Monday, 27 September 2021

Review: The Formidable Lizzie Boone (Selina Helliwell, GM Fringe)

Friday 24th September 2021
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout September. I still have a couple of shows left to review on this year’s programme. I’ll be reviewing shows on this blog, and also for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was The Formidable Lizzie Boone, by Selina Helliwell, which I saw at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday 24th September. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Reviews Special on Tuesday 28th September, but here’s the blog version…

The Formidable Lizzie Boone is a one-woman (almost) show, written and performed by Selina Helliwell and directed by Hannah Heaton. It follows a format quite familiar to the Fringe, in which a slightly awkward, slightly confrontational, but always rather likeable young woman speaks directly to the audience about the things in her life that have made her… well… slightly awkward and confrontational. In this case, our titular protagonist is ostensibly speaking to her therapist, so her explanations have a clinical as well as confessional context.

Lizzie (played by Helliwell) is, in many ways, just an ordinary girl. And, given some of the details of her story, that’s actually quite a tragic thing to say. Picked on at primary school and bullied at secondary school, Lizzie enters early adulthood with no self-esteem and few real friends – it’s a story I imagine many people in the audience will sadly relate to. Although she worries that she’s a ‘psychopath’ (a bombshell dropped early in the performance), the catalogue of behaviours, relationships and mistakes we see unfold on stage are depressingly normal. For all Lizzie’s conviction that there is something horribly different and shocking about her personality, Helliwell’s character emerges as a kinds of millennial everywoman, and the reaction of the audience to some of her revelations certainly seemed to confirm this.

Helliwell presents Lizzie’s story mostly through monologue, with a bare set containing just a single chair. The pressure is on, then, to engage the audience directly for an entire hour, but fortunately Helliwell is well up to the challenge. Although we see her talking to her therapist Marie (played by Carla Kayani-Lawman – more on that shortly), Lizzie repeatedly breaks off from what she is saying to talk directly to the audience, explaining her feelings towards Marie, how she is not necessarily answering her questions fully, and explaining the background to the issues for which she is seeking therapy.

Helliwell is at ease with the audience – even when her verbal performance moves to the physical in a burlesque dance sequence midway through the play – and her conversational style is one of the reasons why Lizzie Boone is such a likable character for all her flaws. Though her interactions with Marie are hesitant and sometimes forced, her address to the audience is natural and unguarded. Helliwell does a good job of creating this balance, allowing the audience to warm to her character to pave the way for a jubilant and celebratory ending.

While I’ve said that Marie is played by Kayani-Lawman, it should be noted that this is an off-stage performance. Helliwell is the only performer that we see on stage. Other characters are performed through recorded voiceovers, to which Helliwell responds, often adding additional descriptive details that allow us to picture the individuals and better understand their relationship to the protagonist-narrator (whether all of the descriptions are flattering or neutral… well… no one said this wasn’t a highly subjective piece!). Through these voiceovers, we learn of Lizzie’s relationship to the various men in her life and her past, including Robin (voiced by Christopher Sutcliffe), a recent boyfriend with whom Lizzie has had a disagreement, Rick (voiced by Adrian Stretton), an unpleasant ex, Paul (voiced by Rodney Gooden), a platonic friend who responded badly to learning about the details of Lizzie’s sex life, and Mr Paxam (also voiced by Gooden), a P.E. teacher at Lizzie’s sixth form college.

It is this last character who provides some of the more unpleasant content in the show (though Rick comes a close second in many ways). As the content warnings for the show indicate, one of the issues Lizzie has been struggling with is the emotional aftermath of a sexual assault when she was at college. Helliwell takes the bold decision to enact some parts of this on stage, coupled with a voiceover of the aggressor. Bold as it may be, it’s a very astute decision, as it subtly embodies the reality of living with the aftereffects of a traumatic experience. What the audience sees is Lizzie enacting the abuse on herself (it is, after all, Helliwell’s own hands that are performing as Mr Paxam’s), while the voice of her assailant echoes around her. It was uncomfortable to watch, but very cleverly staged.

On a lighter – and much more hopeful note – there is another voiceover that plays a different role in Lizzie’s story. Mary Taylor voices Debz (with a ‘z’ not an ‘s’), Lizzie’s closest – only – friend. On her first audio appearance, Debz appears to be the polar opposite of Lizzie. She’s married with a child, plus brasher and more self-confident. The pair seem to have little in common, and we later learn that they met quite by chance when their respective workplaces held their Christmas parties at the same venue.

At times, it’s easy to get infuriated with Debz, who seems to be ignoring her friend’s anxieties and problems in favour of her own lascivious fantasies of adultery. However, there is more to Debz – and more to her friendship with Lizzie – than we first realize. I really enjoyed the way Lizzie and Debz’s friendship was evoked through suggestion and implication, which was often at odds with the way Lizzie bluntly described it. There is an unexpected warmth to this portrayal of a mismatched, but ultimately very strong, female friendship, and despite the fact that Debz initially appears to be introduced for comic relief, I found myself wanting to see more of this pair of friends. I would happily watch a Lizzie-and-Debz sequel to The Formidable Lizzie Boone!

(As an aside, Helliwell’s other production at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, Fruit Salad tells the story of a mismatched pair of friends, Cherry and Peaches (played by Taylor and Helliwell), who meet by chance but develop an ‘unlikely but beautiful friendship’. Clearly, this is a theme that Helliwell is drawn to in her writing, and it’s an interesting and thought-provoking one.)

To return to The Formidable Lizzie Boone, what Helliwell ultimately offers audiences here is a well-drawn character sketch of a troubled, but far from hopeless, young woman on the verge of discovering who she really is. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Lizzie Boone isn’t a psychopath, but she is a character who is struggling to understand her own personality and identity. The audience comes to know Lizzie as she comes to know herself, allowing us to share her sense of hope and celebration at the ending.

Once again, the Fringe has offered a well-written and well-performed solo show – continuing my soft spot for this type of performance! Helliwell’s writing reveals a knack for capturing something about the mundane and ordinary business of human interactions (even interactions of an unpleasant nature) and elevating it to a poetic, imaginative and compelling stage performance. This is another writer who I think is one to watch in the future.

