Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of The Greek (Kinky Boot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows from the programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. And, sadly, that is the last time I’m going to get to write that this year. Yes… the time has come for me to finish my little journey through this year’s festival programme, as I’ve reached my final review. But what a great show I’m ending on!

The final show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Lewis Charlesworth’s The Greek. This is a show I was really looking forward to, as writer-director Lewis Charlesworth has been a guest on both this year's and last year’s Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Specials, but also on a regular edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf in November 2018. In last year’s interviews, he mentioned that he was working on a piece related to Brexit, and so I’ve been keenly waiting to see the final product. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Greek is described as a ‘Brexit comedy without the politics’. Indeed, the word ‘Brexit’ doesn’t actually appear in the play, and mentions of the referendum are limited to a short introductory burst of audio – an edited montage of news reporters and politicians talking angrily that speeds up and blurs into a bewildering cacophony. Set in 2015, The Greek is a one-act play about the complex, contradictory and difficult circumstances into which the Brexit referendum was dropped.

The play opens with Mary (played by Betty Webster), an 83-year-old woman from Lancashire, sitting on her chair, while her neighbour John (played by Peter Slater) fusses around her and keeps her company. Everything about the play’s opening has an easy sense of familiarity – from the cushions on the couch, to the ‘state of the world’ conversations. Mary and John are white, working class people who perceive societal change as a downhill slope.

Mary and John sit together, drink tea, and bemoan the state of the world in language that is striking in its authenticity. Make no mistake, The Greek pulls no punches in the language and sentiments being expressed. Mary and John may claim not to be racist (in John’s case with some convoluted and highly unconvincing evidence), but the audience is very likely to disagree. Despite knowing that what they’re saying isn’t considered ‘PC’, they continue, on the grounds that ‘it’s a free country’ and ‘I can say what I like in my own house’. It’s clear that what we’re watching is a regular and normal conversation for the two.

However, on this occasion, Mary is keen for John to leave. She’s expecting a visitor – her grandson, who she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. We learn that Mary was estranged from her son, who was also once a good friend of John’s, and that as a result she’s had no real relationship with her grandson. There’s also clearly something that she doesn’t want to tell John… and we quickly find out (if the play’s posters hadn’t given us an inkling) what that is.

Mary’s grandson James (played by Charlesworth) is mixed race, and clearly uncomfortable about visiting the grandmother he believes is an unreconstructed racist. More than this, James embodies some other social positions that Mary and John have previously decried – he’s moved out of Lancashire, he’s cosmopolitan (working in marketing), and his politics (though not overtly stated) are left-leaning.

The Greek is a series of conversations – between Mary and John, Mary and James, and then between all three. Sparks fly, and some pretty dramatic statements are made – but this is not a play about conflict. Surprisingly – and refreshingly – this is a play about what happens when you have conversations with people you disagree with. My description so far may not have made this clear, but The Greek is a tender, sweet and honest comedy, filled with sympathy and affection for human nature (flawed as it may be).

The play’s real strength and originality lies is that Mary and John are criticized, but not demonized. At no point are the audience encouraged to sympathize or agree with their view of the world, but we are given the chance to listen to it, just as James is, and to view them as human beings rather than stereotypes. Charlesworth’s script is sensitive and subtle, refusing to shy away from harsh truths, but navigating these truths with humour and compassion. As the endless cups of tea and French fancies are produced, preconceptions and animosities are exposed and challenged in an upfront, but quintessentially British, way.

Interestingly, the night before I saw The Greek, I watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the role Cambridge Analytica played in manipulating the result of the EU referendum through cynical (and illegal) exploitation. The Greek makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Great Hack, as it shines a light on the very tensions, beliefs and concerns that Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ latched onto and exploited for their own financial ends. There’s a poignancy to The Greek in some ways, as it evokes a version of 2015 where global data-mining tech companies have less power than a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling. It hints at what the EU referendum would’ve looked like without Cambridge Analytica or Dominic Cummings or AggregateIQ – and it suggests that, hard as it might have been, we could’ve worked it out, we could’ve been okay.

All credit to the performers here. Charlesworth is excellent as James, tempering raw anger with kindness in a nuanced and thoughtful performance. Webster’s portrayal of Mary captures a combination of battle-axe stubbornness and fragility that is both authentic and sympathetic. But, in many ways, it’s Slater who is given the biggest challenge – John should be completely unlikable, but Slater’s performance dilutes his unpalatable views with just the right amount of baffled vulnerability. It’s a mark of Slater’s skill as an actor that we’re left with a character who’s hard to like, but impossible to completely hate.

