PATIENT 4620

Written and directed by Victoria Snaith

The Crypt, St Phillips, Salford

Saturday lunchtime is as good a time as any for a wander around a pitch black church crypt doubling up as a contemporary art museum and a mental hospital. Donning headphones and entering the exhibition Director Victoria Snaith is charmingly optimistic about the experience though does warn us all to not fiddle with the controls and watch our heads on the low arches in the gloomy but rather dreamy crypt.

Wandering around the exhibition we learn about the fragile 1920s artist Gretel Sauerbrot and her alcoholic brother Hansel. It quickly becomes clear that these are two seriously damaged individuals but by WW1 or something more unworldly…even more unspeakably horrible? Are the clues in the art itself or perhaps in what we hear as museum recording and something more sinister start to overlap?

Things are going swimmingly so far with a delicious hint of impending dénouement and horror beckoning round the next dark corner. Then suddenly the mood fractures with the appearance of a rather unorthodox psychiatrist (Robb Wildash) who may well be an wandering patient- and if he isn’t he certainly should be. One should never introduce oneself with a description of how you castrated yourself in a forest and then attempt to medicate your stunned patients with skittles and lemon drops without checking if they are diabetic.

There are some moments of genuine discomfort and potential scare. However this is a piece of immersive theatre that sadly loses pace as it shifts from auditory storytelling into theatre. The room I was waiting for never materialized and I felt entertained but strangely cheated by never catching a real glimpse of the crazed and tragic Gretel in this thoughtful twist on the famous folk tale.

Dreadfalls Theatre. Manchester Fringe 5th-6th July 2019

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Written by Kemp Powers

Directed by Matthew Xia

HOME

This play is a genius idea by Kemp Powers. One Night in Miami literally locks the audience into Room 12 of a Miami motel on February 25th 1964. We watch 4 old friends chat about politics and life as they celebrate the success of the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. It’s quite a night to behold as the four friends are King of the World boxer Cassius Clay, soul singer Sam Cooke, NFL supremo Jim Brown and political activist Malcolm X. We are flies on the wall watching and listening, as are the FBI and the Nation of Islam while outside amongst the palm trees the Press are also gathering. There is only Joe Brown left alive to say exactly what did transpire that night, but Kemp has created something that feels authentic. Offering a glimpse of these men in the midst of private struggles and uncertainty that are played out alongside the thrills of public success and the darker themes of repression and segregation in Sixties America.

Designer Grace Smart has created a capsule motel room that effectively boxes in the four men as they talk privately but also works wonderfully well in recreating a boxing ring and an Auditorium stage. Lighting design by Ciarán Cunningham and sound by Max Pappenheim enhance the experience and help create the standout moments such as the boxing scene and when Sam Cooke sings. The neon sky and palm trees vividly contrast against the plain decor of the motel room, creating a perfect backdrop to the ordinary and extraordinary events unfolding in that room.

The characters on stage are vividly portrayed by the cast with fervour and passion. At times they are so full of life that the dialogue risks them becoming caricatures of themselves. Conor Glean as Cassius fizzes with energy, giddy with his success but increasingly wary of what his imminent conversion to Islam will mean. Miles Yekinni brings depth and strength as Brown as he contemplates a move from sport to the movies as a “Black action hero”. Christopher Colquhoun is convincing as the impassioned activist who clearly carries a heavy burden and is wrestling his own fears and demons.

The standout performance is Matt Henry as Sam Cooke who moves between confidence and assured charm and his fear of what may happen to his hard won success if he does indeed change his style and use his music to do more than just entertain. I would happily pay again just for the moments when he performs – he brings down the house as he brings his “Sister Flute” to his explosive rendition of You Send Me. As the play draws to a close and he tries out his new song A Change Is Gonna Come, Henry is simply sublime. Director Matthew Xia creates a moment when it truly feels like witnessing something intensely personal and genuinely moving as though we too are hearing this musical masterpiece for the very first time.

HOME 2nd – 5th July 2019

Images by Richard Hubert Smith

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