Showing posts with label HOME. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HOME. Show all posts

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Review: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (Told by an Idiot)

Tuesday 4th February 2020
HOME, Manchester

I was at HOME, Manchester on Tuesday for the press night of The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. As Hannah’s Bookshelf is currently on hiatus due to North Manchester FM moving studios, I won’t be doing a radio review, but here’s the blog review…

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a production by Told by an Idiot, currently touring the UK and Luxembourg. It’s on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February.

Written and directed by Paul Hunter, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is – characteristically for Told by an Idiot – a riff on an idea, a ‘what if’ imagining provoked by a single, curious occurrence. In 1910 Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe sailed to New York to tour. Among the performers in the troupe were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (who was Chaplin’s understudy). Promising to play ‘fast and loose with the facts’, Told by an Idiot have created an energetic, exuberant, occasionally whimsical and entirely dialogue-free conception of what the boat voyage to America might have looked like. It is, as they say, an ‘unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists’.

On a multi-level – and deceptively flexible – set designed by Ioana Curelea, Charlie (played by Amalia Vitale), Stan (Jerone Marsh-Reid) and Fred Karno (Nick Haverson) arrive to board a boat to New York. The ‘tribute’ element of the performance begins almost immediately, with silent cinema-style intertitles projected onto the stage, and a slapstick sequence involving suitcases of variable weights nostalgically evoking music hall comedy. Vitale deftly swings a case around to show the chalked legend ‘Charles Chaplin, esq.’, though her physical performance and appearance probably makes this identification somewhat redundant.

The ‘unreliable’ element of the performance comes shortly afterwards, as the storytelling quickly gives way to flights of fancy. The caption ‘Charlie bids a fond farewell to England’ signals a flashback sequence (‘A Victorian Childhood’) conjuring vignettes of Chaplin’s difficult early years, showing us a drunken father (a wonderfully funny turn by Haverson), a tragic mother (Hannah Chaplin is played by Sara Alexander), and unsympathetic landlord and doctor (both played by Marsh-Reid). Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s biography will recognize moments of accuracy in this flashback, but these are collapsed and truncated for storytelling purposes.

Less accurate (one assumes) is the arrival on stage of Stan Laurel – or ‘Stanley Jefferson, esq.’, as his suitcase proclaims – who appears to have missed the embarkation and swam through the sea to catch up with the boat. Wearing goggles and a snorkel, and plucking starfish out of his pockets, Stan arrives on stage all wide-eyed happiness, but is more like a caricature from a comedy film than a character on stage.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the production, which jumps between set-pieces set on board the ship, flashbacks to Chaplin’s early life and flashforwards to a few key moments in Laurel’s later career. With impressive energy and a rather anarchic disregard for chronology, reality and logic, this is a performance that aims to capture the spirit and fantasy of its two eponymous comedy icons, rather than documenting the ‘facts’ of their relationships and careers. Thus, Laurel’s meeting with Hardy is reimagined as something like a scene from one of their films, and Chaplin’s later role as auteur-director is evoked (with the use of a gold megaphone) in the midst of a knockabout routine in which the two men attempt to conceal money stolen from Karno. Sequences merge into each other – props moved in a flashforward to the 1970s remain in the wrong place when we return to 1910 – and some bits of the story occur only in the imagination of the characters. There’s also unexpected audience participation, and the fourth wall is broken with ease and regularity.

It feels almost inappropriate to refer to ‘storytelling’ here, as the production conjures up something that defies straightforward ideas of ‘story’ and ‘narrative’. At the heart of this is Vitale’s performance as Chaplin. Her performance is more than simply mimicry – though her replication of Chaplin’s trademark mannerisms and walk is excellent – but rather a revealing embodiment of character. Her Chaplin is impatient and driven, with moments of arrogance (to the point of near megalomania at one point), and yet is utterly charming and touched with a little melancholy (on remembering Hannah Chaplin’s decline) and a wistful romanticism (when an audience member is brought on stage to ‘swim’ with Charlie). It’s a really incredible performance, and I could have happily watched Vitale-as-Chaplin for hours.

Sadly, I’m not sure the treatment of Stan Laurel was quite equal. This is very much a Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin, with Stan Laurel as sidekick. Marsh-Reid reveals a real (and impressive) talent for physical comedy, but his performance always feels at one remove from Stan Laurel. His mimicry of Laurel’s mannerisms isn’t as accurate as Vitale’s, and the gentle naivety and innocence with which he imbues his character turns him into a foil for Chaplin (and for Oliver Hardy), rather than a more rounded character. It’s a strange contrast – Vitale plays a version of Chaplin very much informed by his off-screen persona, while Marsh-Reid plays Laurel as though he were a character in a Laurel and Hardy film. Nevertheless, Marsh-Reid’s performance is enjoyable and engaging, and there’s a (very) weird sort of chemistry between the two main characters that culminates in a clog dance that is really rather difficult to describe!

Vitale and Marsh-Reid are joined on stage by Nick Haverson, who plays a number of roles including Fred Karno and (after an audience-pleaser of a transformation scene) Oliver Hardy. Haverson is beautifully versatile in his performances, and I particularly enjoyed his turn as Chaplin’s father. The other performer is Sara Alexander, who not only performs as Chaplin’s mother, but accompanies (almost) all the action on a piano at the edge of the stage, playing an original score by Zoe Rahman. It is very hard to criticize anything about the performances in this production, as I was blown away by the energy and execution – effected by Hunter’s direction. The actors didn’t miss a single mark – and given the nature of the set design and the physicality of their performances, we would have known about it if they had!

Overall, this is indeed a strange tale, signifying... something. It certainly isn’t factual or believable or logical, but it has a curious truth to it that’s really compelling. For me, the highlight was Vitale’s mesmerizing performance as Chaplin, but the whole production exudes a spirited joy that is an awful lot of fun to watch. I’d recommend seeing this one if you can.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February. It’s is currently touring the UK and Luxembourg.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Phosphoros Theatre)

Friday 4th October 2019
HOME, Manchester (Orbit Festival)

This year’s Orbit Festival at HOME, Manchester runs from Wednesday 18th September to Saturday 5th October. The festival programme for 2019 seeks to ‘conquer the divide’, by bringing together artists and theatre-makers who explore prevailing societal divides and the ways these might be overcome. On Friday 4th October, I attended the press night of Pizza Shop Heroes by Phosphoros Theatre, which was on the Orbit festival programme this year. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

Pizza Shop Heroes is an innovative piece of applied theatre based on the lived experiences of the performers, which was developed through a research process and development workshops. The experiences narrated by workshop participants (the performers of the show) were worked into a theatre script by Dawn Harrison (who also directs) with artistic direction from Kate Duffy.

The performers are Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, all of whom came to the UK between 2013-15 as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. Phosphoros Theatre are committed to making work that offers an alternative perspective on the refugee experience, using the lived experiences of the company to inform their performances.

Pizza Shop Heroes begins in – unsurprisingly – a pizza shop. The four young men are working, taking calls and dealing with awkward customers. But this setting is only a very small part of the story and characterization here. The eponymous pizza shop is immediately brought to life with verge, energy and humour, but it is really a staging-post, a device to bring the four men (and their stories) together.

The performance starts with a set of rules – beginning with the usual warnings to switch off mobile phones and not talk during the performance. However, the rules develop into more of a comment on the type of storytelling we’re going to be watching. We’re encouraged not only to listen, but think about how we’re listening. We’re told to avoid earnest chin-in-hand gestures, for instance (something which caused a couple of audience members to shift slightly in their seats). The instructions develop further, laying out directives on how we should receive the stories we hear. Inconsistencies should not be taken as indications of falsehood, and we have no right to judge the credibility of the storytellers. This performance builds into a clear reminder that the young men on stage have told their stories numerous times before, to various officials (border guards, police, social workers, education officers) who have made assumptions and judgements about veracity based on the manner of telling, and to people offering assistance who have attempted to frame and shape the narrative into a more ‘acceptable’ form. This time, the men’s stories will be told how they want to tell them.

Tewodros (Teddy), Goitom, Emirjon and Syed travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. As the theatre piece unfolds, snippets and glimpses of their childhood experiences and the circumstances that led to their journey emerge. These are presented differently and in a somewhat fragmentary way – Emirjon remembers rabbit hunting in Albania, Goitom explains the fear of being forced into the army as a child – but the main focus on the piece is on the journeys the four took to escape conflict.

One of the really powerful things about Pizza Shop Heroes is the way the piece plays with difference and similarity. At times, each of the young men reveals something specific and unique about his experience or the circumstances from which he escaped, giving voice to the individuality of each refugee’s story. However, the piece brings these stories together into ensemble performances that merge the individual tales into a collective experience, stressing the echoes and parallels in the boys’ tales. Some elements of the story – the fear on arriving in an alien country, for example – transcend the particulars of individual lived experiences. Nevertheless, Pizza Shop Heroes is careful not to fall into universalizing – and when the boundaries become a little too blurred, there is some light-touch humour to reshape it (at one point, Goitom pauses mid-act and asks ‘Wait, whose memory is this?’)

Though the show addresses some very serious subject matter – from war and terrorism to grief, regret and fear – it is far from grim. The humour in Pizza Shop Heroes is very well-handled, as it punctuates the stories without undermining or trivializing them. There is a powerful humanizing effect in the use of wry jokes about cultural misunderstandings – one bit in particular, where Syed recounts the response he got to giving a teacher a bottle of Head and Shoulders as an Eid gift, brings the audience and performer together in a subtle but companionable appreciation of the dramatic irony.

The only criticism I have is that I’m not convinced by Kate Duffy’s on-stage facilitation and artistic direction. Sitting on the side-lines, encouraging the men to translate into English lines spoken in their first languages (which they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t), or taking on the part of one of the characters in a particular part of the story (like Emirjan’s uncle at the beginning of the rabbit-hunting memory), Duffy’s role feels a little too close to that of a workshop facilitator, which sometimes dilutes the immediacy of the young men’s narration, especially when she brings in her own personal experiences of working with Asylum Seeking Children.

Nevertheless, the narratives of Pizza Shop Heroes very much achieve Phosphoros Theatre’s stated aim of offering an ‘alternative perspective’. As well as offering memories of the past and commentary on the present, the piece moves towards a moving and compelling performance about the (potential) future, as the young men imagine fatherhood and the ways their own stories will shape the lives and ambitions of their children – including their desire to prevent their children being forced into adulthood before they’re ready. Humorous, emotive and ultimately filled with hope, the imagined future offers a strong and thought-provoking climax to the young men’s narratives.

Overall, Pizza Shop Heroes is a powerful, dynamic and highly engaging piece of theatre. I genuinely found myself disappointed when it came to an end, as it is more than successful in its aim of getting audiences to sit and listen to the stories the young men have chosen to tell. I would happily have listened to a lot more from them. Phosphoros Theatre are currently touring the piece around the UK, and if you have chance to catch one of the performances I’d definitely recommend you take it.

Pizza Shop Heroes is on at HOME, Manchester on the 4th-5th October, as part of the Orbit Festival, and then at other UK venues until December. To see more about the Orbit Festival 2019 programme, please visit the HOME website.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Review: No One is Coming to Save You (This Noise)

Sunday 30th June 2019
HOME, Manchester

Yesterday, I posted a review of Electrolyte, which I saw at HOME, Manchester as part of this year’s Incoming Festival. This is a review of the second festival production I saw that night: No One is Coming to Save You by This Noise. I’ll be reviewing both productions on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version of my review of No One is Coming to Save You

It was interesting to watch No One is Coming to Save You immediately after seeing Electrolyte (which was on the bill on the same night), as the two productions are really quite different. While Electrolyte is a loud (even brash) piece of gig theatre, No One is Coming to Save You is an experimental piece, with its feet in a literary, rather than musical, tradition. Electrolyte explores and celebrates the bonds of friendship; No One is Coming to Save You examines isolation, and what happens to the human mind when there’s no one to talk to. Electrolyte is about mental illness, whereas No One is Coming to Save You is about mental health.

The play opens onto a relatively bare stage. There’s a boxy old TV on a chair, and a piece of AstroTurf on the floor. And there are two people lying on the AstroTurf. These are our two unnamed characters – narrators, really – played by Agatha Elwes and Rudolphe Mdlongwa.

Written by Nathan Ellis and directed by Charlotte Fraser, No One is Coming to Save You is a piece of off-beat narrative theatre that moves from funny to unsettling (and sometimes combines the two), and which takes place in the minds of two people who cannot sleep.

‘There is a woman…’ intones Elwes, as she begins to outline the minutiae of what the unnamed woman, who is sitting alone in a dark kitchen, is doing. ‘There is a man…’ says Mdlongwa, before beginning his monologue, describing the man. The piece is a duologue, rather than a dialogue (for the most part), as the two take it in turns to speak, moving around the small stage space as though the other isn’t there. Half-full glasses of water are scattered around the floor, and the television intermittently shows disjointed images of disasters and brief captions addressing the audience.

No One is Coming to Save You is far from a comfortable linear narrative. The two performers offer oddly matter-of-fact accounts of what the two characters are thinking, but, for the most part, they do not perform as the characters. Until a short dialogue towards the end of the play, the accounts are given in third person, so the man and woman are being described (in a rather objective tone) rather than embodied. Moreover, the thoughts that are being described are fragmentary, and include supposed memories that may or may not have happened. At times, the descriptive monologues become rather surreal, and at others they take on a detached, dark tone, as the two imagine ways to hurt and destroy people around them.

It is to the performers’ credit that, despite this disjointed way of constructing and presenting narrative, the audience still feels a sense of engagement with them as ‘characters’. Elwes, in particular, is compelling as she recounts the mundanity of the woman’s work as a video logger, and her relationship with Lavender, the woman she works with. However, I also very much enjoyed Mdlongwa’s somewhat absurdist explanation of what ‘selling olive oil spread to empty nesters’ entails.

Fraser’s direction is also good here. Given that the piece is delivered entirely through two not-quite-converging monologues, the movements of the two performers around one another, and the way they almost – but not quite – overlap in their speech, are very effective. The dance break (and I’m giving no spoilers on that one) is well-timed to throw the audience off-guard.

There’s a technique in creative writing that I’ve presented several times at workshops. Take a piece of prose – no matter how cute or mundane – and put it into present (or future) tense. If it’s in first person, change it to third (or second). The result is that your mundane piece of prose takes on an unsettling – often disturbing – quality. This technique is used to good effect in No One is Coming to Save You. Much of what the characters describe is really quite ordinary – even the more exaggerated fantasies of violence are so very strange to anyone who has suffered from insomnia – but the show takes that ordinariness and presents it as extraordinary. The script imbues even the act of looking at some patio doors with a profundity that hints at something more than the act itself. And the result is really rather absorbing.

No One is Coming to Save You is not about mental illness as such, but rather the low-level anxiety, angst and ennui that permeates so much of our existence – but which is relatively easy to dispel. Its hopeful – almost reassuringly twee – ending feels fitting, as this is a play about how wrong it can feel when nothing is actually wrong. As anyone who’s struggled to sleep will know, it’s always darkest just before dawn.

I’ve seen some other reviews and interviews describing this production as belonging to a particular time, or to a particular generation. I have to disagree with these assessments. While there is some sense that the ‘modern world’ is to blame for the narrators’ angst, this is not a story simply about – dare I say it – millennials. It may be tempting to imagine that this type of anxiety, dissociation and dread is a new phenomenon, this grizzled Gen-Xer found it completely recognizable. Indeed, the use of a TV, rather than a mobile phone, as the ubiquitous site of menace, adds to this effect. (I wouldn’t want to say for sure, but I bet there’s plenty of baby boomers who’d claim the phenomenon for their generation too!)

Overall, No One is Coming to Save You is an off-key, quirky piece of theatre, with good writing and direction, and two surprisingly engaging performances. If you fancy watching something a little less linear and a little more charmingly illogical, then this is a definite recommendation for you!

No One is Coming to Save You was on in London on 27th June, Bristol on 28th June, and Manchester on 30th June, as part of this year’s Incoming Festival.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Review: Electrolyte (Wildcard)

Sunday 30th June 2019
HOME, Manchester (Incoming Festival)

I was at HOME, Manchester on Sunday to see Electrolyte, one of the productions in this year’s Incoming Festival programme. I’ll be reviewing the show on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version of my review…

The Incoming Festival takes place in Manchester, Bristol and London, and showcases emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond. Electrolyte is a production by Wildcard, which was performed in London on 28th June, Bristol on 29th June and Manchester on 30th June, as part of a UK and Ireland tour.

Electrolyte is a piece of gig theatre, written by James Meteyard and directed by Donnacadh O’Briain. Music and lyrics are by Maimuna Memon. The story unfolds through spoken word poetry and live music (in a variety of genres, though it leans towards the electronic), which is performed on stage by the multi-instrumentalist cast. This is the first time I’ve seen this sort of performance, and it is hard not to be swept up in the energy of it all.

The cast are on stage as the audience enter, apparently tuning up their instruments, joking around with each other, and greeting audience members that they recognize. Of course, on reflection, this is an important (but subtle) part of the show, so perhaps they don’t actually recognize anyone. However, this deceptive casualness sets the tone for Electrolyte’s intimate and personal narrative, which not only breaks the fourth wall at times, but also draws its audience in and encourages a degree of affection and empathy with its central character that should be at odds with its short length and unusual performance style. Music plays a pivotal role in this play, but it would be wrong to call it musical theatre.

The protagonist-narrator is Jessie, a young lass from Leeds, who is played beautifully by Olivia Sweeney. Jessie begins as a fairly recognizable character type – she’s a little bit reckless, a little bit lost, struggling to find anything of value in her life, besides getting drunk and high with her mates. The show proper kicks off when Jessie takes the mic and begins her rhymed and rhythmic narration; she introduces her friends and near enough drags the audience with her to the gig they’re attending.

Sweeney’s performance is mesmerizing throughout. She is instantly believable as the intense but vulnerable Jessie. It is easy to feel that you actually know Jessie – an impressive feat given that the play runs at just over an hour – which is vitally important to the development of the story. Jessie’s vulnerability runs much deeper than initially appears, and the fact that the audience experiences this so viscerally is, to a great extent, credit to Sweeney’s relentless, yet charming, performance.

However, credit should also be given to Meteyard’s writing. Again, the show has a deceptive casualness to it that belies the complexity of its storytelling. Reflecting back afterwards, you realize that careful signs were placed from the beginning of Jessie’s narration. Given the show’s association with the Mental Health Foundation, as well as the content warnings given beforehand, it is not really a spoiler to say that the show deals with issues of mental illness. However, I found the way in which Electrolyte presented and handled these issues to be quite unexpected and innovative. More significantly, I found the type of mental illness portrayed to be very unexpected: this is not a play about depression and anxiety. I don’t want to dwell too much on my own personal experiences, but I will say that Electrolyte deals with the type of mental illness that I have (though not the exact condition). It is rare to see the symptoms of this type of illness represented with such (at times, brutal) honesty, and I was impressed with how convincing Sweeney’s performance was. The rest of the cast move between seamlessly from performing the soundtrack (a mix of almost-numbers and ambient soundscape) to engaging in the action and dialogue with Jessie. Megan Ashley and Ben Simon are reassuringly nice as Jessie’s ‘couple friends’ Donna and Paul, and Chris Georgiou offers some comic relief as sweary extrovert Ralph. Again, the audience is encouraged to identify with the dynamics of these friendships – as it is changes in her friends’ lives (Donna and Paul are engaged, Ralph is moving away) that unsettles an already troubled Jessie.

The final two characters are the new additions to Jessie’s life. Meteyard plays the role of Jim, a London DJ who may or may not be what he seems, and Robyn Sinclair is hypnotic as Allie Touch, a singer-musician on whom Jessie becomes fixated. Sinclair’s vocal performance is excellent – again, making it very easy for the audience to empathize with Jessie’s fixation. But I also liked the fact that – no spoilers! – Sinclair voices lines for another character later in the show, a choice that subtly hints at some of the darker threads of the story.

Electrolyte has no set, save the cast’s instruments, which are laid out like a gig stage. And yet, the show is able to transport us from a flat, to the streets of Leeds, to a train, to a London warehouse with surprising ease. While the writing and performances do a lot of the work here, praise is also due to Timothy Kelly’s lighting design, which really blew me away in the show’s climactic scene, as it captured both the setting and the symbolism in an epic, almost confrontational, fashion.

If I have one criticism of Electrolyte it would be that the show’s ending is rather too neat. The play tackles some aspects of serious mental illness with a refreshing and creative rawness that is rarely seen – and yet, it doesn’t take the same approach to recovery, which is presented as rather too easy here. After being so impressed (and moved) by the play’s representation of symptoms, I felt rather let down by the breeziness of the resolution. I’m all for mental health narratives with happy endings (we’ve seen more than enough of the alternative!), but this has to be balanced with a little more candour.

Despite this, I would still definitely recommend Electrolyte. It’s an exuberant, energetic and intelligent piece of theatre, with a brilliant script and some genuinely stunning performances.

Electrolyte was on at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 30th June, as part of the Incoming Festival. It is currently touring nationally.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Review: The Basement Tapes (Zanetti Productions)

Tuesday 25th June 2019
HOME, Manchester (Incoming Festival)

I was at HOME Manchester again this week to see The Basement Tapes, one of the productions on this year’s Incoming Festival programme. I’ll be reviewing the show for North Manchester FM next week, but in the meantime here’s the full version of my review…

Now in its sixth year, the Incoming Festival takes place in London, Manchester and Bristol, and showcases the work of emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond. The Basement Tapes is a piece by New Zealand’s Zanetti Productions. It was performed in Manchester on 25th June, before moving on to London on 27th June and Bristol on 29th June, as part of a UK tour.

The Basement Tapes is a one-act play, performed by Stella Reid and directed by Jane Yonge, which takes place entirely in the eponymous basement. A young woman is faced with the task of clearing out the cellar after the death of her grandmother. As she sifts through old clothes and cheesy records, she uncovers an old tape recorder… and then a tape recorded by her grandmother. She’s shocked to hear her relative’s voice again, but then sits down to listen to the tape. A story begins to emerge that is equal parts mysterious and unsettling.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Basement Tapes – it’s a skilful, well-crafted and expertly performed piece of theatre, with surprises – and even shocks – that I did not see coming. Billed as a ‘mystery’, this play is much more than that – but it would be unfair to give too much away about the story! Suffice to say the story has a few curveballs that I didn’t expect, and a creepiness that went beyond what I was anticipated. (If you’ve read stuff on my blog before, it should go without saying that ‘creepiness’ is a very good thing in my book!)

It is rare to see horror tropes tackled successfully on stage – it’s really not an easy genre to perform live, and in such intimate surroundings as Theatre 2 at HOME, but Zanetti Productions are more than up to the task. The Basement Tapes hits all the right notes to create a thrilling and disturbing tale, which left me feeling genuinely unnerved by the end. The trajectory of the creepiness is just right; the tension is built subtlety and competently. So competently, in fact, that inanimate objects on stage begin to feel imbued with a sense of menace.

The play opens on a deceptively simple set, designed by Oliver Morse – a pile of cardboard boxes to the back, with a few apparently inconsequential objects scattered around in front. However, the work to which this set is put is quite remarkable. Reid moves, empties, fills and throws away the boxes, which take up different places on the stage, ready for later interactions. While Reid appears to treat the boxes in a rather cavalier fashion, the underlying precision of her performance is revealed by the lighting, which picks out objects on the stage at various points. Everything we’re seeing is a deliberate part of the storytelling, moving us inexorably towards the play’s climactic denouement.

The sound design (by Thomas Lambert) and lighting are excellent throughout. While The Basement Tapes is not afraid to ‘go big’ on some effects (bright and colourful lighting, blaring music), it also makes skilful use of darkness and silence – some of the more striking moments come when there was no light, or no sound – as well moments of warmth and quietness. It would be tempting in a story of this sort (which the blurb describes as ‘Twin Peaks meets Serial’) to try and create cinematic techniques; however, The Basement Tapes is all theatre. This is not a piece that feels like a short film enacted live, but rather a production that truly belongs on the stage, created by a company that knows how to use the theatre space (with its opportunities for lighting and sound) to its full potential.

But what really impressed me – and what I enjoyed the most – is the storytelling. A single act is a short space to present a fully developed tale, but The Basement Tapes manages it. The script gives just enough information to conjure a clear backstory, weaving a convincing backdrop to the main ‘mystery’, which is revealed through the atmospheric narration provided by the tapes found in the cellar. Tiny fragments of backstory are scattered throughout, from an empty sherry bottle to a camel-coloured coat. Again, there is a deceptive simplicity to this – without the careful and deliberate contextualizing, it would be difficult to imagine an audience sitting quietly, watching a woman on stage listening to a tape. However, by the time the granddaughter hits the ‘play’ button, we’re just as intrigued as she is.

While the mystery and horror elements are, perhaps, the most striking aspects, the use of humour is also very well-done. I particularly enjoyed some of the nods to… erm… slightly older members of the audience, as the central character negotiated such archaic technology as tape recorders and landline phones.

Reid gives a stunning performance as the granddaughter. She is endearing and engaging throughout, ensuring that the audience feels that we know (and like) the young woman she’s playing. Reid begins the performance with a boisterous dance routine, and variously moves between brash comic turns, sentimental reminiscences, manic curiosity and mounting anxiety as the story on the tape begins to unfold. On occasion, these moves happen quickly: there’s a brilliant bit with a cookbook that captures an abrupt – but completely believable – swing from affectionate mockery to tearful nostalgia, which perfectly evokes the mixed emotions of bereavement and its aftermath. Again, Reid’s captivating performance encourages a feeling of intimacy and familiarity, which is a key part of the play’s story development and resolution.

In case this rather effusive review hasn’t made it clear, The Basement Tapes is an excellent piece of theatre – highly recommended. It’s a play that really stays with you after you’ve left the theatre and undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve seen on stage this year.

The Basement Tapes was on at HOME Manchester on 25th June, as part of the Incoming Festival. The Incoming Festival takes place at HOME Manchester, New Diorama Theatre, London, and Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, on 24th-30th June 2019.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Review: dressed. (This Egg)

Tuesday 4th June 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of dressed. at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version of the review…

dressed. is an award-winning piece of theatre, co-created and performed by Josie Dale-Jones (This Egg), Lydia Higginson, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris. Combining music, dance, physical theatre, and – perhaps most significantly – costume, dressed. is a powerful show about trauma, healing and friendship. It is thought-provoking in the way it intertwines these big ideas, and in the way they are staged, emphasised and interrogated.

As the audience arrive, the four performers are already on stage, and upbeat music is playing. Dressed in loose-fitting grey costumes, Dale-Jones, Higginson, Mahdavi and Norris dance around the stage, laughing with each other and messing about like a group of friends who know each other well. There is a real intimacy to this introduction, which will continue throughout the production. When the performance proper begins, each woman takes the mic and introduces another, sharing little inconsequential nuggets that suggest a long (and strong) acquaintance. They met at a dance class when they were ten years old, we learn, and then they perform a little bit of the routine from that class.

While this opening is certainly tender and cute, it has an interesting twist – it’s all true. The performers are not playing fictional characters – they have indeed been friends since they were children. dressed. is a collaborative and autobiographical piece, which utilizes the individual performance styles and talents of the four co-creators to tells its story and explore its message (or, rather, messages). The buoyant opening sequence foregrounds the theme of female friendship, before we move into the story. The four performers take their places at the front of the stage area, the music stops and the lights drop…

In 2012, Higginson was stripped at gunpoint. As a way of healing from this trauma, she began to make clothes – redressing herself by spending a year creating an entire wardrobe from scratch. dressed. is the story of this process – though it touches on broader ideas around trauma, healing and dressing. The audience is asked to close their eyes as Higginson recounts the incident itself, the only sounds being her own voice and the removal of clothing. The contrast to the piece’s opening sequence is stark. Higginson ends the narration with a simple statement: ‘You can open your eyes now.’ Again, there is a peculiar intimacy, as the line is not dialogue as such, but rather a conversational request.

What follows this is an energetic and hard-hitting run through the complex and messy process of responding to an assault of this kind. The women dress in costumes made by Higginson in the immediate aftermath. Mahdavi dons a floaty pink cocktail dress, in which she performs a searing torch song; Norris wears a dramatic black evening dress, and gives a furious and unnerving dance performance, filled with rage and a slight sense of menace; Dale-Jones is a clown, dressed in circus attire and comically gambolling round the stage like a puppet. Higginson stands aside, dressed as a piratical warrior. The costumes signify various aspects of a (particularly female) response to trauma, and it is significant that we see Higginson literally lacing her co-performers into their outfits. But I was especially struck by the way in which the women embody these costumed personas through physical movement, mannerism and vocal performance – they become the costumes.

For me, the real strength of dressed. lies in the combination and development of the performances. Mahdavi’s voice is unexpected and striking, bringing a haunting quality to the songs she performs. Norris’s physical movement around the stage is assured, unsettling and evocative, and Dale-Jones has impeccable (if rather off-key) comic timing. And, of course, these individual performances are stitched together by the story coordinated by Higginson, and it’s no surprise when she climbs onto a sewing machine table, observing and conducting the scene before her.

As the pace increases, the women’s performances escalate and fragment into near-incoherence. This is not a criticism, but rather a reflection on the deliberate styling of the show. At various points, dialogue and vocal performance is overlaid by the intrusive sound of white noise. Mahdavi’s song loses its pitch, descending into a discordance that becomes a scream of pain. Norris’s fury becomes almost terrifying in its disjointed attempts to vocalise… something. And Dale-Jones’s comedy routine pulls no punches, addressing the audience in a particularly uncomfortable way.

The latter was one of the most arresting parts of the show, for me. The sheer discomfort of Dale-Jones’s pseudo-stand-up routine was impressive, and I appreciated the way dressed. refused to relent by throwing a ‘#NotAllMen’ bone to audience members. There is a rawness in this that, along with Mahdavi’s disintegrating melody and Norris’s pained contortions, packs a real punch.

Nevertheless, an adjective that is used a lot in reviews of dressed. is ‘tender’. While the show doesn’t hold back in showing pain, it also stages moments of recovery and healing – all the while presenting recurring images of friendship, performance and clothing. One sequence, in particular, in which Mahdavi performs a musical number to a prone Higginson buried in a pile of costumes, draws these three images together in a moving and – dare I say it? – uplifting way.

The overall message of dressed. may be up for some debate – indeed, the show itself offers some meta-commentary on the reception and interpretation of the show, and of its relationship to the #MeToo movement. In many ways, this is an unusual piece of theatre, constantly referring to things outside its own staging (for instance, Higginson’s blog project, Made My Wardrobe) and to its own reviews. In doing so, the show tries (perhaps a bit too hard) to offer its own interpretation of itself. Indeed, it’s difficult to write a review of the show, knowing that certain adjectives and phrases have been incorporated into the piece itself, with the suggestion that these were not the responses its creator/subject was hoping for.

Nevertheless, this meta, self-reflective commentary is also part of the fascination of dressed. The question of how to process and interpret stories such as this is returned to time and again, with Dale-Jones’s stark and angry shout of ‘Is this helping?’ referring to so much more than the immediate narrative moment. It is an interrogation a much broader picture, and it’s notable that neither Higginson nor the production as a whole give a definitive answer to the question.

dressed. is not always easy to watch. Its finale made me cry, and some of the questions asked do not have an easy answer. But it is utterly compelling in its confident and competent staging and performances, and convincing in its message of solidarity, friendship and healing. It is tender and intimate, discomforting and confrontational. And I highly recommend it.

dressed. is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 8th June.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Review: Richard III (Headlong Theatre)

Tuesday 30th April 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a (slightly shorter) version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III came to HOME, Manchester this month. It’s a bold, energetic and unsettling adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which uses set design, costume and performance to present a darkly compelling study of a man’s pursuit of power and sovereignty.

Expertly directed by John Haidar, this Richard III actually begins with a scene from the end of Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of Gloucester kills King Henry. This, of course, sets up the audience for the murders and intrigue to come (and there will be lots of murders), but it also allows for a direct introduction to the character of the future King Richard III – the play begins, not with the ‘winter of discontent’, but with Richard’s ‘I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear’ speech, leaving us in no doubt that we are about to watch a very bad man do some very bad things.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

And Richard here is a very bad man. Tom Mothersdale is both repulsive and mesmerising as the twisted, cruel and power-hungry Gloucester. Snarling, spitting, grasping, cajoling and mocking, this Richard III is a monster rather than a tyrant. And yet… Mothersdale’s delivery is so captivating that it’s impossible not to warm ever so slightly to this version of Shakespeare’s famous villain. His delivery of Shakespearean dialogue is excellent, rendering even the most verbose monologues immediate and accessible – aided by knowing nods and asides to the audience that make us feel almost complicit in his nefarious plots. It takes an accomplished actor to get laughs from a contemporary audience without undermining either the gravity or the literary style of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but Mothersdale is more than up to the task. However, he’s equally up to the task of making the audience’s skin crawl.