The Formidable Lizzie Boone was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on 24th and 25th September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For more information about this year’s festival programme, please visit the Greater Manchester Fringe website.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Review: The Ballad of Maria Marten (Eastern Angles)

Thursday 23rd September 2021
The Lowry, Salford

Although September has been dominated by the Greater Manchester Fringe for me, I’ve also had the opportunity to see some non-Fringe theatre this month. On Thursday 23rd September, I was at The Lowry in Salford to see The Ballad of Maria Marten by Eastern Angles. I’ll be reviewing this production for Hannah’s Bookshelf, my weekly literature show on North Manchester FM, on Saturday 2nd October, but here’s the blog version…

Written by Beth Flintoff and first performed in 2018, The Ballad of Maria Marten is the story of a notorious and gruesome murder that took place in Suffolk in 1827. Except that it isn’t. And that’s what makes this play special.

The murder of Maria Marten by William Corder sparked a media frenzy at the time, and the case was almost instantly immortalized in ballads, broadsheets, popular theatre and – later – film dramatizations. The grisly nature of the victim’s injuries, the fact that her body lay undiscovered for a year after her death, and the infamous treatment of her killer’s body after his execution, was a gift for sensationalizers. Over the years, writers have devoted their attention to William Corder’s character, suggesting various possible motives for his crimes, and to suggesting alternative theories that might throw doubt on his guilt (despite his confession). There have also been some sustained efforts to imply some culpability on the part of the victim: Maria’s three illegitimate children have been used as evidence of her ‘loose’ character, and her lower class status has equally been a talking-point in some accounts of the case.

The Ballad of Maria Marten stands as a powerful – and timely – corrective to this tradition of presenting the case known as the Red Barn Murder. It is explicitly not the story of William Corder’s crime, but rather the story of Maria Marten’s life.

Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

The play begins with the rather unsettling entrance of a spectral Maria Marten (played by Elizabeth Crarer) walking onto the stage in the tattered remnants of the clothes she was wearing when she was buried. She holds a ragged umbrella over one shoulder, and the injuries she sustained before her death are brutally visible on her face and neck. Maria addresses the audience – as she will do a number of times during the show – confronting our expectations and questioning how much we think we know about her. She talks about her own death and the nature of the injuries she sustained, but she refers to her killer only as ‘he’ and ‘him’. There is no direct evocation of William Corder at this point of the story.

What follows this entrance really sets the tone of the rest of the production. I’ll confess that I was expecting to get a lump in my throat at the end of the play, so the fact that I was welling up at the beginning was a bit of a surprise.

A group of women, singing softly, surround the spectral Maria and remove the tattered clothing. Bringing bowls and cloths, they wipe off the marks of her injuries, and then tidy her hair and redress her in fresh clothes. According to the programme, Flintoff’s original notes in the script state that these women ‘unmurder’ Maria, and this is exactly how I experienced the scene. It’s a dramatic and empowering sequence, but it is also one weighty with sadness due our knowledge that Maria was murdered. Whatever we see on stage from this moment, Maria’s ending is in part already written.

Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

The play is about Maria’s life as a young working-class woman in Polstead, Suffolk in the 1820s, beginning when she is ten years old. In the first act, we meet Maria’s friends: Phoebe (played by Jessica Dives), Theresa (Bethan Nash), confident Sarah (Lydia Bakelmun) and awkward outsider Lucy (Susie Barrett), with whom she dreams of being as bold and adventurous as men are allowed to be. We also meet Maria’s new stepmother, Ann (played by Sarah Goddard), who is young and nervy, but determined to be a good friend to her newly acquired family. Ann’s arrival is told with humour and warmth, but it also serves as a stark reminder of social context. While we might giggle a little at Ann’s clumsy attempts to befriend Maria, she also articulates a very real fear of rejection. If Maria doesn’t accept Ann, then her father might decide not to marry after all. She has nowhere else to go if he ends their engagement, and she fears the workhouse might be her only option. For all their boldness and camaraderie, the women in this world are entirely reliant on the whims of men.

Nevertheless, Maria’s life plays out for us with verve, humour and hope. The performances are excellent. Crarer is captivating as Maria, capturing her youthful ambitions and aspirations, but tempering this with an edge of confrontation as she breaks the fourth wall and reminds us of what will happen to her when she’s just twenty-five years old. Goddard’s performance as Ann is also very striking. Her depiction of Ann matures before our eyes, from the nervous new stepmother to a solid and constant presence in Maria’s life. Goddard brings to life a good and kind woman who deals with life’s hardships as best she can, until bringing us to a heart-breaking first act finale with raw and visceral emotional depth.

While it’s easy to see the other characters as foils to Maria – images of alternative models of working-class womanhood in distinction to Maria’s own path – the actors bring depth and humanity to their performances that creates more of an ensemble feel. In addition to playing Maria’s friends, some of the actors double up on parts. Bakelmun plays the lusty and worldly-wise Sarah, but also appears as Lady Cooke, a member of the gentry who takes a shine to Maria and serves to remind us that sometimes it is hard to be a woman, even when your family owns most of the village’s land.

The play has an entirely female cast – a deliberate creative choice – but some male characters appear. The fathers of two of Maria’s children, Thomas Corder and Peter Matthews, are played by Barrett and Nash respectively. Barrett brings Thomas Corder to life as a young and arrogant man who enjoys lording his elevated status as a farmer’s son over the labouring classes. However, Barrett also gives him some humanity, and the emphasis on his youth means that we never truly hate him – we just don’t feel he deserves the respect of a woman like Maria. Nash has the unenviable task of performing the closest thing the play has to a ‘good man’, and her portrayal of Peter Matthews has a softness bordering on tragedy.

As noted, no one plays William Corder. This character ‘appears’ towards the end of the first act, and is central to the developments of the second, but he never appears on stage. We learn of his character from the reports of others, and we learn of his actions by seeing the devastating effects they have on Maria.

Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

The actors offer us performances steeped in humanity and empathy, and the script gives us a solid balance between engaging humour and brutal truths. But the production’s energy and vitality is the result of a strong creative team. The single set (set construction by Dominic Eddington and scenic art by Caitriona Penny) – dominated throughout by the façade of the barn in which Maria’s body was hidden – works well, as it is seamlessly transformed into Maria’s cottage, a village fair, the drawing room of Lady Cooke, and various locations around Polstead. Costumes and wardrobe by Faby Pym are also well-designed and put to powerful use. In addition to the dressing and undressing scenes we see on-stage (following the initial ‘unmurdering’ sequence, there are a number of other moments in which Maria is recostumed by women in front of our eyes), the quick changes required by the actors doubling on parts is quite amazing. I swear there were times when I was convinced I’d seen Sarah and Lady Cooke, or Lucy and Thomas Corder, on stage at the same time, despite the fact that the characters’ costumes were distinctively and elaborately different! All credit to Hal Chambers’s direction for pulling off this effect.

