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

Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Review: No Man’s Land (London Classic Theatre)

Friday 5th September 2019
Oldham Coliseum Theatre

I haven’t posted any theatre reviews for over a month, but it’s time to get back into it. I attended the press night of London Classic Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Oldham Coliseum on Friday 5th September. You can hear the radio version of the review on North Manchester FM tomorrow, but here’s the blog version…

Moray Treadwell as Hirst in No Man's Land

London Classic Theatre’s new production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land began its national tour at Oldham Coliseum this month, opening on Friday 5th September.

No Man’s Land has been described both as Pinter’s most ‘enigmatic’ play, but also as the most ‘poetic’. With a deceptively simple set-up and a single set, No Man’s Land balances on a knife-edge of comedy and menace throughout. Set in the living room of a North-West London mansion, No Man’s Land opens with two men in their sixties returning after a night out and continuing their drinking session. Or rather, one of them is returning. The other is a guest – or is he? The mansion belongs to Hirst, a rich and successful writer and essayist. His companion is Spooner, a shabbier, down-at-heel man, who is also a writer. When Hirst overindulges and is forced to crawl to his bed, two younger men (Foster and Briggs) make their entrance, and it’s clear that things may not be quite as they seem.

Memories – or their absence – play an important role in No Man’s Land. It has been described as a play about being haunted by memories, but it also offers a searing (often humorous) exploration of the ‘game’ of memory. In the second act, Hirst mistakes Spooner for someone he knew at Oxford (or is the recognition accurate?) and begins to ‘remember’ that he once had an affair with his wife. At this, Spooner jumps into the roleplay, ‘remembering’ his own sordid tale to beat that of his companion. Are any of these memories real? Do the men really share a past? In a similar vein, Briggs expounds on the circumstances of his meeting Foster, but he insists that Foster will deny his account and say it happened differently. So, can we believe anything of Briggs’s account?

Pinter’s play is cryptic and illusory about the connections and relationships between the four men – in typical style, their names and backgrounds are not entirely stable – and the script moves (often rapidly) between fragmentary dialogue and lyrical (though sometimes almost arbitrary) monologue. It is a challenging piece for both performers and directors.

Fortunately, London Classic Theatre are more than up to the task and have created a production that both charms and unsettles the audience. Director Michael Cabot makes powerful use of space, moving the four performers around the stage in almost circular motion, with Hirst’s armchair set in the centre. The circling of the armchair immediately conjures a world that revolves around its central figure (their ‘host’, as Foster repeatedly dubs Hirst), but there is also a feeling of more predatory inclinations in the performers’ movements around the seated figure (mostly Hirst, sometimes Spooner, but never Briggs or Foster). A single door to the room is used for the stage entrances and exits, which has the disconcerting effect of both conjuring a world outside the room and closing it off from our view.

Cabot’s direction is enhanced by Andy Grange’s lighting design and Bek Palmer’s set. In the play’s second act, the lighting is used effectively to draw our attention to the binary oppositions of inside/outside and day/night, without us moving from Palmer’s simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic living room.

The four actors give great performances in the production. Moray Treadwell plays Hirst with convincingly inebriated authority. For much of the play, Hirst occupies the single armchair at the centre of the stage – with the other characters revolving around him – but Treadwell’s performance shifts Hirst’s seated position from imperious to vulnerable by turns. Nicholas Gasson’s Spooner is a blank – and I don’t mean that as a criticism – absorbing some of the nastier insults of the play with an unnerving impassiveness that constantly hints that Spooner knows more about what’s going on than he’s admitting.

Graham O'Mara as Briggs in No Man's Land

Graham O’Mara plays Briggs with an appropriate air of menace and threat; however, his performance stays on the right side of thuggishness. In the second act – with the costume and lighting change signalling, temporarily, that daylight might bring some new clarity, O’Mara brings out Briggs’s more reflective side. Briggs’s monologue about how to get to Bolsover Street is one of my favourite parts of Pinter’s script, and O’Mara delivers it very well here. For me, though, the standout performance was Joel Macey as Foster. At once threatening, fey, calm, bright and mean, Macey’s performance is uncomfortable and yet eminently watchable. He set the tone with his very first line, making the ostensibly innocent question (‘Who are you? What are you drinking?) both friendly and alarming in equal measure.

It’s inevitable that any revival of No Man’s Land will invite comparisons with previous productions. High-profile productions have seen the roles of Hirst and Spooner in the hands of ‘theatrical royalty’ (Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). And in 2001, Pinter’s own revival of the play cast Danny Dyer as Foster – perhaps not ‘theatrical royalty’, but certainly someone with an iconic style and persona. Wisely, the cast here put these illustrious predecessor performances right out of their minds – there is no hint of imitation and no invitation to comparison, and Treadwell, Gasson, O’Mara and Macey make Hirst, Spooner, Briggs and Foster their own, suggesting different dimensions and emphasizing different undertones in their performances.

