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The Roots of Love -, August '10

North West playwright Cathy Crabb's The Roots of Love was performed at The Continental as part of the Preston Tringe festival, a week long selection of theatre, comedy and live literature across various venues in the city.

The Roots of Love is the story of Les, a man who lost his young son, and Fran, the boy's childhood friend. Exploring the nature of their relationship and the residing guilt they both hold, the play delves deeply into the essence of each characters' nature.

Cathy based the play on What Becomes of the Broken Hearted by Jimmy Ruffin, drawing on the emotional nature of the song. Her writing is skillful, drawing the story out of the two men in a well paced, heart wrenching style. She employs witty fast paced activity and also moments of silence to great effect, combining the dramatic highs and lows effortlessly.

Simply set in one room with a sofa and chair, the play had an intimate and personal feel. The staging was low-key and as such, was not a distraction from the words spoken by the actors. The realistic setting, coupled with the soft lighting, gave the impression of being in someone's living room listening in on a private conversation.

The best feature of this play was Cathy's perfectly crafted dialogue. The emotion of the two men is displayed effortlessly through their conversation, key elements revealed through simple phrases. Joe O'Byrne who plays the heart broken father Len, and Lee Antley, who plays the childhood friend Fran, both deserved the standing ovation the performance received. Not only was their delivery flawless, but it was strengthened by their movement. Their gestures and body language were naturalistic, adding further to the intimate feel of the piece.

Joe has a string of successes under his belt, playing Frank Morgan in the film Diary of a Bad Lad, the North West feature film he co wrote which is on general release this year. His other feature, Looking for Lucky, in which he stars, is enjoying cult success this year and is a testimony to the talent and commitment of those working in independent film in the North West. He is also a playwright and his play The Bench, one in a series of plays about the fictional town Paradise Heights, has enjoyed packed houses at The Library Theatre, Studio Salford, The Dance House and most recently Salford Arts Theatre.

Lee Antley, who has worked extensively with the other three in the team for some time now, received rave reviews when he took on many roles in Nico Icon, Stella Grundy's critically acclaimed piece on Nico. "Fran is an amazing role for an actor" says Lee, "the journey allows you to exercise your emotional muscles, it's a very passionate role, a gift for an actor. The script is by turns drily witty, tender, compassionate, and emotionally brutal."

The Roots of Love was directed by Neil Bell, who is a well known actor in his own right, and has starred in such modern cult classics as Dead Man's Shoes and Ideal, is also well known for his directing talent, with an MEN award nomination for his play 36 Hours (also written by Bell) in which he starred as the poet John Cooper Clarke.

Sofie Fowler

The Roots of Love - Camden Fringe Voyeur, August '10

The Roots of Love is a two-man play about a bereaved father (Len), who, having lost his son in childhood, seeks solace from his late son’s friend, Fran, through story-telling and a colourful imagination.

I was particularly impressed with the ability both performers had to create a back-story to each character within such a short amount of time. At first the relationship seemed ‘pally’ even a father /son kind of set up – created over the years in order to help Len cope with the bereavement over his own son’s death. We witness both men constantly reminiscing about past events over the course of the show; and over many whiskies (watered down coke) a much deeper and more volatile relationship, built mainly on Fran’s vivid imagination coupled with his misplaced guilt of his older friend’s loss, is revealed.

The Roots of Love is an intense and beautiful piece of theatre that has the ability to make you laugh and cry as it takes you on a ride through the heartbreaking yet warming tale of two men trapped by the past and desperately trying to move on.

Suzanne Birdsey

Beautiful House - UK Theatre Network, April '10

Cathy Crabb's comedy Beautiful House returns to the Library Theatre stage in a full-blown professional production after its success in the 2009 Re:play Festival.

Middle-aged, middle-class Bridgette and Ronnie appear to have come down in the world with a bang when they take up residence in one of Salford's less salubrious tower blocks. The mystery of how they find themselves exiled from the rural idyll of Delph and living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours like pink-velour-track-suited Paula and chavvy Otis is eventually revealed over several fraught and occasionally alcohol-fuelled encounters.

The title is a metaphor that works on several levels. Bridgette's beautiful house is the rambling wreck she's spent years renovating; for Otis, it's the dream of a better life for his family a long way from the inner-city. But to Paula, who (astonishingly) works on reception at the Manchester Museum and has become obsessed with Egyptology, "Beautiful House" means the special place where bodies go to be eviscerated before they are mummified.

Cathy Crabb's script is brilliantly funny, littered with killing one-liners, hilarious anecdotes and sharply detailed observation of life. Her characters are raw and sometimes painful to watch, especially Ronnie and Bridgette with their shockingly cruel and destructive relationship - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has nothing on this. Janice Connolly, all condescending air and semi-refined accent, convincingly reverts to Bridgette's native Failsworth idiom at the drop of a hat, and John Henshaw blusters about as her dull but dependable chemistry teacher husband.

Sally Carman is very funny but slightly cartoony as Paula - I miss the blend of the pathetic and the ridiculous which Cathy Crabb herself brought to the part last year. However James Foster, reprising his role as nice-but-dim Otis, is superb once again. His wordless reaction to Paula's holiday story is unforgettable, a really great piece of acting.

Did I mention that it's funny? The cast has the audience roaring the whole way through, while Noreen Kershaw's direction keeps the whole thing on an even keel. A great evening's entertainment.

Caroline May

Beautiful House - City Life, April '10

Put two contrasting couples in neighbouring flats high up in a Salford tower block - and their evolving relationship provides plenty to go at. And go at it they do in Cathy Crabb's sharply observed take on the situation, ranging from hilarious to heart-breaking.

Beneath the broad and black comedy, it's a probing play about sadness, disappointment and unrequited aspirations among four people who, like most of us, cling to hope and do the best they can with what they've got. If you can't have a beautiful house in the country, then you console yourself that you're living in a vertical village with the best view of the city.

The story, unlikely, not least in the twist at the end, is credible enough to carry Crabb's issues (housing ladder, house/home, possessions/people). It tells of two retired teachers who move out of their prized home in Delph so that their terminally ill daughter and her husband can enjoy it in her last year. Reluctantly, they move into the tower block - and meet the feisty young couple from the flat below.

The older couple, Ronnie (John Henshaw) and Bridgette (Janice Connolly, known on the comedy circuit as Mrs Barbara Nice), have a long-tried abrasive, but essentially loving, relationship. Bridgette lets off steam in expletive-laden tirades and sharp jibes.

The young couple, Otis (James Foster) and Paula (Sally Carman of Shameless fame), aspire to getting on the housing ladder, but make the best of their flat. Paula, who works at Manchester Museum (where Crabb was writer in residence) turns hers into a showroom of fairy-lit Egyptian artefacts, dismissed by Bridgette as being like a Cairo souvenir shop or Tutankhamun in a tower block. Not that the effervescent Paula cares what she thinks – and her quickfire description of her flat improvements to Bridgette in a long soliloquy is a tour de force by Sally Carman.

Dawn Allsop's clever revolving set heightens the contrasting life styles in Noreen Kershaw's pacy, entertaining production. Indeed, with a strong cast and Crabb's comic intent, even the could-be moving moments have difficulty in being taken seriously, which is a pity.

Having graduated from Salford Studio, where it earned an MEN Fringe Award nomination, Beautiful House deserves its place in the mainstream. It's a thoroughly entertaining - and touching - all-round celebration of local talent.

Philip Radcliffe

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The Roots of Love

As a film programmer, I tend to see the world in cinematic terms. I read a book, or I see a play, and I think what a good film it would make. I get really irritated by theatre actors who look down on cinema as a lesser art form, and so I forget what theatre can do that cinema cannot. THE ROOTS OF LOVE was a vivid and powerful reminder.

A deceptively simple piece: one act, two actors, set in a single room, yet it opened up whole worlds in the mind - a potent reminder that true storytelling power lies in writing, direction, and performance. The play depicts a turning point in two lives - one, single conversation, encompassing a lifetime of accumulated emotional ties and commitments, obligations and resentments, as two men, a father whose son died when he was a boy, and his son's childhood friend, finally reach an impasse in their twenty year relationship. Len, the father, cannot let go of his son, Mikey's memory, cannot ever really accept the boy's death; Fran, Mikey's childhood friend, is bonded to Len by his guilt over his failure to save the boy, and by his own desperate need for a father figure. Together they keep Mikey alive by reliving increasingly tenuous memories and imagining the man he might have become.

But now Fran needs to move on, and needs to help Len move on too, however traumatic this might prove. Cathy Crabb's script is by turns drily witty, tender, compassionate, and emotionally brutal. Dialogue is beautifully honed, stripped of all artifice, yet capable of great, utterly natural-sounding lyricism. Nothing here sounds forced or unreal. Crabb has the rare gift of drawing in an audience by the easy flow and banter of her dialogue. These are voices and accents we feel we know, characters we feel an immediate empathy with.

The play's staging helps in this. Director Neil Bell is smart enough to trust to his actors and the strength of the material. He keeps it simple - a minimal set, no flash or filigree, or fancy lighting. This, coupled with the intimate nature of Studio Salford as a venue creates the impression that one is in the corner of a real room, eavesdropping an a private conversation. It enables the actors to keep their performances low-key and naturalistic; they have no need to project their voices, and we can see every nuance of every emotion pass across their faces.

In such circumstances, an actor must be at the peak of his game, and this is certainly the case here. Joe O'Byrne conveys all of Len's desperation, all of the grief he keeps bottled up, as he struggles year upon year to maintain some last vestige of his lost son. It would be easy to overplay the emotions here, or worse, to make Len's obsession with his dead son seem creepy, his treatment of Fran overly domineering. O'Byrne avoids all such pitfalls, combining gruff tenderness with a kind of frantic idealism, and a heartbreaking blinkeredness to the pain his behaviour is causing his increasingly alienated friend.

As Fran, Lee Antley offers a sensitive portrait of filial love complicated by guilt and a sense of obligation, and soured by a growing frustration at the trap his life has set for him. The actors spar off each other remarkably, with an easy familiarity that suggests that they really have known one another as long as the characters they are playing, so that when the confrontation finally erupts between them, it is all the more real, all the more painful and uncomfortable to watch.

On a small stage, above a pub in Salford, two fine actors, with a powerful play script to work from, and an intelligent director behind the scenes, delivered an object lesson in the magic of the theatre. It will stay with me forever.

Steve Balshaw, Director, Salford Film Festival

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The Truth Is I Can't Stop Telling Lies - Manchester Evening News, May '09

Tam Hinton is the creator of such brain-boggling solo performances as the award-winning The Naked Soul Of Kirk Godless and his new show is equally extraordinary, mind-bending and exhilarating.

I don't mind admitting I don't really have a clue what it was about, but still found it utterly compelling as Hinton hurled himself through the minds of a multitude of characters, not one of whom could be relied on to be telling the audience the truth.

Thus, we were treated to a giddying narrative which was just as likely to touch on Baudrillard and Goethe as it was Boris Johnson, the poetry (who knew?) of Radovan Karodich, and the comedy of Tommy Cooper!

Meanwhile the music veered from the searing Johnny Cash version of Hurt to the most idiotically banal pop tunes.

At one point, Hinton, remarkably, transformed himself into a terrifying, salivating dog but even that almost seemed par for the course in this strange but rather wonderful show.

