Review: The Skriker, Royal Exchange

“No mistake no mister no missed her no mist no miss no”

As my dear Aunty Mary used to say, by the crin! Sarah Frankcom’s production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is a properly gobsmacking piece of work, the kind of theatre that leaves you reeling from its sheer audacity, its free-wheeling inventiveness and a general sense of what-the-fuckery. Maxine Peake’s acting career has been far too varied for a peak to ever be declared (though for me, Twinkle ftw) but it is hard to imagine her any more hauntingly, viscerally, intense than she is here, wrapping every sinew of her body around the often bafflingly complex wordplay and utterly owning it with an authoritative otherworldliness.

There’s a plot. Kind of. Though it is literally, and physically, hard to follow. Frankcom has lavished huge amounts of creativity onto the show and empowered her creatives to be daring, so that it becomes akin to an art installation in how densely visual it becomes. Imogen Knight’s choreography haunts every scene as an ensemble of 12 keep a strange and kinetic energy coursing through the theatre, Jack Knowles’ artistically inspired lighting playfully pulls the perspective one way then the other, and Lizzie Clachan’s reinvention of the physical space of the auditorium has to be seen to really be believed (book the stalls, seriously) as it rewrites the rules of engagement. Continue reading “Review: The Skriker, Royal Exchange”

Music Review: Björk, Castlefield Arena

“At last the view is fierce
All that matters is”

It is four years since Björk launched her Biophilia installation with a residency at Campfield Market Hall and she now returns to the Manchester International Festival with the first European show of her Vulnicura tour. An open air gig in the north-west is a risky enterprise even in the midst of a July heatwave and sadly my nephew’s birthday party earlier in the afternoon had to draw the sting of the forecast rain so that we could get a blessedly dry and sunny evening in the Castlefield Arena.

And what an evening. Blending the intimacy and innovative song structures of her latest album Vulnicura, charting her break-up with Matthew Barney, with an exhilarating rummage through the back catalogue (look and learn, Kanye West), the seemingly indefatigable Björk remains as fresh and vital a live presence as she ever has – the uniqueness of her onstage emittances and indeed movement, the intense musicality that comes from her collaborators, the stunning clarity of that voice. Continue reading “Music Review: Björk, Castlefield Arena”

Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre

“You have to live in this world”

The lure of falling down the rabbit hole is one which has kept adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland appearing on a regular basis on screens and stages and the Manchester International Festival is no exception, commissioning this musical treatment with the National Theatre and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Composer Damon Albarn (no stranger to the MIF after Monkey and Dr Dee) and writer Moira Buffini’s thoroughly modern version – stylised wonder dot land – certainly has a unique take on the story but has the feeling of something of a work-in-progress perhaps, no bad thing as longer runs in London and Paris will follow this brief engagement at the Palace Theatre.

Here, wonder.land is an online world, a virtual reality where people can escape the drudgery of their own lives or pretend to be someone completely different, for a little while at least. 12-year-old Aly is one such person, trying to hide from the bullies at school and the unhappiness at home by becoming Alice, her all-conquering avatar or online identity who accepts a mysterious quest as part of joining wonder.land. And in her journeying, she comes across variations on many of the characters we’ve come to know but viewed through a different prism, many of them being the avatars of other players, balefully reflecting their own insecurities.  Continue reading “Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre”

Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF

“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—“

A sneaky brief return trip to Manchester allowed me to take in two more of the shows in this year’s Manchester International Festival and whilst one was definitely world class, the other didn’t quite match up for me. Starting with the latter, Matt Charman’s play The Machine dramatises the iconic chess series between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue and delves way back into their respective pasts to see how they came to be – Kasparov driven to grandmaster status by his determined mother, Deep Blue brought into being by an equally fierce creator, the Taiwanese Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu.

In Campfield Market Hall, Josie Rourke’s production of this sprawling play feels very much like a sub-Enron pastiche, borrowing heavily from the visual audacity of that Headlong play but floundering in the far greater space of this stage. The scale means that the play often achieves the level of spectacle but it rarely feels like great theatre. Multiple scenes wind back through history to trace the progress of the entities that would contest this match-up and there’s undoubtedly strong work from Hadley Fraser and Francesca Annis as Kasparov and his fearsome mother, and Kenneth Lee as the prof, helped out by Brian Sills’ grandmaster employed to teach strategy to the computer.  Continue reading “Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF”

Review: Macbeth, St Peter’s Church Manchester

“Thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell”

One of the big ticket numbers in the Manchester International Festival this year has to be the return of Kenneth Branagh to Shakespeare, with him taking on the role of Macbeth in a production that was surrounded in secrecy and full of advisory warnings to the lucky few with tickets such as “don’t wear any dry-clean only outfits”, “you may not leave your seat once it has started” and possibly the toughest given its 2 hour interval-free running time, “no toilets in the venue”. That venue has now been revealed to be St Peter’s Church in Ancoats, a deconsecrated space used by the Hallé orchestra to rehearse in and whilst the toilets may be five minutes away at Murray’s Mill where tickets are collected from, any fears of emerging from the show drenched in mud and/or blood were left unfounded.

One can see straightaway though why the warnings have been made. The audience is placed in traverse either side of an earth-covered aisle and within moments of the start, a huge battle rages just inches from the audience with rain pouring, mud churning and sparks flying as swords clash. It’s an incredibly visceral start to a frequently breath-taking production – co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford – which successfully marries tradition with innovation, reinvigorating rather than reinventing Shakespeare’s timeless tale of the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Ashford’s eye for theatrical spectacle is combined with Branagh’s acute Shakespearean expertise and together, create something uniquely special. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, St Peter’s Church Manchester”

Music Review: Björk – Biophilia – Campfield Market Hall

“Ekkert tekur. Ég tekur því. Náttúra!”

Ever the innovator, Björk’s latest project Biophilia has seen her take up a short residency at Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival to play a set of live shows which will be accompanied by educational workshops, documentaries, unprecedented internet presence, newly invented musical instruments and an album release which will feature the world’s first app-album. Biophilia is an attempt to explore the relationship between music, nature and new technology on a grand scale, necessitating something more than just a 10-track cd, and hence requiring a truly unique, genre-confounding revelatory experience.

When I saw Take That a couple of weeks ago, I remarked to my friend as we watched a group of women collapse in rapture as they started to play Pray that gigs are so much better when you have that personal connection to the music. I didn’t have that with Take That despite being lucky enough to be given a ticket, but I do have that with Björk, one of the artists who has truly soundtracked my life, and sure enough I had my moment of rapture as she launched into ‘Hyperballad’ at the end – I may even have shed a joyous tear or two. Continue reading “Music Review: Björk – Biophilia – Campfield Market Hall”

Review: The Day We Sang – Opera House, Manchester

“I’ll never have a box of sex tricks
Or be made to hum like a Scalextric”

It’s part of the unwritten contract of being a Northerner (by birth at least in my case) that you love Victoria Wood. Her status as national treasure is sometimes debated as her particular style of retro-comedy doesn’t always appeal to everyone and is met by not a little snobbery, but it has never bothered me as I find her genuinely hilarious. I have never come so close to having to leave a theatre because of laughing so much as I did in Acorn Antiques The Musical, me and the gentleman next to me (who I didn’t know) were in hysterics pretty much throughout that show and I still love watching it today. Wood has now written a new show, The Day We Sang, as one of the pieces premiering at the Manchester International Festival and though it didn’t quite reach those same giddy heights, I still loved it.

Wood has taken a real story as her starting point, that of the Manchester Schools Children’s Choir joining forces with the Hallé orchestra to record a highly successful version of Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds at the Free Trade Hall in 1929, and whilst we see the kids gearing up to this momentous occasion, she has spun off her own narrative to create the show. Some members of that ensemble gather to make a documentary to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recording and whilst there’s much amusing snobbery at a reunion where people’s lives have taken vastly different turns, a relationship starts to form between two of them, Tubby and Enid, as they reflect on how disillusioned with life they have become since that early high point. Continue reading “Review: The Day We Sang – Opera House, Manchester”

Review: The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk at MediaCity Salford

“When I say ‘run’, we run”

Despite being a big Doctor Who fan and having a few days leave booked up in the North-West to visit family and become a godfather to the lovely Samuel Luke, I hadn’t intended to go and see The Crash of the Elysium, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s take on the long-running BBC sci-fi phenomenon. It is a family show, designed for kids aged 6-12 and when first announced, unaccompanied adults were no being let in. But more importantly, my first Punchdrunk experience, The Duchess of Malfi last year, was distinctly underwhelming and so there wasn’t quite the must-see aspect to this, even once a set of evening performances for adults were hastily added. A serendipitous alignment of some esteemed company making the trip possessing a spare ticket and me having a free night (plus absolutely no willpower to resist in the end!) combined to get us along to MediaCity near the Lowry complex in Salford for a Saturday night of Time Lord-related antics but with no sofa to hide behind…

Written by Tom MacRae, a scriptwriter from the Doctor Who team, the story starts with the group, 12 or so of us, being invited to look at an exhibition about the mysterious disappearance of the 19th Century steamship the Elysium, but there’s barely time to look at the exhibits before SAS-type troops burst into the room, declaring an alien spaceship has crash-landed and we’re all needed to help the investigation. A brief military training exercise once we’ve all suited up in decontamination suits and protective masks sees us assigned numbers and roles within teams and then the serious business of alien investigation is started. Continue reading “Review: The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk at MediaCity Salford”

Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester

“You know I cannot see, nor scry”

Continuing to stretch his wings, Damon Albarn returned to the Manchester International Festival, where his Monkey: Journey to the West was quite the success, with another quasi-operatic work, this time based on a mysterious Elizabethan figure – Dr Dee: A Very English Opera. Doctor John Dee was a man of varied talents whose influence was such that it was he who chose the optimum day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation: he also dabbled in philosophy, astrology and alchemy at a time of great new learning, but personal demons and temptations ultimately led to his downfall.

With a story as rich in potential as this – Dee is reputed to have been the inspirations for both Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero – it then feels surprising that so little attempt has been made to develop a narrative. It was made worse on a personal level by employing someone as good as Bertie Carvel – so very good in Matilda and soon to return as Ms Trunchbull – to play Dee but then leave him with so little to say – I was very much looking forward to another barnstorming performance. Continue reading “Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester”