The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic


“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

This classic play marks 100 years since the birth of its playwright Arthur Miller by returning to the stage of its 1954 British première (its true première was a year earlier, on Broadway). Directed by Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, the production is largely traditional, with a few unusual twists. The cast gathers faces familiar to the Bristol stage with those from farther afield, but there are no star names, which is to its credit. This play works well as an ensemble, allowing each character’s importance to the story be highlighted in turn.

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Neil Bartlett puts Great Expectations on stage

Great Expectations
Bristol Old Vic, 2 October

Great Expections at Bristol Old Vic
Adjoa Andoh as Miss Havisham. Photography by Mark Douet.

This new stage adaptation of Dickens’ great novel had the atmosphere right from the very first moment. Though I was initially thrown by the unusual staging, I immediately knew where I was and with whom, and greatly enjoyed reliving the story of Pip.

The first impression can’t help but be that staging, with a sparse set and minimal props (at one point the actors were stood in a completely empty black stage) and most of the cast on stage for key scenes, acting as a chorus of voices and/or visible stage hands. I did find this initially distracted me from the acting but once you get used to it it’s actually very effective and immediate.

The cast (especially Tom Canton, who played Pip) narrated the story as well as acting it, often switching between the two mid-sentence. A lot of Dickens’ original language has been absorbed into both the script and the acting, which makes sense of and emphasises the beauty of the language. I laughed out loud but I also came close to tears several times.

That is something the play does brilliantly – it gets Dickens’ humour and really uses it. Dickens characters are notoriously a mix of caricature and realistic, and the acting reflected that, with some characters (e.g. Miss Havisham’s relative Sarah Pocket, played by Miltos Yerolemou) consistently playing it for laughs. However, I did think Estella and Miss Havisham might have merited a few more subtle moments. Pip is just the right mixture of pathos, innocence, frustrating boy making mistakes and downright arrogant/self-serving young man.

I loved the use of doors as props – it was original and effective. For instance, the bewildering size of Miss Havisham’s house was created by having several actors holding doors that they move around to create a maze of corridors. However, the other major prop – microphones on stands – I was less convinced by. The actors would occasionally speak into the microphones to add sound effects, which sounds good on paper but again was something that for me jolted me out of being absorbed by the story and reminded me that these were actors on a stage.

Overall, though, the sound staging was excellent and formed a big part of the wonderfully chilling atmosphere. And that scene, you know, the last one with Miss Havisham (played by Adjoa Andoh), was absolutely brilliantly staged, with Andoh putting her heart and soul into it. I’m so glad they really went for it. It’s supposed to be a big dramatic moment and deserves this treatment.

The more I reflect on it, the more I realise how well this adaptation was done. In just 2.5 hours they get to the heart and soul of a fairly big, dense work of fiction. They even made me want to go back and read Dickens, which isn’t something I’ve wanted to do for a few years now!

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

The show runs until 2 November.

It was only a series of feelings

I'm the King of the Castle

I’m the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill

I think I may have left it a little too long to write this review because I was struggling to think of coherent things to say. Which is not to disparage the book. I really enjoyed it. I had just fried my brain a little with too much stuff.

This is the story of a fight for supremacy between two 10–11 year old boys. Hill perfectly captures how to them it is of utmost importance, while to their parents there is nothing of import going on. Edmund Hooper lives quietly with his father in their big old family home. He is dismayed when his father employs a new live-in housekeeper, Mrs Kingshaw, who brings her son Charles along. He is even more dismayed when it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Kingshaw is as much a candidate for second wife as she is housekeeper. Her son is equally dismayed by this idea, partly due to jealousy of his mother’s time, but primarily due to the increasing possibility that he will spend his entire life being bullied by Hooper.

The style is slightly odd and stilted, which I suppose you could say reflects the awkwardness and distance between all these characters who ought to be intimately linked. Kingshaw thinks at one point:

“He wanted to say I’ve come here and I don’t like it [but] I’ve got to stay here [so] why can’t we make the best of things? He was willing to put himself out, he would even, just at this moment, have said he would do whatever Hooper wanted, would acknowledge him as a master of his own territory. But he couldn’t put any of it into words, not even to himself, it was only a series of feelings, overlapping one another like small waves. He was confused.”

The relationship between the boys is cleverly created. Physically they are approximate equals but Hooper has confidence and the home territory, giving him the advantage. He terrorises his prey by subtly observing Kingshaw’s many fears and playing on them. Hooper is also the cleverer of the two, knowing just how to behave in front of their parents so that they suspect nothing. Kingshaw is not a sweet innocent, though. When he gets a chance to have the upper hand he takes it, usually.

There are moments of genuine childish play in the middle of it all that give you hope that the parents will be right after all, that two boys of the same age will always become friends if thrown together. But almost as soon as these moments begin, the seeds of doubt are being sown, as the boys size one another up.

On an aside, I bought the really quite beautiful Penguin Decades edition, with cover art by Zandra Rhodes. I am such a sucker for pretty books.

First published 1970 by Hamish Hamilton.

The perils of social mobility

by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.