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

Operation Black Antler

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HOME MCR

Devised and Produced by

Blast Theory and Hydrocracker

It is 1983 and I’m sitting my A Levels and dating a British soldier who turns out to be doing undercover surveillance around the Border in Northern Ireland. Fast forward to 2017 and my son is studying for his A Levels and I’m about to go undercover as part of a state surveillance operation in Manchester.

Friday afternoon and my Handler texts me a meeting point to rendezvous with the rest of my undercover team. At 7.45pm we gather and wait uncertainly for our instructions. Paranoia is already setting in as I assess the group and zero in on two individuals who might be participants like me but who might just be actors planted in the group.

The lines are blurring as another text sends us to a dingy location and our Handler suggests we make tea as an ice-breaker. People are moving around. A van door opens and I catch a glimpse of a hunched figure before it slams shut. We head upstairs to the briefing room and a very convincing Richard Hahlo rattles through the details of the covert operation. Images of POIs (Person of interest) are shown and we are bombarded with intelligence on them. My Handler is matter of fact as he calmly reminds us that we do whatever we feel necessary to extract intelligence. The underlying inference is WHATEVER it takes.  I start to feel like I know what is expected of me and adrenaline kicks in.

Divided into small groups we develop our cover stories. Deciding who we are going to be starts to uncover lots of details about who we actually are and what we are comfortable  sharing with strangers. The groups head off separately to infiltrate a social event full  of right wing extremists. Drinks ordered at the bar and we enter the crowded venue and start to mix. It is hot and loud and difficult to tell who are actors, audience or just normal Friday night punters.

 

Warhorse

The Lowry Theatre

Written by Michael Morpurgo

Adapted for Stage by Nick Stafford

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

A National Theatre production

Warhorse had it’s regional première at The Lowry in 2013 and returns for the third time, fittingly as the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches. The book by Michael Morpurgo was adapted at The National Theatre in 2007 and has been hugely successful ever since with worldwide audiences of over 7 million. It is a extraordinary show in terms of scale and ambition with a use of puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that is breathtakingly effective. It takes the audience on a journey from sleepy pre-war Devon countryside to the horrors and brutality of the battlefields of France. It is a poignant tribute not only to all that wasted youth and unfulfilled potential but to the animals who suffered and were slaughtered in appalling numbers.

This is a huge production relying on the puppetry effects merging with a large cast in a believable way. There are moments with the birds early on that don’t seem as effective as perhaps intended but otherwise it all works incredibly well. Moments like the puppeteers reverently stepping away from Topthorn perfectly convey the loss of the heart and soul of this proud animal. Similarly the sudden breaking of the colt to make way for the fully fledged Joey is spectacular. This is clearly a team effort with the whole cast giving their all to a very special theatrical experience.

The design work on Warhorse is astounding in its apparent simplicity. Rae Smith’s set is a bare stage using occasional props but to stunning effect. Doors appear in the dark backdrop or poles create market day or become paddock fences. Barbed wire draped at the front of the stage creates a visceral horror that is unforgettable. The brilliance of the vast overhead projection screen is incredibly special. As the performance opens it looks like a slash of white cloud across the Devon countryside but is of course a torn fragment of parchment from a soldiers sketchbook. The backdrop of images of country villages, callow youths on horseback and soldiers’ arrival in France and the battlefields of The Somme are sketched out across the screen in black and white drawings. The only splash of colour is when the screen bleeds red for a lost comrade and poignantly becomes the blossoms of poppies on The Somme.

The lighting by Paule Constable is beautifully done creating golden summer days and crisp winters before shifting into the bleak battlefields where soldiers emerge from the gloom or are blinded by the white flashes of explosions or the yellowing haze of gas attacks. The lighting has the effect of breaking the fourth wall by making the audience experience the battlefield horrors as though they are there too. The impact of the sound and visuals have created a powerfully immersive experience that lingers after the show has ended.

My grandfather was a country boy like Alfred and fought throughout the war. He was to be the sole survivor of his platoon at The Somme and initially was listed as dead. He was seriously injured, placed on a cart of dead bodies dragged back through the mud and debris by a horse such as Joey. He started to regain consciousness as the bodies of his friends were lifted off for burial. He was one of the lucky ones who came home.

This is an incredibly moving experience especially as the young soldiers go over the top and are cut down so brutally. The horrors of horses ridden into barbed wire with no escape or dragging ambulance carts or tanks through the treacherous mud. Warhorse is a potent reminder of why WW1 is rightly still remembered as a testament to the senseless cruelty of war.

The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

13th – 30th June

Images by Brinkhoff & M Âgenburg

YOUR BEST GUESS

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Written and Performed by Chris Thorpe

Directed and Performed by Jorge Andrade

Exam season is upon us and today is my daughter’s first exam. Asking her if she had a talisman, I got a quizzical look as if to say what difference would a pretty stone or a furry toy make? Last night I watched YOUR BEST GUESS, a collaboration between theatre maker and performer Chris Thorpe and Jorge Andrade Artistic Director of mala voadora. It is an exploration of the unpredictability of life, how we plan for the future with no guarantee that the anticipated event will actually happen. We are placing bets on the future and the variable outcomes are reflected in the tangible objects around us.

A concert ticket for a gig that is cancelled may be kept as a reminder of another world that never happened, rendering it possibly more precious than a replacement ticket for a rescheduled event. Andrade speaks of a whole town carefully replicated to rehouse a small community meant to be relocated to make way for a dam intended to provide water for 400,000 people. The dam was cancelled and the new town became a ghost town representing lives that may have been lived another way. Thorpe writes the goodbye letter that his wife would have written to their children if she hadn’t been in a coma from a freak aneurysm. He reflects on the speech written for President Nixon to give if the moon landing had failed. Andrade descibes the sports tops given to refugees each year that celebrate victories that never happened and so become redundant and discarded to refugee camps or sold on eBay to collectors.

Both performers have an easy familiarity with each other allowing them to challenge each other, ask difficult questions and occasionally raise a quizzical eyebrow at personal music choices. The vignettes flow and include some beautifully written descriptions that are powerfully evocative of possible life events. There is a real sense of questioning what is real and what is just a possibility in this piece which is interspersed with actual facts. Thorpe reflects on Otis Redding in a music studio whistling a verse on a song he was never destined to finish surrounded by coffee cups and everyday normality before a plane crash would claim his life. That track retains that final whistling which is now such an integral part of a much loved classic.

YOUR BEST GUESS will strike a chord deep in all of us as it perfectly encapsulate the human condition. Our curiosity and hope as we plan the future we dream off often battling with the things we do to ward off our dread and fear of the alternate future of our nightmares. Many years ago I had a ridiculously vivid nightmare of being home on holiday and my parents dying suddenly when I had nothing suitable to wear to their funerals. Looking back I think I never went home again with any “sensible” clothes as though I could ward off my worst fear. A few years later my father died in exactly those circumstances and all I had was a bright red P.V.C mac for a funeral on a rainy day. I remembered that coat last night as Chris Thorpe picked up his shiny red guitar to play an eerily beautiful rendition of Dock of the Day.

HOME 11-12 JUNE and on tour.

ME & ROBIN HOOD

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Written by Shôn Dale-Jones in collaboration with Hamish Pirie

Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

We all know variations on the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men robbing the rich to feed the poor. If we close our eyes for a moment we can imagine it’s 800 years ago and Robin Hood is roasting pigeons and possibly even aubergines in the depths of Sherwood Forest. The magic of Shôn Dale-Jones is that suddenly it’s just as easy to see his hard-working, Thatcher loving father in his green leather chair and his wonderfully radical Gran Dilys on the sofa with his best friend Dylan while they all watch The Legend of Robin Hood in 1975. Mid Seventies pre- Thatcher Anglesey is vividly evoked and having just seen The Duke a few nights ago it all feels deliciously familiar as though opening a new volume of a great book series.

This new tale premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 and has already raised over £20,000 for Street Child United for children currently living on the street. According to United Nations there are currently over 150 million children surviving on the streets worldwide. As with The Duke Dale-Jones is using story telling to provoke dialogue about inequality and the ever widening gap between rich and poor. This tale weaves illustrates the impact of ethics and principles on young children as the seven year old Shôn is shaped by the radicalism of both Robin Hood and his Granny and how this has shaped his world view as a grown man.

This story perfectly highlights the power money has in society to give status, power and security but also to demean, humiliate and to cause immense stress for individuals. The outcomes might be skin conditions, acts of radicalism and generosity but too often can be extreme poverty, loss of homes and lives.

In Me & Robin Hood there is myth blended with fantasy and reality. The Llangefni U11 football team nearly commit a wonderfully innocent bank robbery, there are flying dolphins with huge hairy bollocks and there is a family estrangement due to politics that tragically is only resolved at the graveside. Throughout the tale Dale-Jones is constantly on the move ranging across the stage as he paints each vignette of his story. His best friend Dylan may have been the imaginative, fleet footed Ronaldo or Pelé on the football pitch but on this stage Dale-Jones moves across a pitch filled with imagery and emotional intensity, nonchalantly scoring the odd genius goal of his own.

HOME 8-9 May

To donate Just Giving Campaign http:/ /bit.ly / 2v4kDDo or Text HOOD 95

THE DUKE

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Written and Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

Storytelling predates writing as a human tool for relating to each other. It teaches listening, respect and empathy while assisting us in how we learn by connecting information to our emotions. We are living in a ever more noisy world of deadly conflicts, information overload from social media trivia and obsessive consumerism threatening our environment. It is easy to feel discombobulated and helpless to make any worthwhile changes in our world. In using this pared back medium Shôn Dale-Jones Artistic Director of Hoipolloi is weaving stories blending fantasy and reality to provoke and effect social change.

THE DUKE is his second show to win a Fringe First at Edinburgh and has also been Play of the Week on BBC Radio 4. This gentle tale weaves a family story of a porcelain ornament and what it represents in the grieving process, with the madness of American marketing crushing artistic merit, and the reality of the refugee crisis robbing vulnerable children of the safety of home and family.

It could be a worthy and rather preachy tale of “haves” and “have nots” or a madcap story of bonkers Welsh “characters”. Instead Dale-Jones engages with the audience with charm and warmth from the moment he enters the space until he shakes hands with everyone as they leave. The picture he paints balances playful with poignant and although it is never clear how much is fact based what always shines through is the performer’s committment and investment in relationships.

The relationship between him and his parents is charming and deeply touching. For any of us impacted by grief there is a real truth in valuing a remaining parent and having an acute awareness that time is precious in all significant relationships. The emotional connection with refugee children comes from an empathic place where perhaps we can only truly value family when we know what is to experience loss.

His relationship with his work also tells the story of someone who passionately cares about creating work that has truth and merit. The story also highlights how tempting it can be to sell out for hard cash and larger audiences but how hard it is to maintain artistic control of your work without having it dilluted to appeal to a wider audience or to appease the investors.

THE DUKE is tender, whimsical and thought provoking. There are no hi-tech distractions just a man sitting at a desk talking and playing snatches of some great Northern Soul. It’s genius lies in it’s apparent simplicity. In vividly evoking small moments of genuine connection between Dale-Jones and his family, it is impossible not to connect and reflect on the plight of refugee families. In scaling down to the micro it feels more possible to imagine reaĺly effecting change that helps than when overwhelmed by the the global scale of this issue. It is heartening to know how much money THE DUKE has already raised for Save The Children.

HOME 6-7 June

Happy Days

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

In the opening minutes of Happy Days there is a strangely surreal sense of reassuring normality as Winnie methodically cleans her teeth and applies her lipstick. Yet this women is inexplicably trapped from the waist down in a mound of barren earth like the Queen of a floating island which is brilliantly evoked by Designer Naomi Dawson. Director Sarah Frankcom and Associate Artist Maxine Peake have joined forces on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It is a stunningly evoked vision of some kind of absurdist prison or hellish afterlife or perhaps, simply an allegory of a marriage gone stale.

Maxine Peake draws on all her acting skills and delivers a Winnie who shimmers in the harsh sunlight and gleams as the light finally fades. She is girlish and gay or plaintive and rueful. There is quite simply nowhere to hide in this production, nor are there cues from other actors as Willie is always out of her sight even when he is near her. Peake is just sublime throughout, brittlely blithe and gay in Act 1 and pitifully sunken eyed and unkempt in Act 2. With a camera zoomed in on just her face and every tiny expression projected on monitors above her, she never wavers. Her Winnie is runny nosed with an aged voice, seemingly forgotten like an O.A.P in a sub-standard carehome.

She is the quintessential upper middle class British woman who was probably a pre-war débutante brought up to be pretty, charming and cheerful but also brave and stoic in the face of adversity. She reminded me of the Stephanie Beacham’s Rose in Tenko years ago. A delicate beauty who could still ooze pure class and glamour in rags, and who had cut glass vowels and cheekbones with a backbone seemingly formed of pure steel. Certainly Winnie keeps returning to the past to speak in the old style or recall past moments when she was young, foolish, beautiful while holding unto the classics to not forget familiar anchors. She is terrified of losing those anchors to sanity yet can also blithely ask Willie What is that unforgettable line?

It is the vulnerability of the human condition that pains Winnie more than the actual paralysis. What is most important is to be heard as a way of validating sanity and existence. She prattles away to Willie pastiming through the horror of her predicament as a coping mechanism. The maintenance of small routines and the comfort of Willie and the bag are her anchors to ensure she holds unto sanity and to gravity. Even as a husk of her former self in the second act unable to utilise these comforts she wills herself to focus on them as tangible memories, seeing Willie again and singing her song from the now out of reach music box.

This play is a study in mindfulness reminding us all how to harness our senses and focus back in on the little things. In a world where we are often surrounded by the incessant noise of people, media, memes and madness, Winnie’s plight is terrifying yet also an invitation to slow down and stay in the moment.

Royal Exchange 25 May – 23 June

Images by Johan Persson