Showing posts with label King's Arms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label King's Arms. Show all posts

Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of The Greek (Kinky Boot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows from the programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. And, sadly, that is the last time I’m going to get to write that this year. Yes… the time has come for me to finish my little journey through this year’s festival programme, as I’ve reached my final review. But what a great show I’m ending on!

The final show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Lewis Charlesworth’s The Greek. This is a show I was really looking forward to, as writer-director Lewis Charlesworth has been a guest on both this year's and last year’s Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Specials, but also on a regular edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf in November 2018. In last year’s interviews, he mentioned that he was working on a piece related to Brexit, and so I’ve been keenly waiting to see the final product. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Greek is described as a ‘Brexit comedy without the politics’. Indeed, the word ‘Brexit’ doesn’t actually appear in the play, and mentions of the referendum are limited to a short introductory burst of audio – an edited montage of news reporters and politicians talking angrily that speeds up and blurs into a bewildering cacophony. Set in 2015, The Greek is a one-act play about the complex, contradictory and difficult circumstances into which the Brexit referendum was dropped.

The play opens with Mary (played by Betty Webster), an 83-year-old woman from Lancashire, sitting on her chair, while her neighbour John (played by Peter Slater) fusses around her and keeps her company. Everything about the play’s opening has an easy sense of familiarity – from the cushions on the couch, to the ‘state of the world’ conversations. Mary and John are white, working class people who perceive societal change as a downhill slope.

Mary and John sit together, drink tea, and bemoan the state of the world in language that is striking in its authenticity. Make no mistake, The Greek pulls no punches in the language and sentiments being expressed. Mary and John may claim not to be racist (in John’s case with some convoluted and highly unconvincing evidence), but the audience is very likely to disagree. Despite knowing that what they’re saying isn’t considered ‘PC’, they continue, on the grounds that ‘it’s a free country’ and ‘I can say what I like in my own house’. It’s clear that what we’re watching is a regular and normal conversation for the two.

However, on this occasion, Mary is keen for John to leave. She’s expecting a visitor – her grandson, who she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. We learn that Mary was estranged from her son, who was also once a good friend of John’s, and that as a result she’s had no real relationship with her grandson. There’s also clearly something that she doesn’t want to tell John… and we quickly find out (if the play’s posters hadn’t given us an inkling) what that is.

Mary’s grandson James (played by Charlesworth) is mixed race, and clearly uncomfortable about visiting the grandmother he believes is an unreconstructed racist. More than this, James embodies some other social positions that Mary and John have previously decried – he’s moved out of Lancashire, he’s cosmopolitan (working in marketing), and his politics (though not overtly stated) are left-leaning.

The Greek is a series of conversations – between Mary and John, Mary and James, and then between all three. Sparks fly, and some pretty dramatic statements are made – but this is not a play about conflict. Surprisingly – and refreshingly – this is a play about what happens when you have conversations with people you disagree with. My description so far may not have made this clear, but The Greek is a tender, sweet and honest comedy, filled with sympathy and affection for human nature (flawed as it may be).

The play’s real strength and originality lies is that Mary and John are criticized, but not demonized. At no point are the audience encouraged to sympathize or agree with their view of the world, but we are given the chance to listen to it, just as James is, and to view them as human beings rather than stereotypes. Charlesworth’s script is sensitive and subtle, refusing to shy away from harsh truths, but navigating these truths with humour and compassion. As the endless cups of tea and French fancies are produced, preconceptions and animosities are exposed and challenged in an upfront, but quintessentially British, way.

Interestingly, the night before I saw The Greek, I watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the role Cambridge Analytica played in manipulating the result of the EU referendum through cynical (and illegal) exploitation. The Greek makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Great Hack, as it shines a light on the very tensions, beliefs and concerns that Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ latched onto and exploited for their own financial ends. There’s a poignancy to The Greek in some ways, as it evokes a version of 2015 where global data-mining tech companies have less power than a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling. It hints at what the EU referendum would’ve looked like without Cambridge Analytica or Dominic Cummings or AggregateIQ – and it suggests that, hard as it might have been, we could’ve worked it out, we could’ve been okay.

All credit to the performers here. Charlesworth is excellent as James, tempering raw anger with kindness in a nuanced and thoughtful performance. Webster’s portrayal of Mary captures a combination of battle-axe stubbornness and fragility that is both authentic and sympathetic. But, in many ways, it’s Slater who is given the biggest challenge – John should be completely unlikable, but Slater’s performance dilutes his unpalatable views with just the right amount of baffled vulnerability. It’s a mark of Slater’s skill as an actor that we’re left with a character who’s hard to like, but impossible to completely hate.