As with most modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not the complete Richard III. Some scenes are excised or abridged, and the cast of characters is substantially streamlined. We jump from one monstrous act to another with hardly a breath and little time to ponder motive or purpose. For instance, Richard’s plan to marry Elizabeth of York (who doesn’t appear on stage in this production) is even more hot-on-the-heels of her brothers’ deaths than is usual, and he shrugs off her mother’s accusation of incest as though it’s completely irrelevant. He is, after all, a very bad man. While Shakespeare’s play gives some time and space to considering broader questions of statesmanship, sovereignty, sin and consequence, this production focuses more on the facets of a repellent individual – it is a portrait of vileness, in all its glory.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Admittedly, while this is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s histories, the audience learns little of actual history from this production. You would be forgiven if your understanding of the Wars of the Roses, or the messy succession of the English crown, was not expanded by seeing this play. Indeed, this seems like quite a deliberate stylistic choice. Obviously, Bosworth Field is mentioned (though only once), but the play resists adding any signposting of who Richmond will become once he has taken the crown from Richard. This is not simply faithful adherence to Shakespeare’s text, but rather a stylistic decision to present a more timeless story of corruption and power that transcends the rigidity of historical context.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner
While the play is very much a study of its title character, with Richard appearing on stage in almost every scene, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other excellent performances. Stefan Adegbola makes a fascinating Buckingham, transforming the character from the start into a slick, smiling and untrustworthy spin doctor, before crashing hard into Richard’s betrayal. Derbhle Crotty and Eileen Nicholas play Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, exuding almost tangible anger and pain. Nicholas’s Duchess has a powerful scene with Richard in the second act, which is made all the more complex by the earlier inclusion of Richard’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 – a subtle hint that Richard has been missing a mother’s love. I should also give full admiration and credit to the young actors playing Prince Edward and York – Headlong have taken a bold decision by including child actors in such an intense adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but the performances of the younger cast members definitely justify the decision.

Caleb Roberts’s performance as Richmond is rather curious. Delivering his calls-to-arms and regal monologues with pious grace and innocence, this Richmond stands in as sharp distinction to the grotesque Richard as it’s possible to be. However, there is a sense that he is too pious, too good and, occasionally, a little too wet behind the ears to really carry off the final dramatic act of murder and renewal. In the absence of overt signposting of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of Richmond here. And, in fact, we’re given little time to dwell on this – the ‘good guy’ wins, but the play actually ends on an image of the tormented and defeated ‘bad guy’ that is far more memorable.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

There is a stylised quality to the production that further suggests this Richard III has a more timeless quality about it. Characters appear in not-quite-contemporary suits, and the gender of some characters is switched (for instance, we have Lady Hastings – played by Heledd Gwynn – who sports formalwear, high heels and bright pink hair). Chiara Stephenson’s set design adds to the effect: a dungeon-like castle forms the backdrop, with mirrors on every side. These two-way mirrors become an integral feature, not only of the set, but of the performance – Richard becomes reflected in a distorted kaleidoscope effect at times, but at others his ghostly victims appear behind them.

In addition to the mirrors, the first act of the play makes interesting use of the crown. Suspended from a wire in the centre of the stage, the coveted object descends a little with each murderous act, edging ever closer to Richard’s grasping hands until the pre-interval climax. It isn’t a subtle image, but it’s well-done here and recurs towards the end of the second half, when we see the monarch literally begin to lose his grasp on the crown.

The stylisation extends to sound design (by George Dennis) and lighting (by Elliot Griggs). This is particularly apparent when acts of violence occur. The harsh red light and screaming sound effects that punctuate the performance when murders occur are jarring – which is an effective, if disconcerting, technique. In the same way, the movement of actors too and from the stage – as well as the adeptly choreographed movements on stage – is both unnerving and gripping.

Overall, this is a dizzying and intense production that builds to a high-pitched climax (and an incredible final image). It’s unpleasant, nasty and nightmarish in places – but isn’t that the allure of Richard III? Headlong’s vivid and forceful production brings Shakespeare’s villain and his ruthless (but ultimately futile) quest for sovereignty to life in a way that is both captivating and grotesque. I highly recommend it.

Richard III is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 4th May.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review: Kingdom (Agrupación Señor Serrano)

Wednesday 10th April 2019
HOME, Manchester (¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival)

This week, I was at HOME Manchester for the press night of Kingdom for North Manchester FM. A (slightly) shorter version of this review will be going out on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

This year marks the 25th birthday of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival at HOME. Headlining the festival this year are Barcelona-based theatre company Agrupación Señor Serrano with their multimedia theatre experience, Kingdom. Blending live music, multi-lingual performance, dance, video projection and models, Kingdom is an unusual exploration of the history of capitalism – or is it the history of bananas? – using the character of King Kong and footage from the various versions of the film.

Señor Serrano are pioneers of ‘cinema-in-real-time’, and Kingdom makes great use of this technique. Performers hold video cameras, filming scale models of plantations, an explorer in the jungle, a montage of newspaper covers and ephemera, and the footage is projected – in real time – onto the large screen behind them, changing the clutter of small objects on the stage into cinematic images and montages. Performers interact with plants, props and backdrops to create ‘live’ sequences, and models are used to conjure entire scenes. Additionally, through inventive use of green screens, the ‘real time’ footage melds seamlessly into edited clips from other sources: most notably, the King Kong films and a Chiquita banana advert.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

In lesser hands, this idiosyncratic style could become fragmented, but Señor Serrano have created a piece that is much more than the sum of its parts. The pace is frenetic, with only brief moments of calm reflection (and unsettling tableaus of masculinity that veer towards physical comedy) to break the relentless drive of the piece.

