A bit of culture

Over the past few weeks we’ve been busy soaking up a bit of culture

The Thursday of my week off work we had tickets for a production at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. We’d planned to combine that with a lower level walk in the Borrowdale Valley, but plans had to change after J sprained her foot. Luckily she’d recovered enough to have a look around Keswick before a pre-theatre meal in the Fellpack restaurant

Our theatre tickets were for a performance of The Ladykillers, a play based on the 1955 Ealing Comedy a favourite film of mine that starred Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. The play is based on the film, not the other way round and it had first been produced back in 2011 at Liverpool Playhouse, starring Peter Capaldi.

The plot followed that of the film, with a few differences. As with previous visits to the Theatre by the Lake we enjoyed the production. Is was well acted, particularly Dominic Gately as the Professor, who brought a real comic touch to the role. Devesh Kishore wasn’t as sinister as Herbert Lom as Louis – who could be – but I thought Luke Murphy made more of the part of Harry than Peter Sellers.

This week the weather mid week has been awful with heavy rain (we didn’t get it anywhere near as bad a further east and south, mind). We had tickets for two events – a play at the Royal Exchange on Wednesday and a musical performance at the Halle’s small venue in Ancoats on Thursday so we braved the rain and drove into Manchester two days on the trot.

Another pre-theatre meal, this time at Mowgli’s in the Corn Exchange

Light Falls a new play by Simon Stephens, with music by Jarvis Cocker, at the Royal Exchange, has had good reviews and was almost sold out, even on a wet Wednesday evening.

Connecting five relatives in five disparate English towns, from Blackpool to Durham, LIGHT FALLS is a richly layered play about life in the face of death, about how our love survives us after we’ve gone – and about how family, community and kindness help the North survive.

Royal Exchange website

As with just about everything we’ve seen at the Royal Exchange it was a good production with some excellent performances by the cast. Mind you, the first half in particular really lived up to the saying that “it’s grim up north”. It started by somebody dying before moving round the north of England to “visit” her husband and offspring who all had their own problems. Things resolved themselves a little at the end at the funeral and the ending was a little more optimistic.

Thursday evening and we were back in Manchester to see a performance by a young Polish pianist Hania Rani ( short for Raniszewska) at the Halle St Michaels venue, a converted church, in Ancoats. I’d come across her via Spotify, which has a “Discover Weekly” feature, where tracks are suggested based on your playlists. One week it had included one of her piano pieces from her recently released LP, Esja, and as I liked it I followed the link and explored the LP and some of her other music, including her LP with cellist Dobrawa Czocher.

Looking at Hania’s website I spotted that she was performing in Manchester at the start of a European tour so decided to get along. I had to buy the tickets online and was surprised to see that the start time was given as 7 p.m., which seemed rather early. Turned out that it was! We arrived in Manchester just after 6, parked up and walked across the city centre and Northern Quarter towards Ancoats, stopping off for a drink in a bar. We arrived at the venue at about quarter to 7 to discover that they were still conducting sound checks and that the doors were not due to open at 7:30. An apology would have been nice but the guy on the door seemed indignant that we’d turned up early (as had other people). So, a little dischuffed, we went back to the Northern Quarter for another drink.

I really enjoyed the concert, though. It’s a small venue, rather like the Liverpool Philharmonic’s “Music Room”, but it was pretty full. Hania played a fairly long set – about an hour and 20 minutes, without a break. I recognised many of the pieces from her LP but she also included a number of other pieces including 3 songs.

Hania is originally from Gadansk but now shares her time in Warsaw and Berlin. Her label, Gondwana Records, is Manchester based, which is why her tour was starting there. I think that her style is best described as minimalist classical – rather like the music of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Max Richter – with jazz and other influences.

Here’s a couple of her pieces, both from her LP

and here’s a piece performed with Dobrawa Czocher

There is a light that never goes out

“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, there may that country boast its Constitution and its Government” ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Last Saturday we went over to Manchester to see a matinee performance of the current play at The Royal Exchange. The theme of There is a light that never goes out : scenes from the Luddite rebellion is given away in the title – it’s about the Luddites, based on events in Westhoughton (only a few miles from where I’m writing this) and Manchester in 1812.

Luddite is used as a derogative term these days – for people seemingly opposed to progress. But in the early 19th century progress and new technology was putting people out of work, driving down living standards and forcing men, women and children into working long hours at backbreaking work in the new factories and mills. Ordinary working people were powerless – they didn’t have the vote – so the only way they had to strike back was with violence directed at the source of their oppression – the factories and the machinery they contained.

