The Theatre on The Downs, Bristol – until 28 August 2021
The last time I saw The Wardrobe Ensemble it felt like they had hit a crossroad. Reviving their first show Riot for their 10th anniversary a few months after a slightly lacklustre attempt with The Last of The Pelican Daughters to push into more mainstream orbits, it wasn’t clear where the company may go, the burgeoning reputation and talent of the various ensemble members sending them down disparate routes, but potentially taking their focus away from the ensemble. Well, an 18-month Covid enforced break has allowed them to reinvent themselves, and it’s their best look yet, the crusader of the independent South West theatre scene.
Theatre On The Downs, the festival they have launched with support from the cultural grant, is magical. It brings the bohemia of Latitude and the adventure of Edinburgh and plonks it down into a pop-up tent at the bottom of Clifton Down. Until the end of September, the blue tent will see a mix of family shows during the day and a cacophony of shows in the evening, featuring the likes of FullRogue, Living Spit, and Action Hero, plus an open commissioned show yet to be announced and due to play a week’s run in some format at the end of September. It’s a massive statement from the Ensemble and one that should be applauded from the rafters.
Opening the space with their brand-new work Winners, is also a smart move, allowing the space to generate a buzz from the off. Taking aim at capitalism, over 90 minutes it rushes through the history of man, big ideas and systems designed to make the ‘special ones’ rich at the expense of all others and the good of the world at large. Sketch like in format, it’s fun and has some sharp points to make, if, almost inevitably in this format, occasionally missing its target. It’s never less than entertaining, but it can never quite hit the mountains of the one-two punch of 1972: The Future of Sex and Education, Education, Education that propelled them into the elite bracket.
Ruby Spencer-Pugh’s bright Americana diner is symbolic of the American dream, the mantra that anyone with an idea and a work ethic can make it. From the carvings of a hierarchical society in the Stone age, through feudalism, the Elizabethan explorers, Victorian factories, Marx, Elvis, and the fast-food empires, it whizzes through time and ideas at ever dizzying speed, narrated by an over-caffeinated Mr. Winner, brought to slightly unhinged life by Tom England.
Over the years, England has emerged as an ever-impressive versatile character actor, but he’s never been better than he is here, his eyes popping wildly, a grin stuck and stretched across his face like a Messina painting, his body in perpetual motion, his voice cracking into shrill pitch as his ideas grow ever larger. The dreamer is sent mad by power and money, spiralling as bigger, better, faster demands come from above, descending into terrifying grandeur, a human representation of the cost to all of capitalism’s razor grip.
Hanora Kamen’s lusty Elizabeth I is another highlight in a show that ends on a brutal full stop. Humankind is fucked. Yet perhaps, if we believe as the company does that most people are decent, not dickheads, it’s not too late to change. Perhaps we can kill the idea of capitalism, though whether as brutally as here is never fully explored or explained, it’s perhaps a slightly hedged ending, its nihilistic comma slightly ill at ease with the entertainment that has come before and so this full stop required. But decency feels at the heart of the ethos of the ensemble and so the benefit of the doubt can be granted.
It’s a sparkling enterprise and a rip-roaringly entertaining first show back. The second decade for a Bristol success story will surely flourish. And it’s worth a trip over to the Downs to support in the next month.
Winners plays at Theatre on the Downs until the 28th August and the festival continues until the 2nd October.