Kevin Bourke

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Under the Dirt - Manchester Confidential, January '09

Under the Dirt is a play about hope, though the sole aspiration of its four disturbed characters is nothing more extravagant than normality. Written by Claire Berry, the play is performed as inter-cut monologues - the stories of Dave, Hattie, Jo and Tom.

Dave (Andrew Sykes) begins the 50-minute piece sharply-suited, cocksure, espousing the sheer simplicity of sex as he perceives it ("Everyone would be having sex 24 hours a day if they could, wouldn't they?"). He finishes the play tie-less, spent and raw, describing the end of a defining love affair and the bitter past that guided its destruction.

Hattie (Annamarie Bayley) is a clever, self-aware depressive, always in danger of masking the depth of her character with a lacerating smile. But if her tranquillity fools us (as it did her terrified ex-boyfriends) there is no respite from Donna Coleman's Jo or Andrew Yates' Tom. Both have roles to relish – Coleman as a sexless junkie, hauling up her Adidas-tagged haunches to speed-rap in scouse of a life run on skag then derailed by the bevies. Transvestite Tom strikes an elegant profile, or deigns to tease us with his backless basque, before turning to recount the strippings and beatings of an adult life spent on the game. There is vitriol but rather than alienate, Tom colludes – Dodgy Rogey, Constable Potatohead, Spankman Stuey – once we know their habits, we too are thinking: 'Give me a whipper any day of the week.'

If these two hog the humour, it is spat out in spite of themselves. Perhaps because we sense little redemption we can allow ourselves to believe they have made it in the struggle 'to be themselves'. But that is forgetting all the sucking and stealing, and something they can never allow – guilt. It is always tugging at fully-functioning heartstrings, whether when viewing photographs of a traumatised taxi driver's children or seeing home an elderly abuser who has again failed to destroy his conquest. When Hattie is told by a kindly nurse to 'be herself' she feels valued. Meanwhile, Dave tells us "I'm not like this" and Tom and Jo have no escape but through an audience. And while their humanity shines through at such moments, we still wouldn't want to take them home.

The past lives of these characters are extraordinary, almost unbelievable, but the grounded talents of the actors make them compelling and convincing. In couples they occasionally perch upon the same simple cubes - the sole feature of the darkened stage - but though their stories come close to overlapping they are never allowed the luxury of connecting with one another. Each is gripped, almost strangled, by an isolating narrative and for the audience there is no escape.

Director Christopher Neil and assistant director Phil Minns took on Patrick Marber's Closer, also with Studio Salford, in 2006 and much of the isolation of Marber's characters is mirrored in this production. And if the characters of Under the Dirt lack the sophistication of their London counterparts, they are given a greater sense of dignity as they are allowed to march the stage, confront the audience, tease, fight against the light, before it fades and they freeze: the baton passed on, more secrets revealed. After a while the stage dynamics become as hypnotic as the performances and it is a credit to this Trickster Theatre production that time speeds by and we're left wanting more, even if we fear there'll be no happy endings.

Peter Humphreys

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The Bench - Manchester Evening News, January '09

FIRST seen at Studio Salford, Joe O'Byrne's enthralling comedy of love, life and loss is part of a series set in the fictional community of Paradise Heights.

This is a place, says O'Byrne, where “the devil's had his way…a drug-fuelled landscape painted on a canvas of deprivation.”

So far, so familiar, you might say. But “look further and you will find more”, he adds.

“It's a place where angels walk among the gangsters, sharks, prostitutes and pimps – a place where the homeless man is a poet and a king.”

The Bench plays very much on this dichotomy and dynamic as, over a period of twelve months, the lives of an eclectic group of Paradise Heights residents interact, often surprisingly, around a bench in the local park.

It's a place where you might see sex games played out, where the local loan shark observes “his” community, where a homeless poet courts an artist, where a couple of pensioners affectionately bait each other as they relive their past, and where a ghost in love with an angel can't decide whether to intervene when things go wrong amongst the humans he observes.

Skilfully played by Manchester fringe stalwarts and newcomers including Clyve Bonelle, Ian Curley, Stella Grundy, Ste Myot, Ben Hood and Phoebe Marie Jones (pictured together), this is gripping and entertaining stuff from the outset. The Library is to be congratulated for giving us all another chance to enjoy this highly recommended play.

Kevin Bourke

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Beautiful House - Manchester Evening News, January '09

FIRST seen at Studio Salford, Cathy Crabb's Beautiful House is, quite simply, a terrific piece of work - acute, heartbreaking and achingly funny.

Ronnie (David Slack) and Bridgette (Francine Rees) have given up their cherished house in the country so that their dying daughter can live out her final days in comfort.

After 30 years in a house made in heaven, they've moved instead into a cramped flat, ten floors up in a tower block, where they're just above Otis (James Foster) and Paula (played by Crabb herself), who seem like the neighbours from hell to Ronnie and Bridgette, not least on account of Paula's fondness for garish Egyptian knick-knacks.

But as the story unfolds, all four of them, caught up in a situation over which they have no real control, gradually appear in a different light, with the closing scene delivering a real emotional body-blow.

Crabb's Moving Pictures won an M.E.N. Theatre Award as Best Fringe Production in 2005 but this is an even better piece of work, with taut direction from Neil Bell and performances of great depth from the four actors.

There are tentative plans for it to tour more widely and, if it does, you really shouldn't miss an opportunity to see it.

Kevin Bourke

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Beautiful House - Metro, January '09

Originally shown at the increasingly impressive Studio Salford, Cathy Crabb's Beautiful House is receiving a repeat showing at the Library thanks to the Re:Play festival, which picks out the best new plays from around the north-west.

Thanks must go to the Re:Play team for picking this out then, as Crabb's piece is surely deserving of a wider audience. Telling the tale of two couples living next to each other in a high rise flat, Beautiful House perfectly captures the frustrations and aspirations of those who are stuck living in such places - and the attitudes of those looking in from the outside.

