Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Rita, Sue & Bob, Too' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Richard Davenport

What has the potential of being a murky, seedy, gloomy piece of class tourism is far from it. The Out of Joint Theatre Company revival of the classic 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob, Too by Andrea Dunbar is as much a commentary on youth and optimism in 2017 as it is a statement about early '80s Thatcherite dissatisfaction and rising unemployment for the disenfranchised.

With Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson assuming the roles of sassy 15-year-olds Rita and Sue, the play is already in good hands. These are two capable and assured actors who are more than at home playing the self-assured sheroes of the title. And while Hollyoaks' James Atherton has the, perhaps, unenviable task of playing the potentially unlikeable Bob, James somehow manages to makes us feel just a tad sorry for this discontented young man who is stuck in a loveless marriage and angry dissatisfaction with his lot. 

Whether you've seen a previous version of this play or you've seen the seminal 1987 film directed by Alan Clarke, there's a strong chance you know the plot. But just in case you don't... Bradford schoolgirls Rita and Sue are seduced by the father of the children they babysit. And when I say 'seduce', I use the word loosely. While driving them home, Bob stops by the moors and asks the girls if they fancy a "jump", and they do. What follows is 10 minutes of delightfully uncomfortable stage sex while the three cast members have sex while squashed into the front of a makeshift car. This is the least sexy sex scene you will ever see, but it is a triumph of deadpan acting and bored one liners. 

On paper, we should hate Bob. This is a 27-year-old married man with two young children who repeatedly seduces two underage girls. He's cheating on his wife (who angrily knows he's having it off with someone but can't work out who), he's breaking up the family home for his two children, he's knowingly committing rape by having sex with two minors... But Bob is such a pathetic character. He steadfastly refuses to believe he has done anything wrong. He certainly doesn't think he warrants the mouthful of abuse Sue's father (David Walker) delivers him. Poor old, Bob... (I say this with my tongue in my cheek).

But the reason why Rita, Sue and Bob, Too works is that to all intents and purposes it is Rita and Sue who are in control. While young, they're far from innocent. They may tell Bob they're virgins, but they're not. They have no belief initially that Bob will leave his wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) for either of them. They're just bored. They're on the cusp of leaving school knowing there are no jobs for them once they finish their unpaid Youth Training Schemes in a boring factory. They're living life while they can. They're just having fun.

The loyalty of the two young women to each other is impressive, and this is the true core of Andrea Dunbar's play. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered that they are sharing the same man. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered when they find out that Bob has been meeting them both secretly for sex without the other one. Rita and Sue live very much in the moment... until Rita becomes pregnant. At which point, true to her loyalty to her best friend, Sue becomes righteous with indignation at the suggestion that she will carry on having sex with Bob, because now he's having a baby with Rita there are boundaries to respect. Wow!

Much has rightly been written about Andrea Dunbar's extraordinary rise as a playwright, as well as her tragically short life. Much of what Andrea wrote was, at least partly, autobiographical, and she grew up on the kind of estates that Rita and Sue did. Doubtless she knew a Rita and a Sue. And it's this distance from the private school upbringing, the university education, the well-off parents of the majority of writers that means Andrea actually knows what she's talking about. She was a writer who actually understood what it was like to be a woman. 

Respect to Out of Joint Theatre for this production, and bravo for an excellent choice of casting. Rita, Sue and Bob, Too is only on at Bristol Old Vic until October 7, but the play continues to tour the UK until February 2018. Click here for more information.

Photo: Richard Davenport

Friday, 15 September 2017

'The Caretaker' at Bristol Old Vic

We are so accustomed to our multi-screen, sensory overload, short attention lifestyles that to see a three-hour, three-handed, dialogue-heavy classic play such as The Caretaker comes as a welcome jolt into concentration. Harold Pinter’s 1960 play is a fascinating study of power: who has it, who deserves it, who wants it.

Homeless older man Davies (Patrice Naiambana) is offered a place to rest by kindly Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) who lives in a rather squalid bedsit, which is where the entire play takes place. In Oliver Townsend’s set, the stage is decorated with salvaged random objects (ladders, sinks, broken cookers, shoes…) in an orderly reconstruction of the Steptoe & Son set. As time moves on, we are joined by the unsettling character of Mick (David Judge), who is Aston’s younger brother and the landlord of the house where the bedsit is. As The Caretaker progresses, the three men move up and down a metaphorical snakes and ladders to determine who has authority, who has power and who can determine the future of the others.