While I am sad that my visits to this year’s Fringe are over, The Greek was a real high point to end on. An honest, funny and compassionate script, coupled with three pitch-perfect performances, made for an enjoyable, thought-provoking and surprisingly hopeful piece of theatre. I hope The Greek gets another run at some point – if it does, you should definitely see it!

The Greek was on at the King’s Arms Theatre, Salford on the 27th-29th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Review: Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can (Joe Walsh, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from the 1st-31st July. I’ve been reviewing a selection of the shows on this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, but – sadly – I’m now coming to the end of my festival experience. The penultimate show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Joe Walsh’s Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can, which was on at the King’s Arms on Sunday 28th July. You can hear the radio version of my review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…

Written and directed by Joe Walsh, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is a one-act play about homelessness, or rather, it’s a one-act play about some people who are homeless. This distinction is important – the play is character-focused, and is invested in the relationships and personalities of individuals, rather than examining the underlying causes and effects of homelessness. Its message (both in its marketing and in its execution) is clear – this is a play that seeks to tackle preconceptions through humanization.

The play is set outdoors, on the streets where the central characters sleep. (Sunday’s performance was intended to be staged in the Beer Garden at the King’s Arms, but was moved indoors to the cellar rooms due to rather inclement weather!) While the dialogue switches between using ‘Manchester’ and ‘Salford’ (possibly as a nod to where it’s being performed), references to various Deansgate landmarks set it firmly in the former. Some of the pop culture references (especially the claim that people want to hear buskers playing The Stone Roses or Oasis) add to the generally Mancunian flavour of the piece.

Our protagonists are Barney (played by Paul Tomblin), Sarah (played by Leah Gray) and Derek (played by Craig Hodgkinson), three disavowed Deansgate residents, who sleep rough on the streets and get by on a mixture of begging, busking and reluctant shoplifting. They’re a loyal, if a little unorthodox, trio, who occupy a ‘fort’ of their own making. The play is never explicit on the circumstances that have brought the three together, but there’s a general feeling of camaraderie, trust and affection between them.

Sarah is a straight-talking young woman with a history of getting into trouble for ‘speaking her mind’. Our introduction to her is when she angrily wakes up from the bench where she’s sleeping to complain about Derek’s guitar playing. Nevertheless, as the play progresses and we get to know her a little better, she emerges more as a rather sweet and caring person, with a romanticized nostalgia for Southport. Gray’s performance is engaging (and rather charming in places), and she reveals a good knack for comic timing.

Barney is, on the whole, set as a counterpoint to Sarah. Sweetly naïve, yet comically optimistic, much of Tomblin’s performance is played for laughs – and he does get some funny lines. His OTT reaction to finding Sarah’s sanitary pads and a laugh-out-loud bit involving Barry Chuckle firmly situate Barney as a comic character, though there are some quieter, more reflexive moments, which allow Tomblin to show his versatility and add a gentle poignancy to the characterization.

Sarah and Barney’s friendship (could it be more?) is the ‘heart’ of the story, but they aren’t alone in their ‘fort’. The third member of the group is Derek, an older man whose troubled past is hinted at, though not substantially expanded on, throughout the play. Derek acts as a sort of avuncular guide for his younger companions, and Hodgkinson plays this with a compassionate, but melancholy, air that, again, is engaging to watch.

The three main performers – ably accompanied by Owen Murphy and Ella Fraser, who appear in minor roles – are very watchable, but I have some reservations about Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can. At times, it is a little confused in terms of tone and message. Some serious subjects are invoked – period poverty, for instance, and the difficulties faced by people on release from prison – but these aren’t explored in any real depth. While some backstory is offered for each of the characters, there is no real consideration of the causes of homelessness (which is entirely conflated with rough sleeping in the piece). The play’s mostly upbeat conclusion resolves what would be – in real life – complex and entrenched issues with a rather romantic and dreamlike finale.

However, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is a comedy – and a warm-hearted one at that. Its strength lies in its charm, and its message in the humanizing effect that light-hearted and optimistic comedy can create. This is certainly not naturalistic theatre, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not moving and heartfelt.

Some of the performance techniques used in the play are very enjoyable. The casual and repeated breaking of the fourth wall – including a little bit of ad-libbed audience interaction – is funny and endearing. This is combined with a couple of more serious short monologues from Sarah and Derek, which enhance the character development. Walsh’s script is controlled and well-written, with an excellent balance between comedy, introspection and good old-fashioned storytelling.

Do I think the play’s ending is realistic? No. Do I think it was the right way to conclude the character and narrative arcs? Yes, I absolutely do. And (no spoilers), I thought the final drop of poignancy that dilutes an otherwise fairy-tale conclusion was very well-done.

As I said at the beginning, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is not really a play about homelessness, and it doesn’t seek to offer a solution to societal problems. Instead, it’s an amiable and hopeful story about three likeable characters who happen to be living on the streets. With great performances, a strong script and direction, and some lovely moments of audience involvement, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is an enjoyable and funny piece of character-driven theatre.

Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on 27th and 28th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Review: socially [un]acceptable (Big Mood, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 24th July 2019
Studio, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July. I’m reviewing a selection of shows from the festival programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, and the next show I saw was Big Mood’s socially [un]acceptable, which was on in the Studio at the King’s Arms on Wednesday 24th July. You can hear the radio version of this review on my Tuesday show on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

socially [un]acceptable is a one-woman show written and performed by Laura Desmond that addresses the subject of sexual assault in a raw and confrontational way. It’s an autobiographical piece, told through a series of vignettes that present Desmond’s experiences of sexual assault and rape. As the title suggests, the narrative focus is on the types of abusive behaviours that are considered socially acceptable (by some) or expected (by others).

Desmond arrives at the Studio in her underwear, with a pint in her hand. Nodding to the audience, Desmond raises her glass, cheers the Fringe (woohoo!) and asks if anyone else is drinking. She seems like she might be kinda tipsy already. Of course, this is a key part of the show’s engaging but unsettling style, and the introduction sets the audience up for a distinct challenge to their perceptions and preconceptions.

In her introduction, Desmond explains (as if her accent hasn’t given it away) that she’s from Adelaide, and that her hometown has a problematic drinking culture. She gets the audience to sing along with a campus drinking song, for instance, that reduces women to inanimate objects, useful only for sexual activity. Sadly, the picture she paints of Adelaide student drinking culture will be relatable to many in the UK (and elsewhere) as well. This culture creates an environment where ‘crossing the line’ or ‘trying your luck’ in terms of sex and consent is viewed as an acceptable and ordinary part of social interaction.

Alcohol plays a key role in socially [un]acceptable. Not only does Desmond drink throughout the performance – sometimes gesticulating with her glass to emphasize a point, as though she’s an inebriated friend recounting a bad experience – but the stories she tells also all involve heavy drinking and hangovers (which, as she states early on, is probably something a lot of people can relate to). With an objective eye, it’s hard not to be impressed with Desmond’s control and skill here – she plays drunk (even sloppy drunk at points) convincingly, without losing the beat of the monologue for a moment.

However, Desmond’s drinking stories develop into accounts of sexual assault, coercion and pressure – sadly, this is probably also something a lot of people can relate to. Beginning each account with a burst of a pop song (sung, rather than played) and dressing herself in a new outfit, each story begins with a feeling of hopefulness. Desmond is – just like many other young women – getting ready for a night out, a party, a fun time. By the end of each story, she is stripped back to her underwear, describing things that have been done against her will, with a strident anger and antagonism.

It’s in this anger that the real bravery of socially [un]acceptable lies. In standing – stripped, belligerent and (apparently) drunk – before the audience, Desmond offers a direct challenge to perceptions of victimhood. There are moments in the show where Desmond appears to almost be inviting blame (or shame) upon herself, but then pre-emptively knocks it back with a definitive statement that firmly sends the blame back in the correct direction. (Although at times, in the snug confines of the King’s Arms Studio, Desmond’s direct delivery and disarming eye contact makes it feel almost as though some blame is levelled at the audience, or at least at our preconceptions.)

socially [un]acceptable is not an easy watch. Strikingly, there is absolutely no humour in the piece. While Desmond begins with a faux joviality (and I have to admit, for non-Aussie audiences, her accent is a bit of decoy), there are no jokes here. There is no levity to the anecdotes. Instead, we’re presented with the raw and unfiltered pain of the victim. Desmond modulates between rage-filled and wounded, confrontational and vulnerable.

As well as the lack of humour, there is also no comment on healing here. This is not a piece about recovery from trauma, and there’s no suggestion that Desmond is ‘in a different place’ or ‘a different person’ at the end of her narrative.

This is important for the (openly stated) aims and intentions of the piece. socially [un]acceptable is about laying bare – often in quite a visceral way – the impact that supposedly ‘acceptable’ behaviours can have on the individual on the receiving end. I keep coming back to the word ‘raw’, as this feels like the most appropriate adjective to describe the performance.

It’s hard to criticise a performance like this, which is so invested in the autobiographical and the personal. Desmond does an excellent job at sustaining the pace and style for the whole hour, giving the show an incredible atmosphere of intense authenticity. My only criticism, then, would be that – in a couple of places – narrative clarity is sacrificed to that intense authenticity. One anecdote, in particular, is so heavily invested in the ‘reality’ of the relationship being described that I found it a little bit difficult to follow. While this is authentic – student relationships are notoriously convoluted and overwrought – I wonder if some poetic licence might have been advisable to make the overall message clearer. This is a difficult criticism to make, admittedly, as socially [un]acceptable is an unashamedly personal narrative, and I’m a little uncomfortable suggesting someone edits their own autobiographical account.

