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Review: People, Places and Things, HOME

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People, Places and Things by Duncan MacMillan

HOME, Manchester [27.09.17]

We’re looking at a big, white, lidless, front-less box with a crepe paper-esque back wall. The walls have a tiled effect and a padded air about them. This isn’t the best way to debunk the cliches that surround rehab and psych treatment units but still lets hope what follows is somewhat of an improvement.

Our piece begins with a barrage of sound that can only be likened to being in the middle of an augmented reality of a wild, 90s version of laser tag. We are then dropped into a replica of Chekov’s The Seagull. We are here only briefly until Nina has a nose bleed and time splinters and changes.

People, Places and Things is an exploration of a woman’s drug and alcohol addictions and, her journey through rehab. Though Emma is quite the comedian, there is clearly something very dark and unsettling bothering her. We first encounter Emma as Emma in a reception area. She is on the phone quite frantic giving instructions to the person on the other end about things they need to do in her house. She spends a lot of time calling this person a cunt. It turns out to be her mother. Very affectionate.

But of course, this heart warming moment is disrupted by a half dressed man with ‘the end’ written across his chest, charging into the reception, shouting and ready to fight a nurse with a chair. To shut him up, they give him an injection and plonk him in a wheelchair. Yes, all the mental health stereotypes alive and kicking. Just what we need more of…

Emma is a compulsive liar. She lies about her name. She lies about her life. She’s an actor and so there’s an argument that she lies for a living. Emma has a lot of blackouts and one suicide attempt under her belt. She also has the sense of humour that only forms when you’re sick of tired of being asked whether you have plans to harm yourself and how you’re feeling today. Sarcasm is her vice – it’s almost as important for her functioning as the drugs are – potentially more.

Emma never finishes anything. Violin lessons, diets etc she just doesn’t follow through. And this is the quality of Emma that is most relatable – addict or not, mental illness or not – we’ve all got a back log of things that we never managed to finish or didn’t have the motivation to follow through with. And it is this universal quality, that can make Emma’s story accessible even if you’ve never experienced addiction and mental ill health.

We watch her journey through rehab: rubbing people up the wrong way, falling off the wagon, hating everything group based, denying needing help and eventually embracing the support of her group and practitioner. But most importantly, we see her realise that it’s not about ‘being fixed’, it’s about being okay with ourselves and addressing things that have impacted who we are and how we function. None of us our broken. Some of us just need a little extra help to realign ourselves with our surroundings and work through things that have affected us.

Lisa Dwyer Hogg gives an incredible performance as Emma. She animates and embodies Duncan Macmillan’s words with skill and control. The character of Emma is well formed and developed however, the same cannot be said for some of the other characters in this piece. Many of the rehab participants felt quite hollow, as did the character of Foster at times. It was disappointing that all of the people of colour within this production played some of the seemingly less developed characters.

Verdict: Some strong performances and important themes but too many cliches and stereotypes.

 

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Review: Heads Up, HOME

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Heads Up by Kieran Hurley

HOME, Manchester [19.05.17]

Kieran Hurley’s Heads Up is an end of the world storytelling sesh that, at times, resembles the sorts of stories you hear from people sat in Chicken Hut after a night on the lash in the toon. Except this didn’t have the “must keep talking about it” quality that late nights in Chicken Hut do.

Whilst Hurley is clearly a very talented actor and vocalist with the ability to use small and subtle movements to give the performance an urgent physicality, the story itself lacked legs. Either that or it had too many legs that, when lined up, unfortunately tumbled like a house of cards caught in a gust of wind. The four narratives that were delivered to us were rather far fetched, but nonetheless had some important home truths (that are possibly humbling when the world is about to end) and at times, were funny. However, the stories were so jumbled that they didn’t really get off the ground and the linking points between them were too obvious at points.

