Spring Reign: A Story from the Syrian Conflict

19 May
The Lowry

“Lost are they who, in their ignorance, have foolishly slain their children.”

Salah and Aisha, a couple who do not want to leave their beloved, besieged city of Aleppo, struggle amidst the crazy chaos as their tense and traumatised lives are spiralling deeper into destruction. They are generous, loving and kind people, who take foreigners into their home to protect them from the violence and brutality of the Syrian regime, even though they are consumed with their own worries as they attempt, with great difficulty, to have some semblance of an ordinary life, waiting for bread, fuel and water. Revolutions need shoes as well as guns, we are told, as Salah attempts to play cobbler and repair his shoe, for he needs something to do, something distracting. Salah and Aisha, who long to be reunited with their daughter, keep themselves busy, ignoring the heavy sounds of warfare and relentless rain of bombs. Instead, they take good care of the photojournalist Mark and the English teacher Claire, offering them food and friendship. Mark and Claire, though foreigners, have their own attachments and reasons for wanting to be in Syria. Mark takes consolation in the only language he knows, photography, while Claire can’t take off the Manchester United shirt her missing fiancé left behind.

Flashing back to long ago, Salah was a little boy, who had a busy life like boys do, as he yearned for adventure and something noble. In those days, nothing much mattered to him. He grew up and became defiant and steadfast as he confronted the biggest monster a boy could have nightmares about. The play is interspersed with thoughtful moments of nostalgia and narratives of innocent childhood, which contrast starkly with the stories experienced as adults – the trapped civilians in densely populated areas who find it impossible to leave. Hospitals are now in supermarkets and schools are in shops, and all secret so as to avoid the prying eyes and hands of the government soldiers that may prise away these necessities. The little boy’s monster has at last arrived and the arduous battle begins. Salah and Aisha must flee, resist or fight back with all their might.

The play is realistic, heart wrenching in its monologues, delivers moments of universal humour, and is always insightful regarding the Syrian people and their struggles for a free Syria. The producer/director, Benedict Power, discussed the realities of war-torn Syria with those who had loved their cities, lived the experiences, and left to escape political oppression and brutal physical punishment at the hands of the Syrian government. The writer, Rob Johnston, and his team spoke with aid workers, refugees, journalists and photographers who had witnessed the terrible atrocities taking place in Syria at the hands of Bashar Al-Assad. As a result, they have portrayed the humanitarian catastrophe in a way that makes you feel you must help the Syrian people. Salah’s monologue on falling poignantly points out how they are falling from what they were, what they believed, as they are left to fall by the world. What began as peaceful protests, with Syrians gathering, dancing and singing protest songs, turned into an ugly conflict making refugees, widows, and orphans of the beautiful Syrian people. The live performances, videos and songs complement the emotional themes of Spring Reign.

Though the mainstream media is disinterested, if you don’t know about Syria, then you should seek out the voices of those whose lives have been devastated. If you don’t know about Aleppo, the oldest city on the earth (some Syrians would say) then you should know. If you don’t know how this started – the humiliation, abuse, attacks on human dignity – then you should find out about how the peaceful protestors were brutalised by the Syrian government. Spring Reign provides a powerful and moving glimpse into the lives of ordinary Syrians as they attempt to negotiate their lives amidst a terrible war that they did not start and did not want, and at all times reminding us this is not fiction for the Syrian people. This is very real.

Sadia Habib

For those who wish to help raise awareness, learn more about the plight of the Syrian people, or donate time and money, please contact the community organisation Rethink Rebuild Society and the charity Syria Relief, who the creators of Spring Reign worked closely with in ensuring the production of the play was true to life.

Photo above by Musa Chowdhury.

To Kill A Mockingbird

23 May
The Lowry

To Kill a Mockingbird fans will be much enamoured by this brilliant production that manages to perfectly balance the sobering and tragic adult themes of the gripping novel with the childlike curiosity and innocence of Scout, Jem and Dill’s playful experiences. Scout’s sometimes astute, and other times humorous, observations are relayed to the audience through a novel and innovative technique of multiple narrators speaking on stage at separate times, each holding their own old copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, showcasing all the different covers that have been published over the years.

We hear Scout’s reflections as an adult, as well as her observations as a child. The young actress who plays Scout magnificently shows us the different dimensions to her character. There are touching little moments where Scout thinks of her mother. Was she pretty? Did she love her? At other times we delight in her wild imagination and observe her temper flaring up very quickly. She is small but powerful as she manages to diffuse the tense trouble when Cunningham and his mob arrive to attack Tom, but end up having to confront Atticus first.

Another star of the show is Dill. We await his return and are more than happy when he arrives, telling tall tales of how he escaped from a life of eating raw beans in a basement. Even the calm and unruffled Atticus seems fascinated by Dill. The most engaging scenes in the play are definitely those that reveal the children interacting with one another, for example when they discuss where babies come from. Atticus is the hero of the play. At home, he is doing a fine job of bringing up his children and, in the courtroom, we see he is strong and principled. Scout and Jem go on an eye-opening journey learning about these different sides to their father that can only make them proud.

The set designer, Jon Bausor, has done an amazing job of compressing the fictional town of Maycomb onto one stage before us using chalk and some choice props, for example the children’s tree that they spend much time around. There are neat transitions to key places, like the jailhouse and the courtroom. We meet nosy and bigoted Maycomb residents, as well as those who are more dignified and just. There is appealing live music. The dreamy songs in the play are enchanting, reminiscent of days gone by, or reflective of the long and busy days of summer. But then at other times we are jolted back into our seats with a shock as the cruel and bigoted behaviour of some of the Maycomb townsfolk hit hard.

It’s a superb adaptation by Christopher Sergel, directed by Timothy Sheader, of a much loved American classic that is still as relevant today as when it was published over half a century ago. It is such a shame that the novel is no longer proposed as an important text to be studied by GCSE students, according to government proposals. In an age when we see #Blacklivesmatter trending on social media after the killings of young black men in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird and its themes about racial injustice, bigotry and the law needs urgent exploration in schools. Moreover, the themes of tolerance, law and justice are also pertinent to our lives in Britain with the introduction of secret courts, as we need more Atticus Finches to challenge the system, even if the system is always bigger and more brutal than we can ever imagine. My friends and I left the play keen to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and appreciate it in its full glory.

Sadia Habib

The Funfair

21 May

The Funfair is Simon Stephens’ modern adaptation of Ivor Van Hoeth's 1932 play, Kasimir und Karoline, and the first production to grace the stage of Manchester's brand new multi-disciplinary arts centre, Home. This is an opportunity to demonstrate artistic intent, for Walter Meierjohann to christen their new space by starting as he means to go on. Which better playwright to choose than Simon Stephens, a local boy made good, re-writing an acclaimed yet little known German text?

The Funfair matches the familiar with the unfamiliar, transposing the production to Manchester's Platt Fields Park whilst riddling it with European influence – something Meierjohann, as the first German-born artistic director in Britain, has been clear will be one of Home's distinguishing factors.

The original play is set in 1929 at the height of the global economic crisis, only a few years before the Nazis came to power, so the text carries a foreboding feeling throughout. Premiering only two weeks after our own bleak election results, the play’s sense of unrest is palpable and couldn't feel more relevant to today's audience. “People are worried all the time. They're anxious, and they can't take it anymore.”

The programme quotes Meierjohann stating that “the play is about the power that economics and politics hold over ordinary people,” which becomes apparent immediately. Kash loses his job, an event which comes between him and his girlfriend Karoline – not so much because of her actions, but because he accuses her of being fickle enough to end the relationship based on his financial status (an argument that she strongly disputes). Essentially, the play follows the evening of the two lovers as they go off in search of distraction, watching one another from afar, their paths often crossing, at times intentionally antagonising and at others seemingly almost forgetting each other in pursuit of oblivion.

Though the regional accents may be familiar, the style in which the production is presented is decidedly European, with an expressive and highly visual aesthetic, strong physical characterisation and emotive storytelling. This is a heightened realism rather than a direct representation of the here and now. The characters are all amplified but remain relatable, their performances stylised but with enough naturalism. The grotesque backdrop of the carnival cabaret style band and the laughing, taunting chorus adds to the feeling of surrealism.

As with Romeo and Juliet, I felt immersed in a dystopian Baz Luhrmann film with the use of a faded, vibrant colour palette, pop scoring, youthful energy and high octane emotions.

I am reminded of a Gaia Holmes poem about patrons of a burger van in central Manchester “out in search of a fuck or a fight”. The play has a sense of unrest and fun pursued so fiercely that aggression cannot be far off. They seek exhilaration, closeness to others, distraction, but their pursuit is such that it becomes dangerous, jealous and selfish.

Some may criticise the piece for a lack of likeable characters – they are all flawed in one way or another, turning on one another as they try to climb socially or economically – but, while this might be a touch depressing, it is definitely current. Kash is arresting, frustrating and tragic from the outset, but whilst he is hard to like, he remains easy to empathise with. The performances are strong across the board, with fantastic physicalisation adding to their portrayals.

