Shelagh Stephenson’s Enlightenment is an unsettling play – one which works on the fears of our imaginations, and the terror of our own smallness in an increasingly global world.

~ Cate Hamer (Lia): photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Cate Hamer (Lia): photo by Keith Pattison ~

It is this sense of individual insignificance that gives Zoë Waterman’s production such a powerful and contemporary feel – this could be anyone’s house, anyone’s family. In a world where solutions are always just a phone call or the touch of a button away, the sense of these characters’ helplessness pervades the play like a bad dream.

Cate Hamer is a strong central figure as Lia, the mother desperately trying to hold onto herself in her search for answers about her missing son. Through her powerful portrayal of a woman on the edge, we see the struggle for control that plagues all of the play’s characters, from the belligerent Gordon (Peter MacQueen) to Joanna, the ambitious media woman, played by Charlotte Mulliner. Mulliner perhaps best represents the precariously balanced nature of control; she is the character who has most of it at the start of the play, and the only one to bow out as soon as she feels it slipping. Her smart heels and slick performance throw Hamer’s portrayal of a frayed and despairing Lia into sharp relief.

Meanwhile, Patrick Bridgman excels in the role of Lia’s partner, Nick, whose cynical retorts provide much of the play’s humour – a humour that teeters on the edge of hopelessness; Bridgman perfectly balances the two, a master at straddling the line between the emotions he exposes and those he withholds.

However, it is Richard Keightley’s Adam who makes the play a truly disturbing piece. His entrance at the end of the first half is a wave of uncertainty in an already turbulent drama – a wave which becomes a tsunami by the end of the play, as his Machiavellian power games seek to twist the characters against one another with a ferocity that would make Pinter proud. Keightley creates a character with so many layers of manipulation and vulnerability that it becomes impossible to know when (or even if) he ever lays bare this complex character’s troubled core.

Even in such an exceptionally strong season comprising outstanding productions like The 39 Steps and Suddenly Last Summer, Theatre by the Lake’s Enlightenment shines out: a gripping piece of contemporary theatre that seeks to unhinge our sense of control and safety in our own fragile lives.

~ Enlightenment runs at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 7th November 2015 ~

~ Richard Keightley (Adam): photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Richard Keightley (Adam): photo by Keith Pattison ~

Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels is a play about two spirited women, who, while their more pedestrian husbands are away playing golf, drink themselves into a comical hysteria in anticipation of a visit from their former lover.

Theatre by the Lake production of FALLEN ANGELS by Noel Coward directed by Ian Forrest
~ Polly Lister (Julia), Emily Tucker (Saunders) & Frances Marshall (Jane): photo by Keith Pattison ~

Ian Forrest’s production at Theatre by the Lake delivers both of those things: hysteria on-stage, and comedy off-stage. Despite a slightly slower start, the production picked up in pace and energy with every glass of wine that Jane (Frances Marshall) and Julia (Polly Lister) drank, leading to some all-too-recognisable moments of inebriation and alcohol-induced feuding.

With such comical portrayal of female drunkenness, it is easy to see how Fallen Angels was such a scandalous success when first performed in the 1920s. However, the play’s dramatic impact is perhaps weakened in a society which has (thankfully) moved beyond finding perverse and mildly horrified entertainment in the idea that women, as well as men, might get drunk or have sexual urges. Despite its light entertainment value, it has perhaps become a play with little cultural relevance in our post-sexual revolution, post-Lady Chatterley, post-TOWIE world.

Despite the dated feel of the script, the play was produced and performed to the high standard that one should expect from Theatre by the Lake.

This was a play in which the women (perhaps quite deliberately) outshone the men – though a special mention has to be made of Ben Ingles’ exaggerated suave accent. Emily Tucker gave a strong performance as the self-important maid, Saunders, while Lister and Marshall carried the show brilliantly as the quarrelling best friends, Julia and Jane.

In both Fallen Angels and Abigail’s Party (also part of Theatre by the Lake Summer 2015 season), Lister’s ability to carry a scene and to hold an audience for long periods while alone on stage stood out as impressive, with excellent comic timing and a stage presence that absorbs an audience’s attention. Marshall provided the perfect foil to Lister’s Julia, with an almost immature gaiety that made her a delight to watch.

As with the Theatre by the Lake’s production of Abigail’s Party this season (to which it is quite similar in a number of respects), Fallen Angels may not be an example of thought-provoking contemporary theatre, but it does provide an entertaining evening out.

Theatre by the Lake production of FALLEN ANGELS by Noel Coward directed by Ian Forrest
~ Frances Marshall (Jane) & Polly Lister (Julia): photo by Keith Pattison ~

 ~

Fallen Angels runs in the main house at Theatre by the Lake until 7th November 2015.

A couple of months ago, I was running a poetry workshop in a small Cumbrian primary school on behalf of the Wordsworth Trust. At the start of the session, I asked the children whether they had any questions about poetry or about being a poet. One boy put up his hand and asked, ‘Are you on medication?’

As if that wasn’t enough, this then shaped the questions from the other children, such as: ‘Do you have any allergies?’ I then had a sensible one (‘How long have you been writing poetry?’), but it was instantly followed by, ‘How old are you?’ and several minutes in which the children frantically tried to guess my age. (If you were wondering, by primary school calculations I could apparently be anywhere between 19 and 43.)

I then started asking around, to see if other poets had similar stories of being asked interesting questions. Turns out, they do – particularly when children are involved.

Some of my favourites came from Helen Mort: ‘You’re the Derbyshire Poet Laureate, so does that mean you write poems about cats?’ Another child asked her, ‘Have you written any poems about sparkly fairies?’ – rounded off by a small yr 3 boy in a primary school workshop, who asked her what was in her handbag and if he could have a look.

Another question, which seems universal, is: ‘What do you write about?’

Universal it may be, but it’s still nearly impossibly to answer – so much so that Alex Bertulis-Fernandes described it as an ‘odd question’, despite the fact that it’s annoyingly common: ‘I’m not quite sure why I find it so strange, and I’m sure I’ve asked others the same – my answers to the question always feel unimpressive though.’

Polly Atkin agreed: ‘I hate being asked ‘what kind of poetry do you write’ as though there is an answer to that.’

She also ventured a couple of things she’d been told as a poet, as well as questions she’d been asked, such as a suggestion that she should use her 3rd place competition prize money buy a notebook so she could ‘keep practising’, as well as the cheek of a male poet who told her she should ‘stick to the women’s magazines’.

Another writer who had been told where he should publish his poetry was Owen Collins: ‘my Mum, when struggling to get her head round my ambitions, once told me that she thought I’d be very good at writing the poems for inside birthday cards…’

I’ve experienced this one myself. When I showed people the first good poem that I wrote (well, I thought it was good; it won a prize, so that’s something), one of my parent’s friends told me it was so good, it should go on the inside of a greetings card. I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment, but as it was a poem about dissatisfaction with a dying relationship, I’m not sure what kind of card it would be appropriate for. Maybe some kind of ironic Valentine…?

But I think my favourite contribution came from Lindsey Holland, who was asked: ‘If I write about breasts as hills, from a microscopic perspective, is that landscape poetry?’ And I desperately hope she answered yes.

The Lady of the Lake, by Benjamin Askew: Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Theatre by the Lake production of THE LADY OF THE LAKE by Benjamin Askew directed by Mary Papadima. Review by Katie Hale.
~ Emily Tucker (Morgan), Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue): photo by Keith Pattison ~

When I heard ‘new play about King Arthur written in verse’, I had mixed expectations. Although I always want poetry and verse to succeed, dealing with an established subject matter such as the legend of King Arthur, while using a more traditional form of script-writing, risks the drama feeling staid.

However, despite the play’s mythological setting, it has a contemporary feel. Benjamin Askew’s adaptation of the legend is carefully crafted and controlled, with dialogue that seems both natural and poetic at once.

The Lady of the Lake is also a play which asks big questions about narrative, authorship and autonomy. Framed in the context of a troupe of players, it becomes a play less about the story itself (although it is, of course, a riveting plot), and more about how that story is told and, more importantly, how it is remembered.

