Theatre Review of The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir

By Stav Meishar at The Lowry Studio – 29th October 2019

The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir is a remarkable piece of theatre on several levels. It is, first and foremost, a true and unusual story from what must surely be the most harrowing period of history in modern times. Secondly, it is a highly creative blend of several mediums including puppetry, trapeze, animation and multi-media all within the context of a one woman show. It also a very absorbing show, holding the audience from start to finish with writer/performer Stav Meishar presenting a highly personalised story.

Irene Danner was a Jewish acrobat who survived the Holocaust hiding from the Nazis at a German circus and The Escape Act alternates back and forth between both past and present and the characters and performer. Stav Meishar is herself the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and through extensive personal research discovered more information about Irene Danner’s family than she actually knows about much of her own ancestry. With this very personal link to the subject of the play, Meishar’s performance went far beyond the usual connections of actor to character, giving the show a very special resonance and also relevance for today.

The story of play examines Irene’s life between 1933 and 1945, from her teenage years through to falling in love and starting her own family, covering at the same time, the entire life of the Third Reich, from the year Hitler came to power until his suicide and the Allied victory. The threat of the Nazi’s is a constant backdrop to Irene’s story, with inevitably some tragedy along the way. The ‘family’ that was the Althoff Circus is examined in detail, shown to have been its own transient community surviving across Europe against the ravages of the war.

The presentation is remarkable both in its variety and versatility, ranging from a miniature Big-Top, just large enough for an actor to enter, a large back screen (which included archive footage of circus performers in Germany) and a trapeze from which Stav Meishar impressively continued to act which performing a wide range of acrobatic tricks. The puppets varied in size from 12” cut-outs to almost life size mannequins but this was of no consequence as Meishar’s continuous narration and many voices gave life to a wide range of characters. The only voices which are not actually Meishar’s are those of Nazi officers, were animated images on screen conversed directly with her. This was clearly a deliberate and clever move to distance both characters and performers from anyone involved with the Nazi regime and was very effective. It is also fitting that towards the end of the show, there is some footage on the back screen of Irene herself speaking about some aspects of time during the war

Stav Meishar has to date spent seven years researching into the lives of German-Jewish circus families during the Nazi period and this meticulous background study combined with attention to detail in acting many different characters as well as the central role of Irene has produced a very engaging and moving production. The personal story of Irene of course stands on its own merits but there is a wider educational aspect of The Escape Act which makes the play both important as a telling of history and highly relevant for today, with ethnic and racial tensions still very much with us and the Jewish community continuing to be an object of attack.

You will not see many shows like this where the artist is so personally linked to the characters and story, nor where the performance is so versatile; a fine piece of work.

Theatre Review – Out of Time by Tim Keogh at Salford Arts Theatre

By Tim Keogh at Salford Arts Theatre

25th October 2019

There has never quite been a decade quite like the 60s when (for the UK and America at least) so very much changed and of the many popular and creative music groups that emerged during those years on both sides of the pond, two bands led the pack for both success and influence; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Stones are still with us although their founder, Brian Jones, died fifty years ago. This play is his story.

Brian Jones was a complex character and writer Tim Keogh sought to explore the person rather than deliver a detailed account of the Rolling Stones’ journey to becoming ‘the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world’. The play concentrated on key events in the life of one of rock’s most enigmatic personalities, showing his relationships with important people in his life, notably Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The playful comradery of Jagger and Richard was something which Jones never quite became a part of and ‘Out of Time’ caught the essence of the bond between them, which continues to this day.

The many women in the philandering life of Jones were shown through the characters of Pat, one of five women Jones got pregnant and abandoned, and Anita Pallenberg, the German groupie who actually left Jones for fellow-Stone Keith Richards. Mary, the housekeeper of his mansion, who became effectively a surrogate mother to Jones was an excellent inclusion, enabling the audience through her, to see into the real person of the musician behind his masks. Together, these three women provided a very rounded picture of Brian Jones.

This was a studio production with no props save for an acoustic guitar, a flight case and a bottle of brandy but in many ways, the simplicity of presentation made the relational dramas all the more compelling as the life of the confident musician and band-founder was shown to gradually fall apart. The hard-edged, ruthless career rock star was progressively revealed to be a very vulnerable individual, with unresolved inner hurts. Jones’s problems in allowing emotionally intimacy with those close to him was compounded with a coping-struggle of his high-profile public image and ‘Out of Time’ convincingly brought over this progressive conflict.

