JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN

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Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Jake Murray

This is the Northern première of Jesus Hopped The A Train, first performed in New York in 2000, and then at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002. Durham based Elysium Theatre Company have produced a startling and provocative take on this powerful play about moral responsibility and the American penal system. The themes of redemption and damnation are at the forefront of this play and Director Jake Murray ensures his terrific cast embody the complexities of finding goodness even in the most seemingly “monstrous” individuals.

The setting is Rikers Island Prison in New York. Two apparently very different men are imprisoned there and come to know each other during their shared one hour of fresh air each day. Angel is young and naive, new to the prison system he is not a hardened recidivist and seems initially bewildered by all the fuss. All I did was shoot him in the ass! it is his bad luck that Rev Kim later dies on the operating table. Lucius is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against extradition to Florida for the death penalty having murdered 8 people.

The two actors playing Angel and Lucius do a tremendous job and are perfect foils for each other. Danny Solomon is all lanky, fluid limbs and is perfectly cast as the naive, coltish youth who is initially credulous that he is actually in trouble at all. Solomon moves from his desperate fumbling prayers and cockiness toward his state-appointed lawyer to a fragile, shell-shocked rape victim and then to a coming of age as he is tutored to navigate the legal system and reflect with Lucius about the nature of freedom and redemption.

Faz Singhateh has all the on stage charisma of a cult leader such as the ill fated Rev Kim. His Lucius is larger than life and glows like the sun he has grown to love. Apparently at ease with accepting his crimes and confident of his redemption through Jesus, he is desperate to avoid the death penalty having finally found his own inner peace. Ironically he seems more free in his hour outside each day than his mean spirited guard Valdez is ever likely to be.

The other characters provide all the shades of dark and light that enhance the message of what is good or bad, right or wrong, and how do we accept or assign blame. Lucius is a mass murderer but he is kind and perceptive and has genuine empathy. He is also a victim of early abuse and has a mental health diagnosis. Does he deserve to die for his crimes or be supported in his redemption? The young lawyer wants to do good for Angel through guilt that her skills can get hardened recidivists out of jail, yet ultimately her pride and arrogance will add years to his sentence. Valdez is casually sadistic yet operates within the law. Charlie D’Amico is apparently too soft to succeed as a guard yet surely his humanity is also a positive in a prison environment.

The set design is strikingly effective in its simplicity. Louis Price has created the starkness of a high security jail while also creating a sense of personal freedom when the men are outdoors even in their cages. The slash of barbed wire fencing through the cheery brightness of the star spangled banner is a potent image.

Jesus Hopped The A Train is an excellent piece of theatre that provokes debate on many topics. It highlights the complexities of human nature and the unfairness of the lottery system in the American penal system. It also beautifully highlights how precious are the small elements of personal freedom whether we are praying on our knees, feeling the sun on our skin or watching a bird fly past. The human spirit is bigger than any concrete cell could ever try to hold or suppress. We are all capable of finding our own redemption if we look within.

HOME 16 – 19 May

Images by Mark Russell

Dollywould

HOME

By Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit

Where are they?? What’s wrong? The set is shrouded in grubby white sheets and there is no sign of the girls. The clock is ticking, the theatre is rammed and anticipation is rife. We fucking love Sh!t Theatre! Moments later they hit the stage and the particular bedlam that is Dollywould is underway. This is their follow up show to the hugely successful Letters To Windsor House. There is a notable shift from local to global issues as they ramp up the madness and move from fringe performance to as they cheerfully say mainstream crossover show. Thankfully when Mothersole and Biscuit say mainstream it involves painting their faces chalk- white, donning some fearsome wigs and swigging Mateus Rosé from bottles. The result is cheerfully reassuring as they end up looking just like their idol Dolly Parton. Well if you imagine Ms Parton being cloned together with some sheep, Marie Antoinette and a couple of crack whores. We fucking love Sh!t Theatre.

This new show focuses on some big issues – death and immortality , genetic cloning and brand merchandising, friendship and Dolly Parton’ s hits and tits. Dollywould is messy, boozy, sharply clever and always endearing. Watching the performance feels like sprawling on the couch watching your best mates roll in from the pub on a Friday night having dreamed up some madcap, genius concept and keen to share it before they pass out or throw up.

They use their trademark mixture of song, projection images and film and hard-core indepth research coupled with mimicry, a double swing, balloons and bodybags and giant inflatable boobs plus lots of kissing and hugging. What is “real” authentic and “real” fake? Is Dolly the infamously cloned sheep as real as any other sheep? Is Dolly Parton the butt of a joke about big hair and boobs or a woman in control of a carefully crafted brand? Regardless of how they alter their image on stage both women remain resolutely real with body hair, real breasts and filmed evidence that they both poo and wee but don’t seem to flush.

Dollywould is based on their trip to Dollywood last year and the discovery that Knoxville is also home to a research facility locally known as The Tennessee Bodyfarm as it studies decomposition. The premise behind their research visit is sound and the neat ways they use to link in the cloning of Dolly the sheep ensure that lots of ideas are thrown out for consideration. As each performance they do will be a clone of the original, just like Dolly on tour or at a Dolly lookalike competition or future Dolly sheep from the same mammary cells. In each case the same but different just like the projected images stretching out on the screen behind Becca and Louise.

Perhaps at the very heart of this show is the warmth and connection between the performers. In Letters To Windsor House they were painfully open about the cracks in their relationship and there was palpable tensions on stage. The research trip to Dollywood feels like a road trip back to friendship and camaraderie. When they speak of Dolly Parton and her longterm companion Judy and their rift and reunion it seems to resonate. As they say on several occasions It was chaos, but they’re fine now. They are never more connected than when they actually merge to become a gigantic pair of quite literally swinging boobs. Moments when they speak in unison but one deliberately fluffs their line is a reminder of the recurring theme each the same, but different. In the show they reflect on being nearly 30, thankfully they seem to be finding a way to navigate maintaining their individual identities while preserving the magic that is Sh!t Theatre.

HOME 3-5 May

TORO: Beauty and the Bull

THE LOWRY

DeNada Dance Theatre

Choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra

Dreamy and ethereal, Toro opens with a delicately beautiful girl lying on the Stage like the eponymous Sleeping Beauty while two brothers play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The traditional themes of fairy tales are subverted throughout this performance. The heroes and the monsters overlap, blur and change places. This opening scene is not that of a sleeping heroine about to be awoken with a kiss by a handsome Prince, but two brothers performing a perfunctory, machismo ritual to decide who gets first dibs on the young prostitute.

DeNada Dance Theatre are a young independent company who focus on exploring and subverting Hispanic and Latin culture. There is great theatricality in their work which looks and feels sumptuous and decadent. They use storytelling in dance to make bold political and social statements. In this piece they explore persecution and ostracism using fairytales focusing on themes of transformation. The lush, dreamlike imagery has elements of Angela Carter’s fairy tales, and the filmic feel of Guillamo del Toro or David Lynch. Toro includes fairy tales, circus sideshows, freak shows, animalistic orgies, vogue balls, monsters and beauties, poignant tenderness and brutal violence.

The performance has six dancers – four males and two females. Emma Walker and Marivi Da Silva are the Girl and the Bull, both performances are incredibly powerful and emotive. The scene where they unite in real tenderness and harmony is profoundly moving and deeply sensuous. The coming together of the dispossessed and “other” is truely beautiful. In this moment the Beast gets the real, red blooded woman whereas the men who are the real monsters of this piece have had nothing but a broken doll or marionette.

The four male dancers play a number of roles as the Brothers, as Matadors and as fantastical creatures – the Dragimals. In the machismo roles they are all rippling, twitching muscle and brutal intent. As the Dragimals they are all sinuous, luxuriating flesh and gleaming bodies. They are spectacular and animalistic moving harmoniously and curiously as at a great feast and celebratory orgy.