Crabb herself stars in the play, and saves the best scene for herself, a toe-curlingly awful description of flat decorating that will ring a bell with anyone who's ever found themselves stuck in the kitchen at a party talking to the resident bore.

Crucially, Crabb balances such observational comedy with moments of real insight and pathos, making the audience sympathise with both common couple Otis and Paula, and the more dislikeable Ronnie and Bridgette, whose reason for moving to the high rises forms the shape of the play.

Indeed, such cleverly balanced writing brings the likes of Craig Cash or Caroline Aherne to mind, a realistic slice of northern life that can also chime with people from any background. Highly recommended.

Aaron Lavery

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Halfway - Buxton Festival Fringe, 2008

Two people stand leaning on a small climbing frame - a young man (Boy) and a girl (Guardian) - amidst the ambient noise of road traffic and birdsong. Then the young man begins to tell the story of his sexual awakening, of his experiences in a world of cottaging and cruising, of encounters as a 13-year-old with older men in public toilets. His story is initially sordid, but gradually develops a delicacy and poetry of its own, bringing romance to this very personal tale.

As he tells his story, the young woman begins to move, her movements at times echoing, and at others disguising the words Boy tells. They use the wooden structure to give themselves different levels, occasionally trapped together in claustrophobic intimacy, at others free. Occasionally, their movements become enmeshed, and they move together in triumphant style. A beautifully choreographed routine to an acoustic rendition of This Charming Man celebrates a coupling with a young doctor, while later, Boy seems to leave his childhood at home (with Guardian hanging on a coat-hanger in his discarded tracksuit top), as he starts to escape from his home to find himself in weekends in London, vogue-ing to a techno beat.

Writer Phil Minns' performs his monologue wonderfully well, his rendition personal and sympathetic, his voice warm and melodic, while his physical interaction with Sarah Bacon's Guardian takes the show to a whole new level. Clearly the subject matter might not be to all tastes, but the nuanced performances, the poetic writing and the precision of the choreography make Halfway highly recommended.

Robbie Carnegie

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Hotshot - Manchester Evening News, 30 May 2008

FAST, funny and deliciously rude, this is another winner at one of Manchester's hidden theatrical gems.

Written and directed by Mike Heath, the writer of the popular The Game Of Two Halves, it features two couples on holiday in adjacent flats on the thirteenth floor of a ghastly Greek hotel.

First to arrive are businessman Max (Ian Curley) and Magda (Elizabeth Poole), his mail-order Polish bride.

He's fleeing big financial trouble but she doesn't know that yet and insists on expensive treats.

Next door are computer salesman Paul (Jimmy Allen) and his sex-starved not-yet wife Beverley (M.E.N. Theatre Award-winning Jeni Howarth-Williams).


There's immediate antipathy between Magda and Beverley, but Magda wants Paul to buy her one of Max's dodgy computers, so the couples are thrown together.

Many, many drinks later, they're closer than any of them might have expected, especially after the arrival of another, very unwelcome and heavily armed guest Tony (Chris Frawley).

There are lovely performances from all of the cast, all regulars on Manchester's fringe theatre circuit and at Studio Salford with the exception of Frawley.

The comedy itself is another demonstration of just how often new writing outshines – and is potentially more popular than – the same old shows being put on at bigger theatres in town.

Kevin Bourke

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The Bench - Manchester Evening News, 10 April 2008

WRITTEN, produced and directed by Joe O'Byrne, this sharp and telling play features all manner of fascinating characters whose lives and loves intersect over the course of a year near a park bench.

They range from a married couple who need to spice up their sex lives to a couple of war veterans, by way of a boxer, his trainer, a thief, a fake medium, a homeless man, an artist, a widow, a drug-dealer, a loan shark, an angel and a ghost.

Some are loveable, some are loathsome but they are all only too human, even the ones who are already dead!

As the plays opens, it might initially be possible to mistake it for simply a series of humorous sketches.

However, things take on a more sombre and thoughtful hue as links and relationships between characters emerge or fall apart.


It's a comedy which takes on some serious and topical issues, such as homelessness, abuse, addiction and personal grief, and it's blessed with a cast, including Stella Grundy, Clyve Bonelle, Greg Kelly, Ian Curley, Ste Myott and Erin Shanagher, who are talented enough to bring to life no less than eighteen characters between them.

This is O'Byrne's third visit to Paradise Heights, a fictional community he introduced in I'm Frank Morgan, an earlier play about the same loan shark who reappears in The Bench.

That was part of the 2005 24/7 Theatre Festival and was subsequently turned into an award-winning short film.

The community is also featured in the upcoming feature film Lookin' For Lucky, and written and produced by Joe and featuring several of the cast seen in The Bench.

Highly recommended and a play, and writer, which will surely go on to great things. Be the envy of your friends and be able to say you saw it first at the ever-adventurous Studio Salford.

Kevin Bourke

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Karry Owky - Manchester Metro, 23 Jan 2008

Created by in-house company Vista Theatre in 2004, dark comedy Karry Owky is one of the most successful pieces that the Studio Salford team has put together. Since it was first performed, the self-styled 'pub opera' has gone from strength to strength, touring the country and being nominated for a King's Cross Award for New Writing.

It returns to the North-West this week with a stint at the Library as part of its Re:Play season, offering another chance to see the awkward journey that takes bigoted street sweeper Mikky on the road to enlightenment.

The basis for Mikky's transformation is the karaoke machine in his local, which leads him from a world of racism and homophobia into one of understanding, relationships and eventual redemption.

Starting out packed full of bawdy joks and one-liners, one of the strengths that Karry Owky displays is the way the play slides into something a whole lot darker and grotesque. Mikky may become a better person, but change comes at a price as the prejudices that he used to hold come back to haunt him.

