Reviews BristolNationalReviews Published 16 May 2016

Review: Castle Rock at Bristol Old Vic Studio

Bristol Old Vic Studio ⋄ 14th - 15th May 2016

Maddy Costa reviews Massive Owl’s journey into the “coming-of-age-story”.

Maddy Costa
Castle Rock at Bristol Old Vic Studio. Photo: Paul Samuel White.

Castle Rock at Bristol Old Vic Studio. Photo: Paul Samuel White.

“It’s like a coming-of-age story, it was one of River Phoenix’s first films and…”

“… a coming-of-age story, it has four boys in it and…”

“…ing-of-age story, these kids come across a dead body and…”

In calling their work a “distortion of the film Stand By Me”, young Bristol company Massive Owl establish a misleading expectation: that some knowledge of the movie or its source text, a novella by Stephen King, is necessary to appreciate what they’re doing. It isn’t. Rather than distort, the company have simply selected three elements that might be found in these works and brought them into a new alignment. Those elements – a train, a deer and a boy called Ray – might hover in the background of a hundred other stories; their relationship might be intriguing however the company had come up with them.

If the point is to foreground the differences between film and theatre as media, or to encourage audiences to think about the work of adaptation, for a long time it backfires, because the methods and minutes taken to establish those elements is frustrating. A projector is lifted and tilted to shift the light it casts across the space; performers pace the white rectangle on the floor; in neither case is it clear what beauty they’re finding here, or meaning, or anything really. Its only in the final sequence, movement and sound and shadow and light layered with architectural elegance and a deep sense of mystery, that the trio achieve a purposeful theatricality.

But that “purposeful” is exposing: deep within Castle Rock is a thought about time. An opening text tells us that its setting is 1959 (when the story of Stand By Me happens) and 1986 (when the film was released), that these two dates are simultaneous, and we will accept this, a comment spoken in the lulling monotone of a hypnotist. The pace of storytelling in both the film and its source novella is slow, slower than we live now, and Massive Owl have inhaled that slowness, let it permeate their limbs, until every movement is considered and deliberate. The invitation here is to stillness: to stand, to stand by.

So maybe a better word than purposeful is simply full. And there are long stretches when Castle Rock doesn’t feel full, when – for all the consideration – it’s not sufficiently clear what the three performers are intending to communicate, be it story or ambiguity. An early scene in which Ray treads the floor with a haunting memory of his dead brother has something of competition in it, the power struggle of siblings. That scene echoes in the introduction of the train, played by Jenny Duffy in unsettling mahogany lipstick and a boxy white suit: she strides the same lines, the word train shining from the projector to slide up the blank white curtain behind her. It’s a knowingly low-fi aesthetic and a distracting one, because it’s too sparse for anything other than meticulous, precise perfection, and that’s not what it’s given here.

That said, Sam Powell’s live soundtrack, recorded using little more than humming and the slap of palm on microphone, is finely pitched between mesmerising and menacing. (There’s an additional music credit to Sammy Metcalf of Sleepwalk Collective, and the vagueness of that credit does nothing to convey the extent of similarities, in mood and focus, between the two companies.) In fact, it helps to think of the entire performance being made on a loop pedal: each body enacts a track, Danny Prosser bouncing on the balls of his feet as Ray, Duffy all sharp lines as the train, Powell scuttling in spindly heels as the deer, and then, in the final 12 or so minutes, the three tracks merging, levels between them being constantly mixed so that now one, now the other, is the dominant sound. It’s strikingly effective, transformative even: a sudden switch, the way an encounter with death will jolt one’s mental state from innocence to experience.

And it’s a coming-of-age story, remember. Those 45 minutes of build-up are just like childhood: empty, unknown, quietly boring. It’s a matter of waiting for what comes next.

Castle Rock was on as part of Mayfest 2016. Click here for more of their programme.


Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

Review: Castle Rock at Bristol Old Vic Studio Show Info

Written by Jenny Duffy, Sam Powell and Danny Prosser

Cast includes Jenny Duffy, Sam Powell and Danny Prosser

Original Music Sammy Metcalfe/Sleepwalk Collective



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