Friday, 31 January 2020

COMMUNITY THEATRE REVIEW: The Women Of Freedom Square - The King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

The Women Of Freedom Square is a devised work-in-progress piece of community theatre, led by the Manchester-based Sheba Arts, an organisation which aims to give marginalised, migrant and refugee communities a voice through art.  It's an awareness-raising exercise, but the world of The Arts, especially theatre, can be a very powerful and political tool if used correctly.

Since it was the first time that any of the cast had ever set foot on a stage before, and the stories they told were deeply personal and emotive, it would be very unfair of me to critique anything at all about the artistic elements of the 50 minute production. Instead allow me to give you a little background to the piece and how it evolved.

Taking inspiration from the so-called 'Blue Girl': a young lady who, after being arrested and imprisoned for trying to enter a football stadium dressed as a man in Tehran, set herself on fire when she came away from her trial.  And so this evening's play was set in that city, Tehran, the capital of Iran, a country in both political and religious turmoil. The play focused on 5 seperate stories, instances where women have tried to break away from the uber-rigid controls set on women in Iranian society. In fact one could almost say that the play as it stands at the moment is more a statement about male patriarchy than about the subjegation of women. I said I would not speak of artistic merit here, however, the decision to use just one male performer and yet have him half-concealed with his back to the audience as he spoke, was a hugely symbolistic and imageful idea.

The performance was delivered in two languages, sometimes in English, and as the play progressed, more and more in the language of Iran, Farsi - and the English translations were displayed on a screen above. Sadly the screen and the dialogue were often out of sync, but that is a minor issue. Whilst we learned much about life in Iran and how such things as not allowing women into football stadiums - something we in the UK take for granted and is indeed just a simple, basic human right for all - is forbidden there and the punishments are more than harsh, often ending tragically. The other storylines offered were a lady being imprisoned for organising a fashion show - for women only - where the models 'disgraced' their religion by wearing western clothes, dancing, and neglecting to wear the hijab. For flaunting 'sexual promiscuity' the punishment is execution. How a young Anglo-Iranian student over there visiting during the 2017 earthquake was imprisoned for helping a charity deliver aid directly to the needy. This, more than the other stories I think shocked me, since this seemed the most idiotic rule.. surely the country would be only too glad of outside help in such a time...?! Another woman for not wearing her hijab properly and another - a British reporter - for trying to interfere, speak with and report things which are 'forbidden'. Thus, without such plays as the one presented this evening, how is anyone ever going to know the truth and be able to do something about it.

I fear that Iran is not the only country to be repressing female expression, and whatever we think either of the religion or the politics of these countries, we must surely give every citizen the right to make their own minds up. Congratulations to Sheba Arts for your bravery at exposing such injustices and to the performers too for their perspicacity and determination to tell their stories. I often think that living in the UK is not easy; we are a deeply troubled, riotous, unsafe and state controlled society. It takes stories like these to shake me awake and realise just how lucky we are to be living here.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: Life Up 'Ere 2 - Salford Arts Theatre, Salford.

A diverse variety of new, short plays made up tonight’s performances from Up ‘Ere Productions; from one woman pieces to elaborate and complex scripts; from wildly humorous to tragic and profound. But all seven shorts had one thing in common, the North. Interspersed by a wonderful compere, Matt Concannon, who brought the audience well-written and thought-provoking spoken word moments. Every pair of eyes in the audience were fixed on him throughout his poetic performances, as his rhythm when reciting was natural and melodic.

The first of seven short plays was brought to us by Farewell Theatre Company, entitled ‘The Panic Of The Coward’. All three performers here brought great energy and pace, providing a great opening for the show. Ross Thompson, John O’Neill and James Ward all represented different emotional reactions to a robbery gone wrong. Set at some time in the 1980s it is assumed due to the mentions of the mines and Thatcher, little else is revealed about location or setting. This worked well, focusing solely on the three performances. Little was done in the way of sound or lighting here, and this simplicity was the key to its success. However, I feel with such a strong and powerful ending, it may have helped to use technical aspects to heighten this part. Although, I am aware that there were a few technical issues, so this may have originally been the case.

The second play was a one woman show entitled ‘Fresh Eggs’, written and performed by Beth Hunter and directed by Michelle Parker. A wonderful contrast to the first play; this lough-out-loud piece was conversational and brutally honest. Hunter coped very well with the obvious sound issues she experienced on stage, never once faltering or allowing the humour to drop.

Following this was a two-hander in which both performers spoke directly to the audience and never to one another. ‘Silent Fountain’, written by Kieran Scott, showed us a homeless yet happy woman (played by Jo Dakin), and a wealthy yet anxious businessman (played by Michael Pope). Written in such a way that the full extent of the truth slowly becomes apparent to the audience, and played wonderfully by both actors. The contrast of the two performances worked really well. Michael Pope in particular must be commended for his ability to multi-role play so seamlessly and efficiently, never once breaking emotion or blurring his characters.

The fourth play, and the last of act one was entitled, ‘My Street, Your Road’, written and performed by Lauren Kirwin and directed by Sasha Corfield. Tackling homelessness head on, Corfield’s writing was humorous at times in spite of this, and also highly emotional. It is a shame that the cuts from scene to scene were so quick as I would have loved to see the emotion develop further.

Following an interval and another performance from Concannon, the audience were shown a piece called ‘The End Of The Story’ by Lisa Collins and featuring Collins herself, as well as Jordan Reece and Kaitlin Michaels. This was another highly emotional piece, in which the climax for me was when Michaels gives her heart-wrenching speech about how she was abducted. It is a shame that nearly all of this monologue was performed to the actor behind her. As an audience member I would have loved to see her eyes and facial expressions at this point. I feel that this play was one that would benefit from more research and development in order to turn it into a longer play to tackle such complex issues.

The sixth performance was another monologue, written and performed by Pegeen Murphy, entitled ‘Dreams Of Our Daughters’. This piece gave us a simple, but highly effective stage design to represent the top deck of a bus. This was another well performed and well written short piece of theatre. Murphy shocked from the outset when she entered the stage in a school uniform, brandishing a baby bump; a powerful image that set the tone of the piece well.

And the final short piece of theatre in tonight’s production was by far the most elaborate and also the longest. This complex script was the only completely non-naturalistic piece of the night, and was a welcome change. Set on a train heading to an unknown destination, in which everything and everyone seems to be centred around our everyman, ‘Eddie’, but the audience are not told why. The play’s author, Noé Sébert, takes commonly known phrases and words and plays with them, therefore playing also with the audience. A great ensemble performance in this piece from Akkaya, Mcinerney, Coyne, Reynolds, Long and Nolan. However, special mention must go to Megan Mcinerney for her hyper realistic portrayal of a young, inquisitive girl. This piece in particular had plenty of scope to be lengthened and elaborated; I would enjoy seeing a full length production of this piece.

A wonderful evening of new writing with variety enough to entertain all theatre-goers, really revealing the diversity of ‘life up ‘ere’. It is a shame that the final performance has sold out, but I am sure Up ‘Ere Productions will return soon with a part three following such high demand

Reviewer - Megan Relph
on - 30/1/20

BALLET REVIEW: Swan Lake - The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton.

This evening’s performance of ‘Swan Lake’ by The Birmingham Royal Ballet, at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, although an immensely beautiful piece of art, lacked narrative drive allowing it to feel slightly dated. The plot was difficult to follow and hence, if you were not previously aware of the story, you may have been left no real moral or comment on society suggesting the themes of the original play are not as universal as previously considered. With this in mind, it still brought a traditional take on Swan Lake with an exquisite score by Tchaikovsky blended with a stunning chorus of ballet dancers.

Each set was immense, particularly over the central lake out of which arise the signets. Upstage were two oak tree structures joined by a central stone stairwell. Behind the steps hung hundreds of fragments of what looked like mirror. From below, white light was directed upwards creating a distinctive and constant ripple effect. This was utterly stunning and memorable and like nothing I’d ever see before. Adding to this, when the swans make their final entrance in Act IV the stage is filled with almost a metre depth of dry ice which, when the tabs rose, allowed the smoke to cascade off revealing fragile and elegant dancers, like swans appear through mist. This was iconic and merited an immediate applause!

