Friday, 17 October 2014

Dracula @ Contact, 10.10.14

With Halloween almost here and a new film version recently released Dracula is currently in the public consciousness. What better time, then, for a new tour of The Mark Bruce Company's adaptation, a dance performance that follows Bram Stoker's story but throws in a few original ideas to keep the whole thing fresh.

For those unfamiliar, Stoker's Dracula is split neatly in two. First, the hero Jonathan (performed here by Wayne Parsons) travels to Transylvania to help the Count purchase of a new home in England. Unaware of his host's evil intentions Jonathan is trapped for a time in his mansion, eventually making his escape. Meanwhile the Count sales to England to take up his new residence and spread an army of the undead. In the second half our hero and the count each try to ensnare the other, building to a final confrontation between good and evil.

Not bound by one particular style or approach, choreographer Mark Bruce has the freedom to pick and choose from the entire dance cannon, matching technique to mood. For example, in a love scene he borrows from ballet, the perfect approach to illustrate the first flowering of affection. Later on, when Dracula is trying to pull the wool over Jonathan's eyes, a vaudeville tap is adapted, its slapstick silliness succinctly showing the character's intentions. Each of these is then stitched into a whole that hangs together, an impressive feat indeed. The dancers delivered on the promise of these ideas, showing great versatility and characterisation in doing so. Jonathan Goddard in particular stood out as a muscular and menacing Dracula, displaying both his human and animalistic elements.

Mood is very important in a piece such as this; it is the otherworldly, ungodly essence of Dracula that is so disturbing, and this has to be conveyed in the staging, lighting and sound as well as through movement. The company achieved this by using unusual lighting angles, keeping much of the stage in shadow, and by building a set that gives an impression of darkness and depth. The musical score also worked very well, with gothic classical mixing with eastern european strings. The production sticks closely to the original story, and - so long as you have read the book - is fairly easy to follow. However, it could be tricky for someone unfamiliar with the plot, so I would recommend doing a bit of research in advance of seeing the show.

This dance version of Dracula has drama, diversity and depth, and is a great evening out for first-timers and old-hands alike. If you get the chance go and see it for yourself, and prepare to be scared.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Courtesy of The Mark Bruce Company

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Preview: Autumn Live Shows

Leaves are turning from green to a plethora of brightness and autumn is tightening its chilly grip. But before we drift into summer nostalgia, its worth reminding ourselves that this time of year is also synonymous with touring, and with Manchester being part of many major tours there’s no shortage of gigs coming our way in the coming weeks.

For starters, the Holy Trinity of Trof venues are offering a vast range of acts to please any discerning ear, from Mercury Award nominee Kate Tempest (Deaf Institute, 9 November) and the euphorically eclectic Adult Jazz (Deaf Institute, 12 November) to one of Liverpool’s finest new acts Circa Waves (Gorilla, 7 November) and the rising superstar St Vincent (Albert Hall, 22 October).

Manchester Cathedral has certainly come a long way as an alternative music venue. As well as an impressive list of gigs, on 1 November it is hosting the all-day festival, Columns. Its diverse and painfully cool line-up includes artists such electronic sound architect East India Youth (another 2014 Mercury nominee coming to Manchester) and this year’s US breakthrough ‘perfect pop’ act Future Islands.

While we're on the topic of those Mercurys, the shortlisted local tip is GoGo Penguin, an intricate jazz trio who've conveniently booked a show at Soup Kitchen on 21 October to celebrate.

Another notable festival event is Carefully Planned, which will take in various venues around the Northern Quarter over the weekend of 18-19 October, bringing us a wide range of new music with a line-up designed to please everyone from indie folk aficionados to hardcore fans. Now in its fourth year, Carefully Planned is making a bit of a name for itself, which is hardly surprising given its tactic of booking some of the best new bands from all corners of the UK (Hail! The Planes, Post War Glamour Girls) and established cult names (That Fucking Tank, Thought Forms).

Louder Than Words is another grassroots weekend event worthy of a serious mention. Dedicated to words about music, this new festival involves writing workshops as well as Q&As with the likes of Viv Albertine and John Bramwell, panel debates on subjects such as Goth subculture and the 'Golden Age' of music journalism, plus signings and performances.

Finally, keep an eye on Islington Mill's goings on as it’s now back in operation and its event listings once again prove it to be a key creative hub in the Manchester area. The awesome 2 Bears (Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and Raf Daddy) are set to play there on 29 October, followed by a big Halloween event promising ghost tours, film screenings and live music.

Words: Anastasia Connor

Monday, 13 October 2014

Little Women @ Salford Arts Theatre, 09.10.14

1956 Theatre’s Manchester repertory season begins with Little Women, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel following the rites of passage of four sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - at the time of the American Civil War. This adaptation by Amy-Jane Ollies (who also plays the second eldest sister) and Nicole Garvin sees the action shift to World War 2 Britain, which enables some discussion about the girls’ places in the world, their entitlements and expectations, with Jo’s desire to study and write conflicting with Amy’s - the youngest - dreams of marrying someone rich.

The show begins with the four sisters standing and narrating directly to the audience, a device that is used intermittently through the rest of the action. I liked the idea of the sisters taking ownership of their story and, at times, it helped to signpost the action for the audience, but I felt that it would have been even better if one sister had been chosen to narrate - probably Jo as the biggest journey is hers - and would have been a bit less confusing. As well as this, it sometimes seemed to be used simply to join the scenes together - a difficult task for an adaptation of a long novel - in too simple a way, rather than finding a different means of allowing the story to flow and, overall, added to a sense of a lack of clear direction, particularly in the second half.

Having said this, the scenes were enjoyable and the audience was engaged throughout. Emma Fernell’s delightful portrayal of Amy generated lots of laughs and Ollie’s performance of a slightly re-imagined Jo was convincing. Special mention goes to Graham Eaglesham whose Freidrich Baer doesn’t appear until the second half but brings a strong and confident performance for the moments he is on stage.

This is an entertaining show with several nice ideas, some of which could do with a bit more commitment - were limes readily available during the Second World War? Would you be taking a casual break in Paris? Would a German Professor be having an easy time in London? - but its inventiveness bodes well for the rest of the season, which includes two pieces of new writing and another adaptation. You can catch them all at the Salford Arts Theatre.

Words: Julie Burrow

Images: Courtesy of 1956 Theatre

Friday, 10 October 2014

Early One Morning @ Bolton Octagon, 09.10.14

Early One Morning, from writer Les Smith, tells the tale of a boy from Bolton who was shot for desertion during the first world war. Put like this it sounds simple, but beyond these bare facts lies a complicated and complex story...

...Private James Smith (Michael Shelford) is a broken soldier who can no longer cope with the constant bombardment of bombs, orders and trauma. In desperation he tries to walk back to Bolton only to be caught, courtmartialed and sentenced to be shot at dawn. His comrades are asked to organise and carry out the killing, causing them to question the morality and sanity of their situation. Meticulously researched and poignantly provoking, Smith's script - first performed in 1998 - cuts back and forth between Bolton and Passchendaele, providing a desperate glimpse of what life for a WW1 soldier was like.

The cast showed class in dealing with this serious and sensitive material, drawing out emotional performances without straying into sentimentality. As Private Smith Michael Shelford successfully captured the essence of a man facing his own mortality, moving this reviewer to tears at the show's end. Colin Connor, in the role of Sergeant Fielding, brilliantly expressed the strain of giving out difficult orders, his voice full of cracked emotion, while Jessica Baglow was warm, gentle and engaging as Smith's sweetheart Lizzie Cartwright.

