15 March
Contact Theatre

Few stories have stirred up more emotive responses than that of Nirbhaya, the name given to a girl raped on a Delhi bus in 2012. The crime was so brutal that she died of her injuries. After her death people took to the streets to say ‘no more’, enraged at a city where groping, degradation and rape are everyday occurrences.

Inspired to step out of their silence by Nirbhaya, this production tells the true stories of four Indian women who have themselves been sexually assaulted.

Each feels more powerful than the last, as the women document what happened to them and how it made them feel with searing honesty. There is a woman whose husband tried to burn her to death, while another was raped in her bed while studying in Canada. Two of the women were abused from a young age, unable to resist their attackers or understand what was happening. This is not theatre to entertain, but nor is it done to shock. It is done to shine a light, to examine the dark places that too often we avoid.

The production itself is visually striking, but not distracting. Writer and director Yaël Farber helps the women to get their words across with maximum impact. Sand is poured from the ceiling in therapeutic streams, petals fall from the sky making beautiful patterns in hopeful spirals, chairs and empty frames stand in place of the bus, and a sheet covers one of the women, accentuating the pain and contortion of her assault. The theatrical elements help us to comprehend and keep us focussed on ideas that are hard to hear.

These women are not actors and Nirbhaya does not try to make them act. Instead, it gives them a vehicle to spread a message. Their pain and hurt can help others, inspiring change that has taken too long to come – allowing Nirbhaya, which means ‘hope’, to live up to her name.

Andrew Anderson

Hindle Wakes

11 March
Bolton Octagon

Few venues quite match a visit to the Octagon when it comes to 19th century northern drama. Whether it is the WWI re-enactment Early One Morning or the comic farce of Hobson's Choice (set in 1880, but written in 1916), something about the place just fits that timeframe. I suspected I would be in for a treat with Hindle Wakes, which was written in 1910 by Lancastrian Stanley Houghton.

In a similar vein to Hobson's Choice, the story documents the power struggle between parent and child, in particular between father and daughter. But where Hindle Wakes differs is in the modernity of its subject, namely sex. Fanny Hawthorn (Natasha Davidson) is ostensibly on a trip to Blackpool, but ends up getting rather more than a stick of rock when she runs into Alan Jeffcote (played by Tristan Brooke), a playboy son of local industrialist Nathaniel Jeffcote (James Quinn). The couple return home only to find their hidden passion is not quite so secret. Both fathers insist that the honourable thing must be done – but do their children agree?

Directed by David Thacker, it goes without saying that the staging, costumes and movement were all meticulous. The tension built up between the various family configurations was both comic and claustrophobic, testament to a director acting as an expert catalyst between script and actors.

While both Brooke and Davidson did everything asked of their roles, the show was stolen by the parents. Quinn and Russell Richardson (playing Fanny's father) made for a wonderfully hopeless double act as the two doting dads, while mothers Kathy Jamieson and Barbara Drennan (playing Mrs Hawthorn and Jeffcote, respectively) were, to use the Lancashire parlance, ‘proper awkward’.

There was something not quite as enjoyable about Hindle's Wake though, namely that it was simply too similar to Hobson's Choice and set in a similar time period to other recent work. No matter how good the production, its impact was likely to be reduced. A well produced, well performed play, but just a bit too similar to other work seen recently at the Octagon.

Andrew Anderson

Polly and Gordon (Beautiful Desolation)

9 March
Kings Arms

A short and gentle two-hander, Robin J Lyons' script is an entertaining moment in two strangers’ lives. Gordon picks litter in the dead of night and Polly is on her fifth gap year.

Kathryn Owens is charming as Polly, a character who is confrontational and coy. Alastair Gillies is brilliant as Gordon, a barely contained ball of nervous energy and frustration. Both relish the script's wit and emotional peaks and carry the audience through some quite sudden changes in tone and pace.

The piece deserves a larger stage than the cramped space it inhabits to more effectively express the characters' isolation, while the limited tech means the play stutters in its first and final moments.

With a running time of 35 minutes, Polly and Gordon never outstay their welcome, but neither do their stories feel entirely resolved. Secrets remain unexplored, especially those of Gordon, who remains an enigma. There are also a couple of moments that feel too easily or too quickly arrived at and the play would benefit from a few extra minutes in its characters' company.

Despite this Polly & Gordon is an engaging piece of new work from a promising writer and delivered by a talented cast.

Sean Mason

Twelve Angry Men

28 March
The Lowry

Christopher Haydon’s version of the play opens with a scene set in a hot, dusty room in a courthouse, into which 12 men pile after three days spent in a sweltering courtroom to make a monumental decision – the “grave responsibility” of declaring a verdict that would potentially mean the death sentence for the defendant standing trial. The opening scene reflects the importance of the forthcoming discussion with the looming scales of justice cleverly placed by the set designer to remind the audience of the gravity of proceedings.

