Karen Ryder - Official Reviewer
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 23rd November 2022
MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY HAS EVERYTHING A FAIRY TALE SHOULD HAVE, WITH A GENEROUS AND GLORIOUS GOTHIC EXTENSION!
Whilst I am all about the fairy tales in my life, I have to say that for me, this evening’s pull wasn’t the story Sleeping Beauty, but the choreographer Matthew Bourne. To watch a Matthew Bourne show is to tick a major life goal off my bucket list, and as cheesy as it sounds, my life now feels richer for doing so. As an eclectic mix of audience gathered in the warmth of the theatre, I felt the magic begin to wash over me and knew from the animated chatter that Matthew Bourne doesn’t just deliver ballet, he delivers an experience.
This is the 10th Anniversary production of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, and as it continues its tour of the UK, the phenomenal presence this show creates gives credence to its equally impressive touring history. With previous performances in New York, Charlotte, Washington, Des Moines, Cleveland and LA in the United States, Seoul in South Korea, Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing in China and Tokyo in Japan, I simply don’t foresee an end to its brilliance. Known as the Gothic Romance, an amalgamation of the various versions of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty are brought to life in true Bourne style. New perspectives, twists, darkness, heightened tension, and a blend of dance styles interlock beautifully against the traditional Tchaikovsky music, ensuring power, excitement and adrenaline are a plenty.
A creative prodigy, multi award winning and OBE recipient Bourne is his own triple threat, encompassing the roles of creator, director and choreographer to sublime heights. Conceived for his New Adventure’s dance-theatre company’s 25th anniversary, Sleeping Beauty completed his trinity of Tchaikovsky ballets alongside Nutcracker and Swan Lake. With such re-imaginings, it is no wonder he is acknowledged as one of the UK’s most successful and popular choreographers and directors, and it is no wonder that even on a wet, cold, dark and miserable Manchester evening, he can still bring warmth, joy and happiness and entirely fill the Lyric Theatre.
Matthew Bourne’s version of Sleeping Beauty transcends time, transporting us from the Edwardians, to the Victorians, to modern day. As the dark fairy Carabosse provides the King & Queen with the baby they longed for, a dangerous resentment and anger seeps into her heart for she perceives she does not get the recognition she deserves. In a fit of jealous rage, she places a sleeping curse upon Aurora. The King and Queen, not wanting to risk any further influence from Carabosse, assign a nanny and some good fairies to watch over Aurora to try and prevent the curse from materialising. As we then do our first time-hop, we pass over many years to where Carabosse is dead, but her son Caradoc is very alive and very determined to continue his mother’s evil plan. Aurora’s coming-of-age is celebrated, and we discover her heart is not with noble suitors, but with the Gamekeeper Leo. Enter Caradoc who ensures that Aurora pricks her finger on a cursed rose and falls into a sleeping curse lasting 100 years, before she can ever marry her love. So, what does one do in such circumstances? The fairy King turns Leo into an immortal fairy vampire of course, guaranteeing that he will still be alive in 100 years to provide true loves kiss which will break the spell. This takes us into our last time-hop where the Aurora and Leo are finally reunited. But Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty does not end as you might expect. It is not a case of true loves kiss ends the story. Far from it. This production has so much more story to tell, and it is full of gripping twists and turns, leaving you teetering on the edge of your seat.
The introduction of Cardoc into this version of the story is absolutely brilliant for it provides a sustained battle of good versus evil with the added valour of testosteronal pride at stake. It also allows for a sneaky surprise towards the end just when you think everyone is about to get their happily ever after, and it even provoked an audible gasp from the audience. I just love it! I’ll say no more but instead do a little time travel of my own and go back to the beginning of the story to mention the puppetry, which I wasn’t expecting and was a welcomed surprise. Baby Aurora is indeed a puppet and controlled in such a magical way by the performers that you don’t even notice or see them. It is dramatic, funny, and outstanding work that will have you enraptured and guarantee you not only laugh out loud but find the ironic humour in the fact that a puppet is demanding all eyes be on her!