The play is based on factual material – newspaper articles, police reports and eyewitness accounts – studied by the authors and cast. So the story is told from the perspective of the participants – the workers themselves and, also, one of the factory owners who agitated for reform – for the employers but certainly not the workers.

It’s a modern production so isn’t a straight story told scene by scene like a historical drama on TV or in the cinema. The cast take several roles, costumes and props are minimal and music and lighting are used to create the atmosphere and the noise of the factory. The actors speak the words of the workers, but there’s improvisation too using modern language and slang.

The Royal Exchange itself (the building, that is) also features in the play – a protest meeting held there on 8 April 1812, turned into a riot.

Ultimately the Luddites were defeated and they were viciously suppressed by a brutal state. Their cause was, essentially hopeless, as it was impossible for them to stop the march of technology. However, in Manchester and the nearby towns, the spark of rebellion wasn’t extinguished. And neither was the brutality of the state. Only 7 years later, on Monday 16 August 1819, a mass meeting of workers demanding Parliamentary reform, held on Peters Field in Manchester was attacked by cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry with sabres drawn. 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. A massacre that became known as Peterloo. Another defeat for the workers, but struggles continued and eventually their demands were realised. But it took a long time and wasn’t achieved without many other struggles. It wasn’t given to us on a plate.

There’s a lot of events taking place in Manchester at the moment commemorating Peterloo – the play is part of that, I guess in that it celebrates Manchester radicalism. Before the play we called into Manchester City Art Gallery and had a look round the exhibition Get Together and Get Things Done which explores

with people the wider theme of the crowd through international historic and contemporary art and group activity, looking at how an art gallery can be shaped by the crowds that use them.

One of the photographs on display was of a Chartist rally on Kennington Common London in 1848 when people were still campaigning for the more or less the same demands being advocated at Peterloo, 29 years later.

I was struck by this print, produced by L’Atelier Populaire during the 1968 events in Paris.

Untitled

Today we are faced with a similar problem as in the 19th Century – the rampant charge of new technology. Is history repeating itself? How will people, and governments, respond?

The Industrial Revolution was the original Northern Powerhouse, but not everyone bought into the future it promised. Angry workers smashed the new machines and were written off as enemies of progress. Their 19th-century complaint, that bosses were using technology as an excuse to beat down the workers, resonates now more strongly than ever.

Royal Exchange website

Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

They say it’s grim up north, but it’s miserable in the East Midlands, at least that’s the picture D H Lawrence paints in the three plays that were performed simultaneously in the latest production by the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lawrence is best known for his novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields where he grew up. But he was also a playwright. The Royal Exchange have taken three of his plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law, and combined them into a single production. All three are domestic dramas set in the homes of mining families, in communities similar to that in which Lawrence grew up.

The Royal Exchange is a “theatre in the round” where the audience is close to the action. For this production the set took us inside the homes of the three families with plans for their houses marked out on the floor. The three plays were, in effect played simultaneously with the action interwoven, flitting from one home to the other in turn. However, when the action was taking place in one household, the actors in the other parts of the set weren’t still. Movement and domestic actions continued in the background. Personally I found this somewhat distracting. And although the set was meant to portray neighbouring houses in a mining village, there was little attempt at interaction between the three families. The production still largely came across as three seperate plays stitched togethor somewhat unconvincingly. One of the defining characteristics of mining villages was their sense of community and this was missing here.

As usual with the Royal Exchange the acting was extremely good. Anne-Marie Duff, well known from TV, is featured in the advertisments for the production and plays the female lead in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd gave a strong performance. Martin Marquez, as her husband, was a convincing drunkard. However, I was particularly impressed with Julia Ford who played the wife of a miner in A Collier’s Friday Night, who favoured her son over her daughter and husband. The son, like Lawrence, was a college boy and the play echoes the theme of Sons and Lovers. One quibble. I know quite a few people from the East Midlands and I have to say that the majority of the actors’ attempts at a Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire accent were far off the mark.

