DramaReviewSouth WestYouth Theatre

Under A Cardboard Sea – Bristol Old Vic

Writer: Silva Semerciyan
Director: Lisa Gregan and Matt Grinter
Reviewer: Kris Hallett

In the fallow years of the mid-noughties, when Bristol Old Vic looked in serious trouble of no longer being a working theatre, the young company continued to perform and so became an essential cog in allowing the organisation to claim its place as the country’s oldest working theatre. So it is only right that they get a chance to be part of this bonanza 250th-anniversary celebration. Fittingly, for what really is a jewel in the crown of this theatre, they also provide the most spectacular moment of the year so far.

As over 90 young people flood the stage, wave upon wave of young talent in the first flush of youth, it is impossible not to hold your breath and be awed purely by the sheer number. It is spectacle on an epic scale, a moment that the theatre is ideally placed to create. If nothing else directors Lisa Gregan and Matt Grinter deserve plaudits for their marshalling of such a large and diverse company, ensuring that there is plenty of material for every member to get their teeth into from the youngest aged five to the oldest at 25.

The spectacle alone would be enough to justify its inclusion in the season but what is most satisfactory is that the play crafted around it is a rollicking novelistic adventure with the feel both of Philip Pulman’s Sally Lockhart’s series and also of the Royal Shakespeare Companies legendary production of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. There is something slightly subversive in the subject matter; devised by the company and honed by local playwright Silva Semerciyan; a piece about theatre that doesn’t celebrate but sees it as a terrifying, harsh, exploitative world where the children lured in are forced to perform in all singing versions of Shakespeare’s plays and where death is an occupational hazard for those who step out upon its stage.

Add to this a stirring teenage heroine, a romantic subplot between an on the run sailor and aspiring actor and a fiery climatic riot, it’s a narrative that doesn’t stint on incident. There are some weaknesses, its early storytelling isn’t as clear as it should be and leaves its audience scrambling to catch up while the moment a stage manager comes on the stage with a modern gleaming cans set is an anachronism too far in a world that, though set in an obviously fantasy world, still has a Victorian era feel to it.

Sadie Gray is a winning heroine as Addie King, transitioning from curious child to heroism as she learns the secrets of the theatre that lures the children into its net, while Lila Stewart adds layers to the best friend who finds herself pushed out as events turn darker. Holding up the male end, Richard Ainsley adds swagger and swashbuckling as the most wanted sailor, while Matt Landau is a dastardly villain right out of the Penny Dreadful with his scorched face and cold disregard for human life.

In a sterling year for Bristol Old Vic, this is another fine addition and proof that in Bristol the outreach work defines its theatre just as much as its more starry main house programming.

Runs until 6 August 2016 | Image: BOV

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