Friday, 18 September 2015

Interview: Ian Kershaw, writer of By Far The Greatest Team

"We're all trainspotters," writer Ian Kershaw tells me during our interview about his contribution to Monkeywood Theatre's most recent production, By Far The Greatest Team. "We may laugh at the old bloke at the end of the platform, with his notepad and corduroys, but we are all passionate about something. All watching something and waiting for the next time. We're all trainspotters in our own way."

Four Mancunian writers explore what it is to be a football fan with four brand new plays. Told in a game of two halves, we hear stories of both Manchester City and Manchester United, identity, community, belonging and the passion that drives it all. Now Then spoke with one of the MVPs, Ian Kershaw, to tell us more about the beautiful game he and his fellow writers have created.

Hi Ian, can you tell us briefly about the production and how much football can we expect? 

It’s on at the Lowry between 18 September and 20 September, and it's made up of four plays written by four writers about football - two of them by Manchester City fans and the other two by Manchester United fans. The four plays have an overall running time of 90 minutes and the performance space has been decked out to look like a football stadium. We’ve asked the audience to come dressed in their footy colours, so it might kick off a bit - people might be fighting in the car park.

What we are wishing for is that there will be football fans who have never been to theatre before who come along, and equally, so that theatre fans are so caught up in the stories that they want to go to a match, we want the two worlds to inspire each other. I guess really we are trying to create an understanding from two sides, especially between the two teams, and just show that we are all in the same thing. We are all passionate and we both live and die for Saturday.

How were the stories for the production created?

Martin Gibbons (one third of the Artistic Directors of Monkeywood) sent a call out for writers some time ago, and I thought it sounded great and wanted to get involved. He then assembled the final four - luckily we all know each other through different Manchester connections - and he asked use all to meet up at the National Football Museum. Martin gave us an open brief and said we could write about anything we wanted, within a football scenario. Once we delivered our first drafts, we started thinking of the play as a whole, and how we could bring these four stories together where it wouldn’t be a case of one play, lights out, next play, lights out. So we tried to create a production that resembled football as an entity, but also had a journey.

Manchester celebrated the second Football Writing Festival last week. Was By Far The Greatest Team a part of that?

No, I think that was a happy accident. By Far the Greatest Team has been a long time in the making and in Martin’s head for a number of years. Martin is actually a Middlesbrough fan and he was at a home game against a much lesser team. Middlesbrough were losing, so the fans all began singing, “We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen". It was evidently not true. They weren’t even the greatest team on the field. But it was that passion and love of the game, and that has parallels to theatre which then inspired the project.

How has it been working in collaboration with other writers?

It’s been the best of both worlds. Being a writer, it’s a very solitary profession, so I’ve had the flip side of that which allowed me to have meetings and good times with other people. The other writers are all brilliant, and what’s been refreshing is that usually it can be quite competitive being in a team and you want to be the best. There's been nothing like that. Instead I've just wanted to be as good. It’s great.

What's been your favourite part of the process?

I think what I’ve most enjoyed is that we are all mates and there’s been a lot of winding up going on - little bits of gentle needling and a lot of banter. David Judge is a United fan and is the main actor in my play. He plays a die-hard City fan, so it’s been a lot of fun winding him up. The closer we get to opening night, I tell him, “I cant wait to see you wear that City shirt and kiss that badge".

Words by Kate Morris
Images courtesy of Monkeywood Theatre

By Far The Greatest Team is on at The Lowry from 18-20 September, kicking off at 7.30pm each night.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Shrine of Everyday Things @ Contact, 25.07.15

I've always found it interesting the things we get attached to and what we choose to hold on to. It may be a particular blanket or cuddly toy we had as a child which has survived into our adulthood; although that existence may inhabit the attic, still we valued it enough to never let it go. But what of the little things we never knew we would miss until it’s gone; the smell of an old book, the porcelain figurine that sat on your Nan’s mantelpiece; or the wallpaper from your first home? The Shrine of Everyday Things is an immersive, interactive journey that gives you a new perspective to how big the little things can be.

