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

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

HOME

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

HOME

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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