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

Sparkplug

HOME

Written and Performed by David Judge

Directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder

A Box of Tricks production

Sparkplug had its World premiere on Valentines day when we celebrate idealized love. This new work by David Judge is a true celebration of the complexity of love, race and family. At times tender and compassionate, it also bravely highlights personal experience of the achingly painful racist abuse that is still so ingrained in such a multi-cultural city as Manchester. This is a story of imperfect people in difficult circumstances whose bonds of love are built on something stronger than genetics or skin colour.

This is a very personal story from writer and actor David Judge drawing on his own experience of growing up with a white Mum and Dad from Wythenshawe while being the genetic son of a black man from Moss Side. Judge vividly invokes the family life of his father Dave as a young man driving his Capri around South Manchester while listening to Rod Stewart and dreaming of a relationship with his sister Angela’s best friend Joanne. The love affair that unfolds is messy but very real. Boy gets the girl but she is pregnant with someone else’s baby. The new parents struggle like any new parents but with the added difficulty of being white parents with a brown baby in a community where even grandparents can’t stand the skin he sleeps in. Add an eventual relationship breakdown, the news that Joanne is in a lesbian relationship and that the overwhelmed parents ask their child to choose which parent he stays with. High drama indeed but also the grittiness of real people in real situations that are complex and unsanitised.

David Judge is wonderful to watch, he brings grace and delicacy to the poetry of this piece, while being equally able to make an audience palpably uncomfortable with the racism and homophobia that run through the veins of this story. He has a quicksilver ability to move between characters, each vividly drawn and instantly recognisable. The staccato delivery of words used like punches in a scene of rage, frustration and despair sit alongside the tenderness of a young man’s love for his son that is never shaken by the ignorance in his local community.

The set design by Katie Scott works really well. The bones of a car come alive to create a sense of eras in this family as the vehicle morphs from Capri to Fiat 126 to Sierra and back. The garage settings evokes the memories of family history complete with childhood toys and its soundtrack of Rod Stewart and Micheal Jackson encapsulate that home in Wythenshawe a world away from Moss Side.

Overall this is a really impressive production. I saw Judges’ performance as Pete in The Kitchen Sink at Oldham Coliseum last year and it was really memorable so it’s a pleasure to see him centre stage. As a play it flows well though would benefit from a little editing and more character clarity towards the end. Overall it is a production that sparks debate about identity and how we see ourselves and how that is impacted by those around us. What stayed with me after the the show was the strong bond between young men and their cars, how perhaps we freely choose identity through the car we drive rather than how we are often shoehorned into an identity by the skin we walk in.

HOME 13-23 February 2019

Tour details

Images by Alex Mead, Decoy Media

The Animals and Children took to the Streets

HOME

Written & Directed by Suzanne Andrade

Film & Animation by Paul Barritt

Music by Lillian Henley

There is nothing remotely “little” about the technical skill and artistic merit of what 1927 call “our little show”. The Animals and Children took to the Streets is a dark, cautionary tale cleverly combining story-telling with animation, performance and live music in an almost magically seamless manner. Performers and animated children and animals blend together to create a visual theatrical spectacle that is part graphic novel/part Pop-Up or Lift the flap children’s book.

The inhabitants of The Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street are a disparate bunch of dissolute characters ranging from a man living with his horse, to another who sniffs women’s bicycle seats, to a 21 year old granny and pirate Zelda who leads one of the many gangs of children roaming the neighbourhood. Into the mix comes the pure hearted Agnes who arrives with her sweet little daughter Evie; hoping to save the local children with love and découpage. This naivety to the scale of the problem of children reared on vodka, borscht and tears ensures there will be no fairy tale ending to this particular story.

The story here is simple, but its brilliance lies in the stylistic delivery and the visual feast created by Paul Barritt’s film and animation coupled with the three performers’ seamless interactions with the animated characters. The audience appear spellbound by this picturebook story just as children might listening to The Pied Piper of Hamlin. In this instance the children are lured away by a sinister ice cream van and Granny’s Gumdrops which are a chemical cosh akin to a hefty dose of Ritalin.

