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

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

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Written by Kemp Powers

Directed by Matthew Xia

HOME

This play is a genius idea by Kemp Powers. One Night in Miami literally locks the audience into Room 12 of a Miami motel on February 25th 1964. We watch 4 old friends chat about politics and life as they celebrate the success of the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. It’s quite a night to behold as the four friends are King of the World boxer Cassius Clay, soul singer Sam Cooke, NFL supremo Jim Brown and political activist Malcolm X. We are flies on the wall watching and listening, as are the FBI and the Nation of Islam while outside amongst the palm trees the Press are also gathering. There is only Joe Brown left alive to say exactly what did transpire that night, but Kemp has created something that feels authentic. Offering a glimpse of these men in the midst of private struggles and uncertainty that are played out alongside the thrills of public success and the darker themes of repression and segregation in Sixties America.

Designer Grace Smart has created a capsule motel room that effectively boxes in the four men as they talk privately but also works wonderfully well in recreating a boxing ring and an Auditorium stage. Lighting design by Ciarán Cunningham and sound by Max Pappenheim enhance the experience and help create the standout moments such as the boxing scene and when Sam Cooke sings. The neon sky and palm trees vividly contrast against the plain decor of the motel room, creating a perfect backdrop to the ordinary and extraordinary events unfolding in that room.

The characters on stage are vividly portrayed by the cast with fervour and passion. At times they are so full of life that the dialogue risks them becoming caricatures of themselves. Conor Glean as Cassius fizzes with energy, giddy with his success but increasingly wary of what his imminent conversion to Islam will mean. Miles Yekinni brings depth and strength as Brown as he contemplates a move from sport to the movies as a “Black action hero”. Christopher Colquhoun is convincing as the impassioned activist who clearly carries a heavy burden and is wrestling his own fears and demons.

The standout performance is Matt Henry as Sam Cooke who moves between confidence and assured charm and his fear of what may happen to his hard won success if he does indeed change his style and use his music to do more than just entertain. I would happily pay again just for the moments when he performs – he brings down the house as he brings his “Sister Flute” to his explosive rendition of You Send Me. As the play draws to a close and he tries out his new song A Change Is Gonna Come, Henry is simply sublime. Director Matthew Xia creates a moment when it truly feels like witnessing something intensely personal and genuinely moving as though we too are hearing this musical masterpiece for the very first time.

HOME 2nd – 5th July 2019

Images by Richard Hubert Smith

Hobson’s Choice

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson’s Choice. Credit Marc Brenner

Written by Harold Brighouse

Adapted by Tanika Gupta

Directed by Atri Banerjee

In this new adaptation of the 1915 classic, Tanika Gupta has moved the setting from a cobbler’s shop in Salford to a tailor’s shop that is vibrant with silk saris. Set in Eighties Ancoats, Hobson and his three daughters are Asian Ugandans who fled the regime of Idi Amin and have spent the last 15 years building a life and a business in the Britain of Ted Heath who had welcomed 30,000 refugees. Using sparkling dialogue and a clear understanding of the original Gupta honours the familial relationships established by Brighouse while ensuring that the societal themes remain fresh and current.

The set design by Rosa Maggiora blasts colour and a keen sense of detail into this production. Director Atri Banerjee brings a lightness of touch to this production insuring that the witty dialogue sparkles throughout. His experience at the Royal Exchange is evident in how he uses the space. He creates an intimacy and a sense of participation for the audience. Wedding favours are shared out during the interval creating a lovely sense that we are participants in the wedding celebration. The catwalk triumph of Asian Chic serves as a joyful finale and also as a celebratory parade of all the actors.

This is a really strong cast that brings an absolute authenticity to this production. We see young women wearing mini skirts and dancing in The Hacienda, rebelling against a father who tells them to “Live within your boundaries. It’s a Man’s World.” There is the destructive theme of racism from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech that still resonates today. Hobson has slipped into alcoholism and his best tailor works for a pittance because he “is the lowest of the low”, staying because “Your Papa has my passport.”

Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop. Credit Marc Brenner

Esh Alladi is utterly engaging and believable as the shy downtrodden worker full of twitches and tremors. There is real delight in watching him grow in confidence from tentative bridegroom to a loving husband and a budding entrepreneur. Shalini Peiris as Durga Hobson is cooly decisive and resourceful. There is no self pity for her situation instead she ensures the best possible outcome for herself and her sisters. Peiris skillfully balances being both a funny and blunt force of nature with the delicacy and vulnerability of being a new bride on her wedding night.

Tony Jayawardena as Hobson gives a performance full of bluster, self-pity and patriarchal arrogance. He embodies a man living in complete denial who has slipped into alcoholism and is facing bankruptcy and the loss of his family. Even when Hobson is at his most outrageous Jayawardena still brings enough warmth and charm to his character that his daughter’s return involves residual affection and not just duty or ambition.

This new adaptation is a real success that brings the issues of intergenerational conflict, class snobbery, alcoholism and immigration into sharp focus while never feeling preachy or worthy. Over one hundred years since the original opening night, Hobson’s Choice remains relevant, engaging and thought provoking.

Royal Exchange 31 May – 6 July 2019