All three cast members are outstanding, offering something very different to the production. With his excuses, his precise mannerisms and his desperation for certainty, Davies is the character most on the edge of the precipice. But Aston, who initially seems quiet and mild, reveals his behaviours to be a result of barbaric electroshock therapy he endured in his youth, from which he has never fully recovered. While cunning, manipulative Mick appears to have no goals or loyalties other than fun and games: but if he was really the successful landlord he presents himself to be, why does he has the time to provoke and agitate Davies?

In this new production at Bristol Old Vic, directed by Christopher Haydon, the three cast members of The Caretaker are all played by black men, which puts an interesting spin on some of Davies’ more opinionated and racist comments, such as complaining about the “blacks” next door and worrying they might use the same shared toilet as him. However, in the play’s programme, director Haydon insists that he did not consciously set out for an all black cast.

It would be interesting to consider what an all-female cast of The Caretaker would be like (and given Bristol Old Vic’s recent all-female cast of Medea, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility). The Caretaker is a very domestic play: the three characters are much like a father with his sons; it obviously has a domestic setting; and it concerns blatant issues of the home. The effect of an all-female cast on this would be extraordinary - the dynamics and intentions would change entirely because of perceived notions and stereotypes about gender roles. It would be fascinating.

The Caretaker is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 30 September 2017. For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

'Effi Briest' by Theodor Fontane

Oh, I’ve worked hard to like this book. All the initial signs were good: female protagonist, cold-hearted man, turn of the last century novel, Persephone reprint. But it took me a month to plough through it… and when a novel takes you four weeks to read but is only 320 pages long, well it’s not a sign of enjoyment.

But boy, I tried. I wanted to enjoy this book and it seemed so promising.

Effi Briest, 16, is a young girl from a privileged German family and she is full of romantic, naive ideas. Then this older guy comes along, Innstetten. He is 20 years older than her and was weirdly obsessed with her mother when they were teenagers, except Effi’s mother married someone else. Never having quite got over this rejection, Innstetten marries his sweetheart’s teenage daughter Effi instead. Which struck me as deeply unpleasant on two counts: less the age gap but more the emotional differences between a 16 year old and a 36 year old; and the fact this older guy was so hung up on a woman he married her daughter as second best. Move on, dude. Stop fixating.

It’s clear from day one that this marriage isn’t going to go well, and of course it doesn’t. Innstetten whisks his child bride off to a small village far away from her home and family and installs her in his gloomy home that is supposedly haunted. Once the honeymoon is over, Innstetten goes back to his work and leaves his lonely, frightened teenage wife to take care of the home: something she has no experience of. And of course, it’s not long before she has a baby… although this baby features bizarrely infrequently, which is also odd. It’s not a spoiler to say that lonely Effi ends up having an affair and being hauled over the coals by her cold, unfeeling husband who feels let down by her. Yes, HE feels let down by HER. Huh! (Men make me so angry sometimes, with their entitlement and false superiority. Urgh.)

The absolute problem with Effi Briest, the reason I found it so wholeheartedly unconvincing and un-engaging, is that its male author Theodor Fontane was 75 years old when he wrote it. How on earth is a 75-year-old man supposed to get inside the head of a 16-year-old girl? This explains the clunky dialogue, the lack of emotional insight from Effi’s perspective, the lack of understanding of how a teenager would react or feel when married to a much older man… It’s an utterly preposterous notion for a book. And more male arrogance, that a man that age would deign to think he could possibly understand a 16-year-old girl.

Yet Effi Briest the book is lauded and admired. It has received glowing reviews in its long history (it was initially published in 1896), is apparently still widely taught in German schools and has been turned into several films. Perhaps as a film, without the clunky dialogue, loss in translation and with a script rewritten by someone who is in tune with how a young girl would actually think, the story works better. But I found the book turgid and soulless to say the least.

I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. I want to like everything that Persephone publishes.

As an aside, I also feel sad that Persephone is reprinting a book by a man. I mean, it’s not up to me and they can do what they want. But Persephone is one of those publishing houses that its readers and fans feel like they own a little, and to me the USP of Persephone is that is republishes lovely, forgotten books by WOMEN authors. And men have hardly had a rum deal in the publishing - or anything else - stakes to date, it's not like we need a publishing house specialising in republishing books by forgotten MALE authors. So although I know they’ve had a small handful of men in their 122 strong back catalogue, I automatically start reading the men Persephones with a sense of ‘You’ve got to really work hard to prove yourself to me here, buddy.’ Sorry. Sorry...

Friday, 12 May 2017

'Medea' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Jack Offord

“What mortal man is not guilty?”

An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, this modern re-telling of Medea is written by Chino Odimba for the Bristol Old Vic in yet another innovative and exciting production from this fabulous theatre.

In the classic Greek play, Medea is abandoned by her husband Jason (of ‘And The Argonauts’ fame) for another woman, and then threatened with exile from her homeland by his father. And to avenge Jason, she calmly kills their children in an effort to take control of her own destiny.

So buckle up, folks, this is going to be a bumpy ride.

In this new version, Odimba weaves Euripides' ancient world with a contemporary story of a single mother Maddy who faces losing her children and home following 11 years of marriage after her husband Jack takes up with another woman.
Performed by an all-female cast and using the tribal power of song while led by director George Mann, this production asserts Medea as a powerful female character who fought against the injustice of the patriarchy at all costs.
The strength of an all-female cast is undeniable; there is something very powerful about seeing a group of women working together for the same purpose. And the six cast members deftly flit between the contemporary and classic story, largely playing their character’s counterpart in each version.

Akiya Henry as Medea/Maddy is truly stunning, and demonstrates her mind-blowing versatility as an actor, while Jessica Temple who plays Medea/Maddy’s confidant Naomi is equally impressive - and her singing talent really makes you sit up and listen. Akiya has excellent comic timing - a skill you wouldn’t necessarily think was required in a play this intense and harrowing. But while singing her plea to Jason's father, she is genuinely hilarious in her tone of voice and knowing facial expressions to the audience. Bravo, Akiya, bravo.

While the story of Medea - the ultimate scorned woman - is millennia old, the story of a woman mistreated by a selfish man who wields all the power is as relevant now as it was in 431 BC. Which is utterly depressing. When the original Medea is overlooked by Jason for a newer model, she no longer has any claim to live in even the same land as him because he has all the power. When contemporary Maddy is abandoned by her husband Jack (who stops paying the mortgage on the house which is only in his name), she is evicted and made homeless with her children. These stories are as relevant today as ever they were.

Photos: Jack Offord
The character of Jack (Stephanie Levi-John) is very interesting. In two separate speeches he illustrates the hatred, disgust and disregard that certain men show for women, once they no longer serve a purpose. Jack’s repulsion of Maddy, and apparently women in general, is grotesque and fascinating. He is a vocal version of the hate spewed at women every day by faceless cowards online. Jack thinks women are the cause of all the misery and suffering in the world, with their only purpose being to breed children.  

The lack of loyalty that the men show towards the women in their lives is staggering, considering the loyalty Medea and Maddy showed Jason and Jack. And the disregard that Jason and Jack show for the work of motherhood and homemaking is extremely unpleasant; they see Medea and Maddy as having enjoyed easy lives while their husbands have toiled and sweated. Compare this to the loyalty and compassion shown by the women in this play towards other women and it’s not hard to join up the dots and see what’s going on here.

But it is the unity of women that shines through. The support networks, the sisterhood, the strength to hold each other up while men try to knock us down. On the cusp of a general election, at a time when the government is doing its best to marginalise women and push us into a domesticated box, while the cuts continue to disproportionately ravage services that prioritise women who have been mistreated by men… Jesus! We need a play like Medea more than ever.

The privilege of men makes them blind to their monstrous behaviour. And so even though Medea herself behaves, err, somewhat irrationally, by the close of the play when we see her standing firm, halfway up a white staircase that extends and unfolds all the way into the skies of the Bristol Old Vic’s stage, it is clear which is the dominant gender.

Please go to see it.

For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

La Strada - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo - Robert Day 

"If you spend long enough on the road, you forget what home is", or so says Zampanò in this new production of La Strada.


