Light Falls

Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Original music by Jarvis Cocker

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Light Falls marks the end of Sarah Frankcom’s tenure as Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It seems only fitting that she bows out with a play about loss and endings. In the same week as iconic Northern soap Coronation Street is opening up a frank conversation about death, grief and kindness comes this new play by Simon Stephens. He has written a delicate and beautiful play about death that is also a eulogy to kindness and a testament to fortitude.

Christine (a very moving and understated performance by Rebecca Manley) is nine months sober after a life of alcoholism when she walks into a Stockport supermarket. Married to Bernard and a mother to Jess, Steven and Ashe, and a grandmother to baby Layton, she hovers at the shelf of vodka before dying suddenly from a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. It is 12 minutes to 5pm. It is a Monday in February 2017. What happens next moves from the mundane to the sublime as Christine hovers around her family watching the defining moments in their lives as they hear of her death. What this quiet play does so well is capture how time can suddenly stand still yet life moves on around us and so inevitably must we, even when our world has irrevocably changed.

The cast of ten explore the intertwined relationships of a family and those around them as Christine dies. There are standout performances from Lloyd Hutchinson and Carla Henry as Bernard and his mistress as they navigate through a fumbling attempt at a threesome in a Doncaster hotel. There is a terrible poignancy and dark humour to this blustering, overweight man striving for new experiences yet ultimately lusting more for a double cone icecream than two young women in his hotel four poster bed.

All three children are emotionally damaged by their upbringing with an alcoholic mother who took wine to McDonalds and was drunk in the school playground. Defensive and wary in their emotional relationships they struggle with attachments having known a parent who at times favoured vodka over them. The play touches on each of their partnerships and through interactions and fragments of dialogue gives a sense of ongoing internal struggles.

Katie West is simply wonderful as Ashe, a desperate, exhausted young mother who has attempted suicide only months before her mother’s death. She exudes vulnerability and raw emotion in all her scenes and it is her presence that lingers after leaving the theatre. This is a portrayal of grief, fortitude and love that makes this play soar.

The stark, bare elegance of the set by Naomi Dawson ensures this is always about the actors. The stairs and tiered steps open out the staging and also feel like a gentle hint of stairs to heaven and steps in the grieving process. The cascading downpour that drenches has the catharsis of an outpouring of grief and emotion. The much heralded music by Jarvis Cocker is also understated in a less is more way. A recurring melody and a single Hymn of the North feel like the familiar comfort of a lullaby.

This is a low key production that favours subtle touches, gritty humour and beautiful writing to colour and shade an ordinary family dealing with the stark pain of loss. I’ll be watching from the shoreline epitomizes what many of us hope for when we have to survive loss. We yearn for that sense of being watched over and still cared for, as Christine does with her children. Much has been made of Light Falls as a Northern play by a Northern writer with a hymn by a Northern songwriter. Personally I’m not sure it matters where they are from, North or South. We are shaped by our roots, our heritage and whether we embrace or reject that, or run from it or back to it, our shoreline is simply our core, our gut, our safe place. We all need a haven when our world is rocked by loss regardless of who we are or where we live.

Royal Exchange Theatre 24th October – 16th November 2019

Images by Manuel Harlan

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Haydon

Royal Exchange Theatre

Director Christopher Haydon delivers a production of Macbeth that is packed full of ideas and creativity. There is a veritable smorgasbord on display that is as colourful and attention grabbing as the infamous banquet where bloody heads compete for space with luridly iced party cakes and doughnuts. Unfortunately although iced delights can tempt us to a quick sugar fix this is a drawn out affair which fails to deliver in a more ultimately satisfying manner.

Lucy Ellinson is a mercurial leader who is believable as a toughened soldier and a popular leader. Sinewy and earthy she appears one of the lads, however as the prophecies of the three weird sisters start to tighten their grip, she becomes increasingly paranoid and driven by bloody ambition. Ellinson soon morphs into a power crazed maniac complete with sunken eyes and bone bleached skull. The performance itself is strong and gripping, however it somehow fails to provide a truly satisfying Macbeth. The physical fragility of a woman who increasingly resembles a crack addict searching for her next fix simply cannot deliver a plausible final battle scene with Macduff. Ultimately there is too much petulance and vulnerability here that could work with Hamlet but not as successfully here with Macbeth.

