Seventeen years was the average time that a theatre built in the same era as the Bristol Old Vic survived before burning down. So, in the words of executive director Emma Stenning, it is a miracle that the playhouse is still with us almost 250 years after its illegal construction, when it was accessed by knocking on the door of Mr Foote’s house on King Street.
The first stage of a multimillion renovation project is now complete. “In every corner, vivid innovation is cunningly grafted onto the ancient timbers of the theatre,” says artistic director Tom Morris in the programme notes.
It is impossible not to feel an almighty thrill when once again entering the historic auditorium, either for the very first time, or for the first time since December 2010 when the model boat in Swallows & Amazons was passed over the heads of the audience in the pit during the last show in the theatre before the restoration work began.
Stewart Wright was among the cast in that wonderful production, so there is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that he returns in Wild Oats, the first play in the refurbished theatre, a play written by John O’Keeffee in 1791, 25 years after the Bristol Old Vic was built.
Wild Oats is the story of Jack Rover, a strolling player with an “abominable habit of quotation” who becomes embroiled in a tale of mistaken identity, with much mirth and merriment both on stage and off.
Although at times hard to follow for the uninitiated, the confusing storyline, especially in Act One, is more than made up for in the stagecraft from director Mark Rosenblatt and movement director Catherine Alexander, who create motorcycle chases from bright spotlights, and wind and rain from water sprays and judicious tugging on clothing.
Sam Alexander as our hero Rover is splendidly exuberant, especially when impersonating thunder, and showcases some great comic timing. Alongside him, the real Harry Thunder played by Hugh Skinner is a fine counterfoil and crybaby, while Sion Tudor Owen performs two very different roles with zeal, morphing from a headstrong gentleman to prancing theatrical queen.
Special mention should also go to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates Emily May Smith and Isaac Stanmore, both impressing in their first professional productions as recipients of the recently revived Patrons’ Prize which sees them given a six-month contract at the Old Vic, learning their craft from seasoned professionals.
It all makes for tremendous fun, in a newly reopened theatre already brimming with life with much more excitement and surprises around many newly rediscovered corners.
Wild Oats is at Bristol Old Vic until October 20. Click here for more information.