Monday, 1 July 2019

Tree (preview performance), 29/6/19 Manchester International Festival

On Saturday night I was lucky enough to attend a preview of one of the most incredible nights in the ‘theatre’ I have ever seen. Tree, part of the Manchester International Festival, co created by Idris Elba and Kwame Kweih-Armah, which officially opens next week, delivered on so many levels, and I am extremely glad I got a chance to experience its magic.

The Festival have taken over Upper Campfield Market in the Castlefield area of Manchester for this production, and the staging allows for a truly immersive experience, with regular use of the audience as part of the performance. As you enter there is a nightclub vibe, and the crowd is encouraged to dance by the cast, stewards and incredible volunteers ( full disclosure, I’m a proud member of the volunteer army, but I didn’t manage to get any shifts on Tree!) . Whilst the booking process made clear it was a standing performance, there were actually plenty of places for those less able to stand for the whole show, and the audience are free to move around throughout the performance.

The storyline concerns a young man, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), who following a family tragedy,  travels to his parents homeland, South Africa, where his spiky Grandmother played by Sinead Cusack, still owns a farm. We follow his journey as he discovers his family history and the events that lead to his mother leaving her home to bring her child up in the UK. Whilst it does not gloss over the horrific treatment of black South Africans in all too recent history, it is ultimately a tale of family and love in all its complexity and messiness.

The set design is clever, allowing the audience to surround the action, and sometimes be a part of it in a very fluid way. Gorgeous lighting, coupled with projection onto a beautiful woven backdrop, complement the action and the various settings perfectly. There’s some brilliant and almost dreamlike choreography built into the performance, and the story itself is movingly told, and, on a personal level, opened my eyes to some things that whilst I was aware of them, I should know more about.

The cast are amazing, most taking on multiple roles, expanding the performance into the whole space, and the energy and commitment they give to the piece from the minute the audience enters the space to the post show celebration of life, is beyond astounding, especially when you take into account the extreme heat on the night I visited (having worked in the venue myself I know it can be an absolute oven on hot days, and freezing when the temperature drops! Top marks to Cusack, who has to wear a cardiga for most of her on stage moments)

It should be noted, this was a preview performance, and things will undoubtedly change before its official opening next week, but not much needs to as it seemed pretty amazing to me. It officially opens as part of the Manchester International Festival line up on 4th July, with previews from 2nd, and I think it is very likely to sell out once word of its magic gets out there, so book quickly. Following Manchester it is going to the Young Vic in London from 29th July

Saturday, 2 March 2019

January and February round up

There wasn't so much theatre shenanigans at the start of the year, but I did discover a new found interest in the cinema having treated myself to one of those ‘all you can eat’ type passes from my local cinema, The Light in Stockport.

I wasn’t a big lover of modern cinema, huge multiplexes full of noisy people on their phones had put me off in recent years. However, my first visit to The Light just after Christmas was a bit of a revelation. Smaller screens, comfy seats with loads of space, nice food and drink, and even an usher introducing each film. There’s subsidised parking if you are driving, and a bar if you aren’t ( helpfully it’s within walking distance of my house) and generally seems a much more pleasant experience. My ‘local’ has ten screens so lots of variety, and early showings so rainy Sunday mornings have been transformed by coffee, cake and a film. Since discovering this new obsession I have seen;

  • Mary Poppins Return (twice) - I was worried this would lose all the charm of the original but it had it in spades. It made me laugh and cry, had plenty of references to P L Travers original stories and was ‘practically perfect’. In fact I’d happily see it a third time
  • The Favourite - not for everyone, and not what some of the people in my showing were expecting, but I loved it. The central performances were outstanding and Olivia Colman deserves all the awards
  • Bohemian Rhapsody - whilst I did love this film, I felt the storyline could have had a little more ‘bite’. There is no doubt though that the musical performances were amazing and the last section, which basically recreated the Live Aid set, was fantastic and so nostalgic
  • On the Basis of Sex - a really interesting true story with loads of gorgeous period detail. Maybe a little slow to get to the meaty stuff, but a very satisfying and educating watch which made you think about how far we have come in terms of equal rights

