Thursday, 24 July 2014

When love is in harmony it is a wonderful thing. But when one person’s love isn’t reciprocated that can create all kinds of problems, not only for the couple involved but also for those who care for them. In My Bed, from writer Rebekah Harrison, shows the consequences asymmetric affection can have, and how something that should be beautiful can turn out to be bleak.

The play begins with the small talk of housemates Sarah (Olivia Sweeney) and Rose (Amy Drake), who quickly form an endearing double act. “New bedding means one thing!” chides the irrepressible Rose as Sarah prepares for a date. The date leads to Danny (Kurt Nikko) coming home with her; they cuddle, but he's reluctant to get closer and so that's as far is it goes. Something about this doesn't seem quite right or, as Rose puts it the next morning, “Snuggles, what the fuck?” Soon Danny becomes an ever-present, leaving Sarah to question what it all means while Rose is kept at a distance, the blissful balance of their friendship thrown out by the introduction of a third force.

I don’t know what the actors and director did to achieve such great onstage chemistry and cohesion, but I have seen very few pieces where the characters seemed so natural as a collective. They also gave great individual performances: Sweeney has an iridescent intensity as Sarah, Drake is interesting and irreverent as the doting Rose, while Nikko works well as Danny, the man who isn’t quite there.

Although dealing with some dark issues the text is not heavy, using a lightness of touch to paint a detailed picture with a few strokes. Recycling lines from different parts of the play works wonderfully well, with the actors striding across the stage to deliver these flashbacks while Sarah descends into internal agony. The result is hypnotic, with the repetitions accentuating how trapped the characters have become in the destructive patterns of their lives. However, all this is lightened by a playful humour, as when Danny asks a series of disturbing ‘would you rather’ questions and Rose delivers her catchphrase “fuck him off!” with ever increasing splenetic vigour.

A very well written play with excellent performances and smart direction, In My Bed condenses the consequences of unbalanced affection into a moving hour of theatre, one that is well worth watching and that will hopefully have a life beyond its run at 24:7.

Words: Andrew Anderson

The Box of Tricks @ 24:7 Festival, 23.07.14

The Box of Tricks follows the building and breakup of brotherly bonds, illustrating the impact a feud can have on a family and the strains that exist between siblings. Written by Ric Brady & Stephen M Hornby and directed by Helen Parry, it deals with issues of expectation and ambition in a confident and concise manner.

Brothers Mike (Sam Thompson) and Mark (Sam Moran) live together in what at first appears to be a happy home. However, it soon becomes clear that everything is not alright and Mike is left to look after younger brother by himself. He offers the stability, security and support that a parent normally would and, in return, receives the unfettered adoration of his sibling. Jump forward twenty years and we see Mike returning home from abroad, no longer the centre of the family but now a pariah among his own people. What happened to cause such a seismic shift?

The story is paired down to the essentials, allowing a lot of ground to be covered in an hour without feeling rushed. Told with a mix of present and past events, the writing is clean and each character has a clearly defined voice that can be quickly picked up on. Mike’s support of Mark, who he begs to, “Please be someone,” is touching, as is his self-sacrifice in working to support Mark’s ambitions. As a pair Thompson and Moran go well together, although perhaps the standout moment is Thompson’s tearful performance in the closing soliloquy. The rest of the cast are also due praise, supporting the central pair assuredly. Parry has marshalled her actors well, keeping a stable balance between the different personalities and allowing each to express themselves without dominating, while the story moves on at an appropriate pace.

One could easily imagine The Box of Tricks as a full production, either on a professional stage or perhaps as a television play. Doing so would also alleviate the issue of adult actors playing themselves as children, which is often problematic and proved to be so here; it is nigh on impossible for adult male actors to play very young children without some degree of awkwardness. Given the needs of the script it is an unavoidable issue, and Thompson and Moran got through it without too many difficult moments.

The Box of Tricks is a solid play that tells an interesting story in a succinct manner, with a high standard of writing, direction and performance - well worth watching.

Words: Andrew Anderson

To The Dam @ 24:7 Festival, 22.07.14

Life isn’t linear; it is irrational and irregular, made up of feelings, moments and memories that don’t always fit together. But, somehow, we’ve got to make sense of it all, and that’s just what Lisa, played by Jo Gerard, is trying to do in To The Dam, a new one-woman show from writer and director John Clarke.

A middle aged mother of one living in Todmorden, Lisa's life has not been easy. She's lost close connections, suffered through an abusive marriage and has a difficult teenage daughter who she does daily battle with. But, throughout it all, she's had the dam: silent and unchanging, it is a place to find peace, pleasure and, perhaps, acceptance.

