Interview with Tim X Atack. Winner of The Bruntwood Prize 2017.

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The 2017 Winner of the  Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was announced last week at a ceremony at The Royal Exchange Theatre. Tim X Atack was awarded the £16,000 prize for his play Heartworm. The Bristol based composer and sound designer has already had success as a playwright with works such as The Bullet and The Bass Trombone, Dark Land Light House and The Morpeth Carol and  has his own company Sleepdogs.

Heartworm was one of  1,898 entries and there were also three Judges Prizes and two commendations. The biennial prize is Britains biggest playwriting competition. It has previously been won by playwrights such as Duncan Macmillan, Alastair McDowell and Katherine Soper. Heartworm will be developed and staged at The Royal Exchange and The Royal Court.

So, a week on, how are you feeling?

Still really elated, it feels pretty surreal as  I didn’t expect to get this far. It feels really  great to be starting to work on developing it at some point in the New Year.

You say you didn’t expect to get that far, but you submitted almost every time – is this your fifth time?

Yes, this is the fifth.

So there must be something motivating you…..

I think The Bruntwood Prize has always been a kind of deadline in the diary for every grassroots playwright. So I’ve written something nearly every single time but I haven’t necessarily expected it to be better than previous years – it was the same with this play.

So when you look back now over previous submissions and you compare with Heartworm – for you –  would Heartworm be the winner?

(Laughs) I think they all have different qualities and I’m surprised that Heartworm connected with so many people and got as far as it did in The Bruntwood. I think it’s surprising in that some of my other plays aren’t as insidiously strange as Heartworm. Some of the others have more of a ring of authorial statement to them, especially the ones I wrote many years ago. In some respects they are the kinds of plays you might expect to connect a little bit more with the language we currently use in playwriting. I’m still working on a few of the others, developing further drafts to hopefully go on to production.

Ah I was hoping you might answer like that! I tend to think of writing plays and nurturing words like bringing up children so you wouldn’t want to favour one over another!!

No, I think that’s absolutely right. I really enjoy working on things over a long period of time. The band I’m in usually release an album about every 6 or 7 years – and the first thing I did when I got back to Bristol after winning was to record some vocals for a song that’s about 12 years old! I like letting things percolate for a while and seeing if they stand the test of time before releasing them into the world. Heartworm took about 2 years to write on and off, but I’ve entered The Bruntwood Prize before with things I’ve been working on for a decade or so in different ways.

So you’re in a band as well?

Yeah, I started my career as a composer and also did other things such as stand up comedy but throughout all that I’ve been in a band – about 23/24 years. Its a radiophonic pop group called Angeltech.

You already know The Royal Exchange as you’ve been working on the sound production for Jubilee….

That’s right. Its been an astonishing production to work on, it really felt like a very, very progressive show to be a part off. I was very proud of it, and it was also a riot of fun to do too…..

Fun in terms of the cast? Or working with Chris Goode?

Working with the cast, working with Chris, working with The Royal Exchange which was a fantastic theatre to do this in – it really feels like we’ve been given the run to do whatever we need to do for that particular production. Chris Goode runs an amazing rehearsal room. He’s a very collaborative person and it is really shows  in the way he invites his cast  and creatives in to put a lot of themselves into what’s happening in the rehearsal room.

I interviewed Pauline Mayers in June, she said exactly the same about him. We are lucky to have him at The Royal Exchange……So was this your first time working there?

I was at The Studio space while on tour a few years ago with my own company, Sleepdogs. It was a one man show called The Bullet and the Bass Trombone about a symphony orchestra that gets caught in a city during a military coup.

How did it feel to be currently working  here and then accepting the Bruntwood on the same stage? 

It was like a weird cheese dream especially when I saw people I’d been working with up in the tech desk. Some of the cast came to the ceremony so I could hear cheers from the gallery and recognise their voices because I’d been working with them for so long.

You have a very good ear for voices, sounds… does that give you an extra dimension as a writer when it comes to pacing and dialogue?

