Saturday, 25 April 2009


I didn’t really know what to expect when I headed off to the Bristol Old Vic on Tuesday night to watch BRAVE, an ambitious collaboration between The Young Company and volunteer professional actors. Having worked with Tid, I know his style well, but I wasn’t sure what form the play would find on its journey to the stage. What I witnessed broke my heart and made me choke on my drink with hysterical laughter in equal measure.

BRAVE began its journey back in December when the group began to rehearse, sharing their stories and memories. Throughout the process they collected additional inspiration from outside sources to add to their melting pot of creativity. As you enter the theatre you will see a huge book containing thousands of these collated visual and written memories followed by a wall bearing even more; clearly a plethora of stimuli for the actors. Under the skill and guidance of directors Tid (Ian Tidbury) and Miranda Cromwell, they worked on devising and eventually scripting pieces. You can see the rehearsal process in action on their Facebook Group page and on YouTube. Below are a couple of their YouTube videos:

The scope of the piece is so vast and filled with brilliant ideas, but with only a couple of hours to fill, there is clearly just as much innovation and work left behind on the dusty floor of the rehearsal room as there is on the stage.
It’s hard to talk about the production without giving it all away, as part of the magic resides in not quite knowing where you will be taken next!

Lying between the snapshots of memories and vignettes of experience, there are cohesive stories that slowly unravel through the piece. What immediately struck me to the core was the beautiful representation of abuse. As you watch these particular scenes, I defy you not to be touched by the painful recognition that this is part of so many children’s lives and the realisation that you are likely to be watching the anonymous, direct experiences of people on the stage before you.

Some of my favourite moments include ‘Kiss Chase’ and ‘Who wants to be a parent?’, but my favourite line belongs to the grandmother in one of the ‘knitted jumper’ scenes – most of us have been subjected to hideous knitted creations, hailing from elderly relatives, forced to wear them in public whenever said relation is present. Most of us have also experienced the itchiness and rash caused by the dreaded article, but the grandmother in BRAVE has an explanation for this, apparently it’s “a sign of quality wool”.

The scene that made me choke on my drink shall remain undefined. It was a scene of two halves and this particular half created a division of response within the audience as some of us rolled in the aisles and others were outraged we were not watching the other half of the scene. Being asked “will you be quiet?!” by an angry woman in an incredibly teacher-like fashion only served to transport us further into our memories and feelings of being ‘naughty little children’. Although hysterical laughter was probably not what was initially intended by the imagery, this was the first night the production had been viewed by an outside audience and our response was based on our connection to the piece, the memories it stirred and the actors within the piece. It was therefore equally as valid as the response from those who did not laugh, because they connected to what was happening elsewhere in the scene.

It’s hard to say if the emotions I felt would have been as heightened without the score of the madcap genius Peter Reynolds. Performing live with actors dipping in and out playing a variety of instruments, he accentuates every moment beautifully as his music filters into your mind and whispers its own story.

On paper, with over 400 people involved and almost 200 on stage, it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the reality is a triumph of coordination and memorial stimulation. I defy anyone who watches this production, to not recognise a piece of themselves in this tribute to the bravery of all those people who opened the door of their childhood and let their recollections come out to play.

BRAVE is on until Sunday 26th April 2009.


Young Company Blog
Booking Details
Suit Yourself Magazine Review
Toby Farrow (Photographer) Website

Monday, 20 April 2009

Never let a boy brush your hair

Ladies, be warned. This is a tale of follicular horror; it may bring back childhood traumas.

We are regularly told about the biological differences between the sexes and how boys and girls are instinctively raised differently on this basis. We take many experiences for granted, forgetting the opposite sex may blunder into folly due to a lack of common knowledge, uncommon to their sex.

In this instance I am, as the title suggests, referring to knowledge of hairbrushes. I realised this difference working with a group of children after a curtain call. Planning to gather the troops, I headed backstage, only to be greeted by a gaggle of girls. I asked what was wrong and a chorus of ‘she’s got a brush stuck in her hair’ arose. As the girl at the centre of the group turned around, I could see there was indeed a brush firmly stuck in her hair, with its handle clearly sticking out from the side of her head. Closer inspection revealed it wasn’t going to be a quick removal. This was no ordinary brush; this was one of those fine-bristled barrel brushes. A paddle version (one with a flat back) would probably have worked well, but because a barrel brush is round, it wraps the hair all the way around the brush. It’s the type that most girls will have experimented with and stayed well clear of for the rest of their lives. Yes ladies, one of those brushes; the kind that easily grips your hair and mats it together almost instantly; the kind you can start to brush with, stop mid stroke and it will happily stay where it is until you actively remove it - along with a clump of your hair. Well imagine if you can that someone has tried to rapidly back-brush your long, thick hair with one. Ouch.

Within moments of realising the scope of the operation, a guilt-stricken, male colleague arrived to remove the brush. During a quick-change a group of children needed to become wild and dishevelled, so back-brushing was the order of the day. My colleague had unwittingly picked up the worst possible brush and begun his task only to rapidly discover he was unable to remove it. The little girl had to go on stage and perform with it attached to her head. Then, unable to remove it before the curtain call, she stood before her parents and bowed, brush firmly affixed, tears now rolling down her face as thoughts of having to leave it there forever or having all her hair chopped off flooded into her head.

Apologising profusely and not really knowing what to do in this situation, my colleague made a sharp exit and I spent the next half an hour meticulously unravelling hair, as the stage manager pacified and distracted my patient. Her efforts were nearly in vain, as a passer-by helpfully commented “Oh dear, you’ll have to chop all that off won’t you!” Thankfully we didn’t. I worked through my quiet despair and by some small miracle managed to extricate the brush with the loss of only a couple of strands – I’m not saying she didn’t leave looking like an eighties throwback a la ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, but she was able to leave with her hair intact and the sage advice from many a female member of staff: “conditioner, conditioner, conditioner”.

The moral of this story is: unless he’s a trained hairdresser, never let a boy brush your hair (well back-brush it).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends...’

This is the first post I have ever made and it’s a long one, about the meeting I attended at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre on Thursday 16th April 2009.

The building was buzzing as we filed into the Theatre Royal auditorium. It was a who’s who of local creatives and supporters.

Dick Penny began by thanking the theatre’s supporters and apologising to those who had not yet received replies to their suggestions and ideas, but the level of correspondence has been tremendous and they are continuing to work through it.

He then recapped on how the theatre had been developing over the last year, both physically and financially. Physically, large parts of the exterior and the fly tower are currently under scaffolding, whilst asbestos has been systematically removed from the interior. Financially, he confirmed with pride, the theatre was now solvent and as a result was finally in a position to start investing in “the art” as well as the building. For a theatre seemingly in dire straits only eighteen months ago, it may come as a surprise to hear that he feels the theatre will not really be affected by the recession, but his reasoning is clear; in addition to renewed Arts Council funding and ongoing fundraising efforts, the theatre is expanding its work slowly and is running on a small number of staff, thirty-five to be exact, instead of the pre-redundancy level of eighty-five. This means, the theatre is currently in a stable position so long as it continues to develop in this way.

Dick was keen to point out that the theatre has been open since December last year, with performances taking place in the Studio and Basement. The Theatre Royal will be back in use next week with the Young Company’s production, BRAVE.

Another key message was the new vision for the theatre; the Bristol Old Vic is part of the community. It is not a stand-alone entity to be revered as untouchable by other members of the theatre world; it is open and indeed, actively seeking to work with others. With about forty companies currently using the building, including Theatre Bristol, who now have a base there, he wants the theatre to be viewed as a resource for the artistic community.

Finally, the time came for us to hear from Artistic Director, Tom Morris. Although some may be cynical, I believe he could be the white knight for whom we have been waiting. He has a long-term vision and a genuine passion and excitement for the role he will take on in September.

Tom is currently working at The National Theatre, where he worked on the hugely successful adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse, and with Bristol favourite, Knee-High Theatre Company on A Matter of Life and Death. He has previously worked with Emma Stenning at the Battersea Arts Centre; a place he described as an “eccentric, falling-down building”, suggesting a sense of ‘de ja vu’ in his new role.

