PUSH Festival 2018 #1

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HOME, Manchester.

12 – 19 January 2018.

In the first seven days of HOME’s annual PUSH Festival I managed to see eleven shows in various stages of development. Here are my thoughts on some of the theatre I’ve seen so far.

It’s worth noting that quite a few of the things I enjoyed most were being shared for the first time and they will no doubt evolve and change before being fully staged in the future.

Josh Coates & Ali Pidsley’s ‘Untitled A.I. Project Interactive Workshop‘ had lots of promise (and a very engaging performance from Coates). Attempting to explore the nature of work via a robot’s inner thought processes, it is funny and heart-breaking in equal measure. In the brief after-show discussion, it was interesting to hear how audience members saw themes in the show that the company hadn’t initially intended. Definitely one to watch out for as a more developed work.

Even as a scratch performance Elmi Ali’s ‘Said the Seismograph About the Tremor‘ confidently and distinctively mixes words and music to create a hypnotizing meditation on love, loss and life in 1970’s Somalia and present day Manchester. Like a carefully orchestrated stream of consciousness, the voices of two men (one dignified and lyrical, the other cheeky and awkward) share space with a third voice bringing shape and substance to the country of Somalia itself. Even in this early stage of development it is a show rich with possibilities. On the basis of this scratch performance and the recent preview of Water Seeds Not Stones at Contact last year, Ali is becoming one of the most exciting artists currently developing work in Manchester.

Offstage Theatre’s rehearsed reading of Ed Edwards’ play ‘The Political History of Smack and Crack‘ showcased a play that is crying out for someone to take it from page to stage right now. It’s a powerful story of addiction that shows the human cost while shining a spotlight on the sickening political and historic context. Filled with revealing detail yet without a word wasted it was brought to life by a couple of gritty authentic performances (Eve Steele and William Fox).  It pulsates with a genuine sense of place and you can almost smell the streets of Manchester as the story flows back and forward across time.

David Judge’s new play ‘Pan Lid‘ also felt very rooted in its Mancunian setting. Developed as part of Talawa Writers’ Programme, Judge was joined by Anita Pandolfo and Emily Stott to perform a rehearsed reading of the script. On one level, the tale of strong-willed brassy women and a young man struggling to fit in with traditional models of masculinity, belongs to a strand of Northern realist writing stretching all the way back to Shelagh Delaney. Yet its examination of the intricacies of both racial and sexual identities adds something else. The dialogue crackles, characterisation is finely judged and it has real depth. Good-humoured and often very funny, the writing handles the central relationships with a touching tenderness. It’s also not afraid to confront difficult issues and realities. Occasionally, the script deviates from dialogue and Judge fires off bursts of inner thought or experiments with poetic expression, and those moments feel especially powerful.

Rosie Fleeshman’s ‘Narcissist in the Mirror‘ attracted sell-out audiences and an outbreak of standing ovations.  This is a multi-faceted feast of a show. What starts out masquerading as a stagey confessional life-story of a successful young actress heads off in several directions. It teases with allusions to Fleeshman’s real life thespian family, and keeps us guessing throughout. Is it autobiographical, is it a straightforward story of naked ambition, or is it just an out-of-work actor’s fantasy? There’s even some sparring with an imaginary therapist. The monologue format is kept fresh with regular changes in style and tone – there’s spoken word, rhyming verse, snatches of conversation and audience interaction. Taking in topics as diverse as millennial dating, feminism, men, grammar and even the very nature of acting, it is funny, poignant and questioning. Fleeshman never misses a beat as the thoughts, ideas, voices and moods flow towards the show’s conclusion. Her performance dazzles with its force and conviction. Is Fleeshman’s Narcissus actually looking in that mirror or holding it up to her audience?

YESYESNONO had two shows at PUSH. ‘5 Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist‘ was much-admired at Edinburgh last year and has already been widely reviewed elsewhere. On the surface it’s ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’ updated for a more complex age. Of course, it’s more than that. Sam (Ward) may be able to whittle down his website ad in search of a cock-sucking experience to a mere 11 words but that doesn’t mean it will automatically attract the perfect meeting. The dispiriting saga of floppy van drivers, unwanted advances and love-sick students is far from erotic. Sam claims that he just wants sex without complications but perhaps there is a reason for that? As he gamely shares his stories of sexual encounters, carefully interacts with audience volunteers and explores shortcuts to intimacy, Sam gradually seems more vulnerable. One story he tells is hard to shake off. After sex at one man’s home, he returns from the bathroom to find the living room door closed firmly shut. Even in the face of this cold dismissal he feels the urge to knock on the door to politely say goodbye, to connect in some small way. It’s a surprisingly sad snapshot of a world where technology links us to ever larger numbers of people and yet moments of genuine intimacy seem increasingly difficult to achieve.

YESYESNONO also debuted their new show [insert slogan here]. I confess when I saw it in development at the Royal Exchange’s Co:LAB festival last year I found it frustratingly flat. And yet in its current form it is (so far) the show I’ve most enjoyed at PUSH. You can read my thoughts about in a separate review as I had a lot more to say about it than I expected…

At this point, I’ve not yet seen Monkeywood Theatre’s ‘The Manchester Project‘ in full. However there have been excerpts showcased before each PUSH performance in Space 2. It’s an inspired idea and also mirrors how we usually discover the cities in which we live – one place at a time and often unexpectedly. Of those seen so far, both Eve Steele’s lovesong to the City Centre and Reuben Johnson’s dextrous wrestle with his feelings for Little Hulton succeed most in standing alone as pieces of work.

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