Saturday, 25 April 2015

Preview: Columns Festival @ Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral will host, for the second year, Columns Festival on Saturday 2 May. The one-day event makes use of the cavernous Cathedral setting and showcases a shortlist of strong leftfield emerging electronic artists. Last year’s line-up included Future Islands and East India Youth, both of whom promptly became far more established artists in their own right. This year is headlined by the Canadian duo of Purity Ring and Braids alongside Ghostpoet, Born Gold, Shivum Sharma, Clarence Clarity and Cash + David. It looks set to showcase another range of performers, many of whom are performing newly released music.

Topping the bill is Purity Ring, showcasing their second and more accessible album, Another Eternity. Arriving from an extensive European tour, the Manchester stop will be another in a long line with tour support and kindred spirit Born Gold. Both artists are deeply rooted in the electro-pop formula and are strongly interconnected performers.

The festival will also mark the first weekend after the release of Braids’ third album, Deep In the Iris. One of the most progressive Canadian artists of the decade, the group’s collective work has gained comparisons with Animal Collective, Bj√∂rk and Burial. With further shifts in direction on their new album they have delved into drum and bass as well as house. Early single ‘Miniskirt’ also suggests a new clarity to their sound that has often relied on a dense and obscure maximalist approach.

Ghostpoet likewise released his third album, Shedding Skin, back in March, conveying a similar upfront confidence that was missing from his previous work. His performance, like many on the bill, will prove his progression as an artist, from Mercury nomination to now.

Three relatively undiscovered artists complete the bill. Shivum Sharma fuses gospel atmospherics with soft, minimalist textures. Clarence Clarity is taking glitch-pop to an extreme, sounding like a cross-between Kindness and Hudson Mohawke, but with added camp. Finally Cash + David, featuring Bombay Bicycle Club backing singer Liz Lawrence, are an electro-pop duo surely taking note of the headliners. All three will feature first at Columns before venturing to play a number of the summer’s most anticipated festivals.

Columns is set to be an occasion for hearing established electronic talents alongside new blood relishing the chance to perform in one of the city’s most ornate venues.

Words: Thomas Dixon

Information and tickets can be found on the Columns website, here.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Rise & Fall of Little Voice @ The King's Arms, Salford, 15.04.2015

The King's Arms is synonymous with theatre in Manchester (even though it is in Salford), and I have seen a number of small but brilliant productions there. I have also seen some pretty poor ones too, but that is part of what keeps fringe so interesting. The Rise & Fall of Little Voice though is something different, unlike anything I have seen in this space before.

For a start, the staging is far grander, split over two levels and with a feel of permanence. Time, effort and money have clearly been invested. The lighting and sound are also at a level of sophistication beyond what is normally attempted here - it looks and sounds like professional theatre.

But we'll come back to that; let's talk about the play itself. Written by Jim Cartwright, it is a tale of a small girl with a big vocal talent, who is forced onto the stage by a money-grabbing mother and her wannabe business tycoon boyfriend. As Little Voice's career builds so do her problems until, inevitably, everyone gets burnt.

The key element for Rise & Fall of Little Voice is casting someone who can really sing and, in Josie Cerise, they have done just that. On top of her vocal talent she also brought charisma to the role, shining in her moments on stage and drawing you into her solitude off it. In fact, this production has well-cast written all over it, with every actor in a role that showcased their numerous strengths.

So, back to that staging. What troubled me at first was that this show seemed to be focussing its efforts on high production values, trying to be like The Exchange or HOME. The ticket prices (£12) are also much closer to what you might get at those venues. It felt a bit like it was shunning what the King's Arms does best, which is putting on simple productions with plenty of charm and character.

On reflection I can see that I was wrong to think this. Just because this show places an emphasis on staging and is a little more expensive doesn't mean that everything in this space will follow this model. And, regardless of production values, the performances in Little Voice were brilliant and the direction from James Baker accomplished.

In fact, The Rise & Fall of Little Voice team did exactly what fringe producers are supposed to do: they tried something different. What's more they succeeded, creating a really memorable show that demonstrates just what can be achieved on a smaller stage.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Image: Courtesy of Assembled Junk

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sexual Perversity in Chicago @ Salford Arts Theatre, 26.03.15

Before we even had a chance to really contemplate the success of their Manchester Rep Season (a programme of four plays in four short weeks), 1956 Theatre Company are back with another bounty for theatre guzzlers to gourmandize. Not long on the ‘scene’, the company debut saw them bring the film classic Dead on Arrival to the stage in 2013, several months later they sold out a performance of Great Expectations, shortly followed by the aforementioned Rep season. All this leads us to the play in question; still as ambitious as ever, 1956 have gone and taken on the challenge of a David Mamet play and have done so with success.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a heavily worded and strongly contextual piece, which can be daunting, even to the very best of actors. Set in 1976 Chicago, the play examines the sex lives of two men and two women; the main focus being Danny (Daniel Bradford) and Deborah (Amy-Jane Ollies). The two meet and they quickly establish a relationship from sexual attraction and, just as quickly, they move in together. As the play progresses their relationship is thwarted by an inability to talk with each other seriously. This is amplified by the opinions and self-interest of their friends: Bernie (Lee Lomas), Danny’s misogynic boss; and Joan (Hannah Ellis Ryan), Deborah’s sharp tongued room-mate.

