Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Monday, 14 September 2020

Review: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a b*tch you will ever meet (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…


In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Qualified by Lee Thompson and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet by Issy Flower. (For brevity, I’m going to be referring to Flower’s play as Coldhearted in this review. I just want to be clear that is simply for ease of typing, and not a criticism! I think the full title is very clever, as I think will become clear when I get to my review of the play.)

In the last two reviews of JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve written, I’ve mentioned that I’m picking the pairs for review at random from their programme, but that I’ve been enjoying the way that this has resulted in some interesting companion pieces. Reviewing the plays in pairs – and listening to them together – has really brought out some interesting connections in terms of subject matter and thematic concerns. I really did think that this wouldn’t be the case with today’s pair, and I’m still not sure if it is or not. Qualified and Coldhearted are, to be fair, really substantially different pieces. And yet…

Let’s start with Qualified, and you’ll see what I mean.


Written by Lee Thompson, directed by Keira MacAlister, and performed by Rebecca McGreevy, Qualified is the longest piece I’ve heard so far in the series. Like several of the others, it’s in monologue form, though, as we learn, what we’re actually listening to is one side of a conversation (and we never hear the other side).

The narrator is Nadia, who is studying for a PGCE and on a teaching placement. The play begins with Nadia recounting a difficult encounter with a student who she calls Toni. It was Nadia’s first experience of conducting an after-school detention, which culminated in her getting into an argument with Toni. As Nadia runs through the confrontation and the tension rises, we hear the sound of cello strings being plucked. The plucking strings give way to bowed notes, and then music begins to play.

As we learn, this music is in Nadia’s head. She’s begun to hear cello music in her mind as she attempts to navigate the pressures of her course. And this is no uplifting personal soundtrack, it’s a persistent and intrusive accompaniment that threatens to overwhelm. (And I’ll say here, I think the choice of instrument here was really inspired. There’s something both melancholy and pensive about the sound of a cello, and solo pieces tend to have a haunting quality to them, which makes it a distinctly unsettling instrument to have as your internal soundtrack.) Nadia describes the effect of the cello music, questioning what it might mean and what might have caused it. We realize then that her monologue is, in fact, part of a therapy session with an unseen (unheard) therapist named Jane. We don’t hear Jane’s questions or comments at any point, but some things Nadia says indicate what she might be responding to.

Because of the longer running time, Thompson’s script gives us time and space to get to know Nadia – though, as with some of the other JustOut plays I’ve reviewed, there’s some good use of the unsaid here, and some hinting lines that leave the audience to fill in the gaps. For instance, Nadia’s relationship with her parents is brought up at times, but never directly explored. I particularly liked the subtly suggestive line about Nadia’s father, as she’s pondering whether he might also have experienced auditory hallucinations: He seems, she says, ‘like an oboe in the mind kind of fella’.

Ultimately, though, Qualified isn’t really about the cello. As Nadia talks through the problem with her therapist, what unfolds is the story of a woman struggling to keep on top of the demands of her course, her work, and her relationships with others (and, of course, her relationship with herself). While Lucia Rimini’s cello playing keeps a sedate and stately pace, Rebecca McGreevy’s performance as Nadia has a less measured trajectory. The speed of her delivery increases, the pitch becomes more fevered, until the sense of a suffocating, overwhelming force acting on her becomes almost tangible. And then she retreats again, into a brittle jokiness or a faux positive consideration of possible medical explanations. It’s a powerful performance, supported by excellent direction from MacAlister.

Credit, too, should go to Gabriel Stewart’s editing. Despite the lockdown constraints – and I note from JustOut’s Twitter feed that getting the cello accompaniment right on this on took a bit of Zoom-wrangling – the music and voice performances are perfectly balanced. They aren’t complimentary, as such, because at times the cello is absolutely at odds with the frenzied pace of the monologue. But they ‘fit’. I think by that I mean that it’s completely believable that the cello is indeed in Nadia’s head. Even if it really shouldn’t be.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be in someone’s head, let’s turn to the second play, Coldhearted. (How’s that for a segue…)


Coldhearted is written by Issy Flower, and directed by Ben Wilson. Again, it’s a monologue, which is performed by Alice Schofield. Coldhearted is a shorter piece than Qualified, and the subject matter is really quite different.

As we discover immediately, our narrator has become fixated on a pair of blue eyes. A pair of eyes that she thinks are ‘lovely’, and whose colour she debates with her mother. A pair of eyes that, startlingly, belong to Ted Bundy.

Flower’s unsettling monologue is told by a young woman who has become fixated on the infamous serial killer, shortly after his arrest and the revelation of his crimes. She talks about her attraction to him – she waxes lyrical about his eyes and his sexy hands, adding ‘But I know what those hands did.’ At several points, she acknowledges that her feelings towards the killer are wrong – abhorrent even – particularly as she attends the same university as some of his victims.

Coldhearted is a bold attempt to try and explore the mentality of a woman who, despite having no criminal inclinations herself, falls in love with a notorious and (to most people) repellent killer. Flower’s script bravely tackles some issues head on – including the distasteful acknowledgment of sexual fantasies of victimhood – but also keeps the focus squarely on the introspection and self-examination of her character. The question here is never ‘Why is Ted Bundy so attractive?’, but rather ‘Why am I feeling this way about Ted Bundy? What does that say about me?’

Which brings us back to that full title. The phrase Flower uses as the title is a quote from Bundy himself. No matter what fantasies our narrator has about his lovely eyes and sexy hands, Bundy’s own assessment of his character – that he is ‘the most coldhearted son of bitch you will ever meet’ – is centred in our mind as we listen to the play. This is a clever technique, as Bundy’s words (without ever actually being spoken in the play) undercut the narrator’s throughout the piece, revealing everything she says to be a fantasy (or a delusion) based more on herself than on him.

In the end, Coldhearted isn’t really about Ted Bundy, any more than Qualified is really about a cello. And it’s in this that the two admittedly very different plays share some common ground. These two pieces are about intrusive thoughts, and the need to question, not just the content of those thoughts (be that a haunting cello solo or sexual fantasies about a serial killer), but also the issues that lie beneath. Without explicitly stating it, both of these plays are about unhappiness, but both tackle that subject in ways that are at once startling and subtle (a very difficult balance to strike).

Once again, I am very impressed by the pieces being published as JustOut Stays In. They really are fulfilling their stated aim of showcasing talent. I’m very much looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to see the JustOut company perform in person, but for now I will repeat my strong recommendation to check out their audio plays.

Qualifed and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Review: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…


In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Bleach by Max Kyte and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute by Suzan Young.

In my last review, I mentioned that I’m choosing my pairs pretty much at random for these reviews. JustOut’s programme is varied, and there are new plays being published regularly (in fact, a new one has gone up since I published my last review). So, pretty much, I just jump in for each review. Last time, this resulted in a really interesting pairing, as Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth, despite being ostensibly quite different, actually made for interesting companion pieces to one another.

I think you can say the same for the two that I’m reviewing this time – although, it has to be said, the effect is heightened by listening to the two together, as this naturally draws out the comparative features. But I do think Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute have some subject matter in common, specifically the problem of confronting (and talking about) serious mental health problems. Both of the female protagonists in these plays are using self-destructive habits to deal with underlying issues, and both are forced to address these (though in different ways).


Let’s begin with Bleach – perhaps the more uncomfortable of the two pieces. Bleach is written by Max Kyte and directed by Yuval Brigg. It’s a two-hander, with Megan Nicholson playing Maeve, and Jake Everett playing her fiancé Oliver. Their story begins reasonably normally: Oliver returns from a night out for a friend’s birthday, a night out that Maeve has excused herself from. As we discover, it’s not the only social interaction Maeve has managed to avoid – and as conversations between Maeve and Oliver intersperse short monologues from Maeve, we begin to realize the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out.

Or, rather, we learn about one of the manifestations of the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out. This is a relatively short piece, and so it serves to sketch a picture, rather than dig deep into the details. The sketch is full enough, however, for the listener to begin to fill in the gaps. As the play’s blurb notes, this is a story about addiction, specifically an addiction to or dependency on harmful behaviours. When Oliver discovers these behaviours, Maeve is forced to confront her habits head-on.

Nicholson gives a subtle and moving performance as Maeve. There is a sense of detachment in the way she delivers the monologues, and a frustration in her conversations with Everett’s Oliver. As I’ve said, Kyte’s script doesn’t go deep into an explanation or background to Maeve’s behaviour – we don’t learn very much at all about her history, for instance, or any underlying mental illness. Instead her disordered thinking is presented in straightforward, but thought-provoking statements – my favourite being, ‘This feels silent’, which says an awful lot more than three words.

Everett’s performance is more emotional and – in all honesty – highly strung. Oliver runs through a range of emotions in quick succession, which sometimes strains both our sympathy and our credibility. This is, in many ways, a result of the format and the short running time. The conversations between Maeve and Oliver feel like truncated versions of conversations that might, in reality, take place over days, weeks or even months. The resolution feels a little hurried, though, and I think this is another of the series that would really benefit from expansion.

I very much enjoyed the writing and performance – particularly Nicholson’s Maeve – here. I do have a criticism, and that is that the stock sound effects are somewhat overbearing and distracting. While I appreciate the constraints under which the creative team are working, the effects (liquid pouring, someone eating, papers turning) are jarring, as they aren’t always seamlessly integrated with the recorded dialogue. This may sound like a minor quibble, but sadly it did affect my enjoyment of the piece.


I’m going to turn now to Mrs O’Connor’s Flute, which is a monologue written by Suzan Young, directed by Rebecca McGreevy, and performed by Becky Kershaw. This piece begins, not with a sound effect, but with a short burst of music (played, surprisingly enough, on a flute).

The character here is a Janet, a woman who has taken a job at a nursing home after her husband loses his job. Much like Maeve in Bleach, Janet has some mental health issues going on that she has not confronted (or, indeed, acknowledged).

Janet’s monologue actually begins with a description of a night shift. Working alone, Janet is suddenly aware of the sound of a flute being played in the room of Margaret O’Connor. She goes to see the woman and has the briefest moment of a conversation (a few lines that are as straightforward, but thought-provoking, as Maeve’s ‘This feels silent’ in the previous play). This momentary connection with the elderly woman sparks a chain of realizations in Janet, leading her to reveal some (but by no means all) of the background to her decision to work at the nursing home, as well as some of the fears and anxieties that the job has brought to her mind.

Or has the job really brought these to her mind – were they not already there? Does the job – and especially the interaction with Mrs O’Connor – offer a way to address these, a confrontation as well as a revelation? Like Maeve, Janet has been engaging in behaviours that are potentially harmful (and not just to herself, to others as well), and it’s only when she’s confronted by someone else’s vulnerability that she’s forced to take a look at her own. Kershaw’s performance is sympathetic and believable, so that the audience sticks with Janet, even when she’s describing behaviour that might otherwise be easy to demonize.

Overall, I think the monologue format in Mrs O’Connor’s Flute works a little better than the conversation in Bleach, as rather than truncating difficult conversations (which undoubtedly must have happened between Janet and her husband), the monologue allows Janet to skip back and forth in time, and to reflect on, rather than repeat the detail of those difficult dialogues. Nevertheless, in both plays, silence takes on a powerful significance, and a strength of both Kyte and Young’s scripts is that they make clever use of what is not said, as well as what is.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are hard-hitting in their subject matter, but the characterization of both Maeve and Janet has a gentleness and sympathy that is compelling and sensitive. The short format of the pieces leaves questions unanswered, but in both cases this is more as provocation for listeners to think through these questions, and to consider the complexities of mental wellbeing and the need for things that feel like silence.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

My Year in Books 2020: August

There's a few more titles on my list this month than previously! I read quite a lot in August, although I should probably say that I read almost all of these books (some of which are admittedly novellas, not novels) when I had a week off work. So that might explain why I had so much more timing for reading for part of this month.

My short reviews of the books I read for pleasure this month are belowed, but in case you're curious, here are my reviews from previous months: January, February, March, April, May, June, July

The Whisper Man by Alex North (2019)


I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while – so long, in fact, that I can’t remember when or where I bought it. The Whisper Man is a crime novel, but with little touches of horror around the edges. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives (as is quite the fashion in contemporary crime fiction). A young boy has vanished from Featherbank, with eerie echoes of an old case. Fifteen years ago a serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. The killer was known at the ‘Whisper Man’, because he lured his victims out of their homes by whispering at their windows. But the Whisper Man has been behind bars for many years now, although the body of one of his victims was never found. The story of the investigation into the contemporary case is interwoven with a first-person narration: Tom Kennedy and his son Jake, still grieving after the death of Tom’s wife, have moved to a new house for a fresh start. Jake is a bright, but unusual, child, prone to chatting to imaginary friends. This takes a darker turn when Jake seems to know things about their new home that he really shouldn’t. I really enjoyed The Whisper Man – it’s a proper page-turner. I’ll admit, I did work out one of the big surprises about halfway through, but that wasn’t a problem at all. At the book’s heart is Tom and Jake’s relationship, which is painful, difficult and sometimes challenged, but ultimately sympathetic and engaging.

The Levels by Helen Pendry (2019)


This one has been on my to-read pile since November. I bought it in Aberystwyth last year when we were there for Abertoir, as I wanted to get something from the ‘local fiction’ section of the bookshop. I couldn’t find anything set/written/published in Aberystwyth itself, so I stuck with mid-Wales more generally. The Levels was published by Parthian, who are based in Cardigan, and it’s set in a fictional mid-Wales town called Pont Rhith. Abby Hughes is a residential social worker from London, who has come to Pont Rhith to search for a man called Tegid Rhys, one of the homeless people who stayed at the hostel where Abby works. Tegid has been sending Abby postcards from Pont Rhith, but when he sends her his campervan keys in the wake of a horrific accident (a military drone has crashed into a caravan park, killing a young mother), Abby sets out to try and find Tegid. This is the set-up, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Pendry’s story. Pont Rhith and the surrounding area is as much a character here as Abby or any of the people she meets (military security consultant Ben Rickman, former soldier turned holiday-homer Owen, Welsh language bookshop owner Delyth, defiantly anti-English farmer Mr Ellis). It’s a town shadowed (suffocated?) by defunct mines and overlooked by the abandoned village of Bethania, where the MoD have plans that most of the locals don’t even care about. The Levels had me completely gripped – I strongly recommend this one.

Dead Funny, edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains (2014)


It only seemed fitting to follow up The Levels with the other book I bought at the same time in Aberystwyth. Robin Ince was a guest at last year’s Abertoir Festival, and so I bought Dead Funny while we were there. To be honest, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, and I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long. Dead Funny is a collection of horror short stories written by comedians, including some of my favourite comedians, so it seems like one I should’ve read sooner. Now, the book is marketed with that word ‘funny’ – with a reasonable assumption being that comedians would write hilarious black comedy horror – but, actually, most of the stories aren’t actually funny. They’re really dark and twisted (some downright disturbing), which isn’t really a surprise if you know anything about stand-up comedians. I was expecting Reece Shearsmith’s story (‘Dog’) to be dark – and it really was – but Sara Pascoe (‘A Spider Remember’) and Al Murray (‘For Everyone’s Good’) took me by surprise. Their stories were both really effective horror tales, but not exactly laugh riots. Katy Brand’s ‘For Roger’ and Rufus Hound’s (very sly) ‘Fixed’ were also excellent, though, again, twisted little tales. In a way, it’s the actual comedy offerings – Stewart Lee’s ‘A View from a Hill’ and Tim Key’s ‘Halloween’ are both written as characteristic ‘bits’, rather than horror stories – that turn out to be the most disappointing, as they jar with the bleakness of the other tales.

Holt House by L.G. Vey (2018)


A couple of months ago, a friend on Twitter was talking about the Eden Book Society, and I was intrigued. This is a project from Dead Ink Books – the Eden Book Society was an enigmatic subscription-based horror publisher in the twentieth century, whose output has never been republished… until now! Dead Ink Books have secured the rights to publish the entire back catalogue of the Eden Book Society, and they’ve begun with a selection of novellas from 1972. If this all sounds too exciting to be true, it’s really up to you whether you believe or not. I’m just gutted that I missed this when it was first announced, and that I didn’t read any of the novellas until now. Holt House was the first of the Eden Book Society novellas that I read, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of Ray, a troubled young man who returns to his hometown and becomes fascinated by his former neighbours Mr and Mrs Latch. He hides out in Holtwood, watching the Latches and thinking back to a time in his childhood when he stayed with them overnight, and Mr Latch showed him something bad that they kept in the wardrobe. Ray’s story did not go in the direction I was expecting – Holt House is full of surprises, even when you think you’ve worked it all out. It’s also got a little bit of folk horror (not overdone) and a little bit of weird-fic about it. Really well-written and very enjoyable.

Judderman by D.A. Northwood (2018)


Having really enjoyed Holt House, I decided to just carry on with the Eden Book Society titles that are out so far (except Starve Acre… which has a whole story of its own that’ll have to wait for another time). The next one I read was Judderman. As I said, Holt House has a bit of a weird-fic feel to it (in places), and Judderman does too. However, while Holt House evokes more old-school weird fiction (Spirit of the Woods-type stuff in the tradition of Arthur Machen), Judderman belongs to the New Weird (and comparisons with China Miéville are inevitable with this one). The story focuses on Danny and Gary Eider, a pair of brothers living in London in the early 1970s. There are a lot of ‘period’ details here – references to IRA bombs, racism, unemployment – which combine with urban legends and imagined monsters to create an unsettling cityscape, which the Eider brothers know as ‘London Incognita’. London Incognita’s ultimate bogeyman is the eponymous Judderman, an entity that hovers at the periphery, not quite visible, and who echoes through other folklore of the city. When Danny goes missing, Gary starts to fear that his ‘brother’s with the Judder’. In a fragmented, dreamlike narration, Gary picks around London Incognita, talking with the mud larks and antiquarian booksellers who know something of the city’s secrets. There are some fantastic bits in Judderman, though I felt the novella format constricted the narrative a bit. This one felt like it could have been expanded.

A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (2018)


My next Eden Book Society novella was A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (and, as with all the titles, you can either read the biography of the ‘author’ at the beginning of the book, or you can read the note at the end that explains this is a pseudonym of a contemporary British horror writer). Of the three I’ve read so far – all of which use period details to convincingly set their stories in 1972 – A Dedicated Friend is the one that makes the clearest attempt to tap into a particular anxiety of the 1970s and build on this to create a horror story. As the blurb tells us, organ donation was ‘in its infancy’ in 1972, and A Dedicated Friend features a woman, Daisy, who has agreed to donate a kidney to her aunt via new surgical techniques. Something is… off about the whole thing, though, and Daisy’s stay in hospital begins to feel like the stuff of nightmares (this is not a good story to read if you’ve got any phobias around surgery or medical procedures). I really enjoyed the tone and atmosphere with this one – even the most mundane events in the hospital (an omelette being served instead of pasta, a fellow patient borrowing a book) are infused with a wonderful sense of dread. The story itself is a wee bit predictable, and I could see where it was going almost as soon as the ‘dedicated friend’ made her first appearance. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the ride.

Plunge Hill: A Case Study by J.M. McVulpin (2020)


My Eden Book Society quartet finished with Plunge Hill: A Case Study, which is the most recently published in the series. It’s the longest one so far, though still technically a novella. The story begins with an introduction from J.M. McVulpin who, as the biography explains, was a psychiatrist who worked at several institutions, including the eponymous Plunge Hill. The hospital is now closing down (or, rather, being closed down), and McVulpin has decided to share a ‘case study’ – the tragic account of Bridget ‘Brix’ Shipley, one of the hospital’s medical secretaries who sadly (according to McVulpin) suffered from an undiagnosed delusional disorder. McVulpin didn’t know Brix during her time working at Plunge Hill, but he has acquired letters and other documents from her family and landlady that will allow her story to be told ‘in her own words’. However, McVulpin can’t help but interject on occasion in the form of footnotes of increasing length. What happened to Brix at Plunge Hill? And was it all really just in her head? What I really enjoyed about Plunge Hill is that it leaves some tantalizing questions unanswered. As a fan of unreliable narrators (which you may have spotted from some of my other reviews), this one was great fun. There are multiple narrators and narratives here, and not a single one can be relied on – I love that. The folk horror vibe that seeps into the story is also a joy. I think this might be my favourite of the series.

Deadhead by Shaun Hutson (1993)


Okay, this next one is definitely not my usual sort of thing. I should probably explain… last month I decided to treat myself and pay for a subscription to the Abominable Book Club, a horror book subscription service. Each month you receive a new horror title and a mystery book (plus some added extras and snacks, if you choose the full package). All subscribers receive the same new book, but the mystery book is different for everyone (it’s usually a vintage, aka second-hand, paperback), and for added mystery it comes wrapped up in brown paper and sealed with wax (and were those bloodstains? I probably shouldn’t ask). I got my first Abominable Book Club parcel this month, and the experience of receiving and opening the mystery book was a lot of fun. A lot more fun than reading the mystery book, if I’m honest, because Shaun Hutson’s writing is… not to my taste. This one is pretty typical of his 90s splatterpunk crime fiction. It’s got a private eye with terminal cancer, an abducted teenage daughter, child pornographers, snuff films and a drug-addled prostitute. It’s also got more descriptions of bullet wounds than I thought I’d ever read in one place, plus some pretty lurid sexual violence and shocks-for-shock’s-sake. And, I have to say, almost zero characterization (except, weirdly, the drug-addled prostitute). Why did I read it? I can’t really explain – I think I just got carried away by the cool packaging and the nice meringues that came with it.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver (2020)


Deadhead
was the B-movie, but the main feature of my Abominable Book Club parcel was Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’ve not read any of Carver’s other books (this one is the third title featuring his detective character, Sgt Pace). However, everything I read said that the books were a ‘loose series’, and that they can all be read as standalones. This is definitely the case with Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the earlier books, though I got the impression I might have picked up on a few details if I had. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a hard book to describe. It tells the story of five days in the life of a little village in Berkshire – and it’s narrated by Evil. Evil’s come to Hinton Hollow, and its visit begins with the death of a child (well, it doesn’t quite begin there, but I’m not going to spoil anything!). This is an incredibly clever book, and such a compelling way to construct a crime story. There’s an awful lot to be impressed by here. Sadly, though, I suspect the author’s own biases have seeped in a little more than they should: I struggled a bit with seeing Evil condemning overweight people (who all eat like cartoon characters) and tired mothers as equally bad as murderers and animal abusers. It’s a shame, as this is a great book, but it is tinged with a bit of misogyny.

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone (2019)


Me and my mum got tickets for a (virtual) event at Portobello Bookshop, with readings from Val McDermid and Doug Johnstone. The event will mark the release of new books by both authors, including the second book in Johnstone’s Skelfs series. We thought it would probably be a good idea to read the first book in the series first! Johnstone’s series is about the Skelf family, three generations of women who run the family business(es): funeral directors with a side line in private investigation. A Dark Matter begins with the unconventional funeral of patriarch Jim Skelf, and the decision taken by his widow (Dorothy), daughter (Jenny) and granddaughter (Hannah) to continue his work, assisted by Indy, Hannah’s girlfriend and trainee funeral director, and Archie, Jim’s assistant who suffers from Cotard’s syndrome. It’s an original set-up for a crime series, and A Dark Matter sees the women investigate the disappearance of one of Hannah’s university friends and a potential case of adultery. Dorothy also decides to investigate some of the secrets that didn’t quite go to the grave with Jim. I enjoyed the characters – though Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah aren’t exactly happy people – and some of the investigation storylines had a charm and intrigue to them. It’s all a bit grim – don’t be mislead by the blurbs on the cover claiming this is a ‘funny’ book – and it goes to some pretty dark (and almost implausible?) places. But we both enjoyed it, and we’re looking forward to hearing from the author.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Review: Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…


In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so today I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Total Slag by Sophie A. Mitchell and To Tell You the Truth by Daniel Kearney.

Now, to tell you the truth (haha!), I’ve been a little bit random in how I pick the pairs for my reviews. The plays are quite eclectic, and the blurbs don’t always give you a full sense of tone and style (which is something I like about fringe theatre, so I’m enjoying the surprises that come with this series). But pairing Total Slag with To Tell You the Truth was absolutely the right choice. These pieces sit together very well, though both deal with some rather raw and painful stuff, so it’s a little bit of a tough experience listening to them back to back. Non-literary as it may be to say, I just wanted to give both of the narrators here a hug after I’d listened.

I’ll start off with Total Slag, which was actually the first play published in the series.


Written by Sophie A. Mitchell and directed by Ben Wilson, Total Slag is a monologue, in which Cheryl, a sixth form student (performed by Sophie Parkin) explores her relationship with the insult of the title.

Cheryl begins by announcing that, although other girls might idolize celebrities like Zoella and Kylie Jenner, her role model is actually Rizzo from Grease. She riffs off the words to ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’ to explain why Rizzo is a character she admires – even though most people her age have never heard of Grease.

Cheryl’s celebration of Rizzo is, by turns, funny – I particularly enjoyed her comparison of Rizzo from Grease with Greta Thunberg (trust me, it does make sense) – pointed and, though Cheryl claims otherwise, vulnerable. Cheryl isn’t so much reclaiming the insult ‘slag’, but exploring what it might mean and how it is used. With a light touch, Mitchell weaves in small details about Cheryl’s home life, and the relationships she has with her peers. Parkin’s performance of this is confident, assured and articulate (though Cheryl claims not to know how to pronounce ‘thesaurus’). As an adult listening, it’s easy to see through the gaps in this teenage self-narration, and there are times when the audience can feel angry on Cheryl’s behalf, even though the character herself is devoid of self-pity.

What’s interesting in the characterization here is the way Cheryl avoids laying blame at anyone’s feet. Although she does make a couple of comments on her mother’s life choices, and some snap-back type statements about other people at her school, Cheryl squarely shoulders the responsibility for her own choices. Her sex life – and her sexuality – is her own decision, and it’s a carefully thought-out decision. Cheryl’s monologue is, perhaps, most surprising when she calmly works through the reasoning behind the choices she has made.

Of course, as both plays explore, choices (no matter how deliberate you think they are) have consequences. And the second part of Total Slag deals with Cheryl facing up to those. I’m not going to say too much about what happens, except to praise Mitchell’s writing here. The direction the narrative takes could have resulted in something clichéd, melodramatic or even didactic, but she avoids those pitfalls. Instead, we have something heartfelt and moving, but also refreshingly realistic and matter-of-fact.

Speaking of ‘matter-of-fact’, time to turn to the other play I’m looking at in today’s post.


To Tell You the Truth which was written by Daniel Kearney and directed by Andy Yeomans. This is another monologue from a woman, though Kearney’s character is older and at a very different stage of her life than Cheryl. Gerry Johnson plays Lynn, an older woman reflecting back on a failed marriage – or so we’re initially led to believe.

Johnson’s performance is great here. Everything is delivered, as I’ve said, in a matter-of-fact tone, and – as with Total Slag – both the writing and the performance side-step melodrama in favour of something much more searing.

Lynn’s ‘truth’ is revealed slowly. We begin with hints of heavy drinking and a marriage that, if it didn’t start out that way, ended as loveless. ‘You married the wrong girl,’ Lynn remembers telling her husband – the ‘good man’ that she couldn’t keep hold of. In the opening part of her monologue, Lynn repeats the phrase ‘to tell you the truth’, but it’s only towards the end that she really does – and the truth she tells really does pack a punch.

As with Cheryl in Total Slag, Lynn is living with the consequences of choices she has made. However, also like Cheryl – though much more explicitly – Lynn is also living with the effects of circumstance. She talks about things she’s done, but the story that emerges is more about what was done to her. Lynn hasn’t told the truth before, and the monologue is (perhaps) at its most raw when she explains the reasons why not.

I’m really pleased that I randomly chose to pair these two plays. They work very well as companion pieces. Although they present themselves in different ways, Lynn and Cheryl have a lot in common, and so listening to the two dramas together enriches both stories. With excellent writing and performances, these are two monologues that evoke an incredibly strong sense of sympathy, rather than pity, for the characters. Neither sentimental nor melodramatic, these two short plays are hard-hitting, but very very human.

JustOut Stays In continues to impress, and I strongly recommend you check out the audio series.

Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Review: Turkey Sausage Roll (Karen Cogan)

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HOME, Manchester

In this post, I’m continuing my blog reviews of the Homemakers series of commissions from Home, Manchester, a programme of digitally-accessible creative content that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. This post is a review of Turkey Sausage Roll by Irish actor and writer Karen Cogan. The radio version of this review will be going out this Saturday on Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but, as always, here’s the blog version…


Turkey Sausage Roll is a short film, written and directed by Karen Cogan, which is a co-commission by HOME and the RADA Festival. Unlike the other films from the Homemakers series that I’ve reviewed so far, Turkey Sausage Roll isn’t explicitly about either COVID-19 or the lockdown. The format is definitely dictated by the lockdown restrictions – of course – but the piece doesn’t make an explicit response to the pandemic. But it is about death. And isolation.

Karen Cogan’s film is a monologue, performed by Faoileann Cunningham. It’s shot in an empty pub (with some occasional cutaway shots of Cunningham outside), and our focus is entirely on the performer throughout. Cunningham’s character is going to tell us a story, and it’s a story about when she had a very bad day. Cunningham’s unnamed character begins by telling us about a smell. A smell like fish, or is it someone cooking tripe? In the venerable tradition of theatrical (and televised) monologues, Turkey Sausage Roll hooks us in with something odd, mundane and slightly vague, before taking us on a journey to more profound territory. And what a compelling journey it is too.


The unnamed narrator’s bad day is the funeral of her best friend, which she is attending in the (not altogether welcome) company of her girlfriend Frankie and her Aunty Una. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that this is a story about grief, but it’s a story about grief that involves the narrator clutching a greasy turkey sausage roll in one hand (from Aunty Una’s purple Tupperware) and swigging ‘gin from a tin’ (that she’s extracted from where it was hidden in her jeggings) in the other. By telling the story of the day of the funeral itself, Cogan’s script explores difficult territory – there’s a brutality to the grief on show here, of course, but she also perfectly captures the numbness and surrealness of that moment of goodbye. Turkey Sausage Roll isn’t raw, but rather balances on a knife-edge between detachment and pain.

Cogan’s script is conveyed wonderfully by Faoileann Cunningham, whose performance had me gripped. For much of the piece – aside from those quick cutaways I mentioned before – we are focused almost entirely on Cunningham’s face. She isn’t made-up, and her hair is tied back tightly in a ponytail, emphasizing the sense of nakedness and vulnerability in her performance. She moves through the emotional stages of the story with precision and style, but also in a way that makes the whole story both plausible and deeply sympathetic. There are times when Cunningham’s character seems incredibly young, tapping into the deep and implacable emotions of childhood; however, as we find out, she is also a woman on the verge of definitively growing up, and there are points at which she is, as the verse goes, forced to put aside childish things and see, through a glass (or a tin of gin) darkly.


I think one of the things that really grabbed me about Turkey Sausage Roll is the way that Cogan’s script, while very much focused on a short and specific moment in time, is able to conjure a bigger story and a whole relationship – despite the fact that the relationship has ended before the monologue even begins. It’s very easy to imagine the narrator and her best friend, and some details were particularly vivid (and some of the more off-beat anecdotes were wonderfully told). Also vivid was Aunty Una, a character who hovers around the periphery ‘wearing a purple skirt with a matching jacket like it’s 1987’ and proffering the eponymous meat-filled pastries. Dismissed by the narrator as a frustrating older woman with strange taste and a penchant for aggressively singing Ave Maria at funerals, Aunty Una appears more like a spectre of older womanhood – what happens when quirkiness reaches its autumnal years. I couldn’t help but see a parallel between the narrator’s tale of her best friend’s ‘awful’ ruby ring, and Aunty Una’s inexplicable parrot earrings.

Now, although I’ve said that this piece is not a direct response to COVID, it is a piece of socially-distanced lockdown art, and this does have an impact. Cunningham performs entirely solo in an empty (presumably closed) pub. I’m in two minds as to whether this setting really works for the piece. On the one hand, the setting evokes the feeling of isolation and emptiness one might feel after a wake, when the other funeral attendees have gone home. On the other, this seems to belie the tentative conclusion of the piece – the narrator is telling a story that ends with some sense of connection, but in an entirely disconnected way. This is probably an unavoidable effect of the restrictions placed on production, but I found it interesting the way the backdrop combines with the final lines of the monologue to leave the audience pondering what might happen next, or what message they might take from the story.

Turkey Sausage Roll is a short film – just over 23 minutes running time – but I could easily imagine this being adapted as a stage performance. Although the short film format is used well, and the editing by Adam Lansberry is slick and well-handled, this piece encourages us to focus almost entirely on character and story.


Overall, Turkey Sausage Roll is a very human story, told and performed with charm and style. It’s painfully sad at times, but also really funny at others. I’d definitely recommend you check this one out. It’s quite different from the other Homemakers pieces I’ve watched so far, which should give you an idea of how varied and diverse the material in the series is.

Turkey Sausage Roll is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information or to book tickets.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Review: ABC (Anything But Covid) (Ugly Bucket)

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HOME, Manchester


In this post, I’m going to be continuing my blog and radio reviews of the Homemakers series of commissions from Home, Manchester, a programme of digitally-accessible creative content that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. This post is a review of ABC (Anything But Covid) by Ugly Bucket. The radio version of this review will be going out on next week’s episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…


ABC (Anything But Covid) is a short film by Ugly Bucket, an award-winning physical comedy company based in Liverpool. It’s a very short film – it’s just under nine minutes long – but I have to admit I’ve already watched it a few times, which should serve as a bit of a hint that this is going to be a positive review! Ugly Bucket describe the film as being about ‘the pressures of staying productive in lockdown’. As with A Small Gathering (another Homemakers film I reviewed in a previous post), ABC is a direct response to lockdown, particularly the isolating and disconcerting effects of the ‘stay at home’ message for people living alone.

Directed by Grace Gallagher and Rachael Smart, and featuring Adam Baker, Angelina Cliff, Canice Ward, Mother Crystal, Quinney Barella, Grace Gallagher and Jess Huckerby, ABC is not quite what I was expecting. I knew that Ugly Bucket (who have previously performed at the Greater Manchester Fringe) are clowns, but in a kind of edgy way, and I knew that this film was going to offer a ‘how to’ guide to staying productive during lockdown. But while I knew roughly where the film was going to start – a company of clowns was going to perform physical comedy about keeping busy in lockdown – I wasn’t quite prepared for where it went.

The film begins with a black screen and a vox pops-style voiceover. ‘Lockdown hasn’t actually been that bad for me,’ the voice says, and the black screen slowly fades out to reveal a face, clown make-up smeared, false eyelashes detached, staring directly at the camera (and, of course, at the audience). The face does not look like it belongs to someone who’s having a great lockdown.

