What If I Told You?

Written and Performed by PAULINE MAYERS

Directed by CHRIS  GOODE 

The Studio, The Royal Exchange 

Pauline Mayers is a Rambert Ballet trained dancer, a choreographer, a writer and a theatre maker. She is a Hackney girl who has travelled the World as a dancer. She is a women of a certain age who has lived through significant  physical injuries and the emotional pain of depression.  She is a performer and an experimenter and an explorer. She is a black woman who has had a mixed response from the dance world about having a black body  to channel ballet through. More recently she has also experienced the closed doors that often greet an older dancer.

Talking to her in interview recently and watching her perform this  evening there is an undoubted warmth and engagement with others that is striking. As she opens the show her gaze attempts to connect with each member of the audience with a white hot intensity. This will draw in many audience members but for some may prove uncomfortable to fully engage with.

What If I Told You? uses theatre, movement and dance to explore prejudice and the conscious and unconscious assumption around skin colour. The piece weaves elements of her personal history and dance experience with the story of Dr J.Marion Sims often referred to as the father of modern Gynaecology. 

Dr Sims practised medicine in the nineteenth century and made major discoveries in the field of Gynaecology. His work was and remains highly controversial as he used black slave women as his subjects and refused to use anaesthetic deeming them less able to feel pain than white women.

The piece uses audience interaction and participation throughout. It is most powerful as we recreate a montage of a painting of Sims with Anarcha (a patient he experimented on many times), and two other white doctors observing while two tramatised black women peek through a curtain to see what awaits them. This is the impact of the piece that has stayed with me. Imagining that Anarcha might have been Pauline and seeing a lovely young black woman I know who could have been waiting her turn. Sims and another doctor were portrayed by white middle class men I also knew. It was deeply unsettling to imagine whose shoes we might walk in, in another place or time. 

There are some very rich moments to observe and there are some lovely interactions and connections as the audience participate in the movement of the piece. There is however a frustration that in weaving these elements together so much there is a risk that the piece loses some of its impact. An hour limits some of the storytelling when we also are participants. Pauline is so engaging I wanted more of her and less of me!!

Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. Its the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. Its a radical act of self care and empowerment. 
The Koan completes the second half of the show and is led by poet Khadijah Ibrahiim. Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. This is an important part of the piece as it is an exploration of subjective experience and a continuation of sharing what is “sameness” as opposed to “otherness”. 

The genuine hope in What If I Told You? is that each of us leaves the space with a keener and more empathic perspective on our neighbours. 

“There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.”
This is a very personal piece. Pauline says it is an invitation to walk in her shoes for an hour. As with any subjective experience this will be more potent for some than for others. This is undoubtedly painful and chilling at times however it is also celebratory. Having stubbornly fought to be recognised as a black dancer and struggled with the loss of that career this show is also a homecoming. Theatre has welcomed her as a performer and story teller and her joy and appreciation is evident in this piece.

SHOWING 19/20 JUNE


Persuasion

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Caroline Moroney, Samuel Edward-Cook and Cassie Layton in Persuasion. Credit Johan Persson

Royal Exchange, Manchester

By Jane Austen

Adapted by Jeff James with James Yeatman

Directed by Jeff James

Persuasion might just be close to Perfection. This modern take on a two hundred year old Jane Austen novel by Jeff James is a gloriously uplifting froth fest. In the beautiful old Royal Exchange building sits a perfectly placed modern theatre and inside it James amps up the volume on a brilliant Frank Ocean soundtrack and ditches the bonnets for bikinis and the breeches for speedos.

“Penelope, turn the music down! I can hardly hear myself think over your harpsichord!” The opening line sets the tone for this production. This is a sharply observed perceptive rom com which uses Austen’s analysis of constancy in love and marriage. Married Mary is shrewish and discontented,  true to the original and yet as easily at home in John Lewis or the Knutsford Aldi. Sir Walter is narcissistic and fighting his advancing years like a bare-chested Mick Jagger strutting round Cannes rather than taking the waters in Bath. The deliciously carefree Louisa and Henrietta are every naïve young girl out for a good time seduced by the idea of love rather than the reality.

Alex Lowde has created a stunning lightbox platform which scissors out to function as a a kind of fashion catwalk for a sports/luxe collection S/S2017 and an Essex nightclub. The high point being when the tide comes in and high spirits and wanton ways flood the stage in a stunning spectacle which probably has most of the audience contemplating joining the cast on stage.

The strong sense of camaraderie is apparent from early on. The cast sit in the auditorium merging into the audience and casually strip down and change costumes so it seems like  we have joined them in their dressing rooms. The result is spontaneous applause as Anne and Wentworth finally get it together.

