THE FOREST OF FORGOTTEN DISCOS!

Hope Mill Theatre

Written by Jackie Hagan

Directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin

Commissioned by CONTACT

This is CONTACT’s final show of the year as part of its Contact in the City programme while the new theatre is being built. This time we find them at Hope Mill Theatre which is a perfect festive setting for the Christmas children’s show. Mince pies, mulled wine, carol singers and craft tables for the children set the scene for Jackie Hagan’s The Forest of Forgotten Discos!

The general air of expectation is not disappointed when Alexa from the Amazonian rainforest suddenly appears to welcome the audience into the forest. Children are “scanned” and chatted to by the robotic Alexa who clearly delights in her role of giving information and helping others. Sophie Coward as Alexa is engaging and charismatic. Clad in a fabulous diy hi-tech skirt adorned with flashing lights , Sky remote scanner , etch-a-sketch and other discarded toys and household items, the character is both magically intriguing and easily accessible.

The Forest is full of trees decorated with patchwork crochet squares and brightly coloured gingham, reminiscent trees in local streets with a strong sense of community. The bear’s homes use discarded tents and shower curtains to create a feel that echoes the homeless “villages” in every major city or perhaps the Refugee camps of Calais. Designer Katharine Heath has created a set that is full of charm and is incredibly detailed. Each home is a treasure trove of discarded junk that captures the personality of each character in such a way that I was itching to explore after the show.

The three bears are no cosy, cuddly storybook bears clutching porridge bowls. These bears are discarded or forgotten toys, shabby from past love and cuddles, now scavenging from picnics and refuse bins. Tongue-in-cheek Hagan has a little dig at the organic supermarkets of Chorlton, and keeps the humour flowing with a flatulent bear who lives on baked beans and whose farts are captured as an energy source. Bear Grills, Bear Minimum and Bear Hugs are threadbare, patched and faded,their Velveteen is dulled and gaping where their stuffing pokes through. Each one has a back story that reflects and celebrates the dispossessed and those who feel “other” in our Society. CONTACT, Hagan and Director Nickie Miles-Wildin are clearly all on the same page with a Christmas message that is teaching our children about integration in a joyful and accessible manner.

When feisty 9 year old Red arrives in the forest she is unhappy and frustrated by the prospect of her dad’s new girlfriend. Epitomising that child impulse to run away unaware of risks or outcomes, she encounters Alexa and the bears. The power of disco has gone from the Forest and even virtual assistant Alexa is unsure how to restore it for Christmas. The story of how they all manage to work together despite their differences is a celebration of cooperation and two fingers up to divisive thinking.

Incorporating sign language and visual story telling techniques, this playful tale ensures lots of audience engagement and on stage participation from the children. Even the seating arrangements allow for kids gathering around the stage on cushions and beanbag stools like nursery storytime, while the adults can sit back on chairs or get down with the kids. Having learned our bear boogie dance moves, everyone gets to join in as the power of disco is restored. It is riotous and joyful as the glitterball kicks into action and the disco hits keep playing it’s a little like being in a live TOTPS in the Seventies with The Wombles. Festive feelgood with bags of charm.

CONTACT at Hope Mill Theatre 11-23 December

Images by Lee Baxter

THE PRODUCERS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks

Directed by Raz Shaw

A Riot of colour sequins and spangly frocks. A cluster of corny jokes that the audience know by heart. A bonkers evil anti-hero. A dame in drag. A warm-hearted gentleman thief. A beautiful young ingénue. An innocent abroad in an unknown world. Catchy songs and madcap dance routines. Lights, sequins, laughter….It’s Christmas and this must be Pantomime?

Thankfully this is bad taste theatre at its very best and aimed at entertaining the grown ups. Raz Shaw brings the Mel Brooks classic The Producers to the stage of The Royal Exchange Theatre. Joyful and irreverent, this is a production that both delights and appalls in equal measure. Filled with bad taste jokes and bawdy humour which could/should repel, it manages to triumph with a heart of gold as glittering as the show girls costumes and as gleaming as the coiffeur of Roger de Bris.

The Producers dating from the 1960s, pokes fun at the Nazis, and although the jokes might be old, the message remains current – we need humour and parody to diminish the power of extremism. It might be a foppish Hitler being mocked on stage but replace the black moustache with an orange wig and the central message remains the same.

This is a genuinely top notch Broadway affair with a superb cast who whole heartedly embrace this production with verve and skill. Julius D’Silva is excellent as Max Bialystock, adding his own flair to a role made so iconic by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. He is every inch the shabby King of Old Broadway with his wild eyes and strands of over-black hair pasted across a sweaty, shiny pate. The cynical theatrical ham who can woo old ladies for cash and command a stage with sheer class and dignity while singing in a prison cell toilet in Sing Sing.

Stuart Neal as Leo Bloom is utterly believable as the baby-faced accountant with big dreams. His nasal twang and youthful inexperience perhaps takes more from the Matthew Broderick performance than the Gene Wilder. His big number with the showgirls is pure old school Broadway glamour. Swedish Ulla is played with Monroesque allure by a wigglicious Emily-Mae. Charles Brunton is outrageously camp as director Roger de Bris channelling a Rita Hayworth any drag queen would be proud off. Hammed Animashaun steps out of the chorus and shines in the office scene then goes on to do a star turn as Carmen Ghia.

