Romeo And Juliet: The Experiment - Castlefield Bowl, Manchester.

Cream-Faced Loons Theatre Company is based in Manchester with the aim of bringing Shakespeare to the North West in their ‘own unique Loons style!’

Taking the well known play Romeo And Juliet, a story of two star-crossed lovers from two warring households being the Capulets and the Montagues, and giving it a little shake by introducing a quintessentially British North & South divide, they brought this storyline slap bang into today’s world.

So, who are the aforementioned Southerners to our Northern Loons? Enter the London contingency being The Scram Collective, whose website states “We create new work based on human experience as well as reinventing old favourites with a touch of the surreal, keeping us dark, comic and a little bit unusual.”

And there you have the premise of 'The Experiment' because Team Capulet rehearsed in Manchester and Team Montague in London. Neither party met, until the first night of performance. They literally played the play like real life, but within a play - and with a live audience! Plus, they ‘live streamed’ it to their followers and absentee Southerners. Geddit?!

Set underneath three criss-crossing railway lines, beside the canal and very close to the Castlefield Bowl, we (the audience) unpacked fold-up chairs, blankets and beverages as we settled ourselves for this outdoor experience. (There was even a dog or two waiting in anticipation as they sat with their owners.) With live strumming guitars and the beat of a ‘cajon’ box drum, we were light-heartedly introduced to the Capulets and the Montagues. Each gang easily demonstrating the camaraderie among each other and the ease with which they 'own' the streets. They artfully communicated with each other in as bawdy a manner as you would expect of juveniles who think they are adults. Until the one-upmanship turns sour and things get out of hand.

To the sound of freight trains passing overhead and geese screeching from the canal, we were treated to an extremely exciting version of this play. It was raw. It was live. It was great. I’ll be honest, the purists out there might struggle with this version but not me. For me, it has everything that I love with the Nurse being played by a male actor; Tibalt by a feisty, leather biker jacket wearing 5 foot nothing female and an ensemble that conjured up all characters with detail and precision.

The atmosphere, sounds, smells and grit underfoot made this immersive experience truly compelling. Speaking boldly, I doubt Shakespeare would mind that half way through his well written speeches, the cast stopped to stare-down the ‘freight train’ that thundered past for what seemed like forever and had us all laughing out loud. Made funny by a highly competent cast who felt comfortable leading the audience through such moments without detracting from the story in hand.

The level of professionalism didn’t stop there, one of the many things I admire about these theatre companies is their ability to pick the bones out of the story. Take that story and truly express it over a two hour period, without a break, and still leave me wanting more.

Every single actor had their moment to shine in this version and each and every actor took that opportunity. There were no divas or outstanding up-stagers - just fantastic teamwork that made the storytelling the focus over any potential egos. I would like to have perhaps credited the cast of both companies, but unfortunately without programme I am somewhat lost!

An excellent piece of theatre. A wonderful experiment. I strongly recommend it. You can even take your dog. I did and they included her in the play!

Reviewer - Alexis Tuttle
on - 4/6/18

 

 

An Officer And A Gentleman - The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.

Prepare to be swept off your feet as the touring production of brand new musical “An Officer And A Gentleman” has landed at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre for one week only! Adapted from the 1982 film of the same name, it is based on true life events.

Written in collaboration with original screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen (who both penned the book), the show features a collection of 80s smash hits giving the show a nostalgic feel to it.

Set in 1982 in and around the United States Naval Aviation Training facility and Pensacola Paper Factory, Pensacola, Florida, the story opens to a bus load of navy recruits heading to base to commence their training. Factory worker Paula (Emma Williams) and colleague Lynette (Jessica Daley) stand outside the base awaiting the latest arrival of new recruits. Lynette announces to Paula that her future husband is amongst the new recruits. Lynette dreams of a better life than her current gloomy existence as an over-worked and underpaid factory worker and sees her only way out to be through winning the heart of a naval recruit and being whisked off her feet and taken all over the world as a military wife. Paula however has other ambitions, she dreams of a career in medicine despite the fact that she keeps being overlooked for training prospects. When bad boy Zack Mayo arrives at base on his motorcycle Lynette declares that he won’t last the training programme and that “the bad ones never make it”. Zack sees Paula and is smitten.

Led by Officer Emil Foley (Ray Shell), the men soon learn that military life is not for the faint hearted and are soon well into a strict regime of physical and mental training along with unannounced uniform inspections where the whites of their uniform are expected to be sharp enough to cut your finger on. Foley is a tough no nonsense guy who appears to be less favourable to the only female recruit Casey Seegar (Keisha Atwell).  At first Ray Shell portrays Foley as a cold hearted man you do not want to get on the wrong side of, but as the story develops you soon get the feeling that underneath it all he’s a big softy and that his tough love approach is for a valid reason. Atwell’s character shows no fear of being the only female recruit who, despite being academically the brightest, struggles with some parts of the physical demands but with encouragement and support from her fellow recruits, she soon proves to Foley that she is serious and dedicated deserving of recognition. 

Jonny Fines delivers a sensational performance as the tough lad Zack Mayo, who’s own Naval Officer father Byron (Darren Bennett) isn’t always supportive of Zack, and the transition from a typical army bad lad to a serious Naval recruit, is a moving one, particularly when he is faced with the tragedy of losing his best mate which prompts him to confide in Paula about the suicide of his mother.  

I could talk for hours on just how moving Emma Williams performs certain songs - from the duet with her mother (Rachel Stanley) “Don’t Cry Out Loud” following a disagreement with Paula’s relationship with Zack, to the emotion stirring rendition of Martika’s 1989 hit “Toy Solidiers” (group number), but it’s her 'belter' of a performance of Heart’s “Alone” that really proves that Williams is a triple threat in the world of musical theatre.  

This production supersedes everything I have seen so far this year (which is over 80 shows so far!),  yes it’s a little 'cheesey' in places (the “bus” scene for example) and highly predictable (given I’ve never seen the film) but it’s jam-packed with my favourite childhood records and brimming with feel-good factor. The iconic ending certainly delivers! The stage set is simple but effective; Michael Taylor’s set flits between the concrete grey of the Navy base with sea views to the rusty browns of the paper bag factory, mixed with crisp white military uniforms, 80s denim and checked shirts with elegant 80s formal dresses at the Naval Ball. A must see musical!

 

Reviewer - Lottie Davis
on - 4/6/18

Nigel Slater's Toast - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Raked seating for approx 200 had been erected in a semi-circle on the Lowry Theatre's main Lyric theatre stage, and with the curtains closed behind us, we sat watching our show unfold on what would normally be only a small portion of this vast stage. A lovely period set of a kitchen cleverly integrating the false with the real, and superb use of space with a 1950s lino floor and the stage was ready for an intimate and unique theatrical experience.

Nigel Slater, celebrity chef and writer, is seen here as a young boy growing from 9 to 18 I think throughout the play. Not only does he act as narrator, and have a 'Hamlet' sized set of lines to learn, but he is also a kind of intermediator between actor and audience. The audience / actor relationship being quite unique, surprising, and extremely clever. I loved it.

The play is biographical and tells the story of Slater in his most formative years, and as we learn about his childhood, his relationship with his parents, and most importantly his love of food and cookery, the story takes us right up to the moment he takes his first tentative steps into the kitchens of London's Savoy Hotel to work there.

The play is about family, relationships, misplaced affection, growing up, but mostly it is about food.. a love of food, a relationship with food, and a smell of food. There was even a distinct smell of burning toast in the auditorium as we waited for the play to start. (and food related period songs playing on the radio too!)

In a word this play was excellent. Highly entertaining. highly original and superbly cast. Sam Newton plays the young Nigel Slater with an air something reminiscent of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, but with a hint of that almost narcissistic bombastic quality which defined his older alter ego. His is the only role in the play to remain constant, as the other 4 actors are required to multi-role throughout. These characters, or sometimes even caricatures (emphasised for comedy value), are all excellently observed. His dad and the kindly lady chef at 'The Talbot' being the most fully-rounded in my opinion. The four were Lizzie Muncey (mainly his mum), Stephen Ventura (mainly his dad), Maria Lawrence (mainly his Aunt Joan), and Andy Brady who was pretty much everything else.

The dynamics worked wonderfully, and these 5 worked so well together it really didn't matter that each character to enter looked remarkably similar to the one that had just left! The choreography was impeccable and surprising in such a small space, and perhaps even more surprisingly, the dialogue and storyline never became self-indulgence or heavy going. It was always light, anecdotal, and fast moving.

Directed by Jannie Riordan, Henry Filloux-Bennett's biographical account of Nigel Slater's youth was theatrical magic and a foodie's heaven.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 1/6/18

Barnbow Canaries - Manchester School Of Theatre @ HOME, Manchester.

The real Barnbow Canaries - credit: The East Leeds History And Archeology Society

This play, written by Alice Nutter, serves as a poignant reminder of the lives and conditions women faced during The Great War, The War To End All Wars.

The year is 1916, and the place, the largest munitions factory, Barnbow, outside of Leeds. The workers, the vast majority of whom were women, fought for, and received the same pay as men, and so this was a sought after job, with the factory at the height of its production employing more than 15,000 women. The war effort needed munitions, and there was no shortage of women willing to 'do their bit' for the war effort. But, there was a catch, the yellow powder that filled the bombs was poisonous and created untold health problems, not least that it turned the skin yellow (hence earning them the nickname 'canaries'). It was also a very hard pill to swallow, that, in 1918, after the Armistice was signed, these women were expected to go back to their lowly positions and low pay.

The play though, despite bringing this and other themes of the day into focus, centres around an explosion which happened in the factory in 1916, leaving 35 workers dead and many more permanently injured. It was wartime, and so the accidental deaths of factory workers went unreported. It is only now, a century after the events are we commemorating and celebrating these women and the 'war' that they fought.  

Historically this play is fascinating, and I learned much by watching it; however, I did feel that the history and the importance placed on historical accuracy by director Joyce Branagh sometimes got in the way of theatricality of the play. The quieter, softer, more emotionally charged scenes were handles with aplomb and were indeed highly emotive. It was the rest of the play which didn't quite work for me.

I was present at an afternoon performance, and sadly it was somewhat lacklustre. The energy levels of some of the cast had definitely waned, and the whole lacked pace. To make matters worse, the constant moving of tables between scenes became laborious and long-winded. I most certainly appreciated the seeming authenticity of the props used, but there was a distinct lack of busy-ness with some of the mannerisms etc between male / female,  worker / boss were too modern to be truly believable.

The set and costumes were excellent and I liked the ideas that Flanders became the shop floor and ghosts talked to their living relatives. The acting too was also of the high standard I have now come to expect from students of The Manchester School Of Theatre, I just feel that a few of them could have benefited from upping their pace, their urgency, and most of the cast would certainly have benefited from speaking louder. I was sitting, as I always try to do, on the back row. Vocal projection and enunciation is a big thing for me; it is my baby so to speak. And whilst I am on the subject, the accents were all over the place, and you most certainly needed a dialect coach. My dad is from Leeds and so I am very familiar with his family's 'twang' and the closest on stage today was Jake Ashton-Nelson's Parkin.

The central characters in this story are sisters Agnes and Edith (Gabriele Woolner and Megan McInerney respectively) who both put in wonderful performances, but it was Woolner's superbly measured act two speech by the hospital bedside of her dying sister which was the most emotional moment of the play. Jake Ashton-Nelson was a hugely watchable and charismatic performer as work's foreman Parkin, and other creditable performances came from Robin Lyons as Victor, Michele Forbes as Florence and Eloise |Power as Swifty.

The comedy, dancing and singing (some lovely vocal harmonies) as well as live piano playing, served to heighten the tragedies more and the lighting and sound effects were 'spot on' (excuse the pun). The ending of the play though was for me, far too indulgent. Was this roll-call in the script? I would have been tempted to leave it out. It was, as my dad would undoubtedly say, like using a spade to pick a bluebell. 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 1/6/18

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - Lowther Pavilion Theatre, Lytham.

The Sound of Musical Theatre company should be very proud of all their cast members in their performance of the world-famous show, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 

The long-standing musical is based on the biblical story of Joseph found in Genisis chapter 39 and has been performed by many young (and old) musical theatre groups in various animations. The show is sung throughout leaving voices to be stretched and tested to their limits. All the cast were amazing in their enthusiasm and above exceptional in their ability to sing dance and act without having to be conducted.

Whist I must admit, I don’t normally pay too much attention to lighting, I must say that I did last night. My son commented that he'd never seen such a well ordered, organised and skilful performance in terms of lighting and sound. I must agree with him, as I could hear every word as clear as if it were a conversation. The effects that the lighting team produced during 'close every door' were beyond words, I never knew that a single light could have such an effect, this scene was made almost too emotional for me as the lights just wonderfully complemented the excellent acting that the cast members preformed.

For me though, the best performers were the two narrators, Erin Bannister and Erin James. The programme confirms that they are some of the best actors in the north west, as both of them have received NODA awards. Their diction, dialect and movements were beyond perfection, they both (in my opinion) are ready for the national stage. However, so are so many of the actors involved in this performance. 

When reviewing a performance, I find that some reviewers can get bogged down in talking about the directors, choreographers, costumes and other roles. Whist I do recognise that these are important roles, they are only as important as the performance itself as one small slip-up can cause a performance to see the curtain, in some cases, quite literally, fall. However, this performance had some of the best choreography that I've seen in a long time. It must have been a laborious process to get it so slick and so professional. 

This show should extend its performance dates, so that people will get the chance to see such an amazing performance. I can't truly get my head round the fact that their performance only lasted three days for such a 'well-rounded' show. I certainly recommend that if you get the chance to see this show or perhaps, even their next that you do so. 

All the cast did such an amazing job in all the disciplines that are involved in musical theatre from the headlining showstopping numbers, right down to the smallest of insignificant actions. Whist I must declare my interests in this musical  (it was my son's first and last show), I feel almost compelled to call it the best performance of Joseph that I've seen. 

In conclusion, if this show is of the same standard that is seen in all of their performances, then it is a miracle that they've not been ordered onto the West-End stage. Such a show stopping performance.

Reviewer - Alsion Harrsion
on - 31/5/18

Half Breed - Royal Exchange, Manchester.

Natasha Marshall gave a dynamic, highly-focused, and liberating performance in Half Breed. This is a part autobiographical comedy play, written by Marshall, which centers around a mixed race young person called Jazmin. She feels separated from other people in her village, she doesn't want to settle down and have a baby, and she doesn't want to be the butt of other people's racist jokes. The only way Jazmin can be happy is if she escapes to a drama school in London.

The play was made up of a series of beautifully written monologues and duologues, where Marshall was constantly switching characters and jumping timelines. Within the intricateness of the play text came lots of underlying themes and issues relevant to the present day. There was the narrow-minded village populace, who defined a particular race with their ignorance, "I am that mixed race kid... around here I'm as black as it goes". There are still countryside towns and villages, where the demographic of the population is made up of predominantly white people, who may not have experienced the opportunity of meeting other people from different walks of life. Jazmin was confused about her identity. She was indecisive about how to perform her ethnicity, due to being a mixed race woman. Finally, there were the examples of hate crime presented to us, which ranged from verbal insults to acts of sabotage. For the most part, the play focused on the negative episodes that Jazmin experienced in her life. I would have been interested to hear of some of the positives of being the only mixed race person in the village.

I admired Marshall's fiery spirit, passion, and ebullience when she performed. The movement work in the production was greatly effective, it explored the pacing and inflection in the text. It communicated Jazmin's kinesthetic experience of events to the audience. However, I thought Marshall wearing Reebok trainers was not right, since this play was not about the endorsement of that brand. In terms of the set, behind Marshall were hanging rocks, which was reference to one of the stories in the play and symbolic of the countryside landscape. Although, I wouldn't have said that particular story was the most significant or meaningful part about the play. So, I'm left asking the question why had this been given special importance?

What was clear though was the reason behind the messiness of the play text, which never fell into a linear trajectory. It represented her tangled thoughts about her identity, and her struggle to find herself and sense of belonging in her current environment. There were even scenes where past snippets of text or action intruded into other moments, which enhanced its meaning even more. The audience, including myself, gave her a standing ovation at the end. She thoroughly deserved it.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 31/5/18

Happyminds Hospital - The Met, Bury.

Happyminds Hospital has been around for the last couple of years at various venues, having been  previously called 'Rachel', and according to writer/director Stevie Helps this will be the last performance for a long while. The subject matter is mental health and Helps has used his own personal experience of psychiatric hospitals to create the play – something that made it all the more intriguing to see.

The play is described by Helps as having “Bi polar, ADHD and a Borderline Personality Disorder of its very own”. It is hard to argue against this with the multiple storylines, a very large cast of 14 and the varying styles of getting his message across. Sadly this leads to a production that is very confusing and puzzling – I was left wondering whether all of the characters were necessary with many of them not adding to the overall story.

Rachel Malony suffers from BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), she self-harms and has day to day struggles with her own existence. Her mother is an abusive alcoholic and she has a very disturbing relationship with her father – either being incestuous or sexually abusive, something that you are left wondering about all of the way through to the closing moments.

Elliott (Paul Kenney) met Rachel while she is on a night of self-destruction and is drawn to her with a feeling that he can save her – they end up in a relationship that results in them eventually being married. He met her father, Stuart Malony, on the same night and this is the first time we were introduced to the jealousy he feels whenever he sees Rachel with another man – something that runs into the wedding ceremony and beyond.

Act Two involved a lot of the action taking place inside the mental hospital, with Nurse Susan (Anna Prior) playing a key role. Forcing tablets on patients, neglect for patients who need care and even leaving patients to die are all exaggerated in the play for pantomime-style effect but they act as stark reminders of what can happen to an under-funded mental health service.

Other characters with storylines included a paranoid man who constantly abuses his girlfriend, both physically and mentally, making her believe that she is lucky to be with him; a café owner who is obsessed with her dog; a woman walking around threatening people with a brick, and a celebrity obsessed woman who is in love Michael Jackson.  Whilst I can see the need to highlight other types of mental health issues, I think Rachel’s story is thought provoking enough – the additional storylines made the plot feel overcrowded and this lad to a plot that was difficult to follow at times.

There are some really positive aspects to Happyminds Hospital, not least the use of 3 actors to play Rachel which brilliantly highlights the different aspects of her personality.  The use of cast members as live props makes the stage come to life and the music being provided for with a live Ukulele-player as a constant on stage presence is definitely something that adds to the experience.

In highlighting the problems with mental health, Stevie Helps is attacking a critical issue we have in the world today that needs addressing,not least the lack of funding to care for those with problems, and very few other writers are doing this.  Happyminds Hospital is brave, it is ambitious and without doubt it is thought provoking but it is also flawed and it didn’t leave me with a sense of satisfaction with the performance.

Reviewer - John Fish
on - 31/5/18

Things We Want - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

In a co-production between Play With Fire Productions (whose previous productions have been excellent) and Swaggering Crow, and being performed at the wonderful and versatile space that is Hope Mill, this should have been a truly fantastic production.

Things We Want however, is a play about three brothers, who, after the suicides of both their parents out of the same window but years' apart, are left in the family flat with their own share of problems; not least that omnipresent and featured window, their propensity to turn to alcohol and / or religion to help them through, and of course sex / love.

It has the perfect ingredients for a bitter-sweet and slightly dark sitcom, and indeed in many places throughout this evening's performance I expected to hear the canned laughter and felt somehow cheated when I didn't. The play started just like any US style comedy show I have ever seen... a lot of shouting, a lot of very fast quick-fire dialogue and repartee being thrown at each other with little or no emotion or thought process behind the words, and a lot of very bad acting [the actors knowing they were being watched and therefore hamming their acting up all the more to make a 'virtue' out of it]. It took Hannah Ellis Ryan's entrance as Stella, two thirds of the way through the first act, before that dynamic changed and it became more realistic.

I think one of the problems here is that we don't care about any of the four characters; Sty (William J Holstead) is an alcoholic who in the second act has reformed; Teddy (Alex Phelps) has a high flying position within a Zen 'church' who ends up an alcoholic and drunk on the sofa in the second act, and the third brother. Charlie (Paddy Young), the one we really should like and root for is just ineffectual all the way through, even when he looses the second love of his life, he doesn't really and truly seem to care. Whilst reformed alcoholic with a rapacious sexual appetite Stella is given an almost goddess status, when actually she doesn't have one single redeeming quality to her name.

The set is also very static, and so emphasises the sitcom quality of the play. The writing is stilted, clunky, and unrealistic, again promoting the American sitcom 'feel' to the whole. There are some genuinely funny lines in the play which I was laughing quite loudly at, but that was because the joke was funny in its own right, not because it worked in relation to the play as a whole.

All of this however is not the actors' fault. The writing is the writing and for this playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman is responsible; and the rest of my thoughts on this particular production are all down to the way it was directed; and in this instance it was directed by Daniel Bradford. I have seen at least three out of the four cast members in other plays before and so know that they are good and quality actors, and indeed they do make the best of this, putting in highly creditable, even if they were insubstantial and superficial, performances. Given a little gravitas and realism throughout, the play might have hit a chord and one might have been able to sympathise or even emote with those on stage, but at the present pace set by Bradford, and the ostensibly shallow characterisations - again soap opera style caricatures - it makes it very difficult for the audience to have any meaningful connection with this theatrical experience.

I feel saddened because I was truly looking forward to this play and desperately wanting to be able to give it a glowing review. Taken on face value, and performed as an American style TV series, it works, but I am sure the play should have more to offer than that.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 31/5/18

Happy Days - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

There’s a sporting cliché which is very apt here for it truly was a “a game of two halves.” At half time Maxine Peake may have returned to the dressing room to what I would expect would be a reasonable half time team talk. She may possibly be one nil up with potential to score one or two more. The start of the second half though, frustratingly, brings a total change of tactic from the manager. As a result, the opposition gloriously stage a comeback to go on and win the cup final.

Happy Days is Samuel Beckett’s 1961 absurdist play featuring the eternally upbeat Winnie buried into the earth and slowly sinking as time takes its toll. Her downtrodden husband Willie (played by David Crellin) says very little and spends his time sleeping in the hole he’s dug himself, oblivious to the demands the world places on him. It’s typical Beckett fashion to see the playing out of familiar daily routines, highlighting the daily grind, and stressing a certain futility or even slavery to said grind. There’s an obvious statement of entrapment prevalent particularly in this play and it’s an intensely intellectual play even just to read. Staging it takes some courage.

Happy Days is the latest collaboration between the Royal Exchange's Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake exploring a range of high profile roles for Peake including Miss Julie, Hamlet and now Winnie. It’s a tough role requiring forensic academic dissection of the heavy text to make the text work in performance. This necessarily thorough understanding hasn’t materialised though which causes problems in the performance. Nevertheless, we see a sparky channeling of Julie Walters from Peake which exudes control and energy, displaying some interesting performance choices. Peake is displaying her quality here and you cannot fault that aspect of the performance despite the underlying crux of what Beckett was trying to say being absent in large parts.

As with any Becket play the set is prescribed as simple and that is what we got. A mound of earth in the middle of the stage encasing poor Winnie, surrounded by a moat of water. The program notes discuss designer Naomi Dawson’s intent to bring a theme of climate change to the play. What came across well was how the world of the play set the characters in a situation where the sun was getting hotter and hotter every day whilst waiting for a fate they know they can’t escape from. Director Sarah Frankcom and Dawson meet the challenge of staging a very static play in the round by putting the mound of earth on a revolve, at least they do in the first Act.

Objections to the staging of Act Two stem from the previously cited change of tactic as Act One’s revolve is slowed down forcing audiences to either stare at the back of Peake’s head for minutes at a time as the revolve turns too slowly or stare at a live feed on a screen. Artistically this increases the sense of entrapment by the artist as she is stuck to performing to a camera but practically this can be a cause of upset to the luddites in the room who have paid to see live theatre not a screen.

Bold and courageous choices of plays inevitably carry risks. It hasn’t paid off quite fully here. Set, lighting and even sound set this production up well with the climate change concept not overpowering but subtly present. Visually it looked great (apart from the aforementioned screens!) and some good solutions were found to make it work in the round (not the screens). The let down is in just not getting under the skin of the text intellectually. This disappointed me a bit.

Reviewer - Karl Barnsley
on - 30/5/18

 

 

Stones In His Pockets - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

Picture the scene - you’re in a quiet rural village in Kerry in the west of Ireland, but it’s been taken over by a Hollywood production company to shoot their new film.... Stones In His Pockets is mainly a comedy with some dramatic scenes.

 

Written by Belfast-based Marie Jones, Stones In His Pockets is a two-hander which centres on pair Jake Quinn and Charlie Conlon and was first staged in 1996. After its premiere in Ireland, the play went on to be performed in the West End and Broadway.

 

The pair have been employed to work as extras on this film called The Quiet Valley, earing £40 a day. The juxtaposition between the lives of those in Kerry and the movie stars becomes apparent immediately. There are also contradictions in the two main characters as Charlie seems to be an eternal optimist, while Jake appears to be a pessimist.

The story definitely does have a hidden meaning to it. One that I took from it was that in everyday life it is easy to think people are ‘better’ than you because of their status or occupation, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings and no-one is any better than anyone else.

Most of the comedy comes from the actors Anthony Morris and Jamie Sloan doubling up as the other characters on the set. Morris did a great job of Aisling, the Director’s assistant and Sloan had the audience in stitches with this portrayal of Caroline Giovanni - the movie’s A-list actress and her Scottish security guard. While there are only two actors on stage, we are introduced to many different characters during the play. However, for me, the transition between characters wasn’t always entirely successful as I wasn’t always sure when they had changed characters. Some of the characteristics for the characters were perhaps not quite distinct enough.

Taking place in the Garrick’s studio theatre there were limited choices in terms of set for this production. However, there were occasions when it seemd a bit too basic. For example, there was no backdrop, and the only hint that the story was set on a film set was a Director's chair.

Sadly, despite some lovely acting, the accents in this production were quite pooor and the sections spoken in Gaelic mispronounced. I am a native speaker of the Irish language and so for me this was a problem.

In the end Jake and Charlie come to the conclusion that the ‘extras’ in life or those that are shoved to the background often have the most interesting stories to tell. If only Hollywood would agree with them.

Reviewer - Eddie Walsh
on - 3/5/18

 

 

The Kite Runner - Buxton Opera House.

The Kite Runner is a novel by Khaled Hosseini (who also wrote ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and ‘And the Mountains Echoed’), adapted by Matthew Spangler, which echoes real life in the world of Sunni and Shai Muslims living in Afghanistan, more specifically Kabul, in the mid 1970s. Narrated by Amir (Raj Ghatak) who is shown here grown up, we were lead through his journey and memories from his birth, family, childhood and into adulthood through to his travels from Kabul via Pakistan to San Francisco, California.

Despite light-heartedness throughout, this story highlights the harrowing experiences of living with the abuse/bullying that Muslims in Afghanistan were and some still are subjected to because of 'difference'. Through the twists and turns, the moral of the piece centred around the choice between being loyal to a friend, Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed) and his father Ali (Rez Kabir) who are Sunni (Amir is a Shia who is extremely loyal and would do anything for you “a thousand times over”), and gaining the unconditional love you yearn for from your father. The test of your courage to stand up for them against abuse was prominent as they stood up for you at every opportunity and this is even handed down to their offspring; Hassan’s son Sohrab (Jo Ben Ayed).

Amir and his father, Baba (Gary Pillai), have two servants: Ali and his son Hassan. We later discovered exactly why Baba had a special affinity with them, getting defensive and defiant when Amir asked if he would ever consider replacing them. Amir’s question or request came after he witnessed a horrific attack on Hassan by village bully Assef (Sorooth Lavasini) who had been taunting the boys for some time, along with his two sidekicks - we later discover that, as his life develops, he has taken the decision to continue his abuse by joining the Taliban, furthering his mission against Hazaras. Riddled with guilt that he ‘just ran’ and with the scenes bottled up inside, he attempted to reject and distance himself from his best friend and framed Hassan in order have him and his father sent away. A loyal friend, as proven, Hassan wrongly accepted blame and, despite forgiveness from their master and friend Baba, left Kabul. This happened after Amir achieved acclaim from his father after winning the kite race that see hundreds of paper and glue-made toys fill the skies. Hassan is “the best kite runner”, always knowing exactly where they are going to fall in order to catch them. After the servants had departed, Amir was set on making his father proud as “if I hadn’t seen you born, I wouldn’t believe you were mine” exclaims Baba.

Along the way we meet Rahmin Khan (Karl Seth) - later General Taheri and father to Soreya (Amiera Darwish) who became Amir’s wife when they moved to America - who we realise knew all about Amir’s struggles and journey, leading to a final request from him in memory of Hassan. We also met a multitude of characters who helped to tell the story, between providing a soundtrack with Wind Wand (combining the sound of the didgeridoo and the bullroarer using wood and rubber bands) and metal bowls (creating a slow crescendo, similar to the technique of running your finger around the edge of a glass of water) along with the talented on-stage musician, Tablas player Hanif Khan.

The set, designed by Barney George, is stunning. With revolving windmill-style blades used to split up scenes, with projections onto them, there is an authentic yet dark mood to the backdrop and minimal furniture other than up to four boxes, a chair, a cart and a wheelchair, all set on a large rug that is laid at the start.

Directed by Giles Croft, Matthew Spangler (author of the play)’s adaptation is brilliant and true to the book, later a film, coupled with Jonathan Girling’s compositions.

With the beauty of Buxton Opera House, there should be no excuse to miss this masterpiece that provides an insight into little known recent history and scuppers the myth that 'all Muslims are lead into evil acts'. Until Saturday.

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 29/5/18

Dökk - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Dökk, pronounced rather like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau would say the word 'duck',  is an Icelandic word meaning 'the dark'.

Fuse, the company behind this theatrical installation (not really theatre in the conventional sense despite it being performed on the Quays Theatre stage), if you look at their website, have a rather pompous and bombastic rationale behind this piece, which, it tells us is..

'Everything that surrounds us is nothing but a collection of atoms, particles and electromagnetic fields, vibrating without any apparent meaning. When these impulses are interpreted by our mind, they become colours, tastes, music, memories and emotions: the foundations of what each one of us perceives as reality. ‘Dökk’ is a journey through the subconscious mind, where reality is represented by worlds and universes that take form and dissolve within the mind, as it constantly seeks a balance between light and darkness.'

As we enter the auditorium there is a faint but faster than human pulse which as the lights slowly dim becomes louder and louder. There is noise (not music) throughout this one hour long presentation which at times is so loud it vibrates deep within you and consumes you completely. If you are not a fan of electronic reverb pulsing through your body, take earplugs if you go.

Using two screens, one in front of the performer and one behind universes are created or destroyed, the vastness and infinite 'darkness' of what is outside our own solar system is brought to our imaginations as CGI and performer cleverly work together.

The dancer / aerial artiste, dressed in black with sensors all over her body performs for the whole hour inside this space, her body controlling the movement of the 'atoms' and 'particles' which create our universe. Particle storms of violent ferocity, distant galaxies bursting into flames etc are created - more by our own imagination perhaps than anything else, for in reality all she is doing is creating some fascinating and clever patterns on the screens.

The images would have been much better regarded had I have been sitting both further back from the front and more central. Sadly the designer of this 'spectacle' neglected that there was really only actually one central point where optimum visual enjoyment and understanding would occur, and in a theatre, that is a basic impossibility.

Again, reading the website [there was no programme and no information available of any kind on the night of the performance]  it seems that the piece was constructed in ten separate 'stanzas' (their word) in which the final 'movement' corresponds with the beginning and everything has no beginning or end and all is controlled by our own perception and understanding of it.

It was undeniably clever, and the images created were to some extent mesmerising, but to be subjected to this for a whole hour without dialogue, explanation and our aural and visual receptors being subjected to sights and sounds highly abnormal for us in our daily lives for such a long time sans-cesse was just simply too much and too long.

There is a nice video on Vimeo  https://vimeo.com/205071534 which does give you a very visual idea of the show, better than my descriptions. However, do remember that this was filmed from the one audience seat which affords this view. Not mine.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/5/18

Oliver Twist - The Bojangles Theatre, Middleton, Manchester.

The Bojangles Theatre

Quite wrongly advertised as Oliver Twist, this was in fact a shortened version of Lionel Bart's Musical, Oliver! And rather than showing certain scenes and using certain music, a Narrator was deployed to read the story and fill in the gaps. Moreover, the music was not played live but a mix between the original soundtrack and backing tracks were utilised throughout. This came with a whole set of problems, not least the fact that there was no stage playback and so many of the songs were sung out of sync with the tracks.

The production was produced, directed and starred Karl Camilleri, and so one got the impression (rightly or wrongly) that he wanted to play the part of Fagin, and so made the show happen around him.

The Bojangles Theatre is a small 100-seat studio space in an industrial unit on a small industrial estate in Middleton, north Manchester, and it is also the home of The Popstars Academy; a place young people can come and be creative and learn new skills in all aspects of the performance arts. It was students of this organisation who formed the chorus of workhouse children and Fagin's gang.

The stage looked quite effective; the back wall had been given a black and grey Victorian London scene, with two wing flats continuing the scene, there was smoke and it looked gloomy and forbidding. Unfortunately I was present at a matinee performance and there is no way that you can create a blackout in the auditorium and so we watched the show in daylight, with the stage lights having very little effect at all.

The show was late starting, and had an overlong interval, and sight lines were very bad. Quite a lot of times there was action happening either sitting on the edge of the stage or even directly in front of the audience in the auditorium, and unless you were on the front row, these scenes were invisible.

Rod Hailworth made for a suitable narrator, but he really needed to turn the pages of his book.. the whole story was on the first page! Breanna Wardle was an innocent and capable Oliver, and Leah Wood gave us a very confident and personable Artful Dodger. Mr. Bumble was played by Paul Allcock, who despite his lovely interpretation of the role, dried a couple of times and lost the song lyrics too. He seemed a little nervous and insecure; perhaps the company needed a little more rehearsal, since his was not the only scene which came across as under-rehearsed; nor was it the only scene where things didn't quite go as planned.

The other cast members were Michelle Hailworth as Widow Corney, Kat Rawling as Nancy, Jack Howard as a loud and suitably threatening Bill Sykes, and Karl Camilleri was Fagin, taking much of his interpretation from those who have famously played the part before him. 

All told it was a rather disappointing, lacklustre show fraught with technical problems.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 26/5/18

I'm Frank Morgan Rewired - The King's Arms, Salford.

To describe “I’m Frank Morgan RewiRED” as a one man play or a monologue is correct but this simply does not do justice to it – this is so much more than that.  Joe O’Byrne excels in all of his roles – he is the writer, the only actor and the director.

The King’s Arms in Salford was transformed into the fictional neighbourhood of Paradise Heights, complete with the Ace Of Spades Club which is owned by loan shark, poker player and general hard man Frank Morgan – something he won in a poker game many years earlier.  It is frequented by all of the local rich and famous, as well as those influential types who operate on the corrupt side of the fence.  There is also a very private 3rd floor in the club where those with enough money can hire a private room for just about anything and everything they desire.

We were introduced, or more accurately confronted, by Frank Morgan in the first act – blood drenched clothes and staggering into the club with a bottle of whisky in his hand.  He slammed down a blood stained hammer onto a table, jolting the audience and he started to tell us all about his empire of wealth and the violent world that he operates in.

The Ace Of Spades Club set worked perfectly as a platform for Frank to deliver his opinions, not least on immigration where he described everyone as some kind of immigrant – with this country surviving because of the multicultural environment and not in spite of it.  However, it is where he recounts stories from the recent past where the character of Frank Morgan is really brought to life.  There is a small stage and microphone which allows a stand-up comedian style delivery for parts of his story telling, complete with canned laughter at the appropriate (or should I say inappropriate) places and this just added a further dark element to the character.

One of the many things I loved about this play is how O’Byrne quickly developed an intimacy with the audience, making us feel uncomfortable just at the right time but also creating an empathy when he bared his soul about love and in some cases regret.  His delivery was intense and alluring so at times you felt like he was addressing just you.

Act two kicked off with an even more blood saturated Morgan looking like he had just returned from his latest violent encounter with one of his many loan defaulters – he recounted his well-honed skill of spotting a lie before it even comes out of someone’s mouth, using a rather more scientific approach than perhaps we were expecting.  To quote Frank himself, a lie is “not written all over their face, but actually on one side of their face”.

The second hour provides the context and conclusion to many of the actions in the first half, how Frank manipulated the Serbian and Albanian gangs with such skill and aptitude that he once again became the King of Paradise Heights, how he fell in love reluctantly with a mysterious stranger with a very disturbing secret and ultimately how he was paid back with guilt and regret which ultimately gave him his own life sentence.

O’Byrne is clearly a hugely talented writer and you can see the absolute passion for his work in the way he delivers the performance as Frank Morgan – he is also backed up by subtle but very effective lighting particularly in the final scenes.  I would love to see more of Frank Morgan but more than that I hope to see a lot of Joe O’Byrne’s work in the future.

Reviewer - John Fish
on - 25/5/18

Letters - The RNCM, Manchester.

A collaboration between the RNCM Young Company and The Circus House, this was a devised 80 minute piece which combined aerial, trapeze, hoop, tightrope, and balancing with singing, movement and acting.

The RNCM Young Company is a group of 13 - 20 year olds who have weekly classes at the RNCM with industry professionals to train and develop their skills and interest in Musical Theatre. The Circus House is a community organisation which delivers workshops for both children and adults in circus skills.

The RNCM at the moment have a theme running through much of their public performances, which has the title, 'French Connections'. Letters responded to this by creating a show which draws on letters, memories and shared experiences between Manchester and Paris over the century since the end of the First World War.

Using a 12 piece band of RNCM students, they played a well known piece of music for each decade represented. With all the cast wearing cream coloured 'pyjamas' and bear feet it gave a rather eerie and ghostly aspect to the show, which I am sure was unintended. The Young Company would wear smaller items over the top of these if creating a character more fully was required. 

Between each section there were very long pauses whilst the apparatus from the last decade was cleared and the apparatus needed for the next set was put into place. I understand the need for safety and precision, but I feel sure there could have been a more economical and swifter way of affecting those changes. The aerial and acrobatics on display though was very good and well rehearsed. My favourite moment in the whole show was when two young girls (they looked like twins!) worked on the central hoop together. Their timing and the pictures they created lovely, and they worked superbly together. Not that this wasn't true of the whole show - it was - but this moment extra-specially so!

In between all of the theatrical circus, the Young Company formed the narrative and the chorus, driving the very tenuously linked sections. Some reading letters to or from a loved one, some giving information, [there was a rather protracted scene about The Millennium Bug scare] and all of them being war weary soldiers or 60s jive dancers, or whatever that decade required of them.

The show finished with both groups standing at the edge of the stage singing 'Something Inside So Strong' quite impassionedly as letters fell from above onto the stage.

Directed by Alex Anderson and Sian Berry with choreography by Bridget Fiske it was a unique and interesting experience, but was without substance, despite the amount of talent that was on the stage. The whole was watchable but failed to cohere and lacked pace and energy.

Reviewer- Matthew Dougall
on - 25/5/18

Hello Dolly! - The Waterside Theatre, Manchester.

Students on the BA(Hons) Musical Theatre course at The Arden (now part of The Manchester College) took to their main stage today with the 1964 hit, Hello Dolly! by Jerry Herman. It's a fabulous score and a with a story adapted from Thornton Wilder, it is not your average everyday bland mono-dimensional book.

It tells the story of Dolly Levi, matchmaker, meddler extraordinaire, who is a one-women business enterprise of self-survival. She is widowed, but still talks to her husband and looks to him for her inspiration and guidance. However, she also feels that it is time to 'move on' and in this regard has set her sights firmly and squarely on wealthy shop owner, Horace Vandergelder. Whilst pretending to act as 'matchmaker' for him, she makes sure that the matches are unsuitable and allows him to come around to thinking that the only suitable match for him would in fact be her!  Vandergelder also has two somewhat hapless but likeable employees and a giddy niece, who all lose no time in seizing their opportunity to leave the shop in Yonkers and travel up to New York City for the day. Comedic complications aside, these three find love and romance too, thanks to Dolly of course, and all ends happily.

Of course I am oversimplifying the story. There is plenty happening and a few twists and turns in there to sustain interest.

As with all Arden Theatre School's productions, the sets are minimal (due to budget more than anything) and so there is always a rawness and edgy 'fringe theatre' quality to the shows; a showcase of talent in which the audience is invited to imagine the grandeur and splendour of the setting. Brecht would have approved. And this is why, in many ways, Musicals which have taken a Brechtian approach to their concept and writing do tend to work better in this space, rather than the lavish and opulent, requiring costly and authentic-looking costumes and sets such as this. However, this does not diminish the talent or the theatricality; and these, I am happy to say, are always evidenced and of a very high standard.

High above the stage on a balcony belonging the building, the orchestra sardined themselves in, and below that a stage balcony. Between the two a screen; a fabulous idea, and I have never seen these images used in previous productions of Dolly. But archive photos of the era and NYC, as well as the relevant buildings and parades were shown throughout to exemplify and ameliorate the narrative. They worked excellently and were lovely to watch.

Performance-wise, show sinks or sails really on one character, that of the singular force that is Dolly Levi. Gemma Barnshaw's interpretation of the role today was a little different from those I have seen in the past. It was subtler and more nuanced; not as brash, bold, blustery or butch as previous incarnations. The gentle hat nod, the wink, the wry half-smile, the coquettish arrogance, all worked in her favour on this stage and the audience's intimacy. I doubt such acting would work quite so well on the larger more conventional stages, which is probably why the character is always a lot 'bigger' and larger than life. I have to say, I really rather enjoyed Barnshaw's interpretation of the role, but there were occasions, especially in the songs, where it most certainly did require a more mature profundo bluster and thundering. If I'd have seen that too, it would have been simply perfect!

The principal roles were all well chosen and some lovely characterisations shone through. Luke Race played an easily-led Horace Vandergelder with ease. I didn't understand though why he was sweeping his own shop floor at the beginning. He is a miser and cares only for money, that much is clear, but he is the boss, and when he has shop employees to do that, he would have been better seen 'cuddling up close to his cash register'!  His two employees, Cornelius Hackl (Thom Ashman) and Barnaby Tucker (Sam Newsham) were excellently chosen and worked well together, one the 33 year old simpleton virgin yearning for the chance to open his wings, whilst the other is a wide-eyed 17 year old, eager to learn and copy his more learned colleague.

Ambrose (Luke Fuemtes Moreno), Ermengarde (Bethaby Rosamund), and Minnie (Tanya Sewell) all gave very creditable performances, but it was Ida Alstad's Irene Molloy, a statuesque young widow and owner of Molloy's Hat Shop who truly impressed. One of the very few in the cast able to so effortlessly be 'elegant' as the mannerisms and customs of the day required. Her rendition of my favourite song from the show, 'Ribbon's Down My Back' brought a tear to my eye.

The choreography (Tim Flavin, Nicola Rowell, Josephine Klumb, Shanice Mainwaring, Eleanor Hoban) was super. Some of the best I have seen from all the show I have so far been privileged to watch here.  Robert Purvis once again provided solid and excellent Musical Direction, and the directing is credit to Tim Flavin. It was secure, sensible and worked well. There were however, just a couple of things which for me, seemed either out of place or odd. In the first act there was a gap under the balcony which was used as an entrance / exit. It was barely waist high and looked strange and unrealistic, causing those using this entrance to almost double up to do so. However, the worst anomaly for me was certainly the plates of plastic toy food served at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant! Either have real and expensive looking haute cuisine or leave the plates empty. The laugh that precipitated that was not the correct kind of laughter. 

Oh, and there is just one more thing. The chorus. Their singing and ensemble work was lovely and the harmonies excellent - especially the male chorus to 'It Takes A Woman'. And in amongst this chorus there was one individual who, all the time without fail, made me notice her. Not because she was doing anything particularly different from the others, and not because she was particularly any better than the others. It was simply that her facial expressions and her attitudes were absolutely on the nail-head every time, and she was completely and utterly 'in the moment', much more so than and more consistently than others around her. She was, I am reliably informed, Hollie Lee.

Hello Dolly! was a thoroughly enjoyable show, and a credit to all involved. I hope to see some of these soon-to-be graduates on the professional stage very soon!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/4/18 

A Taste Of Honey - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

Just before the play starts, we are kindly reminded that mobile phones did not exist in 1958. It was time to switch them off. A Taste of Honey was considered to be one of the first real working class plays from a working class voice. No longer would the working class be represented as a two dimensional stereotype in the theatre. Shelagh Delaney's play constructs a profound and visceral depiction of people living in the midst of poverty in the 1950s. Set in a time when Woolworths still existed, this is a story about a teenager Jo who lives with her alcoholic, uncaring mother Helen, in a Salford bedsit. Jo falls pregnant to Jimmie, a sailor. When he disappears from her life, Jo meets a gay art student called Geoff. They both find enjoyment in each other's company, as they both have felt abandoned in their lives.

Gemma Dobson's portrayal of Jo was very well observed. One moment she was cheeky, the next moment she had to be brave and independent. Peter (Helen's fiance) , was played by Phil Rowson. He was a true 'chauvinistic pig' and brought some humour to the play; the audience were laughing at Peter. Helen was a fiery and struggling mother, as performed convincingly by Kerrie Taylor. Providing good support was Max Runham as Geoff and Kenton Thomas as Jimmie. Overall, I felt that Helen and Jo's scenes, which took up the majority of the play, were performed a little too fast and as such, we lost some of the humour, and most importantly, some of the meaningful snippets of dialogue. In addition, Taylor's asides to the audience were not clearly marked and considered.

The play was directed by Chris Lawson, and he did a proficient job at bringing out the contrasting moments of conflict and peace in the play. Also, Lawson gave the play some dynamism in allowing the actors to move and make full use of the space.

A Taste of Honey was first performed at The Theatre Royal Stratford East on 27th May 1958. Watching it now you can sense the bygone attitudes of certain people in the play such as, the sexism against woman, homophobia, and racism. It appears that Delaney was expressing her discontent for these social attitudes and as such the play was revolutionary for its time.

All of the action in the play took place in a dissected bedsit, which showed the living room and bedroom, as designed by Sammy Dowson. All of the characters could be seen walking along a pathway before entering a scene inside the bedsit. However, what was jarring was how Jimmie was allowed to walk across the set at one point. Another element that seemed somewhat out of place was the LED star lights incorporated into the set, I understand what it was trying to symbolise, but it clashed with the naturalism of the rest of the set.

In summary, the Northern and working class ethos was proudly prominent in this production, unfortunately though, a few drawbacks meant A Taste of Honey was not quite so sweet.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 25/5/18

We Apologise For The Inconvenience - 3MT, Manchester.

This is a 45 minute one act play by Mark Griffiths produced by 5064 Theatre Company, but don't panic, it's mostly harmless and you don't even need a towel!

Yes, just in case you haven't 'got it' yet, this play is based on the life of Douglas Adams, most famous for his comedy sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

In this scenario, our eponymous 'hero', Mr. Douglas Adams himself has been locked in a hotel room,(Room 42 of course!), by, we assume his publisher, until he finished his next book. His final deadline fast approaching - and he loves deadlines; he loves the whooshing noise they make as they pass by. There is only one problem; he has writers' block and instead of using his brain the size of a planet constructively, he takes baths; lots of baths and spends hours at a time in them. He also has a small yellow plastic duck, which for reasons best known to the writer metamorphoses into Adams' conscience, as a 'multi-dimensional hyper-being beyond time and space'.

Throughout the play there are many little hat-nods to Douglas Adams' oeuvre, and the things spoken about, about his life and his struggles, are well documented, even his bouts of being unable to write and his love of baths! But, that he was ever held captive in a hotel room, is pure fiction...or is it?! And although the play is probably better enjoyed if you do have a love of Trillion, Zaphod, Marvin and co, the Douglas Adams virgin will also undoubtedly enjoy this play too. And don't worry if you are a total novice in this regard as before the play actually begins, and again at the end, a very helpful digital computerised display and voice over tells you all you need to know to keep you from feeling left out. And what's more, the display is done very much in a style of which I am sure Adams himself would have approved.

Adam Gardiner is a highly creditable Douglas Adams, if a little bit young, but he is tall, thin, acerbic, and yes, very much like John Cleese! However, his performance is somewhat eclipsed by a larger than life yellow duck with an American accent and attitude, given an expertly judged over the top but never overt rendering by Rob Stuart-Hudson. Together they are splendid and with some excellent direction by Ross Kelly the pace never dips and the narrative is kept light and fast-moving. And there are some lovely little physical comedy moments too. [as well as educational stuff - like knowing that P G Wodehouse wrote 92 novels!]  

This short play was a lovely tribute to the great man himself, and was a delightful, well-crafted, and superbly acted piece of well researched and clever comedy, which I would advise you to go and see, but you wouldn't listen. No-one ever does. However, I have to go now, so, if you'll excuse me. So long, and thanks for the fish!

Reviewer - with apologies to Douglas Adams; Matthew Dougall.
on - 24/5/18

Madhouse Re:Exit - The Brickworks, Barton Arcade, Manchester.

Welcome to Paradise Fields, a modern caring residential 'facility' for people with learning disabilities. To our modern thinking that doesn't sound right, politically correct or even possible; but after being taken through this promenade production with audience interaction, I left feeling that perhaps, in the hands of certain governments, such a place could easily be a reality.

However, let me take you back. In the bar area there is a small exhibition of photographs and testimonies with a very helpful a clear 'time-line' in order for you to better acquaint yourself with the 'tour' which is to follow. Mental health issues were not, and are still not, fully understood. But it isn't that long ago in our history that anyone with a learning disability of any sort could easily be institutionalised for life, and be denied not only freedom but basic human rights too. They became objects of ridicule and were labelled 'idiots', 'imbeciles'. 'feeble minded' or 'morally defective' and people often would pay the institution money to be shown these 'freaks' for their own sport and entertainment. It is as recently as 2009 when the last NHS Learning Disability Hospital closed.

It is armed with this background information that we are ushered into the new, glossy, but not yet quite open or finished (building work is still going on) 'Paradise Heights' plc Waiting Room. We are greeted by a shiny smiling lady who neglects to introduce herself, but her badge tells us she is Sandra - Personnel Manager. She is just too sweet, too nice, too patronising. But, as we allow ourselves to be bought in to this - the wonderful glossy brochures of this new facility, the TV screens with glowing adverts for the place on continual loop, and the pristine and flash interior as well as Sandra's bright pink costume. But something isn't sitting right. It's all too 'perfect'. The corporate image and the 'sell' are very cleverly there, but there is a doubt in the back of your mind. And as we are asked to play some silly team games (the first reference to 'shoes' which is a continual theme throughout the show. - patients were not allowed shoes, they had to be barefoot, and if a bed had shoes on it, it signified that that patient had died) our instincts were substantiated. A siren and the lights dimmed. Sandra gave a squeak of embarrassed laughter and made her apologies, and as the lights went out completely the TV screens showed us an image of Patient 36, our 'guide' for the rest of the tour. The real tour. The tour that takes you back in time. In order to understand the present we must first learn about the past.

It's a very clever idea, and one that works surprisingly well. We enter rooms or pass along narrow corridors and invited to watch images of the past. Doctors gliding past us, making notes on charts on the walls, watching a doctor administer to one of his patients. But somehow, it is the more subtle things which are left lying around which make the biggest impact. There are letters and notes strewn on the floor, all real, all impassioned please for help from those held in such hospitals, and the constant reminders of The Mental Health Act (cleverly juxtaposed with the shiny Sandras) that pack the greatest punch.

We also see 4 extended 'shows' as we pass along in our journey through times' past. These are performed by learning disabled actors and actresses. It is the power and sincerity of these performances. Their heartfelt cries for acceptance and integration - which they still, even today, don't fully enjoy - which made this piece of theatre startling and emotional.

DJ Hassan is a man in a bird costume dancing in a large bird cage. 'Inmates' were often given caged birds to bring them a little happiness or to calm and sooth them. Mostly it had the opposite effect, since the caged bird was exactly what they themselves were. An animal who needs and deserves freedom and yet is denied it.

Dayo Koleosho is 'The Eater'. We enter a small, hot and claustrophobic space, and are invited to play a game. We put tokens into a slot machine which gives us peas, or peas in a syringe to throw and squirt at a patient behind a screen wearing a plastic mask with a mouth hole. A modern version of some kind of freak side show which may well have been a part of a Victorian patient's humiliation. It felt all wrong to be doing this, but given the remits of the show, and the encouragement from the unseen voice, it was also quite fun. Koleosho's powerful monologue at the end though soon sobered us up, and we left feeling thoroughly abashed. 

Imogen Roberts was 'The Goddess' - a dance and evocation. Her piece based on the almost certain knowledge that an ancient tribe in what is now Mexico, called the Olmec, worshipped children with Downs Syndrome as gods. Whilst Cian Binchy was an adult baby whom we were asked to feed with a bottle, change his nappy and read him a bed-time story. He had written a poem, called An Empty Pair Of Shoes, and as he read this to us, I couldn't help but shed a silent tear.

Our 'guide' throughout all of this - the bodyless black and white controller from the TV sets was 'The Escapologist'. Actor David Munns.

This show by Access All Areas and being shown as part of The Lowry's Week 53 Festival, is bold, daring, hugely thought-provoking, clever and many other adjectives which I simply cannot put into actual words. The 'tour' runs at just over 100 minutes and is a non-stop onslaught on recognition, acceptance and integration. We hear modern politicians and we hear the politspeak and platitudes, but these do not resonate quite as clearly in this setting since we are all too familiar with them anyway. 

The one thing which I thought odd, and was never developed, and simply came from nowhere was my thought that these pink-suited ambassadors of Paradise Heights (we met three on our travels) were aliens. On one occasion we see Sandra enter, flustered, to bring us back to the present and into another waiting room. She has green slime on her forehead, and is very embarrassed when she 'notices' it. And on another occasion we witness all three of them walking in a robotic manner and all speaking the same text, not acknowledging us, but walking past and through us delivering this learnt speech. I am uncertain about this - and maybe I was the only to pick up on this - but it was very odd.

However, Madhouse Re:Exit, directed by Nick Llewllyn, is most certainly a ground-breaking, highly relevant and highly challenging experience you won't forget in a hurry; part horror story, part history lesson, part utter madness; this performance does help to raise awareness for those people still marginalised because of learning difficulties. The modern freak show to end all freak shows perhaps? Let's hope so.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 23/5/18

Brighton Rock - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

On the surface Brighton Rock seems to be your typical tale between the good guys and the bad guys. However, it is not that straightforward and in the writer’s (Bryony Lavery) own words is a complicated plot.

The plot is a twisted love story between Pinkie (Jacob James Beswick) and Rose (Sarah Middleton). Pinkie is a big-time gangster in Brighton who commits murder, however there is just one problem - Rose has witnessed it. So Pinkie hatches a plan to make her fall in love with him, so she would never give evidence against him. It is such an odd relationship as right from the very beginning Pinkie displays abusive characteristics, however Rose just seems to accept it. She loves the idea of being in love more than being in love itself. Although Pinkie and Rose are the main characters, it does seem like Ida (Gloria Onitiri) is the protagonist in this piece. However, I don’t think her story was very strong and found myself questioning her motives.

Set in the 1930s, the characters in Brighton Rock are religious - both of the main characters are Roman Catholic. This is one of the recurring themes throughout the play, alongside being naive and violence.

Beswick was fantastic in the lead role as Pinkie, you can tell he was in character at all times. The little limp the character had was portrayed in all scenes. Yet he also had the swagger needed to be a gangster. Middleton does a great job in her portrayal of Rose, playing dumb but in the final moments she reveals she was aware of Pinkie’s intentions all along. She was a really good fit for the character and couldn’t imagine anyone else playing this role.

Perhaps the highlight of the show is the movement. The aspects of physical theatre used in the production worked really well. Also the movement of props between scene was neat and stylishly executed. The live band on stage added to the tension of the piece. Quite often you could hear the drums banging in the scenes. Also the voice singing at the end of the piece was beautiful and haunting.

Brighton Rock was originally a book written by Graham Greene. However, some of the aspects of bringing it to the stage didn’t work. For me I was left very confused by the plot, it wasn’t until act two that it all started to make sense. I am sure readers of the book knew what to expect and understood the story.

Reviewer - Eddie Walsh
on - 23/5/18

#BeMoreMartyn; The Boy With The Deirdre Tattoo - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

The 22nd May 2017 will be a day Manchester will never forget. 22 people were killed when a bomb exploded at Manchester Arena at the end of an Ariana Grande concert. One of the victims was 29 year old PR Specialist, Martyn Hett.

#BeMoreMartyn (The Boy With The Deirdre Tattoo) is produced by Hope Theatre Company who have been established since 2004 and present original work including productions about the LGBT+ community. It is a piece of verbatim theatre in which eight actors take on the roles of Martyn’s friends. The dialogue is constructed from meetings the writer; Adam Zane had had with those who knew Martyn best.

As the audience enter the theatre at Hope Mill, songs from artists such as Steps and The Spice Girls are playing. There are also pictures being shown on a loop on a screen of a bunch of famous faces holding a sign up with the words #BeMoreMartyn. The majority of the action takes place in Martyn’s flat - The Frigg. He lived above the Hat Works Museum in Stockport and was well-known for throwing a party. One of his friends' fondest memories was of his iconic Eurovision parties, where each year he would have a fancy dress theme from X Factor to famous homophobes. Although the cast is relatively large with an ensemble of eight, each character gets their individual moment to recall their favourite memories of Martyn. It was nice how these were weaved in with the narrative of the show. Paula Lane’s interpretation of Rachel receiving a memory box from Martyn’s mother moved the audience to tears.

This production was very touching, but there were also a lot of laughs. Most of these actually came from footage played of Martyn himself doing his Coronation Street impressions and his appearance on Come Dine With Me. During the show the actors made eye contact with the audience. This added a nice touch to the performance and felt personal, real and honest. You could tell they really cared about what they were saying. Although we all wish this production should never have needed to have been made, it had a largely uplifting tone and left the audience feeling that they needed to make the most out of their lives. It was very clear that Martyn brought so much joy to each person he met.

Reviewer - Eddie Walsh
on - 21/05/18

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

As camp, high glam musicals go, then there isn't anything to top this show. Based on the hit Australian film of the same name, the show has no pretensions and is a celebration of high camp from beginning to frothy and glitzy end.

The story tells of two drag queens and an aging transgender woman in Sydney who go on a road trip to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock in an old clapped out bus which they christen Priscilla. Bored of his mundane life which is going nowhere, and desperate to see his 7 year old son from his estranged wife who runs a casino in Alice Springs, he invites two of his closest friends to join him to perform in her casino there. He neglects to tell them though about his wife and his son.

This is the story of their often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, but mostly heart-warming journey and their public concert in Alice Springs, and their private concert, in full drag, on top of Australia's most sacred and holy of natural monuments, Ayers Rock. The show is a celebration of homosexuality, and challenges the (Australian) cultural norm by bringing issues of gender to the forefront of their lives and by so affronting mainstream values and cultural viewpoints, shows quite clearly that what society says, isn't always right.

The dialogue is minimal, and just enough to advance the narrative to the next song. And since every song is a well known hit of popular music from mostly the 80s, it seems that every song requires a different costume, each one more outrageous and flamboyant than before, and since every song is a showstopper, it is very hard to choose a favourite.

In this production, Tick (or Mitzi to his friends), was played with earnestness and joy by Todd Bennett, with Mark Butt putting in a very grounded performance as the ex 'Les Girls' dancer, Bernadette. It is undoubtedly though, the flawless and extremely high energy performance from Rhys Nuttall as Adam (aka Felicia) which stole the show!

The mechanic who saves the bus and the 'girls' Bob, was played this evening with resigned sincerity by Ivor Farley, whilst his mail order oriental bride - whose ping pong ball routine was hilarious! - was played by Claire Garrett. Three girls (Lara Hancox, Lauren Whiteley and Rachel Gerring) made up a very convincing Ronettes style trio who sat somewhere between named character and chorus, having lots to sing and dance but not advancing the narrative or sharing their opinions in the way that a similar trio of girl singers does in the Musical, Little Shop Of Horrors. There was also a talented ensemble who played smaller cameos as well as danced and sang in the chorus numbers.

The costumes are utterly fab-tastic, the lighting design is wonderful, the music - directed by Mark Goggins in a large pit in the centre of the stage - is perfect, the choreography (Louise Pettitt) some of the best I have seen at The Garrick for a long while, but the real star of the show most surely be Priscilla herself. The design worked wonderfully and I loved the LED lights and the clever little touches such as the number plate.

Irritatingly the show this evening was some 25 minutes delayed in starting due to some sound issues, and unfortunately those issues had not been completely rectified  since throughout the show sound levels dipped in and out and mics stopped working at times. It didn't interfere overmuch, but it does serve to highlight just exactly how much modern theatre has come to rely on technology. Gone are the days of learning vocal projection and enunciation at drama school. Nowadays they learn microphone technique and multi-media art performance.

The one thing which did irk a little for me though was the use of folded flats at the end to signify the child's bedroom and Ayers Rock. After a whole show of excellent sets within the framework of an open mouth, a wonderful bus and fabulous costumes, these badly painted flats looked 'amateurish' and lame.

However, these issues notwithstanding, this was a incredibly competent, lively, high energy toe-tapping paean to integrated sexual diversity. Sensibly directed by Joseph Meighan the show never descends into contentious territory without justification and is kept light and fast-moving, with the story driving the show, not the show driving the story!

Jump on board Priscilla for the ride of your lives! At The Garrick until Saturday.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/5/18 

School Of Moon - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Presented as part of The Lowry's Week 53 Festival, School Of Moon was something I was actually quite looking forward to seeing. The premise sounded fascinating - an adult and children dancers interacting with robots in a futuristic community - however the reality of this was nothing short of disappointing.

If I had not read the programme note telling the audience what to expect, I would certainly not have understood a single thing from watching alone, and so i can only quote the programme note here before the review...

'Children and a solitary adult perform a slow-moving dance on a luminous stage. Gradually robots appear and join the dance as we travel from an age of humans to a new-born post-human community. // They create images drawn from artistic creations of the human body throughout history. // It is a meditation on a new post-human world colonised by miniature bodies that are both organic and mechanic.'

The Lowry's Quays Theatre had been completely gutted leaving nothing but bare stage and wings, and the floor had been covered with a black glittery plastic sheet. On stage, in the centre, a small recumbent robot. Cue eerie sound effects and on to this stage came a group of primary school children.(pupils at Christ The King R C school). They walked very slowly, deliberately, and all dressed in brightly coloured contemporary t-shirts and shorts etc. They all wear electronic pulse sensors on their arms but as they move around the stage it becomes clear that these don't really do anything at all. The robot, when it does actually move, seems to be being controlled by an operator sitting on the outer edges of the stage. Although at first i thought it was the child who was lying next to it and moving in the same way. (an illusion perhaps?)

The first half of the production was this. Children performing monotonous simple choreographies and almost interacting with, but never actually fully interacting with, this robot in the centre. A frenetic run, and then they all in unison take hold of the edges of this black material covering the stage floor and gather it up into one huge pile, and then, just as slowly and as mundanely they all exit. Not a word was spoken, not a note of music played - just eerie sounds. The robot stirs and then lies motionless again.

There then entered a young dancer dressed in a purple leotard. She walked slowly and deliberately, measuring her every step, making sure she walked at the correct pace, not rushing. She brought a circular piece of perspex onto the stage and let it fall. She then manoeuvred a light sitting atop a skateboard to a position behind the perspex. This took up a lot of time and energy for such a little result. She then brought on two human child skeletons, placing them on the heap of black material. Was this some kind of funeral pyre?

More dancers now enter. (youngsters from The Danceworks Theatre And Ballet School in Eccles). Again, slowly and wordlessly. All dressed as the first, and perform a very slow and simple routine with no passion or energy. (deliberately so I imagine). One of them has a gun. This remains unexplained and unused.

As the dancers and the adult (now also dressed in a leotard) continue to 'dance', more robots enter the stage. One more like the robot at the beginning, and the others smaller, more compact, but able to walk and partially interact with the children. Stopping, waving, using their 'fingers', and quite frequently just simply falling over or stopping inactive.

The adult dancer makes large and fast swirls around the stage as more robots appear, another very young girl also appears from nowhere. She is dressed in a skin coloured leotard and her skeleton painted on her in blue. She looks alien, other-worldly. We have no idea who she is or why she is different; where she came from or what her purpose was. However, we could also say exactly the same for everyone on stage in this show.

Eventually all the humans leave the stage, and the robots walk to the front of the stage accusingly. For those sat on the front row, this might have been somewhat confrontational and uncomfortable. Technicians and children came on stage after a very long time and carried the robots off one by one; the stage was empty but still lit. Nothing happened, and we waited for a long time wondering and not understanding. Eventually the audience decided it must be the end of the show, and so, confused and bewildered we left. There was no way of knowing it was the end, and no-one came back for a curtain call. Highly perplexing and extremely odd.

I can only assume that some things didn't go as planned with the performance on a technical side with the robots. One was motionless on the floor throughout, and those being carried off by technicians couldn't have been part of the show, surely?! Further, if there was some message or lesson that the team behind this piece wished us to learn and take away from it, then it was sadly so well hidden in metaphor, allegory and circumstance that it was impossible to find.

Extremely slow moving, lacking narrative, energy, pulse and theatricality; this show by Shonen and Eric Minh Cuong Castaing left not just me but the entire audience in a state of utter bafflement. The piece was undeniably experimental in nature, and did hold a certain amount of fascination when dealing with the robots, however, taking the piece as a whole it was incomprehensible and completely bizarre.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/5/18

Innocence - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Innocence is a 50 minute piece of fully immersive dance theatre for children from 0 -7 years, brought to the Lowry's Aldridge Studio as part of their Week 53 Festival.

Upon entering the studio we were asked to take our shoes off and join the 4 dancers in a circle around the edges of a specially constructed stage. Mums and dads with toddlers and babes in arms , and even one or two with slightly older children too.

Devised, created and performed by Scottish Dance Theatre, this is one of the best pieces of live entertainment to engage and involve the extremely young whilst still not compromising on delivering quality.

There were moments when the four dancer / performers danced in amongst us or by the side of us, performing to us but acknowledging us; and there were lots more moments when we were invited to dance along with them and become the performance. Watching the delight and amazement on the young faces it was abundantly clear that this team had got the balance just right, and the tiny tots were involved, interested, enthused and amazingly well behaved.

Utilising live music and sound from a one-man sound-library Paul Bradley, and with the dances choreographed by Fleur Darkin, they took as their inspiration for this show the works and imagination of William Blake, and created a world of innocent imagination where even tigers weren't quite so scary, and where the whole audience became involved in building a tree from cardboard tubes and green pieces of paper.

There were quiet songs, activities, mini-performances and of course plenty of times in between when the tiny tots could join in and run wild with them. Perfectly paced, and cleverly conceived, it was a superb introduction to theatre and dance and was totally age-appropriate. Lovely!

reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/5/18

North West Woods - The King's Arms, Salford.

It was a full house. This event was a fundraiser evening with a diverse range of styles including: short plays, music, and comedy. All of this took place in the idiosyncratic and intimate theatre space of The King's Arms Pub. Fifty percent of the proceeds went to Cancer Research UK and the event was dedicated to the late and great Victoria Wood. This made the evening a very special one indeed.

First out to perform was Rianna Windust, performing a song called Things Would Never Have Worked Out by Victoria Wood. She certainly captured the audience's attention with her confidence, flair, and animated singing voice. The only thing I wish to say is that the performance did feel on one energy level, and therefore lacked variation. Otherwise, Windust had a personable stage presence.

After a brief change over, Mia Wilson performed a few spoken work pieces. Unfortunately, Wilson had a script onstage and her performance seemed to lack rehearsal. Much of her delivery was too fast and didn't bring out the meaning behind her spoken word. I know some artists later on had sheet music or scripts with poems on, in front of them, but they didn't rely upon it too much. At least this was a good opportunity for Wilson to try out her spoken word pieces.

Before we knew it, Pete Gibson arrived onstage with a bucket and mop. He played the character John in Someone's Got To Do It by Clarke McWilliam. In short, this was a stunning performance. The play was about John, a toilet cleaner, who told us about his lifestyle, his ex-girlfriend Lizzie, and his story up to this point. Gibson possessed an excellent ability to draw the audience in to his character and evoke empathy. There were so many aspects of John's personality communicated to the audience, including his innocence, quirkiness, and thoroughness. As John opened up to us, he took himself out of his comfort zone, in the comfort of his own toilets. McWilliams' well-written script was funny, tragic, and beautiful. There was one dark twist towards the end, which informed us why John is the way he is, and it was at that point I shed a tear down my face. This short play married impeccable acting and poignant writing together.

Next was comedian Ash Preston, who did very well to lift the spirits of the room after a dark piece. His dark comedy style was observational and autobiographical. As he ranted and raved on about various things, he responded to the audience's reactions effectively. He even was one step ahead of them and knew how they may react to his jokes. Preston was clever and crazy all at once.

Sophie Toland played the emotionally fragile Sarah, in a short play called Common Ground by Jayne Marshall. The story was about Sarah and how she was trying to cope after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Sarah told her story to a camera for a Vlog post, and rather than watch the play through that camera lens, we got to see the complete picture and watch it from a different perspective. Afterwards there was Rosa Wright, a poet, who labelled herself in the programme as a 'professional weirdo'. Wright definitely had a quirky and distinctive performance style. Her poems Wobbly Gob and Dinner Ladies (in memory of Victoria Wood) stood out in particular. Then, a short monologue was performed by Sarah Wilkinson called, Is There A Lesson In 'Girl' That I Missed? Wilkinson's performance was raw and powerful.

Following on from that, the audience were made to relax by the character Peach, played by Sophie Ellicott. In the play Zumba Class by Matthew Lidis, Peach is a woman who is into spiritual healing, meditation, and you guessed it zumba. She is trying to to make skeptical Jacquie, played by Louise Wilson, less stressed. The contrast between both characters was hilarious. The evening was rounded off by one more song, performed by Emma Robinson. She sung the famous Victoria Wood song, Let's Do It, and played the music on a ukulele. This was an amazing cover of the song, she really brought out the humour within it, and the grit in her voice was fantastic.

This evening of theatre, organised by BAPS Theatre, was a wonderful tribute to Victoria Wood. Even if most of the pieces didn't directly acknowledge Wood, they still embodied her wit and observational humour. All of the pieces tied together with themes of love, loss, and death. They reflected the complexities of life and the personal walls we all face. It was funny and touching.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 20/05/18

Ladies In Lavender - Little Theatre, Altrincham.

Ladies in Lavender could perhaps be described as a modern play which by its conventional nature and themes, bucks most modern trends and yet is now one of the most widely performed plays particularly in amateur theatre, coming on the back of a successful film starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Perhaps this success is partly due to a nostalgic throwback to another era. It has all the sentimentality of a 1940s Powell and Pressburger film and almost ‘Brief Encounter’ in exploring a kind of romance which can never be.

The play has to be seen in the context of the time; no single woman much over the age of forty today would ever be called a maiden aunt and the amount of older, single women in the mid 1930s was of course a direct result of the sheer amount of men killed during the First World War. It was also a time when having a foreigner living with you would have been seen as something of a novelty in a way that it never would be today. There is a lot of charm in the set-up of the two aging sisters living a quiet life in a West Country cottage until the arrival of a young and handsome injured sailor changes everything. There is also a potential element of spice with the unconnected arrival of another foreigner, an attractive female artist who also has east European roots, becoming the object of attention for the local doctor, himself an ‘older man’.

From this simple set-up, the development of people’s feelings for each other is sensitively handled and it is almost impossible not to sympathise with the latent emotions the ladies find coming to the fore. The doctor is also an object of sympathy, having become a widower before reaching old age, but there are other dynamics which give the story a bit more depth (but no spoilers here).

There are one or two incongruities. We first see the Polish man hardly knowing a word of English and somewhere during his indeterminate recuperation period, he acquires a remarkable grasp of the language. It is also a little contrived how virtually the whole cast seem to have remarkably similar musical tastes. These are however minor points. Thomas Christopher is excellent as the misplaced foreigner Andrea, coming to terms with very changed circumstances. Cherrill Wyche and Barbara Steel bring over a convincing picture of two aging sisters Janet and Ursula, who despite having much in common in a very shared existence, have very distinct personalities (not dissimilar to the sisters in ‘Babette’s Feast’). Paula Keen has a coy, enigmatic appeal as the flamboyantly dressed artist Olga and it was a shame not to have seen more of her character. Arthur Hulme is the architypal personification of a village doctor in tweed, although it has to be said his beard bears a little too much resemblance to that of a certain other doctor who became notorious for bumping off old ladies, although there is nothing to suggest anything sinister about Dr Mead; he takes good care of everyone although in the case of Olga, would clearly have liked to have taken a little more care. Mention must also be made of the amusingly forthright and outspoken helper/cleaner Dorcas, paly with gusto by Julie Broadbent.

A little sentimental perhaps but a very enjoyable play, well presented by a committed cast and well worth seeing. Ladies in Lavender is on until 26th May.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 20/5/18

unTAPped - The King's Arms, Salford.

The Theatre And Performance students at Arden Theatre School (it's the TAP of the title!) have made an annual event of this mini-Fringe Theatre festival of their new work. Hosted at The King's Arms in Salford, the pub is 'commandeered' for the two days this festival runs and the performances take place from 2:00pm until finishing about 10pm each day.

There is a mix of theatre, stand-up, film, installation, and this year even magic! Some of the shows are presented more than once throughout the two days and others just a single showing. Due to prior commitments and a hugely full diary I was only able to visit the festival on the second day between 2pm and 7pm, but in that time I did manage to see as much as possible, and two of the theatre pieces which were being presented I had already seen - so for my comments about 'Bye Bye Baby' and 'Magnum Opus' please scroll down to 'Launch 2018'.

There were two installations on continuous loop throughout the two days. One, 'Dear Diary' was a rather disjointed and distorted account of student Lily Rae Hewitt Jasilek, in three stages of her life. - a little girl, a teenager, and as she is now a young woman. The narratives to these three were overlapping and difficult to understand especially since some of it was in French. The second installation was much more successful. Called 'The Beginner's Call' by Sam Lowe, we listened through a headphone to 'canned' laughter whilst looking at a table with a noose and a light bulb on it. Banging and clanging noises emerged from the tape and then whistling. The sounds could be heard in many different directions - sometimes directly into one ear or the other or from behind etc - and all the time interspersed and juxtaposed with manic laughter. This all representing a system of control from which one can never escape. Disorienting and disturbing.

'I Am Citizen Safe' was a theatre piece in the main theatre space. Using physical theatre, mime, dance, audience interaction, spoken word,  and the groups trademark verfremdungseffekt (not the Brechtian one but an alienation technique nevertheless) this play took you through a life, from conception to death, passing from sperm, babies in nappies, school, puberty, graduation, adulthood, the monotony of work, marriage, retirement along the way. rather than actually dying however, they chose instead to perform a fast rewind of the show in reverse - Benjamin Button on acid. Some moments of this worked much better than others and it certainly was not clear at all at the beginning what was happening. This may well have been a deliberate ploy but it left me feeling a little unsatisfied and excluded.

Another theatrical offering came in the form of three separate monologues, collectively called 'Spilling The Beans', and it was these three heart-felt and sincere pieces of 'confession' which were for me the highlight of what I saw at the festival.  First was Keisha Anderson entering in full make-up and as she spoke she removed the make-up so that by the end her face was in its natural state. She provided a personal narrative as to how she hates the deceptive notion that one needs make-up to feel 'complete'. Make-up is being sold to younger and younger children all the time, and it makes young girls feel they are not pretty enough or worthy enough to even leave the house without wearing make-up.  Following this was Katie Wardle's 'Skeleton Show'. an ironic and twisted take on both cookery programmes and body image, in which she showed viewers how to make the perfect body. Very cleverly constructed and written herself, this sketch was her personal plea for body acceptance. Society should not have the right or the ability to impose such ideas of image and imperfection on us. Her manic and slightly sadistic sweetly smiling monologue cleverly hiding a very serious and contemporary issue which does cause a lot of concern among the young. The message clear - it doesn't matter what we look like or what shape we are - we are all the same, so stop commenting and bitching, and move on! To end this triptych was Ryan Lea. He is a partially sighted actor who has an ocular embolism leaving him with a lack of pigmentation and blurred vision. This was a very personal account of how he was diagnosed, treated, and how he coped with this condition throughout his formative years. He ended by inviting us all to wear a blindfold whilst he performed a magic stunt, giving us some idea of how he 'sees' his world.  All three performers gave very brave and sincere performances tackling issues which were very personal to themselves. Highly creditable.

The last thing I saw was a short magic show performed by Sam Lowe, which he called, 'The Magic Of Contemporary Theatre'. Whilst performing some small magic tricks himself, he told the story of Harry Brown, a close-up magician living in 1880s London. On one of his shows a big theatre manager notices his tricks and offers him a contract to star in a show at his theatre........ or did he? Did Harry Brown actually exist? The idea behind all of this bravado being that sometimes it is very difficult to be able to distinguish between what is real and what is deceit; what is truth and what is lies. And by performing magic - an illusion of truth but actually deceit - this message was nicely highlighted.

This year there was something a little extra too. During the 2 days the audiences were invited to play detective and solve the crime. At the beginning of each day the cast assemble in the bar area and mark out the shape of the victim lying on the floor with tape, and announce that if you are able to correctly answer all the questions in the programme - based on the Cluedo game - you could win. The answers of course were in the content of the pieces being performed!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/5/18

Aspects Theatre And Comedy Festival - New Adelphi Building, University of Salford.

For a part of their final year, students at Salford University on the 'Theatre And Performance Practice' and 'Comedy Writing And Performance' courses are tasked into producing a mini-Fringe festival of plays. the remit for these being that they must last no longer than one hour and must take either an already existing script or recognised theatre form, and freely adapt to suit the performers and fit into their genre choice.

Plays being performed included shortened adaptations of The Thrill Of Love, Jerusalem and Private Lives, whilst others chose to devise their own scripts or even produce a short film.

Due to the lateness in knowing about this festival, and my already heavy diary during this time, it was impossible to be able to cover all the plays on offer, although I would have liked to have done so. We did however, manage to see 6 out of the 18 on offer. So here below is a brief but hopefully informative coverage of those we did see.

 

1. CENSORED.

 

This was presented by Happy Ending Theatre Company, and saw 4 students present a show which drew heavily from the inspiration of 'We Want You To Watch' by RashDash and similar works.

The play centres around a newly formed Theatre Company whose sole aim it seems is to try and get a world ban on all pornography. The 'twist' if you like is that the company and her ethos is just a cover for her own depraved and illicit sexual appetite, as she clearly is aroused by directing and working with the actors she chooses for her company. And as they become more and more uncomfortable with what she requires of them, the more awkward it becomes for everyone. Cue, entrance of the Queen to bring closure to the matter - surely the piety and prudence of HRH will allow her wish, a total ban so that she can own and control everything... but no, the parting line being from the queen herself, 'If you will excuse me, I have an orgy to attend'.

With cast in underwear, sexual activity aplenty, and various sex toys and explicit references throughout - as well as a very funny and clever TV sex chat advert and a real-life Ken and Barbie sequence, this show could quite easily offend; and that is probably its intention. However, where RashDash fail and this company succeeds is that it is not overt, and there is depth and substance without it being completely 'in-your-face'. there is a message and lesson to be learned; it is how one puts that message across which is important.

Brutally funny, excellently acted and executed, but certainly not for the more prudish amongst us. Gemma Davies played the theatre company owner Rosemary with a touch of resignation but also keeping her dark desires quite well hidden; whilst the two new members of her company Lauren ('Angel') and John Best ('September') [using pen names to emphasise the cultish nature of her company] were superb. The small role of The Queen was played by writer Catherine Duggan.

 

2. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

 

This deconstruction of Poe's novella, The Pit And The Pendulum was performed by Horrible Sanity.

Four people are in a room together, who are they? How do they know each other? We don't know where they are but we are told that they have been there for a very long time, and will not be bale to be free until they have finished finding a better and alternative ending to the story since they were dissatisfied with Poe's inasmuch as he allowed his character to live, and they think he should die.

Deconstructing the novel as they go - each character taking it in turns to read extracts from the story, they then discuss meaning, symbolism, and events before embarking on the next paragraph.

The play is slow and formulaic with little or no change of pace, and even the four characters themselves don't develop as strongly as they could. They are clearly four different and disparate individuals but little was made of this and every time there was just the spark of something interesting theatrically between them, they went back to reading Poe.

The characters did eventually leave. No idea how or why, since they still hadn't finished their given task, and the way out simply appeared from nowhere. Of course all this is very much in keeping with the Deconstruction style... no attempt at explanation or resolution should be given and to this end the play succeeded.

Deconstruction Theatre as a genre though is now somewhat dated and found fleeting 'fame' in England in the early 1970s having come from Europe, and there was urgent need for theatrical change in a stagnant and elitist group of theatre-makers. It was an abreaction to the times. Nowadays such theatre exists as curiosity or period pieces only and audiences are not aware of such a style and as such will undoubtedly baulk at it's blandness and seemingly poorly-acted, ineffectual narrative.

Matt Bradley, Jamie Stevens, Ruby Tebbs and Lorna Welsh obsess over Poe's story and we are like the flies on a wall in a reality documentary of some kind - except we aren't since the story is read to us by them sitting at a desk and 'performing' the story vocally through a microphone.

As Deconstruction Theatre pieces go, this ticked all the boxes and left the audience wondering what it was all about and with a feeling of insubstantiality. In this regard, the piece succeeded, but outside of a drama school 'experiment' this genre of theatre is no longer commercial or indeed acceptable.

 

3. CURIOSER AND CURIOSER.

 

Upside Down Theatre Company's choice was a re-telling of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. With just three actresses, with one of them remaining as Alice throughout they managed to create the idea of many different characters with very quick and minimalist costume changes.

Their new take on this old favourite was twofold. First, they wanted to act the play as if it were some LSD fuelled nightmare, (which it may well originally have been!), and also to question our idea of identity, as everyone was constantly demanding of Alice, 'Who are you?' to which the answer of either a girl  or Alice seemed insufficient and she began to actually question herself as to who she was.

Chelsea Jackson (Alice) with Jamie-Leigh Allen and Katy Taylor as everything else tried very hard to keep the narrative alive, fresh and sparkling, but to my mind this play was the least successful of the ones I witnessed. Poor staging and poor choice of direction hindered the play, and it lost a lot of pace, focus and indeed humour because of it. It would have benefited greatly from a director not acting in the play as well. 

Another thing which perhaps weakened the production somewhat was the idea of audience participation. Using audiences in conventional theatre, unless pantomime, is not necessarily advisable unless it is done in such a way as to make the audience feel necessary and useful, in a non-threatening way. To walk up to an audience member on the front row and sniff them dejectedly as a 'red rose' was a little off-putting, as well as demanding that we all stand for the queen. You can ask the audience to stand, you cannot demand them to do so, and not continue until they have.

This is a very difficult choice for students to try and find something new with, since you can more or less guarantee that someone somewhere has already done it before you, so well known and so versatile and adapted is this story. It's a bit like Romeo And Juliet in this regard. The company didn't find anything new with their adaptation, but they did deliver what they wanted to, and the two themes which they were trying to explore were evidenced, unfortunately not explored to anywhere near the extent either of them could easily have been. Carroll almost offers you carte blanche with the premise of this story, and even the title that the company chose gives that much away, however, the company stopped far short of expectations, with a rather bland and seemingly self-indulgent script.

 

4. #VALUED.

 

Trillium's piece #Valued looked at another subject of which a whole plethora of new work has been and is being written and produced about... that of the social conditions surrounding young people needing and craving acceptance by being considered beautiful Ideas of what beauty is are 'given' to us by those selling the products to make us 'beautiful', via the press, social media, fashion designers and the like.

It is not a new subject to tackle, and so Trillium needed to find a new angle, which they did; tackling issues of self-love, self-worth and self-acceptance in a very frivolous way. Part interpretive dance, part theatre, this piece was on the surface very light-hearted and insignificant, but the messages and themes stayed with us long after the show ended.

Starting with the 'princess phenomenon' , and using an interestingly shaped acting area with audience on three sides, it started well and with a good pace and promise. [I especially liked the blood ribbons!] Once the 'fairy story' had been told and they had segued from that very nicely through a stylised dance into the more hard-hitting material, we were all very comfortable and happy to accept some home truths. The social pressures put on girls and young women in our society and how social media can escalate the bullying and negativity. I had never heard of or knew anything about the 'Am I Pretty' videos on Youtube, but sure enough I took a look, and found some which had some extremely hurtful comments on from apparently total strangers!

Again, another dance sequence before we are back in the 'happy world' again, and just before the end we are all given envelopes containing ideas and mantras about self esteem, with website links to further reading. The ending itself though was a little awkward, as they sat down in the audience themselves and just sat there without acknowledgment waiting for us to leave. Odd.

Isla Hollinghurst, Rachel Dicken and Igbon performed this piece with real zeal, obviously being something which is very important to them and a message they want to tell.

 

5. THE BACCHAE PROJECT.

 

Ekstasis Theatre’s loose reinterpretation of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae is a fascinating example of immersive theatre, where the audience become participants within the play. The Bacchae Project focused on the ritual of the Bacchae, the followers of the God of wine and performance, Bacchus (or Dionysus in the Greek original).

Upon arrival, the audience were asked to choose an ivy leaf from a bowl which had a symbol drawn on it. This symbol related to one of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire) and decided which of the four guides (Terrana, played by Tabatha Firth; Ignius, played by Josh Rowland; Aetherius, played by Sean Fitton; Acquius, played by James Mackie) would lead us through the ceremony. Upon entering the performance space, audience members were requested to remove their shoes and leave any bags near the entrance and to sit and join their allocated guide on the floor of the performance area.

The first part of the performance was essentially a couple of orientation tasks: the guides did ‘readings’ with their allocated audience members which, while not all from ancient Greece, was designed to focus attention to the mystical aspects of the Bacchae and their rituals. There was a brief introduction from each of the guides as to who they were and what element and compass point they represented and the explanation that their ritual was designed to call forth Bacchus to herald the coming of Summer. From here, the audience was asked to lie back and imagine a ‘pathway’ exercise where Aetherius described a scenario where audience members came across a ritual in full flow: sips of wine and dancing were intended to generate a looseness of inhibitions and a thrall to pleasure and while Aetherius described the events, drums and other percussion instruments beat a rhythm as the action intensified. The pathway exercise acted as a precis of what was to come.

The audience were then asked to engage in a chant to bring Bacchus into the mortal world and after the chant, Terrana wore a crown of olive leaves and declared that she was Bacchus, summoned to the mortal plane in the form of a woman. Audience members were then asked to eat grapes and take a sip of wine (or grape juice for the non-alcohol drinkers present) to celebrate the appearance of Bacchus. There was then a moment of interpretive dance crossed as Ingiud and Acquius performed the conflict between fire and water which could only be stopped by Bacchus’ intervention.  Audience members were then initiated into the brotherhood of their allocated element and then there was a circle dance which weaved in and out and was quite disorientating, which was the desired effect.

At the end of the circle dance, the lighting changed to a UV light state where the tattoos on the performers of the elements glowed and modern dance music began to well up and the audience was invited to dance along to it. The parallel between the ritual of ancient Greece with modern rave culture was made clear enough. Then, things took a darker turn: Bacchus led Acquius off-stage declaring him to be Pentheus who had been slandering Bacchus’ god-like nature and there was the sound of Pentheus screaming, liquid dripping onto the floor and Bacchus returned with the heart of Pentheus, the human sacrifice required to conclude the ritual.

The Bacchae Project was a fascinating glimpse into the rituals of an ancient civilisation but the performance can’t be judged on the same parameters as a conventional production: the performance required the audience members taking part to be as committed as the performers taking on the roles of the guides and being prepared to go along with the various sections of the ritual. The performance did, however, recall how conservative British theatre is (generally speaking) and how productions like The Baachae Project would be welcome to break down the barriers and encourage more audience participation in performance.

 

6. FREAK.

 

Definitely the highlight of the shows I saw, Girls' Time Theatre Company's devised work, Freak, was a non-stop hard-hitting two-hander about sex. First time sex, craving for new experiences sex, debauched sex, loving sex, in fact every kind of sex possible. The two actresses responsible for this sexual onslaught gave tour-de-force bravura performances. Even when an audience member fainted and had to be taken out momentarily stopping the play, they were not fazed and still gave excellent and highly creditable performances 

We see two rooms, both untidy with discarded clothes and food wrappers. One side is a sofa, the other a bed, and between a shared 'mirror'. Cleverly designed and worked well.

Rachel Isbister plays Georgie, a 25 year old young woman who, after splitting with her boyfriend finds life very difficult, and finds 'pleasure' in being at home and masturbating to inane TV programmes counting how many times she can cum rather than facing the world and acknowledging her hurt. Finally she does acknowledge this by finding work as a stripper in a local bar, which gives her the empowerment she was after. Stripped naked in front of anonymous males, she can recover her self-esteem, or at least so she thinks. One night however, in a drug-fuelled state,. she allows herself to be taken to a client's home to be humiliated and gang raped. She loses her self-respect as she is violated and hurt. It is this act though which acts as a wake up call for her, and a realisation that rather than letting that be an end, it should be a beginning and she resolves to get her life back on track, which she does.

Meanwhile, we also learn about 15 year old Leah (Crystal Williams), and her first adolescent flirtations and sexual experiences. How she feels, what she expects and what she wants. She feels, 'stuck, naked, in No-Man's Land, too young to be old, old but in a young body, stuck in the middle trying to be an adult, and unable to do the childish innocent things now'. And in the name of experimentation and the need to be seen as 'cool' and high status by her school peers, she allows herself to be violated and to sleep with the two best looking boys in the school.

There is a sharp change to the dynamic now as the two girls change sides through the mirror, an omnipresent allegory, and we learn that they are step sisters . And through shared experiences, albeit for different reasons, they allow themselves to become friend sand solemates too. There is a very clever ending in store too.

Directed by Harry Hemingway-McGhee, this was a hard-hitting, provocative and confrontational drama with heart. It was impossible for me to believe that these two actresses were still at university such was the quality and intensity of their performances. Surely two names to look out for in future!

Reviews by Matthew Dougall except Bacchae Project.

Bacchae Project review by Andrew Marsden

on 18 and 19 May 2018.

Les Misérables - The Eccleston Theatre, Salford City College, Pendleton, Salford.

Pendleton Centre Of Excellence For Performing Arts, its now name, opened its doors to the public 10 years ago with a production of Boublil and Schoenberg's epic Musical  Les Misérables; and so to celebrate a decade of being in the forefront of young people's theatrical tuition they returned to the Musical again for their final show of their current season.

The students in question are between the ages of 16 and 21, and for some, this will be their farewell performance at Pendelton, as in the Autumn they take up places at various drama schools and forge careers. The amount of talent and ability on display this evening was simply unbelievable.

One of the most amazing things about the show this evening though was the staging. Director Joseph Meighan had had the vision to bring the story from the lofty distance of a large prosc. arch stage, to a story that unfolds right in front of your eyes and all around you, as cast use the auditorium entrances as their entrances, the stage is touchably close, and you could see the beads of sweat on the actors' brows. This nearness and intimacy brought about certain complications, mostly technical, but the benefits certainly outweighed these obstacles.

The stage itself, not quite in thrust format, was small and compact with a cleverly designed bridge and staircase which was used as the base set for all scenes with other set being moved in and out swiftly and cleverly as required. There were however, two things about the set which didn't work for me. First, the main rear entrance to the stage. This was little more than a black curtain which, when opened one could easily see the school wall behind complete with green exit signs, and in order to enter or exit through here there was a rather ungainly bowing of the head since the aperture was not tall enough.. The second thing was the barricade. The idea of having a raised stage which, when the floorboards were lifted created both the upper part of the barricade and the trench-like hull was a superb one, and it is an idea that could have worked superbly. Sadly however, the barricade looked exactly like what it was - flat, dark grey hardboard. There was no attempt made to try and make it look in any way realistic, which was a real shame. I also didn't quite understand the need for this barricade either since it seemed to serve no purpose when the cast were seen fighting and shooting all around 360 degrees, as their enemies returned fire from seemingly behind the auditorium too! I would also have liked to have seen Gavroche's death rather than have it happen on the opposite side of the hardboard and listen to it. When flat, the cut-out pieces which lift to make the barricade were both noisy and loose, causing a trip hazard.

However, taking the production as a whole, these are minor considerations as the music and the acting simply blew me away. Heading a strong and superb cast was Zac Frieze as Jean Valjean, and his nemesis the cold and calculating Inspector Javert, played her by Owen Bolton. Both aging wonderfully and quite naturally throughout the story, however we see very little visual evidence of this. Javert's suicide, although not the conventional one, and actually made more horrific by so changing it, was excellently measured. Both played their roles with a passion and maturity beyond their years, and it wasn't difficult to see these two, or indeed any of the company, taking similar roles on the professional stage in the near future.

Lucca Chadwick-Patel played a very wide-eyed Marius, perhaps a little too innocent, but that is just a personal preference, however his singing made up for this!  The comedy was provided for by Matthew Thomasson and Rebecca Dowson as M and Mme Thenadier. Thomasson especially created a fabulous character for himself, choosing very wisely to forge his own and not copy-cat. He was vile, corpulent, and undoubtedly stinky and completely amoral - delightful!

The older Cosette and Eponine characters however, for me, did slightly steal the show. Pippa Greenhalgh's tall and elegant Cosette with the sweetest soft soprano voice just sent shivers down my spine, whilst the earthy and incredibly grounded performance of Freya Humberstone's Eponine was simply spellbinding. Her emotions throughout, but especially during the 'Heart Full Of Love' trio were heartbreakingly real.

Credit should also most definitely go to Teddy Jones as a firm and stout Enjolras, Laura Findley as a very believable and pitiful Fantine, her bed scene and the hallucinations, were frighteningly realistic. Also to the three youngsters taking the roles of Gavroche (Theo Hill), Alice McGrath (young Eponine) and Alice Cross (young Cosette), all three giving absolutely lovely and highly creditable performances, and despite their tender years, stepped up to the benchmark with aplomb!

The chorus and choral singing was excellent, and the music, played live by a 13-piece band, squashed into one corner of the auditorium, and conducted by Neil Bennett, made the whole complete with their flawless playing. The only problem here was that at times the band did overpower the singer. Either the mic levels weren't set correctly or the band needed to be quieter. It was most noticeable when the smaller cameo solos from the ensemble sang lines. The phrasing of some of the songs was also a little weird too. Breaths were taken mid sentence and so I was losing the sense of some of the lyrics. Fortunately I knew them all backwards anyway, but nevertheless, for those hearing them perhaps for the first time, the phrasing was a little odd at times. Two songs however, which do sometimes lose their poignancy and seem to get lost in the melee so to speak, were tonight given the full treatment they deserve and were very poignantly and thoughtfully sung. These were 'Red And Black' and 'Drink With Me'.

The denouement was well paced and Valjean's death very emotive. However, this was, in my opinion, completely ruined by a ragged and hotchpotch choral entry so that the finale ended with chorus masking and in front of principals and there seemed to be no real order or 'picture ending' at all. It was very ragged and felt insufficient.  

That notwithstanding however, this was a raw and up-close-and-personal production, given a new lease of life, with an energy and passion that is sometimes lacking from the perhaps 'tired' professional version; and with a cast of talented and passionate performers, this was a powerful and emotional roller-coaster of a show.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/5/18

Nightwalks With Teenagers - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Part of Week 53 Festival at the Lowry Theatre, Nightwalks With Teenagers is an immersive style walking production run by a group of local teenagers, who are accompanied by a group of Canadian teenagers.

I was intrigued by the unusual start time of 8.30pm, however the sunset forms part of the show. The production begins outside the theatre, where the audience are invited to take part in some games. The tone is set from the beginning that this is an evening where the audience will have to take part and not be afraid to laugh at themselves.

The concept is quite unique, as normally if a group of teenagers asked to lead me around Salford one evening I would probably start running in the opposite direction. However, these teenagers are trustworthy and take time to get to know their audience. It seems like some of the teenagers are looking to draw on advice from the grown ups, however I think most of us are pretending at being grown ups and being a teenager and playing silly games is more fun. I think children are role models for adults as they have no preconceived ideas of how to behave, they just do what they think is right.

The teenagers involved in the production were remarkable, all very confident and charismatic. They all took it in turns to lead an activity each, including a dance session, releasing bad energy and running around a car park. As there were so many activities packed into the show, I felt that some of them didn’t run on for long enough. I for one would have preferred more time doing the Cha Cha Slide and Chinese whispers.

To create some atmosphere the group used a portable speaker to play some songs. This did have positive and negative effects. If you were stood next to it you were almost deaf, if you were far away from it you couldn’t hear it at all. While there was a nice juxtaposition of teenagers with older people, some of the activities were physically demanding and weren’t best suited to some of the older members of the audience, i.e. running around a car park.

Having said all that the show was great and an opening to the older generation of life for teenagers today. It made me think about how different it is being a teenager now, compared to my teenage years.

Reviewer: Eddie Walsh
On - 18/5/18

Hikikomori: The Shelter - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

French contemporary theatre performance company Joris Mathieu's Haut Et Court Art Collective presented their piece Hikikomori (The Shelter) today in The Lowry's Quays Theatre. The piece takes its inspiration from a modern Japanese social  phenomenon which sees primarily adolescent males lock themselves away in their room, isolating themselves from the rest of the world.

[Hikikomori is a Japanese word and means an acute social withdrawal]

This piece does not try to answer the question of why they do this... an act of rebellion? a way of hiding from or coping with modern society? a cry for help? but instead we are shown a story of one such adolescent boy and his parents, and the audience are given the choice before entering the auditorium which of the three stories they would like to follow.

You are given a headset which provides the listener with the inner narrative - the thoughts and rationale of only one of the three cast, and so depending on your choice you will potentially, more fully understand the boy, the father or the mother. The pace is set right from the start - extremely slow. Combine this with extremely long pauses of inaction and no narrative to listen to (presumably those with different headsets will be listening to something at these points?) it was really eerie, other-worldly, but also boring. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt at trying to make us feel and see how Nils (the boy) was himself feeling.

It is a very interesting 'experiment', but at the end of the performance, which lasted some 40 - 45 minutes, I felt unsated and somehow cheated. I had listened to the story of the boy himself, and although the narrative is clear - socially awkward, not fitting in at school, his parents don't 'understand' him, etc... the story is set in the future after the second digital revolution and so the whole thing automatically shifted a huge step further away from anything I could associate with.

It is a bizarre account, and staged highly stylistically and deliberately. It makes for an interesting curio of a piece of theatre, however I was unable to relate to any of the three actors in any way - it was as if I was watching the television on an acid trip in slow motion. (at least I THINK that is what it might be like!) It became extremely strange (as if the story and premise weren't weird enough already) when Nils ordered an elk costume online and then wore the antlers and mask part for a good proportion of the play, after likening himself to the elk - almost extinct, different and a loner.

The piece ends with his parents breaking down the door to his room and 'hunting' him. They are stalking the elk in the carpet forest; breaking the rules in order to 'save' him.

The special effects (Loic Bontems and Siegfried Marque) were excellent. Videography and computer generated images used throughout to complement and add to the story were clever and at times mesmeric, but I found myself looking at them and waiting for the next one rather than concentrating on a very slowing (both physically and plot) piece. 

The cast was Philippe Chareyon, Vincent Hermano, and Marion Talotti. Their English voices - what we heard through the headsets - were Samuel Exley, Keith Farquhar, and Catherine Hargreaves.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/5/18

The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde - Jackson's Pit, Oldham.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of those perennial classics which is periodically re-told through cinema and television (with Hammer films even making ‘Sister Side’, showing a degree of feminism way ahead of its time). The two divergent central characters make this an ideal vehicle for a one-man show of two halves, in the same mould of Dr Frankenstein and his Monster (another nineteenth century story of a doctor whose experimentation gets out of hand, which has similarly stood the test of time). However, with this production, there is a difference because the largest amount of story-telling is undertaken via an account of event from a lawyer who was a close friend of Dr Jekyll. This gives an interesting impartiality to the familiar tale, whilst also seeing events through a different person who nonetheless had been closely involved.

The venue for this particular play was perfect, being in the basement of an old back-street Victorian pub, complete with its own bar; very much the kind of place Mr Hyde might well have frequented, had he been active in Oldham. The dim lighting was also ideal in this case, giving a ‘Jack the Ripper’ type of eeriness; a real life Mr Hyde who stalked misty gas-lit streets. There were also a few choice props which helped set the period firmly in the late 19th century.

Russell Kennedy had finely crafted three very different characterisation for this presentation and the pace never slacked as the first the characters, Lawyer and then Dr Jekyll give their accounts of how events unfolded, interspersed by a striking appearance of a very unhinged Mr Hyde. In the case of Jekyll, we see a man who gradually transformed from a modest, unassuming doctor to an angry and aggressive individual as his alto-ego progressively took over and this became more than a just story rendition as we saw the conflicts and anguish going on within him. During Dr Jekyll’s account, we never saw his Mr Hyde completely take over, and Russell Kennedy remained focused on a man in turmoil. The earlier appearance of Mr Hyde is both brilliant and disturbing, with evil having completely extinguished the personality of the good doctor.

It would have been nice to have had more of Mr Hyde because there was clearly a lot of potential to take the character further. Russell’s portrayal was genuinely disturbing, complete with a darkly humorous song, and there was a hint of interaction with the audience. As it is, the fairly brief appearance of Mr Hyde in complete-takeover mode, serves as a grim and constant reminder during Dr Jekyll’s rendition as to where things will lead and it is well handled how with aspects of the dark side creeping in to Dr Jekyll as he struggles to keep his alter-ego in check.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an enjoyable piece of theatre and testament to a fine acting talent which keeps the audience engaged throughout.

The play was presented by Crowd of 2 Theatre Company, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel by Russell Kennedy.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 17/5/18

The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

This is Yorkshire-based Little Diamond Theatre Company's third production, and the first not to be written by John Godber. For this, The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband we are transported back to a world of Elvis Presley, Teddy Boys and supposed male dominance. Writer Debbie Isitt nicely turns the tables on the then accepted place for a woman by allowing the women to have the final say and get the upper hand.. albeit in a most unconventional way!

Yes, a woman's place is in the home, and to make sure the house is tidy and have a good meal ready for her husband when he comes home from work. For 19 years this is what dutiful housewife Hilary has been doing, little knowing that her husband has been playing away with a younger and sexier model instead of doing 'overtime' or meeting his neighbour 'Bob'. That is until she finds out about his infidelity and she meets the newer model. In fact she meets the newer model several times since she, although glamorous and obviously good in bed, cannot cook and hates housework, and so Hilary finds her now ex-husband visiting here more and more regularly for a free meal... even inviting his now wife.

Hilary daydreams of chopping up her ex-husband in putting him in a stew and cooking him,. but would she ever actually go that far? If the ending to act one is anything to go by, then perhaps she is capable of such an act. But there are no plot spoilers here... only in the play's title!

The dialogue is not particularly sparkling, and the premise of the story not new. Written in the early 1990s about a period some 4 decades earlier, this play would not appeal to the Millennial generation at all, but there is something quite interesting in watching a piece of theatre which serves as a kind of time-capsule of a certain era, even if what we are seeing seems wrong to modern thinking.

What makes this production stand out though is the choreography. The flashback narrative is punctuated with memorable songs from that era which are acted out in mime by the cast with sometimes quite hilarious effect. The inner thoughts of the three are spoken in monologue form directly to the audience, and the bits in between all of this are short vignettes  [very TV Soap-like] which take place either in Hilary's home or new girl Laura's bedroom.

