West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
17/10/17 to 28/10/17
Gunter Grass’ Noble prize winning novel’ “The Tin Drum” has already been adapted into an award winning film and here highly regarded theatre company Knee-high create their own version of the magic realist fable. Will it too be award winning and ground breaking? The show certainly opened impressively with the subtle orange glow of street lights on a small square illuminating couples slow dancing to eerie music like the ghosts Blackpool Tower ballroom. The authentically grubby and dilapidated tenements of the set lead us to believe we are in some unspecified time and place in the past which could be anywhere from Weimar Berlin to the Post War Eastern Block. Yet what we soon find out is that where we really are is in the realm of folk tale or myth. For though it may have stitched within it elements of bawdy comedy, Baroque opera and dark satire at the root of the play lies a fascination with the same archetypal characters and themes one might find in a folk or fairy tale .
The coming of age story of a cursed child, Oscar it also explores war and conflict, both the metaphorical war between the sexes and generations but also the actual violence of conflict itself and the prejudice and fear which allows it to happen. Though the play begins on a disturbing and unsettling note and tackles serious subject matter early on it soon shifts its position to something more akin to broad musical comedy. With its chase scenes, dance moves and musical numbers I found the first act often funny, at times delightful but overall rather overwhelming, a sugar rush of hyperactivity which left me rather frazzled though pleasingly so.
The second act marked a distinct contrast with the first though as the tone shifted from the giddy to the gloomy. Whereas the first act was a wild and sometimes exhausting ride with only the occasional intimation of the violence to come the second act darkened the tone considerably. The characters lost some of their clownish jollity and instead we gained a greater sense of their struggles. This was particularly true of Oscar as the grim reality of his curse dawned on both him and the audience and a genuine sadness and sympathy for the creepy little chap bubbled up unexpectedly as if from nowhere. This was partly achieved through fixing the story more definitively in a recognisable time and place which helped make the events more relatable. For with its references to a Nazi- like group called “The Order” and scenes depicting concentration camps and public executions we were clearly in WW2 Western Europe.
It was also though due to the fine performances of the cast for though all the actors were adept at bringing elements of mime, dance and clowning to emphasise their characters they also managed to invest their archetypal characters with a sense of inner life. Particularly strong performances came from the well meaning yet dim cuckold Albrect who was lent a kind of desperate and pathetic pathos or the charismatic Granny Brodski and her palpable sense of lusty vigour. Special mention must of course be given to the puppet performers who were a key element of what made the show so magical whether it was the boorish geezer Devil, Baby Kurt or Granny Brodski’s surprisingly lifelike goose.
The most impressive performance of all was from the hero himself, Oscar. Played in the main by a deliciously creepy puppet – a little wooden boy whose face appeared permanently ruffled in a scowl he stalked the proceedings with a sense of ambiguous purpose. Was he hero or villain? Was he to be pitied or feared? It was not always clear. And this perhaps was key to the often unsettling quality of the play.
The second act was con vied with just as much sense of imagination as the first half yet its effect was markedly different creating an atmosphere which was at times oppressive and disturbing. Much of this strength came not from the performances themselves – good though they were – but from the lighting, music and set design. This was superb throughout and created a rich sense of foreboding through powerful imagery and imaginative use of music and sound which constantly adapted to the action in a seamless and perfectly synchronised way. Many of the main characters got their own musical theme such as Albrecht’s lumpen bass tones or Maria’s jaunty melody yet the music itself was a wonderful character in its own right. With inventive use of synths, drones and electronic drums it took in elements of disco, funk, musical hall and dark ambience to create a sound which could turn from the comic to the sinister in a moments notice.
The lighting as well as the music and set was also key to much of the strong atmosphere of the show. Whether it was recreating the throbbing magenta hues of the womb, the flickering fires of an arson attack or the violent white light of an exploded bomb the lighting throughout created a rich vibrancy towards the proceedings particularly towards the plays conclusion. The play ended on a tone which was as mysterious and ambivalent as it began which left me in a rather bewitched state.