Ollies and Bradford have clearly taken time to understand their roles, and truly take the character’s journey. In doing so they effortlessly exude an innocence and optimism which later festers in frustration and cynicism. The two managed to accomplish these traits while maintaining the chemistry required of a Mamet play.

In contrast to our two characters in charge of portraying the plays humanity (a better word for emotion) we have Joan and Bernie, the keys drivers of Mamet’s elaborate and daunting dialogue. Ryan gives an astounding performance as Joan, as she has impeccable control of her dialogue, which a less experienced actor could fall prey to. Lomas, is a true show stealer – his portrayal of Bernie is beautifully well rounded, again breezing through the fast paced dialogue with complete ownership.

The production has again reminded us that this company are fearless, a winning trait in this industry. Their ambitious decisions and eagerness to prove their company aim that “there is no such thing as can’t be done”, are two of the many reasons 1956 are quickly becoming one of my favourite theatre companies. Watch this space!

Words: Kate Morris

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Brink @ Royal Exchange Studio, 26.03.15

Brink, the latest production by the Royal Exchange's Young Company, marks Associate Director Matthew Xia's directorial debut for the theatre. An ambitious production, the company worked together with Youth Director Matt Hassall and poet and Exchange associated artist Jackie Kay to explore the idea of being “on the brink” using spoken word, song, dialogue, beatboxing, physical theatre and most importantly, the experiences of the performers.

What is initially striking about the production is its design - the Studio has been truly transformed into an other worldly, futuristic place, with a raised platform divided into grids of light (reminiscent of Tron), creating lots of small edges the actors can reach. These perhaps symbolise the "brinks", both big and small, we encounter throughout our lives. As the show progresses lighting design and staging are consistently strong, with doors suddenly appearing in the set and the cast crawling into other worlds, (or perhaps the "real world") which the audience has no sense of previously.

Throughout the production though it is the concept of “the brink” as an other worldly place that jars for me. The use of a slightly foreboding score sometimes overdramatised asides to the main stories, which otherwise could have served as light relief. The repetition of "this graceless place" seemingly used to assert the idea of the brink being a place rather than an idea didn't work for me, and was slightly overused.

In addition, the necessity of bringing the whole company on to the stage and establishing a world to which they all enter for different reasons, starts the play off with a rather chaotic tone. Although this establishes the concept of “being on the bring”, starting at such a high octane initially gave me reservations about what was to follow.

Disregarding the Brink as an alternative world, the concept serves as fruitful stimulus for the company emotionally, exploring decisions and conflicts big and small with humour, insightfulness and authenticity throughout the performance. The vast majority of the individual stories ring true, being told with a comforting ease which allow for some fantastic performances.

As I mentioned earlier, Kay wrote the piece after lengthy discussion with the company and there is a real sense of their ownership over their stories and the material in general. A sense of having discovered things for themselves and supporting one another through the process, which is what really great youth theatre should be about. As with any piece "based on the experiences of the performers", the show made me wonder how much of it was real, especially with the harder hitting sections, but the performers always felt safe and supported.

Where the production, and performers really came alive was during the musical numbers, written collaboratively with the company and composed by young company member Jason Singh who accompanied on piano. Strongest of the original material was "Fragile" where the performers harmonised, danced and channelled the emotions of the lyrics wholeheartedly.

Both Director Xia and Associate Director Hassall have spoken passionately about their belief in theatre as a social tool and their admiration of the young company they have had the privilege of working with. Every performer on stage seemed comfortable, confident and cared for, all given space to explore and an opportunity to shine, creating a sensitive, energetic, varied, authentic and therefore triumphant show.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Die Hexen Presents 'Luna' [Free Download]

The solar eclipse has arrived at the right time for Manchester electronic artist Die Hexen, whose latest song, 'Luna', ties together today's three celestial events - the eclipse, the spring equinox and the supermoon.

Die Hexen's video for 'Luna' depicts NASA recordings of the moon and is free to download via soundcloud here.

The video fits in with her current project for Framewerk Art Gallery in Belfast, an audio-visual installation entitled Lunar Terminator that will be on display through June.

D. Lucille Campbell, whose stage name is Die Hexen, is also composing the soundtrack for a new film, to be announced soon, with other new material due during 2015.