Yeah, I think it does. If there’s one thing I can say I definitely have as a writer is a kind of musical attitude to putting stuff together. I really enjoy soaking up the way that people talk and transferring that into the words I create. There’s always a sense of finding counterpoint melodies and textures that work interestingly opposite each other in the same way as if you mixed a piece of music. One of the reasons a lot of what I write has a kind of culture clash at the heart of it is because I’m always fascinated by what happens when these different kinds of music collide. I think that probably comes from growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Brasil is one of the world’s great melting pot cities – all kinds of voices and approaches to life there.

So Tim, all those possible voices – who would be your dream cast for Heartworm?

Laughs. Im going to annoy you now. I don’t tend to think about stuff like that. I love collaborating and I enjoy the surprises that come from the casting process. There are several things in particular  about Heartworm such as I’ve stipulated in the script than none of the cast are white. The casting will require finding performers who are at ease around the dreamlike language that the play uses. I can already imagine about 10 -15 ways of performing Joni K who is the most vocal character in the play. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people do when they sink their teeth into the script.

How would you describe Joni K? Who is she?

I’m reluctant to expand on much detail which is not always the case with my plays. A lot of my works have definitely had thematic concerns but Heartworm is genuinely an exception to that. The weird thing about Joni is kind of the only definitive question that the play seems to be asking over and over again is – “Who is she?” Im really keen that the audience have the chance and the space to answer that in their own personal ways.

 I was intrigued by the extract I saw at the awards ceremony. There are all sorts of thoughts going on wondering what was pulling her back to her childhood home.

The room that she is standing in is the bedroom she grew up in, in what is ostensibly a house belonging to complete strangers. I was intrigued by the questions that might race through your mind in that moment if you were the couple renting out that room. That’s what I wanted to explore.

I recently had the chance to go back and see my childhood home and the changes made to it. The thought made me feel almost physically sick. 

The idea of seeing your childhood painted over makes you feel woozy doesn’t it?  The idea came from thoughts of heading back to Brazil again. I’ve been once since childhood but was thinking of going for longer this time. When looking at staying in AirBnBs I found myself looking closer and closer to the street I grew up on, and thinking how weird it would be if I was able to see the flat I shared with my family.

I used that premise with Joni as a starting point to explore some complicated emotions that were bubbling up in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I decided to follow almost a dreamlike process with absolutely no idea where it would lead. I wrote it in linear fashion from start to finish and was genuinely surprised myself by some of the turns it took. It was like an improvisatory process of what I might like to see on stage and I allowed myself to go wherever it felt right to go, no matter how disconcerting or self-revealing it might be. Looking back I can see some of the influences and broad emotions – the main ones being grief and loss.

Did it feel cathartic writing it?

Absolutely. If there are two kinds of human rituals – those of confirmation and those of transformation then I tend to focus on the transformatory. I prefer to write about what could this be?….. What might this be?….. Isn’t the Universe strange….

Do you think that might have been what connected the Judges to this piece?

Maybe. I’ve no idea. The judging process remains  closed to me apart from what was said at the ceremony. 

What would your advice be to anyone thinking of submitting for The Bruntwood Prize?

To just write, keep on writing, keep on entering. I think I’d particularly encourage an idea of writing something you would like to see on a stage no matter what the implications of that are. No matter how you think plays are produced, or normally look on stage – if there’s something you’d like to feel or experience on stage put it on paper and send it to The Bruntwood Prize. I thought I was writing something particularly personal and strange, yet it turns out of all the things I submitted that this has been the most successful. 




Written & Performed by Keisha Thompson

Directed by Benji Reid

Man on the Moon explores the mysteries of how we connect to others in the World. Is it gravitational force or a random fluke that makes we feel at ease with a total stranger in a supermarket on the 192 bus or fear them as a potential threat to our well being? How can some of us snuggle up securely on the sofa with a parent while others feel adrift and disconnected from their father with no clear map to bring possible reunion? In this one woman show Keisha Thompson uses storytelling, poetry, looped sounds and song to explore father/daughter relationships and the impact of potential barriers such as family ruptures, culture, religion and mental health.

