Stablemates – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Stablemates with Rosie Garland, Jackie Hagan and Henry Normal, introduced by Jill Abram
At Birmingham Waterstones
18 October 2017

Created and hosted by poet Jill Abram, Stablemates is a regular monthly spoken word night where three poets from one press have a brief chat with Jill then read their work for about 15 minutes.   Stablemates has previously been held in different venues around London, although hopes to establish a permanent base at The Poetry Cafe.

Occasionally, Stablemates will also bolt out of the capital into the provinces and thus, the 4th floor of the Birmingham branch of Waterstones became the latest setting. Jill introduced our three poets with collections published by Manchester-based Flapjack Press: Rosie Garland, Jackie Hagan and Henry Normal.    

Brightly-lit, overly air-conditioned, Waterstones nestles in the heart of Birmingham’s city centre, no more than a scatalogical throw of a cowpat from the Bullring shopping mecca.  During his set, Henry commented on the significance of the positioning of chairs for the reading, ie directly between the philosophy and business sections – a wry observation and what does that tell us about poetry?

Jill began with a couple of her own poems, including ‘Al Dente’, an emotionally-satisfying exploration of mother/daughter conflicts.

First of the Stablemates was Rosie Garland, and Jill discussed As In Judy, Rosie’s sixth poetry collection, but also her work as a novelist, lyricist, singer with The March Violets, and twisted cabaret performer Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen.  Rosie recalled her early experiences of spoken word – going to the library, the joy of being read to, held and hugged on her grandmother’s knee – which fired her writing instincts.

Rosie has a knack of describing the everyday and recollections from her past in both an accessible and sometimes sinister way, her Gothic-leanings ever present. “When You Grow Up” is laced with both disappointment and threat:

Every night she tucks in
the sheet of marriage, husband,
tucks it in tight

Her love poems are bleakly realistic, lamenting to a lover on holiday with another:

Your fortnight in the Maldives,
have you forgotten our weekend in Whitby?

Rosie also read from a previous collection Things I Did When I Was Dead, with a not-quite-so-wistful recollection of teenage years ‘I Want to be a Teenager in Devon’. In her final poem, her love of recycling extends to its ultimate conclusion – her body, a sensual but practical ode to her organs and vital parts:

I want my liver to filter someone else’s anniversary

With her calm and poised delivery, Rosie’s poetry is clear but always with a dark streak lurking near the surface, each word savoured and delivered with assured purpose.

Second of the Stablemates is Jackie Hagan, winner of Saboteur Awards Best Spoken Word Show 2015 with Some People Have Too Many Legs.

Jackie has also recently been awarded one of three inaugural Jerwood Compton Fellows, and she discussed the impact of this on her life as a travelling poet, comedian and playwright.

Her style of language is as colourful as her rainbow hair and false leg festooned with fairy lights and sequins, and both in conversation and in her poetry, she succinctly, and quirkily, conjures up concrete images of people, places and situations:

Barbara has a face like a hen party

Her forthcoming show, This is Not a Safe Space, premiers at Manchester’s Contact Theatre 27 October, and features words from “shitloads of skint, disabled people piped into the auditorium”. Her voice is honest, uncompromising, tough and tender – and funny – and rails against the vilification of the working class and the disabled, and their portrayal as either saints or victims:

Don’t tell me I’m brave every five minutes just for eating a Twix

In ‘I Am Not Daniel Blake’, this touching line:

He grips the ends of his sleeve
so his feelings don’t fall out

Henry Normal at his Brighton home, East Sussex, UK
Picture by Jim Holden

Henry Normal brings the evening to a close. Unassuming in appearance, affable and amusing, Henry has returned to poetry after pursuing ‘other interests’ for 20 years (a small matter of a BAFTA Special Award, co-writer on shows includingThe Royle Family, producer of Gavin and Stacey).

Jill and Henry discussed punctuation; there is a distinct lack of commas and full stops in his latest collection Raining Upwards, as “there is something oppressive about a full stop, and they and commas just get in the way”. This view makes me twitchy, however, Henry is so charming I let it go.

Henry’s poems are quiet and accessible but often with a punchline that gets you in the gut. Raining Upwards focuses on life in the Normal household coping with Henry and his wife’s son Jonny’s autism. His poems are moving but not sentimental, and show a comedian’s knack for storytelling and observation.

In ‘Walking Wounded at Lidl’:

My psoriasis doesn’t qualify me for priority parking

And of the moon:

set itself in fickle landscape,
reached accommodation with the sky

A restrictive train timetable meant I couldn’t linger to purchase books – as ever in these performances, much can be gained from hearing the poems from the poets themselves, but many more layers can be gained from the page.

Distinct and assured in their style and delivery, each poet overcame the rather sterile surroundings to give a tempting taste of their work, with Stablemates serving as a well-curated and delicious hors d’oeuvres for a poetic feast. 

Stablemates are held on the last Thursday of the month, the next event is 26 October at The Poetry Cafe.

Images as description or provided by Stablemates.

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The Caretaker – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal and Derogate and Bristol Old Vic present
The Caretaker
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Christopher Haydon
Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Pinter’s breakthrough play, The Caretaker, is also director Christopher Haydon’s first at the Royal and Derngate since leaving London’s Gate Theatre. Co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, The Caretaker forms part of Royal and Derngate’s Made in Northampton series, looking at themes of home and finding a place to belong.

Aston (Jason Livingstone) rescues the homeless Davies (Patrice Naiambana) from a fight, and invites him back to his flat, an unconditional offer of help until Davies can sort himself out with a place to stay. Aston’s brother Mick (David Judge) comes and goes, taunting Davies and eventually offering him a job as caretaker.

Transferring the play from 1960 to contemporary Britain, Haydon adds further nuance to this tragi-comic study of people just trying to meet one of Maslow’s most basic of needs: shelter. The plight of refugees, the homeless and those in need of mental health care resonate, and Naiambana’s depiction of a man who has come from somewhere but has nowhere to go is painful to witness.

Judge gives a chilling portrayal of a man whose anger and aggression are only just under control. Physically imposing, he squats and jumps around Davies who is never quite sure where he is or what his motives are. Livingstone’s measured, slow responses provide stark contrast and quiet power, the calm in the chaos.

Electricity is a recurring motif, from Livingstone’s stark monologue recounting his botched shock therapy, Elena Pena’s persistent sparking and crackling sound design, to a flickering bulb centre stage and pulsing strobe (lighting design by Paul Keogan). Oliver Townsend’s explosion of a set mixes the familiar detritus of modern life with the absurd: broken chairs, half-used tins of paint, and electrical appliances hang suspended, unclear whether they are on their way up or down.

Naiambana’s Caribbean lilt is sometimes hard to follow as some lines are lost, but he perfectly captures Davies’s complexities and ability to ingratiate, evade and, ultimately, do whatever he can to keep his foothold in the flat.

Pinter has said of this play, “it is funny, up to a point,” and this re-staging does not go for laughs at all costs, more a naturalistic depiction of the conflicts in humanity and how we treat one another. Again, there is a sense of a thin veneer of control over lives in chaos.

A tense, absorbing performance which gives new relevance to a modern classic.

(NB Review of opening performance 17 October, press night 18 October)

Images by Iona Firouzabadi

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Hairspray, The Broadway Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Mark Goucher, Matthew Gale, and Laurence Myers present
Hairspray, The Broadway Musical
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman, based on the film by John Waters
Directed by Paul Kerryson
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Hairspray, that big, bouncy, and beautiful musical, is back in town as former Curve Artistic Director Paul Kerryson returns to Leicester with this newly cast production, almost mid-way through its 2017 tour.

When life gives you lemons, you could do with a Tracy Turnblad to help make lemonade: it’s Baltimore, 1962 and plus-size Tracy has a dream of appearing on The Corny Collins Show, a teen dance show. Tracy also dares to dream she’ll find love with Link Larkin, heartthrob and current beau of drama-teen Amber Von Tussle. Sounds frivolous, but Hairspray tackles racism, body image and following your dreams with charm and spirit.

Inspired by John Waters’s 1988 film, Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002 and has grabbed a clutch of Tony and Olivier awards along the way. This popular musical perfectly marries book (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan), Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman’s witty lyrics together with Shaiman’s music—spot-on in terms of style, there’s not a dud song in the pack.

