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Sep 10th

She Stoops to Conquer

By Kirstie Niland

The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

9th September

Northern Broadsides’ novel twist on She Stoops to Conquer opens with a noisy explosion of animal print and spectacular ginger wigs – and it’s non-stop fun from there.

This is a period comedy of manners with a contemporary twist. The excellently cast characters capture the 18th century humour perfectly, whilst clad in elaborate costumes of canary yellow and shocking pink.

And best of all, it’s been relocated to the North.

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West Country accents are therefore redundant, making way for a bold and brash Mrs Hardcastle, whose portrayal by Gilly Tompkins has echoes of a Northern Barbara Windsor; and a fantastically bawdy Miss Neville played by Lauryn Redding. Then there’s Miss Hardcastle and the surprise Scouse accent she adapts to the audience’s delight when she stoops to conquer the shy Charles Marlow.

This classic romantic romp involves a rich countryman, Hardcastle, who wants his daughter Kate to marry his friend’s son, Charles Marlow; and Hardcastle's second wife who wants her son, Tony Lumpkin, to marry her niece, Constance Neville, in order to hang on to the family jewels. The problem is that Miss Neville has her sights set on Marlow’s friend, Hastings; and Marlow is too timid to woo Miss Kate Hardcastle. Meanwhile Tony Lumpkin and his mother are intent on stopping the course of true love run smoothly.

Director Conrad Nelson has done Oliver Goldsmith proud, with his talented ensemble of actor-musicians keeping us on our toes throughout. Scenes are punctuated with bursts of beautifully harmonised song accompanied by the piano, flute, violin and even a kazoo; and countless comedy interludes, including a simply hilarious pas de deux involving skipping and stags heads.

Jon Trenchard is a fabulously camp Tony Lumpkin in giraffe print with a pink cravat, and his costume and character blends beautifully with those of his flamboyant mother.

Hannah Edwards is plucky and forthright as Miss Hardcastle; and Guy Lewis as Hastings alongside Oliver Gomm as Marlow are both over the top and credible as the young men about town who are duped into thinking the Hardcastles’ home is a country inn.

Oliver Gomm’s twitching, awkward movements when faced with Miss Hardcastle make you cringe in all the right places, as does his jaunty gait when he thinks she is just a lowly barmaid.

Lauryn Redding and Jon Trenchard are a brilliant double act as the “kissing cousins”, with both of them inducing peals of laughter with a mere facial expression or movement.

The cleverly designed stage set creates a warm and inviting backdrop, with props, pillars and hidden doors providing some inventive opportunities for the cast to skip and flit around. The set changes are carried out by servants, and entrances and exits are slick, with cast members gliding on to the left as others glide off to the right.

Northern Broadsides’ first class production of mischief, mayhem and misunderstandings gains momentum brilliantly as it reaches its climax with an amusing bottle-wielding eruption from Howard Chadwick as Mr Hardcastle, a wailing, spread-eagled Mrs Hardcastle, and Marlow’s bewildered reaction to the big reveal:

 “Oh, the devil.”

Contrary to Mrs Hardcastle’s grumpy complaint that this was “but the whining end of a modern novel,” the grand musical finale is a spectacle in itself, with an extra loud round of applause for scene stealer Alan McMahon as the crossing dressing man servant.

However every single member of the cast deserves praise for this superb performance.

Long live love and romance. And Northern Broadsides.

She Stoops To Conquer (recommended for aged 12 plus) tours until December 13th, and is at The Dukes until September 13th. Tickets, £8-£18.50, are available from the box office on 01524 598500, or from www.dukes-lancaster.org

 
 

Aug 21st

BLAM!

By Kirstie Niland

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool

20th August

Three suits in an office supervised by their boss, no script, and 75 minutes to go. Death by post-it note? Absolutely! And it couldn’t be more exciting.

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It’s been described as “Die Hard meets The Office” and has received the stamp of approval by Ricky Gervais himself. And my 12-year-old son.