This is impressive work with lots of subtle layers and a real depth of intelligence, determination and vulnerability. The spoken word is beautiful and evocative and is well supported by a soundscape that is never overwhelms the piece. Likewise the lighting by Andrew Crofts and Benji Reid complements the emotional and physical journey the story takes from preparing to board the 85 bus in Whalley Range to eventually reaching Rusholme via the 192 in Winter.

The staging is dominated by piles of books, numerology charts and a shabby cream vinyl sofa. Nothing is wasted – the charts open up conversation with the audience about numerology, which introduces the complexities of a father whose identity shifts with every new name. The many books serve as a communication device for her father to connect with his child, but also tell the story of a father who wants his daughter to “go much further than I did.” The range, complexity and occasional inappropriate elements of their content also create a growing sense of a fractured mind and it’s impact – good and bad- on the recipient. When these book are ordered and reordered on stage or thrown up in the air to fall where gravity chooses there is a growing sense of how they also represent our thought processes. They are an attempt to make sense of ourselves and how we fit in this world, to explore in their pages or in our own thoughts – what is reality  or fantasy – sane or insane. 

The bus journey is inspired as it allows for exploration of cultural perceptions in a diverse community. The journey also evokes a sense of Aboriginal Songlines as it looks at both indigenous memory code and the real fear of inherited mental health problems. 

The placing of the visit near Christmas also connects us all with familial obligations and the trepidation/anticipation of duty visits to sometimes difficult relatives. The theme of the gifting of books as a connector also reminds us of we interpret the meaning behind any gift. Out of the books scattered around or piled up, perhaps the most hopeful and poignant was Thomas  A Harris  I’m Ok – You’re Ok.

There is a genuinely positive sense of this piece using creativity as a means to mental health well being and as a form of social action in a society where the current limitations of social workers, hospitals and police create huge gaps in the support of vulnerable people.

The final scenes are visually arresting as we literally see an unhinged mind open up in front of us. However this is no nightmare but a delightful child’s dreamscape evoking playfulness, magical thinking and possible redemption. This is a truly stellar show about how some emotional relationships can seem as unreachable as the Moon.

21 – 25 Nov CONTACT

Tour details

The new space at CONTACT Interview with Matt Fenton. 

I recently met with Matt Fenton Artistic Director and Chief Executive of CONTACT. He was brimming with enthusiasm over news that the global charitable foundation Wellcome was funding £600k towards a special new venue  within the £6.5 million redevelopment of the building. This additional funding is intended to create a space for health and wellbeing projects and will also fund an new production post for the next three years.

For the last 10 years CONTACT has been producing work around health challenges and inequality, particularly young peoples issues where their voice is quiet but the issue really affects them. Shows like Crystal Kisses about child sexual exploitation really gave a voice to the experience of one of the young people. Rites was co-produced with National Theatre of Scotland. About F.G.M (Female Genital Mutilation) it tried to look at the issue without demonising or alienating communities where it is practised but still viewing it as a young peoples Human Rights issue putting their voices at the foreground of the conversation about F.G.M. Our Young Company have made numerous works supported by Wellcome -e.g. one about sexuality with Stacy Makishi Under The Covers, another about the experience of young people around cancer  care- There is a Light.

Ah that was with Brian Lobel. I did some stuff with him for The Sick of The Fringe.

Yes. We also made a piece about honour abuse called Not In My Honour by Aisha Zia which was developed with Levenshulme High School. There are numerous shows about Arts and Mental Health – currently one with Demi Landro charting mental health isssues affecting 3 generations of women in her family. Wellcome have supported quite a few of those and we were in conversation with Wellcome saying how we see them as a really strong partner- they have connected us to researchers who have often been in the room when we are developing shows. They’ve brought ethicists to the process, medical specialists and other health professionals so they’ve been this connector for us not just a Funder. In talking to them about our ambitions with our projects and about the new building, it was Wellcome who suggested we scale up our plans and come back to them with a really ambitious proposal- a new arts and health space.

So where will that be in the building?

