Thursday, 21 January 2016

Orphans @ Hope Mill Theatre, 14.1.16

No time for a clever anecdote for this one kids, I just need to jump straight in and talk about Play With Fire’s production of Orphans. I know the purpose of a review is to give an honest account of a piece and balance both the positives and the negatives, but spoiler alert this one is going to be positive. This piece did have a couple of negatives I would like to raise, the main one being the audience numbers where not what this piece deserved. The second, we will get to later.

 Orphans is a story of two brothers bereaved as children after the death of their mother and desertion of their father. Alone to raise themselves, the now adult boys live in the dilapidated family home in Philadelphia. Eldest brother Treat (James Oates) provides for his little brother Phillip (Daniel Bradford) by being a petty thief, which soon changes their lives forever when he kidnaps a Chicago gangster (Shaun Hennessy).

Written by Lyle Kessler, the script is incredibly moving and engaging. There is a delectable sprinkling of humour and brilliant one liners, that really give the characters some dimension. This masterfully crafted dialogue acts almost as a ‘safety net’ for its actors, for there is no way we could not get a sense of who these characters are; it is literally ingrained in the things they say. But the cast went above and beyond, with each individual’s performance matching the already brilliant quality of this script.

Oates explosive performance as Treat is superb, as he encapsulates the demeanour of a violent and manipulative adult, with an underlying vulnerability and childish longing. This makes it is easy to feel empathy for him when the time comes. Hennessey gives a stellar performance of Harold. Although we first meet him in a vulnerable position, tables are turned when with gun in hand Harold throws the boys a lifeline and becomes the parent they have yearned for. Hennessy was a natural fit for Harold’s fast paced, hilarious dialogue; all the while being the tender vein running through the play. The stand out for me however was the excellent Bradford as Phillip. I have seen Bradford in a show before where again he was wonderful to watch, but he didn't have much to apply in terms of physicality. So to see just what more he had to offer when approaching a role was a great surprise. Rather than portray housebound Phillip as child trapped in an adult body, I sensed Bradford instead create a portrait of someone with potential Autism spectrum disorder, who could thrive and functioning at a high level, but not without the experience and help he’s not getting.        

  It’s all been pretty positive so far hasn't it? It continues with direction and production of the show, which is both slick and precise. The only thing I would bring up, was that some of the physical combat scenes were a tad sloppy. Understandably the moves where risky and it’s best to approach with caution. However, with the characters all having such prominent behavioural traits there is a brewing feeling that any one of those behaviours could get out of hand. When it inevitably does in those moments, the pace slowed down.

The standard of this production was what you would expect at The Exchange or HOME, and I'm proud to say it has come from a team of independent theatre makers. So while you’re buying a season ticket at your favourite theatre, think about what you could be missing on the Indie scene.

Words by Kate Morris

Images courtesy of George Hill Photography 

Friday, 11 December 2015

Into The Woods @ The Royal Exchange, 09.12.15

The pantomime season is upon us and if, like me, you want to go to the theatre without the risk of someone saying “It’s behind you” or listen to the same tired jokes you've heard a thousand times before, fear not. There is light in the forest of the Manchester theatre scene.

Into The Woods at The Royal Exchange is an imaginative telling of Stephen Sondheim’s enchanting musical. The story opens with a wealth of fairy-tale characters, including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and a wicked witch, all looking for their happily ever- afters before embarking on various quests that require them to go into the titular woods. Each character’s tale starts to intertwine amongst the trees and branches, before they eventually reach the end of their stories, or so we think. Soon we are shown what happens after happily ever after, and it’s not all singing birds and friendly dwarves.

