Writing

Garry Cook also writes arts reviews and previews. Some of them are shown here.

SHOW PREVIEW: The Birth of Death by Joanne Tremarco

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SHOW PREVIEW: The Birth of Death by Joanne Tremarco at The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University (Weds, Nov 1, 2017).

It’s usually the hardest subjects to discuss which produce the most inspiring, unforgettable performances. This will be one of those.

If you’ve seen Joanne Tremarco at work, you’ll already be a fan. Quick-witted, engaging, huge stage presence. She’s got the lot. That Tremarco uses these skills to discuss subjects on stage most of us are too scared to whisper about in our own bedrooms only adds to attraction.

The Birth of Death is such a performance. Personal, painful – and strangely joyously triumphant. Just like one of Tremarco’s previous pieces which I am a huge fan of, Women Who Wank.

Women Who Wank was the most offensively named show I saw at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, as well as the best. An improvised solo show built around audience participation about female masturbation does not instantly scream HIT SHOW! at you. But that’s what this was.

Tremarco’s brilliance turned this solo piece, performed in a dishevelled, slightly damp but huge room high up in the dusty George Next Door venue on Cowgate, into a word-of-mouth sensation at the Fringe.

By the time of the final late-night performance in Women Who Wank’s short EdFringe stint, word had really gotten round about Tremarco. There were more people sitting on the floor than there were on seats that final night. It was the place to be. People just kept streaming through the door. It was like a victory concert for unashamed blunt sexual feminism.

While Tremarco still performs this iconic piece, she has also created other works – most notably this current development The Birth of Death.

I saw this show in 2016 as a highly-polished work-in-progess at Unity Theatre, Liverpool, part of Physical Fest. Dying On My Feet (as the show was known during its MDI/Physical Fest Bursary award development phase) focuses on Tremarco’s relationship with her terminally-ill mother – and turns the experience into a piece of breathtaking physical theatre, where arguably a more difficult –to-broach subject than female wanking is tackled with touching delicacy, humour and visual power. It was mesmerising form the off, with Tremarco in place and already immersed in performance while the audience filled the packed-out theatre.

Undoubtedly, humour is a major strength of Tremarco’s work and the development of The Birth of Death has seen the introduction of more improvisation, which is sure to add searing wit and audience connection to this contemporary tragic comedy.

Show website: https://www.the-death-wife-project.com/

Here is the blurb for the show:

The Birth of Death (formerly known as Dying on My Feet)

Imagine you have two bodies. One you move in every day and one you move in when you dream. Where does the dream body go after death? This solo piece performed by Joanne Tremarco and directed by Yael Karavan addresses ‘death’ the elephant in the ‘living’ room. Drawing on end of life conversations with her mother, training as a death doula and adventures as a Lucid Dreamer invent a comic-tragic odyssey of the soul.

‘Tremarco took the audience down a path that was both deeply personal and utterly remarkable.’ Liverpool Sound and Vision

Tickets: £10 / £8 concs / £5 EHU students FREE for EHU students who have signed up to The Arts Centre’s free membership scheme. Get tickets here: https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/events/2017/11/01/the-birth-of-death/book/

Photography: Andrew Ness

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ADVISORY: Performances contain graphic content and nudity (FK vs. KT and STRANGE LOOP)

When I’m trying to explain to people why I like live art performance, or why they should try it, I usually refer to Frances Kay whose show Sorry – the one where I had to leave the room because I felt like I was going to faint because the hypnotic music mixed with repetitive actions made me feel all woozy. And that was before the razor blades came out.

But it’s this kind of experience, all-encompassing, unforgettable, thrilling and socially critical, which make contemporary performance so damn good. Kay is back with a new show – FK vs. KT – performed as a double bill with Jim Burrows doing Strange Loop.

These two shows are new. One is by Jim Burrows, the other by Frances Kay. I saw both shows as a work-in-progress in Huddersfield in the summer. I was asked to write about both pieces of work. So, this is a kind of preview of both shows, along with all the information you need:

[Double bill performance this Tuesday, October 24, 2017, at The Arts Centre, Ormskirk.  Tickets £10/£8 conc/FREE for Arts Centre Student Members. Use this link for more info and to buy tickets]

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Strange Loop
By Garry Cook
Sept 15, 2017

There are certain moments in pop culture which have a profound effect on their audiences, yet are almost exclusive to a chosen few. Pop star Gary Numan and his late Seventies, early Eighties synth-wave visuals are one of those cultural cults, where those affected get a shiver down their spine every time they see two red stripes on a black background.

Jim Burrows harnesses this visual aesthetic and turns it into a full-on multi-media thrust of sound, sinister cinema, drag and movement to produce Strange Loop, a queer cabaret which brutally criticises representation of sexuality.

Burrows’ cross platform piece garners techniques from several disciplines to produce live art entertainment where the audience is unable to sit comfortably.

The visually stunning projection-based retro opening expands into a multi-sensory assault, pushing the audience’s feelings between extremes of sympathy and disgust, wrapping it all up in a conical hat and Tudor ruff of post-modern irony.

Strange Loop is an exorcism of individual identity from a sanitised stream of commercial culture. Its rawness acts as a reminder of the realities faced by one person living with their own identity. This is perhaps most poignantly portrayed during the Shirley Bassey lip-synching sequence where the beautiful soundtrack is contrasted with the performer disrobing into a sexual-silk chemise.

The abstract satirical references and comical sequences of sexuality and desexualisation barely hide a melancholy backdrop of discomfort, both for the performer and audience.

As a self-confessional, Strange Loop offers painful insight into the complexities of human identity. As a performance it captivates its audience through beautiful audio and visuals, forcing those watching to examine their own feelings in relation to self-identity. Which is precisely what great live-art theatre should do.

The political landscape is the body, the body is Brexit. The feminine body has been used for multitude of sins, but never to slice open the most divisive event in British political history.

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FK v KT is a physical performance where the artist dissects the relationship between her performance persona and her real self. France Kay (the artist’s performance name) unravels the uncomfortable relationship she has with her shyer, less provocative self Katie Harling. At the same time, Kay relates the uncomfortable partnership to the equally confusing issue of what Brexit means to the British people.

Like Kay’s previous work, the artist’s own body is a metaphor for the provocation of social issues, this time exploring themes of patriotism, division and personal conflict.

Political performance is at its strongest when it is able to relate itself to the emotional feelings of an individual and this is precisely what Kay does, discussing the emotional pull between two characters (Harling and her alter-ego) and the pain which can be caused by one polarising decision.

If ever fear and self-loathing, usually the exclusive domain of one person’s own mind, could be applied to an entire society it would be through the uncertainty of Brexit and what it means to a nation. This is why Kay’s hugely intimate performance resonates with audiences. Its wide appeal – to Britons and Europeans – is made personal through her own exposure both mentally and physically.

This visual work focuses on the artists own body, incorporating projections, body art, movement and drag performance, plus two of the artist’s major strengths: durational repetition and physical pain.

Unusually for Kay, the theme of discomfort with personal circumstance sees the artist employ spoken word in the performance where previously her silence has been a cornerstone to her performances. The verbal section is one of the highlights of FK v KT.

FK v KT offers audiences an experience of close-up intensity rarely seen in relation to political subjects. The subtle sexualisation of Brexit is enthralling, as are the wider issues discussed in the work.

Photographer: Brett Fawkes

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REVIEW: The Audit by Proto-type Theatre (at The Lowry, Salford)

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The prospect of going to see a performance about the Icelandic banks and the global economy crisis is not an easy sell. A huge, utterly complex and dry subject, you have to admire Proto-type Theatre‘s ambition with The Audit.

And what you also have to admire is their brilliance in delivering an engaging, socially-critical piece of performance theatre.

The show incorporates verbatim text, film, music and animation – but it’s all about the words. From the promotional blurb which persuaded me to turn up to the spoken word delivery of Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees, every word is executed to perfection. On stage, it is the poetry of the performance which makes this such a stand-out show.

The attention to detail is huge. From the synchronicity of movement to the speech rhythms, the show is study in embodied research.

This is Proto-type’s second flirtation with socio-political subjects following on from last year’s wonderful surveillance-themed A Machine They’re Secretly Building. This show seems bigger in scale, yet more intimate, relating the financial mess of the past two decades to the audience through the story of a young Icelandic girl and her grandfather. It’s sublime storytelling.

For this type of contemporary performance, Proto-type sit at the top table in terms of engaging performance. But when it comes to the global socio-political subject matter, they are at the top of their game. The Audit is a superb example of performance theatre.

The tour goes on (see dates below). Their Arc Stockton show was cancelled due to bad weather It should be rearranged soon. I saw them at The Lowry, Salford, presented in association with Word of Warning – the people to follow if you want to know about performance theatre in the North of England.

Twitter: @proto_type


REVIEW: The Chit Chat Chalk Show

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You know you’re about to experience something different when the audience sits on the floor, with the theatre’s seats left empty.

The Chit Chat Chalk Show is everything kids love – performance, jumping around, drawing (with chalk, obvs) and sitting on big colourful cushions.

Most parents wince at the thought of their kids having to sit still for an hour in a theatre. But here they don’t have to. Chit Chat Chalk involves its young audience right from the off, meaning boredom breaks are not even on the menu. I didn’t see one child leave for a toilet break.

They were too engrossed in the energetic dance display of the five performers who bring to life the story of Kiko, the confused young girl who comes to realise that the contrasting mixture of emotions she feels as she engages with the world around her do not make her an outsider – they make her a complete person.

It’s a moral message delivered in a way that even the most cynical whingy kids will take on board. I’m sure most adults will readily accept the emotional refresher course too. It’s like joyous therapy.

This fast-moving interactive show uses music, intricate stage lighting, a clever changing set and, most impressive of all, a beautifully choreographed piece of physical theatre which brings poignancy and pace – not to mention a huge dollop of laughter – to a mesmerising 60-minute performance.

In York, The Chit Chat Chalk Show were:
Alice Shepperson
Josh Hawkins
Zoe Bradley
Natalie Morrell
Simon McElligott

NOTE: I saw The Chit Chat Chalk Show at York Theatre Royal (October 2017) after being asked to photograph them. The show, which included a post-show workshop, was part of the youth Take Over York festival in the city. The Chit Chat Chalk Show, a collaboration between Hawk Dance Theatre and The Knotted Theatre, is a performance aimed at three to eight-year-olds, which will tour across Britain in 2018.

The links you might like:
Hawk Dance Theatre: @hawkdance
http://www.hawkdancetheatre.com/

The Knotted Project: @KnottedProject
http://www.theknottedproject.co.uk/

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REVIEW: A Girl and a Gun by Louise Orwin

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Performance review: A Girl and a Gun by Louise Orwin
‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’ Jean-Luc Godard, film director.
‘A camera is a sublimination of a gun’, Susan Sontag, writer, in On Photography.

A Girl and a Gun promotional text:
This is a show about girls and guns. It’s a show that asks two people to take to the stage and play out a film script in front of you. It asks what it means to be a plot device, what it means to be a hero, and what it means to watch. Expect gun-twirling, line-dancing, Nancy-Sinatra-singing. A Girl and a Gun is one of those all too rare theatrical events, where the performance, performers, story and subtext comes together to turn an enjoyable great show into a captivating all-consuming event.

This show, A Girl and a Gun, blows you away. It’s an experience. It comes at you from all angles. Provocative storyline, uneasy viewing forcing self-reflection, sexual tension, feelings of complicity, awkwardness towards the role of Him (male actor in the piece being asked to improvise morally objectionable acts). It’s a night in your life you’ll never forget – for the right reasons (thought-provoking enjoyment) even though the feelings you have at the time (shame, inner conflict, and voyeuristic emotions) don’t feel good at the time. But you’re supposed to feel like this. I think.

A Girl and a Gun is a performance by Louise Orwin, assisted by a male actor who has neither seen the show or the script previously, about the objectification and abuse of women in popular culture, and therefore society, presented in captivating and clever drama.

For any great piece of work, in any art form, the timing has to be right in so many areas for it all to come together. For the writer and artist, in this case Orwin, her moment in time is where an ambition and desire to provoke combines with performance skills (and obvious bombshell sexiness played out to the max), to deliver a show that engages on many levels – but primarily in exhilarating entertainment. It’s perfect that Orwin is doing work like this now, when she has the guts to be sexy on stage, and the drive to make such a bold social commentary.

