Review: How My Light Is Spent, Royal Exchange

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How My Light Is Spent by Alan Harris

Royal Exchange, Manchester [09.05.17]

NB: This was a relaxed performance.

Newport, South Wales. Two individuals sit with their backs to each other on a raised rectangular podium. A recording of a phone conversation is played: a man declaring his hands have disappeared. In unison, the two raise their hands to the light. Begin.

Phone sex.

Meet Jimmy. Jimmy is a 34 year old man who lives with his mother, has a kid he hasn’t seen in 4 years, works at a doughnut drive through, hasn’t had sex in a long time and so calls Kitty every evening at 7.30pm for 9 minutes of phone sex.

Meet Kitty. Kitty is a phone sex worker who pretends to masturbate whilst talking to customers, when really she’s just waiting for time to pass. She keeps her childhood locked away in an impenetrable box, practices altruism and dreams of becoming a psychologist.

How My Light Is Spent is an honest, funny and bizarre exploration of unemployment, loneliness, sex work and the search for meaning. Part narrated, part performed in the moment, this hilarious tale charts the gradual disappearance of Jimmy’s body. Somewhat of a modern version of H G Wells’ science fiction novella, The Invisible Man, this play gives us soft sci-fi and a compelling journey through the realm of relationships.

 

Set to a palette of Spandau Ballet, Phil Collins and Maroon 5, some welsh accents and a dash of received pronunciation, our ears very much lead the way in this performance. The stripped back set (which I feel resembles Newport Bridge by night) allows us to focus solely on the two performers. Rhodri Meilir and Alexandria Riley both express their undeniable talent in delivering a multitude of characters, each with their own quirks and emotional truths. They are able to make us laugh and almost cry in the moments experienced by both Jimmy and Kitty.

Whilst this play has a lighthearted feel, it touches on some very important conversations: the state of unemployment and perceptions of sex work. When Jimmy goes to the job centre, if you yourself have ever been to sign on you know exactly how he feels. We’ve all had a Michelle who’s not particularly bothered about your experiences or your aspirations and she really just wants to get you away from her desk so she can admire both sides of her hand for a little longer. Rhodri expresses the apathy and frustration that fills us in the search for a job and delivers a performance with genuine feeling. Universal Credit has been sewing its seeds all over the country yet oddly it is not outwardly addressed in the theatre that often. Yes, there are many plays that explore unemployment but, very few knuckle down into the under layers of a system that can be ignored by those it does not effect. As we watch Jimmy’s decline post ‘signing on’, we are exposed to a very real reality of Britain’s working class or as Jimmy defines it, ‘no class’. The loss of his job results in a lost of meaning and a sense of inadequacy in within that feeling, he becomes lost – disappearing at an alarming rate.

Speaking of rates, it was refreshing to see a piece of theatre include sex work as a key component without solely perpetuating stereotypes. It cleverly explores the positive and negative language around sex work and also opens a window into the world of different types of sex work. Immediately placing the audience in a phone sex scenario was a good choice on the part of Alan Harris – placing an audience in a setting that is usually private forces us to explore how we feel about this scenario but also to question how we engage and participate in privacy. Kitty is a strong, vibrant and driven character who tries to keep most of her feelings concealed. Alexandria’s performance compels us to route for Kitty and to hope that she truly ends up where she wants to be.

The end of this play was looking as though it was going to be a cheese fest but it surpasses all levels of cheese on toast and delivered a heartfelt and beautiful moment when Jimmy and Kitty found the light of life in each other (it was less cheesy than what I just said, I promise).

Verdict: How My Light is Spent is an honest, funny and original love story set on a welsh bridge. Doughnuts, disappearing body parts, personalised saucers and Newport’s answer to Mona Lisa – a truly wonderful play.

 

 

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Review: The Toad Knew, The Lowry

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Photo Richard Haughton

The Toad Knew by James Thierrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton

The Lowry, Salford [10.05.17]

A woman draped in a red cape crosses the stage singing. We hear the strike of a match and see an amber glow in her hood. She melts into the stage curtain of matching velvety fabric and then it is peeled away to reveal the residency of the moment that is about to unfold.

The Toad Knew could be a story. It could be a play. It could be a dance. But it is most certainly a moment. A moment in a space that resembles a room that one could only imagine finding down the rabbit hole. Except this is no rabbit hole. Despite having a bizarre essence of Alice in Wonderland about it, The Toad Knew has a peculiarity all of its own that comes in part from its onlookers. Everything from the rotating staircase to the pond in the tank to the flacks of dusty carpet derive part of their meaning from you. As the experiencer, you paint part of the meaning into this spectacle and that’s part of what makes it so unique and beautiful.

Tonight, I watched a piece of theatre swallow itself over and over again. What started as a levitating space age swamp filled with galactic kites soon grows into a home of sorts. Its inhabitants whilst on the surface appear rather unusual, on closer examination are a physical manifestation of feelings we have lived and a multitude of versions of ourselves and those around us. We observe the relationships between these unnamed characters and through their physicality and personal quirks, they are able to speak volumes that surpass that surpass the limits of the English language. There is nothing concrete here. All interactions are fluid and a relationship that could be perceived as father-daughter, brother-sister, lovers can exist as all of these things and none of them simultaneously.

Nothing in the world that we have been invited into is fixed. Water still trickles, sawdust still falls, girls still float in water temporarily and lights still shine bright. Among compulsive gyrations, a piano that plays itself whenever there is an ‘elephant in the room’ sensation and an array of prosthetic limbs and wigs, we are sent on a journey filled with revelation that is quiet by nature. This is not the place for Eurekas and soul searching. It is the place for being in the moment and knowing that it’s okay to relive your memories and decipher your dreams in a room filled with other people. It’s also okay to not know what is happening because you feel that there’s a universal correct way to look at this moment that we’re all participating in. What you can know for sure is that whatever you feel about it is not wrong.

The Toad Knew is a reaction, a unity and a change that prompts us to reflect on our commitments in this moment and externally. Repetition and precision in intriguing movements encourage us to engage in a habitual pursuit of a story that doesn’t have a beginning, a middle or an end. Instead, we are left trinkets of may have been and what could be: sleep disturbance, being held back and wanting to do the right thing. And we’ve all had the feeling of not wanting to let someone go that is truthfully conveyed to the sound of These Arms Of Mine.

Three pairs of arms carried silverware and one body danced under foiled shackles that dazzled and humoured the light. It is hard not to write about this moment in a poetic manner given that it defied the parameters of prose and made its physicality audible. As soon as stacks of silverware were balanced, they soon littered the floor. In the onstage frenzy to pick them up and toss them aimlessly into the tank/pond, we are reminded that there is an unspoken urgency to ‘get your shit together’ – no matter the space or time. But this doesn’t mean you need to do it right now and you certainly don’t need to brush your desires under the carpet in order to do so.

To end this moment, the toad appears in all its white, evocative glory and devours each of our characters whole. One by one. Time still turns and ticks and flows. But, our moment is soon to pass. The Toad tells us of the thoughts that she cannot keep track of, for there are so many. Each of these moments that lived in and devoured each other are not easily described in words. They are not concrete. But these characters, their acts, their journeys, their habits – they are all thoughts. Thoughts that we’ve all had in different manners and different contexts.

Verdict: The Toad Knew is an exquisite and unique moment trapped in a kaleidoscope and admired under the gaze of an honest and personal magnifying glass. Somewhat disturbed but hilariously peculiar, this is a compelling and captivating piece of theatre that reminds us that it’s not about the conclusion, but the journey that you take to get there and the meaning that you derive along the way. A stunningly original moment that we would all benefit from experiencing.

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Review: Tank, HOME

 

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Tank by Breach Theatre

HOME, Manchester [06.05.17]

CW: Mention of domestic violence, sexual violence, suicide

Sonny and Cher are an excellent opener for almost anything.

A film projection of a swimming pool. A table with some technical sound equipment. Two chairs. A water cooler with a stack of plastic cups. The actors enter one by one and fill themselves a cup of water. They drink. And so, our rather unusual and completely off the wall afternoon begins.

1965. 52 years ago. 28 years before I was born. A man named John C Lilly has decided that he wants to teach dolphins to speak English because of course, that’s the most important language (western entitlement much) and with any luck, they’d help us communicate with extraterrestrial life (erects index finger: “ET Phone Home”). At this point, you should prepare yourself for an underwater country western that puts Carry On Cowboy to shame – Breach theatre bring us sinister banter, compelling storytelling and synchronised choreography that could easily rival the 1988 version of Hairspray (you know, the one with Ricki Lake).

Enter Margaret. A college dropout who could be driving any of a handful of cars, dependent on which narrator you’d like to believe. She knows nothing about linguistics or phonology but she really likes dolphins so she heads to Dolphin Point to help John Boy (I just imagine that Mr Lilly could be in The Waltons) with his TESOL delivery. As someone who trained as a speech and language therapist, I have to see these lessons were very… odd. I mean, I’d be interested to know how the corpus of words was chosen for these experiments and whether or not they utilised the principles of phonological development to assist them. Also curious as to whether, minimal pairs played any role in the teaching of voiced and voiceless consonants or whether they just focused on whole words with particular attention to vowels. Now, that I’ve got this out of my system, I’ll consult my good friend Google to tell me the answers. Anyway, where were we?

Oh yes, so Margaret is helping to teach the dolphins English and this quickly escalates to her basically living in a flooded room with a dolphin called Peter. You really can’t make this shit up. Peter slowly starts to feel some kinda way about Margaret over the course of this 10 week experiment and then it just ends (the romance, not the play). Think Summer Nights in Grease except Peter transitions between being Sandy and Danny faster than you can down a dirty pint after a game of mushroom. Chuck in some brilliantly funny choreography, hilarious dolphin sounds, narrators with the majesty of Jerry Springer, a rubber dolphin head (worn by Joe Boylan who makes a rather exceptional dolphin with and without said head) and a cowboy, and you’re in for an experience, that’s for sure.

It’s now probably a good time to say that if you’re in search of more of the factual elements of this story (as in the actual experiment that took place in the 60’s), I am going to advise you converse with Wikipedia. And I am doing so because Tank does something quite incredible that is arguably more important than the facts of this rather peculiar experiment.

It is very rare that a piece of theatre can take an out of the ordinary and borderline ridiculous scenario and successfully use that as a vehicle to shed honest light on the extensive entanglements of relationship spectrum. To put it simply, imagine this: a man walks into a bar and makes a joke about a dolphin playing rough with a woman because he’s sexually attracted to her. People laugh. Reframe that and replace dolphin with man. Despite this story being true in its literal sense, it is also true in its underlying exploration of domestic and sexual violence towards women. What starts off as the odd nudge, a ‘playful’ dunking under the water, a poking in the ribs soon escalates to more brash methods of physical interaction and a developing blend of denial and fear in the person experiencing it. Margaret, played by Sophie Steer, describes to the narrators how she feels that Peter wants to cut her open, right through her middle, through her onto the beach and stick a flagpole in her. This was met by the audience with laughter. But, this is a reality for hundreds of women living in and surviving abuse in the home. As Peter and Margaret’s relationship begins to breakdown, there are questions around whether or not Margaret cares about Peter anymore, if she still feels the same way, whether his feelings matter to her. The same sorts of unhelpful questions that survivors are asked when starting to remove themselves from the toxic situation they are in. Breach Theatre have successfully managed to explore and unveil this topic in an exploratory manner that welcomes an audience to consider the politics of abusive relationships and gives a platform to the voice of the victim. Watching this as a survivor, I was overwhelmed by how accurate and truthful this narrative was delivered. Every actors exceptional physicality and storytelling skills gave this piece an honesty and authenticity that really moved me.

This play ends with Peter’s suicide. But, we are not left holding Margaret responsible. The responsibility lies with everyone involved. We are left wondering what Peter was meant to get out of this experiment? Even if Margaret had taught him to repeat in English, would it ever mean anything? A whole lot of phonology with the semantics, a metaphor for broken relationships that continue existing despite lacking one crucial ingredient: meaning. Peter’s last moments in a small tank away from his room with Margaret replicate the suffocation that Margaret experienced in her 10 weeks with Peter. History repeats itself wearing a new bloody gown, regularly checking the time.

Verdict: Tank isn’t just a funny tale of a daft 1960’s experiment in America. It’s a groundbreaking, honest and very real portrayal of dark side of relationships and an active examination of ethics and choice. This piece is a strong and important reminder that theatre by nature is political and it does damn good job at owning that. It is an act of solidarity to survivors and an absolute must see. I’m not really down with star ratings but, this really does deserve all of the stars.

 

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Review: MK Ultra, HOME

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MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company

HOME, Manchester [04.05.17]

This Is Fake Theatre.

Welcome to MK Ultra – a physical embodiment and exploration of the 1950’s LSD mind control experiments conducted by the CIA and a window into the intertwined affair of pop culture and the illuminati.

Our evening begins with a film projection within the shape of an equilateral triangle and escorts us back to 1957. Two men are arguing in a bowling alley about the order and chaos of the world and conclude that the world needs a new way, a new religion so that everyone can think for themselves. However when this movement takes off, just like all freedom movements, demands for and the seeking of power escalate. Cue Operation Mind Fuck – with support from a couple of Playboy Bunnies and a lilac animated bunny. And let the games begin.

From here on in, we observe as seven dancers express the compulsions and attempts to resist the declarations of the ‘norm’ – whatever that even is. Are each of their movements their own planned decisions or are they moving like this because pop culture subtly told them to? This high energy, acrobatic performance is perfectly fluid and each movement is clean and controlled. The use of levels takes us on a visual roller-coaster of incredible stunts and tableaux that reel the audience in. Welcome to Operation Mind Fuck.

With a palette of trippy, ecstatic colours and a reel of projections ranging from Alice in Wonderland animations to Marilyn Monroe, Rosie Kay Dance Company have successfully created a piece of dance theatre that really challenges us an audience and forces us to question everything we think and feel about this performance and the world beyond the one it has created. Cosmic purple flowers blooming, Mickey Mouse conducting an invisible orchestra and Dorothy’s red slippers clicking repeatedly are just a handful of the images that lay imbedded in your mind. And all of this against a mashed up soundtrack of Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, takes us into a blended confusion that it is still quite hard to process. MK Ultra is so distinct and dedicated to its exploration that it had me constantly trying to work out what I was listening to and seeing. At points, I was sure that I could here Narayan by The Prodigy, Toni Basil’ Hey Mickey and Wake Up by Hilary Duff – though I’m pretty sure the latter was in my head, imposed by the overt Disney references, colour charged cityscape projections and hypnotising floor sequence. You know these triangular messages are truly messing with your mind when you’ve got Hilary Duff going round and round in your head… Wake up, wake up on a Saturday night, could be New York, maybe Hollywood and Vine, London, Paris maybe Tokyo, there’s something going on anywhere I go… Yes, there was certainly something going on here…

MK Ultra is nothing short of incredible. I like to be confused and moved from my comfort zone in the theatre and this successfully did that. I am currently in a state of ‘what on earth happened to me last night?’ and have been listening to DJ Rashad’s Twitter to try to counteract this. But, maybe that’s what they want me to do… Welcome to Operation Mind Fuck.

Verdict: A trip the light fantastic level of weird and confusing – absolutely phenomal piece of dance. Would highly recommend.

 

 

 

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Review: Casanova, The Lowry

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Photo: Guy Farrow, Emma Kauldhar, Caroline Holden, Justin Slee

Casanova by Northern Ballet & Kenneth Tindall

The Lowry, Salford [03.05.17]

Opulent smoke and a procession of six figures travel with intent across the stage, surrounded by three towering ornate pillars. Then, six hooded men appear and engage in energised and powerful physicality that has you leaning in just to be ever more captivated by a sweeping array of small intricate to grand dominating movements. This ensemble give us a flavour of the beauty that is to unfold before us.

Casanova has become the social pseudonym of the womanisers and sex addicts of the modern world. But, Northern Ballet’s Casanova crafted by Kenneth Tindall invites us to take a look through a magnifying glass at an intricate and captivating narrative of the man behind the debauchery. This elegant, full length work inspired by Casanova’s memoirs explores the power, anguish, knowledge and of course, sex that dominated his many lives and delivers a vulnerable unveiling of who the real Casanova was.

On a mesmerising journey from Venice to Versailles, we see Casanova’s many versions of himself as an alchemist, violinist, writer and cleric. Among these pursuits, we see him tempt and be tempted by an array of women and take a particular fancy to a woman who has disguised herself as a man. This one is different. This becomes less about sex and more about passion and feeling.

The ensemble move with intent, diligence and passion, leaving it near impossible for you to take in everything that is happening simultaneously. The movements are captivating and give onlookers a true appreciation for the potential and possibilities of the human body. Each element is flawless in its execution and every dancer gives a distinct emotional performance to depict their character. Tableaux and trio performances convey ritualistic and sexual intent with both a tasteful and truthful aesthetic.

Christopher Oram’s awe-inspiring costume design transport us to the 1700’s in a spectacular masquerade of exquisite fabrics and silhouettes. The moving nature of the set allows us to journey with Casanova to his differing residencies and gives this tale a natural meander. But, it is the three pillars illuminated by Alastair West’s lighting design that really take this production from the Lyric Theatre stage to an entire world of its own. We see the dancers reflections on the speckled mirrored panes and the fluidity of their movements paints the most beautiful caricatures onto these panels. It is this haze of colours alongside this passionate tale that truly take us into the realm of Giacomo Casanova.

Verdict: Words cannot do this stunning production justice: this is a dance to be seen and experienced. Truly exceptional.

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Review: I Capture The Castle, The Octagon

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Photo Richard Lakos

I Capture The Castle

Directed by Brigid Larmour; Based on the novel by Dodie Smith

The Octagon, Bolton [29.04.17]

A young woman, Cassandra sits in the kitchen sink. Well, not in the sink exactly, she sits on the draining board with her feet in the sink and she writes. She wants to write a novel about the castle that she and her unconventional family reside in, to truly capture the castle for all its worth, in etchings of ink. Maybe her father will go back to writing too, if his writer’s block ever subsides.

Set in 1930’s Britain, I Capture The Castle (ICTC) is a slightly odd but very enjoyable tale about a family who’s world is dominated by writing, not writing and the castle gargoyle (more on this later). We follow Cassandra, her father, stepmother Topaz and sister Rose, as their lives are tipped upside down when two young American gentlemen arrive at the castle, after their car breaks down one cold, rainy night. At this point, despite being a musical, this does not take a Rocky Horror-esque turn – which depending on your taste, you’ll either be ecstatic or distraught about. Instead it goes more along the lines of a prim and proper version of the sort of love quadrilateral you’d find in Eastenders (this is complimentary, I like Eastenders) – with songs and a bit of dancing. Rose falls head over heels for bearded, Simon (Cassandra questions Rose’s pursuit of a bearded man, making this a notable quality) and Cassandra is left to entertain his ranch-obsessed (they get mentioned a lot) brother, Neil. This all turns on its head of course,when the four take a trip to the beach. It is here that Neil and Rose slip away discreetly and we’re left to join up the dots, whilst Cassandra and Simon have a quaint little moment together. The men, being gentlemen of course, give their coats to the women. However, these coats can only be described as the wardrobe rejects from the BBC’s 1988 version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. These mixed with a an array of green fabric hanging around the castle would give one the perfect makings of a collection inspired by Babes In The Wood.

Eventually, Simon proposes to Rose and they head off to London (with Topaz and Stephen, the castle farm hand who is madly in love with Cassandra). Only Simon returns one evening to find Cassandra engaging in a midsummer ceremony which he asks to be brought into, at which point the two end up kissing. Believe it or not, this part wasn’t as predictable as it sounds. Anyway, Cassandra insists that he leave, only to later realise that she herself is in love with him and to make things worse she is sure that Rose does not love him. So she goes to London to find him, only to be left heartbroken and to find that she was write all along. She returns home and (of course) locks her father in the castle turret to help him write. Just your everyday reaction to heartbreak really.

In the end, it all comes out about Rose and Neil. Simon decides to go back to New York and invites Cassandra to join him. She declines despite still being in love, for she needs to stay at the castle to write in her novel. My younger self was screaming with happiness at this point – a story with a happy ending where the girl doesn’t go chasing after the guy… but instead opts to pursue her novel writing dreams.

Being unfamiliar with the book as I am, I cannot say whether or not this was a good adaptation. However, this was enjoyable piece of theatre that certainly made me laugh and that’s hard for a performance to do (especially when I’m sat up in the rafters and can hear the pigeons better than the cast). The characters of Topaz, Stephen and Leda (a famous photographer and aunt of Simon and Neil) really brought a comedic edge to the piece and brought it to life.

At times, ICTC felt more like a play with songs masquerading itself as a musical, rather than a solid new musical offering. Many of the songs were quite similar in tone and didn’t stick with me after the show. I feel that a truly brilliant musical keeps you singing the songs for days after you’ve left the theatre. However, it does manage to churn out one banger, They’re Only Men, for which I await its release on Spotify so that it can be added to my musicals playlist. ICTC has the potential with some tweaks to be a great musical offering.

Director Brigid Larmour was clearly thorough when laying out her vision for this piece – it is ambitious with its use of physical theatre to add an additonal element to the usual dance accompaniment. The physicality certainly added an element of intrigue but unfortunately, at times it felt misplaced within the landscape of the play. The same can be said for the gargoyle character who appears throughout the play. It was almost as though the commitment to adding these more abstract elements just didn’t go to the lengths it needed to in order to truly make them work. This accompanied by the choreography which at times felt a kin to dad dancing, distracted from the story and musicality of the piece.

Overall, for a new musical, this was well done and the characters successfully took the audience in.  Lowri Izzard played a loveable and witty Cassandra and there were a couple of good feel good songs. However, I was left with the same question I am often left with when leaving the Octagon – why wasn’t the cast diverse? In a cast of nine, it wouldn’t have been difficult to have a cast that is reflective of society. Musicals are more often than not dominated by white casts, which is why shows like The Wiz are so important. If new musicals want to be relevant, they need to be doing something that isn’t just following the path of the classics. There was a degree of effort made to make this piece relevant to the modern audience – so why not go the whole way? It would serve The Octagon well to start engaging in the act of colour brave casting rather than sticking to their safe casting or occassionally problematic casting of actors of colour in stereotyped roles (e.g. casting the two black actors in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as an alcoholic/adulterer and an adulteress wasn’t the best casting decision ever made). Partaking in this practice would fully transform the theatre that they create and build on the potential that they most certainly have.

Verdict: This is a good musical offering and it has the potential to be fantastic with more consideration given to the finer details. If you like musicals, this is definitely worth seeing. P.S. The set is visually very interesting – this made my eyes extra happy.

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Review: Turn, Contact

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Image: Holly Rush

Turn: a micro-festival of North West dance

Contact, Manchester [28.04.17]

This review covers: Origami by Kapow Dance, Madre by Peter Groom Dance Theatre, Saiserit by Giorgio de Carolis, The Album of Love by Ane Iselin Brogeland, Periodo Blu by Matrafisc Dance, What’s Mine Is Yours by Coalesce Dance and INFAMY by The inFamous Five.

Three spaces continually evolving in response to the bodies within them that become rhythmic story books in the presence of both song and silence. Turn brings new work to the table created and performed by dancers from the North West of England. In its ninth year, the festival featured 12 new works (a number of which running simultaneously due to space capacity and then repeating at the end of the night).

The evening began in space 1, opened by Eithne Kane of Kapow Dance. Origami was a piece true to its name. Kane’s body folded , creased, turned, rolled and held shape in this bold articulation of what bodies are capable of being and communicating.

This was then followed by Peter Groom’s striking performance of Madre. A piece of dance theatre that gave us Paris Je T’aime meets the Wizard of Oz meets meets Marilyn Monroe and so much more. Peter walks out on to the stage with a nude stocking over his head, a plain t-shirt, boxers and red heels. Moving from strolling to symphonic signing, Peter takes us on a journey of lamenting what may or may not have been. We become part of this journey as he beckons us to come to the stage but, his offer is silently declined. This piece was filled with humour and passion and blurred the lines between dance, theatre and live art. An exceptional offering to start off the night.

At this point, the audience were split in two – one half went to see the following shorter pieces in space 5 (which I did not see): Only Speak When Spoken To by Meraki Collective, The Intersection Series by Jo Cork, The Visitor by Born + Bred Theatre Dance and A Film with Hope by Grace Surman & Clare Dearnaley. In space 2, two longer pieces were presented to the audience: Saiserit by Giorgio de Carolis and The Album of Love by Ane Iselin Brogeland.

Saiserit is a simplistic yet captivating piece of dance – repeated phrases delivered with precision and emotion lead us on a journey that pursues both knowledge and denial simultaneously. The relationship between Giorgio, a small black box and a mirror encourage us to reflect on ourselves. We watch him conceal his face with the box, pursue it and gaze into the mirror with his back to us. It is only half way through this piece that music is played. And in recognition of that change, it is apparent that this piece is very special. It can live in silence yet give us a wholly meaningful sensory experience. It makes us reflect on how much we really know and how much we are both knowingly and unknowingly ignorant of.

The Album of Love by Ane Iselin Brogeland followed and delivered what I can only begin to describe as the most poignant moment of the night. The piece I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner, Sexual Healing by Lionel Richie and a voice-over that talks of love: love is an act of surrender. Throughout this piece, Ane surrenders her self to the audience, the movement and to herself, all in an exploration of the states and expressions of love that can be experienced. She expresses the struggles and suffocations that we have all felt at some point. But the real power of this piece is in the shaking and the breathing – open to interpretation but nonetheless, relateable. By far, the gem of the night.

Following an interval to two audience halves were brought back to space 1 to watch the final three pieces (before being given directions to watch pieces they hadn’t opted for earlier). Two duets and a group piece graced the stage. Matrafisc Dance offered us a couple – one trapped in the past and one day dreaming of the future – each trying their hardest not to lose their head (their polystyrene one, quite literally). We observe their individual torment but longing to exist in the same space. The synchronisation of the performers, Antonello Apicella and Ina Colizza, was completely flawless and beautiful to watch. A relationship of equal beauty could be found in Coalesce Dance’s What’s Mine Is Yours? Anna Papatheodorou and Fern Maia gave a subtle yet thought provoking performance exploring how female strength can fight back against harassment. This was the sort of dance that was nice to watch at the time but it’s underlying message really hit home upon leaving theatre and has stayed with me all day. A good example of how we can use dance as activism.

And lastly, The inFamous Five took to the stage to perform Infamy – a comical yet serious look at a world that chose both Brexit and Trump …and how this world observes the women that reside in it. A great soundtrack, incredible facial expressions and a poke straight in the eye of politics. Raise your teacups and applaud.

On leaving the theatre, I reflected on what I had seen and how it made me feel. And then, I remembered that Akeim Toussaint Buck was unable to perform due to illness – he is one of the artists who drew my attention to Turn. However, I was also thinking about the lack of dancers of colour in the festival and wondering why this was the case. All of the organisations involved actively work with artists of colour, so I was surprised and a little confused at this. But, I guess the way to change that is to shout about Turn and encourage dancers of colour to apply and bring their offerings to the table. Turn is a fantastic platform and bringing more artists of colour to this platform can only build upon its unique offering.

Verdict: On the whole, Turn has been one of the highlights of my arts calendar so far this year. It has delivered new, innovative, relateable and meaningful dance theatre from a strong mix of northern talent. It is the sort of event that you go and shout about.

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Whatever happened to Baby Jane (née Theatre Criticism)?

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Theatre Criticism is in crisis and this isn’t something new. Financial issues, the shift from print to online and the emergence of theatre blogs etc have all had their impact. However, there is another issue that is going unaddressed and that is, the hush hush muzzling of the critic.

Opportunities for  emerging critics are few and far between and so, many are opting to create their own platforms and use social media to promote and disseminate their reviews. However, there seems to be an unspoken rule that makes writers uncomfortable with writing negative reviews. The idea of writing a negative review conjures feelings of anxiety about: how it will be received, whether or not you’ve the knowledge and competency to say such things, concerns about the backlash, worries about upsetting the company in question, fear of rocking the boat and, feeling as though you’re not established enough to be the Craig Revel Horwood of criticism. All of these feelings are valid however, how much of an influence have external sources had in forging these feelings? Probably quite a lot.

Let’s start with rocking the boat. There are multiple media platforms around Britain that do not allow negative comments about plays in their reviews. If as critics we are only supposed to write a positive and/or polite commentary of every piece of theatre we see, we may as well take off our hats and hand them to the PR team.

Criticism, by definition, is about assessing the merits and flaws of a piece. And of course, the merits are raved about by default. But what happens when a piece is flawed from beginning to end and arguably inherently problematic? Are you supposed to right good things based on what others have said or on what the company was trying to do? Or maybe write a synopsis with a polite dig at the end? Or maybe just don’t write anything at all? Should you decide to write a very negative review, you have volunteered yourself to walk a very thin line and possibly sacrifice your credibility as a writer and that’s because credibility isn’t what it used to be. Just like Sunny D was pulled from our shelves and returned with the same branding yet a completely different taste, criticism is slowly becoming a going through the (positive) motions participatory activity, rather than an observational, analytical commentary. How did we end up here?

Fear of becoming a car crash and theoretically upsetting the establishment is what led us here. If you’re not one of the high flyers yet, one review is unlikely to have a national impact on how a piece of art is perceived and if it does, well that says something about the art, the critic and the audiences of the two. A negative review with no point to it will sink relatively quickly but, one that has a point may well gather some momentum and cause people to have some conversations (and prompting discussion has its plus points). You may well be branded the devil incarnate by a whole wealth of people but, your duty here is to your audience and the art form as a whole, not to individual artists. If a piece of art empowers you and people like you, you’ll push that boat right out into the sea so, if a piece of art offends and dehumanises you surely you are allowed to do the same? You have agency over your words. The pressure to give everything a more mellow tone to ‘take the edge off’ is a washed up means by which to limit freedom of opinion, pigeonhole us into a writing in a template that leans towards regurjitating tired, standardised views and, it stagnates the positive changes occurring in theatre.

Theatre is moving – it is growing and it is slowly dismantling its elitist roots and this is something we all need to see. So many theatres are making the active effort to welcome in new audiences and diversify their productions and staffing structures. These changes are huge, necessary and encouraging. So when you spot a piece of theatre that does the complete opposite, if you wish to, you have every right to call it out and challenge its message. You have the right to write what you feel and place it in the public sphere. Not everyone will agree with you, you know this. In fact, most people will disagree with you. But, there’ll a lot of people who do agree with you but didn’t feel that they could air such an opinion. To clarify, criticism isn’t a voice of the people but, it is a possible window into a world that still only attracts certain types of people and makes acknowledgement of the audiences who aren’t sitting in theatres.

Theatre criticism was like Baby Jane (full of spark and potential) and it can be that again – but, writing critical honest letters to our audiences may be a more transformative (though controversial) venture than simply pretending to write a heart felt letter to daddy.

 

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Review: Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Royal Exchange, Manchester [22.04.2017]

I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare or Classics, but this was a great piece of Saturday afternoon theatre that really went to town with re-imagining Shakespeare and making it more palatable to the modern audience. To my surprise, I enjoyed myself. This is a rare occurrence so I will use this post to celebrate that.

But let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, when you read you… stop) and explain why I don’t really buy old Shakey. Shakespeare has been done to death and even in death, he has not parted us. He’s still grasping on for dear life, like when Victor puts the ring on the branch in Corpse Bride and it turns out to be Emily’s finger and so she rises from the dead to wed Victor. Yeah, that sums up Shakespeare quite well.

Quick plot summary: Shipwreck. Sand Everywhere. Gender Fluidity. A High-Vis Lycra Moment. Viola loves Orsino. Orsino loves Olivia. Olivia loves Cesario (Viola). Marvolio loves Olivia. And there’s something a foot between Maria and Sir Toby. Everyone gets a reasonably happy ending except for Malvolio (bless him).

Chuck in a trolley draped in 90’s Christmas tree fairy lights, a traffic cone, a folding bicycle, an electric guitar and some next level high-vis Lycra, and you’ve got yourself a wildly funny piece of new age Shakespeare. Sir Toby’s late night party piece with Sir Andrew is enough to rival any post student night out after party (Poly v Posh eat your heart out). But, the party truly starts when Feste walks in. Played by the charming and engaging Kate O’Donnell, Feste is a loveable, inquisitive jester who makes us laugh and reflect throughout the piece. She also takes a moment to bond with the audience following the interval and finishes the play with a song that resembled what I imagine the Shakespearean version of Cabaret to be. O’Donnell’s cabaret background and ability to bring an audience in made her the perfect choice for this role. Plus her own experiences as a transgender woman, added to the emotional truth that really came through in the final song.

The story within this play is good, but it is all of the production aspects of this adaptation that really push it into the great production realm. It’s rare that you can go to see a main house production and see such a diverse cast. The casting of Faith Omole as Viola was an excellent choice, she brought wit, charm and vulnerability to the role. She gave Viola and Cesario their individual nuances, and really made us believe the depths of her love for her master, Orsino.  Moreover, it was good to see a dark skinned black woman in a challenging, leading role. Colour-brave casting isn’t a new feat for the Royal Exchange who staged King Lear last year, starring Don Warrington and an equally diverse cast.

Mina Anwar (Maria) and Kate Kennedy (Olivia) also gave us charismatic and humorous performances. Comedy gold struck when Olivia requested that Maria cover her mistress’ face, but due to their stark height difference, she has to jump to comply. Anwar and Kennedy pull the most distinctive and story-filled facial expressions throughout the play that it is hard to take your eyes off them.

Harry Atwell plays a gaudy yet loveable fool in love (or status), Sir Andrew, who gives us what can only be described as a ginger gandalf leaping over 2 for 1 Primark suitcases and a pitiful attempt at boxing – very much like sending Daffy Duck to compete in Cagey Joe’s boxing ring, with no Bugsy Malone in sight… unless you count Malvolio sporting a high-vis yellow get up, to appease Olivia. Absolutely hilarious from start to finish!

And now of course, for the set. Leslie Travers’ designed the amazing structure pictured above, which I will refer to as ‘Malvolio’s Cage’. When a picture of Malvolio’s Cage was posted on the Royal Exchange’s instagram, I was so taken by its architecture that I concluded I had to see the play because I needed to know what role this creation could be playing in it – it is the 15th cast member. When the structure lowers to centre stage in the second act, a stylistic use of lighting highlights each of its nooks and crannies alongside its elegance. My inner forgotten art student was very excited by this.

Verdict: If you like Shakespeare, watch this and if you don’t like Shakespeare, definitely give this a go. You may leave as pleasantly surprised as I was and if you’re still anti-Shakespeare at least you’ll have had a good laugh. P.S. following this matinee performances may well be the shout.

Twelfth Night is on until May 20th. 

 

 

 

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Review: My Country, HOME MCR or Anti-Black Propaganda 101 or Is Shirley Bassey Even Welsh?

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My Country by The National Theatre

Directed by Rufus Norris; Poetry by Carol Ann Duffy

HOME MCR, Manchester [22.04.2017]

As a black-mixed, british person, I’d just like to say, what a load of old tripe that was! Filled with anti-black, right wing propaganda from the off – this is a concrete expression of how Britain attempts to derive its ‘greatness’ from basking in its ‘lets just brush it under the carpet’ afrophobic rhetoric, mixed with a superiority complex.

My Country is a verbatim piece of theatre about the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. It shares real people’s stories, through seven characters who represent: Britannia, Caledonia, Cymru, Northern Ireland, North East, East Midlands and South West. The National Theatre team who went out to conduct these interviews ‘nationwide’ clearly didn’t travel very far or rather they only ventured to a handful of Virgin train stops. And as for their sampling method, they picked up a few token brown and black people (mostly men and with right leaning opinions) to make this top heavy piece seem representative… in all of its white supremacy. The fact that the company failed to include a black person in their cast but wanted to create a piece that represents this country demonstrates why as a black person in the UK, you are not british by design.

I do not agree with most of the views that were aired in this piece. However, I recognise that this is verbatim theatre and so it’s going to air an array of views and stories, from real people. But, there was no balance here, which makes no sense given that leave or stay was close to a 50/50 split. The major problem was that there were lots of views describing non-white and/or non british people as: terrorists, benefits scroungers, rapists and non-english speakers, not conforming to british culture (to name a few), but virtually no stories/views conveying them in a positive light. Even the views aired by POC interviewees are relatively anti-immigration. This is just another piece of propaganda to replace the buses that promised £350 million to the NHS.

But what really struck me was the clear lack of platform to black women’s voice – misogynoir really reared its ugly head here and it has not gone unnoticed. Black women’s voices are continually erased and, to not seek out the views of black women for this piece of theatre is damaging but unfortunately not surprising. This is the reason that platforms such as No Fly On The Wall and Galdem exist – to give space to black women and to challenge racist patriarchal structures.

In terms of the direction of this piece, there was very little – lots of sitting at desks and occasionally standing up to have an argument. My year 7s could have done a better job than this! Though to be fair, some direction did occur when each representative decided to share an item that represented their area and do a little dance. Of course, there was a bit of Irish dancing (his legs weren’t straight) and some Morris dancing. But the party really started when Wales began dancing to Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey and the man sat next to me said very loudly: ‘is Shirley Bassey even Welsh?’ Yeah, that sums it up really.

My Country is a play that failed in so many areas: the direction, the production, the research, the casting, the poetry… oh and whilst it managed to platform the views of Farage, May, Cameron and Johnson, it couldn’t possibly include any left or liberal views, could it? I guess we all know, how this came about.

Verdict: I gave up my Saturday night to watch some anti-black nonsense and experience a stranger’s out loud confusion over Shirley Bassey. This play brings nothing to the table that you can’t already find on Facebook – if you need to refresh your memory, just re-add all the people you deleted when Brexit made its debut. The National Theatre needs to check itself, seriously (and maybe go back into education to study research methods).

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