What could be finer than a perfect summer's evening in the centre of Bristol: blue skies, Mediterranean warmth, a few seagulls cawing overhead and the Bristol Old Vic's latest outdoor show, a version of Michael Morpurgo's Aesop's Fables adapted for the stage by the brilliant team of Director Sally Cookson and Dramaturg Adam Peck, the duo responsible for the Tobacco Factory's Cinderella?
As he did for 2011's Treasure Island, Phil Eddolls has designed an ingenious set. This features a central grassy area, a higher mini-stage for the musicians and a walkway reached by ladders which serves as a lookout post, a mountain viewpoint and a hiding place for scared mice or humans. The stage is used beautifully to give the production a fluidity which means the pace never drags and our attention never wanders.
The cast of five act, sing and dance their way through some of Aesop's best-loved stories with energy, humour and panache aplenty. These are moral tales but they never feel moralising. Benji Bower and Will Bower's music, performed by the whole ensemble, is a central part of the evening's pleasure. There are witty songs, lovely musical accompaniments and clever sound effects.
The costumes and props (those sheep, that goose!) by the inventive Katie Sykes are a comic delight.
The protean cast is first-rate: Chris Bianchi is a suitably manic hare in the hilarious hare and tortoise segment. A comically crooning sun and materialism incarnate ("I want that" he repeats as he flicks through the latest edition of Clifton Life) as the farmer whose goose lays golden eggs. Lucy Tuck's shy tortoise leading the audience in a slow Mexican wave, her shepherdess complaining about teenagers, her school-mistress styled mouse giving her fellow rodents 30 seconds to come up with a brilliant idea to get rid of the cat are equally vivid characters. Tom Wainwright's young shepherd nearly steals the show in the opening scene of the second half: what he did came off perfectly.
The audience loved it. The show has a strong local feel, from language ("Where's that wolf to?") to the casting of well-known actors and musicians from the city's various theatres. The Bristol Old Vic has another hit on its hands and has had the good sense to make Sally Cookson an associate artist, which means we have many more such evenings to look forward to in the coming years.
- John Campbell
See also: Tom Morris on the Bristol Proms