Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hanging (Tangled Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 25th July 2018
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Fishermen (New Perspectives)

Tuesday 24th July 2018
HOME, Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: lionman (Dapertutto Theatre, GM Fringe)

Sunday 22nd July 2018
Footlights House, Media City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 July 2018

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

Friday 20th July 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: King Lear (alone) (Inamoment Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 19th July 2018
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Another Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… this time, a one-man show performed at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Inamoment Theatre staged a production of Frank Bramwell’s sequel/reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear: King Lear (alone). The piece begins with Lear alone (funnily enough) on the heath, after the events of Shakespeare’s play have ended. The erstwhile king reflects on the things that have led him to this point, variously railing against his perceived persecutors and beseeching comfort from his family and followers. It’s an intense monologue, which moves Lear through heightened emotions of anger, fear and distress, to more reflective moments, tenderness and even acceptance.

That said, King Lear (alone) isn’t a straightforward sequel. This isn’t simply what Lear did or thought after Shakespeare’s play finished. Nor does it move Lear to a different place or introduce new actions or characters. Rather, Bramwell’s script is more of a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, told entirely through the voice of the protagonist. Other characters are addressed, but do not speak. (There are points at which Lear calls out to Goneril, Regan and others, and appears to hear something in response, but the audience only gleans this through his reaction.) Bramwell weaves lines taken from Shakespeare with his own lines (and, at one point, a bit of a plot twist) to create a version of the narrative presented entirely from the perspective of the unstable – and abandoned – king.

And this really works. Bramwell’s own lines fit seamlessly into the reordered Shakespearian dialogue, but also reveal the presence of other influences. In particular, the fragmented futility of Lear’s desperate ramblings feels almost Beckettian in places, as lines and phrases were repeated ad absurdum. This is heightened by the absence of response from other characters. No matter how much Lear wants the situation to be explained or resolved, no reply is forthcoming.

Of course, a play of this type lives or dies by the standard of the performance. Fortunately, things were in very safe hands here. Bob Young plays Lear excellently, fully embodying Bramwell’s pitiful, yet not quite resigned, king. Young’s Lear begins as a broken and confused man, but over the course of the performance moves back and forth as the quixotic moods of the character demand. Young offers a (slightly unhinged) joviality in his delivery of lines from early in Shakespeare’s play, a deep melancholy in his depiction of Lear’s lonely state, and full-blown Shakespearean wrath in his condemnation of those who have abandoned him – without going over-the-top and losing the audience’s engagement with the character.

For me, this engagement was one of the most surprising things about the production. I will admit to never being a huge King Lear fan (though I’m pretty familiar with the play), due to the distinct lack of sympathy I’ve always had with the central character. In King Lear (alone), however, we are invited ‘in’ and asked to consider things more directly from Lear’s perspective. While my anger and annoyance at Lear hasn’t entirely gone away – Bramwell’s script and Young’s performance don’t entirely dispel the notion that Lear brings much of his suffering on himself – there is way more scope to pity, sympathize and (most surprisingly) forgive Lear for his erratic excesses.

The staging of the play adds to this effect. As expected, King Lear is indeed alone, on a sparse set (no backdrop, save a wonderfully evocative bare tree) and minimal props. While there are no other characters, he is ‘joined’ on stage by two figures. A creepy (and eyeless) jester’s marotte becomes a companion for a time, and Lear addresses this ‘fool’ with Shakespeare’s lines and Bramwell’s interpolations. And from that evocative tree hangs a blonde-haired doll, which (rather effectively, I thought) Lear ignores until around two-thirds of the way through the play, building a dramatic tension in audience member’s familiar with Shakespeare’s play and growing curiosity in those who are not.*

Ultimately, there are a couple of different ways to interpret King Lear (alone). For some people, it will be a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play – i.e. we’re seeing Shakespeare’s play unfold, filtered through the perspective of a single character. For others, it is a straightforward sequel (sidestepping the death of Lear) – the events of Shakespeare’s play have concluded, and Lear is left to reflect on all that has happened in order to decide what the future might hold. But it’s also possible – and very tempting – to see this as an even closer sequel to Shakespeare’s play – Lear has indeed died, and all that we see is a dying man’s dream or a purgatorial vision.

I thoroughly enjoyed King Lear (alone). It’s great play, made even better by Young’s strong work in bringing this version of Lear to life. Like all good literary reimaginings, it has made me reconsider the original and has changed the way I look at King Lear. While the play has now finished it’s GM Fringe run, it is moving to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and I would highly recommend it.

