Friday, October 12, 2012

Big news in theatreland southwest is the reopened, refurbished, Bristol Old Vic main house, returned to Georgian splendour in tones of ochre, olive & old gold, with a raised floor in the pit so audience eye-level is raised to that of 18th Century groundlings. The first show to celebrate this 18-month, £12 million, makeover is a revival by Mark Rosenblatt of John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats, first performed here in 1792 and chosen, says the programme, 'for exactly the playful interactivity this theatre was built for.’ Here's director Tom Morris in trademark Rupert Bear scarf looking pleased, and if you think £12,000,000 sounds like the kind of number that might have funded quite a lot of productions elsewhere in the region you might like to know the total bill will be £20 million... Finances aside, Wild Oats is wonderfully playful: a vigorous cast dashing through a set nearly as lively, clever props rushed on & off for each scene change. Costumes support the wild sense of enchantment too: combining last century modes with Shakespearian attire allows for multiple reference points, from filmic chase scenes and a steamy Brief Encounterish railway station (Keynsham) to Wildean comedic moments in the second act. There's swashbuckling comedy from all eleven players, especially Hugh Skinner as Harry Thunder, the rich drop-out whose life becomes entangled with Jack Rover (Sam Alexander) “a forlorn stroller with an abominable habit of quotation, his life a rapid stream of extravagant whim" ~ in fact everyone at heart is fond of each other, with the exception of Ephraim Smooth, a Quaker with the morality of a Jimmy Savile. I can only find rehearsal pictures but they give a general idea of the animated mayhem. It's impossible to summarise the plot which relies on complexity of mistaken identities until increasing confusion escalates to a hilarious fight scene, moving quickly on to resolution as bad-tempered Sir George mellows and is reunited in the end with everyone he ever cared for, Jack finds out who he is and gets his girl – transformed of course from a plain Jane when she throws off her Quakerish constraints, and the two friends each gain a brother as well as a bride. It's a warm-hearted revisiting of that sour theme in The Welsh Boy ~ that a single man in want of a wife must be in search of a fortune ~ and a charming revival.

  Alongside this polished high-energy production, as a contrast in every way, there's Does My Society Look Big In This? introduced as ‘flung together', 'relevant’(does my heart sink a bit at this?) and experimental. Devised by Tom Morris with writer Stephen Brown and performed by the Wild Oats team, it's billed as all about bang-up-to-date issues like the Bristol mayoral election. And over an hour of the 2½ running time was indeed devoted to voting a 'Mayor of Bristol Old Vic Theatre For The Night' from a random line-up of men (and one woman) on the basis of how to spend an equally randomly-materialising £200 of funding. By extraordinary coincidence ~ and I hope I don’t sound skeptical ~ someone spotted among the audience Simon Cook, an ex-mayor and current Leader of the Council in Clifton, whose landslide victory made my vote for singing traffic wardens a wasted one. His platform was free pantomime tickets for Poor Children, a jolly worthy plan which I imagine & hope happens anyway. Other than this time-consuming activity, there were some entertaining sketches and songs, the concept of local community was explained via audience interaction in a dog-related neighbourhood dispute and, more mysteriously, through eyes-closed visualization, but the overall impression was a bit like what you’d expect from an enthusiastic tutor group tackling social studies through role-play. Nothing like this has happened in theatre before, Tom Morris said in his introduction, and that may be true but a lot like this has happened before in end-of-session cabarets on courses, camps and holidays, and with tighter production values.

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