Sunday, 25 October 2020

Review: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

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

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Mother’s Day by Tom Ryder and Monday at the Flat Iron by Kate Ireland.

Let’s start with Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a relatively short (it’s around 10 minutes long) monologue, written by Ryder, directed by Michelle Parker and performed by Janice Fryett.

The monologue begins with the narrator signing a lullaby – which, when combined with the title leaves us in no doubt that the character here is a mother, and that she is likely going to be addressing her child. That is indeed the case. Fryett places an unnamed mother, speaking to her son and explaining her feelings about the fact that he persistently forgets Mother’s Day. She doesn’t mind though, as she loves her son.

Of course, the story isn’t really as simple as that. Mother’s Day, like a number of the other JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve reviewed, manages to fit quite a huge – and rather ambiguous – story into its short running time. The relationship between the mother and her son is absolutely the focus here, but it may not quite be the relationship we were expecting.

It’s hard to put your finger on where and how Mother’s Day becomes unsettling, but it definitely does. One striking aspect of Ryder’s story is that it is told in second-person (so a sustained address to the son), but also that it uses future tense (the mother is telling her son the story of what will happen, rather than what has happened). Given that we begin with that lullaby, the listener is left with the unnerving sense that this is a story the mother is telling her baby – the story of what his life, and their relationship, will become. It’s an unusual storytelling technique, but one that is suited to the short form.

Added to this – and, again, a judicious use of the running time – we never actually hear the full story. The mother describes particular moments in their lives – particular Mother’s Days that were forgotten – jumping forward by years each time to take us through to the son’s adulthood. And, again, there’s an unnerving quality to this. Not only does this add to the sense that the story – the future life of the baby being soothed by the lullaby – is already written, inevitable, it leaves a series of large gaps in the narrative for the listener to fill with their own imagined explanations.

Just what is going with this mother-son relationship is left distinctly unexplained. The moments that are described are weird, and the behaviours presented are definitely not right. But is this an overbearing mother smothering her child? Or a protective parent trying to navigate her child’s problems in the best way she can? Some of the mother’s actions seem strange, and her motivations unclear, but the fact that we only ever see the relationship from her perspective means that, no matter how opaque her thinking is, her son’s motivations are even more elusive.

Ryder’s script is tantalizing and suggestive, and it is performed well by Fryett, who lends the character sympathy – and even humour – even at the more disturbing points of the story. This is an unusual tale that will linger with you after it has finished.

Now, in previous reviews, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been choosing the pairs of plays each week pretty much at random, but that I’ve kept being surprised by the connections I find between the chosen pairs. I have to say that I think this review might break that pattern, as Monday at the Flat Iron is a completely different kettle of fish to Mother’s Day!

Written by Kate Ireland and directed by Andy Yeomans, Monday at the Flat Iron is a two-hander. It is performed by Rebecca Pythian (who plays Zahra) and Callum Scouller (who plays Joe), and it’s about the relationship between two very different characters.

Monday at the Flat Iron begins with Zahra (who’s from Salford) reading out her profile for a dating app. It’s a brash, abrasive, loud-mouthed profile, which Pythian performs with gobby northern gusto. Scouller’s Joe then steps in to criticize Zahra’s attempts, suggesting it isn’t honest enough, and then to read out his own, which consists of simple statements of fact: he is Scottish and a construction worker.

And so this is a classic ‘odd couple’ set-up. Given how wildly different Zahra and Joe are, how have they come to be such good friends that they seek one another’s advice on their dating profiles?

The one thing that Monday at the Flat Iron has in common with Mother’s Day is its relatively short run-time (it’s also around 10 minutes long), and so there isn’t space for Ireland’s script to give us the full history of Zahra and Joe’s relationship. Instead, the characters – moving into parallel monologues – describe the moment when they met, which happened in a pub called The Flat Iron.

It’s a beguiling little story – I was going to say ‘charming’, but much of Zahra’s narration is a little too earthy to really be called charming – about a loud messed-up lass from Salford accidentally crossing the path of a more introverted young man from Glasgow, as the latter tried to enjoy a few pints with his workmates and the former was stumbling round in the dying throes of a full-on weekender. A lot is not said here, and Ireland’s story focuses us on the specifics of what happened that ‘Monday at the Flat Iron’, rather than on explanation or interpretation. The characters describe one another – and themselves – and who said and did what, as the story builds to the moment at which their friendship began. Pythian and Scouller give warm and believable performances, which adds to the charm of it all.

I did really enjoy this one, though I found myself thinking that I would’ve liked to see a little more of Joe. Perhaps this is a deliberate character choice, though. While Pythian’s Zahra exclaims various ideas, experiences and philosophies through which we get a sense of her character, Scouller’s Joe is much more reserved, focusing more on describing the appearance and behaviour of the wasted woman who accosts him in the pub one afternoon. This gives us a good sense of the contrast between the two, but it does mean that the audience may feel a stronger and more rounded sense of Zahra’s character than of Joe’s.

Nevertheless, Monday at the Flat Iron is a really enjoyable piece of drama, with two great performances. I suppose you could call it a ‘slice of life’ story, as there is something very normal and down-to-earth in the characterization (as well as in the mundanity of how the two characters meet). But, especially in the final lines of the play, there’s a pleasing hint of something more profound.