The talented Contact Young Company devised the site-specific piece in four properties in a Brunswick estate facing demolition and refurbishment, peeking behind their net curtains to explore the stories of the residents gone by. With that in mind the piece is extremely ghostly with a buzzing feeling of apprehension; which is no surprise given the location remains secret until it’s too late to turn back. 

The audience is asked to meet at the Contact Theatre before they are guided to the housing estate. On the walk we are asked to wear headphones playing slow, moody music and (unbeknownst to us) voices of former residents talking of their favourite rooms and memories of the estate.

As we approach the estate we see a long balloon drifting through the sky, which isn’t an odd occurrence until we see another floating from one of the windows. It’s strangely surreal; but more so across the road to welcome us are the “picture perfect” suburbanites, smiling creepily and waving, oh so slowly.

The audience are then split up into smaller groups and guided to different rooms. Each experience is strange and eerie in its own way, equally as strange are the residents. Visiting the rooms we meet three women listening to the whispers of their neighbours. Sit in on an awkward dinner while sugar spills out from the ceiling. Then on to a lonely son in a kitchen filled with empty water bottles.

A strange calm is cast in the final room however, as we are invited to remember our dreams. This was a clever twist to the piece’s proceedings; one that was thought provoking and emotive as it made me personally connect with the content but reminded me I was stood in someone’s home. We were asked to write on the walls the best dream we have ever had, and it was lovely to read the dreams of strangers. As I read, I remembered that this was a real person’s bedroom; they had reflected, dreamt and looked to the future as we were now.

That shared experience between a stranger and me; was the core of the piece for me. The power of an everyday occurrence, and exhibition of these little moments which make up our lives. The Shrine of Everyday Things is in our dreams.

Words: Kate Morris
Images: Courtesy of Contact 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

24:7 Theatre Festival, We are the Multitude @ John Thaw Theatre, 26.07.15

We have become all too familiar with paradigm of opposites in the films we see, the books we read and the plays we watch. The star-crossed lovers from opposing families, the feuding gangs fighting for their turf or, as a more contemporary take, a social divide coming together and rising up as an unstoppable dance duo. And that’s exactly what makes up We Are The Multitude.

Lisa and Simon are colleagues who share an office pod and we needn’t even meet them to have an idea of their differences. Lisa tarts up her table with fluffy tinsel and flowers, while house of Simon sports the understated, minimal look. As history and countless TV sitcoms have told us, we know we can expect the pair to cause each other some headache, but eventually put their difference aside to work together.

Predictable as it sounds, we are surprised when we discover what does force these two together. No, it’s not being stuck in an elevator or an ATM vestibule (classic Chandler). It's more interesting. The two are trapped in their office due to their university building being targeted by the protest group We Are The Multitude. However, the narrative isn’t a political one. In fact, the politics are an effective conduit to put two lonely and unpopular people together.

The piece is heavily comedic and the actors do an incredible job of getting the script off the page. Amy Drake, who plays Lisa, is a clear comic talent and has received recognition for similar roles. Drake does well to bring her movements and vocal technique to utilise a script’s humour. Andy Blake equally gives his character dimension as the condescending and self-righteous Simon, who hides behind an intellectual superiority to conceal his feelings of personal failure and fulfilment.

I did think it possible that Simon served a purpose to personify the touched-upon politics of We Are The Multitude, but did we lose ourselves in laughing so much that we missed something more? The protest group targets the several university buildings to urge the Prime Minister to acknowledge that education should be for everyone and not for the privileged. If we are not given the right chances, do we run the risk of a world of Simons, not realising or fulfilling their potential? I don’t know whether this was intended by writer Laura Harper or something constructed from my viewing – either way I would take it as a win.

