Friday, 25 July 2014

Site Specific Sunday - two events from the DEparture Lounge programme.

As part of Site Specific Sunday and Derby Theatre's collaboration with In Good Company towards DEparture Lounge I participated in two unusual events. Both involved sitting down.

A groups of artists and theatre makers called Quarantine presented an event called Table Manners where they invited participants for a meal in exchange for a conversation. The brochure described the experience as an intimate and temporary encounter between two strangers who, in other circumstances might never meet. It was about the familiarity of sharing food together and the art of conversation.

I must learn to read brochures better as I assumed that there would be a table full of people not just one other person. I was met at the door of The Book Café on the Cornmarket in Derby and my food order was taken. I went for the pastrami dish.

Then I was introduced to Renny from Quarantine and sat opposite her. I'm a confident person and looked forward to conversing with this lady. She explained to me about the company and how they hold the same events regularly in Manchester but it tends to be in an Indian restaurant with buffet style food. The topics for the conversation were printed on a 'menu' so we chose our starter topic, our main topic and our dessert topic.

It is nearly a week ago now since this encounter so I can't remember specifics about the conversations but I do remember explaining about my proposed theatre event that I am taking to Germany in December after choosing the option 'what are you part way through?' from the menu. We also spoke about the sea and seaside resorts and I felt (but didn't say) that the encounter was almost like a first date - each person being on their best behaviour and recognising traits within the other that indicate they get on well. I was enjoying Renny's company so much and the opportunity to chat with an intelligent woman over some pleasant food that we over ran our half hour slot (again I didn't read the aspect of the brochure that said the longevity of the slot) and we must have talked for nearly an hour.

The whole experience was very interesting, intelligent, fun and pleasant. Thank you Quarantine and Renny O'Shea.

The second experience was Michael Pinchbeck's Sit with me for a Moment and Remember. This was on a bench on Derby's market square and opposite The Quad - a modern cinema and arts centre. The bench was a wooden one that isn't normally in the position that it was situated. The DEparture Lounge brochure described the site specific experience thus: A bench with a plaque reading ' sit with me for a moment and remember' is placed in a public space. It is both a dedication to a loved one and an invitation to a stranger. You are invited to sit on the bench and listen to a recording that reflects on what it means to sit and remember.

When I arrived to take part there was already someone participating so I went away and came back ten minutes later. I was given a set of head phones and I sat and listened to a soft and warm female voice talking to me as a stranger about contemplation and taking time out to sit and think. The subject, with some instructions to follow, also changed slightly to refer to another - the woman. Part way through I was advised to look to my left. Near to me on the previously empty bench was a young woman smiling and looking forward. It was like she had manifested herself there as a memory made real. The audio continued with instructions to close my eyes and count to ten. I did this in my head. In a sense I didn't want to spoil the mood by talking aloud. The woman's hand then gently rested on mine after I was aurally instructed to put my left hand on the bench. Her hand remained there for a few seconds and then disappeared. During this time I had my eyes closed as instructed and then opened them. The woman on the bench had vanished. During this part of the encounter I had heard contemplations of a relationship that had finished but without remorse. The declarations had a poetic feel to them and inspired some new thinking in me towards my stage writing.

I found the whole experience very relaxing and also quite moving because of the subjects and the warm caring voice that spoke to me through the headphones. I never asked the question but since then I have wondered if female participants have a male voice and a man sitting by them on the bench temporarily.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Derby Theatre - In Good Company - DEparture Lounge

From Thursday I7th to Sunday 20th July Derby Theatre with 'In Good Company' presented DEparture Lounge, an opportunity to sample new and exciting theatre writing and enjoy a host of fantastic fringe performances and enjoy the thought provoking moments of Site Specific Sunday. In this blog post I am not claiming to cover all that was on offer but to speak and think about the things I had the chance to get involved in.

At the DEparture Lounge launch on Thursday evening 17th July at Derby Theatre I gathered with like minded folk and listened as Sarah Brigham outlined the exciting programme ahead. Downstairs in the Studio the Story Scavengers inspired and amused the audience with a presentation of  a loose script based on what had been listened to and observed fresh in Derby's City Centre that very day. They created theatrical stories out of ordinary stories overheard throughout the everyday world of a busy Midlands city. Some of it was quite poetic, other aspects fleeting but revealing. This was directed by Gareth Morgan Literary Associate at CAST Doncaster. Most of the content was humorous, similar to the next presentation 'All The Little Lights' but this had a much darker tone. Commissioners: Fifth Word.

At 7pm the studio was presented with a rehearsed reading of a play by Jane Upton and Fifth Word Theatre. To quote the brochure 'Joanne's had to grow up fast. Lisa's escaping her past and Amy's being bullied. At the local chip shop an unlikely friendship is formed. But where will it lead?

All The Little Lights has been developed as a creative response to recent high profile cases of child sexual exploitation and thorough research carried out at Safe and Sound in Derby.'

From a male perspective I found the short play very moving in my consideration of these young women's exploitation in the dangerous seedy world of porn and nubile/child sex. None of these actions can be excused but what I did find interesting was the complicit nature of the older girls manipulating the youngster Amy and her even younger (spoken of) sister into the ring of depravity through the male  owner of the chip shop. One might naively assume that it is purely the male predator that is to blame yet he is backed up by the actions of previous victims presumably for their own gain coupled with the fright of being revealed and a brutal violence towards themselves. All the Little Lights was intelligent theatre writing with a true depth of circumstance and expression.

The cast was Nadia Clifford as Joanne; Sarah Hoare as Lisa; Abigail Hood as Amy. Each actor has a seasoned pedigree in drama and in some cases hard hitting drama.

Directors: Angharad Jones and Laura Ford.

Dramaturge: Kate Chapman

Sound Design: Adam McCready.

Fifth Word was set up by Angharad |Jones and Laura Ford in 2008 and they exist to spark debate about serous contemporary issues. They produce provocative new plays made in the East Midlands that tour across the country. They specialise in thought provoking and timely scenarios that tell stories in a bold and uncompromising way that speaks to a range of traditional theatre goers and the next generation audience. They work with upcoming and established playwrights from the region through developing new commissions, scratch nights and full productions.

Amongst other productions they have recently worked with local writer Amanda Whittington on Amateur Girl. To condense the Guardian's critique they gave it five stars and said: "Observations of the dehumanising influence of the sex industry do not come much sharper.."

A separate Blog Post about Site Specific Sunday is a work in progress. Available here in the next few days.

Cast revealed for Twickenham Theatre production of Sweeney Todd.

Olivier Award winner David Bedella will play razor-wielding madman Sweeney Todd and Sarah Ingram his pie-making partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in an intimate new production of the Tony Award and Olivier Award-winning musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, will kick-off the autumn season at Twickenham Theatre in West London. It will start previews on Wednesday 10 September and runs to Saturday 4 October.

The new venue’s first in-house show is a co-production with West End producer David Adkin.

David Bedella was a triple award winner, named Best Actor in a Musical at the 2004 Olivier Awards, the Evening Standard Awards, and The Critics Circle Awards, for creating the role of the warm-up man Jonathan Weiruss/Satan in Jerry Springer The Opera. He appeared in the role at the National Theatre, in the West End, the Sydney Opera House and in New York in a concert version at Carnegie Hall. On television David most notably played Dr Carlos Fashola in Holby City and more recently guest starred in By Any Means and Inside No. 9, all for BBC, and his film credits include Alexander and Batman Begins. His other West End starring roles include Frank n Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, Billy Flynn in Chicago, and Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He starred as Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy and Wilson Mizner in Sondheim’s Road Show, both at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In the past year he played Man 1 in the acclaimed production of Sondheim’s Putting It Together at St.James Theatre and Kevin in Into The Heights at Southwark Playhouse.

Sarah Ingram’s many West End musicals include Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Martin Guerre, Inherit The Wind, Flashdance, Imagine This, Murderous Instincts and Napoleon. She worked with David Bedella on Sondheim’s Road Show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Most recently, Sarah played Josie in the revival of the Boy George musical Taboo at Brixton Clubhouse following her critically acclaimed performance as Miss Hannigan in Annie at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Mark McKerracher (Judge Turpin). His West End starring roles include The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Sunday in the Park With George, Ragtime, Cats and The Bodyguard.

Zoe Curlett (Beggar Woman). Her West End starring roles include Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and Cosette in Les Miserables, and Cats and The Secret Garden on UK tour.

The rest of the cast includes: Shaun Chambers (Pirelli), Genevieve Kingsford (who makes her professional debut as Johanna), Mikaela Newton (Tobias), Josh Tevendale (Anthony).

Director Derek Anderson, Musical Supervisor Tim Jackson, Musical Director Ben Holder, Set Design Rachel Stone, Costume Design Olivia Ward , Sound Design Joel Price, Casting Anne Vosser, Producer David Adkin in association with Twickenham Theatre.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Lace Market Theatre - possibly the best set ever!!! The back story.

Interview with set designer and photographer Mark James about the building of the set for The Lace Market Theatre's production of the controversial play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.

Phil Lowe: You were asked to acquire a real caravan for the set. How did that come about?

Mark: The director, Roger Newman and I wanted a real caravan on stage and you can't make up anything really that looks just like a caravan, They are such unique objects, I could spend months making something that perhaps looked like a caravan but wouldn't really. It would be rubbish.

We went through local breakers yards and alerted them to the fact that we wanted a caravan but we didn't get anything from them at all.

Phil Lowe: Did it have to be in a particular style?

Mark: The older the better and I didn't want anything too stylish. I wanted something a bit crap looking. It had to be small as well, about ten foot – not much bigger than that really because of the size of the stage at the Lace Market Theatre. I saw plenty of them which were seventeen feet but they wouldn't fit. It was pointless even thinking about them. Time was ticking on so I started looking on Ebay and the preloved site. This was two or three weeks before the get in, about the end of June. I really wanted it ready, cut up and ready to re-assemble on stage as soon as possible so the actors could get used to it.

Leading up to this period I was getting a bit frantic with me thinking I wasn't going to get my caravan. I must have looked at dozens of caravans mainly on Ebay and contacted some of the sellers mainly about the size. I wasn't having a lot of luck so far. Nothing seemed right.

Phil Lowe: Did you have a budget?

Mark: Sure. The stage budget was £575 for set, props and lighting. I was willing to spend £200 – £250 on the caravan. Then I saw one in Wakefield which had been on the internet for less than an hour and was auctioned or Buy It Now for £30!!! I emailed everyone with the exciting news that I had found one and that it was perfect – well fairly decrepit sort of perfect and not at all road worthy. I didn't wait for a reply. I just went for it. Even if it turned out a bad buy it was worth the risk of £30. The people who were selling it were advertising it as something one could use as a quirky shed on an allotment or as a chicken coop. It was also particularly gutted inside with only a little bit of furniture left attached. This also meant less work for me as set designer and builder.


So when I bought it - it was a case of arranging transport to get it back to Nottingham. We hired a trailer for £48 to tow the caravan and drove up to Wakefield on a Saturday morning to pick up our purchase and to meet the family who were selling it. The caravan turned out to be perfect for me and my purposes. We strapped it on and I reinforced inside with some bracing because apparently, it is the furniture that is the strength of a caravan.

On this road trip was Heidi Hargreaves and Sam Allison. Heidi documented it through her photos. Back in Nottingham we took it to Nick Gales' place of work and we were given permission to use their car park to chop it up as long as we got rid of it by the following Monday. The chopping up was done with an angle grinder lent to us by John Parker who is in the show playing Troy Whitworth. Sam was in the Saturday matinee performance of Rutherford and Son and so he helped us for as long as he dare. Heidi and I started to take the caravan to bits about five o'clock in the evening and on Sunday Austin Booth helped out from 11 to 3pm and by then we had completed the job.

Phil Lowe: How did you plan in re-constructing the caravan after demolishing it?

Mark: Believe it or not I didn't have a plan!!! I had no idea how easy or difficult it would be to put it back together in a safe manner. It had to be very strong generally but also at one point one of the actors sits on top of the caravan. So anyway, we cut it into five pieces and we didn't use the chassis because some actors emerge from under the caravan in the dark and there would have been very sharp bits to contend with. We couldn't afford to have actors injured. To give it all a firm foundation I re-constructed it with an internal timber frame and it is surprisingly sturdy. You could say that it almost slotted back into place, almost.

Phil Lowe: What about the other aspects of the set – the greenery – the general dump of various rubbish around the caravan in the woods?

Just some of the empty cans used on the set of Jerusalem
Mark: We got the empty lager cans from Jam Cafe in Hockley Nottingham. They are one of the few bars now that still sell beer in cans. I think over all I got about a hundred or so. To give a bit of variety from the Red Stripe cans we got the cast members to bring in some other designs. The trees were from Lace Market member Cibele's garden – massive overgrown Budhlia plants. A lot of the leaves had fallen off but they have still retained enough for the stage illusion. Hugh Phillips, our great lighting guy has lit the three trees from behind with green lights to inject an illusion of life into the remaining foliage. I also liked the idea of having the trees moving in a gust of wind so we have suspended them above the ground.

Everything has had to be Flamebared so that they are not a fire hazard. Flamebar is a liquid that you spray onto materials to reduce the risk of fire on stage. All theatres use this. The main character Johnny 'Rooster' Byron physically sets light to various documents during the play and people smoke so we have had to be particularly careful.

