The Drill

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Written by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens

Directed by Dorothy Allen-Pickard (video) and Billy Barrett (live)

The Drill is the latest production from Breach who create sharply intelligent and thought-provoking documentary-style theatre. Their previous work has focused on actual past events. The Beanfield recreated the 1985 clash between police and peace protesters while TANK took a disturbing and highly engaging trip back to the naive Sixties research study which attempted to teach dolphins to speak English. With The Drill they move into less certain territory as they explore anti-terror training looking at safety drills and emergency response procedures.

Three performers on stage have their own back stories in the performance reflecting various degrees of personal anxiety. Amarnah Amuludun is a trained dancer with a Nigerian heritage who is both frustrated and resigned to paying her bills by giving out leaflets in the busy concourse of a city railway station. Ellice Stevens displays all the modern day neuroses of a young woman faced with decisions about marriage, motherhood, mortgages in an increasingly dangerous world. Her catastrophic fantasies snowball and seem to merge into her sense of reality paralyzing her decision making process. Luke Lampard is bruised and fragile from a failed love affair and is seeking solace and distraction on Grindr though he may be potentially placing himself in real personal danger. Each of the back stories feel like small plays within the central performance creating vignettes of modern day neuroses.

Alongside their personal life stresses they have undergone a range of courses and workshops designed to drill them in anti-terror measures. These include preparing to deal with active shooters, searching out pipe bombs and other explosives and how to respond in the wake of a terrorist attack until the real emergency responders are on the scene.

On stage they act out possible threat scenarios while interacting with trained advisors on a projection screen. This cleverly looks at this growing industry based on targeting our greatest fears in modern society. The performers look at how these simulations and role plays have a strong basis in theatre training encouraging people to really engage at a deep level with what is termed safe controlled fear. As the role plays continue and become more extreme the reality is that these simulations start to break down as individual’s personal reactions colour the outcomes.

Immersive theatre is becoming increasingly popular and it’s interesting to think how this starts to merge with some of the terrorism scenarios real or imagined. Watching this in Manchester after the terrorism attack here last year and reflecting on shows like Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler and the ANU production at HOME of On Corporation Street I kept thinking of the adage you only get out what you’re prepared to put in. It is clear that Breach is engaging with the real risks of what happens when we immerse ourselves and and up feeding fears rather than alleviating them. Perhaps adding workshops in building emotional resiliency might bring an interesting dimension to this performance. It is certainly something we could all benefit from in this uncertain world.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of The Drill is the random role swaps as they open notes to see who is Terrorist/Assailant, Victim, Responder. It is a chilling reminder that it could be any of us in any of those roles. From a psychological perspective it also cleverly mirrors the psychotherapeutic model of The Drama Triangle where we are Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer.

This is a thought provoking piece of theatre but it felt a little confused towards the end. Although real tension starts to build as the performers immerse themselves in the training scenarios it felt as though they may have felt constrained on some level doing this performance in Manchester post the actual terror attack here.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the worst of “The Troubles”, I learned hyper vigilance and how to pre-empt danger as part of everyday life. I knew to open the windows in our house during bomb scares so glass didn’t blow in, to look under my Uncle’s car for suspect devices and to do first aid. I also learned to just get on with daily life because bad things will always happen. Having additional skills and strategies are valuable but in the end none of us can predict what exactly we will do in a crisis scenario – real or imagined.

HOME 14-16 June

YOUR BEST GUESS

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Written and Performed by Chris Thorpe

Directed and Performed by Jorge Andrade

Exam season is upon us and today is my daughter’s first exam. Asking her if she had a talisman, I got a quizzical look as if to say what difference would a pretty stone or a furry toy make? Last night I watched YOUR BEST GUESS, a collaboration between theatre maker and performer Chris Thorpe and Jorge Andrade Artistic Director of mala voadora. It is an exploration of the unpredictability of life, how we plan for the future with no guarantee that the anticipated event will actually happen. We are placing bets on the future and the variable outcomes are reflected in the tangible objects around us.