* I should say, I went to see King Lear (alone) with my other half, who knows nothing about Shakespeare’s play. This gave us the chance to compare our experiences of the play, given the different awareness we had when we came into the performance.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Review: Paisley (Tea Party Party, GM Fringe)

Sunday 15th July 2018
LEAF on Portland Street

Another new GM Fringe show review from me today… this time it’s Tea Party Party’s new production, Paisley.

Written and directed by Andre Anderson, and co-created by Emeli Hartness, Paisley uses an all-female cast to explore questions of culture and oppression. The information I got before the show prepared me for a focus on women’s experiences of culture and tradition; it also prepared me for the all-women cast and the ‘feminine’ setting (a girl’s bedroom, as she gets ready for a party). But I really wasn’t prepared for the unusual performance style or the range of talents showcased in this piece.

Paisley (played by Jordan Chisholm) is on the verge of getting married, but she’s having doubts. As she delays getting ready for a party, she’s joined in her bedroom by her mother (played by Rowan Birkett), her mother-in-law-to-be Kira (Mackenzie Clapperton) and her friend Gaby (Alice Woodsworth). Paisley tries to articulate her doubts, and in turn each of the women tells their own story of societal oppression.

Paisley’s unexpected element comes in the decision to use a variety of performance techniques to tell each of the stories. We begin with Paisley’s mother’s story, which flashes back to her childhood in India. Although the story begins with Birkett offering some scene-setting narration, the story quickly moves into a Bollywood-inspired interpretative dance sequence, which describes a young woman’s terror at discovering the meaning of ‘dowry’ and the reality of arranged/forced marriage. An ambitious and well-staged sequence, the dance is arresting in both visual and narrative terms.

Next up, Kira tells the story of her abusive first marriage. Again, the story begins with the actor’s narration, but quickly develops into something quite different. The bedroom’s fireplace moves aside to reveal Japanese-inspired shadow puppets, and a tale of escalating domestic abuse and violence. Elegantly rendered and performed by Hartness (who manages both the shadow puppets and the 3-D figures that move in front of the sets), this is both moving and compelling – while both stories speak of women’s oppression by patriarchal structures of marriage, the first two stories are markedly different in tone and style.

Finally, Gaby shares her story with the other three women. Here, we have a story about sexuality and family pressures. Gaby is gay, and her family have disowned her. This story is told through a haunting bilingual song, with lyrics moving seamlessly from English to Spanish, beautifully performed by Woodsworth.

The ambition of Paisley is truly impressive. For a new company to attempt such complex staging and diverse techniques is really quite exciting. But this ambition would have fallen flat were it not for the strong performances from the cast and Anderson’s careful direction. Dance moves were sharp, the puppetry slick, and Woodsworth’s singing pitch perfect (and very moving).

The show’s finale is a tad heavy-handed in its message – the cast members join to intone a statement that, to be honest, has already been clearly conveyed in the rest of the play. I felt that Paisley was strongest in its ‘show, don’t tell’ sequences, and in the way these diverse stories were brought together in the evocative space of a young woman’s bedroom.

One of the key elements of Paisley is that each of the characters has a different cultural background. In the first sequence, this allows for traditions and oppressions not common in the UK (particularly dowry payments and forced marriage) to be highlighted. In the case of Kira and Gaby’s stories, the issues presented transcend culture and so the characters’ backgrounds are used to more to introduce the type and style of storytelling. Or perhaps it’s the other way around… we imagine different cultural backgrounds for each of the characters precisely because of the techniques used to tell their stories.

The set and design of the show – the bedroom that is so key to the storytelling – is also very carefully done, and there is a real style to Paisley’s staging. In fact, I’d say that the use of set design here is the most elaborate (and, that word again, ambitious) of any of the GM Fringe shows I’ve seen this year. However, this did mean that I felt the limitations of venue more keenly than in other shows. While LEAF has a very nice performance space, there were some issues with sound, lighting and audience view (some people on the back row had trouble seeing the fireplace puppetry set). Fortunately, good performances and direction distract from any minor venue niggles.

Overall, Paisley is an enjoyable and striking piece of theatre, which showcases the range of talents of its cast and crew. I definitely look forward to seeing more from Tea Party Party in the future.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Review: A Fine Life (ABW Productions, GM Fringe)

Sunday 15th July 2018
King’s Arms, Salford

Time for another review of a Greater Manchester Fringe production from me. This time, it’s bittersweet comedy A Fine Life, written by Anne Wynne and directed by Mike Heath.

41-year-old Martin (played by Kivan Dene) sneaks back to his parents’ house to escape his crumbling relationship, but he doesn’t find the enthusiastic welcome he was expecting. His mother Annie (Julie Edwards) is on edge, and his father has disappeared after a row about double cream for the apple pie.

