was rapidly repurposed as barracks for the Bristol’s Own regiment. Visit the Bristol’s ‘White City’ exhibition at Bristol Record Office until 27 February, 2015; and read Clive Burlton’s book Bristol’s Lost City (Bristol Books, £14).  

As part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014, Bristol and the First World War is an anthology of short and accessible essays by a range of authors examining all aspects of the city at war, and is the ideal companion to Moved By Conflict. Particular standout pieces for me include the graphic essay ‘From White City To War’ by illustrator Alys Jones, which both sums up the relevance of the White City development to Bristolians as well as the overall futility of the war effort. One of Alys’ illustrations for the story is reproduced in colour on the book’s cover: a depiction of trenches being dug on Brandon Hill.

Other illuminating entries include Clive Burlton’s piece about the barbaric Shirehampton mustard gas factory, Eugene Byrne’s article about women’s voluntary war work, and Lucienne Boyce’s essay about the Bristol tram girls. While Anna Farthing’s piece about the Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Parties was particularly interesting after seeing her Anna’s new production War, Women and Song (also a part of Bristol 2014) at the city’s Redgrave Theatre in September. You can read an article Anna wrote for The Daily Telegraph here.

Some 20,000 copies of Bristol and the First World War have been produced by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and they are being distributed free of charge all around the city. For more information, please click here

For further reading on Bristol and the First World War, I also recommend Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-1918, by Eugene Byrne and Clive Burlton (Redcliffe Press, £15), which is a rigorously researched and highly readable account of how the war impacted on Bristol and it’s people. 

For more information on the many forthcoming events in the Bristol 2014 programme, please click here to visit the website.

Friday, 10 October 2014

'Dead Dog in a Suitcase' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo credit - Steve Tanner

Guest review by Jacqui Furneaux 

It didn’t seem appropriate to applaud at the end of this Kneehigh Theatre production of Dead Dog In A Suitcase, at a time when the stage was full of the debris and destruction of a world we have created by accepting greed and corruption as the norm.

Like The Beggars’ Opera which inspired it, Dead Dog In A Suitcase is alerting us to our demise but the journey was light-hearted and very funny. Throughout, with the wonderful use of puppetry, brilliant songs and great lines, we hope the lovable villain Macheath (Dominic Marsh) will leave his bad-boy days behind and sail off into the sunset with good and wholesome Polly (Carly Bawden). But deprived of a happy ending, the audience has to accept that in this instance evil gets the better of good and even Polly succumbs to hatred and revenge. This flies in the face of tradition to give us a wake-up call.
Director Mike Shepherd uses Punch and Judy puppets as a continuous thread starting with Punch killing the Devil, which encourages the residents of a mythical but realistic coastal town to commit unspeakable acts without the fear of going to hell. After all, Punch has no scruples and neither do Macheath or the town’s greedy industrialists, the Peachums (Rina Fatania and Martin Hyder) who also crave political power.
Dead Dog In A Suitcase was a faultless theatrical delight with rich acting, script, props (including a progressively decomposing dead dog in a suitcase) and tremendous music. There were gender changes and role-swapping, with characters who had been playing respectable citizens suddenly appearing as the opposite sex in provocative clothing in a bawdy-house. The songs were amusing and poignant, varying greatly in style and during the interval several people were heard to ask if CDs were available. 

The set by Michael Vale was cleverly adaptable for each part of the play and was complete without much scene-changing. The clever lighting saw to that, highlighting various parts of the stage as required
At times the play was pure pantomime with the front rows being balloted with voting papers and the puppets encouraging occasional child-like delight mixed with unsettling sinister characters. At other times farce crept in with three identical suitcases being mixed up and picked up by the wrong owners. But unlike pantomime, Dead Dog In A Suitcase does not have the baddies punished and the goodies rewarded. It’s a grim reminder to mend our ways and it is to be hoped that Kneehigh’s declaration in the programme is correct:We believe that theatre has the power to transform...”.

Dead Dog In A Suitcase is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 25 October. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dracula - Bristol Old Vic

Photo credit: Farrows Creative

Guest review by Bo Novak

Journey into the cold, black night with the Mark Bruce Company at Bristol Old Vic and share in a thrilling and romantic adventure to foreign lands full of mystery and danger.

The first half of Dracula is staggeringly creepy. The wolves circle and pounce. The vampire brides writhe and screech like inmates of Bedlam. Unspeakable brutality is vividly signposted, leaving our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

And what of the Count himself? Being more of the Interview With The Vampire generation rather than Twilight, I’m used to vampires being intellectual and conflicted. But Jonathan Goddard’s Dracula is not an urbane aristocrat bemoaning his cursed state but a hollow-cheeked, suede-headed, black-hearted thug with no compunction for his victims. His concubines are bawdy, ethereal and sensual. When they (literally) go for the jugular, it is frenzied and intense, not pretty.

The castle’s gothic splendour is conveyed by intricate ironwork and stone coffins, illuminated by a cold, white moon. The only warmth comes from the candles lit for visitors. Yet Christianity comes out as very flabby in the face of the animalistic and amoral Dracula.

This is dance drama of the highest order, with dancers who are all fine actors, and a dance style that is bold, physical and contemporary, wittily borrowing from other schools of dance to lighten the mood here and there, but always moving the story on.

Eleanor Duval is particularly expressive as Mina and her pas de deux before and after her encounter with Dracula - when she is changed forever - are both beautifully done. Kristin McGuire oozes raw physicality as she goes from cheeky ingénue to insatiable undead seductress.

There is plenty of humour to offset the pervading sense of threat. The ensemble pieces are fun, there is a light-hearted marriage proposal, and even a knowing wink to Rocky Horror’s Magenta the Maid. They also somehow pull off Dracula donning top hat and cane to do a Busby Berkeley number while he toys with his terrified prey.

The music, a patchwork of different styles and pieces lifted from classical and modern genres, slightly detracted from the cohesion of the piece, but credit to Guy Hoare for the immersive environment created by the lighting and Phil Eddolls for the beautiful and versatile set.

Like Matthew Bourne, Mark Bruce reinvigorates a classic story using accessible dance forms, and the Company richly deserved the raucous applause from the audience. A magnificent evening of light and dark.

Dracula is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 4 October. Formore information and to buy tickets, please click here