Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: High Tea in Wonderland, Manchester International Festival

Performances that involve food make me nervous. One of the reasons I became a food writer was a predilection for the theatre of the restaurant, the entrances and exits in the stage set of the dining room, the sensory drama running counterpoint to the little dramas unfolding at every table and behind the kitchen doors. In my experience, adding actual theatre to proceedings can make for cringey times.

But ex-Aumbry chef Mary-Ellen McTague's name in connection with High Tea in Wonderland is enough to make me risk a food/theatre mashup. The chef who built a national reputation in two-knocked together terraces in Prestwich has always seemed like the kind of person who is rightly careful about the projects she will attach her name to. And I don't mind telling you I am excited like a giddy little girl about the opening of her new restaurant in the Roadhouse site this Autumn. Even if the theatre was shocking, I knew we'd eat well.

Threatening to upstage the food and the acting was the setting, the upper chambers of the neo-Gothic Manchester Museum, where its botanical collections are stored. We were granted rare access to the garrety attic bits of the spectacular building: curved ceilings, secret tower rooms, wallsfull of ancient wood storage drawers and baize green catalogue boxes with the odd taxidermied animal grinning from an  unlikely corner. At last, I have found my dream office suite!

We were led around by a very dapper white rabbit, pelting up the stairs after him into a series of rooms where we encountered the characters from Carroll's story in proper sequence. My favourite was the turbaned Catepillar, an actor I recognised from something but can't place. Her languid take on the hookah-puffing master of psychedelia was spot on, her barbed exchanges with the audience keeping us all delightfully wrongfooted. It well judged; no ghastly dinner theatre here but just enough of a taste of performance to keep us engaged.

And of course, there was the food. We started off with a tea party, sweet little cakes and teapots arranged on a long work table amid flowers and botanical samples in a display that would give Cath Kidston multiple orgasms. Then in each new stop on the tour, there was something tasty to eat or drink with a clever link back to Carroll. In the catepillar's lair we got a winning combination of mushroom consomme and a delicate pink macaroon decorated with the indelicate words BITE ME. You expected it to be sweet, but it turned out to be beetroot flavoured and filled with chicken livers.

The servers broke character to tell us about the butter content in the astonishingly rich meat pies (don't ask) and to tell us how the image of Mary-Ellen on a playing card got onto our dessert with the Queen of Hearts... Okay, look, I'm not going to go into detail about every single thing we ate, and why should I? You can't go into a restaurant and order it. All that's left are fond memories and a single teaspoon in my drawer with the words STEAL ME etched on its surface. Just following instructions.

Image courtesy Mary-Ellen McTague

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review: Invisible Dot Cabaret, Manchester International Festival

I can't really remember there ever being much good comedy at MIF before. This year it's like someone there woke up and remembered that it existed. And thank god they did. The Festival's onslaught of serious heavyweight highbrow culture (Three words: Hans Ulrich Obrist) needs a bit of leavening now and then. And of course there's a good audience for comedy in Manchester, so this was a shrewd move, though it's unclear how this fits in to the festival's all-new-work ethos, which has come to seem a bit like something that applies for big ticket items but not the gigs and performances booked around the edges. Yeah, okay, they've just got successful comedy night Invisible Dot Cabaret up from London to curate a run, but when they're putting on stuff this good, what do we really care? And with Edinburgh not long after MIF, it's likely that at least some of it was relatively new material as pretty much everyone we saw there was heading up north to do a show.

By all accounts we were lucky with the changing lineup the night we went; a friend who saw them another night earlier in the run said it wasn't that great. But we got James Acaster hosting the whole thing and starting off with a brilliant set that showed off his mordant wit and intensely likeable stage persona. He stitched the evening together beautifully and proved a very generous compere to the last. Following Acaster was a winning set from the excellent Gein's Family Giftshop, a hometown comedy trio that's clearly well on its way to a national profile. Things get pretty dark in their little world, and it's a twisted, uncomfortable universe that I'll certainly be looking to revisit at the earliest opportunity.

My favourite act of the night was the deeply weird BEARD (Rosa Robson and Matilda Wnek) who started off with a surreal, near-silent physical gag, and then moved into an astonishingly smart and nervy set that had the audience rapt. There's a lot of white space in their material; they use silence and tension in fascinating ways. Following them was Tom Basden, writer of The Crocodile which was also showing as part of the festival, Basden came onstage with a guitar and sang very silly songs and gently mocked Mancunians, all of which went over extremely well, bringing the audience back down to earth and sending us out into the night with a smile.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Neck of the Woods, Manchester International Festival

A woman stands at the edge of the forest. No, a girl. There’s a wolf lurking about and all that the presence of a predator in the dark suggests. We’ve all heard this one before. Neck of the Woods, a strangely uncategorisable theatre performance falling somewhere between live art, one woman show, concert and reading, wasn't entirely successful, though I didn’t hate it as much as some. Overall, I was glad I saw it, though my attention started to wander at points. But there are many things about the production, directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, that troubled me.

