Bob Dylan is a man whose legend belies his status of being alive. Problematic a statement, not least grammatically, I know.
But it’s a rare artist that I feel achieves such status in their own lifetime both at their peak and beyond. To achieve greatness through folklore (with a capital ‘folk’) and you should have been theres whilst still going strong and continuing to tour, no less, is quite the thing.
In fact, as part of our own Mancunian musical you should have been theres, my mother-in-law was indeed there the night that Dylan ‘going electric’ came to an almighty head one fateful night in May 1966 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, as the notorious heckle Judas rang out…
Not nearly as infamous an occasion but his legend in his own lifetime status allowed me to go and see him in concert at Manchester’s Apollo a few years back. And he’s coming back again. And the point of this preamble is his…accessibility.
Indeed, playwright and filmmaker (and writer and director of Girl From the North Country), Conor McPherson discovered this most surreally when Dylan’s own record company approached him to ask if he’d consider using his music in a theatre show.
In an interview with journalist, Nick Curtis, as featured in the theatre programme, McPherson dismissed this as a) he’d never written a musical and b) didn’t think of ‘Dylan as a musicals musician’.
Not my favourite genre, and as a fan of Dylan’s music, me neither.
But McPherson’s idea to set the play in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, repositioning them and providing new context, and the fact that Dylan’s management told McPherson…
Bob Dylan has read it, likes it and is happy for (you) to go ahead
…lead to both it and I appearing at The Lowry last night, myself intrigued and curious to see just what a Dylan driven musical looked (and indeed, sounded) like.
It sounded great. The spirit and essence of Dylan’s music was preserved (20 songs, no less, from Sign On the Window through to Forever Young).
The talented company brought it home with fabulous vocals and musicianship, with some multi-talented multi-tasking, going on, with characters showing up on the drums for instance when least expected!
The music lent itself to the period, the geographical backdrop understood, and my fears that the narrative would provide wholly inappropriate and tenuous links to the incoming songs unfounded.
The plot was enough to provide a platform for the songs without becoming too jarring but don’t get me wrong. This was no saccharine narrative purely there for decoration. With themes including mental health, rape, racism and murder to boot, it was certainly holding its own and strong enough to take hold of our attention.
There were inevitable signifiers to what was to come in the songbook, but, hey, they’re songs I liked so I looked forward to them, content in the knowledge that they were on the horizon.
I even got thrown a bone when the opening strains of my favourite Lay Lady Lay got a cameo as an intro to another song.
And as 2 hours (plus interval) drew to a close, it was clear from the standing ovation that the audience of Dylan, musical and good old theatre-lovers had found lots of enjoy, as had I.
Girl From The North Country is at The Lowry upto and including 24 September 2022.
My partner and I moved recently. From suburbia to ‘urbia’. From a house to an apartment.
I think like a lot of people about a lot of life choices, a penny dropped, at some point, over the pandemic.
I won’t speak for my partner, Actual Manc, but have sought his blessing to light-touch invade his privacy even by speaking just for myself…but I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering whether I’ve failed at life’s ‘rules’.
Dark times ‘knowing’ I have, lighter times thinking that I still have but that perhaps made me a rebel.
However I think to be a rebel, there’s a fair amount of pro activity and decision-making involved.
And it wasn’t my/our decision not to have children.
And Here I Find Myself.
Hull-born, Manchester-based Wayne Steven Jackson last night brought the preview of his solo show to The Lowry on Friday night, to a captive audience in The Studio.
The world has shifted. Laws have been amended, rights instated, and possibilities created. But what if, after all this change, things still don’t work out the way we planned?
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to become a father, a single gay man, on the brink of turning 40, questions how he ended up here, whose rules he has been following, and, most importantly, what happens next
As a preview ahead of a tour, I don’t want to be too explicit in my description of the performance, but the show certainly starts on a comedic note.
Via pinned up paper and projection, an unknown ‘voice’ gave instructions to our performer.
Milestones came into play. Milestones (or lack of) were what caused my own crisis of confidence one 31 December in a Lake District camping pod. Accompanied by my partner, champagne, the contents of the M&S deli range and a pending new year, I reflected on life and panicked that I had no markers in place for the next 12 months. And I felt more…redundant than I ever had.
Milestones can be anchoring, they can also be hindering if not set by yourself or relevant to your life.
Wayne describes historical milestones as dictated by changing laws, and where he found himself at those times, setting the scene of his bedroom beautifully by the colours of his bedding, the pop culture iconography on his walls and his own approach to his sexuality and life at that time.
Life’s expectations bring their own specific milestones too. As Wayne alludes, meet someone, get married, have children…but then those parental milestones can give a blueprint for what follows. Move to area dictated by catchment area, first day of school, secondary school, exams, university, grandchildren…
But what if it hasn’t happened. Perhaps never will.
What are the alternative milestones? And here was the big one, did I even need any?
And so back to the stage and with a whimsical soundtrack, and repetition of movement and direction complimenting the rhythmic nature of the performance, incremental changes begin to creep into both the direction and approval of the unseen voice.
As the performance reaches a crescendo, whimsy increasingly turns to the more sinister, approval of ‘the voice’ turning to disapproval, streamers turning to shreds, Wayne’s messaging becomes all too real, more difficult to see, to hear.
But as they say, the brightest days come after the storm and once you start to separate out the inner voice from the outer, the only acceptance that matters, only then can you start to tear up the rulebook and perhaps (in my case) move away from that ‘desirable’ but wholly claustrophobic catchment area, sit on your potentially dangerous balcony, and heal in your own time.
Art should challenge you, tap into your feelings and explore your own take on life.
And whilst I apologise for potentially making this review more about myself than intended, I’m grateful to the artist for generously channelling his life into his art, and for validating my own reflections and thoughts, causing me to share here more than I have ever done in 9 years.
Thank you Wayne Steven Jackson 😊 Oh, and when the show tours, go and see it, it’s fantastic!
Cocktails have been enjoying their time in the sun once again and any respectable joint worth their salted rim will offer you a cocktail list.
And whilst they come in a variety of shapes and sizes (it can be a bit of a Russian roulette experience as to what’s coming and whether it presents in a generous fish bowl or mean-spirited little thimble), I’ve never seen them come quite like this.
Whilst nestled in a deck chair on First Street, watching Djokovic serving up a storm in the semi-final on Wimbledon centre court, Bunny Jackson’s was bringing to us the first UK pour of American’s biggest selling single-serve premixed cocktails.
These spherical little fellas are BuzzBallz and having shown up for the first pour all just for you, I’m here to tell you that they pack a hell of a punch for such a cute little drink. They might look fun but they’re a serious business and strictly adult-only.
All 200ml balls are 13.5 per cent abv, made with premium spirits and bursting with real fruit juice, and natural flavours, I was told.
But how could I be sure this would all lead to a delightful drink experience? There was clearly work to be done and both I and the cocktails were…
Six varieties to try, I delegated the creamier options to my plus 1, with me taking on the fruitier flavours on offer. How very professional and organised of us.
Tequila ‘Rita was my favourite, so much so that i had a second just to make sure I was right.
I was right.
Close behind was the Strawberry ‘Rita. Word of warning, make sure you pour it down your throat, not your top. Pretty colour though (and it washed out so bonus points awarded).
Finally the Chili Mango and ooh what a kick, the heat hitting the back of the throat in a satisfying way.
Plus 1 took his task seriously and took on his trio of tipples with gay abandon, great aplomb and absolute gusto. What a trooper.
Choc Tease is definitely one for the Baileys lovers (can I say that?). Naughty but nice on many levels. The Lotta Colada was a veritable coconut in a can, and finally the ultimate test, the Espresso Martini.
With this name there really is nowhere to hide and given the popularity of this cocktail type, expectations are high. Verdict? A great version of an Espresso Martini – who needs floating coffee beans?
That’s all well and good, but how can you be sure yourselves?
Well good news. BuzzBallz are not just for me, my plus 1, for first pours or for Wimbledon semi-finals. Those fun little ball-shaped cans of cocktails are behind the bar now at Bunny Jackson’s.
Not only that, the First Street dive bar will be running a deal for a bucket of three BuzzBallz for £15.
Not even kidding and who can resist a bucket?
