REVIEW: JB Shorts 17 (53-Two, Manchester)

JB Shorts 17 at 53-Two, Manchester until 27 May 2017
JB Shorts 17 at 53-Two, Manchester until 27 May 2017
REVIEWER: MEGAN HYLAND
upstaged rating: 

JB Shorts 2017 is a diverse collection of six short plays – each lasting fifteen minutes – written by established TV writers. Started in 2009, it is a bi-annual event that aims to showcase local talent in and around Manchester.

The first in the selection of plays is Helen Farrall’s Turn Around When Possible, which tells the story of married couple Gemma (Alexandra Maxwell) and Kev (Gareth Bennett-Ryan), who are on their way to Gemma’s birthday meal when their car breaks down. And while they run into Kev’s boss Melissa (Julia Walsh), they find that she is not all that they have to confront. Bennett-Ryan offered an emotional performance, however, Maxwell and Walsh’s delivery at times fell flat. Although at times the storyline felt reminiscent of a soap-opera, it had an undeniable heart.

Living the Dream by James and Aileen Quinn follows, starring Adam Jowett as Sam, a rehab patient tended to by nurse Rosa (Sandra Cole). This particular play features both clever and politically charged dialogue, with “Sam” representing fallen America. Both Jowett and Cole offer engaging performances, pushing the eloquently written script to new depths. Despite this, had I not read the play’s summary beforehand, the true meaning of the character may not have been as clear.

The last play before the interval is Pretty Pimpin’ by Peter Kerry. Richard (James Quinn) is preparing to appear on the radio show Desert Island Discs in order to promote his memoir. However, both his agent Vicky (Victoria Scowcroft) and his daughter Janet (Alice Proctor) feel that one song, in particular, is missing. Kerry’s writing is beautifully delivered by the cast, offering a poignant and bittersweet story about the helplessness of a father.

Despite the promising quality of the first three plays, those that followed the interval were perhaps the best of the night, and my personal favourites.

Ian Kershaw’s Keep Breathing is a hilarious and skilfully written piece, starring Amy Drake as spinning instructor Carly, reflecting on her week whilst giving a class. The character of Carly will be familiar to many, and Drake brings remarkable charm and heart to her. And as Carly begins to realise that life with condescending boyfriend Matt (Ethan Holmes) may not be all that it seems, Keep Breathing takes on a more inspirational tone, encouraging us to live life for ourselves, not for others.

This was followed by Nick Ahad’s equally hilarious Inside Voices, which follows characters Reshma (Perveen Hussain) and Bob (Adam Rickitt) on their first date. However, there are some rather uninvited guests – their egos, played by Sara Latif and Leon Tagoe. With Inside Voices, Ahad offers an insightful and humorous look into self-censoring and what might happen if we just stopped listening to that inside voice.

But perhaps the most surprising performance of the night was Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley’s Pot Plant. Pensioners Iris (Jenny Gregson) and Stephen Aintree (Brian) are enjoying a quiet night at home when their house is raided by the police – but what will they find? Simpson and Whitley’s writing is as unexpected as it is absorbing. What starts out as a humorous story of two pensioners facing charges for the most unlikely crime actually has a deeper meaning to it. Gregson and Aintree’s experience serves them well in this unique piece, both giving a committed and at times riveting performance.

Overall, JB Shorts 17 is not to be missed. It is a delightful evening full of wit, charm and remarkable poignancy. And most importantly, it succeeds in delivering what it aimed to do – showcasing local talent.

-Megan Hyland

JB Shorts 17 runs at Manchester until Saturday 27th May 2017.

REVIEW: Tank (HOME, Manchester)

Tank by Breach Theatre Company at HOME, Manchester until 6 May 2017
Tank by Breach Theatre Company at HOME, Manchester until 6 May 2017
upstaged rating: 

“Don’t even think in your own language. English, all the time!” says Margaret Lovatt, a volunteer researcher in a NASA-funded project to teach Peter, a dolphin how to mimic and understand English.

Led by John C Lilly, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, a dolphinarium was built and communication ‘training’ started. In a series of communication experiments – Margaret would live with Peter for ten weeks in isolation on the first floor of the flooded laboratory in an attempt to teach him English.

This series of events actually happened in the 1960’s and was later made into a BBC documentary, The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins, which formed the inspiration for this bizarre but nevertheless captivating performance piece from Breach Theatre.

Part verbatim. Part satire. Part experiment with narrative. The only tape recordings of the experiments are fragmented and sodden (they have to be baked before they can be heard) which means that the four performers construct the details in the story as it plays in front of the audience. They interrupt and argue over the details in the story – filling in the gaps as they go. The two male performers seem to get highly enthused by the woman-masturbates-dolphin narrative but the female performers stand their ground aligning the relationship akin to that between a farmer and his cattle.