Designer Ben Stones creates a perfect Broadway experience and captures a moment in history with flair and drama. Lighting designer Jack Knowles may have taken down the National Grid with his use of yellow bulbs; but to great effect. From the bulb illuminated orchestra to the outrageous spangly Swastika signs and Hitler descending from the ceiling the visual impact is high octane throughout. The costumes are utterly fabulous with an array of spectacle that would not look amiss on a McQueen or Westwood catwalk.

The Producers is a gobsmacking riot of glitz, glamour and chutzpah. If someone at The Royal Exchange raised funds for this production betting on it being a first night flop and aiming on a flight to Rio, then right now they must be eating the account books and bedding in for Christmas in Strangeways!!

Royal Exchange Theatre 30 Nov – 26 Jan

All images by Johan Perrson

First Time

WatersideArts

Written by Nathaniel Hall

Directed by Chris Hoyle

It is 100 years since the end of WW1 from which so many young men never came home or were permanently altered or scarred from their war experiences. A lost generation still mourned today. It is 70 years since the introduction of our beloved NHS which has saved or prolonged so many lives and continues to do so today. It is 30 years today since the very first World AIDS day dedicated to raising awareness around HIV and AIDS and commemorating those who have died from an AIDS related illness. It is one week since I saw The Inheritance Parts 1 and 2 which poignantly honours that whole generation of mentors, friends, family and lovers who died from Aids related illnesses. A lost generation still mourned today.

Last night I saw Nathaniel Hall’s one man show First Time, which tells his story of contracting HIV at barely 17 from his first sexual relationship. A boy teetering on the brink of Adulthood he had a positive first gay relationship but barely months later had a shocking diagnosis that changed his life and must have seemed for him like the party was well and truly over before it ever had a chance to properly begin.

I don’t want to use the term brave to describe this performance but it is difficult not to. This is work that is searingly honest, and while it may feel liberating for the writer/performer to now be able to tell his story, it also makes him incredibly vulnerable. It exposes him as he explores his shock, shame and denial on his slow journey towards accepting his situation and finding his own path to healing. This is a celebration of the human capacity to survive and find hope in the darkest places.

Working with dramaturg and Director Chris Hoyle, Hall has developed his work into a delicately pitched performance that can move from gallows humour and raw despair into whimsical charm and impish wit. Throughout his performance Hall exudes grace and charm, interacting with the audience with a natural warmth. Even at its darkest moments it feels like Hall is always mindful of his potential audience and ensures the performance never becomes maudlin or slips into being self- pitying.

The staging is effective in the small intimate space, fluidly allowing for scenes on park benches, hospitals appointments, his bedroom or at the school prom. The lighting and sound capture the essence of magical moments such as the slow dance under the mirror ball with an audience member which so neatly encapsulates a life that would never be. Squirty string effectively conjures up the experience of projectile vomiting during illness, while the sinister ticking clock and disembodied fragments of voice-over chillingly convey the puncturing of Hall’s whole world on initial diagnosis.

First Time is also a homage to the NHS and to the wonderful work of The George Trust which has worked so tirelessly to provide support to those living with HIV or with Aids. It is evident how vital this support has been to allow Nathaniel Hall to find his own path to holding no blame and no shame. The scene in which Manchester rain pours down as Hall stands under an illuminated umbrella with the audience all quietly holding tea lights in remembrance of a lost generation is a masterstroke of quiet reflection and genuine shared emotion. Sitting in that theatre last night watching First Time reminded me of the first time I worked the telephone counselling line at Manchester Aidsline over 30 years ago. It was a full house last night, but I can’t help feeling it was also filled many times over by the spirits of all those young men no longer here, who would have also been loudly and proudly applauding Nathaniel.

Waterside Arts 29th Nov – 1st Dec

Off the Grid

Waterside, Sale

Written by David Lane

Directed by Chris Elwell

Off the Grid is an immersive play written by David Lane for children’s theatre specialists Half Moon. It looks at the very real issue of what happens when our children and young people fall outside of the social care system and find themselves living “off the grid”.

The stage design by Chris Elwell does an effective job of immersing the audience in this story and ensures none of us stay comfortable and settled in our seats of choice. Like the two main protagonists in this story we are never quite certain of a place to be. The metal grids ensure stark minimalism but also store the props that help drive the narrative. The constant shifts in this piece work well and never create confusion for an audience who may not all be familiar with immersive theatre.

The story of abandoned children, Connor and his little sister Kelly, exactly 10 years younger could be unrelentingly bleak. Sensitive writing and strong performances from Bradley Connor and Jesse Bateson ensure there is plenty of shades in this production. The blend of pathos and desperation is balanced by the children’s capacity for magical thinking. Connor creates a rich internal world that cloaks them both in safer, more hopeful existence as a buffer between them and the harsh reality of their plight.