Bunny Jackson’s are also be upping its game with a Wing Wagon – a 40ft long Winnebago, yes 40, converted into an al fresco chicken bus, complete with deck chairs, loungers, and its famous 25p wings – positioned next to its big screen showing more sporting events this summer.
Bunny Jackson’s Mof Gimmers, says
But again, whilst my written word is my blogger’s bond, see for yourself, and visit the Bunny Jackson’s website to find out more and to book a space:
Well here’s its sister from the same mister and if you haven’t heard, been or listened to Hacienda Classical, you don’t know what you’re missing. Actually I’ll tell you (but in slightly less aggressive tones than this introductory paragraph).
It’s where DJs share the stage with classical musicians, creating a symphony of iconic sounds, where strings meet synths meets decks meets maracas. It’s a beautiful collaboration between The Hacienda and the holy trinity of Manchester Camerata, DJ Graeme Park and musical director Tim Crooks
And on Friday it was realised at Castlefield Bowl, that curious little amphitheatre where on a quiet day plays host to office workers bedecked in lanyard chic, eating their sandwiches, sushi and salads.
Castlefield itself holds legendary status. Being a self-titled honorary Manc and all, the area was my intro to Manchester, moving over to work at Granada TV in 2000 at its OG Quay Street site, with lunchtimes spent either sat on a blanket in St Peter’s Gardens (summer) or having one of them there new-fangled panini or ciabatta sandwiches at (air quotes) gastro-pub Oxnoble on Liverpool road (all seasons).
And we all know that when the temperatures hit 16c plus, with little to no control, our bodies take us straight to Dukes 92, Barca, The Wharf. It’s the Manchester in the Summer law.
But there’s another piece of legislation creeping into Manchester in the Summer book of policies and that’s to head to the frankly fabulous and, for many years underused, Castlefield Bowl for the superb programme of musical moments that is Sounds of the City.
Add to the mix Hacienda Classical, temperatures hitting, yes hitting…
the early 20s
we were ready for business and an epic Friday night.
Attempting to break the world record for the number of open Didsbury Gins transported through crowds of shiny happy people, I had only one choice: up or down.
Whilst you’ve gotta get up early to take your seat/stance on the fabled elevated concrete steps of the ‘Bowl, an earlier commitment meant that this was not to be.
After a valiant effort to take my place on the other elevated location of what we’re calling ‘the grass verge’, much jostling and displacement of Didders Gin later, it was mission abandoned when I realised that this blog post would either have to be accompanied by images only of the backs of people’s heads who could see the stage or stock images, the decision was made to shimmy (read stumble) back down to take our chances at ground level.
As I was ably led through the crowds, snaking our way towards frontish-central, I was surprised at how relatively easy at this particular soiree it was.
Gig craft! It’s called gig craft!
husband/plus 1/decorated gig craft specialist
Anyway, gig craft employed and duly executed, we found our dance floor for the night and what a night it was.
Heartbreak and promises, I’ve had more than my share
Swap that out for streamers, strobes and many gins and you’re getting an idea of my night
All ya your favourites – tracks, DJs, faces, memories, beats (as ‘they’ say), classical musicians filling a stage bedecked by those iconic black and yellow stripes, the railway arches ferrying people in and out of God’s own country on trams and trains alike, Bez freakily dancing maracas in hand as he bounced onto the stage unannounced…
the wonderful DJ Paulette at the decks, Hooky next to, having a chat…it wasn’t Year of our Lord 2022, it was just Friday in Castlefield, Manchester and nothing mattered (apart from I really, really needed the loo and the portaloos felt like miles away and I hate portaloos).
MC Tunes could get a party going in an empty room, and with the god-like Hooky seemingly overseeing proceedings via DJ sets, low-slung bass playing, singing and just generally serving up excellent him-ness, life was great.
And as the final confetti cannon went off and the iconic strains of You Got the Love heralded the end of the party, we all marched off, ticker tape in our hair and god knows where else, down the canal paths, past the boarded up (The) Knott – RIP – and onto that quiet little intersection of Deansgate where we jostled for black cabs, Ubers, trams and trains, once more having taken a ride on time into our pasts and what makes Manchester and its people great.
I’ll be honest from the off, it’s the course I’d like and hope to do and so it was slightly surreal but incredibly nice to be asked to this closed showcase and evening of short plays written by University of Manchester MA Playwrights, performed by Manchester-based actors.
