We are supporting some of our Sherman 5 audiences to review the productions they see at Sherman Theatre. There have been some really insightful reviews posted and we intend to work with Sherman 5 members further to offer them advice and guidance if writing and/or theatre criticism is a path they choose to follow.
Here are some reviews of recent productions that have been written by Sherman 5 members:
Nicki Cockburn on Peace, Love and Potatoes: John Hegley
Five years ago, I was living in Senghennydd Hall while studying for a Post-Graduate Diploma in broadcast journalism. Every day I would walk past the Sherman Theatre with my guide dog. I never went in. (Apart from the time I got hideously lost and mistook the Sherman for the student union!).
So, when I interviewed Guy O’Donnell, Coordinator of Sherman 5 for the South Wales Talking Magazine Association and discovered my favourite poet John Hegley was appearing at the Sherman the following day, I finally got the chance to visit the theatre.
I’ve been totally blind since birth, so signing up to the Sherman 5 project was a fantastic opportunity to watch performances, as well as use my journalism skills to review them. I first saw John Hegley 16 years ago when he appeared at the theatre on the Alsager Campus of Manchester Metropolitan University, where I was studying Contemporary Arts. He was amazing then, so I vehemently hoped he wouldn’t let me down; I wasn’t disappointed at all!
I saw the show with a friend and her nephew. James, my third guide dog, snoozed at my feet, occasionally lifting his head when a particularly unlady-like squeak shot forth from his Mum! John strode onto the stage to applause and cheers from the audience. “Very tame!” he said, in his familiar voice which sounds a cross between Mick Jagger and Alan Davies. “I’ll go out and come on again!” He did and the cheering got louder. “That’s better,” he said.
He immediately launched into a song about glasses whilst saying: “Cardiff, let’s rock!” The show was called Peace, Love and Potatoes, which is also the name of one of his books.
John Hegley is incredibly fond of poems about dogs and tonight’s show didn’t disappoint in that department. He was showing the audience pictures of the Luton bungalow he lived in when he was a child, when a particularly ferocious snort of laughter from me made James stand up in alarm. “Ah, there’s a nice dog, hello!” said John. “What’s the dog’s name madam?”, “James,” I replied. “Ah, can I call him Jimmy?” said John. I replied that he certainly could, as I call him Jimmy Jam Jar Jones. “Well, I don’t want to poke fun at him,” said John to lots of laughter.
He split the audience into three sections and asked them to sing a refrain to the verses in his song, ‘Luton Bungalow’. This was hilarious, but everyone joined in. He then asked members of the audience to take part in a dance to accompany one of his songs which was all done in a fantastically amusing, if not a little bemused way by the volunteers. John had performed a show that afternoon for children – and he taught us the actions to a song about a guillemot (a type of bird) which had been a big hit with the children. There were so many actions that we were all quite exhausted by the end of the song!
During the interval, John signed copies of his book and I was delighted to get the chance to meet him and asked him to sign a leaflet for me. He started the second half with an incredibly funny poem about the differences between deckchairs and dogs: “Deck chairs don’t have names!”
It wasn’t all comedy though; John recited a moving poem called ‘Keeping Mum and Dad’ about how even though his parents had both died, and they live on in his poems.
He asked a member of the audience to translate a poem in French for him about a man and woman who meet at a train station. The poor audience member took it all in his stride and the audience thought it was very funny. He also sang a song about working as a bus conductor in Bristol.
He then asked the dancers to come on stage again. He told them that if they did well, he’d “Give you one of the oatcakes I’ve discovered in Cardiff!” He was put right by some members of the audience that it was a Welsh Cake!
I’m so glad I was able to enjoy this wonderful performance.
As a member of Sherman 5, I am looking forward to visiting the venue again and will be attending the Audio Described performance of The Cherry Orchard on Friday the 20th of October at 7.30pm. There is also a free Touch Tour from 6.30 pm which I can’t wait for!
