Saturday, 30 July 2022

Lammas: Day 5

Another day of celebrating Lammas for us! And here's what we got up to...

All Among the Barley

My seasonal read for Lammas is All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison.

Bailey’s Wood Lammas Litter-Pick

We were out in the Lammas-y woods this morning for the monthly Friends of Bailey's Wood litter-pick.

Craft & Flea Market

We were at the market again this afternoon! This time it was the Craft & Flea at Manchester Cathedral. I'm very pleased with our second market haul of the week... spiced gin from Prestwich Gin, orange, lemon and raspberry vegan curd from The Kind Curd Co, hot sauce for my little bro from The Cole Men, plus new bee earrings from Violet Jewels! We also got sausage rolls, chocolate brownies and lemon meringue kronuts!

‘Harvest Home’

I caught up with my seasonal reading tonight, with the chapter 'Harvest Home' in Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun. Sometimes I feel like folk horror is just an accurate record of things that have happened.

Lammas: Day 4

Catching up with another slightly last post tonight - here's what we got up to on our fourth day of Lammas celebrations (Friday).

Lammas Earrings

Friday's Lammas earrings were cinnamon swirls. Not quite bread, I know, but still reliant on the grain harvest.

Storytelling Session

I did a seasonal storytelling session with residents at Castlerea Care Home on Friday afternoon. We talked about harvest, hay and holidays, and about the sort of emotions and imagery that late summer evokes. Plus, we had Danish pastries and listened to The Kinks!

Children of the Corn

Lammas film night with Rob and a friend on Friday. We celebrated the grain harvest with Children of the Corn (1984)!

Cornflake Chocolate

And a little movie snack to go with Children of the Corn... Cornflakes Ritter Sport!

Lammas: Day 3

I'm a little bit late posting this, but here's our third day of Lammas celebrations (Thursday)!

Lammas Earrings

Thursday's seasonal earrings were citrus slices.

A Trip to Southport

I went on a day out to Southport with the residents of Castlerea Care Home on Thursday. It was a little bit drizzly but otherwise we had fun. Is Ferrero Rocher a traditional Lammas treat? Because I had a Ferrero Rocher ice cream!

Myst: Revelation

Not really a Lammas-specific thing, but me and my brother are replaying all the Myst games, and we got together for a game night on Thursday. We were really hoping we get through the end of Revelation, because it's been a bit of a slog. We did not get to the end.

More Lammas Earrings

I'm still not sure if Ferrero Rocher counts as a Lammas treat, but I switched to my new Ferrero Rocher earrings for the evening anyway.

Cornflake Pie

Our Myst replay drove us insane, so we're cheered ourselves up with a Lammas treat. As Lammas is a celebration of the first cereal harvest, we're having a cornflake pie from Bury Market.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Lammas: Day 2

It's the second day of our Lammas celebrations! I had a lot of work commitments in the afternoon, so it was just morning stuff today.

Bury Market

Lammas is a time to enjoy fairs and markets apparently, so we took my mother-in-law to the market this morning. Not to sell her, I hasten to add! It wasn't a Mayor of Casterbridge situation! We had a Lammas trip to (World Famous) Bury Market today, and I am very pleased with my market haul!

Lammas Earrings

In honour of our trip to Bury Market, today's Lammas earrings were upcycled L.S. Lowry prints... Market Scene, Northern Town.

Sweetcorn Fritters

I got some sweetcorn fritters on the market too. I thought this seemed like an appropriately seasonal snack, and they were so nice as well!

Review: Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen (Terra Taylor Knudson)

July 2022
Digital Event

The Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July, with performances at various venues around Greater Manchester and online. Once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

The next show I saw this year was a digital production, and it was part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Fringe programme. C ARTS is a curated independent arts programme that delivers work for the Edinburgh Fringe, which is then made available online via streaming throughout the year. Although produced for the Edinburgh Fringe, C ARTS productions are now included on the programmes of other fringe festivals, including the Greater Manchester Fringe.

The production I’m going to be reviewing now is available to stream with a ticket purchase from the Greater Manchester Fringe website throughout the month of July. I’m reviewing Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen, a performance by Terra Taylor Knudson. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on The Festival Show on Friday 29th July, but here’s the blog version…

In a couple of my previous reviews (for Eliane Morel’s Disenchanted and Hear. Speak. See. by Expial Atrocious), I mentioned the variety of techniques and approaches used to create the pieces on the digital theatre strands of this year’s GM Fringe programme. Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen is yet another type of digital theatre – it’s a recording of a live stage version of the show in front of an audience. Quite a different experience to the ‘lockdown theatre’ faux video calls of Disenchanted or the immersive film experience of Hear. Speak. See., but it’s definitely an approach that works for Knudson’s show.

Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen is a one-woman show that charts Knudson’s relationship to William Shakespeare. And, just to say, it is always figured as a relationship: the title should give you a hint as to the casual familiarity with which Knudson treats the Bard and his work.

The play begins with Knudson performing Mistress Page’s monologue from The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a good performance, capturing the warmth and humour of Shakespeare’s character (as well as her acerbic tongue and assertiveness), and it makes for a compelling opener. Here is an actor who knows how to do Shakespeare, we think. Here is someone who knows what the words mean and can convey the sentiment behind them.

But Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen isn’t simply a chance to watch Knudson perform a series of Shakespeare’s monologues – though I have to admit that the opening scene suggests that would be a fun thing to watch. This is a much more personal journey, and Mistress Page’s words soon give way to a reminiscence about watching the play for the first time as a child.

Knudson’s story moves from her early introduction to the work of William Shakespeare, when she tentatively accepted that this might be something she could enjoy, to the beginning of the real ‘relationship’ in her high school years. Her narration is full of humour – sometimes at her own expense, sometimes at the expense of those around her, and often at the expense of Shakespeare himself. She speaks of teenage relationships and reimagines a scene of young heartbreak with herself as Ophelia and her no-good musician boyfriend as Hamlet, explaining that she was ‘living the great Shakespearean soap opera that we all live in high school’.

As Knudson’s personal narrative continues there are detours into the biography of the writer himself (told with an utterly irreverent humour that really reminds you that there are some weird gaps in Willy’s life story), and into the historical circumstances that informed much of his writing (including the Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor Dynasty). I was a bit surprised to find – given the show’s title – that Knudson didn’t linger particularly on Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s position as a specifically Elizabethan writer, but there is still a lot to enjoy about Knudson’s frenetic and funny take on over five centuries of English history, which singles out Elizabeth Woodville as a ‘Disney Princess’ and lingers on Joan of Arc’s betrayal by the Dauphin (almost as though this might be relevant later in the show). Obviously, as a Brit, I felt a moment of trepidation when the American on stage announced she was going to ‘explain’ a few centuries of our history, but all credit to Knudson – it’s a fun and affectionate take that will win over even the most patriotic audience member on this side of the pond.

At almost breakneck pace, Knudson takes the audience through this background material, which she explains she read about to better understand Shakespeare’s writing and its effect on her, and to her university years. Desperate to be an actor ever since that first experience of watching The Merry Wives of Windsor, Knudson explores the moment she was accepted into a performing arts college (though on a Production Management major rather than an acting course), and the trepidation she felt on moving away from home to a completely different state.

As the monologue moves into its second half – almost a second act – things take a darker turn, and we move from the rollicking ride through English history and Shakespeare’s life story into a much more serious narrative.

Knudson’s account of her time at college is a painful one, and while it begins by framing the experiences in terms of Shakespearean drama (including a disturbing reimagining of her college roommate and ‘torturer’ as a particularly unsettling version of Lady Macbeth), the story moves away from Shakespearean characters and into a nightmarishly personal narrative. This section of the show is heart-breaking to watch, and Knudson’s performance is captivating (in a chilling way), as she recreates or recaptures incredibly raw emotions. While there was a jokey reference to the ‘To be, or not to be’ speech earlier in the show, when this soliloquy eventually reappears, it carries so much more weight and is downright agonizing to watch.

Fortunately – and I don’t think this is a spoiler – Shakespeare saves the day in the end. Or rather, Knudson, supported by the love of the theatre that Shakespeare’s writing has given her, saves her own day. The play ends with jubilance and triumph, which feels like an apt testament to the writer-performer’s resilience, and to the near-magical way in which Shakespeare’s plays have continued to resonate and stay relevant through the centuries.

Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen is a joy to watch. Knudson is a talented and creative performer, and there’s something so natural in her delivery that it’s easy to forget this is a scripted show. The experience of watching a recording of a live performance was very enjoyable, but I must admit it made me a little jealous of the audience for that show. Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen is a very intimate show, and Knudson’s performance style is so charismatic and familiar, that I feel like seeing the show live would be a really satisfying experience. Maybe one day I’ll get to find out…

Despite my pang of jealousy towards the live show’s audience, I’m very pleased to discover that the Greater Manchester Fringe is actually the show’s international debut (because what finer Fringe is there to host this debut?). If you get chance to stream the show before the end of the GM Fringe, I recommend you do so. If not, it is going to be available to stream as part of the Edinburgh Fringe programme in August, and then the Sydney and Melbourne Fringes later in the year. And it’s definitely worth a watch.

Willy’s Lil Virgin Queen is available to stream throughout the month of July, as part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

Review: Hear. Speak. See. (Expial Atrocious, GM Fringe)

July 2022
Digital Event

The Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July, with performances at various venues around Greater Manchester and online. Once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

The next show I saw this year was a digital production, and it was part of the GMF Digital Events strand on this year’s Fringe programme.

The production I’m going to be reviewing now is available to stream with a ticket purchase from the Greater Manchester Fringe website throughout the month of July. I’m reviewing Hear. Speak. See., an immersive drama by Expial Atrocious. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on The Festival Show on Friday 29th July, but here’s the blog version…

I mentioned in my previous review of Eliane Morel’s Disenchanted: A Cabaret of Twisted Fairy Tales that the digital theatre productions on this year’s festival programme are very varied, both in terms of their content and the ways they use the storytelling techniques facilitated by digital technologies.

A brief comparison of Disenchanted and Expial Atrocious’s Hear. Speak. See. reveals this variety beautifully. I’ve not really got space to do that comparison, so you really should watch both of these shows yourself to find out! Seriously.

Hear. Speak. See. is a short film production that uses video technology to create an unsettling immersive experience for the audience – and it’s clearly intended for individual viewers to stream in their own time, as it’s a show that very specifically denies a communal audience and privileges the perspective of the individual viewer.

Allow me to explain…

Hear. Speak. See. takes place at a dinner party. ‘You’ have been invited and have been told that it will be a dinner party like no other. And ‘you’ are the viewer – the film is shot from a first-person perspective, so the viewer becomes the guest at the dinner. When the three cast members address the fourth guest, they are addressing you, the viewer. It’s an immersive experience, but also a gloriously unsettling one.

And make no mistake, ‘gloriously unsettling’ is the best description of this piece of theatre, which packs a lot into its surprisingly short running time. It really is an immersive piece, and so it feels like you are at that dinner party for a long time.

The other guests at the party are played by Nic Lawton, Ez Holland and Faye Bingham (who also cowrote and codirected the piece). They are dressed in white costumes and are greeting one another – and you – as though this is a long-awaited catch-up with old friends.

But it clearly isn’t a catch-up with old friends. Not only do you (as you are now a character in the play) don’t recognize the others or understand the nature of the gathering, but there’s something off about the conversation. The interactions between the other three guests don’t flow smoothly, and there’s a tendency to non-sequiturs or almost nonsensical responses. The dynamic between the three is also hard to determine. At times, they chat to one another as though they see each other regularly, but at others they seem more distant, as though they are reunited after a long time. The only thing that is consistent is that they are determined the dinner party must happen, and that you must remain seated at the table with them.

In case it’s not clear from this description, we’re in the world of absurdist theatre with Hear. Speak. See. This is a piece that defies straightforward explanation or narrative exposition. Although some snippets of sound recordings at the beginning – which will be revisited towards the end – offer a tantalizing hint of context or backstory, there is a continued denial of both logic and progression. There isn’t a ‘story’ here, and nor can we really talk about ‘themes’, though ideas of justice and retribution echo through the performance, and there is a glimmer of exposition in the development of Bingham’s performance towards the end of the film. Ultimately, though, the film resists easy interpretation.

Characterization, too, is vague and uncertain. Lawton’s character appears to be the host of the event, and there are a number of references to the event being held in her house. (Of course, this doesn’t make complete sense, as at one point Holland moves around you and, as your perspective follows her movements, lights at the edge above her clearly reveal the edge of the set, undermining what little verisimilitude remained.) Holland’s character begins as a more gregarious, friendly fellow guest, but there are undertones of something more brittle beneath the surface. Bingham’s character almost appears to be in control at points, and is the most unequivocally hostile towards you (and towards Holland and Lawton’s characters too, at times).

Generally speaking, the hostility underlying Bingham’s interactions, and the party as a whole, isn’t overt. The more appropriate term would be menace, I feel. And, of course, this sense of menace, coupled with the explicitly ‘party’ setting encourages some comparison with Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. And this comparison would not be unfavourable either.

In addition to the verbal absurdity and confusion, which creates some of the atmosphere of menace, there is physical absurdity. The acting here is never naturalistic, but at times it becomes even more artificial – more consciously a performance – as the three actors suddenly move in choreographed synchronicity, or a physical altercation is played out through stylized but non-contact stage moves. There are brief, nightmarish cutaways in which the scene transforms into one of pain and agony, the performers contorted and screaming, for mere moments without explanation.

The performances here are really impressive. A highlight for me was the scene in which Bingham, Holland and Lawton eat plates of tomato bruschetta and salad leaves. That’s it – that’s all that happens – and the scene goes on for so long it’s downright uncomfortable to watch (and this is one of the moments in the play that really distorts the audience’s sense of the play’s overall running time). This scene really is a thing of absurd, disturbing, almost grotesque beauty, constantly gesturing to something beyond the performance – a theme? a backstory? an interpretation of events? – without actually explaining it.

Towards the end of the piece, we begin to get a clearer sense of what might have provoked or enabled the party to be thrown, as well as an idea of the role Bingham’s character plays in this. However, this isn’t really an answer, as our understanding of what, exactly, the party actually is continues to be elusive. Who or what Lawton and Holland’s characters are, and why they are involved is even more uncertain as the play moves towards its conclusion.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the Theatre of the Absurd, then Hear. Speak. See. is definitely one to watch. It’s a gem of a piece – visually stylish, bafflingly disturbing and with pitch-perfect performances from the cast. If Theatre of the Absurd isn’t something you know much about, or if you don’t count yourself as a fan, I’d still say give it a go. The short running time (despite it feeling way longer) allows a somewhat easier introduction to this style of theatre than full-length plays, and who knows? that visual style and those pitch-perfect performances might just win you over to the absurd side.

I know I quite often end my reviews by saying that the piece I’m talking about is a recommendation or a strong recommendation. And I make no apologies for that – I see some good stuff! But in this case I’m going to go even further and say that Hear. Speak. See. is one of my highlights of this year’s festival, and I’m very glad I got to see it.

Hear. Speak. See. is available to stream throughout the month of July, as part of the GMF Digital Events strand on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

Review: On Me (Dangerous to Know, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 27 July 2022
Seven Oaks Pub, Manchester

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Wednesday 27th July, I was at the Seven Oaks pub in Manchester to review On Me, a play by Dangerous to Know. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 29th July, but here’s the blog version…

On Me is a new play by Manchester-based theatre company Dangerous to Know. Written by Caroline Lamb and directed by Helen Parry, the one-act play takes place on the set of a true crime documentary. Actors Shona (Leah Eddleston) and Christian (Alexei Papadopoulos) are playing the role of victim and perpetrator respectively, acting out scenes that will illustrate the documentary’s narrative of control, abuse and rape. Dangerous to Know were very careful to give content warnings prior to the performance, and this was a sensible decision. On Me is a challenging piece to watch – discomforting, even – and while I expect Fringe theatre to pose that challenge, I appreciated being prepared for this one.

The play follows through various scenes in which Shona and Christian prepare for, and perform in, scenes from the documentary. This creates a nested quality to their characterization that helps to develop certain themes as the show develops – and I’ll return to those themes in a bit more detail shortly. But there’s a blurring of character lines at times that causes some unease. When Eddleston delivers the line, ‘Get Maryse some pickled onion Monster Munch!’, she is an actor playing an actor referring to herself by the name of her on-screen character. Is this potentially confusing for the audience? Yes – but that’s sort of the point.

In the first half of the play, Shona and Christian have to act a rape scene. Right up until the moment the director (played by Brandon Worrall) shouts ‘Action!’, they have been interacting as friendly colleagues getting ready to do a job together. An earlier scene had involved Christian throttling Shona – very grim to watch, but after the ‘Cut!’ is called, the actors revert to their professional conversation, complimenting each other’s performance and talking about agents and other roles.

The rape scene – and I should say that Dangerous to Know judge this scene well, giving the scene power but not prolonging it for the sake of it – is a different experience, both for Shona and Christian and for the audience of On Me. It resonates with a different intensity, and it isn’t defused in the same way.

The fallout from this scene is handled well. Lamb’s writing and Parry’s direction maintain an almost palpable tension throughout the rest of the play. As an audience member, I felt the atmosphere shift in the room, and that shift weighed on the following scenes.

This is a very deliberate choice by Dangerous to Know, and it’s impressive the way the production is able to evoke feelings in the audience that mirror those of the characters on stage. Shona and Christian’s relationship – they are clearly attracted to one another and are increasingly flirtatious – is changed by the performance of the scene, and this will form the main narrative conflict of the play’s second half.

As I’ve said, On Me explores some serious themes, and these are handled with complexity and nuance. What – exactly – the fallout from the performance of the rape scene is doesn’t become apparent right away. Papadopoulos, particularly, is tasked with holding back the difficult emotional and psychological effects of the performance until events push him to verbalize something of this, though even then he can’t fully explain everything. It’s an impressive performance from Papadopoulos, as it’s not an easy task to play a character who is deceptively sanguine without simply being deceptively sanguine!

Eddleston’s character goes on a different journey, and the performance here is crucial to the creation of an almost oppressive sense of paranoia that settles on the second half of the play. In some ways, Shona is an ‘everywoman’ (in the most cynical sense), and, indeed, she points this out to Christian later in the show. The experiences she has had, the experiences her loved ones have had (some of which is presented on stage when Shona receives phone calls), are sadly commonplace. The experiences of the unseen Maryse – the ‘real-life’ victim whose story forms part of the documentary (unseen, but voiced by Verity Flynn) – are an extreme case, but the show folds these into the story through the sense of blurring of Shona with Maryse, and through Christian’s anxiety that Shona (and potentially others) will see him as Maryse’s rapist after his performance on camera.

On Me is a play that resists easy answers or reassuring conclusions. It steers into the messiness of life with a boldness that is both refreshing and uncomfortable. As well as complexity, the play gives us ambiguity to think about. A good deal of this is placed on the shoulders of Sean McGlynn’s character. Listed only as ‘The Clapper Loader’, and given no dialogue until the play’s final moments, this character is nevertheless highly visible throughout. He appears in almost every scene, often upstage of the actors, but his lack of engagement with the others creates a sense of uncertainty that, again, can feel almost oppressive.

I mentioned earlier that the ‘nested’ performances here are being used to work through certain themes. Some of these – trauma, relationships, how to be a ‘good man’ knowing all the things bad men do – are discussed explicitly in the dialogue, as these are questions Shona and Christian must confront due to the nature of the material in the documentary. Moreover, their burgeoning personal relationship requires them to at least acknowledge these questions, though they may not agree on the answers.

For me, though, it was a largely unspoken theme that proved to be the most thought-provoking. I had an unusual experience at the end of On Me – as the actors returned to the stage to take their bows, I felt a strong pull of concern for Eddleston and Papadopoulos. I hoped the actors were okay, given the scenes they had just had to perform.

On the one hand, this is simply testament to the actors’ abilities. I was invested in Shona and Christian as a result, and thus I blurred the actors with the characters slightly. On the other hand – and this was the thought that lingered longest – On Me is about precisely this idea. We watch true crime, or challenging dramas, in the expectation that we will see violence, murder and rape. What is the impact of having to enact scenes such as this over and over again, particularly if certain scenes hit personal triggers? And would the actors on stage in On Me feel the same blurring effect that the character of Christian worries about in the narrative?

