Category Archives: England

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

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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Good Grief

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Drayton Arms Theatre, London
Saturday 28th September, 2019

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


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.’

Lucy Davidson

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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.

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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.

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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

Twits, Wits and Bawdy Baskets

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Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham
June 8th, 2019

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62586532_1237317356428695_5896029820030025728_n.jpgCamped 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!

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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?

Kae-Lei Stowell

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An Interview with Birdlife Productions

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

 

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www.birdlifeproductions.co.nz

 

Be My Baby

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Leeds Playhouse
May 18 – June 1, 2019

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ian Pepper

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Around the World in 80 Days

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Leeds Playhouse
April 13-28, 2019

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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.

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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.

Ian Pepper

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Orca

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Weston Studio
The Old Vic, Bristol
March 4-16, 2019

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This was the first time I’ve stepped into the Old Vic after living in London for the last twelve years, and I instantly noticed the massive change in the whole theatre, and how lovely the atmosphere had become since the major renovation. I had chosen to see Matt Grinter’s Orca – part of the exciting & innovative ‘New Plays in Rep’ season about the unspoken, the mystical and the magical tales of a small, island fishing village.

The first scene focused on Maggie (Heidi Parsons) and her playful, curious and intelligent, yet rather gullible younger sister, Fan (Rosie Taylor-Kitson). While Fan longs to be chosen to go out in the fishing boats to scare off the Orcas, Maggie becomes the protective & stern older sister who is hellbent in protecting Fan at any costs, even if it means that the family is hated within the village.

Joshua (Finbar Hayman) plays Maggie and Fan’s father, a coward who is willing to avoid the truth, and is failing to protect his daughters in order to adhere to the prevailing ritualistic mysticism of their the village. This is a place with many secrets and an almost cult-like atmosphere; denial is the norm, laced with the eeriness of ignorance.

At this point I found the story paradoxically suggestive & conspicuous, offering a familiar correlation within today’s society and how our ‘taboo’ subjects are generally addressed. This became more prevalent when Gretchen (Holly Carpenter) made her first appearance, and consequently The Father (Sam Henderson), from whose arrivals the story began to unfold in more detail.

At the dramatic core of Orca is the highlighting of small-mindedness and a community’s willingness to bury the truth at all costs, against which push displays of courage and integrity amidst the darkness of people choosing to look the other way. In the end it was a good watch, the theme was compelling, but there was a certain something missing in terms of enticing dialogue.

Ava Banks

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Hamlet

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West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Mar 5-30, 2019

Script: five-stars  Stagecraft: five-stars  Performance: three-stars.png


“Frailty, thy name is woman,” says Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude, in an early scene in Shakespeare’s most iconic work. The misogyny is clear, one facet of Hamlet’s borderline oedipal relationship with his mother and also evident in his treatment of Ophelia. In director Amy Leach’s interpretation, however, Hamlet is a woman. In this production, Leach manages to shine a completely new light not only upon this particular line of dialogue, rearranging its gender politics into new shapes, teasing out themes of sexuality, but most importantly, she thoroughly reinvigorates this play in a way that arguably improves the narrative and makes it fresh and relevant today. Now, it’s not entirely unheard of for Hamlet to be played by a woman, but for the character to re-gendered as a Princess of Denmark is where this production boldly strays away from convention. And the convention shredding doesn’t stop there.

It starts with a wordless prologue that takes place before Act 1, Scene 1. Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is engaging in a playful sword fight with a similarly re-gendered Horatio. Parr is energetic and flirtatious, licking her lips at her opponent – we’re in entirely new territory here and this is a suitably audacious statement of intent. We are then taken silently through King Hamlet’s funeral and the subsequent coronation of Claudius and his marriage to Gertrude. Along the way, Hamlet manages to engage in passionate embrace with Ophelia. Never mind that we’re watching a female Hamlet, this Hamlet is unapologetically gay. This is in no way merely shoe horned into the narrative to serve an agenda, this Hamlet feels as though this is the way the play should have been all along. What an opening sequence – it effortlessly sets the tone and themes to be developed upon later, all without the need to utter a single word. In a way, it’s almost a disappointment when the cast set upon the main text of the play and begin to speak. Almost.

At this point, it is worth stopping for a moment to admire the production design on display. The stage is a two tier affair, minimal but with enough detail to perfectly encapsulate Elsinore Castle. The lower tier is bedecked with wreaths and candles to represent a graveyard and provide a hint of the tragedies to come. On the top tier, stark metal poles mounted with floodlights provide a harsh modern light, occasionally sinking into darkness to be replaced by strips of neon light that are at times abstract and at other become crucifixes. The cast use the stage to its full potential, with energetic militaristic displays and tightly choreographed sword fights. They are all dressed in modern costume, from tracksuits, to army camouflage, to pyjamas… At one point, Ophelia sports a set of headphones as she listens to music in her bedroom. Smoke billows out from the stage at key moments to soften the stark edges of the set, to transform it from its modern landscape and plunge it into a more timeless and ghostly atmosphere. Full marks to Hayley Grindle (set design) and Joshua Carr (lighting), the work on display elevates the production to a high level.

Further adding to the atmosphere is Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s hauntological soundtrack – filled with eerie drones, crackles of static, flashes of synthesiser melodies and glitchy echoes of gunfire. The soundtrack starts as the audience begins to take their seats and never lets up, a wonderful mix of old and new that is in perfect step with this iteration of Hamlet.

In all honesty, the quality of the acting isn’t entirely commensurate with the thematic ambition and production design, but there is still a great deal to celebrate. At the top of the list is Susan Twist’s standout performance as Lady Polonius – she delivers a light and comedic take on the character, an overbearing matriarchal figure, who drips with disdain at her daughter Ophelia’s dalliances with a woman (the horror!) and a seemingly unhinged one at that. I’ve never seen this character so vital. Ophelia’s exchanges with her mother bear all the hallmarks of a difficult coming out to an even more difficult parent and the scene bursts with energy as it absorbs new meaning.

Robert Pickavance’s performance as the gravedigger delivers another highpoint, bringing much needed comic relief as the tragedies begin to hit thick and fast. There’s a lightness of touch at work in these comic performances – the strong emphasis on humour prevents the otherwise heavy plot from becoming unbearable. It’s also worth noting that the production leans away from a reliance on the classic soliloquies, which are often delivered in muted tones. Instead, the real focus is placed on the more throwaway conversational dialogue, which is a delight to listen to as it revels in bringing to the fore the northern accents and phrasings of the cast and allows the smaller – but equally important – character moments to shine.

Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is a very fragmented affair, and this is potentially a deliberate decision. She switches from maudlin contemplation to a manic confidence and then into a very theatrical despair. At moments this performance can come across as uneven. However, at its high points, this is a stunning, energetic and very natural performance, one that sells every single decision and narrative alteration made throughout.

The plot itself is stripped back in several ways – Rosencrantz appears on his own without his friend Guildenstern, the character of Fortinbras is merely referred to as story context but is never seen, and the play that Hamlet commissions to prove his uncle’s guilt happens entirely in the imaginations of the main characters as they sit in a row and stare out at the audiences. These cuts and abbreviations provide a refreshing economy and efficiency to the plot, whilst the playful gender switching adds an additional depth.

There was nothing but a palpable sense of warmth in the auditorium for these reimagined characters. This is a version of Hamlet that both managed to pass the Bechdel test for possibly the first time in its performance history, and in its twisting of the line, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” provides a real dramatic irony as Hamlet is no longer chastising womanhood for their perceived flaws, but is instead unwittingly chastising herself for her own tragic flaws. It’s hard to imagine that this version isn’t the one intended originally by Shakespeare, all the parts fits so perfectly together.

Steve Bromley

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Random

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West Yorkshire Playhouse
Leeds
February 8-16, 2019

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Random is a solo drama, written by Debbie Tucker Green for a solo female performer. It was originally performed in 2008 and later adapted into a BAFTA winning drama for Channel 4. This production was directed by Gbolahan Obisesan and stars Kiza Deen in the roles of Sister, Brother, Mother, Father and many other supporting characters.

The first thing that catches the eye is the rather striking set – a backdrop of haphazardly stacked chairs that evoke both the title of the play and that neatly visualises the idea of a household turned upside down. Hidden amongst the chaos are odd anchors of normality – a fridge and some school lockers. As the play begins with undercurrents of foreboding that bubble beneath the bright and lively dialogue, the starkly lit stacks of furniture are a threat of looming chaos over the family as they otherwise blissfully head into what is destined to be a catastrophic day.

The story begins with Sister’s reluctant conversation with her alarm clock. As she gets ready for work, she keeps a running track of time that continues throughout the entire play, providing an increasingly urgent momentum. The script provides small but vivid and relatable details of mundane family life – the stench of Brother’s bedroom, an argument about burnt porridge, Mother’s disdain of her children’s inappropriate dress sense, the preparation of unpleasantly sweet tea for some unwanted visitors. A seam of gentle humour runs throughout the dialogue as Deen addresses the audience directly, drawing them into the events as they unfold, who become unwitting members of the extended family group. The entire audience was alive with ripples of laughter in reaction to her engaging and lively performance.

The dialogue itself is certainly the play’s strongest asset – each member of the family speaks with their own distinct rhythms, their own language. Mother has a thick Caribbean twang, Father is gruff monosyllabic, Sister is sassy and confrontational and Brother is cocky and disarmingly charming. Deen’s delivery and performance sells each individual character as she bounds across the stage one moment as Brother and then freezes into the stiff and guarded Father. The dialogue has a real poetic quality, breaking out at times into almost-verse, transitioning between more formal soliloquies and conversational dialogue between the family members and the audience.

For a solo performance, rapidly switching between characters is a hugely demanding task and Deen mostly sticks the landing here. The main distinctions between the characters lie in the shifts of tone and dialect, propped by with subtle shifts in body language. These distinctions are more pronounced as moves energetically across the stage, however the lines are far more blurred during intimate and static moments and can cause at times a certain confusion as to which character we are hearing.

The lively opening act is brought to a jarring halt as the titular random act of violence throws the family into crisis. The tone of the performance shifts into more muted territory, the humour becomes either bitter or non existent and the interplay with the audience cuts away, leaving the auditorium buried in a thick silence that conveys just as much as the dialogue. Throughout the performance, the lighting is barely perceptible yet thoroughly effective, taking the space through the various times of day – it starts in the darkness of pre dawn, then shifts subtly to the light of a cold yet sunny day and then brings it round back full circle to the darkness of night, a darkness that has consumed and inevitably changed a family that was only an hour before comically arguing over breakfast.

Given the striking nature of the scenery, it felt starkly distant from the action on stage and despite some perfunctory use of the lockers, it had potential to lend itself more fully to the performance and create a more intimate picture of a family home and a surreal depiction of a family home torn asunder by tragedy. That said, any quibbles are minor and the silence that descended in the final moments of the performance were testament to the play’s true power. The story comes round full circle with a solitary character sitting with their back against a wall, simultaneously ruminating on how much has changed and raging in denial of this very change. Where once warm laughter had been heard around the room, this were replaced with tears.

Random provides the stark personal context of knife crime, something that is all too often reduced to a statistic. This play is anything but random in its careful, precise and powerful detailing of how these statistics affect real lives.

Steve Bromley

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