I found it very difficult to understand just exactly what attracted Laura to Kenneth in the first place - he was a pitiful specimen of a human being; small, wiry, greying, and misongynistic, and without money. The script refers to him as a big man who needs a lot of food, so unless this was a deliberate casting for comedic effect, again I was a little confused.

The rather scant and minimal set, ideal for a small-scale touring theatre company's van, looked sparse and lost on the Coliseum's main stage; and I think the play in general would have worked better in a more intimate space. I didn't understand why the company chose the main theatre in preference to the studio.

I think the three cast, Neil Rowland as Kenneth, Jessica Hall as Laura and Sarah Burrill as Hilary, gave this play their absolute best shot and their characters were secure and consistent, making the play as good and as watchable as it was. These three performers were obviously talented and would have been better showcased in different material. I found the play however rather slow-going, clunky and hard to relate to. Directed by Andy Pope, there were some lovely little moments in there, and I liked the use of lighting and sound throughout. The production as a whole though is very short on laughs and oomph, and is very predictable.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/5/18

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui - The Footlights Theatre, Salford.

Bertolt Brecht’s satirical parable of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was completed in 1941 but did not receive its premiere production until 1958. The play was written by Brecht in the style of what he termed ‘Epic Theatre’, where the audience would be distanced from becoming too involved in the narrative of the play with the aim of them being able to view the play and its message with a critical eye. Written in blank verse and alluding numerous times to several of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play recasts Hitler as the eponymous Arturo Ui, a Brooklyn gangster in Chicago with ambitions to control the city. The production by The Blackpool and Fylde College Level 6 Acting Students in the Footlights Theatre featured two casts; the performance in this review focuses on the second cast.

Prior to the start of the performance, the cast were assembled on stage and in character. They were talking, drinking, playing cards sat on large boxes positioned across the stage floor or on the steps of the set. The set itself consisted of a mirror either side of the stage, bunting, and steps leading up to a platform above a scary looking clown face, the mouth of which was used for entrances and exits. The set gave the impression of a carnival or cabaret and the opening of the production, with the cast singing the opening verse of the White Stripes song ‘Seven Nation Army’ (definitely NOT in the original script by Brecht) to a violin accompaniment followed by an MC emerging onto the stage, certainly reinforced that feeling. As the MC, Morgan Ellis not only maintained a fine German accent, but brought a sizzling energy to this opening, where her character explains what the audience is about to see (one of Brecht’s strategies to prevent the audience from getting involved in the plot). When Arturo Ui, played in this production by James Smith, was introduced, he took his place centre stage. The physically tall and imposing Smith, complete with Hitler-esque moustache, used the same sharp arm movements which Hitler deployed during his speeches.

After this prologue, the play began to recount its allegorical tale of gangsters, corrupt politicians, and struggling vegetable sellers. Of the cast, Rebecca Molloy had a fine Chicago accent as Clark and Natasha Szymanski was brilliant as Ernesto Roma, Ui’s second in command; Szymanski’s body language was imposing and there was the uneasy feeling that Roma was like a tautly coiled spring, constantly on the edge of losing control. Ben Knowles got the chance to shine in a comedic role as the Actor who Ui employs to help him with his speech and posture as he begins to exert his influence. Knowles’ physical comedy, when demonstrating to Ui how to walk, was particularly amusing. As the corruptible Old Dogsborough, Daniel Mirko-Burley couldn’t quite shake off his youthful appearance or manner but his final scene was wonderfully played and there was a genuine feeling that Dogsborough was nearing the end of his life. Lori Rose presented Giri (the fictional version of Goring) as an unhinged murderer, prone to outbursts of nervous laughter. As Roma the flower seller, and allegorical character to Joseph Goebbels, Calum Forde gave a performance which recalled James Cagney’s in the numerous gangster films he acted during the 1930s.

The scenes were staged very well, perhaps most of all was the scene where Ui kills Roma and his men (echoing the Night of the Long Knives) to appease Giri, Roma, and Clark and spread his influence beyond Chicago to nearby Cicero. Szymanski’s disbelief and anger at being betrayed was thoroughly believable and there was a nice visual image of the silhouettes of Roma’s men falling away as they were shot (which owed much to a similar scene in the 1932 version of the film Scarface).

The play’s final scene, however, was arguably its most dramatic. Throughout the play Smith had played Ui as a man prone to long, thousand-yard stares, and a thug who couldn’t escape his Brooklyn background. Smith’s American accent was for the most part fine, but did slip on the occasional word. For the most part, any allusions to Hitler were kept to brisk arm movements. The final scene changed that. Smith took to the platform above centre stage and launched into a monologue which grew in intensity as the tech crew amplified the microphones positioned nearby to the point where his words were echoing around the performance space. Smith’s arm movements became even more Hitler-like and his voice conveyed Ui’s (or rather Hitler’s) rage at “Jews, Communists, and fags”. Following this, Smith descended and joined his fellow actors on the stage floor before taking his fake moustache off and reciting the play’s final, warning, lines in his natural accent.

This was a fine, if slightly overlong, production with good ideas and some great performances. Nearly 80 years after it was originally written, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui remains a fascinating play with a message is still relevant.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 16/5/18

Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train - HOME, Manchester.

Having seen Elysium Theatre Company's Manchester debut last year with 'Days Of Wine And Roses' at 53Two, I was delighted to be able to see their latest production playing at HOME until Saturday. Based in Durham, this company produce contemporary plays rarely if ever seen outside of London, and, even after only 2 productions, are already a force to reckon with.

Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train was a very brave choice of play. Virtually unknown in this country and very American, it tells the story of two inmates at Rikers Island prison, New York, both facing murder charges. It therefore focuses much on the US judicial system which can become a little hard, and the language and themes of the play are certainly not for the puritan and faint of heart. That being said though, there is still a lot of poetry and heart with this play and isn't the bland profane rant that it could have been written by anyone else. The writing, Stephen Adly Guigis, is superb. the play starts in a rather comical mode, as the new inmate, Angel Cruz, tries to recite The Lord's Prayer from scattered memories with hilarious results. This is an excellent device to bring us in to the themes of the play; religion and justice. And despite the worse-than-Mamet swearing, so right and normal in the given setting, these two themes are presented with cleverness which makes us forever question what is right and what is wrong; good or bad; and just because we are told to believe something is unlawful, does society have the right to judge. Does God, if he exists, have a place in the judicial system?...

Angel Cruz (Danny Solomon) has been imprisoned because he was trying to save his friend from being corrupted and brainwashed by a renegade religious cult, and in so doing shot the cult's leader in his 'water-buffalo' sized 'ass'. He maintains he didn't mean to kill him, but when he dies some weeks later from 'complications', the state move to charge him with murder. He is frail, nervous, and a 'droopy dog'.  Pitted against him is serial killer Lucius Jenkins (Faz Singhateh) who chopped up the pizza delivery boy and went on to murder 7 more in gruesome ways before the State caught up with him. In prison, he 'found God' and is shown as happy and content with life, at peace because he is now a religious man. He is, however, still very afraid for his own life, as the threats to transport him back to Florida, and a certain death by lethal injection, become more and more certain.  And as these two exchange their dialogues and we learn more about them, we see a very clever switch in power and dynamic as the high and mighty falls and the lowly rises. But do we feel satisfaction? Do we believe that justice has been done? Has the law been right and just? Was it all part of God's plans?

And as if to tease us even more, we are given two prison guards. One, Charlie D'Amico - (even the name gives him away) - (Garth Williams) a kind one, the guard that will not be afraid to bend the rules for the inmates in order to make everyone's life a little more comfy and bearable, pitted against the devil's own sadist Valdez (Alastair Gillies) who believes that no-one in prison is a true human being and all are scum. He humiliates and goads, using his badge and his status way beyond the call of duty.

'Don't be a God-fearing man; be a Valdez-fearing man.'

The humane element, represented by a conscience-driven female lawyer, is Mary Jane Harrahan (Alice Bryony Frankham) who in her belief (perhaps mistaken) that Angel isn't guilty of murder allows him to purge himself on the stand in a bid for freedom. But Guirgis doesn't even allow that to go well, and this play is on top of everything else a rather damning exposé of the US legal system.

With a simple, functional, rather Brechtian set, effective lighting, and a large and dirty US flag as the omnipresent backdrop, this was a sensibly directed (Jake Murray) piece of thought-provoking theatre which, despite the American-ness of the play, still resonated and challenged with not a weak link in the chain nor a chink in the armour. Solid, secure, and quite excellent.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/5/18 

Oklahoma! - The Brindley Theatre, Runcorn.

Another theatre I have only attended once is The Brindley in Runcorn so I was delighted to be welcomed there again for Centenary Theatre Company's offering of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs' play 'Green Grow the Lilacs', the musical version opened for previews back in 1931 under the name 'Away We Go!'. The title was decided to have reflected the story and so was changed to the name of the state. The name alone was not seen as punchy enough and so they put an exclamation mark on the end.

A show filled with enthusiasm, energy, love, fear, death, comedy and a whole load of American country, did the show justice and, in many areas, injected even more enjoyment than usual. As we opened, we were thrilled by nostalgia as the unmistakable sounds of brass and flutes that set the scene, with Aunt Eller, played brilliantly by Patsy Roberts, washing, before the iconic entrance to "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" by Curly (Tom McLoughlin) - a moment that sets the bar for the rest of the show! In the early parts the band did well to keep up with the varying speeds of the leads but were well-controlled by Musical Director Simon Pickup, who conducts the 11-strong ensemble. The male lead also had a slight problem with diction with his accent but it was better once you got used to it. I also think that the balance of his microphone was slightly off as it seemed too close to his mouth. I guess this was down to opening night.

Curly attempts to 'talk purty (pretty)' to Laurey (Jo Novoa Bradley) in the hope that she will go with him to the box social - he even describes and sings the praises of a made up ‘surrey’ with a silk fringe - but, despite her naivety, her innocent nature and selective confidence, she is resigned to attend with ‘hired hand’ and recluse Jud Fry (Kenneth McConaghy) who has an eye for her. The love ‘triangle’ causes tension and ultimately ends in disaster later on. Curley attends Jud in the Smokehouse where he resides and rather darkly expresses that people would miss him “if [he] were to die” and asks why he is alone. This extract features the morbid ‘Poor Jud Is Daid’ before Jud continues in solitude with ‘Lonely Room’. This scene, for the lighting, acting and singing, is extremely powerful, as is McConaghy’s Jud throughout. His, as is that of Sarah Cragg’s ‘girl who cain’t say no’ Ado Annie are the real stars for me, certainly the most memorable performances.

Ado Annie is the daughter of judge Andrew Carnes (Mike Hall), who welcomed us back after the interval with an energetic and fun ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’, and has a reputation for liking ‘the one [she is] with’ whoever that may be, out of the captive interests. She falls for the peddler man Ali Hakim (Mark Murphy), whose vast experience is evident from his polished performance. Hakim is typically Persian/Iranian, but Murphy seemed to have an accent of New York/The Bronx and would have been better placed in last year’s Guys n Dolls. Ado Annie expresses a desire to marry him, in the absence of her last lover Will Parker (Matthew Orrillard). When Will returns from a trip to ‘Kansas City’ - cue showstopper and well-choreographed, [as is the whole show by James Gibbons], routine with simple yet effective dancing - Annie has a dilemma of whether to marry the peddler or ask her father to keep his promise to allow Will to take her hand in marriage in return for the $50 she asked for, which Will has won but spent on presents. In a comical scene - of which there are a few - with Ali, Will reclaims his money and is in a position to take Annie off the peddler and her father’s hands. Sarah Cragg’s voice is lovely and her comedy and stage presence are a joy to behold. I was surprised to read that she hasn’t had any theatre training that our leading lady and others, namely Kirstin Dunn, have. Dunn plays the ‘girl with the comedy giggle’ Gertie Cummings who Curly takes to the box social before she finds an unexpected suitor at the end.

Curly and Laurey both have an air of experience to the tone of their voices but they complement each other together in duets like ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ rather than apart in solos. The stand outs who do have beautiful voices are soloists Eleanor Ross, Helen Gorry, Rachael Benfield and Hannah Young who appear in the female ensemble but have solos in ‘Out of My Dreams’ with Laurey, just before the interval. Commendation should also go to the dancers (especially the ladies and four ‘named’ men), ‘supporting cast’ and the children who added something different to the show. The aforementioned simple choreography was original and effective and I enjoyed it. It is difficult to find faults with this show, supported by the fact that I sat relaxed tapping my foot and singing along throughout the second act, as I am sure many did, and laughing away - partly at the brilliant on-liners but also the reminiscence of my days of treading the boards.

I was excited to see this production (directed by Dan Grimes) and am glad that I had the chance to treat myself and visit the lovely theatre and be welcomed by the warm society. Please go and support this great show, no matter what day you have had.

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 15/5/18

Orpheus In The Underworld - St.Joseph's Hall, Leigh.

Three Town’s Operatic Society are an award winning operatic group catering for amateur singers and performers in and around the Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley area. (hence the 'three towns'). The society ranges in age from teenagers to those old enough to have been on stage for 50 years (you work that one out!)  Although they are still widely acknowledged as a Gilbert and Sullivan society, they introduced operettas by other famed composers such as Strauss, Lehar, Benatzky and Stoltz, in the mid-nineties. This being a non-G&S year, their latest production is Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach.

The show is a comic operetta in three acts. Satirising Greek Mythology and in particular, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The performance pokes fun by mocking the gods, Mount Olympus and the Underworld. Whilst it presents the twisted tales of love and relationships between earthly beings and the gods, one thing is for certain, it never takes itself too seriously. The audience and performers alike spend a really entertaining two and a half hours watching the events unfold in a hilarious series of comic vignettes and everyone looks like they were having so much fun on stage throughout!

The visuals of the production were so varied because the three acts were so distinctive in their content. Act one, with its Alpine-earthly setting could have been quite dull but the bright cardboard cut-outs of sheep and the very obvious fakeness of the fields, gave the audience every signal that this was a comedy. As we were introduced to Eurydice, played by the vocally talented Victoria Goulden, singing about her lover (who isn’t her husband Orpheus), we see the cheeky humour shining through in her delivery. The hatred in her relationship with Orpheus (Tony Meehan), is hilarious to watch and Meehan’s comic timing had the audience in stitches.

Without giving away too much of the story, act two is set on Mount Olympus, with the Greek gods. When the curtains first opened, the spectacular imagery of the costumes (provided by Charades of St Helens) drew a gasp of admiration from the audience (including myself).  The music was faster tempo, the energy on stage was electric and act two was just a feast for the eyes and ears. The cast filled the stage with their presence and part of their success is down to the dynamic sound and energy from the chorus of gods and goddesses.  

Having seen other productions from Three Towns, I know that the backbone of the society are those who have been in it for many years, however there were a number of newer members in this production and their presence was really worth noting. In the roles of Mars (Winston Carmichael), Diana (Lauren Smith) and Venus (Jennie Heywood), they brought a new energy to the entire show and gave so much back to the production that you couldn’t help watch them on stage. The audience were delighted by dancers from Kathleen Atherton’s School of Dance who made a guest appearance in act three to perform a magnificent display  can-can.

The atmosphere, style of music and visuals changed once again for act three, set in the underworld.  The red lighting, sequined costumes, smoke machines and punky atmosphere gave a real edge to the final act.  When you consider that David Kay has been a member of this society for 50 years, it could have become quite tiresome and unchanged. However, Kay’s direction and sense of fun really shaped this performance to create a production which was slick and contemporary.

Under the musical direction of Rod Dakin, this amateur operatic group excels in their field. The stunning vocal harmonies and precision in their delivery is a real treat to witness.  With solid solo performances throughout (too many to mention), you really feel the true power of this company when the full ensemble sings.  This, accompanied by the 18 strong, professional orchestra really created an evening of quality entertainment and music.

I was really taken by this show, the tongue-in-cheek humour, the spectacle of the staging and the incredible talent of the singers on stage. You just wouldn’t expect this level of professionalism on a church hall stage in Leigh! In the words of Jupiter, last night Three Towns were ‘the most affluent society in existence. If you knew what some of those wretched mortals on earth have to put up with,’ this show will certainly surprise you!

Orpheus in the Underworld will be performed at St Joseph’s Hall in Leigh until Saturday, 19th May.  I suggest you get your tickets before it’s too late.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 15/5/18

Blood Brothers - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

This perennial favourite makes a welcome return to Manchester this week. With a first night audience made up of seasoned Blood Brothers fans and huge groups of 15 years olds studying the text for GCSE, with a bit of everything in between, there was a congenial air about the place and the audience was with the show all the way, right to their standing ovation and extended applause at the end. 

Little wonder this award-winning musical is so popular. Written by celebrated Liverpudlian Willy Russell the story packs a punch even now, 35 years since it's first West End production. It tells of a working class single mother, eking out a living 'on the never-never' in a council house with unruly children; unable to cope but trying her best. She works as a cleaner for an upper class couple in a nearby residential neighbourhood. One day she mentions that she is pregnant - again- and this time it is twins! This plants a seed of an idea into Mrs. Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley),  the lady she cleans for, she is childless and would like a baby; her husband (Tim Churchill) is away on business but the timing would be perfect., and so they agree that once born one of the twins will be given away to her. And so starts the fatal Greek-style tragic chain of events that will eventually see them being killed on the same day at the same time some twenty odd years later.

A narrator, who acts as a Greek chorus conscience as well as advancing the narrative by breaking the fourth wall, his presence is acknowledged by the cast but he never truly interacts with them [although I seem to remember that he also played all the tiny one liners such as the teacher and the bus conductor etc in other productions... or maybe that was the play?] He tells this tragedy with malevolence and offers the audience a sense of impending doom with his every entrance. How two twins, separated at birth and brought up in such socially different circumstances find each other at 7 years old and form a bond of friendship, becoming 'blood brothers', and never knowing until moments before their deaths that they are in fact real brothers.

The narrative starts in the 60s and takes us through to the 80s, and the costumes and 'feel' of the show reflect this quite well. The 'Miss Jones' sequence in act 2 was particularly evocative of that Thatcherite era. The set, for this Bill Kenwright production, shows a well designed row of terraces on either side of a steeply raked stage [very difficult to act and dance on], and uses flats flown in from above for the scenes which take place in other locations, as well as a nice Liverpool skyline backcloth. It flows and works quite well, although I would have appreciated a change of set for the second act.. not just a street name change!

The acting and singing was generally of a high standard, with excellent ensemble chorus work from those few given the tasks of multi-roling as well as ensemble singing, and directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright there were some lovely little moments of comedy placed just before a moment of tragedy which highlighted the moments superbly. My favourite little 'moment' came in act two as it saw Graham Martin morph superbly from prep school master to comprehensive school teacher with style earning him a deserved round of applause.

Lyn Paul played Mrs. Johnstone, the real mother of both twins. Although she played this part well, especially the emotionally challenging second act, she really was looking too old for the role. I read in the programme that she played this part in 1997 and at that time would no doubt have been the perfect playing age for the part. Despite her obvious talent and ability, sadly it was looking tired a little this evening. Matthew Craig was the omnipresent narrator. I liked his style very much at the beginning and was hoping that he would become nastier and more severe as the show progressed, but he didn't sadly and I felt overall that he was just a little too likeable as the tragedy spiralled towards its inevitable conclusion.

The twins, Sean Jones as Mickey and Mark Hutchinson as Eddie were excellent. Their seven year old incarnations were delightful and the way they gradually aged into awkward teenagers, arrogant late teenagers and the young adults that followed was superbly crafted acting, and totally believable.

The 'love interest', Mickey's childhood friend Linda, becoming in later life caught up in a love triangle which precipitates the denouement, was played wonderfully by Danielle Corlass; and again her development from 7 year old to adult was expertly measured.

It's a long show, running at 2 hours 40 minutes, and there were certainly places where things could have been cut or speeded up. The protracted opening was very indulgent for a start. However, there is no denying the popularity of this evergreen, and despite it's almost Shakespearean qualities, there are plenty of memorable songs, lighter moments and much to enjoy about the production, as the delighted audience all around me will attest.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15'5'18

The Break Of Day - Manchester School Of Theatre @ HOME, Manchester

I do often wonder about Manchester School Of Theatre's choice of plays for their final year students' public performances. Their choices have seemed really rather odd over the last few years, and have had, perhaps, a slightly opposite effect than the one intended, inasmuch as once out into the 'real' world, it is highly unlikely that any actor will be required to play characters outside their 'playing age' or experience; and yet MST are continually asking this of their students with every play they choose. It can't be easy when selecting the plays to find those which have a lot of twenty-somethings and little else in the cast, but still, sometimes, their choices are baffling - as with this one, Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Break Of Day.

The Break Of Day was written as a companion piece to Chekhov's The Three Sisters, and originally intended that both plays be performed on a nightly rotation. The comparisons between the two pieces are unashamedly similar and yet polar opposites at one and the same time.

In act one, we were presented with three 40-something year olds, all 'sisters' of women's liberation and emancipation, and all three childless and at that time when their biological clocks are telling them, it's now or never, all three respond with a resounding 'now"! The longing for something unattainable is there in both plays, the society politeness and manners are there in both plays, and yet the sparkling witty dialogue and a fervent belief that in the future things will be better remain peculiar to Chekhov. We are left with one of the husbands being an actor and making the choice to play Vershinin in a touring production of The Three Sisters to provide us with a convenient and tangible link between the two plays; and with the one thought that is the key to this play and Wertenbaker's deliberate diversion from Chekhov, that...

"Americans believe in the future; does anyone in this country still do that?".

And in act 2, as the action changed dramatically from stately country home in England to a communist run politically unstable eastern European country and a private fertility clinic where morality means less than money, and with the action switching frenetically between the two, all the hope that was built up in the first act is all too soon shattered, perhaps temporarily (?), in the second. A more futuristic (less conventional) approach to staging and playwriting, and yet a bleaker and more desperate narrative.

"Culture is what society uses to allow them to understand the world".

The play is set in the mid 1990s, a time to look forward to the Millennium, a change of government, prosperity? perhaps. The only thing in the play which might suggest such a political thought is the NHS surgeon receiving news his hospital is being closed down. The play instead is much more personal; and it is the story really of just two women, the third 'sister' stopping her story at the end of the first act; and their desperate and unconventional methods to try and obtain the unobtainable. What measures would you take to have a baby, even if that baby were to have absolutely no biological connection to you?

This is the one thing that sadly let this production down somewhat. As I mentioned right at the start, these are students and are therefore far too young to have the emotional baggage, experience and gravitas necessary to bring to these pivotal roles. We understood their desires, but we didn't see them truly feel, how could we? For some reason their youthfulness and naivety and lack of worldly experience have not mattered quite so much in previous plays, but in this one, it really did. Perhaps because of the subject matter, I don't really know. I am not blaming the actors, they gave it their best shot, and their training and talent carried them through. 

Directed by Alex Thorpe and with a set designed by Irene Jade, it presented us with a thrust stage space [audience on three sides] which would have worked much better end-on. Those people sitting on the two sides would not have had the same experience of the play, since they were very rarely acknowledged from a directorial point of view. It is also an immensely difficult play with allegory and Chekhovian reference aplenty, and is certainly, in my humble opinion, not one of Wertenbaker's best or more accessible; but putting aside the strange idea of everyone being barefoot [I didn't understand this!], the cast did put in sterling performances. Matthew Heywood was a believable and sympathetic Robert; James Coutsavils a strong mirror for him as Hugh; an the two female protagonists (or maybe simply 'agonists') both prepared to go to extreme measures to try to fulfil their wishes were played expertly and as convincingly as was possible by Madelaine Daly (Nina) and Esther Thomas (Tess).

It is a confusing, difficult-to-access, play at the best of times, and so I take my hat off to MST for tackling it, and congratulate all those performing in it for making it as good as it was, and it was, for all my moaning, very good indeed!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 11/5/18

Long Day's Journey Into Night - HOME, Manchester.

Credit: Tim Morozzo

This co-production between HOME and The Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow saw Eugene O'Neill's seminal highly autobiographical and significant work, Long Day's Journey Into Night, performed with aplomb on the main stage in Manchester's HOME.

It's a brave choice for any company to include in a season these days, since the play is desperately negative and offers no hope or even glimmer of hope, the play is very wordy and has a running time of not less than three hours. It can also be quite claustrophobic too, since the action takes place entirely in the same location - the seaside home of the Tyrone family, and as the play's title suggests, the action of the play happens over the course of one single day.

It is the play that O'Neill himself hid from the world, perhaps believing it to be too personal, too frank. It wasn't until after his death that the play ever saw the light of day, and it is now considered his 'magnum opus' and of course we realise that the youngest brother in this play is a representation of O'Neill himself with his older brother and parents. The dialogue is so realistic and so actual that such could only come from personal recall.

We are in 1912, East Coast USA. James Tyrone, a 65 year old miser and retired well-known actor passes his days with his wife, Mary, who does have a few moments of lucidity between her continual addiction to morphine, and his two sons, Jamie and Edmund. Jamie is the elder and his jealousy for the talents and abilities of both his father and his younger sibling bring out a rather malevolent side to his character which is ultimately his downfall, whilst Edmund has a bad cough, which we learn has been diagnosed as consumption and this necessitates him going away to a Sanitorium for at least six months until it is cured. 

A little light relief is given with the addition to this cast from an Irish housemaid, Cathleen.

"The past is the present (and) is the future too".

This is not a play you can 'half-watch' - dip in and out of like modern society does all the time with their technology, having the memory of goldfish and attention spans of ... sorry, where was I?? - no, this is a play that demands a huge investment from the audience, but in return the rewards are immense. Metaphors abound from the use of and quoting of other literature in the play from Shakespeare to Beaudelaire, and the fog outside, Catholicism and the abandonment or denial of religion; it is little wonder this play is so revered and studied. And the breakdown in an essentially loving and caring family as secrets and feelings are revealed, either through drink, drugs, or simple good intention, is so remarkable and yet so obvious to the onlooker

"None of us can help the things that life has heaped on us".

It is the acting performances then that make or break such a play, and in this new production they were spellbinding, mesmeric and played with a sincerity and depth of understanding that I so rarely see from actors these days - even Shakespearean thespians from the RSC. The multi-layered and deeply flawed disparate members of the same unit were given tour-de-force portrayals and all the cast deserve the highest of praise. George Costigan, back in his home city again, plays James Tyrone, finding that balance between the booming bravado of the aging thespian, and the vulnerability of a man on the edge with ease and skill; whilst his wife Mary, played by Brid Ni Neachtain was incredible in her role dipping in and out of morphine-induced state.

"The Mad Scene - enter Ophelia".

Sam Phillips and Lorn MacDonald were James Jnr (Jamie) and Edmund respectively, both handling their difficult roles superbly. Dani Heron was the Irish housemaid Cathleen, playing a role, which under the circumstances could have been played a lot more for laughs to lighten the mood, but was very sensibly and rightly kept absolutely real.  It is  full credit therefore to the director, Dominic Hill, for creating this family and this dynamic and making this awful story so compelling and candid.

"When you deny God, you deny hope".

Mostly every component part of this production came together, from the costumes, the lighting, the sound, and a wonderful three -levelled set of wooden frames, designed by Tom Piper. I was confused however as to why we needed the transparent plastic sheets - they added nothing to the set, and spoilt the overall look and feel. I also was able to see a speaker in the dining room too. If I am honest, then for me, the IDEA of the set was good, but what was actually presented didn't live up to the idea. I would also have liked to have seen the fog outside too. It is referenced so many times and is such an important part of the play - almost another character - and just to have darkness or semi-light seemed insufficient. 

However, it is the acting and the electrifying chemistry between the actors which truly make this quite a remarkable play, and the almost 200 minutes (including interval) flew by. If this cast do not receive some kind of award for this play I shall be very surprised.  

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 11/5/18

A Little Night Music - The Storyhouse, Chester.

There is musical theatre and there is Stephen Sondheim. So lofty is the position occupied by the great American composer and lyricist, so striking his innovations and so offbeat and unpredictable his subject matter that his works tend to be thought of a ‘high’ rather than ‘popular’ art; if this means he’s had fewer obvious ‘hits’ than some of his lesser competitors, the unassailable reputation he enjoys must be more than adequate compensation.

One of his innovations is to disprove the truism that musical theatre works best when it chooses lowbrow source material for its subjects. A Little Night Music takes as its basis Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy Smiles Of A Summer Night - a romantic game of musical chairs set in turn of the century Sweden. For this production at Chester Storyhouse, director Alex Clifton has largely dispensed with the period (the costumes are vaguely twentieth century and there are references to ‘cars’ instead of carriages) but it matters little because the subjects Bergman dealt with - sex, fidelity, egotism, youth versus age - have been around since the dawn of time and will be around forever.

The plot centres on Frederik Egerman, a lawyer well into middle-age who, though still haunted by his long ago fling with the tempestuous actress Desiree Armfeldt has recently taken a new and much younger wife - though the marriage remains unconsummated after eleven months. When a trip to see Desiree at the theatre stirs his latent longings, he seeks her out but what he’d hoped would be a replenishing one-night stand turns into a drama when they are surprised the next morning by a visit from Desiree’s current lover, the married ‘dragoon’ Count Carl-Magnus. The tensions are intensified when all parties pay an arranged visit to Desiree’s estranged mother who lives with her granddaughter Frederika (the father is never identified, though there’s a clue in the name) . They are joined by Frederik’s conflicted son from a first marriage, Henrik - an aspiring Lutheran priest tortured by his frustrated sexuality; and the Egermans’ promiscuous maid Petra, as well as the unhappy Countess Charlotte.

This is an ensemble piece and though there are nominal ‘leads’ and ‘chorus’, all are important to the plot. To emphasise his point, Sondheim dignifies them with names - Mr. Lindquist, Mrs Nordstrom, Mr. Erlandson and Mrs. Segstrom) and they provide a commentary on the action in the various interpolated Night Waltzes, at one point even telegraphing Egerman’s thoughts as he goes to meet Desiree (‘Remember?’). Their well-blended voices and and assured presence of Jonathan Dryden-Taylor, Natasha Bain, Esme Sears and Simeon Truby give these interludes their full due as an important part of the drama.

In the central role of Frederik Egerman, Daniel Flynn manages the difficult feat of making this over-parted man entirely sympathetic, for if Egerman is vain and deluded then he is so on a minor, not a grand scale. Flynn gave an exemplary delivery of both the songs and the ensemble numbers, dispatching his opening salvo (‘Now’) - a fiendishly complex piece of work that demands perfect enunciation at speed - with the skill of an athlete limbering up for a long race. Eleanor Sutton as his wife Anne provided a contrasting character - immature (forgivable at 18) and delaying the surrender of her virginity unitil some unspecified point in the future (‘Later’) but somehow endearing for all that. She is no match for the worldliness of Desiree as played by Serena Evans in a performance of apparent joie de vivre balanced with autumnal regret: her rendition of the storied, stand-out number ‘Send In The Clowns’ caught just the right note of anguished embarrassment.

Outside the three principals, this cast has many strengths: Richard Lounds made an immediate impression as the neglected son, desperate to be taken seriously, and his opening number (‘Soon’) on which he part-accompanied himself on the cello, was a highlight - as was his delivery of his signature line, ‘How can I laugh when I want to vomit?”. Kayi Ushe made a physically and vocally imposing Carl Magnus and Mary Doherty a serpentine Countess. Gay Soper as the the grandmother - wheelchair-bound but endlessly reminiscing about her love affairs (‘Liaisons’) - was almost a chorus figure, parenthesising the action to her granddaughter (Megan Hollie-Robertson). A word too for Leigh Quinn’s sparky maid, apparently carefree but sensing her fate (to marry ‘The Miller’s Son’).

Alex Clifton’s production does full justice to Sondheim and Jess Curtis’ surprisingly versatile designs ensure an uncluttered stage that can accommodate the multiple changes of scene. The onstage band gives ideally nuanced support under Alex Beetschen’s direction. This is perfect entertainment for a summer night.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 11/5/18

Cheaters - The Met, Bury.

Cheaters is a brand new play, written by local stand-up comedian Lewis Charlesworth – his first venture into this area.  I was very pleased to be amongst the audience on the opening night at The Met Theatre in Bury – just a few miles from Charlesworth’s hometown of Bolton.  The first night was sold out!

The subject matter as the title suggests is infidelity – the act of cheating, adultery or being unfaithful when married.

The scene is set with darkness on stage, combined with the brilliant use of a David Attenborough clip where he talks about the ‘Cheetah’ and how they behave in the wild – in particular the fact that they “have a body that is finely tuned for hunting – it helps them move and pounce in the most remarkable way………”.  Every word spoken by Mr Attenborough could have been written specifically for Cheaters.

The central characters are “Big” Dave (Daniel Sheader) who is a stereotypical builder with all the tattoos and confidence about his own prowess, and his rather different best friend Kevin (Lewis Charlesworth) who seems like he is more at home with slippers and a good book than hitting the local Wetherspoons pick up joint.  They arrive back at Dave’s house with Alex (Lauren Dickenson) and Jess in tow – both married ladies with all the same intentions for a night of guilt free passion.  Alex and Dave are clearly in the mood, but Kevin seems more nervous and wants to chat to Jess and get to know her better – something he is later grateful for.

The play is fast paced and fits into a modern-day equivalent of a Noel Coward farce – very silly in several places but never straying too far from reality that the audience doesn’t believe what is happening.  “Big” Dave turns on the charm with Alex and is about to disappear with her when Kevin makes a startling discovery about his partner for the evening – although they’ve never met previously, Jess is actually his cousin………….his first cousin!!!!

This leads to a hilarious scene where Kevin is distraught that he may have been about to commit incest, whereas “Big” Dave is just concerned that this doesn’t ruin his night.  Another discovery during the conversation reveals that Alex actually works with Dave’s wife at the Lancashire Life magazine which hilariously moves him to the idea that they could simply swap partners to solve all of their problems.  This was the highlight of the play – both Lewis and Daniel play their parts so well and have true chemistry that you can easily believe they are best friends.

The undertone of the whole experience is that each of the parties involved have partners who they dearly love and do not want to hurt, but all crave something that their marriages don’t provide for them at this point.  They have all been “happily” married different lengths of time, ranging from 2 years to 6 years, but all have no intention of leaving their partners and just want a night of excitement to satisfy their desires before they go back to their real lives of wedded bliss.

There is a very unexpected twist towards the end of the play which I won’t spoil as part of this review when Julia (Rosie Phillips), “Big” Dave’s wife, returns to the marital home with her own extra-curricular activities planned out for the night and both gets caught and catches out her husband at the same time.  It’s safe to say that things move into an unconventional area.

Overall this is just over an hour of farce and fun that you can’t help but laugh out loud to.  Lewis Charlesworth has done an amazing job in his first outing as a writer and you could see at the end of the show just how much it meant to him to have this well received in front of a sold out audience.  One thing for certain, this won’t be his last play.  Cheaters is playing for the next two Thursday at The Met in Bury with tickets still available on both nights.

Reviewer - John Fish
on - 10/5/18

The Visitor's Book - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

The Visitor’s Book opened to a full house at Hope Mill Theatre last night. There was little information available about this new show online, three lines from the production company’s website mention tragedy, searching for answers, hope, family and the power of forgiveness, so I arrived with only two expectations. The first was it should be good because of the stellar shows I had already seen at Hope Mill Theatre (what a magical performance space that is) and the second was from the excellent reputation of Oldham Theatre Workshop. I was not let down.

If you have not been, Hope Mill Theatre is a small, intimate theatre that can be set up in a variety of stage settings. The Visitor’s Book was set in the round with seats at stage level and one or two rows slightly higher than stage level, bringing the audience right into the lives of the characters. The setting was realistic and touchable. At one point a character is showing pictures on his mobile phone to another – the audience behind could see these pictures in detail. The sound design also reflected this intimacy – the cast were clearly using headsets but it sounded as if the microphones were not there and I mean that in a good way. Every whisper, every word and sigh were heard as if you were right there beside that actor even if they were 6 metres away and with their back to you. This is very difficult to achieve from a technical point of view, particularly in theatre in the round. 

The story is hard to retell without inserting spoilers but I can say that it was both ingenious and simple at the same time. The subject matter at times was difficult but never heavy and a range of emotions were felt most naturally. There was no melodrama, no exaggeration or excess but a very sensitive and natural libretto which flowed seamlessly from prose to lyric. At times I felt that it would make a great radio play as well as a musical – there was more than sufficient complexity and honesty in the writing but certainly no confusion. This is not always the case in Musical Theatre which, in my opinion, can sometimes rely, literally, on a song and a dance to cover up a lack of story. The Visitor’s Book has a fantastic and original story with a wonderful music score.

The musical accompaniment was supplied simply by a drum kit and an acoustic piano. Hope Mill Theatre dealt with this combination superbly, projecting to the audience the subtle and delicate sounds that both these instruments can produce, again almost as if there was no technology involved. Not a note or brush stroke was lost. The drama was backed constantly by a live soundscape which coloured the emotion of each scene subtly and appropriately, rising and falling with audience reaction. It can be difficult to underscore speech in a play as the actors must learn to deliver their lines over precise timings in order to match the music and if there is any hesitation this can be difficult for the band to fix. In The Visitor’s Book the acting flowed seamlessly from speech to song in a very natural and easy way and this was surely indicative of a well written libretto, clever composing and extremely well prepared performers. 

The dozen or so actors ranged in age from Child to Mother of teens. Each character was convincingly played and extremely well prepared. It helped that the script contained relatable characters with excellent lines but the acting was superb and perfectly cast. The people on stage were as real as anyone you could meet in daily life and they brought us all into their world like a familiar friend.

While the cast were all extremely talented in their acting and singing, a particular mention goes to Poppy O’Brien who played the part of 9 year old Betty. This gifted young actor stole the show on more than one occasion, adding humour but also heart to each scene she was in.

I must say that I have never been as touched by as musical as by The Visitor’s Book. It was beautifully sweet and poignant. Make sure you get to see it before its short run is over, and bring a hanky or two!

The Visitor’s Book is a new musical by playwright Sarah Nelson and composer James Atherton. It can be seen at Hope Mill Theatre until 11th May.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 9/5/18

Launch 2018 - The Waterside Theatre, Sheena Simon Building, UCEN Manchester.

I was delighted and honoured to be present at the inaugural Launch event - hopefully an annual occurrence henceforward - which sees final year students of Greater Manchester's leading theatre schools come together and showcase their works in front of each other. The idea behind this is to allow students of each institution to watch work from other students at the same level as themselves, and to be able to gauge more accurately the level and amount of 'competition' out there once they remove their study shackles and 'launch' their careers. It is an excellent idea brainchilded by Arden tutors, and it was wonderful to see these new and exciting works being performed in front of their piers in a non-competitive non-threatening environment, and to celebrate their cumulative achievements to date.

For the first Launch event, we were presented with a varied programme of four pieces. One from Salford University, one from Manchester Metropolitan University and two from the host, Arden Theatre School [UCEN Manchester].

The first piece, Couch Cast, was a solo performance by Salford University's Jess Gioia. A brave piece, and in the light of recent revelations about the casting process in this industry, it packed an even harder punch. Using a screen behind her to portray her 25 year old self, and acting the 19 year old naive and innocent actress in front of the screen, as well as a male voice-over as the casting director; she is shown at audition and how easily she was manipulated by the casting director to grant him sexual favours in return for not only the part in the film, but for continued fame and fortune. The naive 19 year old hates what she is doing but goes through with it anyway, sine the threats of her never working again if she doesn't are plainly spoken. The 25 year old her however still cannot shake the memory or the reality that she has got where she is now - a famous film star - through him and maybe not her talent. Expertly acted, it was a highly emotive start to the evening

The second piece before a short interval came from MMU called 'Scratched'. My companion was delighted and enthralled by this piece, which saw 7 performers stagger their entrance on stage as if they were a crab or some such animal. A wordless, almost dance piece, which saw these seven 'crabs' make monotonous and repetitive movements interacting with each other. These 'crabs' then at some point changed into a various array of bottom-feeding sea creatures which again, performed a whole routine of strenuous, repetitive and monotonous moves. For me this signified the cycle of life and the mundanity and futility of it. It is also where I felt the piece should have stopped. However, to the delight of my companion it went on for a further 15 minutes or so, but we had now changed to 'humans' and 'robots' and the music, mood and the moves had changed too. It ended with all of them panting - no need to actually act there! - in a unison move which seemed to go on forever. The pictures created were interesting, but for me I lost interest in the piece quite early on, and failed to be able to connect to it in any meaningful way. 

After the interval and the two Arden pieces. First a very dark comedy piece entitled 'Bye Bye Baby' which saw two actresses, Lily Rae Hewitt and Kate Smith tell a story of how they met quite by chance in an Asda car park after both losing their jobs on the same day. they speak of their quotidian beauty regime, which takes a very dark tone as we soon realise that they are confessing to murder in the most gruesome of ways. Performed so light-heartedly with a smile of effervescence it was a delightful respite from the heavy-going nature of the first half.

The last piece was in a style that these students at Arden excel. I have seen these students over the course of the last couple of years and this piece may not have been their 'Magnum Opus' but the style in which it was presented certainly was. It is a kind of non-naturalistic naturalism, trying to make a good actor be a bad actor playing a bad actor thinking he is a good actor. [I'm not even sure that makes any sense at all actually... but hey!] Their style is excellently rehearsed to look under-rehearsed and the comedy is derived from their utter belief in their own brilliance [read idiocy],  Paul Burke and Tristan Chadwick tried to perform a worthy, hard-hitting political piece of theatre whilst Sam Lowe entertained us with a Musical Theatre song and dance routine, and Frank MacDonald just didn't want to be on stage, especially not wearing a grass skirt and a coconut bra.

It was a great event, and allowing the students to sit in and watch each others' performances was absolutely wonderful. Hopefully this connection between schools and disciplines will grow. It can only be for the benefit of all.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 9/5/18

Titanic: The Musical - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

This has been a Musical I had been looking forward to for quite some time. All the hype preceding the show, and it being the first time the Musical has toured to Salford Quays (itself once a busy and thriving port), made it a 'must-see' in my diary.

The story, for those of you who have never heard of The RMS Titanic, follows the infamous ship's maiden voyage from leaving port in Southampton to -spoiler alert - it hitting an iceberg at 11:40pm on 15 April 1912, 95 miles off the North American coast and sinking, taking with it 1517 passengers. There were only 711 survivors despite the lifeboats having 450 empty seats!

It is the factual information like this, punctuating the narrative, that makes the Musical quite compelling. We all know the story, but the facts and figures which are thrown at us all the way through the show not only serve to heighten the tragedy, but make the audience feel more complicit with it somehow.

The set for this show was a single composite affair, steel and rivets forming a false prosc. arch and a galley or walkway in a semi-circle around the back of the stage with metal ships' steps. It was grey and dark and uninviting, and sadly, at least for me, added little or nothing to the production. The problem I found with the set was that it didn't look anything like Titanic... but instead it could easily have been a German warship, or a Caledonian McBrayne Scottish island ferry. In fact it could have been ANY boat or ship; there was nothing at all to suggest that this was the largest and most luxurious liner the world had ever known. The set also served as Southampton dock which I found strange. And I found it very hard to relate to the same set, completely unchanged, being the ship's engine room and the first class dining room, with everything else in between, I would have hoped that a tour of this calibre might have been able to have provided the audience with more realistic and changing visual stimuli.

In general the acting was superb. Powerful and honest performances abounded from Greg Castiglione's pivotal performance as the ship's designer Thomas Andrews, Simon Green as the pushy 'modern-era' businessman owner of the pride of White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, and the elderly captain on his swansong voyage, Edward Smith, played here by Phillip Rham; through the different classes of passenger to a passionate and feisty stoker, Frederick Barrett (Niall Sheehy). I found it somewhat difficult though to emote with all. There were many characters with their own storylines, perhaps too many, and so it became a little overcrowded with principal characters and we were therefore less able to sympathise with them. I also found it rather top-deck heavy. Crew and first class passengers seem to have been given far more time on stage than the second and steerage passengers. The main story concerns the technical capability of the vessel, and the culpability of those in charge when it seems beyond doubt that the 'unsinkable', 'largest moving object in the world' is about to sink. Subplots involve love and romance: those who are planning to marry once the ship docks, those who will marry when they get back to England, and those already married (or pretending to be) and enjoying the freedom the open sea affords; whilst one second class wife has delusions of grandeur and insists on gate-crashing the first class events. It was all very insubstantial and inconsequential.  

And just when I thought there might be a highly significant and powerfully emotive moment as a list of the names of those who perished descended and a few of the survivors stood, backs turned to the audience reading these names, all wearing blankets with RMS Carpathia (the rescue vessel) emblazoned on them - a moment for quiet reflection - it became almost comedic and the moment ruined completely by banal dialogue, and this took us back to the ship and the underwater ghosts. A very weak ending. 

Directed by Thom Sutherland, some of the tableaux were quite effective, and Titanic pushing off from Southampton dock was clever. Miming getting in to the lifeboats however worked less well, and looked very much like a drama school exercise. 

Musically very secure and polished. I liked the chorus singing the best, however, I did find the music had little variation to it throughout. A ragtime song and dance half-way through the rather long first act was the only one to break the mould. I found it difficult to believe that the music this evening came from the same pen as the creator of 'Nine' and 'Grand Hotel', Maury Yeston.

Extremely strong and sincere acting and good vocals, along with historical accuracy, saved this show. With any weaker cast then the show would not be anywhere near as watchable; it is the truth and earnestness given this piece by every single cast member that stops it from sinking like the show's namesake.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 8/5/18

Sinergia - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

There’s nothing like the sunshine and Spanish Flamenco to get you in the mood for summer. This May bank holiday the Lowry Theatre hosted the renowned Spanish Flamenco artist Manuel Linan at the Quays theatre. ‘Sinergia’, which translates as synergy and means ‘the interaction or cooperation of two or more substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects’ (programme note.) In this instance the synergy spoken about here was the fusion of Flamenco dance and music (guitar and vocals) which came together to create a phenomenal display of power and passion in a magical performance.

I know very little about Flamenco dance and so my review is purely from the point of view of a novice. There’s no point in me pretending I’m an expert since you probably know more than I do but the likelihood is that you aren’t experts, either. However, like a fabulous piece of opera, one can appreciate artistic brilliance when one sees (and hears) it. The show had a niche audience of Spanish community (of which Manchester has a large one) and those with a clear cultural understanding of the audience expectations in Spanish performance. Unlike the reserved British who would save their applause for the end, the impassioned responses of this audience was clear to hear throughout. There was an infectious joy in hearing their appreciation for the power of the music and dance with their loud and collective cries of ‘Ole’ between each episode of the performance.

The whole show was made up of these solo and ensemble episodes, which all slickly transitioned to create one fluid narrative (which I couldn’t understand due to it being entirely in Spanish!) In the slower episodes, the singers sang in a style called Cante Flamenco, which sounds like a sombre lament and was reminiscent of Arabic music. This contrast between the slow vocals and the speedy foot work of the Flamenco dance, really helped drive the dynamic of the performance but I did find myself, at these moments, wishing I knew what they were saying or what the narrative was.

The all-male cast was made up of four extremely talented performers: two vocalists, a Flamenco guitarist and a dancer. Dancer, Manuel Linan is one of Spain’s most prestigious Flamenco performers and his contemporary twist of the traditional dance is enchanting and powerful to watch. His energy and charisma, for a full 70 minutes, was astonishing

The sound design of the performance was another element in the show’s success. Floor microphones emphasised the movement of the stamping feet and even the tiniest sounds like rhythmic finger clicks and feet swiping the boards captivated the audience’s attention. The precision of the rhythms between the foot stamping, body tapping and hand clapping was mesmerising and had an incredible impact, creating stunning contrast between stamps and the clicks.

The use of dim lights from the outset, created an intimacy between the performers and the audience. They worked seamlessly to form an integral part of the show with lights punctuating beginnings and endings of each episode. Some of the most powerful use of this was when a coloured spot would light Linan at the end of a fast tempo piece, with him finishing in a powerful tableau staring up into the beam of light. The use of a simple wash at other times emphasised the raw energy of the piece and allowed us to see, the arcs of perspiration flying from Linan’s head as he rotated repeatedly, leaving the audience in awe of his skill and endurance.

Novice or not, there was no denying the power and energy in every second of this performance. Did I need to understand what was going on? Quite simply, no. I loved this performance and was so mesmerised with the precision and skill of the execution. It was a delight to be there to experience such a show.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 7/5/18

 

 

Chosen - The Brickworks, Manchester.

The Brickworks is the name now given to Manchester's newest fringe theatre venue, the cellars deep underneath the Victorian Barton Arcade. This bare brick cavernous space, reminiscent of trendy wine bars and restaurants in cities throughout central Europe, is an ideal and atmospheric space for certain plays. Chosen however, I feel, would have worked better elsewhere. the intimacy and the claustrophobic nature of the space seemed to be at odds with where majority of the play's scenes took place - an airy, light capacious country residence.

The play, written by, directed and starring Christine Walsh, tells of an alternative religious cult, and how one family come to join them, and the horrific results in their so doing. The themes and ideas within the play are not new; we have seen them all before with many different stage plays and films - and even a contemporary TV series [The Handmaid's Tale] - over the decades finding interesting ways into this particular subject.

I don't want to write too much about the plot, because, if you haven't seen it yet, then it would spoil it, and mostly it offers no surprises and goes exactly where you think it will. This is down to two things. First, the present day action takes place in a police interview and so all the scenes that show the cult are flashbacks and therefore we already know that something terrible has happened. Second, the narrative offers no surprises, and so we are taken on this journey willingly; we feel no disgust as the cult's leader has sex with the young girls in his charge; no horror as his wife uses her psychotic malevolence to manipulate and control; and certainly no surprise by the denouement. It had all been leading to that moment.

The play also dragged terribly. In the first act especially when the scenes were short, it seemed that the scene changes took longer than the scenes themselves! I don't think they did, but they were certainly protracted and unnecessary. A single composite set would have worked much better allowing the action to flow naturally between scenes without the need for convoluted and noisy clanging in the dark. This would have cut a good 15 minutes from the play's running time, and even then it still needs some judicious cutting. The play also has three 'endings' - the middle one of which is completely unnecessary and the final one - the most dramatic and real of all the play,  (acted superbly!) I would be tempted to put right at the beginning and cut the first scene altogether. Just my own personal thought there. The biggest problem - one that is not unique to this play by any means - is having the writer, the director and a lead character as the same person. There is always a tendency to be over-indulgent and reluctant to cut or change, and, as here, it would have benefited from an unbiased pair of eyes and ears assisting her.

The story is good and compelling, albeit not unique, and utilises a large and strong cast.  [if you were thinking of rewriting then at least a couple of these characters could easily be lost without interfering with the narrative]. However, this evening saw a cast of twelve tackle this play with sincerity and bravura. It would be impossible to credit all, however the girls living in the cult, Truth (Kelly Morris),  Promise (Faith Caunce), Sacred (Sam Murphy), and Vengeance (Christine Elisabeth Walsh) all had their own individual characters - I loved the youthful naivety of Murphy's character - and yet worked wonderfully well as an ensemble unit too.

The play's success however rests on the performance of one girl only, the driving force and reason for the story, Rebecca, the girl who was 'chosen'. And I am more than delighted to report that her performance this evening was magnificent. Her incredibly moving journey was played with aplomb and utter believability by Eve Gordon.

I appreciated the omnipresent background music and the cult's advertising fliers - a nice idea to tie the whole together.

Final verdict: With a smaller cast and tighter script, this play has the makings of a very compelling and frightening drama. A very creditable debut nevertheless.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 6/5/18  

The Leftovers - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

The Leftovers has been over two years in the making. Sheep Soup Productions wanted to work on a musical in a naturalistic setting. From this grew the idea of exploring loss, and how we use music to cope with our struggles.

Sheep Soup was established in 2011 by members of the Nottingham BAFTA award-winning Television Workshop. A training ground with a global reputation for naturalistic performance and improvisation.