While I am sad that my visits to this year’s Fringe are over, The Greek was a real high point to end on. An honest, funny and compassionate script, coupled with three pitch-perfect performances, made for an enjoyable, thought-provoking and surprisingly hopeful piece of theatre. I hope The Greek gets another run at some point – if it does, you should definitely see it!

The Greek was on at the King’s Arms Theatre, Salford on the 27th-29th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Review: Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can (Joe Walsh, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from the 1st-31st July. I’ve been reviewing a selection of the shows on this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, but – sadly – I’m now coming to the end of my festival experience. The penultimate show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Joe Walsh’s Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can, which was on at the King’s Arms on Sunday 28th July. You can hear the radio version of my review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…

Written and directed by Joe Walsh, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is a one-act play about homelessness, or rather, it’s a one-act play about some people who are homeless. This distinction is important – the play is character-focused, and is invested in the relationships and personalities of individuals, rather than examining the underlying causes and effects of homelessness. Its message (both in its marketing and in its execution) is clear – this is a play that seeks to tackle preconceptions through humanization.

The play is set outdoors, on the streets where the central characters sleep. (Sunday’s performance was intended to be staged in the Beer Garden at the King’s Arms, but was moved indoors to the cellar rooms due to rather inclement weather!) While the dialogue switches between using ‘Manchester’ and ‘Salford’ (possibly as a nod to where it’s being performed), references to various Deansgate landmarks set it firmly in the former. Some of the pop culture references (especially the claim that people want to hear buskers playing The Stone Roses or Oasis) add to the generally Mancunian flavour of the piece.

Our protagonists are Barney (played by Paul Tomblin), Sarah (played by Leah Gray) and Derek (played by Craig Hodgkinson), three disavowed Deansgate residents, who sleep rough on the streets and get by on a mixture of begging, busking and reluctant shoplifting. They’re a loyal, if a little unorthodox, trio, who occupy a ‘fort’ of their own making. The play is never explicit on the circumstances that have brought the three together, but there’s a general feeling of camaraderie, trust and affection between them.

Sarah is a straight-talking young woman with a history of getting into trouble for ‘speaking her mind’. Our introduction to her is when she angrily wakes up from the bench where she’s sleeping to complain about Derek’s guitar playing. Nevertheless, as the play progresses and we get to know her a little better, she emerges more as a rather sweet and caring person, with a romanticized nostalgia for Southport. Gray’s performance is engaging (and rather charming in places), and she reveals a good knack for comic timing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 27th July 2019
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 July 2019

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

Thursday 25th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

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

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 July 2019

Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Rice (Christopher KC, GM Fringe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Review: The Melting of a Single Snowflake (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 17th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I continue to review shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. In 2017, I reviewed two Fringe shows, and in 2018, I reviewed eleven. I definitely think I’m on track to beat that number in 2019! On Wednesday 17th July, I saw The Melting of a Single Snowflake at Salford Arts Theatre, a new play by writer-in-residence Libby Hall. Hall was one of the people I interviewed back in June for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special, so once again I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Written by Hall and directed by Roni Ellis, The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious ensemble piece featuring performers from Salford Arts Theatre’s Young Performers Company. As I talked about with Hall in our interview, the play grew out of workshops involving the young actors, meaning that the company played an integral role in generating and developing ideas for Hall’s script.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake takes place in the aftermath of the disappearance of a schoolboy, Sam, during the summer holidays. The cast (of eleven young actors) play a group of Sam’s friends, peers and neighbours who are brought together through their shared (if a little tenuous in some cases) involvement in Sam’s life. The real ambition of the piece lies in the fact that the story is carried entirely by the young performers (there are no adult characters in the play), and also in the complexity of the relationships that are evoked through the dialogue. This isn’t a straightforward tale of the powerful bonds of friendship, but rather a story that reminds us young people have just as many varied reasons for spending time together as adults do.

Set during the school holidays and with a recorded audio backdrop of news reports on adolescent mental health, gang crime and Sam’s disappearance, The Melting of a Single Snowflake unabashedly sets itself up to tackle ‘big’ issues. As the young people gather to discuss the missing boy, conversations range from knife crime to drugs, from social media to sexuality. There is a frankness to these conversations, which is both hard-hitting and humorous, and some of the issues raised are handled in surprising and nuanced ways.