This is not narrative theatre, but nor is it a documentary (though the show makes a nod to its expositional style in a rather slick bit of video projection and editing in the first half). If it is ‘story-telling’, then the story it tells is one of global and systemic socio-economics (and bananas). The closest Kingdom comes to a character – unless you count the increasingly dominant figure of King Kong – is the representation of Minor Cooper Keith, the American businessman who pioneered Central American banana plantations in the late nineteenth century. Even the brief portrayal of Keith, however, is more of a cipher than a character – the man, like the fruit, symbolizes something bigger.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

From Kingdom’s opening speech about the state of the world, which ends with the repeated refrain ‘Estamos bien’ [‘We are fine’], the show’s message of capitalism and catastrophism is writ large. Indeed, the examination of capitalism is fairly heavy-handed throughout. The surprise and innovation lie in the way this is tied to bananas (and, ultimately, to King Kong). Nevertheless, the show strikes a careful balance. This is not a documentary or lecture, and so the ‘banana story’ is sketched out, rather than explained in ponderous detail. Some aspects – the funding of Keith’s endeavours and his subsequent role in Costa Rican politics isn’t explicitly mentioned, and nor is the curious history of the Cavendish banana – but this is a sensible decision. As I’ve said, the banana serves as something of a cipher here, though it is a remarkably apt one.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

After the introductory speech, Kingdom moves us to its central thesis: the idea that the banana has fundamentally shaped the very world in which we live. That we are introduced to this idea through a high-octane, dual-language (Chinese and English), rap-infused musical number with interjections like ‘Sexy Latin!’ and ‘Nasty Bananas!’ tells you a lot about how Kingdom conveys its content. If this number doesn’t convince you, what follows is an entertaining and spectacular set of proofs for the thesis, which end up being really quite convincing.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

While capitalism, bananas and King Kong loom large here, Kingdom has another, less trumpeted, story to tell (though, by the end of the performance, this is no less subtle). The performance also addresses the relationship between capitalism and masculinity – or, rather, machismo. The five on-stage performers all strip to the waist at various points in the show, adopting ‘muscleman’ poses to the backdrop of Kong-on-the-rampage. On the whole, this works well, particularly in the context of the final video montage and dance performance.

However, at times, the physical comedy of these moments threatens to undermine any serious critique. Perhaps this is the point, though: the story we are being told is, while true, utterly ludicrous. The extended sequences of muscle flexing and macho posturing can sometimes seem overdone, but they aren’t out of place.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Performances by Diego Anido, Pablo Rosal, Wang Ping-Hsiang, David Muñiz and Nico Roig are excellent, and the use of the stage space is creative and inventive. Certain set pieces really stand out. The video projection sequence of the creation of a banana plantation is a real highlight – despite the fact that the audience can see the performers on stage manipulating tiny scale models, the images on screen could be mistaken for pre-edited animation. The show’s final speech (and the projected montage that precedes it) is an excellent crystallization of the ideas that underpin the show – entertaining, yes, but also a truly hard-edged commentary on the state of the late-capitalist world. Estamos bien.

This speech is not the end, however. Kingdom builds to a finale that is almost overwhelming in its intensity. In many ways, it is the final dance and music performance that really underlines the show’s message: in a capitalist system, the only way to go is bigger, louder, faster. Is this hope? Or hopelessness? Or is it an exhortation to eat more bananas and dance?

Phot credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Kingdom is a show that expertly combines a hard-hitting socio-political message with truly inventive stagecraft and performances. It’s loud, extravagant, dynamic and energetic – and above all, it’s completely bananas.

Kingdom is on at HOME in Manchester until Saturday 13th April, as part of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Review: SparkPlug (Box of Tricks)

Thursday 14th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

Another theatre review from me! On Thursday, I was at HOME again for North Manchester FM, this time attending the press night of SparkPlug, a new play by Mancunian writer and performer David Judge. My review played out today on Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the (slightly) longer version…

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

SparkPlug is a new production by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, which is currently on at HOME Manchester. The show is written and performed by David Judge and directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.

This is a one-man show, and Judge has spoken in interviews about how it’s inspired by his own childhood and upbringing. Technically, the piece is a monologue, but the lyrical script and energetic performance style ensure that SparkPlug is so much more than a soliloquy. Its verbal style is poetic, with the rhythms and cadences of a spoken word piece, and its decade-long narrative unfolds in vignettes.

This is the story of Dave, a white working-class man from Wythenshawe with dodgy tattoos and a Ford Capri (well, it is the 1980s). Dave falls for Joanne, a friend of his sister, and near the beginning of the show he ‘rescues’ her from a drink- and drug-fuelled party at her flat in Moss Side. The party has descended into violence, and Dave narrates his concerns (and, significantly, his prejudices) about being a white man in a predominantly black neighbourhood. He also talks about his role as big brother to Angela, driver to his friends and family, and (potentially) lover to Joanne.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

Joanne, it transpires, is pregnant, and the father of the baby is black. Dave falls in love with Joanne, and then falls in love with the baby (a boy named David). As SparkPlug unfolds, this latter love – paternal love – is the central focus. This is not a play about a man’s relationship with a woman (though some aspects of Dave and Joanne’s relationship are covered), but rather a man’s relationship with his son. Interestingly, the word ‘stepson’ isn’t used at any point in the play – in SparkPlug’s world, you’re either a dad or you’re not.

The story takes place from 1983 to 1993. It charts the first ten years of young David’s life, though told from the perspective of Dave, a white man bringing up a black son (sometimes single-handedly) in Wythenshawe. The play tackles the question of race and skin colour head on, and is unafraid of addressing the more complicated aspects of dual heritage (or mixed race) identities. Racism, in various forms, is represented – from the direct, dehumanising comments of David’s white Irish grandmother to the polite but prurient curiosity of a Butlins holiday rep – but the play avoids reductive statements and commentary. Most strikingly, the play doesn’t hold back from presenting the prejudices of its central character, though that’s not to say that Dave is presented as an unreconstructed racist. This is a slice of life piece – warts and all – albeit one looked at from an unusual and unexpected angle.

This is also a story about masculinity and fatherhood – the script draws specific attention to the difference between being a (biological) father and being a dad. The character of Dave is drawn with real affection and warmth – he is, after all, our protagonist throughout – but the play doesn’t shy away from representing the darker side of masculine identity, with one sequence in particular, towards the end of the play, offering a painful and prolonged exploration of more destructive tendencies. Again, SparkPlug avoids hand-wringing explanations or excuses: Dave’s behaviour is presented as it is, and the audience is left to come to their own conclusions.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

The play’s set, and Judge’s performance style, work well with the lyrical script. The metal frame of a car dominates the stage, and parts of this frame are removed, replaced and repurposed throughout the play to conjure different scenes. Although the car is a car for much of the performance (it is Dave’s Ford Capri, before becoming subsequent cars as time moves on), it is also a stage – on which Judge climbs, stands, curls and clings. Judge is barely still for a moment during the performance. With a near-static set, the audience is reliant on verbal and physical performance to set the scene – there are no set or lighting changes between vignettes, and the story jumps ahead by months or years at a staggering pace. Judge handles this with style, skill and exuberance – and with a little help from some well-selected music that serves as both soundtrack and thematic motifs.