With this play Director David Thacker demonstrates once again why he is so well regarded, creating a controlled framework in which the chaos of war could be shown. His decision to make the set out of actual mud, and to split the action over multiple levels in the theatre, brought the audience right into the trenches with the actors. Jason Taylor's clever lighting created spaces within spaces, the wonderful period costumes from Mary Horan added further authenticity, while the demonic rumbling of Andy Smith's soundscape provided a disturbing undercurrent; this was a production team working in harmony to create something special.

Early One Morning exposes the meaningless, blistering, brutal destruction of war, where humans are pulled apart into ligaments and bones, where all sense of whole, all sense of humanity, is lost. We need theatre like this to show us the mistakes of our collective past, and to remind us that such horror must never be repeated.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ian Tilton

Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis @ The Great Northern Playhouse, 08.10.14

Participatory theatre. Those two words can strike fear into even the most hardened drama devotees. But they needn't, as when it is done well it represents the best things about live performance: it is spontaneous, unpredictable, engaging and endearing. Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis, is a fine example of just why that is.

Upon climbing the stairs to the newly opened Great Northern Playhouse you are confronted by a man with a walking stick and a decidedly dubious foreign accent. A name-tag is stuck to your front and information about the evening's events - a lecture on the deducting methods of Sherlock Holmes - is shoved into your hand.

Problems, puzzles and party hats aplenty follow, the audience interacting with one another as well as the performers, while the mystery of Professor Moriaty's whereabouts is slowly unwoven. Highlights include a fact-finding foray during the interval, a practical lesson in deducing facts from the faces of fellow audience members and a short improvised dance session.

The performers won the audience over early on with their energy and enthusiasm, and soon had us doing whatever they wanted. The script, written by Alexander Wright, stayed true to the Conan Doyle style and kept the story moving along at a good pace. However, the second half did not quite keep up the promise of the first, with the play reverting to a rather more traditional format that wasn't quite as fun to follow.

If you're scared of audience interaction Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis presents an opportunity to try some total immersion therapy; I suggest you take it.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of The Flanagan Collective

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Colder Than Here @ King's Arms, Salford, 03.10.14

Colder Than Here, from writer Laura Wade, is the first production from What A Little Bird Told Me Theatre company. It's a tale of a family coming to terms with a problem that modern medical science had made: knowing - roughly - when you're going to die. Diagnosed with cancer and given a life expectancy of 6 to 9 months, Myra (Joyce Branagh) decides she wants to tie up loose ends and set her family up for when she is gone. However, she is the sun around which her family orbits, the one from whom they get much of the light in their lives. How will they cope once she is gone?

The script, Wade's first published work back in 2005, is well structured, never dwelling on a moment longer than necessary, and is full of both mirth and melancholy. Highlights include recurring visits to potential new-age graveyards (which are invariably described with epithets and expletives), and a short powerpoint presentation given by Myra that details possibilities for her funeral (including glitter throwing). Director Alyx Tole has kept everything simple, so the story moves along at a good pace.

The cast and director have achieved the feeling of a real family in their interplay, which is the single most important thing for a play like Colder Than Here. Leo Atkin is good as the grumpy but caring dad Alec; Rachel Creamer and Laura Danielle Sharp (playing sisters Jenna and Harriet) capture the mixture of needle and nurture that so often exists between siblings; finally, Branagh plays the weary and slightly wacky sides of Myra equally well.

Overall the production was strong, working as a cohesive whole. However, fringe theatre at its best usually takes a few risks, which is what makes it so captivating; what perhaps was lacking from this production was a standout element, something to stray from the safety of simplicity. This, though, is a solid first effort, and will give the company confidence and a good platform to build from. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Phil Benbow

Monday, 29 September 2014

Now Then Announcement

After a memorable two years publishing 12 issues, it is with a heavy heart that we’ve taken the decision to discontinue the printed Manchester edition of Now Then magazine for the time being.

We are certain that this is by no means the end of our aims to encourage and provide a platform for the independent art, trade, music, writing and local news that we have stood for from the outset. The popularity of the magazine and the positive feedback we receive with each issue is both humbling and testament to everyone who has contributed in any way, shape or form. So we are aiming to regroup and explore our options for the future.

