From the Sky to your Hands @ Live Theatre 09/11/2017

From the Sky to your Hands follows the story of Joana Geronimo, who settled in Newcastle with her son Osvaldo in 2003. Joana grew up in Angola, and arrived in England as a refugee. Given the context of the story, the play ties in with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King receiving an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University, as well as the Freedom City Festival.

Joana is the central character in the play, supported by a chorus of actors from Live’s Youth Theatre. They play multiple parts, sometimes as narrators, others as characters in conversation. They also sing in beautiful harmonies, adding a whole other dimension to the play, their melodies evoking memories of home for Joana. It’s a brilliant touch that gives the audience a true sense of being caught between the realities of home and a fondness for what she has left behind in Angola.

Starring Joana Geronimo as herself – she’s now an actor and drama facilitator – From the Sky to your Hands gains a real poignancy as a result. Her real life son Osvaldo, also an actor, plays himself as a teenager. The play takes the form of Joana’s memoir, from her initial trip to the UK to her experiences thereafter, right up until the present.

We see the struggles she goes through, from being a refugee to finding her way in a different country and culture. Alongside the city becoming more multi-cultural through her time in Newcastle, shifts in attitude are apparent. Joana experiences much initial prejudice, whilst her son grows up having not experienced racism. Yet racism has sadly not died out, as we see in the latter half of the play. The story thus reflects societal shifts over the past two decades, as much as it tells Joana’s own personal account.

The cast is strong, versatile and in fine voice throughout, and writer Juliana Mensah and director Paul James deserve special mention for presenting a life-affirming story in a life-affirming way. From the Sky… is a brilliant, original piece of theatre.

****

Pink Sari Revolution @ Northern Stage 02/11/2017

*****

Two years in the making, Pink Sari Revolution is based on the book by Amana Fontanella-Khan, and co-produced by Curve, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The play forms part of the Art Council’s Reimagine India project, marking the 70th anniversary of independence. It was adapted for the stage by playwright Purva Naresh, who worked with both Indian and English communities, including meetings with the central character Sampat Pal, creator of the Gulabi Gang. Known internationally, the group has over 400,000 members and originated amongst India’s rural poor to make a stand for the rights of people unprotected by the laws of the state. The Gulabi are instantly recognisable for their uniform of bright pink saris, and continues to operate today.

Pink Sari Revolution follows the story of a young girl, raped and left for dead by a man from a higher caste system. She is given no rights and no fair hearing. Even a doctor refuses to treat her, terrified of the consequences of siding with the girl against a powerful man, and fearing her own death should she do so.

Sampat Pal visits the girl and attempts to fight the system on her behalf. Accused of only getting involved for her own political gain, she confesses to having had similar experiences herself, having been married off at just 12 years old, and taking up the fight against violent oppression just a few years later. Although partly shunned in her bid to help, she organises a mass protest, with the pink saris out in force, bringing the matter into the public domain. Unfortunately, the case is hijacked by another political party and the principles of justice become blurred.

Pink Sari Revolution is necessarily harrowing, and quite rightly does not seek to censor the violent actions at the heart of the story. Yet in the raising of a small army of women to protest against the authorities – all of whom are in essence risking their own lives in doing so – it presents an inspirational message of standing up against violent oppression, both mental and physical. Although the story takes place in India, the issues raised by the piece are tragically experienced by people on a global scale. This excellent work is a reminder that, now more than ever, the fight must go on.

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Winter and Spring 17/18 @NorthernStage Preview

The third Northern Stage preview revealed a treasure trove of riches for North East audiences to enjoy over the coming months. It is wonderful to report that Newcastle will play host to one of the region’s most acclaimed musicians, we will witness the start of a new directorial career and the creativity of some of our brightest young talents. Please read on for a whistle stop tour of some highlights to look out for in the coming months.

Kicking off the festive season with typical Northern Stage aplomb, Alice in Wonderland promises to be a fantastical and magical experience for audiences ranging from 5 to 105. Embrace the mystical world of the Jabberwocky, Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat with this re-imagining of a tale deeply rooted in our region. Tickets on sale now: https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/alice-in-wonderland

After the overindulgences of Christmas, what better way to overcome the sobering January gloom than North: The War of the Worlds. Starting January 31st until 10th February, this production is directed by fresh directorial talent Elayce Ismail, whose vision of realistic Martians on stage is something that is sure to excite and thrill audiences. Set in the North East, this new interpretation of Wells’ Sci-Fi classic will be grounded in our local streets and inspired by North East sensibility, survival and spirit. https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/north-war-of-the-worlds

Perhaps most exciting of all, The Last Ship anchors at the Northern Stage from 12th March until April 7th. Sting’s homage to the ship builders of his youth and the industrial heritage of Newcastle is certain to stir deep emotions in North East audiences. We were treated to three beautifully crafted, lively and moving songs from the show with the imperious Jimmy Nail leading a chorus of terrific singers and musicians. It’s a stellar cast and beautiful musical score. Trust me when I say that we are in for a treat with this production and it is terrific that Northern Stage will play host on this community tale. https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/the-last-ship

There is a shorter run for fringe award winning, The Believers are but Brothers (https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/the-believers-are-but-brothers), which stood out as an innovative, multimedia piece that challenges preconceptions and explores the contemporary political landscape in the context of extremism and political posturing online. Also, look out for the Young Company: Untold Stories, Unheard Voices an inspired and energetic group of local young people brought together by Northern Stage to explore their own creativity through local projects. https://www.northernstage.co.uk/young-company

Finally, the season will draw to a close with what promises to be a soaring, beautiful tale of love as a prelude to summer and set against testing times. Northern Stage production, Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De lune opens May 21st, running until June 2nd. This production will bring humour, passion and hope to audiences who pull back the covers. https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/frankie-and-johnny-in-the-clair-de-lune  

There is much more to enjoy in the coming months and this hasty tour is only designed to give you a flavour. Please explore the whole listing here: https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Pages/Events/Category/show-guide?Take=39

Man to Man @ Northern Stage 17/10/17

Visiting Newcastle for two nights, Manfred Karge’s Man to Man announced itself to a packed Northern Stage audience with tension, vivacity and raw emotion. Brilliantly translated by Alexander Wood, this modern, dark German fairy-tale is drenched in the gritty sweat of a working day. Inspired by a true story, Man to Man leaps from the stage with outstanding direction, a mesmerising performance and remarkable writing.

Opening in the spare staging of a one room flat, we meet Ella Gericke (performed by Maggie Bain) whose identity and gender is as enigmatic and ethereal as the life she inhabits, namely that of her deceased husband, Max. We follow Ella’s survival from her deeply ironic opening gambit that ‘work sets you free’ which haunts the protagonist and echoes through time with its harrowing associations. Her journey is set against the backdrop of the Weimar Republic, war-ravaged Nazi Germany and an impoverished post-war society and all centres on working-class survival. Ella lives as Max, inhabits a male existence and evades detection at any cost, all for gainful employment. We are presented with the desperation, isolation and invention required to live in such horrible circumstances, while an immersive fantasy unveils itself through enchanted shadows and reanimated clothes.

Maggie Bain is remarkable in this production, her physicality, poise and tone make each scene immersive and wrenching. Her interactions with the set are sensational at times as she scales the walls, hangs from the eves and hurls herself through the scenes while also twirling gently with imagined figures. The direction and staging elevate this monologue performance beyond a typical theatre experience. Wonderful effects illuminate Ella/Max’s tormented scenes of maternal longing with a mirror to a fantasy world beyond her reach. Major credit must go to Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham whose direction is impeccable; every inch of the set is utilised to its fullest and the movement, lighting and sound are perfectly attuned to the harshness of the themes.

This is a play that wrestles with themes of gender and identity through challenging scenes evoking the worst of humanities crimes. These are interspersed with regular cutting humour resonating with the gritty survival of today’s working class. Such themes are all anchored to the necessity of work, which drives the narrative forward. This central concept provokes the question of what it is to exist today and whether our lives, relentlessly ticking onwards, depend on and are defined by our employment status or vocation.

With masterful writing and direction and an exceptional starring performance, Newcastle theatre enthusiasts should flock to experience this outstanding and important production for its final night at the Northern Stage. You’ll regret it if you don’t!

*****

Goth Weekend@Live Theatre

Starting an extended run at Live Theatre, this refreshing, rich and relevant family play provide great humour and hubris in its exploration of identity, love and family life. Audiences are guaranteed to laugh and many will cry, but all will delight in this wonderful journey expertly written by Ali Taylor whose dialogue and story comes to life on stage.

Taking inspiration from the annual Whitby festival Goth Weekend, this play revels in the sub-cultures that define the ‘other’ in society. From the widowed father and grieving daughter to the single goth mother and her confused, unsure adolescent son, there are aspects of each character and situation that will resonate for all. This is a story steeped in the complicated, messy reality of family and life. Its grounding in the North East of England brings joyous local humour and a gritty outlook mixed with often repressed emotion, especially from central protagonists, Ken and Belinda.  Rest assured, the layers of resistance are artfully unpeeled as the scenes play out.

The play opens with a vibrant goth rock performance from Belinda (Jessica Johnson) and her son Simon AKA Bram which sets the scene for the contrasting dynamic between their counterparts. Ken (Sean McKenzie) a widowed plumber, down on his luck and his daughter Anna (Amy Trigg) a bolshie teenager preparing Ken for his first date in years. His anxiety is endearing and Anna’s desperation to help her father by imposing her idea of what moving on is establishes a central conflict between both characters. These two worlds collide when Ken and Belinda meet and connect over multiple pints and ends following a tumultuous journey Whitby Goth Weekend.

The story progresses with great pace, laughter and touching scenes between family who have lost, hurting and trying to find a new way. Each character has their own personal daemons to overcome and their identities are encapsulated by a line expressed by Simon later in the play when he asks, ‘How can I say what I am if I don’t even know?’ The play examines what it is to be different and what it is to conform. The reality is that we all make our own choices and decide what feels right for us. This is the strong affirmative message that this play delivers. In the end, what unites our characters is their love for each other and acceptance of each other’s identity despite their differences.

****

The Wipers Times @ Northern Stage 02/10/2017

In 1916, the 12th Battalion – aka the Sherwood Foresters – came across an abandoned printing press, whilst positioned in Ypres. Despite being involved in heavy fighting, the battalion put together a satirical magazine for the next two years. Named after the British slang pronunciation of Ypres, The Wipers Times offered poetry, news and stories, all told with a sharp wit and satirical eye.

The paper was the brainchild of Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, who became its editor and subeditor. It is thus their story (and that of the wider battalion) that the play focuses on. Previously filmed for television, the piece has shifted well to the stage, with an excellent wartime set. Along with music and dancing, the main action is broken up by ample quotations from the magazine, giving it a playful ‘knees-up!’ vibe. The play also manages to achieve a good balance between the serious side of war and the humour within it.

Following two years of war, publication against all odds, and some brushes with authority figures not enamoured by the humour in the magazine, the war ends. Having made it through, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson now attempt to find work. But neither the editor nor the subeditor manage to secure writing positions following the war; a damning indictment of the times. It is bittersweet that their writing careers began and ended with the war that inspired them.

No other writers in Britain – perhaps the world – had dared to launch such a publication. Producing a single issue of a single copy could have been judged a success; written, printed and despatched amid shelling and gunfire. But The Wipers Times was mass produced across two years, travelling not only along the Western Front but back to the mainland.

The play as a whole works on many levels. It touches on the extraordinary camaraderie shown by men at the front. It serves as a message for the horrors of war. In quoting generously from The Wipers Times, it serves as a vehicle for some of the funniest satire ever written. It is also a refreshing reminder of an occasion in time when, for once, history was not written by those in charge.

