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Tag Archive | "Tristan Bates Theatre"

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Review: Music Box: The Improvised Musical, Tristan Bates Theatre

Posted on 31 March 2014 by Hannah Tookey

The concept of a musical set on a submarine entitled Long, Hard and Full of Seamen is promising in itself. Surely there are endless jokes to be had and wildly entertaining plot twists to follow? Unfortunately, Music Box didn’t make full use of this exotic location in their hour-long improvised comedy musical.

Each Music Box show starts afresh. Host and performer Lewis Harrison-Baker is adept at pumping the audience full of energy, encouraging us to meet our neighbours and begin brainstorming ideas. The show’s location and title come from the audience shouting out a range of possibilities – from the mundane supermarket setting to the embarrassing sexual health clinic – until Harrison-Baker draws a line under our mumbling and asks us to vote. It’s a quick decision made by cheering loudly for the idea we most want to see played out on stage. With the submarine setting confirmed, it’s just another split-second before a very quick off-the-mark audience member offers up the show’s title – and the adventure begins.

There’s an inherent freedom that comes with a plot and script-less show: the cast can take us anywhere they like and we will undoubtedly follow their lead. The trouble with Long, Hard and Full of Seamen was that the cast didn’t really take us anywhere – or at least not anywhere particularly daring or exciting. The plot of the evening’s musical amounted to a love triangle between three crew members on board the submarine. It offered plenty in the way of humorous encounters and crude jokes, but I couldn’t help feeling that this story could have been set anywhere, perhaps more suitably in the American high school that one audience member suggested.

On more than one occasion James Witt introduced a luminous green fish finger into the tale, raising our hopes of more exciting events to follow, but the other cast members failed to latch onto this option and instead played a safe bet with the love story. It suggested that perhaps Music Box isn’t all that comfortable with branching out from simpler, formulaic plot lines, which makes this straightforward musical a tad disappointing.

As a cast of strong and capable performers, they transitioned fluidly from scene to scene with little hesitation. Accompanied by a small band consisting of a guitar and keyboard, each number was slick and well-placed, offering amusing segues between scenes. Characters were clear-cut and defined from each other – an essential facet for an improvised musical – with James Witt and Andrew Gentilli in particular contrasting nicely in an amusingly awkward date scene.

Music Box: The Improvised Musical is a light-hearted show with endless possibilities. The cast don’t take themselves too seriously and the focus is definitely on entertaining us. Even with a simple premise, knowing that this is a never-to-be-seen-again performance makes the risk of watching worth it.

Music Box: The Improvised Musical played at the Tristan Bates Theatre. For more information and tickets, see the Music Box Impro website.

Hannah Tookey

Hannah Tookey

Hannah is a freelance theatre and film producer with a slightly worrying addiction to coffee and travel. A graduate of Warwick University, she's worked with the RSC, NYT, and Many Rivers Productions, amongst others.

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Review: The Nearly Famous Five, Tristan Bates Theatre

Posted on 26 March 2014 by Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

I only have to hear the phrase “lashings of ginger beer” and I am instantly transported back to a childhood spent reading Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’ stories. With their work The Nearly Famous Five, Lancaster-based improvisation group We Are Improv tap into the collective nostalgia and desire to relive these quintessentially British tales. The show began with the audience suggesting that this version of the famous five should be renamed Victoria, Sarah, Felix, Aloysius and Phoebe (their toy pet dog) and that their latest adventure should be entitled ‘The Famous Five Go To Las Vegas And Lose Everything.’

Clearly masters of their craft, We Are Improv are completely unfazed by the idea of concocting a plot that sounds more like the title of one of The Hangover films than a Blyton tale. Aside from being peppered with a few surreal moments (like when the older children attempt to sell Aloysius to a group of Americans, in order to earn enough money to be able to return home) The Nearly Famous Five is highly entertaining.

From the opening scene, during which the quintet are preparing to go on one of their renowned picnics, it is apparent that the cast have spent a great deal of time perfecting their portrayal of these iconic characters. Their wide-eyed smiles, sweeping gender stereotypes and overtly polite manner are all undoubtedly evocative of the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ world that Blyton created. Such firm and recognisable characterisation provides a strong foundation for the piece. Consequently, even when the ‘children’ (who I must stress are all played convincingly by adults) are placed in unlikely scenarios such as a casino, their well-established characters facilitate performances that are still within the realms of possibility.