The entire show is set in the confines of a community recording studio, where friends of the late Jodie gather to record something in her memory. However, as they all have different memories of her, they struggle to agree on what exactly the message should be. As the show moves forward we learn the characters; Yaz (Philippa Hogg), Jim (Ben Welch), Hayley (Sarah White), Angie (Wreh-asha Walton) and Russ (Tim Murphy) all had different feelings towards Jodie.

Yaz orchestrates the recording session as she is still very much in shock about Jodie’s death and wants to keep her legacy going. Jim is the manager of the studio who has good memories of Jodie. While Angie is an old friend who fell out with Jodie years ago and still hasn’t forgiven her since her death. They are joined by Russ and Hayley.

The music and songs are most definitely the highlight of the show. Rob Green the Musical Director for this piece has certainly done an excellent job. All the cast are vocally fantastic and the songs definitely do capture each emotion of the piece. It does feel like the cast are making them up on the spot, which is exactly what they are trying to emulate. It takes the audience through the process of making music, and perhaps even inspires some to take it up.

Whilst the music is great, the narrative for The Leftovers isn’t anywhere near as strong. The problem, I think, is the format of the show which becomes predictable and there were moments when I felt a bit bored. If the creators were to revisit the show, I would suggest looking at the structure and not overcooking it. I didn’t feel like the audience went on a journey with any of the characters, possibly because there were five protagonists all approaching the story from different angles. There could be a bit more drama and tension added to the script. For the vast majority of the show it’s all a bit too 'nice' and everyone gets along.

I think it’s fair to say the cast are much better singers than actors. In terms of acting the male actors (Murphy & Welch) really carried the piece. However, that is probably because they had the best lines.

Reviewer - Eddie Walsh
on - 04/05/18

The Jungle Book - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

The Jungle book by Rudyard Kipling is a classic story which ignites the childish imagination in everyone.  It has been performed so many times and adapted for stage, in play and musical form as well as for screen; in animation and live action. But one thing is certain, The Jungle Book always receives great acclaim.  So with such a precedence for success, I think that any attempt at a new adaptation is a really brave venture.  However Olivier award winning playwright, Jessica Swale and composer, Joe Stilgoe have collaborated with esteemed director Max Webster (The Lorax, The Old Vic) to create a wonderful feast for the eyes in this production.

This touring musical has been produced by The Children’s Touring Partnership, led by Chichester Festival Theatre and Fiery Angel, supported by The Arts Council of England.  Their impressive run of previous successes, including Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom and Swallows and Amazons by Helen Edmunson and Neil Hannon (2011), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild (2015), has no doubt invigorated this partnership with confidence in their unique style of bold and imaginative theatre for children.

The striking and innovative set design, by Peter McKintosh, boasted wooden ladders and ropes, hanging from the above to create the jungle effect looming over the stage.  This was particularly effective when the coloured stage lights created the many changing moods of danger, excitement andmellow jungle vibes. A rotating platform of ladders, ropes and levels, created slick transitions and believable settings of the movement through the vast jungle and was wonderful to watch.

Puppetry played an integral part in the performance. In the opening scenes of the play, we meet young Mowgli, played by Keziah Joseph. For the first part, Joseph puppeteers a model which changes in size as he grows older, until she eventually is revealed in the costume as the character himself.  Her vocals are beautifully delivered to portray the young child giggling with glee as a puppet but she embodies the character with such conviction in her singing vocals of wonderful original songs, it really lifts the whole production to another level along with Lizzi Gee’s exciting choreography.

Puppeteering was also used also in the creation of the giant snake, Kaa.  This was my favourite costume throughout the production. In her diva like interpretation of the role, Rachel Dawson brought the character to life with just enough sass to really make the grown-ups laugh out loud and the costume was a delight for the younger audience members to watch.

The biggest success of the piece for me was the actors.  Under the bold direction of Max Webster the performers created an array of characters which entertained and pushed boundaries of theatre.  There wasn’t a weak link on the stage; with each actor embodying the different animals with their physical and vocal characteristics.  This was consistently executed with brilliant energy and had the young audience members squealing with delight.

Balloo, the bear, Shere Khan, the tiger and Bagheera, the panther were craftily portrayed with regional accents in their stereotypical forms, this brought a real sense of fun to the stage and kept the element of danger to a minimum for the young audience.  So Balloo (Dyfrig Morris) was the chilled out, friendly bear, who sings the ‘B-a-loos’ with Welsh accent, Shere Khan (Lloyd Gorman) was the Essex wide boy with the bling and over-sized ego and Bagheera (Deborah Oyelade) was the smooth moving Panther with the common sense and composure of a wise African elder.  All of the characters created an energy which was extremely endearing to the whole production.

A story about a magical childhood adventure, created specifically for children, this show, ignited the child in all of us. Advertised for 8+ but pitched so directly at young families that it could be younger than 8 and may not be as effective by the time you’re in your teens. However, if you love children’s theatre, or have children aged 6-12, this adaptation of Kipling’s masterpiece should not be missed.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 2/5/18

Kindertransport - The Opera House, Manchester.

I was very much looking forward to this evening's play, Kindertransport, at The Opera House in Manchester. I had never seen the play before, but had seen audition pieces performed from it, and had heard good things about the play in general. Sadly however, my overall response to this evening is only luke-warm.

Written by Diane Samuels, the curiously named Kindertransport - the name given to the trains that ferried children in danger out of Germany and Austria to The UK  just after Kristallnacht and at the beginning of hostilities ( a very judicious move on the part of the organisers of this) - is not the focus of the play at all. In fact, is only relevant in the sense that it gives the background and grounding to the story that unfolds.

A house shell forms the set. Brown, bare, stark and utilitarian. It is used for every location from every decade. Static and visually un-stimulating, and I didn't understand some of its uses. Combine this with a very poor lighting plot which didn't ever fully light the required areas completely casting odd facial shadows (maybe their intention?) and a play which became quite samey and in desperate need of a change of dynamic, with some very indulgent and moody directing, the evening dragged.

That is not to diminish the acting however. It was this and only this which kept me watching. The story switches years and locations swiftly with two or perhaps even three separate but inextricably linked stories, going from Hamburg in 1938 when a 9 year old Eva says goodbye to her mother and travels on the 'child train' to England, arriving in London, before being assigned to a Manchester lady who brings her up as her own. At 16 Eva renounces her Jewishness and her nationality, becoming Evelyn and being baptised; and Evelyn in 1980 with her own daughter in 1980s Manchester, and the struggle her daughter has to come to terms with her mother's past - intermingle and the cast not involved in each scene can sometimes been seen observing or staring accusingly at the action; and it is almost as if those acting are aware of the younger or older counterparts in the shadows.

Not knowing the play and the lack of programme made it very difficult for me to distinguish between author and director choices. It is a deeply moving story, but confusingly told. Moreover I simply cannot believe that even for a 9 year old German Jew, not knowing that 'hello' is the same as 'hallo' [instead she says 'goodbye'] is a step too far to suspend my disbelief! It is also a great play for women's roles. Four meaty characters dominate the stage, their stories, thoughts, reminiscences, all intertwining. The play however, using the context of separation during war-time, explores the relationships between mothers and daughters. Eva's real mother, the Jewess back in Hamburg who survives the concentration camps and comes to England looking to take her little Eva with her to make a new life in America; Eva's Manchester foster mother, who did everything possible to try and allow Eva to assimilate and forget; Evelyn, now a proud mother herself, the wounds of her past hidden but not healed, and her daughter, Faith, who desperately needs to know about her family and to try and connect with her unknown and mysterious relatives. And all looking for some kind of 'closure'.

A theme running throughout the play is that of The Pied Piper or as the German's know him, Der Rattenfänger.(a much darker and bleaker story in its original) He steals children and happiness, and is omnipresent throughout the play, always lurking in the shadows with an evil outstretched hand ready to whisk someone away at a moment's notice. I thought at first that this might have been an allegory for the Nazis and the plight of the Jews but after consideration I don't think so; although what the exact metaphor it represented was, I am still uncertain. (death? holding on to the past? parents? or even the British Government for enticing the children away from their parents and homeland to form a new and unfamiliar life over here, despite the obvious advantages that this new and strange safety would bring?)

The five actresses in the play were fully committed and sincere, and despite my reservations about the play and directing, their characters were flawless and solid. It was such a shame though that I was unable to connect and emote with them - it was as if I were completely detached from the happenings on stage. The absence of any significant men in the play - save the Ratcatcher who was also a train guard. a postman etc - also seemed too convenient a device for the playwright, and by omitting them, gained the female element but lost the male one.

I must credit Leila Schaus however. Her 9 year old Eva, growing slowing into a late teenager, with a subtle ongoing change in accent from the Germanic tones to a true English accent with no traces of foreign accent, was very impressive. Her German was implacable but I think it was perhaps too German. Even when singing the Yiddish lullaby at the beginning of the second act she didn't sound anything other than Ayrian. (a minor consideration I know, but worth mentioning).

Jenny Lee made a good anchor throughout as Lil, but again I was confused by this since she was exactly the same when with both Eva (9 years old ) and Evelyn (an adult). Catherine Janke played Eva's real mother, Helga, whilst Suzan Sylvester was Eva as the adult Evelyn with her older teenage daughter Faith, played here by Hannah Bristow.

Perhaps this is a play one needs to study somewhat first before watching it, or to watch it several times before you truly are able to offer any insight into it; but for a first-timer like myself, looking at it from the average casual theatre-going public's perspective, found it hard-going, somewhat confusing and long-winded.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 1/5/18

Stages and Hens (The Remix) - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

Liverpool writer, Willy Russell is a national hero on the stage of British comedy writing. His writing spans four decades and almost always explores the challenges of gritty realism and growing up in his hometown of Liverpool. Better known for his major successes, Educating Rita (1980) and Blood Brothers (1983), Stags and Hens is one of his earlier plays (1978). It is often used as an A Level text in school Drama classes and is adored by the teenage population of Drama students across the country, for the explicit language and adult themes.

Set over one night in a Liverpool nightclub, the play shows a young Liverpool couple (Linda, the Bride and Dave, the Groom) who are celebrating their respective Stag and Hen dos.  Dealing with the theme of superstition, whereby a couple aren’t supposed to see one another the night before the wedding, the play explores the two drunken celebrations through a clever use of split staging in the ladies’ and gents' lavatories of the nightclub.

The set design was exactly what it needed to be as the old, dilapidated ladies[ and gents' lavatories, complete with urinals, cubicles, sinks, hand driers and graffiti. The design functioned well as an integral part of the story but felt somewhat unfinished.  The use of split stage for the ladies’ and gents' was mainly successful to watch but there were times when the sightlines were blocked due to the constrictions of the space.

Although, the sound and lighting helped set the tone of the performance at the beginning and end with flashing lights and contemporary beats, these only served as an introduction to the raucous night out of the young clubbers and was sadly short lived.  For the majority of the performance, the stage fell silent, leaving the actors to maintain the upbeat pace, alone.  Only when they entered and exited through the doors was there a hint of sound from the club. . .and this wasn’t consistent. Anyone who’s ever been to a nightclub knows that the bass beat can be heard from streets away, so to have a silent stage was peculiar.

The actors were a mixed selection of theatre background and experience, but sadly this production didn’t really allow them the opportunity to shine with their many talents.  Inhibited by their Scouse accents, the actors on the Stag do felt forced and didn’t allow me to empathise with any of them as I was fixated by the bizarre shapes they made enunciating with the unnatural accents with what should have been much funnier dialogue.

The females were much more successful in their tone and delivery.  A standout performer was definitely the cuddly Maureen, played by Megan Royle.  Royle’s superb comic timing and physical embodiment of her role was a highlight throughout the performance. The dramatic irony of her tears, her childish belief in true love and superstitions brought some wonderful moments to the stage. The role of Bernadette, played by Fiona Primrose was also successful to an extent.  Her witty facial expressions and bitter retorts of a young married woman, on her friend’s hen night brought a dark humour to the inevitable turn of events of the story.   

The main stage at the Garrick offers such a wide variety of shows to appeal to their older and family audiences; from Agatha Christie to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stags and Hens seemed like an odd choice of play for their demographic, with its racy themes and explicit dialogue.  I wish I had been surrounded by students studying the play at school, it may have felt more enjoyable. I can only liken the experience to that awkward feeling of watching a sex scene on television with your parents, when you were a teenager.  Definitely not one for family viewing but worthy of watching. Stags and Hens runs at The Altrincham Garrick until Saturday, 5th May.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 30/4/18

 

 

Ruddigore - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

I was very curious indeed when given the opportunity to see one of famed English operetta writing partnership, Gilbert and Sullivan's lesser known and previously not seen by myself scores; that of Ruddigore, or 'The Witch's Curse'; performed this evening by The Sale Gilbert And Sullivan Society.

This was the tenth collaboration between the two satirists, and was written off the back of their more successful Mikado. And given their penchant for word humour, one can only assume that the original title of 'Ruddygore' was intended as 'bad blood'.

However, I digress. The story is quite simple in today's terms, and very true to style of both G+S and the Victorian melodrama, and we see a peaceful seaside village with the villagers going about their daily lives. The only unusual thing about this village is it seems to be the only place in England where there is a company of professional bridesmaids employed and on hand for whenever the need for them arises. This village is also the home of beautiful maiden Rose Maybud (another wordplay with her name) and the handsome but shy Robin Oakapple (perhaps also here too... the juxtaposition of a strong and stable tree with a soft and easily rotten fruit?) .Robin however holds a secret, one which he dare not share, for he is fact the Baronet Ruddigore, and, having long since left his family home and allowed the family to think him dead, the title has been passed on to his younger brother. However, with the title comes a curse, and all of the Baronet's passed come back as ghosts to ensure the curse is continued. This being that the Baronet must commit at least one crime every day he holds the title.

So back to Robin. He is madly in love with Rose, and vice versa, and just as they are about to be betrothed, Robin's foster brother, having been away at see for several years, comes ashore and sweeps all the maidens, including Rose, completely off their feet.  Pushing Robin out, Rose and he, Dick, then  decide to marry. This makes Robin lose his cool and forces Dick to tell the village of his true identity. After Robin is bullied into committing 'proper' crimes by his dead ancestors, and Rose is living a boring life with her husband, Robin decides to take the bull by the horns and challenge the curse and the ridiculousness of its foundation. the challenge won successfully, all parties are returned to their true loves, and all does of course in true Gilbert and Sullivan style end happily.

In this enjoyable and faithful telling of the story, the show had been stripped down to bare essentials. Performed as it was in the Lowry's Aldridge Studio, the 4-piece band and conductor (Steve Raynor) were live on the side of the stage,and are cleverly used - especially in the second half (no spoiler here!) leaving the rest of the area for the action. Scant staging giving maximum area for dances and chorus movement. However the costumes and good staging made up for the lack of scenery, with director Helen Fieldsend adding a few well-placed visual gags to lighten the mood appropriately.

All the performance this evening were solid and characterful; but I particularly enjoyed the lovely voice of Helen Fieldsend's Rose, the mad antics of Valerie Green's Margaret, the uncanny likeness in casting Anthony Noden and David Parker as Despard and Roderic Murgatroyd, and the lovely change in characterisations from both Stephen Othen (Robin) and Anthony Noden (Despard). 

My one over-riding concern this evening was the clarity and diction. For the first act I was seated quite close to the stage and was still having some measure of difficulty in hearing the dialogue, and so after the interval I deliberately positioned myself on the back row. Some of the dialogue was completely missed, and the enunciation of the patter songs, especially when the ensemble take the chorus parts, was really quite incomprehensible. That was such a shame really when in every other respect so much work and dedication had been put into this show.

And although the band ideally needed a fuller sound, the choral singing was lovely, and my boy, you may take it from me, it was a lovely introduction to my first Ruddigore. (ghouls and curses notwithstanding!)

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/4/18

Encore Dance Company Showcase - The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester.

The Encore Dance Company consists of final year students of Tring Park School for the Performing Arts [formerly Arts Ed], and the intention of taking this company on the road is twofold. Primarily it gives these soon-to-be graduates a very real taste of what their lives might be like, and shows them how they need to co-operate and work as a company unit, but also it is a way of advertising the school and their courses to a wider audience.

I wholeheartedly applaud the first point, however I am not so sure about the second - especially when they performed in a venue which already houses a well-established and famous dancing school as indeed Manchester's Dancehouse does. Further, the short video montages between the dance routines did nothing except irritate if I am completely honest. I went along as a member of the public to watch a dance show, not an advert for their place of study. Nothing was added by this, and any information of that nature could have been or should have been in the programme.

12 routines were performed this evening, showcasing the abilities of the 19 members of the troupe perfectly. A good mix of styles, genres and combinations, as well as utilising a different choreographer for each piece, ensured the variety and talent was given maximum exposure. For me at least though, there was just one thing missing from the evening... a certain je ne sais quoi, but there was a certain tiredness or familiarity about the dancing this evening. It lacked a certain Zing! or sparkle which would have livened the dances up immeasurably - and the audience too. 

Let me make it clear from the off that I am not a dancer, but do appreciate the skill, craft, and indeed the work and dedication behind even the simplest of routines. I cannot therefore comment on the technical expertise of the dances, just how they made me feel.

Some of the routines this evening were newly commissioned choreographies, whilst a few were faithful recreations of established repertoire, performed with permission from the creators. I especially was interested in this regard to see the Pas De Deux from the ballet The Concerto, which lovingly recreated the stunning and innovative choreography of Sir Kenneth MacMillan. This was actually one of the highlights of the showcase.

Other highlights for me were Lorraine Jones'  contemporary ballet choreography to 'Was it 26'; Antony Dowson and Sarah McIlroy's traditional ballet with a modern twist 'Le Onde'; and Kerry Nicholls' extremely interesting choreography to 'The Unfolding'. Here we heard a strange ethereal plainchant juxtaposed with dancers moving using an internal rhythm, seemingly against the pulse, moving swiftly and jaggedly. It looked uncoordinated in a very structured and deliberate way. Challenging for the dancers, visually stimulating for the onlooker.

To start the second half, Encore had asked an amateur youth dance school to perform a routine. They invite a different school for every venue, and each school has some connection to the dancers of Encore. In this instance it was the first school that one of the members trained at. We therefore watched a ballet choreography of Edvard Grieg's 'Morning' by The Sue Morris School Of Dance. This was lovely, and considering the tender ages of those dancers, also quite excellent.

A couple of the little vignettes in the Judy Garland montage at the end were also excellent, and made for a fitting finale to the showcase, which, on its final performance in London will be attended by industry representatives and agents. I wish them all huge success with that, and hope that their dreams of joining this madcap unstable profession will materialise.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 28/4/18

Shoefiti - Salford Arts Theatre, Salford.

Shoefiti is not just a new play but is also the first production by Brash, a dynamic new theatre company created as ‘voices of young working-class women from the North East’. With that raison d'être, Shoefiti delivers powerfully, giving a very convincing and uncompromising impression of life for young people in Newcastle from a very female perspective. This is a gritty story and there are echoes at times of ‘Rita Sue and Bob too’ but there is no ‘father figure’ to give the girls focus. Comparisons could also be made to the inner-city images of ‘Little Britain’ but this is no satire and none of the women here have Vicki Pollard’s 'stupidity'. This is the hard, tough world of Newcastle which from ‘Get Carter’ to ‘The Likely Lads’ is always presented as a corner of the country not quite fully connected with the rest of England.

The central image of Shoefiti is the ‘Shoe Tree’, where the girls congregate; apparently a very real aspect of Newcastle’s Heaton Park, with shoes tied to the branches representing hope and dreams, like coins in the Trevi fountain. The tree is also a powerful image, being the enduring stage backdrop in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, symbolising, life, renewal and to some, a satire of religion (related to the crucifixion). The tree in Shoefiti, as a living object in a natural environment, is also a sharp contrast to the other enduring scenes in the play of seedy nightclubs. These juxtaposed images are the world of the Joanne, Brooke and Courtney.

Writer and Artistic Director, Bethan Kitchen, has created three very different characters in these women who steadfastly support each other, clearly held together by bonds of common challenges as well as friendship. Their inter-relationships are not without conflicts but nothing seems able to ultimately divide them as they try to determine what they each want from life. Joanne is given a feisty and very physical demeanour by Charlotte Grey who, if not the leader, seems often to be the one to take the initiative but Brook, played with gusto by Leah Brookes is not be outdone, giving a realistic rivalry within their friendship. Courtney is the perfect contrast, played sensitively by Brogan Gilbert. There was a real chemistry between these three actresses, who all showed great versatility in bringing over various moods and aspects of their characters.

Shoefiti could be described as a feminist play but that would be to almost unfairly demean it. This is not a whinge about the mistreatment or holding back of women nor is it an exposé of female exploitation or abuse. It is a very realistic observation of life for young women in a certain environment and the cast and creative team clearly know something about the world they are depicting. There is an intense realism about Shoefiti that gives food for thought for those who are not from the world of Joanne, Brooke and Courtney. The only thing that seemed to be missing from the play was a vivid picture of any men in their lives. Males seemed to be people they might aim to be attractive to, sometimes sleep with or perhaps hope to marry but whether it be father, boyfriend, friend or brother, there were no clear pictures of any men in the lives of these women; as if males were another race they would just keep encountering. This is something that could easily be remedied at a next outing for Shoefiti.

Shoefiti is a very creditable initial presentation for Brash, offering fresh and relevant impressions of women in a powerful and dynamic way. Shoefiti is a play which deserves to go further and Brash are certainly a company to keep a look out for.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 28/4/18

J B Shorts 19 - 53Two, Manchester.

With this Manchester Fringe Theatre institution now happening twice a year, and the format unchanging, pitted alongside the fact that several other Fringe theatre companies are now producing similar events of a few short plays in the one evening instead of one full length, it wasn't difficult to understand why this evening did not have the usual full houses that my previous visits to a J B Shorts evening have had.

However, that is a real shame, because J B Shorts does have something different to offer. First, they give writers who normally work on the small screen a chance to flex and develop their stage play muscles in a friendly and non-competitive environment, and second, this 'festival' attracts creatives from all levels of experience and brings them together to collaborate in a way no other similar event does.

As always, there were 6 15-minute plays split with a short interval in the middle, and again as always the multi-functional backdrop on stage of various props and set items - some which are used and some which aren't and they form the basis of the set for all six pieces. The format may be a little tired, but at least the plays and the acting never is. There is always something for everyone; a mix of comedy and serious, a mix of styles both in the writing and the directing, and of course a mix in the degree of success / reaction each short will garner.

This evening's smorgasbord saw experienced and regular writers such as Dave Simpson (I've Tried It Once), Trevor Suthers (One Of Our Boys), and James Quinn (Eqiuvalent), talented local directors Kate Coogan, Chris Honer and Joyce Branagh; and a whole load of talented actors and actresses, pitted against those who may well be less accustomed to this format and stage work.

The plays ranged from the down-right silly [ a fifteen minute version of War And Peace; performed in the chaotic and pantomimic style of The Reduced Shakespeare Co, and with false wigs, unusual props and multi-charactering, it made for a suitable high-spirited finale to tackling serious and contemporary issues,[a young soldier returning from a war zone, being called a hero by his friends, but when he does appear he is wounded, on crutches, broken and embittered] and all six had their merits. Instead of giving you a blow-by-blow account of all six, allow me simply to write about the two which for me, were the stand-out pieces of the evening.

Both of these came in the second half. First was a piece called 'The Stretch' by writer Joe Ainsworth and directed by 53Two's own Simon Naylor. It was a poem and more or less a solo performance by the very watchable James Lewis. Telling the story of how he was locked away in prison for 10 long years for an accident (not a crime), - he punched someone in a bar, never meaning to kill them - and how now, after being institutionalised for such a long time, he has no life to go back to. the juxtaposition of poetic beauty against the harsh reality of incarceration was excellent and very effective, and Lewis both physically and emotionally was just perfect for this role.

Immediately following this came James Quinn's 'Equivalent', directed by Chris Honer. A lovely storyline of two hobby burglars who have just pulled off their biggest heist to date - the Tate Modern! However they bicker because one insisted at the last minute that the other should not only steal the agreed paintings but also an installation of 'a pile of bricks'! The duologue is witty and clever, and the punchline definitely worth waiting for. Performed this evening with aplomb by James Quinn and Meriel Schofield.

There are two other things I should mention. First, to congratulate Victoria Scowcroft for stepping in more or less at the last minute to play the role of Audrey in the first piece, 'I've Tried It Once'. A difficult piece and the acting was superb. Second, a very personal and subjective remark, but one I feel I need to make. Sandra Cole (Caroline in the piece 'Our Club') had the most amazing voice. Vocally her enunciation and clarity of delivery was far and above everyone else's and I really appreciated that. [I deliberately sat towards the back of the theatre as projection and voice are big things with me!]

Once again, J B Shorts is a hugely entertaining evening, and a chance to see so many talented and hard working people having a real blast! Well done all, and here's to the big 20!!

J B Shorts runs at 53Two until 5th May.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/4/18

Romeo And Juliet - The Forum Theatre, Romiley.

Having seen a fair few shows at The Romiley Forum, presented by the multi-award-winning NK Theatre Arts, I had no doubt that their performance class’ production of the William Shakespeare classic love story Romeo and Juliet would be captivating and emotive and it was!

Tonight I witnessed, once more, what the talents - the product of their commended work with the community to enrich people’s lives - have to offer and, apart from the entrance of ‘drunkenness’ after the well-choreographed prologue, before which we follow the journey of “two households, both alike in dignity”, it was every bit impressive as the fact that it is one of the most well-known and loved love stories ever told, even being the plot for a well-known musical.

I came this evening, not only to enjoy a great night of entertainment, but to support 'friends'. people who are passionate about achieving the best possible show to impact on an audience. As explained in the programme - but not at all shown by the performance - the show’s journey from rehearsals to the stage had apparently been ‘a bit of a bumpy ride’. If this is the case, the cast and everyone involved should be very proud of what they have created. They should anyway!

In case you aren’t aware, the story follows two families (both who, in this version, run nightclubs): the Montagues and the Capulets and their feuds - clear through the death of Capulet cousin Tybalt (Maisie Noble) and Montague hippy Mercutio (Ben Mackenzie). In a effort to combat differences in opinion getting in the way of true love, ‘star-crossed lovers’ Romeo (Montague) and Juliet (Capulet), played beautifully by Tom Leonard and Emily Roberts respectively, fall for one another, unaware of their surnames...at first, and seek to disobey their families' honours and marry. In doing so, after the iconic balcony scene, set on a fire escape with - in true NK style - scaffolding, they philosophically swear to always be together, even if it means ‘til death do us part, since the play it ends with such an occurrence. Initially unintentionally. Juliet’s parents (played by Jake Martin and Amber James) feature more than Romeo’s (Jamie Hempstock and Megan Adams) as Lord Capulet wishes his daughter to wed Count Paris (Sam Bolton). When she refuses, a strong expression of anger and disgust ensues and she, with help from Romeo’s right hand man Baltasar (Sam Richards), reluctantly agrees but with a twist - ‘their inevitable fate’ - that would mean she can be with her true love who has been banished. In turn, Juliet’s confidante is her Nurse (Katherine Bond).

Sampson (Ashleigh Saxon); Lawrence (Michael Granby); Arra (Sara Wood) and Gregory (Jay Dodd) complete the fighters/supporters of both sides and, with set design by Stuart Dean and James Dooley, based on concept ideas from Josh Pearson and direction by Dawn Wrigley, this (as with any NK show) is not one to miss! The music of DJ Josh Pearson is well-placed, especially the extremely poignant music used for the final scene and bows...Ariana Grande’s One Last Time.

Director Dawn describes it as “a little piece of theatre magic” having put it together in just six weeks and I am compelled to agree. Discover it and more at nktheatrearts.org.uk

 

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 26/4/18

Lennon's Banjo - The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool.

“The very first tune I ever learned to play was ‘That’ll Be The Day.” My mother Julia taught it to me on the banjo, sitting there with endless patience until I managed to work out all the chords.” The words of Beatles legend John Lennon. But where is said banjo? What happened to it? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out, at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre until Saturday 5th May.

We open, after a welcome by a brass band, with a stage showing the interior of a museum-style set, and instrumentals of Beatles songs playing. The end of life-long Beatles fanatic Barry Seddon’s  ‘magical mystery tour’ of the band’s history, memorabilia and jokes. Entertainment genius, comedian, writer and pantomime dame (as well as featuring in Coronation Street and Dr Who!) Eric Potts is perfect for the role - which I consider to be the lead - in this stunning piece of theatre. His timing, charisma and pure lovability means that the audience are in the palm of his hand throughout.

After discovering a letter, written by Mr Lennon to Stuart Sutcliffe, that he believes will lead to the missing treasure, he, along with Beatles shop keepers Carl (Mark Monaghan) and Craig Charles-esque Steve (Jake Abrahams) become embroiled in a race to find the relic. They find however that they are to work against a bunch of Texan antique hunters - Danny O’Brien’s Travis (who also narrates the story), his girlfriend Cheryl (Stephanie Dooley) and DeVito (Roy Carruthers) who sends his two minions (played by Mark Monaghan and Alan Stocks) to keep an eye on Travis. Desperate to acquire the banjo and save his neck from the hoodlums who are after him, Travis convinces Cheryl to lead Barry on in order to access the clue...the letter. With twists and turns throughout, making it slightly convoluted at times in the second half, we finally discover that there was only one person that Lennon could really trust - and what his lucky number was - and that, after unravelling the riddle and with help from landlady Brenda (Lynn Francis), where the ‘mother’ load is stashed.

Billed as “the race for the holy grail of pop memorabilia”, it was a pleasure to be part of this world premiere run of a brand-new comedy, from the hand and mind of Rob Fennah (writer of the stage play adaptation of Helen Forrester’s Twopence to Cross the Mersey), in his presence as well as that of The Beatles’ original drummer Pete Best(!) who made a cameo on-stage (one of three throughout the run).

Produced by Pulse Records Ltd in association with Bill Elms Associates, Lennon’s Banjo - under the direction of Mark Heller - is based on the 2012 novel ‘Julia’s Banjo’ and marks the 60th anniversary of Julia Lennon’s death when she was run over by a drunken off-duty police officer. (John was just 17), and the disappearance of the banjo she taught her son to play.

With elements of pantomime and a wealth of Beatles’ history, do beware of the prominent expletives which enhance the Liverpudlian setting. Learn the facts (through the show or programme) and walk the trail that leads to the very thing that would have meant that “without it, there would never have been The Beatles.”

Details of dates and booking at lennonsbanjo.com

 

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 25/4/18

Corrido De la Sangre - HOME, Manchester.

credit - Jonathan Keenan

Entering Home’s Theatre 1, you couldn’t help but be struck by the sepulchral atmosphere - no music and the stage set up for a cabaret with the spare instruments of the Tigerlillies’ trade (guitars, double bass, a musical saw(!) and an accordion) placed in situ around it. But the title of the show- Corrido De La Sangre (which loosely translates as Ballad Of Blood) gave the game away. This was not going to be an evening of light entertainment…..

The Tigerlillies have somehow crept onto the fringes of popular consciousness over the last decade or so - even if you don’t recognise the name, you’re probably distantly familiar with their idiosyncratic take on the Weimar cabaret sound. Its most distinctive component is the accordion and voice of de facto leader Martin Jaques, the one remaining founder member. Their deaths’ head makeup and weird ensemble of clothes (green lederhosen and pork pie hats) make them seem both quaint and threatening, like figures from a childhood nightmare. But it’s clear from the first trill of Jaques’ accordion that these are serious, accomplished musicians totally at home in this idiom. It was one of the smoothest, most carefully organised cabarets I’ve ever seen; even if it did occasionally beg the question - was it a bit too organised for its own good?

Jaques inevitably dominates proceedings: there is something very compelling about the sensitive yet strong high tenor that emerges from his mountainous body. Apart from its other qualities - boundless expressiveness and agility - it’s probably one of the most purely beautiful voices you’ll ever hear, part choirboy, part sad clown with the kind of clarity that voice teachers despair of getting their students to emulate. He is accompanied by Adrian Stout on double bass, musical saw and theremin and Jonas Golland on percussion. Throughout, instruments are switched, exchanged, discarded and resumed with practised ease, a testament to the troupe’s professionalism.

About the show’s format, I had some reservations: the songs followed a (very) loose storyline that seemed to involve a group of young musicians who are adopted early in life by a ‘drug lord’ and the conflict that ensues when they are caught in the crossfire of their patron’s feud with a rival gang. Most of the individual numbers are ‘portraits’ of the personalities involved and, for me, this had an unfortunate ‘distancing’ effect, making me feel less directly involved than I’d have liked. Maybe the conventional proscenium stage and raked auditorium didn’t help either - cabaret always works best when the performers are more ‘on a level’ with their audience.

But it would be churlish to complain too much given the undoubted commitment of the trio in bringing their vision to life. The evening contained so many incidental pleasures - from the sudden appearance of a ‘musical saw’ as an accompanying instrument, Stout’s elegant bass-playing, to Jaques’ elegant phrasing of some of the most brutal obscenities in the English language - that it’s hard to give prominence to any particular one. If you’ve not experienced the Tigerlillies in cabaret before, I urge you to catch them on this current tour - my reservations aside, they’re well worth seeing! 

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 26/4/18

Big: The Musical - The Met Theatre, Bury.

I have had the pleasure of seeing several of PADOS Youth productions over the last few years, however, this evening it was the first time I had seen the adults in action.

PADOS, an amateur theatre group based in Prestwich, are this season celebrating their centenary as a society, and what better way to do this than to combine members of their youth and junior groups in with their main adult show of the season., and to make that show a North West premiere!

Big: The Musical, is, as you might possibly expect, a Musical based on the 1980s film of the same name which starred Tom Hanks as a 13 year old boy on the cusp of adolescence who makes a wish to be 'big'; and when his wish his granted, he finds himself trapped inside his own adult body, and unable to cope with the tricky business of being an adult. Stuff like social graces, conversation, food, alcohol, love and yes, even sex.  However, because he is now an 'adult' he is employed by a toyshop owner to bring back the magic in the toys he is producing. The shop is in danger of losing a lot of money and he sees in this young man (obviously) a child-like quality, a freshness and honesty about the products he is marketing, and so relies on his judgement to save the shop. Things get a little more complicated when a female colleague starts to make overtures to him, and at first naive and easy-going, she becomes all the more attracted, making her fall in love and making him have his first real crush. (Cynthia Benson notwithstanding). Throughout his few weeks as an adult, his best friend Billy still stands by him and tries to help him return to normal, and when he eventually does find a means of doing this, Josh, our kid in a man's body, returns to the life he knows, understands and belongs to, but with a deeper understanding of what it means to be grown-up and be in love.

The Musical follows the film storyline, and as such, the scenes are really quite short and fast-moving, and so the set design was minimal and Brechtian on the stage whilst utilising a large screen behind with projections of photos and images to complete the set each time. A kitchen, a suburban street, the toyshop interior, the funfair, etc. whilst on the stage itself this was enhanced with smaller prop and set items required for each scene. It was a great idea and had the potential of working extremely well. However, there were two inherent problems with this. First, it was taking too long to change the set each time, especially when there were a few stagehands moving things, and second, some of the sets took up too much space when there was a lot of cast on stage trying to do a dance routine etc. It was such a small space, and cast several times bumped into each other accidentally. This was opening night though, and so hopefully the changes will be more speedy and less noticeable as the run progresses. 

It is a heart-warming and family-friendly story with laughs aplenty along the way. The music is by the award-winning partnership of Maltby and Shire, and so the music is upbeat, jazz and Latin infused, and gives the singers difficult recitative passages, big show-stopping choruses and lovely ballads. The band this evening, under the direction of Sarah Osmond doing it full justice; however, it was a little too loud in places drowning out the soloists, especially the children.

Taking the lead role of Josh Baskin, we see first Joshua Ord as the 12, almost 13 year old change into his adult-bodied self, Peter Rigney. Rigney truly encapsulated the childlike qualities making his character not only believable but fun and easy to watch. He had a relaxed style about his performance, a certain laissez-faire which is natural in young teenagers, but as we get older we become more socially aware and rigid, and so lose this quality which Rigney was able to bring back in abundance. His delight and disgust at experiencing things for the first time was lovely, and then surprised us all with his singing and tap-dancing skills too.

His best friend Billy was played by a young Elliot Mills, who was making his acting debut with this pivotal role. A wonderful characterisation and truly empathetic. Congratulations. The head of the toyshop, George MacMillan was played with earnestness and a twinkle in the eye by Keith McEvoy, whilst Josh's mum, a suitably sympathetic and angst-ridden Angela Mavall, a little unsteady with the jazzy operatic vocals at the start of the show only really came vocally into her own when given a lovely ballad 'Stop Time' in act 2, and the 'love interest' was provided by work colleague Susan, played here by Esme Mather. Mather was vocally stunning with a lovely range which was ably showcased in her songs this evening. Her opening song, 'My Secretary's In Love' was a joy. There was also a lovely chemistry built between her and Rigney.  'Cross The Line' and 'Coffee Black' were the definite highlights and perhaps show-stopping numbers of the show.

Costumes were excellent throughout, and with a strong and secure chorus / ensemble of both adults and children this was indeed an excellent and highly enjoyable production, ably directed by Mark Rosenthal, and the society have every reason to feel immensely proud of their North West premiere production celebrating 100 years of their society. Here's to the next 100!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/4/18

This House - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

This House, a Jonathan Church Productions, Headlong, National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre co-production, has been on tour a while, as well as having enjoyed a favourable run on the West End. So, with the plethora of reviews already written about this play, and all unanimously proclaiming its virtues I wonder what precisely I can add to this, and if I am honest, then perhaps precious little.

I was certainly around in the late 70s, the time when this play is set; but was far too young to be aware of or indeed interested in anything political at that time. Reading the programme and the list of names who appear in this play, all of whom actually existed, and indeed were probably quite well-known then,  I could only say I was aware of a single handful.

However, did any of this matter? No, it didn't. Taking the play very much for what it is, a play, with the same mindset as I would have for any piece of writing I had previously no knowledge, I can honestly say that it was indeed a most illuminating and cleverly written exposé of the machinations of politics before it became a 'reality TV show' for all.

The play utilised a very large cast [something the politicians may not approve of in an effort to cut costs.. but something I applaud wholeheartedly] and with fast-moving dialogue interspersed with 70s style rock music and chorus movement / song it certainly didn't fall into the category of maudlin docu-drama. With the Speaker Of The House introducing the various characters as they entered, and us the audience being given fleeting and superficial glimpses of these people, the story did become rather difficult to follow at times, but, hey, that's politics for you! And with well researched accuracy on the customs, practices, and layout of The Palace Of Westminster the play also served to instruct and inform. It did this though in the most human and entertaining of ways. 

The play shows the very human(e?) side of governing a country. We are in the 70s with a labour government but ruling only by the skin of their teeth. It is a 'hung parliament' and the rouses they devise to bring the minority parties on their side in order to stay in power, as well as counting on an age-old custom of 'pairing', showed us exactly how perspicacious and conniving these politicians were and indeed how fragile their jobs. The play ends with the labour defeat and the very start of Margaret Thatcher's tenure.

What struck me perhaps more than anything this evening was that this was so very similar to our present day government and the parallels were abundant.  'Hung Parliament', EU Referendum, devolution, etc are as relevant now as ever. One thing that has changed somewhat though is the marked class difference between the two major parties. In this play it was almost comically portrayed as 'an old boys' network' against 'rough speaking common man'. I am very happy to see that the boundaries there at least have blurred somewhat in the last 35 or so years.

The set design was marvellous (Rae Smith), seeing the back view of Big Ben atop a cleverly designed multi-functional set below. The directing was solid and creative (Jeremy Herrin), keeping the pace flowing but never too quickly to let it run away with itself; keeping that delicate balance between realism and 'theatricality' nicely in tow. The truly ensemble cast were brilliant, and their performances enjoyable to a man. I am not highly politically motivated, nor do I really follow politics. Perhaps I am one of those who allow those entrusted in running the country to do so without worrying to much about it all. A very 70s mindset perhaps? However, it is full credit to all involved in this sometimes darkly-humorous, thought-provoking, political manoeuvre of a play that it held my attention right until the final blackout. The 'ayes' have it! 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24/4/18 

The Big Corner - The Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

‘A play full of big Boltonian ideas fuelled by a big Boltonian heart,’ is the phrase Director Elizabeth Newman uses to describe this ‘…love letter to Bolton.’ The Big Corner is a heart-warming, coming of age, comedy-drama set in the 1930s-60s in Bolton, Lancashire (as it was then before the county boundary changes). The play is written and performed as part of the 50th birthday celebrations of the Octagon theatre and is a metaphor of the birth and death of the theatre as it now exists. This is the final play to be performed at the theatre as we now know it, before it closes its doors for a £10 million redevelopment. 

With the end of the Octagon Theatre era in sight, the nostalgia featured in every aspect of this production, including the set design and auditorium itself. The stage set was simply made up of a cobbled street with a raised corner and lamp post. The walls of the foyer and auditorium were drawn on in chalk with the names of all the plays which have been performed there for the past 50 years. It was reminiscent of parents allowing the children to draw on the walls before redecoration and there is a sense of celebration of the past but a sadness of saying goodbye to what we know and love on our ‘big corner’ of Bolton.

The play, written by Lawrence Till, is based on the short stories of Irish born, Bill Naughton who was brought up in Bolton from the age of four. The audience was a mixed bunch but was mainly made up of an older clientele: those who would appreciate the sentimentality of the story through their own lives.  However as an outsider, I felt that the sentimentality got the better of the play and I was left feeling more separated by this. Whilst the light-hearted scenes in the first act were nostalgic and warm, the storyline of the second half felt more forced by Lawrence Till’s writing of a love triangle which wasn’t really clear and felt shoehorned into the plot, leaving me slightly cold by the end. 

That said, the Big Corner did not disappoint as an Octagon venture. Elizabeth Newman’s direction feels so natural and the cast of five wonderfully talented performers leapt effortlessly between childhood, adolescence and adulthood with a mere change in trouser length, or a simple jacket and tie. 

Dan Parr, in the role of Bill was really engaging from the outset. He starts the play chatting candidly to the audience and asks us to suspend our disbelief, to bring ourselves into the date and time of the play, as the lights slowly fade into the story, he addresses the audience with a dialect and warmth typical to Bolton, making us feel immediately at home. From this point forward, it is clear that we are amongst friends. Bill’s monologues features throughout the play and a particular highlight for me was speedy recital of the Lord’s Prayer, interspersed with promises of his repentance for gambling away his weekly wage. Not only did this moment bring energy and pace to the play but really showcased Parr’s acting prowess in his delivery.

Another stand out performer was Mitesh Soni (fresh from his appearance in East is East, which closed earlier this month at the Octagon). He brought some wonderful light relief to the play with his cross gender cameo appearances as Bill’s Catholic conscience and a girlfriend’s Grandmother. In his main role as the young Spit, Mitesh created the role of a young child with physical brilliance and really presented himself as a truly versatile actor who obviously has major talent. 

The Big Corner runs until Saturday, 5th May and tickets are available from https://octagonbolton.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/the-big-corner/#tickets

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouns-Smith
on - 23/4/18

Fins Comb Conversations - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

Presented by Fine Comb Theatre, this was a evening of four short plays all written by the increasingly impressive Rachel McMurray. The four short plays (each lasting about 15 minutes) tackled issues which society, for whatever reason, sees as social taboos and are subjects which are often left unvisited by the theatre world too. Fine Comb Theatre then have decided to be up front and personal about these issues in the hope that, after watching these four plays, people can be a little more open, honest and less squirmish about them.

McMurray is nothing if not ambitious, and as well as writing the plays, she also co-directed them along with Naomi Albans; and instead of using only a handful of actors to multi-role, she chose to have separate casts for all four. This, for small scale / Fringe theatre is quite an achievement.

In the first play - actually my favourite - we hear the story of a young woman who has been suffering all her life with an anxiety disorder.  The mixture of humour balanced against the need to give the audience medical facts, and the easy sympathetic style of both acting and directing, made this play stand out. I loved the use of two further performers who were not only acting the other characters in the girl's narrative, but also her conscience, and even the furniture too, as good use of corporeal mime made the play all the more personal because of it. Jasmine Perkin played Caitlin, the girl with a fly in her room, aided by Evelyn Roberts and Roisin McCusker.

Measuring Up came next. And here we are in what is commonly termed a 'sperm bank'. A clinic where men donate sperm. It is Charlie's (Matthew Gordon) first time and he has a long and complicated form to fill in. Whilst he is doing so, two of the clinic regulars enter with banter trying to engage him in conversation. Scott (Mark Frampton) and Andy (Sean Chriscole) are polar opposites and some comedy was gained by this. However, Charlie has seen and heard enough to know that when the nurse (Danielle Emmerson) calls for him, he has decided against it and bolts.

Grasshopper was next, and with the largest cast, the hardest writing style (miniature vignettes going backwards and forward in time - very television-esque) and perhaps the longest of the four; this was also the most ambitious. I enjoyed the use of space and the changing positions of the cast as they worked the space. Although this play deals with youths and the drug culture, it also deals with the practice of 'staying mum', and at what cost. Youths and drugs are certainly not new to theatre, nor are they necessarily a taboo, but we are certainly not comfortable with the subject. It is a hotbed of contention, and sadly the way that drugs are policed does not help the case for their illegality, however, that's another story altogether. Of all the four, this is the one that certainly would benefit from a longer and more detailed script.  Jack (Harry Burke) and Lewis (Jonny Cordingley), mates from the same estate, one supplying drugs to the other. However they are both just cogs in a much bigger wheel and when the payments are behind, trouble ensues. The problem here is that the one who should have taken the hit passed the buck and landed the poor young enduser in hospital with a coma. His guilt-trip by the bedside being far too little too late.

The final piece was a three -hander but somewhat in the style of The Vagina Monologues, or Puppetry Of The Penis, in that it served both to shock and amuse at one and the same time. Sexpectations is a cri-de-coeur for all women to be who and what they like, and take no notice of fashion dictates or male desires. If a woman wants to be promiscuous and discuss her sex-life openly, then this should not be a problem; and yet, from a male perspective it very much is. This battle-cry was shouted out by Eve Burley, Angela Hazeldine and Sophie Giddens.

A professionally crafted evening with good use of space and lighting; and I also liked the introduction music to each piece too. A very enjoyable and indeed thought-provoking evening in the company of a theatre company that is most definitely going places!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/4/18 

After The Dance - The Garrick Theatre, Stockport.

A criticism often levelled at Terrence Rattigan’s plays is that they present a narrow view of the world and it is difficult to have any sympathy for his well-heeled, privileged characters, which on the surface at least appear to be far removed from the day to day experiences of most people. I have seen several productions that have explored the emotional depths of Rattigan’s plays and they have been a revelation. Performed rarely, Stockport Garrick Theatre’s production of After The Dance was my first opportunity to see this little known play.

Produced in 1939, after the huge success of his light comedy, French Without Tears, After The Dance was Rattigan’s attempt to be taken more seriously as a playwright. Although it is presented as a classic drawing room drama there are moments, when like Coward before him, Rattigan defies the conventions of the day to write scenes of such power and intensity that they would not appear out of place in a contemporary play. 

Set amongst London’s fashionable Mayfair elite before the onset of the Second World War, the play is centred on a group of privileged hedonists led by married couple, David and Joan Scott-Fowler. Revered for being the bright young things of their generation they married for amusement and over the years have paid scant regard to the sanctity of their marriage. David’s promising career as a historian has been blighted by drink and he lives in an almost permanent state of idleness and drunkenness. A young woman, Helen Banner, falls in love with David convinced that she can save him from a wasted life and rebuild his career. In spite of treating her marriage as trivial, Joan passionately loves her husband and is shattered when told that it is coming to an end. 

Such heightened drama requires assured direction and for the most part, director, David Glindon keeps firm control of the play’s mood and pace. With the introduction of each new character, David and Joan’s relationship is revealed to be even more fragile. David’s attempts to break free of his lifestyle are thwarted by his lifelong friend John Reid, a pompous drunk and self appointed court jester, who has no desire to look forward but only back to the frivolous days of his youth. In the role, David Meller excels, his mannerisms and delivery are pitch perfect and totally in keeping with both the period and his character’s upper class background. As Joan, Catherine Thompson is excellent portraying the complicated and emotionally wrought duality of her character, appearing in public to be indifferent to her marriage whilst in private broken-hearted at its sudden end. Samantha Wilde as Helen Banner gives a stand out performance imbuing her character with self determination, confidence and dignity. When on stage she fully holds the audience’s attention and is poised and elegant throughout. The play is populated with a large number of David and Joan’s retinue and of these the most entertaining and keenly drawn are the man eating Julia Browne played by Janet Birkett and the gung-ho flying ace, Moya Lexington by Mary Pritchard.

As a genuine fan of Terrence Rattigan it was a treat to be able to watch this play and congratulations to the Stockport Garrick for having the vision to programme it as part of their current season. 

After The Dance is at the Stockport Garrick Theatre until Saturday April 28th.

Reviewer - Richard Hall
on - 21/4/18

Fake News - The King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

Vertigo Theatre have been a Manchester Fringe phenomenon for the last decade, and their shows have a reputation for the stark, striking, overt and perhaps even boundary-pushing.

This evening's offering of Craig Hepworth's latest creation, Fake News, is no exception. To paraphrase the play somewhat, if other plays are black and white, Hepworth's plays are a blaze of colour; and Fake News is bright shining neon! 

With the tongue very firmly set in the cheek, this play sets out to warn the world against the dangers inherent not only in believing in but also creating the modern craze that is 'fake news'; and to do this we are taken back in time to 1989 and New York, and are taken on a young man's desperate ego-trip to become the best, the most important, the top cat! However, at what cost does he do this? and who falls victim to his greed and fame-lust along the way? The play shows quite clearly how the media can and possibly do control what the general populous talk about. Moreover, the play also sets out to justify why he became the way he did, and even more surprisingly doesn't judge or condemn him for so doing; despite his near double-decade of incarceration.  

Our anti-hero (if that is indeed what he is) is both protagonist and narrator of his own story, and as the play progresses our dislike of him increases. He treats his girlfriend abominably, uses everyone for his own glory and gain, and even after cheating on his now pregnant girlfriend and perhaps finding real love with a stripper, in an act of uncontrolled rage does something he will live to regret. He is a detestable specimen of a human being and yet we can't not watch him and we somehow still want him to make good. What does that tell us of our own humanity and instinct?

Using multi-media (a split screen behind the action), lots, and I really do mean lots, of neon lights everywhere, and a full-on, in-your-face acting style, this play will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is however bold, brash, and somehow tasteful in it's tastelessness. It is, in truth, like no other play I have ever seen before. Billed as a 'psychodrama', it certainly displays psychotic behaviour and is, despite the clever use of comedy to heighten certain events, definitely a drama too.

Playing the lead role of the self-obsessed arrogant ambitious maniac, Benjamin Davenport II was Richard Allen. Placing his character in mock-irony mode so that even his own moments of self-realisation or questioning didn't ring true, was absolutely chilling and if it weren't so comedic it could easily have become a real horror / chiller-thriller. A very strong actor with loads of charisma, and very easy to watch.

With a supporting cast of 8 strong and well-chosen performers, this play rattled along at a fair pace and mixed reality with fantasy, hard-hitting with bathos, sublime with trivial, horror with slapstick, all with ease and grace, even managing to include some sexy lap dancing along the way too! Special mention should be made to Joe Slack as the stalwart and dogged reporter Clive, whose character was unimpeachable throughout; stern and sincere making a perfect opposite for Benjamin. I am not going to single everyone out, as all were deserving of the highest praise.

My only real criticism of the play is its length. The play as is ran at 3 hours including a 15 minute interval. This was, in my opinion, far too long. The play suffers from over-indulgence on the part of the writer / director, and his perhaps understandable reluctance to trim his own work. The play does however desperately need trimming. In fact, trimming to the tune of at least 40 minutes. 

