Saturday, 22 November 2014

Russell Brand’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin @ The Lowry, 04.11.2014

Russell Brand’s outspoken opinions have seen him draw flak from both the left and right of the establishment he fervently condemns. The media lackeys despise him, yet they can’t resist exposing him exposing them as cannibals for their own salacious flesh. In the red corner, left wing academics question his authenticity and generally continue to put working class people off political involvement with their affronted People’s Front of Judea routine.

The internet, narcissism’s great recruitment tool, doesn’t help matters. The nature of the web lends itself to contrarian posturing; a battleground to bash your keyboard in tandem with or against whatever is trending, distorting perceptions and pumping misinformation through this proud nation’s veins.

That’s why it is important to get a fresh look at things, free from the online mind pollution that clouds your judgement with Britain First memes and cat videos.

Although many people sully the reputation of the school playground with comparisons to Westminster, tonight’s book reading was full of well-behaved kids and it was refreshing to gauge a child’s perspective on the latest controversy surrounding this divisive figure.

Society’s latest point of contention with the gobby comedian? His children’s book. Not a pornographic novel or Holy Scripture, just a kids’ book. A silly rewrite of a fairytale with some mind blowing illustrations to prompt your imagination along.

Such is Brand’s current state of infamy that this book is garnering some of the most scathing attacks on his person. Granted, it is shameless in its encouragement of free thinking and critical of said establishment, but that doesn’t make it Mein Kampf for Penguin Beginners. Nicholas Tucker’s review in particular is so laughably austere that he comes across as a moralist from a bygone age, completely missing the point about what kids love.

The scatological, the grotesque and the rip roaring silliness of anarcho-rats spraying their ‘bum custard’ had the kids in stitches and, although I’m not a children’s literature lecturer like Tucker, it was obvious that these “pre-adolescent schoolchildren” were not “firmly stuck at the anal stage of their psychosexual development”.

Him on the other hand… But enough of this bum custard slinging.

The room was full of youngsters who’d been dragged along by excitable mums (and about three dads) all kept waiting in a hot room whilst some weird, hairy man whom they didn’t recognise was stuck in traffic. If you wanted an honest critical reaction free from the bile of the internet, then this was the place to get it.

Initially, Brand entered the room shame faced for his late appearance and then briefly chatted to a few children with a look of mortification, realising that he’d have to tone down his lewd persona. However, tone down his message he did not. He spoke to the kids with a shared curiosity and it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t just a vanity project. He didn’t patronise and in return the kids didn’t mock him for using big words, unlike the banter waging trolls of social media.

The book actively encourages vocabulary expansion with a glossary included. Afterwards, I spoke to Ollie (11) and Sam West (8), two brothers who loved how there was a rat in the corner of each page directing them to new words and meanings. When I asked them if they found any of it hard to understand, they shook their heads vigorously, eyeballing me like the condescending grownup that I am. Both are fans of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – there is a mischievous correlation with Brand’s delivery and Chris Riddel’s illustrations.

As Christmas draws near, people are encouraged to buy their kids computer games glorifying war, mobile phones, and other debris from capitalism’s shelves, and nobody bats an eyelid. When this book appears, the opposite is true. If this state of affairs doesn’t sit well with you, I’d recommend you buy Brand’s book for a relative.

Michael Gove’s jingoistic syllabus is more likely to lead your children into danger than the Pied Piper, so do them a favour and prepare them to question what they’re being spoon fed. Who knows, they may grow up being less selfish than their adult counterparts.

Words: Nathan McIlroy
Photo: courtesy of The Lowry

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Farewell To Arms @ The Lowry, 13.11.14

What's that on the stage: is it a film? Is it a play? No, it's A Farewell To Arms, the latest production from mixed-media masters Imitating The Dog. An adaptation of Hemingway's breakthrough novel, the show stirs radio-style narration, cinematic expansiveness and straight up drama together to create a new theatrical concoction.

Set in World War One the play tells the tale of Frederic Henry (Jude Monk McGowan), an American volunteer in the Italian Ambulance service. After being blown up by a shell Henry finds himself in hospital receiving treatment from English Nurse Catherine Barkley (Laura Atherton) and as he heals their love for one another grows. Unfortunately for them the cynicism, hurt and pain of the war is never far away, and eventually the relationship becomes just another casualty of it.

