Festival of Belonging

THE rich and diverse culture of Manchester’s Jewish population is to feature in the inaugural Festival of Belonging, from March 7 to March 14.
The festival, organised by the Cheetham Hill based Jewish Museum, will include one off events and nights of comedy, theatre, storytelling, films and visual arts examining how assimilation in new places occur and exploring what makes people feel that they belong and tackles the more difficult question of what happens when it doesn’t.
The festival takes its inspiration from the stories found in the museum’s archive, which help create both a diverse and creative programme, re-telling the history of the Jewish people who came to Manchester and of their efforts to assimilate and at the same time foster a sense of belonging.
During the festival some of the events will connect and link with contemporary stories of migration to Manchester within both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities across the city.
The museum’s Chief Executive, Max Dunbar explains: “We are really thrilled to curate and launch our very first Festival of Belonging. In such changing and often challenging times of political and social unrest, it seems a festival to celebrate unity, diversity and belonging is both timely and needed.”
Running throughout the festival is a free visual art installation – Dark Room by artist Helena Tomlin –  at Central Library exploring the anonymous photographs in the Manchester Jewish Museum’s collection. The darkroom is a place to come face to face with the people in its archive about whom nothing is known. It also offers visitors the opportunity to create a caring response to those whose stories have been lost.
Highlights of the festival also include: Good Appetite with theatre chef Leo Burtin whose ticketed event at Manchester Art Gallery fuses storytelling, food and film to present an evening inspired by the Jewish kitchen. Stories are sifted into dishes, history is stirred with spices and cultures from around the world are sprinkled on top. Come with an appetite for food and for life.
Critically acclaimed comedians Shazia Mirza, Rachel Creeger and Juliet Meyers come together for an all female multi faith night of comedy in Immigrant Diaries, hosted by multi-award winning comedian/writer, actor and activist Sajeela Kershi.
Mr Dunbar adds: “We are delighted to bring together so many talented and creative people, many with their own stories to tell and many who will so beautifully bring our own to life. “
Full festival listings are below. Booking and festival information can also be found via the Manchester Jewish Museum website: https://www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com/whats-on-2/
Peter Devine

A really good Guy

THE characteristics which Shakespeare described about the world being as being a stage with each of us playing our many parts was illustrated in sharp yet delightful relief at the Manchester(Martin Harris Centre) performance of Guy the Musical.
Judging by the recent history of this Leo Mercer and Stephen Hyde inspired story line, it has boasted a number of different cast changes, but intrinsically it weaves a theme of youngsters fairly new to the gay scene who have to suffer the torment of being who they are some of the time but sometimes gaining new personas to enhance their chances of meeting and talking with the ‘beautiful people’.
The perfect place to start this quest is through social media and dating websites where chatter is cheap and love is well nigh impossible to find, unless you are after a ‘quick shag’
Guy (Ben Raymonds), is considered by his peers and himself to be overweight, but needing to fall in love with his perfect man, so much so that he will go to any lengths to ‘Catfish’ his suitors into believing he is a blonde blue eyed catch.
Tyler, (Elliot Wooster) his flatmate and friend has all the physical attributes that Guy wishes that he had.
Aziz, (Aarian Mehrabani), is Guy’s ideal man staring him in the face, but yet he struggles in the beginning to fathom out how he fits in.
Finally, there is Joe, (Steve Banks) who has all the physical characteristics that the other characters would like to possess. He also has a deeper understanding that the three really don’t hold an attraction for him, so to some extent he can be himself in front of them.
This was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at the theatre and the whole show is packed with something for everybody, but a special mention for Ben Raymonds who has at least a thousand facial expressions, which superbly sum up the humour and the pathos of a world where nobody can just talk to one another without using a mobile telephone.
Guy the Musical plays at Huddersfield (Lawrence Batley Theatre) on Feb 21 and 22 Keswick (Theatre by the Lake) on Feb 25, Mansfield (The Old Library) on Feb 27, Winbledon (Nerw Wimbledon Theatre) on Feb 28 and Feb 29 and in London(Turbine Theatre) from March 4 to March 7
Peter Devine

Wuthering ambitions

Wuthering Heights, Royal Exchange Theatre

Andrew Sheridan’s new version of one of the world’s most famous novels, directed here by Bryony Shanahan, is the epitome of ambition. To take this weird and wonderful novel of wildness and passion from a wilderness setting onto the round stage; and to then challenge the stereotypical view of its iconic main character, is bold indeed.