Overall, socially [un]acceptable is a powerful, intense and thought-provoking piece. Desmond’s performance is sustained and assured throughout, and the piece offers a confrontational intervention into conversations about sexual assault – which the audience are encouraged to carry on, after the show is over.

socially [un]acceptable was on at the Studio, King’s Arms on 24th-26th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Review: The Joy of Cam (Down the Rabbit Hole Theatre, GM Fringe)

Saturday 20th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I’m continuing to review a selection of shows from this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was The Joy of Cam by Down the Rabbit Hole Theatre, at the King’s Arms Theatre, on Saturday 20th July. You can hear the radio version of this interview on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

The Joy of Cam is a one-act, one-woman show about Jess – or is it Aurora? – a young woman who works as a webcammer (or camgirl). Jess performs sex acts on webcam in the persona of Aurora, and the show explores the trials and tribulations of her particular career choice. The show is performed by Gemma Davies and directed by Chloe Patricia Beale, who collaborated as co-writers on the script.

I had mixed expectations going into The Joy of Cam. The premise certainly had potential, and the blurb stated that the writers had conducted research and interviews with current webcam models in order to reflect real-life stories and experiences. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how the show would compare to the 2018 film Cam (with script by Isa Mazzei, based on her own experiences as a camgirl). I really enjoyed Cam, so I was curious to know how The Joy of Cam would compare (especially given the former is a horror/thriller, but the latter appeared to offer something rather more light-hearted).

The Joy of Cam opens with Jess sitting on the stage, filing her nails and fielding phone calls. In between short phone conversations with clients, she begins to explain to the audience what her job entails. The show’s opening is notably for its casual, conversational tone – Jess addresses the audience directly and with light humour, and breaks off only to perform briefly (and in a somewhat non-committal way) as Aurora on the phone. The only slight shadow that falls over the scene comes when Jess is interrupted by a call from her father, which is in turn interrupted by a client checking in to her chatroom. However, this confusion is played for laughs, and the audience is given to believe it isn’t a serious problem.

I had some misgivings about the early part of The Joy of Cam. While Jess’s casualness about her job isn’t a problem, she isn’t immediately engaging as a character. Filled with the arrogance of youth, Jess makes a series of pronouncements about the world of work that grated a little in their naivety and the knowing style of their delivery. She is at such pains to explain to the audience that she has made a sensible career choice that it’s easy to feel a bit annoyed by her overconfidence.

More problematic is Jess’s mocking and dismissive tone when she touches on experiences of abuse. As she offers to tell the audience how she got started in sex work, Jess describes a coercive and controlling relationship she experienced as a teenager, before laughing and saying that it’s not true. She does acknowledge that some camgirls have this sort of story, but then airily states that she doesn’t. I was uncomfortable with the way this was played for laughs (complete with a ‘dodgy uncle’ punchline at one point).

In its marketing, The Joy of Cam insists that it is concerned with telling stories that are not usually heard. The problem here is that, when it comes to cam work, the only voices that are currently heard are those of young white girls who grew up in comfortable family homes and chose camming of their own volition. To make jokes about the possibility of abuse or coercion actually serves to further silence those with less of a platform, and this part of the play felt rather insensitive.

Now, while I do have reservations about the first half of the play, I found the latter section much more interesting. As things start to go wrong for Jess, the play matures into a more thoughtful and compelling piece, which ultimately reaches a refreshing and thought-provoking conclusion. Dropping the arch performance style of the first half, Davies finds her feet in a more conflicted and complex characterization in the second, allowing her to explore the nuance of character more.

These later scenes don’t simply present ‘bad things happening’, but rather develop the narrative into a more thorough examination of Jess’s reality (for good and bad). Not only does this allow Davies to show a greater performance range, but it also reveals some sophistication of writing and direction, as the pace and tone become more textured and considered.

The play takes place on a bare set, with props rather than backdrop creating the scene. One aspect of the staging that I thought worked very well was the way the camming itself was evoked. When a client enters the chatroom, Davies steps into a spotlight and looks up above the audience’s eyeline. Beale’s direction here is understated and effective, as it creates almost a genie-in-a-bottle effect, which sets up a subtle claustrophobia that undercuts Jess’s confident narration. As the pace picks up in the second half of the play, this atmosphere is heightened to good effect.

Overall, The Joy of Cam is a play that grew on me as it developed. While the first half has some weaknesses and missteps in characterization and tone, the second half is much more assured in terms of both performance and narration. This is Down the Rabbit Hole’s debut piece, and it certainly shows some real promise. I’ll be interested to see what the company produces in the future.

The Joy of Cam was on at the King’s Arms Theatre on the 20th and 21st July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see information about all the events at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Review: Blue Lines (The Hive, GM Fringe)

Monday 15th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July, and I’m reviewing shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. On Monday 15th July, I saw my next show from the festival programme – Blue Lines by Stefanie Moore. Blue Lines is one of three shows that have been produced for this year’s festival as part of the Arts Council-funded Hive project. Writer Stefanie Moore developed her debut play with mentoring by Tim Firth and Mike Heath, after winning her place on the scheme at the scratch night in January. You can hear my radio interview of the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

You may remember I interviewed Moore about the play for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. Having talked a little bit about what to expect from Blue Lines, I was very much looking forward to seeing the final product. And I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed!

Blue Lines is a one-act play, a two-hander, which stars Nicole Evans and Jenna Sian O’Hara. Evans plays Sarah, a sex-ed teacher, tasked with both introducing her charges to the facts of life and answering any questions they throw at her. She is somewhat overwhelmed and under-enthused by the job, but an early example of the sort of questions she is faced with justifies this. (One question in particular, which Moore mentioned in our June interview is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying – especially with the knowledge that it is a genuine question drawn from Moore’s own teaching experience.)

O’Hara plays Abby, a 15-year-old student who is pregnant. Abby turns to Sarah for advice, not knowing that her teacher is struggling with her own issues around pregnancy and motherhood. Sarah is ‘trying for a baby’, but she’s struggling to conceive. Abby has accidentally fallen pregnant after her first (and only) sexual encounter.

The play takes place over the course of a couple of weeks. This is a difficult thing to handle in a short space of time, but wisely the production avoids multiple scene and costume changes. Almost all the scenes take place in Sarah’s classroom, which is transformed into a doctor’s surgery for one scene. The classroom setting allows for a neat little detail to show the passage of time – scenes often begin with ‘Miss’ writing the day’s date on the board – but otherwise there’s little alteration from one scene to the next. The effect of this is to concentrate the audience’s focus on the characters and their story, and allows for this to develop with a controlled pace.

Blue Lines is driven, not only by individual performances, but also by the strong and believable dynamic between the two. Evans is sympathetic and relatable as Sarah. Slightly highly strung, she switches between frosty, brittle and vulnerable as she initially attempts to keep Abby at arm’s length. However, as the audience comes to realize what Sarah is holding beneath the surface, Evans’s performance becomes even more nuanced – and really quite moving.

O’Hara is just excellent as schoolgirl Abby, convincingly evoking that precarious balance between childhood and adulthood in a believable and sympathetic way. Abby gets a lot of the funniest lines, but the audience is (almost always) laughing with, rather than at, her. Where we are encouraged to laugh at her naivety, there’s a gentleness and affection to this that steers away from outright mockery. Nevertheless, Abby also gets to deliver a lot of the ‘wisdom’ of the play, which is done with subtlety and a light touch.

What really impressed me was the relationship between the two. Evans and O’Hara have a great on-stage chemistry, and their interactions are infused with a warmth and humanity that leaves the audience really rooting for a good outcome for both. It would have been easy to play the relationship for laughs, or veer towards cliché, but Evans and O’Hara keep things down-to-earth and convincing throughout.

Again, there are some very funny lines in the play. Personally, some of my favourite moments came when the humour collided directly with the more serious and painful issues that underpin the story. A particular favourite was an exchange about a monkey sanctuary, which builds from an off-the-cuff (and slightly absurd) statement from Abby into a well-timed exchange that reveals a lot about both characters and captures something a bit more profound than just monkeys.

Evans and O’Hara’s performances are great, but credit must also be given to Moore’s script. The dialogue is really excellent, and the lines for both characters are written with sensitivity: laugh-out-loud humour at times, and pathos (even pain) at others. While I would happily have watched much longer performances from the two actors – and I found that, even after just an hour, I had become quite attached to their characters – Moore pitches the narrative arc just right. There is just enough story here, and the play ends where it needs to end.

While Blue Lines is a play that’s unashamedly about pregnancy, fertility and motherhood, it is also a study of two particular characters. I have no doubt that many audience members will find things to identify with at various moments, and some of the dialogue will have familiarity for some. However, the play wisely avoids gesturing at universality, and it has lots to recommend it to those of us who aren’t interested in having babies! Again, this is carried through a combination of sensitive characterization and strong performances. Blue Lines is the story of Sarah and Abby, and the way their individual problems intersect for a brief period of time.

Overall, Blue Lines is a well-written, funny and relatable piece, with excellent performances from its two actors. It’s a definite recommendation from me.

