SWITCH + TIPPING POINT

The cast of Switch in rehearsal

Tipping Point. Photo by Mark Dawson

Upper Campfield Market

Switch directed by Charlotte Mooney, Ockham’s Razor with Grania Pickard

Tipping Point directed by Charlotte Mooney and Tina Koch

For the latest performance in Contact’s In The City programme, the setting is the stunning Old Campfield Market. Switch is a brand new circus inspired work developed by young people from North Manchester with support from Ockham’s Razor who also perform their award-winning show Tipping Point.

It is a major creative challenge to work with non-circus trained young people to develop work that has its basis in the challenging and innovative style of Ockham’s Razor. Artistic Director Charlotte Mooney ensures there is a neat developmental flow between the two pieces.

Switch has nine individuals in constant poetic flux as they work with poles. Seemingly herding people like refugees, they connect and disconnect, teasing, tantalising and threatening. The identifiable conflicts reflecting intensely human experiences are always evoked with a playful quality and the light touch so characteristic of Ockham’s Razor. With a soundtrack by Bellatrix this new work has charm and style in abundance.

Tipping Point combines mayhem and mastery to create something breathtaking that evokes palpable terror and jaw-dropping awe. Huge poles swing and swirl at speed around this magical chalked circle as the aerial performers play Russian Roulette with their lives dodging and shape shifting on the ground and in the air. Playful and mercurial these highly skilled performers are incredible to observe. Like an ever moving sculpture of sleek poles and sinuous bodies this is a stunning spectacle of just how good modern, cutting edge circus theatre can be.

At Upper Campfield Market 15-19 August

The Fishermen

HOME

Written by Chigozie Obioma

Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan

Directed by Jack McNamara

This new play is deftly adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan. It is an impressive feat to so effectively condense a 300 page epic book filled with rich, colourful characters into a two-hander play. Under the skilful and passionate direction of Jack McNamara it becomes a triumph and absolute joy to behold. The innocence of boyhood and filial loyalty is portrayed alongside the bloody horrors of a descent into madness, murder and mayhem that eventually culminates in a sense of fortitude and redemption. This is story telling at its very best, drawing you in and staying with you long after you leave the theatre.

The two actors give a tightly choreographed performance that keenly evokes the familiarity of brotherly bonds. The two youngest brothers of the Agwu family are reconnecting for the first time in eight years and Michael Ajao as Ben and Valentine Olukoga bring their acting “A” game, all hopeful yearning and bruised wariness. What follows is their recalling of their childhood in a stable family unit with ambitious parents, big brothers, football, fishing and village life in Nineties Nigeria. Fracturing this idyll like the spikes of the metal poles cutting through the stage, is the horror of a prophecy from a local madman which plunged their world into a Shakespearean tragedy.

Ajao and Olukoga channel the rest of their parents and brothers, the madman Abula, the meddling nosy neighbour and even the chickens and fish. All are brought to life on stage with a fluidity and energy that seems inexhaustible. Both actors inhabit each role with ease. Olukoga has all the stubbornness and mischief of a 10 year old, the bluster and patriarchal confidence of a man who sired four sons destined for success, yet can suddenly vividly evoke a flustered chicken in a coop. Ajao can physically transform from sweet young boy to an embittered, traumatised youth, then undergoing metamorphosis into his indignant, bossy mother and later descending into her grief stricken madness. He can delight when twitching and jerking as a fish on the riverbank and truly terrify and chill as he delivers the doom laden prophecy of Abula.

The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin works wonderfully. The simple dais cut through by the actual river is symbolic of past and present, and of the living and the dead. Metal poles are props but also stakes running through this river of blood and through the hearts of this family and symbolic of the lost promise of Nigeria itself. The combination of lighting by Amy Mae and sound by Adam McCready ramp up the drama in the narrative creating a sense palpable tension as they pulsate in time to the actor’s movements on stage. They create a stop/start dance of violence with startling intensity but also evoke the peaceful idyll of the moonlit night surrounded by the chirp of crickets.

The Fishermen is a truly intimate theatre experience that explores both the strength of familial relationships and the vulnerability that runs through every family. The tragedy of Agwu family is epic and the stuff of nightmares, yet scratch the surface of any family and the ghosts that appear may be also be bruised and bloody. Theirs is a story of Shakespearean proportions with children at the core of violence; it is a sobering thought that just this month 180 traumatized child soldiers from the Boka Haram were returned to the care of Nigeria and The United Nations.

HOME 19th – 28th July

Edinburgh Festival in August

New Perspectives

THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME

THE EDGE THEATRE

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music & Lyrics by Simon Waters

The sun is shining, the food at The Dressing Room is tasty and plentiful and the garden at The Edge Theatre is colourful with lush flowers and bright balloons. It feels like a garden party and it is indeed time to party. This is a celebration of the wonderful creative partnership between The Edge Theatre and The Booth Centre who work with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Last year’s show A Spanish Adventure was really impressive. Today’s performance is also a celebratory homage to our NHS turning 70 on July 5th.