The individual dances of all the fairies are outstanding as they deliver their virtues and personalities with vigour. This allows for a melting pot of dance styles and is an exemplary way to highlight how dance is indeed a universal language. The detail and thought put into every single second of this production mean that you could watch it time and time again and still be noticing things. Dancers look through records in time to the beat, waltz with picnic blankets whilst stood at the side of the stage, even the stage lights are decorated with fairy wings! Dream like sequences battle with magical ones. Love scenes clash with violent attacks, and heartache is blinded by perseverance. Whether the dancing be solo, partnered or ensemble, the strength, power, dedication, and trust shines through like a shooting star.
The staging is everything you could want from both a fairy tale and a dramatic gothic tale. Castles, dark forests, and seedy nightclubs also guarantee that the different eras are wonderfully represented in a production that dazzles with detail and feeds the senses more deeply than the bite of any poisoned apple. Ok, I know that is a different fairy tale, but you get my point. The use of clever perspective within the set creates a larger world beyond the stage, and we glide from scene to scene with the use of conveyors which the dancers utilise with impressive effects. Elements of story book moments are projected onto the scenery too, guiding you through the fairy tale in a humourous and concise way.
The costumes are, in a word, stunning. They are quite possibly the ultimate fantasy of anyone who ever dreamed of fairies, magic, sparkly things and enchanted worlds. If the costumes were alive, which they very may well be for they move with mesmerising clarity, they would tinkle, laugh rainbows and breath glitter. From the shredded gothic fairy costumes, to the high brow societal, to the casual modern day, to the sleek and sophisticated club style, each costume theme has it’s own colour palette which perfectly flavoured its own atmosphere. Beautiful. Thank you Lez Brotherston for conceiving both the staging and the costumes.
The ultimate best bit though has to be the Bourne identity which is stamped all over this production. An igniting and invigorating arrangement of classical, modern, inventive, and unique choreography, which has the power to make your heart drum along to every move, every pause, and every nuance. There are many respectful nods to the original Petipa ballet moves in this piece, but the element of surprise is never far away with Bourne allowing the human body to speak in delicious and hypnotic ways. Bourne’s dancers glide effortlessly, but for such light and graceful movers, they equally bring power, strength and an enigmatic style all of their own. I almost don’t even want to try and describe it. I simply want you to feel it.
Ashley Shaw has the expertise and glorious ability to take us on wonderful journey as we follow Aurora through her different stages, from rebellious and mischievous, to love struck, to enchanted. Even when she is asleep, her control at being uncontrolled and completely floppy so to speak, is incredible. Shaw is so expressive with her dance that she demands you understand everything her body is speaking. Andrew Monaghan as Leo partners Shaw as if they were one. An utterly believable couple on stage, they compliment each other and are so playful, delicate, and joyous together that your heart and soul are completely sucked into the fairy tale promise of loves young dream. His solo upon entering the forest is a highlight as he seems to float on air through time and love.
Paris Fitzpatrick brings a very different kind of presence to the stage, but an equally impressive one as both Carabosse and Caradoc. His darkness penetrates the stage and he moves with a menacing fervour that commands attention. Dominic North, a long-standing member of the company, is phenomenal as King of the Fairies and effortlessly switches from gothic to regal, to vampire, to powerful avenger. Even more impressive is that each transition is so natural, it’s only as I’m writing now that I am kind of going ‘Wooahhhh! He literally did everything!’ The entire cast – including the elusive puppeteer(s) – are outstanding. They are beyond dancers; they are masters of their art and profound story tellers. With a fantastic mix of original cast members and a new, younger generation coming up through the ranks, a wealth of knowledge, experience, and youthful wisdom guarantee that this production will still be around to celebrate in another 10 years!
If you love your fairy stories, then you will love this re-imagined Sleeping Beauty. It has everything a fairy tale should have, with a generous and glorious gothic extension courtesy of Bourne’s irrepressible imagination. It is beautiful. It sounds too simple to say that, but it really is. I don’t know how to effectively put into the words the ‘ahhhh’ feeling I had in my heart throughout, but the nearest I can get is utter contentment. I was completely swept away and bought into the entire experience from beginning to end. Bourne’s re-imagining is enchanting and spellbinding and the most beautiful fairy tale for grownups you are ever likely to see.
