Category Archives: West Yorkshire Playhouse

Quick Update on The Kite Runner

Just wanted to let anyone heading down south know that the superb production of The Kite Runner is currently running in the West End!

Visit the Wyndham’s Theatre website HERE to get all the details on how to catch this very impressive production.

 ‘For you…a thousand times over…’

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

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This should be an impossible book to adapt. Afghanistan is a changing place in 1975. Religion and politics are evolving the landscape further. It is in this background that two boys attempt to navigate their path, which happens to be an emerging family tragedy. The book covers a span of 30 years. That Matthew Spangler succeeds and succeeds beautifully  in distilling the essence of this tale into a mere two acts – well it ought to be an impossible feat.

On a sparse stage, populated only by a musicians mat; a flowing backdrop and a carpet with a thousand interpretations; an intensely emotional story unfolds. The lack of clutter, heck, the near disdain of props merely served to emphasis the interpersonal focus of this play.

The hero of this production has to be Ben Turner. Aside from being the only constant presence on the stage; he manages to pull off a difficult task with aplomb. At no point is he ever in denial that he is portraying Amir as a deeply flawed person – indeed for much of the play the character appears to be cowardly, unlikeable with few redeeming features. He flies a kite, embodying enthusiastically a 12 year old and brings equal weight to his reflection as an older narrator. However, as time passes, Ben makes the audience aware of something that Amir never quite realises. He is as much a victim (albeit to a far lesser degree) of Assef’s violence as Hassan and certainly of his father’s coldness and – as becomes apparent – lies.

In a stellar cast of consummate professionals – it is impossible to understate the menace that Nicholas Karimi brings to the bully Assef. From the second he appears, spitting out insults and swaggering a la John Wayne; he dominates and intimidates. His interactions with Andrei Costin (in the dual role of Hassan and Sohrah) in particular are just harrowing.

One of the most lovely and touching aspects of a play that confirms, defies and compounds expectations (frequently in the same passage of dialogue!) is a character that emerges intact from the pages of the book. The sole (significant) speaking female role is that of Soraya, portrayed by Lisa Zahra. Though she only appears in the later sections of the play; she is the most honest and brave character – following her heart and owning her mistakes. On a male dominated stage; her every interaction with Amir is refreshing and cleansing – not necessarily what one is led to expect from a story set mostly in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

The music throughout the play plays a powerful role and is primarily provided by Hanif Khan; an internationally renowned classically trained Indian musician and performer, who – like Ben Turner – remains on stage for the bulk of the performance. The melodies he provides both inform the story and provide emotional context. The music and sounds created by the cast provide an atmospheric backdrop; at once unobtrusive yet pervasive. A constant and haunting refrain throughout that serves as a reminder that while the story may be set in lands far away; the ultimate search for redemption is a universal one. That the sheer act of being human makes us strive to better ourselves, to make up for those things that we have done wrong, to seek to make amends…even when it is too late.

Adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Music: Jonathan Girling
Director: Giles Croft

WYP_red_greyThe Kite Runner at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

Visit the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre website HERE

Visit the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse website HERE

Visit the Wyndham’s Theatre website HERE

Theatre Reviews

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REVIEW – The Night Before Christmas – West Yorkshire Playhouse

Carol doesn’t feel very Christmassy. What’s all the fuss about? Trees, tinsel, baubles, pudding, presents…? What a lot of nonsense. Definitely not for her.

That is until the night before Christmas when Elf 30046, all stripey tights and pointy ears, falls down her chimney and they both tumble into a bigger adventure than they could ever have imagined. Will Elf ever do as he’s told? Will Carol learn to have fun? Will they ever spot the speeding sleigh and most importantly of all… can they find Father Christmas before it’s too late?

A beautiful, funny and delightful story of friendship and the true meaning of Christmas, The Night Before Christmas is the perfect present for little elves, a magical treat for the family this winter.

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In what is becoming a bit of a tradition for us, Helen and I recently attended the West Yorkshire Playhouse for their annual Christmas show. After last years triumph (see our Father Christmas review HERE), we tried to mute our expectations – after all – what were the chances that we would be treated to yet another funny yet touching production that perfectly embodied the spirit of the Christmas season?

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Carol doesn’t like Christmas, presents, or the affable Roger

An hour later we left as giddy as all the (millions of) tiny happy humans dancing on the stage before us! Our Christmas has officially begun.

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Poor Elfie and Carol – NOT a meet cute

Director Amy Leach sets this charming story during the 1950’s, with the set, props and music all from this era. It was rather lovely to watch familiar oldies enchant a new generation. The set design was just wonderful – a feature I’ve come to expect from the WY Playhouse. And the backstage team pulled out all the tricks to delight, enthrall and capture the imagination of their audience – aside from a beautifully compact home recreated on the stage, there was snow (which instantly had Helen all misty eyed! She’s a sucker for Christmas based snow), misdirection and ladders – allowing for the production to literally take to the skies at one point!

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Crowd interaction and participation was encouraged at every stage. Indeed Carol is forced to chase Elfie across the auditorium, through the seats and back again at one point. At first, some of the little people were a bit nervous about the rather huge elf and the very grumpy Carol hurtling past them but within moments they were wrapped up in the story line – all worries washed away by the energy and joy expressed on stage.

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Possibly my single favourite  moment came towards the end of the play. Carol has been left a present and the audience – predominantly ages between 4 – 7 years – helpfully shouted up to the stage to help her find it. Poor Carol wasn’t really understanding until one grown man – obviously caught up in everything – bellowed out in a deep voice ‘look for your present behind you!’.

