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

Saturday, 8 August 2020

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

Online
HOME, Manchester


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Online
JustOut Theatre

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Review: Hunting Swans and Laugh Track (JustOut Theatre)

Online
JustOut Theatre

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


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

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

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

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

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

First: Hunting Swans


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Review: A Small Gathering (Ad Infinitum)

Online
HOME, Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Review: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (Told by an Idiot)

Tuesday 4th February 2020
HOME, Manchester

I was at HOME, Manchester on Tuesday for the press night of The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. As Hannah’s Bookshelf is currently on hiatus due to North Manchester FM moving studios, I won’t be doing a radio review, but here’s the blog review…

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a production by Told by an Idiot, currently touring the UK and Luxembourg. It’s on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February.


Written and directed by Paul Hunter, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is – characteristically for Told by an Idiot – a riff on an idea, a ‘what if’ imagining provoked by a single, curious occurrence. In 1910 Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe sailed to New York to tour. Among the performers in the troupe were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (who was Chaplin’s understudy). Promising to play ‘fast and loose with the facts’, Told by an Idiot have created an energetic, exuberant, occasionally whimsical and entirely dialogue-free conception of what the boat voyage to America might have looked like. It is, as they say, an ‘unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists’.

On a multi-level – and deceptively flexible – set designed by Ioana Curelea, Charlie (played by Amalia Vitale), Stan (Jerone Marsh-Reid) and Fred Karno (Nick Haverson) arrive to board a boat to New York. The ‘tribute’ element of the performance begins almost immediately, with silent cinema-style intertitles projected onto the stage, and a slapstick sequence involving suitcases of variable weights nostalgically evoking music hall comedy. Vitale deftly swings a case around to show the chalked legend ‘Charles Chaplin, esq.’, though her physical performance and appearance probably makes this identification somewhat redundant.

The ‘unreliable’ element of the performance comes shortly afterwards, as the storytelling quickly gives way to flights of fancy. The caption ‘Charlie bids a fond farewell to England’ signals a flashback sequence (‘A Victorian Childhood’) conjuring vignettes of Chaplin’s difficult early years, showing us a drunken father (a wonderfully funny turn by Haverson), a tragic mother (Hannah Chaplin is played by Sara Alexander), and unsympathetic landlord and doctor (both played by Marsh-Reid). Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s biography will recognize moments of accuracy in this flashback, but these are collapsed and truncated for storytelling purposes.


Less accurate (one assumes) is the arrival on stage of Stan Laurel – or ‘Stanley Jefferson, esq.’, as his suitcase proclaims – who appears to have missed the embarkation and swam through the sea to catch up with the boat. Wearing goggles and a snorkel, and plucking starfish out of his pockets, Stan arrives on stage all wide-eyed happiness, but is more like a caricature from a comedy film than a character on stage.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the production, which jumps between set-pieces set on board the ship, flashbacks to Chaplin’s early life and flashforwards to a few key moments in Laurel’s later career. With impressive energy and a rather anarchic disregard for chronology, reality and logic, this is a performance that aims to capture the spirit and fantasy of its two eponymous comedy icons, rather than documenting the ‘facts’ of their relationships and careers. Thus, Laurel’s meeting with Hardy is reimagined as something like a scene from one of their films, and Chaplin’s later role as auteur-director is evoked (with the use of a gold megaphone) in the midst of a knockabout routine in which the two men attempt to conceal money stolen from Karno. Sequences merge into each other – props moved in a flashforward to the 1970s remain in the wrong place when we return to 1910 – and some bits of the story occur only in the imagination of the characters. There’s also unexpected audience participation, and the fourth wall is broken with ease and regularity.


It feels almost inappropriate to refer to ‘storytelling’ here, as the production conjures up something that defies straightforward ideas of ‘story’ and ‘narrative’. At the heart of this is Vitale’s performance as Chaplin. Her performance is more than simply mimicry – though her replication of Chaplin’s trademark mannerisms and walk is excellent – but rather a revealing embodiment of character. Her Chaplin is impatient and driven, with moments of arrogance (to the point of near megalomania at one point), and yet is utterly charming and touched with a little melancholy (on remembering Hannah Chaplin’s decline) and a wistful romanticism (when an audience member is brought on stage to ‘swim’ with Charlie). It’s a really incredible performance, and I could have happily watched Vitale-as-Chaplin for hours.

