Review – Be Brave And Leave For The Unknown (RedCape Theatre)

imgresDo you remember those wire puzzles? The ones with all the beads at the joints, that you could push through themselves, squeezing and weaving and warping them into spheres and orbitals, bracelets and columns? That’s what it was like watching the characters in Be Brave And Leave For The Unknown at ARC last night.

In the centre of the stage there is a large table, with cunning extra functions – flaps lift, lids uncover holes, objects emerge from the hollow interior. It becomes a piano, a baby bath, a tank, a bar to dance on, a train platform to jump from, a bomb shelter. The actors thread themselves around and under and through it, and around and about one another, in a beautiful cat’s cradle of intention and interplay, constantly making and undoing and re-making their worlds.

Will Dickie plays Chris, a concert pianist with extraordinarily expressive fingers and a bad case of stage fright. Philippa Hambly plays Fleur, a war photographer adrenaline junkie who can’t sit still. We see them meet, fall in love, become a family. Then we see them fall apart under the strain of the worst tragedy that can happen to new parents. The bravery they have had to use on a daily basis to overcome the fears inherent in their professions is not sufficient to see them through – they must discover a different order of courage within themselves as individuals, and as a couple.

For me, what was most interesting was the relative absence of dialogue. This is an incredibly visual piece, made completely effective by coherent lighting and sound design. I recently saw Into Thin Air by Precious Cargo, and had been expecting this kind of physical image-painting, but on that occasion I was disappointed – the play is beautifully written by Allison Davies, but had failed to take life in the bodies of the actors. It occurs to me now, having seen Be Brave, that the key is to leave enough space in the writing for the enactment to happen (if that makes sense). The text of Into Thin Air could exist by itself as a short story, but Be Brave is absolutely a piece of theatre, reliant on the presence of actors, the story entirely expressed through their actions.

Oh, and best ever use of a glass of water. Stunning bit of visual metaphor. It’s on again tonight at ARC, and continues to tour venues in the north east through the REACH programme for new writing for theatre. You should go.

Mamela and other reviews (Gosling Watch)

Recently I was selected to be one of ten intrepid amateur theatre reviewers for the North East Artist Development Network. My first review is now online here; I decided to start with kindness. It would have been possible to be much more scathing, as the show I saw was billed as drama but really was a whole heap less sophisticated than that. However, I’m just finding my feet, see what you think.

Perhaps one day I’ll manage to feel secure enough in my theatre reviewing to do it in the same style as my now surprisingly popular ‘Gosling Watch’ on Facebook. For those of you who are not FB friends, here’s a round-up of my pearls of wisdom to date…

September 13 2014, Only God Forgives

So I watched Only God Forgives, hoping for some close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s beautiful face moving almost imperceptibly from one state of beautiful blankness to another, subtly different state of beautiful blankness. I was rewarded with many such moments, and also – a prescient, machete-wielding cop-nemesis, several sub-Lynchian scarlet-drenched dream sequences, an unrecognisably brassy Kristen Scott Thomas playing a castrating-mother-cougar-gangster-matriarch, and Thai karaoke. This film teeters on the brink of cult genius, before plunging slow-motion into the abyss of the truly fucking awful.

September 14 2014, Ides Of March

Still on the eternal quest for Gosling-satiety, I watched The Ides Of March, which is a typical late-period Clooney political noir featuring the Cloonster himself as a charming senator racing for the Democratic presidential candidacy, with Gosling our hero as the rising star in the campaign office. Fans of the Gosling School Of Facial Acting will be delighted to know that there is a decent quota of wordless, faintly enigmatic blank-face moments. Excitingly, there are also several moments in which his face does much more complex emotional stuff that I am forced to call acting. It’s a story of lost innocence, and yes I know there may not seem to be much innocence left to be lost for a spin-doctor with all the hallmarks of a political and emotional player, but lo! the labrador tail of idealism still wags in the soul of our hero, until actions and their consequences dock it for good. Most satisfactory as a film all-round, just what I’ve come to expect from Clooney as a director, although it scores quite low on the Gosling-Kit-Off scale. Which of course doesn’t exist, that would be puerile of me.

September 16 2014, Drive

Many of you will be asking ‘why the Gosling fetish, Kirsten? when did this all start? did you accidentally watch The Notebook or something?’ The truth is, I did wade through that particular tide of treacle some years back, and had managed to expunge the experience from my conscious memory. At the time, the divine Ryan moved me not one jot, the Face being at that time far too fresh, plus there was all that lying in the road whiffling at traffic lights bullshit to contend with.

No, good friends, it was Drive, Drive the magnificent, the moody, the mesmeric, a film with the racing lines of an urban heist movie but powered by pure Western. Gosling is literally the man with no name, drifted in from some modern high plains wearing not a poncho but a scorpion bomber jacket, laconic (naturally), and operating sometimes outside the law but always within his own code, driven to extreme violence only to protect the innocent. The whole film is fucking gorgeous, but it’s the interaction between him and Carey Mulligan that did it for me. She’s a pretty deft exponent of Facial Acting herself, and I was hypnotised by watching them watching each other, speechlessly allowing their faces to suffuse with – love? Attraction? Soul-recognition? Ah! The yearning….

September 23 2014, Crazy. Stupid. Love.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. Mid-life loser (Steve Carrell) gets booted out by his wife (Julianne Moore) and winds up sitting like a saddo in a pick-up joint, where he is taken under the wing of spectacularly successful Game-playing womaniser (Ryan Gosling). The inevitable happens – loser rediscovers his mojo through taking up anonymous sex, man-whore rediscovers his heart through giving up anonymous sex, but both end up re-affirming that All You Need Is Love. This is a modern rom-com of the knowing variety, one which makes slyly subversive digs at the very tropes it inhabits. Gosling is the focus of a few clever little camera-shot turnarounds where this objectifier of women becomes the object of the lens-eye. We meet him from the feet up, like Cameron Diaz in The Mask; we even get a full-length shot of him posing in slow-mo with orgasmic backing music. He falls in love with a girl who is incapable of playing The Game by the standard one-night rules. Gosling playing a man in love reads a lot like his ‘real self’, by which I mean the small-screen persona he projects in TV interviews. It’s a good look on him, and he seems to have some shit-hot deadpan comic timings in both arenas. There is really no Enigmatic Blank Face time in this film at all, but this is balanced by a solid six on the (non-existent) Gosling Kit-Off Scale. Yeah, you heard me, a six. I can take more. On a more worrying note, I seem to have refined my adoration of the Face into a specific obsession with his nose. Dammit, that’s a fine nose.

September 26 2014, more about Crazy. Stupid. Love.

Still slightly obsessing over Crazy, Stupid, Love and the rom-com genre in general. I believe rom-coms are equivalent to glossy magazines – they promise us (women) some light if slightly guilty pleasure, some ‘me-time’, a little harmless escapism. But they always seem to leave an aftertaste of depression. So much shiny fantasy undermines dull reality, throws our cellulite into sharp relief, and in the case of rom-coms propagates an impossible notion of love. Who was I meant to identify with when watching that film? My love was not the lightning strike of seeing my soulmate in the school corridor. My love was not a Photoshopped asshole transformed instantly into ideal family man by my unique personality. My love was a friend who forgave my faults, because if I was in that film I would have been the crazy-eyed, self-destructive teacher whose heart and genitals provided the arena for Loser-Hero Steve Carrell to grab back his confidence. And of all the characters, she was the one left still loveless at the credits, because she’s broken, right? And the mad ones don’t get the rom-com redemption. Directors, throw some crumbs to the broken bitches, there are more of us than you acknowledge, and these films are to love as cupcakes are to food.

September 28 2014, The Place Beyond The Pines

There are films which are novelistic in scope, introducing us to a protagonist and then following them through unfolding circumstances and personal developments to some kind of conclusion, resolution, redemption even. We stay with them, and are invited to care, even for the anti-hero. (There Will Be Blood, for example). Then there are films which play more like a collection of short stories, linked by theme or frequently by the daisy-chain of chance interactions between characters. There is no one protagonist, the focus of our sympathy shifts, the cast is vast and the effect is looser on the emotions, meditative even. (Short Cuts, for example). The Place Beyond The Pines sits somewhere between the two. A more conventionally structured version of this film would feature Bradley Cooper’s character, the cop Avery Cross, as the lead. Instead we are tricked into thinking Gosling’s mysterious and misguided motorcyclist is going to be the hero, and given almost an hour to give a shit before he gets a cap popped in him. As a Gosling-junkie, I feel cheated and used. Sure, lure me in with an opening shot of his immaculately chiselled torso, but then to abandon me with and hour and twenty minutes of your ‘meditation on fathers and sons’? You mean I have to read this film as art, not entertainment? I have to seriously ask myself what is this place beyond the pines, metaphorically speaking? Oh ffs.

October 11 2014, Lars And the Real Girl

“Quirky, heart-warming comedy” is such a devalued phrase, isn’t it? Like “luxury flat”. It could easily be applied to Lars And The Real Girl, the latest outing for Gosling Watch. Lars is socially crippled by shyness – hahaha! He orders a life-sized, anatomically-correct doll from the Internet – hahaha! He truly believes that she is real, and the whole town joins in with his delusion – oh, hahahahahahahahahaHAHA! Played differently, hilarity could indeed ensue. But it doesn’t, because even though there are funny moments, the point is definitely not ‘let’s laugh at Lars’. This film has way too much heart for that, and in fact it is about love in the widest and realest sense – intimate love, familial love, community love and I would say also Christian love. “Love is God in action” says the local priest, and we see the ripple of it extending out through the town in a most beautiful way. The town itself is a bastion of simple decency in the far north, probably where the cop from Fargo grew up. Of course. The northern small-town is the new shorthand for old-fashioned values, now that the mid-west picket-fenced hamlet has become so subverted (Lynch, I’m looking at you).

Loved this film. Loved Gosling in it, he’s superb, especially the panic attack scene. But when searching for it, Netflix suggested Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and I advise you not to mix up the two when choosing your Sunday morning viewing, photomontages of flaccid penises can really put you off your cornflakes.

November 2 2014, Drive (again)

BBC Radio 1 have re-scored Drive. I haven’t watched it all yet, so I can’t comment on the whether or not I can tell the difference – I suspect the main change for me will be noticing the music at all, as the original score is minimal and seamless. But I did check out the scene by the river when Gosling takes Mulligan and her son for an idyllic outing. This montage is cinematic shorthand for ‘and over time the two fell deeply in love’. In the original soundtrack, it is the first incidence of ‘the theme from Drive’ (A Real Hero by College & Electric Youth), which has the hook ‘what does it mean to be a real human being and a real hero?’.

Now I was recently arguing with a good friend of mine about Drive. His assertion was that the entire film is a piece of cheesy nonsense, exemplified by this section and this song. After vigorously reminding him that Gosling is playing not a character but a FREAKIN’ ARCHETYPE, DUDE, I got to thinking about what I actually meant by that.

So I think the archetype is The Hero, and I think it’s as impossible an ideal of masculinity as any film portrayal of femininity. That whole strong and silent – yet feels deeply – yet is a loner – yet is a family man – yet is brutally violent – yet is tender….even his faults presented as virtuous. How is anyone meant to combine all of that and still be plausible? You can’t do it, men – you can’t be a real hero AND a real human being.

Which is why I prefer the original soundtrack, cheesy as it is, over the new (and equally cheesy) ‘aaaaaahhh, you’re amazing’. Pur-lease. Give me an existential question over a breathless assertion any day.

Review – Dead To Me by Greyscale Theatre

Do you believe in the spirit world? If you could talk to the dead, might it change your life?

Steven (Gary Kitching) is a small man in a stifling job, who visits a psychic (Tessa Parr) because someone gave him a gift voucher. He’s sceptical, uncomfortable, hunched and nervy and literally wrong-footed by her fey new-age mannerisms. She pulls his aura like taffy, twinkles about like a ballerina doll and jumps off furniture. Their interaction is a hilarious mismatched tango – until a final piece of abrupt advice from her spirit guide tips him into anxiety. When the prediction seems to come true, he comes back and we see their relationship evolve over several meetings, as Steven becomes more enamoured with the psychic and her beliefs. Each time he leave, he sheds his jacket, putting on a new one when he returns. They lie around the stage like skins he is shedding, or parts of himself he is losing. Each meeting is separated by a strange red-washed interval where Steven paces out his discomfort at the margins of the stage while the psychic occupies it, dancing her weirdly naive dance to the sound of Elvis (that great ambassador of the Realm Beyond). It’s clear that this is not going to end well. Maybe you can even guess what might happen if an emotionally vulnerable person is encouraged to believe that they too have the gift of communication? The audience can see where it is headed, not with the stale predictability of a cliche but with the dreadful inevitability of a tragedy.

Kitching and Parr are both tremendous in this, their physicality is pitch-perfect. Kitching in particular basically gives us a masterclass in how to ramp up status just through body language. Initially, he is so far down the food chain that it is easy to ignore him, the whimsical Parr is so much more charming and compelling. But by his character’s final manifestation, he is as riveting and chilling as a psychopath. This was a flawless production, as far as I’m concerned, worth every penny.

Review – North East Rising by Rowan McCabe

I was recently one of ten people selected to write theatre reviews for the North East Artist Development Network, which of course has made me very happy and has also forced me to admit that I know very little about reviewing. So my cunning plan is to do some warm-ups on here.

Rowan McCabe
Rowan McCabe

I’d really like to tell you about ‘North East Rising’ by Rowan McCabe, and I will, I will – but in all fairness, I must declare an interest. I’ve been working with Rowan in my capacity as Apples and Snakes co-ordinator since he started as a performance poet. He’s come up through Scratch Club, had performance mentoring from me, been programmed and commissioned by me on a range of projects and most recently I acted as a freelance mentor helping him edit the text of this show. Fairly obviously, I think he’s good, but then so do all the other people who have supported him to write this first solo pice – Arts Centre Washington, Arts Council, ARC Stockton and the like.

North East Rising is based on a simple observation, that the portrayal of the north east and Geordies in the popular media is unfairly skewed towards negative, vulgar or impoverished stereotypes. It’s grim up north, always has been. What McCabe sets out to do is to use his own experiences as a north-easterner to set out a stall of alternative exemplars, exploring what for him is the true ‘essence of the north east’. He does this through a series of character sketches in poetic form, ranging from poignant to lyrical to comedic, linked loosely together by an imagined walk through Newcastle and beyond, up the Tyne valley. The overall tone is one of relaxed, chatty comedy, as he moves from poem to poem via links that are scripted a little like stand-up routines, and this all works extremely well. He’s an affable presence, the audience is always on his side and happily jumps up to twerk with baked goods for his Stottie Rap! And the final piece, stretching out its fingers towards this new positive ideal of north east community and culture, is truly moving.

If I have any reservations, it’s about the support acts. In keeping with the stand-up nature of his delivery, the show is presented within a cabaret format, with a first half consisting of music from Alix Alexandra (who was sublime) and poetry from Jess Johnson, all hosted by Robbie Lee Hurst. This is a fantastic format, it really makes sense as a structure given the feel of Rowan’s piece, but I was a bit taken aback by Jess’s set. She’s a tremendous actor, incredibly vivid on stage, and I’ve seen her in late-night cabaret settings and laughed until I hurt. But the same material shifted to early-evening theatre struck a different note. Her themes are sex, jealousy, domestic abuse, drug-use, drunken brawling and council estate slaggery  – so, many of the negative stereotypes that Rowan’s show is trying so hard to move away from. Her set seems to undermine his in its content, but this could be mitigated if the pieces were delivered with more invitation to empathise, and there’s plenty of space to do that as she’s writing with heart and not to judge or mock. Instead they are spat at us, obscenities lobbed like bricks, angry and confrontational. It’s like being blasted with a flamethrower.

I know there may be tweaks made to the support set for the next three performances, so I really wouldn’t let my responses put you off, not least because you may enjoy Jess’s piece very much, there were plenty of others around me finding it funny. And the main show I wouldn’t have you miss for all the pasties in Greggs.

