Starter For Ten

In a landscape often cluttered with musicals trying to emulate other modern successes, it is delightful to see a new musical carving its own visual and musical aesthetic in this 80s-themed extravaganza. Directed by Charlie Parham and based on the book by David Nicholls, Starter for Ten tells the story of Brian, a working class kid starting at Bristol University. Dreaming of girls, University Challenge and being “taken seriously”, we join our dorky but romantic protagonist in laughing, crying and learning throughout his first year of adulthood.

Don’t miss the chance to see this future West End Hit at the start of its journey

The stage opens upon a brightly-coloured vision of Brian’s home in Southend, Essex. As young Brian happily says goodbye to his father on the way to work, a sense of dread builds from this happy innocence surely about to be lost. Indeed, when tragedy strikes off-stage, the stage serves as a canvas for this interplay between the explanations of the past and the actions of the present. We all love University Challenge but why is Brian so obsessed? Adam Bregman is an effortless leading man, and carries the audience through both Brian’s best and worst moments with charm and vulnerability.

The set is a series of pastel moving pieces, an English, ‘80s barbieland that fits together in a hundred different ways. While the piecemeal items could risk feeling inauthentic to each setting or hazarding bumpy transitions, Frankie Bradshaw’s ingenious design instead brings variety while remaining deeply stylistic. Forget edgy textures and atmospheric liminal spaces; bring on the 80s’ pastel and suggestive backdrops.

The contrast between Brian's warm but humble Southend home and the bright, elitist atmosphere of Bristol University plays a pivotal role in exploring class dynamics. On one level, this brings comedy, highlighting the prattish rugby boys of Bristol and the maniacal poshness of quiz leader Patrick, performed with incredible physical comedy by Will Jennings. On a deeper level, it prompts reflection on Brian's place between two homes and communities. As Brian’s friend Spencer emphasises, performed with impact by Stephenson Ardern-Sodje, class is more than where you grew up, it’s in what you do and what you like. With his upper-class friends and higher-educational background, where does Bryan belong now? Is it possible to fit into those two worlds and retain authenticity?

While the exploration of class is compelling, it feels somewhat peculiar that the elitist 1980s atmosphere barely hints at sexism and racism, despite their historical prevalence in quiz teams and the plentitude of female characters of colour. While one show cannot and should not attempt to tackle all issues, a more intersectional approach could enrich future development.

One modernising change from the source material is the downplaying of the love triangle. Two women represent two pathways of Brian’s future, one a symbol of his lust towards an upper-class charisma and the other the true friendship of his working class relationships. Nevertheless, neither women is competing. The loss of any silly romantic tension allows Rebecca and Alice, portrayed by Eubha Akilade and Emily Lane respectively, to shine individually on stage. Akilade delivers a compelling performance as the defiant and sarcastic Rebecca, challenging world issues while questioning the role of arts education in a broken world. Meanwhile, Lane's embodiment of the Cotswold and clueless object of Brian's affection is a tour de force of confidence and comedic timing.

While the decentering of the love triangle allows these female characters the spotlight, part of its conclusion feels abrupt and unsatisfying. The show teases the potential of a slow-burn romance with Rebecca, only to hastily shut down that possibility in eternity with one cumbersome line. The worthy intention may have been to highlight Rebecca’s passions outside of any romantic prospects, but she can both be a fully-fleshed character in her own right and feel romantic desires. Can a woman not have it all? A more open-ended resolution could have better aligned with the established storytelling and character development.

Nevertheless, any criticisms are merely feedback for future development. Starter for Ten is a truly brilliant musical, combining entertainment and introspection, tears with laughter and my debit card with the Bristol Old Vic website as I purchase another ticket. The technical prowess of this production is especially complementary, but the musical is sure to go far in the years to come outside of it. Don’t miss the chance to see this future West End Hit at the start of its journey.

Reviews by Sophie Tice

Bristol Old Vic

Starter For Ten

★★★★★
Bristol Old Vic

Metamorphosis

★★★
Soho Theatre

Strategic Love Play

★★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Sugar Coat

★★★★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Fingers on buzzers! Here’s your Starter for Ten…

What is eighteen-year-old Brian Jackson’s proudest achievement to date? His A-level results. His idol? Kate Bush. His lifelong dream? To compete on legendary TV quiz show University Challenge. It’s 1985 and, leaving Southend to start his first year at Bristol University, Brian soon discovers that falling in love and growing up take a lot more than general knowledge…

Adapted from the hilarious novel by bestselling author David Nicholls and the popular 2006 film, Starter for Ten is a bright, big-hearted new musical. Featuring an irresistible original soundtrack inspired by the riotous student scene of the ’80s, this coming-of-age comedy is about love, belonging and the all-important difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Starring Adam Bregman (Sing Street, Huntington Theatre) as lovesick Essex boy, Brian; Mel Giedroyc (Company, Gielgud) as Brian’s mum Irene, and Robert Portal (The 39 Steps, West End) as the legendary quizmaster, Bamber Gascoigne.

Book and lyrics co-written by Emma Hall and Charlie Parham, with an ’80s-inspired original score and lyrics by Hatty Carman and Tom Rasmussen. Directed by Charlie Parham.

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