A Skull in Connemara

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Martin McDonagh

Directed by Chris Lawson

A Skull in Connemara is a fine example of Martin McDonagh’s use of gallows humour to portray the brutal realities in small town life. He has an uncanny flair for making the ordinary seem extraordinary by placing vivid characters in subversive situations to create unnerving dramas that absorb and captivate. First shown in Galway in 1997, this new production directed by Chris Lawson is a deeply satisfying watch and is beautifully staged.

There are four characters on stage each one vividly brought to life by a very strong cast, and then of course there are all the additional characters invoked by their skulls with each one telling their own story. This is a small rural community where fact and fiction are often blurred and never get in the way of a good story. Everything about this production looks and feels and sounds authentic. Having myself grown up in a rural part of Ireland the characters are instantly recognisable as are the bleak tales of deaths caused by alcoholism or from farming accidents with slurry tanks and combine harvesters.

This is a world where 5 year olds are not easily forgiven for peeing in the cemetery and are described by Maryjohnny as a pack of whores clearly destined to burn in hell as she happily sups poteen and shares the comfort of a peat fire with a man who she believes has murdered his wife. Such are the constant disparities in this piece which deftly throws curve balls at the audience with the same regularity that Mick digs up corpses.

John O’Dowd is perfectly cast as the tightly coiled, inscrutable widower Mick who is tasked with the ghastly task of digging up his own wife. Impossible to pin down what he truly thinks or feels, he allows the other characters the space to relax and reveal their own truths. The interplay between him and the naive, younger men still grappling for excitement and validation is beautifully played out. The genius moment perhaps being the skull battery scene played out over a soundtrack of Dana singing All Kinds of Everything only matched in film terms by Tarantino’s ear scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Katie Scott who recently did such a clever job with the set design on Sparkplug has perfectly captured an old Irish kitchen complete with distempered walls an peat fire. The trapdoors and mounds of dark earth make this graveyard eerily real as the spade thuds down on decaying coffins. The scene shifts between kitchen and ghostly graveyard with lopsided Celtic gravestones is startling and truly beautiful.

This is fabulous story telling with a rich, meaty dialogue filled with Irish profanities and colloquialisms. Directed with a real understanding of McDonagh’s work this is an assured production that can charm and repel in equal measure but will always enthrall.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd February – 9thMarch 2019

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

Mother Courage

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Adapted by Anna Jordan

Directed by Amy Hodge

The 1939 Brecht original is a searing indictment of capitalism and an unemotional view of how individual characters respond in an unrelenting warzone. There is little space for warmth, humanity or collaboration in Mother Courage. This new production is born from writer and new mother Anna Jordan wanting to adapt the play and collaborate with Director Amy Hodge from Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh who had approached Sarah Frankcom about playing this iconic role. This is a collaboration of strong, feminist women and perhaps a timely reminder that we are all stronger pulling together than at war.

The outcome is a Mother Courage that is at times almost unbearably complex. Strong and sassy as hell, an immoral opportunist, a slippery wheeler/dealer, a proud, protective mother that can suffocate and infantilize her children but who cannot empathize with suffering and can only demonstrate her love through providing functional things rather than emotional warmth. The sheer complexity of her character is intentionally uncomfortable forcing the viewer to ask of themselves “What would I do in that situation? What am I capable off?”

Julie Hesmondhalgh has a huge undertaking as her natural warmth could easily feel at odds with Mother Courage. However there is no doubt that she relishes the role. At times unbearably heartless to those who get in the way of her ruthless and desperate pursuit of financial security, she is always a pragmatic Mother and the ultimate survivor. Bartering for her son and ultimately causing his death appears unforgivable yet it is a “Sophie’s Choice” as with no money and no van then the family would all perish. Though utterly distasteful in her lust for the next big deal, there is something unbearably childlike in her capacity to find a thread of good in the bleakest of circumstances. When Kattrin is raped and disfigured, her mother “comforts” her that now she is ugly no one will rape her again, while herself utterly alone and dragging the husk of the van, she reflects that bereft of all children it is lighter to pull.

Director Amy Hodge draws some strong performances from the cast and they all benefit from a wonderfully naturalistic script by Anna Jordan. However the standout performance is from the mute Kattrin played by deaf actress Rose Asling-Ellis. “Her heart is a shining star,” and that is evident as we see the world reflected through her eyes in the midst of all the misery. Her performance is just glorious, conveying more than words could possibly express in the smallest of gestures. A scene where action carries on elsewhere, she sits in the van side of stage carefully arranging her hair to cover her scars and every movement is perfection.

Anna Jordan shifts the action from the 17th century 30 year war to a dystopian future where its 2080 and both Europe and technology have vanished. This is a bleak, barren setting where the red and blue armies fight for space on a grid. With the demise of the E.U. there are no longer emotional connections to countries just a nameless land mass. Striding through this unforgiving setting is the eponymous Mother Courage with her 3 kids – 4 if you factor in her beloved van. Rough hewn cardboard sheets above the stage inform of each scene as do the disparate characters who introduce the action ensuring in true Brechtian fashion that the audience is not misled about what is about to unfold.

The set design by Joanna Scotcher works really effectively. The battered ice cream van is an inspired choice being a welcome reminder of childhood and safer times yet a sinister refuge that is also burger van, provisions cart, brothel and armoury. The course of the war is perfectly reflected as it is gradually stripped back to a skeletal husk. The oil drum effectively serves as podium for Hedydd Dylan’s insouciant whore, and later in the most beautiful scene it burns brightly as Mother Courage has her final poignant moments with Kattrin.

There are issues with this production, mainly the jarring nature of some of the musical numbers which although are intended as discordant often simply just don’t work at all. The musical number prior to Kattrin’s ruin feels really unpleasantly at odds with that scene. Overall this production of Mother Courage is meaty and full of life- which is more than can be said for the bird MC tries to flog to the army chef!!

Royal Exchange 8th Feb – 2nd March 2019

Images by Richard Davenport

The Animals and Children took to the Streets

HOME

Written & Directed by Suzanne Andrade

Film & Animation by Paul Barritt

Music by Lillian Henley

There is nothing remotely “little” about the technical skill and artistic merit of what 1927 call “our little show”. The Animals and Children took to the Streets is a dark, cautionary tale cleverly combining story-telling with animation, performance and live music in an almost magically seamless manner. Performers and animated children and animals blend together to create a visual theatrical spectacle that is part graphic novel/part Pop-Up or Lift the flap children’s book.

The inhabitants of The Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street are a disparate bunch of dissolute characters ranging from a man living with his horse, to another who sniffs women’s bicycle seats, to a 21 year old granny and pirate Zelda who leads one of the many gangs of children roaming the neighbourhood. Into the mix comes the pure hearted Agnes who arrives with her sweet little daughter Evie; hoping to save the local children with love and découpage. This naivety to the scale of the problem of children reared on vodka, borscht and tears ensures there will be no fairy tale ending to this particular story.

The story here is simple, but its brilliance lies in the stylistic delivery and the visual feast created by Paul Barritt’s film and animation coupled with the three performers’ seamless interactions with the animated characters. The audience appear spellbound by this picturebook story just as children might listening to The Pied Piper of Hamlin. In this instance the children are lured away by a sinister ice cream van and Granny’s Gumdrops which are a chemical cosh akin to a hefty dose of Ritalin.

Performers Felicity Sparks, Genevieve Dunne and Rowena Lennon each play a range of characters that they bring vividly to life. Despite the period look stylistically, there is a very current feel to this show that does not need to mention Grenfall Towers. The colour palette and use of live music creates the feel of an old silent movie. The delivery of the local characters is filled with acerbic wit and drips with the acidic knowledge that if you’re born in the Bayou, you’ll die here. Agnes Eaves radiates a hopeful innocence and then a growing terror that is reminiscent of Clara Bow while the mournful delivery and physical performance of The Caretaker evokes something very Chaplinesque.

This is an ambitious and assured production that hits all the right notes on the plink plonk piano in that window in The Bayou. It perfectly highlights the inherent unfairness of a Society where the odds are always stacked against the poor and the dispossessed. It is darkly subversive and yet it has warmth and charm as it also shines with the compassion and humour of humanity still present despite such a bleak environment.

HOME 6th- 16th February

1927 are an Associate Company of HOME

1927

All images by 1927

THE PRODUCERS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks

Directed by Raz Shaw

A Riot of colour sequins and spangly frocks. A cluster of corny jokes that the audience know by heart. A bonkers evil anti-hero. A dame in drag. A warm-hearted gentleman thief. A beautiful young ingénue. An innocent abroad in an unknown world. Catchy songs and madcap dance routines. Lights, sequins, laughter….It’s Christmas and this must be Pantomime?

Thankfully this is bad taste theatre at its very best and aimed at entertaining the grown ups. Raz Shaw brings the Mel Brooks classic The Producers to the stage of The Royal Exchange Theatre. Joyful and irreverent, this is a production that both delights and appalls in equal measure. Filled with bad taste jokes and bawdy humour which could/should repel, it manages to triumph with a heart of gold as glittering as the show girls costumes and as gleaming as the coiffeur of Roger de Bris.

The Producers dating from the 1960s, pokes fun at the Nazis, and although the jokes might be old, the message remains current – we need humour and parody to diminish the power of extremism. It might be a foppish Hitler being mocked on stage but replace the black moustache with an orange wig and the central message remains the same.

This is a genuinely top notch Broadway affair with a superb cast who whole heartedly embrace this production with verve and skill. Julius D’Silva is excellent as Max Bialystock, adding his own flair to a role made so iconic by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. He is every inch the shabby King of Old Broadway with his wild eyes and strands of over-black hair pasted across a sweaty, shiny pate. The cynical theatrical ham who can woo old ladies for cash and command a stage with sheer class and dignity while singing in a prison cell toilet in Sing Sing.

Stuart Neal as Leo Bloom is utterly believable as the baby-faced accountant with big dreams. His nasal twang and youthful inexperience perhaps takes more from the Matthew Broderick performance than the Gene Wilder. His big number with the showgirls is pure old school Broadway glamour. Swedish Ulla is played with Monroesque allure by a wigglicious Emily-Mae. Charles Brunton is outrageously camp as director Roger de Bris channelling a Rita Hayworth any drag queen would be proud off. Hammed Animashaun steps out of the chorus and shines in the office scene then goes on to do a star turn as Carmen Ghia.

Designer Ben Stones creates a perfect Broadway experience and captures a moment in history with flair and drama. Lighting designer Jack Knowles may have taken down the National Grid with his use of yellow bulbs; but to great effect. From the bulb illuminated orchestra to the outrageous spangly Swastika signs and Hitler descending from the ceiling the visual impact is high octane throughout. The costumes are utterly fabulous with an array of spectacle that would not look amiss on a McQueen or Westwood catwalk.

The Producers is a gobsmacking riot of glitz, glamour and chutzpah. If someone at The Royal Exchange raised funds for this production betting on it being a first night flop and aiming on a flight to Rio, then right now they must be eating the account books and bedding in for Christmas in Strangeways!!

Royal Exchange Theatre 30 Nov – 26 Jan

All images by Johan Perrson

Off the Grid

Waterside, Sale

Written by David Lane

Directed by Chris Elwell

Off the Grid is an immersive play written by David Lane for children’s theatre specialists Half Moon. It looks at the very real issue of what happens when our children and young people fall outside of the social care system and find themselves living “off the grid”.

The stage design by Chris Elwell does an effective job of immersing the audience in this story and ensures none of us stay comfortable and settled in our seats of choice. Like the two main protagonists in this story we are never quite certain of a place to be. The metal grids ensure stark minimalism but also store the props that help drive the narrative. The constant shifts in this piece work well and never create confusion for an audience who may not all be familiar with immersive theatre.

The story of abandoned children, Connor and his little sister Kelly, exactly 10 years younger could be unrelentingly bleak. Sensitive writing and strong performances from Bradley Connor and Jesse Bateson ensure there is plenty of shades in this production. The blend of pathos and desperation is balanced by the children’s capacity for magical thinking. Connor creates a rich internal world that cloaks them both in safer, more hopeful existence as a buffer between them and the harsh reality of their plight.

Bradley Connor gives an intense and impassioned performance. He has a capacity to both enthrall with his storytelling and to petrify as his little sister becomes an obstacle to his own burgeoning needs. He is adept at moving through the space and connecting with the audience in a very potent manner. Jesse Bateson rises to the challenge of conveying her character as a very young child and as a teenager. There is skill and confidence in her performance and she brings real charm and innocence to the role of Kelly.

Running a psychotherapy practice I have encountered a number of adults who have had not too similar childhoods to Kelly and Connor. This production tells an important story that unfortunately is only too true in our current Society. Half Moon have produced a work that is socially and politically relevant and which resonates on a personal level. This is the kind of storytelling in Theatre that makes funding for the Arts so important, and makes attending theatre so rewarding and informing.

On tour

Images by Stephen Beeny

The Maids

HOME

Written by Jean Genet

Translation by Martin Crimp

Directed by Lily Sykes

My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds says Solange and this defines this production of The Maids. Director Lily Sykes has taken her directorial experience in Germany and employed it to excellent use with this darkly erotic and uncomfortably sinister game of charades between two sisters and their Mistress. The slow trickle of sand from the ceiling signalling hope ebbing away is echoed in the drip, drip, drip of poisonous words and actions that pervades the performance. Toxicity is everywhere, not just lurking in the contents of a dainty china cup. The Maids is decadent and delicious in its insoucuant disregard for conventional morality.

The main stage at HOME has been transformed by designer Ruari Murchison to create a round central stage that perfectly captures the psychological boxing ring that is this play. Like a Coliseum of gladiators the cast fling barbed words and even the flowers strewn around the stage are pointed weapons that gaily puncture the floor like poison darts. Seated in the round the audience become props for the cast as they interact with us like blank eyed smiling sociopaths.

Screens project quotes from Genet and images of iconic faces such as Hitler and Mary Berry with provocative statements such as good/bad, bon/mal invite reflection on how we perceive our society. These screens also act like surveillance cameras and project close ups of the performers as they obsessively examine their own ever changing and increasingly unsettling images. Like our obsession with celebrity and our own appearance, the characters seem trapped by their own reflections.

In keeping with the duality in Genet’s work, the maids and their Mistress are all played by men. All three are perfectly cast as foils for each other’s capricious natures and are mecurial in their capacity to move in and out of Dom/Sub roles. They share make up and fashion while trading blows and insults like prize bitches in a nightclub toilet or naughty children in their mother’s bedroom. Jake Fairbrother as Claire brings vulnerability and wistfulness to his character while maintaining a sense of powerful sexuality when needed. His beautifully modulated delivery gives a real emotional depth to his performance. Luke Mullins is enthralling as the brittle, desperate and yet imperious Solange. Danny Lee Wynter relishes his role as Mistress, giving her a tender affection for her maids coupled with a chilling disregard for their plight.

Jean Genet experienced life as an outsider and his work relishes and glorifies the adsurdity of life that makes one man an outcast and another revered or one woman a maid while the other is the Mistress. This production of The Maids celebrates his sense of the absurd and pokes fun at our own ways of coping in an increasingly nightmarish world.

HOME 16th Nov – 1st Dec

Images by Jonathan Keenan

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