Mary Papadima’s stylised direction perfectly complements Askew’s beautiful and subtle verse, while Elizabeth Wright’s deceptively simple set creates almost a blank canvas on which any story could be told.

The integration of music and movement creates a sensory whirlwind, which at times gives the play an almost impressionistic feel – as though reminding us that the story unfolding before us is as fluid as the lake itself.

The only let-down to The Lady of the Lake is its length, occasionally slave to the richness of its intricate plot and sumptuous beauty of its dialogue. However, there is enough talent in the writing and cast to minimise this issue, with Patrick Bridgman playing an uncertain, heartfelt and sympathetic Arthur, years after his prime. Richard Keightley is a disturbingly enigmatic Taliesin, while Charlotte Mulliner and Emily Tucker channelled much of the show’s vivacious energy as Nimue and Morgan.

Benjamin Askew’s The Lady of the Lake is an ambitious play that (for the most part) carries through. In style and technique it is unlike anything I have seen at Theatre by the Lake in recent years: an intriguing piece of theatre.

Theatre by the Lake production of THE LADY OF THE LAKE by Benjamin Askew directed by Mary Papadima
~ Ben Ingles (Owain), Emily Tucker (Morgan), Patrick Bridgman (Arthur/Old Taliesin): photo by Keith Pattison ~

~

The Lady of the Lake runs in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake until Friday 6th November

Yesterday, I posted the trailer to my upcoming musical, Yesterday.

Created in collaboration with friend and composer Stephen Hyde, Yesterday is an intimate new musical telling the story of Alex: a charming, vulnerable and adulterous man. The story is told from the perspective of the three women in his life: the mother who smothers him with love, his deceived wife searching for hope in their marriage, and the the teenage girl in whom he finds solace.

Here is one of the songs from the musical, recorded by Vulture Sessions. Performed by Georgia Figgis, Jemimah Taylor and Joanna Connolly.

More about the musical here.

 

It’s always exciting as a project races towards its conclusion, seeing all the various strands coming together, slotting into place one after another, often surprising quickly. It’s like solving a rubix cube: one moment it’s a jumble of colours, then suddenly it’s organised and complete. (Or rather, it’s like watching someone else solve a rubix cube – I’ve never been very good at them…)

That’s how it’s been with Yesterday, the musical I’ve written with friend and composer Stephen Hyde. It feels like only yesterday (sorry!) that it was a vague idea we were discussing on afternoon walks in the countryside – and suddenly, it’s complete, cast and in rehearsal.

And to prove it, there’s a trailer:

Yesterday premieres in Oxford, at the Burton Taylor Studio, 16th – 20th June 2015. Tickets available here.

If you’re a fan of the inexplicable style of the 1970s, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of Abigail’s Party, directed by Ian Forrest, could be just what the doctor ordered. If not, then maybe this isn’t the play for you.

Theatre by the Lake production of ABIGAIL'S PARTY by Mike Leigh directed by Ian Forrest - review by Katie Hale
~ Johnny McPherson & Polly Lister: photo by Keith Pattison ~

From the moment you enter the auditorium, there can be no doubt about the era of the play: from the orange and brown wallpaper, to the light-up bar and brown leather sofa, Martin Johns’ set feels like a time machine – something the light-humoured production adds to with an announcement to turn off all mobile phones, pagers and polaroids.

But the period style excels itself with the entrance of Beverly (Polly Lister): a 70s vision in a lurid maxi dress and elaborate hairpiece. With her loud costume and character to match, Lister quickly claims the stage, drawing the audience into the tension of the character, as Beverly fights to retain control of this territory throughout the play.

This struggle for control is apparent in all the actors’ portrayals, from anxious, respectable Susan (Cate Hamer), to likeably naïve Angela (Frances Marshall), to Beverly’s condescending but put-upon husband, Laurence (Richard Earl) – perhaps the ultimate victor in the struggle for centre-stage attention.

However, particular credit has to go to Jonny McPherson as Tony, who, alongside Lister, provided most of the performance’s comedic moments – despite the fact most of his lines consisted only of ‘yeah’ and ‘ta’. With perfect comic timing, deadpan expressions, and silences as loud as Lister’s dialogue and costume, McPherson is easily one of the stars of the show.

As with the actors, every aspect of the production was of the high quality that I’ve come to expect from the Theatre by the Lake. But as a whole, Abigail’s Party left me uninspired, despite the obvious quality of the production values. Mike Leigh’s play feels dated, and the stilted dialogue (although comic in its awkward competitiveness) often feels relevant only to the play’s period setting, and without resonance in the modern world.

For those who miss the 70s, or those who want a light-hearted glimpse of them, Forrest’s vision of Abigail’s Party is an entertaining homage to the decade, which seems to exist as an island from the world of 2015 outside the theatre doors. For those searching for a more contemporary theatre experience, however, Abigail’s Party falls short.

 

~ runs until Friday 6th November ~

Theatre by the Lake production of ABIGAIL'S PARTY by Mike Leigh directed by Ian Forrest - review by Katie Hale
~ Richard Earl, Frances Marshall, Jonny McPherson, Polly Lister: photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

[Theatre by the Lake: Keswick]

Theatre by the Lake production of John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 STEPS adapted by Patrick Barlow directed by Abigail Anderson
~ Frances Marshall, Jonny McPherson, Patrick Bridgman & Richard Earl: photo by Keith Pattison ~

As a general rule, Theatre by the Lake does big melodramatic comedy well. With a string of successful farces under their belt, and the well-executed vibrant chaos of last season’s Comedy of Errors still in mind, it would have been easy for the theatre to get comfortable.

However, Abigail Anderson’s production of The 39 Steps takes Theatre by the Lake comedy to a new level. It was fast-paced, lively, and witty in its execution. The use Martin Johns’ set was imaginative and entertaining, and added to the quirky success of the play. (In fact, I think this may be the only occasion where I have witnessed a piece of set receive its own round of applause during a scene.)

All four cast members carried the play with seemingly endless amounts of energy. Jonny McPherson’s was a comical mix of inconvenienced English gentleman and dashing, devil-may-care spy, while Frances Marshall transformed with apparent ease from cunning secret agent to innocent and proper love interest , playing all three of her roles with a humour and energy that sparked off McPherson’s own.

Especially brilliant were the two clowns: Patrick Bridgman and Richard Earl. I quickly lost count of the number of characters they each played (often playing multiple characters within the same scene), but each one was unique and entertaining in its own right, and every change was done with superb comic timing.

Special mention, though, has to go to the unseen (but not unheard) star of the show: Sound Designer, Maura Guthrie. Every sound effect (and there were many) furthered the comedy of the play, and helped (along with ladders, a few boxes, some scaffolding and a lamp) to bring the world of The 39 Steps to vibrant and hilarious life.

Abigail Anderson’s The 39 Steps is the best thing I’ve seen in the Theatre by the Lake’s main house in years – and the funniest. We laughed out loud from beginning to end, and would happily go back to see it again. It just proves: you don’t need to go to London to see West End-quality theatre.

~ runs until Wednesday 4th November 2015 ~

Theatre by the Lake production of John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 STEPS adapted by Patrick Barlow directed by Abigail Anderson
~ Patrick Bridgman & Richard Earl: photo by Keith Pattison ~

Mr Paradise and Suddenly Last Summer at Theatre by the Lake

Theatre by the Lake production of Mr Paradise and Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams directed by Mary Pappadima
~ Polly Lister, Kate Layden, Richard Keightley, Cate Hamer & Emily Tucker: photo by Keith Pattison ~

‘The work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can’t separate them. I mean, a poet’s life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.’

Suddenly Last Summer and Mister Paradise are plays about words: about their persistent endurance and the power it gives them.

Where there is power, there is usually fear, and Mary Papadima’s production of Tennessee Williams’ plays contains this fear perfectly, like a wild animal held in a cage barely strong enough. In Suddenly Last Summer, the focal point of this tenuous restraint is the conflict between Mrs Venable (Kate Layden) and Catharine (Emily Tucker). Layden beautifully conveys the desperately wielded control of a woman all too aware that control is slipping away from her, but it is Tucker who truly commands the audience’s attention. Her performance of a frantic and traumatised girl, clinging to the edge, is both powerful and moving; in the battle between dreadful truth and respectable reputation, it is undoubtedly her voice that cries the loudest and speaks the strongest.

