Category Archives: Reviews

The Magic Elves at Bristol Old Vic

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

The world of the magic shoe shop is a surreal and vivid one where the characters are wacky the tunes are uplifting and the dance is so infectious that even the queen gets her groove on.

Harbouring some energetic dance moves and a secret ambition to be a top DJ the shoemaker is responsible for the shop and the customer order book yet unable to make shoes. He is pursued by the dastardly Mr Numbers who is intent on closing the shop unless the debt to him is paid. Happily, unbeknown to the shoemaker the shop is inhabited by jukebox dwelling elves with the ability to magic objects into brand new and beautiful custom made shoes using the power of music, movement and play. Through a variety of often spangley footwear creations the elves and the shoemaker transform the lives of the customers, culminating in a massive dance party finale as the enthusiastic audience are invited onto the stage to throw their own imaginative shapes on the dance floor.

The magic shoe shop is often one of bling, sparkle and spectacle complete with glitter, baubles and silver jumpsuits but has the simplicity of play at its heart. This is no better demonstrated than in the opening five minutes as the children in fits of giggles watched whilst through ease of mime and movement a simple plastic sheet was repeatedly transformed into a number of comedy scenarios. This captured the imaginations of the young audience from the outset, who seemed as if quite convinced that this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. With a combination of disco, pop, rock, rave and dance floor anthems that only the grown ups will remember, the attention of the small people was held throughout and the kids were always eager to participate whether this be through cheering, dancing, clapping or bravely blowing a raspberry at the dastardly Mr Numbers.

Despite being a few years above the recommend audience age range for this production I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s often easy to disregard children’s’ theatre as being just for youngsters but this is a show that appeals to the fun and the silly in all of us. Its previously been said that children’s theatre is important not just for its direct entertainment or educational qualities but for its ability to remind us of the value of children and of their experience of the world. After a joyful morning with the magic elves this has been reiterated to me and it was inspiring to watch the bravery of the audience engaging wholeheartedly, dancing unselfconsciously, and making immediate sense of a sometimes surreal story or environment.

The Magic Elves is a show that fizzes with vivacity and life and is an energetic tribute to the power of dance, gibberish and disco. Celebrating play, creation and the merits of good footwear it’s sure to get bodies moving and feet tapping all over Bristol this Christmas. Party on.

The Magic Elves is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 3rd January. Find out more here #MagicElves

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Mayfest: Nightwalk by Tom Bailey and Jez Riley

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

It takes a leap of faith to follow a stranger into Leigh Woods at night. Often we are told that the darkness of the woods is to be avoided. When walking in darkness, the mind might lead you to ghost-like imaginings. Perception can be heightened in the darkness, sounds seemed more vibrant, smells more potent.

The gift of Nightwalk was an opportunity to wander, listen and re-imagine.

Nightwalk is a woodland journey through space and time where layers of sound create and connect previously unseen worlds. A choir sing a psalm, children play, bridges are built, arctic bees buzz and glaciers melt. The environmental, social and industrial history of Leigh Woods is brought to life through audio and text. At one point you can hear the world turning. The darkness was enveloping yet comforting, and the spectre like apparitions spotted were those of the participants illuminated by the screen of an i-phone as we listened to the performance through headphones.

The lamplight serves to focus attention guiding the way, and at times highlighting small micro-moments of woodland life at others, illuminating a cathedral cavern of trees. Entering a clearing and looking up at the light from the night sky was beautiful and something that other cities can’t usually provide.

The historical and geographical elements of Nightwalk made it difficult not to draw parallels with contemporary times – the performance made me think of the crisis of global warming and also how communities respond to events. Having walked across the suspension bridge to get to Leigh Woods hearing it being built really gave my experience a new dimension and it was definitely a different walk on the way back.

I felt that there was sometimes a bit of tension between wanting to experience the sounds and the space and then reading the text on the iphone and having to balance looking up and out as well as down. However this also reminded me of this need in ‘everyday’ smart phone use in relation to really connecting with the outside or natural world.

The performance left me with an enhanced sense of place and interest to explore the history of Leigh Woods. It emphasised the value and importance of Bristol’s natural environment and gave a memorable reminder of our human impact on the landscape. The performance provided an opportunity to walk and explore Leigh Woods in a way I probably never would have had. Walking in this way definitely leaves you with a sense of being blessed to live in Bristol and being part of something greater.