Rather than altering the book for the stage Imitating The Dog use a chorus to narrate the descriptive passages, meaning that Hemingway's choppy but evocative expositions are not lost. The second function of the chorus is that of filmmakers, as they operate cameras that capture the action as it happens. This footage is then projected onto the set itself, meaning that each line is delivered both by the actors and by their cinematic selves.

As is often the case with work like this the worst and best bits stemmed from the same source. The projected images had a slight delay, which meant that the actors' voices were out of sync with the footage behind them. Rather like a rattling noise in a car it was a minor irritation you knew you should ignore but just couldn't. However, some of the projections were truly transporting, as when Frederic and Catherine were rowing across a lake, their faces combined with a scene of shimmering moonlit water. Further, the directors (Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, who also adapted the text) and actors chose to deliver the dialogue in a deadpan manner. In some places this worked well, capturing the hard nature of Hemingway's prose, but at other times it was so stunted that it became comical. This was particularly an issue for Atherton, whose delivery didn't quite work for much of the play, causing Catherine to come across as rather flat and frantic.

This production does exactly what it needed to: it tried out experimental storytelling ideas, and proved that these techniques can work and are worthwhile. Rarely have I felt that I, and the people I was with, had so much to say about a play, and while not all of it was positive much of it was. Finally, they did justice to a great book that can not have been easy to adapt to the stage - this is, in fact, the first time such a production has ever been put on in England.

Imitating The Dog are onto something here and, once they iron out a few technical issues, I am sure they will be making more interesting mixes with this technique sometime soon.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ed Waring

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Naked Old Man/John And Mark @ Taurus Bar 12.11.14

Theatre is at its absolute best when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, no fluff or extravagant sets, just expression and communication. This we learn through Northern Outlet Theatre Company’s double bill. The first, Naked Old Man, is written by Academy Award nominated writer Murray Schisgal.

Performed by Richard Sails, the play follows the 82-year-old writer entertaining 3 of his late colleagues that he envisages in his mind’s eye. The 45-minute monologue is beautifully written and the phrases are turned as frequently, and as elegantly, as a carousel. Sparked by the question “what it feels like to be old,” Sails uses the eloquent language to poignantly communicate a lifetime of experience, a frustration of present condition and expectation for the future. Despite an inevitable theme of mortality, Sails has a talent for allowing the words to carry weight and poignancy without shrouding the character in pity from the audience. A theme of legacy is present within this piece as the men discuss their accomplishments, which follows quite nicely into the second performance of the evening.

They say you should never meet your heroes; one can only suspect that this is to avoid a possible glass shattering realization that they are just another ‘working class hero.’ Being an away from home Scouser and avid John Lennon fan, I was cautious of this when I sat to watch John and Mark.

The play is simultaneously set inside a high security prison and the psyche of Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman, played by Matthew Howard-Norman. A dramatic and dangerous character can bring out bad habits – even in the best of actors. The temptation to shock and awe the audience can be a persuasive choice over being truthful to the text and usually ends in disaster. Thankfully disaster was evaded in Howard-Norman’s performance. His portrayal of Chapman was executed to perfection, with a controlled psychopathic coldness that remained naturalistic.

Equally as challenging is playing a legend of such popularity, fame and followers. The pressure must have really been on when the show performed at The Lantern Theatre in Liverpool. None the less Lee Joseph pulls it off with precision and flare. Visiting Chapman as a spectre, Joseph swaggers around with that eminent Lennon confidence, reinforced by all the recognised mannerisms, image and distinguishable nasal voice. That being said, Joseph gave the character another dimension that raised it above mere impressions – he managed to capture Lennon’s furtive vulnerability.

The play has been deemed as controversial, receiving some criticism for fulfilling Chapman’s bid for notoriety in an attempt to ‘steal’ Lennon’s fame. This controversy is unjustified as overall the piece doesn’t deal with a singular character’s experience, but deals with love, faith, obsession and shared yearning for fulfilment. A truthful piece of two men connected by a horrific event driven by their personal hubris.

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of Northern Outlet Theatre Company

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Dumb Waiter @ The King's Arms, Salford, 06.11.14

When a play by an established writer is performed in the fringe there is one key question that must be answered: does fringe bring anything to the work that mainstream theatre could not? In the case of The Dumb Waiter, Harold Pinter's play produced here by Ransack Theatre, the answer is a resounding yes.

