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May 16th

Secret Thoughts by David Lodge at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
secthoughts3.jpg

In theory a play about philosophy and scientific investigation isn’t my idea of a good night out – I’m not French after all.  But on reflection I realise that many an enjoyable evening at the theatre has sprung from just such dry origins.  For instance, Pierre Marivaux’s romantic comedies put the spotlight on the psychology of the Enlightenment; Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water use the very philosophical notions they reference for their dramatic frameworks; and that’s without even mentioning Tom Stoppard’s entire oeuvre.

Adapted from his own novel Thinks…, acclaimed critic and academic David Lodge has written a Platonic dialogue between a writer of fiction and a professor of cognitive science in which they explore the different meanings of consciousness and its subjective experiences (Qualia) using their particular specialisms.  What David Lodge the award-winning storyteller and dramatist creates is an unusual, often funny and sometimes moving two-hander which charts the love story between two oddly endearing characters.

Recently bereaved forty-something Helen is trying to get over the sudden loss of her husband by swapping her introverted occupation as a novelist for a semester of teaching at one of the newer universities.  But she’s living alone on campus, and as her colleagues head home at 5pm she feels more isolated than ever.  There’s nothing for her to do but sit in front of the computer and examine her feelings via an intimate, almost spiritual journal.

Media don Ralph is one of the stars of the science faculty, and with his charm, good looks, rich wife and adoring fans he can come across as a little arrogant and self-centred, although deep down he’s worried about leaving behind a lasting academic legacy.  As he burbles random thoughts into an audio recorder and tries to take his subconscious by surprise we notice that the recurring themes of his discourse are less intellectual than he might have hoped.

Ralph’s not entirely disinterested impulse to befriend Helen leads to a discussion about grief, and thence to his own researches into consciousness.  But as the pair kick philosophical ideas around a spark of something extracurricular arises between them 

Although the raw intellectual ideas in the play are very interesting and accessibly presented, it’s the relationship between the characters which grips, entertains and emotionally engages.  The slightly overlong first part of the play is mainly about the philosophy; the second part becomes almost soap opera-like in its dramatic twists and turns.

Rob Edwards has worked at the Octagon before, but seizes the chance to come centre-stage with a vivid and charismatic performance as Ralph the suave, sexually insatiable scientist.  The writer and actor make the hesitant speech patterns seem so natural and spontaneous that we almost seem to be watching the very thoughts being processed in the character’s brain, although the playwright slyly implies that Ralph does most of his thinking with another part of his anatomy.  The boyish charm and flirtatious sense of humour make Ralph as irresistible to the audience as he is to Helen.

Helen is in an obviously sympathetic position but there are elements of self-pity and lack of humour in the character which Kate Coogan skilfully manages to avoid.  She is an immediately attractive and likeable actor, and while her brave smile endows Helen with a kind of inward fortitude, the shy eyes and evasive gaze remind us of her inward suffering.

There’s a definite chemistry between the two actors, and for them to carry so huge and challenging a play with such apparent effortlessness is a massive achievement.

Ciaran Bagnall’s clean, high-tech design is like the set for a sci-fi movie, dominated by an impressive architectural structure which references the two hemispheres of the brain.  David Thacker’s direction is so good it’s invisible.

David Lodge has written a play which perhaps imagines that it’s slightly cleverer than it really is, but the story and characters make this a superb new drama - and who’s going to complain about that?

Secret Thoughts is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 4 June 2011
Tickets: £9.50-£21.50
Performances: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Sat 21 & Wed 25 @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
www.octagonbolton.co.uk

Apr 20th

5 @ 50 by Brad Fraser - Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
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On the Royal Exchange stage a terrible wrong is being righted.  Canadian playwright Brad Fraser saw with his own eyes the lack of substantial and challenging theatre roles for actresses of a certain age (of any age, come to that) and decided to create an ensemble piece specifically about a set of women in their prime.  The result is 5 @ 50, a caustically funny warts-and-all drama which is receiving its world premiere in Manchester under the expert guidance of the writer’s long-term champion Braham Murray.

