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Disability Arts Online

13 September 2011

A team of DAO writers went to Manchester to report on decibel 11 which took place from 12-16 September 2011

decibel logo

decibel logo

So decibel Performing Arts Showcase 2011 has come to an end. This was reputedly the biggest and best showcase yet, promoting diverse practice in the performing arts sector. This bi-annual event aims to more fully represent and reflect the different cultures and backgrounds that make our country unique in the world.

Artists and companies selected for the cross-art form four-day event represent the cutting edge of music, theatre, dance, live art, circus and street arts from around the country. 50 artists and companies have been chosen to present work that is either tour-ready, work-in-progress or at a stage for pitching. A series of complementary activities for delegates also took place alongside the showcase performances. These ranged from introductory forums for first-time attendees, to an industry marketplace and panel discussions on issues such as diversity, touring and presenting work, or best practice for the sector.

Many international and international promoters, producers, programmers, artistic directors and venue managers were invited to see extracts from leading artists’ latest productions and new and developing work. DAO plans to comment further on the booking of artists’ work and collaborations that lead to further creative output.

As one of DAO's team of writers commented: 'We've had a ball. It was probably Brian Lobel's!' Check out the review of Lobel's show and his interview with DAO's project director, Trish Wheatley, to find out why!**

The week kicked off with the launch of Art Council's Creative Case for Diversity. This day-long symposium enabled invited speakers from not only the UK but from organisations [from all over the world to put their perspective on the place for the Creative Case in the arts. DAO writers will be continuing to reflect on the Creative Case as time goes by to trace how theory merges with practice and what outcomes they see emerging from Art Council's initiative.

The Showcase week which followed saw a range of performers demonstrating drama, music, comedy, dance, puppetry and often a mash up of all sorts of theatre styles all devised through the most astounding imagination and creativity.

All of this contributed further to the case for placing diverse work firmly in the heart of what the mainstream has to offer.

You can read DAO reviews from Trish Wheately, Colin Hambrook, Amerdeep Sohi, Monika Richards, Gary Thomas and John O'Donoghue, of a selection of the 50 performances which took place at decibel by scrolling down the page and clicking on the links to the right of this page.

Ball and Other Funny Stories written and performed by Brian Lobel

Colin Hambrook reviews a taboo-breaking piece of personal storytelling

a man looks delighted and claps his hands as he spins a hoop around his waist

Brian Lobell spins a yarn, a tale and a hoop while giving his audience a feel of his life experiences. Photo © John Reed

Testicular cancer and its treatment is not a subject about which you'd normally expect to get an audience roaring with laughter. However Brian Lobel did just that with a piece of brilliant personal storytelling, following events over the last ten years of his life, since having contracted the illness at the tender age of 22.

He has a way of playing with an audience and their fears which is infectious and ultimately very entertaining. The show contains an intimate 'Enya' moment when the lights go down and he asks his audience to get in touch with their intimate parts. But by far the most dangerous and provocative part of the show is where he gets five - note five - members of the audience to come up on stage and have a discreet feel of his one ball remaining after surgery (whilst using a large flannel towel to maintain his modesty from the rest of the audience).

Before inviting volunteers to engage in this examination, he explains that he wants an appreciation. This means a 'medical appreciation' in the form of a single word which will describe the shape, texture and so on of this one remaining intimate part of his anatomy. During this part of the performance one of the extrovert folk who obliged Brian described the testicle as ‘amorphous'. Brian responded by giving his audience a great opportunity to laugh at themselves: 'Arts professionals,' he says. 'What can you do with them?'

In his blurb, Brian Lobel says that he hopes to 'expand the conversation around cancer and bring attention to illness as an identity-shaping force.' As such 'Ball' takes cancer out of the taboo closet and places it firmly in your hand.

It is a performance which explains how illness disables you by virtue of the fact that your body, including your most intimate parts, becomes the property of a myriad of strangers. It is a performance which explains how the experience of being disabled by chronic illness remains a stain, by virtue of the fact that after the experience you are no longer the ‘perfect’ being who does not represent a threat.

It is also a show which explains how you don’t have to buy into the myths about chronic illness, such as the need to feel as if you’ve battled, fought and won; as if you’ve ‘conquered’ the illness if you have been fortunate to survive it.

Ultimately 'Ball' is very, very funny by virtue of Brian Lobel's presence and charisma as a virtuoso storyteller.
To find out more go to

Urashima Taro at the Royal Exchange Theatre Studio, Manchster

New Voices writer John O'Donoghue reviews Rouge 28's latest production

a woman and life-size puppet both gazing intently at an object

Aya Nakamura as puppet master in Paul Pris’s Urashima Taro. Photo © Monika Kita

Paul Pris’s 'Urashima Taro' is an elegantly staged piece blending traditional Japanese mythology with puppet theatre and shadow play. But these are not the tiny puppets which so delight children. These are sinister, life-like marionettes, part ventriloquist’s doll, part mannikin.

Performer Aya Nakamura floats across the performance space, which is bare except for three screens and a small table centre stage. This supports various characters in the form of puppets in a tale of a poor fisherman who falls under the spell of a mysterious turtle-woman.

This hyphenated creature is deftly brought to life by Nakamura in white face and basic black, herself hyphenated to the other characters in the piece – the turtle-woman’s cruel mother, the fisherman she seduces, a sinister mirror image of herself – as she supports them and manipulates them as a very discreet but very intimate puppet-master.

The piece suggests that we fall into paradigms of puppet and puppet-master. That the power plays between parents and children, men and women, the world of reality and the world of artifice run deep in our psyches.

Staged with brilliant economy, a shadow screen showing us – and not showing us – the passion between the turtle-woman and the fisherman, I found the puppets intriguing, at once disturbingly lifelike (made even more so by Nakamura’s deft manipulation) and extremely alienating. Nakamura’s self-effacing performance highlighted the lifelike quality of the puppets to such an extent that at times she seemed to be the puppet. And the theatricality of the piece – the screens, the shadow screen, the puppets – serve as brilliant metaphors as the drama unfolds.