A concert ticket for a gig that is cancelled may be kept as a reminder of another world that never happened, rendering it possibly more precious than a replacement ticket for a rescheduled event. Andrade speaks of a whole town carefully replicated to rehouse a small community meant to be relocated to make way for a dam intended to provide water for 400,000 people. The dam was cancelled and the new town became a ghost town representing lives that may have been lived another way. Thorpe writes the goodbye letter that his wife would have written to their children if she hadn’t been in a coma from a freak aneurysm. He reflects on the speech written for President Nixon to give if the moon landing had failed. Andrade descibes the sports tops given to refugees each year that celebrate victories that never happened and so become redundant and discarded to refugee camps or sold on eBay to collectors.

Both performers have an easy familiarity with each other allowing them to challenge each other, ask difficult questions and occasionally raise a quizzical eyebrow at personal music choices. The vignettes flow and include some beautifully written descriptions that are powerfully evocative of possible life events. There is a real sense of questioning what is real and what is just a possibility in this piece which is interspersed with actual facts. Thorpe reflects on Otis Redding in a music studio whistling a verse on a song he was never destined to finish surrounded by coffee cups and everyday normality before a plane crash would claim his life. That track retains that final whistling which is now such an integral part of a much loved classic.

YOUR BEST GUESS will strike a chord deep in all of us as it perfectly encapsulate the human condition. Our curiosity and hope as we plan the future we dream off often battling with the things we do to ward off our dread and fear of the alternate future of our nightmares. Many years ago I had a ridiculously vivid nightmare of being home on holiday and my parents dying suddenly when I had nothing suitable to wear to their funerals. Looking back I think I never went home again with any “sensible” clothes as though I could ward off my worst fear. A few years later my father died in exactly those circumstances and all I had was a bright red P.V.C mac for a funeral on a rainy day. I remembered that coat last night as Chris Thorpe picked up his shiny red guitar to play an eerily beautiful rendition of Dock of the Day.

HOME 11-12 JUNE and on tour.

ME & ROBIN HOOD

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Written by Shôn Dale-Jones in collaboration with Hamish Pirie

Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

We all know variations on the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men robbing the rich to feed the poor. If we close our eyes for a moment we can imagine it’s 800 years ago and Robin Hood is roasting pigeons and possibly even aubergines in the depths of Sherwood Forest. The magic of Shôn Dale-Jones is that suddenly it’s just as easy to see his hard-working, Thatcher loving father in his green leather chair and his wonderfully radical Gran Dilys on the sofa with his best friend Dylan while they all watch The Legend of Robin Hood in 1975. Mid Seventies pre- Thatcher Anglesey is vividly evoked and having just seen The Duke a few nights ago it all feels deliciously familiar as though opening a new volume of a great book series.

This new tale premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 and has already raised over £20,000 for Street Child United for children currently living on the street. According to United Nations there are currently over 150 million children surviving on the streets worldwide. As with The Duke Dale-Jones is using story telling to provoke dialogue about inequality and the ever widening gap between rich and poor. This tale weaves illustrates the impact of ethics and principles on young children as the seven year old Shôn is shaped by the radicalism of both Robin Hood and his Granny and how this has shaped his world view as a grown man.

This story perfectly highlights the power money has in society to give status, power and security but also to demean, humiliate and to cause immense stress for individuals. The outcomes might be skin conditions, acts of radicalism and generosity but too often can be extreme poverty, loss of homes and lives.

In Me & Robin Hood there is myth blended with fantasy and reality. The Llangefni U11 football team nearly commit a wonderfully innocent bank robbery, there are flying dolphins with huge hairy bollocks and there is a family estrangement due to politics that tragically is only resolved at the graveside. Throughout the tale Dale-Jones is constantly on the move ranging across the stage as he paints each vignette of his story. His best friend Dylan may have been the imaginative, fleet footed Ronaldo or Pelé on the football pitch but on this stage Dale-Jones moves across a pitch filled with imagery and emotional intensity, nonchalantly scoring the odd genius goal of his own.

HOME 8-9 May

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THE DUKE

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Written and Performed by Shôn Dale-Jones

Storytelling predates writing as a human tool for relating to each other. It teaches listening, respect and empathy while assisting us in how we learn by connecting information to our emotions. We are living in a ever more noisy world of deadly conflicts, information overload from social media trivia and obsessive consumerism threatening our environment. It is easy to feel discombobulated and helpless to make any worthwhile changes in our world. In using this pared back medium Shôn Dale-Jones Artistic Director of Hoipolloi is weaving stories blending fantasy and reality to provoke and effect social change.

