Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Review: Richard III (Headlong Theatre)

Tuesday 30 April 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a (slightly shorter) version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III came to HOME, Manchester this month. It’s a bold, energetic and unsettling adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which uses set design, costume and performance to present a darkly compelling study of a man’s pursuit of power and sovereignty.

Expertly directed by John Haidar, this Richard III actually begins with a scene from the end of Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of Gloucester kills King Henry. This, of course, sets up the audience for the murders and intrigue to come (and there will be lots of murders), but it also allows for a direct introduction to the character of the future King Richard III – the play begins, not with the ‘winter of discontent’, but with Richard’s ‘I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear’ speech, leaving us in no doubt that we are about to watch a very bad man do some very bad things.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

And Richard here is a very bad man. Tom Mothersdale is both repulsive and mesmerising as the twisted, cruel and power-hungry Gloucester. Snarling, spitting, grasping, cajoling and mocking, this Richard III is a monster rather than a tyrant. And yet… Mothersdale’s delivery is so captivating that it’s impossible not to warm ever so slightly to this version of Shakespeare’s famous villain. His delivery of Shakespearean dialogue is excellent, rendering even the most verbose monologues immediate and accessible – aided by knowing nods and asides to the audience that make us feel almost complicit in his nefarious plots. It takes an accomplished actor to get laughs from a contemporary audience without undermining either the gravity or the literary style of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but Mothersdale is more than up to the task. However, he’s equally up to the task of making the audience’s skin crawl.

As with most modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not the complete Richard III. Some scenes are excised or abridged, and the cast of characters is substantially streamlined. We jump from one monstrous act to another with hardly a breath and little time to ponder motive or purpose. For instance, Richard’s plan to marry Elizabeth of York (who doesn’t appear on stage in this production) is even more hot-on-the-heels of her brothers’ deaths than is usual, and he shrugs off her mother’s accusation of incest as though it’s completely irrelevant. He is, after all, a very bad man. While Shakespeare’s play gives some time and space to considering broader questions of statesmanship, sovereignty, sin and consequence, this production focuses more on the facets of a repellent individual – it is a portrait of vileness, in all its glory.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Admittedly, while this is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s histories, the audience learns little of actual history from this production. You would be forgiven if your understanding of the Wars of the Roses, or the messy succession of the English crown, was not expanded by seeing this play. Indeed, this seems like quite a deliberate stylistic choice. Obviously, Bosworth Field is mentioned (though only once), but the play resists adding any signposting of who Richmond will become once he has taken the crown from Richard. This is not simply faithful adherence to Shakespeare’s text, but rather a stylistic decision to present a more timeless story of corruption and power that transcends the rigidity of historical context.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner
While the play is very much a study of its title character, with Richard appearing on stage in almost every scene, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other excellent performances. Stefan Adegbola makes a fascinating Buckingham, transforming the character from the start into a slick, smiling and untrustworthy spin doctor, before crashing hard into Richard’s betrayal. Derbhle Crotty and Eileen Nicholas play Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, exuding almost tangible anger and pain. Nicholas’s Duchess has a powerful scene with Richard in the second act, which is made all the more complex by the earlier inclusion of Richard’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 – a subtle hint that Richard has been missing a mother’s love. I should also give full admiration and credit to the young actors playing Prince Edward and York – Headlong have taken a bold decision by including child actors in such an intense adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but the performances of the younger cast members definitely justify the decision.

Caleb Roberts’s performance as Richmond is rather curious. Delivering his calls-to-arms and regal monologues with pious grace and innocence, this Richmond stands in as sharp distinction to the grotesque Richard as it’s possible to be. However, there is a sense that he is too pious, too good and, occasionally, a little too wet behind the ears to really carry off the final dramatic act of murder and renewal. In the absence of overt signposting of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of Richmond here. And, in fact, we’re given little time to dwell on this – the ‘good guy’ wins, but the play actually ends on an image of the tormented and defeated ‘bad guy’ that is far more memorable.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

There is a stylised quality to the production that further suggests this Richard III has a more timeless quality about it. Characters appear in not-quite-contemporary suits, and the gender of some characters is switched (for instance, we have Lady Hastings – played by Heledd Gwynn – who sports formalwear, high heels and bright pink hair). Chiara Stephenson’s set design adds to the effect: a dungeon-like castle forms the backdrop, with mirrors on every side. These two-way mirrors become an integral feature, not only of the set, but of the performance – Richard becomes reflected in a distorted kaleidoscope effect at times, but at others his ghostly victims appear behind them.

In addition to the mirrors, the first act of the play makes interesting use of the crown. Suspended from a wire in the centre of the stage, the coveted object descends a little with each murderous act, edging ever closer to Richard’s grasping hands until the pre-interval climax. It isn’t a subtle image, but it’s well-done here and recurs towards the end of the second half, when we see the monarch literally begin to lose his grasp on the crown.

The stylisation extends to sound design (by George Dennis) and lighting (by Elliot Griggs). This is particularly apparent when acts of violence occur. The harsh red light and screaming sound effects that punctuate the performance when murders occur are jarring – which is an effective, if disconcerting, technique. In the same way, the movement of actors too and from the stage – as well as the adeptly choreographed movements on stage – is both unnerving and gripping.

Overall, this is a dizzying and intense production that builds to a high-pitched climax (and an incredible final image). It’s unpleasant, nasty and nightmarish in places – but isn’t that the allure of Richard III? Headlong’s vivid and forceful production brings Shakespeare’s villain and his ruthless (but ultimately futile) quest for sovereignty to life in a way that is both captivating and grotesque. I highly recommend it.

Richard III is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 4th May.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Review: Visitors (Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 18 April 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at the press night of Visitors at Oldham Coliseum, for North Manchester FM. You can hear my (slightly shorter) review of the play on Tuesday’s episode of A Helping of History, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Visitors is a new production of Barney Norris’s 2014 play by Oldham Coliseum Theatre. It’s a tender, moving and often very funny story about growing old. On a single set – the living room of an old, remote farmhouse – the play’s four characters sit, chat, drink tea, and face (or sometimes try to avoid) the challenges of dealing with dementia.

At the play’s heart are Edie and Arthur, a long-married couple who’ve spent their life in a cosy farmhouse together. Arthur still works the land, though he’s now struggling with the physical nature of the job and the prospect of having no one to take over once he’s unable to carry on. Edie is facing the onset of dementia – an illness that afflicted her mother – and the possibility of having to go into a care facility. While the couple are constantly forced to think about the future, they also reflect on the past (a result, in part, of Edie’s memory problems), and of the happy life they have shared.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

As well as Arthur and Edie, we meet their son Stephen, an insurance salesman who moved out of the farm as soon as he was able. Initially, Stephen seems rather brash and uncaring – keen to arrange professional care for his mother, and uncomfortable in his father’s company – but as the play unfolds we discover more about his character and what lies beneath the surface. The play’s fourth character is Kate, a blue-haired young girl who is taking part in a house-share programme (she stays at the farm rent-free, in return for helping Edie and Arthur with various chores). Like Stephen, Kate is a character who develops as the story unfolds: she begins as a something of a stereotype, a flaky young millennial hoping to ‘find herself’ by flitting from one thing to the next, but something deeper and more moving emerges as we learn more about her and see her relationship with the older couple blossom.