Rebecca Mendoza makes an impressive professional debut as Tracy, immediately endearing, full of teen spirit, and a great vocal performance. Another impressive newcomer, Annalise Liard-Bailey, is suitably goofy as Penny Pingleton.

Much of the comedy revolves around Tracy’s even-plusser-sized mum Edna Turnblad (Matt Rixon) and, together with Norman Pace as husband Wilbur, they share great comic timing and an enjoyable performance of their signature song “You’re Timeless to Me”, complete with corpsing and ad-libs.

Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle rocks the house with her stunningly powerful voice and spine-tingling performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been”. Gina Murray exudes cool, calculating “evil” as Velma Von Tussle.

Forgiving occasionally rattly scene changes and lack of clarity with some of the diction, this production zips along at a cracking pace. Takis’s pared-down, perfect-for-touring, functional set enables a sharper focus on Drew McOnie’s wonderfully slick, quick and ultra-energetic choreography.

Hairspray’s message is overwhelmingly positive and forward-looking, set at a time when the civil rights movement in America was gaining significant ground. Notwithstanding this, it is hard not to be aware of the current situation, both in America and across the world, lending greater import to some of the punchlines and drawing wry laughs and a little discomfort from the audience. I note the last time Hairspray came to Curve, President Obama was in office—we live in changing times.

However, the show must go on and Kerryson opts for a strong cast of top musical theatre performers (rather than a few big-name soapstars), and a cracking on-stage band (led by Ben Atkinson). If you need some feel-good in your life, this production of Hairspray is certainly that—it’s a fun, foot-tapping humdinger of a musical.

Images by Darren Bell

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Things I Know to be True – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company present
Things I Know to be True
by Andrew Bovell
Co-directed by Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman
At Curve Theatre, Leicester

Australia’s State Theatre Company and the UK’s Frantic Assembly are now touring their third staging of Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True which picks at the lives of the Price family over the course of four seasons.

Frantic Assembly are syllabus-staples and widely studied as leading contemporary theatre practitioners. The audience for press night (and no doubt the rest of its run in Leicester) was largely made up of school parties, appreciative teens who whooped their approval with a rousing ovation. A reassuring sight in these times of threat to arts on the national curriculum.

Hard-working Fran (Cate Hamer) and Bob (John McArdle) have raised four children, now grown up and drifting away, although the youngest, Rosie (Kirsty Oswald), has just returned home after a gap year romance-gone-wrong. Rosie takes on the role of occasional narrator in this snapshot of family life—boisterous banter around the kitchen table, recalling the childhood dramas which shape our adult relationships.

Familial love is a complicated thing; deep and profound, bound by shared memories, but cut through with simmering resentment and disappointment.

Like in life, scratch the surface of a seemingly happy family and a brewing crisis lurks beneath; Mark (Matthew Barker) facing the dilemma with his identity, Pip (Seline Hizli) preparing to leave her husband and children for a career, Ben (Arthur Wilson) about to face the self-inflicted consequences of greed.

This Australian/UK collaboration is affecting and imaginative and co-directors Geordie Brookman and Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham combine well to show that, from Adelaide to Aylesbury, families are a funny, messy old business.

Fran is the lynchpin and most well-developed of the characters: a strong matriach always aware of what food is in the fridge and provider of clean clothes. Hamer shows Fran’s strength and her vulnerability, her frustrations and contradictions wrought out of her as each of her children come to her at their time of need.

Recently-retired Bob spends much of his time tending the garden; his rose beds are planted and flower during the course of the play. Much of the action takes place here, a metaphor for a growing family, a place to nurture, a place of sanctuary. McArdle is stoic, sometimes bewildered at the different paths his children have taken. His anniversary sequence with Hamer is tender, a heartwarming moment as they dance and Fran is lifted into the stars.

Verging on soap opera, Bovell’s play is poetic; there are patches where characters tell us what we can see they are feeling, however, the dialogue and trademark physicality of the two companies are effective together; this physical element literally lifts it above a straight family drama. Nils Frah’s nagging, melodramatic soundtrack offsets Geoff Cobham’s simple, open design, the millimetre-perfect sliding chairs and table in harmony with the actors.

Overall, Things I Know to be True is a moving, sometimes humorous human story and its relatability gives the play its heart and heartwrenching conclusion.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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Pink Sari Revolution – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with English Touring Theatre present
Pink Sari Revolution
Based on the book by Amana Fontanella-Khan, adapted by Purva Naresh
Directed by Suba Das
Curve Theatre, Leicester

“When you have power, nothing can touch you.” These are the words of Sampat Pal, outspoken leader of the Gulabi Gang, an infamous 400,000 strong group of women who confront injustice and abuse against the women of Uttar Pradesh (also ominously known as the “badlands’ of India).

The odds are stacked against Sampat, and women, as power rests firmly and unattainably with India’s male-dominated society and rigid caste system. Pink Sari Revolution shows how, despite a lack of education, money and clout, grassroots activism can chip away at the balance of power to enable women, case by case, to take some control over their lives.

Suba Das directs this new co-production between Curve, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Purva Naresh’s adaptation of journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan’s best-selling account of Pal’s life and experiences. Research for the play included meetings with Sampat Pal and her gang members in India, together with personal experiences provided by communities in England.

Pink Sari Revolution features Sampat’s involvement in the case of Sheelu, a 17-year-old Dalit woman (Dalits are the lowest caste, widely considered “untouchable” outcasts), who refuses her father’s choice of husband, runs away with a boy she likes, accuses a higher caste lawmaker of rape, who in turn accuses her of theft.

Sheelu is kept in a police cell without proper examination or recourse to justice. Her father flees the situation, afraid of the shame his daughter has brought on his family but is subsequently captured and tortured. The Gulabi Gang hear of the case and Sampat endeavours to help Sheelu bring the man she accuses of rape to justice.

Sampat is known to be a “difficult” individual to deal with, and Syreeta Kumar reveals her complexities with conviction: strident, caring, vulgar and brave, her behaviour often contradicts the issues she is fighting for—justice for women, particularly victims of rape and domestic abuse, yet abusive towards her daughter and husband. However, her directness is what gets results, particularly with male officialdom.

Ulrika Krishnamurti also delivers a powerful performance, doubling as both feisty Sheelu and downtrodden daughter Champa, All the cast are strong though, and Das successfully presents various viewpoints of an issue to which there are no easy answers.

Action is centred around a tree, centre stage, its roots thrusting out of the ground symbolising the dislodging effect Sampat has on society and its established norms. Isla Shaw’s set design is effective and functional, complemented by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design which frames several stunning set pieces: the unfurling of shocking pink saris as banners to the cause, the chilling tableau of a woman hanging from a tree, a damning indictment of her community.

Shocking and disturbing, Pink Sari Revolution does the job of theatre—to confront, challenge, and provide material for thought, further discussion and action. That said, feeling about 10 to 15 minutes too long, elements of the play sag and affect pacing, particularly the second act with some unnecessary exposition.

Sickening cases of rape and murder feature all too regularly in the news: Jyoti Pandey on a Delhi bus just one of many cases around the world, most of which don’t make it to the headlines.

This play is a passionate account of how the force of one woman has galvanised communities and an influential movement against injustice.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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Sunset Boulevard – review

The review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve in association with Michael Harrison and David Ian present
Sunset Boulevard
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the film by Billy Wilder
At Curve Theatre, Leicester

Say Sunset Boulevard and many musical afficionados think of Glen Close in her Tony-Award winning role as Norma Desmond, the silent movie star unable to accept her career has been overtaken by talkies.

Having played Desmond in a try-out role for the 1993 musical and covered for Close during illness in a recent London Coliseum production, Ria Jones now takes the role of Norma Desmond for herself in Nikolai Foster’s new production.

Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard shines a harsh spotlight on Hollywood and human relationships. Wealthy, reclusive Norma Desmond makes one last attempt to revive her fading career as a silent movie queen, buying the services and the love of struggling young writer Joe Gillis. Working together on her script for Paramount Pictures, the full extent of her delusional behaviour becomes clear and, as Joe tries to break free of Desmond’s demands and falls in love with fellow writer Betty, a tragic ending inevitably follows.

