FOUR MINUTES TWELVE SECONDS

Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes as Di and David.
Image by Joel Chester Fildes

Written by James Fritz

Directed by Chris Lawson and Natasha Harrison

Oldham Coliseum

With this week seeing the incarceration of Harvey Weinstein, this is a timely revival of James Fritz’s clever and insightful four hander. Four Minutes Twelve Seconds explores the darker aspects of the internet as this play takes a family down the rabbit hole of sexting, fake news and private forums. An act lasting four minutes will rupture trust and strain moral boundaries in a close family. Under the sensitive and empathic direction of Chris Lawson and Natasha Harrison this production is a genuine psychological thriller that gets under your skin and challenges its audience to consider our own views on morality, class and parenting in this digital age.

Di and David are the parents of a 17 year old boy who is on track for exam results that will get him out of Oldham and into University. After a violent attack from the brother of his girlfriend Cara, Jack’s parents are forced to face up to the consequences of a sex tape their son has made. Leaked unto the internet it tells a damning story depending on what the viewer chooses to see. Is this revenge porn, a terrible judgement error or possibly something even more dreadful? This is a truly fascinating insight into the cognitive dissonance that subverts our perception of truth when our minds cannot always accept the information we see before us.

The slick white set is modern and middle class with the few splashes of colour provided by fresh flowers and Hunter wellies. Designer Anna Reid has created something crisp and beautiful that allows for nowhere to hide. The reflective panels add to the feeling of this family being utterly exposed and continually finding their perception of reality and truth shift as they uncover more real and fake facts about those fatal four minutes. The lighting design and slashes of sound add to the growing sense of family normality being repeatedly tipped into a nightmarish vortex. This feeling is further enhanced by the movement direction employed by Natasha Harrison which sees Di and David (Jo Mousely and Lee Toomes) literally tipped over the edge as new information jolts their middle class contentment.

The cast all give strong and utterly believable performances. Jo Mousely is a powerhouse of emotion as feisty mum Di who is initially like a lioness out to protect her cub at all costs. As events unfold she is strained to breaking point, utterly at sea as her moral compass fluctuates and she contemplates the unimaginable. Lee Toomes as husband David appears pragmatic if somewhat ineffectual as he tries to steer his family through choppy waters. Calm and apparently likeable, Toomes delivers a performance that continually surprises with some punchy shifts of light and shade. The working class Cara (AlyceLiburd) and school friend Nick (Noah Olaoye) both give gently nuanced performances that add real depth. Liburd shows not an ounce of self pity is shown here, instead there is a blunt acceptance that accent and class will impact how her story is heard and believed. As “Thick Nick” Olaoye beautifully illustrates that morality and brains certainly do not always go hand in hand.

This production is genuinely exciting and thought provoking on so many levels. Beautifully staged and directed with strong performances, this is the undeniable proof that regional theatres may be short on finances but are certainly not short on talent and vision.

Oldham Coliseum 21st February – 7th March 2020

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

Here Lies the Trap

Directed by Graham Hicks

I loved the energy and vibrancy of this performance. The first year students at Arden School of Theatre do their own unique take on the evergreen seminal play The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. The sense of fun and irreverence is apparent from the moment the pianist begins her discordant thudding, setting the tone for this performance which like the music becomes increasingly disjointed with a growing air of desperation. The whole pieced has a blend of contemporary performance and dance blended with some great clowning skills and has a vibe of Mischief Theatre Company. The level of commitment and professionalism from the cast is evident throughout with students staying consistently in character even when not “on” stage.


There is some marvellous choreography dotted through this piece that really highlights some deft physical comedy from certain members of the cast particularly in numbers such as Murder on the Dance Floor when it parodies the dance off in Rupaul’s Drag Race. Psycho Killer was great combining tight choreography with some really menacing and disturbing performances with one cast member in particular proving quite mesmerising. Other notable moments include when they performers first hit the stage like a anarchic catwalk show for Burberry or Vivienne Westwood. Visually the costumes looked really cohesive and well thought through.


