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

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