Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: Broadway World UK

Henry V

Like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious

Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare’s historical tetralogy, focuses on King Henry’s campaign for France, victory at Agincourt, aggressive patriotism, coming-of-age, and eventual political treaty and promise of peace with his marriage to Katharine of Valois.

From the English court to the fields of France, the performance asks a lot of our ‘imaginary forces’, even to ‘piece out [its] imperfections with [our] thoughts’, and this overt theatricality is, like King Henry’s army at Agincourt, defensive – attacking, forgiving and apologising for its faults – and defenceless in the face of a much greater force: the audience.

And, like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious. Elizabeth Freestone’s direction is austere, with the action playing out in a darkly industrial dystopia characterised by Lily Arnold’s greyed costumes and frayed edges, steely drama and gravel underfoot. Continue reading “Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres”

Review: Wardrobe Ensemble’s South Western

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Wardrobe Ensemble's South Western

All the blood, guts, and glory of any good Western

Welcome to the Wild Wild South West: from gunslinging to cider, saloons to cancelled services, lone wanderers to line-dancing, giddy-up as the Wardrobe Ensemble drag us through a Western revenge voyage from Bristol through the best of the West. With all their charm, cheek, and wry wit, the Bristol-based Ensemble’s South Western is ambitious and offbeat, with all the blood, guts, and glory of any good Western.

Mae’s father was killed at the Cornish cliffs, and she’s off to avenge him: the camera tells us so, as it cuts to a close up of the vein on her temple and pans to her clenched fists. At least, it would, if this were a Western, Ben Vardy’s visiting Wyoming film professor tells us at the play’s opening. South Western works like the wildest lecture, with the professor calling the shots – ‘cut to close up’ – until the pivotal shootout: from there, it’s up to Helen Middleton’s determined, short-tempered Mae, and her imagination, to direct – and deconstruct – the showdown with crash mats and chroma-key.

Framed by this deconstruction of the Western filmic form, South Western wittily deconstructs theatrical form too, Continue reading “Review: Wardrobe Ensemble’s South Western”

Review: RashDash’s Three Sisters

Original review: Broadway World UK


Electrifying and confronting a classic with an unforgiving ‘fuck you’

RashDash’s Three Sisters, after Chekhov is thrillingly irreverent: to rules, to theatrical form, and even to reviews, but it’s their irreverence that’s so deserving of reverence. A rocking and rollicking retelling of a Russian classic with no time for men, marriages, or monologues, it tears up tradition and tramples all over it.

‘Rash as in reckless, Dash as in fast’, RashDash’s Three Sisters lives up to the trio’s self-titled expectations and destroys all others: dancing, dreaming, and cheerleading through the drawing rooms of Chekhov’s domestic drama, a chaise and a chandelier are the only evidence that these ladies were once in Chekhov’s Russia. The Russian Revolution that threatened and eventually overthrew the classist autocracy is reimagined as a revolution against the virility of the classical canon. Continue reading “Review: RashDash’s Three Sisters”

Review: Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting

Original review: The Reviews Hub

The Nature of Forgetting

Playful and powerful

Memory is a cruel mistress: meticulous and muscular, ephemeral and fractured and fragile, it’s all too easy to forget how crucial memory is to character; after all, what – or who – is left when memories are forgotten? Theatre Re’s thoughtful and affecting The Nature of Forgetting is a free fall into the forgotten that captures the complexities of memory through gorgeously nostalgic movement, mime, and accompanying music.

A devised work that delves feet first into the devastating effects of dementia on fifty-five year old Tom, it’s a work that’s sumptuous in its simplicities. Malik Ibheis’s minimalist set, props, and costumes use only a central platform, four writing desks, and two packed, moving clothing racks to transform Tom’s muted present into his cacophonous past, with an eclectic, electric live score from Alex Judd that complements the chaos with discord and the calm with a dreamlike depth. Continue reading “Review: Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting”

Review: Vamos Theatre’s A Brave Face

Original review: The Reviews Hub

A Brave Face Vamos Theatre

Bravely unmasks the effects of battle with verity and verve; valuable, beautiful viewing

‘His hardest battle is the one back home’: far from the battlefield, free from bullets and bombs, and back with family and friends, the fight is over – or is it? Vamos Theatre’s A Brave Face faces the fear and effects other than physical felt by veterans in the aftermath of the UK’s involvement in the Afghan conflict; a fight, like the aftereffects of war on the armed forces, with no conclusion and no victor.