The structure of To The Dam is discontinuous, with present-day narration inter-spliced with recollections of past feelings, thoughts and conversations. Not everything Lisa does is likeable, but her actions always make sense in the context of her character, whether that is re-enacting a fight, recalling an old song or remembering how love used to be. Her language is by turns hard, pretty and poetic, creating a vivid world that feels so real you could almost step out of your seat and into the scene, with the words rising around you like the water of the reservoir itself.

To bring such disparate parts of a person's persona together, knitting them into a cohesive whole, is a very impressive achievement. Whether her face is contorted with hatred, her voice trembling with emotion or her limbs lost in the joy of movement, Gerard is always utterly engaging as Lisa. The direction plays a big part in this, Clarke and Gerard clearly forming a fantastic working relationship both with each other and their character. Further flourishes, such as the use of lighting to create a tripartite shadow of Lisa on the rear wall, accentuate the performance.

To The Dam has a deep empathy for the impact of events on one woman’s life, and great credit must go to Clarke for his skilful writing and subtle understanding of the subject. This is a great play, with a stunning performance that will stay with me for some time to come.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Pass @ 24:7 Festival, 22.07.14

“Everything could change or nothing could change,” says Jake (Ethan Rodgers) in Pass, the new play from writer Naomi Sumner that is debuting at this year’s 24:7. That single sentence is a great summation of the teenage experience: life is exciting, fresh and fun while, at the same time, it all seems so hard to grasp, slow to move and no one thinks you’re ready for it. It is this universal story of juvenile yearning that Pass follows, told through the tale of two school kids in love.

The premise is pretty simple: Jake wants to go to university and get out of Manchester while his girlfriend Maddie (Natasha Davidson) is quite happy where she is, glad to be young and in love. Caught in this clash is newly qualified teacher Louise (Joanna Hinton), a tutor to Jake and a potential rival for his affections as far as Maddie is concerned. The three strong wills go to war, with inevitable break-ups, make-ups, and break downs as Jake takes his final exams. The question is, will he pass?

Pass’ storyline works well and the dialogue has strong moments, as with the quoted line at the start of this review. However, the quality is not consistent throughout and is occasionally clunky rather than quick and charismatic; a drama like this needs a real feel for how young people speak and a sense of their energy. That said, both Rodgers and Davidson did well with the material and made believable teens, which is not an easy assignment for an actor.

As to the direction, the pacey scene changes gave a feeling of life flashing by, but the sudden snaps of sound used to punctuate these didn’t quite work, preventing a mood from developing; it was hard to get lost in the play. It was also a tricky piece to see in thrust staging, as several key moments happened at the far reaches of the stage where they could not be seen so well from the other side.

Pass succeeds in capturing that feeling that fifteen is everything, that there is no time to lose and you’ve got to have it all right now – an impatience for life to begin. While it has some weaknesses there is also enough to suggest that this play can be improved, and that those involved have potential.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of 24:7

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me @ Joshua Brooks, 08.07.14

It is said that if you knew when you'd die you'd go mad. But the madness of not knowing when you can live again is itself a form of death. That's what an Irishman, and Englishman and an American find out when they're imprisoned by unseen terrorists with unknown motives for an indefinite amount of time in Frank McGuinness' play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me.

First on stage were Adam (Alastair Gillies) and Edward (Richard Patterson), who make up the American and Irish contingent respectively. Their sniping, fighting and friendship had a real feel of brotherliness; the actors have a clear chemistry. Their ragged appearance seemed real, and the physical interactions between them felt threatening, a result of strong performances and good direction. However, the arrival of Englishman Michael (Karl Seth) upset this symbiotic relationship somewhat, and from here on the play never quite regained its momentum, with Michael pitched perhaps a little too old-world-English for believability.

The basement of Joshua Brooks was the perfect location for Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, which is set in a squalid prison (make of that what you will). The bare brick walls and metal roof were well dressed and lit, and Colin Connor's directorial choice to leave the actors lying on display in their cell during the interval engendered further audience investment in the story.

The play, first produced in 1991, is of the wordy kind that strives for atmosphere rather than realism, where dialogue is a diatribe rather than a direct depiction of existence. Obviously the play has been a success, but it felt like it might not have aged terribly well - it is overwrought and overly earnest without offering enough insight to justify being either of those things. The performances of Gillies and Patterson were strong, the atmosphere convincing, but the material itself did not quite work to my mind. However if you're into dark, paranoid pieces then this might well be your thing.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Shay Rowan

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

COMPETITION: Sugarhill Gang & Grandmaster Flash

Summer might be a time to take stock or head out to a nearby field to watch your favourite musicians in oversized gazebos, but the folks at Trof haven't rested on their laurels just because the sun's out. Instead they've set about bringing two icons of hip hop to their Gorilla venue for a pair of shows taking place over the next month: Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash.