Once again, I find myself really recommending these plays from JustOut Stays In. Two enjoyable and engaging pieces of audio drama that pack a hell of a lot of story into a tight run-time. With great writing, direction and performances, Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are definitely worth checking out.

Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Monday, 5 October 2020

My Year in Books 2020: September

This month's list is a little bit shorter than August's. That's partly because I didn't have a week off work this month, of course, but also because this list doesn't cover all the novel's I read in September. Now that my radio show is back in full swing on North Manchester FM, I'm reviewing a lot more books on there. (You can see the archive of shows, with the titles I've reviewed, here.) The books I've included on this list are the ones that I wasn't reading specifically for a review, but ones I picked up just for fun.

In case you're interested, here are the rest of my 2020 reviews: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

After the Silence by Louise O'Neill (2020)

I picked out this one from a selection of recently published crime novels. I know I shouldn’t say this, but it does have a really lovely cover that sort of caught my eye. The blurb looked interesting as well. Ten years ago, on the Irish island of Inisrun, Nessa Crowley was found dead after a party at the glamorous home of Henry and Keelin Kinsella. The murder was never solved. And now a documentary crew have arrived on the island to make a film about the case, after a decade of secrets, deception and suspicion. The islanders have always known who they blamed for Nessa Crowley’s death – but is there more to case than they suspected? This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The bits of the story relating to island life (and the effect the arrival of the Kinsella family had on island life) were really atmospheric, with a nice touch of menace. And I enjoyed the interactions with the documentary makers – though I was disappointed that the filmmakers (and their film) didn’t play more of a role in the story. Ultimately, I was also disappointed in the mystery of Nessa’s death. Once you rule out the ‘obvious’ solution, there’s only really one possible explanation for everything that has happened on the island. Sadly, this meant I worked it out quite early on. After the Silence is a readable and atmospheric thriller, with some interesting characterization, but it’s a little light on mystery for my tastes.

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (2019)

The next book on my September list was the featured book from this month’s Abominable Book Club parcel (the horror subscription service I signed up to last month). I really enjoyed this one, but it’s going to be difficult to really do it justice in such a short review. A Cosmology of Monsters is a curious book – an adult novel in which monsters (and proper under-the-bed-type monsters) are real, and which never undermines this by hinting at alternative explanations or ironic handwaving. And it’s all to Hamill’s credit that this absolutely works, and that an incredible amount of sympathy is created for the family dealing with the monsters’ attentions. The book has been described as a ‘gentle’ horror novel – partly because it’s devoid of gore and shock-for-shock’s-sake – but I’d also say it’s a perfect Halloween novel. Something about Hamill’s writing captures the essence of the season beautifully, balancing spooky thrills with an underlying sense of menace and uncertainty. The Halloween-ness of the book is, of course, heightened by the fact that the Turner family make their living from a Haunted House attraction. A Cosmology of Monsters is the story of that family – and their monsters – and one of the things that really stuck in my mind was the way Hamill captured the disintegration of the Turners, both as a family and as individuals, as the extreme stress of their situation takes it toll. I really liked this one, and it’s a book that lingers with you after you’ve finished reading.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (2006)

Time to return to my surprise book bundle from Lyall’s in Todmorden that I bought in the summer. I read a couple of books from the bundle last month, but I still have more to look forward to. The next one I picked from the pile was The Bastard of Istanbul. I wasn’t familiar with Shafak’s work before, but this is another book that I really enjoyed. At the heart of the book is the Kazanci family, and twenty-year-old Asya Kazanci (the ‘bastard’ of the title), who lives with her quirky extended family in Istanbul in the shadow of a family curse that states no male Kazancis will live long after their fortieth birthday. Into that family comes Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, the stepdaughter of Asya’s Uncle Mustafa and an Armenian-American. Armanoush has travelled to Istanbul to find more about her family history and her heritage, but the past is a complicated thing and the way it impacts the present might not be immediately apparent. Shafak’s novel is whimsical, affectionate and thought-provoking. Although it deals head-on with the Armenian genocide and the trauma of its aftermath, the novel explores this through an intimate – and rather charming – portrait of one off-beat family with secrets that run deep. The way that Shafak paints this portrait brings together the particular problems of a single family with bigger questions of Turkish and Armenian identity. It’s an incredibly readable book, and like the last book on this month’s list, it’s one that sticks in the mind afterwards.

3 Minute Scares is back for its fifth fantastic year!

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants your scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being broadcast on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 31st October.

This year’s 3 Minute Scares competition will be judged by horror writer Simon Bestwick, with the writer of the best entry receiving a bundle of books from the wonderful folk at Lyall's Bookshop, Todmorden. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of around 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Friday 23rd October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Bridie Breen, who impressed the judges with her creepy but rather charming tale. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘Bridie’s winning story was really impressive – once again, we were so amazed by how much atmosphere and story writers were able to get into such a short space of time, and it was a pleasure to see the crown pass to Bridie. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what this year's competition has to offer.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition, including information for people unable to submit a recording, can also be found on the website.