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

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

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin And Stan Laurel

Jerone Marsh-Reid, Amalia Vitale, Nick Havarson
Image by Manuel Harlan

Written and Directed by Paul Hunter

A Told by an Idiot and Theatre Royal Plymouth production

HOME

Told by an Idiot celebrate the golden age of silent cinema so unsurprisingly it is punctuated by the sounds of a drum kit, a piano, a hotel service bell and some hip hop clog dancing! Writer and Director Paul Hunter pinpoints an actual moment in history when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel board a ship to America. It’s 1910 and as part of the slapstick troupe Fred Karno’s Army, the two men are on their way to become an worldwide cinema icon and one half of the most famous and beloved comedy duo ever. This is no satisfyingly chronological comedic biography but instead Hunter intermingles fragments both real and imagined to pay a kaleidoscopic homage to two comedy greats.

The multidimensional aspect of the stage evoke the SS Cairnrona both above and below decks, while also functioning as a hotel, a Victorian madhouse and a cinema stage. Designer Ioana Curelea brings an energy and flamboyance to the design that strongly echoes Kneehigh Theatre productions. She gives the performers a playground to showcase their very physical portrayals of Chaplin and duo Laurel and Hardy that is delightful and highly effective.

The eloquence of the silent performances is how they zero in on the story telling in the facial expressions and the minute movements of the body. In this Amalia Vitale excels with a performance that is off the scale in whimical charm and is razor sharp in its delicate and precise interpretation of Chaplin. She combines slapstick comedy with balletic grace while also interacting with the audience with flair and confidence. Nick Haverson takes on multiple roles including the cigar chomping impresario Fred Karno and with the aid of a cushion and a duct tape moustache he uncannily morphs into Oliver Hardy. His performances coupled with his percussion skills add richness and depth to this madcap trip through the decades. Sara Alexander does a great job of keeping the story moving musically while her facial expressions tell so much of the narrative. Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan Laurel is full of gawky charm and has a certain ingénue quality. There is a lot to enjoy in his performance yet it feels like the essence of Laurel is rarely seen. This is a theatre company that declares itself disinterested in creating reality and is more engaged in provoking and entertaining while actively engaging the audience. Yet somehow this jars slightly with this performance alongside such uncanny personifications of Chaplin and Hardy.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a really pleasurable theatrical experience and the use of audience members onstage is handled deftly. The fragmented moments capture births, deaths, success and disappointment and a poignant glimpse into a golden age that set the benchmark in slapstick comedy and absurdism in theatre and film. There are scenes that could be briefer without losing impact, and for some the random nature of these snapshots of the two men may be confusing, however overall this is a real joy to watch.

1910 aboard the SS Cairnrona

Tour Dates

ROOTS

Created by 1927

Writer and Director Suzanne Andrade

HOME

Trips to The British Library to explore the Aarne index of folktales from around the globe as Suzanne Andrade sought out appropriate tales for 1927 resulted in a big friends and family get together over a vat of Irish stew in a snow storm. The outcome is ROOTS, a hotchpotch of vivid, quirky tales told using the 1927 trademark blend of animation, performers and musicians. As we prepare to leave Europe this rich tapestry of interwoven tales showcases the power of storytelling as a universal medium to unite us all. Folktales have always morphed and mutated as they weave around the globe and with ROOTS this magic continues with an accompanying visual and musical feast.

This bakers dozen are not clean cut or a cohesive illustration of a particular theme such as those approached by Italo Calvino or Angela Carter. Instead they revel in being a splatter fest of the dark, the peculiar and downright odd. A Fat Cat is a tale of epic consumerism where puss systematically eats the world, pausing only to barf up a schoolboy’s scabs and a world leader’s toupee! Elsewhere a genitally blessed king seeks a bride without a domineering will of her own, while in Two Fish parents kill their child in the misguided hope of acquiring a third fish. In the delightfully whimsical An Ant found a penny, a beatnik French ant honeymoons in The Orkneys before her world implodes from a traumatic event involving a pot of stew.

As with all 1927 productions the animation and film by Paul Barritt looks wonderful whether as minimalist black and white or the psychedelic landscape of Snake or the absinthe green tinged The Luckless Man. Performers pop up through hinged windows in the screen bringing 3D to the animations, musicians gain angel wings just as the animated fat cat ascends to heaven…every tiny whimsical detail is utilised and luxuriated in. In The Magic Bird layers of detail create a Punch and Judy aspect to a couples murderous, greedy squabbles. The costumes, make up and music all combine to give this production a real world flavour from Parisien ants to Mexican Day of The Dead horse heads in Alonso and the Ogre and the rich earthy African tone of Snake.

The tales are darkly comic and often violent with witty current references all told in a very naturalistic manner by non professionals. This madcap cluster of tales are weirdly mesmerising and totally engrossing.

HOME 11DEC – 30TH DEC 2019

1927

Images by Gaelle Beri

I’M A PHOENIX, BITCH

Written and Performed by Bryony Kimmings

Directed by Kirsty Housley and Bryony Kimmings

HOME

I was blown away by I’m a Phoenix, Bitch when I saw it at Edinburgh Fringe in August. Like many of the audience I literally staggered out of that performance like someone had literally tilted my world and walked me through the dark side of a nightmare reality. Thankfully Bryony Kimmings is acutely mindful of her safety and that of her audience. This is a safe space and “new Bryony” has plenty of tools for any possible apocalyptic scenario. It’s time to find the little anchors and rafts that exist amongst all this chaos that will help you…in the future.

This is an autobiographical performance by an artist who has never shied away from painful, personal subject matter. Shows like Sex Idiot, 7 Day Drunk and Fake It ‘Til You Make It have firmly established Kimmings as an important artist. This show explores her experiences in 2015 when she lost her partner, her home, her sanity and almost lost her baby son. The show is structured around her subsequent experience of a Psychotherapy technique called “rewinding” used to help clients confront and deal with past traumas. Using micro sets on stage that recreate various scenarios, Kimmings films herself and these projections cleverly recreate how the mind can be trapped in a memory or experience, and how observing it again can help gain emotional perspective to cope with trauma.

As a self styled “Psychotherapy movie star” Kimmings embraces elements of camp horror schtick, brooding black and white Hitchcock and vivid Lynchian dystopias as she plays out a range of rewinds. We meet the breakfast nymph complete with a full English and the requisite vicious metal man trap. We see a girlish Bryony playing house as she plays out the fairytale complete with miniature Oxfordshire cottage with wisteria on the outside and lashings of Farrow and Bell on the inside. There is a high achieving Mum-to-be in billowing kaftan bingeing on NCT classes and natural childbirth. As each scene is unveiled Kimmings is transformed with wigs and makeup while in between there is a sharp contrast as the new Bryony breaks the fourth wall red haired and clad in black gym clothes. This Bryony makes recordings for her son Frank in the hope he will understand their journey whilst also battling a harsh leaking, creeping inner monologue that frequently attempts to derail her hard fought for sanity and confidence as a mother.

Visually this production is both bleak and yet utterly gorgeous. This is dark subject matter but Kimmings has a lightness of touch and a real natural warmth that is always engaging. The projections give this show a magical realism especially when she steps into the projection itself. The utter poignancy of a grief crazed mother frantically burying the unbearable reminders of the future she had imagined for her child seem not crazy or remotely like giving up on her son. Like a Phoenix this is a mother preparing to be a mother to a “new” baby Frank.

This is a harrowing journey into post-partum psychosis, PSTD, and a parent’s nightmare experience of seeing their baby become critically ill with a cruel and damaging health condition. This is no blissed out paradise model and there is no happy ending to this story but there is a statement of hope to sustain us all in the real world. This is an important performance to witness as what audience members hopefully take away is a permission to see psychotherapy or counselling as an option to support them if ever confronted with their own personal apocalypse. Bryony can now see her horrific experiences in 2015 as just bad luck. Her fears for her baby did not make anything bad happen. Many parents fear for their children as a natural built in instinct for their survival, in post-partum psychosis those fears are hideously magnified. We can all prepare for the worst. For Bryony her fears were realised but thankfully she has risen like a Phoenix and although battle scared, both her and her loved ones have survived.

HOME 26th -30th November 2019

Images by The Other Richard

Jack and the Beanstalk

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson

Directed by Chris Lawson

Oldham Coliseum

Oldham Coliseum has long basked in its well-deserved reputation as the home of traditional pantomime. This year there are a few changes to the mix as Fine Time Fontayne steps down as Dame and hands the baton, glittery heels and frocks to Richard J Fletcher who in turn has stepped away from his role as comic, and sees Sam Glen follow in his footsteps. Acting Artistic Director Chris Lawson co-writes his first pantomime with long-term writer Fine Time Fonteyne and together they have produced a very 21st century pantomime that blends traditional slapstick routines with a thoroughly modern theme featuring tech gadgets, carbon footprints, eco warriors and a feminist heroine rescuing Oldham from a tech hungry giant.

Designer Celia Perkins has once again created a story book set that delights in colour and moving features. Amidst the “pages” are the Soggy Bottom Cottage with pop up windows that evoke Punch and Judy scenes, a moving parts giant with swivelling eyes and comic signs such as We buy any cow.com. The costumes are an eye blistering array of checks, polka dots, neon and tartan. The Dame has some memorable outfits including a spectacular ode to Oldham Athletics and a truly terrifying wedding party ensemble that once seen can not be unseen!! Elsewhere the baddies, Mavis and Malcolm Moorside have some fabulous steampunk costumes while Lord Thickpenny Grabbmuch sports dashing Victorian frock coats that evoke a sense of Dick Dastardly. There is also an eco friendly, deadlocked fairy and a vegan, peace loving cow adding fresh currency to the mix.

This tale of theft of Smart phones and TVs to power a techno giant to take over Oldham sees feminist heroine Jill be first up the beanstalk to save the day. References to Extinction Rebellion and caring for our planet add nice touches to the story without becoming preachy. The local references are amusing as this year Ashton gets an affectionate bashing instead of Rochdale, and there are a thumbs up to Oldham Athletics, and even The Inspiral Carpets’ Cowabunga is utilised. There is the familiar slapstick humour of a ghost appearing and a witty perfectly timed two hander by Richard J Fletcher and Sam Glen as Dame Dotty Trot and Jack Trot. There is also a messy scene with wallpaper paste and water guns though this feels like it needs expanding more to justify its inclusion. The audience participation is flawless which is partly due to the performers on stage but also because of a well honed audience at The Coliseum who clearly love their local pantomime tradition.

The performances are all good and Sam Glen looks very at home with his more experienced pantomime cohorts. There is loads of energy on stage and some great vocals especially from Jenny Platt as Mavis Moorside and Good Fairy Greenfield. Richard J Fletcher has clearly honed his skills as a Dame and steps into Fine Time Fontayne’s shoes like a veritable Cinderella. My favourite character has to be Mitesh Soni’s Hazy the Hippy Cow. He delights on stage with some great cow based one liners and his take on the Kelis track Milkshake, but overall it is the sheer charm of his performance that steals the show.

The musical numbers are well chosen and range through pop songs like Body Rockers I Like the way you Moo(ve) to tracks lifted from musicals such as Into The Woods and Oklahoma. The orchestra led by Dave Bintley are excellent and the additional young dancers work really hard throughout with several giving notable performances.

This is my third trip to pantomime at Oldham Coliseum and perhaps the best endorsement I can give is that my teenage and twenty something kids eagerly ask to come each year. It has become a festive family tradition in our household and I can see them making the trip up to Oldham with their own kids in the future. Watching Sam Glen on stage I thought he captured a real sense of the comic devised by Richard J Fletcher, it was lovely to later discover he had grown up watching pantomime at Oldham just like his predecessor had. It’s a nice thought to sit in the Coliseum and look around an audience of smiling families and wonder who there might be on stage in another ten years.

Oldham Coliseum 16 Nov 2019 – 11 January 2020

Images by Darren Robinson

Light Falls

Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Original music by Jarvis Cocker

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Light Falls marks the end of Sarah Frankcom’s tenure as Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It seems only fitting that she bows out with a play about loss and endings. In the same week as iconic Northern soap Coronation Street is opening up a frank conversation about death, grief and kindness comes this new play by Simon Stephens. He has written a delicate and beautiful play about death that is also a eulogy to kindness and a testament to fortitude.

Christine (a very moving and understated performance by Rebecca Manley) is nine months sober after a life of alcoholism when she walks into a Stockport supermarket. Married to Bernard and a mother to Jess, Steven and Ashe, and a grandmother to baby Layton, she hovers at the shelf of vodka before dying suddenly from a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. It is 12 minutes to 5pm. It is a Monday in February 2017. What happens next moves from the mundane to the sublime as Christine hovers around her family watching the defining moments in their lives as they hear of her death. What this quiet play does so well is capture how time can suddenly stand still yet life moves on around us and so inevitably must we, even when our world has irrevocably changed.

The cast of ten explore the intertwined relationships of a family and those around them as Christine dies. There are standout performances from Lloyd Hutchinson and Carla Henry as Bernard and his mistress as they navigate through a fumbling attempt at a threesome in a Doncaster hotel. There is a terrible poignancy and dark humour to this blustering, overweight man striving for new experiences yet ultimately lusting more for a double cone icecream than two young women in his hotel four poster bed.

All three children are emotionally damaged by their upbringing with an alcoholic mother who took wine to McDonalds and was drunk in the school playground. Defensive and wary in their emotional relationships they struggle with attachments having known a parent who at times favoured vodka over them. The play touches on each of their partnerships and through interactions and fragments of dialogue gives a sense of ongoing internal struggles.

Katie West is simply wonderful as Ashe, a desperate, exhausted young mother who has attempted suicide only months before her mother’s death. She exudes vulnerability and raw emotion in all her scenes and it is her presence that lingers after leaving the theatre. This is a portrayal of grief, fortitude and love that makes this play soar.

The stark, bare elegance of the set by Naomi Dawson ensures this is always about the actors. The stairs and tiered steps open out the staging and also feel like a gentle hint of stairs to heaven and steps in the grieving process. The cascading downpour that drenches has the catharsis of an outpouring of grief and emotion. The much heralded music by Jarvis Cocker is also understated in a less is more way. A recurring melody and a single Hymn of the North feel like the familiar comfort of a lullaby.

This is a low key production that favours subtle touches, gritty humour and beautiful writing to colour and shade an ordinary family dealing with the stark pain of loss. I’ll be watching from the shoreline epitomizes what many of us hope for when we have to survive loss. We yearn for that sense of being watched over and still cared for, as Christine does with her children. Much has been made of Light Falls as a Northern play by a Northern writer with a hymn by a Northern songwriter. Personally I’m not sure it matters where they are from, North or South. We are shaped by our roots, our heritage and whether we embrace or reject that, or run from it or back to it, our shoreline is simply our core, our gut, our safe place. We all need a haven when our world is rocked by loss regardless of who we are or where we live.

Royal Exchange Theatre 24th October – 16th November 2019

Images by Manuel Harlan

ACEPHALOUS MONSTER

Concept and Performer Ron Athey

Manchester Word of Warning at NIAMOS

This is a marriage made in heaven/hell as the iconic and maverick performance artist Ron Athey performs his blistering Acephalous Monster in the chilly, faded splendour of the old Hulme Hippodrome now reinvented as NIAMOS. Known for his bloody and visceral explorations of life, death, sexuality, trauma and fortitude this recent work focuses on the mutating, insidious spread of neo-fascism. Comprising video projections, readings, word virus and blood letting, Acephalous Monster is both troubling and mesmerising.

The performance is inspired by the work of George Bataille and his creation of a secret society, Acéphale which sought to combat 1930s fascism and rescue Nietzsche from the Nazi propaganda machine. It is provocative and definitely playing with the limits of artistic practice, but Athey is experienced and assured in his practice so the work never feels gratuitous.

Divided into five distinct sections this is not for the faint hearted. Pistol Poem sees a dapper, suited Athey chanting out numbers as he moves across a grid with deliberate and increasingly exaggerated movements like Hitler doing a step class. Later joined by Hermes Pittakos, they continue what seems a pointless repetition of moves that is quite hypnotic, while text by George Bataille appears on the screen behind. In Dionysus vs The Crucified One we see Athey at a glowing red pulpit reading lecture text from Bataille on the madness of Nietzsche while video shows the violent, imagined conception of the Minotaur.

The core focuses on celebrating the beheading of Louis XVI as an elaborately wigged Athey powders and preens before facing his execution like a macabre Punch and Judy show. There are inevitably allusions to our current political buffoons and their elaborately coiffed heads. The background footage features beheadings in the labyrinth of Forest Lawn Memorial Patk in Greendale. There is a delicious irony in Athey exploring the concept of Acéphale, the headless mascot and monster in the very cemetery where Walt Disney lies buried while his severed head is in a cryogenic facility.

Apotheosis sees Athey naked as he merges into a pool of gleaming viscose goo and then rises clutching visceral guts or umbilical cord with pigs skull mask. Dark and beautiful this is visually stunning and moving. In the final part he is joined again on stage by Hermes Pittakos for a delicate and painstaking blood letting that depicts an old masters painting. On the screen behind a BDSM scene unfolds with fakir shoes and the insertion of an elaborate peacock feather buttplug. This closing scene has real tenderness and joy. Perhaps a celebration of life and fortitude it marries the work of Athey who tested positive for HIV over 30 years ago and has survived to see PrEP while also celebrating the work of fellow performance artist Jon John who recently died from cancer in his early thirties.

There is humour, tenderness and supreme elegance in every aspect of this work. It feels impossible not to be moved by this multi layered, lushly designed performance.

NIAMOS 23rd October 2019

Cambridge Junction 30th October 2019

Ron Athey

Word of Warning

Images by Rachel Papo