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 façade 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

Saturday, 1 August 2015

24:7 Theatre Festival, Madness Sweet Madness @ Cosmo Concert Hall 27.7.15

Hi, I’m Kate and I like theatre. I like stories and when a group of creative individuals come together to breathe life into a script. What I like most about theatre, is that it can reflect issues to society and fly the flag for change. I confess in the past I have been disappointed to find the piece didn’t carry a contemporary relevance or stand for something – and that is admittedly snobbish. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying a play because it is a story. Chocolate doesn’t do much for you, but you enjoy it all the same. Be that as it may, I was happy to see the title Madness Sweet Madness on the 24:7 programme; yes, we are getting some stigmas of mental health on the table.

Madness Sweet Madness has a strange ambience, seemingly somewhere in the realm of a dream, on the brink of wake. The piece is presented in real time, but there is something oh so…off. Like a watercolour reverie, bleeding into something more real.

Grace (Sophie Harrison) is unable to work and is lodging with her brother in law, Vesuvius (Matt Aistrup), after her husband Charlie and the passengers of a missing plane are lost. Grace and Vesuvius’s relationship had me guessing almost instantly. We learn Grace has been prescribed some pills to help her cope and, equally suspicious, Vesuvius is sleep-deprived due to Grace's unpredictability and asks if he could “knock her out” so he can get some shut eye. Just as we try to keep up, two unconventional cops arrive, hopefully to shed some light on this murkiness. But they heighten the unsettling surrealism. They have intimate details they inexplicably acquired and oddly help themselves to cook eggs for their breakfast. The madness has spread here.

The script was very intriguing, but unfortunately some comic material was skated over and I suspect this is down to the pacing of the piece overall. The aforementioned dreamy oddity was a theme across the dialogue and its delivery, which came at the expense of the jokes planted by writer Georgina Tremayne.

Another motif that had me quizzical was the luminous house at the back of the stage. What purpose did this serve? Was it yet another attempt at a moving Salvador Dali painting, a representation of the nature of mental illness or simply because there are references to houses (none of which glow in the dark) in the script?

All of the actors did a good job to animate the vision of both writer and director, but I think it would benefit having characters of an older age. I hate to sound fickle, but I think Grace’s grief would in turn be more relatable and gain greater empathy.

This play would serve a second attempt as I think we haven’t yet scratched the surface of its potential.

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

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Competition: Manchester Jazz Festival

The 20th annual edition of Manchester Jazz Festival launches this week with its ever-impressive array of time signatures and styles, continuing from Friday 31 July through to Sunday 9 August.

While limelight stealers include the Robert Glasper Trio and the Mercury Prize nominees Gogo Penguin (whose Festival Pavilion show is now reportedly sold out), there’s also a keen eye on ensuring plenty of events remain accessible and free to attend. Jazz North’s northern line showcase extends across Monday 3 August at a few of the partner venues – Matt & Phred’s, Central Library and St Ann’s Church among them – and other newcomers remain free under the ‘introduces’ banner.

Elsewhere, there’s a strong local presence, both old and new, with the likes of Charlie Cooper & The CCs, Hans Prya (who formed after meeting as participants of Snarky Puppy’s Brighter Sound residency at Band on the Wall in 2013), Cinematic Orchestra guitarist Stuart McCallum and Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne.

Look out for reviews of some of the festival’s events in our September issue, which will appear here.

We’ve teamed up with Manchester Jazz Festival to give away a pair of tickets to the Riot Jazz Brass Band / Baked A La Ska double bill at the Festival Pavilion on Saturday 8 August. All you need to do to enter is like and share the image at the other end of this link (making sure it’s set to ‘public’ so we can see that you’ve entered).

We’ll announce the winner on Thursday 6 August.

Good luck!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Back Seat Betty @ Joshua Brooks, 02.07.15

Recently I heard a great piece of advice whilst chatting about producing work and starting ideas: be a cat. The reasoning is that because cats are only where they choose to be, they are the masters of their own fate. If their curiosity kills them, then so be it – they went down swinging (space permitting). When watching Back Seat Betty I projected this thought onto the team behind the piece, and I’m confident they are always going to be somewhere wonderful.

