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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: Peter Pan

Posted on 05 December 2012 by Eleanor Turney

If it’s not compulsory to have Bristol stalwart Tristan Sturrock in every Bristol Old Vic show yet, then it should be. Last seen doing his one-man show Mayday! Mayday! and as Long John Silver in Sally Cookson’s Treasure Island, Sturrock is on fine form swooping around the stage as Peter Pan. Cookson’s latest show is masterful: it retains enough of the whimsy of the original tale to be magical, but packs enough of a punch to please a modern audience, and even to keep my feminist hackles down.

Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy is allowed to be rather more kick-ass than usual – yes, she sews on Peter’s shadow, but she does it while grumbling about how useless he is and how much she hates sewing. The dodgier elements of the story (strange manchild kidnaps three children, the girl becomes surrogate mother to him and his band of lost children…) are glossed over, because Cookson’s production makes you believe in magic and fairies. It’s not too sugary, though, especially the band of rather butch mermaids in sequinned shorts and flippers…

This is the kind of ramshackle, held-together-with-tape theatre that only works if the entire cast are committed to the story, and in Peter Pan, Bristol Old Vic has a triumph. One can’t escape the feeling that most of the budget went on the flying (done with “fairy string”), but it doesn’t matter. The flying itself is unsubtle but full of infectious joy, and the make-shift feel suits the lost boys’ den and much of Neverland – we are constantly reminded that this mostly children playing at being grown ups. The set design (Michael Vale) is ingenious, particularly the traffic-cone crocodile and pirate ship in a skip, and captures perfectly childhood games where everyday objects are tranformed. It’s a clever tactic, and one that works beuatifully here.

Benji Bower’s music is fun, although a couple of numbers go on a bit too long. Stuart McLoughlin’s Captain Hook has a wonderful voice, and the pirates’ song about what they’re going to do when they capture Peter is a nicely judged mix of gore, horror and comedy. The children in the audience were having a wonderful time, judging by the amount of giggling and shouting out that went on, and the “do you believe in fairies?” scene went down well. But then, who wouldn’t want to save Saikat Ahamed’s hilarious, otherwordly Tinkerbell, in braces, tutu and DMs?

The cast multi-role with such alacrity that they occasionally re-enter as someone else before you realise they have exited. It must be a knackering two-and-a-bit hours, but they show no sign of strain, and bounce about their playground of a set with glee. The second half flags a bit, but this is the fault of the story rather than this production – all of JM Barrie’s sentimental stuff about mothers has to be fitted in somehow. A rousing fight scene and a touching homecoming lift the energy towards the end.

Those who are “young, innocent and heartless” can fly away to Neverland, and those of us who none of those things should be glad we were fleetingly allowed to join them.

Peter Pan is playing at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until 19 January 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic 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.

More Posts - Website

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Review: Mayday Mayday

Posted on 28 January 2012 by Edward Franklin

In his new, skilfully told solo show at Bristol Old Vic, Tristan Sturrock performs the story of his own brush with death; a tumble from a wall in 2004 that left him with a broken neck. Sturrock and director Katy Carmichael do well to steer clear from staging the tale as a saccharine tearjerker, and yet the self-conscious theatricality of the piece becomes as much a source of frustration as it does of joy.

Before catching any glimpse of an actor, the production’s stripped-back design leaves no doubt that the following hour will draw heavy influence from the professional world which Sturrock inhabits – a rack of costumes, bulb-ringed dressing table mirror and a set of velvet drapes on wheels feature heavily. This in itself is no issue, though the style does have the potential to catch in one’s throat. Opening the piece with Sturrock, as assured showman, demonstrating his authorial power to dim and raise the lights to the dutiful ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the audience – for example – may ingratiate him as a performer, but also feels a little too smug and slick for a story that is really made of rawer stuff: difficulty, rehabilitation and grit.

It is, noticeably, when injections of hyper-theatricality correspond with moments that explore Sturrock’s predicament rather than simply recount it that some stunningly memorable coups de theatre occur. A dream sequence boasting a mesmerising feat of mirror work, a bravura portrayal of a self-aggrandising luvvie ‘giving his surgeon’ and a consistently exciting use of simple props to suggest complex ideas; here are the wholly worthwhile justifications for what is often a brazen rejection of naturalistic storytelling methods.

Dramatic style aside, this is an explicitly human story which provides Sturrock with plenty of opportunities to showcase his remarkable versatility as an actor. Playing himself at various stages in his life, as well as his girlfriend and his surgeon, a neighbour and an ambulance-man; as the single spot dims for a final time, you too will be hugely grateful to all the staff at Derriford Spinal Unit, Plymouth– the city where, perhaps not coincidentally, Mayday Mayday concludes its national tour later this year. For even with the occasional stylistic misstep, there is a fertile energy at the heart of Sturrock’s performance, and of his story, which goes some way to convincing that with the right mix of verve and gumption, anything might be possible.

Mayday Mayday is at Bristol Old Vic until February 4 before continuing on tour.

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Review 2: Coram Boy

Posted on 28 December 2011 by Edward Franklin

In March 2011, the Bristol Old Vic main auditorium closed for redevelopment. One can only admire the tenacity and endeavour of the theatre’s creative team for seeing what many predicted to be an inconvenience as an opportunity to think bigger than ever before: the studio space has become a thriving, flexible arena for new work, Sally Cookson’s Treasure Island saw King Street transformed into a piratical paradise, and now, to cap off the year, Melly Still channels the spirit of the city itself in Coram Boy at the Colston Hall.

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s award-winning novel is Dickensian in scope, following the lives of characters as rich and diverse as the musically gifted Alexander Ashbrook, the handicapped, good-hearted Meshak and his villainously opportunistic father Otis Gardener, whose plot – promising to take women’s unwanted children to Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in return for money before burying the newborns in the wood – binds the plenteous strands of the tale together. With such a sprawling theatrical tapestry to weave, success depends on toeing the magical line between grandiosity and intimacy, epic scale and simple storytelling. It is a balance which a team of over 150 have come together to strike.

There are some truly magnificent performances; Tristan Sturrock’s Otis swaggers, snarls and schemes so completely that even his wild mop of hair seems to exude arrogant menace, and as Alexander’s love interest, Melissa, Emily Head remains grounded and truthful even as the piece reaches its powerful but undoubtedly sentimental conclusion. The greatest plaudits must, however, go the local child cast; notably George Clark and Johannes Moore as the haughty young Alexander, and Thomas, his gregarious friend, respectively. Unlike some of the adult cast, these two never resort to histrionics in moments of high tension; watching these two fine young performers communicate the development of a friendship over shared musical ability, despite radically opposed social backgrounds, is a joy which in many ways surpasses the dignity and bombast of the mighty Handel finale.

Which is not to say that music doesn’t play a crucial role here – though there are moments when the 22-piece orchestra’s aural power makes the on-stage dialogue frustratingly inaudible, it is also the case that For unto us a child is born may never quite hold the same meaning again to any who pay attention to composer Adrian Sutton’s devastating use of the libretto in the chilling climax to Act I. The strength of Melly Still’s production are the subtle coups de théâtre such as the choice of moment for Freddie Hutchins’ to take over the role of Alexander from his younger counterpart, the haunting staging of a drowning behind a rippling plastic sheet, or indeed the comic majesty of Joe Hall’s wig (in a witty supporting performance as Handel himself), can stand equal in dramatic weight and emotional significance to the music which for many has been synonymous with Christmas for over 250 years.

Considering that Coram Boy counts the importance of family amongst its themes, the decision to populate the ensemble with local actors and musicians, in combination with Edmundson’s relocation of many central scenes to Bristol, resonates deeply; many acknowledge that theatre is collaboration – here, theatre is community. As such, though not everything is perfect, everything feels overwhelmingly authentic, and is, ultimately, going to make the people of Bristol who witness this true theatrical event very proud of their cultural landscape.

Coram Boy is playing at the Colston Hall until 30 December. For more information, see the Bristol Old Vic’s website.

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