Take the love scene behind a shadow screen with a life-size puppet. As live theatre this was mesmerising, fascinating and disturbing at the same time. What could be more alienating than making love to a puppet? What could be more artful than to have this take place behind a shadow screen? But how ‘real’ did it seem to the audience?

And for all the interactions to take place between a puppet and a live actor only pointed up the subtext of the play: to paraphrase Picasso, women are either puppets, or puppet-masters. For Nakamura to be the puppet-master in the show and to manipulate the fisherman, the turtle-woman’s mother, and the other characters she introduces is to subtly underline the subversiveness of this production.

A disturbing and thought-provoking piece.


StopGAP Dance Company present Within the first part of the double-bill Trespass

Colin Hambrook looks at Within, and without in terms of its place within StopGAP's previous work

photo of three dancers against a red background

StopGAP dancers: Laura Jones, Sophie Brown and Chris Pavia. Photo © Hugo Glendinning

StogGAP know how to create spectacle. The deftness and sheer athleticism of the way the company’s five dancers move as one is at times breath-taking. Their touring piece ‘Within’ shows how well the company dancers know and trust each other.

The intensity of the piece stirs the emotions. It begins with Pedro Navarrete’s beautiful score on harpsichord that at turns moves between solemnity and freneticism. We initially see Laura Jones sat behind a table before she is drawn into a series of conflicting moves with David Wildridge. The rest of the company come into play and as the drama builds so the table is upturned and Jones emerges naked, so to speak, without her wheelchair.

I have seen Jones’s dance in a fair few StopGAP shows and ‘Within’ presents her at her most vulnerable and raw. Much of her movement – especially in some of the quieter moments - reminded me of Simon Mckeown’s ‘Motion Disabled’. The audience gets to see the intention behind how she uses her hands to manipulate her legs. She conveys a sense of their weight in a way that gives the movement a poetic quality. This was certainly, for me, the most engaging part of the performance.

As the piece develops so the rest of the company enter into a more supporting role with some exciting choreography. The movement is at its most lyrical when all four other dancers begin to work with Jones rather than in conflict with her. There are some heart-stopping moments when she is passed around and sent to the floor.

But the construction of the narrative behind the work is unclear.  Why are the company so intentionally antagonistic at first, and then not? To a large extent it seems the audience is left to interpret what the dynamic behind the interaction means.

‘Within’ seems to be saying something about hierarchy and dependence; being in control and being powerless. Laura Jones’s body language is pivotal to interpretation and here the messages about conflict, alienation and isolation felt somewhat muddy. I wasn’t sure what ‘Within’ was trying to say about dancers whose physicality conveys a range of different dynamics.

I’ve followed StopGAP for many years and have always been impressed by their ability to adapt, and to take on new challenges. SPUN Productions - the piece of work they presented at this year's Liberty event on London’s Southbank on 3 September, was a thoughtfully layered, entertaining reflection on the banalities of reality television and celebrity culture.

Unfortunately I wasn’t so clear what story ‘Within’ was trying to tell.

Freedom Singer performed by Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the RNCM Concert Hall

Trish Wheatley reconsiders her ideas about vocals in a classical setting

photo of a woman playing the cello

Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Photo © Angela Radulescu

The lights were dimmed and the audience hushed and from off stage a lone voice sounded out of the darkness. It was the moving, haunting vocal of Ayanna Witter-Johnson. From this point, a beautiful, original performance was absolutely mesmerising from the outset.

This early evening show, on the first day of the decibel performing arts Showcase, was faultlessly supported by Ayanna’s band; pianist Peter Edwards, drummer Andy Chapman and Neil Charles on Bass. There was a real connectedness and chemistry between each of the four musicians and their love and enjoyment of the music was obvious. The mix of jazz, classical, folk and many other genres in between surpringly resulted in a wonderful simplicity. Ayanna’s accomplishment of playing complex combinations of bowing, pizzicato and percussion on the cello whilst delivering an impressive vocal was jaw dropping.

The show then transformed from being excellent to outstanding when Ayanna sang ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ with its lyrics drawn from Sojourner Truth’s speech given at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. As a classically trained musician and self-confessed music obsessive, I have tended to enjoy music for melody and harmony and I appreciate voice as sound rather than for the meaning in the language the lyrics provide. This piece however moved me a great deal because of the use of such powerful words. I found a real value beyond cerebral appeciation in the way that Ayanna appropriated this important historical text so successfully and soulfully.

The whole set was completely entrancing and Freedom Singer deserved every bit of the standing ovation with which the audience responded. She deserves a very wide fan base and if she doesn't get many, many bookings based on her performance at decibel's Showcase 2011, I will be very surprised indeed.

Watch Ayanna Witter-Johnson on youtube and appreciate her abilities for yourself.

Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite written and perfomed by Sarah Leaver

Amardeep Sohi and Monika Richards each review this moving and enigmatic production

a person in 18th century male clothing looking straight at the viewer

Ambiguity of place, time and gender in Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite. Sarah Leaver. Photo © Justine Garratty

Amardeep Sohi

Adelaide Herculine Barbin was a French hermaphrodite whose memoirs have inspired this moving piece of theatre about a reality which is rarely discussed let alone presented in performance.

Set in Paris in 1858, Sarah Leaver’s production is as imaginative is it is engaging. The piece, which was cut down to fit into the 25 minute slot given to those presenting their work at the decibel Showcase, weaves together the difficulties and realities of the condition in a typically French setting. Placing it in the context of Paris in 1858 removes it from the present, but it doesn’t remove its power

Performed by Leaver herself, Herculine experiences the pain of being labelled a ‘freak’ and a ‘fable', poked and prodded by doctors, while being faced with the fear of existing ‘twice and not at all’. It’s a confused, fragmented and lonely life for Herculine and utterly compelling to watch. 