The performance began in a pitch darkness that stretched on for so long the audience started to get anxious, with the sound of a woodcutter… sloooowly… felling a tree crashing in our eardrums. It was a bold and effective start; ending the same way felt lazy. No question, the ingredients here are top of the line: The presence of Charlotte Rampling is enough to get me anywhere, along with roughly 75 percent of the audience.  Pianist Hélène Grimaud played solo piano music riffing on famous works and overlapping in the way you imagine the text was meant to. And Sacred Sounds Choir, a Manchester-based outfit formed as part of a previous MIF, didn’t sing but provided the soundtrack, producing all of the sounds of the forest: distant wolves howling, spooked birds and wind in the trees, while their white-gloved hands writhed in the dark. Lovely. 

But there was no cohesion to the story. A large portion of the script (written by Veronica Gonzalez Peña) was simply Rampling reading a retelling of Red Riding Hood. While being told a bedtime story by our Auntie Charlotte is a delicious proposition, we know that story. Us knowing that story should have freed the writer up to expand on it, take off from it, make some art to do with it, like Angela Carter’s short story  In the Company of Wolves, wonderfully adapted for television by Neil Jordan, or even Catherine Storr's Clever Polly and The Stupid Wolf – but this never happened. The other fractured narratives presented alongside Little Red Riding Hood were weak, feeble things that alluded to themes of child abuse but were too oblique to really connect.

And when you’re in a situation where the dramatic action consists of a woman telling stories alone on stage, those stories better work. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if the music is amazing and the sound is incredible and your actress is a Legend of the British Theatre and there is ultra-high-quality staging and lighting and costuming – even if all of those things are unquestionably brilliant, your audience will leave the forest feeling a little flat.

Sure, you can’t always hit it out of the park, and a festival consisting mostly of new commissions can always defend itself by citing the edgy, still-evolving nature of its work. In response, we’re expected to preen over the city’s identity as artistic lab for the world, as refined versions of MIF productions move on to New York or Paris. This would be easier to swallow if we weren’t being charged finished-article prices. A Neck of the Woods ticket cost £35. I went with a friend, who paid full price because MIF’s imprint meant quality. In this case, it didn't. (In an even more dispiriting corner of the programme, Bjork tickets were £45, which seems bewilderingly expensive for what is essentially a standard album tour gig.)

In the end, it comes down to respect; respect for the audience, and respect for the artists, performers and venues involved in making the works. Many crimes are committed in the name of art, but why should we indulge them? If the incredibly experienced actor in a one-woman show doesn’t get the script in time to learn her lines, there’s a problem with the artistic process. If the artist responsible for it reacts to bad reviews by walking through a theatre with an axe down his trousers and going on a rampage that damages the building and himself, it can’t be waved away as ‘artistic temperament’. No doubt all at MIF are relieved to be hightailing it out of this neck of the woods. No wolves here after all, just one very big turkey,

Friday, July 24, 2015

Live Literature in Manchester: Summer 2015 (or what's left of it)

Our new independent bookstore/cafe Chapter One Books is open Tues-Sat 8am-7pm, on the corner of Dale and Lever Streets in the Northern Quarter.

You know how things slow down in the summer? Not here. Nope, Manchester’s literary scene never goes on vacation. The big news is that we’re getting a new performance night. Crack literary magazine BareFiction are launching a regular night in the next month or so. Editor Robert Harper says they’ll be inviting poets, fictioneers and theatre people to get involved. Follow them on Twitter or Facebook to stay in the loop. I’ve heard other rumblings about new literary events launching in the city, but cannot divulge them yet. 

It’s Edinburgh preview season, so warm-up shows are go: First, Fat Roland’s made a show called Kraftwerk Badger Spaceship (using his patented Fat Roland brand random word generator) and he's previewing it at Gullivers on Sunday July 26. Then writing duo Jasmine Chatfield and Lenni Sanders aka Dead Lads preview their poetry play Nuclear Roomates at 3MT on Tues July 28. Also, Sarah Jasmon launches her debut novel The Summer of Secrets at the aforementioned Chapter One Books on Sat 14 August with support readings from Jo Bell and Tania Hershman and Benjamin Judge and Graeme Shimmin followed by an 1980s themed disco. All of these events are FREE and will be FUN.

