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Christa Norton
(13 Reviews)

Opera North - Così fan tutte

Opera North's Cosi Fan Tutte - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 21st March 2024


The joy in watching an opera by Mozart is that there is so much more to it than just the opera itself. Which is saying something given that each and every one of them is an extraordinary work of art. But I love the ‘behind the scenes’ stories which, for me, add an extra richness, and that create a sense of connection to this brilliant man. Take the Marriage of Figaro for example – the story is fairly traditional fare until you put it into the context of the revolution that was brewing in neighbouring France at the time of its composition. Indeed, Mozart’s choosing of this libretto was met with a certain amount of scandal. Or how about The Abduction of Seraglio, renowned as being one of the first operas in the German language, marks a distinct movement away from the dominance of Italian opera. Amusingly, this is opera in which Joseph II, having heard its premier – told Mozart that there were “too many notes”.

So what to learn from Cosi Fan Tutte? The story is a comedy yet it nevertheless betrays what I find a common theme in Mozart’s operas – a deep cynicism about love. Or at least the longevity of love. Cosi Fan Tutte translates roughly as ‘So do they all’, meaning that no woman will remain faithful given the opportunity to stray. It begins with the cynical and scheming Don Alfonso teasing his two young, idealistic and hopelessly in love friends, Ferrando and Gugliemo. In seeking to disillusion them, things take a more serious turn, and he bets them that both their fiancées – sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella - will not stay faithful if tempted. The challenge is accepted.

A ruse is decided on - Ferrando and Gugliemo pretend to be ‘called to war’, only to return in disguise as handsome strangers, on a mission to seduce the other’s fiancée. The sisters initially reject the strangers, but with the help of Despina, the sisters’ wily maid, Don Alfonso conjures increasing pranks and tomfoolery in an attempt to break the lovers apart. So who will win the wager?

There is certainly a lot of joy to be had in watching this vibrant and funny production from Opera North. The atmosphere at last night’s performance was relaxed, with an audience ready and willing to laugh, to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. The production is sung in English, but there are also screens with the libretto to either side of the stage, meaning everyone can easily follow what is happening on stage.

Alexandra Lowe
(Peter Grimes, The Marriage of Figaro) is stunning as the naïve yet almost steadfast Fiordiligi. Her voice is rich yet retains a lightness ideal for Mozart’s score. I particularly enjoyed her duets with Heather Lowe’s (Dido and Aeneas, The Barber of Seville) coquettish Dorabella at the opening of Act 1 – their voices complement each other beautifully. Both singers perfectly capture the sense of the immature, overly dramatic sisters who are too caught up in their perceived emotional narratives to understand how they truly feel – their heartbroken histrionics in the first act received many laughs from the audience!

Henry Neill
(Peter Grimes, Don Giovanni) and Anthony Gregory (The Barber of Seville, Messiah) as Gugliemo and Ferrando respectively, are equally well-matched as the sisters’ hapless lovers and would be suitors in disguise. Their first disguised attempt to woo the sisters by showing off the fine quality of their moustaches is hilarious, and yet at the same time they bring a certain endearing earnestness to their roles, so that I can’t quite see them as villains despite their careless behaviour.

The definite villain was Quirijn de Lang’s (The Magic Flute, St John’s Passion) Don Alfonso and goodness, does he take on the role with relish, cajoling and manipulating everyone else on the stage.  He even occasionally gives direction to the orchestra, for example giving them permission to start at the very beginning; this is a clever piece of direction that truly positions him as puppet master of the whole affair. Yet I was interested to see that de Lang also brings a sense of bitterness to the role, adding some depth and context to what is otherwise a superficially cruel and obnoxious character.

This puppet master concept is also reflected through the innovative set design. The opera opens with the stage dominated by a huge camera lens, and, as the wager gets underway, the audience is invited to look through this lens into the sisters’ house, which is all black inside, much like the inside of an old-fashioned camera. For me this concept works well; the production overall is set in Mozart’s time and the rest of the set and costumes reflect this period: the camera (invented nearly 30 years after Mozart’s death) creates the sense that we are watching a story, a film, something that is make-believe. For me the only challenge is that, with so much black, the set does then lack a certain vibrancy of colour, especially as the costumes are also - for the most part - in muted colours.

Perhaps my favourite performance of the evening came from Gillene Butterfield (The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Magic Flute, The Merry Widow) in her role as a gloriously feisty Despina. I really enjoyed the worldly sassiness she brings to the role, a stark contrast to the two wide eyed sisters who often reminded me of trapped birds flapping in a cage. Butterfield’s performance as the doctor wielding magnets against arsenic poisoning is inspired, and I loved the way that she interplayed with the orchestra, using the score almost as a sound effect rather than an accompaniment.

Indeed, the Opera North orchestra demand special mention, perfectly achieving the lightness and frivolity of the music and matching the beautiful timbre of the singers’ voices. The score demands that musicians and singers interweave the melody between them, which requires real musical sensitivity and intuition, not to mention precision and control on the part of the conductor Clemens Schuldt. This is achieved time and time again, providing a wonderful sense of fluidity in the music as a whole. The woodwind and brass in particular deliver that sense of vivacity, creating a range of soundscapes to that help capture the different emotions on stage.

I have been to many Opera North productions over the years, all of which have been exceptional, but I must admit I couldn’t quite let myself get lost in the absurdity and farce of the story. Even in a comedic setting, the continued pursuit of two women who have quite clearly said “No” left me with just that slightly uncomfortable feeling that I couldn’t shake, in spite of some genuinely laugh out loud moments.

But that said, the story has never been the strong point of this opera: it is Mozart’s stunning score, its rich harmonies and soaring melodies that the audience come for.  This production of Cosi Fan Tutte offers a fabulous evening’s entertainment and I highly recommend it.



Watch our video "In Conversation with Alexandra Lowe" discussing the show.

Pretty Woman The Musical

Pretty Woman The Musical - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 27th February 2024


Controversial opinion, but I don’t think Pretty Woman is a fairytale. I know, it has so many of the hallmarks: the handsome prince; a ghastly lawyer - sorry, villain; and of course a strong minded heroine at the centre. I’ve read more than one article that refers to Pretty Woman as the epitome of the modern fairytale. But this is a massive disservice to the character of Vivian who, for me, has much more in common with a ballsy Moll Flanders than she does with the likes of Snow White or Cinderella. Indeed, as Vivian herself says, ‘Who would want to be Cinderella anyway?’.

For this reason I have always been a huge fan of the film. Julia Roberts’ uncompromising Vivian, who knows and owns her own mind regardless of her job, was always a wonderful breath of fresh air and for me, the film remains relevant even 30 odd years later.

Yet there must have been huge temptation for Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance to take this path when adapting this iconic film into a musical - the formula lends itself so easily to a fairytale, especially those soul stirring ballads and uplifting set pieces. 

So I must admit I had mixed feelings as I arrived to see the opening night of this production of Pretty Woman The Musical.  I needn’t have worried. This is a rip roaring production that is steeped in the 80s, dripping with glitz and glamour, and delivered with panache by its exceptionally talented cast.

Pretty Woman The Musical faithfully follows the story of the original film. Our heroine, Vivian Ward, is a prostitute working on Sunset Boulevard whose chance encounter with billionaire Edward Lewis changes both their lives. Whilst principally a love story about two people from different backgrounds who find their way to each other, the tale doesn’t shy away from more difficult topics, including misogyny, financial influence, class, and the destructive power of greed.

I absolutely loved Paige Fenlon’s (The Scouse Dick Wittington, Oklahoma, Zorro) performance of Vivian. I can only imagine the trepidation in trying to step into the shoes – or indeed the knee high boots – of Julia Roberts. Yet Fenlon’s Vivian is utterly charming. She easily moves between sweet and flirty, between vulnerable and determined; she is incredibly easy to watch and has a megawatt smile that means you cannot help liking her. And all that before she sings – what an incredible voice! Her performance of ‘I Can’t Go Back’ in the second half was immense, filling the theatre with notes held much longer than the cheering audience thought possible.

The chemistry between her and co star Ben Darcy (Aladdin, Mamma Mia, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is wonderful. Darcy’s Edward is perhaps not quite the corporate shark of the film, his character journey from nasty to nice a little less drastic, but it is still interesting to watch the change in his personality unfold. The musical gives him a number of ballads which make it clear that – unlike the film – he begins to fall for Vivian almost as soon as he has met her, which perhaps on reflection undermines the ending a little, but I was enjoying his performance too much to really notice. Darcy’s voice is another powerhouse, a silky and seductive voice that suited the character brilliantly.

Natalie Paris
(Six The Musical, Les Miserables, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) plays Kit de Luca, Vivian’s rock chick friend and fellow prostitute. Paris delivers a phenomenal performance, unapologetically bold and brash, decked out in a leather jacket and with possibly a whole can of hairspray in her hair as she belts out 80s-inspired rock anthems such as ‘Never Give Up on a Dream’.

If the audience were having fun, that is nothing compared to the fun that Ore Oduba (Strictly Come Dancing, Noughts + Crosses, Hardball, BBC Radio 2) was having on stage. Playing a number of roles, including but not limited to Happy Man and Mr Thompson, Oduba repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to bring the audience in on jokes as he sings and dances his way through routine after routine. Every part of his performance was joyous, but my favourite moment has to be ‘On a Night Like Tonight’ where he gives a dance lesson to Vivian – with the aide of Giulio the Bellboy, played by Noah Harrison (42nd Street, Grease).

And this, for me, was the stand out performance of the night. Harrison’s performance had me in tears of laughter practically every time he was on stage. From his awkward yet increasingly flamboyant tango with Oduba to his pas de deux with a mop, his physical comedy is simply brilliant.

For me, much of the success of this production is that a huge amount of thought and consideration has gone into the creation of Pretty Woman The Musical. As a musical, we were always going to be safe in the hands of Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, but the songs are genuinely epic numbers that stand up in their own right. Adams leverages a variety of genres from the 80s - from big rock anthems to pop numbers to rap – to help create a sense of nostalgia that underpins the entire production, and I found myself hearing echoes of everyone from Bon Jovi to Bonnie Tyler – and of course Adams himself.  The live band - conducted by Griff Johnson – definitely helped give the sense of a live concert.

In another example, I thought it was incredibly effective to incorporate a live performance of excepts from La Traviata for the opera scene. Trained singers Lila Falce-Bass (professional debut) and Josh Damer-Jennings (The Addams Family, Mary Poppins) perform La Traviata’s Violetta and Alfredo respectively and the scene is used to echo the way Edward and Vivian are falling in love; hearing the operatic arias sung live really added to the emotion of this scene.

The 80s theme carries on throughout all other aspects of the production. The catwalk set during the ‘Rodeo Drive’ number referenced the very best of 80s couture and styles, with the chorus donning everything from the most enormous of shoulder pads to of course the obligatory pink hotpants. Make up is dripping with blue and pink pastels, and I can only imagine the amount of hairspray being used for each show. Even props were well considered, with Edward using the most enormous brick of a mobile phone.

Pretty Woman The Musical does deal with some difficult topics and – like the film - does include some moments of mild sexual content, meaning I wouldn’t recommend this production for children or younger teens, but otherwise this is a must-see for fans of the film, fans of the 80s or indeed anyone who wants to watch a fabulous production full of great music and great performances.



Madagascar - The Musical

Madasgascar The Musical - Opera House, Manchester - Thursday 8th February 2024


The opportunity to see Madagascar The Musical filled me with what can best be described as a mixture of professional curiosity and childish glee. I’ll start with the latter. For me, Madagascar is that one animated film that I can watch again and again and which will always make me laugh. As a teenager, I remember watching as my niece and nephews would run around the house singing ‘Move it’. It’s even come into my professional life - “Smile and wave” being my comment of choice when all else fails. So seeing it on stage – with all the intimacy that a theatrical production can bring – felt really exciting.

And I wasn’t alone in having high expectations. Despite last night’s snow and the bitter wind, the auditorium was packed with an audience of all ages and the atmosphere was buzzing. I saw more than one grinning child sporting a lion’s ears and a tail.

But I was also really interested in how the production would take shape: would it be a straightforward stage version of the film, or would the production bring something new and different?  I personally think it is really challenging to take a well-known film and put it on stage, and when the film is as iconic as Madagascar, it feels like a risk. Yet there are some brilliant examples out there of stage productions that have managed to equal if not supersede the source material. So how would Madagascar The Musical fare?

Madagascar The Musical certainly follows the storyline faithfully, telling the tale of Marty, a zebra in New York Zoo who longs to experience life in the wild, and of his three best friends Alex the lion, Gloria the hippo and Melman the giraffe, who are much more comfortable with city life and the luxuries of being looked after. A series of farcical events leads to them being stranded on the island of Madagascar, with no humans to care for them, and an increasingly hungry Alex beginning to explore what unprocessed steak might taste like – much to Marty’s dismay.

There are some truly excellent aspects of this production, but first and foremost is the cast. There are so many talented and thoroughly enjoyable performances happening that sometimes it is hard to know who or what to watch.

The overall company is relatively small, meaning that the central quartet of cast members are on stage for almost all of the production, which must be incredibly intensive. Yet the energy of their performances never wanes.  Francisco Gomes (Sweet Charity, Sweeney Todd) as Marty, dominates the first half as the zebra with a midlife crisis. Unlike the film – which I always felt was more about Alex – this production gives more emphasis to Marty’s character and Gomes manages to alternate easily between wistful and wisecracking. He forms a great on stage partnership with Joseph Hewlett’s (Glory Ride, Cinderella) Alex, and their easy banter forms a strong foundation for the show.

Jarneia Richard-Noel (Six, Hairspray) is wonderful as the sassy Gloria; this was probably my favourite performance of the evening, her voice is just incredible and I would love to see her in another more meaty role – definitely on my list as one to watch. Her flirtation with Melman, played with a truly determined pessimism and excellent comic timing by Joshua Oakes-Rogers (The Dead Room, Little Crackers), is sweet and funny, and the two of them together keep the audience laughing. Oakes-Rogers has the added challenge of performing with a puppet’s head, and he does this seamlessly.

If the central cast have the challenge of stage time, the supporting cast (Laura Marie Benson (Jane McDonald and Friends, Strictly Come Dancing), Ella Howlett (Snow White, A Million), Brogan McFarlane (Brit Awards, Sleeping Beauty), Connor Keetley (Peter Pan, The SpongeBob Musical), James Hilton-Foster (Sweeney Todd, Chorus Line), Gabriel Hinchcliffe (Aladdin, Be More Chill), and Aidan Harkins (Raging Queens, The Pirate Queen)) have an even greater task: playing the plethora of supporting roles, many of which are as iconic, if not more so, than the main characters. In fact they cover 15 speaking roles between them as well as providing a chorus line. Furthermore, many of these characters are performed through puppetry, adding another layer of complexity to the performance. From the psychotic penguins and their SAS training to the Kung Fu granny who beats up Alex (“Bad Kitty”) to the aristocratic monkeys who may or may not fling poo, the supporting cast delivers them all brilliantly, with the aid of some very cleverly designed puppets.

But of course, first amongst these has to be the supremely deluded King Julien, played to perfection by Karim Zeroual (CBBC, Strictly Come Dancing finalist). Of all the characters from the film, King Julien has to be the most adored, the most anticipated. And of everyone on stage, for me it is Zeroual who is having the most fun. Totally unfazed by stepping to the shoes of Sacha Baron Cohen, or by a costume that keeps him on his knees throughout some fairly complicated dance routines, Zeroual absolutely nails the performance, singing and dancing and delivering his lines with real glee.

The staging was inventive, using shipping crates to create a central frame behind which different backdrops are then used. I particularly liked the New York silhouette, and the use of lighting against a plain backdrop in the second half to create a wonderful ‘dawn in paradise’ moment.

If I were to have one disappointment, it would be that the music is prerecorded, and blasted out of speakers at the side of the auditorium. There are some fairly good reasons for this – particularly in terms of being able to recreate the iconic Born Free soundtrack at the beginning of the show. But I really believe that a live band allows more spontaneity in a performance, gives the performers a little more freedom to flex their creativity. I did certainly feel every now and again, even if only fleetingly, that this was a missed opportunity to differentiate the production from the film.

The songs themselves were fun and catchy in the moment, although I think perhaps it lacked a really memorable original showstopper. That said, King Julien’s ‘Move it’ at the beginning of the second half was what the audience wanted and were there to see, and it was a fabulous romp that had the audience clapping and cheering along.

Madagascar The Musical is a fantastic family show and – with an early start of 7pm and a relatively short running time – I would absolutely recommend it as a perfect introduction to musical theatre for younger children, especially under 10s. We were seated next to two families, both with younger children, and they sat their mesmerised throughout. But that said, whilst it is missing some of the adult humour in of the animated film, I defy any grown not to get swept up in what is a fun and fabulous evening for all the family.


Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly - Opera House, Manchester - Friday 12th January 2024

I love happy endings. Nothing pleases me more watching a production than everything working out in the end. All’s well that ends well. In fact I actively shy away from self indulgent tear jerkers and – when I am watching a tragedy - spend much of my time frustrated and even irritated by whichever fate, or circumstance, or character flaw is being explored. 


Yet there are some stories that, for me, can transcend this. Sometimes it is the story itself, others it is the way in which it is told. With opera in particular, I find that the translation of emotion into song somehow makes it feel more honest, more genuine, less selfish.


I have never seen a live production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly before, but as a child of the nineties, I grew up with the songs of Miss Saigon, which is based on Madama Butterfly, and which I absolutely adore. So I was incredibly excited to finally see the source material on stage at The Opera House.


This production is the third in a series of powerhouse operas presented by Ellen Kent, this evening’s performance preceded by productions of Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen. I remain slightly in awe of the ambition in presenting these productions on consecutive nights, especially given Ellen Kent’s reputation for creating a sense of the spectacular. The scale of each opera is huge, grandiose even, and whilst there is some similarity thematically, from a production perspective, there is little overlap.


Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904 – a contemporary setting for Puccini’s audience. It tells the story of Cio-Cio San (her name taken from the Japanese for Butterfly), who falls in love and marries the dashing America officer Pinkerton. The opera opens with their wedding, and whilst it is apparent that Butterfly is truly in love, it is also clear that Pinkerton sees their relationship as somewhat more transactional – especially given her history as a geisha. During the course of their wedding, however, this changes and Pinkerton finds himself more intrigued by and attracted to her – especially when she is shunned by her family. By the end of the first act, they are lovers – leading to tragic consequences.


This production from director Ellen Kent takes a very traditional approach to the opera and – as promised - creates a sense of the spectacular from its opening moments. The curtains rises to a stunning stage, which immediately captures the attention of the audience. Flowers are adorned everywhere bringing a glorious range of colour to the set – an abundance of cherry blossom particularly helps to create the Japanese picture. The water garden even has a functioning fountain to add the sound of running water to the soundscape. At the centre is a traditional Japanese house where paper sliding doors are used to brilliant effect to create silhouettes during the more intimate and emotive parts of the opera.