The production uses the space imaginatively. A dimly lit and sparse stage are adorned with just a child’s chair, a lamp, a candlestick, and a clothes stand. These objects accompany Leaver as she steps into a nunnery, a freak show and the darkened Parisian lanes.

The script is sharp and poetic, while Leaver flits between vulnerability and defiance with ease and finesse. Her performance is accentuated by the spotlights which douse the body, which sits somewhere between male and female.

Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite is a piercing piece about a minority who are rarely seen or heard. And although we may be voyeurs into this world, Leaver’s production and performance evoke an all-consuming empathy. 

First performed in Brighton, the show moved on to the Oval House in London for a three-week run.  It’s polished, well developed and ready be performed on a larger stage.


Monika Richards

I sat down to see this abridged version with anticipation. I wanted to be challenged by an issue I know little about. I wanted to interrogate my assumptions about gender and whether I am part of the process of marginalising that which is different and other to me.

At the start I was confronted with a women in a blue spotlight in underwear. Her fear and anxiety were palpable since there was no means of escape for she was in a cage for a show.  She was distressed, exposed, vulnerable being gawped at for two genders and yet was invisible.

The objectification of her body was through me, the audience member, the voyeur.  The invisibility was made clear by the medical jargon of the doctor, the nurse and the mother, who thought it best she become a man.

There were some real gems and subtle moments in which the character postures her body as man, as woman, back to a man in plain underwear, making the genders  visible and invisible.

The setting of the period and when she clothed herself as a man could be seen as also ambiguous - skinny trousers, generous white shirt and a very fitted jacket with frills from the waist and hips. How interesting that this was seen as masculine dress ‘back then’. How interesting how nowadays dressing in skinny jeans is now represented by both genders and could be seen as both feminine and masculine.

The red finger nail on her left hand and the shirt on her right side beautifully displayed the dialogue between a prostitute and a soldier. The interplay of seduction and anxiety was both tender and sinister and hinted at a desire to be loved while being afraid to be loved. It ended up in disaster, because she/he was discovered to be 'a freak'.

It was then that I longed to understand the internal life of the character. I wanted to know how the character negotiated the space that was owned, possibly reclaimed, or at least was trying to be. Was Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite about resisting or submerging, being a chameleon? 

I felt accused as an audience member regarding my privilege and made aware of my own prison. I was not sure however whether the character came to a place of empowerment and how this may inform my own. I was unsure what this means for me in this contemporary context and how things have or haven’t moved on.

It made me think of another figure who was objectified for her otherness in the 18th century, Little Sarah or Black Venus, an enslaved woman of South Africa.

I recognise that I may do injustice here as I am aware of having seen an abridged version and it must have been difficult to decide upon which parts to showcase in order to provide a cohesive picture. This compels me now to look out for the full production and see that before I make up my mind about the show and become more informed about a subject I know little about.


Nathan Evans - ‘I love you but we only have fourteen minutes to save the earth’

Colin Hambrook reviews this eclectic take on a problem posed

a man crouching down holding the earth on his shoulders

What would you choose to keep if you only had 14 minutes to save the world? Photo © Justin David

On Wednesday 14 September I saw a work-in-progress from director Nathan Evans, ‘I love you but we only have fourteen minutes to save the earth’.

Nathan Evans initially asked five artists from the queer cabaret circuit to each develop a 14 minute artistic response to the line from Queen’s rebel-rousing Flash Gordon theme song. This became a starting point for five quite different theatre cabaret acts which use a variety of formats from game-show to Live Art and video.

Timberlina began the proceedings with a question to the audience, asking what we would save if it came to having to save the earth. Love and dark chocolate were at the top of the list. She explained how her performance revolves around a game show where she gets her audience to bid for the things about the earth and humanity that need saving. She does all this whilst making jam.

The esoteric and scarily charismatic David Hoyle (dressed head to toe in alien black topped off with sculptural hat) takes the stance that the human race doesn’t deserve saving. We’ve messed it up with capitalism and inequality and the jam has definitely passed its sell-by date. His engagement with the audience is about asking the audience why they would save humanity.

The snippets we got from these two artists were intriguing. I loved the idea of taking an audience into such thought-provoking territory. Unfortunately showcasing the work-in-progress necessitated us inevitably being fed a bite-size chunk of the idea of the show rather than the thing itself.

However, we got the full fourteen minutes of Alternative Miss World 2009, Fancy Chance’s response to the question. To be honest 12.30 on a Wednesday lunchtime wasn’t the right time to be appreciating her comic burlesque act. It consisted of a mix of Fancy telling her/his life story, which amongst other things involved both performing a resentment-filled rendition of ‘The Greatest Love of All’ and giving birth to the planet.

The performance stepped into seriousness as she proceeded to take her clothes off and tell part of a life story of abandonment. She was literally left in a box as a baby and survived as best she could in a journey which took her from Korea to the US to the UK .

This led into PJ Harvey’s ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ played alongside a feed with Donald Rumsfeld’s famous speech about the known knowns… things we know that we know… known unknowns and unknown unknowns… The sound and text projection was followed by Fancy’s testimony about thinking about an alternate set of outcomes that might have taken her life elsewhere. These are perhaps the 'unmentioned unmentionables' in the last section of the performance, which leads finally to an Alice moment at the end the show!

It may have been the venue, the context or simply my frame of mind but it took me a while to work out what I thought of Fancy’s contribution and how it responded to the saving of the earth. And of course, it was quite simply a statement about the value of empathy as a saving grace in her life… and what I interpreted as a question about the possibility of empathy as the ultimate potential saviour of the planet.

In explanation, after the show, Nathan Evans told us his intention to put the idea about saving the planet out to a series of local-based artists as the performance comes together and goes on the road. I can see it forging into something inspirational, entertaining, damnable even… I wish him the best of luck with it.