As the title suggests, Karry Owky is not only a comedy - it is packed full of musical numbers and physical theatre too. Its strongest skill, however, is in imagining a world that, although overblown, is closer to the truth than many of us would dare to admit.

Aaron Lavery

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James Foster accepts the MEN Theatre Awards 2007 Alpha Award

Studio Salford Co-ordinator James Foster accepts the Alpha Award

Studio Salford wins The M.E.N. Theatre Awards 2007 'Alpha Award'!

Alpha Airport Shopping sponsor a category designed to encourage new and up and coming talent with financial support. In the past, it has gone to help young actors and to the 24:7 Festival. This year's recipient was Studio Salford for "their consistent championing of the best and most interesting fringe theatre in the city". Full details of the awards can be seen at the Manchester Evening News website.

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Cake by seasoned 24:7er Mike Heath is an Ayckbourn-esque comedy of manners which flags up its seventies-sitcom feel with an opening and closing title sequence and its very own naff theme-tune.

Aspiring domestic goddess Linda is having a marathon baking session in celebration of her son Julian's return from his first term at college. Her unreconstructed husband Jim disapproves of fairy-cake-loving art students, and his worst fears are confirmed when Julian decides to "come out". So it's not the best moment for vulgar but loaded neighbours Tommy and Val to arrive on the doorstep with news of their lad Dave's engagement.

Mike Heath's script mines the situation for every conceivable laugh, and director Julia Nelson deploys a superb cast who know how to play broad humour without becoming coarse. Stella Grundy's botoxed über-chav Val twists her brash but dim hubby Tommy (Ian Curley) around her mahogany-coloured little finger. Unappreciated Linda (Lynn Roden in a performance worthy of Patrician Routledge) and old-fashioned patriarch Jim (played with many harrumphs of disgust by master-of-timing Dave Midgley) are completely convincing as a married couple who have been together forever (and it feels like it).

A hugely enjoyable show which was a great end to a wonderful week. Congratulations to Dave Slack and Amanda Hennessey for masterminding yet another first-class festival. There's a buzz around 24:7 which the Manchester International Festival can only aspire to.

Caroline May

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JOB #143 - Manchester Evening News, 2007

Already angry at his life and his wife, Alfie (Ian Curley, also the writer) thinks he's hit a new low when he's kidnapped, handcuffed and thrown into a cell.

But worse is to come when his estranged brother Percy (Dan Atkinson) is thrown into the cell with him, also hooded and handcuffed. What is real and what is manipulated? Why are the sound effects so unconvincing? And who is the mysterious Bridget (Kate Gilbert)?

An intriguing and funny look at the way most men are still competitive little boys at heart.

Kevin Bourke

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UNDER THE DIRT - Buxton Festival Fringe Review, 2007

Under The Dirt consists of four interlinked monologues from four characters: Dave, a sexual obsessive, Jo, a heroin addict, Hattie, a psychologically damaged young woman and Tom, a transvestite prostitute. As each gradually reveals their stories, we scratch the surface of their lives to discover what made them as they are.

Dealing with four characters that are all the products of abuse, this is a play which demands for excellent performances, and Trickster Theatre and Vista Theatre provide those in spades. Cellan Scott as Dave has enormous intensity masking great vulnerability; Donna Coleman's Jo is a Scouser with a machine-gun delivery and a nice mix of comedy and pathos; Ruth Piggott's Hattie is a sweet-natured victim, matter-of-factly cataloguing the sadness of her life; while Alan Dickie's Tom is played with great delicacy.

The writing is truthful and deliberately veers away from melodrama. With its simple staging and searingly honest performances, the excellent Under The Dirt is not always a comfortable watch, but it's the best thing I've seen in the Fringe so far, and is highly recommended.

Robbie Carnegie

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THE GAME OF TWO HALVES - Buxton Festival Fringe Review, 2007

VERDICT 4/5 - Pricilla Queen of The Desert meets The Stretford End... Camp meets Captian Caveman... Kylie v Colleen... the 2nd half of this is near perfection. The production also features 2 of the best 'shock' value scenes your likely to see at this years Fringe... not to be missed!

This always looked interesting not only from a subject matter angle but also 'cos it'd won Best New Writing & Best Director (both Mike Heath) at The Studio Salford '06 Awards... and so it proved... the script was never less than very good and when combined with the powerhouse 2nd Act was near perfect. There were 8-10 quotes I could chosen for the 'best line' at end of this review.

It's a simple tale of male bonding, though there's a fair smattering of 'unbonding' that takes place before all three of our characters live happily ever after in 'Lilac Love'...or do they? Pete (Dan Atkinson) is best mates with Tom (Ian Curley); both in work and more importantly, on the hallowed terraces of that 'Theatre of Dreams' formerly known as Old Trafford. Tom is as red blooded as the shirt on Cristiano's back and almost as successful with the ladies, despite employing such Darwinian natural selection techniques as "Tits or Arse". He's also as homophobic as The Pope and regularly uses such terms of endearment as, um...well, 'shirt lifter's' about the politest and it's not meant as a reference to Cristiano's '6-pack' goal celebrations.

Pete has no such fascination with the fairer sex...not 'cos of gender issues, but simply because he still holds a candle for a former past female flame. His domestic arrangements are such that he lives a double life. Unbeknown to Tom who believes he lives alone in bachelor pad bliss, Pete is shacked up with Simon (Steven Mark) who is as camp as a Boy Scout's weekend away on There's the wall clock dressed with a vibrant fluffy pink surround (those fluffy toilet seat covers are so yesterday!), a 'lilac love' colour scheme, smoked glass coffee table complete with a copy of Gay Times and the obligatory S Club 7 CD (relax Sweetie, Kylie's on the Bang & Olufsen!).

