Dick Whittington 


The Opera House, Manchester 
Written by Alan McHugh with additional material by The Krankies

Directed by Michael Gyngell

This Qdos Entertainment production of Dick Whittington certainly delivers as a visually spectacular festive theatre trip. It takes traditional panto and gives it a huge 21st century makeover. Dick first appears when launched on stage in a jetpack and there are 3D special effects and mind blowing visual creations from The Twins FX. 

This is still bright, loud and colourful pantomime but the narrative is more sound bites than traditional storytelling. It keeps many of the traditional characters but ditches the panto dame and OTT costumes for a hybrid Principal Boy/Panto Dame in the form of John Barrowman in the tightest velvet trousers and skimpiest white shorts. This Dick is possibly more focused on maintaining his reputation as the biggest Dick in Panto than he is on saving London from a plague of rats!!

The other major characters this production is built around are the Seventies comedy duo The Krankies. Ian Gough as Councillor Krankie and his wife Janette Gough as his son Jimmy who reprise their famous despairing father/naughty son doubleact. This unlikely pairing with John Barrowman is incredibly successful and creates a comedy masterclass in comic timing and ad libbing. Apparently Barrowman will only do Panto if The Krankies are on the bill and this is their seventh successful appearance together. They are quite simply a joy to watch, as the on stage chemistry particularly with Barrowman and Janette Gough is achingly funny. The banter often feels genuinely unscripted and frequently veers from naughty to positively blue- this is a trio singing from the same rather smutty songsheet. 

The other main characters are all strong performances with Jacqueline Hughes delivering a delightful The Spirit of Bow  Bells and Lauren Hampton as  a sweet and winsome Alice. Phil Corbitt is a suitably nasty villain as King Rat and provides lots traditional boos and hisses. Sadly the rest of the cast are underused and although we have Ryan Kayode as a Manchester/Cheshire cat complete with local accent we don’t see enough of Dick’s famous sidekick. 

A lot of the audience are here for Panto at Christmas but this is very much a vehicle for John Barrowman with lots of references to iconic shows such as Dr Who and Arrow. In the ghost scene he even wears a cheeky skimpy onesie that’s clearly inspired by The Tardis. This combined with numerous references to his sexuality mean that it is impossible to ever fully suspend reality and simply see Dick Whittington on stage.

There are lots of catchy songs delivered with loads of energy. Barrowman baritone voice is unsurprisingly excellent throughout while Janette Gough singing is unsurprisingly awful throughout and well used for comic effect. Her turn as MacDonna in conical bra and G string may be the oddest thing I’ve ever seen on stage but the goodwill she creates makes it strangely acceptable.

The special effects are high impact and give this show an added memorable dimension. The 3D underwater scene was genuinely scary  and exciting. The big events in each Act were thrilling for all ages. Rudolph and his sleigh fly out over the audience and turn upside down with Dick seemingly inches from the audience in the stalls. Later we see Wee Jimmy in the mouth of a gigantic shark shooting out over the stage and into the audience.

There are lots of panto positives in this production. The underwater version of The Twelve Days of Christmas is pure silliness and includes lots of super soaker action  aimed at the audience. The costumes for the dancers are extravagant and sometimes really beautiful such as in the winter scene. However there are also points where this panto veets off being family friendly fun and dips into gasp-out- loud smuttiness. I’m sure some of this will go right past the younger audience but for older children there may be awkward q&a’s for red faced parents.

At OPERA HOUSE until Sunday Jan 7th 2018

REAL MAGIC

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Director Tim Etchells

Devised with and Performed by Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall

Forced Entertainment bring their latest show Real Magic to real theatres and real audiences and so the endless loop of absurdity continues. Attempting to critique this show is probably as ridiculously hopeless and pointless as trying to guess the word on this gameshow/mind reading show. Real Magic is like musical chairs for demented amnesiacs.

Three people on stage. Three roles to adopt. Three possible words to guess. Three answers given regardless of who asks who the question. Three chicken suits. The magic perhaps lies in the myriad of ways this short, basic scenario plays out. The three actors gift this absurd, apparently mediocre scene with a wide range of emotional pitch and timing that shifts through upbeat fun to encouragement to intimidation to sheer desperation.

From early on it is apparent that this fruitless task is looping just like the canned applause. The internal dilemma for the watcher is when is this going to end?…..Will it magically resolve?…. Do I care?…..How many more times can they do this?…..Can they really keep this going for 85 minutes?

At certain points Jerry asks the would-be mindreader Are you feeling good? Are you feeling safe? Are you feeling confident? The same might be asked of the audience as the show progresses. Ultimately I guess this show is challenging our consumption of mediocre television shows and our sometimes tunnel vision around our perceptions about our world. If nothing else Real Magic is a masterclass in the art of cognitive dissonance and the risks of stubbornly resisting change.

The overly long performance does hit home the sense of time wasting watching banal television. There are lots of allusions to crappy gameshows parodying hosts such as Chris Tarrant. The word CARAVAN in this pointless show within a show is a cheeky reminder of 70/80s shows where people won caravans but didn’t own driving licences or cars. 

I found myself drifting at times but perhaps that was exactly the intention. Did the chicken suits remind me of the jumpsuits worn in Guantanamo Bay? How many people were relentlessly interrogated when they could never knowingly answer certain questions in the way the interrogator desired? Was this absurd and bizarre scene a cut from the impenetrable Red Room in Twin Peaks? I keep seeing Jerry on the floor, sweaty and wild eyed like Killer Bob, with Claire in her evening dress as Laura Palmer and affable Richard in the suit as Agent Cooper. Perhaps I just watch too much television and need to go to the theatre more. 

If I took anything useful from the show it was questioning How do we elicit change?  Is it by encouragement, co-operation, education, by example or by intimidation? Or perhaps more worrying is the fear that we never change and just like the characters in Real Magic we are trapped in a nightmarish loop repeating our mistakes over and over and always failing to learn from them.

 At HOME until Dec1

Dick Whittington


OLDHAM COLISEUM
By Fine Time Fontayne and Kevin Shaw 

Directed by Kevin Shaw 

Saturday night at the pantomime in Oldham with three anime loving teenagers fresh from a day at the Japanese Doki Doki Festival. What could possibly go wrong?? Well nothing apparently. Despite my concerns everyone loved it and my own initial wariness disappeared in a wave of nostalgia and general goodwill to all.

This is pantomime at its traditional best with no fancy hi tech bells and whistles. The only bell here being the one swung by the marvellous panto grand dame Saucy Sarah Suet played with warmth and wit by Fine Time Fontayne. The whole cast are enthusiastic and the energy on stage never wanes. There are some especially strong assured performances most notably Fine Time Fontayne as Sarah and Richard J Fletcher as her son Silly Billy Suet. The Rat King has Simeon Truby who is excellent as the perfect pantomime villain. His pastiche of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell is inspired and very funny.

The set by Celia Perkins is just lovely. All painted scenes rolling back like the beautifully illustrated pages of a children’s story book. There are lots of witty little signs and references included to keep the grown ups amused too. 

The wardrobe department have produced some bright and cheery costumes to compliment the set. The outrageous dame costumes succeed with a the obligatory pantomime wow factor. The generous bottoms on several costumes seem to be modelled on the famous rear of Kim Kardashian!!

The song and dance numbers mix the old and the new to good effect. The chorus of local children on stage dancing look like they are having a ball. Other children from the audience are brought on stage by Saucy Sarah and Billy Suet  to help out with one of the songs.  The banter and interaction with the audience feels genuine and warm rather than staged. Family groups are welcomed by name and the atmosphere in the theatre is relaxed and happy. The family next to us share our pleasure as their small boy waves his light up sword at The Rat King and whole heartedly joins in during the ghost scene. That little boys delight and enthusiasm is shared by my son’s girlfriend who is delighting in revisiting where she first saw Pantomime on  primary school trips. 

Overall Dick Whittington was an unexpected hit for a slightly unconventional family. With 80 performances aiming to entertain about 40,000 people it looks like Oldham Coliseum have paved the streets of Oldham with gold and big smiles.

11 Nov – 13 January at OLDHAM COLISEUM 

JUBILEE 


The Royal Exchange 
Adapted for the stage by Chris Goode from the original screenplay by Derek Jarman and James Whaley 

Directed by Chris Goode 

The interior walls of the Royal Exchange Theatre are densely covered in graffiti. The music is ramped up – this is not Royal Exchange noise levels – this is JUBILEE. The stage is set with Toyah Wilcox at her dressing table as Queen Elisabeth I regally pondering the future. 

This is 40 years on from her anarchic role as Mads in the original Derek Jarman film. Having seen the original as a young teenager and promptly calling one of the family cats kittens after Toyah this feels like time travel for more than just Elisabeth I. Looking around the actual Royal Exchange  theatre it feels like we could be in a time travel machine. I half expected Amyl Nitrate and her girl gang to seal in the audience with barbed wire and Union Jack flag poles.

This adaptation by Chris Goode is faithful to the original film. The production is brought up to date by references to Cameron, Trump, Brexit and music tracks like Bad Girls by M.I.A but it maintains Jarman’s messy, anarchic “have a go” punk ethic. Adam Ant who played Kid in the original said Jarman was making it up as he went along. Goode is known as a director who likes to give actors space to develop and explore and this feels like an explosion of many ideas. This is not a cohesive piece of drama but is more a series of adrenaline shots fizzing round the space like Catherine Wheels. 

There are bodies copulating in various combinations, a brutish policeman is castrated, there is an autoerotic asphyxiation  murder, there is beautiful poetry, singing, dancing, political polemic and witty audience banter led by the brilliant Travis Alabanza. Chris Goode has staged a sort of A-Level drama exam take on an anarchic cabaret cabaret. Love it or hate it you won’t forget it.

There are some blistering moments like gems from the stolen crown hidden in an Aldi plastic bag by Bod. The scene looking out at all the tower blocks vividly alludes to Grenfall Towers as Sphinx describes the grey concrete towers of his childhood as an equally effective means of killing poor people as war.

The passionate rhetoric which bursts from Amyl Nitrate in the second half gives Travis Alabanza a perfect platform for their natural brilliance. This trans artist is perfectly cast and striding around in heels and Jackie Kennedy pearls and pink is both outlandish and endearing. This is the performance that both charms and terrifies in equal measure. The original performer in this role was Jordan who Jarman described as “art history as make-up”. Jordan was in Manchester this week for a Louder than Words event – I really hope she got to see this.

If there is a SPOILER ALERT  for Jubilee it is DON’T LEAVE at the interval because the first Act is overly long. The second act is a blistering finale where this “No Future” nihilistic polemic directly addresses those who remember the original film. If we were 15 back in 1977 then we have now been running the country for the last ten years. It is a sobering thought sitting in the Royal Exchange which recently had its 40 year anniversary watching Jubilee made nearly 40 years ago in 1978. 

As the performance ends Elisabeth I can hear the familiar sound of seagulls harking back to her seafaring adventurous era. However hopeful or hopeless we may feel under whatever political ideology we uphold or rail against, perhaps one certainty is seagulls swooping over stony shingle coastline. I’m sure Derek Jarman would not wish it any other way.

Royal Exchange 2-18 November

Uncle Vanya

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Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Andrew Lipton 

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Uncle Vanya was written 20 years before The Russian Revolution of 1917 and may depict a long gone era, however the themes of depression, regrets and obsessional love are timeless. The uncertainties and frailties of human emotion are all on display and are beautifully depicted in this adaptation.

The set by Steffi Wurster is vast so the home setting dwarves the characters. The walls extend up to encompass everything and everyone, effectively creating a sense of claustrophobia. The raised piano ensures that the comfort of music remains out of reach for Yelena. The sense of decay and gloom seeps out of the walls. Even a garden scene plays out within the gloom of the house. There is literally no escape for Vanya and Sonya. The estate dominates everything as both prison, and home and hearth. 

The key human emotions of Anger, Fear, Joy and Sadness are all evoked in subtle ways. The layers of each performance ensure that each character is defined and memorable. There is always a sense of fatalism here and human curiosity about how each character chooses to respond. The emotion connection with the audience becomes truly intimate when characters  address us as though personally sharing with us one to one. 

The Professor is a man whose success and potency is fast waning and the only new challenges he faces are illness and death. Nick Hodder’s Vanya brilliantly evokes a man who has given up in body and spirit. He is only 47 but feels his life is not only over but has never really started. The tragicomedic outcome of his brief reach for love and hope is  perfectly pitched. In contrast Jason Merrells gives Astrov vitality and curiosity which lifts the gloomy house. He imbues new thinking and change yet is born too soon to really make a difference for himself. Despite their differences neither man is likely to get the future they crave and will continue to exist rather than thrive.

The older women seem stoic and content in their roles within the house. The younger female characters are similarly trapped by the social norms. Hana Yannas is perfect cast as a beautiful and brittle trophy wife full of longing and repressed energy. She is mystified at the possibility of breaking free and having love and passion rather than wifely duty and social position. Katie West is luminous on stage, her Sonya is an innocent and it is her sense of hope in an weary old world that holds everyone together. Her physical plainness is viewed as an obstacle to love and passion so she is as equally thwarted as Yelena. She remains unseen by Vaskov despite being a good match for the middle aged doctor. The tragic irony that both her and Vaskov would rather have nothing if not a great love, and therefore both are likely to get nothing. She is at peace in a spiritual way, resigned to a life of duty and tending to the needs of others rather than fulfilling her own desires in her earthly life.

The ephemeral nature of love and hope seem to dictate that emotional survival comes from taking solace in solid things like food, vodka, work or nature. In Uncle Vanya we see all too painfully what may be the outcome from missed opportunities or possibilities not acted upon. If only Vanya had seized his moment with Yelena 10 years earlier or if Astrov was more of a pragmatist than a dreamer then Sonya would have a very different life. The  invitation in this production is Seize the Day for each day is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Fri 3Sat 25 Nov at HOME 

The Weir 

OLDHAM COLISEUM 

Written by Conor McPherson 

Directed by Adele Thomas

Co-production English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester

First staged at the Royal Court Theatre twenty years ago, The Weir remains an exquisite example of story telling on every level. From the first moment of this remote Irish pub opening for business to the closing of the door and dimming of the lights this is spellbinding theatre.

Nothing really happens in this quiet bar throughout the evening and yet this a night that will be woven into the local story telling traditions in years to come. The themes of loneliness, stoicism and loss are entwined in how much identity in rural Ireland is defined by the land and family. The four men are all from this remote part of County Donegal. The young publican  Brendan  and his regulars Jack and Jimmy are seemingly resigned to their solitary lives. Their individual obligations to Sisters, to the Mammy or to maintaining the local vehicles define their identities in this small isolated community. Finbar has got out, left the loneliness for marriage, commercial success and life in the neighbouring town yet he seems the most vulnerable of the four men. Newcomer Valerie has “blown in” seeking solitude as a panacea to grief.

The sharing of old stories and myths intertwined with lived experiences connect all five in ways that soothe that inner loneliness, and beautifully reveals the sensitivity in each of these four awkward local men. The relationships between the characters are perfectly pitched to reveal all the subtle elements of their shared history in this community. 

Growing up in a rural Irish village I knew every man on the Stage and every worn barstool and smoke stained lamp and old photo on the walls. The actors personify their characters as though they have drunk them in reflectively like a pint of stout or Harp. When Valerie occassionally jars in the gentle pace it is only because she is an outsider, blown in from the big city. 

As drinks are drunk and stories are told the magic of small lives richly lived is evident. This bar has no need of a jukebox, the tiny television is unused and nothing more is needed than the human voice and the wind singing under the door.

OLDHAM COLISEUM 24-28th October 

On tour

SOMETHING DARK

HOME 

LEMN SISSAY

Dark, In Darkness always comes the question,Where is the light?”

Lemn  Sissay literally bounces unto the stage as though about to launch into a stand up routine. The first twenty minutes are indeed a stand up routine in the sense that this is a connection process. Who are we, how do we respond, are we accepting or rejecting? This is the quicksilver poet, the actor, performer, public speaker and private man and inner child. In giving the audience an extra bonus introduction before the play there is an unspoken understanding that this connection is about boundaries and safety.  In therapy we talk about the three Ps- Protection, Permission and Potency. In this instance they seem vital to this piece.

During the performance he remarks, that  “You shouldn’t tell your story in the way that I’ve told mine if you’ve not come to terms with it. Your well-being has got to be in mind.” On stage he exudes strength, confidence and a wickedly playful sense of humour. He creates a safe space for himself and for the audience in how he performs his own life experience. I sincerely hope that when he steps away from the stage those carefully constructed and honed inner strengths remain robust.
Something Dark is Lemn Sissays one man play telling the extraordinary and shocking story of his childhood in foster care from birth and in four  state childrens homes from age eleven to eighteen. It seems impossible to believe that Wigan Social Services countenanced such appalling disregard for a Mothers wishes for her child’s well being and safety. The second half of the play follows his journey to seek out his birth mother living in The Gambia and find a sense of family both there and in his parents homeland, Ethiopia. 

Any sense of family however dysfunctional is a gift for a man who at twenty had no one in his life that had known him more than two years. “I was the only proof of my own existence,” As he reminds us family gives us reference points, family provides  a set of disputed memories over a lifetime which inform how we see ourselves in Society. As someone who once stood pregnant for the first time at a parents graveside I can connect with that acute sense of being adrift and unknown without parents or siblings  to validate my stories and memories. 

The performance is rich and full of life, full of resilience and persistence. This work embodies our need in Society to embrace acceptance and tolerance. It eloquently screams out our need to address how we view young people in care and ensure that every aspect of their well-being is paramount while they are being parented by the State.

The performance is both uplifting and painful to watch as this clever, engaging and quite beautiful man reads his story and leads us on a journey so very dark and yet so brilliantly light. Light- because standing on that stage telling his story so poetically and advocating so passionately for young people in the care system, he radiates a light much brighter than the spotlight upon him.

For a human being born into such a dark place he epitomises nothing but light and has certainly fought long and hard “for the right to light.”

Journeys Festival International/ Orbit Festival

13th October 2017