Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

Javaad Alipoor in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
Photo credit Chris Payne

Written by Javaad Alipoor with Chris Thorpe

Directed by Javaad Alipoor

HOME

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is the final piece of a trilogy that follows on from two Fringe First winners, The Believers Are But Brothers and Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Any concerns regarding that tricky “third” album are quickly dissipated as Javaad Alipoor introduces the subject matter for the next 90 minutes. This is a whip-smart journey that delves into the unsolved murder of ’70s Iranian pop icon Fereydoun Farrokhzad via murder mystery podcasts and an exploration of digital culture and post colonial theory. This new production expands on themes from the previous works looking at how technology, resentments and fracturing identities are changing our world. 

Alipoor sends his audience down Internet rabbit holes where we ride the hyperlinks and visit the land of Wikipedia where not everything is as it seems and via a live murder mystery podcast we emerge as seasoned supersleuths face to face with a real life Persian musical superstar. An actual flesh and blood man with a Wikipedia page who steps onstage mindfully aware that someone in this audience tonight might actually be there to assassinate him. This is a production that is fast moving and demands the rapt attention of its audience; anything less and you risk being cast adrift in Tehran, Vancouver or the lowlands of Scotland.

The staging is deceptively simple with an all black set and a lecturn but as with the Internet and cross cultural experience nothing is quite as it seems. Screens move from side to side and sets appear to open like in an advent calendar…this is multi cultural, multi layered and multi dimensional experience that invites the audience to look at the big picture in all its elements and shades. Live action as King Raam and Me-Lee Hay make music in a studio, blurred newspaper images, colour TV film footage, Alipoor at his lecturn, Asha Read delivering a podcast, Wikipedia pages floating over screens…like translucent layers of onion being peeled back…its heady stuff that you can’t not breathe in and may leave a tear in your eye.

Photo credit Chris Payne

In the ’70s a beloved Persian music icon, by the ’80s Farrokhzad was a political refugee in Germany working in a grocery store and just 6 months before his brutal and unsolved murder in 1992 he sold out two nights at The Royal Albert Hall. That’s quite a story…imagine if something similar had happened to our national treasure Tom Jones! Shocking, sad and tragic but in the past. Yet it really isn’t when a death remains stubbornly unsolved and theatre makers like British/Iranian Javaad Alipoor make us click those hyperlinks. It really isn’t when Raam Emami speaks of his experience as a Canadian/Iranian musician whose work is both celebrated and castigated in Iran. It really isn’t when he tells you about his father Kavous-Seyed-Emami, a lecturer, tortured and murdered in Tehran…though Wikipedia says he committed suicide while on detention. It really isn’t when Raam Emami or King Raam is on a death list discovered by the FBI.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is one of those really great pieces of theatre that makes you think, it provokes and it informs but it does so without being earnest or preachy. This is the kind of theatre we need more off so click on the hyperlink below and book your ticket now!!

HOME until Saturday 5th November 2022

Battersea Arts Centre 9th -26th November 2022

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Pete MacHale and Rhian Blundell as Oskar and Eli. Photo credit Johan Persson

Stage Adaptation by Jack Thorne

Based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

To the uninitiated LET THE RIGHT ONE IN might look like a typical Halloween vampire gorefest, but thankfully this production is so much more. The blood and gore may spurt in a plentiful supply, but at its glistening heart this a story about love, otherness and acceptance. A lonely young boy being viciously bullied at school and ignored by his alcoholic mother meets an ageless, sexless vampire hungry for more than just blood. This hugely successful Swedish novel has spawned numerous film, television and theatre adaptations. Director Bryony Shanahan takes this 2013 adaptation by Jack Thorne and creates an almost immersive audience experience in the round. As the tension builds and the exits are blocked the audience is trapped just like the victims, the peril of leaving the theatre blood splattered is viscerally real and the poignancy of such a macabre love story becomes painfully vivid.

Rhian Blundell as Eli
Photo credit Johan Persson

The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin is highly effective in creating an early Eighties atmosphere that is versatile enough to function as the inside of a school sports facility, a bleak Swedish council estate, eerie woods and a Sweetie concession in a neon bright shopping mall. The ladders and platforms over the stage, and the climbing frame all give the production room to build the drama and a real kinetic energy; however the continual wheeling in and out of additional props is often as distracting as it is effective. The startling use of light by Joshua Pharo to propel and enhance the horror elements of the drama is stunningly good especially when coupled with the sound design by Pete Malkin. The overall effect is to create a real sense of nothing ever being quite what it seems or that permanence or security is fleeting and can vanish in a curl of steamy air or the sudden silver flash of a blade.

In the main this is a strong cast with some lovely character driven performances from Darren Kuppan and a bleak and intensely creepy Hakan delivered by Andrew Sheridan. The two central performances are uniformly excellent with the inspired casting of Rhian Blundell as Eli and Pete MacHale as Oskar. Blundell is utterly captivating as the centuries old vampire child. Her physical presence morphs like quicksilver between wary and tentative youth to muscular and visceral blood hungry creature, and then on to winsome innocent charm. MacHale as Oskar is sweetly awkward and geeky with a keen intelligence that comprehends the failures of the adults around him while his innocence is bewildered by his bullies and mesmerised by the sexless Eli who smells of death and stale blood. Both actors are utterly believable and allow for this story to rise above the usual teen vampire fare to become something much more emotionally satisfying.

Pete MacHale and Rhian Blundell as Oskar and Eli Photo credit Johan Persson

There are some problematic issues with this production but the overall feel is of a stimulating and satisfying night at the theatre. Director Bryony Shanahan may have sometimes allowed for overly busy scenes or in the case of the scene with Oskars’ father a somewhat redundant one, however overall this is a gorefully gorgeous production. Some of its most memorable moments such as the swimming pool scene were climactic on so many levels and a potent reminder of The Royal Exchange at its very best.

The Royal Exchange October 22nd – November 19th 2022

Bad Jokes About Men

Elise Gilbert in Bad Jokes About Men

Written, Devised and Performed by Elise Gilbert

The Kings Arms

It is always exciting to see performers at the start of their careers especially if you are lucky enough to get to see students honing their craft as they study. Here in Manchester those opportunities arise at The Arden School of Theatre, now futher enhanced by their new purpose built theatre. A few years ago I saw the then third year students in a memorable production working with Figs in Wigs. Now graduated, Elise Gilbert is back in Manchester with her first solo show that has previously shown at Camden Peoples Theatre in London.

Bad Jokes About Men blends truly naff jokes with Gilbert’s unique blend of exuberant charm, queer politics, clowning skills and live journaling. The range of skits use her great comic timing and natural physicality to explore traditional jokes, verbatim comments made to other young females and her own personal experience of being the butt or boobs of just a big old joke. At one point she addresses her audience asking How long can a joke keep on going for? Like so many others she is clearly not amused by the ‘joke’ and this show is a determined attempt to turn the tables and see how funny men find it when they become the butt or with her help the balloon penis of the ‘joke’.

Gilbert is multi-talented using a range of performance skills to ilustrate her argument and she carries off the performance with aplomb. She has an easy confidence on stage and has a genuine rapport with her audience that is impressive for someone doing their first solo show. She is adept at using eye contact in the space to really get the audience onside whether she is looking wryly humerous at an individual, gurning, expressing her anger or her vulnerability to the crowd.

The use of multimedia is highly effective whether to perform as alternate characters such as ‘Rob’ who tells ‘his’ traumatic experience as a WMCSM (white middle class straight man) or to gradually reveal the messages received by a male ‘friend’. It is the latter that provides the final nail in the coffin to this long running joke on women. This slow reveal alludes to the confusion and discomfort of being on the receiving end of statements such as I had a wank over you last night. Gilbert uses journaling tools to perceptively outline the many ways this might not feel funny to a young, queer woman you know. The closing technique used to make her point is intellectually incisive and theatrically very satisfying.

AND HERE I FIND MYSELF

Preview at The Lowry Studio

Written and Devised and Performed by Wayne Steven Jackson

AND HERE I FIND MYSELF is a natural progression/ companion piece to the digital work FROM ONE TO US devised by Jackson in 2020. This latest work expands on the themes around how heteronormative expectations impact our beliefs around parenting, life goals and how we deal with disappointments. Jackson plays deftly with our perception of typical one man confessional performance by utilising a intermedial approach that blends live and digital media. This is a really vital piece of story telling that opens up conversation around how an individual copes when science and society finally expand to permit single sex surrogacy only for new obstacles to appear.

As a performer Jackson is fascinated by memory and the use of theatrical techniques to explore ways in how to re-experience memories. He also has an uncanny ability to appear utterly in the moment which is perhaps how he forges and crafts nuggets of memory into such vivid capsules. This ability to be so present on stage makes for a great connection with his audience, while also making it impossible to tell just how personal this story is to him and how much is devised. The end result is deeply affecting and at times painful to watch, raising the question of who looks after performers when they leave the stage after delivering work such as this?

This is a show that is playful and engaging as we observe Jackson intent and diligent as he is put through his paces by a series of commands…HIDE..JUMP… as he plays hide and seek and climbs ladders. What becomes apparent is that following the rules and doing the right thing does not always culminate in a satisfactory outcome. This is the central tenet of the show as the onscreen images reveal nuggets of family memories from a good boy who grows up in a world that is gradually changing to allow previously unavailable options to a young gay man. Laws change and Science advances and here is the opportunity as a single man to finally have a child. This piece will resonate with anyone who has experienced the trauma of having had hopes raised only to be repeatedly dashed in the lottery of the reproduction process. What makes this work especially thought provoking is the male perspective; this is a potent reminder that this issue is a source of anguish to anyone wishing to have their own child regardless of gender or sexuality. AND HERE I FIND MYSELF also suggests the loneliness of this journey as a single gay man presented at every turn by a single fucking magpie.

Visually the staging looks polished and stylish. The screens either side of centre stage project images of the boy and the man using old photos and new filmed material. The illusion of magic is added by Jackson appearing to adjust colour and lustre to these memories by a sweep of his hand like a painter. The effect is lovely and engages childish glee while also alluding to a performer who can control technology on stage but who feels bitterly let down by it on a deeply personal level. The final scenes shock and dismay as the images literally shred on stage and fragmented hopes and dreams are tenderly gathered together in a tattered pile. This is a thoughtful and really tender production which has been skillfully conceived and executed.

Wayne Steven Jackson

Lit By The Light Of A Thousand Losses/THE SHOWCASE

Lit By The Light Of A Thousand Losses
THE SHOWCASE

The Arden School of Theatre

Third Year Students showcasing professional collaborations with idontloveyouanymore and In Bed With My Brother

The new theatre is a great addition to the facilities at The Arden School Of Theatre and the students are clearly relishing the opportunities it affords. The third year students have been involved in artistic collaborations with two very different companies; Manchester based digital art and performance company idontloveyouanymore and the highly innovative In Bed With My Brother. The resulting works are unsurprisingly totally different but both demonstrate an impressive set of performance skills and creative ability.

Lit By The Light Of A Thousand Losses devised with idontloveyouanymore incorporates verbatim theatre and digital media to create a really haunting and beautiful performance. Using publicly submitted memories of loss the performance speaks of loss on so many levels from the covid themes, losses of love and liberty through to themes around possible impending loss of our very identity as human beings. The students handle this material with real sensitivity, compassion and wry humour. It is a really beautiful piece that could easily translate to a touring production. The digital backdrop evokes new stars created and old one imploding and is a nice touch that enhances rather than overshadows the performers. There are several standout performances but the overall calibre of student work is impressive. The nine students on stage were worked in a truly collaborative manner and their ability to create space, pause and silence for each other in this very reflective piece was brave, assure and highly effective.

The second production was an madcap explosion of high energy that is so typical of shows like We Are Ian and Tricky Second Album from In Bed With My Brother. THE SHOWCASE has a reality gameshow element and alludes to Orwell’s 1984. This dance focused highly physical piece never lets up on pace and the students impress with their stamina alone! Their capacity to maintain momentum and keep a technical tightness in this anarchic production is commendable. The audience observes this repetitive dance and the performers enthusiastic desire to impress the disembodied voice directing them while also receiving behavioural response cues as if we are a TV audience reading an autocue. The resulting hi-velocity order starts to break down into chaos as performers falter or are cast aside or humiliated. There are elements here of a Forced Entertainment production as the music and the dance endlessly loop and repeat. The end result is funny, unsettling and provocative. This is how I imagine Squid Games might play out in a student theatre performance workshop…at least here they the only blood spilled was tomato pulp and sweat!!! Though I’d love to know if the crutch wielding performer was injured in rehearsals or elsewhere…either way a great embodiment of the show must go on!!

Much Ado About Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells as Benedick and Beatrice
Credit: Johan Persson

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Robert Hastie

A Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production

Leeds Playhouse

Since 2016 Ramps on the Moon have been partnering with six major venues including New Wolsey Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Each year, this collaboration produces a large-scale touring production with one of the theatres to showcase the talent of deaf, neuro diverse, disabled and non disabled performers and creatives. Much Ado About Nothing is the fifth such production but the first to experiment with Shakespeare and the first to use British Sign Language BSL and Audio Description AD Directors to further develop fully integrated access both on stage and for the audience.

This year is the turn of Artistic Director Robert Hastie of Sheffield Theatres to work with the company. The resulting outcome is a joyous affair that ensures this comedy sparkles and feels fresh and innovative. Most significant about this production is that the work of Hastie, the actors and the creatives have resulted in giving real emotional depth and resonance to the piece. It is a witty and fast paced, irreverent production but it also has beautifully crafted performances that give new depth and interest to some of the best loved familiar characters.

This is a highly intelligent and perceptive production which is beautifully staged. The gleaming set designed by Peter McKintosh is sleek and stylish summerhouse and incorporates captioning in the skylight. In the opening sequence the cast gather for dinner inside the summerhouse and we observe them on stage through the sliding glass panels. In a wry twist, the audience can see the animation and the interactions but from a voyeuristic perspective where many of us can see but cannot hear…when  the cast “see” us they burst through introducing their characters and who signs, etc, all using Audio Description. This breaking of the fourth wall sets the scene for a production that feels consistently accessible to all and no strategy used ever feels tokenistic or shoe horned in. The overall feeling is that this theatrical medium actually embraces and enhances the original Shakespeare.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING cast   
Credit: Johan Persson

This is a strong cast who work in a  very collaborative manner. There is music from multi instrumentalist Kit Kenneth as Balthasar and some lively dance sequences as the cast stage a hoedown in old Messina! Dan Parr exudes easy confidence as Don Pedro as he oversees the machinations of the various love affairs. There are some great duos with Claire Wetherall and Taku Mutero as Hero and Claudio and with Laura Goulden as Margaret who speaks most of Hero’s signed dialogue. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of course central to the richest vein of  humour with their rapier sharp exchanges. This is an inspired pairing as Daneka Etchells and Guy Rhys are perfect as Beatrice and Benedick. Both actors bring earthy wit and perfect comic timing, but also real emotional depth that makes their love affair utterly believable and truly potent. When Guy Rhys taps his prostheses as he asks Beatrice which of my bad parts did you first fall in love with, it is such a perfect moment. Etchells’ outrage and raw pain at the unfairness of her cousin’s undoing is hard to watch but incredibly moving.

This is a production with a focus on accessibility, acceptance and raising awareness. It ticks every box and as a bonus enhances this classic comedy. I took my daughter who hates Shakespeare but is learning BSL. We left Leeds Playhouse with a Shakespeare convert… so big thanks to the cast and creatives!!

Leeds Playhouse 27th Sept -1st Oct and on tour til Nov 12th 2022

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Joshua James and Rhiannon Clements as Tom and Laura. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Atri Banerjee

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Like so many other productions delayed or impacted by the Pandemic, Atri Banerjee’s vision for The Glass Menagerie altered over the last two years. We will never know exactly what this production might have looked like in early 2020 but it is hard to imagine it being better than this current reimagining of the Tennessee Williams‘ poignant classic. Our personal experience of lockdowns in our homes lends itself perfectly to this claustrophobic image of a home constrained by unfulfilled desires. Like Williams, Atri Banerjee understands love in its many flawed manifestations and allows the intense emotional pain in the writing to be illuminated with the warm glow of empathy.

The claustrophobia of lockdown for so many mirrors Tom who is trapped at home with his Mother and Laura with his true nature stifled and all his hopes for the future in limbo. In contrast his deeply introverted sister is actually more content cloistered within the home than she ever could be in the outside world, as were so many introverts who actually thrived during lockdown. In this memory play, the Mother takes all her solace from the past as this faded Southern belle relives past glories when she graciously received gentlemen callers on her parents’ porch. The visitor Joe is the first caller of note and as such is both a breath of fresh air in this stale environment and inevitably the catalyst for radical change.

All four performances are uniformly excellent. Joshua James as Tom is weary and hollow eyed, bitter and despondent, trapped in a job that serves only to support his family but dreaming of escape and excitement. Frequent evenings spent in the cinema allude to a secret life, further hinted at when he gives his sister a rainbow scarf from his evening sojourns. James is utterly believable with his Southern drawl and dry whip smart retorts. He embodies the tortured young man equally capable of casual cruelty and genuine tenderness. Rhiannon Clements as Laura exudes the palpable discomfort of a young woman far more socially hindered by her neuro diversity than by her physical impairment. It is a thing of quiet magic to observe as she blossoms with the positive and genuine admiration from Joe. Eloka Ivo has little to actively do or say in the first Act yet this actor ensures he maintains an absorbing presence throughout. His performance illuminates the second Act like the glow of candles which Tom lights all around the stage. He has an energy and a physicality that separates him from the others and serves effectively drive the narrative. Geraldine Somerville is perfectly cast as Amanda, the relentless mother whose love can appear monstrous yet comes from the heart of a lioness seeking security for her cubs. Her performance is as brittle as the delicate glass in the Menagerie yet as a Mother she has a core of steel.

Geraldine Somerville as Amanda and Rhiannon Clements as Laura.
Photograph: Marc Brenner
Eloka Ivo as Joe. Photograph: Marc Brenner

This is a gorgeous production where less is always more bar one brief dance scene with Laura and Joe that jars with the overall tempo and pacing of the play. The design by Susanna Vize is stripped back to basics where even the glass menagerie is subtly alluded to rather than centre stage. The simple wooden chairs, the candles and the evoked heavy scent of flowers evoke theatre and home as church like manifestations of weddings, baptisms and funerals. The multiple vases of pale flowers which overshadow Laura’s glass animals also serve to allude to the floral tokens received from all 17 of her Mothers gentleman callers. The heightened drama of the set is the huge illuminated sign saying ‘PARADISE’ which turns through the performance and echoes the church like feel as though a metaphor for Christ on the cross giving up his life for us…just as Tom is being expected to for his family. The staging is complemented by wonderful lighting from Lee Curran and a dreamy soundscape from Giles Thomas.

The Glass Menagerie cast at The Royal Exchange.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

The Glass Menagerie is the 1944 play that was the breakout success for Tennessee Williams and it continues to be a classic that doesn’t date. The themes of family bonds, duty, responsibility and love are intrinsically bound up in the complexities of being different or not wishing to fit with normative values. Atri Banerjee directs this production with intelligence, compassion and perhaps his own personal experience of what love and duty may look like within a family unit. He certainly nails the pain and the passion of love that seeks to find its own way to flourish. Like Williams whose beloved sister is celebrated in Laura, Banerjee is celebrating difference as all the nicer and nothing to be ashamed off.

THE ROYAL EXCHANGE 2nd September- 8th October 2022

The Olive Tree/HYENAS!

Jessica Forrest and Olivia Nicholson

The Olive Tree and HYENAS! Produced by Sugar Butties

The King’s Arms

The Olive Tree

Jessica Forrest in The Olive Tree
Image credit: Shay Rowan

Written and Performed by Jessica Forrest

The first of tonight’s double bill from Sugar Butties is The Olive Tree, a one woman show that explores how the loss of loved ones impacts how we value the pivotal moments in life whether big and small. Jessica Forrest takes us straight to Umbria in Italy…el centro del mundo…as she goes straight to the heart of her story of loss and solace. Forrest does bittersweet poignancy and wry humour extremely well. She has a flair for observational comedy and mimicry that makes for great storytelling. She regularly breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience as she shares fragments of her life and invites us to note a fragment from our own lives on tags to hang on the olive tree. This is done with care and sensitivity; and nothing personal is shared openly during the show.

Forrest paints vivid images of her time in London as a nanny. They veer from the quiet pleasure and anguish of nursing your employer’s sleeping baby while trying to come to terms with an abortion to a wickedly funny parody of a Manhattan socialite describing giving birth. The frustration of a fleeting and unsuccessful sexual escapade with a devout Christian is vividly brought to life…I’m laid by a raging erection protected by St Peter and his fucking pearly gates! Her emotional escape to Italy brings new experiences such as when her friend Hillary makes mischief on what turns out to be a gynaecology appointment at an Italian Co Op. The poetry in the storytelling can be earthy and humorous but also incredibly delicate as she tenderly describes Hillary as a friend who tied purple ribbons around everything in life. The pain of living with grief is perfectly evoked by the thought of wearing another’s hat purchased from a charity shop…perhaps in donning a strangers’ hat we might temporarily have reprieve from our own memories. Forrest closes this accomplished first show by inviting her audience to sprinkle a little glitter on ourselves; perhaps a little of her creative magic dust will have been added to the mix.

HYENAS!

Olivia Nicholson in HYENAS!
Image credit: Shay Rowan

Written and Performed by Olivia Nicholson

HYENAS! is already a 2021 recipient of a Pick Of The Fringe Award at Edinburgh. This one woman show by Olivia Nicholson takes the audience on the hen do from hell in Marbella complete with a Mr and Mrs questionnaire that involves our participation, multiple trashy costume changes and a very unhappy bride. Nicholson a powerhouse performance while performing a range of characters at breakneck speed. Kirsty is the skinny and miserable bride obsessed with Instagram, Lauren is a cackling firecracker oozing backhanded compliments while inhaling cocktails, Sarah is a socially awkward wallflower while posh Tasha is a sexually voracious, emotional vampire.

There is nothing on surface level that is remotely likable about any of these women yet Nicholson manages to give each of them their humanity and a sense of their vulnerability. The bride may be desperately embarking on marriage to a coercive, abusive partner in an attempt to create a family having recently lost her mother. Sarah is a high school teacher on sick leave having just had a dangerously inappropriate meltdown in the classroom, Lauren is a loving mum who is hiding the heartbreak of a broken marriage and Tasha has just lost her best friend to cancer. Each woman is real onstage despite the comic caricatures, they all cover their pain with more than just thick layers of MAC. There is real skill in the writing and the performance as HYENAS! is a whirlwind comic assault that delivers a hefty emotional punch.

The King’s Arms 11th and 12th July 2022

MANCHESTER FRINGE FESTIVAL

A Little Night Music

Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang as Desiree and Fredrik.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by James Brining

A Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse

This production of A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse after successfully opening here last summer. The main changes for 2022 are Sandra Piques Eddy as Desiree Armfeldt and Sam Marston as Henrik Egerman, the removal of social distancing measures and the poignant reality that musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us. This is a confident partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North which looks and sounds absolutely glorious. This really delivers as a special night out at the theatre which in our current rather grim society is a breathe of fresh air and a much needed tonic for the soul.

The cast of A Little Night Music.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

There is real drama and impact in the sheer simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s set design. The opening act reveals the full orchestra warming up with Conductor Oliver Rundell while The Quintet start to unpack the set pulling away white sheets as they set up the staging. There’s something particularly exciting about seeing what will appear next and what it may reveal about the production…perhaps akin to post pandemic measures seeing the face behind a mask. For Act 2 at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau there is a vast functioning fountain complete with cherub! The elegant polished parquet floor that surrounds it adds to the sense of a bygone age. Tellingly the floor is peeling and damaged at the edges, poignantly suggestive that this golden age of champagne weekends in the country are coming to an end…aging and decaying alongside the elegant chatelaine of the chateau.

A Little Night Music merges a romantic musical with elements of French farce. Written in triple time to create variety, it also neatly links the multiple triangles of complex love relationships that play out around the three generations of Armfeldt women, and theThe musical opened on Broadway in 1973 and has seen many successful productions in the subsequent almost 50 years. Originally set in Sweden in 1900, director James Brining cleverly moves the action to the 1950s where the restless, career-oriented Desiree looks forward to more opportunities for her and her daughter Fredrika, whereas her elegant mother looks wistfully back to her heyday as a beautiful courtesan desired by Princes and Dukes. What remains unchanged and unchanging is the theme of love… Sondheim’s score makes the heart soar while his incisive, perceptive lyrics get to the core of all the highs and lows of love in its many and complex guises.

Opera North already have a great relationship with musical theatre and in 2016 worked with Leeds Playhouse on a highly successful production of Into The Woods. The full orchestra in place for this production is an added delight as on stage with the actors it both adds to the drama of life on tour for Desiree and life in the luxury of a chateau for Madame Armfeldt, while providing a perfect accompaniment to pitch perfect vocals from the cast.

Unsurprisingly the standout performance is Dame Josephine Bardtow as the grand dame Madame Armfeldt. Her crystal perfect diction, regal bearing and acerbic reflections make for the archetypal matriach. She effortlessly moves into tender and beguiling as she reflects on her early life in Liasons. Her facial expressions even when not centre stage are a study in storytelling and her every move is delicately and precisely nuanced.

Dame Josephine Bardtow as Madame Armfeldt Photo by Sharron Wallace

New to this 2022 production is Sandra Piques Eddy who is a real joy as Desiree. She looks gorgeous enough to merit It Would Have Been Wonderful and exudes Desirees’ playful and  impetuous nature. Her Send In The Clowns is spine pricking in the anguish and regret of a woman realising she may have missed her best chance at love. Quirijn de Lang returns as Fredrik and looks like a quintessential Hollywood  leading man from the 1950s. He has a polished but slightly weary elegance and brings both vanity and vulnerability to a middle aged man caught in a love triangle. He also brings great physical humour and timing to his role as the hapless lawyer. He is simply wonderful in all his big numbers such as Now, It Would Have Been Wonderful and Send In The Clowns.

This production seems perfectly cast throughout with Corinne Cowling as Fredriks’ vacuous and naive young wife and Sam Marston as his brittle and intense only son. Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Marcus and Amy J Payne as Petra are highly entertaining on stage while Lucy Sherman brings a stillness and serenity that perfectly counterbalances some of the other more dramatic performances. Helen Évora as Countess Charlotte is simply wonderful as the brittle, disillusioned wife who still loves her errant buffoon of a husband. Her rendition of Every Day A Little Death is pitch perfect on every level and utterly unforgettable.

This production really is a pleasure to sit back and just relax in the assured direction of James Brining. Everything about it works smoothly yet nothing feels slick or shallow. Complex and flawed as every character undoubtedly is, there is such care and attention to each performance that its impossible to not leave the theatre on a summer night and feel that just as Madame Armfeldt promised…the night really has smiled.

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse 6th-16th July 2022

Vice Versa

Dorcas Seb. Image by Robin Clewley

Written, Co-produced and Performed by Dorcas Seb

Directed by Emmy Lahouel

HOME

Wide eyed and smiling earnestly Dorcas Seb dances in a repetitive, slightly robotic style. The audience slowly start to fill 3 sides of the stage and sit while Seb continues to dance. The music shifts subtly as a more electronic hum starts to merge in and create a more ominous tension. The 3D effect set by Dylan Howells is strikingly beautiful with its neon blue and pink lights that flicker and flow across the floor and backdrop like neural pathways in an artificial brain or a strange simulation of the tree of life. By the time Seb actually starts to speak she has already created an absorbing, dystopian vibe that feels trance like and strangely calming.

Vice Versa was originally conceived as an E.P in 2018 but has been crafted into a visually arresting, evocative piece of performance art/gig theatre. Commissioned by Eclipse Theatre and HOME as part of the Slate: Black. Arts. World project in 2018/19, with development support from Unity Theatre and funded by Arts Council England. It is clearly a deeply personal project for Seb which explores the modern digital world and our increasing fixation and reliance on our phones and computer screens as a means of communication. The original ideas behind this piece in 2018 were to become even more sharply prevalent during the pandemic when our spoken words mainly flowed from our fingers and direct eye contact was via a Zoom screen.

Dorcas Seb is a confident and accomplished artist who creates an engrossing audience experience. The production feels genuinely immersive and the seating layout brings the audience so close to Seb it’s as if they too are awaiting induction into this new dystopian world. As a performer she seems to effortlessly move between dance, spoken word, song and some wickedly good characterisations. As she morphs into her Boss and gives a sassy, evangelical spiel to the new recruits, she really brings the character alive. There is a wonderful physicality to her performance and likewise when she sings her voice is rich and pure moving from spoken word to disco to RnB without flaw.

Dorcas Seb in Vice Versa. Image by Robin Clewley

Vice Versa takes us to a world where the Welfare State no longer exists and the Welt-exe state governs our thoughts and actions. Working hard and being a good citizen is rewarded with a  repetitive bliss created by the experiences purchased when codes are currency and real dreams are a thing of the past. The world as perceived by Seb’s alter ego Xella is not exactly unpleasant in its familiarity and routine but her character is increasingly aware of her isolation and lack of human connectivity. 17 hour work days are interspersed with subway journeys, state infomercials and moments of joy when plugged into code REM where Xella momentarily can play Grandma’s Footsteps among the pixilated trees. It is during one of her journeys into artificial REM that the code glitches and her unwavering acceptance of this dystopian reality is challenged. Suddenly there are questions to be answered but no one to answer them…simply a quietly ruthless invitation to reboot or risk being ostracised as a crossed out.

Xella charts her own course and removes her digital collar to suddenly look up at the blue sky and the birds. Her redemptive journey is about connection and being in the moment. For the Crossed outers this may be an evangelical connection with Christ…for others it may be simply about living in the moment and being fully present with ourselves and others. However you choose to express your connectivity in the world Vice Versa is certainly a cautionary tale and we would all be wise to still connect to the digital world but start thinking about how we use it and not how it uses us.

HOME Theatre 1st and 2nd July 2022

Unity Theatre Friday 8th July 2022