THE DUKE is his second show to win a Fringe First at Edinburgh and has also been Play of the Week on BBC Radio 4. This gentle tale weaves a family story of a porcelain ornament and what it represents in the grieving process, with the madness of American marketing crushing artistic merit, and the reality of the refugee crisis robbing vulnerable children of the safety of home and family.

It could be a worthy and rather preachy tale of “haves” and “have nots” or a madcap story of bonkers Welsh “characters”. Instead Dale-Jones engages with the audience with charm and warmth from the moment he enters the space until he shakes hands with everyone as they leave. The picture he paints balances playful with poignant and although it is never clear how much is fact based what always shines through is the performer’s committment and investment in relationships.

The relationship between him and his parents is charming and deeply touching. For any of us impacted by grief there is a real truth in valuing a remaining parent and having an acute awareness that time is precious in all significant relationships. The emotional connection with refugee children comes from an empathic place where perhaps we can only truly value family when we know what is to experience loss.

His relationship with his work also tells the story of someone who passionately cares about creating work that has truth and merit. The story also highlights how tempting it can be to sell out for hard cash and larger audiences but how hard it is to maintain artistic control of your work without having it dilluted to appeal to a wider audience or to appease the investors.

THE DUKE is tender, whimsical and thought provoking. There are no hi-tech distractions just a man sitting at a desk talking and playing snatches of some great Northern Soul. It’s genius lies in it’s apparent simplicity. In vividly evoking small moments of genuine connection between Dale-Jones and his family, it is impossible not to connect and reflect on the plight of refugee families. In scaling down to the micro it feels more possible to imagine reaĺly effecting change that helps than when overwhelmed by the the global scale of this issue. It is heartening to know how much money THE DUKE has already raised for Save The Children.

HOME 6-7 June

JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN

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Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Jake Murray

This is the Northern première of Jesus Hopped The A Train, first performed in New York in 2000, and then at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002. Durham based Elysium Theatre Company have produced a startling and provocative take on this powerful play about moral responsibility and the American penal system. The themes of redemption and damnation are at the forefront of this play and Director Jake Murray ensures his terrific cast embody the complexities of finding goodness even in the most seemingly “monstrous” individuals.

The setting is Rikers Island Prison in New York. Two apparently very different men are imprisoned there and come to know each other during their shared one hour of fresh air each day. Angel is young and naive, new to the prison system he is not a hardened recidivist and seems initially bewildered by all the fuss. All I did was shoot him in the ass! it is his bad luck that Rev Kim later dies on the operating table. Lucius is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against extradition to Florida for the death penalty having murdered 8 people.

The two actors playing Angel and Lucius do a tremendous job and are perfect foils for each other. Danny Solomon is all lanky, fluid limbs and is perfectly cast as the naive, coltish youth who is initially credulous that he is actually in trouble at all. Solomon moves from his desperate fumbling prayers and cockiness toward his state-appointed lawyer to a fragile, shell-shocked rape victim and then to a coming of age as he is tutored to navigate the legal system and reflect with Lucius about the nature of freedom and redemption.

Faz Singhateh has all the on stage charisma of a cult leader such as the ill fated Rev Kim. His Lucius is larger than life and glows like the sun he has grown to love. Apparently at ease with accepting his crimes and confident of his redemption through Jesus, he is desperate to avoid the death penalty having finally found his own inner peace. Ironically he seems more free in his hour outside each day than his mean spirited guard Valdez is ever likely to be.

The other characters provide all the shades of dark and light that enhance the message of what is good or bad, right or wrong, and how do we accept or assign blame. Lucius is a mass murderer but he is kind and perceptive and has genuine empathy. He is also a victim of early abuse and has a mental health diagnosis. Does he deserve to die for his crimes or be supported in his redemption? The young lawyer wants to do good for Angel through guilt that her skills can get hardened recidivists out of jail, yet ultimately her pride and arrogance will add years to his sentence. Valdez is casually sadistic yet operates within the law. Charlie D’Amico is apparently too soft to succeed as a guard yet surely his humanity is also a positive in a prison environment.