The video styles itself as a motivational video to encourage people to pursue productive and creative pass-times at home. To almost maniacally cheerful music, cartoonish performers mime baking, painting, yoga and self-care, while captions – ‘Let’s Bake!’, ‘Let’s Run!’ – appear on the screen in a chirpy font. The voiceovers continue, with people talking about how they’ve discovered skills and talents during lockdown that they didn’t know they had.

The comedy in the first part of the film comes from the gleeful juxtaposition of the upbeat voiceovers and music with the clownish actions of the performers. The baked cake looks revolting; the artwork is clumsy. There’s some gentle mockery of some of the national lockdown pass-times, with a quick shot of something that looks a lot like P.E. With Joe, for instance.

But it’s what happens next that really captured my attention. As the frenetic pace of the ‘productivity’ increases, and the performers begin to look exhausted and overwrought with the efforts, the voiceovers begin to seem more desperate in their insistence on positivity, and there’s a hint that things are going to unravel.


And boy, do they unravel. I’d love to go through the second half of the film in detail, and talk about all the visual imagery, filming techniques and stylistic shifts that occur, but I really do think that would be a spoiler (and I don’t like to give spoilers without warning!).

Suffice to say, the disintegration of the maniacal faux-positivity of the ‘Let’s Go!’ sequences is both arresting and disturbing, and I really wasn’t prepared for just how far the physical performances would mutate, or how they would incorporate elements of horror (including – and this is a warning, not a spoiler – moments that come awfully close to actual body horror). It’s a dazzling escalation, with accomplished performances, but also assured direction and editing bringing the whole piece together so it feels like a coherent piece, rather than a fragmented montage.

ABC – and Ugly Bucket’s work more broadly – is part of the, often dismissed or misunderstood, tradition of clowning. They refer to themselves as being ‘serious about silliness’, but the flip side is that they are also ‘silly about seriousness’. ABC uses the subversive – and often uncomfortable – figure of the clown to unsettle and challenge, while also being a rather daft piece of slapstick that pokes fun at cultural and societal norms. Nevertheless, while Ugly Bucket certainly have their roots in an old tradition, there’s something fresh and new about their work. Their visual style and costuming is one-step removed from the theatrical and circus tradition, with whiteface make-up, curly wigs and sponge noses being replaced by plastic hair pieces, face paint and glitter that look like a sort of cross between a children’s TV character and a SnapChat filter.


While the film definitely lampoons certain pass-times, and comes close to mocking those who engage in them – for instance, the art sequence feels like it’s almost ridiculing those untalented amateurs who believe their lockdown doodles ‘aren’t half bad’ – the comedy here isn’t cruel or derisory. Instead, the film serves as a sort of snapshot of a psyche disturbed by the pressures of staying positive and productive. Whether you choose to see that as an individual or collective psyche is up to you.

In some ways, ABC is a film about boredom. Although the film is (obviously) COVID-inspired, there is little mention of the virus itself, outside of some clips of Boris Johnson announcing the lockdown. The film addresses pandemic-related fears, but it is more fear of boredom than fear of illness and death that is presented here. In fact, the film suggests that it’s not even boredom we need to fear, but the effects of forcing ourselves not to be bored.

As you can tell from this review, I very much enjoyed ABC. It was a surprising – borderline startling, in places – and unsettling take on lockdown concerns, with assured performances and confident direction. It’s a short film, but it packs a real punch, and I’d highly recommend you watch it (and maybe even more than once).

ABC (Anything But Covid) is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information or to book tickets.

Review: A is for… and Accident of Birth (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: A is for… and Accident of Birth. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on next Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here is the blog version…


In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve decided to review the plays in pairs, so today I’m going to be talking about two of the pieces: A is for… by Jilly Sumsion and Accident of Birth by Trevor Suthers. And I’ll start with A is for…


As with Liam Gillies’s Laugh Track, which I reviewed in a previous post, Jilly Sumsion’s A is for… (directed by Ben Wilson) is a very short piece. At just over five and half minutes long, it’s a bit of a microplay. In fact, of the JustOut Stays In plays I’ve listened to so far, this is the one that’s closest to being a monologue. It’s a glimpse into the thoughts of a single character, at a particular moment in time.

That character is Hester, a seamstress (played by Nikki Patel), and the time is 1665. A is for… is set in Eyam, the Derbyshire village that famously quarantined itself to prevent the spread of plague in the seventeenth century. Hester is one of the village residents caught inside this lockdown, and we listen as her thoughts take a dark turn.

But it’s not simply quarantine or plague that is darkening Hester’s world. In the blurb for this play, Sumsion states that it was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, leaving us (I guess) in no doubt as to what A is for. Hester is a woman scorned, and her monologue revels in thoughts of vengeance and retribution, but is also laden with talk of guilt, shame and humiliation. This is compounded by the oppressive religious lessons woven throughout – the only other voice we hear is that of Jude (played by Rob Peters) intoning Christian lessons – which comes to feel rather threatening.

Patel’s Hester is a well-written and well-performed character. The emotional shifts are handled competently, allowing the listener to have sympathy while still feeling discomfort at the story (and the sentiments) that are unfolding. Bitterness is perhaps the emotion that’s most tangible, but this isn’t overstated. There are shades of Browning’s ‘The Laboratory’ throughout – particularly in Hester’s final lines – but Sumsion’s script sidesteps the melodrama and verbosity of Browning’s poem, in favour of drawing out the human emotion behind the drama.

One aspect of A is for… that I particularly enjoyed was the understated way in which parallels were drawn between the quarantine in Eyam, and the current pandemic. This play is far from the only creative response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has sought to make the connection with seventeenth-century Eyam, but Sumsion’s play makes the comparison with a light touch. Lines such as ‘we’d been told to stay indoors’ and ‘soon we may be able to travel’ allow the audience to make a comparison with the 2020 lockdown, but the point isn’t laboured.

The effect of this comparison is to further heighten the situation in which Hester finds herself, and to underline the oppressive nature of the small, closed community (and Hester’s proximity to the source of her bad thoughts). The nods to lockdown guide our understanding and – perhaps – our sympathies.

A is for… is a compelling and well-performed monologue, and I’d definitely recommend you give it a listen.


Now, the second of the pair of plays I’ve chosen for this post is completely different. Trevor Suthers’s Accident of Birth is a two-hander that runs at just over half an hour. The characters are Margaret (played by Barbara Ashworth) and Antony (played by Kieran Kelly), and the play is a conversation between the two.

Margaret and Antony’s relationship is clear from the start. Margaret is Antony’s mother – his birth mother – who gave him up for adoption. Antony, now an adult, is incarcerated in a secure psychiatric unit of some kind (the play’s blurb specifies that it is Broadmoor), for a series of crimes that are never detailed. Antony has a personality disorder (again, the exact nature of this isn’t explained), and he is curious as to whether this is some sort of flaw inherited from his birth parents. It’s also clear that this is the first time Antony has been able to meet Margaret, and so it’s the first time he’s been able to ask the questions that are clearly pressing on his mind.

