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If you love the North, then Northern Soul is for you. Written in the North of England by Northern writers, Northern Soul is a celebration of culture and enterprise, from theatre, music, authors and art to heritage, small businesses, food and leading figures, as well as everything in-between.

Talking to people who work, rest and play in the North of England and scour the region for interesting stories, histories, ambitions and events. Want to read a carefully crafted article about an oddball museum or go behind the scenes of a leading institution? You can find that on Northern Soul.

Henry Normal talks about nature, getting older and writing what you know

Poetry is everywhere at the moment. It’s in stand-up comedy nights such as Punk in Drublic, theatre shows like Rosie Fleeshman’s Narcissist in The Mirror, and TV adverts for a certain building society. Even John Cooper Clarke has pitched up in dictionary corner on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. One of the North West’s poets, […] The post Henry Normal talks about nature, getting older and writing what you know appeared first on Northern Soul.

Poetry is everywhere at the moment. It’s in stand-up comedy nights such as Punk in Drublic, theatre shows like Rosie Fleeshman’s Narcissist in The Mirror, and TV adverts for a certain building society. Even John Cooper Clarke has pitched up in dictionary corner on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.

One of the North West’s poets, Henry Normal, is about to release Raining Upwards, his first collection of entirely new work in 20 years. The pieces are inspired by looking at nature and the elements from an urban perspective. “I’m an urban sort of character,” Normal says. “And I’ve tried to base my poems on my surroundings, rather than the thought process in my head.”

Here is the science behind the book’s title: “Hailstones are formed by rain being blown back up and then returning as ice,” Normal explains, before offering Northern Soul this taster.

Raining Upwards

I have shrunk with age and grief
I am not sure I have a soul left to steal
He has his mother’s nose
a family resemblance in outline

Our weather-proof coats
sort of match
hooded against the torrent

Deepest blue obscures into black
on the inside
the lack of detail gives the impression
my head exists in space
like a hologram
or a dark snow globe

The mountain behind looks unreal
a photo-shop composite
complete with derelict shelter

Only his hand on my shoulder
instills solidarity
and cohesion

The hailstorm has all but subsided
leaving us a little bruised
and buffeted

There will be better days
and worse
for certain

It’s in the nature of ice
when the stone grows too heavy
it cannot be sustained in mid air

I look to you
for confirmation
I am still alive

Henry NormalNormal sees his inspiration – the world around us – as a natural result of age.

“A lot of my early poems are about relationships and understanding my place in the world. But, as you get older, you feel more grounded. We take the basic, vital things like air, water and food for granted. Global warming is impossible to ignore and I’m just trying to widen things out from the initial perspective we all have about our own worries. There’s only so many poems you can write about having a cold sore.

“Age makes you more aware and in less of a rush. Creative people in particular are always trying to catch up with themselves, but eventually you realise there’s no catching up and nothing to catch up with anyway. You may as well slow down a bit and actually enjoy the journey.”

The inclusion of poetry in stand-up comedy nights has become more common of late but, as Normal points out, this is not the first time that comedy and poetry has merged.

“I did all that 35 years ago,” he says. “I did stand-up with Steve Coogan in Ashton and with Frank Skinner in Bury. It’s a well-trodden thing with the likes of John Hegley who is still a stalwart of the cabaret circuit, but it has become more prevalent with more people doing it again.

Henry Normal and son“When I started, there were no comedy clubs in Manchester. It was mixed nights where you could be on a bill with anyone. I played Stockport once with can-can dancers, and even did a gig in Sheffield with a bloke reading Winnie The Pooh. If there was a platform, you would try to get on it, as there were no real poetry places.”

He adds: “I like that it has become more mainstream again. We had a bit of a wave in the 60s with the Liverpool writers, but it’s been a long process. City-dwelling poets have now found the beauty in this way of living. Poetry festivals never used to be in urban places like they are now.”

Normal co-founded Baby Cow Productions with Steve Coogan, a TV company with an impressive CV including The Royle Family, Nighty Night and Gavin & Stacey. In June, he was honoured with a special BAFTA for services to television. He left Baby Cow three years ago to concentrate on poetry full-time but is still working on a variety of projects.