A highly ambitious and creative piece of theatre, with an engaging storyline and talented cast.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/4/18

Flare Path - Manchester School Of Theatre @ HOME, Manchester.

There is nothing so terribly British as the understatement or the unwillingness to show emotion in public. In this play by Terrence Rattigan, both of these very British traits along with that stiff upper lip spirit are given pride of place. Rattigan himself was in the RAF and so perhaps much of this play can be said to be drawn from his own experiences. It's not often done, and deserves to be better known than it is; and of course, the final year students at Manchester School Of Theatre did not shy away from delivering this play with authenticity and aplomb.

Flare Path was written in 1942, and is set just one year earlier in a Lincolnshire hotel next to an RAF base. Written during wartime, and being about the war, the play naturally touched many then in ways we now can only perhaps imagine, but the play still resonates today and is a powerful emotional rollercoaster leaving lumps in the throat and tears in the eyes if done well.

The hotel is used by the RAF as their 'local' - where they relax before and after their sorties. The main story involves an aging Hollywood Matinee Idol, in civvies, dropping by the hotel quite unexpectedly, in the hope of rekindling a love from years ago, and Patricia, now recently married to Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham. Both of these men are shown to be calm and collected on the surface, but as the play progresses we see that they both are hiding demons, and their problems can be put right by the affection and love of Patricia. She finds herself torn between the two, loving them both and having to make a choice.

This is an intelligent and clever device by Rattigan. rather than focusing on the war effort... and making a choice between 'us or them' and all the patriotic speeches, shows and films that were being produced as propaganda and morale-boosting during this time; Rattigan chose to focus on something a lot more personal and human in order to get his message across. We still see the uniforms, we still hear the banter and in this production we hear the noises of the planes (sorry aircraft) throughout as an omnipresent reminder of the threat and danger. [sfx were superb - Richard Walker].

Subplots involve two other couples. A recently married hotel barmaid who has now become a Polish Countess, and her husband whose command of English is minimal and carries out his bombing raids with the squadron fearlessly and zealously. [little wonder when he witnessed his first wife and children shot at close range by the Germans on the streets of Warsaw]; and a tail gunner, Dusty and his wife Maudie, and the simple ordinariness of their relationship, combined with their inability to communicate in grandiose terms like the other characters, again takes us back to the reality and perhaps even mundanity of life; the embodiment of the 'muck up and make do' zeitgeist.

This production was a hugely sensitive and sensible one; highly emotive and very relatable. It is a huge testament to the brilliance of both acting and directing (Pat Trueman) that during the reading and translating of a letter written in French by the Count to be read only in the event of his death by his wife, the audience were utterly still, quite and attentive as I have never experienced, and the hairs on my arms were standing on end.

The play was not without certain 'flaws' (for the want of a more apt word), however these were so insubstantial when taking the play as a whole, are simply not worth commenting on.

The maturity and craft of these students, who now are more or less at the end of their studying, have proved beyond any doubt that they are equipped and worthy to fully join the profession and enjoy flourishing and prosperous careers. In recent years I have had the privilege and pleasure of seeing most of MST's public productions, and putting their penchant for obscure and seldom performed literature aside, this was definitely the most accessible and one of the most enjoyable to date.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/4/18 

Rumpelstiltskin - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

balletLORENT - Rumpelstiltskin

Rumplestiltskin is the final part of balletLorent’s triology of the family accessible works based on Grimm’s fairytales. Following on from Repunzel and Snow White, in this work the company continues its exploration of how complicated and faulted  individuals are relevant to the contemporary world.

Rumplestiltskin is presented in the company’s 25th anniversary year of Liv Lorent’s work, and in this production the dancers were able to contribute to the choreography making it very much of a team effort. Scenario writer Carol Ann Duffy a Manchester girl herself retells this classic fairytale with her own interpretation of the Grimm’s tale. 

The staging and set design by Phil Eddolls was rustic and authentic, where we saw dancers utilise every inch of the set as their dance podiums. The iconic King and Queen's castle was a perfect plinth for their choreography as they danced on every level of the castle, which resembled a kind of climbing wall with intricate foot pivots.

This interpretation saw the King (John Kendall) and Queen (Virginia Scudeletti) blissfully happy as they ruled the kingdom surrounded by villagers and their children where they begin to wish for a child of their own. During childbirth the Queen dies leaving the King alone with their baby, so filled with grief the King resents the child that it did not die instead of his beloved Queen. Heartfelt scenes follow as you witness the King torment and punish his own child for being alive making the small boy feel unloved and alone. The King banishes him from his castle and leaves the child named Rumplestiltskin (Gavin Coward) abandoned and alone in the kingdom where he becomes a part of the landscape and his only friends are the Shepherd’s roaming sheep.

As the boy grows he becomes awkward and unpopular but the shepherd's daughter (Natalie Trewinnard) shows him kindness and friendship. The villagers though are mean and refuse him to play with their children followed by the male members beating him as he is wrongly accused of stealing a child. Throughout this torrid time his dead mother’s spirit loves him and teaches him how to turn ordinary things into gold. 

Duffy shows Rumpelstiltskin as a victim and how he suffered which lead him to ask for another person’s first born child. Silhouetted on a backdrop we see the shepherd's daughter imprisoned due to her father (Toby Fitzgibbons) boasting she could spin straw into gold in the King's Castle. True to the classic tale, Rumpelstiltskin comes to the shepherd's daughter's aid 3 consecutive nights with the final promise she will give her first born child to him when she marries his father and becomes the Queen in return for his help. However the twist in this take is his demand on the second night was a kiss from the shepherd's daughter. The shepherd's daughter does not recognise her childhood friend from her youth but accepts his demands in exchange to spin the straw into gold.

The final twist is that Rumpelstiltskin is reunited with his father after the new Queen guesses his name only for him to die peacefully after he sees how like he is to his first beloved wife, enabling him to be reunited in the spirit world with his true love. 

Rumpelstiltskin marries the shepherd’s daughter and the baby (which is his half brother) becomes theirs. The child is announced to be called Rumplestiltskin after his father bringing into question was it the King who was the baby's father or Rumplestiltskin himself. 

Fantastic story telling with captivating dance from Liv Lorent's contemporary ballet with the use of ribbons, hoops, poles and much more mesmerising the audience throughout the the evening.  I loved how the ballet has enchanted and captivated the youth of the 21st century by the integration of modern interpolation of dance and storytelling, my 12 year old daughter was absolutely blown away by the visual elegance of the dance and the brilliant narration. So much talent one stage and it was heartwarming to see so many children in the production from the local community of Manchester. 

A stunningly beautiful interpretation of Rumplestiltskin which was elegant and captivating with the most exquisite visual displays of colour and movement. A huge credit to costume designer Michelle Clapton.

A must see for all families.

Reviewer - Katie Leicester
on - 20/4/18

The Last Resort - The Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, Manchester.

This is the first time I have ever been to the theatre and been treated to my own bag of sand to dip my feet into, a cuba libre and a deckchair to relax in. Sounds ideal, however the catch is that you’re in Guantanamo Bay.

The Last Resort, by 2 Magpies Theatre Company, is a very clever immersive style show where the audience are ‘tourists’ at Guantanamo Bay. Upon entering the theatre space the deckchairs are spread out across the main stage, knowing you’re not in for a traditional theatrical experience.

The audience takes part in a number of activities such as swimming. However, when you listen to the language being used they bare a resemblance to the interrogation techniques currently used there. Almost immediately it’s clear what the aim of this piece is. That is, in itself, a slight issue with The Last Resort, once you understand what is happening, it doesn’t really offer anything new.

The actors (Anna Westlake & Ben Gilbert) do a great job in keeping the audience interested, with Gilbert even being force-fed a mixture of different types of alcohol through a funnel. This was too much and audience members were even asking for it to stop. The use of games and relaxation methods is a very clever way to get the point across. The show also leaves you questioning whether you approve of this or not. However, I must admit it was a bit too much to ask the audience to debate this issue amongst themselves for a few minutes, when it’s not just a black or white subject.

What starts out as a simple drinking game soon turns into the audience witnessing a simulation of drowning. There is a recurring theme in the piece that asks the audience and the cast to hold poses for hours, obviously it’s not serious here. However, these do resemble activities currently used in Guantanamo Bay.

Most people already know the story of Guantanamo Bay. However, for those that don’t Last Resort is a real eye-opener that this type of torture is still happening in 2018. I would imagine that for those who are already familiar with detention camps then this show doesn’t offer anything they don’t already know.

Running at just under 60 minutes straight through without interval, The Last Resort is good to watch but a bit uncomfortable to watch/listen to at times. It is performed well and addressed a very interesting subject matter. However, if you already know about Guantanamo Bay you won’t learn anything new here.

Reviewer - Brian Madden
on - 20/4/18

 

Thorn - Salford Arts Theatre

It is hard to believe but Thorn is Tim Keogh’s first step into the world of theatre and he chose to pay homage on his debut to Steven Patrick Morrissey (more commonly known simply as Morrissey – front man of The Smiths). 

It is the summer of 1972 and the Irish Catholic Morrissey family are crowded around the family colour television watching David Bowie’s first mainstream appearance singing ‘Starman’.  Steven (Daniel Cassidy) and his sister Jackie are mesmerised by seeing a very colourful Bowie in full make-up, bright red lipstick, dressed in a multi-coloured satin suit and six inch high heels.  A disapproving Dad (Adam Waddington) is much less impressed with Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust and talks of Elvis – a real man who can sing.  This leads nicely into a number of reminders about the macho culture that existed in 1970’s Manchester, particularly around male sexuality and non-acceptance of anyone whose skin colour was not white. Manchester had been grey for as long as anyone could remember – things were changing.

Whilst Morrissey is the main character, the play is in fact much more about any teenager growing up in Manchester who was a little different to the others, who wanted to explore their artist flair and perhaps challenge their sexuality.  Steven tried to fit in but it was very clear to him that he wasn’t like everyone else at school – he carried around a book to record his thoughts and to satisfy his passion for words.  He found his differences difficult to accept and wrestled with them throughout – something Cassidy expertly portrayed and it is was very easy to see why he was nominated for Best Actor in the Manchester Fringe Festival.

Steven’s Mum (Elizabeth Poole) was much more sympathetic to Steven’s differences and defended him not only to his Father but also to the Headmaster (Ethan Holmes) who mistakenly thought Bowie a classmate whom Morrissey was having unnatural thoughts for. However, in truth it was often his sister (Beth Hunter) who Steven sought out to gain comfort and support – a role that Hunter managed to demonstrate very convincingly whilst still being believable as the playful teenager going from boyfriend to boyfriend.

The only disappointment for me during the whole performance was the fact that we didn't get to see Morrissey’s relationship with his best friend Karen (Rebecca Phythian) develop throughout the years.  We see them meet for the first time during Steven’s rare appearance at a local party and then years later when they have arranged a meet at the Cemetery.  Pythian made such a magnificent introduction into the action during a drunken foul mouthed argument with her boyfriend, I would have loved to have seen much more of her character and her undoubted influence on Morrissey as he started to turn his thoughts and poems into music.

A special mention needs to made to Doyle (Daniel Paul) and Connolly (Luke Halliwell).  They both brilliantly showed the contrasting behaviour of the normal teenager and also added some much needed comic interludes.

Overall, this is an excellent piece and I would thoroughly recommend it not just for fans of The Smiths but also for anyone who grew up in Manchester during this time. The show continues until Saturday.

 

Reviewer - John Fish
on - 19/4/18

Matchsticks - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham

When the theatre world is continually bemoaning the lack of meaty female roles in a traditionally and historically male-dominated environment, what can be done? Simple, write your own! And this is exactly what Rachel McMurray and Fine Comb Theatre have done.

This is a one hour long (performed without interval) duologue between 2 females - both very different on the surface but surprisingly similar underneath, and both have strong and challenging roles.

The story, inspired by real events, tells of a young mother of two, imprisoned for using violence against her wayward husband's mistress. She agrees to take counselling in order to gain credit, and her counsellor, calm and serene on the outside, is concealing her own misfortunes. Through matchstick modelling they eventually find common ground and start to turn things around. Of course that is oversimplifying the situation with words, and the story is cleverly unwound by skilful directing (Naomi Atkins), and some highly realistic and sympathetic acting from both Rachel McMurray (playing the inmate Dani), and Catherine Morefield (the ever-professional counsellor Heather).

The play may only have been one hour long but it cleverly includes disillusionment with the innate problems concerning incarceration, shows the value of The Arts as both a therapy and practical tool, as well as informing us about something I knew next to nothing (PID - pelvic inflammatory disease).

With a simple but effective set, secure and very real characters, this was a highly impressive piece of new writing, and I look forward to seeing more from this company in the future.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/4/18

Mary Stuart - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

To say that Mary Stuart is a play about two queens, would be far too simplistic a statement. On the surface, that is what it purports to be. The play chronicles the last days in the life of Mary Stuart; hugely fictionalised, but nevertheless highly dramatic with dollops of historical accuracy. Mary Stuart has been imprisoned in England by Elizabeth, ostensibly for the murder of her husband, but in reality for her claim to the English throne. Elizabeth and Mary, both Queens and cousins, are more alike than they may appear to be at first, or indeed would care to admit, and Elizabeth dithers over signing her cousin's death warrant.

The play is very Shakespearean and grandiose in concept and is also quite a long play too, lasting three hours with interval.  So what holds the audience's fascination in this brave and contemporary adaptation of Schiller's play by Robert Icke?

First, must be the stark minimalism of the play. A bold and stark, simple yet hugely symbolic set design, combined with modern dress (Hildegard Bechtler) serve to give the play a relevance in our time; whilst the courtly bowing, deference, and the mentioning of letters etc serve to keep the play firmly placed in the period to which it historically relates. 

The most striking thing about this new production however is the acting. With such a wordy and lengthy play, to hold an audience in the palm of your hand for such a long time, requires a technique and talent beyond many actors. In Mary Stuart, there is not one weak link, and the acting throughout is solid and real. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful performance given by Michael Byrne as Talbot.

But of course, the play belongs to the two queens. Deciding which of the two roles they will play on the evening. on stage. by the toss of a coin, cleverly witnessed by the audience via TV screens. This is an extremely interesting twist to give a play, and an incredible onus to give any actor! But it is a calculated one which pays dividends. The two queens are opposite sides of the same coin, and the throne could easily belong to either. One protestant, one catholic, and although the 'war' between them has a lot to do with the religious choice of each, it serves only to highlight their similarities.

The two are simply magnificent. Both gave spellbinding performances which left me breathless. This evening it was Juliet Stevenson playing Elizabeth and Lia Williams as Mary Stuart, but it could so easily have been the other way around, and how would it have been then? Would we have seen a different performance and different nuances to those characters? More than probably.. but I would like to think that I witnessed the definitive casting!

Robert Icke also directed the play, and it was intelligent, creative and imaginative, but always rooted on firm and solid ground. There was imagery and allegory in the directing, and I personally loved the reversal at the end. In the beginning we see Elizabeth as a free and contented queen whilst Mary Stuart is constrained, disillusioned and discontent. However, the simple imagery at the end of the costume change, making these reversals so utterly obvious was a stroke of genius.

This new version of a play written by a German in 1800 has been made into a political debate which resonated just as clearly now as at any time. The arguments put forward for both sides are compelling and you find yourself agreeing with almost everything said. Almeida Theatre's production is an absolute must-see for anyone who wishes to witness some of the country's finest acting talent in a play which will hold you right until the very last word.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/4/18 

Evita - The Storyhouse, Chester.

It’s hard to believe that the team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote only four musicals together and that their collaboration ended as long ago as 1978. In that year, Evita debuted triumphantly in the West End amid a media frenzy, gaining feature spots on the national news and finally making a star of Elaine Paige. But even then, it wasn’t entirely new: most of the songs and the basic storyline had been before the public since the release of the ‘concept album' two years' earlier. it remains the team’s most impressive achievement and also it’s least family friendly - a bitter, adult tale built around a heroine whom most will struggle to like.

The character of Eva Peron - an ambitious poor girl who ruthlessly uses and discards lovers, friends and rivals in her journey to become Argentina’s First Lady - is given a high definition performance by Madalena Alberto, a veteran of the role, who tears through the part with a with total commitment and delivers the famous songs with sinewy strength. We may not like her but we grudgingly admire her ‘brass’, even as she gives her initial lover Magaldi (Oscar Balmaseda in a very funny take-off of a nightclub singer) the push and despatches Peron’s Mistress (the plangently-voiced Cristina Hoey) back into obscurity. She is equally impressive in her courtship duet with Peron (‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’) and makes the show’s most famous number, ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ her own by singing it for what it is - a paean to insincerity.

The ‘chorus’ figure of Che (not necessarily Guevara but the goatee and the beret suggest it could be no-one else) shares almost equal stage time with Evita. His role is to offer a sardonic commentary on the action, occasionally intervening in the scenes as a representative of the ‘voiceless’ Argentinian masses. He is gloweringly played by Gian Marco Schiaretti, whose high boice rides over even the loudest ensembles.

Jeremy Secomb plays the third principal, the General and later dictator, Juan Peron. A much less showy role than the other two, it would be easy for Peron to come across as a sort of milquetoast Macbeth, eclipsed by his power-driven wife: but Secomb plays him with the right degree of virility and, ultimately, nobility.

The first half of the story bowls along at a breathless pace, with barely a pause for reflection: Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright’s production makes skilful use of a simple, mobile set by Matthew Wright, that consists largely of balconies and a catafalque and Bill Deamer’s idiomatic choreography give the ensemble numbers great pace. But perhaps the most effective of these is also the simplest - ‘The Art Of The Possible’, where Peron’s acquisition of power is likened to a (deadly) game of musical chairs. It’s only a shame that the necessities of touring mean that the crowd scenes don’t have the necessary numbers. The second act has a darker emphasis, as it details Eva’s decline and her highly ambiguous legacy.

The second night in Chester drew a rousing response from the Storyhouse audience. This is a worthy production of an exceptional piece of musical theatre.

Reviewer - Richard Ely 
on - 17/4/18

 

Insignificance - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

Terry Johnson’s play, ‘Insignificance’, is known for the level of difficulty it places on performers and audience alike. Johnson takes a simple hotel room, adds a Professor, Senator, Actress and Ballplayer and, in theory, you have the essence of the play.

 

However, it is universally recognised that the Professor is in fact Albert Einstein; the Senator is Joseph Raymond McCarthy; Actress is Marilyn Monroe  and the Ballplayer is Joseph Paul DiMaggio.

 

Set in the 50s, this play takes these four characters and places them in the hotel room occupied by Albert Einstein. The absurdity of each character is not lost on the audience as the most absurd visitor is Marilyn Monroe who, very eloquently, explains the theory of relativity to Einstein.

Each actor is faced with performing an iconic person from history whilst also regurgitating up to 5 pages of complicated monologue. In the case of Marilyn Monroe, the play takes the ‘blonde bombshell’ to new heights by portraying her body language as the sultry sex symbol of her time, whilst making the character speak in a sexy but highly intelligent manner that exposes a potential above average intelligence behind all that pouting breathiness.

Professor is played by Garrick veteran, Richard Sails and, once he’d settled down and warmed up to the role, his accent became more comfortable and believable as that of Einstein.

The role of Senator is performed by Dave Midgley who seemed to struggle with a few line fluffs, but a very good overall attempt.

Outstanding performances go to Actress, Marcella Hazell, and Ballplayer, Steve Connolly. Both actors were committed to their dialogue and understood what they were saying and why they were in this Hotel situation.

Marcella played Monroe beautifully and with pathos and understanding. Johnson is very clear in how he exposes Marilyn for being highly exploited in both her work and private life. The final blow is truly heartbreaking and Monroe’s retreat to the bathroom to avoid being seen at her most vulnerable, cuts to the core.

Johnson’s play is also a comedy, which is extremely hard to expose with such technical dialogue. This version of Insignificance has suffered from unforeseen circumstances with director, Geoff Holman having to step aside and Kathy Searcy bravely stepping up to the plate. In truth, I think both these directors have much more to offer but have simply been hampered by circumstance, and perhaps a lack of cohesion in their separate ideas. I felt the play needed much more pace, energy and technical understanding from a directing perspective.

Having said all this, this play is an absolute beast to produce and perform and I enjoyed my evening very much in the company of four lovely historical mismatched characters.

Reviewer - Alexis Tuttle
on - 16/4/18

The Dressing Room - The Plaza Theatre, Stockport.

Stockport’s Plaza Theatre is a beautiful venue with a wealth of entertainment history and has, over the years, played host to countless life-long entertainers, and tonight’s ‘Dressing Room’ featured just a few. Nowadays you would be hard done to to find a show featuring more than one of these old-time variety acts sharing the same stage (sadly, those who are still with us). Those were the days of real variety and, although I say ‘old-time’, I must stress that their legacies remain in the memories of happiness for all who knew of them, and their gags and performances are, of course, timeless.

 

So, how does one know that the audience of such a show is having a good night? The sound of the laughter on a laugh-o-meter? The number of seats with people’s shoulders moving up and down? The sea of smiles on the faces of those whose expression has changed from the reflection of the bad week that they have had? Who knows but a comedy genius, or two. I speak tonight of course of the great comedy duo Cannon and Ball. The former welders from Oldham who, now in their 70s, celebrate 55 years of working together as legendary singers-turned-comics (you’ll recall “Together We’ll Be Ok” which features ‘laugh me a laugh, grin me a grin, joke me a joke, sing me a song’), after appearing (and coming last) on Opportunity Knocks (Producer and Director Royston Mayoh was present on tonight’s front row), are probably best known for their appearances in the TV advert for Safestyle UK, I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here, Celebrity Coach Trip, pantomimes, the current series of Last Laugh in Vegas (Bobby was also in Benidorm), and of course their own shows!

 

If I may crave your indulgence and give some history (I must confess that I had very limited knowledge before tonight); In 1982, they appeared in a feature film, The Boys in Blue (based loosely on the classic Will Hay film, Ask a Policeman) and in the 90s, re-established themselves with their own sitcom ‘Cannon and Ball's Playhouse’, the spin-off series ‘Plaza Patrol’ and their game show ‘Cannon and Ball's Casino’. Their first TV appearance was in 1974 in the variety show ‘The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club’ before landing a performance on Bruce Forsyth's Big Night, although their segment didn't make it to broadcast. In 1979, they commenced their own series of ‘The Cannon and Ball Show’, along with Christmas and Easter specials. They were the subjects of ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1981.The irony is that, although they have always appeared to have great chemistry (and they do now), they had a period of 3 years where they would only speak to one another during rehearsals or on stage, and because of this, they both became born-again Christians.

 

Anyway, back to the show! Billed as their self-genred ‘Playriety’, written by Bobby Ball, we see the pair backstage in the dressing room of a rundown theatre - where they are obviously top of the bill. Featuring ‘your one and only...the real star of the show (his words)’, Boltonian (former presenter of Crackerjack) Stu Francis as the camp compére Billy Tents, sporting a gold three-piece suit - a sight to behind. He is, to all intents and purposes, the warm-up man who gauges the participation and response of the audience with his clever wit. From his entry - which, as with every performer, attracts applause - he has us giggling at even the most silly of jokes, and responding to his ‘what am I like?’ and ‘Life’s for laughing, not just for living...boop catchphrases’. Also on the bill is Jonnie Casson - known from The Comedians, Des O’Connor Tonight, Summer Time Special - whose on-stage persona of non-smiling Jimmy Laugh is initially underplayed, before he steals the show with his set. A mix of wife jokes (leading to a twist later on), his delivery of gags of colloquial relevance and reliability is brilliant and he leads us into the interval wanting more of the comedy gold that is in store. After a slower, seemingly  slightly under-rehearsed start, we soon got going and were embroiled in the silliness of great British humour, even if there were one or two close-to-the-bone ones. We also see stage manager Mavis. (Ann Marie)

 

In an effort to youngen himself, Tommy Cannon opens the show sat by the dressing room mirrors admiring himself and his toupee - something that is to fall victim of various remarks throughout. This, along with the introduction of the other characters (but not the singer Chardonnay), all occurs before we are treated to a thoroughly enjoyable sketch of the pair’s unmistakable talents. From invisible ping-pong that Bobby can never win, to the brilliant (but occasionally interrupted) in-sync singing of some well-known and loved classics. With anecdotes from their career, they portray close chemistry, camaraderie and a love for working together and doing what they do. It was a lovely decision, therefore, to end on a poignant duet of ‘Through The Years’ which is met with a standing ovation.

 

On a tour that re-commences in July with North West dates in Lytham St Annes; Crewe; Blackpool; Fleetwood, Halifax and Chesterfield, this intelligently constructed piece is not to be missed. A memorable night of laughter with some of the legends of British comedy.. www.cannonandball.com/shows

 

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 14/4/18

When We Are Married - The Lyceum Theatre, Oldham.

For their latest production, The Lyceum Theatre have chosen a well-worn and staple comedy by J B Priestley, set in the fictional town of Clecklewyke in deepest darkest Yorkshire.

The play was written in 1938 but the writing and indeed the whole aspect of the play seems to come from an even earlier time, one from perhaps before the First World War. I can certainly understand the play still being popular for amateurs as the cast is large and offers some lovely character roles for those performers who have long since past their first flushes of youth; but the play is nevertheless extremely dated and simply doesn't have any appeal at all to bring in a younger generation of theatre-goers.

The play concerns the anniversary of three friends from the same town, all married on the same day at the same chapel, in this version, 35 years ago. Problems and indeed revelations occur when it becomes known that the young vicar who conducted the ceremony was not licensed to do so. It appears therefore that these couples have been co-habiting for the last 35 years legally unmarried. This, due to their positions in society and their staunch Victorian values is quite scandalous and tragic. We see that this causes friction and as the couples bicker and their tempers get the better of them, we learn that they are all perhaps not as 'clean' as they would like to think themselves as being. Add to this mix a noisy, nosey and extremely pushy busy-body housekeeper threatening to tell the whole world, and a highly inebriated photographer from the local newspaper, and things do get a little out of hand. However, as with all Priestley's works, it never descends into farce, and is kept at an acceptable (for the period of writing) level of comedy, innuendo, and morality. And of course, there is a 'deus ex machina' at hand to give them all a happy ending too.  

The performances from all this evening were solid and characterful. Sue Radcliffe gave a powerful and strong performance as the housekeeper Mrs. Northropp, and the drunken antics of Ian Perks' Henry Ormonroyd were a sheer delight. (although I would have found a more suitable moustache!) The 6 protagonists all found lovely nuances in their characters, and their individual personalities shone. It is so easy when playing one of these roles to become a 'sheep' rather than a 'goat'; but tonight we had 6 clearly defined 'goats'. I loved the change from hen-pecked to dominant by Herbert Soppitt (John Fletcher), and the indignant pomposity of Ian Crickett's Albert Parker  But all six were wonderful and worked with and from each other superbly.

The director, Karen Barton, seems to have set this play in 1908. The dialogue stated that in 1873 they were wed and they are now celebrating 35 years of marriage. However, the costumes told a slightly different story. A good overall attempt at finding costumes that looked vaguely right, but the whole didn't cohere and they belonged to too many different periods sadly. The men would also have undoubtedly had smoking jackets or house coats when retiring from the dinner table.

The other thing I would mention too was the distinct lack of broad Yorkshire brogue evidenced. Most of the cast had Lancashire or Oldham accents with a few Yorkshire vowels thrown in for good measure; but it would have been much funnier and indeed far more realistic to have listened to broad dialect, especially from Ruby Birtle, Fred Dyson and others.

Once again, as with all Lyceum shows, I marvelled at the set. For such a small stage, their ambitions in creating realistic and grandiose sets never fails to amaze. The wine / port bottles were far too modern, but otherwise, it was an excellent recreation of Helliwell's home and it worked very well.

Plays like 'When We Are Married' I suppose still do have a place in the contemporary theatre repertoire, and if any society can do them justice, then Oldham's Lyceum Theatre can - and did!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/4/18

This Way Up - 53Two, Manchester

This is newly formed Foxtail Theatre Company's debut piece; a 50 minute wordless adventure aimed at the very young.

The piece started life as part of writer / director / actress Lucy Padwick's dissertation whilst studying, and she has now developed the piece and brought it to life on the Manchester Fringe.

The piece tells the story of a father and daughter. The daughter is playing in her pyjamas with a pile of boxes as the father comes in sending her to bed as it is past her bed-time. Left alone with the boxes, the father is taken on a fantastic adventure as one by one the boxes start to come to life. First is a loveable little dog which becomes the Passepartout to his Fogg, and as their adventure gathers momentum, they find themselves in an arctic scape being chased by a polar bear [the best box representation of them all] and as they run onto thin ice find themselves underwater for a clever underwater sequence with an array of sea creatures. I thought perhaps at this point a seahorse or a mermaid would have been quite nice - a little more for the 'female' element in the story, but there wasn't, it still kept a very strong 'Boys' Own' adventure style to the narrative. 

Box-Dog and Dad finally return home safe and exhausted dad falls asleep. When he wakes he realises it has all been a dream, and the dog is just a  box once more. An extended ending shows the daughter coming back into the room and her and dad having a lovely moment playing cat and dog with the boxes. There is still one further extended ending before blackout, and this shows the box-dog come back to life again. This seemed rather more of an afterthought than actually part of the original narrative, and seemed somehow extraneous.

Bearing in mind the show's target audience then one or two of the sequences could be a little scary; especially if sat on the front row.[a large snake with evil intent, a shark with razor sharp teeth etc...] It doesn't help that there is no dialogue, not even from the humans in the play. but the miming is good, and the animal noises work well, accompanied by background music throughout  The set is cleverly designed and works well and the animals that are created by the boxes are all instantly recognisable for what they represent, and the action and choreography imaginative.

Dad (Matt Keegan) was excellent. His physicality and facial expressions were at one and the same time comedic and realistic, and the rapport he developed with Box-Dog (ably puppeteered by Abey Bradbury) was touching.   

This Way Up is not a perfect nor indeed finished product yet I wouldn't have thought, but it is a very creditable debut show for this fledgling company and I look forward to seeing where their ambition will take them for their next production.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/3/18

Chip Shop Chips - Naked Bean Cafe, Oldham Library.

Well, who would have thought that the first fish and chip shop was in Mossley, a part of Oldham! Fitting then that the current tour of Box Of Tricks Theatre Company's immersive and interactive production of Chip Shop Chips should come to Oldham,

We are guests at the grand re-opening of Booth's, a family run fish and chip shop / restaurant, now being managed by Eric, the son who has now come back from his world travels and decided to continue his family tradition, bringing a few new innovations to the place along the way.

Part play, part quiz, part restaurant, part party entertainment, this play fuses many different aspects of going out and repackages them as just the one event. It is a unique experience, and one that works surprisingly well,

I have to be honest, and was somewhat sceptical at first when I found out the format of the entertainment. However, I was soon converted and was happily filling in the quiz form, designing a paper hat, and tucking in to good old-fashioned fish and chips like the rest of them. But this was oh so very cleverly designed to divert and heighten. I was once told that if you had bad news to say, then make it the meat in a comedy sandwich. Good advice, and something that this company have taken on board and perfected.

On the surface we see Eric Booth, the aging new owner of the shop with his slightly simpleton waiter Lee. Everything is going well, and Eric is in high spirits as he welcomes his guests and entertains with a little dance and some terrible fish puns! Enter Christine and Jasmine, mutton dressed as lamb with granddaughter in tow. As the evening progresses we learn a lot more about each of these four characters and how Christine, recently having lost her husband, has come back to this chippy now in the hope of rekindling a love that Eric and her shared briefly some 40 odd years ago, and Jasmine and Lee also know each other and find that they have much to share, despite their social and intellectual differences.

In many ways it was like being present at your own personal viewing of a Coronation Street episode, but it had a lot more heart and 'sole' than watching a TV screen. The four performances were unerringly solid and real, and we felt genuine empathy for their plights and rooted for a happy ending.  

Box Of Tricks is a company which champions new and innovative writing, and this play, which is obviously at its best when performed in a venue such as this - The Naked Bean Cafe in Oldham's Library - rather than a conventional theatre setting; is a testament to the company's ethos and a production of which they can be extremely proud.

The play was written by Becky Prestwich an directed by Adam Quayle, but it is the four protagonists in this heart-warming, tragi-comedy drama who will be remembered long after we have said our cod-byes. (sorry!) Josh Moran (Eric),  Mark Newsome (Lee), Julie Edwards (Christine), and Jessica Forrest (Jasmine) all worked wonderfully together, and despite the 'theatricality' of some of the sequences [a frying pan on fire in the kitchen for example], the simple tenderness and humanity at the end between both couples brought a lump to my throat and yes, a tear to my eye.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/3/18

MIxtape - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Presented by the increasingly important Royal Exchange Young Company in the studio theatre, this is their teenage paean to the city in which they live.

The title, Mixtape, refers to something which, for anyone under the age of 40, might be a bit of a mystery. It was in the days of cassettes, before CDs, i-pods, i-tunes and downloads, when someone would compile a cassette with their own choice of music in a certain order and give this tape to another person as a gift; usually to a boy or girlfriend to tell them how much they loved them. It was therefore a highly apt title for this evening's presentation.

For almost 80 minutes the audience was asked to stand in the centre of the performance space, whilst all around podiums had been erected of varying heights and sizes, to be used as the acting area, and we twisted and turned continually as the action moved from one place to the next, sometimes in the middle of us, and sometimes requiring our participation too. It was a long time to stand, but the time went by so quickly that I only noticed my feet hurting once I left the theatre!

Part play, part music gig, part performance poetry, but wholly heart-felt and sincere, and taking real stories, the RE Young Company, trailblazers in devising and producing original and unique work, have come up with this theatrical experience which through their own words and music tells us about Manchester from their perspective - but also makes it very clear that Manchester belongs to us all, and we all beat with the same heartbeat. I was not born in the city and, being honest, I am not particularly fond of Manchester either, not living here out of choice, but even so, I could not help but be moved by the passion and love shown from the cast this evening.

Although each of the 14 strong cast all get their moment in the spotlight, the production centres around three stories, nicely tying in with the three rivers that flow through the city, and it was these three stories which took the narrative forward. We saw a young black Muslim from a refugee family trying to come to terms with the racism and mistrust around her, and finding friendship in an unusual place with a talkative fellow student; we see another black girl struggle with her life taking on crappy jobs but never really finding happiness until a Bob Marley look-a-like walks into her life; and we see a young college student Leon with his older brother, as different as chalk and cheese and how their brotherly love and bond develops and grows despite their differences when Leon confides in his brother that he has homosexual feelings for a friend he has at college. These are tender and touching scenes and are all excellently measured, whilst in between all of this the music and beat of Manchester loudly and proudly plays on.

The 14 not only acted and sang, but some also took turns at being part of the band too, playing instruments as others sang or performed. The band was cleverly called The Sonders [sonder is a German word which means 'special']. The music for this show was written by James Frewer, with the exception of one three student-composed songs, and the whole was innovatively directed by Matt Hassall.

It would be wrong of me to single any one cast member out above any other; all were 'sonder' and this is a theatrical presentation like no other. Full immersion into a club atmosphere right from the start, and there is no lurking at the back - we are all Manchester, we are all one, inni'!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 11/4/1

New Dawn Fades - The Dancehouse, Manchester.

“This is the room; the start of it all.”

The room spoken about is Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. The event, the Sex Pistols’ “gig that changed the world”, July 1976; the advent of one of history’s most venerated bands; and, more relevantly, the historical setting for Brian Gorman’s 'New Dawn Fades.'

Gorman’s play at The Dancehouse is one that personifies the nonchalance and disillusionment of the 1970s North of England in a way that only a Manc could. Indeed, Alan Donohoe’s Tony Wilson proclamation, smugly, that no, you do not need to be in London to succeed, resonated with the piece as a whole. This is a play which is proudly and resoundingly Mancunian, and no, it is not from London, and yes, it succeeded.

To call this a play about Joy Division would be a reduction, and a severe one. While the piece does observe the band’s course, it is more of a commentary on singer Ian Curtis’s mental and emotional trajectory, narrated by our beloved Anthony H Wilson, than a piece on Joy Division alone. It details landmark events in diary-style format and fleshes each date out with social context, chronicling Curtis’ declining relationship with his bandmates and wife alike.

Scenes are punctuated artistically by slide show photographs of 'Joy Division', images of Gorman’s vision of the band, and interspersed with original snaps from the ‘70s. Bona fide live performances of Joy Division songs by its corresponding actors singing, Transmission and Twenty Four Hours in their number, provided an added theatricality to the performance. 

Sean Mason, who played a multitude of figures, including Martin Hannett, Dr John Dee, Terry Mason, and Friedrich Engels, was terrific in his delivery in what was undeniably rather an arbitrary array of parts. Amusingly, though, Mason often found himself moodily storming off in huffs of various capacities.

New Dawn Fades is a piece which is generally light-hearted, then suddenly grounded in gritty reality at the patter of a heartbeat. In other words, it is tender in precisely the places it needs to be. Scenes may begin as innocuously as any other, only to be turned upon their head as the reality of Curtis’s epilepsy, and later his death, set in to his band, wife, and audience. 

The end of Ian Curtis’s life is shrouded in smoke and a brownish light, illustrative of his desperation, and enhanced by his final cry for help. Hereafter, the old Joy Division gang gather around an empty chair, a clever image in that it is both a chair meant to be occupied by Ian but also, it is known that Curtis tragically used a chair as a prop to his demise.

New Dawn Fades is not perfect. By design, it is thematically anecdotal, chronologically contextualised as Tony Wilson’s memoir 24 Hour Party People was, but without the lengthy exposition it needs. Here, some tenderness and poignancy was lost where it was needed most.

This can be forgiven, though, for the crushingness of what may be seen as the piece’s climax - Curtis’s recital of the lyrics to Love Will Tear Us Apart, stripped of musical context, and left as mere words. What one may see as the band’s crowning achievement -swiftly encapsulated Curtis’ spiralling mental state. Suddenly we forgive any lack in tenderness, much as we forgive any – perhaps all – of Curtis’ misdeeds, as delineated.

As the late, great Mr. Wilson once said; thank God for pity.

Reviewer - Jamie Kingsley
on - 11/4/18

The Scary Bikers - Waterside Arts Centre, Sale - Manchester.

It's not very often that a BAFTA and Olivier award winning partnership come to places like Sale, so I was intrigued to see John Godber's latest productionwith the man himself and real-life wife Jane Thornton as the performers; the play also being directed by him. 

The Scary Bikers is a two-hander comedy drama telling the story of Don (Godber) and Carol (Thornton) who meet at a bereavement group after losing their partners and then embark on a cycling trip across Europe together. 

Although only a cast of two, both actors, in true Godber style, take on multiple characters. Thornton's portrayal of Don's wife, Jean was comedy gold and had the annoyed wife down to a Tee. Fate seemed to have brought the pair together as they met twice accidentally before deciding to go on their European adventure.

The beginning of the play deals with the pair's loneliness and sense of loss they feel after losing their partners. Setting of on their European adventure on 23 June 2016 it is more than a tad ironic that it coincided with the day the UK voted to leave the European Union. It soon became clear that although the pair had built up a strong bond, they had very different political views. Don is a Brexiteer and one of those who believed that the £350m the UK would save per week from not being a member would go towards the NHS; Carol voted to remain and was completely shocked by the result. It is clear that even though times have moved on, values and morals are hard to change.

The journey they go on both physically and emotionally tells the audience a lot about their characters; like any couple spending all day every day together for two weeks, it can lead to friction and bickering. The comedy moments in this play were the highlights for me. Situations such a Carol being rushed to hospital on a bike, but being sure to stop and take a picture of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa on the way had the audience in stiches.

Godber and Thornton were perfectly cast - of course it was written for them! But the acting was so real and natural it was as though someone had just picked the pair off the street and asked them to tell us their life story!

Although I loved the characters and the story of the play, I did feel that it was used as a medium to air views on Brexit. However I don't think that was needed, the story and acting were strong enough on their own.

Reviewer - Brian Madden
on - 11/3/18 

 

The Little Mermaid - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Metta's Little Mermaid

This is Metta Theatre's latest creation and their most ambitious to date. Known for boundary-pushing and innovation you accept that this family-friendly children's fairy story will be given a unique spin. I wasn't prepared however for just exactly how unique that spin was going to be. And this didn't come in the form of narrative or story changes. the familiar elements of this well known tale were all there: [young mermaid goes on land, falls in love with a prince, prince loves her but is engaged to a mortal he doesn't love, she trades her voice for legs, goes back to see him but fails to marry him and so is condemned to a cold and lonely watery existence, her sisters intervene and bring the prince down to meet her, he agrees to become a merman, happy ending]; the surprise came from the fact that in the space of 70 minutes (played through without interval) the seven multi-talented performers created a multi-disciplined theatrical experience like nothing I have ever witnessed previously. Described as a 'Circus Musical' it is something even more than that.

Using aerial / trapeze work, along with balancing, tumbling, juggling, and a most impressive large circle (I don't know the technical term but have heard it described as a 'simple wheel') sequence; the acrobatics in this show were stunning. But of course that was not enough; these performers also sang, danced and played musical instruments throughout too, and so we saw a mermaid balancing on a hoop high above the stage whilst singing and playing a violin for example. It was a veritable visual and aural feast.

Full credit to all seven performers, [Rosie Rowlands, Tilly Lee-Kronick, Rosalind Ford, Aelfwyn Shipton, Roo Jenkyn-Jones, Josh Frazer, and Matt Knight] as they were flawless and spellbinding throughout, with talents that most of us can only dream of. The show was carefully and lovingly directed [Poppy Burton-Morgan], with good use of lighting and music, and the set, although minimal, quite adequate. However, there was, for me at least, something missing. There was no 'pizzazz' moment, no loud drum roll and a spectacular chase sequence or a complete change of pace and mood. Everything for the whole 70 minutes happened at roughly the same tempo with roughly the same lack of urgency throughout and the music was all very 'samey' too; despite it being well sung with some nice harmonies.

This show was suitable for and indeed trying to attract a young audience, children. Those young children who have perhaps already seen the Disney version or their parents have read them the story at night; and the auditorium this evening was filled with tiny bodies flanked by parents, and so it was to those youngsters I looked to see if what was engaging me and holding my interest was doing the same to them. I was captivated by the experience, and the story was told in a very adult way. There was no humour, nothing for the kids to latch on to except a prior knowledge of the story, and so, being completely fair, it seemed that Metta had succeeded in holding the attention of about 50% of its intended target audience, and 100% of those adults who went along to accompany.

A hugely enjoyable adult experience, and something completely different.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 10/4/18

Goodnight Mr. Tom - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

To fill out a theatre on a Tuesday evening is difficult for a venue of any capacity, yet alone a local theatre in Altrincham. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see a great turnout at The Altrincham Garrick Playhouse for their latest offering; Goodnight Mister Tom.

The play, by David Wood, is an adaptation of a children's novel by Michelle Marjorian, and is set during the Second World War. When a young boy from London, abused and covered in bruises is temporarily assigned to stay with you, do you turn him away, or take him in as if we was one of your own? This is exactly what happens when Londoner; William Beech (Benoit Normand) arrives in Devon to stay with aging bachelor, Tom Oakley (Bryan Higgins).

Goodnight Mister Tom tells the beautiful story of William and Tom, who have both been hurt in the past that they daren’t risk getting close to anyone again. Yet, they find love and acceptance in each other. 

Normand was perfect for the role of William. He portrayed a young quiet sensitive boy very well. He quickly grew in confidence and was a joy to watch. Definitely one to keep an eye on for the future

Frances Hartill stole the show playing Sammy the dog. Although not a speaking part, it added to a lot of the humour of the play. There was also a clear bond between Sammy and the two protagonists..

Standout performances came from Henry Thorman playing Zach who had the audience in stitches with his Shakespeare references. Being raised by actors, his confident persona makes him quite the character in rural Devon.

Altrincham Garrick did a good job with the set. It was clear we were being transported back to the 1930s. I especially liked the use of smoke to show the characters were at the train station.

Goodnight Mister Tom is mainly a play but there is some singing in it. I think it is fair to say that singing wasn’t the main strength for the majority of the cast. It could have been a lot tighter and more in unison.

Although there is a lot of humour in Goodnight Mister Tom, there are some bits which are hard to watch. Mrs Beech (Caroline Knight) abusing her son disguised as some form of Christianity being the main one.

The final scene of the play is very cute and one which could have been a real tear-jerker. After seeing William being mistreated by the authorities, Tom takes matters into his own hands and the pair are reunited.

Reviewer - Brian Madden
on - 10/4/18

Of Mice And Men - The Opera House, Manchester.

Surely one of America's greatest early 20th century literary treasures has to John Steinbeck; if not for his vivid descriptions of the life and the people of that era, uncompromisingly but expertly characterised, then for his simple but effective way of showing the morals and ethics of that time through those characters.

Steinbeck has been and still is much studied; and due to his uncompromising narratives, his works have also been the subjects of censorship and debate. In 'Of Mice And Men' it clearly shows the distinction between black and white men, and that black men at that time were clearly second class citizens, even amongst the travelling and displaced migrant community, calling them with a word that even now I am being censored for writing in this review, but begins with 'N'.

Not only that but Steinbeck had a great gift for writing accurate and moving portrayals of people with physical or mental disability. And again, no clearer is this evidenced than with 'Of Mice And Men', in which the main character of Lennie is clearly suffering from an unknown and undiagnosed mental condition which makes him both forgetful and something of a 'simpleton' and childlike; whilst two other characters are shown from the start with physical deformities. These are not exaggerations nor caricatures, but taken from real life, from a time when such deformities were accepted and more common within society.     

The play is absolutely true to both the novel and Steinbeck, making our watching of this play difficult in terms of our 21st century reactions to what we see, but realising that we are seeing as near a documentary of life on a western ranch which takes in migrant workers at the turn of the 20th century as you probably will ever get. 

Our two protagonists are superb. Richard Keightley and Matthew Wynn play George and Lennie respectively. They had to leave the last ranch they were working on due to Lennie's mental condition getting him into trouble, and so when they arrive at this new place of work, George tells Lennie to keep his mouth shut completely and to let him do all the talking for them both.  It is clear that Lennie needs George and that a great bond and friendship has grown between them; and George somehow needs Lennie too. perhaps a companion he never had before, or perhaps he feels fatherly towards him. They work together superbly, and their characterisations hit their nails firmly and squarely. I loved the wonderful little physical gestures of Wynn.

It's an amazingly talented and strong cast that people this play. And under the secure and intelligent direction of Guy Unsworth, they bring this early 20th century world alive, with their individual hopes and fears and their collective pack-instinct. It would be very hard for me to try and single any actor out more than the others in this hugely ensemble effort; however, I will give special mention to Kevin Mathurin, who for the whole of act one, skilfully and empathetically puppeteered an old and mangy dog, and then in the second act gave a lovely performance of Crooks.  

If anything negative is to be said about this production at all, then it is simply that at times, the voices were a little too quiet to project fully across the auditorium, and the first gun shot [a pistol shot from offstage] was more like listening to a mortar explode; otherwise, with a lovely and simple but very clever wooden set design (David Woodhead) and effective lighting, this is a superbly crafted production and one of which I feel sure Steinbeck would unerringly approve.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 9/4/18

Wot Sid Did - The Library Theatre, Oldham.

Over forty years after his death on stage at the Sunderland Empire, Sid James remains one of Britain’s most popular comedy actors, helped perhaps by regular repeats of the huge output of Carry On films, but Sid produced a volume of quality work over a thirty year career, from character roles in British films of the 50s and 60s to classic radio comedy with Tony Hancock and star of long running TV sit-com ‘Bless this House’. 'Wot Sid Did' is all about showing the real person behind the comedian who gave so much pleasure to others.

Sid James has certain trademarks, including a dirty laugh, a pickled-walnut face and a propensity for playing lovable rogues, which normally combined chasing women with dodgy ways of making money. Behind the popular persona of the cheeky cockney, whom everybody thought they knew, was a serious actor who always took his work seriously, a gambling addict and a man with complicated relationships. The public persona was largely Sid’s own creation, actually being South African and bearing a Jewish family name. What 'Wot Sid Did' seeks to present is an honest portrait of the ‘real’ Sid James, with Sid telling his own story, warts and all. 

Writer Steve Dimmer clearly knows a lot about the subject, having given an illustrated talk about the ‘Carry On’ Films before the show, and with great attention to details, presents a fascinating insight into who Sid James really was. Perhaps wisely, there has been not too much attempt to look or sound exactly like Sid James because with such a distinctive voice and face, to try be copy this accurately would almost certainly result in caricature.

This play is about the man himself, his passions, his relationships and his work and the poignant setting of the dressing room in the theatre where Sid died is a perfect back-drop from which to tell the story. As Sid James’ character starts coming though, clear differences between the voice and face of the actor playing Sid compared with the real Sid become insignificant as we realise that every detail we are being told is based on documented evidence. The mannerisms of Sid James are so keenly observed that we left feeling we actually know the man behind the persona whom so many thought they knew.

 'Wot Sid Did'was produced by Midlands-based 'Next Page' whose ambit is creating a platform for new writing, presenting it to diverse audiences and being prepared to take risks rather than sticking to standard, popular fayre. The play tonight was a genuine theatre experience, both funny and poignant, and a tribute to the writing of Dimmer, whose work varies from full legnth theatre and murder mysteries to children’s shows and stage magic. There were periods of silence when you really could have heard a pin drop but never for a moment longer than the irrepressible Sid James would have allowed; his cheeky smile or dirty laugh always on hand to wipe away moments of sadness. There are some fascinating insights into Sid’s realationships with others as well, from the women in his life (aside from Barbara Windsor) to professional associations with the likes of Kenneth Williams, which sometimes, as with Tony Hancock, developed into friendships as well.

'Wot Sid Did' is a very-well rounded and delightfully performed show; Next Page are a compamy to watch out for.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 6/4/18

Brexitus - The Casa, Liverpool.

A once great, world spanning Empire is crumbling apart, immigration from Eastern Europe is getting out of hand, public funds are being outsourced to private interests, the rich are getting richer while avoiding paying their taxes, Wales and Scotland are agitating for independence, and the Irish are seeking to form a coalition government but for a price…sorry, what year is this? 2018 or 300AD? Brexitus may show Britain as a colonial outpost under Roman rule but its targets are all too current. The show, by Crazy Horse productions, is essentially I, Claudius meets Carry On Cleo with a hint of Monty Python, and a sprinkling of the last 12 months’ worth of Private Eye back issues.

Writer Ian MacDonald provides us with an intriguing premise and a timely reminder that no matter how crazy things may seem, things aren’t really all that different from what has gone before. Brexitus is set in Britannia, a distant colony of the Roman Empire. In charge of this colonial outpost, is Potus (Mike Sanders) a wealthy and easily corruptible ruler. Entering on stage with his wife Livia (Deborah Elizabeth) while eating a hamburger, it is clear (if the name wasn’t enough of a clue) who he is based on. Throughout the play, Potus refers to building a “great wall” on the border with Scotland which the Celts shall pay for, and dismisses talk of him conspiring with the Goths after they overthrow the Imperial Seat in Rome as “Fake News”. In these moments, Sanders manages to capture the strange speech rhythms of Donald Trump but doesn’t quite get the infamous hand gestures as accurately as they probably should be. Livia, however, seems more aligned to her namesake in I, Claudius, scheming and manipulative, and Elizabeth does a fine job of portraying her character, a wealthy woman who is bored but harbours ambitions to kill her ineffectual leader of a husband and assume power herself. As Maximus, the head of the civil service in Britannia and spymaster for Rome, Mark Lacey acquits himself well as the oily administrator who is ready to do deals with wealthy business interests. Lee Burnitt cuts an impressive figure as the General of the army, Agrippa, who is easily swayed by Livia. Director Michael Wolf also appeared onstage in the role of Christian convert Honorious, sent by the Emperor Romulus to spread the word of the new religion which was to eradicate the old Olympian Gods. Of all the characters, his was the one with the most interesting journey: from religious preacher to gladiator, army commander and eventually, in what can only be a hat tip to the end of Howard Brenton’s 1980 play The Romans in Britain, King Arthur. Geraldine Maloney Judge delivered the most memorable performance in the main cast as the Witch. Her movements and mimes provided amusement and were reminiscent of the sort of moves Kate Bush used to do in her early music videos! The main cast was supplemented by the imposing gladiator played by Derek Gray, who was silent throughout the play save for a rendition of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (one of several examples of anachronistic humour in the play), and Shelly Mollard as the maiden who provided audiences with cues to cheer and boo during the gladiatorial combat scene which closed Act One.     

The costumes and props were all excellent and the limited sets (mainly a table and throne with additional seats added when needed) helped create a sense of the period. The big drawback of the production was the length of the play. Spread over two acts, with numerous scene changes (backed by soul songs from the 1960s and 1970s which, presumably, was designed to highlight the links between 300AD and the more modern era), the narrative flow often felt disjointed and there was the impression that Brexitus was trying to cram too much into its runtime. An epilogue set in Toxteth felt unnecessary, despite providing some amusement for the locals in the audience.  

Brexitus does provide some good laughs and there are some great ideas buried in there. The performances were solid (although some members of the cast stumbled a little over their lines). However, the play could benefit from a tightening up of its story as it appeared that some plot points were being set up only to be forgotten about or resolved within the next scene. In addition, not all of the jokes landed as well as perhaps they should have and some could be deemed to be in poor taste: jokes about rape just aren’t funny, even within the context of the Roman Empire. It’s nowhere near the level of satire the Roman writer Juvenal was capable of. A sharper, punchier focus and faster, funnier gags would push Brexitus into becoming the cutting satire it could and should be. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 6/4/18  

Beauty And The Beast: An Easter Pantomime - Middleton Arena, Manchester.

Enchanted Entertainment have, like a lot of other panto producers, jumped on a commercial bandwagon, and now produce traditional pantomimes out of the traditional pantomime season. In a bid to create more sales and to also involve more youngsters to the theatre, then this is both acceptable and understandable. But even still, it somehow didn't feel right to be watching a panto in April!

I think what would have helped enormously would have been to have had some Easter theme or at least to have referenced Easter or the traditions this season brings throughout; but sadly that wasn't the case here. At least though they didn't mention Christmas either!

However, that idea aside, this was a slick, professional, and traditional piece of theatrical pantomime in every respect. The colourful and well-designed set, the colourful costumes, the audience participation and responses, the kiddie jokes and the adult innuendos, the silly routines, the up-beat songs and dances, and even a fairy speaking in rhyme and entering from stage right with a not so bad baddie entering stage left. For a middle-scale touring show, this was actually quite excellent.

The well-known story of Beauty and the Beast was kept unchanged, but added into that mix was a dame, her silly son, and a comedy baddie, who really turned out to be quite a goodie.

Heading the bill was veteran entertainer Bobby Davro playing Silly Billy. He was of course far too old for the role, but that notwithstanding, he still had bags of energy and looked as if he was enjoying himself immensely throughout. This enjoyment was infectious and he was a hugely personable and very watchable Silly Billy. The only thing that spoilt his character somewhat for me was that he spoke far too quickly, thus not allowing the audience to both understand what he had said and not 'get' the joke until it was too late and we had moved on. That was a pity, because some of his jokes would have gained a much bigger laugh had he allowed for that.

I would also suggest that for the 'song sheet' routine, which was a song about Jaffa Cakes, you bring two children on to the stage to try the Jaffa Cake eating game, not two adults!

Dani Harmer was a very confident and pleasing Belle with Sebastian Hill playing a boomingly sonorous Beast. Both had great singing voices and I enjoyed watching their relationship develop.

Andrew Fleming owed much of his performance on stage this afternoon to Peter Sellers; even the cod French accent was at times very reminiscent of Sellers' Clouseau. His mimicry, along with Davro's was actually very funny and well observed, but the majority of their caricatures were totally beyond the youngsters' knowledge.

Mark James was a very traditional Dame Brenda Brexit. Her audience working was wonderful, and hit the character excellently, settling for a dame that was somewhere between high camp and butch.

The most enjoyable performance this afternoon however came from Ceris Hine playing Fairy Liquid. Her turn as Maid Mimi was a delight and her talent and stage presence shone through throughout.

With 4 dancers in the touring company and younger dancers from the Middleton-based Anita Tymcyshyn School Of Dancing,[thank you Bobby Davro for being so gentlemanly as to make special mention of them and thank them for dancing in the production], and some of the best LX and SFX I have ever seen from a touring panto, this was quality family entertainment, and traditional pantomime, slickly and professionally delivered and is by far and away the best pantomime I have seen grace Middleton Arena's stage.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 6/4/18

The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk - HOME, Manchester.

photo credit - Steve Tanner

Manchester’s HOME is now firmly established as a flagship for the best in modern and contemporary theatre.  Its loyal patrons are accustomed to innovation but even the most jaded audience member couldn’t help but be moved by this latest offering from Kneehigh Theatre Company.

They say too many cooks spoil the broth and on paper this collaboration could easily have turned into a dish consisting of too many ingredients. With the collective talents of Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Emma Rice, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the ground-breaking Cornish based Kneehigh Theatre Company and a tiny but talented cast of 4 performers (with prolific CVs), The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is theatre borne not out of conflict and colliding ideas, but a perfect balance of creative genius.

The Flying lovers of Vitebsk tells the story of Jewish artist Marc Chagall’s love affair with his art, his heritage and his beautiful wife Bella. Set against a backdrop of early to mid-twentieth century Russia, we explore the relationship of the two lovers through song, dance and multiple roles.

The cast of four consisted on 2 live musicians and two actors. The musicians remained onstage throughout the performance in a secluded area of the stage, creating a smoky jazz bar ambience playing and singing harmonies with Yiddish undertones. This really created an empathetic attachment to the characters as they went through the harsh realities of being Jewish in twentieth century Russia and Berlin. 

Actors, Marc Antolin (Marc Chagall) and Daisy Maywood (Bella Chagall) made multi-disciplined performance seem effortless with stunning vocals, swiftly executed choreography and compelling acting. Maywood’s portrayal of Bella had significantly more emotional depth than Antolin’s, perhaps because she had fewer roles to explore in the retelling of their story.  But her pathos for the characterisation of a woman desperately in love but losing her own identity created a beautiful conflict in her role.

Antolin’s skilful movement and portrayal of multiple characters was a joy to watch.  His clown like physicalisation of even the smallest gestures were reminiscent of Chaplin but his vocal range was really wonderful to contrast all of his roles.  

Not letting the side down on design, Sophia Clist’s set was laid bare when you entered the auditorium to reveal a quirky raised level, set on an angle with a wooden birch frame above it and ropes hanging from them.  There wasn’t an inch of this staging which wasn’t used with Etta Murfitt’s exciting choreography, skilfully interwoven into the story. The movement and set were so intrinsic to the flow of the entire performance, you couldn’t fail to be moved by its fluidity. One of my favourite moments in the play was when Marc first meets Bella and his emotional rollercoaster of lust and physical attraction was embodied in his swinging from the ropes, swaying uncontrollably into his infatuation.

Kneehigh Theatre Company and Bristol Old Vic have created this masterpiece of theatre to challenge, inspire and evoke ‘joyful anarchy’. Very rarely do you get a piece of theatre which you can call flawless. A piece of theatre which makes you feel like your soul has been replenished and your heart soars. I was mesmerised by this beautiful visual feast for a solid 90 minutes, without interval and was left wanting more as the lights came down.  If I could go back tonight, tomorrow and the rest of the week, I would!  I certainly will be watching avidly for Kneehigh’s next visit to Manchester.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 4/4/18

Blackadder II - Altrincham Little Theatre.

Although performing at Altrincham's Little Theatre, this was a production by the Sale And Altrincham Musical Theatre society (or SAMT for short!).

It was my first visit to a production by this society, and was also my first visit to the bijou converted church building that houses a one-hundred seat theatre. Sardined as we were, it certainly brought home the meaning of an intimate setting. However, let me turn my attention to the stage.

A small ramp and extended small acting area in front of the prosc. arch stage left had been erected to facilitate entrances in front of the curtain, and once the curtain opened, the small stage was a picture of colour and splendour. A chequered floor covering and the stage split cleverly into two distinct areas. Blackadder II is set in the times of Queen Elizabeth I, and some lovely attention to detail was evidenced in the set. Wooden panelled walls formed the basis of Blackadder's home on one side, whilst the throne room of Queen Elizabeth sat proudly on the other.

Blackadder is a classic comedy TV sitcom which first aired in the early 1980s and has grown to be one of the UK's best loved and most cherished comedy series' ever. The show starred Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson as Blackadder and his decidedly stupid but faithful sidekick / servant Baldrick in all the episodes and were then joined by several prominent actors for each of the 4 series. Blackadder II sees Lord Blackadder, as a high-ranking but obedient friend of the Queen. Familiar faces abound with superb and memorable performances by Miranda Richardson as The Queen, Tim Mcinnerny as Sir Percy, Patsy Byrne as Nursie, and of course the inimitable and obsequiously delightful Stephen Fry as Melchett.

With such a cast, and such a reputation, then trying to recreate these characters is no easy feat. If you have seen only one episode, then those characters and those characterisations are the definitive, and so how can any other actor, anywhere, even hope to come close? And this is a director's nightmare; does the director want to find 'carbon copies' of the originals, or does he wish to try and find something new and interesting, giving the scripts an alternative twist? Artistically the latter would be perhaps more meritorious, however, due to the prior knowledge and anticipation of the audience, who are undoubtedly coming to see a stage recreation of the TV series step by step, then the former is the wiser. It is the former that director Ross Douglas chose. Incredibly he also managed to find actors who were able, in no small way, to live up to the challenge of morphing into their all-too-familiar TV counterparts. 

Four of the TV episodes were performed this evening, 'Bells', 'Potato', 'Head' and 'Beer'. My favourite of these four started the show, and I loved the almost false ending of the evening bringing back all the characters in one boozy moment of risque madness.

Throughout Edmund, Lord Blackadder was played by David Moreton. He gave a very good performance, and although he didn't quite get the right nuances of speech - delivering those sharp acrid put-downs - he was shrewd and cunning, and was very pleasing to watch. Sean Botham also tried extremely hard to recreate the ponce that was Lord Percy. The mannerisms were right as was the voice, but the lightness and effeteness were not quite there. Both gave highly creditable performances though and were easily recognisable as the characters they were portraying.

Hitting their characterisations firmly and squarely on the head, and not only looking but sounding like their TV nemeses were Jenny Hollinshead's Queen Elizabeth (Queenie), Stuart Sephton's Baldrick, Paul Rendel's Lord Melchett, and Janet Taylor's Nursie. Fantastic!

In each episode these were augmented by 'guest appearances'. Most notable amongst these were Angela Kate Cooke's plaintive and simple Kate (aka Bob) and Joel Mallen's far too young, but extremely similar and brash interpretation of Lord Flashheart. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance of the young crone by Janice Rendel was also excellently observed. In the second half, the comedy duo of Floppy and Floppy, Adam Garnett and Rosalind Ford made good use of their comedy skills, and Janice Rendel and Oliver Bird made for a well-balanced over-pious yet easily corruptible Lord and Lady Whiteadder.

These four episodes then were faithful recreations, with the addition of a merry minstrel who joyously and mischievously sang the theme song between the episodes, played with glee by Jeff Harpin.

The costuming was excellent, and the minimalistic lighting plot worked well. The archery trickery in the first episode was excellently and clevery executed. 

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the company of SAMT and Blackadder. Well done to all, and I look forward to being able to come along to your next production.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 4/4/18

Spring Awakening - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment's partnership have seen them produce several hits and win several awards for their shows. It is so easy to rest on those laurels. But do they do this? Of course they don't. Instead, they decide to produce one of the most ambitious and controversial Musicals ever written; Spring Awakening.

With a book by Stephen Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, and based on the highly contentious fin-de-siecle German play of the same name, this is a very difficult Musical in both terms of subject matter and setting.

In the original play by Wedekind, the themes and ideas that he sets out to provoke emotion in are clearly laid out. The title refers either to the insipient adulthood or the insipient sexuality of the play's protagonists, but warns that this transition cannot be a warm and easy one. Knowledge comes at a cost. The adults therefore try and shield their young from such knowledge but in so doing, heighten, magnify and precipitate that cost.

In adapting this rather 'abstract' work into a Musical, and to try and make it relevant for today's audiences, we see that the same themes are here... the show is all about love and sex, and the mistreatment of youths by the adults who should know better. It shows parents and teachers deliver regular beatings to their siblings / charges, and shows how a strict authoritarian German society can justify those as well as refusing to make their blossoming young adults aware of sex, love and reproduction. It is a stark warning to all of the dangers of subjugating our young.  However, watching the Musical last night as I was for the first time; I was extremely confused about the setting and time of action. The set design by Gabriella Slade was lovely. It looked right, felt right, and I was immediately put back to Germany of the 1890s. However, the costumes told a slightly different story. They were quasi-realistic. An effort to try and look vaguely authentic, but with so many errors it was obviously a deliberate decision to make them so. I have no idea why. Then came the decorum, the gait, the mannerisms and the speech. All were too modern to be from the time of Wedekind's Germany, and why were all the cast speaking in northern English accents? And finally, the music. Pop, Rock, metal, and many other modern influences ran through the score, taking away any enjoyment I had had with the set, and leaving me to wonder just exactly what time and what place is this Musical supposed to be in? Does it transcend time and place? And if so, did these ideas work in order for me to still connect to the narrative? Unfortunately, for me at least, no.

The stylisation of the show, in particular the choreography and visual direction, also meant that I felt very detached from the action and I was a spectator unable to truly engage and emote despite the intimacy of the staging.

I also found the show quite static, dynamically. Nobody ran, nobody really and truly rejoiced and everything seemed to be done at the same slow walking pace. It was only really during the up-tempo songs that the energy lifted palpably and the dynamic changed drastically. The majority of the show was a Sunday stroll in the park, which meant the longer, quieter, softer moments, which were handled superbly, didn't really have the same impact as they would have done had there been a little more difference in tempo in between.

Having said all that however, I understand that majority of these decisions have nothing to do with the cast. It is the writers, the adaptors, the directors etc, who must carry those decisions on their shoulders, and because theatre is such a hot-bed of subjectivity, no-one will ever be able to please evryone. So let me turn to the performances. These were flawless and amazing - each and every one. The story's protagonists of Darragh Cowley (Melchior), Nikita Johal (Wendla), and Jabez Sykes (Moritz) were utterly magnificent in their roles, and were backed by a no lesser talented cast of 10 others - a large cast for such a Musical. It is also extremely noteworthy that 5 of this cast are making their professional debuts with this production. An incredible statistic, and extremely laudable.

The lighting design by Nic Farman was incredible. I loved the paper that lit up and the lights on the photos and pictures. The set by Gabriella Slade was excellently and impressively thought through and totally in period. And even though the music was completely at odds with the rest of the show, it was firm and secure under the direction of Gareth Bretherton. It was intelligently and flamboyantly directed by Luke Sheppard, whose angular and individual style was mirrored in Tom Jackson Greave's choreography.

Despite all my negativity and concerns about the Musical itself, this production is assured and unflustered. It is also one of the more mature productions that this collaboration and producing partnership have achieved to date. It is highly stylistic and stands out proud, there to be counted, and the performers in this production should be very proud indeed to be a part of this show. If I have learned anything from the few reviews that I have written, then it is to try and be as objective as possible; and so despite my not particularly liking the show personally, those around me were lapping it up and the standing ovation and extended applause meant that this is a sure fire hit of a production!

Reviewer - Chris Benchley
on - 3/4/18

Hancock's Half Hour - The Library Theatre, Oldham.

David Pibworth as Tony Hancock

If ever a comedy series can be said to have stood the test of time, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ sets the benchmark, having achieved huge popularity from the early 1950’s with over eighty radio episodes, many of which still appear on BBC Radio 4, over sixty years later. The 1950s television shows still sell well on DVD as well as being reinterpreted from time to time, notably in recent years by Paul Merton.

Tony Hancock is remembered perhaps above all as the supreme master of comic timing, and with superbly crafted scripts by Galton and Simpson plus a team which included Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques, the series had all the ingredients of classic comedy. It is then a bold undertaking for any drama group to attempt to faithfully bring to life the 1950s world of Hancock with so many great characters and such snappy dialogue but this was unquestionably achieved tonight.

Milton Keynes Theatre of Comedy presented two of the best known episodes, adapted from the Ray Galton and Alan simpson TV scripts, and representing the period when the series was effectively a Tony Hancock/Sid James double act with The Last Page and the later period, when Hancock was the sole main performer, with The Blood Donor. The attention to detail with both was first class, demonstrating real reverence to the series, from 1950s clothes and hairstyles through to excellent representations of the many and varied minor characters.

Britain in the 1950s was much more class conscious than it is today and a lot of the comedy comes out of a culture of deference which is now largely gone. This is ably demonstrated in Hancock’s attitude towards librarians and nurses and a lot of trouble had clearly been taken to getting the minor characters just right. A large cast ensured a genuine feeling of meeting plenty of different people and full justice was done to creating Hancock’s world. In The Last Page, the man last known to have read ‘Lady don’t fall backwards’ was superb, just like in the original Radio episode and the British Museum Archivist could have been transported directly from the 1950s, as could the bedside neighbour in the The Blood Donor. The nurse was also good, although not quite as assertive as June Whitfield in the original production.

The show of course revolves around Tony Hancock, and with such a recognisable voice and idiosyncrasies, it is probably asking too much of any actor to give a perfect rendition of ‘the lad himself’. However, David Pibworth, our Hancock tonight came very close, with a good physical resemblance and much of the mannerisms which made Hancock, Hancock. The only thing really lacking at times was full-on Hancockian outbursts of emotion following sudden revelations (such as remembering Harry Zimmermann got killed in chapter three or that Darcy Sarto is no long alive).

Second only to Hancock was the inimitable Sid James, whose profile remains very recognisable to this day with regular repeats of the innumerable Carry On films. The Sid tonight was good but lacked a little of the menace that characterised his persona in Hancock. However to be fair, to truly be Sid James, you have to have a broad cockney accent and a face like a pickled walnut that’s been punched in the centre. All the other mannerisms were there tonight.

The two offerings tonight gave a very good representation to the uninitiated of just how much comedy and observation was packed into the classic Hanock’s Half Hour shows, which are very much a time piece of mid-20th century British life. MKTC can be very proud of being true to everything that was Hancock; a worthy tribute to British comedy at its best.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 3/4/18

Attrape-Moi - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

photo credit: Michelle Bates

If you’re looking for an animal-free circus experience, then Attrape-Moi (Catch Me) may be just the ticket. From the moment the show starts it is full of physical activity, acrobatics, dance, tricks, comedy and many moments that leave you in high spirits.

Attrape Moi is a circus and gymnast skill show that is full of energy and charm. All the moves and stunts that the six people perform are a joy to watch. You can tell that the choreography is quite physically demanding, but these performers are up to the job.

To say that this is just another circus or acrobatics show is wrong. It shows us how strong and beautiful friendship can be. The stunts are smart and well thought out combined with excellent choreography, timing and music. This sets the group out as a cut above all the other shows out there.

Each member of the troupe get their own moment to shine in the 70 minute production. Whether that be by juggling, hula hooping or even beat-boxing. The show begins with the six performers being caught in a rainstorm and deciding to do something happy in spite of the miserable weather.

The group, comprising the five men and one lady then go on to take part in an popsicle eating competition. This sets the tone, that what we are going to witness is going to be light hearted and not to be taken too seriously.

Each section came complete with its own ‘Gosh!, how did they do that?!’ moment. The trampoline tricks were extremely impressive with the men jumping on the trampoline and then running back up against the set.

The best comedy moment came accompanied to Barry Manilow’s hit, 'Copacabana' with each member donning a pair of sunglasses and a Swiss ball. At times it was hard to believe this was rehearsed, everything looked like it was improvised.

For me the highlight of the show was Hugo Ouellet-Cote’s aerial display. He displayed both strength and softness - opposing emotions that are very hard to display is such a short period of time.

There were a lot of children in the audience who enjoyed Attrape Moi. It is a visual feast and one that I would certainly recommend to families and adults. The show will most certainly be a hit when it is taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.

Reviewer - Brian Madden
on - 3/4/18

Jack And The Beanstalk - The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool.

Having reviewed a whole variety of genres all across the North West, it is difficult to have a favourite - be it a show or collective of performers - but,after a short break away from the notepad and pen, it was a pleasure to return to view a pantomime by the incredible team at LHK Productions, led by producer Lee Kelly. The last one I saw was in Wrexham at Christmas so it was a delight also to Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre, this time for Easter!

There really is nothing better to get the family together than good live entertainment, but when it is brilliant you have to make it a regular occurrence, not just for the festivities. Add an extremely slickly performed and well-written script, an age-old fairytale, the usual pantomime components and a great cast, team of dancers and production team (including musicians) and you’re in for a treat.

The script, written and directed by Michael Chapman, who also excellently plays the common yet somewhat relatable Dame Trot, follows the life of the Trot family. They live on a farm in a village ruled by an ogreish giant, whose servant/henchwoman Fleshcreep (played evilly by Lindzi Germain) keeps the villagers in check by collecting the taxes that are sought and inflated. This leaves Dame Trot and her two equally handsome sons, Jack and Billy, no choice but to sell their dear cow. On the way to the market Jack is stopped by what seems to be a normal old lady who offers him a bag of something much more precious than gold coins and he accepts. He finds that they are magic beans but the rest of his family disbelieve. In search of the hero to stand up to the giant, Princess Jill (Mia Molloy) vows - with help from Billy - to marry he who is successful and so a mission ensues to rescue her and rid the land of their giant leader, so they can all live happily ever after...

With leading man Ray Quinn (known for Dancing On Ice, The X Factor and playing Anthony Murray in Brookside) at the helm as Jack, we are in safe hands as he is a triple-threat (maybe more) of the art of entertainment. Cheeky funny man Lewis Pryor (who came third in Britain’s Got Talent in 2016 after getting Simon Cowell’s Golden Buzzer) is magic in the role of Billy and the whole cast gel wonderfully making it a joy to watch. Coupled with clever innuendoes and bags of energy, the music, under the direction of Alan Moore and his band, - including tracks made famous by Bruno Mars, Freddie Mercury, Chesney Hawkes, Bonnie Tyler, The O’Jays, Liam Payne (Rita Ora) and even an adapted version of Flash Bang Wallop from Half A Sixpence - combined with the technical effects, this show is well worth going to experience.

Claire Simmo from the city’s Radio City2 helps Jack along as Fairy Moonbeam and, as do all of the cast, surprises with her singing voice. She does have a fair few hidden on-stage credits and will be working with LHK’s Youth Theatre productions of Matilda and Sister Act in July.

The dancers (Liv, Olivia, Adam, Polly, Shayla, Ellie, Jacob and Misha) and teams from LHK Youth Theatre, Jelli Studios and Boom Productions were mesmerising and helped to bring the show alive, with Holli Jo Bradley’s effective choreography. With Greg Jones’ lighting design and Jayne Carter’s costumes, everyone involved with this show should be proud and it’s only the start!

Get your tickets for the remaining week of LHK’s Jack and The Beanstalk at Epstein Theatre, Liverpool or you’ll r-egg-ret it. It’s cracking good fun!

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 2/4/18

Toro: Beauty And The Bull - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

DeNada Dance Theatre's latest contemporary ballet creation is striking, evocative, powerful and immensely watchable.

Using six strong dancers to tell a hugely re-imagined version of Beauty And The Beast, they address contemporary issues of identity, gender, power and enslavement in a work of extreme artistic beauty. It is not difficult to see how choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra wanted to upturn the socially accepted norms of who the beauty is and  who is the beast. Here a female beauty with a female beast (the bull); however, the true beasts in this piece are the white men who rape and pillage wherever they go, taking country, identity, and freedom from those they subjugate. It also glorifies and makes absolutely normal a lesbian relationship between a human and a beast.

The piece is in two 30 minute sections with an interval in between - presumably to give the dancers a little respite since they are giving their absolute all throughout. This is a full-on and extremely physical and emotional journey for them. Personally though I simply did not understand or 'see' the settings of the two acts [A Prostitute's Parlour and A Circus Sideshow In The Desert] nor the reasoning behind them. I did enjoy though the choice of non-conventional ballet music to dance to, and liked the several ephemeral glimpses of flamenco appearing in the dance from time to time.

The girl (Beauty) lies supine on the floor at the very start of the ballet whilst two men take turns to rape her. The ballet finishes with her tied up wearing a wedding dress and forced to watch whilst her husband-to-be and three other men gang rape her lover, the female bull. In between all of this there are sexual references aplenty and as such is a very adult version of this fairy-tale too. Sometimes the dance is nightmarish and other times it is sublime and tender; and all the time making us question what we are seeing and how it makes us feel.

DeNada's style is storytelling through physical theatre and contemporary dance and this one hour piece is a bold and shining mantra to their ethos of inclusiveness, gender-blindness, and boundary pushing.

The 6 excellent dancer / performers were Emma Walker (the Girl); Marivi Da Silva (the Bull); and Nicholas Tredrea, Michael Barnes, Jonathan Luke Baker and Jason Tucker.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 1/4/18

Waiting For Waiting For Godot - The King's Arms, Salford.

I have to be honest, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect beforehand. I had never heard of Waiting For Waiting For Godot, and I was also extremely tired too, so thought that maybe, if it wasn't so good, I could take a wee nap during the play! (a-hem!) Banish such thoughts immediately! Dave Hanson's play is a sheer delight. With as much deference as he can muster, and never pretending to be anything other than a parody, this play is an excellent modern parallel and 'Bluffer's Guide' to Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

In Beckett's original we see two disparate men  - one more knowledgeable, more worldly-wise, the other a softer more naive character - waiting for a man they have never met and who never turns up, and they never explain why they are waiting. Here, the parallels are clear. We are backstage at a theatre, and in the back dressing-room. Two understudies are waiting. Understudies are the unsung heroes of theatre. they hardly if ever have the chance to actually perform themselves, and when they do they are expected to be completely 'up to speed' despite the fact they might not have performed in the play since rehearsals, and have been sitting in a back room night after night for weeks, just vegetating. It is little wonder they forget their lines and their characters. It is little wonder that they can become a little paranoid and disillusioned.

The writing from Hanson is excellent and secure when dealing with his two understudies; however the entrance of an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) is much weaker, and little more than a plot device serving only to break the mood. She could be said to be Beckett's Pozzo, but her character doesn't have the same dramatic effect.

It also has to be said that much of the humour in the play derives from a certain given knowledge, and those from a theatrical background will therefore undoubtedly 'get' the play more than others. Mispronunciations of 'Mamet' and 'Godot' as well as calling the Meisner technique, the Miserly Technique, along with clever 'hat-nods' to other styles along the way, do make it 'luvvie heavy' if one is no too careful.

However, these are obstacles which director Abey Bradbury has obviously thought long and hard about, and rather than letting them become stumbling blocks, makes a lovely virtue out of them, and has the audience in stitches. I could write much about Hanson's paralleling of this work with the original, but I don't need to, it is not a  lecture and this play demands to be seen as an entity in its own right. This play also offers a resolution, which Beckett's original deliberately does not. A rather quiet, unassuming start leads to Ester taking control of the situation and becoming the more dominant whilst the more nervous and insecure Val gets his time to shine towards the end of the play.

John Tueart plays Estagon's understudy, Ester, whilst Vladimir's understudy is played by Matthew Gordon. The two actors are superbly chosen, not just for their remarkable skill and understanding of this play, but they also look perfect too. Tueart's vocal dexterity combined with an intellectual empathy with the role was wonderful, and this pitted against Gordon's wonderfully measured boyish naivety, which slowly builds in confidence and understanding to make a lovely role reversal at the end, was a sheer delight. Hannah Ellis makes the most out of her role as Laura. 

I have only one thing to say which I would have preferred to have happened. The play is not long at all, and so having an interval really broke the mood and the moment for me. Dimming lights to blackout and bringing them back up again to denote the passage of 15 minutes' time would have been preferable.

Bradbury has directed this play with love and skill, and had me laughing loudly throughout; a major achievement in itself, as this is something I hardly ever do; and the standing ovation at the end spoke for itself! If asked for a star rating I would unhesitatingly give this 5!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/3/18

Flushed [including Rapid Response] - 53Two, Manchester.

Toilets and bathrooms remain curiously underused as settings for plays. Willy Russell’s Stags and Hens is one of the few plays to make the toilet its main setting. Theatre Unlocked’s new show, Flushed, can now be added to the list of plays breaking open the bathroom setting to theatre. But that is not the only noticeable thing about this play: it also tackles the experience of Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI), or ‘premature menopause’ to put it in layperson’s terms.

With a simple, yet striking, set of two white porcelain lavatories on white floor tiles, Flushed presents a series of scenes following sisters and best friends Marnie and Jen through various bathrooms: a restaurant, their home, clubs, workplaces. The audience entered 53Two’s Pod space to find a square of toilet paper on each seat; this and the set were a clear indication that this play would be focusing on bodily functions. The opening scene certainly didn’t shy away from scatological issues, with Jen reminding Marnie (and the audience) that “Girls poo!” although Marnie points out that she has the decorum to not do so on a first date! The dialogue was fast, funny, and certainly relatable to the women in the audience. Marnie and Jen discuss the trials and tribulations of their periods and provoked much laughter when Marnie revealed hers was currently “like Niagara Falls down there.”

Over the course of the play, writer/director Catherine Cranfield’s script vividly drew out the relationship between the two sisters: Marnie the more responsible, maternal one, contrasted with the younger and excitable Jen. The performances from Georgia Phillips and Harriet Rose Millsopp as Marnie and Jen respectively, undoubtedly benefitted from such a witty script (the punchline to an incredible ‘shaggy-dog’ joke told by Jen provoked loud and hearty laughter from the audience), but they were able to strongly flesh out the characters with their performances. Millsopp was thoroughly engaging as the often child-like Jen, while Phillips tackled the humour and more emotionally driven material in the second half of the play with ease.

While the first half crackles with humour, the turning point in the play comes when Marnie is diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Insufficiency. Marnie says her period is late but a pregnancy test confirms she isn’t expecting (much to her disappointment). After going to see her GP, she receives a phone call which uses lots of big words (and as she says, “If a doctor is using big words, that’s never good”) and she has to face a life where she will be unable to conceive children naturally. This part of the play revealed much about POI but didn’t feel like it was ripped from the pages of a medical textbook. It was written and performed naturally and was more engaging for it, especially when Phillips performed a heart-rending monologue about how she’d imagined getting pregnant and giving birth. Millsopp did what all good actors do and reacted as Jen would: fearful of if it was genetic and could affect her, instantly consulting “Dr. Google” for more information on POI. The most touching scene of the play featured no dialogue at all, just Marnie and Jen sat silently on the toilets, both struggling to come to terms with what life will be like for Marnie now, while Wolf Alice’s song “Blush” played over the tableau. Cranfield, wisely, ended the play with a scene very reminiscent of its opening: full of humour, scatology, but now with the added reality of POI for Marnie to deal with. Yet, the play refused to become bleak and ended as it began with sisterly affection and humour.

This performance on the 29th March featured a post-show rapid-response section: a series of four short script in hand performances of playlets written in two days in response to Flushed. The four pieces picked up on aspects of Flushed and presented what could be excerpts from parallel plays to the main event. Girl Talk presented two best friends who were practically sisters, getting drunk and talking about the state of their relationships. The second piece, The Sixth Date, was the highlight of the four and could have been a scene from a follow-up play: it featured a teacher (like Marnie) who had POI and was breaking the news on her sixth date with her boyfriend. Like Flushed, it tackled the subject with humour and was hugely enjoyable. The third piece, Eggless, differed from the rest of the pieces in being a three-hander. Again, this focused on the news of POI being broken to a boyfriend but was a more serious piece and, in its use of flashbacks, the more daring in terms of structure. The final playlet, Crumpets, presented the issue of being unable to conceive naturally from the point of view of two gay men, which provided an interesting alternative view to the subject matter.

It is a testament to the strength of Flushed that such varied pieces were written and performed in response to it. Flushed is a fascinating and funny play and one which deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Here’s hoping this initial run is not the last we see of it. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 29/3/18         

Keep Calm, I'm Only Diabetic - The King's Arms, Salford.

The stage is set; a football changing room, and on to this walks actor / comedian Jonsel Gourkan. His loud, angry but passionate opening startling the handful of audience members in the theatre this evening.

Throughout the course of about one hour, Gourkan delivers a non-stop rant. It is private and personal and yet his life story is him, and he wants to tell the world about the struggles he has faced, still faces, and to help people like him and to stop the ignorance and prejudice surrounding his condition.

His condition being that he suffers from type 1 diabetes.

The evening is quite informative. I learned quite a lot about diabetes, the difference between the two types, how it is caused, how it is treated, and how it affects those who suffer with it.

Gourkan's style is manic, up-close, fast-speaking, but highly passionate and heart-felt. It is his cri-de-coeur to all who will listen. It has had a huge impact on his life, and he is not afraid to tell us everything, warts and all. But this is necessary for our deeper understanding of diabetes and its sufferers.

Gourkan is a British Turk born in Kingston-Upon-Thames whose first job was playing professional football for Altay Football Club; and when they found out he had diabetes, he was sent packing back to England. He then joined a pop group 'Word On The Street' touring with the band who supported many well-known acts in the UK, such as Westlife and 911. However, that didn't last long, since he one time, forgetting to eat, binge drank and had a 'hypo' (as he calls it), and was soon sidelined.

His life story continues. It is not a pleasant success story at all. In fact it is the exact opposite. And yet, why shouldn't he have found fame and fortune with either of his previous careers? What is wrong with him. Nothing, he is normal. He simply has an imbalance of blood sugar, and when it drops below the acceptable level he needs a boost. And yet, facing ignorance and prejudice wherever he went, he was pushed from pillar to post with no money and no job.

Theatre is a great medium for many things. But above all used in this way, to educate and raise awareness for something which has little air-time or publicity otherwise, is most laudable and noteworthy. Gourkan is back on his feet again now, and he is back with his one man show. Partly comedic [his impressions of the people he meets along the way are excellently observed] but mostly a non-stop plea straight from the heart; keep calm, he is only diabetic!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/3/18

Wrecked - The Waterside Theatre, Manchester.

This is a brand new Musical written, devised, and performed by the second year students attending the BA(Hons) Musical Theatre course at The Arden School Of Theatre in Manchester.

This will be the third such Musical I have seen from students of this course, and as always the standard is extremely high. As with the last two, then comedy is the name of the game, and the tongues are firmly placed in the cheeks.

The story of this Musical is something with which we are all very familiar, but just taken one logical step further. A group of lucky winners in a competition are all excited as they set off on a holiday of a lifetime, on board a ship bound for a mystery destination. What these people don't realise however is that they are the 'contestants' in a live reality TV show in which it will be seen how long they can survive on a desolate island. It is a social experiment without the participants' knowledge or agreement, and is there in a bid for viewer ratings .Put into this mix a bunch of' 'actors' who have been contracted by the TV company to mingle with the 'guests' and pretend to be like them. They are however in constant contact with 'control' via an unseen ear-piece. It is only when the controller of the show is replaced by a harridan bent on her own self-glorification and promotion, that things start to really go wrong, forcing one of the 'actors' to come clean and tell the group the truth. In an unexpected comedic twist, the entire group decide to stay on the island in any case.

Since this is very much a group project, it would be quite wrong of me to single out anyone or any song more than any other. The Musical was raw and in the first stages of development that is certain, but there was certainly a deal of potential there if any of them decided they would like to take it further. The cumulative writing talent was amazing. The songs, musically, were secure and mature, and despite a couple did sound like I had heard them before already, we'll gloss quickly over that! Although I did appreciate the Whitney Houston tribute.

The characterisations were good and interesting, plot development and sub-plots were evidenced well, and the choreography and choral singing superb. I applaud the decision not to use microphones in such a space, however, there were times when vocal projection was definitely lacking, especially when talking over music.

Overall though it was an intelligently compiled, mildly humorous, highly enjoyable piece of original Musical Theatre, and full credit to the entire group for proving there is so many multi-talented students amongst you, and I felt privileged to be one of the first to witness this talent being allowed to blossom.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/3/18

Time To Shine - Middleton Arena, Manchester.

This is the Dawson Academy Of Dance And Stage's annual showcase, where the entire school comes together in one glorious celebration of the year's achievements.

Dawson's Academy is situated in the centre of Bolton and is a large and thriving outfit catering not just for those who wish to learn dancing, but has thriving singing and acting departments too as well as having set up their own theatrical agency D'Academy too!

It is small wonder then that the stage this evening was filled with brightly coloured, professionally staged routines from ballet, through hip-hop and contemporary dance to street dance; from solo songs to choirs singing music from Musicals and the pop repertoire; from tiny tots taking their first tentative steps onto a stage in front of a live audience at only three years old to seniors accustomed to the spotlight and with experience within the profession.

The stage was fitted with a walkway along the back wall with a central staircase, and two false prosc. arches were created with lights. This was the only set used for all the items but worked extremely well. Good use of LX, smoke and dry ice throughout made for some wonderful effects. Perhaps the star curtain and the two moveable spots either side of the staircase were a little overused, but that is just a personal preference I imagine. The only real problem with this was when a solo singer appeared at the top of the stairs on the walkway to sing whilst dancing was happening on the main part of the stage, and the singer was not given a spotlight; and so, although she could be seen, she was not highlighted.

As expected, the standard was extremely high, and all the routines were expertly executed. Good use of space throughout with some lovely picture endings; and fantastic costumes for every dance. I also applaud the fact that no choreographer had asked something of the dancers of which they were not capable. All routines were to the dancers ability plus a little bit.. just to stretch them a little. Some of the routines were full of great tumbling and fantastic, seemingly impossible lifts! What a shame we didn't get to see 'the lift' in Dirty Dancing. I remember this routine from last year, and the same pair (I think) tried it last year too, and almost got there! I am certain they must be capable of it, but obviously I am a bad omen for them!

The singing was much better than I remember from last year however, and even though backing tracks were used throughout, the students' voices were heard clearly above them, and indeed, every student sang at least one choral song in the show which was wonderful, and there were some lovely voices on display too.

With 29 items on the programme introduced by compere Joni Pill, it would be impossible to mention all of them individually. All were extremely good, and of course the babies and pre-primaries need a special applause for their cuteness; so I will only mention a few here which were fore me, the standout items on the programme.

In the first half, the first to grip me was the Senior boys and girls with, 'I See You' from Avatar. The blue hues created by the lighting and the blue costumes made for a very other-worldly effect, and the contemporary dance that ensued was fascinating.  Next was a tribute to The Spice Girls, sung and danced by The Junior Choir. the characterisations of The Spice Girls evidenced well and the commitment of the group was palpable.

The second half got off to a great start with an extended 'Descendants' sequence which was original and nightmarish! Pseudo Mock-Gothic costuming and dark lighting (if that isn't an oxymoron) created a lovely effect, and the choreography here especially the beginning and end, was incredible. I enjoyed Bella Parr's solo too. The 'After Dark' contemporary ballet piece was the next to make me really sit up. Beautifully realised and the lifts stunning! A solo singer with oodles of expression and passion sang 'New York' to start the finale sequence. Her name Holly Gordon. And with the seniors finishing the evening off in Uptown Funk fashion, this was an excellent and upbeat way to finish a spectacle comprising so many young and talented performers.

My hearty congratulations to all of you, and I look forward to seeing your next endeavours!

Reviewer Matthew Dougall
on - 27/3/18

Hairspray - The Opera House, Manchester.

Hairspray

It is absolutely no secret and I am not afraid to admit it that Hairspray is my all time favourite musical. Since seeing a touring production back in 2013 I have been hooked and this version was the fourth time I have seen a production of this musical.

Although first created in 1992, it wasn’t until the 2007 Hollywood film that Hairspray became the phenomenon it is today. The latest version of its UK tour is certainly one to be enjoyed by all.

It’s hard to believe that although set in 1962 the underlying message in Hairspray is still relevant today. Having said that, the musical contains all the elements of a feel good show with big dreams and even bigger hair.

While never actually setting out to tell the audience that racism is wrong, it purely shows how much better life is when people from all backgrounds come together. It makes you question why people ever had or still have those opinions. Because of its strong message, it really sets Hairspray apart from any other musical.

Tracy Turnblad dreams of being a dancer on the Corny Collins show. However, she soon learns that being on TV shouldn’t only be a privilege for white people and fights to make the show integrated.

One of the best things about Hairspray is the songs. There are so many greats in this two and half hour show. From the moment ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ kicks in the tone of sweetness and upbeatness is set.

What I loved about this version of the show is that it doesn’t rely on casting big names in feature roles to get bums on seats. Instead what you see is what you get and that’s raw talent in bucket loads.

'You’re Timeless To Me', was certainly one of the crowd’s favourites and it was clear to see that Matt Rixon (Edna Turnblad) and Graham MacDuff (Wilbur Turnblad) were enjoying themselves immensely. At one point it looked like they had forgotten their lines and broke character, which had the audience in stitches. 

The one disappointment I had with this version of Hairspray is that the main characters; Tracy (Rebecca Mendoza) and Link (Edward Chitticks) aren’t the best versions of these characters I have seen. This is Mendoza’s professional debut and I think a bit of inexperience showed. You can’t fault her singing and dancing, but for me something was missing. Chitticks certainly has the looks but his voice wasn’t the strongest and it showed particularly in the uptempo numbers, where he was drowned out by others.

Annalise Liard-Bailey, a recent graduate from D&B Academy of Performing Arts plays the role of Penny Pingleton to perfection. She has a great voice and definitely has a bright future ahead of her.

Standing in Tracy’s way is Velma Von Tussle (Gina Murray) who delivers an excellent performance, even managing to hold long notes whilst being thrown around the stage by the young dancers.

The set is resemblant of the the 1960s with the old style clothes iron and the colourful backdrops. The show is also full of choreography, so a special mention has to  go to Drew McOnie for creating some great routines.

Hairspray is the ultimate feel good musical that has you wanting to join in as soon as you can. I don’t usually stand up at the end of shows unless I witness something truly incredible, but with great songs and such a powerful message it’s easy to see why Hairspray continues to be such a massive hit. If you are ever feeling down, then this show is the perfect way to put a smile on your face.

Reviewer: Brian Madden
On: 26th March 2018

Art - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Yasmena Reza has forged herself a reputation in France and beyond as being one of theatre's writing treasures. Her sharp analytics and acerbic wit, combined with a modernistic view of playwriting, have found a place in not just France's affections but worldwide too. It is very hard to believe that this play is already 28 years old, and yet is still as fresh and as original as ever.

The play is 90 minutes long and played through without interval, and has a cast of only three. What is it though about this play that makes it so appealing and has every well known actor in christendom desperate to be in it? The answer I think is twofold. First, the play offers three extremely meaty roles with great characters; but second, and perhaps more importantly, it is what the play tries to tell us about ourselves and society in general.

Three old and disparate friends are divided in opinion about of the three's new acquisition. Serge has paid £200,000 for a painting by a renowned artist, and yet the canvas is completely white. The three at first, through duologue start to bicker about the merits of modern art and whether or not paying such a fee for a blank canvas is loving the artwork or loving the 'value' that artwork adds to Serge's ego. In monologues, addressed directly to the audience, the three reveal more about their own thoughts and feelings, and as the play progresses and their bickering turns from the artwork to more personal issues which keep the three together as friends, they soon realise that in order for friendships to work, and for us to exist in our society there are certain behaviours and rules which we have to accept and conform to. The play ends with a lie being told in order to preserve the friendship.

It is a truly engaging play, excellently written and observed. No wonder so many 'names' clamour to play these roles. In this evening's production produced by The Old Vic and directed by Ellie Jones using Christopher Hampton's translation, the role of Serge was played by smooth-talking Nigel Havers, the traditionalist Marc was Denis Lawson, and the poor piggy-in-the-middle on the verge of marrying and finding himself crying a lot, Yvan, was Stephen Tompkinson. I defy anyone to find a better casting, as the three worked with and from each other superbly and their characterisations wonderful.

With a simple but clever set design with three different chairs denoting the three apartments of the cast, this was a slick, simple, humorous, clever, and highly entertaining production. Highly recommended!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 26/3/18

U.Dance - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

This two day event held over the weekend has become one of Amateur Dance's biggest and important dates on their calendar. A country-wide initiative run by Youth Dance England, an organisation championing dance for all young people, aiming to give every young person in England the opportunity to perform in at least one dance show a year. And this year, U.Dance NW celebrated it's 10th birthday!

Over the course of the two days, dance groups from all over the North West region came to The Lowry, not only to perform in a showcase style presentation on one of the two evenings, but to also take part in daytime workshops and to learn more about the opportunities available to them.

I was there for both evening shows, and in total I saw 28 dance groups from places as diverse as The Isle Of Man, Blackpool, Formby, Kendal, and Preston, as well as those a little closer to home too. There were two over-riding things which struck me about this year's event. First, the lack of diversity in the style of dance being showcased. The vast majority of them were Contemporary pieces with a couple of Street Dance works too, and really nothing else. And secondly, the amount of boys (or young men) participating this year was truly amazing and heart-warming. I don't think I have ever seen so many male participants in a dancing event before.

What I really enjoy about this event is twofold. First, seeing raw and emerging talent from regions I would not normally be able to, and second, is the team spirit shown amongst these groups. Cheering each other on and learning from each other.

Before going in to the theatre each evening, two dances were performed in the foyer. These were from groups of primary school age, and therefore not eligible to perform with the main groups since the minimum age requirement for this festival is 11 years.

I saw therefore 4 performances from the under 11s, and all four were delightful.  'Once Upon A Pond' saw Eden Youth Dance Company Juniors perform a routine using frog sculptures as their inspiration; 'Oh, Freedom!' was the title of Blue Moose Dance Company and Ingleton primary School's homage to The Suffragette movement. CAT Outreach of Radclyffe High School saw the young dancers perform a routine learnt only a few minutes before and taught by Bridget Fiske; but my favourite of the four was Eden Boys Junior's excellently choreographed and intelligent work, 'Man And Machine'.

On the main stage, the dancers ranged in age from 11 to young adult. Some looked extremely young, but most were teenagers. As already intimated I think I would have preferred to have seen a more varied array of dance styles, but that notwithstanding, the pieces I did see were all hugely enjoyable and displayed skill and talent in abundance. It would be just impossible, and incredibly time-consuming to comment on every dance from the event. Suffice to say that all were highly deserving and were a massive credit not just to themselves and the organisations they represented, but also to the organiser's and promoters of this festival too.  There may well have been a wrongly placed foot, or a miss-timed action, but if there were, I didn't notice any! Bravissimi tutti.

During the interval on both nights, a film of Preston Youth Dance Company performing 'Avenham'.  And I will, if you permit, tell you my favourite routines from each of the two nights. Of course this decision is purely subjective; they are the dances I found to please me the most, as I come from a Musical Theatre background, not a dance one. They may not have been the most technically challenging etc, just that these appealed to me a little more than the others! They were; on Saturday, 'Monopoly' by About Turn Dance Company and Chorley Boys; and 'Quicksand' from Eden Youth Dance Company,. On Sunday; 'F Is For Fish, Not Fail' by The Pointe Youth Dance Company, and an incredible and daring piece of choreography using blindfolds to excellent effect, 'I Look, You See, We Watch, They're Being Watched' from Homegrown Youth Dance Company.

However, the most interesting and fascinatingly original piece of choreography comes once again this year from the amazing people that make up Ludus Youth Dance Company. Their ideas and choreographies are always contentious, exciting, boundary-pushing, and usually highly comedic too, something which is rarely explored in dance. This year they performed 'Mannequin'

Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed watching all the routines on display over the two days, and congratulate both those involved and the organisers of U.Dance NW for continuing to inspire, encourage and develop dance for all within our region. Here's to the next ten years!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24 and 25/3/18

Biscuits - The King's Arms, Salford.

Since watching this play yesterday afternoon, I have been made aware of just some of the troubles surrounding this production, and it is indeed incredible that it ever came to fruition at all!

Unfortunately however, this is a public performance with a paying audience, and as such the audience expect certain 'givens'. Despite every consideration the play was still desperately under-rehearsed with the three talented cast members insecure with their lines, needing regular prompting, and even making wrong entrances and exits and saying the dialogue in the wrong order. If the cast had been secure with their lines, then both the pace and the characterisations would have lifted and they could have relaxed into their parts and enjoyed playing them. As it was, all three looked nervous and scared.  

The story itself is quite engaging, even if it is quite static. We see three retired and aging ladies at their regular meet; a cafe on the high street, where they pass the time, have a good bitch about life, men, etc; but most importantly devour the cafe's custard creams and digestives! The crux of the story rests upon Geraldine, the posher, cut-above-the-rest one, who becomes restless and fed up of being considered 'past her sell-by date',  She needs a toy-boy or at least some sexual diversion from the humdrum.  She suggests an online dating agency, and then a Salsa Class, which they all try. [this scene in the Salsa club was missing so many laughs... it COULD have been hilarious!].However, Geraldine is mugged, and a thud on the head is enough for her to be taken to hospital. It is there she gets some most unwelcome news, and this renews her wake-up call for living and not just simply existing.

It is a bitter-sweet tale with a few extremely well-placed laugh lines. In it's present state however, it is almost impossible to review. There were glaring gaps in the direction, and Fiona was considerably too young for the role. However, given more time and bringing on board a professional director [there is no director credited in the programme], then this could well be a delightful and comedic hour's diversion from our own humdrum.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/3/18

Miss Saigon - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

Miss Saigon

It has been a long time in coming, but it was worth the wait! Cameron MacKintosh's production of Miss Saigon, Boublil and Schonberg's 'second hit' is now in Manchester for a lengthy run, and if it doesn't get full houses every night I shall be surprised.

I say 'second hit' since Les Miserables seems to have taken the world's number on slot; but in terms of drama and emotive music Miss Saigon is actually the more powerful. It is a story, based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which undoubtedly is based on something before that, and deals with the universal themes of love, hope, despair, separation, betrayal, and death. The Musical sets the story against the backdrop of The Vietnam War and the fall of Vietnam. Specifically it tells the story of Chris, a GI, who ends up at a Saigon strip club with his friend John, where his eyes fall upon a 17 year old new dancer called Kim. It is Kim's first night at the club, her village was bombed, her parents are dead, and the club's owner, an enigmatic character who calls himself, 'The Engineer' decides his business could do with a boost with the injection of some younger and newer girls. He wastes no time in employing her. Chris and Kim fall in love, and against all the odds, and against the express wishes of a nasty young man called Thuy, who holds a claim on Kim, as her parents promised her to him, find beauty and peace 'in a place that won't let them feel'.

Years pass, and Chris is back in the US with his wife Ellen, John works for a charitable organisation to help the children orphaned or abandoned by the war, and Kim is being pursued by Thuy, who is now a high ranking officer in the new regime. There is one thing however, that none of them know, except of course Kim, for she has kept this a secret for three years. She has a son, and the father is Chris.

The story continues; however I won't write any more just in case you have not seen the show before. This Musical is one of the most powerfully emotive pieces of Musical Theatre I know. And Schonberg really excels in his score fusing Eastern rhythms with Western melodies; sweeping chorales and plaintive intimate prayers; war music of the US and glorious parade music of the East. I defy anyone not to leave with at least one tear in their eyes.

The set design is incredible. sets are moved in an out seamlessly and noiselessly, with action taking place on many levels and platforms. Of course the 'thrills' of the set don't disappoint either. The giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, the cadillac, and of course the helicopter are all fantastic. The lighting is superb, and the tableaux created with set and LX are utterly magnificent.

Ashley Gilmour plays Chris, our anti-hero, with passion and realism. Vocally nimble and pleasing, and there was a beautiful chemistry between him and Kim. Sooha Kim played Kim and her plaintive and simplistic style worked very much in her favour. Again, vocally she was sonorous and pure, and her acting was implacable.