Though as in any good folk tale there were clearly morals here if you cared to look for them too such as matriarch Granny Brodski’s assertion that “We are all different, we are all the same” and though I could see that this could be a story about all wars, about all conflicts I remained somewhat confounded as to what it had all been about. There had been so many fantastic, vivid scenes such as Grandpa Jo’s madcap escape from the law or Oscar banging his tin drum making the soldiers dance to a dark techno pulse. Indeed the show went beyond any expectations I had in its perfect blending of acting, puppetry and music. At times I’d found it funny, unsettling, exhausting (the sensory overload of the first act particularly) and enchanting. Yet I still left not knowing really what it had all been about but perhaps that after all was not really the point. For what it certainly was was a fabulous piece of theatre whose powerful images resonated in my mind long after the curtain came down like a half remembered dream or – more likely – a nightmare.
Reviewer : Ian Pepper
Next month sees Rebecca Manley’s Zoetrope hit the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The Mumble managed catch a few words with the director…
When did you first find yourself getting into the dramatic arts?
I loved theatre from a young age, seeing shows with my Dad, making shows with my sister and performing in school plays. I loved telling stories, playing different characters and being part of a creative process with school friends.
These days you are the director of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre. What is the talent like in Leeds & what outlets do you provide for them?
The Youth Theatre works with young people aged 5-19. All the young people attending weekly sessions have a passion for theatre and we create opportunities to engage them with the shows made in the theatre on stage and behind the scenes. I am constantly inspired by young people’s energy, their ideas and it’s exciting to see the world from their perspective. We have a range of different performance opportunities as well as young people being cast in professional show, for example Romeo and Juliet directed by Amy Leach.
What for you makes a good piece of theatre?
Well, I love a good story. I like to see plays that make me think, plays that I can relate to the subject matter of, and also plays that invite me to sees someone’s experiences from a new perspective. I like being challenged by stories that can be uncomfortable to consider and will provoke a good debate for the journey home from the theatre.
What does Gemma Woffinden like to do when she’s not being theatrical?
I actually love going to see as many plays as possible. Across the country there is so much to see. I also enjoy going out for dinner with friend and seeing live music.
You will be bringing Zoetrope to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in early November, can you tell us about the play?
It’s a brilliant new play written by Rebecca Manley and it’s been so exciting to direct. It tells the story of 7 very different young people attending a counselling group. It’s about mental health, relationships and the process people have to go through to get the help they need. It’s very funny and very sad.
To help inform the script and the young people acting in the show you worked with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services on the project. How did you find the experience?
It has helped meeting a range of mental health professionals and young services users. We have shared scenes from the play and been able to talk to people first-hand about real life experiences and they have helped us to shape the characters stories in the play. It’s just been great for the young people to meet each other and learn about life from a different perspective.
How are you finding working with Rebecca Manley?
Rebecca has lots of experience working with people from a range of backgrounds and her playwriting brings those peoples stories to life. She is committed to creating characters that reflect the experiences of real people. Rebecca and I have spent lots of time talking about the things we are passionate about and I believe she is a playwright who genuinely cares about people and their struggles. She is a very funny lady and it’s a pleasure to work with her on Zoetrope. As a director I feel I can talk opening to her about the creative process of bring a new play to the stage.
What would you say to encourage people to buy a ticket?
Come and see the show! I promise it will entertain you and make you think. The characters are brilliant, the story is gripping and most of all the actors are very talented.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the production?
I hope audiences will feel they have seen a high quality piece of theatre that made them think. I hope audiences will come away considering the challenges the character faced and relate them to their own lives whether a direct connection or having an understanding of how to support a friend. Society is starting to talk more about mental wellbeing, and this play will open up the discussion even more. We have a few schools booked in to see the show. I really hope the play can also be explored in schools, it’s a great resource for many reasons. During rehearsals I have run a few workshops and I’m ready to do more! Let’s get talking and remember its ok to not be ok!
What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Gemma Woffinden?
Well, lots more exciting projects with young people. We are already working on a play called BLANK by Alice Birch which is part of the National Theatre Connections Festival 2018. This play looks at the lives of young people who parents are in prison and I am keen to link up with local charities to see how we might work together during rehearsals. The Youth Theatre works with young people aged 5-19s and we have nearly 200 young people attending sessions each week at The Playhouse , I have a production idea up my sleeve that could invite all our young people for a show on the Quarry stage. Watch this space!