“So much for retirement,” he jokes. “I’m busier than ever. I still help with script editing and editing TV shows. My son Johnny, who painted the cover art for Raining Upwards, has autism and I’ve just spent a year writing a book about the subject. I’m very proud of it and I’ve tried to be as honest as I can. Sometimes you read stuff and you think it’s a sort of pretence. Mine is what I know and so it’s not just another book.”

By Drew Tosh

 

Raining UpwardsRaining Upwards is available from Flapjack Press and will be launched at a free event at 6pm in Manchester Central Library on September 29, 2017. The launch features Henry Normal plus support from North West poets SuAndi and Theresa Sowerby. For more information, click here.

facebook.com/HenryNormal

The post Henry Normal talks about nature, getting older and writing what you know appeared first on Northern Soul.

Published on - Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Review: Northern Soul heads to (a rather muddy) Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, North Wales

The village of Portmeirion was created in 1925 (and finished in 1975) under the aegis of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who thought it would be a wheeze to conjure up a little bit of Italy on the North Wales coast. The whole place is a monument to eccentric creativity for creativity’s sake, and you’re not […] The post Review: Northern Soul heads to (a rather muddy) Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, North Wales appeared first on Northern Soul.

The village of Portmeirion was created in 1925 (and finished in 1975) under the aegis of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who thought it would be a wheeze to conjure up a little bit of Italy on the North Wales coast. The whole place is a monument to eccentric creativity for creativity’s sake, and you’re not likely to find a neater metaphor for the idea of holding a late summer festival there. It’s not all plain sailing but, at best, Festival No 6 does manage to live up to that as a manifesto.

It’s a weekend built of surreal, lyrical moments: Chic drummer Ralph Rolle making a jumbo batch of cookies as an artist sits constructing a Patrick McGoohan mosaic out of broken vinyl, or Simon Armitage standing to recite a poem as a group of performers dressed as bees walk along a pathway above him, frantically blowing kazoos. Any festival is a careful blend of canny programming, careful organisation and sheer serendipity. If you’re lucky, magic happens, and it does so here on a pretty regular basis. For example, Armitage reading his poem Rain actually manages to stop a downpour.

But before we go any further, there’s a certain matter than needs mentioning, though obviously it’s no fault of the organisers. North Wales is a beautifully leafy, green part of the world, and there’s a simple reason that it’s so leafy and green: it rains a hell of a lot. Sure enough, it precipitates it down for most of the Saturday and Sunday, and much of the weekend comes with an accompanying soundtrack of the rustling of free plastic ponchos. Credit where it’s due, the festival copes with this well, not merely by handing out said ponchos but also by getting busy with woodchip-laden diggers. After last year’s horror stories of motorists being mudbound in the Park & Ride car park, a new location with improved drainage has been found and our exit was indeed trouble-free. That’s not to say that the campsite, which slopes at an alarming degree, wasn’t an almighty pain in the arse in these conditions. But it’s hard to know how to work around that – unless perhaps the use of fields could be swapped about, and entrances rethought entirely.

No 6 Festival, images by Tim Cox-BrownThis year, Festival No 6 has gone mad for a bespoke phone app which lists the very latest schedule updates and sends alerts 15 minutes before the start of any set you’ve favourited. It’s an intriguing development, albeit a little too like being in The Prisoner. The app schedules aren’t as up-to-date as they could be, which rather defeats the object.

Portmeirion village hosts an array of spaces and stages, boasting a first-rate arts and culture programme, with bands playing nearer the beach or tucked away in the woods above. Six years on, though, the festival layout is still evolving. Some spaces have been rejigged or relocated. One of the more water-tight innovations is that the Tim Peaks Diner – as in Tim Burgess rather than that astronaut guy – has found a new home a mere stone’s throw from the main stage. It’s not a perfect performance space – there’s a stage, but no rake whatsoever and it’s constantly full of folk sitting drinking coffee and beer – but it does have a pleasant atmosphere and is always an interesting place to hang out.

No 6 Festival, images by Tim Cox-BrownCrucially, though, the main Castell Park field feels like a different world from the more cultured goings-on in Portmeirion village itself. Variety is the spice of any festival, obviously, but it’s more than that. There’s a disconnect between the two, when it should at least feel as though they belong together. There’s no changing the site’s geography, but might it be possible to increase the collaboration and cross-fertilisation between them somehow? The main stage remains a strange set-up, with no acts on until mid-afternoon and a weird lack of continuity. The line-up there is certainly starry – Laura Mvula, Bloc Party, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man – but weirdly slapdash. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching ethos beyond them being the more well-known artists. Essentially, it’s the one part of the festival that lacks a strong, clear identity, when it could do with being its beating heart.