Ryan O'Gorman made for a rather stiff and pent-up John. The camaraderie between him and Chris was good, but it felt that he was straining vocally a little, especially in 'Bui Doi'. Zoe Duano however, showed a lot more to her character than  I previously remember, somehow filling the role out more and making her a more believable and rounded person. I loved her duet with Kim, 'I Still Believe'.

The role of The Engineer was played with panache and style by Red Concepcion. And although I do applaud him for bringing a new dimension to his character, I found that it did at times become rather pantomimic and he played the role for the laughs rather than allowing the laughs to come from the role. He broke the fourth wall many times, and his lascivious and sexual innuendos along with OTT gyrating during his 'American Dream' solo, although funny, somehow seemed forced and false.

The supporting cast were excellent, and the dancing, especially 'The Morning Of The Dragon' sequence was utterly wonderful, and with a 15-piece live orchestra playing superbly under the baton of James KcKeon, this is a sure-fire hit and certainly one of, if not, the best touring show I have seen in Manchester for a very log time.  

Final verdict: Go see this show!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 23/3/18    

Flashback To The 80s - The Dancehouse, Manchester.

The Dancehouse is home to the world renowned training centre for dancers, The Northern Ballet School. This establishment offers two distinct courses; one which focuses primarily on ballet and the other, a company called Jazzgalore, which has a strong jazz and Musical Theatre bias. It was this group whom I saw perform this evening.

Entitled 'Flashback To The 80s', the first half was dedicated to performing numbers from 4 of the most iconic Musicals of the decade; whilst the second half saw the dancers put through their paces to the music of pop idols of the time.

It was an excellent idea and worked very well. It was a little long, but not overlong. However, a couple or so of the items were a little similar and so could have been left out. There is an enormous amount of pressure put on trainees in this industry, and as our appetite for the more daring, the more fantastic and the more multi-talented increases, schools have to load their students with so much more. The more disciplines you master the more employable you become, and the training takes over your life. It's a familiar story - and not just the romanticised version of it presented this evening as part of their 'Fame' set either. It is a real problem, and so, because this evening two of the dancers sustained injuries whilst on stage; and also, I am terribly saddened to say that some of the choreography this evening looked a little under-rehearsed; that is why I say the evening would have benefited from a little judicious editing. Less is most definitely more.  

With a blank canvas of a stage with only a set of steps, back centre and a raised walkway along the back wall, the stage was filled with every new routine in a splash of colour and pizzazz. The costumes were excellent every time, and with the help of a large screen filling the entire back wall to complete the 'mood' or 'setting' we were transported into the world of each set perfectly and seamlessly. The transitions between movements swift and kept the whole show moving nicely. The back projections worked excellently in some dances, but with others it pulled focus and hindered. It should be used to amplify and complement the action rather than be the action. This happened when moving image footage or stark visual photography was used.

However, the dancing on the whole was truly wonderful. these performers are, as I mentioned right at the beginning, still in training with aspirations of joining the profession, and the quality and skill on display was mind-blowing. Obviously I liked some routines more than others; that's the subjectivity of any audience member; but I appreciated the talent and energy in everything. 

Act 1 saw the musicals 'Song And Dance', 'Fame', 'Chess' and 'A Chorus Line' showcased. My favourite items in this section were the Tap Variation, Can't Keep It Down (soloist Matthew Martin), Nobody's Side (soloist Haley Maunder), One Night In Bangkok (soloist Anthony Hughes-Hemmings), and The Chess Ballet.

Act 2 was a little different as, in order for costume changes to happen, a comedy duologue and Mickey-take of the 80s TV pop show, The Hitman And Her was performed a few times in between routines. these mini-duologues were humorous and short, and also showcased the two actors' versatility and acting skills. They were Ryan Upton and Erin Blanchfield.

The choreography was to music by Queen, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, James Morrison, Whitney Houston and of course Madonna.

I loved the opening number with four mini-Freddie Mercuries in drag and hoovers in hand! A superb comedy touch! I also enjoyed 'Let's Dance', a three-way dance-off between ballet, street and tap. Clever. However, my favourite in this act was by far 'Purple Rain'. the quality of the singing here was the best of the show and it was very emotive and powerful.

Being a 'triple-threat' (acting /singing/dancing) is becoming the absolute norm for employment within the musical theatre industry these days - in fact, producers are making it even harder all too often by asking these performers to be excellent musicians too! However, Jazzgalore and The Northern Ballet School are giving these students superb training and as this evening proved, these are multi-talented students who act, sing and dance their hearts out, and I was blown away by the energy, commitment, and abilities on display. Wow!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/3/18

Walk The Line - The Arden @ Manchester Police Museum.

This was a 50 minute promenade and immersive performance by students on the BA(Hons) Theatre And Performance course at Manchester's Arden Theatre School, now part of The Manchester College. And here, with this site-specific piece we witnessed these students doing what they do best: non-conventional theatre in non-conventional theatre spaces.

Using the Police Museum as their starting point, the group developed an interesting and at times thought-provoking piece of non-sequential narrative which transcended time. The 'action' of the play could be said to have been both in the Victorian era and the present day at one at the same time, and indeed the two intermingled and interacted constantly and seamlessly.  

Starting the play outside the museum's front door (now acting as a police station) we were greeted by a Victorian bobby pompously advising us that we would need to be searched before continuing, and indeed as we entered the first room, the rest of the cast were on hand to pad us down and ask if we were carrying knives or drugs. The play was extremely interactive and we were constantly being nudged, moved and asked questions of. It was clear, right from the start that we were not audience, but a whole and integral part of the performance.

The 'story' involved a young lady who was accused of committing a murder, and as we morphed from suspects to jurors, the performers changed from accusing us of our culpability in the crime to accusing us of our culpability in other 'unseen' or 'thoughtless' offences which we might commit unthinkingly on a daily basis. These included passing a homeless street beggar, or being prejudiced - albeit silently - against blacks, disabled, gay or the like.

As we travelled to various rooms within the museum, we didn't all get exactly the same experience as small groups went different ways and saw different small 'moments', and then we all came back together again for an important exposé. The juxtaposition between light-hearted playfulness and serious narrative was excellent as was the continual harking back to 'rules' and the punishments given for breaking said rules. Constantly challenging us to assess and perhaps reassess how we think of others. How many people have we judged without any thought.

After having out fingerprints taken and spending time in a cell, we find ourselves jurors in court and are being asked to determine whether or not the defendant - the girl accused of murder - is guilty or not. This section in the courtroom is a lengthy one, but I was glad of a sit down at that point! The dialogue used throughout was original cleverly interspersed with actual extracts from police records, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Dario Fo's Death Of An Anarchist, Franz Kafka's The Trial, and William Golding's Lord Of The Flies.

We are led out of the building passing street urchins and the 'evidence' strewn on the pavement, having reached our verdict: an excellent presentation, cleverly and thoughtfully presented. It is also the most mature and engaging production I have seen this group do! Case dismissed!

The play was directed by Debbie Newton, assisted by Chloe Graham. The performers were Kellie Colbert, Isabella Curtis, Georgia Dodd, Amber Javis, Rory Kelly, Lauren O'Hara. Noah Ross, Kayleigh Rough, Daniel Sanders, Stacie Tilsley, and Jessamine Vowles.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/3/18

Too Fast - The Sackville Theatre, Manchester.

Students at The Manchester College tackled a new and difficult short play this afternoon. Douglas Maxwell's hard-hitting play Too Fast was written originally for The national Theatre in London, and now specifically modified for students to perform and lasts about 45 minutes.

We see a group of students gathered in a church anteroom, bickering and discussing, amongst other things, the allegories of death in 'In The Night Garden' and 'Postman Pat'!  However, that's not why thee students are here, dressed in black and obviously at a funeral. They have formed a group, calling themselves 'Sensation Nation' and are to perform a song at the funeral of one of their classmates, Abi, who died in a car crash.

The group was formed by one of the students with aspirations of winning the next 'Britain's Got Talent', and as the play progresses we learn much about the deceit and lies behind the opening scene's 'given truths'; and we learn about the people who make up this singing group. The play's denouement is very touching, as the group do go out into the church and sing their song as Abi appears to her boyfriend as an angel and forgives him for running from the crash leaving her to die and urges him to go on with his life.

It is a black comedy with a whole lot of heart, and Manchester College students really worked hard on their characterisations in this emotionally charged play. It was especially difficult for them this afternoon as the audience was comprised by the vast majority of fellow students; but they didn't let their jeering stand in the way of their sterling efforts and I was very impressed by the show as a whole.

The Manchester College do several public performances each year, allowing the students to work with a live and unbiased audience in order to grow and develop. This is a highly laudable practice and long may it continue.

Reviewer - Alastair Zyggu
on - 22/3/18

 

 

 

The Clockmaker's Tale - The Barton Arcade, Manchester.

This is a double first - if you'll excuse the university pun - for UMMTS [The University Of Manchester Musical Theatre Society]. It is a world premiere production in a space being used as a theatre venue for the first time.

UMMTS's 'traditional' home within The Students' Union Building is currently under renovation and so this has forced the society to think outside the box. I have no idea how they found this venue - the second basement cellars deep underneath Manchester's beautiful Victorian Barton Arcade - but it was a marvellous find. Bare bricked thick Victorian walls with archways leading to dark and mysterious dead-ends. Exactly the type of place one finds all across central Europe, used these days not as wine cellars, but as bars and restaurants. Combine this with excellent use of minimal stage lighting and a lot of candles instead; and this was the almost perfect and extremely atmospheric setting for Alastair McNamara (music and lyrics) and Flora Snelson's (book) new Musical set in 15th Century Prague.

Sardined as we were in this tiny place it did become a little claustrophobic after a while, and it was a sell-out evening too. The small performance area was almost thrust and almost in the round, but not quite either, but this unusual shape worked well as the focal point of the show was proudly emblazed on the far wall, Prague's famous Astronomical Clock.

Prague's Astronomical Clock sits proudly on the wall on the Old Town Hall at the entrance to the city's Old Town Square, and is seen and passed by thousands of visitors to that city every day. Some stop to admire it, to photograph it; but few will have read about its history and the legends and myths concerning it's maker. The Clockmaker's Tale serves to bring just one of the more popular of these stories to life

The story of The Clockmaker's Tale is, although about him, not actually his story. A girl, in modern dress, from our time opens the show and acts as a narrator for the first few minutes, and then watches her tale unfold, interacting with the inanimate but never with the animate along the way. This was most peculiar, and I found this 'device' rather awkward and unnecessary.

From there however, the story is about the Mayor of Prague, a jealous and evil despot who is certainly not afraid of getting his hands dirty in order to get what he wants; his beautiful daughter, locked away from the world and bored of her meagre and chaste existence; the Mayor's right-hand man, madly in love with the Mayor's daughter, and just as conniving as the Mayor; the clockmaker, an honest hardworking and fun-loving tradesman; and his simple but trustworthy assistant and companion

It is a story of love, passion, jealousy, greed, deceit, and torture. All very strong ingredients for a potent Musical. And with an eclectic mix of musical styles throughout from quasi-plainchant and gypsy folk melody, to the more modern and traditional Music Theatre style, it is a hugely engaging and extremely creditable first attempt at Musical writing. The story and characters are engaging and there is a good through-line and excellent scope for character development; and although the show needs to go through a couple more rewrites yet before it will undoubtedly take flight, I felt honoured to be there at this Musical's fledgling production.

The two main things I would consider changing are first and foremost to get rid of the storyteller character, as this adds nothing at all, and second decide on whether you wish to have a Musical Comedy or Drama - the show as it is sits rather uncomfortably between the two. It is not comedic enough to be a comedy and not tragic enough to tread the same path as the Les Mis's of this world. My personal feeling towards this would be to soften some of the comedy and heighten the more tragic moments.

However, what was presented this evening was done so excellently and the cast did not disappoint in their abilities. Jordan Jones played the Mayor with an almost pantomimic zeal, but never allowed the character to go over the top; and his deep sonorous voice boomed and echoed through the cavernous space. His daughter, Jana, was played by Mary Morris, whose upright gait and sarcastic subservience to her father were wonderfully placed, whilst her girlish joy at her new-found freedom with Gregor a lovely contrast. As a line from the show says, you could easily see that there is a lot going on inside her but she refuses to let it out; the eyes sparkled for a few seconds and then went dull again; her smile was broad a genuine for a second and then morose and pensive again. Excellently measured and perfectly timed.

The Mayor's henchman and right-hand man Ondrej was the upright, stern and malevolent Dom McGann; whilst Hugh Beckwith was the title character, and played his part with a certain unaffectedness seeming somehow detached from his reality. Rather than being the commoner and tradesman he was, his aloof manner and erectness suggested nobility and he certainly didn't really seem to mind too much about his torture either. Obviously not knowing the Musical nor his character then this could be exactly what he should have been like; however, from my perspective he was far more blue-blooded than Ondrej!

Roman Armstrong played Krystof, the Sancho Panza to Gregor's Don Quixote. Armstrong's lovely manner and instantly likeable characterisation was very appealing. with a gift for excellent timing and perfectly nuanced speech, he was a delight to watch.

I loved the use of candles and lanterns throughout, and the scene changes were swift and quiet. Costumes were good for the common people and the Mayor; however, both Ondrej and Jana would have benefited from a little more luxury and colour; and the chorus certainly needed a change of costume for the Mayor's banquet.

With a strong supporting cast, excellent singing throughout, and a good pace put on the show by director Lucy Scott, this was an excellent production, and I applaud the society greatly for bringing new works to the fore.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/3/18  

Ballet Of British Columbia - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Ballet Of British Columbia

Having been given the epithet ‘Canada’s leading contemporary dance company’, The Ballet Of British Columbia certainly meets that bold statement. How? Well, you know when you watch a master craftsman at work and they make it look easy, yet your logic tells you it’s really difficult? That!

Comprising three separate performances, the evening began with '16 + a room'. Opening with a single performer holding the banner ‘This is a beginning’, the silence was broken and we were treated to a buffet of slipping, sliding, skidding performers; some on pointe, some in socks; all with artistic precision. Choreographer Emily Molnar (who over the last 10 years has brought this company out of dire straits to where it stands today) used the words of Virginia Woolf as her fundamental inspiration. Very much a ‘phrased’ piece of dancing with repetitions echoing through the troupe.

'16 + a room', had no obvious melody or beat to latch onto allowing the movement to magically speak for itself. It was a ‘study of time’ (Molnar) which worked because the dancers were listening to their bodies to create rhythm and motion. The final message displayed silently via a black and white banner answered the opening statement saying ‘This is not an ending’. I wandered into the first interval asking myself what would this dance form look like to classical music?

This question was answered in the second performance 'Solo Echo'. With a plain backdrop of falling snow, we were aurally treated to two Cello sonatas written by Brahms; one at the beginning of his life, the other at the end. I mistakenly thought the choreographer was the same as the first piece in its movement style, phrasing and technique. However, Crystal Pite’s piece proved breathtaking in its beauty and it felt as if the 7 dancers and the choreographer passed an invisible baton of energy that ebbed and flowed with ease. Sublime!

Involving 18 dancers, the final piece was choreographed by Sharon Eula and Gai Behar and even had the dancers speaking! This is quite a mind-blowing piece as everything fitted together brilliantly. Music, lighting, costume, voice and dance is a testament to the word teamwork. No-one stood out more than the other; yet, together, they stood out as one.

The costumes were simple and offered a highly androgynous feel. Stripping away gender and modern clothes the barefoot dancers were bathed in coloured lights of either white, yellow or red, offering solo and group pieces. Throughout it all, the troupe worked fantastically in ‘group sections’ where one minute they appeared like a murmuring of birds in Solo Echo; to almost regimented repetitive staccato actions that melted into soft solos. Most notably, what oozed from the stage was that this was an ensemble of soloists. There were no divas fighting their way up a hierarchy, just a palpable unified confidence that was exciting to watch and glowed in every performers’ eyes.

This was keenly felt by the audience which included those new to ballet and a healthy gender and age balance. Not as many aspiring dancers as I have seen in other audiences, however I can assure any aspiring dancer, you will not be disappointed with this company. They are pure in their ballet roots and ground-breaking in their contemporary simplicity.

Reviewer - Alexis Tuttle
on - 20/3/18

Jerusalem - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham.

Contemporary playwright Jez Butterworth is certainly not afraid of writing exactly how he feels, and his plays have won him much acclaim over the years. Jerusalem is no exception and is a hard-hitting socio-political drama which requires the audience to truly watch and listen throughout in order to pick up on all the different levels this play works on.

It tells the story of Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, a formidable and yet lovable character living in a run-down and unhygienic caravan in the middle of some woods belonging to a local town. The council huff and puff for many years but mostly turn a blind eye to his existence, allowing him to live just a little outside the law, until a new housing estate develops close-by and this raises the awkward elephant-in-the-room-question of Mr. Byron once again. The town council has a meeting and votes to evict him. The play opens on St. George's Day, and we see council representatives come to serve him his eviction notice. He has been given 24 hours.

The masterful writing of Butterworth's pays homage to the folklore and traditions surrounding St. George's Day, as well as cleverly making a few pseudo-Shakespeare references within the writing (Shakespeare was born and died on St. George's Day); but more importantly makes nuanced but quite clear social and political comments about the state of government.

It is all too easy to see Rooster Byron as a wastrel, drunk, drug-dealing menace to the community - just as the residents on the new estate do; but there is so much more to this man of Romany blood and fantastical tales than that, and he holds a certain fascination to anyone he meets, and befriends those that society has turned away.

Scott Ransome plays Rooster Byron with a skill and understanding of character rarely seen on any stage - amateur or professional - and his tour-de-force performance was truly spellbinding and excellently measured. The play is  a little like Hamlet in one respect; that the play would not exist and revolves solely around the one character who is in every scene and commands the play. However, I will make special mention to two other cast members who stood out from a very strong ensemble cast. Matthew Banwell played Wesley, a local pub landlord somehow roped into Morris dancing at the local fair; and Mark Bull played the aging wastrel and faithful companion of Rooster, Ginger. Both giving superb performances.

The set [Trevor McKie and John Cunningham] was one of the best I have seen from The Garrick in quite some time, and good use of lighting and sound effects helped enormously to create the correct atmosphere. Cunningham also directed this play and it was both sensibly and sensitively handled. The pace did drop occasionally and the play could have flowed a little swifter and smoother than it did, but overall, intelligently directed and well handled.

It was a very brave choice of play for any local society to schedule in their season, as the play contains language which some will no doubt find offensive and the themes of the play are far from child-friendly. The play is also a very long one - running at three hours (including interval). These things do tend to put audiences off, but I urge anyone reading this not to be put off by this superb and hard-hitting play, and support some talented and hard-working performers who deserve full houses and standing ovations every night!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/3/18

Fat Friends: The Musical - The Opera House, Manchester.

To be quite honest I had no idea what to expect from this new Musical. I had never seen the popular TV series from which this is based, nor had I seen any advertising clip to show me what I might see on the night. I do know though that I was extremely curious to see it, even if it were only for one reason, and that being I wanted to listen to the musical compositional style of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's son, Nick, who composed the music for this show.

The Musical is a little overlong for the type of show it is, as the storyline is stretched beyond the point of credibility, and the superficiality and banality of it all is nauseating. BUT, and here is a big 'but' too. On this level, the show works. The Musical has no pretensions to grandeur, working from mono-dimensional stereotypes with toilet humour and a dogged self-belief, the show is a working-class TOWIE, and taking the show purely on that level, as it plays to and for the proletariat, it does quite obviously appeal. Moreover, the show carries a very important message for our times. That is spelled out very clearly, and that message is, 'it doesn't matter what size and shape you are, we are all worthy and all human and shouldn't feel the need to 'conform'!'

The story concerns a rather large and overweight twenty-something lass from Headingley, North Yorkshire, Kelly [Jodie Prenger], and her rather simple, clumsy but safe and secure fiancé Kevin [Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff]. Kelly is trying on her wedding dress and she is a couple of sizes too big to fit in. She has chosen this dress and won't change to a different one and so follows in her mother's footsteps and enrols in the local zumba and fitness club at the parish church. The shrewd and money-driven businesswoman Julia Fleshman [Natasha Hamilton] who owns this chain of fitness classes sees Kelly as a marketing opportunity for her company and decides to challenge her to losing the required weight before the wedding, and if she does she will pay not only for the dress but for the entire wedding.

Of course, there are some predictable twists and turns throughout, and again, just as predictably, there is a happy ending too. For me though, the more interesting story to be played would have been the subplot which concerns the 34 year old virgin Jewess who runs the zumba and fitness club, Lauren [Natalie Anderson] and her blossoming love affair with the church vicar, Paul [Jonathan Halliwell]. These two characters had a little more to them than may at first meet the eye and I did quite enjoy their developing relationship.

And going back to Nick Lloyd Webber's music, then I could hear, every now and again, the same harmonic or melodic structures his father favoured. It is obvious the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree. But sadly, I cannot see this music being remembered and cherished in the same way.

Written and directed by Kay Mellor, this is a show of cliché after cliché, quite a lot of swearing and adult humour, but is a joyous and feel-good show which does not pretend to be anything other than a garden-wall gossip between fat friends!

Reviewer - Alastair Zyggu
on - 19/3/18

The Dinner Party - Altrincham Little Theatre.

The Dinner Party is a genuinely intriguing play partly because the premise is a very imaginative twist on an old stalwart. A standard Agatha Christie device (a la ‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘Ten Little Indians’) finds a random group of essentially middle class individuals all invited to a party by an unseen host and old dirty secrets are gradually unfolded. Interestingly, the playwright Neil Simon developed this idea as a farce in his screenplay for the film ‘Murder by Death’.

With The Dinner Party, there is no murder mystery; no under-cover murderer or detective masquerades as a guest and no crime has been committed. This does not mean however that the secrets to be unfolded are not of an excruciating nature and that some surprising interpersonal relationships are revealed, making this a complex play which leaves the audience thinking.

The Dinner Party is also a challenging piece because the mood moves markedly from near-farce to almost tragi-drama and in a play like this careful handling is needed to carry the audience on this emotional rollercoaster. Director John Chidgey moved the play along well without for the most part any loss of pace as the story ebbs and flows between comedy and drama in a genteel backdrop. The background set perfectly complements the mood of middle class respectability, with notable attention having been paid to a pleasing marble-effect floor.

Neil Simon was himself married several times (including two times to the same person) and so had much direct source material to write a play about past failed relationships. There is something Poirotesque the way the causes of failed marriage are given and then later re-assessed from different angles. The play never gets too heavy though and for the most part is very funny, affirming Simon’s reputation as a skilled playwright.

Each of the six characters has a story to tell and the fallout from past relationships comes over convincingly, at times in a  touching way with real feeling. The cast bring over six very different personalities who visibly change as they are forced to deal with their respective pasts. John Westbrook as Albert is particularly amusing as a man with carefully constructed defensive emotional walls which ultimately prove wanting, and Kathryn Fennel as Gabrielle presents an entertaining portrayal of a woman seeming in complete control until emotional cracks come to the fore. Emily Duffy is a nice contrast as Mariette, an apparent wall-flower hiding inner fire and Christine Perry as Yvonne has some beautiful exchanges with her ex. Steve Cunio  is almost the ‘straight man’, trying to maintain a strong indifference to others' machinations, juxtaposed with the more outwardly vulnerable Claude played sensitively by Cunio once again!

Towards the end of the play, some chances to heighten the drama are missed a little as we see certain characters undergo changes of heart. A bit more emotional dynamic would have been in order as the plot twists and turns, the absence of which does weaken the pace a little at times but overall, the interest of the audience is held right up until the captivating last line; you really are kept guessing what will happen until the last moment. The Dinner Party is a funny and very well-written play dealing with difficult issues to which by and large the cast have done full justice.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 18/3/18

The Telephone - RNCM, Manchester.

The Telephone is a one act short comic opera by Gian Carlo Menotti. Written in the 1940s Menotti took a very satirical look on the amount of time people were spending talking on the phone rather than actually face to face, which sounds all too familiar and relevant almost 80 years later. Substitute 'telephone' for 'computerised device' and this opera - a duologue between boyfriend and girlfriend - is brought bang up to date.

And indeed, bring it to present day is exactly what director Sarah Rhodes did. And so  we see the young Lucy (Stella Tähtinen) impatiently texting waiting for her lover's imminent arrival, and when Ben (Luke Scott) does arrive and try on several occasions to propose to her, the mobile rings and she spends more time chatting with friends than listening to what her would-be fiancé had to say. He has to leave shortly, to catch a train. he is leaving, we don't know why, where or for how long, but he simply cannot wait any longer and in desperation leaves whilst Lucy is still chatting away obliviously. A while later the mobile rings again and when she answers it this time it is Ben, who proposes to her and she accepts over the phone, and her parting shot is that whilst he is away he should never forget to call her every day.

In this studio production, the music was played on piano by Musical Director Louis Perera, and the whole opera lasted about 25 minutes. Performed as one of the RNCM 'Spotlight' concerts, which are free events usually lasting around the half hour mark, prior to evening concerts. The concerts are excellent showcases for the students and provide a wonderful way to perform works which wouldn't perhaps normally be scheduled into a main event, and to allow the students to try out their own creativity.

Our two performers in this concert were absolutely magical. They managed that delicate balance between realism and heightened comedy perfectly, and had a lovely chemistry between them. Vocally they were both superb, and somehow Perera managed to make the piano sound a lot fuller than just one single instrument too, which cloaked the whole room in sound.

I have seen The Telephone before, but this was undoubtedly my favourite interpretation of it. Brilliant!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/3/18

Hansel And Gretel - RNCM, Manchester.

The RNCM have an excellent reputation for their opera training, and indeed, the standard of their soloists is always quite unbelievable. Watching their operas, as I have been doing now for the last three years, it astonishes me that I am watching those who are ostensibly still in training, such is their prowess and talent.

This afternoon's offering of their latest opera, Humperdinck's  Hänsel Und Gretel was no exception.

The story is taken from the fairytale of the same name by The Brothers Grimm, and sees Hansel and Gretel, a young brother and sister living in near poverty with their parents, and they get themselves into all kinds of scrapes as children do. However, one day, their mother has had enough and sends them out into the dark and dangerous woods to pick strawberries as both a punishment and a way of supplementing their meagre diet, but whilst in the woods they sleep and are visited by enchanted fairies. When they wake the Dewfairy leads them to a sweet-shop made out of gingerbread and owned by a child-eating witch. [it never fails to surprise me just exactly how many folk tales from around the world have paedophilic undertones.] However, the two children outsmart the witch and as she is killed it releases all the other children she has captured and made into gingerbread. We rejoice as Hansel and Gretel free them from this spell and are reunited with their parents.

As always, two sets of principals take turns to perform the roles, and so obviously I can only speak about the cast I saw. Fiona Finsbury and Rebecca Barry were superb and totally believable as young siblings. the chemistry between them enormously enjoyable and they found much fun and playfulness in amongst the earnestness of their roles. Eliza Boom and Matthew Nuttall found both gravitas and comedy in their roles of the parents. The two smaller cameo roles of Sandman and Dewfairy were played by Rhiain Taylor and Stephanie Poropat, but the show was almost completely stolen by the tour-de-force that was Kimberley Raw as the Witch. The quality of the singing from all was of an extremely high standard and hugely impressive, and the acting, especially from Raw, Finsbury and Barrry was excellently measured and not at all OTT.

This opera is rather unusual I would think for two reasons. Actually I am not so well versed in opera to be able to give a definitive opinion, but certainly from my own experience, I would say that one, the lack of chorus and using only offstage singing for them, and using ideally children for the final chorus is not the norm; and two, the amount of cross-gender casting in this opera is also quite odd, with the only male being the father. [with the option of using a male voice for the Witch!]

The RNCM operas are also quite well known too for their stark and imaginative set designs. This opera designed by Yannis Thavoris, required three sets, and as act one opens onto a tiny room in the family house, everything seemed almost perfect. Late 19th century furniture, sparsely decorated, predominantly grey, and with a certain central European flavour to it. However act 2 took me completely by surprise, and not for a positive reason sadly. Not only do we move the woods to an urban thoroughfare of street lamps, but those street lamps are proudly sporting the Manchester 'Bee' symbol! We are also shown a British policeman chasing the children. Admittedly the street lamps made for some lovely lighting effects and tableaux; but was just simply a step too far from reality for my liking. The Victorianesque sweet-shop house of the witch was acceptable; and I appreciated the name-play of the shop using the surname Lecker, which is German meaning 'tasty'. 

With a flawless chorus, once they did actually appear and do some singing, and the wonderful RNCM Opera Orchestra conducted by Anthony Kraus, this was a beautifully sung but somehow oddly realised version of this Romantic 'Märchenoper'.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/3/18

Who Wants To Live Forever? - The Library Theatre, Oldham.

Oldham's Library Theatre is a small and intimate space with raked bench seating on one side leaving a tiny amphitheatre of performance space, which was, this evening festooned with various-sized mirror balls on plinths with a central mic. The plush red velvet curtain cyc and cabaret lounge style music  adding to create a jazz club atmosphere.

The play itself is a one hour long monologue, written and performed by Maine-born, Washington DC brought up Cheryl Martin. It is a very personal, perhaps too personal, look at her own life from her childhood meeting with Billie Holiday and her love of the stars and the firmament, to the loss of her younger brother which had a profound effect on, to finding consolation in music, camping holidays, horoscopes, astrology and astronomy.

She was 5 years old when her State was Desegregated and so she has known racial prejudice right from the start, and this has obviously had a huge impact on her life too.

The show is basically a series of anecdotes punctuated by Billie Holiday's music [some of which she sings unaccompanied, and some is Holiday herself which she mimed to], with several astrological analogies thrown in for good measure. The show does however descend into very self-indulgent territory and as she is seen crying from her own memories at several points one could even think that she is performing this show as self-therapy.

However, the narrative is honest and emotive, and her message clear. Don't live in the past, and take everything from life while you have it  Enjoy people while they are here, because no-one wants to live forever.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/3/18

Frankenstein - Manchester Central Library

With The Royal Exchange Theatre Company's main house production of Frankenstein being performed at the same time, I was curious to see what a promenade production through Manchester's Central Library by Pure Expression Theatre might offer.

We met at the main entrance and were equipped with headphones and pre-recorded audio, and for the duration of this 50 minute piece, followed our protagonist and only performer, Frankenstein [Toby Osmond] through various areas of the library.

Osmond narrated 'his' story on the tape, and his voice was mellow, deep and sonorous, which made the listening both informative and pleasing. Incidental music played between sections. Osmond physically made for a tall and imposing Frankenstein with waves of curly black hair which was rather unruly and ill kempt giving him the look of a gaunt and possessed intellectual. His authoritative gait and silent presence made us follow and made us question and want to find out more.

We travelled into various rooms and spaces on all floors of the library, and indeed it did seem that we did more walking that actual performance, and certainly the rooms were too far apart and too many steps to climb or descend. Elderly or disabled would have stood no chance, but the choice of locations was good each time, and the use of models [a doll's house, a sailing ship, a doll etc] was excellently thought out and worked well.

My favourite moment came when we were led a dance with Frankenstein dashing up and down the narrow aisles of a room marked 'Historic Stack'.

The story was the conventional one and nothing new was learned or gleaned from this, but the adaptation was interesting and a good ending was found in the cold semi-outdoors of the glass passage adjoining the library with Town Hall.

A rather enjoyable piece of promenade theatre, which, rather than breaking boundaries, stuck very much to 'traditions' both in the way this style of theatre is produced and the telling of the narrative. 

Reviewer - Alastair Zyggu
on - 15/3/18

Musical Theatre Showcase - Sackville Theatre, Manchester

The first year students on the Musical Theatre course at the Manchester College gave their first public performance as a group today at the college's Sackville Theatre.

The group, all aged 16, showcased songs and dances from the Musical Theatre and pop repertoires, and rather than making this a closed performance for assessment purposes only, the school wisely realises that the more public exposure these students get, and the more they practice in front of an unbiased general public, the more and sooner they will learn and perfect their craft.

Without a programme I am struggling somewhat to remember all the items performed and of course I do not know any of the students' names. All I can say is that I was impressed with what I saw and applaud the ethos behind such showcases.

The items which I do remember though are the ones which obviously made an impression on me. These include a rendition by two girls of Adele's passionate, 'To Make You Feel My Love'; a choral version of Jessie J's 'Price Tag'; an energetic Charleston by a couple of girls dancing to music from 'Chicago'; a very well danced tap duet of  'The lady Is A Tramp' with the whole event finishing with a full chorus 'We Go Together' from 'Grease'.  My two favourite numbers from this event were a highly emotive and sexually charged female version of 'Take Me baby Or Leave Me' from 'Rent', and an excellently choreographed and realised full company version of Coldplay's 'The Scientist'. 

It is always both a privilege and a pleasure for me to see raw talent in the first stages of growth, and to hopefully to be able to see these same young men and women blossom and fulfil their ambitions. Well done to all those involved.

Reviewer - Alastair Zyggu
on - 15/3/18

The Importance Of Being Earnest - The Opera House, Manchester.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (c) The Other Richard.

It has been quite a while, perhaps too long, since I last saw a play by celebrated Irish genius Oscar Wilde; and so to be given the opportunity of watching his seminal work this evening was a great thrill. And indeed, watching the play unfold this evening, it was a little like greeting an old friend that I hadn't seen in a long time - familiar and yet changed, older, less vital.

Sitting quite close by to me was a large party of foreign students, undoubtedly there as an extension of their classroom English studies, and obviously excited at seeing something so quintessentially English (despite being written by an Irishman!). And so I started to put myself in their shoes. I am a foreigner, listening to these words for the first time and trying to make sense of these perhaps outdated but curious mannerisms and behaviours, and as soon as I started to do this, my enjoyment of the play started to crumble, since I started to understand two things. First, I knew the play too well, and therefore was mentally one step ahead all the time, and second, by allowing myself to truly watch the action and concentrate deeply as those students would need to do, I found that I didn't really understand much at all, and a couple of the characterisations were not as I remember them from my studies.

The Original Theatre Company and director Alastair Whatley have created a play with a few questionable choices. The play is set at the very end of the 19th century, and although everything I saw on that stage in terms of costume and set could have been around and fashionable at that time, I very much doubt some of them being so, especially 'in the country'; whilst this comedy of manners, had certain manners and mannerisms within it which were not only out of place but out of time too. Combine this with the fact that even sitting as I was only one third of the way down the stalls I was having great difficulty with the audibility of the play in general, and you can see why my enjoyment of this classic waned.  I also wondered why, when the action takes place over two days, was both Lady Bracknell and Gwendoline given the same costume to wear for both days?

Thomas Howes gave us a rather childish and petulant Algernon, which did work quite well when pitted against the more straight-laced and upright Jack Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke). Gwen Taylor; undoubtedly an actress of incredible skill and talent, sadly missed the characterisation of Lady Bracknell by a country mile. She could in no way be described as a 'gorgon', nor could she ever be seen to walk 'in majestic indignation'. She was far too nice and not formidable enough.

Kerry Ellis however gave us a magnificent Gwendoline Fairfax. Beautifully timed lines combined with suitable expressions and mannerisms made her extremely believable and immensely watchable. The very same can also be said of the alcoholic Miss Prism, played by Susan Penhaligon  A consummate actress who knew exactly how to maximise her role and delivery without overdoing it.

Overall though, this is a comedy, and therefore we should have been laughing. Wilde's sparkling and acerbic wit resounds in every single line of this play, and knowing which lines to measure and which to throw away can be something of a directorial nightmare. Sadly however, the audience was not laughing anywhere near as much nor as loudly as it should have been; that's a crying shame. And if we weren't laughing so much, then the poor foreign students didn't really stand much of a chance at all. 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/3/18

Equus - The Garrick Theatre, Stockport.

Equus is a dark psychological drama, written in the early 1970s by the unequivocal Peter Schaffer, and although some of the more mundane happenings in this play may seem a little dated now, the theme and the message (if indeed there is a message) are as fresh and as relevant now as ever. How far has psychology and our understanding of psychosis actually come in the last forty years?

For those that haven't yet seen this incredible piece of writing, either as a film starring Richard Burton and Jenny Agutter, or with Daniel Radcliffe in the West End, then you are certainly in for an absolute treat of a show at Stockport's Garrick.

An overworked, but well-respected child psychologist is coerced into taking on another patient, a rather special patient. A 17 year old boy who has, in a single night, blinded 6 horses all in the same stables. And as if that wasn't shocking enough, the backstory, as it is revealed little by little, serves not to condemn this boy's actions but to excuse them; whilst at the same time they bring the psychiatrist's own life and sanity into question too.

It is an incredibly brave choice of play for anyone to consider, and needs sensitive handling. Director Judy Corbett did a wonderful job in this regard, and her work on characterisation and arc worked excellently. I really liked the opening sequence with Dysart addressing us as if giving a lecture, and Alan's act one final sequence was excellently measured and very powerful.

The set design, although being true to the Brechtian style of presentation originally conceived for this play, didn't work quite as well as it should have done, since the black boxes on the main part of the stage were placed far too far away from each other and so made things very awkward for the actors. The other thing I would say which needs, in my opinion, some more thought, is exactly where the doors to each room are; the size of  each room, and where furniture and windows are in each room. Entrances were made into a room from seemingly anywhere on stage and the same person exited the same room in a completely different direction which I found very odd.  

Other than that though, this was a very solid and well thought-through intelligent interpretation of a difficult text and it truly is one of theatre's more compelling and thought-provoking works even forty years on.

Morgan Edwards played the psychiatrist Dysart with a certain dogged resignation at first, building to an almost obsessional need to help him before he really and truly understands that 'help' and 'cure' are just words and are in fact meaningless. An excellently measured interpretation. It was just a pity that I missed some of the quieter moments of speech and the tail endings of certain sentences.

Alan Strang, the boy in question, was played by Jake Johnson. The Garrick have found in Johnson a real powerhouse of talent. His understanding of the part and his commitment to the role were unbelievable and his performance was electric.

With a strong supporting cast, and excellent horse interpretations this is a very good and worthy production, and although it obviously won't be to everyone's tastes, it SHOULD be seen, and full credit to Stockport Garrick for scheduling such plays in their season.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/3/18

Rigoletto - The Opera House, Manchester.

For my first time watching a production of Rigoletto, I chose to go this evening to Manchester's Opera House to see Opera And Ballet International presenting Ellen Kent's lavish setting of it.

Written in 1850-1 by Italy's premier opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, it caused an outrage due to it depicting a Duke making his court go around to find him beautiful virgins for him to rape and deflower, in much the same way the French had banned the novel by Victor Hugo from which this libretto had been taken. However, it still received its premier at Venice's La Fenice in March of 1851, and fortunately for us, the opera has stood the test of time.

The opera opens with the Duke raping one young village girl, brought to him by his faithful jester, Rigoletto, and we then see her father enter and place a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto for being complicit in the Duke's lasciviousness. We later learn that Rigoletto himself has a beautiful young daughter whom he hides away out of the Duke's sight, but since this is Grand Opera and of course it all has to end tragically, the Duke follows her home, and they fall in love. After hiring an assassin to kill the Duke, Rigoletto feels sure all will be well, but when he realises that the assassin has killed his daughter instead of the Duke the curtain falls and the curse has come true.

Speaking with Ellen Kent during the interval she spoke of making her directing of this her favourite opera, true to the composer's original vision ,and of, despite being criticised for being too 'traditional', wanting the audience to be swept away in this tragi-romantic vision that Hugo, Piave (librettist), and of course Verdi had; and to do this she uses broad brush strokes throughout her directing, imagining all the time that the stage is a canvas upon which she creates visions of Renaissance paintings. This is clearly seen in her tableaux as each one could easily have been a Caravaggio or Botticelli, carefully showing you with allusion the event unfolding. In this regard Ms. Kent and I are in complete agreement, as we discussed modernising Shakespeare and the like, and simply do not like productions where the director seems to know better than the author or composer. Ms. Kent described herself as a 'facilitator', and I applaud that immensely. 

And so the opera opens on a quasi-Roman scene with colourful 16th century costumes and a busy and full stage of chorus, which included a couple of greyhounds from a Rescue Centre and a stunning golden eagle. Not only this but to add to the mix a couple of semi-naked women and the poor girl being raped is completely nude. However, keeping the Renaissance paintings in mind then it is all very tasteful and clever. the image and allusion being far more important than the actual act itself, carefully and cleverly coordinated, giving the events more weight.

The hunchbacked jester Rigoletto, was in this production played by Iurie Gisca, and he was magnificent. His beautifully resonant voice and impassioned acting were tremendous. His daughter Gilda, played here with real emotion was Alyona Kistenyova, whilst the preying Duke with his eye for any girl was Spanish tenor, Giorgio Meladze. His lyric tenor sounds and innocent looks masking perfectly his predatory intent. And in a wonderful vocal contrast was the upright and mysterious Sparafucile, the hired assassin, played by Vadym Chernihovskyi, whose bass voice resonated with clarity through the auditorium.

With the National Ukrainian President's Opera Orchestra, conducted by Vasyl Vasylensko this was 'traditionally realised' opera at it's most lavish and best. Ellen Kent's productions are renowned for their use of animals and making operas accessible to those, who like me, are not particularly opera fans or knowledgeable about the genre. I left the Opera House this evening having seen a wonderful and magnificent vision of times' past, and was delighted and thankful for it. 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 111/3/18 

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham

GAPA - that is The Garrick Academy of Performing Arts is a thriving and excellent group of children and teenagers who meet once a week to socialise and learn about the machinations of theatre, and perform one major production per year. The group is open to everyone and the classes are split in age ranges. So, when it comes to the performance, it also means that those age ranges stay together and although they might be essentially performing the same show, they are different casts and a different creative team behind each one.

This evening it was the turn of the 12 - 16 age group to perform, whilst on Saturday there would be a performance with the 5 - 11 year olds.

Although this was obviously a very low budget production, the show did not suffer overmuch because of it. The cast were excellently chosen and it was a pleasure to watch these talented and 'professional' youngsters perform.

The story of this Musical is well known and was originally written as a short through-sung entertainment for a local primary school, and so it is always very fitting when the show is performed by those it was originally intended for. And although musically this show has grown and grown, the essence and playfulness of the show remains the same.

The Musical started excellently as the two narrators Lottie Warburton and Eve Reid came from the auditorium and introduced us to Joseph, his brothers and life in Caanan. Both had lovely voices and their relaxed, unflustered approach to the narration was lovely. Caitlin Hardie was a very believable Joseph and her deep and sonorous voice was surprising [I have never heard a female sing so low before  I don't think!] but absolutely enchanting.

All the 11 brothers were very convincing and I loved their earnestness and facial expressions; whilst the youngest and hippiest Jacob I have ever seen bounced onto stage in the form of Isabelle Wykes.  

An alluring Mrs. Potiphar was played by Liv Walsh whilst Bethan Roberts found much comedy in her role as the Potiphar himself. The two youngest principals both playing excellent little cameos were Charlie Hill as The Baker and Eve Jospeh as The Butler. One of the best interpretations of these two tiny characters I have seen in a long while. Lovely and inspiring.

However, the show was utterly and completely stolen by a young man who can quite easily make a career out of Elvis Presley impersonation. Freddie Tickle wasn't just The Pharaoh, nor was he just sounding and acting a little like Elvis... he was, in a single word, magnificent! Even down to the moving eyelashes, the hip-sways, and those wonderful Elvis vocal elisions and inflections. Incredible. 

There were though, two things that didn't really work for me and both down to the lack of budget and therefore have no real bearing on the quality of the performance whatsoever. The first is the costumes and set. The majority of the time, cast wore their GAPA T-shirts with black trousers or skirts, and there was very little over and above that on majority of occasions which made it look a little like a workshop presentation rather than a finished product; and the other is the use of pre-recorded playback tracks. The cast were noticeably fighting against this at times and were finding it difficult to work with. It is of course totally understandable that such measures are taken in these times of austerity, but doing so negates so much in the way of allowing the performers their own interpretations and expressions on the music, and if things were to go awry, it is very difficult to rectify. With this particular age group and students that were on that stage, I feel sure even just utilising a live keyboardist would have been a better idea.

Directed by Peter Birch and Rosie Hynes, with choreography by Rosie Hynes, and a wonderful and large chorus all singing and dancing in time and proficiently, this was a highly entertaining and hugely praiseworthy production of one of Musical Theatre's more popular and enduring shows.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 9/3/18

Eggs - 53Two, Manchester.

Florence Keith-Roach’s new and hilarious, all female,1 hour play began life at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival, reaching its current version in 2016 at the Vault Festival, assisted by Arts Council England.

The story highlights the relationship between two female besties who epitomise the saying, ‘opposites attract’. This love/hate relationship is united by a love of 90s music, a litany of disastrous love interests and an awkward struggle to find their identity against the backdrop of Barbie expectations.

Underpinning this coming-of-age story, is the response to the untimely death of a friend who was the third wheel to this all female group. With the sudden change of dynamic from three to two, Girl 1 (Emily Curtis)  and Girl 2 (Lauren-Nicole Mayes) allow us to eavesdrop on their private moments as they grapple with maintaining the ‘face’ one puts on in society via a liberal dose of Ecstasy pills, Cher, Pop-feminism, Scarlett Johansson and an identity crisis wholly based around IVF.

Eggs is a black comedy about the ‘cycles of life’, be it a calendar, menstrual or life cycle. The writing is a gift for any female-led team and is ideal for performance at fringe venues such as Manchester’s 53two pod studio.

The momentum is expertly maintained under the direction of Chantell Walker who ensures the pace and energy is slick, with a considered approach to marking moments when the play moves forward in time.

Both actors stand-out with their detailed approach to characterisation. Curtis, as Girl 1, has the fun task of being a loud, brash, moaning, firecracker of a character. Whereas Girl 2 Mayes, has the slightly tougher challenge of being the ‘sensible one’ who is desperate to be a high-heeled wearing career-girl, working her way up the corporate ladder (sometimes dubiously), while secretly being a party girl in the vein of Girl 1.

This play is very character led and offers actors a lot to work with when embarking on character decisions regarding costumes, bedroom debris and song catalogue. These choices inform the audience considerably about the private lives of each character.

Watching this hour long play on International Women’s Day did not intimidate the audience that consisted of a happy 50:50 mix of gender, with only a few empty seats available.

Eggs runs until 10th March and it is well worth seeing.

Reviewer - Alexis Tuttle
on -8/3/18

An Evening With Eddie Fontana - 3MT, Manchester.

At first glance, An Evening with Eddie Fontana is exactly what it says on the pocket; an evening with a ‘celebrity’ TV-show host, aided and abetted by a plethora of co-hosts and guests. This is a well-worn comedy sub-genre which considerably predates Alan Partridge and Ron Burgundy. Back in the 70’s during his heyday, spoofs of popular TV-show hosts such as Hughey Green and Simon Dee were a regular feature on the Benny Show and before; then at the dawn of Python, John Cleese perfectly satirised the mid-Atlantic 'voice-egotists' who filled prime-time Saturday night TV slots on both sides of the pond. And let’s not forget Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend television from around the same time.

Liam Moddy has written a show which draws on a wide range of comedy incluences as well as confidently playing two very different show guests. An Evening with Eddie Fontana starts off predictably enough with a fast-talking presenter setting out his stall with a lot of self-obsessed ego prior to introducing his first guests and contestants, all of whom being of questionable merits. There are some very funny moments and we see Eddie very much in control of events, ridiculing his would-be celebrity guests for the amusement of the audience. There is real sense of interplay between Eddie and Alan ‘The world’s tallest drawf’, as each attempts to demonstrate they can see right through each other so that a supposedly friendly chat becomes a viscious intellectual battle of egos. Corin Silva as Eddie brings over a sharp-dresed, frenzied presenter determined to overshadow everyone else whilst attempting to remain sober and the plot thickens when the vivacious co-host Brigitte Tenille played with panache by Bethan Suthers, bursts on to the show, making it seem Eddie may have met his match, except for the fact Brigitte seems even more additcted to booze.

With the essential dynamics in place, An Evening with Eddie Fontana could have just cruised along almost as Alan Partidge by another name but this is not just another chat-show spoof; the hosts is question have personal problems which become all too real as the show goes progressively downhill and the actual presenting alternates between being a valuable jewel to fight to the death over and a poisoned challace which gets tossed back and forth. Harry Fitzwilliam-Pike in his directorial debut takes some daring chances with the pace of the play when fast-moving action increasingly gives way to awkward silences as it becomes clear that not just the show but the lives of the main characters are going steadily out of control. The drama created takes this play well away from being just a farce as raw emotions come to the fore and people are seen to disintergrate before us.

Catherine Stobbs plays various different guests, starting with some stock comedy characters but eventually coming on as Frances who is an all-too-real self-delusional fake, again placing what could just have descended into pure farce back into the realms of reality with a tragic/comic twist. Josh Bratherton also plays a varied range of characters which for me, the most entertaining portrayal being an astronomer who has a near nervous breakdown on stage that is worthy of Monty Python.

Even the hard-pressed Stage Manager, played by Natalie Jones is seen to go on a real journey as her best attempts to keep everything together steadily go awry. 

An Evening with Eddie Fontana is an entertaining and enjoyable piece, played by a strong cast which frequently takes off in unexpected directions and is a showcase of vibrant comedy acting. The ending is perhaps a little drawn out, with the action fading away rather than building up to a crescendo but the overall feeling is nonetheless satisfying. This is a very creditable first full-length production by Ares and indicative of great thing to come in the future.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 8/3/18

Rock Of Ages - The Met, Bury.

Having only previously seen the full 'adult' version of this Rock musical in the past, I was more than a little curious to see the 'High School Edition' suitable for youths to perform would work.

There is quite a trend at the moment for shortened and more 'child-friendly' versions of musicals for youth groups, and some do certainly work better than others. Last year saw this same group tackle Avenue Q which I felt worked wonderfully without all the swearing and gratuitous sex; however a show like Rock Of Ages IS swearing and gratuitous sex - as well as drugs and everything else associated with the late 1980s heavy metal era. Nevertheless, there is still enough left in there for it not to be too bland, and given that this is a group of talented individuals capable of stepping up the mark and doing exactly what is necessary to bring these characters to life, combined with some playful directing by Timothy Platt, it worked much better than I had thought it might.

Further, The Bury Met's main stage is really rather small for a full scale musical, and how they managed to present both The Bourbon Room interior which included a rigged stage as well as countless other smaller sets for different scenes, as well as placing the band on a platform on top of the stage's stage (if you see what I mean!), I simply have no idea! Add to this a whole plethora of LX specials used constantly but effectively throughout, just like a live rock concert would, then this was certainly quite an achievement.

The story of this musical is a simple one and shoe-horned in to incorporate as many classic rocks songs as possible; boy meets girl, boy wants to be a rock star and girl wants to be an actress; boy ends up being side-lined in a boy-band whilst girl ends up working as a hostess in a strip club. The backdrop to this is that the Bourbon Club, a famous rock night spot is facing closure and demolition from the greedy fat cat developers, and as the two stories intertwine, the writers would not let us go away without a happy ending for all!

Costumes (and wigs) were on the whole excellent, and the singing from all was a sheer delight. Some very powerful and talented singers hiding away in there! And, as I have already mentioned, the directing was creative and also a little tongue-in-cheek with a huge dollop of humour which really worked in the show's favour. My favourite moment was the lollipop sequence!

The highly talented Sam Bate played the lead role of Drew, a toilet attendant at The Bourbon Club with rock stardom and romance on his mind with aplomb, and showcasing his vocal range superbly; whilst his love interest Sherry (Jess Porter) showed off her vocal prowess and skill with ease.

The two owner / managers of the club Lonny and Dennis were played superbly this evening by Kemmie Clark and Dale Porter; especially liking the rather camp and fun personification of Lonny which balanced excellently against the spaced-out hippy Dennis. Their act 2 duet was a joy!

