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Back in June, anyone following this blog might have spotted that this particular marmoset wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Walter Meierjohann’s inaugural production – The Funfair – at Manchester’s newly opened flagship gallery, cinema, theatre complex, Home.

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Not that it looks like a Swedish interiors store or anything…

Six months on, how goes it at the Home that is in fact no one’s home?

Come on own up? What wazzock focus group came up with ‘Home’ as a name for a theatre? The one thing I don’t want a theatre to be! Come out, come out, wherever you are! I will find you and when I do I will subject you to slow and painful torture. Where was I? Oh yes… how is Home getting along?

Well. I attend the five screen cinema on a regular basis. The programming is superb and the projection and sound are flawless. The screenings are always well attended. Clearly a huge success and a major improvement on the old Cornerhouse screens. Tick.

The gallery isn’t my thing…

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Even an arthound like me found this exhibition uninviting. Can’t think why.

…but seems to be doing ok from what I can tell; there are usually people wandering around it. Query tick..?

As a Home member, I get £1.50 off cinema tickets and ten per cent off food in the restaurant which has a more than decent menu (yummy beef ragu if you like your shredded brisket). Tick and tick.

So what about the theatre itself?

Watching (the first half) of Inkheart, the building’s first Christmas show for children and young people, barely two thirds full (Christmas week) with an entirely unresponsive audience, was a truly depressing experience. From the bottom of my heart I do not want this still-new theatre to fail – it needs to succeed – I want it to be a place of theatrical excellence, adventure and entertainment. Not a Home – but a Palace of Delights!

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The Funfair had enigmatic clowns in it which I confess I am predisposed to dislike

My old boss at the BBC used to say that you should always be able to find five positive things to say about any production you see, no matter how much you dislike it.

I’m sorry, Chris, I just can’t – but I promise you, Dear Reader, that I did not go there to hate it. I always go to the theatre hoping to be thrilled and transported. ALWAYS. Otherwise what’s the point?

Children’s Drama is to Theatre what veterinary science is to human medicine. A vet can treat a human being, but a GP shouldn’t be let loose on a pet. The imperatives of children’s theatre will expose any director’s shortcomings – or illustrate that they have a vibrant, empathetic theatrical heart beating away under the pretensions that might stifle their adult work. Harness those skills for the most uncompromising of all audiences – kids – and that director will shine at everything they do. It is the ultimate theatrical litmus test.

So I’m scrabbling round for those five things, but like a marmoset picking tics off his mate after they’ve been de-flead, I’m not getting anything tasty.

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Entertainment marmoset style

As a preface to everything I say, I want to emphasise that I’m not blaming the cast. I don’t know any of them personally, and I have no reason to suppose that they aren’t all perfectly good actors in any other situation. But here, they looked entirely lost, and, at times, as if they had given up hope, delivering lines as if they were a random assembly of words… language devoid of all meaning. It was quite surreal at times. After twenty minutes I leaned across to my companion and whispered: ‘Have you any idea what’s going on?’

Like a low energy bulb, my friend James was unable to throw light onto the situation.

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Eco friendly but lacking powers of illumination

Only Rachel Atkins as ‘eccentric-woman-in-France-with-a-gun’ (I had absolutely no idea who the character was) seemed to be up for the fight, throwing her heart and soul behind every meaningless sentence.

First up, the script, from Cornelia Funke’s children’s novel, adapted by director Meierjohann and Stephen Sharkey, showed not the faintest inkling of the responsibilities and specialist skills a writer needs when producing work for young people.

Broadly speaking, it’s about a girl – Meggie – whose Dad can make books come alive just by reading them. (Seriously, books coming alive? Toys coming alive? Fairy tales coming alive? The lack of originality of the idea makes me feel physically tired.) He demonstrates this by reading a passage from Treasure Island after which gold doubloons fall from the sky. He then picks up The Arabian Nights… which concerned me as quite a lot of that is about men growing supersized genitalia.

So it’s about Meggie… Or is it about a Dad who can make books come alive who has a daughter who follows him around asking questions and standing watching for pages on end?

There’s a bald Richard O’Brian stylie villain called Capricorn who wants something or other which involves destroying books, or something… Then there are two ‘broker’s men‘ with cod Italian accents. Why? No idea. Perhaps it was in the spirit of internationalism. Anyway the idea seemed to be that the accents alone would be hysterically funny.

They weren’t. No one laughed.

Add into the mix a post apocalyptic punk called Dustfinger…  There’s always at least one post apocalyptic punk in Mr Meierjohann’s productions. And a Narrator who was mic’d for some reason and described things we could see for ourselves… oh yes and a comedy Arab/Indian (?) Aladdin type with another funny accent.

Note to Arts Council, Manchester Council and the Association of Greater Manchester Arts Authorities: Is it really acceptable in 2015 to have an all white cast (one actor looked like he might possibly be of dual heritage) and have the one character of colour played by a white actor doing a racial stereotype?

So back to Meggie and her Dad. Whose story is it? The script has no idea. Usually in children’s drama you put the child – or the child equivalent – in the driving seat, pushing the action. You don’t leave them as not much more than a passenger on a journey, the objective of which I defy anyone to describe coherently. As I say, it was something to do with books…?