Breach have expanded an incredibly rich metaphor in Tank. Both Peter the dolphin and Margaret the volunteer were positioned in the midst of an awkward situation. Remembering the social backdrop of the 1960’s – the dolphin whose needs are inferior to those demands of a human; together with the woman who is seen as subservient to a male scientist. Tank is about colonisation. Intelligently, Breach fire up the synapses and leave the audience to explore the themes and their beliefs around this themselves.

Funny, dark and brilliantly pitched. Breach’s use of sound, film and stylised movement all contribute in exposing the result of legitimising our actions against others in the name of science, humanity and the struggle for power.

-Kristy Stott

Tank runs at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 6th May 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

 

REVIEW: My Country; A Work in Progress (HOME, Manchester)

© Sarah Lee
© Sarah Lee
reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

In the wake of the political chaos of Brexit and the overhanging general election, My Country; a work in progress offered an insightful look at the divided opinions of our society. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver. Written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the play centres around six regions of Great Britain coming together to form a meeting in anticipation of the vote to leave or remain in the European Union. They bring with them the views and opinions of several people from their respective regions, in the hope that their voices will be heard. Taken from real interviews, these voices range from a 13-year-old boy from Wales to an 88-year-old immigrant in the East Midlands.

Penny Layden stars as Britannia, our disheartened and shaken country struggling to cope with the disconnections that divide it. Representing Westminster, Layden effortlessly portrays the politicians that lead us through Brexit and the aftermath of the vote. However, it is Christian Patterson that offers the most engaging performance as Cymru. His remarkable transitions between various characters are the most noteworthy, with each one coming to life individually. The enthusiasm with which he plays each character is admirable, although, the cast as a whole still gives a commendable performance. They work in tandem together to create a seamless and often astonishingly humorous performance. Their incredible effort and ability does not go unnoticed in this production, with their dynamic being a testament to the unity that the play aims to promote.

However, it seemed that perhaps an additional cast member was lacking, as although the play promotes itself as representing the views of the country as a whole, there was a lack of representation on stage for the North West. Particularly as the performance took place in this region, it seemed unusual not to have it mentioned.

Nevertheless, it is the unbiased and relatively diverse presentation of views in the play that make it particularly appealing. It offers the unfiltered, unflinching opinions of the general public on perhaps the most widely discussed topic of the past year. And although some of the words spoken are particularly hard-hitting and heavy in nature, Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful wit and dry humour lighten the tone perfectly.

Unfortunately, as a whole, My Country fell short of expectations. There was an overhanging sense that it could have gone further with certain aspects, and disappointingly, there was no overall message to be taken away, giving the play as a whole no sense of closure. However, the talent of the cast is undoubtable, as is the incredible writing of Carol Ann Duffy.

-Megan Hyland

My Country runs at home until Saturday 22nd April 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: The House of Bernarda Alba (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

© Jonathan Keenan
© Jonathan Keenan
upstaged rating: 

The House of Bernarda Alba is a wholly unique performance for a number of reasons. Federico Garcia Lorca’s formidable text, in a wonderfully uncompromising translation by Jo Clifford which is set within the distinctive confines of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Perhaps what makes this performance so special is that it is a co-production with Graeae, an all-female disabled-led theatre company.  Director Jenny Sealey weaves British Sign Language, captions and audio description into the performance adding further meaning to Lorca’s rich text, while the cast of Deaf and disabled actors take centre stage to showcase their extraordinary talents and challenge cultural preconceptions.

In The House of Bernarda Alba, the Royal Exchange have peeled away the walls on a house during a period of mourning. Kathryn Hunter takes the central role of Bernarda Alba, an old widow who rules her household and wields absolute control over the lives of her five unmarried daughters. Hunter is dangerously deceptive as Bernarda Alba, her diminutive and fragile frame purely a distraction – she exudes dominance from the beginning to end of this performance. Ruling with a silver topped cane she instils fear in her daughters and those who serve her. At her most dangerous when she is resting in her chair – latent, unpredictable and deeply frustrated. Kathryn Hunter is extraordinary, exuding matriarchal power at the helm of a phenomenal cast.

Liz Ascroft’s heptagonal stage is set with seven chairs, providing a simple backdrop for the action as it unfolds. The Royal Exchange’s in-the-round performance space further fuels the enclosed world that the Alba daughters inhabit. The captions are shown on screens around the theatre; Jenny Sealey and Jo Clifford have moulded the text admirably to fully incorporate British Sign Language and audio description into the performance. This must have been quite a challenge but adds a further dimension to Lorca’s poetry. The mechanics of communication, or the lack of, becomes a striking theme.

