Royal Exchange Manchester

King Lear

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

29/04/16

Michael Buffong’s King Lear is a tour de force: gimmick-free yet undeniably modern, a fast-paced production that manages, like all the best Shakespeare, to be at once timeless and of its time.

Don Warrington is the eponymous old man, a case-study in futile bluster, self-destructing in his anger at the ravages of old age. I like the way his impotence is emphasised here: he’s never a magnificent, raging tyrant, just an old man who commands deference only as long as he wears his crown. Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia is also a revelation: for the first time, I see why she is Lear’s favourite. She’s as stubborn and destructive as he is, as incapable of compromise. She’s neither sweet nor resolute in this production: she’s a headstrong teenager, with the moral certitude only youth or extreme religion can provide. I love the way her lip curls at her sisters; she’s self-righteous and scathing, a Cordelia for the modern age (maybe this is how she was always meant to be?).

It’s a grim play, one of the Bard’s bleakest, and the comic relief from the Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) and Oswald (Thomas Coombes) is most welcome. They’re witty and engaging, pushing just far enough to undercut the tension and provide those all-important shades of light and dark. While we’re on the subject of grim, the notorious blinding scene is played for horror here; there’s nothing subtle in an eye gouging that results in “vile jelly” flying out across the stage into the audience. It’s so shocking there are gasps and groans – and that’s exactly as it should be, I think.

The storm scene is perhaps a little undermined by the fact that the Exchange’s new water-feature has been enthusiastically showcased in almost all recent productions, so what should be astonishing is more, “Oh, this again.” Still, it’s effective – the lightning strikes, the thunder claps and everyone is drenched.

Lear is a dense and complex play; there’s too much of it to cover in one shortish review. Suffice to say, I loved this production: a pacy, confident interpretation that trusts Shakespeare’s words to do their magic.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Husbands and Sons

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23/02/16

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Welcome to the world of DH Lawrence – a world of coal and sweat, where every husband is a drunken, boorish tyrant, where every wife is a much put-upon angel, and where every mother secretly harbours an unhealthy regard for her own son.

Husbands and Sons is a curious concoction, a mingling of three early plays by Lawrence – The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Night Out and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd – all of which take place in the same village, which has allowed adapter Ben Power to overlay them, so that one piece of action appears to comment on the next. The protagonists are onstage most of the time, while the script cuts nimbly back and forth between the three households involved – the Lamberts, the Gascoignes and the Holroyds. At first, this technique is disorienting; it takes a while to settle into the rhythm, but eventually you do and things pick up.

The Exchange is famous for its sets and this one is remarkable in its ingenuity. The three households are delineated by ranks of cast iron cooking ranges, sculleries and dining tables, all balanced precariously on top of the colliery, represented by heaps of coal and a grilled floor, lit from below. It looks fantastic.

But there seems to be a lack of consistency in the style. Why, for instance, go to the trouble of creating plumbed-in taps that spout real water and cooking ranges that belch real flame, and then oblige the actors to perform a mime every time they enter a house: opening and closing invisible doors, removing and hanging up imaginary coats and hats? It just looks odd amidst all the naturalistic clutter. Another puzzling detail – two bread tins, complete with knives, are used to prise out… fresh air. In her programme notes, director Marianne Elliott claims that she wanted the audience to ‘concentrate on the people and not get bogged down in the detail of the bread or the stew or sweeping the floor,’ but the absence of these things made no sense when so many other fripperies were included. If we’re meant to concentrate on the actors, why surround them with so much paraphernalia? Or, if this level of detail is required, why not see it through consistently?

There’s no doubting the quality of the performances here. Anne Marie Duff, making her debut at the Exchange, has little to do in the first half, but really comes into her own in the second as the tragic Lizzie Holdroyd, obliged to deal with the sudden death of her boorish husband, Charles (Martin Marquez), killed in a colliery accident. Meanwhile, Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) is trying not to feel jealous of her son’s new flame and over at the Gascoigne house, Luther (Joe Armstong) has been unfaithful to his wife, Minnie (Louise Brealy), and has got one of the neighbours in the family way. Reparation must be made, it seems but what does Minnie have to say about it?

