Miss Julie

Alice Frankham as Miss Julie and Danny Solomon as John. Credit – Ed Rees

Written by August Strindberg

Translated by Michael Meyer

Directed by Jake Murray

Hope Mill Theatre

August Strindberg wrote this naturalistic masterpiece in 1888, back then it was considered so shocking to Swedish audiences that it could only be performed privately. Raw and incisive Miss Julie cuts through gender and class politics in a manner that was astounding for its’ time. It retains much of its shock value even now as class divisions and gender stereotypes continue to resonate. Servant Christine despairingly remarks how can you respect “your employers when they’re no better than us – what’s the point of trying to improve ourselves?” A bitterly poignant moment as we are on the verge of electing an utterly graceless buffoon as our next Prime minister.

Director Jake Murray allows a strong cast to embrace this vibrant play and sink their teeth into all the mess of emotions and aspirations without losing the complexity and nuance of each individual on stage. Overplayed or in the hands of a less deft director, Miss Julie is a play that could descend into histrionics but here each character is allowed to develop as intended.

Alice Frankham as Miss Julie exudes a persona of cool, imperious beauty and privilege but gives free reign to her character’s wild impetuous nature. Her mercurial nature is never overplayed into histrionics ensuring that even a modern audience can understand her desperation and vulnerability as she tries to be true to her nature despite the constraints of her class and gender.

Danny Solomon as valet John is mesmerising as he flits between suave professional upstairs servant, downtrodden but aspirational farm lad, hopeful lover and brutish misogynist. He creates a raw horror as he cowers from the power of the servants’ bell before coolly handing Miss Julie his cutthroat razor as her only way out of disgrace.

Lois Mackie as Christine is the steadying force in this drama bringing a wonderfully dry wit to all her reflections. Her weary cook is a pragmatic and calm foil to the emotional turbulence unfolding around her. The frantic aspirations of escape from the constraints of class and gender are calmly brushed aside by a woman who accepts her role in life and seeks comfort in respect and in her faith.

This is a thoughtfully staged production with a really keen eye to period detail. The ensemble support from students at ALRA North and Arden School of Theatre adds a lovely touch as they mingle and greet the audience as though we too are part of the Midsummer celebration. The set by Louis Price creates a really authentic Edwardian feel and makes the appearance of the glamorous Miss Julie even more incongruous as she wafts around the servants kitchen. This is another success story for Elysium Theatre Company who are steadily building a great reputation for creating strong productions such as last years Jesus Hopped The A Train. Miss Julie is a satisfying watch ending with a wonderful poignancy about the constraints we live by as the lights dim on the gilded birdcage on the table.

Hope Mill Theatre 18 – 22 June 2019

Elysium Theatre Company

ONE

Bertrand Lasca and Nasi Voutsas

HOME

Two men. A very tall ladder. A conundrum. This is of course the return of Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas as they return to HOME with ONE, the final part of a trilogy that includes the brilliant EUROHOUSE and PALMYRA. Polarisation, provocation and dogged resolve are continuing themes, played out with their particular brand of disturbingly dark clowning and winsome charm as they invite collusion from the audience. We have choices. It’s clear. We can literally throw shit at each other, remain paralyzed in time or we can take a leap of faith together and hope in a better future.

As with their previous work Bert and Nasi use elements of what maybe their own personal relationships with each other to make provocative statements about contemporary politics. A Frenchman and a Greek who met in Scotland their work is especially resonant in our world of Brexian madness. With Nasi up a very high ladder and Bert at the bottom pleading, cajoling and finally becoming threatening, I’m starting to feel worried and rightly so. I’m worried about Nasi and Bert. I’m worried about relationships in general. I’m worried about the Northern Ireland border. I’m worried about Brexit. I’m worried about world peace… Nasi is still up the ladder. Bert is playing Imagine by John Lennon. Bert is imploring the audience for assistance.

Finally they sit at either end of a table. They could be a couple trying to resolve their differences at the kitchen table or they may be politicians in a boardroom either way there is both a reluctance to engage or to walk away.The push-pull of a relationship at breaking point is being played out and the ramifications of what will happen if one of them leaves or stays brutally apparent. Bert’s message is clear – I can leave but if I do I won’t be silenced I will be a thorn In your side. I will not just disappear.

Lesca and Voutsas are masters of their art. Their sense of comic timing, pathos and charm are reminiscent of another age – and double acts like Laurel and Hardy, yet their work is sharply focused on modern issues. With a skillful use of simply staying in a moment of stillness to create a protracted discomfort or ramp up tension, they create complex productions with the apparence of absolute simplicity.

Their childlike bickering has the sinister undertones of politicians shouting each other down in parliament. As they invite the audience to collude as in previous shows we can choose to encourage an act of destruction, stay in a cycle off unremitting paralysis or take a leap of Faith and engage in the possibility of a better future. It would of course seem like a no-brainer but three show in for them and no sign of a Brexit solution for us, then like Nasi and Bert I’m still hopeful but I’m getting tired too.

HOME Wed 8th – Fri 10th May 2019

Bert and Nasi

The Funeral Director

HOME

Written by Iman Qureshi

Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

Amy Jane Cook has created a set design for The Funeral Director that reflects the duality that runs through this production. A set split between the living and the dead populated by characters torn between the rules of personal culture and faith in the community and the laws of the land. Writer Iman Qureshi uses this family run Muslim funeral parlour to highlight some important issues around the laws of a faith and those of a country and how they impact on individuals when they clash. In this instance the dilemma centres on ethical choices in business – be black listed by your community or risk being sued, and on an emotional level how to be true to your own sexuality when that truth is at odds with your faith.

The opening scene introduces the theme that nothing should be taken at face value. Ayesha is first seen holding a tiny baby wrapped in white swadling while she sings a soothing lullaby. To all intents and purposes she is a young Muslim mother, yet there is a sudden shocking realisation that she is the funeral director and this is someone else’s dead child. Aryana Ramkhalawon is convincing as a young woman torn between duty, dreams and sexual identity. Sleepwalking between grief for her deceased mother, caring for the dead and being a good Muslim wife, the unfolding events see her flourish as she finds the faith in herself to rebel against convention in her community.

Assad Zaman as husband Zeyd gives a strong performance but his character is less clearly drawn. Initially full of warmth, charm and compassion, it feels frustrating that when faced with the strain of the legal case and issues in his marriage his character seems to revert to religious dogma and homophobia which somehow don’t feel totally believable.

The scenes with Janey (Francesca Zoutewelle) fizz with life and vibrancy in this Funeral parlour. They provide valuable insights into the background history of Ayesha and offer her a way out of the constraints of hiding her sexuality and honouring her mother’s business.

This is a play that’s highlights the human need to either adapt or rebel in order to survive. Director Hannah Hauer-King skillfully ensures that this is a story that’s remains humane rather than preachy. There is warmth and wit and generosity of spirit alongside the complexity of orthodox beliefs. Perhaps influenced by the legal case of the bakery in Northern Ireland which became the most expensive cake in British legal history this is production which unflinchingly looks at the prejudices in our modern society. There are aspects of story in this production that risk becoming formulaic in an understandably genuine desire to tackle an important subject, however overall it is an engaging and absorbing piece of theatre that is definitely worth seeing.

HOME 27th – 30th March 2019

Images by Mihaela Bodlovic

The Last Yankee

Bolton Library Theatre

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by David Thacker

This production of The Last Yankee feels like a particularly special opportunity to see a play by iconic American director Arthur Miller. Staged in a newly developed and very intimate theatre space, this is a chance to see Miller’s work directed by the man who has directed more of his plays than anyone else. David Thacker knew Miller personally and directed the 1993 British première of The Last Yankee as his last production at The Young Vic.

The play looks at how two men and their clinically depressed wives respond to time spent in a psychiatric hospital. The central theme is one of disappointment and how that can corrode our sense of self and our relationships with others. Miller himself had experience of being husband to a woman vulnerable to depressive episodes during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The play also uses much of Miller’s absorption with how the past informs the present.

The first act is a slow burn of social awkwardness and tentative male bonding as the very different husbands try to make sense of mental illness. Frick, a successful businessman and Hamilton, a carpenter descended from a founding father of American democracy find nothing that unites their wives. Rich/Poor. Kids/No kids. Lost optimism/Swedish lack of optimism. These men are lost without a premise to explain why their wives are psychiatric patients. Patrick Poletti as Frick and David Ricardo-Pearce as Hamilton are utterly convincing as two very different men both broken in their own ways by their attempts to cope with their wives’ mental illness.

The wives appear in the second act having formed their own connection. Karen is a first time patient and is discomobulated by the medication and terribly vulnerable in her desire to be accepted. Played with sweet desperation by Annie Tyson, she portrays a wife who imagines herself a disappointment to her husband having been cruelly rejected by her own mother. It is only through music and dance that she fully comes alive with childlike glee that her bewildered husband struggles to comprehend. The scenes where she performs are tender and filled with tentative hope from a woman who had “lost her optimism.”

Juliet Aubrey captivates as the frequent flier, savvy to the effects of all the medication. Although bewildered as to what, if anything is actually wrong with her, she dryly acknowledges that “Anybody with any sense would be depressed in this country.” Brittle and full of nervous twitching energy, she exudes charm. Still beautiful despite having seven children and feeling “a torn off rag of my old self” she is drug free for 21 days after 15 years. As her and her husband exchange truths about their life together, a picture appears of loss, potential never fully realised, disappointments and resentments. These moments on stage are there in so many relationships but highlight our human vulnerability to cope in a changing world that we may struggle to understand.

Stark staging creates a sterile environment for these fragile humans to come together and is a fitting backdrop to play out messy, confused emotions. A bed is always occupied by a third unmoving, possibly catatonic women who is a poignant reminder of just how cruel depression is. The Last Yankee is a deeply satisfying watch and Thacker’s rich understanding of Miller’s work ensures that this intimate staging works beautifully.

Bolton Library Theatre 28th Feb – 16th March

Images Joel Fiddes

KOURTNEY KARDASHIAN

HOME

Created by Sleepwalk Collective

Performed by iara Solano Arana and Nhung Dang

The Spanish/British company Sleepwalk Collective turn the spotlight on celebrity culture with a coolly elegant discourse on opera and our modern value system. Following on from their 2016 ballet Kim Kardashian and the 2017 stage play Khloé Kardashian, this production continues to explore the increasing dissonance in our lives as technology and rampant consumerism moves us further and further away from real lived experiences and closer to a point where even our humanity can be outsourced.

This production looks and sounds gorgeous. Lush lighting and a soundscape of opera and birdsong by Sammy Metcalfe which emanates from speakers adorned with gold bows to match the dramatic gold gowns of the elegantly, beautiful performers. There are tiny horses, and caskets of gold leaf to be eaten and washed down with flutes of champagne. This is an extraordinary night for us – the golden people, the elite, the intelligentsia. And yet, all is not as it seems, instead this is a deconstruction of the Opera, of Celebrity and of us the audience. The gleaming gold evening dresses are made of emergency blankets. The Arias are not sung by the performers instead it is a recording of their parents in 1992. Chillingly the audience are warned that they are no longer necessary, we can be outsourced and replaced by canned laughter.

Wonderfully strange and seductive, there is a real sense of Sleepwalk Collective taking their audience deep into a dream sequence where opera stage meets lecture theatre in a world that is decidedly that of David Lynch. Dead eyed and nihilistic it could be Laura Palmer on stage instead of Iara Solano Arana. The imposed mental haziness of this production may not be for everyone, but the discombobulation is highly effective. The invitation to wake up from the dream of vacuous existence is potent. The warning of a wolf riding a tsunami and the ghosts caught up in the machine are uncomfortable reminders of who we are and what may become of us if we continue to ignore the lessons of the past. This Spanish/British collaboration of big dreamers are inviting us the “intelligentsia” to learn from when Rome burned or Pompeii vanished. This is a joke worn horribly thin…

At HOME 7th – 9th March 2019

Images by IsasiFoto

The Adhesion of Love

Martin Harris Centre

Written by Stephen M Hornby

Directed by Helen Parry

Inkbrew Productions

The Adhesion of Love is the 2019 national heritage première for LGBT History Month. This is curious tale of a group of young lower middle class men from Bolton who started an extensive written correspondence with the celebrated American poet Walt Whitman during the 1880s. What is even more extraordinary is that several of them traveled to America and spent time with Whitman and maintained contact with him right up to his death in 1892. The play documents the spiritual and sexual awakening of John W Wallace. It celebrates how these young men found love together through their shared love of Whitman and his poetry in the tightly repressed society of Victorian England.

This highly detailed play is clearly a dedicated homage to all the stories of queer history still untold or white washed out of history or tragically destroyed. There is huge attention to detail which vividly evokes the era where the “adhesion of love” in men was not to be expressed physically, and understanding of Self was likely to be studied through Phrenology, spiritualism or an examination of your faeces. The speech and mannerisms of the text echo the earnestness and often florid speech of the period.

The actors appear fully immersed in their characters and the costumes and props encapsulate the period in great detail. This really does feel like a step back into another era walking in the steps of Wallace just as he walked in the steps of Whitman. What is an undoubted success for this production also delivers some problems. The dialogue is so detailed and earnest that it at times feels quite dense and static. In evoking the worthiness of these earnest young men the play struggles with tempo and gets a little bogged down.

Energy and verve comes intermittently from the more physical performances from Conor Ledger as Charles and from Macaulay Cooper as Whitman’s young companion who becomes the repressed Wallace’s “Swan Maker.” The sexual elements in the production highlight the limited ways in which self expression of sexuality could be conveyed with high risk to personal freedom. There is a deep sadness within a single line uttered by a very convincing Conor Ledger as Wallace, when he describes himself as “an outline waiting to be coloured in.”

Curiously the elderly Whitman is cast as a young black woman who brings a dry, laconic sophistication to the role but yet creates a kind of dissonance. Though perhaps this removes any possible sense of these young men being in any way groomed by the elderly poet?

There is a real value and charm within this production, however some significant editing would retain some lovely prose yet make the story flow with more energy without losing the storyline. Otherwise it risks the possibility of not being as accessible a historical play as it deserves to be.

Tour details for LGBT History Month

Images by Lee Baxter

THE FOREST OF FORGOTTEN DISCOS!

Hope Mill Theatre

Written by Jackie Hagan

Directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin

Commissioned by CONTACT

This is CONTACT’s final show of the year as part of its Contact in the City programme while the new theatre is being built. This time we find them at Hope Mill Theatre which is a perfect festive setting for the Christmas children’s show. Mince pies, mulled wine, carol singers and craft tables for the children set the scene for Jackie Hagan’s The Forest of Forgotten Discos!

The general air of expectation is not disappointed when Alexa from the Amazonian rainforest suddenly appears to welcome the audience into the forest. Children are “scanned” and chatted to by the robotic Alexa who clearly delights in her role of giving information and helping others. Sophie Coward as Alexa is engaging and charismatic. Clad in a fabulous diy hi-tech skirt adorned with flashing lights , Sky remote scanner , etch-a-sketch and other discarded toys and household items, the character is both magically intriguing and easily accessible.

The Forest is full of trees decorated with patchwork crochet squares and brightly coloured gingham, reminiscent trees in local streets with a strong sense of community. The bear’s homes use discarded tents and shower curtains to create a feel that echoes the homeless “villages” in every major city or perhaps the Refugee camps of Calais. Designer Katharine Heath has created a set that is full of charm and is incredibly detailed. Each home is a treasure trove of discarded junk that captures the personality of each character in such a way that I was itching to explore after the show.

The three bears are no cosy, cuddly storybook bears clutching porridge bowls. These bears are discarded or forgotten toys, shabby from past love and cuddles, now scavenging from picnics and refuse bins. Tongue-in-cheek Hagan has a little dig at the organic supermarkets of Chorlton, and keeps the humour flowing with a flatulent bear who lives on baked beans and whose farts are captured as an energy source. Bear Grills, Bear Minimum and Bear Hugs are threadbare, patched and faded,their Velveteen is dulled and gaping where their stuffing pokes through. Each one has a back story that reflects and celebrates the dispossessed and those who feel “other” in our Society. CONTACT, Hagan and Director Nickie Miles-Wildin are clearly all on the same page with a Christmas message that is teaching our children about integration in a joyful and accessible manner.

When feisty 9 year old Red arrives in the forest she is unhappy and frustrated by the prospect of her dad’s new girlfriend. Epitomising that child impulse to run away unaware of risks or outcomes, she encounters Alexa and the bears. The power of disco has gone from the Forest and even virtual assistant Alexa is unsure how to restore it for Christmas. The story of how they all manage to work together despite their differences is a celebration of cooperation and two fingers up to divisive thinking.

Incorporating sign language and visual story telling techniques, this playful tale ensures lots of audience engagement and on stage participation from the children. Even the seating arrangements allow for kids gathering around the stage on cushions and beanbag stools like nursery storytime, while the adults can sit back on chairs or get down with the kids. Having learned our bear boogie dance moves, everyone gets to join in as the power of disco is restored. It is riotous and joyful as the glitterball kicks into action and the disco hits keep playing it’s a little like being in a live TOTPS in the Seventies with The Wombles. Festive feelgood with bags of charm.

CONTACT at Hope Mill Theatre 11-23 December

Images by Lee Baxter