Martin’s panicky attempts to make himself useful to his mum leads him to suggest hiring a cleaner to ‘lend a hand’ in the house. After a quick phone call to make enquiries, Martin and Annie are surprised to find Chelsea (Nicole Evans) on their doorstep almost immediately. But it turns out Chelsea’s talents extend to more than simply housework.

I think I expected something a little different of A Fine Life. The press info suggests a play that will address the problems of an aging society and elder (even end-of-life) care. But this isn’t quite what’s on offer here.

Martin’s relationship is in tatters. It’s never quite clear what the cause is – though he makes several references to his partner’s drinking and bad behaviour – but it’s implied that Martin’s reluctance to address the problems head on is making matters worse.

His parents’ argument about double cream, and his dad’s disappearing trick, are also symptomatic of a lack of communication and refusal to speak directly about more serious issues that bubble under the surface. Even when Martin finally sits his mother down to talk frankly about his father’s health and their future, this is near enough shrugged off by Annie, who simply tells her son that she already knows.

Into this rather repressed (though realistic) atmosphere comes Chelsea, bubbling over with positive mental attitude – though she appears to be more of a beautician than a cleaner. Sure enough, Chelsea sets to work on manicures, pedicures, facial treatments and relationship advice without delay.

Although the characterization is, perhaps, rather familiar (Annie is an old-fashioned Irish woman, with equal parts impatience and naivety, and Chelsea is a pretty but feather-brained northern lass with a penchant for cleansing auras and flogging bust firming gels), there is something rather unusual about A Fine Life’s story. While the blurb suggests that the play will tackle the big questions of life and death, in fact the focus is much smaller. This is not a criticism, however, as Wynne’s script constantly reminds us that it’s the small things that really matter.

I might have been expecting a script laden with heavy musings on life and death, but A Fine Life instead serves up conversations about double cream, cuticles and spray tans. The play’s final moment – and I won’t give any spoilers here – offers a cheeky suggestion that, maybe, the task of sorting out the cream and the cuticles was more significant than it appeared.

The cast of three (other characters are heard, but not seen) give strong performances throughout. Evans is a bit of a scene-stealer as Chelsea, with her engagingly comic performance that deftly avoids falling into cliché. Edwards is sympathetic as Annie, and Dene plays a jitteringly anxious Martin, who is struggling to work out the right thing to do (while also desperately trying to avoid the difficult thing to do).

The play makes good use of the limitations of space and set. Most scenes are set in the same room – the family living room – though there are a couple of quick and neat transformations to conjure up a cellar. An illusion of space is conjured up by a single venetian blind at the edge of the room, which is used at several points to hint at the activity going on outside the confines of the set.

With solid direction from Heath and a bouncy, compelling script from Wynne, A Fine Life is an enjoyable ‘slice of life’ story. It doesn’t really tackle those big questions of life and death… or does it? In the end, Wynne’s script does a good job of reminding us that, while we might not need someone to come and fix everything, it’s sometimes good to be reminded about what’s important.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Review: The Black Stuff (Lioness Theatre, GM Fringe)

Friday 13th July 2018
Cross Street Unitarian Chapel

Time for a review of another show at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe – and the second musical I’ve seen this year. I’ll admit I was really looking forward to The Black Stuff, as there was something about the premise that really appealed to me. It’s a play about Charles Goodyear, the man who invented vulcanized rubber, focusing on his obsession with developing a weather-resistant rubber and the effect this had on his family. And it’s a musical. Anyone who knows me will know that a musical about a niche historical story is right up my street.

The show began with a brief introduction by director Liz Kearney, who promised the audience a story that would make them laugh and cry, and that the songs would get stuck in their head for days afterwards. I’d already had a taste of this latter fact – I interviewed some of the cast and crew for my Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Special, and they performed a short excerpt of one of the songs (‘When the Weather is Mild’). That little snippet did indeed prove quite the earworm!

Written by Holl Morrell, The Black Stuff is a tragi-comic take on Goodyear’s life, beginning with his decision to start developing rubber products. We see his early work with the Roxbury Rubber Company (developing better inflation devices for life jackets), through to his quest to discover a formula for weather-resistant rubber. We’re also introduced to his wife Clarissa, who is forced to endure the hardships that come from having (a) a lot of children and (b) a husband who is more interested in chasing a seemingly impossible dream than supporting his family.

The show is ambitious, given the constraints of a Fringe production for a new theatre company (this is Lioness Theatre’s debut project). It’s a big story to tell, and the musical format is tricky to pull off. However, Kearney's direction and Morrell’s writing are certainly up to the challenge. Both the music and lyrics are accomplished, professional and highly enjoyable. Not only are the songs very catchy, but Morrell shows a real talent for revealing character development musically. The way songs are reprised is well done, but one of my favourite techniques of musical theatre is also used to good effect – when Goodyear reaches a climactic moment in his story, the actor playing him has to hit a note that is likely at the top of his vocal range.

In terms of the songs, ‘When the Weather is Mild’ remains a favourite, but the show’s opener (and finale) ‘Rubber’ is a stylish and infectious piece with a great arrangement.

Danny Dixon plays Charles Goodyear, and his performance is excellent. Not only is his vocal performance impressive, Dixon also manages to capture the simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable nature of the characterization. As we’re warned before the show even starts, Goodyear was a character who sacrificed everything in his self-taught scientific quest. It’s a real credit to Dixon that he was able to carry us from the light-hearted humour at the beginning of the play through to the brutal reality of just what Goodyear’s sacrifice really entailed.

Another stand-out performance was Andy Pilkington as the narrator. I very much enjoyed Pilkington’s sassy and charismatic commentary on events, which serves both to explain the background to the story and to lead the audience’s reaction as events unfold. Although often playing for laughs, there was nuance to Pilkington’s performance, giving gravity to the more tragic elements of the story. Pilkington also plays a kind of spectral, dream-version of Goodyear’s rival in the rubber race, Thomas Hancock. Physically, the appearance of ‘Hancock’ is signalled only by the application of black lipstick, so Pilkington’s performance here is key to the audience’s understanding that this isn’t really Thomas Hancock, but rather a manifestation of Goodyear’s unhinged psyche. I thought this worked very well.

I was less sure about Alex Wilson’s character-swapping performance, though I think I can see the idea behind it. Wilson plays Ethan Roxbury (of the Roxbury Rubber Company), Goodyear’s brother Benji and a rather untrustworthy priest. While Wilson gives a spirited and often very funny performance, I’m not completely convinced that having his three characters appearing and speaking identically (with occasional use of a hat, an umbrella and a cross to signal the change) quite works. It just isn’t quite as slick as other aspects of the show.

That said, the whole point of the story is that Goodyear closed his mind to everyone and everything in his quest to perfect rubber. So, in a way, Wilson’s multi-character performance enhances this – to a man as obsessed as Goodyear, maybe the people he came across really did become interchangeable.

The fourth member of the cast is Moureen Louie, who plays Goodyear’s wife Clarissa. Louie gives an assured performance, capturing the anger, fear, betrayal and resignation of a woman trapped in marriage to an obsessive man. While we don’t quite see the story from Clarissa’s perspective – Goodyear is always our protagonist, after all – Morrell has done a good job of elevating Clarissa from a name mentioned in biographies to a character in her own right (even if she doesn’t get quite as many lines as Charles), and Louie is more than up to the task of making this work.

Now… does The Black Stuff offer a full and accurate biography of Charles Goodyear? Well, no – of course it doesn’t. It’s a one-hour play, and so some condensing and collapsing of material is going to be necessary. I don’t think we could have handled seeing a full resume of Goodyear’s many moves between Philadelphia, Boston and New York (amongst other places), and so I think the decision to streamline the settings to Philadelphia and New York is wise. Similarly, Goodyear’s family relationships are concentrated into a singular relationship with a (fictional) brother Benji. There’s also no mention of Goodyear’s second wife or the children he had with her – but that’s understandable, as the play ends with the development of vulcanization. While Goodyear purists might miss some of the detail of the history, The Black Stuff is a piece of entertainment and so can be forgiven a bit of artistic licence. It is also a play that would bear expansion, and it's easy to imagine a 'big stage' version of the play with more songs and an expanded cast.

Overall, this is an accomplished and highly enjoyable debut – and I did indeed laugh, cry* and leave the show with the songs stuck in my head. I look forward to seeing more from Lioness Theatre in the future.

* This would be the third show I've seen this year that made me cry.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review: Janet (HelenandJohn, GM Fringe)

Monday 9th July 2018
King’s Arms, Salford

For me, the best (and strongest) part of a fringe festival is the variety of performances on offer. I mentioned in a previous post that the Greater Manchester Fringe programme is expanding year by year, and the 2018 schedule is certainly the most ambitious one yet. Last year, I was only able to see two Fringe shows (though both were innovative and exciting in very different ways). So I’m also expanding my schedule this year – I’m trying to see a much bigger range of stuff, to really get a flavour of the diversity of this year’s programme.

So, after seeing a musical, a one-woman spoken word show and an old-school farce, the next show I saw was described as ‘object theatre’ or ‘unconventional puppetry’.

Janet, co-devised and performed by Helen Ainsworth, is a story about the struggle to find individual identity in the face of inescapable (and cruel) destiny. Janet is born – to an English father and French mother – and from the very moment of her birth, her future path is sternly mapped out for her. The show follows Janet’s attempts to reject this path, and the trials and tribulations that follow.

