Sunday, 24 May 2015

Review: I’ll Be Your Mirror by Una Baines & Keith McDougall

The pat response to hearing about a new graphic novel about The Fall frontman Mark E Smith would be to say that it shouldn't be too hard to do – he's already a cartoon. Decades of self-mythologising, abetted by journalists happy to colour the outline in familiar shades: a face squiggled with lines and a fag hanging out of the gob, gnomic pronouncements and scathing put-downs, drink and drugs and rows.

It's gratifying, then, that the new graphic memoir I'll Be Your Mirror, drawn by Keith McDougall and co-written with Una Baines, a founding member of The Fall, presents a young, relatively fresh-faced Smith, one not yet hemmed in by his own mythology.

Baines also played in Manchester bands Blue Orchids and Poppycock, as well as touring with Nico, but the first issue of the memoir focuses on how she met Smith as a teenager. It's 1973, but the book avoids grim-up-north clichés as adroitly as it dodges the typical narrative about The Fall. McDougall's illustrations reflect the overall tone, which is teenager-bubbly – Bowie, T. Rex, feminist marches and psychedelia.

Smith puts Baines onto the Velvets as she outgrows glam rock, she puts him onto women's rights, they drop LSD and, finally, they start a band. Or rather, Mark does. In signature style, by hijacking her neighbour's covers group and launching into an impromptu performance of ‘Sweet Jane’. The final image shows him centre stage, lips curled, flanked by two bewildered musicians, person and persona already beginning to merge.

Hopefully there'll be some more about Baines herself in later editions, which will tell the story of her relationship with Mark, but there's more than enough here to pique the interest, and not only for fans of The Fall. Manchester looks set to be a major supporting character throughout, hopefully avoiding its usual thankless role of moody backdrop.

The launch is taking place at Islington Mill on 29 May, featuring Una's band Poppycock with support from ILL and Rose & The Diamond Hand.

Words: Fearghus Roulston

Friday, 22 May 2015

Gift Shop: a Pop-up Art Shop on Ayres Road

For a week from 30 May, Gift Shop will pop up on Ayres Road in Old Trafford. The mental health organisation 42nd Street has secured the space as a temporary creative outlet for young people in the area who will showcase their crafts across jam making, baking, jewellery making and ceramics. Local artists will be on hand during the week to lead activities and workshops from the two-berth caravan on the grounds of St John's Community Centre.

The local voluntary sector charity, 42nd Street, is behind the enterprise. Their work aims to support young people who are experiencing stress or other difficulties in life by offering ideas, direction and hope for their futures. Simone Spray says, "Gift Shop is a really important part of our diverse programme. For the young people involved it is an opportunity to learn new skills, get creative and impact positively on their own mental health, sense of identity and self-esteem. This is a new way of working for 42nd Street and one we hope to replicate across Greater Manchester. We know the hard work and dedication the young people have obviously invested in the shop will inspire everyone that experiences it."

The project has been funded by Old Trafford Community Panel and Curious Minds.

Opening Hours
Saturday 30th May: 12-5pm
Sunday 31st May: 12-5pm
Wednesday 3rd June: 10am-4pm
Thursday 4th June: 2-8pm
Friday 5th June: 10am-4pm
Saturday 6th June: 12-5pm

Words: Ian Pennington

King Lear @ The Lowry, 05.05.2015

George Bernard Shaw said “no man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” These words reside in my thoughts upon leaving The Lowry, after watching the Northern Broadside’s performance of the Shakespeare tragedy. Directed by Jonathan Miller, King Lear is a brutal play packed with betrayal, cruelty, madness and disaster. It’s a wonder if any of the audience can leave with their nerves in tact.

Regarded as one of Shakespeare’s monumental pieces the play depicts the titular character’s decent into madness, and the tragic consequences this brings. Stepping down from the throne Lear decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, the portion size equating to the measure of their love. Flattering their father with dishonest words, daughters Goneril and Regan are prized with rule of the kingdom while the youngest and most devout daughter Cordelia is banished as she “cannot heave her heart into her mouth” to express her love.

