Thursday, 10 November 2016

Lookout, Andy Field / Contact Theatre, City Tower Manchester 5/11/16

Well that was a touching piece of loveliness in a sometimes less lovely world. 

Developed in collaboration with a local primary school, Lookout is a very special experience for the participant as you look out over the city and imagine, with the help of a series of recorded pieces from the children, and a one on one conversation with a child, what the future could and should look like. 

Gazing across the city from the 28th floor of City Tower on a beautiful sunny day and listening to a soundtrack of children imagining differing versions of the future, some hopeful some scary, coupled with a fascinating conversation with my host, Treea, about cities, likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams, this made for a thoughtful and very touching experience. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend half an hour on a Saturday morning.

It was also very encouraging listening to the children's visions and talking to my host. These youngsters care about the future and have great ideas for it, and some amazing imaginations. I hope they never lose that.

A truly unique experience and a joy to be a part of. And Treea, I promise to go to the circus one day.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Parallel, Hope Mill Theatre 3/11/16

I was very glad to be back at the lovely Hope Mill Theatre to see Parallel, the latest work from writer / performer Laura Lindsay and Black Toffee Productions. Having enjoyed the last work I saw from them, Hidden, I had been looking forward to this show for some time. I was not disappointed.

The play has an interesting opening concept - which of the three characters the cast portray is decided by a roll of the dice. It’s a fascinating twist and echoes one of the themes of the play which explores whether the roles we play in life are by chance or by choice. It must also be quite a challenge for the cast, as each only has a short time after the dice roll to ‘inhabit’ their characters, but it is certainly one they rise to, with each actress portraying their assigned role with such clarity and detail that the audience is completely engaged in the unfolding story.

On the night I attended the dice rolled a two, meaning that writer Lindsay took the part of Beth, a girl beginning to fall down the cracks of homelessness, Emily Spowage was Anna, a pressured Business Consultant struggling to cope, and Arabella Gibbins was C, a homeless lady with many challenges, but arguably the most together of the bunch.

The action takes place in a station late at night. Anna has just missed the last train, Beth needs some peace to think as her options are running out, and both are intruding on C’s space. Whilst this play explores the issues surrounding homelessness, to describe it as a play purely about homelessness would be to do it a disservice as it is much more complex than that. It touches on the paths we take in life, whether our lives are governed by choice or circumstance, and how the assumptions you may make about people are often wrong.

The three disparate characters are played so cleverly by the cast and their thoughts and experiences connect with the watchers on many levels. Each actress brought a real depth to their character, allowing the audience to invest in them and find things to identify with in all of them. The intelligent writing and well chosen direction were extremely effective, gradually uncovering the stories of all three ladies and challenging your first impressions. All were written with such a finely judged detail, they felt real and identifiable, sometimes a little too close to home if I'm honest! There were elements of both Beth and Anna’s lives that I could identify with, but weirdly the person whose philosophy I most admired was the one who you initially on meeting you may have dismissed or avoided. Despite C's situation she seemed the wisest and most capable of the group.

Frequently hilarious, the writing and performances were also nuanced and engaging, full of clever detail. Not afraid of silence and naturalism, the production allowed a gradual development that was all the more effective for its calm pacing, totally absorbing you in all the characters and their stories, drivers and philosophies. The fact that each of the actresses gave such fine performances was a real credit to their talent and it would be fascinating to come on another night and see a different roll of the dice.

All in all a fascinating, intelligent, thought provoking, accomplished  and compassionate production, that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. Everyone involved in this should be very proud of it.

