Go Away Johnny

Six people slither slowly across a sheepskin rug for seven minutes while Maria Callas belts out ‘Casta Diva’. It isn’t my usual choice of entertainment for a Saturday night but this was the centrepiece to a rich, challenging and engrossing dance piece by Peter Groom. Go Away Johnny takes its title from a line in a Marlene Dietrich film (The Foreign Affair) at a point when Marlene is forced to remember something, a decidedly apt choice as memory sits at the core of this work.

What we are presented with is a collection of fleeting moments – some obviously cemented in real situations, others more abstract and relating to feelings – based mainly around human interaction. Even in those moments with descriptive dialogue, such as the intermittent monologues about love and loneliness, it only feels as if we’re getting half the story. As Groom himself said in the post-show Q&A, the feeling he sought to translate was of grabbing hopelessly at those lost moments. They return not fully formed and perhaps not even in accordance with the reality of the past. This was expressed most clearly with a moment near the end where one dancer (Alys North) rushed madly around the space, seemingly trying to recreate a moment from near the start. Whether she succeeded was open to interpretation but there was something touching about seeing the other dancers help her so frantically.

The dancers – North alongside Jen Carss, Ian Garside, George Siena, Alex Rowland, Charlie Dearnley and Rosie Terry Toogood – are impeccable and their choreography strikingly beautiful. Their search for connection throughout the dreamlike conveyor belt of touches, conversations and emotion is palpably fragile and human. They should perhaps be called ‘performers’ as the piece was just as much theatre as dance (unsurprising given the name of the company); certain sections including one set in a radio studio and another featuring an elegant professional who seems to be involved in torturing several head-bagged prisoners were very humorous.

The set is simply the aforementioned large sheepskin rug, chosen by Groom to reflect two personal memories of comfort and also the idea that memories are tangible but useless. Similarly to memories, the rug envelopes the ensemble and they find themselves drawn to it time and time again.

Music – generally classical or operatic – fulfils the function of a narrative, or as Groom put it, ‘a thread with different colours’. This is because the vignettes themselves are presented quite randomly – except for the slug section which occurs in the middle – and herein is my only real criticism. Despite the echoing of certain images (four men in dresses rolling cigarettes for example), there is little to take us through from one image to the next. This left me feeling slightly unsatisfied by the ending and could have been avoided with some rearrangement of the sections. That however is a minor quibble and it is perhaps impossible to achieve a congruity throughout the show as each memory has a different feeling, taking you down a different path. Maybe the best way to look at Go Away Johnny is to reflect on the feelings it provokes as a whole rather than trying to make sense of its components. It certainly is masterful in evoking those dark caverns of the mind where nothing quite makes sense.

The piece has been developed over 18 months with the help of the Arts Council, Dance City and ARC Stockton but now fittingly is lost to time and memory. Whatever the group works on next should be closely followed by those interested in challenging and rewarding performance art.

Tensile Strength (or How to Survive at Your Wit’s End)

How big is your stress bucket? Holly’s play invites us to analyse and reduce our own everyday stresses, no matter what size our stress bucket may be.

I was drawn to Tensile Strength as soon as I read the synopsis. Its theme is something incredibly relevant in modern day society, stress. It’s about trying to work out why so many people feel it, sharing snippets of stories and scenarios, of what happens when our stress buckets get full and then on top of that the cat goes missing. I, myself, wanted to know the solution, and this insightful play reaches out in a cathartic way and reassures us that we are not alone.

“How do you let the stress out your stress bucket?” Holly enquires. For her it is a mint Aero. She explains that it is different for everyone; some people have large buckets and some people have small buckets. The rate at which the bucket fills with stress varies and how easy the bucket is to empty varies.

Holly performs the play beautifully, part story-telling, part audience engagement, but not in an intimidating way. The use of a signer to interpret the story throughout makes the story accessible. When Holly addresses the audience, the lights turn on us, it brings the worries and anxieties in the stories to the fore and helps us relate them to our own lives. They help us to stop, and think, and ‘breathe’.  We learn about three people, their stories intertwined throughout, taking us through their thoughts and feelings, fears and dreams. We meet a young graduate who is struggling to find a ‘proper job’ and still lives at home with her mum, a person who is asked to move out of their friend’s place after outstaying their welcome, a new father dealing with the worries of being a new parent and finding it all a bit much. There is so much expectation.

The different stories are played out right here, in Teesside, where the stories are being told. These people are not distant figures in distant parts of the country, they are us. They are us, our friends, our neighbours.

Light gameshow humour brings the audience into the story. It gives us control of the characters and helps us to analyse them and really get to know them. Multiple choice questions. Questions without answers. Leading us to imagine what each character is going to do. Are they going to do option a), option b), option c), d) all of the above or e) none of the above?

I could write so much about this play. Holly’s writing reminds me of a Radio 4 play, something soothing to listen to, that allows us to unravel the trials and tribulations of everyday life and to make sense of it all during a drive along the A19.  It is both insightful and therapeutic.

Now, where do I find the release for the tap on my stress bucket?

Blokes, Fellas, Geezers

“…the type of guy that can gan out and drink 14 pints, sleep wi’ 3 women and knock out 14 bouncers with half a punch all in one night. Somebody that just looks at ya and ya shit yourself…”

That’s the ideal version of a man moulded by ‘Fatha’ and all the fathas before him in this one-man show about inescapable working-class masculinity. It is an incredibly north-eastern show and clearly strikes a chord with audiences here. I was reminded of my Grandad throughout… his mannerisms, the old-fashioned but still – for the most part – well-being ideas about “looking after yaself” and then how they feed into the importance of being “a man” regardless of whether that’s what you want to be.

Writer-performer Jake Jarratt provides an immediately likeable performance with a cheeky twinkle and the hint of disdain at his surroundings. This semi-autobiographical piece draws on Jarratt’s experiences growing up in Crook, County Durham.

Jarratt is a NORTH sponsored artist. Blokes, Fellas, Geezers appeared in the Northumbria Theatre MA Students Final Showcase at Live Theatre on September 15th 2017 as a half-hour version so it has had plenty of time to grow, with the story and characters being noticeably expanded and improved.

“I once watched Chris Eubank Jr make Spaghetti Bolognese on Facebook Live. Looked rank.”

Boxing – one of the traditional working-class man’s routes of escape – offers no solace for Jarratt as he would rather perform onstage, something difficult to get across to his aggressively craggy-faced dad as we see in a section amusingly referencing Billy Elliot. Special note must be made of Jarratt’s character work, embodying a small troupe of characters very effectively.

The story is simple but strong. Jarratt, having given up boxing after one fight in order to do school plays, ultimately finds himself forced to fight the local big nutter in the pub – illustrated, as most things are, through an inventive use of drawn-on cardboard boxes – after a request for said nutter to move to let our narrator see ‘the foota’ gets misconstrued. Everyone in the immediate community believes Jarratt has to fight, most notably his Fatha, but he would rather not and therein lies the conflict.

“I bet Conor McGregor never has to eat burnt toast.”

It’s a well-structured and witty monologue – you’ll learn about macaques and fire alarms – with a number of memorable sections including the scene near the end where Jarratt is tutored by Fatha and dresses ‘accordingly’, the aforementioned boxing match (with its well-timed cries of desperation) and the comical mime of squeezing yourself in-between a large crowd of people at the pub. Many small gestures or actions linger in the mind too, such as Jarratt forcing himself to enjoy eating burnt toast – with its obvious symbolism of trying to fit in somewhere you feel uncomfortable – and the moment when two closed fists were slowly, unsurely formed above the piles of boxes.

Perhaps the ending felt a tad anti-climactic but it does wrap up the main focus of the narrative, that being the irreconcilable differences between Fatha and son. All in all, Blokes, Fellas, Geezers is a bold and honest debut show which is instantly relatable and exuberantly performed. Here’s to more of the same from Jake in the future.