Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Albert Hall, Manchester
Directed by Sarah Frankcom
Until 14th July

Photo: Kevin Cummins

Closed to the public since 1969, Manchester’s Albert Hall is a superb venue for this staging of Shelley’s epic political poem ‘The Masque Of Anarchy’. A cavernous interior with a huge organ dominating the space created a quasi religious atmosphere – part cathedral, part football stadium. The relatively small stage area was mainly lit by candles, perfectly setting the scene for an impassioned battle cry for revolution from the lone performer, Maxine Peake. Rapturous applause greeted the diminutive figure of the actress as she made her way onto the stage clad in a simple white dress. Shelley’s poem was written in response to the events of Peterloo, the 1819 massacre of over a dozen innocent protestors by armed cavalry, which happened just yards away from the Albert Hall itself. Part of the Manchester International Festival, and in collaboration with The Royal Exchange, this was theatre at its simplest and most effective best; a single orator addressing a reverential audience with a call to arms for the oppressed and underrepresented people of England. Although some of the poetry could be hard to follow, and many of the names railed against are meaningless to everyone except the Peterloo scholar, this was timeless and highly relevant to today’s age of austerity. Fat cats are lampooned, along with the legal profession, the rich, the politicians, and the militia. Sarah Frankcom’s direction was simple – just let the performer speak; directly, forcefully, and supported by a subtle musical score (by Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski). The performance lasted around 40 minutes; testament to Ms Peake’s skill and stamina as her voice hardly faltered through verse after verse of dramatic, tense, angry, and at times tearful poetry. She had a vulnerable quality, with her slender frame, angular face, and often trembling hands. But she wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the perfect actress for this production. Maxine Peake makes it personal, and that makes it effective and jaw-droppingly heartfelt. Stepping down from the stage at the end of the performance, she carried a small candle as she made her way through the standing audience, and disappeared from view. One soul among many.

This review first published by www.thepublicreviews.com


Town Hall Tavern, Manchester

Reviewed Sat 20th July


Billed as ‘Three of the best recent short comedies from across the North West’, this was 45 minutes showcasing new writing, and the three pieces contrasted perfectly. 

Jonah Walsh, Pat Marchant, and Jez Smith in 'Paradise Street'

First up was Tommy Warburton’s ‘Paradise Street’ (from Oldham Coliseum Firstbreak Festival), a heart-warming throwback to a gentler age of situation comedy. Set during the 1970s, this bore more than a passing resemblance to classic era Coronation Street, with a nod to the more contemporary ‘The Royle Family’. Jez Smith (giving a loveably nonchalant performance with seemingly effortless comic timing) led as amiable patriarch Alf, desperate to settle down for an evening of cheese and pickle butties and footie on the telly, when a sudden power cut forces the family to get out the long-neglected games box. Long-suffering wife Vera (Pat Marchant channelling Sue Johnston) relishes this unexpected chance to indulge in some quality time with the couple’s teen-age children, Gary (Jonah Walsh – a nicely-judged turn as the callow yet generous-of-spirit youth) and Helen (Lily Shepherd in a beautifully-mannered performance of great warmth and attention to detail). A brief cameo from Martin Henshell as genial neighbour Mike completed a lovely ensemble. This is good old-fashioned entertainment, and writer Warburton skilfully sketches in some instantly loveable characters with little trace of cynicism or any clever-clever postmodernist approach. What you see is what you get, and ‘Paradise Street’ lives up to its name; in an ideal world, this is where we’d all love to be. The actors gelled perfectly, and I would certainly relish seeing the family again someday soon. Director Daniel Thackeray had a steady hand on the tiller, and the slapstick moments never descended into farce. Extra kudos to Lily Shepherd for expertly reading in the role of Helen (due to a last minute non-appearance of actress Niamh Prestwich; thanks to a train delay).

Lily Shepherd in 'There's Only One Man, Utd'

Next up was ‘There’s Only One Man, United’ by Robert Pegg. Certainly a clever title, but one hopes it won’t become a victim of a misplaced comma anytime soon, as this is very much an anti-football, pro relationship piece. Lily Shepherd (this time directing too) took to the stage once again as an un-named (or at least uncredited in the programme) young woman, stranded in a rainy Albert Square while her ‘Red Army’ boyfriend celebrates the Premier League winning Man Utd, and the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Clad in an ill-fitting plastic cagoule, and delivering all her dialogue into a mobile phone, our plucky heroine completely dismantles her hapless boyfriend’s lifestyle, constantly reminding him that he would never get into ANY ‘army’, red or otherwise, and that the occasion is about an old man retiring (“That’s what old men do; they retire!”). Her exasperation and righteous anger at being made to play second fiddle to a macho ritualistic event, is played out to marvellous comic effect, and Ms Shepherd creates a wholly sympathetic and very human character. This is a tremendous showcase monologue, and the actress delivered it brilliantly, stealing our hearts completely. As with ‘Paradise Street’, the audience were left with a warm glow, and a spring in their step.

