Showing posts with label Lewis Charlesworth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lewis Charlesworth. Show all posts

Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of The Greek (Kinky Boot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows from the programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. And, sadly, that is the last time I’m going to get to write that this year. Yes… the time has come for me to finish my little journey through this year’s festival programme, as I’ve reached my final review. But what a great show I’m ending on!

The final show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Lewis Charlesworth’s The Greek. This is a show I was really looking forward to, as writer-director Lewis Charlesworth has been a guest on both this year's and last year’s Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Specials, but also on a regular edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf in November 2018. In last year’s interviews, he mentioned that he was working on a piece related to Brexit, and so I’ve been keenly waiting to see the final product. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Greek is described as a ‘Brexit comedy without the politics’. Indeed, the word ‘Brexit’ doesn’t actually appear in the play, and mentions of the referendum are limited to a short introductory burst of audio – an edited montage of news reporters and politicians talking angrily that speeds up and blurs into a bewildering cacophony. Set in 2015, The Greek is a one-act play about the complex, contradictory and difficult circumstances into which the Brexit referendum was dropped.

The play opens with Mary (played by Betty Webster), an 83-year-old woman from Lancashire, sitting on her chair, while her neighbour John (played by Peter Slater) fusses around her and keeps her company. Everything about the play’s opening has an easy sense of familiarity – from the cushions on the couch, to the ‘state of the world’ conversations. Mary and John are white, working class people who perceive societal change as a downhill slope.

Mary and John sit together, drink tea, and bemoan the state of the world in language that is striking in its authenticity. Make no mistake, The Greek pulls no punches in the language and sentiments being expressed. Mary and John may claim not to be racist (in John’s case with some convoluted and highly unconvincing evidence), but the audience is very likely to disagree. Despite knowing that what they’re saying isn’t considered ‘PC’, they continue, on the grounds that ‘it’s a free country’ and ‘I can say what I like in my own house’. It’s clear that what we’re watching is a regular and normal conversation for the two.

However, on this occasion, Mary is keen for John to leave. She’s expecting a visitor – her grandson, who she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. We learn that Mary was estranged from her son, who was also once a good friend of John’s, and that as a result she’s had no real relationship with her grandson. There’s also clearly something that she doesn’t want to tell John… and we quickly find out (if the play’s posters hadn’t given us an inkling) what that is.

Mary’s grandson James (played by Charlesworth) is mixed race, and clearly uncomfortable about visiting the grandmother he believes is an unreconstructed racist. More than this, James embodies some other social positions that Mary and John have previously decried – he’s moved out of Lancashire, he’s cosmopolitan (working in marketing), and his politics (though not overtly stated) are left-leaning.

The Greek is a series of conversations – between Mary and John, Mary and James, and then between all three. Sparks fly, and some pretty dramatic statements are made – but this is not a play about conflict. Surprisingly – and refreshingly – this is a play about what happens when you have conversations with people you disagree with. My description so far may not have made this clear, but The Greek is a tender, sweet and honest comedy, filled with sympathy and affection for human nature (flawed as it may be).

The play’s real strength and originality lies is that Mary and John are criticized, but not demonized. At no point are the audience encouraged to sympathize or agree with their view of the world, but we are given the chance to listen to it, just as James is, and to view them as human beings rather than stereotypes. Charlesworth’s script is sensitive and subtle, refusing to shy away from harsh truths, but navigating these truths with humour and compassion. As the endless cups of tea and French fancies are produced, preconceptions and animosities are exposed and challenged in an upfront, but quintessentially British, way.

Interestingly, the night before I saw The Greek, I watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the role Cambridge Analytica played in manipulating the result of the EU referendum through cynical (and illegal) exploitation. The Greek makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Great Hack, as it shines a light on the very tensions, beliefs and concerns that Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ latched onto and exploited for their own financial ends. There’s a poignancy to The Greek in some ways, as it evokes a version of 2015 where global data-mining tech companies have less power than a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling. It hints at what the EU referendum would’ve looked like without Cambridge Analytica or Dominic Cummings or AggregateIQ – and it suggests that, hard as it might have been, we could’ve worked it out, we could’ve been okay.

All credit to the performers here. Charlesworth is excellent as James, tempering raw anger with kindness in a nuanced and thoughtful performance. Webster’s portrayal of Mary captures a combination of battle-axe stubbornness and fragility that is both authentic and sympathetic. But, in many ways, it’s Slater who is given the biggest challenge – John should be completely unlikable, but Slater’s performance dilutes his unpalatable views with just the right amount of baffled vulnerability. It’s a mark of Slater’s skill as an actor that we’re left with a character who’s hard to like, but impossible to completely hate.