A Play, A Pie and A Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Pete’s retired from the rigs so no more chopper-hopping is required. The kids have flown the nest leaving him and wife Claire, free as birds. Time to catch a plane to Italy and that little Tuscan villa they have always dreamed of buying. Thing is she has a phobia about flying – and forget driving, she also hates tunnels. Still, maybe if she pings that rubber band around her wrist frequently and hard enough, all will be well.
Fear of flying, its causes and often funny consequences for Claire (Angela Darcy) and Pete (David McGowan), is explored in this well written, thoroughly enjoyable play by Anita Vettesse. Darcy’s portrayal of Claire is a wonderful mixture of mad panic and perceptive questions…. (Why don’t they have airbags on a plane?)
Her manic contortions, as crisis and terror grip, are utterly persuasive as are the humorous details of her morbid “arrangements”, which are to be found at the back of her knicker drawer in the event of the aircraft dropping out of the sky. McGowan’s Pete provides a steady, less turbulent presence, a necessary counterpoint to his partner’s turmoil but with plenty of dry, sardonic insights to impart. With clever use of back projected clips of old aviation footage to supplement the always entertaining dialogue, this is a first class flight.
Reviewer : David G Moffat
The Lyceum Studio, Edinburgh
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Being played out in the Lyceum Studio, normally used for rehearsals, was the long awaited and anticipated play Love Song To Lavender Menace by James Ley. Set in Edinburgh’s gay community in the mid to late 1980s, with the city’s gay bookshop taking centre stage. As the lights dim and change direction the set design springs to life; a tall structure of towering book cases simplified with white lines creating the outline of books, the effect channels an image of the many barriers we cross in search of the right answers. We may also observe an 80s ghetto blaster complete with tapes and a red duffle bag that has nostalgia written all over it. A simple but effective stage design makes way for the smooth operators that are proud owners of the one and only gay bookshop in Edinburgh’s New Town. Skipping onto the stage with a repetitive tongue and engulfed in a happy smile that would make you think that you were strutting your stuff on the dance floor of Fire Island , you could sense this was going to be a show full of fun and humour, as well as delicate politics. Striking first, Lavender Menace makes a point straight from the start that this is a piece of theater that is to be enjoyed, laughed at and not to be taking too seriously, opening the door and allowing some of those dark shadows behind it to come out into the light. Liberating !!!!!
The acting on display from both Lewis and Glen was as real as as it gets, with very believable characters that had been chipped and modeled like a good marble sculpture, they connected with the audience with the same modus operandi as a piece of cheese that connects with Branston pickles. Centered around the turbulent and loving relationship of these two men and a Policeman (enter Fire Island), the story plays host to the many observations of LGBT movement in the 1980s. Lavender Menace is challenging in many ways and pushes aside the man-made images of gay life. Conjuring up thoughts that provoke your emotions, Lavenderstirs you up and leaves you in a cauldron of side -plitting jokes and sketches that spread an immensely amusing blanket aslant the end product. A well-written script was polished with a very open-minded approach which stuns the hearts of the audience & in subsequence allows them to embrace the message on offer. This is a piece of theater that will thrill and captivate, shatter political laws, chase rainbows, reinvent humour, warm your bobby-socks and get you to ask questions about some of the prejudices we encounter in today’s society. Love Song to Lavender Menace breaks down the walls that hold you inside, but also gives you shelter from fragile storms. With cultural direction, justice and liberation, and a twist of camp fun, Lavenderoffers up a concoction of all that is good in humanity. A message of love and respect for all and always be true to who you are !!!!!! Refreshing.
Reviewer : Raymondo
The Tron, Glasgow
12th – 28th October 2017
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Dramatised from the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name by Richard Crane and directed by Faynia Williams: Thierry Mabonga, Tom England, Mark Brailsford and Sean Biggerstaff play the Brothers Karamazov and double as the other principal players.