It has to be said, however, that it is the play’s ending that will really stick with audiences. As I’ve said, this isn’t the story of the murder of Maria Marten or the trial and execution of William Corder in the usual sense. It ends, then, not with Corder at the gallows, but with the burning of the so-called ‘Red Barn’ (the building that has dominated the production’s backdrop, that Maria has constantly reminded us was the scene of her demise, that has become a byname for the case itself, and that the programme and marketing material has shown engulfed in flames). Following the execution of William Corder, this building became a dark tourist attraction in Polstead for a time, before it was burnt down, presumably by irritated locals. The Ballad of Maria Marten transforms this historical moment into a powerful summation of the play’s central message, ‘unmurdering’ Maria as surely as the re-dressing sequence at the beginning of the first act. I defy anyone not to shed a few tears as the smoke begins to rise.

The Ballad of Maria Marten is a stunning piece of theatre. It is timely in its message – the programme notes the murder of Sarah Everard as an example of why Maria’s story continues to be relevant, and I was chillingly aware of Sabina Nessa’s murder while watching, which occurred just six days before the show’s press night at The Lowry, but the production was also informed by creative workshops with survivors of domestic violence and abuse, and its depiction of gaslighting and coercive control is truly unsettling in the way it feels both startlingly modern and convincingly historic at the same time.

You may be wondering whether you should go and see The Ballad of Maria Marten if you are unfamiliar with the Red Barn Murder case. Or, conversely, you may be wondering if there’s any point in going to see it if you feel you already know everything there is to know about William Corder, his crime and his execution. In both cases – or even if, like I was, you’re somewhere between the two – this is a strong recommendation. This is a play that is more ‘true life’ than ‘true crime’, with compelling performances, a thought-provoking script, and excellent production and direction, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Ballad of Maria Marten was on at The Lowry, Salford as part of a national tour. For more information about upcoming performances, please visit the show’s website.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Review of Feeling Haunted (Psycho Garbage, GM Fringe)

Sunday 19th September 2021
Chapeltown Picture House, Cheetham Hill

The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival is on at multiple venues across the region throughout September. I’m reviewing a selection of the shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was Feeling Haunted by emerging theatre company Psycho Garbage, which was on at the Chapeltown Picture House in Cheetham Hill on Sunday 19th September. My radio review of this production will be broadcast on Tuesday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Reviews Special, but here’s the blog version…

Before I start on the review of the show, I’d just like to mention the venue. This was my first visit to the Chapeltown Picture House, and it certainly won’t be my last. Chapeltown Picture House is a cinema and performance space housed in Grub in the Redbank area of Cheetham Hill. Although I’ve passed Grub a few times, I’ve never been in. I had no idea it was such a big place, or that it was home to such an incredible cinema/theatre space. The venue has a great atmosphere, and it’s comfortable and spacious enough to let you relax and lose yourself in whatever you’re watching. I can’t wait to see a film there!

And so… onto Feeling Haunted

The play is a spoof episode of a fictional TV show of the same name. It’s set up as a ‘lost episode’ being shown on the Horror Channel, but don’t let that mislead you. This is a comedy, rather than a horror.

Feeling Haunted (i.e. the fictional TV show) is a ghost-hunting show, hosted by David G. Hostmann (played by Dylan Hopkins) with his sidekick cameraman Terry F.Y. (played by Jacob Lee Normansell). I probably don’t need to explain the influences here, as Feeling Haunted is closely modelled on the material it spoofs, even down to the studio-based talking head interviews that punctuate the action.

This ‘lost episode’ sees the Feeling Haunted team responding to a case of ghostly activity at Oak House, a rambling old property owned by the elderly Darlene Sweetly (played by Leah Mulchay) who has a supply of Capri-Suns and a soft spot for David Hostmann. As appears to be the format of the show, the hosts call for assistance from psychic Galina Pakulska (played by Dominika Rak), and then things get a little bit silly.

There is a lot to like about Feeling Haunted. While the material they use is probably not the most original – there have been countless other spoofs of the ghost-hunter TV format, and the fake adverts that are included in the show are well-trodden territory (for instance, a parody of the Cillit Bang advert that was, always, beyond parody anyway), the company present it with an enjoyable verve and energy. Hopkins revels in his performance as a borderline-OTT trenchcoated American presenter, though he gets to reveal a little more of his Welsh roots when he doubles-up as one of the previous residents of the house that we see via intercut VT. And Normansell is charming – and surprisingly convincing – as the cameraman Terry, particularly with his ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ catchphrase whenever paranormal activity is noted.

Mulchay carries much of the physical comedy in her performance of sometimes-sweet, sometimes worryingly lascivious elderly homeowner. Again, there’s an exuberance to the performance that is hard not to enjoy, but Mulchay will also give us an indication of her wider range later in show (and I’m not going to give any spoilers for that!).

I don’t know if this is a matter of personal taste, but I particularly enjoyed Rak’s turn as the flamboyant psychic Galina. She hams up the clichéd elements of the character to just the right extent, but also undercuts the stereotype with barbed asides, including a commentary on the running joke that Hostmann and Terry can’t pronounce her name correctly (in fact, they mangle it to the point of calling her ‘Garlic Bread’ and ‘Gar Gar Binks’ towards the end).

Although the set-up to the show is pretty straightforward, there’s also an ambition to the performance that is executed with style and flair. The use of pre-recorded video projected onto the Chapeltown Picture House’s cinema screen is well-done. The show’s opening credits are shown in this way, as are the spoof adverts I mentioned earlier. The interaction between the recorded segments and the live action on stage is smooth and assured, and it allows for more depth to both the comedy and the plot.

And there is a plot here – for all the silly shenanigans of spilt Capri-Sun and body-swapping séances – and it isn’t quite the plot you might be expecting. Those VT talking heads that I mentioned take on an additional resonance as the audience gradually realize that they are watching clues that will help them, alongside the Feeling Haunted team, solve the mystery of what is going on at Oak House.

That’s not to say that this a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, but there is undoubtedly another, more animated, pop culture influence underlying the spooky daftness (or daft spookiness). I had a bit of a chuckle as it dawned on me where we were going, before a final line from one character (again, no spoilers) confirmed it all.

