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The Kite Runner at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

kite runner west yorkshire playhouse

I’ve got a busy week this week! All my weeks tend to be quite busy, what with a full time job, an internship and a blog, but this week I’ve also got two theatre visits and a bonfire to attend. It’s tiring but so nice to be seeing lots of lovely people, since working evenings can rob me of a social life somewhat.

Last night I went to the West Yorkshire Playhouse with some of my favourite work people to see The Kite Runner. We loved the book, and we were so excited to see how Giles Croft would bring Matthew Spangler’s adaptation to one of my favourite Leeds stages in the Quarry Theatre.

If you aren’t familiar with the story: rich Pashtun boy Amir grows up in Afghanistan with his Hazara servant Hassan as his closest friend. One snowy, kite-running day, an awful act of cowardice by Amir destroys their friendship, tearing the boys apart and leaving Amir racked with guilt and unsure how to seek redemption.

Ben Turner is truly the star of the show as Amir, a superior, selfish child, desperate for his father’s attention, who isn’t that much more pleasant as an adult. Nicholas Karimi merits a mention too as the terrifyingly sociopathic Aseff and Andrei Costin’s Hassan is loyal and vulnerable without being pathetic.

The sparse staging is used effectively, but much is still left to the imagination and as a result some of the continent-spanning majesty of the source material can be lost at times. There’s not enough contrast between dusty 1970s Kabul and San Francisco on the turn of the century, which means you lack a sense of how hard Amir has worked to distance himself from his childhood home, and of the differences between his life then and now.

However, this production really packs its punches emotionally. Amir’s youthful mistake has consequences he couldn’t have imagined, and his journey to redemption isn’t easy. By the time the play draws to a close, there’s barely a dry eye in the house. The final twenty minutes are raw, touching, harrowing, even, but never schmaltzy.

There’s a reason this production is going to be packed all week. It’s beautiful, a really hard look at a tragic story that shows friendship, betrayal and family ties transcend locations and cultures.

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Of Mice and Men at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

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What with house moving and illnesses and so on it’s been a good while since Ant and I have made it to the theatre, which is a huge shame since it’s one of our favourite things to do together. With that in mind, for Ant’s birthday last week I booked us tickets for Of Mice and Men, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest.

I always have high expectations at the Playhouse, just because I’ve seen so many outstanding productions there. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mary Shelley, Loserville, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Annie….all absolutely top notch. Of Mice and Men absolutely lived up to my expectations, and then some.

The story follows George and Lennie, two itinerant ranch workers and close friends, as they start a new job. Their friendship is the focus of the play; Lennie worships George and George protects Lennie from those who don’t understand him.

The staging is gorgeous as always. Standing water at the front of the stage adds a dank, closed in feeling but as soon as the hundreds of lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling light up, that’s forgotten and you’re out beneath the stars in the wide open fields.

There’s such an oppressive atmosphere for much of the play, and the music is largely responsible. Heather Christian is musical director, composer and performer, and her Americana style adds so much to the mood of the play.

There’s not a weak link in the cast. Every performance is absorbing, and despite the large amounts of dialogue, you don’t lose interest for a second. It just means the well timed silences are all the more tense and even harrowing, when they come, to help propel you toward the inevitable but horrendous crescendo. The sense of a rush towards the finale is overwhelming, and the interval was agonising. I wanted to be immersed in the play again, but I didn’t want to see what I knew I would have to see.

This has flown straight into my top 3 of the Playhouse’s productions. Bloody brilliant night out, incredibly moving and never boring.

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Three Good Things 2

For the last few weeks I’ve felt too busy, too stressed and too glum to write any three good things posts, which in retrospect is silly because it’s when we feel down that we need these the most! I’ve enjoyed reading  everyone else’s though – a little dose of positivity on a Wednesday morning brightens up that midweek slump.

Of course, Three Good Things was begun by Liz at Margot and Barbara.

1. Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred

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It’s hard to describe Jillian as a ‘good thing’ when she’s so…mean. ‘If you feel like you’re dying….keep going!’ ‘You DO NOT get to take a break during this workout!’ But, this workout DVD has provided a timely reminder that despite my active job, my aerobic fitness could be better. The first workout level is available on YouTube if you want to give it a try. It’s a tough routine, but veterans of The Shred tell me it gets easier!

2. My cute ticket holder

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I got this for my birthday back in May and despite it being such a little thing it’s one of my favourite presents! The reason it’s being featured now is because after a few months of austerity, it’s finally holding tickets for shows and events that I’m really looking forward to! The Elton John tickets at the front are obviously pretty exciting because I get to use them tonight! Plus, this will be my first look inside the new Leeds Arena, and I’m dying to see whether it’s true that there’s no bad seat in the house. (I’m right in the back corner, so perfectly placed to test this theory!)

I’m also looking forward to seeing Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint, Phoenix Dance Theatre @ Home, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and Wicked! at Leeds Grand Theatre. Theatre and dance sustain me, they feed my wellbeing and balance my mind. I’m so excited to gorge on them over the coming months!

3. Family

This week I’m feeling proud of my little sister, a nurse who works incredibly hard and over the last few years has saved and saved and finally, after several  setbacks, bought her own house. We went down to her housewarming on Saturday, and as always a day spent with family relaxed and refreshed me. I feel so lucky to have an extended family who get on well and treat each other kindly and respectfully.

I didn’t take many pictures but I did get this cute little video of one of my cousins. This is Hannah, who’s one. I filmed her crawling because, let’s face it, crawling as a mode of transport is hilarious, but didn’t expect the big grin at the end. I can’t stop watching it!

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Featherweight Theatre’s The Red Tree

The Red Tree

There’s a first time for everything, and this week was the first time I saw a piece of theatre based on a picture book.

Featherweight Theatre have recreated Shaun Tan’s book, The Red Tree, using puppetry, mime, dance and a whole host of other little tricks that add up to a heartwarming, captivating experience. For a full hour, I felt mesmerised by the cast’s movement, the inventive props, the quirky soundtrack. Everyone has bad days, days where nothing goes right and everything feels like hard work and apathy takes over; I admired the way that Featherweight expressed those feelings wordlessly but still so articulately.

We watch The Girl, played expressively by Madeline Shann as she navigates a dark day in which she is thwarted at every turn. Everyone around her has it together. Everyone else knows who they are and where they are going but she feels lost and alone. It’s hard to describe the heartwrenching poignancy with which Featherweight bring Shaun Tan’s simple but never simplistic words to life: I felt genuinely moved. This performance could easily have been all about the visuals, which were gorgeous, but it had a big heart, too.

The clever use of props helps to create a storybook aesthetic. Little torches and a paper boat are used to show a storm at sea, Shaun Tan’s words are projected with paper stencils onto a screen, a huge sheet of thin plastic is the sea, then a jellyfish, then an eel, then a cage. It’s literally like watching the most elaborate popup book, where each page reveals a marvellous new scene just as delightful as the last. The whole process is witty and imaginative, and perfectly pitched at older children, who will love this.

I saw a preview of The Red Tree at Headingley Heart. The show will be playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Featherweight are still raising funds for this so if you’ve seen The Red Tree or if you want to help them out, then take a look at this link.

Featherweight very kindly gave me a complimentary ticket to The Red Tree. However I donated the price of my ticket to their Edinburgh fundraising project.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Now that I have to work in the evenings, I’m seeing a lot less theatre than I used to. I’ve spent a lot of time moaning about it, but not that much time actually finding ways around it, until last week when I plucked up the courage to attend a weekday matinee alone – and I couldn’t have picked a better show with which to start this tradition.

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It was an afternoon of firsts, actually: my first time seeing a matinee, my first time attending alone, my first time seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and my first time sitting on the front row at the theatre. It was also the first time I literally gasped as I walked in to the theatre, taking in the lavish set designed by Francis O’Connor. It seemed to pulse with potential – something was about to happen here. It’s a great testament to the skill of the cast that they managed to outshine that gorgeous stage. (My photo, taken hurriedly with an iPhone, does not do it justice in the slightest.) 

The play opens with Brick and Maggie, who are at Brick’s family’s plantation in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. The second Maggie (Zoe Boyle) appeared on stage, I judged her in a kind of bored way. Ah, I thought, you’re the spoiled, vain girl with a lesson to learn. But as she sparred with the unresponsive, emotionally absent Brick, her façade crumbled and I started to see the desperate, ruthless and vulnerable person beneath. She certainly captured my attention where other characters failed. Meanwhile Jamie Parker’s Brick was a very powerful kind of negative presence, a black hole on the stage sucking in energy and emotion and giving nothing back. Their arguments – primarily Maggie monologue – were so real I found myself cringing back in my seat from the anger and heat.

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As the night continues, we learn that it’s not only Brick and Maggie dealing in lies and subterfuge. Big Daddy, the smart but cruel and misogynistic patriarch of the family, believes he has received a clean bill of health, while his two sons know he has less than a year to live. Brick’s brother Gooper claims to want to help his father, but secretly has his eye on the plantation. As the pretence of a good natured family birthday party crumbles, both careful lies and careless truths come pouring out. The result is intense, gripping and richly rewarding. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this play since I saw it! (It’s also been pretty tricky to shake the Deep South-style accent, which added an extra layer of claustrophobic tension on stage but just sounds ridiculous in Boots.)

 

I can’t help but recommend this beautiful production by Sarah Esdaile. It’s only on until Saturday 27th, so you don’t have much time! Book your tickets here, now – even if you have to go alone on a Thursday afternoon, you’ll be glad you did once you emerge, blinking from the theatre.

 

The Guardian are running a little project about theatre criticism alongside this production. You can read more about it here and if you’ve seen the play, tweet your thoughts and read other people’s reviews using the #catreview hashtag. You can also let me know what you thought about the production below – I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

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Mary Shelley at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Not only am I a bit of a bookworm, I’m quite stubbornly feminist, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go see Shared Experience’s new production, Mary Shelley, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The poster, featuring a dishevelled Kristin Atherton as Shelley staring insolently into the camera, sparked in me a curiosity about this woman, who at just 19, wrote a haunting, classic novel about man’s fascination with creating life.

From the very opening scenes, all eyes are on Atherton, who plays a vibrant, irrepressible Mary, full of dreams and aspirations, and nursing a fervent admiration for the mother she never knew. She’s energetic and wilful and smart, as one would expect the offspring of the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical political philosopher William Gibson to be.

The setting is fairly domestic, to begin with: Mary, her half sister Fanny and her step sister Claire are reunited when Mary returns from a visit toScotland. The house is all abuzz with news of a visitor: the young, handsome, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who admires Godwin’s politics and wishes to help him out of his debts. Of course, we all know what happens next: Mary and Shelley fall in love, and despite Shelley’s wife and children, decide to go away to be together. When Godwin’s lack of support becomes clear, the pair are forced to run away in the dead of night, taking Claire with them.

It is in the crucial scene where Godwin tells Shelley that his running away with Mary is impossible, that we see his struggle. Years earlier he wrote freely about the affairs his wife (Mary’s mother) had, and then went on to encourage Mary to read all about them. Yet faced with this real, liberal daughter, a product of the upbringing he gave her, willing to run away with a married man, we see how much society has worn his ideals down. He is more sensitive to the pressures of society, and the realities of business than Mary ever will be. He shuts Mary out of his life, and refuses to have any more to do with her.

After this point, Mary seems to fade into the background a little. Perhaps because we never see her talking to anyone outside her family, she seems to lose some of her spark. Poverty and motherhood have matured and changed her. She becomes eclipsed by the other dramas happening around her, and we get caught up in the stories of Claire and Fanny. Claire is played marvellously by Shannon Tarbet – she’s flighty and bubbly and incredibly self-possessed, Meanwhile Flora Nicholson’s Fanny is perfectly kind, gentle and proper. Fanny is overshadowed by both her sisters, and as she becomes increasingly torn between the two halves of the family she almost becomes invisible. I felt for her the most. Her story is the least well known, but it’s the most relatable and the most human, and it’s so sad.

The set is limited but inventive. Shelves packed with books dominate the stage, and a long dining table at the front serves whichever purpose it is called upon for: it is at various times a bed, a boat, a desk or a gravestone. The oversized, eclectic furniture and the imposing bookcases give the whole stage a gothic feel that matches the story so well.

At just about three hours, this isn’t a short play, but it didn’t feel anything like that long. I was completely absorbed in the story and the characters all the way through, which is very rare for me. I never watch a film all the way through, and even at good plays I’m generally clock watching towards the end.

Not everything was perfect; there were moments that rang slightly false, and I would have liked to see a little more of Mary and Shelley falling in love, as it was all a bit sudden for my liking. Regardless, I’d give this a hearty five stars, and recommend it to anyone.

Mary Shelley is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the Courtyard Theatre until 7th April 2012.

 

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Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

I think everyone who blogs knows that feeling you get when you’ve been at it a while: you can’t find anything good to blog about, you can’t find any time to write and you’re convinced it’s pointless because no-one’s reading it anyway. Well, the thing about blogging about cultural events in Leeds is that as soon as you sense that malaise creeping over you, you attend an event that leaves you chomping at the bit, desperate to get to a computer so you can tell the world how exciting it was. Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging, which I imagined would be a light hearted laugh at teenage girls, was actually one of the most exciting theatre events I’ve been to in a while.

As soon as we walked in, my husband rolled his eyes. You literally couldn’t move in the lobby for teenage girls in leggings with huge hair, squealing with excitement. As we filed in to the theatre, making a quick detour to check out Georgia’s bedroom which has been set up in the café seating area, the first thing we heard was Lady Gaga pounding from the speakers. Four girls in school uniform were bounding about on stage, then running through the audience handing out stickers. They grabbed groups of girls and dragged them down to the stage, to teach them the famous Viking Inferno dance routine (or something). It was impressive!

Once the show began it was a riot from start to finish! I expected to smile indulgently at childish humour and a bit of slapstick comedy, but this had all the genuine fun and wit and realism of the books it is based on. Every two minutes I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes along with the rest of the audience, sometimes with just the ones who had spotted a cheeky piece of double entendre. (When Jasmine argues with her bird spotting boyfriend, Georgia says something like, You argued with Owl Boy? What happened? Did you forget to polish his beak? This was mainly met with blank stares, apart from about ten of us who laughed, and then laughed even more at how inappropriate we felt.)

Georgia and her friends are refreshing, normal, fun teenage girls. When the boys from the neighbouring school run their bikes into them and call them slags, only to be told it’s because the boys fancy them, they rightly laugh and proceed to completely ignore them. They hysterically navigate school lessons that are a minefield of double entendres. They have snogging on the brain – why doesn’t anyone want to snog me? Am I doing it right? They argue about boys, only to make up within about 5 minutes.

And oh, the boys. It was hard to tell who was the most popular: Robbie, who is lead singer of the Stiff Dylans, until he comes over all eco-warrior and moves toScotland, or his replacement, Massimo, the Italian Stallion with muscles like bricks and an accent that melts Georgia like a chocolate button dropped in a hot espresso. Whenever either of them appeared on stage the whole theatre erupted in screams – I’ve literally never seen a reaction like it in a theatre. It was pretty much as I imagine a One Direction concert to be – jumping and dancing and screaming. If I were to go again I think I’d brush up on my first aid as I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before a mass fainting episode.

Despite the theatre being declared a Tweet friendly zone, I didn’t see a lot of phone action going on. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the stage! I can’t tell you how heartening it was to see such huge numbers of teenagers excited and enthusiastic and passionate about live performance; I hope they hold on to the way Angus Thongs made them feel, and seek that out in future years. At times I thought Naomi Petersen overacted Georgia’s more dramatic lines, until we walked out for the interval and I saw two girls, probably both 15ish, talking at the tops of their voices, with eyes wide, and arms flailing everywhere: ‘Did you SEEEEE him! No WONDER she calls him the SEX god! He is SOOOOO FIT!!!’

I had an absolutely fantastic time and I’d go see it again in a second. I’d recommend it to anyone, old or young, as a rip-roaring evening with something for absolutely everyone. It’s on until March 3rd at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

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Coming Soon in Leeds: October Round Up

This unseasonable good weather has certainly been a boon to our ailing spirits this past week, but alas – it is not to last. Soon, the nights will grow colder and darker, and come 5pm we’ll all be hurrying home to eat comforting stews and warming pies. At the weekend we’ll venture out for only necessities, clad in cardigans and cagoules.

Lovely as that sounds, the spanner in the works, of course, is that October in Leeds is going to be an extremely exciting month! Everywhere you turn there’s an event or an exhibition, a festival or a fair. Here are the highlights.

Of course the one that everyone’s talking about this month is Light Night Leeds, which is on Friday 7th October at various venues around Leeds city centre. This is a multi-artform festival with 75 different events across 40+ venues. Almost all the events are free, but you do need to book in advance for some of them, which could be in smaller venues or be exceptionally popular. Check the downloadable programme for the full list of events and get planning your evening. My picks include number 23: The Leeds Festival Chorus performing short, haunting pieces at 3 different venues across the evening; 64: a burger-style van serving up free, personalised poems made to order and 54: a tour of the clocktower at Leeds Town Hall. If you find you haven’t left any time in your schedule for dinner, don’t worry: you can swing by Millenium Square where vendors including @nofishybusiness and @manjitskitchen will be selling quality hot food to eat on the go.

October is also Black History Month, and Leeds City Museum have put together a special trail around the museum. Pick up a leaflet from reception and follow the trail to learn more about this special month.

Temple Newsam have got two interesting weekends coming up this month. On both the 15th and 16th October, they are holding an event called Fungus Foray and Mushroom Medley. There’ll be a short talk to teach some of the basics: what’s edible and what’s not, what will kill you instantly, etc. Then a walk around the grounds, to forage for mushrooms. It’s £5/£3 concessions and starts at the Stable Courtyard, Temple Newsam at 2pm on both the Saturday and the Sunday. Call 0113 264 5535 to book your place. Meanwhile on the 22nd and 23rd October, discover Temple Newsam at night on a ghost walk for ages 8+ only. The Woman in Black and her loyal servant will take you through the House and grounds, all the while telling chilling tales of murder and mystery. £7.50/£4 concession.

Bookworms are spoilt for choice this month as the region hosts not one but two literature festivals. The one in Ilkley is running from 30th September to the 16th October while Morley is a bit shorter, running from 8th to 16th October. A couple of authors are attending both events, so if you can’t make their date at one, check the other. Headliners include Ranulph Fiennes, Alan Hollinghurst, Jon Ronson, Ian Rankin, Emma Henderson and Janet Street-Porter, whilst there will be expert talks on the Brontes, Dickens and the Bible. There’s also writing workshops, poetry recitals, academic lectures and a healthy dose of Doctor Who. Something for everyone!

If you’re a foodie, as well as the usual farmer’s markets we have a special new event at the Corn Exchange this month. Cornucopia Leeds is a two day extravaganza with stalls from local, independent food retailers and producers. Some great names have signed up already including @doughleeds, @theyummyyank and @indieices. It’s free entry and happening from 10am to 5pm on the 22nd and 23rd October.

There are tons more events that I don’t have the time or space to give them the attention they deserve. They include Ways of Looking, a photography festival in Bradford for the whole month, this fantastic Abolition exhibition, secret Bettakultcha and all. The. Amazing. Theatre. Happening in the region. Ignore the gloomy weather, get out there and make the most of Leeds this month!

You can stay at home in November, that’ll probably be crap. Nothing happens in November.

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