Blue Lines is on at the King’s Arms from 15th-17th July, the Way Theatre, Atherton on 19th and 20th July, and the Bury Met on 20th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: The Empathy Experiment (Rose Condo, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 10th July 2019
Studio, King’s Arms, Salford

As you’ve probably twigged from my recent series of blog posts, the 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July. I’m reviewing a selection of shows from this year’s festival programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, and the next show on my list is The Empathy Experiment in the Studio at the King’s Arms in Salford on Wednesday 10th July. You can hear the radio version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version…

The Empathy Experiment is a one-woman show written and directed by Rose Condo (with dramaturgy by Dominic Berry) about our relationship with our smartphones and mobile devices. Told through poetry and spoken word performance, The Empathy Experiment is constructed around a simple conceit: Condo has decided to give up using her smartphone for a full 24 hours in order to see if this increases her empathy levels. Now, in the final hour of the experiment, she is ready to share her findings with the audience.

The show is presented as a sort-of lecture, signalled by Condo donning a white lab coat and using title cards to announce the stages of her investigation. I say ‘sort-of lecture’, though, as the style and tone of presentation are somewhat at odds with the ‘science part’ of the content. While Condo provides some research to back up her assertions about empathy and compassion – quoting from both studies and more populist books – there is an intimacy and urgency to Condo’s delivery that makes the show feel more like a conversation with, rather than an address to, the audience.

The show combines some – surely widely relatable! – poetry about everyday smartphone addiction, including an absorbing and descriptive piece about accidentally falling into a scrolling binge late at night, with chatty musings on the nature of empathy and the way we relate to other people. Both the poetry and the running monologue are eloquent, lightly comedic and engaging throughout, though there is a bit of bite to some of the commentary on the declining quality of human interaction. Nevertheless, there is no direct target to Condo’s light-touch ire. Instead, she creates a sense of complicity through the relatability of her words: we all do this, so we’re all to blame.

The Empathy Experiment works on two levels. On the one hand, the audience are presented with some thought-provoking facts and studies about the ostensible decline in empathy, and the connection this may have to smartphone use, and with responses to an anonymous survey Condo conducted beforehand. Some of this is not really surprising, but it serves the purpose of encouraging reflection and reassessment of certain aspects of the modern world that we have come (in a few short years) to take for granted. (And a poetic piece about Facebook really underlines the speed at which these changes have occurred.) It’s the sort of factual presentation that doesn’t so much teach you something new, but rather reminds you of something you’d forgotten you already knew – like, for instance, the fact that very few people primarily use their smartphone as a phone.

However, on the other hand – and more powerfully – the show works to create an actual empathetic response from its audience through its delivery style. I found that, although I was thinking a lot while watching The Empathy Experiment, I was feeling something too.

Condo states up-front that she is a ‘friendly’ person (noting that this is because she’s Canadian), and ‘friendliness’ is a vibe that undoubtedly permeates The Empathy Experiment. In the small space of the King’s Arms Studio, the audience feels very close to Condo – and to one another. She is seated on the stage area when the audience arrives, apparently patiently waiting for them and preparing herself for the performance. When the show proper begins, she makes expert use of silence and stillness at key moments, and frequently makes direct and smiling eye contact with audience members. This style creates a warmth and familiarity that encourages a strong feeling of connection between performer and audience.

Part way through the show, Condo brings someone onto the stage with (though this isn’t really an audience participation show) for a mini-experiment based on the metaphor of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. Slowing the pace right down, this exchange has an incredible softness and gentleness to it, which I found really rather moving.

I don’t know if it was the research on empathy that Condo presented, or the effect of the show’s style and delivery, or just a heightening of innate compassionate responses, but I did feel a strong emotional response to some parts of the show. In particular, there’s a point towards the end when Condo reveals the outcome of her experiment, but also a realization about some of its implications, and I genuinely – just for a minute – felt the pain she was describing.

Of course, the fact that I had this feeling is all credit to the careful and deliberate pacing of the show’s script, as well as Condo’s sensitive and expressive performance. The Empathy Experiment is a very well-crafted show, and it’s really quite clever in the way it elicits an emotional response from its audience.

Overall, The Empathy Experiment is a charming, thought-provoking and clever production, which draws on Condo’s skills as a poet and spoken word performer to create a very enjoyable hour of entertainment. I will admit, I did turn my phone back on when the show finished, but I’ll also admit it was nice to briefly be without it.

The Empathy Experiment had a short (and sold out) run at the Greater Manchester Fringe, but it will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. If you get chance to check out the show in Edinburgh, it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Empathy Experiment was on at The King’s Arms on the 10th and 11th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and it will be performed in August at The Banshee Labyrinth, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival website.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review: Wake Up, Maggie! (All Things Considered, GM Fringe)

Sunday 7th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July. The fourth show I saw this year was Wake Up, Maggie! by All Things Considered Theatre, which was staged at the King’s Arms Theatre on Sunday 7th July. I’ll be playing my radio review of the show on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Promising a show about ‘class, confusion and karaoke’, and about growing up in the 80s and early 90s, Wake Up, Maggie! is a lively and energetic two-hander by All Things Considered’s artistic director Emma Bramley and associate artist Stuart Crowther. And – this seems to be turning into a bit of a theme for this year’s Fringe – it’s not quite what I expected. Or rather, it was so much more than I expected.

Wake Up, Maggie! begins at the door, with audience members being offered a choice of stickers: Margo Leadbetter, Hyacinth Bucket or Ethel Skinner (I chose Ethel, by the way). Bramley and Crowther are already in the theatre space, dressed in tabards and carrying feather dusters, wandering round the stage and seating area. If you weren’t sure that the show was going to look at aspects of class (specifically working-class life), then this pre-show welcome nails the colours to the mast. However, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the full complexity of the performance.

The show is, on the whole, a duologue, peppered with short bursts of pop songs (some ironic, some illustrative), based on life experiences of the two performers (who are playing themselves on stage). Specifically, it considers and contrasts the two performers’ experiences of class. Crowther introduces himself as coming from Rochdale, and being solidly – and securely – working class, despite the fact that a number of the other personal characteristics he mentions – university lecturer, yoga practitioner, queer, vegan – aren’t immediately associated with the stereotype of the working-class northern bloke.

Bramley’s introduction is more confused. In fact, this is explicitly stated early in the show. Crowther isn’t confused about class, but Bramley is. She grew up poor, with a working-class father and a middle-class mother. She went to a ‘posh’ school, but was on free school dinners and had no money for clothes. Much of the show’s focus is on examining what this conflicted background means about Bramley’s class identity – does she fit in any of the boxes?

Touching on an array of characteristics usually used to categorize class identities, Bramley and Crowther work through anecdotes that reveal the limitations of these categories. Is university education a marker of class? Or financial circumstances? Or what you call your evening meal? This is undercut with jokey comments about the north/south divide, with Londoner Bramley asking at one point: ‘Have I not heard of this because I’m a southerner? Or because I’m middle class?’

I enjoyed this original and nuanced approach to the well-worn subject of class identity. It’s unexpected and a bit in-your-face at times, but it’s also genuinely moving in places and definitely thought-provoking. Bramley presents and examines her confusion through monologue and flashback, in which she conjures up versions of herself during childhood, including a memorable scene where she roots through a bag of cast-off clothes, desperate to find something, anything from Tammy Girl. Of course, her performance also relies on interaction with Crowther, which is consistently warm, funny and playful.

The dynamic between the two is undeniably comical, but it also offers an intriguing perspective on the question of class. In this relationship, the ‘solid’ working-class identity acts as a sort of guide to the system, with the ostensibly middle-class identity being revealed as a fragile and uncertain pretence. Bramley performs vignettes of her past experiences, but she also frequently fires questions at Crowther, apparently expecting him to have all the answers.

Crowther’s performance is an absolute joy. Where Bramley oozes discomfort, awkwardness and – in places – desperation in her story about trying to find a ‘place’ in the world, Crowther shines with the confidence and security of someone who knows exactly where his place is. His side of the performance is mostly delivered through poetic spoken word – with some cracking lines like ‘The world is full of curtains in the North’ – that serves as an unashamed love letter to northern working-class culture.

This steps up a gear as Crowther evokes a very specific ‘hub’ of this culture – the Castleton Moor Conservative Club. Not only is Crowther’s verbal portrait so beautifully descriptive you can almost smell the Lynx and lager tops, but it also situates the club as a potent metaphor for the security (and tribalism) that class identity offers. Awkwardly pulling at her t-shirt, class-confused Bramley asks Crowther if she can go with him. ‘It’s members only where I’m going,’ he says, ‘I’ll have to sign you in.’

My one criticism of Wake Up, Maggie! is that it was a bit too short. There is a lot going on here – Bramley’s exploration of her own conflicted relationship to class, Crowther’s affectionate evocation of working class Rochdale, brief background snippets of political context and pop culture from the 80s and 90s, the identity and fate of the Castleton Moor Con Club, the North/South divide – and the show’s focus occasionally feels a bit dissipated. Allowing a little more time to explore things would have helped with this, and some of the complexities would have withstood a little further analysis.

But I guess this criticism is also a compliment: I’m also saying that I would have happily watched more, and I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that Crowther’s glittering, climactic number was, literally, the show-stopper.

All in all, Wake Up, Maggie! is a delight of a show. It’s funny, authentic, affectionate, and one of the most nuanced takes on class identity I’ve seen for a long while. There was only one thing that didn’t ring true for me – I can’t believe Emma Bramley has never heard of Fray Bentos pies!

