Wednesday, 25 December 2013

13's unlucky for some: Theatre, festivals & friends of 2013

Here’s my round-up of 2014.  It’s not so much a nutshell as more a whole bucket of roasted chestnuts, so I split it up with my blog about 2013’s Youth Theatre here and a blog about 2013's music here

This year I performed for the first time ever in Kingston, Newcastle, Scarborough, Bradford, Durham, Bridlington, Eastleigh & Derby.  I performed at Hidden Hills, IYAF, Venturer Camp, Rebellion, Beacons, Galtres and Release The Hounds Festivals.  I did a load of slots at Edinburgh Fringe and worked led workshops for a load of ace young people a load of ace events.  I devised two brand new shows, One Love with Ben Winterton & Jonny Gill, and Practise Patience with Travels By Telephone and held the first Words & Whippets spoken word event at York Theatre Royal.  I toured rural Norfolk writing poems for people in pubs.  I put on a wicked gig at El Piano for my 25th birthday.  I went veggie, I bought the new Asterix book, played the new Pokemon game and shouted at Vince Cable.

For more details on my summer, check out my blogpost here

Here’s my top theatre shows of 2013:  After so many people recommended his work to me, I finally got to see Beats by Kieran Hurley (Sheffield Crucible). His ability to craft the show and characters with such simple gestures, dialogue and sound left me glued for the full hour show.  I think there’s a real tangible difference between drama school acting-methods and engaging solo story-telling.  Much the same for solo show Stand-By For Tape Back-Up (Forest Fringe, EdFringe) by Ross Sutherland.  I finally saw the full show, and I found myself mouthing along to his piece based on an early preview he made.  Synchronicity.   Another EdFringe fav was Rob Auton’s The Sky Show (Banshee Labyrinth, Free Fringe, EdFringe).  Rob balances his surreal charm and stand-up oddness with moments of true beauty and strength.  I’ve programmed it into Words & Whippets 2 in May!  Book yer tickets! Next up, God’s Property (Soho Theatre, The South), simply a stand-out piece of This Is England-esque realism.  Just nicely put together, well acted and I guess I have to have a token London show here.  And finally 1984 (Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse) had a profound effect in reminding me how a large scale production (compared to my usual studio shows!) can also create intense experiences twist and turn your guts, surprise you and make you feel out-of-joint from such distance and in such mass company.

Notable mentions:  70/20 split’s work, LPA Theatre’s work, The Noise (Unlimited Theatre), A Real Man’s Guide To Sainthood (Milk Presents), Tristram & Ysault (Kneehigh), The Disappearance of Sadie Jones (Hannah Silva), Money The Game Show (Unlimited Theatre again), The Legend of King Arthur (York Theatre Royal), Kes (Derby Theatre), Going Green The Wong Way (Kristina Wong), Shame (John Berkovitch), Wot? No Fish?! (Danny Braverman), Rumpelstiltskin (Hiccup), Choose Your Own Documentary (Nathan Penlington), The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Tutti Frutti), Blood + Chocolate (The People Of York, Pilot Theatre & Slung Low)

So thanks to everyone who gave me a gig, saw me perform, picked up a zine or generally anyone I had a great conversation with.  I’ve For 2014, I generally want to just keep gigging more, keep writing, keep meeting people and keep surviving.  Simple as that I guess.  Bring it on.

In anger, in solidarity, in love, in Gengar we trust


Henry's Top Albums of 2013 as voted for by Henry

My top albums of 2013

I Thought It Was Morning by Colour Me Wednesday.  Subtle and hypnotic, this re-ignited my commitment to feminism, female-fronted punk bands and boosted my confidence in pursuing vegetarianism.  I just played this album.  I’m playing it again.  And again.  I love the way politics aren’t generic, and wrapped in clever hooks and well-crafted and intelligent verses.  There’s just something about these tracks that really clicks with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on.  I don’t think this album would have appealed to me a few years ago, and I quite like that.

Much love too for Jake & The Jellyfish’s Credit Cards & Overdrafts.  A band I love live, I was worried their transition from acoustic to a more full-band electric sound would leave me wanting a return to folk roots, but really it’s a blinding piece of work which is much needed in the modern day.  I knew this album would be cracking.  It just sums up Leeds for me, it’s the perfect reminder of how much I miss it.  Jake’s lyrics are also so memorable and bitingly honest.

Similarly, whenever I’m missing home I tend to listen to Jimmy Islip & The GhostsTales from the West Riding.  It came from nowhere, but I was invited to support Jimmy’s band at the Brudenell and the way the lyrics waves a world of stories, characters and places with a backing sound which doesn’t undermine the power of the tales.  I can’t deny it’s a go-to album for the year, so catchy, and, again subtle and special. 

Quite unlike The FilamentsLand of Lions, one of the few really macho, angry Oi-themed bands I still really love.  I moved away from that sound, I find overt politics have their place, but my iPod is chocked full of those bands.  But this album really blew me away with the sheer addictive relevant angry hooks laced with very fun, dancebale anthems.  It’s a reminder Johnny One Lung’s voice is such a reliable growl (see also The 241ers & Suicide Bid)

But finally, the album of the year has to be ONSIND’s Anesthesiology.  This musical duo are experts at talking about politics, protest, love, life and depression through clever stories, magical hooks and choice-placed soundbytes.  This year hasn’t been the easiest year for me in some ways, and this album has certainly helped without being too twee or upbeat or clichĂ©.  It packs the right about of cynical, ballsy punky home-truth honesty wrapped in heaps of North Eastern wit.  You can spend hours unpicking and analysing the intertextuality of the lyrics, or simply scream along to NEVER TRUST A TORY

Honourable mentions to Crazy Arm (The Southern Wild), Great Cynics (Like I Belong), Middleman (Counterstep), Red City Radio (Titles), Joe Solo (No Pasaran), Jonny Gill (It’s Summer, Let’s Go Home), Paper Tiger (Laptop Suntan), Benin City (Fires In The Park), The Lagan (Where’s Your Messiah Now?), the Ghost Mice/Ramshackle Glory split (Shelter) Martha (Sycamore single), No Ditching (Face Ache) and lots and lots of Mark Wynn

#ILoveYouthTheatre of 2013

Youth Theatre 2013

This year I was very privileged to catch a huge variety of very impressive performances from Youth Theatre groups across the UK.  Partly due to my work as both a freelance artist and my duties for NAYT, but also I think because YTs are producing larger-scale and high quality shows.

The Castle YT’s Lost In Wonderland took Alice In Wonderland and injected it with angry adrenaline, fused with lashings of physical theatre.  A non-stop furious assault led with the energy only young people can bring.  Harrogate YT’s adaptations of the Shock-Headed Peter poems were typically creepy in the site-specific atmospheric (aka freezing) Valley Garden.  York Theatre Royal’s YT did a great job with the morally complex Where Shadows Go At Night, an important story about the use of pacifist direct action against the Second World War.  Girls Like That was a brave and impressive debut from West Yorkshire Playhouse YT.  In terms of 21st century feminism, it blew another politics-based ‘professional’ WYP production out of the water.  The Jungle Book from Riding Lights Youth Theatre took me back to when I was a member of YT myself, and our director put us through intensive ensemble work.  Jungle Book was a suitably impressive bestial, brutish, fuming cacophony.

Honourable mentions to Pick ‘n’ Mix from City Varieties YT, Chips ‘n’ Egg from Steep Turnpike YT, York YT’s 8-11s showcase of plays (Molly of the Midfield, Dark Age, Small Fry & In The Shadow of The Quarks)and work-in-progress pieces from Flying High YT (Black Roses), Page2Stage (Teen Angel) & ArtsSparks YT (Hansel & Gretel).  I was also proud to work with ArtsSparks YT alongside the Touring Consortium & Pilot Theatre on a soundwalk project called Welcome To Darlignton.

But the best youth theatre show I saw this year was unquestionable…The Gargoyles of York performed by York Youth Theatre’s 5-8s.  OK, I might be biased.  I wrote it.  But it was directed in the madcap stylings of Natalie Quatermass and delivered by an even madder bunch of bright performers!  The cast were a clawing ensemble of mysterious monsters with flashes of a wholesome love for the artistic cultures we must defend.  Plus, it was ace.

I’m currently wrestling with a commission for Harrogate Youth Theatre called Hang On Just A Minute, a very different beast to conquer indeed.  For an older teenage age group, the HYT want something light-hearted, so I am growing a comedic script rooted in naturalism/realism with a branch of farce, very different to my usual lyrical approach.

But just like Gargoyles of York, my top priority is that the work should be inspired by the young people.  Of course audience, director and space all factor, but the main pulse of my writing is knowing the cast I’m writing for have a wicked sense of humour, a penchant for a good comedic-set-ups and, essentially, bucket-loads of enthusiasm.

For more of my writing for young people & Youth Theatres, check out my website here.

Already excited to catch Stephen Joseph YT at NAYT’s Raising The Game event in February and all the YTs at the Regional Youth Theatre Festival & my mate Dave’s production of Bedlam at Salisbury Playhouse by Stage65 YT, and the usual hometown productions of York’s YYT, Riding Lights YT & Upstage Centre YT.  Here’s to a plethora of quality Youth Theatre work in 2014! 


Saturday, 14 December 2013

SLAP, slapping and the 'Stop It' reflex

On Thursday I went along to SLAP at the new space in York, Artemis House.  It’s an event organised by 70/30 Split Theatre and Matt Baker, of LPA Theatre, a children’s theatre company in York.  But there was nothing for kids here.

It was a genuine pleasure and treat to go to a theatre event without any acoustic guitars.  I don’t mean any disrespect to acoustic musicians (“some of my best friends are acoustic musicians” he said defensively) but York’s scene at the moment is very geared to acoustic, folk and country in both the music/open mic scene and the arts/theatre.  Friendly, accessible, open, warm and traditional.  We’re a Mumford & Son-sy town.  That’s not a criticism of York, I love the place.  Maybe there’s some kid in London’s Stratford craving Laura Marling covers after being bombarded with hip-hop.  Who knows.

SLAP had a couple of ace rock bands.  SLAP was loud and electric and, well, salacious (SLAP is Salacious Live Alternative Performance) and here are my thoughts about exposure.

At EdFringe this year I saw some theatre in a small, DIY, independent cafĂ©.  Like…the Fringe of the Fringe.  There I saw a piece about falling, in which the solo artist performing this show downed can after can of Red Bull.  It was an act which caused what I’ll call the “Stop it!” reflex, as an audience member we can see an individual on stage actively harming themselves. That might not necessarily be painful, but their body is under damage or threat.  In this case, around 1am, this guy was glugging far too much caffeinated sugar.  Stop.  What Are You Doing To Yourself?!

On Thursday, Matt ripped out tufts of his own hair, and offered it to the audience.  Matt is so cheerful.  He has a big goofy smile and a swagger of certainty, like he’s in on some knowing joke we’ve not realised yet.  When one man in the audience casually asks for more and more hair, there’s an unease rippling through the audience.  Is this guy part of the act?  I knew he wasn’t.  Matt gladly rips out more hair for the guy.  We want Matt to stop.  We want the guy to stop asking.  We as audience have this agency and investment.  Matt asks someone to slap him.  Someone does.  Is this guy a dick?  He’s just following Matt’s instructions.  I could have stood up and stopped the guy.  I didn’t.  Would that have ruined Matt’s act?

Later in the night, 70/30 Split (two female artists Sophie and Lydia) perform a fantastic piece about gender identity.  They create work which explores burlesque, feminism, the female body and performance.  Their piece uses dances/movement and a splash of stand-up parody.  Early on, they reveal their breasts. 

Obviously not physically painful like Matt’s hair wrenching, it still makes an audience on edge.  A social norm as been broken.  A theatre norm has been broken.  Theatre is meant to be staged, an act, a joke, a lie.  Costumes, characters, scenes.  We are meant to dissect the characters, not the actors.  But here Lydia and Sophie are blunt and honest. 

As an audience, we don’t really know how to respond.  Someone wolf whistles.  Their exposure changes the mood.  Charges it, winds up tension, splits a room.  I’m no telepath, but I assume someone feels guilty.  The thought crosses our minds that being physically exposed, even by choice, is harmful.  Exploitative.  Stop it.

But it’s Sophie and Lydia’s choice to show their breasts.  They look bored.  It’s no big deal.

Yeah, Boobs.  We’ve Got ‘em .  Deal With It.  Move On.

Another quick example:  In ‘What I Heard About The World’, Chris Thorpe tries to drink a glass of salt water to prove the world’s rising tides problems can be saved by drinking the sea.  It’s funny but…Uck.  Stop It.

I think about this exposure in theatre.  About making your body be harmed, damaged or exposed to an audience.  An offering which triggers uncomfortableness undoubtedly, but also a care and sympathy for the fellow human being.  The STOP IT reflex can be about protecting someone.

I think about my poetry.  I would like to think when I perform certain poems, I am exposing myself, I am putting myself in harm’s way.  I want people to have the STOP IT reflex, not because it is bad or unsettling poetry, but because it is honest.  Entertaining, funny, hell maybe inspiring, but still has the rustle of an audience uncertain as to their agency.

He looks like he needs a hug

Maybe I do…

I am reminded of Ren Spits At Magpies and the way she screams her throat raw during certain songs, and yet at other times in her set she has a beautiful, haunting voice.  I am reminded of a cut up Sid Vicious, and a bruised Henry Rollins.

In theatre, the veneer of actors, cast, tickets, ushers and script allows only the most harrowing of topics to really unsettle a typical theatre-going audience.  We are long post-Sarah Kane.  The baby flesh in Blasted is a prop.  Matt’s cheek was sore.

Food for thought.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

"I like whales"

“I like whales” she said as she pinned another whale poster to her wall, adding to the vast collection sprawled over whale wallpaper.

She took a moment to admire the poster, lost for a brief second at the merriment of the blubbery behemoth exploding from the sea.

She tore her gaze away, and it fell upon the man bound and gagged upon her bed.  The bed with the whale-themed sheets and pillow.  The bed that was shaped like a whale.

His eyes were iced with fear, illuminated by the whale-shaped bedside lamp.

“I like whales” she repeated, fumbling her ‘I Whales’ badge pinned proudly to her chest.

She began to fumble in her drawer, casting aside underwear and socks dotted in happy, smiling whales.  Until she found what she was looking for.

She held aloft the hammer and chisel and moved, like a titanic marine mammal, towards the man who squirmed like a pathetic, limp seal.

“That’s why the only man I could ever love” she said “Would need a blowhole.”


When I and Tom Bellerby made Letter To The Man (from the boy) back in 2011, we wanted to make sure the show wasn’t just about me.  We spent hours and hours working on the poems and the text and delivery, but even longer in that rehearsal room planning how to get people’s stories, how to get them to share and how to make them comfortable.

This November I went on the road, jumping from train-to-train, bus-to-bus, taxi-to-taxi, B&B-to-B&B to take Letter To The Man to a host of pubs across rural Norfolk (and one Library in Suffolk).  This tour was supported by Creative Arts East, the idea being I’d sit in a pub, chat to people, write them poems on any topic they requested, and then perform the show on the evening over 2 visits.

I had no idea what would greet me in each pub, but I was treated to lovely, kind and generous people feeding me, watering me and in some cases ferrying me from place-to-place.  I wrote a huge tonne of poems, some posted here are my favourites with a host of topics, stories and characters.  I want to say a massive thank you to everyone I spoke to, especially those who looked suspiciously at some strange skinny Yorkshire lad in their rural Norfolk pub and yet went along with the gimmick and gave me plenty of ideas, tales and inspiration to write some brand new poems.

Someone asked me how Norfolk people differ from other people across the country, and I know it’s a cop-out answer, but people are just people. Everyone has a story, has something interesting, can surprise you and be can be warm and welcoming.  Each venue I visited runs the venue not necessarily for profit, but the understanding communities need a local space to be relaxed with friends where stories, arguments and jokes run rampant.  Pubs and libraries are important to local communities, referring back to my home of York: El Piano, The 3-Legged Mare, The York Arms and The Golden Ball are my favourite venues in the whole world, all friendly, accessible, open and willing because they are operated by people who understand that need for a space, and put their heart and soul into making it happen.
The culture of art and theatre is shifting, not just in York. 

As funding is hacked from larger theatre spaces, we must take to the fringes.  By which, I don’t necessarily mean The Fringes, I mean we need to aim more grassroots, work within communities not just as visitors and in doing so will find new audiences.  Friendly, warm, approachable audiences with as much to say about the world.  We are all creative, all we need is a willing space and a decent drinks on tap, decent food and a challenge.