Category Archives: England
28th Nov – 25th Jan
Tonight saw the opening performance of Leeds Playhouse’s 2019 Christmas show, The Wizard of Oz, in the playhouse’s recently opened Quarry theatre. This was a hugely important night for the theatre and it was abundantly clear from the outset that every effort had been made to ensure that this show was nothing less than outstanding. It’s certainly no exaggeration to say that everyone who stepped out into the drizzly November night after the show were still wrapped up in the show’s spell, their faces plastered with beaming smiles and their ears still ringing with the joyful sounds of Oz.
This is a big budget family blockbuster that absolutely delivers on all counts, giddy with the spectacle of hot air balloons, colourful rotating sets, bungee jumping monkeys, enchanting puppet work, and panto-style boo hiss villains. The colourful and exuberant cast make use of every inch of the new performance space, popping out of trapdoors, rising up into the lighting rig and spilling out into the auditorium, much to the delight of the younger theatre goers in the audience.
Everyone involved overflowed with an infectious eagerness to please, from the cast to the attendants in the auditorium, actively engaging with members of the audience before, during and after the production. This wasn’t a show, it was an event: everyone involved with the production and the theatre had eagerly seized this opportunity to shout loudly about their wonderful new space: Look how amazing it is, look what it can do! It’s an assertion that is pretty hard to deny.
But this isn’t mere spectacle. There’s real substance here and much to commend. This could have easily been an overenthusiastic splurge of colour and choreography, but James Brining’s hugely assured direction easily swerves this potential pitfall. Given how much is going on onstage, it never feels overwhelming – every element sits perfectly in its rightful place.
The younger cast all hold their own and the early Munchkin sequence is an early high point in a show of many such high points. They enthusiastically pull the audience headlong into their colourful world. Their choreography is near flawless and their characters so joyful and memorable that they are single-handedly responsible for the grins that spread across the audience.
Standout performances include Polly Lister as the Wicked Witch, who thoroughly relishes the OTT villainy of the character, a character that inspires raucous boos and even more raucous laughter. Eleanor Sutton is a delight as Scarecrow, imbuing the character with boundless enthusiasm and Marcus Ayton as Lion delivers some crowd pleasing vocal performances.
It’s surely not possible to review The Wizard of Oz without mentioning the central performance as Dorothy. Dorothy can either make or break a production, and here it’s a resounding MAKE. Agatha Meehan and Lucy Sherman will be sharing duties throughout the run of this production and tonight was the turn of Lucy Sherman who provided a fantastic focal point for the show. Her performance was confident and effortless and her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow provoked an early outburst of delighted applause.
Director James Brining has stated the parallels that he sees between environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the character of Dorothy, both taking on responsibility for a world that has been ruined and neglected by adults, and it’s clear that she is a huge source of inspiration for this take on the character, deliberately choosing a younger actress for the part.
There’s also an appropriately cheeky nod to the gay following of the 1939 Hollywood film. Sam Harrison’s Tin Man here is an overtly gay character, who has been punished for being in love with a man by having his heart forcibly removed. It helps to add depth to the story – this production’s Dorothy/ Greta is on a mission to help oppressed minority communities and individuals, not just to find her way back to Kansas.
Simon Higlett’s set design is nothing less than jaw dropping, creating a sense of constant movement – the sets rotate and evolve, vehicles move across the stage, forests bloom, tornadoes rip the scenery apart (what a fantastic sequence!) and the yellow brick road moves characters about the stage, bringing more and more outlandish characters into the path of the central protagonists. All of this is overlaid with video footage that lends further colour, movement and life to the stage. This reaches its crescendo when the cast arrive at the flashing green lights of Emerald City and the final showdown with the Wicked Witch – the sets are as brightly coloured and alive as any film set.
In fact, it’s hard to not list all the names of those involved with the show as this is a hugely accomplished show, packed full of highlights. There’s aerial director, Tim Claydon, whose work provides so much of the show’s spectacle and energy. There’s Ailsa Dalling as Toto puppeteer, brings the delightful character to scene stealing life. Put simply, there’s far too much to mention.
The Wizard of Oz is a resounding success for both company and theatre, a perfect show to launch their Christmas season and to show off their new theatre to a wider audience.
Square Chapel, Halifax
a little space is a collaborative production (appropriately, they describe it as an adventure) by Gecko and Mind the Gap. Together they lit up a decidedly dark and wintery Halifax. Created by Mind the Gap’s Charli Ward and Karen Bartholomew and Gecko’s Dan Watson and Rich Rusk, a little space is, at its most basic, a group of stories about the residents of an apartment block. However, this production is anything but basic.
It starts before we even realise. As the audience is directed to their seats, a young woman casually steps onto the stage and begins to rearrange the various pieces of furniture in a small apartment room– a table, an armchair, a lamp. She’s clearly enjoying personalising the space – she pauses for a moment to playfully drum her fingers on the table. The joy when she finds the optimum position for the armchair is infectious. You could be forgive for not even realising this is taking place, it’s all so unassuming. It could just be a stagehand making a few last minute finishing touches to the set. And these small series of actions get straight to the heart of one if themes of a little space, how do we carve out our own space in this world?
The backdrop is made up of a tangle of pipes that wrap around one another before shooting off in their own individual directions. She takes out a wrench and then begins to play a tune on these very pipes as the auditorium explodes with music and the five strong cast creep onto the stage to begin their opening dance. They weave through and around one another, much like the pipes of the backdrop, until they end up in a circle, almost – but not quite – holding hands.
The story, follows three key characters: A young woman moves into an apartment, seemingly on her own for the first time. A young couple, completely in tune and wrapped up in one another, begin to fall apart as one half tumbles down a rabbit hole of addiction as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the television in the corner of the room.
Again, it all sounds so simple, but yet the story is so ambiguous and open to interpretation that it allows a great depth and complexity to unfurl before our eyes. These residents aren’t given character names and they have little to no dialogue. They could be anyone, they could be saying anything. We’re treated to ghostly visitatons and flashbacks that hint at past traumas but these are never explained, allowing the audience to develop their own interpretations and emotional connections. The story is told in a series of vignettes that weave seamlessly into one another with flourishes of choreography and subtle shifts of the scenery as we move from one flat to another. At one moment, the production zooms in on the mundane – the young woman sits at the table completing word puzzles, the couple brush their teeth as they get ready for another day. In an instant, it shifts into the surreal as the floorboards open up and characters tumble through them into bizarre landscapes, of giant shifting tower blocks of lights, of characters navigating their way through a dark and scary world with nothing but a lamp to help them find their way. In a perfect illustration of this striking balance of surreal and mundane, one of the performers finds herself trapped in a miniature version of the set and begins to suffer a panic attack. Another character presents her with a mug and suggests she sits down and has a nice cup of tea, puncturing her nightmares with calming, reassuring normality.
This ambiguity is what really helps the production to shine. a little space is a veritable Rubik’s cube of a show, with shifting set design and choreography, with ever evolving permutations that set both the head and the heartalight. This ambiguity is a core value of Gecko theatre, using it to both inspire and move audiences and here the balance between emotional resonance and brain food is near perfect. It’s a heady mix that never feels cold and calculated due to the collaborative process, a process that has resulted in an warm, organic and exciting performance.
Oh, and that light? It’s almost certainly a character all of it’s own, as an assortment of lamps, torches and light boxes abound, helping to steer through the shifting atmospheres, at times horrific, eerie, adventurous, hopeful and joyful. It’s visually striking and places the control of these lights into the hands of the cast, allowing the lighting to be an extension of the own characters, as though cast and lights are extensions of one another.
No matter how surreal the production can be, at its core it is thrillingly human. The five strong cast of Paul Bates, Lorraine Brown, Alison Colborne, JoAnne Haines and Charlotte Jones are all equally superb. Their enthusiasm is infectious, steering us deftly through their humble but emotionally resonant adventure that is at times sad and at others delightfully hilarious. Their choreography is both abstract and emotional, their quiet interjections that sit just beneath the music are increasingly affecting. As one character reluctantly moves into her new apartment, she pauses amidst the drama and gasps, ‘Can’t!’ It’s a tiny, but powerful moment of vulnerability that provides a sharp insight into another of the production’s themes – in this busy world of high rise blocks and interlocking lives, we are always alone but together, always together but alone. At moments, this is a source of huge joy, but at others – such as here – it’s a startling jab of pain.
