ROOTS

Created by 1927

Writer and Director Suzanne Andrade

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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

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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, Ac├ęphale 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 Ac├ęphale, 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

Tinned Up

Written by Chris Hoyle

Directed by Simon Naylor

Oldham Coliseum

As a writer Chris Hoyle consistently delivers sparkling dialogue that has a rich northern tone, a big heart and a genuine social conscience. Tinned Up may have been written ten years ago, but its relevance today has the same power to arrest and perturb. Staged in Oldham where community spirit remains vibrant, this new version is directed by Simon Naylor of 53Two – a much respected local theatre who are currently between homes due to the surge in inner city re-development. Casting is firmly Northern too and is headed up by the wonderful Karen Henthorn who like Naylor was part of the team involved in Chris Hoyle’s highly successful The Newspaper Boy.

The staging by designer David Howell creates an utterly believable cosy home that Shirley has spent 34 years living in. The outside world might be tinned up but inside these four walls is someone’s home where they have lived their life and built forged their memories. This home houses an indomitable spirit that has spent 7 years refusing to give in to the local council and the private developers. Karen Henthorn is fabulous as the gutsy Shirley whose warmth and stubborn resolve ensures that even those who have left Langworthy are pulled back to their old community to support her. Her performance coupled with the wonderful dialogue Hoyle gives his central character can easily stand confidently alongside the best kitchen sink dramas.

There are some great performances playing off the lead with an especially lovely relationship between Shirley and her young neighbour Daz. Keaton Lansley has real chemistry as Daz and balances humour with real emotional depth as a young man nurtured and encouraged by Shirley to strive for better things in his life. The living room scene with Lynn Roden as Beryl where the two middle aged women reminsce as they get pissed on ouzo is rich with bawdy humour and the poignancy of intertwined memories.

There are some wonderful moments in this production and hopefully opening night will have ironed out some timing issues and fluffed lines. The direction also lacks some of the tightness and lightness of touch that Simon Naylor displayed in The Newspaper Boy. There are several points in the first act and most notably in the final scene where the pacing slows down or appears a little unfocused.

The stomach wrenching moment in this piece is when a muddled Shirley runs out unto her street to share news with her neighbours only to be gently caught by Daz. That street and community has long gone and she is alone…They’re all tinned up, every last one of them. The final street party and the inevitable ending reflect the ebb and flow of progress. The mundane flushing of a toilet as a life ends, making way for wet rooms, upside down houses and another generation of communities… for better or worse remains to be seen.

Main House Takeover Oldham Coliseum 24th-26th Sept 2019

Images by Shay Rowan

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Haydon

Royal Exchange Theatre

Director Christopher Haydon delivers a production of Macbeth that is packed full of ideas and creativity. There is a veritable smorgasbord on display that is as colourful and attention grabbing as the infamous banquet where bloody heads compete for space with luridly iced party cakes and doughnuts. Unfortunately although iced delights can tempt us to a quick sugar fix this is a drawn out affair which fails to deliver in a more ultimately satisfying manner.

Lucy Ellinson is a mercurial leader who is believable as a toughened soldier and a popular leader. Sinewy and earthy she appears one of the lads, however as the prophecies of the three weird sisters start to tighten their grip, she becomes increasingly paranoid and driven by bloody ambition. Ellinson soon morphs into a power crazed maniac complete with sunken eyes and bone bleached skull. The performance itself is strong and gripping, however it somehow fails to provide a truly satisfying Macbeth. The physical fragility of a woman who increasingly resembles a crack addict searching for her next fix simply cannot deliver a plausible final battle scene with Macduff. Ultimately there is too much petulance and vulnerability here that could work with Hamlet but not as successfully here with Macbeth.

This is only part of the frustration with this Macbeth which had the opportunity to really shine a light on relationships for ambitious women in power. This lesbian couple seem emotionally ill matched and implausible as this war hardened hero seems incapable of questioning or even noticing Lady Macbeth’s scheming greed and machinations. There is no exploration of their lack of heirs as a gay couple which could have been a really interesting angle to explore in their quest for the crown. The ambitious Lady Macbeth would have surely contemplated a modern ruthless attempt at altering their fate – perhaps spurgling the sperm of Macduff or Banquo?? There is no tenderness between them or any real sharing of the damage their actions cause them personally.

Motorway murder scenes, torrential storms, helicopters, red balloons and chatty interactions with the audience members pepper this production. Designer Oli Townsend has a stark but beautiful heptagram on the stage with a steaming cauldron at its heart. All is as minimalist as a soldier’s rations until the Mad Hatters tea pparty that is the lurid banquet complete with fancy dress and part games. Looking like something from a Ken Russell movie this is OTT in the best way. Dreamlike and drug fueled the game of musical chairs drily reflects our current political situation.

Lucy Ellinson as Macbeth Image- Johann Persson

The ever present weird Sisters as drug addled party girls supplementing their incomes as sinister, sulky waitresses at the castle is an entertaining aspect to this Macbeth. They bring both light and dark elements to the production. For such a female heavy cast it is troubling that the real heart of this Macbeth ultimately seems to belong to the men. Banquo and Macduff balance career and family with grace and honour. Actors Theo Ogundipe and Paul Hickey give performances that resonate and truly highlight the tragedy of this piece.

Royal Exchange Theatre 13 Sept – 19 Oct 2019

Images by Johann Persson