TORO: Beauty and the Bull

THE LOWRY

DeNada Dance Theatre

Choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra

Dreamy and ethereal, Toro opens with a delicately beautiful girl lying on the Stage like the eponymous Sleeping Beauty while two brothers play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The traditional themes of fairy tales are subverted throughout this performance. The heroes and the monsters overlap, blur and change places. This opening scene is not that of a sleeping heroine about to be awoken with a kiss by a handsome Prince, but two brothers performing a perfunctory, machismo ritual to decide who gets first dibs on the young prostitute.

DeNada Dance Theatre are a young independent company who focus on exploring and subverting Hispanic and Latin culture. There is great theatricality in their work which looks and feels sumptuous and decadent. They use storytelling in dance to make bold political and social statements. In this piece they explore persecution and ostracism using fairytales focusing on themes of transformation. The lush, dreamlike imagery has elements of Angela Carter’s fairy tales, and the filmic feel of Guillamo del Toro or David Lynch. Toro includes fairy tales, circus sideshows, freak shows, animalistic orgies, vogue balls, monsters and beauties, poignant tenderness and brutal violence.

The performance has six dancers – four males and two females. Emma Walker and Marivi Da Silva are the Girl and the Bull, both performances are incredibly powerful and emotive. The scene where they unite in real tenderness and harmony is profoundly moving and deeply sensuous. The coming together of the dispossessed and “other” is truely beautiful. In this moment the Beast gets the real, red blooded woman whereas the men who are the real monsters of this piece have had nothing but a broken doll or marionette.

The four male dancers play a number of roles as the Brothers, as Matadors and as fantastical creatures – the Dragimals. In the machismo roles they are all rippling, twitching muscle and brutal intent. As the Dragimals they are all sinuous, luxuriating flesh and gleaming bodies. They are spectacular and animalistic moving harmoniously and curiously as at a great feast and celebratory orgy.

Warm, lush lighting and decadent costumes, a rich Hispanic soundtrack of pasodoble, mariachi, bull fight music and Unchained Melody to set off beautifully choreographed dance….I would watch this again in a heartbeat. Closing scenes show Jonathon Luke Baker portraying a mortally, wounded dragimal evoking Swan Lake, while the Girl is trapped struggling against the ties of patriarchal matrimony while her glorious Minotaur or She-Bull is dehorned and weakened. There is no Disney happy ending to this fairy tale yet this is still a powerful and uplifting tale of the transformative effect of love, tenderness and acceptance.

Tour details

THE AUDIT (Or Iceland, A Modern Myth)

THE LOWRY

Written/Directed by Andrew Westerside

Devised/Performed by Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees

This is the follow up to Proto-type’s last work dissecting contemporary politics. A Machine they’re secretly Building delved into the world of surveillance, whereas The Audit is a razor sharp analysis of the 2008 global financial crisis, viewed as the worst since The Great Depression of 1933. Sharply observed and clever this show feels like part theatre/part podcast/ part Jackanory for grown ups. A heartfelt and thought provoking plea to wake up and look at what is going on around us. An invitation to react and respond rather than just remain ignorant and accepting.

Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees are a great combination and perfect foil for each other. Together they deftly create a strong emotional response evoking shock, anger and clarity around the facts while also subtly provoking awareness of our own acquiescence and willingness to be nurtured towards a false sense of security.

The performance includes original writing that contains some beautiful spoken word and deftly, measured performance, blended with emotive new music and film. Taking the audience from The Great Depression of 1933 to Bill Clinton signing off on deregulating the financial industry in 1999. The subsequent buying up of mortgage bundles that were not always secure, the false assurances to guarantee insurance cover from titans like A.I.G and the assumption that the housing market would continue to boom and the crazed greed of the banks sounds so wildly speculative that it beggars belief that it was allowed to happen. It did.

The Audit focuses on the ordinary people of Iceland, a country that made it’s first radio contact with the world in 1906. It is not a happy story. It is a horror story. Not a nice story. The global crash of 2007/08 left banks such as Lehmans with 619 billion dollar debt, led to the first run on British banks in 150 years and of course crippled Iceland whose three biggest private banks all defaulted with catastrophic consequences. The public protests in Iceland brought down the government and led to the creation of a new Constitutional Assembly which pledged that the country’s resources should belong to the people rather than a select few. Iceland has made a strong economic recovery in the past 10 years.

This probably sounds rather dry and heavy going. The brilliance of Proto-type’s approach is to engage, inform and entertain. I wish our education system made these two women the Trinny and Susannah of make overs in how we educate and inform our young people. They are not preachy but they are passionate. They are never dry and boring but they exude warmth and wit. The clarity and insight here allows for the telling of a modern horror story of greed that resonates with age old folk stories that we should not forget.

