It is always exciting to see performers at the start of their careers especially if you are lucky enough to get to see students honing their craft as they study. Here in Manchester those opportunities arise at The Arden School of Theatre, now futher enhanced by their new purpose built theatre. A few years ago I saw the then third year students in a memorable production working with Figs in Wigs. Now graduated, Elise Gilbert is back in Manchester with her first solo show that has previously shown at Camden Peoples Theatre in London.
Bad Jokes About Men blends truly naff jokes with Gilbert’s unique blend of exuberant charm, queer politics, clowning skills and live journaling. The range of skits use her great comic timing and natural physicality to explore traditional jokes, verbatim comments made to other young females and her own personal experience of being the butt or boobs of just a big old joke. At one point she addresses her audience asking How long can a joke keep on going for? Like so many others she is clearly not amused by the ‘joke’ and this show is a determined attempt to turn the tables and see how funny men find it when they become the butt or with her help the balloon penis of the ‘joke’.
Gilbert is multi-talented using a range of performance skills to ilustrate her argument and she carries off the performance with aplomb. She has an easy confidence on stage and has a genuine rapport with her audience that is impressive for someone doing their first solo show. She is adept at using eye contact in the space to really get the audience onside whether she is looking wryly humerous at an individual, gurning, expressing her anger or her vulnerability to the crowd.
The use of multimedia is highly effective whether to perform as alternate characters such as ‘Rob’ who tells ‘his’ traumatic experience as a WMCSM (white middle class straight man) or to gradually reveal the messages received by a male ‘friend’. It is the latter that provides the final nail in the coffin to this long running joke on women. This slow reveal alludes to the confusion and discomfort of being on the receiving end of statements such as I had a wank over you last night. Gilbert uses journaling tools to perceptively outline the many ways this might not feel funny to a young, queer woman you know. The closing technique used to make her point is intellectually incisive and theatrically very satisfying.
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!
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…
August Strindberg wrote this naturalistic masterpiece in 1888, back then it was considered so shocking to Swedish audiences that it could only be performed privately. Raw and incisive Miss Julie cuts through gender and class politics in a manner that was astounding for its’ time. It retains much of its shock value even now as class divisions and gender stereotypes continue to resonate. Servant Christine despairingly remarks how can you respect “your employers when they’re no better than us – what’s the point of trying to improve ourselves?” A bitterly poignant moment as we are on the verge of electing an utterly graceless buffoon as our next Prime minister.
Director Jake Murray allows a strong cast to embrace this vibrant play and sink their teeth into all the mess of emotions and aspirations without losing the complexity and nuance of each individual on stage. Overplayed or in the hands of a less deft director, Miss Julie is a play that could descend into histrionics but here each character is allowed to develop as intended.
Alice Frankham as Miss Julie exudes a persona of cool, imperious beauty and privilege but gives free reign to her character’s wild impetuous nature. Her mercurial nature is never overplayed into histrionics ensuring that even a modern audience can understand her desperation and vulnerability as she tries to be true to her nature despite the constraints of her class and gender.
Danny Solomon as valet John is mesmerising as he flits between suave professional upstairs servant, downtrodden but aspirational farm lad, hopeful lover and brutish misogynist. He creates a raw horror as he cowers from the power of the servants’ bell before coolly handing Miss Julie his cutthroat razor as her only way out of disgrace.
Lois Mackie as Christine is the steadying force in this drama bringing a wonderfully dry wit to all her reflections. Her weary cook is a pragmatic and calm foil to the emotional turbulence unfolding around her. The frantic aspirations of escape from the constraints of class and gender are calmly brushed aside by a woman who accepts her role in life and seeks comfort in respect and in her faith.
This is a thoughtfully staged production with a really keen eye to period detail. The ensemble support from students at ALRA North and Arden School of Theatre adds a lovely touch as they mingle and greet the audience as though we too are part of the Midsummer celebration. The set by Louis Price creates a really authentic Edwardian feel and makes the appearance of the glamorous Miss Julie even more incongruous as she wafts around the servants kitchen. This is another success story for Elysium Theatre Company who are steadily building a great reputation for creating strong productions such as last years Jesus Hopped The A Train. Miss Julie is a satisfying watch ending with a wonderful poignancy about the constraints we live by as the lights dim on the gilded birdcage on the table.