Visually arresting, Colin Richmond’s design perfectly captures the musty glamour of the era: the ubiquitous sweeping staircase in Desmond’s ostentatious mansion to the false reality of life on a movie set. Costumes are detailed and sumptuous, particularly Desmond, draped in velvet, silk and dramatic headdresses. Use of projection (Douglas O’Connell) for some key scenes is effective, with flickering snippets of silent films, and the clever waltzer-come-dodgem driving sequences.

Jones’s finest moment comes early on with a searing “With One Look”, the appreciative press night audience cheering their approval. Manipulative, melodramatic and living a dream which has long come to an end, Jones keeps control of this over-the-top character until her final tragic collapse.

Danny Mac slips easily into the role of Joe Gillis; believable and eminently watchable, last year’s Strictlyfinalist is clearly the draw for many in the audience, but notwithstanding his matinée idol good looks, he is much more than eye candy. Mac confidently delivers just the right balance of cynical exploitation of Norma’s desperation and doing what he can to survive. His scenes with Betty (a strong performance by Molly Lynch) are refreshingly normal in this unsettling tale where youth and appearances are everything, particularly for women.

Death and darkness are all around, from silent movies to Desmond’s bizarre funeral for her pet chimp, to her career and looks (and not least that the story is narrated by a ghost).

The 16-piece orchestra is a pleasure to hear under Adrian Kirk’s musical direction and, whilst not every song grabs the attention and the sung-through elements leave little to the imagination, overall Foster delivers a stunning cinematic spectacle of a musical.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company and Community production of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Winston
Choreography by Si Rawlinson and Mel Knott
Set Design Kevin Jenkins
at Curve Theatre, Leicester

We’re all still dreaming of summer, and so, here in mid-August, trying to conjure up warmer days via Curve Young Company and Curve Community’s joint production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems worth a try.

One of Shakespeare’s most well-known, well-loved and most frequently performed plays, Midsummer Night’s Dream has also inspired classical scores, ballets, book, TV and film adaptations, and been re-interpreted in many styles (Victorian steampunk and Swinging Sixties two examples in 2017 alone).

Somewhere just outside Athens, four young lovers (Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia) of the court of soon-to-be-wed Theseus and Hippolyta are entertained by the “mechanicals”, a group of six men staging a play within a play—the story of doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe.

All the above are unwittingly controlled by meddling fairy king Oberon and his mischievous merry servant Puck. With sprinklings of magic fairy dust on unsuspecting sleeping eyelids, true loves are mistaken then re-found, often with proverbial “hilarious consequences”, and most notably Nick Bottom and Oberon’s queen Titania.

Director Nick Winston has gone with the original fairies and forest setting and the impressive design team of Kevin Jenkins (set), Metro-Boulot-Dodo (video), Edd Lindley (costume) and Preema Mehta (lighting) has created what is described in the programme notes as a “mythpunk aesthetic”. I felt more of a medieval goth vibe but either way, this is next-generation Shakespeare, aided by Dougal Irvine’s musical direction including rap, hip hop, The Carpenters and Norah Jones.

Curve’s community cast and Young Company have been honed by the collective might of professional theatre makers at one of the UK’s most well-equipped and distinctive venues. Interplay between Lysander (Chris Brookes) and Hermia (Megan Marston) and Demetrius (Harvey Thorpe) and Helena (Lauren Jones) is assured and amusing, with the catfight between Marston and Jones particularly enjoyable.

Boasting two Pucks for your buck (Mahesh Parmar and Joel Fossard-Jones), this double trouble of fairies works well in stereo. Most of the comedy comes courtesy of the mechanicals, and their “play that goes wrong” performance of Pyranus and Thisbe is joyfully inept. Making a wonderful ass of himself, Alexander Clifford is a glorious Bottom, displaying expert timing and physical comedy.

Aside from entertaining, a worthy objective of this production is to provide an introduction to Shakespeare and the theatre for the uninitiated.

Accessible and visually engaging, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a dream in many ways: a welcome opportunity to luxuriate in Shakespeare’s rich, earthy language, chances for many to achieve dreams of performing on Curve’s main stage and, in the midst of the dark troubles of 2017, an escape to the magic of midsummer.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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