Still can’t believe that Anna didn’t get the I Spy though, it was so obvious…………

Sunday, 14 August 2016

No Man's Land, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, 13/8/16

This was the first Pinter I have seen, and on the basis of it I'm not sure I 'get' Pinter. There isn't a narrative as such, more an exercise in words. It centres around the exchanges between two gentlemen, Hirst and Spooner, one drunken evening and the following morning, with two other characters, Foster and Briggs, joining the fray. The nature of the characters relationships switches, the audience is constantly slightly wrong footed, just when you think you have a sense of what is going on, another shift occurs and you are as confused as when you started. It does feel at times like you are in some kind of disjointed, slightly trippy dream. The only option is to just go with it and enjoy the dialogue with its intriguing wordplay, and appreciate the performances, and boy, what performances they were.

Patrick Stewart as Hirst, and Ian McKellen as Spooner were a joy to watch. They make such clever choices in their portrayals, there is so much detail and craftsmanship in their performance but it looks effortless. They play off each other beautifully, there are plenty of comedic moments, especially from McKellen, never overplayed, perfectly judged. Both of them are a masterclass in what makes a great actor. I've seen Stewart on stage before in Hamlet, but this was the first time I have seen McKellen in the theatre and the combination of the two of them was an absolute treat.

Damien Moloney as Foster, and Owen Teale as Briggs ably completed the cast, albeit their parts were relatively small and even more infuriatingly complex which didn't give them as much opportunity to shine as the leads. 

If you are going to see this play, which is on a short tour before it's London run, it's definitely worth shelling out for the programme, it contains some really interesting features, and the most delightful cast notes I have seen in a long time.

All in all, I'm not sure I would rush to seek out Pinter again, but I do acknowledge the fascinating detail of the dialogue and the clever interactions. Maybe it's a mindset thing and I need to work on my Pinter appreciation more. But watching two exemplary classical actors deliver such an acting masterclass was a thing of wonder and one I feel very privileged to have experienced.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Lost, but looking for hope

So I woke up today to a very different home, a home that feels scary and uncertain and a unwelcoming. A home I don't feel like I fully identify with, that doesn't represent my values. Overnight Great Britain seems to have turned into little Britain. Outward looking and open to change and development feels insular and backwards. I'm scared, confused, baffled, and angry as hell and I don't know what to do. 

It seems inconceivable that a vote that was that close can be allowed to have such a massive and unreversible change on a country. Did no one think to put in a clause that said there had to be a defined majority to set this change in motion. Surely something like if it was under 10% a further period of consideration is given. You get a 10 day cooling off period when you take out a loan for goodness sake, this is a much bigger deal where were the safeguards? If you find out the day after you signed a contract that the seller lied to you there are things you can do, but this decision feels final. Now we feel like we are on the brink of a fracturing UK, a crashing economy, a rise in racism, a worse deal for the people who can least afford it, and a culture that has been the envy of the world that will erode and disintegrate. 

I might be being over dramatic, things might not turn out to be as bad as I paint, and I am not the most informed about the issues but it's how I feel and I won't apologise for that. Lies have been told and the truth has been overlooked. The EU wasn't perfect, but it's a darned sight easier to affect change from within than outside. Yes they made a minority of laws, but many of them benefited us and the environment. Working time directive, maternity leave, safety - many of these protections were enhanced not eroded by our membership. Trade was easier, markets were opened, there was give and take but I'd rather collaborate than divide. Closer to home, the EU helped Manchester recover and reinvent itself after the IRA bomb, far outdoing the UK contribution. 

I've spent most of today nonplussed and trying to make sense of where we go from here. I've seen a lot of people say they don't want to be a part of this new reality, they are not proud to be British, and to attack each other. I've been attacked myself for expressing an opinion. And it's scary and depressing.

But I can't survive in that dark world. I have to look for positives. I've been encouraged to see how many of my friends and acquaintances feel as lost and angry as I do. More people are engaged in the whole political debate than before. More people are asking questions and will hopefully hold those who negotiate our exit to account for the decisions that are made. What I value about my community, my 'logical family' as Amistead Maupin would define it, will not change. We will continue to welcome and embrace diversity, to encourage learning, to share cultures, to in small ways and big make this new reality better than it seems right now. It's the only way I can deal with this and I make no apologies for trying to find the positives. I need them, I need to think we can be better, I need to hope and believe in the people that make me proud to be brought up in this country and the values that it has instilled in me. I hate this decision but I still believe we can be better. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Parade, Hope Mill Manchester 21/5/16

This was my first visit to Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats (or New Islington if you want to be posh!), and I wasn’t expecting that much from such an unassuming exterior, but as you walk through the door into the cosy and welcoming bar area you begin to realise that your preconceptions have been very much misplaced! That theme of confounding my expectations continued with the reason for my visit, a new production of the musical Parade, which completely blew me away; so much so that I was back seeing it for a second time three days later!

The story is extremely moving and powerful and is based on true events. In 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia a young factory girl, Mary Phagan, is found brutally murdered. The quest for someone to punish overpowers the need for truth and the finger of blame points at factory supervisor Leo Frank, a Yankee and a Jew so a convenient scapegoat for the racist attitudes still embedded in the southern states. The subsequent framing of this outsider, and the attempts by him and his loyal wife Lucille, to fight back, make for troubling and deeply moving viewing as the piece progresses to its heartbreakingly inevitable conclusion against this background of hatred, intolerance and political posturing.

Director James Baker has brought together an amazingly talented team to create this production. Whilst the Hope Mill space is relatively small and intimate, there is nothing small scale about this show and the quality of every aspect of it was outstanding. Goodness knows how you deliver to this level on a limited budget, I suspect via many talented and dedicated people and a lot of time and effort, but it is all worth it.
The set is pared back but very effective, largely wooden pallet based which blended beautifully with the exposed brickwork of the mill. The lighting design was beautiful, partnering the stage action to great effect. A live nine piece band had somehow also been squeezed into the space, which, when combined with the powerful and gorgeous voices of the talented cast, could have happily filled a larger venue, although I felt the sound design worked brilliantly for me with a good balance across the space.

There is not a weak link amongst the supremely talented cast, equally in terms of their vocal and acting performances. Matt Mills and Shekinah McFarlane’s Act 2 opener, A Rumblin' and A Rollin' was a particular highlight, allowing both of their voices to shine. Andrew Gallo as the slimy prosecutor Dorsey did an excellent job at making you hate him as his chose ambition over the truth, and Aiden Banyard as the Young Soldier and Frankie gave a particularly fine performance.

Tom Lloyd, in the central role of Leo was superb. It’s a complex character to portray as his character goes through one of the biggest journeys, but he balances the pride, initial indignation, growing fear and disbelief, and the deepening admiration and love for his wife fantastically well.

Laura Harrison, as his brave and determined wife Lucille was simply stunning. She has a clarity in her powerful voice that is just beautiful, and her portrayal of her characters emotional journey was exceptional.

The choice of production was excellent, a challenging, complex tale full of prejudice and politics that sticks with you long after the music has stopped. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this production had a life beyond Hope Mill but I feel very privileged to have seen it there. The intimacy of the space heightened the sense of involvement; you felt quite helpless watching the awful injustice unfold and being powerless to stop it. It was totally gripping from start to finish, and, whilst I held it together on first viewing despite being a bit of an emotional wreck, on second viewing they got me and I was a total blubbing wreck in the front row during Leo and Lucille’s final duet!

Deserved standing ovations have followed every performance in this limited run. Due to demand the production has now been extended to the 11th June and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. A superb achievement from all involved.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Wit, Royal Exchange Manchester, 6/2/16

The Royal Exchange's production of Margaret Edson's Wit portrays the journey of Doctor Vivian Bearing, a spiky, clever and independent Doctor of Literature, as she is diagnosed with an aggressive ovarian cancer and becomes a research case for the medical doctors dealing with her case. It sounds bleak, and as Vivian points out at the start, the ending of her death is inevitable. Uncompromising and stark as it is though, it balances the harsh reality with wit and an examination of the motivations and drivers of the various characters on stage, whilst never shying away from the reality of facing a terminal illness. 

Told in part narration and part portrayal of events, from diagnosis to eventual death it has a clever structure whose fast pace keeps the audience's attention throughout. 

The play portrays the indignities of diagnosis and treatment with harsh and at times wince inducing reality, the fake and empty platitudes of doctors who see her as research rather than a person, the constant movement from one treatment or test to another, and the occasional moments of genuine human interaction and kindness which slow the pace, contrasting starkly with the bustle and impersonality of the medical factory.

Julie Hesmonhalgh is stunning in the central role of Professor, used to being the challenging one but faced with the ultimate challenge. As a researcher herself she is understanding of the motivations of the medical professionals, even enjoying the debate at times , and the needs to experiment and learn whilst knowing the outcome is unlikely to change. She is able to view it dispassionately initially,  but it's the glimpses of vulnerability and tenderness that break your heart.

The clever design and excellent performances and direction draw the audience totally into events on stage and the regular direct addressing of the audience by the Professor make you feel like an uncomfortable observer rather than a passive audience member.The sparse set is almost mesmerising  in its clinical emptiness, focussing you completely on the action on stage and echoing the bleakness of both the hospital and the prognosis.

I left this show with conflicting emotions, moved by the narrative, angry at some of the treatment that Vivian is subjected to, stimulated by the academic discussions, but tearful due to small moments of kindness where academic boundaries dissolve and human emotions, kindness and the frailty of life are highlighted. One of the best shows I have seen in quite some time. 

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Showboat, Sheffield Crucible 19/12/15

It's Christmas and that only means one thing in my theatre obsessed mind, no not panto , but a festive trip over to Sheffield to see what Christmas musical delights are on offer. This year the Crucible are staging Showboat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, a show first staged in 1927 and quite controversial at the time, combining the more traditional romantic stories with darker themes including racial identity and injustice.

This production doesn't shy away from the tougher themes, in fact it highlights the racial divisions through a powerful piece of staging in the very opening of the performance and its treatment of the more serious elements of this epic tale remain impactful and relevant throughout. It is maybe more of a considered, serious musical than many of the Crucible's recent festive offerings, as the tale unfolds it is tender, heart wrenching at times and full of impact, but there are a few out and out foot stompers that allow the cast to make full use of the crucible's generous stage.

As always an incredibly talented cast has been assembled for the show who work together with such fluidity that even scene changes are a thing of beauty. With such immense talent on display it seems churlish to pick favourites but I will! Emmanuel Kojo and Jason Denton as Joe and Stevedore were fantastic and their rendition of Old Man River will stay with me for a very long time. Michael Xavier portrayed the complexities of Gaylord Ravenal's journey finely and has a powerful but unforced voice and Sandra Marvin as Queenie has a beautiful voice and gave an incredibly engaging performance.

The design is first class,from the sumptuous costumes, gorgeous lighting to amazing set design, it's what we have come to expect from the Crucible but no less delightful for that. The initial set reveal is simply breathtaking, plain wooden panels line the rear of the stage when we arrive which seem to magically disappear as the show gets under way to reveal the most gorgeously detailed steamboat deck with action able to play across three levels vertically as well as over the large thrust stage of the space. When the boat is not present in the Chicago scenes the wooden backdrop allows for extremely effective use of back projection, which as well as providing set detail, is used to great effect in transition scenes and is especially effective in detailing the passage of time and some of the major headlines associated with it, giving a nice historical context to the events portrayed. 

Director Daniel Evans is moving on from the Artistic Director role at Sheffield in mid 2016 to the celebrated Chichester Festival Theatre so this will be his last Christmas production for them, he has left quite a legacy in his five years with them, and what a musical to end his Sheffield Christmas career on. Although I did see in the programme that he will be directing a brand new musical there before he leaves so I will have to see about getting over for that. The bar has been set high for next year's Christmas delight!