Cinderella

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Kevin Shaw

Directed by Kevin Shaw

It’s pantomime season once again and Cinderella breezes into Oldham Coliseum in a glittering pumpkin coach. Normally I wince at the word pantomime but last year the Coliseum converted my cynical heart to embrace the froth, frolics and sequins. This is good old fashioned slapstick peppered with plenty of modern references, catchy tunes and strong performances from seasoned panto professionals. Designer Celia Perkins has created a picture perfect storybook set which is incredibly detailed and enticingly colourful. The overall effect is as full of charm as a proverbial pantomime Prince .

The younger members of the cast deliver some good vocals and lots of energy, with Shorelle Hepkin as a warm and winsome Cinderella. Nisha Anil doubles as Dandini and Fairy Godmother bringing something special to both roles. Richard J Fletcher as Buttons gives his all throughout the show, and the pathos in his delivery of Emily Sandé’s Clown is really touching.

There are lots of amusing current cultural references in this production including recent royal weddings, Ubers and Google Alexi, however the wittiest is undoubtedly at the expense of The Kardashians. The Ugly Sisters, Fine Time Fontayne and Simeon Truby and mommie dearest Countessa Vyella Squeezepocket Sue Devaney do a deliciously mean take on those big bottomed girls and their socially ambitious mother.

Sue Devaney is in her element here producing a performance that blends a touch of Elphaba from Wicked with the Kardashians and a dollop of Celia Imrie circa Dinnerladies. She milks every moment on stage as the pantomime villain but with so much wit and flair that she rightfully steals the show.

There are the usual panto ghost scenes that whip the children up into a frenzy of excitement. A pre-Ball spa session is the perfect excuse for lots of slapstick fun and messy chaos. A well choreographed slow motion scene effectively highlights the Prince’s glass slipper hunt. The transformation of Cinderella is lit with a magical rosy glow and really does deliver whimsy and wonder.

This is good old fashioned pantomime with a big Northern heart. Oldham Coliseum deliver family fun for Christmas that scores high on the genuine feel good factor.

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

REBUS: LONG SHADOWS

OPERA HOUSE

Written by Ian Rankin

Adapted by Rona Munro

Directed by Robin Lefevre

It is just over thirty years since Ian Rankin published the first of a long series of crime books set in Edinburgh and featuring John Rebus as the dour detective. Although successfully adapted for television this is the first time the character has stepped on to a stage. Rankin created this new story for the now retired detective and opted to develop it for the stage with award winning Scottish playwright Rona Munro. The result is an entertaining play that is low on action and gore but delivers a beautifully reflective insight into the mind of a retired detective who is adrift without his career and who is haunted by the victims of unsolved crimes.

Charles Lawson delivers a strong performance as Rebus. He truly embodies the crumpled, slightly arthritic aging man whose curmudgeonly nature ensures his best friend is his whisky bottle. This is a performance which is a slow burner, opening with a weary, brow beaten man and culminating in a powerhouse performance when he is challenged by his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. The scenes between the two men are the standout moments in this performance. John Stahl steals the show when the action shifts to his penthouse apartment near The Meadows. Monarch of all he surveys. He exudes suave cunning and all the smugness of a crime boss who believes himself untouchable by the law. It is a fascinating moment watchin them try to outwit each other as they square up like aging prize fighters The interplay between the two men is nuanced and well crafted highlighting the grit and the vulnerabilities of both men.

Sadly the character development of the female lead is not as satisfying. Cathy Tyson is a gifted actress and seems well cast in the part of detective Siobhan, yet it feels frustrating that so much of her dialogue is process driven and rather dull. The writing needs to reveal more of who she is and what has established her strong relationship with Rebus for her character to have the relevance it has in the books and television series. The other female characters portray the ghostly reminders of crime that haunt the misty Edinburgh streets and the whisky addled dark reaches of Rebus’ memory. As a plot device they perhaps too often but do evoke a tangible sense of tragic loss and wasted lives.

Ti Green has designed a suitably gloomy set with creepy archways and soaring walkways that would look equally at home on the stage of the current National Theatre production of Macbeth. Deceptively simple it smartly shifts from dank flat to gleaming penthouse via a police evidence room filled with ghosts. Although the staging does not clearly evoke Rankin’s beloved Edinburgh it is a successful backdrop to the production. The lighting also serves to further the gloomy and spectral feel that ensures the aging Rebus seems suspended between his twilight years and a netherworld of dead victims with stories to tell.

The central story feels slightly tentative, as though a work in progress feeling out what a theatre audience might expect of Rebus. The most powerful aspects of this production are the cerebral and emotional connections which Director Robin Lefevre draws out between the two complex male leads. This is a big, wordy play with some exciting and engaging speeches and well paced exchanges, reminding me why I so loved Monro’s The James Plays. Given the rather open ending to this story, I suspect Rebus will be returning to thread the boards and solve more crimes.

Opera House 30th Oct – 3rd Nov

Touring production

Images by Robert Day

Death Of A Salesman

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.

The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.

Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.

Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.

Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.

This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov

Production images by Johan Persson

Macbeth

The Lowry

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Rufus Norris

National Theatre Production

This Rufus Norris directed production of Macbeth was a sell out at the National Theatre earlier this year. The 2018/2019 National Tour commenced at The Lowry, Manchester. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this production looks bleak, dark and intensely moody throughout. Norris clearly intends his Macbeth to attract a modern audience at home with World of Warcraft and The Waking Dead. With Macbeth on the GCSE syllabus this production aims to engage with students new to Shakespeare. So with a hopeful heart, I took my somewhat reluctant teenage daughter along as she is currently studying the play at school.

There is much to admire in this production. The Rae Smith set design is startlingly beautiful, glistening and mournful, it perfectly captures the mood of the piece. A metal bridge dominates the set, swinging back and forth across the stage like the warring factions fighting over a piece of turf land. This assists in adding dynamism to a production that at times can appear surprisingly static. The overall appearance is of a hopeless place with dank accommodation that creates a sense of a world in flux. Homes are breezeblock husks with scarce furnishings reminiscent of refugee camps which serves to drive home the ugliness of war and displacement.

Despite the gloom there are moments of vivid colour such as the highly effective splash of red in the gaudy pimp suit worn by Duncan and later by his successor Macbeth. The theme of “To beguile the time, look like the time” is used throughout this production. The celebration dinner for Macbeth comes truly alive as a generator is cranked up on the stage illuminating fairy lights and pumping out music like a street party from a scene in the Paul Abbott show Shameless.

The witches or weird sisters seem woefully underused. Gossamer clad and unworldly the three aerial performers perfectly conjure up the supernatural aspects of Macbeth. Clambering up the unnatural trees, their eerie voices are projected through the theatre bringing a real sense of magic. The supernatural themes also work well when the ghost of Banquo appears in a haze of ghostly phosphorescence.

There is an interesting emphasis on the lost children of war and conquest. Lady Macbeth, wonderfully played by Kirsty Besterman is lithe and bristling with animal energy which if not turned to suckling her young will then create a fertile ground for political ambition. As she descends into madness, her casket is opened to reveal the poignant tiny babygros of thwarted motherhood. Baby heads are worn by soldiers to warn of the impending massacre. Gruesome scenes include slaughtered babies, concealed in plastic shopping bags being casually dropped at the feet of Lady Macduff. The futility of war is perfectly summed up by the wretched shock of Macduff as he asks, “All my pretty ones? Did you say all?…In one fell swoop?”

The cast are strong and seem at home with this production, however the style in which the dialogue is delivered may be in tune with this production, but it loses a lot of the drama and poetry of the original. Equally for a production at least partially aimed at a young student audience the cuts made here may confuse. Certainly my daughter was very aware of certain speeches she was learning at school which were missing. Perhaps it is a mistake to assume that young people who can spend hours sat in front of an Xbox cannot cope with 3 hours plus in a theatre. This may be one instance where “to beguile the time, look like the time” is slightly out of time.

On tour 2018/2019

Production images Brinkhoff Mogenburg

The Effect

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Jake Murray

Play With Fire Productions

The U.K. has the fourth highest level of antidepressant prescribing in the Western world with prescription levels tripling since the millennium. Yet a study published in The Lancet earlier this year on the efficacy of these drugs suggests at least a million more Britons should be taking antidepressants. With mental healthcare becoming an increasingly important topic of discussion, Fire Productions brings the award winning The Effect to the North West. This Lucy Prebble play is about a clinical study on the effects of an unlicensed antidepressant on non-depressed, paid volunteers. The play explores whether Love really is the drug or if artificially elevated dopamine levels are indeed Viagra for the heart.

Striking stage design by Louis Price creates a sleek and effective set that coupled with lighting by Adam Murdoch ensure that the production looks as good as the onstage performances. Scenes flow smoothly and concisely in this highly structured amd cerebral piece. The order and precision of the early scenes at the research facility are a smart foil to the messiness that unfolds as heightened emotions takeover.

The direction by Jake Murray ensures empathy, passion and tenderness are infused into every scene whether it is dopamine infused euphoria or dopamine deprived despair. In this double blind study the lovers, young and old are under the spotlight as the audience observe the empirical and the more qualitative research approaches. Is this elevated mood and loss of appetite due to the dopamine in the drug or is it due to the exhilaration of falling in love? Does a relationship breakdown trigger a reactive depression or does a chemical imbalance in the brain cause depression and if left untreated can it cause the breakdown of a relationship?

