Bread & Roses

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Ian Kershaw

Directed by Amanda Huxtable

Ian Kershaw has written a protest musical based on the 1912 Bread and Roses worker’s strike in Massachusetts that is as relevant today and is a powerful call to arms. Kershaw is a passionate advocate of solidarity, equality and compassion and his views shine through in this piece. Bread & Roses is an anthem for change and a homage to the hope that Our Tomorrows are better than our Yesterdays.

The opening scene is beautiful and truly memorable. Holding candlelit lamps, the cast bring in the new year of 1912 as they sing Auld Lang Sang a capello. New legislation had decreed that women and children now have a working week of 54 hours instead of 56. The Bread and Roses strike was the worker’s response to mill owners reducing pay and speeding up the looms. In a community comprised mainly of immigrants, the particularly special nature of this strike is that there was a united multinational response from the workers. Belts on looms were cut, the first moving picket line in America got around new legislation about loitering and children were sent away to places where they could be properly fed. Public response forced change and the mill owners had to accede to the workers demands.

This is a very strong and multiskilled cast. They sing extremely well and many play a range of instruments including piano, guitar, and banjo. The music is a mix of belting hymns such as Rock of Ages, haunting Irish ballads like The Parting Glass and stirring protest songs. There is Power in a Union by activist Joe Hill famous for his songs in that era, the wonderful Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim and the stirring bluegrass Ain’t No Grave made famous by Johnny Cash. The protest was known as “The Singing Strike of 1912” and this play celebrates that with gusto.

Lauren Redding as stout- hearted Martha gives a standout performance with an incredible voice and stage presence. Claire Burns as the martyred Anna is astounding. She creates goose pimples as the ghostly presence with her beautiful voice. I would happily buy the soundtrack to this production if it’s made available. Now that might be a great way to raise money for the foodbanks or homeless around Oldham??

The male performers do a great job throughout, particularly Oliver Wellington as Cal, but this is a female led cast. It’s star acting performance is Emma Naomi who has incredible natural grace on stage and captivates as Lily-Rose, the young widow and mother who finds her voice as an activist.

This was a very impressive opening night and Director Amanda Huxtable has created something very special. There are points where a more relaxed, naturalistic approach might benefit especially in the movement direction which at times appeared stilted. Moments where the chorus move into the aisles and circle during protest rallies work well creating a strong sense of audience involvement and creating more energy on stage. The illustrating of issues such as immigration, poverty, unemployment and the dangers of “false news” are crystal clear, leaving uncertainty around the need for the final modern day scene.

Kate Unwin‘s set has a real warmth and lustre. The cotton bales prevail in every scene whether at the impoverished worker’s cottage or at the factory gates where the mill looms turn overshadowing every life in the town of Lawrence as they once did in Oldham itself. The changing backdrop of gorgeous red and indigo skyscapes are sumptuous and set the mood very well. The lighting and sound is evocative as scenes shift from the peaceful sounds of riverbank fishing with the idyll of crickets singing to the whirr and clamour of the looms.

This is a wonderful production to see in Oldham and would also make an excellent show to adapt for schools or colleges to perform. There is a strong political message from the past that resonates in our current society. We may need bread for sustenance but we have rarely been in so much need of roses such as this production.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd June – 7th July

Images by Joel Chester Flides

A TASTE OF HONEY

OLDHAM COLISEUM

Written by Shelagh Delaney

Directed by Chris Lawson

Sixty years on from it’s première at Joan Littlewoods Theatre Royal Stratford East Helen and Jo are doing another moonlight flit as A Taste of Honey opens at Oldham Coliseum. Traipsing through the auditorium with their flimsy suitcases and cheap coats you can almost smell the whiff of stale perfume, gin and despair as they pass. The creation of 18 year old Shelagh Delaney, this gritty Northern drama was penned in two weeks as a defiant young woman gave a voice to the women around her. Salford in the late Fifties was grim and this production speaks of the harsh reality of poverty, race and homosexuality in a post war working class community. It is a celebration of strong women making the best of their assets and getting on with life regardless of what fate chucks in their path.

