Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before Rodgers & Hammerstein straddled the Hollywood musical world, there was another combo: Rodgers and Hart. I learnt that this week from a Salsbury Playhouse Production called With a Song In My Heart, a superbly smooth presentation of thirty songs from different shows, linked by succinct script by David Benedict which gave poignant insight into this creative but difficult partnership. Richard Rodgers was just 16 when he met young Larry Hart and recorded “I acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a permanent irritation.” The 'mismatch made in heaven' broke down after three years, but in that time they wrote prolifically and with enormous innovative energy. Salisbury's Salberg Studio, with its slightly clubby feel, made an ideal venue for this project and the audience were all clearly charmed by the songs and their performers: Gillian Bevan taking the feisty roles, Julie-Alanah Brighten the winsome one, Joel Karie the American smoothie, and Glyn Kerslake both singing and playing the piano with amazing verve throughout the entire show. A class act, though I've probably heard enough songs from musicals for 2011 now.

Bristol is in Ferment, theatrically speaking. Ferment is the artist-development strand of Bristol Old Vic, introduced by events organiser Sharon Clark as 'ideas in motion.' Audience response is part of the process, so we're there not to appraise as finished work but to envisage how these scripts could develop to full theatricality. It feels an exciting privilege, like being shown a baby-scan - ooh, there's the head, and it's got little legs....
Only, written and read by Adam Peck, is an autobiographical monologue in confessional style, filled with colourful characters and never far from either poignancy or humour. Adam touches on romantic rejections, parental desertion, mortality, and a grandad who smells of porridge and pee and prunes, all with the same delicate ruthlessness of authentic recollection, especially the moments with his nonexistent brother who is the only person this 'only' can confide in. Fine writing and an endearing performance, which interestingly explored both intimacy with the audience and movement in time. Interesting too that the aspect that worked least well for me - hauling chairs out of the crowded auditorium - was not directorial intrusion but an integral part of the initial concept. Perhaps this would have worked better if the BOV basement hadn't been totally crowded out, but that in itself is big credit to Adam, whose play Bonnie and Clyde put him in the spotlight last year and has now transferred to London.
Another autobiographical piece, Byron Vincent's JellyHead, was top of my must-see list but sadly this brilliantly anarchic performer had to cancel due to illness. Instead I went to see The Peace, a monologue by Natalie McGrath in the voice of Mo Mowlam. Petrol bombs light up the night sky. How does anyone get used to it? It's a long time since I left Northern Ireland and I had mixed feelings at the start but this wasn't ultimately really about politics, more about being a woman in a man's world, struggling ill-health as well as prejudices. The glimpse of Blair - "the ego has landed- and he wants a medal" - was satisfying thoug anachronistic for 1998 Peace Process days, but overall this was a strikingly lyrical script sensitively read by Sophie Stanton.

Thanks to the Big Arts Give,
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has expanded this year for the new season which features Richard II and A Comedy of Errors. As director Andrew Hilton said at the media launch, these plays seem to have little in common but their connection is the theme of identity. Richard II is my all-time favourite play since I first saw it at the Old Vic in London as an emo teenager and the rages and lamentations of the rejected king plucked histrionic chords in my heart. I'm hugely looking forward to this new production with John Heffernan as Richard and from the enthusiasm at the Mint Hotel today, so are the rest of the cast.

It's been a dramatic week all round. Niamh led another successful performance workshop this week, with great participant feedback, as Stage Write Café presents Dressing Up Box at the Merlin is growing closer... book your tickets and tapas supper now!

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