Some of the acts playing the Grand Pavilion tent just across the way – Kate Tempest, Public Service Broadcasting, Charlotte Church’s Pop Dungeon, The Cribs, Arab Strap – drew large crowds and really deserved to be out front and centre. No 6 Festival, images by Tim Cox-BrownSo, how about running the main stage all day and giving some of those comparatively ‘smaller’ bands exposure to a bigger audience? Or how about getting some of the arts and culture guests from over in the village to introduce main stage acts, or even letting them DJ inbetween acts? A sprawling feast of options is all well and good, but No 6 needs a little more cohesion.

To the acts themselves, then. Honeyblood impress with their melodic racket and the young lads of Cabbage manage to brew up genuine, edgy thrills with songs such as Fraudulent Artist and Terrorist Synthesizer. Their debut album is now on the horizon, and if their furious energy can be channelled into recorded form, it’ll be something to get excited about.

At [cough] the other end of the age range, the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir, now No 6 mainstays, make an irresistible, soaring sound, and even their cover of Skin by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man manages to sound heartfelt and powerful rather than throwaway. In the intimate setting of Portmeirion Town Hall, Dutch Uncles deliver a short, specially orchestrated set with an accompanying string quartet. Their recent songs such as Achameleon and Big Balloon really suit this treatment, and sound at home here. Similarly, Simon Aldred, aka Cherry Ghost, closes the weekend’s proceedings in the village itself with additional orchestration lending a lush, romantic, countrified feel to his songs.

Of the main stage sets, Mogwai’s instrumental attack manages to become rather wearing over time, while the Bootleg Beatles, with the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra in tow, pull off a live performance of the whole Sgt Pepper album which is never less that entertaining, yet which begs the lingering question: why bother? Closing the festival on Sunday night, The Flaming Lips are evidently highly adept at drawing in an open-air crowd. Songs like Race for the Prize, Do You Realize?? and a touching cover of Bowie’s Space Oddity are perfect for a big old singalong and the band have an arsenal of visual tricks to go with them. It’s just a shame that, due to the inclement weather, singer Wayne Coyne balks at his traditional spot of crowd zorbing, particularly as it would have been a neat nod to The Prisoner’s big, bouncing Rovers. (While we’re on the subject, of the three assorted brass bands performing over the weekend, not one did a cover of Ron Grainer’s brassy Prisoner theme. Seriously, what’s that all about?).

No 6 Festival, images by Tim Cox-BrownThe covered Castell Gardens DJ area plays host to some big names over the weekend, from Jarvis Cocker to, um, Steve Davis (who reveals, during an ‘in conversation’ appearance elsewhere, that his 80s snooker wins were fuelled by backstage listening sessions taking in Magma and Frank Zappa). Perhaps the most striking moment here comes when Kevin Rowland of Dexys plays a whole raft of floor fillers from Beginning of the End’s Funky Nassau to the Average White Band’s Let’s Go Round Again. What’s remarkable is that Rowland is equipped with turntables and a microphone, and often joins in with the records he’s playing. Obviously that could go either way, but Rowland’s live vocal performance of Groove is in the Heart is actually something pretty special. The crowd loves him for it.

In practice, most of the truly memorable performances of the weekend tend to be off the beaten (and, well, really muddy) track. Late on Saturday afternoon, the dinky Lost at Sea bandstand area plays host to folksy harmony duo Lucy & Virginia, who then join Mancunian singer-songwriter Matthew Gray and others to perform as The Awful Truth. Gray’s wry, world-weary songs have a touch of Jake Thackray to them, which is never a bad thing. Neither set is exactly a showstopper, but they’re both warm and genuine and manage to hit the spot at the time. Palpably, these are musicians playing for the sheer love of it, because they just can’t help it rather than because their management have advised them to, and that enthusiasm is highly infectious.

No 6 Festival, images by Tim Cox-BrownThe same goes for a couple of turns on the seated Gatehouse stage – by day, a venue for talks (and for sheltering from the rain to eat a bacon butty); by night, home to an impressive conveyor belt of cabaret acts. Somewhere in the midst of this, the cherishable Lovely Eggs play a set to a projected backdrop created by video artist Casey Raymond under the banner ‘The All-Seeing Magic Eye Bath’. For good measure, the Eggs perform while wearing papier mâché space alien heads. This doesn’t prevent them from giving some proper welly to songs such as Magic Onion and Goofin’ Around, though, and the whole tent is positively jumping.

An unexpected highlight of the whole weekend, though, was Mik Artistik‘s Ego Trip, who performed nightly in the Gatehouse. At 62, Leeds lad Mik has built a formidable reputation on the live circuit, and with good reason. From Plastic Fox and The Lights are On to Cheap Watch from the Market and She Looks Like Me Mam, his songs take an almost unhinged look at daily life, managing to be both memorable, unsettling and very, very funny. The energy that he throws into his sets is something else, and again, there’s that sense of pure, eccentric creativity being given a platform just for the hell of it.

Yes, Clough Williams-Ellis would have been proud. Well, that or slightly bemused.

By Andy Murray

Images by Tim Cox-Brown

The post Review: Northern Soul heads to (a rather muddy) Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, North Wales appeared first on Northern Soul.

Published on - Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Review: A Brief History of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

“This is the first time that I’ve written a play with a house as the central character,” says Alan Ayckbourn of his new comedy, A Brief History of Women. In his 81st play, Ayckbourn transports us across 60 years – a nod to this being his 60th year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, perhaps? The […] The post Review: A Brief History of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough appeared first on Northern Soul.

“This is the first time that I’ve written a play with a house as the central character,” says Alan Ayckbourn of his new comedy, A Brief History of Women. In his 81st play, Ayckbourn transports us across 60 years – a nod to this being his 60th year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, perhaps?

The play is about the women who revolve around the only character to appear in each segment, Anthony Spates, played wonderfully by Antony Eden. It shines a light on the roles and obstacles faced by women through the ages, and the positioning of men in relation to power. It all sounds a bit dry and problematic, preachy even, but true to form Ayckbourn makes it a rattling rollercoaster of sentimentality, wit and humour.

Ayckbourn is well-seasoned, he’s a woodworker, a lathe turner of plays and people. Like a musician he tunes the audience, winding strings until the tension is just too much, before letting it snap back in a raucous celebration of comedy and pantomime.

A Brief History of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre,© Tony Bartholomew

The play is in four parts, each covering a different era in Spates’s life. Each chunk of play has a slightly different feel partly due to the era it’s set in, and partly to showcase the varying styles of theatre and of women – it’s a sort of celebration of 60 years’ worth of acting styles and female representation. It has the feel of looking through several windows into the same room, where the light falls on the same furniture, only slightly differently. And in effect, it is. The house, Kirkbridge Manor, is an extra character in the play, gathering the ghosts of abuse, love, sex, joy, tears and grief, repeatedly luring back Spates.

As well as the actors and the house, the scene changers are another version of theatre: mime artists. I won’t spoil it by giving away details but I watched the audience’s response as they came in and out between scenes, dressed in the clothes of the next scene’s era, deftly unhooking, rolling, lifting, folding furniture and flooring, knowing exactly what went where and when. The mostly older audience had the delighted smiles of kids at Christmas. How often does a set change get a laugh? Kevin Jenkins, who designed the set, excelled himself.

 A Brief History of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre,© Tony Bartholomew Eden is brilliantly suited to the role of Spates. He plays awkward social moments beautifully and is genuinely funny and moving. I should also mention Russell Dixon who manages to switch between roles and accents without any problem. His performance as the pantomime dame is magical. But considering this is a play about women’s roles, the female characters are rather flat. This could of course be deliberate, a nod to the two-dimensional women throughout history. After all, a man’s view of women in history will, perhaps, never quite encompass what it is to be a woman. Maybe Ayckbourn is saying that women have never been given the chance to have four dimensions? Personally, I would have liked to have seen a bit more meat about the characters, more chance for the female actors to shine.

The play also seems a little uneven in style and quality. All four segments, as I’ve mentioned, are played differently and the audience’s response changes in reaction to each one. The first part is drama with a capital D – though it does have humour – but the second part is weirdly comic book-like. The extreme silliness of the story line was out of place, especially when it was slid snugly against scene three which is a funny, gently moving, sweet act. The fourth, and last, part fizzles out a little. I don’t think the ending quite hits the spot, but it is funny. A Brief History of Women comes smoothly to a stop having circled the house several times.

In all, I enjoyed the play, though I do think it was trying to contain too much. Oh, and keep an eye out for the little details, the bust in particular.

By Wendy Pratt

 

A Brief History of Women is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough until Oct 7, 2017. For more information, or to book tickets, click here. 

The post Review: A Brief History of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough appeared first on Northern Soul.

Published on - Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Review: The Ruck, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

“Just wait and I’ll get the others, they’re all here,” says Lily Clark, forward for the Batley Bulldogs Girls Rugby League team as I chat to her outside the Lawrence Batley Theatre before the premiere of The Ruck. As Clark gathered the team together for a photograph with me, I felt a sense of what really […] The post Review: The Ruck, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield appeared first on Northern Soul.

“Just wait and I’ll get the others, they’re all here,” says Lily Clark, forward for the Batley Bulldogs Girls Rugby League team as I chat to her outside the Lawrence Batley Theatre before the premiere of The Ruck.

As Clark gathered the team together for a photograph with me, I felt a sense of what really gels them – the love of a sport, camaraderie and a feeling of being a family. It was like being at a christening or wedding reception with all the girls decked out in their best clobber. But really we were here to see a play borne out of their Rugby League achievements.

The Ruck, though not true to life, is based on the Batley Bulldogs and harvests their team spirit. Writer Kevin Fegan has used his experience of trailing them during their ground-breaking tour of Australia to tell a tale of brave challenges both on and off the pitch. During the play, the characters of the fictional team muscle on. We watch young brave women battling their way through rucks and revelations, not sure of the outcome, but simply giving it a try. This is a story about teenagers, those who nurture them and the broadness of the term ‘family’.

Emma Ashton, Richard Hand, Sam Winterbottom, Robert Took, Esther-Grace Button, Emily Spowage, Sophie Mercer, Josie CeriseAs promised during my interview with director Joyce Branagh, there is an eclectic mix of theatrical styles. The songs and poetic dialogue peppered within the show have a zig-zag of rhyming patterns, reflective of a forward player ploughing through.

In comparison to the strength of dialogue and characters, the narrative isn’t fierce, but a gentle stream carried through. There are many references for locals and rugby lovers  alike, which, though I am neither, I enjoyed as a voyeur, watching audience members acknowledge the inclusion.

The ensemble works perfectly and the sidling on of the minstrels (Robert Took and Sam Winterbottom) for the Greek Chorus ballads is typical of Branagh’s sense of fun.

Bringing this story to life has been a process of tender nurturing and, considering the stylised nature of the play and the fact that so many elements are brought together, nothing jars from scene-to-scene and the relationships between team members develop fluidly. The characters were superbly drawn, I believed them. Often when I see actors playing working class characters, they veer towards the snot-nose urchin, but Iffy (Sophie Mercer), Shelly (Esther-Grace Button), Emley (Josie Cerise), and Heaton (Emily Spowage) were played with integrity; good skills on the girls.

The Ruck, Esther-Grace Button, Sophie Mercer, Emily Spowage, Josie Cerise, Robert Took, Richard Hand, Sam Winterbottom, Emma AshtonEmma Ashton plays Nan as a universal tough-nut matriarch fiercely protecting her vulnerable grandchild from the truth of why they are thrown together. Richard Hand is one step away from a soft-touch as the coach Spen; lovable and trying to be hard among a terrifying array of strong girls. Yes, that is the full cast acknowledged. This is a fine example, and rightly so given the subject matter, of excellent team work.

Above all else, what better way to spend a Friday night than watching a group of young women achieve a dream?

The all-female Yorkshire rowers who set a record for crossing the Atlantic had one important goal: to finish their journey as friends. I hope this was the outcome for the real Batley Bulldogs, and that the play goes on to experience the same notoriety and success.

By Cathy Crabb

 

Cathy and the teamFollowing The Ruck’s world premiere at the Lawrence Batley Theatre on September 15, 2017, the production will tour to Cast in Doncaster and The Civic Barnsley. For more information or to book tickets, click here.

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Published on - Wed, 20 Sep 2017