Share |
Sep 8th

Bang Bang Bang by Stella Feehily at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

The new season at Bolton opens with a co-production between the Octagon and Out of Joint.  Stella Feehily’s latest play is a variation on a theme she explored in O Go My Man (seen here five years ago) – idealistic westerners (charity workers, journalists, medics) whose well-intentioned involvement with the developing world leads to the disintegration of their own lives back home.

Human rights defender Sadhbh (Orla Fitzgerald) has spent her whole career working abroad on projects for NGOs, but as she approaches thirty perhaps it’s time to listen to her partner Stephen (Dan Fredenburgh) who has burnt out, taken the corporate shilling, and now wants a settled family life. Added to the mix are Sadhbh’s colleague Bibi (Frances Ashman), abandoning life on the front-line for a safe desk job in New York, and naïve young intern Mathilde (Julie Dray) who’s about to go on her first trip to the Congo.

Bang Bang Bang is a play of two halves. The dramatic opening scene (a siege of the aid workers’ compound in the Congo) turns out to be a flash-forward, and Sadhbh’s unsettled domestic situation in London is inter-cut with encounters with a war lord and one of his victims in Africa, but even dislocations of time and place can’t get over the expositional nature of the first part.

Only after the interval does Feehily return to her strongest suits: sharply observed portraits of the metropolitan middle-classes and laugh-out-loud dialogue.  The aid workers blank out the terrible things they see by day with boozy parties at night which are a mirror image of their hedonistic London lifestyles, and we realise that however well-intentioned they are or politically correct their language they‘re little more than disaster tourists embedded in their own cultural bubble.  The scene at the R&R where cynical foreign correspondent Ronan (Paul Hickey) and callow wannabe photo journalist Vin (Jack Farthing) are trying to advance their careers via seduction, whiskey and weed is hilarious, with a real sense that the writer, the play and the actors have found their mojo at last.

The legendary Max Stafford-Clark directs breezily, and Miriam Nabarro’s simple design allows for speedy scene changes, but as a political drama about westerners in Africa Bang Bang Bang doesn’t hold a candle to Out of Joint’s production of The Overwhelming in 2006.

Bang Bang Bang is on at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton  until Saturday 17 September 2011

Tickets: from £9.50

Performances Mon-Sat Eves @ 7.30

Matinees @ 2pm: Wed 7, Wed 14, Sat 17

Box Office: 01204 520661
Sep 5th

All Because of Molly, Organised Chaos productions, at The Lowry, Salford Quays

By Caroline May


Be warned! The programme notes tell us that this is an ‘issue’ play, but whatever you think the issue is as the performance begins, you’re going to be wrong. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theatre…

This makes All Because of Molly, touring the North-West until 18th September (see below), a slightly difficult production to write about without ‘spoilers’ (as Doctor Who aficionados call them) or giving away the twist – one so truthful in its suddenness that many of us, I suspect, will remember our own moments of catastrophe, in the true sense of the word. One moment life is bumbling along much as normal; the next, it is changed, changed utterly.

Whether a terrible beauty is born as a result depends, of course, on the production, the leads in particular bearing a heavy burden. Alison Flevill and Laura Lindsay (who has a flair for one-liners) work tirelessly to portray Jaime and Casey who decide to become friends after a typical, and intelligently-portrayed, bullying incident at nursery school. This friendship develops throughout their lives, though attempts to show this by one character finishing another’s lines or both speaking the same line simultaneously just don’t come off. Nor does the friendship seem as deep as both profess it to be, the development of the play notwithstanding. The writer, Paul Ferguson, tell us that he spent much time learning about women, and the accuracy of his characters gives us no reason to doubt him, but perhaps he might have balanced this with time taken in selecting his scenes more carefully; too many are small girls talking about small girl things, and lack evident plot or character development.

The nursery-school bully is the Molly of the title, a typically unpleasant early-years brat, the first and most convincing of Christabel Brown’s many supporting characters.