Despite being an adaptation, the script feels distinctly Simon Stephens, with a sparse use of language, bleak humour and poignant one-liners. Caroline asks near the beginning, “What's the point of being at the funfair if you don't go on the roller coaster?” and pursues this belief, sometimes against her better judgement, throughout the narrative, until at last she must come back down to earth.

Whilst the show is immensely engaging and enjoyable, that is not to say it makes for comfortable viewing. This is particularly true in the gender interactions. Women are summoned with whistles and clicks, the sexes pitted against one another, and women are even traded. Though unsettling, if we consider the production is about the effect of economic circumstance on interpersonal relationships, it seems appropriate.

Although all elements of the production were extremely strong, its visual aesthetic marked it out. Award-winning designer Ti Green uses projections onto both gauze and the back wall to enhance and disorientate the audience between scenes, with German expressionist-influenced video projections lending a grotesque feel to the fair. The production was full of ‘wow’ moments – as with Meierjohann's first Home production, Romeo and Juliet – including the lights travelling around framed wings on the back wall, the sparse singular horse circling the carousel and the hundreds of cans that dropped onto the stage.

The band of faded circus performers, visible through a window positioned above the actors' heads to the top right of the stage, gave a cabaret feel to proceedings, creating an ominous, brooding tone.

The Summertime Blues full ensemble sequence used to open the show's second half is a particularly good example of Meierjohann's talent for tying all the elements of a production together. It is exciting to think that Meierjohann is at the heart of Home's theatrical programme.

The Funfair manages to be vibrant yet bleak, abrasive yet immersive, stimulating and relevant. It is a show about economics coming between normal people. In a time when we are galvanising ourselves and urging others to become more politicised, this show demonstrates their importance, that politics affect personal relationships.

Couple this statement with the artistic execution and it feels like Home is onto something. Theatres talk about their fear of losing a generation of theatre goers as the arts become a playground for the privileged. If they want to engage new audiences, particularly of young people, then this is exactly how to do it – by coupling the familiar with the new and exciting, by making it bold, bright, poppy, cinematic and immersive.

Manchester has been lauded lately for its progressive arts investment. I believe with the opening of the biggest arts centre outside London, and with a production of this artistic quality and cultural relevance, we might have just pinned our colours to the mast. Welcome, Home.

Megan Griffith


16 May
The Lowry

300-1 is a one-man play which sees a crusty-palmed schoolboy act out a Hollywood war epic in his bedroom, whilst the phantoms of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon help him do his homework. At first glance this may not seem the clearest premise for an anti-war comedy, but over the course of an hour it delivers laughs and insight in (trench) spades.

Writer Matt Panesh is an adept physical performer, playing every character in a small but versatile cast, ranging from a teenage boy to a Spartan Adonis with nothing but a marker pen to constitute a costume change. Although the play relies heavily on the audience to take a leap of faith and stretch their imaginations, Panesh breaks the third wall before it’s even assembled, winning people over through sheer gall. This is a daring tactic that works thanks to his ability to channel the slapstick fearlessness of Chaplin and Cleese, giving each character a distinct mannerism to set them apart.

The pacing of the performance is perfect. Like the main protagonist, the audience are treated to a gentle and funny introduction to the world of camp poets, whose love for their country is overshadowed by their love of innuendo. Owen and Sassoon are left aghast at the young lad’s wishes to join up, helped in no small part by his love of Hollywood and the influence of the Help for Heroes culture. As the play progresses, the boy forsakes his homework to re-enact his favourite film as the poets admire its homoerotic undertones. Within this subplot, Panesh somehow manages to provide searing observations on the hypocrisy of world leaders who use emotive recollections of the dead to justify war.

Owen’s posthumous masterpiece, Dulce et Decorum Est, is delved into at certain junctures, shaping the arc of the story as the teenager begins to question himself. Slowly, the lad realises the horror of war and begins to understand the poems after they’re brought to life by their creators, altering his romanticised outlook of war in the process. The play finishes with a full recitation of Dulce… and leaves the boy in no doubt that it's anything but sweet and honourable to die for one’s country. It is a powerful and fitting end to a tour de force performance from Panesh.

After the interval, under the guise of his award-winning alias, Monkeypoet, he goes on to deliver an enthralling hour of stand-up poetry, continuing the theme of holding the powerful to account. Like the best comedians, Panesh manages to mainline truth and resuscitate souls, making his work all the more pertinent as centenary celebrations of World War One begin to skew history in favour of the donkeys that lead the lions. British culture often glorifies the Great War, using the deaths of millions to shame people into patriotism, allowing pointless new slaughters to occur. This is why it’s refreshing to see a production that speaks up for the dead instead of martyring their demise, finally giving credence to the epitaph ‘lest we forget’.

Nathan McIlroy