Lydia Niziblian (Sherman 5 Families) on Discover Dance/The Green House
My mum had spotted a feature in the local paper, where Sherman Theatre (in Cardiff, where we live) was looking for families for its Sherman 5 programme. You can read all about the programme here, but it’s basically a fantastic initiative to get people who may face barriers to going to the theatre in there to see shows. Successful applicants for the regular Sherman 5 scheme get reduced ticket costs (including one free show), 50% off in the cafe, help with transport, and special events and activities and more. However, we were lucky enough to be selected as one of their Sherman 5 Families, which means for a year we will go to theatre to see three performances a season at no charge, in return for review and consultation about our theatre experience. Woooo!
Theatre Visit One: The Sherman for Discover Dance with the National Dance Company of Wales
This was a funny one for us. Dance is a foreign language to me. I am uncoordinated, my left side is only on basic nodding acquaintance with my right, and I was delighted to hit 25 and declare, I never have to dance again. Small Girl is dyspraxic and has inherited my excellent sense of rhythm (shush), along with crippling performance anxiety. Small boy is a good dancer, and the Mr enjoys any opportunity to wow the kids with some classic Dad Dancing. “There is interaction” I whisper anxiously to the Mr. He is reassuring in a ‘patting my arm, it’ll be fine’ totally non-reassuring fashion. There are creative activities on in the foyer before the show, but we are running late from Small Boy’s drum lesson, and just have enough time for some ice-cream and a drink before we head into the auditorium. We are a few rows back from the stage, which assuages my ‘we will have to join in’ fears a little.
National Dance Company Wales’ Rehearsal Director Lee Johnstone welcomes us whilst behind her on the stage the company’s 8 principal dancers are warming up (ye Gods they are bendy). Then we are ALL STANDING UP to do a warm up. This is ok. A bit heebie-jeebie inducing, but at least everyone has to do it, and that makes it kind of bearable. I scan behind me and don’t see anyone wimping out. Then we are told to ‘freestyle’. I have mixed feelings about this. I am a 43 year old woman with all the grace and flexibility of an adult rhinoceros. I am being told to ‘freestyle dance’ in a theatre, facing a stage full of smiling professional dancers. I swear, hand on heart, at this point I looked down to check if I was wearing pants in case I was actually living out an anxiety nightmare in public. Pants reassuringly on, dancing over, and I fold up happily into my seat. Small Girl had laughed hysterically and nervously throughout, but had joined in. Small Boy had also got his groove on, as did the Mr who danced with what can only be described as gusto.
There is more explaining on what the dancers do and how they work (did I mention they are really bendy?) and then we are up again learning a small section of a dance. I am by now relaxed enough to give it my best shot. There follows a session of watching the dancers perform small segments of their dances from The Green House, then get volunteers to go through the movements with them. I am surprised that by the final set, Small Boy has his hand up to have a go. He doesn’t get chosen, but he was engaged enough to want to try. There is an interval and then we see a specially shortened version of The Green House (one of two pieces the dancers are performing at Sherman Theatre).
I check the kids' reactions out; this is something we never would normally have gone to see and both are staring at the stage, utterly involved. I am slightly distracted by the tiny person behind me who has decided their job is to slowly and consistently kick the back of my seat, presumably until I go insane. The piece is genuinely intriguing. Dressed in shades of green that echo the green background of the green set, the dancers go through sets of repeated movements, changing slightly each time as they loop. There is anxiety and discomfort and humour. The first two aided by my entreaties to small child to please stop kicking my seat. One dancer is trapped outside the ‘house’ and I find myself watching her the most, before begging the mother of the child kicking my seat to ask her offspring to cease her infernal torment. My pleas are ignored, so I move in order to concentrate and see a pair of dancers waltzing slowly in a circle whilst the female sings slowly along to a music-box version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’. Two facts: Small Girl loves music boxes, and the song they are playing a mournful version of is her favourite. I look and Small Girl has tears running down her cheeks, but like her brother, is still totally transfixed.
After the performance, we are treated to a Q&A with Lee and the dancers (most of whom are sitting in full or half lotus. Bendy.) We meet the choreographer, Caroline Finn, who is sitting in the audience and explains some of the ideas behind the piece. We enjoy a small boy giving an unwarranted (and frankly harsh) critique of the performance: ”You were going a bit too fast, and you should have looked at the audience more”. We find out where the dancers come from (no one is Welsh incidentally) and their dance backgrounds. It is all very interesting, and all the better for finding out some of the processes, work and ideas behind the performance before seeing it.
When we are leaving, I can’t help but feel a bit bad for never thinking to bring the kids to something like this before. I listen to them talking to each other about what it might have been about. Small Girl mused if it was racism, as the lady they didn’t let in was in a different colour. Small Boy thought said lady was very cool, and she was his favourite. They were buzzing, and the Mr and I agreed we were really surprised how much we had all really enjoyed the afternoon.
I bumped into an old school friend in the foyer on the way out, who greeted me with “Wasn’t that fab!?”.
Kathryn Lewis (Sherman 5 Families) on My Country
I am lucky that today there is a pre-show workshop. I am excited to go, but a little nervous, I hope I’m not asked to speak! We sit in a large circle of chairs and are asked to introduce ourselves. I realise I am even luckier as a Sherman 5 Families member to be here; the majority of people here have something to do with this production or similar productions. Everyone is so warm and giving of their personal stories. I learn about how this production and other pieces before it came into being. I learn from individuals who have been drawn into theatre by these groups and how much of an impact it has had on their lives, their happiness and their health to be given the opportunity to tell their stories. I feel moved by the emotion of the National Theatre, the production teams, the researcher, the actor: those who feel like they have been given a gift to be allowed to retell these people’s stories.
I leave feeling like this is not a bunch of disparate people, but a family, even though most only met that night. I find it really interesting that theatre can have such an impact, having only seen it before from the viewpoint of going to see it. Yes it does me good; now I know it is not only the audience that can benefit. I hear that My Country was produced by interviewing people about their views and these voices will be spoken by the actors on stage, along with words by the poet-laureate. That it expresses a range of viewpoints from pro- and anti-Brexit standpoints with the individual voices and personal stories able to bring a more personal understandable reasoning as to why they think what they think.
Codie Jagger on NT Connections
This past weekend, Sherman Theatre hosted a three-day festival during which many youth theatre groups came together to perform and take part in workshops that explore many different aspects of theatre and build the skills required for them. As a member of Sherman 5, I participated on day two of the inspiring festival, attending two workshops and a performance of The Snow Dragons by the Youth Arts Centre Isle of Man.
Workshop One: Critical Response with Jafar Iqbal
As I have experience writing theatre reviews, I was more interested in watching others rather than participating. We began by introducing ourselves and talking about a film we watched recently and our thoughts on it. We then discussed the aspects of a film/production one would talk about in a review and went through each category, writing a paragraph for each one. The workshop was great for those who have an interest in critical response but do not know where to begin. Iqbal was gentle in his approach to other people’s ideas and created a welcoming and accepting atmosphere which encouraged others to share their ideas without fear of judgement.
Performance: The Snow Dragons by Lizzie Nunnery, Performed by Youth Arts Centre Isle of Man
The Snow Dragons is set during World War Two. It is about a group of children who spend the night in their makeshift woodland hut the night soldiers ambush their small town, beating and capturing their families. Now the only survivors, they form the Snow Dragons, the ‘last line of resistance’, and carry out missions to save their people. Poetic and emotional, the powerful play follows the children as they attempt to grow up too soon, discovering themselves and each other in the midst of chaos. The quality of the performance was incredibly high in all areas; the set and costume was beautiful, the lighting and sound created the perfect atmosphere for each moment, and the acting and direction were of a high standard.
Workshop Two: Stage Combat with Kevin McCurdy
After watching the performance, I went to take part in the stage combat workshop. We began with a warm-up consisting of simple stretches, some push ups and squats before learning a short fight sequence. Kevin was extremely kind and light-hearted, filling the room with energy which made for a very interesting and fun session. It also gave me a chance to get some advice on a scene in a performance I am directing and participating in at my school.
I met a plethora of wonderful, talented people at the National Theatre Connections festival and not only had many interesting learning opportunities, but I had great fun doing so.
I greatly look forward to coming back next year.