This is only part of the frustration with this Macbeth which had the opportunity to really shine a light on relationships for ambitious women in power. This lesbian couple seem emotionally ill matched and implausible as this war hardened hero seems incapable of questioning or even noticing Lady Macbeth’s scheming greed and machinations. There is no exploration of their lack of heirs as a gay couple which could have been a really interesting angle to explore in their quest for the crown. The ambitious Lady Macbeth would have surely contemplated a modern ruthless attempt at altering their fate – perhaps spurgling the sperm of Macduff or Banquo?? There is no tenderness between them or any real sharing of the damage their actions cause them personally.

Motorway murder scenes, torrential storms, helicopters, red balloons and chatty interactions with the audience members pepper this production. Designer Oli Townsend has a stark but beautiful heptagram on the stage with a steaming cauldron at its heart. All is as minimalist as a soldier’s rations until the Mad Hatters tea pparty that is the lurid banquet complete with fancy dress and part games. Looking like something from a Ken Russell movie this is OTT in the best way. Dreamlike and drug fueled the game of musical chairs drily reflects our current political situation.

Lucy Ellinson as Macbeth Image- Johann Persson

The ever present weird Sisters as drug addled party girls supplementing their incomes as sinister, sulky waitresses at the castle is an entertaining aspect to this Macbeth. They bring both light and dark elements to the production. For such a female heavy cast it is troubling that the real heart of this Macbeth ultimately seems to belong to the men. Banquo and Macduff balance career and family with grace and honour. Actors Theo Ogundipe and Paul Hickey give performances that resonate and truly highlight the tragedy of this piece.

Royal Exchange Theatre 13 Sept – 19 Oct 2019

Images by Johann Persson

West Side Story

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Initially conceived by Jerome Robbins in 1949, WEST SIDE STORY finally arrived on Broadway in 1957. A resounding hit, it was made into a movie in 1961 and has remained an iconic and groundbreaking musical ever since. New versions are in production for Broadway and cinema, but the first big production to makes changes to the choreography and score is this Sarah Frankcom version.

Based on star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, this tale of thwarted love amidst gangland violence and knife crime is as horribly relevant in modern British cities as it was in 1950s Manhattan. It speaks so vividly of young people adapting to their burgeoning independence in a world where they may struggle for acceptance. This tale of gangs is evergreen in that it perfectly depicts the human quest for social identity. We all seek a sense of belonging and to affirm this we adhere to an in group which might be family, social class, a gang or a football team. To increase self esteem we discriminate against the out group, the more prejudice and seperateness then the greater enhancement of self image. The beauty and the tragedy of this has resonated throughout the ages and in every culture. In my teenage years it was Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where boys were knee capped and girls tarred and feathered if they dared to fall in love with someone outside their religion.

The set design by Anna Fleischle is all clean stark lines of white steel and glass, like possible staging for A Clockwork Orange. Although beautiful in a minimalist manner it initially seemed too cold for this tale of passion. There is no context or sense of location which is disconcerting yet highly effective as a potent reminder that this story is ongoing – here in the theatre and outside in every town and city.

This set also works brilliantly with the new choreography by Aletta Collins. She has kept the beauty of the original but adapted it for the round stage and added a fresh athletic element that sees the performers really use the multi levels of the set with cat like grace and agility so there is almost an element of Parkour in the choreography.

Jason Carr has ensured that the music really is the star of this production with an orchestra concealed outside the theatre itself delivering a glorious version of Bernstein’s score. Every note seems flawless and crystal clear as though the orchestra was actually centre stage.

The cast exude the confidence and youthful exuberance of teenagers with a lust for life and a casual disregard for the brutal reality of death until tragedy actually strikes. There are some great vocal performances. Gabriela García as Maria has a pure soaring operatic vocal while Andy Coxon as Tony has a rich warm voice which grows in confidence throughout the show. Gang leader Riff Michael Duke is a powerful dancer but it is his lover Anita, Jocasta Almgill who steals the show. A brilliant singer and dancer, it is also her stage presence which ensures she exudes both passion and compassion.

The central protagonists Coxon and García have do have great chemistry as the lovers torn between two worlds. The love scenes are full of tenderness and the reckless passion of teenage hormones. The rumble scenes and resulting deaths are impactful and exude horror and regret at the wasted young lives. The overall feel of this production is that it is a beautiful and lovingly crafted yet I left feeling curiously flat. Perhaps as Maria says It’s not Us, its everything around us, the knowledge that our young people appear destined to keep repeating the same mistakes in an unyielding world.

Royal Exchange Theatre 6 April – 25 May 2019

Images by Richard Davenport: The other Richard

Barber Shop Chronicles

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.

Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.

At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.

Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT

Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse

Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019

Images by Marc Brenner

THE PRODUCERS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks

Directed by Raz Shaw

A Riot of colour sequins and spangly frocks. A cluster of corny jokes that the audience know by heart. A bonkers evil anti-hero. A dame in drag. A warm-hearted gentleman thief. A beautiful young ingénue. An innocent abroad in an unknown world. Catchy songs and madcap dance routines. Lights, sequins, laughter….It’s Christmas and this must be Pantomime?

Thankfully this is bad taste theatre at its very best and aimed at entertaining the grown ups. Raz Shaw brings the Mel Brooks classic The Producers to the stage of The Royal Exchange Theatre. Joyful and irreverent, this is a production that both delights and appalls in equal measure. Filled with bad taste jokes and bawdy humour which could/should repel, it manages to triumph with a heart of gold as glittering as the show girls costumes and as gleaming as the coiffeur of Roger de Bris.

The Producers dating from the 1960s, pokes fun at the Nazis, and although the jokes might be old, the message remains current – we need humour and parody to diminish the power of extremism. It might be a foppish Hitler being mocked on stage but replace the black moustache with an orange wig and the central message remains the same.

This is a genuinely top notch Broadway affair with a superb cast who whole heartedly embrace this production with verve and skill. Julius D’Silva is excellent as Max Bialystock, adding his own flair to a role made so iconic by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. He is every inch the shabby King of Old Broadway with his wild eyes and strands of over-black hair pasted across a sweaty, shiny pate. The cynical theatrical ham who can woo old ladies for cash and command a stage with sheer class and dignity while singing in a prison cell toilet in Sing Sing.

Stuart Neal as Leo Bloom is utterly believable as the baby-faced accountant with big dreams. His nasal twang and youthful inexperience perhaps takes more from the Matthew Broderick performance than the Gene Wilder. His big number with the showgirls is pure old school Broadway glamour. Swedish Ulla is played with Monroesque allure by a wigglicious Emily-Mae. Charles Brunton is outrageously camp as director Roger de Bris channelling a Rita Hayworth any drag queen would be proud off. Hammed Animashaun steps out of the chorus and shines in the office scene then goes on to do a star turn as Carmen Ghia.

Designer Ben Stones creates a perfect Broadway experience and captures a moment in history with flair and drama. Lighting designer Jack Knowles may have taken down the National Grid with his use of yellow bulbs; but to great effect. From the bulb illuminated orchestra to the outrageous spangly Swastika signs and Hitler descending from the ceiling the visual impact is high octane throughout. The costumes are utterly fabulous with an array of spectacle that would not look amiss on a McQueen or Westwood catwalk.

The Producers is a gobsmacking riot of glitz, glamour and chutzpah. If someone at The Royal Exchange raised funds for this production betting on it being a first night flop and aiming on a flight to Rio, then right now they must be eating the account books and bedding in for Christmas in Strangeways!!

Royal Exchange Theatre 30 Nov – 26 Jan

All images by Johan Perrson

THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

Death Of A Salesman

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.

The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.

Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.

Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.

Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.

This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov

Production images by Johan Persson