The brilliance and colour of the staging is carried through to the costume design, with the Chorus dressed in beautiful Japanese kimonos used to bring more vibrancy to the stage. This has the added advantage of allowing Butterfly to stand out in pure white. As an added piece of stagecraft, the Chorus all hold fans which are in constant use, flitting about much like the wings of butterflies, creating a powerful visual effect.


In this production, Butterfly is performed by soprano Elena Dee (Aida, Tosca). She has a wonderful voice, with a sweetness of tone that matches Puccini’s rich score. Her performance of the renowned Un Bel di Vedremo (One fine day we’ll see) is beautiful and received spontaneous applause from the very appreciative audience. Dee has some fun with the role too, especially when she is teasing and ultimately dismissing Prince Yamadori in the second act. For me, the libretto demands this coquettishness – there is a lot of opportunity for humour and banter particularly in the first act. I would definitely have loved to have seen more sassiness from Dee throughout her performance.


Opposite Dee, Pinkerton was performed by Giorgio Meladze (Turandot, Aida).  His has a sonorous tenor voice that is very easy to listen to, and which blended well with Dee’s soprano during their duets. I would have liked to have seen more swagger in his performance – he seemed more careless than heartless and I didn’t quite believe him capable of the callous arrogance at the heart of his character.


Other strong performances include Iurie Gisca (Marriage of Figaro, La Boheme) as Sharpless. His voice is a sumptuous and velvety baritone, and he succeeds in raising concerns over Pinkerton’s behaviour – and the damage to Butterfly - without seeming judgemental or officious.


I also really enjoyed Natalia Matveeva (Carmen, Madama Butterfly) in her performance as Suzuki. The gentle care she has for Butterfly was at times very touching, and their duet ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’ (also known as The Flower Duet) was deeply moving.


The Orchestra of the Ukranian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko provides solid support for the singers on stage, with the players clearly enjoying the rich Romantic harmonies and playful counterpoint in Puccini’s challenging score. Vasylenko ensures the orchestra provide a clear sense of momentum and movement throughout whilst still creating space for the singers’ creative interpretation, especially within the main arias. There are many solos from principals in both woodwind and strings, and I would particularly call out the principal cellist, whose solo in the last act was rich, and mellow, and wonderfully mournful. It would have been great to hear more of the delicate interplay between the orchestra and soloists as I felt sometimes this got a little lost.


The production was incredibly well received by the audience, who cheered Butterfly and booed Pinkerton as they took their bows, and indeed many gave the performers a well earned standing ovation. It’s certainly a good choice for anyone keen to expand their opera experience – especially teenagers or young adults given the production isn’t particularly explicit.


A final note: more poignancy was created at the end of our production when, having finished their bows, the performers hoisted a Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian National Anthem. It served as a stark reminder to all the audience that there are many people today in the real world suffering real tragedies.

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - Thursday 7th December 2023


It is years since I first watched David Lean’s iconic film of Brief Encounter, yet there are some moments that remain absolutely seared into my memory, that echo in my mind when I am watching a film, or reading a book. The moment that plays in my head most frequently happens at the very end of the film, when Trevor Howard gently squeezes Celia Johnson’s shoulder. It marks their last physical contact, and turns every unfulfilled desire into a touch that is both electric and bland. For me, it is an anticlimax that just bursts with heartbreak and regret and longing.

However, whilst the film is adored, the original screenplay of Noel Coward (based on his original one act play ‘Still Life’) is not so widely acclaimed, and does differ – in some places significantly - from the film script.

This production of Brief Encounter, directed by Sarah Frankcom (Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire), former Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange, and adapted for stage by Emma Rice (The Red Shoes, Wise Children), is neither the film script nor the original play but finds a happy medium between the two.

For me, the attraction of this particular storyline is that it is so deliciously every day. It doesn’t need the backdrop of war and violence, or illness, or disaster as its catalyst. These are not extraordinary people trying to find happiness in desperate circumstances. If anything, these are simply two people who are bored and – to take the word from The Great Gatsby - careless. I should probably point out now that part of the reason why I love the film so much is that I fundamentally dislike the two main characters and at no point do I root for their relationship. I take it much more as a cautionary tale, and I do wonder whether Coward wrote it as such.

Brief Encounter
focuses on Laura Jesson, a typical middle class, suburban housewife who is not so much trapped rather than existing in a dull marriage. One afternoon, she chances to meet Alec Harvey, a GP who comes to her aid in helping her remove some grit from her eye. He too is married, with children. A second chance encounter follows, then a third and before long what has started as a gentle friendship – and a respite from the boredom – has inevitably taken on a more impulsive nature, as both characters become equally conscious of their growing attraction.


Neither Coward nor Rice spend long entangling the audience in a ‘will they/won’t they’ – it is apparent from the outset the direction that this story is taking. What is interesting is the ‘how they/when they’ – that is how Alec and Laura allow their attraction to grow, how they feed it, and how outside influences – especially societal expectations – escalate and ultimately shape the decisions they make about their relationship.

So does this stage adaptation still pack that same emotional punch?

In short, yes. This is an absolutely superb production that brims over with the talent of its cast, creatives and production team. And where I had expected an evening of melodrama, instead we were presented with live jazz, phenomenal singing and some brilliant comic acting intertwined through a more empathetic approach to the story.

I have to begin with the music, because I think this is where the real success of this production lies.  In a stroke of genius, it includes eleven of Coward’s songs, allowing characters to explore their emotions without needing heavy or fraught dialogue. It doesn’t quite become a musical, indeed some of the songs barely get to the chorus, but for me it creates an unexpected sense of joy and fun that the audience really embraced.


That said, whilst musical numbers don’t dominate, music itself is ever-present in this production. A vivacious, ballsy live band (Alice Phelps, Jenny Walinetski and Sam Quinn), directed from the piano by Matthew Malone (The Book Thief, A Christmas Carol), provide not just a soundtrack to the play but musical moments and sound effects that help punctuate everything that is happening on stage. In fact there was very little time when there wasn’t some sort of harmony – all the more impressive as (so far as I could see) Malone was playing entirely without sheet music.


This musical texture gave context in an otherwise very sparse staging, which comprised of little other than some tables and chairs and the café counter, all underneath an iconic station clock. In my opinion, there isn’t much more needed, and this approach gives the actors the space to really work the 360 stage and ensure no part of the audience misses out. One effect I will call out though is the way the entire stage – and all the audience seating – shakes to simulate a train going past. It is a simple piece of stage craft but again, very well thought through and effective.


This musical texture is also helped by the incredible quality of the singing. Every member of the cast is brilliant but Christina Modestou (Strictly Come Dancing, Love Actually), as Myrtle, is my stand out performance of the evening. Her gentle romance with the honest and affectionate Albert (Richard Glaves – (Holby City, Atonement)) makes for a stark comparison with the main leads. Modestou has wonderful comic timing throughout in a performance that reminded me at times both of Victoria Wood and Nora Batty, but her performance of ‘No Good at Love’ is just so powerful, I could have happily listened to her sing all night.

Ida Regan
(The Secret Life of Ophelia, Doctors) does however come a very close second. Her mousey and timid portrayal of the slightly downtrodden Beryl is again brilliantly comically observed, but is made all the more hilarious by her moment in the spotlight when she belts out a highly sultry and seductive ‘Mad About the Boy’. She has a deep, throaty voice that is perfect for jazz and her performance is both sexy and funny in equal turns.


Hannah Azuonye (MacBeth, Hanna) and Baker Mukasa (Peter Pan, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) as the leads Laura and Alec both gave considered performances, definitely making me rethink my perception of their characters. Mukasa’s Alec, whilst self declared as middle aged, is boyish, energetic and spontaneous. His passion for his work and innocent pleading of ‘not quite yet’ at their parting, is charming.  

Azuonye by comparison presents Laura as a woman quite unused to the emotions she is experiencing, and totally unable to manage or cope with them: in fact she is slowly losing herself to them. This is shown best in a fabulous dance sequence in the second act which brings together Ballroom, Tango and Jive, and which ends with Laura dancing not with Alec, but on her own.

Both these performances bring depth to the characters and whilst I don’t think I will ever be able to like these careless people, in this production at least, I could feel some sense of pity for the misery and pain which they cause themselves.


Georgia Frost (Brassic, Eastenders) is utterly charming as Stanley, the boy about whom Beryl is mad. Frost has the challenge of being the first cast member to burst into song, which can always be a bit jarring especially where there hasn’t been a full jazz hands opening number, but she does it so naturally – and performs ‘Any Little Fish’ with such cheekiness and sauce, you can’t help going along with it.

This excellent cast is completed with Matthew Allen (Doctors, Napoleon), who like the rest of the supporting cast plays a number of roles, but really comes into his own with a fantastic saxophone solo, demonstrating again the versatility of this excellent cast.

I genuinely think it is a rare thing to find a production of such consistent calibre – the audience were definitely appreciative, with a large amount of cheering and clapping throughout the show! There are simply too many moments that are touching, or funny, or well crafted to list in this review but this a production that absolutely deserves to be seen.


Watch our "In Conversation with HANNAH AZUONYE & BAKER MUKASA discussing Brief Encounter" video

All photos are credited to Johan Persson


BBC Philharmonic & Dame Sarah Connolly - Janacek and Tchaikovsky- Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - Saturday 30th September 2023


This concert marks the opening of the BBC Philharmonic’s 23/24 season at the Bridgewater Hall and their first with conductor John Storgards in position as Chief Conductor.  He clearly is looking to create an impact. There is so much to talk about in this programme that it is difficult to know where to begin:Janacek’s Sinfonietta with its strong military overtones and dedication to the free Czechoslovakian man, which has obvious resonance with the increasing destabilisation we see today in Eastern Europe; the growing recognition of Alma Mahler’s own brilliance as a composer and the implications for today’s female composers; or the masterpiece that is Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, ‘Pathetique’. Actually, what really piqued my interest was to hear how these very diverse pieces would sit together thematically, and to try to understand the journey on which John Storgards and the BBC Philharmonic wanted to take tonight’s audience.

