Best Theatre Discoveries in 2019

I didn’t want to end the year without shining a spotlight on the theatre companies that I discovered in 2019 who have really excited me. They have all produced outstanding, innovative work, which has pushed boundaries and showcased incredible talent.

It has been a pleasure to discover these theatre companies, so I wanted to write a feature that gives them the credit they rightfully deserve.

ELYSIUM THEATRE COMPANY

Miss Julie Hope Mill Theatre Review Manchester Danny Solomon Lois Mackie Alice Frankham
Miss Julie at Hope Mill Theatre.

Over the past few years, Elysium Theatre Company have become a force to be reckoned with. They have forged a strong reputation of making high quality theatre for northern audiences. Far from playing it safe, Elysium intentionally stage complex plays that are profound, provocative, and deliberately uncomfortable to watch. Their plays are loaded with perplexing, multifaceted characters that are always exquisitely rendered by actors of the highest calibre.

Founded in 2016 by director, Jake Murray, and actor, Danny Solomon, Elysium impressed Mancunian audiences with their critically acclaimed production of Jesus Hopped on the ‘A’ Train at HOME.

However, Elysium’s revival of Miss Julie, in June, was the first time I saw one of their plays. It certainly wasn’t an easy watch, but it is one that I had to let sink in, and it stayed with me for a long time. With two immoral, cruel, yet utterly fascinating characters, it was difficult to know where your loyalties lie, or who to sympathise with, like watching Game of Thrones (without the dragons or incest).

From the moment he chopped the head off a greenfinch*, I was spellbound by Danny Solomon‘s phenomenal versatility as an actor. Something that was cemented with his astonishing performance in Play With Fire’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the GM Fringe. In Elysium’s sublime revival of Athol Fugard’s South African Apartheid drama, Playland, Solomon raised this to another level, matched by a powerful, brooding performance from Faz Singhateh.

Playland was another knockout play from Elysium, and one of the best plays I watched in 2019. Their programme for 2020 is looking equally exciting, as they stage a revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which is touring in May-June.

*No animals were hurt during the performance of Miss Julie. 

 

BREACH THEATRE

Breach Theatre It's True It's True It's True HOME Theatre Manchester
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. Picture Credit – The Other Richard

Breach Theatre‘s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True came as a recommendation from a fellow theatre blogger who had watched it at Edinburgh Fringe. It is, by far, the greatest recommendation I have ever received, as this astonishing play left me shell-shocked and quite literally speechless. It was so profoundly powerful, gut-wrenching, and hard-hitting.

One of the best theatre shows I saw in 2019, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is based on surviving court transcripts and tells the true, harrowing story of a rape trial in 1612. When baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi accused her tutor, Agostino Tassi of sexual assault, she was shockingly tortured under oath to prove she was telling the truth. It is an appalling miscarriage of justice that shook me to the core.

Ellice Stevens, Sophie Steer, and Kathryn Bond deserve the utmost credit for their performances. It mustn’t have been easy to return to that place every night. But most impressive was the creative way that they brought Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings to life, perfectly capturing the anger and disgust with the male gaze that consumed her when she painted them.

Adding in a part of live gig-music that evoked female empowerment, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True not only left me appalled and angry, it taught me what an incredible woman Gentileschi was and endowed me with a huge amount of respect for her.

Here is my fellow blogger, Live Art Live’s review of the show.

 

NOUVEAU RICHE

Queens of Sheba Nouveau Riche Omnibus Theatre HOME Manchester Theatre Review
Queens of Sheba. Picture Credit – Ali Wright.

Nouveau Riche exploded onto my radar with their superb show, Queens of Sheba at HOME. After being turned away from a nightclub for being “too black“, the four women joined together in a sisterhood of solidarity to tell their stories of the casual racism, oppression, and misogyny that they face every day.

The four Queens brought their experiences to the stage by combining spoken word, with song and dance, to create an explosive piece of theatre that is engaging, laced with humour, and hugely empowering. Songs played a huge part in this. They were all iconic songs by Black women, such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and The Supremes.