While there are some great individual performances here, the cast also work well as an ensemble. No Man’s Land is a disconcerting play, but it is also a funny one. Much of the humour derives from the performers’ unspoken responses, and the cast here handle this well. The innuendo-driven homosexual subtext (‘Do you often hang about on Hampstead Heath?’) is treated adeptly, almost like an in-joke or shared understanding between the four men, but to which the audience is never fully admitted.

Overall, this is a skilful and impressive production of a challenging and enigmatic play. With strong performances and clever direction, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking revival – and I highly recommend it.

London Classic Theatre’s production of No Man’s Land was on at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on 5th-7th September. It is currently touring nationally.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

My Year in Books 2019: August

I have to be honest here, August was not a good month. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away at the beginning of the month, after a battle with cancer. It's been very tough, and I haven't been in the mood for discovering new books or experimenting with random charity shop purchases as usual. All I've really wanted was to read a bit of comfy (but good) escapism, something I know and love, something I know I'll enjoy. And so... I turned to a series I've read a couple of times already (or, at least, I've read most of them a couple of times). Weirdly, I finished the last book in the series today, so my August post is entirely focused on the one series. But it is a very good series.

(In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

And here are my reviews for August...

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)


August was a tough month, and I decided I wanted a bit of comfort reading, rather than to discover something new. So, I turned to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series. I’ve read the first five books a couple of times (though I’ve only read Cast Iron once, when it came out), so I knew what I was getting with these ones! And, obviously, I really like them. Extraordinary People is the introduction to May’s larger-than-life amateur sleuth, Enzo Macleod. He’s a half-Scottish, half-Italian former forensic scientist, who now lives in France and works as a university lecturer. He’s also got Waardenburg syndrome (giving him a distinctive white stripe in his hair and odd-coloured eyes), two daughters (Kirsty, with his estranged ex-wife in Scotland, and Sophie, with his deceased French partner), a Citroen 2CV and a penchant for playing blues on the guitar. In so many ways, Enzo shouldn’t work as a character – he’s too self-consciously ‘cool’ (or, at least, what a middle-aged man might think is cool!), and he’s too good at everything (he spends most of his time embarrassing French police officers with his insights into cold cases) – but he does. I put that down to May’s excellent writing. It’s just weirdly easy to get hooked on Enzo and his rag-tag gang of assistants. Extraordinary People sees Enzo attempting to win a bet by solving one of France’s most notorious unsolved murders. It’s great cold case fun, complete with cryptic clues left with body parts and a high-octane finale.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)


Since I’m definitely going to be rereading the entire series of Enzo books, these reviews aren’t going to be as separate as usual… they’ll probably just flow into one long review in the end. Extraordinary People introduced Enzo Macleod and his quirky band of helpers: daughter Sophie and her muscle-bound (but surprisingly knowledgeable) boyfriend Bertrand, student Nicole (who is, apparently, a whizz on computers, though really this just means she’s better on c.2007 Google than her professor), impossibly-French journalist Roger Raffin, who isn’t really a ‘helper’ but rather the author of the book of famous unsolved cases that has sparked Enzo’s quest, and psychologist Charlotte, Raffin’s ex and Enzo’s sort-of current squeeze. The Critic sees the gang investigating the murder of famous wine critic Gil Petty, whose body was grotesquely displayed in a vineyard in Gaillac, after having apparently been pickled in wine for a year. There’s a lot to like about this one, not least the very informative descriptions of wine production and tasting. May strikes a good (and very entertaining balance) between developing the ongoing saga of the main characters’ private lives – will Enzo and Charlotte make a proper go of it? will Enzo reconcile with Kirsty? will poor Nicole be able to continue at university? is there any limit to Bertrand’s hidden depths? – with puzzling, and rather old-school, mysteries to be solved. While there’s plenty of angst in the characters’ lives, there are also a healthy number of clues to the murder for the reader to ponder.

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)


Blacklight Blue sees Enzo tackling the third of Raffin’s famous unsolved murders… though he doesn’t actually know he is until part way through the story. The book begins with some pretty dramatic stuff… Kirsty’s best friend is killed in an explosion, and it looks like Kirsty herself was the target. Bertrand’s gym is burnt to the ground, and all the signs suggest arson. And Enzo gets a diagnosis of terminal leukaemia. Is this the end for Enzo and the gang? Well… obviously not, but it is a sign that someone is trying to do them some serious damage. And when Enzo is framed for murder, he gets a clue that suggests who might be behind the attacks. Blacklight Blue has an interesting narrative technique in that the story of the investigation is intercut with flashback chapters told from (we presume) the killer’s perspective, so that the reader is acquainted with some information ahead of the main characters. May handles this well, as although we get the information, it’s not always immediately possible to fit it all together, so there’s still a puzzle to be solved. The series has hit its stride now, so there are some series-long strands that are picked up, but not resolved, in this one. As well as the individual cases from Raffin’s book, it seems that Enzo is facing a bigger challenge that lingers in the background. I’m really enjoying rereading these ones – they’re really fun ensemble stories with cerebral mysteries and puzzles to be solved.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)


