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