What makes this story unusual is that Janet is played by a lumped of uncooked bread dough. Her father is a jug of water, and her mother a bag of flour.

Object theatre differs from conventional puppetry in that the puppets are found objects, rather than tailor-made mannequins. In this performance, the only puppet made especially for the show is Janet herself, as a new batch of dough is produced for each performance. Other characters are played by a teapot and a rolling pin, though Ainsworth is also present on stage as the baker/puppeteer.

The skill (and the charm) of the performance lies in Ainsworth’s manipulation of the objects – particularly the unruly blob of dough that is Janet herself. The ease with which the audience accepts the anthropomorphism of these everyday items is impressive – enhanced by Ainsworth’s seamless voicing of the characters – and it is incredible how something as ordinary as a bag of flour becomes so animated in her hands.

One of my favourite parts of the show was Janet’s dream sequence. As Janet falls asleep, visions of bloomers, croissants, baguettes and sliced white float around her, reminding her of the inevitable destiny she faces. Again, Ainsworth’s skill in manipulating household objects is extraordinary, and these sequences play out like stop motion animation.

As a metaphor, of course, the uncooked lump of dough is quite a clear one. Object theatre often relies on such use of metaphor, as it encourages audiences to engage in more non-literal thinking. However, there’s a complex back-and-forth here. On the one hand, we’re being invited to think about the metaphor of unformed dough in terms of identity, self-determination and societal pressure (and, in places, gender). On the other, the performance invites us to think about the object itself, wondering about the possibilities of movement inherent (but hitherto undeveloped) in the inanimate item. There’s a playfulness here, as the manipulation of the dough to move in recognisably human ways is reminiscent of how children interact with plasticine and Play-Doh, but there’s also something rather intellectual in the show’s understanding of the desire (need, even) to create narrative and story out of such games.

Ultimately, Janet is a story of an unconventional character. And I guess the mark of its success lies in how invested the audience is in character – how far we’re able to see Janet as Janet, and forget that she’s actually an inanimate lump of dough being moved by a woman in a baker’s costume. And, in that, the show was undoubtedly effective. From the moment Ainsworth flipped a teapot upside-down and made ‘Lady Grey’ talk, I was immersed in the story, and Janet herself is as much an identifiable puppet as a bespoke marionette would be.

Without giving any spoilers, I will say that this show has its dark moments. Janet’s interaction with the baguettes Claude and François is… uncomfortable. (Make no mistake – this is not a show for children. I don’t think I quite expected a bag of flour to swear so bitterly!) The show’s blurb promises ‘a little B-Movie Horror’, and this is certainly apparent. It also has one of the most unsettling endings I’ve seen in a puppet show.

Janet is an expertly performed tragi-comedy, with laughs, surprises and an unnerving finale. It’s off-beat, unusual and very enjoyable – everything I’m looking for in a Fringe production.

Review: Cheaters: A Play About Infidelity (KinkyBoot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 8th July 2018
King’s Arms, Salford

On Sunday, I was at the King’s Arms (or Kings Arms, depending on your feelings about apostrophes) to see my next Greater Manchester Fringe show: Cheaters: A Play About Infidelity, written and directed by Ramsbottom-based comedian Lewis Charlesworth.

Cheaters is unabashedly a farce, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a one-act comedy about marital infidelity. Married men Kev (Charlesworth) and Dave (Dan Sheader) bring two (also married) women back to Dave’s house for a bit of ‘extra-curricular activity’. Laddish Dave has copped off with Alex (Kathryn Stirton), who is more than enthusiastic at the beginning of the show (entering the stage with her legs wrapped round Dave’s waist and proposing a raucous toast to ‘freedom’). Kev is more awkward and uncomfortable than his friend, and is ill-at-ease with Jess, a woman who goes from horny to hostile at the drop of a gin.

As the evening (or rather, early morning) unfolds and the booze flows, the foursome encounter various obstacles to their anticipated couplings. Surprise revelations and realisations (plus a rather physical reaction to a drinking game) conspire to make the planned activity seem less palatable. Undeterred, the lads decide to come up with a different plan.

Make no mistake, Cheaters is as light-hearted as they come. It’s bawdy (downright filthy, in places) in its humour, and pretty straightforward in its content. This is not biting satire by any means, and the closest Cheaters comes to social commentary is its (very funny) assessment of Wetherspoon’s as ‘the home of budget infidelity’.