For a first play from a new company, Feeling Haunted has a confidence and ambition to it that is impressive. The use of the stage/screen space is both fun and compelling, and the gusto of the performances carries even the most groan-worthy of puns. It’s true that the material sometimes lacks originality, and some of the comedy takes the path well-travelled, but the format and story of Feeling Haunted allows this emerging company to show off what it can do, both in terms of comedic performance and also multi-media production. The pace and length of the piece is just right as well, giving us a taste – I hope – of what will come from Psycho Garbage as they develop and stretch their talents further.

(And, I should add… although some of the spoof adverts are pretty standard parody material, like a firm of personal injury lawyers or the aforementioned Cillit Bang, I really didn’t expect to see a take on the DFS adverts that was genuinely original and unlike any that I’ve seen before. So kudos to Psycho Garbage for managing to find something funny to say about DFS adverts that hasn’t been said before!)

Overall, this was an enjoyable and fun piece of theatre that plays it comedy with a heavy hand but evident skill. The Feeling Haunted programme describes itself as a ‘silly little show’, but I think the company are doing themselves down here. It might be silly, but it certainly doesn’t feel ‘little’. I look forward to seeing what Psycho Garbage do next.

Feeling Haunted was on at Chapeltown Picture House on Sunday 19th September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, please visit the festival website.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Review: The Comedy of Errors / La Commedia degli Errori (The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 15th September 2021
GMF Digital Events

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout September, and I’m continuing to review shows from this year’s programme on this blog and on North Manchester FM. Although most of the shows at this year’s festival are live and in-person, there is a selection of digital events as well. On Wednesday 15th September, I watched one of these digital productions: a bilingual English-Italian production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (or La Commedia degli Errori) by The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company. The radio version of my review will be going out on the Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Reviews Special on Tuesday 21st September, but here’s the blog version…

The Comedy of Errors is not one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and it’s not produced as regularly as some of his other plays. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it’s shorter and more farcical than his later works. I have to admit, I had reservations about how this was going to work as a digital production. The comedy in The Comedy of Errors comes from an increasingly frenetic double mistaken identity plot, involving two sets of identical twins and a large amount of slapstick. I wasn’t sure whether it would be possible to do justice to this on a Zoom-style digital performance.

I think I probably should have had more faith in The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company!

The performance begins with the cast and crew assembling on a video chat in preparation to travel to the US for a performance. However, last-minute Covid restrictions mean that they aren’t going to be able to travel after all – the show will have to go online.

It’s a nice little introduction, setting the scene for a production that will be entirely online with the performers acting their parts in separation. Admittedly – and this is a really strange thing to say! – but a couple of the Zoom jokes (someone forgetting to unmute, someone else accidentally putting up an embarrassing background) actually felt a little dated. I guess that type of humour is so 2020 now. However, the ‘comedy of errors’ (lower-case) of getting the show up-and-running, from the cancelled US trip to the awkwardness of group video conferencing, felt very fitting for Shakespeare’s play. It reminded me that The Comedy of Errors was first performed in 1594, just as London’s theatres were reopening after a series of plague-related closures. This is a very apt play to watch as we tentatively return to the world of live theatre.

The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company offer an excellent adaptation of Shakespeare’s play of twins (two sets) separated at birth and then accidentally reunited… with hilarious consequences. The play opens with an elderly merchant of Syracuse (Egeon, played here by Stephano Guerriero) arriving in the Greek city of Ephesus. Due to a prohibitive law, he is immediately arrested and sentenced to execution. In his own defence, he recounts a sad story (in Italian): Egeon and his wife had twin sons, and they also purchased the twin sons of a poor woman in the town to serve as their bondsmen. When disaster struck, and the family were in a shipwreck, Egeon was rescued with one son and one slave, and his wife Emilia was rescued with the other son and the other slave. Both sons are raised by their respective parents and are called Antipholus; both slaves stay with their respective owners and are called Dromio. (And if you think that sounds confusing, it’s only the beginning.)

Shakespeare’s comedy is notable for its unity of time and place. Unlike many of his other comedies, it takes place in a single location and over a period of just one day. The confusion ramps up a notch as we meet Antipholus of Syracuse (played by Gianluigi Calvani), arriving in Ephesus and charging Dromio of Syracuse (played by Alice Lussiana Parente) with taking some money to a local inn. Shortly afterwards, he runs into Dromio of Ephesus (played by Alice Lussiana Parente) and is confused when the slave denies any knowledge of the money, believing that the man is his master Antipholus of Ephesus (played by Gianluigi Calvani). Phew.

The company handles this manic confusion in an impressive way. The pseudo-Zoom set-up actually works in their favour, as it allows the actors to appear on screen together for the final reconciliation scenes. Similarly, the bilingual nature of the play, with the characters from Syracuse occasionally switching to Italian when conversing with one another, helps to keep some sense of distinction between the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios.

Praise has to be given to the actors, of course. Although the Antipholuses and the Dromios are each dressed differently, both Calvani and Parente also imbue their two characters with different personalities, styles and physical performances. It becomes relatively easy to distinguish between the confident, slightly swaggering Antipholus of Ephesus and his more excitable, romantic brother. Similarly, Dromio of Syracuse bounces and dances in each of his scenes, in contrast to his somewhat more browbeaten and hen-pecked brother.

I enjoyed all of the performances here. Gilda Mercado is arresting as Adriana, the baffled and furious wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, who believes her husband is either committing a cruel deception or, perhaps, is possessed by evil spirits. Elize Layton offers strong support as Adriana’s sister Luciana, who believes her brother-in-law has randomly started flirting with her (spoiler alert… it was his twin all along!). Ginerva Tortora convinces as an angry goldsmith who believes Antipholus is trying to obtain goods without paying, and Muge Karagulle makes a late appearance as the Lady Abbess who might be more significant than we first realize.

In true Shakespearean tradition, some actors double (or rather triple) up on parts (and not because they are playing twins). Frances Knight appears in a variety of roles, but perhaps most memorably as Nell, the kitchen-maid wife of Dromio of Ephesus, who is described in rather unflattering terms by her husband’s twin. And Joe Staton plays Duke Solinus and Balthazar, but also gives an unsettlingly scene-stealing turn as Dr Pinch, a conjuror-cum-doctor who offers to exorcise the supposedly possessed Antipholus.

