LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Pete MacHale and Rhian Blundell as Oskar and Eli. Photo credit Johan Persson

Stage Adaptation by Jack Thorne

Based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

To the uninitiated LET THE RIGHT ONE IN might look like a typical Halloween vampire gorefest, but thankfully this production is so much more. The blood and gore may spurt in a plentiful supply, but at its glistening heart this a story about love, otherness and acceptance. A lonely young boy being viciously bullied at school and ignored by his alcoholic mother meets an ageless, sexless vampire hungry for more than just blood. This hugely successful Swedish novel has spawned numerous film, television and theatre adaptations. Director Bryony Shanahan takes this 2013 adaptation by Jack Thorne and creates an almost immersive audience experience in the round. As the tension builds and the exits are blocked the audience is trapped just like the victims, the peril of leaving the theatre blood splattered is viscerally real and the poignancy of such a macabre love story becomes painfully vivid.

Rhian Blundell as Eli
Photo credit Johan Persson

The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin is highly effective in creating an early Eighties atmosphere that is versatile enough to function as the inside of a school sports facility, a bleak Swedish council estate, eerie woods and a Sweetie concession in a neon bright shopping mall. The ladders and platforms over the stage, and the climbing frame all give the production room to build the drama and a real kinetic energy; however the continual wheeling in and out of additional props is often as distracting as it is effective. The startling use of light by Joshua Pharo to propel and enhance the horror elements of the drama is stunningly good especially when coupled with the sound design by Pete Malkin. The overall effect is to create a real sense of nothing ever being quite what it seems or that permanence or security is fleeting and can vanish in a curl of steamy air or the sudden silver flash of a blade.

In the main this is a strong cast with some lovely character driven performances from Darren Kuppan and a bleak and intensely creepy Hakan delivered by Andrew Sheridan. The two central performances are uniformly excellent with the inspired casting of Rhian Blundell as Eli and Pete MacHale as Oskar. Blundell is utterly captivating as the centuries old vampire child. Her physical presence morphs like quicksilver between wary and tentative youth to muscular and visceral blood hungry creature, and then on to winsome innocent charm. MacHale as Oskar is sweetly awkward and geeky with a keen intelligence that comprehends the failures of the adults around him while his innocence is bewildered by his bullies and mesmerised by the sexless Eli who smells of death and stale blood. Both actors are utterly believable and allow for this story to rise above the usual teen vampire fare to become something much more emotionally satisfying.

Pete MacHale and Rhian Blundell as Oskar and Eli Photo credit Johan Persson

There are some problematic issues with this production but the overall feel is of a stimulating and satisfying night at the theatre. Director Bryony Shanahan may have sometimes allowed for overly busy scenes or in the case of the scene with Oskars’ father a somewhat redundant one, however overall this is a gorefully gorgeous production. Some of its most memorable moments such as the swimming pool scene were climactic on so many levels and a potent reminder of The Royal Exchange at its very best.

The Royal Exchange October 22nd – November 19th 2022

Bloody Elle – A gig musical

Lauryn Redding in Bloody Elle – A gig musical. Image by Pippa Rankin

Written and Performed by Lauryn Redding

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

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.

Lauryn Redding. Image by Pippa Rankin

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.

Royal Exchange June 23rd – July 17th 2021

Wuthering Heights


Rakhee Sharma and Alex Austin as Cathy and Heathcliff. Photo credit- Helen Murray

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

Written by Andy Sheridan

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

This new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights 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.

Alex Austin as Heathcliff. Photo credit- Helen Murray

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!

ROYAL EXCHANGE 7th FEB- 7th MARCH 2020

Images by Helen Murray

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peakes 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 Bilocca Peake 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’s Bread 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.

Royal Exchange Theatre until 28th July

Images by Keith Pattison