Bad Language have announced a  show with comedy duo Molly Naylor and John Osborne Sept 28, a set at Kendal Calling, a 45 date stadium tour and plans to invade Belgium and install a puppet government. Their regular night’s on Weds 29 July with Kirstin Innes, too. Sheesh.

First Draft have welcomed Harry Jelley to the Captain’s Table and introduced a new format – inviting contributions written to a prompt – with the next evening on the theme of 'All Shoved Together' August 17 at The Castle. Rad live storytelling night Tales of Whatever is down to hold its next event 12 August at time of writing, but check on Twitter to confirm closer to the date.

And then there’s our live nonfiction night, The Real Story. (See how I waited to mention my night last? I wasn't raised in a barn, you know.) The next one is Weds 19 August at Gulliver’s with headliner Michael Symmons Roberts, the Forward and Whitbread Prize winning poet who also happens to be a pretty wonderful essayist; he'll be reading from essay collection Edgelands. Rounding out the bill are a diverse group of writers including novelist Marli Roode, Nick Thompson, Adam Farrer and me & my co-pilot Nija Dalal. 

If you’re curious about The Real Story, creative nonfiction and the writing/live lit scene in Manchester, Nija and I are going to be talking about all of that on Ella Gainsborough and Kieren King’s radio show on August 13 from 8-9pm. Kieren and Ella run the ace Salford spoken word night Evidently, and they’re just launching this weekly dose of spoken words on Fab Radio International. Check it out.

And finally, look out for the announcement of the full Manchester Literature Festival programme going out here and here and here around the second week in August. The Festival is happening 12-25 October and it celebrates its tenth birthday this year. It’s going to be extra good.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Send in the clowns: Carnivals, funfairs and Coney Island

The Lost Carnival rolled into town amid much fanfare, teasing us with tales of golden feathers and phoenixes and mythical circuses cursed to roam the earth – but we could save them! As you’d expect from Wild Rumpus, which runs the excellent Just So Festival every summer, it was a fantastic event perfectly pitched at its target audience of adventurous families and wide-eyed primary age kids. Mine were terrified by the stage shows but transfixed by the dancers and strolling clowns, while enough installations that might be described as “weird arty shit” (a tree full of writhing nymphs, etc) were scattered about to keep them interested. And they spent so long in the mermaids’ hut playing with sand and listening to sea stories that they practically grew fins. Good and reasonably-priced food and drink meant the adults didn’t mind so much about spending hours in a damp field in Bury. We hear it might be back next year. We'll be there.

Every funfair has its dark side, the shadow that throws all that bright levity into sharper relief. Just think about clowns: all jokey one minute, creepy as shit the next.  And that dark side was thoroughly explored in The Funfair, HOME’s much anticipated first production in its new… oh, don’t mind if I do!… home. I’m no sucker for happy endings and escapism, but this was so unremittingly black that it could be used as a medical-grade depressant. It was like being coshed.

The plot lost its way before the end of the first act, and then chaos reigned. True, it was cleverly staged, but no matter how cool the thing looks or what a twisted Brecht-meets-Hairspray vibe it evokes, you don’t want to spend time in the company of this company if the story isn't good. This was, I think, a failure of writing. Who knows what they were trying to do? Scriptwriter Simon Stephens (adapting an obscure German expressionist play from 1932) assembled a gang of clichéd character tropes – gold-digging glamour girl, unprincipled lowborn high roller, cruel aristocrat, ne’er do well crook. But then he never got around to subverting them. The only two characters with a bit of dimension to them - Cash and Esther - had a moving scene at the end, but what small bit of redemption that provided felt like it came at too dear a cost.

If you need cheering up, Coney Island is a good place to go. Set partly there, Lonesome is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Made in 1928 at precisely the moment when silent films were poised to give way to talkies, it’s mainly silent with a few sections of speech. I hadn’t been expecting these, at a special screening of the film at HOME, and they came as an unwelcome shock, so immersed do you get in the language of music, overemphasised facial expressions and a few elliptical stitches of text. The film is a sweetly naïve New York love story, very of its time. The specially commissioned live score, by Robin Richards of Dutch Uncles, was beautifully performed live by the composer and a small company of RNCM students who were also involved in composition. A rarely-seen classic film combined with a new artistic commission, made right here in Manchester; it's exactly what we’d hoped to find at our new multi-form arts venue, and an undertaking beyond the scope of our dearly departed Cornerhouse.

I do miss it, though. Okay, I said it. So sue me.

