Spinach

Charlotte Linighan and Joe Parker as Kate and Joe.

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music and Lyrics by Simon Waters

The Edge

It’s not often you take your seat in the theatre by walking past an attractive young couple drugged and tied up in a hostage situation. Last night was certainly a first for me. As the show begins and its clear that every word of dialogue is sung and that halloumi kebabs rather than spinach are going to be integral to the plot…well its fair to say I’m experiencing a little trepidation. It wears off quicker than the drugs being administered on stage as I’m swept up in this rollicking yarn about kebabs, buses, romance and pharmaceuticals.

Janine Waters and Simon Waters debuted Spinach ten years ago at the Royal Exchange so it’s rather fitting that they are reviving the production to celebrate the tenth birthday of the beautiful boutique theatre The Edge in Chorlton which they established with Dom Waters. Spinach doesn’t fit any clear theatrical genre and feels quite unique, but all the way through it I kept thinking that Victoria Wood would rejoice at being in the audience for this production. The show exudes a playfulness and energy that perfectly reflect its co-creators. Fizzing with witty lines and confident direction Spinach is further enhanced by the scoring which is just delightful; this is feelgood theatre entertainment at its best.

The cast of four play off each other perfectly and each character feels well crafted and fleshed out. Fresh out of drama school Charlotte Linighan really shines as hostage Kate. She brings both sweet innocence and an impish humour that is wonderfully engaging as she plays off Joe Parker as Tom. The onstage chemistry between them is impressive given that a lot of their time on stage has them tied together back to back. Craig Whittaker and Rachael McGuinness are both perfectly cast and ensure that their characters Darren and Maureen are likely to be permanently etched in memory like any great comedy double act.

Spinach is a delightfully bonkers story about how we can find love in the most unlikely places. This is a confident production which really is a pleasure to watch. Perfect entertainment in a beautifully refurbished theatre that is quite simply a great night out.

The Edge 30th Nov – 18th Dec 2021

First Time

Nathaniel Hall in First Time. c Dawn Kilner

Writer and Performer  Nathaniel Hall

Director and Dramaturg  Chris Hoyle

CONTACT THEATRE

I saw First Time when it premiered at Waterside Arts in 2018. It was World Aids Day and I sat in the audience remembering all the young men I had worked with at Manchester Aidsline, now George House Trust. It was a profoundly moving and life affirming experience. It was impossible not to weep for old friends long passed away but also to celebrate all those lives now saved by medical advances. I saw the show again in 2019 when it had a hugely successful run at Edinburgh Festival. So watching it for a third time exactly three years on, I wondered if it would still pack the same powerful emotional punch.

Living in a global pandemic would an audience perhaps have sympathy fatigue or just be too shell shocked from Covid-19 to really care about the story of a young man who was once a Head Boy in Stockport? A 16 year old boy who once upon a time ate a stolen chicken and stuffing sandwich from Boots. A 17 year old boy who was utterly alone when he was given a HIV diagnosis. A young man who struggled with such shame, fear and sadness that it was 14 years before he could share his diagnosis with his own family. A full house in the theatre, a sea of candles glimmering in the darkness and a standing ovation was proof enough that this production still has the power to resonate and inspire.

There is something deeply special about First Time as Nathaniel Hall’s experience of living with HIV breaks through stigma and shame and celebrates the messy, often fucked up ways in which we humans navigate pain and trauma in order to survive and hopefully thrive. Hall is working the room from the moment the audience starts to fill the space, charming and fizzing with bonhomie and wisecracks. He has an uncanny knack for drawing you in as he tidies up the scene of last night’s party and cheerfully glugs gin from a lurid bumbag and sniffs white powder  from a dubious plastic sachet. He is setting a scene that celebrates living life on his own terms.