It would be remiss of me to not also mention J.T. Stocks’s direction here as well. The whole thing comes together so well, collapsing the distance and separation between the performers to the extent that they even manage to get some of the slapstick (much of which revolves around people hitting the Dromios with varying brutality) on screen, no mean feat given the constrictions of the digital format. Strong direction brings this to our screens with confidence.

I did have reservations beforehand, but after watching The Comedy of Errors, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which the digital format enhanced rather than diminished the viewing experience. The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company take every opportunity offered by the format, but not at the expense of strong performances and solid direction. They use the video conferencing technology, but they don’t rely on it entirely.

Now, I won’t say that you’ll come away from this performance feeling that it was a plausible and logical piece of drama. But that’s all on Shakespeare! The Comedy of Errors is a short, frantic piece of silly comedy that requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. It’s easy to imagine that, in 1594, audiences were ready for a bit of silly escapism after the traumas and hardships of the plague and the various lockdowns and restrictions.

I wonder if Shakespeare could have imagined that the play would serve the same purpose over four centuries later.

I thoroughly recommend The Comedy of Errors (or La Commedia degli Errori). If you’d like to see Shakespeare at his most chaotic, handled by a competent company of performers with a strong director at the helm, then this one is definitely worth checking out. (And as an additional bonus, it turns out that Shakespearian dialogue sounds beautiful in Italian!).

The Comedy of Errors / La Commedia degli Errori is streaming throughout September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Review: Failure Studies (Precarious Theatre, GM Fringe)

Sunday 12th September 2021
King’s Arms Theatre, Salford

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout September, and I’m continuing to review a selection from the programme on this blog and on North Manchester FM. On Sunday 12th September, I was at the King’s Arms Theatre in Salford to see my next show from the festival programme: Failure Studies by Precarious Theatre. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on the Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Reviews Special on Tuesday 14th September, but here’s the blog version…

Failure Studies is a one-act play written by Marco Biasioli and produced by Precarious Theatre, a new company recently formed by Biasioli and Liam Grogan. This is actually the third play by Biasioli than I’ve seen (and reviewed). His debut script, Hanging, was produced by Tangled Theatre for the 2018 Greater Manchester Fringe, and his second play, Underwater, was performed by Gare du Nord at the 2019 festival. As with my previous review (Libby Hall’s Your Playground Voice is Gone), I can’t help but reflect on the similarities and differences between this year’s piece and previous examples of the playwright’s work.

However, I don’t intend to labour the comparisons too much here (though I might not be able to resist pointing out a couple), as it’s really not necessary to be familiar with Hanging and Underwater to understand Failure Studies and, while there are stylistic, structural and thematic echoes with the earlier two plays (and some cast crossover, as David Allen and Luke Richards appeared in Underwater as well as Failure Studies), Precarious Theatre’s production is really quite a different play to the previous works, and in many ways something of a development.

The audience enters the King’s Arms Theatre – charmingly and comfortably laid out cabaret, rather than theatre, style – to find the three performers already on stage. David Allen and Francesca Maria Izzo are sitting behind a desk, apparently asleep with their heads down, and Luke Richards is lying underneath the desk, also apparently sleeping. Around them, the stage space is littered with hundreds of pieces of papers.

The play begins with an alarm clock sounding and a recorded voice instructing Georgie (Richards) to wake up and prepare himself for the day. What follows is an extended sequence in which Richards shows off his physical comedy skills, miming an exhausting morning routine that takes in ablutions, meditation, yoga, a workout, breakfast preparations and coffee-making. It ends – bizarrely – with Georgie being told to ‘put on his costume’. We don’t see the costume (Richards continues to mime the actions), but from this point Georgie has become a chicken.

For all its cheeky side swipes at ‘wellness’ rituals – Georgie’s morning routine includes some light-hearted mockery of the hipsterism of almond milk oatmeal, performative yoga and trendy trainers that are too young for the wearer to pull off that is reminiscent of Richards’s performance as a vegan killer whale in 2019’s Underwater – this initial sequence is actually leading us into something much more absurd. And I use that word very specifically.

While Biasioli’s previous plays were undoubtedly odd, off-beat and occasionally opaque, the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd is much more clearly discernible in Failure Studies. In its dystopian strangeness (complete with the partial metamorphosis of a human into an animal), there are echoes of Ionesco in places. However, the dialogue between the three characters (and the undercurrent of menace and physical threat) feels much more reminiscent of Pinter. There is something more assured in the way Failure Studies develops its absurdity, meaning that this feels like a much more confident production that presents itself with conviction and vigour.

As with Biasioli’s previous two plays, Failure Studies is a single-act divided into a series of sequences performed on the same set and in the same costumes. After Georgie’s morning sequence, the lights drop, and when they come back up the stage is now an office. Marc (played by Allen) and Babe (Izzo) are sitting behind their shared desk at the editorial office of Failure Studies, a pseudo-academic journal that publishes articles on failure. Georgie – now a chicken – is their intern, and Marc periodically throws crumbs at him from a box on the desk. As Babe points out early on, the crumbs are poisoned, though the effect they have on Georgie varies wildly throughout the play.

What follows from this is an exploration of failure, futility and the unsettling pointlessness of human endeavour. In the Theatre of the Absurd tradition, the play’s message is nebulous and constantly shifting. At times, there is what appears to be a direct critique of capitalism – Georgie is the exploited intern being humiliated for sport by the sadistic and megalomaniacal Marc – but elsewhere the focus shifts to a cutting critique of individualism – Marc’s dissection of Georgie’s belief that he is ‘special’ and ‘talented’ is presented through a sort of parade of Barnum statements (‘You’re an artist,’ ‘You’re different’, ‘You’re only doing this job to help your creativity’) that reaches a bitter and hard-hitting crescendo.

Behind this, however, is another story. Occasional glances between Georgie and Babe suggest that their relationship might not be as it appears, and a repeated return to the ‘Ancient Greeks’ and a fear of the outside world is noticeable. A sense of dystopia is created through these hints, and also through the inexplicable claustrophobia of the set and characterization, and this comes to the fore in the play’s final sequences. What this dystopian context actually is, though, is uncertain, as the play resists comforting exposition and resolution.

The three actors offer strong performances throughout. Richards brings an exuberance and charm to his portrayal of the baffling and unknowable Georgie, switching in an instant from mute physicality to verbosity and then back again. Izzo is unsettling in a different way as Babe; while she appears to be a ‘voice of reason’ or a sort of futile moral compass, offering a corrective to Marc’s excesses, this is undermined just enough by Izzo’s blank detachment to make us question how much we trust in her compass. And Allen starts small but builds to a frenetic and frankly unnerving pitch by the end of the play that is really something to behold.