The playing area surrounding the caravan is meant to be a muddy mess due to all the people who party there and I have tried to give it a different dimension with an application of wood bark amongst the detritus that surrounds Rooster's caravan.

Phil Lowe: How have the actors enjoyed working on this most fantastic and most realistic of sets?

Mark: Roger (the director) told me that when they first started rehearsing with it they absolutely loved it and I've tried to create lots of different playing levels on the stage as well. By this I mean different height levels so that people can use them – to pull rank and whatever. Even though it is quite a cluttered stage and it looks like a junk yard I've still tried to leave as much room as possible for the cast to utilise as an acting area. I think it works. Well you will see tonight! Roger has created lovely groupings of people using different parts of the set so I think that it looks fantastic. A true collaboration between everybody.

Big thanks to Mark James for the fascinating interview. Production photos by Mark James. Documentation Caravan photos by Heidi Hargreaves.

End note: I have heard that the owners of the Sprite caravan are coming to see the show on Friday night. I hope that they are impressed with the star of the show - Sprite caravan!

This top quality production runs at The Lace Market Theatre Nottingham from 21st to 26th July 2014.

Box Office 0115 9507201

Twitter: LMTheatre.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Eagle Awards at Derby Theatre

Caroline Barth of Derby Theatre sent me a very nice email today reflecting on my small input to last night's amateur theatre celebration  - The Eagle Awards at Derby Theatre.

"Dear Phil,
Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution to the Eagle Awards.  You were warm, funny and helped the evening go with a swing!    Everyone was really pleased with the whole evening and we are so grateful that you gave us your time voluntarily."
I thoroughly enjoyed the event and was very proud to offer my services as a presenter for the Malcolm Sircom Award for best production of a Pantomime.
The nominees were:
The Watson Players for The Sleeping Beauty 
Kaleidoscope Players for Beauty and the Beast
The Enfield Players for Trouble in Pantoland
Mickleover Players for Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates
The judges thought that the winning production was; a fantastic interpretation of the traditional tale, brought to life with energy, humour and style. Excellent staging, costumes and sets, great Performances and a pace that never let up and made for a resounding success. Those involved in this production have every right to be very proud.
The WINNER was The Watson Players for The Sleeping Beauty.

All the winners in all categories of The Eagle Awards.
As I sat in the audience watching all the other awards and speeches I started to think about what I was going to say outside of the script and came up with a few short stories that went right back to the very beginnings of my own amateur attempts at theatre. The very first attempt was being cast as one of the three kings aged nine in the Roe Farm School nativity. I didn't  turn up on the night of junior school nativity as one of the three kings (I had no idea I had to!) and found myself being forgiven enough the next year to be the centre of a three boy Puff The Magic Dragon with my face stuck against the sweaty bottom of a boy with chronic wind so foul that I almost threw up every night! Even this didn't put me off and after some Derby Gang Show experiences I found myself completely hooked and joined The Littleover Players and then Derby Theatre in the Round with a few forays into Derby Shakespeare and a few musical societies before going to university to study performance art in the late 1980s.
I also told the audience about how my family in Chaddesden circa 1960s never went to the theatre but were 'entertained' on Saturday night by a trip to the Dog Track on Friar Lane and on Monday night the live entertainment came in the form of wrestling bouts at the Queen Street Baths venue. One Christmas I was given an encyclopaedia with a several vibrant colour plates and one of these was an artists' impression of a side view across a stage where a production of Peter Pan was in full flow. The theatricality of this sparked a profound interest in this thing called theatre which I began to follow with a passion at the tender age of eleven and have continued to do so ever since.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Time Machine at Derby Guildhall. Review

The Time Machine written by H.G. Wells has been adapted for a solo performer on the stage by Robert Lloyd Parry and is a gripping piece of solo theatre right from the very start and a masterful verbal and physical performance by Parry throughout. He and his time machine have crashed into a garden of a villa late one evening in suburban Richmond 1895. Crazed and almost disbelieving his own adventures he tells of his journey into the future and back. It is a spellbinding affair.

After frantically tumbling out of an upturned box (the time machine) he falls headlong towards the audience whilst babbling out descriptions dressed in his grubby long johns. As he calms he talks of the far ahead future- strange tribes, the light fearing, brutish and cannibalistic Morlocks and their life of continual labour underground and the Eloi – a small, elegant, childlike society of adults that enjoy a privileged life but lack any kind of curiosity. Because they have no need to to work they have become complacent, even towards death. This bearded and eccentric time traveller has little sympathy for both tribes but his story is not without welcome touches of humour and he theorizes throughout over the nature of this distant humanity. His monologues are often beautiful and meandering and because of this 'adapted from the novel' approach I would say the show is more geared towards an adult audience. Saying that some older teens in the audience seemed enraptured.

The actor Robert Lloyd Parry is completely compelling in his ability to engage, entertain and even slightly unnerve the Derby audience. This is the strength of Parry's storytelling in that it fires the imagination and you have the uncanny feeling that he is telling a very strange story that is completely unique to the evening. At times it also seems like there is more than one person on the stage – a testament to his tour de force acting skills.

The Time Machine itself is wittily described as being smaller on the inside and it adds a charmingly eccentric note to the staging. Throughout the story it also doubles as a clever place from which the actor gets props for the show but we do not get to see the full design until quite late in the piece. It also becomes a sinister building and strangely believable as a hill the time traveller climbs. The brilliant design is by Factory Settings Ltd. Simple lighting conveys perfectly various atmospheres including a blazing fire, caves and sunny meadows.

Ashley Summers ingenious sound arrangement uses continuously chiming clocks to suggest the events of time travel and the audience were clearly spooked with eerie noises suggesting the coming of the terrifying Morlocks. The piece makes good use of other atmospheric sound effects such as a church clock chiming midnight over and over, birds and crickets chirping and electronic music producing futuristic effects.

All in all this touring production is a gripping piece of one man theatre and it was wonderful to hear some teenagers leave the theatre saying “That was ace! Better than Dr Who!”

The Time Machine is a Nunkie Theatre Company production in development with The Lowry and Harrogate Theatre.

Originally written for on 17th July 2014 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Street Theatre. Oh What A Lovely War. Review.

In September 1914 it was reported that the often naïve and cheery British Tommies stood in their trenches and cheered the firework displays of bombs exploding above them. It was all an adventure on foreign soil – a short sharp shock to beat the Hun – a battle or two that would see the gallant boys back home in time for Christmas and Oh What A Lovely War they would have.

In 1963 theatre rebel Joan Littlewood and her ground breaking Theatre Workshop troupe devised the musical play that became Oh What A Lovely War. It has played many a time on stage, on film and radio as a poignant reminder of the truths, the hidden truths and the horrors of war. Fast paced, musically jaunty and comically played to the point of a dark farce it exposes the ridiculous nature of war and the terrible loss of lives across Europe and the world during 1914-18. It also serves as a device to expose the profiteers from all countries during this period.

2014 is the centenary of the war known back in 1914 as The Great War – the war to end all wars – and New Street Theatre are as proud as a bold young recruit in uniform to present their war torn production at Lakeside Theatre – Nottingham University until 26th July. Skilfully directed by Martin Berry this superb production is set in an adventure playground of wooden structures with the talented young cast dressed in severely battered Pierrot costumes. Playfulness and energy are the keynotes in this production alongside impressive harmonies and powerful singing from the ensemble. There may be holes in their trousers but there ain't no holes in this fabulously inventive production!

This explosive production is a bomb blast of musical theatre!! Right from the first whistle blow the brilliant cast launch into the jolly song “Young Johnny Jones“ and enter into The War Games with gusto. The story of World War One is played as a parody and every one of nearly thirty songs is sung by the gifted cast as if their lives depend on it. The more sombre songs are sensitively done and sung with palpable honesty. Many of the songs are recognisable from the period and the recruiting song “I'll Make A Man Out Of You!” is superbly sung by Judie Matthews and her girls.

Martin Berry directs his eleven strong cast to play all the roles regardless of their actual sex and this leads to some very comic interpretations especially those performed by Emma Nash and Joe Heap. The cast look as though they are enjoying every lively minute and fully deserved the standing ovation offered to them at the play's close. This heart felt production is one of those rare plays that you don't actually want to finish. The fun starts before play has even begun as the audience are invited on stage to play with the actors. Once the show begins the attention to detail is spot on and the lighting by lighting designer Richard Statham really adds mood and focus to the piece. There is effective use of projection to add images and facts to the work and Rhian Morris's concept for the set design is visually impacting and adds multiple opportunities for inventive staging and playing levels. This show also includes reference to the people of Nottingham during this time of war and the casualties at home and abroad.

The audience were entertained and moved in equal measure by this thrilling and professional show. There has clearly been a tremendous amount of love and work put into this show and it shows in the creative quality and the actors enthusiasms and dedication to getting the humour and pathos just right. I cannot recommend this stellar production highly enough.

It may be A Long Way Tipperary but Nottingham University Lakeside is only a stone's throw away and people will soon be fighting for tickets to see Oh What A Lovely War by New Street Theatre so book now to avoid disappointment.

Running until 26th July 2014