Apples & Snakes Present: Lit Fuse @ Birmingham mac

LitFuse-full

“I want a man who pulls kindness out of his back pocket.” This was the beautiful and intriguing opening line of spoken-word artist, Nafeesa Hamid, during her performance on Friday night.

Nafeesa spent last week working alongside three other brilliant artists, Amerah Saleh, Carl Sealeaf and Sipho Eric Dube, making up the quartet of poets that brought Lit Fuse, a spoken-word collaboration, to the Birmingham mac on the 7th March 2014. This event, developed jointly by mac Birmingham and Apples and Snakes poetry collective, is a series of events showcasing brand new work devised by UK poets in collaboration with top directors and producers, encouraging poets to write and perform outside of their comfort zone. This set of poets were working with the help of Birmingham-based writer and director, Caroline Horton.

The four poems were part of the current season of work at the mac, ‘Exit Strategy’, a theme exploring death and its effects.
The event combined poetry and theatre, using lights, sound effects and short films to create atmosphere and background for the spoken word pieces. The performance began with all four poets speaking at once, moving from various areas of the intimate space of the Hexagon Theatre, before gathering together on stage. The effect of the clashing of lines and styles, and interrupting of each other made for a disconcerting and slightly wild beginning, and I struggled to make out what each individual was saying, let alone find any kind of meaning in the cacophony of noise and sound effects. Indeed, as each poet left the stage and then returned one by one, performing an individual 10-20 minute monologue, the level of intensity remained high, due to the heavy and sometimes controversial content, and the fact that the overall performance was only just over an hour in length.

Although four very different poets, all creating various interpretations of the topic of death, the pieces were beautifully crafted to fit perfectly together, moving seamlessly from one to another. The themes ranged from a heartbreaking monologue by Carl Sealeaf on the breakup of previous relationships and the death of a loved one, to a touching and intimate insight into a story of childhood, heritage and loss from Sipho, and an uncomfortable but beautifully important piece on rape in marriage from Amerah Saleh.

The influence of theatre was reflected differently in each piece, some of the poets choosing to use props. At the beginning of Amerah’s piece (written largely using stories collected from girls with real experience of rape in marriage), all the props, including a desk lamp (left over from Carl’s piece moments before), a mop bucket and a mug were turned on their side, and set right way up as the poem progressed. Using everyday objects reinforced the setting of a domestic home, and the act of setting them right reflected the healing process that took place throughout the poem.

The performance ended in the same way it had begun- all four poets speaking at once, and moving together to gather on the stage under dim lighting. This time however, the words and phrases they were saying had a poignant clarity – now I recognised them as lines from each of their poems. The idea that all these pieces shared the same subject matter, yet had wildly different interpretations of it was reinforced by the clashing and uncomfortable jarring of these lines, yet combined, at the end, a subtle and carefully crafted shared understanding and acceptance.

 by Alice Cudmore

Infinity Stage Company Presents: In Arabia We’d All Be Kings @ The Guild of Students

In Arabia

I’ve seen Stephen Adly Guirgus’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (and loved it) so I was intrigued to see what his earlier work, In Arabia We’d All be Kings would be like. What is evident is that Guirgis is a writer who loves character: plot falls to the side so that his characters can take centre stage. The most dramatic events are only reported to the audience; the human condition is what this playwright is bothered about.

Arabia follows a group of people in downtown New York. There is no space for them: there’s little to no work, no welfare for the poor or troubled, and certainly no sense of loyalty. Guirgus provides a gritty depiction of a nineties dog-eat-dog New York, in which drugs and sex are a form of escapism, but are simultaneously the very things trapping the characters. Every character seems to be in a Catch-22: to be happy, you need money, but to get money, you need to do some horrific things; prostitution and drug addiction are rife among Guirgus’s characters.

What is interesting about the script is that it allows a range of emotions from the audience. There are moments that are evidently meant to be comical, and ones that are serious, but then there are moments in which the audience’s intended reaction is ambiguous: moments that I found harrowing, in which I pitied the characters, where moments that others found humorous.

Perhaps this is a testament to the cast: perhaps some members of the audience were driven to uncomfortable laughter. Whatever the reason, it can’t be argued that directors Jack Fairley and Andy Baker found a stellar cast for their production (who all mastered the New York accent). Gurguis’s plays don’t really have ‘main characters’, so each actor has to work particularly hard to impress during their scene.

Guirgus is obviously a fan of having someone onstage at all times – Judas is constantly present in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot­ – at it is incredibly impressive to be in character for so long; compliments must therefore go to Ben Firth. He played Sammy, an aged alcoholic and possible drug addict, incredibly well, providing humour and poignancy with skill.