Martin Henshell and Kaylea Simon in 'Sexytime'

Last but not least we had ‘Sexytime’ by Chris Jenkins, and here again was another humorous short piece that delivered totally believable characters in an expert mix of laugh-out-loud one-liners , and heart-breaking moments. Martin Henshell played the hapless Brian, a seemingly lazy, stay-at-home artisan caring more about his beloved dog than his hard-working and stressed-out girlfriend Sarah (Kaylea Simon). While Brian frets about ‘Dave’ (the dog) trapping himself in the bathroom, Sarah is far more concerned about getting the timing right in order to conceive a child. Tonight is the last chance they will have for a month, as Sarah needs to get Brian aroused ASAP. This is a great two-hander, giving both actors a range of emotions to work on in a pressure cooker situation, tightly directed by Paul Anderton. Martin Henshell is spot-on with his hangdog ‘what have I done now?’ expression, seemingly oblivious to his lover’s obvious needs, while Kaylea Simon is simply wonderful as the desperate Sarah, initially appearing as a ball-busting workaholic, yet evolving gradually into a desperate and vulnerable child-woman. There are some genuinely heart-breaking moments amid the chuckles and belly laughs, and Ms Simon conveys every emotion with beautiful economy of body language and facial expression.

This was a fantastic night at The Town Hall Tavern, and more than one star was born this evening, mark my words. Producers Daniel Thackeray and Paul Anderton have much to be proud of, and as part of The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, ‘Cuts From The Fringe’ proved to be a tremendous showcase for new talent. I loved every minute.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Written by J J Fletcher  Directed by Amanda Davies
Paupers Pit, Underground Venues @ The Buxton Fringe Festival
Until 14th July

In the tiny, claustrophobic space of The Paupers Pit on a sweltering July evening, Sheepish Productions' ‘The Last Motel’ is a perfect piece of theatre. A two-hander set in a specific location (a motel room), chronicling the events of a single, tense, dramatic evening. A surreal opening has a very agitated man, wearing a rubber chicken mask and brandishing a gun, enter a rather sleazy motel room. For a surprising amount of stage time he paces back and forth, wheezing, groaning, and muttering to himself. This is a disturbing yet acutely amusing opening with more than a hint of Tarantino and David Lynch. When this unsettling character then carries an unconscious and bound young woman into the room, we realise we are in the middle of a botched robbery and an accidental kidnap. The sheer bulk and presence of the man in the chicken mask, contained in such a small stage space, conjure up a nightmare world, and his callous treatment of his helpless captive creates a genuine atmosphere of menace and dread. Eventually pulling off the mask, we are introduced to Abalone (Gareth Watkins), a somewhat cack-handed petty criminal who has taken a day’s holiday from his job in a slaughterhouse to commit armed robbery. Here is a man clearly out of his depth, and Watkins is a quivering mass of nervous energy and sweating desperation as he stumbles about the stage in a state of abject helplessness.

Eve (Leni Murphy) awakens in some discomfort, and we are informed that Abalone has accidentally knocked her over in the street with his getaway car. He has little sympathy for her, and things look very bleak indeed until he takes her jacket off to reveal a black shirt and dog collar. Eve is a vicar, and immediately this changes everything for Abalone as he evolves gradually from a seemingly cruel and selfish individual into a child-like mess. The stage is set for a battle of wills, and there is much deliberation about life, choices, destiny, and fate. But is everything as it seems? Leni Murphy has a super cool stage presence and commands the space superbly. She has the measure of Abalone in no time, and it’s great fun to watch the actor’s face minutely displaying the tickings of her brain as Eve calculates just how to deal with the pathetic wretch holding a gun on her. Watkins is a perfect foil, as he towers over his victim yet is no match for her pragmatic intellect and verbal dexterity. The Last Motel is a curious mix of surreal humour, unsettling atmosphere, and sweaty tension. Writer J J Fletcher has created a perfect cauldron for his characters to do mental battle in, and it’s a superb platform for two very capable actors to flex their thespian muscle. This kind of material is notoriously difficult to get right, with its delicately balanced mix of light and shade. As a piece of work in progress I feel it has a great deal of potential, and with a tighter production can improve enormously. Director Amanda Davies has managed to orchestrate proceedings effectively in a confined space (set and venue wise), but the production is really at the mercy of the two actors involved. It is their relationship and close proximity to each other that the production relies heavily upon. I would have liked more face-to-face confrontation, and a more intimate relationship as Abalone is gradually dissected and skinned (metaphorically) by Eve. A few more performances always ensure a tighter production, and I’d be fascinated to see ‘The Last Motel’ again in the not too distant future.