Friday, 16 February 2018

The Weir - Conor McPherson - Theatr Clwyd (touring)

Connor McPherson is currently receiving huge plaudits for his West End hit, Girl from the North Country; a play that weaves the songs of Bob Dylan into a tale about the lives of several people living in a Minnesota guest house in the grip of the great depression of 1934. However, it’s always been his ability to tell a great ghost story that has made me admire his work.

It is 20 years since The Weir made its debut at the Royal Court, but it is still a tale that haunts and enthrals its audience when it is told. I remember travelling around Southern Ireland about 20 years ago. I packed my little car (a blue Yugo called Fergus – very unreliable with only four gears, a tape player and windows that didn’t wind down) with no idea where I was going, or more importantly where I’d be spending each night. I would just drive and end up somewhere, usually on the outskirts of town, knocking on a B&B door hoping there would be room for me. It was in these smaller villages I’d go to the local pub, and around peat fires the locals would either be having a sing-song, or a telling a good yarn!

What I love is the simplicity of the play. It is set in a small bar in the back of beyond (I love the small details in the set design, including the boxes of Tayto cheese and onion crisps!) Jack walks in and there is no one else there, so he goes behind the bar, helps himself to a beer and pops the money in the till. Only in your local bar would you feel comfortable doing that. And that’s what it is, a familiar place to go to, where you feel at home; a place of warmth and comfort if you’re feeling isolated and lonely. 

This rural pub is where the locals gather for a bit of companionship; to swap the stories of the day, to see a friendly and familiar face over a pint. They are so used to it just being themselves, barman Brendan ( Sam O’Mahony), mechanic Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd) that they’re aghast that local businessman, Finbar (Louis Dempsey) has taken it upon himself to show a newcomer from Dublin around, Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and he’s even bringing her to their pub! This is ruinous to the natural order of things!

At the start the boys don’t know how to act with Valerie. It’s obvious no women ever frequent the bar. A simple request for a glass of wine causes problems. Brendan goes to track a bottle down in the house; when he reappears, he pours the wine into an ordinary tumbler after a desperate search under the bar reveals no wine glasses! As the beer flows on a particularly windswept night, the boys relax and start swapping spooky tales, starting with strange goings on at the property Valerie’s renting. Tales of fairies, local stories and dead men appearing at gravesides start to grow darker and Finbar is worried the boys are scaring Valerie; but her story is far more unsettling than any of theirs.

It would be easy to just dismiss The Weir as a play of several spooky stories, but it isn’t, there are hidden depths to each character. For all of their differences, these people are just normal folk. Each character, in their own way, is isolated and what starts as sharing stories to titillate the newcomer, end up with them all  revealing their hidden anxieties and true natures.

Ireland has always given rise to a great storyteller. We’ve all sat at home when the wind has played tricks on us, we’ve heard a noise and just for a second we’ve been too scared to move. We know there’s nothing…but what if? It’s part of being alive to wonder what happens when we’re dead, so if we can open up about that fear, why can’t we open up about the other fears we face. Why is one more tolerable than another?

This revival by English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester has emotionally charged performances throughout; however, there are areas where its slow pace makes the night stretch a little too much. There are some beautiful lighter moments peppered throughout the play, but they get lost, almost glossed over. The most captivating parts of the play are when the characters are most out of their comfort zone. Jack, the quietest of the gang, taking centre stage to tell of his strange tale, and Finbar, the confident business man suddenly spooked as he turns back the hands of time in his mind. But the play is at its most poignant when Valerie finally opens up and finds herself no longer the outsider, but now bonded with the group.

The Weir isn’t a bunch of ghostly tales whiling away an evening, but a play of bonding, of community, of the lonely and isolated. People held together with their sharing of stories, and maybe a drink or two! 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

An Assured Principal Refuge


It’s 7am on a bitterly cold grey Saturday Morning. The wind is blowing a hooley and the rain is coming down in buckets. What I want to do is roll back over and pull the duvet over my head – instead I crawl downstairs, make a cup of tea (Assam – something strong and punchy) and head back upstairs to get dressed before driving to Manchester to tour a hotel. Yes you read that right – 7am, Armageddon outside and I’m driving to Manchester to tour a hotel!

