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A Home for Grief

A Home for Grief. Installation at CONTACT. Image: Phil Daley

Created by Fabiola Santana and WilL Dickie

Audio walk is downloaded on Go Jauntly app

CONTACT THEATRE

Today 23 years ago I was mourning anew the loss of my father as I contemplated becoming a parent for the first time. I was imagining the new relationship I might have with my mother as she became a grandmother for the first time. 8.15pm tonight is the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. Birth and Death are certainties…the bit in between is the tricky bit. This morning I entered CONTACT for the first time since it reopened. It made me immediately think of Dave Murray, QuietManDave, another bereavement in my life who also loved theatre and loved this building. Was today really the day to walk and contemplate A Home for Grief?

Images from my walk

Fabiola Santana created this audio walk and installation. The Portuguese dancer and theatre maker shares intimate memories of her own bereavements; a dearly loved father taken suddenly by the sea and a grandmother whose own family memories were slowly erased by dementia. Interspersed with her own reflections and a soundscape evoking the Portuguese coast are the voices of women from the North West who tell their own stories of grief. This approximately 50 minute walk is a study in quiet reflection…a opportunity to slow your pace…look around and above and just be…be comforted by the gentle voices of Fabiola and the other women.

There is nothing to fear in this contemplation of loss, and the warmth and supportive nature of Fabiola and fellow creator and sound designer WilL Dickie ensure that safeguarding is paramount in the production. They are present as you depart and when you return they guide you into the installation. Housed in the new Space O at CONTACT this installation is a series of spaces within a space that each have a short accompanying audio. Big leather chairs envelop you as you create your own memorial for a loved one. A rocking chair soothes you before you add to a growing story of remembrance. Other curios evoke feelings and connections as you move through a space interspersed with quilted hangings describing the varying landscapes of grief within us. A memory book is the fitting close to this emotional but incredibly comforting experience.

The Memory Book

This is a unique and deeply personal theatre experience which deftly and mindfully navigates difficult subject matter. Plans are hopefully in place to create a permanent sound walk here as established at Lancaster Arts. Perhaps now more than ever before we need a A Home for Grief where like these women we feel witnessed, connected, comforted.

CONTACT 29TH – 31ST JULY 2021

Go Jauntly app

NOTES ON GRIEF

The author of NOTES ON GRIEF Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Directed by Rae McKen

Commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival

Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central

Michelle Asante in Notes On Grief. Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central. ©Tristram Kenton

The programming of this piece is incredibly timely and poignant. Grief is nothing new but grief experienced on a global scale in a digital age is new to us. Loss and Grief have enveloped us all in a choking haze for the past 18 months. This is a verbatim piece that brings to the stage Notes on Grief written by the renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This essay was her response to the overwhelming loss she experienced last year on the news of the death of her beloved father, the original dada; the scholar James Nwoye Adichie. What she writes is the uniqueness of her own lived experience but running through her words are the threads that bind us all in our humanity- the knowledge that grief will take us to a dark chasm and when we emerge we are never the same again.

Michelle Asante gives a strong performance in this demanding piece of verbatim and she is supported by two other cast members who are tasked with fleshing out a range of characters including her dead father at various points on his life. Accents and mannerisms of the Nigerian family are on point but too often lines are fluffed and beats are missed. Asante is the consummate professional amidst minor errors and tech issues with lights coming on out of sync. However the overwhelming problem is they distract from the writing and give this production an am-dram feeling that is unworthy of an international festival production.

There is something jarring and clumsy in the movement sequences that do nothing to add to the production and seem at odds with the text. Adichie actually writes of her acknowledgement of the Igbo way, of the African performative playing out of grief and acknowledges that it is not for her. It seems odd that Director Rae McKen chooses to use this device to push home to the audience the level of grief…it is unnecessary when the writers words spoken aloud by Assante do all that is needed. Video sequences and projected images also allude to the sense of loss and there are moments where they work beautifully but they risk being overused and losing their potency.

Michelle Asante, Uche Abuah and Itoya Osagiede ©Tristram Kenton

Notes On Grief could have been the absolute highlight of this Festival but sadly it falls short. The emotion of the writing just does not translate to stage in this particular production…perhaps the Director was hampered by the fear many of us hold around grief and what it may do to us. Any issues are however secondary to the power of this very personal essay. Without alluding to it once, Adichie takes us through the 5 stages of grief so wonderfully explained in Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. We see the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression and in the final line, the acceptance I am writing about my father in the past tense,and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.

Adichie reflects towards the end that her father was truly lovely. The simplicity and power of that statement is perhaps the most moving moment in the production. Sitting in the audience I could not help reflect on my own father. He too was Daddy and he too was truly lovely and has been gone now for 29 long years. Watching this play was also 2 years and 1 day on from the loss of another truly lovely man in my life. If Notes On Grief reminds us of anything it is that grief is just love with nowhere left to go. We are lucky to have loved and to have encountered people in our lives who were simply easy to love.

Manchester Central 6-17 July MIF21

The Global Playground

The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites. Manchester International Festival 2021 ©Tristram Kenton

Director Sue Buckmaster

Choreographer Gregory Maqoma

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Great Northern Warehouse

Manchester International Festival 2021

A family theatre show in the midst of an ongoing pandemic is special for so many reasons. In a MIF programme that is for many alarmingly short on theatre and dance, there is no small pressure on Theatre-Rites to use their 25 years of experience to make something very special indeed. The focus of The Global Playground is all about the joy of unfettered play. It is all about exuberance, collaboration and celebration. A show for families can often appear off putting with the assumption it will be either saccharine or heavy handed or sadly both. However Director Sue Buckmaster and MIF have a proven flare for family programming that can appeal to all ages in ways that delight and inform. The Global Playground delivers on entertainment with a neat look into the world of creative film making.

The Global Playground. Theatre-Rites. MIF21.Jahmarley Bachelor and Sean Garratt ©Tristram Kenton

This is a show within a show as it unfolds, it is clear that we are the audience watching the filming of a show for children’s television that reflects diversity in dance. It soon becomes clear that we are also witnessing the lovable flustered Sean Garratt as an inexperienced film director faced with mounting challenges as dancers and musicians drop out due to travel restrictions and other issues that neatly reflect the last year of a global pandemic. Creative solutions abound as Kennedy Junior Muntanga dances a duet on Zoom with Thulani Chauke who genuinely couldn’t travel to Britain as originally planned. Merlin Jones takes the reins playing all the live instruments when composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson is also unable to appear.

A circular stage has a flavour of the circus and certainly this is a performance filled with clowning and buffoonery but the staging also creates a feeling of safety for all in this new world of covid safety. This is a set filled with film equipment which is introduced and explained to the audience. Above, in front and behind there is always stuff to see. Images are projected on walls, a drum kit looks down on us, a talking camera is sometimes like a chatty ventriloquists’ dummy or becomes snake like and sinister as it darts a red light across the stage like a beady, disapproving eye. This is a fun way to learn about sound and lighting on a set.

The dance performances are uniformly excellent and varied. There are flavours of a range of styles including contemporary with hip hop dance offs and moments of clowning. The sheer exuberance and joy of movement is palpable and shines through in the facial expressions of all the performers particularly Annie Edwards and Jahmarley Bachelor. Puppetry and ventriloquism also feature and are seamlessly interwoven into the story by choreographer Gregory Maqoma.

The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites. Annie Edwards and Jahmarley Bachelor. ©Tristram Kenton

The dancers increasingly take charge doing their own thing and left to play something new and beautiful emerges. The set is deconstructed and props and equipment are repurposed as lighting equipment become skirts and a wonky tripod covered in duct tape becomes the choreographer. There is an anarchic element yet also an underlying message that if we embrace the chaos we may create a new order that has its own intrinsic value.

Unit 5, Great Northern Warehouse 2-18 July 2021

Bloody Elle – A gig musical

Lauryn Redding in Bloody Elle – A gig musical. Image by Pippa Rankin

Written and Performed by Lauryn Redding

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

It’s 14 months since the Royal Exchange closed its doors on the eve of press night for Rockets and Blue Lights. Racing across St Ann’s Square to the cheers across the city as England scores in the footie, I spot the smiling faces of the theatre Comms team as they welcome everyone back to press night. There is a general feeling of goodwill and excitement in the building so undoubtedly huge pressure on Writer/Performer Lauryn Redding and Director Bryony Shanahan and the team to make this a night to remember. It’s a huge gamble to have only one performer sustain a 2 act 2 hour plus performance on the main stage and make it work, make it matter, make it memorable for the work not just as a reopening after a global pandemic…Lauryn Redding does just that. Funny, tender and raw, Bloody Elle is a rousing tale of sexual awakening with all its joy and sorrow. As Redding tells us Censoring. Of anything. Of anyone. Of yourself. Of someone else. Is exhausting and it cuts you from the inside.

Lauryn Redding. Image by Pippa Rankin

Director Bryony Shanahan and Movement Director Yandass Ndlovo ensure that the performance has flow and energy and never feels like a static piece of solo story telling. The staging by Designer Amanda Stoodley dispenses with the famous banquette seats and their potential covid risks. Instead she introduces red stools and candle lit tables to create a cosy pub vibe that effectively frame the stage. This is gig theatre and a true one woman band. The original music by Redding with direction by Sound Director Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is great and drives the narrative but also creates a swirling soundscape to add mood and shade to the story telling.

The multi levelled stage aids the introduction of characters and scenes including Elle’s high rise council flat in Cloud Rise and is splashed with what seems to be a bucket of white wash? This picks up the bursts of coloured light that flood the stage or envelop Redding. The white wash effect also seems to reflect the way we can paint out aspects of ourselves or let others not see our true colours, to continue to not see the whole of us, the truth of what and who we may be if we own our own story. Corny perhaps but I wish Redding was flooded with glorious rainbow colours as she look her well deserved second curtain call.

The story is a simple story of girl meets girl. There is a division of class and aspirations when working class Elle meets posh Eve with guacamole green eyes on route to a medical degree at Oxford University. They bond over vinyl records and work at Chips and Dips despite their differences – Eve has a pony in a paddock whereas Elle has Big Sally on the 12th floor. The driving force of this narrative is less about class, it zeroes in on the agony and ecstacy of first love and how this is still intensified by the difficulties for many of coming to terms with your sexuality and being accepted for who you are and how you love.

This is a show that might not have been seen at the Royal Exchange without the global pandemic. Redding would probably been too busy working to create this show and a solo gig theatre performance might not have been an obvious choice for this theatre. It probably needed ten years of growing and healing for Redding to be ready to tell such a personal story. There is a vivid whip sharp authenticity to this performance. Insouciant banter with the audience, poignant and emotional song writing, raw, vivid storytelling filled with poetic observations…Bloody Elle ticks every box and more. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of rebuilding what is broken or damaged using gold to create something stronger and even more beautiful. Redding has taken her broken heart and using her artistic talent as Kintsugi – the result is the threads of gold running through this gorgeous show. Hopefully as we navigate the new normal of Covid-19, the Royal Exchange is also emerging with new seams of gold too.

Royal Exchange June 23rd – July 17th 2021

Little Wimmin

Little Wimmin. Image by Jemima Yong

Adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women by Figs in Wigs

HOME

Is this a feminist deconstruction of a revered classic novel? Is it poking fun at the many movie versions? Perhaps it is a clever take on climate change? Or simply a bizarre series of infomercials for juicing machines and vibrating exercise platforms? I’m not entirely certain that the five strong ensemble that is Figs in Wigs are any clearer than the audience.

A whirlwind first act that is a similar length to the interval break seems to be a trailer full of spoilers to Little Wimmin spliced with an idiots guide to Little Women. Dressed in floaty gowns while suspended midair with fluffy cloud wigs the Figs manage to both enchant and irritate. They appear to be both artful and artless in their delivery, creating a challenge for the audience…do we want to come back after the interval and wait almost 2 hours to see the little Wimmin make a margarita or shall we bugger off at the interval and just order one at the bar?

Act 2 opens like an am-dram performance that appears to be a faithful rendition of the classic…just very orange. If the past was all white lace gloves then the present for Figs in Wigs, and undoubtedly the future, is orange…very orange indeed. Meg manages, Jo lollops, Meg simpers (and dies) and Amy flounces. Oh and the Christmas tree breaks the fourth wall to give a sneering critique of the show so far before lip syncing to the Chris Rea classic Driving Home for Christmas with a delivery that would not look out of place on Rupaul’s Drag Race.

There are radical hair restyles, arson, births and deaths all interspersed with prolonged crying. It feels like this pain will never end…When will it be over? These phrases repeatedly occur as time fractures, ice sculptures melt on tea trays, jelly wobbles on vibrating plates and rugs are beaten in an orgasmic frenzy. There is a pervading sense of what mind blowing creative carnage might occur if you locked these five in a rehearsal space with Forced Entertainment and Rashdash.

There are some clever and beautifully choreographed dance sequences, especially the piece depicting time against a backdrop of faded replications of the performance that is very effective. Genius moments include an unforgettable delivery of Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien and Lynchian sequences where a giant lace glove dances alongside a horse in a pin stripe suit. Limes fall from the sky and are rhythmically squeezed by an industrial juicer before being decanted into a giant cocktail glass and drank by the famous five now clad in you guessed it – orange hazmat suits.

This is not a show for the faint hearted or the easy confused. However it is a delight if you like your absurdist theatre orange…very orange indeed. With a pinch of subversion, a dash of too clever for its own good, a drip of climate change politics and a squirt of feminism Little Wimmin is a theatrical cocktail.

HOME 5th -14th March 2020

All images by Jemima Yong

INSANE ANIMALS

Bourgeois and Maurice. Image by Drew Forsyth

Written by George Heyworth and Liv Morris

Directed by Philip McMahon

HOME

From the moment the spoken intro distorts into static and alien green beams swirl out across the audience, it is clear the mothership has landed. HOME is now host to the lovable alien glitter gods Bourgeois and Maurice. All brittle deadpan delivery and bored insouciance the delightful duo open with a cheery ditty Brink of Extinction reminding their audience things are not great on Earth, while also informing us that with their assistance and the aircon pumping out Poppers…well we might just be okay.

It is quickly evident why this dastardly duo secured the first T1 Commission to create a new piece of work for the main stage at HOME. Witty fast paced lyrics and double entendres ricochet like alien laser beams as they stride around a tinfoil stage as though on a Parisian runway. Writers and performers George Heyworth and Liv Morris have their audience in the palms of their exquisitely manicured hands and we are going on the ride of our lives as we are pulled back 1500 hundred years before Homer wrote The Iliad to the oldest written story The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Michael Hankin has designed a set that blends all the enthusiasm for arts and crafts of 1970s Blue Peter with traces of a set from The Mighty Boosh or an Austin Powers movie. The overall effect is a full on riot of colour and glitz that works surprisingly well. Accommodating a cast of eight plus all their musical instruments and a most unlikely throne, there is thankfully still space on stage for singing, dancing, fighting, fucking and brain sucking.

Emer Dineen in Insane Animals. Image by Drew Forsyth

Despite being a long established double act who take no prisoners there is a real generosity in this production and the writing allows the rest of the cast to glitter every bit as brightly as the dynamic duo themselves. A definite surprise hit is Lockie Chapman as Gilganesh, he absolutely owns his onstage kingdom and provides a mighty vocal talent. His big ballad Don’t Want to Get Old is simply beautiful; incredibly moving lyrics delivered with a poignant depth of emotion. The comic timing with his opponent/bedfellow Enkidu is as electrifying as the sparks crackling from the elegant talons of the alien gods. Kayed Mohamed-Mason  charms with his forest innocence but quickly ramps up the mischief after his raunchy encounters with the high priestess Shamhat. Emer Dineen has the natural talent to steal every scene she features in. A gorgeous bluesy vocal is accompanied by easy charm and deft comic expressions that captivate.

This is a fast paced musical that unapologetically steals from popular culture whether by an impish note from an Amazon delivery or a bed scene that could be from Morecambe and Wise or The Odd Couple. There are some weak points in the storyline and the first act ideally could end on the absolute high of the sublime anthem Gay for You. However by the end it’s hard to remember these points as the infectious joy of the show threatens to overwhelm even the Poppers in the atmosphere. Director Phillip McMahon of Thisispopbaby has given the whole production an extra layer of gloss and sequins. The songs are witty, pithy and socially relevant and are delivered with gusto by the whole cast. With a little editing and careful maintenance of the tinfoil budget this is a musical that could run and run.

HOME 28th Feb – 14th March 2020

FOUR MINUTES TWELVE SECONDS

Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes as Di and David.
Image by Joel Chester Fildes

Written by James Fritz

Directed by Chris Lawson and Natasha Harrison

Oldham Coliseum

With this week seeing the incarceration of Harvey Weinstein, this is a timely revival of James Fritz’s clever and insightful four hander. Four Minutes Twelve Seconds explores the darker aspects of the internet as this play takes a family down the rabbit hole of sexting, fake news and private forums. An act lasting four minutes will rupture trust and strain moral boundaries in a close family. Under the sensitive and empathic direction of Chris Lawson and Natasha Harrison this production is a genuine psychological thriller that gets under your skin and challenges its audience to consider our own views on morality, class and parenting in this digital age.

Di and David are the parents of a 17 year old boy who is on track for exam results that will get him out of Oldham and into University. After a violent attack from the brother of his girlfriend Cara, Jack’s parents are forced to face up to the consequences of a sex tape their son has made. Leaked unto the internet it tells a damning story depending on what the viewer chooses to see. Is this revenge porn, a terrible judgement error or possibly something even more dreadful? This is a truly fascinating insight into the cognitive dissonance that subverts our perception of truth when our minds cannot always accept the information we see before us.

The slick white set is modern and middle class with the few splashes of colour provided by fresh flowers and Hunter wellies. Designer Anna Reid has created something crisp and beautiful that allows for nowhere to hide. The reflective panels add to the feeling of this family being utterly exposed and continually finding their perception of reality and truth shift as they uncover more real and fake facts about those fatal four minutes. The lighting design and slashes of sound add to the growing sense of family normality being repeatedly tipped into a nightmarish vortex. This feeling is further enhanced by the movement direction employed by Natasha Harrison which sees Di and David (Jo Mousely and Lee Toomes) literally tipped over the edge as new information jolts their middle class contentment.

The cast all give strong and utterly believable performances. Jo Mousely is a powerhouse of emotion as feisty mum Di who is initially like a lioness out to protect her cub at all costs. As events unfold she is strained to breaking point, utterly at sea as her moral compass fluctuates and she contemplates the unimaginable. Lee Toomes as husband David appears pragmatic if somewhat ineffectual as he tries to steer his family through choppy waters. Calm and apparently likeable, Toomes delivers a performance that continually surprises with some punchy shifts of light and shade. The working class Cara (AlyceLiburd) and school friend Nick (Noah Olaoye) both give gently nuanced performances that add real depth. Liburd shows not an ounce of self pity is shown here, instead there is a blunt acceptance that accent and class will impact how her story is heard and believed. As “Thick Nick” Olaoye beautifully illustrates that morality and brains certainly do not always go hand in hand.

This production is genuinely exciting and thought provoking on so many levels. Beautifully staged and directed with strong performances, this is the undeniable proof that regional theatres may be short on finances but are certainly not short on talent and vision.

Oldham Coliseum 21st February – 7th March 2020

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

a little space

a little space. Image by Tom Woollard

Devised by Gecko and Mind The Gap

Commissioned by HOME and The Place

HOME

This brand new production brings together two powerhouse companies each with a unique reputation for creating challenging and provocative high calibre work. In a world with a rapidly growing population and a society where homelessness has somehow become a norm in our cities, a little space explores what space and home means. It might be something we treasure and nurture, or something we crave and dream off, or perhaps it is something to fear. An oasis, a vacuum, a suffocating space to escape from or a mental space to just breathe in.

There are all the trademark elements of Gecko in the precision and intricate details within this production as they balance the banal and the utterly weird and wonderful. The performances from Mind The Gap add another vibrant dimension by utterly embracing the weirdness and otherness while also celebrating the ordinary and the mudane elements of just inhabiting our own space.

a little space. Image by Tom Woollard

The five performers from Mind The Gap are utterly committed to their space on stage. Compellingly owning their physical space as this apartment block mutates from space to space, as light blurs and blends from dim and ominous green to rosy hue, as the soundscape incorporates church bells, birdsong or the terrifying beep of life support machines. There is a real magical aura as floorboards shift to create outdoor grass and daisies, performers disappear through trapdoor and rugs are pulled from under foot and one performer is literally weighed down by the weight of their apartment.

Engaging and provocative this is a production that goes straight to the heart of its subject matter. The tubular structure of the set is both reassuringly solid and secure yet playfully could equally suggest the bars of a prison. As the performers shine torches out into the audience there is a clear message about inclusion and exclusion, solitude or loneliness – how does it feel to be alone? A couple in one apartment are utterly alone yet together. He seeks escape and companionship in the flickering television while she is left out, alone and frustrated. Are the soap operas on tv becoming our guide or model for how to live in our space? An incisive scene blurs the lines between what happens on screen, on stage and in the audience perception. Multiple lightboxes portray many lives lived in many similar homes. On stage and in the audience we are all voyeurs seeking our best means to exist within our own little space.

HOME 12th – 15th February

Gecko details and Tour dates

Mind The Gap details and Tour dates

EXTRAORDINARY WALL [OF SILENCE]

Ad Infinitum with Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence]. Photo by Alex Brenner

Devised by The Company

Directed by George Mann

HOME

This is a genuinely fascinating production which is a clever blend of BSL verbatim theatre, history lecture (in the best sense) and part physical storytelling performance. In Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] 40 hours of interviews with deaf people are condensed into 3 personal experiences of being deaf and are further highlighted by a history guide to the oralist tradition. The fateful and deeply flawed decision made at Congress on the Education of the Deaf in 1880 attempted to wipe out sign language and had a profoundly negative impact on the education and lived experiences of the deaf community.

Staged within Anna Orton’s stark white set, the performance demands our absolute focus as this bright white ensures that every BSL word is crystal clear. I now absolutely understand and appreciate the need for bright lighting as used in Deaf Clubs – if signing is your means of communication then you need to see and be seen. This is wonderfully illustrated in Graham’s story as Matthew Gurney acts out the risks of sexual communication in the dark when Graham and his partner attempt oral sex.

Ad Infinitum. Photo by Alex Brenner

The three stories are in parts heartbreaking and hilarious. The performances are incredibly nuanced and tenderly informed as they blend physical storytelling with the expressive vibrancy of BSL and an orated performance by Deborah Pugh. Moments in Alan’s story with David Ellington where words are extraneous are dealt with exquisitely such as the first attempts exploring his mother’s make up or the blistering sexual assault by a teacher. Moira Anne McAuslan is a powerhouse of rage and indignation as she evokes Helen who suffered invasive procedures such as cochlear implants in the name of progress and her best interests. Parents lovingly attempting their best for their child in a society that sees deafness as something to be fixed left their daughter at sea in a world of hearing people where she just experienced horrible noise and ill equipped in the deaf community where she had never learned BSL. Graham’s experiences led a profoundly happy and confident deaf child with deaf parents to attempt suicide because of his brutal experiences in a hearing school and sheer ignorance in the workplace.

These stories highlight the ignorance around deafness and the often callous and ludicrous assumptions made by a non deaf society. Ad Infinitum have shone a blistering white light on the importance of maintaining Deaf Clubs and the damage done by the oralist tradition and the extraordinary wall [of Silence] that received the 1979 Conrad Report which eviscerated the idea that sign language was not a vital language of expression and an essential educational tool. This production is an out and loud retaking of deaf history and a bold statement to those developing new gene editing tools that Deafhood is here to stay and as Helen says I don’t need fixing!

HOME 12 -22 February 2020

Wuthering Heights


Rakhee Sharma and Alex Austin as Cathy and Heathcliff. Photo credit- Helen Murray

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

Written by Andy Sheridan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

This new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights creates an exciting theatrical opportunity to explore the moors and their doomed inhabitants in the round of the Royal Exchange. Would Director Bryony Shanahan and writer Andy Sheridan perhaps place a modern day damaged and doomed Heathcliff and Cathy up on Saddleworth Moors with a despairing school attendance officer? Might they be recognised as probably suffering from impulse control disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and possibly anorexia? This fresh take instead seeks to move between mining a comedic vein that borders into laugh out loud farce while equally revering the beauty of Emily’s poetry. Sadly the real emotional depth in this production is only really there when it glories in showcasing Bronte’s poetry with a dreamy soundscape by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. The end result is disjointed in terms of character development so it feels impossible to believe in the innate complexity of these wild, unbridled creatures of nature and their tumultuous relationship.

Alex Austin as Heathcliff. Photo credit- Helen Murray

There is a serious issue with the chemistry between Rakhee Sharma as Cathy and Alex Austin as Heathcliff. It is actually the mood established by the lighting and the musical accompaniment that drives and creates emotional depth and potency in this relationship. The rest is simply swagger, spits and hisses punctuated by glib swearing or beautiful and passionate speeches spoken eloquently but petulantly when they need to resonate with raw passion. There is a wonderful gawky awkwardness that Alex Austin brings to the young Heathcliff but too often his characterisation slips into glib gangster menace rather than wild, embittered and wounded soul. Sharma as Cathy is wild and feisty but often too shouty and pouty to truly convey the raw unfettered soul that Emily Bronte envisaged. I wanted to revel in her complexity but found myself just wishing she would calm down and not spoil the glorious sound of musicians Becky Wilkie and Sophie Galpin. At key moments my eyes were drawn to the impassioned face of Wilkie and sadly not that of Rakhee Sharma. David Crellin as Earnshaw brings warmth and humanity with a performance that is rich and complex.

In her first production as Co- Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan brings a lot of energy and movement to the production that at times creates a real sense of the wild moors and their freedom from the constraints of societal norms as the characters run free. There is a genuine pathos as Cathy struggles with letting go of childhood freedoms to be a mother and a wife. Creating magic and mayhem this is a Cathy that is perhaps closer to the weird sisters in the recent Macbeth at the Royal Exchange than the weird sisters at Haworth Parsonage. The casual cruelty shown by all the main protagonists is brutal and brutish, and perhaps this explains the decision to play so many key scenes for laughs. Moments such as when Heathcliff and Cathy are once more together on the moors struggle with the emotional depth of a key scene being undercut by Isabella raising laughs as she comically clambering over the rocky landscape. The humour does offset the darkness but sometimes this is at the expense of driving the plot forward in a believable manner.

The use of light shards works really well and designer Zoe Spurr has created a really painterly effect on mood and landscape. The set design is however more problematic with its messy blend of heath and hearth. The barren tree is beautiful as is the design allowing characters to depart this world or spy on others. The floor space however resembles a post apocalyptic golf course and has a playmobil feel rather than a naturalistic landscape. Overall this production may be as divisive in its execution and reception as the original book was when first received by its readers!

ROYAL EXCHANGE 7th FEB- 7th MARCH 2020

Images by Helen Murray