PUSH Festival 2018 #2

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HOME, Manchester.

20 – 27 January 2018.

Over the sixteen days of HOME’s annual PUSH Festival I saw a total of twenty pieces of work in various stages of development. I’ve already written about the first week, here are my thoughts on the shows I enjoyed in the second (and final) week.

One the strengths of this year’s PUSH has been the high standard of the rehearsed readings and scratch performances. The PlayBox Takeover day was a fine example of this. PlayBox is a writer-on-attachment programme offering bespoke residencies to three early-career North West playwrights to write a new play with support from Box of Tricks theatre company. Their Takeover included three rehearsed readings of new work. Furquan Akhtar’s ‘30 Days‘ is an increasingly complex story radiating out of a young man’s relationship with food and fasting. Patrick Hughes’s ‘Möbel‘ gradually unpacks a couple’s relationship as they assemble a load of IKEA furniture. While James Harker’s ‘Land’s End’ tracks the developing friendship between two girls who set off on road trip. All three plays felt as if they were at an advanced stage of development and were often pushing against the constraints of the rehearsed reading format. They benefited from some great performances from the actors involved and I’d be keen to see all of them when they are finally fully staged.

Kane Power’s ‘Mental‘ was the standout show of PUSH’s second week. It’s already been reviewed extensively elsewhere, and it’s difficult to add anything new to the praise it has deservedly received. ‘Mental’ is a very personal and heartfelt sharing of how Power and his mother experience and live with her mental health condition.

The show’s strength lies in both the honesty of the story-telling and the calm, controlled manner in which Power approaches it. Although there is no doubting that his mother’s condition impacts on him, the play seems to note that as incidental detail, and Power scrupulously focuses on foregrounding her experience. Electronic music, voice-distortion and looping are effectively used to give some insight into the inner disruption that characterises bipolar disorder. However the production is keen to stress that his mother (Kim) is more than a condition. A big illuminated display, illustrating the extreme highs and lows of bipolar in graph form, becomes increasingly obscured by the personal items from Kim that are added to it as the play progresses. Her love of wordplay inspires a lyrical tongue-twisting list of the benefits and downsides of the various drugs she has been offered. Though she is never physically on stage, her presence is felt throughout.

Something remarkable is built with just subdued lighting, a meagre collection of unassuming props, some musical instruments and Power’s voice. While his music and songs often seek to shine a light on his mother’s state of mind, they are also the only time Power allows his own feelings to bubble up. The songs he sings have an otherworldly quality, an emotional yearning. “Mum, come back down to earth“. Open and direct, ‘Mental’ reveals the realities of lives affected by bipolar disorder but it does so with care and love.

Marcus Hercules’ new show Rasta Liv also arises from a son’s love for a parent. It’s a multi-layered account of the life of his father Ellis Hercules, that takes us from St Kitt’s, through the north of England and then on to Ethiopia.

Hercules tells his father’s story using video, photos, recordings, music and movement. The voices of relatives and friends are interspersed with Hercules’ own reflections. Items are laid out on the stage as if they are in an exhibition – clothes, a suitcase, a football. These are picked up by Hercules, worn, used and re-absorbed into the story of his father’s life.

However this is more than a straightforward narrative, it is a snapshot of a time period, and a consideration of the beliefs that shaped a man. Hercules also positions his father’s life within a much longer ongoing struggle, opening the show with images of Africans in traditional dress and depictions of the slave trade.

There are stories of Ellis’s love of football, his children and family holidays. But there are also his experiences of racism in the 60s, 70s and 80s, life in Leed and Manchester, and his involvement with the Rastafarian movement through the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The colours of red, gold and green flow through the show. We see glimpses of Haile Selassie’s life, the development of Rastafarianism and the movement’s links to Manchester. Hercules also details the impact Rastafarianism had on his father and how it resulted in his eventual move to Ethiopia.

Hercules performance is focused and unrushed. His evocative use of movement has a restrained grace as well as strength. The various stories are carefully woven together to create a very personal tribute to a man, told with dignity and pride.

Meraki Collective‘s ‘Only Speak When Spoken To‘ is a bouncing bundle of joy. It’s an inventive poke around the rules and codes that govern how we interact with each other.

