Reviews Bristol Published 18 January 2016

St Joan of the Stockyards

Bristol Old Vic Studio ⋄ 13th - 16th January 2016

Rosemary Waugh sees “elements of Surrealism” collide with excellent choreography and music in The Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s latest production.

Rosemary Waugh
Credit: Camilla Adams

Credit: Camilla Adams

The idea of a ruling elite systematically stamping on the necks of the poor is a concept we have heard a lot from over the past few years. A new production of Bertolt Brecht’s little-performed play St Joan of the Stockyards by the Bristol Old Vic Young Company could therefore easily have become something that wore its political parallels a little too heavily on its undernourished worker chest. However, this is a show that thoroughly succeeds in being both delicately subversive and – contrary to subject matter – at moments very funny.

In fact, in light of complaints levelled at Jeremy Corbyn for being too straight-laced in his dissection of the problems faced by the working class, perhaps the answer for the Labour leader lies in delivering gloomy economic news to a jaunty disco beat whilst wearing a pink glitter jacket and waving some cut-out farm animals around. Having seen ‘supply and demand’ explained at the beginning of the second half in this manner, I am now firmly of the opinion that all economic theory should be illustrated thus. It would certainly get a different demographic signing up for PPE degrees.

Despite being set in the Chicago stockyards, this is not solely an exercise in social realism. In fact if there is a reference to an aesthetic it is more a Surrealist mash up of fatless soup turning to black paint, synchronised dancing cow-headed people (who unlike Katy Perry’s sharks manage to dance in time) and florescent crucifixes dangling in mid-air. It’s the cold, Northern European surrealism of René Margritte, sharp-suited businessmen sliding sideways off the canvas and into another reality, rather than the sexy Mediterraneanism of Dalí.

It is these elements of Surrealism, and the excellent inclusion of choreography and music that lift a difficult text out of the doldrums of economic realism, and into a much more entertaining and explorative place. The use of choreography and abstraction have been highlights of previous Bristol Old Vic Young Company shows, particularly Life Raft performed by even younger actors than those on stage in St Joan, that beautifully broke down into a brilliantly bizarre abstract dance piece towards the end of the second half, before sliding back into the dystopian action as though nothing had happened. The opening scene of this production literally stomps on any assumption of dourness by evoking the ghost of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Romeo and Juliet party scene.

Over the past year, I have been consistently impressed by this company of young actors both in their ambition for choosing decidedly abrasive texts, and delivering them with style, maturity and wit. Their avoidance of ‘pretty’ roles or shows that will obviously attract the punters is to be celebrated. As with their show about the Cottingley Fairies, The Light Burns Blue, in April 2015, Kate Alhadeff takes the lead role. Alhadeff is a remarkably striking presence, compelling though her ability to so quietly play a lead role – making you want to lean in and listen as though to someone with a soft voice rather than those with booming bravado. With all the talk of Bristol Old Vic’s 250 anniversary this year and a shiny new wall plaque listing names of famous alumni in the foyer, it is hard not to imagine that Alhadeff will be written up there too in future years.

Joshua Robinson as the meat tycoon Pierpont Mauler, attacked by his own conscience in the form of Alhadeff’s missionary presence, also deserves plaudits, not least for his stamina performing dance moves that brought back memories of Cajun Dance Party in the early 2000s. The smile in his voice is both detectable and hard to avoid sharing at certain moments, despite his character’s ineptness at human interaction and the world of business.

With the snow threatening to fall both inside and outside the venue, St Joan of the Stockyards made for an unexpectedly up-tempo evening’s theatre-going that once again made this group of young actors well worth watching and packed in far more than old Mauler’s cans of cold meat.


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

St Joan of the Stockyards Show Info

Directed by Nik Partridge

Written by Bertolt Brecht, translation by Ralph Manheim

Cast includes Marco Adduocchio, Richard Ainsley, Kate Alhadeff, Bethan Barke, Leah Bierman, Peggy Edwards, Rosa Fryer, Julie Head, Hannah Hecheverria, Zoe Hitchen, Matt Landau, Natalie Machale, Jack Orozco Morrison, Sophia Raee, Iben Robinson, Joshua Robinson, Ellie Roser, Monica Silkenas, Kizzie Tims



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