Director Chris Lawson clearly has great affection for the characters and seeks out their softness and humour as well as their grit and shrewish spitefulness. Gemma Dobson plays Jo as a fresh faced, teenager with traces of childish puppyfat who may despise her mother’s lifestyle but who is quick to clumsily adopt her coquettish mannerisms. The tragedy here is a child-woman growing up too fast as she seeks out a little attention and affection in a bleak environment. Dobson nicely threads the line between childish naivety and the bleak cynicism of one who has seen too much too young. Kerrie Taylor embodies the world weary Helen with a rake thin brittleness that on occasion lights up with the seductive sinuousness of Marilyn Monroe. This good time gal is bleakly aware that her 40 year old body will only do so many times around the block before it is discarded back in the gutter. There is little likelihood of cosy, happy endings for either woman yet they both retain pride and stoicism.

The traditional men here are bluff, gruff and casually cruel like Peter who Phil Rowson plays with rakish energy as a drunken Spiv. The others who have not been to war are softer and kinder. Kenton Thomas brings a sweetness to sailor Jimmie who is charmed by Jo and her acceptance of his race but leaves without ever checking if she might be pregnant. Max Runham as the kindly art student who befriends Jo is delightful as he veers between wistfully “playing house” and desperately trying to fit into societal norms while waspishly expressing his true nature.

Sammy Dobson has created a set that perfectly evokes a grimy, Northern street. All smoky brickwork and smoggy air with an interior of peeling wallpaper and nicotine colours. The threadbare furniture sags and creaks and retains its grimness even with the glamour of Helen flitting in or out, or the occasional brightness of a bunch of conciliatory flowers. The moments when the stars glitter through the roof is a clever touch bringing hope and magic into these gutters or perhaps the poignancy of fragments of broken dreams.

The music here is another snapshot of this era of post war Britain just before the freedoms of The Sixties. The use of dance and movement to the music allows the scenes to flow and the characters to escape reality while a records spins on the turntable. Sixty years on from Delaney’s triumph there are sweeping changes in society and many of Salford’s grim back streets are gone forever. Watching the revival of this play brings cosy childhood reminders of watching black and white episodes of Coronation Street, however it is also a potent statement about today’s sanctions and the unremitting destruction of our social welfare system. If writing this play today, I imagine Delaney might have Jo and Helen at a food bank and queueing for a bed at a hostel for the homeless.

At Oldham Coliseum 25th May – 9th June

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

The Kitchen Sink

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Written by Tom Wells

Directed by Chris Lawson

The Kitchen Sink has a warm rich vein of humour with a steady flow of lively banter and acerbic quips. This is an undoubtedly upbeat take on some serious kitchen sink dramas. This is an Everyman, everyday family dealing with financial worries, plumbing woes; and managing disappointment, frustration, fear and grief. The kids are in flux as they try to find their place as adults. Dad is stubbornly clinging to a past that has no place in the future or even in the present. Mum is chucking lifebuoys to all and sundry in the shape of courgette muffins. In this scene of adversity there is also buckets of love and empathy. The Kitchen Sink is for everyone who has felt like screaming in their kitchen and it is an infectious reminder that we could be up on the kitchen table and dancing and singing along to Dolly Parton.

The staging works really well and Anna Reid’s design conveys the shabby family kitchen in need of a complete overhaul. The faded oranges and beiges of this utilitarian kitchen are brought alive by the people who inhabit this room as in so many homes. The wonky Christmas tinsel and Billy’s incongruous portrait of Dolly Parton are the little touches that make this home unique. The lighting is clever as each scene changes in muted semi darkness as family life continues to ebb and flow with a steady heartbeat of home and hearth.

The family are Northern working class with Kath, a feisty Mother who works two low paid jobs and yearns for change and rails against stagnating in a place that is a good place to come from, but not a good place to end up. Sue Devaney plays Kath with an infectious energy which never dims. She works hard at family, at work and in life but she is never a martyr but instead retains a kittenish, playfulness whether stripping off unto a newspaper or casually savouring her first spliff. There are moments where I wished the laughter dialled down a little to allow more space for her heartfelt plea for just a tiny change without the World ending. The poignancy and tenderness in the scene in which Kath has made the buffet for Pete’s Gran’s funeral is a joy to watch. The simple compassion of a Mother who loves to “mother” being “Mother” to the bereaved and orphaned Pete.

