Walking the Chains - Celebrating the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge
The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a true Bristolian icon. It has been a source of action, admiration and controversy since its inception, and it’s about time there was a proper tribute to it - step forward Show Of Strength Theatre Company and Circomedia with their mix of theatre, dance, music and circus performance, all aimed at showing the broad history of the bridge, from the first designs, through to modern day testimonials from locals. For maximum experience of this blog, we recommend you listen to the following music whilst reading. [soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/52525295" params="color=fbdd28&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
Performed in The Passenger Shed next to Temple Meads - a building designed by Brunel to service the railway he built, the staging is impressive from first sight - with the venue acting as a fittingly dramatic backdrop to the lively action. There’s enough to keep all ages happy in this production - younger audience members will love the daring aerial work as performers dangle from the ceiling, dance across the stage and balance precariously off parts of the set - and each other. The songs are energetic and help move along the action, even if you can’t always make out the words through the loudness of the crowds.
The non-linear narrative also keeps the energy up throughout the 2hr long show, flitting back and forth between the noisy hammering of the original construction, the jocular chitchat of the maintenance workers and Brunel’s constant frustration at his designs failing in the numerous competitions held by the bridge committee.
I was pleased not only with the lively entertainment but also the amount of facts I learnt about the bridge, from its original paint job (a less than glamorous chocolate brown) to the odd suggestions for its original design, one of which included Egyptian style sphinxes...
The show seemed to find its feet more in the second half as more of the action was given over to current day personal stories - from marriage proposals, to unexpected births, to ballsy acts of sporting prowess (did you know that the world’s first bungee jump took place from the bridge in 1979?). There was also the inevitable mention of the more morbid side of the bridge as a suicide destination, which was handled delicately and movingly in the script.
The link between all these fantastic stories, whether from locals, tourists or the charismatic toll booth attendants (who attempt the terrifying ‘walking of the chains’ to fix lights, a feat which gives the show its name) is the fondness they have for this mountain of metal, and how much of a towering role it plays in their lives.
The Adopted son of Bristol...
Of course, this is not just a show about a bridge, but is just as much a story about its passionate and determined designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and this is a fitting eulogy to the engineering genius and adopted son of Bristol. The show very much champions the eccentrics of Bristol throughout the piece, none more so than the giddy Brunel, who continues to draw plans for the bridge, hassle people for funds and build despite mounting criticism, skepticism and all out rejection of his plans. If only Clarkson was around in those times eh IKB?
As we hear from one of his critics though, “There is nothing displeasing to the english temperament as a magnificent disappointment’’, and in the end Brunel shows that creativity and persistence will triumph over commerce and authority - a value which seems very much in-keeping with Bristol’s values and unique character today.
The name Bristol means ‘Place of the Bridge’, and thanks to Brunel, it still very much has the same meaning today. Buy a ticket, and feel warm and fuzzy inside without a hint of vertigo.
The Passenger Shed until Sunday 25th January Performances at 14:00 and 19:30 £10.50 - £24.50 incl. booking fee
Get your Tickets here