The treatment of dementia here is unusual – and that’s no bad thing at all. The play does make some comment on the illness’s inevitable and incurable progression, and there are some references to both physical and mental decline, this is not the central subject of the story. Visitors is a play about a person, not about an illness. Or rather, it’s a play about people. Arthur and Edie are a closely entwined couple with a shared past. Stephen is struggling to cope with the mess of the present-day. And Kate is unable – despite being told by others that she has ‘everything ahead of her’ – to imagine what shape her future will take.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

The subject matter of Visitors might sound fairly hard-hitting – depressing, even. But it’s really not that sort of play. Nor is it mawkish or sentimental. Norris’s excellent writing gives a story that is gentle, believable and sympathetic, without veering into maudlin clichés. It is, above all, a human story, which celebrates life (and love) in all its troublesome complexity. Interestingly, given that this is a play essentially about a woman’s decline after the onset of dementia, Visitors isn’t really a tear-jerker (though I will admit to welling up at the final dialogue). Instead, it’s marked by understatement, humour and a sense of authenticity that’s thoroughly engaging – and also rather heart-warming.

While much of this can be put down to Norris’s perfectly-pitched script, a lot of the charm comes from the performances. Kitty Douglas makes a great Kate, beautifully balancing the blue-haired cockiness of youth with fragility, uncertainty and even fear over the future. Ben Porter plays Stephen, and manages the difficult task of getting the audience on side with a character who – at first appearance – is set up to be the villain of the piece (of course, the play is more subtle than that). Arthur is played by Robin Herford, who gives us a moving and likable portrayal of a man unsure of what to do next, and – a product of his generation – unable to vocalize his fears and concerns.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Undoubtedly, though, the star of the show is Liz Crowther, whose performance as Edie is just excellent. Along with Norris’s writing, Crowther’s performance gives us a rare thing: a character with dementia who remains a character throughout. Edie’s memory losses and physical decline are presented with a light touch, allowing us to engage with the character as a human being throughout. Much of the play’s humour comes from Edie – from her wit and personality, not her diagnosis – and this is pleasantly surprising. And Crowther’s comic timing is spot-on.

Visitors isn’t exactly what you’d call an action-packed play. As I’ve said, the story unfolds on a single set (though expertly designed and detailed by Sammy Dowson), with an occasionally changing backdrop and minimal movement of props and costume. Nevertheless, Chris Lawson’s direction makes full use of this stage setting. Although all the ‘action’ takes place in a single room, the placing of characters around the stage at different points reveals the various separations and intimacies between them. Centre-stage is Edie’s comfortable old chair, around which the family (including Edie herself) moves.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

I’ll admit that Visitors confounded my expectations. While I knew I was going to see a ‘slice of life’ drama, I had expected the emotiveness of the subject to overwhelm. It really is rare to see a story about dementia presented with such a light touch and so little mawkishness. The adjective ‘tender’ seems to the most common descriptor used in reviews, and I think this is fair. ‘Warm’ also feels like an apt adjective.

Overall, Visitors is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Superb writing, excellent performances (especially from Crowther), and careful and sympathetic treatment of an emotive subject – I highly recommend it.

Visitors is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 4th May.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review: Kingdom (Agrupación Señor Serrano)

Wednesday 10 April 2019
HOME, Manchester (¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival)

This week, I was at HOME Manchester for the press night of Kingdom for North Manchester FM. A (slightly) shorter version of this review will be going out on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

This year marks the 25th birthday of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival at HOME. Headlining the festival this year are Barcelona-based theatre company Agrupación Señor Serrano with their multimedia theatre experience, Kingdom. Blending live music, multi-lingual performance, dance, video projection and models, Kingdom is an unusual exploration of the history of capitalism – or is it the history of bananas? – using the character of King Kong and footage from the various versions of the film.

Señor Serrano are pioneers of ‘cinema-in-real-time’, and Kingdom makes great use of this technique. Performers hold video cameras, filming scale models of plantations, an explorer in the jungle, a montage of newspaper covers and ephemera, and the footage is projected – in real time – onto the large screen behind them, changing the clutter of small objects on the stage into cinematic images and montages. Performers interact with plants, props and backdrops to create ‘live’ sequences, and models are used to conjure entire scenes. Additionally, through inventive use of green screens, the ‘real time’ footage melds seamlessly into edited clips from other sources: most notably, the King Kong films and a Chiquita banana advert.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

In lesser hands, this idiosyncratic style could become fragmented, but Señor Serrano have created a piece that is much more than the sum of its parts. The pace is frenetic, with only brief moments of calm reflection (and unsettling tableaus of masculinity that veer towards physical comedy) to break the relentless drive of the piece.

This is not narrative theatre, but nor is it a documentary (though the show makes a nod to its expositional style in a rather slick bit of video projection and editing in the first half). If it is ‘story-telling’, then the story it tells is one of global and systemic socio-economics (and bananas). The closest Kingdom comes to a character – unless you count the increasingly dominant figure of King Kong – is the representation of Minor Cooper Keith, the American businessman who pioneered Central American banana plantations in the late nineteenth century. Even the brief portrayal of Keith, however, is more of a cipher than a character – the man, like the fruit, symbolizes something bigger.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

From Kingdom’s opening speech about the state of the world, which ends with the repeated refrain ‘Estamos bien’ [‘We are fine’], the show’s message of capitalism and catastrophism is writ large. Indeed, the examination of capitalism is fairly heavy-handed throughout. The surprise and innovation lie in the way this is tied to bananas (and, ultimately, to King Kong). Nevertheless, the show strikes a careful balance. This is not a documentary or lecture, and so the ‘banana story’ is sketched out, rather than explained in ponderous detail. Some aspects – the funding of Keith’s endeavours and his subsequent role in Costa Rican politics isn’t explicitly mentioned, and nor is the curious history of the Cavendish banana – but this is a sensible decision. As I’ve said, the banana serves as something of a cipher here, though it is a remarkably apt one.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

After the introductory speech, Kingdom moves us to its central thesis: the idea that the banana has fundamentally shaped the very world in which we live. That we are introduced to this idea through a high-octane, dual-language (Chinese and English), rap-infused musical number with interjections like ‘Sexy Latin!’ and ‘Nasty Bananas!’ tells you a lot about how Kingdom conveys its content. If this number doesn’t convince you, what follows is an entertaining and spectacular set of proofs for the thesis, which end up being really quite convincing.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

While capitalism, bananas and King Kong loom large here, Kingdom has another, less trumpeted, story to tell (though, by the end of the performance, this is no less subtle). The performance also addresses the relationship between capitalism and masculinity – or, rather, machismo. The five on-stage performers all strip to the waist at various points in the show, adopting ‘muscleman’ poses to the backdrop of Kong-on-the-rampage. On the whole, this works well, particularly in the context of the final video montage and dance performance.