Aside from occasionally fluffing “Aloysius” – one of the names that the audience had suggested – We Are Improv’s execution is slick and brimming with fast-paced wit. Watching The Nearly Famous Five can be likened to seeing a live recording of Whose Line Is It Anyway? The true charm of the piece is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The troupe strive to play homage to the original ‘Famous Five’ adventures by accentuating the underlining humour within the texts, and from the rapturous applause it’s safe to say that they succeeded in doing so.

I am keen to see what We Are Improv do next, and I think with such well-honed improvisational skills they have the potential to take the interactive element of their work to tremendous heights.

The Nearly Famous Five was performed as part of the IMPROFEST at the Tristan Bates Theatre on 23 March. For future tour dates please visit the We Are Improv website.

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby isla Cera Marle recently graduated from Royal Holloway University of London where she studied Spanish and European Literature and Cultural Studies. Currently Ruby is working as Press and Marketing Assistant at Rambert Dance Company..

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Feature: Spotlight on Jeremy Kingston

Posted on 16 January 2014 by Dan Hutton

Many interviews begin with a bit of history and finish by looking forward to the future. When chatting to critic Jeremy Kingston, however, we decided to start by looking ahead and work our way back. Kingston, who has amassed almost four decades of work in theatre criticism and finished writing for The Times last year after 25 years in the job, isn’t sure about what the future will bring: “I don’t know what the future for print criticism is at all; I’m not quite sure what the future is for newsprint, even. My guess is that weeklies will survive and that listings magazines will carry on. Newspapers will survive, but they’ll do so online.”

We’re chatting over a coffee in The Actor’s Centre, next door to the Tristan Bates Theatre where his new double-bill Oedipus Retold opened this week. In recent years, Kingston has turned his hands to playwriting, and when I ask what caused him to make this decision, he informs me that in fact “It never occurred to me to be a theatre critic. One doesn’t want to befriend a theatre critic; he’ll get you into terrible trouble.” Instead, he had written sketches and playlets at school and university, and seemed to be going down the route of becoming an artist rather than a critic when the arts editor of  Punch asked him to take on the job, relatively out of the blue.

In fact, the two plays that make up Oedipus Retold – an adaptation of the Oedipus story and a alternative version of it–  are a sort of criticism, written because of Kingston’s feeling that “we haven’t been told the whole story”. In the alternative version, for example, “Oedipus and his father meet one another, find out who they are and don’t kill one another.” Indeed, working as a theatre critic has allowed him “some insight into whether other authors had usefully done something different.” Being a part of the making process has, he tells me, been a bit of a learning curve, coming to terms with how a note from a director can change the whole feeling of a scene. “Of course, one knows that sort of thing happens, but it’s easy to forget when you’re sitting in the play, scribbling away something. In a way I was straddling two camps.”

Theatre criticism has changed a lot since Kingston started out. At Punch, the weekly copy would have to be typed up in the office, whilst overnight reviews at The Times had to be dictated down the phone, whereupon errors would invariably creep in. Since the dawn of the internet, however, things have moved on very swiftly, as everything can be done at home and sent in via email.

I briefly describe how online criticism has meant a greater and more varied discourse, with many reviews referencing other online writing, a development which, as Kingston points out, would be impossible with overnight reviews in broadsheets. “I would say ‘praised by my colleague in the opening scene’, but that’s about the extent of it. I think that’s very healthy, that’s a very healthy development.”

Whilst Kingston freely admits that he knows “fuck all” about blogs, we chat at length about the way the critical ecology has shifted over the past decade. We discuss limitless word counts (his would often depend on the layout of the newspaper on that particular day, but would rarely exceed 800 words to cover four shows) and how the unwritten rule that critics shouldn’t speak about the play they’re currently watching has slowly eroded. “That feels really quite healthy and almost natural. I mean it’s absurd – there you are, a group of people having some experience which is exciting or awful or midway, and the one thing you don’t talk about in all the world is that.”

Inevitably, star ratings soon come up. “They’re a pest,” Kingston exclaims, without a moment’s hesitation. “The trouble is with people only looking at the star ratings and not reading below; I don’t know what persuades people to go to see a play. In writing a review I always felt I had to make the opening paragraph more interesting so that people would read the second paragraph. So, no, I don’t like star ratings – I don’t think critics generally do. The editors might, and the theatres might, but not artists and critics.”