So far so my bag.
I was advised that each play was written in response to the playwrights’ first semester of teaching, in which they were tutored by award-winning playwright Chloe Moss. In these creative seminars, students were encouraged to think about how ‘form’ and ‘structure’ can be manipulated and used innovatively, before working collaboratively to write their own short plays.
First up we had TheSlaughterbrute, written and directed by Matthew Skelton.
“Three soldiers deep under the earth and sea, find themselves fighting each other and morality in a bitter bid for survival under tyranny.”
What we had here was in the realms of French farce meets sci-fi.
A brilliant sub-genre to my mind.
With efficient and clever use of lighting and sound to set the scene, we see the plot twist and turn as a test by the Commander (Ferdinand Ray) to see if a soldier in training would turn traitor if tempted, lead to a fatal consequence. Turns out ‘Jack’ (Harry Bloor) was such an anti-traitor that he murdered the Commander as a traitor.
So far, so ‘oops’. But then whilst Jack had passed the final test, the Chaplain (Rory Calland) regretfully informs him that penalty for killing a Commander was execution.
What followed was a lesson in mind-bending moral quandaries.
I passed the test, I’m not a traitor.
I killed who I thought was a traitor.
Yes. But he was pretending. You killed a Commander so you must be killed.
But he presented as a traitor.
So I very much so passed the test.
Yes but also in doing so you failed the biggest.
(Please note I’m heavily paraphrasing the more sophisticated actual dialogue for reasons of failing memory but you get the general idea).
And so round and round and round.
More twists followed as Jack and the Chaplain played cat and mouse to seek a solution where both came through alive.
With smart, rhythmic, poetic dialogue and double twists delivered with a comic edge, the play placed us in a dystopian world but kept it real with a debate over when if ‘doing the right thing’ incidentally leads to a wrong thing, which act trumps the other and in the end is it really just about who’s left standing, the rights or wrongs of it all irrelevant?
(And is that sentence of mine so long it’s practically offensive?)
A literal change of scene and the second play, The Footstool, entered stage right. Written by Liam High and directed by Judi Amate…
“When their grandfather, Carl, suffers a heart attack, estranged brothers Phillip and Peter find themselves reunited after 15 years, when Peter ran away from home. So much of their lives have changed but can the brothers move beyond their past differences and mend their wounds with Carl before it’s too late? The Footstool is an exploration of co-dependent and toxic relationships, intergenerational masculinity and the possibility of forgiveness.”
There are some shorts that where quite a lot can be fit into just a snapshot.
In 20 minutes, we had the decline and perhaps/perhaps not death of a grandfather, the arrival of a long lost brother and reconciliation bridging 15 years’ estrangement.
It was a play of two halves and three relationship dynamics. The first half introduced a comedy performance by Rory Calland as the grandfather, Carl, worthy of Wilfred Bramble. Yes he was dying but he was funny.
The knowledge of the return of the runaway grandson, Peter, was enough to drive Carl to another heart attack. Carl appeared to be the reason Peter left.
And the return of the prodigal twin brother, Peter, was nearly enough to send Phillip, into a metaphorical heart attack.
Peter had abandoned Phillip when he left. But equally Phillip had abandoned Peter by not joining him. Joint resentment on both sides.
Peter used to get Phillip to crouch on the floor to be his footstool.
Oof, we thought.
Phillip, turns out, actually liked this. It was their connection. They didn’t have a secret language but they had an intriguing shared memory of the womb where one grabbed the other’s foot and never wanted to let go.
I had so many questions, can one twin born mere minutes before the other be enough to create a power imbalance? Create a hierarchy in dominance? A theme of abandonment?
I was, actually, momentarily distracted by aggressively trying to remember being in the womb, I’m so competitive…I did remember throwing an iron at my dad though, whilst still in nappies.
Ladies and Gentlemen? Me.
Is the perfect short, one with a neat and tied up in a bow conclusion or one that leaves you wanting more.And is the latter a good thing if you’re not going to get that next instalment? I think so if there’s resolution within the first.
What ties all the plays together is a resolution in the short term, but with a triggered imaginary for what could come next.
