One day a week (plus a bit extra), I run New Writing Cumbria for Eden Arts. We do a number of things, btu one thing we’ve just started is putting on events at Penrith Old Fire Station. The first one went down a storm!

The evening featured poet Kareem Parkins-Brown, musicians Kev Kendal and Bill Lloyd, writer Stephen Redman, and filmmaker Richie Johnston. Oh, and a bar inside a horse box, naturally.

Here are a couple of shots from the night:

~ Katie Hayes (Anna), Liam Smith (Deeley), Rebecca Todd (Kate): Photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Katie Hayes (Anna), Liam Smith (Deeley), Rebecca Todd (Kate): Photo by Keith Pattison ~

There are plays that make you laugh. There are plays that make you cry. Then there are plays that make you think for days after the curtain call has ended and the lights have gone up. Mary Papadima’s production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times is definitely one of these.

The play appears to start ordinarily enough: a couple, Kate (Rebecca Todd) and Deeley (Liam Smith), anticipating the arrival of Kate’s old friend Anna (Katie Hayes). However, because this is Pinter, all is not as it seems. The surreal curves of the set, reminiscent of a Dali painting, hint at the distorted reality that follows, as Deeley and Anna engage in a power struggle over their claims to Kate. As versions of the past surface, the possibilities voiced (and not voiced) by the characters make the Pinteresque silences spine-tingling – particularly in the intimacy of the Theatre by the Lake’s small studio theatre.

It was this intimate space that helped to produce the play’s intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it was the fearsome, electric, and sometimes sensual onstage chemistry between the actors that really created, sustained and then heightened the tension.

From Hayes’ Anna, confidence in her own sensuality, to Smith’s Deeley, too full of assurances of his role as alpha male, to Todd’s Kate, often voiceless in her position trapped between the two – each of the three elusive roles was executed with a sensitivity and realism that left the audience unsure whose side to take in the unfolding battle for a kind of dominance.

Put all of this against the backdrop of Sanne Noppen’s soundscape of dripping water, rumbles, and low unspecified noises, and the tension and uncertainty in the theatre simmered almost to boiling point.

In a play where memories differ and realities are constantly shifting, and the truth of nothing is guaranteed, it is easy to forget that these are actors, and that we as the audience have unwittingly become a part of the layered and manufactured realities that make up the fabric of the play. It is the sort of production that leaves you reeling.

[Theatre by the Lake: Keswick]

The Comedy of Errors has a quite frankly ridiculous plot, even by Shakespearean standards, about the mistaken identities of two sets of twins separated at birth. If Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook (also showing in Theatre by the Lake’s main house this season) is an outrageous farce, then Shakespeare’s shortest play outstrips it in its barely controlled madness – which is exactly what makes it such good fun to watch. 

Comedy of Errors 2

Fortunately, Ian Forrest’s production of The Comedy of Errors did not try to dial down or intellectualise the humour of Shakespeare’s text. Instead, the vibrant chaos of Martin Johns’ set enhanced the chaotic plot as the characters chased each other around the stage in a manner that would have made Ben Travers proud.

Henry Devas as Antipholus of Ephesus and Bryn Holding as Antipholus of Syracuse mirrored each other perfectly in their confusion and bewilderment as the play developed, without losing their individuality as separate characters, while James Duke and Chris Hannon as the two Dromios provided the production with well timed and executed (if occasionally slightly overdone) slapstick humour.

The two main women in the play provided another expert pairing, as the sisters Adriana (Cate Cammack) and Luciana (Jennifer English). However, unlike the similarities between the two sets of twins, these two seemed to delight in their contrast, with English’s calm and reasoned demeanour providing the perfect foil for Cammack’s comic hysteria.

But it was two of the smaller parts that really stole the show. Matthew Vaughan’s superb comic timing was unsurpassed, both as the goldsmith, but especially as Dr Pinch, the hysterical and slightly suspect physician, who attempts to perform an exorcism on the bewildered Antipholus of Ephesus.