Words feel worthless in the face of war: it’s a physical, visceral thing, and Vamos voice that with masks, movement, mime, and music, and they voice it mutely. Voicelessly, the plot follows a young man, Ryan, posted to Afghanistan, and sees him lose more than a mate to the fighting, as he returns from the field with Post Traumatic Stress. The themes are heavy, but Vamos reveal them with heart and humour: Sean Kempton’s stereotypically pumped-up macho-man parades his press-ups as an intimidation tactic, Ryan and his comrade-in-arms Ravi – a playful and perfectly panicky Rayo Patel – make much mischief, and there’s a performance as unexpected and meticulously executed as any military operation. Yet, heart-shattering moments haunt the humour, Continue reading “Review: Vamos Theatre’s A Brave Face”

Review: A View From the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatre

A View From the Bridge

Blistering and visceral and abrasive: it burns and then it blows

Blistering and visceral and abrasive, A View From the Bridge at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre is a virtuosic version of this violent tale about betrayal, visas, and virility. A Greek tragedy that, like its protagonist, gets going gently but grows angrier as the time passes, the play is as pertinent and provocative now as ever, and in an interpretation as great as this, the text glows perceptively, and then ignites with gutting power.

New York, New York: a place for opportunity and escape, now and in the fifties, where Arthur Miller’s play finds its feet. This is Brooklyn, urban and buzzing with grinding background noise from Max Pappenheim, Anisha Fields’s gritty, barebones set that’s built-up and knocked-about from the beginning, and a busy neighbourhood bulked out with the general public. This is Miller’s milieu, a multi-cultural community where masculinity is king and character is not to be compromised; merciless but mercurial, it takes only two Italian immigrants to crack it. Welcomed into the world of Eddie, his beloved, daughter-like ward Catherine and his warm but critically aware wife Beatrice, director Mike Tweddle winds the tension like wool around a spool, the action well-contained in Matthew Graham’s stark-and-stilly lit spaces until it spills out in the last, destructive acts.

From the Bard’s Macbeth to Miller’s Bridge, the Factory Company are fantastic: Continue reading “Review: A View From the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatre”

Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory

Buzzing, bloody, and bleak

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory opens as one of Emily Dickinson’s famous works, about a fly interposing indifferently as death falls on its speaker, ends: ‘with Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –’: the lighting is stark cyan, the space dark, and the electronic soundscape buzzes and breathes around us. Yet, a fly-like buzzing as one dies is not the only similarity between the atmosphere summoned by Dickinson’s unadorned words and Adele Thomas’s austere direction of Shakespeare’s death-drenched work.

Although it’s a dagger, not a fly, that the murderous Macbeth sees before him, he and his driven-mad wife, like the words of Dickinson’s dying, ‘could not see to see’: that is, as is later observed of the Lady herself, their ‘eyes are open’, ‘but their sense is shut’. Fuelled – or fooled – by the three weird sisters’ prophecy that sovereignty shall be his, the thane is blinded by ambition and soon has blood on his hands. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres”

Review: Tosca at the Tobacco Factory Theatre

Original review: TheReviewsHub


An impressive and uniquely intimate musical experience

On its turn-of-the-century debut, Puccini’s opera about death, desire and deception was termed a ‘shabby little shocker’ by the press, but there’s nothing shabby in this co-production from Opera Project and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Staged in-the-round in this uniquely intimate space, the story of tempestuous soprano Floria Tosca, her liberal artist lover Cavaradossi and the cruel and corrupt chief Scarpia is told with an intimacy, emotional intensity, and expressive pathos only possible in such a space.