Words: Ian Pennington

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Whitworth Art Gallery: The Launch in Photos

Rooftop pyrotechnics engulf the skies overhead.

A photography exhibition lines the corridor.

Images are projected onto the new building's wall, which will feature film screenings and displays in the future.

Photos & video: Tom Warman

Scuttlers @ Royal Exchange, 10.02.15

The gangs of Manchester have often been represented via artistic media, as exemplified recently by the Brothers’ Day film launched at Moston Small Cinema.

Carrying a loose similarity to BBC’s The Mill in its reminder of the moth-eaten working conditions for cotton mill workers, Scuttlers instead focuses on the Victorian youth gangs of Ancoats, whose recalcitrant hostility saw territorial wars across the canal bridges.

What immediately strikes you about this production is its walls of sound created by Manchester-based music producer Denis Jones. On taking your seat, you’re welcomed into the gritty, industrial world of late 19th century Manchester. This is achieved partly by the core cast spinning webs on the central loom, but more so by Jones’s clattering cataclysms emanating from his control tower, which throw 21st century futurism amongst the mechanical oppression in slightly anachronistic fashion.

The plot, intertwining the lives of the Prussia Street and Bengal Street gangs, is enhanced by the claustrophobic nature of the Royal Exchange’s circular theatre setting. With all events set within a half-mile radius, the proximity of work, rest and play on Ancoats’ streets is carried out to great effect, as the core cast and extras alike crisscross the floorboards, appearing and disappearing from all angles in cohesive segue.

Focus swaps between the gangs with some impartial – or at least less dogmatic – floaters drifting between the two. Susan (Anna Krippa), a nurse at the Dispensary whose campaign has been highlighted by the production programme, is one character whose line of work noticeably brings her into contact with both sides of the divide. Her relationship with returned soldier Joe (Tachia Newall) is one that serves to add depth away from the brewing belligerence.

In terms of performances, David Judge, playing the charming Chorlton-to-Ancoats migrant Thomas Clayton, confidently delivers some of the wittiest lines of the script, aided by the surrounding sounds akin to Aphex Twin shuffles that decorate his nimble dancing scenes. Jones’s paralysing clamours are again the prevalent in a later fight scene, throwing volume spikes like punches. It may have been the wintry draught, but I felt a shiver down my spine at one moment of tense timing.

Noticeable flaws were when sentences trailed away. At least one section of the audience at a time was losing words to the auditorium. Some fluctuated in this respect, but among the least audible were Kieran Urquhart’s Prussia Street leader George, whose tender tones were in stark contrast to the angry gang dynamics on display at the top of the Tigers’ tree – Jimmy (Dan Parr) and Sean (Bryan Parry). This was rarely the case for Rona Morison's Theresa, whose relatively seasoned and streetwise character was played with an assured guile.

Overall, director Rona Munro has incisively pieced together a jigsaw displaying a broken society, with the familiarity of the local reference points adding to its allure.

Words: Ian Pennington
Photos: Jonathan Keenan, c/o Royal Exchange Theatre

Scuttlers continues at Royal Exchange until Saturday 7 March - tickets are available here. Supplementary events include Gangland Manchester, which is a discussion on 21st gangs in the city hosted by Dave Haslam, and walking tours led by Manchester Guided Tours.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Spur of the Moment @ Re:play, 16.01.15

I’m back again making myself at HOME for another segment of the ever impressive Re:play, and I am truly starting to appreciate why the festival has featured the pieces it has. Fluid writing and strong acting is without question, but the real quality of the festival’s programme is that the work gets the audience talking. And if I where to put money on it, I would bet Deaf Dog’s production of Spur of The Moment would top the list of the most confabulated.

Written by Anya Reiss at the tender age of 17, it is a play in which its characters are simultaneously toyed by relationships and distance, power and weakness, their truths and lies, all as a result of their desires. It's is a perfect recipe for controversy, and makes for delicious audience commentary.

Delilah (Tilly Slade) has all the traits of a 12 year old: sleepover parties with her friends, imitating High School Musical and looking forward to her 13th Birthday. Just rooms away her parents, Nick (Darren Kemp) and Vicky (Joi Rouncefield), are at loggerheads again over Nick’s recent affair with his ugly, older boss – and to make matters worse, was soon after made redundant. Financially stressed and frustrated the couple take in a 21 year old lodger, Daniel (Jack Alexander) who falls between being a pawn in the parental battle and more disconcerting, a subject for Delilah’s pubescent fancies.

The concurrent theme is staged by the clever use of two transferable doors; these serve to both represent the divide of narratives and crossing of boundaries. A moment that I thought worked particularly well is when Daniel storms between his own room, currently inhabited by his visiting girlfriend (Lucienne Browne) and the room of a now devoted Delilah. A growing danger is evident as Daniel crosses the boundary into Delilah’s room for the first time in the play.