The writer, Reginald Rose, was beckoned to serve as a juror in 1954 at the New York County Supreme Court, an experience that overwhelmed him. He was a television writer at the time and the setting struck an emotional chord, allowing him to perceive the creative possibilities of turning this jurors’ room into a script exploring presumptions and prejudices. The all-white, all-male jury reflects a patriarchal system where women and people of colour were overlooked as jurors, even though technically they were able to serve.

As the men enter the room, the audience is struck by their various reactions to the space. The blistering heat anticipates a raging thunderstorm, while the men sweat it out in the locked and claustrophobic room, learning about one another’s weak points, debating “reasonable doubt”, and getting angrier and angrier. There is phatic chat as they assess one another, before the real talk commences. Some feel lucky to get a murder case, rather than a dull burglary, whilst one of the men is keen to leave to attend the Yankees versus Cleveland ball game – the ticket is burning in his pocket.

The men mull, some quite reluctantly, over how easy or hard it is to send a boy off to die, and the audience are gripped by the suspense this creates. It does not bode well. There is confusion and chaos, tantrums and threats. As they discuss the boy’s upbringing, we see glimpses of the lives of these men – the watchmaker, the ad agency copywriter, the marmalade salesman and others. Juror Three (Andrew Lancel) is excitable and easily the angriest man of them all, while in contrast Tom Conti brilliantly portrays Juror Eight as a calm and collected man who is concerned with dissecting the defendant’s character, the witnesses and their testimonies in order to analyse the “facts” of the case. All the while the audience wonder about the other jurors on this hotchpotch jury. Would I want my fate in their hands?

Many theatre-goers will no doubt be firm fans of the Henry Fonda film version directed by Sydney Lumet and some will have studied the text in Psychology classes. Fans of the film will not be disappointed by this stunning production in light of contemporary concerns about social justice. It was a full house at The Lowry, no doubt due to a combination of brilliant actors and a classic play.

Sadia Habib

Anna Karenina

24 March
The Royal Exchange

This is a beautiful adaptation of the Tolstoy classic. True to the novel it allows us a close-up understanding of the many characters as well as the themes of Tolstoy’s Russia: social class stereotypes, the dichotomy between urbanisation and agriculture, love and marriage, wealth, religion, and happiness. It is quite a feat to successfully include such epic themes and stories from the novel in a stage adaptation, but writer Jo Clifford and director Ellen McDougall have pulled this off magnificently and seamlessly, with fluid shifts from scene to scene.

Ryan Early plays the role of Anna Karenina’s brother, Oblonsky, who is sometimes obnoxious and unrepentant – “But what a governess!” – and other times endearing as he gallivants around Moscow, remorseful of his misdoings. When he bursts onto the stage, he is lamenting the situation with his long-suffering wife, Dolly, whilst eagerly awaiting the arrival of his sister, Anna, who is on the train from St Petersburg. Under McDougall’s direction and Wilkie Branson’s choreography, Ony Uhiara (Anna) and Robert Gilbert (Vronsky) portray a passionate first encounter where their love at first sight is imbued with chemistry and lingering looks of love. The moment is unforgettable for more than one reason, as it coincides with tragedy. Throughout the play there are powerfully memorable moments between Anna and Vronsky whenever they meet, be it on the dancefloor at a dazzling ball or when they are alone.

The novel was adapted into this moving stage production by Clifford, who decided to retain the religious themes that were clearly significant to Tolstoy. The play begins sombrely with a prayer and we are frequently reminded about the mercifulness of God, both in the characters’ pain and sorrow, as well as in lighter moments. The most earnest character is Levin (John Cummins), who manages to perfectly portray his many facets – loner, social misfit, forlorn, bookish, and a man with genuine concern for the agricultural workers and their families. There are touching moments of friendship between Levin and Oblonsky, which reveal their brotherly love whilst indicating the clashes of urban and country life.

Karenin (Jonathan Keeble), Anna’s husband, is a predictably overbearing and bland bore, who is bookish like Levin, but only on the surface. Karenin is highly concerned with keeping up appearances in Russian high society, while his wife is frustrated with the drudgery of being the wife of an oafish and pompous workaholic. We sometimes feel sympathy for him as he bitterly observes people noticing the animated conversation between Vronsky and Anna. Anna’s lively exuberance is too much for him and, ever the Minister of State, he wishes to file her away in the box titled ‘dutiful wife’ – a confinement that will suffocate her.

The powerfully symbolic soil is strategically placed on the stage and reflects so much – death, earth and life. It is our source of life and to where we will return. We are told of the consequences of suffering if we are cut off from this soil – a great, damaging, empty space. The characters all sow their seeds in this soil, awaiting spring and longing for the results, even if it is just bread. The arrivals and departures remind us of life and death, especially in the space of the train station where there are comings and goings at the beginning and end of the play.

Sadia Habib

Background photo by Anton Belmonte Photography.