Photo credit Brett Harkness

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Anna Karenina, The Royal Exchange

I can understand why someone might try to adapt Anna Karenina for the stage, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it. You’ve got to cut a lot or the play would be 27 hours long. Sadly, the cuts they’ve made in this Royal Exchange/West Yorkshire Playhouse production are mortal wounds. Gone is the deep texture and grand scale that make Tolstoy’s book one of the greatest ever written – the complex motivations and insights into characters’ inner lives, the engrossing philosophical asides, the whole beautiful maddening mess of human society. We’re left instead with the predictable tale of a bored society wife, an ambitious young soldier and a series of really bad decisions. 

The first scene, in which Anna manages to make peace between her philandering brother Stiva and his long-suffering wife, Dolly, is absolutely crucial. It establishes Anna as a kind and wise woman, someone of character – which makes the tragedy of her downfall really hit home. But Ony Uhiara’s Anna seemed only fit for making a scene, all shrill hysterics and jerky, nervous energy. I just didn’t buy her reassuring the excellent Dolly about anything. 

It was the same throughout the whole play: I couldn’t get past the disservice Jo Clifford’s adaptation does its title character. Anna’s agonizing over the decision to abandon her young son Seriozha for her lover is a major plot point, probably one of the main reasons she decides to off herself, and yet here her son is barely mentioned. In the book, she also becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child early in their affair, which has bearing on how and when she decides to leave her husband and on the lovers’ ensuing relationship – here it simply doesn’t happen. We aren’t encouraged to understand Anna or identify with her, so we can only pity her. The audience is left on the outside, with little to do for the next couple of hours but admire the (admittedly superb) coats the cast are wearing.

John Cummins’ bumbling Levin, who provided most of the evening’s few laughs, stood out in the small ensemble, directed by Ellen McDougall. While the design gets points for imagination – metal rails, rolling cars and plastic panels are used in inventive, occasionally gimmicky ways – it just didn’t work for me. And having characters linger onstage in the background when their scenes are over might be an attempt to disrupt the theatrical space, but it just confused things. It was a worthy endeavour with some memorable moments, but for me, the only level on which this succeeded is as a reminder of how bad it sucked to be a woman in Tolstoy’s Russia. That, at least, is something we can all agree on.

Anna Karenina is on at The Royal Exchange through 2 May, and transfers to West Yorkshire Playhouse 9 May- 13 June. Tickets from £10.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Two new independent bookshops in Manchester

Good news for the city's readers: if all goes according to plan, we'll get two independent bookstores in Manchester this spring. Weird, huh? We haven't had one since forever, and now, suddenly, we're getting two. It's kind of like those two new cereal cafes we're getting, but without the business concept that makes you want to stab yourself in the eye repeatedly with a spoon.

Chapter One Books

The first of the two is already being installed in the Northern Quarter. Sister-owners Christine Cafun (above) and Lyndsy Kirkman come to the book trade from the beauty industry and the NHS respectively. They've taken that long-vacant storefront on the corner of Dale and Lever Street, fronted by a pocket park with a few benches, and are completely overhauling the place. Cafun says they're lobbying the city to let them keep the large trees currently throwing shade there, which are due to be chopped down (guess they decided the Northern Quarter was leafy enough with all those mature trees around. Mmmhmm.)

Inside, there'll be nearly 5,000 feet of bookstore for people of all ages, including a cafe and a 50-capacity event space that the owners hope will be used for book launches and readings as well as more offbeat live lit shenangigans. Also, maybe some typewriters. I'm kinda excited about the typewriters. They're aiming to be open around April 1. You can follow them on Twitter @chapter1, and if you have a good idea for the shop or several boxes of unused typewriter ribbon to donate to the cause email them on somethingnew @

Aspidistra Books

Aspiwhatnow? As-pi-di-stra. It's a plant. The name comes from the Orwell novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which was partly inspired by working in a bookshop. It's also a book about throwing off the shackles of the nine-to-five, which is exactly what proprietor Joseph Parkinson is doing: after years in the charity sector, he's following his bookstore-owning dream.

As the Orwell connection suggests this will be a shop with a political and literary bent, and according to Parkinson, a strong interest in LGBT literature. Parkinson also likes the idea of hosting readings alongside casual literary-themed events like 'speed dating with Hemingway' {insert joke about Hemingway's love life here.} He's currently looking for a premises, probably in the Northern Quarter or the Village, and hopes to be open by May. Parkinson wants us to tell him what we want in a bookshop. Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter (@AspidstraBooks), or help by filling in this survey.

Independent bookstores are great, aren't they? We definitely want some around. You know how we get to keep these, and maybe get some more? By actually buying books from them. That's how.