What you feel about this production will probably depend upon how you regard the writing of D H Lawrence. There are many who think of him as a genius, a man before his time. Others simply see him as a sex-obsessed neurotic with a large chip on his shoulder. Husbands and Sons is an interesting piece that takes time to build in intensity, but we feel it is somewhat compromised by unnecessary complications, that have nothing to do with the performances or, indeed, the script.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

Wit

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26/01/15

Wit is nobody’s idea of a ‘fun night out at the theatre.’

Indeed, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of middle aged academic, Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh,) who discovers that she has cancer – more specifically, advanced metastatic ovarian cancer – is every bit as bleak as you might expect. I’m certainly offering no spoilers when I tell you that one of Bearing’s first observations, made directly to the audience is that she isn’t going to make it out of the story alive.

Bearing’s speciality is the work of metaphysical poet John Donne, whom she quotes and refers to throughout. She attempts to intellectualise her advancing illness, treating it as though it is something to be studied, observed and reported back on, only to ultimately discover that these things are beyond the scope of such an approach. Death is ultimately the biggest grey area and as she drifts inexorably closer to it, a sense of futility overcomes everything else.

Because of the rarity of her condition, Bearing becomes a sort of prize guinea pig for her doctors, one of whom, Dr Posner (Esh Alladi) is a former student of hers. This elicits one of the play’ss most uncomfortably funny scenes as Posner is obliged to carry out a vaginal examination of the woman who gave him a poor grade for one of his essays. Her conversations with a nurse, Susie Monahan (Jenny Platt) are the only sections where she comes close to revealing anything of herself; and for me that was a problem. In order to fully care about Vivian, I needed to know a little more about her.

In the central role, Hesmondhalgh is extraordinarily good, managing to convey her wisecracking, American character with great aplomb. She is in every scene, so much so that the other actors struggle to make a connection with the audience. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that I didn’t make enough of an emotional connection with the material, while others around me seemed to be visibly affected by what they were watching. At the play’s (admittedly thrilling) conclusion, the audience stood en masse to give a heartfelt standing ovation – but I thought that overall, the cool, detached style of the writing detracted from the potential power of the work. It was evident that the majority of the audience would have disagreed with me on that one.

As we get up to leave, a couple of women to our right, are crying their eyes out. Perhaps they are reflecting on something that has happened in their own lives that stirs such emotions – or maybe we just weren’t on the right wavelength tonight. At any rate, dry-eyed, we head for home.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Oresteia

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07/11/15

Home, Manchester

I’ve read a lot of Greek theatre (I did a Theatre Studies degree) and seen performances of some classic plays (Lysistrata and Phedra, for example) but I’ve never seen it done so… thoroughly… before, with a large chorus fully utilised, and the strophe and antistrophe physicalized on the stage. It’s like having pages of my text books brought to life, and I wish I’d seen it while I was studying.

This is a fascinating production – all modern dress and regional accents – and Ted Hughes’ adaptation of the script is as fluid and accessible as you’d expect. This very deliberate modernity contrasts spectacularly with the traditional techniques: the choral speaking, the off-stage action – and it really, really works.

Make no mistake, the story is preposterous. Of course it is. It’s all heightened over-reaction and soap-opera plot – affairs and murder and long-lost kids. While Agamemnon has been fighting in Troy, his wife, Clytemnestra, has taken Aegisthus as a lover. She wants revenge on Agamemnon because he’s sacrificed their daughter to the gods, and a bloody, convoluted family drama thus ensues, albeit with the input of Apollo and Athene.

The acting is uniformly strong, but it’s the chorus that stands out. Split into three parts (men, women and Furies), the ensemble admirably fulfils its function, narrating, commenting and advising the characters. The choral speaking is beautifully precise, an object lesson in how it should be done. The men in particular create a kind of filter for the audience; they stand in the auditorium, leaning on the stage in their jeans and trackies, like a group of blokes in their local pub, checking out what’s going on. At times they’re in the dress circle too, shouting down to the characters, deploring what they do.

It’s an accomplished piece of theatre, and excellent to watch. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Pomona

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03/11/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Something decidedly strange is happening on Pomona – the deserted concrete island that sits between Salford and Manchester in the middle of the river Irwell. In this dystopian future world, women are going missing in worrying numbers, while Gale (Rochenda Sandall) is taking extreme lengths to conceal what’s actually happening to them. Meanwhile, security guards Moe and Charlie, are charged with the task of guarding something hidden beneath the ground, something they don’t know anything about; and what does all this have to do with the ancient octopus-faced god, Cthulhu? It’s a good question and one I’m still not entirely sure I have the answer to.

Fresh from its success at the National Theatre in London, Alistair McDowall’s Pomona now makes its debut in the city where it’s actually set. It’s a labyrinthine tale, featuring seven disparate characters. The play’s themes: prostitution, sexuality and murder are probably intended to shock, but in truth these elements aren’t anything like as convincing as the ones that deal with Role Playing Games, something that seems to provide the main clue as to what’s actually going on here. The story isn’t told in a linear way – instead, it switches back and forth in time, so sometimes we know what’s going to happen to a character before he or she actually gets there.

The play begins with underwear-clad wheeler-dealer Zeppo (Guy Rhys) performing an extended monologue based around the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark for Ollie (Nadia Clifford) who is looking for her missing twin sister. Zeppo advises her not to look too hard, pointing out that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. But she goes looking anyway…

Individually, the ensuing scenes are mostly good, nicely acted and occasionally very funny – the ones featuring the hapless Charlie (Sam Swann) are particularly successful in this regard – and there are some nicely choreographed sections, where everything promises to fall into place, but never quite does. The fragmented nature of the work makes it feel more like a collection of short pieces in search of a story arc, so the overall play is somehow less than the sum of its parts, even if many of those parts offer much to admire.

Ultimately, I felt that Pomona was a little too pleased with itself for comfort – but the enthusiastic applause from tonight’s audience suggested that others found it captivating. One thing’s for sure. Here’s another play that will have you discussing its meaning long after you’ve headed for home.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Crucible

Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Jonjo O'Neill (John Proctor) background Sam Cox (Giles Corey), Leah Haile (Betty Paris) photographer Jonathan Keenan Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Peter Guinness (Dept Governor Thomas Danforth) & Stephen Kennedy (Rev. Samuel Parris) photographer Jonathan Keenan

23/09/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is, undoubtedly, one of the great plays of the twentieth century. Written in the early 1950s, it was based around actual events that unfolded in the Puritan community of Salem Massachusetts in 1689; it was also Miller’s opportunity to openly air his feelings about a current event, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist ‘witch’ hunt, without fear of retribution. The similarities were there for all to interpret, but Miller was above reproach, as he could argue that he was simply retelling a slice of history – even though, on closer examination, it appears that he took considerable liberties with the facts. Luckily, nobody bothered to check.

The Royal Exchange’s latest reinterpretation, directed by Caroline Steinbeis, is fascinating. It takes place on a stripped, circular dais across which the sizeable cast act and interact with considerable skill, so much so that when they take their final bow, you’re amazed to realise how many people are actually involved in the proceedings. It’s no longer a period piece – there’s not a stovepipe hat or lace collar in sight. The male actors wear clothing that could easily fit into any rural community of the past thirty years, while the women are dressed in frumpy, near identical dresses, emphasising how much they are made to conform to the expectations of the God-fearing men who surround them.

We’ve seen many versions of The Crucible, but few that delineate the various strands of the tale as clearly and powerfully as this one does, and, in an age where political and sociological witch hunts have become an everyday occurrence, the story seems more prescient than ever. As John Proctor, Jonjo O’ Neill gives a dynamic performance, his strident Northern Irish accent lending his final scenes added power, while Ria Zmitrowicz’s portrayal of the hapless Mary Warren is also a highlight; who knew that there was so much comedy to be mined from her role?

But it’s perhaps unfair to single out individual performances, when this is so undeniably an ensemble piece; there are, frankly, no false notes here.

The Exchange is famed for its ‘wow’ moments and, in the final stretches of the play, that slightly inverted dais is suddenly transformed into a gathering pool of water under a jaw-dropping rainstorm – through which the protagonists are obliged to wade. Coming as it does during Proctor’s final confession, this seems to us to symbolise the way in which a truth can irresistibly spread, to engulf all those who would seek to adapt it to suit their own ends. It is also, perhaps, an allusion to ideas of rebirth and baptism. Others will undoubtedly have their own interpretations; whatever, it will certainly stimulate much after-show conversation as you head for home.

This is a superior production, beautifully staged and expertly acted. Don’t miss it.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield

The Skriker

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4/07/15

Royal Exchange Theatre/MIF15, Manchester

The Skriker is a screaming, hurtling explosion of a play, quite unlike anything I have seen staged at the Royal Exchange before.

I’ve never seen the Exchange like this before either; it’s been transformed to accommodate this play. From the moment we enter the beautiful old building, we know something’s different: there’s an avenue of trees casting a dappled green light, and the glass theatre-pod in the middle of the Great Hall is shrouded in black.

We’re in the first gallery; as we settle into our seats and peer down into the gloom, it takes us a while to notice that all 400 of the stage-level seats have been removed, making way for a series of rough wooden tables, laid out like the spokes of a broken wheel. It feels, somehow, like being inside a tree.

Although our seats give a us a clear overview of the performance space, the intention, clearly, is an immersive experience: there are chairs at most of the tables, and about sixty audience members thus become part of the set. They are, then, more than witnesses: they are complicit and involved. If they chose to, they could intervene…

I’ve long been a fan of Caryl Churchill’s work; she asks difficult questions without obvious answers, and seems to revel in the awkwardness of rejecting clear-cut rhetoric. Yes, she’s political, but she’s not interested in soundbites or tub-thumping. The world is more complex than that, and so are our reactions to it. This refusal to tread a familiar path is reflected in the theatrical form. Churchill’s plays do not conform to any accepted norms – and they’re not always easy to watch.

The Skriker, certainly, is a challenging piece. The eponymous role, played here with great relish and enormous talent by Maxine Peake, is a kind of ancient fairy, a damaged, polluted, angry spirit, raging at humans for destroying the earth. Josie and Lily, two troubled teenagers, become the focus of the Skriker’s fury, forced to confront the calamity that climate change has wrought.

The banquet scene, set down in Fairyland, is central to the play and it’s here that the themes are crystallised. Josie, propelled into this underworld by greed and curiosity, participates enthusiastically in the feast, even when an anguished woman reveals that the glistening platters are actually laden with parts of her body: ‘That’s my head!’ It makes no difference; the revellers continue to gorge, even as they witness her destruction, their dancing becoming ever wilder and more reckless. The woman implores Josie not to drink the wine, making clear that, if she does, she too will be destroyed. But no one heeds the warning. It’s not the subtlest of metaphors and – in a play this complicated – that’s no bad thing. Here, it seems, is a central premise we can use to inform our understanding of other, more opaque ideas; here, we have a clear allegory for mankind’s wanton destruction of the planet, continuing, as we do, to drive, fly, hunt rare animals, overfish the seas, cut down rain forests and frack our blighted earth

It’s an important play: frightening and angry and funny and weird. Maxine Peake is perfectly cast as the shape-shifting fairy; she inhabits each persona so completely, it’s a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter, really, that she overshadows the younger, less experienced actors playing Josie and Lily (Laura Elsworthy and Juma Shorkah respectively), as this was always meant to be the Skriker’s play. The ensemble of wraiths and spirits embody freakish malevolence and anxiety, and the choir cements the savage beauty of the other-worldly air.

A full five stars for this one, then, but if you go to watch it, be prepared: this is not light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard work – but it’s worth it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Ghost Train

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Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

19/05/15

The Royal Exchange are billing The Ghost Train as a comedy thriller, and there are certainly elements of both within Dad’s Army favourite Arnold Ridley’s 1920s play. It’s a lively production, performed with zeal by the ever-peppy Told By an Idiot, and there’s plenty to commend.

The premise is simple: six passengers are stranded at an isolated railway station, purportedly haunted by a ghost train. The play follows the development of their relationships, and unravels the mystery of the phantom. It’s hardly challenging stuff, but then, it isn’t meant to be, or at least not in this incarnation. Here, it’s clearly supposed to be fun – a riotous, silly, galumphing escapade – and it certainly had the audience laughing throughout.

There were a lot of clever moments: I love a bit of overt theatricality, so I was tickled by the narration-and-sound-effects idea at the start of the play (although I did feel it went on too long), and impressed by some of the set pieces, such as the initial (interrupted) train journey, and the prolonged parrot-chase. The cast revelled in the performance, and their enthusiasm was – at times – infectious.

However, despite (or because of) all the playfulness and witty ideas, the play just didn’t hang together. It was uneven and incoherent at times, with techniques shoehorned in as if it were an A level piece (where students need to demonstrate everything they know, all at once, even if it doesn’t really fit).

And, while some ideas were stretched to their limits – the ludicrous woman-in-a-parrot-suit, for example – other, more promising notions just weren’t taken far enough (the clowning was half-hearted; the drag act criminally understated), which was a real shame.

In all honesty, this play just didn’t work for me or my companions, but this certainly wasn’t a universal view. The house was raucous with laughter, and the applause was enthusiastic. Why not see it and decide for yourself? You certainly won’t be bored.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Rolling Stone

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24/04/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Receiving its World Premiere at the Exchange, The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch has a short run here before transferring to the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a story torn straight from the headlines. In the opening scene, two young men recline beside a lake on their first date – they chat, flirt and eventually kiss. Nothing at all out of the ordinary – except this is Uganda where homosexuality is expressly forbidden and transgressors face life imprisonment and ostracisation. Dembe (Sule Rimi) has fallen in love with young doctor, Sam (Robert Gilbert) who has an Irish father and a Ugandan mother. They both know that their relationship must be kept under wraps – particularly since Dembe’s older brother, Joe has recently been ordained as a church minister for their small community. But the local newspaper, ‘The Rolling Stone’ is always on the lookout for those people it likes to tag as ‘deviants’… and there’s a terrible price to pay if your name appears on their list…

There’s a great play to be written about this subject, but sadly, The Rolling Stone isn’t quite it. Despite excellent acting from the six-strong cast and some rousing acapella singing, the play’s characters are rarely allowed to rise above the two-dimensional; it’s hard to believe that they have another life outside of the story and everything we learn about them, seems designed merely to power the narrative. There are, however, some good scenes along the way. The playful opening hints at depths hidden beneath the surface, even if it never actually uncovers them; Joe’s vitriolic sermon condemning homosexuality makes for uncomfortable viewing and the play ends on a moment of high tension, where we realise the full implications of Dembe’s situation – but I wanted to know so much more about his family relationships and that didn’t really come across.

The Rolling Stone tells an important story, one that deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience and I’m glad that it has been written, (glad too that The Exchange deemed it worthy of production) but this must count only as a partial success. It continues here until the 1st of May.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Anna Karenina

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24/03/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Tolstoy’s classic tale of blighted love gets a stripped-down, eclectic interpretation at the Exchange, replete with multi-ethnic casting and a selection of accents that range from deepest cockney to broad Scottish. Adapted by Jo Clifford, this co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse casts Oblonsky (Ryan Early) as the play’s occasional narrator. Rakish and dissolute though he may be, (Early’s playful performance is one of the production’s strongest cards) he’s also the only character here who actually seems to be enjoying himself. Elsewhere all is woe and misery.

Anna (Ony Uhiara) is a faithful and dutiful wife, happy with her marriage to the older Karenin (Jonathan Keeble) until she sets eyes upon the dashing Count Vronsky (Robert Gilbert), the moment accentuated by the use of a dazzling spotlight beamed in from outside the performing area. She embarks on an affair which will have catastrophic consequences for her and those around her. Production designer Joanna Scotcher has chosen a minimalistic set, through which run a set of train tracks along which a pair of tables are pushed backwards and forwards across a central pit of earth. Through the course of the action, the latter is used to represent the earthy attributes of the likeable but muddled Levin (John Cummins), the grubby stigma attached to a married woman carrying on so brazenly and it even provides the opportunity for Karenin to (quite literally) sling some mud at his unfaithful wife. It could be argued that this symbolism is somewhat overused (and it must have been a nightmare for the play’s costume department!) but it would have been nice to see a couple of bigger set-pieces along the way – the death by train that kicks proceedings off is criminally understated and the famous horse race that is the story’s centrepiece requires all our powers of imagination to envisage.

That said, this is an accessible production of what can, in the wrong hands, be a rather ponderous story. Clifford’s skilful script clearly delineates the various strands of the tale and over the space of nearly three hours, proceedings never lose pace. It’s interesting to note that six members of the same cast will be taking on the Bruntwood Prize-winning play The Rolling Stone from Tuesday 21st of April.

4 stars

Philip Caveney