Sleeping Beauty, Bristol Old Vic


Originally written for the Guardian.

Fairytales have long been fair game for transformation. Even the best loved of our childhood stories have gone through multiple versions, from Brothers Grimm to Disney animation. There’s a precedent, then, for Sally Cookson’s playful, gender-switched reworking of Sleeping Beauty, which tells a familiar story in unfamiliar style.

Instead of the princess catching Zs, at the Bristol Old Vic it’s a prince. Prince Percy (David Emmings) – after a childhood wrapped (quite literally) in cotton wool – has been cursed to snooze for a hundred years, awaiting the kiss of his one true love. The hero, meanwhile, has been imported from Welsh folk tale The Leaves That Hung But Never Grew. Deilen (Kezrena James) is a resourceful but lonely adventurer, who stumbles across the unresponsive Percy while on her own quest and sensibly administers mouth-to-mouth.

It might not be Sleeping Beauty as we know it, but Cookson’s version – devised with the multi-role-playing company of eight – is all the more charming for the reinvention. Tongue-in-cheek irreverence is balanced with true fairytale magic, reimagining rather than bulldozing long Christmas show traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the supporting cast of fairy godmothers, spells intact but gleefully transformed into a lineup of cake-baking, knitting-needle-wielding WI members.

There’s also more than a hint of panto to Cookson’s joyful production. Cross-dressing aplenty – often with brilliantly ridiculous wigs – meets the demands of the large cast of characters, while Stuart Goodwin’s deliciously evil baddie anticipates the hisses from the audience. Where Sleeping Beauty differs from the glitter and garishness of other festive offerings, though, is in its relative simplicity. Michael Vale’s elegant and versatile wooden design transforms instantly from climbing frame to castle, while the songs are all courtesy of an onstage, ad-libbing trio of musicians.

Though much is gained from mashing up two separate stories – not least a dynamic, complicated female lead who has more to do than lie around – the plot can occasionally feel cluttered as a result, especially in the second half. Unfailingly enthusiastic performances from the whole cast keep the show driving forwards, but like the overgrown trees encircling the palace, it could benefit from a little pruning.

That said, it’s a gorgeous piece of storytelling – and not without a message. As theatres wheel out the same stories year after year, the Bristol Old Vic’s novel approach is a reminder that we always have a choice about how to tell them. If any persuasion were needed, Sleeping Beauty makes the case that stories this old are ripe for retelling.

The Night that Autumn Turned to Winter, Bristol Old Vic


Originally written for the Guardian.

If you go down to the woods today, Little Bulb have a big surprise. Set on the last day of autumn as winter creeps ever closer, the company is bringing the wildlife of the forest to the heart of the city in a series of charming sketches. Following 2013’s Antarctica, they once again take intrepid young explorers on a charming, idiosyncratic tour of the animal world.

With trademark Little Bulb energy, performers Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway and Miriam Gould rapidly transform from excitable woodland wardens into the various animals they conscientiously watch over. Hyperactive squirrels, a sly but suave fox and a hungry, shortsighted owl all make memorable appearances, evoked by homespun, makeshift costumes. That’s without even mentioning the rare, much-anticipated winter unicorn.

They have their audience of under-sevens sussed, getting them noisily involved one moment before holding them quietly rapt the next. The key is in variety and ingenuity, as their motley cast of creatures – from rabbits to badgers to frogs – constantly changes.

And the music – central, as ever, to the company’s work – ensures that this is no ordinary woodland. Brandishing banjos and violins, Little Bulb’s endearingly goofy rock stars turn forest into gig, while kids excitedly clap along. The multitalented trio swap instruments as readily as costumes, deftly matching musical genre to animal.

As with all of Little Bulb’s work, the DIY aesthetic belies the craft and detail of a show that considers parents as much as kids. There are plenty of grinning asides for the grownups, along with some entertainingly wry, mock-David Attenborough commentary. But really the joy lies in the silliness and wonder, both of which Little Bulb offer in bumper Christmas-size portions.

Photo: Jack Offord/Handout.

Building Innovation

NORTH14 group photo credit Topher McGrillis

Originally written for The Stage.

Theatregoers and theatre-makers alike can breathe a sigh of relief as The Shed, the National Theatre’s temporary riverside venue, is granted a longer life. The 225-seat space could now be open for up to another three years, extending its programme of new and experimental work. Under the National Theatre’s associate director Ben Power, this little red powerhouse has stretched the remit of the theatre’s programming since opening last April, bringing in exciting new artists and different ways of working.

But The Shed is not alone. Across the country, a range of subsidised venues are investing in innovative, experimental programming, developing the next generation of artists from within their walls. From festivals to scratch nights, artist residencies to audience development initiatives, these regional producing houses are dedicated to developing the theatre ecology around them, even in lean times.

For Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, new ways of working with artists are not an accessory to the theatre’s core work – they are essential. “The old systems simply aren’t of use,” he says simply, referring to how funding cuts have altered the landscape. In their place, the venue is looking at strands of work that feed the ecosystem of young artists – such as its NORTH scheme for performing arts graduates – and offer the space for new companies to test their work in front of audiences.

This latter need is filled by the theatre’s Stage Three space, which Campbell is developing into a fringe venue for the city. The work on this stage will not be produced by Northern Stage, but instead the venue will be thrown open to Newcastle’s young artists. “Unless there’s a space for those artists to get their work on and make their mistakes in public, they aren’t going to evolve,” Campbell explains the intention. “Unless those young artists can grow an audience at the same time as they’re beginning to grow themselves as artists, nothing is ever going to change.”

For Emma Bettridge, curator of Bristol Old Vic’s artist development department Ferment, it is equally important to offer artists the opportunity to evolve within the theatre’s programme. She describes Ferment’s work as “an ongoing conversation with artists”, emphasising its flexibility in response to artists’ needs. “It’s become about working with artists that we’re really excited about and facilitating them in whatever way is suitable for them,” she explains.

One development in which Bettridge has been instrumental since joining the Old Vic is the backing of more work to full production. It is essential, she stresses, to get the work seen and give it a longer life, as well as connecting it to larger audiences. This is partly achieved through the two Ferment fortnights of work-in-progress showings each year, but Ferment also now supports between six and eight productions a year.

Elsewhere, festivals have become an important outlet for experimental and often unfinished work. Two such examples are Transform in Leeds, produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the New Wolsey Theatre’s Pulse Festival in Ipswich. Both festivals feature a mixture of finished productions and works-in-progress, placing the work of young artists alongside more established companies.

Rob Salmon, associate director at the New Wolsey, explains that the theatre has honed the Pulse Festival over the years in order to be able to simultaneously support bold programming and retain an audience. The festival now supports a mixture of high profile work and embryonic scratches, combining these different levels of experimentation in a way that manages the risk for theatregoers. Similarly, this year’s Transform Festival includes full-scale commissions, visiting shows from mid-career artists and showings of work in development.

What both Salmon and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s associate producer Amy Letman are adamant about, however, is the need to extend this kind of work beyond the isolated pocket of a short festival. Salmon has recently started up Pulse Presents, a strand of work that keeps the festival’s spirit alive throughout the year. The aim behind it, he says, was to “keep that work ongoing rather than it being something that crashed into the programme at one point in the year and then disappeared”.

Letman agrees: “I think the key thing is people know that there’s an ongoing commitment and desire for this work, and that it’s not something that flashes up and that we do once, but that it’s an ongoing part of our programme. The fact that the work is coming back helps to develop the audience.”

For all of these theatres, they understand this commitment to pushing their programming and supporting new artists as absolutely key to their artistic purpose. Asked how this work fits into his vision for Northern Stage, Campbell responds, “it is the vision”. Meanwhile Peter Rowe, artistic director of the New Wolsey, describes it as the theatre’s “particular mission” to help companies make the leap from small-scale to mid-scale work.