“One of the greatest, most exciting and brilliant shows I have ever seen,” said Ricky.

“Fantastic! Never seen anything like it. Couldn’t take my eyes away from the stage,” said Cameron.

Before Blackpool, BLAM! has wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Festival and London’s Peacock Theatre, and the Grand Theatre was chosen to host the only UK dates for 2014.

This ingenious action adventure stage show stars a group of wage slaves who invent a game called BLAM! to transform a dreary existence chained to their desks into movie mayhem.

In short, just what you’d expect if you confined four bored but imaginative and acrobatic man-boys to an office and left them unsupervised. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Rambo and a Wolverine with pencil blades, battling it out over post-it note poker, shoot-outs with coat stands and a car chase on office chairs.

Oh, and a cute love interest in the form of a water cooler made leggy with desktop lamps.

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Mix that up with trapezing from the fluorescent ceiling lights, a spot of ballet with Miss Water Cooler, her disastrous demise after the heroes fight over her, and valiant attempts to revive her on the operating (office trolley) table, and you have it all. Comedy, pathos, tragedy and a final musical crescendo and dance routine to Highway to Hell.

Just your typical day at the office really.

BLAM!’s incredibly agile actors keep the audience riveted through wordless slapstick scenes reminiscent of comedy legends such as the Pink Panther’s Cato and Clouseau, and Basil Fawlty.

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Office plant hats off to Kristján Ingimarsson, the creator of this breathtaking, breakneck explosion of jaw-dropping physical feats.

If you need a break from office politics, get yourself down to the Grand Theatre and find out how to get BLAMMING! Your working day will never be the same again.

BLAM! runs until 31st August. Tickets on www.blamblackpool.co.uk, or from the Grand Centre Box Office on 01253 743338.

Aug 21st

MAMMA MIA!

By Kirstie Niland
Blackpool Opera House

MAMMA MIA! How can I resist you when the Blackpool show has broken box office history. After seeing this five-star performance at the Opera House it’s clear to see why it remains packed well into its 12-week run.

Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sara Poyzer & Sue Devaney in MAMMA MIA! International Tour, credit Brinkhoff & M+Âgenburg.jpg

Having watched the movie several times it took a few minutes to adjust to the cast. It’s a bit like seeing the film before the book, it spoils you for the real thing. After all, how can anyone beat such a stellar line-up including Meryl Streep and Colin Firth?

Well...by forming a cast so packed full of charisma and talent that you forget the big names and get carried away by their magic – enough to have you on your feet, dancing and singing along with a standing ovation at the end.

Blackpool’s Opera House is the only venue to host the international tour of the West End production of MAMMA MIA! this year, and took £2million in ticket sales in the first six weeks alone, making it Blackpool’s highest ever grossing show.

The feel good family tale set on a Greek island features a simple set which is seamlessly changed by the cast themselves, so that the story flows without interruption.

The most spectacular moments are: the Voulez Vous scene, where Sophie’s three fathers announce they will give her away as she swirls into confusion under disco lights; and the high action flipper sequence where the groom’s friends carry the boy band-esque Sky (Bart Edwards) away to Lay All Your Love on Me. And if like me you’ve seen the film first, then deleted movie scenes Under Attack and The Name of the Game are a welcome surprise.

Understudy Jasmin Colangelo is sweet as Sophie, and Sara Poyzer powerfully eclipses Meryl Streep as Donna. Ex Corrie star Richard Standing is superb as Sam, and anyone wondering at the heightened chemistry between him and his Say I Do bride should know they celebrated their real life wedding anniversary one night this summer after their on-stage marriage!

The cast as a whole create huge chemistry together, and a special shout-out must go to homegrown talent and West End Billy Elliot star Ashley Luke Lloyd who is an entertaining and high energy Eddie.

My favourite stars of the show were Donna and the Dynamos. Sara (Donna), Sue Devaney (Rose), and Geraldine Fitzgerald (Tanya) are excellently cast as friends for life. Chiquitita, Does Your Mother Know and Take a Chance on Me are hilarious and excellently choreographed, and Sara’s performance of The Winner Takes it All and Slipping Through My Fingers are mesmerising and full of emotion.

Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sara Poyzer & Sue Devaney in MAMMA MIA! International Tour 2, credit Brinkhoff & M+Âgenburg.jpg

Of course no production of Mamma Mia would be complete without the comedy finale of Waterloo. The three male leads, Sam, Bill Austin and Harry Headbanger, do Abba, Blackpool and Funny Girls proud, strutting their stuff to perfection.

So on behalf of UK Theatre Network I say: MAMMA MIA and the Opera House...Thank you for the Music.

The International Tour of MAMMA MIA! is playing at the Winter Gardens Opera House, Blackpool, until September 14. Take a Chance on me and see it. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Tickets, priced from £20, are available from Blackpool Opera House and VisitBlackpool Tourist Information Centre, 01253 478222, or by calling Ticketmaster 0844 847 2517.

Jul 24th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester

By Caroline May
Away from Home

Away From Home

Performer and co-writer Rob Ward is quite clear about his reasons for writing this play: “As a gay man and a passionate football supporter, I have struggled for many years to make the two aspects of my life fit comfortably given the homophobia endemic in football culture and the fact that there are no openly gay players for gay fans to look up to.” 

In this one-man tour-de-force he plays Kyle, a young, gay football fan who, while being open with his family and friends about his sexuality, has told no one about his work as a male escort. 

Kyle becomes involved with one of his clients, a top football player who has just signed to a local team.  The burdens of secrecy and conflicted feelings as a devoted fan (Kyle supports the city’s other club), as well as pressure from his estranged family, lead Kyle on a spiral of self-destruction.

Away from Home is far grittier than Jonathan Harvey’s iconic gay play Beautiful Thing - the characters are much less likable, not least Kyle and his visceral (and to me incomprehensible) feelings about the beautiful game.  Written with the hugely experienced Martin Jameson (who also directs), the script pulls no punches with its graphic descriptions of gay sex, drunken violence and interminable match commentaries.

Rob Ward brilliantly ventriloquises a veritable cavalcade of characters, although I thought making Kyle a male escort distracted from the issue of homophobia - even the most liberal-minded parent might have raised an eyebrow at that.  I even had a sneaking feeling that his football playing lover might have had a more moving story to tell.  However the packed audience were hugely enthusiastic, delivering a standing ovation as the house lights dimmed.


Night on the Field of Waterloo

Night on the Field of Waterloo

This play does what it says on the tin: two soldiers’ wives, just widowed in Wellington’s great victory, are stranded on the dark and muddy battlefield among the dead and the dying and wondering what to do with the rest of their lives.

Thomas Bloor’s characters are a chalk-and-cheese partnership - Del and Rodney Trotter in empire-line frocks.  Nel is an unsentimental hustler who is out for what she can get, while Tosh is slower on the uptake but with a bigger heart.

As a lover of costume drama I really warmed to the way that the writer abandoned the potentially static, if realistic, nature of his setting and headed straight for out-and-out melodrama with the introduction of a runaway English heiress, pregnant by her French lover, being pursued by her psychotic brother through the corpse-strewn setting.

Holly Fishman Crook is given the opportunity to show Nel is not merely one-dimensional during her poignant scene with a dying soldier (affecting Eddie Capli), while Louise Bloor as Tosh has a real gift for comedy in addition to her lovely singing voice.


Blunted

Blunted

Alice Brockway’s drama (in which she also stars) is about Tess, a musician suffering from severe depression following the murder of her husband, Mike.  Life has lost all meaning as it seems probable that Mike’s attackers are the deprived local kids whom Tess was trying to help with music lessons.  Now Tess is attempting to reconcile her bleeding-heart-liberal side with an instinctive hatred for her husband’s killers, and the struggle has stifled her artistic muse.

