Showing posts with label Salford Arts Theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Salford Arts Theatre. Show all posts

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Review: Drowning in Silence (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 25th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July. As you must know by now, I’m reviewing a number of the shows on this year’s packed programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next play on my itinerary was Salford Arts Theatre’s Drowning in Silence, which I saw (unsurprisingly) at the Salford Arts Theatre on Thursday 25th July. You can hear my radio review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

Written and directed by Roni Ellis, Drowning in Silence is a two-hander, performed by Emily Cox and Libby Hall. Earlier this month, I reviewed Libby Hall’s play (which was also staged as part of this year’s Fringe), The Melting of a Single Snowflake, so I’d experienced her writing, but not her acting. As I enjoyed the former so much, I was curious to see the latter! (Hall is the writer-in-residence at Salford Arts Theatre, and a former member of their Young Performers Company. I interviewed her about The Melting of a Single Snowflake on my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June.)

Drowning in Silence opens in a slightly unorthodox fashion, with a piece of projected film (shot by Ross McCormack) being shown on a white screen at the back of the stage. Edited as a montage of ‘home movie’ style footage, the film shows Cox and Hall messing around, playing together and laughing. It’s a neat piece of scene-setting, as it leaves the audience in no doubt that these two are sisters.

It is Cox – playing older sister Michelle – who enters on stage first. The set is sparse – just a couple of pieces of furniture and some scattered toys and blankets conjure up a room in a house, but it’s otherwise rather bare (and the reason for this will become clear as the one-act play unfolds). Carrying a birthday balloon, Michelle wanders across the stage to the pile of toys in a slow and deliberate style that will come to characterize the play as a whole. And then Hall – playing younger sister Jane – makes her entrance. Whooshing across the stage like an excited child, she joins Michelle, and the two sing a childish rhyme together and dress dolls. This is the first indication of the complexity and layering of Drowning in Silence’s narrative, as Cox and Hall appear here to be playing characters much younger than themselves.

It is not simply the set that is sparse. The narrative of Drowning in Silence also unfolds in a rather minimalist way. Michelle and Jane appear in short scenes from different periods of their childhoods, punctuated by melancholic piano music and the deliberate movements of Michelle (the elder of the two) around and across the stage. Each scene is triggered by an object that Michelle finds on the stage, giving the play an atmosphere of nostalgia and an indefinable sadness. The lighting emphasises this, as it alters from a stark bluish hue to warmer tones to signal the journey through memories of childhood.

Drowning in Silence is a story about loss and grief. We see the girls’ experience a life-changing incident and watch the way it affects them as individuals, but also their relationship to one another. Their closeness becomes strained, as secrets and lies slip into their interactions. A story bubbles under the surface, but Ellis’s script keeps it tightly under control (save for some neat foreshadowing), leaving the audience with the feeling that an awful lot is being left unsaid.

The two performances are excellent. Cox captures the uncertainty and awkwardness of an older sibling who, while still a child herself, is thrust into a more adult role. But I also very much enjoyed her performance in the flashbacks to earlier moments of the girls’ childhood – as an older sister myself, I really related to Michelle’s attempts to be the ‘mature one’, exhorting her little sister to ‘follow the leader – and I’m the leader’. Cox successfully carries the more emotive scenes of the play, often doing so through movement and expression rather than dialogue. It’s an impressive performance, imbued with both maturity and gravity.

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

And Hall is fantastic as Jane. Moving between a lively (slightly bossy) little child, a rather serious tween, and a moody and frustrated teenager, even in her more stereotypically ‘stroppy’ dialogue, Hall conveys a sensitive and sympathetic vulnerability that is really quite moving. If talented young performer Hall isn’t one to watch for the future, then I don’t know who is!

As I’ve said, there is a story under the surface of Drowning in Silence that is held in check until the play’s final (and emotional) punch. I must admit, I did guess this early on, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the play at all. Instead, I was interested in paying attention to how the story unfolds, and the techniques used to reveal things to (and hide them from) the audience.

Ellis’s script is tight, with a compelling combination of theatrical dialogue (and near-monologue at times) combined with judicious and expressive use of silences (as may be expected from the play’s title). Along with this, her direction makes use of the unspoken and unexplained to develop narrative. The play’s real strength lies in the way the story is literally not told – it lies in the silence, the unsaid and the implied. Again, the lighting is used to good effect here – silence is often accompanied by a change or dropping of the lights to shift the mood and tone.

Overall, Drowning in Silence is a compelling piece of theatre that pulls off the impressive feat of being (overtly) melancholic throughout without becoming maudlin or mawkish. With effective direction, a sensitive script and strong central performances, Drowning in Silence is a strong recommendation from me. And I can’t wait to see what Salford Arts Theatre do next!

Drowning in Silence was on at the Salford Arts Theatre on 24th-26th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of shows on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Review: The Melting of a Single Snowflake (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 17th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I continue to review shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. In 2017, I reviewed two Fringe shows, and in 2018, I reviewed eleven. I definitely think I’m on track to beat that number in 2019! On Wednesday 17th July, I saw The Melting of a Single Snowflake at Salford Arts Theatre, a new play by writer-in-residence Libby Hall. Hall was one of the people I interviewed back in June for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special, so once again I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Written by Hall and directed by Roni Ellis, The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious ensemble piece featuring performers from Salford Arts Theatre’s Young Performers Company. As I talked about with Hall in our interview, the play grew out of workshops involving the young actors, meaning that the company played an integral role in generating and developing ideas for Hall’s script.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake takes place in the aftermath of the disappearance of a schoolboy, Sam, during the summer holidays. The cast (of eleven young actors) play a group of Sam’s friends, peers and neighbours who are brought together through their shared (if a little tenuous in some cases) involvement in Sam’s life. The real ambition of the piece lies in the fact that the story is carried entirely by the young performers (there are no adult characters in the play), and also in the complexity of the relationships that are evoked through the dialogue. This isn’t a straightforward tale of the powerful bonds of friendship, but rather a story that reminds us young people have just as many varied reasons for spending time together as adults do.

Set during the school holidays and with a recorded audio backdrop of news reports on adolescent mental health, gang crime and Sam’s disappearance, The Melting of a Single Snowflake unabashedly sets itself up to tackle ‘big’ issues. As the young people gather to discuss the missing boy, conversations range from knife crime to drugs, from social media to sexuality. There is a frankness to these conversations, which is both hard-hitting and humorous, and some of the issues raised are handled in surprising and nuanced ways.

In particular, I found several of the conversations about Cameron (played by Adam Marsland)’s sexuality offered a refreshing and sensitive take. However, this was done without heavy-handed virtue-signalling, as the overall message was punctuated by a range of responses – from Kay (Calia Wild)’s concern that the group is too young for romantic relationships, to Alfie (Dillon Parker)’s clumsy macho posturing, to Amber (Sienna Kavanagh)’s comical confusion of bisexuality with bipolar disorder. While some poetic licence is employed to have all of these reactions occurring openly and simultaneously, The Melting of a Single Snowflake offers a convincing microcosm of the confusion and conflict that accompanies coming-of-age.

I’ve used the word ‘conversations’ a lot in this review, and it feels like the most apt description of how story is constructed in the play. The action takes place off-stage – indeed, some has occurred before the play begins, and some will occur in the time that elapses during the interval – and so everything we know about these characters, about their world, and about the missing boy Sam is conveyed though the dialogue. This is a challenge for the cast, but – aided by smart direction by Ellis – they are up to the task. With the group coming and going from the stage, and interacting in different combinations at different times, a sense of flow and development is created.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much an ensemble piece, and it’s not really possible to single out individual performances or characters as ‘central’. Each one carries a part of the story, and the play’s strength lies in its group dynamic, from Josie Leigh’s belligerent wannabe boxer Mia to Jasmin Marsland’s know-it-all Demi.

I enjoyed the dynamic between Jake (Charlie Kenney) and Jodie (Elizabeth Pearson), two very different young people caught up in a world of crime that’s way outside their control. Leia Komorowska is great as fragile and haunted outsider Levi, and Joel Hill reveals excellent comic timing in his performance as Devon, a filter-less chatterbox whose near-continuous off-the-wall monologue throws the audience off-guard for one of the play’s more aggressive sucker-punches. Last but by no means least, Vincent Purcell plays Tom, Levi’s older brother and an eloquent observer of the group and its various social predicaments. In places appearing like a character somewhat out of time, Tom emerges as a detached and astute narrator of human frailty – but one surrounded by darkness and grief.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much a game of two halves. On the one hand – and probably the more dominant aspect of the first act – it is a narrative that highlights the fears, concerns and disillusionments of young people, signalled by the news commentary. In the face of a crisis in mental health care, knife crime, a gang that may or may not have killed their friend, and (I don’t want to sound old here) a complete lack of adult support or intervention, how are these young people supposed to cope? However, there is another intriguing and compelling story running parallel to this, a much more personal (and, in many ways, more old-school theatrical) tale that comes into its own in the second act – but to say anymore would give spoilers! All credit to Hall, though, for bringing these two aspects together into a strong overall story.

