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

First Time

WatersideArts

Written by Nathaniel Hall

Directed by Chris Hoyle

It is 100 years since the end of WW1 from which so many young men never came home or were permanently altered or scarred from their war experiences. A lost generation still mourned today. It is 70 years since the introduction of our beloved NHS which has saved or prolonged so many lives and continues to do so today. It is 30 years today since the very first World AIDS day dedicated to raising awareness around HIV and AIDS and commemorating those who have died from an AIDS related illness. It is one week since I saw The Inheritance Parts 1 and 2 which poignantly honours that whole generation of mentors, friends, family and lovers who died from Aids related illnesses. A lost generation still mourned today.

Last night I saw Nathaniel Hall’s one man show First Time, which tells his story of contracting HIV at barely 17 from his first sexual relationship. A boy teetering on the brink of Adulthood he had a positive first gay relationship but barely months later had a shocking diagnosis that changed his life and must have seemed for him like the party was well and truly over before it ever had a chance to properly begin.

I don’t want to use the term brave to describe this performance but it is difficult not to. This is work that is searingly honest, and while it may feel liberating for the writer/performer to now be able to tell his story, it also makes him incredibly vulnerable. It exposes him as he explores his shock, shame and denial on his slow journey towards accepting his situation and finding his own path to healing. This is a celebration of the human capacity to survive and find hope in the darkest places.

Working with dramaturg and Director Chris Hoyle, Hall has developed his work into a delicately pitched performance that can move from gallows humour and raw despair into whimsical charm and impish wit. Throughout his performance Hall exudes grace and charm, interacting with the audience with a natural warmth. Even at its darkest moments it feels like Hall is always mindful of his potential audience and ensures the performance never becomes maudlin or slips into being self- pitying.

The staging is effective in the small intimate space, fluidly allowing for scenes on park benches, hospitals appointments, his bedroom or at the school prom. The lighting and sound capture the essence of magical moments such as the slow dance under the mirror ball with an audience member which so neatly encapsulates a life that would never be. Squirty string effectively conjures up the experience of projectile vomiting during illness, while the sinister ticking clock and disembodied fragments of voice-over chillingly convey the puncturing of Hall’s whole world on initial diagnosis.

First Time is also a homage to the NHS and to the wonderful work of The George Trust which has worked so tirelessly to provide support to those living with HIV or with Aids. It is evident how vital this support has been to allow Nathaniel Hall to find his own path to holding no blame and no shame. The scene in which Manchester rain pours down as Hall stands under an illuminated umbrella with the audience all quietly holding tea lights in remembrance of a lost generation is a masterstroke of quiet reflection and genuine shared emotion. Sitting in that theatre last night watching First Time reminded me of the first time I worked the telephone counselling line at Manchester Aidsline over 30 years ago. It was a full house last night, but I can’t help feeling it was also filled many times over by the spirits of all those young men no longer here, who would have also been loudly and proudly applauding Nathaniel.

Waterside Arts 29th Nov – 1st Dec

FUTURE BODIES

HOME

Co-created by Clare Duffy, Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen, Jon Spooner and Becky Wilkie

Written by Clare Duffy and Abbi Greenland

Original Music and Songs by Becky Wilkie

Directed by Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen

Future Bodies is a veritable smörgåsbord of ideas, concepts and in-depth explorations of ethical issues around life and living, death and dying in a modern world of biotechnology and human enhancement technologies. Unlimited Theatre have teamed up with HOME to collaborate with Rashdash to explore the wide arranging implications of these scientific advances on mankind. The result feels like a truly sensory mind f***.

This is an extraordinary piece of theatre. The intention is to shake up our sense of who we are and looking toward the future consider what we possibly could become. The joy in this production is that everything seems up for vigorous debate, so many possibilities are explored, some in snappy bite-sized nuggets, some in songs, others in longer in-depth segments. Bursting at the seams with information, energy and enthusiasm, the result at times is messy and chaotic, however this is a show that delights and informs in equal measure.

Visually arresting the set design looks amazing. A blend of gossamer layers and Venetian blind style screens that the performers themselves move around a giant sand pit. The layers of screens keep peeling back like onion layers as the performers delve into what it means to be human and at what cost do we maintain or extend life. The video and lighting design by Sarah Readman and Josh Pharo are exceptional with intense colours and vivid use of video and lighting to caption the performance. In creating a lush sense of other worldly, punchy neon brights against fleshy pinks and earthy browns the set further contrasts the dichotomy between man and technology.

