Much Ado About Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells as Benedick and Beatrice
Credit: Johan Persson

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Robert Hastie

A Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production

Leeds Playhouse

Since 2016 Ramps on the Moon have been partnering with six major venues including New Wolsey Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Each year, this collaboration produces a large-scale touring production with one of the theatres to showcase the talent of deaf, neuro diverse, disabled and non disabled performers and creatives. Much Ado About Nothing is the fifth such production but the first to experiment with Shakespeare and the first to use British Sign Language BSL and Audio Description AD Directors to further develop fully integrated access both on stage and for the audience.

This year is the turn of Artistic Director Robert Hastie of Sheffield Theatres to work with the company. The resulting outcome is a joyous affair that ensures this comedy sparkles and feels fresh and innovative. Most significant about this production is that the work of Hastie, the actors and the creatives have resulted in giving real emotional depth and resonance to the piece. It is a witty and fast paced, irreverent production but it also has beautifully crafted performances that give new depth and interest to some of the best loved familiar characters.

This is a highly intelligent and perceptive production which is beautifully staged. The gleaming set designed by Peter McKintosh is sleek and stylish summerhouse and incorporates captioning in the skylight. In the opening sequence the cast gather for dinner inside the summerhouse and we observe them on stage through the sliding glass panels. In a wry twist, the audience can see the animation and the interactions but from a voyeuristic perspective where many of us can see but cannot hear…when  the cast “see” us they burst through introducing their characters and who signs, etc, all using Audio Description. This breaking of the fourth wall sets the scene for a production that feels consistently accessible to all and no strategy used ever feels tokenistic or shoe horned in. The overall feeling is that this theatrical medium actually embraces and enhances the original Shakespeare.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING cast   
Credit: Johan Persson

This is a strong cast who work in a  very collaborative manner. There is music from multi instrumentalist Kit Kenneth as Balthasar and some lively dance sequences as the cast stage a hoedown in old Messina! Dan Parr exudes easy confidence as Don Pedro as he oversees the machinations of the various love affairs. There are some great duos with Claire Wetherall and Taku Mutero as Hero and Claudio and with Laura Goulden as Margaret who speaks most of Hero’s signed dialogue. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of course central to the richest vein of  humour with their rapier sharp exchanges. This is an inspired pairing as Daneka Etchells and Guy Rhys are perfect as Beatrice and Benedick. Both actors bring earthy wit and perfect comic timing, but also real emotional depth that makes their love affair utterly believable and truly potent. When Guy Rhys taps his prostheses as he asks Beatrice which of my bad parts did you first fall in love with, it is such a perfect moment. Etchells’ outrage and raw pain at the unfairness of her cousin’s undoing is hard to watch but incredibly moving.

This is a production with a focus on accessibility, acceptance and raising awareness. It ticks every box and as a bonus enhances this classic comedy. I took my daughter who hates Shakespeare but is learning BSL. We left Leeds Playhouse with a Shakespeare convert… so big thanks to the cast and creatives!!

Leeds Playhouse 27th Sept -1st Oct and on tour til Nov 12th 2022

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Joshua James and Rhiannon Clements as Tom and Laura. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Atri Banerjee

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Like so many other productions delayed or impacted by the Pandemic, Atri Banerjee’s vision for The Glass Menagerie altered over the last two years. We will never know exactly what this production might have looked like in early 2020 but it is hard to imagine it being better than this current reimagining of the Tennessee Williams‘ poignant classic. Our personal experience of lockdowns in our homes lends itself perfectly to this claustrophobic image of a home constrained by unfulfilled desires. Like Williams, Atri Banerjee understands love in its many flawed manifestations and allows the intense emotional pain in the writing to be illuminated with the warm glow of empathy.

The claustrophobia of lockdown for so many mirrors Tom who is trapped at home with his Mother and Laura with his true nature stifled and all his hopes for the future in limbo. In contrast his deeply introverted sister is actually more content cloistered within the home than she ever could be in the outside world, as were so many introverts who actually thrived during lockdown. In this memory play, the Mother takes all her solace from the past as this faded Southern belle relives past glories when she graciously received gentlemen callers on her parents’ porch. The visitor Joe is the first caller of note and as such is both a breath of fresh air in this stale environment and inevitably the catalyst for radical change.

All four performances are uniformly excellent. Joshua James as Tom is weary and hollow eyed, bitter and despondent, trapped in a job that serves only to support his family but dreaming of escape and excitement. Frequent evenings spent in the cinema allude to a secret life, further hinted at when he gives his sister a rainbow scarf from his evening sojourns. James is utterly believable with his Southern drawl and dry whip smart retorts. He embodies the tortured young man equally capable of casual cruelty and genuine tenderness. Rhiannon Clements as Laura exudes the palpable discomfort of a young woman far more socially hindered by her neuro diversity than by her physical impairment. It is a thing of quiet magic to observe as she blossoms with the positive and genuine admiration from Joe. Eloka Ivo has little to actively do or say in the first Act yet this actor ensures he maintains an absorbing presence throughout. His performance illuminates the second Act like the glow of candles which Tom lights all around the stage. He has an energy and a physicality that separates him from the others and serves effectively drive the narrative. Geraldine Somerville is perfectly cast as Amanda, the relentless mother whose love can appear monstrous yet comes from the heart of a lioness seeking security for her cubs. Her performance is as brittle as the delicate glass in the Menagerie yet as a Mother she has a core of steel.

Geraldine Somerville as Amanda and Rhiannon Clements as Laura.
Photograph: Marc Brenner
Eloka Ivo as Joe. Photograph: Marc Brenner

This is a gorgeous production where less is always more bar one brief dance scene with Laura and Joe that jars with the overall tempo and pacing of the play. The design by Susanna Vize is stripped back to basics where even the glass menagerie is subtly alluded to rather than centre stage. The simple wooden chairs, the candles and the evoked heavy scent of flowers evoke theatre and home as church like manifestations of weddings, baptisms and funerals. The multiple vases of pale flowers which overshadow Laura’s glass animals also serve to allude to the floral tokens received from all 17 of her Mothers gentleman callers. The heightened drama of the set is the huge illuminated sign saying ‘PARADISE’ which turns through the performance and echoes the church like feel as though a metaphor for Christ on the cross giving up his life for us…just as Tom is being expected to for his family. The staging is complemented by wonderful lighting from Lee Curran and a dreamy soundscape from Giles Thomas.

The Glass Menagerie cast at The Royal Exchange.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

The Glass Menagerie is the 1944 play that was the breakout success for Tennessee Williams and it continues to be a classic that doesn’t date. The themes of family bonds, duty, responsibility and love are intrinsically bound up in the complexities of being different or not wishing to fit with normative values. Atri Banerjee directs this production with intelligence, compassion and perhaps his own personal experience of what love and duty may look like within a family unit. He certainly nails the pain and the passion of love that seeks to find its own way to flourish. Like Williams whose beloved sister is celebrated in Laura, Banerjee is celebrating difference as all the nicer and nothing to be ashamed off.

THE ROYAL EXCHANGE 2nd September- 8th October 2022

A Little Night Music

Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang as Desiree and Fredrik.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by James Brining

A Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse

This production of A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse after successfully opening here last summer. The main changes for 2022 are Sandra Piques Eddy as Desiree Armfeldt and Sam Marston as Henrik Egerman, the removal of social distancing measures and the poignant reality that musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us. This is a confident partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North which looks and sounds absolutely glorious. This really delivers as a special night out at the theatre which in our current rather grim society is a breathe of fresh air and a much needed tonic for the soul.

The cast of A Little Night Music.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

There is real drama and impact in the sheer simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s set design. The opening act reveals the full orchestra warming up with Conductor Oliver Rundell while The Quintet start to unpack the set pulling away white sheets as they set up the staging. There’s something particularly exciting about seeing what will appear next and what it may reveal about the production…perhaps akin to post pandemic measures seeing the face behind a mask. For Act 2 at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau there is a vast functioning fountain complete with cherub! The elegant polished parquet floor that surrounds it adds to the sense of a bygone age. Tellingly the floor is peeling and damaged at the edges, poignantly suggestive that this golden age of champagne weekends in the country are coming to an end…aging and decaying alongside the elegant chatelaine of the chateau.

A Little Night Music merges a romantic musical with elements of French farce. Written in triple time to create variety, it also neatly links the multiple triangles of complex love relationships that play out around the three generations of Armfeldt women, and theThe musical opened on Broadway in 1973 and has seen many successful productions in the subsequent almost 50 years. Originally set in Sweden in 1900, director James Brining cleverly moves the action to the 1950s where the restless, career-oriented Desiree looks forward to more opportunities for her and her daughter Fredrika, whereas her elegant mother looks wistfully back to her heyday as a beautiful courtesan desired by Princes and Dukes. What remains unchanged and unchanging is the theme of love… Sondheim’s score makes the heart soar while his incisive, perceptive lyrics get to the core of all the highs and lows of love in its many and complex guises.

Opera North already have a great relationship with musical theatre and in 2016 worked with Leeds Playhouse on a highly successful production of Into The Woods. The full orchestra in place for this production is an added delight as on stage with the actors it both adds to the drama of life on tour for Desiree and life in the luxury of a chateau for Madame Armfeldt, while providing a perfect accompaniment to pitch perfect vocals from the cast.

Unsurprisingly the standout performance is Dame Josephine Bardtow as the grand dame Madame Armfeldt. Her crystal perfect diction, regal bearing and acerbic reflections make for the archetypal matriach. She effortlessly moves into tender and beguiling as she reflects on her early life in Liasons. Her facial expressions even when not centre stage are a study in storytelling and her every move is delicately and precisely nuanced.

Dame Josephine Bardtow as Madame Armfeldt Photo by Sharron Wallace

New to this 2022 production is Sandra Piques Eddy who is a real joy as Desiree. She looks gorgeous enough to merit It Would Have Been Wonderful and exudes Desirees’ playful and  impetuous nature. Her Send In The Clowns is spine pricking in the anguish and regret of a woman realising she may have missed her best chance at love. Quirijn de Lang returns as Fredrik and looks like a quintessential Hollywood  leading man from the 1950s. He has a polished but slightly weary elegance and brings both vanity and vulnerability to a middle aged man caught in a love triangle. He also brings great physical humour and timing to his role as the hapless lawyer. He is simply wonderful in all his big numbers such as Now, It Would Have Been Wonderful and Send In The Clowns.

This production seems perfectly cast throughout with Corinne Cowling as Fredriks’ vacuous and naive young wife and Sam Marston as his brittle and intense only son. Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Marcus and Amy J Payne as Petra are highly entertaining on stage while Lucy Sherman brings a stillness and serenity that perfectly counterbalances some of the other more dramatic performances. Helen Évora as Countess Charlotte is simply wonderful as the brittle, disillusioned wife who still loves her errant buffoon of a husband. Her rendition of Every Day A Little Death is pitch perfect on every level and utterly unforgettable.

This production really is a pleasure to sit back and just relax in the assured direction of James Brining. Everything about it works smoothly yet nothing feels slick or shallow. Complex and flawed as every character undoubtedly is, there is such care and attention to each performance that its impossible to not leave the theatre on a summer night and feel that just as Madame Armfeldt promised…the night really has smiled.

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse 6th-16th July 2022

THE WHITE CARD

Estella Daniels. Image by Wasi Daniju

Written by Claudia Rankine

Directed by Natalie Ibu

HOME

Claudia Rankine’s first play forensically dissects the debate around white privilege and guilt in a world where collecting  artworks of black deaths is perceived by some as more worthy than taking an unflinching look at why white skin remains invisible. The White Card is a cool, clinical look at themes of art, race, suffering, discrimination and patronage. Written in 2019, it predates the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and highlights an America that is increasingly racially divided. Rankine places a cultured  black artist at a dinner party with her privileged white hosts and invites her audience to sit back and watch as the conversation implodes.

The White Card. Image by Wasi Daniju

The dinner party from hell includes wealthy, liberal hosts Charles and Virginia, their woke son Alex, their obsequious art broker friend Eric, and Charlotte, a successful black artist who they hope to impress with their patronage. The first half plays out a number of  classic racial faux pas as Virginia mixes up the identity of her guest with another black artist she had previously met and later in the party delivers the ultimate cringe worthy comment. The first half focuses primarily on highly intellectual and rather stiff conversations around American artists such as JeanMichel Basquiat and Robert Longo interspersed with details of numerous, horrific race hate crimes. The dialogue is debate heavy with little action and is undoubtedly interesting, however the degree of detail and the volume of factual information involved makes for a somewhat heavy, rather plodding script. The characters are all very well played by the actors especially Estella Daniels who brings so much nuance to her character Charlotte. The main issue is that the pacing doesn’t quite work and the result is a play with fascinating subject matter that somehow remains quite flat and static. The characters are so elite that they feel largely unrelatable and the core theme of the play about the invisibility of whiteness risks getting greyed out by the equally stark, unspoken visibility of class.

Image by Wasi Daniju

The set design by Debbie Duru looks fabulous and perfectly conveys a sleek, minimalist Manhattan loft apartment. Everything screams whiteness including the male protagonist’s carefully curated art collection despite its content. All the paintings are blank with their subject matter of black suffering conveyed starkly by their titles simply written on white canvases. In the second half the cleverly crafted set reveals Charlotte’s much more personal studio workspace.

It is the second half where the dialogue becomes more richly human rather than cerebral. The energy and drama of the set change accompanied by the thrombing beat of Childish Gambino‘s This is America seem to breathe life and colour into the proceedings. It’s one year on from the disastrous party where Charlotte’s artwork was compared to Charles’ latest acquisition which is a sculptural piece that included the autopsy report for Michael Brown. The artist has profoundly changed her style and is now making work to make the invisible visible instead of photographing renactments of black trauma. When Charles comes to her studio he is bewildered by her shift and is aghast to discover that it is his white skin on display in her latest exhibition. The great white curator has been redacted down to simply become Exhibit C.

This is a genuinely fascinating piece of theatre and definitely provokes dialogue on complex subject matter. The performances are all strong and perfectly pitched especially those of Estella Daniels and Matthew Pidgeon. I really wanted to love this piece but somehow this dissemination of race issues that affect all of us feels too elitist and removed from the everyday conversation we all need to be having if things are to ever truly change.

HOME 18th – 21st May 2022

On tour Leeds Playhouse 24th May – 4th June 2022

Birmingham Rep Theatre 8th – 18th June 2022

Soho Theatre 21st June – 16th July 2022

Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster

BAC Beatbox Academy. Image by Joyce Nicholls

Directed by Conrad Murray and David Cumming

A Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy Production

CONTACT THEATRE

This is an incredibly innovative and skilful reimagining of a classic. A truly bold and daring reworking that Mary Shelley herself would undoubtedly delight in. This production uses alchemy in a way that Dr Frankenstein could only dream of as the performers use their unique vocal skills to breathe life into their creation. They cleverly deconstruct Frankenstein to reveal the monsters in present day Society, bringing to life the horrors of social media, false news and our shunning of anything unique or outside our understanding.

BAC Beatbox Academy was established by Battersea ArtsCentre with Conrad Murray as Artistic Director. Working with 11-29 year olds this is an incredibly inclusive art form that requires only the power and ingenuity of the human voice. There is no need for expensive music lessons or a requirement to buy or hire musical instruments so this is genuinely accessible to all regardless of class or wealth. This vigorous approach to accessibility is obvious throughout the show as the audience is encouraged to take photos and video extracts if they wish. The performance is relaxed and Special K (Kate Donnachie) involves the audience in the classic beatbox Call and Response having taught us the basics Boom Tee Cla. Later in the performance which melds gig theatre with traditional storytelling, the audience are part of an electrifying rave as everyone is up on their feet and dancing.

The ensemble include BAC Beatbox Academy stalwart GLITCH (Nadine Rose Johnson), Beatbox UK champion ADH (Alex Belgarion Hackett) and relative Beatbox newcomer AZIZA (Aziza Amina Brown). Every performance style is unique and relative to each performer but they are melded together with fluidity and sensitivity. Co-Directors Murray and Cumming ensure that everyone gets to shine while ensuring the piece is cohesive and powerfully choreographed. The cohesion of sounds of birds, traffic and the cacophony of social media chatter are woven into rap and  snippets of tracks that help drive the narrative. They move effortlessly between Pachelbel’s Canon, Firestarter by The Prodigy Cardi B‘s WAP, and their own fearsome CLICK CLACK when they literally turn a spotlight on an audience often validated by their own shares and likes.

The message is clear, we are all better together as opposed to when feeling connected is more important than being connected. BAC Beatbox Academy did a highly effective job of connecting their audience to their message…I think we all left feeling more connected and much the better for it!

CONTACT THEATRE 10TH-14TH MAY 2022

BAC Beatbox Academy Battersea Arts Centre

Together Again, Again

Created and performed by Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales

It’s 2022 and the newly refurbished CONTACT THEATRE is open again, the space is packed as audiences return to theatres as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic…all is well…or is it? Apparently its actually 2065 and the world is ruled by reptiles and many of the stars of Rupauls Drag Race are long since dead, as is Lady Gaga. Thankfully we are still here and so is the live cabaret…enter faded movie star and chanteuse Jinkx Monsoon reunited with her pianist and lyricist Major Scales after 45 long, hard years.

Major Scales is balding and bitter but still stylish like a snide merging of Noel Coward with Karl Lagerfeld. Winner of Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 5 is the indefatigable Jinkx Monsoon who now looks like a cross between retired club singer Rita Sullivan and the infamous Norma Desmond. This mighty drag queen has undoubtedly seen better days as she shuffles arthritically across the stage with all the style of an OAP in sequins and an ill fitting Tena lady pad. This doesn’t bode well but as the show gets going one thing is resoundingly clear; the body may decay, the mind may glitch but the indomitable spirit of a great drag queen will remain. This musical duo may have had a 45 year hiatus and a whole other lifetime of festering resentments yet the old magic remains.

Belting through blistering asides, heckling the audience and occasionally “forgetting” where she is in a song…Monsoon still has the voice and Scales is the perfect foil and accompanist. This really is a joyous and raucous night out. The jokes come thick and fast, the onstage arguments are like the Burton and Taylor of the cabaret world, and the choreography perfectly captures an elderly superstar still living her best life on stage. The songs feature some great twists on classics and very funny but also allow Monsoon to deliver some brilliant vocal performances.

Together Again, Again is a delightful celebration of raw talent, sheer determination and the ruthless meeting of vanity and the aging process. The 45 year hiatus for this creative duo is a wickedly funny but sobering reminder of what the pandemic did to performers across the world when theatres had to close their doors to live audiences.

CONTACT 7-8th May 2022

UK Tour dates 2022

ELECTRIC ROSARY

Written by Tim Foley

Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart

Royal Exchange Theatre

At the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting I was both bemused and intrigued by the prospect of a play that brought nuns and robots on to a theatre stage together. Tim Foley won a Judge’s Award for Electric Rosary and it was a genuinely exciting prospect to see if his theatrical vision could ever be effectively realised. Fast forward to 2022 and despite scheduling delays due to the pandemic the time finally arrived to unpack Mary the council-funded robot nun and deliver her to the shabby, crumbling convent of St Grace.

Times are hard and nuns are in short supply in this grim, futuristic world. Foley cleverly just alludes to this world outside the convent walls where climate change makes for ever muddy fields farmed by robots under threat of attack from dissatisfied Luddites. Jez WoodcockStewart invites the audience into the convent to simply imagine this bleak world outside the confines of convent life. It is grim enough inside where the nuns have little to look forward to in this life except extra biscuits and sweet buns if one of their sisters dies, and the dwindling hope of affording a trip to visit their twin convent in Ecuador.

Designer Charlotte Espiner opts for a beautiful inlaid wooden floor made for years of mopping and polishing. There are random boxes of overspill relics alongside the obligatory tea trolleys, candles and a beatific crucified Jesus. The staging of the closing scenes provide an uplifting miracle as cascading rainbows are born of the eventual use of the chains that rise up from floor to ceiling in the second act. They initially suggested the wild possibility in this eclectic play that the trip to Ecuador might yet be funded through the creation of an S&M dungeon club staffed by robot nuns!

The Royal Exchange is the perfect setting for this new play. It is home to The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting which champions new works and supports new writers. A play that introduces robots as our future into an out of date convent immersed in the rituals and relics of the past. A play performed in a space age like theatre that breathed new light into a defunct old building that had once been a thriving cathedral to commerce that had once birthed both Luddites and Cottonopolis.

The simple setting is a very fitting backdrop for  this production which is filled with strong, vivid performances from all the actors. Foley writes these women in a very authentic way and avoids them simply becoming comedic caricatures to simply deliver the humour and provide contrast to robot Mary. Jo Mousley is doggedly determined as Acting Mother Sister Elizabeth as her ambitious streak squares up to the gritty and world weary Sister Constance. Owen May is marvellous as the older nun with a secret pain that makes a possible miracle in Ecuador even more poignant. She exudes gritty common sense and is a mistress of the pithy one liner. The other nuns provide additional shades of dark and light with a mischievously comedic turn by Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as the boxfresh, ingénue postulant Sister Theresa while Suzette Llewellyn brings complexity to Sister Philippa with her complusive need for faith and duty to sooth her troubled mind.

The standout performance is however Breffni Holahan as Mary, the newly arrived robot nun. She is eerily believable with her bird like movements and watchful stare, you can literally see the cogs of machine intelligence as she absorbs and assimilates her environment and new companions while she calmly mops like a smiling maniac. Her journey from her council funded programming through to her emerging belief that she is indeed a conduit for miracles is genuinely moving.

It’s delightfully bonkers veering through a kaleidoscope of ideas and concepts like a night at Eurovision. At times it feels like a rollicking good farce with almost a 70s sitcom feel before moving towards more sinister sci-fi themes and sideways to a detective drama or Grand Inquisition as Sister Elizabeth seeks to discover who nobbled her election as Mother Superior. Electric Rosary questions our faith and our humanity in a fast changing world and seeks to explore the nature of miracles whether we place our hopes in the religious or the secular. Electric Rosary is a play that simply shouldn’t really work and yet miraculously it really does hit its mark on so many levels.

The Royal Exchange 23rd April – 14th May 2022

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting

The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken Legs
Rah Pelherbridge

Written by Sophie Anderson

Adapted by Oliver Lansley

Directed by Oliver Lansley and James Seager

Co-production HOME and Les Enfants Terribles

HOME excels at being a welcoming venue for vibrant, colourful and riotous productions such as the Emma Rice’s Wise Children and The Tiger Lillies Corrido de la Sangre. This brand new collaboration with Les Enfants Terribles is no exception. This lively adaptation of the hugely successful children’s book by Sophie Anderson is brimming with energetic performances, Eastern European folklore, music, puppetry and animation. Its easy to see why The House with Chicken Legs  was such a great choice to showcase the very varied talents of Les Enfants Terrible as they celebrate 20 years as a successful company.

The House with Chicken Legs tells a tale steeped in Eastern European folklore as the audience are invited into the netherworld of this house of bones which is home to Baba Yaga and her granddaughter Marinka. They play host to nightly parties for the dead before guiding souls through the gate to the afterlife and safely on their journey back to the stars. Baba Yaga relishes her role as gatekeeper unlike 12 year old Marinka who wistfully dreams of a life among the living. The fantastical house moves often and careers around the world on its chicken legs so Marinka is quite literally a displaced child. Although in development from before the pandemic this story is particularly relevant in our current political times. The folk music and the rustic borscht and kvass that nourish the living and the dead have much of their roots in Ukraine. Witnessing Marinka in this house that literally moves without warning is a potent reflection on what it is to be a refugee child who has witnessed death all around her.

Eve de Leon Allen as Marinka
Andrew AB Photography

This production is brimming over with passion and energy. Like the house itself it moves constantly between quiet, beautiful moments of reflective song or charming storytelling through puppets crafted from wood and bones through to riotous parties for the dead and dreamy, kaleidoscopic animation sequences. The house is sometimes homespun cosy for Baba Yaga or jazzy and sassy for the Yaga Tatiana in New Orleans while in other instances it literally grows legs to be on the move. Intimate moments with ingenue Marinka can be replaced by big song numbers with the whole cast resplendent in Yaga house costumes from across the world that lead to bizarre sequences that feel like you are suddenly watching some bonkers Eastern European entry for Eurovision!!

Pérola Conga as Baba Tatiana
Andrew AB Photography

There is enough content here to have something for everyone. The set design by Jasmine Swan is suitably fantastical and glorious, as is the lighting design and fabulous costumes. The musicians are multi talented and a pleasure to listen to. The performances are strong and well fleshed out. Eve de Leon Allen is perfectly cast as Marinka and has a beautiful tone to their singing voice. Lisa Howard and Pérola Conga excel as Baba Yaga and Baba Tatiana, with the latter giving a real powerhouse performance as a sexy, sultry ancient Yaga full of wisdom and panache. Matthew Burns brings magic with a simple puppet and a glistening fan that brings Jackdaw to life for both adults and children. There really is a lot to enjoy and admire in this production however there are points where the pace gets bogged down in repetitive narrative and this clever show loses its tautness. The result is overly long and coming in at just under 3 hours with the interval may be more than some younger kids will comfortably appreciate.

The House with Chicken Legs
Andrew AB Photography

The House with Chicken Legs has definitely got big enough Legs to take itself out on tour. This is a production that celebrates being different and has a strong message of inclusion. It is both magical and macabre but with enough heart at its core to tell us about death and loss in a way that may bring comfort and reassurance to children and adults alike as we navigate our own stories of what it is to live our lives and mourn our dead.

HOME 29th March – 23rd April 2022

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

Les Enfants Terribles

First Time

Nathaniel Hall in First Time. c Dawn Kilner

Writer and Performer  Nathaniel Hall

Director and Dramaturg  Chris Hoyle

CONTACT THEATRE

I saw First Time when it premiered at Waterside Arts in 2018. It was World Aids Day and I sat in the audience remembering all the young men I had worked with at Manchester Aidsline, now George House Trust. It was a profoundly moving and life affirming experience. It was impossible not to weep for old friends long passed away but also to celebrate all those lives now saved by medical advances. I saw the show again in 2019 when it had a hugely successful run at Edinburgh Festival. So watching it for a third time exactly three years on, I wondered if it would still pack the same powerful emotional punch.

Living in a global pandemic would an audience perhaps have sympathy fatigue or just be too shell shocked from Covid-19 to really care about the story of a young man who was once a Head Boy in Stockport? A 16 year old boy who once upon a time ate a stolen chicken and stuffing sandwich from Boots. A 17 year old boy who was utterly alone when he was given a HIV diagnosis. A young man who struggled with such shame, fear and sadness that it was 14 years before he could share his diagnosis with his own family. A full house in the theatre, a sea of candles glimmering in the darkness and a standing ovation was proof enough that this production still has the power to resonate and inspire.

There is something deeply special about First Time as Nathaniel Hall’s experience of living with HIV breaks through stigma and shame and celebrates the messy, often fucked up ways in which we humans navigate pain and trauma in order to survive and hopefully thrive. Hall is working the room from the moment the audience starts to fill the space, charming and fizzing with bonhomie and wisecracks. He has an uncanny knack for drawing you in as he tidies up the scene of last night’s party and cheerfully glugs gin from a lurid bumbag and sniffs white powder  from a dubious plastic sachet. He is setting a scene that celebrates living life on his own terms.

Chris Hoyle directs the performance with a really tender touch which belies some of the brittleness that could easily overtake aspects of this piece. By bringing out the warmth and humour in the writing, he ensures that the story is never mawkish or self pitying. He gives Hall space to be vulnerable and perhaps in this production there are also tinges of darkness that feel more harrowing than in previous stagings. There is a truly chilling moment where the man he is now revisits that first relationship and is confronted by the boy he was then, being bathed by his older lover. In that moment his trauma is not just about getting HIV on his first time but about the distress he experiences as he reevaluates what had previously felt so romantic and now seems something more sinister.

This production ticks so many boxes. It is well-crafted and excellent storytelling which charts a journey from naive teenage boy enjoying a first romance through to the shock and isolation of a HIV diagnosis and finally to the acceptance of a young man educating and advocating for others. It entertains and crucially it also informs around current important information around HIV, PrEP, anti-retrovirals and U=U- Undetectable=Untransmittable. It is also a production for everyone and a powerful reminder that as with any infection risk we all need knowledge to be empowered to make positive choices for ourselves and others. Let’s hope that if First Time ever takes its final curtain call that its because there simply are no new cases of HIV.

CONTACT 30th Nov- 4th Dec 2021

Dibby Theatre

Everything All of the Time

CONTACT

Contact Young Company

Directed by Matt Fenton

Choreographed by Yandass Ndlovu

After 3 years, a 6.75 million pound building and redevelopment project and a global pandemic, CONTACT finally opened its doors to the viewing public again. The iconic building on Oxford Road launches with a powerful new dance production Everything All of the Time. Directed by the theatre’s long standing Artistic Director Matt Fenton and choreographed by Manchester’s Yandass Ndlovu, it is absolutely fitting that CYC (Contact Young Company) are the first to grace the main stage. The result is an hour long immersion in the visceral emotions of young people who were undoubtedly impacted by living in a pandemic but whose identity is ultimately shaped by so much more in this rapidly changing world.

Everything All of the Time skillfully blends dance and spoken word against a soundtrack of artists such as Gaika, Migos and Phaeleh. The result feels seamless and yet edgy with performances that flow from sharply observed satirical reflections on 2020 to tender reflections on love and self into blistering dance that exalt physical strength and our capacity to still breathe in a world than has seen us masked and fearful. One of the most emotive moments may well be the simple sounds of unabashed noisy breath sounds whether in a haka inspired piece or elsewhere, there was something so pure and adulterated in those moments on stage. The stage itself creates a powerful impact… vast and sparse with a simple white backdrop that allows the performers to be the absolute focus at all times. Every inch of the vast staging is utilised whether in spotlit pole dancing or in groupings that fill the space or utterly own it as 16 performers advance on their audience, 16 faces, 16 stories…all special and memorable

Whether reflecting on justice for George Floyd, burning forests, saving Hulme Hippodrome or the cancellation of Holby City; at the heart of this production is the theme of connection and inclusion. Moving through the aisles while singing about being born believing I belong in boxes or on stage coming together in rapturous embraces, speaking from the heart while sitting in the boxes or breaking the fourth wall as they stare straight out into the eyes of their audience…CYC immerse everyone into this production. Director, choreographer and performers ensure that this dance piece allows for everyone to find their own deeply personal response.

CONTACT is all about putting young people at the front and the core of its organisation. This is a theatre which strives to not just empower young people through the arts and creativity but to give them a voice in how that happens. Young people feature at the very heart of all decision making and CONTACT is a national exemplar of best practice in relation to young people and diversity.  The major redevelopment of the building has seen its young members be a part of every stage of the decision making process from choosing architects and plans to the development of new recording studios, free work and social spaces to new performance spaces and a unique health and science development space supported by The Welcome Trust. In dialoging with and giving young people the very best resources what CONTACT has achieved in Manchester is something that really celebrates the youth of our city. There is an established history of CYC cohorts who have gone to great success in the arts. A new cohort is chosen every year and they get to develop their talents in spoken word, performance, music, dance,etc. Working with other established exciting companies such as Slung Low and HighRise Theatre, also allows the cohorts to make valuable industry connections and go on to work on new projects and support the next set of cohorts as emerging artists. Tonight’s performance is a wonderful testament to a shared vision that has never been diminished by funding cuts to the Arts or indeed a global pandemic.

This production is brimming with creative flair, humour, tenderness, unbridled energy and raw talent. Gaika is cited as one of the creative influences for this work. He terms his own work as Ghetto Futurism and a quote from him seems to perfectly sum up CYC and the ethos of CONTACT

This is who we are and we’re here to stay. You can’t turn us off.

CONTACT 6th – 9th October 2021