In particular, I found several of the conversations about Cameron (played by Adam Marsland)’s sexuality offered a refreshing and sensitive take. However, this was done without heavy-handed virtue-signalling, as the overall message was punctuated by a range of responses – from Kay (Calia Wild)’s concern that the group is too young for romantic relationships, to Alfie (Dillon Parker)’s clumsy macho posturing, to Amber (Sienna Kavanagh)’s comical confusion of bisexuality with bipolar disorder. While some poetic licence is employed to have all of these reactions occurring openly and simultaneously, The Melting of a Single Snowflake offers a convincing microcosm of the confusion and conflict that accompanies coming-of-age.

I’ve used the word ‘conversations’ a lot in this review, and it feels like the most apt description of how story is constructed in the play. The action takes place off-stage – indeed, some has occurred before the play begins, and some will occur in the time that elapses during the interval – and so everything we know about these characters, about their world, and about the missing boy Sam is conveyed though the dialogue. This is a challenge for the cast, but – aided by smart direction by Ellis – they are up to the task. With the group coming and going from the stage, and interacting in different combinations at different times, a sense of flow and development is created.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much an ensemble piece, and it’s not really possible to single out individual performances or characters as ‘central’. Each one carries a part of the story, and the play’s strength lies in its group dynamic, from Josie Leigh’s belligerent wannabe boxer Mia to Jasmin Marsland’s know-it-all Demi.

I enjoyed the dynamic between Jake (Charlie Kenney) and Jodie (Elizabeth Pearson), two very different young people caught up in a world of crime that’s way outside their control. Leia Komorowska is great as fragile and haunted outsider Levi, and Joel Hill reveals excellent comic timing in his performance as Devon, a filter-less chatterbox whose near-continuous off-the-wall monologue throws the audience off-guard for one of the play’s more aggressive sucker-punches. Last but by no means least, Vincent Purcell plays Tom, Levi’s older brother and an eloquent observer of the group and its various social predicaments. In places appearing like a character somewhat out of time, Tom emerges as a detached and astute narrator of human frailty – but one surrounded by darkness and grief.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much a game of two halves. On the one hand – and probably the more dominant aspect of the first act – it is a narrative that highlights the fears, concerns and disillusionments of young people, signalled by the news commentary. In the face of a crisis in mental health care, knife crime, a gang that may or may not have killed their friend, and (I don’t want to sound old here) a complete lack of adult support or intervention, how are these young people supposed to cope? However, there is another intriguing and compelling story running parallel to this, a much more personal (and, in many ways, more old-school theatrical) tale that comes into its own in the second act – but to say anymore would give spoilers! All credit to Hall, though, for bringing these two aspects together into a strong overall story.

In addition to the great writing, direction and performances, The Melting of a Single Snowflake also features a stylish set design by Roni Ellis and Scott Berry, which uses scattered debris and rubbish (including – I’m sure I saw – an old discarded municipal street sign for the Salford Arts Theatre’s predecessor theatre!) and a graffitied wall to effectively evoke both locale and the atmosphere.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious and thought-provoking piece of theatre, which showcases the talents of the Salford Arts Theatre’s young performers company and of its writer-in-residence, Libby Hall (who came through the company herself). A very enjoyable show that packs an unexpected punch.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is on at Salford Arts Theatre on 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Fringe shows on this year, visit the festival website.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: The Death of a Muse (BelleVedere Theatre, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 16th July 2019
Lock 91, Deansgate Locks

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-31st July. As you may know already, I’m reviewing a selection of the shows that are on offer on this year’s festival programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was The Death of a Muse, which was on at Lock 91 on Deansgate, on Tuesday 16th July.

You may remember that I interviewed the writer and cast of The Death of a Muse for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June, so I’d already had a flavour of what to expect. It was a very enjoyable interview to record, and as a result I was really looking forward to seeing the play. I am very pleased to say that it actually exceeded my already high expectations – The Death of a Muse is really a very good piece of Fringe theatre.

Written by Róis Doherty and produced by BelleVedere Theatre, The Death of a Muse is a play based on the lives of Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats. But there’s a twist… the audience is invited to join Maud and William decades after their deaths, and to decide the ultimate fate of the two. Who will go to heaven? and who will go to hell?