While I am sad that my visits to this year’s Fringe are over, The Greek was a real high point to end on. An honest, funny and compassionate script, coupled with three pitch-perfect performances, made for an enjoyable, thought-provoking and surprisingly hopeful piece of theatre. I hope The Greek gets another run at some point – if it does, you should definitely see it!

The Greek was on at the King’s Arms Theatre, Salford on the 27th-29th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review: Cheaters: A Play About Infidelity (KinkyBoot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 8th July 2018
King’s Arms, Salford

On Sunday, I was at the King’s Arms (or Kings Arms, depending on your feelings about apostrophes) to see my next Greater Manchester Fringe show: Cheaters: A Play About Infidelity, written and directed by Ramsbottom-based comedian Lewis Charlesworth.

Cheaters is unabashedly a farce, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a one-act comedy about marital infidelity. Married men Kev (Charlesworth) and Dave (Dan Sheader) bring two (also married) women back to Dave’s house for a bit of ‘extra-curricular activity’. Laddish Dave has copped off with Alex (Kathryn Stirton), who is more than enthusiastic at the beginning of the show (entering the stage with her legs wrapped round Dave’s waist and proposing a raucous toast to ‘freedom’). Kev is more awkward and uncomfortable than his friend, and is ill-at-ease with Jess, a woman who goes from horny to hostile at the drop of a gin.

As the evening (or rather, early morning) unfolds and the booze flows, the foursome encounter various obstacles to their anticipated couplings. Surprise revelations and realisations (plus a rather physical reaction to a drinking game) conspire to make the planned activity seem less palatable. Undeterred, the lads decide to come up with a different plan.

Make no mistake, Cheaters is as light-hearted as they come. It’s bawdy (downright filthy, in places) in its humour, and pretty straightforward in its content. This is not biting satire by any means, and the closest Cheaters comes to social commentary is its (very funny) assessment of Wetherspoon’s as ‘the home of budget infidelity’.

But it works – because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is. As Alex says towards the end of the show, there are far more important things going on in the world, so a bit of consensual adultery shouldn’t be too serious a concern. While some people might find the rather nihilistic approach to marriage a bit sad – when each of the characters explain their reasons for cheating, it becomes apparent that they run the gamut from happily married with a devoted spouse to ‘living separate lives’, suggesting that no marriage is really secure from infidelity – the play is of the old school domestic comedy variety, and we’re never encouraged to take things too seriously.

Of the performances, Charlesworth is a stand-out. Primarily a comedian, he brings a farcical physicality to the role of Kev. This begins with facial expressions, but escalates to a full-blown bodily routine (culminating in… well, you should probably see the show to find out). Sheader’s performance as Dave is quite the contrast, but equally enjoyable. Playing laddish extremes for laughs, Sheader steers just the right side of cliché, and his Dave offers a verbal counterpoint to his friend’s increasingly anxious contortions. Weirdly, by the end of the show, I found Dave to be one of the more sympathetic characters, and this is credit to Sheader’s performance.

Speaking of physicality, all the cast deserve praise for their near-acrobatics on what is a pretty low-key set, comprising a sofa, a coffee table and a drinks cabinet. Despite the fact – and this was revealed by a slight slip of the throw that covered it – the ‘sofa’ isn’t actually a sofa, the four main characters cavort on and across it with admirable enthusiasm. When called upon to ‘hide’ themselves on a stage with no hiding places, the actors let the minimal set enhance the comedy of the scene.

My only reservation about the play would be in response to its final scene. Without giving too much away, this scene sums up the relationships presented on stage and points to a happy, light-hearted resolution with no permanent harm done. It’s a fair conclusion to the laissez-faire atmosphere of the play. However, there are just one too many mentions of the characters who don’t appear on stage at any point – Kev’s wife and Jess’s husband – for it to be completely comfortable. In the case of Kev’s wife Helen, there’s just a little hint of cruelty in the continued deception, and this is at odds with the tone elsewhere. Cheaters works because of its everyone’s-at-it raunchiness – it felt strange to be repeatedly reminded of an innocent victim in its final moments.

Cheaters is definitely a play about infidelity. As I said, it’s unashamedly a comedy, and makes no bones about this. But with giggle-inducing dialogue, frantic revelations and knockabout antics, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. Charlesworth has made a strong transition from stand-up to playwright here, and I’m sure we’ll see much more of him in the future (mind you… if you’ve seen Cheaters, you’ve already seen quite a bit of him! 😉).