The Audit is a chilling and telling reminder of what happens when we forget the lessons of the past and sleep walk through our lives dumbing down and silencing the questions our gut instincts are screaming at us. When the storm is coming what do we do? What can we do? What is possible if we stand together?

Take your pots, take your pans. Bang them! Make the World move…

The Lowry – 28th Feb and touring.

Tour dates

Brief Encounter

THE LOWRY

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

A Kneehigh production

Ten years on from its first hugely successful staging and Emma Rice and Kneehigh have revived Brief Encounter. This musical adaptation blends the 1936 Noel Coward play Still Life and the iconic 1945 film Brief Encounter. If the originals depict ordinariness and repressed passion played “with a deliberate colourlessness”, then Rice wilfully and mischieviously paints a canvas around the lovers that is warm, vivid and earthily sensual.

The production draws you in from the start with a band (clad in old fashioned cinema ushers costumes) playing in the foyer, to striking up in the aisles and chatting randomly to audience members. Suddenly a couple in the front row burst into argument and the elegant woman flees her seat, only to rush unto the stage and through the projected screen where she becomes part of the black and white film. This is a celebratory affair and Rice has a very large bag of tricks and surprises at her disposal.

There is some great use of Noel Coward songs such as Go slow, Johnny with Jos Slovick on mandolin during the boat scene and Beverly Rudd giving her winsome version of Mad About The Boy. The music numbers feel very natural with the songs never seeming as if shoehorned into the production as in many musicals. Various background scenes tend to unfold during the songs on stage, or they are performed in front of the plush red velvet curtain almost like Vaudeville numbers.

The blend of live theatre and film is exhilarating as it is done so well. Scenes of crashing waves on screen allude to repressed passion on stage. Trains arrive and depart in spectacular ways particularly in the scene when Laura contemplates suicide. From railway station buffet menus to champagne bubbles to pressure gauges to mishaps on boating lakes, every tiny nuance is there. The use of lighting is key to mood throughout the piece from the sombre but comforting light of the standard lamp in the living room to the glorious boat house scene. This is a triumph which feels like an old black and white film has been lovingly and pain stakingly hand painted in rich Technicolor. It is no surprise that the design team involved have won so many awards for their previous work on this production.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen embody the doomed lovers Alex and Laura with all the restraint and earnestness of the original film. The scene where they hover onto real sensuality at the boat house is the most poignant. Other moments seem too contrived and work less well such as when they literally swing from the chandeliers.

The rest of the cast are the real life blood of this production as they get to be fully fleshed out and larger than life characters. The other lovers are of course not hindered by pleasant spouses in the background and are free to express their love. Lucy Thackeray as would-be posh Myrtle Bagot and Dean Nolan as the lusty Albert are well matched as the older lovers and great to watch. Nolan also gives a lovely depth and sweetness in his other role as Laura’s husband. Beverley Rudd is a riot as the earthy and sweetly saucy young Beryl falling in love with Stanley, her devoted young suitor Jos Slovick. These characters all bring a hefty dose of bawdy humour and slapstick which is mainly infectious and joyful. There are times where the sharp contrast against the scenes with Laura and Alec can seem jarring and risk marring the emotional impact of the final scenes.

A real theatrical delight, although it sometimes feels like every item in the kitchen cupboard has been added to this 70 year old recipe, the result is a winner. Leaving the theatre you want to laugh and skip and…….remember every minute. Always.

At The Lowry until Saturday w4th Feb.

At The Old Vic 2nd March- 2nd September 2018

Images by Simon Turtle

The new space at CONTACT Interview with Matt Fenton. 

I recently met with Matt Fenton Artistic Director and Chief Executive of CONTACT. He was brimming with enthusiasm over news that the global charitable foundation Wellcome was funding £600k towards a special new venue  within the £6.5 million redevelopment of the building. This additional funding is intended to create a space for health and wellbeing projects and will also fund an new production post for the next three years.

For the last 10 years CONTACT has been producing work around health challenges and inequality, particularly young peoples issues where their voice is quiet but the issue really affects them. Shows like Crystal Kisses about child sexual exploitation really gave a voice to the experience of one of the young people. Rites was co-produced with National Theatre of Scotland. About F.G.M (Female Genital Mutilation) it tried to look at the issue without demonising or alienating communities where it is practised but still viewing it as a young peoples Human Rights issue putting their voices at the foreground of the conversation about F.G.M. Our Young Company have made numerous works supported by Wellcome -e.g. one about sexuality with Stacy Makishi Under The Covers, another about the experience of young people around cancer  care- There is a Light.