But it works – because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is. As Alex says towards the end of the show, there are far more important things going on in the world, so a bit of consensual adultery shouldn’t be too serious a concern. While some people might find the rather nihilistic approach to marriage a bit sad – when each of the characters explain their reasons for cheating, it becomes apparent that they run the gamut from happily married with a devoted spouse to ‘living separate lives’, suggesting that no marriage is really secure from infidelity – the play is of the old school domestic comedy variety, and we’re never encouraged to take things too seriously.

Of the performances, Charlesworth is a stand-out. Primarily a comedian, he brings a farcical physicality to the role of Kev. This begins with facial expressions, but escalates to a full-blown bodily routine (culminating in… well, you should probably see the show to find out). Sheader’s performance as Dave is quite the contrast, but equally enjoyable. Playing laddish extremes for laughs, Sheader steers just the right side of cliché, and his Dave offers a verbal counterpoint to his friend’s increasingly anxious contortions. Weirdly, by the end of the show, I found Dave to be one of the more sympathetic characters, and this is credit to Sheader’s performance.

Speaking of physicality, all the cast deserve praise for their near-acrobatics on what is a pretty low-key set, comprising a sofa, a coffee table and a drinks cabinet. Despite the fact – and this was revealed by a slight slip of the throw that covered it – the ‘sofa’ isn’t actually a sofa, the four main characters cavort on and across it with admirable enthusiasm. When called upon to ‘hide’ themselves on a stage with no hiding places, the actors let the minimal set enhance the comedy of the scene.

My only reservation about the play would be in response to its final scene. Without giving too much away, this scene sums up the relationships presented on stage and points to a happy, light-hearted resolution with no permanent harm done. It’s a fair conclusion to the laissez-faire atmosphere of the play. However, there are just one too many mentions of the characters who don’t appear on stage at any point – Kev’s wife and Jess’s husband – for it to be completely comfortable. In the case of Kev’s wife Helen, there’s just a little hint of cruelty in the continued deception, and this is at odds with the tone elsewhere. Cheaters works because of its everyone’s-at-it raunchiness – it felt strange to be repeatedly reminded of an innocent victim in its final moments.

Cheaters is definitely a play about infidelity. As I said, it’s unashamedly a comedy, and makes no bones about this. But with giggle-inducing dialogue, frantic revelations and knockabout antics, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. Charlesworth has made a strong transition from stand-up to playwright here, and I’m sure we’ll see much more of him in the future (mind you… if you’ve seen Cheaters, you’ve already seen quite a bit of him! 😉).

Monday, 9 July 2018

Review: The Love Calculator (Rosa Wright, GM Fringe)

Thursday 5th July 2018
Gullivers, Oldham Street

This is the second show I saw at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. And the second one to bring a tear to my eye! (Wonder if this is going to be a theme this year…)

The Love Calculator is a one-woman show, combining poetry, comedy and song in an exploration of dating and relationships. The show’s premise and blurb promise to reveal the formula for true love – but this is only a small part of the show. Writer and performer Rosa Wright takes us through a series of stories and vignettes taken from previous relationships, some funny, some sad and some unexpectedly very moving.

The ‘Love Calculator’ element of the show is fairly straightforward, and I’m sure most people (or, maybe, most women) will recognize the formula immediately. The show’s real conceit is the bingo card/jukebox set-up that follows on from the calculations. Each audience member is given a card and encouraged to shout out numbers (first person to get one line got a prize). In response, Wright performs the piece that corresponds to the selected number, resulting in a non-chronological medley of songs and poems that jump back and forth, from a hook-up at a wedding, to a childhood crush, to a recent break-up.

Tonally, the pieces move from sad, to bitter, to joyful, to soppy, to angry – all the while held together with sardonic commentary from Wright. The overall effect is not a linear narrative, but a jumble of experiences (some good, some indifferent, some really bad) that have somehow led to this point. And isn’t that kind of what life (or dating) is?

I can’t work out whether or not I fell into a bit of a trap during the show. After it was over, I told Wright that I’d been surprised to find we’d had a lot of the same experiences. Bit of a rookie mistake, and you’d think I’d know better by now! The stories behind The Love Calculator often unfold through hints and suggestions – Wright makes a lot of use of sensory description and evocative imagery (a finger running across a plate to mop up salt-and-vinegar crisp crumbs, for instance) – and so some pieces are deceptively specific. I certainly felt like I could identify with a lot of the material, but in the cold light of day I realise that a lot of the audience probably felt exactly the same! It’s testament to Wright’s performance style – always seeming like she’s accidentally oversharing, continually asking the audience ‘It’s not just me, is it?’ – that I kept thinking ‘This song is totally about me!’

That said, the story about dating an older guy who was in a doom metal band? Awfully similar to dating an older guy from a Goth rock band, isn’t it?

