Bazaar & Rummage @ Alma Tavern & Theatre – Review

Local company Full Theatre bring two plays to The Alma Tavern Theatre this week, performing on alternating nights with Bazaar & Rummage on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Accidental Death of an Anarchist on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Bazaar & Rummage is a play by Sue Townsend who found fame as the author of the Adrian Mole books. The first half of the plays finds us in a church hall where two social workers are preparing to put on a rummage sale with the help of three housebound agoraphobics to whom we are introduced one-by-one as they arrive at the church and for whom it will be an opportunity to face the outside world for a few hours as part of their treatment.

As the play was written in 1982 rather than just being set in the 80s, some of the comedy in the first half feels a bit dated with many of the jokes revolving around class, the novelty of black people and “political correctness” that had me straining my memory for why we used to find those things funny. Fans of Abigail’s Party or early 80s sitcoms will find the comedy enjoyable, if nostalgic, but some cultural references might be lost completely on younger audience members who’ve never had to suffer a sheepskin carseat cover or a Barry Manilow record!

It is in the second half that the real heart of the play lies as we move ahead to the aftermath of the rummage sale and we explore the underlying causes of each character’s agoraphobia and the motivations of the social workers who are supposed to be helping them. While the comedy of the first half doesn’t quite work in the 21st century, the tragedy of the second half is still as relevant as ever and it’s when each of the characters is given some breathing space to open up (by the departure of Georgie Fenwick’s stifling social worker Gwenda) that we are really able to experience them as engaging people rather than the comic caricatures of Act 1.

Overall this is a tricky ensemble piece and all were required and able to play their parts well to keep things moving. Many of the standout comedy moments come from Eleanor Skinner’s clueless Barry Manilow fan Katrina while Kat Underwood handles the range required from her well as the longest-serving recluse, Margaret, who is an abrasive, sweary cockney in the first half but who gains the audience’s sympathy in the second half when the dark reason for her condition is revealed in a scene that provides a welcome moment of stillness and emotion against the fast tempo of the rest of the play.

Though all the action takes place within a single room of a church hall, the cast make excellent use of all the space available to them as they navigate their way around the Alma’s small stage and each other and do well to maintain the narrative momentum through all the characters’ comings and goings. Unfortunately, this Monday night’s performance came with the particular challenge of some distracting noises from the pub quiz going on over the PA system in the tavern below. Hopefully there will not be similar problems through the rest of the week but in general I’d suggest avoiding Mondays at the Alma! Incidentally with the arrival of the Wardrobe, they might have to change their signage that claims they’re Bristol’s only bar with a theatre too.

Both Bazaar & Rummage and Accidental Death of an Anarchist are selling out fast so you’d better be quick if you want to catch either of these. If you do miss out though, I certainly hope and expect that we’ll be seeing more from this talented local company around Bristol in the future.