By Mary Shelley

Adaptation by April De Angelis

Directed by Matthew Xia

Matthew Xia reanimates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 200 years after its first publication. This new adaptation by April De Angelis sticks closely to the original text and relates the story in flashbacks as the traumatised Dr Frankenstein tells his story to the Captain of the ship which rescues him from the ice. Xia turns his focus to producing a darkly Gothic exploration of the perils of dogged human ambition at the expense of family and friends. In this visceral production he also explores the vulnerability of those seen as “Other” in this World – the abandoned, the wounded and the misunderstood. The creations that don’t conform to our perception of idealized perfection or cosy sameness.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote this extraordinary piece of literature in her late teens and was barely 20 when it was first published in January 1818. The child of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, she had fallen in love with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 17. Flouting social propriety of the period she had children with him before he was free to marry her after the suicide of his first wife. Traveling in Geneva in 1816 they joined the poet Byron and together conspired to each write a ghost story. From this challenge came Frankenstein, a Gothic novel influenced by the Romantic Movement and the study of Galvanism. The themes of death and reanimation must have resonated strongly with Mary. Her own Mother had died shortly after her birth and she was to have buried two of her babies before her novel was publisher.

Opening in sheer blackness the story unfolds with Captain Walton (Ryan Gage) on stage throughout the performance as the calm and steady listener to Victor Frankenstein’s wild, frenzied story that comes to life in a series of vivid flashbacks. Trapped on his ship in the ice Walton is transfixed as audiences and readers have been for two centuries.

This storytelling honours the original book but perhaps at the cost of developing authentic and empathic relationships between the characters. The dialogue sometimes sounds ponderous and doesn’t always flow in the way natural conversation would. The scenes can appear more as static tableau scenes and therefore the power of this drama can suffer at times.

The only truly potent and memorable character on stage is the Monster. Harry Atwell looms over the rest of the cast partly due to sheer physical presence and primarily because he steals the show as this doomed, traumatised creation, abandoned and rejected like a wounded refugee from the Underworld. Atwell is all wild eyed and unkempt with more than a look of Marty Feldman, yet his sensitive nature and eagerness to learn and to love and be loved seems very much taken from the creature as portrayed in the television adaptation Penny Dreadful by Rory Kinnear.

His journey is tragic and heartrending as he starts out stammering hesitant words and twitching with movements that seem like a creature with agonising phantom limb pain as nerve endings are raw or still newly knitting together. His journey is brutal as wounded and rejected, he becomes increasingly vengeful. Yet he evolves to develop a humanity and awareness that seems greater than the men before him. His quest for knowledge and his self education are sadly not really explored in this production but the result is a fully fledged man who feels emotions and can articulate his pain. Shaped by his experiences and composed of unknown body parts he is literally Everyman.

However this production like it’s namesake is deeply flawed. The other characters never develop in a satisfactory way. Indeed some feel as wooden as the bizarre marionette used to portray William the child. This addition seems awkward and uneccessary on stage and does nothing to create the emotional potency of a child’s death. There are occasional moments where humour appears to seep in jarring the intensity. The character of Henry, Frankenstein’s friend or the introduction of The Professors creates an almost vaudeville humour that simply does not work.

Designer Ben Stones has created a set which is lush with gore and bones and limbs. Death is everywhere and escape impossible. From the trunks filled with wedding clothes or body parts to the spectacular honeymoon bed or the Frankenstein’s laboratory; detail is everything in this lavish production. The costumes are fabulous and create an almost filmic aspectic to this theatre of the grotesque.

This is visually a feast in carnage and pathos. There are some moments of real terror and genuine poignancy, yet it all feels unsatisfactory and a lost opportunity to truly chill the audience. Just as the characters are trapped on the ice, I felt trapped in my seat daring to hope but feeling ultimately doomed to disappointment.

At The Royal Exchange until April 14th

Images by Johan Persson



Written by Annie Baker

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Circle Mirror Transformation is the award winning second play by Annie Baker who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Staged in a recreation centre it covers a six week amateur drama class where five ordinary people come together through drama exercises and during refreshment breaks. The genius lies in the inherent simplicity and ordinariness of everything and everyone. Baker writes with delicacy and acute insight into the human need for connection and attachment. How we circle around each other and seek out what is familiar or attractive, how we mirror each other in order to attach and how we all experience transformation in the process.

This small town drama group has strong echoes of group therapy sessions. All five actors give great performances and director Bijan Sheibani ensures the group dynamics that Baker has nurtured get fully explored. Amelia Bullmore utterly embodies the facilitator Marty who is all sinewy energy and positive encouragement, with a lot more going on behind that calm facade. James, her husband is likable, steady and reliable yet seemimgly, easily swayed by a fresh pretty face. Lauren is sixteen and equally diffident, difficult and delightful as she grows from child to adult. Teresa is all fluid grace and beauty but internally is floundering and ambivalent about her place in the world. Con O’Neill gives newly divorced Schultz a rich blend of blundering, puppyish exuberance and affection, coupled with a whiff of hangdog desperation.

Designer Samal Blak has created a set for the community centre space that is instantly recognisable in its ordinariness and utilitarianism. The brilliance is in the mirrored wall that reflect images of the actors on stage and of the audience. In watching them we see ourselves reflected in all their interactions, in their hopes and disappointments. We see both the complexity and the often, utter randomness of how we connect in our world.

The sound and lighting sync perfectly in a way the characters never can. The nine strip lights are always in unison with the bars of sound – controlled and predictable unlike the counting exercise where the characters repeatedly fail. A perfect indicator of how difficult it is to make our mark with each other while giving others the space and security to dare to make theirs.

Circle Mirror Transformation is special because it shines a brilliant and tender light on the fragility of all of us, in our need for connection, acceptance and love. It highlights the circle of life which is in constant flux even when there is apparent stillness. Sometimes I think everything I do is propelled by my fear of being alone.

At HOME 2-17 March 2018

Brief Encounter


Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

A Kneehigh production

Ten years on from its first hugely successful staging and Emma Rice and Kneehigh have revived Brief Encounter. This musical adaptation blends the 1936 Noel Coward play Still Life and the iconic 1945 film Brief Encounter. If the originals depict ordinariness and repressed passion played “with a deliberate colourlessness”, then Rice wilfully and mischieviously paints a canvas around the lovers that is warm, vivid and earthily sensual.

The production draws you in from the start with a band (clad in old fashioned cinema ushers costumes) playing in the foyer, to striking up in the aisles and chatting randomly to audience members. Suddenly a couple in the front row burst into argument and the elegant woman flees her seat, only to rush unto the stage and through the projected screen where she becomes part of the black and white film. This is a celebratory affair and Rice has a very large bag of tricks and surprises at her disposal.

There is some great use of Noel Coward songs such as Go slow, Johnny with Jos Slovick on mandolin during the boat scene and Beverly Rudd giving her winsome version of Mad About The Boy. The music numbers feel very natural with the songs never seeming as if shoehorned into the production as in many musicals. Various background scenes tend to unfold during the songs on stage, or they are performed in front of the plush red velvet curtain almost like Vaudeville numbers.

The blend of live theatre and film is exhilarating as it is done so well. Scenes of crashing waves on screen allude to repressed passion on stage. Trains arrive and depart in spectacular ways particularly in the scene when Laura contemplates suicide. From railway station buffet menus to champagne bubbles to pressure gauges to mishaps on boating lakes, every tiny nuance is there. The use of lighting is key to mood throughout the piece from the sombre but comforting light of the standard lamp in the living room to the glorious boat house scene. This is a triumph which feels like an old black and white film has been lovingly and pain stakingly hand painted in rich Technicolor. It is no surprise that the design team involved have won so many awards for their previous work on this production.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen embody the doomed lovers Alex and Laura with all the restraint and earnestness of the original film. The scene where they hover onto real sensuality at the boat house is the most poignant. Other moments seem too contrived and work less well such as when they literally swing from the chandeliers.

The rest of the cast are the real life blood of this production as they get to be fully fleshed out and larger than life characters. The other lovers are of course not hindered by pleasant spouses in the background and are free to express their love. Lucy Thackeray as would-be posh Myrtle Bagot and Dean Nolan as the lusty Albert are well matched as the older lovers and great to watch. Nolan also gives a lovely depth and sweetness in his other role as Laura’s husband. Beverley Rudd is a riot as the earthy and sweetly saucy young Beryl falling in love with Stanley, her devoted young suitor Jos Slovick. These characters all bring a hefty dose of bawdy humour and slapstick which is mainly infectious and joyful. There are times where the sharp contrast against the scenes with Laura and Alec can seem jarring and risk marring the emotional impact of the final scenes.

A real theatrical delight, although it sometimes feels like every item in the kitchen cupboard has been added to this 70 year old recipe, the result is a winner. Leaving the theatre you want to laugh and skip and…….remember every minute. Always.

At The Lowry until Saturday w4th Feb.

At The Old Vic 2nd March- 2nd September 2018

Images by Simon Turtle

The Almighty Sometimes


By Kendall Feaver

Directed by Katy Rudd

Winner of The Bruntwood Prize for playwriting 2015 this play tackles a vital social issue regarding our approach to children’s mental health, and how we support and educate families coping with mental illness. Kendall Feaver has written a beautifully balanced play that looks at the pros and cons of medication. The Almighty Sometimes puts a spotlight on fraught and complex family situations by questioning if it is possible to find a balance where we enable young people to have their independence as they grow into adulthood and still ensure we safeguard vulnerable individuals.

The writing is always engaging and Feaver skilfully takes the audience into Anna’s world where there are no certainties. She is constantly checking out what What do you think of me? Anna is complex, full of confidence and bravado yet also crippled with fears over who she really might be or could be without her medication. Feaver ensures no character is one dimensional and our perceptions and loyalties are constantly shifting. Is her mother Renee doing her very best for her daughter or is she smothering and controlling? Martyr, monster or a Mum desperately navigating CAMHS, the cash strapped NHS adolescent mental health service? Psychiatrist Vivienne appears dedicated and professional, and emotionally invested in Anna. Yet does she know enough about the drugs she prescribes to an adolescent brain which is still in development? Is it ok to publish academic books and articles about your clients when confidentiality is sacrosanct in therapy, and when your subject is too young to give consent?

Katy Rudd has clearly invested a lot of care and sensitivity in this production. She has taken a great cast of talented actors and a wonderful new script and created something really sublime and special.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee epitomises the energy and lifeforce of a woman trying to keep her child alive having witnessed the horror of her attempting suicide at age seven. After years of relative calm with the aid of psychiatry and medication she is distraught to find that fragile equilibrium shattered as Anna attempts to discover who she is without her medication. As always Hesmondhalgh lights up the stage with her earthy humour and wry intelligence. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is impeccable as the Child Psychiatrist heavily invested in her young client and torn by the therapeutic rupture created by NHS policy that demands Anna move on to Adult Services. Mike Noble is wonderful as the diffident, slightly bemused young suitor. His own troubled background and sense of shame or otherness ensure he “gets” Anna’s experience of being judged. The tragedy being he needs the nurturing of her mother Renee in his life more than he needs the increasingly unwell Anna. I have had to take care of people who should have been taking care of me- Why the fuck would I sign up for one more?

Norah Holden-Lopez continues to astound and is on a real trajectory building on her recent performances in Ghosts and in Our Town. She delivers a sensitive and powerful portrayal of bipolar disorder which is never mawkish or hysterical but is perfectly pitched throughout. She moves apparently effortlessly from a medicated Anna who is managing her move to adulthood with apparent aplomb to a vicious, fractured girl wounding and controlling those who love her with a calculated suicide attempt. In the second act Lopez-Holden is barely recognisable as she further splinters and fractures. It is a terrifying and haunting spectacle and her performance is electrifying.

Designer Susanna Vize has created a glistening, watery hexagon which evokes slippery precipices. A sense of little to cling unto and lots of swirling movement under the surface like the flow of mental processes. The swings descending from the ceiling bring a lightness as Anna and Oliver get to just hang out like any young couple but also reflect the up and down cycling of Anna’s mood as she stops her medication. As Anna floats up higher and higher she is further and further away from Oliver. This new Anna wants to feel lighter and freer but risks plummeting to the ground without treatment. The cage like trap which later surrounds her is sharp and brutal with slats of light splintering around her as though in the electric force field of her own mind. Lucy Carter and Giles Thomas use light and sound respectively to build on this sense of mental torment; jarring and discordant as they wound and disorientate. The overall effect is of the slicing of synapses creating new vivid ideas but also burning through and obliterating other thoughts and feelings.

In the U.K. a tiny 6% of health research is spent on mental health yet one in four of the population will experience some degree of mental health disorder leaving many families living on a precipice. What does a diagnosis mean for their child? A label that stays with their medical records and often defines and dictates their choices in life. What will be the side effects of the drugs, even if they work? What if therapy reveals something even more terrible in a family story? With a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease or cancer we tend to readily accept any treatment that may bring about cure or maintain life. Sadly with mental health we often reject any help through fear of social stigma. My own mother, in the grip of depression actually asked me if I minded her accepting treatment in a psychiatric unit, yet had never thought to question her right to have treatment for cardiac issues. In a modern society it is horrific that mental health is not given the same value as our physical health.

This is a play with a difficult subject matter that contains some scenes that are uncomfortable or distressing to watch. It is also a play that informs and engages and has a lightness of humour and humanity running through it. It explores what form tenderness takes in the face of adversity. It may be a mother crushing pills into her child’s food to keep her child alive, or forcing her to gag after an overdose attempt or shaving her legs for her when she wants to feel pretty. Regardless of whether we choose medication or not, it is essentially about our human need to have someone there with us in the light and also in dark times. I don’t know where I am…..You’re with me.

Royal Exchange until 24th February 2018

Images by Manuel Harlan

The Kitchen Sink

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Written by Tom Wells

Directed by Chris Lawson

The Kitchen Sink has a warm rich vein of humour with a steady flow of lively banter and acerbic quips. This is an undoubtedly upbeat take on some serious kitchen sink dramas. This is an Everyman, everyday family dealing with financial worries, plumbing woes; and managing disappointment, frustration, fear and grief. The kids are in flux as they try to find their place as adults. Dad is stubbornly clinging to a past that has no place in the future or even in the present. Mum is chucking lifebuoys to all and sundry in the shape of courgette muffins. In this scene of adversity there is also buckets of love and empathy. The Kitchen Sink is for everyone who has felt like screaming in their kitchen and it is an infectious reminder that we could be up on the kitchen table and dancing and singing along to Dolly Parton.

The staging works really well and Anna Reid’s design conveys the shabby family kitchen in need of a complete overhaul. The faded oranges and beiges of this utilitarian kitchen are brought alive by the people who inhabit this room as in so many homes. The wonky Christmas tinsel and Billy’s incongruous portrait of Dolly Parton are the little touches that make this home unique. The lighting is clever as each scene changes in muted semi darkness as family life continues to ebb and flow with a steady heartbeat of home and hearth.

The family are Northern working class with Kath, a feisty Mother who works two low paid jobs and yearns for change and rails against stagnating in a place that is a good place to come from, but not a good place to end up. Sue Devaney plays Kath with an infectious energy which never dims. She works hard at family, at work and in life but she is never a martyr but instead retains a kittenish, playfulness whether stripping off unto a newspaper or casually savouring her first spliff. There are moments where I wished the laughter dialled down a little to allow more space for her heartfelt plea for just a tiny change without the World ending. The poignancy and tenderness in the scene in which Kath has made the buffet for Pete’s Gran’s funeral is a joy to watch. The simple compassion of a Mother who loves to “mother” being “Mother” to the bereaved and orphaned Pete.

William Travis provides a dour, slightly gloomy Martin who is a good foil to wife Kath. Initially they seem ill- matched as her sunny playful nature seems at odds with his downbeat gruffness. Yet the moments of real laughter between the two shine as their strong emotional connection is evident. This is marriage at its best- there is humour, forbearance, compassion and earthy attraction. They may have a barely half-filled jar of 20 pences as savings security but they have a fortune in a rock solid union.

The children are less richly drawn. Billy played with great sweetness by Sam Glen, is ill equipped for Art College in London where his heartfelt homage to Dolly Parton is greeted as “kitsch” and “cool”. His warm and affectionate relationship with his mother is spontaneous and full of horseplay which belies the more awkward one with his father. This is a home where children are undoubtedly loved but where an artistic, gay and slightly diffident son is slightly held at arms length by a father who struggles to relate to him. Sophie played by Emily Stott is barbed wire brittle and is clearly a wounded soul. Her Mother senses something is wrong and Sophie is clearly very close to her father yet no one seems able, or dares to probe too deeply. Perhaps in every family the dark stuff lying at the bottom of the U- bend is avoided where possible. Like the makeshift mends on the kitchen sink until it finally erupts and make do and mend is no longer an option.

The most finely drawn character is Pete the young plumber and would-be suitor to Sophie. David Judge delivers a beautiful performance full of awkward grace and sensitivity. The quiet resilience and steadfast devotion to those he loves is a study in grace and gentleness. Despite or because of his own losses, he is the only one to really see Sophie’s pain and try to help her. This play subtly highlights how children can be loved and valued but sometimes “missed” in the business of making ends meet with multiple jobs or unsociable working hours.

The Kitchen Sink is filled with the music of Dolly Parton. This is a soundtrack full of songs bursting with energy and poignant, heartfelt melodies- a perfection reflection of this family at this particular kitchen sink. In the ladies loos after the show both cubicles were engaged with girls singing Dolly at the top of their voices!! I’m not a country music lover but I’ve been playing her all week. Small changes. Thanks Kath!! As the character says I got on the Circle Line in the wrong direction- Nothing happened- I just sat it out. This play has an ask for all of us. Do we want to sit it out or get off and go a different direction and see what happens.

At Oldham Coliseum

Fri 9 – Saturday 24 February 2018

Hot Brown Honey


Briefs Factory presents Hot Brown Honey 

Six vibrant First Nation women wearing identical shellsuits on a stage dominated by a huge gleaming, pulsating honeycomb hub. Our MC is Busty Beatz  (Kim Bowers) a co-founder of Hot Brown Honey and she is loud and  proud and magnificent towering above everyone astride the honey dome. Below is the other founder, Director and Choreographer Lisa Fa’alafi who I met briefly as I took my seat in the theatre. These women are chatty and welcoming as they stroll  around the aisles before the show. They are upfront and direct, almost immediately the audience is told a collection toward their childcare will be passing through the aisles because as Lisa says The Revolution can not happen without  childcare. 

Suddenly the performance ramps up the energy. I can’t fully hear everything. I’m blinking as the lights flash powerfully on the honeycomb dome. The performers are hi octane and nothing is going to stop them. It’s too loud!! It’s too bright!!! It’s too……DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET. WAKE UP. GET ON BOARD. ROCK THE BOAT. THIS MAY JUST BE THE TRIP OF YOUR LIFE.

There is zero tolerance of stereotyping as MC Beatz quotes from the 2009 TEDTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Danger of a Single Story. There are no single stories here and this is reinforced by a show that defies any genre. This is burlesque, cabaret, song, beatboxing, hip hop, poetry, hula hooping, aerial silks, sermon and comedy. This is an EVENT and like its orchestrators it cannot be pigeonholed.

This is an intelligent, passionate celebration of womankind in all its colours, shapes and creeds of politics, religion and sexuality. There is a strong burlesque influence running through all aspects of this show. This is burlesque as gender politics defying any attempts at body shaming. Women standing proud and celebrating perfect boobs, giant inflatable  boulder boobs, pussies that may or may not have  seen childbirth, giant padded feline pussies, bodies curvy or lean, skin that gleams or has cellulite or skin blemishes. Women using burlesque to own their own bodies using the frequent vivid costume changes to drive the stories. Fa’alafi describes the experience as the decolonisation of our thoughts and inhibitions. The poet and playwright Maya Angelou was also a burlesque dancer in her early years; and it a very powerful tool of expression and liberation.

There are group sequences ramming home the message We Are Not Maids. Shellsuits are shed to reveal cheeky Princess Megan t-shirts then shed again to reveal maid costumes. MC Beatz dons a massive Afro for the anthem Don’t Touch My Hair.  Fa’alafi delights with a reverse striptease parodying the fantasies of bare breasted Polynesian maidens in grass skirts. This is no coy blushing maiden or unskilled island girl. Our Lisa is surrounded by leaves but deftly fashions shoes and bags like a fashion forward icon. The glorious voice of ‘Ofa Fotu rips apart the James Brown anthem It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World while she wears a stifling costume that clearly alludes to a golliwog doll. Elena Wangurra battles the confines of the Australian flag and triumphantly emerges as a superhero in the vivid colours of the Aboriginal flag. The beat box skills of Hope One pound through the speakers while Crystal Stacey spins hoola hoops with the dexterity that most women multi task. Domestic violence is portrayed in a way that is gut wrenchingly shocking. Crystal Stacey performance was my personal highlight as she escaped violent assault by using aerial silks. Her performance was exquisite and horrifying and incredibly poignant. Literally hanging by a thread this was a truly visceral evocation of desperation, determination and resilience. We do this for the Women who cannot speak. We are taught that silence will save us. But we will make noise.

The Speaker of this Hive asks Will you stay the same or rock the boat? The Hot Brown Honey mantra throughout this amazing show is DECOLONISE AND MOISTURISE or as Faalafi  says We want to decolonize the World , one stage at a time. The audience are on their feet dancing. The atmosphere is electric. The Party Manifesto is clear and this is one party you won’t want to miss.

HOME until Saturday 23rd Dec

The Siege of Christmas 

Directed by Alan Lane

Contact Young Company


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