First up there's Sugarhill Gang's show on Thursday 17 July. Best known for 'Rapper's Delight', a chart hit that sampled the break from Chic's 'Good Times' and capitalised on the growing hip hop movement, the New Jersey trio returned in the late '90s with Jump On It, a rap album for children.

Manchester's Fingathing bring their leftfield live hip hop to support.

Then on Saturday 2 August the clocks are set to clubnight as Grandmaster Flash takes centre stage on the ones and twos. Along with The Furious Five MCs, he is a man whose CV is decorated with the accolade of being in the first hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having cut popular tracks such as 'The Message'.

The Juicy DJs are on hand to fill your ears with their record collection at that one.

We’ve teamed up with Trof and Gorilla to give away a pair of tickets to each show. All you need to do to enter is like and share the image at the other end of this link (making sure it’s set to ‘public’ so we can see that you’ve entered). Finally, please comment on the original image with which one of the two events you’d like to attend.

We'll announce the winner of the Sugarhill Gang competition on Tuesday 15 July, then the Grandmaster Flash competition winner on Thursday 31 July.

Good luck!

Words: Ian Pennington
Images: courtesy of Trof

For more information and tickets, click here for Sugarhill Gang and here for Grandmaster Flash.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Grillstock 2014

Summer's here and that can only mean one thing – barbecues. Manchester certainly had beef over the weekend of 28-29 June with the return of its meat, music and mayhem fiesta Grillstock, where foodies from all over the UK converged to celebrate their love of the humble BBQ.

There's nothing humble about Grillstock, however, with the delicious smell of cooked meat and sticky sauces wafting over the city from 11 in the morning and well on into the night. Given the UK's current obsession with food from across the pond (have you seen how many hot dog and burger restaurants there are springing up in the city centre?), it will come as no surprise that the festival is popular and it's the perfect opportunity to taste test as many different ways of eating pork, beef and chicken as you can in a short space of time. It might be wise to skip breakfast and avoid bread and beer for a while once you get there though, otherwise you'll find yourself struck down by the one thing that all foodies fear – a full belly.

It being Manchester, the rain came down on the Saturday, but if there's one thing Mancunians know how to deal with it's inclement weather, so no-one's spirits were dampened by the constant drizzle falling on Albert Square throughout the day. It's not just tasty treats on the menu at Grillstock either. There's a lot by way of entertainment to keep you amused, from BBQ competitions, over 40 bands playing funk, rock, blues and country and eating competitions – the latter of which are definitely worth watching, even in the rain. We had a great time watching ten brave souls go head to head for a chilli-eating contest – tipping millions on the Scoville Scale – and broke sweat even as spectators in the crowd. We also caught up with Saturday's winner, Fully, who gave us a tip for future chilli-eating contest success: “chew, chew, swallow,” which we're sure will come in handy next year.

At £15 Grillstock tickets are fairly reasonable, but you will need to remember your wallet and dig pretty deeply as the food isn’t cheap. But you get what you pay for and it was definitely the best BBQ we've ever been to. We recommend the pulled pork brisket and the hot banana ketchup.

Words & photos: Sarah Adie

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Icarus @ The Lowry, 03.07.14

Sometimes when you look up at the sky you get a glimpse of infinity, a notion of being a speck of nothingness out in the black night of the universe. Faced with this we try to fight it, try to do something that will write our name in eternity, never to be forgotten. We seek meaning and significance away from the comfort and security of home. It is this very human urge that is the subject of Icarus, a new play from Square Peg Theatre.

Even the most misanthropic and solipsistic among us would surely not wish to say goodbye to everything and everyone forever. But that is the proposition facing Anna (played by Katie Robinson) as she prepares to leave for Mars, part of a one-way mission to establish the first colony there. Her journey is reality TV meets Apollo 13, with the launch funded by the sale of television rights and the crew’s every move (and mishap) broadcast back to earth for all to see. Tensions mount, intimacies build up and break apart, while the existential crisis of facing infinity lurks ominously in every shadow.

There are many things to commend here; the actor’s movements were wonderfully languid and unrestricted, proving you don’t need wires, gadgets or gimmicks to recreate weightless space. Using cast members not involved directly in any given scene to hold objects, floating and bouncing them around, was a brilliant directorial touch from Michael White (who also wrote and acted in the play). The intercutting of past and present with newsreel, film and audio gave the story a feeling of permanence and momentum. The dialogue was believable, and the accents – American and Russian – were convincingly performed (a particular nod here to Dominic Myerscough, who played a Russian and an American with equal aplomb). It wasn’t all angst and eternity either, as the play was peppered with some cute one-liners that lightened the mood, as when Anna (watching Jaws for the first time) naively noted that, “They’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Based on the true story of an ongoing campaign to get a team of ordinary people to Mars, Icarus has power, celebrity, intimacy and intrigue in spades. Perhaps the only criticism one could level is that it failed to sustain its early momentum, tailing off somewhat at the end and leaning slightly too heavily on the profundity of quoted poetry rather than its own internal meaning.