In the atmospheric space of Lock 91’s upstairs room, poet William and his ‘muse’ Maud confront one another for the final time in an immersive and audience-inclusive piece that offers an idiosyncratic take on biography and memorialization. Characters address the audience directly and wander on and off the stage, in a direct attempt to persuade and convince us of their version of events.

The Death of a Muse is not a linear story of Maud and William’s relationship, nor does it give a full account of either character’s life, career or relationships. Instead, the play presents snippets – out of sequence – of the two’s brittle and tumultuous interactions over the years. Like opposing lawyers in a courtroom, Maud and William summon up flashbacks to key moments in their past, which they each claim will reveal the other’s shortcomings.

Kerry Ely plays Maud Gonne with a cool and critical detachment, which (on the whole) falters only in angry frustration at William’s protestations. Much of her side of the story is intended to rehabilitate her from the static position of William’s ‘muse’ (which, for many, is how she is now best known). From the start, she threatens to reveal to the audience that William was a ‘horrible man’, and her flashbacks are clearly intended to condemn him, rather than save herself. The play’s blurb describes Maud as ‘iron-hearted’ and ‘stone-hearted’, as well as an ‘activist first and mother second’, and this certainly comes across in the performance. Nevertheless, there are also glimpse into underlying motivations and backstory that help us to understand some of the more ‘iron-hearted’ decisions Maud made.

While Maud’s coldness and resentment are the driving forces of her presentation, Ely’s performance offers some wonderful moments where the mask of righteousness slips. Revealing a good sense of comic timing, she punctuates William’s earnestness on occasion – most memorably, in her reaction to his recital of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’. However, it is her performance of the final moment of the final flashback (no spoilers!) that will really stick with me. For all its verbal (and sometimes physical) knockabout comedy, The Death of a Muse doesn’t shy away from some darker aspects of Maud and William’s story, and Ely carries this skilfully.

Against Ely’s Maud is Patrick O’Donnel as William. Frustratingly for Maud – but highly entertaining for the audience – O’Donnel’s William is constantly threatening to steal the limelight. His performance perfectly captures the romantic and unrealistic intensity of William’s infatuation with his muse, but with a comical enthusiasm that’s quite infectious. O’Donnel’s apparently off-the-cuff silliness in the face of the task ahead is very funny – his baffled comment to Maud, ‘This is your flashback, where am I supposed to go?’, was one of my favourite lines. Certainly, the audience feels Maud’s frustration at William’s refusal to accept her as a human being (with a right to refuse his continued proposals), but I’m not sure we’re ever really convinced by her assertion that he is a ‘horrible man’. Even when we see glimpses of William’s more problematic behaviour, Doherty’s script and O’Donnel’s performance is so infused with affection and sympathy that it’s hard to see him as anything more than misguided.

The two main characters are supported by strong performances by Megan Challinor as Iseult Gonne and Liam Collins as John MacBride (as well as a couple of other incidental characters). Challinor does a great job of conveying the change in Iseult from a naïve teenager to a more worldly-wise young woman – though I did also enjoy her performance as a spiritual medium later in the play. Collins is given the unenviable task of playing someone who is, within the narrative of the play, an unquestionably ‘horrible man’. His performance is utterly chilling, and he delivers some incredibly dark lines with the calm certainty of a man with complete power. The contrast with O’Donnel’s performance as William is stark.

The Death of a Muse ends with the audience being invited to vote on Maud and William’s fates. I won’t tell you which way I voted, but I will say – despite the play’s assertion that Maud is much more than simply William’s muse – it was very hard to imagine these two flawed, obstinate, but ultimately sympathetic characters being separated.

With excellent performances and a very well-written script, plus good direction and set design (including creative use of a well-chosen performance space), The Death of a Muse is a superb piece of Fringe theatre, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Death of a Muse is on at Lock 91 on Deansgate Locks on the 9th, 16th and 24th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of events at this year’s Fringe, see the festival website.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Review: Blue Lines (The Hive, GM Fringe)

Monday 15th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July, and I’m reviewing shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. On Monday 15th July, I saw my next show from the festival programme – Blue Lines by Stefanie Moore. Blue Lines is one of three shows that have been produced for this year’s festival as part of the Arts Council-funded Hive project. Writer Stefanie Moore developed her debut play with mentoring by Tim Firth and Mike Heath, after winning her place on the scheme at the scratch night in January. You can hear my radio interview of the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

You may remember I interviewed Moore about the play for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. Having talked a little bit about what to expect from Blue Lines, I was very much looking forward to seeing the final product. And I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed!