However, at times, the physical comedy of these moments threatens to undermine any serious critique. Perhaps this is the point, though: the story we are being told is, while true, utterly ludicrous. The extended sequences of muscle flexing and macho posturing can sometimes seem overdone, but they aren’t out of place.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Performances by Diego Anido, Pablo Rosal, Wang Ping-Hsiang, David Muñiz and Nico Roig are excellent, and the use of the stage space is creative and inventive. Certain set pieces really stand out. The video projection sequence of the creation of a banana plantation is a real highlight – despite the fact that the audience can see the performers on stage manipulating tiny scale models, the images on screen could be mistaken for pre-edited animation. The show’s final speech (and the projected montage that precedes it) is an excellent crystallization of the ideas that underpin the show – entertaining, yes, but also a truly hard-edged commentary on the state of the late-capitalist world. Estamos bien.

This speech is not the end, however. Kingdom builds to a finale that is almost overwhelming in its intensity. In many ways, it is the final dance and music performance that really underlines the show’s message: in a capitalist system, the only way to go is bigger, louder, faster. Is this hope? Or hopelessness? Or is it an exhortation to eat more bananas and dance?

Phot credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Kingdom is a show that expertly combines a hard-hitting socio-political message with truly inventive stagecraft and performances. It’s loud, extravagant, dynamic and energetic – and above all, it’s completely bananas.

Kingdom is on at HOME in Manchester until Saturday 13th April, as part of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Review: Tea and Two Sugars (Two Time Theatre)

Tuesday 19th February 2019
53two, Manchester

I attended the press night of another new play in Manchester this week on behalf of North Manchester FM. This time, it was Tea and Two Sugars at 53Two. My review will be played on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here – as is becoming usual – is the (slightly) longer version.

Tea and Two Sugars is a new play by Salford University graduates Rachel Isbister and Crystal Williams, who work together as Two Time Theatre. Co-written (and co-starring) Isbister and Williams, and directed by Chloe Patricia Beale, Tea and Two Sugars was staged at 53Two – the innovative and creative arts space located under the Deansgate arches.

Tea and Two Sugars is a two-hander, telling the story of sisters Hannah and Izzy, and the impact a cancer diagnosis has on their relationship. The play has a single set – Hannah’s living room – and takes place over a period of several months, in vignettes depicting key moments in the story.

The play’s opening is immediately compelling. The audience walks through the stage to take their seats – having seen other plays at the venue, I can say that this a creative choice, rather than a necessity, but one that’s facilitated by the flexible performance space – and it’s not long before the sound of voices from the bar area indicates that we’re being followed by the characters themselves. Hannah and Izzy arrive on stage chattering and laughing, setting the conversational, everyday tone that will be sustained throughout the play.

Hannah is a level-headed 25-year-old (played by Isbister), and Izzy is a fidgety teenage chatterbox (played by Williams). The performances in Tea and Two Sugars are excellent, and the chemistry between the two is a significant strength. Williams’s Izzy is at once precocious and immature, self-absorbed and vulnerable. Isbister’s Hannah is the counterpoint to this, a poised young woman older than her years (and the play makes a number of well-pitched references to why Hannah has needed to adopt this persona, which evoked backstory without dumping exposition on the audience). Utterly believable as sisters, Williams and Isbister manage to imbue even the most mundane dialogue (which is, as the title suggests, often about making cups of tea) with a meaningful charm.

The sisters’ relationship is put under stress by the revelation that Hannah has been diagnosed with cervical cancer. While I think most audiences will be aware that this is the play’s main subject matter (not least from its fundraising for the charity Jo’s Trust throughout the run), it is interesting to think about how this revelation would look if you didn’t know what to expect. In my opinion, the play works well in this way, particularly in the way it presents Hannah’s (as then undiagnosed) symptoms within the context of discussions about Izzy’s first period, with the younger woman asking her sister if those things are ‘normal’ and receiving no answer.

The conversations within the play about menstruation, puberty and female sexuality are handled with a light touch, but a serious heart. The character of Izzy convinces as an adolescent, and the revelation that this boisterous, make-up-wearing, party-going young woman has actually only just reached menarche was touchingly (and scarily) realistic. Sadly, the idea that Izzy has been taught how to put a condom on a banana, but nothing about sanitary products, also rang true.

Overall, however, while the play has many strengths, I was underwhelmed by the way the cancer storyline was handled. Perhaps this is because it is a one-act play, with limited space to fully expand its narrative. We see little of Hannah’s illness itself – or of the toll the illness takes on Izzy – as the time constraints move us from diagnosis to revelation to bad news to the decision to cease treatment at a rapid pace. Hannah ends more as a traditional heroine of the sickness melodrama, physically unchanged by her illness but inevitably destined to die. I question whether romanticizing the illness to this extent is really offering something new, and I felt the story lacked any real explanation or clarification as to what sort of treatment or symptoms a real-life Hannah would experience. The play side-steps the messiness and complexity of a cancer diagnosis in favour of a tear-jerking coming-of-age finale.

It’s a shame that the story turned to a more melodramatic arc, as its early scenes (and the initial build-up to Hannah’s revelation) are skilfully handled. Williams and Isbister create a believable and likable pair of sisters, who are placed in a milieu that is fascinating in its very ordinariness. The attention to detail in the show’s set is fantastic, making expert use of a rather small stage area. And I really liked the feature of having Hannah pin selfies of the two sisters to a string of lights in between scenes.

Ultimately, this is a well-written, well-directed and beautifully performed piece that exudes warmth and charm. If the cancer narrative itself is somewhat limited in its execution, the ‘world’ of Hannah and Izzy feels very real. Two Time Theatre Company is definitely emerging as one to watch, and I look forward to seeing what’s next from this new company.

Tea and Two Sugars was on at 53Two from the 19th-22nd February.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Review: SparkPlug (Box of Tricks)

Thursday 14th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

Another theatre review from me! On Thursday, I was at HOME again for North Manchester FM, this time attending the press night of SparkPlug, a new play by Mancunian writer and performer David Judge. My review played out today on Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the (slightly) longer version…

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

SparkPlug is a new production by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, which is currently on at HOME Manchester. The show is written and performed by David Judge and directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.

This is a one-man show, and Judge has spoken in interviews about how it’s inspired by his own childhood and upbringing. Technically, the piece is a monologue, but the lyrical script and energetic performance style ensure that SparkPlug is so much more than a soliloquy. Its verbal style is poetic, with the rhythms and cadences of a spoken word piece, and its decade-long narrative unfolds in vignettes.

This is the story of Dave, a white working-class man from Wythenshawe with dodgy tattoos and a Ford Capri (well, it is the 1980s). Dave falls for Joanne, a friend of his sister, and near the beginning of the show he ‘rescues’ her from a drink- and drug-fuelled party at her flat in Moss Side. The party has descended into violence, and Dave narrates his concerns (and, significantly, his prejudices) about being a white man in a predominantly black neighbourhood. He also talks about his role as big brother to Angela, driver to his friends and family, and (potentially) lover to Joanne.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

Joanne, it transpires, is pregnant, and the father of the baby is black. Dave falls in love with Joanne, and then falls in love with the baby (a boy named David). As SparkPlug unfolds, this latter love – paternal love – is the central focus. This is not a play about a man’s relationship with a woman (though some aspects of Dave and Joanne’s relationship are covered), but rather a man’s relationship with his son. Interestingly, the word ‘stepson’ isn’t used at any point in the play – in SparkPlug’s world, you’re either a dad or you’re not.