The evening began ahead of the concert with a touching tribute to Clare “Clara” Dixon (1966 – 2023) who passed away earlier this year and who had played First Violin with the orchestra for over 30 years. A short programme which included Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and a fabulous arrangement by Julian Gregory of Aaron Copland’s Hoe-down was performed with passion and clear emotion and made for a touching start to the evening.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta is both bold and brassy – literally, as the orchestration has an extended brass section boasting 25 players. The piece was originally dedicated to the Czechoslovakian Army and, by Janacek’s own description is intended to depict "contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory”.

The BBC Philharmonic did not disappoint. The opening fanfare was simply awe-inspiring. The tempo was a little more deliberate than I have heard previously, but actually this gave space for the brass to play with a joyous lyricism that made the fanfare more akin to a peal of bells. The additional brass players were stood in the choir seats, above the orchestra, allowing their fanfare to cascade over the hall, making excellent use of the cavernous acoustics within the Bridgewater Hall.

The fanfare leads us into a suite of four movements, each one named after a different part of Janacek’s beloved Brno, as though he is taking us on a musical tour of the city.  Across each movement, the music moves quickly from scherzos which seem to depict the hustle and bustle of tiny streets to huge and expansive melodies that speak to greater landscapes. Storgards kept this performance lively throughout each movement with sharp pivots in pace, but the orchestra more than matched his ask, playing with crispness and clarity which meant the detail of Janacek’s meticulous score did not get lost.  This was a wonderful opening performance that really showcased this orchestra’s renowned richness of sound, and particularly the ability of the strings to create deep, lush tonal textures that the audience can get lost in, perfect for the Romantic era.

Alma Mahler’s 6 Songs, arranged by Colin and David Matthews and performed by the mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, built on this theme of rich and emotive tonality.

A prodigious musician and composer in her own right, Alma Mahler composed more than 50 songs during her life; this selection of 6 is taken from the 17 that are known to survive today. This perhaps explains why her work remains classed – as the programme says – as ‘less well trodden.’

It is difficult to gain a full sense of Alma Mahler’s artistic voice through just 6 short songs but this is a woman who lived an absolutely extraordinary life (including literally fleeing the Nazis by foot over the Pyrenees) and I find this sense of extraordinary reflected in her work. She is bold in her use of the chromatic, and I found a real sense of deliberate harmonic ambiguity in these songs. They are full of character – joy, menace, nostalgia – and this arrangement uses inventive orchestration to add a greater depth to the works. Dame Sarah Connolly, renowned for her championing and lifelong study of Gustav Mahler’s Leider, brought the full force of her sonorous voice to this performance, matching the richness of the music perfectly.

There were very occasional moments where the orchestration was a little heavy, and I found this affected the balance between voice and orchestra, but Connolly’s performance was mesmerising as she moved easily from playful to despairing to earnest, turning each song into its own small, perfect moment. 

The BBC Philharmonic is leading the way in raising the profile of female composers – indeed they have recently appointed Anna Clyne as their Composer in Association. I hope that other orchestras and artistic directors continue to platform female composers such as Alma Mahler – judging by the wonderful reception from this evening’s audience, there is real public interest and appetite to hear more from them.

The second half of the concert saw the BBC Philharmonic take on Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, ‘Pathetique’ I recently read this symphony described as “having a lot of baggage” – an accurate description if not quite the technical term.

Rumoured to have secret meanings, and premiered just 6 days before Tchaikovsky's untimely death, it is easy to get swept up in the possibilities of this swansong, with many renowned musicologists offering their own ideas on the programme for this piece. I must admit to finding this fascinating to a certain extent – understanding the context in which a composition was created often adds to my appreciation of a piece – but the Pathetique has no need of conspiracy theories to be a work of complex emotion and incredible musical innovation.

Together, Storgards and the BBC Philharmonic were in their element. The opening bars, with their slow, deep emergence of sound, were both enchanting and slightly sinister. It seemed as though the orchestra was hanging on to every note, reluctant to move onto the next until each note had been heard and acknowledged. Here, that quality of timbre so perfectly demonstrated by the BBC Philharmonic in the Janacek was given full reign, with the strings creating layer upon layer of texture over which the woodwind flew, with sprightly interplays of melody. Storgards really pushed the orchestra, keeping tempo changes sharp, creating glorious extremes of dynamic, even creating moments of pure silence throughout the work.

There are moments of relief from the emotion of this piece and I particularly welcomed the third movement with its wicked sense of mischievousness and musical jokes. However it was the last movement that really stood out, and made for a potent end to the concert. The last movement, traditionally a moment of triumph and optimism, here is a lament, a moment of intense and private emotional pain bared for the world to hear. The same sorrowful theme from the first movement returns, before the symphony slips slowly into silence.

The performance here managed to be both deeply emotional and restrained. There was a new tenderness to the music, and towards the end a gentleness that was missing before – a true sense of ‘Pathetique’. The effect on the audience was palpable: there was a stillness as the piece ended, and several seconds of pure silence before applause broke out and the spell was broken. A truly moving performance.

This concert was a bold opening statement for this 2023/2024 season. The upcoming programme includes Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss, with conductors the calibre of Mark Wigglesworth and Andrew Davies in the mix for the coming months. These are seminal works performed by exceptional musicians – an incredibly exciting programme that I can’t wait to hear.

This performance can be heard again as it is due to be broadcast by the BBC on 3rd October at 7.30pm as part of the Radion 3 in Concert series.



Photo credits: Chris Payne


Everybody's Talking About Jamie

Everybody's Talking About Jamie - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 12th September 2023


Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has to be one of the hottest tickets for the autumn. It starts its UK tour here in Salford after a phenomenally successful run on the West End and a hit film of the show courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Written by Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling) and Tom Macrae (Doctor Who, The Librarians), based on an idea by Jonathan Butterell (Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof), the production itself has won numerous awards – not least Best New Musical at the prestigious Whatsonstage Awards - and its uncompromising take on identity politics combined with a strong anti bullying message seems to become more prescient and relevant as every year passes. So I took my seat with very high hopes for the evening – and I was not disappointed!

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is the story of Jamie New, a 16 year old school boy who dreams of becoming a drag artist. He lives in a gloomy, soot-drenched Sheffield – always presented in black and white on the staging backdrop - and faces the barriers you might expect: the homophobic school bully, the world-weary teacher, the judgemental and largely absent father.

At this point it would be easy to make assumptions about this play: cliched, maybe a Billy Elliott but with drag rather than ballet. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The story never feels contrived; possibly this is because it is based on the real life account of Jamie Campbell, which gives the production a definite emotional grounding, but I think it’s more that the characters themselves aren’t caricatures, they are carefully considered and authentic. This is particularly important given some of the themes tackled by the show: homophobia, bullying, the nature of identity, and the relationship between parent and child. There are moments when this show packs a really powerful emotional punch. But it is also full of joy: the music is upbeat and vibrant, the costumes are glitzy, the script is sharp and full of wit, and the cast deliver it with a sense of glee, and none more so than Ivano Turco (Cinderella, Camelot in Concert), as the titular Jamie New.

I have rarely seen an actor enjoy owning the stage in quite the way he does: he is simply wonderful to watch. His face is incredibly expressive, with a megawatt smile that is infectious, making him instantly likeable. He holds himself like a ballet dancer and throughout his performance consciously uses the full breadth of his body to create movements that are fluid, graceful and mesmerising.  His physical poise is matched by a voice that is quite exceptional and he has ample opportunity to demonstrate just how capable a vocalist he is. For me, one particular highlight was ‘Ugly in the Ugly World’, an emotionally-charged ballad that was incredibly demanding, yet which Turco delivered perfectly.

Opposite Turco is Talia Palamathanan (Matilda the Musical, Everybody’s talking about Jamie) playing his best friend Pritti Pasha. I really enjoyed her performance, especially the ballad ‘It means beautiful’, which Palamathanan sings almost as a lullaby to soothe and comfort a distraught Jamie. The sweetness of her voice during this ballad belies some of its power, but her ability to keep the song simple and innocent made it all the more touching.

Rebecca McKinnis (Mamma Mia, Beauty and the Beast) deserves particular recognition for her role as Jamie’s mother Margaret. The story focuses heavily on the relationship Jamie has with his mother – and the relationship he doesn’t have with his father - and explores with great sensitivity the challenging issues of parental rejection and abandonment. It also looks at the nature of parenthood, the many sacrifices that parents do make for their children. In the song ‘He’s my boy,’ McKinnis brings to life exactly what it means to be a mother, the joy and frustration of parenthood. The emotional power she brings to this song is just overwhelming – I and no doubt every other mother in the room was with her in that moment and I will admit I was completely reduced to tears by her gutsy, passionate performance.

John Partridge
(Rent, Chicago) offers Jamie an alternative parental figure as Hugo/Loco Channelle. His performance focuses on clearly establishing the difference between the artist as a person and the drag act itself, to land the point that a drag queen is so much more than just a “boy in a dress.” It was a joy to watch him skilfully carve out his own two distinct characters, person and persona, and then slip effortlessly between them – sometimes in mid conversation – through something as simple as a change in stance.

