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.

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.

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!