Written by Joshua Val Martin, the 40-minute monologue is from the perspective of a working-from-home prostitute, and is part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe.

Monologues can be a minefield for actors. On viewing the challenge in front of you, one can be fooled into thinking it is quite straightforward, ignorant of the lurking danger. Confidently you venture on stage, too far to turn back and then BOOM: you trip on some tricky poetry, narrowly missing a joke, leaving you detached and disengaged from the piece. You sound like you are remembering words rather than talking, and although you’re alone you have forgotten to use the audience.

Luckily, this isn’t a trap Jo Dakin fell into. Instead, she dominates the piece, breezing through the lines and ticking all the boxes. She is terrifying and menacingly dark, yet likeable enough to stay with on the journey.

This versatility is a cornerstone for a Val Martin piece; the writing style is a hybrid of comedy, politics and a David Bowie album. He is one of the most promising emerging writers around.

Despite reassurance that “it’s not real” when I’ve refused to watch horror films, my response has always been that the film may not be real, but the ideas are; and no cheesy special effects can stop me from feeling terrified. The same can be said for Val Martin. He creates characters and stories so vivid they become a living and breathing reality.

Director Esther Dix has done an excellent job of controlling the parameters of the narrative; she has allowed the realism to come through and be believable, with neither the writing nor the acting rule over the other.

Looking back on my review, it may seem that I haven’t really commented on the piece and the truth is I haven’t even began to touch the surface. To comment on any part of the story would be telling too much. Instead, all I can advise is next time you have the chance to see a Val Martin piece do so: you will not be disappointed.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of Cobbled Haze Club

Monday, 13 July 2015

MIF: Arvo Pärt @ Bridgewater Hall, 12.07.15

Arvo Pärt’s compositions are the most performed of any living composer in the world, but his music grows seemingly from the very birth of music itself. Drawing on deeply spiritual and contemplative themes, his Gregorian chant-inspired vocal and string repertoire transcends the present tense and has not only won him the highest of accolades from the most educated of music listeners, it has also touched a vast, perhaps less-discerning audience searching for serenity and purity, found in his accessible musical vocabulary.

Performed tonight by the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gábor Takács-Nagy, alongside long-time Pärt collaborators Vox Clamantis, an Estonian choir, the eloquently selected programme is allowed to resonate and shine in the presence of Pärt himself. ‘Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima’ is a new composition dedicated to MIF collaborator Gerhard Richter. This short vocal piece is inspired by a visit to Fatima in Portugal, the site of a Marian apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917, in which she is said to have appeared to three shepherd children and prophesied the Second World War. However, Pärt focuses on the light and joy of the children, relayed by the eloquent, bouncing “hallelujahs”.

‘Fratres’, translated as ‘brothers’, follows a repeated six-bar string theme with an unerring flow, countered by a striking percussive interlude on claves and bass drum, both directly cutting and billowing at once. Opening with a sublime stillness and a grounded bass drone, the piece hesitantly repeats, growing into itself, reaching grandeur of strings in full flow before retreating back into its subdued self.

Pärt’s ‘Stabat Mater’, a medieval poem based on the sufferings of Mary, Jesus’ mother, during his crucifixion, seems only too perfect a subject for his music. The serene start develops into an almost conversational interplay between the strings and choir before bursts of frantic and expansive energy portraying her intense pain disappear as soon as they’ve developed. This, along with most of this evening’s events, are seemingly relentlessly disrupted by sporadic coughing from the audience as if the plague has fallen upon Manchester, perhaps nervous interruptions from an audience not used to such extensive stillness and reflection. The death of this drawn-out sorrowful suffering (Mary, not the coughing) is preceded by what could be considered two last gasps for breath, for which the audience can only withhold theirs, before the final chord slips away into silence.

‘Da Pacem Domine’, written in memory of the 2004 Madrid bombing victims, is a prayer for peace and is now performed annually in Spain. Setting text from a sixth century hymn, its almost plea-like nature is accentuated through the withheld melodic progression.

To close, ‘Como Cierva Sedienta’, featuring soprano soloist Polina Pasztircsák and a full orchestra, offers a setting of Psalms 42 and 43 in Spanish. Its exploratory nature is in great contrast to much of tonight’s programme, flitting between frantic woodwind flurries, brass fanfare and Stravinsky-esque modernist dissonance. But it does retain some of the serene moments that we are used to hearing from Pärt, and like each of his pieces, without doubt, every note matters. Each has been carefully considered by Pärt and the performers have no choice but to follow suit. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of his music, the concentration and detailed execution required from each performer in creating such tonal, textural and sonorous eloquence cannot be underestimated. Perhaps it’s this which aids the seemingly infinite power of his music. His ability to create such seemingly simple soundscapes through complex fundamental historic compositional techniques, often foregoing generations of music history, allows Pärt to transport the listener to a place of deep spiritual contemplation and that much closer to purity.

Words & photos: Simon Bray (@simonbray /

MIF: Neck of the Woods @ HOME, 10.07.15

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Certainly not me in the MIF production of Neck of the Woods. There were far worse things to fear. If you go down to the woods today, you will be leaving underwhelmed.

On paper, this ‘collaboration’ ticks all the boxes and garners expectations of something special. An acclaimed casting choice (Charlotte Rampling), check. A concert pianist (Hélène Grimaud) playing a phenomenal repertoire, check. An eclectic and culturally diverse choir using their voices to create the soundscape, check. A new multi-million pound venue to host the event, check. And all under the reign of a Turner Prize-winning visual artist (Douglas Gordon) – big check. But, heartbreakingly, no. In fact, there was barely any collaboration, and these components struggled to come together resulting in something fractured and unconnected, which is a real shame.

Neck of the Woods is a vague retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, while drawing on the many different takes of wolf mythology in literature and a very loose metaphor of the animal of man. “Mostly wolves represent a bad man […] I think men are worse than wolves,” says Gordon.

The play opens in complete darkness with the sound of a tree being chopped down with an inevitable crash. This is probably the most impressive part of the production and, with the almighty sound, the audience is immediately immersed. The HOME acoustics are so good that it was truly terrifying.

The production is hugely self-indulgent, with Gordon listed in the programme for concept, direction, design and performance. None of which met par. That’s not completely fair, the concept is very interesting and I think there is something there. As for everything else, I felt it was very safe and riddled with clichés. There’s talk about blood, wolves and snow, so you can bet there was red lighting, fake snow and a fluffy shag pile with a wolf head.

This project clearly hosted a lot of talent. Grimaud’s playing is a beautiful silver lining to this piece. The Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, first formed at MIF 2013, is abundantly talented, but drastically underused in this production. Rampling did have a few fluffs, but overall I felt she didn’t have much to work with, which I imagine is quite restrictive.

Regrettably this piece hasn’t met the standard set by other MIF productions, the responsibility for which falls on Douglas as he struggles to harness the hot ball of talent he had at his disposal and utilise it effectively. Instead, he rides on the coattails of other people’s talent and uses it for his own gratification. Douglas is indeed the wolf, and a house of straw or sticks has more solidity than this piece.

Words: Kate Morris

Neck of the Woods continues until Saturday 18 July. For tickets and more info, click here.

Friday, 10 July 2015

MIF Acoustic Stage @ Albert Sq, 04.07.15

The denizens of Manchester are enjoying these weekend festivals. Following the popularity of Manchester Day, it’s no surprise to find that Albert Square was thronged for the opening weekend of Manchester International Festival.

In glorious sunshine illuminating the festival tent, balcony bar and acoustic stage, it's not just the food stallholders and ice-cream sellers who have smiles on their faces.

Throw in four sets of musicians to perform from early afternoon to evening and it all added to the relaxed atmosphere that people savour. The downside for a musician is that an open-air arena, with young children freely running around and taking advantage of the kid friendly area, is not the best location to demonstrate the quality of your works. Mix that with the background chatter and the performers are relegated to the level of sideshows.

Playing an instrument called the handpan, Matthew Bailey eschews vocals to focus on comfortable, percussive sounds that match well with the atmosphere. To the untrained eye, the instrument looks like two distorted cymbals taped back to back, but the sounds are languid and fluid.

Charlie Cooper appears in different guises, both as a solo artist or part of a band, and for this afternoon event she was supported by Rachel Lasham on drums. It turns out be a wise choice that provides substance to support Cooper’s keyboards which could have otherwise rapidly floated away in the warm air.

Josephine, minus her surname Oniyama, is well-known and respected amongst the music followers in the northwest area, but when it comes to competing with the chimes of the town hall clock, first at 6pm then 7pm, even she will come off second best. The first time she used the interruption to signal the start of her set, but the second time, occurring mid-song, pretty much destroyed the effects of her stories.

Still, it’s a positive move to promote local talent of varying styles, and the approach will be replicated during the remainder of the festival at its Albert Square base.

Words & photos: Ged Camera

The Festival Square Acoustic Stage schedule continues until Sunday 19 July.

The Invisible Dot Cabaret @ MIF, 09.07.15

The Invisible Dot have been tasked with bringing comedy to MIF for the first time, and while it may be moaned about that they have predominantly invited acts who’re based outside of Manchester, they have served up a winning piece of late night entertainment. The line-ups will change throughout the cabaret’s run, but if they keep up this high calibre, you're guaranteed some late night laughs. In true cabaret style, they present us with a variety of comedic forms and the mix works well.

Neurosis seemed to be the theme of the night as compère for the evening Mae Martin shared jokes about worried mothers and the emotional anguish brought on by Brian Cox. A Canadian, Martin had good fun with English accents, but needs to worry less about whether we have seen things over here. Relaxed and playful, she kept the evening ticking over nicely.

Phil Ellis (the only local on the bill) always thrives off the audience, his energetic performance dragging us helplessly along in his wake. He's easily distracted by new ideas and, although a veer towards darker material at the end of his set threatens to derail the audience's goodwill, Ellis makes for a great opener.

Natasha Demetriou and Ellie White followed as the Sexy Dangerous American Girl Cousins. There were some lovely lines and it's a very physical performance, but ultimately the characters came off a little one-note for me, and the intentionally “so bad it's good” finale didn't quite land.

The night was rounded off by Sheeps, a sketch trio who play with and deconstruct the sketch form in smart, but rarely too-clever-for-their-own-good ways. It took them a moment to kick into gear, but soon had the audience following them with every twist and turn. Sketch topics veered from a preview of their new musical based on Oliver Twist (“We've spotted a gap in the market”) to a violent ruckus between Chuckle Brothers via cat-based whimsy. A great way to close the night.

The 90-minute show flew by without an interval and proved to be a great night in all, but, although the Invisible Dot has a roster of excellent comedians, perhaps next year we can show off more home-grown talent instead of relegating it to the fringes. Hopefully next year the comedy offering will grow and we will see even greater and braver variety.

Words: Sean Mason

The Invisible Dot continues each night until 17 July. For more info and tickets, visit its MIF web page.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Re:Con Sensored @ Contact, 27.06.15

While suffering severe writer’s block I set myself a challenge: to write one thing a day, using a quirky book of writing prompts. For example, I was challenged to ‘write about a place you love’. That pesky barricade was no problem for me: I wrote about theatre. Theatre for me is not a mere place but an experience, one I believe makes me understand more of the human condition and the world. Where else do you actually experience someone else’s existence, stepping into their shoes and seeing through their eyes? However, that only extends to seeing and what would it be like if we actually got to physically experience another person's reality? Re:Con - the young production team from Contact, have explored this idea with Sensored.

Sensored is a programme of art and performance that allows the audience to experience the world without one of their five senses. Depending on your remaining four, you approach theatre in a new way with rewarding results. The nine events tantalize or suppress the senses and range from performances, to panel discussions, to a dinner in the dark.

There were also some clever activities and aesthetic choices at the venue itself that added to the experience, like bubble wrap on the arms rests (fun to feel and a satisfying to pop). There was also some ‘market research’ to gauge how much you could taste without your sense of smell (in case you were wondering cheddar cheese is still pretty potent).

As for the work itself, it was nothing short of penetrative. I first lost my sight as I was asked to do someone’s makeup blindfolded for Francis Kay’s Make Me Beautiful. The one-to-one performance explores how the loss of sight can affect everyday tasks.