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James Barrett – a delightful Elfie

However the greatest accolades must be saved for Rose Warlow (Carol) and James Barrett (Elfie). They bring to life their characters and throw themselves into every piece – whether it is running, jumping, dancing or tracking down Santa – with an energy and conviction that brought every person there with them on their adventure.

Of greater importance perhaps then their impeccable chemistry, timing and vivacity was the timeless warmth that they projected onto all of us. Christmas is meant to be fun, it’s meant to be joyous and it’s meant to bring us together. I think this is a show that inspires that feeling in us all.

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You can read Helen’s review HERE

tl;dr – Go See It!

Written by: Robert Alan Evans
Age: 2-6 years
Director: Amy Leach

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The Night Before Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

 

 

Theatre Reviews

REVEIW – Boi Boi is Dead at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Afro-jazz legend, father, lover, playboy, husband, rulebreaker, enigmatic force of nature… Boi Boi is dead. But not forgotten.

Left alone to rebuild her life, Miriam’s heartache is interrupted when Boi Boi’s reckless ex-wife Stella and traditionalistic brother show up to stake their claim on his name, on his property and to revel in the glory of his fame. Determined to keep her family together, Miriam’s life is thrown into turmoil when Stella discovers the secret she shared only with Boi Boi. Will the beguiling Stella be triumphant in the face of Boi Boi’s death? Live music entwines with crackling dialogue in this sharp new production for the Courtyard stage.

boi boi is dead

Zodwa Nyoni, a poet and playwright, has released her first full length play. It covers the course of a family at its most introspective and potentially destructive. Biting dialogue, a playful use of music and superb visuals – this production contains and highlights all the elements that the West Yorkshire Playhouse excels at.

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Photographer Richard Davenport

The titular Boi Boi – as you may or may not expect given the context – was an almost permanent presence on the stage. Jack Benjamin portrays the character as ever watchful; at times subtle, jubilant, guilty or sad…but most impressively, Boi Boi is constantly a pale shadow or reflection of the man that he used to be. Veteran actor Andrew French is particualy impressive as Ezra. In the opening moments, it is difficult to imagine every warming to this dismissive, traditional and sexist character; yet by the halfway mark, Ezra had demonstrated (a degree of )warmth and a fear of letting his family down that was very humanising. While the character never becomes likeable, neither was he the villain of the piece. Joseph Adelakun plays the petulant Petu with verve, while Debbie Korley makes the teenage Una relatable and easily the most pleasant character of the ensemble.

The stand outs of the production though are the two women whose lives were dominated by Boi Boi’s life. Lynette Clarke alternatively intrigues and repulses as the manipulative and evocative Stella. Her presence is universally undesired. Her intentions are transparent and ego driven. Her behaviour is brash…but as Boi Bois widow – estranged or not – her rights cannot be ignored. Her character is a total contrast to the put upon, maternal and warm hearted Miriam, who is masterfully brought to life by Angela Wynter. Miriam, who has held the household together for 12 years, has no valid claim to her home. She has provided for and loved Boi Boi and Una and loathes the carefree and careless Stella. Their interactions are powerful and provide the heart of this production.

One of the strengths is that it deliberately eschews moralistic overtones. As is the case in life, behaving well or selflessly doesn’t bring guarantees or rewards; any more then behaving outlandishly or inconsiderately brings with it trials or tribulations. Had there be even a hint of a political aspect to this production, I would have been disappointed at the suggestion that the only hope for young Zimbabweans was that they move to another country (in this case England), but there wasn’t. This was a deeply personal and family orientated story – no external influences were mentioned and the decisions made by the characters were based only on personal and family lines. Only one action within the play didn’t quite ring true to me. Throughout, only one relationship seems to be healthy and strong – that of Miriam and Una, which made Una’s actions during the conclusion to be unusually callous.

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Photographer Richard Davenport

 

Music also played a distinctive and mood setting role. Live music, singing and chanting – all are interspersed with the plot and dialogue in ways that feel organic and alternatively unobtrusive or attention grabbing. An afro jazz song was used to particular effect during a scene where Miriam recalled meeting and flirting with Boi Boi. Perhaps the only misfire in my view, was Una’s song. While the lyrics were no doubt very poignant, the song itself was very ambitiously structured which made it difficult to follow them.

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Photographer Richard Davenport

The ending is rather marvellously ambiguous and how it concludes very much dependson your viewpoint. For me, I think that societal and community consideration will take priority. The only people who can understand the attempt and the need to move on from Boi Boi and the disastrous impact he had are those others who were similarly impacted by him.  There is an intangible link between them. Despite what the characters may have said earlier in the production, family does not always require a blood connection.

The backdrop was very beautiful and provided a setting that was lovely to look at but I felt underutilised. While certain set pieces – such as the dog with the bone at the very beginning were very evocative; they didn’t seem to provide any function beyond being visually satisfying, which would have made sense had this been a purely minimalist play. However, boxes were moved forward and back, without ever seeming to be essential to the production. At one point, a character brings out a basin and returns it after half a minute – it felt like a somewhat unnecessary back and forth. On the other hand, the use of empty space on the stage was interesting. Characters operated as silhouettes; moved in strange and often isolated patters in the background. The space was obviously emblematic of the gap left in each characters life after the death of Boi Boi – an effective visual.

