Cranhill Carmen

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 18 – 23, 2019

Script: five-stars  Stagecraft: five-stars
Performance: five-stars S.O.D.:five-stars


Oran Mor’s 500 Play season came to a glorious finale this week with a welcome return of “Cranhill Carmen”, Benny Young’s outrageous Glaswegian version of Bizet’s Carmen, complete with versions of all the best known songs, gustily performed by the gutsy cast who first appeared at the venue in 2018 as part of its Mini Musicals series. Reprising their original roles are Charlene Boyd (Carmen McGurn, the eponymous factory girl), Ewan Petrie (Donald John Macneil, the god fearing policeman from the islands) and Jason Harvey as Glesga Millio, the Glasgow hard man come matador.

We first encountered Carmen rather the worse for wear as she stumbled up the aisle in her high heels and frilly red skirt, and finds a suitable spot on the pavement to use as a toilet. Just the moment when PC Donald came upon her and, deeply offended by the depravity of the act, held forth on his fears for mankind and his unwavering faith in God, both for good inside and out. When he took out his notebook in order to charge her with indecency, Carmen employs all her wiles to persuade him not to book her for her minor misdemeanour. He found himself drawn towards her, enchanted by her glamour and her clever wit. The two engaged in a highly charged philosophical game and he was completely captivated – he’d give up his life for her.

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Enter Glesga Millio, resplendent in full matador kit, going all out to impress the lovely Carmen. In complete contrast to the gentle Donald, this was the bad boy, taking command of the stage with his deep bellowing tones and overpowering flavoursome self. His wooing was rough and full of innuendos about what he’d do to women like her, but Carmen loved it and succumbed to his charms.

Dripping in sin, the lovely Carmen revels in the attentions of the two men in turn, laughing at their male competitiveness and transcending what seemed like horrific circumstances into something that it was a joy to behold. Of course the music helped, with all three belting out Bizet’s marvellous tunes with true operatic gusto and heart wrenching feeling. When the finale arrived it was Carmen who emerged victorious, declaring that both men just want to control her and she’s not having any of it. She deftly informs them that she’ll soon be leaving the country anyway.

This play is full of sheer flamboyance, reaching great heights and depths. When in the end Carmen left as she had come, disappearing back up the aisle with neither man in tow, we can’t help but smile.

Daniel Donnelly

five-stars

Do Not Press This Button

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 11 – 16, 2019

Script: four-stars.png Stagecraft: three-stars.png 
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D: three-stars.png


As we approach the end of this season’s 500 play celebrations, today’s production took the form of Do Not Press This Button, a new play by Alan Bisset, directed by Kirsten Mclean. The scene was two table’s on a train where Ben (David Rankine) and Maria (Gemma McElhinney) were seated on either side of the four big windows, both looking intent and composed. All at once Ben tried to start up a conversation with a reluctant Maria and they growl at each other for a bit, recognising that they often share the same train journey but had never talked before.

The somewhat abrupt interaction warmed up when Maria hit upon the idea of a game of questions and answers where they each agreed to answer questions from the other. But Maria had an agenda, and her questions become increasingly personal and uncomfortable for Ben. With a smile on her face, she asked which race was his favourite, as in race of people, and the conversation took on an increasingly explosive tone as he tried to evade her probing. It was almost like watching a Shakespearean encounter with Maggie’s intelligence and sharp wit leaving Ben standing. We laughed at the sight of him being put in his place, it seemed that Maggie couldn’t be won over as easily as all that – if that’s what Ben was trying to do…

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Enter Terry in his bomber jacket (Cameron Fulton), who became a kind of an innocent third party as the other two discussed him when he went off to find beer. They agreed that they found his demeanour threatening and confessed to feeling relief that he had temporarily absented himself. The contrast between the stereotypes was not lost on us – the two middle class professionals and the working class Terry with his rough accent and casual clothes. But their attitudes and opinions could confound us too, and lead to assumptions being taken to account. Things took on a much darker turn when Terry was reluctantly cajoled into talking with the two about race and Dire Straits, of all things, and he responded by threatening Maria with his fists. It all ended very badly…

This was a wonderful piece of writing and fitted the Oran venue perfectly, with marvellous edgy performance from all three actors. I suppose that if we don’t “press these buttons” we wouldn’t learn anything at all, but the stern lesson is to do so at your peril and know when to stop!

Daniel Donnelly

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Good With People

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 4 – 9, 2019

Script: three-stars.png Stagecraft: three-stars.png 
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D: three-stars.png


500 plays is no mean feat, and every week the Oran Mor seems to improve on everything that has come before. David Harrower’s effort today was a play called Good with People, a calm yet dangerous take on things that seem to sneak up on us. The set looked inviting, offering a green floral wall paper with a reception desk, a door and a bookcase with a painting in the middle, signifying a hotel reception.

The weary and injured Evan, (Daniel Cahill) had come home to Helensburgh. He found himself at the Seaview Hotel arguing with the receptionist Helen (Louise Ludgate). He was not happy with the hotel service thus far as she had refused him entry until officially opening the hotel and bar at 12 o’clock midday. From Helen’s point of view, she’d come across a problematic customer though with every conversation they had she felt more and more curious and even compelling about him.

As each of these dialogues happened the stage would go from black to total light which brought the points being made across all the more assuredly. They almost fell into total chaos on more than one occasion which also held a light to the frustrations which were arising. After these story telling sessions Fastlane was mentioned; the nuclear defence programme, that was also a popular resort destination. But by this time Evan was irate about revisiting the past horrors he had encountered there and in reality really not wanting to return to it.

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There was no going slowly for either of these characters, no time for contemplation or even serious concern aloud but instead a despair. Yet even as the whole world tussled they came to quite some endearing agreements as he flashed himself upon her drawing out of her the information he would need to know for the whole play.

This play was a topsy turvy encounter between two voices and humble physical appearance looking into facing things though they may remain too large to really contemplate. Fastlane is a controversial institute in Scotland and is the cause of many a protest. The protest reflected in the play asking us to question things to a far larger degree, because things can look bleak.

Daniel Donnelly

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Kes

Matthew Barker as Man and Danny Hughes as Billy in Perth Theatre's Kes (2).jpg


Perth Theatre
2 November – 16 November 2019

Script: five-stars  Stagecraft: five-stars
Performance: five-stars S.O.D.:five-stars


If you’re in the prime of life then you might have seen the magnificent Ken Loach film “Kes”. One of those gritty Seventies movies, it was a favourite of English lessons to accompany the book by Barry Hines “A Kestrel for a Knave”. I don’t remember the book much but the film has stayed with me over the years. So how effectively would a stage version of a film, that heavily features a boy flying a hawk, manage to capture the visual poetry of boy and hawk? Very effectively indeed, actually. A credit to the actors in this fine drama. This from now on will be the “Kes” that I remember.

Matthew Barker as Man and Danny Hughes as Billy in Perth Theatre's Kes.jpg

Billy Casper, a young delinquent and loner, escapes the crushing indifference of school and home by training and flying a kestrel. For him, the wild bird embodies freedom and escape from the ever-nearing adult world of work. His older brother, Jud, works in the coal mines that encircle the Northern town, and Billy, with no means of escape after school, will likely follow him down into the cruel blackness that is so different to the airy light of his hawk’s flight. Danny Hughes makes the character of Billy his own. His South Yourkshire dialect sounds convincing and he has a hang-dog stance down to a tee. The relationship between Billy and his brother Jud, played by Matthew Barker, is the source of the action of the drama, and Hughes and Barker portray this sibling antipathy perfectly. Barker’s Jud is a cocksure, working-class lad, content to live for the weekend, a few too many pints and if she’s lucky, a different type of ‘bird’ than the kind Billy is interested in.

Behind this triangle of brothers and hawk, there is a plethora of other characters, schoolfriends, teachers, shopowners and ‘Mam’. The film version of these characters provided some comic relief and the first screen appearances for actors such as Brian Glover (as a hilariously pompous PE teacher) and Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley from Coronation Street) but here the two actors take up the parts as required. This works well, concentrating the focus of the drama onto the tensions between Billy and Jud, what they each represent, and at the same time allowing the two to inhabit the many really funny moments of this adaptation.

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Staging and set detail are used cleverly and evoke that peculiarly British working-class atmosphere of the Sixties and Seventies. Everything, even the school blackboard, is a little bit faded and yellowed with cigarette smoke. It’s fifty years since Ken Loach’s film was made. This adaptation by Robert Alan Evans does real justice to that film and more. It’s one of those one-act plays that you wish had a second act, not because it’s not complete, but because it’s so utterly charming and captivating that you leave wanting more.

Mark Mackenzie

five-stars

Marco Pantini: The Pirate

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Oct 28 –  Nov 1, 2019

Script: four-stars.png Stagecraft: four-stars.png
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D.: four-stars.png


Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and Pint 500th play year continued with the re-run of another hit production by the popular Stuart Hepburn. Marco Pantani: the Pirate followed the gigantic rise and fall of Italian athlete Marco (Mick Cullen) where he climbed to the very top of cycling which for him was the whole world. With a racing bike hanging at the back of the stage, the scene was set to tell the tale, beginning with conversations with his very supportive family, mother Tonina played by Janet Coulson, who somewhat grimly would always be warning about the serious side of things, and his grandfather Sortero (Tom McGovern) who had complete faith in the remarkable talents of the boy. The bike, it turned out, was unveiled as a present for him, confirming the faith they had in him.

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The action jumped between different periods in the life of all three characters, at first focusing on Marco with a bandage on his head having had plastic surgery to fix his ear problem and highlighting how he had always felt different and had been made in a different way to anybody else. But somehow everything faded into the background in the face of his overwhelming dream of making it to the top. You felt that even when his mother was found to be mentally ill and she spoke about her incarceration, he somehow couldn’t quite comprehend anything about it.

The story took us from his first race to when he went on to win the Giro D’Italia and the Tour De France. We watched him mount the bike pretending to cycle hard and fast with a sheer determination that was shocking to doctors and fellow sportsmen alike. He would then go on to celebrate hard with the money that came his way due to these races, taking drugs and hanging around with the kind of people with whom he was better off without, and which led to his downfall.

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But to the great excitement of his family, that indomitable spirit led him on to complete many great victories in the cycling world. All his life he had suffered from mental fragility, often casting around in a place of pain and anguish. But to his credit what was inside him flourished for a brief hot while, as he won races on the strength of his hill climbing abilities and triumphantly donned a pirate bandana in recognition of the amazing life that he led; which made his fall from grace all the sadder.

In the end this seemingly simple play was a complex exploration of how a unique man challenged the gods of his sport and achieved his dream, at least for a while, to cycle to the top of the world.

Daniel Donnelly

four-stars.png

A Walk In The Park

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Oct 21 – 26, 2019

Script: four-stars.png Stagecraft: four-stars.png
Performance: three-stars.png S.O.D.: four-stars.png


As part of its 500th play celebration, Oran Mor is this week reprising Dave Anderson’s play “A Walk in the Park”, starring the said Mr Anderson as an everyman character struggling hilariously with his i-Pad and with modern technology in general. He wanted to write a letter and reflect upon tech literature versus the now old fashioned method of using paper.

Taking a walk in the park to think things through, things took on a somewhat surreal tone when he encountered, among other things, a fox and a squirrel (played by Helen McAlpine) along the way. The fox appeared, as bright and orange as the real thing with a small mask of brow and snout. It danced about but went on to join him in his complaints about the real world that we live in today. The fox for him was like a bright apparition which whom he gleefully shared some poetic lyricisms.

The squirrel too gave him an opportunity to think out exactly what was disturbing him, and in doing so, he also managed to create an unexpected bond that gradually begins to do him the world of good. Thus ensued lively conversations between all three characters, both with themselves and between themselves and often directly with the audience. Audience participation being very much part of it all as the three strolled and postured around the stage and up the aisle, to musical accompaniment (piano and song), pondering what they thought of as the horrors of technology.