William Travis provides a dour, slightly gloomy Martin who is a good foil to wife Kath. Initially they seem ill- matched as her sunny playful nature seems at odds with his downbeat gruffness. Yet the moments of real laughter between the two shine as their strong emotional connection is evident. This is marriage at its best- there is humour, forbearance, compassion and earthy attraction. They may have a barely half-filled jar of 20 pences as savings security but they have a fortune in a rock solid union.

The children are less richly drawn. Billy played with great sweetness by Sam Glen, is ill equipped for Art College in London where his heartfelt homage to Dolly Parton is greeted as “kitsch” and “cool”. His warm and affectionate relationship with his mother is spontaneous and full of horseplay which belies the more awkward one with his father. This is a home where children are undoubtedly loved but where an artistic, gay and slightly diffident son is slightly held at arms length by a father who struggles to relate to him. Sophie played by Emily Stott is barbed wire brittle and is clearly a wounded soul. Her Mother senses something is wrong and Sophie is clearly very close to her father yet no one seems able, or dares to probe too deeply. Perhaps in every family the dark stuff lying at the bottom of the U- bend is avoided where possible. Like the makeshift mends on the kitchen sink until it finally erupts and make do and mend is no longer an option.

The most finely drawn character is Pete the young plumber and would-be suitor to Sophie. David Judge delivers a beautiful performance full of awkward grace and sensitivity. The quiet resilience and steadfast devotion to those he loves is a study in grace and gentleness. Despite or because of his own losses, he is the only one to really see Sophie’s pain and try to help her. This play subtly highlights how children can be loved and valued but sometimes “missed” in the business of making ends meet with multiple jobs or unsociable working hours.

The Kitchen Sink is filled with the music of Dolly Parton. This is a soundtrack full of songs bursting with energy and poignant, heartfelt melodies- a perfection reflection of this family at this particular kitchen sink. In the ladies loos after the show both cubicles were engaged with girls singing Dolly at the top of their voices!! I’m not a country music lover but I’ve been playing her all week. Small changes. Thanks Kath!! As the character says I got on the Circle Line in the wrong direction- Nothing happened- I just sat it out. This play has an ask for all of us. Do we want to sit it out or get off and go a different direction and see what happens.

At Oldham Coliseum

Fri 9 – Saturday 24 February 2018

Dick Whittington


OLDHAM COLISEUM
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 Weir 

OLDHAM COLISEUM 

Written by Conor McPherson 

Directed by Adele Thomas

Co-production English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester

First staged at the Royal Court Theatre twenty years ago, The Weir remains an exquisite example of story telling on every level. From the first moment of this remote Irish pub opening for business to the closing of the door and dimming of the lights this is spellbinding theatre.

Nothing really happens in this quiet bar throughout the evening and yet this a night that will be woven into the local story telling traditions in years to come. The themes of loneliness, stoicism and loss are entwined in how much identity in rural Ireland is defined by the land and family. The four men are all from this remote part of County Donegal. The young publican  Brendan  and his regulars Jack and Jimmy are seemingly resigned to their solitary lives. Their individual obligations to Sisters, to the Mammy or to maintaining the local vehicles define their identities in this small isolated community. Finbar has got out, left the loneliness for marriage, commercial success and life in the neighbouring town yet he seems the most vulnerable of the four men. Newcomer Valerie has “blown in” seeking solitude as a panacea to grief.

The sharing of old stories and myths intertwined with lived experiences connect all five in ways that soothe that inner loneliness, and beautifully reveals the sensitivity in each of these four awkward local men. The relationships between the characters are perfectly pitched to reveal all the subtle elements of their shared history in this community. 

Growing up in a rural Irish village I knew every man on the Stage and every worn barstool and smoke stained lamp and old photo on the walls. The actors personify their characters as though they have drunk them in reflectively like a pint of stout or Harp. When Valerie occassionally jars in the gentle pace it is only because she is an outsider, blown in from the big city. 

As drinks are drunk and stories are told the magic of small lives richly lived is evident. This bar has no need of a jukebox, the tiny television is unused and nothing more is needed than the human voice and the wind singing under the door.

OLDHAM COLISEUM 24-28th October 

On tour