Nightwalk  is part of Mayfest Bristol’s unique annual festival of contemporary theatre and is happening on the 17th, 18th and from the 21st to the 25th of May.

‘Minotaur’ at Bristol Old Vic

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

The Minotaur is a ferocious yet tortured beast that roams the depths of the labyrinth appeased only by the singing of his half sister Ariadne and by the deaths of 14 children sent to him by the King of Athens each year. Theseus is a hero on a journey of adventure and self-discovery – intent on moral good, saving the children and killing the Minotaur.

The young audience were immersed in the action from the outset with the appearance of the Minotaur eliciting excited squeals and squirms from the children as it snuffled its way around the studio. As the drama unfolded the audience became further embroiled in the plot with most being very keen to take a place on the stage and the production successfully kept its audience entertained throughout. The action was accompanied by a spine tingling composition of live music and vocals, providing a bold and sometimes haunting atmosphere which contrasted well with the too few comedy moments, some hilarious cartoonish scenes and clownish antics.

The world of the Minotaur is simply and effectively set with the actors working together to quickly and convincingly transform the space, taking the audience seamlessly from inside the lower labyrinth to the palaces of the upper world, journeying through forests and across seas.

The play is a retelling of an ancient myth, however the story also offers some opportunity to draw parallels with events and contexts in more contemporary society. Theseus as a young man on a journey to find his place in the world perhaps speaks to us positively of young people growing up in changing and sometimes challenging times today. The Kings demonstrate differing political intents and the weaknesses or darker side of political leadership or institutional leaders. King Aegeus complete with dressing gown and paper cracker crown is a memorable picture of an often weak, bewildered and lonely old man longing for the return of his son. Through Ariadne we are perhaps shown the consequences of imprisonment and the bitterness and regret of the imprisoned, however it is the characters inability to remedy or influence her own situation (her imprisonment and freedom are determined solely by the men around her) that perhaps provides the most significant lesson.

The Minotaur is a lively, intrepid and substantial piece of storytelling. It’s a show that will capture the imagination of audiences of all ages and is showing at Bristol Old Vic until the 9th of April.

‘Exposed’ by The Impulse Collective at The Bierkeller Theatre

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

‘Exposed’ by the Impulse Collective seeks to explore how impulses are restricted according to our internal or external factors. Using a combination of comedy, verbatim, physical theatre, projection and autobiography. Exposed is a rollercoaster ride through the confessions of those struggling with the suppression of their baser instincts, including a man who wants to scream in restaurants, a nurse whose had enough of her patients and a woman who wants to shake her baby. The Impulse Collective have created a fast paced, slick, thought provoking, sometimes surreal and often funny production, that whilst having lighter moments by the end left me feeling a bit like I’d been the one dowsed in cold water and that it had only explored a small aspect of a higher, more complex and hopeful side of the human story which we never got to fully hear about.

The drama (and there was a lot of it) unfolded quickly through lots of contrasting, movement pieces, some shouting, a bit of screaming, moments of intensity and high emotion as the characters shared their frustrations and compulsions with the audience and each other. The cast worked well as an ensemble delivering the show with energy and commitment and whilst this is not the kind of work I would normally choose to see (this type of theatre can sometimes remind me of my own drama student days) I certainly wasn’t bored, and ‘Exposed’ is a show that will keep you thinking the day after.

The production often sought to reveal a darker side to human nature, but overall I’ve really been left with thinking that the ability to have control over our impulses is perhaps also what makes us uniquely human. There is always a choice to follow a compulsion – to act or react at any given time in any given moment. The choices we make also have consequences. It is the consideration of these choices, consequences and how they are framed which are also equally worthy of consideration.

Theatre Reviewing and Theatre Bristol Writers

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For the past few months I have been one of a team of people reviewing theatre shows in Bristol as part of Theatre Bristol’s Writing in Residence project.

We recently had our first public meeting to talk about all things performance-related in the city.  There was some good discussion and debate.  I first became involved in theatre through watching work and writing about it. As with most things you often ask the question: Why bother? So here’s a bit more about what was discussed at the meeting, what theatre reviewing is and why I think it’s a good thing.

Why review?