The set design is strikingly effective in its simplicity. Louis Price has created the starkness of a high security jail while also creating a sense of personal freedom when the men are outdoors even in their cages. The slash of barbed wire fencing through the cheery brightness of the star spangled banner is a potent image.

Jesus Hopped The A Train is an excellent piece of theatre that provokes debate on many topics. It highlights the complexities of human nature and the unfairness of the lottery system in the American penal system. It also beautifully highlights how precious are the small elements of personal freedom whether we are praying on our knees, feeling the sun on our skin or watching a bird fly past. The human spirit is bigger than any concrete cell could ever try to hold or suppress. We are all capable of finding our own redemption if we look within.

HOME 16 – 19 May

Images by Mark Russell

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

HOME, Manchester

Written by Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Dominic Hill

This is co-production by HOME and Citizen’s Theatre of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical and Pulitzer award winning play. Director Dominic Hill has shaped an exquisitely raw study of a family trapped in the throes of addiction and regret. Written in 1942 it covers one fateful day in the life of the Tyrone family as they acknowledge the hopeless reality they exist in and the ways in which they each seek to escape their pain. As younger son Edmund reflects, Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it? Each one of them is a shadow of their original selves, consumed by their addictions and in Edmund’s case; quite literally by tuberculosis.

Tom Piper has created a haunting and deeply evocative set for this production. It is the bare exposed bones of a house reflecting the exposed failings and regrets of the family. It looked unfinished like the framework of a house where the architects plans got lost or waylaid and no one had the skills or temerity to try to fill in the gaps. In a similiar fashion Mary Tyrone is such a childlike wraith she has never fully grasped her role as a homemaker, wife or mother. The foggy opaqueness of the walls echo the transparency of this family’s lies and excuses. There is nowhere to hide and as the projected sounds of restless movement or conversation echoes from rooms further back in the house, it feels like the audience has no choice but to eavesdrop just like the family do.

The design of the house also echoes the theme of the fog which prevails throughout the play. It is a potent signifier of the ways in which each of the family seek to lose themselves from reality in a fog of alcohol or morphine or memories. As Mary reflects how I love the fog, it hides you from the world…… No one can find you or touch you any more. Tellingly it is the foghorn she hates, a blessed beacon of safety for some, but for her a wretched call back to reality.

It is the profoundly narcissistic Mary who dominates the play with her desperate neediness and appalling insensitivity to the feelings and needs of her family. Bríd Ní Neachtain embodies the essence of this fluttering morphine addicted waif. She is girlish and gay or plaintive and rueful, then flits into prickly, resentful and defensive. Her performance brings alive every facet of a women who was spoilt and cosseted by her father and husband, but who has been disappointed by marriage and family life and aging. This lying dope fiend is at times truly a fiend as she deflects her own shortcomings unto her family. One son is cruelly scapegoated for the death of her middle son while the youngest gets no comfort when diagnosed with consumption but is vilified and blamed for making her worry and therefore need her morphine fix. Yet this performance by Nì Neachtain also evokes pity for this once pretty and talented young women who has become an aging embittered addict.

George Costigan does a warmly, upbeat James who desperately hopes that each trip to the sanatorium for his wife will bring a permanent cure, yet who quickly moves to defeated and despondent as he is disappointed once again. An actor who gave up artistic success for financial security, yet is trapped as his lifelong fear of penury and the poorhouse mean he cannot enjoy his wealth. Costigan fills the role, perfectly evoking James’s Irish background from the Irish Famine and poverty while delighting in his passion for Shakespeare and his boyish glee as he opens yet another fresh bottle of whisky. He also brings the meanness of an unpredictable drunk who can be despicable to his boys one minute while hugging them the next.

Sam Phillips as Jamie is a beautiful wasted drunk who has learned to be wily and full of self pity and excuses from his addict parents. The true degree of family damage is surely in his final scenes with brother Edmund when he chillingly warns his brother against himself The dead part of me hopes you won’t get well. Lorn MacDonald as Edmund is heart rending as he is in denial about his health and when the worst is confirmed he realises that no one in the family is equipped to support him. Wheezing and glistening with tears and spittle his performance is haunting and raw. This family emotionally flay each other through the course of this long day and MacDonald displays every moment of pain on his pale, anguished face. The only truly cheery spirit is the maid, a lively Dani Heron who is not contaminated by the family dynamics and is happy to join her mistress in a whisky.

