Tag Archives: Bristol Old Vic

“Destiny” at the Pleasance Theatre

Over the next five weeks, Londoners have the chance to see shows from all over the country just five minutes from Caledonian Road Tube. Five shows, supported by different theatres, will visit as part of the Pleasance’s National Partnership Awards. If this first offering, from Florence Espeut-Nickless and supported by Bristol Old Vic Ferment, is anything to go by there are real treats in store.

Nobody disagrees that in theatre’s drive for inclusivity white working-class women’s voices need to be heard. As the story of a girl called Destiny from a council estate, this monologue fits that brief. But that the setting is rural Wiltshire is also important. This voice, this accent – literally – isn’t one that we hear on stage. I’m reasonably eclectic in my theatre trips but, apart from Shakespearean rustics, I don’t recall hearing it before.

While important, inclusivity in itself doesn’t make the show worth seeing. It must be good theatre, too! Thankfully, Destiny stands on its own merits and is easy to recommend.

As an autobiographical show, Espeut-Nickless’ writing has a sincere and authentic tone. There’s a clear structure and motivation behind a monologue that provides insight and drama, with careful control aided by director and dramaturg Jesse Jones. And there is a real conviction behind Espeut-Nickless’ performance that wins further admiration.

As for what happens to Destiny, as Espeut-Nickless’ said while thanking the audience after deserved applause, the play isn’t enjoyable as such. There’s a depressing inevitability to the way the character is used by men and poorly treated by those we expect to help her. Destiny’s encounters with the legal profession and social services are truly awful, making the piece grim but powerful.

What might make the story predictable is cleverly used. The fact that the audience can see what is coming next still creates tension. And there is an impressive subtlety to our heroine. Destiny has charm – mostly from her irrepressible optimism – to match her rough edges. Poor decisions abound… but what choices does Destiny really have? How can this lonely teen deal with the traumatic situations she faces? Understandably naïve (and poorly educated) Destiny’s ignorance becomes a powerful challenge to the audience.

The run for Destiny is short… try to catch it this weekend or look out for a promised digital on-demand performance to be announced soon. Other shows are supported by the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Leicester’s Curve Theatre, Manchester’s HOME and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, with the diverse programme running until 11 September.

Until 7 August 2021


Photo by Chelsey Cliff

“A Monster Calls” from the Old Vic

Artistic Director Matthew Warcus’s Coronavirus lockdown project, entitled Your Old Vic is off to a fantastic start with this hit from 2018, co-produced with the London theatre’s namesake in Bristol.

Like the best of theatre aimed at younger audiences (the age recommendation is 10+) this adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel appeals to all. And similar to the best of its kind – think Warhorse and Coram Boy – it tackles a tough subject we might shield children from. This story of a schoolboy whose mother is dying of cancer is tough stuff. Yet it’s brilliant from start to finish.

Anchored by wonderful performances from Matthew Tennyson, as Conor, Marianne Oldham as his mother and Selina Cadell as his Grandma, the play is honest about the complicated emotions that surround a long illness. The monster of the title is, of course, cancer. But the play also contains a pretty scary Yew Tree (Stuart Goodwin) who takes Conor on a journey of self-discovery.

Although the ensemble has some bumpy moments, three stories told by the tree and performed by all, means a lot of roles are covered by the small cast. Hammed Animashaun and John Leader impress as a Prince and an Apothecary as well as bullies in Conor’s ordinary life. Ness makes the important point that Conor’s problems at school continue. Other troubles don’t go away when cancer arrives.

In using fantasy and story-telling to reveal the truth, Ness tackles the anger and fear around loss for all his characters. Frequently violent, like many fairy tales, you might share Conor’s scepticism about allegorical touches. But with wit and twists we becomes convinced that “stories are the wildest things”. A sense of danger gains dramatic momentum in every scene.

Matching Ness’ imagination, the ideas for the show – inspired by Siobhan Dowd, devised by the company and directed by Sally Cookson – fill the stage with invention. Dick Straker’s brilliant projections and the sophisticated score from Benji Bower complement a simplicity to the staging that uses ropes to suggest the tree and many props. Technically brilliant, frequently beautiful, the shows very creativity serves as a hopeful note to help us through its emotional turmoil.

Until 11 June


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Jane Eyre” from NTLive

After its crowd-pleasing offering last week, with One Man Two Guvnors, The National Theatre presents an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic that started life at the Bristol Old Vic. It’s a marked contrast, with a worthy air, that tells the story of everyone’s favourite orphan governess through movement and imaginative touches in a self-consciously theatrical fashion. I suspect this is the kind of show that suffers most when filmed, as the atmosphere doesn’t carry, and its failings are exaggerated.

A first flaw comes with Benji Bower’s musical direction, a confused mix of styles from Noël Coward to a Kyrie eleison. The execution is great, especially Melanie Marshall’s singing, but avant-garde touches come close to cliché and parts make no sense: why choose Mad About the Boy, denying the “flurry of a first affair”, when that is exactly what Jane is experiencing?

Sally Cookson’s direction has some inventive touches. Many connect to the lighting design from Aideen Malone, which is strong. But there are too many obvious moves, literally – the direction of movement (from Dan Canham) is predictable, while costume changes scream their import. There’s too much running on the spot and too much climbing up and down the ladders that make up Michael Vale’s set. There’s also a cast member performing as dog – never a good sign.

A relatively small ensemble might be expected to shine given how hardworking they are, but the characters, like the accents, are too broad to impress. Thankfully the leads are a success. Felix Hayes makes a good love interest for Jane; his Mr Rochester is convincing as both a profoundly tortured soul and a “trite, commonplace sinner”. Aided by a beautiful voice, Hayes even manages to say “humbug” without getting a laugh.

In the title role, a mammoth part, Madeleine Worrall is very good. Eminently watchable, Worrall does well with Jane’s fighting spirit and winning dignity. As she holds her own against authority, we see her characteristic balance of common sense and passion. And with the latter, Worrall shows us Jane’s intense emotions, focusing on the painful romance in the story and establishing a great chemistry with Hayes.

Worrall’s achievement is all the more praiseworthy given that, unlike Brontë’s heroine, she seldom addresses us directly. This key ingredient feels skipped, while the plot is followed slavishly. Frustratingly, the answer is onstage – Jane’s famous first-person narrative appears when the ensemble doubles as an inner dialogue. The technique works well, but it doesn’t happen often enough. The result, despite a long running time, is a Jane Eyre that conveys little to us and ends up feeling slight and skimpy.

Available until Wednesday 15 April 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan