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.

othellomacbeth

HOME

A HOME/Lyric Hammersmith presentation

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jude Christian

The plays of Shakespeare continue to fascinate and inspire and there is always an ongoing artistic quest to tweak his original recipes. For director Jude Christian inspiration appears to arise from a folk song by Anjana Vasan. Oh Sister asks, Oh Sister when you gonna learn. Ain’t it always about the man….a kind hearted woman to his evil hearted ways. This mash up of Othello and Macbeth turns the spotlight on the women and explores what we are capable off when hope is replaced by despair.

This pared down production opens with a narrow stage that boldly states the intention that this Othello is a series of succinct snapshots of the original. Scene changes are signified by the discordant menace of clamouring gossip on the wind. Focusing on key elements of the plot to move the narrative along swiftly it often loses the beauty of poetry and the development of key relationships; however it sharpens the focus unto male machismo and the perils of innocence in a world of brutal ambition.

The real moment of drama that makes you inhale sharply and sit up is the sinfully clever shift towards Macbeth at the end of the first act. Lady Macbeth enters clutching empty swaddling and offers her milk as gall to Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia. As these three mistreated and/or murdered women don camouflage jackets over their bloody clothes the scene is set for the weird sisters or witches to wreak havoc.

The set design by Basia Bińkowska is startling and while it initially seems restrictive and one dimensional, it is potent in its sharp simplicity. A wall of riveted steel and a metal caged walkway evoke the confines of a hi-tech prison symbolizing the narrow constrictions of being a woman in Shakespearean times and in certain societies today. For the domestic violence in Othello it brutally resounds with the visceral crackle of bone on steel. The second act lifts the steel wall and reveals a more open space for the actors to move around. What now dominates is the perspex sink crystal clear before becoming increasingly bloody as events unfold. The metal walkway overhead gets more use in the second act as the weird sisters watch over their machinations like puppeteers pulling at the heartstrings of Macbeth and the other men.

The focus on the women in this production is a powerful reminder of the perils of love and the struggle for fairness and equality. Desdemona is a young bride who naively assumes that love conquers all. Married to a powerful man she expects to be heard without resorting to shrewishness yet conforms to the message running through Shakespeare and the song used in this production….You love like a martyr… wear your heart like a suicide vest. Lady Macbeth in vivid Tory blue is a seasoned and more experienced wife who asserts her own power within her marriage. Emilia and Bianca are also more pragmatic and less naive of the ways of men, yet all are disappointed and wounded women. These are all women who love not wisely but too well surrounded by men who are equally capable of powerful emotions.

I’m not sure how many questions are answered by this production by Jude Christian who also provoked debate with Parliament Square, however OthelloMacbeth certainly evokes lively conversation about the women Shakespeare created. This nine strong cast do a good job of keeping up momentum with notable performances by Sandy Grierson and Kirsten Foster. Most of the performances here are impressive and pushing the female characters to the forefront is an interesting dynamic. The key element is the bleeding through of such influential dramatic creations through both plays and how they still resonate with audiences today. As Desdemona says Love that endures from Life that disappears.

HOME 14th Sept – 29th Sept

Lyric Hammersmith 3th Oct – 3th Nov

Images by Helen Murray

OH MAN

Contact Young Company with Hetain Patel

Directed by Hetain Patel

A leisurely walk through Salford gazing at a skyline of half-built new skyscrapers and giant cranes. The audience is heading to a secret location for the latest production by ContactYoung Company . It feels like I’m entering a very male environment where a performer might suddenly walk off a building sight to wolf whistle, or stroll into the bushes to pee or do something else suitably blokish. Instead we enter a yard full of tyres and cars….there is sweat, grease and testosterone in the air….or is there?

Notes pinned to the fencing are verbatim quotes from men interviewed for this project. They reveal men who don’t always think how stereotypical images suggest. Men who are wary and also feel vulnerable post #MeToo. Men who are uncertain or feel restricted as to how to express their emotions in our society.

Cars are parked up with radios on and doors open. Like art installations they give additional snapshots of masculinity – young studs cruising on a Saturday night fuelled on fast food and hopes of fast women, father’s with cars full of toys and sippy cups, lease cars for business, sober and impressive.

In a garage space, CYC are clad in blue boilersuits squaring up eye to eye with the audience. This is very up close and personal. Full on and unapologetic they posture; knuckle grazing, hair smoothing and checking themselves out. This is a Haka that demonstrates strength and prowess, and also functions as a welcome. Oil drums are used to ear splitting effect. Photos are being taken. Poses shift from happy, carefree snaps for social media to tableau images that menace and disconcert. As with She Bangs The Drums earlier this year CYC deliver something that is punchy, provocative and challenging.

This work has been developed from extensive interviews with men in the community from groups such as M13 Boys and Salford Young Fathers Project. Director Hetain Patel and Producer Keisha Thompson are clearly passionate about this project and this production is bursting with ideas and energy from the whole company. It is as messy, vibrant and challenging as my teenage son’s bedroom.

There are meaty chunks of group scenes in the sweaty gym where men feast on another’s potential sexual conquest sucking on the bones as though it were theirs. Yet the bloke’s awkwardness shines through despite his posturing and bravado. It is akin to watching a Ricky Gervais character in the gym instead of the office. Like layers of an onion this scene can repulse, unnerve and evoke pity.

Using males and females from CYC cleverly allows for the predictable sexual stereotypes of men as predators and women as deserving whores or vulnerable victims to be frequently subverted and challenged. Women can be the aggressors and predators too. A playful gameshow highlights the confusion and risk of generalized assumptions as does an amusing scene on public transport.

There are frequent shifts of mood and energy in the performance as emphasis shifts to look at rape and assault statistics or male suicide risk factors. Tender moments when monologues describe poignant moments such as when a traumatised 13 year old learned we place the blame on the victim not the culprit. A young man describes his ambitions as a dancer and his Libyan/Italian heritage and flips perceptions as he speaks of his father’s pride and encouragement. The M.O.T scene gleefully skits through our expectations of men and chillingly fails many of them placing them on a scrapheap they may struggle to escape from.

OH MAN opens up dialogue around our perceptions and expectations of men and questions just what it means to be masculine. There are no neat answers in this piece but there is palpable excitement as CYC challenge themselves and their audience.

Thurs 30th Aug – Sun 2nd Sept. 2pm& 7pm

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