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Manchester theatre reviews

Life Stories with Chekhov

Life Stories at Salford Arts Theatre

Reviewed by Stephen Bowler February 2016

Produced by Radius Opera and Theatre


All art is quite useless. That’s why we need it. Because we aren’t tools, but men and women with interests beyond utilitarian calculus. Soul is what matters; soul and sympathy and human understanding.


If such is your view, Life Stories is the evening for you. A pithy, prescient two-parter, Life Stories bounces one tale off another and leaves us asking for more.


First-up is Rest in Peace, which draws on a Chekhov tale about a man who is us – everyman, with a shopping trolley full of memories that prompt stream-of-consciousness style statements which, taken overall, chart an arc of experience we know to be true. James Fisher breathes life into this character with a lush, flexible bass tone that gains colour and depth as he dances through the highs and lows of memory. All too soon his time is up. He – Ezdeyev – will suffer the cold no more. But neither will he know human warmth. An ordinary man, he asks where ‘the snows of yesteryear’ have gone?


Good question! Where indeed did they go? Will they return? Is this a meteorological or a metaphysical enquiry? What lesson might we learn from things that recur, like snow, or human life? Are we in charge of our own destiny? Is there more to consider, in terms of contingency, fate and character? Such themes link the two Life Stories.


Silent JackIn the second half of the evening, captivating, mellifluous mezzo-Soprano Taylor Wilson inhabits the character of Silent Jack, whose life story is shaped by the capriciousness of men and markets. That this tale is set almost 300 years ago is incidental. The point is her agency – Romantically articulated – which knows the ‘bread of sorrow’ as the price of ‘cold’, murderous actions. When she acknowledges that ‘my deservings are upon me’ we know this to be true. No more snowfall for her either. Only silence.


Who said the examined life was easy! And if the alternative is not worth living, it is also not set to music! With a tight score and intimate setting the examined life is here a musical conversation. When, on occasion, Ezdeyev addresses the five-piece orchestra directly, he responds to the judgement contained within the music itself, a technique that sharpened a sense of instrumentation as dialogue, shaping the moral timbre of the moment in ways more powerful than we consciously comprehend. Tim Benjamin has indeed managed to squeeze a quart into a proverbial pint pot, offering-up an evening of music and song that is more than the sum of its parts. Thank God for useless art!

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