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An evening of gallows humour – ‘Hanging’, at Greater Manchester Fringe.

I read an article once which gave a rundown – nay, a gallery, of last meal choices from death row. It was brilliant. It was food porn. It was deeply inappropriate to enjoy the article. And this is my confession,

I do often think about what gastronomic decision I’d make on death row. I’m not planning on committing heinous crimes in certain states of America, but I like to be prepared.

I’m lucky enough to try a lot of amazing food in and around Manchester. And some may find this unimaginative. But would be a pasta toss between macaroni cheese and spaghetti carbonara.

It just is and it’s my last meal so…

Anyway, this is thankfully the only similarity between myself and the central character in the play Hanging, brought to us this week by company Tangled Theatre as shown at The Whiskey Jar, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe.

He too wanted carbonara as his last meal. And I grinned way too inanely at this declaration in the narrative, stopping short of an air punch at the discovery of my death row last meal soulmate.

Hanging was the tale of ‘a man’ (Brandon Mccaffrey) who is to be hung for a crime not described, and in his last hours visited by family members – his father (Rory Greenwood), wife (Agnes Houghton-Boyle) and Grandad (Lee Martyn).

Are these visitations and even whole scenario metaphorical, fanciful, or even literal – who knows? We’re even treated (and it really is a treat) to the marvellous interplay between the two ‘executioners’, depicted in a fancy dress-stylee as the devil (Jasmine Oates) and the grim reaper, death itself (again – Lee Martyn). Again, it is unclear as to whether their costumes are metaphorical or literal and that is just fine – I enjoy being given the autonomy to decide and decipher what may or may not be symbolic.

Whilst a prescriptive production can take the weight off the mind, so to speak, it doesn’t engage quite as well and stay with the audience as much after the lights have gone back up.

And speaking of light and shade, the location in the wonderful basement space in The Whiskey Jar,couldn’t have been more perfect.

When you’re seated in an open bricked, open piped, deep dark cellar, all you really do need is a couple of chairs, a range of nooses – or should that be niice?? – and you’re set.

Written and directed by Marco W. Biasioli, it takes nothing away from this imaginative, sometimes highly-charged and upsetting, sometimes wildly comedic but always entertaining 90 minute production, that there are clear and sometimes literal nods to black comedies such as ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Shallow Grave’.

As we were walking in, taking our seats, shuffling around, switching off phones, the ‘man’ (Mccaffrey) was already on stage, sometimes seated, sometimes checking out the noose for size…

This is the second time this week I’ve been to the theatre where you are immediately immersed into the scene. This greater freedom to connect with audiences is just one of the beauties of fringe and ‘smaller-scale’ theatre – there’s an intimacy and greater connection for all present.

(Credit: Tangled Theatre)

The small company of five gel well together and don’t miss a beat throughout straight run-through scenes.

Rory Greenwood injects an impressive dose of discomfort into proceedings, as the aggressive and drunken patriarch. His jaded ramblings and actions trick the senses into seeing a man much older than the son he’s berating, even though I guess there’s not much difference in ages between the two actors.

Lee Martyn is delightful as both ‘death’ and the ‘grandad’, whipping off his hooded cloak and stooping low as the latter, vulnerable yet comical in his hospital nightdress and brandishing his crutch- clearly unclear as to the time of day or night or even decade he’s inhabiting.

Agnes Houghton-Boyle as the ‘man’s’ estranged wife, is bold, bolshy, swaggering and insanely abhorrent – she’s basically great. Taunting her husband emotionally and physically, we’re both appalled and entranced – and that’s before we know the reason for their separation.

The family members take it in turns to pile on the misery, woe, anger and hurt to the condemned man, Brandon Mccaffrey, who gives a controlled and impressive performance, his emotions pulled every which way by each visiting party with no let-up – his character the constant on stage. Even Rory Greenwood doubling up as another unnamed convict gets respite with a bag placed over his head at regular intervals.

And so as the condemned ‘man’s’ life (and indeed production) approaches its close, I’m again reminded of such cinematic scenarios a’la ‘The Last Supper’ or oldie but goodie ‘All About Eve’, and the classic dinner party set-up, overseen and essentially directed by Jasmine Oates’s wonderfully smirking ‘devil – meets mentor – meets mean girl – meets matriarch’ of proceedings…

Lentil soup anyone?

And I have to say with family like that, who needs executioners?

Me? I’d be running for the gallows.

Another triumph for fringe theatre and one for all of us who are lucky enough to have such talent on our doorsteps.

Read all about Tangled Theatre and the Greater Manchester Fringe

I’m off to whip up some pasta, eggs and bacon.

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Culture Manchester Popular culture preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

Theatre review – The Fishermen at HOME Mcr

It’s always an exciting thing to attend a world premiere production of…well anything, really.

Not least when you get to see it before it hits Edinburgh Fringe audiences. Certainly not least when you’re not getting to Edinburgh Fringe yourself (although, fear not as there is plenty to entertain on our good own Mancunian doorstep of course).

And so HOME Mcr is hosting the rather wonderful theatre company New Perspectives and their pretty brilliant production of The Fishermen, until Saturday 28 July, 2018.

The play is adapted by the award-winning playwright Gbolahan Obisesan, from the much celebrated 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel of the same name, by Nigerian author, Chigozie Obioma

In summary, the story tells of two brothers in Nigeria – Ben, actor, Michael Ajao, and Obembe, actor Valentine Olukoga, who, along with their two older brothers, defy their commanding father, by secretly taking up fishing at a forbidden river.