Warm, lush lighting and decadent costumes, a rich Hispanic soundtrack of pasodoble, mariachi, bull fight music and Unchained Melody to set off beautifully choreographed dance….I would watch this again in a heartbeat. Closing scenes show Jonathon Luke Baker portraying a mortally, wounded dragimal evoking Swan Lake, while the Girl is trapped struggling against the ties of patriarchal matrimony while her glorious Minotaur or She-Bull is dehorned and weakened. There is no Disney happy ending to this fairy tale yet this is still a powerful and uplifting tale of the transformative effect of love, tenderness and acceptance.

Tour details

THE AUDIT (Or Iceland, A Modern Myth)

THE LOWRY

Written/Directed by Andrew Westerside

Devised/Performed by Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees

This is the follow up to Proto-type’s last work dissecting contemporary politics. A Machine they’re secretly Building delved into the world of surveillance, whereas The Audit is a razor sharp analysis of the 2008 global financial crisis, viewed as the worst since The Great Depression of 1933. Sharply observed and clever this show feels like part theatre/part podcast/ part Jackanory for grown ups. A heartfelt and thought provoking plea to wake up and look at what is going on around us. An invitation to react and respond rather than just remain ignorant and accepting.

Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees are a great combination and perfect foil for each other. Together they deftly create a strong emotional response evoking shock, anger and clarity around the facts while also subtly provoking awareness of our own acquiescence and willingness to be nurtured towards a false sense of security.

The performance includes original writing that contains some beautiful spoken word and deftly, measured performance, blended with emotive new music and film. Taking the audience from The Great Depression of 1933 to Bill Clinton signing off on deregulating the financial industry in 1999. The subsequent buying up of mortgage bundles that were not always secure, the false assurances to guarantee insurance cover from titans like A.I.G and the assumption that the housing market would continue to boom and the crazed greed of the banks sounds so wildly speculative that it beggars belief that it was allowed to happen. It did.

The Audit focuses on the ordinary people of Iceland, a country that made it’s first radio contact with the world in 1906. It is not a happy story. It is a horror story. Not a nice story. The global crash of 2007/08 left banks such as Lehmans with 619 billion dollar debt, led to the first run on British banks in 150 years and of course crippled Iceland whose three biggest private banks all defaulted with catastrophic consequences. The public protests in Iceland brought down the government and led to the creation of a new Constitutional Assembly which pledged that the country’s resources should belong to the people rather than a select few. Iceland has made a strong economic recovery in the past 10 years.

This probably sounds rather dry and heavy going. The brilliance of Proto-type’s approach is to engage, inform and entertain. I wish our education system made these two women the Trinny and Susannah of make overs in how we educate and inform our young people. They are not preachy but they are passionate. They are never dry and boring but they exude warmth and wit. The clarity and insight here allows for the telling of a modern horror story of greed that resonates with age old folk stories that we should not forget.

The Audit is a chilling and telling reminder of what happens when we forget the lessons of the past and sleep walk through our lives dumbing down and silencing the questions our gut instincts are screaming at us. When the storm is coming what do we do? What can we do? What is possible if we stand together?

Take your pots, take your pans. Bang them! Make the World move…

The Lowry – 28th Feb and touring.

Tour dates

The Newspaper Boy

53Two

Written by Chris Hoyle

Directed by Simon Naylor

A Dibby Theatre production

Part of Queer Contact 2018

From start to finish The Newspaper Boy is a real joy to watch. Writer Chris Hoyle has such a natural ear for dialogue and a genuine affection for his characters ensuring they are all warm, earthy and colourful. The look and feel of this production is absolutely 1992 from the iconic television ads to the music of New Order and the clothes by John Richmond and Comme des Garçons. This is a real labour of love and perfectly evokes the joy and the anguish of coming out in the Nineties.

The cast do a great job as an ensemble. Christian is on a high speed trajectory from Moston to Didsbury via the nation’s tv screens and Daniel Maley is great as the naive, awkward boy who may be growing up too fast but is having a brilliant time until the newspapers break the scandal. He has the super confident soap veteran Mandy as his ballsy guide to drugs, clubs and fashion. Hollie-Jay Bowes is totally believable as the sweet ingenue/spoilt brat/faghag who just wants to get wankered and not have another cute guy love her like a fucking sister!! The fifteen year old Christian falls in love with the older boy Max who Sam Retford embodies with charm and genuine honour and sweetness.

