Brief Encounter

THE LOWRY

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

A Kneehigh production

Ten years on from its first hugely successful staging and Emma Rice and Kneehigh have revived Brief Encounter. This musical adaptation blends the 1936 Noel Coward play Still Life and the iconic 1945 film Brief Encounter. If the originals depict ordinariness and repressed passion played “with a deliberate colourlessness”, then Rice wilfully and mischieviously paints a canvas around the lovers that is warm, vivid and earthily sensual.

The production draws you in from the start with a band (clad in old fashioned cinema ushers costumes) playing in the foyer, to striking up in the aisles and chatting randomly to audience members. Suddenly a couple in the front row burst into argument and the elegant woman flees her seat, only to rush unto the stage and through the projected screen where she becomes part of the black and white film. This is a celebratory affair and Rice has a very large bag of tricks and surprises at her disposal.

There is some great use of Noel Coward songs such as Go slow, Johnny with Jos Slovick on mandolin during the boat scene and Beverly Rudd giving her winsome version of Mad About The Boy. The music numbers feel very natural with the songs never seeming as if shoehorned into the production as in many musicals. Various background scenes tend to unfold during the songs on stage, or they are performed in front of the plush red velvet curtain almost like Vaudeville numbers.

The blend of live theatre and film is exhilarating as it is done so well. Scenes of crashing waves on screen allude to repressed passion on stage. Trains arrive and depart in spectacular ways particularly in the scene when Laura contemplates suicide. From railway station buffet menus to champagne bubbles to pressure gauges to mishaps on boating lakes, every tiny nuance is there. The use of lighting is key to mood throughout the piece from the sombre but comforting light of the standard lamp in the living room to the glorious boat house scene. This is a triumph which feels like an old black and white film has been lovingly and pain stakingly hand painted in rich Technicolor. It is no surprise that the design team involved have won so many awards for their previous work on this production.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen embody the doomed lovers Alex and Laura with all the restraint and earnestness of the original film. The scene where they hover onto real sensuality at the boat house is the most poignant. Other moments seem too contrived and work less well such as when they literally swing from the chandeliers.

The rest of the cast are the real life blood of this production as they get to be fully fleshed out and larger than life characters. The other lovers are of course not hindered by pleasant spouses in the background and are free to express their love. Lucy Thackeray as would-be posh Myrtle Bagot and Dean Nolan as the lusty Albert are well matched as the older lovers and great to watch. Nolan also gives a lovely depth and sweetness in his other role as Laura’s husband. Beverley Rudd is a riot as the earthy and sweetly saucy young Beryl falling in love with Stanley, her devoted young suitor Jos Slovick. These characters all bring a hefty dose of bawdy humour and slapstick which is mainly infectious and joyful. There are times where the sharp contrast against the scenes with Laura and Alec can seem jarring and risk marring the emotional impact of the final scenes.

A real theatrical delight, although it sometimes feels like every item in the kitchen cupboard has been added to this 70 year old recipe, the result is a winner. Leaving the theatre you want to laugh and skip and…….remember every minute. Always.

At The Lowry until Saturday w4th Feb.

At The Old Vic 2nd March- 2nd September 2018

Images by Simon Turtle

The Newspaper Boy

53Two

Written by Chris Hoyle

Directed by Simon Naylor

A Dibby Theatre production

Part of Queer Contact 2018

From start to finish The Newspaper Boy is a real joy to watch. Writer Chris Hoyle has such a natural ear for dialogue and a genuine affection for his characters ensuring they are all warm, earthy and colourful. The look and feel of this production is absolutely 1992 from the iconic television ads to the music of New Order and the clothes by John Richmond and Comme des Garçons. This is a real labour of love and perfectly evokes the joy and the anguish of coming out in the Nineties.

The cast do a great job as an ensemble. Christian is on a high speed trajectory from Moston to Didsbury via the nation’s tv screens and Daniel Maley is great as the naive, awkward boy who may be growing up too fast but is having a brilliant time until the newspapers break the scandal. He has the super confident soap veteran Mandy as his ballsy guide to drugs, clubs and fashion. Hollie-Jay Bowes is totally believable as the sweet ingenue/spoilt brat/faghag who just wants to get wankered and not have another cute guy love her like a fucking sister!! The fifteen year old Christian falls in love with the older boy Max who Sam Retford embodies with charm and genuine honour and sweetness.

Director Simon Naylor directs the sex scenes with genuine tenderness . This is a coming of age in a really special and joyful way that is later brutalized and cheapened by an ignorant media obsessed with the moral high ground and the desire to sell newspapers. When Christian says I’m proud of us it is said with a naivety about the personal, social and possible legal repercussions. Regardless of this Chris Hoyle has written young love in a joyous way that anyone could be proud off.

The older cast members bring additional depth to this story and of course were young people in the Nineties so can draw on their experiences. Eve Steele gives a chilly television executive in Burberry and heels but blisters with her genius take on a Manc drug dealer on the club scene. Samantha Siddall as Christian’s Mum is perfectly cast as the proud parent basking in the glory of a famous child while still worrying for his well-being. Karen Henthorn is just brilliant as the feisty, chain smoking Gran who adores Christian. Her performance shifts from impish to red eyed and broken, with the stuffing knocked out of her as the scandal unfolds.

The staging works really well and built over several levels allows for creative space to move the action on stage across a range of settings. The family home in Moston to soap star Mandy’s place in Didsbury via Flesh night at The Haçienda and the Granada studio offices and the set for famous soap Mancroft Walk. The energy ramps up a gear as a throng of tv crew thrust through the audience to film another scene on set. The audience are watching this unfold on stage while overhead monitors play out the filmed scene. A large tv screen above Christian’s bed shows scenes from the soap as the family watch Christian and Mandy on scene as the young lovers. Interspersed with iconic Nineties ads for Gold Blend and Milky Way the feeling of slipping back 25 years becomes stronger and stronger. It is a clever and impressive use of this small, bustling theatre. 53Two is quickly becoming a hugely exciting space to see theatre in Manchester.

Based on some of Hoyle’s personal experience as a child actor on Coronation Street, this play highlights the hypocrisy of television programming that storylines teenage pregnancy by a teacher but baulks at teenage gay sex with another young man. Staged as part of Queer Contact 2018 this is a funny and poignant take on an important subject.

Images by Richard Kelly

At 53Two until Saturday 24th February

The Almighty Sometimes

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

By Kendall Feaver

Directed by Katy Rudd

Winner of The Bruntwood Prize for playwriting 2015 this play tackles a vital social issue regarding our approach to children’s mental health, and how we support and educate families coping with mental illness. Kendall Feaver has written a beautifully balanced play that looks at the pros and cons of medication. The Almighty Sometimes puts a spotlight on fraught and complex family situations by questioning if it is possible to find a balance where we enable young people to have their independence as they grow into adulthood and still ensure we safeguard vulnerable individuals.

The writing is always engaging and Feaver skilfully takes the audience into Anna’s world where there are no certainties. She is constantly checking out what What do you think of me? Anna is complex, full of confidence and bravado yet also crippled with fears over who she really might be or could be without her medication. Feaver ensures no character is one dimensional and our perceptions and loyalties are constantly shifting. Is her mother Renee doing her very best for her daughter or is she smothering and controlling? Martyr, monster or a Mum desperately navigating CAMHS, the cash strapped NHS adolescent mental health service? Psychiatrist Vivienne appears dedicated and professional, and emotionally invested in Anna. Yet does she know enough about the drugs she prescribes to an adolescent brain which is still in development? Is it ok to publish academic books and articles about your clients when confidentiality is sacrosanct in therapy, and when your subject is too young to give consent?

Katy Rudd has clearly invested a lot of care and sensitivity in this production. She has taken a great cast of talented actors and a wonderful new script and created something really sublime and special.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee epitomises the energy and lifeforce of a woman trying to keep her child alive having witnessed the horror of her attempting suicide at age seven. After years of relative calm with the aid of psychiatry and medication she is distraught to find that fragile equilibrium shattered as Anna attempts to discover who she is without her medication. As always Hesmondhalgh lights up the stage with her earthy humour and wry intelligence. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is impeccable as the Child Psychiatrist heavily invested in her young client and torn by the therapeutic rupture created by NHS policy that demands Anna move on to Adult Services. Mike Noble is wonderful as the diffident, slightly bemused young suitor. His own troubled background and sense of shame or otherness ensure he “gets” Anna’s experience of being judged. The tragedy being he needs the nurturing of her mother Renee in his life more than he needs the increasingly unwell Anna. I have had to take care of people who should have been taking care of me- Why the fuck would I sign up for one more?

Norah Holden-Lopez continues to astound and is on a real trajectory building on her recent performances in Ghosts and in Our Town. She delivers a sensitive and powerful portrayal of bipolar disorder which is never mawkish or hysterical but is perfectly pitched throughout. She moves apparently effortlessly from a medicated Anna who is managing her move to adulthood with apparent aplomb to a vicious, fractured girl wounding and controlling those who love her with a calculated suicide attempt. In the second act Lopez-Holden is barely recognisable as she further splinters and fractures. It is a terrifying and haunting spectacle and her performance is electrifying.

Designer Susanna Vize has created a glistening, watery hexagon which evokes slippery precipices. A sense of little to cling unto and lots of swirling movement under the surface like the flow of mental processes. The swings descending from the ceiling bring a lightness as Anna and Oliver get to just hang out like any young couple but also reflect the up and down cycling of Anna’s mood as she stops her medication. As Anna floats up higher and higher she is further and further away from Oliver. This new Anna wants to feel lighter and freer but risks plummeting to the ground without treatment. The cage like trap which later surrounds her is sharp and brutal with slats of light splintering around her as though in the electric force field of her own mind. Lucy Carter and Giles Thomas use light and sound respectively to build on this sense of mental torment; jarring and discordant as they wound and disorientate. The overall effect is of the slicing of synapses creating new vivid ideas but also burning through and obliterating other thoughts and feelings.

In the U.K. a tiny 6% of health research is spent on mental health yet one in four of the population will experience some degree of mental health disorder leaving many families living on a precipice. What does a diagnosis mean for their child? A label that stays with their medical records and often defines and dictates their choices in life. What will be the side effects of the drugs, even if they work? What if therapy reveals something even more terrible in a family story? With a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease or cancer we tend to readily accept any treatment that may bring about cure or maintain life. Sadly with mental health we often reject any help through fear of social stigma. My own mother, in the grip of depression actually asked me if I minded her accepting treatment in a psychiatric unit, yet had never thought to question her right to have treatment for cardiac issues. In a modern society it is horrific that mental health is not given the same value as our physical health.

This is a play with a difficult subject matter that contains some scenes that are uncomfortable or distressing to watch. It is also a play that informs and engages and has a lightness of humour and humanity running through it. It explores what form tenderness takes in the face of adversity. It may be a mother crushing pills into her child’s food to keep her child alive, or forcing her to gag after an overdose attempt or shaving her legs for her when she wants to feel pretty. Regardless of whether we choose medication or not, it is essentially about our human need to have someone there with us in the light and also in dark times. I don’t know where I am…..You’re with me.

Royal Exchange until 24th February 2018

Images by Manuel Harlan

Winter Solstice

HOME

By Roland Schimmelpfennig

Translated by David Tushingham

Directed by Alice Malin

This production of Winter Solstice is co-produced by the Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company. The original production was first staged a year ago and coincided with the inauguration of a certain tow haired individual. Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig as a response to the resurgence of the far right in Europe, it remains an elegantly chilling observation of the dangers of harmful and subversive views infiltrating society and home. As glass after glass of red wine is poured on Christmas Eve so too is the slow and steady drip, drip, drip of poison from the lips of a benign stranger in this family home.

Lizzie Clachan gives us a stage sparsely set with trestle tables and swivel chairs. The tables are messy and disordered with water bottles, grapes, tic tac sweets, and empty plastic tubs and tape. This is the rehearsal room space in a theatre but could be a craft space for children. The performance runs straight through without an interval and is mainly fully lit giving an real sense of eavesdropping on an improvised scene rather rather than watching a play.

The result is curiously engaging. Schimmelpfennig has written this piece so the cast voice all the stage directions and create the sound effects themselves. The result is clever, funny and creative. A dropped glass baubles has the sound of shattering but is a dropped Satsuma squashed underfoot. Juice sprays out instead of shards of glass. Albert pops pills that are grapes or tic tacs. Throughout Alice Malin’s direction (reviving that of Ramin Gray) ensures that the cast are mainly seated on swivel chairs. They glide across stage moving tables to change the staging. This grows the sense of people trapped, unable or unwilling to exercise free will and stand on their own feet. Albert and Bettina are unable to not have Corinna visit each Christmas or curtail the length of her stay, just as they seem unable to leave a unhappy marriage. They are unable to stop a stranger with his suitcase entering their home on Christmas Eve. Perhaps in the same way we the audience are not offered an interval, and even if anyone wanted one, no one in the theatre speaks out.

The cast of five all give strong and compelling performances. They all play flawed characters who are each in their own way unpleasant and mean spirited. Fittingly there are no shining examples of humanity here even though we see parents, grandparents, artists and intellectuals. All are selfish, cruel and philandering and no one seems to have much empathy or kindness. The sinister stranger at the door appears initially to personify the better traits of humanity.

David Beames is excellent as the silken tongued snake who is courteous, benign and benevolent. He personifies the horror of the ingratiating stranger at the table playing music to a mainly rapt audience while his conversation becomes peppered with almost imperceptible Neo-nazi statements. We all seek others to meet our unmet needs from childhood. If what we seek is guidance,reassurance and nurturing, then we are all susceptible. The truly terrifying realisation is that we are all vulnerable to the voice of calm and reason. The insidious charm of a Pied Piper softly whispering as he leads us towards the “Right”path. We have to stop this mixing. This contamination. We had a garden and tgen the aphids came…..Boundaries exist……Beware of aphids.

It is only the hapless and cowardly Albert who as a social historian picks up on the subtle menace of this German doctor from Paraguay. Felix Hayes gives a vivid portrayal of this weak adulterer as he repeatedly unravels and pops pills to try to manage his anxiety and fear. He tries to speak up and expose this stranger/doctor/Butcher of Auschwitz but seen as weak and ineffective, he is unsupported by family and friends. A lone voice in the madness while an innocent child sleeps upstairs.

This dark and clever comedy is never boring. It is a timely lesson in observation and an invitation to really listen and dissect what we hear. With two apparent endings the rehearsal room scene has a crazed Albert lash out and assault Rudolph splashing red wine like blood with the childishly crafted Christmas tree flattened and destroyed. We see Rudolph reveal his true allegiance. Then the alternate staging of a real home with the fairy tale image of a real Christmas tree lit with candles and proper elegant glasses for a toast. Perhaps this really is a move from staged rehearsal to real life on this stage. The chilling image is of the stranger fully accepted. As the last candle is snuffed out, we, the audience are left in darkness. This is a call to arms, to light our own candles, listen to our own voices, heed our conscience. We all need to be watchful and ensure that no one ever has another Christmas in an Auschwitz.

At HOME until Sat 17th February

The Kitchen Sink

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Written by Tom Wells

Directed by Chris Lawson

The Kitchen Sink has a warm rich vein of humour with a steady flow of lively banter and acerbic quips. This is an undoubtedly upbeat take on some serious kitchen sink dramas. This is an Everyman, everyday family dealing with financial worries, plumbing woes; and managing disappointment, frustration, fear and grief. The kids are in flux as they try to find their place as adults. Dad is stubbornly clinging to a past that has no place in the future or even in the present. Mum is chucking lifebuoys to all and sundry in the shape of courgette muffins. In this scene of adversity there is also buckets of love and empathy. The Kitchen Sink is for everyone who has felt like screaming in their kitchen and it is an infectious reminder that we could be up on the kitchen table and dancing and singing along to Dolly Parton.

The staging works really well and Anna Reid’s design conveys the shabby family kitchen in need of a complete overhaul. The faded oranges and beiges of this utilitarian kitchen are brought alive by the people who inhabit this room as in so many homes. The wonky Christmas tinsel and Billy’s incongruous portrait of Dolly Parton are the little touches that make this home unique. The lighting is clever as each scene changes in muted semi darkness as family life continues to ebb and flow with a steady heartbeat of home and hearth.

The family are Northern working class with Kath, a feisty Mother who works two low paid jobs and yearns for change and rails against stagnating in a place that is a good place to come from, but not a good place to end up. Sue Devaney plays Kath with an infectious energy which never dims. She works hard at family, at work and in life but she is never a martyr but instead retains a kittenish, playfulness whether stripping off unto a newspaper or casually savouring her first spliff. There are moments where I wished the laughter dialled down a little to allow more space for her heartfelt plea for just a tiny change without the World ending. The poignancy and tenderness in the scene in which Kath has made the buffet for Pete’s Gran’s funeral is a joy to watch. The simple compassion of a Mother who loves to “mother” being “Mother” to the bereaved and orphaned Pete.

William Travis provides a dour, slightly gloomy Martin who is a good foil to wife Kath. Initially they seem ill- matched as her sunny playful nature seems at odds with his downbeat gruffness. Yet the moments of real laughter between the two shine as their strong emotional connection is evident. This is marriage at its best- there is humour, forbearance, compassion and earthy attraction. They may have a barely half-filled jar of 20 pences as savings security but they have a fortune in a rock solid union.

The children are less richly drawn. Billy played with great sweetness by Sam Glen, is ill equipped for Art College in London where his heartfelt homage to Dolly Parton is greeted as “kitsch” and “cool”. His warm and affectionate relationship with his mother is spontaneous and full of horseplay which belies the more awkward one with his father. This is a home where children are undoubtedly loved but where an artistic, gay and slightly diffident son is slightly held at arms length by a father who struggles to relate to him. Sophie played by Emily Stott is barbed wire brittle and is clearly a wounded soul. Her Mother senses something is wrong and Sophie is clearly very close to her father yet no one seems able, or dares to probe too deeply. Perhaps in every family the dark stuff lying at the bottom of the U- bend is avoided where possible. Like the makeshift mends on the kitchen sink until it finally erupts and make do and mend is no longer an option.

The most finely drawn character is Pete the young plumber and would-be suitor to Sophie. David Judge delivers a beautiful performance full of awkward grace and sensitivity. The quiet resilience and steadfast devotion to those he loves is a study in grace and gentleness. Despite or because of his own losses, he is the only one to really see Sophie’s pain and try to help her. This play subtly highlights how children can be loved and valued but sometimes “missed” in the business of making ends meet with multiple jobs or unsociable working hours.

The Kitchen Sink is filled with the music of Dolly Parton. This is a soundtrack full of songs bursting with energy and poignant, heartfelt melodies- a perfection reflection of this family at this particular kitchen sink. In the ladies loos after the show both cubicles were engaged with girls singing Dolly at the top of their voices!! I’m not a country music lover but I’ve been playing her all week. Small changes. Thanks Kath!! As the character says I got on the Circle Line in the wrong direction- Nothing happened- I just sat it out. This play has an ask for all of us. Do we want to sit it out or get off and go a different direction and see what happens.

At Oldham Coliseum

Fri 9 – Saturday 24 February 2018

Narcissist in the Mirror 

Written & Performed by Rosie Fleeshman

Produced & Directed by Sue Jenkins

HOME

This one woman show by Rosie Fleeshman dazzles from start to finish. The set alludes to the plush dressing room of a Hollywood Diva. The opening track Youre Gorgeous by Babybird nicely frames this piece about a girl who craves adulation and success as best daughter, lover, actress and grammar Nazi.

This is a real gem with sparkling prose, well judged in its blend of dark pathos and gutsy humour. Fleeshman charms and repels with equal flare without ever losing her audience. The standing ovation is well deserved as throughout she uses acutely observed images to enthrall a rapt audience before swiftly making us laugh out loud her wry, blunt humour

The narrative feels authentic  throughout so even her references to her family feel true even when most raw and unflattering. In the end this makes the piece all the stronger as the self awareness and lack of self pity suggest a family that is ultimately flawed but also close and strong- her mother, actress Sue Jenkins is producer and director. The dynamics and dramas of a family of actors is vivid and this narrative could easily lend itself to an excellent novel as well as a play.

The stories of first fumblings, real love and the rabbit hole of Tinder as a means to fill a void are artfully portrayed. The prose is just great as Fleeshman paints domestic images and dating vignettes with the care and precision she doubtlessly painted her tiny London flat with Street Symphony No2. 

Life as a trained actress who is an actor waiting to act is described with no self pity but tells a poignant story of every casting call opening a door on another life then giving the key to someone else. 

Writing Narcissist in the Mirror may have been an exercise in self therapy and healing as well as a means of taking control of her career. The woman on stage is too self aware to really be a Narcissist but she is certainly a perfectionist and probably her own harshest critic. There has been all the  waiting and the yearning to be seen, really really seen and accepted. I really hope as she takes her bows that she truly recognises that she can skip to her own beat and certainly disarm with ability.

At HOME 16/17th January PUSH2018 

5 Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist 

YESYESNONO 

HOME

Having sat down in Theatre 2 at HOME I have a quick introduction to Sam who is politely engaging with a number of audience members. We exchange names and pleasantries before Sam heads to the microphone on stage. This winner of Total Theatre Award for an Emerging Company/Artist 2017 is also Sleepy Boy who wants to suck cock, 22, bisexual in E1. 

Welcome to Sam who is curious about how he engages with others in the world and how humans connect with each other especially in a technologised world. Standing barefoot on stage in t-shirt and dungarees he appears slightly vulnerable but also quite detached from the words he speaks as he leads us through 5 sexual encounters with various men.

There is a lot of audience participation and although Sam is keen to create a “safe” and “democratic” space for this theatrical exploration/group therapy session, I am not certain how comfortable or safe everyone actually was. Of course theatre is there to push boundaries and allow for new experiences but there were moments when boundaries may have have blurred between cooperation and coercion. The intriguing aspect of this is how conscious or not Sam and the participants were as this is also a performance about power dynamics in relationships.

There are some endearing moments in this piece such as when Sam sits on a picnic rug with a participant. They feed each other grapes as he asks questions from the 36 Questions that lead to Love based on the work of psychologist Arthur Aron and others. The theory is that humans can accelerate intimacy by mutual vulnerabilty or sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure. Demonstrations of romance and emotional intimacy are evoked in various creative ways alongside the cool, factual descriptions of perfunctory sexual acts.

There are other elements that seem to work less well such as some of the props the participants are told to use on stage that seem like random, naive ideas that are irrelevant to the actual performance. The nudity also felt slightly awkward, not because it was nudity on stage but simply because it seemed unnecessary at that point in the narrative.

The overall sense of 5 Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist is of a piece that is still evolving as the performer absorbs more from each audience and possibly from the contents of the boxes on stage holding the answers to Question 22. Watching this pale, blond young man in his simple attire made me think of the David Bowie character in The Man Who Fell to Earth who walked quietly amongst us as an Alien absorbing and reflecting on what makes us human. 

At HOME as part PUSH2018 til Wed 17th January