Set in the seldom used cellar of the King's Arms the damp, cramped and confined space is authentic to the point of discomfort. Two hitmen Ben (Alastair Michael) and Gus (James Warburton) wait impatiently in this uncomfortable room, knowing they could receive the call to kill at any minute, and we the audience are right there with them. Every drip, rustle and scrape was in your ears, the mood of the room and the mood of the play creating an uneasy harmony.

Pinter's writing is rather like a pen and ink drawing: clean, hard and crisp, with plenty of white space for the imagination to fill in. Both Michael and Warburton, with the input of director Piers Black-Hawkins, judged the pacing of the text well, leaving silences and adding expression to create tension and humour respectively. It was the sort of performance that has you staring intently at an actor's face, looking for the slightest eyebrow movement or curling of a lip that might indicate what is going to happen next.

To fully answer my earlier question, the fantastic location of this production brought the audience right into the room, something that could never be achieved with this much conviction on a bigger stage. Added to this was a sense of thoroughness and attention to detail - both in performance and production values - that made for a very enjoyable evening.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Shay Rowan

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof @ The Royal Exchange, 04.11.14

There is a rather pleasing disconnection in seeing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, set in the sweltering deep south and with the word 'hot' in the title, on a cold, crisp November evening in Manchester, especially at the Exchange: the space was created for just this kind of drama, equal parts grandiose and intimate. The stage itself is a brilliant white, as is all the furniture, rather like an interior designer's idea of how heaven might appear. But, as we soon find out, for the play's protagonists this is very far from heaven indeed.

The action takes place on a plantation, where a family has gathered to celebrate patriarch Big Daddy's birthday. Brick (Charles Aitken) and his wife Maggie (Mariah Gale) have become cut off from one another, with Brick more in love with liquor than anything living. Meanwhile Brick's Brother Gooper (Matthew Douglas) and his wife Mae (Victoria Elliot) are doing their best to impress Big Daddy (Daragh O'Malley) and Big Mama (Kim Criswell) in order to secure a juicy inheritance. Self interest, self loathing and self pity collide and contort under one roof and, in the end, no one gets what they really want: happiness.

Although the play is 60 years old and set in the deep south the subject matter and dialogue feel relevant to a modern Manchester audience. The issues it addresses like mortality, sexuality and sibling rivalry are ones that people will no doubt find a way to fight over until the sun ceases to shine. The conflict between ambition and emotion is one that we all must struggle with at one time or another, and one that is dealt with devastatingly well by Williams, a writer with few equals when it comes to dysfunctional families.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not an easy play for actors as the scenes are long and the southern accent can be problematic. Therefore the Aitken's performance was particularly pleasing, as he created a seemingly effortless vacuum in Brick around which the other characters revolved. Gale made me feel more and more for her character Maggie as the play progressed, while Elliot and Douglas provided comedic support as the infuriatingly fertile Gooper and Mae. O'Malley as Big Daddy had commanding presence but struggled with the accent, which made some of the dialogue difficult to listen to.

Director James Dacre made good use of the Exchange's multiple levels, taking actors into the upper tiers to deliver lines and having them loom menacingly over your shoulder during dramatic moments, visually illustrating the inward pressure a family can exert on its members. The timing and arrangement of the group scenes was also very well done, as Dacre balanced the forces of the varying personalities and drew feeling and humour from them.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is an exceptional play, full of great lines and sensitive discussions of serious subjects. This production does it justice, but is not outstanding in itself: there were too many lulls, too many things that didn't quite work out for it to reach that rank. Satisfying never the less, this is a must for fans of Williams' work and worthwhile for those wanting to experience his brilliance for the first time.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Jonathan Kennan

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Wolf @ Salford Arts Theatre, 31.10.14

1956 theatre company have taken us on quite the journey over the past 4 weeks with their superb rep season. Starting in war time Britain, rock and rolling in 50s New York, to keeping up with multi-role playing in ‘The Lodger’ and reaching our final destination: Salford 1998. Wolf is the second original piece from the season and is written by the wonderfully talented Amy-Jane Ollies (who also acts as the company’s Artistic Director). Ollies has a fluid and natural style of writing inspired by Mancunian writer Simon Stephens. Stephens has insisted he “likes art that shines light into dark places,” which is evident with the content of his plays. Wolf is no different.

