Share |
Apr 18th

Miss Julie at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

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
Apr 3rd

The Winslow Boy at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

Inspired by real events from just before the First World War, The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan examines what happens when a private individual stands up against the might of the British establishment.  As the struggle goes on with no prospect of success, the playwright shows how a whole family suffers for the cause, and questions whether that price is actually worth paying

Ronnie Winslow is a 13-year-old cadet who has been expelled from his naval college for stealing a postal order.  Ronnie maintains his innocence; his formidable father believes him and demands a further investigation.  But the naval college is ultimately under the control of the Admiralty, which considers that such a challenge would undermine its authority (especially with a war brewing) and is therefore reluctant to re-examine the case.

Political demonstrations, heated debates in the Houses of Parliament and tense cross-examinations in the High Court all form the backdrop to the Winslow case, yet Rattigan does his damnedest to keep any of this action off the stage, which can be very frustrating.  However David Thacker’s in-the-round production is warm, engaging and constantly interesting.

On press night the part of Ronnie was taken by Sam Ramsay, whose cheeky but cherubic looks suggested an alternative play, “Just William Goes to Court”.  His brother Dickie, a very unscholarly Oxford student, is played to absolute perfection by Iestyn Arwel: he looks like a portrait by John Singer Sargent and sounds like a character by PG Wodehouse, cheering up the play whenever he comes on.

Christopher Ravenscroft as the redoubtable father, Arthur Winslow, shows us a man whose body is frail but whose spirit remains strong – although benign on the surface he is cold enough to risk his older son’s career and his daughter’s marriage for the sake of a personal principle.  Georgina Strawson as his Suffragette daughter, Catherine, is more passionate and political, but endowed with a very feminine fragility.

Suzan Sylvester’s loving but unintellectual matriarch has a wonderful comic scene with Charlie Covell’s female reporter, whose trivial “Hello!” magazine questioning culminates in a ridiculous dialogue about the drawing-room curtains.  And Flaminia Cinque has some excellent moments as Violet, the badly-trained maid, whose crucial speech at the end goes all round the houses before the big reveal.

The star role of society barrister Sir Robert Morton is played with mock severity by Christopher Villiers.  Although called a “cold fish” by Catherine, and allowing for the occasional pompous moment, he is charming and amusing as well as kind and vulnerable, and I think this is one of the reasons why David Thacker’s production is so enjoyable.  On the page Rattigan’s characters are brittle, his dialogue is terse, and there’s a huge “So what?” factor hanging over the whole play because the main dramatic events are never seen, only reported.  But because the cast make their characters so real and interesting and engaging it is a pleasure to spend an evening in their company.

This wonderful and accomplished revival of a much loved classic is another winner from the Octagon.

The Winslow Boy is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 21 April 2012
Tickets: from £9.50
Performances Mon-Sat
Eves @ 7.30
Matinees: Sat 14 & Wed 18 @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
Mar 22nd

JB SHORTS 7 - @ Joshua Brooks Bar, Manchester

By Caroline May

JB Shorts
- a showcase of short, sharp new plays by the best writers, actors and directors in the region - is back for its seventh outing, meaning that they’ve now staged an impressive 42 world premieres in the last three years.  Manchester International Festival, eat your heart out.  And in spite of the quality writing and high-profile casting the budget ticket price works out at only £1 per play.

There was a youthful feel to the evening, with the majority of stories reflecting the lives and concerns of  the BBC3 demographic, and familiar faces from Hollyoaks, White Van Man and Lunch Monkeys cropping up beside some old JB Shorts favourites. 

“Pop” by Lindsay Williams is a bitter-sweet vignette about a group of school friends waking in a muddy field after the last music festival of the summer.  Their struggle to pack away the pop-up tent is symbolic of their attitudes towards the adult world, albeit with more slapstick.  “Last Night” by Bill Taylor is like a twenty-first century take on The Browning Version, with a teacher and her young pupil getting to know each other better in somewhat queasy circumstances.  And Chris Thompson’s locker-room set “Match of the Day” shows a football team’s new female physio rubbing her injured client up the wrong way.

All the above are single scenes, but Peter Kerry’s “Quickfire” slips back and forth in time between the stand-up routine of successful arena-touring comic Colin Townsend (Alex Woodhall) and the strange encounter he has at an all-night garage.  A smart and cynical young man in jeans, jacket and t-shirt, with the de rigueur head-mike, Colin banters with the audience before trying out some new, edgier material about how he struggles to connect with the everyday folk who make up his fan base while driving around in a Porsche that they have ultimately paid for.  It’s difficult to fake a comedy club vibe in the midst of a drama, but the flash-backs to the garage are hilarious, with a great twist.

Equally funny is “The Confession” by Diane Whitely and Dave Simpson.  Russell Richardson plays Patrick, a good Catholic family man, who is so enamoured of his ability to procreate with his wife that he decides to spread the love, and becomes a freelance sperm donor. As Patrick confesses to a silent, unseen priest we flash back to scenes from his complicated domestic arrangements.  There is excellent support from Diane Whitely as the assorted women in his life, and clever use of the musical soundtrack.

Pick of the evening for me though was the surreal “Sit. Stay. Roll over.” by Jane McNulty.  John Henshall is Jeff, an ordinary man’s-best-friend type of dog, who finds himself locked in a strange room with leather-and-studs pit bull Tyson and preening lapdog Peaches.  Jean-Paul Sartre must be spinning in his grave for not realising that Huis Clos’ natural setting was an animal shelter: “Dog Centre Plus”.  Director James Blakey pitches the characters as recognisable human types displaying classic canine behaviour, while Jane McNulty’s marvellous script is funny, poignant and thought provoking.

On until Sat 31 March (NOT Sunday 16)
7pm (doors 6.40pm)
(The junction of Charles St and Princess St, at the side of the BBC)
All Tickets : £6 (Pay on the Door)
Mar 21st

DNA BY DENNIS KELLY - HULL TRUCK TOURING - Royal Exchange Studio, Manchester

By Caroline May
DNA banner.jpg

The National Theatre’s Connections programme commissions ten new plays every year for a week of performances by youth groups all round the country.  The authors are among the best currently writing for the stage, and the resulting work is enough to make any adult theatre-goer green with envy: short, sharp pieces with strong themes, dynamic characters and gripping storylines. 

Originally written for NT Connections in 2007, DNA fulfils all the above expectations, and has the additional recommendation of being created by Dennis Kelly (co-writer of sitcom Pulling and the RSC’s award-winning new musical Matilda).  And although Hull Truck’s professional tour is presumably aimed at schools who are studying this as a set-text, there’s plenty to satisfy a discerning older audience.

The story is about a school bullying incident that gets out of hand, the perpetrators’ attempts at a cover-up, and the unimaginable consequences.

Dennis Kelly doesn’t mess about with mundane matters or patronise his teenage protagonists with anodyne choices: the stakes are the highest they can possibly be, and just when you think the students’ world has already been shaken to its foundations a macabre twist racks up the tension.

Played in front of impressionistic film projections with a funky soundtrack, the young cast grip their even younger audience throughout, though I was less enamoured by the recurring one-sided conversations between enigmatic woolly-hatted Phil (James Alexandrou) and the besotted Leah (Leah Brotherhead).

Tom Clegg is a great comic turn as the aspiring dentist Danny, and Daniel Francis-Swaby’s lachrymose Brian metamorphoses hilariously into a blissed-out leaf-licker after being put on medication for stress.  And I wish I could have seen more of the group’s alpha-male John Tate (Rhys Jennings in a very convincing performance).

With all the guilty pleasure of a genre film and enough plot to fill a five-act Jacobean tragedy, DNA makes you wish that every new play could be commissioned for a teen audience.

DNA is on until Saturday 24 March 2012 and touring
Prices: £10 (£7 concs)
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed & Thurs @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Mar 8th

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
sat night pic.jpg

Writer/director Matthew Dunster, whose adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 was such a success at this address two years ago, has now staged Alan Sillitoe’s classic working class novel of the 1950s.

Unlike other protagonists of the Angry Young Man era (Billy Liar, Jimmy Porter, Lucky Jim etc), Arthur Seaton has no desire to better himself or fulfil some inner ambition.  A true anti-hero, his nihilistic existence amounts to earning enough money to spend his free time drinking and getting laid, with the odd excursion into fighting.

Matthew Dunster pares the story down to concentrate on Arthur’s complicated love life, especially the clandestine affair with a married woman, Brenda, whose husband is one of his work-mates. 

Perry Fitzpatrick’s Arthur is a swaggering cock-of-the-walk, constantly running his hands through his teddy-boy hair-do, and Clare Calbraith is very good as Brenda, particularly in the poignant bathroom scene where she is supported by an excellent Jo Hartley.

The repetitive nature of the factory production line is imaginatively reproduced by an overhead rail which zips Arthur’s costume changes on and off the stage (design by Anna Fleischle), and a great soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll standards evoke the period brilliantly.

Inevitably large swathes of the book are skipped over, including the iconic scene with the air gun, but the spirit of Sillitoe’s novel is fully transposed to the stage.

SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING is on until Saturday 7 April 2012
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Feb 27th

Macbeth at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

Macbeth, Shakespeare’s study of ambition and evil, receives a thrilling revival at Bolton Octagon this spring.

Played in-the-round on a tiny stage, it’s a chamber production that gives us big close-ups on the characters and shows how claustrophobic and introspective their world is. 

Robert Cavanah’s intelligent, intellectual and strangely sympathetic Macbeth is a consummate politician.  Like a certain Scottish prime minister who finally came to power after years of plotting and treachery, the Thane of Glamis soon realises that his grip on the throne is tenuous and his position precarious.  By the end I was expecting him to throw telephones at his loyal lieutenant Siward and refer to the gore-steeped Lady Macbeth (Suzan Sylvester) as “that bloody woman”.

As well as finally achieving my dream of seeing a Macbeth with a Scottish accent (not an optional extra if you think about the language and rhythms of speech), I love the fact that the supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s spine-tingling horror story are taken at face value and not psychoanalysed away.  The production teems with ghosts, witches and spirits, and the leather-clad Weyard Sisters, apparently channelling Vivienne Westwood, emerge from a flame-belching grid in the floor which appears to be a direct route to hell.

The ensemble is packed with terrific actors.  Colin Connor and David MacCreedy are committed and truthful in a variety of different roles, and Russell Dixon gives a master-class in acting as the Porter.

Director David Thacker’s fast-paced production is both intimate and epic, played mainly on the tiny central space but sometimes expanding into dimensions beyond.  It’s utterly immersive, compelling from start to finish, and a wonderful reminder of how exciting theatre-in-the-round can be.  Andy Smith’s eerie sound design, Ciaran Bagnall’s stunning lighting and James Cotterill’s stark and effective set all contribute to the impact of the show - a creative team that is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.

I have never seen a better production of Macbeth.  All hail, David Thacker.

Macbeth is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 17 March 2012
Tickets: £9.50-£22.50
Performances Mon-Sat
Eves @ 7.30
Matinees: Fri 24 Feb, Sat 3 Mar @ 2pm
Schools’ Matinees: Tue 28 Feb, Thu 8, Thu 15 Mar @ 1.30pm; Tue 13 Mar @ 10.30am
Schools’ Play Day: Tue 6 Mar.
Box Office: 01204 520661
Feb 26th

The Daughter-in-Law by D H Lawrence - Manchester Library Theatre Company, at The Lowry

By Caroline May


Let’s get something clear from the start: this may be a play about an industrial working-class community in 1912, but no-one strides in to announce that there’s trouble at t’mill, something’s out of skew on t’ treadle, or insist that there’s nowt wrong wi’ gala luncheons, lad! Get that right out of the way, and we can begin.

D.H Lawrence’s work has multitudes of supporters and detractors, many of whom appear far more erudite that my loftiest aspiration; in any case, I’m here to discuss the production, not the literature, so we can pass by that bit as well.

Having wiped away the dust, the first stratum we encounter is a thoroughly researched and rehearsed accent. Lawrence wrote the play in Nottinghamshire dialect, but it’s clear that the cast has worked hard with their voice coach, Sally Hague, to sound natural; there are individual variations, but so there are in life; nor could I say how accurate the accent used truly is, but that’s irrelevant, as this isn’t a documentary. What is important, though, is that it commits the deadly sin of getting in the way. What is the point of having something meticulously researched if its very authenticity prevents the audience from understanding what’s going on? The Library theatre company is particularly good at re-capturing the past, but this time perhaps it’s done too well. I was by no means alone in having difficulty for the first half of the performance in understanding what had happened to whom, grabbing the words I could understand and hoping I wasn’t missing too much detail. In this respect, the performers generally didn’t help; concentrating on naturalism, they cantered, in some cases galloped, serenely through their lines, leaving us panting to keep up. But by the second half, the audience (note the focus that this word has on hearing) had caught up; I suspect also that Lawrence felt that he’d made his point and could reduce the density of the dialect. However it may be, we drill down beneath the language barrier to find a rich and rewarding seam of performance.

Lawrence’s subtle construction may make us wonder initially why some of the characters are there at all, but none is there to make weight. Of course, the community’s authority and ‘establishment’ is personified in Mrs Gascoigne, the archetypal working-class mother complete with trad. aphorisms which delighted much of the audience, competently played by Diane Fletcher. But it’s important that she’s shown to be typical and in authority and accepted as such by her peers; so Mrs Purdy, one such peer, does far more than simply arrive to start the plot off. Were we to learn of Mrs Purdy’s news by letter, for example, Mrs Gascoigne could easily be seen to be an isolated oddity, out of touch with her community; but the simple realism which Susan Twist brings to the character, so that she just is, reinforces Mrs Gascoigne with the support of that community, enabling the tremendous conflict in the third scene. This is where Natalie Grady shines as Minnie Gascoigne, the daughter-in-law, facing down the world to get the life she wants with the man she loves, combining strength and vulnerability in more than one enjoyable showdown. Her husband, Luther Gascoigne, is a passionate but weak man, a difficult combination capably performed by Alun Raglan, though the passion occasionally tested the audience’s new-found familiarity with the Notts. accent. Paul Simpson entertained as cheeky, but actually very canny, brother Joe Gascoigne, pitching his incisive comments and his sister-in-law’s crockery just right. Even the cabman (Max Calendrew) had his part to play by presaging Mrs Gascoigne’s downfall in microcosm.

The staging, I should say, consisted of two simple interior sets, convincingly dressed, one of Mrs Gascoigne’s house, the other of Luther Gascoigne’s house. But the change between them was a delightful pas-de-deux of stage management, efficient yet effortlessly and unhurriedly achieved, despite what must have been cramped conditions backstage. Jamie Byron and all his technical team should feel proud.

So this production, then, while setting out to be gritty and realistic as a chunk of coal, has achieved that other carbon structure, perhaps even more valued. The audience has to do some mental polishing to get the full brilliance, but I’m glad to say it’s worth it, for having done so one can be captivated by a little gem. (Whether it’s actually a diamond or not, I leave to you.)

Chris Honer directed.

The Daughter-in-Law, the Manchester Library Theatre Company,
at the Lowry Theatre from 23rd February to 10th March.
Tickets: 0843-208 6010

Jan 25th

Sinful - written and performed by Carly Tarett at the Lass o’ Gowrie, Manchester

By Caroline May
It takes a great deal of talent to pull off what is effectively a one-woman sketch show, yet writer-performer Carly Tarett does this effortlessly with her sequence of single-handed playlets themed around the seven deadly sins.

Apart from being very funny comic monologues, each piece works as a stand-alone drama.  Outstanding among them are the blindfolded neighbour-from-hell whose envy and interference have led to her current mysterious predicament, and a philosophical exchange (technically a monopolylogue) between a couple of east end bank robbers.  However the highlight of the evening is an outrageously rude skit about an elderly Welsh classroom assistant - her imaginatively obscene and expletive-filled commentary on Red Riding Hood would make Quentin Tarentino blush.

The night finishes with a couple of great comic songs by a bone-idle touring musician who won’t even finish writing her own lyrics.  Like several of the other creations I’d love to see her as a regularly recurring comedy character along the lines of John Shuttleworth.

Carly Tarett’s skilled writing and versatile delivery call to mind Joyce Grenfell.  With this all-round excellent show she is clearly a writer and performer to watch out for again.

Sinful was on at The Lass o’ Gowrie, 36 Charles Street, Manchester M1 7DB
Jan 24th

TWO BY JIM CARTWRIGHT at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

By Caroline May
TWO pic.jpg

The Royal Exchange has another popular hit on its hands with Jim Cartwright’s clever two-hander set in a pub.  Like his other gritty slice of life play, Road, we meet a parade of colourful northern working-class characters - here they’re passing through the saloon bar of a traditional public house which is presided over by a flirtatious landlady and her wisecracking husband.  In this play however all the roles are taken by a single pair of actors.

There isn’t a narrative arc other than the waxing and waning of customers as the evening passes.  But once the bar has cleared the undertow of tension between landlord and landlady is painfully exposed in a raw and heartbreaking final scene.

Local comedian Justin Moorhouse is a huge favourite with the crowd.  Big, cuddly and warm, he shambles about like a panda whose fur coat is at the dry-cleaners, and remains loveable whether playing the ebullient host, a lonely old widower, a neddy in a pom-pom hat or a sponging boyfriend with a roving eye.  As a bonus there’s plenty of banter with the audience, perhaps owing more to Justin’s stand-up experience than to the script.  At this point I should warn anyone of a retiring nature not to sit on the banquettes at the front, as they become such an integral part of the show that their occupants should probably get a credit in the programme.

Victoria Elliott is quite simply a brilliant actress with a natural flair for comedy – the biggest laugh of the night came from one of her off-the-cuff put-downs to an unfortunate audience member.  She is truly versatile in her range of playing, slipping easily between a wide variety of roles and acting styles.  The frail old lady with the butcher obsession is both funny and moving, the sub-Sloane Ranger who loves Big Men makes your eyes water, and the petrified woman on a night out with her abusive partner is horrifyingly real.

Designer Amanda Stoodley has created a circular mahogany bar that fits the space like it belongs there, and director Greg Hersov moves the action around (and over) it at a cracking pace.

With Happy Hour from 9pm-10.30 every evening, traditional pub games including darts, pool, table football available to play in the foyer, and free after-show entertainment on Thursdays, this is pub theatre with a twist.

TWO is on until Saturday 25 February 2012
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Jan 22nd

Alfie by Bill Naughton at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

In one of those ironic twists of fate, Bolton's most famous writer Bill Naughton - a man who has bequeathed his name to the Octagon’s studio space - is probably best known as the onlie begetter of the archetypal Cockney lothario Alfie Atkins.

What an extraordinary creation Alfie is.  The playwright has a musician’s ear for the nuances of accent, making his anti-hero not a mere loud-mouthed barrow boy or a  chirpy Cockney sparrow, but endowing him with the precise delivery and idiom of his region and class - closer to Diary of a Nobody than Oliver Twist or EastEnders.  The brilliant dialogue teems with comedy, cruelty and bathos, but one of the script’s most striking features is its daring use of aside and commentary, giving the lead actor unparalleled opportunities to play up to the audience like a sex-obsessed Richard III. 

David Ricardo-Pearce as the eponymous hero is handsome and dressed to kill, the absolutely epitome of the Sixties even before they’ve begun to Swing. 

John Branwell delivers a masterclass in pathos and comedy as Joe, a widowed hospital visitor, and his still and chilly portrayal of the abortion doctor Mr Smith is mesmerising.  Ill health robbed us of the chance to see him play Fred Dibnah last spring - they should revive The Demolition Man just so we can see him in the role.

The script gives designer Lis Evans the challenge of creating umpteen sets including bedrooms, hospital wards, greasy spoon caffs, car interiors and pubs.  She gets round the problem by putting her props on wheels, and coupled with Lesley Hutchinson’s movement direction the scenes change so frequently and rapidly that watching the tables, chairs and cupboards flying in and out is like seeing the Ikea catalogue perform Starlight Express.

David Thacker’s production is fluid and fast-paced, though it can’t quite dispel memories of the classic Michael Caine film.

Alfie is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 18 February 2012
Then touring to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Scarborough and Oldham
Tickets: from £9.50-£22.50
Performances Mon-Sat
Eves @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661