This is such a bleak insight into addiction and co-dependency in a family and O’Neill was writing about his own family as the only one still alive. It reminds us all of how the echo of past family stories define the present and often the future. It was one of the last plays he wrote before becoming unable to write due to Parkinson like symptoms affected his hands. There is a brutal irony when he describes his mother’s trembling hands in the play and in recalling her drug addiction at a time when his own wife was also an addict. As Mary says The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too. This is a family who need to cling on to their tragedies in order to justify their failures.

It speaks as clearly today as it did when first published of the destructive impact of addiction and unresolved grief. Performed in Glasgow and now in Manchester it is doubly pertinent today as both are cities with drug problems and a growing issue of homelessness. As James relates his fear of the poorhouse it is a sobering reminder that in Britain today there are no longer even poorhouses just pavements.

HOME 10 – 26 May

Images by Tim Morozzo

Dollywould

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By Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit

Where are they?? What’s wrong? The set is shrouded in grubby white sheets and there is no sign of the girls. The clock is ticking, the theatre is rammed and anticipation is rife. We fucking love Sh!t Theatre! Moments later they hit the stage and the particular bedlam that is Dollywould is underway. This is their follow up show to the hugely successful Letters To Windsor House. There is a notable shift from local to global issues as they ramp up the madness and move from fringe performance to as they cheerfully say mainstream crossover show. Thankfully when Mothersole and Biscuit say mainstream it involves painting their faces chalk- white, donning some fearsome wigs and swigging Mateus Rosé from bottles. The result is cheerfully reassuring as they end up looking just like their idol Dolly Parton. Well if you imagine Ms Parton being cloned together with some sheep, Marie Antoinette and a couple of crack whores. We fucking love Sh!t Theatre.

This new show focuses on some big issues – death and immortality , genetic cloning and brand merchandising, friendship and Dolly Parton’ s hits and tits. Dollywould is messy, boozy, sharply clever and always endearing. Watching the performance feels like sprawling on the couch watching your best mates roll in from the pub on a Friday night having dreamed up some madcap, genius concept and keen to share it before they pass out or throw up.

They use their trademark mixture of song, projection images and film and hard-core indepth research coupled with mimicry, a double swing, balloons and bodybags and giant inflatable boobs plus lots of kissing and hugging. What is “real” authentic and “real” fake? Is Dolly the infamously cloned sheep as real as any other sheep? Is Dolly Parton the butt of a joke about big hair and boobs or a woman in control of a carefully crafted brand? Regardless of how they alter their image on stage both women remain resolutely real with body hair, real breasts and filmed evidence that they both poo and wee but don’t seem to flush.

Dollywould is based on their trip to Dollywood last year and the discovery that Knoxville is also home to a research facility locally known as The Tennessee Bodyfarm as it studies decomposition. The premise behind their research visit is sound and the neat ways they use to link in the cloning of Dolly the sheep ensure that lots of ideas are thrown out for consideration. As each performance they do will be a clone of the original, just like Dolly on tour or at a Dolly lookalike competition or future Dolly sheep from the same mammary cells. In each case the same but different just like the projected images stretching out on the screen behind Becca and Louise.

Perhaps at the very heart of this show is the warmth and connection between the performers. In Letters To Windsor House they were painfully open about the cracks in their relationship and there was palpable tensions on stage. The research trip to Dollywood feels like a road trip back to friendship and camaraderie. When they speak of Dolly Parton and her longterm companion Judy and their rift and reunion it seems to resonate. As they say on several occasions It was chaos, but they’re fine now. They are never more connected than when they actually merge to become a gigantic pair of quite literally swinging boobs. Moments when they speak in unison but one deliberately fluffs their line is a reminder of the recurring theme each the same, but different. In the show they reflect on being nearly 30, thankfully they seem to be finding a way to navigate maintaining their individual identities while preserving the magic that is Sh!t Theatre.

HOME 3-5 May