Chris Hoyle directs the performance with a really tender touch which belies some of the brittleness that could easily overtake aspects of this piece. By bringing out the warmth and humour in the writing, he ensures that the story is never mawkish or self pitying. He gives Hall space to be vulnerable and perhaps in this production there are also tinges of darkness that feel more harrowing than in previous stagings. There is a truly chilling moment where the man he is now revisits that first relationship and is confronted by the boy he was then, being bathed by his older lover. In that moment his trauma is not just about getting HIV on his first time but about the distress he experiences as he reevaluates what had previously felt so romantic and now seems something more sinister.

This production ticks so many boxes. It is well-crafted and excellent storytelling which charts a journey from naive teenage boy enjoying a first romance through to the shock and isolation of a HIV diagnosis and finally to the acceptance of a young man educating and advocating for others. It entertains and crucially it also informs around current important information around HIV, PrEP, anti-retrovirals and U=U- Undetectable=Untransmittable. It is also a production for everyone and a powerful reminder that as with any infection risk we all need knowledge to be empowered to make positive choices for ourselves and others. Let’s hope that if First Time ever takes its final curtain call that its because there simply are no new cases of HIV.

CONTACT 30th Nov- 4th Dec 2021

Dibby Theatre

Aladdin

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson

Directed by Chris Lawson

Designed by Celia Perkins

Originally scheduled for 2020, Aladdin at Oldham Coliseum was reluctantly stored in its proverbial lamp until now. On Saturday night it burst forth with delight and relief as Chris Lawson and his team finally polished the production back into life. Aladdin the production is every bit as flamboyant and fizzing with energy and goodwill as the colourful Jinn of the Lamp, played with a psychedelic flourish by Marc Zayat.

Oldham Coliseum always delivers a festive production that is lovingly crafted to celebrate the tradition of Pantomime. Written by the theatre’s Artistic Director Chris Lawson and stalwart of Panto Fine Time Fonteyne this year’s show has a perfect balance of wholesome family entertainment full of irreverant banter that is genuinely funny but never offensive. Placed firmly in Oldham with lots of local references and of course a Panto villain from Rochdale the script is fast paced and fresh while retaining the classic ghost scene and the audience singing competition. Director Chris Lawson ensures that each scene rolls into the next like the pages of a much-loved storybook and this is ably abetted by Designer Celia Perkin’s delightfully colourful set, (The Cave of Wealth is especially beautiful and looks truly magical).

Richard J Fletcher as Widow Twankee and Sam Glen as Wishee Washee. Image by Darren Robinson

The cast do a great job on opening night and even the odd fluffed line is smoothed over with consummate professionalism. The very capable and charming Shorelle Hepkin returns as Aladdin, as does Sam Glen who plays Wishee Washee with oodles of twinkling humour. Richard J Fletcher once again dons some fabulous costumes as Widow Twankee. His Dame is a wonderful blend of earthy warmth and wicked humour, and he gets to deliver a cracking covid/fart joke that is genuinely funny. Dora Rubenstein is a feisty Princess Jasmine while Shaun Hennessy really delivers as her roué dad, the evil yet somehow lovable Emperor. Alex Phelps and Marc Zayat play off each other really well as Spirit of the Ring and Jinn of the Lamp, while also doubling as a comic duo of hapless policemen. Liz Carney is fabulous as villain Aunty Banazar oozing evil and effortlessly belting out her songs. Covid concerns mean four dancers replace the usual community chorus but they do an excellent job, especially when adding menace to the villainous high drama scenes.

Liz Carney as Aunty Banazar. Image by Darren Robinson

Aladdin is packed with popular songs delivered with passion and enthusiasm. Sweet Caroline is a real crowd pleaser that has the whole audience joining in to raise the spirits and the roof at the Coliseum. Brimming with energy and goodwill this is a family night out at the theatre that won’t disappoint. The tradition of Pantomime remains safe for generations to come as long as Oldham Coliseum remains a presence in the town.

Everything All of the Time

CONTACT

Contact Young Company

Directed by Matt Fenton

Choreographed by Yandass Ndlovu

After 3 years, a 6.75 million pound building and redevelopment project and a global pandemic, CONTACT finally opened its doors to the viewing public again. The iconic building on Oxford Road launches with a powerful new dance production Everything All of the Time. Directed by the theatre’s long standing Artistic Director Matt Fenton and choreographed by Manchester’s Yandass Ndlovu, it is absolutely fitting that CYC (Contact Young Company) are the first to grace the main stage. The result is an hour long immersion in the visceral emotions of young people who were undoubtedly impacted by living in a pandemic but whose identity is ultimately shaped by so much more in this rapidly changing world.

Everything All of the Time skillfully blends dance and spoken word against a soundtrack of artists such as Gaika, Migos and Phaeleh. The result feels seamless and yet edgy with performances that flow from sharply observed satirical reflections on 2020 to tender reflections on love and self into blistering dance that exalt physical strength and our capacity to still breathe in a world than has seen us masked and fearful. One of the most emotive moments may well be the simple sounds of unabashed noisy breath sounds whether in a haka inspired piece or elsewhere, there was something so pure and adulterated in those moments on stage. The stage itself creates a powerful impact… vast and sparse with a simple white backdrop that allows the performers to be the absolute focus at all times. Every inch of the vast staging is utilised whether in spotlit pole dancing or in groupings that fill the space or utterly own it as 16 performers advance on their audience, 16 faces, 16 stories…all special and memorable

Whether reflecting on justice for George Floyd, burning forests, saving Hulme Hippodrome or the cancellation of Holby City; at the heart of this production is the theme of connection and inclusion. Moving through the aisles while singing about being born believing I belong in boxes or on stage coming together in rapturous embraces, speaking from the heart while sitting in the boxes or breaking the fourth wall as they stare straight out into the eyes of their audience…CYC immerse everyone into this production. Director, choreographer and performers ensure that this dance piece allows for everyone to find their own deeply personal response.

CONTACT is all about putting young people at the front and the core of its organisation. This is a theatre which strives to not just empower young people through the arts and creativity but to give them a voice in how that happens. Young people feature at the very heart of all decision making and CONTACT is a national exemplar of best practice in relation to young people and diversity.  The major redevelopment of the building has seen its young members be a part of every stage of the decision making process from choosing architects and plans to the development of new recording studios, free work and social spaces to new performance spaces and a unique health and science development space supported by The Welcome Trust. In dialoging with and giving young people the very best resources what CONTACT has achieved in Manchester is something that really celebrates the youth of our city. There is an established history of CYC cohorts who have gone to great success in the arts. A new cohort is chosen every year and they get to develop their talents in spoken word, performance, music, dance,etc. Working with other established exciting companies such as Slung Low and HighRise Theatre, also allows the cohorts to make valuable industry connections and go on to work on new projects and support the next set of cohorts as emerging artists. Tonight’s performance is a wonderful testament to a shared vision that has never been diminished by funding cuts to the Arts or indeed a global pandemic.

This production is brimming with creative flair, humour, tenderness, unbridled energy and raw talent. Gaika is cited as one of the creative influences for this work. He terms his own work as Ghetto Futurism and a quote from him seems to perfectly sum up CYC and the ethos of CONTACT

This is who we are and we’re here to stay. You can’t turn us off.

CONTACT 6th – 9th October 2021

Glee & Me

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Stuart Slade

Directed by Nimmo Ismail

Lola is 16 and super bright. Lola has big plans. Lola has a future as bright as the interior of her bedroom. And then suddenly Lola has Glee (Glioma Multiforme) and a median life expectancy of 11.2 months. Glee & Me was the winner of the Judges prize at the 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting . Writer Stuart Slade has created something incredibly special in this portrayal of living your best life in the face of your impending death. With this kind of subject matter it is such a delicate line between creating some magical and memorable and producing misery porn… Sykes has done the former.

Director Nimmo Ismail has done an exquisite job of encapsulating the spirit of the writing. Liv Hill ensures that the Lola on stage is the girl next door, the clever, capable girl at college, the daughter you worry about, the mate you’d like your own daughter to have and the bright funny girl that some of us have already seen taken by a lethal brain tumour. Liv Hill shines in this role as she navigates her way through diagnosis, surgery, treatment and hospice care. Never maudlin, she faces life or what’s left of it and makes plans for the future she has. There is a defiance in her actions but increasingly a calm when all she has is each moment in each day. We talk so casually about living in the moment but perhaps nothing quite focuses the mind than impending death.

The play is a one hander yet Hill brings life to those around her…we sense a mother struggling with losing her only child, we meet best friend Clem who helps Lola make her video blog and Rufus her student boyfriend who supports her while valiantly assisting Lola cram in a lifetimes sex into under a year…no mean feat! In short this a production teaming with life. The staging is bright with yellows and pinks while the lighting has pulsating beams that hum and crackle with energy or flash as neurons die as the tumour advances.

Glee & Me is emotive but oddly inspiring and reassuring. I found it impossible not to emerge with moist eyes but mainly it feels uplifting. We are so afraid of death and often so sad and angry when it draws close. It is easy to forget or miss that other core emotion, joy. This is a sublime piece of writing that does not ignore or minimise the fear, the sadness and the anger, but it allows a light to shine on the joy too. The joy we find in sex, in paddling on a beach, making a log fire or simply being with those we love. As Lola says having a finite amount of time…makes everything more – vivid. In the end what remains is love.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11th Sept- 30th Oct

FREEDOM PROJECT

Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

Written by Luke Barnes

Directed by Alexander Ferris

Reflecting on Freedom Project and the issues and conversations it raises I found myself thinking why do we call children seeking a new home here refugees? Why are we not seeing them for who they actually are? They are simply children requiring support, nurture and safeguarding. Why do we have such differing perspectives on refugees than on evacuees? Is it because one is seen as voluntary and the other as forced? Surely both have a commonality in the driving issue being a removal from danger? This country saw around 2 million children evacuated during WW2 in Operation Pied Piper. Children were moved out of the cities to rural Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I imagine we wanted them to be safe, nurtured, educated and valued. Fast forward 80 years to now and refugee children arriving in Britain are met with uncertain welcomes, interrogations, pupil referral units, police searches and housed in hostels if they don’t “look” like children.  These are just a few of the thoughts that came from watching Freedom Project.

This production was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to Covid. Perhaps it is even more timely showing now, mere weeks after events in Afghanistan led to the heart-rending scenes at Kabul airport. Written by Luke Barnes in response to dialogue with young people seeking asylum in London and Leeds, this piece gives a vital voice to those whose lived experience is to dream of reaching  safety but discover the reality is often very different. Perhaps one of the most potent memories from this show is the warm and very personal welcome that audience members are greeted with on arrival. The actors in this two-hander welcome us into the space with friendly confidence and yet these two young men who will perform as 15 year old refugees have been refugees themselves. The dialogue could easily be their own truth and therefore their friendliness is all the more potent and meaningful. Leeds Playhouse was the first theatre in Britain to create a Theatre of Sanctuary for Refugees and people seeking asylum in 2014. Actors Mohammadreza Bazarbashi and Hossein Ahmadi have established relationships here and this has been a space to foster supportive relationships and assist budding actors to establish careers and learning opportunities.

The traverse staging works really well creating both an intimacy as the actors can get close up to engage with the audience. Having the audience facing each other accross the stage also serves to remind us of the opposing factions that lead to so many refugeed fleeing their homes. Designer Katie Scott has created a set with the feel of a disused playground or skateboard park. This allows for loads of movement in this energetic piece and allows the young actors to be children as they leapfrog, slide or just hang out chatting. The overhead fluttering  canopy of tent fragments is a stark nod to the tents at Calais and elsewhere.

Both actors exude charm and are extremely engaging. Luke Barnes ensures that the writing tells a hard hitting story but at its heart is warmth and compassion. Their journey of arriving in Britain with nothing but second hand clothing, no identification and little English is terrifying yet it also tells of the hopes they have arriving here…we came to England because it’s the best. It has the best schools, the best jobs, the most money…the best films, football and music. The tragedy enfolds as the smalls acts of human kindness these boys receive is outweighed by the callous nature of bureaucracy that asks children to relive the horrors they have escaped without any adequate safeguarding or support in place.

This is important storytelling. It would be so easy to be comfortably assured that once refugee children arrive that they are supported and placed in secure, welcoming foster homes. Freedom Project is an important reminder that children fleeing may have no documentation and therefore can fall through the cracks ending up in unsuitable hostels and denied appropriate education opportunities. Without the right support these young people can lose their optimism for the future and we therefore lose all their potential too. We risk harnessing bitterness and despair when we could be nurturing hope and positivity. We love England. Despite what it did to our home.

Leeds Playhouse 10th-18th September 2021

Leeds Playhouse Theatre of Sanctuary

A Home for Grief

A Home for Grief. Installation at CONTACT. Image: Phil Daley

Created by Fabiola Santana and WilL Dickie

Audio walk is downloaded on Go Jauntly app

CONTACT THEATRE

Today 23 years ago I was mourning anew the loss of my father as I contemplated becoming a parent for the first time. I was imagining the new relationship I might have with my mother as she became a grandmother for the first time. 8.15pm tonight is the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. Birth and Death are certainties…the bit in between is the tricky bit. This morning I entered CONTACT for the first time since it reopened. It made me immediately think of Dave Murray, QuietManDave, another bereavement in my life who also loved theatre and loved this building. Was today really the day to walk and contemplate A Home for Grief?

Images from my walk

Fabiola Santana created this audio walk and installation. The Portuguese dancer and theatre maker shares intimate memories of her own bereavements; a dearly loved father taken suddenly by the sea and a grandmother whose own family memories were slowly erased by dementia. Interspersed with her own reflections and a soundscape evoking the Portuguese coast are the voices of women from the North West who tell their own stories of grief. This approximately 50 minute walk is a study in quiet reflection…a opportunity to slow your pace…look around and above and just be…be comforted by the gentle voices of Fabiola and the other women.

There is nothing to fear in this contemplation of loss, and the warmth and supportive nature of Fabiola and fellow creator and sound designer WilL Dickie ensure that safeguarding is paramount in the production. They are present as you depart and when you return they guide you into the installation. Housed in the new Space O at CONTACT this installation is a series of spaces within a space that each have a short accompanying audio. Big leather chairs envelop you as you create your own memorial for a loved one. A rocking chair soothes you before you add to a growing story of remembrance. Other curios evoke feelings and connections as you move through a space interspersed with quilted hangings describing the varying landscapes of grief within us. A memory book is the fitting close to this emotional but incredibly comforting experience.

The Memory Book

This is a unique and deeply personal theatre experience which deftly and mindfully navigates difficult subject matter. Plans are hopefully in place to create a permanent sound walk here as established at Lancaster Arts. Perhaps now more than ever before we need a A Home for Grief where like these women we feel witnessed, connected, comforted.

CONTACT 29TH – 31ST JULY 2021

Go Jauntly app

NOTES ON GRIEF

The author of NOTES ON GRIEF Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Directed by Rae McKen

Commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival

Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central

Michelle Asante in Notes On Grief. Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central. ©Tristram Kenton

The programming of this piece is incredibly timely and poignant. Grief is nothing new but grief experienced on a global scale in a digital age is new to us. Loss and Grief have enveloped us all in a choking haze for the past 18 months. This is a verbatim piece that brings to the stage Notes on Grief written by the renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This essay was her response to the overwhelming loss she experienced last year on the news of the death of her beloved father, the original dada; the scholar James Nwoye Adichie. What she writes is the uniqueness of her own lived experience but running through her words are the threads that bind us all in our humanity- the knowledge that grief will take us to a dark chasm and when we emerge we are never the same again.

Michelle Asante gives a strong performance in this demanding piece of verbatim and she is supported by two other cast members who are tasked with fleshing out a range of characters including her dead father at various points on his life. Accents and mannerisms of the Nigerian family are on point but too often lines are fluffed and beats are missed. Asante is the consummate professional amidst minor errors and tech issues with lights coming on out of sync. However the overwhelming problem is they distract from the writing and give this production an am-dram feeling that is unworthy of an international festival production.

There is something jarring and clumsy in the movement sequences that do nothing to add to the production and seem at odds with the text. Adichie actually writes of her acknowledgement of the Igbo way, of the African performative playing out of grief and acknowledges that it is not for her. It seems odd that Director Rae McKen chooses to use this device to push home to the audience the level of grief…it is unnecessary when the writers words spoken aloud by Assante do all that is needed. Video sequences and projected images also allude to the sense of loss and there are moments where they work beautifully but they risk being overused and losing their potency.

Michelle Asante, Uche Abuah and Itoya Osagiede ©Tristram Kenton

Notes On Grief could have been the absolute highlight of this Festival but sadly it falls short. The emotion of the writing just does not translate to stage in this particular production…perhaps the Director was hampered by the fear many of us hold around grief and what it may do to us. Any issues are however secondary to the power of this very personal essay. Without alluding to it once, Adichie takes us through the 5 stages of grief so wonderfully explained in Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. We see the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression and in the final line, the acceptance I am writing about my father in the past tense,and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.

Adichie reflects towards the end that her father was truly lovely. The simplicity and power of that statement is perhaps the most moving moment in the production. Sitting in the audience I could not help reflect on my own father. He too was Daddy and he too was truly lovely and has been gone now for 29 long years. Watching this play was also 2 years and 1 day on from the loss of another truly lovely man in my life. If Notes On Grief reminds us of anything it is that grief is just love with nowhere left to go. We are lucky to have loved and to have encountered people in our lives who were simply easy to love.

Manchester Central 6-17 July MIF21

The Global Playground

The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites. Manchester International Festival 2021 ©Tristram Kenton

Director Sue Buckmaster

Choreographer Gregory Maqoma

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Great Northern Warehouse

Manchester International Festival 2021

A family theatre show in the midst of an ongoing pandemic is special for so many reasons. In a MIF programme that is for many alarmingly short on theatre and dance, there is no small pressure on Theatre-Rites to use their 25 years of experience to make something very special indeed. The focus of The Global Playground is all about the joy of unfettered play. It is all about exuberance, collaboration and celebration. A show for families can often appear off putting with the assumption it will be either saccharine or heavy handed or sadly both. However Director Sue Buckmaster and MIF have a proven flare for family programming that can appeal to all ages in ways that delight and inform. The Global Playground delivers on entertainment with a neat look into the world of creative film making.

The Global Playground. Theatre-Rites. MIF21.Jahmarley Bachelor and Sean Garratt ©Tristram Kenton

This is a show within a show as it unfolds, it is clear that we are the audience watching the filming of a show for children’s television that reflects diversity in dance. It soon becomes clear that we are also witnessing the lovable flustered Sean Garratt as an inexperienced film director faced with mounting challenges as dancers and musicians drop out due to travel restrictions and other issues that neatly reflect the last year of a global pandemic. Creative solutions abound as Kennedy Junior Muntanga dances a duet on Zoom with Thulani Chauke who genuinely couldn’t travel to Britain as originally planned. Merlin Jones takes the reins playing all the live instruments when composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson is also unable to appear.

A circular stage has a flavour of the circus and certainly this is a performance filled with clowning and buffoonery but the staging also creates a feeling of safety for all in this new world of covid safety. This is a set filled with film equipment which is introduced and explained to the audience. Above, in front and behind there is always stuff to see. Images are projected on walls, a drum kit looks down on us, a talking camera is sometimes like a chatty ventriloquists’ dummy or becomes snake like and sinister as it darts a red light across the stage like a beady, disapproving eye. This is a fun way to learn about sound and lighting on a set.

The dance performances are uniformly excellent and varied. There are flavours of a range of styles including contemporary with hip hop dance offs and moments of clowning. The sheer exuberance and joy of movement is palpable and shines through in the facial expressions of all the performers particularly Annie Edwards and Jahmarley Bachelor. Puppetry and ventriloquism also feature and are seamlessly interwoven into the story by choreographer Gregory Maqoma.

The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites. Annie Edwards and Jahmarley Bachelor. ©Tristram Kenton

The dancers increasingly take charge doing their own thing and left to play something new and beautiful emerges. The set is deconstructed and props and equipment are repurposed as lighting equipment become skirts and a wonky tripod covered in duct tape becomes the choreographer. There is an anarchic element yet also an underlying message that if we embrace the chaos we may create a new order that has its own intrinsic value.

Unit 5, Great Northern Warehouse 2-18 July 2021

Bloody Elle – A gig musical

Lauryn Redding in Bloody Elle – A gig musical. Image by Pippa Rankin

Written and Performed by Lauryn Redding

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

It’s 14 months since the Royal Exchange closed its doors on the eve of press night for Rockets and Blue Lights. Racing across St Ann’s Square to the cheers across the city as England scores in the footie, I spot the smiling faces of the theatre Comms team as they welcome everyone back to press night. There is a general feeling of goodwill and excitement in the building so undoubtedly huge pressure on Writer/Performer Lauryn Redding and Director Bryony Shanahan and the team to make this a night to remember. It’s a huge gamble to have only one performer sustain a 2 act 2 hour plus performance on the main stage and make it work, make it matter, make it memorable for the work not just as a reopening after a global pandemic…Lauryn Redding does just that. Funny, tender and raw, Bloody Elle is a rousing tale of sexual awakening with all its joy and sorrow. As Redding tells us Censoring. Of anything. Of anyone. Of yourself. Of someone else. Is exhausting and it cuts you from the inside.

Lauryn Redding. Image by Pippa Rankin

Director Bryony Shanahan and Movement Director Yandass Ndlovo ensure that the performance has flow and energy and never feels like a static piece of solo story telling. The staging by Designer Amanda Stoodley dispenses with the famous banquette seats and their potential covid risks. Instead she introduces red stools and candle lit tables to create a cosy pub vibe that effectively frame the stage. This is gig theatre and a true one woman band. The original music by Redding with direction by Sound Director Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is great and drives the narrative but also creates a swirling soundscape to add mood and shade to the story telling.

The multi levelled stage aids the introduction of characters and scenes including Elle’s high rise council flat in Cloud Rise and is splashed with what seems to be a bucket of white wash? This picks up the bursts of coloured light that flood the stage or envelop Redding. The white wash effect also seems to reflect the way we can paint out aspects of ourselves or let others not see our true colours, to continue to not see the whole of us, the truth of what and who we may be if we own our own story. Corny perhaps but I wish Redding was flooded with glorious rainbow colours as she look her well deserved second curtain call.

The story is a simple story of girl meets girl. There is a division of class and aspirations when working class Elle meets posh Eve with guacamole green eyes on route to a medical degree at Oxford University. They bond over vinyl records and work at Chips and Dips despite their differences – Eve has a pony in a paddock whereas Elle has Big Sally on the 12th floor. The driving force of this narrative is less about class, it zeroes in on the agony and ecstacy of first love and how this is still intensified by the difficulties for many of coming to terms with your sexuality and being accepted for who you are and how you love.

This is a show that might not have been seen at the Royal Exchange without the global pandemic. Redding would probably been too busy working to create this show and a solo gig theatre performance might not have been an obvious choice for this theatre. It probably needed ten years of growing and healing for Redding to be ready to tell such a personal story. There is a vivid whip sharp authenticity to this performance. Insouciant banter with the audience, poignant and emotional song writing, raw, vivid storytelling filled with poetic observations…Bloody Elle ticks every box and more. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of rebuilding what is broken or damaged using gold to create something stronger and even more beautiful. Redding has taken her broken heart and using her artistic talent as Kintsugi – the result is the threads of gold running through this gorgeous show. Hopefully as we navigate the new normal of Covid-19, the Royal Exchange is also emerging with new seams of gold too.

Royal Exchange June 23rd – July 17th 2021