Thursday, 19 July 2018

King Lear (Alone) - The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester.

 While condensing a three-hour tragedy with 27 characters into an hour long one man show may seem to be an impossibility, Writer-Director Frank Bramwell and performer Bob Young prove themselves to be more than up the task with this enlightening take on Shakespeare’s classic. The decision to stage the piece with a solo performer isn’t merely the result of a desire to impress with virtuoso acting but is key to the play’s emphasis of Lear's loneliness and estrangement from his family. King Lear is not only alone on stage but also in every sense of the word 'alone'.

The resulting piece offers a humanising look at the legendary king, as he grapples with advancing age and the consequences of his poor decisions in the past. While he may proclaim that ‘the past is another country’ it continues to haunt him and control his present.

Bramhall’s script skilfully blends Shakespeare’s original text with backstories and dialogue of his own invention, allowing the audience to have a deeper understanding of Lear’s relationship with his favourite daughter, Cordelia. While vast portions of the text are cut, the play never becomes confusing, and I’ve no doubt that any audience member unfamiliar with the original text would be able to follow the narrative with ease

The intimate performance space at The Anthony Burgess Foundation provided an apt setting for this stripped back take on the tragedy, with the production’s minimalist staging serving as a perfect backdrop to Lear’s confused state of mind. Lear frequently asked himself who and where he was, even addressing the same questions to the audience at times. This brought the audience closer to Lear as a character, particularly as the setting remained ambiguous to the audience themselves, so we shared his confusion.

The other characters in the play maintained a showery presence in the narrative, not just through the damage they have inflicted on Lear (and the damage which he eventually admits to having done to them) but also through the stage design. The looming tree at the back of the stage is entwined with blank masks, representing the many characters whom Lear attempted to recall and define as he brooded over the events which led to his current predicament. Most poignant of all is the small figure of Cordelia, hanging by her neck from the tree. This is a clever representation of what Lear dubs ‘a doll-like reminder’ of his favourite daughter. The moment when Lear finally refers to his daughter, confronting how his actions have led to her death, is the highlight of the play.

Young’s powerful performance holds the audience’s attention, and Lear is by turns petulant, arrogant, self-loathing and deeply needy, yet he always retains some degree of sympathy even as the play refuses to gloss over Lear’s intense flaws. Some of the more moving moments came as he struggled with the simplest of tasks, such as gingerly lowering his infirm body into a chair, or endlessly repeating the same dialogue over and over, unable to remember what came next.

Not only is his personal life slipping away from him, but we also witness his attempt to live up to the position of King, a role for which he seems to have been ill-suited even before he was ravaged by old age and poor health. Midway through the play, Lear re-enacted the day he divided his kingdom among Regan and Goneril. He made several attempts to sound more like a king, repeating his opening lines from the original text until he gave up and continued the scene. The irony being that it is his actions in this scene, rather than his tone of voice, which are his real failings as a leader, with his insecurity having left him incapable of withstanding the weight of his crown

I was left at the conclusion thinking that Lear’s identity crisis, while exacerbated by his dementia, is not just the result of ageing but part of a life long failure to ever properly understand himself or the people around him. The only responsive left for Lear is to resolve face whatever comes next with as much bravery and dignity as he can muster. 

Reviewer - Richard Gorick
on - 18/7/18 

The Acquired Taste Of Women - Footlights Theatre, Salford.

Cobblestone Theatre are a new and young theatre company based in Manchester. They presented their first comedy play as part of The Greater Manchester Fringe. After this, the company aim to develop their solid half  hour of material into a full length show. This piece has got excellent potential.

Jessica (Jodie Whelan), Louise (Charlotte Darley), Becky (Lucie Jowett), and Lauren (Hannah Drury) are no longer protected under the education bubble. They have finished university, been flung out into the world of work, and got themselves a very small flat. Some of the characters are still living in the student lifestyle: full of drinking, partying, and madness. The others are trying to adjust to the adult world. With barely any money, what better way to celebrate their move in together than by throwing the biggest party ever. Big mistake. 

This is a play about friendship, sexuality, and the adult world.

Despite the show being a work in progress, the characters were diverse, developed, and the relationships between them all were clear. Whelan's Jessica was the so-called leader of the girl gang: a lover of theatre, extroverted, but at times irresponsible. Becky, as played by Jowett, was an intellectual, with her reading glasses always by her side. Darley's interpretation of Louise was the organised and responsible one of the house; she was always cleaning. Drury's Lauren was passionately liberal minded, she believed in not putting labels on people.

Written by Whelan, she cleverly considered writing about what relates to her and the company, which made the play realistic. Anything and everything was chatted about in the space of a half an hour flowing conversation: food, men, women, alcohol, sex, sexuality, identity, partying, jobs, money, and responsibilities. Fundamentally, what they created was a realistic representation of young, working class women on stage.

The most notable set piece was half of a couch: which I think unintentionally but appropriately communicated their financial situation. I loved the messiness of the set, the left out booze and the sprawled out clothes (an absolute nightmare for Louise). However, using the stage blocks as stairs wasn't immediately clear and more consideration might be required on how to stage that scene.

Lighting, by Mauric Widdop, made the flat feel hospitable. There was an hint of disco light colours in the design too, giving a flavour of the party to come. So in a good way, when the party almost began in the play, it was a shame it had to end abruptly. I was absorbed in the story.

The Greater Manchester Fringe is a fantastic platform to try out new work and ideas, and there is something to be said about the avid and creative spirit of such an event. This company really embraced that spirit. I look forward to seeing how the characters grow, how the story develops, and how the company evolves.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 18/7/18

One Man Bond - King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

Subtitled, 'Every Bond Film in 60 Minutes', this one-man show produces just that - almost!

Brian Gorman, the man whose word is his Bond, sets out not to recreate the entire plot-lines of all the films [I think I counted 23 this evening... ] but instead creates a kind of miniature 'feel'  or 'montage' for each.

Perhaps I better explain. Walking onto the stage to the famous theme tune, Gorman takes each Bind film chronologically (I assume) from Dr. No to Spectre. Each film is given a few minutes' in the spotlight in which Gorman sings a little of the thee tune (just in case you didn't know which film it was - like me) and then gives a few lighting-speed impressions of the main characters and memorable dialogue that gave each film its plot. [including M, Q, Moneypenny, Pussy Galore and all the other so-called Bond-Girls, the evil villains etc etc]. Each of these sequences usually ending in a huge 'BOOM!' killing all in sight except of course Bond! The physicality of the sequences - comedy gun fights and throat-slittings were clever and very funny, I just wish I had been able to recognise more of the impersonations. (my lack of knowledge not Gorman's ability)

For those of you, like me, who remember watching the films as they were released on TV over the successive Christmases of my youth, and then never watching them again since; I found it all quite difficult to follow, and i certainly didn't know who majority of the impersonations were. However, if you know your Bonds, then I feel sure you will easily 'get' it all and find it slick, funny and clever.

I understood Connery, didn't particularly feel Moore was quite right, and Brosnan was hilarious, being given an almost feminine high-pitched RP accent.

Gorman has obviously given a lot of time and energy, let alone perhaps sanity, into this project, and it was excellently done. I missed the original Casino Royale where various actors including Ronnie Corbett and Peter Sellers all get to play Bond - that would have been a fun film to condense into a couple of minutes; but Gorman's take on Quantum Of Solace - nothing more than a questioning shrug was hysterical!

A very personable performer who doesn't take himself or his show too seriously, but has developed a clever and slick show nonetheless. A Bond aficionados heaven!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/7/18

Delayed - King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

We are on board a train travelling to Manchester airport. Six passengers find themselves sitting next to each other, and as the train comes to an unscheduled halt which sees the train delayed by over an hour, we learn something about these six travellers.

The first thing I question is whether or not such a set-up is 'legitimate'. The premise admittedly was a good one, and to have a few different strangers meeting and communicate on a train is most certainly not a new idea, but could have been if treated somewhat differently. There was absolutely no sense of urgency in any of the passengers, nor did we ever feel that there were any other passengers on this train of several carriages. Nor could I understand for the life of me how it was possible to rearrange and move fixed train seats to make a long line of six chairs all facing the audience!

Unfortunately there was no programme nor publicity material of any kind and so have no idea on the names of cast and crew.

The script was stilted and unimaginative, and the acting little better. I was uncertain whether this was a comedy or a socio-political statement; a drama or just a general comment on the state of our rail network. It started very slowly and the pace only picked up marginally with the entrance of the businessman determined to catch his flight to the USA. The individual stories of the travellers were clear and with thought and rehearsal could have been brought to life and provided a watchable and interesting narrative from which to develop. Sadly though, this was not the case, and I was unable to sympathise with any of the actors on  stage, since I simply did not believe any of them.

Two young lads going away on holiday to Spain for the first time: an invitation for raucous, over-the-top comedic stereotypical laddish boozy behaviour missed.  A nerd, afraid of flying, yet setting off to Australia: why? we never knew. What was his family background? we never knew. A hugely comedic or deeply dark and furtive character opportunity completely missed. A young couple who have been trying for a baby for ages, and then want to adopt, despite the differences and changes of opinions between them - another great opportunity to bring out these themes and play with them completely lost. The only one to actually have any relevance and balance to his character was the businessman, but even then, we learned too little, too late, to be able to sympathise with his plight.

It was also a very strange ending to the piece - the rejoicing that the train is finally starting to move again and no-one will actually miss their flights juxtaposed with the businessman's bad news was a very odd place to finish... mixed emotions, and no resolution; yet the dialogue prior to this had been mostly upbeat.

Verdict: a very poor script, lacking proper rehearsal and focus. I can only hope that this piece, in the spirit of the G M Fringe Festival, is a first draft and trial run. The play needs much R+D before its next outing.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/7/18

A Country Way Of Life - King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

A show I was due to review had been cancelled, and so, very much a spur of the moment decision from me, and I ended up at The King's Arms in Salford to listen to Jonathan Brick's country music and raconteuring.

And again, in another strange twist of fate, there were only two other people booked to see this 6:00pm show, and neither turned up, and so, what actually happened was Brick and myself sitting in the venue together, chatting and me listening to some of his act, interspersed with other more personal anecdotes and asides, since I was continually interrupting his flow.

Brick took this very much in his stride, proving to be not only highly knowledgeable about his subject (Country Music), but a very personable and easy-going chappy too. My misgivings about my lack of knowledge in his area of expertise distilled and disappeared within the first few minutes and listening to him talk about famous artistes (mostly American)  music was actually extremely interesting and I came away at the end of the hour far more knowledgeable and enthused about a genre of music that I thought 'old hat', than I would have thought possible.

I asked him the difference between the labels 'Country' and 'Western' for which he had a lovely and for me, quite surprising.answer. But don't ask him what 'Country' music is exactly... you will be there arguing this point for hours. Better to ask him, what it isn't. And why is it still considered the preserve of the white male?? There are very few current female country stars (despite there being plenty back in the good ol' days!) and even fewer black country singers.

For him, real Country music, the music that came out of the folk music of those immigrants moving over to America, especially the Irish, is how it all started - but - and he has a very valid point here - the Country music that we all subconsciously would acknowledge and recognise as such, is actually a manufactured and produced sound in order for the record companies to make money!.. and yes, of course you need to wear the cowboy boots, boot-lace ties and stetsons too!!

He tells us that Country music can be broken down into three distinct subject matters..... 1) I've seen a girl, 2) I've got a girl, and 3) I've lost a girl!

Nowadays there is a lot of cross-over of styles and genres and even the big pop artistes like Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, to name but two, along with the likes of The Beatles, have all used country music in their repertoires to astounding effect (they just don't market it as 'country!)

To be honest, the hour sped by so quickly, and listening to Brick was a breath of fresh air. He even treated me to one of his own compositions. I could have stayed much longer and continued the conversation.

Well, he's taking his show to Edinburgh now, and so I can only hope he has more in the audience there than a couple of stuffed fish, the G M Fringe Bee, and me!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/7/18

Up The Bunting! - Bar Pop, Manchester.

Wildcat, in association with The Lipstick Thespians, welcome you to the local village fete. The downstairs bar has been transformed; the real bar automatically becomes a feature of the beer tent. On the stage we see: blue curtains, a massage bed, fairy lights, a homely-looking lamp, and of course, bunting.

Colin (Stephen Donald) is obsessed with the bric-a-brac. Although, this year he notices something is missing from the fete, the 'hook-a-duck' is gone. It has been replaced by an exclusive tent, where Lisa (Hayley Cartwright) practices reiki, reflexology, and meditation. Lisa and Colin, two contrasting personalities, are about to meet and change each other's lives for the better.

Donald's characterisation of Colin was detailed and nuanced. Colin got excited over the littlest and simplest of things. He had a Walace and Gromit smile, which not only communicated his warmth and joy, but his suppressed grief for his mother who passed away. There was wonderful acting from Cartwright as Lisa. Cartwright presented a well rounded character who was not just hyperactive, bold, and a bit barmy, but she was also vulnerable. The comedy in the play came from the contrast in their characters, and the fact Lisa behaved erratically in a calm setting.

The director, Alexis Tuttle, did a commendable job of bringing out the comedy in the play whilst never losing the drama and poignancy of the text. It lightly poked fun at meditation, mindfulness, reflexology, zen, and all the rest of it. However at the same time, the play showed how these holistic practices can create a cathartic experience for the likes of Colin, and help people to come to terms with losing someone.

For me, it felt like the play was notably divided into two scenes; with Colin's story being the main focus in the first scene and Lisa's story the primary focus in the second. This made the play feel slightly broken up and the stories not as tied together as they could be. The transitions could have been tighter and the mother's ashes accidentally spilt on the bed by Lisa, could have been swept away gently with consideration by the stagehand, given the context of the story.

This was a comic yet sad play about love, loss, reiki, the little things in life, and how two very different people have the power to heal each other. They were both survivors of their own story.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
On - 17/07/2018

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

18 Victoria - 53Two, Manchester.

Cody Daigle-Orians’ 18 Victoria is not the sort of play to see if you are feeling emotionally delicate. Its plot focuses on three siblings – Stephen (James Nicholas), Catherine (Alex Herod), and Ben (Joe Geddes) – who are dealing with the fallout of their father’s death when the news breaks that an asteroid (named 18 Victoria) is on a collision course with Earth and that all life on the planet will be wiped out in three weeks. As a study in strained familial relationships, grief, and nihilism, 18 Victoria is highly effective, wisely lacing the bleakness around some gallows humour to bring some relief from the encroaching doomsday which our characters face.  

The production at 53Two relied on a minimalist set: several large blocks which were placed around the stage and were used by the cast to either sit on or walk across. At the front of the performance area lay scattered rubbish, presumably added to give the air of the play taking place in a wasteland as society breaks down, although the detritus wasn’t particularly visible from beyond the front row. It did feel somewhat unnecessary; the bare bones set didn’t need the addition of strewn rubbish at the front.

 This, however, was the only aspect of the production which wasn’t effective (and even then, it is a bit of a ‘nit-pick’). Everything else, the script, performances, and even live music (courtesy of Stefan Melbourne, aka We Were Strangers, who provided a suitably mournful soundtrack to the events unfolding onstage) was of a high standard. The play is structured around interlocking monologues from each of our protagonists, although there are some occasional moments when the characters engage with dialogue with one another. The three performers breathed life into their roles: Geddes’ Ben, the youngest of the three siblings, is openly gay, fuelled by nervous energy (and cheap noodles), and he really, really wants his dad’s Encyclopaedia Britannica set. Catherine, the married, no nonsense, middle child, is given heart and soul by Herod. Lastly, there is the eldest brother, Stephen, who left home at sixteen, cynical, distant, and determined to see oblivion in by being so drunk he won’t feel a thing. Nicholas’ performance as Stephen was astonishing; he delivered his often blackly comic lines with aplomb.

Given the monologue based nature of the text, it could have been easy for Julie Root, the director, to feature the three performers just sat facing the audience as they delivered their speeches. Wisely, Root eschewed that choice in favour of having the actors move around the performance space and the actors who were not speaking sat down or moved from one block to another and were still in character, they were thinking, drinking, checking their phones for updates on the arrival of the asteroid, but without pulling focus away from the actor who was explaining how their character was coming to terms with a world that was facing its end: Stephen finding solace in drink, Ben in casual sex, Catherine attempting to maintain a façade of normality for as long as possible. All three characters describe a memory of an evening from when they were younger, when Stephen told them to pack their things and leave home with him to go to Antarctica. These sequences featured all three actors walking around the set with backpacks and torches and provided an interesting visual break in the play, as well as building on the backstory of the characters and why their relationship with their parents, as well as each other, was so strained. The revelation of what provoked Stephen’s decision to leave his family as soon as he could was shocking, although it could be argued that the explanation was unnecessary as, sometimes, things just happen in life with no reason being given.

The climax of the play, nonetheless, delivers an emotional gut-punch. Of note are Herod’s final moments as Catherine, facing the end of not only the Earth but the world she had built around herself. Herod managed to convey Catherine’s emotional turmoil effectively without having to resort to histrionics. Geddes and Nicholas also excelled in their final moments, finally meeting by their father’s grave, after so many years apart, to see in the end of the world together. The play avoided the cliché of the asteroid avoiding hitting the Earth and instead the audience witnessed the world’s end with the characters, thanks to a hugely effective use of lighting and sound effects. As Melbourne played his guitar and sang following the play’s end, there was no doubt that many in the audience had been emotionally gripped by the production.

Root & Branch Productions have certainly created an astonishing piece of theatre with 18 Victoria. It’s not the easiest play to watch, given its emotional rawness, but it deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on  – 17/7/18