Next I watched Hiatus – a performance which is deprived of sound. Wearing earplugs and earphones you imagine your own score to accompany the two dancers, one non-disabled and one wheel chair user. Both move beautifully with shared strength and power.

Having worked up an appetite I visited the Empty Kitchen, only to be informed by two ‘waiters’ that the kitchen had no food. Instead, we are served up a three-course meal of delicious words and food you can feel but not taste – the first time I’ve had a jalfrezi made of screws and marbles!

A new kind of theatre is coming, and Contact is leading the way.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of Contact

Friday, 5 June 2015

New Dawn Fades @ The Dance House, 22.05.15

Being a Scouser in Manchester I have on occasion come into contact with the Liverpool v Manchester ideology. It is a rivalry that has been fought for years, and I’m not entirely sure of how it started. Now and again I’m asked “what’s a Scouser doing in Manchester?” followed by the predictable and over phlegmy impressions of “kaarm down”, “Steevie G!”, or “oor’right mate”. All silly feuding aside, these two North West titans have more in common than they care to admit – cosmopolitan cities filled with passionate inhabitants and a shared spectrum of epic music. There’s no denying the two have great music heritage and I for one don’t mind crossing the boundary to relish in Manchester’s.

A particular favorite is Joy Division, and combining a passion for music and theatre I jumped at the chance to see New Dawn Fades, a play that recounts the days of the band’s ascension to success and their tragic demise. This one off performance corresponds with the 35th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death and honors him beautifully.

Very much a play of two halves; we are first guided by band manager Tony Wilson as he narrates the story. Played by Lee Joseph, who exudes Wilson’s playful charisma and wit. Joseph uses these qualities to educate the audience on Manchester’s history (an integral part of Joy Division’s beginnings) thus lighting the fires of passion in the belly of all watching, be they devote Division fans, theatre fans or newbies.

Playing roles of non-fiction always carries the risk of playing a caricature rather than more rounded portrayals of their characters, but Joseph plays the Mancunian legend to perfection. In fact, the casting is excellent across the board, with Bernard Sumner played by Sean Croke, Stephen Morris by Matthew Melbourne and Peter Hook by Bill Bradshaw.

Completing the band line up is Ian Curtis played by Michael Whittaker, whose performance is eerily astounding. Rising to the challenge of playing the role of an adored music icon, he made it look effortless as if Curtis is living on through this performance. Whittaker encaptures his spirit, crafing a complex portrait of Curtis’s fragility and his struggle with epilepsy, all while being torn between his duty to those around him and his own worries over his morality.

Another emotive driver in the piece comes from Natalie Perry playing Debbie Curtis. Her being the only female in the play accentuated the idea of isolation, as she desperately tries to remain supportive of her husband’s dreams while tensions build between them and bleakness encroaches on Ian.

Written by Brian Gorman the play is intelligent and well thought out, and director Sarah Van Parys finds a balance between accuracy and sensitivity to create this stunning and emotive piece.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of All Roads Meet

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Last Dance @ King's Arms, Salford, 27.05.15

Those who know me know what kind of theatre I like, and they know what I’m looking for when I take my seat, programme in hand, waiting for lights up. You could say the qualities I like in theatre are the same I appreciate in my family and friends: passion, tenacity and having something to say. Fortunately Vertigo productions has these three virtues in spades, and have proven as much with its most recent production Last Dance.

The piece is a true labor of love as writer Craig Hepworth started work on it four years ago. Upon viewing at The King’s Arms, it’s evident how much commitment and hard work has gone into the play.

Set in 1980s New York, Last Dance takes an intimate look at a group of family and friends and how their lives are affected when main protagonist Corey is diagnosed with AIDS. Currently unnamed and being referred to as ‘gay cancer’, professional dancer Corey - played by the marvelous Richard Allen - has contracted the immune-attacking virus. Allen is awe-inspiring and gives a heart-wrenching performance, as he effectively applies much-researched physical techniques and dramatic skills to offer an honest portrayal of Corey’s declining health. A standout moment is when Corey first hears his diagnosis from his doctor Henry (Stuart Reeve). It’s a challenge for an actor to emulate a genuine response to something they haven’t encountered personally, but Allen did so brilliantly and I was already reaching for my tissues and fighting the temptation to hug him. This wasn’t the last time I found myself with a lump in my throat; another powerful performance came from Julie Edwards as Corey’s mother Rose, caught between the love of her son and loyalty to her faith.

The weighty content and severity of the issues explored by the play means the cast have to be very honest in their work – the fact that they were paid off. However, there was also a tendency to shout lines. While this is an understandable and realistic response, it can run the risk of disengaging the audience from poignant moments. That isn’t to say the content wasn't engaging though, because it truly was: the story was touching and was told well.

The narrative touches on a variety of other topics and social issues, including assisted suicide; I particularly wanted Hepworth to tread further into this. Of course this may not be the production to do so, but maybe an idea for future work? Whatever the content may be I have every faith that Vertigo are going to continue to produce theatre I like and stories that I love. If Last Dance is anything to go by it’s going to be passionate, bold and with a lot to say!

words: Katie Morris

Image: Courtesy of Vertigo Productions

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Review: I’ll Be Your Mirror by Una Baines & Keith McDougall

The pat response to hearing about a new graphic novel about The Fall frontman Mark E Smith would be to say that it shouldn't be too hard to do – he's already a cartoon. Decades of self-mythologising, abetted by journalists happy to colour the outline in familiar shades: a face squiggled with lines and a fag hanging out of the gob, gnomic pronouncements and scathing put-downs, drink and drugs and rows.

It's gratifying, then, that the new graphic memoir I'll Be Your Mirror, drawn by Keith McDougall and co-written with Una Baines, a founding member of The Fall, presents a young, relatively fresh-faced Smith, one not yet hemmed in by his own mythology.

Baines also played in Manchester bands Blue Orchids and Poppycock, as well as touring with Nico, but the first issue of the memoir focuses on how she met Smith as a teenager. It's 1973, but the book avoids grim-up-north clichés as adroitly as it dodges the typical narrative about The Fall. McDougall's illustrations reflect the overall tone, which is teenager-bubbly – Bowie, T. Rex, feminist marches and psychedelia.

Smith puts Baines onto the Velvets as she outgrows glam rock, she puts him onto women's rights, they drop LSD and, finally, they start a band. Or rather, Mark does. In signature style, by hijacking her neighbour's covers group and launching into an impromptu performance of ‘Sweet Jane’. The final image shows him centre stage, lips curled, flanked by two bewildered musicians, person and persona already beginning to merge.

Hopefully there'll be some more about Baines herself in later editions, which will tell the story of her relationship with Mark, but there's more than enough here to pique the interest, and not only for fans of The Fall. Manchester looks set to be a major supporting character throughout, hopefully avoiding its usual thankless role of moody backdrop.

The launch is taking place at Islington Mill on 29 May, featuring Una's band Poppycock with support from ILL and Rose & The Diamond Hand.

Words: Fearghus Roulston

Friday, 22 May 2015

Gift Shop: a Pop-up Art Shop on Ayres Road

For a week from 30 May, Gift Shop will pop up on Ayres Road in Old Trafford. The mental health organisation 42nd Street has secured the space as a temporary creative outlet for young people in the area who will showcase their crafts across jam making, baking, jewellery making and ceramics. Local artists will be on hand during the week to lead activities and workshops from the two-berth caravan on the grounds of St John's Community Centre.

The local voluntary sector charity, 42nd Street, is behind the enterprise. Their work aims to support young people who are experiencing stress or other difficulties in life by offering ideas, direction and hope for their futures. Simone Spray says, "Gift Shop is a really important part of our diverse programme. For the young people involved it is an opportunity to learn new skills, get creative and impact positively on their own mental health, sense of identity and self-esteem. This is a new way of working for 42nd Street and one we hope to replicate across Greater Manchester. We know the hard work and dedication the young people have obviously invested in the shop will inspire everyone that experiences it."

The project has been funded by Old Trafford Community Panel and Curious Minds.

Opening Hours
Saturday 30th May: 12-5pm
Sunday 31st May: 12-5pm
Wednesday 3rd June: 10am-4pm
Thursday 4th June: 2-8pm
Friday 5th June: 10am-4pm
Saturday 6th June: 12-5pm

Words: Ian Pennington