North East Rising can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 21 October and at ARC, Stockton on 23 October

Blog-hopping across the universe…

I have been tagged in a big ol’ blog-hop intended to plug you, my readers, into a vast galaxy of writers writing about writing. I was tagged by this lady:

Valerie Laws#8 (2)Valerie Laws ( is a crime novelist, poet, playwright and sci-art installation specialist. Of her thirteen published books, 4 are currently available as ebooks. A mathematics/physics graduate, she devises new poetic forms and science-themed poetry installations and commissions including the infamous Arts Council–funded Quantum Sheep, spray-painting haiku onto live sheep to celebrate quantum theory. Much of her recent work arises from funded residencies with pathologists, neuroscientists, human specimens and dissections. Another quantum haiku on inflated beachballs in Hackney Lido featured in BBC2’s Why Poetry Matters with Griff Rhys Jones, and live at Royal Festival Hall, London, and her installations have toured all over Europe. She performs worldwide live and in the media.  Her many prizes and awards include a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and two Northern Writers’ Awards.  She is disabled and lives on the North East coast of England.

And here’s my answers to the questions on everyone’s lips….

1. What am I writing?

As usual, several things at once. I am one of a vast array of poets who have been commissioned to “respond creatively” to the Bloodaxe Archive, a collection of manuscripts, correspondence and ephemera recently donated by Bloodaxe Press to Newcastle University. The brief has proved dauntingly open, so I have several ideas in various stages of (in)completion – a selection of fragmentary documents from a lost archive of a dream nation; a performance poem about Tony Harrison, obscenity and the objectification of women; a sci-fi dialogue between a digital archive interface and a memory-user; and a text-based visual print. Typically, it is the two pieces featuring foul language that have made it almost all the way through to the submission deadline on Tuesday.

I am also editing a short series of poems written for a local WW1 project, which are due to be anthologised in December. I’m also both editing, writing and re-writing around 35 poems for a second-round submission to Burning Eye Press, in the hopes that they may decide to publish my first full collection next year. In and around that I’m trying to write short ekphratic pieces responding to art exhibitions I’ve attended recently (especially Louise Bourgeois), and I’m also testing out some review-writing skills by blogging about spoken word shows I’ve seen at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. I will soon be writing theatre reviews in a semi-professional capacity for the North East Artist Development Network, so I’m trying to keep high-minded whilst in actual fact I am mostly doing short humourous Facebook reviews of Ryan Gosling movies.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Bloody Nora, that’s an intense question, presupposing I have a much wider knowledge of my contemporaries than I actually do. On stage I think I’m characterised by musicality of language and delivery. I was described by Sabotage Reviews as having an “intense lyrical talent”, which is nice. Thematically, I’m more Buddh-ish than many out there. On the page I think I still have a long way to go if I’m to establish a really unique voice. My recurrent struggle seems to be to write something that doesn’t bore and infuriate me with its polite striving to be another frigging poem. I’ve also recently developed a delight in shifting randomly from male to female pronouns – I think I may be interested in constructed gender identities and their relationship to sexuality. Possibly.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Poetry is my natural gait, I can’t help the way I walk.

4. How does my writing process work?

Commissions aside, I usually write because an event, feeling or encounter has struck a note inside me and then another completely unrelated moment has come along and resonated with it. Sometimes the two notes are struck many years apart, but once they are ringing together then arcs of connective meaning spark out between them and a poem grows. When all goes well, the poem knows exactly what form it needs to take and I just follow it, praying I have the stamina to keep up.

I always have multiple drafts, I’m a fanatical believer in editing, and much of my editing is done through reading aloud whilst walking on the beach near my house. This usually means that once a poem is finished, I have learned it by heart and can go on to perform it on stage.

And my recommendations for your blog-reading pleasure are as follows:

James McKay – seen here performing at Other Voices, snapped by Fay Roberts.

james at other voicesPoet, traveller and classicist James McKay has been standing up and speaking in rooms, and helping others to do so, since the turn of the millennium: initially as part of Newcastle’s Home Cooking night; in recent years as a key team member and performer at Utter! Spoken Word events in and around London.

His vintage poetry-speaking show The New Popular Reciter was a late-night cult hit at the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh 2013, and will reappear in 2015 in a version directed by Matt Panesh (aka Monkey Poet).

Along the way, his poems and performances have appeared on the poetry-and-prog-rock album Follow On by The Morris Quinlan Experience (Round and Round Records, 2007), in his first published collection Quiet Circus (Vintage Poison Press, 2011), and at a bewildering variety of cafes, churches, small magazines, warehouse parties, weddings and miscellaneous spoken word events.

James has a wonderful blog in which he posts all manner of poems, interesting reading recommendations and travel tales –