Forget blockbuster movies, in 3D or even 4D with vibrating chairs, wind machines and water sprinklers. If you get the look, the story and the performance right, you don’t need any of that. The show can do it for an audience on its own. The best way I can describe the feeling that this show is magic is right at the end of the performance, when the final word is spoken, when the lights go dark… and you feel yourself exhale. You feel everyone else around you do the same. That’s when you know you’ve seen something.

Much of the reason for this is Orwin herself. From the outset she has you mesmerised as she provocatively slow dances her way to stage centre, her red dress only enhancing the sexual tension. By the time she utters her first few lines in a deep, deep Deep South American drawl, you are feeling things as, a man, you probably shouldn’t. Or wouldn’t want to admit to publically. From that point on, you sit there thinking she alone is the sexiest woman on Planet Earth. Nothing else matters for the next 80 minutes. This is not a show where you casually check the time 50 minutes in, to work out how long is left.

And it is all down to her performance skills. I met Orwin in the bar afterwards. She is pretty and slightly shy, much like anyone else you might meet in a bar. On stage though, something else.

This show is focused on film director Jean-Luc Godard’s somewhat chauvinistic, definitely sexist and hugely cynical premise that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. A Girl and a Gun is asking the audience: is this right? Is this right in a modern era of hopeful equality and gender equality that women are still objectified and sexualised in film (and other media). At least’s that’s my interpretation of it.

This to me, is performance theatre as its best, a visually captivating show with a universally serious social message, one that looks across society and not just down on the performer’s own naval.

And as if I didn’t have enough to deal with as a simple male audience member. Susan Sontag, a critical theorist wrote in her book of essays On Photography that ‘a camera is a sublimination of a gun’. So any shame of being male and complicit to this sexualisation process is at least doubled as I’m a photographer. During this performance I’m sitting next to a young woman who I have previously taken topless images of with my gun. That they were art images hardly seems like an excuse right now.

So, how does this show make you feel?

Well, like it says in The Bible, it’s complicated. L

My over-riding feeling at the end of the show was that I felt dirty. Dirty for having enjoyed the over-blown sexual thrill of Orwin’s performance, dirty for not looking away as Orwin, on stage but with her back to the audience, changed from her red dress into an equally alluring white dress midway through the performance, dirty for being a man.

This feeling of shame is central to the show and to one man in particular – the other actor in the show who is performing it for the first time having not seen the script. He reads his parts from autocue, which can sometimes be seen by the audience. He is encouraged by Orwin’s character – and then provoked by her – to carry out increasingly demeaning acts (to women) which are hugely uncomfortable to watch. The point is, will he carry them out on an increasingly submissive and desperate Orwin?

This point – which I don’t think I am ruining the show by mentioning here – is pivotal to the performance. What abuses to women, even if it is on film (or in this case performance), are acceptable? That poor actor – in the show I saw a nice man called  Charlie Hammond – has his own inner turmoil to fight, namely is the continuation of the show more important than his own moral objections in abusing a female?

In this case, as happens most often in A Girl and a Gun (Orwin told me afterwards), the show does go on. It’s shocking, it’s difficult to watch and it’s brilliant.

I should state here that several months before this show came to the stage at the New Continental in Preston as part of its fabulous Autumn season, I was asked to put my name forward as a candidate to be the man in the show, Him. Having now seen the show, I can’t tell you how horrific this would have been had I been chosen as Him. Moral dilemmas are hard enough for me to deal with in real life, never mind on stage in front of an audience. I still come out in a cold sweat at two o’clock in the morning thinking about this.

A Girl and a Gun’s power comes from Orwin’s performance, backed up by video cameras and live projections. Visually it is stunning. The show and its tour was funded by the Arts Council. It’s a triumph for them and Orwin.

This show, which has been performed across the country just under 30 times. It’s too good not to be seen by more people, bigger audiences.

Of course, that’s part of the problem with performance art – not enough people know about it, or are aware about it to actually come and see it. A Girl and a Gun doesn’t just deserve a bigger audience, most performances are worthy of that need. Audiences deserve to see A Girl and a Gun because they will get something unique and memorable to hang in a tiny part of their brain for the rest of their lives. Theatre is about experience and this is an experience which delivers on so many levels.

Find out more about Louise Orwin here.
NOTE: The brilliant A Girl and a Gun promotional image is by Field & McGlynn