There were strong performances all around with some beautiful moments shared between Kathryn Hunter as Bernarda Alba and Nadia Nadarajah as the soon to be married and eldest daughter, Angustias. Hermon Berhane gives an emotive performance as Adela, adding a sense of hope, sexuality and mischief.   

At times, some of the captioning seemed like more of a distraction than a help – as the screens were quickly shuffled through in a bid to catch up with the action on stage. However, I believe that these small issues will be tackled and resolved by Jenny Sealey and the team. Despite this, The House of Bernarda Alba is a hugely successful production – captivating and unique – a useful and expressive reworking of Lorca’s classic.

 

-Kristy Stott

The House of Bernarda Alba runs until 25th February 2017 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and You can buy your tickets here

 

REVIEW: I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip (Contact Theatre, Manchester)

RETRIP_1072X600_jpg_710x400_crop_q85
guest reviewer: Demi west
upstaged rating: 

I told my mum I was going on a R.E trip… was a theatre production aimed at creating an onstage documentary style performance looking at real life stories of abortion. This was a play performed by only four people, in which they would repeat the words of real life interview recordings that they had conducted. This was a very interesting and unique concept for me to experience, as I had never seen a documentary tackled in a theatre setting. Interestingly, the fact that it was acted out instead of the audience hearing the actual recordings managed to create a distance between the characters interviewed and the audience. However, I felt that this verbatim style performance reduced the real life people to caricatures of themselves, which again, was not helped by the often bad accents, and the simple but stereotypical costume props.

In this verbatim performance, the actors each had an MP3 player which they would synchronise with one another, and then repeat the interview, word for word, that was playing in their ear, which gave an authenticity to the dialogue. This was subsequently broken up into seven sections, breaking down the stages one goes through with an abortion, which was again a good way of creating that documentary feel; other characters were added as well such as nurses and even the partners. The addition of a small section exploring how male partners may feel surrounding an abortion was a pleasing addition, as this perspective is often ignored. However, I felt that the way that this was handled really reduced a good idea to just a bit of joke.

Before the play had even started the cast were walking around the stage dancing around and interacting with family/friends which I felt secluded the rest of the audience and affected the vital suspension of disbelief needed for this style of performance. How was I ever meant to believe I was listening to an African girl, who had tragically died when minutes before I had seen her dancing around whilst miming paper planes? Simply waiting off stage until the play was ready to begin would have massively helped create a strong performance, as the acting on show was good but with a bit more of a serious approach would have been even stronger.

Overall the show was a very good concept and was executed well as a contribution to the ongoing debate around abortion – but I would like to see the concept developed further. The actors mentioned some of the interviews they didn’t include and I found myself wanting to hear more about them, as this would have offered a far more diverse opinion range to what was a fairly typical and narrow point of views and experiences. An exception of this was the extreme case of the African girl, which was a very hard hitting narrative and extremely well performed – for me, the star of the show. I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip was an interesting idea, but one I would urge to go deeper.

-Demi West
I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E Trip continues its UK tour at Battersea Arts Centre London until 13th February 2017. For further tour dates/ venues and to book tickets please click here.

REVIEW: Narvik (HOME, Manchester)

Narvik presented by Box of Tricks Theatre - press pic 10 (102) - Nina Yndis as Lucya, and Joe Shipman as Jim Callaghan. Pic by Decoy Media
guest reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

In Narvik, Lizzie Nunnery has written a beautifully harrowing production, produced by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks. The play – described by Nunnery as “a play with songs” – opens with 90-year-old Jim Callaghan suffering a fall in his home, and tells the story of what led him there. Flashback to World War Two, and Jim, a Liverpudlian fisherman docks in Oslo, where he meets the charming Else. Their story unfolds as Jim goes away to work as a radio operator on a Navy ship, and through the struggles of war and the horrors that he sees; the one thing that keeps him going is his memories of Else. His journey to get back to her is as captivating as it is tragic.

Joe Shipman stars as the buoyant and pragmatic Jim, giving an utterly outstanding performance. He displays faultless range, showing both the excitement of Jim’s youth and the fear felt in his old age. We see Jim falling in love, going to war and gripped by horrifying memories, which Shipman carries through seamlessly, giving an honest and powerful performance. But perhaps the core element in the play’s success in telling such an engaging story is the dynamics of the cast. Starring alongside Shipman is Nina Yndis as the endearing Else and Lucas Smith as Kenny, Jim’s closest friend on the ship. Yndis and Shipman captivate the audience with the sincere and youthful love story of Else and Jim, and the intense bond between Kenny and Jim is due to the humour and chemistry between Shipman and Smith.

