ELECTRIC ROSARY

Written by Tim Foley

Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart

Royal Exchange Theatre

At the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting I was both bemused and intrigued by the prospect of a play that brought nuns and robots on to a theatre stage together. Tim Foley won a Judge’s Award for Electric Rosary and it was a genuinely exciting prospect to see if his theatrical vision could ever be effectively realised. Fast forward to 2022 and despite scheduling delays due to the pandemic the time finally arrived to unpack Mary the council-funded robot nun and deliver her to the shabby, crumbling convent of St Grace.

Times are hard and nuns are in short supply in this grim, futuristic world. Foley cleverly just alludes to this world outside the convent walls where climate change makes for ever muddy fields farmed by robots under threat of attack from dissatisfied Luddites. Jez WoodcockStewart invites the audience into the convent to simply imagine this bleak world outside the confines of convent life. It is grim enough inside where the nuns have little to look forward to in this life except extra biscuits and sweet buns if one of their sisters dies, and the dwindling hope of affording a trip to visit their twin convent in Ecuador.

Designer Charlotte Espiner opts for a beautiful inlaid wooden floor made for years of mopping and polishing. There are random boxes of overspill relics alongside the obligatory tea trolleys, candles and a beatific crucified Jesus. The staging of the closing scenes provide an uplifting miracle as cascading rainbows are born of the eventual use of the chains that rise up from floor to ceiling in the second act. They initially suggested the wild possibility in this eclectic play that the trip to Ecuador might yet be funded through the creation of an S&M dungeon club staffed by robot nuns!

The Royal Exchange is the perfect setting for this new play. It is home to The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting which champions new works and supports new writers. A play that introduces robots as our future into an out of date convent immersed in the rituals and relics of the past. A play performed in a space age like theatre that breathed new light into a defunct old building that had once been a thriving cathedral to commerce that had once birthed both Luddites and Cottonopolis.

The simple setting is a very fitting backdrop for  this production which is filled with strong, vivid performances from all the actors. Foley writes these women in a very authentic way and avoids them simply becoming comedic caricatures to simply deliver the humour and provide contrast to robot Mary. Jo Mousley is doggedly determined as Acting Mother Sister Elizabeth as her ambitious streak squares up to the gritty and world weary Sister Constance. Owen May is marvellous as the older nun with a secret pain that makes a possible miracle in Ecuador even more poignant. She exudes gritty common sense and is a mistress of the pithy one liner. The other nuns provide additional shades of dark and light with a mischievously comedic turn by Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as the boxfresh, ingénue postulant Sister Theresa while Suzette Llewellyn brings complexity to Sister Philippa with her complusive need for faith and duty to sooth her troubled mind.

The standout performance is however Breffni Holahan as Mary, the newly arrived robot nun. She is eerily believable with her bird like movements and watchful stare, you can literally see the cogs of machine intelligence as she absorbs and assimilates her environment and new companions while she calmly mops like a smiling maniac. Her journey from her council funded programming through to her emerging belief that she is indeed a conduit for miracles is genuinely moving.

It’s delightfully bonkers veering through a kaleidoscope of ideas and concepts like a night at Eurovision. At times it feels like a rollicking good farce with almost a 70s sitcom feel before moving towards more sinister sci-fi themes and sideways to a detective drama or Grand Inquisition as Sister Elizabeth seeks to discover who nobbled her election as Mother Superior. Electric Rosary questions our faith and our humanity in a fast changing world and seeks to explore the nature of miracles whether we place our hopes in the religious or the secular. Electric Rosary is a play that simply shouldn’t really work and yet miraculously it really does hit its mark on so many levels.

The Royal Exchange 23rd April – 14th May 2022

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting

Persuasion

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Caroline Moroney, Samuel Edward-Cook and Cassie Layton in Persuasion. Credit Johan Persson

Royal Exchange, Manchester

By Jane Austen

Adapted by Jeff James with James Yeatman

Directed by Jeff James

Persuasion might just be close to Perfection. This modern take on a two hundred year old Jane Austen novel by Jeff James is a gloriously uplifting froth fest. In the beautiful old Royal Exchange building sits a perfectly placed modern theatre and inside it James amps up the volume on a brilliant Frank Ocean soundtrack and ditches the bonnets for bikinis and the breeches for speedos.

“Penelope, turn the music down! I can hardly hear myself think over your harpsichord!” The opening line sets the tone for this production. This is a sharply observed perceptive rom com which uses Austen’s analysis of constancy in love and marriage. Married Mary is shrewish and discontented,  true to the original and yet as easily at home in John Lewis or the Knutsford Aldi. Sir Walter is narcissistic and fighting his advancing years like a bare-chested Mick Jagger strutting round Cannes rather than taking the waters in Bath. The deliciously carefree Louisa and Henrietta are every naïve young girl out for a good time seduced by the idea of love rather than the reality.

Alex Lowde has created a stunning lightbox platform which scissors out to function as a a kind of fashion catwalk for a sports/luxe collection S/S2017 and an Essex nightclub. The high point being when the tide comes in and high spirits and wanton ways flood the stage in a stunning spectacle which probably has most of the audience contemplating joining the cast on stage.

The strong sense of camaraderie is apparent from early on. The cast sit in the auditorium merging into the audience and casually strip down and change costumes so it seems like  we have joined them in their dressing rooms. The result is spontaneous applause as Anne and Wentworth finally get it together.

The whole cast seem to be having a blast. Man mad Cassie Layton and Caroline Moroney  can sparkle and fizz with energy or sway on the dance floor like mannequin autobots.  Samuel Edward-Cook and Lara Rossi are convincing as the lovers hoping to reunite even as Anne struggles to “want to want again”. The whole production has great comic timing and uses Austen’s dry wit to great effect.

Love and Constancy win the day as a mature, reflective Anne who can also dance like a demon and flick irritants off the stage, gets the relationship she wants. Persuasion is all about the love and the importance of trusting ourselves in decisions of the heart. That is as relevant today as in Austen’s lifetime.

At The Royal Exchange until 24 June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Suppliant Women

The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester;

 

I was quite wary about seeing this production. I wanted to like it but quite frankly I was concerned that the linking of a 2500 year old Greek play and our current refugee crisis might end up seeming forced or rather too worthy. As The Lord Mayor of Manchester joins the choir of local volunteers to give the traditional thanksgiving I was intrigued by this piece of theatrical archaeology. The libation wine is poured slowly and evenly around Lizzie Clachan’s stark breezeblock stage;  then the choir  re enter with their suppliant branches forming a human boat sailing gracefully into Argos. Exquisite pure harmonies flood the space and I’m hooked.

Written by Aeschylus; this new version by David Grieg opened his first season as Artistic Director at The Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. His intention to use theatre as a “democratic space” works well in a space like The Royal Exchange. Here the stage is often crowded but movement remains fluid and effective – perhaps a clever nod to how many countries can adapt successfully to accommodate refugees should they chose to.

The women sing in unison as they beseech King Pelagrus to heed their request for sanctuary reminding him that Argos is home to their ancestors Io who later sought sanctuary in Egypt and to Zeus; and reminding the audience that migration of people is central to our survival as a species. The local choir of 26 young women represent the 50 suppliant daughters of Danaos fleeing Egypt to avoid forced marriage to their 50 cousins. The central dilemma is “if we help we bring trouble if we don’t we invite shame”. This is a democracy so this King asks his people to decide the fate of these young women who have sung so passionately for their right to choose virginity over forced marriage. Sanctuary is granted but there will eventually be a heavy cost as the proprietary, prospective husbands sail into Argos.

This is a play about what do we do when we exercise choice. Are we selfish or altruistic; and either way is there always a price to pay? Beyond the issues of our stance on forced marriage or the refugee situation are other murkier issues that remind us of how complex the decision making process is. These are educated high born women of Egypt seeking asylum from forced marriage. They expect that asylum regardless of the risk to the citizens of Argos who face the fury of The Egyptians. They are shocked when the citizens suggest local marriages which would of course bring fresh blood and new wealth to the local community. It would seem that these steadfast virgins are somewhat disingenuous to the reality that in this life we rarely get something for nothing.

Director Ramin Gray ensures this production is bold and rhythmic and effective. The clever use of ancient instruments, staccato clapping and singing that beguiles, exults and wails laments invite the audience to start to breathe with the performance. Choreographer Sasha Milovic Davies and Movement Director Josephine Hepplewhite do an amazing job of ensuring that the very simple staging remains fluid and gloriously memorable. The human boat moves like it is on water and the simple use of the women’s scarves to form the bovine shape of Io is magical. Gemma May Rees as chorus leader soars vocally and is a luminous presence on stage as she leads the sisterhood of brightly clad suppliants.

It is however the chorus of local volunteers who are the living flesh of this performance. They are our teenage daughters or sisters or pupils clad like Greenham Common protesters or fans of The Levellers. I suspect their vigour and energy will leave a echo in this space long after the play moves on to another city; I’m sure Aeschylus would approve.