Gaudete, Lowry

Originally written for Exeunt.

Adaptation can be a counterintuitive thing: often, what’s vivid on the page falls flat on the stage. Ted Hughes’ strange prose poem Gaudete was originally conceived as an idea for a film, and its cinematic scope and punctuating moments of high drama make it an intriguing candidate for theatrical reimagining. Theatre company OBRA, though, struggle to animate it in its new setting. Linguistic flourishes fail to transform into dramatic ones.

Like the changeling who replaces the vicar of a seemingly ordinary Yorkshire village in Hughes’ narrative, OBRA’s adaptation is not quite what it strives to be. It wears the clothes of theatre, but it belongs to another place, its limbs composed of poetry just as the changeling’s are made of wood. Neither entirely fits in the world in which it finds itself.

At the centre of Gaudete is Nicholas Lumb, an Anglican clergyman who finds himself abducted by capricious spirits. In his place, the spirits dump a duplicate fashioned from wood, whom we are told interprets the word of the Bible in his own, “log-like” way. This changeling understands Christian compassion as carnal love, swiftly going about impregnating the women of the village and leaving chaos in his wake.

OBRA tell this bizarre story through a combination of Hughes’ text and their own physicality. Against a bare backdrop, the ensemble of eight use their bodies as vehicles for the narrative, conveying everything from raging bulls to grasping corpses. In the absence of set, meanwhile, Yves Marie Corfa’s lighting dissects the stage with surgeon-like precision. Often, pools of light isolate figures in darkness, showing them alone and lost in the huge, bewildering cosmos.

There’s no doubting the commitment and athleticism of the ensemble, but the movement itself is often repetitive, relying on familiar reaching and falling actions during sequences of dramatic action. The choreography oscillates between two modes: small, quiet, contained movements and crescendos of hellish activity. Each of these can be effective in isolation, but the lack of variety makes for a slightly laborious experience.

Laboured, too, is the pace of the show. OBRA take a risk by mirroring the structure of Hughes’ work in their dramaturgy: the first half, at a relatively swift 45 minutes, offers us the ‘Prologue’, while the meat of the narrative is saved for the further two hours that follow the interval. It’s a daring choice, but it doesn’t quite pay off. While the initial post-interval switch from dynamic group narration to small vignettes of village life is striking, the subsequent shifts in tone are handled clumsily, failing to sustain a sense of driving momentum towards the final, grisly events.

OBRA’s approach is most evocative when conjuring the small oddities of the everyday. The company offer exquisitely detailed little portraits of Hughes’ ruffled villagers: the doctor’s wife sucking nervously on her cigarette, or the row of drinkers gossiping at the local pub. I find myself more interested in these ordinary patterns of the worldly, beneath which lurks something indefinably unsettling, than in the jolting lurches into the other-worldly.

Other flaws also niggle. There’s something uncomfortable about the pliancy of the female villagers, all of whom surrender, trembling, to Lumb’s new version of the word of God. Far from problematising this aspect of Hughes’ story, OBRA’s physical interpretation renders the female characters visibly malleable. Their bodies bend and sway under Lumb’s influence, while one troubling sequence shows us an unnecessarily extended scene of domestic abuse.

The main problem with the piece as a whole, though, is its awkward marriage of text and physicality. Much of Hughes’ language is simply preserved, rather than adapted, while its presence on stage is sharply separated from the show’s physical vocabulary. In the second half in particular, most of the words reach us via voiceover, playing over the onstage actions of the ensemble. These disembodied voices can enhance the sometimes hypnotic mood of the performance, but more often they’re simply distancing. At its best, the experience of reading poetry is an enveloping one. But watching OBRA’s adaptation, I never feel truly immersed.

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Cock and Bull, Royal Exchange

Originally written for Exeunt.

Some pieces of art get overtaken by events. Some events get overtaken by pieces of art. Cock and Bull is that odd, rare thing: a show that feels at once current and prescient. It’s a thing of then and now and whatever the hell might be next.

Cock and Bull was made almost two years ago, on the eve of the General Election. It’s been performed in anticipation of that vote, in its aftermath, and in the wake of a series of subsequent political shocks. As Rosana Cade notes at the opening of the show, tones already as politician-slick as her suit, this is a piece of performance that seems to resonate beyond its immediate context.

That’s an understatement.

Cade is soon joined on stage by fellow performers and co-creators Nic Green and Laura Bradshaw. All three are in identical suits with identical gold hands and identical gold mouths. And when I say gold, I mean gold. Think woman-on-the-bed-in-Goldfinger gold. Shimmering, uncanny, this golder-than-gold paint makes strange the organs of communication. Later, it rubs off on clothes and skin, leaving grubby, oily marks.

The action of the whole performance is one of making strange. Political discourse and its accompanying gestural language are distorted, viewed as if through one of those fun house mirrors. The three performers slow it down, set it to new rhythms, repeat it to the point of exhaustion. The words of men (because politics is still depressingly male-dominated) and the markers of masculinity are appropriated by three women, whose female bodies are both controlled and freed.

The repetition of key political phrases (“hard working people”, “people who work hard”) can be deadening, but that’s the point. The words are wrung of meaning, scrubbed free of sense or significance. It’s like that trick where you say a word aloud so many times that it sounds strange on your own lips, no longer a word but a mere noise. These soundbites, wheeled out by one political leader after another, are meaningless, empty, hollow.

From within these repeated rhythms, the odd word or phrase burps out: “families”; “calm down, dear”; “pistons firing in all parts of our economy”. And there are some blurted additions, sparing but powerful: David Cameron’s little “dum-de-dum” after stepping down as prime minister; Donald Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy”.

Meanwhile the sharp, precisely choreographed movement slowly morphs from the punctuating gestures of political speechifying – an emphatic fist here, an awkward thumbs-up there – to something more abstract. Elbows shove outwards on the beats of “hard working”, a visual representation of individualistic competition. Bodies roll and loll, buffeted by the fickle storms of political rhetoric.

“Hard”, goes the main refrain. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard as in “hard working people”, but also hard as in difficult, hard as in effort. The three women run on the spot, fling their limbs through space, fall to the floor. It looks fucking exhausting. It can be exhausting to watch at times, too, as the same movements and words are replayed over and over and over, changing infinitesimally.

The energy required of spectators is more than worth it, though. Dramaturgically, Cock and Bull is a rigorously honed machine. It begins small and quiet and dangerously close to dull, unafraid to take its time and place its beats precisely. But then it builds and builds, finally spilling out into a sequence of grotesque yet glorious excess. And after the blow-out, the mess and exhaustion. After the self-obsessed outrageousness of machismo extremes, an affecting assertion of womanhood and community.

Cock and Bull feels, in the end, like a ritual of collective catharsis, or a painful exorcism as a prelude to resistance. And as the threats of Cameron and Osborne have been surpassed by those of Trump and Bannon, it strikes me as more necessary than ever.

Sick! Festival, Manchester

Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m lying on the ground. Above me, a delicate mesh of bare branches, and beyond that the muted grey sky. A gentle gust of wind grazes my cheek. I can feel my muscles relaxing into the earth beneath me, my body moulding itself to the uneven, grassy surface. I can hear birdsong and the distant hum of conversation. And in my ear, a voice whispers to me of my death and decomposition.

This is Woodland, one quarter of French & Mottershead’s sound installation series Afterlife. It’s visiting the Whitworth Gallery as part of SICK! Festival, a series of events and art works across Manchester linked by the themes of life, death and survival. I start the festival programme at the end: with death and what comes after.

Think the word ‘afterlife’ and you think religion, spirituality, the promise of something more than just the heart’s final beat. But French & Mottershead’s series of artworks focuses on a strictly physical process: bodily decay. Woodland is accompanied at the Whitworth by Grey Granular Fist, another in the series. The first narrates a body’s – my body’s – slow disappearance into the earth. In the second, a body – my body – is imagined as an exhibit in the gallery, its decomposition stalled by the air conditioning and the careful attention of conservators.

Both pieces are delivered through headphones in soothing tones. The voices may talk of bacteria, putrefaction and maggots (this is definitely not an experience for the squeamish), but they have an oddly calming tenor, lulling me into a tranquil state. There’s also strange, surprising beauty in the artworks’ detailed and unsparing descriptions of what happens to the body after death: the imprint of patterns where blood pools under dead skin, or bluebells bursting through a ribcage.

Afterlife is strikingly matter-of-fact and unsentimental about death, confronting it as a physical process that every body will eventually go through. Its surroundings, though, can’t help but remind me of life. Lying beneath the trees in Whitworth Park during Woodland, my eyes are drawn to the birds above and to the moss growing on the tree trunk beside me. I feel oddly vulnerable in this position, and as a result intensely aware of my body – warm and pulsing in contrast with the corpse that French & Mottershead plant in my imagination.

Sat on a chair in the gallery listening to Grey Granular Fist, meanwhile, I feel like I’m on display alongside the paintings and prints. I glance up awkwardly at other visitors and feel blood colouring my cheeks. Halfway through listening to the piece, a group of schoolchildren gather nearby, their lively chatter buzzing underneath French & Mottershead’s descriptions. This is the productive tension in the work: between the sensations of life and the calm, quiet knowledge of death.

On the way to and from the Whitworth, my walk takes me past another artwork that’s contemplating our inevitable demise. Candy Chang’s Before I die is a giant blackboard, luring in passers-by with the provocation “before I die I want to…”. It’s scrawled all over with multi-coloured chalk responses, creating a messy palimpsest of ambitions and desires, from the outrageous to the banal. As soon as you think about death – really think about it – life’s possibilities and impossibilities seem overwhelming. Before I die is that mind-boggling thought process writ large.

Later, an afternoon at the Rethink Rebuild Society brings life, in all its mess and complication. Contact has programmed three shows offsite here, under the collective title Hiraeth – the Welsh word meaning homesickness tinged with grief or sadness. It’s a word that applies as much to the venue, which offers support and advocacy for Syrians in the UK, as to the trio of shows tucked away in various parts of the building.

All three shows have family at their heart. Toni-Dee Paul’s My Father’s Kitchen reflects on her complicated relationships with her dad, a man who is “from here, but not of here”, and with the Jamaica that her grandparents call home. Paul is Leeds born-and-bred, a Yorkshire pud and gravy sort of girl, but in her father’s kitchen she’s surrounded by the scents of another, inherited home: paprika, plantain, rum punch.

Those aromas and flavours also suffuse the small space in which Paul speaks to us like friends or confidantes. Together, we munch on snacks and raise a glass (or plastic cup) of ginger beer to Paul’s Jamaican ancestors. The communal sharing of food nourishes intimacy, as does Paul’s infectious warmth. Like the fried plantain that she passes round the audience, though, Paul’s show is more of a tasty morsel than a full meal. Her tantalising fragments of poetry, history and autobiography never quite cohere.

Food is also a vital ingredient in Afreena Islam’s Daughters of the Curry Revolution, which is again grounded in a complex father-daughter relationship. Today, Islam cares for her ageing father, but he remains something of a mystery to her. In this show, she attempts to piece together his life, melding myth and anecdote and the clues provided by his passport. None of it, she warns, can be entirely trusted. The piece is also threaded through with her own memories: filching a sip of wine from her father’s Indian restaurant as a child; stumbling around wearing his shoes and blazer.

It’s all set against the menacing background hum of anti-immigration rhetoric and increasingly emboldened racism. Islam’s father was born in Bangladesh, but he is the most English person she knows. They share a love of roast lamb with all the trimmings. On the table around which Islam’s performance takes place, meanwhile, visual reminders of India and Bangladesh knock up against jars of Golden Shred marmalade and squares of white bread. These markers of hybrid identity are placed down with little to no comment, as are the references to racism, leaving us to make of them what we will. Very deliberately, little is left resolved.

“What do you think happens to us after we die?” asks Jamil E-R Keating, sitting cross-legged in front of us. The afterlife again. Keating invites us to think of things bigger than ourselves – life after death, life on other planets – and to think of something we walk past every day on the streets of Manchester. Through a story about his uncle, Keating collides asteroids orbiting in space with homeless men orbiting the streets. Like the countless objects hurtling through the universe, we tend to think of homeless people as a mass, all much the same as one another, but Keating seeks to remind us that both asteroids and human beings are all wonderfully, messily unique.

The connection is intriguing, even if it sometimes feels a little strained. And Keating is a gently captivating storyteller, leaning forwards in the orange glow of a little side room as models of asteroids dangle and sway from the ceiling above him. As in the other two thirds of Hiraeth, the performance has a slightly fragmentary feel. But then there’s something apt about that, as if form is reflecting the jagged shards of different identities, or the uneasy fit of one home inside another.

At Contact, where I conclude my day at the festival, life, death and survival all converge. Research suggests that one in two of us born after 1960 will be affected by cancer at some point in our lives. It’s something that will kill some of us, but that many more of us will have to live with in one way or another. Taking this on board, There is a Light is a sort of cancer cabaret, loosely linking together a series of sketches based on research into cancer treatment and support for young people.

The Contact Young Company bring wit and exuberance to the heavy subject matter, along with a wealth of ideas. Possibly too many ideas. The piece is inspired by BRIGHTLIGHT, the first major study into young patients’ experiences of specialist cancer care in England, and it grapples throughout with the impossibility of telling the many stories emerging from this research. How can these experiences be conveyed on a stage? How much should be told? Who is it OK to speak for? And how?

The very fact that Contact Young Company are engaged with these questions, working them through for us in performance, makes There is a Light compelling. And it’s funnier than its subject might suggest, trying out everything from tap-dancing to stand-up in its attempt to speak awkward and uncomfortable truths. The piece is deeply political, too, taking aim at uneven NHS funding and the consequences this has for young people seeking cancer treatment. There are even some brilliantly angry sideways swipes at Brexit and the Tory government, though these feel like tangents rather than integral points. It’s scattershot, then, but its dance with the impossible is never dull to watch.

Death. Illness. Identity. None of these are easy things to confront head on. SICK! Festival invites us to look at them in different ways, from different angles. Other events in the festival (which continues until 25 March) look at themes including race, mental health, belonging, disability and the experience of refugees. Like my gaze up through the branches – a view I rarely allow myself – they might just offer an altered perspective.

Funny Girl, Palace Theatre Manchester

Originally written for the Guardian.

That’s where I live, on stage,” says Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice. In this knowingly theatrical revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, it’s easy to believe her. Michael Pavelka’s set frames the Broadway star inside an ever-present, tilted proscenium arch – the wonky mirror image of the one at the Palace theatre. The suggestion is that she’s surrounded by audiences on both sides, forever the performer.

Back in the role of Fanny for the first leg of a UK tour, after a celebrated West End run interrupted by absences due to stress and exhaustion, Smith is showbusiness incarnate. In her hands, the lively Brooklyn joker is an intricate tangle of competing emotions, all covered up with a big, bright, Broadway smile. One moment, she’s pulling an impressively elastic series of funny faces. The next, she’s singing a feeling-drenched rendition of People, tears cascading down her cheeks.

For rising vaudeville star Fanny, comedy is a mask and entertaining the audience is a way to deny personal pain. Even with tears in her eyes, Smith is ready with a grin and a wink for the stalls, pointedly making a performance out of Fanny’s real life. Whether stinging from rejection or overwhelmed by lust, this leading lady always has an aside for the punters.

Overcoming the towering memory of Barbra Streisand in the central role is no mean feat. Smith, though, proves herself more than capable of matching Streisand’s physical comedy and belting vocals, without it ever feeling as though she’s attempting to replicate her famous predecessor. The songs, in particular, Smith makes entirely her own, rippling Styne’s well-known melodies with raw emotion. Don’t Rain on My Parade is more grit than brass; People aches with quiet longing; Who Are You Now? is peppered with painful sighs. In spite of all her passionate feeling, though, this ambitious star-in-waiting has a spine of pure steel. No one would dare to rain on her parade.

Chris Peluso is less convincing as Nick Arnstein, the object of Fanny’s endearingly dorky, weak-at-the-knees adoration. The fact that her star eclipses his is central to the story of their rocky relationship, but Peluso lacks the necessary charisma to persuade us that Fanny would ever swoon quite so helplessly in his arms. It doesn’t help that his pathetic wail that Fanny is “choking” him with her talent and wealth has aged badly. As a result, his side of the story feels lacklustre in comparison with Fanny’s determined rise to fame. But then again, this musical was always about its heroine.