Pen-ultimate: A Night on the Tiles

Amardeep Sohi joins in an unusual game of Scrabble

a group of people against a black background

Scrabble as marshal art? Pen-ultimate present 'A Night on the Tiles' Photo © Joel C Fildes

Gangsters playing scrabble? Not an activity usually associated with a group of criminals but unconventional appears to be the birthmark of this wordy theatre company. At decibel Showcase 2011 they offered an abridged version of their 70 minute show in which a group of gangsters battle it out to win the ultimate game of scrabble.

It’s an extremely clever production which places the gang in a traditionally placid setting.  They have created a multilayered world of words, digital animation, black humour, accompanied by a cheeky sound. The combination of form works well and the production overall is skilled. It’s fluid, lyrical and deeply embedded in a poetic rhythm. 

The gang consists of Harry the Hacker (Ali Gadema), Tyler (Ben Mellor), Black Slate (Martin Stannage), Scroupier (Niven Ganner) and Triple-Word (Samira Arhin). Performances by the cast are all strong, but Samira gave new meaning to term ‘convincing’ as the Kung-Fu-fighting Triple-Word. They’re all unique in character, and diverse as a group – a defining character of Pen-ultimate. But they’re also an example of the new diversity that everyone’s talking about this week.

A Night on theTiles has all the key elements, but it did lack impetus. This was most likely a wound from the cutting process. Decibel delegates only saw the first half of the performance, and therefore missed the punch line.  But as mentioned by Scroupier (Niven Ganner), ‘Words is an anagram of sword,’ and the word is most definitely the sword of this eclectic group. 

Pen-ultimate have the potential to be impactful as a both performing company as well as an educational one.  


Shadow Boxing from Shock and Awe Tours

John O'Donaghue takes a ringside seat at this bruising performance

a black and white photo of a boxer

Tenderness and tension in and outside the world of boxing performed by Jonny Collis. Photo © Ben Winter

Boxing, said Frank Bruno, is show business with blood. In Shock and Awe Tours’ Showcase production for decibel 2011, Shadow Boxing, we witness what the scars on the inside feel like.

Written by James Gaddas and performed by Jonathan Collis-Scurll, the piece centres around the boxer Flynn’s shot at the middleweight title. Himself the son of a boxer, Flynn wants the belt badly.

The show opens on a set dominated by a punch bag dangling from the ceiling, the small space at once doubling as gym, ring, corner, and the places boxers hang out – bars, casinos, parks. Parks?

Shadow Boxing takes a turn after Flynn wins a bout on his way to the big showdown with his rival Richter, the Perfect Picture, the boxer who stands in his way, the man Flynn wants ‘respect’ from, the Champ. Flynn goes to a bar and has a one night stand. Delicately, tenderly, lyrically he describes making love – his date’s pale skin, the blue eyes, the sense of intimacy after all the brutality, his cock.

For Flynn is gay. And it’s at this point that the piece veers into uncharted territory. He now has to confront not only the brutality of boxing, but the brutality of attitudes to homosexuality inside and outside the ring. For like the ring, the closet is a dangerous place. He’s soon outed after cruising in the park. Now he is a pariah. His dreams of winning the belt, of coming out on live TV, of being a champion and gaining the most crucial respect of all – self-respect – are shattered.

But who says all fights have to take place through the ropes? In a startling finale he has the showdown with Richter he’s been longing for.

Collis-Scurll gives a searing performance as Flynn, and Gaddas’s vividly theatrical script brings us into Flynn’s world of liniment, sweat, adrenaline, and fear as surely as having a ringside seat would.

This is Raging Bull confronting a much bigger taboo than Jake La Motta’s brutalising. For what bigger fight could anyone have than the fight to be truly themselves in a world as extreme as the world of boxing?

A powerful, visceral piece of theatre.

Invisible Man presented by Crying in the Wilderness Productions

John O'Donoghue takes a look at this tour-ready production as presented at decibel's Showcase 2011

abstract, retro image of a face

You look but do you see? Invisible Man raises still relevant questions about race, visibility and insanity. Image © Hector Petersson

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. The book tells the story of a man who is invisible ‘simply because people refuse to see me’. Drawing on Black American history from the time of Emancipation and figures like Booker T Washington, W E DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, Invisible Man is a seminal novel, its central trope of invisibility a brilliant metaphor for the situation of Black Americans up to and including the era of Obama.

The book was first published in 1952 and now nearly 60 years later Crying In The Wilderness brings the opening of the novel, the Prologue, to the stage.

A simple set designed to evoke the period of the book’s publication – a bottle of Jack Daniels and a shot glass on one table stage right, another with a valise and a clock stage left, a chair centre stage – indicate that after trying to make it in America, the unnamed Invisible Man, in his collarless shirt, braces, trousers with turn-ups, and brogues, has embraced his invisibility and occupies his chair like a throne in his kingdom where no one can see him.

No one that is except the audience. Giving a pitch-perfect performance the Invisible Man, played with skill and passion by George Eggay, tells of his struggles with white society, where the inner eyes of those who look upon him have not been calibrated to register what they see with their outer eyes when they look upon a black man.

Eggay modulates from the language of a rather pedantic lecturer at pains to explain the twisted logic of his time and place to the outrage of a man who has had enough, resorting to violence and ultimately withdrawal – for invisibility can also be ‘advantageous’  -  after so many slights at the hands of white folk and  a series of false dawns from Black American leaders.

The piece reminded me of R D Laing’s observation: ‘The only sane response to an insane world is insanity.’ The Invisible Man is a vivid look into the distorting mirror of racism and a brilliant realisation of a seminal text.

It is my sincere hope that Paul Morris, Artistic Director of Crying In The Wildreness, will be inundated with invitations to tour the production. Because The Invisible Man deserves to be seen by everyone.