The most touching moment came when Anna realised she’d never own a dog, a simple childhood dream that now could never be. It is these small things we miss when we leave home – of course we miss our family and friends, but somehow the minor details make it real. That’s the problem with leaving home to seek your place in infinity: what you actually discover is where you are from, and what was really meaningful all along.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of The Lowry & Square Peg Theatre

Monday, 30 June 2014

Quippopotamus @ Odd Bar, 03.06.14

On the first Tuesday of every month, Odd Bar in the Northern Quarter is home to a free comedy night. Taking up the top floor of the bar, Quippopotamus has been running for the past eight months, successfully expanding from nights they also run at Fuel Café in Withington. In that time, it’s become a platform for some of Manchester’s more out-there comedians.

Compèred by joint organiser Jack Evans, this month’s offering started well. It was refreshing to see Evans’ ability to bypass the getting-to-know-you awkwardness that stagnates some comedy events elsewhere; this one felt lively, casual, enjoyable and, importantly, genuinely funny. Evans worked the crowd with aplomb and his off-the-cuff humour was impressively sharp. When he and his fellow organiser Jon Whiteley played a more rehearsed half-time sketch it showed great versatility. Crucially, the pair knows what people want from an alternative comedy night, and they showed it by booking two great acts.

The first, Edy Hurst, was kind of a character-comedy bit. His enthusiastic and childlike humour won the crowd over when he picked up a guitar to give parody renditions of any James Bond song at the audience’s request.

The main act, Phil Ellis, took to the stage with a world-weary demeanour and a tragic likability that the crowd instantly enjoyed. His set seemed to be mostly unplanned mischief that the audience lapped-up. His time on the stage segued from cleverly told life stories to impromptu furniture interaction, and finished with an attempt to casually assimilate the comedic spirit of Rik Mayall as he was encouraged to digest a newspaper clipping of the recently deceased’s face. It could have seemed daft or contrived, but with Ellis’s inclusive demeanour, it became a raucous social event.

Quippopotamus works really well in its essence – a free night to celebrate alternative comedy. It’s good to see it done with a light-hearted and non-commercial approach, and a real spirit to make people laugh. Whiteley and Evans clearly love making people laugh and the night is well worth checking out.

Words & photo: Mark Hattersley

Quippopotamus is staged at Odd Bar on the first Tuesday of every month and at Fuel Café Bar on the fourth Sunday of every month.

Hulme and Rights @ Work for Change Co-op, 31.05.14

Playing to a packed audience in the small but strangely cavernous space that is The Yard at Birley Street in Hulme, Daniel Kitson, Josie Long and Molly Naylor came together for the Hulme and Rights fundraising gig in aid of Freedom for Torture, a cause which clearly doesn’t merit any humour but whose important work gained wider prominence among a hugely enthusiastic, ‘up for it’ audience.

For fans of wryly observed narrative humour on the minutiae of everyday life, Kitson, Long and Naylor have clearly honed their comedic craft to perfection with each of them providing whimsical, sometimes anarchic and hugely self-deprecating observations on the trials of modern life.

Daniel got the evening off to a great start in his role as compère and warm-up merchant for Josie Long. He explored a mix of narratives, including his paranoiac outsider observations from taking a solitary trip to a campsite in North Wales the day before the gig and making boastful reminders of his globetrotting exploits as a comic (“Did I tell you I was in New York?”), ricocheting mercilessly off his heckling audience to fuel his ironically immodest fire of self-importance. Effortless and genius.

Josie Long, meanwhile, provided a quaintly acerbic counterfoil to Kitson’s humour with some touching and profound observations on personal relationships. I always get anxious when comics – or any performer for that matter – seek audience participation, but I found myself charmed by Josie’s entreaties to join her in her fatalistic, guitar-accompanied elegy to disappointment and heartbreak. It was funny and touching in equal measure.

Finally, Molly Naylor had me in stitches with her all-too-honest and self-knowing observations, amongst other confessional narratives of her failed attempt to get to the right airport for a flight to Berlin for a gig. All based on the heroic wrong assumption. I loved the way she conveyed that self-righteous ‘London’ sense of knowing her stuff and her insistence of being right, even at the checking in desk, when clearly arriving at Stansted for a flight taking off from Southend was wrong, wrong, wrong. Hilarious.

Laughs all-round from a trio of comics whose narrative craft deserved the energy and adulation from a crowd who believed in them as much as the cause they were supporting.

Thanks also to Laura Harper, a volunteer, who talked about the work for Freedom From Torture and to the artists who donated their work for the fundraising raffle.

Words & photos: Tom Warman