Bradley Connor gives an intense and impassioned performance. He has a capacity to both enthrall with his storytelling and to petrify as his little sister becomes an obstacle to his own burgeoning needs. He is adept at moving through the space and connecting with the audience in a very potent manner. Jesse Bateson rises to the challenge of conveying her character as a very young child and as a teenager. There is skill and confidence in her performance and she brings real charm and innocence to the role of Kelly.

Running a psychotherapy practice I have encountered a number of adults who have had not too similar childhoods to Kelly and Connor. This production tells an important story that unfortunately is only too true in our current Society. Half Moon have produced a work that is socially and politically relevant and which resonates on a personal level. This is the kind of storytelling in Theatre that makes funding for the Arts so important, and makes attending theatre so rewarding and informing.

On tour

Images by Stephen Beeny

The Maids

HOME

Written by Jean Genet

Translation by Martin Crimp

Directed by Lily Sykes

My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds says Solange and this defines this production of The Maids. Director Lily Sykes has taken her directorial experience in Germany and employed it to excellent use with this darkly erotic and uncomfortably sinister game of charades between two sisters and their Mistress. The slow trickle of sand from the ceiling signalling hope ebbing away is echoed in the drip, drip, drip of poisonous words and actions that pervades the performance. Toxicity is everywhere, not just lurking in the contents of a dainty china cup. The Maids is decadent and delicious in its insoucuant disregard for conventional morality.

The main stage at HOME has been transformed by designer Ruari Murchison to create a round central stage that perfectly captures the psychological boxing ring that is this play. Like a Coliseum of gladiators the cast fling barbed words and even the flowers strewn around the stage are pointed weapons that gaily puncture the floor like poison darts. Seated in the round the audience become props for the cast as they interact with us like blank eyed smiling sociopaths.

Screens project quotes from Genet and images of iconic faces such as Hitler and Mary Berry with provocative statements such as good/bad, bon/mal invite reflection on how we perceive our society. These screens also act like surveillance cameras and project close ups of the performers as they obsessively examine their own ever changing and increasingly unsettling images. Like our obsession with celebrity and our own appearance, the characters seem trapped by their own reflections.

In keeping with the duality in Genet’s work, the maids and their Mistress are all played by men. All three are perfectly cast as foils for each other’s capricious natures and are mecurial in their capacity to move in and out of Dom/Sub roles. They share make up and fashion while trading blows and insults like prize bitches in a nightclub toilet or naughty children in their mother’s bedroom. Jake Fairbrother as Claire brings vulnerability and wistfulness to his character while maintaining a sense of powerful sexuality when needed. His beautifully modulated delivery gives a real emotional depth to his performance. Luke Mullins is enthralling as the brittle, desperate and yet imperious Solange. Danny Lee Wynter relishes his role as Mistress, giving her a tender affection for her maids coupled with a chilling disregard for their plight.

Jean Genet experienced life as an outsider and his work relishes and glorifies the adsurdity of life that makes one man an outcast and another revered or one woman a maid while the other is the Mistress. This production of The Maids celebrates his sense of the absurd and pokes fun at our own ways of coping in an increasingly nightmarish world.

HOME 16th Nov – 1st Dec

Images by Jonathan Keenan

Cinderella

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Kevin Shaw

Directed by Kevin Shaw

It’s pantomime season once again and Cinderella breezes into Oldham Coliseum in a glittering pumpkin coach. Normally I wince at the word pantomime but last year the Coliseum converted my cynical heart to embrace the froth, frolics and sequins. This is good old fashioned slapstick peppered with plenty of modern references, catchy tunes and strong performances from seasoned panto professionals. Designer Celia Perkins has created a picture perfect storybook set which is incredibly detailed and enticingly colourful. The overall effect is as full of charm as a proverbial pantomime Prince .

The younger members of the cast deliver some good vocals and lots of energy, with Shorelle Hepkin as a warm and winsome Cinderella. Nisha Anil doubles as Dandini and Fairy Godmother bringing something special to both roles. Richard J Fletcher as Buttons gives his all throughout the show, and the pathos in his delivery of Emily Sandé’s Clown is really touching.

There are lots of amusing current cultural references in this production including recent royal weddings, Ubers and Google Alexi, however the wittiest is undoubtedly at the expense of The Kardashians. The Ugly Sisters, Fine Time Fontayne and Simeon Truby and mommie dearest Countessa Vyella Squeezepocket Sue Devaney do a deliciously mean take on those big bottomed girls and their socially ambitious mother.

Sue Devaney is in her element here producing a performance that blends a touch of Elphaba from Wicked with the Kardashians and a dollop of Celia Imrie circa Dinnerladies. She milks every moment on stage as the pantomime villain but with so much wit and flair that she rightfully steals the show.

There are the usual panto ghost scenes that whip the children up into a frenzy of excitement. A pre-Ball spa session is the perfect excuse for lots of slapstick fun and messy chaos. A well choreographed slow motion scene effectively highlights the Prince’s glass slipper hunt. The transformation of Cinderella is lit with a magical rosy glow and really does deliver whimsy and wonder.

This is good old fashioned pantomime with a big Northern heart. Oldham Coliseum deliver family fun for Christmas that scores high on the genuine feel good factor.

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes