A CLOCKWORK ORANGE : A play with music

EVERYMAN

Written by Anthony Burgess

Directed by Nick Bagnall

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to watch a rehearsal of A Clockwork Orange taking place in The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. It was quite fascinating to watch this young repertory company test out ideas and work on songs and choreography with director Nick Bagnall and choreographer Etta Murfitt. It was abundantly clear that this was a project spilling over with fresh juice and with no sign of any element being coldly mechanized. Thankfully this production has reached perfect fruition with its wonderfully, pithy songs and dialogue from Burgess, and excellent full bodied performances from the cast.

The staging looks startlingly simple with its neon lighting and milk white cube structure. Some of the cast are already on stage all clad in white. It is sleek, clean and pure in its sterility. As the music floods in and Alex starts to conduct there is so much beauty on stage it scarcely matters that he is conducting with a flick-knife rather than a baton. In the blink of an eye the floor can open up with options for grand entrances and dramatic or comic exits. Molly Lacey Davies and Jocelyn Meall have designed a set that is deceptively simple but is a treasure trove creating a myriad of moods and settings. The aversion therapy scenes are visually quite stunning. They are visceral and shocking and evoke something akin to Christ on the cross with Alex wearing the dystopian equivalent of a crown of thors as he looks down on the horrors mankind is capable off.

The Everyman Company take on a multitude of characters and breathe life and authenticity into them. There is a bloodied rape victim tied with vivid blue clothesline cord, Deltoid evoking a saturnine Alastair Sims, the writer F.Alexander is bludgeoned and his beloved wife is viciously assaulted. Amongst the brutality there are also moments of vaudevillian humour with little gems of Elvis type lookalikes, puppet wielding government ministers, and allusions to Jimmy Saville wearing a I’m a Pedo medallion and clutching a fat cigar. Alex and his Droogs are relentless in their thirst for life and all of its juice. Nothing in life, bar the music of Beethoven appears to be sacred.

Burgess created an intriguing and provocative hero who is thuggish yet also cultured and intelligent. George Caple brings a freshness and energy to Alex making his character always likable regardless of his monstrous crimes. The scenes during his treatment with the Ludovico Technique are deeply moving and hard to watch. Watching him in those scenes was chilling and reminded me of speaking to prisoners from Park Lane Hospital who went through similar classical conditioning procedures and covert sensitisation for crimes of sexual violence in the 1980s.

Richard Bremmer is always charismatic on stage whether he is threatening as Deltoid, delivering a wonderful ruddy, drunken priest or strolling across stage in a tiny satin robe with a curly pigs tail. Liam Tobin embodies the earnest writer F Alexander, and sings beautifully as he poignantly mourns his wife. Zelina Rebeiro is always engaging and especially so as she transforms into a sulty temptress to haunt a traumatized Alex. Phil Rayner from Young Everyman Playhouse(YEP) has really grown in confidence and created some great comic moments.

Nick Bagnall has honoured this play with music ensuring that the vision Burgess had in 1986 is finally realised on stage. The songs are a gleeful celebration of music hall tradition. The musicality of the lyrics make the Russian/Cockney slang of the Nadsat seem instantly more accessible and reminiscent of the joy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The use of musician and percussionist Peter Mitchell is inspired and really adds to the look of the piece as well as the sound, in that he evokes all the youth and energy of another Droog.

A Clockwork Orange asks us to look at the power of choice. Is it better be bad of one’s own free will than be good through scientific brainwashing? In a world where we are all at risk of brainwashing through the daily assault of the internet it is vital to be challenged and reminded of how we exercise our own free will. This piece is brutally violent and yet also angelic at times. The cast move around the audience as they come and go, and address us directly at times, even inviting us to applaud the outcome of Alex’s aversion treatment. As we applaud we are of course colluding with the destruction of choice; it is a relief when Alex finally reverts to his old ways and finds his own way to redemption.

Burgess said “I do not like this book as much as others I have written. I have kept it, till recently, in an unopened jar- marmalade, a preserve on a shelf, rather than an orange on a dish.” I hope that he would approve of the vibrant juicy nature of this production.

At Everyman 14 April to 12 July

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Miss Saigon

PALACE THEATRE

A Cameron Mackintosh production of Boubil and Schõnberg’s Miss Saigon

Directed by Laurence Connor

This smash hit production of Miss Saigon opened in London in 2014 and has been on a UK tour since July 2017. Landing in Manchester with as much drama and pizzazz as the much lauded helicopter in Act 2, this show delivers on every level. Performed all over the World since 1989, Miss Saigon is a world class production that updates the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. It tells the story of a doomed love affair between an honourable American G.I and a young peasant girl turned prostitute during the Vietnam War.

This is a lush, Technicolour experience with a lavish set, inspired lighting, sound and projections and a huge cast who sing and dance with real passion and commitment. The energy on stage never wavers and through multiple seamless set changes the story unfolds without a single glitch.

The big musical numbers are real crowd pleasers. The Movie in My Mind highlights the dreams, aspirations and coping strategies of the girls who survive by selling their bodies to the American soldiers. I Still Believe depicts the agony of two women loving the same man as Kim (Sooha Kim) and Ellen (Zoë Doano) sing with heartfelt poignancy and raw passion. The plight of the mixed-race children ostracised after the war is told in Bui Do sung as film footage displays the plight of abandoned, fatherless children. The most hi- octane numbers are undoubtedly The American Dream with the powerhouse performance of The Engineer (Red Concepción) with a white Cadillac driving on stage.

Kim’s Nightmare is the most powerful number. The roar of the helicopters moving over the audience before appearing to land on stage to evacuate the troops is genuinely tense and exciting. This scene at the Embassy gates is powerful and the switch that allows us to experience both sides of the gates is inspired. The Vietnam War may have ended over 40 years ago but this is a timely reminder of the dispossessed and vulnerable as the Syrian refugee crisis unfolds.

The performances are strong with Ashley Gilmour epitomising the all American hero and Na-Young Jeon as a sassy, sexpot Gigi. Sooha Kim brings great emotional range to her performance as Kim. She moves fluidly from reticent, shy country girl to pragmatic prostitute and eager young bride to determined survivor and fiercely protective mother. The undoubted star is The Engineer who gleefully steals every scene. Red Concepción is an exuberant, unapologetic master of sleaze and manipulation.

I’m not a fan of musicals and approached Miss Saigon with a degree of scepticism but it is a genuine feast for the eyes and ears. It is a real spectacle to behold and the hype is well deserved. The standing ovation at the end was clearly not the first and will definitely not be the last for the powerhouse experience that is Miss Saigon.

Images by Johan Persson.

Booking for Palace Theatre until May 12th.

Tickets for Nationwide UK tour.

Brief Encounter

THE LOWRY

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

A Kneehigh production

Ten years on from its first hugely successful staging and Emma Rice and Kneehigh have revived Brief Encounter. This musical adaptation blends the 1936 Noel Coward play Still Life and the iconic 1945 film Brief Encounter. If the originals depict ordinariness and repressed passion played “with a deliberate colourlessness”, then Rice wilfully and mischieviously paints a canvas around the lovers that is warm, vivid and earthily sensual.

The production draws you in from the start with a band (clad in old fashioned cinema ushers costumes) playing in the foyer, to striking up in the aisles and chatting randomly to audience members. Suddenly a couple in the front row burst into argument and the elegant woman flees her seat, only to rush unto the stage and through the projected screen where she becomes part of the black and white film. This is a celebratory affair and Rice has a very large bag of tricks and surprises at her disposal.

There is some great use of Noel Coward songs such as Go slow, Johnny with Jos Slovick on mandolin during the boat scene and Beverly Rudd giving her winsome version of Mad About The Boy. The music numbers feel very natural with the songs never seeming as if shoehorned into the production as in many musicals. Various background scenes tend to unfold during the songs on stage, or they are performed in front of the plush red velvet curtain almost like Vaudeville numbers.

The blend of live theatre and film is exhilarating as it is done so well. Scenes of crashing waves on screen allude to repressed passion on stage. Trains arrive and depart in spectacular ways particularly in the scene when Laura contemplates suicide. From railway station buffet menus to champagne bubbles to pressure gauges to mishaps on boating lakes, every tiny nuance is there. The use of lighting is key to mood throughout the piece from the sombre but comforting light of the standard lamp in the living room to the glorious boat house scene. This is a triumph which feels like an old black and white film has been lovingly and pain stakingly hand painted in rich Technicolor. It is no surprise that the design team involved have won so many awards for their previous work on this production.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen embody the doomed lovers Alex and Laura with all the restraint and earnestness of the original film. The scene where they hover onto real sensuality at the boat house is the most poignant. Other moments seem too contrived and work less well such as when they literally swing from the chandeliers.

The rest of the cast are the real life blood of this production as they get to be fully fleshed out and larger than life characters. The other lovers are of course not hindered by pleasant spouses in the background and are free to express their love. Lucy Thackeray as would-be posh Myrtle Bagot and Dean Nolan as the lusty Albert are well matched as the older lovers and great to watch. Nolan also gives a lovely depth and sweetness in his other role as Laura’s husband. Beverley Rudd is a riot as the earthy and sweetly saucy young Beryl falling in love with Stanley, her devoted young suitor Jos Slovick. These characters all bring a hefty dose of bawdy humour and slapstick which is mainly infectious and joyful. There are times where the sharp contrast against the scenes with Laura and Alec can seem jarring and risk marring the emotional impact of the final scenes.

A real theatrical delight, although it sometimes feels like every item in the kitchen cupboard has been added to this 70 year old recipe, the result is a winner. Leaving the theatre you want to laugh and skip and…….remember every minute. Always.

At The Lowry until Saturday w4th Feb.

At The Old Vic 2nd March- 2nd September 2018

Images by Simon Turtle

DUCKIE 

CONTACT

Writer/ Performer – Le Chocolat Gateau

Produced/Developed – In Company Collective

There are moments when I wish I could rewind time with my children and go back to when they were very young. Today was such a day, watching the gorgeous DUCKIE I wished my teenage darlings were ten years younger and there in the audience with me. This show is a wonderfully deft merging of cabaret, children’s theatre, fairy tale reimagining and a big dollop of old Hollywood magic.

Cabaret performer and Opera singer Le Gateau Chocolat takes the much loved tale of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson and goes to the circus to seek out soulmates for this lonely misfit, the runt of the litter. To the delight of the child in all of us, the mischievious performer portrays a duck who cannot quack but belches instead. His lonely duckie can’t quack or dance, he is too small to be a muscleman and too big, too yellow, too tall…… DUCKIE would seem to be a duck who is seriously down on his luck.

The voiceover which speaks to DUCKIE and at times the audience is soothing and reassuring- a bit like having Judy Dench voicing your bedtime story. The rest is simply the gorgeous baritone voice of Le Gateau Chocolat which is like having your senses bathed in warm chocolate fondant. The songs often tweaked to fit the story range from Disney classics through to The Pussycat Dolls Don’t cha and La Cage Aux Folles I am what I am to Cyndi Laupers Girls just want to have fun. 

Visually the set is deceptively simple but with dressing up clothes tucked away and bright umbrellas popping out it holds gems of surprise.  The lighting design is magical and reminds me of the country village circus tours of my childhood. Throughout his costume changes there is always the fluid physicality, warmly, gleaming eyes and glittery lips. This is a performer who is totally at ease with his audience, both young and simply young at heart. It would be hard not to be drawn into DUCKIE’S world and empathise with his plight. 

When the insults come increasingly thick and fast and the voicing of them sounds more and more like children the true dark background to the story shines through. DUCKIE is rendered small, wounded  and vulnerable as he looks out in confusion at a world that will not let him belong. His salvation through a beautifully rendered little mouse is touching and ensures a fairytale happy ending. We shun or ridicule what is “ugly” not because it’s ugly but simply because it is different. DUCKIE delivers a message of acceptance and tolerance that resonates with adults and sews a seed in young children that hopefully blossoms in every new generation. 

CONTACT 24-25 OCTOBER 

We’re Not Really Here – A Football Opera

CONTACT, MANCHESTER 

Knowing nothing much about football and having been to an actual match once (Manc Utd vs Chelsea 30 years ago), I admit to having major reservations about We’re not really here.

I met the co-creator Yahya Terryn at CONTACT in July and I was intrigued by his curiosity about what goes on in the stands and how the footballers experience the crowd from the pitch. He has created these performances in various countries and last night Manchester City picked up the baton/ball/whatever.

CONTACT was crackling with energy and waiting in the foyer felt how I might imagine waiting to come out the tunnel. The audience sat on the Stage while the performers/actual City fans faced us from the stands. As they spill out unto the terrace and the music pumps there is a tangible feeling of anticipation. 

This is exciting theatre regardless of how anyone views football or its fans. The shouting, chanting and singing is phenomenally powerful. At times joyful and infectious, but in other moments warlike, tribal and intimidating. The action is full on interspersed with freeze frame moments where snapshots of the fans reveal  them as individuals but also their personal motivations for being part of this tribe. 

This felt like a authentic take on the fans. Single blokes of all ages, young women snacking on crisps and hotdogs, families kitted out in all the gear, dads bonding with their lads with squabbles and hugs in equal measure. The end result is mainly heart warming and infectious but the speed at which things can potentially turn nasty is sobering and slightly unnerving.

The overall experience is brilliant and the concept creates a genuinely stimulating theatre experience. Further development of the individual interactions and personal stories would help to more fully develop this piece.

Did it work as a response piece? I think Yahya Terryn got his answer last night – ex Man City player Paul Lake who kicked off proceedings was sat directly in front of me with his family. He seemed to be loving every moment and sitting beside his young son was mirroring another father and son on stage. As for me I might not wait another 30 years before my next football match. Result!!

Until September 23rd

The Beggar’s Opera 


Image by Mark Carlin

STORYHOUSE, Chester.

