The Lower Depths at Manchester Capitol Theatre

Last night I went to see The Lower Depths at Manchester’s Capitol Theatre. The production of Gorky’s masterpiece was produced, directed and acted by final year students at the prestigious Manchester School Of Theatre. I had heard great things about the Manchester School’s productions – they have a habit of unearthing real talent and it is often a showcase for the stars of tomorrow.

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Although I am a theatre buff, as you know, I’ve never seen this work before. I am a huge fan of Gorky’s autobiographical novels – I read his ‘My Childhood’ three times whilst I was a student, so I had an idea what to expect: oppression, misery and discourses on how the proletariat are being downtrodden by the wealthy Russian landowners. I certainly wasn’t disappointed! The irony of course is that history judges Gorky as a close friend of Stalin who had more than a hand to play in the terrors that swept through Russia during his dictatorship.

The Lower Depths is not a cheerful play. Act one ends with a woman dying of tuberculosis and Act two ends with the hero hanging himself. In between there is cruelty, murder and hatred and a graphic scene of a woman who has had boiling water thrown over her. Yet, for all that, it is a fantastic theatrical experience.

It is a hard play for young actors to work with, many of the characters are older and world weary and whilst the themes of impoverishment and crushed dreams are as relevant as ever the setting is alien. Having said that many of the actors did a sterling job. I would single out three for especial praise – Elena Clements as a captivating Natasha, Simon Pothecary as Vasca – the man caught in a deadly web of lust and intrigue and especially Dale Mathurin – highly believable as the wise old man with a secret past.

The staging was wonderful. Full advantage was taken of the Capitol’s intimate surroundings, bunk beds were arranged around the audience and you could almost feel the wind whistling around. There were Russian songs as well – expertly performed, Manchester’s School Of Theatre has some impressive vocal talent!

It was a very brave staging, full credit must go to the director Madeleine Potter. Under her leadership the ensemble really threw themselves into their roles. I would love to see them attempting something like The Ghost Sonata by Strindberg or Rhinoceros by Ionesco – experimental yet brilliant, I believe this young cast could pull it off!

It runs until Saturday at the Capitol Theatre, just off Manchester’s Oxford Road and I recommend that you try it. I give it a four tortoise shell rating and a deserved round of applause! We need more theatre like this, challenging and well executed.

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The Winter’s Tale at The Crucible, Sheffield

The dark nights are drawing in and it is thus more than apt that The Winter’s Tale has just opened at Sheffield’s theatre in the round The Crucible.

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William Shakespeare’s play has, of course, nothing to do with winter. A winter’s tale, as referred to in the title, is simply a dark tale – possibly a scary tale which was told to pass the long wintry evenings. And whilst The Winter’s Tale does have its dark side these are more than made up for by an abundance of fun and joy.

I adore Shakespeare but The Winter’s Tale has always been one of my very favourites from the bardic canon. I liked it so much that I wrote and performed a one man play, Julio Romano, atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square that was about some of the minor characters in the play. Surely you remember that? I’ll never forget it – my papier mache masks blowing every where and the drunken crowd shouting that they couldn’t hear me. Yet despite all that I do still love The Winter’s Tale and Paul Miller’s production at the Crucible shows just how brilliant this play can be when done well.

In reality it is a play in two halves. The first half very dark, brooding and angry. It is a tragedy of jealousy to rival that of Othello. Leontes, King of Sicilia, is driven crazy by false jealousy and destroys all around him leading, so we are led to believe, to the death of his son, his wife and his baby daughter.

But, as is often the case with Shakespeare, things aren’t always as they seem. The second half is a much lighter affair – a roister doistering romp of a comedy in which we find that the daughter has survived after all. Can Leontes be cured of his madness, can King and heir be reunited? This is Shakespeare – what do you think? The second half, the comedy half, also contains lots of song and dance and brilliant set pieces around a topiary sheeps head. It is as beautiful to the eye as the words are to the soul.

The ending itself is incredibly moving – I can never watch it without a manly tear in my eye. It needs to be done subtly, with sympathy or else it could seem pathetic but the Crucible cast strike exactly the right note. I won’t reveal the ending but it is well worth seeing.

The cast are wonderful – especially Daniel Lapaine as a raging Leontes and Kirsty Oswald as a frightfully alluring Perdita. Special praise must go to the multi role performance of Patrick Walshe McBride – the young man has real comic timing and presence, he should go far in such roles.

The Winter’s Tale is sometimes called a ‘problem play’ as it is hard to classify – being part tragedy, part romance and part comedy. But the only problem is if you can’t get a ticket for this spectacular production. It is heart warming, life affirming stuff. If you haven’t loved Shakespeare before then this will change your mind.

