Reviews from our current show, Bear North:
***** (5 Stars) Latest – Brighton Fringe
Bear North by Brainfruit is absolutely charming and memorable. Brainfruit is narrator-poet-singer Roy Hutchins and multi-instrumentalist Sue Bradley and they are joined by guitarist Patrick Knowles and dancer Laura Davis performing something that is more than a play or a collection of songs. It’s deep in a good way! You don’t have to understand it all at once, you’ll remember and come back to it. I saw Roy Hutchins perform Whale Nation in the late 1980s, a collaboration with the poet Heathcote Williams. It was extremely memorable and moving. Williams died in 2017, and following this Hutchins devised this collection of stories, folk songs, poems and dances set in a mystical Canadian town called Deep Water Point (793 inhabitants!). It’s funny and interactive too, with the audience feeling relaxed enough to join in by throwing in ideas. It’s simple but there’s lots to look at. From the dancing bear / wolf / buffalo to Roy’s not-incongruous dress, and Sue’s strange foot instruments, called a wazinator! Roy dreams the stories and lyrics and the songs are co-written with Sue – they are haunting yet not scary. The fiddle playing is superb and becomes flowing water, or running animals.
You’re transported to a log cabin, and from songs such as Bear in a cave, Grizzly waltz, Buffalo’s revenge, Waterfall, you forget this is a fringe show, and feel like you’re deep in Canadian nature. There’s a saloon bar in Alaska called the Red Dog Saloon and it felt like there. It doesn’t feel made up, it feels completely authentic. The stories all sound so real. They have a campfire quality, and there is a lot of held sadness, like a quiet, stoic grief being comforted among friends. It’s mysterious too. Especially as there is a dancing animal alongside it all, showing that animals have their more than rightful place in this band of soulful souls.
If you love nature, animals, folk songs, the Northern Territories, campfires, stories, shows with meaning and heart, then you’ll love Bear North!
To enjoy Bear North to the full, it’s best not to think too hard about any of this. The bear likes to dance; it just does. The musicians want to help; they just do. There’s a tenuous story about an artistic retreat and log cabins in the woods, but that’s not really important either. Let’s just embrace the surrealism and get on with the show.
Because, if you let go and run with it, the show is a rather wonderful one. The musical trio of Roy Hutchins, Sue Bradley and Dr Blue deliver a relaxed, folkish accompaniment, while Hutchins also narrates the offbeat storyline; it’s reminiscent, perhaps, of songs and tall tales round a camp-fire. There’s easy-going humour, a touch of satire, and an open invitation for the audience to sing along. And the bear? Well, the bear just dances on.
It works, I think, because the set-up’s so versatile: the bear’s-head costume completely hides the face of the performer inside it, leaving a blank canvas on which we can paint any emotion we choose. When the bear briefly forgets itself, and starts to eye the audience as food, there’s comedic menace in its pointy-fanged snarl. When it’s happy and dancing, the same fixed expression becomes a toothy grin of joy. When it’s sad, it’s truly mournful, and we feel the same way too – ready to be comforted, strangely yet wonderfully, by a soft song about apple trees.
Most of the songs, in fact, invoke the natural world in some way, and over time I found my mind was gently carried to a place of freshness and tranquillity. When the singers asked me to breathe the forest air, I really did take lungfuls in. There’s poetry too; not too much of it, just enough to add to the rarefied and contemplative feel. The first poem is deliberately underwhelming, but hang in there, because there’s better work to come.
Just a couple of times I felt the mood lapsed into self-indulgence – had the feeling that the performers were primarily entertaining themselves. A tiny bit more discipline in the dialogue between numbers would help dispel that effect. One song is improvised from audience suggestions, but at other times the cast called out to each other to supply assorted details; I found that a little confusing, unsure if an improv game was being played on-stage.
My final words of praise, however, must go to the bear. I can’t name-check the performer inside the costume without spoiling a surprise, but I can say this show is utterly transformed by their repertoire of dances, and well-judged sense of fun. By the time the hour was up, I’d accepted the bear as a fully-fledged character – a character, in fact, that I was rather fond of. In the end then, the tables were turned: it was me who danced to Bear North‘s tune.”
Brainfruit became truly collaborative in the creation of the show, Fiery Tongues. In keeping with its constitutional desire and remit to encourage new and younger voices the ‘Poetry Army’ emerged. Scores of poets and performers both experienced and less so, joined that army to deliver the fine verse from ‘the greats’ to create a 50-minute celebration of the poetry and words that have changed the world for the better. Music played an important part too, underscoring this landscape. The show was hard-edged and focused, looking at those who abused their power.
“An exhilarating, moving celebration,” “proof that words, rhyme and music can inspire humankind to stand together and fight the forces of institutionalised brutality, injustice and oppression” – Tim Stevenson, Theatre Review
“A Picker Pucker Panoramic Poetry Parade” – John Hegley
‘Mind-swaying’ – Beat Generation Poet Michael McClure
‘Deeply enriching… a magnificent poetic call-to-arms’ – Jonny Fluffypunk
‘A production of exquisite grace and beauty’ SallyHarrop
The Big Song:
The Big Song is a development of Fiery Tongue. After the five-person show toured successfully it expanded exponentially, choirs became involved; first a 20 piece choir at Brighton’s Fringe and then a 40 piece choir in Sheffield at the Crucible Studio. This new development became The Big Song, a celebration of how songs have changed the world – a lyrical investigation into the questions: Why do people sing? Why do people join together to harmonise and express themselves in music? In May 2017 The Big Song was performed at Brighton Dome for Brighton Festival. Hutchins narrated alongside the 100 piece choir to an audience of over 1000. This was to be Williams’s last major poem before his death in July 2017.
Zanzibar Cats / Darwin’s Nose:
Zanzibar Cats was a solo show performed by Roy Hutchins and which featured the short poems of Heathcote Williams that had previously not been performed publicly. Michael Coveney, the renowned theatre critic was the first of many reviewers to sing its praises. This show was performed nationally and was featured at Vurige Tongen (‘Fiery Tongues’) in Amsterdam, and was later renamed as, ‘Darwin’s Nose’.
“Like a Molotov cocktail with the zing and the bite of a Martini chaser – funny, bright, touching, merciless.’ What’s On Stage
‘Classy stuff… unfailingly elegant… blazingly powerful.’ The Scotsman
‘Quietly exquisite . . . political anger with a human face… chock-full of wisdom and experience.’ The Herald
A solo show, centred on Heathcote Williams’ natural history and scientific work toured nationally in 2013. A wonderful evocation of Williams’ fascination with the natural world – that had begun with his acclaimed work, Whale Nation.