Ah that was with Brian Lobel. I did some stuff with him for The Sick of The Fringe.

Yes. We also made a piece about honour abuse called Not In My Honour by Aisha Zia which was developed with Levenshulme High School. There are numerous shows about Arts and Mental Health – currently one with Demi Landro charting mental health isssues affecting 3 generations of women in her family. Wellcome have supported quite a few of those and we were in conversation with Wellcome saying how we see them as a really strong partner- they have connected us to researchers who have often been in the room when we are developing shows. They’ve brought ethicists to the process, medical specialists and other health professionals so they’ve been this connector for us not just a Funder. In talking to them about our ambitions with our projects and about the new building, it was Wellcome who suggested we scale up our plans and come back to them with a really ambitious proposal- a new arts and health space.

So where will that be in the building?

Its going to use the space we are sat in now. This whole café space will be workshop space making the best use of our location. We are right next to the N.H.S hospitals, the Universities and the local communities so we are perfectly placed to bring all those people together to talk about health inequalities, health challenges……workshops, with Artists, R&D, scratch events etc. All these different ideas populating the space with a new specific Arts and Health Producer on the team.

The old 1969 building is coming down with the new building having a larger floor plan. The pillar in the café will go, as will all the offices over there and the space will be dividable off from the main space with the new café and bar in the centre.

So CONTACT will have a bar space that is no longer hidden!

We get that so often!! Lunchtime today the café was packed but from the front door the place looked empty with nothing happening! There is that thing of threshold anxiety especially in Arts organisations and CONTACT does so much to counter that. It has young people up front at the doors to make sure you get a welcoming smile. The use  of glazing in the new space will ensure you can see “there’s people in there, we can go in”.

Where do you find the young people to bring in and engage with?

CONTACT has a huge throughput of young people and it happens in lots of different ways. We run weekly free workshops – some delivered core and in-house :- in technical theatre and in drama drop-in, in musical production, media production. Social workers, pupil referral units, teachers, charities, young carers, homelessness charities and a whole host of organisations in the city signpost young people to our activities. A lot of young people come with support workers if they need extra help to come. We also work in partnership with organisations like Young Identity who are based here and we host their activities. Their young writers and poets do workshops in schools and in Assemblies which also signpost back here.

We also run creative leadership projects like Future Fires which is for Community Arts practitioners who want to skill up and deliver an Arts project in their local community. The Agency is a social entrepreneur project which we run in North  Manchester. A lot of these projects are roughly 50% recruited from within the free week in/week out activities and the other 50% audition or apply – the same with Contact Young Company. This means the groups are highly diverse and often include a large number of young people who are not in educational training but have come through other referrals or recommendations. The groups are absolutely diverse in terms of social economics but they all thrive and excel equally within the building. If you look at Reece Williams and Afreena Islam who are now on our Board they have been with CONTACT for years as young people – Reece since he was 13. Keisha Thompson who runs CYC, first performed with us when she was about 14. These are long progression experiences which become taking on leadership roles.

It sounds almost like a big extended family.

Yeah I guess for some people it feels like that, but its also constantly refreshed with new people auditioning. I think we do the really difficult bit which is getting young people involved and engaged early on, when their teenage peers are not doing music, acting, poetry or spoken word. Its not a new thing though- we have always done it. Look at  Lemn Sissay and Louise Wallwein and Yusra Warsama. This model works brilliantly because it does exactly what it says on the tin. We put faith in young people as decision-makers. My role is to facilitate that, not to tell them what to do.

They are developing a wide range of skill sets. Its not just an opportunity to go somewhere, to do something, to be heard….. It is also real opportunities that can lead to other things.

I think that’s it. Totally. If you look at the Future Fires or The Agency cohorts have gone on to do over the years. Loads stay in the Arts, but lots don’t, but they still take that agency, those skills they’ve developed, that confidence, those networks for young people……they take all of that and engage politically as social workers, teachers, politicians, you name it. CONTACT classically does not make it all about making more theatre. If something is going to become a radio project about homelessness or a baking project for families who access food banks or a basketball project then that’s what gets creatively developed. We never go “Lets make a play about that.”

Is a lot of the work delivered outside the building?

The Agency is primarily in Moston and Harpurhey. With Future Fires the training and development happens here but the actual projects happen where those young people live. The premise being that they know best what is or is not available in that community so they are the best people to deliver and fill that gap. For example Lucy wanted to run a female only poetry slam so she created LipSync’d. Reform Radio are two women who met on Future Fires and wanted to tackle homelessness- 4 years later they have a fully funded operation. Amazing.Its interesting to think about what is our audience at CONTACT. It is the people listening to that radio station or at that poetry slam – we can’t report those numbers because they’re not bums on seats but actually that is part of our reach as we are integral to supporting those projects in their early stages. For us that’s as important as producing new shows, though we like to do that as well!!

Are there ever tensions in communities delivering projects that certain local people might not want?

In Future Fires we ask them to get 100 signatures from their local community which is a brilliant methodology. It forces them to go to their local shop, or pub or neighbours on their street.

So its about connection and validation?

Yes. They have to explain their idea so by the 100th time the idea is clearer and you have heard 100 people say that’s a good idea. The Agency projects are warmly received as young people are seen doing something creative and positive and its real world – they each get £2000 to develop their project, a business plan to attract further funding so the projects quickly become real, and in some cases very impressive. That’s a very positive thing within that community. I think there can be tension with some of the shows we present. Mawaan Rizwan who made the BBC show How Gay Is Pakistan? is very out and vocal as a British Asian comedian. Demi Nandhra explores taboos around mental health and medication when some people feel she should stay quiet. R.E Trip was a piece about unplanned pregnancies. I just watched the rushes of the television version and that’s going to be broadcast very soon. To see those young women saying those verbatim words about those experiences. We haven’t seen that before in a mainstream media context and we’re aware that will stir up debate and criticism.

Is there safeguarding in place if tensions arise and individuals need support?

Yes, we have very clearly defined safe guarding measures in place so we can protect young people in all our projects. We’re not healthcare professionals or social workers but we seek out the appropriate help when needed. Suzie Henderson who is our Head of Creative Development heads up all our staff working in direct engagement with young people, and is very experienced around safeguarding.

Will the new space be geared to meet a wide range of special needs?

Throughout the design stage we have consulted with the Manchester Disabled Peoples Group and with Graeae Theatre in London to ensure that the new part of the building will be up to purpose and also to ensure we incorporate any adaptations we can make to the part that’s not being touched. This is actually a very confusing building that is visually overloading and has barriers everywhere. We are using capital to address this to make the new building much more open, clear and accessible. Our young peoples group working on the capital project is called Construct and we have young disabled people in that group advising us. We went to Lodon to see the Graeae building which was brilliant – an Arts building designed by disabled artists, so we came back with loads of ideas.

So what will happen while the building is closed next year….. to programming and to the weekly projects you deliver?

They will continue to run. Our brief for the location of our new base is not a performance space but somewhere to house all of our young peoples activities and it will be in walking distance of CONTACT. The much bigger impact is to our What’s On programme – the ticket buying bit. That will be much smaller than normal so we will do about 10 events where we might normally do 100 in a year, but they will be much bigger, higher profile events in some unexpected places.

So you won’t consider something site specific on the building site with the audience in hard hats?

No. We won’t be doing that! However we are doing two really exciting site specific pieces in Spring and we’re nearly ready to announce that….

A few weeks after this interview I met Matt again at Central Reference Library for the big reveal for the closure plans and the FebMay 2018 programme. The old building closes at Christmas for the renovation work which will run throughout 2018. The staff and all projects they run and host will relocate to the Millennium Powerhouse in Moss Side.

IN THE CITY Part One is packed full of great events. The 10 year anniversary of Queer Contact festival includes large scale productions at The Palace Theatre with Dancing Bear by Jamie Fletcher & Company and a House of Suarez Vogue Ball at Manchester Academy. Contact Young Company are working with the brilliant Sh!t Theatre to bring a largescale immersive performance to The Museum of Science and Industry. She Bangs the Drums will celebrate the 100 year anniversary of women and working men getting the right to vote. The second site specific production will happen in an actual working sari shop on Curry Mile in Rusholme. Handlooms by RASA sounded wonderful when Rani Moorthy was describing it. Award winning show BRANDED by Sophie Willan will have a oneoff gala performance hosted by The Lowry.

In writing up this interview, I’m recalling the absolute passion and commitment of Matt Fenton to every aspect of CONTACT’s programming and youth projects, and thinking about the exciting plans for CONTACT in 2018 and beyond. In the context of Austerity measures and the savage funding cuts to the Arts, Mental Health Services and provision for Young Peoples Services, it is a real testament to the range and quality of services delivered by CONTACT that this redevelopment project has been funded. There is still a remaining portion to be fundraised throughout 2018 so dig deep Manchester is really lucky to have CONTACT.