Fraser’s quintet of protagonists have known each other since school and are all about to hit the big Five-O.   As they meet up for boozy birthday parties, girlie nights in, liquid lunches and casual drinks we watch the group dynamics shift when past rivalries cause clashes and hidden secrets begin to emerge. 

If there is a hint of Sex and the City about 5 @ 50 that’s probably down to the affluent urban setting (high heels, hard drugs and fancy confectionery all feature) and the range of female archetypes that the playwright deploys.  Fern (Barbara Barnes) is a classic stay-at-home mom; Tricia (Ingrid Lacey) is the career journalist who has trouble with long-term relationships; Lorene (Candida Gubbins) is a serial wife but failed mother; and Norma (Teresa Banham) is the faithful lesbian with a tricky partner.

At the heart of the drama is Jan Ravens’ Olivia, whose character undergoes huge transformations in the course of the play and yet remains an enigma.

Director Braham Murray has cast five fantastic actresses, and if I wasn’t always convinced by the roles written for them to play I was enormously impressed by the way they were acted.  Johanna Bryant’s sophisticated design allows the scenes to shift seamlessly between random locations and the costumes, from sharp business suits to slobby jogging pants, are perfectly suited to their respective characters. 

It’s always interesting to see the birth of a brand new piece of theatre but it’s not always easy to predict its long-term success.  Brad Fraser will know he’s created a classic when Ed Hall’s all-male theatre company Propeller takes 5 @ 50 out on tour.

5 @ 50 is on until Saturday 14 May 2011
Prices £9-£32
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
www.royalexchange.co.uk
Apr 11th

The Demolition Man at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
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One of the most prominent Boltonians of recent years was steeplejack, steam enthusiast and all-round Lancashire character Fred Dibnah, much loved for his television programmes celebrating engineering, Victorian architecture and the vanishing remains of the industrial revolution.  So it’s only appropriate that a dramatisation of his life by local writer Aelish Michael should receive its world premiere at Bolton Octagon.

 By focussing on Fred’s last decade the structure of the drama is almost ready-made.  We meet Fred at his lowest point, having just divorced wife number two and lost custody of his young sons.  The last thing he needs is to hear that his TV series isn’t being re-commissioned.  Concerned friends Malc, Keith and Bert realise things are serious when Fred can’t even summon up the energy to fettle his steam engine.  But then glamorous magician’s assistant Sheila enters Fred’s life and casts a spell that reinvigorates both him and his career.

 The first half of this play is hilarious, with typical down-to-earth Lancashire characters and delightful wordplay rooted in the local vernacular.  And the courtship of Sheila in the shed is the most unlikely wooing scene since Richard III got it together with Lady Anne over the corpse of her late father-in-law.

 Colin Connor’s Fred is the spitting image of the man – the facial likeness is uncanny, the voice is precise, he even captures the waddling gait.  And if there is something a bit cartoon like about him it only adds to the comedy, although it’s slightly less successful in the play’s poignant second half.

 By way of contrast, Michelle Collins’s take on Mrs Dibnah The Third is a naturalistic portrayal of a lively and attractive woman who cares passionately for her husband.  Michelle Collins is excellent in all facets of the role and steals the show by becoming the heroine of the story.

 Mike Burnside as Fred’s golden-hearted pal Bert and John Mcardle as the Machiavellian silver fox Malc are also memorable and multi-layered.

 James Cotterill’s design feels like being in a real engineering works, partly because of the authentic accumulation of clutter and junk on stage, and partly due to the vast sense of space he creates above and behind the playing area.  Joe Stathers-Tracey’s video projections shown on three screens high above the stage make for an arresting and original opening when Fred descends from the gods on a rackety ladder in the middle of a storm – a truly dramatic moment. 

