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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 27th July 2019
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 July 2019

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

Thursday 25th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

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

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

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

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

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

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

Drowning in Silence was on at the Salford Arts Theatre on 24th-26th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of shows on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Friday, 26 July 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, 22 July 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Review: Holy Land (Elegy Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 18th July 2019
The Empty Space (formerly Footlights House)

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from 1st-31st July. I’m continuing my reviews of a selection of this year’s festival programme on this blog and on North Manchester FM. The next play I saw was Holy Land by Elegy Theatre, which was on at The Empty Space (formerly Footlights House) in Salford, on Thursday 18th July. You can hear my radio review of this play on today’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. Here’s the blog version of the review…


Holy Land is written by Matthew Gouldesbrough and directed by Patrick Medway, and it stars Gouldesbrough, Rick Romero and Hannah Morrison. The show’s blurb promises a story about ‘the dark side of the internet’ – but, to be honest, Holy Land is about something even darker than the dark web: humanity.

I’ll say up front that this is the most disturbing show I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe so far. Don’t get me wrong, it was the promise of darkness that attracted me in the first place (which says a lot about my tastes, really!), but Holy Land went to places that even I hadn’t anticipated.

The play presents three separate stories, each told through a monologue by one of the characters. None of the stories are linear in chronology and, in fact, they don’t initially appear to be stories at all. The set is simply a set of screens in the middle of the stage, which periodically interrupt the action with screeches, static and bursts of montages about internet danger, social media and morality. The physical separation of the performers on stage – they often stand in opposing corners of the performance space, or cross over past one another without making contact – and the sparseness of the set serve to make the stage area seem worryingly large. I’ve been to shows at Footlights House (now The Empty Space) before, but I don’t remember it seeming so disconcertingly big.

Gouldesbrough plays Tim, who introduces us to Holy Land – a website he runs that contains the ‘worst’ videos on the internet. Despite numerous references to the dark web during the play, the unsettling thing about Holy Land is that it’s a site on the surface web. Easily accessible and – as Tim assures us – completely legal.

Tim’s introduction to the website is intercut with the introduction to Kate, played by Morrison, a young woman who gabbles cheerfully and rather naively about – amongst other things – Meal Deal sandwiches. And by Romero’s Jon, a man who appears to have just bought a gun on the internet.

Tim’s description of Holy Land and, more importantly, the consumer desire it’s capitalizing on sets us up for a rather intense exploration of the limits (or lack thereof) of human morality. As he reminds us several times, actions have consequences – but Tim seems notably detached from the potential consequences of his own actions. It’s a disconcertingly convincing sales pitch, which uses the fictional website to offer some pointed commentary on the state of the current internet and social media.

However, Holy Land is more than a diatribe about the evils of the web. As the fragmented and distorted narration(s) unfold, it becomes clear that the play is a complex and cerebral piece of storytelling with strong roots in older traditions of theatrical tragedy. Tim’s sales pitch gives way to a story about his childhood, and about a particular encounter with a young man he describes as ‘evil’.

Meanwhile, Jon’s monologue about guns and explosives becomes interwoven with a story about a troubled and broken marriage, which (for all its philosophical and existential style) actually conjures some well-realized characters and situations that almost – almost – introduce a little lighter humour into the proceedings. While Holy Land doesn’t really use much comedy – except of the darkest possible kind – the tonal variations in Jon’s story give a sense of texture to what is quite an unrelenting tale. Gouldesbrough’s writing is assured throughout, and there is a confident sense of control to the narration.

I don’t want to say too much about how the three stories unfold and converge, or about how Kate’s monologue fits into the overall story. As always, I don’t like to give story spoilers – but in this case I also don’t want to spoil the experience of the story. The moments of realization I felt as I came to understand connections and implications were a big part of my enjoyment of the show.

‘Enjoyment’ is a strange term to use to describe a play as dark as Holy Land. With repeated reference to violence, rape, pornography and voyeurism, Holy Land doesn’t shy away from content that many might find distressing (and there are explicit trigger warnings posted outside the theatre). Nevertheless, I did enjoy the play. Gouldesbrough’s intelligent and assertive script is well-directed by Medway, who makes excellent use of the performance space and the movements of the three performers to create an atmosphere of bleak vastness that’s almost devoid of hope. A bank of screens and a small stool with a laptop on it doesn’t really give us much to cling to!


But I was really blown away by the performances. Morrison gives us with an intriguing and ultimately devastating performance as Kate, a young woman (and it’s never made clear exactly how young she is) who veers between childlike enthusiasm and a bitter sexuality that seems spurred on as much by spite as anything else. By contrast, Romero appears to offer a more balanced, calmer performance, exuding a nearly likable rationality, for all his bag of guns and bombs.

And Gouldesbrough… well, he is pretty memorable as Tim. Moving between terrifying and heart-breaking – and all points in between – Tim is a figure of tragedy, but also of horror. It’s an incredible performance from Gouldesbrough, and it’s hard not to feel some empathy at the play’s climax.

My only criticism – or perhaps question – about Holy Land is whether it really is a play about the dark side of the internet. When we eventually realize what story it is we’re following, it’s one of human depravity, morality and tragedy. Yes, the internet is used to monetize these things, but Holy Land’s story transcends the technology that surrounds it. (I’m not sure that is a criticism after all.)

Holy Land is an assured and devastating piece of theatre. It goes to some disturbing places, but with a confident sense of direction and narrative control. Elegy Theatre have created an impressive production here and – with a reminder of content warnings – it’s a strong recommendation from me.

Holy Land was on at The Empty Space on the 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Bedford Fringe on 21st-24th July, and the Camden Fringe on 2nd and 3rd August. For the full programme of events on at this year’s Greater Manchester, visit the festival website.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Review: skank (Clementine Bogg-Hargroves, GM Fringe)

Thursday 18th July 2019
TriBeCa, Manchester

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July. I’m reviewing a selection of shows for this blog, and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was skank by Clementine Bogg-Hargroves, at TriBeCa in Manchester on Thursday 18th July. You can hear the radio version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version…


skank is a one-woman show, written and performed by Bogg-Hargroves and directed by Zoey Barnes. It’s the story of Kate, a twenty-something office temp who has dreams of being a writer… and nightmares about her internal organs killing her. In many ways, this is a show about millennial angst and anxieties (which, admittedly, is something this Gen-Xer is sometimes a bit wary of) – but it’s also so much more than that. It’s an original and off-beat storytelling, with some really compelling and clever characterization.

The show begins with Kate – off-stage – arguing with someone about recycling. All she wants is to find the right bin to dispose of a baked bean tin, but sadly it’s not to be found. So, when Kate makes her entrance onto the stage, she has to bring the bean tin with her. This seemingly trivial and pointless interaction is our introduction to the character we’re about to spend just over an hour with, and it’s an effective one in its deceptive mundanity.

Kate works as a temp in an office. The type of office isn’t specified, because it really isn’t important. skank hits the right buttons to set a particular and familiar scene – it’s a boring job, and Kate believes it’s not her ‘real job’. She’s also pretty scathing of the people she works with – from the office ‘characters’ to her fellow temps.

Much of the first half of the show takes place at the office, with Kate interacting with various other characters, like Linda (who’s a bit full-on) and Sexy Gary (who is not). These conversations are conjured by Bogg-Hargroves through the use of recorded audio. On stage, she sits at a desk and interacts or responds to the voices that are playing (also performed by Bogg-Hargroves).

And it is very funny. While this might not be the most original setting for comedy, it’s a tried and tested one. Kate’s interactions with her fellow workers – including her facial expressions as their voice play – include some well-crafted jokes and a confident comic timing.

However, what I really enjoyed was the way skank very subtly set us up for something else. One of my favourite moments, early in the play, came after the first interaction with Linda. Linda just wants to be Kate’s friend and imagines herself as a bit of a joker. She bombards Kate with a serious of inane conversational gambits, before laughing (in a truly irritating way) and ending with a comment on how mad she is. Kate is superior in her mockery and annoyance at Linda… but then Sexy Gary arrives, and we see a mirroring interaction, in which Kate is inane and clumsy in her attempts to impress him with her ‘zany’ personality. This bit was neatly and cleverly done – an adept example of how to undermine your character while still getting the audience to love them.


skank is laugh-out-loud funny, and Bogg-Hargroves reveals a talent for both comedy writing and performance. But the show is not just funny. There is something going on under the surface with Kate – beyond her frustrations with her job and her inability to focus on her ambitions. Hints come in interactions with her brother, with whom she shares a house, that Kate finds life a bit more challenging than she’s so far let on.

Moving from silly and comical to serious is a difficult task for any show, particularly a one-act piece with a single set. skank does a great job at handling this tonal shift. In fact, the shift happens so smoothly you don’t notice it at first. The jokes keep coming, but the edge gets harder and harder. This culminates in two really powerful sequences (and I really don’t want to give any spoilers about them) in the second half of the play, which were both moving and painful to watch.

That the audience is carried along and invested in Kate’s story is testament to Bogg-Hargroves’s engaging and sympathetic performance style. Kate emerges as a believable and relatable character, for all her daft jokes and awkward missteps. By the end of the show, I was genuinely surprised how much I cared about Kate – and how much I cared about that pesky bean tin.

skank is a funny show infused with both honesty and a (sometimes filthy) confessional style. It’s also a showcase of the talents of a skilful writer and performer. Credit should also be given to Zoey Barnes’s direction, as the show makes clever use of its single – and deceptively simple – set. A sequence about a works night out (and again – no spoilers!) is particularly well-crafted – making very good use of lighting and sound design – and really takes the show to the next level.

Of the show’s I’ve seen so far at this year’s festival, the one that bears the closest comparison with skank is Gobby, Jodie Irvine’s one-woman show about a socially awkward young woman and her desperation to be heard. This comparison isn’t a criticism, though. Though there are some superficial similarities to the plays’ set-ups, Irvine and Bogg-Hargroves’s characters are different, and their performance styles are different. However, it really is great to see two such compelling and funny solo shows from emerging women writers. Hopefully, we’ll see lots more from both of them!

Overall, skank is an impressive solo show from Bogg-Hargroves. Witty and well-observed, it’s an engaging character study with some striking and well-constructed set pieces. I really enjoyed this show, and left TriBeCa with the feeling that I’d miss Kate a little bit now that the show’s over.

skank is on at TriBeCa in Manchester on the 18th-21st July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of events at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.