The other special mention has to go to Peter Rylands, whose silent comic acting as a disgruntled  and unsympathetic merchant was easily as engaging as any of the speaking parts.

Overall, the production was an enjoyable one, combining slapstick and farce with the more subtle witticisms inherent in Shakespeare’s language. It was an entertaining evening out, from which we came away smiling.

Comedy of Errors 1

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’ – Alfred Drury

~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~
~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~

This is the quotation that soars above the entrance to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is. as you would expect, rather fitting. The V&A houses thousands of items, each beautiful and noteworthy in its own way.

It’s also a philosophy I try to follow in my own practice.

I tend to write vary varied material: poetry; blog posts about travel; press releases and publicity material for my jobs. I’m even attempting to write a Mills & Boon-style romance!

But what matters to me isn’t what I’m writing – it’s how I write it. And I know that sounds slightly corny, so let me explain:

When I’m writing poetry, I focus very closely on the language I use, on the images it creates, and on the sound of the words when spoken aloud. I pay attention to meter and cadence, and think actively about rhyme. The result is usually less than a page, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick process. Instead, it’s as though the writing process has been condensed and strengthened, like that double strength fruit cordial that you somehow always end up using too much of.

When I’m writing for my romance, however, the process is entirely different. Partly because it’s all just a bit of fun, although I do still want to do the job properly (heaving bosoms and all!). So I focus on the story: how events shape emotions, and how to get characters from A to B. I don’t focus too closely on the language: it’s more like impressionism, with broad brush strokes just intended to convey feelings, rather than meticulously engineered imagery and sound.

Totally different ways of writing, but they do have something in common: in both situations, I’m trying to achieve a purpose. Whether that purpose is the precise conveyance of an exact emotion, or the deep desires of two characters with sexual tension so thick you couldn’t slice it with an electric carving knife. What matters is achieving your goals.

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’

I’m not assuming my work is excellent – although that’s obviously what I strive for. And I strive for excellence by striving towards the various purposes I set out to accomplish.

Now excuse me, I have a romance to write…

~

This post originally appeared on my travel blog: Second-Hand Hedgehog.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

It isn’t often that a play can make you laugh and cry simultaneously. Alan Bennett manages it. So does Brendan Murray.

Seeing The Lights

At first, Seeing The Lights is a seemingly light and casual play about family disputes. At its heart, however, it is emotional and highly charged.

As an ill (and possibly dying) old woman prepares for her birthday, the only present she wants is for the whole family to be together to visit the Blackpool Illuminations like they used to. But one of her children is half the world away in Australia, and the two closer to home are far from united. In the confined setting of a northern terraced house, frictions intensify and old rifts widen.

The Theatre by the Lake’s programme describes the play as a comedy, which is largely accurate. However, Murray’s quirky dialogue often catches you unawares, and a surprising turn of phrase can tip the balance between comedy and heart-wrenching sadness – all the more heart-wrenching because of the intimate domesticity of director Stefan Escreet’s production in the Studio Theatre.

The two rooms that make up Anna Pilcher Dunn’s set are recognisably unremarkable, while Laura Cox’s portrayal of the central character, known only as ‘Mum’, feels like the sort of person you would probably know. In fact, the whole family dynamic at times feels uncomfortably familiar.

Terry (James Duke), the son-turned-carer, is at once universal and surprising, witty and tender. Although Seeing The Lights is very much an ensemble production, for me it was Duke’s honest acting and complex emotion towards Mum that carried the play, and it was for him that I rooted in the warzone of family life.

However, some pity also has to be felt for the children’s partners, Ray (Chris Hannon) and Nasir (Alan Suri) – both in their own way caught between two warring camps. Characters who could so easily have become passive and helpless instead provided just enough resistance to the formidable yet vulnerable Muna (Rebecca Todd), to enable the complex and shifting family dynamic that drives the entire plot.