I’ve never been able to finish a D H Lawrence novel. I’ve tried, but I dislike his writing style and his themes. And these plays were not unlike his novels. Men are men and are hard, cruel and unsympathetic. His women are strong but badly treated by their men folk. Life is hard with little to smile about. Everyone is miserable. Lawrence’s work is about individuals who are doomed to a life of gloom and misery. There is no sense of the strong community and fellowship that was characteristic of mining areas. Little to suggest the determination to fight back. There is talk of a strike in The Daughter-in-Law, but the main emphasis is the domestic strife between the wife, her husband and her mother in law. No sign of the good things of life. It can’t be denied that life was hard in mining communities in the early 20th Century. However, there were little rays of sunshine that could bring joy and some happiness to the lives of the miners and their families. But not according to D H Lawrence.


So something of a “curate’s egg”. Largely unsympathetic characters and, for me, an unrealistic portrayal of traditional mining communities. But strong performances by an excellent cast.



The Skriker

On Thursday we went to see The Skriker, the latest production by The Royal Exchange in Manchester, written by Caryl Churchill and starring Maxine Peake in the lead role. The first two weeks of its run were part of the Manchester International Festival. However we saw it during it’s final week, after the Festival.

It wasn’t a conventional play to say the least. A cross between drama, dance, music and an art installation. Very surreal. The Manchester Festival is meant to be about presenting “edgy” and experimental works and this certainly fit the bill.

We had seats on the stage level, but there was no conventional seating. We weren’t sure what to expect. We were guided into the auditorium where there were long trestle type tables set out. We found seats and waited for the performance to begin. It all went dark and then suddenly we were surrounded by performers with actors walking on the tables. We were literally in the middle of it all with performers all around us and walking inches away from us on the tables where we were sat. During one scene when we were surrounded by a choir of zombies and with demons dancing all around the auditorium it felt like we were a part of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

The Skriker was some sort of “fairy” (in the original, sinister sense) or “shapeshifter” who tormented two young women. The dialogue made little sense and much of the Shriker’s speeches were long, rambling, nonsensical rants, incorporating and twisting common everyday sayings.

Maxine Peake was magnificent in a very demanding role. It was some feat memorising long speeches of nonsense. She came across as menacing, threatening, cunning and vulnerable, as the Skriker changed its form and character. The two other actresses playing principal parts, Laura Elsworthy as Josie and Juma Sharka as Lily, were also good. The rest of the cast were an ensemble dancing, singing, performing strange acrobatics as strange spirits and demons.

Was the Skriker real or was it a figment of Josie’s fevered imagination? She appeared to be in a mental institution at the beginning of the play, probably as a result of killing her baby. Who knows? None of us had a clue what was going on but it was an amazing experience.

Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

hamlet

I’m a bit late getting round to writing this up, but a couple of weeks ago we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange – Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays. I’ve never seen a production of the play before and only had a sketchy knowledge of the plot as it wasn’t one of our set plays when I was a school. I knew that Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, but the Royal Exchange had well known local actress Maxine Peake playing the lead role. She played the part as a man, though. However there were a few gender changes in the cast – Ophelia’s father had become her mother, one half of Rosencratz and Guildersterm was female as were the two gravediggers. These changes, increasing the number of female roles, didn’t seem to affect the story although, so I’ve been told, there were some omissions from the story with no mention of the war with Norway and Fortinbras, the King of Norway didn’t appear at the end to claim the crown when (spoiler alert!!!!) all the main characters had killed each other (or themselves). The latter was no surprise really, it was a Shakespeare tragedy after all.

The production is pretty much a sell out. We couldn’t get the tickets we wanted for a Saturday, our usual night for the theatre, so we had to settle for Tuesday night which meant going over to Manchester straight from work. I got something to eat before the play and as it was a long production I had a dash to the car park to make sure I was able to pay the discounted price –it goes back to the normal exorbitant cost after 5 hours. I made it with a few minutes to spare and would have been quite annoyed if I had to missed the deadline by just a few minutes. The charge would have more than doubled from the £5 discounted cost for theatregoers.

As usual a great production with an excellent cast. Barbara Marten, who was recently on TV in The Mill as Gertrude, John Shrapnel as Claudius were particularly strong. But the star was Maxine Peake. It’s not the first time a woman has played Hamlet – that honour probably goes to Sarah Bernhardt. But Maxine put her own stamp on the role. She played it as a man,nt a woman, and came across as a very convincing young man. Mad as a hatter, I thought, but was he?

Around the World in 2 hours

On Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange in Manchester – a new adaption of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a favourite book of mine when I was young having read it when I was about 10 years old ( a very long time ago).

AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be an excellent evening’s entertainment. The rest of the Royal Exchange’s recent season have been more mainstream plays, but this was a boisterous, light hearted production  with lots of mime, slapstick, acrobatics and at several points, they even managed to involve members of the audience. It was rather like a summer time pantomime at times. It was performed at a frantic pace by a small cast of only 8 who played over 200 parts whizzing us around the world in a tad over 2 hours. With minimal props they managed to convincingly portray various modes of travel by train, ship, wind powered sled and even an elephant.

All the cast were good. Michael Hugo was marvellous as Passepartout. Dennis Hardman an oily Inspector Fix and Andrew Pollard a tongue in cheek Phileas Fogg. 

The Accrington Pals at the Royal Exchange

THE ACCRINGTON PALS

Last Thursday evening we drove over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal Exchange, Peter Whelan’s “The Accrington Pals” directed by James Dacre. It’s set in Accrington during the First World War and all the characters are ordinary working people, mill workers and the like – the same sort of people as my ancestors, some of whom came from Darwen in East Lancashire. The production has been very popular. We’d normally go along at the weekend but couldn’t get two seats together for any of the Saturday night performances. And the theatre was almost full on Thursday.

The Pals were units of volunteers drawn from a particular community or, sometimes, profession. The idea was that this would generate a spirit of camaraderie as they fought together and that it would be easier to recruit men to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates. But they also died together and many communities were devastated when that happened to a large proportion of the volunteers in the slaughter that took place in the trenches of northern France and Belgium.

Accrington is well known as the smallest town to recruit a Pals Battalion. In fact only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley and the fourth from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Battalion was involved in the first wave over the top during the Battle of the Somme and they were slaughtered.  584 men out of 720 were either killed, wounded or missing.

About 7 years ago we visited the Somme during an Autumn break in North East France. We visited the part of the front at Serre where the Accrington  Pals (including the Chorley Company) were stationed. It was very moving to see the little graveyards create in No-mans land where the men were mowed down by the German machine gunners. There were remnants of the trench system and also a monument to  the Accrington Pals, made of Accrington red brick for which the town is famous (and a small monument to the Chorley Pals).

Humbercamps 015

The play itself was mainly set in the town, and featured a small group of men who had joined the Battalion and their women in their lives. The first act covered the period before the Pals left the town, their departure for training in Carnarvon in Wales and the lead up to them being transferred to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The second act was mainly set in the town and concentrated on the lives and reactions of the women “left behind”. There were a few short scenes featuring the Pals in the trenches and going over the top during the Battle of the Som
me. The play showed how lives and ideas were changed by the experience of war. It showed the strength of the women, (to be truthful Lancashire has always been a matriarchal society) how they became involved in “men’s jobs” and how they rebelled in a small way when , after the Somme, nobody would tell them what had happened to their husbands sons etc. They stormed the Town Hall to demand information and, finally got it (the initial rumour was that only 7 men had survived). The play also showed how the need to work together in the battalion caused some of the men to start to become politicised and question the status quo of Edwardian England. One of the Pals, the sensitive artist, Tom, talked about how there wasn’t a need for the money economy and how work should be shared with everyone doing their share of both interesting and tedious work.

THE ACCRINGTON PALS Production Photo 1

(Image source: Royal Exchange Theatre)

The production was very good too as it always is at the Royal Exchange. There were no big names, but the acting was of high quality. And all though none of the cast were from Accrington they all did a good job of talking with an East Lancashire accent. The set design was very good – reproducing a typical cobbled street from the period. And the actors had to endure being soaked by the regular “rain” showered down on them (it was meant to be Lancashire, after all) and I’m amazed that none of them slipped on the wet cobbles, particularly as some of them were wearing the clogs that were worn by Mill town workers during the early decades of the 20th Century.

Emma Lowndes was outstanding as May. She reminded me in terms of her looks, the way she talked and her presence of Jane Horrocks, who comes from Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley, East Lancashire, not too far from Accrington. Sarah Ridgeway as Eva was also good.  Rebecca Callard, as Sarah, and Laura Elsworthy, made a good double act introducing a little light hearted comedy into what is a serious story, and had some of the funniest lines. Of the men, I thought Gerard Kearns was particularly good and Simon Armstrong was a convincing Sergeant Major.

So another good night at the Royal Exchange, well worth braving the cold January night.