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We were often in tears of laughter with every punchline that came from the actor’s mouth, with his sharp looks and pointed stances. The inclusion of the animals seemed to widen the sense of philosophical exploration, somehow making the smallish room seem bigger as they concluded that they were overawed by the simple statistics of technology as we have come to know it and that being modern might mean that that old traditions may no longer be of any use. It was a message made gently, engaging us completely. When the line “life is not a walk in the park” was uttered, we saw how simple things were really. We were left with a feeling that the questions still remain but we were not alone as we explore them because we all share the same conundrums.

Daniel Donnelly

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Jadek

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York Theatre Royal
16/10/19,

Script: three-stars.png Stagecraft: four-stars.png
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D.: four-stars.png


York Theatre Royal’s studio is a pretty small performance space and tonight it was laid out in such a way that, as the audience filtered into the room, we had to walk across the set and through the lives of the characters we were yet to meet. In a way, the sight was quite shocking – we passed the skeletal ruins of a sofa, cardboard boxes and discarded items across the floor. And then, as we passed a coffee table, there lay the body of a young woman, positioned in such way that we had to step over or around her to reach our seats. This set up raised questions in our minds that we hoped would be answered, it forced us to take a walk through the lives of the characters of Jadek and enabled us to form an instant connection with them.

Jadek is a production by Leeds-based Imagine if Theatre Company and was written and co-directed by Francesca Joy, the very body on the floor over which I had just stepped. She plays Tasha, a young woman who lives with her grandad, played by Piotr Baumann. Tasha has just moved in with her blind, 94 year old grandad, who is still struggling with his memories of Poland in World War 2. In between caring for him, she also deals with a publisher who is looking to publish her first children’s novel.

The structure of the play is fairly loose, and follows the burgeoning bittersweet relationship between the two. It’s an intimate affair that lends us an insight into their daily lives – grandad continually berates his granddaughter when she’s late home from the shops, Tasha fixes the boiler and insists that she won’t blow up their home despite his protestations, and grandad learns the finer details of how to use his Alexa device in order to hear the weather forecast. In Jadek, we watch a very small slice of the world, but despite its subject matter, this play is no mere niche concern. The honesty and humanity on display deal with universal and relatable themes, be it caring for an elderly relative, dealing with past trauma and the whether we should merely “play the game” to get by in life. Both Joy and Baumann feel completely natural in their roles and they lend the proceedings with a gentle comic touch as the two bicker affectionately back and forth. Baumann’s performance, in particular, is breathtaking as an elderly man who carefully and painfully shuffles around a house he cannot see. His switches between frailty and stubbornness at a moment’s notice and, as harrowing as his story can be, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company. Despite feeling so off the cuff and authentic, the writing is very deliberate and clever enough to drop seeds throughout the course of the play that suddenly and unexpectedly bloom into surprising revelations for both the audience and the characters.

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Providing a counterpoint the natural feel of the main narrative, the play is punctuated by a series of jarring sequences. At points the stage darkens and the soundtrack swells as Tasha contorts into a series of positions, equal parts suggestive and tortuous. Heavily treated recorded dialogue plays over these sequences and we hear one sided snippets of conversation as Tasha speaks to a man/ a series of men. In these sequences, we see another version of Tasha as she sells her body by the hour, a version of Tasha that only very briefly bleeds over into the main narrative. It’s a darker, even surreal subplot that provides a chilling parallel to the story of the sale of her novel – she finds herself in a situation where needs to perform sex acts to survive, just as she must agree to her publisher’s increasing demands to change central aspects of her cherished novel. As the story further teases out the details of grandad’s dreams, his horrific past provides further parallels, and granddaughter and grandad both begin to question whether playing this game is the way they should live their lives.

The whole play is accompanied by wonderful sound design that adds depth and emotional resonance throughout, from bright melodic bubblings to the eerie soundscapes that inhabit the play’s darker corners. A speaking clock breaks the play into segments and Alexa interjects at key moments, at one point malfunctioning and spewing out a stream of questions that have been asked by grandad throughout the play.