So what is the job of the critic, in Kingston’s view? “Fundamentally, it’s to tell the people who are reading or listening to them: ‘Yes, I suggest you go and see this’ or ‘No, I suggest you keep away from this’. Of course, one of the interesting things if you’ve been doing it a long time is to show how one production of a play has differed from other ones that you’ve seen in the past. Someone like Michael Billington has been doing it since the birth of Christ (well since the 60s anyway) and it does make him a useful fount of knowledge. And that’s useful for writing books and it can be helpful in your review of a play, but it’s by no means essential.”

Billington was one of a number of critics who got riled up when Nicholas Hytner accused the general critical body of being “dead white males” in 2007. I cheekily ask what Kingston makes of this opinion. “Well they were, and they still are. You’re alive, but you’re white and male. And there are certainly more women critics than there were, but there’s still truth to it. He might have been smarting from some tart review, but people did get terribly hot about it, didn’t they? Some critics allow their own concerns to take precedent over wise judgement.” Is this the cardinal sin of criticism, then, caring more about oneself than the piece in question? “Well, maybe. But no one dies as a result of it.”

Oedipus Retold is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 8 Feb. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates website

Dan Hutton

Dan Hutton

Dan recently graduated with a degree in English and Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick. He is a theatre-maker, freelance theatre critic and a company director of Barrel Organ Theatre.

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Review: The Snow Spider, Tristan Bates Theatre

Posted on 08 January 2014 by Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

The Snow Spider

On his ninth birthday, Gwyn Griffiths is given a wooden box by his whimsical grandmother Nain and told he must use the contents of the box to discover if he has inherited his ancestor’s gift of being a magician. Perplexed by the seemingly ordinary objects – a brooch, a scarf, some dried seaweed, a whistle and a broken metal horse – Gwyn (Joey Hickman) is enigmatically instructed by Nain (Anne-Marie Piazza) that he must simply “give them to the wind” in order to reveal if he is a sorcerer.

The multi-talented IO Theatre Company apply their penchant for storytelling through the media of music and physical theatre to adapt Jenny Nimmo’s award-winning and majestic tale The Snow Spider. With a mesmerising and original score composed by James Lark, we are transported to the rural wilderness of Wales, where Gwyn’s parents have little time for thoughts of magic as they are too consumed by grief for their daughter Bethan, who mysteriously disappeared during a storm four years ago.

Be it the harp, the violin, the tambour, or even the running of a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, each and every one of the cast is an extremely talented musician. None of the ensemble leave the space once, and if they are not in the scene itself they provide atmospheric accompaniment. As well as superb musicianship, I particularly enjoyed their use of vocal sound effects to create ambience: for instance, the farmyard noises they produce provide a level of verisimilitude that a pre-recorded soundtrack could never have hoped to achieve. The beauty of this production of The Snow Spider lies in the simplicity, as a real sense of magic is achieved knowing that no special effects or tricks are being used. From the sound effects to the visuals created during the climatic storm, all are produced by the young and zealous cast. For me, such an accomplished work performed on a shoe-string budget really is fringe theatre at its finest.

The ensemble move swiftly to play an array of characters. Personally, I think the most memorable character and stand-out performance is Piazza’s depiction of Nain. Frustrated that she too doesn’t share Gwyn’s gift, she repeatedly tries and fails to perform magic – let’s just say her floating egg trick culminates with a splattered yolk on the floor of the Tristan Bates Theatre. As well as comic timing, Piazza has a real gift as a raconteur as she captivatingly brings tales of Welsh legends and folklore to life. The depiction of the titular ‘Snow Spider’, who Nain names Arianwen, is both clever and charming. The effect of the scuttling spider is created by each cast member carrying a glistening white glove in their pocket, that they wear alternately. Visually, it is particularly effective when a character like Gwyn’s best friend Alun (Andrew Holloway) is delivering a piece of dialogue whilst wearing Arianwen: he responds to her rapid movements (imagine Thing from The Addams Family going wild) almost as if Arianwen is a completely separate entity. Once again, this is testament to the idea that effects do not have to be complicated to be compelling.

Just as in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, where the bed is able to fly just through a bed knob that the Rawlins children believe to be magic, The Snow Spider instils in the audience the idea that magic can be found in the most ordinary of household objects. The Snow Spider is a simple but spellbinding production, with a multi-talented cast that are both great musicians and actors. I left the theatre having learnt a fair bit about Welsh folklore and with a strong desire to learn the harp.

The Snow Spider is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 10 January. For tickets and more information on future tour dates, see the IO Theatre website.

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby isla Cera Marle recently graduated from Royal Holloway University of London where she studied Spanish and European Literature and Cultural Studies. Currently Ruby is working as Press and Marketing Assistant at Rambert Dance Company..

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