With an already bold and dramatic narrative to tell, I would think it wise to keep the production’s design as simple as possible; an opinion clearly shared by designer Isabelle Bywater. The actors are placed in the Jacobean period and are starkly lit from the front casting everything in the periphery into darkness. This has the effect of focusing attention solely on the dialogue. This no-fuss approach makes it apparent that Miller’s concern is with the text, which the cast conveys through their strong performances.

Helen Sheals and Nicola Sanderson play the king’s elder daughters, the epitome of cruelty and without a strand of loyalty to anything but their own desires. They are completely aloof to their own crassness and conniving ways. Their ability to emulate these qualities in their roles reminds me of how my dad would measure an actor’s skill and talent by how much he hated the individuals they were playing. Helen and Nicola, it is a compliment to your ability: well done!

But if we are going to talk about evoking emotions then the showstopper is Lear himself, played by Barrie Rutter. His performance is flawless, breezing through the fast paced script with ease – reaching all the emotive peaks and troughs. Ruttler is also the company’s founder and director, and has gained a reputation for making Shakespeare more accessible. King Lear is a brilliant example of how he has managed to achieve this. The evident ethos to deliver the narrative with clarity paid off resulting in a bold, emotive and refreshing take on one of literatures greatest tragedies.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of The Lowry

Friday, 15 May 2015

RITES @ Contact Theatre, 12.05.15

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
This humble quote from Socrates has been at the forefront of my mind. Most recently I have came back to these words when watching the lead up to the election, trying to see through the murky waters of promised change. And again in the aftermath to deal with the result we were dealt. Above all, these words fired to my brain faster than a round from a Smith and Wesson when I witnessed RITES at the Contact Theatre this week.

RITES is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Contact, which explores the deep-rooted cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Both theatres have earned a significant national and international reputation for daring and original work, and continue to do so through RITES, their most recent production.

RITES is abundantly powerful and does incredibly well at approaching an issue objectively but with sensitivity. The idea for the piece dates back two years ago where director and co-creator Cora Bissett was advised by a friend working as a Children’s officer for the Scottish Refugee Council, to devise a piece which would shed light on the practice of FGM. After musing on how to tackle the subject, Bissett joined forces with writer Yusra Warsama whom she met at Edinburgh Fringe. The two then conducted a series of complex interviews around the UK with FGM survivors, doctors, midwives, campaigners and lawyers; the accounts of which make up the this honest and thought provoking piece.

A soundscape of statistics and news reports engulfs the auditorium as we take our seats, which is interrupted by the entrance of Fara saying the pivotal line ‘I am real’. What a wonderful way to start a topical piece! We’re engaged from the first utterance but we’re not permitted to become too comfortable; urged to remember these characters exist; they’re real as are their words. This practice is really happening.

The piece has an authenticity which is aided by stunning performances from all the cast whom take on a variety of personas, moving the narrative along while covering all perceptions towards FGM. Fara played by Paida Mutonono is wonderful. Beth Marshall particularly stood out in various roles, going from affirmative and direct detective one moment, to a wholesome and kind but stumbling midwife. A very compelling performance came from Janet Kumah as she played a repentant ‘cutter’ (the women that would perform FGM in their native villages), after learning a new understanding of the ritual she abandons the practice and appeals others to follow her example. This character was particularly pivotal as it embodied the ethos of the piece and of words of Socrates: change happens in the future and it is to be built upon.

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of Farrows Creative (top), Sally Jubb (bottom)

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans @ Bolton Octagon 05.05.15

It's always a pleasure to be at a world premiere of a new play - well, the press night at least - especially when it is written by Jim Cartwright. I recently enjoyed a revival of his 1993 work The Rise & Fall of Little Voice, so I was very much looking forward to The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans, directed here by David Thacker.

Ancient Youth is about three old university friends Penny (Denise Welch/Lauren Drummond), Doug (Tom Mannion/Matt Tait) and Henry (Eric Potts), who are celebrating Penny's 57th birthday. But while Henry has accepted age gracefully - and even finds the process enjoyable - Doug and Penny (who are married) have not: Doug is drinking himself into denial while Penny is planning on having plastic surgery.