However, a large part of Narvik’s charm and haunting poignancy is the music, also written by Lizzie Nunnery. The bittersweet romance between Else and Jim is truly felt through the enchanting lyrics and the voices of the cast, with one of the most beautiful vocal performances coming from band member, Maz O’Connor.

Director Hannah Tyrell-Pinder has created a simplistic but truthful production, in which the talents of the cast are allowed to excel without overshadowing Nunnery’s spectacular writing and songs. Also noteworthy is the innovative use of lighting (Richard Owen) and sound, used to create a sense of time and place in a tasteful way that didn’t distract from the touching performance.

Narvik is a compelling and moving production of a love tested by war and a friendship tested by love. It is unpredictable in its narrative and overwhelming in its heart, and overall is utterly unmissable.

-Megan Hyland

https://homemcr.org/production/narvik/Narvik is showing at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 4th February 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: Shappi Khorsandi – Oh My Country

shappi-khorsandi
reviewer: demi west
upstaged rating: 

Shappi Khorsandi’s ‘Oh My Country!’ tour hit the stage at the Lowry Theatre in Salford for the final destination of 2016. The comedian and author, who continues to tour through 2017, celebrates her 40th year in Britain by expressing her love for her adopted land through a series of comedic, satirical anecdotes.

The supporting comedian Tom Lucy made sure that the audience was ready for Shappi with his dry, awkward humour, and interaction with the crowd. Lucy’s humour, driven by conversation with audience members, resulted in the crowd emitting spouts of laughter at the comedian’s unorthodox approach to comedy. Despite Tom being just nineteen, he delivered his jokes with confidence, succeeding in warming the audience up and leaving me wanting to see more.

Shappi took us on a journey and started the show with how she came to be in the UK, and ending it with tales from more recent times, including the clashes of culture between her two young children. This throughline runs throughout the show, often coming back to her children who both carry characteristics of their mothers cultural heritage. If you are someone who has followed Shappi throughout the duration of her career, you will know that anecdotes concerning her children are something that feature frequently throughout her shows. Nevertheless, the ongoing theme of culture and identity offers something fresh to longstanding fans, who are used to the idea of culture popping up occasionally, but not completely driving a show.

The linear narrative worked well, as it gave the show consistency and told Shappi’s story of embracing and accepting both sides of her heritage. This gave the show a personal touch, but could often lose its comedic effect, with some anecdotes coming to an end with no punchline at all. However, this did help to set the overall tone of the show, which was mainly concerned with nationality and what it means to be British.

The show did seem to be significantly lower on comedy than Shappi’s other performances and was motivated by stories rather than her usual material. Regardless of this new approach, the show still offered some of Shappi’s best jokes, expressed in her usual theatrical style.

Whether you are new to Shappi or have followed her career for a while, ‘Oh My Country!’ offers something fresh and enjoyable for all types of audience members. For me, Oh My Country is arguably one of Shappi’s most intimate and personal tours yet.

-Demi West

Shappi Khorsandi’s -Oh My Country continues to tour through 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Christmas Cheer at Winter Wonderland Manchester

circus5

Thing 1 and Thing 2 had a blast at Winter Wonderland Manchester yesterday evening, as did their parents. Now in its fourth year, this fantastic festive event, housed in the 22,000 sq ft of EventCity continues to attract people of all ages. With all of the fun of the fair under one massive roof – there is plenty of enjoyment for all of the family.

A red curtain peels back to reveal a massive winter playground, complete with falling snow – it’s like a Mancunian grotto packed with exhilarating rides, little Christmas market stalls, festive eateries and even a little bar for the grown-ups.

Aside from the thrill of fairground rides, there is much more to enjoy – a mini pantomime, a Christmas circus tent and even a beach. The main stage fizzes with live performances from Pip Ahoy, Basil Brush, Jedi warriors and Elsa and Anna from Frozen. We fully intended on watching the Jedi show but only realised that we had gone to the wrong stage when it was too late. We fully expected “Where’s Darth Vader?” and “When are the Jedi’s coming on?” Instead, the boys were gripped by a daring unicyclist and a funky young juggler in a Christmas themed circus bonanza.

The choice of rides was superb – whether you want to spin yourself dizzy on the waltzers, take a ride on one of the mini roller-coasters or parade your prowess on the mechanical bull – there are laughs for everyone.

A Winter Wonderland would not be complete without a visit to see Santa…and luckily he has taken time out from his busy schedule to visit all of the boys and girls in Manchester.

