Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Crypt Project : New Depths Lowry Theatre, Salford 17/1/12

Well, Happystorm Theatre’s production of The Crypt Project turned out to be a fascinating night and one I will not forget in a hurry.

It was billed as a promenade performance, taking place under the Lowry Theatre, exploring elements of addiction and mental health. An email arrived on the day of the performance advising sensible shoes should be worn, adding to the anticipation and I really didn’t know what to expect.

Each performance was limited to an audience of 30. We met in the main foyer of the theatre and were then led back outside, round to the rear of the building and in through a service entrance. Our small group were then issued with hard hats, and further split into four teams who would be guided round the performance separately.

We spent the next hour being led through corridors, into under-stage spaces, into the theatre auditorium, onto and behind the stage. It was completely disorientating and an extremely intense experience. Sometimes we would pause to witness events, such as an exchange between two characters in a corridor, at other times you would catch glimpses of activity as you passed by. You could also hear other things happening that you never saw. From time to time characters would rush past you, or you would glimpse things happening in rooms or corners as you were led by, or sometimes the audience itself would become almost part of the performance. At one point I was sitting in the theatre, watching action on the stage, with an actor sitting next to me, observing and commenting on the events on the stage.

Each of the four groups went round separately but consecutively, occasionally joining with another group to witness elements of the piece, and all experiencing the ‘whole’ in a slightly differing order. It must have been a superhuman feat of logistics to organise, yet it ran like clockwork.

Because the groups were so small it was an incredibly intense experience, and a real privilege to be seeing quality performances at such close quarters.

There were four main characters – Daniel (Matthew Ganley) Frances (Susi Wrenshaw), Jeanette (Denise Kennedy) and William (Ian Curley) - as events unfolded you realised that all of them were dealing with mental health or addiction issues, some more immediately apparent than others, and you got glimpses into their lives, and what might have influenced those issues. But this wasn’t a linear story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and in my opinion it was all the more clever for that.

Daniel’s issues are the most immediately apparent, the kind of person you might avoid in the street, but as events unfold you start to see the complexities of his character and the interactions between him and Frances are extremely touching. The intensity and energy of Matthew Ganley’s performance was amazing to witness. Frances and Jeanette on initial impression are both confident professionals, but as the event progresses you see they are both extremely complex and vulnerable people. Susi Wrenshaw’s portrayal of Frances was extremely moving, especially in the ‘bathroom scene’ as her issues and vulnerabilities become clear. Ian Curley as William shows us a lonely man, struggling with life and past regrets, and of all the characters his left me with the most questions.

But the highlight performance of the night for me was Denise Kennedy’s Jeanette. When we first properly meet her, as part of her project team meeting, it was an extremely humorous performance, and one that I recognise all too well from my day job. However, when we next see her, as silent observers in her hotel room, her dramatic unravelling is shown in a quite breathtaking portrayal that had the audience gripped.

When we eventually emerged back out into the theatre foyer I had the sense of having experienced something very special that had my mind in complete overdrive for long after I had left the building. The cast, crew and creative team should be very proud of themselves, it was an extraordinary night out and I consider myself very lucky to have been part of.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A Round Heeled Woman, Aldwych Theatre London 14/1/12

“Alcohol doesn’t solve any problems………….but then again, neither does milk”

The above quote was one of my favourite lines from A Round Heeled Woman, which we went to see on its last night at the Aldwych Theatre in London, but it’s from a play littered with memorable moments.

The booking was a last minute thing, I was down in London for the Christening of my lovely niece and nephew, and we decided to go down to the half-price ticket booth at Leicester Square to see what was available. I had seen lots of people complimenting Sharon Gless’ performance, and I knew the play had good reviews, but other than that I really didn’t know anything about it. As the play started, and the lead character, Jane, is starting to engage in phone sex, whilst I sat next to my parents and brother and cringed, I did get a bit worried! But the tension was quickly broken with a very funny breaking of the 4th wall and I was able to relax and enjoy what turned out to be a fabulous night out.

The play is based on a true story of Jane Juska, a lady heading for her 67th birthday who takes out a personal ad in the New York Times Literary Review saying that she would like to have ‘a lot of sex with a man I like’. We then follow some of her encounters, whilst also learning more about her life now and in the past, her damaged relationship with her son, and a clever twist where her experiences are compared with those of her favourite Anthony Trollope character Miss Mackenzie through interactions with the lady herself and some of her suitors.

Sharon Gless was outstanding in the role. I have to admit I only really knew of her as Christine Cagney and wasn’t aware of what a varied and accomplished career she has had to date. Her character is the central focus of the play and is on stage the whole time. She’s got great comic timing, but that’s only one aspect of a complex role. She gave a very ‘real’ performance which was in turns funny, touching and heart-breaking, and which had the audience completely taken along on Jane’s journey, particularly as they were regularly addressed which lead to a very intimate feel to the play.

The rest of the cast take on a number of roles during the course of the play and were all excellent. Beth Cordingly’s Miss Mackenzie in particular managed to engage the audience so well that there were shouts of encouragement and cheers when life finally started looking up for her!

All in all this was a well-constructed and ultimately life affirming piece of theatre, that I’m sure spoke to many people, not just 66 year old women. It was lovely to go to see a play I have no preconceptions about, and for it to turn out to be such an unexpected treat.

You Can't Take It With You - Royal Exchange, Manchester 7/1/12

The Royal Exchange in Manchester can usually be relied upon to stage some seasonal cheer of the non-panto variety that will help to shake off any winter blues, and this year was no exception.

You Can't Take it with You is a revival of a 1930's American farce, centring on the eccentric Vanderhof household. Alice, the sanest of the bunch and the only one who appears to do real work for a living (as opposed to other family activities which include studying ballet - for a very long time!, playwriting, keeping snakes, making fireworks, painting, printing and sweet making ) falls in love with the bosses son Toby Kirby, and a party is arranged for the two families to meet. All the Vanderhoffs have promised to be on their best behaviour. Unfortunately the Kirby's arrive a day early in the middle of complete mayhem (or a normal day in the Vanderhoff household depending on your point of view).

All the cast were great, some taking on more than one role, one taking on five! I think my favourite characters were Sophie Russell's Essie, who practises her ballet moves at every opportunity, and Golda Roseuvel's Miss Wellington, a flamboyant actress with a passion for gin!

This was a gloriously mad production, even the scene changes were exuberantly choreographed, and it romped along at a cracking pace. It was also extremely funny, and ultimately very heartwarming. Just what was needed on a cold and damp post-Christmas Saturday!