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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Educating Rita at the Lowry, Salford

Educating Rita is the current production by the Manchester Library Theatre at their temporary home in Salford’s wonderful Lowry complex. If you’ve never been to the Lowry then you are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful gentrified location by the historic Salford quayside and next to the sprawling television studios belonging to ITV and the BBC. It’s only spoiled by its proximity to Old Trafford, the theatre of comedy, but that’s another story.

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Educating Rita is a play by Willy Russell and is rightly famous from the 1983 film version starring our national treasures Michael Caine and Julie Walters. Those are big shoes to step into but Philip Bretherton and Gillian Kearney do it with aplomb.

The stage version differs from the film in one crucial point – there are only ever two actors on the stage. Bretherton and Kearney have to bring a whole wealth of background characters to life and it is testament to their stage skills, and to the brilliance of Russell’s script, that they carry this off flawlessly.

Bretherton plays Frank, an ageing University lecturer who has signed up, against his better judgement, to teach Open University students. He is a troubled man, with a failed marriage and a penchant for lining up bottles of whiskey behind his dust covered bookshelf. He is a cynic weighed down by his own self loathing and sense of failure as a poet. He teaches English literature yet states that he hates the theatre and never goes.

Kearney plays a character called ‘Rita’ – but is she really Rita at all? I won’t say any more on this matter – see for yourself if you don’t already know the plot. Rita is a hairdresser who dreams of becoming socially mobile. She knows nothing and cares about nothing when we first see her but what she does have is a drive and desire to learn and as the play progresses we see her blossoming intellectually and socially under the guidance of Frank.

It might seem as if Frank would be an unsympathetic character, a morbid and jealous drunk – but not a bit of it. He gains our sympathy with every lurch, every slurred bon mot. Whilst he is undoubtedly pathetic we can’t help but feel sorry for him. He sees Rita change, yet he cannot change. He is emotionally moribund, incapable of expressing his feelings – struggling manfully, yet failing pitifully, to tell Rita that he loves her.

And this, I feel, is the pathos that is central to this brilliant play. At the beginning Frank is the man of importance and Rita is under his spell and insignificant but by the end the roles have completely reversed. Rita has become a success, a social butterfly, a learned woman – but at what cost? Is her life at the end, under the courtship of yet another man who she doesn’t care for, any better than the life with which she started? It seems that Rita will never fit in, she is destined to be a traveller throughout life rather than a settler.

Willy Russell is a brilliant wordsmith, and at its joyous heart is a paeon to the importance of education yet he also seems to say that more important than learning, than certificates is emotion and love itself. And these can so easily be lost in the struggle for the materialistic possessions that modern society deems to be of more importance.

It is a beautiful play and the Lowry give it a triumphant production. There is some great 80s music to accompany the scene changes as well and these brought back some great memories.

Educating Rita is on at the Lowry Theatre, Salford until 12th October. I urge you to see it and have no hesitation in giving it the big, big five tortoise shell rating!

The Lightning Child at The Globe Theatre

I have had a whirlwind few months in which I have become a bona fide bestseller. My thriller novel, The Girl On The Bus, stayed in the UK top 100 bestsellers chart for over nine weeks and is still the number one selling hardboiled thriller on Amazon. And all of that for less than a pound!

Self promotion is great, but sometimes you have to take a break from life as a writer and spend a little ‘me time’. It was with this in mind that I went to the Globe Theatre in London to see ‘The Lightning Child’, a new musical by Che Walker and Arthur Darvill.

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If you have never been to the Globe Theatre then you are missing out. It is an authentic reconstruction of one of the theatres that Shakespeare himself used at the turn of the 17th Century. There is a large open air space for standing spectators and wooden benches arranged in the round. Be warned that umbrellas are strictly forbidden so if you do decide to go and see The Lightning Child (it runs until October 12th) then be prepared to be rained on. The Globe is in London’s Bankside area, just down from the Tate Modern and its uniqueness helps to create a real atmosphere of conviviality and fun.

You may think that The Globe will be a bit stuffy, that it will be Shakespeare-heavy? Well, rest assured that The Lightning Child will prove you wrong. It is loosely based upon the ancient Greek drama ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides (teacher says to her pupils: ‘give me a sentence with Euripides in’, little Johnny replies: ‘Euripides trousers, you pay for dese trousers!’). And the emphasis here is on the word loosely. As in: ‘The Daily Mail is loosely a newspaper’.

How loose is Walker and Darvill’s interpretation? Well it begins, for no apparent reason, with Neil Armstrong arguing with his wife. He dons spacesuit, climbs a ladder and meets the man in the moon who acts as the emcee of the show, or a version of the Greek chorus if you like. This character is called ‘Ladyboy’. There is no subtlety to this show. There is no structure to this show. There is no sense to this show.

Ladyboy himself constantly tells the audience not to try to make sense of what is happening, urging the crowd to ‘figure it out on the train home’. It would have to be a long train ride to figure this one out.