Mister Paradise is also a conflict between two characters over the issue of truth versus reputation, although it is much quieter than that in Suddenly Last Summer. Both Peter MacQueen (as Mr Paradise) and Charlotte Mulliner (as the girl) address their sides of the question with honesty and sensitivity. Mulliner’s youthful optimism and MacQueen’s more experienced, world-weary reluctance act as two sides of the coin on which Mr Paradise’s legacy spins. The two work well together, sparking off one another so that at times, it is like watching a tennis rally, and other times, like watching a fusion of minds.

The two plays sit well together, too. By juxtaposing the two, Papadima brings out the common themes of truth and reputation, and the power of words in creating both. In doing so, she not only puts Tennessee Williams’ two plays up for comparison, but also gives added to power to the words of the plays themselves.

About a year ago, I discovered the work of Nina Katchadourian.

Katchadourian is a Californian artist, who has a series of ‘stacks’ or ‘spine poems’. In these works, she arranges books (usually in stacks, but occasionally side by side) so that the titles create poems.

I thought I would have a go at some of my own ‘spine poetry’, just using the books on my shelves:

*

Spine poetry by Katie Hale, inspired by Nina Katchadourian

The Alchemist on Poetry:

The making of a poem
out of danger;
mining for the light
out of the blue
day.

*

Spine poetry by Katie Hale, inspired by Nina Katchadourian

Enduring Love:

Error.

*

Spine poetry by Katie Hale, inspired by Nina Katchadourian

Frankenstein:

The lovely bones;
heaven eyes;
portrait in skin:

regeneration;

talk of the town.

*

Spine poetry by Katie Hale, inspired by Nina Katchadourian

My Brilliant Career:

The accidental
strong words…

…Goodbye to all that.

*

Spine poetry by Katie Hale, inspired by Nina Katchadourian

How to Paint a Dead Man:

Gold.
Silver.
The colour purple.
Fifty shades of grey.

*

I’ve talked about my job project managing New Writing Cumbria here before.

One of the great things about it is getting to organise (and attend) events like this one, held on Valentines Day: n evening of music and spoken word, featuring Lady Layton, Les Malheureux, and a quiz. Plus, what Valentines night would be complete without a bar, a few love letters, and the chance to burn the name of your ex?

Just a few shots from the evening:

New Writing Cumbria online magazine: The Carrot

At the moment, I have a number of jobs, but one thing that I love about all of them is helping to create interesting artworks. Whether I’m helping teenagers explore the possibility that they can write poetry, or helping facilitate theatre tours and exhibitions at Prism Arts, or working on my own writing, it’s always exciting to see the seed of an idea come to fruition.

Through my job as New Writing Cumbria, I’ve been working with a group of young writers and editors to produce an online magazine of new Cumbrian writing. And I’m delighted to say that Issue #1 has now been published.

For the first issue, we chose the theme ‘Cumbria-land’. We invited anybody from or living in Cumbria to submit work on the theme – but there was also a bit of a twist. While we did want some of the more traditional types of writing (poetry / fiction / script etc.), we also wanted to explore some of the extra options that creating an online magazine provided.

So we actively encouraged people to submit something a little bit different: film / audio / visual art / crosswords / recipes / jokes…

Admittedly, we didn’t receive any crosswords, recipes or jokes (next time, please?) but we did receive a number of visual and audio pieces, as well as some video. We also used visual art from some of the 2014 Young C-Artists.

The idea was to create something that was fun and vibrant: something that didn’t look like a traditional magazine. And I have to say, I think we succeeded.

We had some excellent submissions, from a large number of writers / artists, and working with the young editors was fantastic. It was great to see them getting so passionate in their discussions over which pieces should be included, and it’s moments like that which remind me just why I love doing the jobs I do.

So don’t be shy: head on over to The Carrot and have a read / watch / listen!

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: