The Effect

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Jake Murray

Play With Fire Productions

The U.K. has the fourth highest level of antidepressant prescribing in the Western world with prescription levels tripling since the millennium. Yet a study published in The Lancet earlier this year on the efficacy of these drugs suggests at least a million more Britons should be taking antidepressants. With mental healthcare becoming an increasingly important topic of discussion, Fire Productions brings the award winning The Effect to the North West. This Lucy Prebble play is about a clinical study on the effects of an unlicensed antidepressant on non-depressed, paid volunteers. The play explores whether Love really is the drug or if artificially elevated dopamine levels are indeed Viagra for the heart.

Striking stage design by Louis Price creates a sleek and effective set that coupled with lighting by Adam Murdoch ensure that the production looks as good as the onstage performances. Scenes flow smoothly and concisely in this highly structured amd cerebral piece. The order and precision of the early scenes at the research facility are a smart foil to the messiness that unfolds as heightened emotions takeover.

The direction by Jake Murray ensures empathy, passion and tenderness are infused into every scene whether it is dopamine infused euphoria or dopamine deprived despair. In this double blind study the lovers, young and old are under the spotlight as the audience observe the empirical and the more qualitative research approaches. Is this elevated mood and loss of appetite due to the dopamine in the drug or is it due to the exhilaration of falling in love? Does a relationship breakdown trigger a reactive depression or does a chemical imbalance in the brain cause depression and if left untreated can it cause the breakdown of a relationship?

The young couple are utterly believable in their growing attraction and resultant confusion as they grapple with what is placebo and what is real in their relationship. As Connie, Elaine McNicol is all process driven, reflective and cautious as the curious, young psychology student whose emotional world starts to rapidly expand. Daniel Bradford really shines as Tristan. His Northern Irish accent totally fooled me and I’m from N.I! He brings a genuine lust for life to his character that is always engaging and when the drama unfolds he is truly mecurial in this role. He absolutely lives in the moment so when his character becomes trapped in the moment, it is painfully poignant to see all that joy and passion snuffed out; just as it can be in episodes of serious depression.

The two doctors are middle aged and differ in their approach to the subject matter. Toby is the trial director who favours the science and sees medication as an effective means of regulating brain chemistry whereas Lorna sees things from a deeply personal perspective and wonders if depression can be a useful pain informing us that we need to change our lives. Both perspectives have validity as without enough dopamine in the brain we struggle to have the motivation to effect change which in itself can cause depression.

Karren Winchester is wonderful as Lorna showing dry humour and resilience, she is always intensely believable as the deeply, emotionally invested psychiatrist. In the second act she excels as depression sets in and in her scene talking to the human brain she is chillingly reflective. Her portrayal of the toxicity and dissociation in depression is startlingly accurate. This is wonderful writing for any actor but Winchester really uses every word to self-flagellate. It is not surprising that many individuals suffering depression do not seek help as the voice in their own head can be so punitive that they simply don’t see themselves as worthy of assistance.

The mysteries of the human heart and mind are enduringly complex and as interwoven as the formation of the brain itself. The Effect raises more questions than it answers but this is a conversation that will always fascinate and divide in equal measure.

Oldham Coliseum 25 – 27th September

Images by Sophie Giddens

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

SWITCH + TIPPING POINT

The cast of Switch in rehearsal

Tipping Point. Photo by Mark Dawson

Upper Campfield Market

Switch directed by Charlotte Mooney, Ockham’s Razor with Grania Pickard

Tipping Point directed by Charlotte Mooney and Tina Koch

For the latest performance in Contact’s In The City programme, the setting is the stunning Old Campfield Market. Switch is a brand new circus inspired work developed by young people from North Manchester with support from Ockham’s Razor who also perform their award-winning show Tipping Point.

It is a major creative challenge to work with non-circus trained young people to develop work that has its basis in the challenging and innovative style of Ockham’s Razor. Artistic Director Charlotte Mooney ensures there is a neat developmental flow between the two pieces.

Switch has nine individuals in constant poetic flux as they work with poles. Seemingly herding people like refugees, they connect and disconnect, teasing, tantalising and threatening. The identifiable conflicts reflecting intensely human experiences are always evoked with a playful quality and the light touch so characteristic of Ockham’s Razor. With a soundtrack by Bellatrix this new work has charm and style in abundance.

Tipping Point combines mayhem and mastery to create something breathtaking that evokes palpable terror and jaw-dropping awe. Huge poles swing and swirl at speed around this magical chalked circle as the aerial performers play Russian Roulette with their lives dodging and shape shifting on the ground and in the air. Playful and mercurial these highly skilled performers are incredible to observe. Like an ever moving sculpture of sleek poles and sinuous bodies this is a stunning spectacle of just how good modern, cutting edge circus theatre can be.

At Upper Campfield Market 15-19 August

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

Mamma Mia

The Palace Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs by Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Mamma Mia is of course the phenomenally successful musical built around the ABBA back catalogue of hit songs. Approaching it’s 20th year of success and now having spawned two hit movies, it would seem set to fill the Aegean sea with froth, sass and sequins for at least another 20 years.

Girl meets Boy and falls in love, decides on a fairy tale wedding, and the only dilemma is which “Father” to call her own amongst three unwitting contenders. The Bride’s Mum is outed as having had a real summer of love during The Seventies and deals with the fallout with aplomb, ably aided by her two best friends and erstwhile backing singers. Everyone gets a happy ending and we all celebrate by dancing in the aisles singing along to Waterloo with a flurry of sequins and exploding confetti cannons.

Lucy May Barker hits all the right notes as the sweet ingenue Sophie. Shona White is reassuringly capable and confident as Donna and delivers on every song moving effortlessly through every emotion from Slipping through my Fingers and The Winner takes it all to the stomping Waterloo. The best friends/Aunties Rosie and Tanya both add a real comedic edge to this production. Nicky Swift is all warmth and impish charm while Helen Anker does a wonderfully acerbic, woman of the world oozing sex appeal. The men are rather less memorable and though all do a good job supporting the women this will always be a show about the girls.

Visually the staging is quite low key using clever lighting to take us through day and into night on a Greek island with glorious weather. The simple staging is effective as it is the colour and spectacle of the ensemble routines that are the visual highlights of this production. The big numbers are great and witty elements such as the choreography of the flipper dance is delightful in Lay all your love on me.

Mamma Mia is lightweight fun at the theatre but cleverly frames a great back catalogue of greatest hits. This is clearly a hard working, highly committed cast and the absolute highlight of the night is the rousing delivery they give after the last curtain call. Riotous fun and decidedly feel good entertainment.

The Palace Theatre until July 14th.