However, their carefree capers are one day interrupted by the visitation of a ‘madman’ who delivers a terrifying prophecy, leading to life-changing consequences.

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Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) – photo by Pamela Raith

Shown in HOME’s intimate Theatre 2, theatregoers are immediately immersed into the play before being fully seated, the lights lowered and the doors closed.

A simple set is revealed (and given the electricity of the performances by the two actors, anything else on stage would be unrequired, unwarranted and a mere distraction), sounds of river wildlife emanate throughout the space, and even a character is noted in the shadows, already in place towards the rear of the stage, sat quietly, back to the audience.

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Ajao and Olukoga give highly energetic and eclectic performances throughout the 80 minute production.

They take us through this intense tale of family misfortune in a free-flowing and essentially uninterrupted singular scene, whilst portraying multiple characters and timelines seamlessly whilst never provoking confusion.

One minute the snappy dialogue and mimicry of various family members has the audience laughing, and the next –  stunned and shaken by scenes of fear, terror and violence.

Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) – photo by Pamela Raith

Throughout, the metaphorical light and shade in the story are mirrored, accompanied and indeed heralded by the subtle yet brilliant lighting direction.

And I should note (this is going to sound very ‘theatre-darling’ ), I have only had the privilege of seeing an actor cry on scripted cue twice in my life – the first was Sir Kenneth Branagh in the Manchester International Festival performance of Macbeth (and that was because it was a close-up on the big screen in a carpark – it’s ok, we were allowed to take in picnics)…and the second time was last night, mere feet from my seat.

Don’t miss this short opportunity to bear witness to this powerful and breathtaking performance of African storytelling. At very least you’ll have bragging rights over that lot up in Edinburgh 😏😁).

For full details and tickets, visit HOME Mcr – The Fishermen

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Manchester Popular culture preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

Theatre review – Sherlock Holmes – The Final Curtain at the Opera House

I’m going to start with a sincere apology to Liza Goddard.

She has such a wealth of stage experience behind her, that for me to bring up the Give Us a Clue theme tune seems very wrong.

I know I shouldn’t mention it but it’s like a scratch I have to itch. Please forgive me reader and theatre-goer (and do pity me with my full permission) but I’m afraid I’m unable to hear Liza Goddard’s name without the jazzy joy that was the intro music to charades based celebrity TV spectacle Give Us a Clue, bursting into life in my very soul.

Click here for perfection itself

Such is the mark on me, that I’m equally unable to hear Liza Goddard’s name without immediately thinking

and Lionel Blair!!!!

But to many this odd memory of mine is merely serving to delay the crux of the matter – the play that is Sherlock Holmes – The Final Curtain – showing at the Manchester Opera House until this Saturday 28 July, 2018.

Starring  the both immensely talented and respected Liza Goddard and Lionel Blair!  Robert Powell (I’ll spare him any clichéd reference to a specific role – again sorry Liza), the two actors have proven once again what a dream team they are, this being their third stage production together.

And so we move swiftly on from the strange word of my childhood TV memories and to, eventually, the infamous Baker Street in the post-war 1920s.

Simon Reade’s play introduces us to a Sherlock Holmes (Powell) who is now in his dotage and living in Eastbourne. It is somehow funnier than it should be that he has elected to evade detection of himself by declaring himself to be ‘Sherlock Smith’.

In the week where Manchester’s Bee in the City has seen lots of the little fellows popping up all over the centre, it is apt that bee-keeping is somewhat central to the plot.

The play certainly ticks all the Sherlock Holmes boxes:

Pipe ✅

Drugs ✅

Baker Street ✅

Numerous mentions of ‘arch-nemesis’ Moriarty ✅

Dr Watson ✅

In fact the latter, warmly and humorously depicted by Timothy Kightley is, in a sense, our narrator for the evening, embracing new technology and appearing on BBC radio to take listeners through one of Sherlock Holmes’s casebooks – the tale we then see unfold.

It is no spoiler that a dead body on Sherlock’s private beach (no less) kick starts matters and heralds the arrival of Watson’s now estranged wife Mary (Goddard) who commands the stage and indeed story with a certain authority.

Bringing tales of visions of the Watsons’ deceased son, James, into the mix, Holmes (or ‘Smith’) is encouraged by Mary to return to Baker Street where she and Dr Watson are now co-habiting – the latter having moved into psychoanalysis.

Scenes of a seance caused me a wry smile, given my attendance at one of Derek Acorah’s shows in this same theatre some years back.

Let’s say this show was more successful at ‘conjuring’ up the spirits than poor Derek that night.

The play doesn’t necessarily provide any stand-out moments. It ambles along and tells its tale, the actors delivering well the material in hand.

I was, however, fascinated by the role the ‘title’ player ‘the curtain’ holds throughout. As each time the curtain swept from stage left to right (and vice versa) the scenery and actors would have changed by the time it reached its destination.

In fact it became somewhat of a game for me to try and catch a glimpse of the sorcery going on behind (I managed one pair of feet – bravo all in involved!).

And so whilst I would say there is nothing here to astound, perhaps there doesn’t need to be. It’s a quintessential English story that entertains. Whilst the first half may not quite leave you yearning for more, the second half picks up the pace.

There’s even an ‘elementary’ thrown in, for good measure.

For more details, times and tickets, visit The Opera House/ATG tickets website.

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Culture Events Manchester Popular culture preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

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

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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.