Comic relief was provided with wonderful aplomb by the superb Shobna Gulati (Coronation Street, Dinnerladies) playing family friend Ray. The role will forever stick in my mind for the weird and wonderful range of knock off chocolates she finds – not least the After Sevens. Gulati does an excellent job of cutting through the atmosphere at key moments in the production and providing a sense of momentum where emotional scenes may otherwise slow the production down.

Hayley Tamaddon (Unforgotten, Emmerdale) is wonderful as the snooty, patronising and wholly uninspiring careers teacher Miss Hedge. I found it very interesting how at first her character is sympathetic, wanting to prepare her students for the realities of life outside of school, and yet this ‘sense of reality’ quickly moves into the need to fit in with, and abide by. societal norms. Tamaddon navigates the subtle shifts in her character brilliantly.

The excellence of the cast is easily matched by the excellence of the ensemble – a brilliant team of young artists who bring energy, humour and a definite sense of sass to the production, whose singing of the big toe-tapping set pieces is bright and articulate, and whose dancing is sharp and snappy.

I absolutely must call out the designer Anna Fleischle for an inspired approach to the staging. It is formed of a grid system of blocks and a projected backdrop that can transform the stage from school classroom to housing estate to drag catwalk within a few moments.  The band are housed in the upstairs of the grid behind the backdrop which means that whilst they are a constant presence on the stage, they are often silhouetted. It reminded me at times of Madonna’s Vogue video with its use of silhouettes, and no doubt drew inspiration from this, as did several of the dance sequences.

The choreography, created by Kate Prince MBE (Message in a bottle, Ballyturk) is both beautiful and inventive. Whilst the set pieces delivered some fabulous routines, I particularly enjoyed a quieter moment with the ballad ‘If I met myself again’, sung by Rebecca McKinnis, during which two members of the ensemble, Joshian Angelo Omana (Aladdin) and Jessica Daugirda (Bugsy Malone, The Sound of Music) dance together to bring the emotion of the song to life.

Given the material, much of the humour and language is very much on the adult side, and this is definitely not appropriate for younger children. However, my 13 year old son who accompanied me thought it was brilliant – more importantly, he was also really keen to talk to me afterwards about some of the themes, especially the bullying.

This is a phenomenal production and utterly deserving of the standing ovation it received last night. It was obvious from the opening number that the cast themselves love performing this production and it is impossible not to share their view.


Watch our video "In Conversation with Hayley Tamaddon" discussing the show.

Watch our video "In Conversation with John Partridge" talking all things Jamie!

Strictly Ballroom The Musical

Strictly Ballroom The Musical - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 26th June 2023


I have long been a fan of the Australian writer and director Baz Luhrmann; the visual extravagance of his films is sumptuous, but it doesn’t overwhelm his storytelling, and for me he has a knack of compiling the most perfect soundtracks, creating or repurposing songs that perfectly capture a mood, a sentiment. The effect is dazzling and every time I see one of his films, I come away feeling satiated. However, I was fascinated to know whether that same richness could be achieved on stage, or whether Luhrmann’s particular brand of magic relied too much on film making tactics.

Released in 1992, the film Strictly Ballroom was Luhrmann’s directorial debut and quickly gained him international recognition. It tells the story of Scott Hastings, a highly talented but maverick ballroom dancer who has trained all his life for the chance to win a trophy at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. Set just three weeks before the finals take place, and abandoned by his original dance partner, Scott chooses to pursue his own style of dancing. In doing so, he finds a true partnership with beginner Fran, who shares his passion for innovative and inventive dance. The story has overtones of everything from Romeo and Juliet to Footloose, all against the backdrop of Australian amateur ballroom dancing. Unsurprisingly the movie became something of a cult hit, so it was good to see that Strictly Ballroom the Musical keeps to the original story and – more importantly – retains the gloriously offbeat Australian humour that made the film so enjoyable.

But this production is more than enjoyable: it is beyond exceptional. Directed and co-choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing), it is a dazzling and joyous display of singing, dancing, comedy and physical theatre, performed by a cast of incredible calibre.  It has so many show-stealing moments it is frankly impossible to list them all and, even several hours later, I still find myself smiling.

The first stand out performance of the night has to be Scott, played by Kevin Clifton (Strictly Come Dancing). Like many, I have watched him dance repeatedly on television, but it is a whole other world to seem him dance in person. The sheer physicality, power and strength of every single move, the speed and accuracy of even a gentle flick of his hand, which is just lost on the television, is in full force here. He is mesmerising, the power of his dancing helped by his easy smile and clear joy in what he is doing. In the first half of the show, he performs a solo that vents Scott’s frustration at the rules of dancing but also explores how he wants to dance. The range of emotion he expresses during this solo is just incredible – from joy to anger to the erotic. And then he begins to sing. And oh can he sing. He has a rich, velvety voice that meets the needs of the songs with ease, and which blended perfectly with the sweet voice of Fran, played by Faye Brookes (Coronation Street, Our Girl).

Brookes is just wonderful. She plays Fran unashamedly with an awkward, goofy clumsiness that makes you immediately adore her. Her physical comedy is brilliant and I laughed out loud during her first dance lesson as she walks across the stage more like a chicken than a ballroom dancer! She acts with a total lack of self-consciousness, so when Scott bursts into song, it makes perfect sense for her to say ‘Oh are you singing now?’ – a hint at breaking the fourth wall without dispelling the magic of the moment.

The chemistry between the two leads is charming, but more than that, their comfort with each other and their own sheer enjoyment in the performance is evident. This sense of enjoyment is infectious, and it creates a wonderful atmosphere within the theatre.

The ensemble cast are all equally superb, indeed in the set pieces it is sometimes impossible to know where to look, or whose dancing to follow. The choreography is generous, allowing all members of the ensemble the opportunity to take centre stage. Danielle Cato (So you think you can dance, 42nd Street) is particularly memorable as she shimmies and shimmers as the wonderfully named Tina Sparkles whilst Oliver Brooks (Matilda the Musical, As you like it) really stood out as the fabulously camp JJ.

Kieran Cooper (Victoria, Bring it on) delivers a suitably slimy performance as the conniving villain of the show, Barry Fife. whilst Nikki Belsher (Fat Friends The Musical, Billy Elliot the Musical) and Les Kendall (Little Shop of Horrors, Pennyworth) offer brilliant comic performances as Shirley Hastings and Les Kendall respectively. It is these three characters who in many ways bring the show to life and deliver the camp, Australian craziness and charm of the original film.

But for me the stand out performance is Rico, performed by incredible Jose Agudo (Silk Road, Carmen). His demonstration of the Paso Doble at the end of the first half is an absolute masterclass: his total respect for the dance, his tremendous focus on calm, controlled energy, on the importance of rhythm, is simply electrifying. Again the power on stage as he teaches Scott how to feel the rhythm of the music – and as Agudo and Clifton dance together in unison, stamping and pounding through the steps – is visceral.

As mentioned, I have always felt Luhrmann had a talent for soundtracks and Strictly Ballroom – The Musical has a brilliant score. It comprises a series of well-known covers - such as Time After Time and Love in the Air – combined with new, purpose written songs that work together incredibly effectively. I found many of the new songs were reminiscent of other musicals – I definitely heard hints of Cabaret and West Side Story - yet, as Luhrmann is want to do – he has brought them all together thematically so that the soundtrack feels seamless. I personally loved the ‘Beautiful Surprise’ number which recurs throughout the production.

The staging for this production is incredibly effective. The glitterball is ever present, adding that sense of glitz and glamour throughout, whilst the use of a curved panels that are reminiscent of a scallop shell gives a sense of shape to the stage. The use of a digital backing screen allows projections of everything from the sky at night and other landscapes to memories and photos, bringing real variety and context to what was happening on stage and allowing quite significant shifts of scene with very little physical work.

And it would of course be inconceivable not to mention the costumes. This was Strictly Come Dancing on steroids, with the cast working their way through a huge number of sequin-drenched costumes, from full Viennese Waltz ballgowns to the skimpiest of Samba outfits. The costumes were beautiful and appropriately over the top – think full pink glitter - but more impressive were the 90s style wigs donned by most of the male cast!

I cannot recommend this production of Strictly Ballroom the Musical highly enough: it is a perfect show for fans of the original movie, for fans of Strictly Come Dancing, for fans of dancing in general, or indeed for anyone who just wants a good night out. I would suggest it is a show more for older teens and adults as there are some very filthy jokes, bad language and sexual references made on several occasions which are probably a little too blatant to be missed by younger members. But that aside, this offers an evening full of laughter, with amazing performances, and songs you will be humming for days.


Strictly Ballroom The Musical is on at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 1st July.


The Way Old Friends Do

The Way Old Friends Do - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 22nd May 2023


I have seen a number of shows and plays recently that explore our nostalgia for the pop music of previous generations – and how this same music is now finding a new audience amongst GenZ, bringing different generations together to share new experiences as well as enjoy the nostalgia.

I find this idea of mixing ‘new and nostalgic’ together quite fascinating, so I was particularly interested to see this new play ‘The Way Old Friends Do’. Written by actor and playwright Ian Hallard (Adventurous, Horse-Play) and directed by his husband Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Dr Who, The League of Gentleman), it follows the friendship of two gay men as they launch an ABBA tribute band. The twist? It’s a drag act.

The story begins in 2015, when two former schoolfriends – Peter (performed by Hallard himself) and Edward (performed by James Bradshaw (Endeavour, Hollyoaks)) are reunited after twenty years through the wonder of social media. Or rather through the lesser wonder of Grindr. One wine-filled lunch later and the concept for an ABBA tribute drag act is born. It follows their journey – and their increasing success – over the next seven years through both Brexit and Covid, finishing as ABBA announce their own reunion.