These sentiments are echoed by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who tentatively suggests that theatres like his have a leadership role in their regions. “The problem with leadership roles in the past with big organisations is that they set an agenda which is about how you should do it, and that isn’t what I mean by leadership role. What I mean by leadership role in a city, in an area like this, is that our leadership role is about facilitation, it’s about collaboration.”

In times of stretched funding, that notion of collaboration could become increasingly crucial. Importantly, in all of these examples it is the theatres’ status as larger, regularly funded organisations that allows them to take the necessary risks in showing and developing new work. About the necessity of subsidy, Bettridge is unequivocal: “We fill a gap for risk-taking. We always need to have a subsidised pot of money that can we can invest in the ideas stage.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

Reinventing the C Word

A Midsummer Night's Dream Full company - Credit Simon Annand (2)

Originally written for Prompt.

Something quietly extraordinary is happening in Bristol. While around the rest of the country stories flood in about the plight of precarious arts organisations and the cuts being passed down by local authorities, here there is a genuine conversation taking place between the arts community and local government about how they might move forward together in the face of reduced funding. In Bristol, the ‘c’ word is not cuts, but collaboration.

The healthy discussion that is currently taking place around the arts in Bristol is largely driven by the passionate commitment of new Mayor George Ferguson. Bringing with him experience from a range of architectural regeneration projects and a personal history of heavy involvement with the arts and cultural scene in Bristol, Ferguson has taken on the role with a firm belief in the importance of the arts to the city and its ongoing revitalization. He is keen to emphasise that he is “absolutely determined that I work with the arts to defend them as much as possible at a time when money is extremely tight”.

While the primary focus of concern might be on squeezed central funding from the Arts Council, money from local authorities also forms a vital part of theatres’ financial make-up. As councils everywhere face slashes to their budgets, the arts are one of the areas up for review in local government spending. One need only look at examples such as Newcastle Council’s widely publicised proposal to make a 100% cut to arts funding in the city and now Westminster’s decision to do the same by 2015 to understand the difficulties that theatres are currently facing.

“Like everywhere else in the country, the landscape is pretty bleak in terms of support for the arts in Bristol and particularly in the region around Bristol,” says the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris, acknowledging that the city is no exception in terms of funding decreases. “But the exciting thing – and for me the completely new thing – is that in Bristol there is a way of thinking about arts provision and the cultural life of the city which is holistic.”

In marked contrast with the attitude of many other local authorities, Bristol City Council views the arts as a vital component in the life of the area. As Morris puts it, “the premise that the cultural life of the city is an irremovable part of what makes it viable, an irreducible ingredient in its ongoing success, is already made here”. Comparing Bristol to other cities across the UK, Ferguson adds, “maybe we’re the least apologetic of all the cities about the importance of investment in the arts”.

To illustrate his argument about the regenerative power of the arts, Ferguson points to the example of the Tobacco Factory, a once derelict and abandoned industrial building that he took over and renovated 15 years ago. Replacing the old tobacco industry with a hub of cultural activity, the Tobacco Factory is now home to a thriving theatre and has helped to revive the surrounding area, providing economic stimulus in the form of bars, restaurants and other businesses. As Ferguson observes, “it’s a completely different place to the one that I found 15 years ago”. He is also emphatic about the financial value of the city’s culture, suggesting that “every pound that goes into the arts is probably resulting in £10 of regeneration benefit within the greater community”.

But this focus on the arts as a key element in the regeneration of an area is more than a simple economic argument. While there is proof that a flourishing arts scene stimulates economic activity, it is also an attraction for people to move to the area and therefore sustain it going forward. Morris argues that this is something that arts organisations need to recognise just as much as local authorities. “The arts need to be part of a holistic conversation,” he insists. “There isn’t a separate conversation about the arts; there’s a conversation about the health and regeneration and growth of the whole city, which includes the arts.”

One current example from Bristol effectively demonstrates what can be achieved when the arts become an integral part of wider considerations about an urban area. Following the success of last year’s production of Treasure Island on an outdoor ship, the Bristol Old Vic is once again taking to the streets of the city for its summer family show, creating an ambitious open-air woodland set. Meanwhile, as part of an entirely separate initiative, the Mayor is introducing traffic-free Sundays in the city centre. Thanks to the atmosphere of open discussion, these two projects have been able to link up, benefitting all parties involved.

In order for these holistic conversations to take place, however, arts organisations need to work together. Rather than competing for a decreasing pot of funding, Morris suggests that the arts community has the best chance of survival when venues join forces. He provides the example of the Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory Theatre: “We’ve discovered that both of our cases for funding are stronger if we’re collaborating in how we strategise them. That’s not necessarily an easy position to get to, but it’s really vital.”

Speaking about the need for collaboration, Ferguson positions the local authority at the heart of such relationships. “It’s a four-way partnership between the arts organisation, local government, the Arts Council and business,” he explains, stressing the urgent need to bring business into this equation as government funding contracts. “I think the local authority can be the enabler that helps those four-way partnerships to happen,” he adds.

This enabling might take the form of making introductions to local businesses, initiating discussions between the various different parties, or simply ensuring that the arts remain part of the overall conversation about an area. What Ferguson makes clear, however, is that the relationship between arts organisations and their local authority cannot be about funding alone.

“We don’t want to hear that they want loads of money throwing at them, because that is the scarcest resource at the moment,” he says, injecting a stark note of realism. “But we do want to hear that they would like to work in partnership with us in order to seek maybe a more social-entrepreneurial way of proceeding.” Returning to that notion of collaboration, Ferguson continues, “it’s not a patronising partnership, it’s a partnership of equals, in that we both have the common interest of drawing audience activity and investment”.

Bristol is not entirely alone in this collaborative attitude. Further north, where cuts to local authority funding are even deeper, there are also positive stories. While the threat to arts funding in Newcastle rightfully received much media attention, below the radar other councils are working productively with arts organisations to weather the challenging financial environment. In Bolton, for instance, the local council has worked hard to maintain standstill funding to the Octagon Theatre since 2009, despite reductions in overall budgets. The theatre is unequivocal about the importance of this support.

“Since I arrived in Bolton a year ago the support of the town has been remarkable,” says chief executive Roddy Gauld. “During my first meeting with the Council Chief Executive he said he was proud that Bolton had three things: a major football club, a university and a producing theatre.”

As well as protecting funding as far as possible, Bolton Council has worked collaboratively with the Octagon in other ways. The theatre has recently received a £50,000 grant, for example, which will go towards refurbishing the theatre’s cafe and bar this summer. Beyond financial assistance, the council has also been able to think more creatively about alternative ways in which to support the Octagon, offering practical help such as IT and property services. According to Gauld, this all stands as proof of Bolton Council’s recognition of the role that the theatre plays in attracting visitors to the town.

Once again, the example of Bolton has as much to do with a valued relationship between the theatre and its local community as it has to do with money. “I think the Council is totally aware of the value the theatre brings to Bolton,” says Gauld. “It’s obviously important to them as an asset, and of course there’s the social and economic impact we make, but they also see and feel the town’s sense of pride and affection for the Octagon.”

Commenting on the similar sense of pride that people in Bristol hold for the arts in their city, Morris talks about the “character” of a place and the need for local government to understand the individual character of its local area. It is ultimately this understanding that is key to any relationship between local authorities and the arts. “In significantly different ways, cultural activity is a really important part of the character of every city,” Morris argues. “There’s a lesson to be learn from looking at a city, trying to work out what its particular cultural character might be, and then trying to invest in that.”

Photo: Bristol Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Simon Annand.