It is also what makes Brendan Murray’s play a mirror in which we can see the fraught complexities of any family. At least, I know I can see mine.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

In anything written by the Scots Makar (think ‘Scottish poet laureate’), you expect a witty and surprising use of language – and Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula does not disappoint. The script was full of humour and dramatic irony, which Mary Papadima’s production brought out in full, and brought a thoroughly modern feel to the classic tale.

~ Matthew Vaughan (Count Dracula); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Matthew Vaughan (Count Dracula); photo by Keith Pattison ~

Enhancing this contemporary atmosphere was the set, whose clean lines and muted colours were beautifully simple and versatile. Transitions between locations (from Whitby, to Bedlam, to Dracula’s castle  in Transylvania) were therefore both swift and entirely believable, aided by Andrew J Lindsay’s video, and Dan Steele’s superbly atmospheric music.

The play also contained some stellar individual performances. Matthew Vaughan played a formidable yet almost feline Dracula, reminiscent of Olivier’s Richard III. His manipulation of Lochhead’s dialogue was masterful, and he held the audience in thrall as easily as he did the other characters.

Opposite the vampire’s cunning intelligence, Henry Devas played Jonathan Harker as a pitiably naive young man, at times almost like a young boy caught in a trap.

The two main women also gave excellent performances, with Cate Cammack’s Mina an excellent (comparatively) rational older sister to Jennifer English’s young, wanton Lucy.

The other performance which deserves great acclaim was that of Liam Smith’s Renfield. Perfectly balancing the line between madness and reason, his adoption of the character was complete – so complete, in fact, that it took me until the curtain call to recognise him from The Winterling. His physical performance was also very impressive.

But the play was not perfect. Stoker’s novel covers hundreds of miles and a lot of plot, and the play also felt a bit too long. It was frequently a struggle to hear the dialogue, which was a shame for such an otherwise enjoyable production. However, for me the incredible individual performances outweighed these shortcomings, and still made the play a great evening out. (And, at almost three hours long, it’s certainly value for money!)

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

A stormy night in a candlelit house in the middle of nowhere; it sounds like the setting for a gothic horror novel. But Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling is firmly grounded in reality – even if it is a warped and troublesome reality. 

PRESS Winterling
~ Liam Smith (West) and Alan Suri (Wally); photo by Keith Pattison ~

The Winterling is a homage to Harold Pinter: throughout the play, the characters struggle for the upper hand, and Jez Pike’s production brings out the tension and fear of the unknown so typical of Pinter. The play is also darkly humorous, and Butterworth’s quirky and halting dialogue was handled superbly by all of the cast.

Particularly impressive was one exchange between West (Liam Smith) and Patsy (Henry Devas), as they quizzed one another on the history of an ancient fort. Watching the two men challenge each other’s knowledge was like watching a young stag challenge the alpha male; the tension in the theatre was palpable.

Alan Suri’s Wally formed the third side of this power triangle. Although Suri perhaps handled Butterworth’s halting dialogue least successfully, he nevertheless created an initially vulnerable yet ultimately imposing figure as he fought for his superiority within the group.

In a parallel triangle, where West, Draycott and Lue quite literally claimed their space, the tension seemed lessened. Although not without a certain hardness, Draycott (James Duke) elicited both laughter and pity, while Jennifer English’s Lue seemed so real, I wanted to reach out and help her realise the dream towards which she strives throughout the play.

However, the star role was taken by Maura Guthrie’s sound design. From the outset, Guthrie’s soundscape gave the sense of total immersion in the world and style of the play. As fighter planes roar and thunder overhead during the blackouts, the tone for the play is set: this is a vulnerable space, one where anything could happen and the characters’ destinies are not entirely within their own hands. It is a place for fear, and for the sudden impact of the unexpected.

If drama is conflict, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of The Winterling is a tense and darkly funny drama.