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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Pigeon English

Posted on 14 August 2013 by Lauren Mooney

Pigeon English

Star Rating:
(4/5 stars)

This fast-paced adaptation of Stephen Kelman’s acclaimed novel is the perfect showcase for its young cast’s diverse range of talents. Harri, played by Daniel C. Johnson, guides the audience through life on the Peckham council estate to which he, his mother and older sister have all moved, while his father and little sister remain behind in Ghana. They have come for a better life, for Harri and his sister to get the kind of chances they could only have dreamt of back at home – but what they’ve found instead is a world of gangs, danger and constant, simmering violence.

In this collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and the National Youth Theatre, the ensemble cast are energetic and incredibly tightly rehearsed. Johnson carries the piece with a confidence and skill that belies his years; in his hands, Harri is young and innocent without being naïve or unrealistic. He just feels very painfully real. Harri is both fascinated by and suitably wary of the gang life that already surrounds him, even though he is only in year seven.

Miranda Cromwell’s direction and Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of the novel have created a production that feels steeped in the language, music and culture of a diverse and complicated south London. There is beat-boxing, free running and, mercifully, no heavy-handed musings about the dire fate of young people today or the effect of benefits culture. Pigeon English simply shows life as some people experience it, and perhaps that is partly why it doesn’t fall into the uncomfortable traps that much theatre about working class life is plagued by. This doesn’t feel like middle-class people making the kind of theatre other middle-class people can peer at, as if through the bars of a zoo – instead, Pigeon English is theatre made by young people, about young people, for everybody.

Cromwell’s production is very inventive, with projections at the top suggesting certain un-stageable pieces of action or sometimes simply reflecting Harri’s mood, and actors occasionally moving between scenes with quick, jerky gestures evocative of sped-up film. Having so much thrown at the staging can make Pigeon English feel a bit over-stuffed at times, as can the inevitable teething problems of any novel-to-stage adaptation, that leave some elements of the plot hanging or simply have them fade away.

Still, this is a high-energy 90 minutes of intense, arresting theatre, from a group of young actors with some very bright futures ahead of them.

Pigeon English is at Underbelly every day until 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe 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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Spotlight On: Bristol Old Vic Young Company

Posted on 01 December 2011 by Rosy Banham

“Get Involved” is the tagline for the Young Company at Bristol Old Vic, and it’s really quite apt. With more than 300 members, at least five productions a year, workshops taking place six days a week and a graduate training programme, the Young Company makes it pretty difficult for anyone in the South West who’s arts-inclined and under-26 to avoid involvement.

“Bristol is very culturally diverse”, Young Company Director Miranda Cromwell asserts. “But it’s also very fractured. No one from any postcode deserves to be in this theatre more than anyone else, and the Young Company is all about championing that message. I’m pushing to make more connections with more young people from across the city, so that anyone, from any postcode, can feel like this building – Bristol Old Vic – is their home.” In line with this philosophy, the Young Company currently offers 30 full bursaries and 40 half bursaries to members who would otherwise be unable to attend weekly sessions, which cost between £5 and £6 for two hours.  These sessions aren’t auditioned – rather, Cromwell affirms, they’re open to “pretty much anyone who can get here”.

And, by the sounds of it, they’re worth making a journey for. On offer is a curriculum which engages with artists and art forms relevant and specific both to the South West and to a new generation of theatre makers. Each term, workshops are based around a particular theme, which is explored through practical exercises and projects run by part-time workshop leaders and a series of “inspiring visitors”. Last year, these included Kneehigh performer Tristan Sturrock, Bristol-based writer and actor Adam Peck, physical performer Fionn Gill of The Plasticine Men, and local puppetry expert Corrina Bona. It’s also a programme that’s continually shifting and evolving to suit the needs and interests of its members (it’s rather fitting, therefore, that the thematic focus of this term’s workshops is ‘adaptation’). Testament to this spirit of flexibility on the part of Cromwell and her colleagues is the new addition of a band night to the workshop schedule – a weekly opportunity for more music-oriented members, who have played in recent Young Company shows, to rehearse.

“You can come just once a week to enjoy a workshop and see your friends”, says Cromwell, “or, if you’re really serious about your theatre, you can end up rehearsing with us up to 18 hours a week”. And that’s because, alongside the timetable of weekly sessions, the Young Company aims to stage at least five shows every year in various spaces across the city. At least three of these shows are cast on a first-come first-served basis – further evidence of the company’s admirable commitment to inclusivity. This summer alone, they performed two pieces at the Bristol Harbour Festival, as well as collaborating with National Theatre Connections in the Bristol Old Vic Studio, where they staged Bassett, a play about young people who have inherited a world at war. It seems that both the measure and range of activity and output that falls under the Young Company banner is enough to rival (and, in some cases, far exceed) those of professional theatres.

For those who are “really serious”, as Cromwell puts it, there’s the Young Company Graduate Programme, Made in Bristol, which – funding pending – is about to go into its second year. It’s this initiative which really sets the Young Company apart from other youth theatres across the country, fostering –  as it does – a new generation of workshop leaders who, in time, can feed back into younger members’ weekly sessions and rehearsals. This trainee scheme, open to Young Company graduates, requires of its participants a commitment of two days per week across three terms. Last year, in their first term, the 12 graduates trained as youth theatre workshop leaders and developed their ensemble skills together. In their second term, they took their training into the community and local schools. Finally, in their third term, they devised a piece of professional theatre entitled RIOT, which premiered at Bristol Old Vic, before touring to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then embarking on a national tour. It was most recently on at the Soho Theatre in London as part of the Best of the Fringe season. The cast of RIOT have now formed their own company called The Wardrobe Ensemble, with which they continue to develop professional work. Cromwell is keen that Made In Bristol remains “organic and responsive to its new participants each year. The scheme should act as a stepping stone from youth theatre into the world of professional work, so it’s about facilitating that in a way that suits our graduates.”

Members aside, perhaps the Young Company’s other biggest asset is its home – Bristol Old Vic, the oldest operating theatre in the country. “Our young people are immersed in a building that is producing work as well as receiving touring work all the time”, Cromwell says. “They’re bumping into actors, directors and designers before and after their sessions. They’re engaged with what’s going on here.” And, as a result, professional opportunities come their way: Young Company and Made In Bristol member Kate Mayne successfully auditioned for and toured with Tim Crouch’s fairymonsterghost, while Eleanor Fogg, another Made In Bristol participant, is now based in the building as full-time PA to the executive director, Emma Stenning.

In short, the opportunities and experiences that membership of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company offers are seemingly endless. Today, Bristol is undeniably one of the UK’s artistic hotspots, and the Young Company’s extensive programme, based in the city’s busy centre, reflects this fact. But while it’s easy to detail the concrete outcomes of the company’s endeavours in the form of regular public performances, it’s also important to get a sense for the more personal impact that’s made on its members. “We aim to give every young person who comes to us a voice”, says Cromwell. To give young people confidence in their ideas – however different those ideas may be – alongside the practical means to express them. “Our members are the new generation of theatre makers; they’re where theatre’s going”, Cromwell proudly asserts. And it looks like they couldn’t be in a better place right now, as part of what is surely one of the most active, exciting and inclusive youth theatres in the country.

Visit Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s website here for more information about the company and its forthcoming and previous productions.

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