The Royal Exchange hold no punches with this production. The second you walk into the theatre, you see large trees surrounding the performance space, inviting the audience to go into the woods themselves to see the show. The entire cast are amazing.  Normally when watching a show, it’s easy to see the standout star, but each cast member shines, never missing a single beat. Some highlights from the show are Marc Elliot and Michael Peavoy’s duet, ‘Agony’, which has the entire audience in stitches with their perfect timing and sublime voices. It was a joy to watch. Gillian Bevan’s portrayal of the Witch was a real showstopper and Natasha Cottriall brought a wonderful mix of childish innocence, sass and edginess to the part of Little Red Riding Hood.

The cast were just one part of this fantastic show. A special mention has to go to director Matthew Xia, who rose to the challenge of taking this epic musical and fitting it into the Exchange’s intimate venue. This is greatly helped by Jenny Tirmani’s jaw-dropping set design, which looks unassuming to begin with, but soon you feel you are sitting between towering trees and being chased by monstrous giants.

If you are looking for a magical experience this festive season there’s no reason to get lost in the thicket, just go into the woods, …or the Royal Exchange.

Into The Woods runs until 16 Jan 2016 

Words: John Mulholland 

Image: Courtesy of The Royal Exchange 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

This Last Tempest preview @ Contact 26-27.10.15

Contact Theatre is one of the most innovative theatres in the North West, consistently presenting creative works that are thought provoking, outspoken and daring. Productions presented at Contact often cross art forms, creating wonderful and wacky hybrids. This summer I experienced Sensored, a day of creative events that merged sound, smell, texture, music, dance and theatre; this multi-art-form approach allowed something really powerful to come through and was a fantastic insight to Contact's creative amplitude. So it's safe to say that Contact is the perfect venue to host the upcoming collaborative project This Last Tempest. 

On hearing the title, some readers may have immediately thought of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which they would be correct to do so. However This Last Tempest is a sequel and radical taken on the Shakespearean classic, that is equally accessible to audiences familiar and new to Shakespeare. Created by producing organisation Fuel and internationally acclaimed theatre company Uninvited Guests, this show fits perfectly with Contact’s innovative programming, promising an experience which is part theatre part gig. 

Beginning where Shakespeare left off, Ariel and Caliban are left alone on an enchanted island as Prospero's ship sails over the horizon and out of sight. In the hours that follow spawns a spectacle of magic where the spirit and creature weave unheard versions of the story, and conjure up what we mortals thought impossible; a world where humans are monsters and inanimate things come to life. 

With a an already stunningly visual play as its inspiration, this immersive experience is set to be like no other with an atmospheric soundscape by composer and musician Neil Johnson creating a strange but familiar world for both characters and audience. The concept of the piece is refreshingly simple, but one which removes limitations and enables the creative team to demonstrate their overwhelming creative ability.

The play has a strong key theme of freedom and questions the notion of utopia. We have all done it, where we hope for a better tomorrow or have the belief that a different time and place would bring us happiness; This Last Tempest explores what happens when one finally gets what they have been yearning for and maybe the grass isn't always greener. Although it would be easy for the audience to draw political parallels the company aim to empower their audiences to create their own meaning.  
Uninvited Guests are a company of national and international acclaim, melding the lines of theatre and social festivities to provoke and stimulate their audiences to think about the world around them and the times we live in. This Last Tempest is a brilliant example of these aims, which I urge you to take in while you have the chance.

This Last Tempest 
Thursday 26 November 8pm
Friday 27 November 8pm

Words: Kate Morris
Images: Aerial 3 is by Tom Medwell; This Last Tempest and Ariel in Flight by Ben Pacey

Monday, 16 November 2015

Ladyfest MCR @ Islington Mill 14.11.15

Last weekend saw this year’s big Ladyfest event take place at Islington Mill.  Ladyfest has been on my radar for several months  and, from what I gleaned from social media, would be a bold, informative and creative event.

Ladyfest isn’t unique to Manchester; similar festivals take place in other UK cities, and a quick Google shows festivals happening across the pond.  The common ideology is to showcase work by women and others who might experience barriers to sharing their work, from trans, non-binary and intersex artists or mothers juggling childcare, offering a supportive environment away from the generally competitive nature of the creative industries, where money and contacts can be everything.  However, Ladyfest Manchester aims to give visibility to Manchester-based creatives in particular, evidenced in the line-up of musicians and comedy performers sourced from an open call-out.

Workshops on offer included Sex Workers’ Rights, Bike Maintenance and Screen Printing.  I attended a workshop entitled The Art Of Consent, billed as ‘exploring body language, verbal communication, gender stereotyping, 'grey areas' and barriers, laws, and the value of challenging our sexual assumptions in an interactive, creative setting’ - which seemed a huge task for an hour long session.  I went on my own, feeling a little vulnerable and awkward sitting alone at a table, whilst the other table was occupied by a group of friends.  Thankfully, I was soon joined by others who had rejected the remaining empty table - unlike most other everyday situations - with another solo woman joining us minutes later.  And this was indicative of the whole workshop: friendly and open in an atmosphere where it felt ok to share.  There was no pressure, no expectation.  The workshop’s leader Chelsea Murphy - a local consent and sexual violence researcher - and her facilitators were clear that we need only talk about things with which we we felt comfortable.  We discussed and we got our thoughts and feelings down creatively through working together on a collage.  I left feeling positive, not because we’d changed the world or come up with definitive solutions - how can you with such a difficult, provocative subject? - but because I’d been in a room with people who wanted to address the subject of consent and those who wanted to support that discussion.

Of course, that particular workshop isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sense I got was that it was indicative of the whole day.  Speaking to Carly Lyes, one of the event’s organisers, it’s clear how central the idea of community and being supportive is to Ladyfest.  Everyone there, whether organising, running a workshop, running a stall or performing, was a volunteer.  Ladyfest Manchester is self-funded and self-organised, the only money coming in from ticket sales.  People are involved because they want to be, because there is a need for this kind of event and community and because the inclusivity it aims to create seems to be successful - the event sold out well in advance.  When asked about future events, Lyes is ready with the plans: a larger festival next year spread over a longer period of time and different venues, more participatory workshops and the possibility of branching out and having their own stage at the big festivals.  From my time there on Saturday, the Ladyfest Manchester clearly has a relevance, a community willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen and an audience who want to participate.

Words: Julie Burrow

Thursday, 12 November 2015

JB Shorts 14 @ Joshua Brooks, 5th November 2015

Although it’s not quite Christmas yet, I’m sure you have all seen the sudden mountain of milk tray so temptingly on offer, or so many chocolate oranges they surely can’t all belong to Terry. Tis the season of indulgence, (well almost) and were there are those that like to start their Christmas shopping early, I rather get a head start on my festive feasting and in this instance it’s on the theatrical buffet of JB Shorts 14. Best get my fat pants!

Andrew Lynch’s Emily is an interesting story that starts in the toilets of a horseracing event. Janice (Alexandra Jay Jones) is a rich social butterfly who belittles toilet attendant Lena (Emily Fleeshman) for “not knowing her place”. But Janice soon discovers she has more in common with Lena as she thinks. A nice piece with some good twists but slightly dampened with messy blackouts to mark the three scene changes.

All Items of Value Have Been Removed is set in the future where the world’s countries have been bought up, leaving Britain the last standing and holding back from being sold. More frightful Tony Blair is having a second round of fame! The piece evidently carries a political message and one I’m sure is rather weighty, and certainly for now too big for 15 minute window. This satirical comedy could do with a second chance to reach it’s potential if performed in a different format.

The Outing is a lovely piece of writing and one I really enjoyed. Widower Frank (Josh Moran) meets social recluse Nellie (Jeni Howarth Williams) during a coach trip. The fa├žade of this romantic comic piece is shattered with an unexpected twist, revealing how the ill doings and reputation of someone can unjustly be transferred to another.

Another favourite is found with Sugared Armour, a classic paradigm of estranged characters brought together through unfortunate circumstances. Gemma (Jo Dakin), Annie (Victoria Scowcroft) and Andy (Derek Hicks) all eagerly wait in a hospital waiting room for the fast approaching death of their mother. Memories are recalled, and wounds are opened - some of which run deeper than others, but the answers aren’t at the bottom of a pack of sausage rolls.

Heroine is the most poignant piece of the evening, bringing together two monologues performed simultaneously. Though living in two eras the female characters have the same objective; to prevent their daughter/sister from running away to fight in war. 1930s Ursula (Kerry Willison-Parry) discovers her daughter in the middle of the night about to leave to fight the Fascists in Spain, whereas in 2015 Aalia (Shila Iqbal) discovers her sister packing to fight for ISIS. By far the most thought provoking piece but I did find to be too ‘wordy’ which meant as an audience we didn’t respond as well as we should. Particularly the contemporary side of the script was in parts repetitive, but overall a piece that will be something special with a little bit of a tidy up.

Equal Shares is a play most fitting it the comic expectations of JB Shorts. Two wrong women Joanne (Rachel Logan) and Claire (Eve Burley) mutual agree on a vengeance for Richard (Marlon Solomon) after discovering he has married both of them. A vengeance of which the women get to share Richard, but not in the way he expects, a silly light-hearted piece to end another successful collection of JB Shorts.

Words: Kate Morris
Images: Courtesy of Brainne Edge

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Video exclusive: Gideon Conn's 'I Just Don't Know You Very Well'

Manchester's twee-hop wordsmith Gideon Conn has followed up his announcement of a new album, Hip Hop Originals, via the London-based label Wah Wah 45s, with a new video to accompany its first single. 'I Just Don't Know You Very Well' is an ode to the tribulations of attempted romance at the whim of fast-paced and impersonal city living and sees the multi-instrumentalist weaving his colourful lyrical tapestries once more.

Wheeled in front of the camera and taken through a series of costume changes, Gideon spins the threads of his offbeat wordplay to complement Bunty's choral refrain, keeping things sparse and simple yet effective, similar to the tune itself. He could be the third Conchord, teaming seamlessly with Bret and Jemaine's whimsical musings and social commentary.

Infectious in both smile and style, there's a lingering temptation to hit repeat, so for plenty more of the same head to Wonder Inn on 21 November to get to know the full album at his Hip Hop Originals launch show.

Words: Ian Pennington

Hip Hop Originals is released via Wah Wah 45s on 27 November.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Preview: HEALTH @ Gorilla, 27.10.15

HEALTH blur the lines between art, virtual reality and the tangible world. Producing a sound that blasts itself past pigeonholes and genres, they instead create a new movement, floating in a realm where the unreal becomes real and the darkest depths of the human mind are projected onto the whitest canvases.

Their return to the UK with Death Magic should bring a whole new experience for HEALTH fans attending the Manchester show/exhibition/performance. The mystery surrounding their three-day residency at the Echo in LA only creates more velocity and hype, pushing HEALTH further out there into the unknown realms of music and arts. I imagine the residency will be a progression both musically and visually, given that each album has remained true to the ethos of transgression, sounds, contorted reality and the deliverance of their art.

I am intrigued to find out where exactly HEALTH are going on this ride with Death Magic, the residency, the mini tour, then the closing ceremony when they hit Pitchfork in Paris.

Words: Cameron Broadhurst

HEALTH headline Gorilla on Tuesday 27 October.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Interview: Ian Kershaw, writer of By Far The Greatest Team

"We're all trainspotters," writer Ian Kershaw tells me during our interview about his contribution to Monkeywood Theatre's most recent production, By Far The Greatest Team. "We may laugh at the old bloke at the end of the platform, with his notepad and corduroys, but we are all passionate about something. All watching something and waiting for the next time. We're all trainspotters in our own way."

Four Mancunian writers explore what it is to be a football fan with four brand new plays. Told in a game of two halves, we hear stories of both Manchester City and Manchester United, identity, community, belonging and the passion that drives it all. Now Then spoke with one of the MVPs, Ian Kershaw, to tell us more about the beautiful game he and his fellow writers have created.

Hi Ian, can you tell us briefly about the production and how much football can we expect? 

It’s on at the Lowry between 18 September and 20 September, and it's made up of four plays written by four writers about football - two of them by Manchester City fans and the other two by Manchester United fans. The four plays have an overall running time of 90 minutes and the performance space has been decked out to look like a football stadium. We’ve asked the audience to come dressed in their footy colours, so it might kick off a bit - people might be fighting in the car park.

What we are wishing for is that there will be football fans who have never been to theatre before who come along, and equally, so that theatre fans are so caught up in the stories that they want to go to a match, we want the two worlds to inspire each other. I guess really we are trying to create an understanding from two sides, especially between the two teams, and just show that we are all in the same thing. We are all passionate and we both live and die for Saturday.

How were the stories for the production created?

Martin Gibbons (one third of the Artistic Directors of Monkeywood) sent a call out for writers some time ago, and I thought it sounded great and wanted to get involved. He then assembled the final four - luckily we all know each other through different Manchester connections - and he asked use all to meet up at the National Football Museum. Martin gave us an open brief and said we could write about anything we wanted, within a football scenario. Once we delivered our first drafts, we started thinking of the play as a whole, and how we could bring these four stories together where it wouldn’t be a case of one play, lights out, next play, lights out. So we tried to create a production that resembled football as an entity, but also had a journey.

Manchester celebrated the second Football Writing Festival last week. Was By Far The Greatest Team a part of that?

No, I think that was a happy accident. By Far the Greatest Team has been a long time in the making and in Martin’s head for a number of years. Martin is actually a Middlesbrough fan and he was at a home game against a much lesser team. Middlesbrough were losing, so the fans all began singing, “We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen". It was evidently not true. They weren’t even the greatest team on the field. But it was that passion and love of the game, and that has parallels to theatre which then inspired the project.

How has it been working in collaboration with other writers?

It’s been the best of both worlds. Being a writer, it’s a very solitary profession, so I’ve had the flip side of that which allowed me to have meetings and good times with other people. The other writers are all brilliant, and what’s been refreshing is that usually it can be quite competitive being in a team and you want to be the best. There's been nothing like that. Instead I've just wanted to be as good. It’s great.

What's been your favourite part of the process?

I think what I’ve most enjoyed is that we are all mates and there’s been a lot of winding up going on - little bits of gentle needling and a lot of banter. David Judge is a United fan and is the main actor in my play. He plays a die-hard City fan, so it’s been a lot of fun winding him up. The closer we get to opening night, I tell him, “I cant wait to see you wear that City shirt and kiss that badge".

Words by Kate Morris
Images courtesy of Monkeywood Theatre

By Far The Greatest Team is on at The Lowry from 18-20 September, kicking off at 7.30pm each night.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Shrine of Everyday Things @ Contact, 25.07.15

I've always found it interesting the things we get attached to and what we choose to hold on to. It may be a particular blanket or cuddly toy we had as a child which has survived into our adulthood; although that existence may inhabit the attic, still we valued it enough to never let it go. But what of the little things we never knew we would miss until it’s gone; the smell of an old book, the porcelain figurine that sat on your Nan’s mantelpiece; or the wallpaper from your first home? The Shrine of Everyday Things is an immersive, interactive journey that gives you a new perspective to how big the little things can be.

The talented Contact Young Company devised the site-specific piece in four properties in a Brunswick estate facing demolition and refurbishment, peeking behind their net curtains to explore the stories of the residents gone by. With that in mind the piece is extremely ghostly with a buzzing feeling of apprehension; which is no surprise given the location remains secret until it’s too late to turn back. 

