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Jack and the Beanstalk

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson

Directed by Chris Lawson

Oldham Coliseum

Oldham Coliseum has long basked in its well-deserved reputation as the home of traditional pantomime. This year there are a few changes to the mix as Fine Time Fontayne steps down as Dame and hands the baton, glittery heels and frocks to Richard J Fletcher who in turn has stepped away from his role as comic, and sees Sam Glen follow in his footsteps. Acting Artistic Director Chris Lawson co-writes his first pantomime with long-term writer Fine Time Fonteyne and together they have produced a very 21st century pantomime that blends traditional slapstick routines with a thoroughly modern theme featuring tech gadgets, carbon footprints, eco warriors and a feminist heroine rescuing Oldham from a tech hungry giant.

Designer Celia Perkins has once again created a story book set that delights in colour and moving features. Amidst the “pages” are the Soggy Bottom Cottage with pop up windows that evoke Punch and Judy scenes, a moving parts giant with swivelling eyes and comic signs such as We buy any cow.com. The costumes are an eye blistering array of checks, polka dots, neon and tartan. The Dame has some memorable outfits including a spectacular ode to Oldham Athletics and a truly terrifying wedding party ensemble that once seen can not be unseen!! Elsewhere the baddies, Mavis and Malcolm Moorside have some fabulous steampunk costumes while Lord Thickpenny Grabbmuch sports dashing Victorian frock coats that evoke a sense of Dick Dastardly. There is also an eco friendly, deadlocked fairy and a vegan, peace loving cow adding fresh currency to the mix.

This tale of theft of Smart phones and TVs to power a techno giant to take over Oldham sees feminist heroine Jill be first up the beanstalk to save the day. References to Extinction Rebellion and caring for our planet add nice touches to the story without becoming preachy. The local references are amusing as this year Ashton gets an affectionate bashing instead of Rochdale, and there are a thumbs up to Oldham Athletics, and even The Inspiral Carpets’ Cowabunga is utilised. There is the familiar slapstick humour of a ghost appearing and a witty perfectly timed two hander by Richard J Fletcher and Sam Glen as Dame Dotty Trot and Jack Trot. There is also a messy scene with wallpaper paste and water guns though this feels like it needs expanding more to justify its inclusion. The audience participation is flawless which is partly due to the performers on stage but also because of a well honed audience at The Coliseum who clearly love their local pantomime tradition.

The performances are all good and Sam Glen looks very at home with his more experienced pantomime cohorts. There is loads of energy on stage and some great vocals especially from Jenny Platt as Mavis Moorside and Good Fairy Greenfield. Richard J Fletcher has clearly honed his skills as a Dame and steps into Fine Time Fontayne’s shoes like a veritable Cinderella. My favourite character has to be Mitesh Soni’s Hazy the Hippy Cow. He delights on stage with some great cow based one liners and his take on the Kelis track Milkshake, but overall it is the sheer charm of his performance that steals the show.

The musical numbers are well chosen and range through pop songs like Body Rockers I Like the way you Moo(ve) to tracks lifted from musicals such as Into The Woods and Oklahoma. The orchestra led by Dave Bintley are excellent and the additional young dancers work really hard throughout with several giving notable performances.

This is my third trip to pantomime at Oldham Coliseum and perhaps the best endorsement I can give is that my teenage and twenty something kids eagerly ask to come each year. It has become a festive family tradition in our household and I can see them making the trip up to Oldham with their own kids in the future. Watching Sam Glen on stage I thought he captured a real sense of the comic devised by Richard J Fletcher, it was lovely to later discover he had grown up watching pantomime at Oldham just like his predecessor had. It’s a nice thought to sit in the Coliseum and look around an audience of smiling families and wonder who there might be on stage in another ten years.

