Wild Oats

John O'Keefe
Bristol Old Vic

Sam Alexander as Jack Rover and Jo Herbert as Lady Amaranth Credit: Mark Douet
Debra Penny as Babs Johnson Credit: Mark Douet
Cornelius Booth, Sam Alexander and Sion Tudor Owen Credit: Mark Douet

The much-anticipated opening of Bristol Old Vic’s Georgian stage after its £12 million renovation kicks off with John O’Keefe’s 1791 romp involving a strolling player, a few Quakers, a smattering of sailors and a complex case of mistaken identity.

It's a very good choice. O’Keefe’s comedy is contemporary to the theatre itself, which was built (illegally) 25 years before the play was first staged.

The National Theatre’s Mark Rosenblatt directs, anchoring the company in the 1940s from the opening scene when the Old Vic was first re-born as a theatre after years spent languishing as a warehouse.

A universally talented cast pick their way through O’Keefe’s intricate but delightful comedy. Jo Herbert is irresistibly over-earnest as Lady Amaranth; Sam Alexander is utterly engaging as the Bard-loving Jack Rover, a strolling player at the heart of the action, and Hugh Skinner hits precisely the right level of silliness with his beguiling fop, Harry Thunder.

In addition, there is fine support from the rest of the cast. Siôn Tudor Owen as Gammon and as Mr Trap; Debra Penny as Babs Johnson; Emily May Smith as Jane and Issac Stanmore as Sim are particularly worthy of mention; they share a meticulous comic timing and some precision physicality which puts the smile on your face from the off and intermittently reduced the auditorium to belly laughter.

Movement direction from Lecoq-trained Catherine Alexander grounds the performances, adding greatly to the production’s appeal.

Rosenblatt may not always make it easy for the audience to keep the finer points of plot clear in their sights, but perversely that seems not to detract from the sheer delight of this production.

There is an unmissable sense of place which the characters share just as strongly as the audience. It is a pertinent choice and perfectly shows off the unique intimacy of this fine Georgian theatre. The cast make constant reference to both the presence of the audience and to the space itself and the house lights remain on for most of the performance. When set against Ben Stones’s design, the cumulative effect is a lovely, laid-back intimacy which so suits the Old Vic.

The intricate twists and turns of the plot here have certainly not been helped by the additional complexities of timeline layered on by Rosenblatt—nor perhaps by the occasional anachronistic prop—but this is nonetheless an irresistible production, beautifully staged and with a pitch-perfect cast.

Reviewer: Allison Vale

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