Sunday, 22 November 2020

3 Minute Santas - Festive Flash Fiction Wanted!

A call for seasonal submissions to be broadcast on the radio!

Can you tells a festive story in just 3 minutes? Hannah's Bookshelf presents 3 Minute Santas - back for its fourth fabulous year on North Manchester FM!

I’m looking for recordings of festive (not necessarily Christmas) stories for inclusion on my radio show on Saturday 19th December – but they can only be 3 minutes long! Stories are welcome from anywhere in the world, and in any genre. A selection of 3 Minute Santas will be broadcast on the show on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and on digital (for the rest of the world) – and don’t worry, there’s always ‘listen again’ feature if you’re in a different time zone!

3 Minute Santas isn’t a competition, but a call for submissions. It’s open to anyone, and the more the merrier! For details of how to submit a story, just click here. The deadline is midnight on Monday 7th December.

And please do share this info with anyone you think might be interested!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Review: Black Dark and Broken Wings (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Black Dark and Broken Wings. 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.

Sadly, this is the final post in this series of reviews, as the JustOut Stays In project has now come to an end. All of the plays in the series are still available to listen to, but the company is taking a short break to start planning projects for the new year. In this post, I’ll be talking about the last two pieces in the series: Black Dark by Aimee Shields and Broken Wings by Alison Scurfield.

Let’s start with Black Dark

Written by Aimee Shields and directed by Lexie Ward, Black Dark is a two-hander about a pair of flatmates who are… I think the phrase is ‘unhappy with their lot’. Sam (played by Ewan Mulligan) is angry/miserable about his ex, who is borderline stalking, watching him at the gym and getting jealous about his relationship with his personal trainer. His flatmate is Lara (played by Jessica Porter) returns home from work with the bombshell announcement that she has unceremoniously quit her job.

Sam and Lara are both approaching thirty (and have been friends since university). They live in an HMO with a landlord who keeps the heating turned down. It’s raining. They’re miserable. They have gin, and some ‘ouzo from the cupboard’.

They sit, drink and grumble about the disappointing direction their lives have taken. And when a power cut hits, they get even more despondent. Sam can’t get over his break-up and his broken heart, and Lara can’t see any prospect of another job.

Sam and Lara’s misery is undoubtedly – and quintessentially – the stuff of millennial angst. Lara bemoans the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder. There’s a mention of screamingly high university fees, and digs at the older generation (here, people in their 50s) who had work and housing handed to them on a plate, and who had reason to believe that hard work could actually reap some reward.

This millennial angst is lampshaded at times through the dialogue. Lara wonders whether, given she may now be unable to pay her rent, she’ll be forced to move back in with her parents. She says that this would be like a ‘suspended adolescence’. And Sam, still clinging to the remnants of his youthful dreams of fame, notes that since he’s now too old to join the ‘27 Club’, he’ll ‘have to live forever’. There’s something painful – but also a bit self-indulgent – in the characters’ belief that their only life options are prolonged adolescence, going out in a blaze of glory, or immortality.

I have to admit, I found myself getting a bit irritated by Lara and Sam, as the dialogue kept coming back to this stereotype of the somewhat entitled and self-absorbed twenty-something, who sees their generation’s woes as unique and unprecedented concerns. I sort of just wanted them to pull themselves together.

However, I think this irritation was kind of the point. Shields’s script is concealing a darker and more unsettling story (completely concealing, in fact) that throws this idea of ‘millennial angst’ into sharp focus. There is a difference between what Sam is going through and what Lara is going through, which we don’t see until right at the end – as, in fact, is also the case for one of the characters. Without giving too much away, the overwhelming message at the end of Black Dark is that sometimes angst isn’t actually just angst. And all credit to Porter and Mulligan for performances that give little away until the final moments.

It’s a bit of a sucker-punch, and it will make you feel bad for being irritated by the ouzo-fuelled moaning.

Speaking of unsettling stories with a bit of a punch… time to turn to the second play I’m looking at today and the final piece in the JustOut Stays In series: Broken Wings.

This final play is – like quite a few of the other pieces in the series – a monologue. Written by Alison Scurfield, directed by Shannon Raftery and performed by Laura Thérèse, Broken Wings takes us into the world – and into the mind – of a young woman who likes tending to vegetable plants.

Our narrator talks us through how she’s learning how to grow and care for her plants, reminding us that the most important thing to remember is not to overwater them. The opening section of the monologue is, on the whole, a bit mundane and apparently harmless. It’s just a girl who’s enjoying growing plants.