As I listened to Tom, I began to ask myself ‘What makes a good Artistic Director’? I believe it is someone with a true vision who embodies the quality of a true leader. He or she must be a Henry V of the theatre they run; they must be more than an inspirational orator, they must be willing to lead the charge.

Tom believes theatre should make “an appeal to your imagination”, that it “only exists when you imagine it”. It should be an “act of collaboration” between all involved, from the actors to the audience to the building’s staff.

During his visits to the Bristol Old Vic, he has counted at least fifteen spaces he believes could be used for theatre work and clearly has his imagination set on doing a piece in a tiny, hidden bar he discovered in the top of the building. If an artist approached him with an idea for the space he would no doubt listen, as he believes that in order to create the kind of work he supports, the only requirement is faith in the lead artist/s behind an idea. How does he define an ‘artist’? As “a person who can see round corners” and is crucially skilled in two ways; firstly in how they see the world and secondly, how they articulate that view in a way that enables some of us to catch a glimpse.

Executive Director Emma Stenning spoke briefly about her background, which included working with Tom before travelling to theatres around the world. Recently she worked for the A.C.E. at a time when they were making some very difficult decisions and she worked as the Head of the Manchester International Festival; she hopes these experiences will help her to fulfil her role in Bristol.

She clearly shared her colleague’s enthusiasm for her new role and said she would “start today” if she could.

The final part of the evening consisted of a series of questions from the audience. The questioning revealed that work on the electrics means the building will close again at some point, but it won’t stop them being active as a company.

After a reference to the ‘Main House’, Tom and Dick abolished the use of ‘Main’ house or stage and reinstated the use of ‘Theatre Royal’. For them ‘Main’ breeds in people’s minds an implicit division in the quality of work or as Tom put it, “the Main Stage for proper work and the Studio for slightly embarrassing work”.

When asked how soon they would start producing plays after Tom and Emma’s arrival in the autumn, it was pointed out that the theatre had already started producing with the Catherine Johnson commission Suspension, but the Autumn would see Tom collaborating with Dick, evolving gradually until April 2010, when Tom would be fully in charge of the programme.

One audience member loved their ideas but asked if they could make them pay. Dick Penny answered by making us question how we view the Arts; he said it all depended on what was meant by ‘make it pay’. He illustrated his point by saying that we ‘invest’ in hospitals but we ‘subsidise’ art. The reality is, they just can’t make enough money from the box office to do what they really want, but as long as they don’t spend more than they earn, he believes they can ‘make it pay’. Emma reiterated that they needed to come in on budget and on time, but working out the financial model and reinventing it was key to creating a nimble organisation that could respond quickly.

Throughout the questioning their agenda was clear. They are striving for a theatre of inclusion not exclusion. For audiences this means a diversification of the theatre’s output, broadening their demographic appeal, but doing so without alienating current supporters. For local ‘artists’ this means no longer viewing theatre as an impenetrable fortress, but as a resource, a place where they can eventually gain guidance.

Dick Penny has clearly managed to inspire the respect and faith of a large number of people but many will no doubt be sceptical that Tom Morris can make his ideas a reality, which is understandable, as he has yet to prove his worth to the Bristol audience. I would say to those sceptics that he has no crystal ball, he cannot show us the future, all he can do is outline how he plans to develop the theatre and solve issues raised; only time will tell if it all works. What he does have is vision, experience, passion and a brilliant track record; he is a man who can ‘see round corners’.

In my opinion Tom, Emma and Dick have the right view of the future; they are trying to build something that can last. If they succeed, if they continue to doggedly refuse to be pushed into quick fixes, I believe they could create a true legacy in an age where so much is about getting immediate results. If they succeed they could create a long term artistic prosperity instead of an ephemeral financial glory.

Other articles you may be interested in:

Guardian Blog
National Theatre department profile
What’s on Stage
Bristol Evening Post
Telgraph Review of Suspension