The Siege of Christmas 


CONTACT
Directed by Alan Lane

Contact Young Company

CONTACT AND SLUNG LOW

Having just seen a big, high octane pantomime earlier this week I was curious as to see how Contact Young Company (CYC) would  approach a Christmas family show. Under the direction of Alan Lane from the wonderful Leeds based Slung Low this was Christmas entertainment at its magical best. 

This promenade performance starts in the foyer as everyone dons headphones which serve to immerse everyone in the performance as it feels like we are all on an Nutcracker Army comms exercise or a festive Mission Impossible!!

Despite the reassuring tone of Dan the Front of House manager there is clearly something seriously amiss at CONTACT. The building has been taken over by some seriously grouchy mince pies and the spirit of Christmas is under siege trapped somewhere in the building we are now locked out off.

What’s more the snow has focused all it’s fall just by the foyer and things are getting a bit chilly. Thank heavens that there is a sudden appearance from a tooled up, highly skilled ninja-like Nutcracker toy soldier who is in search of helpers to save the spirit of Christmas. Sneaking us in via a back door we creep through the darkened with our youngest soldier proudly clutching the remnants of our vital map. This production brilliantly uses the technique of splitting up the audience on the promenade parts to ensure everyone will access needs is included and involved at every stage.

Once inside we encounter a range of magical characters battling their misgivings about Christmas. Elf-like despondent toymakers, sulky teenage fairies who have mislaid their fairy dust, a melting showgirl in a globe  and disheartened life size crackers who can’t pull and feisty rapping  Xmas wrap which has somehow come alive.  

This mission teaches its audience many useful life skills such as how to do the nutcracker freeze , how to custard creep, and how to stop a snow globe from over heating in a building set at a constant 28 degrees. Most importantly of course it reminds us of kindness, co-operation and empathy in an often unequal, unfair World.

All the cast act their wings off and children and adults alike are spellbound by the unfolding scenes. This show makes glorious use of the simple things we associate with Christmas- crackers, twinkling lights, glitter, snowflakes and silly festive jumpers. By the time we have crept through the building gathering resources for our final siege I defy anyone to not feel touched, a little bit humbled and a whole lot more in the mood for Christmas. 

This is a perfect final show for CONTACT as it highlights it’s focus on young people while allowing theatre lovers to say goodbye to a much loved building before it closes its doors for an exciting new rebuilding and refurbishment  programme in 2018. Christmas is looking sparkly and the future of CONTACT is looking bright. 

At CONTACT until Dec 20th

The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight

Created by Maxine Peake for Hull Truck Theatre and  Uk City of Culture this is an unforgettable march through the corridors of power walking in the shabby down at heel shoes of the leader of the Headscarf revolutionaries Lillian Bilocca.

It celebrates the determination and fortitude of a group of working class woman who nearly 40 years ago “achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years” The tightknit community around Hessle Road were all connected to the fishing industry. In early 1968 three trawlers were lost at sea with a loss of 58 men over 26 days. It was the woman as wives, mothers, sisters, lovers who rose up and said “enough is enough.” Led by Lillian they gathered 10,000 signatures and stormed the offices of the trawler owners and went to parliament to meet the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The result changed the shipping laws and The Fisherman‘s Charter saved countless lives in the fishing industry. 

Sarah Frankcom and Imogen  have done a wonderful job in the The Guild Hall to bring realise this ambitious promenade performance. A live folk band courtesy of the wonderful Adrian McNally and The Unthanks are in full swing at The Silver Cod Ball. The stuffy ornately dressed couples move stiffly round the dance floor as we watch them celebrate the spoils of the trawler industry.  


The arrival of Helen Carter as Lillian is the first sign of real life in this grand reception room. Clad in shabby shoes with a neat buttoned up blue coat and a matching chiffon headscarf she reminds me of early memories of my own mother. She too campaigned on a social issue and refused to be silenced and also met a government minister to have a statute changed. It is a very powerful emotional moment making that sudden connection with my own strong, bolshy mother. As more strong women from The Hessle Road Womens Committee appear the energy continues to build.
The arrival of The Three Day Millionaires brings testosterone, Brylcreem and Old Spice. The dance floor becomes the local pub and suddenly there is lust and life and love and fisticuffs as the booze flows. This is a vivid snapshot of men home for three days who have been spared an icy drowning and are reunited with their womenfolk. A temporary relief from knawing fear of death and a fistfull of cash is a heady cocktail.

The promenade takes us through the corridors of power where endless portraits of men of power stare down at us. We pass women thanking us for our support and enter a Council boardroom with Yvonne Blenkinsop played by Katherine Pearce holding the hand of her young son. Standing on the table she summons up the experience of waiting, worrying and grieving. As each woman steps forward to tell their story it reinforces the sense of what drove these ordinary woman to step up and do something extraordinary. 

Subsequent scenes evoke the dead and dying men swathed in icy fog. Pleading, wild eyed and clammy with desperation they are a ghostly tableau. The main council chamber is dimly lit by tealights burning in mismatched teacups – possibly a light to represent each of the 58 men lost? At the centre is a haunting set comprised of a simple kitchen sink unit and a formica table. As we listen with headphones to a soundtrack of a storm and its aftermath we watch a snapshot of acute loss. A woman seeks the smell of her dead husband in his last white shirt. Later she dons the soaking wet garment and stands dripping like a lost siren of the sea.

The grand dinner at The Silver Cod Ball seats the audience at the dinner tables with the trawler owners at the top table. Stony faced, stony hearted and stony earred to the pleas of the women they look on with disdain at these earthy, passionate requests. The silver cod is like a coffin filled with blood money, and Lillian approaches me with a crumpled handful of banknotes asking “Is this what our men are worth?” Strident, rough edged and ardent these women shocked and shamed many of their own men by their actions. It was a bittersweet success as Lillian Bilocca was blacklisted and never worked in the industry again. 

The final scenes of this production are stunningly effective and incredibly moving. The original music by The Unthanks for this production is sublime and gorgeous. It is a fitting end to hear the echo of exquisite voices fade away like waves on an ebbing tide. Unforgettable.

The Guild Hall, Hull 3-18 November

Hull Truck Theatre

Photographs by Andrew Billington.

The Value of Nothing 

Waterside Arts Centre, Sale

Written by Kim Wiltshire 

Directed  by Joyce Branagh

This is a very slick looking production. Right from the point at which we are escorted upstairs to the oak panelled conference room by smiling staff clad in Artworks t-shirts this feels like a genuine launch of something – be it an organisation or a new play!

On entering the space I am asked who I am and given an appropriate file enclosing a pertinent question or statement relevant to the production. I am a journalist from The Guardian and have a rather probing question for the man of the moment Mr Vince Hill. The tightly packed rows of corporate  chairs, the big screen, the glossy company billboards and the hospitality areas all look very authentic. 

The staging effectively takes the audience backstage as observers of the seedy reality behind this glossy launch event but also has us participate front of stage as a theatre audience, and as the participants, business representatives and journalists here for the launch. 

As Vince makes his rockstar entrance moving through the audience  giving high fives and randomly touching people it all starts to feel a little unpleasant. He is the face of Artworks here to prove that Artworks because Art Works.  He is ably supported by his shallow and ruthless companion Michelle who has a skin as thick as the leather on her expensive handbag. Clearly what has started out as a well meaning grassroots projects has been hijacked as a money making vanity project.

We hear from participants of the Artworks scheme who are keen to state they are artists not scallies.  We see videos of well wishers including Councillor Smethurst who successfully nominated Artworks for a Pride of Bolton Award. There are short films from an unemployment workshop with interviews from participants. There is a growing sense that the numbers don’t add up and Artworks is not going to eradicate poverty and unemployment.

Moving on to the staged questions from the audience as potential investor businesses and as zealous members of the press, here the action unravels slightly. The Value of Nothing hints at being both site specific and immersive yet although visually this works it felt disappointing being in the audience when statements and questions did not facilitate any further involvement. This stilted the energy and stopped the performance really getting to grips with the political issues it aims to address.

There are some strong performances from Curtis Cole as the real deal Mikey and the always excellent Samantha Siddall as the gritty mum to be who loves Vince but is not fooled by this con masquerading as social enterprise. Their scenes are the most cohesive and Mikey’s verbal annilhilation and actual devouring  of the class divided hospitality buffet is inspired.

This is a performance with a genuine social conscience which seeks to address some major issues around unemployment, poverty and the opportunities open to us dependent on social class and education. It certainly provides food for thought – and custard creams. 

Cotton Panic!

Upper Campfield Market

Created by Jane Horrocks Nick Vivian and Wrangler

The old Victorian market space works perfectly as a space for a gig or for an immersive theatre piece. Giant screens either side of the stage project ephemeral images interspersed with close ups of actress and activist Glenda Jackson and other storytellers. On stage is the tiny and feisty Jane Horrocks fizzing with passion and energy. Behind her is a translucent screen projecting  more images and seemingly super-imposed behind that is the band Wrangler  and their analogue synthesizers.

A mix of folk music and clog dancing blend into tracks such as Billie Holidays “Strange Fruit” and Grace Jones “Slave to the Rhythm” with synth music and story telling of the poverty and political struggle weave together to celebrate our working class heritage in the North West.

Walking through the space feels exciting and quite special. The sense of urgency and energy is intoxicating and moving sporadically from the back of the space I soon find myself front of stage. Watching Horrocks’s character descend into wretched poverty and dependency on the kindness of others is a sharp reminder of the problems inherent in misinformed aid assistance. How often do we make assumptions about the needs of others? When we buy a homeless stranger a sandwich do we check first if they are vegetarian or gluten-intolerant or do we simply expect their gratitude? If we give money for aid do we want to meet a specific need or one which we feel is appropriate? 

This is the story of the cotton industry in Lancashire from riches to rags in the industrial carnage that arose from the American Civil War (1861-1865). It is a timely reminder of how any growing economy is intensely vulnerable to over dependency on a single commodity. The lack of cotton arriving in the 1870s crippled Lancashire and created mass unemployment and poverty. It would be good to think we have learned valuable lessons from our social and economic history yet sadly we continue to waste valuable resources and make poor electoral decisions such as Brexit.

Emerging from this performance into the evening sunshine on Deansgate many of the crowd dispersed to nearby bars and restaurants. A lovely way to end a sociable evening. Perhaps the sobering thought being in a coffee or wine shortage how quickly would we be inconvenienced or potentially economically ruined?

Lancashire Cotton Failure

Manchester austerity and homelessness 

Ethics and Aid
Potential impact on Manchester of Brexit

Party Skills for the End of the World

Centenary Building, Salford

Written and Directed by Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari with Abigail Conway 

An apocalyptic party with dodgy cocktails  but thankfully no rabbit vol au vents. This is party planning overkill with labryinths of classrooms teaching childish or frivolous arts and crafts or more sinister survival skills. This feels like being trapped in a Butlins holiday camp at the end of days, or a Freshers Week gone horribly wrong. 

Sirens and explosions are the soundscape as people stroll or lurch around the corridors and stairwells. There is a sense of confusion and nervous curiosity that is I suspect only partly what the creators intended. Later as we are herded into the dimly lit basement a more authentic sense of urgency is evoked.

The band are playing in the disused storeroom where plastic wrapped corpses are stored and tiny bottles of water cost £2. Our leader takes to the stage to give a speech as we sit obediently on the grubby floor. He talks of many of our worst fears and nightmares. It was utterly depressing and bleak; as a psychotherapist I was seriously concerned for anyone emotionally vulnerable who was present. 

Party Skills raises the question what skills might we need to survive? Would we man up and make that trap then kill and skin a rabbit? Would we revert to child and make balloon animals, or turn up the volume and party? 

Party Skills for the End of the World is cause for reflecting on  what we skills or knowledge we might actually need.   Wandering round it was interesting to think what survival skills Life has already given me.

Vegetarian for over 30 years yet I suddenly recall  how to catch fish and wring a chickens neck from growing up in the country. Coming from Northern Ireland I know to open the windows wide in a bomb scare, and clean up a village shop if that bomb explodes. I know how to make tea and sandwiches if a platoon of soldiers land a helicopter at the bottom of the garden. As a parent I can always entertain bored children or mend cut knees with the contents of my handbag. As a Psychotherapist I know the things to say to lessen suicidal thoughts.

Party  Skills felt unfocused and disjointed as though it had been rapidly altered as a response to the Manchester Arena bombing. Perhaps the best testament we can give to those affected is to embrace our strengths and learn from all our past experiences. A celebration of our resilience in adversity is truly a cause for a party.

 Running til 16 July

Links

Survival Skills. Making a trap.

How to skin a rabbit

End of World anxiety

The Northern Irish Border

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 (Persons 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.

After a while chatting with guests we finally get into conversation with our POI  who is hard as nails yet warm and funny too. The disarming part of the performance is mixing with people who hold views that I find abhorrent yet finding myself warming to some of them. At one point my team mate and I hold an animated conversation with “Lisa” about how great it is to have the D.U.P have sway in parliament. We enthuse about their anti-gay views and pro-life stance. The striking point to this is that we both appear at ease with this perspective. We have never met before tonight yet we both come from Northern Ireland and are a similar age but whereas I grew up Protestant on the Border, she was a Catholic from Derry. The sense of blending in to survive in a hostile environment was unnervingly familiar and we both felt like kindred spirits through the whole experience.

The night passed quickly and people ebb and flow building the sense of confusion over who is “safe”. I get caught in a tussle and “Lisa” and I get soaked with a G &T, a bloke gets threatened with a pool cue and we get offered napkins and fairy cakes. Intelligence gathered we are told to exit to safety. Outside the bloke who spilt my drink insists on an overly long, apologetic hug and whispers he will see me at the next Meet. I feel dirty and triumphant. Meeting another undercover operative we have to make decisions that may change lives forever. It is the power and subtlety of Operation Black Antler that ensures we really do become deep swimmers in a very murky world.

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Speaking to Director Matt Adams from Blast Theory afterwards it is clear how much thought, effort and nuance has been put into developing this production. As with any immersive theatre you only get out what you put in to the performance. I found it very powerful and as I chatted to Matt Adams about growing up in the blurred boundaries of sectarian life on the Northern Irish border and the implications of Brexit and GE17, it was crystal clear how valuable this experience was. It is a sobering reminder of how easy it is to shift our moral compass to accommodate our environment, but at what cost?

At HOME until 17 June