In a New York Times review of Victorien Sardou’s original play, Tosca was deemed ‘not much of a play, a mere outline at best, made to fit like a glove’ to the talent of the infamous leading lady of the time, and although the former is perhaps still true, Puccini’s opulent score, played by Opera Project’s twelve-piece orchestra and conducted with passionate flair by Jonathan Lyness, not only fits but fills the space to create a singular musical experience. There’s a striking simplicity to the staging, with its flickering candles, focused lighting, and black bars that shift from confession to confinement allowing the score and the singing to take centre-stage. Operatic asides – ‘he’s dead!’ – that often feel impractical work well in-the-round, and are particularly pointed in Act I when Scarpia’s plot is put into action: Cavaradossi’s supposed deception is ‘as I suspected’ sings Tosca; ‘the plan is affected’ Scarpia counters. Continue reading “Review: Tosca at the Tobacco Factory Theatre”

Review: Tobacco Factory’s Cinderella


The Prince isn’t all that’s charming about this Cinderella: a theatrical, thoughtful and funny alternative to Christmas pantomime

Getting to grips with fairytales can be Grimm; while fertile ground for Freudian subtext and feminist retellings, they’re often less fruitful for originality and separating themselves from the usual panto-fare – especially ones staged at this time of year. Yet, Tobacco Factory Theatre’s Cinderella: A Fairytalseems to have broken the spell. This archetypal rags-to-riches tale makes use of the gruesome original – eyes are pecked out and toes hacked off – but it keeps enough giggles and intrigue for a theatrical, thoughtful and funny alternative to Christmas pantomime.

Under Chris Pirie’s direction, and with Katie Sykes’s delightfully simple and rustic designs in the intimate in-the-round setting, the seven-strong cast of actor-musicians illuminate the performance like the lanterns dangling above the audience. Our eponymous lead (Isabella Marshall) moves from pink-dressed puppet to plucky young lady, dancing ’til midnight in glittery Doc Martens in place of glass slippers. Craig Edwards’s dame-like evil stepmother evolves in front of us from Cinder’s mild-mannered father to a frocked and bonneted Victorian villain, but the absurdity soon subsides as she descends into a money-driven, meat-cleaver-wielding mad(wo)man. The step-family is completed by Lucy Tuck and her impeccable comic timing as the shrill but slow pink-bowed stepsister, and, unusually, a deliciously camp but beguilingly sincere stepbrother in Dorian Simpson, but it’s  Joey Hickman’s asthma-puffing, love-sick scatting, bespectacled Prince that steals the show.

So, of all the usual pantomime players, only the Fairy Godmother is missing, but she’s beautifully reimagined as some feathered forest-friends – intermittently fluttering between the fingers of all the multi-rolling performers – and it’s these birds that form and lift the piece beyond plain fairytale. Always echoing back to Cinderella’s late father, it’s the birds that facilitate the lovers’ first encounter – she escaping to the forest for a break from the back-breaking work she’s been forced into, he an overly-eager bird-watcher – and, in turn, develop it. Their relationship moves from tentative whistles and whirrs, with Cinders calling the birds to the clearing to be ticked off the Prince’s list of latin names, to her learning the latin name for flamingo – ‘they mate for life’ – and reciting it back to him at the ball before they dance, which is less a waltz than a wacky routine of arm-flapping and head-bopping from Joêl Daniel’s sprightly and high-spirited choreography.

The birdsong itself, a rich soundscape of whistles, warbles, tweets and trills, brings a lyricism that spreads its wings and flies into bird songs – upbeat reprises of everything from ‘birds of a feather flock together’ to ‘two little dickie birds’ – wonderfully accompanied by the two-man orchestra of Brian Hargreaves and Alex Heane, who play Benji Bower’s gentle jazz and swing-sounding score with effortless flair. The musicians also head some of the more meta-theatric hints in the show, from their incidental crooning disrupted by the Prince, who seizes the mic to scat his own love-sick nonsense, to a roll-call of Bristol place-names as the Prince’s search for his Cinderella begins amidst the audience. But, meta-theatricality isn’t limited to the musicians, and its other inspired moment is the stepmother’s sinister plate-smashing in an attempt to prevent Ella attending the ball; hilariously portrayed by a cast member literally smashing plates into a box while the stepmother mimes it, the audience applauds their efforts in hysterics amid the horror.

And, perhaps, it’s this mix of meta-theatricality, fun experimentation and polished performance that makes this fairytale reimagining a triumph; it leaves you with such a warmth that you’ll be warbling and whistling long after you’ve left the theatre. Clearly, the Prince isn’t the only thing that’s charming about this Cinderella.

Tobacco Factory Theatre Bristol, January 14th 2017, cast: Isabella Marshall, Joey Hickman, Craig Edwards, Lucy Tuck, Dorian Simpson, Brian Hargreaves & Alex Heane, picture by Farrows Creative, click for link to Cinderella: A Fairytale site at, playing until Sunday 22nd January 2017