From the ages of 9 to 16, I lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, so I was extremely excited to learn that Boi Boi is Dead would be performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. However, this play was one that transcends its setting. Sure, the music and certain phrases and mindsets felt very orientated in Southern Africa – but the tale itself is that of a dysfunctional family. This family – torn apart and recreating itself after a death and deception – could have been set anywhere, because people in pain exist everywhere. Like the best storytellers, Zodwa Nyoni has woven a truth in a particular context, one that she happens to be familiar with, but it is one that rings true domestically, throughout the world.

Boi Boi is Dead runs until the 7th of March

Writer –  Zodwa Nyoni
Director  – Lucian Msamati
Designer – Francisco Rodriguez-Weil
Dramaturg – Alex Chisholm (Interview with LeedsBookClub HERE and HERE)

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Boi Boi is Dead at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

 

Theatre Reviews

James and the Giant Peach at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

When poor James Henry Trotter loses his parents in a horrible rhinoceros accident, he is forced to live with his two wicked aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. After three years he becomes “the saddest and loneliest boy you could find”. Then one day, a wizened old man in a dark-green suit gives James a bag of magic green things that promise to reverse his misery forever.

When James accidentally spills the things on his aunts’ withered peach tree, he sets the adventure in motion. From the old tree a single peach grows, and grows, and grows some more, until finally James climbs inside the giant fruit and rolls away from his despicable aunts to a whole new life. James befriends an assortment of hilarious characters, including Grasshopper, Earthworm, Miss Spider and Centipede–each with his or her own song to sing

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As this was one of my favourite Roald Dahl stories growing up (and regular readers will know that I have a definite soft spot for Mr Dahl’s writing), I was a touch apprehensive heading in.

The children’s novel was written in the 1960’s. Dahl – never one to underestimate his audience – made the story dark and – frankly – gruesome in places.  It’s tragic and horrible but there is also an element of humour in every terrible thing that happens to James. I worried that this adaption might try to gloss over the tragedy and scares out of a (misguided) desire to protect younger minds. Once again the West Yorkshire Playhouse exceeded my expectations greatly. It’s all here – the raging rhinoceros; snarling sharks; repulsive relatives – every challenge that poor James encounters in the book is depicted inventively. As are the triumphs.

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Throughout there is a wonderfully inventive use of props. The rhinoceros and sharks were just terrific. Indeed, I’ll never look at a garden saw the same way again! The highlight – obviously – has to be the Peach itself. Watching it grow was delightful. Not to spoil, but helping the Peach on it’s journey was just tons of FUN (I was gutted it never actually came our way) – as one might expect for a show targeted at youngsters, there was an element of audience participation. Just enough to satisfy, not enough to derail the momentum of the show. Seeing the Peach as a vehicle for justice with regards to squishing the awful aunts was whoop inducing. My personal favourite effects though were the wriggingly, squiggiling, magical green things. The show utilised a really clever and enchanting way of bringing these to life!

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Naturally the most important element of the show are the characters depicted. The painfully talented cast – every one sings, dances and plays a musical instrument – depict more that one character onstage. Beverly Rudd and Jess Murphy are just fantastic as the repugnant Aunts Sponge and Spider and utterly different as the chatty Ladybird and sensitive Spider. Robert Pickavance was delightfully bouncy and squirmy as the music loving Grasshopper. However it was Dyfrig Morris as the dry and sardonic Earthworm that won this viewers heart, particularly in his interactions with James and with the vain yet adorable Centipede, played by Parsie Vernon.

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Unsurprisingly, the play as a whole hinges on Chris Lew Kum Hoi – if James had been anything less than a sympathetic and engaging narrator; everything would have fallen apart. However, Chris was a compelling presence – he played every scene with honesty, bringing the audience with him each step of the way. His anguish and pain in the early stages are particularly well realised. There is a genuine poignancy tied in with his interactions with the pair that portray his parents in later scenes. But ultimately it is his desire for joy, happiness and a sense of belonging and family that is wonderful to behold.

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Throughout the play there is music, singing and dancing – primarily led by James Gow – a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist. While it was a treat to see the music being performed onstage, I actually didn’t realise that he was also portraying an enlarged insect – a Glowworm until after the production. Perhaps I missed his introduction during the related song? My ignorance made his occasional interactions with the rest of the group a little odd…but that is a tiny complaint in an otherwise lovely show.

This is a treat for all the family and – for the literary nuts out there – a truly wonderful adaptation of a wonderful book. I’d heartily recommend it!

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Watch the trailer here!

Roald Dahl is famous for his stories and rhymes, but much less well known is how often he went out of his way to help seriously ill children. Today Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity helps children with the severest conditions and the greatest needs. The charity believes every child can have a more marvellous life, no matter how ill they are, or how short their life may be.

Find out more HERE

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Adapted by David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Designer: Fly Davis
Director: Max Webster

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James and the Giant Peach at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

 

Theatre Reviews

Review: James and the giant Peach at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Father Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Bloomin’ Christmas! Father Christmas awakes from a dream of summer sun only to realise that it’s bloomin’ Christmas Eve and the start of his longest night of the year. As he gathers the reindeer and prepares his sleigh, Father Christmas begins the long journey into the snowy night to deliver presents to sleeping children all over the world. But things don’t run smoothly and he soon encounters soot covered chimneys and treacherous weather conditions, meanwhile plenty of mischief is being had by his cheeky pets, Cat and Dog.

West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Raymond Briggs' FATHER CHRISTMAS

Photo West Yorkshire Playhouse

It’s hard to believe that Raymond Briggs created his irreverent version of Father Christmas over 40 years ago, especially as it feels at once fresh and fun, as well as established and traditional in this gloriously visual show.

Seamus O’Neill once again ably embodies the hero of the season. Bluff and gruff, yet calm and collected; Father Christmas allows us a peek into his big day as he wakes, plays with his cat and dog, eats and prepares his reindeer and sled so that he can fulfill his annual task – to bring joy to children the world over.

Photo credit Keith Pattison

Photo credit Keith Pattison

Father Christmas is surrounded by the most wonderful puppets – brought to life by Clare Rebekah Pointing. Nimble and with an uncanny knack for *sounding* just like her creations – every glimpse of the lifelike (bloomin’) cat, (bloomin’)dog, reindeer and (especially the brief cameo by the) hen – is a delight.

However, the highlight of this production for me was the show within the show – the inclusion of Tomas Gisby on stage in a wonderful magical observation point. Being able to watch as the musical director worked in parallel with Father Christmas to produce the sounds of the show was fascinating and occasionally hilarious. Gisby has an incredibly expressive face and watching his reactions – from drinking, to preparing the sled to…more mundane ablutions (‘plop’) was an absolute joy.

West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Raymond Briggs' FATHER CHRISTMAS

Advertised as a production that caters for those of 2-6 years; this 30…something year old can attest that this show enchants and captivates a variety of age groups. My two friends and I were as caught up as of the younger audience…and – every now again – possibly a little bit more!

As an introduction to the theatre; this definitely seemed to capture the imaginations of those around us. I’d certainly recommend it to the very young…and the young at heart!

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Adapted by Pins and Needles Production from the novel by Raymond Briggs
Musical Director: Tomas Gisby
Director: Emma Earle

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Father Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

 

Theatre Reviews

The Kite Runner at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

 ‘For you…a thousand times over…’

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

the kite runner

This should be an impossible book to adapt. Afghanistan is a changing place in 1975. Religion and politics are evolving the landscape further. It is in this background that two boys attempt to navigate their path, which happens to be an emerging family tragedy. The book covers a span of 30 years. That Matthew Spangler succeeds and succeeds beautifully  in distilling the essence of this tale into a mere two acts – well it ought to be an impossible feat.

On a sparse stage, populated only by a musicians mat; a flowing backdrop and a carpet with a thousand interpretations; an intensely emotional story unfolds. The lack of clutter, heck, the near disdain of props merely served to emphasis the interpersonal focus of this play.

The hero of this production has to be Ben Turner. Aside from being the only constant presence on the stage; he manages to pull off a difficult task with aplomb. At no point is he ever in denial that he is portraying Amir as a deeply flawed person – indeed for much of the play the character appears to be cowardly, unlikeable with few redeeming features. He flies a kite, embodying enthusiastically a 12 year old and brings equal weight to his reflection as an older narrator. However, as time passes, Ben makes the audience aware of something that Amir never quite realises. He is as much a victim (albeit to a far lesser degree) of Assef’s violence as Hassan and certainly of his father’s coldness and – as becomes apparent – lies.

In a stellar cast of consummate professionals – it is impossible to understate the menace that Nicholas Karimi brings to the bully Assef. From the second he appears, spitting out insults and swaggering a la John Wayne; he dominates and intimidates. His interactions with Andrei Costin (in the dual role of Hassan and Sohrah) in particular are just harrowing.

One of the most lovely and touching aspects of a play that confirms, defies and compounds expectations (frequently in the same passage of dialogue!) is a character that emerges intact from the pages of the book. The sole (significant) speaking female role is that of Soraya, portrayed by Lisa Zahra. Though she only appears in the later sections of the play; she is the most honest and brave character – following her heart and owning her mistakes. On a male dominated stage; her every interaction with Amir is refreshing and cleansing – not necessarily what one is led to expect from a story set mostly in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

The music throughout the play plays a powerful role and is primarily provided by Hanif Khan; an internationally renowned classically trained Indian musician and performer, who – like Ben Turner – remains on stage for the bulk of the performance. The melodies he provides both inform the story and provide emotional context. The music and sounds created by the cast provide an atmospheric backdrop; at once unobtrusive yet pervasive. A constant and haunting refrain throughout that serves as a reminder that while the story may be set in lands far away; the ultimate search for redemption is a universal one. That the sheer act of being human makes us strive to better ourselves, to make up for those things that we have done wrong, to seek to make amends…even when it is too late.

 

Adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Music: Jonathan Girling
Director: Giles Croft

 

WYP_red_greyThe Kite Runner at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

Visit the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre website HERE

Visit the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse website HERE

 

 

 

Theatre Reviews

Grounded at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

 “My pulse quickens. It is not a fair fight, but it quickens.”

She’s a hot-rod F16 fighter pilot. She’s pregnant. Her career in the sky is over.

Now, she sits in an air-conditioned trailer in Las Vegas flying remote-controlled drones over the Middle East. She struggles through surreal 12-hour shifts far from the battlefield, hunting terrorists by day and being a wife and mother by night.

A gripping, compulsive new play that flies from the heights of lyricism to the shallows of workaday existence, and targets our assumptions about war, family, and what it is to be a woman.

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The Gate Theatre is celebrating it’s 35th birthday. For the first time ever, it is touring one of its productions and I’m delighted that it chose Grounded – a Fringe First Award winner – to represent it’s work outside of London.