Voted ‘Best Family Day Out’in the Raring 2 Go Awards last year, Winter Wonderland Manchester runs until 1st January 2017. With all rides and shows included in one ticket price, it really is a fantastic festive treat.

Roll up, roll up…

-Kristy Stott

 

 

REVIEW: Sweet Charity (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity © Richard Davenport
Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity
© Richard Davenport
upstaged rating:   

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre has hit the Christmas show jackpot in staging Sweet Charity this year. Under Derek Bond’s masterful direction, the musical theatre classic fills the Great Hall – bursting with big Fosse numbers, a superb live band and an extraordinary cast – it’s as if Sweet Charity was made to be performed in the round.

When Sweet Charity first burst onto the Broadway stage in 1966, it struck a chord with the audience of that era – vibrant and electric, encapsulating the spirit of the sixties. Fifty years on this iconic musical comedy continues to delight modern audiences. Our loveable heroine, Charity Hope Valentine is ‘stuck on the flypaper of life’. Working as a dance-hall hostess, she dreams of breaking free and finding her true love.

The diminutive Kaisa Hammarlund packs a punch as Charity Hope Valentine. Commanding the stage, she holds our gaze and clutches at our hearts. Comedic, graceful and free – Hammarlund’s Sweet Charity is a complete tour de force.

Staging this musical in the round must not have been without some very difficult challenges but Derek Bond’s direction fully embraces the Royal Exchanges wonderful space. James Perkins’ set design works with the unique auditorium – colourful sixties attire and well-placed props are simple and highly effective in guiding the audience through Charity’s calamitous life. Aletta Collins’ choreography is fast-paced and lively, fully allowing the animated and hugely talented cast to fill the performance area. The dance hall scenes are cleverly crafted with Cat Simmons shining as the hard-faced Helene and Holly Dale Spencer delivering a superb performance as Nickie. In a show packed full of show-stopping numbers, the two deliver a dynamic and heartfelt pairing when they sing ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’.

Recommended for ages 11 and up, Derek Bond’s Sweet Charity is an absolute triumph. With its irresistible Cy Coleman musical score, supervised by Nigel Lilley and directed by Mark Aspinall, played superbly by a live band; an ensemble that dazzle and a top-notch central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund – it just has to be on your must-see Christmas list this year.

-Kristy Stott

Sweet Charity runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 28 January 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: The Emperor (HOME, Manchester)

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor © Simon Annand
Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor
© Simon Annand
reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

The Emperor tells the story of the fall of the infamous Haile Selassie, Ethiopian Emperor between the years of 1930 and 1974. The play is based on Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s book, in which he interviewed the servants of Selassie after his downfall. It is a glimpse into a world of corruption, poverty and absolute power, through the eyes of those who worked under the Emperor throughout his tyrannical reign.

The shapeshifting Kathryn Hunter plays each character with such spirited passion and vigour, with no crossover in between, each character is a personality in their own right. Her voices and mannerisms bring the characters to life in an inspiring and vast performance, transforming herself completely. The limited costume and props leave the characterisation to fall into Hunter’s very capable hands, and she does not disappoint. Every character has their own tone, and she switches effortlessly between the emotionally raw and vulnerable to the closed off and political. Through every character, we were able to build our own image of the Emperor, making him almost as big of a presence as the characters on stage.

The combination of Hunter’s masterful character acting and Temesgen Zeleke’s beautifully haunting live music created the sombre yet heartfelt tale that ran alongside the Emperor’s dictation and downfall – the loyalty and love of his servants. Although the Emperor was the main focus of the production, you can’t help as an audience member to feel drawn to Hunter’s characters. She plays them with such vitality that it becomes difficult not to become immersed in their world. And although the story itself was deeply interesting, especially since it is so little known, the production itself was held up by Hunter’s incredible talent. Her performance was pivotal to the success of the play, as any other attempt at such a bold and demanding role possibly would have caused the whole production to fall flat.

Mike Gunning’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound combined with Walter Meierjohann’s poignant directing created an intense, albeit slightly bizarre show that is not to be missed. The quick changes in tone left audiences reeling, never quite sure whether they should be laughing or crying, but Hunter made it flow naturally. Temesgen Zeleke’s music and the inclusion of the Amharic language of Ethiopia in his side characters added a subtle authenticity to the piece, making it all the more credible.

The Emperor is an honest and engaging piece about a part of history that many people know little about, creating a lot of discussion. However, what stands out for many is Kathryn Hunter’s faultless performance and energy that carries the piece throughout.

-Megan Hyland

The Emperor is at HOME, Manchester until Friday 30th September 2016.

For a taster of this FIVE STAR show, please watch HOME‘s trailer…