In my fantasy, Carl survives his second heart attack to whinge and whine another day, with long enough for the three to come together to thrash out the abuse which one twin undertook, which of the three relationships in play can survive and which should be put out to pasture and consigned to the past?
And I mean that as a compliment.
Short break between shorts, and straight into the energetic Why I Didn’t, written by Imogen Chillington, and co-directed along with Lauren Ellis-Stretch.
“A young woman learning how to exist as an adult in a world that doesn’t want to make space for her. Processing her first break up and trying to understand the disaster that is ‘modern’ dating, ‘I’ starts to understand how her experiences impact and change her and how to survive trauma.”
I think maybe the excellent Megan Keaveny, as ‘I’, should perform this annually to freshers as a cautionary tale.
The monologue was heartbreaking and frustrating in equal measure. And I mean this as high praise. There but for the grace of god goes I, as…well ‘I’ innocently and naively justifies to herself poor behaviour by an ex, poor behaviour by a current and frankly poor behaviour by ‘friends’.
Like a protective older sister (ok technically I could be ‘I’s’ mother (technically), you wanted to seek him out and tell him where to get off.
And as ‘I’ had a slow realisation that poor behaviour was a great deal more sinister, that poor behaviour accounted to date rape (actually let’s just call it rape), you wanted to hunt him down and, well…
Thoughts of ‘ ah bless her’ and ‘you daft lass’ turned to ‘help her’.
A powerful message and energetic yet subtle performance (seemingly an oxymoronic statement but true), with a witty script that knew when and how to change tack and tone, whilst staying true to the character.
We saw a happy, funny, unlucky-in-love girl who we laughed with in da club, as she scrolled through tinder, unravel before our eyes, taking our emotions on a roller coaster ride.
And with little time to recover, our final short of the evening; In Limbo, written by Judi Amato and directed by Liam High.
“Sophie is dead. Probably. She thinks. How could the happiest time of her life turn to this? A play about the darkest sides of motherhood, In Limbo follows Connor (Kai Ross) and Sophie (Madeleine Healey) as they joyfully prepare for the arrival of their baby – and the reality of early parenthood and post-partum depression.”
This was a cleverly constructed tale told through a non-linear timeline, which created a powerful impact (damn you Short Play Showcase, my mind’s been shot to shit in under two hours).
Beautifully acted we jump between the extremes of a couple, clearly in love and with an excellent line, may I say, of ‘bantz’, from the excited parents-to-be to broken down parents-realised.
The size of the bump providing the immediate visual signpost to where we’re at on the timeline, we’re seeing a loving couple taking time out with some reluctance to leave the baby, to pregnant couple enjoying discussing names, to mother frantically imagining hearing the baby cry (excellent use of sound to cause a mis-step in the audience’s perception of reality) to an unravelling of a mother’s mind, a terrified father developing a reluctant but real mistrust of what she might do, infidelity and a breakdown in trust on both sides.
It was a deep-dive exploration into mental health and relationships, with believable dialogue and performances, cleverly portrayed with a manipulation of time that for me landed well in helping to portray the wildly conflicting emotions at play.
And so the metaphorical curtain came down on the showcase (a second one was to follow the next evening) and now must come down on my blog post, which to say considering the subject matter, perhaps wins the award for longest yet.
Some wonderful and exciting talent on show, providing firm reassurance that the future (and indeed, present) of the Manchester arts scene is safe in the hands of some wonderful creatives.
Over the years, people have performed fringe shows in all sorts of unusual spaces, including camper vans, tents, Roman forts and even in a crypt…
This year, the venues include: Chapeltown Picture House, Foundation Coffee House, Frog and Bucket, Whitefield Garrick Theatre, GM Police Museum, Gullivers, International Antony Burgess Foundation, The Kings Arms, Lock 91, Moston Small Cinema, Salford Arts Theatre, The Seven Oaks, Lions Den, The Peer Hat, The Squad House, Twenty Twenty Two, Whitworth Locke…
The programme of events is packed with over 100 productions, including drama, comedy, music, mime, children’s shows, storytelling, puppetry, visual arts, spoken word, walking tours, running tours and lots of fabulous performers, at affordable ticket prices.
In addition, some of the shows are free to offer access to a non-traditional theatre-going audience.