The play raises important questions about the value of life, middle-class guilt, the point of art, the role of friendship, dependent relationships and moving on from grief.  This is a huge amount of content, and by the end of the character’s journey I felt as if I’d watched a five-part Channel 4 drama in one sitting.

Thankfully Blunted isn’t remorselessly dark and depressing, and Alice Brockway’s bantering dialogue shows that buried beneath Tess’s miserable exterior there remains the witty, fun-loving woman she used to be.  Her artist friend Evie (a manic pixie dream girl whose soul has apparently been possessed by the devil) is outrageously portrayed by Lowri Vivian, while Andrew Fillis gives a solidly convincing performance as the reliable, reasonable Glen.


Temper

Temper

Richard O’Neill’s claustrophobic three-hander set in an Oldham council flat shows the unlikely and ultimately disintegrating relationship between a young art-school graduate (Calum) and a local older woman (Debs).  Having set up a classic “ticking time-bomb” dramatic device in the opening scene, the writer constantly disrupts the tense situation with interruptions from Calum’s garrulous neighbour, Mick, and the noises off from a warring couple upstairs.

There is some excellent acting in this piece.  Jane Leadbetter is glamorous and grounded as the deceived Debs, and Andrew Madden is extremely sympathetic as the fish-out-of-water Calum.  Taran Knight steals every scene he is in as the dippy Mick, with his set of adjustable spanners and instant catchphrases.  Richard O’Neill vividly captures the poetry of everyday speech with Mick’s hilarious dialogue.

Although the graphically spelled out message at the end of the play doesn’t seem justified by what has actually been seen on stage, Temper is worth enjoying for its strong ensemble of actors.


Daylight Robbery


Daylight Robbery

Manchester, 1888: newly promoted inspector of detectives, Jerome Caminada, is up to his eyes in trouble.  As well as having to deal with a series of robberies, there is the unidentified corpse wearing somebody else’s clothes which has been fished out of the river; militant suffragettes are giving him a hard time over meat paste sandwiches; he’s been receiving bad reviews in the Manchester Guardian; and now his boss is expecting results fast.

Narrated from start to finish by the lead character, Marcus McMillan’s Caminada has a no-nonsense yet twinkly delivery not unlike the avuncular Shaw Taylor presenting Police 5.  It felt good to be in a safe pair of hands.  Meanwhile six other actors were charged with bringing to life the diverse range of characters that inhabited Manchester during its industrial heyday, from the lowlife to the highlife and all points in between.

Daylight Robbery comes from the pen of Micheal Jacob, who has over twenty years’ experience of working in TV comedy.  Unsurprisingly then this is a very sound script: the rapidly changing scenes blend seamlessly, the dialogue has an authentic nineteenth-century ring about it, and the large cast of characters are expertly marshalled.  Francesca Waite is especially versatile and convincing in her trio of roles.  Joseph Caminada was a real detective in Victorian Manchester - could this play be the first of a series?

Until Friday

www.247theatrefestival.co.uk has all the show information including video trailers

Tickets
 

£8/£6 (conc): book online from the 247 website (or turn up at the venues)
 
Venues

24:7 Theatre FestivalNew Century House, Mayes Street entrance M60 4ES (200 metres from The Printworks, a stone’s throw from Victoria Station and Shudehill interchange)

Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks Arcade, 39 Oldham St M1 1JG

2022NQ, The Basement, 20 Dale St M1 1EZ
Jul 18th

Macbeth, Manchester International Festival

By Caroline May
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We’ve been waiting over ten years for Sir Kenneth Branagh to return to Shakespeare, and then when he does it’s for two weeks in a small converted church that barely holds a couple of hundred people.  No wonder tickets sold out 10 minutes after they went on sale.

His much anticipated Macbeth runs swiftly at two hours without an interval, which is as well given the cramped and unforgiving wooden benches the audience is squeezed onto - what with this and the Albert Hall, I think this year’s Manchester International Festival must have been sponsored by a team of physiotherapists who were looking for new patients.

On the plus side, the intimate venue and small-scale audience allow for close-ups of the action that could otherwise only be achieved on film - which is exactly how the production will been seen when it’s screened live this Saturday evening at cinemas across the country.