This is a labour of love with a backdrop of blue hospital curtains and NHS health signage dotted around. The cast are clad in the pastel hues of a wide range of NHS staff. Hospital beds and wheelchairs glide across the stage and at one point forceps, stethoscopes and other medical implements are amusingly used to form the percussion for one of the musical numbers.

The performance uses a range of skits, songs and choreographed pieces to acknowledge the value and significance of the NHS in our lives. Whether rich or poor, sick or well, we are all so used to its existence we might easily forget it only sprang into existence in the second half of the last century. We take it for granted and in this performance there are timely reminders of its inherent value, what we lacked before it’s creation and what may follow if we don’t fight to protect our NHS services.

The music is gorgeous with all new numbers written by Simon Waters apart from the Gershwin classic as title song. The lyrics are witty and wry and competently delivered by the cast and a truly wonderful chorus comprised of Connie Hartley, Jessica McLinden and Michael Christopher.

There is some lovely humour and slapstick clowning with great comic timing that is balanced by some emotive and genuinely poignant pieces. The closing speech is beautifully written and delivered wonderfully by a younger cast member. It alludes to the strong connection we all have as our NHS does literally pull each of us into this world and holds many of us as we leave it. We owe it an immense debt and need to protect it, and this performance is a lovely reminder. It’s Your Birthday….Leave the worrying to Us. We are many and we are mighty.

The Edge Theatre 5-7th July

Mamma Mia

The Palace Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs by Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Mamma Mia is of course the phenomenally successful musical built around the ABBA back catalogue of hit songs. Approaching it’s 20th year of success and now having spawned two hit movies, it would seem set to fill the Aegean sea with froth, sass and sequins for at least another 20 years.

Girl meets Boy and falls in love, decides on a fairy tale wedding, and the only dilemma is which “Father” to call her own amongst three unwitting contenders. The Bride’s Mum is outed as having had a real summer of love during The Seventies and deals with the fallout with aplomb, ably aided by her two best friends and erstwhile backing singers. Everyone gets a happy ending and we all celebrate by dancing in the aisles singing along to Waterloo with a flurry of sequins and exploding confetti cannons.

Lucy May Barker hits all the right notes as the sweet ingenue Sophie. Shona White is reassuringly capable and confident as Donna and delivers on every song moving effortlessly through every emotion from Slipping through my Fingers and The Winner takes it all to the stomping Waterloo. The best friends/Aunties Rosie and Tanya both add a real comedic edge to this production. Nicky Swift is all warmth and impish charm while Helen Anker does a wonderfully acerbic, woman of the world oozing sex appeal. The men are rather less memorable and though all do a good job supporting the women this will always be a show about the girls.

Visually the staging is quite low key using clever lighting to take us through day and into night on a Greek island with glorious weather. The simple staging is effective as it is the colour and spectacle of the ensemble routines that are the visual highlights of this production. The big numbers are great and witty elements such as the choreography of the flipper dance is delightful in Lay all your love on me.

Mamma Mia is lightweight fun at the theatre but cleverly frames a great back catalogue of greatest hits. This is clearly a hard working, highly committed cast and the absolute highlight of the night is the rousing delivery they give after the last curtain call. Riotous fun and decidedly feel good entertainment.

The Palace Theatre until July 14th.

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peakes humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca Peake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.

The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.

Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.

The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.

Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.

Royal Exchange Theatre until 28th July

Images by Keith Pattison

Bread & Roses

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Ian Kershaw

Directed by Amanda Huxtable

Ian Kershaw has written a protest musical based on the 1912 Bread and Roses worker’s strike in Massachusetts that is as relevant today and is a powerful call to arms. Kershaw is a passionate advocate of solidarity, equality and compassion and his views shine through in this piece. Bread & Roses is an anthem for change and a homage to the hope that Our Tomorrows are better than our Yesterdays.

The opening scene is beautiful and truly memorable. Holding candlelit lamps, the cast bring in the new year of 1912 as they sing Auld Lang Sang a capello. New legislation had decreed that women and children now have a working week of 54 hours instead of 56. The Bread and Roses strike was the worker’s response to mill owners reducing pay and speeding up the looms. In a community comprised mainly of immigrants, the particularly special nature of this strike is that there was a united multinational response from the workers. Belts on looms were cut, the first moving picket line in America got around new legislation about loitering and children were sent away to places where they could be properly fed. Public response forced change and the mill owners had to accede to the workers demands.

This is a very strong and multiskilled cast. They sing extremely well and many play a range of instruments including piano, guitar, and banjo. The music is a mix of belting hymns such as Rock of Ages, haunting Irish ballads like The Parting Glass and stirring protest songs. There is Power in a Union by activist Joe Hill famous for his songs in that era, the wonderful Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim and the stirring bluegrass Ain’t No Grave made famous by Johnny Cash. The protest was known as “The Singing Strike of 1912” and this play celebrates that with gusto.

Lauren Redding as stout- hearted Martha gives a standout performance with an incredible voice and stage presence. Claire Burns as the martyred Anna is astounding. She creates goose pimples as the ghostly presence with her beautiful voice. I would happily buy the soundtrack to this production if it’s made available. Now that might be a great way to raise money for the foodbanks or homeless around Oldham??

The male performers do a great job throughout, particularly Oliver Wellington as Cal, but this is a female led cast. It’s star acting performance is Emma Naomi who has incredible natural grace on stage and captivates as Lily-Rose, the young widow and mother who finds her voice as an activist.

This was a very impressive opening night and Director Amanda Huxtable has created something very special. There are points where a more relaxed, naturalistic approach might benefit especially in the movement direction which at times appeared stilted. Moments where the chorus move into the aisles and circle during protest rallies work well creating a strong sense of audience involvement and creating more energy on stage. The illustrating of issues such as immigration, poverty, unemployment and the dangers of “false news” are crystal clear, leaving uncertainty around the need for the final modern day scene.

Kate Unwin‘s set has a real warmth and lustre. The cotton bales prevail in every scene whether at the impoverished worker’s cottage or at the factory gates where the mill looms turn overshadowing every life in the town of Lawrence as they once did in Oldham itself. The changing backdrop of gorgeous red and indigo skyscapes are sumptuous and set the mood very well. The lighting and sound is evocative as scenes shift from the peaceful sounds of riverbank fishing with the idyll of crickets singing to the whirr and clamour of the looms.

This is a wonderful production to see in Oldham and would also make an excellent show to adapt for schools or colleges to perform. There is a strong political message from the past that resonates in our current society. We may need bread for sustenance but we have rarely been in so much need of roses such as this production.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd June – 7th July

Images by Joel Chester Flides

The Drill

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Written by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens

Directed by Dorothy Allen-Pickard (video) and Billy Barrett (live)

The Drill is the latest production from Breach who create sharply intelligent and thought-provoking documentary-style theatre. Their previous work has focused on actual past events. The Beanfield recreated the 1985 clash between police and peace protesters while TANK took a disturbing and highly engaging trip back to the naive Sixties research study which attempted to teach dolphins to speak English. With The Drill they move into less certain territory as they explore anti-terror training looking at safety drills and emergency response procedures.

Three performers on stage have their own back stories in the performance reflecting various degrees of personal anxiety. Amarnah Amuludun is a trained dancer with a Nigerian heritage who is both frustrated and resigned to paying her bills by giving out leaflets in the busy concourse of a city railway station. Ellice Stevens displays all the modern day neuroses of a young woman faced with decisions about marriage, motherhood, mortgages in an increasingly dangerous world. Her catastrophic fantasies snowball and seem to merge into her sense of reality paralyzing her decision making process. Luke Lampard is bruised and fragile from a failed love affair and is seeking solace and distraction on Grindr though he may be potentially placing himself in real personal danger. Each of the back stories feel like small plays within the central performance creating vignettes of modern day neuroses.

Alongside their personal life stresses they have undergone a range of courses and workshops designed to drill them in anti-terror measures. These include preparing to deal with active shooters, searching out pipe bombs and other explosives and how to respond in the wake of a terrorist attack until the real emergency responders are on the scene.

On stage they act out possible threat scenarios while interacting with trained advisors on a projection screen. This cleverly looks at this growing industry based on targeting our greatest fears in modern society. The performers look at how these simulations and role plays have a strong basis in theatre training encouraging people to really engage at a deep level with what is termed safe controlled fear. As the role plays continue and become more extreme the reality is that these simulations start to break down as individual’s personal reactions colour the outcomes.

Immersive theatre is becoming increasingly popular and it’s interesting to think how this starts to merge with some of the terrorism scenarios real or imagined. Watching this in Manchester after the terrorism attack here last year and reflecting on shows like Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler and the ANU production at HOME of On Corporation Street I kept thinking of the adage you only get out what you’re prepared to put in. It is clear that Breach is engaging with the real risks of what happens when we immerse ourselves and and up feeding fears rather than alleviating them. Perhaps adding workshops in building emotional resiliency might bring an interesting dimension to this performance. It is certainly something we could all benefit from in this uncertain world.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of The Drill is the random role swaps as they open notes to see who is Terrorist/Assailant, Victim, Responder. It is a chilling reminder that it could be any of us in any of those roles. From a psychological perspective it also cleverly mirrors the psychotherapeutic model of The Drama Triangle where we are Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer.

This is a thought provoking piece of theatre but it felt a little confused towards the end. Although real tension starts to build as the performers immerse themselves in the training scenarios it felt as though they may have felt constrained on some level doing this performance in Manchester post the actual terror attack here.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the worst of “The Troubles”, I learned hyper vigilance and how to pre-empt danger as part of everyday life. I knew to open the windows in our house during bomb scares so glass didn’t blow in, to look under my Uncle’s car for suspect devices and to do first aid. I also learned to just get on with daily life because bad things will always happen. Having additional skills and strategies are valuable but in the end none of us can predict what exactly we will do in a crisis scenario – real or imagined.

HOME 14-16 June