The whole cast seem to be having a blast. Man mad Cassie Layton and Caroline Moroney  can sparkle and fizz with energy or sway on the dance floor like mannequin autobots.  Samuel Edward-Cook and Lara Rossi are convincing as the lovers hoping to reunite even as Anne struggles to “want to want again”. The whole production has great comic timing and uses Austen’s dry wit to great effect.

Love and Constancy win the day as a mature, reflective Anne who can also dance like a demon and flick irritants off the stage, gets the relationship she wants. Persuasion is all about the love and the importance of trusting ourselves in decisions of the heart. That is as relevant today as in Austen’s lifetime.

At The Royal Exchange until 24 June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROSE

HOME, Manchester

 

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Written by Martin Sherman

Directed by Richard Beecham

Performed by Janet Suzman

The curtain goes back to reveal a simple wooden bench on which a dimly lit Suzman sits. She informs us that she sitting Shiva. As she sits, we sit. As she speaks we listen. Stillness fills the main theatre space at HOME.  Suzman as Rose commands the stage alone for over 2 hours, and is mesmerizing

Rose is simply one voice and one story picked out and told from a history of displaced people all across the World and all through History. The potency of that one voice telling one story ensures that it feels impossible not to focus and engage. There are no distractions other than subtle touches of music and a beautifully simple  moodscape of  shifting colours as a backdrop.

The first half focuses on Roses early life with her family and her first marriage to the love of her life and the subsequent birth of her daughter Esther. The images of family life and lilac trees and smooth chested men is rich and evocative. As the story moves from  the ‘shtetls’ of Eastern Europe into Nazi occupied Warsaw the memories fragment as the horrors of the ghetto permeate her life.

The second act opens with the stage now filled with benches to sit Shiva. The result is haunting, so many benches for so many dead. The stark white simplicity is reminiscent of the rows of simple crosses marking the graves of  the war dead in so many cemeteries.

Rose is now a business woman, married with a son and speaking with the accent of her adopted country. She speaks of her life in America and the choices she makes about what she recalls and what she suppresses from past memories. Her son and grandchildren continue the theme of displacement and the battle to forge a new nations identity. Her journey from the ill fated Exodus ship and the bright hope of a homeland is tainted by later events in Israel and Palestine. “The milk was slightly sour, the honey a bit tart.”

This is a beautifully crafted script by Martin Sherman and is skilfully directed by Richard Beecham to ensure that Rose is vital and real. The play avoids the stereotypes of Jewish mothers and tells a story from 20th Century history without preaching.  The star of the show is of course Rose and rightly so, Janet Suzman is astounding as this warm yet brittle and wounded survivor. Her performance is subtle and understated but every look and movement is exact and illuminates Rose with depth and clarity.

History repeats itself and Rose has observed a century of the ebb and flow of peoples and their religions and cultures. It is timely that in the 21st Century we are revisiting this play as refugees flee their homes and seek uncertain welcomes and futures elsewhere.

At HOME until 10th June

 

How My Light Is Spent

Royal Exchange Theatre

By Alan Harris

Directed by Liz Stevenson

Cast Rhodri Meilir and Alexandria Riley

 

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How My Light Is Spent. Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo by Jonathon Keenan.

A phone connection at precisely 7.30pm every Wednesday evening  for precisely nine minutes has become the only meaningful social connection in the life of 34 year old Jimmy living at home with his mother in Newport. Kitty, a telephone sex worker saving up to study to be a Psychologist is his only conduit into an existence where he matters and he feels fully alive.

Winner of the Judges Award in the 2015 Bruntwood prize this is a darkly comedic look at social disengagement and how easy it is to literally disappear without the social constructs of family, work and interpersonal relationships.  This two-hander could be thoroughly bleak and grim but the whimsical introduction of an actual vanishing man brings a lightness to the play.  Rhodri Meilir is excellent, giving Jimmy a fully fleshed character who is socially clumsy, lugubrious and still desperately eager to open his big Welsh heart to love.  Alexandria Riley is simply wonderful as a  bruised but never broken woman with big dreams and limited options, however her character would benefit from further development as the role of Kitty is equally important to this play.

Both actors  also very effectively voice the other characters in the play bringing alive Rita as the mother who can engage with The Salvation Army but struggles to communicate with her son except by phone or through the bedroom door. Kitty’s topiary obsessed Landlord Stevo is a small divorced man who collects porcelain dolls as fragile as his hope of buying Kitty’s love. Mallory is the brittle, gobby daughter Jimmy was estranged from who swings in the park waiting for the light to go out at home before she returns to a disinterested mother. All reflect the themes of loneliness and invisibility and dispossession.