While much of the absurdity of Failure Studies is developed through set-piece dialogues and the occasional monologue, there is a lot of physical performance here too. I’ve mentioned Richards’s physical comedy performance at the beginning of the play, but credit also has to be given to the acting and direction for some intensely physical sequences towards the end of the play. While Pinter may have used elliptical dialogue and scene breaks to imply menace and violence, Biasioli’s play shows this in a break-neck, in-your-face way. One of the final sequences left me tired just watching it, and I had a genuine concern for Allen’s safety at one point! (It’s always disturbing when an actor says ‘Did we kill him?’, and you’re not completely sure whether they’re still in character! Fortunately, Allen took his bow with the others at the play’s close, so I think he was okay!)

Failure Studies was an enjoyably baffling play to watch. As a fan of Theatre of the Absurd, I appreciated both the opaque dialogue and the continued (but frustrated) suggestions that something more profound was lurking just out of reach, under the surface. It was also good to see this development of Biasioli’s writing. While I did enjoy Hanging and Underwater at previous festivals, Failure Studies is undoubtedly a more assured and confident piece, and one which carries its absurdity with conviction, menace and humour.

Failure Studies is on at the King’s Arms Theatre on Sunday 12th-Tuesday 14th September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Review: Your Playground Voice is Gone (Libby Hall, GM Fringe)

Saturday 11th September 2021
Salford Arts Theatre

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-30th September, and I’m reviewing a selection of the shows on this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. My second show of this year’s festival was on Saturday 11th September, when I was at the Salford Arts Theatre to see Libby Hall’s play Your Playground Voice is Gone. The radio version of this review will be going out on the Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Reviews Special on North Manchester FM on Tuesday 14th September. But here’s the blog version…

Your Playground Voice is Gone is a one-act play, written by Libby Hall and directed by Roni Ellis, and performed by the Salford Arts Theatre Young Performers Company. At the last Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, I reviewed Hall’s play The Melting of a Single Snowflake, which was also performed by the Young Performers Company, so I was interested to see what this new piece would be like.

In some ways, Your Playground Voice is Gone bears some similarities to The Melting of a Single Snowflake. It’s an ensemble piece with a single set, which uses the dialogue and conversations between an eclectic group of young people to develop its plot. Like Hall’s earlier play, Your Playground Voice is Gone explores themes of youth, identity and change. However, for all the superficial similarities, Your Playground Voice is Gone offers a quite different story – with a different sort of conclusion – to The Melting of a Single Snowflake, and it is thought-provoking in the way it does this.

The play opens on its single set – a fly-tip in some woodlands that is clearly acting as a makeshift den. John (played by Matthew Cox) and Rachel (Molly Edwards) rush onto stage as though fleeing something, and then proceed to wipe something red from their hands and t-shirts. They’re soon joined by Holly (Leia Komorowska) who is wearing school uniform, carrying what appears to be homework, and studiously ignoring the still-panicky behaviour of her peers.

Although they are clearly around the same age, the contrast between the characters is strikingly apparent even before the dialogue begins. While Komorowska’s Holly holds herself with the confident poise of a serious young woman, John’s youthful fragility is almost tangible. Sitting at the front of the stage in a near-constant state of bewilderment, Cox’s performance conveys both naïvety and fear of the adult world. In between these two is Edwards’s Rachel, who veers dramatically between maturity – there’s a touching maternal quality to the ways she helps John to wipe his hands – and vulnerability – she often flinches away, holding herself more like a frightened child than a confident adolescent.

These contrasts are heightened by the arrival of the rest of the cast. We meet Darcy (played by Scarlett Doyle), a rambunctious and flippant would-be rounders star in a bandana and camouflage jacket, Kelsey (played by Sienna Kavanagh), a more ‘girly’ girl who is wearing a rather misjudged face of makeup, Loz (played by Josie Leigh), who seems determined to criticize and question everything her friends do, and Alfie (Riley McCaffery), who confidently explains why his playground voice has gone early on with a rather blunt anatomical boast (which his friends don’t believe).

Although there is some movement around the stage, Your Playground Voice is Gone is carried almost entirely through the dialogue between the seven characters. There’s a healthy dose of light-hearted bickering and mockery, but also some serious conversation about (amongst other things) the physical abuse John is enduring at the hands of his mother, and the various ambitions each of the group have for when they’re ‘grown up’. As in her earlier play, Hall reveals a good ear for dialogue and a talent for writing humour. A highlight for me was Alfie’s confident assertion that his father is a self-employed gardener, because he grows plants in his house and then sells them on to his customers.

While the conversation ranges around from Kelsey’s conviction that she won’t grow old because she uses Nivea, to Holly’s insistence that she takes her schoolwork much more seriously than any of her peers, to Darcy’s casual announcement that she’s been diagnosed with ADHD (a fact that elicits sympathy from John, despite him not knowing what the condition is or how it might affect her), there is a thread that runs through, which will ultimately lead us to some unsettling revelations.

Throughout their chatter, the young characters keep returning to a sense of confusion between the child and adult worlds. This isn’t so much a play about the transitional nature of adolescence – as The Melting of a Single Snowflake was – but rather one that explores the sharp disjunctions that one experiences during that time of life. Rather than navigating a change from youth to maturity, the characters here are working through confusion and contradictions.

And these confusions and contradictions come thick and fast. For instance, while Alfie sees his father’s exploits through a lens of childlike naivety, he is able to look at the relationship between Holly and her teacher with more adult eyes. Darcy, who is the most playful and childlike in her actions throughout, seems to be the most knowing and worldly wide (though she mostly uses this knowledge to tease her more naïve peers).

While the performances are engaging and funny, and the jokes all land well, the real strength of Your Playground Voice is Gone lies in the storytelling. The conversations between the young people aren’t simply a meditation on the fractured and contradictory nature of adolescence, but rather a slow (and sometimes imperceptible) revelation of the underlying plot – which has, in fact, happened off-stage before the play began.

Hall’s storytelling here is even more ambitious than in The Melting of a Single Snowflake, as the story being told is not the one we might have expected. Throwaway comments and jokes early on – including some seemingly glib lines from Alfie – eventually turn out to be the heart of the piece. This is not a story about growing up in the general sense, but rather a tale with a much darker heart. This is carried through a mostly static seven-way conversation, but it still packs a punch when it is revealed.