Jake Bush was well cast as Jones, having a similar appearance and the just the right well-spoken, Southern accent which characterised the musician. Hailing with leafy Cheltenham Jones was the odd-man-out in several ways in London’s answer to the Beatles and this came over well in the performance. Peter Austen as Mick and Sam Evans as Keith nailed the ‘Glimmer Twins’ (right down to the famous Mick Jagger lips!) and the Jagger’s physicality and ego was well brought over, as was Richard’s cheerful, more laid-back countenance. It would have helped if both has spoken with Southern accents but all the mannerisms of these famous performers were there.

Jones’s many relationships were well covered through two very contrasting women. Jessica Porter as Pat was very much the stay-at-home young mother, representative of most women of that time in a society that was still very patriarchal. Sophie Koumides as the strong-willed and independent Anita Pallenberg perfectly showed the changing times; here was the woman in which Brian Jones finally met his match. Hiller Barber gave a warm and affectionate performance as the housekeeper in whom Jones could finally unburden his inner hurts and feelings, with tragedy of Jones’s life compounded by her attempts to save him from himself.

Care had clearly been taken to get the trademark hairstyles and casual clothes of the members of the Stones looking right with suitably period clothing for the each of the very different female characters, particularly the snappy 60’s outfits worn by Anita Pallenberg. ‘Out of Time’ was a fitting tribute to one of the icons of 60’s music and a very human portrait of a troubled but very talented individual.

Reviewed by John Waterhouse


Theatre Review – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Stockport Garrick
Reviewed by John Waterhouse on 16th October 2019

Romeo and Juliet apart from being one of the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays is also surely one of the most frequently adapted, from Bernstein’s West Side Story, set in 50s New York gang culture to the extraordinary computer-animation Gnomio and Juliet, set in the world of gnomes. Perhaps, this is because the concept of star-crossed lovers continues to resonate to all times and social environments so why not re-set it in present-day Stockport and title it ‘Romeo + Juliet’?
There is a cliché that Shakespeare does not work well with Amateur theatres, even good ones, and unfortunately, there is often some truth to this, particularly with the more challenging works by the Bard (which perhaps explains why Twelfth Night is often the favoured choice for amateur societies, with little pathos and a manageable cast). Remember that in the hit comedy film ‘Hot Fuzz’, the murder of two lovers who had played Romeo and Juliet in an amateur production was explained simply by the fact ‘they had murdered Shakespeare’! So, in deciding to produce this play, the Garrick society was accepting a fairly big challenge!
Stockport Garrick certainly made no attempt to make it easy for themselves, employing a cast of over twenty and using modern dress whilst keeping to the authentic Shakespearian text. The backdrop of multi-level rostra on metal supports was at first glance very simple but actually well thought out, with generous space for crowd scenes downstage and the various levels used to good effect. The use of strip-neon lighting certainly set the scene for the youth-culture club scenes and a wide variety of well-chosen music plus effectively lighting techniques helped convey the many moods and scenes in this complex play.
So, with a basic but functional set, (virtually) no props and no period costumes, it was all down to the actors to deliver and frankly, everyone delivered admirably. This production was, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, a triumph. The quality of acting really did make you care about the characters and even the most emotional and delicate scenes were handled with feeling and authentic emotions. Anyone perhaps used elsewhere to hearing occasional prompts in the likes of an Ayckbourne or a Godber would be pleasantly surprised on hearing all the sixteenth century dialogue delivered clearly and fluidly and this was a production which engaged the audience throughout.
It can have been no easy task to assemble a cast with an age range from teens to sixties where everyone looked right for their character and credit must be given to Director Martin Pritchard for ensuring that full use was made of the large stage area. Of course it was heavily stylised but the positioning of the various groups of actors looked right. The only thing which did not seem to work was a sort stage version of split screen action where you saw face-on a combatant making a forward stabbing motion next to his opponent face-on receiving the wound; this was just a bit of stylisation too far.
Space does not allow a detailed commentary on this large cast but special credit must be given to Joe Mihranian as Romeo and Harriet Maxwell as Juliet. In unskilled hands, their love and death scenes could have seemed farcical (as was the case in Hot Fuzz!) but they simply gelled and were not just convincing as a couple but conveyed all the right highs and angsts of these challenging roles. And finally, Joseph Jacobs deserves a special mention, giving a charming portrayal of Friar Lawrence (in the guise of a Social Worker).
If you want to see all the clichés of amateur actors and Shakespeare turned on their heads, go and see Stockport Garrick’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; you may be very surprised indeed!