I can’t deny that I enjoyed this piece. Who doesn’t enjoy a witty script? However, some of the confessions did seem a tad predictable and contrived, but that may be due to the familiar framework. Nonetheless, the piece clearly found success across all levels  a well-written script, directed effectively by Liz Stephenson, performed by talented and focused actors. So you can forgive a bit of predictability – they are classics for a reason, after all.

Words: Kate Morris
Image: Courtesy of 24:7 Theatre Festival

Saturday, 1 August 2015

24:7 Theatre Festival, Madness Sweet Madness @ Cosmo Concert Hall 27.7.15

Hi, I’m Kate and I like theatre. I like stories and when a group of creative individuals come together to breathe life into a script. What I like most about theatre, is that it can reflect issues to society and fly the flag for change. I confess in the past I have been disappointed to find the piece didn’t carry a contemporary relevance or stand for something – and that is admittedly snobbish. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying a play because it is a story. Chocolate doesn’t do much for you, but you enjoy it all the same. Be that as it may, I was happy to see the title Madness Sweet Madness on the 24:7 programme; yes, we are getting some stigmas of mental health on the table.

Madness Sweet Madness has a strange ambience, seemingly somewhere in the realm of a dream, on the brink of wake. The piece is presented in real time, but there is something oh so…off. Like a watercolour reverie, bleeding into something more real.

Grace (Sophie Harrison) is unable to work and is lodging with her brother in law, Vesuvius (Matt Aistrup), after her husband Charlie and the passengers of a missing plane are lost. Grace and Vesuvius’s relationship had me guessing almost instantly. We learn Grace has been prescribed some pills to help her cope and, equally suspicious, Vesuvius is sleep-deprived due to Grace's unpredictability and asks if he could “knock her out” so he can get some shut eye. Just as we try to keep up, two unconventional cops arrive, hopefully to shed some light on this murkiness. But they heighten the unsettling surrealism. They have intimate details they inexplicably acquired and oddly help themselves to cook eggs for their breakfast. The madness has spread here.

The script was very intriguing, but unfortunately some comic material was skated over and I suspect this is down to the pacing of the piece overall. The aforementioned dreamy oddity was a theme across the dialogue and its delivery, which came at the expense of the jokes planted by writer Georgina Tremayne.

Another motif that had me quizzical was the luminous house at the back of the stage. What purpose did this serve? Was it yet another attempt at a moving Salvador Dali painting, a representation of the nature of mental illness or simply because there are references to houses (none of which glow in the dark) in the script?

All of the actors did a good job to animate the vision of both writer and director, but I think it would benefit having characters of an older age. I hate to sound fickle, but I think Grace’s grief would in turn be more relatable and gain greater empathy.

This play would serve a second attempt as I think we haven’t yet scratched the surface of its potential.

Words: Kate Morris
Images: Courtesy of 24:7 Theatre Festival

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Competition: Manchester Jazz Festival

The 20th annual edition of Manchester Jazz Festival launches this week with its ever-impressive array of time signatures and styles, continuing from Friday 31 July through to Sunday 9 August.

While limelight stealers include the Robert Glasper Trio and the Mercury Prize nominees Gogo Penguin (whose Festival Pavilion show is now reportedly sold out), there’s also a keen eye on ensuring plenty of events remain accessible and free to attend. Jazz North’s northern line showcase extends across Monday 3 August at a few of the partner venues – Matt & Phred’s, Central Library and St Ann’s Church among them – and other newcomers remain free under the ‘introduces’ banner.

Elsewhere, there’s a strong local presence, both old and new, with the likes of Charlie Cooper & The CCs, Hans Prya (who formed after meeting as participants of Snarky Puppy’s Brighter Sound residency at Band on the Wall in 2013), Cinematic Orchestra guitarist Stuart McCallum and Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne.

Look out for reviews of some of the festival’s events in our September issue, which will appear here.