Sadly, I’m not sure the treatment of Stan Laurel was quite equal. This is very much a Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin, with Stan Laurel as sidekick. Marsh-Reid reveals a real (and impressive) talent for physical comedy, but his performance always feels at one remove from Stan Laurel. His mimicry of Laurel’s mannerisms isn’t as accurate as Vitale’s, and the gentle naivety and innocence with which he imbues his character turns him into a foil for Chaplin (and for Oliver Hardy), rather than a more rounded character. It’s a strange contrast – Vitale plays a version of Chaplin very much informed by his off-screen persona, while Marsh-Reid plays Laurel as though he were a character in a Laurel and Hardy film. Nevertheless, Marsh-Reid’s performance is enjoyable and engaging, and there’s a (very) weird sort of chemistry between the two main characters that culminates in a clog dance that is really rather difficult to describe!


Vitale and Marsh-Reid are joined on stage by Nick Haverson, who plays a number of roles including Fred Karno and (after an audience-pleaser of a transformation scene) Oliver Hardy. Haverson is beautifully versatile in his performances, and I particularly enjoyed his turn as Chaplin’s father. The other performer is Sara Alexander, who not only performs as Chaplin’s mother, but accompanies (almost) all the action on a piano at the edge of the stage, playing an original score by Zoe Rahman. It is very hard to criticize anything about the performances in this production, as I was blown away by the energy and execution – effected by Hunter’s direction. The actors didn’t miss a single mark – and given the nature of the set design and the physicality of their performances, we would have known about it if they had!


Overall, this is indeed a strange tale, signifying... something. It certainly isn’t factual or believable or logical, but it has a curious truth to it that’s really compelling. For me, the highlight was Vitale’s mesmerizing performance as Chaplin, but the whole production exudes a spirited joy that is an awful lot of fun to watch. I’d recommend seeing this one if you can.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February. It’s is currently touring the UK and Luxembourg.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Phosphoros Theatre)

Friday 4th October 2019
HOME, Manchester (Orbit Festival)

This year’s Orbit Festival at HOME, Manchester runs from Wednesday 18th September to Saturday 5th October. The festival programme for 2019 seeks to ‘conquer the divide’, by bringing together artists and theatre-makers who explore prevailing societal divides and the ways these might be overcome. On Friday 4th October, I attended the press night of Pizza Shop Heroes by Phosphoros Theatre, which was on the Orbit festival programme this year. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…


Pizza Shop Heroes is an innovative piece of applied theatre based on the lived experiences of the performers, which was developed through a research process and development workshops. The experiences narrated by workshop participants (the performers of the show) were worked into a theatre script by Dawn Harrison (who also directs) with artistic direction from Kate Duffy.

The performers are Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, all of whom came to the UK between 2013-15 as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. Phosphoros Theatre are committed to making work that offers an alternative perspective on the refugee experience, using the lived experiences of the company to inform their performances.

Pizza Shop Heroes begins in – unsurprisingly – a pizza shop. The four young men are working, taking calls and dealing with awkward customers. But this setting is only a very small part of the story and characterization here. The eponymous pizza shop is immediately brought to life with verge, energy and humour, but it is really a staging-post, a device to bring the four men (and their stories) together.

The performance starts with a set of rules – beginning with the usual warnings to switch off mobile phones and not talk during the performance. However, the rules develop into more of a comment on the type of storytelling we’re going to be watching. We’re encouraged not only to listen, but think about how we’re listening. We’re told to avoid earnest chin-in-hand gestures, for instance (something which caused a couple of audience members to shift slightly in their seats). The instructions develop further, laying out directives on how we should receive the stories we hear. Inconsistencies should not be taken as indications of falsehood, and we have no right to judge the credibility of the storytellers. This performance builds into a clear reminder that the young men on stage have told their stories numerous times before, to various officials (border guards, police, social workers, education officers) who have made assumptions and judgements about veracity based on the manner of telling, and to people offering assistance who have attempted to frame and shape the narrative into a more ‘acceptable’ form. This time, the men’s stories will be told how they want to tell them.