It’s been a good season for my theatre jaunts for The Winter’s Tale gets a well deserved five tortoise shell rating! It runs at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 2nd November. Catch it while you can – and don’t forget to watch out for the bear!

The Tortoise Soup Awards 2012

Dear reader, thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting the Tortoise Soup blog throughout 2012. The sheer number of views has amazed me and I know that this blog will continue to go from strength to strength in 2013. As this old year is shuffling away into the sunset let us reflect on some of the brilliant achievements throughout 2012. I am proud to present the inaugural Tortoise Soup awards!

NEW PLAY OF THE YEAR
‘The Last Of The Haussmans’ (National Theatre)
This remarkable debut play by Stephen Beresford had it all – tears, infidelity, betrayal, love, yearning, death and lots and lots of laughter. Julie Walters tour de force as the disintegrating matriarch was more than ably supported. A truly brilliant new play, that will surely become a future legend.

'The Last of the Haussmans' play at The Lyttelton Theatre, London, Britain - 18 Jun 2012

REVIVAL OF THE YEAR
‘Cardenio’ (The Rose Theatre)
Cardenio is the ‘lost’ play of William Shakespeare, or so we are led to believe. For my mind it has much more in common with the Jacobean revenge tragedies of Thomas Middleton. Whoever wrote it, this Autumn’s production at the Rose Theatre was as spectacular as it was intimate. I urge you all to visit the Rose whenever you are in London. Just down the road from the Globe Theatre, the Rose is still being dragged back from the past. As such, it is still very much an architectural site as well as a theatre but it will give you a theatrical experience like no other. Well done to the Aporia Theatre Collective for bringing this difficult and blood soaked classic to life.

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REGIONAL PLAY OF THE YEAR
‘Rats Tales” by Carol Ann Duffy (Manchester Royal Exchange)
This is not just a play, it is a theatrical event. Nightmares mingle with fairy tales and the result is pure magic. It would have been impossible to separate this from ‘Last Of The Haussmans’ as the best production of the year. If you want to introduce children to the theatre, you could do no better than start here.

LOCAL THEATRE COMPANY OF THE YEAR
LS Theatre
There is national theatre, and there is regional theatre, but there is another tier that I call ‘local theatre’. The tiny companies that scrape together enough to put on productions at the smaller theatres that still exist across this country.
LS Theatre are a wonderful example of such a company. Based in Barnsley, South Yorkshire they have no shortage of ambition. This year has seen a range of quality productions from them, but the stand out was their ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ musical. LS pushed the boat out and got in a bone fide West End star in Rachel Leskovac to play Audrey. Audrey 2 (the man eating plant) was just as impressive, and the whole show was a great demonstration of what can be achieved with a small budget but huge determination.

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BALLET OF THE YEAR
‘Coppelia’ (The Dancehouse, Manchester)
Manchester City Ballet did a great job in bringing Delibes magic to life at The Dancehouse. Airi Koike was particularly impressive, and I look forward to seeing her performances in future. Larger stages surely await for her.

OPERA OF THE YEAR
‘The Ring Cycle’ (Royal Opera House)
Watching a ring cycle should be on your bucket list. I saw my first cycle this year and I was not disappointed. The cycle is an incredible achievement, both artistically and physically. Wagner’s music is so fast, so frenetic, so loud that to play 17 hours of it over four amazing nights must be unbelievably draining for the orchestra. Sir Tony Pappano cemented his legendary reputation with flawless conducting, and the huge cast stepped up to the plate in style. Which leads me neatly onto…

PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
Bryn Terfel (Wotan/The Wanderer, Royal Opera House)
There is no bigger role for a bass, but with Bryn Terfel we were in safe hands. It is so hard to strike the right balance between complete power and complete vulnerability but Terfel was faultless. His performance in the final act of Die Walkure was emotionally charged as he sacrifices his own daughter to fate. As the final, beautiful note faded the woman alongside me kept repeating, ‘Oh, wow! oh, wow!’ That said it all.

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BOOK OF THE YEAR

The Lighthouse (Alison Moore, Salt Publishing)
This is a debut novel to cherish. A real page turner that is achingly crafted and where the prose is so beautiful that it hurts. Moore was unlucky not to clinch the Booker Prize with this one, but awards will surely rain down on her in the future.

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CHILDREN’S BOOK OF THE YEAR
‘The Moomins And The Great Flood’ (Tove Jansson, Sort Of)
There have been so many wonderful new books for children this year so why have I selected a book that was written nearly 70 years ago? Well although this was written in 1945 it has never been published in the United Kingdom before 2012 so it was eligible and a worthy winner. Jansson was the greatest children’s author of all time and this is a must read for all Moomin fans.