Overall, the soloists were very impressive. The principal swan, Celine Gittens, gave a notably impressive interpretation; encompassing the bird like features completely, outstretching her neck and brushing her ‘feathers’. Hence, she became incredibly life-like. Her commitment was highly commendable and thus her portrayal of the swan was excellent. This was only complimented by her ballet, which was also excellent. She appeared almost weightless, as though she were literally flying like a bird. However, her costume, although traditional, was not as impressive as I had hoped. With a white tutu, embroidered with diamantes, and a single white headdress, she looked rather more like a ballerina pretending to be a swan than an actual swan. Although it was still a beautiful costume, I felt her strong characterisation deserved an equally matched costume. Nonetheless, her performance was still flawless.

The ensemble dancers unfortunately detracted from Gittens’ performance, as they intermittently lacked unison. This was shown in their timing as often one or two dancers slightly missed the beat. However, more noticeably each female dancer often held their legs at differing heights in arabesques which often ruined the tableaux effect and meant they lost their harmony. Saying this, the iconic swan quartet was impressive. Each dancer was slick, controlled and agile, keeping in perfect synchrony. The male dancers were also incredibly skilled particularly Prince Siegfried and Benno, played by Tyrone Singleton and Tzu-Chao Chou.

Together, each element of art fused together to create a thing of particular beauty. However, almost 3 hours of the same beauty with confusing and disjointed direction became tiresome. This was disappointing due to the mostly high quality of the visuals. For me, it suggested the style of theatre was too archaic and needed bringing forward like perhaps, Matthew Bourne has shown in his interesting interpretations. I also felt without getting a clear narrative, I was unable to form a true interpretation of the story and was hence left feeling underwhelmed. For me, theatre should not just be about the visual representation, but the message, the comment on society, or the inevitable tragedy. Since none of these themes were well communicated it simply did not meet me expectations of theatre. This is not to say it is not still an impressive art form and I’m sure many around me enjoyed it, it was just not my style.

Reviewer - Grace McNicholas
on - 29/1/20

Thursday, 30 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Optraken - The Peacock Theatre, London

As part of the highly acclaimed annual London International Mime Festival, the acrobatic collective Galactik Ensemble (all graduates of France’s famous national circus school at Rosny sous Bois) have brought their unique show ‘Optraken’ to London’s Peacock Theatre, following an extensive sell-out European tour.

This was by no means an ordinary acrobatic experience. Galactik themselves say “forget elegant tumbling and spangly tights - this is a battle in which every movement matters for survival!” And with the premise of 5 performers who are quite literally “pitting themselves against a hostile environment” (ie: the set!) the genre did indeed take on a very different meaning for its audience, who are taken on a journey that is both unexpected and precarious, to say the least.

We were immediately drawn in as the slow build up of lighting, eerie music and three imposing screens moving very slowly towards us giving a sci-fi feel to the proceedings. As the screens started to move in different directions, five suited personnel were revealed in various permutations - depending on the mood of the screens that by now had taken on a life of their own - ultimately darting around to reveal a dead-pan police station-style line-up; both funny and sinister in equal measure.

What took place over the next 50 minutes was our five characters / acrobats quite literally dodging every aspect of their performance space, as it shockingly (and hilariously) turned against them in every conceivable way possible. Starting with one performer shaking dozens of live fire crackers out of his hair... with a distinct whiff of sulphur in the air, all five skimmed across the floor. One had his clothes ripped off whilst hanging off a screen to avoid the onslaught of deluge. Missiles started falling from the sky - plastic bags of nasty dusty plaster-type substance with the odd bouquet of flowers or a feather, to ‘placate’ the unsuspecting victims - prior to an ‘Amsterdam New Year - style’ multiple fire-cracker explosion. This culminated in a performer being quite literally ‘swept’ into the gobsmacked audience by one of the ominous dalek-esque screens.

We were reminded of a more familiar environment as motifs of everyday life - a framed picture, desk, chair and potted palm tree - descended from the sky to create an office environment, perhaps….which of course completely eluded everyone who tried to inhabit it.

And the carnage hadn’t even begun yet…

‘Optraken’ is a spectacular, tense, unexpected and very funny audience experience for anyone lucky enough to see this show. The five acrobatic performers were brilliantly engaging with precision movement, control and timing. We empathised with their predicaments and marvelled at their ability to combat the increasing danger thrown at their very existence. As they attempted to dodge these bullets (this tangible representation of our increasingly fractured world was not lost on us ) they ingeniously and daringly made both the space and the experience of both performers and audience, one of compelling originality.

This is an exceptional example of the extraordinary power of non-spoken communication to create experiences and meaning that (as this performance testified) will have justifiably infinite appeal.

Reviewer - Georgina elliott
on - 29/1/20

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Buddy - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Buddy is a jukebox musical which pays tribute to the young superstar that was Buddy Holly. This evening at Salford's Lowry Theatre, this feel-good and toe-bopping show was celebrating its 30th birthday, and the programme lists with photos all the actors who have potrayed this iconic innovator, whose life - along with those of Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper - was tragically cut short in a plane crash, over the 30-year history of this show.

Not just Holly, but this musical too was something of an innovator, being one of the first, if not the first, true jukebox musical to make it big on the West End and pave the way for countless others to follow suit over the decades, making 'jukebox musical' a new genre of theatre.

For those that know anything at all about the life of Buddy Holly then this musical will not reveal anything new or surprising, in fact the story only scratches the surface and is very quick to move on at quite a pace, placing far more emphasis on his music and the performing of it than telling his story. For those who have never heard of Buddy Holly - and I guess there must be some - then this musical will prove an excellent introduction to him, his music and his legacy.

The cast are all multi-talented actor / musicians and many of them multi-role. This is especially evident in the very Brechtian approach to the character of the narrator of the story, Harry Boyd, who we see first portraying High-Pockets Duncan, the DJ on the Texas radio station to first broadcast Holly and The Crickets' country music: yes, that's right, he started out as a country music group.  As Boyd changes his costume in front of us, and with minimal vocal or physical change, he then becomes other people influential in the rise of Holly. It's an odd idea, as he is the only character who uses this very Brechtian technique, and all other characters change costumes in the wings unseen, and enter as completely morphed characters. In this regard all the other characters, despite being to a greater or lesser extent caricatures, are still more rounded and believable than Boyd, who presents a monodimensional OTT caricature every time.

Buddy Holly this evening was played by AJ Jenks, and although he didn't perhaps capture the exact vocal timbres of Holly, he was hugely watchable and gave a high-spirited and creditable performance singing an array of Holly hits to the delight of the elderly boppers going down memory lane in the audience. Joshua Barton and Ben Pryor portrayed The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens respectively; and both gave very authentic renditions of their alter egos' style and music.

Sadly the one thing that let the show down this evening was aspects technical. First, the set was, even by mid-scale touring show standards, minimalist and pretty rough around the edges. The blue and white patterened flats had definitely seen better days, and using the same desk for three different recording studios was stretching things a little. Unless of course the Brechtian idea was carried through into the set design too, but once we got to the Clearwater set of act 2, then Brecht had been forgotten. Second were the microphones. For some reason the mics were set at strange and different levels this evening, and we had feedback and crackle too at the start. The music was much too loud in comparison with the dialogue: this is a Musical, not a rock concert!; and I don't think Buddy Holly's head mic was even turned on at the beginning. Very messy.  Sadly, a few of the ligthing cues were also off this evening, and at least one spot was late.

Director Matt Salisbury had tried to inject some corny comedy in to the show, which wasn't met with anything other than apathy on the part of the audience this evening. I don't remember the comedy from the other times I have seen this show, and it didn't really seem to work in a biographic jukebox musical where we all know what happens is tragic not humorous. In act 1, Buddy's meteoric rise to fame is played in fast-forward (around 90 miles an hour!), and, turning the tables round completely,  the whole of the second act is devoted to his final concert in Clearwater, and we are the audience at that event. It doesn't feel like the same show, but rather two different productions joined by an interval.

A feel-good light-hearted look at an influential and immensely popular artist creating, not just a US-wide but worldwide interest in and love for a style of music that was to be known as 'Rock And Roll'. A small ensemble of multi-talented performers recreated the magic on stage, and you simply couldn't help getting swept up in the energy, enthusiasm and the catchy rhythms.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 28/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: Peter Pan Goes Wrong - The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.

Following the huge success of “The Play That Goes Wrong”, which opened in London’s Old Red Lion Theatre in 2012 - (which later went on to win the 2015 Olivier Award for best New Comedy); Mischief Theatre Productions are currently touring with the equally funny follow-up “Peter Pan Goes Wrong”.

Originally opening in 2013, the second instalment from Mischief writers Henry Lewis, Johnathan Sayer and Henry Shields is equally as side-splittingly funny as their first production and starts long before the curtain goes up with various cast members getting the audience involved with hilarious tasks. Once the curtains open, we meet the Director of the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, Chris Bean, and Assistant Director, Robert, who announce that after their previous underfunded production of “Jack And The Bean” they are pleased to have received a large cash injection to present their production of the J.M.Barrie classic Peter Pan. Of course, as with the (fictional) Drama Societies reputation they ruin it through amateurism and personal rivalries!

Soon with a sprinkle of fairy dust, the audience is transported to the Darling children’s bedroom where we meet the three Darling children - Wendy (Drama Society member “Sandra”), Michael (“Max”) and John (“Dennis”). Sandra (as Wendy) is clearly an over-performer, from the moment she enters the stage to the very end, Katy Daghorn is hilarious as the overbearing, over-the-top Amateur Dramatics' member (every AmDram groups has a “Sandra”!), whilst “Dennis” in the role of John (Roymayne Andrews) is the total opposite - wearing industrial type brightly coloured headphones, Dennis relies heavily on the Drama Society’s stage crew feeding him his lines from backstage - directly into his ear - which he then repeats back literally every word that is heard from backstage - in a hilarious monotone voice - with zero facial expressions or emotion put into his character. But you can’t help but love “Dennis” for this - constantly hanging onto the edge of your seat to hear what is next to come from his lips!

There’s very few remaining members of the Drama Society, meaning each “member” has to take on several roles - this just adds to the humour - especially with member Annie (Phoebe Ellabani) who has to quickly change costume several times from Mrs Darling to Lisa the Housemaid to Tiger Lily. “Robert” (Oliver Senton), is equally a joy to watch in each of his roles - from Nana the Dog, to Peter's Shadow to Starkey in Neverland, with each role leaving you laughing so hard the show should come with a health warning! “Trevor” - the Drama Society’s tech guy - is also a hoot to watch - especially when he has to step in to play Peter and we get to see a different side to Trevor!

It’s rare that lighting within a production can add to the humour and work so well, but there’s several scenes where lighting plays a huge part to the roars of laughter from the audience - my favourite part being under the sea - watch out for the octopus!

Whilst the production is filled with slapstick humour, it all feels very fresh, so well rehearsed that at times you think for a moment that a mishap wasn’t part of the plan - I laughed so hard tears ran down my face!

I saw The Play That Goes Wrong when it was at The Duchess Theatre in London in 2014 during a time when I was in and out of hospital and feeling incredibly low but I laughed harder than I had done in decades, leaving the theatre almost like a different person and feeling like I could suddenly deal with the challenges I was facing at that time - proving that laughter sometimes really is the best medicine! The production stayed in my mind for months afterwards, so in 2016 I was grateful for the televised adaptation of the follow-on production- Peter Pan Goes Wrong, having been unable to catch it first time round, so this 2019/2020 tour was exactly what I needed to keep me focused to get to the end of January. The perfect post Christmas cure!

Playing at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 1st February - there is no better remedy for the post seasonal blues!

Reviewer - Charlotte Davis-Browne
on - 28/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: The Woman In Black - The Playhouse, Liverpool.

Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman In Black’ played at The Liverpool Playhouse this evening and boy did it do a wonderful job! 25 minutes in, I had my thumbs in my ears and my eyes were poking through my fingers as I was absolutely terrified as to what may or may not happen next. As ghost stories go, I have always found this one rather intriguing; with its two person cast and intricate lighting, the hold the play has upon its audience is electric.

When I entered The Playhouse, I gazed upon the bare staging, the large wicker basket and oak furniture left hardly anything to the imagination, the grey flooring and old pieces of cloth allowed the audience to wonder where the play may begin, someone’s attic perhaps or an old abandoned warehouse. It is only when the character of the Actor appears (Daniel Easton), and he begins to critisise Arthur Kipps', (Robert Goodale), performance that we realise we are in an empty theatre trying to retell some kind of a story. Goodale is beautifully playing the character Kipps who remarkably cannot act as he’s a solicitor, not an actor, whilst Easton plays the actor who is ready and willing to retell this story. From the start it is clear both characters have a connection, although it is the relationship from both performers that confirms this bond.

Both men switched extraordinarily between the tranquility of the empty theatre and the eerie ghost story being retold, this was complimented wholeheartedly by the lighting and slight head nods of recognition between the tech box and the actors. The Woman In Black has one of the most beautifully lit performances I’ve probably ever watched and that was all down to Kevin Sleep. The lighting designer was able to provide a modern contrast between the sepia colours of the ghost story and the brightly lit empty theatre; the warm orange tones created a sense of safety in an almost unnerving tale. The use of red spot upon Easton's face while he spoke a somewhat mundane speech created tension and built anticipation, each audience member feeling it as they were sitting waiting for a foreseeable scare. I believe it was the simplest of lighting elements that created the most impact, the scariest part for myself was when the character of the Actor picked up his torch and began to look around the house, the intensity of my imagination was running wild and I was absolutely petrified all because of a small light. Absolutely fantastic job from Sleep.

Lighting states were not the only element used to transfix the audience into the time period that was the Edwardian era, Sebastian Frost’s sound design manipulated the audience’s senses into visually seeing what wasn’t always there. My favourite moments came from when the actors were miming a sequences on stage that was gently partnered with a sound effect or audio section. The most pleasing moments for me were when the pony and trap were heard as the actors travelled along. The miming of the transport partnered with the audio of the cart allowed myself as an audience member to buy-into the imaginary state that was the ghost story, it also completely paralysed me when I heard the blood curdling scream of the Woman. My mind was completely immersed with both visual and audio elements.

The character of Arthur Kipps was wonderfully played by Robert Goodale, from the moment Goodale stepped onto the stage I absolutely love him and his multiple characters. I found I was completely perplexed by the differences in each of his characters and I found myself buying-into them and their stories more and more. As Goodale began his performances as a ‘terrible actor’ I found this rather a measure of his natural talent. I believe that it is really difficult to pretend to be a bad actor when you’re trained in the profession yourself however Goodale's acting left me wanting more throughout the whole play. Each moment I was gripped on every word that came from his mouth, as the play drew to a close my heart broke for the character's loss and this was all because Goodale had allowed me to buy-into his performance as the older Arthur Kipps. Younger Arthur Kipps or as the play refers to him ‘The Actor' was played by the incredible Daniel Easton. Easton was everything I’d want and more as the Actor, with his carefree whit and bourgeois tendencies, his retelling of the naïve solicitor gone to clear an old woman’s estate provided the audience with an escapism like no other. Easton worked precisely alongside Goodale matching his tenacity and strong form; the minimal props and accurate miming allowed both men to showcase their acting abilities and this was delightful. I found I couldn’t take my eyes off Easton and I bought-into every step, gesture or smirk he performed.

Finally, acknowledgement must go to the director that worked on this creation, Robin Herford and assistant director Anthony Eden. As a whole, The Woman In Black did as it set out to do, it created an atmosphere that had it audience gripped with anticipation and wondering what was going to happen next or who was truly watching them. Some elements I would change due to wanting more mystery surrounding the Woman herself however I completely understand as to why they incorporated some of the more revealing elements into the performance. The mime sequences throughout, the deep character connections and the fact it’s only a two man show resonated significantly with me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Reviewer - Caroline Bleakley
on - 27/1/20

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Holocaust Brunch - The Central Library, Manchester.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Manchester Jewish Museum had imported from London a special one-night-only performance of dark comedy “Holocaust Brunch.” Tonight’s performance took place in the Performance Space at Manchester Central Library, on Holocaust Memorial Day.

As we entered the space, we were personally greeted by the show’s writer and performer Tamara Micner, who was standing in front of a long buffet table laden with plates of bagels and cream cheese. These were heavily pressed onto the audience members – as indeed, glasses of vodka and orange juice were later on – because no Jewish event can be held where the guests go hungry. Even a Holocaust event. Once we were dropping crumbs on ourselves, she positioned herself in front of another long buffet table set with an arrangement of catering supplies, and began her friendly chat. She was the hostess; this was her brunch; she was warm and charming and Canadian; and, as we were all friends now, there were a few things she wanted to get off her chest.

Micner had grown up in Canada to a Jewish family who followed every new book, film and conference about the Holocaust in obsessive detail: even running the local education society for it. From childhood onwards, Micner actively resisted the Holocaust, and as she was a modern young woman in a peaceful part of the world, and the historical events were becoming more and more remote in time, it was possible to disconnect from the whole affair. There was some entertaining shtick about her crazy family, such as her father sitting in shiva for a year over a dead pet cat, and she later on made the point that Jews are only permitted to speak loudly when they are either a) performing comedy or b) getting you a divorce deal in court.

The tone changed. She introduced two people from the past: Isaak and Bluma. They had been the elderly grandparents of a schoolfriend of hers, and before they passed away, Isaak wrote a lengthy and unpublished memoir, and Bluma recorded a seven-hour vocal history. In 1939, they had been in their late teens in Soviet-occupied Poland. Most of the show was Micner quietly telling the stories of two ordinary young people in extraordinary circumstances – and because it was very different to the “Schindler’s List” aspect of the Holocaust that we’re most familiar with, involving escaping to the Soviet Union, moving around Europe in post-war peacetime, and finally emigrating to Canada for a long and successful life together, it’s not a story that’s in the public consciousness. The descendants of the Holocaust survivors are dealing with this legacy, and aspects of it are somewhat misunderstood.

Regularly interrupting the quiet and thoughtful tone of the Isaak and Bluma story would be loud clashing music coming over the sound system, courtesy of Dinah Mullen’s eclectically klezmer sound design, and Micner turning into a manic gameshow host. These discordant snatches were on the theme: “Top Ten Things Non-Jewish People Say To Jews About The Holocaust.” Micner had comments printed on cards, which she handed out to audience members, and she also gave them directions on how to read them out loud: generally in the tones of a person who thought themselves cultured, educated, and insightful. (Being a theatre critic, naturally I was given one……) Her response was to then dance on the ongoing ignorance that is spoken about the Holocaust to this day. Antisemitism, and its rise in recent years, was also lightly touched on.

Throughout the performance, Micner had been knotting together short lengths of ribbon. By the end she had made a complete circle. It was laid on the floor, and she commented on history joining people together – but also, should history just be let go? This reviewer will just quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana – philosopher), and wander off.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore

on - 27/1/20

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: We Will Rock You - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

The creative and imaginative potential of Queen’s music and lyrics means it was only a matter of time before “We Will Rock You” would come into theatrical fruition.

Originally, it premiered in 2002 at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End. Since then over 16 million theatre fans have seen this jukebox musical, comprised of Queen’s 24 biggest hits, in 19 counties. Now it was time for Manchester (a city thoroughly associated with music) to experience the uber-visual and concert-like production of “We Will Rock You”.

It has just struck me now that the poster and programme look more like the end of the show rather than most of the show designed in the future. The book was written by Ben Elton about a futuristic and space-age comedy which doesn’t take itself too seriously. A similar approach, “Rock of Ages” adopted in some respects.

In a “Star Wars” inspired opening, we were told we were still on Earth but not as we know it – it was called the iPlanet. Rock and Roll, the very concept the musical attempted to dissect, had died a dismal death in a world where life was lived online. The planet’s inhabitants moved, talked and behaved as one; uniformed with no sense of individuality. They had been uploaded to the technological cloud listening to manufactured, money-making pop with complete absence of heart and soul, which Rock and Roll once possessed. Clearly, the script has been updated a number of times since 2002 to make it more relevant. It is certainly an indication of where our real world could be heading if we’re not careful.

This dystopian and uncreative world was enforced by Dictator, Killer Queen who would do everything she could to keep everybody working as slaves to the system to benefit her and accumulation of wealth and power. Gaga University was part of her plan to indoctrinate the next generation to bow down to power and submit to the system. The musical had an abundance of musical and film references which will probably make up quite a proportion of the word count for this review.

All was not lost on this planet, there was a talk of a Dreamer whose destiny was to work with the Bohemians (The Resistance) to re-discover and re-introduce Rock and Roll to the masses once more. Could the Dreamer be Galileo Figaro? He met Scaramouche, she was also different to the rest like he was. They became the best of friends. Can they work together to overthrow the tyrannical and authoritarian ruling of Killer Queen? Watching this was like going to the IMAX Cinema with its powerful sound turned way up high in the sky and its ultra-visual display.

Galileo was portrayed by Ian McIntosh as a creative and “out of the box” type of character with a strong moral compass and heart. Throw in a subtle sense of arrogance and immaturity too but nevertheless a character which wins over the crowd. At least Gaz had Scaramouche (Elena Skye) to tell him off for been intermittingly egotistical. She was headstrong, independent but went through a transformational journey of learning to love herself more and be confident. McIntosh’s voice and character didn’t imitate Freddie Mercury, he was doing his own thing, but you could tell Mercury played a role and influence. In fact, the grittiness to McIntosh’s singing voice resembled Mercury and it possessed the same amount of power. Skye’s singing voice, likewise, was stratospheric. Her riffs and runs and occasional soft singing just showed how versatile she was. Jenny O’Leary’s voice was insane too. It was out of this world how low she could go and how high she could sing. All of my praise can be extended to the whole ensemble who really set the bench mark for high-quality and resourceful singing. As the show didn’t take itself seriously, the characterisation was more exaggerated and played with stereotypes like, the lovers, the villain and the sidekick.

Directed by Cornelius Baltus, the messages of not becoming a sheep, staying true to you and doing what is right shone through like the starry spectacle this was. Relationships were explored well, especially the youthful, playful, and bickering rapport between Scaramouche and Galileo as seen in “Hammer To Fall”. The choreography was robotic, synchronised, and appropriately a little underwhelming when Killer Queen was around. However, once we went underground to see the Bohemian’s grass root movement take shape, the dancing was looser, freeing and packed a punch.

Design teams had clearly worked closely together to bring this entertaining and outlandish vision and plot premise to life. I just wrote down a bunch of TV shows, musicals, music videos, and films, the designs of which reminded me of how this production looks and feels. I scribbled down: “The Matrix”, “Daft Punk”, “Doctor Who”, “Rock of Ages”, “Bat Out of Hell”, “Wall-E”, “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “The Tribe”, and “Battlestar Gallatica”. So, if you happen to like any of those you’ll appreciate the costumes and set. Rob Sinclair and Douglas Green’s lighting work established locations and atmosphere within the story, it regularly switched from being theatrical to concert-like – enhancing the rhythm of Queen’s music.

I say it doesn’t take itself seriously but the show was serious in saying: “Rock and Roll is whatever you want it to be”. It’s open to interpretation and they made the argument that Queen inspired the “Rock and Roll” in others. You can see that to be fair. The story did search for meaning and truth in its quest to find authentically composed music and written lyrics. It payed tribute to those in the music industry who died young which was moving. The whole thing was an intergalactic adventure of feel-good escapism which embodied the spirit and pizazz of Queen. A celebration of the creative process, individuality, and the transformative power of music.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 27/1/20

Monday, 27 January 2020

INTERVIEW: Comedian Simon Brodkin chats about his life and career

The original Chav Cockney Geezer comedian - aka Lee Nelson - has grown-up, and is now touring his own show, under his own name, Simon Brodkin. Find out more and why here......

You would think that nothing would scare comedian Simon Brodkin any more. This is the man who threw golf balls with swastikas printed on them onto the grass in front of Donald Trump. This is the man who sneaked into the Tory Party conference and handed Prime Minister Theresa May a redundancy notice mid-speech which said on it “from Boris.”

Yet there is something that he reveals scared him more than doing all of his audacious stunts: “Try telling your Jewish mother you're giving up being a doctor to become a clown!”

And now Brodkin is doing something even scarier than that. After 13 years as a character comedian he is now standing onstage and being himself rather than pretending to be his most famous comic creation, cheeky geezer Lee Nelson. “It felt that now it's right that I want to say what I really think. I felt ready for it. I think part of that in the past was not feeling completely comfortable in my own skin. Like most men, I'm not really comfortable about opening up."

His hilarious new show is called 100% Simon Brodkin, but initially before premiering the show at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it garnered excellent reviews, he toyed with a different title. “I thought of calling the show ‘Debut’ because that’s how it feels. It was like learning a whole new set of performance skills.”

He can't wait to see what his audience is like on his first national tour as himself. "Some people know me for the original Lee. Some know me for the stunts. Some know me for maybe doing Lee on Live at the Apollo. Some know me for the Lee with the suit, and they might think that's actually me. I don't know how many people know Simon Brodkin."

In his show he talks entertainingly about his real life. He discusses growing up in north London and being a rubbish dad who, he confesses, lets his wife do all the work bringing up their two children. He also chats about his brief medical career. Maybe not all of it is 100% true here: "I remember a guy who fell into a canal and nearly drowned, but I put him in a bowl of rice.” He touches on anti-semitism, masculinity and spills the beans on being the "stunt dude" who pranked the future American President.

Looking back on those headline antics he seems to like to terrify himself. “The scarier it is, the funnier it is – in hindsight,” he laughs. He can smile about the Donald Trump incident now but at the time his fear was that Trump’s security might get their hands on him. Luckily the Scottish police dealt with the matter instead. “They drove me to Glasgow airport, gave me a flight back to London and told Donald Trump they had deported me.” 

He has few regrets about those gatecrashing tricks. Not even the one which predicted Theresa May’s demise and her subsequent successor. “You wouldn't be doing stunts on those people if you felt bad about it. You don't think, 'The poor Donald Trump and the leader of Britain.' I think if you do feel sorry for someone for doing it, you've picked the wrong person."

Brodkin says that the person that he is now onstage in jeans and T-shirt, talking about being a hapless husband and always playing the fool is very much the genuine article. “I’m not a serious person and everything I do is knockabout, whether it's with mates or with family. My wife did really visit America and I did kind of go, as I say onstage, that the week she was away I realised that behind my back for the last nine years, that she'd being doing all the childcare.”

He has always been a joker. But it did not occur to him that he could pretend to be other people professionally for a long time. "I originally wanted to be a vet. That's my big regret. I wish I was still saving squirrels now!" He opted instead for treating humans. “Then I saw Sacha Baron Cohen doing Ali G on television. "I thought to myself, I do that when there are no cameras about. I was the bloke who wound everyone up.”

It was through winding everyone up that he met his wife. “We would all be going out and drinking far too much and being silly and I would pretend to be other people. The night I met my wife I think I was Spanish pretty much the whole night. She thought I was from Barcelona and I had to reveal I was English the next day.”

As for his parents, who used to be solicitors, he admits that maybe he was not being 100% truthful when he says he was scared about telling his mother about his career change. They weren’t actually too upset. Maybe they weren't even that surprised. Perhaps he gets his sense of humour from his father. “The truth is they were fine about it. My dad's super chilled. I could have told my dad I'm giving up everything and going and living a solitary life in Borneo and he would have been like, 'Cool'.

And as for Lee Nelson, maybe we haven't seen the last of him. “He's currently spending time in a youth offenders institute and depending on good behaviour he may or may not get out sooner rather than later,” suggests Brodkin. “I haven't killed him because I love playing him. Maybe I’ll do the Lee Nelson Farewell Tour. Then two years later, the Lee Nelson Farewell Properly Tour. And then the Lee Nelson, I Forgot to Say a Proper Goodbye Tour.”

We may not have seen the last of Brodkin’s stunts either. “There's always more to be done and there's always fun to be had doing that, but this new show is taking up the time at the moment.” He still sounds as if he has one eye on the ever-shifting political landscape though: “If there's the opportunity, of course…”

Simon Brodkin's tour starts at the Lowry, Salford on February 2 and finishes at the Derngate, Northampton on April 25. Tickets here:

Interview by Bruce Desau

FILM REVIEW: Beautiful Than You - a short film by Shearman Bird on Youtube.

Shearman Bird Productions is a Liverpool-based company, and here, in the 6.5 minute short film, writer Steve Bird, aims to broaden awareness of a type of 'unseen' bullying which many youngsters are being subjected to, and might well go undetected and untreated.

The statistics for young people experiencing verbal and / or physical abuse is constantly on the rise and makes for a shocking figure, and all too often these issues are multi-faceted and so the victim feels trapped and has no way out. Therefore being able to spot the signs early on is vital.

This film aims to help in this regard. It is startling simplistic in its approach, and yet the film benefits from this. We see a teenage girl at home and at school, struggling to cope with the snide remarks, the laughter, the jeers and the basic cyber-attacking by her own peers and schoolfriends. Perhaps they are doing it innocently, not realising the harmful effects that their posting of photos / memes / comments about her are having on her; or maybe its malicious, we don't know, and it really doesn't matter. She is struggling, backed into a corner, and almost takes the 'easy' way out.

Rather than dialogue however, the girl - played by Grace Abela-Collins - is the only person in the film (save for three friends who we see fleetingly on the beach as the credits roll), and so her inner monologue is delivered as poetic voice-over. I'm not sure the poetry works, it sounds too formal, rehearsed and safe given the subject matter, but the voice-over idea does work well. Another nice touch was to use only one single piece of music throughout; Pachelbel's 'Canon in D Major' which is both a very familiar tune, but also has moments of darkness which nicely mirror the mood of the narrative.

Thoughtfully filmed, the film deliberately doesn't show you any of the bullying, but instead focuses on the victim's state of mind. The film has a positive and happy end (almost too happy and convenient), which again is obviously a deliberate ploy; but we need to be aware that many cases do not end happily but instead can and do lead to very tragic scenarios.

There is one moment in the film where the action is interrupted by a full-screen caption which states: "If the words you spoke appeared on your skin, would you still be beautiful?" Again this seems to jar somewhat with the rest of the cinematography, and doesn't really seem to be the main point the film is trying to make, and so I was a little unsure of what to make of this. However the message is clear... beauty is only skin deep, and bullying people for how they look or dress is still abuse and is both hurtful and damaging.

The film is on Youtube and can be watched for free by following this link:

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/1/20

Sunday, 26 January 2020

MUSIC REVIEW: Junior RNCM Brass Band - The RNCM, Manchester.

As part of a weekend-long festival of Brass Bands hosted by Manchester's Royal Northern College Of Music, the RNCM's own brass bands were also given the opportunity to perform; and this afternoon it was the turn of the Junior RNCM Brass Band to show us what they are made of! The Junior RNCM is a group of youths aged between 8 - 18 who have weekly professional tuiton with RNCM tutors to aid their development and hopefully give them a positive taster of what studying there full time would be like.

This 30-minute concert showcased four short pieces, ably demonstrating the band's versatility, repertoire, and indeed talent. Starting with James Curnow's 'Blenheim Flourishes', the band proved their ability and agility straight away. A fanfare of a piece, which is, by design, made to sound easy and simple, but behind are some rather technically difficult workings, and the band coped with ease. Under the direction of RNCM tutor and conductor Jon Malaxetxebarria, the sound they created was unified, balanced and perfectly pitched, sounding highly professional.

A curiosity piece followed this; Dan Price's 'Fantasy On London Nursery Rhymes', which took five famous nursery rhymes associated with London and connected them to five famous London landmarks and made a very playful piece, reminiscent of similar works such as Eric Fenby's delightful mickey-take of both Rossini and 'On Ilkey Moor Bah't 'At'.  My eyes were drawn during this piece to a young girl percussionist who coped adroitly dashing from xylophone to glockenspiel to bass drum and back again.

The third piece was a beautifully languid and melodic piece using lovely thick harmonies, sounding very much like a National song or hymn. This was 'A Time For Us' by Danish composer Jakob Vilhelm Larsen. The piece called for an octect of players performing separately from the main band, as they had solos and duets etc throughout the piece whilst the main body of the band provided the harmonic structure and added counter-melody. A hauntingly beautiful melody played with skill, passion and understanding.

The final piece was a showpiece and a complete change of pace and style. Matthew Hall's 'Nightingale Dances' is a short work which takes the song, 'A Nighingale Sang In Berkeley Square' and takes it on a musical journey from an envisaged 'Manhattan Transfer' interpretation, through a passo-doble, to a raucous, vivacious and flamboyant Hollywood Showdown! A superb way to finish their concert. Hugely enjoyable and played with precision and elan.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/1/20

MUSIC REVIEW: The Brighouse And Rastrick Band - The RNCM, Manchester.

As part of a weekend-long festival celebrating brass instruments with specific reference to brass bands at The Royal Northern College Of Music in Manchester, several of the country's more well-known and renowned brass bands performed short concerts. One such band was Yorkshire's own Brighouse And Rastrick Band.

As a personal aside I had been wanting the chance of hearing this famous band play now for quite some time, but for one reason or another had never been able to, at least not since two of my relatives left the band! Yes, many years ago the Hewitt brothers were a part of this celebrated band, and I haven't seen them play live since they left!

However, back to this afternoon. The concert was 80 minutes' long played without interval, and the four considerable pieces they chose to play were pieces that one would not typically associate with a brass band, and were much more technically demanding than your standard Oompah marching fayre. In fact, they were symphonic pieces of classical music, played with the absence of strings and woodwind.

As the band walked onto the stage you knew instinctively that they were going to be rather special. Their poise, their demeanour, and an air of confident professionalism swept through the auditorium. Introduced by a lady from the RNCM, giving a little insight and background into each piece as they went along, this was one of the most organised (dare I use the word regimented?), interesting and informative concerts I have seen in a very long time. Furthermore, all of this was before any of the band had even blown a single note!

And of course they did not disappoint at all. Every single member of this band could easily have been a soloist, and yet they worked superbly together as an ensemble, and the sheer quality of the sound they produced was incredible. Once you lose both wood and string instruments from an ensemble, the whole timbre of the soundscape changes considerably, and although one is used to hearing such sounds in military processions etc, it took me a while before I understood fully that this was not a full symphony orchestra, and it was just brass with percussion, such was the skill in their playing making rather loud, brash and often quite rudimentary instruments so melifluous and melodious.

Conducted by a hugely watchable and passionate Russell Gray, the first piece they played was a modern tone poem, all about a day in the life of one of England's last surviving preserved wetlands, Wicken Fen. Composed by Christopher Gunning, this was a hugely evocative and lyrical piece of writing which did indeed take the listener on a journey. Melodic and dramatic, stirring and harmonic, Gunning had written a contemporary piece of true Romantic proportion, and it was a pure delight.

Following this, RNCM tutor and member of The Fine Arts Brass Ensemble, tuba player Leslie Neish took to the stage to perform the solo in John Golland's Tuba Concerto. the version played this afternoon was the premiere performance in a new arraangement for brass band by Paul Hindmarsh.  The tuba isn't necessarily an instrument one would immediately associate with concertos, and it was the first time in my life - as far as I can recall - ever having heard a tuba concerto. What Neish couldn't do with his tuba wasn''t worth knowing. I have never heard this rather cumbersome and ungainly-looking instrument sound so light and playful. From the first movement's lively, jagged and crashing rhythms and time signatures, through the second movement's sedate and melodic gradual crescendo of harmony - [I loved the middle section's call and response between marimba and tuba], through to the third and final movement's jolly hornpipe. A contemporary piece which flirts with harmonic experimentation, but remains tuneful and melodic.

The third piece this afternoon was also a premiere performance of this brass band version. Paul McGhee hales from Corby in Northamptonshire, and his brass band arrangement of his own composition, 'From Koris By' is a short evocational 'landscape' of that town from it's beginnings as an 8th century Viking settelement [a settlement under the leadership of Kori, and the word 'by' being Danish for 'village' or 'town'] through the town's industrial history to the present day and a hope for the town's future. The piece could be described as a series of short musical vignettes strung together to tell a story. Starting with a sliding trombone, to a denouement of loud and frenetic marching bringing it to a rather surprising end.

The band ended their concert on what can only be descibed as a witty showpiece. Philip Wilby's 'Lowry Sketchbook' is a work in three short movements which take inspiration from and pay deference to Salford's greatest fine artist, L S Lowry. The first movement is a cityscape, and one can clearly hear the people hurrying about their business (glockenspiel), whilst the fuller chordal structures of the brass played smoke-filled factory-style harmonies to give the painting the depth and character. One could almsot see iconic works such as 'Coming From The Mill' or 'Going To Work' as the band played. The second movement turned to Lowry's portrait painting and in particular a rather famous and enigmatic work titled, 'The Man With Red Eyes'. A slow, almost hymn-like melody with lush harmonies. The final movement, Peel Park's Bandstand, was their piece-de-resistamce however, a jaunty, bright triple-tonguing fanfare to end this wonderful concert with a flourish! Bravo!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/1/20 

Saturday, 25 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Tales - The New Adelphi Theatre, Salford.

The next show I watched at University of Salford's TaPP festival was "Tales". Five stories from Arabian Nights. Created and devised by these students: Nicole Alderson, Razwana Ali, Emily-Rose Bates, Cameron Bentley-Jones, Dale Blackburn, Yasmin Boujibar, Lauren Bridge, Chloe Buckley, Charlotte Dale, Liam Dodd, Brooke Hill, and Jade Williams.

From October to present, they have been exploring new techniques and ways to devise theatre with Director, Chris Hallam. The result was an adaptation of "Tales From The Thousand And One Nights". Featuring stories which have been passed on for generations and centuries originating from India, Iran, and Arabia. The goal was not to recreate these stories with historical accuracy. These tales were modern day interpretations featuring the most random playlist of music tracks I've possibly ever heard. The performance was all the funnier for it.

The thrust stage set-up made it feel like we were sat around a camp fire about to be told stories of adventure; about the happy and darker aspects of life. It also meant the ensemble could get creative with their entrances and exits. The whole performance was dynamic with an abundance of youthful energy. The stories told included: "The Tale of Abu Hassan", "The Young Women and Her Lovers", "The Dream", and "The Street Entertainer". Each tale and section borrowed from a different style of theatre, whether it be the playful exploration of the audience and performer relationship or the use of light and shadow. The light and shadow sequence was choreographed smoothly and quickly with tiny satisfying details like the love heart prop motif.

All of the performers have clearly put effort into devising this performance and it's great to see them enjoying themsleves. The differences in performance style: being melodramatic, calm and present as themselves, exaggerated, high energy or low energy was well judged and considered by most of the ensemble. Some of the cast did appear to be over-the-top occasionally when it wasn't appropriate to be, though. The audience participation in one story, mostly led by Dale, was rushed, loud and over bearing at times. She also kept saying to one audience member: "Why do you look so nervous?" Which just made things more nerve-wracking. As mentioned earlier however, it was their collective energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humour which made this a good show.

Grace Moran's colourful LED lighting was powered by the liveliness of the cast and reinforced the narrator/action play structure. There was no set, but there was a Pandora's Box of props to bring the stories to life, so to speak. Although, the unfolded table standing in as this bar counter looked substandard. On the other hand, the slow motion throwing of confetti was a visual highlight.

I think the transitions between the ending of one tale and the start of another was repetitive, I didn't feel like we had learned enough about the two "bookworm" women searching through the various novels to bring to life. As a result, the performance felt like a series of fragmented stories rather than something which is a complete whole. It was still good and enjoyable don't get me wrong. It was a funny and modern reworking of timeless stories of the past.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 24/1/20

Friday, 24 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Woyzeck - Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool.

Woyzeck is currently being performed at Hope Street Theatre, which is an ideal venue for the play. Produced by Old Fruit Jar Productions, Alex Carr directed Woyzeck with a great flair and enthusiasm for the play. He has done an excellent job bringing his vision of Woyzeck on the stage. His direction was tightly controlled and his passion for the play was clearly demonstrated.

Woyzeck was initially written by Georg Büchner in 1936, but unfortunately he passed away a year later. Therefore his work was incomplete and posthumously finished by various authors, editors and translators over time. The version of Woyzeck performed this evening was a retelling by Jack Thorne. The dialogue between the characters was very strong and told a great story about a deeply troubled soldier, Woyzeck, who was experiencing major difficulties in his family and work environment.

The main running theme in Woyzeck was mental health issues, which demonstrated the severe effects they have on Frank’s family and work life, when they both collide. Woyzeck did a fantastic job exploring the depths and damage that mental health issues can cause to someone’s life. Other themes covered were relationships, depression, conflict, friction, betrayal, trust, oppression, poverty, class, war trauma and hardship struggles.

Jordan Barkley played the principal lead of Frank Woyzeck in the play. His performance as the deeply troubled soldier was extremely raw, emotional and powerful to watch. His stage presence shone in Woyzeck and as the play progressed, his performance became much more harrowing to watch. He added so much depth to the character of Woyzeck and created a sense of vulnerability and naivety about him.

Jordan Barkley was supported by a great cast of actors including Florence King (Marie), Anthony Roberts (Andrews), Rachel McGrath (Maggie), Christine Rose (Mother), Josh Ennis (Captain Thompson) and Jamie Peacock (Doctor Martens). The acting of all the cast members was of a good standard and all actors played their characters really well, by added more layers to their characters.

Special mention to Florence King as she played Woyzeck’s girlfriend, Marie brilliantly. She was doing her best to help and support her boyfriend through his problems, whilst looking after their newborn baby at the same time. She kept attempting to reassure Woyzeck that they will get through their problems. The chemistry and dynamics of Jordan and Florence was really good.

The narractive of Woyzeck revolved around an extremely deeply troubled soldier, Frank Woyzeck, who had experienced some harrowing trauma in the past. Woyzeck was set in 1981 Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Woyzeck was living with his girlfriend, Marie and their newborn baby, in a grotty, rundown flat above a butcher’s ship. He was clearly struggling financially and was doing menial jobs for a Captain for additional income. However, this wasn’t proving to be sufficient for him. Woyzeck heard about Doctor Marten’s medical experiments and went ahead to visit the Doctor. Desperately wanting the money for the medical trials, Woyzeck has the examination and signed the contract without reading it properly. Woyzeck’s mental health started to break down and he experienced apocalyptic visions. Woyzeck’s fate was played out in a series of nightmare encounters. He stumbled through a world of macabre carnivals, sexual betrayal and cruel oppression. He was subsequently pursued by paranoid fantasies of his mother. After taking part in the medical trials, Woyzeck was experiencing severe side effects, which were having a devastating effect on his family and work life, which led him on a collision course to self destruction.

The set was very minimal, but effective. The backdrop depicted the surroundings of Woyzeck’s grotty flat well. The guns looked authentic and realistic. The costumes fitted the 1980’s era and the army uniforms looked really good. The lighting contrasted the moods of the scenes extremely well. The scene transitions flowed really well. The narractive of the story was told at a good, steady pace throughout the play.

In summary, Woyzeck told the story of a deeply troubled soldier in an extremely harrowing and emotional way. Woyzeck did an excellent job highlighting the effects that mental health issues can have on a person’s life and the daily struggles they face in their family and work lives. There was a good amount of tension, which heightened as the story progressed. The play had everything you would expect such as drama, anguish, conflict, tension, friction, action. I would highly recommend you go and see this excellent play.

Reviewer - Mark Cooper
on - 23/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: Extraodinary Wall [Of Silence] - The Hippodrome, Birmingham

Whilst Deaf people have been on the wrong end of the misunderstanding and prejudice of the hearing community for most of history, it was in 1880 at the Milan Conference on the Education of the Deaf that the ideology of Oralism was crystallised. Deaf people, the Conference declared, were defective and needed to be “fixed”. Sign language was considered an uncivilised, almost subhuman form of communication and was not to be encouraged.

In Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence], Ad Infinitum’s cast of four – David Ellington, Matthew Gurney, Moira Anne McAuslan and Deborah Pugh – use spoken English, British Sign Language (BSL) and contemporary dance to take us inside the lived experience of real deaf people. The three stories they tell, interspersed with insights into the historical oppression of deaf people from the time of Christ up to the Nazi era, are distilled from years of research and interviews. They are narratives woven from many stories with common threads of the fear and ignorance of hearing society and the unchallenged doctrine of Oralism in education leading to isolation, underachievement and unhappiness, yet they are told entirely without self-pity and even, at some points, with humour.

Alan was born into a hearing family; his mother loved him but his strict religious father regarded the birth of a deaf child as a punishment for some unknown sin. With no language, Alan was subjected to cruelty at home and bullying and sexual abuse at school. This persisted into his teenage years, when he would run away from home, and into an adulthood which he entered unequipped with the communication skills necessary to flourish in a hearing-centred world.

Graham’s parents were both deaf; he was born into a home where sign language was the natural means of communication, but once in a school where Oralism prescribed lengthy and ever-more dispiriting sessions with the speech therapist he began to struggle. As with Alan his frustrations were taken for ill-discipline which often resulted in him being beaten. In the workplace no allowances were made for his deafness and he became the butt of colleagues’ cruel “jokes”. His sanctuary is the Deaf Club where everyone signs and shares in deaf culture, and after an attempt at suicide, it is the Deaf Club which is key to his rehabilitation.

The story of Helen might seem at first to be the most hopeful. Her hearing parents have her fitted with cochlear implants at an early age in the belief that this will “restore what she had lost”. In fact the result is two decades in a living nightmare for Helen as the meaningless noises in her head gradually drive her out of her mind. After a breakdown, she has the hated implants removed, embraces her deaf identity and learns, with some difficulty at first, to sign.

This is a bilingual performance and the BSL element undoubtedly added layers of nuance which I with almost zero command of that language could not grasp, and indeed one of the revelations of Graham’s story is that he ultimately comes to see the hearing world as being disadvantaged as it is unable to access deaf culture. Looking round before the performance started I’d guess 50% of the audience were using sign language though how many are bilingual was impossible to tell.

The third language used is the universal one of physical storytelling through dance, and many of the most harrowing scenes in the stories are told in this way with no spoken or signed words. Thus we see the brutality Alan receives at the hands of his father, Graham’s attempted suicide and Anna’s surgery (enacted with a watermelon and a set of power tools to reinforce its unpleasantness) without commentary but with the background of Sam Halmarack’s insistent and unsettling soundtrack with its repeated low-frequency beat that can be felt as well as heard.

Extraordinary Wall [Of Silence] demands much of the four performers and it packs a lot into just 80 minutes. It is a compelling work, profound and moving, and whilst two of the stories end happily, it finishes with one final challenge. Genetic editing therapy is beginning to offer the chance to rewrite DNA to change the one “letter” of code which causes deafness. Will this mean an end to deaf culture? If you were to become the parent of a deaf baby, what choice would you make for the child?

Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 23/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: My Night With Reg - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Written in 1994 by Kevin Elyot, this thought-provoking and witty play debuted at the Royal Court’s Theatre, before transferring to the West End and New York. The play was later adapted into a film, released in 1996. It is no wonder that this play was so well received, and why co-founders of the Green Carnation Company, Dan Ellis and Dan Jarvis, carefully selected this production to tour with in 2020.

Set in the mid-1980s, ‘My Night With Reg’ tells the story of six gay friends, all in some way linked to the notorious Reg. The audience never meets this mysterious man, despite the play being named after him and all of the characters having varying relationships with him. Set in Guy’s flat (played by Simon Hallman) over different time frames, we are rewarded with both the humour and nostalgic splendour of 1980's London (largely thanks to designer George Johnson-Leigh and set construction from George Lewis), and also the poignant and tragic devastation of the AIDS crisis.

With a cast of six brilliant performers, this production really did feel like an ensemble piece. Their relationships between one another felt genuine and deep rooted. Simon Hallman’s portrayal of Guy as a shy, kind, giving character was beautifully innocent and really allowed the audience to connect with his character from the onset. Alan Lewis played the youngest character, Eric, who begins the play as the outcast of the group, only there to paint Guy’s flat. Being the younger character, Eric brings a fresh perspective on the world for the other characters, and was as enthralling to the audience as he was to the other five characters on stage. John, played by Nicholas Anscombe had a rather still and commanding nature, rarely breaking to reveal his true feelings. David Gregan-Jones played Daniel with a genuine humour and charisma, bringing much of the comic relief within the play. Gregan-Jones seemed completely embedded within his character, appearing not to act at all and giving a wonderful performance, taking his audience with him on his emotional journey. His flamboyant and positive attitude displayed at most times really brought the play to life. Bickering couple Bernie (played by Marc Geoffrey) and Benny (played by Steve Connolly) had a great relationship (or lack, thereof). Their clashing of characters and ideals created a tension on stage that was fascinating to watch. It must be said that all performers were wonderful as their respective characters, and the casting here must really be applauded.

Despite there being a total cast of six, there were rarely more than two or three characters on the stage at any one time. In spite of this, the actors commanded the stage well and held the audience’s attention, all 440 of them. This must have been no easy feat as, at times, the movement was very still for long periods. A brave choice from directors Ellis and Jarvis, as well as the play’s movement consultant, Jennifer Kay. However, as it occurred during the play’s more sorrowful moments, the stillness worked well in conveying this.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre, even with such a long second act (Act 1 was 35 minutes and Act 2 was 75 minutes). However, the length of each act didn’t bother me in the slightest, I did not once go to look at the time. The energy carried through the production by the performers played a huge part in that, as did the wonderful script itself. Is it no wonder that this play had so many runs from its release in the mid-1990s, and is still transferring so well on stage in 2020.

Reviewer - Megan Relph
on - 23/1/20

THEATRE REVIEW: Oreo - HOME,. Manchester.

An Oreo is commonly known as a type of yummy chocolate biscuit. However, in tonight’s Contemporary Performance, part of Push 2020 Festival, it meant something very different. To paraphrase the programme: snacks like “Bounty Bar”, “Coconut”, or “Oreo” are racial micro-aggressions, sadly used by individuals who desire to disempower a black person who is considered to be “acting white”.

Devised and performed by Tania Camara, she used many Oreos and painted herself with Oreo-filling to explore the experiences of episodic racism within universities and the world of work. Camara challenged the notion of whitening her physical and inner self hoping to be successful in a climate of systemic racism. What do acts of racism do to a person? Whether they are wearing their public or private masks? Speeches could be heard from public figures like Dianne Abbot, the British MP and Joacine Katar Moreira, a politician from Portugal. Camara aimed to embody those public figures, playing on the “acting white” performance rule.

We never got to hear Camara speak about this topic, which was powerful in itself. Calling back to those horrific experiences where she felt silenced, belittled, and made speechless. Camara tried to speak into the microphone but it was a visible and audible struggle. This was a semi-autobiographical solo performance which after the traumas of the past asks you to drop the mask, show who you are, and not be afraid to be present and be seen.

The majority of costumes, food and props were black and white. It was a visual reminder of how on a day to day basis, black women feel the need to protect themselves to endure divided and antagonistic times. Camara’s costume in the improvised dancing finale, featuring her and fifty percent of the audience which got up on stage, was reflective of her culture and identity. This was emancipation and liberation from prejudice and hate in the safe space of the theatre and the arts. A beautiful moment shared with the audience and the performer.

I loved the Performance Art element which, typically of this style, broke down her actions and movement within the space to its slowest and simplest form. It was this component part of the production which presented the deteriorating impact hate speech has on someone. We witnessed the uncomfortable continuous manic laughter bordering on crying, how it’s difficult to put one foot in front of the other and keep living life, the unbearable and inwardly shaking stillness, as Camara lay down on the floor.

There was so much silence in this. I feel this device is often taken for granted. It was so effective as it drew your attention to every little detail and action on stage, combine that with the slow performance of symbolic movement and the result was captivating and thought provoking. Camara could have taken the approach to use words and speak about this topic but it was a far more powerful and clever to let the theatrical imagery and her presence in the space speak for itself.

Only some practical faults, excluding the historic footage, some of the projected film clips were not that high quality. In one interview, you could not see the full translated subtitles. Also, the beautifully messy Performance Art scene mid-way through could have been done more upstage. Then, for the dancing scene at the end there would have been more space for the audience and it would have been less of a slipping hazard.

The questionnaire on the back of the programme asked to summarise “Oreo” in three words so here is my summary: “Food for thought”.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 23/1/20

BALLET REVIEW: Swan Lake - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

This evening I was at Manchester's beautiful Palace Theatre to see Moscow City Ballet - a permanent touring company of dancers coming mainly from Russia and former Soviet countries, and regular visitors to Manchester. It was my first experience of the company though this evening.

Swan Lake is one of the Top 5 most famous and performed ballets worldwide, and with good reason. There are plenty of solo dances and several diffeent characters, as well as a truly Romantic storyline blending fantasy with could-be reality, as well as it being a love story. Further, the music is written by the Romantic era's premier ballet composer, Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky. There is everything in this ballet: drama, suspense, evil, love, romance.... it's Classical Ballet's equivalent of a pantomime in many ways. And the storyline is simple, but not facile.

With ballet, since there is no dialogue, it is imperative that the dancers are able to convey not just the story and their character, but also the emotions of their character as they go on their journey through the performance. Perhaps it is a fault of the artform in general, or perhaps more specifically with the articstic direction in this company (Lyudmila Nerubaschenko), but I was not being taken on their journey with them this evening and the standard of the acting (miming gestures) in general was awkward and wooden. Undoubtedly, the company boats some very talented dancers, but if one is unable to emote with them, and all you are doing is watching them dance without seemingly putting any feeling or passion behind the dance, the whole does tend to become a little bland. Lilya Orekhova performed Odette - the beautiful swan and daughter of the evil Von Rothbart who is transformed into a young lady - with poise and precision, and her balletic skills were undeniable. However in her pas-de-deuxs with Prince Siegfried (Mikhailo Tkachuk) it was almost painful to watch since there was absolutely no chemistry between these two, and yet they were supposed to be madly and deeply in love. Tkachuk's performance this evening was bland in the extreme sadly, looking quite distracted at times. Three dancers however did impress, and impress me greatly. Sanzar Omurbaev played the role of the Jester with comedic attention to detail, a wry grin on his face, and brought out unseen comedy in the role. Not only that his balletic skills were superb. Extremely engaging and hugely watchable. Prince Siegfried's best friend is the strangely named Benno, and in this production it was performed by a young Nureyev lookalike, Dzimitry Lazovik. His agility and precision in his act one solos were supebly executed and again was a highly engaging and passionate performer. I would have liked to have seen much more of him throughout the ballet. Siegrfried also has two girl friends who have a lot of dancing to do in the first act. These were Aisalkan Suiumbaeva and Kseniya Basnet. Both were very talented dancers, but for me Basnet had the edge. Again a dancer who was able to break down that invisible fourth wall and reach out to our emotions and sympathies.

The Corps were also extremely good, and with a very traditional style choreography, they made some superb pictures. We were also treated to the now iconic dance routine of four swans and their 'Dance Of The Little Swans'. which is always a favourite. One thing I did notice however was a little sloppiness in the corps's precision this evening. Legs and arms not always moving at the same time and not to the same level, which was a shame. Praise where praise is due though, and one thing I do applaud is that the Moscow City Ballet seems to allow their corps to feature dancers who have non-traditional / classical ballet dancers figures. I say this with all sincerity since we are now in 2020, and it should be an artform open to all. The choreography was all undeniably excellently comceived by the combined Russian talents of Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, Agrippina Vaganova, Yuri Grigorovitch and Natalia Ryzhenko - all of whom are very big names in the world of ballet choreography, and all deserve recognition here.

The company used back-cloths and little else to change each scene [the wing flats remained constant throughout]and the set was sufficient, obviously kept that way for ease of touring. Their lighting design was also minimal to say the least. There were a few instances where there was a sudden lighting change for seemingly no apparent reason, and a couple of instances where spots or areas should have been lit and the operators were late on cues. However all of the costumes were both traditional and sumptuously beautiful, with attention to detail.

In the pit this evening was the Moscow City Ballet Orchestra, a 40-piece ensemble that tours with the ballet. Under the direction of Igor Shavruk, there were some rather obvious bum notes sadly. These came primarily from the brass section, especially noticeable when the brass had either a solo moment or were given the melody. Most unfortunate. However, the biggest faux-pas musically for me was using a keyboard to electronically synthesise the harp. The harp plays a pivotal solo role in Tchaikovsky's score and to hear these notes being played by someone pressing down keys alters the sound and timbre, and also doesn't really fit with the rest of the orchestra who are playing their correct instruments. Again this was such a huge pity.

Verdict: A very mixed bag of a production. Some amazingly talented soloists with great stage presence with imaginative and traditional choreographies combined with much which was sadly not to the same standard at all.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 23/1/20