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Review: Pronoun, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Posted on 17 March 2014 by Adam Bruce

Pronoun

Theatre is fantastic when it comments on those areas of society that are rarely explored in other media. In this case, playwright Evan Placey’s new work Pronoun, performed by the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre as part of this year’s National Theatre Connections festival, sheds some light on a matter rarely spoken about in our world today.

Pronoun follows the story of Dean, a transgender male attempting to navigate the trials and tribulations of assuming his identity, supported by the ghost of his role model James Dean. The play brings the subject to life, and offers a thought-provoking insight into Dean’s mindset and society’s misunderstood views on what it means to be transgender, along with the emotional fatigue often experienced by those who are transgender.

Placey’s script is executed superbly by the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre, who work incredibly well as both individual characters and an ensemble. Beth Knight’s portrayal of Dean is honest, presenting to the audience the image of an oppressed teenager attempting to find his way in the world. The rest of the company’s characters are also warm and honest, from scrutinising doctors to farcically selfish teachers, who provide elements of both seriousness and humour in the piece, which ultimately make it refreshing.

Director Gemma Woffinden’s decision to stage the production in the round makes it much more personal. The audience is given a direct view into Dean’s world, having the opportunity to see close up the emotional responses of the individual characters, and truly feel part of the action. This intimate staging truly conveys the relevance of the piece to the world we live in today, and makes it as thought-provoking as it is engaging.

The sound and lighting also help to illuminate the issues presented in the play in a unique and interesting way. From confidential moments where Dean recognises himself and analyses his own thought processes – where the bright lighting represents the harsh and judgemental world he lives in – to physical sequences depicting the raucous atmosphere at Glastonbury Festival, the lighting helps to transport the audience into the character’s world.

Pronoun in itself is an example of a tightly-knit, well-crafted piece of theatre, but the issues surrounding it make it all the more captivating and interesting. The West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre’s response to them is honest and mature, and the amount of hard work they have put into presenting Pronoun is incredibly evident. Their sensitive and perceptive approach to creating theatre really shines in this production, and makes them stand out as a well-rounded and solid youth theatre group and, more importantly, an engaging and provocative theatre company.

Pronoun is part of the National Theatre Connections festival, which comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse this May, and I urge you to see it. It is an honest, touching and relevant piece of contemporary theatre.

Pronoun played at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 15 March. For more information about the festival, see the National Theatre Connections Festival website.

Adam Bruce

Adam Bruce

Adam is currently studying Theatre Studies, English Language, English Literature and Media at Sixth Form College. He is a member of West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre. He enjoys Theatre and Music.

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Review: Spring Awakening, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Posted on 12 March 2014 by Adam Bruce

Spring Awakening

The last time I saw Headlong Theatre Company a few months ago, they were presenting to the audience a wild and electric adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which was met with great acclaim. Headlong’s most recent production, in association with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield Theatre Company, breathes new life into German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play Spring Awakening. The company and writer Anya Reiss have given the text a modern update, offering the audience a distorted and dark view into the misunderstood world of a generation of teenagers.

Spring Awakening traces the fragmented narratives of Wendla Bergmann and Moritz Stiefel, played by Aoife Duffin and Bradley Hall respectively, along with their friends. The story follows the characters and the decisions they make as they attempt to navigate a dark world, along with the events they encounter that change their lives forever.

Designer Colin Richmond’s simplistic set creates a shadowy and playful performance space for the actors in a sparse playground-esque space. It is, however, Headlong’s signature use of intense, dramatic lighting and sound that truly illuminates the set, the characters and the narrative. Headlong also makes use of live video and projections, which breathe yet more life into the narrative and pushes the thoughts, emotions and feelings of the characters right to the forefront of the production, while also adding a unique and engrossing design aesthetic. The sheer synchronicity between the razor-sharp, bright lights and the sonic soundtrack adds to this compelling aesthetic: it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.

The company work incredibly well together, with the strength of the ensemble really shining through in certain places. The dialogue of the characters is naturalistic and honest, offering a somewhat distorted look into the realm of a misunderstood generation. Many of the characters are also dynamic even when not in their own scenes, remaining on stage to present the image of a living, breathing world, making the narrative and characters’ situations all the more real.

