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Review: Cosmic Scallies, Royal Exchange

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Cosmic Scallies by Jackie Hagan

Royal Exchange, Manchester [07.10.17]

A concrete-esque set up of three benches and an arch way. The labels ’44 Feltons’, ‘Birch Green’, ‘Skelmersdale’ – Dent’s address. A pair of fake uggs and a cardie. A woman (Dent) emerges from behind the the arch way wearing odd socks, tie-dye leggings and layered tops with a mug of what could be tea, coffee or a beverage of multiple of descriptions. Shaun opens the door. And here we have our Cosmic Scallies.

Cosmic Scallies is as much about being disabled and being working class, as it is about the depths of friendship and how are experiences inform who we become but are not the entirety of who we are. These complex and important themes are accompanied by banter about posh pubs and their shit names, the adjectival alliterative names we affectionately give those from our ends and an ode to the best snacks you can get from the corner shop for less than a quid.

We are taken on a journey with Dent and Shaun. A journey that begins with Dent calling up a handy man to remove her late mother’s belongs from her house only for her long estranged school mate Shaun to turn up at the door. The two reminisce on old times, take the piss out of each other, argue over the severity of Dent’s disability and remember why they drifted away from each other in the first place. As the two attempt to pick up Dent’s medication and she is faced with the usual obstacle course posed to the chronically ill (if you follow me on social media, you’ll have experienced my rants about unsigned prescriptions and unavailable meds), Dent is faced with a decision of continually insisting she can do everything for herself or allowing Shaun to take the prescription and resolve the situation for her. In her reluctance and Shaun’s help focused insistence, we journey back in time to their school years. We hear of Shaun’s neglect-fueled childhood and loneliness in primary school and Dent’s experience of bullying in high school, often fueled by Shaun.

But what moved me most about this was the final scene between Dent and Shaun. Dent is in severe pain and her electric has gone. Shaun takes her final tenner to buy them a couple of treats and, returns with some Space Radars, Kit Kats, Freddos and some multicoloured fairy lights – batteries thrown in. And watching the two of them sitting, draped in these lights with their snacks, reflecting on life reminded me of what really matters. The last time I had a rough patch PTSD wise, one of my friends sat in my bed with me and at stupid o’clock suggested that we sit and meditate together. I think he did a good job. I struggled. But it’s the thought that counts and the thought here is that friendship and mattering to each other transcends being popular, having a few bob and feeling okay. Mattering is personal and it’s special. And that uniqueness and truth is something that this friendship and this play truly embody.

What Jackie has successfully achieved is a story crafted with honesty and bluntness. This is a play that turns theatre on its overly middle class head and redefines what makes a story worth telling. Cosmic Scallies is very real. It is a reflection of a life that many people live and if this shocks audiences, they’ve clearly not come up from their slumbers for quite some time. I imagine this play will be described as gritty and hard-hitting because as soon as anything differs from Hamlet or Jane Eyre, all adjectival hell breaks loose. But, what I am going to conclude with is that this play is genuine. A genuine piece of theatre about people who do matter and whose stories deserve the same recognition as those that are more palatable and/or Instagram friendly.

Verdict: Cosmic Scallies really is a special offering among the mounds of mediocre theatre that gets chucked at us daily. It is the hidden gem at a car boot that makes your Sunday afternoon. But, most importantly, it is truly relateable for the skint, the disabled, the struggling and the hopeful. An important play that almost got a tear out of me – theatre tapping into my feelings at its best.

 

 

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Review: What If I Told You, Royal Exchange

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Image: West Yorkshire Playhouse website

What If I Told You by Pauline Mayers

Royal Exchange, Manchester [19.06.17]

Enter the empty space. Leave your belongings beside the wall – you will not be needing them. Form a circle. There’s something quite wholesome about it. And your evening has begun.

Pauline Mayers’ What If I Told You (WIITY) is an exploration of life as a black woman in the performance world and beyond, delivered through storytelling, movement and tableux. This immersive experience places the audience within Pauline’s story but also allows us to revisit our own life experiences. This is a work that focuses on each of us being present, a necessary component of having access to the many truths of the piece.

Pauline invites us to play, embrace one another, see each other and hear her truth. WIITY is a historical playground that illustrates the bullying and abusing of black women’s bodies through time. We are exposed to the harsh truths of experiments conducted on black women by Dr J. Marion Sims in the name of gynaecology and told the names of three of the black women he experimented on: Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. This alongside the flooding of ‘Black Lives Matter’ chanting, highlights the true war that has been and still is upon black bodies in the Western world. Pauline invites us into a space that contains black pain but she does not turn this into a spectacle. She acknowledges these experiences with a truthfulness and encourages us to reflect on how and why these events are occurring.

These narratives are weaved into Pauline’s personal experiences. She tells us of her journey from childhood to girlhood to adulthood. When she describes her audition for the Rambert School, she talks of how she has the shortest legs of all of the girls in the room. And for a moment, this brings up a memory I have from modelling. I remember being stood in a room with nine other girls who’s legs basically went up to my shoulders. And then I remember, the dodgy comments made about my thighs, nose and lips.

Back in the room and I feel even more connected to Pauline. This is likely in part due to the conversation we had over the phone where we discussed the way in which black women’s bodies are othered in theatre and the wider world. But it is also in part due to Pauline having the incredible ability to blur the edges between the theatrical play space she has created and the world outside of the studio.

Listening to Pauline’s journey through the arts world has given me hope. Her story is one that young black women should experience. It is unfortunately not often that you find a black woman in a space telling her story, talking about the challenges of her journey and absolutely smashing it. This is exactly what we need more of.

This piece ends with the audience being present and moving across the space and engaging with each other via a look or an embrace. At this point, I will admit I became quite disengaged. For me, physical contact is something to only be shared with those I am close to. I initially felt unsettled watching people hug each other and spent the next day questioning why that was. I do not have a conclusion yet but, I know this was a unique moment in which people were able to just be, together.

Verdict: What If I Told You is wonderful piece of storytelling that allows us to step into Pauline’s shoes and those of black women in history. Through measured physicality and emotive and engaging storytelling, we are able to truly be present with Pauline and explore our own narratives alongside hers. Go see it at Edinburgh Fringe this summer!

 

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Review: How My Light Is Spent, Royal Exchange

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How My Light Is Spent by Alan Harris

Royal Exchange, Manchester [09.05.17]

NB: This was a relaxed performance.

Newport, South Wales. Two individuals sit with their backs to each other on a raised rectangular podium. A recording of a phone conversation is played: a man declaring his hands have disappeared. In unison, the two raise their hands to the light. Begin.

Phone sex.

Meet Jimmy. Jimmy is a 34 year old man who lives with his mother, has a kid he hasn’t seen in 4 years, works at a doughnut drive through, hasn’t had sex in a long time and so calls Kitty every evening at 7.30pm for 9 minutes of phone sex.

Meet Kitty. Kitty is a phone sex worker who pretends to masturbate whilst talking to customers, when really she’s just waiting for time to pass. She keeps her childhood locked away in an impenetrable box, practices altruism and dreams of becoming a psychologist.

How My Light Is Spent is an honest, funny and bizarre exploration of unemployment, loneliness, sex work and the search for meaning. Part narrated, part performed in the moment, this hilarious tale charts the gradual disappearance of Jimmy’s body. Somewhat of a modern version of H G Wells’ science fiction novella, The Invisible Man, this play gives us soft sci-fi and a compelling journey through the realm of relationships.

 

Set to a palette of Spandau Ballet, Phil Collins and Maroon 5, some welsh accents and a dash of received pronunciation, our ears very much lead the way in this performance. The stripped back set (which I feel resembles Newport Bridge by night) allows us to focus solely on the two performers. Rhodri Meilir and Alexandria Riley both express their undeniable talent in delivering a multitude of characters, each with their own quirks and emotional truths. They are able to make us laugh and almost cry in the moments experienced by both Jimmy and Kitty.

Whilst this play has a lighthearted feel, it touches on some very important conversations: the state of unemployment and perceptions of sex work. When Jimmy goes to the job centre, if you yourself have ever been to sign on you know exactly how he feels. We’ve all had a Michelle who’s not particularly bothered about your experiences or your aspirations and she really just wants to get you away from her desk so she can admire both sides of her hand for a little longer. Rhodri expresses the apathy and frustration that fills us in the search for a job and delivers a performance with genuine feeling. Universal Credit has been sewing its seeds all over the country yet oddly it is not outwardly addressed in the theatre that often. Yes, there are many plays that explore unemployment but, very few knuckle down into the under layers of a system that can be ignored by those it does not effect. As we watch Jimmy’s decline post ‘signing on’, we are exposed to a very real reality of Britain’s working class or as Jimmy defines it, ‘no class’. The loss of his job results in a lost of meaning and a sense of inadequacy in within that feeling, he becomes lost – disappearing at an alarming rate.

Speaking of rates, it was refreshing to see a piece of theatre include sex work as a key component without solely perpetuating stereotypes. It cleverly explores the positive and negative language around sex work and also opens a window into the world of different types of sex work. Immediately placing the audience in a phone sex scenario was a good choice on the part of Alan Harris – placing an audience in a setting that is usually private forces us to explore how we feel about this scenario but also to question how we engage and participate in privacy. Kitty is a strong, vibrant and driven character who tries to keep most of her feelings concealed. Alexandria’s performance compels us to route for Kitty and to hope that she truly ends up where she wants to be.

The end of this play was looking as though it was going to be a cheese fest but it surpasses all levels of cheese on toast and delivered a heartfelt and beautiful moment when Jimmy and Kitty found the light of life in each other (it was less cheesy than what I just said, I promise).

Verdict: How My Light is Spent is an honest, funny and original love story set on a welsh bridge. Doughnuts, disappearing body parts, personalised saucers and Newport’s answer to Mona Lisa – a truly wonderful play.

 

 

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Review: Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Royal Exchange, Manchester [22.04.2017]

I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare or Classics, but this was a great piece of Saturday afternoon theatre that really went to town with re-imagining Shakespeare and making it more palatable to the modern audience. To my surprise, I enjoyed myself. This is a rare occurrence so I will use this post to celebrate that.

But let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, when you read you… stop) and explain why I don’t really buy old Shakey. Shakespeare has been done to death and even in death, he has not parted us. He’s still grasping on for dear life, like when Victor puts the ring on the branch in Corpse Bride and it turns out to be Emily’s finger and so she rises from the dead to wed Victor. Yeah, that sums up Shakespeare quite well.

Quick plot summary: Shipwreck. Sand Everywhere. Gender Fluidity. A High-Vis Lycra Moment. Viola loves Orsino. Orsino loves Olivia. Olivia loves Cesario (Viola). Marvolio loves Olivia. And there’s something a foot between Maria and Sir Toby. Everyone gets a reasonably happy ending except for Malvolio (bless him).

Chuck in a trolley draped in 90’s Christmas tree fairy lights, a traffic cone, a folding bicycle, an electric guitar and some next level high-vis Lycra, and you’ve got yourself a wildly funny piece of new age Shakespeare. Sir Toby’s late night party piece with Sir Andrew is enough to rival any post student night out after party (Poly v Posh eat your heart out). But, the party truly starts when Feste walks in. Played by the charming and engaging Kate O’Donnell, Feste is a loveable, inquisitive jester who makes us laugh and reflect throughout the piece. She also takes a moment to bond with the audience following the interval and finishes the play with a song that resembled what I imagine the Shakespearean version of Cabaret to be. O’Donnell’s cabaret background and ability to bring an audience in made her the perfect choice for this role. Plus her own experiences as a transgender woman, added to the emotional truth that really came through in the final song.

The story within this play is good, but it is all of the production aspects of this adaptation that really push it into the great production realm. It’s rare that you can go to see a main house production and see such a diverse cast. The casting of Faith Omole as Viola was an excellent choice, she brought wit, charm and vulnerability to the role. She gave Viola and Cesario their individual nuances, and really made us believe the depths of her love for her master, Orsino.  Moreover, it was good to see a dark skinned black woman in a challenging, leading role. Colour-brave casting isn’t a new feat for the Royal Exchange who staged King Lear last year, starring Don Warrington and an equally diverse cast.

Mina Anwar (Maria) and Kate Kennedy (Olivia) also gave us charismatic and humorous performances. Comedy gold struck when Olivia requested that Maria cover her mistress’ face, but due to their stark height difference, she has to jump to comply. Anwar and Kennedy pull the most distinctive and story-filled facial expressions throughout the play that it is hard to take your eyes off them.

Harry Atwell plays a gaudy yet loveable fool in love (or status), Sir Andrew, who gives us what can only be described as a ginger gandalf leaping over 2 for 1 Primark suitcases and a pitiful attempt at boxing – very much like sending Daffy Duck to compete in Cagey Joe’s boxing ring, with no Bugsy Malone in sight… unless you count Malvolio sporting a high-vis yellow get up, to appease Olivia. Absolutely hilarious from start to finish!

And now of course, for the set. Leslie Travers’ designed the amazing structure pictured above, which I will refer to as ‘Malvolio’s Cage’. When a picture of Malvolio’s Cage was posted on the Royal Exchange’s instagram, I was so taken by its architecture that I concluded I had to see the play because I needed to know what role this creation could be playing in it – it is the 15th cast member. When the structure lowers to centre stage in the second act, a stylistic use of lighting highlights each of its nooks and crannies alongside its elegance. My inner forgotten art student was very excited by this.

Verdict: If you like Shakespeare, watch this and if you don’t like Shakespeare, definitely give this a go. You may leave as pleasantly surprised as I was and if you’re still anti-Shakespeare at least you’ll have had a good laugh. P.S. following this matinee performances may well be the shout.

Twelfth Night is on until May 20th. 

 

 

 

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Review: The People Are Singing, Royal Exchange

The People Are Singing

The People Are Singing by Lizzie Nunnery

Royal Exchange, Manchester [07.04.2017]

A tin tub with some cargo net. Some coloured rope. Three photographs. A tally chart counting nothing. A man lighting candles. A child skipping.

Distant memories of childhood games immerse us in a younger world view in Lizzie Nunnery’s new play. We observe a twelve year old girl, Irina skipping and playing hop scotch. But, at unexpected instances her actions and thoughts are no longer her own  – trauma is her puppet master and fear, her strings. This external domination of Irina’s choices only grows as the piece progresses. What starts as an external war to their small home, grows into an indoor war in which Olena (the mother) demands that Irina sing everything away for her, this war lapses when Olena is shot by Dima, a strange man who comes into the house offering safety, food, a ‘home’. A new war is waged as Irina runs away to escape Dima and ends up in a highly original forbidden forest, en route to a freedom she has only ever imagined.

Whilst this piece possesses a strong narrative, it is its physicality, poetry, sound and visual artistry that make it a poignant piece of theatre. Irina’s poetic monologues take us on a harrowing journey in which she begins to question her actions and who their purposes pertain to. These pieces alongside a soundscape that removes the need for specific physical props, gives us a true sense of immersion into this abraded landscape and unsettling forest.

The movements within this piece highlight the characters relationships to the warped world in which they are living and express the proximity in sensation between fear and excited pleasure: each time Irina throws her arms out, are these sensations what she perceives them to be or are they crafted externally. Theses mixed emotions are almost like a replica of the state of uncertainty that arises when you are not sure whether or not you are having a panic attack.

The accompanying strong element of visual arts only builds on this experience. The use of bungee cords (in the colours of the Ukrainian flag) as household items, undergrowth, outdoor games, and a physical expression of both internal and external limitations imposed on us, gives the piece a continued identity – which starkly contrasts with the decomposing identities of all of the characters.

The People Are Singing leaves us questioning ways to respond to wrong doing and whether it is right to do the thing that is most truthful. The snapshot experience we have through a little girl’s eyes also brings us to consider what truly crafts one’s identity in childhood and how this is impeded by the cold light of trauma.

 

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Review: Nothing, Royal Exchange

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Photo by Fureya Nelson-Riggot

You know a play is dark, when you leave the theatre with that “i’m not okay” kind of feeling. You know a play is really dark, when you leave in a state of indescribable distress and an inability to articulate the state that you are in. If a play triggers me (especially if it happens on multiple occasions throughout its duration), I usually refuse to write about it. But. But, Nothing. Nothing is exactly that, it is something that needs to be talked about and experienced in all of its catastrophic disturbances because Nothing matters. Every dark tale weaved into this distorted, Rubix coated search for meaning, reminds us why we are here, why we matter and why we are more than our experiences. I am not going to go into detail about the plot of Nothing, but I will give you a list of some of the objects of reference (to meaning) in the piece and allow you to join up the dots: antidepressants, a hamster, a finger, a pair of trainers, a diary, a dvd box set, a t-shirt, a phone, a dog’s head and virginity.

In playing with levels, the elements, physicality and close proximity delivery, this production places the audience right in its centre. You are not the fly on the wall, but the fly free to roam the room and feel all kinds of sensations that you may or may not want to engage with.

Did I enjoy this play? No.

Is it an exceptional piece of theatre that breaks the mould and stays with you once you’ve left the space, in a very real way? Yes.

And for that reason, I do not regret experiencing this. It has pushed me to reassess how much my experiences matter to me and how I let them shape me. It has compelled me to think about what really matters because when nothing matters, everything matters. Nothing is to be commended for its challenging nature, a story that truly makes you ache and an amazingly talented cast.

 

P.S. Shout out to Annie Rogers who played Sophie – you made me cry.

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Review: The Suppliant Woman, Royal Exchange

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The Suppliant Woman by Aeschylus       Royal Exchange, Manchester

It’s not often you get to say that you watched a play that is 2500 years old. So, I’ll say it now: I watched a play that is 2500 years old. Aeschylus’ opening and only living remainder of his lost trilogy is an epic that shares the story of 50 Egyptian women fleeing their country to escape the grips of the cousins they are betrothed to, and heading to Greece to seek sanctuary.

35 young women fill the round – singing, chanting, dancing, praying and seeking. As they move with grace and intention, we see each of these women’s individual qualities and quirks emerge. The strong collective energy of this ensemble creates a definitive sense of unity and commitment to both one another and their cause. However, the energy ceases there.

This is supposedly a play about women’s rights and empowerment but whilst there is an attempt at an exploration of the former, the latter was lacking to say the least. In the presence of the men, the women were more often than not kneeling and hanging on their words – this is not an example of empowerment, it is an example of why we still need feminism. Taking in to consideration the time at which this play was written, it is not surprising that patriarchy takes a dominant place within its structure. However, surely a modern day take on this theatrical relic could have been more aware of itself and the message it is giving to an audience. The dominance of the male characters and the women’s dependency on their decisions cannot be overcast by their choral singing. If anything, it is a reminder that, within patriarchal structures, women challenging the status quo are perceived as noise and nothing more. This is a falsehood that needs to be challenged and it was unfortunate that whilst this challenge proposed itself through the physicality of the piece, it failed to follow through on this hopeful spark.

I did not leave The Suppliant Woman feeling empowered. Empowerment is a development in strength, confidence and power, it is growth in one’s ability to make their own decisions and move forward. The stagnation of progress expressed in this piece left me feeling tired – tired of the long road ahead. But, it also left me even more confident that a feminist revolution is what will evoke change.

 

 

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