Greater Manchester Fringe – Into The Deep

There is a lot being done to raise awareness of male mental health at the time of writing, which is both joyous and tragic.

Joyous that those afflicted or potentially afflicted are being offered support, reassurance, an outlet, and above all else, a message that they are not alone.

Tragic that the above is all required.*

I was unfortunately only able to attend the last performance on Inside The Deep’s three night run, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and so unable to point towards the next performance in Manchester.

However Camden Fringe is the next lucky host of this play and indeed Bristol-based outfit, Popcorn Productions.

Showing at Leaf in Portland Street…

(fantastic space downstairs – check it out for future events)

…the four hander written by and starring Ed Lees along with actors Chris Alldridge, Ned Costello and Polly Wain, tells the story of Fisherman Thomas Lewin (Lees), his teenage son Marlon (Costello) daughter Carla (Wain) and father William (Alldridge), in rural Cornwall.

During the play, scenes may be geographically static, set around a kitchen table throughout, but the movement is provided by its ever changing timeline, shooting seamlessly back and forth from the present day, to scenes from Thomas’s youth to eventually a little time in the future.

Fear not…

True that when I first watched Pulp Fiction at the tender age of … in my teens, I was confused. I knew I loved it. But I was confused. 10+ watches down the line I eventually had the linear timeline down in my head.

Into the Deep used a more subtle device which was arguably more clever (soz Tarantino).

To take us from one time period to another, the constant sounds of the radio in the scenes, acted as an effective device in telling the audience just where we were all at.

However, soon into the 60 minute play, I stopped taking conscious notice of the radio and instead took my lead from the actors and characters themselves who appear in both timelines.

The difficult relationship between Thomas and his father William, Ed Lees and Chris Alldridge, was often the focus and both were captivating in their performances.

In fact, at times, the scripted words were a mere support to the body language, facial expressions and movement displayed in their performances as they portrayed a tale of mental anguish, familial tensions, and abuse – both physical and emotional.

Throughout 60 minutes you bear witness to crushing disappointment, pressure, fear, worry, heartbreak, confusion, pride, devastation, as the narrative takes us through how as humans, our relationships in our youth can continue to affect us, even when thought ‘buried’ and that chapter closed.

As we see Thomas’s children Marlon and Carla both go from sparky, outgoing, cocky characters in the opening scene to ones which start to unravel as a reaction to their circumstances (powerful performances by both actors), it is difficult as witness not to fast forward and fear that history may repeat.

It is mention of the opening scene that reminds me to stress that whilst I have extolled the production values and physical performances of all involved, the written words should by no means be relegated to supporting artist.

Whilst indeed powerful, the dialogue is also subtle, witty and yes even funny. Who’d a thought Jeremy Paxman could be a punchline!

Back to the point,

Loss is a theme threaded throughout; a partner, a mother, work, money, a home, an opportunity…

And it is through a combination of such that the audience sees Thomas unravel before our eyes in his memories of, and cutaways to, the past – for the most part, his pain is internalised.

It is hard to believe that in a relatively small space, and within a modest set and timeframe, the production can take an audience through such an intense emotional journey in the storytelling, acting and smart production devices (the sounds signifying Thomas being taken to a place of mental anguish are chilling and effective).

It soon filled up – I panic and get places early

In short, all players made you believe in them and the story they were telling, and the overall performance was the perfect example of how bearing witness to a fringe production can feel such a privilege.

With such intimacy that is lost in the larger venues and shows, the actors and indeed whole outfit involved in Popcorn Productions had nowhere to hide and how fortunate for us that they didn’t.

Manchester – check out what else is showing as part of Greater Manchester Fringe..

Camden and surrounding areas – you’re in for a treat in August – check out the details

Rest of the world – take note of Popcorn Productions – quick sharp: Get clicking

*…and for anyone who may wish to, please visit my friend’s page. She is raising money for Mind and thus all those with mental health difficulties: Sponsored Sky Dive

Look after each other x

Theatre review – The Last Ship at the Lowry

Billed as Sting’s personal, political and passionate musical, this was a ship that I wasn’t prepare to let sail by without an inquisitive look.

On a tour of UK and Ireland, The Last Ship sailed into the Quays last night, making its debut at The Lowry theatre.

I have already used two puns both based on the word ‘sail’ and we are but two sentences into this post. I do apologise.

Spoiler there’s a third towards the end.

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Inspired by Sting’s childhood experiences and featuring his Tony-nominated original score and lyrics, the show is set against a backdrop of the demise of the shipbuilding industry in the North East, and hones in on the story of childhood sweethearts and their personal journeys together and as individuals.