In addition to the great writing, direction and performances, The Melting of a Single Snowflake also features a stylish set design by Roni Ellis and Scott Berry, which uses scattered debris and rubbish (including – I’m sure I saw – an old discarded municipal street sign for the Salford Arts Theatre’s predecessor theatre!) and a graffitied wall to effectively evoke both locale and the atmosphere.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious and thought-provoking piece of theatre, which showcases the talents of the Salford Arts Theatre’s young performers company and of its writer-in-residence, Libby Hall (who came through the company herself). A very enjoyable show that packs an unexpected punch.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is on at Salford Arts Theatre on 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Fringe shows on this year, visit the festival website.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: Once a Year on Blackpool Sands (Skint Productions, GM Fringe)

Friday 20th July 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Another (slightly delayed) Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… This time it’s Skint ProductionsOnce a Year on Blackpool Sands.

Written by Karlton Parris, and inspired by true story told to Parris thirty years ago in Mykonos, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is set in 1953, just after the Coronation. Eddy and Tommy are Yorkshire miners and secret lovers, who travel to Blackpool for their Wakes holidays. I must admit I was really intrigued to see this one, as the play is due to travel to New York for an Off-Broadway run in September, and a film version is also in pre-production. This is pretty big stuff for a Fringe show, so I was excited to see what the play has to offer.

The play begins with Eddy (played by Kyle Brookes) and Tommy (Macaulay Cooper) arriving in the seaside town. Eddy has decided that they won’t be staying at the same hotel as the rest of their party, and has instead booked them into Withering-Heights-on-Sea, a down-at-heel and almost empty guest house where they might be able to get some privacy.

Withering-Heights-on-Sea is run by a rather odd woman named Gladys (Wendy Laurence James), who is at turns snobbish, social climbing, overly solicitous, inappropriate, and impatient. Gladys is assisted (in a way) by her daughter Maureen (Mollie Jones) and her mother, former communist showgirl ‘Red’ Ethel (Linda Clark). The trio of women are loud, brash and inquisitive – suggesting that Tommy and Eddy may not get the privacy they want and need.

The final character is Mr Elbridge, the only guest in the B and B. Mr Elbridge is a transvestite – to use the 1950s terminology generally employed by the play – and is trying to find the courage to walk from the North Pier to the South as a woman (which the play emphasizes as an important rite of passage).

As the characters interact, interrupt and reveal their stories to one another (and to the audience), we come to see Withering-Heights-on-Sea as a refuge from the outside world, an escape from the judgments of a society that not only doesn’t accept trans identities, but criminalizes homosexual behaviour. Within the walls of the guest house, a range of identities are free to express themselves without fear of repercussions.

The central storyline is that of Eddy and Tommy. Brookes and Cooper play their parts excellently. There’s real chemistry between the two, but they also present the complexities and conflicts of the relationship. Eddy is the more forthright of the two, keen to abandon the constraints of their lives and flee to America. Sporting a noticeable shiner throughout the play – the origin of which is only revealed part way through the second act – Eddy is tense, unsettled and angry. But he is also fragile, and Brookes handles the gradual revelation of everything that has brought Eddy to this point with sympathy and credibility. Tommy is the more composed character – reluctant to do anything to rock the boat and keen to return home to their ‘normal’ lives after a brief escape in Blackpool. But there’s more going on under the surface, of course, and Cooper gives an often understated performance that is, again, very sympathetic.

While Eddy and Tommy’s relationship is the central story, the women of Withering-Heights-on-Sea have their own series of tales to tell. Red Ethel is foul-mouthed, disabled by a stroke, and antagonistic towards her daughter, but her brash mix of put-downs and nostalgia (for the days when she was the girl-about-town in Moscow) eventually gives way to a poignant description of her own tragic love life. Ethel’s granddaughter Maureen – constantly described as useless and ‘simple’ by her mother – is a girl desperate to shake off the 1950s and enjoy sex without fear of moral condemnation. But it is Gladys who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the women. A bag of complete contradictions, Gladys doesn’t seem to know what she wants to be. On the one hand, she is making a rather pathetic attempt at social climbing – serving ‘scooones’ and boasting about her connection to the Deputy Mayor – on the other, she is a former chorus girl who understands and respects the secrets her visitors harbour.

The play presents these intertwined stories through a series of scenes in the various bedrooms of the guest house. At times, these scenes risk feeling a little static – characters sit together in rooms and tell their stories, often in rather lengthy speeches, and the only movement comes from brief interactions with props and costume. However, on the whole, this works, as the play really is about the stories (or secrets) people hold inside themselves, and so it seems fitting that these are revealed through dialogue rather than action. I will be interested to see how this is handled in the film adaptation, however, as I suspect more of these stories will be ‘seen’ rather than ‘told’.