Another interesting notion I found was in the direction of Nick and Vicky and their battles over tea and cloths. The direction of petulant impersonations, “shut ups” and temper tantrums, cast an irony over the seemingly ‘adult’ relationship of the play. This is then exaggerated when Delilah ultimately makes the most conscientious decision and sacrifices what she thinks would make her happy.

Spur of the Moment has an infectious blend of comedy and tension to make you hold your breath or curl your toes. Arguably it sets out to shock, but has an underlying hybrid of “you can’t always get what you want” and “be careful what you wish for”. One thing is for certain – it will get you talking.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of HOME

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A View From The Bridge @ Bolton Octagon, 16.01.14

A View From The Bridge, by Arthur Miller, is all about the destructive power of that oldest and ugliest of emotions: jealousy. Centred around Eddie Carbone (Colin Connor), his wife Beatrice (Barbara Drenna) and their niece Catherine (Natasha Davidson), the story takes place along the shores of the East River in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is plenty of mirth in Miller's play, especially in the opening act where the family kid each other in an atmosphere of contentment. But this is not the perfect cookie-cut American family by any means, and once Beatrice's relatives from Italy arrive hidden feelings begin to creep out, like cockroaches from behind seemingly pristine wallpaper. Eddie is jealous of Catherine's interest in the newly arrived Rodolpho (Tristan Brooke), and once that indecent dynamic is established the play careens towards its inevitable and unhappy conclusion.

Some of the cast were familiar from recent Octagon performances and, like in those, here they delivered work of very high standard. Connor as patriarch Eddie managed to take us on his difficult journey without being overblown, while Drennan as his wife showed suitable levels of nervous stress. The accents, be they Italian or American, were pretty much spot on, which is always a relief for the audience and a considerable achievement for the actors.

Building up momentum as it goes, it is easy to see why this particular Miller play is held in such high regard and why the Bolton Octagon has put it on. Much has been made of director David Thacker's connection to Miller, and his assured hand delivered a performance that was visually interesting, emotionally engaging and a credit to his friend's play.

In some ways the story seems dated, with the female characters being expected to bow before patriarchal pressure. But while that might not be the way in most households, there are still many women whose choices are taken away by overbearing male figures, and this play is a reminder that while western society has come along way it is not a rising tide that has raised all boats. A strong start to 2015 for the Octagon.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ian Tilton

Monday, 19 January 2015

JB Shorts @ Re:play, 14.01.14

Re:play has returned to serve up seconds of 2014s most delicious pieces of fringe theatre and, with the four course banquet of JB Shorts on the menu, how could I resist? Diets are short lived anyway! The collection of 4 fifteen minute plays are taken from the sold out JB shorts 11 and 12 programmes, and are written by established comedy and drama writers: Jane McNulty, David Isaac, Justin Moorhouse and the collaborative Peter Kerry and James Quinn.

Our petite fours start with the dark and intriguing A Hairline Crack. The piece explores the relationship of two women, living amongst vast tea sets they have hoarded for an un-pursued business venture. Button (Cathy breeze) is trapped in the residence due to immobility, but she gains power and control over Ronnie (Tigga Goulding) by vindictively questioning her whereabouts, making demands and ultimately smashing her dreams. The piece moves with naturalistic normality with an underlying dark motive that surprises both Ronnie and the audience.

Moving to our main course is the full and rich Paradise Island. Abdullah (Abdullah Afzal), an immigrant looking for work on the island, is near banished, until the King (Richard Hand) is besotted with Abdullah’s wife Liz (a show stealing teddy bear). The piece is wonderfully funny but I imagine not to everyone’s taste particularly when the audience are asked to shout the dreaded ‘he’s behind you’. The piece is a guilty pleasure because the components work – a witty script with pace, a cast with impeccable comic timing, and effective audience interaction.

Moorhouse’s serving is Leaky Bacon, the story of a family of women from three generations. Linking together their interactions are monologues, delivered by each character that shares personal insight into their life, secrets and feelings as well as those of the other characters. The script has clear inclination of something truthful and moving but I feel doesn’t have the opportunity to truly flourish in the short time frame.

A Great War is the final offering; a parody of a ‘highlights segment’ of rolling news show depicting the best bits/updates of WWI. The writing is brilliant, bountiful language and hilarious responses get the style and characteristics of the era, with the whole thing executed perfectly by newsreaders Nicolas (Arthur Bostrom) and Victoria (Victoria Brazier).

Full and satisfied from the smorgasbord of theatre, it’s obvious to me why JB appears on the Re:play bill: because variety is the spice of life.

Words: Kate Morris

Images: Courtesy of HOME