When you go to the theatre to watch a show about 33 men encased in a mine shaft underground for 52 days you expect a sombre affair with deep messages about the meaning of life and how relationships fair under pressure. While the Wardrobe Ensemble does confront this it is with a far from sombre voice. There are moments of lightness, even humour, in the hour long performance which takes you underground, overground and through the minds of some of the most tortured men you can imagine. They are trapped with little knowledge of what is happening on the outside world and with almost no contact with their loved ones.
The actors conveyed a variety of characters convincingly, each person they became having a unique voice. Their minimalist costumes, with a patterned scarf or baseball hat symbolising a new character, was simple and effective, if a little clumsily changed at times. The actors remained on stage almost constantly throughout, most of the times blending in perfectly. Unfortunately at times their removing or putting on of overalls took the attention away from the main action. The appearance of Elvis, played with obvious delight by Edith Woolley, was unexpected and yet perfectly acceptable. James Newton’s mentally cracked Edison was as confused as the audience but his desperation was palpable throughout their reckless and at times terrifying scramble across the stage. More than one audience member jumped in their seat with each perfectly choreographed punch and chair throw. I don’t recall ever seeing a fight scene so well performed and with such trust and confidence.
Tom Brennan’s direction shines particularly brightly during the numerous movement sections. From news reporters to ‘the masses’ watching reports on television at home, the gestures are wonderfully choreographed and performed with gusto. There is little synchronicity between the actors, but their frantic and passionate moves show that this is not the intention.
The ensemble worked well with the large amount of sound and camera equipment on stage. Showing the movement through the mine shafts on the projector was inventive and useful for the audience, with the added humour of James Newton’s running man on stage (which much be seen to be truly appreciated). On a personal note I feel the production would have been much cleaner without the added distraction of the tech desk on stage. Though it was well out of the lights and the technician was subtle my eyes strayed more than once to the distant corner when much more interesting stuff was happening right in front of me.
Live music was a great addition to the show, and performed beautifully by various members of the cast. The spanish guitar gave a great sense of place, and with the two saxophones combined to really fill the space with mood and atmosphere.
All in all 33 was a fascinating piece of theatre which tackled its subject matter with tact and sensitivity. The audience was a mixed bag but all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the evening. Though the show was completely not what I was expecting I took pleasure in trying to understand a (as the cast explained at the beginning) translation of a version of events that has already been passed on many times. I wish the company every success and urge you to catch this show, if not in Bristol then in Edinburgh next month.
33 is showing at the Bristol Old Vic until July 13th and will also be at the Edinburgh Fringe in The Aviary, Zoo Venues from 2-17 August