Be reassured that there is no schmaltz on stage – the story isn’t tied up with a red ribbon, no eyes will be rolled (I’m an eye-roller – they stayed unrolled), and the issues laid bare of the workers’ struggles during this time, by no means romanticised.

Despite the image I’ve chosen to use below.

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The cast is impressive and stellar, featuring Richard Fleeshman (Gideon Fletcher), Charlie Hardwick (Peggy White), Joe McGann (Jackie White) and Frances McNamee (Meg Dawson).

It should be noted that last night, Peggy White was played by Penelope Woodman who I have to say was, indeed, one of the stars of the show with her rousing vocals and passionate movements.

But how to separate one member from the others, really.

The Last Ship is an energetic, heartfelt, literal foot-stamping/air punching musical from start to finish.

At the start of each half, the cast even break through the 4th wall – especially after the interval.

I won’t say how and why, other than to say, don’t worry if you’re having a chat in your seat and suddenly look up to see the cast assembled on stage looking and waving at you. You won’t be thrown out for flagrant abuse of theatre etiquette.

It’s fine

Not a natural lover of musicals myself, I hope my words hold some weight (if never before or ever again), when I say that the songs were catchy, moving and engaging at first ‘hear’. There was a fine balance of word and song, any musical interlude feeling natural and instrumental (pardon the pun) to moving the narrative forward.

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With Sting’s style literally written all over them, the songs and music took in sea-shanties, strings, acoustic guitar, piano and even electrica strains as the audience were also treated on brief occasion to Sting’s back catalogue. It’s no tall order to perform an established legend’s songs whilst said legend is in the building (yep, Sting was In.The.Building), but Richard Fleeshman owned every note and word.

Indeed, the music was equally matched by the rest of the vocals on stage, a mix of dialogue, song, impassioned shouts and humour (I particularly enjoyed the gritty and witty asides from Frances McNamee as Meg and Kevin Wathen (Davey Harrison)).

Equally breathtaking to the music and acting, was the set design.

With not a prop touched or moved, we were seamlessly taken from from ship yard, to a terraced house, to the local pub, to the docks, to a protest march to waves crashing; all with the clever use of screens, projections and sound and lighting effects.

With any piece of theatre which brings with it ‘political’ amongst its adjectives, there is a risk and a fear from the audience that they are about to encounter an angry rant and lecture (whichever way you lean). Fear no such thing.

And the Baroness in the royal blue suit is, I’m sure, based on nobody. Nobody at all.

This is an honest, non finger-wagging, moving yet entertaining piece of theatre which I enjoyed – and that was before Mr Sting appeared in all his unassuming glory (no scene-stealing, mic grabbing antics here) at curtain call.

Showing until Saturday 7 July, I urge you to give this show a go, and don’t let that ship sail. sorry.

Visit the The Lowry’s website for all details, including tickets.

Foodies gather – it’s the Manchester Eats festival giveaway!

I eat, you eat, he eats, she eats, we eat, they eat, Manchester Eats!

And how.

Manchester foodies lend me your ears! And your tastebuds.

There is a brand new Food Festival in town – hold onto your hats, we all have a whole new reason to eat… to be..to love Manchester.

Manchester Eats festival hits Heaton Park, on the weekend of 7 and 8 July, transforming the park into a food lovers’ paradise.

What exactly does paradise look like?

I hear you cry.

It looks like top celebrity chefs, Marco Pierre White, Ed Baines, Adam Reid, Matt Tebbutt and Mary-Ellen McTague conducting workshops and taking and talking us through our favourite subject. Food.

For those who like to walk the walk, there will be cooking classes for visitors young, old and somewhere in the middle to take part in, from vegan cooking to a chocolate masterclass.

I’ll let that just sink in.

And then say it again,

Chocolate. Masterclass.

For those of us who prefer to sit back and let others do the cooking, there will be a global food court, a healthy living zone and lots of Manchester favourites exhibiting their wares including Cottonopolis and Proove Pizza.

That’s not all. Oh no.

To pretty much misquote Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (yes I do reference popular culture that isn’t stuck in the 90s all the time. some of the time), as much as we love the food, we love tasty beverages to wash it all down with.

And so whilst it’s not in the title, Manchester Eats and also, dagnammit, Manchester drinks too.

Cocktail lovers (and let’s face it, who doesn’t love a cocktail), will be treated to displays from mixologists, fizz fiends will be in a frenzy over the Prosecco tent, Manchester Gin will be there to indulge our love for mother’s ruin and so much more.

