Review: Sparkling wit and sadness in The Hand-Me-Down People

Anyone who discarded an old toy when they were younger, or perhaps neglected to visit an elderly relative, may feel a pang of guilt watching The Hand-Me-Down People, a piece of drama which Nottingham University’s New Theatre will be taking up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this week.

The play, written by Adam H. Wells, gives literal meaning to the term ‘on the shelf’. On this dusty shelf is a group of toys which have been discarded by the children in favour of something more exciting. There’s the grotesque-looking but benign Witch and Monster, the slightly spoilt Princess and Doll and the Prince who has had half of his face and arm chewed off by the dog.

For all its sparkling wit, a sadness hangs heavy in the air. Some of the toys are desperate to escape the nothingness of living on the shelf and want to jump down in the hope that the children will start to play with them again. Others are resigned to their fate observing that while their lives are not getting any better, at least they are not getting any worse.

Here are a group of disparate individuals who don’t have anything in common with each other apart from the fact that no-one wants them. There is a real sense of neglect and soul-sapping boredom alluding perhaps to life in a care home. Perhaps most poignantly, the characters all long to be part of stories again. They look to the outside but can’t reach it so instead they have to create their own narratives within the confines of the shelf.

The play, which previewed at Nottingham University on Thursday, is elevated further by the vibrant costumes and the attention to detail in the set design. It is sound tracked by the dainty sound of a music box which plays throughout and which the characters find at once comforting and frustrating. Like Porphyria, this production showcases the talents of everyone involved and I wish everyone all the best for the Fringe.

You can see The Hand-Me-Down People at C Nova, India Buildings, Victoria Street, Edinburgh between 2nd and 27th August. For details see the website.

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Review: From the mundane to the poetic in Porphyria

Suffocating domesticity turns into something altogether more macabre in Porphyria, a new play written by emerging talent Craig Wilmann and performed by members of Nottingham University’s New Theatre.

Robert Browning’s 1836 poem Porphyria’s Lover forms the basis of this gripping psychological drama which previewed at the university on Wednesday ahead its run at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The play opens with Reginald Blake and his wife, who incidentally has no name, squabbling over a game of Scrabble. It is a petty argument but one that belies deeper problems in their relationship. Despite this, Reginald assures the audience that he would never be unfaithful to his wife – except that is in his dreams when he dances with a beautiful blonde-haired woman.

But Reginald was not expecting this woman to emerge from his fantasies and be sitting at the breakfast table in the form of his son’s au pair.

What follows is a darkly comic and surreal tale of infidelity, madness and murder. The play moves deftly from the mundane to poetic, perhaps seen most poignantly in Reginald’s estrangement from his son Nicholas. We see love at its most selfish and destructive and by using a range of neat dramatic devices – such as the two women speaking over the top of each other – the distinction between past and present breaks down. There is also a sense in which dreams and reality become indistinguishable, trapping our protagonist in his own perpetual torment.

The three cast members, Nick Jeffrey (Reginald), Liz Stevens (Wife) and Genevieve Cunnell (Dream Woman) played their parts brilliantly. Jeffrey was wholly believable in his role of the beleaguered everyman. He comes across as wide-eyed and innocent, almost child-like, but at the same time, he is also obsessive, selfish and menacing. Meanwhile, the fact that the two women are not given names does not detract from the complexity of their characters and the rich emotions they convey.

New Theatre will be representing the university and the city of Nottingham at this year’s Fringe – it thoroughly deserves to be a success. You can see Porphyria at Zoo Southside, 117 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh between 6th and 20th August. For details click here.

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Peter Mortimer at Lowdham Book Festival

‘In Nottingham no-one could doubt my heritage. It was there in every flattened vowel.’ Peter Mortimer

Due to being at work all week I had missed most of this year’s Lowdham Book Festival which finished on Saturday – but I was so glad I caught the final talk by writer Peter Mortimer. Originally from Nottingham, Peter now lives in Tyneside and is a playwright, poet, editor, ‘extreme’ travel writer, children’s author and much more besides. He was at the festival to talk about his new book, Made in Nottingham, a kind of memoir about growing up on the Sherwood estate and his reflections on returning to the estate last year.

Peter grew up on Danethorpe Vale which happens to be round the corner from where I live. The streets and pubs he described were of course ones I know well but as a newcomer their names do not carry the same weight of memory for me.

At the beginning of both the book and the talk, Peter warns us with a poem about the dangers of clinging onto the past but there is a sense in which it can be cathartic to revisit the place where you grew up. For him, it’s not even about revisiting the people, most of whom are now gone, but seeing the buildings, going to pubs and cycling around the streets.

Of course, Peter has some warm memories of the area and the book is peppered with humorous anecdotes. But there is no fuzzy nostalgia and while the estate, which dates back to the 1920s, provided spacious homes with large gardens, it was a council estate nevertheless and if its residents became successful, they tended to move away.

Today, the estate is largely privately owned or privately rented. There are some residents who, judging by the alterations they have made to their homes, clearly have money and others who don’t. There are elderly folk, families, young professionals and a mixture of cultural backgrounds. And while I suspect the community spirit is not as strong as it once was, residents have a sense of pride in their area, reflected in events such as Sherwood Art Week and the many independent shops.

Made in Nottingham (published by Five Leaves) is available here.

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Sherwood Art week opens on Saturday

The annual Sherwood Art Week opens on Saturday when shops and businesses will be giving artists from the area the chance to showcase their work.

During the week, the shop windows on Mansfield Road will come alive with paintings, ceramics, textiles, photographs and much more.

Anita Wakefield, who is chair of the SAW organising group, said: “There are 90 artists involved this year. There is such a creative buzz in Sherwood and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to bring the community together through exhibitions, workshops, art in the shops and the Secret Garden Craft Fair. Everyone involved, from the organisers to the artists offering workshops, is volunteering, which really demonstrates the creative energy and vibrancy of Sherwood.”

Some of the highlights include:

Saturday: Art Marquee at Sherwood Festival at Woodthorpe Park from noon until 6pm.

Monday – Friday: Have a Go Workshops from 10am until noon; 1pm – 3pm.

Friday – Sunday: Exhibitions in community venues.

Saturday: The Secret Garden Craft Fair at the United Reformed Church on Edwards Lane. There will be more than 40 stalls, food, music, kids’ area and exhibitions. It takes place between 11am and 6pm.

There will be an information stall at Room Full of Butterflies on Mansfield Road throughout the week for more details.


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Review: Mika Rottenberg at Nottingham Contemporary

The first thing that struck me when I visited Nottingham Contemporary on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday was the sound of violent sneezes. It was not a member of the public suffering from hay fever – but rather a short film entitled Sneeze, a comical piece in which reddened noses shoot out cuts of meat and a live rabbit.

It was a light-hearted introduction to artist Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition at the Contemporary. Rhyming pleasingly with her other works (Cheese, Squeeze, Tropical Breeze and Mary’s Cherries), it foregrounded the human body and its functions while also raising a wry smile.

Around the corner is Squeeze, a 20-minute long film which sees women from around the world engaged in menial tasks. A dream-like landscape gives way to documentary film footage of Chinese women massaging the hands of Mexican workers harvesting lettuces and a woman being squeezed until she becomes so pink she can dust the colour off to make blusher.

The clunking sounds and repetitive nature of the women’s work reminded me of the mechanical processes in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In Rottenberg’s film, the end product is not as significant as the process: the blusher disappears down a hole while the lettuce is mashed to a pulp. The piece alludes to the Marxist idea that identity is bound up in the ‘means of production’, although Rottenberg says it is in the poetic sense rather than the political. In this way she also hints at the similarity between mass production and creating artwork. Human identity is infused in everything they produce, no matter how throwaway the product is. But unlike art, these products will not normally be put on display in a gallery and there is a sense in which the product, and by extension, the person who made it is lost.

These themes are echoed in Dough, a short film set in a strange factory in which women use their bodies to create a strange, flesh-like dough. Again, the end product is not important; it’s the part each person plays on the assembly line. Bodies take on the role of machines once again echoing the idea that products are inseparable from their makers.

This all makes a claustrophobic world where the work is tough and without rewards; however it stands in contrast to another short film, Tropical Breeze in which a female body builder delivers boxes of fruit juice while drinking it herself. She then wipes her lemon-infused perspiration onto tissues which are marketed as ‘lemon-scented moist tissue’. There is a sense of real power here not only in the physical form of the body builder and her acrobatic colleague but also in the way she is able to consume and manufacture products, putting her firmly in control of the process.

Alongside Rottenberg’s exhibition is a gallery devoted to the satirical cartoons of James Gillray (1756 – 1815) which are on loan from the V&A. Pompous, puffed up politicians, European relations and the scandals that permeated both high and low society will certainly resonate with modern audiences – and his deft sketches are delightfully comic.

The two exhibitions, which are free, run until 1st July.

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Existential angst in Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World

Stewart Lee sums up his latest show Carpet Remnant World perfectly when he describes it as ‘an aggressive lecture’. Seemingly uncomfortable with his own fame, he is addressing the people who may have brought friends along with them that evening, believing this will be an entertaining night of comedy.