Freeze Frame breaks out of the mould of the rest of the series, which is fair enough (nice to have a bit of variety). However, I think it’s probably my least favourite as a result. The big change is that, for the most part, Enzo is flying solo in this one. Aside from a short visit from Charlotte, the rest of the gang are absent throughout Freeze Frame, which is a shame. Enzo travels to Brittany to investigate the murder of Adam Killian, the next case from Raffin’s book. Before he died, Killian asked his daughter-in-law Jane to ensure that no one touched his study until his son Peter had a chance to find the message he’d left. Unfortunately, Peter died before he could get to the study, and so Jane has simply preserved the room, hoping that one day someone will be able to find and decipher whatever it is Killian has left behind. Like Blacklight Blue, Freeze Frame includes chapters (at the beginning this time) from the perspective of other characters. Unlike the previous book, these go into quite some detail about the events leading up to the murder. This is also slightly disappointing, as I feel it gives just that little bit too much away, and the puzzle is somewhat less cryptic as a result. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read. Charlotte’s appearance is a little ominous – she has unsettling news for Enzo and behaves in quite an unfriendly (and unfair) way. Their story’s not over yet…

Blowback by Peter May (2011)


Blowback begins in a similar way to Freeze Frame – Enzo’s on his own for this case. He’s investigating Raffin’s fifth case, the murder of 3* Michelin chef Marc Fraysse seven years earlier. The Critic gave May chance to indulge in some meticulous descriptions of wine; Blowback sees the same treatment dished out (no pun intended) to haute cuisine (although, to be fair, this is often paired with descriptions of the wine that accompanies it). Enzo travels to the victim’s famous restaurant in Puy-de-Dôme to reopen the case, which originally had precisely zero suspects. As I say, he’s initially flying solo, but he soon makes friends with the (unusually) helpful local gendarme, Dominique. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but some other members of the gang do make an appearance. Blowback is notable, perhaps, for having the strongest identification of Enzo with a victim. He really feels a connection with this one, for reasons that become clear in the first half of the book (readers may be surprised). Interestingly, May decides to drop the technique of interspersing chapter from the killer’s POV (which were used in the last two books), in favour of a glimpse into the mind of the victim. I like this – it lends the book a slightly different feel to the others. Enzo is still too cool for school in this one – and continues to be (slightly bafflingly) irresistible to women – but a bit of unexpected backstory gives some depth to this. On to the last one…

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)


There was a bit of a wait for the last Enzo book – it was published six years after the fifth one – and I (like a lot of fans) was initially disappointed to find that the series would end after six, not seven, books. After all, Enzo is supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book. I first read Cast Iron shortly after it was published, and I remembered it being a pretty decent finale to the series. Now that I’ve reread it, I take that assessment back: Cast Iron is an excellent finale to the series! Enzo’s taking on the sixth case – the murder of a young woman from Bordeaux called Lucie Martin – and the gang’s properly back together. Not only that, but a character who hasn’t been seen since The Critic also has a part to play. Cast Iron draws together loose ends dangling from the other books – especially Blacklight Blue (which ended with a pretty hefty unanswered question) – but also turns the individual cases into a series proper with some big reveals. Yes, there’s a little bit of a cheat with the introduction of a previously unmentioned plot point (no spoilers!), but I’m inclined to let it off with this. There’s some genuine (and upsetting) peril for a couple of characters, a rather cinematic climax, and some personal revelations for Enzo. All in all, a great way to wrap up the Enzo Files. I’m just a bit sad the series is finished, to be honest.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Mournful Loch Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 14th April 2017
Platform: PC


This is a slightly delayed review. I actually played this game last month, but I was tied up with GM Fringe theatre reviews and some other commitments so I wasn’t able to post this right away. I’m also aware that I said in my last game review that I was taking a break from the Phantasmat series, and that my next post would be a Poirot Project one… oops… neither of those things were true! Sorry!

My last game review was for Phantasmat: Behind the Mask, and I decided just to continue my play through the series. I was a little confused to discover that the next two titles were unavailable: Phantasmat: Town of Lost Hope and Phantasmat: Reign of Shadows were removed from the Big Fish Games catalogue earlier this year (not sure why). So, the next available game in the series was Phantasmat: Mournful Loch, which was developed (as all the instalments since The Endless Night have been) by Eipix Games.

