Starter for Ten, Bristol Old Vic

DAVID Nicholls’ 2003 novel Starter for Ten (and the film that followed it three years later) was based at Bristol University, so what better location for the musical version than the city’s famous Old Vic theatre.

For those who missed the book and the movie, it’s about working class Brian, brought up in Southend-on-Sea, whose passion from early childhood was watching University Challenge on TV with his dad. Fast forward to his late teens when he gets a place at Bristol to study English Literature. He’s a fish out of water on a mission to get onto the University Challenge team.

Charlie Parham and Emma Hall of Antic Productions hit on the idea of adapting the novel into a musical ten years ago, and commissioned Hatty Carman and Tom Rasmussen to create music and lyrics to reflect the music that’s referred to in the play, from Kate Bush through to The Cure and the Cocteau Twins. They also added a couple of characters in the shape of a chillingly Thatcheresque TV executive and a wonderfully charismatic Professor of English.

The 12-strong cast, directed by Charlie Parham and cleverly choreographed by Shelley Maxwell, is led by Mel Giedroyc in multiple roles including Brian’s hard working mum and that TV exec. Several of Mel’s chums – among them Dawn French, Sue Perkins and Mary Berry – turned out for the premiere to cheer and whoop along with the best of them as Brian moved into his second year at university, older and wiser and happier.

Three young actors play little Brian at Bristol, and we had the talented and appealing Rocky Ooi-Griffiths to open the show, wide-eyed and expectant for his dad’s return after work in time for the opening chords of the University Challenge theme on the little TV in the corner. The childish high spirits had worn off by the time Adam Bregman’s poetic student Brian was ready to set off for Bristol and his new life, leaving his long-widowed mother and his rackety-but- loyal best friend Spencer at home in Southend. Confronted by the pressures of university and the choices he must make, Brian chooses the wrong girl, gets behind with his academic work and obsesses on the trivia he must absorb for the quiz. He’s chosen as first reserve by the patronising post grad captain, one of the team falls ill, in comes Brian … and you might think you know the rest of the story.

Starter for Ten, the musical, is a curate’s egg, but that curate will at least have an enjoyable breakfast, mostly. The cast is full of exuberance, the dancing is spectacular and there is a real sense of excitement. The new music reflects the 80s, but there is no real belter apart from the anthemic I Belive in Education, powerfully done by Gemma Knight Jones as Prof Bowman.

The characterisations sometimes veer into pantomime, and the Jerry Springer-ish Bamber Gascoigne (Robert Portal) and Giedroyc’s TV executive even come into the auditorium to pick a few victims. The frequent reference to Brian’s bodily aroma doesn’t really help ­– once would have been quite enough.

The onstage five-piece band is twice revealed, and Miracle Chance does a brilliant dance rap in her role as the medical student on the team. There’s lots of “heart” from Brian’s mum and Spencer (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) and Eubha Akilade as the radical Rebecca. Will Jennings obviously enjoys his role as the perennial team captain and Emily Lane gets to strut her stuff as the wealthy, glamorous Alice.

It’s a feel-good show with a timeless message, something that any university student will recognise and cherish. It runs at Bristol Old Vic until Easter Saturday, 30th March.



Photographs by Marc Brenner

Posted in Reviews on .