Blue Lines is a one-act play, a two-hander, which stars Nicole Evans and Jenna Sian O’Hara. Evans plays Sarah, a sex-ed teacher, tasked with both introducing her charges to the facts of life and answering any questions they throw at her. She is somewhat overwhelmed and under-enthused by the job, but an early example of the sort of questions she is faced with justifies this. (One question in particular, which Moore mentioned in our June interview is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying – especially with the knowledge that it is a genuine question drawn from Moore’s own teaching experience.)

O’Hara plays Abby, a 15-year-old student who is pregnant. Abby turns to Sarah for advice, not knowing that her teacher is struggling with her own issues around pregnancy and motherhood. Sarah is ‘trying for a baby’, but she’s struggling to conceive. Abby has accidentally fallen pregnant after her first (and only) sexual encounter.

The play takes place over the course of a couple of weeks. This is a difficult thing to handle in a short space of time, but wisely the production avoids multiple scene and costume changes. Almost all the scenes take place in Sarah’s classroom, which is transformed into a doctor’s surgery for one scene. The classroom setting allows for a neat little detail to show the passage of time – scenes often begin with ‘Miss’ writing the day’s date on the board – but otherwise there’s little alteration from one scene to the next. The effect of this is to concentrate the audience’s focus on the characters and their story, and allows for this to develop with a controlled pace.

Blue Lines is driven, not only by individual performances, but also by the strong and believable dynamic between the two. Evans is sympathetic and relatable as Sarah. Slightly highly strung, she switches between frosty, brittle and vulnerable as she initially attempts to keep Abby at arm’s length. However, as the audience comes to realize what Sarah is holding beneath the surface, Evans’s performance becomes even more nuanced – and really quite moving.

O’Hara is just excellent as schoolgirl Abby, convincingly evoking that precarious balance between childhood and adulthood in a believable and sympathetic way. Abby gets a lot of the funniest lines, but the audience is (almost always) laughing with, rather than at, her. Where we are encouraged to laugh at her naivety, there’s a gentleness and affection to this that steers away from outright mockery. Nevertheless, Abby also gets to deliver a lot of the ‘wisdom’ of the play, which is done with subtlety and a light touch.

What really impressed me was the relationship between the two. Evans and O’Hara have a great on-stage chemistry, and their interactions are infused with a warmth and humanity that leaves the audience really rooting for a good outcome for both. It would have been easy to play the relationship for laughs, or veer towards cliché, but Evans and O’Hara keep things down-to-earth and convincing throughout.

Again, there are some very funny lines in the play. Personally, some of my favourite moments came when the humour collided directly with the more serious and painful issues that underpin the story. A particular favourite was an exchange about a monkey sanctuary, which builds from an off-the-cuff (and slightly absurd) statement from Abby into a well-timed exchange that reveals a lot about both characters and captures something a bit more profound than just monkeys.

Evans and O’Hara’s performances are great, but credit must also be given to Moore’s script. The dialogue is really excellent, and the lines for both characters are written with sensitivity: laugh-out-loud humour at times, and pathos (even pain) at others. While I would happily have watched much longer performances from the two actors – and I found that, even after just an hour, I had become quite attached to their characters – Moore pitches the narrative arc just right. There is just enough story here, and the play ends where it needs to end.

While Blue Lines is a play that’s unashamedly about pregnancy, fertility and motherhood, it is also a study of two particular characters. I have no doubt that many audience members will find things to identify with at various moments, and some of the dialogue will have familiarity for some. However, the play wisely avoids gesturing at universality, and it has lots to recommend it to those of us who aren’t interested in having babies! Again, this is carried through a combination of sensitive characterization and strong performances. Blue Lines is the story of Sarah and Abby, and the way their individual problems intersect for a brief period of time.

Overall, Blue Lines is a well-written, funny and relatable piece, with excellent performances from its two actors. It’s a definite recommendation from me.