Danny Hetherington was an excellent choice for Skank: his movements and mannerisms were convincing, and his manic laughter in the penultimate scene of the play was unsettling. Guild Drama newcomer Nathan Hawthorne played Lenny, a man recently released from prison. He deftly handled his character’s anger, but was also able to convincingly communicate his vulnerability. Ben Norris gave an impressive and sensitive performance as Greer. When playing a homosexual man, it would be easy to offer a clichéd portrayal. Norris, however, dealt with this carefully, making Greer a man that would exaggerate parts of his personality to exploit others. The scenes between Norris and Hetherington were particularly sad to watch.

For a play with a mainly male cast, the women really stole the show. My favourite character was Chickie, and this is a testament to Phoebe Brown’s acting prowess. I truly believed that she was a drug addict, from her nervous movements to her child-like, heart-breaking optimism at thought of being free from her addiction. My two favourite scenes involved Brown: firstly, the interaction between Chickie and Charlie, the bartender (played fantastically by Calum Fraser), was touching and strangely romantic. Her later scene with Demaris (played by Charis Jardam), a no-nonsense teenager old was particularly poignant: here we were given a tragic glimpse into the women’s hope for a better future. Jardam’s attitude and delivery were perfect for her character, making this scene the standout of the play.

The production team of the play had evidently worked hard to create an authentic atmosphere for the play: the genuine bar helped to create a sense of verisimilitude, but it was really the costume that stood out. The women’s outfits and make-up would have been particularly nostalgic for several women in the audience, which made the play even more uncomfortable to watch.

While Arabia seems to lack something that Judas has – perhaps an emotionally devastating monologue – it is still nothing short of an entertaining and thought-provoking play; however, it is the work of this particular cast and crew that held this production together, and made it undoubtedly successful. 

By Jenna Clake
@jennaclake

GMTG presents: The Comedian @ The Guild of Students

the comedian

You’d be forgiven for thinking that GMTG’s most recent musical, The Comedian, was a light-hearted comedy. It was definitely funny but didn’t deliver the happy ending the audience were expecting.

The play tells the story of Tim Adams, played by Matt McConnell: an awkward stand-up comedian who we meet on the edge of his ‘big break’ and follow as he struggles to deal with the pressure of his new-found fame. McConnell is a likeable lead who wins us over with his hilarious childhood anecdotes as he delivers a stand-up routine directly to the audience. Although a somewhat nervous singer at the start, this made him incredibly endearing and was shattered by his later solos which were angry, anguished and powerful.

Tim’s big break comes when he is offered the chance to host a panel show, the wittily titled ‘News Flush’. These episodes were the highlight of the musical for me as the audience are invited to play the role of a live audience, cheering and clapping along with the sparring between the panel show’s guests. However Tim’s inability to get a word in edge-ways results in him being panned by critics and he resorts to cocaine to boost his confidence. Whilst his drug-fuelled comeback wins the respect of the panel and the critics, he loses the love of his doting fiancée Hannah- played by Megan Probert.

Probert is a talented singer and the heart-breaking solo in which she realises she no longer recognises the man she loves in Tim gave me shivers. However the stand out role for me was that of Tim’s manager, ‘best friend’ and eventual drug dealer Ollie, played brilliantly by Ciaran Cresswell. Smarmy, suave and self-assured, I hated him and admired him in equal measure. Tim is as under Ollie’s influence as the audience are and, with Ollie’s encouragement, continues taking cocaine.

What follows are Tim’s more and more tragic attempts to win Hannah back whilst he spirals into addiction, leading to an unexpectedly disturbing ending. His quest for critical success causes him to lose everything and left me thinking about the way we constantly strive for more without realising what we have already.

What amazed me most of all, however, was that the script and music was written completely from scratch by Leo West and Josh Sood. The play was well written and the songs in particular were so catchy that you couldn’t believe they were original. At times the play even seemed to mock the emotional aspect of musicals, such as when Tim wanders on stage for a moving solo and is so upset that after several attempts to start singing he gives up and leaves. Although the anti-climax made the audience laugh, it was also very touching.

Overall it was this ability to intertwine comedy and tragedy, often in a single line or song, which I found most impressive about this musical- I never knew whether to laugh or cry.

By Ellicia Pendle

@elliciapendle

Moon On A Rainbow Shawl @ The Birmingham Rep Theatre

moon on a rainbow shawlSynchronised to the pace of a calypso beat, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl follows the lives of a poverty-stricken family living in the bustling yards of Trinidad, after the war. Considering such a premise, what I did not expect was the cripplingly humorous moments, the innovative, and at times the sheer power of the performances that were created.

