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Incoming preview: Tin Shed Theatre

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Lauren Mooney

Tin Shed – Frankenstein

Tin Shed Theatre Company is busy, busy, busy. I speak to Company Director Georgina Harris on a chance free day between school tours of An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men, educational work that is not so much the company’s “money-making thing” as its “bread and butter, to help us fund the more experimental, devised work – that we obviously would like to produce 24/7, but because we’re un-funded…”

This practical realism has enabled the company to make theatre its full-time work, which gives it a certain amount of freedom. When I chat to Harris, the trio are trying to organise a run at “the oldest horror theatre in San Francisco” to follow their slot at the San Diego Fringe in July – but before all that, they will be bringing Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow to Incoming Festival next month.

“I think the way that we chose to tell the story is very much how we take on any piece of theatre that we devise and adapt,” Harris says of Dr Frankenstein. “It’s very visual, there’s a balance of light and dark to it, and it’s quite loud.”

After graduating from their shared alma mater, the University of Newport, Harris and her co-collaborators Justin Cliffe and Antonio Rimola went their separate ways, working as actors, until they realised they missed the creative control they’d enjoyed at university. The trio began devising immersive and site-specific work together in and around Newport, but it is perhaps their literary adaptations for which they are now best known.

“We did the Brighton Fringe a couple of years ago for Hendricks gin,” Harris explains. “They had their own venue in Brighton which was an old Victorian carriage, it’s very much Victorian-themed, and they were looking for small performances to go on within the venue.”

Tin Shed pitched a work based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which eventually became Mr Edgar Allan Poe’s Terrifying Tales, and then “the year after they wanted us back to do something of the same sort of fashion”. The company narrowed it down to “three possibilities: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. We knew that we wanted it to be one of those three and for some reason Frankenstein for us really just shone out as this horrendously beautiful story.”

Adapting such a vast, weighty novel was a challenge for the company: “We all read it out loud, which was really important, to start, that helped us listen to the dialogue and be quite ruthless with it.” They also watched “probably every single version of the film that has ever been released”.

“Lots of them were pretty naff, especially the Kenneth Branagh one, which I’d watched as a child and then rewatched doing this, and had never realised how awful it was until I watched it again! The way they tell the story is really cliched, so I think if anything we took all those worst bits, all the mistakes people had made in telling this story and said ‘well that’s what we’re not going to do’.”

The result is a darkly funny, energetic, hugely idiosyncratic show in which a Victorian freakshow put on a production of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. The play-within-a-play structure gives depth and originality to an oft-told tale, and remains in keeping with the gothic aesthetic of the original. Tin Shed has since toured Dr Frankenstein across the country, including at the London Horror Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they performed in a “sweat box”.

“We nearly died,” says Harris. “We were so hot it was unbelievable. The show before us had a cast of about fifteen and you’ve only got a few minutes to get in; the heat would just smack you in the face.”

Original not only in its output, Tin Shed also breaks the mould of up-and-coming young companies in being based outside London, to which most aspiring theatre-makers inevitably drift. The logic behind remaining in Newport, Harris tells me, is partly artistic and partly practical: “Firstly it comes from being passionate about where we are in the country, wanting to give something directly to the people that are around us, and offer them culture and art in, essentially, a completely art-deprived area.” The urge to bring theatre, art and excitement to Newport and its residents, rather than being “just another blip” in a capital city “saturated” with culture, is clearly integral to how the company sees itself and what it sees as the purpose of its work.

In terms of practicalities, Harris also extolls the virtues of their local theatre, “as well as other local venues in Cardiff – everyone is incredibly supportive – the arts council here is very supportive, and comes and meets us whenever we need them to.” Outside London, the company is “able to stand alone and stand out”, which makes sense for it – but inevitably this means missing out on a lot of the work of their peers, who are largely elsewhere.

“I think that’s the downside to not being based somewhere culturally alive – we get to see some stuff but we have to travel to see that, either to Bristol or Cardiff, and we go to London a lot too… So to be surrounded by other companies doing the same thing as us,” she says of INCOMING, “is going to be great.”

Having experienced first-hand how hard it can be to start out, Harris is also passionate about INCOMING’s support of emergent theatre-makers. “I think for young companies to be able to get on their feet and start producing work is very difficult,” she says. “There’s not a lot of money out there, there’s not a lot of funding, you almost have to be established in your own right before anyone will even come and see your show, let alone think about funding it! So the fact that there’s a festival actually supporting that is great, and we’re just really honoured to be part of it – we’re all super excited.”

Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 24 May as part of INCOMING Festival. For more information and to book £5 tickets, visit the NDT’s website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Review: Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic

Posted on 21 February 2014 by Eleanor Turney

Jane Eyre company, by Simon Annand

Putting a four-and-a-half-hour, two-part adaptation of Jane Eyre on the main stage at Bristol Old Vic is a brave thing to do. Seeing both of them in one day is a bit of a slog (although not compulsory!), but overall well worth the investment. Director Sally Cookson was adamant that although previous adaptations of the book have truncated it, she wanted to stage the whole thing.

It’s a good production, and extremely well-acted, but I do question whether it justifies its length. Cookson states that she felt that Jane’s early life is as important as what happens to her later in life, but I’m not sure that I agree. I also remain unconvinced that it’s as modern a story as Cookson claims. Jane has some lines that strike a chord, and the struggle of women to throw off the shackles of patriarchal oppression is always a winner. Ultimately, though, the subordination of the women, to men and to God, cannot be escaped, simply because the book is so rooted in its place and time.

For the same reason, it felt as though the Gothic elements of the book could have been played up more – there’s a couple of good thunder storms, but the traumatic red room (not in a Fifty Shades of Grey way) and the creepy Thornfield Hall, complete with mad woman in the attic, are not especially scary. Some of the modern touches are nice, though (I’m pretty sure Rochester doesn’t say “fuck” quite so many times when he falls off his horse in the book…) but it remains, for me, an old-fashioned story, for all of Jane’s fiery temper and yearning to be free of a life built around sewing and cooking.

All that said, though, it’s a show I’m glad to have seen. It’s great to see Bristol Old Vic supporting, nurturing and presenting new work of this scope. Cookson and her cast have created an energetic and vivid production. Madeleine Worrall’s Jane is onstage for the full show, and is impressively tender and strong. Life throws a lot at her (it’s very grim up North), and she’s still standing at the end. Also impressive is Felix Hayes as Rochester, all gruff and bearded, gradually realising his own love for Jane. Melanie Marshall, as Bertha, is superb. Her singing voice is simply stunning, and the acoustics at the Old Vic could have been designed for a voice like hers.

There’s an awful lot of ladder-climbing, thanks to Michael Vale’s multi-level set, and an awful lot of walking-with-purpose. Both of these things get distracting after a while, although they are effective at making Thornfield Hall feel huge and at making the stage feel busy. The pared-back staging has some lovely moments, but over the course of the show it begins to feel like we’ve seen some of these devices before. Benji Bowers’s music really elevates the piece – there are moments that drag which are lifted by the score. It complements the action beautifully, is used to great effect to build atmosphere, and is pretty much pitch-perfect.

The first half of part one is rather one-note; it’s just one damn thing after another. Jane’s transformation from tormented schoolgirl to self-possessed governess consequently feels rather rushed, especially as the first half as a whole is terribly drawn-out. The pace picks up in the second half, and the love that blossoms between Jane and Rochester is well done. The first half of part two is similarly pacy and entertaining, and then it flags again in the second half. Frustratingly, it feels like a brilliant show struggling under the weight of extraneous narrative. There’s some fat to be trimmed here, but all in all it’s an enjoyable and extremely well-acted show.

Jane Eyre (Part One and Part Two) is at Bristol Old Vic until 29 March. For more information and tickets, visit Bristol Old Vic’s website.

Photo by Simon Annand.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Review: The Little Mermaid, Bristol Old Vic

Posted on 05 December 2013 by Eleanor Turney

Katie Moore as Little Mermaid (photo Simon Annand)

[Contains spoilers]

The Hans Christensen Anderson version of The Little Mermaid is pretty unpleasant – our heroine feels like she’s walking on broken glass every time she steps on her new feet and she dies at the end. The Disney version, in contrast, has a syrupy, love-conquers-all happy ending, brought about by the brave (human) prince killing the evil sea-witch.

Simon Godwin’s production tries to do both in Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show and ends up not quite hitting either target. Joel Horwood’s script is smart and fun, especially the blend between narrative and dialogue. Characters’ inner monologues are shared to great effect, illuminating the father-daughter relationship particularly well. The gossip and giggling of the mermaid sisters is nicely captured, too, and the prince blusters in a rather endearing way. The story has been slightly twisted to fit the need for a happy ending, but it’s cleverly done.