Walking in to this brand new space is a delight. Wall to wall books surround huge tables to eat at and cosy spaces to sprawl in. The space is bright, airy and lively. Here to see the theatre, the rest is an unexpected pleasure; and also includes community meeting spaces, a story telling space for kids and a cinema. The theatre space does not disappoint. Welcoming and cosy it is in 500 seat mode surrounding a large stage, but can alter to accommodate 800. 

The glowing candelabras lower and a musician starts to play the harpsichord. A raucous Irishman ruptures the elegant period moment by lunging unto the stage as though stumbling in from the street and so opens The Beggar’s  Opera. Soon the stage starts to fill from all directions and the energy ramps up as Caolan McCarthy’s beggar leads this 18th century ballad opera firmly into 21st century Chester courtesy of  electric guitars and drums etc. The impact is vibrant and eclectic and feels like Vivienne Westwood, Tim Burton and Adam Ant are in the wings feeling delighted with this bawdy party.

Writer Glyn Maxwell  and composer  Harry Blake do a good job creating a modern day relevance to the piece and the audience are warmly receptive to the local references. The vocal performances are mainly strong however there are a few points when it is difficult to grasp all the lyrics particularly when singing en masse seem to blur the clarity of the vocals.

The staging is very effective and the lighting is perfectly atomospheric in every scene. The costumes are a joy and I’m tempted to see if you can check out costumes as well as books at The Storyhouse!

The performances are gutsy, visceral and ribald as befits these raffle taggle blend of thieves, whores and henchmen. Standing out is the earthy honesty of Lucy Lockit the pregnant jailers daughter who shines in the portrayal by Nancy Sullivan and her comic foil is Polly Peachum, the pretty and vacuous ingénue convincingly played by Charlotte Miranda-Smith.

As in the original the menfolk are weak dandies like the Captain or deplorable villains like Peachum and the jailer. The women are no better but their desperate circumstances remind us there are often limited choices in a society built oncapitalist greed and social inequality.

Artistic Director Alex Clifton has launched his programme for The Storyhouse with a bold and familiar tale and ensured that the story resonated with the local community. It is a really promising start in a great space for the largest repertory company aside from The RSC and The National Theatre. This is a promising opening chapter for The Storyhouse.

Leaving the bright and modern theatre on a busy Saturday night was a stark reminder of an unequal society. Passing noisy bars with drunken groups on stag nights and homeless men begging on the cobbles it felt like The Storyhouse performance had left the building and become a promenade performance  through the quaint dark streets of Chester.

From 11 May – 19 August


Cotton Panic!

Upper Campfield Market

Created by Jane Horrocks Nick Vivian and Wrangler

The old Victorian market space works perfectly as a space for a gig or for an immersive theatre piece. Giant screens either side of the stage project ephemeral images interspersed with close ups of actress and activist Glenda Jackson and other storytellers. On stage is the tiny and feisty Jane Horrocks fizzing with passion and energy. Behind her is a translucent screen projecting  more images and seemingly super-imposed behind that is the band Wrangler  and their analogue synthesizers.

A mix of folk music and clog dancing blend into tracks such as Billie Holidays “Strange Fruit” and Grace Jones “Slave to the Rhythm” with synth music and story telling of the poverty and political struggle weave together to celebrate our working class heritage in the North West.

Walking through the space feels exciting and quite special. The sense of urgency and energy is intoxicating and moving sporadically from the back of the space I soon find myself front of stage. Watching Horrocks’s character descend into wretched poverty and dependency on the kindness of others is a sharp reminder of the problems inherent in misinformed aid assistance. How often do we make assumptions about the needs of others? When we buy a homeless stranger a sandwich do we check first if they are vegetarian or gluten-intolerant or do we simply expect their gratitude? If we give money for aid do we want to meet a specific need or one which we feel is appropriate? 

This is the story of the cotton industry in Lancashire from riches to rags in the industrial carnage that arose from the American Civil War (1861-1865). It is a timely reminder of how any growing economy is intensely vulnerable to over dependency on a single commodity. The lack of cotton arriving in the 1870s crippled Lancashire and created mass unemployment and poverty. It would be good to think we have learned valuable lessons from our social and economic history yet sadly we continue to waste valuable resources and make poor electoral decisions such as Brexit.

Emerging from this performance into the evening sunshine on Deansgate many of the crowd dispersed to nearby bars and restaurants. A lovely way to end a sociable evening. Perhaps the sobering thought being in a coffee or wine shortage how quickly would we be inconvenienced or potentially economically ruined?

Lancashire Cotton Failure

Manchester austerity and homelessness 

Ethics and Aid
Potential impact on Manchester of Brexit