The play begins with an acapella procession from the balcony that perches above a minimalist stage set, making good use of the intimacy of the 150 seat venue. Part 1 was entertaining with a slight sense of precision in the delivery of a cleverly worked script, and a couple of unfortunate voices off tried to intrude but the guys carried on through the distraction with great professionalism. That’ll be sorted out for the rest of the run. I found myself distracted during the opening scenes, not as I’d expected by the rotation of the cast through other principal roles, but by the sensation that I was witnessing the early career steps of my nomination for Black James Bond – Thierry Mabonga! Shut my eyes and big Sean could’ve been right there in the room.
Part 2 was a much more relaxed and engaging affair where the actors developed into believable characters and I spent less time comparing their performances to more established stars of stage and screen and started to appreciate the economical use of choreography, costumes and design, and use of the space. There’s no point in me giving you a synopsis of such an enduring tale. This particular vintage could be fairly labelled made from concentrate, but is actually fresh and juicy. In terms of review I will say this; I didn’t pay for my ticket but I wouldn’t have felt cheated if I had.
Reviewer : Colin
6-28 October 2017
When I got asked to review this one, I wasn’t sure what to expect at all… but what a gem of a play it turned out to be! It was my first visit to the Lyceum, so it was a night full of surprises. The theatre itself is beautiful, from the reception through to the bar, and then on into the very impressive auditorium itself. As we took our seats I admired the set immensely, while tattered drapes and ladders hang around the room added touches of authenticity to the illusion as we were all transported back to Germany and the end of WW2. I don’t think I have ever felt such anticipation for a performance in the air as we waited for a show to start.
The plot was quickly established; basically, we were in a theatre just after the conclusion of the war, with the British just turning up to help repatriate multiple nationalities of Europe that had been press-ganged by the Nazis into servicing the Reich. I must admit that I had prior ignorance as to the conflict between neighboring countries and different religious beliefs throughout Europe, but I was quickly educated in the select matter of everybody having something they didn’t like about everybody else, and they all had no desire whatsoever to be in the same theatre together, never mind the same truck that the British officer was hoping to get everyone in and on their way! The officer was played by Nebli Basani whose performance was sheer quality as he and his trusty sergeant (Deka Walmsley) went about conducting the staging-post proceedings in a melting-pot of DP’s (Displaced Person’s) as the Sgt rightly informed us all. I really enjoyed the Sgt’s character and thought that he stole the show a little in the first act; he had the right mix of humour and no messing that a genuine Sgt in the war would likely have needed to be able to survive with his humanity and sanity intact!
There was a sweet-paced genuineness, and the first interval was upon us in what seemed like only a few minutes… which had been, in fact, a full hour. A great sign that one is enjoying oneself. The 2nd half saw a lot more of the cast coming to the forefront of the story, and I quickly felt a connection with a few of them who gave stellar performances! The French Resistance girl played by Kaisa Hammarlund was another one of my favourites; she had a decent sized part and I was genuinely upset by her trials & tribulations. These were among some scattered, soul-touching moments that made me reflect upon the war and the terrible suffering our embattled predecessors had to endure.
Cockpit simply blew me away and I was very glad I had been asked to review. It was most thought-provoking, and I will remember all those excellent performances and the drama from which they shone for a very long time. I was genuinely moved! In today’s world of ever-increasing differences and toxic religious divides, the play remains extremely relevant, it made me think of just how similar we all are. Everyone has the same basic needs and desires, trying to please everyone in this mixed up world of ours,though just like the play would be very difficult indeed! However, just because something is difficult to achieve that should not stop us from trying! Go and see tis play where & while you can & you won’t be disappointed. You don’t need a great historical knowledge or political insight to enjoy Cockpit; the acting was first class, the story was very believable and the stagecraft painted an extremely believable setting. Remarkable theatre!
Reviewer : Mark Parker
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Based on conversations with over a hundred women, Hysteria, we are told from the stage, is not a play but a cabaret. Dialogue and song are used to show the many ways women are detrimentally portrayed in the press and unduly affected by political legislation. Judgement on the Daily Mail objectifying the legs of Teresa May and Nicola Sturgeon is delivered in the guise of a breathless horse race commentary. The polemic covers a wide range of misogyny from the predatory nature of Trump’s sexual behaviour to the DUP’s anti-abortion stance and the film Gaslight.
