Bea and the Winter Winds

The winter season is one of inherent magic and wonder. As the Winter Solstice approaches with the coming of longer, lighter days, and the prospect of mid-winter festivals and holidays offer some joyous respite from the cold and the damp, we find ourselves drawn to the bewitching power of stories. Now is the time for Christmas Specials of our favourite shows, of reading classics like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol whilst sipping on warm hot chocolate or mulled wine, and if you were raised in the UK, most of us will be familiar with the traditional Christmas theatre outing to the annual pantomime. 2020 has been an extraordinary year for all of us, and while many of our usual traditions have been thrown into a state of flux in light of these strange and unusual times, there is still magic to be found in the telling of seasonal tales.

Though many Christmas shows this year have made the move into digital performance, it was with incredible fortune that I was able to see the new and charming creation of Black Hound Productions within an actual theatre. Indeed, stepping into an auditorium for the first time in over nine months was a rather emotional moment, and there was a strong sense within the show itself of the weight of this tenuous new world of performance during a pandemic. The significance of this play being able to perform in these times when giants of the London theatre scene have fallen silent was not lost in this play, and in many ways, this subtle self awareness strengthened the poignancy of this already pretty poignant show.

Created by Patrick Withey and Benjamin Hardy-Phillips, with a story based upon a Bulgarian folk tale, Bea and the Winter Winds tells the story of a young girl’s journey to save the Spirit of the Feast from the clutches of the wicked Jack Frost, and thus prevent the world from falling into an eternal winter. It’s the perfect recipe for a family show at Christmas, and Black Hound Productions deliver something truly magical. With a set that feels inspired by the minimalist, almost steam-punk esque creations of recent Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre productions, and songs that would have even the most curmudgeonly Scrooge tapping their feet, this charming show is the perfect way to indulge in the spirit of the season. Indeed, after the year this has been, we certainly need a healthy dose of joyous escapism.

Anabella Fairgrieve shines as the titular Bea, providing the bright, warm heart of the show as we follow her on her adventures through the frozen woods and mountains on her quest to save the Feast. Her talents truly soar in the musical numbers, and indeed Fairgrieve should be one to look out for on the musical theatre circuit in years to come. Then of course, what would a Christmas show be without its larger than life villain? Pete White gives us just that with his vampy Jack Frost, strutting about the stage like a crystalline Mick Jagger, ready to turn any swooning fangirls into icicles – he commands the stage with just the right amount of nefarious evil and showman’s panache. Yet it is the comedic talents of Patrick Withey and Tiffany Rhodes that really captured my heart. I’ve always been the one to fall in love with the anthropomorphic animal side kicks of fairytale heroes, and indeed, Alistair McNutty and Rita Squeaker are two characters worthy of such adoration. The rapport between Rhodes and Withey was a joy to watch, and their mirthful addition to the narrative pulls the story away from any kind of over earnestness.

This is a joyful show that provides a real festive tonic after a strange and tumultuous year. In these socially distanced times, Bea and the Winter Winds reminds us of the value of stories and community. Even if we can’t be with one another in the ways we usually are, we can still recognise our appreciation of one another and live in the hope that this long metaphorical winter of COVID-19 will soon be broken. For now, we can take pleasure in the small things, and shows like Bea and the Winter Winds certainly offer a bit of heartfelt sparkle at this festive time of year.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alright?

Theatre is a place where the taboos of society are brought into the spotlight. In these almost sacred spaces shared by performer and audience, we can examine the things that are most uncomfortable or painful about our lives, or reveal parts of our history or cultural experience that have been forgotten or concealed. Theatre can be a great place of learning, about ourselves and about the world we live in, but most of all it can teach us to be compassionate as we view the world through another’s eyes and see how that world is shaped by their experience which may differ from our own. At least, this is what I believe, and certainly this new show from Black Hound Productions demands rightful compassion from its audience.

Written by Patrick Withey and performed by Dillon Berry, Alright? follows the story of Noah, a young man in his mid-teens who, while facing the stress of secondary school exams and the inevitable awkward encounters of teenage-hood, has been struggling with depression. With clever direction from Benjamin Hardy-Phillips, this solo show explores Noah’s struggles with his mental health through his interactions with the important figures in his life, highlighting the unprejudiced nature of depression, for even when a person is surrounded by friends and loved ones we can still feel lost in our own emotions.

Indeed, the power of this piece lies in the handling of what can be an incredibly heavy subject matter. While there is a tendency for pieces concerned with mental health and depression to fall into the realms of melodrama, Alright? walks the fine line between tragedy and comedy with focused care. Withey’s writing brings both shades of light and dark to Noah’s life as moments of levity allow for the bleaker moments in the script to become even more enhanced. There is a natural wit to Withey’s writing which Berry brings to life with skilled ease.

It is refreshing to see a piece about male mental health that does not devolve into violence. So often, narratives around mental health and masculinity become narratives about the worst excesses of these experiences. Indeed, recent films like Joker have been hijacked by the narrative of the white male malcontent resorting to acts of violence as a result of their frustrations. In reality, sufferers of mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence as opposed to perpetrators, yet while anger and frustration are key themes in this piece, there is little to no involvement of violence. More often than not, those of us who are impacted by mental illness will not have some dramatic occurrence happen to us; our mental illness is part of our every day reality and while it may evoke intense feelings or indeed, a lack of them, our world does not always descend into chaos. Alright? portrays the mundane nature of depression beautifully, whilst also highlighting the importance of having a support network. In a world where funding for mental health treatment is being slashed, this is perhaps the most important message that Alright? gives its audience – the importance of asking the right questions, checking in with someone and listening to them. While it isn’t a substitute for treatment, it is, as Noah’s final speech states, better to listen to a person express their difficulties than to listen to their eulogy.

While the final act of this show needs a little more focusing, this is a very moving and powerful piece of theatre. To see young men being given the space to show their vulnerability without the usual trappings of toxic masculinity is what makes this a unique piece of writing and makes it more than deserving of many future performances.

Star rating:

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️