Blue Lines is on at the King’s Arms from 15th-17th July, the Way Theatre, Atherton on 19th and 20th July, and the Bury Met on 20th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind (Gare du Nord Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 11th July 2019
Stockport Train Station

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from the 1st-31st July, and I’m continuing my journey through a selection of the many shows on the programme for this blog and North Manchester FM. The next show I’m reviewing is The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind by Gare du Nord Theatre, which I saw in Stockport on Thursday 11th July. The radio version of this review aired on today’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but – as always – here’s the blog version…

The Fringe is a multi-venue festival that takes place across Greater Manchester. One of the benefits of this is that the festival encourages people to travel to different boroughs and to visit theatres and studios that they haven’t been to before – already this year, for instance, I’ve been introduced to Twenty Twenty Two in Manchester and the Whitefield Garrick. However, another benefit of the Fringe’s multi-venue ethos is that some companies stage performances in non-theatre spaces as well. Step up: The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind… which was performed in a disused waiting room between the platforms at Stockport Train Station.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is a production by Gare du Nord Theatre. You may remember that my first review this year was of Gare du Nord’s Underwater, so it was a pleasure to have the chance to see another of the company’s three productions on this year’s programme. It was also great to experience some site-specific theatre – the unconventional performance space for The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind isn’t just a gimmick, but rather a part of the show itself.

The play is a reprisal of their award-winning 2017 show, though with a slightly different cast. It’s an immersive (though light-touch immersive) show that offers a somewhat wistful and poetic meditation on journeying, adventuring and passing-by.

When you arrive at Platform 3 at the station for the show, everything feels fairly normal. Evening travellers are waiting for trains, and station staff are going about their business. However, you then spot a few unconventional travellers on the platform. Smiling and interacting with audience members and commuters, these travellers are dressed in quirky, slightly old-fashioned clothing. They look like they might’ve dropped in from a different time.

This is what I mean by ‘light-touch immersive’. The audience doesn’t participate in the action of the play, but the way the company use and inhabit the site transforms the way we look at the otherwise ordinary train station. For an hour or so, the ordinary becomes a little bit extraordinary.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is a lyrical and whimsical tale – with a slight Gallic inflection – of connections and journeys. As a man (the eponymous beggars) sits and strums a guitar, another man (played by Geoff Baker) walks hurriedly in front of us, from one door of the room to the other. He drops a coin into the beggar’s guitar case, but he has no time to stop, because he’s just ‘passing by’. A married couple (played by Emma Yates and James Boucher) arrive to wait for a train. They speak at cross purposes to one another and are repeatedly interrupted by the passer-by. Eventually, the wife is distracted enough to talk to the stranger, and they discover a deep and significant sense of connection.

The play dispenses with naturalistic performance and dialogue to instead offer eccentric and poetic flights of fancy that conjure up romanticized vistas that can only be reached by train. The wife and the passer-by describe a wondrous and rather off-beat journey, imagining the incredible sights they could see together – only to have to their fantastical scenario shattered by the arrival of the last train. Is their brief interlude real? Or is it a dream? It feels as though we might be suspended between the two.

To add to the otherworldly feel, the dialogue of the first half is mirrored in the second. This time, as the couple fail to communicate with one another (with lines switched around from their earlier conversation, and the dynamic of the married couple reversed), it is the husband who is distracted by a passer-by – played by Martine Anson – and who begins an imagined adventure.

While their roles mirror and echo one another, I very much enjoyed the differences between Anson and Baker’s performances. Anson exudes a wistful optimism, combined with a neat glamour, that lends a hopefulness to her daydreams of adventure. Baker, on the other hand, projects a sense of sadness. His character seems isolated and awkward, giving his brief connection with a stranger at the station a real poignancy. Anson carries a barometer – wondering at one point whether the instrument describes the present or predicts the future – whereas Baker carries a clock, marking time. Interestingly, while Yates and Boucher’s married couple are an anchor to the story, it is the people who are just passing by that steal our (and their) attention.

Of course, the other star of the show is Stockport Train Station itself. While the performance is going on, trains come and go as though carefully choreographed. And as the heavy door to the waiting room is slid back and forth to allow the characters to ‘pass by’, the room becomes briefly filled with the sounds of the platform, creating a truly unique atmosphere.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is an unusual and captivating show, with a little drop of magic in the way the play interacts with its venue. As I exited the show, I really did feel that I was looking at the station through slightly different eyes. A quirky, off-beat and rather sweet experience, this show is well worth going to see.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind was on at Stockport Train Station on the 11th and 12th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Buxton Fringe on 13th and 14th July, and the Edinburgh Fringe on 17th and 18th August. For the full programme of shows on at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival website.