We follow Sophie Adam’s daily struggles of working low paid jobs, keeping up her house, arguing with the prostitute Mavis who lives nearby, taking care of her daughter Esther and her little boy, and moralising her husband. Alongside this her neighbour Ephraim, who is having a secret relationship with the attractive Rosa, has a burning passion to leave Trinidad, and have a better life in England. Without spoiling much more of the play, this re-staging of one of Errol John’s most famous plays still remains fresh and relevant today.

With its unique brand of Creolian banter, and tongue in cheek humour the play is greatly entertaining. The most memorable of these moments are definitely between Mrs Adams and the prostitute Mavis, who are always at ends with each other. With Mavis’ distinctly high screechy voice, and elaborate gestures her role as the comical marker was key to the overall atmosphere of the performance.

But with this great humour, there is the despair. It is a powerful study of the effects of poverty on men and women, the effects of money, and more so the lack of it. And with Ephraim’s wishes, we are all reminded of, to use the well known phrase, the ‘American Dream’.  Quite appropriately Ephraim’s desires to go to England for a better life for himself, are still relevant 56 years later when they were conceived. One just has to pick up a newspaper, or overhear debates to catch a glimpse of the attitudes towards immigration in England at the moment. Yet still England remains the place where, somehow and in some way, dreams for young men and women will come true.

With the mesmerising performances from the cast due to the stellar material they have, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is compelling, and well worth 3/4 hours of your time. And it leaves us with a greater message, something which the play exemplifies: only in poverty can one find humour in despair.

By Shantok Jetha 

Infinity Stage Company Presents: ‘In Arabia We’d All Be Kings’ by Stephen Adly Guirgus

Stephen Adly Guirgus’s first play follows the patrons of a seedy pre-Giuliani Times Square bar in downtown New York (Hell’s Kitchen) and their struggle to cope with the changing climate of the city as the streets are cleaned up under Rudy Guiliani’s regime. Lenny is a recently released ex-con struggling to hold on to his ‘badman’ image and reputation while his girlfriend, Daisy, craves a “real” life with a “real” man and abandons him at the bar in pursuit of some cheap Chinese takeout. Also at the bar is Skank, a failed actor turned junkie, who is trying to outlast the rain storm and get a buyback from the missing Irish bartender. A permanent fixture at the bar is Sammy, an old, dying guilt-ridden drunk who exists somewhere between reality and the afterlife. Demaris, a seventeen-year-old gun-brandishing single mother, wants to learn to turn tricks. She enlists the aid of Chickie, Skank’s girlfriend, a young crackhead hooker who plays cards with the simple-minded day bartender Charlie. The owner of the bar is Jake. The place was his father’s before him, and after thirty years, he longs for the chance to get out of the sewer and reinvent a life in Florida. Unaware that their last piece of home is about to be pulled out from under them, the bar patrons struggle on. Their sense of humour, their misguided hopes and dreams, and their lack of self-pity are badges that are tattooed to their souls. They will all, before the end, demand and take the chance to face head on their complicated and sad truths.

In Arabia

Cast:

Lenny – Nathan Hawthorne

Daisy – Emily Howard

Skank – Danny Hetherington

Sammy – Ben Firth

Miss Reyes – Emma Marchant

Demaris – Charis Jardim

Jake – Dan Burke

Chickie – Phoebe Brown

Charlie/Holy Roller – Calum Fraser

Greer – Ben Norris

Vic/Carroll – Nick Williams

Crew

Directors – Jack Fairley and Andy Baker

Producer – Rebekah Lucking

Assistant Producer – Katherine Grayson

DATES: (all performances begin at 19:30)

Friday 7th March /Saturday 8th March/ Sunday 9th March

TICKETS:

Members – £4

Concessions -£5

Adult – £7

Rachel Sermanni @ The Glee Club

sermanni

Scottish folk singer Rachel Sermanni has recently taken Birmingham’s Glee Club by storm. From Carrbridge, Strathspey and aged just twenty-two Rachel has already toured with and supported famous names such as Fink, Mumford and Sons and Elvis Costello. Making a name for herself with Under Mountains, her debut album in 2012, her new EP tour Everything Changes has brought Rachel back to Birmingham’s Glee Club. In the Glee Club’s studio, where she performed her set, the atmosphere was quite electric, the dim red lighting and the closest audience member only a couple of feet away from Rachel herself made for an extremely intimate experience.

Supporting Rachel was twenty-three year old Mo Kenney, a witty and dryly amusing folk singer from Nova Scotia, her beautifully melancholy songs (“Sucker” in particular) were interspersed with laconic audience interaction about stories of plastic toy snakes and terrorizing old ladies named Judy.

Accompanied by Jennifere Austin on keyboard, Rachel walked on stage modestly and quietly opening with her lead track, ‘Two Birds’, from her new EP she instantly captivated the audience, following up with ‘Breathe Easy’ and the track list from Under Mountains. Personally I didn’t know what to make of her at first as she moved erratically about the stage with her guitar, but it wasn’t long before I was completely transfixed and understood the way she truly moved with and felt her own music. Each song began somewhat soft and slow, culminating in a harmonious outburst of sound. Her fresh faced look and modesty on stage was ultimately contradicted with the power of her commanding, soulful voice and her quiet confidence and connection to her own music.

After purchasing both Mo Kenney’s self-titled album and Rachel Sermanni’s new EP and Under Mountains almost as soon as I got home from The Glee Club I cannot recommend them both enough. Both Mo and Rachel are touring the UK together until the end of March, and are definitely ones not to miss.

Elin Morris
@ElinMorris2509

The Railway Man

The-Railway-Man

A raw, powerful, and, at times, shocking, film; The Railway Man details the real-life story of war veteran Eric Lomax, played by Colin Firth, as he struggles to deal with the horrors of his mistreatment at a Japanese prisoner of war torture camp, some twenty years after he was subjected to immense torture tactics. It is based on the memoirs written by Eric Lomax himself, and was directed and adapted by Jonathon Teplitzky.

The film often jarringly juxtaposes the two distinct sections of Eric Lomax’s life. The film begins on a quaint, jovial note, as we see Eric meet Patricia, his soon-to-be wife, played by Nicole Kidman, on board a train heading towards Scotland, a mode of transport for which it is very quickly clear that Lomax has a particular affinity for. However, their idealistic, and clearly joyful marriage, is quickly brought to a halt by the appearance of flashbacks of his horrendous time in the war. It is here that Firth’s portrayal of Lomax is particularly poignant, and cements his standing as one of the most emotionally affecting actors of his generation. Being mostly known for more sarcastic, romantically-swayed roles (read: Bridget Jones), Firth’s depiction of Lomax’s utter inability to cope with the terrors of his earlier life is distressing, disturbing, and utterly heart-breaking, and something I, many years in the future, can only imagine to be an accurate dramatic portrayal of the pain experienced by the men who endured something similar in the atrocities of war.

Jeremy Irvine does perhaps one of the film’s best jobs as he plays a younger Eric Lomax, in flashbacks used to explain to the audience what it is that the film’s protagonist experienced. Such information is learned along with Lomax’s wife Patricia, whose distressed and upset reaction is often one that mirrors that of the audience. It is Irvine’s excellent and shockingly accurate mimicry of Firth that aligns the two physically different characters with the same experience. Irvine manages so superbly to embody Firth’s character in his youth that you could be mistaken in thinking it was Firth himself, in his younger years, enacting the same role. However, the film is muted and slow in its depiction of exactly what Lomax was exposed to and, as such, it is difficult to ever fully attempt to understand the true extent of Lomax’s torture.

However, the film’s over-arching issue emerges as the past begins to catch up with Eric, and he begins to realise that he must face the realities and the injustice of what happened to him all those years ago as, Nagase, often portrayed as the perpetrator of many of the horrific acts against Lomax, has been found to be alive by Eric’s best friend and fellow war veteran Finlay. In one of the film’s most dramatic and upsetting scenes, Finlay is seen hanging himself from a railway bridge, in a poignant union of two major obsessions in Eric; the war, and railways. The meaning of the death is left ambiguous, leaving the audience wondering whether it was solely a means of encouraging Lomax to hunt down Nagase as a means of closure, or a desperate attempt to end Finlay’s own internal torture formed at the hands of the war. Either explanation adds to the incredible tension and sadness of the film, as it once again reaffirms the reality of the horrific effects of the war, long after it has come to an end.  It similarly reiterates the importance of Eric’s situation, and the magnitude of the choice between revenge and forgiveness, in the face of his life-long enemy.

A film that is ultimately about the need for closure and forgiveness, The Railway Man may not possess many of the loaded, highly dramatic scenes of other war films, but it is here that I believe its strength lies. It focuses more on the bonds that are created during war, for better or for worse. For this reason, I believe the film and the cast were utterly overlooked for awards season – particularly the cast, who do the most to make this film the powerful, emotional depiction of war it is.

By Amy Hunt