Review: Richard III, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

★★★★

From a public relations point of view, Richard III is very much “on trend”. It was only earlier this month that a skeleton discovered in a car park in Leicester was confirmed to be that of the 15th-century king. And thanks to Hilary Mantel’s double-Booker-winning series about the reign of Henry VIII, the UK has become a country of historians.

So the director of this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Andrew Hilton, is wise to dress his actors in Tudor costume. It gives the production something of a Wolf Hall feel to it.

John Mackay takes on the central role, and in his hands the murderous upstart king becomes something altogether more interesting: we get the sense that he doesn’t take anything seriously. He has realised the essential pointlessness of life and has decided, therefore, to have his fun.

In the famous opening ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech there’s a new cynicism. Gone is the wounded ambition: it’s replaced by a superiority which laughs at the value the world places on ‘victorious wreaths’. He is a gambling king who measures up the challenge of chatting up the woman whose husband he has killed – and likes the odds. He lists his achievements and taunts the incredulous audience with the question ‘can I do this and not get a crown?’

Between them, Hilton and Mackay squeeze every drop of comedy out of this play – and it turns out there are plenty of laughs. Mackay’s Richard is impish: he peers into a bag he’s been handed with the head of the courtier Hastings inside – ‘Good morning, Hastings!’ he trills and as he slopes off stage he makes as if to throw the bag into the audience. After seducing Anne he turns – incredulous at his success to ask ‘Was ever woman in this humour won?’. Like all the best evil characters, Mackay’s Richard is a joy to watch.

All of which rather drowns out the rest of this very strong cast. Alan Coveney is affecting as the over-trusting Hastings, Paul Currier proves a slippery Duke of Buckingham and Dorothea Myer-Bennett manages to make Anne – who marries Richard – not only sympathetic but empathetic. The women in this production are not won over by Richard, they are not dazzled by his word-wizardry, rather they are psychologically beaten in to submission, forced into a corner and made to believe he is their only way out.

But even this cast cannot disguise the fact that Shakespeare’s play may as well be a one-man show – which is both its strength and its weakness. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s most vividly painted characters, a cartoonish devil wreaking havoc on England. But to allow this character the space he needs to strut and fret, the supporting cast are reduced to Richard’s play things. Hilton has created an elegant, deftly handled production of one of Shakespeare’s more flawed plays. But this is not a stripped-down portrayal of an enigmatic king: for that you’ll need to go to Leicester.

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ is at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre until 30 March

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Peter Pan, Bristol Old Vic: review

4 stars

‘I rather expected she’d be prettier’ says Wendy of Tinker Bell and I imagine much of the audience thought the same. In Sally Cookson’s production of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is not exactly the daintiest of fairies. In fact, she’s a man.

Cookson, whose last adventure at Bristol Old Vic was to Treasure Island, has created a Peter Pan with grit. Neverland is an industrial building site, Captain Hook wears a kilt and Peter carries a knife…

Read the rest of my review of this production on The Independent’s website here

The Double, Ustinov Studio, Bath

4 stars

How would you react if someone stole your life? That’s the question posed in Laurence Boswell’s new adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella The Double.

Mr Goliadkin is an everyman, working in an everyman government office with everyman ambitions. But one day another Mr Goliadkin turns up. He looks exactly the same as the first character but is bolder, sharper and more ruthless. It’s not long before the first Mr Goliadkin has been usurped from his position as a clerk, banished from society because of scandalous rumours and replaced in the affections of the woman he loves. But the brilliance of Dostoevsky’s story – a brilliance that shines through in Boswell’s adaptation – is that the audience is never sure how much of the story is in the protagonist’s mind…

Read the rest of my review ‘The Double’ on The Independent’s website here

Motor Vehicle Sundown, Mayfest, Bristol – review

Drive-in movies

The bygone glamour of motoring

On a highway to nowhere…

‘Take a seat in the last motor vehicle on earth’. That’s the premise for this bite-sized audio theatre piece which is part love-song to the car and part dystopian vision.

Two audience members sit in a car in a deserted car park in the city centre, armed with headphones and an MP3 player. A soundtrack begins: ‘This is the last car in the universe. It used to be one of millions…’ We’re told to sit in the car, close our eyes and imagine we’re speeding along a narrow road, late at night. Then we’re at the drive-in watching a 50s horror flick. Now it’s early and we’re driving along broad roads on concrete pillars reaching to the sky.

There are moments of exquisite poetry and nostalgia in Andy Field’s Motor Vehicle Sundown, which is part of Mayfest, Bristol – glimpses into the bygone glamour of motoring and an audio tribute to the excitement of the open road.

But I struggled to accept the premise – not least because I had been driving myself only a couple of hours before – and because we were in the middle of a car park, even if no other cars were visible. What’s more, for a show which relied on evoking a smoke-filled, leather-upholstered, space-for-seducting vision of a car, the modern, banged-up bright blue Toyota the whole thing took place in was a bit of wet flannel.

Still, maybe that was the point.

Towards the end, the show starts to become something different – there’s a political edge which seems out of place and a fairly gratuitous reference to 9/11. Aside from this incongruous diversion, this is an enjoyable, unorthodox look at our love-affair with cars.

Practical info: there are only two audience members at any time and it’s probably slightly less awkward if you know the person you go with (the voice of experience…)

Motor Vehicle Sundown is on in Bristol at various times until 24 May

King Lear, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol: review

4 stars

An old man sits on the ground, his feet clapped in stocks. But he doesn’t much want rescuing – in fact, he could do with the sit down.

Welcome to the bleak, comic world of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Andrew Hilton’s new production at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory takes a while to warm up, but once in its stride, this is a Lear that appals, shocks and saddens – just as it should…

Read the rest of my review of this production on The Independent’s website here

The French Detective and the Blue Dog, The Egg, Bath: review

3 stars

In a small town “somewhere between Brussels and Bruges” a trapeze artist disguised as a laundry worker has been murdered. So opens Hattie Naylor’s new musical, The French Detective and the Blue Dog, at Theatre Royal Bath’s children’s theatre, the egg. But this is a production that could have done with a bit longer in the incubator…

Read the rest of my review of ‘The French Detective and the Blue Dog’ on The Independent’s website here

Iphigenia, Ustinov Studio, Bath: review

3 stars

The story of Iphigenia is one of slaughtered innocence and unbearable cruelty. Too unbearable, in fact, for the Greek dramatist Euripides, who decided to change it. According to legend, Iphigenia is sacrificed to the gods by her father, Agamemnon, before he leads the Greek forces into battle at Troy. In Euripides’s version, she is saved by the goddess Diana as the sacrificial knife is about to fall…

Read the rest of my review of ‘Iphigenia’ on The Independent’s website here

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