I mean, really, what’s not to like? Directed by Sally Cookson? Check. New musical score by Benji Bower? Check. Starring Audrey Brisson? Check. Yep, everything is in place to make Bristol Old Vic’s latest production La Strada a hit.

Based on the 1954 Federico Fellini film of the same name, La Strada (aka The Road) is set in Italy in the years after World War Two and follows a young woman called Gelsomina (Brisson) whose mother sells her to a cruel and intimidating strongman street performer named Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin). Given that Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa on the road and that Rosa had perished within a year, her mother was utterly desperate or she would not have allowed her to go.

Zampanò takes Gelsomina on the eponymous road and by brute force teaches her to work in the carnivals, but his cruelty takes its toll on her spirit. When they hole up in a circus and Gelsomina befriends another street performer, the kindly but mischievous Fool (Bart Soroczynski), the tale unwinds.

It is hard to imagine anyone more perfectly cast as the innocent Gelsomina than Brisson. In a beautiful homage to the emotional yet slapstick performances of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Brisson manages to convey the willing enthusiasm and big heart of Gelsomina, combined with a feisty determination to keep true her promise to her mother and to ultimately do the right thing. In many ways, Gelsomina is Chaplin's Little Tramp in female form. Despite being on stage for virtually every scene, Gelsomina has remarkably few lines compared to the overbearing Zampanò, yet she steals every moment with the expressions she conveys via her facial gestures and body language.

In addition, Bower’s musical score performed by the cast of actor musicians perfectly supports the narrative without being intrusive, and without realising it the audience are tapping their toes in the stalls… and still humming a few bars as they leave the theatre.

Sally Cookson as a director is a good choice for this production of La Strada. Via Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Sleeping Beauty, she has already shown us her flair for imaginative productions with strong female leads - something theatre generally needs a hell of a lot more of. And in her hands, the theatrical version of La Strada is a tour de force.

Photo - Robert Day
La Strada is on at Bristol Old Vic until 22 April 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Long Live The Great Pottery Throwdown

Farewell to The Great Pottery Throwdown for another series. While millions wax lyrical about The Great British Bake Off and are angsting about its move to Channel 4, I’m much more excited about its younger BBC2 cousin The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Despite having no particular interest in pottery and absolutely no desire to get my hands dirty myself, I bloody love this show. Presented by the joyful Sara Cox, and judged by pottery giants (or so I’ve learned) Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, The Great Pottery Throwdown is the televisual equivalent of putting on your comfiest PJs and curling up to spend an hour reading a Persephone book under a fluffy blanket.

Each week, the contestants are tasked with one mammoth make (anything from an entire dinner service to a, err, toilet) that takes days, as well as two surprise tasks: a spot-test (where they are judged on skills including sponge decorating or sculpting the torso of a finely toned man), and an against-the-clock quick-fire task with a special judge (Johnny Vegas turned up one week with his one-minute teapots, which was a delight).

You know the formula, you’ve seen it in a load of similar shows (sewing, painting, baking, cooking…). And it’s easy to see why it’s so popular - with a bubbly host, passionate judges, and contestants we come to care about, it’s a gentle escape from the tedium of everyday life. We watch people who are, to all intents and purposes, just like us, but doing impressive things that we dream we might be able to do with a bit of effort (there is nothing stopping any of us from throwing a pot, if only we’d get off our sofas and attend a pottery class) but we can relax safe in the knowledge we know it’s unlikely to happen.

But the reason I watch The Great Pottery Showdown over any of its sibling shows (full disclaimer - I find Bake Off extremely dull: I know I’m in the minority but I find watching cakes bake as dull as watching paint dry) is the personalities. I love Sara Cox. I love her Radio 2 ‘80s show, I love it when she fills in for Chris Evans on the breakfast show… she’s fab. So I watched the first series of The Great Pottery Showdown simply because of Sara. And I watched it all in one go one day when I was off work ill - it was perfect, and compelling, and I was devastated when it ended. I genuinely felt like I was left with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, despite the essentially gentle nature of the show.

It’s a drama in itself. Will the pots crack in the kiln? Will Keith cry? How many times will Ryan mention his granny? Will Coit ever get anything into the drying room on time? Who will go at the end of the episode? The tension!