Parris’s script moves us from heartbreak to fear to bawdy seaside humour. On the whole, the men get the hard-hitting anger and pain, while the humour falls to the women (with the notable and unexpected exception of Ethel’s poignant speech about a lover in Russia). The humour is very well done. Although there is plenty of dirty jokes and innuendo (as is probably expected of the Blackpool setting), there is also some very witty commentary on sexuality and identity – Maureen’s black pudding/pasty analogy was a highlight for me. Nevertheless, as I say, the women do have pains of their own. Clark and Laurence James do a great job of suggesting the internal conflicts that lurk under the comic façade.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is certainly the longest play I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. If I have a criticism, it’s that the play occasionally felt a bit too long. In places, there was tendency to over-explanation – things that had already been conveyed through the performances were stated explicitly in the dialogue, and it may have been better to trust in the subtext more. That said, there’s a lot of story here, and a clear desire to do that story justice.

The play’s climax is moving and well-staged. The use of a projector – used elsewhere in the play to cast backdrops and scenery – to cast images highlighting the significance of the finale was poignant and moving. And yes – this is another GM Fringe production that made me cry.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is a big show – bigger than I was expecting, to be honest. There’s a lot of story, powerful performances, and emotive writing. I definitely enjoyed the stage version, and will be looking forward to seeing the film version when it’s released.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Hobson’s Choice (Salford Theatre Company)

Friday 8th June 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Hobson’s Choice was written by Harold Brighouse in 1916. Set in Salford in the 1880s, the play is about bootmaker Henry Hobson and his three daughters, Maggie, Alice and Vickey. This new production by Salford Theatre Company is on at the Salford Arts Theatre from 6th to 23rd June.

It’s fairly standard to see reviews of Hobson’s Choice stating that the play was ‘shocking’ in its day, both for its depiction of female characters and its side-swipe at snobbishness and a rigid class system. Undoubtedly, there are unexpected elements – Maggie’s coercing/bullying Will Mossop into marriage on the grounds of ‘good business sense’, Hobson’s pathetic diatribe on the uppishness of women and the value of the British middle class – but I’m not convinced that these would have been scandalous in 1916.

Maggie Hobson/Mossop is certainly a character who defies feminine stereotypes and behaves in an unconventional way. At 30, she is ‘old’ (a fact that her father points out on a number of occasions), and she rejects romance for sensible business practice. She demands Hobson’s meek boothand Will Mossop marries her, sending away poor Ada Figgins (Will’s erstwhile fiancée) with a flea in her ear, and then effectively puts her own father out of business. But while Maggie doesn’t conform to the stereotype of the polite young lady, she certainly embodies another stereotype – the northern battle-axe. Hobson’s Choice isn’t so much shocking as it is proper northern. Perhaps Maggie would have been seen as an outrageous character if Brighouse had set his play in that London, but she seems perfectly at home in Salford.

The Salford Theatre Company’s production presents Brighouse’s play ‘as is’, i.e. without any attempt to update the material. Their version is a period piece set in 1880 – as the play was always intended to be (being set over 30 years earlier than it was written). Any attempt to modernize Hobson’s Choice or ‘make it relevant’ would only obscure the play’s comical balance of affectionate nostalgia and modernizing desire.

This balance is struck in the Salford Theatre Company’s production quite simply through staging and performance. The period features are there, but not overdone. The sets feel like 1880, but aren’t meticulous or overdressed. The performances aren’t overstated or mannered.

Stand-out performances are Scott Berry as Henry Hobson and Lyndsay Fielding as Maggie. Inevitably, productions of Hobson’s Choice encourage comparisons with David Lean’s 1954 film version – indeed, I heard people in the bar before the show talking about Lean’s film – but Berry and Fielding offered very different performances to those of Charles Laughton and Brenda de Banzie.

Fielding’s Maggie is believable as a not-quite-old-maid with a good business head on her shoulders. No-nonsense and shrewd, rather than bossy and bitter, this Maggie is easy to root for and more three-dimensional than some other portrayals of the character. It’s quite easy to see why Will Mossop quickly comes round to the idea that she’s the woman for him (making the final scenes with the couple all the more enjoyable).

Berry is excellent as Hobson. He avoids a bombastic, larger-than-life performance in favour of a more personable, sympathetic portrayal. Berry’s Hobson is a small man, shrinking back into his outdated beliefs in an attempt to fight off the inevitable. Even his most well-known speech (on the ‘uppishness’ of women) is deflated – as though he already knows he’s on a losing streak. It’s a relief to know he has a daughter (and son-in-law) who can take care of him at the end.

Of the other performances, Elka Lee-Green and Connie James are enjoyable as Alice and Vickey – keeping up a comical array of facial expressions whenever the other characters were talking. Joseph Walsh is likable as Willie Mossop, handling the transition from hapless boothand to confident small businessman well. The warmth that develops between Will and Maggie is convincing and satisfying.

It’s always nice to watch a production of Hobson’s Choice on its home turf. The local references (like Willie’s lines about the metaphorical distance from Oldfield Road to Chapel Street to St Ann’s Square) still make you smile, and Hobson and his daughters haven’t lost their Salfordian charm.

Hobson’s Choice is on at Salford Arts Theatre until 23rd June.