Yet the play is much less concerned with the whys and wherefores of their success, and instead focuses on the impact this has on their relationships with each other, and with their off-stage families and friends.

is excellent as Peter, a gentle, easy going character completely and utterly obsessed with ABBA – even “before they were popular again.” At 40ish years old, his teenage-y committed adoration of, and enthusiasm for the band is endearing – yet belies a certain naivety to the character which ultimately leads to the break up of their act. That said, there is a certain strength to Peter.

For example, in one scene, we witness Peter finally decide to come out to his elderly Nan (voiced by the inimitable Miriam Margolyes (Harry Potter series, Romeo and Juliet)), who he has never told that he is bisexual. In this moment, Hallard’s acting really brings home to the audience the fear that surrounds saying words that cannot be unsaid, the fear of loss, of rejection. For anyone not in that position, it is impossible to appreciate, but just for a second, I felt like I understood. This scene was also an excellent piece of stagecraft: Margolyes had recorded her lines so Hallard was effectively in conversation with a recording, yet the cadence of the conversation never felt forced or rushed, but entirely natural.

Edward is a natural foil to Peter. Seemingly brash and garish throughout, with little to no thought to the sensibilities of others, Bradshaw’s superb acting nevertheless allows us brief glimpses of a man deeply uncertain as to who he is or what he wants. In the scene when Edward is finally seduced by Christian (in a gloriously devious performance by Andrew Horton (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula), he clearly has doubts; despite his earlier leering and lechery, once in bed he is much more hesitant, you can see him asking whether this fling is really worth his marriage.  More importantly, he is completely aware of his own faults – describing himself at one point as the epitome of the midlife crisis. His character arc, as he comes to take responsibility for his own decisions, is the most satisfying of the play.

and Bradshaw are supported by a truly wonderful supporting cast who bring real heart to their roles. In comedies, it can be very easy for the characters to become more like caricatures, but these performances felt genuine and rounded. Donna Berlin’s (In Darkness, Dinner with my Sisters) Sally is ballsy, bossy and possibly the only person who can keep Edward in order. Yet she has one of the most touching moments of the play, smiling through clear heartache as she tells Peter that the latest round of IVF for her and her wife has failed. In the context of the play it is little more than a passing moment, but there was a sigh of sadness from the audience at this point, Berlin’s performance touching everyone’s hearts.

The role of Mrs Campbell was due to be played by Sara Crowe (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Carry on Columbus) but for this performance we were treated to Tariye Peterside (Lysistrata, The Game’s Afoot), who is an absolute joy. Her comic timing is simply brilliant and she received the biggest laughs of the night, playing the character as that person who is definitely in the same room, but maybe not on the same planet.

Rose Shalloo (A Christmas Carol, Fiddler on the Roof) completes the cast with a sweet performance of the role of Jodie. Like the rest of the cast, she is a brilliant comedian, but it is her ability to turn what could be a fairly uninteresting character into the heart of the show that really stands out.

A final and unexpected cameo comes from another recording, this time of the late and great Paul O’Grady, who provides the voice of the Radio DJ. The performance opens with his voice and again, the audience couldn’t help but cheer.

The staging and costumes are fantastic and really help bring a sense of disco to the production. The staging is particularly inventive: a rotating screen styled around the word ABBA, with the As forming doorways for entrances and exits, whilst the middle B letters provide some incredibly cool lighting effects. Make up, wigs, stick on beards (yes!) and the recreation of some of ABBA’s iconic stage outfits bring the entire production together with vibrancy.

I had the most fantastic time watching ‘The Way Old Friends Do’ and - from the buzz and laughter - the rest of the audience seemed to agree with me. However this perhaps isn’t a show for the easily offended as Hallard has taken what I can only describe as a ‘South Park’ style approach to the humour: it spans from clever and witty through to downright filthy in places and no-one escapes:  religion, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, everything gets a spotlight. Yet, unlike South Park, the jokes are for the most part affectionate, and always self aware; it offers the audience the chance to laugh at their own absurdities as well as the foibles of others.

As we reached the end of the play, for me one thing that was missing was the performance itself – we only see behind the scenes during the play and to be honest, I really wanted to see a drag ABBA! However, we were all rewarded with a full rendition of Dancing Queen complete with costumes, wigs, make up and beards as part of the curtain call - and it is the perfect way to end the play.


Watch our video "In Conversation with Ian Hallard" discussing the show.

Greatest Days

Greatest Days - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Thursday 18th May 2023


There has been a plethora of artist-based musicals (also called Jukebox musicals) launched in recent years, building on the popularity of West End stalwarts such as We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia. Some have been more successful than others, depending largely on the portfolio – rather than the fame - of the chosen artist.

For example, Queen and ABBA respectively are both renowned not just for extensive back catalogues, but for the sheer range and diversity of their songs. Huge rock anthems, short piano ditties, disco beats, power ballads, they had them all and - whilst distinctive - no two of their songs are the same. This meant that when it then came to creating a musical, there was plenty of source material to create a compelling show.

So I must admit that – despite loving their music - I was curious to see if the songs of Take That would provide a similarly engaging basis for a full scale musical.  The question is prescient; there have been a number of well publicised interruptions to musicals in recent weeks where audience members have been more interested in a singalong than the performance itself.

Greatest Days does not fall into this trap, instead delivering a show that rejoices in friendship, which revels in the memory of being an idol-obsessed teenager, that doesn’t shy away from disappointment in life, all to a perfect soundtrack.

Written by Tim Firth (Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots), the storyline for Greatest Days (previously performed as ‘The Band’) follows the lives of Rachel, Zoe, Heather, Claire and Debbie, a larger than life group of best friends who see their boyband idols in concert as teenagers in the 1990s only to experience tragedy,  and who reunite at a concert 20 years later to face the impact of that tragedy on their friendship and on their lives.

On face value a plot about boyband-obsessed girls may seem a little predictable and I wondered if the narrative about 40-something women looking back at their lives would hold the attention of my 12 year old son, who had joined me. But Firth has created a storyline that is sincerely touching: it is steeped in nostalgia yes, but it combines witty and clever dialogue with some emotionally powerful moments that resonate, that feel genuine.

However for me, it is the sheer inventiveness of the way that the songs are intertwined throughout every scene that makes this musical stand out. The Band (performed by Alexander O’Reilly (Jack and the Beanstalk, Hairspray), Kalifa Burton (Bugsy Malone, Everybody’s talking about Jamie), Jamie Corner (Let It Shine, The Band), Archie Durrant (The King and I, Matilda the Musical) and Regan Gascoigne (Dancing on Ice, The Nutcracker)) are the boyhood idols of our heroines, and they sing and perform some fabulous showstopper routines taken straight from the Take That playbook. The energy of The Band is infectious during these moments and it is almost impossible to not join in with the songs.

Yet there are very few of these more traditional set pieces, and the rest of the time The Band play a far more intriguing role; they act almost like a Greek chorus, using shorter snippets of songs to articulate the emotions of those on stage, to evoke memory, to show internal conflict, to provide background scene setting or even to offer encouragement. In fact at one point they were the staging itself, dressed as Greek marble statues on the Parthenon!  This approach makes the music – not the band – the centre of the entire show, allowing it to pervade each scene gently without becoming overwhelming. It also means we hear 15 songs throughout the show, without it turning into one long concert.

One of my favourite moments with The Band comes right at the beginning, when Debbie (Mary Moore, (Grease, Doctors)) and Young Rachel (Emilie Cunliffe (The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent)) try to learn The Band’s latest dance moves to a cassette recording; The Band sing and dance next to the girls as they try to remember the moves, turning it into a sweet duet.

The show centres heavily on the friendship of these two girls and I found both their performances outstanding. Mary Moore’s Debbie is bubbly, vivacious, impossible to take your eyes off whilst she is on stage. Her voice is fantastic and she belts out songs with relish. Emily Cunliffe’s Young Rachel is equally appealing; she has an excellent comic timing and capably leads the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions during the first half of the show.

They are joined by Kitty Harris (Emmerdale, Chicago), who gives a wonderfully louche performance as Young Heather; Mari McGinlay (Claus, Hairspray) as a sporty Young Claire in a performance that definitely seems to draw on a certain Mel C for inspiration; and Hannah Brown’s (The Magician’s Elephant, Hansel and Gretal) bookish Young Heather, who captures so well that uncomfortable sense of not being cool. All are excellent – you root for these girls as they share their dreams with each other and promise to always be friends.

Their older selves are predictably more weary, a little bit of the world but mostly of themselves, with particularly moving performances from Kym Marsh (Hear’Say, Coronation Street) as Rachel, Holly Ashton (Footloose, Mamma Mia) as Zoe, Jamie-Rose Monk’s (Doctors, Holby City) as Claire and Rachel Harwood’s (Lagging, Over to Bill) as Heather.

Kym Marsh in particular was very watchable as Rachel, now grown up yet unable to move forward with her life until she has dealt with her past. The audience can clearly see what she has lost – and what she has rediscovered by the end. But it was Jamie-Rose Monk’s portrayal that really stood out as she talked through the loneliness of losing her friends and her subsequent fall into depression – for me one of the most moving parts of the show.


After some touching and difficult emotional scenes, the show ends with exactly what everyone needs – a singalong. Belting out the likes of Relight My Fire and the endlessly optimistic Shine had the entire audience on their feet and cheering just as the young girls had at the start of the show.

It goes without saying that Greatest Days is going to be a must see for any Take That fan. Indeed the show takes every opportunity to reference Take That far beyond just the music and for superfans there is some pleasing attention to detail: the costumes and outfits reflect their CD covers, the choreography is in some cases a direct lift from their music videos, as is the staging. Even the breakfast cereal is a nod to a 90s commercial promotion!

But this is so much more than a trip down memory lane: it’s an original, moving story, an inventive, innovative production full of laugh out loud moments. And it’s an opportunity to lose yourself in some great songs.  

As we left the theatre, I asked the 12 year old what he thought. Having just witnessed his is 40 year old mum in full dance mode, hands in the air (no, I didn’t care), I thought he might be a bit dismissive. Instead he pointed at a poster for the show. “Lives up to its name, doesn’t it?” he said. Yes, I rather think it does.


Greatest Days is on at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 27th May 2023.

Watch our video "In Conversation with Regan Gascoigne" discussing the show.



Extraordinary Bodies - Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror

Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 20th April 2023


I have followed with keen interest how theatre productions are taking up the gauntlet of increasing diversity and representation on stage. Over the past few years, momentum – and audience expectation - has grown, and what started with inventive casting has now generated some inspirational initiatives. Extraordinary Bodies is one such initiative, a collaboration between Cirque Bijou and Diverse City, a charity that champions diversity and equality in the performing arts, and bring together D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists to deliver diverse-led circus shows. This is their third production.

The story of Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror, written by Hattie Naylor (Ivan and the Dogs, The Night Watch) and Jamie Beddard (Messiah, The Elephant Man) is not an easy one, especially given that it draws heavily from real life experiences and accounts of historical events, including the use of circuses at Nazi rallies – and how circus networks were used by those trying to flee the Nazi regime.

Set in 1933 in Germany, it tells the story of Waldo, played by Garry Robson (Crisis Control, Silent Witness), and his circus, a mismatched troupe of acrobats, clowns, aerialists – few of whom live up to the Arian ideals of the Third Reich. As the influence of the Nazis becomes more pervasive, and as their policies become more extreme, the lives of the circus members become more tenuous, and the bonds that hold them together, more fragile.

Taking place under the staging of The Big Top, the story begins with our hero, Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle) deciding to abandon his Nazi-sympathising family in order to join Waldo’s circus. Swaddle gives a charming performance of Gerhard, creating a delightfully goofy, naïve character who seems blissfully, frustratingly unaware of the dangerous times in which he lives – and the impact it might have on those not living up to Nazi ideals. He is not disabled yet soon falls for Krista, the star of the show, played with wit and a certain amount of wry cynicism by Abbie Purvis (Willow). Krista’s reluctance to believe Gerhard might see her as anything more than a curiosity, and his clumsy attempts to make her believe otherwise, offers a sweet fairy-tale.

However whilst their burgeoning love story forms the centrepiece of the production, for me it is the other characters that really bring this production to life. Raphaelle Julien (Jerk, Hunch, Trinity) and Brooklyn Melvin (Oliver Twist, Listening Party) play Mish and Mosh respectively, best friends, a pair of clowns whose slapstick antics, signed bickering and acerbic commentary are laugh-out-loud funny.  Yet they also provide one of the most touching moments when they wordlessly convince Gerhard to follow his heart and join the circus.

Mirabelle Gremaud
(Wise Children, Malory Towers) explores the challenges that the Romany community faced through her moving portrayal of Queenie, the circus’s fortune teller whose predictions seem fated – like Cassandra – not to be believed. Her final song, Blood in the Hallways, calls out the Nazi acts as crimes against nature; her performance incorporates a specific movement language that involves acrobatics and contortion, which she uses to represent her struggle to evade Nazi capture, and which is totally mesmerising.

The impact on the neurodiverse is also considered through Joanne Haines’ (A Little Space, ZARA) touching portrayal of Dora, a character frequently underestimated even by her own circus colleagues, and whose ability to contribute to society is openly questioned by Gerhard, yet who proves perfectly savvy when it comes to negotiating her own salary.

For me, it is the character of Peter who has one of the most interesting character arcs. Played with a brilliant intensity by Tilly Lee-Kronick (Cirque Bijou, Human) Peter is the son of the overbearing, titular Waldo. Highly talented as an aerialist yet lacking in confidence and desperate for any sort of recognition from Waldo, Peter is browbeaten and casually dismissed by his father. When he is then faced with accepting his own homosexuality, Peter instead flees to the Brownshirts, embracing the narrative that others less worthy are stealing his birth right. The result is the downfall of the very circus he loves.

What is so compelling about each and every one of these performances is the authenticity and rawness of emotion and of experience. At the beginning, the circus troupe are called out as being fake, as hiding behind their painted faces and flamboyant costumes; yet what this production gives to the audience for me is a searing honesty on the challenges faced by this community who are brought together by the simple fact of belonging nowhere else.

The music was composed by renowned conductor and composer Charles Hazelwood (Mysteries, The Tin Drum) and is heavily influenced by music of the 1970s and 1980s – punk and disco intertwine with new romanticism (and a definite tipping of hat to Ian Dury) in arrangements that, whilst harmonically a little sparse, instead focus on percussive rhythms ideally suited to supporting the performers.

Usually the musicians are placed in the orchestral pit, below the stage, but in this production the band is situated above the stage, with the music almost raining down on the audience. I personally loved this, as it allows the performance of the music to become an integral part of the overall performance and I felt that band, comprising Dave Johns, Harriet Riley and Jonny Leitch, were able to be much more responsive to the needs of those on stage.

One of the most innovative sides to this show is that, for a musical, music and singing are more optional than I would have expected, with other mediums taking their place. For example, a stunning duet between would-be lovers Peter and Renee (Jonny Leitch (What do you see in me)) is told not through song but through an incredibly powerful and intimate aerial dance. Indeed the most moving and electrifying moment of the entire musical - for me – occurs when a grief-stricken Mish performs ‘The Disappeared’ in complete silence using British Sign Language. I have to say this part of the production is utterly stand out and Raphaella Julien’s interpretation and performance is simply breathtaking.

As expected, accessibility is paramount, with the performance chilled and audio described. In addition, screens with captions are positioned unobtrusively either side of the stage which helps not only those unable to hear but also those unable to read BSL. The entire production was also brilliantly signed by Max Marchewicz (The Paradis Files). I have been at several performances now that offer this level of accessibility and for me, I wonder why, in today’s world, this isn’t standard at every performance.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror
will open your eyes to so many things: to the terror that so many felt in Nazi Germany; the terror of what one human being can do to another; to the magic of those people who sacrificed everything to try and protect others; and to the culpability we all still face today when we, as a society and as individuals, don’t stand up for equality or recognise the huge value that diversity brings.

But don’t go and see this for the lesson. See it for brilliant, joyous performances of the cast who demonstrate unequivocally why diversity is to be celebrated.


Dada Masilo - The Sacrifice

Dada Masilo's The Sacrifice - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 21st March 2023


I will admit to being curious about this performance of The Sacrifice. Over the past 10 years, Dada Masilo has gained increasing critical acclaim for her productions, which fuse classical ballet and African dance. To do this successfully from a technical and artistic perspective is impressive enough, but she has also overcome huge cultural resistance to create an artform that is both exciting and new whilst also feeling rooted in something familiar.

However, it is her choice of material that really made me curious. Previously, Masilo has chosen the stalwarts of the ballet world – Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and, most recently, Giselle, for which she received multiple awards. Yet her inspiration for The Sacrifice is The Rite of Spring – a ballet notoriously challenging, from its subversive subject matter to its rhythmically intricate and complex music.

Indeed, The Rite is a ballet that remains controversial and which continues to push boundaries more than a hundred years after its premier in Paris. I was therefore intrigued to see how Masilo would approach this work.

As it turns out, The Rite of Spring is an inspired choice. Masilo takes the fundamentals of the original work - with all their complexity - and uses them to explore the Tswana heritage of her own background. Gone is the music of Stravinsky and the Russian folklore and, in its place, the Tswana dance and traditions set to a score that encompasses musical influences across Classical, Jazz and Folk as well as African.  

The result is something quite enthralling.

The story of The Sacrifice is that of a primitive community celebrating the return of Spring and the renewal of the earth through the sacrifice of a virgin. There is common ground with Masilo’s previous productions, which all focus on the plights of wronged women (Juliet, Odette, Giselle), and this theme, along with the role of ritual and sacrifice, does become more dominant as the story plays out on stage.

It opens, then, with Masilo in the titular role of The Sacrifice. From the moment she walks on the stage, alone and apart from the rest of the company, her performance is captivating; her hands flutter and flit as though exploring, learning and communicating with the world around her. The moves are reminiscent of bird wings as she swoops and dives with her whole body. At times frenetic, there is a sense of a child at play, bursting with her own imagination – and this innocence stays with her throughout the performance.

The staging for this opening is minimal yet effective; a backdrop of cave painting-style symbols which evoke the primitive, that sense of a people trying to understand an unfathomable world.

The backdrop changes just once, after this opening piece, to a silhouette of bare tree branches. The lighting throughout is equally bare, with the stage almost always bathed in a greyish yellow that evokes that moment just before the sun rise, not quite light, no longer dark, when the world is colourless. It sets the tone for the story perfectly.

The music, however, is anything but colourless.  Masilo has chosen not to use Stravinsky’s original score but to take it as inspiration for a new composition by Ann Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Tlale Makhene, and Nathi Shongwe. For me, Stravinsky’s influence was never far away: from intense rhymical drumming underneath long lyrical harmonies, to the use of syncopation and complex time signatures that – like The Rite of Spring – sometimes seem to change every other bar, the reference was clear.

But to suggest that this composition is simply homage would be an injustice. This new score is a complex, multi-layered composition that draws not just on different musical genres, but on nature itself, with birdsong repeatedly incorporated into the music. The use of African percussion as an aural counterpoint to the violin and keyboard was especially effective.