Performers Felicity Sparks, Genevieve Dunne and Rowena Lennon each play a range of characters that they bring vividly to life. Despite the period look stylistically, there is a very current feel to this show that does not need to mention Grenfall Towers. The colour palette and use of live music creates the feel of an old silent movie. The delivery of the local characters is filled with acerbic wit and drips with the acidic knowledge that if you’re born in the Bayou, you’ll die here. Agnes Eaves radiates a hopeful innocence and then a growing terror that is reminiscent of Clara Bow while the mournful delivery and physical performance of The Caretaker evokes something very Chaplinesque.

This is an ambitious and assured production that hits all the right notes on the plink plonk piano in that window in The Bayou. It perfectly highlights the inherent unfairness of a Society where the odds are always stacked against the poor and the dispossessed. It is darkly subversive and yet it has warmth and charm as it also shines with the compassion and humour of humanity still present despite such a bleak environment.

HOME 6th- 16th February

1927 are an Associate Company of HOME

1927

All images by 1927

My Best of Manchester Theatre 2018

In 2018 I managed 115 performances in theatres between London and Edinburgh. The majority were in Manchester and trying to compile a Top Ten has proved frustrating as every time I took one out another two vyed for attention. I finally decided to just do a round up mentioning my absolute favourites grouped by the theatres who programmed the productions.

The Royal Exchange excelled with some stunning performances, direction and writing. The Almighty Sometimes was theatre heaven with wonderful new writing by Bruntwood Prize winner Kendall Feaver and pitch perfect performances from Julie Hesmondhalgh and Nora Lopez-Holden. Rashdash tore up the rule book and re-imagined Chekhov with a brilliantly witty and flamboyant Three Sisters. Death Of A Salesman from Arthur Miller with a mesmerising performance from Don Warrington made for gripping viewing. Director Sarah Frankcom brought us the Samuel Beckett Happy Days with a stunning set and an astounding performance from Maxine Peake. Currently showing an outrageous and thoroughly entertaining take on The Producers, I’m looking forward to 2019 and the wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mother Courage.

Where to start with HOME? Their programming gave me a Top Ten without looking elsewhere! In no particular order but all stellar productions in their own right:-

The Maids by Jean Genet with the main Theatre redesigned in the round, this was a startling and visually stunning production. The Hofesh Shechter SHOW was every bit as brilliant as Grand Finale earlier in the year. Other smart and outrageous productions were the Rashdash collaboration Future Bodies and the fabulous Tiger Lilies with Corrida de la Sangre.

Delicate, beautiful writing by Annie Baker and a great cast made for theatre magic in Circle Mirror Transformation. This theme of absolute quality writing and performances was also evident with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and again in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice. The Fishermen previewed here before having huge success at Edinburgh Festival and this adaptation of the Chigozie Obioma novel was an absolute joy to witness.

The Manchester Project devised by Monkeywood showcased our city, writers, and performers. Exciting local talent such as Rosie Fleeshman impressed in her one woman show Narcissist in the Mirror. I think I saw this 3 times this year including at Edinburgh Festival and at Oldham Coliseum!

CONTACT had a year of really exciting programming with Contact in the City, they took new work such as Handlooms into a working sari shop on the Curry Mile. A fun Christmas show devised by Jackie Hagan The Forest Of Forgotten Discos! took new audiences to the lovely Hope Mill Theatre. My standout show of the year had to be the irrepressible burst of energy and creativity that was CYC with Sh!t Theatre for She Bangs The Drums at Castlefield.

The Lowry impressed with visiting shows such as the crowd pleasing and brilliant War Horse and the sumptuous Kneehigh The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk which I totally fell in love with. The Ben Caplan, Old Stock – A Love Story was another gem in their programming. In The Aldridge Suite was Proto-type Theatre with The Audit – so clever that I saw it again at Slung low in Leeds.

Oldham Coliseum produced some great shows this year including the heart-warming Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses and a great production of the classic A Taste of Honey. They also programmed pieces such as Lucy Prebble’s The Effect with electrifying direction by Jake Murray.

Elsewhere at 53Two I saw The Newspaper Boy, a truly joyful show by Chris Hoyle directed by Simon Naylor. Hoyle’s Dibby Theatre also showed up at Waterside Arts to showcase Nathaniel Hall’s First Time, a performance that deserved it’s standing ovation and will be soon touring nationally. The Heiner Goebbels’ Everything that happened and would happen was a stunning visual collaboration between Artangel and MIF. Zion Arts hosted EMERGENCY 2018 showcasing new work from Chanje Kunda whose stunningly evocative piece Plant Fetish will be at HOME this month as part of PUSH Festival 2019.

I think this image of Nathaniel Hall in First Time might just perfectly capture what it feels like to see great theatre in this great city of ours. Happy New year.

THE FOREST OF FORGOTTEN DISCOS!

Hope Mill Theatre

Written by Jackie Hagan

Directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin

Commissioned by CONTACT

This is CONTACT’s final show of the year as part of its Contact in the City programme while the new theatre is being built. This time we find them at Hope Mill Theatre which is a perfect festive setting for the Christmas children’s show. Mince pies, mulled wine, carol singers and craft tables for the children set the scene for Jackie Hagan’s The Forest of Forgotten Discos!

The general air of expectation is not disappointed when Alexa from the Amazonian rainforest suddenly appears to welcome the audience into the forest. Children are “scanned” and chatted to by the robotic Alexa who clearly delights in her role of giving information and helping others. Sophie Coward as Alexa is engaging and charismatic. Clad in a fabulous diy hi-tech skirt adorned with flashing lights , Sky remote scanner , etch-a-sketch and other discarded toys and household items, the character is both magically intriguing and easily accessible.

The Forest is full of trees decorated with patchwork crochet squares and brightly coloured gingham, reminiscent trees in local streets with a strong sense of community. The bear’s homes use discarded tents and shower curtains to create a feel that echoes the homeless “villages” in every major city or perhaps the Refugee camps of Calais. Designer Katharine Heath has created a set that is full of charm and is incredibly detailed. Each home is a treasure trove of discarded junk that captures the personality of each character in such a way that I was itching to explore after the show.

The three bears are no cosy, cuddly storybook bears clutching porridge bowls. These bears are discarded or forgotten toys, shabby from past love and cuddles, now scavenging from picnics and refuse bins. Tongue-in-cheek Hagan has a little dig at the organic supermarkets of Chorlton, and keeps the humour flowing with a flatulent bear who lives on baked beans and whose farts are captured as an energy source. Bear Grills, Bear Minimum and Bear Hugs are threadbare, patched and faded,their Velveteen is dulled and gaping where their stuffing pokes through. Each one has a back story that reflects and celebrates the dispossessed and those who feel “other” in our Society. CONTACT, Hagan and Director Nickie Miles-Wildin are clearly all on the same page with a Christmas message that is teaching our children about integration in a joyful and accessible manner.

When feisty 9 year old Red arrives in the forest she is unhappy and frustrated by the prospect of her dad’s new girlfriend. Epitomising that child impulse to run away unaware of risks or outcomes, she encounters Alexa and the bears. The power of disco has gone from the Forest and even virtual assistant Alexa is unsure how to restore it for Christmas. The story of how they all manage to work together despite their differences is a celebration of cooperation and two fingers up to divisive thinking.

Incorporating sign language and visual story telling techniques, this playful tale ensures lots of audience engagement and on stage participation from the children. Even the seating arrangements allow for kids gathering around the stage on cushions and beanbag stools like nursery storytime, while the adults can sit back on chairs or get down with the kids. Having learned our bear boogie dance moves, everyone gets to join in as the power of disco is restored. It is riotous and joyful as the glitterball kicks into action and the disco hits keep playing it’s a little like being in a live TOTPS in the Seventies with The Wombles. Festive feelgood with bags of charm.

CONTACT at Hope Mill Theatre 11-23 December

Images by Lee Baxter