Of characters, more soon, but Wuthering Heights is foremost about atmosphere and here, illustrating the transforming power of theatre, is that landscape. There will be others more familiar with the text who will scrutinise veracity. My familiarity is with those grassy tussocks and sprouts of purple heather here before us, that looming tree beside a bleak house.

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We ran many times past this spot (labelled more prosaically by the Ordnance Survey as Top Withens). We had dinners in the curtained parlour of “Thrushcross Grange”. We waited longingly for the arrival of the lapwing and the curlew on the moor as Cathy and Heathcliff do here. THIS is how it is.

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But ah, Heathcliff. A wisp of a lad rescued from the dockside at Liverpool, an image of a dark gipsy boy, we imagine a voice from Ireland or the Mediterranean or further afield. Here instead is a slender, fair-haired youth with frightened eyes, and a Cockney accent. Not a savage, no Caliban, but a waif who becomes embittered by lack of nurture rather than innate nature.

And one of the finest performances you’ll find from any actor on any stage. Alex Austin IS Heathcliff, though it’s Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) who says, famously, that she IS he. No delicate heroine, our Cathy is feisty and not without humour (“My bowels haven’t been the same since he turned up”). But most of all passionate as she and Heathcliff devour one another in the most eloquent expression of the destructive power of love, a love that seems both sensuous and metaphysical at the same time. They are wild and earthy, there is blood and soil, and how this force lurks beneath the surface in their attempts later to be “grown-up”, she with a restless yearning bursting from the seam of her pretty frock, he returning more composed,  more commanding..and more camp.

Hindley, oh what a nasty piece of work, is played with brilliant conviction by Gurjeet Singh, the bully who can’t bear that his father has brought such a cuckoo into the family nest; who can’t bear the sight of his own child after his wife dies in childbirth; and who sinks into drunken depravity. (Ah yes, didn’t Emily Bronte have a brother like that…)

David Crellin as Earnshaw, the father,  is both firm and compassionate; Samantha Power, the servant Nelly, seemingly holding everything together at every stage. But what a surprisingly lovable Edgar Linton we have here, thanks to a captivating performance by Dean Fagan. We expect a pompous bore; we find a rather intimidated man, trying to do what he sees as his best, and making us laugh with him, not at him, along the way.

Rhiannon Clements plays both Hindley’s short-lived wife, and also the vivacious naive Isabella on whom Heathcliff pours a few drops of affection before the bucketfulls of scorn. On stage too are the musicians, Becky Wilkie, and rock guitarist Sophie Galpin, translating into sound both the haunting qualities of the moorland setting and the dramatic passions of this wild and savage place.

If there is one minute criticism, it’s of the two or three minutes beyond which the play might have stopped. Why not end with Heathcliff’s Shakespearean soliloquy? But this is bold theatre indeed,  one of the most powerful things we’ve seen on a stage in a long time. Miss this at your peril, but don’t expect to go home to sweet dreams.

Wuthering Heights runs until March 7 .https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/wuthering-heights

Grime at the Court

Poet In Da Corner, Royal Court Theatre

When I heard Poet In Da Corner – aka, a grime musical paying homage to Dizzee Rascal’s debut album ‘ Boy In Da Corner’, was coming back to the Royal Court after a successful run in 2018, I had to see it. Grime, in the legendary Royal Court?

Debris Stevenson’s play is an experience. Part spoken-word, part rap, part drama, part rave – it explores the impact of Grime music told through the eyes of, well, not your stereotypical grime fan: a white, lesbian, Mormon.

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With its minimal yellow and black set, echoing Dizzee’s album cover, this show particularly entertains if you were a fan the days of the early 2000s UK Garage or Grime music scene. The brilliant music soundtrack by legendary producer Mikey J only adds to the feeling of nostalgia. However, the narrative is strong enough to hold the attention of a wider audience – regardless of music taste.

At its core, this is a rite of passage tale, following the journey of a teenage misfit, trying to find her place in scary world, navigating the obstacles of school playgrounds, friendship and love, which can resonate with us all.

What stands out are the performances – particularly from Stevenson. She raps and dances through out, contorting herself around the stage, using impressive physicality to represent key events in the narrative and to symbolise emotions.

Particularly poignant are the exchanges between Stevenson and her co-star Jammz, who plays SS Viper, an old friend, and MC from the estate near where she grew up. As his introduction, SS Vyper calls out from the audience, where he is posing as a theatre goer. In a ‘breaking of the 4th wall’ moment, he shouts that Debris has stolen his lyrics and is passing them off as her own to make her play. SS Vyper then comes down to the stage, where Debris tries to justify her actions, and explain her story – the scenes that follow make up the narrative of the play. The play shifts in and out of present and past – frequently returning to present day where she and SS Vyper engage in a heated debate about the validity of having a white girl at the centre of a Grime story.

Jammz – a grime MC himself, plays the part of SS Vyper well. Particularly, in portraying his frustration that Debris, a white girl – who passes when she wants as ‘ethnically ambiguous’ – is given this amazing platform to celebrate grime, when the working-class black boys, of whom mostly created the scene – have been routinely denied mainstream platforms, faced censorship, have had their shows shut down by the authorities.

Stevenson’s highlighting of these issues is needed, but I’m not sure if she fully explores or resolves this. Rather, the conversation of cultural appropriation seems to go round in circles. Perhaps that’s the point – the line between celebration and appropriation isn’t clear cut; it shifts and changes depending on subjective experiences. Perhaps Stevenson herself is unsure or conflicted.

What is clear is that that Poet in Da Corner has brought to the Royal Court an entertaining, grime-music homage – for that alone, and for the tough, uncomfortable questions it raises, makes it worth a watch.

Until Saturday Feb 22. Details and tickets: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/poetindacorner/

Sophia Leonie




Behind every great man….

Picasso’s Women, Theatre by the Lake

There were, of course, many more than three women in the life of Pablo Picasso. But the tragic, heart-wrenching stories of just three are more than enough to take us into the destructive and selfish psyche of the artistic genius.

The three here in this exquisite production of Brian McAvera’s play are Tragedy, Irony and Naivety: Fernande Olivier (played by Judith Paris), Olga Khokhlova (Colette Redgrave) and Marie-Thérèse Walter (Lucy Hunt).

Each holds the stage for their own monologue of love, cruelty, deceit – and self-deception, and what a one-night treasure this proved to be for Theatre by the Lake and Flying Elephant Productions.

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Colette Redgrave

This version, co-produced by Redgrave with Marcia Carr, was launched at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 after the play had premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2000, and arrived in Keswick following critically acclaimed, sell-out tours of London and the south.

It’s a fascinating and revelatory exploration –exhumation, even – of the painter’s early life through these voices of wives, mistresses, muses, each convinced that she alone is the love of his life.

Tragic Marie-Therese is already familiar with abuse when she enters Picasso’s life. Worldly-wise Olga, with more than a hint of humour about her status, married Picasso on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution and defiantly refused a divorce before she died…in 1955. They had met through Sergei Diaghilev while Olga was a dancer with his Ballets Russes company; his paintings of her morphed over the years into some kind of surreal monster.

Picasso, of course, had many other lovers in between those years, of whom the teenage Marie-Therese is surely representative. Playfully naïve, she’s nevertheless smitten by the attention of the great artist.

There’s wit and worldly insight alongside idolatry and character  assassination in this elegant and meticulously crafted script, each actress giving a tour de force performance that holds the audience spellbound. But delicately done; it’s not an attempt to demolish Picasso’s reputation, more to highlight the many flaws of a genius.
Flying Elephant Productions are proud that Dame Judi Dench is a Patron of Picasso’s Women along with Toyah Willcox and Professor Elizabeth Cowling.

Take three girls….

Scenes with Girls, Royal Court Theatre

Scenes With Girls is what it says on the tin – but then, so much more. Twenty-two fast-paced scenes, with three girls. Lou (Rebekah Murrell), Tosh (Tanya Reynolds) and their sometime friend, Fran (Letty Thomas) come alive in this pacey 3-hander, which doesn’t disappoint in its clever exploration of friendship, love, sex and the complexities of womanhood.

A large pastel blue carpet and wooden framed toilet at the rear, greet us. Set in the round, we are instantly invited into the walls of this female flat share. Lou and Tosh lounge around and converse about boys, sex and life. Determined to break free of the ‘narrative’, and subvert the ‘normative’, it is immediately clear that these 24 year-olds are smart, educated young women, trying to carve out a place for themselves in a world that is all too ready to define them.

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Soon, however, we notice that something isn’t quite right with the two friends. Despite their shared contempt for former flatmate and ‘friend’ Fran – who has succumbed to the ‘narrative’ and gotten engaged – Tosh and Lou, don’t seem to have much in common at all. Lou has sex all the time (despite, troublingly, not seeming to enjoy any of it) and Tosh doesn’t have any sex; Lou talks about all of this sex all the time, meanwhile Tosh would rather discuss, well, anything else: “I just feel like my head is full of willy!” she finally exclaims.

The tensions between the flatmates grow, eventually reach boiling point. In a fraught emotional exchange, where Lou accuses Tosh being in love with her, there is a surprise turn of events when they both decide to reject the patriarchal narrative altogether – and embark on a romantic relationship together.

But that doesn’t work either. And the characters are all resigned to endure heartbreak and the painful self-reflection that comes with it.

Mariam Battye’s play is gripping from start to finish. Consistently entertaining, clever, witty and relatable, with stand-out performances by all, Scenes With Girls is an important addition to the narrative around womanhood today.

Battye validates female experiences; highlights important issues that young women face today and raises crucial questions – without, perhaps refreshingly, not even pretending to have all of the answers.

Scenes With Girls is on at the Royal Court until Saturday February 22 https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/

Sophia Leonie

Against the odds

A Kind of People: Royal Court Theatre

Gary and Nicky were ‘It’. Nicky was the hottest girl in her year at school and Gary had big dreams. He was going to drive an MG, wear a double breasted suit and sport brand new Rolex on his wrist. They didn’t need anyone, not even Nicky’s dad – who had disowned her for seeing a black guy. It was 1994, and cuddled up on the roof of their flats, new love and hope is in the air: “the city yeah..it’s gonna be all ours”.

Fast-forward 20 years later. Gary (Richie Campbell) has been working as an electrician for over a decade. Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is a bar-maid part time, while raising their three children. Money is tight and tensions get even tighter when Gary and his colleague Mark (Thomas Coombs) , invite their white, middle-class manager, Victoria (Amy Morgan), back to Gary’s council flat to join his friends and family for Friday night drinks.

The flat is lively. Prosecco is flowing and music is playing. Victoria, who has had way too much to drink, starts dancing and demands that ‘as his superior’, Gary must teach her how to ‘twerk’. Gary declines awkwardly, but Victoria doesn’t stop there. While rapping along loudly to Missy Elliott’s ‘Get ur Freak On’, Victoria says the ‘N’ word. The audience, who had been laughing along so far suddenly gasp. The room is silent.

Although bundled in a taxi, home, Victoria’s behaviour that night stays with Gary, becoming the catalyst for events in the rest of the play.

When Gary is turned down for a promotion as team leader the next week – a position which he knows should have been his – he is forced reflect on his life so far and confront his place in the world. Then after a heated confrontation with Victoria, Gary quits his job, putting increasing pressure on his family’s finances. Nicky fails to understand why, and she goes to Victoria to ask for his job back. Gary is fuming. Feeling completely alienated by the woman he has loved for over 20 years, Gary walks out on Nicky, in what is an explosive, heart-wrenching scene that stays with you long after the play ends.

Gurpreet Bhatti’s play is a tragic and honest exploration of what often happens to the hopes and dreams of working class, multicultural Londoners. She asks, how is it possible to get on when the odds are stacked against you? And offers no easy answers.

Buffong’s precise direction and Bhatti’s brilliant use of dialogue and a stellar cast (including Richie Campbell who is stand out), have resulted in a powerful piece of theatre that is easily The Royal Court at its very best.

At the Royal Court Theatre until Saturday January 18 2020

Sophia Leonie