West Side Story

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Initially conceived by Jerome Robbins in 1949, WEST SIDE STORY finally arrived on Broadway in 1957. A resounding hit, it was made into a movie in 1961 and has remained an iconic and groundbreaking musical ever since. New versions are in production for Broadway and cinema, but the first big production to makes changes to the choreography and score is this Sarah Frankcom version.

Based on star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, this tale of thwarted love amidst gangland violence and knife crime is as horribly relevant in modern British cities as it was in 1950s Manhattan. It speaks so vividly of young people adapting to their burgeoning independence in a world where they may struggle for acceptance. This tale of gangs is evergreen in that it perfectly depicts the human quest for social identity. We all seek a sense of belonging and to affirm this we adhere to an in group which might be family, social class, a gang or a football team. To increase self esteem we discriminate against the out group, the more prejudice and seperateness then the greater enhancement of self image. The beauty and the tragedy of this has resonated throughout the ages and in every culture. In my teenage years it was Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where boys were knee capped and girls tarred and feathered if they dared to fall in love with someone outside their religion.

The set design by Anna Fleischle is all clean stark lines of white steel and glass, like possible staging for A Clockwork Orange. Although beautiful in a minimalist manner it initially seemed too cold for this tale of passion. There is no context or sense of location which is disconcerting yet highly effective as a potent reminder that this story is ongoing – here in the theatre and outside in every town and city.

This set also works brilliantly with the new choreography by Aletta Collins. She has kept the beauty of the original but adapted it for the round stage and added a fresh athletic element that sees the performers really use the multi levels of the set with cat like grace and agility so there is almost an element of Parkour in the choreography.

Jason Carr has ensured that the music really is the star of this production with an orchestra concealed outside the theatre itself delivering a glorious version of Bernstein’s score. Every note seems flawless and crystal clear as though the orchestra was actually centre stage.

The cast exude the confidence and youthful exuberance of teenagers with a lust for life and a casual disregard for the brutal reality of death until tragedy actually strikes. There are some great vocal performances. Gabriela García as Maria has a pure soaring operatic vocal while Andy Coxon as Tony has a rich warm voice which grows in confidence throughout the show. Gang leader Riff Michael Duke is a powerful dancer but it is his lover Anita, Jocasta Almgill who steals the show. A brilliant singer and dancer, it is also her stage presence which ensures she exudes both passion and compassion.

The central protagonists Coxon and García have do have great chemistry as the lovers torn between two worlds. The love scenes are full of tenderness and the reckless passion of teenage hormones. The rumble scenes and resulting deaths are impactful and exude horror and regret at the wasted young lives. The overall feel of this production is that it is a beautiful and lovingly crafted yet I left feeling curiously flat. Perhaps as Maria says It’s not Us, its everything around us, the knowledge that our young people appear destined to keep repeating the same mistakes in an unyielding world.

Royal Exchange Theatre 6 April – 25 May 2019

Images by Richard Davenport: The other Richard

KINGDOM

HOME

Created by Àlex Serrano, Pau Palacios, and Ferran Dordol

Agrupación Señor Serrano

HOME has a marvellous flair for showcasing pieces of theatre that excite and assault the senses. KINGDOM is a perfect example of irreverent, loud and brilliantly clever theatre that ramps up the energy and has a theatre audience feel like they have just come out of a hi-energy gig. Co-produced by HOME this UK premiere of this Señor Serrano show is a fabulous and fruity part of the 25th VIVA! Festival.

Staged with long tables of archaeological or architectural like exhibits, alongside fruits, foliage, booze and fags with chain smoking macho men in front of a giant projection screen. The performers’ casual demeanor suggests no rush to even start the show yet the overall effect is gripping. Before anything even happens all eyes are on the stage attempting to drink in all the props and their possible uses.

This is a story of the cycle of demand, consumption, crises and insatiable desire. The history of the humble banana, its discovery by Minor Cooper Keith in 1876 and its introduction to the Western world and subsequent growth as a plantation crop leading to overproduction, crop blight and world financial crises. The growth of the banana from fruit to iconic superfood, mans’ fascination with King Kong and machismo are threaded through the growth of capitalism and consumerism. So many ideas and concepts packed into a one hour show should produce an scrambled mess yet somehow what emerges is thought provoking and energizing.

Using a unique blend of video, performance, scale models,dance and live music Señor Serrano are masters of their craft – creating cinema-in-real-time. The skill and artistry and nonchalant ease with which they intricately film tiny models of railroads and bananas highlighting the onward march of consumer greed. The impudent glee as a human hand starts moving into the footage or a performer sprays himself with a plant mister to appear sweaty in the jungle foliage. Old newspaper covers with moving film images in the columns and TIME magazine covering celebrating everyone from King Kong to Hitler, Tarzan and JFK. Every tiny movement is meticulously accounted for yet simultaneously these performers are playing instruments and dancing around with infectious energy.