People of colour continue to face racism in every aspect of their lives, from their hair styles right through to the clothes they wear. The Queens highlighted white privilege by showing the casual racism that they encounter daily. They also challenged Black musicians, like Drake, who make music that sexually objectifies and exploits women. It was eye-opening to see how racism and sexism is ingrained into the very fabric of contemporary culture.

Queens of Sheba provided a strong tonic for these increasingly divisive times we live in, as four extraordinary Black women delivered a powerful, inspirational message of unity and solidarity in the face of racism and sexism.

“We are queens, and we don’t need you to crown us”.

 

SH!T THEATRE

Shit Theatre Drink Rum With Expats HOME Manchester Theatre Review
Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats.

It wasn’t just the free beer and cheese that impressed me about Sh!t Theatre in 2019. Their play, Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats was an absolute blast that involved drinking toasts to Oliver Reed. This was cleverly juxtaposed with disarming, shattering stories about the brutal reality in Malta; Syrian refugees and the political assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

When she died, Galizia was investigating the sale of EU passports for €650,000 to wealthy businessmen, one of whom was pivotal to Brexit’s Leave campaign. The fact that the rich can buy EU citizenship left a bad taste in the mouth.

By juxtaposing comedy with striking moments of stark severity, the show’s mood constantly switched between euphoria and sobriety, so you could never quite relax and enjoy the show, which is undoubtedly intentional.

By drinking rum with expats, Sh!t Theatre created a powerful piece of political theatre, cleverly wrapped up in the pretence of being a massive piss up. Hugely entertaining, yet emotionally distressing at times, they are true masters of their craft, delivering hilarious comedy alongside stark reality that is both hard-hitting and eye-opening.

 

FORGET ABOUT THE DOG

100 Ways to Tie a Shoelace Review Sale Waterside Arts Forget About the Dog
100 Ways to Tie a Shoelace – Sale Waterside Arts.

From the moment 100 Ways to Tie A Shoelace began, I was instantly captivated by Forget About The Dog‘s unique method of storytelling.

The play delves into the human mind and linguistics, providing a surreal insight into the psychological struggle of recovery after experiencing trauma. Forget About The Dog achieve this by presenting physical manifestations of different aspects of Kat’s mind.

Expressive movement and puppetry is used to reconstruct the car accident. Using wooden sticks and clothing, an abstract body is suspended in mid-air. This abstract surrealism is a truly wonderful way of storytelling. It is mysteriously intriguing, as everything is subject to individual interpretation. Nothing is explicit, only ever implied, granting the company artistic freedom, but also challenging the audience to work things out for themselves. Some may have found the play bizarrely confusing, but I think expressionist theatre like this is refreshing and exciting.

Forget About the Dog are an incredibly talented ensemble of performers who push the boundaries between reality and fantasy, not only reflecting the psychological confusion of their main character, but also forming scenes of comedic brilliance.

They also deserve recognition for the best use of music that I heard this year, when Kat’s inner place of happiness is represented by Rupert Holmes’ Escape (the ‘Piña Colada’ song). I still wish my happy place was drinking Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain!

 

HUNG THEATRE

Hung Theatre Sirens Kings Arms Salford Review
Hung Theatre’s Sirens at the King’s Arms, Salford. Picture Credit – Forrest McDonald.

Hung Theatre produce work that showcases the best emerging local writers, directors and actors. They are usually short plays that are performed in collectives.

The first, Snowflakes, was a collection of six short plays, each distinctly different from one another, but all inspired by the ‘snowflake’ generation. Each play managed to engage and entertain its audience, which is a remarkable feat, given that they were only around 10 minutes in length.

My favourite plays were Eleanor Cartmill‘s Think of England, Joe Clegg‘s Lovin’ It and Lewis Woodward‘s Your Mum’s A… The collection also introduced me to some superb local actors, including Andy LongAmy Webber, and Keenan Groom.

Sadly, I was sent on a business trip, so I missed their second collection of plays, Bypass, which formed part of the GM Fringe, but based on this review by my fellow blogger, Circles and Stalls, I missed another fantastic evening. I am still kicking myself for being double-booked and missing their double-bill of Sirens & Rotting, as the plays were written by my favourite writers of Snowflakes. I won’t be making that mistake again!

I was delighted to see that writers from Hung Theatre received a special recognition at the GM Fringe Awards. This theatre company provides an invaluable platform for emerging artists. Not only that, but they also deserve applause for giving crucial support to local theatres. Whenever I go to a fringe production, I regularly spot members of Hung Theatre at the show.

 

TIL’ THIS NIGHT – PURPLECOAT PRODUCTIONS

The Orange Peel Sale Waterside Arts Karl Falconer Til This Night
The Orange Peel at Sale Waterside Arts. Photo provided by Karl Falconer.

Til This Night (Purplecoat Productions) impressed me with their play, The Orange Peel, which was an intimate affair, with only eighteen seats arranged in Sale Waterside Arts’ studio theatre space. Considering the studio’s intimacy, the company gave their all and left their hearts on the stage.

Written by the group’s artistic director, Karl Falconer, who also performed in the play, The Orange Peel depicted a disastrous family meal between two siblings and their partners. At its heart are fascinating characters, whose ambiguity leaves them shrouded in mystery. None of the characters were particularly likeable and they had few redeeming qualities, yet there was something strangely alluring about Falconer’s perplexing characters. Being forced to decipher their true identities, but having crucial information withheld, was tantalising, yet equally frustrating.

There is nothing I love more in the theatre than ambiguous characters who leave me questioning their motives. The tension in the play was gripping, and its characters really got under my skin, so much that I travelled to Sheffield to watch The Orange Peel again. It was great to see how it had evolved and improved.

With this play, Til This Night succeeded in putting working-class stories on stage, which was refreshing in itself. But its fascinating, thought-provoking, ambiguous characters proved that Karl Falconer has admirable talent.

Earlier this year, it was revealed on their Facebook page, that the company were going to open their own space, The Purple Door, in Liverpool. Allowing local voices a platform, this theatre group will be pivotal in inspiring the next generation of working-class artists. They are certainly ensuring a brighter future for those up north.

 

MRS PANKHURST’S PLAYERS

Shrew Salford Arts Theatre GM Fringe 2019 Manchester Theatre Review Mrs Pankhurst Players Shakespeare The Taming of the Shrew
Shrew at Salford Arts Theatre. Picture Credit – Helen Newall.

How do you stage a 400 year old comedy that, quite frankly, isn’t funny anymore?

Mrs Pankhurst’s Players provided an answer to this question by staging an unforgettable, bold, feminist adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that doesn’t try to be funny, defiantly stating #ItsNotFunny. Instead, Emma Heron‘s Shrew is a tense, harrowing domestic drama set in a nightclub; a dark world of gangsters, where marriage is a business transaction, and women are property.

Shrew was part of the GM Fringe festival, before it headed to the Edinburgh Fringe. Keeping Shakespeare’s original dialogue, the play was truncated into a 60 minute play, putting Kate’s story at the forefront. It didn’t pull any punches in depicting the psychological and physical abuse and was truly distressing to watch.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Players encapsulated everything I dislike about Shakespeare’s so called comedy. Rather than unsuccessfully attempting to stage a controversial comedy, straining to identify its non-existent humour, they created a powerful piece of theatre that is intense and brutal.

Domestic abuse is no laughing matter.

 

CLEAN BREAK

Clean Break Theatre Sweatbox HOME Manchester
Sweatbox at HOME, Manchester.

The award for the most innovative theatre has to be given to Clean Break for their prison drama, Sweatbox, which was performed inside a prison van that toured the country.

Not recommended for people who suffer from claustrophobia, the audience gathered inside an authentic prison van to hear stories of three prisoners that were being transferred from court to prison, one of whom is pregnant.

With a relatively short running time of 15 minutes, Clean Break succeeded in delivering a message more powerful than most feature length plays. The abhorrent conditions that the women were kept in was stifling. Performed on a summer’s day, the heat was searing and uncomfortable.

Many critics would say that the prisoners deserve it, after all they are criminals. However, the prisoners were all repentant of their crimes, and after being exposed to these conditions, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for those concerned. Prison vans really are appalling places.

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