Friday, December 30, 2011

Bristol Old Vic main stage is still off-limits while refurbishment trundles on and, having seen some cracking productions in their tiny studio this season, I wanted to see their main event too – Coram Boy, staged in 2000-capacity Colston Hall. This is a revival of a show that began life at the National six years ago then crossed to Broadway where it was mauled by the critics. Muddled, preposterous and not much fun are some of the kinder epithets among reviews including more specific objections like "You could call it Dickensian if Dickens wrote in clich├ęs and didn’t give a tuppence about characterisation” and, simpler if less literary, "It’s torture." Make your own mind up time, I thought, so I went along.
It's long - nearly three hours. During the interval the woman sitting next to me scoured her programme notes declaring 'we must have missed something, there's got to be a basic plot.' There was indeed a kind of central core within this vast flurry of duplicity, all double-cast to show the passage of years, which for me was defined in the words of Mrs Lynch, one of the minor villains: "All wealth is based on the suffering of others."
This is an era of opulence and degradation, the line between them thin as a hymen, or a noose. On the one side Thomas Coram, benefactor and child-saver: on the other wicked Otis who pretends to act for him but buries the babies and pockets the money. Even rescued children aren't safe really, as kind Mr Coram can't prevent them being kidnapped and shipped off to a Turkish harem. These are just some of the sub-plots - the basic plot, missus, is the double quest for a lost son, leading to a double reunion at the end. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, as Handel might say - and indeed did, appearing in a small cameo role to conduct the ending. All clear?
Coram Boy delivers a full orchestra, little choir boys, gorgeous Georgian costumes, high-energy action scenes, morally-aware social commentary, and birth-to-death dramatic scope: what’s not to enjoy? And I did enjoy, but on a very modest scale considering the vast casts and complexity of sets. It was partly the panto-style simplicity of the script, so every character stayed 2-dimensional, and partly an uncomfortable feeling that the real passion at the heart of this production was filling a large auditorium with paying punters. I couldn't imagine any one of these highly competent actors, directors, and technicians, actually aching to communicate this story to an audience, and to me that's what theatre should be. Personal and vulnerable beats slick and spectacular every time.
Within a couple of hours I was at the Watershed watching another intensely violent tale - Almodovar's monstrously beautiful The Skin I Live In , which to say anything about would be to spoil - except that this film showed the cruelty of obsession and the pain of loss in a way absolutely opposite to the play I'd just seen: frenzied and viscerally painful but deeply important to its creator.

So now would be a good time to do a review-of-the-year but I can't remember back that far so I'll just do a little list of things I've most enjoyed this Christmas:
~ the day itself, with my children and my children's children,
~ celebrations with friends - round solstice fire, at parties and in town,
~ prosecco with christmas stockings at Emily's,
~ crazy dressing-up day with Macfadyens,
~ how mild it's been!
~ unexpected discovery, on a Longleat walk, that the estate had been transformed into a winter wonderland with reindeer, and iceskating, and festive stalls and an amazing constantly-changing illuminated 'Singing Tree' sending the sound of carols through the woodlands.
~ Doctor Who Christmas Special!
~ fantastic live music at the Cornerhouse,
~ minced pies and mulled wine at the Garden Cafe...
~ Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows - fabulous cinematography, great acting, clever script.
~ decorations in streets and homes, lighting up midwinter like it always has been ever since there's been people and long before electricity or gospels since our galaxy is only one of millions and billions.....

Oh, and turkey of the holiday season: BBC's much hyped Great Expectations - aptly named for its intriguing indigo-toned previews but turning out to be an uninteresting and self-conscious adaptation disturbingly miscast, Estella more like the elder Miss Bingley and Pip looking in every shot like he'd rather be auditioning for a retro boy band. Luckily HIGNFY and the Ab Fab girls were on the other channel!

Happy New Year!

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