Somewhere amidst the chaos there is a re-telling of The Bacchae – that most bloody of Greek tragedies. Around this tale of Pentheus and his demented pursuit of Dionysus there are several seemingly unrelated strands. No, let’s be fair – they are unrelated. There is nothing to bring them back to the main plot. Two heroin addicts adopt and then kill a dog. A neurotic housemate mutilates the fingers of a concert pianist. Most bizarre of all is a completely out of kilter section about the romance between Billie Holiday and Lester Young. The play as a whole is far from dull but this particular sequence was dull and incongruous. The only possible explanation is that Walker had at one point produced a biopic about Billie Holiday, had it rejected but was determined to resurrect it, or at least part of it, at some point. It should have remained sleeping.

Castor Semenya also makes an appearance. There are lots of references to trans gender issues, and more cross dressing than you can shake a stick at. There is also foul language of the filthiest kind and lashings of blood, sex and graphic torture. It was all most enjoyable. Or do I mean that it was almost enjoyable? You will have to work that one out on the train home.

The cast had a great time, and there were some excellent performances – particularly from Clifford Samuel as a muscle bound Pentheus fighting to contain his feminine side and from Tommy Coleman as a Hendrix like Dionysus.

Be warned, that this is in no way a play for children. Some parts may be too shocking for the more sensitive out there. The scenes where Pentheus is ripped apart by the Bacchae and by his own mother was particularly gruesome – no part is left unwaved. Another bizarre scene follows where a Nigella Lawson like figure makes love with the carcass of a deer. Two people fainted on the night that I was there – one in each half. That will teach me to wear my Hai Karate aftershave. Most of the audience though loved it, hooting and hollering throughout.

And I loved it as well in a special way, because I love chaos. I love boundary pushing. I love unpredictability. Make no mistake that this is a shambles of a show, but what a glorious shambles it is.

So how would I rate The Lightning Child? I can’t give it one rating. If you are a Shakespeare fan it gets a zero tortoise shell rating. If you want to see something modern yet cohesive with a good plot it gets a three tortoise shell rating. If you want to see something completely out there, in a fantastic location that is fabulously bonkers then it gets a five tortoise shell rating.

I’m glad that I saw The Lightning Child and if you aren’t prone to fainting then I think that you would be as well.

Review: Too Clever By Half at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Apologies, Tortoise Soup fans, for the lack of recent updates. I have been run off my feet thanks to the outstanding success of my thriller novel ‘The Girl On The Bus’ – now in its seventh week in the Amazon UK top 100 bestsellers! It has been an incredible journey and in my next blog I will tell you how I did it and what it’s like being a bestselling writer.

Today, however, I feel compelled to tell you about a play that I saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre – ‘Too Clever By Half’ by the Russian playwright Alexandr Ostrovsky. I had a free a pair of free tickets for this show (thanks to Clare at the Royal Exchange) but even if I had paid I would have come away with a smile stretched across my face.

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This is a little known play by a little known playwright but don’t let that put you off. When we think of Russian playwrights we think, of course, of Chekhov and then of Gogol and Pushkin but in his homeland Ostrovsky is equally as famous. Hopefully this production will go some way to enhancing his reputation in the UK.

Too Clever By Half is a comedy that was written in 1868. The producers have updated this setting to the 1960s and this doesn’t detract one bit – in fact it gives us a chance to hear some wonderful 60s sounds from the likes of Small Faces and The Rolling Stones.

Don’t expect a standard Victorian era comedy here. Ostrovsky injects a large dollop of the absurd and the whole seems to be indebted to English restoration comedies. This is no bad thing at all. People climb out of tiger skins and giant stuffed bears. Lovers transform into horses before our eyes, complete with fences to gallop over.

The whole thing is done with such speed and precision that is impossible not to get carried along by the wit and passion. It is uproariously funny in parts, especially in some of the physical theatre brought to a climax in the scene where Nick Haverson (as a short sighted Kroutistsky) rolls on the floor with a tiger skin rug under the impression that he is being attacked by a dog.

The play is timeless in that it could have been set yesterday or a thousand years ago. It deals with an old story: ambitious young man will stop at nothing to advance himself socially, tricking all around him on his way up the ladder. Ostrovsky, and the wonderful young cast, elevate this premise into a truly wonderful theatrical experience. This is possibly the funniest evening I have ever had in a theatre. The incredible love scene at the end of the first half has to be seen to be believed but i won’t spoil the surprise for you!

Particular praise must go to Dyfan Dwyfor in the lead role of Gloumov. This is a scheming, spiteful young man who thinks nothing of betraying the people who love him. Despite this, thanks to Dwyfor, we in the audience cannot help warming to him and as the denouement approaches we find ourselves rooting for him against our will.

Well done yet again to the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. At a time when many playhouses are playing it as safe as houses, they are not afraid to take artistic chances. This has paid off in spades, and this exhilarating, fantastically absurd and riotously funny play gets a five tortoise shell rating from me! The play runs until 17th August and I heartily recommend this as a summertime treat.

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!