Fortunately, it doesn’t end with pain. Those hands that never quite held one another at the start of the performance? Ultimately, that’s the central conflict at the centre of a little space. We’re watching the inner and outer turmoils of characters who live together but feel alone and disconnected with the rest of the word around them. Will they finally connect and hold hands? I’ll leave that for you to find out. However, on my way home, Mind the Gap and Gecko had lit a spark in my chest that left me feeling compelled to stagger out into the world, to breathe in it’s beautiful light, form new connections and hold new hands.
York Theatre Royal
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.
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.
Square Chapel, Halifax
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.
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.
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
Leeds Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre
Oct 3 – 5, 2019
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.
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.
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.
Drayton Arms Theatre, London
Saturday 28th September, 2019
Frank, touching and slick, Breathless Theatre’s show Good Grief explores how loss manifests itself in ways that are often painful and unexpected. Both speaking and miming verbatim pieces of interview text, the four-part ensemble move between a simply staged living room and audience space to discuss how we can connect through our frequently humorous and moving experiences of death. Though only 45 minutes long, writer, director and actor Tallulah Vaughan has managed to craft a remarkably thorough piece that resonates with an intimate audience.
Good Grief is loosely divided into sections that discuss the physical and psychological effects of loss. So often overlooked, the physical symptoms of grief – nausea, pain, tiredness, loss of appetite, loss of sleep – are discussed at length; it’s joked that we almost need a ‘baby-on-board’ style badge to display our grief so we’re treated with care. Indeed, Victor Mellors fluently portrays a disarmingly upbeat and self-deprecating character who jokes that he is ‘the hulk of crying’, proving that there are many faces of devastation.
Later, the seemingly supernatural effects of lost ones that speak to us in our dreams is explored. Actor Emma Nihill expertly embodies the characterisation of a woman in Dubai who meets her late grandmother in her dreams, who congratulates her on a good grade that she later receives. Similarly, Finnen, Mellors and Nihill movingly portray a late wife giving her husband permission to be happy with his new wife, after which she never appears in his dreams again.
The play being divided up into these sections structures a narrative which could otherwise become lost or repetitive with so much information. Indeed, simple lighting cues inform us that the topic has changed and suitably set a different tone. These sections, however, are slightly hindered by their staging being similar for all: the piece remains fairly static, with the actors often sitting on the sofa throughout their discussions. As a result we occasionally lose the importance of the text as the eye isn’t necessarily drawn. Some movement would have been welcome to more vividly illustrate each section, such as during Finnen, Mellors and Nihill’s dream sequence.
At times like this it can be unclear whether we as an audience are ‘intruding’ upon an intimate moment or are welcome to be involved with it. Indeed, the actors frequently sitting amongst the audience conveys a sense of familiarity and dialogue, as do Vaughan’s fascinating and vulnerable discussions about her construction of Good Grief itself. However, were Breathless Theatre to explore the potential of audience discussion and participation further, the piece could become a more communal and fulfilling exploration of a theme familiar to us all.
The play also exposes the strange institutions and customs that we construct around death, with Mellors recounting the story of a humorous pre-recorded Mass in Spain. Sequences like this expose the centuries-long discomfort many cultures have with something as universal as death: often, Vaughan highlights, we do what we think is ‘right’ – such as hiding the possessions of those we’ve lost to feel better – but, in doing this, we are, as Nihill tells us, ‘burying our treasure.’
Good Grief achieves its aim to open up a discussion about loss in a way that is often poignant and thought-provoking, demonstrating the talent of young company Breathless Theatre. By constructing a well-rounded discussion around such a vulnerable theme, Vaughan successfully manages to ‘make the darkness feel uncomfortable with itself.’
AN INTERVIEW WITH BREATHLESS THEATRE
Hello Breathless Theatre! Who are you, and from where and when did you form as a theatre company?
