EFR - Reviews of Bepo & Co

Bepo & Co

Wed 3rd – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Jonathan Grande

at 12:20 on 17th Aug 2011

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Occasionally, just occasionally, a production forces you to put down your notebook and pen for once and simply give into its many charms and delights. Unwish Theatre’s exuberant but touching Bepo & Co. is one such production, where resistance to the six circus performers, and the stories they wish to share with you, is completely futile.

The limitless energy of this young troupe, from first breath to last (quite literally), drives forward a production that never lets up in its intensity. The staging and choreography is explosive, bold and expansive, and all performed with impeccable timing. The ingenious use of a simple set – suitcases, umbrellas, a rug and some bananas – is effortlessly fluid, as the scenes shift seamlessly across time and space, from Tsarist Russia to modern-day Iraq, and almost everywhere in between.

It seems unfair to describe Bepo & Co. as a piece of student writing, as Tom Vickers’ script avoids all the pitfalls so common to that genre. At once subtle but brave, confident but never self-important, his writing is poetic, his tone spot-on and the concept of the piece followed through without a single trip or judder. With a grand aim, but a light and personal touch, Vickers provides a highly original and strikingly insightful look at the global history of the twentieth century, by showing it to us as seen all through the eyes of his six travelling troubadours.

And what wonderful and loveable characters this impressive cast of six create. Michael Wilkins as ringmaster Bepo runs the show with a perfect mix of authority and pathos, commanding the stage and immediately bringing the audience into his world. Twins Comedy (Rosie Brear) and Tragedy (Meg Roberts) are perhaps the highlight, playing off each other in moments both of manic playfulness and subdued sympathy. But it seems unfair to single anyone out; all are equally strong, and this is ensemble work at its best. Occasionally the cast may get a little too hyperactive and over-excited, and a few lines are garbled and lost, but who cares? It all adds to the charm, as the cast move from slapstick to moving monologue in the blink of an eye.

Art critics are warned at the beginning of the show to expect ‘much to criticise, but little art’. I have to object. The show is beautifully designed, and offers a visual feast that never lets up in its kaleidoscopic beauty. From costumes and make-up to set and props, the mask never slips, all complimented by a simple but stunning lighting design: the red backlighting of some striking acrobatics as the performers discuss Indian Independence is one particularly exquisite and powerful moment. The sound design as well is unobtrusive but cleverly conceived, providing a varied soundtrack that shifts from Viennese dance to the gentle rattle of a train over its tracks. A perfectly put-together show.

Intelligent, heart-warming and visually arresting, Bepo & Co. will have you sitting in poignant silence one moment, and laughing raucously the next. My light-hearted highlight of the festival so far.

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Madeleine Stottor

at 15:11 on 17th Aug 2011

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When I left the theatre after seeing ‘Bepo & Co’, I wanted to see it again. Immediately. This manic, giddy production is eloquently scripted and beautifully acted, original and inventive.

On paper, ‘Bepo & Co’ sounds mad. Six circus performers, somehow gifted with eternal youth, invite the audience backstage, to tell them their history. These personal memories intersect with wider historical events, and the audience finds themselves spun through Tsarist Russia, the Great Depression, South American revolution, the Hungarian Revolution, and Kuwait, as well as the performers’ own characters.

Perhaps it is mad; it is certainly an odd premise for a play. But ‘Bepo & Co’ really works. It has a frenetic, almost bipolar feel as it veers between manic hyperactivity and gloomy introspection. The switch between moods can feel abrupt but the relentless up-and-down reflects the unpredictable fortunes of Bepo and his company. Part of what makes ‘Bepo & Co’ so brilliant is the sense that ‘in our tent, anything can happen’.

The professional and skill of the cast is incredible. All of the performances are energetic, committed and well-characterised. ‘Bepo & Co’ is ambitious, in that it tries to cover so much ‘real’ history in conjunction with the personal fates of its characters, but it succeeds not least because of its amazingly talented cast. The characters are believable and individual, and their confrontation of their personal hardest memories is genuinely moving. It is also clear that the cast takes great pleasure in the show. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and connection between all, which makes ‘Bepo & Co’ a joy to watch.

Tom Vickers’ script, though, is also responsible. By turns witty, philosophical, hyperbolic, and understated, the intellectual, often metaphorical elements manage never to feel overblown but in keeping with the bold theatricality of Bepo, his troupe, and this show. Vickers is not only an immensely talented writer, but a fantastic director too. Here, he co-directs with Katie Lambert, a partnership which results in razor-sharp direction and a professional production. The play’s use of physical theatre and the barely restrained energy of its cast, which sends them scrambling over unfilled audience seats, flows smoothly, and it is clear that the cast knows exactly what they are doing.

And then there’s the way it looks. The company start the show in full clown make-up and disintegrating Victoriana costumes (I suppose after a hundred years one’s clothes would start to look a little threadbare). The costumes help to create the show’s decadent yet melancholic atmosphere, providing a constant reminder to their nineteenth-century beginnings despite their subsequent ageless wanderings. Their make-up crumbles as the show progresses, until finally they all wipe away their white paint, ‘stop running and face up to the world’. The candlelit ending is atmospheric, touching, and well-thought out.

‘Bepo & Co’ is an UnWish theatre production, a company committed to new writing. At the 2010 Fringe, their ‘Carnivale’ was a sell-out and if there is any justice, ‘Bepo & Co’ will be similarly rewarded. It is ‘a moment of chaos in [our] calculated little lives’, addressing larger themes of dying, history, and humanity (‘the big show’), which ends by celebrating the few fragile joys and perfect moments we are allowed: of which ‘Bepo & Co’ is one.

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