There was one theatrical outing in February, to see an updated Mother Courage and Her Children at the Royal Exchange with a cast led by Julie Hesmondhalgh. This tale was brought forward in time to the near future and its themes were shown to be very relevant to a modern day audience. Whilst it was powerful with fabulous central performances, it didn’t leave me as satisfied as the other production I have seen of this play by the much missed Library Theatre Company many years ago . In particular, the sound balance on the musical numbers made the words unclear in places and certain production choices left me a bit perplexed. But despite that it was a thought provoking play.

Gaslight, Carver Theatre Marple 1/3/19

It seems somewhat apt that, in a week when the subject of coercive control is very much in the news, I attend this thriller written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton, where a manipulative and abusive husband undertakes to convince his wife she is losing her mind so that he can execute his own criminal aims.

Marple Carver Theatre have chosen this interesting play as their latest offering. They may be amateur theatre but their production values are always high. A sumptuous set, gorgeous costumes and clever lighting create the perfect backdrop for the action to unfold.

The cast do well with a very complex script, this play isn’t necessarily about the action, with all activity taking place in the Mannigham's front room, its more the interactions between the key protagonists. The script is complex and it must have been quite some challenge to learn it. The plot focuses on two key partnerships - Jack Manningham's unsettling exchanges with his nervous wife Bella, as he twists the truth and manufactures events in an effort to convince his fragile wife that she is mentally ill, and her gradual awakening to the true facts when she is visited by retired policeman Inspector Rough, a man determined to see long awaited justice served.

Julia Taylor as Bella plays the vulnerable wife well, on stage for almost the full length of the play and having to convey a range of mental states. Peter Gaskell as the determined and mysterious ex cop provides welcome comic relief from the sinister goings on. Harry Lee as husband Jack has a measured approach oozing with sinister undertones. Mariae Tucker and Debbie Bruce give good support as the household staff, one supporting Bella in her hour of need, and one undermining her at every turn .

It’s been a while since I took in a play at the Carver, but I really should visit more often. If you are in the area you should check it out. A very welcoming space, good value for money, with high standards and a varied mix of offerings. The next play here is Harvey, one of my favourite films, running from 10th to 18th May. Tickets can be purchased online at this link, or in person or by phone at Hollins Building Supplies in Marple (which is a brilliant independent hardware shop with knowledgeable staff and a great range of stock) 

Well done to the whole Carver team for Gaslight for an excellent show. I didn't know the story before but this did make me want to seek out the 1944 film adaptation. 

2018, where did you go?!

I think I surpassed myself in total abject failure to blog last year, and I'm not promising it will be any better this year. But despite the fact that only about 20 people were regularly reading my posts (unless someone retweeted it - cheers guys!). I missed having the blog to look back on and remind myself of all my theatre (and occasionally other) adventures. 

So just to start things off again, before life gets in the way and I fall back to never updating this thing, here is a very brief rundown of what 2018 shenanigans I got up to....

12/1 - Everyone's Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre London - such a life affirming show, my third visit, never fails to make me happy
27/1 - The Prince and the Porpoise, Didsbury Players, East Didsbury Methodist Church 
29/1 - Black Men Walking, Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester - mesmerising and at times confusing
24/2 - The Almighty Sometimes, Royal Exchange Manchester - powerful and moving
10/3 - The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, Buxton Opera House - just magical 
24/3 - Frankenstein, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
31/3 - Art, Lowry Theatre Salford - Fabulous acting and a monologue from Stephen Tompkinson that brought the house down

27/4 - Tonight at 8.30 - Bedroom Farces, Jermyn Street Theatre London - some of Noel Coward's shorter pieces done fantastically in a tiny little gem of a theatre in central London
28/4 - Brief Encounter, Empire cinema London - shorter version of a show I'd seen before. Very enjoyable and inventive stuff from the incredible Kneehigh
5/5 - The Cherry Orchard, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
18/5 - The Great Gatsby, Didsbury Players, East Didsbury Methodist Church - fun show with some energetic dancing interludes - made me seek out the book
2/6 - Happy Days, Royal Exchange Theatre - interesting dialogue led play showcasing Maxine Peake's acting skills
12/6 - Russel T Davies and Maxine Peake in conversation - Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester - as RTD would say 'Marvelous'
14/7 - Queens of the Coal Age, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester - originally a Radio 4 play by Maxine Peake I really enjoyed this funny, moving and nostalgic play
20/7 China Plates and Pearl Earrings, Viaduct Theatre at The Hatworks Stockport
23/7 - I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue live, Lowry Theatre Salford - always fun - I'm glad I have friends who appreciate its genius - sad to think this was the last time I would see Jeremy Hardy
8/9 - Taking Steps, Garrick Theatre Stockport - first visit to a play at this amateur theatre at the heart of my home town. I did a really interesting backstage tour of the theatre as part of the heritage open day
22/9 - Queen Margaret, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester
10/10 - Ross Noble, Buxton Opera House - Never fails to deliver
20/10 - Death of a Salesman, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester
25/10 - Matilda the Musical, Palace Theatre Manchester - not the first time I had seen this brilliant show, but fun to see the touring version with a friend who was experiencing its magic for the first time

26/10 - Pinter 3, Howard Pinter Theatre London - short pieces from Pinter told brilliantly that stayed with you well after the show had ended. Tamsin Greig was simply superb
27/10 - Company, Noel Coward Theatre London - gender swapping the main and other roles worked brilliantly and this was a fantastic production
17/11 - The Habit of Art, Lowry Theatre Salford - enjoyable and great performances, but not the favourite thing I've seen from Alan Bennett
8/12 - The Producers, Royal Exchange Theatre - a perfect Christmas treat for my parents and I. Constant laughter and a brilliant production.
15/12 - Kiss Me Kate, Sheffield Crucible - nice way to round off a fabulous theatrical year

When I look at this list it does make me realise 1 - where all my money goes, and 2 - how lucky I am to be able to enjoy so many outings and so much variety. 

Lets see what 2019 brings!

Sunday, 22 July 2018

China Plates and Pearl Earrings, 20/7/18 Hatworks Stockport

The weather conspired to keep me away from Viaduct Theatre’s first production in Stockport earlier this year, so its great news that they are building on that successful debut with a second outing at the Hatworks museum in Stockport with this production as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe.

This new play by Jade Jones, which made its debut at 3MT in Manchester (which is a unique venue you should definitely check out if you have the chance) centres on the meeting of three siblings as they come together to sort out their recently deceased parents home ready for sale. Being brought together in such an emotionally charged environment forces them to confront those family tensions that build up over time as unspoken resentments build and siblings lose the habit of talking, listening and understanding. Through the course of the play they begin to rediscover their family bonds and reconnect whilst remembering the past.

Brian (Paul Fraser-Smith) was encouraged by their parents to choose security over creativity, perhaps influenced by their precarious start in married life. His materialistic and attention seeking wife Ivy (Helen O’Hara) has little time for compassion and a keen eye on the potential profits for her of their loss. Julia ( Claire Haymes) a teacher, is heartbroken by grief but constantly trying to act as the peacemaker between Brian and their youngest sister Nicola ( Lorna Newman) a challenging character who seems in self destruct mode having walked away from a fabulous writing opportunity, but we come to see her story has been more complex.

The play has an interesting structure, we see flashbacks of the children’s parents Mark and Linda (nicely played by Ali Wilson-Goldsmith and Emma Young) starting out on married life, exploring their new relationship and it’s tensions and tenderness. It’s almost like they are haunting the family home as their children prepare to close the book on that chapter of their lives. There are some really touching moments in the writing, I found myself welling up at more than one point, especially during Julia’s opening monologue. I perhaps would have liked to have seen less of the peripheral characters to give the writing more chance to explore Brian’s character and what led him to take certain actions as he feels the least sympathetic of the three.

The space at Hatworks is incredibly intimate, and told in the round it feels like the audience is eavesdropping on events. With such a low ceiling I feel the lighting may have been a bit of a challenge, especially during the ‘flashback’ scenes where I was a little dazzled, distracting somewhat from the on stage action. The use of music is nice and really adds to the feel of the piece, and the transitions between scenes are done well.

All in all I really enjoyed this tender and touching piece of new writing, and heartily applaud Viaduct Theatre for their efforts in establishing a fringe theatre presence in Stockport. I wish them every success in their aims and look forward to enjoying more from them in the future.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Frankenstein, Royal Exchange Manchester 24/3/18

I’m not good with horror or frights of any kind. I’m often scared of my own shadow and on heading for the Royal Exchange’s latest production, Frankenstein, I was a little concerned that I might have to hide behind one of the banquettes if it all got a bit too much for me. I needn’t have worried.

Whilst the dark design of this latest production is effective, especially the blocking of the walls of the theatre space to allow for regular ‘blackouts’ in an attempt to ramp up the tension, and a simple but effective staging, I found this show to be strangely unmoving .

There were some good performances, Ryan Gage as Captain Waldran had great stage presence and gave a nicely balanced performance. Harry Attwell as the Creature conjured sympathy for his plight, the most memorable scene being his time observing and learning from a family in the woods and his eventual rejection. Whilst he played the victim well, I found this character less convincing when he took his revenge having been betrayed. And Colin Ryan (Henry / Felix / Prosecutor) seemed like an actor to watch in the future. 

The choices made in the portrayal of Victor Frankenstein made him almost seem weak. I found myself not really caring one way or the other about what happened to him or his loved ones (just occasionally wishing that they would happen a bit faster!) 

All in all I found this a bit of an underwhelming performance. Little tension, not at all scary, and not very engaging or memorable.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, Buxton Opera House 10/3/18

I managed to win tickets to see this touring production from the Globe Theatre and Bristol Old Vic at the gorgeous Buxton Opera House. What a piece of luck that turned out to be because this production was truly special, totally memorable and I’m so thankful that I got a chance to experience it.

Witten by Joel Hopwood, this production is directed by Emma Rice, the outgoing Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre and formerly of the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre. It certainly has the feel of some of the Kneehigh productions that I have seen as it magically blends, music, puppetry and enthralling storytelling. Whilst the tales it tells are traditional, they bring modern relevance and a sometimes dark edge to the narrative and the talented cast deliver the complex piece deftly, cleverly balancing the various moods.

The main ‘stories’ covered are Thumbelina, the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the Princess and the Pea, all held together by the Match Girl paying for each tale told by the strike of a match and then observing and sometimes being part of the ensuing tales. Edie Edmundon’s puppetry of the Matchgirl is totally mesmerising and you invest in her character fully, making her final fate even more heartbreaking.

Whilst there is plenty of comedy, most overt in the Emperor’s New Clothes which is an absolute hoot, darker themes are referenced throughout of poverty and discrimination, war and abuse, which could have caused upset for the youngest of audience members, although it was subtly done so perhaps more likely to be go over really little one’s heads. For anyone over say 8 it may provoke conversations but it’s well balanced and for the older audience members these darker overtones really draw you in and are very moving.

The mutli-disciplined cast are fantastically talented and work together so well in their various roles. My particular favourites were Niall Ashdown with his incredible comic timing and engaging way with the audience, and Katy Owen who was such a versatile performer. But the whole cast, and on stage musicians really were superb.

The design is beautiful. A cleverly adaptable set with almost magical transformations and reflects both the worlds of the tales being told and the modern day contrasts between those who have, and those who can only look on and dream. The final scenes were incredibly poignant and moving and I’m not ashamed to say I did have a bit of a blub at the end.

Beautiful storytelling, magically told. In turns thought provoking and fun. Such a fantastic production and highly recommended.