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

A Skull in Connemara

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Martin McDonagh

Directed by Chris Lawson

A Skull in Connemara is a fine example of Martin McDonagh’s use of gallows humour to portray the brutal realities in small town life. He has an uncanny flair for making the ordinary seem extraordinary by placing vivid characters in subversive situations to create unnerving dramas that absorb and captivate. First shown in Galway in 1997, this new production directed by Chris Lawson is a deeply satisfying watch and is beautifully staged.

There are four characters on stage each one vividly brought to life by a very strong cast, and then of course there are all the additional characters invoked by their skulls with each one telling their own story. This is a small rural community where fact and fiction are often blurred and never get in the way of a good story. Everything about this production looks and feels and sounds authentic. Having myself grown up in a rural part of Ireland the characters are instantly recognisable as are the bleak tales of deaths caused by alcoholism or from farming accidents with slurry tanks and combine harvesters.

This is a world where 5 year olds are not easily forgiven for peeing in the cemetery and are described by Maryjohnny as a pack of whores clearly destined to burn in hell as she happily sups poteen and shares the comfort of a peat fire with a man who she believes has murdered his wife. Such are the constant disparities in this piece which deftly throws curve balls at the audience with the same regularity that Mick digs up corpses.

John O’Dowd is perfectly cast as the tightly coiled, inscrutable widower Mick who is tasked with the ghastly task of digging up his own wife. Impossible to pin down what he truly thinks or feels, he allows the other characters the space to relax and reveal their own truths. The interplay between him and the naive, younger men still grappling for excitement and validation is beautifully played out. The genius moment perhaps being the skull battery scene played out over a soundtrack of Dana singing All Kinds of Everything only matched in film terms by Tarantino’s ear scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Katie Scott who recently did such a clever job with the set design on Sparkplug has perfectly captured an old Irish kitchen complete with distempered walls an peat fire. The trapdoors and mounds of dark earth make this graveyard eerily real as the spade thuds down on decaying coffins. The scene shifts between kitchen and ghostly graveyard with lopsided Celtic gravestones is startling and truly beautiful.

This is fabulous story telling with a rich, meaty dialogue filled with Irish profanities and colloquialisms. Directed with a real understanding of McDonagh’s work this is an assured production that can charm and repel in equal measure but will always enthrall.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd February – 9thMarch 2019

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

Mother Courage

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Adapted by Anna Jordan

Directed by Amy Hodge

The 1939 Brecht original is a searing indictment of capitalism and an unemotional view of how individual characters respond in an unrelenting warzone. There is little space for warmth, humanity or collaboration in Mother Courage. This new production is born from writer and new mother Anna Jordan wanting to adapt the play and collaborate with Director Amy Hodge from Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh who had approached Sarah Frankcom about playing this iconic role. This is a collaboration of strong, feminist women and perhaps a timely reminder that we are all stronger pulling together than at war.

The outcome is a Mother Courage that is at times almost unbearably complex. Strong and sassy as hell, an immoral opportunist, a slippery wheeler/dealer, a proud, protective mother that can suffocate and infantilize her children but who cannot empathize with suffering and can only demonstrate her love through providing functional things rather than emotional warmth. The sheer complexity of her character is intentionally uncomfortable forcing the viewer to ask of themselves “What would I do in that situation? What am I capable off?”

Julie Hesmondhalgh has a huge undertaking as her natural warmth could easily feel at odds with Mother Courage. However there is no doubt that she relishes the role. At times unbearably heartless to those who get in the way of her ruthless and desperate pursuit of financial security, she is always a pragmatic Mother and the ultimate survivor. Bartering for her son and ultimately causing his death appears unforgivable yet it is a “Sophie’s Choice” as with no money and no van then the family would all perish. Though utterly distasteful in her lust for the next big deal, there is something unbearably childlike in her capacity to find a thread of good in the bleakest of circumstances. When Kattrin is raped and disfigured, her mother “comforts” her that now she is ugly no one will rape her again, while herself utterly alone and dragging the husk of the van, she reflects that bereft of all children it is lighter to pull.

Director Amy Hodge draws some strong performances from the cast and they all benefit from a wonderfully naturalistic script by Anna Jordan. However the standout performance is from the mute Kattrin played by deaf actress Rose Asling-Ellis. “Her heart is a shining star,” and that is evident as we see the world reflected through her eyes in the midst of all the misery. Her performance is just glorious, conveying more than words could possibly express in the smallest of gestures. A scene where action carries on elsewhere, she sits in the van side of stage carefully arranging her hair to cover her scars and every movement is perfection.

Anna Jordan shifts the action from the 17th century 30 year war to a dystopian future where its 2080 and both Europe and technology have vanished. This is a bleak, barren setting where the red and blue armies fight for space on a grid. With the demise of the E.U. there are no longer emotional connections to countries just a nameless land mass. Striding through this unforgiving setting is the eponymous Mother Courage with her 3 kids – 4 if you factor in her beloved van. Rough hewn cardboard sheets above the stage inform of each scene as do the disparate characters who introduce the action ensuring in true Brechtian fashion that the audience is not misled about what is about to unfold.

The set design by Joanna Scotcher works really effectively. The battered ice cream van is an inspired choice being a welcome reminder of childhood and safer times yet a sinister refuge that is also burger van, provisions cart, brothel and armoury. The course of the war is perfectly reflected as it is gradually stripped back to a skeletal husk. The oil drum effectively serves as podium for Hedydd Dylan’s insouciant whore, and later in the most beautiful scene it burns brightly as Mother Courage has her final poignant moments with Kattrin.

There are issues with this production, mainly the jarring nature of some of the musical numbers which although are intended as discordant often simply just don’t work at all. The musical number prior to Kattrin’s ruin feels really unpleasantly at odds with that scene. Overall this production of Mother Courage is meaty and full of life- which is more than can be said for the bird MC tries to flog to the army chef!!

Royal Exchange 8th Feb – 2nd March 2019

Images by Richard Davenport

The Adhesion of Love

Martin Harris Centre

Written by Stephen M Hornby

Directed by Helen Parry

Inkbrew Productions

The Adhesion of Love is the 2019 national heritage première for LGBT History Month. This is curious tale of a group of young lower middle class men from Bolton who started an extensive written correspondence with the celebrated American poet Walt Whitman during the 1880s. What is even more extraordinary is that several of them traveled to America and spent time with Whitman and maintained contact with him right up to his death in 1892. The play documents the spiritual and sexual awakening of John W Wallace. It celebrates how these young men found love together through their shared love of Whitman and his poetry in the tightly repressed society of Victorian England.

This highly detailed play is clearly a dedicated homage to all the stories of queer history still untold or white washed out of history or tragically destroyed. There is huge attention to detail which vividly evokes the era where the “adhesion of love” in men was not to be expressed physically, and understanding of Self was likely to be studied through Phrenology, spiritualism or an examination of your faeces. The speech and mannerisms of the text echo the earnestness and often florid speech of the period.

The actors appear fully immersed in their characters and the costumes and props encapsulate the period in great detail. This really does feel like a step back into another era walking in the steps of Wallace just as he walked in the steps of Whitman. What is an undoubted success for this production also delivers some problems. The dialogue is so detailed and earnest that it at times feels quite dense and static. In evoking the worthiness of these earnest young men the play struggles with tempo and gets a little bogged down.

Energy and verve comes intermittently from the more physical performances from Conor Ledger as Charles and from Macaulay Cooper as Whitman’s young companion who becomes the repressed Wallace’s “Swan Maker.” The sexual elements in the production highlight the limited ways in which self expression of sexuality could be conveyed with high risk to personal freedom. There is a deep sadness within a single line uttered by a very convincing Conor Ledger as Wallace, when he describes himself as “an outline waiting to be coloured in.”

Curiously the elderly Whitman is cast as a young black woman who brings a dry, laconic sophistication to the role but yet creates a kind of dissonance. Though perhaps this removes any possible sense of these young men being in any way groomed by the elderly poet?

There is a real value and charm within this production, however some significant editing would retain some lovely prose yet make the story flow with more energy without losing the storyline. Otherwise it risks the possibility of not being as accessible a historical play as it deserves to be.

Tour details for LGBT History Month

Images by Lee Baxter