Pitch Perfect – Amardeep Sohi and Gary Thomas take a look at those plunging into the deep end at decibel’s equivalent of The Dragon’s Den

While decibel’s Showcase is the place for performers, writers, artists, directors and so on to present work which is tour-ready or ‘nearly there’, the event also provides space and opportunity for people to pitch ideas for future productions and performances. Amardeep Sohi sat in on two such pitches and here gives us a flavour of what might be on show in a tour-ready format at a later date.

deaf cultural centre logo

The Two of Us. Image © Wu Wen

The Two of Us - Written by Simon Wu (Gary Thomas) The audience is greeted with this message on a screen: ‘Sam turns on his video camera, starts filming himself.’

This ambiguous statement introduces the idea of an intriguing psychological thriller, and the first of the pitches I saw to actually use an extract from the piece being presented. It therefore came across as being well developed.

In brief, the plot is this: what if you murdered your twin but then got mixed up about who was who?

Described as a ‘puzzle play in a popular genre’, the audience expectations may be too wide. The work will be ready however by Spring 2012 and Simon is looking for smaller venues and co-producers to help it on its way. It is aimed at a 15+ audience.

Superheroes – Ben Payne & Rachel Bagshaw with Deaf Cultural Centre (Amardeep Sohi) Superheroes aims to encourage young people, both disabled and non-disabled, to participate in a project which will begin online and culminate in a large outdoor show based around the idea of Superheroes and the battle against the ‘powers of perfection’.

Ben and Rachel’s initial seemingly formal pitch for the project was interrupted by the voice of Angie, a sparky teenager who is hard of hearing and dreams of being a superhero.

Her chatter was displayed on to a screen, while Ben drew a picture on a flip board of what he imagines she would look like in this role.

The pitch certainly highlighted the interactive nature of the project. The giant screen, the flip board and the sound of this determined teenager demonstrated the emphasis on creativity and participation from imaginative young minds.

The cast for the final production will consist of professionals and young people. It’s clear that the concept is at a very early stage in its development; it was difficult to envisage the final show and what their online presence will consist of.

That said, the appeal of it lies in the fact that it taps into the superpower fantasy of all children. And as far as the pitch was concerned, it piqued my interest.

The Moor Project – Two Gents Productions (Amardeep Sohi) Two Gents Productions set the bar high. They pitched the idea of The Moors, a play about the Black characters in Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like such a simple idea and you’re left wondering why it hasn’t been done before.

The pitch, delivered by Tonderai Munyevu and Arne Pohlmeier, was humorous and creative. They entertained the audience with a snapshot of their concept. Narrator Arne, recited the stage directions while Tonderai flipped between playing ‘gentleman one’ and ‘gentleman two’. Their five-minute pitch was well thought out and struck the right balance between highlighting both their vision and ability.

By their own definition, the production would be a low maintenance affair, requiring only a bench, a stage and some white paint. But it’s also likely to raise issues surrounding race, as they plan to whiten the faces of the Black actors.

I’m sure their pitch and concept will certainly have elicited the interest of the crowd who came to see it. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for these two gents.

Loyal Enemy – Sarah Pickthall (Gary Thomas) 'Just one man and the difference he can make.'

This is a fascinating concept from Sarah Pickthall. Beginning in Constantinople in 1913, the story follows the journey of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, who was  Sarah’s great-great-great grandfather whose book, Säid The Fisherman, was always just out of reach from Sarah as a young child.

Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall is best known to those in the know for translating the Qu’ran into English. For Sarah herself, before embarking on her search for him, she knew him by seeing Dame Edna Everage mentioning Säid The Fisherman on Parkinson.

The story she tells though takes us and her on the trail to Turkey to find out more. 

Sarah has a  rich engagement programme planned to accompany the show. She’s looking to perform in interesting spaces, including Mosques, as well as studio spaces.

Coco Mbassi performs 5 songs – Musiki, Dibongo, Din Longue, Sisea and Atele

Monika Richards is transported through music performed by Coco Mbassi as composed and arranged by Serge Ngando Mpondo

a woman's face singing emotionally

Coco Mbassi performs five songs

Coco Mbassi’s gig was small but perfectly formed. She sang in Dualla, her native Cameroonian language, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and percussion.

I particularly liked her explanations to the background of her songs, such as the complexities of a relationship: ‘When I love you, you don’t want me, then you want me when I am gone.’ That see-saw of emotion was reflected in her singing.

Coco started by saying that music is her life and that she will never stop singing. She continued by stating that music cannot be boxed in. This was reflected in the style of her show which was informed by lazy Brazilian rhythms, sometimes bluesy or jazzy, with undertones of a folksy character.

I was fascinated watching the percussionist revealing his array of equipment used for each song. He brought out a number of rain pipes which provided a vision of sitting in a lounge during the rainy season. The bongo and box drums gave an easy rhythm to rock and sway to. And then there were a type of metal drums which looked like small frying pans. All these instruments were subtly accompanying and providing texture for Coco’s voice, which seemed to travel easily over the acoustic guitar and percussion.

West African music is often seen as energetic inviting you to dance your soul out. This ensemble however was a laid back affair. I enjoyed the relaxed approach while Coco did her musical story telling of journeys and life.

At one point she invited us to sing along giving us easy words in Dualla and you could tell that Coco was accomplished in getting the audience to participate. I felt however not pressured to do so. But we found ourselves in minutes becoming the background chorus to her song of sending a child on a right path – very appropriate for these times.

While I cannot remember the words, I remember the feeling of being left with a quiet joy.

Community Arts North West present Another Country

Amardeep Sohi fights detachment and loses as she becomes emersed in this powerful production

two men in blindfolds one standing behind the other

There is no escape for audiences confronted with Another Country. Photo © Shirlaine Forrest

As immigration continues to be a topical subject, it will no doubt continue to inspire the arts. Another Country from Community Arts North West however  does more than present a story. It’s a promenade piece which forces you to become that story.

So I’m not going to write a traditional review, as it will reduce the power of the piece for those who might see it in the future. Instead, I will tell you how I felt in those thirty minutes.