The strict, severe and prudish businesswoman developer, Hilda from Hamburg was played with matronly authority by Madeline Jones, whilst her son, Franz, was given a truly side-splitting make-over by George Platt. Platt deserves huge credit here as he skilfully never descended into caricature, which he so easily could have done, and his effete but empathetic antics brought tears to our eyes especially his moment in the pink Lycra spotlight, and delivering the best line in the whole show with excellently judged timing...

I am not gay, I am just German.

There were a few technical hitches this evening, which seemed to leave the cast with a certain amount of egg on their faces; especially when songs seemed to just finish almost mid phrase and then we had a long pause before the dialogue continued. I am uncertain why this should happen, but fortunately it didn't seem to phase the cast in the slightest. But the best effect was left until the final chorus song, and the use of pyrotechnics here was absolutely wonderful and looked stunning.

Rock Of Ages is yet another PADOS triumph, and the energy and commitment from all the cast this evening was highly praiseworthy and their labours paid off greatly. A very enjoyable, if little loud, upbeat show proving that Rock is most certainly not dead!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 8/3/18

 

 

She Bangs The Drums - Contact Young Company @ Museum Of Science And Industry, Manchester.

She Bangs The Drums is a new and rather experimental in nature piece of theatre performed by Contact Theatre's Young Company in association with The People's History Museum and performed in little used or known part of Manchester's Museum Of Science And Industry.

It is the 8th March, National Women's Day, and also one hundred years since the Representation Of The People's Act was passed in parliament.

This show therefore was one long and massive cri-de-coeur for feminism and instead of actually celebrating what mileage we have travelled in the last hundred years, the play left you more with the message of, 'Is that really all that has been achieved in that time? When inequality and sexism still plague our daily lives... what in actuality has been gained? 

The 70 minute long presentation was performed in an industrial warehouse building, it had an old and solid feel to the place and was obviously during the Victorian period a hive of industry and activity. In this building an ampitheatre style stage and raked audience was constructed using the building's natural wall as the backcloth. Most unfortunately though that was where the venue's unique character stopped being an integral part of the production. There was no tie-in with the venue or indeed the uses put to this venue over the years, and so this play really could have been performed anywhere and was not in the least sight-specific as I had thought it might have been.

Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit of Sh!t Theatre directed this piece and their signature was evident throughout. A modern take on Agitprop Theatre whereby a message is to be put across to the audience in a hard-hitting series of sound-bites or vignettes which have no correlation or through-line other than that of the message. The show knows that it is just that, a group of people standing in front of an audience and acting, and makes no apology for this. The actors are all dressed similarly in white mottoed T-shirts and all wear skirts regardless of gender.

[mottos included 'Camp Not Gay', 'Strong And Stable'. 'Britain Can Do Better' 'Northern Powerhouse' and '#slut']

The show uses the premise of Emmeline Pankhurst and The Suffragette movement as their starting point, but brings her exploits into a 21st century context. Using gender-blind casting and live original music by a trio from the Contact Young Company playing drums, cello and guitar [The Powerful Women] it felt a lot more like a cross between a lecture and a pop concert than a piece of theatre.

To be honest I do not like theatre which tells the audience exactly how they should feel and emote; but prefer theatre to germinate a seed of an idea inside me which I can take away and think more about it and develop my own thoughts on what I witnessed. This play was of former and threw feminism and equality at us from all angles sans-cesse.  I can certainly understand their wanting to do this, and can applaud them for their efforts, but for me at least, the 'theatre' part of the production was a little flat and unimaginative, and I left the auditorium feeling that what I had just witnessed was a very impassioned and loud plea for change and acceptance, but that they were using the wrong medium and to the wrong audience to try and get their massage across.

There was some interesting factual and historical information imparted about influential people from the Suffragette movement and also some lovely showreel footage of a Victorian lady holding forth in an improvised street meeting; but these real historical events were underplayed and underdeveloped in favour of the more modern shouty style of performance.

There are two things which I shall give a special mention to however; whether true or not, #slut's solo speech was superbly delivered and pushed all the right buttons, and the final song 'My Mother Said' was excellent.

She Bangs The Drums is a feminist show about feminism and as laudable as that may be, it came across not as a powerful voice that needs to be heard, but more of a riotous menace which demands to be heard; but certainly it was performed with passion and sincerity from the teenagers and young adults who make up Contact Young Company.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall             

on - 8/3/18

Don Giovanni - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

credit Bill Cooper

Opera North delivered the iconic classic Don Giovanni at the Lowry Theatre, directed by Alessandro Talevi he puts his own interpretation on the opera; making it modern, exciting and overall magnificent.

The classic story tells the tale of Don Giovanni (William Dazeley) a Philanderer and sexual predator proudly proclaiming that he unashamedly ravishes and deceives women of all shapes and sizes, classes and age for his own pleasure, whilst his faithful and loyal servant Leporello (John Savournin) watches out for him, tallying the ever increasing numbers of his conquests in Giovanni’s ‘black book’. 

In the opening scene we see Don Giovanni trying to seduce Donna Anna (Jennifer Davis). Her father (James Platt), the Commendatore overhears some commotion and believing his daughter to be in distress challenges Giovanni but in the scuffle Giovanni kills him. Anna flees but returns with her fiancé Don Ottavio (Nicholas Watts) and on discovering her father’s death she makes him swear to seek revenge on the perpetrator.

Whilst time travelling throughout the centuries we see Don Giovanni as a magician and hypnotist who entices and enchants females until he meets one Donna Elvira (Elizabeth Atherton) a women who he has abandoned and deceived in the past. Elvira pursues him in a quest to right his wrong and to ensure no other female suffers her fate. Elvira, Ottavio and Anna meet through time travel and become a determined trio to carry out their revenge on Don Giovanni.

In the end Giovanni meets his demise after inviting a statue of the Commendators to dinner which he accepts and Elvira makes a final attempt to win her love back. The Commendator gives an ultimatum to repent or suffer the flames of Hell; he resists and is dragged to Hell for all eternity.

Opera North is notorious for its high quality productions and Don Giovanni certainly lived up to all expectations and more with their overall delivery of this delightful interpretation. It isn’t often that set and costume design upstage the actors and actresses, but in this production it personally did for me. This is because of what I can only describe as a mesmerising versatile moveable set design that was stimulating, captivating and extremely creative which flowed seamlessly from scene to scene adding to the quality of this visual delight - enormous credit goes to Madeleine Boyd for the design. Also for her costumes which were colourful, dazzling and sometimes dark in a magical sort of way; as we saw Victorian dressed ladies and gents, Teddy Boy outfits, masquerade ball gowns even modern garments of the 21st Century.

With the use of surtitles on screens either side of the stage allowing the audience to understand the vocal dialogue throughout enhanced the experience of this opera.

The orchestra of Opera North conducted by Christoph Altstaedt played beautifully in its grandeur throughout the evening providing the powerful music of Mozart. The quality of the soprano and tenor vocals was hypnotic with their pitch perfect voices they captured the attention and mesmerized the audience throughout the evening.

Overall this performance was traditional with a modern touch and with a storyline of deceit and darkness the use of puppetry added a healthy balance of humour in to Talevi’s delivery of Don Giovanni.

Reviewer - Katie Leicester
on - 7/3/18

The Little Matchgirl And Other Happier Tales - Buxton Opera House.

I went along to Buxton Opera House with an open mind, expecting to see a fairly entertaining children's show and can only say it just shows sometimes how wrong you be; The Little Match Girl, written by Joel Horwood and adapted with Emma Rice from the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, is a pure delight, encompassing action theatre, folk music, comedy, pathos, dance and a lot more. Yes, children will enjoy this spectacular journey through the stories of Hans Christian Andersen but this is unquestionably a show for adults, in which Dickensian settings and costumes blend with bang up-to-date satire and folk music from the 16th and 17th centuries is interspersed with easy-listening songs from the 60’s and 70’s.

The Little Match Girl maintains a fast pace from start to finish, and with a cast of ten performers, including actor/musicians, the feel is of a big show with impressive backdrops and an excellent assortment of props and effects. The only thing which perhaps did not quite work was the use of some scaffolding, which seemed to jar with the otherwise consistent 19th century look of both costumes and sets. This is a small gripe though because the two levels were used to good effect and there was so much else on stage to catch the eye.

It is worth noting that Andersen met Charles Dickens because as this show ably demonstrates, his stories are not so much fairytales but touch on social unfairness and injustices of the time. It could be said that Hans Christian Andersen was trying to bring over many of the same messages as Dickens using a different genre.

The Little Match Girl is in some ways presented as 'Olde Tyme' like a Music Hall experience, with asides to the audience and topical comments whilst remaining rooted in the Victorian time of Andersen. Stand out performances included Niall Ashdown, excellent as Old Shuteye, (effectively the compere but with a memorable turn as the Emporer), and Katy Owen who showed remarkable versatility as various Andersen characters, some of which were very funny. Guy Hughes and Karl Queensborough also put in some great turns, notably as two signing beetles. There really was a magical little world created on stage and the animation of the puppet by Edie Edmundsun was remarkable; somehow you could not help really caring about what your head kept you telling was just a marionette.

The musicans deserve special mention because they provided so much more than mere accompaniment to a varied selection of songs. Several of the moods created were simply exquisite with others giving pure energy and a showcase of styles was amply demonstrated including jazz, folk, ragtime and a few acoustic re-workings of both pop and poular music. The core band of a double-bass and two guitar-cum-banjo-and-madelin players moved round the stage from scene to scene, forming an integral part of the theatrical experience, sometimes joined by cast members on the violin and even the slide-whistle. The Little Match Girl under the musical direction of Jon Gingell was a very enjoyable musical experience.

The Little Match Girl is a must see. The very strong, skilled & talented cast take you on a journey that touches every part of your heart.The set, lighting & sound are perfection and the direction second to none. The merging of puppetry, music, talented actors & musicians was a joy to watch and hear. In a world of reworked Musicals, take this opportunity to see something original & refreshingly heartfelt. The ending is something to behold.

The Little Match Girl is on at Buxton Opera House until Saturday 10th March as part of a national tour.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 7/3/18

The First Men In The Moon - International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

H.G. Wells classified his best-known works, not as science fiction, but as ‘scientific romances’. As well as being adventure stories, they are novels of ideas - how humanity might respond to an alien invasion, what being able to travel through time might actually do to a person and, most pertinently, the impact that scientific discovery can have on mankind. It’s this latter theme that occupies his 1901 novel The First Men In The Moon, here adapted for the stage by Brian M. Clarke for the Manchester Indie Film Makers Group.

 

Miss Bedford (an interesting sex change from the novel) is a down-on-her-luck entrepreneur who has just embarked upon a second career as a playwright, when a chance meeting with the eccentric inventor Mr. Cavor leads to a fork in the road for both of them. Cavor has created a material with gravity-defying properties which he intends to use to travel to the moon; but Bedford sees in the fabulous discovery a perfect opportunity to restore his fortune. Going into business to ‘colonise’ the moon, they discover an inhabited world of intelligent telepathic beings (the Selenites) but only one of them returns to tell the tale…..

 

This is an ambitious undertaking for a small space and it mostly works. Augmenting the live action with filmed inserts (an introduction placing Wells in context, followed by interludes in which the journey to the moon is depicted, though confusingly with different actors playing Bedford and Cavor to the ones on stage) does justice to the more fantastical parts of the story without making excessive demands on the audience’s imagination. The two protagonists are splendidly played by Kate Byron and Adam Burton, the one all clear-eyed concentration and resourcefulness, the other a familiar type of distracted genius that skilfully sidesteps caricature.

 

 

The story is helped along by a pair of competing narrators, rousingly played by Ella Burton and Christopher Burton, who interrupt and disparage each other and engage in some mild banter with the audience. This aspect of the production sometimes felt forced and didn’t really enhance a narrative line that was already admirably clear. What would have benefited from clarity was the rendition of Wells’ own somewhat elliptical ending, which got fudged in an attempt to create a tie-in with War Of The Worlds.

 

All in all, though, this was a considerable achievement for a small company with excellent use made of resources: the film inserts by Michael J. Thompson and the animation by Nigel Anderson are marvellously atmospheric and work well to create the moon’s ambience in combination with a well-chosen soundtrack (mostly, Debussy’s Fetes). Although the mottled lighting was mostly appropriate, at times it didn’t make it easy to read the performers’ expressions. Ennersol D’Gani’s direction is well-paced and the production does justice to its source material as well as using the intimate confines of the Anthony Burgess International Foundation to good effect.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 6/3/18

Cats - The Evans Theatre, Leisure Centre, Wilmslow.

My love affair with this Musical started when I was just a teenager and saw the original Trevor Nunn show in the 1980s at The New London Theatre, which saw the Musical go on to be the longest running Musical in theatre history and saw many of its cast catapulted to stardom. It was also a love affair for me in another way too, as my then girlfriend was in the cast; but that's another story altogether!

Since then though, the Musical has undergone several revisions as Lloyd-Webber seems incapable of not altering or tampering with not just this but his other hit scores too, and so certain songs or sequences just simply don't feel right for me any more.

This evening was also the first time that I have seen the Musical performed by an amateur youth group, and although there have been other youth groups producing this Musical nearer to my home in the past, I wanted to make sure that my first impression of the amateur youth version of this show was a good one, and so when I heard that TEMPO were performing it, I made the journey to watch them  I had previously seen their Starlight Express two years ago, and was verily impressed by what I saw. This group is a powerhouse of talent.

TEMPO Youth Group perform annually at the Evans Theatre inside Wilmslow Leisure Centre, and the group ranges in age from 11 - 18. Their decision to do Cats was a brave one, since it is probably one of the hardest shows for anyone to produce or perform. Unlike Starlight, which requires the cast to be inanimate objects, this show needs all the cast to be something with which we are all very familiar, cats. And although they are hugely personified, they still need to be feline in their movements and thoughts. Moreover, there is little storyline / plot to this Musical, and so the essence of the story needs to be told through other mediums; namely song and dance.

The singing in this evening's production was wonderful. Chorally stunning and the soloists excellently chosen, but I did feel that dance-wise the show was quite weak. I once heard this show described as 'through-sung ballet', a rather apt phrase, and since this show is a dance-heavy one, I did feel a little let down sadly by the choreography. Perhaps the size of stage and stage configuration was a little inhibitive for anything more adventurous, but I am sure the youths themselves could have coped with something a tad more challenging.

Jacob Beresford portrayed the role of Munkostrap with assuredness, and brought about a side of this cat's character I had hitherto not seen before, and so a huge bravo to him (and perhaps the director, Val Watkinson too!). Besides Munkostrap, there is also a trio of female cats who don't get to sing and dance as their own characters either, and yet these four roles are integral and principal to the show. The felines in question are Jellyorum (Mia Connor), Demeter (Caitlin Medcalf), and Bombalurina (Saffron Milner). These three were superb throughout and Medcalf's and Milner's act two .MacCavity song was an absolute joy.

Adam Lambe proved his worth with his role as The Rum Tum Tugger. Playing his character as a rather camp Elvis was actually hilarious and worked really well; whilst Grace Goddard's vocal prowess blew us all away with Grizabella's rendition of 'Memory'.

I enjoyed the very precisely articulated vocals of Sam Jones' Skimbleshanks, and the heightened RP of Tommy Seymour's Bustopher Jones. And a special mention must go to the two youngest principal characters who delighted us with their renditions of Mungojerry and Runpleteazer, Ethan Hadfield and the acrobatic Poppy Preston.

The show was not without first night hitches and the LX and SFX was definitely having a bad day; but that notwithstanding, TEMPO have proved for me once again that their talent, commitment, enthusiasm, resolve and everything else in between are undoubtedly highly praiseworthy and my rather long journey there and back this evening, most definitely worthwhile.    

A massive congratulations to all the cast (sorry I couldn't possibly credit you all!), and I look forward to your production next year whatever that may be!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 6/3/18

Madama Butterfly - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Madama Butterfly - Opera North

Salford's Lowry Theatre hosted Puccini’s Madama Butterfly  performed by the amazing Opera North who have never been shy of delivering their own interpretations of iconic and traditional pieces of opera such as this, so I was intrigued to see how they would portray this masterpiece.

Directed by Tim Albery, not only was it raw and gritty but it was fresh and very much a triumph, making the production so much more 21st century by being brutally more realistic, stripped back from the usual flowery portrayal to a hard hitting realistic delivery of heartbreak, exploitation and shattered dreams.

The story is of a naïve Geisha girl who relinquishes her religion, family and ancestry for an egocentric and predatory Lieutenant Pinkerton (Merunas Vitulskis) of the United States Navy who takes out a 999 year lease on a house in the hills above Nagasaki. Madama Butterfly (Anne Sophie Duprels) aged 15 years old was picked from a billboard of brides for sale from Goro (Joseph Shovelton) the Marriage-Broker. Fantastic display of what the reality was - a wealthy lieutenant who, cold and calculatingly chose the most innocent girl for his own gains and pleasure whilst in Nagasaki with no intention of marrying her as a real wife but more of a hired wife on a monthly renewal basis. 

The set deserves great credit to Hildegard Bechtler as it was the simplest of sets but the most modern and effective, the stripped back staging from previous Madama Butterfly productions gave a poignancy and baroness not seen before in comparison to the usual ornate sets.

The eagerness to deflower his new child bride and cement their transient disposable marriage was almost unbearable to watch as it made the whole experience more current, and exposed this older man wanting to pleasure himself with an innocent child bought from a poverty stricken country where families sold their girls to many men for finances. Exploitation on every level and everyone around this child all looking for their own gains at her ultimate cost, and as she was enveloped in love, refused to believe the elders that this would all end in her abandonment.

We all know he will never return once he has past his time with a makeshift wife and returns to his beloved country, but the house of paper and concertina doors remained a shrine and testimony to her American love; traditional dress was abandoned by Madama Butterfly for that of an American housewife waiting to dote on her husband when he returns from overseas.  Her unconditional love and devotion of her maid sees Madama Butterfly standing defiant, noble and fast certain her beloved lieutenant would return.

The final insult for this now mother and wife is that she is completely disposable and is left with fate in her own hands; whether to live without honour or to die with honour which was the only option, and she is left crumpled after death with her body lying discarded and abandoned as the wealthy perpetrator walks off with her child and his new American bride.

An amazing production, and now I will never be able to see the 'flowery' portrayal the same ever again. With fantastic costumes designed by Ana Jebens and of course the fantastically talented orchestra of Opera North that is famous for enhancing every production. I must also mention the chorus of Opera North who are equally reputable for their exquisite talent and faultless delivery of the whole experience that are Opera North.

A 'must see' as this was raw and gritty and held me captivated throughout the whole evening. Well done to all involved.

Reviewer - Katie Leicester
on - 6/3/18

Where's My Igloo Gone? - The Edge Arts Centre, Chorlton, Manchester.

credit Pamela Raith Photography

Since the 'Beast From The East' has stopped blasting us with snow and today we have seen a little sunshine and the ice starting to thaw, it couldn't have been better timing to see a play with such a title as 'Where's My Igloo Gone?', and although the temperatures were responsible for the disappearing igloo, The Bone Ensemble's reasoning for the rise in temperature was a global and ecological one.

The play, as the title suggests, is set in an unspecified arctic land where they speak a foreign language; and indeed, the play used the invented language of 'iglooish' to communicate their story. The Bone Ensemble produce work primarily for children whose first language is not English, [ESL], and so today's play saw the two actresses using only a few words of their made-up language, repeating them endlessly and using sign-language and body language to fill-in the gaps in our understanding, much in the same way as we would learn a foreign language, our comprehension increased with repeating and using.  I can now say 'I am' 'You are' ' one, two three' and 'thanks' in Iglooish!

However, today's play was not about language learning but about trying to teach their target audience, infant and primary school children, about the dangers of global warming and how mankind is responsible for the rise in greenhouse gases. A very tall order to be honest, especially when talking in gibberish! In this regard, the company failed, losing the audience's interest and the children were visibly fidgeting and disinterested from that point onwards which was a real shame since, prior to that, the children were quiet and attentive and we were following a rather nice story about a young girl in a country which has experiences and a lifestyle so very different from our own. I think the subject matter, no matter how it was handled, was just beyond the youngsters' understanding and experience.

On entering the theatre, nothing more than an empty upstairs room in a converted church building, the majority of the audience including all the children were invited to sit on cushions inside the set... a large white circle - an igloo - and once there they became a part of the action and story as the company skilfully and easily involved them in their story. The set was lovely, and worked beautifully, and the two performers used the space well.

It was a very gentle story, of a girl and her mother living in an igloo which suddenly starts to melt. The girl is sent off to find help, and along the way comes into contact with various arctic animals, including a fantastic representation of a walrus, and other humans until she finds the local MP who demands that the oil drilling is stopped in order to restore the natural order and temperature.

With the aid of several instruments and some singing, the two performers were engaging, despite the lack of humour in this hour-long show. And the completing of the larger material igloo at the end was a lovely idea, and really helped to involve the children whose minds had strayed.   

Jill Dowse and Sam Frankie Fox played Oolik and Oomam and ecology lesson notwithstanding, it was a delightful, if little long, presentation, well designed and sensibly directed, which certainly had the youngsters enthralled at the beginning but sadly failed to keep that interest throughout.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

on - 4/3/18

9 To 5 - The New Adelphi Theatre, Salford University

My first visit to this new theatre, built in a style reminiscent of The Globe only with more sight-line problems, inside the New Adelphi building in Salford University's Peel Park campus. Despite my not liking the theatre [why do modern theatres still continue to have acoustic and visibility issues?], I did like the show, and the energy and commitment that Almost Famous Theatre Company put into this toe-tapping feel-good Musical based on the original Dolly Parton film really paid off.

Although this Musical has proved quite popular with amateur societies for a couple of years now, I had always been wondering why; and tonight I found out. The themes of this show are extremely pertinent to our society today and with the media frenzy that has been started by sexual harassment in the workplace, equal rights and equal pay, as well as executives embezzling company funds, this show felt a lot more contemporary than it actually is.

In the Musical, it is a trio of female employees of the firm Consolidated, fed up with being treated like second-raters, having to listen to male chauvinism on a daily basis and put up with a CEO of the company who, by his own admission, is a lying, cheating, sexist, hypocritical, egotistical bigot; decide to be the worms who turn and not only succeed in turning the company's profits around overnight and improving conditions in the workplace, but also condemn the boss to a fate worse than death in his new role in the company's office in Bolivia! It is a feminist's watch-cry of a Musical, and is a perfect choice for any society to produce in our present unsettled and unequal climate.

The film of course starred Dolly Parton in the role of Doralee; and for any actress taking this role thereafter is therefore going to have a struggle to compete with Ms. Parton's 'assets' or at least not be afraid of 'standing out in front'! In this production, this was very much played down and Libby Goodman very sensibly portrayed the character quite differently, finding a very different nuance to the usually brash and dumb portrayal I have seen before. Hayley Graham played Violet, the secretary hoping to be a manager, only to have her application rejected because of her gender, and Graham's very human and empathetic portrayal pulled our heart strings, whilst the newbie employee who finds her inner strength and inner woman, realising that all she wants is 'a life without Dick' (sic) Judy Bernly was Rachel Balkwill.

Keenan Groom found a lot of comedy in his cartoon villain-esque portrayal of CEO Franklin Hart, and what he didn't have in singing voice, he made up for in sheer power and delightful malevolence.  

A very large cast of smaller roles and chorus added greatly to this excellent parody of 70s company work ethic, whilst the minimal set and props, and great costumes (with some very quick costume changes) completed the picture.

The acting was generally of a very high standard, and although this musical calls for caricature far more than deep multi-dimensional characters, the principals found some lovely layers of characterisation and made them much more real and believable for this. The choreography by Nessa Skeggs and Sebastian Singh was not particularly adventurous but what was presented was good and within the cast's capability.

Directed by Jessica McAdam and Sebastian Singh, the show found humour and was kept on a very up-beat level throughout, even in the more reflective and quieter moments, and utilised the cast to their best. Musically, the band sounded great under the direction of Barrie-Jon Knight.

However, the show was not without it's flaws, and for me the biggest problem I found this evening was the microphones. In general the band was too loud above the singing, and the mics had not been put to the same levels meaning some cast appeared to talk a lot louder than others. And, why was there a technician lying on the floor under the bed at the end of act one?!!

All in all though, Almost Famous can proudly state that their show was a resounding success, and a very enjoyable evening was had by all.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 3/3/18

21 Minutes - The King's Arms, Salford.

If you were brave enough to have ventured out into the snow this evening, you would have heard the news stations all over the world broadcasting the information that in just 21 minutes the world will end. This apocalyptic declaration though affected people in different ways; from not believing it all and thinking it a practical joke, to going a little 'crazy' and trying to blame this on an alternative deity that clearly doesn't exist in any case.

Maverick Charles's production is mostly comedy and tongue-in-cheek, but there are certainly some darker and more thought-provoking elements in there too.

We are presented with a series of 5 cleverly interconnecting 21 minute long plays [they are timed to the second with an LED clock display at the side of the stage and indeed do finish exactly on the 21 minute knuckle] which although can be performed as stand-alone pieces, all only really make sense when the fifth and final play is performed and completes the jigsaw.

The staging for these plays, the main theatre at The King's Arms was a good choice of venue, and the 60-seater theatre was full this evening. A plain black space with no scenery and a suggestion only of props was absolutely sufficient for the setting of time and place in each play, and the voice-overs connecting each play as the stage was changed each time a nice idea. The two entrances though at either side of the stage were not wide enough.

The plays themselves, all written by Hugo Lewkowicz and directed by Jack Dalziel gave us a rather satirical and sideways look on our understanding of extra-terrestrials, religion and our own identity, but also told a very silly story of some overlord style organisation in charge of the whole universe deciding to annihilate earth, and the 'alien' responsible for this was a certain Mr. Autumn. Each of the five plays ended in the same way, a freeze frame and white-out, and using this idea for even the final play I thought was excellent, since it posed the question, 'did the world really end?' there was no bang or finality to it and kept us all guessing a little. This, however was utterly ruined when filmed immediately after this before the curtain call was a cast list entitled, 'In Memoriam'.

My personal feeling about the event taken as a whole was that it was too long and too drawn-out. It didn't help at all that the show was about half an hour late starting with no apology or explanation. This was very bad form. However, what I think would have worked much better would be to do some rather judicious editing in certain plays, especially the Murder Mystery one, the weakest of all five,[although the audience interactions at the beginning here were lovely] and perform them all back-to-back without interval, perhaps as a single play in five scenes. This would make the evening, shorter, snappier, and more powerful. Having the interval - and 30 minutes was certainly too long - weakens the narrative and performance. Our interest was waning by this point.

The company utilised a large cast of 20 performers to play 22 characters, and so of course it would be impossible to credit all. In general the standard of performance was very good and the plays enjoyable, with some lovely little caricatures appearing. However, a special mention should go to Joe Wood as the rather charismatic charlatan, Dr. Jake Winter; Hugo Lewkowicz as the smooth talking unflustered homosexual alien Mr. Autumn, and Ellie Steward-Dodd's over-acting and hyperventilating insincerity as the TV News personality Francine Quick.

Verdict: a lovely idea which was very enjoyable but still needs a little work to perfect.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

on - 27/2/18

 

 

 

A Fight At The Opera - Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall @ Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

Manchester University Music Society (or MUMS if you prefer), presented, for one night only, two operas of war and conflict.  Viewed from both perspectives as the oppressors and the oppressed, those responsible for the war and those whose innocence and / or naivety become the real victims of such conflicts.

The first half of this evening's concert was given over to a completely unique concept. Taking a short opera called 'Not On The List' by former university alumnus James Keirle, they augmented this by utilising well-known opera arias and choruses both before and after with their own lyrics in order to bring about an original and interesting conceptual work which starts by soldiers finding joy in fighting and then going off to war and the parting with their loved ones. For this, Monteverdi and Mozart, whilst the metamorphosis into the characters necessary for 'Not On The List', a plaintive and evocative Humming Chorus by Puccini.

Keirle's mini-opera is in four short scenes, and tells the story of refugees from a war-ravaged country travelling to an already crowded refugee camp and being met by a rather officious and jobsworth guard. We learn about a mother who is searching for her son, and we see a journalist, weary of photographing such images so dispassionately and wants to try and be of some help. But this mini-opera seems to offer no help nor conclusion as the end is a mirror image of the beginning and the refugees all lie down, exhausted of trying and running.

The whole piece is brought to a conclusion by utilising Britten's Agnus Dei from his War Requiem; which, although did bring the whole concept to a formal and sobering finale, it did seem somehow that they were using a spade to pick a bluebell.

This presentation was performed with the absolute minimum of props, and the costuming was modern and para-military. I liked the idea of this being a workshopped presentation rather than a full-blown production. It had a certain intimacy and complicity that certainly La Traviata at The Opera House doesn't have! I didn't like the plastic tubes for swords and a blue water pistol for a gun though. That was a step too far for me.

The singing was of a high quality throughout and the soloists changed seamlessly from Baroque to Classical to ultra modern without so much as a blink of an eye.  The three protagonists in the main event of act one, Not On The List were Sarah Young, Dominic Skingle and Molly Toolan-Kerr, all proving their worth as opera performers, proving that their acting skills equalled their singing ability and their performances pulled at our heart strings.

After the interval, and it was time for something completely different.  A transformation of an English Baroque opera into a St. Trinian's style modern love story between two teenagers from a girls' school and a local boys' school.

The opera in question is Henry Purcell's Dido And Aeneas, which was given its first performance in 1689; and I doubt very much if Purcell were able to come back from the dead and witness this performance of it, if he would even have recognised it. However, I do not say that in a derogatory sense. Normally I am a traditionalist and, especially with Shakespeare, absolutely hate it when directors think they know better than the writer and try to force the script into a time and place which really it really does not befit. This, on the other hand, was inspired.  One really could relate to this idea so much easier, especially since those performing this opera were not long since out of high school themselves. It created a certain amount of leeway for more humour and bringing the subject matter 'down to earth' meant that it became much more engaging and acceptable to more.

This inspired move was the choice of director Madeleine Brooks, and as we watched the childish love affair develop between Dido and Aeneas, we also laughed heartily at yet another inspired casting choice; and one which was a wonderful 'hat nod' to the original headmistress in drag, Alistair Sim in the original St. Trinians films; Zahid Siddiqui as the head sorceress.

Of course this is opera, and so it all ends badly with death and suicide; but it was actually excellently presented, and considering I am not really an opera fan, and especially not of the early opera period, then I found this a highly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation.

The use of OHP to try and show the scene on the back wall though sadly didn't work. The lights were too bright for us to distinguish with any clarity what the images were depicting.

Zoe Jackson's melodious and powerful voice sang Dido with passion, whilst Hugh Beckwith put his sonorous tenor voice through its paces with ease.  Other roles were taken by Helena Stanway, Freya Parry, Lucy Scott, Christine Bell, Charlie Perry and Zahid Siddiqui, with a small but excellent chorus. The sounds they created were beautiful and the singing and acting some of the best I have seen from MUMS in a long while. They truly deserved their extended applause.

Two young dancers were also used to good effect in this opera. Julia Macwinski and Hri Aoki both from The Northern Ballet School, whilst Robin Wallington played harpsichord and conducted the string sextet.

Both pieces tonight showed originality, flair, creativity, and a whole load of talent. I was verily impressed and enjoyed the evening greatly.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24/2/18

  

Borderland - The John Thaw Studio Theatre @ The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

Borderland

.To mark LGBT History Month, Borderland, first seen last year when it toured northern venues, including the Oldham Coliseum Theatre, was given a special one off performance at the Martin Harris Centre this evening.

A story of race, religion and sexuality the play is set in the aftermath of the 2001 Oldham race riots. At the heart of the play is a charming and tender love story that develops between two school girls; one a white, hard as nails, kick-ass amateur boxer and the other a shy and naive, devout, Disney-loving Muslim. 

Loner Kayla comes to Aminah’s aid when she is picked on by school bullies. The play begins with them sitting tentatively next to each other in a detention that they have earned for being involved in the earlier altercation. What follows is an absorbing and compelling sixty minutes, writer James Harker tells a deeply moving coming of age story which is breathtakingly beautiful in its depiction of first love. Kayla, desperate to live up to her dead father’s ambition for her to become a boxer trains in a gym owned by her racist uncle, Terry. When her feelings for Aminah begin to develop into a deep rooted love and longing she begins to lose focus and questions Terry’s firmly held and steadfast racism. Enthralled by her new friend, Aminah slowly overcomes her shyness and finds herself attracted to both Kayla and the danger she represents.

Borderland, is an outstanding piece of writing, it is difficult to find any fault with its structure, character development and handling of important themes. It is simply one of those plays that grabs you from the start and releases you gently from its firm grip at the end. The quality of the acting is some of the best I have seen on the Manchester Fringe for a very long time. Chloe McLaughlin as Kayla and Lucky Sanghera as Aminah are perfectly matched as the two 'star-cross'd' lovers. For such young actors their intense, subtle and detailed performances are hugely impressive and they are a genuine delight to watch. Their Pocahontas style romance is doomed when they are discovered by Terry, (the ever excellent, Rob Ward), leading Aminah to declare in frustration, “You can’t cross lines and expect everything to be OK.” This perfectly captures the essence of what the play is about. Although on the surface it is a teasing love story, I suspect Harker is asking in the face of current extremism whether society is any better now than it was when the Oldham riots took place. I would like to think now that as adults Aminah and Kayla would be happy within themselves and in each other’s company but the lines between race and religion, especially in a town like Oldham one supposes have not significantly changed in the intervening years. 

Public Burning Theatre the producer of Borderland, run by Harker and Director, Danielle McIIven is a Company to definitely look out for in the future. Having missed Borderland first time round I was delighted to be able to catch up with it on this occasion. It is a great play and one that deserves to be seen again as in examining attitudes from the past it clearly has a lot to say about the present.

Reviewer - Richard Hall

on - 23/2/18

West Side Story - RNCM, Manchester.

Presented by the RNCM Young Company, a youth group of talented 13 - 18 year olds who have the opportunity of working with industry professionals; this is their tenth production and perhaps most ambitious one to date.

 West Side Story is perhaps one of Musical Theatre's most iconic and durable shows. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins it is perhaps easy to see why. But it is not just the heavyweights behind this show which make it so durable and popular It tells a story of youth, love, passion, hate, mistrust and distrust, covering a theme of racism which sadly still resonates within modern society; and carries a strong message and powerful warning.

 In this particular production RNCM's Young Company shone. Their energy, commitment, dedication, belief and indeed undoubted talent made this show a sure fire hit. This large company [49 members to be precise] were faultless in their acting, singing and dancing; their skills and their obvious enthusiasm for this show shining through. Chris McGuigan's plaintive Tony balanced well against Lucy Elson's more naive and impetuous Maria.  Just as Laurence Guntert's Riff was the perfect anathema for Gabriel Brown's hot-headed Bernado. Natasha Hoeberigs brought out her motherly side with Maria, and their duet, A Boy Like That / I Have A Love was one of the more sobering and beautiful moments in the show. I also enjoyed her duet with Emily McAvoy's Consuela as they sparred with each other over which was better, Manhattan or Puerto Rico.

 Musically, the show was superb. Utilising the full sized orchestra, the RNCM's own Musical Theatre Ensemble under the direction of Gregory Batsleer they were in fine form and sounded wonderful. The choreography, by Ewan Jones, was flash, creative, balletic and although I felt it didn't really work in some places, the cast were superb and created the fight sequences, dance sequences and everything in between with aplomb.

 I also liked the idea of utilising adults to play the three roles of police and drug store owner, Doc. It made the warring youths' impetuosity all the more real and 'frightening', and Doc's (Toby Hadoke) weary and 'seen-it-all-before' attitude had great empathy.

 Unfortunately however, it seemed, at least for me, that some of those in charge of such a powerhouse of talent and creativity didn't really live up to the challenge. Directed by James Bonas, the show had some rather odd choices which didn't quite ring true. There were moments of pure genius and moments which simply took my breath away; but there were also moments which jarred and I found myself questioning what my response to this should be. (especially the Gee Officer Krupke number. Undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser, and excellently performed, but the idea that this was a cabaret piece took away the underlying cynicism and menace; and moreover, Krupke did not have any mannerisms which one could have mimicked in the first place. It was Schrank, in this production, who was more easily copied and made fun of.) This, combined with a deliberately non-naturalistic minimalist set (Tom Paris) which showed neither time nor place and looked more like something out of science fiction than 1950s New York; costumes which were far more reminiscent of the Vietnam war than anything else with dog-tags, white t-shirts and army pants. [a rather military feel ran through a lot of this show - even in the choreography] Most of the cast wore the same or variations on a theme, and all in the same dull grey too and so it became very difficult to distinguish Jet from Shark. The only difference being a red hand print somewhere on their clothing. Add to this some weird lighting choices, and the decision to put the band at the back of the stage and visible at all times - even in the blackouts, and my enjoyment of this show was marred. I found myself unable to emote and be involved in the way I should have been doing because I was simply not believing the time or the place. 

 It is therefore huge testament to the perspicacity and determination to succeed from this talented cast that they were able to impress and delight so much despite all the obstacles laid before them.

 Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

on - 22.2.18

The Newspaper Boy - 53Two, Manchester.

The Newspaper Boy is a semi-autobiographical play from writer Chris Hoyle, drawing upon his experiences as a teenage actor in the early 1990s. In those days, Hoyle was appearing in Coronation Street as Mark Redman, the illegitimate son of factory owner Mike Baldwin but in 1993 he soon found himself on the front of the national newspapers for reasons other than his acting – he’d been cautioned by police for cannabis possession and was only 13 years old! By the following year, his character was written out of the show. Drawing upon his experiences, Hoyle wrote The Newspaper Boy which was first presented in 2009. Now, it’s been revived as part of Manchester Contact Theatre's 'Queer Contact Festival'.

 

The show was delayed by nearly 30 minutes due to a technical fault with the lights. Chris Hoyle kindly offered refunds to audience members but the fault did not seem to affect the production once the show got going. The set was impressive with a living room, two bedrooms and an area near the backstage which acted as a nightclub toilet in Act 1 and then a make-up and dressing room in Act 2. The use of the song “Age of Consent” by the Manchester band New Order at the beginning and end of the play helped to foreground the deep Manchester connection running through the play and foreshadowed the issues which the play would focus on, particularly in its second half.

 

The Newspaper Boy is, at its heart, a coming of age comedy drama set in the early 1990s: a time of analogue TV where the antenna had to be precisely adjusted, Poll Tax riots, and a drugged-up club scene. Throughout the play during scene transitions, TV adverts from the early 1990s are played to remind the audience of the play’s setting and tap into a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era.

 

Act One of the play introduces the main cast members and establishes that teenager Christian (Daniel Maley) has recently begun acting as a newspaper boy on the soap opera ‘Manford Walk’. Single mother Sharon (Samantha Siddall) is full of pride, as is the family’s matriarch Jean (Karen Henthorn). The early scenes are very comedic, with Henthorn shining as the brassy no-nonsense Jean (who got all the best lines). Henthorn’s delivery of a line as simple as “Didsbury? Niiice!” was played with comic poise. Hollie-Jay Bowes also stood out in the first half as Christian’s co-star Mandy and brought a real Northern swagger to her role as the hard-partying teenage actress. Sam Retford made a big impact too with his portrayal of Max, the older foster brother of Mandy. He shone in the scenes towards the end of Act One where Christian comes out as gay to him and admits that he is attracted to Max. Retford subtly portrayed the conflict Max was feeling internally, wanting to return the affection to Christian but concerned of the impact his relationship could have on the two of them. Eve Steele also impressed in her dual role as Dawn, the professional producer of ‘Mancroft Walk’, and the astonishing contrast with her brief, but memorable, turn as drug dealer Dee.

 

While Act One was full of laughs, these were scaled down for Act Two as the more serious themes of the play came to the fore. It was here that Siddall could truly dig deep into her role as Christian’s mother and display rage and sadness as she came to terms with her son’s relationship with Max and the fallout of the revelation. While Maley’s initial performance as Christian at the beginning of the play came a tad close to ‘stereotypical teenager’, he more than made up for that minor shortcoming with his sterling work in Act Two. His frustration at being unable to openly love Max was keenly felt.

 

Praise should also be given to the Ensemble Team of players who popped up in minor roles and assisted with scene changes in character: their best moment was with the scene change from Christian’s home to the outside of the Flesh nightclub on Canal Street which was swift and enabled the ensemble to show off their 90’s dance skills! 

 

To nit-pick, the show felt a little overlong and could benefit from some editing. An initial scandal involving drugs, while true to Hoyle’s real-life experience, perhaps dented the impact of the play’s other scandal: Christian, at 15, being in a relationship with 21-year-old Max at a time when the age of consent was 21 years old for homosexual men. There were also a couple of times when actors were blocked by other actors but other than that the direction was superb. These are minor quibbles, however. The Newspaper Boy is a warm, nostalgic, and thoroughly enjoyable play. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden

on - 19/2/18

Gymfusion 2018: Time - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Launched in 2011, British Gymnastics' Gymfusion is a national festival and celebration of performance gymnastics which encompasses, embraces and encourages the sport art form from all sectors of the community with their spectacular showcase events in leading theatres up and down the UK. Their ethos is 'gymnastics for all' and gives their participants the opportunity to display their skills as a team in a fun, friendly and non-competitive environment.

 

This year at Salford's Lowry Theatre, there were two full length shows with gymnastic teams coming from mostly the local area but some as far away as the Scottish borders or Birmingham, and both shows showcased 12 different groups. I was there to witness the second of these shows, and there was a friendly and excited atmosphere both from the performers and the audience (made up of mostly family and friends).

 

The shows are quite long, due to the fact that not only do they have 12 separate 6 - 10 minute sequences to perform, but they also have two comperes who introduce the show and acts as they go along. If I remember correctly then these comperes were the same as last year; however last year we had a full colour glossy programme with their names and biographies inside, and this year we were given an A5 leaflet with just the names of the 12 groups and nothing more. If anything is an indication of cutbacks in this current financial climate then that surely is. What was really great though was that these two comperes, although they were still somewhat pantomimic in their opening banter, and tried American style whooping with the audience, they kept their chatter much shorter than last year which worked much better.

 

I also wholeheartedly applaud the company's decision to allow the audience to photograph the presentations, encouraging them to tweet their photos to be displayed on a large screen at the back of the stage. In these days of stringent child protection laws and litigious do-gooders this makes for a welcome and refreshing change.

 

What didn't work at all well however was the decision to hand out football-style rattles to all the children in the audience. Bad move! I wanted to watch the displays on stage with their choice of music to accompany not the sound of many rattles being swung all around me.

However; all that being said, let's look at the actual teams. As I have already stated, I know nothing more about any of these teams other than their name and the title of the piece they presented, since that is all that was given to us on the 'programme'.  Listening to the comperes' introduction then I learned further that at least three of these teams are hoping to take their routines to Dornbirn, Austria. in 2019 for the 16th World Gymnaestrada.

 

As I come, not from a sporting background, but a theatre one, and a Musical theatre one at that, those routines this afternoon which displayed an element of theatricality were obviously more instantly enjoyable than those who simply displayed their gymnastic abilities in a more sport competition / formal way.

 

Most of the teams this afternoon saw some extremely young gymnasts, some barely out of nappies and obviously performing in front of an audience for the first time, and this was a sheer delight to see and indeed very laudable.

 

In the first half we saw the Red Shoes Junior Team's debut performance, and after only 8 lessons they went on stage and performed their carnival-based routine. We also saw Severn GTC perform 'Viva Las Vegas'; Bolton Arena Gymnastics Club perform 'Dance Of The Times'; Cader Idris Gymnastics Club's 'When I Grow Up', and Kingston Vale Seniors perform 'Contemporary'. But my favourite item in the first half was undoubtedly The Dynamite Sparklers with 'Moanna'.

 

The second half kicked off with a group of gymnasts whom I remember seeing last year too. They are all Down's Syndrome sufferers and of mixed ages and genders. They are the Spartac Display Team, and considering their obvious disabilities they do remarkably well with balances. lifts, tumbles, and keeping in time. Definitely something to applaud and encourage.

 

Blackburn And Darwen Acro Gymnastics Club came next with 'A Day In Time'; followed by Borders' Counties' School Of Gymnastics with 'Moving Through Time'; then Warrington Gymnastics Club with 'Dancing Through The Decades'. However, for my money the organisers had most definitely left the best until last. The last two items had easily the best choreography and the most professional disposition and attitudes to their performances, and both showed a great understanding of what makes 'theatre'. With some wonderful timing, great pictures, and incredible skill, the last two groups were head and shoulders above the rest in terms of theatricality and presentation. These were Leeds Gymnastics Club, dressed all in dark red velvet dresses performing 'Cosmic Love', and to finish the whole show with the gymnasts spelling LOVE with their bodies was The Wire Gymnastics Club with their take on the magic toyshop, 'Awaken The Magic'. Stunning!

 

But of course it is not about being the best in this instance, but about the taking part and the camaraderie and fellowship of joining together in celebration of these children and young adults' chosen discipline and to be giving them the opportunity to show their skills to a wider audience. In this regard, Gymfusion is both unique and undeniably worthwhile and long may it continue; inspiring and encouraging the next generation of athlete!

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 18/2/18

Finding Alice - Oldham Coliseum

It was my first visit to the small 50-seater studio space at the back of the Oldham Coliseum, the area originally used as the rehearsal space. A rather claustrophobic space which gives directors something of a headache if they are to bring a performance there.

 

This is because the stage and audience do not align and so centre stage is a long way from the auditorium's central aisle. Because the raking of the seats is very shallow and a large part of the stage is off to the audience's right, it is essential that a director makes sure that whatever happens in the play is not causing sight-line and visual problems. And when it is a touring production, this can be a bit of a nightmare.

 

My biggest problem therefore with Finding Alice was that, seated as I was on the back row there were huge chunks of the play which were invisible to me. It was like listening to a radio drama in many places.

 

And thereby lies my second problem with the play. Audibility. This is something I mention very often these days, when performers fail to be able to project their voices to the back of small auditoriums, I feel somehow cheated. I can only assume these actors / actresses are more familiar with film and TV work than they are with theatre, but still, there should be no excuse for not being able to project a stage whisper across 6 rows of seats. To make myself clear, then only one of this evening's four characters was guilty of this, but it does rather dampen the whole experience.

 

However, let's take a look at what this new piece of writing, and Manchester ADP's first full length production had to offer.

 

It tells the true story of how the Germans, during the first world war, imprisoned and tortured women in a Belgium prison, in order to try and find the head of an underground resistance and spy network known as 'The Alice Network' after the leader of this group, Alice Dubois. I had never heard of such a network or of Alice Dubois before, and so learning something new about WW1 is always a surprise.

 "I don't want to be remembered as a failure."
"I don't think we'll be remembered as anything."

And so the stage is set, with mood lighting, classical music playing and a minimalistic set cleverly designed to be adapted for every scene. First we meet Camille (Nuala Maguire), a long-term inmate and much prized by her interrogating officer, Himmel, (a rather shouty James Oates) as he thinks she knows more than she is telling. She is feisty, arrogant, and knows how to look after herself. We are then introduced to her cell-mate, the more naive and scared 15 year old Ida (excellently measured by Chloe Proctor), whose sister is also imprisoned but in another cell and we never meet her. And finally the cell becomes a little overcrowded with the arrival of a new capture; the well-spoken upper-class Audrey (Diana Atkins); educated in England and a very high ranking member of the Alice Network.

 

As the play progresses we learn more about these three women and how they try to stay alive or indeed wheedle their way to freedom. Ida's moment with Himmel as she offers him her body was heartbreakingly real.  

 

The play ran for just a little over 90 minutes, which I feel would have been better to have played through without interval, however they chose to break the action with an interval which somehow lost something in my opinion.

 

I was also a little confused too by the denouement. Ida had gone off to see Himmel, leaving the other two alone, and we suddenly out of nowhere, see them kiss and tenderly caress and get into bed together. Not only did this feel completely contrived with absolutely no hint or suggestion of any attraction prior to this, but it is also the first decade of the 20th century, which would make such advances a lot more complicated and difficult. This made the play's end rather odd, and although the song was a nice touch to pull at our heart strings, it still seemed somehow forced.

It is an interesting play and the fact that it is true makes it even more so; and I also can understand in today's climate why a play about three strong women, directed by a woman (Charlie Mortimer) and written by a woman (Emma Hinds) would be a canny move. It certainly has potential, but does however, need a little more work before it becomes the hit I think ADP were hoping for.

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 15/2/18

The Toyboy Diaries - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

Hope Mill Theatre's successful and incredible partnership with Aria Entertainment has seen them go from strength to strength as they produce and deliver high quality Musicals of West End quality in the humble but beautiful and versatile theatre that is Hope Mill in the Ancoats district of Manchester.

 

Not content with reviving lesser performed classic Musicals, or producing UK and European premieres, but they now have a World premiere to their credit too!

 

The Toyboy Diaries is a new British musical written by Andy Collier and Simon Warne based on a best-selling and semi-autobiographical book by Wendy Salisbury. If you were to combine the Bridget Jones films with every film High Grant has ever starred in, (with perhaps a dash of Adrian Mole),  then you will get a flavour for the style and approach to this evening's offering.

 

It tells the story of Lily, a middle-aged lady with a penchant for younger men, and her sexual antics and appetite, watched over by her best friend and neighbour Penny. It's got humour, bonhomie, and lots of sometimes unnecessarily gratuitous sex and sexual references, but what it fails to have is a plot. The musical runs for 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval) but the whole is extremely samey and predictable. The entire plot concerns Lily's dalliances with her toy-boys (of which there are many) but doesn't develop or dig deep. It's a highly superficial and flippant piece of entertainment which, unless you happen to wallow in derivative menopausal ennui is highly unlikely to engage.

 

That being said however, the performances by the 5 strong cast were exemplary and without such talent the musical would have failed. To play the 40-something-going-into-fifty-something upper-middle class London divorcee was Johanna Murdock, and a better protagonist simply could not have been found. She totally embodied this role, and carried the show effortlessly. Her neighbour and confidante Penny was the strong and enjoyable Nicola Blackman.

 

The rest of the cast - just three young men - played all of Lily's toy-boys as well as other cameo roles as the script required, and therefore showed their versatility at comedy accents and caricatures. Matt Beveridge, Sharif Afifi and Alistair Higgins the deserve much of the credit for keeping the narrative moving and managing to sing act and dance their way through characters multifarious. The only problem I had with this was that despite Higgins' obvious talent, he did look extremely young and I did not believe him capable of having been divorced and been a policeman for 15 years; and further his caricature of Philandering Phil in the first act was, in our current climate of sexual harassment cases, perhaps a little too near the knuckle.

 

This is a standard book musical [in other words, there is quite a lot of dialogue and the songs, in general, don't advance the narrative in the way that a through-sung opera style musical does] This means also that there was ample opportunity for some judicious cutting, which was desperately needed. As for the music itself, then this too was a little mixed; sometimes sounding like a 'homage' to Sondheim, sometimes like Sesame Street, and with a 60s swing band thrown in for good measure.

 

The set was not optimal either for this production. As I mentioned earlier, Hope Mill is a hugely versatile space and the stage configuration and positioning changes every time I visit. However, this evening we were presented with a very long and narrow stage which had sight-line issues and wasn't particularly practical. I also didn't like the fact that we could see through the wall between the door and the black exit curtain, and so could see the cast coming and going behind. It was a nice idea, designed by Jason Denvir, but just didn't quite work as well as perhaps it could have done.

 

The lighting design, by Ben M Rogers was good and worked well, except that for some reason this evening we were having some technical problems, although hopefully those will now have been rectified for future shows.

 

Just reading back through what I have so far written, and it does seem quite negative, perhaps unjustifiably so; but remember I am a middle-aged single male and so not necessarily the show's target audience. The performances from the five cast in this Chamber Musical are all excellent and the chemistry between them wonderful. The appeal of this musical is perhaps its simplicity and honesty; one really can imagine a scenario such as this taking place with a bored suburban housewife acting out her fantasies maybe.  The Musical will certain appeal to a certain demographic but don't bring along the children, there really should be an adults only warning for this show.

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 24/1/18