Story wise its as simple as boy meets, um boy!...Simon decides (insists) he wants to go the ManU game with Pete n Tom to experience all that the beautiful game has to offer; Tom call round before the game; Pete pretends that Simon is little other than the next door neighbour...and off they all go to match. The first act is very good, but Act II is brilliant... perfectly scripted, paced and with real bludgeoning mood swings between humour and frivolity and the darker side of human behaviour. The reason for the slightly weaker(!) 1st act is simply because the audience is introduced to the characters and their backgrounds - there's a lot of scene setting and perhaps the opening scene (Pete/Tom) and the pre match bar scene (all 3) go on a tad too long. This is a common price to be paid for 2nd act greatness (same thing happened when I saw 'Separate Tables' at the Exchange last yr). Oh and those 2 'shock' scenes - well they both featured Simon - one where he displays a unique dress sense in selecting his wardrobe for the game and the other in the pub where he literally spouts forth!

It was such a pity that for this (and the other ace show that I saw), the audience was almost devoid of teenagers...the schools around here really do need to get their collective digits out and get some of the kids in to experience such's common practice with the Manchester theatres where they're bussed in from all parts.

As to which of the 2 shows was the better production... now that would be telling... sexy theatre.

Best Line: There were so many - Here's 1 at the match before KO when Simon observes the ManU mascot:
Simon: "Who's that twat in the costume?"
Tom: "That's The Red Devil"
Simon: "Has he taken the afternoon off from formation flying?"


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YESTERDAY, WHEN I WAS YOUNG - Buxton Festival Fringe Review, 2007

'If my mother could see me now she would spin bloody cartwheels...' Being granted an audience with housewife turned lesbian dominatrix Josie Pickering is no ordinary experience.

In this highly entertaining monologue, Erin Shanagher, who has acted on TV's The Street and Shameless, inhabits her extraordinary role with real conviction. Over the evening she manages to depict the real-life Salford legend both as she is now - in ill-health and reliant on her 'beep beep' electric wheelchair - and as she has been in the past, a leather-clad prostitute in suspenders specializing in bringing her eager clients to heel with a swift crack of her whip.

Her surprising career path proves fascinating. A 'good girl' who had a white wedding, she found herself subject to 'leanings'. Challenged to do something about it by her husband, the housewife leapt into bed with her girlfriend and found it to be the most natural place in the world. An initiation into Manchester's gay village followed. 'I felt like a kid in a toffee shop and I didn't just want one, I wanted them all.'

Supremely comfortable surrounded by girlfriends, she was also led into a life of prostitution, but always - or almost always - on her terms. This is a fairly cosy portrayal of her lifestyle with some enjoyable anecdotes about her clients' predilections, ranging from waiting on her hand and foot dressed as a maid to impersonating a much-chastised dog. Most of her clients she liked, with the exception of 'Dog Breath': 'the amount of games I had to invent to keep him the other side of the room...' There are just a few hints of bleakness as when she tells us about the time she broke her own rules to whip a female - an experience that bruised her almost as much as it bruised her client.

Written and directed by Queer as Folk star Adam Zane, this is an accomplished show that benefits greatly from Zane's chosen technique of using real interviews with Pickering herself to create a dialogue that is richly authentic with all her timing, nuances and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. We the audience are always acknowledged with the dominatrix ensuring that none of her questions are ever merely rhetorical.

Beneath Josie's brittle exterior, there is sensitivity and we hear a little about her unhappy childhood and later, the tragedy of her losing a daughter. On the whole though, we probably learn more about her clients' insecurities than about her own. I would have liked just a little more emotional detail about her marriage break up and quite how her children fitted into her life, but perhaps this would have altered the lighthearted tone of the show too much.

'People just pass through my life and I never see them again', says Josie of her clients at one point and for the audience here, it is as if Josie is just passing through our lives - a brilliant butterfly to be admired if not wholly understood..

Stephanie Billen

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SILENT JOYS & BROKEN TOYS - Buxton Festival Fringe Review, 2006

OK let's have two gays in drag and a transsexual - and feather boas and a shiny curtain - and let's have UV light and luminous lipstick! Yeah! That's it. And there'll have to be music, camp sixties rock - who did Leader of the Pack? The Shangri Las - perfect! But there are only three so let's have another gay and a lesbian - but she doesn't know it yet - in the audience and then we can do more stuff.

We hit them with the music, camp it up like queens and make them laugh first. And then we can start on the stuff, just gently to begin with, tickle their prejudices, keep it lite, keep 'em laughing.

But after that, when we've got 'em, we can say what needs to be said. Tell them about the "agony and the ecstasy". The pain of the young gay in the closet, the fear and joy of cottaging. Lighten it a bit in between and then child abuse, prostitution, gender dysmorphia. Gender Dysmorphia!? Yeah, like when you know you're in the wrong body and you have to change it.

And finish with a song.

Let's do the show right here!

And so it was. An Extravaganza, an Entertainment, an Education. If it upsets you - good - so drama should. And it will, and move you and grow you. You'll be better for seeing this show.

Great credit to Andrew Rankin, Andrew Yates, Donna Coleman, Lee Antley, Sue Jaynes and Phil Minns and everyone else involved. The writers are Catthy Crabb, Claire Berry, James Foster and Phil Minns.

John Wilson

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Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards

Cathy Crabb and Denice Hope


Our In-House Company Mediamedea, for Moving Pictures by Cathy Crabb (as part of 24:7 Theatre Festival). Moving Pictures was directed by James Foster and performed by Denice Hope & Sue Jaynes.

Visiting Company Jelly Shoe Productions for Salford Stuffers by Christine Marshall, which held its World Premiere here at Studio Salford in June this year, and had already jointly won a Willy Russell Award for writing, as voted for by Willy Russell & Tim Firth. Salford Stuffers was directed by Christine Marshall and performed by Denice Hope, Janet Charlesworth, Jeni Howarth-Williams, Rachel Priest & Simon Norbury.

