If you’ve ever worked in a newspaper office, the setting of Before Bristol will feel immediately familiar: mouldering, tottering piles of old editions; bins overflowing with the detritus of fast food; a general air of grime. The characters too will be familiar: the slightly embittered old hack for whom Fleet Street never called, the highly capable woman whose title in no way reflects her role or abilities; and the old plodder who’s settled into waiting for his pension.
Perhaps too familiar — the “bright young thing” here is, contrary to stereotype, a petulant rebel — but otherwise these characters would, from their descriptions, be mere stereotypes. Yet writer Robert Meakin, and the solid, six-strong team of actors, does an excellent job of fleshing out the bones of apparent cliché.
All is not well at the Heaton Express, despite the recent success (proudly chronicled by the front pages on the wall) in stopping the building of a destructive bypass through the town. Brian, the editor (Jonathan Oliver), is the man for whom Fleet Street never called and he’s got the short fuse of the permanently disappointed, although its not quite that simple, for underlying is a fierce attachment to his town that shines through in a grudging sort of passion. Geoffrey (a fine performance by Richard Walker) is the solid decent type — at least he was solid until his ongoing divorce proceedings started to shake him apart.
Holding the office together, emotionally and practically, is Kate (Victoria Meakin). Her common sense and stability desert her, however, when it comes to relationships. She has a penchant for married men who never live up to their promises to leave their wives, thus it is hardly surprising that she should have linked up with Phil (Yannick Lawry), the convincingly slimy but charismatic owner’s representative.
Battering at all of the emotional fault-lines at any opportunity is the young Dave, convinced of his own unrecognised brilliance and making no secret of his plan to leave. He’s played by Ian ‘H’ Watkins, who I’m told audience members of a certain age will immediately recognise from the pop group Steps. It’s meant as a compliment to say I didn’t realise this until I read the programme notes; he looks entirely comfortable and in control as an actor in this intimate space.
In tone and substance, the play feels like it owes more than a little to Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning for all of its computer screens, but the plot is neatly turned; recurring themes and motifs giving a pleasingly rounded feel to the tale.
This is an entertaining, lively evening, its interest sufficient even to drown out World Cup jollities downstairs. It mightn’t have a lot new and original to say, but it is a human-interest story well told in a believable setting. And if you’ve ever worked in a local newspaper office, it will be a real blast from the past.
The theatre, with online booking.