Staged in traverse this cleverly divides the audience while ensuring we are forced to look at each other as well as at the actors. Fly Davis  has created a stark bridge which both maintains a sense of   separateness acting as a barrier to connecting and a kind of stepping stone to reaching out to others. The use of sounds of keyboards tapping and swings moving in the breeze and naff music are really evocative and allow us to see the invisible and wish to connect.The lighting crucial in a piece about invisibility delivers on every level. The closing scene brought all these together under Director Liz Stevensons sensitive eye  to create a little bit of magic that  made my arms tingle like Jimmys.

I left the theatre wondering what became of the widowed lady who I used to chat to at the local supermarket before her job  vanished to be replaced by a hideous self service till just as Jimmy’s job vanished to be replaced by a coin bin. This piece is timely because it reflects the general misery of the reality of Austerity for the working class as redundancies and relationships breakdowns create a non-class of invisible souls while reminding us of how brightly any soul can shine if nourished an nurtured.

SHERMAN THEATRE until 27 May

THEATRE BY THE LAKE 31May- 24 June

 

 

 

 

TANK

HOME

DIRECTED BY Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens

WRITTEN BY Billy Barrett, Joe Boylan, Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens and Victoria Watson

This is the kind of theatre experience that might leave an audience dumbstruck at times but is guaranteed to generate conversation in the bar afterwards. BREACH have produced a piece of partly verbatim theatre that can shock and provoke but is also a sensitive and moving portrayal of how inhumane humanity can be.

In the midst of Sixties Cold War paranoia NASA funded a ridulously indulgent experiment into animal neuroscience. John Lilley headed up a laboratory on St Thomas experimenting with 3 dolphins in captivity. The main protagonists of this true story are Margaret Howe Lovatt and Peter a young male dolphin. There seemed to be little emphasis on hard science as Margaret had no qualifications as a researcher other than she was curious and liked dolphins. Lilley was also curious, mainly about what effect LSD might have on a huge brain- it might be useful to mention his best mate directed all the Flipper movies! The aim was to teach the dolphins to speak English and so improve Mankinds chance of communicating with extra terrestials should we ever meet any.

The high or low point of five years of research was a 10 week period in which Margaret and Peter cohabited in a watery home. Peter did not learn to speak English but Margaret did learn how to masturbate a dolphin so maybe not an entire waste of time!

TANK uses dried out tapes of some surviving recordings of this research to illustrate this fishy tale and lo fi microphones to reproduce Peters attempts at language. The large video screen is used to show the underwater film of Peter and Margaret while the four actors on stage work to create a prism like take on what really occurred in the lab.

The actors bicker on stage as to the detail of the actual events. Margaret was “ruggedly feminine” and wore heels or boots or ….. Pam the dolphin had dried out traumatised skin or was covered in concealed blood. This is an odd couple love story or it’s a girl wanking off a gigantic dolphin cock. At the centre of this piece is the many facets of the story. Love, science, philosophy- how do we each perceive an event and how does experience colour our viewpoint? Here the women are wearily sensible  and frustrated by the men who sexualise  events like smutty schoolboys.

Joe Boylan is superb as Peter. He physically evokes the power and curiosity of the young dolphin. His is a totally believable performance and as he dances with the others the vibrancy and naughtiness bubbling through is totally infectious. Sophie Steer as Margaret vibrates with passion and despair as she attempts to communicate with Peter. There is an innocence and a whimsy to her that makes her masturbation of this dolphin seem sensuous and natural rather than sexualised which is exactly how the research assistant described her actions years later.

There are some delicious moments as they all sensuously dance together with blank faces or as they strip down and  Boylan puts on his dolphin mask. The air of menace is never far way as they fantasize about Margarets ruination and death at the fins of a dolphin army.

This is raw and edgy and joyous, it is dark theatre. It reminds us just how crazy humans can be but there can sometimes be a little magic in the crazy. TANK is good crazy.

POSTSCRIPT:

Twenty years after these experiments I spent a summer in Windsor researching parenting and attachment behaviours in dolphins. Two mother and their babies and I got to observe and play with them. It was heaven on earth.   

I Capture the Castle

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Book : Dodie Smith

Adaptation and Lyrics : Teresa Howard

Music : Steven Ellis

Director  : Brigid Larmour

Five years in development this is the musical adaptation of a much loved coming of age novel. It is surprising that it has taken almost 60 years to produce a musical on stage as Smith herself an accomplished playwright adapted her book as a ‘play with musical notes’ in 1954. A labour of love by Larmour and her collaborators it is an enjoyable affair but sadly not terribly satisfying. 