This is a feast for the eyes and the ears with Rashdash member Becky Wilkie having her own music stage next to the main stage.Looking like a pregnant blue alien who has raided the wardrobe of a Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane fan, Wilkie is utterly captivating. So arresting is her performance that at times it is difficult to know which stage to focus on.

The five other performers move effortlessly from scene to scene with infectious energy and enthusiasm. Each cast member brings something special to the debate on stage whether it is to be a young male discussing an implant to remove antisocial behaviour and murderous intent, or a profoundly deaf performer celebrating what makes her special. The powerhouse performance of Alison Halstead, so good in the Graeae production of The House of Bernardo Alba, highlights grief poignantly questioning the nature and function of grief.

Disarming and migraine inducing this is a full on assault that invites an audience to process, reflect and integrate new information while reassessing old perspectives. Future Bodies is all about grappling with big scientific and ethical concepts while simultaneously being at a gig, an art installation, and watching a theatre and dance performance. It demands our attention and perhaps suggests that we might actually need an implant or an upgrade in order to fully process everything on stage. Of course instead of a reboot we could just rebook and see Future Bodies again.

HOME 18 – 28 October

Images by Jonathon Keenan

The Fishermen

HOME

Written by Chigozie Obioma

Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan

Directed by Jack McNamara

This new play is deftly adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan. It is an impressive feat to so effectively condense a 300 page epic book filled with rich, colourful characters into a two-hander play. Under the skilful and passionate direction of Jack McNamara it becomes a triumph and absolute joy to behold. The innocence of boyhood and filial loyalty is portrayed alongside the bloody horrors of a descent into madness, murder and mayhem that eventually culminates in a sense of fortitude and redemption. This is story telling at its very best, drawing you in and staying with you long after you leave the theatre.

The two actors give a tightly choreographed performance that keenly evokes the familiarity of brotherly bonds. The two youngest brothers of the Agwu family are reconnecting for the first time in eight years and Michael Ajao as Ben and Valentine Olukoga bring their acting “A” game, all hopeful yearning and bruised wariness. What follows is their recalling of their childhood in a stable family unit with ambitious parents, big brothers, football, fishing and village life in Nineties Nigeria. Fracturing this idyll like the spikes of the metal poles cutting through the stage, is the horror of a prophecy from a local madman which plunged their world into a Shakespearean tragedy.

Ajao and Olukoga channel the rest of their parents and brothers, the madman Abula, the meddling nosy neighbour and even the chickens and fish. All are brought to life on stage with a fluidity and energy that seems inexhaustible. Both actors inhabit each role with ease. Olukoga has all the stubbornness and mischief of a 10 year old, the bluster and patriarchal confidence of a man who sired four sons destined for success, yet can suddenly vividly evoke a flustered chicken in a coop. Ajao can physically transform from sweet young boy to an embittered, traumatised youth, then undergoing metamorphosis into his indignant, bossy mother and later descending into her grief stricken madness. He can delight when twitching and jerking as a fish on the riverbank and truly terrify and chill as he delivers the doom laden prophecy of Abula.

The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin works wonderfully. The simple dais cut through by the actual river is symbolic of past and present, and of the living and the dead. Metal poles are props but also stakes running through this river of blood and through the hearts of this family and symbolic of the lost promise of Nigeria itself. The combination of lighting by Amy Mae and sound by Adam McCready ramp up the drama in the narrative creating a sense palpable tension as they pulsate in time to the actor’s movements on stage. They create a stop/start dance of violence with startling intensity but also evoke the peaceful idyll of the moonlit night surrounded by the chirp of crickets.

The Fishermen is a truly intimate theatre experience that explores both the strength of familial relationships and the vulnerability that runs through every family. The tragedy of Agwu family is epic and the stuff of nightmares, yet scratch the surface of any family and the ghosts that appear may be also be bruised and bloody. Theirs is a story of Shakespearean proportions with children at the core of violence; it is a sobering thought that just this month 180 traumatized child soldiers from the Boka Haram were returned to the care of Nigeria and The United Nations.

HOME 19th – 28th July

Edinburgh Festival in August

New Perspectives