Review – Who Cares 2032 – an interactive digital experience co-produced by the Royal and Derngate Northampton, Hydrocracker and Deafconnect – 1st June 2023

Who Cares 2032The time is 2032; nine years into the future – that’s not that far away. The NHS has remained starved of resources so that it is teetering on the brink of non-existence. Care workers have left the profession in their droves due to poor wages and conditions – there’s just not enough bitcoin to go around. But the government has come up with a potentially smart solution – the Contact App. Is it the cure-all for saving lives in an even worse case scenario than we’re currently facing – or is it an unethical intrusion that marketizes the care industry?

MishJem Wall and Nathan Crossan-Smith have devised this new, challenging and interactive experience, which you can watch and engage with from the privacy of your own laptop. Remember Casper the Friendly Ghost? Who Cares 2032 features another very friendly ghost, Doctor Anna, who loves nothing more than a spot of digital haunting and putting you in control of the future of the nation’s healthcare. She gatecrashes our online lecture to make us face a very important choice. If we want to, we can corrupt the code that will create the Contact App, thus taking it out of society for ever; or, we can let history takes its course and allow it to be introduced. Obviously, that’s a decision that none of us can take lightly, and over the course of a little over an hour Doctor Anna poses some difficult ethical and moral questions for us, and, try as we might, there’s no sitting on the fence with this one.

Mish and GrahamWe’re already used to the concept of having medical appointments over the Internet – for the most part, it’s quicker, easier, and can provide a good back-up service to the general public. So what’s the problem with the Contact App, surely it’s just the natural next stage of development? That’s certainly the attitude of young, deaf, Mish, who finds using it is her primary access to health provision and also allows her to keep tabs on her general health and wellbeing on a regular basis. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with middle-aged Graham in Joe’s Café and encourages him to sign up to the App too. But Graham is from a less technologically trusting era, and insists he doesn’t need the intervention of an interfering and nosy wristband telling him what to do. Are you like Mish, or are you like Graham? As we discover more and more about the App, its benefits and its deficiencies become clearer. How will you respond when Anna finally gets you to nail your colours to the mast?

MishThis is a very entertaining, challenging and intense piece of interactive drama. You have to concentrate hard on what’s going on, as sometimes Anna will put a question to you that demands some time to reflect over. There are no hard and fast easy answers here – but there a lot of soft and slow difficult ones! It’s an invigorating blend of rigorous intellectual stimulation and genuine emotional response, and I found myself quite moved by some of the situations and people to whom we are introduced. At one stage, you can pick and choose to listen to the experiences of a number of people – carers, a teacher, a student, family members; each bearing first-hand witness to the problems of providing healthcare in 2032. Give yourself time to consider the evidence of their lives; you might find, like I did, that during the experience you change your mind.

Graham and MishIt’s very smartly written, with several amusing local references, and a few off-guard moments from Anna that had me snorting with laughter. Faith Omole provides the voice of Anna, and she really gets into your psyche; before long you find yourself telling her all sorts of private things that you wouldn’t normally tell anyone – but rest assured, what happens between you and Anna stays with you and Anna. One exception to this – you can choose to publish your reasoning for either allowing the App to go ahead or nipping it in the bud on a legacy wall; entirely your decision. Jude Akuwudike voices Oladipo, a diabetes nurse, who can only see the benefits provided by the App. Rhiannon May plays Mish with a nice balance of Generation Alpha cynicism and respect for the older Graham’s concerns and feelings, if not his choice of breakfasts; and co-creator Jem Wall plays the decent but backward-looking Graham, who is appalled by the App’s lack of privacy but eventually moves with the times. Other characters are played by members of the Community Actors Company and people who work with Deafconnect, the local charity who are also co-producing the experience.

Contact AppIf I took away one overriding message from the show it would be that it wants to make us think. It wants to make us consider playing a part in framing the health policies that will shape our future. Whether you opt to corrupt the code or push forward with it, this is a highly responsible moment for us all. Pay What You Can for a ticket – £5 is suggested, but not compulsory; and your payment will give you a link to the show that you can watch as many times as you like until the end of July. Visit the Royal and Derngate website for more details, or simply click here. After all, it’s not every day a ghost gives you the opportunity of changing the future of healthcare in the country for ever!

Review – Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 17th December 2022

Standing at the Sky's Edge“So what’s this show about” asked Lord and Lady Prosecco en route to their annual Christmas shindig in Sheffield. “Not sure,” came my honest reply. “I think it might be Sheffield’s answer to Blood Brothers.” And, to be fair, I wasn’t that far off the mark. Both shows offer an insight into living in poor council housing, relocating to somewhere better, and surviving (or not) the Thatcher era, plus a not insubstantial dollop of melodrama, and some fabulous songs. But they’re rather surface similarities, and, deep down, it’s not really a helpful comparison.