POETRY OF THE YEAR
‘Some Things Matter’ (James Nash, Valley Press)
James Nash has reinvigorated the sonnet form in this wonderful new collection. Yorkshire’s finest poet examines the nature of life itself, distilling it into fourteen line vignettes that teach us what it is like to experience the world around us.

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We have recognised some incredible achievements above. They all richly deserve the prestigious ‘Golden Tortoise’ that is winging its way to them. But, no review of 2012 would be complete without two special awards.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Cecilia Giminez
Spain has produced many great artists from Goya to Picasso. But this year introduced the world to a remarkable new talent: Cecilia Giminez. This octogenarian from Zaragoza decided that the priceless work of art in her local church needed a bit of love, a gentle restoration. She went to work on ‘Ecce Homo’ by Elias Garcia Martinez and the results brought the work right into the 21st Century. Cecilia seemed bemused at the uproar that her ‘repairs’ caused, but they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Thanks to Giminez the work went from ‘behold, the man!’ to ‘behold, the chimpanzee!’. At least she had a go.

Cecilia Giminez Spanish mural before and after

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Cafe del Soul, Marin, California
Is this refreshing honesty or business suicide? Here is the report from the Marin Independent Journal. You decide.
“If I can’t tell the truth to my customers then why have a restaurant?” manager Sandro De Oliviera asked reporters in his ‘natural and organic’ Cafe del Soul in Marin County, California. “Our mission is to give every person who walks through our doors a sense of feeling better than they did before, and that means being honest with them. That’s why we put up a sign informing them that our kitchen is infested with German cockroaches, that we’ve been fighting a losing battle against them, and that we have reported ourselves to the Health Department.”
Bon appetit!

Thank you again, have a wonderful New Year. 2013 will be a very special year for me as I work towards the publication of my children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’. I hope that your year will be just as good! Please comment below and let me know what you think have been the highlights of 2012.

Coppelia at The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

Coppelia is being performed at the Dancehouse Theatre in Manchester until 8th December, and of course Tortoise Soup was there at the opening night to give you wonderful cultured people the lowdown.

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If you are new to ballet then this is an ideal introduction. The Nutcracker, of course, is a traditional Christmas treat but Coppelia also is full of festive charm. Composed by Delibes, the titular character is a doll that has been created by the sinister toymaker Dr Coppelius. Dr Coppelius dreams of nothing more than bringing this doll to life, and when a curious young woman, Swanhilda, and her faithless beau Franz invade his toy shop the dolls come to life one by one.

The Dancehouse Theatre, easily found on Oxford Road, is home to the Manchester City Ballet. They have an excellent roster of young ballet stars, and there were some excellent performances last night. Louis Merlo, in the role of Franz, had the audience on the edge of their seats, he could certainly shine in big parts in the future. Airi Koike was perfect as Swanhilda, her delicate and precise hand placements and captivating smile made the audience warm to her. She not only danced superbly she also acted the role from her heart. I am looking forward to seeing Koike shine in future performances.

It is the first time that I have seen a ballet danced to a pre-recorded soundtrack rather than being accompanied by a live orchestra, but this did not detract from the performance itself. It also ensured that the beautiful Delibes score was note perfect.

Coppelia was a delight, and perfect Christmas entertainment for younger viewers as well. Many of the audience will have gone home wanting to don their tutus and twirl around their parlours. If you have the chance, I would advise you to snap up a ticket to the Dancehouse while you can. This receives four tortoise shells, and is highly recommended.

Rats’ Tales at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Last night I went to see the world premiere of Carol Ann Duffy’s  ‘Rats’ Tales’ at Manchester’s magnificent Royal Exchange Theatre. As you probably know, I am a huge fan of all things theatrical and have seen some incredible shows so far this year in 2012, but have I saved the best while (almost) last? Read on Tortoise Soup friend and find out!

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‘Rats’ Tales’ was written  by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and was adapted for the stage and directed by Melly Still. It runs until 12th January 2013, unless the Mayans are correct, and is aimed at a family audience. As my own forthcoming novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ can also be enjoyed by both children and adults I was fascinated to see what lay ahead. An initial word of warning here though – some of this theatrical event (I can’t call it simply a ‘play’) is very dark and could be terrifying to younger children.

‘Rat’s Tales’ is a dramatic interpretation of eight ostensibly unconnected stories. The first story is very well known: that of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. After this we have seven stories created by Duffy herself. These are very dark fairy tales, newly created but very in keeping with folk tradition – in the way that Italo Calvino did with Italy’s folk tales.