There’s not much in the worthy sentiments of A J Taudevin’s writing that any sane person would take issue with but citing Gaslight, on two occasions, as an example female oppression seems less sound. It is fiction after all and a great example of Victorian Melodrama, bad man does bad things then gets caught, that doesn’t suggest trying to drive your wife crazy is actually a good idea. The cast of three, Annie Grace, Maryam Hamidi and George Drennan, put plenty of energy and endeavour into getting the content across (Drennan gamely raps a call and response with the audience) but it does seem as if the jumbled show has been written by committee and is carrying its message more by camel than horse.
Reviewer : David G Moffat
King George’s Hall
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Stickman is a live show aimed at children and adults alike. It tells the story of Stickman trying to get back to his family’s house-tree, using just three performers to take on the many roles. Julia Donaldson’s books are popular in our household and my five-year-old is able to recite many of them by heart, so I took him along for his expert opinion. Taking our seats at the splendid King George’s Hall in Blackburn, the show soon bounds straight into the action and the enthusiasm of the actors is immediately apparent. There was an immediate drawback, I thought, for the set was basic & lacks visual stimulation for the kids, when a rare change of scenery does little to keep the attention of the young, and those little ones around me quickly got restless. Things did pick up though, & the show became faster paced, & as it started to utilise the audience the children quickly came to life; jumping and screaming to get involved, they giggled and cheered and willed Stickman on through his journey.
In terms of technical merit, there is clearly a talented team at work here; director Sally Cookson has taken her small team into consideration and showcased their abilities with expertise. Euan Wilson, who studied Actor Musicianship at Rose Bruford, brings Stickman to life with his energetic performance. The cast use instruments, accents and a few props to set the various scenes which work well with music composed by Benji Bower.
There is no doubt that what we saw was art, delivered impressively by talented individuals, but in places the performance was a little too sophisticated for the younger audience who have perhaps been spoilt with the instant gratification of some children’s shows. My son visits the theatre often and summed the show up in three words, ‘it was great!’ I’ll take that from a harsh critic. The Mumble recently interviewed Wilson and I am pleased to be able to quote him and say he was absolutely right. We did ‘take away the wonderful story of adventure’ and the songs were indeed ‘stuck in our head’!
Reviewer : Aimee Hewitt
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26 DEC – 12 JAN BIRMINGHAM Town Hall
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
30th Sept–21st October
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
(The Fall of) The Master Builder, a new modernised take on the play by Ibsen is a brave if flawed attempt to bring into the light a subject more often left in the darkness. Ibsen was famed for his tackling of taboo subjects and the psychological intensity of his plays was controversial (and even sometimes banned) in his day but how would a modern adaptation of his work fare? Would it seem a hackneyed vision from a more conservative age? Or would the coruscating insight of his story still feel strikingly relevant even now?
The play opens on the dregs of a party celebrating architect, Halvard Solnes upcoming acceptance of the ‘Master Builder’ award. The set brilliantly creates a doll’s house style box for the actors to perform in albeit one which looks more like a 1970’s office than a Victorian drawing room. There is also great use of music from the beginning which is used sparingly and with deft subtly creating a sense of foggy memories and burgeoning violence.
As the play begins the audience is thrown straight into the action halfway through a conversation – a technique which though intended to create a sense of immediacy merely feels confusing. We see assistant, Knut Brovik and his trainee architect son, Ragnar bickering about their boss before the master builder himself appears. Halvard enters swaying and staggering, a jaunty and charismatic drunk trying to instil some much needed sense of camaraderie amongst his colleagues. But his mood of triumphalism is soured by an undercurrent of tension. For at the very moment of his greatest triumph Halvard is beginning to feel his sense of privilege slipping away; the women don’t want him any more, he’s making more mistakes and he’s running out of new ideas. Thrown into this heady cocktail of middle aged doubt is cocky student, Hilde with her unhealthy obsession with him, scheming and ambitious trainee, Ragnar and his neglected wife, Aline. Is it possible that Halvard will clasp defeat from the jaws of victory or will he find some way beyond these entanglements?
The play is something of a character study in which the central character, Halvard is gradually revealed to us as his mask of gregarious charm and cheek slips into something far more desperate and troubled. It’s a play about power, control and the personal cost of desire. It’s a tall order for any actor to create such a character and resist the compulsion to showboat but Reece Dinsdale as Halvard gives an excellent charismatic performance creating a compelling portrayal of a ruthless charmer which subtly flashes with hints of the inner anguish and despair of a man who recognises the wickedness of his behaviour (“I’m a terrible human being in some ways but I try…”) but though fleetingly filled with remorse lacks the will to actually stop doing it.
Though Halvard is very much the centre of the play the other actors bring nuanced performances from what at times could end up as bit part characterisations. Susan Cookson as Aline gives her character a winning mix of strength and vulnerability. Katherine Rose Morley manages to create some depth from a character which could have been a mere archetype. David Hounslow as Dr Herval captures the righteous hypocrisy of his incorrigible reprobate of a character very well just as Emma Naomi manages to create empathy for her spirited portrayal of the feisty, loving Kaja. But sadly the other actors fair less well as Michael Peavoy gives a charmless one note performance of belligerent ambition as Ragnar and Robert Pickavance wrings no pathos from his flat performance as Knut.
One aspect which is handled well by all the actors is their investment in the physicality of their performances as they lend all the characters a slightly different physical presence from the stiffness of Knut, and the sprightly Halvard to the elegant Kaja. The way the perspective is changed from that of Halvard to the other minor characters towards the end of the play has a powerful immediacy to it through the use of first person monologues which feels like a brave yet successful risk. This chorus of conflicting voices and perspectives forces the audience to see things afresh and challenges our attitudes to all the characters.
The creeping claustrophobia of the final act is conveyed wonderfully through the stagecraft as the very environment seems to crowd in upon Halvard and we see emanations of what is to come with flashes of harsh and angry white light. However the build up towards Halverd’s retribution at times feels slightly overwrought and ends in monster movie theatrics which do much to jeopardise the subtlety of some of the actors previous work. The actual ending if stopped a scene earlier would have felt marvellously brutal – like a slap in the face but instead we unfortunately have a final scene which though visually striking in its starkness patronises the audience somewhat by spelling out the ‘message’ of what we have just witnessed.
This queasy mix between the understated and the lurid is a real fault of the script as although the dialogue is at times witty and there is often a naturalism to it which flows very well some of the plot twists and turns lack finesse and give the play at times an uneven tone as it shifts from farce to melodrama to tragedy. Sometimes this is handled well and the shift is subtle yet at others it feels jarring. There are also unfortunately some aspects to the adaptation of Ibsen’s original work which feel misjudged. There are countless references to “churches” and “trolls” which have real symbolic force but which are clearly derived from Ibsen’s original play and are very much of the 19th century Norway of its origins. Combined with references to modern shopping centers and Prince Charles this leave the play’s sense of time and place muddled. I feel it would have been better to have either given up any attempt to set the play in modern times or lose these references entirely for the play to be more effective. Overall I enjoyed the play and although at times its message felt a little heavy-handed the talents of the cast brought a sense of reality to what in other hands could have been a rather contrived piece.
Reviewer : Ian Pepper
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Trips to the toilet, cups of tea, banging your head on the desk, these are standard diversions for any scribbler with writer’s block. Time to get your mother out the cupboard and have a chat with her urn; after all it is the tenth anniversary of her passing.
Ivan (Stephen Clyde) looks back a decade, reflecting on the relationship between his mother and himself at the time she discovers she is dying. Fifty years of smoking has lead to terminal lung cancer, ashes to ashes indeed but this is a woman who knows her own mind. No daft bucket list of extreme sports thank you, she is happy in her own home. Besides, every time she’s out and coughs, the neighbours phone their weans to get their name down for the hoose. Clyde handles this demanding one-man performance with confidence, zinging Glasgow barbs in the voice of Ivan and his mother, as both use humour to cope with impending loss.
Events in Ian Pattison’s excellent play, the shift of control, the need for the younger person to communicate in the world of the older, the physical indignities, all will be familiar to those who have experienced loss of an elderly parent. An engaging piece of theatre that is poignant, funny and true.
Reviewer : David G Moffat