The play’s ending is one that will stick with you, and it actively encourages the audience to ponder on its implications after the curtain has come down. For younger viewers, there are some clear and unequivocal messages about safety and boundaries, but for older audience members (like myself) the message is more troubling. As with Hall’s earlier play, the lack of a strong and supportive adult presence in these young people’s lives is felt keenly – from John’s abusive mother to Alfie’s ‘gardener’ father, the adults on the periphery of this story are unreliable at best, harmful at worst. The question is thus raised: can we really judge young people for finding their own solutions to problems if they have no adults to turn to for help?

In addition to this, the play’s ending is somewhat open. Everything is revealed through the words of a group of young people who veer wildly between childhood and maturity, and so we can never be completely assured of how they are comprehending things. Even when some apparently clear and unequivocal exposition is given, it is undercut by Rachel’s unsophisticated insistence that £72.11 is probably enough money for seven people to live on indefinitely. The open ending ensures that the audience is left wondering what will happen after the curtain comes down, but it also leaves some uncomfortable questions about what happened before it came up.

Overall, this is a compelling piece of theatre. The Young Performers Company offer some assured performances, handling both the humour and the darkness with confidence. Hall’s writing is sophisticated and controlled, with the story developing at a pace that makes clever use of the constraints of form and setting. Although the play is a single 50-minute act, it feels like there is much more here, and that the story is much deeper and longer.

After reviewing both The Melting of a Single Snowflake and Your Playground Voice is Gone, I am impressed with the Salford Arts Theatre Young Performers Company, and I’m also convinced we’re going to be seeing much more from writer Libby Hall in the future.

Your Playground Voice is Gone was on at the Salford Arts Theatre, on 11th-12th September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s GM Fringe, visit the festival website.

3 Minute Scares is back for its sixth sinister year!

North Manchester FM's Halloween creative writing competition is open for submissions for 2021.

North Manchester FM's 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 30th October.

We’re delighted to announce that this year’s 3 Minute Scares competition will be judged by horror legend Ramsey Campbell, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout Manchester, the live escape room game. 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 Monday 11th October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Rose Cullen, who impressed the judges with her stylish and darkly humorous tale. Hannah Kate says: ‘Last year saw a bumper crop of entries for the competition, with a really strong shortlist. Rose's story impressed the judges by how well it handled the short form, but also with the delicious payoff it gave us at the end. The competition crown passed to a worthy winner, but I'm intrigued to see what this year’s entries will bring.’

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.

Stories to be Read with the Lights On 6: The Landlady by Roald Dahl

This next story should need no introduction... it's 'The Landlady' by Roald Dahl! If you heard me talk about the book on my radio show, then you'll know that this short story is the clearest (and fondest) memory I have of reading the anthology in the 90s. Being too young to have watched the Tales of the Unexpected TV series when it was first broadcast, I wasn't familiar with Roald Dahl's stories for adults until I read 'The Landlady'.

I absolutely adored it back then, and I think it's still one of my favourite short stories of all times (though that's partly because I can remember how much I loved it the first time I read it). The clearest memory I have of reading the Hitchcock anthology when I somehow acquired it in the 90s is sitting in my bedroom at my parents' house, being confused and intrigued as to why Roald Dahl's name was in the table of contents. I've got no idea how many times I've read 'The Landlady' since then, of course. I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Dahl's adult fiction, and I even used 'The Landlady' when I was tutoring KS4 kids. I still reread it for this anthology reread post though. Obviously.

A couple of observations... It probably goes without saying that when I first read this story as a teenager, I pictured the landlady as an impossibly ancient old woman. It's a bit scary/depressing to realize I'm not far off her age myself now. And I suppose it says a lot about my reading habits as a young teen that I knew exactly why the tea tasted of bitter almonds! 'The Landlady' is a bit different to the usual Tales of the Unexpected-type stories (by Dahl, but also by others) in that Billy Weaver doesn't deserve his fate. This isn't a karmic comeuppance, but just horrifying bad luck. I just love the way it's all set up though. And the final line is perfect. It ends in just the right place.

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Stories to be Read with the Lights On 5: Granny by Ron Goulart

The next story in my Stories to be Read with the Lights On reread is 'Granny' by Ron Goulart. This one felt familiar from the first sentence, though I couldn't (initially) remember anything about what happens. I knew I'd read this one before but I couldn't put my finger on where it was going. And then BAM! It all just came flooding back, and I remembered the ending as clearly as if I'd read it yesterday! This is the sudden nostalgia rush I'm here for.

I don't know whether it's the nostalgia buzz, but I really enjoyed (re)reading Goulart's story. It's got a great set-up, and the Granny Goodwaller backstory is presented with impressive economy. The bit in the diner where McAlbin chats to Nan Hendry is fun too. Innocuous enough the first time round, but when you go back over it you see exactly what's happening. It's all about that ending though. I can clearly remember being totally shocked by the final paragraph and then dwelling for a while on the implications of the last line. I've got to admit, that ending came back to me so clearly when I was rereading the story that I'm almost wondering if I've reread Goulart's story more recently in another anthology. If not, then wow! apparently it really stuck with me.

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Saturday, 4 September 2021

Stories to be Read with the Lights On 4: Mr Mappin Forecloses by Zena Collier

Continuing with the fourth story in my Stories to be Read with the Lights On reread... And at first glance... I didn't remember anything at all about this story! However, when we started to get to the meat of things, it definitely started to ring a bell. Mr Mappin's fantasies about murdering his boss started to feel a bit familiar.

Collier's story is very much in the Tales of the Unexpected mode. It's got the ordinary, frustrated man dreaming of something bigger (or more sinister), and the sting-in-the-tail ending you want from a story like this. What I liked about it though was that Mr Mappin's frustrations at being stuck as a mortgage clerk for 20 years have a proper nasty edge to them. I suppose this is partly to make sure we don't have too much sympathy for Mr Mappin. We have to know that he's got a mean streak to him (his thoughts on the secretaries Miss Ashley and Miss Burke definitely reveal this).

I can't work out whether the ending is a bit predictable or I was just remembering it from when I was a teenager. To be honest, I think I'm leaning towards saying it's a bit predictable. But for all its predictability, 'Mr Mappin Forecloses' is very well done. It's a nice example of the... genre? style? mode? that these type of stories employ.