Unfortunately, Mournful Loch feels a bit phoned-in. I’m not sure what the removed instalments would have added to the series, but playing Mournful Loch immediately after Behind the Mask didn’t really work for me. There were some notable similarities between the two stories, which only served to highlight the weakness in the later game’s storyline.

You play as an archaeologist/researcher who is setting out to explore Logan Castle in Scotland and hoping to discover a lost ancient artefact. The castle was the site of a historical (in the vaguest sense) massacre, and you believe something valuable was lost as a result. When the boat you’re in crashes (naturally!), you have to navigate your way through the creepy castle, past malevolent ghosts, and through inexplicably intricate locks and puzzle systems to find… whatever it is you’re meant to find.

And that’s the main problem with Mournful Loch. There’s no real sense of purpose or objective. The backstory as to why you’ve arrived at the castle is pretty sketchy, and the ‘history’ of the castle is vague, inconsistent and – at times – so historically suspect that it’s bad even by HOPA standards. As I say, there are similarities between this story and the one in Behind the Mask: you are faced with a series of malevolent ghosts, dealing with and dispatching one after another (I described this in my last review as being the closest a HOPA comes to having an ‘end of level boss’). The problem with Mournful Loch is that there aren’t really any backstories or explanations for the ghosts – who are they? why are they malevolent? what has this got to do with the artefact? what the hell is the artefact anyway? how many more times will the word ‘artefact’ be used? The game didn’t really answer any of these questions, and so what we’re left with is a paint-by-numbers storyline where puzzles have to be solved, baddies dispatched and objects restored, simply because this is a HOPA and that’s what happens.


Design-wise, this is very much of the standard I’ve come to expect from Eipix. Backgrounds and cutscenes are beautifully illustrated, with stylish detail and smooth animations where necessary. The colour palette tends towards blues and greys in this one, but that seems to fit with the ‘eldritch-esque’ feel to the overall story. There was much less sense of NPCs altering and ‘descending’ into evil – a detail that has characterized the previous instalments of the series – but this also meant that there was none of the cartoonish ‘monster’ illustrations that marred the design of Behind the Mask.

Soundtrack and sound effects were also as you might expect from a HOPA by this developer. Overall, though, there was little innovation or surprise in the game design. I have no real criticisms, but also no specific praise. Again, this game feels a bit phoned-in. It’s competently created, but a little bit mundane.

And this comes through in the gameplay as well, which is very much as expected. It’s point, click, move between scenes, pick up items for the inventory, use items from the inventory, complete mini-games, complete HOGs. There is a bit of back-and-forth between rooms (which I don’t mind), and one short cut that you discover part way through to cut down on this (also something I don’t mind, as it made sense within the game’s geography). Most of the inventory items were used in a logical way, and the plus-items (ones where you find something and then have to fix it, or locate additional parts for it to be usable) are pretty straightforward.

To be honest, the gameplay is also a bit mundane in this one. The HOGs (which can be switched for Match-3) and mini-games are very easy. The progression through the game is also easy (though the bonus chapter suffers from too much confusion about objectives and next steps). The game has a Custom difficulty option – yay! – so I was playing with longer recharge times on Hint and Skip, minimal sparkles, minimal black bar instructions, and no tutorial. I didn’t have to use Hint much at all during the main game, though I found I had to use it (and the jump map) in the bonus chapter, but more on that below. Generally speaking, there’s just a lack of challenge with this one.


The game does have some NPCs, but there’s much less interaction with these than in previous instalments. The interactions (and cutscenes) with the malevolent ghosts are limited, which means that we don’t get much of a sense of them as characters. There is some more sustained interaction with the sinister Boat Man (who originally brings you to Logan Castle), but admittedly this is marred by some slightly dodgy voice acting (an accent that’s meant to be Scottish sounds much more Northern Irish). Outside of this, though, there’s very little characterization going on in Mournful Loch. Even in the highlighted word puzzles, which are often used for exposition and backstory, the information that’s revealed is very limited.


I played the CE version of the game, so there was some bonus content. The main attraction – as always – was the bonus chapter, but this was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t completely clear whether this chapter is a prequel or a sequel (I think it was the latter), or how it related to the events of the main game. In the end, it mostly served as some additional gameplay (using some of the scenes from the main game, and a couple of new ones), rather than a development of the storyline.

In addition to the bonus chapter, the CE has all the usual extra features, including achievements, replays on HOGs and Match-3, collectibles and morphing objects, soundtrack and wallpapers.

So, all-in-all, Mournful Loch was a bit of a disappointment. It’s competently made, but with nothing special or surprising about it. The visual design meets Eipix’s usual high standard, but the game is let down by a rather confused and unexciting storyline. I don’t have any major criticisms of the mechanics here, but I like HOPAs that integrate these into a story I can (at least temporarily) buy into. I probably will try another Phantasmat game, but maybe I need a break and another series for a while!

Thursday, 1 August 2019

My Year in Books 2019: July

Another month gone, and time to do my run-down of the books I read for pleasure. I didn't really get chance to do much reading in July, but I've got four novels on my list, so that's not too bad.

In case you're interested, here are my book reviews from the year so far: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are my reviews for July...

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)


I’ve still not quite finished the pile of books I bought on my charity shop binge in Bakewell – but I’m working on it! I started this one last month, but I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure recently as I’d like, and it took me longer to finish it than expected. Monkey Beach is Robinson’s debut novel, and I’m pleased to say it was a break from the genre habits I tend to let myself get into. Monkey Beach is the story of Lisamarie Hill, a Native Canadian (specifically Haisla) girl. When Lisamarie’s brother Jimmy goes missing, she sets out to join her parents in the search. During her voyage to meet them, she reflects back on her childhood and the experiences that have led them to this point. Told in a fragmentary – almost dreamlike, in places – style, Monkey Beach is a haunting story that takes in both the personal tragedies of the Hill family, and the broader picture of First Nations cultures and identities. While Robinson doesn’t shy away from presenting the darker side of (post-)colonial First Nations life (referencing the trauma of residential schools, and depicting alcohol and drug use), this is combined with lyrical and poignant descriptions of spiritualism and traditions. The sections describing Lisa’s relationship with her Ma-ma-oo (grandmother) are particularly compelling, as is the almost-shadowy figure of her enigmatic Uncle Mick. There’s no denying that bad things happen in Monkey Beach, but the haunting prose imbues even these with a mystical quality.

The Confession by Jo Spain (2018)


I think this one is the last of the Bakewell charity shop pile! My mum and I were quite taken with Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels, so I was pleased to find a copy of this novel while I was browsing. The Confession is a standalone psychological thriller, which begins with a brutal (and apparently completed unprovoked) attack on semi-disgraced Irish financier Harry McNamara. A man walks into his house and beats him to a pulp with a golf club, in front of his horror-stricken wife Julie. To make matters more confounding, this man then walks straight to the police and hands himself in. He claims not to have any motive or pre-existing relationship with Harry McNamara – but is he telling the truth? The Confession is a whydunit, rather than a whodunit. It switches perspectives between Julie (Harry’s wife), JP Carney (the man who’s confessed to the attack), and third-person chapters detailing the police investigation. Julie and JP are interesting characters, and the background of Ireland’s boom-and-bust economics is well-drawn. And although this is a standalone thriller, Spain can’t seem to resist giving her police officers a bit of backstory too. I read this one quite quickly. It’s an enjoyable page-turner. My own quibble would be that there’s quite a big plot development, and I didn’t quite buy that the police wouldn’t have made the connections a little faster. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed this one. Spain’s a really good writer with a real talent for storytelling and character creation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2018)


As you may have read in previous review posts, me and my mum have been reading Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway detective series. And, as you may remember, I’ve become a little frustrated with the series and didn’t really enjoy the last one I read. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped me picking up another book by Griffiths! The Stranger Diaries is a standalone Gothic-inflected crime novel, set in the world of literature rather than archaeology. Clare Cassidy is a secondary school English teacher who loves Victorian Gothic novels. While the school she teaches in is low-rated state school in danger of academization, the building incorporates part of an old house that once belonged to Gothic author R.M. Holland. Clare is fascinated by Holland and is in the process of writing a book about him – but then one of her colleagues is bumped off in a manner reminiscent of Holland’s best-known short story. The story is told through alternating narrators and diary entries (a self-conscious nod to Victorian fiction, particularly that of Wilkie Collins), and sections of Holland’s ‘The Stranger’ intersperse the narrative. And I really enjoyed it! It’s an old-school mystery novel with supernatural accents, and it’s a real page-turner. The use of multiple narrators is done well, with the same events being described from different perspectives, and the fictional R.M. Holland casts an intriguing shadow. Personally, I found The Stranger Diaries more effective and gripping than the Ruth Galloway novels – let’s see if my mum agrees with me…

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood (2016)


Decided to take a rare day off and wanted a quick read – something that I knew I could finish in a day. I bought My Sister’s Bones at a charity shop in Cleveleys (day out with the parents-in-law). It’s clearly a domestic noir (which I’ve sworn off), but it’s been favourably compared with The Girl on the Train, so I thought… what’s the harm? As I started reading it, I remembered… they’re all favourably compared with The Girl on the Train. And it’s never a fair comparison. My Sister’s Bones is not great. It’s overwritten (the most egregious example being a description of someone putting vinegar on chips that takes three sentences and includes the phrase ‘pungent brown liquid’), and the storyline is riddled with implausibility and inconsistency. Kate is a journalist, who returns to Herne Bay from Syria with PTSD. Her sister Sally is an alcoholic who has stayed in Herne Bay. They don’t interact for most of the book – the title is seriously misleading, as there are no ‘bones’ and very little about ‘sisters’. Kate is staying in her recently deceased mother’s house, despite the fact that she had no relationship with her mother and shows no desire to clear or look after her mother’s possessions. She keeps hearing a child screaming and comes to believe that the neighbour is in an abusive relationship. It all builds to a ludicrous climax involving a dungeon under a shed (no apologies for the spoiler). This isn’t a recommendation from me.