Accident of Birth is a play about nature vs. nurture, as Antony tries to reconcile the crimes he’s committed, and the personality disorder he’s been diagnosed with, with the happy and loving childhood he experienced with his adoptive parents. More than this though, Suthers’s story explores the very human desire for explanation and meaning – the search for a reason why things (especially bad things) happen. It touches on the fallibility of our memories and the effects of trauma as well.

If all that sounds rather heavy, that’s because it is! There are some big ideas covered in the play. However, a combination of Suthers’s script, which couches the bigger existential questions in anecdotes about bus conductors and wage slips, and Ashworth and Kelly’s performances invites the audience to engage with Margaret and Antony’s meeting on an emotional, rather than simply intellectual, level. Kelly’s Antony is convincingly skittish and demanding – at one point managing to imbue the mundane phrase ‘Fares, please’ with a sense of undefined menace. Ashworth performs Margaret’s lines with a mask of restraint, but there’s a whole world of pain, guilt and fear behind it. While the script focuses on Antony’s story, there are tantalizing hints of Margaret’s own backstory here and there as well.

Credit should also be given to Becky Lennon’s direction and Ben Wilson’s editing here. I’m not sure how – exactly – the recording was done. I know that JustOut Stays In is a lockdown-appropriate, socially-distanced performance, but I was really struck by the sense of proximity that is created here. Whether or not it was recorded this way, I felt as though Margaret and Antony were in the same room, just close enough to touch (though prevented from doing so by the unnamed, silent guard).

Accident of Birth is a narrative about nature, inheritance and the search for answers. Does it provide those answers? Does Antony even ask the right questions? Ah well, you’d have to listen to the play to find that out.

I highly recommend both A is for… and Accident of Birth. The JustOut Stays In plays continue to impress me, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the company have to offer next.

A is for… and Accident of Birth are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Review: Hunting Swans and Laugh Track (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

I’m very pleased to be back to reviewing performances again – despite the fact that live theatre is still on hold due to COVID restrictions. In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two short radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Hunting Swans and Laugh Track. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf, which is back after a not-quite-as-brief-as-I’d-hoped absence on North Manchester FM. But here is the blog version…


JustOut Theatre is a relatively new company, launched just last year in York but currently based in Manchester. The pieces they staged last year were toured around some of the country’s fringe festivals – and regular readers of my reviews will know that I do love fringe theatre.

With social distancing restrictions and the cancellation of all live performance events since March, fringe festivals – including my beloved Greater Manchester Fringe – have been put on hold, so there’s been very limited opportunities to see the work of new and emerging companies like JustOut.

However, JustOut have been working on a lockdown-suitable project to showcase a bit of northern talent, and I’m pleased to say I’m going to be reviewing this project, piece by piece, over the next few weeks.

The project is called JustOut Stays In, and it’s a series of radio plays – or, perhaps more accurately, since they’re not currently being broadcast on the radio, audio dramas – written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays vary a bit in length, and vary massively in subject matter and tone – it’s an eclectic assortment – and they’re currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud.

I’ve decided to review the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two of the pieces: Laugh Track by Liam Gillies and Hunting Swans by Ellen J. Baddeley. Both plays are two-handers, but they are really quite different pieces.

First: Hunting Swans


Baddeley’s play is the story of a relationship. And, unusually, it’s a story that begins after the end. Phillip (played by Ewan Mulligan) and India (played by Abi Cameron) have split up before we even meet them. The play begins with India returning to the house they briefly shared for a (possibly) final conversation. From there, we are taken through some short flashbacks, little glimpses into the relationship these two young people once had.

The couple meet by a lake in a swan sanctuary, and (as the title suggests) swans are a recurring motif throughout the play. Swans, we are told a couple of times, mate for life, and so appear to be a romantic emblem of a burgeoning relationship. However, as we know from the opening, this relationship somehow failed, lending the motif a bittersweet tone.

Phillip and India are contrasting characters, in some ways, with Phillip’s rather selfish idealism sometimes clashing with India’s pragmatism. At other points, though, they appear to be very well-matched. There is a sadness is both characters, which comes through subtly in Baddeley’s script with moments of backstory and exposition being brief and quickly laughed off by the two characters. Added to this, despite the tender age of their characters (they are both in their early twenties) Mulligan and Cameron’s performance give them a maturity at times, making each character sometimes seem older than their years. Of course, part of the sadness comes from the fact that these moments of maturity don’t happen in sync, highlighting the fact that Phillip and India are no longer walking in step – or perhaps they never were.

Shannon Raftery’s direction is assured, and the play is well-paced and unhurried. It’s just over twenty-four minutes long, but it feels like it tells a much bigger story than its run-time suggests. And yet, at the same, it’s a very small story (and that’s not a criticism). I don’t want to say too much about the way the story develops, but I was left with the feeling afterwards that this was a moment in Phillip and India’s lives, and that things would soon move on. I guess, if the beginning starts after the end, then the ending is really the beginning.

Hunting Swans is an engaging piece of drama with just the right amount of melancholy wistfulness. It’s testament to the writing, performances and direction that I felt like I knew Phillip and India (and cared about them) in such a short space of time.

Moving on to the second play, and an even shorter running time! Liam Gillies’s Laugh Track is just over seven minutes long, and I was concerned when I saw that that this wouldn’t really qualify as a ‘play’.


I was wrong. Laugh Track is a fully realized piece of drama. Yes – I think it might have potential to be extended, but it actually works very well at the shorter length.

Laugh Track opens with two women (played by Julia Romano and Jessica Porter) chatting about dating and relationship disasters. Their humour is broad and a little bit stereotypically northern, with each line building towards a series of blunt punchlines. And with each punchline comes that old comedy standby: the laugh track. And what an irritating laugh track it is too. I’ll freely admit that on the first blast of it, I was wary about continuing to listen. The sort of comedies that use laugh tracks are generally not the sort of comedies I like.

However. All is not what it seems. And it is very definitely worth enduring the initial distaste at the sound effect for a quite surprising little journey into very strange territory. And the sort of journeys that take you into strange territory are absolutely the sort of journeys I like.

The brevity – or rather, conciseness – of Gillies’s script means that we aren’t given any background or context for what unfolds. The JustOut website suggests that the two women’s performance is part of a ‘television sitcom’, but I was actually imagining a radio broadcast.

Laugh Track is a good example of a radio play, rather than a play that has been adapted for radio format. While it’s possible to imagine Hunting Swans being performed live on a theatre stage, Laugh Track is very much a piece of audio drama. The format is used to good effect, and the story itself relies on the denial of the visual to conjure a world in the listener’s imagination that would, in fact, be weakened by a visual representation. Liam White’s direction and – significantly – Ben Wilson’s editing help to pace and punctuate the performances in a way that unsettles and entertains.

I really don’t want to give too much away about this one! But Laugh Track is a compelling story with an original and surprising idea at its heart. The way the performance unfolds ensures that an entire ‘world’ appears in the listener’s mind, with only a few explicit prompts. It uses the audio-only format to make suggestive comments about the nature of comedy and the deceptive comfort it provides. And it appealed to my own personal tastes as well: I’m generally not a fan of comedy horror, but I do enjoy horror about comedy. There’s something very disturbing about the contrast between the mundane dialogue and asinine laugh track and… well… what comes next.