Its going to use the space we are sat in now. This whole café space will be workshop space making the best use of our location. We are right next to the N.H.S hospitals, the Universities and the local communities so we are perfectly placed to bring all those people together to talk about health inequalities, health challenges……workshops, with Artists, R&D, scratch events etc. All these different ideas populating the space with a new specific Arts and Health Producer on the team.

The old 1969 building is coming down with the new building having a larger floor plan. The pillar in the café will go, as will all the offices over there and the space will be dividable off from the main space with the new café and bar in the centre.

So CONTACT will have a bar space that is no longer hidden!

We get that so often!! Lunchtime today the café was packed but from the front door the place looked empty with nothing happening! There is that thing of threshold anxiety especially in Arts organisations and CONTACT does so much to counter that. It has young people up front at the doors to make sure you get a welcoming smile. The use  of glazing in the new space will ensure you can see “there’s people in there, we can go in”.

Where do you find the young people to bring in and engage with?

CONTACT has a huge throughput of young people and it happens in lots of different ways. We run weekly free workshops – some delivered core and in-house :- in technical theatre and in drama drop-in, in musical production, media production. Social workers, pupil referral units, teachers, charities, young carers, homelessness charities and a whole host of organisations in the city signpost young people to our activities. A lot of young people come with support workers if they need extra help to come. We also work in partnership with organisations like Young Identity who are based here and we host their activities. Their young writers and poets do workshops in schools and in Assemblies which also signpost back here.

We also run creative leadership projects like Future Fires which is for Community Arts practitioners who want to skill up and deliver an Arts project in their local community. The Agency is a social entrepreneur project which we run in North  Manchester. A lot of these projects are roughly 50% recruited from within the free week in/week out activities and the other 50% audition or apply – the same with Contact Young Company. This means the groups are highly diverse and often include a large number of young people who are not in educational training but have come through other referrals or recommendations. The groups are absolutely diverse in terms of social economics but they all thrive and excel equally within the building. If you look at Reece Williams and Afreena Islam who are now on our Board they have been with CONTACT for years as young people – Reece since he was 13. Keisha Thompson who runs CYC, first performed with us when she was about 14. These are long progression experiences which become taking on leadership roles.

It sounds almost like a big extended family.

Yeah I guess for some people it feels like that, but its also constantly refreshed with new people auditioning. I think we do the really difficult bit which is getting young people involved and engaged early on, when their teenage peers are not doing music, acting, poetry or spoken word. Its not a new thing though- we have always done it. Look at  Lemn Sissay and Louise Wallwein and Yusra Warsama. This model works brilliantly because it does exactly what it says on the tin. We put faith in young people as decision-makers. My role is to facilitate that, not to tell them what to do.

They are developing a wide range of skill sets. Its not just an opportunity to go somewhere, to do something, to be heard….. It is also real opportunities that can lead to other things.

I think that’s it. Totally. If you look at the Future Fires or The Agency cohorts have gone on to do over the years. Loads stay in the Arts, but lots don’t, but they still take that agency, those skills they’ve developed, that confidence, those networks for young people……they take all of that and engage politically as social workers, teachers, politicians, you name it. CONTACT classically does not make it all about making more theatre. If something is going to become a radio project about homelessness or a baking project for families who access food banks or a basketball project then that’s what gets creatively developed. We never go “Lets make a play about that.”

Is a lot of the work delivered outside the building?

The Agency is primarily in Moston and Harpurhey. With Future Fires the training and development happens here but the actual projects happen where those young people live. The premise being that they know best what is or is not available in that community so they are the best people to deliver and fill that gap. For example Lucy wanted to run a female only poetry slam so she created LipSync’d. Reform Radio are two women who met on Future Fires and wanted to tackle homelessness- 4 years later they have a fully funded operation. Amazing.Its interesting to think about what is our audience at CONTACT. It is the people listening to that radio station or at that poetry slam – we can’t report those numbers because they’re not bums on seats but actually that is part of our reach as we are integral to supporting those projects in their early stages. For us that’s as important as producing new shows, though we like to do that as well!!

Are there ever tensions in communities delivering projects that certain local people might not want?

In Future Fires we ask them to get 100 signatures from their local community which is a brilliant methodology. It forces them to go to their local shop, or pub or neighbours on their street.

So its about connection and validation?

Yes. They have to explain their idea so by the 100th time the idea is clearer and you have heard 100 people say that’s a good idea. The Agency projects are warmly received as young people are seen doing something creative and positive and its real world – they each get £2000 to develop their project, a business plan to attract further funding so the projects quickly become real, and in some cases very impressive. That’s a very positive thing within that community. I think there can be tension with some of the shows we present. Mawaan Rizwan who made the BBC show How Gay Is Pakistan? is very out and vocal as a British Asian comedian. Demi Nandhra explores taboos around mental health and medication when some people feel she should stay quiet. R.E Trip was a piece about unplanned pregnancies. I just watched the rushes of the television version and that’s going to be broadcast very soon. To see those young women saying those verbatim words about those experiences. We haven’t seen that before in a mainstream media context and we’re aware that will stir up debate and criticism.

Is there safeguarding in place if tensions arise and individuals need support?

Yes, we have very clearly defined safe guarding measures in place so we can protect young people in all our projects. We’re not healthcare professionals or social workers but we seek out the appropriate help when needed. Suzie Henderson who is our Head of Creative Development heads up all our staff working in direct engagement with young people, and is very experienced around safeguarding.

Will the new space be geared to meet a wide range of special needs?

Throughout the design stage we have consulted with the Manchester Disabled Peoples Group and with Graeae Theatre in London to ensure that the new part of the building will be up to purpose and also to ensure we incorporate any adaptations we can make to the part that’s not being touched. This is actually a very confusing building that is visually overloading and has barriers everywhere. We are using capital to address this to make the new building much more open, clear and accessible. Our young peoples group working on the capital project is called Construct and we have young disabled people in that group advising us. We went to Lodon to see the Graeae building which was brilliant – an Arts building designed by disabled artists, so we came back with loads of ideas.

So what will happen while the building is closed next year….. to programming and to the weekly projects you deliver?

They will continue to run. Our brief for the location of our new base is not a performance space but somewhere to house all of our young peoples activities and it will be in walking distance of CONTACT. The much bigger impact is to our What’s On programme – the ticket buying bit. That will be much smaller than normal so we will do about 10 events where we might normally do 100 in a year, but they will be much bigger, higher profile events in some unexpected places.

So you won’t consider something site specific on the building site with the audience in hard hats?

No. We won’t be doing that! However we are doing two really exciting site specific pieces in Spring and we’re nearly ready to announce that….

A few weeks after this interview I met Matt again at Central Reference Library for the big reveal for the closure plans and the FebMay 2018 programme. The old building closes at Christmas for the renovation work which will run throughout 2018. The staff and all projects they run and host will relocate to the Millennium Powerhouse in Moss Side.

IN THE CITY Part One is packed full of great events. The 10 year anniversary of Queer Contact festival includes large scale productions at The Palace Theatre with Dancing Bear by Jamie Fletcher & Company and a House of Suarez Vogue Ball at Manchester Academy. Contact Young Company are working with the brilliant Sh!t Theatre to bring a largescale immersive performance to The Museum of Science and Industry. She Bangs the Drums will celebrate the 100 year anniversary of women and working men getting the right to vote. The second site specific production will happen in an actual working sari shop on Curry Mile in Rusholme. Handlooms by RASA sounded wonderful when Rani Moorthy was describing it. Award winning show BRANDED by Sophie Willan will have a oneoff gala performance hosted by The Lowry.

In writing up this interview, I’m recalling the absolute passion and commitment of Matt Fenton to every aspect of CONTACT’s programming and youth projects, and thinking about the exciting plans for CONTACT in 2018 and beyond. In the context of Austerity measures and the savage funding cuts to the Arts, Mental Health Services and provision for Young Peoples Services, it is a real testament to the range and quality of services delivered by CONTACT that this redevelopment project has been funded. There is still a remaining portion to be fundraised throughout 2018 so dig deep Manchester is really lucky to have CONTACT. 