The result is phenomenal as this tale of greed and disaster grows so too does the energy and pace of this piece. By the end the stage is filled with more bare chested posturing macho men dancing to an ever louder beat as confetti cannons shoot euros into the audience. Is this theatre or a utterly brilliant night on Canal Street? It’s certainly memorable and as we are repeatedly told, Estamos bien, estamos bien.

HOME 9th – 13th April 2019

Señor Serrano

Images by Vicenç Viaplana

The Funeral Director

HOME

Written by Iman Qureshi

Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

Amy Jane Cook has created a set design for The Funeral Director that reflects the duality that runs through this production. A set split between the living and the dead populated by characters torn between the rules of personal culture and faith in the community and the laws of the land. Writer Iman Qureshi uses this family run Muslim funeral parlour to highlight some important issues around the laws of a faith and those of a country and how they impact on individuals when they clash. In this instance the dilemma centres on ethical choices in business – be black listed by your community or risk being sued, and on an emotional level how to be true to your own sexuality when that truth is at odds with your faith.

The opening scene introduces the theme that nothing should be taken at face value. Ayesha is first seen holding a tiny baby wrapped in white swadling while she sings a soothing lullaby. To all intents and purposes she is a young Muslim mother, yet there is a sudden shocking realisation that she is the funeral director and this is someone else’s dead child. Aryana Ramkhalawon is convincing as a young woman torn between duty, dreams and sexual identity. Sleepwalking between grief for her deceased mother, caring for the dead and being a good Muslim wife, the unfolding events see her flourish as she finds the faith in herself to rebel against convention in her community.

Assad Zaman as husband Zeyd gives a strong performance but his character is less clearly drawn. Initially full of warmth, charm and compassion, it feels frustrating that when faced with the strain of the legal case and issues in his marriage his character seems to revert to religious dogma and homophobia which somehow don’t feel totally believable.

The scenes with Janey (Francesca Zoutewelle) fizz with life and vibrancy in this Funeral parlour. They provide valuable insights into the background history of Ayesha and offer her a way out of the constraints of hiding her sexuality and honouring her mother’s business.

This is a play that’s highlights the human need to either adapt or rebel in order to survive. Director Hannah Hauer-King skillfully ensures that this is a story that’s remains humane rather than preachy. There is warmth and wit and generosity of spirit alongside the complexity of orthodox beliefs. Perhaps influenced by the legal case of the bakery in Northern Ireland which became the most expensive cake in British legal history this is production which unflinchingly looks at the prejudices in our modern society. There are aspects of story in this production that risk becoming formulaic in an understandably genuine desire to tackle an important subject, however overall it is an engaging and absorbing piece of theatre that is definitely worth seeing.

HOME 27th – 30th March 2019

Images by Mihaela Bodlovic

Barber Shop Chronicles

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.

Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.

At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.

Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT

Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse

Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019

Images by Marc Brenner

The Last Yankee

Bolton Library Theatre

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by David Thacker

This production of The Last Yankee feels like a particularly special opportunity to see a play by iconic American director Arthur Miller. Staged in a newly developed and very intimate theatre space, this is a chance to see Miller’s work directed by the man who has directed more of his plays than anyone else. David Thacker knew Miller personally and directed the 1993 British première of The Last Yankee as his last production at The Young Vic.

The play looks at how two men and their clinically depressed wives respond to time spent in a psychiatric hospital. The central theme is one of disappointment and how that can corrode our sense of self and our relationships with others. Miller himself had experience of being husband to a woman vulnerable to depressive episodes during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The play also uses much of Miller’s absorption with how the past informs the present.

The first act is a slow burn of social awkwardness and tentative male bonding as the very different husbands try to make sense of mental illness. Frick, a successful businessman and Hamilton, a carpenter descended from a founding father of American democracy find nothing that unites their wives. Rich/Poor. Kids/No kids. Lost optimism/Swedish lack of optimism. These men are lost without a premise to explain why their wives are psychiatric patients. Patrick Poletti as Frick and David Ricardo-Pearce as Hamilton are utterly convincing as two very different men both broken in their own ways by their attempts to cope with their wives’ mental illness.

The wives appear in the second act having formed their own connection. Karen is a first time patient and is discomobulated by the medication and terribly vulnerable in her desire to be accepted. Played with sweet desperation by Annie Tyson, she portrays a wife who imagines herself a disappointment to her husband having been cruelly rejected by her own mother. It is only through music and dance that she fully comes alive with childlike glee that her bewildered husband struggles to comprehend. The scenes where she performs are tender and filled with tentative hope from a woman who had “lost her optimism.”

Juliet Aubrey captivates as the frequent flier, savvy to the effects of all the medication. Although bewildered as to what, if anything is actually wrong with her, she dryly acknowledges that “Anybody with any sense would be depressed in this country.” Brittle and full of nervous twitching energy, she exudes charm. Still beautiful despite having seven children and feeling “a torn off rag of my old self” she is drug free for 21 days after 15 years. As her and her husband exchange truths about their life together, a picture appears of loss, potential never fully realised, disappointments and resentments. These moments on stage are there in so many relationships but highlight our human vulnerability to cope in a changing world that we may struggle to understand.