I appreciate shows that do not crave a set in order to make their world exist and was impressed by Hurley’s ability to provide his continued presence, vocal range and physicality whilst engaging in a live form of play with sound effects. But, and this is a very big but, the lighting of this piece was atrocious. And, I’m not saying that to be harsh but, because at points, I had to sit with my eyes closed for a moment to counteract the pain in my eyes caused by the lighting. The stage was in darkness with Hurley in the centre barely illuminated. It is clear that the thought behind this lighting choice was to create a feeling of tension and urgency. However, there is a difference between giving your audience the feeling of tension and actually causing tension in their eyes. This piece of theatre was not accessible for individuals with sensory difficulties and I believe these staging decisions cut off a potential audience and hindered some of the audience who did attend.

Verdict: Heads Up has the potential to be something great – Hurley is a skilled performer and storyteller and, the stories of this piece have some interesting elements. However, this was a physically uncomfortable experience that I wouldn’t want to have again. Though, I would be interested to see a relaxed performance of this piece to see how much of an influence the poor conditions had on my experience of the narrative.

 

 

NB Having spoken to other attendees at this performance, it is clear that where you were seated really influenced your sensory experience of the show.

 

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Review: Tank, HOME

 

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Tank by Breach Theatre

HOME, Manchester [06.05.17]

CW: Mention of domestic violence, sexual violence, suicide

Sonny and Cher are an excellent opener for almost anything.

A film projection of a swimming pool. A table with some technical sound equipment. Two chairs. A water cooler with a stack of plastic cups. The actors enter one by one and fill themselves a cup of water. They drink. And so, our rather unusual and completely off the wall afternoon begins.

1965. 52 years ago. 28 years before I was born. A man named John C Lilly has decided that he wants to teach dolphins to speak English because of course, that’s the most important language (western entitlement much) and with any luck, they’d help us communicate with extraterrestrial life (erects index finger: “ET Phone Home”). At this point, you should prepare yourself for an underwater country western that puts Carry On Cowboy to shame – Breach theatre bring us sinister banter, compelling storytelling and synchronised choreography that could easily rival the 1988 version of Hairspray (you know, the one with Ricki Lake).

Enter Margaret. A college dropout who could be driving any of a handful of cars, dependent on which narrator you’d like to believe. She knows nothing about linguistics or phonology but she really likes dolphins so she heads to Dolphin Point to help John Boy (I just imagine that Mr Lilly could be in The Waltons) with his TESOL delivery. As someone who trained as a speech and language therapist, I have to see these lessons were very… odd. I mean, I’d be interested to know how the corpus of words was chosen for these experiments and whether or not they utilised the principles of phonological development to assist them. Also curious as to whether, minimal pairs played any role in the teaching of voiced and voiceless consonants or whether they just focused on whole words with particular attention to vowels. Now, that I’ve got this out of my system, I’ll consult my good friend Google to tell me the answers. Anyway, where were we?

Oh yes, so Margaret is helping to teach the dolphins English and this quickly escalates to her basically living in a flooded room with a dolphin called Peter. You really can’t make this shit up. Peter slowly starts to feel some kinda way about Margaret over the course of this 10 week experiment and then it just ends (the romance, not the play). Think Summer Nights in Grease except Peter transitions between being Sandy and Danny faster than you can down a dirty pint after a game of mushroom. Chuck in some brilliantly funny choreography, hilarious dolphin sounds, narrators with the majesty of Jerry Springer, a rubber dolphin head (worn by Joe Boylan who makes a rather exceptional dolphin with and without said head) and a cowboy, and you’re in for an experience, that’s for sure.

It’s now probably a good time to say that if you’re in search of more of the factual elements of this story (as in the actual experiment that took place in the 60’s), I am going to advise you converse with Wikipedia. And I am doing so because Tank does something quite incredible that is arguably more important than the facts of this rather peculiar experiment.

It is very rare that a piece of theatre can take an out of the ordinary and borderline ridiculous scenario and successfully use that as a vehicle to shed honest light on the extensive entanglements of relationship spectrum. To put it simply, imagine this: a man walks into a bar and makes a joke about a dolphin playing rough with a woman because he’s sexually attracted to her. People laugh. Reframe that and replace dolphin with man. Despite this story being true in its literal sense, it is also true in its underlying exploration of domestic and sexual violence towards women. What starts off as the odd nudge, a ‘playful’ dunking under the water, a poking in the ribs soon escalates to more brash methods of physical interaction and a developing blend of denial and fear in the person experiencing it. Margaret, played by Sophie Steer, describes to the narrators how she feels that Peter wants to cut her open, right through her middle, through her onto the beach and stick a flagpole in her. This was met by the audience with laughter. But, this is a reality for hundreds of women living in and surviving abuse in the home. As Peter and Margaret’s relationship begins to breakdown, there are questions around whether or not Margaret cares about Peter anymore, if she still feels the same way, whether his feelings matter to her. The same sorts of unhelpful questions that survivors are asked when starting to remove themselves from the toxic situation they are in. Breach Theatre have successfully managed to explore and unveil this topic in an exploratory manner that welcomes an audience to consider the politics of abusive relationships and gives a platform to the voice of the victim. Watching this as a survivor, I was overwhelmed by how accurate and truthful this narrative was delivered. Every actors exceptional physicality and storytelling skills gave this piece an honesty and authenticity that really moved me.

This play ends with Peter’s suicide. But, we are not left holding Margaret responsible. The responsibility lies with everyone involved. We are left wondering what Peter was meant to get out of this experiment? Even if Margaret had taught him to repeat in English, would it ever mean anything? A whole lot of phonology with the semantics, a metaphor for broken relationships that continue existing despite lacking one crucial ingredient: meaning. Peter’s last moments in a small tank away from his room with Margaret replicate the suffocation that Margaret experienced in her 10 weeks with Peter. History repeats itself wearing a new bloody gown, regularly checking the time.

Verdict: Tank isn’t just a funny tale of a daft 1960’s experiment in America. It’s a groundbreaking, honest and very real portrayal of dark side of relationships and an active examination of ethics and choice. This piece is a strong and important reminder that theatre by nature is political and it does damn good job at owning that. It is an act of solidarity to survivors and an absolute must see. I’m not really down with star ratings but, this really does deserve all of the stars.

 

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Review: MK Ultra, HOME

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MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company

HOME, Manchester [04.05.17]

This Is Fake Theatre.

Welcome to MK Ultra – a physical embodiment and exploration of the 1950’s LSD mind control experiments conducted by the CIA and a window into the intertwined affair of pop culture and the illuminati.

Our evening begins with a film projection within the shape of an equilateral triangle and escorts us back to 1957. Two men are arguing in a bowling alley about the order and chaos of the world and conclude that the world needs a new way, a new religion so that everyone can think for themselves. However when this movement takes off, just like all freedom movements, demands for and the seeking of power escalate. Cue Operation Mind Fuck – with support from a couple of Playboy Bunnies and a lilac animated bunny. And let the games begin.

From here on in, we observe as seven dancers express the compulsions and attempts to resist the declarations of the ‘norm’ – whatever that even is. Are each of their movements their own planned decisions or are they moving like this because pop culture subtly told them to? This high energy, acrobatic performance is perfectly fluid and each movement is clean and controlled. The use of levels takes us on a visual roller-coaster of incredible stunts and tableaux that reel the audience in. Welcome to Operation Mind Fuck.

With a palette of trippy, ecstatic colours and a reel of projections ranging from Alice in Wonderland animations to Marilyn Monroe, Rosie Kay Dance Company have successfully created a piece of dance theatre that really challenges us an audience and forces us to question everything we think and feel about this performance and the world beyond the one it has created. Cosmic purple flowers blooming, Mickey Mouse conducting an invisible orchestra and Dorothy’s red slippers clicking repeatedly are just a handful of the images that lay imbedded in your mind. And all of this against a mashed up soundtrack of Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, takes us into a blended confusion that it is still quite hard to process. MK Ultra is so distinct and dedicated to its exploration that it had me constantly trying to work out what I was listening to and seeing. At points, I was sure that I could here Narayan by The Prodigy, Toni Basil’ Hey Mickey and Wake Up by Hilary Duff – though I’m pretty sure the latter was in my head, imposed by the overt Disney references, colour charged cityscape projections and hypnotising floor sequence. You know these triangular messages are truly messing with your mind when you’ve got Hilary Duff going round and round in your head… Wake up, wake up on a Saturday night, could be New York, maybe Hollywood and Vine, London, Paris maybe Tokyo, there’s something going on anywhere I go… Yes, there was certainly something going on here…

MK Ultra is nothing short of incredible. I like to be confused and moved from my comfort zone in the theatre and this successfully did that. I am currently in a state of ‘what on earth happened to me last night?’ and have been listening to DJ Rashad’s Twitter to try to counteract this. But, maybe that’s what they want me to do… Welcome to Operation Mind Fuck.

Verdict: A trip the light fantastic level of weird and confusing – absolutely phenomal piece of dance. Would highly recommend.

 

 

 

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Review: My Country, HOME MCR or Anti-Black Propaganda 101 or Is Shirley Bassey Even Welsh?

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My Country by The National Theatre

Directed by Rufus Norris; Poetry by Carol Ann Duffy

HOME MCR, Manchester [22.04.2017]

As a black-mixed, british person, I’d just like to say, what a load of old tripe that was! Filled with anti-black, right wing propaganda from the off – this is a concrete expression of how Britain attempts to derive its ‘greatness’ from basking in its ‘lets just brush it under the carpet’ afrophobic rhetoric, mixed with a superiority complex.

My Country is a verbatim piece of theatre about the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. It shares real people’s stories, through seven characters who represent: Britannia, Caledonia, Cymru, Northern Ireland, North East, East Midlands and South West. The National Theatre team who went out to conduct these interviews ‘nationwide’ clearly didn’t travel very far or rather they only ventured to a handful of Virgin train stops. And as for their sampling method, they picked up a few token brown and black people (mostly men and with right leaning opinions) to make this top heavy piece seem representative… in all of its white supremacy. The fact that the company failed to include a black person in their cast but wanted to create a piece that represents this country demonstrates why as a black person in the UK, you are not british by design.

I do not agree with most of the views that were aired in this piece. However, I recognise that this is verbatim theatre and so it’s going to air an array of views and stories, from real people. But, there was no balance here, which makes no sense given that leave or stay was close to a 50/50 split. The major problem was that there were lots of views describing non-white and/or non british people as: terrorists, benefits scroungers, rapists and non-english speakers, not conforming to british culture (to name a few), but virtually no stories/views conveying them in a positive light. Even the views aired by POC interviewees are relatively anti-immigration. This is just another piece of propaganda to replace the buses that promised £350 million to the NHS.

But what really struck me was the clear lack of platform to black women’s voice – misogynoir really reared its ugly head here and it has not gone unnoticed. Black women’s voices are continually erased and, to not seek out the views of black women for this piece of theatre is damaging but unfortunately not surprising. This is the reason that platforms such as No Fly On The Wall and Galdem exist – to give space to black women and to challenge racist patriarchal structures.

In terms of the direction of this piece, there was very little – lots of sitting at desks and occasionally standing up to have an argument. My year 7s could have done a better job than this! Though to be fair, some direction did occur when each representative decided to share an item that represented their area and do a little dance. Of course, there was a bit of Irish dancing (his legs weren’t straight) and some Morris dancing. But the party really started when Wales began dancing to Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey and the man sat next to me said very loudly: ‘is Shirley Bassey even Welsh?’ Yeah, that sums it up really.

My Country is a play that failed in so many areas: the direction, the production, the research, the casting, the poetry… oh and whilst it managed to platform the views of Farage, May, Cameron and Johnson, it couldn’t possibly include any left or liberal views, could it? I guess we all know, how this came about.

Verdict: I gave up my Saturday night to watch some anti-black nonsense and experience a stranger’s out loud confusion over Shirley Bassey. This play brings nothing to the table that you can’t already find on Facebook – if you need to refresh your memory, just re-add all the people you deleted when Brexit made its debut. The National Theatre needs to check itself, seriously (and maybe go back into education to study research methods).

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