The stories are often sad, frequently violent and on one level bizzare and challenging. For example ‘Wooden Maria’ where the King is fated to marry his own daughter and ‘The Squire’s Bride’ where the titular noble is encouraged to marry a horse.

Death runs throughout the tales, as do rats in one form or another, and there are also two deadly fires. The real theme that connects the Tales however is childhood and aging, the horror of disappearing youth. These modern fairy stories challenge us to encounter our own mortality, our own fleeting and tender hold on what we consider reality.

Yes, the tales are very dark but that is not to say bleak. The children in the audience seemed to love it, and there are often moments of high humour amidst astonishingly acrobatic displays of physical theatre. A joyous ending had my eyes moistening up, I hope that my companion didn’t see, and should help to appease any frightened audience members.

The staging was courageous and successful. Eight actors play numerous parts each, and their efforts were uniformly brilliant. It is hard to pick out one shining star, but special praise has to go to Katherine Manners, especially moving in Wooden Maria.

The special effects were excellent, especially the use of television screens around the set to show us external events. Music and dance also played a large part, the morris dancing horse has to be seen to be believed.

In fact, ‘Rats’ Tales’ as a whole has to be seen to be believed. It is an astonishing work, quite simply I have never seen anything like it before. I came away at the end energised, full of life and with the certain knowledge that I had been at the first night of a work of theatrical genius.

My five tortoise shell rating hardly does this masterpiece justice, but five shells it receives. I thoroughly recommend that you see this show if you get the chance. Is it the best thing that I have seen this year? Well I have seen an awful lot – so to find out be sure to check out the 2012 Tortoise Soup Awards on New Year’s Eve. Please comment below if you have seen it or have any other suggestions for a great show to see this Christmas time.

 

The Mighty Bawd!

Today the world famous Tortoise Soup blog will be reviewing ‘The Country Wife’, currently playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

The Country Wife was written in 1675 by William Wycherley and is one of the most famous of the ‘Restoration Comedies’. Restoration comedies date from the 1660s and 1670s, a period when the monarchy was restored under the new king Charles II. The theatres had been closed by the killjoy puritan government of Cromwell, but one of the first things that Charles did was to re-open the theatres. Playwrights such as Wycherley and Congreve revelled in their new freedoms and created complex and satirical farces that took the word ‘bawdy’ to new levels.

So lewd and lascivious, so openly revelling in sex and scandal, was The Country Wife that it went unperformed for nearly two hundred years. It was revived during the party loving 1920s from which date it has rightly been recognised as a classic of British theatre. The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is a perfect location to stage Wycherley’s place. It is a beautiful, imposing theatre: traditionally victorian on the outside, yet relentlessly modern inside. Craft shops and a sumptious bar provide the perfect pre-theatre atmosphere before the audience enter the theatre in the round.

So, what did Tortoise Soup think of the play itself? I was very impressed that the Royal Exchange have been faithful to the original script. It is so easy to modernise restoration comedy, especially in this age of political and sexual scandal. This production stuck bravely to its guns, and both costume and design were firmly Seventeenth Century. This added greatly to my enjoyment of the play.

The cast were uniformly superb. Felix Scott was masterful in the lead role of Horner, the man who pretends to be castrated so that he can sleep with as many women as possible. Oliver Gomm was wonderfully energetic as the clown like Mr Sparkish and Amy Morgan was delightful in every way as the titular character Margery Pinchwife. By turns simplistic and scheming, she brought more than a touch of Joanna Page to the role and it was easy to see how she would enchant a man such as Horner.

Of course, it matters little how good the actors are if the writing is below par, but we need have no concerns on that ground: restoration comedies are fantastic entertainment and The Country Wife is at the very pinnacle of the genre. There is more bawdiness and bed hopping in two hours of this play than you would get in two years of Desperate Housewives. The denouement is frenetic and brilliant. The play is jam packed full of wit and if you don’t laugh uproariously at this production then there is no hope for you.

The language of the play is, of course, very much of its time. If taken at face value the use of many of the terms would be seen as shocking and brutal, there were audible gasps as one character threatened to carve the word ‘whore’ onto his wife’s forehead. The views on women are completely at odds with how we think now: for example a woman is compared unfavourably to a spaniel. It is important to recognise however that the words, like everything else in the play, should not be taken at face value – women and men are both the targets of Wycherley’s satire and both sexes are as scheming as the other.

Overall then, I have no hesitation in awarding The Country Wife at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre a prestigious Five Tortoise Shells! I had a fantastic evening from beginning to end and I recommend both the play and the theatre to all.
Please comment below, and tell me about any theatrical gems that you have seen recently!