The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight

Created by Maxine Peake for Hull Truck Theatre and  Uk City of Culture this is an unforgettable march through the corridors of power walking in the shabby down at heel shoes of the leader of the Headscarf revolutionaries Lillian Bilocca.

It celebrates the determination and fortitude of a group of working class woman who nearly 40 years ago “achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years” The tightknit community around Hessle Road were all connected to the fishing industry. In early 1968 three trawlers were lost at sea with a loss of 58 men over 26 days. It was the woman as wives, mothers, sisters, lovers who rose up and said “enough is enough.” Led by Lillian they gathered 10,000 signatures and stormed the offices of the trawler owners and went to parliament to meet the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The result changed the shipping laws and The Fisherman‘s Charter saved countless lives in the fishing industry. 

Sarah Frankcom and Imogen  have done a wonderful job in the The Guild Hall to bring realise this ambitious promenade performance. A live folk band courtesy of the wonderful Adrian McNally and The Unthanks are in full swing at The Silver Cod Ball. The stuffy ornately dressed couples move stiffly round the dance floor as we watch them celebrate the spoils of the trawler industry.  

The arrival of Helen Carter as Lillian is the first sign of real life in this grand reception room. Clad in shabby shoes with a neat buttoned up blue coat and a matching chiffon headscarf she reminds me of early memories of my own mother. She too campaigned on a social issue and refused to be silenced and also met a government minister to have a statute changed. It is a very powerful emotional moment making that sudden connection with my own strong, bolshy mother. As more strong women from The Hessle Road Womens Committee appear the energy continues to build.
The arrival of The Three Day Millionaires brings testosterone, Brylcreem and Old Spice. The dance floor becomes the local pub and suddenly there is lust and life and love and fisticuffs as the booze flows. This is a vivid snapshot of men home for three days who have been spared an icy drowning and are reunited with their womenfolk. A temporary relief from knawing fear of death and a fistfull of cash is a heady cocktail.

The promenade takes us through the corridors of power where endless portraits of men of power stare down at us. We pass women thanking us for our support and enter a Council boardroom with Yvonne Blenkinsop played by Katherine Pearce holding the hand of her young son. Standing on the table she summons up the experience of waiting, worrying and grieving. As each woman steps forward to tell their story it reinforces the sense of what drove these ordinary woman to step up and do something extraordinary. 

Subsequent scenes evoke the dead and dying men swathed in icy fog. Pleading, wild eyed and clammy with desperation they are a ghostly tableau. The main council chamber is dimly lit by tealights burning in mismatched teacups – possibly a light to represent each of the 58 men lost? At the centre is a haunting set comprised of a simple kitchen sink unit and a formica table. As we listen with headphones to a soundtrack of a storm and its aftermath we watch a snapshot of acute loss. A woman seeks the smell of her dead husband in his last white shirt. Later she dons the soaking wet garment and stands dripping like a lost siren of the sea.

The grand dinner at The Silver Cod Ball seats the audience at the dinner tables with the trawler owners at the top table. Stony faced, stony hearted and stony earred to the pleas of the women they look on with disdain at these earthy, passionate requests. The silver cod is like a coffin filled with blood money, and Lillian approaches me with a crumpled handful of banknotes asking “Is this what our men are worth?” Strident, rough edged and ardent these women shocked and shamed many of their own men by their actions. It was a bittersweet success as Lillian Bilocca was blacklisted and never worked in the industry again. 

The final scenes of this production are stunningly effective and incredibly moving. The original music by The Unthanks for this production is sublime and gorgeous. It is a fitting end to hear the echo of exquisite voices fade away like waves on an ebbing tide. Unforgettable.

The Guild Hall, Hull 3-18 November

Hull Truck Theatre

Photographs by Andrew Billington.

Dick Whittington

By Fine Time Fontayne and Kevin Shaw 

Directed by Kevin Shaw 

Saturday night at the pantomime in Oldham with three anime loving teenagers fresh from a day at the Japanese Doki Doki Festival. What could possibly go wrong?? Well nothing apparently. Despite my concerns everyone loved it and my own initial wariness disappeared in a wave of nostalgia and general goodwill to all.

This is pantomime at its traditional best with no fancy hi tech bells and whistles. The only bell here being the one swung by the marvellous panto grand dame Saucy Sarah Suet played with warmth and wit by Fine Time Fontayne. The whole cast are enthusiastic and the energy on stage never wanes. There are some especially strong assured performances most notably Fine Time Fontayne as Sarah and Richard J Fletcher as her son Silly Billy Suet. The Rat King has Simeon Truby who is excellent as the perfect pantomime villain. His pastiche of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell is inspired and very funny.

The set by Celia Perkins is just lovely. All painted scenes rolling back like the beautifully illustrated pages of a children’s story book. There are lots of witty little signs and references included to keep the grown ups amused too. 

The wardrobe department have produced some bright and cheery costumes to compliment the set. The outrageous dame costumes succeed with a the obligatory pantomime wow factor. The generous bottoms on several costumes seem to be modelled on the famous rear of Kim Kardashian!!

The song and dance numbers mix the old and the new to good effect. The chorus of local children on stage dancing look like they are having a ball. Other children from the audience are brought on stage by Saucy Sarah and Billy Suet  to help out with one of the songs.  The banter and interaction with the audience feels genuine and warm rather than staged. Family groups are welcomed by name and the atmosphere in the theatre is relaxed and happy. The family next to us share our pleasure as their small boy waves his light up sword at The Rat King and whole heartedly joins in during the ghost scene. That little boys delight and enthusiasm is shared by my son’s girlfriend who is delighting in revisiting where she first saw Pantomime on  primary school trips. 

Overall Dick Whittington was an unexpected hit for a slightly unconventional family. With 80 performances aiming to entertain about 40,000 people it looks like Oldham Coliseum have paved the streets of Oldham with gold and big smiles.

11 Nov – 13 January at OLDHAM COLISEUM 


The Royal Exchange 
Adapted for the stage by Chris Goode from the original screenplay by Derek Jarman and James Whaley 

Directed by Chris Goode 

The interior walls of the Royal Exchange Theatre are densely covered in graffiti. The music is ramped up – this is not Royal Exchange noise levels – this is JUBILEE. The stage is set with Toyah Wilcox at her dressing table as Queen Elisabeth I regally pondering the future. 

This is 40 years on from her anarchic role as Mads in the original Derek Jarman film. Having seen the original as a young teenager and promptly calling one of the family cats kittens after Toyah this feels like time travel for more than just Elisabeth I. Looking around the actual Royal Exchange  theatre it feels like we could be in a time travel machine. I half expected Amyl Nitrate and her girl gang to seal in the audience with barbed wire and Union Jack flag poles.

This adaptation by Chris Goode is faithful to the original film. The production is brought up to date by references to Cameron, Trump, Brexit and music tracks like Bad Girls by M.I.A but it maintains Jarman’s messy, anarchic “have a go” punk ethic. Adam Ant who played Kid in the original said Jarman was making it up as he went along. Goode is known as a director who likes to give actors space to develop and explore and this feels like an explosion of many ideas. This is not a cohesive piece of drama but is more a series of adrenaline shots fizzing round the space like Catherine Wheels. 

There are bodies copulating in various combinations, a brutish policeman is castrated, there is an autoerotic asphyxiation  murder, there is beautiful poetry, singing, dancing, political polemic and witty audience banter led by the brilliant Travis Alabanza. Chris Goode has staged a sort of A-Level drama exam take on an anarchic cabaret cabaret. Love it or hate it you won’t forget it.

There are some blistering moments like gems from the stolen crown hidden in an Aldi plastic bag by Bod. The scene looking out at all the tower blocks vividly alludes to Grenfall Towers as Sphinx describes the grey concrete towers of his childhood as an equally effective means of killing poor people as war.

The passionate rhetoric which bursts from Amyl Nitrate in the second half gives Travis Alabanza a perfect platform for their natural brilliance. This trans artist is perfectly cast and striding around in heels and Jackie Kennedy pearls and pink is both outlandish and endearing. This is the performance that both charms and terrifies in equal measure. The original performer in this role was Jordan who Jarman described as “art history as make-up”. Jordan was in Manchester this week for a Louder than Words event – I really hope she got to see this.

If there is a SPOILER ALERT  for Jubilee it is DON’T LEAVE at the interval because the first Act is overly long. The second act is a blistering finale where this “No Future” nihilistic polemic directly addresses those who remember the original film. If we were 15 back in 1977 then we have now been running the country for the last ten years. It is a sobering thought sitting in the Royal Exchange which recently had its 40 year anniversary watching Jubilee made nearly 40 years ago in 1978. 

As the performance ends Elisabeth I can hear the familiar sound of seagulls harking back to her seafaring adventurous era. However hopeful or hopeless we may feel under whatever political ideology we uphold or rail against, perhaps one certainty is seagulls swooping over stony shingle coastline. I’m sure Derek Jarman would not wish it any other way.

Royal Exchange 2-18 November

Uncle Vanya


Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Andrew Lipton 

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Uncle Vanya was written 20 years before The Russian Revolution of 1917 and may depict a long gone era, however the themes of depression, regrets and obsessional love are timeless. The uncertainties and frailties of human emotion are all on display and are beautifully depicted in this adaptation.

The set by Steffi Wurster is vast so the home setting dwarves the characters. The walls extend up to encompass everything and everyone, effectively creating a sense of claustrophobia. The raised piano ensures that the comfort of music remains out of reach for Yelena. The sense of decay and gloom seeps out of the walls. Even a garden scene plays out within the gloom of the house. There is literally no escape for Vanya and Sonya. The estate dominates everything as both prison, and home and hearth. 

The key human emotions of Anger, Fear, Joy and Sadness are all evoked in subtle ways. The layers of each performance ensure that each character is defined and memorable. There is always a sense of fatalism here and human curiosity about how each character chooses to respond. The emotion connection with the audience becomes truly intimate when characters  address us as though personally sharing with us one to one. 

The Professor is a man whose success and potency is fast waning and the only new challenges he faces are illness and death. Nick Hodder’s Vanya brilliantly evokes a man who has given up in body and spirit. He is only 47 but feels his life is not only over but has never really started. The tragicomedic outcome of his brief reach for love and hope is  perfectly pitched. In contrast Jason Merrells gives Astrov vitality and curiosity which lifts the gloomy house. He imbues new thinking and change yet is born too soon to really make a difference for himself. Despite their differences neither man is likely to get the future they crave and will continue to exist rather than thrive.

The older women seem stoic and content in their roles within the house. The younger female characters are similarly trapped by the social norms. Hana Yannas is perfect cast as a beautiful and brittle trophy wife full of longing and repressed energy. She is mystified at the possibility of breaking free and having love and passion rather than wifely duty and social position. Katie West is luminous on stage, her Sonya is an innocent and it is her sense of hope in an weary old world that holds everyone together. Her physical plainness is viewed as an obstacle to love and passion so she is as equally thwarted as Yelena. She remains unseen by Vaskov despite being a good match for the middle aged doctor. The tragic irony that both her and Vaskov would rather have nothing if not a great love, and therefore both are likely to get nothing. She is at peace in a spiritual way, resigned to a life of duty and tending to the needs of others rather than fulfilling her own desires in her earthly life.

The ephemeral nature of love and hope seem to dictate that emotional survival comes from taking solace in solid things like food, vodka, work or nature. In Uncle Vanya we see all too painfully what may be the outcome from missed opportunities or possibilities not acted upon. If only Vanya had seized his moment with Yelena 10 years earlier or if Astrov was more of a pragmatist than a dreamer then Sonya would have a very different life. The  invitation in this production is Seize the Day for each day is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Fri 3Sat 25 Nov at HOME