19 March 2014

Decisions, decisions

Sylvia Rimat is the brain behind If You Decide To Stay - quite literally. The hour-long one-woman show explores decision-making - why Rimat decided to become a performance artist; why the 65 people watching decided to come along to Contact to be in the audience, why they didn't leave halfway through. Mapping thought processes like constellations of stars, she counts our votes regarding the answers to certain questions via the clicking on or off of torches, so we are made to participate in the way the show goes, a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. 

We are drawn into Rimat's imagination - her imaginary world - where grown women in rabbit outfits hop around the "meadows, thickets and fields" of the meandering script. One of us becomes a Roman soldier, complete with red and gold cape and galea; another is asked to read aloud an astrologer's report in a lilting, airy-fairy way; another still is given a £20 note and sent to the newsagent round the corner for snacks to help celebrate the fact that we all decided to stay. At least, I think we all did, although I did have my doubts when we were told to swap seats at the start (I didn't move places, in case you're wondering). 

We hear recorded interviews with various experts who attempted to explain to the German-born, Bristol-based performer what is going on in her brain: two neuroscientists and a mathematician and computer scientist, plus the correspondence she received from a psychotherapist and the aforementioned astrologist. It's a very personal journey we're invited to join Rimat on, and she reveals many vulnerabilities along the way, particularly when she sits, one by one, behind four lightbulbs she fits with paper lampshades as we listen to the scientists essentially talk about the state of her mind. Rimat sheds light on many interesting thoughts and thought processes, not least why she, and we, make certain choices over others. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, you might say. 

If You Decide To Stay is on at Norwich Arts Centre on 13 May.

13 March 2014

Librarian chic

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek in the revamped Central Library for a piece for Creative Tourist, which has just been published here. Alternatively you can read the unabridged version below and see some photographs of the remodelled and renovated interior. 

Eighty years after first letting in the public, the giant wooden doors of Manchester Central Library swing open again on Saturday 22 March. Sarah-Clare Conlon gets a sneak peek beyond the neo-classical columns at a public building fit for modern life.

It’s been four years since Manchester Central Library’s collection was loaded into lorries and packed off on vacation to a Cheshire salt mine. In that time, the 80-year-old grande doyenne of city book depositories has undergone a makeover like no other, thanks to architect firms Simpson and Ryder, at a budget of around £50m. Those E Vincent Harris-designed iconic neo-classical curves have been refreshed to make Central Library the belle of the ball when the vision of the “world-class public square” in which the grade II* listed building sits is realised, while its inner beauty has been revealed with a sympathetic yet entirely 21st-century refurbishment and remodel.
            The St Peter’s Square entrance is still closed when I visit, so I’m led via a secret portal in the Town Hall Extension next door and down into a labyrinth of basement passages, somewhere along which the treasures and archived material are kept in six secure storage rooms, apparently in the correct conditions for the first time. David from the Archives Team (usually the only people allowed in this section) shows me some 1846 playbills from Theatre Royal over the road, a hand-written Roman codex unearthed locally and an Elizabeth Gaskell first edition. Some of these will be made public in the impressive new Archives + area on the ground floor, alongside interactive display units, touch tables in the open plan café, a BFI Mediateque showing films restored onsite by the North West Film Archive, a whole section dedicated to geneology… “It’s all about stories,” says my guide, Head of Libraries Neil MacInnes.

A flourish of swipe cards and we’re through the tradesman’s entrance and into the lending library, complete with 110,000 items, a media centre, a unique black history collection and a Secret Garden-themed children’s section. They want to particularly target children, young people and families, and heritage tourists, explains Neil. This lower ground floor space has been designed to make a seamless transition between the Town Hall Extension, beneath Library Walk, which can be seen through panes above, and into Central Library itself, and, as I discover throughout the building, the extensive use of glass – along with enhanced lighting, wide staircases and new cream marble flooring – really has blown away the cobwebs.
But it’s not to the detriment of the original features. Art Deco lamps, brass handrails, wooden carvings, printmaking artifacts, the Shakespeare window above the entrance, the intricate gilded clock and Scagiola columns (they’re hollow – give them a gentle knock!) in the amazing domed Whispering Gallery of the tranquil first-floor Reading Room – everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. A 1930s staircase has been revealed in the refurbishment, original ceilings and floors see the light of day for the first time in years, the “heritage stacks” are now visible behind glazing; the revamp does thoughtfully juxtapose old with new.

Two million visitors a year are predicted – double when the library closed its doors in 2010 – but then there’s so much on offer: as well as one of the largest public music libraries in the country and an extensive Information & Business Library in partnership with the British Library, there are new exhibition and performance spaces, Wifi, soft seating and powerpoints throughout, and 170 computers for public use. “It’s the city’s study, but it’s also the city’s living room,” says Neil.
And compared to the 70% of space hidden away pre-revamp, 70% is now accessible, including intimate study carvels and larger rooms to hire for meetings and functions, such as the beautiful wood-panelled Heritage Room and the book-lined Chief Librarian’s Office. Neil had to give up his outstanding vantage point looking the length of Oxford Street to the Palace Hotel. Still, he thinks it’s been worth it.  “We’re offering the best of what museums and galleries do, but in a library setting – I don’t know anywhere else that does this.”

Manchester Central Library will reopen Monday - Saturday from Saturday 22 March 2014. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/centrallibrary

05 March 2014

Fruity stuff

I'm chuffed to have had another piece published by The Manchester Review, which you can read below with some lovely photographs by Jonathan Keenan or on the site by following this link.

Orlando, Royal Exchange, reviewed by Sarah-Clare Conlon

Subheaded “a magical comedy about love and time travel” and featuring former Coronation Street actress Suranne Jones (who trod the boards very persuasively for the first time here in 2009’s Blithe Spirit), Orlando is likely to get plenty of bums on seats whether this and other reviews are positive or not. In fact, an arts blogger pal confided that his plus-one went on the strength of the celebrity casting alone. Still, if the usually reticent can be tempted in through a theatre’s doors for whatever reason and is then presented with something as impressive as this Max Webster-directed stage adaptation by Sarah Ruhl (which premiered in New York in 2010) of Virginia Woolf’s famous sex change novel, who cares?

Living up to the Royal Exchange’s consistently high standards, the props and costumes do not disappoint – from the incarnation of the Great Frost of 1608 to the ingenious 1920s car ride, and from the pantomime dame Queen Elizabeth’s fairy-lit dress to Orlando’s clipper hat as she sails back to London from Constantinople. The production is also liberally sprinkled with amazing effects, not least the jaw-dropping aerial work with Molly Gromadzki making incredible use of the round as she portrays Sasha the Russian princess skating along the frozen Thames and seducing the young man version of Orlando.

Yet the juicy strawberries atop this delicious Victoria sponge have got to be the performances, all incredibly accomplished and delivered with such vim, the cast members seem honestly to be enjoying themselves, not just doing their day job. Aside from Jones and Gromadzki, there is a chorus made up of three male narrators played by Richard Hope, Thomas Arnold and Tunji Kasim, who also provide sound effects (an annoying bluebottle, for example) and take on the roles of sideline characters such as the Captain of the ship of the Russian Embassy and the hilarious S&M-loving Archduchess/Archduke.

Talking of which, the success of the script relies heavily on racy references and jokes, both visual and spoken (“May I give you more sauce, Ma’am?” the ship’s captain asks to much laughter), but thanks to the actors’ slickness, reciting speeches in perfect unison, for example, and the boundary-pushing presentation of the show, there’s never any threat of it teetering over the edge into pure bawdy Vaudeville. It’s good fun, but intelligent, and intelligent yet accessible.

“You’re many things to many people”, Orlando the character is told. Orlando the stage production could well be the same.

Orlando continues until 22 March at the Royal Exchange. See royalexchange.co.uk/orlando for booking details.

04 March 2014

Taking flight

"It isn't about fame… It's about enduring, about bearing your cross," says the young actress Nina, played by the young actress Sophie Robinson, and indeed Library Theatre's production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull is all about fame lost and found through acting and writing: "We all need the theatre, we couldn't live without it", we're told from the offset.

We meet a lauded writer, Boris Trigorin (played by Graeme Hawley), who is constantly jotting things down in a notebook but who scoffs at his own work and fails to see what all the fuss is about: "I'm a citizen, a person, I should write about the troubles of the world… I should write something important." He is dating Arkadina (Susie Trayling), a washed-up leading lady who misses the limelight and now has to resort to basking in the glow of her boyfriend's glory. Her son Konstantin (Ben Allen, pictured; photo by Jonathan Keenan) is a troubled playwright (and a slightly camp hipster, with his sarcastic "well done, her" interjections), who puts on a performance for the friends and family he is surrounded by at his uncle Sorin's country house. The one-hander with Nina in the starring role, put on the pedestal of the makeshift platform in the garden by love-sick Konstantin, receives generally poor reviews from the on-stage audience (sat with their backs to the real auditorium audience, hence creating a feeling that we are all in it together - it is a terrible show). Arkadina's shriek of "I'm not going to sit through that gibberish, experimental nonsense" is met by the doctor's rather comical retort: "God, you really are all so dramatic."

Some of the lines seemed to be played for laughs, which I'm not sure the author would have intended, and others felt like all the life had been sucked out of them. Meanwhile, any drama there had been (it is Chekhov, after all) in the first half became even more watered down in the second, with a couple of scenes featuring all the cast on stage at the same time but most of them, save Konstantin and Doctor Dorn (Christopher Wright) and then Konstantin and Trigorin, doing nothing. Absolutely nothing: not pretending to chat and drink or play cards or look out of the window at the lake view; nothing. It's like they've forgotten to act or haven't been given any direction, which seems odd as it's a Chris Honer production; the last from the experienced Artisic Director for Library Theatre, before Walter Meierjohann takes over for the birth of HOME, cut-and-shutting Library with Cornerhouse. In fact, some of the characters throughout came across as lacklustre - Medvedenko, Masha and Polina, for example, although this could be down to them merely serving as plot devices to facilitate the various, slightly excrutiating love triangles. In stark contrast, however, the estate manager Shamrayev (played by David Crelin, latterly Coronation Street's Colin Fishwick) is loud and proud, but the lack of consistency overall is unconvincing.

The reworking of Chekhov's play by Anya Reiss obviously brings it up to date for a modern audience, and there are some nice touches, such as the eponymous bird being presented in a Sainsbury's Bag For Life and Konstantin pouring water over his laptop so it blows up and he loses all his work (presumably in the original, he sets fire to his typed manuscript; I don't know). Less convincing were the costumes, which looked largely as if they had been sourced in Primark or Oxfam, and, other than perhaps Shamrayev and the old man Sorin (Peter Macqueen) with their country tweeds, seemed way off the mark for some of the characters, particularly the supposedly sophisticated arty types on holiday from the city.

So back to the writing aspect. "What's it like to read about yourself?" Nina asks Boris. His reply? "When they're nice, it's nice, and when they're not, it's not." Hopefully the words written here err more towards the former.

The Seagull continues until Saturday at The Lowry in Salford Quays. Evening performances Tuesday to Saturday inclusive start at 7.15pm. Thursday matinee is at 2pm and Saturday matinee is at 2.30pm. Click here to book tickets.