The fact is that it is a difficult task to raise the revenue to sustain a free magazine project with our ethos and print quality. Compromising that ethos and quality has never been an option.

We will be maintaining a presence in the Manchester area, with events and other projects, so keep your eyes peeled for the whens and wheres and for opportunities to get involved.

We are also planning to continue publishing a new issue every two months on our new website, so if you have something to say or would like to highlight a local campaign, good cause or community project then get in touch. We are still here as a source of independent citizen journalism.

Finally, we’d like to offer our thanks to everyone who has been involved up to now. We’d love to hear your stories from the past two years that we’ve been in print, or ideas and suggestions for the future.

So, for now you won’t be seeing us in print, but we've not given up and you’ve not heard the last of us.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Contact Compacts #3 @ Contact, Manchester, 25.09.14

The premise of Compact Contacts is to stage six short plays, handpicked by Pull Your Finger Out productions, and stage them in the foyer of the Contact Theatre. Tonight, the foyer is crammed with people on benches and bar stools as well as a healthy amount of stragglers standing around the fringes all awaiting the first twitch of the curtain. The fifteen minute performances are staggered in groups of two before short intervals. This gives the audience a decent amount of time to digest what they have just seen before returning to the next batch with their sense of anticipation heightened. It is an inspired idea and one that works to great effect.

From the emotionally charged monologues of Hallelujah and Wings to the darkly comedic turns in Celebrity Death Pool and Famous for Fifteen Minutes, each performance is executed with a professionalism which belies the unconventional setting. Personally, I thought the most nuanced writing appeared in Sean Mason’s Cream Tea, a concise tale of Oedipal pain woven into an espionage thriller - but there was no doubt that the six plays provided something for everyone in attendance.

Gareth George’s Famous for Fifteen Minutes is masterstroke in prop ingenuity (via flying bags of Wotsits) while Louise North’s Wings gives flight to thought’s that are rarely shared in public. In Hallelujah, Megan Griffith proves to be a deft dramaturge, augmenting the dialogue when it could easily have distracted from it in lesser hands.

The actors were picked through open auditions which make the performances all the more striking. All of the dozen or so performers were entirely believable but the lead in Cream Tea and the mother in Famous For Fifteen Minutes deserve a special mention.

For me, the best was saved till last. Elliot Hughes’s Boxes, written purposely with the space in mind, makes use of the lift, balcony and cleaning trolley of Contact. This story of an archetypal working man and bureaucratic boss begins with clich├ęd aplomb whilst a cleaner in the theatre’s uniform noisily cleans up a spillage at the back of the foyer, disgruntling those in attendance. The cleaning grows loud enough for the down at heel working man to break the third wall and throw a tantrum, revealing his true self in luvvie splendour. The ensuing interaction between cleaner and well-meaning artiste captured societal attitudes of class in ways that would escape more traditional formatting and had the room in stitches.

It was a great ending to an enjoyable night of vignettes that will leave a lasting impression on even the shortest of attention spans.

Words: Nathan McIlroy

Image: Andrew Anderson

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Romeo & Juliet @ Victoria Baths, Manchester, 17.09.14

Set in the archaic beauty of Manchester’s Victoria Baths, Walter Meierjohann’s directorial debut with Romeo and Juliet for HOME’s site-specific season is a sight to behold. Situating the audience in the depths of one of the empty pools, the production successfully immerses them right from the outset with the two opposing families appearing intimidatingly above you from either side of the pool (in a moment somewhat reminiscent of Chicago's iconic Cell Block Tango).

The fact the director has used cinema as stimulus is immediately clear, with abstract moments dispersed amongst the action, heightened characterisation prevalent and an energised use of music throughout (in an homage to director Emir Kusturica). In addition to this the production recalls the modernity of Baz luhrmann’s vibrant film adaptation.

However, what marks Meierjohann’s adaptation out as unique is seeing all of the above and more brought to life before your eyes. A silvery bridge that is raised and lowered, the seductive, strutting, sequined dancers, the leather-drenched revelers, the voyeurism of peering in on an intimate moment – all of these things feel far more powerful when seen up close than they ever could on a cinema screen. The production excellently navigates and embraces the raised stakes and challenges that promenade theatre can offer, asking the audience to travel with the story, to continually commit to the Meierjohann’s world and Shakespeare’s words.

The production is also decidedly youthful – the couple’s age is something that can often be forgotten when reading, but not here. Romeo (Alex Felton) and Juliet (Sara Vickers) are well cast for this: their fresh faces, fashion sense, body language, earnest expressions and unselfconscious emotions depict teenage life perfectly. The result was an emotional intensity, heightened sense of tragedy and feeling for beauty that was perfectly suited to Romeo and Juliet, and was only amplified by the wonderful staging and setting.

Speaking of which, although one could argue that the venue itself is the star attraction – Victoria Baths are a Manchester icon, inherently atmospheric, full of drama, beauty and sorrow – it did not overshadow the stunning decisions that have been made with both design and direction. The euphoria of them soaring the length of the pool on a shared swing without harnesses was positively contagious, and perfectly depicted the elation and risk of falling in love. The echoing expanse of the Gala Pool, reserved solely for the final crypt scene and lit by candles, was truly spectacular and alone makes this production unforgettable.

Romeo and Juliet made my heart soar causing me, as all good theatre should, to reflect on my own experiences, of youth, angst, and love with an added theatricality and beauty on an epic scale. A fantastic first effort from Meierjohann that has me already excited to see what he and his team at HOME will do next.

Words: Megan Griffith

Images: Graeme Cooper

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Othello @ Gullivers, Manchester, 22.09.14

Taking on Shakespeare is a herculean task in any nature, and taking it to the fringe scene is a bold and brave move. To deal with such caliber can be quite ambitious with the short rehearsals, small spaces and limited budgets of fringe. I for one have been hesitant as to whether it could be done; my past experience of fringe productions of Shakespeare have consisted of untamed onomatopoeia, embarrassing staging and such a thing as ‘Shitfaced Shakespeare’ – which in short (though I’m sure you’ve guessed) is a production of a Shakespeare play with one inebriated actor royally screwing it up. All of which was marketed as a contemporary niche.

To me the ‘try hard’ factor lets down these performances, with more concentration being put on that niche than on the deliverance. However, this was not the case with Lass Production’s Othello. Director Michael Whittaker and producer Gareth Kavanagh found a wonderful balance of staying true to the piece as well as giving the narrative a contemporary accessibility. Bonus points are awarded for finding success with their niche: setting the action in a football club. This idea was inspired by the infamous falling out of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand over alleged racial slurs that resulted in Terry loosing his England captaincy in 2011. This motif was used eloquently, without overshadowing the brilliance of the words.

The skilled delivery of these words of course is thanks to the abundantly talented cast, with George Oluyinka playing the title role – personifying themes of isolation and jealousy. Arch-villain Iago is played by the phenomenal Liam Grunshaw; the versatility of his emotional range perfectly pairs Iago’s comedic dimensions against scheming tyranny.

The other players of the match day line up were: Francene Turner as Othello’s wife Desdemonda, Taran Knight as Rederigo, Dru Jones as Montano, Eryl Lloyd Parry as Brabantio, Roisin McCusker as Bianca and Vicky Burrows as Gratiano, all of whom played with honest conviction. A serious hat tip goes to Ryan Russell who artfully gave life to a very likeable Cassio. Finally, Morag McLean Peacock injected the play with feminine strength as the feisty Emilia.

The cast took the challenge of Shakespeare without fear; they allowed themselves to open up to potentially difficult but nonetheless interesting material – and the rewards were bountiful. An enjoyable piece of theatre that stays true to its context, with accessibility for the modern audience.

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of Shay Rowan and Lass Productions