Tewodros (Teddy), Goitom, Emirjon and Syed travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. As the theatre piece unfolds, snippets and glimpses of their childhood experiences and the circumstances that led to their journey emerge. These are presented differently and in a somewhat fragmentary way – Emirjon remembers rabbit hunting in Albania, Goitom explains the fear of being forced into the army as a child – but the main focus on the piece is on the journeys the four took to escape conflict.

One of the really powerful things about Pizza Shop Heroes is the way the piece plays with difference and similarity. At times, each of the young men reveals something specific and unique about his experience or the circumstances from which he escaped, giving voice to the individuality of each refugee’s story. However, the piece brings these stories together into ensemble performances that merge the individual tales into a collective experience, stressing the echoes and parallels in the boys’ tales. Some elements of the story – the fear on arriving in an alien country, for example – transcend the particulars of individual lived experiences. Nevertheless, Pizza Shop Heroes is careful not to fall into universalizing – and when the boundaries become a little too blurred, there is some light-touch humour to reshape it (at one point, Goitom pauses mid-act and asks ‘Wait, whose memory is this?’)

Though the show addresses some very serious subject matter – from war and terrorism to grief, regret and fear – it is far from grim. The humour in Pizza Shop Heroes is very well-handled, as it punctuates the stories without undermining or trivializing them. There is a powerful humanizing effect in the use of wry jokes about cultural misunderstandings – one bit in particular, where Syed recounts the response he got to giving a teacher a bottle of Head and Shoulders as an Eid gift, brings the audience and performer together in a subtle but companionable appreciation of the dramatic irony.

The only criticism I have is that I’m not convinced by Kate Duffy’s on-stage facilitation and artistic direction. Sitting on the side-lines, encouraging the men to translate into English lines spoken in their first languages (which they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t), or taking on the part of one of the characters in a particular part of the story (like Emirjan’s uncle at the beginning of the rabbit-hunting memory), Duffy’s role feels a little too close to that of a workshop facilitator, which sometimes dilutes the immediacy of the young men’s narration, especially when she brings in her own personal experiences of working with Asylum Seeking Children.

Nevertheless, the narratives of Pizza Shop Heroes very much achieve Phosphoros Theatre’s stated aim of offering an ‘alternative perspective’. As well as offering memories of the past and commentary on the present, the piece moves towards a moving and compelling performance about the (potential) future, as the young men imagine fatherhood and the ways their own stories will shape the lives and ambitions of their children – including their desire to prevent their children being forced into adulthood before they’re ready. Humorous, emotive and ultimately filled with hope, the imagined future offers a strong and thought-provoking climax to the young men’s narratives.

Overall, Pizza Shop Heroes is a powerful, dynamic and highly engaging piece of theatre. I genuinely found myself disappointed when it came to an end, as it is more than successful in its aim of getting audiences to sit and listen to the stories the young men have chosen to tell. I would happily have listened to a lot more from them. Phosphoros Theatre are currently touring the piece around the UK, and if you have chance to catch one of the performances I’d definitely recommend you take it.

Pizza Shop Heroes is on at HOME, Manchester on the 4th-5th October, as part of the Orbit Festival, and then at other UK venues until December. To see more about the Orbit Festival 2019 programme, please visit the HOME website.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: The Thunder Girls (Blake and Squire)

Thursday 26th September 2019
The Lowry, Salford

On Thursday 26th September, I was at The Lowry in Salford for the press night of Blake and Squire’s The Thunder Girls on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on the station on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Written by Melanie Blake and directed by Joyce Branagh, The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry from 24th-28th September. I was at the press night on Thursday 26th September, which saw a rather enthusiastic crowd attend. Unusually – almost unheard of – for a debut play, The Thunder Girls sold out its entire run at The Lowry, and the press night was certainly full to capacity.

Based on Blake’s novel of the same name – which she adapted for the stage with Fiona Looney – The Thunder Girls tells the story of an 80s girl band who are brought back together 30 years after an acrimonious split. The play is (almost) entirely carried by the four actors playing the members of the band, with just one other character ‘appearing’ through phone calls made on speakerphone. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the play selling out its run was the cast – and more on that anon – but (and this was certainly true on press night), there was also a great deal of curiosity as to how Blake’s script would be informed by its writer’s experience of working in the music biz – and of orchestrating reunion gigs for 80s bands.

The play is billed as being about the ‘Reunion Dinner from Hell’. While this is certainly a fair description of Blake’s novel, it doesn’t quite seem accurate for the play. The play takes in the lush – if somewhat brash – mansion (created with some excellent attention to detail in Richard Foxton’s set design) belonging to Chrissie, the Thunder Girl who split the band all those years before, took the copyright and royalties and forged a successful solo career to the disgust of her former bandmates. Chrissie and the band’s former manager Rick have summoned Roxanne, Anita and Carly to the house – but there doesn’t appear to be any dinner on offer! Instead, the women work through their festering resentments with a hefty side order of Prosecco, which they down liberally throughout the show.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The first to arrive at the house – and the first person we see on stage – is Carly, played by Sandra Marvin. Carly was the youngest member of the Thunder Girls, but she was the songwriter behind their greatest hits, which she has been prevented from playing solo due to legal wranglings over rights with Chrissie. Carly is followed by Roxanne, played by Beverly Callard, who has fallen on harder times since the band split. Roxie is a heavy-drinking single mum, who is trying to make ends meet running a clothes shop. After some back-and-forth between Carly and Roxie, Chrissie (played by Carol Harrison) makes her entrance – but it’s not until the end of the first act that we meet the fourth Thunder Girl, Anita (played by Coleen Nolan), who has been missing since a disastrous Eurovision performance.

The Thunder Girls is really very well-cast. Blake has been hands-on with most aspects of the production, and she cast the show herself (with Angela Squire). There are some well-judged decisions made. Callard, Harrison and Marvin are all well-known from soap operas, meaning that they are well able to handle the high-drama, histrionics and stinging dialogue. (And this is the only play I’ve seen this year that’s listed a ‘Cat Fight Director’ (Kaitlin Howard) in its programme!) The casting of Nolan as Anita adds a nice extra layer of self-referential humour, as not only was Nolan (of course) in a famous 80s girl band, but it was Blake herself who brought about the band’s reunion tour in the 2000s. The final performer is Gary Webster, who is voice of Rick, playing Charlie to the Thunder Girls’ Angels but also, perhaps, one of the architects of their various misfortunes.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Of the performances, Callard and Nolan were real standouts for me. Callard is really very funny as Roxie – she gets some fantastic lines, which are delivered with lovely northern relish – but she also imbues the character with a sweet vulnerability full of regrets and sadness. Nolan is great as Anita, revealing a strong sense of comic timing that hits the right notes. Marvin and Harrison are also very watchable, though they don’t quite get the opportunity to stretch their range. Marvin’s Carly is the band member who seems to be most content, but the points at which her smiley optimism cracks offer the more interesting performance. She also gets to deliver a hilarious retort to being asked if she’s had a boob job (‘Nah. It’s cake.’) Harrison begins the play as an unrepentant villain, but the second act introduces some more compassionate interactions with Roxie to soften her character.

That said, there are few surprises in characterization here – in many ways, the appeal of The Thunder Girls lies in familiarity, rather than shock, and so the character arcs play out pretty much as we might expect. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. Even though I had a pretty good idea from the start where things were going, I still found myself genuinely caring about the four women and their friendship. Admittedly, there were a couple of fluffed lines here and there, but the cast made up for this with some well-judged ad libs at other points. At one point, a line about Steps provoked a rather dramatic reaction (and some visible corpsing from the cast), due Claire Richards being in the audience. To be honest, I think this was completely forgivable though, as the audience felt like we were all in on the joke.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The Thunder Girls isn’t a musical, but it does include some music (written by Blake, with Lee Monteverde and Jack Wheeler). Each of the characters performs a solo song and, as you may well expect, there is a group number at the end. The solo numbers did feel a little bit superfluous, as they mostly just reiterated aspects of plot and character from the dialogue. The final number was a lot of fun, and certainly got the audience to their feet. However, the Thunder Girls’ big number (supposedly their signature tune) is a little anachronistic. Musically, it feels far more 1990s than 1980s, and I struggled to imagine it being a hit thirty years ago.

But overall, The Thunder Girls is a very enjoyable show, with some excellent (and very funny) dialogue, and a rare opportunity to watch older female characters taking centre-stage and talking about age, life experience and regrets in an engaging, humorous and honest way (except for Chrissie, who isn’t admitting her real age). If the show does tour, I can see it being a great success, and it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry, Salford on 24th-28th September.

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.

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 na├»ve, 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.