We’ve teamed up with Manchester Jazz Festival to give away a pair of tickets to the Riot Jazz Brass Band / Baked A La Ska double bill at the Festival Pavilion on Saturday 8 August. All you need to do to enter is like and share the image at the other end of this link (making sure it’s set to ‘public’ so we can see that you’ve entered).

We’ll announce the winner on Thursday 6 August.

Good luck!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Back Seat Betty @ Joshua Brooks, 02.07.15

Recently I heard a great piece of advice whilst chatting about producing work and starting ideas: be a cat. The reasoning is that because cats are only where they choose to be, they are the masters of their own fate. If their curiosity kills them, then so be it – they went down swinging (space permitting). When watching Back Seat Betty I projected this thought onto the team behind the piece, and I’m confident they are always going to be somewhere wonderful.

Written by Joshua Val Martin, the 40-minute monologue is from the perspective of a working-from-home prostitute, and is part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe.

Monologues can be a minefield for actors. On viewing the challenge in front of you, one can be fooled into thinking it is quite straightforward, ignorant of the lurking danger. Confidently you venture on stage, too far to turn back and then BOOM: you trip on some tricky poetry, narrowly missing a joke, leaving you detached and disengaged from the piece. You sound like you are remembering words rather than talking, and although you’re alone you have forgotten to use the audience.

Luckily, this isn’t a trap Jo Dakin fell into. Instead, she dominates the piece, breezing through the lines and ticking all the boxes. She is terrifying and menacingly dark, yet likeable enough to stay with on the journey.

This versatility is a cornerstone for a Val Martin piece; the writing style is a hybrid of comedy, politics and a David Bowie album. He is one of the most promising emerging writers around.

Despite reassurance that “it’s not real” when I’ve refused to watch horror films, my response has always been that the film may not be real, but the ideas are; and no cheesy special effects can stop me from feeling terrified. The same can be said for Val Martin. He creates characters and stories so vivid they become a living and breathing reality.

Director Esther Dix has done an excellent job of controlling the parameters of the narrative; she has allowed the realism to come through and be believable, with neither the writing nor the acting rule over the other.

Looking back on my review, it may seem that I haven’t really commented on the piece and the truth is I haven’t even began to touch the surface. To comment on any part of the story would be telling too much. Instead, all I can advise is next time you have the chance to see a Val Martin piece do so: you will not be disappointed.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of Cobbled Haze Club

Monday, 13 July 2015

MIF: Arvo Pärt @ Bridgewater Hall, 12.07.15

Arvo Pärt’s compositions are the most performed of any living composer in the world, but his music grows seemingly from the very birth of music itself. Drawing on deeply spiritual and contemplative themes, his Gregorian chant-inspired vocal and string repertoire transcends the present tense and has not only won him the highest of accolades from the most educated of music listeners, it has also touched a vast, perhaps less-discerning audience searching for serenity and purity, found in his accessible musical vocabulary.

Performed tonight by the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gábor Takács-Nagy, alongside long-time Pärt collaborators Vox Clamantis, an Estonian choir, the eloquently selected programme is allowed to resonate and shine in the presence of Pärt himself. ‘Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima’ is a new composition dedicated to MIF collaborator Gerhard Richter. This short vocal piece is inspired by a visit to Fatima in Portugal, the site of a Marian apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917, in which she is said to have appeared to three shepherd children and prophesied the Second World War. However, Pärt focuses on the light and joy of the children, relayed by the eloquent, bouncing “hallelujahs”.

‘Fratres’, translated as ‘brothers’, follows a repeated six-bar string theme with an unerring flow, countered by a striking percussive interlude on claves and bass drum, both directly cutting and billowing at once. Opening with a sublime stillness and a grounded bass drone, the piece hesitantly repeats, growing into itself, reaching grandeur of strings in full flow before retreating back into its subdued self.

Pärt’s ‘Stabat Mater’, a medieval poem based on the sufferings of Mary, Jesus’ mother, during his crucifixion, seems only too perfect a subject for his music. The serene start develops into an almost conversational interplay between the strings and choir before bursts of frantic and expansive energy portraying her intense pain disappear as soon as they’ve developed. This, along with most of this evening’s events, are seemingly relentlessly disrupted by sporadic coughing from the audience as if the plague has fallen upon Manchester, perhaps nervous interruptions from an audience not used to such extensive stillness and reflection. The death of this drawn-out sorrowful suffering (Mary, not the coughing) is preceded by what could be considered two last gasps for breath, for which the audience can only withhold theirs, before the final chord slips away into silence.

‘Da Pacem Domine’, written in memory of the 2004 Madrid bombing victims, is a prayer for peace and is now performed annually in Spain. Setting text from a sixth century hymn, its almost plea-like nature is accentuated through the withheld melodic progression.

To close, ‘Como Cierva Sedienta’, featuring soprano soloist Polina Pasztircsák and a full orchestra, offers a setting of Psalms 42 and 43 in Spanish. Its exploratory nature is in great contrast to much of tonight’s programme, flitting between frantic woodwind flurries, brass fanfare and Stravinsky-esque modernist dissonance. But it does retain some of the serene moments that we are used to hearing from Pärt, and like each of his pieces, without doubt, every note matters. Each has been carefully considered by Pärt and the performers have no choice but to follow suit. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of his music, the concentration and detailed execution required from each performer in creating such tonal, textural and sonorous eloquence cannot be underestimated. Perhaps it’s this which aids the seemingly infinite power of his music. His ability to create such seemingly simple soundscapes through complex fundamental historic compositional techniques, often foregoing generations of music history, allows Pärt to transport the listener to a place of deep spiritual contemplation and that much closer to purity.

Words & photos: Simon Bray (@simonbray /

MIF: Neck of the Woods @ HOME, 10.07.15

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Certainly not me in the MIF production of Neck of the Woods. There were far worse things to fear. If you go down to the woods today, you will be leaving underwhelmed.

On paper, this ‘collaboration’ ticks all the boxes and garners expectations of something special. An acclaimed casting choice (Charlotte Rampling), check. A concert pianist (Hélène Grimaud) playing a phenomenal repertoire, check. An eclectic and culturally diverse choir using their voices to create the soundscape, check. A new multi-million pound venue to host the event, check. And all under the reign of a Turner Prize-winning visual artist (Douglas Gordon) – big check. But, heartbreakingly, no. In fact, there was barely any collaboration, and these components struggled to come together resulting in something fractured and unconnected, which is a real shame.

Neck of the Woods is a vague retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, while drawing on the many different takes of wolf mythology in literature and a very loose metaphor of the animal of man. “Mostly wolves represent a bad man […] I think men are worse than wolves,” says Gordon.

The play opens in complete darkness with the sound of a tree being chopped down with an inevitable crash. This is probably the most impressive part of the production and, with the almighty sound, the audience is immediately immersed. The HOME acoustics are so good that it was truly terrifying.

The production is hugely self-indulgent, with Gordon listed in the programme for concept, direction, design and performance. None of which met par. That’s not completely fair, the concept is very interesting and I think there is something there. As for everything else, I felt it was very safe and riddled with clichés. There’s talk about blood, wolves and snow, so you can bet there was red lighting, fake snow and a fluffy shag pile with a wolf head.

This project clearly hosted a lot of talent. Grimaud’s playing is a beautiful silver lining to this piece. The Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, first formed at MIF 2013, is abundantly talented, but drastically underused in this production. Rampling did have a few fluffs, but overall I felt she didn’t have much to work with, which I imagine is quite restrictive.

Regrettably this piece hasn’t met the standard set by other MIF productions, the responsibility for which falls on Douglas as he struggles to harness the hot ball of talent he had at his disposal and utilise it effectively. Instead, he rides on the coattails of other people’s talent and uses it for his own gratification. Douglas is indeed the wolf, and a house of straw or sticks has more solidity than this piece.

Words: Kate Morris

Neck of the Woods continues until Saturday 18 July. For tickets and more info, click here.

Friday, 10 July 2015

MIF Acoustic Stage @ Albert Sq, 04.07.15

The denizens of Manchester are enjoying these weekend festivals. Following the popularity of Manchester Day, it’s no surprise to find that Albert Square was thronged for the opening weekend of Manchester International Festival.

In glorious sunshine illuminating the festival tent, balcony bar and acoustic stage, it's not just the food stallholders and ice-cream sellers who have smiles on their faces.

Throw in four sets of musicians to perform from early afternoon to evening and it all added to the relaxed atmosphere that people savour. The downside for a musician is that an open-air arena, with young children freely running around and taking advantage of the kid friendly area, is not the best location to demonstrate the quality of your works. Mix that with the background chatter and the performers are relegated to the level of sideshows.

Playing an instrument called the handpan, Matthew Bailey eschews vocals to focus on comfortable, percussive sounds that match well with the atmosphere. To the untrained eye, the instrument looks like two distorted cymbals taped back to back, but the sounds are languid and fluid.

Charlie Cooper appears in different guises, both as a solo artist or part of a band, and for this afternoon event she was supported by Rachel Lasham on drums. It turns out be a wise choice that provides substance to support Cooper’s keyboards which could have otherwise rapidly floated away in the warm air.

Josephine, minus her surname Oniyama, is well-known and respected amongst the music followers in the northwest area, but when it comes to competing with the chimes of the town hall clock, first at 6pm then 7pm, even she will come off second best. The first time she used the interruption to signal the start of her set, but the second time, occurring mid-song, pretty much destroyed the effects of her stories.

Still, it’s a positive move to promote local talent of varying styles, and the approach will be replicated during the remainder of the festival at its Albert Square base.

Words & photos: Ged Camera

The Festival Square Acoustic Stage schedule continues until Sunday 19 July.

The Invisible Dot Cabaret @ MIF, 09.07.15

The Invisible Dot have been tasked with bringing comedy to MIF for the first time, and while it may be moaned about that they have predominantly invited acts who’re based outside of Manchester, they have served up a winning piece of late night entertainment. The line-ups will change throughout the cabaret’s run, but if they keep up this high calibre, you're guaranteed some late night laughs. In true cabaret style, they present us with a variety of comedic forms and the mix works well.

Neurosis seemed to be the theme of the night as compère for the evening Mae Martin shared jokes about worried mothers and the emotional anguish brought on by Brian Cox. A Canadian, Martin had good fun with English accents, but needs to worry less about whether we have seen things over here. Relaxed and playful, she kept the evening ticking over nicely.

Phil Ellis (the only local on the bill) always thrives off the audience, his energetic performance dragging us helplessly along in his wake. He's easily distracted by new ideas and, although a veer towards darker material at the end of his set threatens to derail the audience's goodwill, Ellis makes for a great opener.

Natasha Demetriou and Ellie White followed as the Sexy Dangerous American Girl Cousins. There were some lovely lines and it's a very physical performance, but ultimately the characters came off a little one-note for me, and the intentionally “so bad it's good” finale didn't quite land.

The night was rounded off by Sheeps, a sketch trio who play with and deconstruct the sketch form in smart, but rarely too-clever-for-their-own-good ways. It took them a moment to kick into gear, but soon had the audience following them with every twist and turn. Sketch topics veered from a preview of their new musical based on Oliver Twist (“We've spotted a gap in the market”) to a violent ruckus between Chuckle Brothers via cat-based whimsy. A great way to close the night.

The 90-minute show flew by without an interval and proved to be a great night in all, but, although the Invisible Dot has a roster of excellent comedians, perhaps next year we can show off more home-grown talent instead of relegating it to the fringes. Hopefully next year the comedy offering will grow and we will see even greater and braver variety.

Words: Sean Mason

The Invisible Dot continues each night until 17 July. For more info and tickets, visit its MIF web page.