Jeni Howarth-Williams for her portrayal of Ruth in Salford Stuffers.


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MOVING PICTURES - A Year In The Theatre (13th edition), Broadfield Publishing

Although it opens with one of the prolonged bursts of cackling, which are a trade mark of Anne (Denice Hope), humour is a much less frequent feature of Moving Pictures. It is, however, most intensely germane to the story as one of the key elements of drama is the opportunity it gives to the audience to realise how many aspect Anne has inherited of the father whom she has never seen, a sense of humour being one of them. That such matters are not spelt out is an indication of the subtlety of the writing.

Giles Howarth

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MOVING PICTURES - Manchester Evening News (27th July '05)

It's not difficult to see why Cathy Crabb's comedy drama, presently as part of the groundbreaking 24:7 Theatre festival, has already scored awards at both Buxton fringe Festival and Studio Salford.

Witty, insightful and, yes, moving, it's set in the flat of Tina (Sue Jaynes) is moving out of to establish a new life for herself.

Anne (Denice Hope) has come to view and, on the surface, these two women couldn't be more different. But the unexpected link between them changes everything.

Wonderfully acted and precisely written, this perfectly-formed little piece of theatre deserves a much bigger audience.

Kevin Bourke

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MOVING PICTURES - Buxton Festival Fringe Review, 2005 (Best New Comedy)

Moving Indeed!

An incredible story about two long lost sisters reunited in their middle ages.

An uncomfortable and unnerving introduction for the audience as well as the actors before the realisation of their relationship. The acting was superb and so real. The play consisted of two women and their stories of the past up to the point of meeting each other. Such a gripping and moving piece and well worth seeing. An incredible and dramatic story, not for the action packed fun fans but definitely for those who love a heart warming drama.


George Flett

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THIS PLAY IS STUFFED FULL OF AWARDS - Manchester Evening News (28th June '05)

It hasn't even opened yet and already awards are piling up for new play Salford Stuffers. The show, which premieres tonight at Studio Salford in The King's Arms on Bloom Street, before heading to Edinburgh, has already won The Willy Russell Foundation Award 2005 for writer Christine Marshall and an Arts Council Award for its July run at the Brindley Theatre, Halton.

And I now hear that it has also been nominated for an Amnesty International award, for giving a voice to a character who doesn't usually have a voice in society, as well as portraying them behaving in an unexpected way.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, the show tells the stories of a group of women who stuff fliers into newspapers, one of whom, Ruth, played by former Coronation Street actress Jeni Williams, has a disabled daughter Laura.

I won't spoil the story by telling you why Laura isn't quite the victim many might think, but Janet Charlesworth, who takes on the role explains: 'It's a good play because it shows Laura, who has a disability, as having control over her life, whereas the non-disabled characters in the play don't appear to have much control over their lives.'

Janet has cerebral palsy, which affects her right arm and leg and, to a certain extent, her speech.

Loud And Proud Arts

The 24-year-old has appeared in other productions before for Loud And Proud Arts, a drama group for young people with disabilities in Salford, but this will be her first big role in a mainstream production.

'Janet is a real find for us,' says writer, Christine. 'In many ways it would have been easier not to, but I had no hesitation that we should use a disabled actress in the role of Laura.'

'We auditioned several actresses through PANDA (Performing Arts Network Development Agency) and when Janet came in we knew we'd found the right actor for the part.'

'We needed the right calibre of actor, but also someone who wouldn't mind or be hurt by being dragged across the stage at times and Janet fitted the bill.'

Janet adds: 'It's a great opportunity. It's like that age old thing, 'Would she like a cup of tea?' where people talk to the person pushing the wheelchair instead of the person in it.'

'This play is a real chance to challenge stereotypes and to give a strong voice to a character who, too often in society, is ignored.'

Salford Stuffers is on at until Saturday, July 2.

Carmel Thomason

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BEHIND THE MASK - City Life (February '05)

Steve Timms spends 15 minutes with STUDIO SALFORD's latest protege, Cathy Crabb.

If you're an up and coming playwright looking for attention, it helps to give your play a snappy title - even better if it's a line from a song by The Smiths ('Reel Around The Fountain'). That said, there's little in the way of bed-sit celibacy in this new play from Studio Salford writer / performer Cathy Crabb. 15 Minutes With You is the story of a post-club one-night stand that has surprising consequences (oh, and very strong language).

"It's a sewing together of situations I've been through or of people I know," she explains. "You've met this person, you're in that drunk, euphoric state, and you know it's not going to go anywhere. But sometimes there's a deeper connection - that's what happens here."

There are just two actors in the piece: Neil Bell, fresh from the success of playing John Cooper Clarke in the M.E.N. nominated 36 Hours, and Stella Grundy, formerly of Manchester dance group Intastella. Crabb: "There's a good dynamic between them, which is important as it's a dialogue-heavy piece."

A DJ friend has supplied a suitable soundtrack - what the author refers to as 'peacock feather music'. "Y'know, those songs where you get to show off - 'Here's what I can do!'. I'm very interested in issues of identity, the masks people wear in different situations. And in nightclubs, wearing masks is almost the norm."

Born in North Manchester and now resident in Royton, Crabb got bitten by the theatre bug as a teenager, spending several years performing at Salford Uni. She recently completed her masters in theatre writing at York University. With three kids to look after, where does she find the time? "Late at night," she laughs.

Crabb says she gave up going to auditions because she couldn't stand the rejection. She's reluctant to send her plays off to the big theatres for similar reasons, though it's fair to say she's perfectly happy with her present set-up, writing and directing at Studio Salford.

"It's given a lot of people the chance to float their own boat," she says of the venue. "It would be nice to earn some money, of course, but I'm enjoying writing in the knowledge that there's a production at the end of it. You can take risks here - try things out. I'd be happy to put on plays here forever."

Steve Timms

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15 MINUTES WITH YOU - 80 / 20 Magazine (February '05)

Sex and love are, not surprisingly, hot topics for February and the Mediamedea company leave off the sappy stuff with this raw, emotional tale of a one night stand. Studio Salford has a reputation for promoting strong new talent and writer Cathy Crabb certainly has buckets of that.

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36 HOURS - Manchester Evening News (28th October '04)

STUDIO Salford is a funky new theatrical space above the King's Arms pub on Bloom Street, so it's a highly appropriate venue for the premiere of this energetic, imaginative and affectionate dramatisation of the life and times of Salford-born 'punk poet' John Cooper Clarke.

The velvet Underground's John Cale and Nico, as well as the Sugar Puffs' Honey Monster and a Kaleidoscope of Manchester music-biz rascals and visionaries, all put in an appearance in this wild tale (courtesy of a talented and resourceful troupe including Lynn Roden, Josephine Wynn-Eyton, Lee Antley, Dan Atkinson and James Boyland). But it's Cooper Clarke, portrayed by co-writer (with John West) Neil Bell, who dominates proceedings, with his acid wit and, most importantly, those brilliant poems.

Bell isn't quite gangling enough to look exactly like the man himself, but he's got the voice and laconic attitude off pat. It's exciting the likes of I Married A Monster From Outer Space, Beasley Street and the title poem again and, especially in the aftermath of the death of John Peel, a telling reminder of a time when popular culture could be as genuinely vital, spontaneous and fun as it was chaotic and self-destructive.

But this isn't supposed to [be] a historical document or a treatise and, despite its rough edges, is simply enormously entertaining.

Kevin Bourke

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LIFE'S A GATECRASH - City Life (October '04)

Some playwrights struggle for years to get noticed. So it must be galling when a young actor, fresh from drama school, writes his first play, takes it to the Edinburgh Festival, and bags a Fringe First Award. Git. Not only that, it proves such a sensation that a leading literary agent offers to represent him - the proverbial overnight sensation. 'It's amazing it did so well,' reflects the Arden trained Terry Hughes on his explosive debut Life's A Gatecrash. 'Because the performance started at half twelve at night, it was like a coming home from the pub play. It worked because that's the time the action happens. It added to the atmosphere.'

A subsequent Green Room production garnered a Best New Play nomination at the MEN Theatre Awards. Then the BBC came knocking, commissioning Hughes to write an episode for a drama series set in the back of a taxi cab (a bag of dolly mixtures to anyone who can remember it). Given that Gatecrash is about a hit & run accident, it's no surprise to learn his contribution was dropped. 'All the other scripts were quite whimsical,' he laughs. 'Mine was about a couple of drug dealers. I don't know what they were expecting, because those are the things I'm interested in - I could never write for Heartbeat.'

Indeed. Five years after Edinburgh, Gatecrash receives a new production - directed by Hughes - at Studio Salford. The play begins with a young couple driving home from a party. They accidentally run down a pedestrian and leave him for dead. Unbeknown to them, they're being followed. Then the body of the pedestrian turns up in their living room. Which is where the fun starts.

The world of the London-born Hughes has drawn comparisons with those of Pinter and Hitchcock. A huge compliment, he says. 'I like the way Pinter has outside events penetrating the inner world, disrupting the order of things. He's my God really.' By an odd coincidence, Hughes was educated at the same Jesuit school as Alfred Hitchcock. 'The Jesuits are a very strict bunch - the thing I picked up from being there was an atmosphere of fear. There's a lot of repression going on.' Hitchcock obviously had some problems on that score, but Hughes appears much more balanced.

'I don't know what Freud would make of my plays', he muses.

Steve Timms

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Though too early to predict the legacy of the 24:7 Festival, it's fair to say Studio Salford has now established itself as the city's pre-eminent fringe venue. '24:7 has given the fringe scene a much needed kick up the arse', enthuses venue co-ordinator James Foster. 'I felt a buzz slowly grow over the week in our venue.'

Technically, of course, Studio Salford - based at uber-cool drinking den the King's Arms - doesn't qualify as a Manchester venue, being on the opposite side of the Irwell. But since it's only 300 metres from Deansgate, this is surely a moot point. 'A lot of people don't realise how close Salford is to the city centre,' continues Foster. 'It's such a hot location.'

Foster was inspired to set up this 'theatrical factory' late last year, after directing a well-received production of The Weir, and with encouragement from venue manager Jon Cooper, Studio Salford was born. Foster: 'It's a collective of in-house companies sharing the space - they can put on what they like within the rules we have decided together.' The space is currently home to four companies, including Mediamedea and Hit & Run. All are dedicated to championing new writing. With this in mind, it could be argued Studio Salford are doing more to encourage new work than most of the city's mainstream theatres. 'Under the circumstances they give it a fair stab, but I don't think they are able to take the risks which the fringe scene can - there's just too much money involved', says Foster. 'The budgets that they must have running those places must make it quite unnerving.'

Writers or actors looking to get noticed can pop their CV in the post. Likewise, interested companies can submit scripts and proposal details via the Studio Salford website. Foster: 'People may also be given the opportunity to show an excerpt of their work at one of our Embryo cabaret nights.'

Foster is himself a Salford lad (Lower Kersal in fact), who got his Equity card stage managing on tour in the '80s, before studying acting at Salford Uni in the mid '90s. Recently he popped up in Shameless and will soon be seen in the pilot episode of World Productions' latest, Brief Lives. 'I play a smack head. They didn't use any make-up, which was upsetting.'

Steve Timms

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