Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Wild Oats

I went to see Wild Oats by John O’Keefe at Bristol Old Vic last night (17 September 2012). It was a real treat to be back in the Old Vic after its refurbishment. It now has a “pit” instead of stalls, but the seats are new and much more comfortable than the old ones, and in place of the dusty carpet there's an oak floor. The painted and gilded theatre looks lovely, and the names of many great actors and playwrights lettered on the walls – Cibber, Vanbrugh, Shakespeare, Steele – evokes its great heritage. The design is based on the eighteenth-century configuration of the theatre – balconies, colours, stage – but is fully modern too. So its inaugural production is a modern reworking of the 1791 play by John O’Keefe.

Wild Oats was written by Irish playwright John O’Keefe (1747 – 1833). Originally an artist, O’Keefe became a writer when his eye sight began to fail. He was blind by 1781. He left Ireland and his unfaithful wife in 1781, and during his writing career produced farces, pantomimes and comic operas.

Wild Oats is a beautifully plotted comedy which manages to bring together so many different strands to great comic effect: deserting sailors, a lady-turned-Quaker who lets her hair down when she falls in love, a missing husband and mislaid son, a selfish yeoman hounding an impoverished clergyman into debt, disguises, a play within a play, plenty of Shakespeare. It’s wonderful to see how these all come together in the last scene in the classic happy ending.

The play has been updated to the 1950s – so the programme tells us, but I have to confess that without that clue I wouldn’t have known that it was set in any particular time. In fact, I found the setting distracting at the start, in particular the opening motorcycle chase. Noisy and slapsticky, it seemed to bear little relation to the rest of the play, and I couldn’t see how the 1950s fitted at all with the drama. Again, the programme tells us that it was inspired by the “bleak world of 1950s touring theatre”.

Even so, it wasn’t until things got going towards the middle of the first act that I was able to forget about the setting and enjoy the exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers. Sam Alexander gave us a lovely Jack Rover, whose basic decency and passion for Shakespeare and the theatre really came alive, and Hugh Skinner a wonderfully weepy Harry Thunder. Jo Herbert’s Lady Amaranth was endearing, and Emily May Smith a suitably cheeky maid servant. Though it seems unfair to pick out individual actors  – I thought they were all wonderful and played really well together! A lovely play and it’s wonderful to have our Old Vic back.

Wild Oats by John O’Keefe is on at Bristol Old Vic 4 September to 20 October 2012. For details see http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/wildoats.html