There are, of course, some hints that this might not be a completely mundane situation. For instance, there are little suggestions that the narrator is not in a typical domestic environment – she talks of someone called Carla who has been helping her, and it’s clear she lives with a number of other people. She is quite intense about her vegetable growing, and she hopes to perhaps use what she’s grown in cooking, serving meals that will remind her fellow residents of ‘before’ when they used to have ‘dinner parties’.

These hints – along with Thérèse’s performance, which blends a bit of a confrontational tone with an undercurrent of brittle fragility – suggest that the central character is institutionalized, possibly in a care setting (since she seems quite young and in some ways naïve) or possibly in a more punitive environment.

When she discovers her beloved plants have been torn up by birds, the narrator begins to reveal a little more about her situation and her character. And when she starts to talk about chilli peppers, a plant that has an inbuilt ability to cause pain and that grow red (the colour of danger), we start to get a sense of what sort of person we might be dealing with.

I enjoyed the way the character’s story unfolded here. It’s pretty disturbing (but in a way that’s compelling!), and a bit of an unexpected character study. The use of plants as a theme/motif is also interesting and thought-provoking. A combination of Shield’s script and Thérèse’s delivery means the audience gets quite caught up in the monologue as it unfolds. As things become clearer in the final third, it turns out that’s quite an uncomfortable place to be. But it’s too late to stop listening by then…

Broken Wings was a brilliant end to what has been a highly enjoyable series. As you will have heard from my reviews, I’ve been very impressed by all of the pieces I’ve heard, and look forward to seeing what JustOut do next (and I’m still hoping I’ll be able to see a live, in-person performance from them one day…).

Black Dark and Broken Wings 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.

You can see my reviews of the other plays in the series by clicking on these links:

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track
A is for… and Accident of Birth
Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth
Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute
Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet
Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron

Review: User Not Found (Dante or Die)

Dante or Die

Time for another online theatre review from me. In this post I’m going to be reviewing User Not Found, an immersive video podcast by theatre company Dante or Die. The radio version of this review went out on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

User Not Found is an immersive video podcast, created by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan, and written by Chris Goode. It’s a production by Dante or Die, a UK-based ‘site-specific’ theatre company, a digital adaptation of their 2018-19 live show of the same name.

The podcast version of User Not Found was created as a lockdown piece – Dante or Die are a ‘site-specific’ company, and so during lockdown that ‘site’ is the audience’s own individual virtual spaces. Their intention was to translate the live performance (which utilized a bespoke app) into a piece that can be experienced by a socially distanced audience. Working with Marmelo Digital, the company created an immersive podcast that can be viewed from their YouTube channel (or as I did, via theatre websites, such as HOME Manchester).

So… what is an immersive video podcast, and what’s this one about?

The first thing to note is that User Not Found is explicitly designed to be viewed on a smartphone (ideally with headphones). There are warnings that the viewing experience will not be as good if it’s watched on a laptop or desktop screen. The viewer is also recommended to keep the phone in portrait mode, and to full screen the video.

The piece then begins with a ‘Starting Up…’ screen, soon replaced by a phone’s home screen. And there’s your immersive quality right there… your own phone has just become the performance space. It’s slightly disorienting at first – a bit like having your phone hijacked – and the temptation to swipe and click is definitely there. But then our narrator-protagonist says ‘hello’, and it becomes easier to see this as a performance rather than a hack.

The voice that we hear is that of Terry (played by Terry O’Donovan), and it’s his phone screen that we’re looking at. He tells us that he’s in a café, drinking his usual peppermint tea, and he shows us a waterfall sound app he likes to listen to while trying to write in the coffee shop. It’s a gentle introduction, with some tentative musings on our reliance on smartphones and digital networks. A WhatsApp message from an old friend pops onto the screen, and Terry ponders why – despite having once been so close – they’ve drifted apart. We can see on the screen that the last text prior to this one was a couple of years ago, a little detail that feels so real. An unexpected message from old acquaintance now drags with it the baggage of years-old chats. It’s a nice little visual detail, and an early indication of the attention to detail that’s gone into producing this performance.

Of course, the pensive equilibrium of the opening moments of User Not Found is shattered. And it’s shattered by the arrival of more text messages, flooding the screen at a pace that makes it difficult for the audience to catch them all.

Terry discovers that his ex, Luka, has died. And before he has time to process the complex emotions he feels in response to this news, an email from a company called Fidelis Legacy Solutions brings even more difficult news: Terry is still named as Luka’s ‘digital executor’, the person with the power to retain or delete all Luka’s ‘assets’, the fragments of digital identity scattered across social media sites, apps and website. Terry is left with the painful task of deciding what sort of digital legacy will remain now that Luka is gone.

