Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 7 May
Twisted Theatre

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

You can tell when you walk into the Studio Theatre, with toys and cider bottles strewn between the instruments on their stands, long-stemmed roses and little plastic figures arranged on the tables, that this is going to be an unusual night’s entertainment. It’s a musical cabaret, with some acting and storytelling mixed in. It’s different, and I liked that about it.

The theme is nursery rhymes – the dark side. Twisted Theatre have investigated the historical origins of those familiar childhood songs and from that research, written original songs (and a couple of poems set to music) that illuminate those stories with a sense of humour and pathos. I must say from the outset that the music that forms the basis of this show is amazing. Lead singer and compère Nuala Honan’s voice is incredible. In the first song there is a section where she is wailing, in the character of a mother whose baby has died, and I felt chills down my spine. She’s also funny. I liked her eye rolling imitation of a decapitated head. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

It’s certainly not all about the laughs. They allow the sadness of the stories to come through as well. The end of Jill’s monologue to Jack (styled as a series of text messages) is heartbreaking. And their retelling of “Pop goes the weasel” as a tale of poverty is moving both lyrically and musically.

Twisted Theatre
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

The troupe’s musical style reminded me of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band, which is the highest praise I can give, but I don’t just mean that they’re good. The combination of instruments (cello, viola, violin, drums and occasional glockenspiel) and the blues style of singing had the definite feeling of a New Orleans jazz club, though the stories being told are thoroughly European. Though Honan very much led the performance, all the musicians are great singers as well as being excellent at their own instruments. There’s a brilliant section when the four women descend on the one man on stage, drummer Robert Burgess, ousting him from his seat, and the women proceed to drum altogether, with cellist Jessica Macdonald doing a fine job of leading the rhythm.

This is not a slick, neat show. In fact, it’s a little…rough. I got the impression that the cast know they tend to the chaotic and decided to make a virtue of that, and their plan worked better in some places than others. I loved the meat cleaver chopping celery (I mean, it was slightly scary, in a frantic crazed way, but it was also funny and impressively rhythmical) but the pantomime of the electric leads getting tangled every time violinist Elizabeth Westcott and violist Emma Hooper moved around the stage got a little bit tiring. It’s good to see that the cast are having fun and that they grasp that what they are doing has its silly side, but a tiny bit more polish might not hurt.

They will certainly have plenty of time to add that polish before the end of their run as this show is touring for the rest of the year. Do check for details of dates and venues. To get a flavour you can listen to their song “Baby plug hole” on Soundcloud. I quite fancy a second helping myself.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

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