Hi! We’re an emerging theatre company who focus on telling truthful, human stories with important political or social messages behind them. Promoting female talent is also very important to us and we currently have an all-female production team. We were founded in 2018 when our director, Tallulah finished university and we took our first piece, SPACES, to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Your production, ‘Good Grief’, explores how people of varying backgrounds and ages experience grief. Why is this subject matter important to you, and why do you want to communicate its importance to an audience?
Grief is something that profoundly affects everyone, and yet us Brits are so reticent to talk about it. This piece originated from a need Tallulah felt to talk about grief and to create a shared community space where it could be discussed – and perhaps the burden of grief lifted somewhat. As the writing and rehearsal process continued, it became clear that the ways in which we could discuss grief through the medium of theatre were myriad and yet there were very few spaces that grief could be discussed outside of therapy. The team all have experience of intense grief, and as writers and creators we felt it was extremely important not to focus too heavily on the morbidity that grief brings with it but instead to try and find some hope within the experience. We wanted to communicate the importance of finding hope during difficult times to the audience.
Actors in the play both speak and mime text verbatim from people you interviewed about their experiences of grief. Why did you choose to stage the play in this format, and how did you approach people to be interviewed?
We chose to use verbatim voice clips because it was important to us to convey the universality of grief – that it can happen to anyone, at any age. It takes the audience out of a black-box theatre with five actors and reminds them that what we are telling is truthful. It also helped to create characters that might be hard to portray otherwise – such as the old man played by a 30 year old! In terms of approaching people to interview, we had mixed responses. Some people were very keen to talk and share their experiences and understood why we wanted to create a play about this. Others held back and felt it was too personal to discuss. Interestingly, it was far harder to get men to speak to us than women! Since doing the piece at the Drayton Arms, a few people have approached us with a willingness to be interviewed so we are setting up those at the moment.
Good Grief manages to combine humour with moments of sadness to create a very honest and unflinching piece. How did you collate your interview material to achieve this balance?
Thank you! That was our aim. For us, it was about finding the moments of humour within each interview and never allowing the piece to sink too deep into trauma or misery. So if we had an emotional scene, we would try and follow that with a moment of upbeat narration or a humorous anecdote to give the audience some light relief. During the interviews, we asked everyone if they found humour in grief and nearly everybody agreed that there was and that it is vital to focus on that during the tough times. As Tallulah’s mum always says, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.
What proved a challenge when developing and staging the play?
The challenge was keeping the play interesting and finding a narrative storyline in what is essentially a theatrical collage. With verbatim, you’re dealing with a lot of spoken recollections and memories and so it can become a very static piece – people just standing on stage and talking to the audience. We had to work quite hard to find ways of presenting those memories visually to create dynamism on stage.
Do you have a particular favourite line or exchange from Good Grief?
A particular favourite would be ‘I don’t know much about grief, I’ve never died!’. The glib humour in that is just wonderful. But also, the idea that ‘grief is something you’re going to live with because that’s what makes you human’. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are to find someone we care about so much that we do grieve for them, and how that is a shared human experience. We’re never alone in our grief.
The nature of verbatim text means that actors have to be line perfect whilst adopting multiple styles of body language. How did you approach this as an ensemble?
The actors spent a lot of time listening to the recordings and speaking along with them in front of a mirror. They also listened to them whenever they could – on the tube, on the way to work etc. For each voice character, we listened to the track repeatedly and created a character out of the voice, thinking about how they would stand, breathe, move. For us, it wasn’t about recreating the characteristics of the people we interviewed but about finding the essence of what they were saying and conveying it physically.
If you’d like your audience to understand or take one thing from Good Grief, what would it be?
It’s okay to grieve. Share it, talk about and it will get better!
What’s next for Breathless Theatre?
We’d love to expand Good Grief into a full-length piece and so we’re hoping to go into R&D for that soon. There may also be another play in the works
Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham
June 8th, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Camped out on a picnic blanket in my waterproofs, within seconds I forgot all about the weather and was fully immersed in a new comedy by Doodlebugs Productions , Steve Cooper’s Twits Wits and Bawdy Baskets. Set right outside Gawthorpe Hall in an open park, we follow a group of “hapless Elizabethan rouges” on their attempt to be a company of strolling players, hopefully grabbing a good bed and grub on their way.
Tom is an eccentric cross-dresser, who claims all parts of the fair lady. Harry, the boisterous confident leading man. has a secret. Merry John is the joker who glues them all together and Sloppy Jen, well, she’s just there for the ride. The only thing standing in their way (other than characters’ apparent lack of talent) is Reverend Shuttleworth, a firm believer that these so-called plays are created by nothing but beggars. After leaving the Reverend tied in an attempt to escape his preaching, the rogues are on the run!
On the other side of things, we had our very own Anne Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall, lost in her own world of reading and writing her own plays, while constantly battling her Mother for her right to marry for love.. Upon the news of her father’s death in London, we discover that Anne’s cousin, the Reverend Shuttleworth, is on his way to claim the Hall which is rightfully his. When the two groups collide, hilarity ensues & the piece provided the perfect combination of a superb cast, acapella singing and quick-witted humour to keep us warm on a rainy Lancashire afternoon! What’s not to love?
New Zealand puppet-theatre company, Birdlife Productions, are touring Europe this summer. The Mumble had a chat with man & wife maestros, Roger & Bridget Sanders
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
Bridget: I lived in London when I was a teenager and it was the 70’s – a fantastically vibrant and creative environment to be immersed in. In those days you could cycle into the West End and queue for theatre tickets to all the best shows for only a £1. After that I went to Leeds University and studied Theatre and Dance and Art at Bretton Hall.
Hello Roger. So what for you makes a good piece of theatre?
Roger: Hello! I go to the theatre to have my mind and imagination opened. I want to be totally transported to the world that is presented to me and fully absorbed by it. I want to make theatre for the same reason.
What is it about performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
Roger: Actually I don’t really know the answer to that. I think it might be something to do with the opportunity to be totally present in the moment with a group of people, sharing something of value through creative expression.
In a world where entertainment is on demand – what makes theatre so special?
Bridget: The difference between theatre and video is like the difference between seeing a picture of the ocean and actually swimming in it – what’s to compare? Theatre is something that envelops us and we immerse our whole selves in it. We hope that Theatre is always entertaining – but I think we go there looking for more than that – we want to be changed by it – if only momentarily.
How did you you two meet?
Bridget: Roger and I met in the wilds of West Wales – we were both looking for something outside of the mainstream or something more to life. We had babies and lived in a Tipi but from early on we promised ourselves that one day we would make our living from being creative together.
How does being in a romantic relationship influence your professional partnership?
Roger: It actually really helps! Our Theatre company is our livelihood so we have to get through things – there is no walking away. We understand each other very well and are able to have a lot of fun, which helps us deal with the challenges.
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon with Bridget look like?
Roger: Being out in Nature laughing about life!
Can you tell us about Birdlife Productions?
Bridget: Up to a few years ago we were both involved in The New Zealand based BodyInSpace Theatre Company. I had started out as a props and costume maker and my involvement gradually morphed into performance. When that company folded, Roger and I decided to form our own company – we really wanted to try and make a living from the thing we loved. ‘Birdlife’ was the name of our first production and the name stuck!
What are the key tenets to telling stories without words?
Roger: Understanding and communicating the emotional journey, effective use of visual symbolism, recognising the way body language reads and visual timing. Simplicity helps!
Can you tell us about the design process behind creating your puppets from inception to performance?
Bridget: Puppetry is a very fluid Artform – anything can become a puppet. I have learned over the years that having too fixed ideas about a particular puppet can be restrictive to the process. I usually start the rehearsal or devising process with a mock-up of a sort of puppet that fulfils the character and then the actual mechanics of the puppet come much later, when we know how sophisticated it needs to be or how much it needs to communicate. Our creative ethos is very much about the ‘hand-made’ – we want children to be inspired to think they could do it themselves so we like to keep the puppets as simple as possible, often making them out of recognisable stuff like junk and household objects.
You are bringing a show to Europe in 2019 called ‘Kotuku and the Moon Child’ – can you tell us about it?
Roger: A Moon Child gets trapped on Earth – how will she find her way home? This is a 50-minute family puppet and mask show that uses modern puppetry techniques mixed with the spirit of traditional fairy tales which have been shaped and inspired by the New Zealand landscape – it’s light, colours and bird life. The story unfolds using only the languages of mask, puppetry and music. It is accompanied by a beautiful original piano score by New Zealand Composer David Sanders, who also
happens to be my brother.
Where did the idea of ‘Kotuku and the Moon Child’ come from?
Bridget: I was on holiday near an estuary and a lone Kotuku (white Heron) came to visit every day. In New Zealand, the Kotuku is a very rare and auspicious bird that brings good luck. The story, somehow, came to me fully formed over a weekend – although we have made quite a few tweaks to the story over the past year!
The play has already been winning awards in your New Zealand home, can you tell us about this?
Roger: We debuted this show at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in March this year. The judges gave us the ‘GREEN LIGHT LIST AWARD’ which was a new award to honour and encourage a show that did not fit into any particular category. We then went on to the Dunedin Fringe Festival in April and won ‘OUTSTANDING DESIGN’ which was a terrific honour, and unexpected for a children’s show.
The themes seem universal, are there any age restrictions, and if not how do you think each end of the age-range will be entertained, and those in the middle too, of course?
Bridget: Yes, the themes are universal, but also very relevant. Our New Zealand debut came the day after the terrible recent shootings of Muslims in Christchurch. In our story, the Moon Child is a little immigrant who finds herself in a foreign place. She learns to communicate, make friends and empower herself. It’s a story for children about empathy, relationship and healing. We use no spoken language in our show so all of this is conveyed through gesture and music. In these days of constant digital media there is very little opportunity for children (and their parents) to be fully immersed in gentle vibrant theatre. There is no age barrier to following our story and all ages seem to have been delighted by it – there is even enough adventure for teenagers. Having said that, children under 5 find it harder to sit still for the full 50 minutes and often need to verbalise what they are seeing, so it is better for 5 years and up – all the way to 95 years!
You’ve got 20 secs to sell the play to somebody in the streets, what would you say?
Roger: Step out of your world and give yourselves and your children a treat. Spend an hour with us immersed in a world of visual and musical wonder! It will make you happy!
Kotuku and the Moon Child
24th to 28th May, Prague Fringe CZ
12th to 16th June, Festival Valise, Poland
23rd June, Ludlow Fringe UK
28th to 30th June, Barnstaple Fringe UK
6th July, Small World Cardigan Wales
13th July, Guildford Fringe UK
19th – 20th July, Great Yorkshire Fringe UK
May 18 – June 1, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Be My Baby is a subtly gripping history lesson about an underexposed and somewhat shameful aspect of our collective past. Set in a home for unwed mothers it centers on the lives of a small group of young women from very different backgrounds who never the less find themselves in the same predicament: being single and pregnant at a time ( the early 1960’s) when to be so was tantamount to social suicide.
At the very heart of the play is Mary (Simona Bitmate), a young woman from a comfortable middle class background whose disapproving mother (played brilliantly by Jo Mousley – all brittle anxiety and superiority) is conflicted about leaving her in such a place.However under the firm hand of Matron, the head of austere St Saviours Mary begins to find her feet. She befriends the other girls, sassy, hardbitten Queenie ( Crystal Condie ), giddy, naive Dolores ( Tessa Parr )and serious, self-contained Norma ( Anna Gray) as they bond over their mutual incarceration and their shared love of soulful pop.
All have their individual fantasies of boyfriends, jobs and escape which they begin to reveal to each other, all in different levels of denial about their situation. The play started slowly creating a sense of time and place before gradually drawing the characters out (none of whom are entirely what they seem). I found the dialogue with its flashes of humour and underplayed emotion very naturalistic. The script relied as much on what was not said as what was. There was a sense that things were hinted at and suggested which made the gradual revelations both believable and all the more affecting. The potential heaviness of the subject matter too was handled in such a way that it seemed to gradually seep into the play almost imperceptibly until the quietly devastating final act.
At first we are encouraged to view matron as being a negative figure, the girls jailer a prudish and stern disciplinarian but such is the depth of the play that Matron is shown to have great empathy for the girls. There is a tenderness and care beneath her stiff exterior. Even during a deeply uncomfortable scene in which she forces Mary to understand how the world outside might view her we don’t doubt that this is done for the best intentions. Susan Twist’s performance as Matron is a masterclass in restraint, with tenderness and deep feeling glimpsed beneath her character’s stiff exterior.
In fact the script encourages the audience to empathise with all the differing perspectives of the characters to the extent that we can see how everyone is equally struggling with social rules they had no say in making. For though this is a play about women men still act as a shadowy presence off stage, their actions pushing the events of the story as much as the women on it. In this way the play shows how all the women are contained and restrained by the expectations and desires of the men around them. Even the sassy Queenie appears to ultimately accept that to imagine another way is nothing but a pipe dream.
The play has something to say about class too as it looks at the different expectations the girls and others have of them. The interplay between Queenie and Mary, showing how the former’s inverted snobbery stops her from seeing they are both equally trapped. The actors all have good material to work with and all manage to create fully realised nuanced performances. No-one here is a cliché or cypher yet through them the show explores issues as varied as back-street abortions, rape and forced adoption. I found the relationship between Queenie, the tough cynic with dreams of pop stardom and Mary, the naive girl from the genteel background with the steely resolve particularly finely drawn. It felt like we were watching the growth, blossoming and wilting of a friendship before our very eyes.Although both the script and performances are uniformly excellent some of the credit for making the play a success must go to the overall design, sound and lighting.
The costumes of the characters were cleverly used in a symbolic way. . The pastel pinks,purples and blues of the parental figures denoting a faded authority, the grey pinafores of the girls seeming to suggest a desire to turn back them back into little girls, whilst also implying the dull uniformity of the prison yard. The overall use of a limited palette in terms of costume and set allowed the performances themselves the space to breathe which they needed. The set which could – given the time period of the play – have been used in a more hackneyed way was used to convey a sense of sterility, it’s minimalist grey cabinets, shelves and boxes evoking more the furnishing department of a high street department store than the swinging 60’sof lore.
The only element which did place us in a particular time-frame was the play’s imaginative use of music. Between each scene change we hear and see the girls sing along to 60’s pop which wittily expressed their situation. Towards the beginning when a moment of romantic pop segued and merged with a hymn and later as the music overlapped a wistful monologue this was handled in such a masterful way as to really hit me in the gut. The lighting, subdued throughout was particularly effective during the spotlit birthing scene. This created a real sense of wonder as the actress performed in a kind of flowing, slow-moving mime the act of her baby bulge becoming a living, breathing child.
I found the play to be unexpectedly moving as I found myself drawn into the lives of these young women journeying with them through their excitements, fears, frustrations and disappointments. It was all the more emotionally rich for being performed by all with such obvious care and empathy. Ultimately it was a fitting tribute to the lives of all those young women whose unknown story it now told so well.
April 13-28, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The play began with the trio of actors performing an a capella medley of music hall songs placing us squarely in Victorian England. The set was quite minimal for Leeds Playhouse, with a large clock facing the audience centre stage within a wooden partition behind which looms what appears to be the rafters of a ship’s hull. In the background various objects can be made out; an armchair, a globe, luggage cases. It looked rather like someone’s attic or a steampunk jumble sale.
After the initial musical medley we were thrown into the action as what appears to be a heist is committed by a be-cloaked thief. The struggling music, alarms and flashing red lights amidst the onstage gloom created a sense of excitement and intrigue which quickly fell away as we settled down into a scene in which we meet Phileas Fogg, and his assistant as they make preparations for their journey around the world. This scene however was soon broken by the intrusion of Jules Verne, the writer himself who admonishes the actors for their handling of his material and questions the nature of the performance. As soon becomes apparent this is no ordinary telling of the tale as these direct addresses and asides to the audience become an intrinsic part of the show as it goes on.
Breaking the 4th wall as it’s sometimes known is more often used as a kind of intellectual game to make a point about the nature of the work itself. Less rarely is it used – as it is here – as fuel for fun. One could see how it was used throughout the play to draw attention to the difficulties inherent in performing the play itself (3 actors attempting to represent a round the world trip with a multitude of characters) and also how the inclusion of the ‘Jules Verne’ character brought up questions about the nature of ownership and the difficulties inherent in adapting another’s work but mainly these digressions and asides created another layer of humour which flattered the audience’s ability to engage both in the plot whilst simultaneously recognising its artifice.
These narrative breaks worked very well and sometimes allowed for a rest from the sometimes hectic nature of the show. They worked even better however when they were seamlessly woven into the show. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jules Verne playing the princess read a copy of the titular novel whilst giving away plot spoilers to Fogg.
This aspect to the play was interwoven into a high speed adventure story which took us – not surprisingly – around the world. At times such as in the scene in Bombay the pace got a little too hectic and I felt a sense that the whole thing may come off the tracks like a runaway train but luckily there was a masterful driver at the helm and a very able crew of actors keeping things running smoothly. The sheer technical difficulties of performing so many characters at such a pace was impressive as was the physical dexterity required by the performers. All the actors though played their parts with real verve and energy.
Fogg was nicely underplayed by Robert Pickavance as a bemused fop with just the right touch of ambiguity to him leaving the audience guessing all along as to whether there was some ulterior motive to his trip than the mere winning of a gentleman’s bet. The show was really brought to life though by the brilliant buffoonery of both Joe Alessi as Passepartout and Darren Kuppan’s Inspector Fix. Both gave excellent comic turns as Fogg’s naively faithful retainer and his detective nemesis respectively. Kuppan’s turn was particularly notable for demonstrating his skills as a physical performer who has both the grace of a dancer and the expressiveness of a mime. His antics of running on the spot and hiding in disguise from Fogg were a joy to behold. Special credit too should go to Dan Parr’s Jules Verne who was played as a kind of endearingly eager and vulnerable man-child forever wanting to shoehorn his way into the show. The different minor characters too were brilliantly played with some faintly ridiculous regional accents and ludicrous costumes adding to the overall feel that at times we were watching something akin to a live action cartoon.
The quick change artistry of the performers playing this multitude of characters were ably abetted by the supreme skills of the props and costume team who managed to convey real individuality to all these minor characters. Whether this was done by a simple change of hat or a whole costume colourful and memorable characters such as the Indian temple musician in his silks and turban or the grizzled old bewhiskered sea captain were brought vividly to life.
The stagecraft overall was exemplary. Whether this was the soft yellow glow of an early evening in a wood panelled drawing room or the heat and light of an Indian bazaar subtle changes in lighting and the inclusion of found sounds and snatches of music managed to convey changes in time and place as we moved from continent to continent with Phileas and friends. The use of props too throughout showed real imagination as objects were twisted from one form to another and the relatively simple set was used in new ways from scene to scene. One minute it was a steamer ship on its way from Hong Kong, the next a train bound for Calcutta, the next an elephant charging through the Indian jungle. The way the destination and number of days left kept appearing throughout the play on handkerchiefs, jackets and umbrellas was also a charming touch. It brought a little ripple of pleasure from the audience to see which unexpected spot it would appear in next.
This was all part of the rich attention to detail and charm of the overall show. One never forgot that this was a world where – like children playing ‘let’s pretend’ – a tin bath could become a horse drawn carriage or a wooden slide could become an elephant. At times this was reminiscent of Harry Hill or even Monty Python and had a similarly endearing child-like sense of the playful and the absurd. The humour generally had a seriously clever silliness to it which combined word play with slapstick and several amusing running jokes. Though there were many moments of madcap fun the stand out was the chase scene on a train made from suitcases. Here we saw not only the team’s gifts with physical comedy but also their ability to interact with and transcend their environment creating with the audience a real belief that they were travelling at breakneck speed through the wild west. This scene seemed to represent the show at its best veering as it did somewhere between a giddy sense of fun and a knowing self-consciousness and inducing in the audience a sense of child like wonder throughout.