I’ve no doubt the screen will serve well Branagh’s entirely naturalistic performance as Macbeth, a blokey and likeable soldier whose world is turned upside down by a post-battle encounter with the trio of eerie Weird Sisters.  Clearly in absolute sexual thrall to his voluptuous wife (Alex Kingston), any passing doubts (during the very effectively staged “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech) are speedily overcome, and he proceeds to slaughter his way through the Scottish nobility with ruthless efficiency.  Playing against the rough Celtic setting and extreme situations, Branagh often delivers his lines conversationally and makes the words as fresh, modern and spontaneous as if Shakespeare were an exciting new writer whose script had been specially commissioned for MIF 2013.  (Although he hasn’t shaken my belief that Macbeth should be performed with Scottish accents.)

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Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford have (mercifully) presented the play as written and not tried to psycho-analyse away the supernatural elements.  There are witches, there are ghosts, there are frightening apparitions, and the characters experience genuine horror: this is all facilitated by a world-class technical team.  Neil Austin’s lighting is breathtaking at times, while a number of spectacular illusions by Paul Kieve make you believe you’re at a West End show, not in a found space in Manchester.

Christopher Oram’s design is the most special aspect of the production, working superbly with the austere and atmospheric church setting.  Choir stalls run lengthways along the interior and the action takes place on the mud-caked floor in the centre: you are literally a couple of feet away from the actors.  It sometimes feels like being in a small-scale jousting arena, not least during the battle scenes.

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For all its luxury casting (Ray Fearon as a passionate Macduff, John Shrapnel as a regal Duncan) nothing ever gets close to the visceral thrill of scene 2 when heavy rain suddenly bursts from the roof, and a pitched battle takes place so close that you’re splashed by mud and water and you feel the seating shudder as the actors crash against the stalls.  Terry King’s fighting direction makes this the most convincing, exciting and frightening stage fight I’ve ever known.  And while I’ve got my ticket for NT Live this Saturday, that is one experience which film won’t be able to replicate.

Until Saturday 20 July
www.mif.co.uk
Box Office: 0161 236 7110

The run is sold out but day seats are available from 12.30pm - tickets £65

Macbeth is being transmitted live in cinemas round the country on Saturday 20 June @ 8.30pm - for details visit http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
Jul 17th

The Machine, Manchester International Festival

By Caroline May
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Writer Matt Charman’s programme note apologises for the potential tedium of a play about chess.  In fact the game, while apparently the least promising of dramatic subjects, has a long history on the stage.  As far back as the 1620s Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess satirised the court of James I, while the Tim Rice musical Chess dealt with love reaching a stalemate during the Cold War.

Following World War II the chess board became a (thankfully nuclear-free) battlefield where Eastern Communism and Western Democracy vied for supremacy in increasingly high-profile matches.  However by the early Eighties the Soviet government found its world chess domination being threatened from within: their champion Anatoly Karpov was facing strong opposition from a young outsider called Garry Kasparov.

When Glasnost arrived later that decade Kasparov was already the best player on earth, but now there was a fresh challenger for his crown: the computer.  In 1997 Kasparov played IBM’s Deep Blue machine over a series of six games which were seen as a landmark in the history of artificial intelligence - a human brain pitted against an electronic brain across a chess board.

The Machine is a “fictional account inspired by true events”, so you’re never entirely sure what is fact and what is artistic licence.  The chronology flashes back and forwards: Kasparov’s journey from child prodigy to undisputed world champion is counter-pointed with the Deep Blue team’s metamorphosis from rooky computer science students to wily businessmen. 

Hadley Fraser is not only the spitting image of Garry Kasparov but exudes the charisma and passion that made Kasparov into an unlikely global hero.  His intense and fraught relationship with mother and mentor Clara (Francesca Annis) inevitably brings up parallels with Andy and Judy Murray.

However it is Deep Blue’s developer Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), a computer nerd obsessed with success at all costs, who is by far the most fascinating character.

Matt Charman was being disingenuous about his choice of subject matter, but it was always going to be difficult to translate intense mental conflict into staged action and to make chess accessible to a non-specialist audience.  However director Josie Rourke has mounted an Enron-style all-singing, all-dancing production which transforms the huge space of Campfield Market Hall into a four-sided arena focussed tightly on a central combat zone, like a brain-box version of Madison Square Gardens.  The Deep Blue/Kasparov contest has the razzmatazz of the Superbowl final, down to the cheesy anchorman and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.  TV cameras scud around the stage relaying close ups of the action to large screens suspended above the actors, while Jonathan Watkins choreographs chorus lines of chess boards and computer terminals, and turns the chess match into a stylised table-top dance.

The Machine

With strong storylines, fascinating characters and spectacular staging, The Machine has all the action and thrills that any keen sports fan would expect and any theatregoer could usually only dream of.

Until Sunday 31 July
www.mif.co.uk
Box Office: 0161 236 7110
Jul 16th

The Masque of Anarchy, Manchester International Festival

By Caroline May
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The Peterloo Massacre, which took place in Manchester on 16 August 1819, was an iconic moment in the history of the emerging industrial working class.  About 60,000 protestors had marched to St Peter’s Fields demanding electoral reform when their peaceful meeting was charged by sabre-wielding mounted troops, resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injured, among them women and children.

The radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was living in Italy at the time, but was so incensed by reports in the English newspapers that he immediately responded with his 91-stanza ballad The Masque of Anarchy.

The Manchester International Festival decided to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre with a staged performance of the poem by Bolton-born actress Maxine Peake (whose screen appearances range from Shameless to Silk, and Criminal Justice to Dinnerladies). 

The venue was on Peter Street – practically the very spot where those terrible events took place.  While the ground floor and basement of the 100-year-old Albert Hall were recently an Irish pub, the Methodist chapel upstairs has lain closed for over four decades.  The newly discovered space is large and impressive, with a huge horseshoe balcony opposite the derelict organ and speaking platform, and rows of arched windows down either side.

The excitement surrounding this show had been mounting over the last week, particularly after word spread following early performances, so that by 9.30 on a hot July evening there was a long, animated queue snaking up Peter Street.  Inside the chapel the exceptional weather, combined with a lack of ventilation or air conditioning, was bringing the expectant audience to a pitch of frenzy, augmented by Peter Rice’s eerie sound design.  The organ console was surrounded by banks of candles, and Chris Davey’s lighting was so subtle that at first I thought the illumination came entirely from the candles and the setting sun.

When I told my editor I was taking a cushion he thought I was joking.  In fact I saw Peter Sellars’ production of The Michaelangelo Sonnets at the same venue last week and was prepared for the cramped wooden benches in the gallery.  The Masque of Anarchy had a huge crowd promenading in the stalls area too.  The atmosphere was electric – if the organisers were trying to achieve a Sealed-Knot style re-enactment of the original Peterloo meeting (before the massacre) then they certainly achieved it.  After minutes of unexplained delay some of the more truculent ticket holders began a slow hand-clap, which seemed entirely in keeping with the spirit of the thing.

Maxine Peake

At last Maxine Peake came on carrying a candle and dressed in a plain white cotton dress.  She immediately began an angry declamation of Shelley’s opening stanzas.  The poem is a bitter satire on the government and its ministers, variously embodied as Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy and Anarchy, as they rampage over the land and destroy the working people, grinding them underfoot in the best tyrannical tradition.

When the poem moved into its second phase there was a thrilling transition.  From being stock still, the actress began to pace the stage and address herself directly to the “adoring multitude” as if she were the speaker at a political rally.  The conversational tone was daring and lent the words an immediacy that belied the poem’s regimented structure.  I heard people saying afterwards that they’d read the piece but never understood it before, and small wonder after such a restrained yet powerful performance.

Sarah Frankcom’s production was utterly simple yet had a huge emotional impact.  The continuing relevance of Shelley’s poem means that Peterloo is still remembered, and not just in Manchester.

www.mif.co.uk
Box Office: 0161 236 7110
Jul 8th

The Old Woman, Manchester International Festival

By Caroline May
After their 2011 collaboration at the Manchester International Festival on The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, renowned theatre director Robert Wilson and Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe are reunited for this adaptation of Russian absurdist novella The Old Woman.

The Old Woman

Daniil Kharms’s 1939 piece is set in a recognisably Depression-era cityscape: shabby suits, shared lodgings, bread queues and crowded pavements form the world of a struggling writer who is significantly inconvenienced when an old woman calls round and dies in his room.  Writers’ block and sausage-induced indigestion are as nothing compared with our hero’s struggle to dispose of a corpse which has an annoying tendency to become reanimated and pop up randomly around the flat.  It’s as if Joe Orton’s Loot had been rewritten by  George A Romero with designs by L S Lowry.

Darryl Pinckney’s adaptation divides Kharms’s first-person narrative randomly between two actors (Dafoe, and the legendary Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov), chops up and rearranges the story, skips back and forth in time, repeats episodes, retells some, omits others, and occasionally throws in (what I assume is) great gobbets of the original untranslated text.  I remember wondering what anyone who hadn’t read the story would make of it all.

Director Robert Wilson also designs and creates the lighting concept.  It’s a bit like watching a cartoon brought to life, as props resembling two-dimensional line-drawings are flown in and out of a luminescent blank space while the pan-faced actors in their black suits and wind-blown quiffs channel their inner clown.  Overall the look of the piece summons up not 1930s Russian but Mad Men-era America – all sharp silhouettes, jagged edges and jazz.  It reminded me of those Tom and Jerry remakes from the early 60s – and like them, somehow lacked warmth and sentiment.

Meanwhile I am going straight back to the galleries at The Lowry to examine the Salford artist’s paintings for any evidence of clocks without hands or people being beaten to death by cucumbers.

The Old Woman
is on until Sunday 7 July 2013
Box Office: 0844 375 2013
www.mif.co.uk
Sep 6th

Dirty Dating.Com – The Stockport Plaza Theatre

By Cameron Lowe

DirtyDating.Com Cast
Review by Lucy Hammond

Many millions of soap fans will be aware of Pauline Fleming’s talents as an actress through her roles as Val Walker in Brookside and Penny King in Coronation Street. Now theatre-goers are being introduced to her talents as a writer and producer, as her brand-new company, Pauline Fleming Productions, launches with the premiere of her very first play, Dirty Dating.Com.

 

Prompted to write the piece by her real-life experiences, Pauline shares the highs and lows of the dating game in the twenty-first century, as a group of girls take up speed-dating in an attempt to find Mr Right. But not all goes according to plan and the women seek their revenge as the story unfolds in this empowering and uplifting piece of feel-good theatre, which unashamedly celebrates ‘girl-power’.

 

It would be easy to dismiss this production as yet another example of a genre of theatre that has been done to death – the ‘girls-night-out’ show. After all, recent years have given us a plethora of raucous, man-bashing productions which do nothing more than reduce men’s contribution to society as mere sperm donors. From the top of my head come productions such as Women On The Verge Of HRT and Girls’ Night. However, examine the genre a little more closely and you’ll find that productions such as The Naked Truth, Mum’s The Word, Menopause: The Musical, Hot Flush! and, of course, Calendar Girls can manage to attract a predominantly female audience without alienating the men in the audience. Undoubtedly, Dirty Dating.Com belongs in the latter category, rather than the former.

Aside from Fleming’s writing, which demonstrates a flair for keen observation of the human condition and some wickedly witty one-liners, perhaps the success of this show owes much to its talented cast. The occasional monologues, which reveal more about the backgrounds of each of the women, are the perfect illustration of skilful writing and polished performances combined.

Okay so, at first, the characters seem a little stereotypical in their construction: there’s the larger-than-life, promiscuous barmaid; the cynical and studious mature student; the bottle-blonde bimbo, and the downtrodden housewife who has escaped a life of domestic abuse. Yet, scratch the surface and you see before you women who could just as easily be your best friend, your sister, your mother or your daughter.

Nicki French (who represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest) is a revelation in the role of Sarah. Displaying a genuine warmth and believability, she performs the part with an understated air of poignancy and quiet dignity. Her character contrasts beautifully with the bravado of big and bubbly barmaid, Vicky, played with unabashed gusto by Grace Bishop.

Similarly the characters of Tracy, the mature student who has given up on finding luck in love and Jackie, the eternal optimist who has almost allowed the man of her dreams to slip through her perfectly manicured fingers, offset each other brilliantly. Jo Mousley and Jess Schofield demonstrate great skill in their respective roles.

The men in the cast more than hold their own with Phil Hearne’s Henry, the homosexual publican, playing an integral part in the piece. It isn’t until fairly well into the story that Alan Stocks really gets the opportunity to shine as lonely but loveable Brian but when he does the stage belongs to him. And former Joseph Craig Chalmers really earns his star billing by performing as seven radically different characters, which is testament to his abilities as an actor.

Gregor Donnelly’s set, which is constant and for the most part depicts Henry’s Wine Bar, is basic but functional and costumes successfully reflect the styles and incomes of the characters. Sound and lighting also help convey the onstage action and changes of mood, though cues could be tightened in parts.

The programme notes reveal that ‘this 2012 mini tour is trialling the show and, indeed, the company’. Therefore, the reaction from the audience (which was disappointingly small, in my opinion) should assist in convincing Pauline Fleming that she has a future, not only, as an actress, but also, as a writer and producer.

Lucy Hammond.

Tour Dates:

4 - 8    September    Stockport Plaza       

12-14 September    Epstein Theatre, Liverpool (Old Neptune)

18-21  September    Lancaster Grand

28-29 September     Shrewsbury Theatre Severn

Apr 18th

Miss Julie at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
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Sweden’s Midsummer Eve celebrations appear to be a cross between Twelfth Night and a Bacchanalia; or they do in August Strindberg’s 1888 drama Miss Julie.  When his eponymous heroine, the recently un-affianced daughter of the house, gate-crashes the servants’ barn-dance and singles out the dashing and ambitious valet, Jean, tongues are bound to wag.  But things go too far, and during the course of a booze and lust-fuelled night the power dynamic between mistress and servant shifts irreversibly.

Strindberg’s psychotic exploration of the Upstairs/Downstairs scenario is intensely naturalistic - he wants the kitchen set to be just so, the play done straight through without an interval, and the acting to take no account of audience sightlines - you feel he would have loved Sarah Frankcom’s in-the round production.

Although there are telling cameos for Carla Henry as the complacent cook Christine, and Liam Gerrard as a lusty musician, the action is dominated by Joe Armstrong’s Jean and Maxine Peake’s Miss Julie.

With her fragile beauty and blonde hair, Maxine Peake could have been born to play Nordic heroines, and her Brief Encounter accent is even more evocative of a long-gone era than the sumptuous gowns designed by Max Jones.  Initially playful, bold and haughty, she descends into a mess of neuroticism and hysteria, clinging desperately to Jean in spite of his horrific humiliations.  The range of emotions she explores is enormous.

In the noble tradition of scheming literary servants, Joe Armstrong’s Jean is determined to rise in the world on the back of his employer.  Smart, charming, and wily enough to be ostentatiously obsequious at the outset, by the end his chillingly casual dispatch of Miss Julie’s innocent greenfinch foreshadows his ultimate crime.  Even so his vacillations between naked ambition and an ingrained sense of respect and service are utterly convincing.

Sarah Frankcom and her whole creative team have fashioned an intriguing and thought-provoking production of a painful and sometimes powerful classic drama.

MISS JULIE is on until Saturday 12 May 2012
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
www.royalexchange.co.uk