In the end, On Me raises these difficult questions and refuses to give us easy answers. Uncompromising writing from Lamb, careful direction from Parry, and impressive performances from all the cast work together to create a piece of challenging theatre that will stay with you long after it finishes. If you get chance to see On Me on its final dates at the Greater Manchester Fringe – or at a future performance elsewhere – I definitely recommend you check it out.

On Me is on at the Seven Oaks on 27th-30th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

Review: Disenchanted: A Cabaret of Twisted Fairy Tales (Eliane Morel, C ARTS, GM Fringe)

July 2022
Digital Event

The Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July, with performances at various venues around Greater Manchester and online. Once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

The next show I saw this year was a digital production, and it was part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Fringe programme. C ARTS is a curated independent arts programme that delivers work for the Edinburgh Fringe, which is then made available online via streaming throughout the year. Although produced for the Edinburgh Fringe, C ARTS productions are now included on the programmes of other fringe festivals, including the Greater Manchester Fringe.

The production I’m going to be reviewing now is available to stream with a ticket purchase from the Greater Manchester Fringe website throughout the month of July. I’m reviewing Disenchanted: A Cabaret of Twisted Fairy Tales, a performance by Eliane Morel. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on The Festival Show on Friday 29th July, but here’s the blog version…

Disenchanted is a one-woman show (though not a one-character show by any means), written and performed by Eliane Morel. It opens on a title card, telling us we’re in Paris in 1699, and a voiceover introduces us to the salon of Madame d’Aulnoy (played, as all the characters are, by Morel).

There are a good number of digital theatre productions on this year’s GM Fringe programme. Some are part of the C ARTS strand, and some have been produced for the GMF Digital Events strand. I saw three of these productions back-to-back this week, which was a good way to dispel any preconceptions that ‘digital theatre’ is a homogenous thing or that it doesn’t offer endless opportunities for innovation and creativity. The three digital theatre events I saw this week were all very different, not least in the different film formats they used for their productions.

Morel’s Disenchanted is what we might call ‘lockdown theatre’, the sort of digital theatre we saw a lot of in 2020-21. By this I mean, it uses a faux video conference format that is self-conscious about its restrictions. In this case, Morel draws a historical connection to make the ‘lockdown theatre’ format make sense. Paris has been struck by plague, and Madame d’Aulnoy is unable to invite visitors to her salon. She consults the Magic Mirror (also played by Morel, and appearing in split screen) who introduces her to ‘magic’ that will allow her to speak to visitors remotely. It will also allow Madame to ‘swipe down’ on the – presumably – mirror to contact her guests for the evening – all of whom are characters from fairy tales.

I’ve referred to this format as ‘faux’ video conferencing, as of course it isn’t actually recorded on a conference platform. This is a film – performed, recorded, edited – and so when Madame ‘swipes down’, we are actually cutting to a different scene and Morel is able to let her characters interact with one another as a result.

‘Lockdown theatre’ was born of necessity, but it always contained the potential for intervention and innovation. Morel explores this potential through the visual techniques used to enhance the performances, including animation, overlaying, colourful backgrounds and subtitling. The overall effect is a film that, while giving a nod to the social restrictions in which it was created (and a nod to historical parallels to those restrictions), is a rich and enjoyable visual experience that feels complete (i.e. not like we’re missing out on something).

I seem to have said a lot about the format there! I think watching three productions in quick succession – and I will be reviewing the other two shortly as well – really draws your attention to the varied ways performers and companies use the technologies available. That said, I really do need to say something about the actual story of Disenchanted now!

Madame d’Aulnoy has invited five characters from fairy tales to attend her (virtual) salon and tell their story through the medium of song. The Magic Mirror is excited to hear that they will be meeting ‘princes and princesses’, but Madame is quick to disabuse him of this. She has invited minor characters, ones who don’t usually get to tell their tales. The intention, it is clear, is to offer a different perspective on well-known tales. As this is something many other writers have done over the years, I was curious to see whether Morel really could give us something fresh.

And I was not disappointed! There is some real originality in Disenchanted, and some surprising ‘twists’ on the tales.

Our first visitor/performer is Olga, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. We’re probably on familiar territory here, as there have been a number of retellings of Cinderella from her stepsisters’ perspective over the years. Morel’s Olga is a lively creation though, singing us through her story of poverty, social climbing, jealousy and resentment. The performance is comical, particularly as it ends with a coda explaining that Cinderella and Prince Charming later decided to ‘consciously uncouple’ from the Royal Family and wondering if Prince Charming’s ‘disreputable divorced uncle’ might offer another opportunity for Olga and her sister to marry into royalty after all. But Morel’s character here is also charmingly human. I enjoyed the fact that she avoids rewriting the story to make the ugly sisters the victims of the story, but rather to add context to their circumstances that might explain – if not excuse – their mistreatment of their stepsister. Olga is spiteful and selfish, but she’s also rather engaging in her resilience and ambition (and Cinderella does come off as just as ambitious and self-preserving as her sisters here). It’s hard not to enjoy Olga’s gleeful plan to ‘live the life we choose / In our gigantic shoes!’ at the end of the song.

From here, Morel’s takes get a little less familiar and a lot more surprising. We meet Gertie, the goose liberated by Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, who sings about ‘going free-range’ and starting a union of golden egg laying fairy tale geese. The unexpected message of her song is that ‘you are the controller of the means of your production’.