As I’ve said, this is an autobiographically inspired piece, and Judge offers a short introductory ‘scene’ from the perspective of the son (drawing on his own life experiences), before entering the character of white, Capri-driving dad Dave. This introduction serves to set up the story as an affectionate homage to the man who raised David, and encourages the audience to view him with sympathy and humour.

However, I found myself wondering whether the audience’s feelings towards Dave would be different if the part was played by a white actor. Or if the introductory scene and subsequent monologue were performed by different actors. SparkPlug’s harder hitting lines are – at times – almost cushioned by the knowledge that we are watching a son pay tribute to his beloved dad. For instance, Dave’s difficulty at stating outright that he doesn’t like the Afro-Caribbean culture that attracts his sister and her friends, or his resistance to talking about introducing his son to ‘his roots’, raise spectres of entrenched prejudice and a particular view of race and culture. Would we respond differently if these lines were delivered by a white actor? Or if there were more separation between the characters of father and son?

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

I’ve read a couple of interviews with Judge where he’s talked about his intention to create a play that could be performed by other actors. In the current production, it’s hard to separate Judge-the-performer, Judge-the-writer and Judge-the-son – I’d be fascinated to see a future production with different casting. This is not a criticism, though, as Judge’s embodiment of the character of Dave is really skilfully and compellingly done.

Ultimately, SparkPlug is a tribute to, and an exploration of, what it means to be a dad – that’s where its undoubted strengths lie. It’s rare to see a production tackle questions of race, masculinity and violence in such a direct, honest and sympathetic way. Judge’s performance is captivating, carrying the audience through the messy complexities of Dave’s life with energy and compassion, and the show’s final lines are just excellent.

SparkPlug is a play about men, boys, race, sexuality, Manchester and cars. You’re unlikely to see a story quite like it at the theatre – so I’d recommend you check it out if you can.

SparkPlug is on at HOME, Manchester until 23rd February, before touring nationally.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Review: The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (1927)

Thursday 7th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

This week, I was at the press night of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at HOME Manchester for North Manchester FM. I played a (slightly) shorter version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the (slightly) longer version of my review…

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a theatre show by 1927, which is on at HOME from the 6th-16th February 2019. I call this a ‘theatre show’, rather than a play, because The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is an innovative – experimental, really – performance that makes interesting use of the theatre stage. Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, and combining music, animation and idiosyncratic performance, the show tells the story of the Bayou Mansions, a cockroach-infested tenement block in the disavowed outskirts of an unnamed big city. The show opens with a twinkling skyline and a voiceover narration introduces us to the city… and then taking us to Bayou Mansions.

In the Bayou, on Red Herring Street, the people are forgotten and downtrodden – and the children have taken to the streets in roaming gangs of disenfranchised criminality. Well-intentioned, missionary-esque Agnes Eaves has read about the problem with the Bayou’s children, and she arrives with her daughter to redeem the feral kids through wholesome PVA glue-based art projects. The Bayou’s forlorn caretaker observes the unfolding carnage and provides a deadpan, melancholy commentary. The children of Red Herring Street – led by wannabe Marxist revolutionary Zelda – are out of control. That is, of course, until the city’s Mayor hatches a plan to subdue them.

I was intrigued by the story blurb in the show’s promotional material, but it didn’t really prepare me for the way in which this story would unfold. The show’s set consists of three blank screens on an empty stage, and the cast consists of just three on-stage performers (plus one voice actor). However, both the screens and the performers are transformed into so much more over the course of the energetic and stylized production. Animations by Paul Barritt are projected onto the screens, transforming them into tenements, junk shops, street scenes and bedrooms. These animations are more than simply a project backdrop. They are filmic illustrations, sometimes serving as a background to the performers, but sometimes a performance in themselves.

The show blends animation, music (and musical numbers), a little bit of physical theatre, carefully choreographed acting and well-placed dark humour to create up a story that is captivating and fun.

The overall style here is graphic-novel-Gothic – for all its desolation, dripping pipes, vermin and vandalism, there’s a quirky and entertaining charm to this dynamic animated setting. And it is certainly dynamic – animated sequences run across the screens, and locations shift with rapidity. Holes in the backdrop open and close to become windows and doors, moving us inside and outside at a staggering pace. At one point, a character dumps a bag into a rubbish chute, and we follow its progress down through the building, past rooms full of leaping children and harried adults, before it reaches the ground floor and falls into a junk shop. This junk shop then springs to life, as a door opens and an actor appears. The sense of movement is fantastic, belying the static nature of the three screens on stage. When one character takes an Alice-in-Wonderland-style tumble, you can almost feel her moving through the air – despite the fact her feet haven’t really left the ground.

For me, the real highlight of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is the performances. Three on-stage actors in stylized white face paint conjure up the motley inhabitants of the Bayou with the aid of costume and props, interacting with the projected sequences so seamlessly as to almost become part of the animation.

Genevieve Dunne switches between the roles of prim idealist Agnes Eaves and adolescent firebrand Zelda, imbuing each role with its own distinct character. Felicity Sparks energetically accompanies the action on the piano, peering out of a window variously in the guise of tenant, predatory lawyer and ice cream seller to sing out a commentary. But it is Rowena Lennon’s versatile performance that really impresses – transforming (almost instantaneously) from Bayou tenant to caretaker to Zelda’s junk shop-proprietor mother, Lennon’s quick changes of costume and location almost defy the senses.

This is a fun show that utilizes highly stylized sets and performances to create an off-beat and evocative world. With its Soviet and Parisian design influences, odd linguistic flourishes and accents, it’s hard to place where the Bayou is meant to be, exactly. This sense of placelessness adds to the graphic novel feel of the piece.

Similarly, the overall message of the piece is never made explicit. And yet, for all its entertaining exuberance, comic-book style and dark comedy, it feels as though it means something. The show was first staged in 2010, and then again in 2011. At this point, some critics read it as a (prescient) commentary on the riots in the UK. Certainly, Zelda’s war cry of ‘We want what you have out there’, and the show’s refrain of ‘Born in the Bayou, die in the Bayou’ seems to hint at some sort of social commentary. But then again, placelessness goes hand-in-hand with timelessness here, and so it’s also possible that this is a parable for many ages.

I’ll say nothing about the show’s ending (no spoilers!), except to say there’s a nice little bit of fourth-wall breaking that lends a comedically Brechtian air to the proceedings. This, coupled with the show’s performing usherettes, is done with a light touch, which avoids undermining what turns out to be a rather thought-provoking finale.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets, and it’s a definite recommendation from me. The show’s aesthetic is very much to my tastes, and the innovative use of projection, animation, music and physical performance makes for an unusual and compelling tale about the lost souls at the edge of the city.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is on at HOME in Manchester until the 16th February, and then the Lyric Hammersmith in London.