The thrill of promenade pieces is that you never know what to expect until you’re in that space. And each new venue will bring a new experience for the audience. I started off intrigued and distant; sat with my notebook in hand, scribbling away my observations. As I was led into each new space, the capacity to remain a note-taking critic diminished.

To say that this loss of control was unsettling would be an understatement. I didn’t just lose control as a critic, but as a human being. And it was disturbing on every possible level. I was confused, angry, and forced into submission. I questioned the treatment of and attitude towards asylum seekers. At the same time, I questioned my own humanity. In short, I left traumatised.

This may all seem overly dramatic. But anyone who allows themselves to be fully immersed into the experience of Another Country will most likely have the same reaction.

Theatre is most effective when it moves you, thrusts you across boundaries and forces self-reflection. Another Country does exactly that and more.


Laurence Clark presents his sit-down comedy Health Hazard

Colin Hambrook reviews this comedy show and gets a taste of, if not for, privatised healthcare

a poster showing a man hanging from a title with a wheelchair below him

Reform or revolution? Laurence Clark considers the future of the NHS through the lens of American healthcare.

As we trundle towards another reform of the NHS, so Laurence Clark’s Health Hazard gives us a glimpse of what the landscape might look like with privatised health care from the point of view of a father of two with cerebral palsy.

He begins with research on attitudes to health care through a series of slides and short clips of interviews with the average American on the street. He asks randomly chosen people what they think of our NHS and builds a mind-boggling picture of wary Americans who believe health care in the UK resembles a Mussolini-led socialist service.

Even those who aren’t so misinformed don’t like the idea of the NHS. Perhaps it’s something to do with all that complaining we do. Clark points out that the number of complaints about NHS treatment in the UK is on a par with the number of people who die in the States because they don’t have health insurance. ‘I think I’d rather complain,’ he quips.

Clark’s fire-side manner is full of attitude and bonhomie. He gets the audience on his side with a series of humorous digs at Duncan from Blue, who loves disabled people so much he’s ‘a magnet to us.’  Clark can’t help from smiling as he’s drawn physically towards a projection of the young singer’s irresistible face.

The piece de resistance of Clark’s brand of sit-down comedy is a series of clips of him attempting to buy health care in the US. Firstly an insurance company tells him they cannot cover him because of his CP. However on further interrogation, they find out they can give him a ‘rider’ because he can speak. It won’t cover him for CP but for $198 per month they will give him health care on the condition that he has ‘normal mentality’.
Clark gets some important points over, with wit and charm. Health Hazard is an enjoyable show. It did well at Edinburgh and it was great to see it at decibel.

Kat Francois performs Raising Lazarus by Zupakat Productions

John O'Donoghue gets an education in forgotten history

a woman holding her head in her hands

Kat Francois has to look for Lazarus before she can raise his memory and recall forgotten history. Photo © Sloetry

Have you ever heard of the British West Indian Regiment? They were commissioned during the First World War. Kat Francois only got to know about them when she was trying to find out about Private Lazarus Francois, her Grenadian ancestor. Her journey took her to the Public Records Office, the Commonwealth Graves Commission, and back to Grenada.

In a late night showcase at the Zion Arts Centre, Francois told the story of Lazarus, and her attempts to raise him, to put flesh on the bones of a man who was almost written out of history. As Francois says, the history syllabus in the UK is full of Tudors, Victorians, Nazis even, but had nothing about the background to the story of Private Lazarus Francois.

Lazarus was shipped over to Seaford on the south coast of England after the King had formally welcomed the formation of the British West Indian. Lazarus met with the depredations of the British winter, illness, and misery. Francois wanted to know what would make a man want to fight for a country that wasn’t even his, what would make someone be prepared to lay down their life for ‘Empire’, what would make him come half way around the world to go to war against a nation he himself had no quarrel with.

Francois turned up a number of poignant documents during her researches, including poetry written by members of the regiment, the reports made by the nurses who treated them for conditions like pneumonia in Seaford, military records of the men’s service in Britain and across the Channel.

Francois is a skilled performer, creating characters as diverse as her Grenadian grandmother, the nurse who tended the soldiers in Seaford, and girls she was at school with – the kind of girls who give you a hard time because they think they can. Until, that is, Francois puts them right.

She’s still putting them right with this production. As an exercise in recovering hidden histories which tell a very different story from those in the official text books this is a fine piece.

Lazarus would be proud.

Mind the Gap present Irresistible: the call of the sirens

Colin Hambrook is taken into a stark landscape of sea and rock, surrounded by a symphony of sirens at the RNCM Concert Hall

a man dressed in black stands on a rock on the moors

Jez Colbourne plays out his fascination with sirens at the Cow and Calf. Photo by Tim Smith

Irresistible worked beautifully in a stage setting, creating a superbly atmospheric piece of musical theatre. The performance opens with sound and animation. The audience is taken up into the heavens on the flight of a crows’ wing. A full moon appears in the distance and a roaring sea falls into place on the count of a series of heavy beats, dramatically filling the auditorium. As the globe moves across the huge screen so a branch appears with a murder of crows.

The scene is set. It’s an awesome opening that takes you firmly into an alien world. As the stage comes into focus so the audience’ attention becomes fixed on a 12 foot square block of granite with the word ‘immovable’ indelibly engraved into its side. A lone figure standing on the block begins playing a warning siren.

And at that point we see two hobos huddled around a limp fire in a bucket, desperately trying to warm their hands. One of the hobos breaks into a song ‘Far Away from Home’ accompanied by his companion on guitar.

Irresistible presents a uniquely original take on compulsion, with a blues set annotated by Jez Colbourne’s fascination with the sound of wailing sirens, whose call is incorporated into a song-cycle evoking feelings of yearning, loss and redemption. Three female backing singers add a breath-taking chorus. They are the muse of the lone sailor journeying through a stark lanscape.

In the Q+A afterwards, artistic director Tim Wheeler talked about Mind the Gap’s intention to show Irresistible as a spectacular piece of promenade theatre. Last year they gave a work-in-progress performance at The Cow & Calf on Ilkley Moor; a limestone quarry in the heart of an area of special scientific interest.

Jez Colbourne’s captivating material skilfully weaves the musicality of the warning siren and would create an unforgettable dramatic experience in such a remote environment as a quarry or a mine. But I would equally recommend the stage performance with its powerful use of theatrical effects.

Crystal Kisses performed by Contact Theatre

Amardeep Sohi reviews this powerful and disturbing piece

four people jumping in the air

Contact Theatre creates impact due to the sensitive theatrical handling of a terrible and troubling reality

The sexual exploitation of children will always be a subject matter that needs to be approached with sensitivity, and as nimble silhouettes move silently behind a white screen, it’s clear that Contact Theatre have adopted a subtle, yet powerful approach.

A male silhouette appears as a puppet master to a female silhouette. Their movement opens the story of Toyah, a teenager in care. She’s loud, angry and troubled. She uses sex as a bargaining chip with men. But she’s being exploited. She states that she needs to ‘thrive in a world where bad things happen,’ and recognises that she is ‘forgotten’.

Her vulnerability screams through her tough façade, a state which is enforced further by her dependence on the three male bodies that support her physically. They become her bed, her chair and pass objects to her throughout the scene. It’s an effective and imaginative symbol of her circumstances. She’s unstable and wholly dependent on others.

Two males then dance onto the stage. Their fluid and silent dance tells the tale of one male being abused by another. It’s another disturbing scene, but made even more of an impression by the lack of dialogue.

The production ends with the silhouettes pushing through the screens like devilish ghouls. The ever-present silhouettes provide a threatening backdrop to the stories playing out on stage, and at times they become almost cinematic.

The use of movement for storytelling is inspired and the perfect tool to illustrate the effects of circumstances that run deeper than the spoken word.

But the subtlety of the production does not take away any of the shock surrounding these stories. The heavy breathing of the abused male is haunting, and reverberates throughout the auditorium and beyond. 

Crystal Kisses is effortlessly powerful in its treatment of a most troubling subject matter.


Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom by Ailís Ní Ríain

Gary Thomas hears and sees a piece of theatrical role reversal

against a green background, hands sign

The sign of things to come? Ailís Ní Ríain makes hearing and signing audiences change places in terms of experience in the theatre

‘It’s not considered possible to present a BSL version of poetry as poetry is full of inference, metaphor and sub-text.’

So Ailis’s piece, presented here as a work in progress, plays out, and the mood is set for a couple who are speaking entirely in sign language as text appears on screen.

The music, using just two guitars and composed by Ailis, evoked an atmosphere of the couple arguing and words (though not the words they are signing) appear on screen.

While it was clear the couple were in conflict, the words printed on the screen evoked something else. As Ailis says in the Q&A afterwards, ‘I want to disable an able audience and enable a disabled audience.’

This she does. And it was great to see a piece of work which puts sign language not only in the centre of the piece but at the forefront of it as the subject matter itself.

The upshot is that people who don’t read sign language will get a different show from those who do. This unique form of theatre presented here means it is accessible, and understandable, on a number of different levels.

There were some views expressed on whether the piece worked well with the text on the screen and I’d imagine for those who are not able to understand the sign language the piece could be frustrating.

That said, hearing audiences don’t tend to have issues with accessibility in theatre, so perhaps this is a provocative role reversal. Maybe it’s about time there was a piece of theatre which questioned the relationship between accessibility and audience which doesn’t talk down to them or give them half a half-baked experience – after all, some subtitling (and signing) is dreadful!

Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom is certainly based upon an interesting premise and it’s one sure to create debate about the future of accessible theatre and spoken-word entertainment in all its forms.


Arun Ghosh - Aftrocoustics and Indo-vations

Trish Wheatley enjoys a technically and creatively accomplished performance

Arun Ghosh Photographer Taran Wikhu

What a great exponent of the Creative Case for Diversity Arun Ghosh is, leading a band which fuses traditional African and Indian instruments and idioms into contemporary, relevant and lively music. These influences are all mixed into the melting pot to produce a wonderfully rich sound like that of a big band but with a distinctly world music flavour which suggests a celebration of all the great aspects of the diversity within the modern multicultural Britain that we are living in.

Ghosh is both an engaging and entertaining front man and virtuosic clarinettist. His solos were impressively technical and were carried off with skill and a high degree of musicality. The final piece of the performance, his own composition, had flare and really got to the core of what this group is about.

I was left really wanting to see the whole set.

The kora playing and tender vocals were a welcome variation in contrast to the bigger sound of the whole band. I would definitely want to hear the bass clarinet and vibraphone featured more in the whole set as I thought they were not really given enough exposure in this showcase.

Overall it was a hugely enjoyable experience and I look forward to hearing more from this group of musicians.

Kalagora performed by Siddharth Bose in Penned in the Margin's production

John O’Donoghue is taken on a whilwind trip around the world as seen through the eyes of a modern-day Everyman

a photo of a man who leans in a door way and is surrounded by graffiti

Siddhatha Bose plays out the role of Kalagora. Image: Liam Davenpor

Kalagora is a Hindi word meaning black man/white man, coined by author and performer Siddhartha Bose in Penned in the Margin's decibel offering. Bose’s Kalagora is a modern Everyman, at home and astray in three cities: Bombay, New York, London.

Bose himself is familiar with all three metropolises: he spent some of his early years in Bombay, lived in New York from the age of 18, and now resides in London. In a kaleidoscopic show he tells the story of Kalagora’s odyssey through a world we think we know.

The hybridity of Kalagora himself is mirrored in the hybrid nature of the piece. A bare stage with film of Bombay playing overhead opened Bose’s showcase, part one-man poetry slam, part Doing The Voices. Performed with great energy and attack, with flawless delivery – Bose had just come from a month at the Edinburgh Festival − Kalagora hurtles past, like rolling news about the people who fall through the cracks on the surface of the globe.

One moment Bose is a midget tobacconist in Bombay straight out of Midnight’s Children, with everything you could want from smokes to drugs to girls; next he’s a sinister American immigration official, making Kalagora grovel to get past him; then he’s in New York amidst a bunch of wasters who waited for the same ‘Man’ as Lou Reed. There wasn’t time for the London panel of this triptych of a play at decibel; it would have been really interesting to see what Kalagora gets up to in the Smoke.

Bose has spoken about growing up speaking and thinking in a ‘chutnified’ mix of three languages – English, Bengali, Hindi – and this global language is Bose’s gift to the stage. Just as Shakespeare coined new words borrowed from other languages and made the stage a Pentecostal Tower of Babel so Bose has Kalagora speak a language at once as English as any Oxford Don’s, and as foreign as Bengali or Hindi might be to the same Oxford Don.

I found the breakneck pace of the showcase at once exhilarating and something which made it difficult to keep up with the piece. I have a feeling that there are slower passages in the full show. I think these will offset his grotesques and picaresques and bring out the full flavour of Kalagora's experiences.

For all the fire and spice a little cooling raita wouldn’t go amiss.

Company Chameleon perfom Search and Find

Monika Richards looks afresh at male interactions

Photograph of two male dancers in a street bending over backwards supporting each other on the other dancer's thighs

Company Chameleon. Photo: Brian Slater

The first time I saw Company Chameleon perform was at the decibel showcase 2007 and I was bowled over by their fusion of Parcour street dance and theatre exploring immigration. I therefore very much looked forward to seeing their latest work at this year’s event.

Company Chameleon’s tour-ready work of Search and Find was meant to be performed outdoors. However, we found ourselves in a large exhibition space. We all sat on the floor leaving a big circle for the performers. This gave an immediacy when watching the performance. You were at times level with the dancers and could notice the subtle movements.

The piece started quietly with one male dancer entering the space and moving his limbs one by one as if experimenting with poses and angular positions. The hesitating walk engaged me quite suddenly as it expressed so accurately an uncertainty of direction and isolation. This movement was intensified by him being joined by another male dancer, both halting as they met face to face, catching each other’s gaze with both hostility and at the same time a desire to connect.

Their subtle movements were underscored by music composed by Miguel Marin. It had the quality of the droning sound of drum and bass which emphasised an emotion of being deeply alone. The dancers and movements gained in speed and complexity which repeated and escalated the confrontational nature of the piece. The two men blocked each other’s ways and they began to struggle as the only way to connect and communicate. This burst out into violent confrontation was intersected with synchronised movements, leaning and carrying each other, taking on positions that only could be supported by two people. The emotion of this struggle to confront and to long for intimacy was moving to watch. Despite the athletic street moves and contemporary rapid dance, there was a quietness underneath it all, emphasised by the music.

Search and Find was daring in its vulnerability in honestly interrogating friendship and love between two men. I imagine that the piece would even gain more poignancy if it was performed in an outdoor space on the street. It would highlight two men meeting in a much more exposed area. As a passerby, I would stop instantly to watch this performance and, when continuing to walk on, I would be looking more closely at how men meet and negotiate public space.

Pitch events from Jane Sekonya-John, Avant Garde Dance, Hetain Patel and ViD (Verse in Dialog) with Zena Edwards

On Thursday morning in the Conference Hall of Manchester Town Hall four companies pitched short ten-minute extracts from their work to bookers, fellow artists, and delegates.

First up was Jane Sekonya-John and the creative team behind Keuse (Choice).  The project involves two dancers, Jane Sekonya-John herself  and Mamela Nyamza, working with spoken word artist OneNess Sankara. Drawing on the lives of three women from both South Africa and Britain the piece explores the inter-generational  stories of these women. Fast-moving, with everything from pat-a-cake to ballet, from hip-hop to monologue, what the show lacked at this early stage in coherence it made up for in energy. The company are off to the Albany Empire in Deptford to further develop the piece and it will be interesting to see how the various elements will all hang together in the final production.

Dance – it’s not exactly subversive, is it? All those young people in pumps and leotards prancing about; showgirls kicking their legs high in the air; Morris Dancers – surely dance is about as revolutionary as flower-arranging? But dance has always challenged authority. From the Can-Can to the Charleston – dances that were both banned in their day – to jive, rock and roll, and the Frug, right up  to illegal raves and laws against‘ repetitive beats’ dance celebrates freedom and sexuality in ways the State is quick to censure.

In the city of the Hacienda Avant Garde Dance presented a brilliant pitch for their show Ilegal Dance. Making full use of the minstrel gallery, the small stage, and the aisles between the audience’s chairs the company outlined a future in which Government Proclamation bans all forms of dance and a resistance movement comes into being. ‘Will you rebel or conform?’ they cry. Dancing in the street was never more funky, or more relevant. A show to watch.

Hetain Patel’s 'Be Like Water' takes a humorous approach to culture and belonging. Sitting on a stage dressed in pale brown suit with Nehru collar Patel addresses the audience in Mandarin while Shelly Maxwell translates. Drawing on Bruce Lee’s advice to ‘Be Like Water’ Patel develops the idea of identity as fluid, using devices such as time-lapse photography to chart the growth of his facial hair, Kung Fu movies as a way to create new identities, and language games to both include and exclude audiences. This piece drew lots of laughter and Patel and Maxwell make a very good, very postmodern double act.

Zena Edwards’ was on next, her haunting voice stilling the room as her clear voice  sang about mothers and heartbreak. Edwards can do it all – she can write, act, sing and her pitch showed off all her talents. Edwards’ piece is about her mother and her mother’s reunion with her own lost mother. Going from Cockney to Caribbean she says, ‘I make sense of the world with a British voice and a brown skin.’ Edwards’ is a true star.

The diverse nature of these pitches – in every sense of the word – summed up what deciBel is all about. I get the feeling Manchester Town Hall is still echoing with their rhythms.


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