Spring Awakening ticks all the right boxes with regards to being a powerful piece of contemporary theatre: it engages you, comments on the world we live in today and gets you to think about your views on it. While I found the play’s style particularly enthralling, I can understand why some people may find it a little too intense. The play deals with some rather hard-hitting subject matters, and Headlong’s eclectic presentational style might not be to everyone’s taste.

If none of that puts you off, however, then I can guarantee that this new version of Spring Awakening is a dark, tongue-in-cheek, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that will keep you thinking long after the final blackout.

Spring Awakening is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 22 March. For more information and tickets, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website

Adam Bruce

Adam Bruce

Adam is currently studying Theatre Studies, English Language, English Literature and Media at Sixth Form College. He is a member of West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre. He enjoys Theatre and Music.

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Review: Of Mice and Men, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Posted on 06 March 2014 by Adam Bruce

Of Mice and Men

It seems like such a long time since I took my GCSE English Literature exam; it was only two years ago but I’ve been in love with John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men ever since. And ever since I first read it I’ve always wanted to see it on stage to see how the rich themes and symbols are presented in the form of live theatre. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds has created a mesmerising and engrossing adaptation of Steinbeck’s original novel.

In case you aren’t familiar, Of Mice and Men follows the story of two migrant workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, in the Great Depression period in America. George is an intelligent yet uneducated man, while Lennie is physically strong but limited with his mental capabilities. The two stick together, and flee from the town of Weed in California after an incident with Lennie and a woman claiming rape after he didn’t let go of her dress. The novel follows the two as they wind up as ranch hands at a plantation in Soledad, and introduces the reader to a variety of characters that all represent an important symbol or help to reinforce a theme. George and Lennie share a dream that one day they will own their own plantation and enjoy their lives, without having to be tied down to anyone. This dream is, however, quashed by the harsh world they live in.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s adaptation, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, closely follows the original story of the novel. Accompanied by a haunting and evocative soundtrack by musician Heather Christian, who also plays Curley’s Wife, Steinbeck’s original novel is brought to life in an astonishing way. The descriptions of the harsh barrens of California from the novel seemed to materialise on stage in the most realistic way, and give you a cruel portrayal of the harsh climate these people lived in. The detail of the set is as equally astonishing. From the unforgiving sunlight slicing through the wooden planks of the barn to the unnervingly still water of the pond where George and Lennie vow to make their dream a reality, the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre stage really is a feast for the eyes.

What made the stage adaptation of the novel so engrossing were the characters themselves. They are, of course, the ones who carry Steinbeck’s brilliant narrative, but this wouldn’t be possible were it not for the fantastic actors who brought them to life. George and Lennie, played by Henry Pettigrew and Dyfrig Morris respectively, were warm and charming, and really emphasised the importance of friendship, just like in the original novel. The characters, like the set, help to represent themes, with Curley’s Wife representing sexual desire as well as crushed dreams and ambitions. The company work incredibly well together as an ensemble, and the tightness and cohesiveness really draws the audience in. Even when not in a scene, the actors are dynamic and help bring the stage to life even more, adding more to the sense of a fast-moving and unforgiving world.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s adaptation is a gripping and evocative piece of theatre that truly draws its audience in, just like the original novel does. As poet Robert Burns said, ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry’ and I can assure you; this production certainly doesn’t go ‘awry’ in the slightest.

Of Mice and Men is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website

Adam Bruce

Adam Bruce

Adam is currently studying Theatre Studies, English Language, English Literature and Media at Sixth Form College. He is a member of West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre. He enjoys Theatre and Music.

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Feature: Call for Action – IdeasTap Inspires

Posted on 05 March 2014 by Billy Barrett

“We’ve built a site that manages calls for action,” says Amanda White, Strategic Partnerships Director for IdeasTap. The charity maintains a database of more than 135,000 people seeking opportunities in the creative industries, growing at a rate of 200 members per day. It’s become an invaluable resource for organisations to tap into, simplifying and water-tightening application processes that would otherwise take far more time and people-power. Recently awarded a £250,000 Exceptional Award from Arts Council England, the charity is now in “really, really early days” of unveiling IdeasTap Inspires, a national training programme for young people. Is this its largest co-ordinated project yet? “Oh, we’re not fazed by numbers,” White insists. “A lot of what we do is big-number activities, like NYT auditions and 24 Hour Plays. But yes, it is.”

IdeasTap Inspires will engage around 5,000 people in free workshops, masterclasses, training events and online resources across several artistic disciplines. The partner organisations delivering these ‘spas’, White says, “are probably the organisations where you go, ‘oh my god, I’d love to work with them’,” including Complicite, the RSC and longtime IdeasTap collaborators Hightide. “We want to give young people a chance to have a money-can’t-buy experience,” says White. “Tell them what they can’t learn in college and help them build resilience, feel clearer and more confident about where they want to work.’

Partner organisations in the programme are as nationally scattered as Ideastap’s members; spas will also be running at the Royal Exchange Manchester, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Bristol Old Vic. Poppy Keeling, co-ordinator of Complicite’s Creative Learning Programme, was drawn to the collaboration for “a few reasons – the main one being that IdeasTap has such a huge membership and such fantastic nationwide reach that partnering with them means we can meet people with different backgrounds from across the country, people we might not otherwise get to work with.”

Spas will give applicants the opportunity to mirror companies’ practice. “What Complicite is looking for is people interested in making their own work,” White explains. “I’d say that’s very different from what the RSC is looking for, which is people that might be interesting for them to have in their shows.” Keeling elaborates: “The overall aim is to put together a dynamic young company including writer, director, designers and performers, who will work together with Complicite Associates to create a scratch show.”

The company “often gets to work with young performers, directors or designers,” Keeling says, “but we very rarely get the chance to work with them all together in a collaborative setting. This programme – which will see theatre-makers from across disciplines working together – feels really true to the spirit of Complicite’s work.” These spas, White explains, “go from a mass call-out, to a large number of people getting workshops, through to a much smaller group having a much deeper engagement, working with Complicite for two weeks. The RSC one will be a weekend at Stratford with a similar model.”

Meanwhile, Hightide is offering the opportunity for aspiring marketers and designers to “develop their craft and careers” at the company’s annual new writing festival in Halesworth in April. Artistic Director Steven Atkinson is putting together a team to produce Rising Tides, a series of climate change-themed plays debuting at the festival. “It’s an opportunity to have creative freedom,” says Atkinson. “They’re working as professionals but in a safe environment. New plays are always kind of risky because you don’t know if they’re going to be any good and can sometimes be difficult to produce, but in a well-established festival that has all of that mentoring and support around it, they’ll learn how to put a show on and have the opportunity to do it how they want to.”

Funding for the programme comes at a time when public finance is scarce and competition fierce. Education in this climate, White says delicately, can be “tricky. It’s often the area that you can raise money for out of everything in an arts organisation, however [departments] are always on the frontline, always under-served, I think.” I ask Keeling whether she feels under fire. “On the whole I think the education, outreach, access – whatever you choose to call it – sector is thriving.” In austerity, she suggests, “the arguments for community arts work, or arts education work, seem to speak louder to funders. This isn’t definitely something I think is a good thing – it comes with its own dangers and needs to be treated carefully – but it can be a bonus. Of course, as the field gets squeezed there are fewer opportunities for everything, so the pressure is definitely still there.” Under this pressure, Atkinson feels a heavy responsibility with Hightide, of “balancing artistic development with also actually putting shows on and making sure that you’re touring them and that audiences are seeing them.”

Spas are intended to provide young people with more than just a one-off experience. “I hope they’ll come out with a better sense of how to pursue their chosen path, and with new skills,” Keeling says. Or “they could give people a quicker idea that actually this isn’t for them,” considers White. “Like, if you go into a workshop and you’re asked to make a noise like an animal and crouch on all fours, and you think Christ almighty, I didn’t like that.” They’re also an opportunity to build lasting relationships with companies and practitioners. “I hope we’ll put together a company that makes a show so good we just have to tour it,” says Keeling. “But that’s up to the participants, I guess!”

More information about the Ideas Tap Inspires programme can be found on Ideas Tap’s website

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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