Reviews BristolNational Published 19 October 2018

Review: Hollering Woman Creek and A Little Death at Bristol Old Vic

16-20 October

Death and birth: Lilith Wozniak reviews a double bill of new work developed through Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment programme.

Lilith Wozniak
Amy Mason in Hollering Woman Creek at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Bristol Old Vic Ferment

Amy Mason in Hollering Woman Creek at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Bristol Old Vic Ferment

Hollering Woman Creek

Hollering Woman Creek is a one-woman show addressed to the audience, based on an experience the writer and performer (Amy Mason) had. And there are many things about the show that are what you would expect from this kind of autobiographical show – formally there aren’t that many surprises. But there is something in the tone which is pleasantly different – in its delivery it often feels more like a short story than a memoir. The kind of short story written by a probably American (or Canadian) probably female author, where a series of every-day or shattering events are all described in simple, unadorned detail, yet meaning and metaphor is somehow layered delicately on each moment.

This may come from the figure of Mason herself. The way she describes her experiences in Texas make that past self seem more like a character than herself. Which seems odd, because she felt like a very authentic* host. Gently wry but open, poetic and matter of fact, Mason is a poet and a comic throughout, switching between detailed descriptive passages and sarcastic asides.

Where the show finds many of its layers of meaning is in the juxtaposition of birth and death – Mason discovers she is pregnant shortly before a trip to Texas where she is researching death row. Folklore and religion and highway signs all serve to build up strange contradictions in a place where a ‘pro-life’ billboard can sit across from a building where men wait to be killed.

The show is well-balanced and beguiling, and the country/folk music written by Megan Henwood provides beautiful bridges for the narrative.

*I really hate using this word, especially when talking about autobiographical performance – it feels odd to rank how ‘authentic’ people seem when we have no idea how they normally act and they are obviously presenting a performance of themselves. So please read it as an impression of the performance rather than the ‘real-ness’ of it.

Vic Llewellyn in A Little Death at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Jack Offord

Vic Llewellyn in A Little Death at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Jack Offord

A Little Death

There’s something in A Little Death which made me think of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree. Part of that comes from something in it which comforts and discomforts the audience, something about the way Llewellyn has of speaking to the audience. But mostly it has less to do with the content of An Oak Tree and more to do with its status – something which has the place of a contemporary classic. And that’s what A Little Death feels like – something that next year, and in ten years as well, will be a text you buy in the National Theatre bookshop, that will be a common reference, that students will be discussing in seminar rooms around the country.

That probably all sounds a bit over the top, so I will try to convince you of how good it is in the next couple of hundred words. I’ll do my best.

A Little Death contains, among other moments and materials:

  • A butcher named William Williams, so nice they named him twice
  • A dollhouse
  • A father with missing toes and a fondness for telling dramatic stories
  • Deconstruction and reconstruction
  • A flipbook about disappearing penises (with accompanying song)
  • Shake Some Action by the Flaming Groovies
  • Stories of mass hysteria

One thing which makes it such a compelling piece of work is how beautifully it mixes and balances different forms – moments of calm object theatre illuminating dollhouse furniture without speaking; comic songs with matching dance routines; storytelling that mixes the dramatic and the delicate. The frequent switches between these, often accompanied by switches in time or place or narrative feel like they should give the play an almost cabaret-like feeling, but instead everything flows naturally, each moment adding to the last.

And it is this mixed bag of style that helps build up the stacked layers of meaning, like the butter in a rough puff pastry. Themes and motifs pop up in incredibly different ways, and connections between moments are lightly drawn but numerous. It is difficult to say in this review what the show is About because it feels like it is about so many different things, none of them simply rendered. It is about how we react to unexplainable events, how stories are made of others’ trauma, how we divide our attentions. But the beauty of the show (and what gives it the Contemporary Classic Studied For Years feel) is that it has reached a critical mass of meaning, where the connections can multiply in ways not necessarily initially intended, and students could hand in essays entitled ‘Approaches to over-saturation of the globalised world in A Little Death’ or ‘A Little Sex and Death: how do the erotic and morbid relate in the play?’ or ‘Happy Families: how symbols of children’s play are used to explore family relationships in A Little Death’ and each would be finding something interesting and unique in the play. The play feels simultaneously inescapably about Now, and the chaos and uncertainty that our lives and Twitter feeds are filled with, and about timeless stories of grief and family.

Much of the meaning in A Little Death comes from its use of scale – big and small mix and mingle both in the physical set and the stories that are told. The tiny dollhouse furniture (and the aforementioned flipbook) are used to tell stories of massive unexplained happenings, stories that fill the pages of newspapers and history books. But these big stories are themselves used to tell the stories of Williams’ family, so much smaller than these strange occurrences but just as big, in importance and emotion and connection.

I feel like I shouldn’t like the ending of this play. It feels like so many shows recently have had endings which explode with sudden outpourings of dancing or screaming or revolution or literal explosions, and it feels like it is because that’s what we all want. For Something to happen that breaks us out of what seems to be a constant circle of bad news, with no end in sight. But just as we don’t know how to make that Something happen in real life (or even what it is), so in many of these plays do the endings feel unearned – not quite reaching the catharsis they wish for due to a slight feeling of emptiness. A Little Death, however, does nothing if not earn its ending. With all its talk of mass hysteria and music and dance it sets up an ending which feels freeing even as it feels dangerous.

And as well as all the Meaning and Relevance and Layers the show is just so damn fun. It is playful and funny and at points had my mouth frozen open in a massive grin. It is without doubt one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Hollering Woman Creek and A Little Death are at the Bristol Old Vic until 20th October. More information here.

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Lilith Wozniak is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Hollering Woman Creek and A Little Death at Bristol Old Vic Show Info


Directed by Emma Bettridge / Tanuja Amarasuriya and Emma Williams

Written by Amy Mason / Vic Llewellyn

Cast includes Amy Mason, Megan Henwood, Elizabeth Westcott / Vic Llewellyn

Original Music Megan Henwood / Kid Carpet

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