In case this is starting to sound a little like an episode Black Mirror, I will say User Not Found isn’t so much a tech-noir, live-forever-in-the-cloud story, but rather a meditation on grief, and on connectivity. As he explores both Luka’s online accounts, and his own emotional responses to them, Terry takes us on a journey that, while solidly situated in the digital realm, feels so very profound. User Not Found is absolutely a story about grief, and while Terry’s story has some very specific details – and very contemporary packaging – it constantly gestures at something that feels timeless and universal.

User Not Found is an incredibly moving piece, and I will freely admit to shedding more than a few tears in places. This effect is created by the skilful blend of writing – Goode’s script is well-paced and balances the conversational with the poetic beautifully – and performance – O’Donovan’s delivery has a warmth and immediacy to it that is instantly relatable, meaning that the audience feels Terry’s pain keenly. However, the immersive quality of the piece can’t be overlooked either. Yes, the audience is drawn in by the writing and performance, but User Not Found is really an experiential piece, brought together by Daphna Attias’s careful direction and the subtly emotive sound design by Yaniv Fridel (including one particularly emotional use of music).

It’s actually really difficult to pull apart the strands of the piece and say, this bit is why I felt X, or this bit created Y effect. Clichéd as it is to say, User Not Found really is more than the sum of its individual parts.

While I found Terry’s story very moving and – and the piece is pretty up-front about its intentions here – thought-provoking (with Terry addressing the audience directly throughout, and even asking us, ‘What would you do?’ on occasion), I also enjoyed the conceit here. Dante or Die are a site-specific theatre company, and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into what this means in the COVID-world. Terry states this early on in his introduction when he says, ‘Our phones are the place.’ On the one hand, he’s reminding us that, for the duration of lockdown, smart devices are the sites to which site-specific theatre is confined. However, there’s something rather clever in the use of ‘our phones’ here, reminding us that, while we may be distanced in many ways (whether locked down in a pandemic, or sitting alone with our earbuds in, listening a fake waterfall in a café) there is a still an ‘us’, and ‘we’ are still connected.

This is an idea that runs through User Not Found. Though much of the story obviously focuses in on Terry and Luka, and much of the emotive content is drawn from an individual and personal experience, the podcast keeps returning to broader questions of connectivity and the ways in which we are networked with one another. How do we connect with other people? What do these connections mean? At times, these questions are explored with humour – a video attachment from a performance artist friend, an interaction with a stern-faced barista – and there’s a little bit of a meta-fictional tip of the hat at one point, when Terry decides to turn his phone off. (I think it’s important that I do mention the humour here, as I don’t want to give the impression that this is an unrelentingly sad performance… though it is pretty sad in places.)

Ultimately, as you may imagine, Terry does come to some decisions about how to handle the tough choices he has to make. Are those decisions the ones I would make? Are they the ones you would make? I guess that’s the most overtly ‘thought-provoking’ part of the show. It certainly raises questions that the audience may find themselves pondering over after the podcast finishes.

But, more than this, User Not Found is a moving and well-made piece of immersive theatre and, at its heart, a cleverly and tenderly constructed story about the human condition. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.

User Not Found is available to watch on demand, for free, until March 2021. For more information, and for a link to the video, please visit the Dante or Die website.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

My Year in Books 2020: October

Well, not a long post from me today. There's only one book on my October list, I'm afraid. That's not to say that I didn't read any other novels this month (I actually read a lot), but they were almost entirely books that I was reviewing for my radio show or preparing for teaching. It's been a pretty stressful month, but at least I got time to sneak one book in!

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from 2020: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

The Complex by Michael Walters (2019)

I bought this one to support the publisher, Salt, who were encouraging people to buy ‘just one book’ to help keep them going through difficult times. Ah… I bought three (and I really had to limit myself to just three). The Complex is the first of the three I’ve read so far. Set in what feels like the near future – but with hints that it might be a little bit post-apocalyptic – The Complex begins with a family going on holiday. But that’s a great way to undersell it! The family are Gabrielle, Leo and their son Stefan. They’re travelling to a remote retreat, to stay for a week with Art (someone Gabrielle has worked with), his wife Polly and daughter Fleur. It’s a break that promises luxury and a change to get ‘off Grid’ and away from the ‘Areas’. Before they even get to the resort though, a vague sense of menace starts to pervade the trip. And things just get worse when they get there. The Complex is a nightmarish tale of tech-horror in a semi-dystopian setting. However, what I really liked about it is that this horror and dystopia is never quite explained. This is a book that plays with suggestion, hint and incongruity in a really compelling way. The ill-defined menace is paradoxically tangible and elusive – there’s an excellent scene near the beginning where two characters play tennis (that’s all) and it was one of the most unsettling things I’ve read for a while. Loved this one.