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.

Review: Mémoires d’un Amnésique (Amusia Productions, GM Fringe)

Saturday 27th July 2019
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe continues until the end of July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows (as you probably know) for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was Amusia’s Mémoires d’un Amnésique, which was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Saturday 27th July. You can hear my radio interview on Tuesday’s show on North Manchester, but here’s the blog version…


Subtitled ‘A Reflection on the Life and Work of Erik Satie’, Mémoires d’un Amnésique is part piano recital, part film, and part narration taken from Satie’s own writings. I was very much looking forward to this show, as I really love Satie’s piano music, and I was interested to see how this staging would enhance the musical performance. I’d had a bit of a taster of how the staging would work before the festival started, as I interviewed performer Alex Metcalfe for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. As a result of this conversation, I had high expectations for the show.

As the audience enter for the show, pianist Metcalfe is already at the piano (as Satie). Dressed in a formal suit and bowler hat, he plays a short refrain, then walks slowly to a blackboard and chalks a tally mark. Then he silently returns to the piano and begins the refrain again. The piece he’s playing is Satie’s Vexations, which consists of 152 notes played 840 times in succession. When we arrived in the performance space, the tally count was at around 350.

Mémoires d’un Amnésique – which takes its title from a volume of Satie’s own writing – uses the composer’s own words to ‘narrate’ (in an eccentric and occasionally surreal way) his story. Script editor Sarah Miles has carefully selected and arranged a selection of Satie’s words (which are voiced, in French, by Bastien Mouzay), as well as a couple of examples of correspondence and academic reports of Satie’s studentship at the Conservatoire, to create a particular path through the life and work of the reclusive composter.

Satie was an eccentric, an avant-garde artist, and an absinthe-consuming member of Paris’s Chat Noir set. It is fitting that Mémoires d’un Amnésique uses surrealist and fragmentary techniques to illustrate both Satie’s life and his work (and the two are presented as utterly inseparable here). Miles’s script does this through its selection and juxtaposition of material, as does Keith Lovegrove’s film.

Lovegrove’s film (of which Miles’s script is part) offers a montage of black-and-white sequences to accompany and illustrate the music being played on stage. On the surface, there is haphazard randomness to the imagery we’re watching – and certain stereotypically surrealist objects, particularly fish, recur as a nod to the surrealist and Dadaist movements with which Satie was associated. Metcalfe appears as Satie in the film, repeatedly walking along a pebbled beach, bouncing sedately on a trampoline, and dealing with the ubiquitous fish. There is some sense of progression through the imagery, but this is not chronological or linear construction. (But for those who feel the need for a little linearity, a brief timeline of Satie’s life and writing is including in the show’s programme.)

However, for all the ostensibly bizarre and capricious feel to the cinematography and editing, there is a stylish and intelligent construction to Mémoires d’un Amnésique that ultimately offers a fascinating commentary on Satie’s work (and approach to work). It’s not a lecture or an exposition, but rather a direction of our focus to enhance our appreciation of the music.

By framing the show with Vexations – including Metcalfe’s measured and repetitive marking of the tally – Amusia subtly signal a preoccupation with measurement, metrics and time. Repetitions of the piece’s 152 notes recur at points in the performance, serving almost as moments of pause in the ‘narrative’. In a quoted section of Satie’s writing, he comments that a musician’s first task is to acquire a metronome, and, indeed, the device features heavily in some of the filmed sequences. Ideas and images of marking, measuring and repeating offer the artistic link between music, narration and film.


What I really enjoyed, though, was the way this deliberate repetition and measurement isn’t being used to reveal a deep or unconscious meaning, but rather becomes an absurdist meaning in itself. As with the later Theatre of the Absurd movement, Satie’s music (and life) is situated as an exploration of the existentialism of illogicality. This was a bit of a revelation for me… I love Satie’s music, and I also love Theatre of the Absurd – and yet I hadn’t (consciously) realized the connection between the two.

Now, at the heart of Mémoires d’un Amnésique is Metcalfe’s piano recital. Playing a selection of Satie’s music, including his best-known pieces (Gymnopédies 1 and 2, and the Gnossiennes), for just over an hour, on stage and on screen, Metcalfe is Erik Satie.

And this was the only problem I had watching Mémoires d’un Amnésique… I had to stop myself getting lost in Metcalfe’s playing so as not to miss anything of Lovegrove’s film! (I think I’ve made it clear now that I love Satie’s music, but I should also say that I struggle to listen to the melancholic and evocative Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes without them having some serious effect on my imagination – so I really had to concentrate during Mémoires d’un Amnésique so I didn’t miss what was happening around the music, as well as in my head!)

But, that personal challenge aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Mémoires d’un Amnésique and would definitely recommend it. Classy, thoughtful and skilfully absurd, it was an atmospheric and beautifully constructed dip into the Parisian avant-garde. So good, you could almost taste the absinthe.

Mémoires d’un Amnésique was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Saturday 27th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe on the 22nd and 24th August. To see the full programme of events on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, see the festival website.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Review: Drowning in Silence (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 25th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July. As you must know by now, I’m reviewing a number of the shows on this year’s packed programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next play on my itinerary was Salford Arts Theatre’s Drowning in Silence, which I saw (unsurprisingly) at the Salford Arts Theatre on Thursday 25th July. You can hear my radio review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

Written and directed by Roni Ellis, Drowning in Silence is a two-hander, performed by Emily Cox and Libby Hall. Earlier this month, I reviewed Libby Hall’s play (which was also staged as part of this year’s Fringe), The Melting of a Single Snowflake, so I’d experienced her writing, but not her acting. As I enjoyed the former so much, I was curious to see the latter! (Hall is the writer-in-residence at Salford Arts Theatre, and a former member of their Young Performers Company. I interviewed her about The Melting of a Single Snowflake on my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June.)

Drowning in Silence opens in a slightly unorthodox fashion, with a piece of projected film (shot by Ross McCormack) being shown on a white screen at the back of the stage. Edited as a montage of ‘home movie’ style footage, the film shows Cox and Hall messing around, playing together and laughing. It’s a neat piece of scene-setting, as it leaves the audience in no doubt that these two are sisters.

It is Cox – playing older sister Michelle – who enters on stage first. The set is sparse – just a couple of pieces of furniture and some scattered toys and blankets conjure up a room in a house, but it’s otherwise rather bare (and the reason for this will become clear as the one-act play unfolds). Carrying a birthday balloon, Michelle wanders across the stage to the pile of toys in a slow and deliberate style that will come to characterize the play as a whole. And then Hall – playing younger sister Jane – makes her entrance. Whooshing across the stage like an excited child, she joins Michelle, and the two sing a childish rhyme together and dress dolls. This is the first indication of the complexity and layering of Drowning in Silence’s narrative, as Cox and Hall appear here to be playing characters much younger than themselves.

It is not simply the set that is sparse. The narrative of Drowning in Silence also unfolds in a rather minimalist way. Michelle and Jane appear in short scenes from different periods of their childhoods, punctuated by melancholic piano music and the deliberate movements of Michelle (the elder of the two) around and across the stage. Each scene is triggered by an object that Michelle finds on the stage, giving the play an atmosphere of nostalgia and an indefinable sadness. The lighting emphasises this, as it alters from a stark bluish hue to warmer tones to signal the journey through memories of childhood.

Drowning in Silence is a story about loss and grief. We see the girls’ experience a life-changing incident and watch the way it affects them as individuals, but also their relationship to one another. Their closeness becomes strained, as secrets and lies slip into their interactions. A story bubbles under the surface, but Ellis’s script keeps it tightly under control (save for some neat foreshadowing), leaving the audience with the feeling that an awful lot is being left unsaid.

The two performances are excellent. Cox captures the uncertainty and awkwardness of an older sibling who, while still a child herself, is thrust into a more adult role. But I also very much enjoyed her performance in the flashbacks to earlier moments of the girls’ childhood – as an older sister myself, I really related to Michelle’s attempts to be the ‘mature one’, exhorting her little sister to ‘follow the leader – and I’m the leader’. Cox successfully carries the more emotive scenes of the play, often doing so through movement and expression rather than dialogue. It’s an impressive performance, imbued with both maturity and gravity.

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

And Hall is fantastic as Jane. Moving between a lively (slightly bossy) little child, a rather serious tween, and a moody and frustrated teenager, even in her more stereotypically ‘stroppy’ dialogue, Hall conveys a sensitive and sympathetic vulnerability that is really quite moving. If talented young performer Hall isn’t one to watch for the future, then I don’t know who is!

As I’ve said, there is a story under the surface of Drowning in Silence that is held in check until the play’s final (and emotional) punch. I must admit, I did guess this early on, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the play at all. Instead, I was interested in paying attention to how the story unfolds, and the techniques used to reveal things to (and hide them from) the audience.

Ellis’s script is tight, with a compelling combination of theatrical dialogue (and near-monologue at times) combined with judicious and expressive use of silences (as may be expected from the play’s title). Along with this, her direction makes use of the unspoken and unexplained to develop narrative. The play’s real strength lies in the way the story is literally not told – it lies in the silence, the unsaid and the implied. Again, the lighting is used to good effect here – silence is often accompanied by a change or dropping of the lights to shift the mood and tone.

Overall, Drowning in Silence is a compelling piece of theatre that pulls off the impressive feat of being (overtly) melancholic throughout without becoming maudlin or mawkish. With effective direction, a sensitive script and strong central performances, Drowning in Silence is a strong recommendation from me. And I can’t wait to see what Salford Arts Theatre do next!

Drowning in Silence was on at the Salford Arts Theatre on 24th-26th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of shows on 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: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice (Christopher KC, GM Fringe)

Sunday 21st July 2019
Moston Small Cinema, Miners Community Arts and Music Centre

The Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and as you may know by now I’m reviewing a selection of shows from this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was Christopher KC’s stand-up show, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice, which was on at the Moston Small Cinema (part of the Miners Community Arts and Music Centre) on Sunday 21st July. I’ll be playing the radio version of this review on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…


Christopher KC is a Glaswegian comedian, twice nominated for the Scottish Comedy Awards Best Newcomer, who brought his debut show to the Greater Manchester Fringe ahead of performances at Edinburgh in August. It was a bold move – as the comedian himself pointed out, he doesn’t really have a Manchester fanbase! Nevertheless, he attracted a decent audience to the Miners for his Greater Manchester Fringe performance.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice is the first stand-up show I’ve reviewed at this year’s festival – in fact, I think it’s the only one I’m seeing this year, and so Sunday’s show made for a refreshing change of pace for me. I must admit, this is one show that I went to specifically because of the venue (I love the Miners), and I’m not used to writing reviews of stand-up shows. (I’m not Chortle and I won't pretend to be, and so forgive me if this ends up reading a little bit like a theatre review.) However, even though I chose this show for the venue, I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the act. Given that this is probably the only stand-up show I’m seeing at this year’s festival, I’m happy I made the right choice!

As the title suggests, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice is a show that takes a (often darkly) comedic look at race and culture, and examines aspects of Christopher KC’s own identity as a British (specifically Scottish) Chinese man. An early bit about gate-crashing a party sets the tone of the show – it’s a deadpan mixture of perplexity and anger at the way white people respond to people of East Asian heritage, and to the stereotypes that underpin that response.

The show combines personal anecdote and broader cultural observation. In terms of the former, the party-crashing story sets a high bar for pointed, but slightly absurdist, stories of micro-aggressions and racial insensitivity. However, the show’s real strength lies in Christopher KC’s dissection of the latter. Aided by PowerPoint slides and a few video clips, he takes the audience through a variety of race-related topics, from the eponymous problem with rice to John Wayne’s performance in The Conqueror.

A highlight for me was a virtuoso take on the stereotype that all Chinese people are good at Maths. Using slides outlining an increasingly complex mathematical argument, Christopher KC rattles through a series of proofs at a frenetic pace. Staying just the right side of silliness, his argument builds to a crescendo before offering a sly call-back to an earlier joke.

Another strong bit of the show was his searing assessment of Hollywood whitewashing (for instance, in the casting of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai) and its precursor, yellow face. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s gets a fairly thorough treatment here, of course.

However, although the show is a direct and unashamed condemnation of racist stereotypes and behaviours, there are also occasional asides about other topics – most notably, the problem of steam for people who wear glasses. While much of the rest of the show draws on Christopher KC’s Chinese heritage and identity, his unexpected burst of anger at the existence of steam is hilariously Glaswegian.

Less successful, for me, were the shorter quips and one-liners. I’m not sure whether that’s a reflection of my taste or Christopher KC’s performance style, but personally I thought the longer, more involved bits worked much better and offered more opportunity to draw out absurdities and frustrations with the mix of anger and bafflement that characterized the show as a whole.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice is a new show, which Christopher KC is developing for a full Edinburgh Fringe run. As such, there was a sense that the water was being tested with some of the material. That’s to be expected, though, and to be honest it gave the whole performance an enjoyably relatable and personal feel – for all the biting critique of colonialism, orientalism and contemporary micro-aggressions.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice is a funny and acerbic show from an up-and-coming comedian. Slideshows and PowerPoint might be rather fashionable in stand-up comedy at the moment, but Christopher KC’s distinctive use of visual aids to highlight and dissect reveals a promising talent for identifying the absurdity of the seemingly trivial. And he’s absolutely right about steam.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice was on at the Moston Small Cinema at the Miners Community Arts and Music Club on Sunday 21st July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Gilded Balloon at Old Tolbooth Market on 31st July, 1st-11th August and 13th-25th August, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. To see the full list of events on at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival website.

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.