Wake Up, Maggie! was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on Sunday 7th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Review: Gobby (Jodie Irvine, GM Fringe)

Saturday 6th July 2019
Studio, King’s Arms, Salford

The 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I’m continuing to see and review shows on this year’s programme. On Saturday 6th July, I was at the King’s Arms, Salford, to see Gobby, the debut play by Jodie Irvine. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Written and performed by Irvine – and directed by Serafina Cusack – Gobby is a one-woman play that promises ‘a playlist of awkward encounters’ and a story of ‘growing up and starting over’. I will admit I went into Gobby expecting, perhaps, a clichéd tale of angst, embarrassment and over-indulgence. But I’m delighted to say – and this is one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with the Fringe – my expectations were completely confounded!

When the audience enters the (admittedly rather cosy) Studio at the King’s Arms, Irvine is already on stage, in character, listlessly blowing up balloons. Behind her is a banner that proclaims, ‘It’s a party’. Her character is Bri (‘like the cheese, except not like the cheese because it doesn’t have an E at the end’), a seemingly awkward party host. Around her, the stage is covered in party decorations – foil hats, streamers and party poppers litter the space.

Bri explains that she’s going to tell us about five parties that changed her life. She lets off a single party popper to signal the beginning of the first scene: this is Party Number 1, a gathering Bri herself has thrown in order to convince some formerly close friends to spend some time with her. For some reason, those friends have stopped inviting Bri to things, and she’s desperate to try and redress this.

Irvine is certainly engaging and very funny in this opening gambit. A party hat on an inflated balloon stands in for a guy she’s talking to. Her description of the much-desired clique as a ‘pack of wolves’ leads to a funny self-deprecating assessment, and sets up an apparently identifiable dynamic (the ‘pack’ are the Mean Girls to Bri’s Cady, the Heathers to her Veronica). But Gobby is about so much more than this, and the layers that sit under the surface are about to be revealed.

And what a reveal it is. Part way through the first party, and whipped up to high pitch with stress and annoyance at being ignored, Bri discloses some backstory that changes our perception of her character and the direction the story is going. I swear I felt the audience take a collective breath (carefully, though, as we were sitting rather close together in the studio space!), but Irvine’s performance didn’t miss a beat. Moving seamlessly from awkwardness, to biting humour, to bitterness, to brittleness, Bri is a rounded and well-realized character with a powerful story to tell.

I don’t want to say too much about how that story unfolds. However, I will say that it’s an unusual, but absorbing, take on self-awareness, survival and self-worth. As some of the show’s publicity states, this is a show about ‘what it really means to be loud’. Bri is ‘gobby’, and the show offers an honest, sympathetic and – on occasions – bittersweet exploration of this.

As a woman who has sometimes been called ‘gobby’, and who knows that she talks too much, too fast and too loud sometimes, I felt a rather personal identification with the character of Bri. More painfully, I also once found myself in a similar situation to Bri’s backstory, and felt some rather visceral parallels between my own experience and that portrayed on stage. I say this, not to bring my own story into this review, but rather to highlight the seriousness of Irvine’s piece. While Bri is a fictional character, the story of Gobby is one that will resonate – perhaps painfully – with many audience members (I don’t imagine I can be the only one!). In her writing and performance, Irvine seems aware of this, and more than up to the task. There is a sensitivity and humanness to Gobby’s story, devoid of condescension or trite answers.

Irvine’s writing and performance are both charming and sensitive (and yes, I laughed a lot, but I did also shed a tear or two). But – weirdly – I would also like to praise her use of props. When the show begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking the party items have simply been cast around the stage at random, and yet at every moment of the performance, Irvine is able to lay her hands on exactly the party popper or paper cup that she needs. Like all the best parties, Gobby is a carefully choreographed piece, despite all its appearance of casualness.

It’s not just Irvine’s use of props that’s well-choreographed, the storytelling is also very well-constructed to give a sense of arc and development. The humour is relatable, and Irvine has great comic timing. But the more serious – and heartfelt – story that underlies it is really quite moving. The show’s real strength lies in the way these two elements work together – they’re actually two sides of the same coin.

Overall, Gobby is a show that really surprises. Sharp, honest, and well-performed, this is an entertaining and skilful debut show, and I hope to see lots more from Irvine in the future.

I’m going to end this review with a slightly unorthodox bit of praise… for the rest of the audience at Saturday’s show! As I’ve mentioned, the Studio at the King’s Arms is a bit of a cosy space. The show was sold out – which is great for Irvine, but it meant that every bit of seating space was needed. We were rather close to one another, to say the least. I don’t know if it was the vibe of the venue, or the anticipation of the show, but I couldn’t have shared that space with a more good-natured group of people, who happily squeezed in together with good humour and patience. As I say, an odd thing to mention in a review, but what a lovely bonus!

Gobby was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on 5th and 6th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be touring other Fringe festivals, including Bedford, Exeter and Edinburgh, in July and August. For the full programme of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival’s website.