PAST TENTS – Alma Tavern Theatre, Clifton, Bristol

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7 September 2023

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5*****

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Very occasionally, as a reviewer, you will watch a production and believe it to be totally unique; so much theatre is derivative or unoriginal in some way, but out there are theatrical works which deserve to be seen because they are so very far from the norm.

In another life I was able to read an earlier version of ‘Past Tents’ and was due to see it on stage when Covid struck; now, re-worked, my chance to witness a piece which made a deep impression on me has arrived.

Alan – a children’s entertainer (not a clown) –  is having the worst day of his life; his marriage has fallen apart and as he aimlessly drives away from home through the rain, he crashes his car. The nearest place to stay is a grotty campsite run by the highly eccentric Virgil; the site has just one plot available, next to a tent owned by Justin. Justin is annoying, not deliberately so, but as Alan is spiralling downwards, Justin’s antics only add to his meltdown.

Animal traps, caterpillar sleeping bags, piles of sheep dung, tyres, colostomy bags…….; all feature (among other things) in this story of two mismatched men who have to try and make the best of things. It is crazy, it is off-the-wall, it is akin to Monty Python on steroids. The laughter develops as you realise the sheer absurdity of the situation as well as from the crackling dialogue and visuals which feature the scatological and the hysterical. Alan has to undergo a never-ending series of humiliations; from the mildly pathetic to the downright disgusting.

As the story develops, layers start to be peeled back and there are bigger issues than a lack of Hobnobs to worry about. As the relationship between the two men develops – with the occasional bonkers intervention from Virgil – it is the very act of talking which draws out their anxieties, worries and frustrations which they have held inside for too long. Without forcing the issue, the play offers up a subtext about mental health where being able to unload issues – and offering an ear to listen –  can be of great benefit. Men are often not good at talking about these matters – the play gently suggests it is a good idea.

Seth Jones gives a blistering tour-de-force performance as Alan. Physically demanding and played at full tilt throughout. It is exhausting to watch but leaves the audience brimming over with admiration. David J Keogh has the less demonstrative role of Justin – being quieter and more measured just makes him more irritating – and it is a masterclass of playing the innocent while creating havoc. Jones and Keogh spark off each other so well – as the co-writers they patently have a chemistry; the wonder is how their minds would dream up such an extraordinary piece of work. Mark Keegan fully inhabits the character of Virgil – who is this man? With a penchant for all types of underwear, masks and restraints, you might well ask the same question. Keegan’s performance is bonkers as it is brilliant.

The tiny Alma Tavern Theatre seats about 40 and on the hottest day of the year it was advisable to remain still; pity the poor performers! With a stage littered with the trappings of camping, as well as the aforementioned dung, animal trap and plenty more besides, the visuals are enhanced by a projection of the initial car crash and some gently suggestive lighting.

There is more, much more, to this play which arrives in the last quarter. The tone changes, the story becomes resolved and emotions are played around with. Though this play is so full of comedy it has unexpected poignant and deeply moving moments; not least the end which is accompanied by the 1960s Bee Gees song ‘I Started A Joke’ – never has a song been used so effectively to summarise the action of a play.

This is an exceptional play which engages all human emotions and looks at life’s issues in a unique way; it should to be widely seen.

An unforgettable gem.

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CAST & CREATIVES

ALAN – SETH JONES

JUSTIN – DAVID J KEOGH

VIRGIL – MARK KEEGAN

VOICES – ALEX KEOGH, LAURA FAIRCLOTH

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WRITTEN BY SETH JONES & DAVID J KEOGH

DIRECTED BY SETH JONES

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