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Starter for Ten: a comically honest picture of university life

Rachel Bronnert reviews Bristol Old Vic's latest hit musical, which is set in Bristol University in the 80s!

By Rachel Bronnert, Arts Editor

Before going to watch Bristol Old Vic’s newest musical Starter for Ten I had high expectations. How could I not when the musical is set in Bristol university itself? The musical introduces us to Brian (played by Adam Bregman) from Southend, a hopeful new English Literature student, who is eager to prove himself and discover who he is in his new phase of life. The musical is adapted from David Nicholls novel, and the 2006 film Starter for Ten. Set in the year 1985, the performance follows a group of students as they navigate coming of age and prepare to compete in the quiz show University Challenge.

At the beginning of the show Brian moves away from home for the first time to begin university and encounters many of the challenges that we ourselves may have experienced, in navigating friendships, relationships and a new found identity. The wider cast was also brilliant as they offered audiences a spectrum of larger-than-life comical caricatures. Each of them satirically fulfilled a stereotype that many of us have encountered at university. The funniest aspect for me was seeing that in one way or another, nothing has really changed. We meet posh rugby boys, larger than life theatre students, activists, socialists and more. 'Characters' who are all familiar to us at university today. The representation of university life and the exploration of the challenges that freshers face was captivating, convincing and authentic.

The costumes, set, and music were vibrant and perfectly nostalgic, creating a vivid picture of Bristol University in the 80s. The musical was a true spectacle, filled with incredibly choreographed group dance numbers with 80s inspired synth and guitar solos. These varied from the backdrop of a date in a Bristolian Italian restaurant, as Alice (played by Emily Lane) is whirled around by the waiters as she declares her dream to be in the spotlight. Or immediately after the interval, as the cast were kitted out in bright neon exercise gear, eliciting laughs and hysterics from the audience. There was passionate and lively singing from all the cast but Mel Giedroyc and Robert Portal stood out with their improvisation and hilarious audience interaction.

Whilst we saw a range of so called university ‘stereotypes’, the characters weren't two dimensional, but were nuanced and developed. The musical explored grief as we learnt about the tragedy of Brian losing his dad and how he dreams of being in the University Challenge team to make him proud. It satirically mocks but also highlights the importance of the arts, which is poignantly relevant to a society where our government seeks to constantly devalue our arts and cultural institutions. As Brian’s new English professor insists on asking, why do you study, why are you here? It forces Brian but also audiences to remember and realize just why the Arts are so important.

Emma Hall and Charlie Parham (co-writers) showed their range and depth as they utilized their witty, but frank dialogue to highlight the classism that was (and still is) routed in university life. The class privilege embedded in the story was clear, as Brian's background sets him apart from other wealthier students, hitting close to home, as class divides are still an issue in Bristol and many other universities today. However, the quiz brought students together from different backgrounds and university cliques to work towards a common goal, finding warmth and humour in their differences. Will Jennings was one to watch as he excelled in his performance as an insane, nerdy and intense quiz team captain.

The dialogue was comic throughout and full of hilarious moments. I particularly enjoyed the pointed references to Oxbridge and the so-called rivalry, as ‘Oxbridge personified’ walked onto the stage.

Overall though, Starter for Ten did not disappoint. It's a warm, comic, honest and increasingly relevant exploration of British University culture, both nostalgic for the past but relevant to the present, and celebrating, whilst delicately criticizing British academic culture through its witty writing.

Featured Images: Marc Brenner

Starter for Ten is running till the 30th of March! Get your tickets here:

Starter for Ten | Bristol Old Vic
£12 tickets now available for all remaining performances!…