Apocalyptic nightChris Bush loves to portray things in threes, doesn’t she? Only a few months ago we saw her brilliant Rock Paper Scissors where all three theatres within the Sheffield complex were used to tell the same story in the same real time but from three different locations/aspects. Her challenge in Standing at the Sky’s Edge is to tell three different stories over three different eras, but all of which take place in the same flat. Characters from the 60s to the 80s blend with others from the 90s and noughties and more characters from the past ten years. There’s a gorgeously staged scene where all three sets of characters eat a meal at the dining table, striding the decades, in blissful ignorance of each other. I bet Alan Ayckbourn is kicking himself for not having thought of that one.

Rose and HarryThere’s the young couple, Rose and Harry, starting out, the first residents of the flat, full of hope, ambition and positivity. He prides himself on being “the youngest foreman this city has ever seen” and is thrilled to be able to provide for both his wife and the child they soon hope to have. The 90s bring a family of refugees from Liberia, Grace, George and Joy, fleeing the terror of the Civil War. Unfamiliar with life in Sheffield, they have to learn the local accent, food and customs, not knowing whom to trust. And as the Estate starts to gentrify in the 2010s, a middle class Londoner, Poppy, relocates to the flat to start her life over again, following the breakdown of a relationship. We follow the first two families through their lives in the flat, until circumstances dictate that it’s time to leave. And we observe the progress made by the third resident until she comes to a life-changing moment in the here and now.

Sky's EdgeEvery so often a show comes along that you can feel in your bones is Something Significant. Standing at the Sky’s Edge isn’t perfect, but Chris Bush, together with Richard Hawley’s music and lyrics, have structured such a heart-warming, thought-provoking, breath-taking piece of theatre that it stops you in your tracks. There’s no doubt that it’s an homage to Sheffield – specifically the Park Hill Estate which I’d never heard of but had to Google. It is an iconic address; a brutalist design influenced by Le Corbusier, that had slowly dilapidated over the years but is now revitalised and upmarket. However, if you’re not a Sheffield local, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still recognise that same sense of belonging that runs through this show like a stick of rock. Cast 1It also doesn’t matter if you don’t get the local references. I’m not from Sheffield although I have visited the city on and off for the past forty years. Nevertheless, I confess I’d never heard of Henderson’s Relish! But the audience reaction to its mention implies that most Sheffield kids started eating it on their rusks. The opinion about the BBC that it stands for Bourgeoisie Bastards of Capitalism got a big round of applause; this is a text that is absolutely in tune with its audience.

ConnieForget any similarities with Blood Brothers; if there is another contemporary musical with which this can be linked, it’s Come From Away – with its themes of displaced people in a new environment, relying on the kindness of strangers, emphasising all that’s good about human nature. The show takes us from 1960 to the present day, but of course the flat at the centre of the action doesn’t necessarily stop there. In forty years’ time there could be Sky’s Edge 2, with at least two new generations of residents with their tales to tell. If there’s one thing that this show tells us, it’s that, no matter what, life goes on.

HarryWhen you enter the auditorium you’re greeted by Ben Stones’ delightfully expansive set, a corner edge of an apartment set in the sky (which houses John Rutledge’s excellent band) and looks down on the flat below. Suspended in the sky are the words I love you will U marry me, the famous graffiti that graced the Park Hill Estate for twenty years from 2001; they will give you a lump in your throat at the end of the show.

NikkiOne of my pet hates in musicals is where a song doesn’t follow organically from the action that proceeds it and doesn’t move the story on; you should always come out of a musical theatre song in a different place from the one where you went into it, imho. Otherwise, the musical becomes all stop-start and the songs are just spacers separating one piece of action from another. Standing at the Sky’s Edge proves the exception to the rule. Remarkably, for the most part, the songs are extremely stand-alone and come across more like an ancient Greek Chorus observing and commenting on the action, rather than emerging naturally from the plot.

GeorgeYet they work brilliantly. Fortunately, this cast is blessed with possibly the best collection of singing voices you’ve ever witnessed in a show, so each number has a massive impact. Even on first hearing, there are a few songs here that will become absolute musical theatre standards in the years to come. The glorious I’m Looking for Someone to Find Me, the emotional For Your Lover Give Some Time, and the stirring Open Up Your Door are already timeless classics. But all the music is truly beautiful.

PoppyAnd the performances are sublime, from the main roles right down to the supporting cast. The ever-reliable Alex Young is brilliant as the middle class Poppy, coping with the culture shock of bringing Ottolenghi Aubergine to South Yorkshire; Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale are terrific as the 1960s Rose and Harry, bursting with vim and vigour until fortunes turn against them; Samuel Jordan is superb as the kind-hearted JoyJimmy (I saw him when he was a University of Northampton student!); Maimuna Memon sings sensationally as Poppy’s ex, Nikki; and, a real star of the future, Faith Omole is stunning as Joy, with the most extraordinary voice and a performance that will break your heart. But everyone works together brilliantly – this is show is the definition of ensemble – and there isn’t a weak link in sight.

Harry and RoseI wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you about my slight reservations. First – from a production point of view – there are a couple of sequences where the sound balance between the band and the vocals was totally out of whack, and you couldn’t hear one word of what was being sung – most notably in the final song of Act One, There’s a Storm a-Coming. I also thought that the two deaths that take place in the show – no spoilers, I won’t say who – weren’t really necessary, and that, especially with the younger character, Chris Bush has created something deliberately tragic; it was almost Thomas Hardyesque in its fatalism. The same observational point could have been made without the characters dying. Perhaps, also, the show is 15 minutes too long, and some of the storylines could have progressed a little niftier. Joy and JimmyAnd we were also unconvinced by the plot resolution in the 2020 timeline; it’s a gloomy observation that a character who had developed so far forward would allow themselves to regress into a toxic relationship – and we just didn’t believe it of her.

All that said, there’s no doubt this is a landmark show, that absolutely puts Sheffield on the map and is fully deserving of its transfer to the National Theatre in the New Year. Congratulations to everyone on a piece of theatrical history!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – White Noise, Bridge Theatre, London, 20th October 2021

White NoiseLeo, Dawn, Misha and Ralph: four close friends from university. Leo and Misha, both of African descent, used to be an item; so were Dawn and Ralph, both of European descent. Now it’s Leo and Dawn living together, and Misha and Ralph partnered up. Their friendships have survived the change partners with ease, it seems. Each of them at different stages of their chosen career paths, some more successful than others. Leo and Ralph are both at a crossroads in their work – Leo in art, Ralph in teaching. The future is looking bright for both Dawn and Misha – Dawn as a lawyer, Misha as an online influencer. But they’re all cool with that, all acting as one big support group whenever they need each other. One day Leo is assaulted by the police in a racial attack. The trauma disturbs him deeply. He needs to find a way to work through and overcome it and comes up with a unique solution. But will the others go along with it?

Leo and DawnI didn’t know the decision that Leo made before seeing the show and I’m certainly not going to tell you here. But I can’t recall seeing a play where a plot turn took such an unexpected and emotionally loaded direction. It’s vital to the success of the play that you don’t know what’s going to happen so if you want to see the play, please avoid spoilers at all costs! Suffice to say, White Noise is packed with modern, relevant themes about racial equality, power tactics, mental cruelty, truth and decency, and just how far can you stretch a friendship. It examines the roles people take within relationships, where abuse can start, and how a victim can enable their abuser without it ever being a case of “victim-blaming”. It pitches idealism against reality and explores how one of those inevitably trounces the other. It deals with exploitation and self-exploitation. And it does it all with elegance, wit, style, humour and several moments where the audience gasps at what it’s seeing.

Shooting RangeThe Bridge Theatre’s versatile acting space comes up trumps as usual. Lizzie Clachan’s excellent and detailed set shows Leo and Dawn’s dishevelled bedroom on one side and turns to reveal Misha and Ralph’s stylish kitchen on the other. We also see Ralph’s functional shooting range, including a smartly designed pulley system that automatically delivers the used paper targets onto the stage. The acting space continues out from the stage onto an apron into the auditorium that really brings the action close to the audience. I also love how the production uses its technical know-how to increase the realism of the performance, as when Ralph monitors Misha’s social media reactions whilst she’s doing her show; his laptop clearly displays the phone number you need to ring in, and shows Misha performing live as the audience sees her – such elements make the production feel really up to date and truthful.

Misha and RalphSuzan-Lori Parks has written a stunning play with some fantastic speeches and mic-drop moments. It’s structured beautifully to allow us separate insights into the inner machinations of all four characters as well as watching the power-plays between them. The further the play develops, the more you fear for the wellbeing of the characters, and it builds to a tremendously exciting and dangerous climax such as you might expect from a top-rate thriller.

LeoThe four actors all give fabulous performances. From his opening monologue where he engages beautifully with the audience, we are completely on the side of Ken Nwosu’s Leo, no matter what life throws at him. Mr Nwosu delivers a rich and powerful performance, revealing all Leo’s insecurities, embarrassments, desires and fears. He takes us along on his journey, laughing and crying with him, willing him to grab what victories he can. Above all, he makes an outlandish situation seem totally credible. Absolutely superb.

MishaFaith Omole is brilliant as Misha, stunning us all with her showbizzy Ask A Black persona, whilst slowly realising her own self-delusions and that she might be part of the problem despite her outward show of independence and equality. Helena Wilson is also superb as Dawn, with immaculate timing and delivery on the character’s occasional killer lines that alter the course of relationships. Her revelations about the legal case that she’s wrapped up in come as a bolt from the blue, as do her misjudged, clumsy but tellingly insensitive moments in conversation with Misha.

DawnJames Corrigan is great as Ralph, a character who has had it all and slowly sees it ebbing away until he seizes an opportunity to regain status and power. He brings out all the sinister ruthlessness that’s lurking just beneath Ralph’s surface and horrifies us with what happens when absolute power corrupts absolutely and there’s nothing to hold you in check. RalphA brilliant performance of a complex character.

In a nutshell: simply outstanding. A play that says so much in a production that delivers it to the full. The season at the Bridge Theatre runs until 13th November, but I sense this is a play that is never really going to go away.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive let theatre thrive!