The fact that I have spent more time thinking about Laugh Track than I did listening to it should be an indication that I strongly recommend this one. It’s definitely a story that lingers with you afterwards. But I also recommend checking out Hunting Swans, and I think it’s to JustOut Theatre’s credit that the series contains two pieces that are so different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the JustOut Stays In series to find out what else it has to offer.

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Review: A Small Gathering (Ad Infinitum)

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HOME, Manchester

Prior to lockdown, you may remember that I regularly posted theatre reviews on this blog, usually ahead of broadcasting a review of the production on my show, Hannah’s Bookshelf, on North Manchester FM. The last theatre review I published was – as you might imagine – back in February, and Hannah’s Bookshelf has been on an unfortunately prolonged hiatus since January.

So it gives me a lot of pleasure to be back reviewing performance pieces on here, and also to be able to say that a radio version of this review will be broadcast on Saturday, as Hannah’s Bookshelf is returning to the airwaves with a slightly different format (which you can read about here).

If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll perhaps know that I often reviewed theatre and multi-media productions staged at HOME in Manchester. Sadly, like all theatres, HOME has had to close its doors during lockdown – though plans are afoot for its reopening in September, and you should check out their website for information about those plans. However, during lockdown, HOME have been putting out a programme of digitally-accessible content that can be enjoyed from the safety of your own home.

One part of this programme is the Homemakers series. The website describes this series as ‘new commissions inviting artists to create new works at home, for an audience who are also at home’. These funded projects invite artists to make creative use of COVID restrictions to produce art in different media, and that use different strategies to engage their audience. You can book tickets to view or take part in these creative experiences via the HOME website, and most are on a pay-what-you-can basis (though there is a recommended ticket price, which will help HOME to continue to survive and plan for the future).

I’m going to be taking a look at a number of the Homemakers commissions over the next few weeks, and reviewing them on here and on Hannah’s Bookshelf.

So, that’s by way of any introduction to the series, time for my first review in six months… A Small Gathering.


A Small Gathering is a trio of short films, created by Bristol-based theatre company Ad Infinitum, which deal with the fears, obsessions and compulsions of lockdown. I was drawn to this one by Ad Infinitum’s own description of the piece: they describe it as ‘a triptych of shorts served 2m apart’.

The first film of the three – or the first section of the triptych – is ‘Mr Pink’, created by Nir Paldi and George Mann. It’s a stylistic – almost garishly so – performance about the effects of isolation. As with the other two shorts, ‘Mr Pink’ has no dialogue, but makes use of sound effects and music to convey both emotion and context. (Sound design and composition for all three films is by Sam Halmarack.)


‘Mr Pink’ presents us with a man alone in lockdown (performed by Paldi). The film throws a spotlight (quite literally, at times) on the isolating effects of social distancing. The man’s escalating neurosis is performed physically, manifesting in theatrical movements, mime and exaggerated facial expressions, thrown into stark focus through Mann’s direction, and also through unsettling and jarring use of lighting and editing effects.

The man primps and preens himself as though preparing for a gaudy night out, but as he steps out of his front door, warning messages flash on screen and an alarm sounds. It is not safe to go out, and the man maniacally washes his hands as though trying to purge the mistake from his mind.

As Paldi’s man remains indoors, attempting to occupy himself with some sort of isolated entertainment, further fears manifest. The spectre of death is increasingly intrusive, and jittery neurosis dissolves into abject terror as the film progresses. The flashes of government warning messages evoke dystopia, but it’s through the use of lighting and camera angles that the dystopian atmosphere is truly created. The man is, we gather, in a house. But it feels so very small, dark and claustrophobic. There are no home comforts here, just a single featureless sofa and an anxiety-inducing bathroom sink.

‘Mr Pink’ is not a subtle film. Its messages – like the authoritarian slogans – are writ large on the screen. At times, it veers into being rather heavy-handed: a particular sequence involving soap and very suggestive facial expressions and sound effects, for instance, is rather blunt in its commentary on the fetishization of handwashing. Nevertheless, as a comment on the stifling effects of fear – particularly during the early days of the lockdown – it makes its point in a stylish and arresting way.

The second film, ‘Rewilding’, is also stylish and arresting, though in different ways. ‘Rewilding’ is directed and performed by Deb Pugh, and is also a dialogue-free performance that focuses on the manifestation of an individual’s lockdown fears.


In this piece – which, in my opinion, is the strongest of the three – a woman is alone on a houseboat, trying to work up the courage to go out and do some shopping. As in ‘Mr Pink’, there is something stopping her from going outside, but here it is much more clearly a psychological barrier. She checks her shopping list, checks her appearance, but then repetitively makes cups of tea and (of course) washes her hands. The camera offers us repeated close-ups of Pugh’s face, but the exaggerated neurotic expressions of ‘Mr Pink’ are replaced with a lingering and pervasive sense of worry and concern. This is intercut with – again, a little heavy-handed – glimpses of ‘outside’, where fears are manifested in something physical.

I think the reason why ‘Rewilding’ is the strongest of the three shorts is that it offers something a little different – unlike the other two pieces, we are reminded at the end of human connection. The final moments of the film, which I found surprisingly moving, offer a gentle reminder that, isolated as we might feel during lockdown, there are still very important reasons why we might have to do battle with our fears and go outside. Perhaps it’s reflective of my own experiences, but I found the ending ‘Rewilding’ to be something of an antidote to the intensely solipsistic experience of the other two films.

The third film, ‘Cynthia’s Party’, returns us, in some ways, to the concerns of ‘Mr Pink’. Directed and performed by Charlotte Dubery, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ presents us with a person alone in a house, attempting to entertain themselves in the absence of company – or, indeed, the outside world. Again, the psychological manifests as physical, though the focus here is on the dehumanizing effects of extended isolation, rather than the immediate fear of death and disease.


Of the three, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ is the least explicit about its COVID context. There’s no compulsive handwashing here, and no suggestion at all of the possibility of leaving the house. Instead, it’s a portrait of a fractured psyche that ends on a somewhat bleak and hopeless note. Like the other films, it’s both stylish and stylistic, hitting some standard horror notes, while also maintaining a disorienting sense of the surreal. Dubery’s performance jolts between maniacal and terrified, which, along with the unabashed trip to the Uncanny Valley, makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

I referred to this piece as a ‘trio’ of films, but I think Ad Infinitum’s own word ‘triptych’ is a very apt description. Each of the three films is a complete piece in its own right, but they should be viewed as ‘hinged together’, not only by their shared context, but their shared themes and the stylistic devices and techniques they use to explore these.

Overall, A Small Gathering offers a creative and artistic response to the psychological effects of lockdown. Neuroses loom large, and the piece is occasionally heavy-handed in its approach, but as a stylistic and creative look at some of the (possibly national) obsessions and fears that have surfaced during lockdown, it works very well. Clever use of lighting, direction and sound design create a powerful atmosphere, but also serve to further ‘hinge’ the pieces together with repeated motifs and effects.

A Small Gathering is a short piece, but one that packs a lot into its running time. I’d recommend you check it out, along with the other Homemakers commissions, on the HOME website.

A Small Gathering is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information and to book tickets.