By John O’Keeffe, Bristol Old Vic
Wild laughs with Wild Oats
O for a muse of fire! With a multi-million renovation, the Bristol Old Vic opens with a play constantly aware of its theatrical identity. Embracing the full possibilities of the theatre, Wild Oats is a 1791 meta-theatre experience. Set around the lives of actors and theatre we are always aware that we are watching a piece of theatre.
Just as the Old Vic has been revived to its eighteenth-century Georgian splendour, director Mark Rosenblatt revives an eighteenth-century comedy with imagination and hilarity, from Jack’s first prologue cry of “Let them know you’re coming” to visual montages such as a wonderfully creative motorcycle chase and a King Lear-esque thunderstorm.
Packed with Shakespearean quotes, O’Keeffe’s plot of mistaken identity and love across the divide also pays homage to the Bard’s comedies.
Set amongst the austere world of 1950’s touring theatres, Jack Rover (played with charming vitality by Sam Alexander) is a high-spirited actor who is mistaken for the son of Sir George Thunder. Before his true identity is discovered, via a convoluted tale of confusion, Jack has saved a man from ruin, fallen in love, been united with his real parents and gained an inheritance.
Amongst the sometimes complicated farce, O’Keeffe is defending and crying ‘all hail’ for theatre. Commenting on religious and especially Quaker fickleness, he portrays the theatre-hating Quaker, Ephraim Smooth (Philip Bird), as a hypocritical sexual deviant. Similarly, his daughter Lady Amaranth (Jo Herbert) isn’t too slow in discarding her Quaker robes in her desire for our hero.
Although reluctant to pick out individuals from a wonderful cast, applause has to go to Sam Alexander as the energetic extemporising Jack. Equally, Hugh Skinner is perfectly hilarious as the fraught and often melodramatic errant son, Harry Thunder. However this is an ensemble piece with all actors contributing to the playfulness, the piano underscore, and designer, Ben Stones’, set changes.
The cast are aided by the intelligently restored Old Vic, with its original 1766 thrust stage design and improved sight lines allowing audience and actor intimacy and a relationship reminiscent of the Shakespearean theatre.
Wild Oats celebrates the joy of theatre and is a perfect choice to celebrate a new era at the Bristol Old Vic