WHEN IT BREAKS IT BURNS

Created/Performed by ColetivA Ocupação

Directed by Martha Kiss Perrone

CONTACT

Moss Side Millennium Powerhouse

ColetivA Ocupação are the real deal in every sense. Performers, creatives, activists, educators who vividly bring to life their personal experiences of occupying their schools in São Paulo to protest the Brazilian government’s proposed decimation of educational resources in 2015/2016. They are full of exuberance and boisterous passion and their mantra is “to occupy is to resist.”

Massing in the garden courtyard of Millennium Powerhouse the audience is suddenly led into a gym hall where chairs are scattered through the space and some are already occupied. Music, lighting and the intensity of the seated performers ramp up the sense of unease and palpable tension. As the action flares up it is clear that this is no easy ride sitting in a theatre observing a performance. The choreography ensures the audience members are in the thick of the action and occasionally at physical risk of the odd bruise. This is an intense immersive experience that feels utterly authentic and at times genuinely both scary and exhilarating.

Recreating what it was like to scale the walls Diadama School in 2015 they create a human wall which each triumphantly scales. As an audience we get to witness their excitement, their bravery and their fears as police surround the schools and many are dragged off. These were children, young people chasing police intimidation, beatings and tear gas. As they later talk to us in small groups recalling personal experiences it is clear that these vibrant young people have lived through life-changing experiences.

The sheer physicality of this performance and its riotous risk taking evokes passion and sheer admiration at its bravery and its hope. As we are moved off chairs and jostled as they creates barricades and banners these performers are setting alight a real desire to harness that youthful passion and make change happen. Whether it is in schools in Brazil or it is Environmental protests across the world…

Let’s occupy the schools. Let’s occupy the streets. Let’s occupy the theatres. Let’s occupy everything.

CONTACT 8th/9th May 2019

ColectivA Ocupação

Part of Resistance in Residence, a British Council programme.
A collaboration between Contact and Transform.
Made with support from Casa do Povo, Forma Certa and Converse.
Supported by British Council and The University of Manchester.
Image credit: Mayra Azzi

ONE

Bertrand Lasca and Nasi Voutsas

HOME

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

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

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

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

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

HOME Wed 8th – Fri 10th May 2019

Bert and Nasi

The Funeral Director

HOME

Written by Iman Qureshi

Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

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

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

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

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

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

HOME 27th – 30th March 2019

Images by Mihaela Bodlovic

Wise Children

HOME

By Angela Carter

Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice

An Old Vic and Wise Children production

Wise Children is the first production from Emma Rice’s new company, also named Wise Children. Eagerly awaited after her huge success at Kneehigh Theatre and her departure from Shakespeare’s Globe; this production packs a hefty punch of gleeful mischief and playful exuberance. A huge fan of Angela Carter’s magical realism, Rice clearly delights in bringing this sprawling tale to the stage. It is a love letter to the theatre, to family, to Shakespeare and to growing old disgracefully.

Just like the characters depicted on stage, the stage design and costumes are teaming with vivid colour and layers of detail. Designer Vicki Mortimer has created a magical world that centres around a delightfully retro caravan that encapsulates the life and the history of Nora and Dora Chance. Ever present and ever changing it is a treasure trove that excites and enthralls with each reveal. The costumes are beautifully detailed and bring alive not just a history of theatre on stage but a history of life running through two world wars.

The actors on stage act, sing, dance, play instruments and use puppetry with all the enthusiasm and flair one might expect of the vaudevillian theatre era they are celebrating. This is an incredibly talented and generous cast that look like they are having a blast onstage. The story has the characters aging through 100 years of this theatrical dynasty using a blend of puppetry to actors of different ages, sexes and ethnicities to represent all the twins. Playfully alluding to Shakespeare’s love of switching the sexes in so many roles, Rice also demonstrates that the ageing process comes to all of us and what we look like on the surface is eventually irrelevant in this carnival of life.

The choreography by Etta Murfitt blends slick dance routines with circus gymnastics while the sex scenes are an earthy mix of outrageous smut and joyous tenderness. The musical numbers range from Sinatra to The Andrews Sisters to Eddy Grant and Cyndi Lauper. Each track chosen, perfectly encapsulates a scene and its era. There are some beautiful vocals particularly on the more poignant numbers.

This sprawling tale flows like the champagne and stout so frequently imbibed as it moves north and south of The Thames and front and back of stage guzzling up life events both sublime and agonising. Carter and Rice are both true wise children as they share the capacity to capture tiny moments and shine a light on them that is both hyper real and magical.

At HOME 26 Feb – 2 March 2019

Images by Steve Tanner

Mother Courage

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Adapted by Anna Jordan

Directed by Amy Hodge

The 1939 Brecht original is a searing indictment of capitalism and an unemotional view of how individual characters respond in an unrelenting warzone. There is little space for warmth, humanity or collaboration in Mother Courage. This new production is born from writer and new mother Anna Jordan wanting to adapt the play and collaborate with Director Amy Hodge from Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh who had approached Sarah Frankcom about playing this iconic role. This is a collaboration of strong, feminist women and perhaps a timely reminder that we are all stronger pulling together than at war.

The outcome is a Mother Courage that is at times almost unbearably complex. Strong and sassy as hell, an immoral opportunist, a slippery wheeler/dealer, a proud, protective mother that can suffocate and infantilize her children but who cannot empathize with suffering and can only demonstrate her love through providing functional things rather than emotional warmth. The sheer complexity of her character is intentionally uncomfortable forcing the viewer to ask of themselves “What would I do in that situation? What am I capable off?”

Julie Hesmondhalgh has a huge undertaking as her natural warmth could easily feel at odds with Mother Courage. However there is no doubt that she relishes the role. At times unbearably heartless to those who get in the way of her ruthless and desperate pursuit of financial security, she is always a pragmatic Mother and the ultimate survivor. Bartering for her son and ultimately causing his death appears unforgivable yet it is a “Sophie’s Choice” as with no money and no van then the family would all perish. Though utterly distasteful in her lust for the next big deal, there is something unbearably childlike in her capacity to find a thread of good in the bleakest of circumstances. When Kattrin is raped and disfigured, her mother “comforts” her that now she is ugly no one will rape her again, while herself utterly alone and dragging the husk of the van, she reflects that bereft of all children it is lighter to pull.

Director Amy Hodge draws some strong performances from the cast and they all benefit from a wonderfully naturalistic script by Anna Jordan. However the standout performance is from the mute Kattrin played by deaf actress Rose Asling-Ellis. “Her heart is a shining star,” and that is evident as we see the world reflected through her eyes in the midst of all the misery. Her performance is just glorious, conveying more than words could possibly express in the smallest of gestures. A scene where action carries on elsewhere, she sits in the van side of stage carefully arranging her hair to cover her scars and every movement is perfection.

Anna Jordan shifts the action from the 17th century 30 year war to a dystopian future where its 2080 and both Europe and technology have vanished. This is a bleak, barren setting where the red and blue armies fight for space on a grid. With the demise of the E.U. there are no longer emotional connections to countries just a nameless land mass. Striding through this unforgiving setting is the eponymous Mother Courage with her 3 kids – 4 if you factor in her beloved van. Rough hewn cardboard sheets above the stage inform of each scene as do the disparate characters who introduce the action ensuring in true Brechtian fashion that the audience is not misled about what is about to unfold.

The set design by Joanna Scotcher works really effectively. The battered ice cream van is an inspired choice being a welcome reminder of childhood and safer times yet a sinister refuge that is also burger van, provisions cart, brothel and armoury. The course of the war is perfectly reflected as it is gradually stripped back to a skeletal husk. The oil drum effectively serves as podium for Hedydd Dylan’s insouciant whore, and later in the most beautiful scene it burns brightly as Mother Courage has her final poignant moments with Kattrin.

There are issues with this production, mainly the jarring nature of some of the musical numbers which although are intended as discordant often simply just don’t work at all. The musical number prior to Kattrin’s ruin feels really unpleasantly at odds with that scene. Overall this production of Mother Courage is meaty and full of life- which is more than can be said for the bird MC tries to flog to the army chef!!

Royal Exchange 8th Feb – 2nd March 2019

Images by Richard Davenport

Sparkplug

HOME

Written and Performed by David Judge

Directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder

A Box of Tricks production

Sparkplug had its World premiere on Valentines day when we celebrate idealized love. This new work by David Judge is a true celebration of the complexity of love, race and family. At times tender and compassionate, it also bravely highlights personal experience of the achingly painful racist abuse that is still so ingrained in such a multi-cultural city as Manchester. This is a story of imperfect people in difficult circumstances whose bonds of love are built on something stronger than genetics or skin colour.

This is a very personal story from writer and actor David Judge drawing on his own experience of growing up with a white Mum and Dad from Wythenshawe while being the genetic son of a black man from Moss Side. Judge vividly invokes the family life of his father Dave as a young man driving his Capri around South Manchester while listening to Rod Stewart and dreaming of a relationship with his sister Angela’s best friend Joanne. The love affair that unfolds is messy but very real. Boy gets the girl but she is pregnant with someone else’s baby. The new parents struggle like any new parents but with the added difficulty of being white parents with a brown baby in a community where even grandparents can’t stand the skin he sleeps in. Add an eventual relationship breakdown, the news that Joanne is in a lesbian relationship and that the overwhelmed parents ask their child to choose which parent he stays with. High drama indeed but also the grittiness of real people in real situations that are complex and unsanitised.

David Judge is wonderful to watch, he brings grace and delicacy to the poetry of this piece, while being equally able to make an audience palpably uncomfortable with the racism and homophobia that run through the veins of this story. He has a quicksilver ability to move between characters, each vividly drawn and instantly recognisable. The staccato delivery of words used like punches in a scene of rage, frustration and despair sit alongside the tenderness of a young man’s love for his son that is never shaken by the ignorance in his local community.