And I disagreed with the judges. (I’m assuming you’ve seen the final, if not, look away as I’m mentioning the winner in a moment). While I had Ryan pegged as the winner from the first episode, I also had Clover and Richard down to leave in early weeks. I had Nam down as a finalist (and I think he would have been, if he hadn’t ballsed up his Russian dolls), and Freya deserved to go through as well. But what do I know? I’m a humble viewer. Not a master potter like Kate and Keith.

So long live The Great Pottery Throwdown. Please return for a second, third, fourth and more series. Please put Sara Cox in front of our TV cameras all the time - the world needs more joy and she delivers it in spades. And I’m glad that the right potter won last week.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

'Crooked Heart' by Lissa Evans

Like a cross between Elisabeth Roberts' fabulous 1973 story of a carefree childhood, All About Simon And His Grandmother, and Barbara Noble's 1946 tale of a wartime evacuee, Doreen, Lissa Evans' newest novel Crooked Heart is an utter joy.

While All About Simon And His Grandmother is a warm children’s story of a strange little boy and his madcap adventures with his eccentric and fun grandmother, Doreen is the tale of a wartime evacuee who is torn between missing her mother at home in London and settling into her new life with strangers in the countryside.

Crooked Heart meets these two books in the middle, and throws in a helping of suffrage pride. There should always be a helping of suffrage pride in a novel. Deeds not words and all that.

Our hero is ten-year-old Noel who is growing up with his eccentric and joyful godmother Matty, a former suffragette, in a book-filled, art-strewn home in Hampstead. Without hammering home the suffrage message, Crooked Heart subtly informs us of Matty’s fight alongside her sister suffragettes, her prison experiences and what she went through to earn her WSPU medals. All of this instills in Noel a strong grounding in wilful, intelligent rebellion.

But then the war comes, bringing death with it. And Noel is evacuated to the country and the care of single mother Vera, who lives with her lazy son, mute mother and does whatever she must to keep a roof over their heads. Initially dismissing Noel as not-very-bright due to his quietness, Vera soon comes to discover she has met a kindred spirit in him… one with whom she has much more in common that she would ever have first thought. Together, the two come up with a variety of schemes to live on just the wrong side of the law, and ultimately Noel comes to wrestle with his conscience when an elderly lady’s hard-won suffrage medals come into the equation.

Crooked Heart is a fun and fascinating, fast-paced story of survival and rebellion. Delightfully, Lissa Evans hasn’t resorted to creating a subplot of romance for Vera anywhere, which is an enormous relief in a market overloaded with books filled with pointless romantic subplots. And in the Dorothy Whipple vein of storytelling, Evans has subverted the interloper story to show that not all outsiders are bad news. Indeed, with Noel, Vera’s life improves a thousand fold.

'Every Good Deed' by Dorothy Whipple

What cannot be made better by reading a Dorothy Whipple book? A classic hot-water-bottle author, becoming engrossed in a Whipple means becoming enveloped in a warm and captivating story of wrong-doing, good vs bad and, more often than not, women triumphing over men. A Whipple is not necessarily well-written in the sense of an accepted literary classic, but it is definitely well-written in the sense of an immediately gripping and compelling story - which, to my mind, is far superior to the former idea. A Whipple is a guarantee of a good book.

So thank goodness that Persephone Books has been making it its business to diligently re-publish every single piece of Whipple writing it can get its hands on. (For clarity, Persephone publishes lots of other forgotten women writers as well - but Dorothy Whipple remains one of their consistent best-sellers). And having just read their latest collection of her short stories, Every Good Deed, I am now up to speed on their Whipple offerings so far. Which puts me in a good position to reliably inform you that Dorothy Whipple has never written a bad book.

The story that lends this latest collection its title, Every Good Deed, is actually a novella, coming in at just over 100 pages and occupying most of the first half of this volume. It’s a classic Whipple construction: two elderly and kind spinster sisters live in luxury in a nice English village. And then their home is overtaken by an outsider: an adopted wayward teenage girl who exploits their kindness and bank balance. Being good eggs, the sisters won’t give up on the girl, no matter how tempting it must be, and time and again they show how good triumphs over bad. Until the girl pushes them one step too far… Brilliant! Classic Whipple!

The remainder of this collection is filled with short stories that also follow the classic Whipple vein: a husband who tires of his exhausted wife and demanding kids so plans to run off with his mistress (the twist in this is magnificent); a middle-aged spinster who runs away to show her cruel relatives just what she’s capable of (triumph over adversity); the kind couple persuaded to run a boarding house that is then destroyed by one overbearing guest (the snowball effect of fate). And I defy you not to be broken-hearted by the bitterly cruel hand dealt in the grossly unfair story Susan, which i found the most powerful story in this whole collection.

Whether in her short stories of her long novels (and I delight in the great length of novels such as The Priory, They Were Sisters and Greenbanks), Whipple has a talent for cuckoo-in-the-nest stories: an outsider comes in and upsets the previous harmonious home with disastrous consequences. And nine times out of ten, that dastardly outsider will be a man (boo, hiss!). It’s wonderful, it’s compelling… it’s exactly what I want to read.

If you are yet to read a Whipple (and oh, how I envy you, how I would love to have all those books to read for the first time), then I urge you to start with Someone At A Distance (also published by Persephone). It was the book that got me reading again after a period of ill-health where I had been unable to focus my attention on any book at all for six months or more. I picked up a copy of Someone At A Distance, and was hooked within pages, finishing the entire book within days. A classic Whipple about the fragility of the family, the superficiality of the male psyche, and - of course - an interloper in the home.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

'The Radical Eye - Modernist Photography', Tate Modern

'Glass Tears' by Man Ray

It's probably not a mammoth surprise to discover that pop legend Sir Elton John is a massive collector of vintage photography. But what is a surprise is that in contrast to his somewhat garish and over-the-top tastes in fashion and interior decor (those who've seen at-home interviews with him will know exactly what I mean), Elton's taste in photography is spot on. And in the spirit of generosity, he has shared the highlights of his collection with the everyday public in this exhibition at London's Tate Modern.

The Radical Eye (which is on until 1 May 2017) focuses on photos from the first half of the 20th Century, when photographers were particularly experimental and adventurous with this still-new medium. And if you're really keen, you can even listen to the audio guide from Sir Elton himself as you wander around the exhibition - although I chose to go without. 

There are some very famous photos in the exhibition, including Man Ray's 'Glass Tears' (above) and Dorothea Lange's powerful portrait of 'The Migrant Mother', which is surely one of the most captivating and heartbreaking pictures ever taken. 

But there are plenty of lesser known and unusual pictures here, too. Including an absolutely tiny one of an underwater swimmer by Andre Kertesz, which is about the size of a postage stamp, but is utterly mesmerising. It's hard to believe that this image was taken in 1917 given how fresh and contemporary it seems today, 100 years on. The reflections of the water, and the dappled effect on the swimmer's skin is really extraordinary.

The Radical Eye is themed into different rooms around movement, experiments, portraits and so on, and there is also a five-minute film from Elton in which he explains where his passion for photography stemmed from, and which shows the pictures on display in his own home. Despite my rejection of the Elton audio guide, the film is actually a really useful and interesting tool to put the exhibition into context. Having watched the film, the exhibition is no longer the indulgent folly of an overly wealthy pop star with too much money on his hands, but becomes a means of expression for an ex-addict who has found a way of using other people's art to inspire him. 

As a bonus, The Radical Eye is housed inside Tate Modern's new space The Tanks - well, it's new to me but it's clearly been a year or two since I last paid a visit here. This new space fits well with the original power station structure, and the raw concrete is actually very charming and soothing to spend time in. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Adventures in Moominland - Southbank Centre

Who remembers the Moomins? Possibly better loved now than back when I was a child, these mysterious white creatures were (to me, at least) simply a cartoon on TV when I came home from school. But going into adulthood, Tove Jansson's adventurous and gentle souls have claimed a large chunk of our grown-up hearts, thanks in no small part to her wonderful story books and illustrations of the Moomin family and the magic and imagination behind them. 

And now you can take a visit to Moominland yourself by visiting the lower ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall at London's Southbank Centre, and climbing through the pages hidden behind the giant book cover downstairs...

