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THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME

THE EDGE THEATRE

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music & Lyrics by Simon Waters

The sun is shining, the food at The Dressing Room is tasty and plentiful and the garden at The Edge Theatre is colourful with lush flowers and bright balloons. It feels like a garden party and it is indeed time to party. This is a celebration of the wonderful creative partnership between The Edge Theatre and The Booth Centre who work with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Last year’s show A Spanish Adventure was really impressive. Today’s performance is also a celebratory homage to our NHS turning 70 on July 5th.

This is a labour of love with a backdrop of blue hospital curtains and NHS health signage dotted around. The cast are clad in the pastel hues of a wide range of NHS staff. Hospital beds and wheelchairs glide across the stage and at one point forceps, stethoscopes and other medical implements are amusingly used to form the percussion for one of the musical numbers.

The performance uses a range of skits, songs and choreographed pieces to acknowledge the value and significance of the NHS in our lives. Whether rich or poor, sick or well, we are all so used to its existence we might easily forget it only sprang into existence in the second half of the last century. We take it for granted and in this performance there are timely reminders of its inherent value, what we lacked before it’s creation and what may follow if we don’t fight to protect our NHS services.

The music is gorgeous with all new numbers written by Simon Waters apart from the Gershwin classic as title song. The lyrics are witty and wry and competently delivered by the cast and a truly wonderful chorus comprised of Connie Hartley, Jessica McLinden and Michael Christopher.

There is some lovely humour and slapstick clowning with great comic timing that is balanced by some emotive and genuinely poignant pieces. The closing speech is beautifully written and delivered wonderfully by a younger cast member. It alludes to the strong connection we all have as our NHS does literally pull each of us into this world and holds many of us as we leave it. We owe it an immense debt and need to protect it, and this performance is a lovely reminder. It’s Your Birthday….Leave the worrying to Us. We are many and we are mighty.

The Edge Theatre 5-7th July

Mamma Mia

The Palace Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs by Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Mamma Mia is of course the phenomenally successful musical built around the ABBA back catalogue of hit songs. Approaching it’s 20th year of success and now having spawned two hit movies, it would seem set to fill the Aegean sea with froth, sass and sequins for at least another 20 years.

Girl meets Boy and falls in love, decides on a fairy tale wedding, and the only dilemma is which “Father” to call her own amongst three unwitting contenders. The Bride’s Mum is outed as having had a real summer of love during The Seventies and deals with the fallout with aplomb, ably aided by her two best friends and erstwhile backing singers. Everyone gets a happy ending and we all celebrate by dancing in the aisles singing along to Waterloo with a flurry of sequins and exploding confetti cannons.

Lucy May Barker hits all the right notes as the sweet ingenue Sophie. Shona White is reassuringly capable and confident as Donna and delivers on every song moving effortlessly through every emotion from Slipping through my Fingers and The Winner takes it all to the stomping Waterloo. The best friends/Aunties Rosie and Tanya both add a real comedic edge to this production. Nicky Swift is all warmth and impish charm while Helen Anker does a wonderfully acerbic, woman of the world oozing sex appeal. The men are rather less memorable and though all do a good job supporting the women this will always be a show about the girls.

Visually the staging is quite low key using clever lighting to take us through day and into night on a Greek island with glorious weather. The simple staging is effective as it is the colour and spectacle of the ensemble routines that are the visual highlights of this production. The big numbers are great and witty elements such as the choreography of the flipper dance is delightful in Lay all your love on me.

Mamma Mia is lightweight fun at the theatre but cleverly frames a great back catalogue of greatest hits. This is clearly a hard working, highly committed cast and the absolute highlight of the night is the rousing delivery they give after the last curtain call. Riotous fun and decidedly feel good entertainment.

The Palace Theatre until July 14th.

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peakes humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca Peake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.

The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.

Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.

The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.

Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.

Royal Exchange Theatre until 28th July

Images by Keith Pattison

Bread & Roses

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Ian Kershaw

Directed by Amanda Huxtable

Ian Kershaw has written a protest musical based on the 1912 Bread and Roses worker’s strike in Massachusetts that is as relevant today and is a powerful call to arms. Kershaw is a passionate advocate of solidarity, equality and compassion and his views shine through in this piece. Bread & Roses is an anthem for change and a homage to the hope that Our Tomorrows are better than our Yesterdays.

The opening scene is beautiful and truly memorable. Holding candlelit lamps, the cast bring in the new year of 1912 as they sing Auld Lang Sang a capello. New legislation had decreed that women and children now have a working week of 54 hours instead of 56. The Bread and Roses strike was the worker’s response to mill owners reducing pay and speeding up the looms. In a community comprised mainly of immigrants, the particularly special nature of this strike is that there was a united multinational response from the workers. Belts on looms were cut, the first moving picket line in America got around new legislation about loitering and children were sent away to places where they could be properly fed. Public response forced change and the mill owners had to accede to the workers demands.

This is a very strong and multiskilled cast. They sing extremely well and many play a range of instruments including piano, guitar, and banjo. The music is a mix of belting hymns such as Rock of Ages, haunting Irish ballads like The Parting Glass and stirring protest songs. There is Power in a Union by activist Joe Hill famous for his songs in that era, the wonderful Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim and the stirring bluegrass Ain’t No Grave made famous by Johnny Cash. The protest was known as “The Singing Strike of 1912” and this play celebrates that with gusto.

Lauren Redding as stout- hearted Martha gives a standout performance with an incredible voice and stage presence. Claire Burns as the martyred Anna is astounding. She creates goose pimples as the ghostly presence with her beautiful voice. I would happily buy the soundtrack to this production if it’s made available. Now that might be a great way to raise money for the foodbanks or homeless around Oldham??

The male performers do a great job throughout, particularly Oliver Wellington as Cal, but this is a female led cast. It’s star acting performance is Emma Naomi who has incredible natural grace on stage and captivates as Lily-Rose, the young widow and mother who finds her voice as an activist.

This was a very impressive opening night and Director Amanda Huxtable has created something very special. There are points where a more relaxed, naturalistic approach might benefit especially in the movement direction which at times appeared stilted. Moments where the chorus move into the aisles and circle during protest rallies work well creating a strong sense of audience involvement and creating more energy on stage. The illustrating of issues such as immigration, poverty, unemployment and the dangers of “false news” are crystal clear, leaving uncertainty around the need for the final modern day scene.

Kate Unwin‘s set has a real warmth and lustre. The cotton bales prevail in every scene whether at the impoverished worker’s cottage or at the factory gates where the mill looms turn overshadowing every life in the town of Lawrence as they once did in Oldham itself. The changing backdrop of gorgeous red and indigo skyscapes are sumptuous and set the mood very well. The lighting and sound is evocative as scenes shift from the peaceful sounds of riverbank fishing with the idyll of crickets singing to the whirr and clamour of the looms.

This is a wonderful production to see in Oldham and would also make an excellent show to adapt for schools or colleges to perform. There is a strong political message from the past that resonates in our current society. We may need bread for sustenance but we have rarely been in so much need of roses such as this production.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd June – 7th July

Images by Joel Chester Flides

The Drill

HOME

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