Telling the story of raw and intimate relationships between family, friends, lovers and forbidden territory, the narrative unravels a theme of an absence of truth and the dangers our little white lies can get us into. At the centre of the story is a family torn apart after the arrest of their eldest son Carl (Lee Lomas), and the lies they tell each other.

Julie Hannah gave a stunning performance as the mother Kate, as she desperately tries to keep her family together. She and Lomas have some beautiful moments as Kate visits Carl in prison and masks the truth as to why she remains his only visitor. We also see how the other family members are affected. Graham Eaglesham plays the silenced father lost for words and how to help. Nick, played by the versatile Bradley Cross, lies to his partner about visiting his brother, which nearly costs him his relationship. Ben Wolstenholme plays Paul, the youngest brother about to leave for uni and yearning for escape (another theme explored by Stephens writing.)

The most interesting and surprising twist comes from Ollies and her convincing portrayal of Samantha, the youngest sibling and only daughter of the family. Lost and lonely in the quiet chaos that disrupts her security within the family, she acts out of desperation for attention and love, causing a new wrath of grief and ultimately falls prey to the wolf.

The piece is gorgeously written and brilliantly executed, ultimately reminding us there is no such thing as a little white lie. Beware of the wolf!

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of 1956 Theatre

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Picture Of Doreen Gray @ Oldham Coliseum, 21.10.14

The Picture of Doreen Grey is a wilfully jumbled tale of a media personality who has, by the harsh standards of celebrity, passed her sell-by date. Fortunately for her she stumbles across a self-portrait she made while at school, which has been brought to life by some sort of supernatural occurrence. Trading places with her younger self kickstarts her career...but at what cost?

This is my first experience of LipService Theatre, a production company made up of writer-performer pairing Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding. They've been working together since 1985, and this show is one in a series inspired by famous books (past productions include Very Little Women and Withering Looks). Much of the writing pokes fun at young people and the modern world, with reference points - twitter, facebook, pop music - that are not terribly original. This would be problematic if LipService's aim was to make groundbreaking comedy or cutting social satire, but since they aren't it isn't. Instead, they've made a silly and accessible Radio Four-style comic romp that the audience at the Coliseum absolutely adored. Highlights included a choreographed office chair chase, some old-fashioned show tunes with titles like 'No One Loves a Fairy Over Fifty,' and a very funny skit in which Fox and Ryding recreate famous paintings using some decidedly dodgy props.

While by no means a political piece the show did have a message of sorts: getting old, gracefully or otherwise, is no crime. The Picture of Doreen Grey doesn't take itself seriously, even for a second, and if you're a fan of Radio Four comedy this is probably the perfect night out for you.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of LipService Theatre

Juke Box Baby @ Salford Arts Theatre, 16.10.14

Freshly formed Theatre Company 1956 have been hard at work with their ambitious Rep season of four plays over a four week period. Following the success of their debut (a stylised adaptation of Little Women) is Juke Box Baby, and original piece written and directed by cast member Lee Lomas. Set in 1950s New York, the production tells the story of Jimmie and Bobby Rose (Ben Wolstenholme); two brothers from Brooklyn, aspiring for a more optimistic future and self-discovery.

Jimmie - a naturally gifted writer with a heck of an emotional wall – is a high school dropout stuck in a dead-end job. He is the provider to his kid brother and alcoholic father. When Bobby’s future from an indubitable baseball scholarship is jeopardised, Jimmie does an act of kindness that changes both their lives forever. Writer/Director Lomas is a triple threat, as he plays the lead role of Jimmie and does so with emotional precision.

The supporting cast shine too, particularly Bradley Cross as the brilliantly diverse JC. Cross has impeccable comic timing, delivered by unrestricted physicality and stage presence. However his JC is not to been seen as a mere comic relief, as the character tells an underlying narrative of homosexual prejudice in the 50s.

Josh Morter plays Hunter, Jimmie’s best friend and alpha male of the group, and Morter, Wolstenholme and Graham Eaglesham (who plays the brother’s father) all collaborate to make a presence of the archetypal 50s male dominance with dangerous calibre. The romanticism of the production comes from Matthew Hattersley playing Michael and from the ladies of the cast: Amy-Jane Ollies as Lizzie and Hannah Ellis as Angie. Despite the stereotypes of the era, they break the mould; they are headstrong, stand by their beliefs and, more importantly, their emotions.

A nostalgic offering with modern grit!

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of 1956 Theatre

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