Guided by the fantastic Chloe, our group of about ten explorers (interestingly: all adult, all female) reverently followed Chloe through the pages of the huge book and onto the paths of Moominland. 

Complete with a narration by Sandi Toksvig (who else?!), sound and lighting effects, and Chloe's bubbling enthusiasm, we spend an hour or so following in the footsteps of Moominpapa, Moominmama, Moomintroll, Little My and friends... we sit in their camp, we explore their woodlands, we find Tove Jansson's drawing room, we see magic golden butterflies, we travel on a raft... We see original drawings, Tove's own possessions (her handmade floral crown is a treat) and special Moomin models... 

Adventures in Moominland is just wonderful. Seemingly such a simple creation, let yourself be carried away by the magic of it and you really will see where your imagination can take you, and discover the benefits of having a magical imaginary friend like Tove did. (And luckily, there are no signs of the Hattifatteners, who terrified me as a child!)

For more information, please click on this link.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

'The Love of the Nightingale' at Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
While the famous Bristol Old Vic building on King Street is undergoing extensive renovations, the team is using the opportunity to take the shows that would have been in their (currently out of action) Studio on walkabout to other venues in the city. 

As such, this production of The Love Of The Nightingale from Bristol Old Vic's Young Company is being performed in the Bristol Bierkeller on All Saints Street (which claims to be Bristol's oldest nightclub and, since 2012, has also functioned as a theatre as well as a live music venue). It's charmingly German retro in here as the name suggests: all low artexed ceilings, cavelike arches, tiled floor and long benches. 

All in all, it seems the perfect location for the Young Company to perform their production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play The Love Of The Nightingale, which here is directed by Miranda Cromwell, after having first been written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. The play is a contemporary and feminist re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of the rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law Tereus, and the silencing of women in the face of gender power struggles. Despite this obviously being based on a centuries old tale, the themes sadly still ring very true today. 

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
(Please note: the plot summary below contains a few spoilers.)

Athens is at war with Thebes over land. And after the king of Thrace, Tereus (Toby Robertshaw, playing a most unenviable role with conviction), steps in to help, he takes the king of Athens' daughter Procne (Hannah Hecheverria) as his bride. In doing so, he rips Procne away from her beloved younger sister Philomele (Imogen Downes) and the rest of her family, and takes Procne all the way back to Thrace with him where she must learn to live with her loneliness, as well as her new role as a mother to their son Itys (Jacob Rayner Blair). 

After five years, Tereus agrees to return to Athens to bring Philomele to make Procne happy. While on the return voyage, all of Tereus' soliders and Philomele's chaperone Niobe (Alexandra Wollacott) can sense the danger looming as a result of Tereus' strong sexual attraction to the innocent Philomele - which ultimately leads to him raping her in a truly shocking scene (while the audience obviously doesn't see anything graphic, the screams of Philomele are genuinely haunting). 

What ensues is Tereus telling each sister that the other has died, and when an already enraged Philomele discovers the lie she finds the strength to rant at Tereus about what a small, cowardly, pathetic man he is... only to be silenced in the most brutal way. An act that ultimately leads to his own downfall.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
This a brave, no-holds-barred performance from the Bristol Old Vic's Young Company, which has a long tradition of not shying away from tough topics. As Philomele, Imogen Downes shows herself to be an actor really worth keeping your eyes open for - her performance was strong, impressive and powerful. Given everything that Philomele endures, this wasn't a role that just anyone could have carried off, but Downes more than does the part justice. 

However, I did feel the production would have benefitted from a little trimming. The slightly confusing actions of the first half could have been summed up in a much shorter period, as it is in the second half of the performance where The Love Of The Nightingale really comes into its own in a much tighter script.  

Sensitively handling issues such as rape, consent, revenge and gender struggles is no small ask, but in this production director Miranda Cromwell has found a way to convincingly put across how relevant and important all of these are. The way the sisters are treated as commodities, the lack of attention paid by the male characters to the wishes or opinions of any of the women, the apparent irrelevance of consent to the powerful men... all of these issues are addressed with care and consideration here. 

So bravo to the Young Company for a strong and innovative piece of feminist theatre. 

The Love Of The Nightingale is performed at Bristol Bierkeller until 13 January. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Please note, the Bierkeller is a cash-only venue.