Reviewers are writers. Writing starts from a place of personal passion –  this could be about the theatre work being made, writing itself and/or the city that it is situated in. Regardless of the approach of the writer, reviewing is a creative process.

Theatre reviews start and connect conversations and people- they can build bridges between audience, makers, theatre communities and venues.  They raise awareness and provide a written response to the work, acting as a source of feedback for artists, companies and makers as to how their shows have been received. All artists need feedback on their work, and reviews can extend the conversation beyond the performance – whether this is about the performance, the process behind it or the themes and issues of each particular show. Reviews via social media can create an open platform for debate and discussion about theatre to which anyone can contribute – from enthusiastic audience member to the professional performer. They can also serve to strengthen the existing theatre community.

Reviews have an afterlife providing a historical account of the performance as it was experienced. They can be read as a source of contextual information such as a reaction to the cultural or political issues/ideologies at the time revealing broader information about the show, how it was received and how it was programmed by the venue. They can also be used as an indicator when making decisions to program future work or used by makers for quotes about the show to promote to audiences.

Theatre reviews are also valuable to theatre practice and practioners as they can be helpful in determining where their work sits in the world and can help situate the work in the wider artistic landscape. They can inform the development of a piece of art/theatre and all responses may be complicit in the shaping and sculpting of new and existing work.

Another advantage is learning. Following an individual artist or companies work can provide shared knowledge on both sides as the work and the writing develop. Certainly for me critical writing is also a way for the writer to articulate their own response and thinking around a work. In-depth reviews or critical writing pieces can also serve to widen perspectives and open people up to new possibilities, whether that’s considering how things can be interpreted or encouraging and promoting more interest in theatre and theatre-going.

What is a review?

The traditional theatre reviews have been associated with a specific format and published in broadsheet newspapers. Social media means this format is changing, and it can often be down to the individual writer as to how they position their own writing… it could be – theatre criticism, critical writing, review, response, praise, feedback, judgment, reflection, assessment, analysis, entertainment, art –  even a tweet can be a review.

Ultimately, I think a review should be the start of a conversation between a range of different people about a piece of work. In the case of  specialist websites or professional publications, it’s also worth remembering that the type of review written will often be indicative of who it is being produced for i.e what type of publication, where it is published and the specific publication/commission requirements.  This also will have on an influence as to how it is received and its ‘reach’. Reviews can happen instantly via blogs and Twitter etc which is a format that can have greater influence with the general public and possibly be more accessible to non theatre going audiences or people outside of the theatre community.

Who is the reviewer?

There are several existing established theatre critics whose work have a national following and whose influence/review can impact on the future life of a show. However anyone can join the conversation as social media has given an open platform to anyone that wants to comment on or review work.  The established experts are now situated within a multiplicity of voices.

Ultimately a reviewer is someone who has responsibility for the feedback they give. They have the opportunity to be transparent, authentic, engaged and deliver critique or response that is considered, analytical, constructive and which acknowledges its own subjectivity as far as possible. The review is as much a reflection of the attitude of the writer as it is about the work being reviewed.

I really feel that there are equally many benefits to reading personal perspectives blogs or tweets from new writers/theatre goers, or hearing opinions of those from different backgrounds or with no knowledge of theatre as there are to receiving critique from an expert and experienced peers.  I think every response has value in it in different ways.

I’m learning all the time and as my own writing has developed I’ve obviously experienced some of the problems that inexperienced writers can encounter.  It’s all a learning process though.  If I was going to give advice to new writers, some good writing advice I heard recently that I think is worth sharing went something like this:  ‘It is essential to write in the way that you want and from your own perspective, whatever that is. Not to be afraid of your own experience and background as it will be valuable in informing your writing and how you see the world’.

So. That’s a bit of information about theatre reviewing, why it’s important and what’s been happening over at Theatre Bristol Writers. If you want to get involved you can join the facebook group.  Or contact tomw@theatrebristol.net

‘The Last Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor’ by Travelling Light at Tobacco Factory Theatres

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

The mythical story of Sinbad and his adventures on the high seas is one that sits in the collective consciousness of many across continents, shaped not just by folklore and childhood fairytales but also perhaps, a trilogy of somewhat sexist fantastical stop-motion 1970s action films that are often repeated on  the telly.  It’s fair to say that my curiosities were peaked and my expectations high for this years flagship festive Tobacco Factory Theatres offering which is produced in partnership with the renowned Travelling Light Theatre Company (whose previous Tobacco Factory productions include Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and the Olivier Award-nominated Cinderella: A Fairytale) and features a stellar ensemble cast including Lucy Tuck, The Boy Who Cried Wolf! (Bristol Old Vic), Cinderella: A Fairytale (TFTs) and Saiket Ahamed Cinderella: A Fairytale (TFTs),  Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (TFTs). 