I think it’s also worth saying that the performance I saw was interrupted a couple of times by people mistakenly stumbling in looking for the show upstairs. Gullivers has two performance spaces, and Wright’s show was on in the smaller room downstairs – meaning that people coming in and loudly asking whether they’re in the right place can be heard easily on the stage area. Now, I don’t know exactly what show was on upstairs, but there was something kind of surreal about people loudly wandering in and asking a Northern lass on a ukulele if she was Simon and Garfunkel. Wright handled these interruptions with good grace and humour, even giving a very short burst of ‘Scarborough Fair’ to appease.

Overall, The Love Calculator is a very enjoyable show. The bittersweet music and poetry work well together, the performance style is charming, and the arrangement of pieces is very effective. It’s laugh-out-loud in places, tear-jerking in others, and with just enough TMI to have you cringing in places.

(Oh, and it was the poem about the first childhood crush that made me cry, in case you were curious.)

Saturday, 7 July 2018

My Year in Books 2018: June

So, I'm still clinging on to my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. After a bit of a rubbish May, I did manage to find time for three novels in June. Not quite hitting my target, but to be fair work has been crazy busy.

Before I get to my three June books, just a reminder that you can see the other books I've read in 2018 here: January, February, March, April, May

Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves (2003)

I was round at my parents’ house at the beginning of the month and decided to ask my mum for some book recommendations (because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to read next). I think I asked for ‘something where the past comes back to haunt the present’ and ‘something a bit like Peter May’. She lent me two books, and the first one I read was Burial of Ghosts. I’ve never read any of Ann Cleeves’ novels before. I love the ITV Vera series, but I struggled to get into the BBC’s Shetland. Burial of Ghosts is a standalone, though, so I thought it’d be a good introduction to Cleeves’ writing. The book follows troubled young woman Lizzie Bartholomew, a social worker forced to take leave from work due to dark incidents that we learn about through fragmentary flashbacks. On holiday in Morocco, Lizzie has a quick fling with a man named Philip. On her return to the UK, she’s shocked to find that Philip has died and left her a substantial bequest in his will. But in return, he wants her to do something for him… The story unfolds in a compelling way, and Lizzie is a rather offbeat protagonist. I did guess a couple of the twists and turns, but that didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of the story, which was as much about character development than a puzzle to be solved. This one is a recommendation, and I’ll probably read more of Cleeves’ work in future.

Sanctum by Denise Mina (2002)

This is the second book I borrowed from my mum this month. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first. Sanctum is written as a diary, kept by Lachlan Harriot after his wife Susie is convicted of the murder of violent serial killer Andrew Gow. As Lachlan begins to search through his wife’s papers for evidence to mount an appeal, he begins to doubt whether she really is innocent of the crime. The premise seemed pretty cool – and it’s certainly the sort of thing I like reading – but sadly I felt it fell down on the execution. My first problem was that – despite being rather unlikable – Lachlan is a completely reliable narrator. I spent the first half of the book assuming things would turn out to be different, but as it transpired his diary is just a straightforward description of events. Secondly – and more importantly – the ‘mystery’ here just isn’t that interesting, and the ‘reveal’ falls flat. Throughout the book, we’re led to believe that something earth-shattering lurks in Susie’s study – she repeatedly tells Lachlan à la Bluebeard NOT TO GO INTO THE ROOM. The difficulty with the Bluebeard story is that, of course, they always go into the room, so you must make sure there’s something pretty outstanding behind the door. And, unfortunately, there just isn’t in Sanctum. The final explanation, though prefaced with a couple of low-key clues, just didn’t seem worth all the locks Susie placed on the door. A bit disappointing.

Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson (2017)

Oh dear. If the last book was disappointing, this next one was downright frustrating. Again, this sounded right up my street: a contemporary murder mystery written in Golden Age style. I was promised a ‘love letter to Golden Age fiction’, and a ‘puzzle box of a mystery’. Instead, Miss Christie Regrets is a rather tame (and not particularly intriguing) crime novel with some overt references to older novels. It is the second in Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead novels (I didn’t know this when I started reading it, and I haven’t read the first). A man has been murdered in an iconic Hampstead building, and detectives discover a connection to a decades-old body found in another location. A pedestrian investigation follows, in which detectives talk like characters from a 1930s novel but keep mentioning SOCOs and the problems of modern policing. Ultimately though, there are no ‘Golden Age’ style clues, no deductive reasoning, and one of the mysteries is solved when a character conveniently tops himself, leaving a helpfully detailed note (Agatha would not approve). Sadly, the book isn’t properly edited either, which mars any possible enjoyment of the plot. Numerous typos and inconsistencies are distracting, and a character’s name changes for three pages. I’d also say that the author has a bit of a problem with names: there are two Peters, two Toms, an Alan (first name) and an Allen (surname), a Collins and a Collison, a Victor Laszlo and a Timothy Evans. Overall, the book needed a thorough copy-edit and proof-read.

