RAYMONDO at the Bristol Old Vic

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There is a scattering of Persian carpets, a dozen or so floor lamps, a keyboard and a guitar. It is a minimalist setting, but one that is warmly inviting, even cosy. Storyteller Annie Siddons and guitarist Tom Adams enter, and we are drawn into a magical tale of cruelty and kindness, brutality and love, set in a paradoxical world where mundane realities collide with surreal fantasy. We learn that Raymondo and his brother Sparky have been imprisoned by their mother in a grimy basement where they struggle to survive on a lettuce-based diet. After six monotonous years an unlikely symbol of hope arrives with a thud – a dead pigeon. The boys use its bones and feather to make an extraordinary garment, ‘The Cape of OK’. This gives them the courage to make their escape, only to fall prey to other dangers.

Raymondo is an adult fairytale of child abuse and exploitation that at times is very dark indeed, but there is also joy and gentleness, and the occasional sly dig at contemporary lifestyles. Siddons stands at a microphone, giving each character a distinct voice as she weaves a narrative that has all the fractured logic of a dream. The guitar, sometimes augmented by skillfully created sound loops, accompanies her throughout. At times Siddons turns to the keyboard to join Adams for instrumental duets that either indicate the passage of time or which underline the significance of a particular event in the story. She has created a gallery of grotesques worthy of Dickens, the most monstrous being a sweatshop boss who controls his child slaves with a cattle prod. Inevitably, there is a tragic death, but it is not dwelt on.   Siddons’ sidesteps Little-Nell sentimentality, preferring dark humour. She can be intensely lyrical, but her poetic flights are often punctuated by an earthy directness. She is clearly in love with language in all its forms and often combines words incongruously, cheerfully juxtaposing ‘hamsters’ with ‘haemorrhoid cream’.

Marcus Hamblett’s clever music score augments the atmosphere, and shifts in mood are emphasized by skillfully placed changes in the lighting, but above all Raymondo is a dazzling display of unconventional story-telling. There will be those who find the language a little too self-consciously aware of its own cleverness, but I was totally absorbed by this strange and beguiling tale. Annie Siddons has described Raymondo as being about ‘resilience, adversity, fraternity and love.’ By delivering these themes through the medium of magical realism she has been able to let her imagination run free, to great effect. Raymondo is an unashamedly quirky, but ultimately very moving prose-poem. Highly recommended.   ★★★★☆     Mike Whitton       1st October 2015