The ambitious project of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company that involves 100 very young performers, presented as Under a Cardboard Sea, finally hit the ground running. The scale of this endeavour speaks for itself, thus the pressure of ‘making it happen’ without erring cannot be underestimated. Yet, nothing of the sort happened. The production shone in the brightest light on a three-tier stage design, scene after scene like in a dream showing off the talents of the entire 100-member cast while unravelling a politically charged story.
In a dystopian fashion, one is presented with a 500-year old machine in charge of a city, allegedly taking care of the needs of its inhabitants, who are going to utmost lengths to keep the machine going. This is theatrically portrayed with the robotic movements of shadowed figures, indicating the ticking movements of the Machine.
While all the adults are working for the Machine, children are taken to perform plays at the city’s Theatre Royal as entertainment to the workers. Lured by softly-spoken theatre representatives who talk them into joining with fancy words about colourful costumes and having fun, children are essentially taken to a child theatre labour camp.
The heroine Addie King, played by Sadie Gray, is one of the unfortunate children taken by the Theatre Royal. With a highly determined will to save her injured dad from becoming an experimental mouse for the machine, she joins the theatre in the hope of sending money home to help him with medical treatment. Addie is the rebellious type and the one that ultimately confronts the machine itself.
In the midst of these happenings, positive forces pushing for social change are bubbling up, campaigning for an end to child labour, exploitation, and for free education for all.
In a theatre-within-theatre style, the exploitative spirit of Theatre Royal is shown with the bump of ropes against stage floor indicating the jeopardy undertaken during performance of stunts.
The scary Mrs Cowardine and her theatre master Clockface embody the fortitude of those in charge and willing to fight for everything on their way, no justifications needed.
The youngest in the production carried their roles professionally, causing a stir in the audience and much needed empathy, as did the romantic love embodied by the theatre’s leading actress and a mutinous sailor saved by stage hands and pursued by the law, the city’s Inspector.
All in all, this Bristol Old Vic Young Company production achieved a two-hour complex show bravely, and deserves huge merit for an admirably well-handled project. Under a Cardboard Sea is not a show, it’s a theatre accomplishment.
Photos: Jack Offord