The staging has the same delicious silliness as Fanny’s Ziegfeld Follies acts, with members of the ensemble regularly pirouetting in from the wings carrying bits of scenery. Director Michael Mayer’s production, like its heroine, never takes itself too seriously. Likewise, Lynne Page’s choreography tickles more than it dazzles, the exaggerated leaps and twirls gleefully embracing the humour of the show.

Ultimately, though, this is all just dressing for the title role in a bio-musical that puts Brice’s talents centre stage. Taking on this part, Smith convincingly stakes her own claim to Fanny’s driving desire: to be, as her first big number declares, “the greatest star”. The action and peripheral characters might sometimes fail to compel, but Smith is never less than astonishing.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Joan, Contact

Originally written for Exeunt.

As we take our seats, Lucy Jane Parkinson’s Joan of Arc is a smiling, awkward bundle of nerves. This warrior and saint-to-be rounds her shoulders, crosses an arm protectively across her chest, sneaks furtive, sideways grins. She’s uncomfortable in her own skin, itching to shrug it off.

JOAN is less about the historical rise and fall of its eponymous heroine and more about the courage involved in asserting one’s identity – especially if that identity challenges society’s neat but stifling boxes. The extraordinary thing is that this one-woman show from Milk Presents, written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck, covers the historical ground while also tracing a much more contemporary journey of discovery, all dressed up in a shimmering cabaret wrapping.

All the key historical moments are there, just skewed at an angle. We first meet Joan as an awkward and disappointing daughter, facing up to her father’s fond bafflement. Soon she’s witness to her mother’s murder by the English and boldly takes up Saint Catherine’s call to reclaim France. This turning point, though, is framed in terms of self-realisation as much as patriotic heroism. When Parkinson’s Joan talks about her communication with the heavens and “that voice that feels like sunrise”, face lit with joy and wonderment, it’s less about religious fervour than a fervent sense of belonging. In Saint Catherine’s eyes and in men’s clothing, Joan finds a new confidence. The word “ease” keeps falling from her lips as it drips from her gestures.

In her new disguise, Joan rocks up at Charles VII’s castle and convinces him to provide her with an army to drive the English out of France. Through military leadership, this Joan finds purpose and joy. From here on in we’re swept breathlessly through battles, victories, defeats and trials, all closely focused on Joan’s defiance of gender norms and growing sense of self. Emma Bailey’s simple design, which seats the audience in an intimate cabaret formation – all the better to facilitate the beautifully judged moments of interaction – is flanked by four full-length mirrors. This is unquestionably about identity.

There’s a persuasive musicality to Parkinson’s performance as she skilfully guides us through the show. It’s not just that she sings songs – which she does, brilliantly. The rhythms of the whole piece are delicately orchestrated, each beat falling with precision. Parkinson is able to conduct us from supreme silliness – willingly joining in with a giggling crescendo of war-drums and braying horse impressions – to stillness and solemnity. It’s only afterwards that the impressive control of these transitions becomes apparent; in the moment, we’re simply carried along by the changing cadences of Parkinson’s storytelling.

And like Ira Brand’s remarkable Bruce Springsteen performances in Break Yourself, JOAN is also a stunning bit of drag. Parkinson (herself a drag king champion) transforms into a series of very different men – Joan’s father, the Dauphin of France, the judge presiding over Joan’s trial – with little more than a change of jacket and the application of facial hair. But she also demonstrates how all gender is, at root, performance. Early on, it’s with humour, as she stuffs her bra down her shorts and struts around imitating the walk of a game male member of the audience. Later, as Joan is ordered to renounce cross-dressing or lose her life, it’s with a painful straining towards stereotyped femininity.

In these later scenes, JOAN takes an unexpected lurch into emotional territory. Again, the dramaturgical control is impressive, keeping us teetering between humour and heartbreak. Each knockout gag has a bruising follow-up. It’s a masterclass in managing both atmosphere and audience from everyone involved, but ultimately this is Parkinson’s show. And it’s her hopeful, spotlit figure that leaves a lasting impression, as the expectations that hemmed Joan in finally lie discarded on the floor.