Theatre: A hell of a holiday

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the strangest customs associated with going on holiday is the need to make friends. From the moment the plane touches down, like seeks out like as someone to "do things with" in a sort of platonic holiday romance. All this is multiplied by a factor of several hundred when the holiday in question is one of those "spend three months discovering the soul of South America" experiences. But then, as one character in Gringos suggests, if the people who go on such major "life on hold" holidays had great lives at home, they wouldn't be there in the first place.

And so it is that Gringos - a new play by the precociously talented playwright, Toby Farrow (he's only 24, for goodness sake) - presents us with a cast of socially inadequate, emotionally stunted, and far from happy campers setting off for the adventure holiday of a lifetime. In a series of snapshot scenes, this motley array of characters drawn from a Lonely Planet readership survey stagger across the mountains, jungles, deserts and cheap hostels of Latin America under the leadership of dysfunctional, sex-obsessed ex- Mormon guide, Brando (Marc Danbury).

They form alliances, get drunk, and fall out in the emotional hothouse of the tour group. Gratifyingly, they do not undergo massive conversions or suffer blinding attacks of self-realisation. When they arrive back at the airport to go home, they are - perhaps - a little older and wiser, but still multifaceted, screwed-up individuals just like the rest of us.

Drawing on his own backpacking experiences, Farrow has a keen observational eye, a deft hand with the punchy one-liner, and the potential to develop into an excellent bittersweet playwright. He is greatly assisted by the cast, who deliver his material in a comfortable downbeat style, allowing the laughs to come naturally. The part of Dr Nick - a Belgian biologist fascinated by all forms of animal reproduction, especially human - is particularly vulnerable to horrific hamming, yet Ed Sinclair sensibly plays it as straight as lines like "the world of rooster manipulation is full of casualties" will permit. This production is yet another example of young actors in a studio setting who could teach their more high-profile elders a thing or two about comedy acting.

Toby Farrow's play is a product of Bristol Old Vic's new Basement project: a testing ground for new writers away from the harsh glare of the publicity spotlight. While the main house - under the ever-mounting pressure of the spreadsheet and the quick commercial return - seems to have lost touch completely with BOV's noble traditions, and is reduced to serving up John Godber's Up `n' Under, starring former England hooker Gareth Chilcott, it is cheering that deep in the bowels of one of Britain's great regional theatres, the creative engine is still ticking over.

And gratifying to see that the cold frame in the Basement is helping to feed the New Vic Studio's adventurous and exciting programme of theatre for a new generation.

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