This really was an exercise in tearing up the script and tossing the pages in the air like satin fabric scraps. I’m sure Agatha Christie would have been spitting up bits of satin in lieu of feathers. The use of fabric in this way worked really cleverly with the performance concept. Extremely simple but incredibly effective as they remade chaos in a floor plan reminiscent of the board in Cluedo. The little ad breaks and presentations were effective as a means to clear the stage and reset for new scenes. Perhaps more might have been done with the audience interactions at those points when the two performers break the fourth wall. This was such a high energy piece that perhaps the pacing at the end night have benefited from some tweaks and editing. It felt like a really high point to end on may have been at . Psycho Killer.


There were some really strong and memorable performances particularly with some of the natural comedians on stage and some lovely elements of absurdist comedy as well as some great deadpan delivery from the Narrator and a drag performance straight out of Hinge and Brackett in the characterisation of Mrs Boyle.
I look forward to seeing what this year group do next!

ROOTS

Created by 1927

Writer and Director Suzanne Andrade

HOME

Trips to The British Library to explore the Aarne index of folktales from around the globe as Suzanne Andrade sought out appropriate tales for 1927 resulted in a big friends and family get together over a vat of Irish stew in a snow storm. The outcome is ROOTS, a hotchpotch of vivid, quirky tales told using the 1927 trademark blend of animation, performers and musicians. As we prepare to leave Europe this rich tapestry of interwoven tales showcases the power of storytelling as a universal medium to unite us all. Folktales have always morphed and mutated as they weave around the globe and with ROOTS this magic continues with an accompanying visual and musical feast.

This bakers dozen are not clean cut or a cohesive illustration of a particular theme such as those approached by Italo Calvino or Angela Carter. Instead they revel in being a splatter fest of the dark, the peculiar and downright odd. A Fat Cat is a tale of epic consumerism where puss systematically eats the world, pausing only to barf up a schoolboy’s scabs and a world leader’s toupee! Elsewhere a genitally blessed king seeks a bride without a domineering will of her own, while in Two Fish parents kill their child in the misguided hope of acquiring a third fish. In the delightfully whimsical An Ant found a penny, a beatnik French ant honeymoons in The Orkneys before her world implodes from a traumatic event involving a pot of stew.

As with all 1927 productions the animation and film by Paul Barritt looks wonderful whether as minimalist black and white or the psychedelic landscape of Snake or the absinthe green tinged The Luckless Man. Performers pop up through hinged windows in the screen bringing 3D to the animations, musicians gain angel wings just as the animated fat cat ascends to heaven…every tiny whimsical detail is utilised and luxuriated in. In The Magic Bird layers of detail create a Punch and Judy aspect to a couples murderous, greedy squabbles. The costumes, make up and music all combine to give this production a real world flavour from Parisien ants to Mexican Day of The Dead horse heads in Alonso and the Ogre and the rich earthy African tone of Snake.

The tales are darkly comic and often violent with witty current references all told in a very naturalistic manner by non professionals. This madcap cluster of tales are weirdly mesmerising and totally engrossing.

HOME 11DEC – 30TH DEC 2019

1927

Images by Gaelle Beri

PLAYLAND

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu and Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

Written by Athol Fugard

Directed by Jake Murray

The Empty Space

Elysium Theatre Company have once again shown what high calibre work they can produce. Great story telling from South African playwright Athol Fugard with sound direction from Jake Murray and powerful performances from both male leads ensure that this is a great piece of theatre . A journey through trauma to possible redemption, Playland explores what happens to the human psyche when men with a strong moral code find themselves doing unspeakable things and then have to find a way to live with the consequences.

Set in Playland, a travelling fairground, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 1989 when war veteran Gideon La Roux meets the fairground watchman Martinus Zulu. Behind the gaudy splendour of the lights and wurlitzer music is the deeply reflective Martinus alone in his monastic space. This bleak setting eventually serves as a kind of confessional for both men. The absolute power of this performance is not just that it is about the unravelling of a man with PTSD, but that it is a man who fought in a war of Apartheid where soldiers were forced to take a vow of silence and where truth was white washed or blacked out. Somehow Gideon is pulled towards another man who is guarding his own secret pain and who has also broken the sixth commandment.

Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

This is a perfectly balanced double act from two actors who were both also excellent in a previous Elysium production Jesus Hopped the A Train. Danny Solomon is veteran Gideon, a man whose initial bonhomie hides deep psychological wounds that slowly start to surface as the clock ticks down to a new year. Solomon is all nervous energy and keen, darting eyes while he attempts to engage the recalcitrant security guard. He is engaging and charming as he tells stories of his pigeons and his childhood but effortlessly shifts into menace and madness as he attempts to gaslight his reluctant companion into violence. He increasingly reminds me of early Jack Nicholson in the ways he can play with energy, tempo and mood.

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu

Faz Singhateh counters Solomon with a wonderfully controlled and restrained performance. Stiff with righteous indignation, every sinew is coiled as his Martinus watches and waits like a wary, wounded animal. The growing tension between both men slowly builds, becoming palpable as their stories are told and they find common ground in their actions but struggle with their opposing perceptions of redemption and forgiveness.

The writing is evocative and brutal in its description of the horrors of the Border War, but is also tender as it reveals the youthful innocence of childhood. Simple but effective staging with rich lighting and a fabulous fairground soundscape add additional pleasure to this production. Everything is thoughtfully and sensitively done, ensuring that 30 years on this tale of redemption and forgiveness still feels timely and relevant.

Empty Space 31st Oct – 2nd Nov 2019

Black History Month

Images by Victoria Wai Photography

Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah, or Much Ado About Nothing

The Arden School of Theatre

In collaboration with Figs in Wigs

The Waterside Theatre

It is always interesting to see what comes out of collaborations between innovative companies and theatre schools. This new piece of work created with Figs and Wigs has all their trademark elements of theatre, dance and comedy blended with silly puns and pop culture references all linked by a rich vein of absurdist humour and bonkers surrealism.

This performance is full of energy and tongue in cheek humour. Nine young performers in neon wigs and boiler suits like oompa loompas with maintenance loans. Popular culture references pop up in anarchic games of Countdown which have no winners or losers as they descend into perky dance routines and evolve toward Pointless. The consonants and vowels on display continuously shifting into yet another meansingles phrase. What could be text introducing Shakespeare is instead graphic design dummy text interspersed with the true text of the evening this is a show about nothing don’t search for meaning because there is none life is a circle it doesn’t have a point.

Shots from the Kenneth Branagh movie Much Ado About Nothing sit alongside parody film made by the performers with fake horses. Everywhere is subversion as a pantomime horse descends the stairs through the audience toward twerking horses clad in ruffled satin shirts. Later Hero the bride glides down the same stairs clad in boiler suit and satin wedding dress towards an church full of vivid vignettes of characters brightly drawn and brought to life by the cast.

Black clad mourners carry tiny butterfly coffins as they gather now for a eulogy rather than a wedding. The absurdist poignancy is playfully ruptured as this occasion morphs into a bad poetry slam. Musical interludes see various instruments employed in random ways punctuated by bad puns and finally a discussion as to how the ending should be framed… but this is Figs in Wigs and a bunch of next generation innovators so blah blah blah blah blah…

Waterside Theatre 10th/11th October 2019

Arden School of Theatre

Figs and Wigs

Baby Fever

STUN Studio, Z Arts

CONTACT YOUNG COMPANY/DEGASTEN

Co-presented and commissioned with Contact

This new work commissioned for SICK! Festival 2019 sees Contact Young Company (CYC) working with Amsterdam based Theater Degasten whose work is also focused on developing the creativity of people from all backgrounds. Exploring the commodification of happiness, a group of young artists provide a searing and provocative insight into their lives. Baby Fever is a lot less about how young people feel about creating the next generation and instead explores what value they put on life currently. This is an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable look at who they are as a generation and how they feel about existing in this community, this society and this world.

Divided into three very different segments Baby Fever starts with the audience surrounded by a series of spoken word pieces that come at you from different angles about very varied topics. To one side there is a provocative take on your beloved NHS while another voice behind discusses the politics around our water or yet another gives their personal take on mental health attitudes. Standing above the audience on benches this feels like a twist on Speaker’s Corner. In the middle section eyes closed throughout and moving carefully and respectfully around each other, every tiny gesture feels magnified and mesmerising. The final section has performers individually inviting audience members to engage with them one to one. The space takes on the clamour of daily life hustle bustle as the action unfolds yet poignantly each experience is unique and cannot be replicated again.

What is especially striking about this piece of theatre is the sense of buttons being pushed, boundaries being challenged and risks being taken…yet all this is occurring in what feels like a very safe space. Even the staging feels framed by the boundaries of benches and flooring is protected by plastic covering which is later ever so carefully removed and packed up. This space is hot and uncomfortable with blinding lighting yet it is clear this is as intentional as every searing statement in the spoken word section. The staging might be unconventional as audience and performers merge in the centre of the space, yet throughout the piece, there is information being given to ground everyone and clarify what is happening. We are told there are three sections to the piece and their running times. We are informed what our level of participation is and where to sit or stand, all this ensures that safe guarding the young performers and their audience is paramount. Speaking to CYC producer Keisha Thompson during the show, it was clear just how seriously this work is valued and nurtured. Perhaps what I took away from Baby Fever was the need we all have right now for clarity, creative thinking and the means to form our own personal boundaries and respect those of everyone around us.

SICK! FESTIVAL 1st- 3rd October 2019

SICK! FESTIVAL 2019

CONTACT

Theater DEGASTEN

Tinned Up

Written by Chris Hoyle

Directed by Simon Naylor

Oldham Coliseum

As a writer Chris Hoyle consistently delivers sparkling dialogue that has a rich northern tone, a big heart and a genuine social conscience. Tinned Up may have been written ten years ago, but its relevance today has the same power to arrest and perturb. Staged in Oldham where community spirit remains vibrant, this new version is directed by Simon Naylor of 53Two – a much respected local theatre who are currently between homes due to the surge in inner city re-development. Casting is firmly Northern too and is headed up by the wonderful Karen Henthorn who like Naylor was part of the team involved in Chris Hoyle’s highly successful The Newspaper Boy.

The staging by designer David Howell creates an utterly believable cosy home that Shirley has spent 34 years living in. The outside world might be tinned up but inside these four walls is someone’s home where they have lived their life and built forged their memories. This home houses an indomitable spirit that has spent 7 years refusing to give in to the local council and the private developers. Karen Henthorn is fabulous as the gutsy Shirley whose warmth and stubborn resolve ensures that even those who have left Langworthy are pulled back to their old community to support her. Her performance coupled with the wonderful dialogue Hoyle gives his central character can easily stand confidently alongside the best kitchen sink dramas.

There are some great performances playing off the lead with an especially lovely relationship between Shirley and her young neighbour Daz. Keaton Lansley has real chemistry as Daz and balances humour with real emotional depth as a young man nurtured and encouraged by Shirley to strive for better things in his life. The living room scene with Lynn Roden as Beryl where the two middle aged women reminsce as they get pissed on ouzo is rich with bawdy humour and the poignancy of intertwined memories.

There are some wonderful moments in this production and hopefully opening night will have ironed out some timing issues and fluffed lines. The direction also lacks some of the tightness and lightness of touch that Simon Naylor displayed in The Newspaper Boy. There are several points in the first act and most notably in the final scene where the pacing slows down or appears a little unfocused.

The stomach wrenching moment in this piece is when a muddled Shirley runs out unto her street to share news with her neighbours only to be gently caught by Daz. That street and community has long gone and she is alone…They’re all tinned up, every last one of them. The final street party and the inevitable ending reflect the ebb and flow of progress. The mundane flushing of a toilet as a life ends, making way for wet rooms, upside down houses and another generation of communities… for better or worse remains to be seen.

Main House Takeover Oldham Coliseum 24th-26th Sept 2019

Images by Shay Rowan