The Principal Hotel has a commanding presence. It is a large red brick building standing on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street. When you walk out of Oxford Road railway station, The Palace Theatre stands on one corner and The Principal Hotel with its imposing clock tower stands on the other. Now I know it’s strange for me to travel somewhere and ignore the theatre, but here’s the thing, I met friends and had lunch at the hotel in December. I was blown away by the interior of the hotel and the original circa 1900 glazed tiles that adorned the walls and Romanesque pillars. My friend then casually dropped into the conversation that she’d worked with people who had done a tour of the hotel. A quick search of the internet threw up Jonathan Schofield tours. We were soon booked in for 10am Saturday 3rd February, for a history lesson and hopefully some nice photographs of the building.

The first thing to remember whilst taking the tour is that the building was not originally a hotel. The size and grandiose nature of the building works perfectly as a bespoke hotel, but from 1895 to 1987, this magnificent Grade II listed building was the home of The Refuge Assurance Company Ltd. It was an English company specialising in life insurance and pensions; as the company grew, so did the building.

The first phase of the building, the part directly on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, was built by the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse during 1891 -1895.

Waterhouse was a well-established name, having built the Natural History Museum in London, Manchester Town Hall and Owens College (now Manchester University). There were 900 clerks working in the building, but as the company grew, they needed to expand the building. They purchased the land adjacent to the building in 1905, however, Alfred Waterhouse died in the same year and so the company turned to his son Paul to complete the works. Paul Waterhouse had worked alongside his father and so he turned his hand to doubling the Oxford Street frontage as far as the River Dart, matching his father’s existing style, scale and materials. He added a 220ft clock tower in the centre of the building and this became the new front entrance. On each of the quarters of the clock face there is a stylised Manchester Bee. Throughout the building, both inside and out, there are countless symbols and imagery, reminders to the workforce what they were there for.

As you walk through the doors to enter the main reception of the Principal Hotel you pass by the statues of Thrift and Industry. You suddenly get an immediate sense of just how formidable the building is and what it must have been like to work there. Staring up at the large ornate dome that dominates the inside of the building you feel like a tiny ant in comparison. It was here, in reception that I met with another 30 or 40 like-minded people. Who would think a tour of a hotel could be so popular?!

We were blessed to have Jonathan Schofield take us on the tour (his website pre-warns that he doesn’t always take the tours). He is a charismatic fellow with a wealth of information about Manchester, its buildings, its history, its industry, all brought to life with anecdotes and interactions with those on the tour.


The tour starts outside, standing on windswept, rainy corner, looking at the buildings of Alfred and Paul Waterhouse. Even on this dismal day there is grandness to the building, although it would be enhanced by a bit of blue sky and some sun bouncing off those small, red bricks! Back inside to the reception area. Originally it was open to the elements, you can see the original gutters inside the entrance doors, and if you look carefully you can see it was designed as a porte-cochere, or coach gate; a structure through which a horse and carriage would pass (later a motor car) arriving through one arch and departing through the other. This allowed occupants protection from the elements. This all stopped once the dome was built. 

Inside the walls are covered with lighter tiles to allow light to diffuse through the building. Originally in the centre was a cenotaph, but this was the only original feature that Refuge Assurance took with them when they left the building for their new office in Wilmslow in 1987. In its place a large statue of a horse commands attention. It was sculpted by the great great granddaughter of Charles Dickens (Sophie Dickens) and so there are some quotes from Dickens surrounding the horse which is made of iron and is about 1.5 times the size of a real horse. The horse symbolises strength and loyalty, nice virtues for the hotel which commissioned it to have.


A trip down into the vaults takes you back in time to why this building was built. There are many vault rooms on the lower level of the building, each filled with a number of lockable, heavy doored cabinets for storing paper policies (not cash.) Everything back in the day was done in triplicate (which took me back to my first days of working at NatWest.  I worked in the investments arm, not a banking branch, and whilst I worked in the days of the computer, my colleagues all remembered the days of the white top copy, the green file copy, and the blue reminder/diary copy. To this day, even though I no longer work for the same company, any letters I diarise for a response at work, I still call my “blues”.) The top policies – the most expensive ones – were held under lock and key in the vaults; this included the policies of the Churchill family who were clients of the Refuge Assurance Company Ltd.

During WWII the vaults had a secondary purpose. The Refuge constructed two reinforced air raid shelters in the basement; one for the general public, one for staff. The building never received a direct hit during the war; however it did suffer small amounts of damage from incendiary bombs. Roof lads were employed to “sweep” any bombs that landed on the building onto the road beneath, and due to the close proximity of St Mary’s hospital across the road, The Refuge housed many patients when the air raid sirens wailed. As you walk out of the vaults past the gate and a huge safe door and a further cage gate, you can see one of the reinforced walls with a blast door which was inserted during the war.

The Refuge is home to what is now the largest hotel ballroom in the North West. In the 1930’s, the directors of the company were concerned about the theatres that were popping up and the drunken debauchery they would bring with them. A ballroom was built with its own fully functioning stage with full drops and wings. There were music hall societies, a Gilbert and Sullivan society, a Shakespeare society and most importantly, no alcohol! About four inches below the carpeted floor lies hidden a fully sprung dance floor, like the one at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. Modern functions mean tables and chairs dragged across the floor would destroy it, so it lies hidden, secreted away alongside the old games/pool room of which only part of the entrance doors can now be seen on either side of the stage.

In the days of the grand old houses, servants and their employers would have their own staircases. The Refuge Assurance Company Ltd was no different. Whilst designing the second phase of the building, Paul Waterhouse also designed the Directors Staircase. It is a strange and highly elaborate affair of bronze and different marbles, including the most expensive Carrara marble from Tuscany. At the bottom of the stairs are two “gothic” lamp posts which wouldn’t be out of place on a vampire movie; as you climb the steps, stained glass coats of arms of the various places Refuge Assurance had ties with dominate, the largest being the Manchester coat of arms, complete with sailing ship for a global outlook, and a globe with seven bees atop. Seven bees for the seven seas on which a trade ship would sail!


The bees also feature behind the brass lamp fittings that illuminate the way to the top. On your way up, if you feel the waft of a draft pass by, it could be that of one of the ghosts of the buildings has passed you. There is a memorial in Wilmslow to the 570 Refuge Assurance men who served in WWI. 285 served and returned, 285 died and are remembered on that memorial. In WWII many more lives were lost; whilst working at The Refuge, one fiancée learnt that her future husband had died in the trenches. Distraught at the news, she ran to the top of the Directors Staircase and threw herself off the top.

The stairs take you to the Directors suite of rooms. You would only find yourself in these rooms if you were a Director, a guest, or about to be fired. The rooms were used for boardroom meetings or elaborate dinners and there were liveried staff who cooked for and waited on the Directors. Around the walls yet more imagery can be seen, verses in Latin, castles (every man’s home is his castle) sit atop the heads of carved figures and scallop shells, the symbol of wellbeing, are dotted about. If you look carefully at the swags that hang at cornice level, they are not elaborate plasterwork, but painted fabric which requires careful washing to keep clean and bright.



As you head down through the arches into the old banking room, which is now the bar, you get a sense of the hive of industry. That great space would have been full of men sitting at lecterns taking details for assurance policies. This is part of Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1893 building. The internal loggias, reminiscent of large Roman arched buildings take the centre stage in terracotta and faience. (Ceramics which can be glazed or unglazed, but in the casting processes are so dense that the soot and smoke of Manchester’s industry cannot penetrate the tile. This process makes the tile almost self-cleaning with just the aid of water/rain.) The flower on the columns is a Trillium, symbolic of Christianity. The three petals on the flower represent the Holy Trinity. Each triangular tile is a complex mathematical equation as it circles the pillar which taper towards the top. There are numerous messages in the tiles written in Roman numerals. Doors with clocks have yet more castles housed above them in the colour of a Werther’s Original sweet!

In the 1960’s The Refuge got their first mainframe computer. It was housed in the area that is now the dining room and it became a thing of wonder. People would visit the building just to see the computer, thinking that with this advancement in technology, it would put an end to the paper systems and form filling. Move forward to 2018 and the building is still a destination point for the visitor. Unusually for a hotel, it’s still a destination location with many people visiting for a few hours to take advantage of the dining area, or to meet friends and sit in the large airy bar…or for some, it’s a chance to visit a unique building with a history to tell!

To book a tour, visit  https://www.jonathanschofieldtours.com

All photographs ©2018 S V Rogers

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Play That Goes Wrong - Chester Storyhouse

Dry January; the latest global fad to get people to stop drinking for a month. Other than the occasional catch up with friends and a few festive drinkies, I don’t drink an awful lot, so dry January wasn’t much of a challenge for me; but what if I gave up theatre for a month instead?

December became too busy for me to write up my Christmas trip to London, taking in plays, exhibitions and the annual Operation Smile Carol service, so I haven’t been on here for a while. (A big thank you to those who asked me if I was OK – I never knew you cared!) During "Dry January" I spent the month watching films and burying my head in a multitude of books. I know I should have shared my thoughts about them, but lethargy had kicked in. If I was honest with myself, it was going to be hard to get back into writing mode after a two month break. The long daily commute in and out of work during inky darkness was catching up with me and I couldn't be bothered with much at all.

Laughter is often a great medicine, so my cure for the blues was a trip to Storyhouse Theatre in Chester to see The Play That Goes Wrong. 1st February 2018 my bum was back where it belonged…a theatre seat! This was my first trip to Storyhouse Theatre, and for another first, my partner accompanied me. (He’s not a theatre lover, but I told him this was Monty Python meets Fawlty Towers, not Chekhov or Pinter, so he was happy to give it a go.)

We are normally late for everything, so to make sure my first trip back to theatreland wasn’t wasted by not being allowed into the auditorium, I said we needed to be sat down by 7pm. (Ticket said 7:30 but I wasn’t showing him that.) As we sat down, a couple of traumatised stagehands ran past asking if we’d seen a dog. Never mind the dog, the sound/lighting technician had lost his Duran Duran CD, I think they needed to sort their priorities out!

Welcome to Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Before the play even begins, you know that all is not running smoothly for these hapless students. The stagehands have built a beautiful set which is held together by gaffer tape. As an unwitting member of the audience tries to help them fix things in time for the production, the proud Director Chris Bean (played by Jake Curran) takes time to welcome the audience to his directorial debut.

I must admit, I’m not a massive fan of farces. I find that they can get a bit tired and silly and I end up embarrassed and twitchy rather than relaxed and chortling with the rest of the crowd. I do like physical, cleverly written comedy. I can watch Fawlty Towers time and time again because it has both of those elements, cleverly crafted comedy with perfectly executed timings which never go stale.  

This cleverly created “play within a play” has all the hallmarks of the perfect Agatha Christie murder mystery. Every murder needs a body; in this case Charles Haversham (Steven Rostance) is found dead on the eve of his engagement party at the home of wealthy Thomas Collymore (Kazeem Tosin Amore) and his sister Florence Collymore (Elena Valentine). Of course we will need a longer list of suspects, enter the butler Perkins (Benjamin McMahon) and Cecil Haversham (Bobby Hirston) and a great detective to solve the crime, Inspector Carter (Jake Curran). As Inspector Carter tries to take control of the incident, the amateur dramatic students try their level best to remember their lines whilst executing a range of emotions with exaggerated theatrical mannerisms in amidst the chaos of the incompetent and visible “backstage” crew.


Annie, the shy stage manager (Catherine Dryden) is hilarious as she creeps across the stage, one hand covering her face so she can’t be seen by the audience, trying to fix wonky bits of set. Obviously Annie can’t have seen the script as the props required for the performance haven't been laid out properly and an attempt at improvisation is required by these poor, would be, thespians, so that they may forge ahead with their play!

It takes great skill by talented actors to make an audience roar with laughter and make them feel sorry for the poor drama students whose performance is crumbling around their ears. Despite their best efforts that “the show must go on” each Act goes from bad to worse. A collapsing set, "stars" losing consciousness, an AWOL lighting/sound technician and an understudy who doesn't know their part...can it get any worse for Cornley Polytechnic? 


Usually there is a standout performance in a play, but this time I think everyone involved is worthy of the plaudits attributed to this production.  They have managed to cover every aspect of watching an amateur dramatic show. From the pouting, posing Florence Collymore/ student Sandra; Perkins/Dennis who is unable to read the prompts written on his hand; Cecil Haversham/Max who keeps smiling and playing up the audience every time he gets a laugh; to the poor reluctant understudy Annie being forced on stage, every character made my face and side ache with laughter.

Poor Chris Bean’s directorial debut of The Murder at Haversham Manor might have fallen apart, but The Play That Goes Wrong was undoubtedly a hilarious night out and a work of genius. No wonder this play has been taken up by the West End, Broadway and is back on tour. If you get a chance to see it, please do so. As Audrey Hepburn was reported to say “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Laughter may not put the world to rights, or cure ills, but just for a couple of hours, it lets you forget about reality; and that has to be good for the soul.

Tour dates: http://www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com/uk-tour/tickets Until Oct 6th 2018
London shows: http://www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com/london  Until Sept 30th 2018