Next, we meet Mr Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood who offers us a very different interpretation of events from that story – and it’s this sequence that necessitates the warning that this is not a show for children – that is a lot of fun. And then the final performance is from Sleeping Beauty, the only princess who appears in Disenchanted, who reminds us that, while she is the title character of the story, much of Sleeping Beauty is about things done to the princess, rather than things done by her. In a rather polemic take on the story, Morel reframes Sleeping Beauty’s encounter with Prince Charming as non-consensual molestation (actually, that’s not really reframing it, is it? that’s actually what happens) and has her sing ‘Listen, pal, #MeToo’ before realizing that other fairy tale princesses have endured similar abuse.

For me, though, the absolute highlight of Disenchanted was the character that came between Mr Wolf and Sleeping Beauty. ‘Angelique’ (Morel supplies a name for a usually nameless character) is one of the dead wives of Bluebeard, and she tells her story – and those of Bluebeard’s other victims – in a plaintive song set to the tune of ‘Sway With Me’. It’s a genuinely haunting and moving number, and the effect is heightened by the use of visual editing techniques to overlay and impose multiple faces on screen, reminding us that this is the story of more than one woman. Morel’s make-up here is unsettling – particularly coming immediately after the comical stylings of Mr Wolf – and it’s striking that this is the only character who doesn’t interact with Madame d’Aulnoy or the audience during their appearance.

Morel has an impressively operatic vocal range, which she puts to good use in the performances in Disenchanted, varying the style as the songs and stories require and dipping into more informal tones for comedic or conversational effect. Again, a highlight for me was the ‘Angelique’ number, in which Morel uses her distinctive vocal style to striking effect.

Overall, Disenchanted is a fun cabaret-style story that encourages us to think differently about well-known fairy tales. The way certain themes from Morel’s reimaginings weave together, and the way she incorporates bits of Madame d’Aulnoy’s own biography, give Disenchanted a coherence that makes this show both a cabaret and a narrative in its own right.

I really enjoyed this production of Disenchanted – it worked really well as a piece of digital theatre. I believe that Morel has performed a live version of the show this year as well (in Australia), and I would love to see that version as well. Seeing Morel transform from one character to the next without the aid of video technology would be something to see! Those of us outside Australia may have to wait for this opportunity, but in the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the digital version of this show.

Disenchanted: A Cabaret of Twisted Fairy Tales is available to stream throughout the month of July, as part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Lammas: Day 1

It's time for Lammas, the fifth event in our Year of Celebrating the Seasons, and I've been reliably informed this one is all about bread and markets. As is now our wont, we've got a week of festive things planned for the season.

Lammas Earrings

I think my collection of Lammas-inspired earrings is my favourite set yet. Today... crumpets!

Tea and Toast Tea

I do like a seasonal tea (as you might have spotted this year). It was a bit difficult finding bread-favoured teas for our Lammas week, but this seemed close enough... Tea and Toast by Bird & Blend Tea Company. It tastes like raspberry jam!

‘First Fruits’

And I started off our Lammas week seriously with a chapter from Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun: 'First Fruits'.

Lammas Candle

We lit our Lammas/Lughnasadh from Chalice Creations tonight for the first time. It's lavender, patchouli and lemon. (Ironically I lit it shortly after reading Ronald Hutton on why Lughnasadh and Lammas probably aren't interchangeable.)

Friday, 22 July 2022

Review: Totally Trucked (Katie Damer, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 20 July 2022
The Peer Hat, Manchester

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Wednesday 20th July, I was at The Peer Hat to review Totally Trucked, a one-woman show by Katie Damer. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 22nd July, but here’s the blog version…

As I mentioned in a previous review, the one-act solo monologue is a standard format at the Fringe, with a lot of performers using it to good effect. Totally Trucked, written and performed by Katie Damer, is one such monologue, and this was the next show I saw at the festival.

Damer’s monologue opens with a very short video clip, presented without context, before we switch our attention to the performer on stage. Damer is lying on the floor, as though in bed. As she begins her super-charged delivery (and I’ll come back to that in a moment), we learn that this is Damer as a teenager, snoozing her alarm clock and almost being late for school.

Although I’ll continue to describe Totally Trucked as a monologue – which it is, as Damer carries the entirety of the performance, with the exception of brief recorded voices with which she interacts – I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is a static soliloquy. Far from it. Damer moves around the relatively small stage space at The Peer Hat with frenetic energy, acting out scenes from her story and conjuring up little vignettes despite the absence of set-dressing, props or other actors.

The story – which is an autobiographical one – begins with Damer’s rather ordinary teenage life. She explains several times that it was ordinary, that she might have had some quirks and foibles as a teenager but otherwise was on a fairly standard path. That’s not to say it’s not a funny and engaging story, or that Damer isn’t rather likable in her self-effacing account of her past life, but it is a pretty straightforward account of being at school.

And that’s sort of the point. The opening – the ordinariness of Damer’s life up to the age of fifteen – is really lining us up for a sucker punch. One day, while riding her bike home from school, Damer was hit by a truck. Her injuries left her with complex regional pain syndrome and a warning from her doctors that she likely wouldn’t walk unaided again. The show – which the audience can’t help but notice is being performed by an actor who is walking unaided, as well as leaping on and off a chair and giving a high-energy physical performance of her narrative – is about what happened next.

