It’s been over six years since Rage Against The Machine beat Joe McElderry to the Christmas number one spot, yet the desire to stick a boot in ‘the Machine’ is still alive and well in the Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company. Their latest play, Under A Cardboard Sea, is set in a dystopian environment where the little-understood Machine underpins all of the city’s functions and the underclass are turned into fertiliser when unable to work effectively anymore.
The BOVYC have a thing for depicting dystopias. Previous shows have included Bertolt Brecht’s St Joan of the Stockyards and Life Raft, which told the story of a group of children afloat in the sea after a nameless war had destroyed their previous way of life. That story ended up going a bit Lord of the Flies, whereas Under A Cardboard Sea culminates in a Happy Ending. In this respect, and a few others, Under A Cardboard Sea is more in the mould of Disney dystopias than the genuine creepiness and complicated endings of St Joan and Life Raft. This latest production has the E.M. Forster-esque Machine casting grey shadows across the townsfolk and a Child Catcher-turned-Artistic-Director who lures little urchins off to join the sinister underworld of The Theatre. But it stops short of being actually unsettling and instead is more about demonstrating the directorial skill behind getting a hundred small people on stage at once and having them all perform to a polished professional standard.
Indeed it seems that part of the point of this production with its self-referential theme of child actors in the theatre is to celebrate the BOVYC itself as part of the larger 250th anniversary celebrations of the theatre. In this respect, it is an impressive performance. Another similarity with other shows by the company is the fluid integration of live music into the work. As with the recent Out of Sky Made in Bristol play, some of the most straightforward demonstrations of the talent of the young cast come from their musical ability.
Max Johns’ multi-level set design is also another strength, playfully blurring the onstage/offstage/backstage areas of a theatre whilst avoiding becoming too look-at-me-I’m-meta. The cardboard sea itself does get folded out at one point, but it’s the mechanised unison dancing, illuminated by Tim Streader’s lighting design, that’s most memorable.
Everything about this production, including the cuteness of small children in lion costumes, screams that you would have to have a heart of stone to dislike it. It would be like stamping on the tail of the lobster in the Christmas play in Love Actually. But as people who know me often point out, my internal organs are carved from granite and I therefore have to confess that I liked Under A Cardboard Sea a lot less than other BOVYC productions I’ve watched previously. This is a show impressive for its scale and its style, but it also felt a little too chummy, a little too whimsical in a style suited to Ratty and Mole on a bumptious picnic by a lake.
There’s also a bit of theme in BOVYC productions to set them in a non-identifiable time period that is simply ENGLAND in a vaguely steam punk or neotraditionalist style. It’s never specifically Victorian or 1940, yet both are there to the extent that if the Five Children and Psammead bounced on stage along with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, you wouldn’t entirely be surprised. As the Bristol Old Vic moves forwards from its 250th anniversary, it would be nice to see its Young Company perform in productions that are mildly less misty-eyed in their depictions of childhood. Because this version of nostalgia somehow sits slightly awkwardly against the backdrop of a thoroughly modern, multicultural and complex urban city like Bristol.
The Bristol Old Vic Young Company clearly has the talent and means to produce high quality pieces of theatre. Perhaps rather than always relying on fictionalised dystopias as a way of providing edginess, now is the time to start making work that addresses the less idyllic side of real, modern life. Outside of the theatre, the city the company operates in has more than enough genuine problems revolving around poverty and inequality without going down a sci-fi route. This isn’t a rallying cry for verbatim theatre, but more for children’s theatre that tells the stories of real, modern children – especially those without cut-glass English accents – who are messy and gobby and wear Nikes instead of pull-overs. Telling the stories of different people is important, particularly where a youth company is concerned, as doing so may encourage a wider variety of children to want to be a part of what is happening on stage. Otherwise, you’re not really smashing the machine at all.