19 June 2012

Theatre trip

A year ago pretty much on the dot, the temporarily homeless Library Theatre became the talk of the town when they put on a site-specific adaptation of Dickens' novel Hard Times in Murrays' Mill in Ancoats (as documented by yours truly here). This June into July, they've developed a production for a space within Manchester City Council's new gaff, Number One First Street.

This latest specially commissioned play, Manchester Lines, is set in a lost property office, and this has been painstakingly recreated with objects borrowed and begged from around the rainy city, immediately immersing you in the weird and wonderful world of missing things. As an aside - but a nicely contextual one - a slightly forgetful friend, who has a tendency to leave most of his belongings in taxis and on trains (twice in one day, on occasion), tells me that the actual Lost & Found for the Manchester transport system does happen to be in that very building, but located on the ground floor.

Anyhow, after being taken up to the fifth floor in groups then filling out a form detailing what you have lost (my mind, in my case) and wandering through a corridor filled with interesting found objects, you appear in the theatre space. Unlike Hard Times, you get to sit down for most of this performance - which was a relief for me (hangover the size of Salford, since you're asking) and all the people posting messages on the website fretting about having to stand up for two hours.

The "keeper of lost things" Eugene (played warmly by John Branwell) paints a picture of the comings and goings of various characters who have mislaid items on the Manchester tram system, then gradually these people are introduced to the stage (via slightly unusual means, but I don't wish to spoil things for you) to tell their own tales of woe or whatever. Everybody is losing or finding something, and not just physical objects like umbrellas and handbags: "I can lose a bag if that's what it takes to find a sister", says Shanti (Amelia Donkor) to Pauline (both pictured). There are lost memories, found family members, lost marbles, found identities, lost brothers, found sisters... All the characters are interlinked, either obviously or via the fact that some are in the same tram carriage at the same decisive moment. The segueing into and out of the different stories, especially with an aural backdrop of station noises, really reminded me of last year's MIF sound installation, Audio Obsura by Lavinia Greenlaw (which I describe here), and while it took me a little while to work our how everything fits together in Manchester Lines, it all made good sense in the end.

The acting was great and I especially felt connected with Pauline (Claire Brown) and her son Louis (an exceptional performance from the young actor Marcquelle Ward). However, it felt as if rather too much was going on - aside from all the threads you spend a while trying to connect, there are singing and dancing numbers, and a grand finale involving the audience moving to another room. I'm afraid I wasn't keen on the songs (and I was pleased to learn that they weren't down to Manchester-based poet Jackie Kay, who wrote the rest of the script), and being so close to the actors made me slightly uncomfortable during the choreographed pieces. Still, it's dubbed as "a theatrical journey", and it definitely is an experience, so all aboard!

Manchester Lines continues until 7 July. See the Library Theatre website for full details.

ADDENDUM: My theatre critic pal Laura informs me that actually the song lyrics were written by Jackie Kay, which is a bit of a shame if you hear the Altrincham / ham one. Ho hum.

16 June 2012

First Contact

Pretty much at this precise moment two weeks ago, I was halfway through possibly the most nuts thing I've done in a very long time: the 24 Arty People project at Manchester's Contact theatre. As anticipated, I was the oldest there by a long chalk (of the other participants, 22 were in their 20s and one was in her 30s), but it took me a fairly lengthy eight hours before I became slightly delirious and packed my bag to leave (the hysteria had kicked in way before that for some of the young'uns). Still, I stuck it out - I'd already had to endure endless rounds of musical statues (pictured below), pass the parcel and sleeping lions in the wee small hours, then the kind of philosophical discussions you usually have at parties, but after three bottles of wine and copious amounts of punch, so I surmised that it couldn't really get much worse - and in the end I was glad I stayed the distance.

When we finally got wind of what the hell we were supposed to be doing, a mere 12 hours before we had to present it to the paying public, we realised we had been split into groups of varying sizes - from duos to foursomes - and from 8pm on Saturday night a total of eight new pieces of work would be performed at various intervals. My group consisted of another writer (which was a bit weird, we thought, given that both of us could have been writing material for the many performers involved), Gemma Langford, and a musician, Jamal Lewis-Service. We'd been given the subject of "after hours", the themes we'd had to discuss at seven in the morning and some props we'd garnered through the games we played, so we decided to go our separate ways and create individually, then meet back to see what we'd come up with. Although I thought this was a bit of a disparate way of working and had been expecting full-on collaboration, it all came together rather nicely, thanks to scriptwriter Gemma casting us as sleep-deprived people having to put up with each other in a hospital, which gave us the scope to do our own things, but in character. We combined music and spoken word and acting, and we sorted ourselves out with costumes, make-up and a set. So glad I made my school let me do a GCSE in drama instead of PE during the lower sixth. Hopefully the 20-minute piece we performed twice wasn't too hideously painful for our audiences.

We were absolutely knackered by the end, and I got a dead leg (apparently from wearing jeans over an extended length of time, according to the GP), but we all got a buzz off what we'd managed to achieve and it was really nice spending time in the company of my group, and with the remaining arty people. It's a shame we didn't have the chance to properly see any of the other performances (I caught a bit of dancing being practised and heard some songs being written), but it was a real privilege to meet such talented and upbeat folk, and get the chance to perform in such a great space. And the after-show wine tasted so so good, it was worth it for that.

07 June 2012

Piece by piece

May was something of a theatre-going month. Aside from taking part in Contact's 24 Arty People shindig with a load of performers last weekend (OK, technically that was June, but hey), I've also been audience side quite a bit.

First off, was Analogue's 2401 Objects at The Lowry, which had come recommended and most definitely didn't disappoint. About a young man undergoing early, rather botchy, brain surgery, the play doesn't have the most cheery of subject matter, but it was dealt with in such a way as to make it engaging on both an intellectual and an emotive level. It was a really clever production, too, with a screen moving backwards and forwards on stage to aid set and character changes, divide locations and infer distance (emotionally as well as geographically) - a resourceful device for a three-hander. Shame it was in Salford for one night only (on tour after its Edinburgh debut), else I would have recommended it to other folk.

Next up was Lady's Windermere's Fan at the Royal Exchange (on until 21 June). The acting was fantastic (particularly loved Bernice Stegers' hammy Duchess and Oliver Gomm's cheeky Cecil) and the costumes were sumptuous, but unfortunately the set design wasn't up to the Royal Exchange's usual standards (though I do think we're often spoilt!), and Oscar Wilde's script fell rather flat, seeming a bit dated and dull. I'm afraid high society farce doesn't really cut the mustard in the age of austerity, and I couldn't empathise with any of the characters, even the ones who supposedly deserved it. Still, at least I do now know where that line about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars comes from, so I left with more than I went with.

Finally, last week I popped to see the first of two one-off Works Ahead shows at Contact, presenting pieces in development by three performance artists: Lowri Evans, Gareth Cutter and Krissi Musiol. I felt really immersed in Live Letter by Evans, where visual aids and projected text and line drawings described the memory of a relationship being stored away as keepsakes. It seemed a very personal piece, yet one to which the audience could easily relate. Cutter's Even The Lone Ranger Had Tonto was like a sad cabaret, telling a tale of lost love through nostalgic pop culture references, while Musiol's (unfortunately over-long) Blue had its own hark back to happier times, successfully using basic ballet moves as a structure on which to hang the narrative. A very diverse mix.

Next week, I'm off to the Library Theatre's Number One First Street site-specific Manchester Lines - a friend has had a sneak preview and it promises to be quite something, so we shall see...

01 June 2012

24-hour arty people

Proof that I have most definitely finally lost it has to be signing up for the 24 Arty People project, which takes place tonight. From midnight Friday through to midnight Saturday, myself and 23 other creative types will be split into groups of four to create six completely new site-specific pieces at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. Twenty-four people, 24 hours without sleep - really, what could go wrong? Having been following the various conversations going on between project participants on Twitter, I can at least be thankful that I'm not the only one absolutely bricking it and wondering how to get through the night without having a breakdown or resorting to class As. Having been following the various conversations, however, I can also confirm that I appear to be on average twice the age of most of the others. Perhaps I'll get special treatment for being an old biddy, like being waited on hand and foot with gin and tonics and everyone turning a blind eye to how often I have to resort to bed rest. I'll blog again on the other side, but you can follow Tweets via the hashtag #createnotsleep (so modern). The project has its own Twitter feed - @24contactmcr - and I've created a Twitter list called createnotsleep, if you want to see what everyone taking part is saying. In the meantime, each of the six pieces will be performed to the public on Saturday at 8pm, so come down and have a laugh; booking details here.