George Brant has written an eloquent and forceful one-person (one-woman) show about a fighter pilot turned drone operator. The set is minimalist and potent – by turns a stage, a cocoon, a barrier and more – deliberately ambiguous.

Lucy Ellinson delivers a powerful and intense turn as the nameless pilot turned operator focused on balancing shift work with family life. From the moment that she began to speak, I was gripped. Her delivery is staggering; she occupies the tiny set with an unexpected physicality that further solidifies the character before us. Despite the often times difficult subject matter, the play has moments of unexpected humour and tenderness and several times there were guffaws of laughter from the audience!

While the play is ostensibly about drones and the emotional cost that they can have on an operator; it covers far more ground than that. For each of us that watched it, the politics of the play are at once obvious and personal (as beautifully expressed by Beckie Darlington). We take from it the message that we chose.

At it’s most fundamental; it is a play about military personnel. That the pilot is a woman who had a child is by no means incidental, however, to my mind, it is first and foremost a chillingly accurate portrayal of the ambiguous moral and political sphere we increasingly find ourselves living in.

It is rare that I find myself recommending a play unreservedly. I think that everyone should try and see this over the next few days.

After the production I had the rare privilege of meeting the star (so utterly different off stage) and had a great chat with Will Lewis (Technical Touring  Manager), Beckie Darlington (Tour Producer) and Katy Munrow Farlie (Deputy Stage Manager).

Their passion for the production goes some way in explaining the astounding 148 shows so far – from London to Washington (where it was particularly well received) to Wales, now Leeds. And Manchester next I believe. When I asked about the intensity and commitment necessary for such a long run, Katy joked that there had definitely been the odd period of madness requiring the occasional conscious decision to create a bit of distance. Regardless, each person clearly had tremendous pride in the play and their interpretation of it.

There are a number of different productions currently in place across the globe. Lucy is apparently in touch with many of the other ‘pilots’.  As a pure monologue, there are no stage directions and each has found it’s own way to best reflect their unique visions. It’s hard to imagine another show as abstract or absorbing as the Gate one.

 

WYP_red_greyGrounded at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Buy tickets HERE

Visit the Gate Theatre website HERE

 

 

 

 

Theatre Reviews

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director – Part 1

This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!

ALEX CHISHOLM
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY) 
 
Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
 
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 
 
The interview will be posted in two parts. This section shall focus on Refugee Boy while part 2 will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 
 
 
Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. We appreciate that must be incredibly busy at the moment.
Refugee Boy is a 2001 novel by Benjamin Zephaniah about a young adult named Alem. He is abandoned in the UK due to conflicts in his country of origin.
How does something like this production of Refugee Boy get started? Does a writer or director approach you?
It happens in all sorts of different ways. In this particular instance it was our associate Director that deals specifically with young people and their theatre. She knew Benjamin Zephaniah and the book and said ‘I’d like to do a version of this’. Looking back through old files the other day, I came across my original document that had a list of potential adaptors. I came up with that list, we talked about it, we liked Lemn Sissay (a poet and playwright) – it turned out that he had himself a very similar history so that all dovetailed very well with the book. It’s been a very long journey getting it to this place for all sorts of different reasons.
It’s pretty much there now. Final few tweaks to do. It’s pretty much there. Then again, it’ll change again in rehearsal. And it’ll open on the 9th of March with its first performance with rehearsal beginning about four weeks before that.
Refugee Boy – is it an accurate portrayal of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict?
There isn’t, in fact, in the book that much detail about the nature of the conflict and the little bit that’s in there isn’t necessarily terribly accurate, but that’s not the point of the book. The point of the book was to follow the journey of the Refugee Boy himself.
The two tiny flashbacks that he does in Ethiopia and Eritrea – the whole piece takes place in England –  there’s this sort of prologue of two tiny snippets and they are intentionally abstract and not realistic and very similar to each other another.
Benedict – one of our contacts – is himself from Ethiopia and Eritrea and he came over as a young man – not quite as young as the character in the book. Benedict says that you can pick at it; you can tear away parts and say ‘Well actually that wouldn’t really happen that way’ but on the other hand he read that book as a sort of alternative narrative of his own life because essentially the story was his and a lot of the emotional journey and the journey of adjustment to a different country was absolutely his.
You wouldn’t read Refugee Boy in order to gain insights into the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflicts. You do so in order to gain insights into what it is to be a refugee, an asylum seeker in this country.
Refugee Boy – the Charity sector
Since getting involved with this particular project, we’ve become much more in contact with the org and people and agencies that work in that area in our region. We’ve been struck both by the immense generosity and hard work and selflessness and kindness of people who work and volunteer.
And also about the terrible circumstances and deprivations which go along with that. In particular destitution being the big issue we’re dealing with at the moment – there’s a particular thing that’s happening right at the moment with the way that housing is changing which –  I imagine you’re aware of – it’s causing particular problems.
Refugee Boy – won the Portsmouth Book Award – and certainly caught the zeitgeist. Author Benjamin Zephaniah is renowned for his music, poetry and writing. This is a particularly inherently human book revolving around isolation, alienation and finding your own place in the world.
Benjamin Zephaniah
Have you spoken with him about the book or the WY Playhouse adaptation of it?
I haven’t spoken to him directly to him about it. However, I’ve read and heard him speak about it. I don’t know if there was a particular incident that got him interested in this but I know that he himself felt empathy for people who have gone through that experience. Coming from a Caribbean background, but one where he felt that he understood that isolation and being misunderstood as a young person. He also has a keen sense of justice that comes from his background and having experienced injustice. As a Rastafarian, who is practising and religious and spiritual; he particularly had an interest in this journey. [That of] seeming outcast and that essential notion of finding a family.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict was reaching a certain point around the time that he was writing it so there was a public awareness at that time.
How did you find the right playwright to adapt this novel?
Lemn Sissay who did the adaptation, is also a poet. Actually it’s one of those strange coincidences that happen in life. I had read a play of his called Storm I think (written for Contact theatre in Manchester) and it was set in a children’s home and I felt that it captured the voice of those young people extremely well. It was his first play and incorporated some poetry into the play writing. And he wrote those young people in a well rounded, un-clichéd, unsentimental way – which is very rare.
They were first and foremost young people and they happened to be in a situation and they reacted to that situation. Rather than them being types. That’s what made me think about him in the first instance. Because there is a part of the book where Alem goes to a children’s home and then a foster home so writing a piece where the main character is a young person. He’d directed a lot of young people. There was something in Lemn’s writing where I felt that he could find that character.
So I called him up, said that we were interested in adapting this book called Refugee Boy by Ben Zephaniah and had he heard of it? He said no, what’s it about and I summarised ‘it’s about a young boy, born half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, abandoned in this country and raised in the care system’. And he just exclaimed ‘You’re kidding me. That’s my life.’
And that is, it’s genuinely his life. He is half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, his mother came to this country to give birth to him here and then abandoned him here and went back. Lemn’s gone on a huge journey – which is quite well documented – to discover what his past is. And he started off in a children’s home; was then fostered; then he was essentially rejected by his foster home; returned to the children’s home; grew up there and left at 18 years and that’s when he was given his papers. This was when he discovered his birth name. He’d had a completely different name up until the age of 18. He gravitated towards Manchester, discovered poetry and found his voice and became, or was kind of taken up by John G at Contact and given a lot of support. Discovering that, he felt that he was the right person to take this on. He has brought a lot to the adaptation.
On making necessary changes from the original
There are some aspects of the play that are not actually in the books, but this was right. If you read the book, it reads very well but there are certain things missing that you’d want for a play. It’s telling you a story but the additional insight from any other characters apart from Alem can only be inferred.
It works in a novel but not as naturally as a play. So you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with Ruth or the foster parents. Basically they are ciphers. Although you do get a bit more from Alem’s father – the relationship between the two is fairly straight forward. There isn’t that much change in it.
Lemn Sissay
So, Lemn has sort of added aspects to that; while retaining the story of the refugee boy; keeping the central premise of the piece, but there’s a very strong relationship between Alem and a friend of his from the children’s home that is totally invented. It doesn’t exist in the book.
You need people for your central character to talk to. Otherwise it’s a one man show. And funnily enough, Lemn has already done that show. He did it about his own life. It’s called ‘Something Dark’ and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a one man show.
But he’s done it. It’s not actually about refugee or asylum but about a young man coming to terms with having been abandoned – the search for identity.
You watch that show and think ‘you’re still standing?’ So I think it’s really…now we’re at a place where we have I think a really good play from a really good book.  They are going to be there own things. Benjamin Zephaniah has read the play and was happy with it. He found it a bit strange – in that it is and isn’t his novel.
Different people have different levels on control. Benjamin has been very open and relaxed which has been lovely. It’s very good that it is happening.
Did you ever doubt that it would all come together?
The thing is that there is a burst of activity and then there would a long long while where nothing happened at all and then there’d be another burst of activity and then a long long while where nothing happened at all. But we’ve got the momentum back.
[All of this is of course worthwhile as] I think it is a play that will engage a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. I think that there are a lot of people who are broadly sympathetic to the issue around refuges and asylum seekers and will be interested in it for that reason. I think that there are people who will be interested in it because they’ve heard of Benjamin Zephaniah or enjoy his poetry and his writing. And maybe people who’ll try it because maybe their kids had to study it in school and hopefully they will bring them along.
I’m hoping that it will reach out to quite a broad audience.
Now the production is coming together, how involved are you at this point?
To an extent…personally I’m less involved now that the director Gail McIntyre [has taken the reins]. Certainly less once it goes into rehearsals. I’ll be coming to see it towards the end of rehearsal and once it goes into preview. I mean I’m very involved in how the events are happening so I’ll be working through the whole time and I’m probably more involved in this one that others because I’ve been so involved in the making of it. We’ll see. It depends on how much Lemn wants to be around. Whether there’s a need for me to manage the dynamic between how much you want it to be changed, how much you don’t want it to be changed.
Every production is different and needs different kinds of support.
Touch wood – it’s a huge tremendous success. Will it tour?
Our aim is to tour it the following year if we can make everything work out. Because Benjamin is a successful writer and that is a very popular book – it’s studied in schools – there is a certain amount of interest from other theatres. That’s the idea really. We’ll see; we’ll see what happens.
It’s not even always down to whether it’s a success. It’s down to money and what budgets are like and what other plays have been planned for [for other theatres].
And then of course, it’s onto the next stage of the project.

Well best of luck with the opening. And thanks so much for chatting with us. 

 

Theatre Reviews

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director – Part 2

This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!

ALEX CHISHOLM
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY) 
 
Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
 
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 
 
The interview will be posted in two parts. The first section shall focus on Refugee Boy while this part will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 
 
Let’s jump straight in.  What is a literary director?
I am responsible for everything to do with writers and writing. That is everything from running schemes for very very new writers through to things like managing the commission and writing of a production like Refugee Boy. Pretty much anything to do with the writing of plays falls within my remit.
That can be incredibly varying. Some people think that it’s only to do with new writers who are not very well known and creating completely original work, but that’s not the case. For instance this season we’ve got Refugee Boy – an adaptation of a novel; Doctor Faustus– with two completely rewritten acts within the construct of the pre-existing play – that’s Colin Teevan. We’ve also have Sherlockwhich is a completely original storyline employing the characters of Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s by a writer that I’ve worked with a lot in the last few years – Mark Catley.
We’ve got the Transformseason – where we work alongside a lot of writers. In fact there’s a particular project that I’m very involved in that which is 3 writers creating a piece on being at Leeds Markets – At the Market – and that’s what we’ve most recently being doing interviews for. I’m involved in all of these things to different levels and extents.
I’m also responsible, of course, for developing newer writers and also for working with slightly more experienced people on creating plays that we will hopefully eventually do.
On the new Sherlock
Sherlock is a lot of work because it’s a completely original script. And in fact coming up with a completely original Sherlock plotline is actually quite a challenge. It’s a very enjoyable challenge at that. I’m really enjoying it.
I can’t say that I’ve read a great deal of the Sherlock books. I’ve read Scandal in Bohemia and Hound of the Baskervilles – I know the classic series and films and the recent series which I’ve enjoyed very very much.
[We each take a moment to properly appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch]
They are extremely good updates of them. They are steeped in a deep love of Conan Doyle.
This is something else. The decision was made to keep it Victorian so it’s not up against the show. And also, it is not an adaptation of an existing story. It’s completely original and still orientates around a mystery.
We did some years ago, a comedic version with the Peepolykus (People Like Us)theatre group of Hound of the Baskervilles. Essentially there are two performers that set it up. One was Basque – he played Sherlock and there was something very amusing about Sherlock having a very pronounced accent.  It was fantastic and hugely enjoyable and well managed the combination between comedy and a genuine love of mystery. It’s Hound so everyone knows ‘who dun it’ but that wasn’t the point. It was a fun-ride type of scary.
The Peepolykus production had people becoming groupies of this particular show. But you can only do that with a certain type of production. We have to come up with something that manages to negotiate these different genera’s.  It is based in London. Still working on that – it’s a work in progress but I think it’s looking really exciting and I’m looking forward to that too.
So that was very enjoyable but this is something totally new. It’s a periodic version that can use the clichés around Sherlock and use them to great effect.
Do you write yourself?
I have done a bit. I have written a children’s play, which was performed here a little while ago. It was called The Magic Paintbrush – an adaptation of a Chinese folk tale. It was lovely and I really enjoyed doing that.
I’ve also done a couple of translations. Which is writing of a different sort! And there’s been quite a lot of putting together of shows from different materials.
I also direct. Though not this season. Actually I suppose I am in a way. I am co-directing ‘At the Market’, part of the Transform project, I’m one of the directors of that.
Which of those titles do you use to describe yourself – Writer or Director?
I suppose I’d say Director. Because that’s where I started. That’s predominantly how I see myself and I see all the other skills as falling under that category. I think one of the major functions that I play is managing the dramaturgy of the scripts – working directly with the writer myself or with the director or managing a team. 
An awful lot of project management goes on within a building of this size. I do enjoy that side of it too. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing things coming to fruition. So; like with Refugee Boy; I’m one of the people that’s making that happen. It’s one of the great aspects of this particular theatre is that it pays as much attention to the whole round experience, not just the way that it feels on the stage but also in the many different ways that people will relate to that to how we make our connections within the community.
It’s important to give people a good experience across the project. Good admin is about making sure that you do things well. And take care of people in the process. It’s not that easy but in the end that’s what it comes down too.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse
[I’ve been] eleven years (at the WY Playhouse). It is home. Leeds feels like home – it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere since I left home at the age of 18. I was at university then going around the country for 7 or 8 years, ostensibly based in London but not necessarily there. Then I came to Leeds for this job. 
What has been of particular interest to you?
Well, obviously there are high points for me that involve work that I’ve actually done. There was a piece called Dustwhich was created by a writer called Kenneth Yates.
Again it was a verbatim piece, based in an asbestos factory about a woman called June Hancock. Having nursed her mother through pleural mesothelioma which is a cancer based on asbestos; she was then diagnosed with it herself. She subsequently sued the company responsible – or an American parent company of the people who owned the factory for compensation.
It’s an amazing David versus Goliath story. We told that with a community company and opened it in an old warehouse just literally a stone’s throw from the factory in Armley. Then we took it to the Courtyard for a week. That was an amazing experience.
Her children were there. Obviously June Hancock had passed away several years before. Pleural mesothelioma either kills you quickly, at a medium rate or slowly. The second longest survivor was just over three years. It’s terminal, there is no remission from it and it’s particularly nasty. It’s the cancer of the pleural lining. You can’t do chemotherapy and the tumour grows around your lungs so you can’t breathe. It’s also got an incubation period. You can get it from exposure to just one fibre. But it can take 40 or 50 years to manifest and by then…
The factory is still there. It’s concreted up, but it’s still there. It’s right within a residential area and was at the time. The local school’s playground is just over the road from the factory and the children used to play in the dust from this factory. Alan Bennet went there. And Barbara Taylor Bradford. Neither of whom have mesothelioma. It’s random chance basically.
But June Hancock did. There’s a …there’s one of those maps that has the entire borough’s of Leeds on it. Its colour coded according to incidences of Mesothelioma. White is normal – 1:10 000 or whatever. Black is a certain density. Basically the entirety, the whole area around  Armley is black.
So in fact – one of the shocking things – you don’t live in Armley do you? Because the stuff is still there. It’s in the attics, it’s in the terrace. Not just of the factory but all the houses around it. The company paid to clean up the area – they sealed off large areas and attics and so on. And in some sort of deal for the clean up; they had this taken off the land registry. As though it never existed. So if you buy a property in Armley now; it won’t show up on the surveys.
You get told on the quiet – if you live in Armley, don’t convert your attic. Because it could be lethal.
You can see why this is a piece that I’m so proud of doing. We worked very closely with Russell and Kimberley – June’s children. We also raised over a thousand pounds for a related charity. As well as, I think, doing a genuinely good piece of theatre.
Would you say that theatre is a reflection of the social world to you?
I probably am one of those people who got into theatre who thought that I could made a difference in the world.
Other things that I’m particularly proud of include – oh, I did a play with (Leeds born) Mark Catley – writer of Sherlock called Scuffer – which we described as a Beeston Rom Com, which I really really enjoyed. It was lovely – very funny, very touching and very enjoyable and did very well.
There have been lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing here.
As to the future?
There are some very exciting ideas which I can’t necessarily say at the moment. I think that yes, there is a gravitational pull to social stories. Not to say that these can’t be entertaining and fun.
That was one of the things I enjoyed most about Scuffer. It had a point to it. It was also incredibly entertaining. I don’t think that it was written with the Rom Com genera in mind. Yet, it did live within that genus to an extent as there was a character that was useless that came good in the end. There was such a huge amount of pleasure derived from that, seeing that happen, seeing someone overcome their … uselessness! Actually, make something more of themselves. Rise to the occasion. 
We’ve certainly got quite a literary season this year. May be of interested to those who are literary minded.
Doctor Fautus
Colin Teevan puts it very well. He says that the whole play straddles very well the tradition between two different sorts of styles – it’s modern in terms of manipulations, motivations and the psychology of the characters and then is also a medieval mystery play. 
The central section is all medieval mystery play. It can be quite heavy going actually. There’s not much else going on. It’s almost relentless. There are just a few big set pieces. And for comedy it just wasn’t…. A lot of renaissance humour is word play and references and puns and we don’t get it. It doesn’t mean anything any more. The third and Forth acts are not good and there’s a theory that they weren’t actually written by him – Kit Marlowe – but perhaps by a student.  
So, I think it’s going to be really interesting seeing people’s reactions to it. I think that it really does go renaissance, renaissance, MODERN. It’s quite a stark change, an attempt to make it knit together. I like what Colin has done. It echoesthe words that Marlowe used. It’s not trying to blank verse or … its set in the modern world, following some of the incidents in the Marlowe or the original Doctor Faustus but with a narrative line following through that. It’s not something we do so often in this country. Here we prefer our plays to be slightly homogenous. We tend to get a bit nervy when people start mixing up their genera’s.
On changing things up
There is the gang that turn up to Shakespeare and laugh at all the jokes because they understand it. Because they have studied it. And sometimes, [they are so busy getting it] they don’t seem to always get to enjoy it. 
I remember when Kneehigh did Cymbeline – they largely rewrote it; almost entirely rewrote it and performed it at Stratford , they were invited as part of the RAC festival of Shakespeare when they did the full works.
It was a very strange experience for them. Normally the Kneehigh audience shows up knowing who Kneehigh are and what to expect from them. But a lot of people came to the play because it was Stratfrod. And they wanted to watch Cymbeline. Not because it was Kneehigh. And Cymbeline got a lot of shit in it too to be perfectly honest. As beautiful as some parts of it are…a lot of the humour is missed – there’s a lot of it that I think is supposed to be funnier than people actually react to it. But Act 5 was hysterical. It just becomes plain exposition ‘I did this, and I did that, and you need to know for the plot that I also did this’.
I did speak with one of the people from Kneehigh and they said that it was very odd. They had people in the audience with the script, with a copy of the play – their penguin copy – on their laps. They were trying to read it as the play was going on and of course not being able too because they had completely rewritten it. And then one person who was doing that – and it being Knee High they had somebody in the audience – turned around and snarled ‘this is a disgrace’. Oh dear. So that person didn’t have a good time.
On bringing plays and scripts into the theatre – does it put a company off?
Oh god yes, I was at a production at the Old Bush, not the new one, a tiny tiny space. And it was the press night, no it was the night afterwards. The press night had clashed with another press night so a lot of the reviewers actually came that night.
There can only have been about 30 of us, friends, press and others in the whole audience. At least 3 of the press were sitting on the front row had the script to the play in their hands. And they bought it and were reading along to it. I mean it was a new play, a new production and surely watching it should have been the point.
It’s the critics. They are essentially kind of signalling that the production is neither here nor there. All they are really interested in is what the text says, so they are reviewing almost as a piece of literature rather than the play itself. They see the production as merely a transmission mechanism rather than anything that has its own independent, artistic and creative life. If you are going to look at it like that then you really are better off just getting a copy of the text. Because there’s no choice then.
Right – we’d better let you get back to it. Thanks so much for chatting with us.
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