All that changes though when a joke present from Henry - a book on ancient tibetan techniques for reversing the ageing process - sends Penny and Doug on a strange path into the past, their youth and vigour suddenly restored. They say youth is wasted on the young - but now that the old have it, will they use it wisely?

While that might sound like quite a different story from Little Voice, some key elements are the same. Both plays deal with thwarted ambition: the characters in Little Voice yearn for fame, in Ancient Youth for, well, youth; both plays feature an angry, exploitative and unlikeable male character at their core; and both pit two forceful personalities against a quieter third.

However, whereas Little Voice felt very tightly written, Ancient Youth does not. The characters, particularly Penny and Doug, have long rants at one another that, while entertaining, are very wordy and a bit unbelievable. The story also unfolds less smoothly, jumping from one tragic situation to another very quickly.

What is similar though is Cartwright's humour, with Ancient Youth featuring lots of great lines, as when Penny proclaims she has used so much vanishing cream she's surprised she's still visible. And, while it isn't perfect, the play does deal with the issue of ageing in an interesting and unusual way by having the characters actually become their younger selves.

As to the acting, Tom Mannion did a good job of being thoroughly dislikable as Doug, while Denise Welch successfully showed Penny's softer side. The real stand out though was Eric Potts as Henry; a perfect piece of casting, Potts perfectly embodied Henry's Winne-the-Pooh disposition, and was generally a bit of a show-stealer.

Thacker's easy-paced direction was appropriate, and as with so many Octagon productions good use was made of the upstage area - this time as Henry's bookshop, from which he narrates the piece.

Ancient Youth is based on a really good idea, and has some great dialogue, but isn't quite as sharp as it could have been - especially when compared to Cartwright's other work like Little Voice.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ian Tilton

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Preview: Sounds From The Other City 2015, Sunday 3rd May

The May Day Bank Holiday is approaching this weekend and that can only mean one thing. Well, depending which century your traditions are originate, it might mean a few other things, from pagan dancing to International Workers’ Day, but for Chapel Street in Salford it can only mean one thing, and that’s Sounds From The Other City festival.

The annual new bands knees up is once again the highlight of the long weekend, commandeering the Sunday by booking in some of Greater Manchester's finest pop pickers. This year, those directing proceedings hop from the buzz band heavyweights at Now Wave to seasoned niche indie selectors at Bad Uncle and Comfortable on a Tightrope, via the pathway of dependable promoters at Hey! Manchester, Grey Lantern and Fat Out, round the record label corner to Gizeh/Little Red Rabbit, Red Deer, Sways, Samarbeta and Tru Luv, and back onto the main road blockaded by visual delights at Video Jam and the comic timing of Sham Bodie. And breathe.

Under those umbrellas, or rather in those venues, you’ll find many of those currently orbiting at the centre of Manchester’s creative universe rubbing shoulders with handpicked touring acts to set your ears ablaze. Ex Easter Island Head’s collab with the BBC Philharmonic Ensemble is sure to be a standout, and you won’t go far wrong with Naked (On Drugs), Paddy Steer, Liz Green, Jane Weaver, Black Josh, Acre Tarn or many more, but roaming around is always a sure fire way to see something unexpectedly great.

Venues-wise, meet at the Islington Mill wristband exchange from 3pm and float whichever way the musical breeze blows you.

Words: Ian Pennington

For tickets and more info:

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Preview: Columns Festival @ Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral will host, for the second year, Columns Festival on Saturday 2 May. The one-day event makes use of the cavernous Cathedral setting and showcases a shortlist of strong leftfield emerging electronic artists. Last year’s line-up included Future Islands and East India Youth, both of whom promptly became far more established artists in their own right. This year is headlined by the Canadian duo of Purity Ring and Braids alongside Ghostpoet, Born Gold, Shivum Sharma, Clarence Clarity and Cash + David. It looks set to showcase another range of performers, many of whom are performing newly released music.

Topping the bill is Purity Ring, showcasing their second and more accessible album, Another Eternity. Arriving from an extensive European tour, the Manchester stop will be another in a long line with tour support and kindred spirit Born Gold. Both artists are deeply rooted in the electro-pop formula and are strongly interconnected performers.