Set in Suffolk in the mid 1930s it is narrated by its heroine the sweet but fiercely perceptive Cassandra. She aspires to be a writer and through her journal seeks to literally ‘capture’ the crumbling castle and its inhabitants. Her family the Mortmains are an eccentric bunch in the book but here they become faded characters stepping bleary eyed from the dusty pages of the original book.

James Mortmain, Cassies father, hides away in the turrets struggling with chronic writers block. Author of a successful and revered piece of literature he has written nothing for 10 yrs. Topaz his wild and bohemian  second wife is a former artists model who floats around making oatcakes to feed her impoverished family. The actors are severely limited by the script. When a major song for Ben Watson suggests his passion and adoration for his ‘very particular girl” it jars as though it speaks of characters from another stage. There is little sign of the delicious Topaz floating around wearing nothing but her boots or of a frustrated genius who has written the equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses. This weakens the plotline. We never really get to see what Cassie sought to capture or understand the importance of nurturing a great second book beyond monetary gain.

Lowri Izzard is delightful in her professional debut singing beautifully and capturing the essence of Cassie. She shines and this coupled with weaknesses in the script and in the performances of her sister, their American suitors and her friend Stephen mean that it is hard to care about the other younger characters. The older women blaze a trail across the stage bringing energy and waspish humour. The standout number has to be ‘They’re only men’ delivered with gusto by Julia St John and Shona White. 

 The music is always good and effectively evokes both the countryside and the castle, and the glamour of the city.  The dance routines and use of physical theatre do not always work. They can  seem under rehearsed or poorly conceived especially when they are all in London dancing barefoot and Stephen is just wearing an overcoat like a would be flasher or when we see a randon human gargoyle who looks more like a hoodied thief trying to raid the castle.

The visual portrayal of the castle is a chaotic heap of old spindly furniture which is witty and memorable. It towers over the performers like a crazy croque-en-bouche at a buffet.

There is a lot to enjoy but it somehow fails to deliver what was originally intended. This was intended to take a classic book and give it the flavour of LaLa Land success with a nod to An American in Paris and Oklahoma. Good intentions but perhaps too many ingredients and cooks in the mix. 

At Oxford Playhouse 16-20 May

Cyrano

QUAY THEATRE, THE LOWRY 

NORTHERN BROADSIDES/ NEW VIC THEATRE

Adaptation of  Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac by Deborah McAndrew

Saturday afternoon in a box right by the stage. Great view of audience and cast. It is a piece of period French drama. It is pantomime but with an audience of old people and a 12 week old baby. It is a musical. It has the ghost of Geraldine McEwan on a balcony in a crinoline. Please let me face the Spanish forces with a wooden sword and let the equally wooden young Christian stay to listen to Roxanne instead of me.

In this production Cyrano is much younger than how he is usually portrayed. This works on some levels and Christian Edwards portrays him with energy and conviction. Amongst the poets and soldiers he convinces, however the casting of Roxanne makes it harder for him to seem as passionate in the love scenes. Northern Broadsides have built a sound reputation casting using regional accents and staging in unusual locations. It can be a winning combination but not in this instance. The set is very pedestrian and uninspiring and the Northern accents are fine though become uneasily frenchified when discussing patisserie. The big problem is the strident cut glass Edinburgh voice of Roxanne. Closed eyes and  Cyrano and Christian are wooing Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. It creates a dissonance and ruptures belief in Roxanne (Sharon Singh) as a credible love interest for the clever and complex Cyrano.

The addition of lots of singing and dancing and men in women’s clothes with tiers of pastries under their skirts and baps hidden in their bras distract from the original play and create the farce of pantomime instead. There is even an pickpocket/nun of small stature to add to this bewildering spectacle.

The cast bring lots of energy and enthusiasm to this production. However the staging and direction makes it feel more am/dram than this cast deserve.

The closing scene of the death of Cyrano is a blessed release for all concerned bar the wretched Roxanne who will no longer have the local gossip told to her  in an engaging way. Where in Deborah McAndrews  script is the quick wit of Roxanne that so beguiled Cyrano?  Four autumn leaves fall from the sky to herald the passing of poor lovelorn Cyrano – a props misfunction or no budget left for leaves after buying in so much pastry? 

It is ironic that Cyrano should speak so eloquently for Northern Broadsides ethos 

Shall I hide my roots, and change my voice. Modulate my vowels to fit in?

Sadly in the case of a Scottish Roxanne it would have been welcome.