It’s 14 months since the Royal Exchange closed its doors on the eve of press night for Rockets and Blue Lights. Racing across St Ann’s Square to the cheers across the city as England scores in the footie, I spot the smiling faces of the theatre Comms team as they welcome everyone back to press night. There is a general feeling of goodwill and excitement in the building so undoubtedly huge pressure on Writer/Performer Lauryn Redding and Director Bryony Shanahan and the team to make this a night to remember. It’s a huge gamble to have only one performer sustain a 2 act 2 hour plus performance on the main stage and make it work, make it matter, make it memorable for the work not just as a reopening after a global pandemic…Lauryn Redding does just that. Funny, tender and raw, Bloody Elle is a rousing tale of sexual awakening with all its joy and sorrow. As Redding tells us Censoring. Of anything. Of anyone. Of yourself. Of someone else. Is exhausting and it cuts you from the inside.
Director Bryony Shanahan and Movement Director Yandass Ndlovo ensure that the performance has flow and energy and never feels like a static piece of solo story telling. The staging by Designer Amanda Stoodley dispenses with the famous banquette seats and their potential covid risks. Instead she introduces red stools and candle lit tables to create a cosy pub vibe that effectively frame the stage. This is gig theatre and a true one woman band. The original music by Redding with direction by Sound Director Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is great and drives the narrative but also creates a swirling soundscape to add mood and shade to the story telling.
The multi levelled stage aids the introduction of characters and scenes including Elle’s high rise council flat in Cloud Rise and is splashed with what seems to be a bucket of white wash? This picks up the bursts of coloured light that flood the stage or envelop Redding. The white wash effect also seems to reflect the way we can paint out aspects of ourselves or let others not see our true colours, to continue to not see the whole of us, the truth of what and who we may be if we own our own story. Corny perhaps but I wish Redding was flooded with glorious rainbow colours as she look her well deserved second curtain call.
The story is a simple story of girl meets girl. There is a division of class and aspirations when working class Elle meets posh Eve with guacamole green eyes on route to a medical degree at Oxford University. They bond over vinyl records and work at Chips and Dips despite their differences – Eve has a pony in a paddock whereas Elle has Big Sally on the 12th floor. The driving force of this narrative is less about class, it zeroes in on the agony and ecstacy of first love and how this is still intensified by the difficulties for many of coming to terms with your sexuality and being accepted for who you are and how you love.
This is a show that might not have been seen at the Royal Exchange without the global pandemic. Redding would probably been too busy working to create this show and a solo gig theatre performance might not have been an obvious choice for this theatre. It probably needed ten years of growing and healing for Redding to be ready to tell such a personal story. There is a vivid whip sharp authenticity to this performance. Insouciant banter with the audience, poignant and emotional song writing, raw, vivid storytelling filled with poetic observations…Bloody Elle ticks every box and more. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of rebuilding what is broken or damaged using gold to create something stronger and even more beautiful. Redding has taken her broken heart and using her artistic talent as Kintsugi – the result is the threads of gold running through this gorgeous show. Hopefully as we navigate the new normal of Covid-19, the Royal Exchange is also emerging with new seams of gold too.
This new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s WutheringHeights creates an exciting theatrical opportunity to explore the moors and their doomed inhabitants in the round of the Royal Exchange. Would Director Bryony Shanahan and writer Andy Sheridan perhaps place a modern day damaged and doomed Heathcliff and Cathy up on Saddleworth Moors with a despairing school attendance officer? Might they be recognised as probably suffering from impulse control disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and possibly anorexia? This fresh take instead seeks to move between mining a comedic vein that borders into laugh out loud farce while equally revering the beauty of Emily’s poetry. Sadly the real emotional depth in this production is only really there when it glories in showcasing Bronte’s poetry with a dreamy soundscape by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. The end result is disjointed in terms of character development so it feels impossible to believe in the innate complexity of these wild, unbridled creatures of nature and their tumultuous relationship.
There is a serious issue with the chemistry between Rakhee Sharma as Cathy and Alex Austin as Heathcliff. It is actually the mood established by the lighting and the musical accompaniment that drives and creates emotional depth and potency in this relationship. The rest is simply swagger, spits and hisses punctuated by glib swearing or beautiful and passionate speeches spoken eloquently but petulantly when they need to resonate with raw passion. There is a wonderful gawky awkwardness that Alex Austin brings to the young Heathcliff but too often his characterisation slips into glib gangster menace rather than wild, embittered and wounded soul. Sharma as Cathy is wild and feisty but often too shouty and pouty to truly convey the raw unfettered soul that Emily Bronte envisaged. I wanted to revel in her complexity but found myself just wishing she would calm down and not spoil the glorious sound of musicians Becky Wilkie and Sophie Galpin. At key moments my eyes were drawn to the impassioned face of Wilkie and sadly not that of Rakhee Sharma. David Crellin as Earnshaw brings warmth and humanity with a performance that is rich and complex.
In her first production as Co- Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan brings a lot of energy and movement to the production that at times creates a real sense of the wild moors and their freedom from the constraints of societal norms as the characters run free. There is a genuine pathos as Cathy struggles with letting go of childhood freedoms to be a mother and a wife. Creating magic and mayhem this is a Cathy that is perhaps closer to the weird sisters in the recent Macbeth at the Royal Exchange than the weird sisters at Haworth Parsonage. The casual cruelty shown by all the main protagonists is brutal and brutish, and perhaps this explains the decision to play so many key scenes for laughs. Moments such as when Heathcliff and Cathy are once more together on the moors struggle with the emotional depth of a key scene being undercut by Isabella raising laughs as she comically clambering over the rocky landscape. The humour does offset the darkness but sometimes this is at the expense of driving the plot forward in a believable manner.
The use of light shards works really well and designer Zoe Spurr has created a really painterly effect on mood and landscape. The set design is however more problematic with its messy blend of heath and hearth. The barren tree is beautiful as is the design allowing characters to depart this world or spy on others. The floor space however resembles a post apocalyptic golf course and has a playmobil feel rather than a naturalistic landscape. Overall this production may be as divisive in its execution and reception as the original book was when first received by its readers!
QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peake‘s humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian BiloccaPeake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.
The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.
Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.
The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.
Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’sBread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.