In addition, official charity partners the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation will be providing an activity zone all weekend, with interactive, accessible sporting activities for both children and adults.

The family friendly festival will also host a dedicated children’s village with live DJ sets.

Have I whetted your appetite?

Does whet even have an ‘h’ in it?

Well lookie here.

You could purchase tickets to temptation by visiting the Manchester Eats festival website here..

But wait.

This honorary manc is giving you honorary, real, or even just lovers of mancs, the chance to win tickets to foodie heaven!

With two pairs of tickets to give away, you are so right to be excited.

To enter, click the link below. Entries close at midnight on Friday 29 June.

Click here to enter!

Winners will be whizzed straight onto the guest list before you can say ‘Manchester doesn’t need Michelin stars to rule the world’.

Theatre review – War Horse at the Lowry

A (by no means exhaustive) list of popular films and programmes that traumatised me as a child:

  • Dumbo
  • E.T.*
  • Born Free
  • Dot and the Kangaroo
  • Watership Down

They all have one thing in common – creatures and animals in challenging and sad situations. *Ok, technically E.T. was an alien but he’s pretty much in that category.

The last title (I can’t bear to even type it out again), is top of the trauma list. ‘That’ song (the name of which I cannot type lest it lead to floods of tears), used to send me behind the sofa to cry when I was little. It still would.

A (by no means exhaustive) list of popular films and programmes I have vowed never to watch, becoming aware of them when I was old enough to know better:

  • Tarka the Otter
  • The 9 Lives of Thomasina
  • The Lion King
  • Marley and Me
  • War Horse

See, I came to it.

Troubled as I am by my sensitivities to our furry, hairy, scaled, feathered…erm tusked and hooved friends, there is no way on this earth I will sit down with a bag of maize based onion rings (popcorn is literally not my bag) and subject myself to the film War Horse. The title screams out sad animal.

And I have to say, I allowed my ridiculous drama sensitivities to influence my thoughts on going to see the stage play.

However, the theatre-lover in me allowed myself to be taken in by the promise (yes promise – you know who you are) that puppets couldn’t possibly invoke woe and despair in me (that person obviously didn’t know me when Animal from The Muppets was my number 1 fear in life).

Furthermore, they didn’t reckon with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, Puppetry Director, Matt Forbes, and the wonderful actors bringing Joey to life in front of our eyes last night.

The National Theatre’s production of War Horse first visited The Lowry in 2013 and so I had managed five years of stubbornness and resolve.

The heart-warming/wrenching story centres on the character of Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis), his horse Joey and their journey throughout the First World War.

Thomas Dennis as Albert Narracott, with Joey

It’s certainly no spoiler to say that this journey is not a smooth one, the narrative taking audiences to the brink with its highly emotive highs and lows along the way.

Jo Castleton as Rose, Gwilym Lloyd as Ted

And is not a stretch to suspend your disbelief (more’s the pity) at all. I gave it my all I’m telling myself it was a mechanical puppet, it was a mechanical puppet, it was a mechanical puppet.

No use – I was in tears by the second scene and nothing ‘sad’ had even happened.

The attention to detail in bringing Joey and the other horses to life (yes, you have more to contend with) is just staggering – a subtle swoosh of the tail, a flicker of the ears; the senses are even tricked into seeing and hearing the horses breathe.

And then there’s the goose. Thank goodness for the comedy goose – watch out for the goose!

Billy Irving (Goose)

The goose and indeed the sergeant major bring the laughs and light relief and to be fair there are many moments where sadness gives way to smiles, particularly with the boyish innocence of Albert who by the end of the production is indeed a man whilst managing to retain a wonderful air of vulnerability and warmth.

Thomas Dennis as Albert Narracott, with Joey

The actors, lighting, sound and set design take you straight to the battlefields of the First World War, and horses aside (yes, I managed to tear my focus away from those woe-inducing creatures), the production is truly an assault on the senses and emotions – and I mean that in the most positive way possible.

Special mention must also go to our musical ‘narrator’, Bob Fox who, as ‘Songman’ takes us from one period of time and scene and into the next. And beautifully so.

Bob Fox as Songman

Stock up on your resolve and tissues, and don’t (I swear the phrase came to me before realised the abomination that is this pun) look a gift horse in the mouth, by not taking advantage of War Horse’s glorious return to Salford.

On a two week run until Saturday 30 June, head to the Lowry website here for all information and booking details.

If I can do it, you can…

and I’m so glad I did.

Dumbo can still do one though.