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Review: Subdural Hematoma (Eleanor May Blackburn, GM Fringe)

Friday 3rd September 2021
Salford Arts Theatre

The 2021 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival began on Wednesday 1st September and runs until Thursday 30th September. After the tribulations of 2020, it’s great to see that this year’s programme is impressively varied. And as in previous years, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer throughout the month for this blog and for North Manchester FM.

On Friday 3rd September, I was at Salford Arts Theatre to review Subdural Hematoma, a one-woman show written and performed by Eleanor May Blackburn, and directed by Jack Victor Price. Before I start my review of the show, I’m just going to start by saying how lovely it was to be back at the Salford Arts Theatre again. Since I started reviewing theatre for North Manchester FM, I’ve been to quite a few shows at Salford Arts Theatre (Greater Manchester Fringe plays, but others as well) and – I know I probably shouldn’t have favourites – but it is one of my favourite Fringe venues. The last time I was at the theatre was the 2019 Fringe, so it was amazing to be able to go back again. Theatre and the performing arts generally have been so sorely hit by the uncertainty of Covid and lockdown, so I felt genuinely moved to be back at one of my favourite venues to experience a festival that I’m really very fond of. All credit to everyone at Salford Arts Theatre (and all the other venues) and to the festival organizers for putting on such a varied and interesting programme.

So… let’s talk about Subdural Hematoma, my first bit of Fringe theatre since July 2019… I’ll be playing the radio version of this review on my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special on Saturday 4th September, but here’s the blog version…

As I’ve said, Subdural Hematoma is a solo performance by Blackburn, running at around an hour. It’s also an autobiographical show, which explores Blackburn’s experience of suffering… you guessed it… a subdural hematoma following a traumatic brain injury. Grim stuff, you might think. But it really wasn’t.

Perhaps the word ‘suffering’ was inaccurate here. The show is about Blackburn’s experience of surviving a subdural hematoma. As such, the show is both grim (at times) and celebratory, as well as moving, humorous and engaging.

Blackburn sets the tone of the show by opening with some quite unsettling replications of the noises made by someone struggling for breath. She then removes her top to reveal the words ‘tracheostomy’ and ‘line’ penned on her torso (accompanied by circles identifying the points of surgical entry) and – and this is the part that really set the tone – does a faux sexy dance while announcing them.

The ensuing performance takes us through the weeks Blackburn spent in a coma following a head injury. Much of the narration is a poetic monologue, but this is intercut with sections from a diary (written almost as letters to the patient) kept by her mother during this time and narrated as voiceover, as well as recordings of two other people who suffered subdural hematoma and are reflecting on what happened to them. At times, Blackburn dons a blank white face mask and uses physical performance to evoke the experience of emerging from a coma (something, she explains quite forcefully, that does not happen the way it does in films).

If you heard my reviews from the 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe, then you may remember that the shows I was particularly impressed with at the last festival were all one-woman shows. So it was a pleasure to begin this year’s festival watching another competent and well-crafted solo piece by a young woman with a real knack for compelling storytelling. Blackburn’s performance was engaging and enjoyable throughout, but I was especially taken with the way the story itself was crafted and realized on stage (and this is to the credit of both writer-performer Blackburn, but also Price’s direction).

One of the most impressive things for me was the way that Blackburn was able to narrate an experience in which, though she was undoubtedly the central figure, she played little to no active part. Indeed, as she tells us on a couple of occasions, she cannot actually remember everything that happened to her. It’s an ambitious undertaking to tell a story that you both were and weren’t part of, but this is handled well in Subdural Hematoma.

On the one hand, Blackburn offers us her own direct narration – accompanied by occasional outbursts, some blunt honesty about bodily functions, and a scattering of jokes that are sometimes bleak and sometimes daft – about what she has since learned about what happened. She defines some medical terms, though she dismisses this knowledge with a flippant ‘Thanks Google’, and starkly lays out the initial prognosis given to her parents. On the other hand, the voiceover diary entries undermine this directness, turning the story into something that was happening to Blackburn, something that could only really be described by someone else.

The use of the face mask is effective in bridging the gap between these two different narratives. When she dons the mask, Blackburn embodies a sort of uncanny ‘in between’ state where she is enacting, but not verbalizing, an unnerving and sometimes incoherent bodily experience. She is still clearly the same performer – Blackburn is on stage, alone and visible, for the entire show – but the mask serves to deindividualize her. (There’s also a bit with some tinsel strands that I really liked – but I don’t think I’ll spoiler that for you!)

It has to be said, there are some pretty striking tonal shifts in Subdural Hematoma, but they aren’t uncomfortably jarring. I found the diary entries to be particularly moving – I did get a lump in my throat at one point – but the move from that to a pretend stand-up routine of bad coma jokes was smooth. The show makes no bones about its autobiographical content, and Blackburn’s honest performance engages us in a way that lets us see these tonal changes as part of a rollercoaster of genuine emotions, rather than an attempt to shock or unsettle the audience.

One of the things that struck me afterwards, when I reflected on the emotional content of Subdural Hematoma, was the striking lack of anger. Although there are places where Blackburn rails against some specific details of the physical experience of being comatose – and one point where she expresses a momentary sense of unfairness that she, as a young woman, was in a hospital ward with women who were both older and less ill than herself – this is not a show that wallows in the cruelty or injustice of the situation. The overarching sense we get is that the brain injury was something that happened – just that – and the focus is on survival and recovery.

Again, it’s Blackburn’s performance as much as the writing that carries this. When she comes close to addressing the unfairness of the situation, she interrupts herself (or is interrupted by a voiceover) about another small improvement in her condition – she’s moved her foot or used an oxygen mask rather than a ventilator, for instance. Blackburn captures the enormity of these apparently tiny physical changes with a gleeful and infectious enthusiasm that encourages the audience to cheer along with her success (indeed, she directly instructs us to cheer along at one point!).

For me, that was the strongest part of Subdural Hematoma – its balancing act between the almost inconceivable enormity of the near-death experience and the small intimacies of a dad reading Harry Potter to his injured child or a mum finding fairy lights for a hospital bed gives the show a charming authenticity and familiarity.

Overall, I really enjoyed Subdural Hematoma. Blackburn’s storytelling is assured and well-realized, and her performance throughout is compelling. I’m glad this was my first Fringe show of the year, as it reminded me why I like this festival so much and why I’m pleased it’s back for 2021!

Subdural Hematoma was on at Salford Arts Theatre on 3rd September, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.