Porno Chic

26 November
Kings Arms

Vertigo Productions has become a household name when it comes to the Manchester fringe scene, and quite rightly so. It seems like only yesterday when I was sat in Taurus bar in 2011 watching their production of Psycho Beach Party, and the potential was clear to see. Their work always offers sharp writing, directing with precision and better still they do so with variety and growth. Credit is due because their continuous presence hasn’t jeopardised the standard of their work. They have allowed themselves to evolve and have gone from strength to strength.

Porno Chic, the new kid on the block for Vertigo Productions, continues the company’s unique style and then a handful – or rather eyeful – more. Writers and directors Craig Hepworth and Adele Stanhope wanted to produce a piece of theatre based in the 70s which avoided the fluff of disco and offered something grittier that outlived the era: pornography. In 70s America, pornography experienced a turning point. ‘Stag films’, as they were known, were dressed up to have an education or medical purpose to bypass pornography laws, which then transformed into films with characters and a narrative. Pornography was on the precipice of going mainstream, and the ball got rolling (no pun intended) by the 1972 movie Deep Throat. That film – in particular the male lead Harry Reems, here played exceptionally well by Richard Allen – is one of the inspirations for the play. Allen’s delivery was outstanding. His approach to the audience allowed us to invest in him and feel empathy during his fall from grace. Above all, his bravery towards the role was astounding.

The narrative tells how the movie made a dramatic impact on both the world and the people involved. Reems, a talented but struggling actor, finds himself in the centre of the controversy and is left fighting the US government. The fearless cast deliver the comedic satire with a contemporary touch, combining multiple role playing, cutaway lines and strategic staging. Hannah Ellis plays the leading lady of both the play and movie, Linda Lovelace. Ellis demonstrated a strong capability by taking on a difficult and emotional role, and did so with great technique. Ciara Tansey was the cast’s second lady, whose impeccable comic timing and diversity stole the show.

Vertigo has done it yet again for me with this piece, sending their stock even higher in my estimations. They continue to push boundaries with fearless acting and story-telling – a true credit to the fringe scene.

Kate Morris

Hi, Anxiety

25 November
Contact Theatre

Hi, Anxiety, written and performed by Debs Gatenby, is a one woman show about real life experiences with depression and anxiety. Quick, clever and captivating, it is a story of a breakdown that is also uplifting.

As the show starts, Debs gives us a personal introduction to her world – or, rather, what was once her world. Cans of beer make a Giant’s Causeway of the floor, piles of packaged pills become a jagged mountain, and a propped up road bike acts as a psychiatrist’s couch, while doubling as a device for propelling the story forward. This is confessional theatre at its best, illumination and entertainment balancing like two sides of a bridge. Debs herself is the keystone. Her performance gives us insight into what a breakdown looks and feels like, why it happens and how to pull free from the wreckage. Further, with the story of her mother, we learn about what it is like to live with someone who suffers from acute depression and how hard it is helping them.

One or two of the sections could have benefitted from minor tightening and editing, but, that said, this is a very personal story, so perhaps a lack of polish in places actually added to, rather than detracting from, the whole. Regardless, the main draw here is Debs herself, a person who is innately watchable whether she is telling a joke or letting her eyes fill with tears.

I left the theatre feeling I had learned something about anxiety and depression that will help me if I encounter these issues in my own life, and that alone is praiseworthy. The fact I had also really enjoyed myself makes this a very special piece of theatre.

Andrew Anderson

Before I Fall

22 November
Kings Arms

Theatre is at its best when it is stripped back to communication. What goes hand in hand with that is timing – speaking a message of poignancy at a time when it most needs to be heard. I believe Without Theatre shares my opinion, and it’s evident in their production, Before I Fall. Supported by Contact Theatre and Future Fires, this up-and-coming theatre company produces work that educates and raises awareness around mental health issues.

A company like this couldn’t come soon enough. One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem in a given year. Despite this figure, mental health still carries a stigma. Nine out of 10 people who suffer with a mental illness coming into contact with ridicule and discrimination, so it’s safe to say it’s time to talk.

The aim of Before I Fall is for its audience to achieve a better understanding of depression. To do this they immerse the audience in the piece itself, first through a three-part questionnaire, beginning with 'What is depression?'

On entering the attic space of the Kings Arms, you meet five characters, all dealing with their own scenarios, which you are invited to witness on a one-to-one basis. The characters you meet are a lawyer trying to balance a demanding job with a marriage on the rocks; a writer riddled with self-doubt who uses alcohol to cope with demand from fans and his agent for a sequel to a bestseller; an exhausted mother desperately needing help from her working husband to manage the challenges of parenthood; an overworked medical student committing to studying and neglecting the opportunity for a social life; and a photographer suffering with sleep disturbance after a repetitive dream haunts him.

The entire company commanded the required technique of controlling the one-to-one scenarios that they shared with the audience. A wide breadth of research was evident within the on-point writing and flawless acting, resulting in a genuine and sincere insight into those who suffer with mental illness. To conclude the evening, audience members were required to answer the final two questions: 'Of the characters you met, who do you think would be most likely to be suffering from depression?' and, 'After your encounters with the characters, do you feel you have a better understanding of depression?' Judging by their excellent work on Before I Fall, I am curious as to whether our answers will contribute to research for future work from Without Theatre.

Kate Morris


Hosted by Andrew Anderson
Photo: She Stoops to Conquer Cast by Nobby Clark

1-19 December | 7.30pm | New Playhouse | £35

Thirty five quid, you say? You must be having a laugh. Call yourself an alternative paper? Well, hold on to your hat, because for all that cash you actually get an entire evening’s entertainment, including a meal of many courses. This is a traditional Christmas production with a dinner theatre setting. Nice to see something a bit different on the table. Link.

2-3 December | 7.30pm | Contact Theatre | £9

A very unusual play. Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour was denied a travel visa, so wrote a play to travel the world for him. Performed by a different actor each night (here Shobna Gulati and John Thompson), who first see the script when opening it onstage, it takes the audience on a journey of self-expression that plays with theatre forms. Link.

3 December | 7.30pm | Kings Arms | £5

A night of short plays from new Manchester writers. Always good to see new work with all the hits, misses and maybes that this entails. Link.

9-13 December | 8pm | The Lowry | £19-£23

Mad hatter collage of colour, jokes and music in an 1800s England setting. Looks a good way to shake off any seasonal stress. Link.

14 December | 7.30pm | Three Minute Theatre | £4

Hayley Ellis hosts a night of comedy to get your ho ho ho on. With Danny Sutcliffe, Kathy Eastham, Liam Bolton and Kate McCabe. Link.