Oh and while we’re at it, the whole ‘book’ schtick…

Ok, let’s assume we’re all agreed that books are a GOOD THING… but wait a sec. This is 2015. What do we mean by books? Do we mean the tangible physical things with pages? Or is it the words and the content and the ideas – after all, more and more people read from Kindles and computers these days. Are we saying that absorbing literature through other delivery systems is somehow lesser? And what about other ways of absorbing literature? Is drama ‘lesser’? Films? Television?

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It’s 2015, you can’t assume that the ‘book’ as an iconic object means the same thing it did fifteen years ago

There was an assumption in this show that the physical book was the significant thing rather than the content… or at least these ideas were completely confused in the script. The reality of modern technology, and the means of delivery wasn’t addressed (by the way, the characters had smart phones, so it wasn’t as if it was set in a pre-Kindle age). It would have been really interesting to find a way to dramatise this; to look at why the book itself has an inherent value. Without addressing this, the play was throwing around a wishy washy pick ‘n’ mix of ‘worthy’ ideas, and actually came across as a form of alienating cultural snobbery.

If this seems pernickety – and perhaps it is – it’s because the story was so weak, and spent so much time signposting its ‘values’ that this audience member was forced to examine whether those ideas actually hung together.

No single character seemed to be driving the action. It was impossible to understand clearly what was at stake, or for whom, nor what the quest was. There is a missing mother to find, but Meggie’s loss of her mother is never dramatised (certainly not in the first half). Meggie is an entirely static character. She loves books at the beginning. She still loves books at the interval (which was as far as I got).  I suspect she was affirmed of her love of books at the end too. Nothing at stake. No arc. An entirely flat, aimless narrative.

This lack of focus persisted in every scene. Stuff sort of ‘happened’ but you had no idea where to look on stage, nor what anybody’s objective was at any point. It was as if it had been written and directed by someone who had been told about a mysterious art form called ‘theatre’ but had never quite got the hang of what ‘theatre’ actually is. So there is a stage, actors and a set, and some lines to say, but they have been assembled like a Billy bookcase without the instructions.

These narrative techniques can be learnt. What I would like to see from Walter Meierjohann is that he has an awareness that he has some way to go with this.

I wonder if he sees theatre as a plastic art rather than a temporal one. It would certainly explain why his shows lack pace, shape or tension, and have the air of ‘presentations’ rather than stories.

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Drama is expressed in relation to the progression of time, not simply the presentation of images on a stage.

He’s been (anecdotally) reported in public forums stating that (new) writing isn’t a primary concern for him at Home, that he sees his brief as being more of a theatre maker (although how you do the latter without a passion for the former escapes me).

Nowhere does the failure to respect the power of the word (monumentally ironic in a story about the value of books) open its Nietzschean abyss more than in this production’s failure to demonstrate anything resembling a sense of humour. As with The Funfair, there were occasional ‘gag’ lines… (if you count a passing reference to Shaddap-You-Face by Joe Dolce as a gag) but every single one in that first hour failed to land. And the more the gags tanked, the more you felt the actors’ confidence draining before your eyes.

Each time another ‘gag’ approached, the actors’ delivery accelerated as if they wanted to skip over the oncoming tumbleweed as quickly as possible… not helped by the cod Italian broker’s men. Apart from the fact that I couldn’t really work out who they were supposed to be, the accents meant that what lines they had were hard to understand and the gags such as they were got lost amidst the garbled vowels.

Why? WHY????? Why were they comedy Italians?

Breathe.

Let’s talk about the set.

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The opening image is a striking one. A huge rotating pile of books – maybe fifteen feet high in the centre of the stage. Great, I thought, that’s exciting…
…until it isn’t, because it stays there for the whole show (or at least the whole first half – I’m only reviewing that hour of the show – I’ll keep saying it, perhaps the second half was brilliant).

The problem with having a mountain of books in the centre of your stage is that it actually makes the playing space unusable. It takes ages to climb up and down the thing (the actors looking visibly nervous at times as they searched for footholds) and once you’re up there you can’t move. The book mountain is so big that when the actors are down on the stage itself they are either forced into ugly lines at the side or at the front, or they have to play upstage to whatever poor bugger is perched on the top of the books. The situation is made worse when a bloody great trap is opened downstage centre, leaving the actors literally nowhere to go but to hang around on the periphery like unwanted interlopers on a stage full of stuff and holes. As a piece of design it’s completely inept, demonstrating a woeful lack of basic stage craft by either the director, the designer or both.

And don’t get me started on the use of projection in place of painted cloths or physical structures – we saw a bit of it in Funfair as well – a visual trope that dominates the stage but simultaneously renders it flat, sterile and artless. Oh this isn’t some luddite prejudice on my behalf – it’s about the basics of stage craft. If you’re projecting an image onto a massive cloth, it necessitates a large amount of evenly distributed light. This flattens out the stage picture and makes it impossible to establish a spatial focus on the stage, nor any tactile sense of atmosphere. There’s no way the performers can interact with it. It’s no more emotionally engaging than the wallpaper you have on your computer home screen.

Finally, what’s the deal with Walter M’s productions that two out of the three I’ve seen have featured young women in tight shorts? There may have even been some tight shorted women in Romeo and Juliet, I don’t remember. I certainly disliked it in Funfair but in this children’s show it seems completely inappropriate.

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What’s with the young women in shorts?

Ok. Enough already. I think you get that I didn’t enjoy my evening, but I can’t sign off from this review without reference to the ‘fight’. If anyone reading this has seen the show, can they explain that to me, please?

So about three quarters of the way through the first half, the characters have a fight (absolutely no idea why) but for some reason they do it like the kind of mark-through that a fight director asks for in rehearsal before acting the combat for real. They just stand there doing these half hearted fist movements, with badly timed reactions. It seems to go on for ages and I actually had to cover my eyes at that point.

Sorry, sorry, one more thing….  Did I mention the completely random fire dance? No? Again if anyone’s seen the show and can tell me what that was about please feel free to contribute.

Okay, I hold my hands up, a blog dedicated to a demolition job on one show is not a dignified use of social media. But the reason I feel so strongly is because it does speak to something bigger.

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The last time I saw professional theatre in Manchester of this low standard, was when Ben Twist was running Contact Theatre back in the late 1990s. It has the same pretentious, dead hearted negation of the joys of stagecraft… which ultimately sounded the death nell for that fantastic venue as a major producing house in the city (although it has since been reborn with a different brief). That cannot be allowed to happen here.

Mr Meierjohann clearly has high aspirations to push the theatrical jiffy bag and challenge our expectations. When the regime at Home is discussed in theatrical circles it is sometimes said that those who express criticism are being too British, too conservative, too resistant to the ‘European’ style of stage direction that Meierjohann is bringing to Manchester. Well, for the record I’m about as pro-European as it gets and I’ve enjoyed all sorts of amazing international work over my three decades in the entertainment industries. I contend that if Walter were from Swindon he would simply be written off as not quite up to the job. If anything, the ‘European’ tag is used as an excuse, and confuses a presentational style that has the patina of ‘other’ and ‘sophistication’, with the misplaced belief that this ‘otherness’ somehow negates the need for coherent narrative, structure, focus, content, passion, humour, elation and beauty.

Having made a sad comparison to the fate of the old Contact Theatre, a few years earlier, at that same venue, Bryan Elsley adapted and directed a gripping and visceral production of Alan Garner’s Elidor as their 1992 Christmas show. This was theatrical storytelling for a young adult audience at its very finest. It is possible to do amazing things when offering an alternative to the normal fare on offer for family audiences in the season of Panto and Jacqueline Wilson and spinoffs from TV and CBBC/CBeebies favourites.

What Bryan (more famous for Skins and the TV adaptation of The Crow Road) has, is a highly attuned sense of narrative – of the temporal nature of storytelling – of how to connect to an audience and take us into a world that we just don’t want to leave. Elidor was magical, frightening (in the best Christmas ghost story sense of the word), contemporary, and entirely involving. I watched a cynical crowd of reluctant year nines and tens from Rusholme and Moss Side turn into a thrilled buzzing throng as they left the theatre on that cold night in December 92. I’ve never forgotten it. I think this is what Walter Meierjohann is aspiring to, but sadly he is never going to realise it until he starts to respect the skills required to achieve it. He may sincerely believe that he already does, but on the evidence of three productions I see no sign that he respects the imperatives of narrative story telling, nor the nature of scene structure, nor design, nor how to use a stage, nor how to guide the audience’s eyes and their emotions by shaping his staging to bring focus and intention to every moment of the action.

So do I have some personal gripe with Mr M? I’ve never met the man. I hold no personal beef. I don’t need a job from him; he’s never turned me down for a job… but he is holding the reins to what should be the most important producing venue in Manchester – equal to or surpassing The Royal Exchange. Theatres are resource hungry, expensive, valuable places, and if they are paid for by a community, if they belong to the community, then I believe with all my municipal heart that it’s fair and right to hold them to account.

On the Home website the venue describes itself in the following terms:

‘...our mission is to make a new HOME for curiosity seekers, for lovers of the dramatic, the digital and the deeply engaging; for radicals and reciprocators.

I have a degree, a post graduate diploma and thirty-two years professional experience and I have absolutely no idea what that means. Except that it alliterates. What I do know is that Home’s current artistic director programmes like a man who has never had to worry about the cost of babysitting, or parking, or think about how attractive a show has to be for a normal person making leisure choices when resources are limited and day to day life is stressful and exhausting. And if he doesn’t understand that, then he doesn’t understand people – and it’s unlikely that he’s going to produce theatre that will strike a chord in the heart of the community he is there to serve.

If I seem harsh it’s because this is our money he’s spending, our resources he’s using, and our artistic landscape he’s shaping… but so far, it’s not a landscape I could in any way call Home.

But, hey, at least there weren’t any enigmatic clowns.

Sad Clown

 

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