The story takes place from 1983 to 1993. It charts the first ten years of young David’s life, though told from the perspective of Dave, a white man bringing up a black son (sometimes single-handedly) in Wythenshawe. The play tackles the question of race and skin colour head on, and is unafraid of addressing the more complicated aspects of dual heritage (or mixed race) identities. Racism, in various forms, is represented – from the direct, dehumanising comments of David’s white Irish grandmother to the polite but prurient curiosity of a Butlins holiday rep – but the play avoids reductive statements and commentary. Most strikingly, the play doesn’t hold back from presenting the prejudices of its central character, though that’s not to say that Dave is presented as an unreconstructed racist. This is a slice of life piece – warts and all – albeit one looked at from an unusual and unexpected angle.

This is also a story about masculinity and fatherhood – the script draws specific attention to the difference between being a (biological) father and being a dad. The character of Dave is drawn with real affection and warmth – he is, after all, our protagonist throughout – but the play doesn’t shy away from representing the darker side of masculine identity, with one sequence in particular, towards the end of the play, offering a painful and prolonged exploration of more destructive tendencies. Again, SparkPlug avoids hand-wringing explanations or excuses: Dave’s behaviour is presented as it is, and the audience is left to come to their own conclusions.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

The play’s set, and Judge’s performance style, work well with the lyrical script. The metal frame of a car dominates the stage, and parts of this frame are removed, replaced and repurposed throughout the play to conjure different scenes. Although the car is a car for much of the performance (it is Dave’s Ford Capri, before becoming subsequent cars as time moves on), it is also a stage – on which Judge climbs, stands, curls and clings. Judge is barely still for a moment during the performance. With a near-static set, the audience is reliant on verbal and physical performance to set the scene – there are no set or lighting changes between vignettes, and the story jumps ahead by months or years at a staggering pace. Judge handles this with style, skill and exuberance – and with a little help from some well-selected music that serves as both soundtrack and thematic motifs.

As I’ve said, this is an autobiographically inspired piece, and Judge offers a short introductory ‘scene’ from the perspective of the son (drawing on his own life experiences), before entering the character of white, Capri-driving dad Dave. This introduction serves to set up the story as an affectionate homage to the man who raised David, and encourages the audience to view him with sympathy and humour.

However, I found myself wondering whether the audience’s feelings towards Dave would be different if the part was played by a white actor. Or if the introductory scene and subsequent monologue were performed by different actors. SparkPlug’s harder hitting lines are – at times – almost cushioned by the knowledge that we are watching a son pay tribute to his beloved dad. For instance, Dave’s difficulty at stating outright that he doesn’t like the Afro-Caribbean culture that attracts his sister and her friends, or his resistance to talking about introducing his son to ‘his roots’, raise spectres of entrenched prejudice and a particular view of race and culture. Would we respond differently if these lines were delivered by a white actor? Or if there were more separation between the characters of father and son?

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

I’ve read a couple of interviews with Judge where he’s talked about his intention to create a play that could be performed by other actors. In the current production, it’s hard to separate Judge-the-performer, Judge-the-writer and Judge-the-son – I’d be fascinated to see a future production with different casting. This is not a criticism, though, as Judge’s embodiment of the character of Dave is really skilfully and compellingly done.

Ultimately, SparkPlug is a tribute to, and an exploration of, what it means to be a dad – that’s where its undoubted strengths lie. It’s rare to see a production tackle questions of race, masculinity and violence in such a direct, honest and sympathetic way. Judge’s performance is captivating, carrying the audience through the messy complexities of Dave’s life with energy and compassion, and the show’s final lines are just excellent.

SparkPlug is a play about men, boys, race, sexuality, Manchester and cars. You’re unlikely to see a story quite like it at the theatre – so I’d recommend you check it out if you can.

SparkPlug is on at HOME, Manchester until 23rd February, before touring nationally.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Review: 2084 (Pure Expression)

Friday 8 February 2019
Central Library, Manchester

On Friday, I was at Central Library, watching another play for North Manchester FM. This time, it was 2084 by theatre company Pure Expression. A (slightly) shorter version of this review aired on A Helping of History on Tuesday, but here’s the (slightly) longer version.

2084 is an immersive theatre performance, adapted from George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is being staged at Manchester Central Library by Pure Expression, a theatre company who specialize in adapting classic texts for unique performance environments (such as libraries, galleries and museums). Pure Expression’s last performance in Manchester was an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The current show, 2084, is directed by Rosanna Mallinson, and performed by Aamira Challenger, Robin Hellier and Simon Gleave.

When I first saw the press release, I was very intrigued by the concept of 2084. I was really keen to see how 1984 was adapted for the twenty-first century, and I was fascinated by the idea that this would be an immersive production – the show’s blurb appeared to be hinting that the audience would be made complicit in Big Brother’s hunt for traitors and thoughtcriminals. This is rather a bold direction to choose, situating the audience as new recruits at the Ministry of Truth, rather than sympathetic observers.

2084 begins wonderfully. The audience are divided into groups in the foyer of Central Library and given headsets. Soft music is pumped in through the headphones and then – something happens. I don’t like to give spoilers in reviews, so I won’t tell you exactly what happens – but suffice to say, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when it became clear the show was properly beginning.

This immersive experience has headset-wearing groups led through the grand corridors and spaces of Manchester Central Library. If you’re not fully familiar with the building, this would be rather disorienting (in a good way), but for me it was a great way to experience a building I know very well in a different way and to look at it in a different light. The performance’s opening makes good use of the space, and this was by far my favourite part of the show. (It’s worth noting, though, that this first part of the show involves a bit of running around and cramming into a lift – you have to keep up with the pack if you don’t want to miss anything.)

After this opening, the audience is led into one of Central Library’s performance spaces for the (somewhat) more static body of the play. At this point, we begin to experience something closer to an adaptation of sections of Orwell’s novel. The conceit is that we (the audience, that is) are new recruits at the Ministry of Truth, and that the performance we are watching is our induction – and an introduction to the power and control of the Party.

Guided through this by a Party member – a loose version of O’Brien from Orwell’s novel – we watch the unfolding story of Winston and Julia’s relationship. The production is not entirely static, with the audience being commanded to stand, move, march and salute at various times. Iconic elements of Orwell’s novel are staged – the Two Minutes Hate, Winston and Julia’s tryst, Room 101 – and the audience is invited to look on the proceedings as good Party members. These scenes are fairly faithful to Orwell’s novel, and so if you’ve read the book then you’ll know the basic trajectory the show is following.

However, I found myself frustrated by the selection of scenes being staged. 2084 centres Winston and Julia’s relationship entirely, to the exclusion of other elements of Orwell’s text. There is no mention, for instance, of Goldstein and the Brotherhood, and the Party member leading us through the ‘induction’ isn’t quite O’Brien. During the Two Minutes Hate sequence, our attention is drawn to the behaviour of the actors on the stage, rather than to the audio-visuals accompanying the performance. While the audience is encouraged to stamp and shout along, there’s no real sense of what the sequence signifies, beyond an opportunity for a clandestine encounter.

More frustrating still, in my opinion, is the presentation of Winston and Julia’s relationship as one of real romance, rather than rebellious expediency. The play essentially reimagines Orwell’s novel as a love story, with Big Brother’s greatest cruelty being the separation of two romantic idealists. For this cynical Generation X-er, it all seems a little bit… well… Millennial. Or perhaps I’m just getting more anti-individualist in my old age (how very Big Brother).

As noted above, 2084 flirts with the idea of audience complicity. The show’s conceit is that the audience are potential Ministry of Truth workers – we are being led through an induction designed to encourage condemnation of Winston’s actions. Overall, I felt that this complicity wasn’t fully developed. It was fun (in a creepy way) to see how quickly everyone got to their feet and marched on command, but this didn’t go any further. Perhaps that’s for the best… the Room 101 sequence was (as expected) fairly disturbing, and it was probably best that the audience watches as shocked witnesses rather than an involved mob. Nevertheless, I was somewhat disappointed at the show’s ending: it reveals something of a misconception about how groupthink and complicity work in Orwell’s, and seems to imply that the Party would be looking for unusually cruel individuals, and not an acquiescent herd. Still, it provoked a grim laugh, which was much needed.

I found myself wondering why this production was titled 2084, rather than simply 1984, given that it is an adapted (rather than updated) version of Orwell’s novel. However, while I had some frustrations watching the show – particularly around the rewritten ending – I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot afterwards. It’s really made me think about the representation of individualism and selfish desire in Orwell’s novel and in dystopian fiction generally – and it’s encouraged me to reflect on why, exactly, I am so unsympathetic to a version of the story that has Winston and Julia fall truly in love.

Ultimately, theatre should be thought-provoking – even discomforting – and 2084 is certainly that. It’s also an entertaining and fun way to experience the grandeur of Manchester’s Central Library. Cynical Orwell-purists (like myself) may find it annoyingly selective in its adaptation, but it’s certainly an interesting production and worth experiencing.

2084 is on at Manchester Central Library until 14th February.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Review: The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (1927)

Thursday 7 February 2019
HOME, Manchester

This week, I was at the press night of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at HOME Manchester for North Manchester FM. I played a (slightly) shorter version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the (slightly) longer version of my review…

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a theatre show by 1927, which is on at HOME from the 6th-16th February 2019. I call this a ‘theatre show’, rather than a play, because The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is an innovative – experimental, really – performance that makes interesting use of the theatre stage. Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, and combining music, animation and idiosyncratic performance, the show tells the story of the Bayou Mansions, a cockroach-infested tenement block in the disavowed outskirts of an unnamed big city. The show opens with a twinkling skyline and a voiceover narration introduces us to the city… and then taking us to Bayou Mansions.

In the Bayou, on Red Herring Street, the people are forgotten and downtrodden – and the children have taken to the streets in roaming gangs of disenfranchised criminality. Well-intentioned, missionary-esque Agnes Eaves has read about the problem with the Bayou’s children, and she arrives with her daughter to redeem the feral kids through wholesome PVA glue-based art projects. The Bayou’s forlorn caretaker observes the unfolding carnage and provides a deadpan, melancholy commentary. The children of Red Herring Street – led by wannabe Marxist revolutionary Zelda – are out of control. That is, of course, until the city’s Mayor hatches a plan to subdue them.

I was intrigued by the story blurb in the show’s promotional material, but it didn’t really prepare me for the way in which this story would unfold. The show’s set consists of three blank screens on an empty stage, and the cast consists of just three on-stage performers (plus one voice actor). However, both the screens and the performers are transformed into so much more over the course of the energetic and stylized production. Animations by Paul Barritt are projected onto the screens, transforming them into tenements, junk shops, street scenes and bedrooms. These animations are more than simply a project backdrop. They are filmic illustrations, sometimes serving as a background to the performers, but sometimes a performance in themselves.

The show blends animation, music (and musical numbers), a little bit of physical theatre, carefully choreographed acting and well-placed dark humour to create up a story that is captivating and fun.

The overall style here is graphic-novel-Gothic – for all its desolation, dripping pipes, vermin and vandalism, there’s a quirky and entertaining charm to this dynamic animated setting. And it is certainly dynamic – animated sequences run across the screens, and locations shift with rapidity. Holes in the backdrop open and close to become windows and doors, moving us inside and outside at a staggering pace. At one point, a character dumps a bag into a rubbish chute, and we follow its progress down through the building, past rooms full of leaping children and harried adults, before it reaches the ground floor and falls into a junk shop. This junk shop then springs to life, as a door opens and an actor appears. The sense of movement is fantastic, belying the static nature of the three screens on stage. When one character takes an Alice-in-Wonderland-style tumble, you can almost feel her moving through the air – despite the fact her feet haven’t really left the ground.

For me, the real highlight of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is the performances. Three on-stage actors in stylized white face paint conjure up the motley inhabitants of the Bayou with the aid of costume and props, interacting with the projected sequences so seamlessly as to almost become part of the animation.

Genevieve Dunne switches between the roles of prim idealist Agnes Eaves and adolescent firebrand Zelda, imbuing each role with its own distinct character. Felicity Sparks energetically accompanies the action on the piano, peering out of a window variously in the guise of tenant, predatory lawyer and ice cream seller to sing out a commentary. But it is Rowena Lennon’s versatile performance that really impresses – transforming (almost instantaneously) from Bayou tenant to caretaker to Zelda’s junk shop-proprietor mother, Lennon’s quick changes of costume and location almost defy the senses.

This is a fun show that utilizes highly stylized sets and performances to create an off-beat and evocative world. With its Soviet and Parisian design influences, odd linguistic flourishes and accents, it’s hard to place where the Bayou is meant to be, exactly. This sense of placelessness adds to the graphic novel feel of the piece.

Similarly, the overall message of the piece is never made explicit. And yet, for all its entertaining exuberance, comic-book style and dark comedy, it feels as though it means something. The show was first staged in 2010, and then again in 2011. At this point, some critics read it as a (prescient) commentary on the riots in the UK. Certainly, Zelda’s war cry of ‘We want what you have out there’, and the show’s refrain of ‘Born in the Bayou, die in the Bayou’ seems to hint at some sort of social commentary. But then again, placelessness goes hand-in-hand with timelessness here, and so it’s also possible that this is a parable for many ages.

I’ll say nothing about the show’s ending (no spoilers!), except to say there’s a nice little bit of fourth-wall breaking that lends a comedically Brechtian air to the proceedings. This, coupled with the show’s performing usherettes, is done with a light touch, which avoids undermining what turns out to be a rather thought-provoking finale.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets, and it’s a definite recommendation from me. The show’s aesthetic is very much to my tastes, and the innovative use of projection, animation, music and physical performance makes for an unusual and compelling tale about the lost souls at the edge of the city.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is on at HOME in Manchester until the 16th February, and then the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hanging (Tangled Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 25 July 2018
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

And so, my little wander through this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme comes to an end. After musicals, puppetry, physical theatre, farce, poetry and me crying at a surprising number of shows, the final show I saw at this year’s festival was Hanging (as in the mode of execution, not the Mancunian adjective) by Tangled Theatre.

In many ways, this was a very fitting end to the festival for me. Hanging is the very essence of a fringe show. It’s a new play by an emerging playwright, produced by a brand-new company, featuring actors at the beginning of their careers. I went in not really knowing what to expect, and came out still processing what I’d seen. It’s odd, unsettling, experimental – definitely not ‘mainstream’ – and difficult to categorise in terms of genre and style. And it was performed in the basement of a pub. You can’t really get more characteristically ‘fringe’ than that, can you?

Hanging is written and directed by Marco Biasioli. The press release promised an experience ‘suspended between reality and dream’, in which a man awaits execution for an unnamed crime and is taunted by his executioners. I will admit to having had little more background info on this one, as I interviewed produced Elena Spagnuolo and actor Jasmine Oates for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special back in June. Nevertheless, I still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the play, as Spagnuolo and Oates were intriguingly circumspect in our interview!

The play opens on a bare set, the only decoration being a series of nooses strung from the ceiling. A man sits on a chair on one side of the stage, and on the other, two cloaked figures place a second man (this one with a sack over his head) on another chair. The cloaked figures – listed only as 1st Executioner (played by Oates) and 2nd Executioner (played by Lee Martyn) – begin to chatter about the upcoming execution, with 1st Executioner questioning whether 2nd Executioner remembers everything from his training and asking whether he has appropriately drugged the convict. This descends into a more mundane conversation about 7-a-side football, which 1st Executioner plays in her spare time.

This bizarre and rather unsettling opening is interrupted when the man – named simply as Man (and played by Brandon McCaffrey) – seated on the other side of the stage wakes up. Or is he falling asleep? Is any of what we see next really happening? Or is it all a projection or dream inside the Man’s mind?

What follows is a series of increasingly uncomfortable and abrasive interactions between Man and members of his family. Rory Greenwood (who is also the convict hidden under the sack) plays Man’s father, a bullying and overbearing character who tips into violence rather easily. Agnès Houghton-Boyle is Wife (or, rather, Ex-Wife) who appears to berate Man for his failure in their relationship. Martyn doubles up as Grandad, a seemingly benign figure in Man’s life, who may or may not be suffering from dementia.

Man rails, argues, beseeches and cowers from the circling taunts and aggressions of these family members, while focus switches between him and the unnamed convict at the other side of the stage, and the executioners who are, by turns, gleeful and bureaucratic in the face of their task.

Things escalate – or rather oscillate – as Man’s interactions with his family becoming increasingly surreal and hostile, and the sacked convict waking up to pronounce his final words. The play takes on a rather unhinged tone, almost suggesting Man’s descent into madness or the disjointed irrationality of a dream. Everything becomes exaggerated, with constant threats of violence and rape (Wife is attacked by both Man and 2nd Executioner, who believes she is a porn star), and a surreal exchange in which the sack-headed convict and Man tell the story of a mining town lost in its pursuit of gold.

As I have said, this is a new company and a cast of actors at the beginning of their careers. In places, performances are a little laboured and some dialogue is a bit stilted. The play’s style is heightened and surreal, so I wasn’t expecting completely naturalistic dialogue; however, some lines are slightly awkward and unidiomatic (e.g. ‘You’ve got chances’, instead of ‘You’re in with a chance’), which is a little jarring.

These criticisms are really only minor teething problems though. Overall, Hanging was compelling, strange and ambitious (and, as I said, that’s what I like to see at a fringe festival).

Greenwoods performance as Father is great, and he convinces as a man (literally) old enough to be Man’s father – even though there appears to be little age difference between Greenwood and McCaffrey. I was also quite taken by Greenwood’s performance as the unnamed convict – entirely delivered from underneath that sack. Had I not known differently, I would have assumed these parts were played by very different actors (and the incongruous gravitas that Greenwood infuses into a peculiar monologue about carbonara was undoubtedly one of my favourite bits of the play).

Martyn also does an excellent job of doubling up, with his 2nd Executioner and Grandad appearing substantially different, despite only minor costume changes. The latter character is particularly well done, with Martyn’s bent-double old man exuding an interesting mixture of confusion and irritation that is as discomforting as it is sympathetic.

As a final comment, I will say that the choice of venue was superb. I’ve never actually been to The Whiskey Jar before, but their basement performance space was a great choice for this play. While I’m sure the bar upstairs is lovely, the space downstairs has the feel of a horror film set – or at least it does for this production (stringing it with nooses obviously helps) – and this adds a general feeling of bleak dilapidation to the bizarre visions that unfold.

Overall, Hanging is a strong debut from Tangled Theatre. Unsettling – disturbing, in places – thought-provoking and ambiguous, this piece made for a great finale to the Fringe for me. And I look forward to seeing what Tangled Theatre do next.

If you’d like to see my other reviews of productions at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, click here to see all my posts.

Review: The Fishermen (New Perspectives)

Tuesday 24 July 2018
HOME, Manchester

I know I’m in the middle of reviewing GM Fringe productions at the moment, so it’s a bit weird to break off to review a piece of new theatre that, although it was staged in Manchester during the month of the Fringe, isn’t part of the GM Fringe. To add to the confusion, the play is travelling up for the Edinburgh Fringe in August (so it’s ‘fringe’ theatre in Edinburgh, but ‘mainstream’ theatre in Manchester – make of that what you will!).

Anyway… I attended the press night of The Fishermen, an adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s award-winning novel, at HOME. Set in 1990s Nigeria, Obioma’s novel tells the story of the Agwu brothers (and narrated by Benjamin Agwu), whose lives are torn apart by a prophecy. The New Perspectives production has been adapted from the novel by Gbolahan Obisesan, and is reimagined as an intense and dynamic two-hander, told by, and from the perspectives of, brothers Benjamin and Obembe.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
The play’s set (by designer Amelia Jane Hankin) is simple but incredibly effective. A curved line of vertical metal poles cuts the stage into two halves. Behind the poles sits Benjamin (played by Michael Ajao), and in front we see Obembe (Valentine Olukoga). Before any introduction to the characters or their story, this visual device instantly evokes the sense of division and distance that will be explored throughout the play. Lighting (by Amy Mae) and sound design (by Adam McCready) add to this effect, creating an eerie, tense and compelling opening scene – beginning to tell the story before the actors have even moved a muscle.

Obembe has returned home to southern Nigeria after eight years’ absence. While the reason behind his absence is only revealed gradually, it is clear that there is some estrangement between Obembe and his family. Ajao’s Ben exudes a tangible sense of resentment in the opening exchange between the brothers, which Olukoga counters by giving his Obembe a forced joviality that hints at underlying guilt.

As the brothers reluctantly face up to their reunion, they begin to reminisce about the events that led to their separation. And it’s at this point that the cleverness of Obisesan’s adaptation is revealed.

Obioma’s novel is a family saga, narrated with a reasonably linear chronology by Benjamin. In order to ‘distil’ the story for the stage, Obisesan has reimagined this as Benjamin and Obembe recollecting events years after the fact. Ben and Obembe narrate the events of their childhood, ‘playing’ the various characters who appear. The story is presented as a series of fragmented vignettes – some comical, some serious – but always with the ominous sense that something is going to go horribly wrong.

And so the story unfolds: Despite their father’s aspirations, the Agwu brothers decide that they will become fishermen. Led by oldest brother Ikenna, they decide to fish in the forbidden Omi-Alu river (their mother has ruled this strictly off limits – bad things happen here). And it’s all fun and games until local madman Abulu prophecies that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman, and an angry old woman grasses the boys up to their mum. Family tensions and the desire for revenge spiral out of control, as Benjamin and Obembe bring the story to its shocking and violent climax.

Ajao and Olukoga’s performances were near-flawless. The two embody a range of characters with such skill that it genuinely feels at points as though there is a cast of more than two. (I say ‘near-flawless’ as there were just two times when I think the transition from one character to the next was not quite right, and an actor delivered a line in the wrong character’s voice.) From troubled Ikenna, to his swaggering slightly-younger brother Boja, to the frankly chilling appearance of Abulu, each of the characters ‘appeared’ on stage distinct and embodied.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
I’ve already mentioned the staging, but as the story unfolds the power of this production’s deceptively simple design is revealed. Just as the two bodies on stage transform into a larger cast, the set design becomes a range of locations. Those metal poles are river reeds one minute – which the boys run around in childhood glee – then are pulled up by the actors to become fishing rods, then form walls, marking out rooms in a house, then become the tool of the ultimate act of vengeful destruction that seals Ben and Obembe’s fates.

Added to this, lighting and sound are used to excellent effect. With no backdrops or scenery to aid them, Mae and Macready use their respective techniques to conjure a river, a house, a small town with impressive style and effectiveness. Jack McNamara’s skilful direction transforms the small raised stage of HOME’s intimate Theatre 2 into a grand and near-unlimited landscape.

Reviews of Obioma’s novel almost inevitably included comparisons to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – indeed, the book itself includes a reference to Achebe’s work. Obisesan’s adaptation retains a little nod to the earlier novel (one of the boys’ ideas for enacting revenge is called the ‘Okonkwo plan’), but the comparison isn’t laboured. Instead, this adaptation allows space for an exploration of the other influences and echoes in Obioma’s work, in particular the biblical story of Cain and Abel, and classical tragedy.

By focusing so keenly on the interaction between two estranged brothers – who, in turn, evoke and enact a past antagonism between their two older brothers – the Cain-and-Abel element is foregrounded. The refiguring of the play as a retrospective narration of events that have already occurred lends the story the fatalism and inevitability of high tragedy.

For all this, though, there is a brutality and a coldness to The Fishermen that is really quite arresting. While it is easy to fall into sympathising with Ben and Obembe – mostly because of nuanced and emotive performances by Ajao and Olukoga – they (and Ikenna and Boja) aren’t actually very nice kids. Remove the highbrow symbolism, biblical and classical allusions, and metaphors for national identity, and what you have left is four arrogant and aggressive young men who ignore their parents and victimise people beneath them on the social hierarchy (cutting the head off a neighbour’s chicken, attacking Abulu). This is also a very male story; the only women in The Fishermen are the ignored mother (who later becomes a figure of abject grief and semi-madness), the beleaguered neighbour who loses a chicken, and the mentioned-but-not-seen mutilated corpse found in the Omi-Alu. Viewed in this way, the Agwu brothers emerge as callous, destructive and lacking in empathy.

The brothers’ contradictory status as aggressive, victimising men who are simultaneously victims of a society that doesn’t allow for masculinity that isn’t aggressive and victimising undoubtedly returns us to comparisons with Things Fall Apart. But I was particularly struck by the way that the New Perspectives production of The Fishermen dealt with this contradiction and, in fact, put it at the heart of the play’s distinctive storytelling style.

Throughout the play, we are led to see the ‘characters’ of the boys’ mother, the local madmen, Ikenna and Boja, their overbearing father, all appearing as though ‘in the flesh’. But, really, as we can see, there is no one there. There is nothing but Ben and Obembe, alone and estranged on a near empty stage. Things fell apart long before the play even began, and the emotional journey we travelled was, in the end, a memory tale told by two haunted young men.

The Fishermen is an accomplished, ambitious and intelligent piece of theatre – a strong recommendation from me. It’s finished its Manchester run now, but it will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. And it’s well worth going to see.

Review: lionman (Dapertutto Theatre, GM Fringe)

Sunday 22 July 2018
Footlights House, Media City

Just two more Greater Manchester Fringe shows left for me this year – which is a shame, as I’ve really been enjoying my little wander through this year’s programme. The penultimate show on my schedule was lionman, a new piece of physical theatre devised by Dapertutto Theatre.

lionman’s press release promised a ‘surreal’ and ‘dystopian’ world, and a performance that would ‘explore masculinity’ and ‘what it means to be a man’. To greater or lesser extent, the production did do all of these things – though not necessarily in the way I’d expected.

The play begins with a montage of TV and film clips playing on an old TV set in a sparsely furnished bedroom. These were pretty varied – I caught glimpses of Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger (I think), but also clips of sitcoms like Frasier. All this is interrupted by the arrival of a masked (well, more faceless) figure on stage, who silently produces a small plastic lion, holds it aloft, and then hides it in the drawer of a filing cabinet.

So the ‘surreal’ box is ticked pretty quickly. What about the dystopia?

As the masked figure leaves, the audience becomes aware of a mound of covers on the small fold-out bed in the room. But then the covers move, and we realize that there’s actually someone in there. This is our introduction – and a very impressive introduction – to the physical theatre style of the show. More than that, it introduces the company’s grounding in the aesthetics of theatrical biomechanics (which is highlighted on their website). As an actor’s body began to emerge from a space where there had seemingly been no body before, it was clear that this piece would be offering something very interesting.

The body that appears is that of Leonard (played by Tom Hardman), a lonely and struggling writer who lives alone in the aforementioned sparse bedroom. Leonard is attempting to write a significant piece of fiction, though his bread-and-butter work is that of writing verses for greetings cards. After a physical sequence in which Hardman dresses and makes an attempt at breakfast, Leonard finally sits at a typewriter to pen his masterwork – but, of course, he is interrupted in this task by a number of incidents.

The design and aesthetics of the set – and of Leonard’s appearance – certainly conjure up dystopian precursors. Leonard listens in to his neighbours’ conversations by means of a large silver duct, and this, along with the vaguely bureaucratic feel to his typewriter and small desk, is a nod to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and possibly also to some of Philip K. Dick’s short stories. There’s also a noir-ish feel to the production design, which heightens this vaguely dystopian aesthetic.

However, I’m not fully convinced that this is a dystopian world. The things that disturb Leonard’s work are all rather mundane and… well… topian. A neighbour plays loud music, causing Leonard to lose his patience and bang on the floor. Another neighbour – the object of Leonard’s unrequired desires – gets into an argument with someone and is reduced to tears. The landlady comes by with a demand for rent and the threat of severe consequences.

While none of these incidents really suggest a dystopian society, the way in which they are presented points to a certain absurdist narrative that enhances – and is enhanced by – the performance style and composition. For example, Leonard’s complaint about his neighbour’s music leads to a confrontation when the man angrily arrives at Leonard’s door. This confrontation becomes a stylised and carefully choreographed fight sequence between Hardman’s Leonard and the unnamed neighbour (played, like every other figure we see on stage, by Cameron Jones). When the fight is over, the actors ‘rewind’ the action (an impressive piece of performance in itself), so that Leonard can rerun the situation to reach a better outcome.

While Hardman is the person we see on stage continuously, Jones appears and disappears in numerous guises, sometimes seeming to change almost instantaneously from one ‘character’ to another. (I’ve put ‘character’ in inverted commas, because this doesn’t really do justice to Jones’s appearances – while he sometimes embodies a character in the more traditional sense, like the angry neighbour, many of his appearances involve manipulation of props to create puppet-like creations, like the fantasy version of Leonard’s female neighbour that is conjured on stage through the movement of a raincoat.) Both actors reveal incredible performance skills, with no marks or beats missed and no actions mistimed.

The technical design of the show is also very accomplished. Both the visual design and lighting (by Leon Hardman) and the sound design (by Kris W. Laudrum) are stylishly effective. The climactic sequence that follows Leonard’s discovery of what has been hidden in his filing cabinet is really stunning, with all elements (physical performance, staging, sound and lighting) coming together to create a really extraordinary set-piece.

That said, there are moments in the play where this performance style and technique threaten to overwhelm. I am not a fan of slapstick – not even exquisitely choreographed slapstick – and so Leonard’s comedic mishaps with a coat stand as he tried to get dressed were a little grating for me. While not as overtly comedic, the fight sequence between Leonard and his neighbour is perhaps also a bit overdone. It’s certainly accomplished, but it seems to serve more to showcase performance technique than offer any real narrative development.

Ultimately, lionman offers an unusual, absurd and surreal take on the story of a man’s thwarted ambitions and desires. Dystopian in aesthetic and atmosphere, if not in social or political terms, this is a stylish and arresting piece of theatre. I’m not sure it really explores what it means ‘to be a man’, but it’s certainly a visually compelling and flawlessly performed representation of one particular man.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: Once a Year on Blackpool Sands (Skint Productions, GM Fringe)

Friday 20 July 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Another (slightly delayed) Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… This time it’s Skint ProductionsOnce a Year on Blackpool Sands.

Written by Karlton Parris, and inspired by true story told to Parris thirty years ago in Mykonos, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is set in 1953, just after the Coronation. Eddy and Tommy are Yorkshire miners and secret lovers, who travel to Blackpool for their Wakes holidays. I must admit I was really intrigued to see this one, as the play is due to travel to New York for an Off-Broadway run in September, and a film version is also in pre-production. This is pretty big stuff for a Fringe show, so I was excited to see what the play has to offer.

The play begins with Eddy (played by Kyle Brookes) and Tommy (Macaulay Cooper) arriving in the seaside town. Eddy has decided that they won’t be staying at the same hotel as the rest of their party, and has instead booked them into Withering-Heights-on-Sea, a down-at-heel and almost empty guest house where they might be able to get some privacy.

Withering-Heights-on-Sea is run by a rather odd woman named Gladys (Wendy Laurence James), who is at turns snobbish, social climbing, overly solicitous, inappropriate, and impatient. Gladys is assisted (in a way) by her daughter Maureen (Mollie Jones) and her mother, former communist showgirl ‘Red’ Ethel (Linda Clark). The trio of women are loud, brash and inquisitive – suggesting that Tommy and Eddy may not get the privacy they want and need.

The final character is Mr Elbridge, the only guest in the B and B. Mr Elbridge is a transvestite – to use the 1950s terminology generally employed by the play – and is trying to find the courage to walk from the North Pier to the South as a woman (which the play emphasizes as an important rite of passage).

As the characters interact, interrupt and reveal their stories to one another (and to the audience), we come to see Withering-Heights-on-Sea as a refuge from the outside world, an escape from the judgments of a society that not only doesn’t accept trans identities, but criminalizes homosexual behaviour. Within the walls of the guest house, a range of identities are free to express themselves without fear of repercussions.

The central storyline is that of Eddy and Tommy. Brookes and Cooper play their parts excellently. There’s real chemistry between the two, but they also present the complexities and conflicts of the relationship. Eddy is the more forthright of the two, keen to abandon the constraints of their lives and flee to America. Sporting a noticeable shiner throughout the play – the origin of which is only revealed part way through the second act – Eddy is tense, unsettled and angry. But he is also fragile, and Brookes handles the gradual revelation of everything that has brought Eddy to this point with sympathy and credibility. Tommy is the more composed character – reluctant to do anything to rock the boat and keen to return home to their ‘normal’ lives after a brief escape in Blackpool. But there’s more going on under the surface, of course, and Cooper gives an often understated performance that is, again, very sympathetic.

While Eddy and Tommy’s relationship is the central story, the women of Withering-Heights-on-Sea have their own series of tales to tell. Red Ethel is foul-mouthed, disabled by a stroke, and antagonistic towards her daughter, but her brash mix of put-downs and nostalgia (for the days when she was the girl-about-town in Moscow) eventually gives way to a poignant description of her own tragic love life. Ethel’s granddaughter Maureen – constantly described as useless and ‘simple’ by her mother – is a girl desperate to shake off the 1950s and enjoy sex without fear of moral condemnation. But it is Gladys who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the women. A bag of complete contradictions, Gladys doesn’t seem to know what she wants to be. On the one hand, she is making a rather pathetic attempt at social climbing – serving ‘scooones’ and boasting about her connection to the Deputy Mayor – on the other, she is a former chorus girl who understands and respects the secrets her visitors harbour.

The play presents these intertwined stories through a series of scenes in the various bedrooms of the guest house. At times, these scenes risk feeling a little static – characters sit together in rooms and tell their stories, often in rather lengthy speeches, and the only movement comes from brief interactions with props and costume. However, on the whole, this works, as the play really is about the stories (or secrets) people hold inside themselves, and so it seems fitting that these are revealed through dialogue rather than action. I will be interested to see how this is handled in the film adaptation, however, as I suspect more of these stories will be ‘seen’ rather than ‘told’.

Parris’s script moves us from heartbreak to fear to bawdy seaside humour. On the whole, the men get the hard-hitting anger and pain, while the humour falls to the women (with the notable and unexpected exception of Ethel’s poignant speech about a lover in Russia). The humour is very well done. Although there is plenty of dirty jokes and innuendo (as is probably expected of the Blackpool setting), there is also some very witty commentary on sexuality and identity – Maureen’s black pudding/pasty analogy was a highlight for me. Nevertheless, as I say, the women do have pains of their own. Clark and Laurence James do a great job of suggesting the internal conflicts that lurk under the comic façade.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is certainly the longest play I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. If I have a criticism, it’s that the play occasionally felt a bit too long. In places, there was tendency to over-explanation – things that had already been conveyed through the performances were stated explicitly in the dialogue, and it may have been better to trust in the subtext more. That said, there’s a lot of story here, and a clear desire to do that story justice.

The play’s climax is moving and well-staged. The use of a projector – used elsewhere in the play to cast backdrops and scenery – to cast images highlighting the significance of the finale was poignant and moving. And yes – this is another GM Fringe production that made me cry.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is a big show – bigger than I was expecting, to be honest. There’s a lot of story, powerful performances, and emotive writing. I definitely enjoyed the stage version, and will be looking forward to seeing the film version when it’s released.