I am lucky to live half way between Bristol and Bath, both cities have a very vibrant fringe theatre scene. Bristol has just cerebrated Mayfest, just over a week of adventurous theatre for playful people. I was only able to go to shows over the final weekend, which is frustrating as there were so many things that I wanted to see. Although probably good because multiple shows do start to put a strain on the purse strings (even though individual shows were very good value). Here is my round up of my time at Mayfest:
Friday night found me nibbling olives stuffed with something yummy as I chatted to one of my close friends about the frustrations of trying to make any progress in life, we both need to feel like we are making a difference, sometimes it feels so hard. Needless to say we have these conversations pretty frequently, we needed some light relief. So we sat in the White Bear pub on St Michaels Hill with our hands stamped, ready to be summoned to the Wardrobe Theatre.
We were there to see Katy and Rach an improv show which is described on the website as follows:
“Katy & Rach is a two girl improvised show about the beauty, awkwardness and tragedy of real life relationships performed by award-winning actresses Katy Schutte (Project 2) and Rachel Blackman (Stillpoint). Unlike other improv shows, they don’t play games or take suggestions from the audience, they just turn the lights on and start. So deft and detailed you won’t believe it is improvised. Come and witness a little world unfold.”
And we did just that, 3 little worlds in fact, we experienced a potential menage-a-trois in a lighthouse, a lesbian (maybe) relationship in the office and two friends setting a shed on fire whilst trying to have a firework party. As usual, in improv, the laughs came from multiple places, when the performers point out the obvious, when they go completely against what’s expected, the tension that builds in the pauses and the knowledge that everything was unscripted. The real gems came in the detail, when new characters were introduced to develop the picture in the scenes – e.g a fellow office worker, wearing headphones reacting to an argument by just looking up with disdain. Katy’s male characters were particularly big funny and gratifying.
Usually when I watch improv, it feels like it snowballs, very fast moving scenarios twisting and changing very quickly until they are practically unrecognisable. Moving on to a new exercise very quickly. This was different, instead of running through scenarios, with sharp changes, this was a slower build, a somewhat braver choice that created characters and scenes which really bedded in (somewhat literally in the case of the lighthouse
On Saturday I had a tourist day in Bristol, something Bristol is vey good for. I strolled around the docks, filled myself up on Nachos at the Watershed before catching two shows.
First up, the butterfly man at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, which was, as billed, very much a work in progress (I overheard someone saying that it was only 1.5 weeks in preparation, which would seem accurate). It took a look at depression that was possibly (or not) triggered by miscarriage, my personal view was that the miscarriage plot was tangental and distracting from some of the other threads of the story, perhaps because I didn’t feel the truth in the relationship between the husband and wife characters.
The depression scenes were well done, although no-one wants to come to the theatre to feel despondent and this is the danger of shows that deal with the struggles of mental illness. This is the main challenge that this show has, the show does a good job to show depression in as honest a light as possible, but there were some parts of the script that jarred with that, by not accurately representing how someone with depression would be treated by the health service (perhaps this didn’t matter, but the play did feel like it was going for integrity). The ending was not a happily ever after, but it was ok, which seems appropriate. As I said, the relationship between the husband and his wife were not strongly believable and there was a sense for me that the cast had not been well prepared (it is work in progress after all). I thought the design worked well, 3 white screens allowing projections of TV screens, or butterflies, or nothing for a clinical, hospital environment.
Best quote of the show
aren’t you medicating the wrong people, shouldn’t you be giving pills to the people who don’t care when a butterfly dies
A strong reflection of my (generalised) belief that it is the people who care who struggle to get on in our society and end up suffering with mental health problems, it is certainly largely true of the people in my circle.
Next up was My Son and Heir which was a delight from the off, and probably my Mayfest highlight. We walked into what looked like a party and walked out feeling like we’d been to a strange warped party of sorts, and taken all sorts of uppers and downers along the way!
The show is less of a narrative and more a snapshot in time. Which it was, in fact, designed to be, as this is part of a bigger picture, a life-long series of shows that Search Party are committed to making together. The pretty freakin awesome Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes. This snapshot was that of the life of a couple with young children and all the chaos that creates. Early on in the show the overexaggerated hope for what the new born son could become is spewed out in a wedding type speech by Jodie, a wonderful elongated, drunken rant about how their boy will change the world. This is mirrored later in a somewhat darker speech made by Pete about all the things they hope their son won’t become. What began playful with toys and cakes (I scooped icing from the top of one, shared with half the audience and shoved sugary goodness into my mouth), morphed into a twisted world of control and helplessness, depicted by the force feeding of a very large plate of peas, mirroring the feeding of a child but conveying a deeper darker level of controlling behaviour. The ending was like some sort of skewed fairytale and it felt good. I look forward to watching them grow old together.
On Sunday I only went to see just one show, Hardy Animal by Laura Dannequin. The reason I chose this show was because it was about chronic pain, something that I have experienced. It was a slightly uncomfortable story of a dancer who could not dance, because of pain. Her journey through a number of healthcare professionals and personal research is something I related to. But she does dance, she is gradually teaching herself that pain doesn’t mean harm. Her performance showed so much truth, she is still on her journey and you could feel both the fragility and the strength of letting us into that journey. As it says in the programme about all chronic pain suffers, Laura showed:
grace, humility, determination and courage
And she hasn’t given up.
I hope to write more about this subject in the future.
Thank you Mayfest for a weekend of nurturing, laughing and exploring.
I will be making video reviews of some of the shows at The Bath Fringe Festival, which has already started. If you want to see them subscribe to Spitting Diamonds, my YouTube Channel.