The Fishermen

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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

THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME

THE EDGE THEATRE

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music & Lyrics by Simon Waters

The sun is shining, the food at The Dressing Room is tasty and plentiful and the garden at The Edge Theatre is colourful with lush flowers and bright balloons. It feels like a garden party and it is indeed time to party. This is a celebration of the wonderful creative partnership between The Edge Theatre and The Booth Centre who work with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Last year’s show A Spanish Adventure was really impressive. Today’s performance is also a celebratory homage to our NHS turning 70 on July 5th.

This is a labour of love with a backdrop of blue hospital curtains and NHS health signage dotted around. The cast are clad in the pastel hues of a wide range of NHS staff. Hospital beds and wheelchairs glide across the stage and at one point forceps, stethoscopes and other medical implements are amusingly used to form the percussion for one of the musical numbers.

The performance uses a range of skits, songs and choreographed pieces to acknowledge the value and significance of the NHS in our lives. Whether rich or poor, sick or well, we are all so used to its existence we might easily forget it only sprang into existence in the second half of the last century. We take it for granted and in this performance there are timely reminders of its inherent value, what we lacked before it’s creation and what may follow if we don’t fight to protect our NHS services.

The music is gorgeous with all new numbers written by Simon Waters apart from the Gershwin classic as title song. The lyrics are witty and wry and competently delivered by the cast and a truly wonderful chorus comprised of Connie Hartley, Jessica McLinden and Michael Christopher.

There is some lovely humour and slapstick clowning with great comic timing that is balanced by some emotive and genuinely poignant pieces. The closing speech is beautifully written and delivered wonderfully by a younger cast member. It alludes to the strong connection we all have as our NHS does literally pull each of us into this world and holds many of us as we leave it. We owe it an immense debt and need to protect it, and this performance is a lovely reminder. It’s Your Birthday….Leave the worrying to Us. We are many and we are mighty.

The Edge Theatre 5-7th July

The Drill

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Written by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens

Directed by Dorothy Allen-Pickard (video) and Billy Barrett (live)

The Drill is the latest production from Breach who create sharply intelligent and thought-provoking documentary-style theatre. Their previous work has focused on actual past events. The Beanfield recreated the 1985 clash between police and peace protesters while TANK took a disturbing and highly engaging trip back to the naive Sixties research study which attempted to teach dolphins to speak English. With The Drill they move into less certain territory as they explore anti-terror training looking at safety drills and emergency response procedures.

Three performers on stage have their own back stories in the performance reflecting various degrees of personal anxiety. Amarnah Amuludun is a trained dancer with a Nigerian heritage who is both frustrated and resigned to paying her bills by giving out leaflets in the busy concourse of a city railway station. Ellice Stevens displays all the modern day neuroses of a young woman faced with decisions about marriage, motherhood, mortgages in an increasingly dangerous world. Her catastrophic fantasies snowball and seem to merge into her sense of reality paralyzing her decision making process. Luke Lampard is bruised and fragile from a failed love affair and is seeking solace and distraction on Grindr though he may be potentially placing himself in real personal danger. Each of the back stories feel like small plays within the central performance creating vignettes of modern day neuroses.

Alongside their personal life stresses they have undergone a range of courses and workshops designed to drill them in anti-terror measures. These include preparing to deal with active shooters, searching out pipe bombs and other explosives and how to respond in the wake of a terrorist attack until the real emergency responders are on the scene.

On stage they act out possible threat scenarios while interacting with trained advisors on a projection screen. This cleverly looks at this growing industry based on targeting our greatest fears in modern society. The performers look at how these simulations and role plays have a strong basis in theatre training encouraging people to really engage at a deep level with what is termed safe controlled fear. As the role plays continue and become more extreme the reality is that these simulations start to break down as individual’s personal reactions colour the outcomes.

Immersive theatre is becoming increasingly popular and it’s interesting to think how this starts to merge with some of the terrorism scenarios real or imagined. Watching this in Manchester after the terrorism attack here last year and reflecting on shows like Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler and the ANU production at HOME of On Corporation Street I kept thinking of the adage you only get out what you’re prepared to put in. It is clear that Breach is engaging with the real risks of what happens when we immerse ourselves and and up feeding fears rather than alleviating them. Perhaps adding workshops in building emotional resiliency might bring an interesting dimension to this performance. It is certainly something we could all benefit from in this uncertain world.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of The Drill is the random role swaps as they open notes to see who is Terrorist/Assailant, Victim, Responder. It is a chilling reminder that it could be any of us in any of those roles. From a psychological perspective it also cleverly mirrors the psychotherapeutic model of The Drama Triangle where we are Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer.

This is a thought provoking piece of theatre but it felt a little confused towards the end. Although real tension starts to build as the performers immerse themselves in the training scenarios it felt as though they may have felt constrained on some level doing this performance in Manchester post the actual terror attack here.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the worst of “The Troubles”, I learned hyper vigilance and how to pre-empt danger as part of everyday life. I knew to open the windows in our house during bomb scares so glass didn’t blow in, to look under my Uncle’s car for suspect devices and to do first aid. I also learned to just get on with daily life because bad things will always happen. Having additional skills and strategies are valuable but in the end none of us can predict what exactly we will do in a crisis scenario – real or imagined.

HOME 14-16 June

ME & ROBIN HOOD

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Written by Shôn Dale-Jones in collaboration with Hamish Pirie

Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

We all know variations on the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men robbing the rich to feed the poor. If we close our eyes for a moment we can imagine it’s 800 years ago and Robin Hood is roasting pigeons and possibly even aubergines in the depths of Sherwood Forest. The magic of Shôn Dale-Jones is that suddenly it’s just as easy to see his hard-working, Thatcher loving father in his green leather chair and his wonderfully radical Gran Dilys on the sofa with his best friend Dylan while they all watch The Legend of Robin Hood in 1975. Mid Seventies pre- Thatcher Anglesey is vividly evoked and having just seen The Duke a few nights ago it all feels deliciously familiar as though opening a new volume of a great book series.

This new tale premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 and has already raised over £20,000 for Street Child United for children currently living on the street. According to United Nations there are currently over 150 million children surviving on the streets worldwide. As with The Duke Dale-Jones is using story telling to provoke dialogue about inequality and the ever widening gap between rich and poor. This tale weaves illustrates the impact of ethics and principles on young children as the seven year old Shôn is shaped by the radicalism of both Robin Hood and his Granny and how this has shaped his world view as a grown man.

This story perfectly highlights the power money has in society to give status, power and security but also to demean, humiliate and to cause immense stress for individuals. The outcomes might be skin conditions, acts of radicalism and generosity but too often can be extreme poverty, loss of homes and lives.

In Me & Robin Hood there is myth blended with fantasy and reality. The Llangefni U11 football team nearly commit a wonderfully innocent bank robbery, there are flying dolphins with huge hairy bollocks and there is a family estrangement due to politics that tragically is only resolved at the graveside. Throughout the tale Dale-Jones is constantly on the move ranging across the stage as he paints each vignette of his story. His best friend Dylan may have been the imaginative, fleet footed Ronaldo or Pelé on the football pitch but on this stage Dale-Jones moves across a pitch filled with imagery and emotional intensity, nonchalantly scoring the odd genius goal of his own.

HOME 8-9 May

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THE DUKE

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Written and Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

Storytelling predates writing as a human tool for relating to each other. It teaches listening, respect and empathy while assisting us in how we learn by connecting information to our emotions. We are living in a ever more noisy world of deadly conflicts, information overload from social media trivia and obsessive consumerism threatening our environment. It is easy to feel discombobulated and helpless to make any worthwhile changes in our world. In using this pared back medium Shôn Dale-Jones Artistic Director of Hoipolloi is weaving stories blending fantasy and reality to provoke and effect social change.

THE DUKE is his second show to win a Fringe First at Edinburgh and has also been Play of the Week on BBC Radio 4. This gentle tale weaves a family story of a porcelain ornament and what it represents in the grieving process, with the madness of American marketing crushing artistic merit, and the reality of the refugee crisis robbing vulnerable children of the safety of home and family.

It could be a worthy and rather preachy tale of “haves” and “have nots” or a madcap story of bonkers Welsh “characters”. Instead Dale-Jones engages with the audience with charm and warmth from the moment he enters the space until he shakes hands with everyone as they leave. The picture he paints balances playful with poignant and although it is never clear how much is fact based what always shines through is the performer’s committment and investment in relationships.

The relationship between him and his parents is charming and deeply touching. For any of us impacted by grief there is a real truth in valuing a remaining parent and having an acute awareness that time is precious in all significant relationships. The emotional connection with refugee children comes from an empathic place where perhaps we can only truly value family when we know what is to experience loss.

His relationship with his work also tells the story of someone who passionately cares about creating work that has truth and merit. The story also highlights how tempting it can be to sell out for hard cash and larger audiences but how hard it is to maintain artistic control of your work without having it dilluted to appeal to a wider audience or to appease the investors.

THE DUKE is tender, whimsical and thought provoking. There are no hi-tech distractions just a man sitting at a desk talking and playing snatches of some great Northern Soul. It’s genius lies in it’s apparent simplicity. In vividly evoking small moments of genuine connection between Dale-Jones and his family, it is impossible not to connect and reflect on the plight of refugee families. In scaling down to the micro it feels more possible to imagine reaĺly effecting change that helps than when overwhelmed by the the global scale of this issue. It is heartening to know how much money THE DUKE has already raised for Save The Children.

HOME 6-7 June

Things We Want

Hope Mill Theatre

Written by Jonathon Marc Sherman

Directed by Daniel Bradford

One innocuous window in a set that is mainly comprised of doors. Yet this window ten stories up is the Russian roulette of double glazing. Parents, wheelchairs, VHS tapes, remote controls are hurled out and there are a few near misses with several siblings. For all its bland decor this is a high octane living room which sets the scene for this production. Three brothers who are like emotional volcanoes operating out of sync. At any one point there is usually one comatose on the couch with another erupting while a third is seemingly calm but bubbling under with something dark. The catalyst for them to swap places is usually the presence of the sunny faced but equally troubled Stella pertly played by Hannah Ellis Ryan.

Play With Fire and Swaggering Crow have chosen well with this production. The acting is full blown and fast paced as it should be in what feels like a live recording of a television sitcom. The writing is mainly slickly delivered quips and witticisms with some cracking one – liners. The strong cast make good use of this gallows humour as everyone avoids their own emotional pain with sex, drugs, booze, bonsai or psychobabble quacks like Dr Miracle. The theme of addiction and how we safely or harmfully feed our psychological pain is alluded to but never satisfactorily addressed in this quickfire trip through the mess left by a family rocked by tragedy.

There are some great performances from cast most notably Alex Phelps as Teddy as he shifts gear in the second act and moves from the autobot big brother spewing empty platitudes to the conniving train wreck on the couch. William J Holstead as Sty continues his trajectory as a great character actor with superb comic timing who is just electric when on stage. Paddy Young charms as the petulant younger brother desperate for love.

This is a well- paced play about some very dark subject matters. Director and cast are clearly having fun with a great script and packed houses at Hope Mill suggests all round success.

Hope Mill Theatre 30th May- 9th June

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