Starter for Ten musical at Bristol Old Vic review – University Challenge and 80s nostalgia grace the stage

The world premiere production runs until 30 March

The cast of Starter for Ten at the Bristol Old Vic
The cast of Starter for Ten, © Marc Brenner

Antic Productions artistic directors Charlie Parham and Emma Hall have transformed David Nicholls’ awkward coming-of-age novel about a young working-class kid yearning to be on University Challenge into a showstopper musical full of joy, comedy and 80s nostalgia.

Starter For Ten, a new musical at Bristol Old Vic based on the book by Nicholls and the subsequent film (starring James McAvoy) tells the story of 18-year-old Brian, played in this adaption by a charming, bumbling Adam Bregman, leaving his home in Southend to start his first year at the University of Bristol.

Adam and his small but mighty bandit of cast members bring act after act of energetic laugh-out-loud theatre, while navigating high-energy choreography courtesy of Shelley Maxwell, a host of props and multiple character changes.

As an ex-University of Bristol student myself, it’s hard not to feel the tug of melancholia as Brian stumbles his way through freshers fair, flirts with politics, has his first chaotically drunken student night, and distances himself from home friends before finding his feet, and family, once more.

But it’s not just Brian that charms the crowd with his naively romantic view of the world. Every character gets their moment in the spotlight here.

While Emily Lane dazzles the audience with her operatic talent and channels Madonna in the video of “Material Girl”, Will Jennings, who plays Patrick, elicits hysterics from the crowd with his awkwardly anxious posh nerd disposition as the university challenge team captain.

Meanwhile, ex-Princeton medicine geek Lucy (played by Miracle Chance) has a hilarious solo rap moment in a style that harks back to maths club nerd Kevin G in the iconic Mean Girls winter talent show, and Bamber Gascoigne, played by Robert Portal, warms up the crowd with his quiz show questions, and old school charm.

But it was Bake Off star Mel Giedroyc who stole the show as she returned to the stage in the second half (in one of her many characters) as Julia Bland, the game show production company boss with her standing-ovation-worthy solo act. 

Mel Giedroyc in a scene from Starter for Ten at Bristol Old Vic
Mel Giedroyc in Starter for Ten, © Marc Brenner

Donning a Margaret Thatcher-esque chequered suit, a perm and an electric guitar, Mel riled the crowd with her “starter for ten” question: What now-household sugary drink did Dr Vernon Charley, a leading scientist at the University of Bristol, produce in 1938?

The answer, Ribena, was shouted out by all Bristolians in the room, who were only too keen to show off their local knowledge, while those from elsewhere were shunned and promptly told to “go back to South Kensington”.

Elsewhere, a simple but clever prop set-up of desks that transformed into competition panels, into lecture rooms and even into Christmas dinner tables provided a seamless backdrop to the cast’s performances, while an impressive orchestra billowed a magnificently authentic soundtrack by Hatty Carman and Tom Rasmussen brimming with 80s nostalgia.

Once word gets out about how infectious the theatre adaptation of Starter for Ten is, it’s easy to imagine the show getting picked up by theatres across the UK. With the buzz around the Netflix adaptation of David Nicholls’ other hit novel, One Day, it would be a crying shame not to introduce the world to the riotous world of Starter for Ten as well.