The set design by Katie Scott works really well. The bones of a car come alive to create a sense of eras in this family as the vehicle morphs from Capri to Fiat 126 to Sierra and back. The garage settings evokes the memories of family history complete with childhood toys and its soundtrack of Rod Stewart and Micheal Jackson encapsulate that home in Wythenshawe a world away from Moss Side.

Overall this is a really impressive production. I saw Judges’ performance as Pete in The Kitchen Sink at Oldham Coliseum last year and it was really memorable so it’s a pleasure to see him centre stage. As a play it flows well though would benefit from a little editing and more character clarity towards the end. Overall it is a production that sparks debate about identity and how we see ourselves and how that is impacted by those around us. What stayed with me after the the show was the strong bond between young men and their cars, how perhaps we freely choose identity through the car we drive rather than how we are often shoehorned into an identity by the skin we walk in.

HOME 13-23 February 2019

Tour details

Images by Alex Mead, Decoy Media

My Best of Manchester Theatre 2018

In 2018 I managed 115 performances in theatres between London and Edinburgh. The majority were in Manchester and trying to compile a Top Ten has proved frustrating as every time I took one out another two vyed for attention. I finally decided to just do a round up mentioning my absolute favourites grouped by the theatres who programmed the productions.

The Royal Exchange excelled with some stunning performances, direction and writing. The Almighty Sometimes was theatre heaven with wonderful new writing by Bruntwood Prize winner Kendall Feaver and pitch perfect performances from Julie Hesmondhalgh and Nora Lopez-Holden. Rashdash tore up the rule book and re-imagined Chekhov with a brilliantly witty and flamboyant Three Sisters. Death Of A Salesman from Arthur Miller with a mesmerising performance from Don Warrington made for gripping viewing. Director Sarah Frankcom brought us the Samuel Beckett Happy Days with a stunning set and an astounding performance from Maxine Peake. Currently showing an outrageous and thoroughly entertaining take on The Producers, I’m looking forward to 2019 and the wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mother Courage.

Where to start with HOME? Their programming gave me a Top Ten without looking elsewhere! In no particular order but all stellar productions in their own right:-

The Maids by Jean Genet with the main Theatre redesigned in the round, this was a startling and visually stunning production. The Hofesh Shechter SHOW was every bit as brilliant as Grand Finale earlier in the year. Other smart and outrageous productions were the Rashdash collaboration Future Bodies and the fabulous Tiger Lilies with Corrida de la Sangre.

Delicate, beautiful writing by Annie Baker and a great cast made for theatre magic in Circle Mirror Transformation. This theme of absolute quality writing and performances was also evident with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and again in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice. The Fishermen previewed here before having huge success at Edinburgh Festival and this adaptation of the Chigozie Obioma novel was an absolute joy to witness.

The Manchester Project devised by Monkeywood showcased our city, writers, and performers. Exciting local talent such as Rosie Fleeshman impressed in her one woman show Narcissist in the Mirror. I think I saw this 3 times this year including at Edinburgh Festival and at Oldham Coliseum!

CONTACT had a year of really exciting programming with Contact in the City, they took new work such as Handlooms into a working sari shop on the Curry Mile. A fun Christmas show devised by Jackie Hagan The Forest Of Forgotten Discos! took new audiences to the lovely Hope Mill Theatre. My standout show of the year had to be the irrepressible burst of energy and creativity that was CYC with Sh!t Theatre for She Bangs The Drums at Castlefield.

The Lowry impressed with visiting shows such as the crowd pleasing and brilliant War Horse and the sumptuous Kneehigh The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk which I totally fell in love with. The Ben Caplan, Old Stock – A Love Story was another gem in their programming. In The Aldridge Suite was Proto-type Theatre with The Audit – so clever that I saw it again at Slung low in Leeds.

Oldham Coliseum produced some great shows this year including the heart-warming Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses and a great production of the classic A Taste of Honey. They also programmed pieces such as Lucy Prebble’s The Effect with electrifying direction by Jake Murray.

Elsewhere at 53Two I saw The Newspaper Boy, a truly joyful show by Chris Hoyle directed by Simon Naylor. Hoyle’s Dibby Theatre also showed up at Waterside Arts to showcase Nathaniel Hall’s First Time, a performance that deserved it’s standing ovation and will be soon touring nationally. The Heiner Goebbels’ Everything that happened and would happen was a stunning visual collaboration between Artangel and MIF. Zion Arts hosted EMERGENCY 2018 showcasing new work from Chanje Kunda whose stunningly evocative piece Plant Fetish will be at HOME this month as part of PUSH Festival 2019.

I think this image of Nathaniel Hall in First Time might just perfectly capture what it feels like to see great theatre in this great city of ours. Happy New year.