Director Simon Naylor directs the sex scenes with genuine tenderness . This is a coming of age in a really special and joyful way that is later brutalized and cheapened by an ignorant media obsessed with the moral high ground and the desire to sell newspapers. When Christian says I’m proud of us it is said with a naivety about the personal, social and possible legal repercussions. Regardless of this Chris Hoyle has written young love in a joyous way that anyone could be proud off.

The older cast members bring additional depth to this story and of course were young people in the Nineties so can draw on their experiences. Eve Steele gives a chilly television executive in Burberry and heels but blisters with her genius take on a Manc drug dealer on the club scene. Samantha Siddall as Christian’s Mum is perfectly cast as the proud parent basking in the glory of a famous child while still worrying for his well-being. Karen Henthorn is just brilliant as the feisty, chain smoking Gran who adores Christian. Her performance shifts from impish to red eyed and broken, with the stuffing knocked out of her as the scandal unfolds.

The staging works really well and built over several levels allows for creative space to move the action on stage across a range of settings. The family home in Moston to soap star Mandy’s place in Didsbury via Flesh night at The Haçienda and the Granada studio offices and the set for famous soap Mancroft Walk. The energy ramps up a gear as a throng of tv crew thrust through the audience to film another scene on set. The audience are watching this unfold on stage while overhead monitors play out the filmed scene. A large tv screen above Christian’s bed shows scenes from the soap as the family watch Christian and Mandy on scene as the young lovers. Interspersed with iconic Nineties ads for Gold Blend and Milky Way the feeling of slipping back 25 years becomes stronger and stronger. It is a clever and impressive use of this small, bustling theatre. 53Two is quickly becoming a hugely exciting space to see theatre in Manchester.

Based on some of Hoyle’s personal experience as a child actor on Coronation Street, this play highlights the hypocrisy of television programming that storylines teenage pregnancy by a teacher but baulks at teenage gay sex with another young man. Staged as part of Queer Contact 2018 this is a funny and poignant take on an important subject.

Images by Richard Kelly

At 53Two until Saturday 24th February

Winter Solstice

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By Roland Schimmelpfennig

Translated by David Tushingham

Directed by Alice Malin

This production of Winter Solstice is co-produced by the Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company. The original production was first staged a year ago and coincided with the inauguration of a certain tow haired individual. Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig as a response to the resurgence of the far right in Europe, it remains an elegantly chilling observation of the dangers of harmful and subversive views infiltrating society and home. As glass after glass of red wine is poured on Christmas Eve so too is the slow and steady drip, drip, drip of poison from the lips of a benign stranger in this family home.

Lizzie Clachan gives us a stage sparsely set with trestle tables and swivel chairs. The tables are messy and disordered with water bottles, grapes, tic tac sweets, and empty plastic tubs and tape. This is the rehearsal room space in a theatre but could be a craft space for children. The performance runs straight through without an interval and is mainly fully lit giving an real sense of eavesdropping on an improvised scene rather rather than watching a play.

The result is curiously engaging. Schimmelpfennig has written this piece so the cast voice all the stage directions and create the sound effects themselves. The result is clever, funny and creative. A dropped glass baubles has the sound of shattering but is a dropped Satsuma squashed underfoot. Juice sprays out instead of shards of glass. Albert pops pills that are grapes or tic tacs. Throughout Alice Malin’s direction (reviving that of Ramin Gray) ensures that the cast are mainly seated on swivel chairs. They glide across stage moving tables to change the staging. This grows the sense of people trapped, unable or unwilling to exercise free will and stand on their own feet. Albert and Bettina are unable to not have Corinna visit each Christmas or curtail the length of her stay, just as they seem unable to leave a unhappy marriage. They are unable to stop a stranger with his suitcase entering their home on Christmas Eve. Perhaps in the same way we the audience are not offered an interval, and even if anyone wanted one, no one in the theatre speaks out.

The cast of five all give strong and compelling performances. They all play flawed characters who are each in their own way unpleasant and mean spirited. Fittingly there are no shining examples of humanity here even though we see parents, grandparents, artists and intellectuals. All are selfish, cruel and philandering and no one seems to have much empathy or kindness. The sinister stranger at the door appears initially to personify the better traits of humanity.

David Beames is excellent as the silken tongued snake who is courteous, benign and benevolent. He personifies the horror of the ingratiating stranger at the table playing music to a mainly rapt audience while his conversation becomes peppered with almost imperceptible Neo-nazi statements. We all seek others to meet our unmet needs from childhood. If what we seek is guidance,reassurance and nurturing, then we are all susceptible. The truly terrifying realisation is that we are all vulnerable to the voice of calm and reason. The insidious charm of a Pied Piper softly whispering as he leads us towards the “Right”path. We have to stop this mixing. This contamination. We had a garden and tgen the aphids came…..Boundaries exist……Beware of aphids.

It is only the hapless and cowardly Albert who as a social historian picks up on the subtle menace of this German doctor from Paraguay. Felix Hayes gives a vivid portrayal of this weak adulterer as he repeatedly unravels and pops pills to try to manage his anxiety and fear. He tries to speak up and expose this stranger/doctor/Butcher of Auschwitz but seen as weak and ineffective, he is unsupported by family and friends. A lone voice in the madness while an innocent child sleeps upstairs.

This dark and clever comedy is never boring. It is a timely lesson in observation and an invitation to really listen and dissect what we hear. With two apparent endings the rehearsal room scene has a crazed Albert lash out and assault Rudolph splashing red wine like blood with the childishly crafted Christmas tree flattened and destroyed. We see Rudolph reveal his true allegiance. Then the alternate staging of a real home with the fairy tale image of a real Christmas tree lit with candles and proper elegant glasses for a toast. Perhaps this really is a move from staged rehearsal to real life on this stage. The chilling image is of the stranger fully accepted. As the last candle is snuffed out, we, the audience are left in darkness. This is a call to arms, to light our own candles, listen to our own voices, heed our conscience. We all need to be watchful and ensure that no one ever has another Christmas in an Auschwitz.

At HOME until Sat 17th February

Narcissist in the Mirror 

Written & Performed by Rosie Fleeshman

Produced & Directed by Sue Jenkins

HOME

This one woman show by Rosie Fleeshman dazzles from start to finish. The set alludes to the plush dressing room of a Hollywood Diva. The opening track Youre Gorgeous by Babybird nicely frames this piece about a girl who craves adulation and success as best daughter, lover, actress and grammar Nazi.

This is a real gem with sparkling prose, well judged in its blend of dark pathos and gutsy humour. Fleeshman charms and repels with equal flare without ever losing her audience. The standing ovation is well deserved as throughout she uses acutely observed images to enthrall a rapt audience before swiftly making us laugh out loud her wry, blunt humour

The narrative feels authentic  throughout so even her references to her family feel true even when most raw and unflattering. In the end this makes the piece all the stronger as the self awareness and lack of self pity suggest a family that is ultimately flawed but also close and strong- her mother, actress Sue Jenkins is producer and director. The dynamics and dramas of a family of actors is vivid and this narrative could easily lend itself to an excellent novel as well as a play.

The stories of first fumblings, real love and the rabbit hole of Tinder as a means to fill a void are artfully portrayed. The prose is just great as Fleeshman paints domestic images and dating vignettes with the care and precision she doubtlessly painted her tiny London flat with Street Symphony No2. 

Life as a trained actress who is an actor waiting to act is described with no self pity but tells a poignant story of every casting call opening a door on another life then giving the key to someone else. 

Writing Narcissist in the Mirror may have been an exercise in self therapy and healing as well as a means of taking control of her career. The woman on stage is too self aware to really be a Narcissist but she is certainly a perfectionist and probably her own harshest critic. There has been all the  waiting and the yearning to be seen, really really seen and accepted. I really hope as she takes her bows that she truly recognises that she can skip to her own beat and certainly disarm with ability.

At HOME 16/17th January PUSH2018