As the performance continues, she and Tamira Hamam populate the rest of the friends’ world with a rapid-fire set of characterisations, of assorted ages and either gender, to such an enjoyable extent that the main characters are at risk of being upstaged. Indeed, this happens in a highly-enjoyable scene at a gym where the ‘jurors’ (as the supporting actors are called in the programme for no apparent reason) play a personal trainer and her suffering client, while the leads talk about something which I completely missed, but of which, crucially, I didn’t feel the lack; nor did this omission seem to affect my understanding of the rest of the play. The leads’ performances were doubtless as consistently good as they were throughout, but the supports had more interesting lines, action and, at that point, characters.

Staging was a simple black box set with four white cubes with hinged lids doing double-duty as set and prop store. Someone had decided that each change of ‘scene’ should be marked by a loud bang as a lid was closed. Perhaps the technical crew hadn’t been given a script, as most bangs seemed to be followed immediately by a sound or light cue – certainly, the audience didn’t feel the need for them.

And so it goes until suddenly…

Molly, appearing from nowhere, causes the lurch into a completely different world, and there were certainly some members of the audience who were moved by that world and the dénouement. But not all. Again, Flevill and Lindsay did some convincing work, but what ought to have been a scene to make a stone distraught left too many in the audience unmoved. Clearly, at the curtain call, some felt a standing ovation was in order – but not all, by no means all.

It’s a pity, because the ‘issue’ is one guaranteed to polarise opinion, but All Because of Molly left many feeling unchallenged, though not unentertained. Perhaps, just as Jaime is caught between friendship and professionalism, the play is caught between polemic and realism, with the outcome equally regrettable, the feeling that ‘there should’ve been a better way’. The play is also very short, not much over an hour, & the ‘issue’ seems squeezed in at the end.

And what of Molly? We learn nothing of her, nor about the course her life took between her appearances at the beginning and the end of the events in the play. She is the catalyst, the raison d’etre, the – if we’re honest – McGuffin.

James Baker directed.


All Because of Molly

Presented by Organised Chaos productions

North-West tour, 8 – 18th Sept:

New Continental, Preston, 8th Sept. 01772-499425

The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool, 9 – 10th Sept. 0151-703 0000

Square Chapel, Halifax, 15th Sept. 01422-349422

Studio Theatre at Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, 18th Sept. 0845-127 2190

Jul 30th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester 2011 - Friday 29 July

By Caroline May

A shoe-horn was required to pack the audiences in to the final performances of the 24:7 Theatre Festival, and if you hadn’t booked in advance you risked being disappointed. The 2012 dates are already arranged, so get the end of next July in your diary now for another week of exciting new theatre.

Telling Lives – Sachas Hotel

This Brechtian-influenced show by Eric Northey is set in Prestwich Asylum in 1914. The asylum’s new head, Dr Percival, intends to implement all the latest medical theories, and as part of this practice he compiles detailed records of the inmates.

One by one the patients are interviewed and examined – and the stories of how they came to be incarcerated are as fascinating to the audience as their height, weight and head measurements are to the doctor.

As well as using movement and dancing to express the inmates’ inner feelings, there are specially-composed songs with live musical accompaniment. Some lyrics come from the Song of Solomon, some are apparently verbatim testimonials, and some are cabaret-style chansons, while the lush meandering music feels almost operatic.

There are powerful and poignant performances in this play, notably by Phil Dennison playing both a tragic shell-shocked soldier and an indignant retired dentist committed by his avaricious children.

Sadly the lead actor was indisposed so director Sue Womersley bravely played Dr Percival’s role script-in-hand. However this didn’t seem to dilute the essential honesty and authenticity of the piece.

Steerage – Midland Hotel

I’ve always thought that the Midland’s Victoria Suite was an excellent venue with ideal sight-lines and acoustics, not to mention the air-conditioning which is always welcome at this time of year in small underground spaces crammed with enthusiastic theatre audiences.

However the one thing the Victoria lacks is a raised stage, and I’d been tipped off that unless you sat on the mats at the front you risked not seeing much of this piece.

Steerage by Georgina Perry is set in a shipping container travelling to England with a cargo of illegal immigrants on board.

Zead (Assad Zaman Choudhury) is only a teenager, but has the task of looking after his much younger sister Immy (Catherine Dowling) during the voyage. Tamir (Amir Rahimzadeh) is a profane and bullying taxi driver, and Ibrahim (Ali Gadema) is a powerful and controlling figurehead.

Immy cannot or will not speak, and her hidden emotions are expressed via puppetry and a magic-lantern projection on the back-cloth.

The play is a variant on a scissors-paper-stone power game whereby the four characters locked in this frightening and claustrophobic situation try to assume control over their fellow passengers by capturing three key items: a torch, a knife and a bottle of water. There are many violent confrontations and arguments (for no reason that I could discern), and most of them take place on the floor (and are thus invisible to the majority of the audience).

Personally, I regretted the lack of a real story as much as the absence of a proper chair to sit on, and the Midland’s air-conditioning was inexplicably AWOL. I don’t know if the latter was a deliberate tactic to replicate the stifling atmosphere of a metal shipping container roasting in the midday sun; but when it was finally switched on the refreshing breeze, and the back-cloth billowing like a sail, conveyed a real sense of being at sea.  has all the show information including video trailers

Jul 29th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester 2011 - Thursday

By Caroline May

Keep It Simple – Midland Hotel

The Keep It Simple team all hail from the Newcastle area if their CVs are anything to judge by. And yet Dick Curran’s play seems to have more in common with a town approximately 100 miles south of the Tyne Bridge – Scarborough.

Alan Ayckbourn would have been proud of this classic English comedy of manners set at a family wedding. Sabena and Gawain are aiming for a relaxed and low-key affair in a calming Lakeland setting, but Sabina’s uptight mum Kate and insecure step-dad Doug are far from laid back at the prospect of Kate’s bohemian ex-husband Ted attending the nuptials.

There were times when I almost thought I was at the late lamented Library Theatre watching one of their Ayckbourn summer specials: even the flower-covered trellis and cast-iron garden furniture were like a flash-back to the set of Relatively Speaking in 2009. The cast deliver their lines with inimitable Ayckbourn-esque inflections, clearly aided by the very particular writing style of author Dick Curran.

The older actors are especially successful with their 360o comic characterisations. John Sumner playing unimaginative chiropodist Doug, a man born to wear a checked shirt and beige slacks, peers over his specs in outrage and bemusement as his world reels. Shelley O’Brien as frazzled agony aunt Kate definitely needs a good dose of her own advice, but is essentially motherly and sympathetic. And Dennis Jobling as the feckless poet Ted, all trendy jeans, black satin shirt and well-groomed beard, is irrepressible. I suppose it’s inevitable that a poet should get all the best lines, but he has a run of stingers in the second act which steal the show.

Despite the Lake District setting there is something unutterably Home Counties about the entire enterprise. With one exception there’s no sign of a regional accent, the characters are all blamelessly middle-class, and the dramatic situation is one of social niceties rather than social upheaval. In short, all the ingredients for an evening of pure entertainment.

No Place Like Home - New Century House

Writer Rebekah Harrison deals with the painful and difficult subject of domestic abuse in this drama set in a women’s refuge. The writing feels really truthful as the characters deal with their disturbing pasts, the frustration of sharing space with complete strangers, the never-ending bureaucracy of the social services system, and the dreary mundanity of everyday existence.

Director Janys Chambers breaks away from the naturalistic nature of the script by deploying the cast of eight act as a chorus at the beginning of each scene, and talented young Trystan Chambers expresses his character’s inner turmoil via sequences of dance and movement.

No Place Like Home is not easy to watch, but the issues it addresses are very important. has all the show information including video trailers

Jul 28th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - 2011

By Caroline May
Sherica – Sachas Hotel

The word for several days has been that Sherica is well worth catching.  It’s written by Studio Salford regular Ian Winterton, so we kind of know what to expect: gritty, contemporary, near-the-knuckle and northern.  Studio Salford is establishing a reputation for itself as the brand name for a certain type of theatre in the way that Annie Horniman’s Manchester School of Playwrights did a hundred years ago. 

The story is set in a former fee-paying grammar school that has recently become an Academy.  So now rich, posh boys like Douglas (William Hutchby) are being educated alongside troubled students from deprived backgrounds like Natalie (Nicola Stebbings).  And a dinosaur like Mr Pope (David Slack), who wants to run the school the way he runs the Officers’ Training Corps, has to work with touchy-feely modern teachers like Mr and Mrs Feather (Oliver Devoti and Katy Slater).

So far, so Punk Rock - or Mogadishu, or Monster, or all those other issue-led right-on plays about Young People that the Royal Exchange insists on programming.  And sure, we get all the usual bad language and challenges to authority and home/school conflicts and bullying and so on.  But we also get a fruity parallel plot about a prostitute (Katie/Sherica – played by Ruth Middleton) and her unusual clientele.

Ian Winterton’s three teachers embody different educational approaches, beautifully demonstrated in a scene where they have to disarm a knife-wielding pupil.  (Alan Bennett tries the same thing in The History Boys, but it takes him an entire play to do it.)  Then in the second half he cleverly subverts our preconceptions about several of the characters with a sequence of very funny and dramatic twists where the stakes are high for all concerned. 

Katy Slater makes sensible art teacher Mrs Feather into a warm and vulnerable human being, and 24:7’s very own David Slack clearly enjoys the transformation from straight-as-a-die regimental sergeant major Mr Pope into a sneaky black ops expert.  William Hutchby also gives a fine account of the horrible snobby Douglas, a single-handed argument for the revival of corporal punishment in schools, if not capital punishment.

This is a fast-moving play with funky scene changes, though I was less keen on the shortness of the scenes themselves.  However Ian Winterton has mastered the technique of leaving gaps in the dialogue where the silence tells the story and the actors can really stretch themselves (good direction by Trevor MacFarlane).

Sherica is going to be at the Edinburgh Fringe next month if you can’t get to Manchester this week.

The Rainbow Connection - New Century House

Joanne Sherryden’s modern comedy of manners is a two-hander featuring TV favourites Anthony Crank and Danielle Henry.

Joe hasn’t been out of his luxurious penthouse flat for months because of the physical and mental damage caused by a bad car crash.  Shelly, who recently moved into the flat below, is trapped in a relationship that is never going to go anywhere.

As the mismatched pair share their problems and give each other confidence a contemporary kind of love springs up between them.

Joanne Sherryden knows how to craft, pace and develop a scene, and her play is very satisfying to watch, as well as being poignant and funny with some killer one-liners.

Anthony Crank and Danielle Henry’s characters constantly spar, bicker, fight and make up, with the audience always rooting for the happy ending.

Adam Zane’s production is slick and truthful.  A real audience-pleaser.  has all the show information including video trailers

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

New Century House, Mayes Street entrance M60 4ES (200 metres from The Printworks, a stone’s throw from Victoria Station and Shudehill interchange)
Midland Hotel, Peter Street, M60 2DS (opposite St Peter’s Square tram stop)
Sachas Hotel, Tib Street, M4 1SH (just off Piccadilly Gardens)
Jul 25th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester 2011 - Sunday

By Caroline May

On a fabulous summer’s day the centre of Manchester was buzzing with music from the International Jazz Festival, while in the bowels of various landmark buildings the 24:7 Theatre Festival continued with its mission to champion new writing.

The Shadow of Your Hand – Sachas Hotel

Sachas Hotel on the fringes of Manchester’s Trendy Northern Quarter™ proved even more quirky than I could have anticipated, as the Washington Suite sprung a leak resulting in last-minute shifts and technical compromises for some of the shows.

I was lucky to see Michael Stewart’s psychological drama The Shadow of Your Hand in its original, if slightly damp, venue. The script is intense in its own right, but it would have been a shame to miss out on the claustrophobic atmosphere created by an excellent lighting scheme.

The story focuses on the developing relationship between a lonely, middle-aged advertising exec (Stephen) and the homeless girl he’s brought back to his city-centre apartment.

Without much tweaking this two-hander could have been a monologue, as the character of Stephen completely runs away with the play. Gauche, shy and unintentionally hilarious, actor Steven Pindar seizes all the role’s wide-ranging scope for comedy, tragedy, pathos, braggadocio, craven cowardice and cruelty. Michael Stewart never loses an opportunity to give colour to the character through action or speech, creating an in-depth portrait of a flawed but sympathetic human being.

Although billed as The Servant meets Reservoir Dogs, the dynamic between Stephen and the girl fails to develop satisfactorily, and poor Rosie Fleeshman struggles to flesh out an almost entirely monosyllabic and unfathomable character. Such writing could work on film where lingering camera shots and extreme close ups would register the merest flicker of emotion and hint at layers of hidden meanings, but even the most intimate theatre venue can’t turn the audience into mind readers.

However the play is well worth catching for the star turn of Steven Pindar, and although the dominance of his character is to the ultimate detriment of the drama, the piece is still highly entertaining.

Peggy and the Spaceman – Sachas Hotel

This charming story for audiences aged 6+ is about the visit of Yuri Gagarin to Manchester in 1961, only a few months after his historical space flight. Peggy is being bullied at school, but an encounter with the Russian cosmonaut helps her to face her demons.

Peggy is sweetly played by Saira Choudhry, while Luke Roberts is great value as the spaceman, Peggy’s dad and an inspirational teacher. Eve Robertson is extremely versatile as the school bully, Peggy’s dog, and a cantankerous old lady.

Joyce Branagh directs her own script and uses an amazing box-of-tricks-on-wheels to move scenes seamlessly from classroom to kitchen to spaceship, while Janet Weston’s stunning costumes capture the pre-Beetles era. The production is so robust and focussed on character and story that even being deprived of its lighting design couldn’t spoil the show.

Flag - New Century House

Brian Marchbank’s Flag strongly reminded me of Trevor Griffiths’ classic play Comedians: not because Flag is also about stand-up comics, but because of its incredible power and dark drama.

Jimmy Earl (Darren Scott) is an old-school comedian for an old-school audience, touring the last of the working men’s clubs with his mildly un-PC act. Mark Poste (Matthew Stead) is a thrusting young writer more accustomed to student unions and the comedy club circuit.

Mark creates a monstrous character, retired squaddie Corporal Flag, who attacks every aspect of today’s tolerant and multicultural society – and recruits Jimmy to bring Flag to life in front of the kind of young, hip (and large) audiences the old pro has never enjoyed before.

Even though you think you know where the story is going, the writer adds more and more layers to the plot, and constantly redefines the characters before your eyes. The power dynamic between Mark and Jimmy shifts as their act becomes increasingly successful and controversial, until Jimmy can only regain control by momentarily channelling Flag and turning on his own creator.

Matthew Stead has the shallow and ingratiating manner of the young writer down to a tee, and his transformation into a ruthless and humourless powerhouse is totally convincing. Darren Scott is blessed with the classic lugubrious visage of the English comic through the ages – you could easily imagine him as one of the minor members of the Crazy Gang. But when he dons the regimental beret of Corporal Flag and dives into the audience to trade insults, he’s genuinely scary - don‘t sit on the front row if you like your theatrical fourth-wall unbroken!

Brian Marchbank has written a superb and subtle play that resonates in the mind long after the lights come up.

Future Shock - New Century House

Sci-fi so often seems to be about creating exciting new worlds, albeit worlds which have uncanny parallels with our own and which are inexplicably inhabited by two-dimensional characters.

Alas I found this to be the case with Richard Stockwell’s Future Shock, where a banking crisis, an ecological disaster, and the ethics around reproductive technology are still causing problems 1000 years in the future for a trio of off-the-peg archetypes.

The script goes to great pains to imagine the future for earth’s inhabitants and to create a back-story for the bemused Laura, who has been cryogenically frozen for the last 800 years, but in the end the play does little except gradually reveal these details; nothing actually happens.

Christine Clare, unrecognisable as the happy-go-lucky girl of 2009’s Freshers, gives a committed performance as an emotion-free Nazi-like clone. Alice Brockway’s Laura has a lot of shouty arguments with Nicoletta, and Phil Minns’ Stampfer, although sympathetic, is only a cypher.

However the production is beautifully designed and lit with that authentic sci-fi glow, and the costumes and props are worthy of Star Trek. has all the show information including video trailers

Jul 23rd

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - 2011

By Caroline May
24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester
21-29 July 2011

1301098528-24_7 festival.jpg

The International Festival has barely finished debuting an eclectic assortment of artistic commissions around the city, when Manchester’s original festival of new writing returns for its eighth consecutive year. 

The 24:7 Theatre Festival has selected 13 pieces from several hundred submissions for its annual showcase of freshly minted plays performed in unconventional spaces.  The 2011 season, extended to nine days this year, also encompasses rehearsed readings, skills workshops, 24 hour plays, after-hours music sessions, a comedy film night and a sketch show (all details on the website).

Activities have expanded over three venues.  As well as the extensive facilities of New Century House, and a welcome return to the plush surroundings of the Midland Hotel, there’s a new outpost at quirky Sachas Hotel on the fringes of Manchester’s Trendy Northern Quarter™.

Friday 22 July

The Crimson Retribution - New Century House

This is writer Steve Pearce’s third outing at 24:7, and also his most ambitious.  The Crimson Retribution is a mixture of live theatre and animated graphic novel that appears to be the bastard love-child of Sin City and Coronation Street. 

The arresting opening scene of a young woman being assaulted on the mean streets of Manchester plays against a projection of the city as imagined by artist and illustrator Hammo, and the dance-like fight sequence is choreographed by Laura Asbury in the same cartoony style.

In that context it seems only natural that our heroine (Amy – Emily Fleeshman) should be saved by a super-hero in a red face mask – though it’s slightly more unusual for said masked hero to take up residence in the flat she shares with her boyfriend Sean.

In fairness, Amy’s domestic arrangements are already pretty dysfunctional – the rent on the flat is being paid for by petty gangster Kyle, Sean’s half-brother, who in the best Pinter tradition is muscling in on Sean’s territory, namely, Amy. 

Steve Pearce’s script exploits all the comic possibilities of this wacky scenario, in addition to ramping up the drama with the sado-masochistic sibling relationship and the constantly shifting sexual tension.

Paul Sockett’s hilarious turn as the Crimson Retribution is absolutely in keeping with the classic square-jawed, all-American action hero, albeit one who makes a nice cup of tea.

David Degiorgio is delightfully creepy as the cruel and manipulative Kyle, and Alex Rogerson makes Sean both weak and sympathetic. 

Director Clare Howdon has clearly worked hard with her creative team to fashion a technically impressive and highly imaginative production.  It’s only budgetary and spatial considerations that stop this show from being as slick and flash as something staged by the National Theatre. has all the show information including video trailers

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


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

Midland Hotel, Peter Street, M60 2DS (opposite St Peter’s Square tram stop)

Sachas Hotel, Tib Street, M4 1SH (just off Piccadilly Gardens)

Jul 6th

As You Like It at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

Shakespeare’s cross-dressing pastoral comedy receives an inner-city update in Greg Hersov’s joyful production this summer. 

The usurping Duke Frederick has relocated his court to the Playboy mansion, where the dress code is formal evening wear and bunny-rabbit ears.  Superficially this is a world of liberty and licentiousness, but even champagne on tap can’t enliven the misery or distract from the air of menace and suppressed violence.  No wonder Frederick’s lively daughter Celia and melancholy niece Rosalind prefer to hide away in the chill-out lounge with its mellow tunes and low lights.  When Frederick finally snaps and exiles Rosalind there’s actually a sense of release and the promise of new-found freedom.

Designer Ashley Martin-Davis says his inspiration was the high-noon of hippydom, the Summer of Love; but with its acid-hues, status sneakers and skinny jeans the Forest of Arden looks more like mid-90s Madchester – all that’s missing is a big bomb going boom – though it happens that the forest is festooned with boom-boxes, as multi-coloured loudspeakers descend on wires from the gods.

Cush Jumbo is elegant and restrained as the Rosalind, but disguised as Ganymede she becomes a back-chatting, baseball-cap wearing, body-popping inner-city “blood”, with the accent and attitude to match.  Ganymede is part performance poet, part rapper, and the way this style of speech animates the language, the imagery, and the rhythms of the poetry, not to say the divided nature of Rosalind’s character, is an absolute revelation.  This has got to be the most inspired interpretation of a Shakespearean character since OT Fagbenle’s blaxploitation Mercutio for English Touring Theatre.

Arden’s other inhabitants are a selection box of soft centres and hard nuts.  James Clyde’s raddled ex-rock star Jaques looks every inch the former “libertine”; Gyuri Sarossy’s yuppy estate agent Oliver comes over very strongly as a nasty piece of work who wouldn’t scruple to redevelop the wild woodland into designer apartments; and Terence Wilton has a lovely cameo as a happy-clappy, bike-riding Sir Oliver Martext.

The musical interludes are beautiful, led by Howard Hutt’s melodious Amiens; he makes a fine impression with his verse speaking too, and would have been a vast improvement on Ben Batt’s uninspiring Orlando, whose gruff manner and blue shirt seem more suited to working on the tills at Tesco’s.

Above all, director Greg Hersov remembers that As You Like It is a comedy and gives us a bright, summery production that will raise the spirits.  As Ganymede might say: “Rispeck”.

As You Like It is on until Saturday 6 August 2011
Prices £9-£30
Evenings: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2.30
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Jun 30th

Dev's Army by Stuart D Lee at Taurus Bar, Manchester

By Caroline May

The Manchester International Festival’s even more exciting fringe - the Not Part Of Festival 2011 - kicks off at Taurus Bar with this unusual comedy drama from multiple award-winning playwright Stuart D Lee.

Although there’s no shortage of Second World War-based fiction, Dev’s Army deals with the rarely explored issue of Ireland’s uneasy neutrality during what their Prime Minister Eamon De Valera (“Dev”) preferred to call the “Emergency”. With the Irish state barely twenty years old and the battle for freedom from the British still fresh in the memory, the population had conflicting emotions about fighting on the same side as their erstwhile foes even against a potentially much greater evil.

It’s September 1940, and while the Battle of Britain draws to a close over southern England all that is protecting the Irish coast against invasion is a trio of ill-matched oddballs armed with a one-wheeled bike and an unloaded gun. The seaside setting recalls Bridget O’Connor’s hilarious The Flags, while the ramshackle set-up is like Dad’s Army re-written by Martin McDonagh.

The ever-reliable Richard Sails as elderly patriot Paddy captures the character’s simultaneous craven cowardice and bully-boy bravado in the slippery way he dwells on the events of 1916 without ever specifying his role in them. Dean O’Sullivan’s credulous youngster Michael is the catalyst for many farcical situations, particularly at the beginning of Act 2, and Matt Lanigan’s earnest Dermot lends credulity to the squad as the only one with actual experience of fighting in a war.

The drama shifts into a different gear when a mysterious man in a suit is washed up on the beach following an explosion. Wayne Allsop is really excellent as the sinister and duplicitous stranger, all charm and danger - a classic Kevin Spacey role.

James Foster’s direction is strong on emotional realism, while Owen Rafferty’s evocative sound design and Christian Taylor’s attention to detail with the set, props and costumes establishes that this production has ambitions higher than the average fringe show. An excellent debut from Elysion Productions.

Dev’s Army

Presented by Elysion Productions

Taurus Bar, Canal Street, Manchester

Wed 29 June - Sat 2 July 2011 @ 8pm (3pm matinee on Sat)

£7/£5 (conc)







Jun 9th

Hard Times - Manchester Library Theatre @ Murrays' Mill, Ancoats

By Caroline May
Hard Times press pic 22[1].JPG

The Library Theatre Company is popping up all over Manchester before eventually moving into its new home.  The latest port-of-call on this four-year odyssey is a disused cotton mill in Ancoats, the world’s first industrial suburb.  Murrays’ Mill is a listed building in the process of being regenerated, but it was already half a century old in 1854 when Charles Dickens was writing his state-of-the-nation novel, Hard Times.

Cruel factory owner Josiah Bounderby and foolish local MP Thomas Gradgrind attempt to create a more efficient workforce by regulating human life along strictly scientific and mechanical lines - “Now, what I want is, Facts.”  In the end though their dogma destroys the people who are most precious to them.

This site-specific promenading performance is an adventure for both the theatre company and the audience, as the actors emerge from behind the proscenium arch and bring their characters out into the real world.

The evening begins with a series of installations in the dark and damp basement of Murrays’ Mill, an atmospheric space teeming with specially recruited volunteer actors.  Riotous gin houses, artisans’ workshops, mean little sitting rooms and filthy bedrooms all echo to a never-ending cacophony of horses’ hooves clattering on cobbles, rattling machinery, crying babies, hacking coughs and fiddles playing Irish jigs.  This is a genuinely immersive and intimate experience, as well as being thoroughly eerie – there’s no interaction with the audience, but the figures move round without seeming to see you – I couldn’t decide if they were ghosts, or I was.

The action then moves upstairs to a long, narrow, low-ceilinged room with bare floorboards underfoot, wooden beams above, and exposed brick walls.  Here designer Judith Croft has created a series of open-plan “compartments”, a bit like a department store for stage sets, representing the various parlours, offices, schoolrooms, gambling dens and hovels of the story.

Inevitably in turning a full-length novel into a two-and-a-half hour play something has to give.  Ironically, given the performance’s industrial location, it’s the working-class aspects of the narrative which have been shrunk to almost nothing, so the weaver Stephen Blackpool is reduced to a walk on part in the domestic drama of the middle-class Gradgrind family.  And although Charles Way’s adaptation has been written especially for this production it still feels like a conventional theatre script rather than something that would only ever work in the unique space of Murrays’ Mill. 

However the promenading aspect is the theatrical equivalent of a 3D film at the IMAX, allowing us to observe Dickens’ gallery of grotesques at very close quarters - and the acting from the professional cast members is extraordinarily good.

The ever reliable David Fleeshman portrays Gradgrind as an essentially benign if misguided figure; Verity May Henry is lively and colourful as Sissy Jupe; and Mina Anwar’s Rachel is passionate and instantly sympathetic.  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s the villains who dominate. 

Richard Heap was a memorable Magwitch at the Library Theatre several Christmases ago, but at least I was viewing him from the safety of the stalls.  His over-the-top interpretation of the loud, vulgar, bullying Bounderby is hugely enjoyable, both funny and horrific.  I was only a few feet away as he drooled over fragile young Louisa Gradgrind (Alice O’Connell), demanding a kiss like a lecherous elderly uncle, and the physical immediacy made me shudder with horror – an intense and thrilling moment.

Arthur Wilson is hilariously creepy as Bounderby’s oddball clerk Bitzer, and Gareth Cassidy’s nervous high-pitched laugh captures the latent hysteria in Tom Gradgrind.  Richard Hand’s Harthouse is a plausibly attractive playboy, and he’s practically unrecognisable as strict schoolmaster Mr M’Choakumchild.  Equally versatile are David Crellin, who doubles the rather worthy Stephen Blackpool with avuncular circus owner Mr Sleary, and Lynda Rooke as both Stephen’s drunken wife and the down-on-her-luck gentlewoman Mrs Sparsit (whose resemblance to Christina Rossetti is uncanny).

Chris Honer directs the action with his usual sure touch and gets the very best from his fabulous cast, but there are a few logistical problems with the promenading, and although I enjoyed this production I would have been even happier watching it from a seat in a theatre.

Hard Times is on until Saturday 2 July 2011
Location: Murrays’ Mill, Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6JA
Entry time: 7.15pm

A limited number of tickets are available on the day from the temporary box office at The Midland Hotel, Peter Street between 5.30-6.30pm, cash only.

Prices: Mon-Thurs £20 (£15 conc); Fri-Sat £22
Box Office: 0843 208 6010