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Starter for Ten | Bristol Old Vic

Cute and heartwarming while unsatisfyingly underbaked, Parham and Hall's confident yet safely unambitious adaptation of Nicholls' beloved novel is a pleasant night of theatre if approached with less demanding expectations; with source material rich with potential, however, one can't help but wish for a version of this musical with a stronger score, characterisation and staging.

Amongst a slew of recent additions to the 'distinctly British' musical theatre canon, Starter For Ten enters the scene bringing charm, joy, and a heavy helping of 80s nostalgia that cumulates to perhaps the British answer to a John Hughes movie - albeit with less edge and style. There's a commendable simplicity to Nicholls' tale of nerdy university students - a character description that perhaps rings too true to myself - that makes for perfect comfort show material, and if nothing else, Bristol Old Vic's slick production accurately captures its aspiring tonality of a feel-good, easy watch. The flaw lies, however, in the show being rather too easy too watch; cliched story beats, and banal songwriting detract from what could be a touching and impactful depiction of university life, and fleeting glimpses of political messages reveal a potential for the show to have a voice, yet are neglected in favour of simplistic romance and friendship troubles.

Viewing Starter For Ten holistically, there's a great deal to praise within its production design, cast and overall vision for the show. The set by Frankie Bradshaw, while somewhat minimal, oozes with the style of 80s television with energetic pops of neon, pastel curtains and captures the iconography of University Challenge perfectly, as do her costumes which help root the show in its nostalgia. The same can be said for Tom Kelly's lively and pulsating orchestrations that, full of synth-y goodness, faithfully embrace the sound of the decade; it's this commitment to its setting and concept where the show is at its strongest, making it easy to admire the aesthetic vision for the show.

Less admirable, however, is the shows lackluster book by Emma Hall and Charlie Parham that for the most part feels like its undergoing the motions of a well-trodden coming-of-age story. University being a place of great personal development and character building, one would expect it to focus on character, community and change, yet so little is provided of all three: beside the protagonist Brian, most of the supporting ensemble of students are reduced to thin caricatures - Rebecca is a 'lefty', Patrick is a nerd, and Alice is posh - and the opportunity to provide a Spelling Bee-esque examination of community, friendships and personal growth becomes a mixed bag of pantomime-like exaggeration and over-dramatised interactions. Cheap attempts at building emotion (a dead dad, a distanced best friend) ring hollow, and what results is a show that simultaneously aspires to have heart, yet lacks the sincerity to ever convince its audience that Brian and his story is worthy of empathetic investment.

The same can be said for the show's themes: while many simmer gently throughout such as questioning the treatment of artistic education and classism, these are never treated more seriously than a setup for conflict and to further the narrative. This is perhaps exemplified most strongly during the finale of the show in which Rebecca and her English lecturer hold a banner protesting the importance of English Literature, yet neither had mentioned more than a passing comment on the issue previously - what could be a moment of triumph instead feels like a misplace attempt at unearned emotional resolution.

Sadly, the emotionally lukewarm book isn't the only problem the show faces in its content, as Hatty Carman and Tom Rasmussen's score fails to inspire much excitement. Opening strong with the title song, the writing duo prove that they can write a fun, catchy tune, yet as the show progresses the score fails to develop into anything more than functional songs to qualify this as a piece of musical theatre. A lack of interesting harmonies, a reliance on 4 chord pop ballads, and the approach that 'it's a new scene, there has to be a song shoehorned in now!' make this score not only underwhelming, but also frustrating as it leaves one waiting for the song to be over so the narrative may progress.

That being said, the cast - who go great lengths to making this an enjoyable night - do what they can with the merely passable book and score, and ought to be praised for bringing as much emotional and comical depth as possible to the show. Adam Bregman leads with convincing charisma as Brian, lending vulnerability and likeability to the character, and Emily Lane equally stands out with her worryingly accurate depiction of a typical University of Bristol 'gap yah' girl (I've encountered far too many of those already in my mere 6 months at the university, and can vouch for her disarming believability!) Despite the excellent young cast, many attending will be drawn by comedian Mel Giedroyc, who is clearly having a blast on stage; while her role as Brian's mother at times feels dry, it is her multi-rolling as assorted characters throughout the plot where her comedic abilities truly shine, providing some of the strongest laughs of the evening.

Starter For Ten is difficult to dislike; it's so charming and well-natured in its aspirations as a new musical that one can hardly hate the result, even if it doesn't entirely fulfill the potential that it could have reached. That being said, the audience most certainly had a blast from the numerous rapturous applauses and the standing ovation, and if nothing else, this is a solid Starter for a new musical!

Starter For Ten is running at the Bristol Old Vic theatre until 30th March. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Marc Brenner


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