There’s a lot to like about this production. Beverly Rudd is fantastic as the Sea Witch, in a rather fabulous tentacled dress (designed by Jon Bausor) and armed with a cracking evil laugh. Billy Howle is excellent as the bumbling Prince and Claire Lams is entertaining as the Queen. The costumes (Bausor and Holly White) are fantastic, and the mermaids “swim” enjoyably.

The music, by Shlomo and DJ Walde is quite fun when it’s beat-boxing but feels listless and dull when it ventures into melody or lyrics. There’s one main song which is repeated several times – and it’s not a show stopper. This isn’t helped by the fact that Katie Moore, as the Little Mermaid, has an irritating, faux-American twang when singing, which is noticeably absent from her speaking voice. Given that singing is a major plot device and that so much of the success of the show rests on Moore’s shoulder, this is a real shame. The Little Mermaid herself is frustratingly passive, too. The characterisation lacks any real guts; despite what she goes through for love it all feels too wishy-washy.

There were elements of panto about this production, but by trying to retain the darkness of the original, Godwin hampers the fun elements of his show. It feels cheesy rather than light-hearted. I could have done without the rather crude bloke-in-a-dress gag, too; presumably a nod to panto tradition, it was not well done in this show and felt unnecessary. I understand the decision to tack-on a happy ending here – the heroine turning to sea-foam does put rather a dampener on the Christmas spirit – but it’s clumsily done: the Little Mermaid “dies” and then a criminally under-used Tristan Sturrock, as her father, pops up and explains that actually, they can sing her back to life, if only the audience will help them. Best left in Peter Pan, that one.

So, we get our happy ending after all, and are left with yet another rendition of the same song and a coupled-up Prince and Little Mermaid. The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it, but I question whether an X-Factor-style singing competition was the best way to update the story. There were some lovely moments, but overall this one’s a bit of a damp squib.

The Little Mermaid is at Bristol Old Vic until 18 January. For more information and tickets, visit Bristol Old Vic’s website.

Photo by Simon Annand.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Review: Cinderella, Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 01 December 2013 by Eleanor Turney

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I managed to miss Sally Cookson’s production of Cinderella when it was in Bristol, despite living in Bath at the time. How great, then, to be able to catch it at the lovely Unicorn theatre in London – it really is a show not to miss.

Our heroine, Ella (Sarah Kameela Impey) is no damsel in distress. No glass slippers here; our heroine wears sparkly DMs. The whole cast of five work hard, playing all the characters plus various forms of bird-life – Ella makes friends with the birds and they come to her rescue when her stepmother is being especially evil. Philippe Spall, as both her gentle father and jolly nasty stepmother, is fab: properly, gleefully nasty as the stepmother and sweetly cuddly as Ella’s doting father.

Martins Imhangbe, as the stepbrother, also seems to be having a great time – when he’s forced to don a rather snazzy pink tutu, his face is an absolute treat. His tenative friendship with Ella is nicely handled (sweet without being sickly), as is his relationship with his fiercesome mother and greedy sister. Jessica Murrain is fun as the stepsister, picking on Ella and desperately hurling herself at the prince. Mark Kane is lovely as the asthmatic, nervous prince, and his tentative courting of Ella is rather sweet.

Benji Bowers, a stalwart of Bristol shows, has composed the music with his usual panache. A lovely bunch of jazzy blues numbers and more whimsical songs mix with heavier drum-lines to enliven the atmsphere and underscore the action. The song-and-dance numbers are good fun, too. The set is simple – some trees – but when the cast work as hard as these five do it doesn’t matter.

It’s a truly lovely production, but one word of caution: when they say 6+, they really mean it. Some more gruesome scenes (toes chopped off with a cleaver, eyes pecked out by angry birds) were accompanied by wails and sobs from the smaller children, and one was carried out clutching her mum and screaming “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no”, when the unfortunate stepsister has her toes lopped off. Definitely not one for the very young or the easily traumatised.

Ella’s friendship with the birds provides a lot of both magic and humour – simple bird puppets are mixed with the other four cast members squawking and waddling to great effect. Staged with immense wit and exuberence, Cookson’s production, with dramaturgy by Adam Pack, is a joy.

Cinderella is at the Unicorn until 5 January. For more information and tickets visit the Unicorn’s website.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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