Travelling Light’s production aims to to provide a different telling of Sinbad. We are presented with the chequered story of a character who is both a hero and a villain, simultaneously the luckiest and unluckiest sailor alive and just as importantly, a story of the ships seafaring crew led by the plucky ‘Little Fish’. We journey with them on seven voyages encountering the monstrous Old Man of the Sea, turbulent tides, sandy shores and hot air balloon rescues.

The tale is not short of the anticipated adventure, peril, salvation and marriage and the show provides plenty of laughter, music and song along the way. The minimal design of the production made me question how I formed my own preconceptions of the story (think slightly shabby yet preppy Oregon seaside village rather than an ancient and crustily barnacled underworld) with the initial opening hammock scene a joy to watch as the team of salty sea dogs each slowly emerge from the pupae-like white canvas ready to face their journey together with their tools to hand.  The show’s highlights are often found through movement – with some memorable dance routines and clownish physical comedy as well as the occasional inclusion of the onstage musicians.

It’s theatre that certainly has magic although the current production on occasions (particularly in the first half) lacks atmosphere and in some moments is carried by an experienced and energetic ensemble cast rather than the writing or lyrics.

Overall though the production has much to offer and has repositioned my own thinking and assumptions around the story of Sinbad and how legends are created. It is a energising and entertaining show for all ages – an uplifting and revitalising production which will certainly put a bright smile on many faces across Bristol this Christmas.

The Last Voyage of Sinbad The Sailor until Sunday the 12th of January at Tobacco Factory Theatres   Bristol.

‘Once Upon A Time in A Western’ by Le Navet Bete at Circomedia

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers

‘A tumbleweed silently rolls across the dusty stage… The clink clink clink of spurs echoes throughout the theatre… The saloon door opens with a long, drawn-out creak… Welcome to Kidneystone’

Kidneystone is a place where the characters are many, the adventures are aplenty and where idiocy is an art form. From the moment you enter the building Le Navet Bete embroil you in their plot to save the town of Kidneystone from outlaws, a corrupt mayor, a likeable yet naive sheriff and fulfil their ultimate mission to find the true hero of this land.

The action is non-stop from start to finish, fast paced, high energy and demonstrates physical theatre and slapstick comedy at its best.  The audience is essential to the performance and we continually share the joy, jubilance, despair and confusion that the fools experience. Le Navet Bete are relentless in their enthusiasm and the performance is choke full of hilarious, ridiculous and occasionally squeamish fall-down-and-get-up-again moments, including the adventures of a guy with a beard in a tin bath, extreme line dancing, the three amigos, several deaths/near deaths/life after death experiences , something quite dramatic involving adverting a runaway train and a subsequent marriage proposal. Its fair to say ‘ Once Upon A Time In A Western’ doesn’t just take you to the saloon, -you’ll leave feeling that you’ve drunk the tequila and swallowed the worm as well.

A notable thing about Le Navet Bete is the genuine pleasure they take in performing for us and with each other. Underpinning their non-stop madcap routines and clowning calamities lies a precise sense of complicity and comedic timing that is perhaps demonstrative of a troupe who have been working together for years rather than months and who ‘like to perform as much as is humanly possible’.

‘Once Upon A Time In A Western’ is a rollercoaster ride of colourful characters, confusing situations, dramatic happenings, comedy moments, in jokes, out jokes and everything in between. With a shambolic finesse, sublime ridiculousness and through relentless laughter they reveal the humanity and flaws in us all.

Go and see it. You are sure to see somebody you know.

Le Navet Bete are an Exeter based collaborative clown troupe whose members are responsible for all aspects of the company and its work.

‘Once Upon A Time In A Western’ is Le Navet Bete’s flagship production and is showing at Circomedia until Friday the 25th October.