The festival will also mark the first weekend after the release of Braids’ third album, Deep In the Iris. One of the most progressive Canadian artists of the decade, the group’s collective work has gained comparisons with Animal Collective, Björk and Burial. With further shifts in direction on their new album they have delved into drum and bass as well as house. Early single ‘Miniskirt’ also suggests a new clarity to their sound that has often relied on a dense and obscure maximalist approach.

Ghostpoet likewise released his third album, Shedding Skin, back in March, conveying a similar upfront confidence that was missing from his previous work. His performance, like many on the bill, will prove his progression as an artist, from Mercury nomination to now.

Three relatively undiscovered artists complete the bill. Shivum Sharma fuses gospel atmospherics with soft, minimalist textures. Clarence Clarity is taking glitch-pop to an extreme, sounding like a cross-between Kindness and Hudson Mohawke, but with added camp. Finally Cash + David, featuring Bombay Bicycle Club backing singer Liz Lawrence, are an electro-pop duo surely taking note of the headliners. All three will feature first at Columns before venturing to play a number of the summer’s most anticipated festivals.

Columns is set to be an occasion for hearing established electronic talents alongside new blood relishing the chance to perform in one of the city’s most ornate venues.

Words: Thomas Dixon

Information and tickets can be found on the Columns website, here.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Rise & Fall of Little Voice @ The King's Arms, Salford, 15.04.2015

The King's Arms is synonymous with theatre in Manchester (even though it is in Salford), and I have seen a number of small but brilliant productions there. I have also seen some pretty poor ones too, but that is part of what keeps fringe so interesting. The Rise & Fall of Little Voice though is something different, unlike anything I have seen in this space before.

For a start, the staging is far grander, split over two levels and with a feel of permanence. Time, effort and money have clearly been invested. The lighting and sound are also at a level of sophistication beyond what is normally attempted here - it looks and sounds like professional theatre.

But we'll come back to that; let's talk about the play itself. Written by Jim Cartwright, it is a tale of a small girl with a big vocal talent, who is forced onto the stage by a money-grabbing mother and her wannabe business tycoon boyfriend. As Little Voice's career builds so do her problems until, inevitably, everyone gets burnt.

The key element for Rise & Fall of Little Voice is casting someone who can really sing and, in Josie Cerise, they have done just that. On top of her vocal talent she also brought charisma to the role, shining in her moments on stage and drawing you into her solitude off it. In fact, this production has well-cast written all over it, with every actor in a role that showcased their numerous strengths.

So, back to that staging. What troubled me at first was that this show seemed to be focussing its efforts on high production values, trying to be like The Exchange or HOME. The ticket prices (£12) are also much closer to what you might get at those venues. It felt a bit like it was shunning what the King's Arms does best, which is putting on simple productions with plenty of charm and character.

On reflection I can see that I was wrong to think this. Just because this show places an emphasis on staging and is a little more expensive doesn't mean that everything in this space will follow this model. And, regardless of production values, the performances in Little Voice were brilliant and the direction from James Baker accomplished.

In fact, The Rise & Fall of Little Voice team did exactly what fringe producers are supposed to do: they tried something different. What's more they succeeded, creating a really memorable show that demonstrates just what can be achieved on a smaller stage.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of Assembled Junk

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sexual Perversity in Chicago @ Salford Arts Theatre, 26.03.15

Before we even had a chance to really contemplate the success of their Manchester Rep Season (a programme of four plays in four short weeks), 1956 Theatre Company are back with another bounty for theatre guzzlers to gourmandize. Not long on the ‘scene’, the company debut saw them bring the film classic Dead on Arrival to the stage in 2013, several months later they sold out a performance of Great Expectations, shortly followed by the aforementioned Rep season. All this leads us to the play in question; still as ambitious as ever, 1956 have gone and taken on the challenge of a David Mamet play and have done so with success.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a heavily worded and strongly contextual piece, which can be daunting, even to the very best of actors. Set in 1976 Chicago, the play examines the sex lives of two men and two women; the main focus being Danny (Daniel Bradford) and Deborah (Amy-Jane Ollies). The two meet and they quickly establish a relationship from sexual attraction and, just as quickly, they move in together. As the play progresses their relationship is thwarted by an inability to talk with each other seriously. This is amplified by the opinions and self-interest of their friends: Bernie (Lee Lomas), Danny’s misogynic boss; and Joan (Hannah Ellis Ryan), Deborah’s sharp tongued room-mate.

Ollies and Bradford have clearly taken time to understand their roles, and truly take the character’s journey. In doing so they effortlessly exude an innocence and optimism which later festers in frustration and cynicism. The two managed to accomplish these traits while maintaining the chemistry required of a Mamet play.

In contrast to our two characters in charge of portraying the plays humanity (a better word for emotion) we have Joan and Bernie, the keys drivers of Mamet’s elaborate and daunting dialogue. Ryan gives an astounding performance as Joan, as she has impeccable control of her dialogue, which a less experienced actor could fall prey to. Lomas, is a true show stealer – his portrayal of Bernie is beautifully well rounded, again breezing through the fast paced dialogue with complete ownership.

The production has again reminded us that this company are fearless, a winning trait in this industry. Their ambitious decisions and eagerness to prove their company aim that “there is no such thing as can’t be done”, are two of the many reasons 1956 are quickly becoming one of my favourite theatre companies. Watch this space!

Words: Kate Morris

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Brink @ Royal Exchange Studio, 26.03.15

Brink, the latest production by the Royal Exchange's Young Company, marks Associate Director Matthew Xia's directorial debut for the theatre. An ambitious production, the company worked together with Youth Director Matt Hassall and poet and Exchange associated artist Jackie Kay to explore the idea of being “on the brink” using spoken word, song, dialogue, beatboxing, physical theatre and most importantly, the experiences of the performers.

What is initially striking about the production is its design - the Studio has been truly transformed into an other worldly, futuristic place, with a raised platform divided into grids of light (reminiscent of Tron), creating lots of small edges the actors can reach. These perhaps symbolise the "brinks", both big and small, we encounter throughout our lives. As the show progresses lighting design and staging are consistently strong, with doors suddenly appearing in the set and the cast crawling into other worlds, (or perhaps the "real world") which the audience has no sense of previously.

Throughout the production though it is the concept of “the brink” as an other worldly place that jars for me. The use of a slightly foreboding score sometimes overdramatised asides to the main stories, which otherwise could have served as light relief. The repetition of "this graceless place" seemingly used to assert the idea of the brink being a place rather than an idea didn't work for me, and was slightly overused.

In addition, the necessity of bringing the whole company on to the stage and establishing a world to which they all enter for different reasons, starts the play off with a rather chaotic tone. Although this establishes the concept of “being on the bring”, starting at such a high octane initially gave me reservations about what was to follow.

Disregarding the Brink as an alternative world, the concept serves as fruitful stimulus for the company emotionally, exploring decisions and conflicts big and small with humour, insightfulness and authenticity throughout the performance. The vast majority of the individual stories ring true, being told with a comforting ease which allow for some fantastic performances.

As I mentioned earlier, Kay wrote the piece after lengthy discussion with the company and there is a real sense of their ownership over their stories and the material in general. A sense of having discovered things for themselves and supporting one another through the process, which is what really great youth theatre should be about. As with any piece "based on the experiences of the performers", the show made me wonder how much of it was real, especially with the harder hitting sections, but the performers always felt safe and supported.

Where the production, and performers really came alive was during the musical numbers, written collaboratively with the company and composed by young company member Jason Singh who accompanied on piano. Strongest of the original material was "Fragile" where the performers harmonised, danced and channelled the emotions of the lyrics wholeheartedly.

Both Director Xia and Associate Director Hassall have spoken passionately about their belief in theatre as a social tool and their admiration of the young company they have had the privilege of working with. Every performer on stage seemed comfortable, confident and cared for, all given space to explore and an opportunity to shine, creating a sensitive, energetic, varied, authentic and therefore triumphant show.