As with his previous routines, Lee – ever the post-modernist – analyses his audience and deconstructs why some people are laughing and others aren’t. He also tells stories and then admits that they are not true and tells the same joke in a different language, playfully making us look at the form of stand-up.

The first half of the show, which he performed at Nottingham Playhouse last Thursday, referred to news events of the previous year such as Bin Laden’s death and Norwegian mass murderer Andreas Breivik. At times this was a little patchy and the narrative was not always as tight as it could have been – but that’s not to say there weren’t some glorious moments. I particularly liked Lee’s parody of Ricky Gervais performing at one of his stadium gigs, arrogantly running onto the stage, surveying his vast audience and revelling in the applause.

It was after the interval that Lee really came into his own. Explaining that he had no material because he now spends his days driving on the motorway and looking after his son, he expertly weaved a narrative around visiting soulless retail parks, Twitter, Scooby Doo and Thatcher. The routine was politically astute, surreal and drew on a kind of existential angst that seemed to match the mood of Britain today. Lee’s stage persona is at times self-deprecating as he reads about himself on Twitter (‘OMG saw Stewart Lee eating a burger. He looked fat and depressed and fat.’) and at other times, deranged in a way that hinted at his earlier work such as If You Prefer a Milder Comedian.

One of the highlights for me was one that was completely unexpected. Lee is describing the current trend for ‘sad comedy’ in which comedians use terrible events in their life as stand-up material. In the middle of this faux tale of woe about being adopted and having extremist Christians hound him, small pieces of pink paper – presumably from last month’s pantomime – drop from the ceiling, setting Lee off on a searing rant and proving just how adept he is at improvisation.

For details on Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World visit his website. 

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Review: Silence is golden in The Artist

It’s been tipped for both an Oscar and a Bafta so I thought I would go and see what all the fuss about silent movie The Artist was – and I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film, which is set in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, is steeped in the history of cinema, both in content and form. It is a celebratory homage to an era when stars were stage-managed and mysterious rather than appearing in paparazzi photographs looking hungover.

The story centres around famed, arrogant silent movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) who finds himself surplus to requirements when the film industry embraces the new talkies. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who is a budding actress when George is at the height of his popularity, sees her career take off after starring in countless talkies and she soon becomes the darling of Hollywood.

Far from putting me off, the lack of dialogue in this film was one of its strengths. In fact, the lack of speech was oddly comforting. In one of the most memorable scenes, George dreams about a world with sound. It’s a disconcerting moment and I found myself longing to be enveloped by silence again or at least the musical soundtrack.

Overall, this film is utterly charming and wittily self-referential with plenty of well-executed slapstick comedy. There are also some incredibly poignant moments, for example, when a disillusioned George destroys his silent film reels in a fire or when he sees the reflection of his face in the pawn shop window above his  tuxedo which now sits in there.

And last but not least, a special mention must also go to George’s loyal companion, a Jack Russell (played by Uggie). The little dog provides some of the best comic moments in the film and steals the show when his master’s flat is on fire and he raises the alarm.

You can see The Artist at Nottingham’s Broadway until 2nd February.

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High drama in Nottingham for the New Year

After a week (or possibly a month) of festive fuddles, impromptu mid-week drinks and trashy TV, I am looking forward to dragging myself off the sofa and immersing myself in some world-class drama in Nottingham – so here are a just a few of my top picks.

At the Playhouse, the season kicks off with some improvised live theatre when Court in the Act! opens on 1st February for a three-night run. Six actors will create a comic courtroom drama in which you – the audience – take the role of jury.

There is also plenty in store for Shakespeare fans including an exploration of some of his darker characters in Shakespeare’s Villains on 7th February. Here Steven Berkoff draws on Shakespeare’s own words to look at why characters such as Macbeth and Richard III do what they do. In addition, there will be the chance to see a new and passionate interpretation of the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet from 13th until 24th March.

The life of another great literary talent is examined in Mary Shelley (17th April – 5th May). The daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the lover of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 19-years-old – a piece which explored revolutionary ideas about playing ‘God’ and nature versus nurture.

Meanwhile, at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, there is another chance to see J.B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls (24th – 28th January). Fresh from its fourth season in the West End, this atmospheric thriller – with its impressive stage set – looks at the responsibility of the middle classes to  members of society who are not as privileged as them. This Modernist masterpiece also throws into doubt the values of the old world order.

The world premiere of David Seidler’s The King Speech – the play which inspired last year’s Oscar-winning film – will take place on 13th February and runs until 18th. It is the story of King George VI’s struggle to overcome a stammer as Britain stood on the brink of the Second World War.

Addiction and family strife are at the centre of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Long Day’s Journey into the Night (5th – 10th March), which stars David Suchet. This is followed by an RSC production of the Taming of the Shrew (13th – 17th March) which sees the flamboyant Petruchio attempt to woo – and tame – the wild Katharina.

And last but not least, Blind Summit will be presenting its unique puppet show The Table at Nottingham University’s Lakeside (31st January – 1st February). The show, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer, includes a puppet who is stuck to the table, a ballet of disembodied heads and the story being told using pieces of paper emerging from a briefcase.

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If these walls could talk: On the Hyson Green flats

The flats in Hyson Green were built with a huge amount of optimism – and yet somewhere along the line, they became unfit for purpose and were brought to the ground with little remorse from the authorities.

The rabbit warren-like complex, which was where Asda now stands, has been the subject of a local history project called On the Flats (see my earlier post) which is currently being shown as an exhibition at Nottingham’s Brewhouse Yard.

These post-War flats were assembled using a Bison frame structure. Vast sheets of concrete meant they were built quickly to house the growing population. Bombed-out streets and dilapidated houses were cleared to make way for affordable, modern flats, just like the ones people in continental Europe had been living in for decades.

The complex included balconies, courtyards and walkways and for many of the residents – who had lived in slum housing with outdoor toilets and tin baths – they were the height of modernity.

But the flats, along with countless others across the UK, did not live up to  expectations. Planned communities and social housing soon meant neglected ghettos; as one former resident of the flats points out, there were no projects or business opportunities that could have made the community more sustainable.

By the time they were demolished in 1988, they had a reputation for temperamental heating, damp and rubbish piling up which led to infestations of rats and insects.

This exhibition also sheds light on some of the broader social issues of the time. Poverty and racial tension proved a catalyst for the violence that erupted in 1981. One of the inhabitants remembers seeing a mum with a young baby tearing off pieces of her skirt and handing them over to a man who used the fabric to make petrol bombs.

But the flats were also known for their strong community spirit which continues to thrive in Hyson Green today. Residents host blues parties when you could wander along the balconies and turn up at any number of gatherings.

Strong bonds formed between neighbours but many people lost touch when the flats were finally pulled down. The On the Flats project has been a great opportunity for them to catch up with old friends, as well as giving us a unique insight into a part of our recent social history.

The exhibition runs until 15th January.

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Desolation Row: Lowry’s exploration of modern anxiety at Djanogly Art Gallery

L. S. Lowry said that the Great Depression passed him by. It might seem like an unusual statement given that, like George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, he depicted the unemployed and the over-worked in the north of England. But unlike Orwell, he was not politically or ideologically motivated. Instead, his figures become part of the industrial wastelands alongside the derelict buildings, abandoned boats and thick, black smog.

Earlier this month, a wonderfully curated exhibition of Lowry’s work opened at Nottingham’s Djanogly Art Gallery. Here his Lancashire mill scenes sit alongside some of his lesser known rural landscapes which became increasingly stark and devoid of detail.

Although his images are steeped in the everyday there is also something unsettling about them. Like T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland and James Joyce in Ulysses, Lowry does not subscribe to a straightforward social realism but instead explores the existential anxiety of modern life. Personal identity is lost in the crushing machine of industrialisation; people are forced to work long hours and they become disconnected from their families and themselves, as shown in the family scene of Discord (1943).

Lowry painted a number of startling portraits, including Head of a Man (1938), Boy in a Yellow Jacket (1935) and The Manchester Man (1935-6). The red, staring eyes, hollow expressions and skin ravaged by harsh weather, factory chemicals and poor diet reveal the soul-sapping nature of the industrial age and force us to confront the human cost of modernity head on. Contrast these pictures with the pencil sketches A Meeting (1923) and Speculators (1924) which depict middle class professionals sitting in their comfortable offices smoking, drinking coffee and using their minds rather than being physically exhausted by the drudgery of hard labour.

He also produced a number of desolate landscapes, both urban and rural. Some, such as Wasteland (1935), show the spoils of industrialisation at a time when Lancashire’s cotton industry was in decline and these too echo Eliot’s poem. Many resemble a battlefield from the First World War, perhaps anticipating that another war was not far off. The figures of his earlier paintings are notably absent and the once-thriving mills are abandoned although thick, putrid smoke continues to belch out of the chimneys in the distance indicating a legacy of destruction.

Even more stark are Lowry’s paintings of the lakes, seashores and rural landscapes of Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Moors and the Lake District which are largely free of human activity and the antithesis of the pastoral idyll. As in the city, there is nothing comforting here; the land is oddly life-less, almost lunar and detached from any real sense of location, hinting at perplexing metaphysical questions about time.

The exhibition continues at Djanogly Art Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre (University of Nottingham campus) until 5th February. Entry is free.


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