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 clich├ęs 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

King Lear @ The Lowry, 05.05.2015

George Bernard Shaw said “no man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” These words reside in my thoughts upon leaving The Lowry, after watching the Northern Broadside’s performance of the Shakespeare tragedy. Directed by Jonathan Miller, King Lear is a brutal play packed with betrayal, cruelty, madness and disaster. It’s a wonder if any of the audience can leave with their nerves in tact.

Regarded as one of Shakespeare’s monumental pieces the play depicts the titular character’s decent into madness, and the tragic consequences this brings. Stepping down from the throne Lear decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, the portion size equating to the measure of their love. Flattering their father with dishonest words, daughters Goneril and Regan are prized with rule of the kingdom while the youngest and most devout daughter Cordelia is banished as she “cannot heave her heart into her mouth” to express her love.

With an already bold and dramatic narrative to tell, I would think it wise to keep the production’s design as simple as possible; an opinion clearly shared by designer Isabelle Bywater. The actors are placed in the Jacobean period and are starkly lit from the front casting everything in the periphery into darkness. This has the effect of focusing attention solely on the dialogue. This no-fuss approach makes it apparent that Miller’s concern is with the text, which the cast conveys through their strong performances.

Helen Sheals and Nicola Sanderson play the king’s elder daughters, the epitome of cruelty and without a strand of loyalty to anything but their own desires. They are completely aloof to their own crassness and conniving ways. Their ability to emulate these qualities in their roles reminds me of how my dad would measure an actor’s skill and talent by how much he hated the individuals they were playing. Helen and Nicola, it is a compliment to your ability: well done!

But if we are going to talk about evoking emotions then the showstopper is Lear himself, played by Barrie Rutter. His performance is flawless, breezing through the fast paced script with ease – reaching all the emotive peaks and troughs. Ruttler is also the company’s founder and director, and has gained a reputation for making Shakespeare more accessible. King Lear is a brilliant example of how he has managed to achieve this. The evident ethos to deliver the narrative with clarity paid off resulting in a bold, emotive and refreshing take on one of literatures greatest tragedies.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of The Lowry

Friday, 15 May 2015

RITES @ Contact Theatre, 12.05.15

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
This humble quote from Socrates has been at the forefront of my mind. Most recently I have came back to these words when watching the lead up to the election, trying to see through the murky waters of promised change. And again in the aftermath to deal with the result we were dealt. Above all, these words fired to my brain faster than a round from a Smith and Wesson when I witnessed RITES at the Contact Theatre this week.

RITES is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Contact, which explores the deep-rooted cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Both theatres have earned a significant national and international reputation for daring and original work, and continue to do so through RITES, their most recent production.

RITES is abundantly powerful and does incredibly well at approaching an issue objectively but with sensitivity. The idea for the piece dates back two years ago where director and co-creator Cora Bissett was advised by a friend working as a Children’s officer for the Scottish Refugee Council, to devise a piece which would shed light on the practice of FGM. After musing on how to tackle the subject, Bissett joined forces with writer Yusra Warsama whom she met at Edinburgh Fringe. The two then conducted a series of complex interviews around the UK with FGM survivors, doctors, midwives, campaigners and lawyers; the accounts of which make up the this honest and thought provoking piece.

A soundscape of statistics and news reports engulfs the auditorium as we take our seats, which is interrupted by the entrance of Fara saying the pivotal line ‘I am real’. What a wonderful way to start a topical piece! We’re engaged from the first utterance but we’re not permitted to become too comfortable; urged to remember these characters exist; they’re real as are their words. This practice is really happening.

The piece has an authenticity which is aided by stunning performances from all the cast whom take on a variety of personas, moving the narrative along while covering all perceptions towards FGM. Fara played by Paida Mutonono is wonderful. Beth Marshall particularly stood out in various roles, going from affirmative and direct detective one moment, to a wholesome and kind but stumbling midwife. A very compelling performance came from Janet Kumah as she played a repentant ‘cutter’ (the women that would perform FGM in their native villages), after learning a new understanding of the ritual she abandons the practice and appeals others to follow her example. This character was particularly pivotal as it embodied the ethos of the piece and of words of Socrates: change happens in the future and it is to be built upon.

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of Farrows Creative (top), Sally Jubb (bottom)

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans @ Bolton Octagon 05.05.15

It's always a pleasure to be at a world premiere of a new play - well, the press night at least - especially when it is written by Jim Cartwright. I recently enjoyed a revival of his 1993 work The Rise & Fall of Little Voice, so I was very much looking forward to The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans, directed here by David Thacker.

Ancient Youth is about three old university friends Penny (Denise Welch/Lauren Drummond), Doug (Tom Mannion/Matt Tait) and Henry (Eric Potts), who are celebrating Penny's 57th birthday. But while Henry has accepted age gracefully - and even finds the process enjoyable - Doug and Penny (who are married) have not: Doug is drinking himself into denial while Penny is planning on having plastic surgery.

All that changes though when a joke present from Henry - a book on ancient tibetan techniques for reversing the ageing process - sends Penny and Doug on a strange path into the past, their youth and vigour suddenly restored. They say youth is wasted on the young - but now that the old have it, will they use it wisely?

While that might sound like quite a different story from Little Voice, some key elements are the same. Both plays deal with thwarted ambition: the characters in Little Voice yearn for fame, in Ancient Youth for, well, youth; both plays feature an angry, exploitative and unlikeable male character at their core; and both pit two forceful personalities against a quieter third.

However, whereas Little Voice felt very tightly written, Ancient Youth does not. The characters, particularly Penny and Doug, have long rants at one another that, while entertaining, are very wordy and a bit unbelievable. The story also unfolds less smoothly, jumping from one tragic situation to another very quickly.

What is similar though is Cartwright's humour, with Ancient Youth featuring lots of great lines, as when Penny proclaims she has used so much vanishing cream she's surprised she's still visible. And, while it isn't perfect, the play does deal with the issue of ageing in an interesting and unusual way by having the characters actually become their younger selves.

As to the acting, Tom Mannion did a good job of being thoroughly dislikable as Doug, while Denise Welch successfully showed Penny's softer side. The real stand out though was Eric Potts as Henry; a perfect piece of casting, Potts perfectly embodied Henry's Winne-the-Pooh disposition, and was generally a bit of a show-stealer.

Thacker's easy-paced direction was appropriate, and as with so many Octagon productions good use was made of the upstage area - this time as Henry's bookshop, from which he narrates the piece.

Ancient Youth is based on a really good idea, and has some great dialogue, but isn't quite as sharp as it could have been - especially when compared to Cartwright's other work like Little Voice.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ian Tilton