Stark staging creates a sterile environment for these fragile humans to come together and is a fitting backdrop to play out messy, confused emotions. A bed is always occupied by a third unmoving, possibly catatonic women who is a poignant reminder of just how cruel depression is. The Last Yankee is a deeply satisfying watch and Thacker’s rich understanding of Miller’s work ensures that this intimate staging works beautifully.

Bolton Library Theatre 28th Feb – 16th March

Images Joel Fiddes

KOURTNEY KARDASHIAN

HOME

Created by Sleepwalk Collective

Performed by iara Solano Arana and Nhung Dang

The Spanish/British company Sleepwalk Collective turn the spotlight on celebrity culture with a coolly elegant discourse on opera and our modern value system. Following on from their 2016 ballet Kim Kardashian and the 2017 stage play Khloé Kardashian, this production continues to explore the increasing dissonance in our lives as technology and rampant consumerism moves us further and further away from real lived experiences and closer to a point where even our humanity can be outsourced.

This production looks and sounds gorgeous. Lush lighting and a soundscape of opera and birdsong by Sammy Metcalfe which emanates from speakers adorned with gold bows to match the dramatic gold gowns of the elegantly, beautiful performers. There are tiny horses, and caskets of gold leaf to be eaten and washed down with flutes of champagne. This is an extraordinary night for us – the golden people, the elite, the intelligentsia. And yet, all is not as it seems, instead this is a deconstruction of the Opera, of Celebrity and of us the audience. The gleaming gold evening dresses are made of emergency blankets. The Arias are not sung by the performers instead it is a recording of their parents in 1992. Chillingly the audience are warned that they are no longer necessary, we can be outsourced and replaced by canned laughter.

Wonderfully strange and seductive, there is a real sense of Sleepwalk Collective taking their audience deep into a dream sequence where opera stage meets lecture theatre in a world that is decidedly that of David Lynch. Dead eyed and nihilistic it could be Laura Palmer on stage instead of Iara Solano Arana. The imposed mental haziness of this production may not be for everyone, but the discombobulation is highly effective. The invitation to wake up from the dream of vacuous existence is potent. The warning of a wolf riding a tsunami and the ghosts caught up in the machine are uncomfortable reminders of who we are and what may become of us if we continue to ignore the lessons of the past. This Spanish/British collaboration of big dreamers are inviting us the “intelligentsia” to learn from when Rome burned or Pompeii vanished. This is a joke worn horribly thin…

At HOME 7th – 9th March 2019

Images by IsasiFoto

Wise Children

HOME

By Angela Carter

Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice

An Old Vic and Wise Children production

Wise Children is the first production from Emma Rice’s new company, also named Wise Children. Eagerly awaited after her huge success at Kneehigh Theatre and her departure from Shakespeare’s Globe; this production packs a hefty punch of gleeful mischief and playful exuberance. A huge fan of Angela Carter’s magical realism, Rice clearly delights in bringing this sprawling tale to the stage. It is a love letter to the theatre, to family, to Shakespeare and to growing old disgracefully.

Just like the characters depicted on stage, the stage design and costumes are teaming with vivid colour and layers of detail. Designer Vicki Mortimer has created a magical world that centres around a delightfully retro caravan that encapsulates the life and the history of Nora and Dora Chance. Ever present and ever changing it is a treasure trove that excites and enthralls with each reveal. The costumes are beautifully detailed and bring alive not just a history of theatre on stage but a history of life running through two world wars.

The actors on stage act, sing, dance, play instruments and use puppetry with all the enthusiasm and flair one might expect of the vaudevillian theatre era they are celebrating. This is an incredibly talented and generous cast that look like they are having a blast onstage. The story has the characters aging through 100 years of this theatrical dynasty using a blend of puppetry to actors of different ages, sexes and ethnicities to represent all the twins. Playfully alluding to Shakespeare’s love of switching the sexes in so many roles, Rice also demonstrates that the ageing process comes to all of us and what we look like on the surface is eventually irrelevant in this carnival of life.

The choreography by Etta Murfitt blends slick dance routines with circus gymnastics while the sex scenes are an earthy mix of outrageous smut and joyous tenderness. The musical numbers range from Sinatra to The Andrews Sisters to Eddy Grant and Cyndi Lauper. Each track chosen, perfectly encapsulates a scene and its era. There are some beautiful vocals particularly on the more poignant numbers.

This sprawling tale flows like the champagne and stout so frequently imbibed as it moves north and south of The Thames and front and back of stage guzzling up life events both sublime and agonising. Carter and Rice are both true wise children as they share the capacity to capture tiny moments and shine a light on them that is both hyper real and magical.

At HOME 26 Feb – 2 March 2019

Images by Steve Tanner