But the real appeal of the play lies in the tiny details, the nuances in the performance that gently reach out and grab the audience by the throat. At one point grandad finds himself tending some plants in his garden, speaking to his unseen neighbour, Mark. As he spoke, a member of the audience suddenly found himself included in the performance and began to assume the role of Mark as he engaged in conversation with grandad and Tasha. This small, off the cuff moment served to formalise the connection between performers and audience that had begun with our miniature tour through their world before the play even started. It generated an emotional spark , and a fitting climax to the performance. There are lofty themes at work throughout Jadek, however what stands out most is one simple word: connection. Connection between audience and performer. Connection between two very different generations. Emotional connections to support and enrich one another’s lives. Jadek will be going on tour throughout November and December and is a connection worth making.

Steve Bromley

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Dorian

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Square Chapel, Halifax
15/10/19

Script: five-stars Stagecraft: five-stars
Performance: five-stars S.O.D.:five-stars


I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a theatre auditorium and been handed a discount leaflet for a gym. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been handed a discount leaflet for a gym at all – one look at me and I’m thankfully seen as a lost cause, so I’m allowed to continue on my way unencumbered by an unwanted flyer. Not so tonight. On my way to my seat, a flyer was thrust enthusiastically into my hand. As recorded questions about body image played over the sound system (Are you happy with yourself? Which part of your body is your favourite?) I investigated the leaflet, presenting me with the opportunity to Get Hench with Harry. No thanks, I thought, while I’m not happy with my body, I’m certainly not in a hurry to become hench, and so filed it away in the darkest recess of the programme in my hand. It turns out that the leaflet and my ensuing thoughts were far more relevant to Dorian that I’d initially realised.

Dorian, written by poet Andrew McMillan, and brought to the stage by Huddersfield’s Proper Job theatre company, tells the story of Dorian, a widower in his mid 50s, who enlists the services of Harry to help him sculpt his aging and sagging figure into the body of his dreams. His son Sam is having his own crisis. He plays in a band with his girlfriend, Sarah, and is feeling the pressure of maintaining a perfect image for the band’s social media presence. In turn, Sarah works as a photographer for Harry and produces a photoshopped image of Dorian’s target figure, an image to inspire him through a 6 month fitness program.

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This play forms the final part of the company’s Monster trilogy and takes its inspiration from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Using Wilde’s story as a starting point, Dorian examines the twisted and destructive relationship between body image and fitness culture, as well social media and image manipulation. The cast perform directly to the audience as well as into a variety of webcams, mobile phones and laptops. Their images, recorded videos and streaming footage are displayed on a wall of screens at the rear of the stage as the cast take selfies, manipulate images of themselves and each other, and host live streams of their performances.

The four strong cast are superb. Rick Ferguson’s performance as Dorian is an absolute delight as he deftly navigates the character’s journey from likeable, vulnerable father through to an altogether more monstrous and self-obsessed figure. Chris Casey, as fitness instructor Harry, gives an appropriately energetic performance – standing high on stools to tower over the audience, doling out catchphrases (“I’m a midwife of muscle!”) to his eager student. He also transforms into his own version of a monster as he begins to physically dominate the other characters and grows increasingly violent. My own ponderings on my own body and fitness levels – as well of those of the entire audience – intertwined with the themes of the play as Harry strode around the auditorium, picking out audience members to demonstrate the notion of the ideal body to his fitness class. Elizabeth Harborne’s character, Sarah, is often responsible for laying bare Dorian’s themes as she records videos on “image optimisation” for her captive social media audience. She then switches out of “social media” character and turns to address the audience directly, admitting to her lies, explaining that the pursuit of a perfect image is merely an industry and that this industry’s customers are also its victims. Meanwhile Neil Balfour, as Sam, inhabits the rear of the stage, sitting at a keyboard as he provides both soundtrack duties and a heartbreaking image of a soul ripped apart by social media-inspired body dysmorphia.

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What starts out as a very sweet, humorous and relatable production, soon takes a nastier turn, appropriately for a play series entitled Monster. There’s a key scene at the heart of the play that rings true. Sam and Sarah are dining out at a restaurant, but they both stare into their phones, ignoring one another. Sarah takes selfies and photos of her sushi, and the resulting Instagram pictures uncontrollably flood the backdrop, endlessly tweaked and adorned with an increasingly elaborate amount of emojis. The reality that sits in front of this backdrop – Sam and Sarah, silent and miserable – exposes the lie behind these pictures. Soon, these pictures overload the screens and they begin to glitch and distort, a nightmarish vision of social media’s warped version of reality.

Proper Job make strong use of Meyerhold’s theatrical biomechanics, with its emphasis on precise and dynamic physical movements. This really complements the action in Dorian, as the focus on physical presence fits neatly into this world – these characters are forever posing for the camera, exaggerating or concealing their physical traits to portray a very different image of themselves to the world, almost lying to themselves through their very actions, betraying their true selves. This at its most evident in the restaurant scene: Sam and Sarah carry chairs towards their table, navigating their way across the stage in very stiff and staccato lines, a very rigid and formal dance, portraying a couple whose interactions have become uncomfortable and alien.

There are a lot of individual components that make up Dorian – family drama, philosophical musings, songs, action sequences, multimedia elements and an ever evolving set. In lesser hands, this could easily result in a muddled and confusing production, but producer/ director Chloe Whitehead and director James Beale handle this with ease. Cast members move across this shifting stage with a fluidity and ease that allow McMillan’s wonderful script to shine. There isn’t a moment wasted in this production and it all builds up to a horrific climax as all these individual elements build up to a monstrous cacophony, a real cautionary tale for those who may obsess over their physical appearance and how they present themselves to the world. Superb

Steve Bromley

five-stars

Divided

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
Oct 14 – 19, 2019

Script: four-stars.png Stagecraft: three-stars.png
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D.: five-stars


This week’s offering at Oran Mor saw the return of Ian Pattison’s play “Divided”, about the iconic psychiatrist, RD Laing. The scene was set in a stylish art deco living room with three comfortable chairs and an extra podium at the front where Billy Mack relaxed and likeable Laing would sit with a whisky at his desk while he talked on the phone. We listened in as he took many calls from various characters, dealing in depth with each.

The play explored the way Laing would constantly come across the then behavioural dysfunctions of mental health treatment, which he saw as not humane. And so, as the action unfolded, these dialogues revealed the universal insights and the great passions that characterised his life. Alongside his work, life was happening for him too. Both of his daughters, Suzie (Sarah Miele) and Karen (Eve Traynor) would want to talk to him, but there was always some sort of barrier that meant that they felt he wasn’t quite there. It was sad to see this side of things, but although there were many arguments you got a strong sense of the family love that existed between them and that always helped them sift through to find the truer meaning – very much the work of the psychiatrist.

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Laing was portrayed here as being defined by the huge regard he felt for his family and lovers. There was a dilemma regarding the hard fact that his daughter Suzie was ill with leukaemia and in all reality did not have long left to live. His love for her ‘perhaps’ conflicted with his philosophy; that it is better off to know bad news than to conceal it. After passionate arguments with his other daughter Karen, he decided to adhere to that philosophy causing Suzie to become upset though she later revealed that she was glad that he did so, while Karen too accepted it in the end.

This production had the taste of a fair-minded exploration into what made the great man tick, both positive and negative. It was also a dedication to a time when old walls were falling down and new doors being opened. Laing’s new theories about the doctor patient relationship would go on to change everything; a fascinating insight into a complicated mind.

Daniel Donnelly

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Trojan Horse

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Leeds Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre
Oct 3 – 5, 2019

Script: four-stars.png Stagecraft: five-stars
Performance: four-stars.png S.O.D.:four-stars.png


Stories. We all love them, don’t we? Until, of course, we find ourselves on the wrong side of a narrative. Until we find ourselves no longer playing the hero and we’re suddenly portrayed as the antagonist, the wrongdoer, the terrorist. It’s easy to forget the power that stories hold. They appeal to people’s hearts, but can just as easily stoke hatred, incite violence. We find ourselves at a point in history where the power of a strong narrative is perhaps more evident than ever – fake news this, propaganda that. Stories can lead us astray, they can destroy lives. We need to be wary of a story.

Trojan Horse, written by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead is a story that seeks to redress a balance that has been thrown way off kilter by a sickeningly popular and prevailing narrative: Islamophobic sentiment fuelled by stories of extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. Produced by Barnsley’s Lung Theatre, Trojan Horse won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award in 2018 at the Edinburgh Fringe. Tonight, it kicks off a short UK tour at the newly refurbished Leeds Playhouse and the packed auditorium were ready to hear this story.

It centres around the real life 2014 Trojan Horse scandal that began with an anonymous letter that made accusations of radicalisation within several Birmingham schools, a letter that spoke of head teachers being bullied out of their schools to further a Muslim plot to force religion and install extremist views in the minds of school children. The play follows events in and around the schools of the Park View Educational Trust and the ensuing investigations by Ofsted, Birmingham City Council and Peter Clarke’s government investigation.

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Monks’ and Woodhead’s play draws from extensive interviews, public documents and speeches and is broken into small segments that whisk us from council meetings to classrooms to the children’s homes. It serves up each piece of dramatised evidence to the audience, who is allowed to act as the jury in the court case, allowing us to draw our own conclusions, conclusions far removed from the hysterical narrative as it was presented in the mainstream media. Each segment further drives the plot forwards, presenting contrasting sides of the story – from the paranoid headmaster convinced of the extremist plot, to the earnest teacher whose main concern was transform his pupils’ lives for the better. Such an approach could come across as fragmented, but the strength of the writing and the relatable and open hearted performances pull it all together into a cohesive, compelling and eye opening whole.

Gurkiran Kaur as Farah delivers a relatable central character as she opens the play in the her family home, bickering with her father over whether she should keep her head covered out of the house. She then talks of her teacher who turns a blind eye when she promptly removes her head scarf at school. Mustafa Chaudhry as teacher Rashid and Qasim Mahmood as Tahir, head of the educational trust deliver memorably ardent performances – these are men who are fighting to improve failing schools, not just failing in terms of Ofsted results, but also failing their pupils who have grown restless and directionless. They are also supported by Komal Amin and Keshini Misha, who rapidly switch between characters – from school pupils, to headmasters and councillors to fill out the play with a larger cast of central characters and background figures. Their energy forms the vital heart of Trojan Horse.

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And what energy. The stark set is dominated by school desks mounted on casters, which the cast enthusiastically whirl about the stage in what are almost dance sequences. They continuously rearrange the desks as they transition from scene to scene, from location to location. They open and then slam their desks shut as they change outfits to switch from character to character. The constant movement gives the play a real sense of trajectory as events spiral out of control. Subtle sound design underpins the flow of the action – low quiet drones swell into affecting sweeps at key emotional points; each scene separated from the next with bursts of breezy uptempo music that draw us ever onward to the play’s conclusion. Lights stutter and flash as the characters find themselves embroiled in press interviews. Intrusive microphones surround the cast as they are interrogated and accused, their private lives thrust into the public eye, their every word and action repurposed to suit someone else’s political ambitions, to suit another man’s view of the world.

As far as Trojan Horse is concerned, that man is Michael Gove. The play draws from elements of his book, Celsius 7/7, as in turn the Trojan Horse letter drew heavily from this book. The back of the set is a school blackboard, onto which quotes are projected that introduce and sum up each scene and snapshot. They present an alternative narrative in which the scandal was seized upon as an opportunity to reinforce the narrative of Gove’s investigation into terrorism. It presents the anger and sadness of the pupils and the teachers who fell victim to this very political repurposing of their lives, it depicts the schools that had struggled – yet crucially – succeeded in improving the lives of the children in the local communities. It the shows these school brought right back round to failure despite their every effort.

The audience reacted to the play’s energy energy in kind – cheering and applauding, nodding in emphatic agreement with the characters on stage, fully engaged with this version of event, welcoming its message. Keep an eye on this tour, this is an important story and long may LUNG continue to tell such stories.

Steve Bromley

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