 Like a precision engineer, director David Thacker has fettled a believable world for this very local story – one the press night audience seemed to relate to very strongly.  No doubt this will be as big a success for the Octagon as their smash hit And did Those Feet.

 The Demolition Man is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 7 May 2011

Tickets: from £9.50

Performances: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Fri 8, Sat 16, Wed 20 Apr, Wed 4, Sat 7 May @ 2pm 

Box Office: 01204 520661

www.octagonbolton.co.uk

Apr 7th

Peacefully at Home by Nicola Schofield at Taurus Bar, Manchester

By Caroline May
Playwright Nicola Schofield was one of the earliest talents to emerge from the Royal Exchange/Bruntwood new writing competition with her script, Maybe Tomorrow.  Now award-winning theatre company Organised Chaos Productions has seized the opportunity to stage her latest piece, a tense drama called Peacefully at Home.

A lingering and painful deathbed is the classic situation which has brought together a sundered family, leading to scenes of conflict as long-buried secrets come to the surface.  Bridget, the seemingly devoted wife of the dying man, is joined by her old friend Una; and practical, stay-at-home son Chris meets up with his very different brother, James, who in spite of being the dreamer was the one who escaped from the country to the big city.

Nicola Schofield skilfully sets up an apparently close and devoted family which then falls apart before our eyes; the shocks keep coming right up to the very last moment.

In their brief scenes together Lee Joseph as Chris and Chris Brett as James create a genuine mood of long-standing intimacy and brotherly affection.  The most impressive performance comes from Laura Littlewood as James’s smug yummy-mummy wife Sarah.  There is real truth in the writing of this character, and Laura Littlewood plays her with conviction and confidence. 
 
Set designer Jonathan Ingham creates an economical yet suggestive staging for the comfortable and attractive family garden.  Director Emma Hatcher is faithful to the drama’s ebbs and flows, letting the characters develop at a leisurely pace - however the play could do with some judicious trimming because there isn’t enough story to justify its current length. 

While not quite as successful as last winter’s production of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Organised Chaos should be congratulated for continuing to champion new writing and local acting talent.

Peacefully at Home
Presented by Organised Chaos Productions
Taurus Bar, Canal Street, Manchester
Wed 6 - Sat 9 April 2011 @ 8pm (7pm on Thurs 7)
£7.50/£5.50 (conc)
www.organisedchaosproductions.co.uk
Mar 24th

JB Shorts 5 at Joshua Brooks Bar, Manchester

By Caroline May
JB Shorts 5
Wednesday 23 March 2011

The opportunity to see some of the north’s best TV writers stretching their theatrical muscles in a range of short, sharp 10-minute plays is yet again packing out the cellars below Joshua Brooks bar in Manchester.  The cream of local acting and directing talent is also on parade - both on stage and in the audience.  JB Shorts is becoming a kind of biannual smoking concert for Manchester’s thespian community, only the club’s doors are open to everyone.

As usual the programme contains an eclectic mix of styles and subjects: a comedy about a malfunctioning Sky box leads to an emotional crisis and a philosophical discourse on the transience of digital media; the quick buck promised by a clinical trial isn’t as consequence-free as it seems; a man’s desperate trip to a psychiatrist has shades of Blithe Spirit about it.

The most surprising piece is Peter Kerry’s My Poor Fool is Hang’d, which bucks the trend for contemporary realism with a fully rigged-out costume drama.  This sequel to King Lear featuring Kent (Russell Richardson), The Fool (John Catterall) and Cordelia (Annamarie Bayley) shows how indigestible the absolute truth can be, albeit in a rather obscure manner.

For a truly successful combination of comedy and drama you have to turn to Diane Whitley’s Snapshots.  Bill and Sally are the victims of a surprise 40th wedding celebration hosted by their doting granddaughter Zoë and her new beau Greg.  Zoë has compiled a slideshow of photographs which mark the major landmarks in a long and apparently happy marriage.  Using an ingenious device, which director Chris Wright handles with slick assurance, the pictures are brought to life by the two younger actors while the older Bill and Sally comment on the action.  Glenn Cunningham and Tom Tyler-Shaw are utterly convincing as the old and young Bill, a carefree rocker trapped by an unwanted pregnancy who grows into a sympathetic and likeable character.  Ruth Evans and Rachael McGuinness have a harder job to make the shallow Sally into someone the audience can care about, but they do forge believable partnerships with their respective Bills.  This script is one of the best things I’ve seen at JB Shorts and demonstrates how much can be achieved in just 15 minutes on stage.

The equally assured finale is by Dave Simpson, who also employs a flash-back device for We’re All In This Together.  Rookie comedian Jack (James Quinn) has taken to the stage in an open mic comedy night and is lambasting the coalition government with a series of pitiful gags.  Only a performer as assured and funny as James Quinn could make Jack’s deliberately amateurish act come across as hilarious.  Every time the stand-up pillories some new government policy the action flashes back to show the impact it’s had on Jack’s own life and how thoroughly he’s been betrayed.  Peter Slater is also good value as his nerdy friend turned Lib Dem councillor.  We’re All In This Together is very much a topical comedy, and arguably pure agitprop.  But on the day Manchester University announced maximum student tuition fees of £9K, and mere hours after George Osborne’s second budget, the response from the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic. 

Small wonder even successful TV writers whose audiences are usually counted in the millions still get a kick from having their work performed live on stage.

On until Sat 2 April (NOT Sunday 27)
7pm (doors 6.40pm)
JOSHUA BROOKS, 106 Princess Street, MANCHESTER M1 6NG
(The junction of Charles St and Princess St, at the side of the BBC)
All Tickets : £5 (Pay on the Door)
Mar 17th

Manchester International Festival 2011 Launch

By Caroline May
Manchester International Festival today announced the full programme of new and specially commissioned work to be premiered in the city this summer.

The festival includes the previously announced play by Victoria Wood at Manchester Opera House; the collaboration between Marina Abramovic, Willem Dafoe, Robert Wilson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) at The Lowry; and Mark Elder and the Hallé playing Wagner’s Die Walkure at the Bridgewater Hall.

There will also be exciting contributions from major international artists in every conceivable field.  And speaking of fields, the festival is going to have its very own sustainable, carbon-neutral farm supplying the Albert Square café.  However, far from being a verdant urban oasis, the vertical farm is situated in a disused tower block in the city; the project is intended to run up to the 2013 event.

Returning to the UK, the iconoclastic Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork has been developing Biophilia (love of nature) for three years.  This melding of music, nature and science, which is only now possible thanks to recent developments in technology, will be performed at Campfield Market Hall next to the Museum of Science and Industry for comparatively intimate audiences of only 1800.  As well as creating the first “App Album”, the multi-media interactive shows include specially invented instruments such as a 30-foot high pendulum.

Blur’s Damon Albern and director Rufus Norris have focussed their attention on the Elizabethan code breaker, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and magician Doctor John Dee.  With live music on authentic period instruments and West African drums, and featuring 20 orchestral players, the project defies explanation but intriguingly we are promised magic, tunes and anthems.  Doctor Dee will also be seen at the Olympic Festival in June 2012.

In addition to the festival’s brief of commissioning world premieres, this time the artists have also been encouraged to re-imagine and reinterpret iconic events from the past.  Victoria Wood’s new play That Day We Sang is set in 1969 when a Granada TV documentary is marking the 40th anniversary of the legendary Manchester School Children’s Choir’s recording of Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away.  Switching between the two eras, the play is a love story about a pair of middle-aged people who might have a second chance in life.

Punchdrunk are taking over the Media City plaza on Salford Quays to create their first event for children, The Crash of the Elysium.  Aimed at an audience aged between 6 and 12 years, their co-conspirators include BBC North, BBC Wales and Steven Moffatt, and although the subject matter is super-secret they promise it’s something all will children love.

Art events include a range of activities both inside and outside the Whitworth Art Gallery, a group show at Manchester Art Gallery, and an LED wall in Lincoln Square.

Acknowledging Manchester’s place in musical history, both pop and classical, musicians at the festival include Sinead O’Conner, Snoop Dogg, Ricky Lee Jones, Alina Ibragimova and Paul Heaton (ex The Housemartins and The Beautiful South); and Sacred Sites brings internationally renowned performers of sacred song and recital to five different faith communities in Manchester.

The Pavilion Theatre on Albert Square will host an eclectic range of work and artists, with Johnny Vegas performing on stage for one week with his new show.

Promising something for everyone, and with at least one third of the tickets free, the 2011 Manchester International Festival sounds like a great proposition for this summer.

30 June-17 July 2011
Various venues, Manchester and Salford
www.mif.co.uk
Mar 14th

The Price by Arthur Miller at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
Octagon Theatre Bolton - The Price by Arthur Miller - production photo 15_low res[1].JPG



If you want a director who can really be said to be in touch with the intentions of a writer, then the Octagon’s artistic director David Thacker has more right than most to claim a special understanding of the work of legendary American playwright Arthur Miller, having collaborated with Miller for over 20 years while staging many productions of his work.

The Price, originally produced in 1968, is set more or less contemporaneously, but the drama has all taken place over 30 years earlier.  Victor Franz, a New York policeman on the brink of retirement, is clearing out the old family apartment because the building is about to be demolished.  The piles of furniture and bric-à-brac have languished there unused for years, a crumbling monument to the Franz family’s wealth and status before the 1929 Crash.  However the dealer who arrives to bid for the residuary estate of Victor’s long-dead father causes Victor, his wife Esther and estranged brother Walter to ask themselves the difficult question: what price can you put on a man’s life? 

With its contained setting, real-time playing and cast of four, The Price is like an intricate piece of chamber music for a quartet of virtuoso players.  David Thacker has assembled an amazing cast that is every bit as good on the stage as it promises to be on paper.

Playing Esther, Victor’s dissatisfied dipsomaniac wife, is Suzan Sylvester who won an Olivier award 20 years ago as the flighty Catharine in Miller’s earlier masterpiece, A View From the Bridge.  Moving on a generation, Suzan Sylvester plays the role with absolutely no self-pity or vanity.  Esther’s flouncing fits, sarcastic put-downs and two-piece suit call to mind a State-side Sybil Fawlty.

RSC actor Tom Mannion makes Victor a benign but impotent presence.  Having lived a life of self-sacrifice, there is definitely a hint of the saint and martyr about him; some of the broken old bits of furniture in the apartment have more animation and self-determination than Victor.  Thus Colin Stinton as his more worldly and successful brother Walter hardly has to assert any of the cold ruthlessness of which his character is accused to appear dynamic and vibrant next to Victor.

And as the comic relief, local legend Kenneth Alan Taylor gives a star turn as the eccentric elderly antique-dealer Gregory Solomon, who proudly proclaims: “I am registered, I am licensed, I am even vaccinated”.

Patrick Connellan’s in-the-round design crucially establishes a bi-polar sense of the items of furniture, ornaments and clothing heaped up round the stage - property that was clearly once beautiful and valuable but which now amounts to little more than salvage purely because of its social and historical context.

An excellent production that is a credit to the Octagon’s artistic team.

The Price is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 2 April 2011
Tickets: from £9.50
Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Fri 11, Wed 23, Sat 26 March @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
www.octagonbolton.co.uk
Mar 2nd

Private Lives at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

There’s never a shortage of Noel Coward revivals at The Royal Exchange, but after a string of Hay Fevers and Blithe Spirits along comes Michael Buffong’s first-rate production of Private Lives which is in another class altogether.

This is probably due to the peerless cast. Even on paper the thought of Exchange favourite Simon Robson playing opposite an actress as fabulous as Imogen Stubbs is enough to make any theatre-goer’s mouth water. On a purely technical level, their natural ease with this style of writing enables them to create three-dimensional characters who have meaningful conversations, rather than paper-thin caricatures exchanging brittle one-liners. Suddenly the depths of Coward’s comedy are exposed, and the actors’ pleasure in playing with the language is evident.

As well as mastering their own roles, Messrs Robson and Stubbs forge a fantastic stage partnership. Imogen Stubbs’s Amanda is flirtatious, flighty and funny, and makes this often appalling character actually very appealing. Simon Robson’s patrician Elyot is far more serious and stolid, yet this works well against the mercurial Amanda. Their scenes together in the Paris flat are a tour-de-force, and the disparity in their sizes spices up the rampant physicality of their performances. Thanks to choreographer Coral Messam and fight director Kate Waters the no-holds-barred bouts of fisticuffs and fornication are almost balletic. And I’ll never forget the beautiful interlude at the piano where Elyot seduces Amanda, and the whole audience along with her.

Joanna Page, who has proved her comedy chops over three series of Gavin and Stacey but who is almost unrecognisable here in a peroxide wig and frumpy suit, chivvies up the frequently thankless role of Sibyl; and Clive Hayward gives us a cowardly blustering Victor, who poses as a knight in shining armour but is more concerned with righting the furniture than righting wrongs. Even Rose Johnson as the disdainful French maid turns her brief appearance into a brilliant cameo of clowning and contempt.

Designer Ellen Cairns reinterprets the hotel balcony of act 1 as a box-hedged terrace which facilitates some of the funniest eavesdropping scenes since Much Ado About Nothing, and the sequence of negligees, gowns and playsuits she dreams up for Amanda are to die for.

After last year’s award-winning take on A Raisin in the Sun, director Michael Buffong triumphs yet again. Frankly this production has “west end transfer” written all over it - get your tickets while you can.

Private Lives

Prices £9-£30

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

 

 

 

 

 

is on until Saturday 9 April 2011www.royalexchange.co.uk
Feb 26th

A Doll’s House, Manchester Library Theatre Company, at The Lowry

By Caroline May
reviewed by Richard Howell-Jones

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!

 

We, of course, already know this, but to Ibsen’s audience the very idea of such a concept would have been shocking, outrageous, unthinkable; hence the power of A Doll’s House, now playing at the Lowry until 12th March.

 

From today’s perspective, we can see how Ibsen lulled his audience into a false state of contentment, the not-too-bright but devoted wife led into error by her own devotion and rescued at the last moment by the love and forgiveness of others. Except that the story doesn’t end there as she makes sense of her experience and the happy ending suddenly crashes and burns – or, if you prefer, the sentimentally-predictable suddenly becomes raw and unknown, with the howling winds of freedom sounding a wake-up clarion to the oppressed.

 

Discuss. But what’s interesting about Chris Honer’s production, of a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery, is how it manages to preserve the impact of that unexpected ending while not needing to go too far down the road of modernisation. Granted, there are one or two contemporary phrases which sit uncomfortably with a cast dressed in period tails and bustles, but there’s a feeling that this is a new play, even when one knows it isn’t.

         

The cast, of course, makes this work. Ken Bradshaw’s Torvald is a very personable and likeable chauvinist, clearly an intelligent man who loves but doesn’t understand; without him, played as he is, Nora’s epiphany cannot make sense. And Emma Cunliffe pulls this off beautifully, her Nora delightfully hooked on macaroons and proud of her secret machination, yet seeming not the brightest bulb on the tree, convincingly growing through her emotional journey into an individual woman, slightly bewildered still but nevertheless certain of her actions. In a piece that could so easily be just more man-bashing, these two achieve a near-perfect portrayal of how good intentions just aren’t enough.

         

The rest of the cast propel them to this vital ending with unerring precision. Mrs Linde seemed very peculiar at first, almost an automaton, before it became clear that it was her hard experiences which had made her so. It could be difficult then to allow her to soften as she must without contrivance, yet Sarah Ball manages this effortlessly. Paul Barnhill’s Krogstad, clearly a bitter man with nothing to lose and seemingly no redeeming features, applies exactly the right pressure to get things moving; it’s a pleasant surprise to find later that he is a human being after all. Daniel Brocklebank enjoys himself as Dr. Rank but not too much, while Verity-May Henry (Helene) and Roberta Kerr (Anne-Marie) provide exactly the correct degree of servant support, a period detail hard to achieve.

 

A niggle occurs when the children arrive: their performances are flawless, but one is forced to assume that the Helmers believe in adoption.

 

The only other concern was the intrusive and unnecessary background music, doubtless intended to ensure the audience knew how Nora felt. But Emma Cunliffe needs no irritating drone to tell us this and, no, I don’t mean Torvald.

 

This production, overall, takes what could be a stagy old suffragette and shows that she’s still a fresh young woman with her own ideas, exactly as Ibsen intended. Updated yet perfectly preserved.

 

A Doll’s House, the Manchester Library Theatre Company,

at the Lowry Theatre from 24th February to 12th March.

 

Tickets: 0843-208 6010 or www.librarytheatre.com

Feb 25th

Domestic Bliss by Roy Knowles at Nexus Art Cafe, Manchester

By Caroline May

Domestic Bliss, Roy Knowles’ biting satire on contemporary northern working-class life, has finally made it to a full-length fully-staged production after being work-shopped at Oldham Coliseum, semi-staged at the Not Part of Festival’s Sitcom Shorts show in 2009, and receiving a rehearsed reading at last year’s 24:7 Theatre Festival.

The process of development - and possibly the help of director Matthew Gould - has transformed the sketchy (if hilarious) premise into a fully-fledged comedy drama.

Hard-working but hide-bound Les and his kind but ditzy wife Jean think they already have enough on their plates with slacker son Mark and mouthy daughter Dawn. That’s until they decide to spend the evening unwinding in front of another scandalous episode of Danny Funckle, Agony Uncle (a format not unrelated to The Jeremy Kyle Show if DNA tests are to be believed) and discover that Shelly, the show’s latest dysfunctional wannabe WAG, is claiming that Mark is the father of her new baby…

John Howarth as comic foil Les and Sharon Heywood as doting grandmother Jean mine the play’s potential for drama and pathos, and Gemma Flannery’s Dawn and Matthew Melbourne’s Mark relish the sardonic one-liners, while Zoe Iqbal is fabulous as short-skirted, loose-moralled Shelly, the none-too-doting mother of bouncing fourteen-pound baby Hollyblossomlouise (named after her Nana and a paint advert on the telly).

Where Domestic Bliss really scores theatrical points is with the semi-surreal interplay between the scenes in the TV studio and the live reaction in the Tyler family’s front room. This is partly because the author turns the confession show’s sensationalist format into a recurring joke that brilliantly develops through the story. But mainly it’s because the stage is lit up by Liam Tims’ charismatic performance as the vain, self-important, counterfeit-caring TV presenter - his spontaneous interaction with the (real live) audience and witty ad libs were the icing on the cake.

Incidentally, this was my first theatre trip to the Nexus Art Café in Manchester‘s Trendy Northern Quarter (© Manchester City Council), which is a fantastic performance space as well as boasting squishy sofas, lovely coffee and tempting home-made cakes.

I can’t predict what the next development will be for Domestic Bliss, but if its previous incarnations are anything to go by it will be a tremendous success.

Domestic Bliss  is on until Friday 25 February 2011 at Nexus Art Café, 2 Dale Street, Manchester M1 1JW - www.nexusartcafe.com

Tickets (£7/£5) on the door or in advance from : www.ibookedit.com (no booking fee)