Theatre review – Diamond – HOME Mcr

I have two things in common with performance artist, David Hoyle; we’re now both Manchester based and we both grew up and spent our formative years on the Fylde Coast – he in Layton, me in Thornton-Cleveleys, both a pebble’s throw away from Blackpool.

Oh a third – we were both in Theatre 2 at Manchester’s HOMETheatre tonight at the show Diamond; he on stage, me mesmerised and enthralled in the audience.

Born in 1962, Hoyle David (I feel distinctly uncomfortable just using surnames – I know it’s standard practice in writing to do so, but I feel rude. Hopefully ‘David’ isn’t being too familiar although after being invited into his fascinating life this evening, I’m laying claim to knowing him somewhat)…

And so Ladies und Gentlemen

and those clever enough to transcend gender

(see show for details) I shall continue.

Born in 1962, David has been at the heart of the LGBT scene for decades and more than qualified to wear the crown of subject matter expert.

His one-man show, Diamond, takes the audience through a 60 year period (the last 60 years, incidentally), interweaving his own experiences, from gay adolescent in Blackpool to Divine David, the ‘anti-drag queen cult phenomena’ on Channel 4, with important and documented events in gay history such as the 1957 Wolfenden Report (recommending the decriminalisation of homosexuality).

During the show, whilst literally centre stage, David shares the spotlight with other significant gay figures and ‘happenings’, from Manchester’s own Alan Turing to Manchester’s own protest and demonstration against Section 28 – ‘Never Going Underground’.

ManGaychester- a chapter of the book and indeed show, (and the point at which I also want to pay tribute to the wonderful Lip Sinkers) gave us my favourite musical interlude and costume (not withstanding David’s fabulous charity shop ensemble midway through):

Nipple tassels swirling hypnotically to a distinctive Manchester beat.

How was your Monday?

With passion and humour blunt and biting, and nostalgia weaving between the gritty (the grim devastation of losing friends to AIDS in the 80s) and the affectionate (memories of working in a 70s BHS – staff meetings held round the coleslaw), light and shade runs throughout the 75 minute production.

As David says;

The show is a celebration of survival against overwhelming odds. We have a LGBT history we are proud of.

And so whether lesbian, gay, bi, transgender or indeed straight, I think we all left feeling a little more educated and a little better about ourselves this evening.

With only two more dates left (12/13 June), don’t miss your opportunity to bear witness to this wonderful journey.

For more details including tickets, please visit the HOME website.

ps To my fellow Fylde Coastian turned Honorary Manc, David…

I see your ‘going to watch the entire cast of Are Young Being Served in a Blackpool show’ and raise you ‘ going to see the entire cast of Hi-de-Hi on stage at the Winter Gardens’.

Theatre Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night – HOME Mcr

Families, who’d ‘ave ’em?

I think all of us, in on sense or another.

The play is a co-production between HOME and Glasgow Citizens. Their last, Endgame,  I was also fortunate to see, and too was directed by Citz Artistic Director, Dominic Hill:

HOME is where the Art is – Endgame

Back to Long Day’s Journey into Night, classic of American theatres, the 3 hour production introduces the audience to the Tyrone family, taking them from breakfast through until evening, in some of the most highly charged scenes I’ve ever seen on stage.

An autobiographical account, Eugene O’Neill had so much personal investment in the story, that he didn’t intend for it to be performed in his own lifetime.

Give the scenes I bore witness to at  HOME, what was a powerful but difficult watch for a bystander, so to speak, to see what must have been an explosive childhood played out again on stage, must be too much to bear.

Despite this, performed it was in 1956, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. And from the story and words alone, I can see why.

All players I watched on stage more than matched the material and gave a masterclass in how to move an audience to the point of breaking point where at one stage, I wanted to rush up on stage. I’m dramatic, but not that dramatic during the normal course of business, you understand.

Set in 1912 Connecticut, the Tyrone Family, headed up by father James (George Costigan), provide the impression for probably a good five minutes that all is well – they are just a normal family, living a normal life.

To paraphrase Prince Charles,

whatever that means

(Incidentally I write this hours after a certain Harry married Meghan – another family who bring the drama – perhaps rivalling that of the Tyrones? Apologies – I promise not to let this event have any further influence on this piece of writing, either consciously or hopefully subconsciously).

I Di gress.

However, it is soon apparent that matters are playing out in the wake of a recently resolved upset concerning the mother, Mary (Brid Ni Neachtain). She’s eating again, and her husband joyously and sincerely happily declares that she’s getting fat, caused titters throughout the audience (as the millenials might say…

husband goals

Seeds are soon sown that the youngest son, based on O’Neill himself, Edmund (Lorn Macdonald) may be gravely unwell,

and the scene is soon set and the questions posed for the audience:

  • What happened to Mary?
  • What is wrong with Edmund?
  • What dynamic does eldest son, James jr, (Sam Phillips), bring to the table – tensions with both his brother and father already showing their colours.

The company is completed by the brilliantly sharp Irish housemaid Cathleen (Dani Heron), who brings moments of mirth much welcome at times, but not out of place.

Secrets unravel, truths are told and faced and the story becomes the ultimate case study in how thin the line between love and hate can be.

The performances both emotionally and physically were astounding. Just when you think all players have given all they can give, their stories told, they again enter the arena to go one more round (in some scenes, quite literally).

This production of Long Day’s Journey into Night left this theatre-goer and plus 1 feeling exhausted, tense, emotional, anxious and indeed feeling like one of the family.

There’s one more adjective; privileged.

One final note.

George Costigan?

I thought ‘e were great

(Forgive me, I couldn’t have gone the whole review without a reference to Rita, Sue and Bob Too, try as I might).

On at HOME until Saturday 26 May, you have a week’s opportunity to experience for yourself this classic play and wonderful production.

https://homemcr.org/production/long-days-journey-night

Watch the trailer

Production photography credit: Tim Morozzo

The Northern Chamber Orchestra – Mozart and Elgar and Beethoven – Oh my!

My late father was a musician and, at 16, the youngest at that time to be accepted into the Royal College of Music in London.

We were blessed with many stories and anecdotes from my Dad’s life as a professional musician, over the years, but I remember two life tips he gave me in particular:

Never learn to drive – you’ll never stop paying out on cars

Done.

And

At some point in your life, move to London.

I have, thus far, not adhered to this. He’d clearly not spent enough time in Manchester ☺️

Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Season Finale at the beautiful Stoller Hall.

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Set up in 1967, the Orchestra not only presents an annual series of 8 concerts a year at the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield, it is also the ‘orchestra in residence’ at Buxton Festival, and of course now plays too at Manchester’s Stoller Hall – the scene of the aforementioned Finale.

A word on the Stoller Hall, I hang my head in ignorant shame and admit that not only had I not attended any concerts at this venue previously, I didn’t even know of its existence and had only attended classical music concerts in Manchester at the Bridgewater.

I could be forgiven slightly (oh go on, forgive me massively), when research tells me that the Hall only opened its doors last year in April.

Part of the School of Music that requires little introduction, Chetham’s, the Concert Hall can be found opposite the steps to another great musical concert institution, the Manchester Arena, and across from Victoria Station.

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Audiences take their seats below ground level, in a hall which is architecturally breathtaking and, I understand,  acoustically astounding.

I’m no acoustician (yes, it’s a word), but every stroke of the violin bow, every note of the woodwind, every percussionist’s ‘beat’, indeed didn’t feel as though it stopped at the listener’s ears but resonated throughout the body, immersing you in the music played before you.

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And so to the music played before me and my plus 1 that afternoon.

The pieces played were:

Overture Zauberflote – Mozart

Cello Concerto – Elgar

Symphony No. 5 – Beethoven

The highlight, it must be said, was the Cello Concerto, the centre of such being internationally renowned cellist and, indeed, the Orchestra’s President, Raphael Wallfisch.

A beautifully toned instrument alone, we were taken through a captivating and deeply expressive performance by Mr Wallfisch, the mood of the piece clearly felt throughout this wonderful musician, his body language and facial expressions anticipating and matching each strain.

Speaking of wonderful musicians, whilst the Cellist took literal centre stage, the rest of the Orchestra more than shared the limelight and reasons for myself and fellow concert-goers’ captivation and awe.

Bookended by the overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute and the forceful, rousing Beethoven’s C minor Symphony, the concert and indeed 50th season came to a rapturous end, with the applause pushing the acoustics to their limits (I’m basically saying it was loud).

I’m sure my Father would agree that not all roads need lead to London, and that Manchester more than holds its own in all matters of culture, not least in the wealth of opportunities to hear such musicianship both in the City Centre and across the region.

Speaking of which, your next opportunity to experience the Northern Chamber Orchestra is on Friday 25 May, in West Didsbury – more details here.

And so, added to my list of why Manchester is Everything, is the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the Stoller Hall.

I’m still with my Dad on the not driving thing. I mean, where would I want to go?

www.ncorch.co.uk