The audience is asked to meet at the Contact Theatre before they are guided to the housing estate. On the walk we are asked to wear headphones playing slow, moody music and (unbeknownst to us) voices of former residents talking of their favourite rooms and memories of the estate.

As we approach the estate we see a long balloon drifting through the sky, which isn’t an odd occurrence until we see another floating from one of the windows. It’s strangely surreal; but more so across the road to welcome us are the “picture perfect” suburbanites, smiling creepily and waving, oh so slowly.

The audience are then split up into smaller groups and guided to different rooms. Each experience is strange and eerie in its own way, equally as strange are the residents. Visiting the rooms we meet three women listening to the whispers of their neighbours. Sit in on an awkward dinner while sugar spills out from the ceiling. Then on to a lonely son in a kitchen filled with empty water bottles.

A strange calm is cast in the final room however, as we are invited to remember our dreams. This was a clever twist to the piece’s proceedings; one that was thought provoking and emotive as it made me personally connect with the content but reminded me I was stood in someone’s home. We were asked to write on the walls the best dream we have ever had, and it was lovely to read the dreams of strangers. As I read, I remembered that this was a real person’s bedroom; they had reflected, dreamt and looked to the future as we were now.

That shared experience between a stranger and me; was the core of the piece for me. The power of an everyday occurrence, and exhibition of these little moments which make up our lives. The Shrine of Everyday Things is in our dreams.

Words: Kate Morris
Images: Courtesy of Contact 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

24:7 Theatre Festival, We are the Multitude @ John Thaw Theatre, 26.07.15

We have become all too familiar with paradigm of opposites in the films we see, the books we read and the plays we watch. The star-crossed lovers from opposing families, the feuding gangs fighting for their turf or, as a more contemporary take, a social divide coming together and rising up as an unstoppable dance duo. And that’s exactly what makes up We Are The Multitude.

Lisa and Simon are colleagues who share an office pod and we needn’t even meet them to have an idea of their differences. Lisa tarts up her table with fluffy tinsel and flowers, while house of Simon sports the understated, minimal look. As history and countless TV sitcoms have told us, we know we can expect the pair to cause each other some headache, but eventually put their difference aside to work together.

Predictable as it sounds, we are surprised when we discover what does force these two together. No, it’s not being stuck in an elevator or an ATM vestibule (classic Chandler). It's more interesting. The two are trapped in their office due to their university building being targeted by the protest group We Are The Multitude. However, the narrative isn’t a political one. In fact, the politics are an effective conduit to put two lonely and unpopular people together.

The piece is heavily comedic and the actors do an incredible job of getting the script off the page. Amy Drake, who plays Lisa, is a clear comic talent and has received recognition for similar roles. Drake does well to bring her movements and vocal technique to utilise a script’s humour. Andy Blake equally gives his character dimension as the condescending and self-righteous Simon, who hides behind an intellectual superiority to conceal his feelings of personal failure and fulfilment.

I did think it possible that Simon served a purpose to personify the touched-upon politics of We Are The Multitude, but did we lose ourselves in laughing so much that we missed something more? The protest group targets the several university buildings to urge the Prime Minister to acknowledge that education should be for everyone and not for the privileged. If we are not given the right chances, do we run the risk of a world of Simons, not realising or fulfilling their potential? I don’t know whether this was intended by writer Laura Harper or something constructed from my viewing – either way I would take it as a win.

I can’t deny that I enjoyed this piece. Who doesn’t enjoy a witty script? However, some of the confessions did seem a tad predictable and contrived, but that may be due to the familiar framework. Nonetheless, the piece clearly found success across all levels  a well-written script, directed effectively by Liz Stephenson, performed by talented and focused actors. So you can forgive a bit of predictability – they are classics for a reason, after all.

Words: Kate Morris
Image: Courtesy of 24:7 Theatre Festival