The musicians (Ann Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Mpho Mothiba and Nathi Shongwe) are positioned to the side of the stage, much like a Greek chorus, and indeed they are very much an extension of the company, reacting and responding to both the audience and the dancers and – on occasion - being rebuked by the dancers for playing too fast: “can we have an Adagio please”, much to the laughter of the audience.

This interplay is helped by attentiveness and sympathetic playing of the musicians, who play without music and who rarely take their eyes off the dancers (Lehlohonolo Madise, Refiloe Mogoje, Thandiwe Mqokeli, Eutychia Rakaki, Leo Dibatana, Lwando Dutyulwa, Thuso Lobeke, Songezo Mcilizeli, Steven Mokone and Tshepo Zasekhaya).

One particularly memorable moment is a duet between the violinist and a female dancer. The violinist, unaccompanied, plays a folk melody that is reminiscent of Vaughn William’s The Lark Ascending – a slow, sweeping melody that captures the sense of a bird in flight. The dancer mimics this, swooping up and down, following wherever the violinist leads, in stark contrast to the stillness of all the other dancers on stage: it is a beautiful piece of choreography.

The first half is full of unexpected good humour that creates a festive atmosphere with no sense of menace or foreboding at what is to come. The choreography is fluid, combining solos, duets and full set pieces that never seem to start or finish, but simply come in and out of focus on the stage, like half heard conversations.

The dancers themselves are exceptional; they clap and stamp and sing and cheer and laugh, creating their own rhythms and music to counterpoint the musicians and often dancing entirely unaccompanied, with nothing but the pounding of their feet to keep rhythm.

Yet the joy and humour of the first half ultimately give way to the horror of the second half. Masilo’s choreography does not shy away from the reality of what is happening. In the increasing religious fervour, the joyous dancing of the company becomes jerky and almost seizure like, fluidity gives way to sharp angles and the sense of the uncontrolled, more animal than human.

As the story reaches its climax, we witness The Sacrifice’s final moments: four men – priests or elders – surround her, torment her, and take her to her death. This is not easy to watch, indeed I found this deeply uncomfortable – and rightly so. However, unlike other interpretations, the Sacrifice is not discarded and left to die alone on stage, but instead is delivered to Masina’s mother-like figure, who sings her a highly emotional lament as she dies.

This lament – operatic in style - is more than just mourning; for me it has the sense of a stinging rebuke against the world that such sacrifice is necessary. However Masina sings it with a sense of resignation, and it is on this note of acceptance that the production ends.

The Sacrifice is one of the most innovative and exciting productions I have seen in a long time. The sheer breadth of cultural inspiration and influence is stand out but Dada Masilo brings it together in a way that really makes this feel accessible.

The audience agreed, with Masilo receiving cheers as well as a standing ovation at the end. It was fantastic to see such a diverse audience in attendance, particularly so many young people who clearly took a lot from the production. Masilo’s ambition to create a new language, one that has the ability to cut across multiple cultures to become global, is an unquestionable success.


Opera North - Tosca

Opera North's Tosca - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 9th March 2023


Even the sparsest of operas is lavish. The combined power of music, intense drama, incredible vocals, artistic staging, dance sets and even fashion comes together to create a sensory experience quite unlike any other.  

And for me, Tosca easily earns its place in the canon of all time great operas.

An epic story full of love, political intrigue, lust and betrayal is set to some of the most sumptuous, heart rending music of the Romantic era.  Puccini holds a special place in my heart - my first ever opera was Madam Butterfly – but I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t crumple at this opera’s devastating finale.

Like many, I return to see Tosca again and again – there is so much scope for both dramatic and musical interpretation within the score and text that no two productions are ever quite the same.

But it is the opportunity to see the wonderful Giselle Allen’s Tosca as she desperately tries to prevail against Robert Hayward’s Baron Scarpia in this excellent revival from Opera North that makes this a must-see performance.

Tosca was composed by Giacomo Puccini (Madam Butterfly, La Boheme, Turandot) to a libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. It is based on a play, La Tosca, written by the prolific French playwright Victorien Sardou. It premiered in 1900 and whilst critics were lukewarm at the time, it was an instant success with the public. Indeed the opera’s famed arias and music have consistently continued to draw in audiences worldwide, and it remains the 5th most performed opera today.

is set in Rome in 1800. This timing is significant historically: Rome had been invaded by Napoleon two years earlier, then by the Kingdom of Naples . By 1800, the Pope had been exiled and Rome was yet again under threat from invasion by Napoleon. Uncertainty, changing allegiances and fear hang over this opera, and it is this chaotic background against which our story is set.

It centres on three main characters: the eponymous Floria Tosca (Giselle Allen) a renowned diva who is beautiful, adored by the public and wholly in love with Mario Cavaradossi (Mykhailo Malafii), a charming and charismatic painter. Their happiness is threatened by the corrupt Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia (Robert Hayward), who himself is in love with Tosca – and will stop at nothing to have her for himself.

When Cavaradossi is suspected of aiding an escaped prisoner, Cesare Angelotti (Callum Thorpe), Scarpia sees his chance. He manipulates Tosca into giving up the prisoner, implicating her lover at the same time. He then arrests Cavaradossi and offers Tosca an appalling bargain: if she wants to save her lover’s life, she must give herself to Scarpia. It sets in motion a tragic chain of events, as Tosca tries to save both her lover and herself.

This then is the emotional context of a deeply political drama which tackles profoundly uncomfortable issues, particularly the scale and impact of police corruption, sexual harassment and abuse, as well as the abuse of political power and lack of political freedom – these are themes that continue to resonate for many today.

Edward Dick’s
production tackles this head on, avoiding any sense of melodrama  but tackling difficult scenes of torture, suicide and murder with a sense of honesty: these are awful things and they are portrayed as such.

Crucially to this approach is the depiction of Scarpia. It is not softened in any way: he is not some pantomime villain or an incompetent, lusty buffoon, rather he is a calculating sadist. Hayward’s interpretation is excellent. He is at first innocuous – damned perhaps by reputation, perhaps a little too scheming but seemingly truly enamoured with Tosca. Yet the mask soon slips – and how Hayward relishes those moments! He stalks her across the stage, eyeing her like the predator that he truly is.  I can’t quite forget a moment when he gently wipes a tear away from Tosca’s cheek, only to turn and suck it from his finger, an act not of romance but of pure lechery.

Cavaradossi, by comparison, is a balm. His boyish, easy smile and velvety tenor (a revelation from the Ukrainian) easily win over the audience. He is at once charming yet daring and loyal, willing to die to protect his friend. It is easy to see why Tosca fell for him – and indeed the good-natured chemistry between Malafii and Allen makes this love match all the more believable.

But it is Giselle Allen’s performance as Tosca that really makes this such a successful production. Yet again, Allen demonstrates why she is fast becoming one of the UK’s foremost sopranos. Her voice is exquisite, her range phenomenal. Tosca is renowned as a challenging role for any soprano, yet she made it look and sound effortless and natural.

More than that though, she is a wonderful actress who takes the audience on an emotionally complex journey. From an impetuous, jealous, coquettish diva in the first Act to a woman driven to murder by the end of Act 2, she is believable, never choosing to succumb to the melodrama that often plagues this role. Her heart-breaking naivety at the end of the opera, as she encourages an already dead Cavaradossi not to move, to stay quiet, is simply devastating – definitely the biggest emotional hit of the night.

Allen and Malafii’s first duet deserves a special mention. It comes early in the opera, before the tragedy begins to unfold. Here we see a slightly uncertain, self-conscious diva in turn accusing and teasing her lover of infidelity; he in turn responds with patience, calm reassurance and some gentle chiding! The chemistry in this scene is palpable – it is both witty and playful – presented without any ominous overtones or sense of foreboding. Puccini returns to the musical themes of this duet repeatedly throughout the opera, each time recalling that sense of easy optimism and naivety; it offers is a relief to the wider violence.

It would be utterly remiss at this point not to turn to the exquisite playing of the orchestra. They are the literal unseen heroes, hidden as they are in the pit. Yet under the clear direction of Garry Walker, the interaction between soloists and orchestra is perfect. Melodies and leitmotifs flow back and forth between singers and instruments almost seamlessly, and delicate phrasing from vocalists is reciprocated by soloists within the orchestra.

But what a powerhouse when needed, as it is for the Te Deum at the end of Act 1. Puccini is renowned for demanding volume and power from his orchestra to match the emotional weight of what is happening on stage. There is something absolutely thrilling about an orchestra playing at full volume – you can feel the sound waves passing through you, your lungs buzzing with the vibrations. It creates an amazing adrenaline rush that combines with the drama on stage to overwhelm both physically and emotionally. This orchestra absolutely delivers that punch.

As always, Opera North has sought to make their production widely accessible. Whilst sung in Italian – and indeed some Latin – screens with English subtitles are positioned unobtrusively either side of the stage with just enough text to be able to understand what is happening without having so much to read that you miss the action on stage. It is thoughtfully done and very successful.

I absolutely loved this production – but more importantly, so did my 14 year old son, who joined me and who had never seen an opera before. He came out of each act utterly wide eyed, hooked on the story, the emotions, and totally invested in the characters. And he wasn’t alone. The atmosphere in the auditorium throughout was buzzing – the audience cheering various members of the cast (Hayward received a particularly loud boo at the end when he came to take his bow, which seemed to please him immensely) and, as the tragedy finally unfolded, totally still and silent. And that is what makes this such a great production. It doesn’t matter if you are new to the opera or if you have seen Tosca itself 50 times, this is a cast that creates something really worth seeing.

And yes, we both crumpled at the end!



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