I described Damer’s performance style as ‘super-charged’, and I think this is the most accurate description. Her delivery is incredibly fast-paced and there’s almost a relentlessness to the way she narrates her story. She’s also not afraid of the odd bit of emotional whiplash – after delivering some of the rawer, more hard-hitting aspects of the story, she pauses for the merest of beats before launching into a bawdy tale of vodka, one-night-stands and ‘the best night of my life’. Totally Trucked is an absolute whirlwind of a performance, and it will leave you reeling in places.

This delivery style is very appropriate for the show’s content, however. This is a story about a young person – a child, really – who has their life turned upside-down and their future thrown into question. As Damer narrates her experiences of going to college and then to university – experiences that are accompanied by heightened emotions at the best of times – the pace of delivery matches the chaos of post-traumatic stress responses, self-destructive coping mechanisms, grief and tentative independence.

For all this evocation of chaos, Damer’s performance is deceptively measured. The relentlessness is very carefully choreographed, which gives the moments when the narrative stops abruptly real weight. The collision with the truck itself is particularly well-presented, evoking the emotional – rather than the physical – experience. As the show progresses, moments of silence or hesitancy come in when Damer re-enacts appointments with doctors and therapists, and a harrowing announcement from a university lecturer at the beginning of a class. The show’s final moment of painful quiet – and I won’t spoil this, as it’s pretty hard-hitting and somewhat unexpected – has a real power to it, and on the night I attended it left most of the audience in tears.

It has to be said, Totally Trucked goes to some pretty dark places, and often with little warning as to how dark it’s going to go. Nevertheless, it really isn’t a bleak play. That relentlessness that can seem so chaotic and overwhelming is actually driving us on towards an uplifting conclusion, one which has real heart and soul rather than schmaltzy inspirational morals.

This isn’t a story about one woman overcoming adversity or learning important lessons about the human condition. In some respects, Damer appears to learn very little through the course of her narrative. The drinking and sleeping around she proudly announces as habits of her teenage years continue as she enters her twenties. And she offers no advice or instructions on how to manage a chronic pain condition.

Instead of focusing on lessons to be learnt, Damer’s narrative moves us towards a sense of realization. Damer doesn’t end by suddenly learning something new, but rather clarifying something she already knew.

The latter part of the story increasingly focuses on how Damer feels towards other people, and the love and empathy that characterize her close relationships. Again, this is presented rather relentlessly, so these positive emotions sometimes threaten to overwhelm as much as the negative ones. Yet it’s in this acknowledgement, not of self-love and self-reliance, but of how much Damer loves her friends and family that the story finds its equilibrium. This is powerful, but also rather refreshing.

And this aspect, unlike some of the bleaker moments of the play, is not a sucker punch. Looking back at Damer’s narrative, there is so much warmth towards others that the final affirmations of love shouldn’t come as a surprise. Damer offers comical, somewhat mocking, portraits of family members, friends and her local pub (which, funnily enough, is my local pub, though I can neither confirm nor deny the description of it as ‘a budget Phoenix Nights), but each of these is infused with tangible affection. For a play that deals so frankly with the isolation and depression that comes with an incurable pain condition, Totally Trucked is unexpectedly full of human connection.

Totally Trucked is an exhausting, funny, harrowing and jubilant play. The fact that it crams all that into just one hour is testament not simply to Damer’s incredibly energetic performance style, but also the assured narrative drive and direction of the show. The painful autobiographical elements will stick with you for a while afterwards, but so too will Damer’s confident and engaging performance. With another show coming up in August – which promises to be very different (Dots and Dashes: A Bletchley Park Musical) – Katie Damer really does look to be one to watch.

Totally Trucked was on at The Peer Hat on 18th-20th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

Review: We Need to Talk, a Jazz Cabaret (Blue Balloon Theatre, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 19 July 2022
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Tuesday 19th July, I was at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to review We Need to Talk, a Jazz Cabaret by Blue Balloon Theatre. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 22nd July, but here’s the blog version…

So, I started this year’s Fringe by seeing Pill by Rebecca Phythian, one half of Blue Balloon Theatre. The other co-founder of Blue Balloon is Jas Nisic, and We Need to Talk is her piece at this year’s festival – so it seemed right (especially after enjoying Pill) to go and see it and complete the pair!

We Need to Talk, a Jazz Cabaret is a very different type of show to Pill, which was a solo monologue with autobiographical experience. We Need to Talk is a musical performance – as it says in the title, it’s a ‘jazz cabaret’.

Specifically, Nisic tells the story of a break-up through jazz, lounge and torch songs, interspersed with storytelling narration. It’s an ambitious performance – and I should add that I saw the show on the hottest day in Britain since records began, which made it a very ambitious performance. The show last two hours, with two short intervals and two costume changes, and for most of that time Nisic is singing. I have to take my hat off to her for getting through this on Tuesday night (though I also have to take my hat off to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for managing to maintain a perfectly pleasant temperature inside the venue for the audience!).

