THEATRE: Up the Feeder, Down the 'Mouth Bristol Old Vic

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bristol's star is on the rise. Architects are churning forth designs to make it the city for the millennium. A centre for performing arts is planned that will be the envy of Europe. And the innovative Bristol Sound is a welcome alternative to the guitar band revival. Meanwhile, financial institutions and major companies are transferring their filing cabinets and bags of lucre to the city on the Avon by the score. Bristol's ship is definitely coming in - again.

ACH Smith's Up the Feeder, Down the 'Mouth is therefore a timely opportunity to look back at Bristol's previous heyday, when its wealth came not from insurance workers and customer service centres, but from the docks: the ships sailing into the heart of the city to unload cargo from every corner of the globe, the Babel of different languages in the pubs, the pounding beat of engines and whistles that was Bristol's lifeblood. Specially commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic, Up the Feeder seeks to capture the poetry and the poverty of the city's past through a collage of music, oral history and theatre.

A series of songs - high quality Celtic folk rock delivered with outstanding power by Kate McNab - link themed segments of memory: the discomfort and perks of unloading, memories of running away to sea ("doing the pierhead jump"), the camaraderie and congestion of the Pen, where dockers crowded like cattle before the selecting stevedores. A tricky format to stage, not aided by the bare and uninspiring scaffolding set, but director Andy Hay manages to keep the audience's attention with swinging bales, a living backdrop of extras and the majestic entry of a steamer's bow.

However, the true strength lies in the actors' narrative skills - particularly those of Joe Hobbs, Stephen Mapes and Howard Coggins who, being native- born, can paint word pictures and deliver the high humour content without the need for jarring Mummerset accents. The production will undoubtedly appeal more to Bristolians than to out-of-towners, with innumerable local references and performances delivered in dialect thick enough to cut.

At times, the play seems overextended as it sinks too deeply into its role as a journal of record, feeling more like a repository of oral history than an entertainment. A surfeit of anecdotes shifts the focus away from the ships and docks that make Bristol's history unique, steering the piece into tales of "poor but happy" working-class life that could come from any industrial city in the country.

While by no means an involving piece of theatre - there are no characters for whom you will weep or cheer - Up the Feeder is a funny and startlingly encyclopaedic record of the life of the Bristol docks. And the opening number, with its upbeat enthusiasm and municipal pride, is the perfect anthem for a city on the crest of an unstoppable revival. To 31 May (0117-987 7877)