The young couple are utterly believable in their growing attraction and resultant confusion as they grapple with what is placebo and what is real in their relationship. As Connie, Elaine McNicol is all process driven, reflective and cautious as the curious, young psychology student whose emotional world starts to rapidly expand. Daniel Bradford really shines as Tristan. His Northern Irish accent totally fooled me and I’m from N.I! He brings a genuine lust for life to his character that is always engaging and when the drama unfolds he is truly mecurial in this role. He absolutely lives in the moment so when his character becomes trapped in the moment, it is painfully poignant to see all that joy and passion snuffed out; just as it can be in episodes of serious depression.

The two doctors are middle aged and differ in their approach to the subject matter. Toby is the trial director who favours the science and sees medication as an effective means of regulating brain chemistry whereas Lorna sees things from a deeply personal perspective and wonders if depression can be a useful pain informing us that we need to change our lives. Both perspectives have validity as without enough dopamine in the brain we struggle to have the motivation to effect change which in itself can cause depression.

Karren Winchester is wonderful as Lorna showing dry humour and resilience, she is always intensely believable as the deeply, emotionally invested psychiatrist. In the second act she excels as depression sets in and in her scene talking to the human brain she is chillingly reflective. Her portrayal of the toxicity and dissociation in depression is startlingly accurate. This is wonderful writing for any actor but Winchester really uses every word to self-flagellate. It is not surprising that many individuals suffering depression do not seek help as the voice in their own head can be so punitive that they simply don’t see themselves as worthy of assistance.

The mysteries of the human heart and mind are enduringly complex and as interwoven as the formation of the brain itself. The Effect raises more questions than it answers but this is a conversation that will always fascinate and divide in equal measure.

Oldham Coliseum 25 – 27th September

Images by Sophie Giddens

othellomacbeth

HOME

A HOME/Lyric Hammersmith presentation

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jude Christian

The plays of Shakespeare continue to fascinate and inspire and there is always an ongoing artistic quest to tweak his original recipes. For director Jude Christian inspiration appears to arise from a folk song by Anjana Vasan. Oh Sister asks, Oh Sister when you gonna learn. Ain’t it always about the man….a kind hearted woman to his evil hearted ways. This mash up of Othello and Macbeth turns the spotlight on the women and explores what we are capable off when hope is replaced by despair.

This pared down production opens with a narrow stage that boldly states the intention that this Othello is a series of succinct snapshots of the original. Scene changes are signified by the discordant menace of clamouring gossip on the wind. Focusing on key elements of the plot to move the narrative along swiftly it often loses the beauty of poetry and the development of key relationships; however it sharpens the focus unto male machismo and the perils of innocence in a world of brutal ambition.

The real moment of drama that makes you inhale sharply and sit up is the sinfully clever shift towards Macbeth at the end of the first act. Lady Macbeth enters clutching empty swaddling and offers her milk as gall to Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia. As these three mistreated and/or murdered women don camouflage jackets over their bloody clothes the scene is set for the weird sisters or witches to wreak havoc.

The set design by Basia Bińkowska is startling and while it initially seems restrictive and one dimensional, it is potent in its sharp simplicity. A wall of riveted steel and a metal caged walkway evoke the confines of a hi-tech prison symbolizing the narrow constrictions of being a woman in Shakespearean times and in certain societies today. For the domestic violence in Othello it brutally resounds with the visceral crackle of bone on steel. The second act lifts the steel wall and reveals a more open space for the actors to move around. What now dominates is the perspex sink crystal clear before becoming increasingly bloody as events unfold. The metal walkway overhead gets more use in the second act as the weird sisters watch over their machinations like puppeteers pulling at the heartstrings of Macbeth and the other men.

The focus on the women in this production is a powerful reminder of the perils of love and the struggle for fairness and equality. Desdemona is a young bride who naively assumes that love conquers all. Married to a powerful man she expects to be heard without resorting to shrewishness yet conforms to the message running through Shakespeare and the song used in this production….You love like a martyr… wear your heart like a suicide vest. Lady Macbeth in vivid Tory blue is a seasoned and more experienced wife who asserts her own power within her marriage. Emilia and Bianca are also more pragmatic and less naive of the ways of men, yet all are disappointed and wounded women. These are all women who love not wisely but too well surrounded by men who are equally capable of powerful emotions.

I’m not sure how many questions are answered by this production by Jude Christian who also provoked debate with Parliament Square, however OthelloMacbeth certainly evokes lively conversation about the women Shakespeare created. This nine strong cast do a good job of keeping up momentum with notable performances by Sandy Grierson and Kirsten Foster. Most of the performances here are impressive and pushing the female characters to the forefront is an interesting dynamic. The key element is the bleeding through of such influential dramatic creations through both plays and how they still resonate with audiences today. As Desdemona says Love that endures from Life that disappears.

HOME 14th Sept – 29th Sept

Lyric Hammersmith 3th Oct – 3th Nov

Images by Helen Murray