Brunel was one of those rare individuals who could write large cheques on which their talent could deliver. Self-belief is an important element in many a successful career, the talent to support it a rarer commodity. For a man of such vaulting ambition who nevertheless managed to rise to the engineering challenges of the age and, to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘bestrode the world like a Colossus’, a play which takes to the air and spans the very space above the audience is a fitting tribute. The fact that it all takes place in the surprisingly comfortable and welcoming surroundings of Brunel’s own Passenger Shed adds to the sense of Bristolian ownership of the man who came second in the BBC poll of great Britons – and thus above Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton.
Walking the Chains, which is written by ACH Smith, has three components: a blizzard of facts about the history and construction of the suspension bridge, the more dramatic story of the personal drive and ambition of Brunel to build it and reminiscences and stories of those folk whose lives have been in some way connected to the bridge. (The title of the play comes from the now abandoned practice of maintenance engineers walking without safety measures along the suspension chains). That said, it does not feel disjointed and Smith, director Robin Belfield and creative producer, Sheila Hannon, have done a grand job in fashioning the diverse material which includes sex, death, marriage, financial disaster and stubbornness into an absorbing and occasionally thrilling piece of entertainment. The serendipity of circus school, Circomedia, being just down the road has given the play, which at times has the feel of a community play, an added dimension (pun intended) and one detected a hint of metaphor in their gravity defying acts for the same two fingers up at nature delivered by Brunel.
The original music and songs by Elizabeth Purnell add a richness to the evening, from the common man’s, ‘What’s the Point of it?’, to the poignant, ‘Crossed in Love’. Tom Wainwright is a believably determined Brunel and the rest of the strong cast fizz through an eclectic collection of characters which includes Telford (Andrew Wheaton), early conservationist, Mrs Glennie (Louise Voce), a tour guide (Cassie Webb) and Mr and Mrs Everyman/woman (Craig Pinder and Kim Hicks).
This happy marriage of circus and theatre delivers on all fronts with little nuggets like the woman who was prevented from suicide by the parachuting effect of her crinolines showing something of the potential of this kind of collaboration the unexplored terrain of which lies before us like a gaping chasm. The play is a fitting tribute to and triumphant celebration of ‘The ornament of Bristol and wonder of the age’. Bristolians will love it as will anyone with the vaguest interest in one universally recognized as amongst the greatest of Britons. ★★★★☆ Graham Wyles 14/01/15