Using movement, music and humour the show dissects topics as varied as how to behave politely, how much space you can reasonably take up and what are the rules of dating. Much fun is had considering how the boundaries we set on our behaviour (and that of others) are often unspoken and informal. Even the simplest situation can be fraught with confusion. The permutations to be found in the simple act of two women greeting are turned into a spectator sport of awkwardness. Emmy and Laura are also alive to the gender stereotypes that permeate many of these rules. The phenomenon of manspreading is mercilessly mocked with moustachioed mischief.

It has a quirky style to it. Like the Stepford Wives meet the Chuckle Brothers with a dash of Fellini. It also a bright and breezy sound design – with cinematic music, looping voices, disembodied commentary and a perversely plink-plonked wooden xylophone.

A couple of bits of audience interaction feel superfluous. The show creates a distinctive look and feel, suffused with thoughtful silliness, it becomes a world of its own. However well-intentioned the attempts to actively involve us are, they seem only to break that spell as well as the rhythm of the piece.

Not that ad-libbing is beyond them. When an over excited audience member shouts out words of encouragement, Emmy shushes him, rolls her eyes and wordlessly (and good-humouredly) indicates there is a show going on here.

At one point, as she struggles to finish eating a banana (meaningfully) within the requisite timescale, she deadpans “This is art”. Many a true word… While it is witty, surprising and fun it is also underpinned by clever choreography, expert attention to detail and a sense of timing that encompasses both sequences of synchronised movement and some nicely judged comic interplay.

I’m not a fucking tour guide” says James Quinn’s Levenshulme resident welcoming a curious visitor to the Manchester suburb. And Monkeywood Theatre‘s ‘The Manchester Project‘. is no open-top tourist bus ride around the city. It’s a collection of nineteen individual pieces of writing, each from different writers responding to various parts of Greater Manchester. On a stage laid out with a honeycomb of seats, boxes and platforms, six performers bring those words to life.

No attempt is made to link the stories. Each is preceded by a photo of the writer in the location of their choice. The focus of the tales varies. Some set out to debunk myths about a place, others poke fun at an area’s reputation. Some revel in their location while others are just very personal reminiscences about individuals, family or one-off incidents.

Actors performing the pieces they wrote themselves seem to achieve the most, as they powerfully channel the feelings that inspired their words. Eve Steele’s love song to the City Centre (aka “town”) celebrates it as a place that nurtured her development – where she could feel free and find herself. In contrast Reuben Johnson’s rapidly flowing account of a return visit to his childhood home in Little Hulton captures his sense of being somehow diminished and hemmed in by the place. Several plays insightfully inhabit young lives desperate to escape the suburbs and overspill estates that ring the city. Sarah McDonald Hughes’s bewilderment at finding herself stuck as a teenager in Flixton is only made bearable by the certainty that she will eventually leave. Chris Hoyle’s young man counts the minutes at work until he boards the number 17 bus to make the transformative journey from Middleton to the Gay Village.

Like the city itself, it’s a mixed bag and trying to capture the feel of somewhere in a few minutes is not an easy task. James Quinn’s Withington, with multiple characters reflecting the varied communities staking a claim to the south Manchester suburb, authentically captures the flux and contradictions that exist in city neighbourhoods. It also serves to highlight the limitations that only one perspective can bring. Some of the stories, like Cathy Crabb’s Failsworth, are expertly crafted but fail to communicate any discernible sense of place.

Oddly, this is a tour of the city with few surprises. Lindsay William’s wonderful Cornbrook is the honourable exception. A place now maligned as the home of a notoriously windswept and unloved Metrolink interchange has its magical past excavated, polished up and displayed with disarming pride – all in the time it takes for a connecting tram to arrive.

Monkeywood have big plans for the continuation of ‘The Manchester Project’, and as it develops it would be good to see a greater diversity of voices represented, as well as more thought given to how stories are collectively shared. With nineteen pieces of writing performed one after another in just under an hour, it can at times feel like a rummage at a jumble sale. Overall presentation feels random, the quality of what emerges varies, and there are mismatched tales from now and stories from decades ago. Perhaps that sense of mix and match, and of unstructured discovery, conveys something of city life? Even so, these disparate stories deserve a better designed map to help us navigate between locations.

HOME.

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