Review: A Surgeon’s Photograph (Rising Shadows Productions, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 3rd July 2018
Footlights House, Media City

So… the Greater Manchester Fringe kicks off for another year! As my alter ego, Hannah Kate, I hosted a GM Fringe Hannah’s Bookshelf Special on North Manchester FM on Saturday 30th June, interviewing many of the actors, writers, directors and producers taking part in this year’s festival.

The Fringe is now in its seventh year, and the programme this year is bigger than ever, taking in theatre, music, comedy, spoken word and other performances. There are hundreds of performances across numerous Greater Manchester venues (admittedly, mostly in Manchester and Salford – though there are way more non-Manc/Sal places taking part this year than previously). The Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and details of all the shows are available on the festival’s website.

For me, the Fringe started with a performance of A Surgeon’s Photograph by Rising Shadows Productions at Footlights House in Salford.

A Surgeon’s Photograph is a new musical by Jacob Dufton, produced and directed by Ella Dufton. This Bury-born brother and sister founded Rising Shadows, with the goal of ‘re-inspiring regional film and theatre’. This year’s show is a musical set in Scotland in the 1970s.

The title of the show is taken from the name given to an iconic (but fake) photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, which was published in 1934. And Nessie is a key player in Rising Shadows’ show.

When he is ten years old, Robert McCoy (played by Dufton) loses his father. His godfather, Rev. John Sullivan (played by Joe Davies), tells the young boy that his father was killed during a fishing trip on Loch Ness… and that the monster was to blame. Rob grows up believing that he must avenge his father’s death.

The play’s main story takes place a number of years later, when a now-teenaged Rob joins with friends Duncan (Christian Fuchs) and Cathy (Sophie Rush) for a final attempt to confront the monster that killed his dad. However, this is complicated by the love triangle that has developed between the three childhood friends. As Rob grows increasingly unhinged in his obsession with Nessie, Duncan and Cathy have to decide how far they can go to support their friend.

A Surgeon’s Photograph began life as a concept album (written by Dufton), and so the story is really carried through the musical numbers. Each scene is set and developed through a song, and there is limited dramatic development between them – almost all the plot and characterization is presented through music and lyrics, though there is naturally some dialogue holding everything together. This makes sense given the story’s origins as an album, rather than a script, but there are moments where the narrative would have benefitted from some more development. However, this isn’t a criticism as such. The play has been created to fit the constraints of a Fringe production (and so it is short by musical standards), and I appreciate the way in which the narrative has had to be shaped. But it’s worth saying that the story could easily stand expansion into a full-length production, and I think it’s good that I was left wanting more!

As I’ve said, A Surgeon’s Photograph is – mostly – set on and around Loch Ness. Before I saw the show, I had some concerns about how the company were going to handle this. Without a lavish budget and ambitious set-dressing, how do you conjure up the vastness and majesty of a place like Loch Ness?

Of course, this conjuring is done in A Surgeon’s Photograph through the music. Dufton’s dramatic and passionate score blends Celtic and Scottish influences with nods to the music of the 70s, and the performers do a good job of singing as though a massive body of water separates them from the audience. I very much enjoyed the fact that the vastness of the music is paired with minimal set design – only one piece of staging is used, a triangle of wood that forms the hull of a boat (and, at one point, the seats of a car), which is very effective. The cast is also minimal, with just four actors (Dufton, Fuchs and Rush play the younger versions of their characters as well as the teenagers).

Overall, these performances are strong and all the right notes are hit throughout (with just the odd occasional wobble on the Scottish accents). Dufton is convincing as the beloved kind – but dangerously obsessed – young man dealing with his father’s death. Rush is likable as the vicar’s daughter confused by her feelings towards the two boys (though Cathy’s relationship to her rather conflicted father is one of the aspects of the play that could really benefit from expansion). But I think it was Fuchs’ performance that I found most compelling. His Duncan is sweetly steadfast and understated, but (much like Loch Ness) there’s plenty going on under the surface. Chemistry between Dufton and Fuchs means that the lads’ friendship is sympathetic, making Duncan’s continued willingness to hunt for a (supposedly) fictional monster believable.

But for all its majestic music and monster-hunting, A Surgeon’s Photograph isn’t really about Nessie. There’s another story here, and that’s where the real heart of the show lies. It’s a coming-of-age story about friendship, love and sexuality. And I will admit that I shed a little tear at one point.

All in all, a very enjoyable production. A charming premise, conveyed through great music and compelling performances. I hope to see more from Rising Shadows in the future.