Oldham Coliseum 16 Nov 2019 – 11 January 2020

Images by Darren Robinson

PLAYLAND

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu and Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

Written by Athol Fugard

Directed by Jake Murray

The Empty Space

Elysium Theatre Company have once again shown what high calibre work they can produce. Great story telling from South African playwright Athol Fugard with sound direction from Jake Murray and powerful performances from both male leads ensure that this is a great piece of theatre . A journey through trauma to possible redemption, Playland explores what happens to the human psyche when men with a strong moral code find themselves doing unspeakable things and then have to find a way to live with the consequences.

Set in Playland, a travelling fairground, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 1989 when war veteran Gideon La Roux meets the fairground watchman Martinus Zulu. Behind the gaudy splendour of the lights and wurlitzer music is the deeply reflective Martinus alone in his monastic space. This bleak setting eventually serves as a kind of confessional for both men. The absolute power of this performance is not just that it is about the unravelling of a man with PTSD, but that it is a man who fought in a war of Apartheid where soldiers were forced to take a vow of silence and where truth was white washed or blacked out. Somehow Gideon is pulled towards another man who is guarding his own secret pain and who has also broken the sixth commandment.

Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

This is a perfectly balanced double act from two actors who were both also excellent in a previous Elysium production Jesus Hopped the A Train. Danny Solomon is veteran Gideon, a man whose initial bonhomie hides deep psychological wounds that slowly start to surface as the clock ticks down to a new year. Solomon is all nervous energy and keen, darting eyes while he attempts to engage the recalcitrant security guard. He is engaging and charming as he tells stories of his pigeons and his childhood but effortlessly shifts into menace and madness as he attempts to gaslight his reluctant companion into violence. He increasingly reminds me of early Jack Nicholson in the ways he can play with energy, tempo and mood.

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu

Faz Singhateh counters Solomon with a wonderfully controlled and restrained performance. Stiff with righteous indignation, every sinew is coiled as his Martinus watches and waits like a wary, wounded animal. The growing tension between both men slowly builds, becoming palpable as their stories are told and they find common ground in their actions but struggle with their opposing perceptions of redemption and forgiveness.

The writing is evocative and brutal in its description of the horrors of the Border War, but is also tender as it reveals the youthful innocence of childhood. Simple but effective staging with rich lighting and a fabulous fairground soundscape add additional pleasure to this production. Everything is thoughtfully and sensitively done, ensuring that 30 years on this tale of redemption and forgiveness still feels timely and relevant.

Empty Space 31st Oct – 2nd Nov 2019

Black History Month

Images by Victoria Wai Photography

Light Falls

Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Original music by Jarvis Cocker

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Light Falls marks the end of Sarah Frankcom’s tenure as Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It seems only fitting that she bows out with a play about loss and endings. In the same week as iconic Northern soap Coronation Street is opening up a frank conversation about death, grief and kindness comes this new play by Simon Stephens. He has written a delicate and beautiful play about death that is also a eulogy to kindness and a testament to fortitude.

Christine (a very moving and understated performance by Rebecca Manley) is nine months sober after a life of alcoholism when she walks into a Stockport supermarket. Married to Bernard and a mother to Jess, Steven and Ashe, and a grandmother to baby Layton, she hovers at the shelf of vodka before dying suddenly from a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. It is 12 minutes to 5pm. It is a Monday in February 2017. What happens next moves from the mundane to the sublime as Christine hovers around her family watching the defining moments in their lives as they hear of her death. What this quiet play does so well is capture how time can suddenly stand still yet life moves on around us and so inevitably must we, even when our world has irrevocably changed.

The cast of ten explore the intertwined relationships of a family and those around them as Christine dies. There are standout performances from Lloyd Hutchinson and Carla Henry as Bernard and his mistress as they navigate through a fumbling attempt at a threesome in a Doncaster hotel. There is a terrible poignancy and dark humour to this blustering, overweight man striving for new experiences yet ultimately lusting more for a double cone icecream than two young women in his hotel four poster bed.

All three children are emotionally damaged by their upbringing with an alcoholic mother who took wine to McDonalds and was drunk in the school playground. Defensive and wary in their emotional relationships they struggle with attachments having known a parent who at times favoured vodka over them. The play touches on each of their partnerships and through interactions and fragments of dialogue gives a sense of ongoing internal struggles.

Katie West is simply wonderful as Ashe, a desperate, exhausted young mother who has attempted suicide only months before her mother’s death. She exudes vulnerability and raw emotion in all her scenes and it is her presence that lingers after leaving the theatre. This is a portrayal of grief, fortitude and love that makes this play soar.

The stark, bare elegance of the set by Naomi Dawson ensures this is always about the actors. The stairs and tiered steps open out the staging and also feel like a gentle hint of stairs to heaven and steps in the grieving process. The cascading downpour that drenches has the catharsis of an outpouring of grief and emotion. The much heralded music by Jarvis Cocker is also understated in a less is more way. A recurring melody and a single Hymn of the North feel like the familiar comfort of a lullaby.

This is a low key production that favours subtle touches, gritty humour and beautiful writing to colour and shade an ordinary family dealing with the stark pain of loss. I’ll be watching from the shoreline epitomizes what many of us hope for when we have to survive loss. We yearn for that sense of being watched over and still cared for, as Christine does with her children. Much has been made of Light Falls as a Northern play by a Northern writer with a hymn by a Northern songwriter. Personally I’m not sure it matters where they are from, North or South. We are shaped by our roots, our heritage and whether we embrace or reject that, or run from it or back to it, our shoreline is simply our core, our gut, our safe place. We all need a haven when our world is rocked by loss regardless of who we are or where we live.

Royal Exchange Theatre 24th October – 16th November 2019

Images by Manuel Harlan

ACEPHALOUS MONSTER

Concept and Performer Ron Athey

Manchester Word of Warning at NIAMOS

This is a marriage made in heaven/hell as the iconic and maverick performance artist Ron Athey performs his blistering Acephalous Monster in the chilly, faded splendour of the old Hulme Hippodrome now reinvented as NIAMOS. Known for his bloody and visceral explorations of life, death, sexuality, trauma and fortitude this recent work focuses on the mutating, insidious spread of neo-fascism. Comprising video projections, readings, word virus and blood letting, Acephalous Monster is both troubling and mesmerising.

The performance is inspired by the work of George Bataille and his creation of a secret society, Ac├ęphale which sought to combat 1930s fascism and rescue Nietzsche from the Nazi propaganda machine. It is provocative and definitely playing with the limits of artistic practice, but Athey is experienced and assured in his practice so the work never feels gratuitous.

Divided into five distinct sections this is not for the faint hearted. Pistol Poem sees a dapper, suited Athey chanting out numbers as he moves across a grid with deliberate and increasingly exaggerated movements like Hitler doing a step class. Later joined by Hermes Pittakos, they continue what seems a pointless repetition of moves that is quite hypnotic, while text by George Bataille appears on the screen behind. In Dionysus vs The Crucified One we see Athey at a glowing red pulpit reading lecture text from Bataille on the madness of Nietzsche while video shows the violent, imagined conception of the Minotaur.

The core focuses on celebrating the beheading of Louis XVI as an elaborately wigged Athey powders and preens before facing his execution like a macabre Punch and Judy show. There are inevitably allusions to our current political buffoons and their elaborately coiffed heads. The background footage features beheadings in the labyrinth of Forest Lawn Memorial Patk in Greendale. There is a delicious irony in Athey exploring the concept of Ac├ęphale, the headless mascot and monster in the very cemetery where Walt Disney lies buried while his severed head is in a cryogenic facility.

Apotheosis sees Athey naked as he merges into a pool of gleaming viscose goo and then rises clutching visceral guts or umbilical cord with pigs skull mask. Dark and beautiful this is visually stunning and moving. In the final part he is joined again on stage by Hermes Pittakos for a delicate and painstaking blood letting that depicts an old masters painting. On the screen behind a BDSM scene unfolds with fakir shoes and the insertion of an elaborate peacock feather buttplug. This closing scene has real tenderness and joy. Perhaps a celebration of life and fortitude it marries the work of Athey who tested positive for HIV over 30 years ago and has survived to see PrEP while also celebrating the work of fellow performance artist Jon John who recently died from cancer in his early thirties.

There is humour, tenderness and supreme elegance in every aspect of this work. It feels impossible not to be moved by this multi layered, lushly designed performance.

NIAMOS 23rd October 2019

Cambridge Junction 30th October 2019

Ron Athey

Word of Warning

Images by Rachel Papo

Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah, or Much Ado About Nothing

The Arden School of Theatre

In collaboration with Figs in Wigs

The Waterside Theatre

It is always interesting to see what comes out of collaborations between innovative companies and theatre schools. This new piece of work created with Figs and Wigs has all their trademark elements of theatre, dance and comedy blended with silly puns and pop culture references all linked by a rich vein of absurdist humour and bonkers surrealism.

This performance is full of energy and tongue in cheek humour. Nine young performers in neon wigs and boiler suits like oompa loompas with maintenance loans. Popular culture references pop up in anarchic games of Countdown which have no winners or losers as they descend into perky dance routines and evolve toward Pointless. The consonants and vowels on display continuously shifting into yet another meansingles phrase. What could be text introducing Shakespeare is instead graphic design dummy text interspersed with the true text of the evening this is a show about nothing don’t search for meaning because there is none life is a circle it doesn’t have a point.

Shots from the Kenneth Branagh movie Much Ado About Nothing sit alongside parody film made by the performers with fake horses. Everywhere is subversion as a pantomime horse descends the stairs through the audience toward twerking horses clad in ruffled satin shirts. Later Hero the bride glides down the same stairs clad in boiler suit and satin wedding dress towards an church full of vivid vignettes of characters brightly drawn and brought to life by the cast.

Black clad mourners carry tiny butterfly coffins as they gather now for a eulogy rather than a wedding. The absurdist poignancy is playfully ruptured as this occasion morphs into a bad poetry slam. Musical interludes see various instruments employed in random ways punctuated by bad puns and finally a discussion as to how the ending should be framed… but this is Figs in Wigs and a bunch of next generation innovators so blah blah blah blah blah…

Waterside Theatre 10th/11th October 2019

Arden School of Theatre

Figs and Wigs

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

Image by Richard Davenport, The Other Richard

Written and devised using verbatim material by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett

Directed by Billy Barrett

HOME

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True uses verbatim theatre to launch a blistering assault on the legal system’s attitude to women in rape and sexual assault cases, and how patriarchal perspectives inform how our truth is perceived. Ripping through the centuries comes the voice of Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi from the surviving pages of a 400 year old rape case in Rome. A seven month long court case in 1612 that pitched this remarkable 17 year old against Agostino Tassi, an older, established artist who had given her painting lessons and viciously raped her.

Using verbatim text is something Breach have honed as a theatrical tool throughout all five of their productions. They have a sensitivity to the material and a wonderfully creative and playful way of transposing it unto the stage in a way that works visually. Using clever design from Luke W Robson with lighting by Lucy Adams they create a rich Baroque environment that summons up painting studios but with a sinister hint of courtroom/prison torture chamber.

The pace is excellent here, this may be 400 year old court documents but Billy Barrett ensures they feel fresh, vivid and shockingly relevant to today. When the courtroom drama cuts to descriptions of Artemisia’s paintings of classical historical images, the energy shifts again. What ensues is cheeky and merciless as Ellice Stevens, Sophie Steer and Kathryn Bond do a glorious take on a Benny Hill style sketch and slice through traditional male stereotypical assumptions about female desire.

All three female performers take on the central roles and those of additional characters with great skill, integrity and energy. These are not easy roles to perform as they are embedded in the truth of real words spoken by a wounded young woman astounded by what the courts require of her to accept her truth. Ellice Stevens gives a brilliant performance as Artemisia allowing her a vulnerability that is laced with indignation, innate self confidence and an insistence that her voice be heard. She brings joy and power to this harrowing story of a young woman who emerges as a success and not as a victim.

Kathryn Bond has the tricky role of Tuzia who fails to protect or support her young charge yet is also the victim of bullying by the wily Tassi. She does a great job of evoking a gossipy, foolish woman who is easily swayed but not heartless either.

Sophie Steer takes on the most difficult role as the vicious rapist whose scheming ways and previous history of assaults are clearly documented in the court papers. She is mesmerising as she exudes a sense of Tassi’s narcissistic selfishness and brutal intent to trample on anyone in his path. As a actress she has an uncanny and brilliant capacity to step into a character’s skin like a chameleon. The shift from scheming rapist Tassi to avenging angel Judith is wonderful to observe as she literally sheds his skin and sex and reinvents herself as another character.

What we see on stage is outrageous, ghastly and painful but ultimately triumphant as Artemisia summons her heroine Judith to behead her offender Holofernes. Breach evoke a #MeToo through the ages as Patti Smith’s defiant anthem Gloria ricochets through the theatre and hopefully beyond. A celebration of Artemisia, her later achievements as an artist, and her words, ” as long as I live I will have control over my being…I’ll show you what a woman can do”.

HOME 8th Oct – 12th Oct 2019

Breach

Baby Fever

STUN Studio, Z Arts

CONTACT YOUNG COMPANY/DEGASTEN

Co-presented and commissioned with Contact

This new work commissioned for SICK! Festival 2019 sees Contact Young Company (CYC) working with Amsterdam based Theater Degasten whose work is also focused on developing the creativity of people from all backgrounds. Exploring the commodification of happiness, a group of young artists provide a searing and provocative insight into their lives. Baby Fever is a lot less about how young people feel about creating the next generation and instead explores what value they put on life currently. This is an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable look at who they are as a generation and how they feel about existing in this community, this society and this world.

Divided into three very different segments Baby Fever starts with the audience surrounded by a series of spoken word pieces that come at you from different angles about very varied topics. To one side there is a provocative take on your beloved NHS while another voice behind discusses the politics around our water or yet another gives their personal take on mental health attitudes. Standing above the audience on benches this feels like a twist on Speaker’s Corner. In the middle section eyes closed throughout and moving carefully and respectfully around each other, every tiny gesture feels magnified and mesmerising. The final section has performers individually inviting audience members to engage with them one to one. The space takes on the clamour of daily life hustle bustle as the action unfolds yet poignantly each experience is unique and cannot be replicated again.

What is especially striking about this piece of theatre is the sense of buttons being pushed, boundaries being challenged and risks being taken…yet all this is occurring in what feels like a very safe space. Even the staging feels framed by the boundaries of benches and flooring is protected by plastic covering which is later ever so carefully removed and packed up. This space is hot and uncomfortable with blinding lighting yet it is clear this is as intentional as every searing statement in the spoken word section. The staging might be unconventional as audience and performers merge in the centre of the space, yet throughout the piece, there is information being given to ground everyone and clarify what is happening. We are told there are three sections to the piece and their running times. We are informed what our level of participation is and where to sit or stand, all this ensures that safe guarding the young performers and their audience is paramount. Speaking to CYC producer Keisha Thompson during the show, it was clear just how seriously this work is valued and nurtured. Perhaps what I took away from Baby Fever was the need we all have right now for clarity, creative thinking and the means to form our own personal boundaries and respect those of everyone around us.

SICK! FESTIVAL 1st- 3rd October 2019

SICK! FESTIVAL 2019

CONTACT

Theater DEGASTEN