****

The Suitcase @ Northern Stage 14/09/17

Based on Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story, written in the midst of South African apartheid regime, The Suitcase follows a young married couple hoping and hunting for a better life. Originally placed and still set in the 1950s, Timi and Namhla leave their rural home for Durban, pursuing work in the city. United in their optimism and clearly in love, everything is new to the pair, and although there are no guarantees, once they obtain a flat and Timi begins the search for work, the future looks rosy.

Time passes and no work materialises. The apartheid regime has meant a jobless Durban, and gradually Timi’s optimism fades. The couple’s love becomes strained, and with little choice, they make plans to return to their village. When Timi sees a suitcase left on a train, he takes it for himself and his wife, hoping it will provide the big break in life they have been searching for.

Accompanied by music throughout, The Suitcase manages to bring you into its world with ease. Composed by Hugh Masekela, simple yet poignant arrangements of guitar and voice add beautifully to the energy on stage without ever taking over. The cast on the whole is strong, with special mention for the leads Siyabonga Caswell Thwala as Timi and Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni as Namhla. It is perhaps the ultimate compliment that when Namhla sheds tears towards the end of the piece, much of the audience concurs. The piece is also beautifully directed by James Ngcobo, taking the audience through every mood from joy to sorrow, and allowing the story to flourish.

The Suitcase may be set in apartheid-era South Africa, but its themes are universal. Timi and Namhla merely hope for a better life, and in spite of their efforts come up against a system not designed to allow anyone else to have a piece of the pie. Timi’s slow descent into despair is played to perfection, and the injustice caused by poverty and prejudice results in his arrest for stealing the suitcase. It is a classic case of society dealing with crime over causation, and until the political spectrum changes worldwide, The Suitcase will remain timely and relevant for all future generations.

*****

No Dogs, No Indians @ Live Theatre 19/07/2017

Siddhartha Bose’s No Dogs, No Indians takes its name from a notice on the door of a whites-only club in 1930s Bengal, and marks the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

The play weaves together three narratives from different time periods. One is the true story of Rani Waddedar, an educated woman who joins the independence movement. Another follows a man in 1970s India, desperate to secure his future by earning a scholarship to London. The third concerns the man’s son in the present day, visiting India from England to visit his father’s funeral, and finding his friends better off than he is in London.

Rani’s actions prove her as dedicated as any male revolutionary, yet she is the only one performing domestic duties when at base. Shyamal in the 1970s sees London as his future, and upon failing to reach there, turns to drink, destroys his life and loses his family. His son Ananda, visiting India years later, is taken aback by his friends’ lifestyles in a country shifting towards consumerism. Although disparate stories, all look at issues of identity and colonial influence across generations.

There is a real subtlety in the writing, with no attempt to make this a flag-waving piece for any particular cause. Simply by watching the differing struggles of life across three timespans do we get hints alluding to the bigger picture. Whilst both the colonial and independent eras are shown to have positives and negatives in terms of governance, it’s the effect on the individual that is conveniently forgotten by history. No Dogs pushes it rightly to the fore.

The sparse set and excellent direction from Russell Bender perfectly convey the differing time periods and proves that lavish stages are an irrelevance in modern theatre. Archana Ramaswamy, Omar Khan and Ashraf Ejjbair handle multiple roles with ease, and Komal Amin is an inspirational figure as Rani. Their performances are full of hope yet tinged with sadness; political affairs complicating the already-difficult challenge of finding oneself.

The current crop of world leaders could learn from such work – life may have to be lived looking forwards, but to understand it, check behind you.

*****

Gods and Mortals @ Sunderland Minster 12/05/2017

Promoting a diverse array of artistic mediums and using a variety of venues, Sunderland Stages have a wonderful philosophy in putting theatre first and promoting as many forms as time allows. It’s an inventiveness that manages to thrive despite the arts’ cuts of recent years, and after an award-winning 2016, this year’s programme continues to strive ever higher. This performance of Gods and Mortals by the Odissi Ensemble takes place in the Grade II-listed Sunderland Minster, a wonderful setting for the intimate performance that follows.

With its origins in ancient Sanskrit, the odissi form originated in Hindu Temples. Following years of suppression under colonial rule, oddissi experienced a resurgence after India gained independence. This performance shows the form to not only be thriving in the modern era, but promotes its respectful evolution from being a traditional female dance to one performed by a mixed-gender quartet, featuring dancers and musicians from around the world.

The Odissi Ensemble – the only group of its kind within the UK – comprises four dancers and four musicians, who combine traditional odissi with a modern inventiveness. In keeping with odissi traditions, the six pieces performed detail a narrative, with quartet presentations interspersed with solo and duo dances, plus musical interludes and accompaniment.

As a whole, Gods and Mortals looks at the relationship between gods and humans. Detailing the highs and lows of the gods, parallels are drawn with human lives and the lines of separation occurring between ourselves and divine beings is seen to grow ever closer.

From the opening Mangalacharan – the traditional beginning to any odissi – in which a salutation is made to both the Supreme Being and the audience; to the closing Kali Sloka and Moksha in which the dancers break away from their earthly bonds, Gods and Mortals manages to tread a balance between the delicate and powerful, resulting in a beautiful, unforgettable performance. It is a joy from beginning to end, and a delight to see the odissi form come alive on an international scale.

*****

East is East @ Northern Stage 20 April 2017

From the outset, East is East transports us back to the 70s with an angular and imposing set engulfed in orange. The furniture evokes northern working class urban life with intimate enclosed space and pride in the family home. Sajit or ‘twitch’ (Viraj Juneja) enters bouncing on a space hopper and hooded in his parka and immediately sets the tone for warped humour, pathos and identity. One of the main triumphs of the production is the inventive, seamless, rotating stage. Every turn increases the play’s momentum shifts the tone and beautifully complements the performances. It was also powerful to smell the cigarette smoke as an immersive reminder of times gone by.

Language plays a crucial role in this play. It is a fantastic script bejewelled with  hilarious and poignant gems. Much of the action is instigated by the actions of stubborn, tyrannical patriarch, George (Genghis) Khan, played by Kammy Darweish. Darweish embodies the essence of an immigrant father whose grasp of English results in its unhinged, unpredictability and frequent repetitive swearing (bastard!) that forms the heartbeat of his dialogue. His long-suffering wife Ella (Vicky Entwistle) shines during jocular and harrowing scenes with George’s manic moods of love and fury. Entwistle’s performance as Ella is truly magnificent; emotional, powerful and loving, she is born to play this role. Her best friend Auntie Annie (Judy Flynn) brings great comic relief to her scenes and exemplifies the easy integration that can exist in working class communities. The whole cast is a joy to watch and the energy they bring is infectious and joyous. Special mentions to Deven Modha as Maneer ‘Gandhi’ Khan who elevates his scenes with effortless ease and Sarina Sandhu who represents the outnumbered, but never outgunned Meenah in a passionate, fiery performance.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first production of East is East, it is fitting to reflect on its relevance in the current context. Themes of identity, loyalty and fear resonate strongly with the political fever spreading through the west. Perhaps most jolting are the references to war in Pakistan and scenes of domestic violence which progressively become numbing after their initial shock value, just as the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan roll on today. The exploration of some of the doctrines associated with Islamic culture are also hugely significant, balanced and relevant discussion pieces. George’s line, ‘if there no God, what we all bloody doing?’ seems to sum up the internal conflict of the moment. Maneer’s line later in the play ‘Being Pakistani is more than just religion’ strikes to the core of modern labelling, fear and bigotry. Hopefully, lessons can still be learned from such vital messages. It is often in art that truth can be most meaningfully expressed and this play is no exception.

East is East is a Bloody Belter of a play audiences will be privileged to enjoy this terrific new production with its vibrant cast, wonderful staging, laughter and a powerful message to take home.

*****