Nisic – accompanied by Dave Cavendish on piano – performs a repertoire of classic songs of the twentieth century that move through the various emotions of a relationship and relationship breakdown. I imagine all the songs will be reasonably familiar to audiences, and it’s easy to imagine the emotional trajectory of the selected numbers (in fact, I’m willing to bet you can already guess a couple of the songs that were included even if you didn’t see the show). This is significant for reasons I’ll come back to shortly.

First thing’s first… Nisic can really sing. I’ve heard her perform a couple of her own compositions before, which were in a more contemporary style. But now that I’ve seen We Need to Talk, it’s clear to me that she has a voice that’s perfectly suited to the rich contralto resonances of jazz, and with the power to really supply the force needed for some of the more emotional elements. Nisic’s singing alone was enough to make We Need to Talk an enjoyable show – but that’s not the only selling point here.

Nisic’s performance was charmingly idiosyncratic. Or idiosyncratically charming. I’m not sure which is the best way to describe it.

As We Need to Talk begins, she bounds up to the microphone in a short, sort of 60s-style dress, chunky black boots with love hearts on them, and flicked black eyeliner. As the first number begins, she shouts a greeting to the audience (with the obligatory repeated requests for a more enthusiastic response) before gleefully announcing, ‘Isn’t being in love sick?’ in an unmistakably Manc accent.

Nisic’s narration of the relationship and its breakdown continues in this style. Littered with colloquialisms, plenty of swearing, a few references to bodily functions (including a bit of a gross description of the aftereffects of a £9.99 deal at a Chinese buffet) and pop culture touchstones that include Game of Thrones, Friends and the Build-a-Bear workshop. It’s funny, in-your-face and very relatable – Nisic keeps the details of the relationship just on the right side of vague (including the gender of the former partner), allowing the audience ample opportunity to superimpose their own experiences onto the narrative.

And this is important, as there’s a feeling of universality to We Need to Talk. As the title reveals, the show isn’t concerned with narrating a unique individual story, but rather at gesturing to something more universal. I don’t know anyone who has ever actually used the words ‘We need to talk’ to signal the end of a relationship, but the words are such a recognizable shorthand that we all know what they mean. Similarly, the trajectory of the break-up story being told is also recognizable – the desperation, the bottles of wine, the tubs of ice cream, the cringeworthy messages, the new flame, the rebound date, the attempt at reconciliation, are threaded together in a way that we can understand and, even if we haven’t done those exact things ourselves, relate to.

Which brings us on to the songs… It might seem like an odd choice to combine a sweary, shouty, down-to-earth story about a definitively twenty-first-century break-up with old jazz standards by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Julie London, but it really does work here.

On the one hand, there’s a real charm to the way Nisic (or her on-stage persona, at least) narrates her own heartbreak and humiliation through the somewhat elevated medium of classic jazz and blues standards. In the grand scheme of break-ups, the one being described is pretty mundane, but the musical accompaniment gives a light-hearted grandiosity that lifts it out of its ordinariness.

But on the other hand, We Need to Talk really emphasizes the power of the songs being performed. How amazing is it that, in 2022, ‘Cry Me a River’ (the Julie London song, not the Justin Timberlake one) is still a go-to break-up song? That people can still listen to it and think, ‘This song is totally about me’? Some of the songs that Nisic performs are even older – ‘All of Me’ is over 90 years old, and ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ is nearly 100 years old. For these songs to still be able to form the soundtrack to the end of a relationship is pretty impressive. Nisic’s powerful performance of the numbers really underlines their continued cultural and emotional resonance.

I’ve commented on Nisic’s vocal abilities, but this was only part of the musical performance. We Need to Talk isn’t simply a narration punctuated by musical numbers. Instead, Nisic makes the songs part of the narration, incorporating them fully into her story. Although clearly well able to perform the songs ‘straight’, Nisic often interposes her own style to underline the significance or relevance of the song she’s singing (or for comedy effect, of course) – she slips into a more Mancunian delivery of lines in places, or emphasizes certain words and lines to make a point. Highlights for me were a particularly frenetic performance of ‘All of Me’ in a desperate attempt to ‘bribe’ the soon-to-be ex-partner to stay, followed by the sad resignation of a quieter, more vulnerable performance of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I also enjoyed the comedic performance of ‘Fever’ to narrate a drunken rebound date, which gets more lascivious and slurred as the song goes on. And as I’ve already noted, ‘Cry Me a River’ makes an appearance when the ex reappears seeking reconciliation. The almost confrontational style in which this one is performed is very good fun to watch.

We Need to Talk is a truly joyful show with a lot of charm. Nisic’s stage persona is endearing and relatable, and her vocal performances are impressive and assured. Ultimately, the experience of watching We Need to Talk is a bit like watching a friend go through a break-up, but a friend who’s really good at singing jazz.

One of the things I enjoy about the Fringe Festival is the rollercoaster of emotions you go on as you work your way through the programme. Each performance can elicit such different emotional responses. With We Need to Talk, the overriding emotion is happiness – at the end of the day, this is a show that will make you smile. And if you’ve endured a gruelling day of unprecedented temperatures, stuffy workplaces and fraying tempers, what more could you possibly want?

We Need to Talk, a Jazz Cabaret was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on 19th and 20th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.