WE SCORE MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY...
Frantic Assembley's Othello at The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 15th November 2022
FRANTIC ASSEMBLEY'S OTHELLO IS STRIKING, POWERFUL AND ONE OF THE BEST MODERN-DAY DRAMA PRODUCTIONS YOU'LL SEE!
Jealousy, justice, deception, treachery, race, isolation and incompatibility are just a few well known themes of Othello, one of Shakespeare’s ‘cooler’ plays with the younger generation. Mix in a tale of betrayal, manipulation and an awful lot of fighting with the equally cool and modern Frantic Assembly, then it’s fair to say I knew this wasn’t going to be any old production of our intelligent yet insecure military main man, but even with that in mind, I wasn’t prepared for just how much my mind was about to be blown. Othello is already bursting with relatable relationship messiness and action, so Frantic Assembly tapping into this timeless and enduring human reality with a 21st century make over may be the one relationship in Othello that has a future together. Set in a dark, dangerous and dated pub inhabited by a gang, with walls symbolically painted red, we immediately get the sense of a world that is of our time, making the characters, their decisions, and their lives a little more real.
Frantic Assembly were formed with one thought; “Can you be terrified and fearless at the same time?”. Twenty-five years later and they have become one of the UK’s most successful and loved theatre company’s. Known for a commitment to creating brave and bold theatre, through an ethos of collaboration and empowerment, their resulting work is outstanding. They thrive on telling stories through new voices, achieving remarkable and inventive ways of doing so, and ensuring that creativity, particularly through physical movement has reshaped theatre in a positive and invigorating way. They are even studied on British and international educational syllabuses so if you have any young thespians in your house, chances are – they will be able to tell you all about Frantic Assembly.
This dedication to approaching storytelling from a fresh perspective has made this production of Othello engaging, powerful and one that will stay with you long after you have left the theatre. It doesn’t matter if you struggle to understand Shakespeare’s language because Frantic have brought it to life in a way that you will not only understand, but that you will feel and experience from deep within. It is so clever. At the same time, they stay dutifully and respectfully true the text, ensuring an understanding on a guttural level that you cannot forget or ignore.
This was evident in the eclectic mix of audience members for tonight’s performance. From those who were there because they loved Shakespeare, to those who were there because they loved Frantic Assembly, right down to those who were there because they were clearly studying it and had been made to attend. However, it is this last category that enthralled me the most because their excitement was palpable, their energy at being a part of live theatre was infectious, and as a drama tutor myself, I am thrilled to see our younger generation alive with expectation and appreciation of the arts.
In a nutshell, Othello is the victim of Iago’s uncontrolled rage and jealousy as he discovers that he is overlooked for promotion. Iago knows that Othello secretly married Desdemona. He also knows that his friend Roderigo is in love with Desdemona himself, and lastly, he knows that Desdemona’s father would not approve of Othello. Iago uses his knowledge to stir up trouble for Othello as payback for keeping him in a low-ranking military position (or in this version, his right hand man in the gang). He tells Roderigo to keep chasing Desdemona, and he also tells her father about the secret marriage. Her father disowns her. Roderigo confesses to Iago that he doesn’t think he can woo Desdemona but Iago reassures him that he can. He then gaslights a fight between Roderigo and Cassio in which another soldier Montano is stabbed. Unaware of the full facts and Iago’s involvement, Othello blames Cassio and strips him of his officer status. Next, Iago gaslights Cassio, convincing him to enlist Desdemona’s help in convincing Othello to reinstate his status. But this is a ploy so that he can further gaslight Othello by dropping clonking hints that something is going on between Cassio and Desdemona because they are clearly plotting and have sweet secrets together. With doubts of jealously dropped into Othello’s mind, Iago becomes a mischief maker, ensuring there are many more moments where Othello can doubt his beloved wife. Fun fact – this is where our well-known phrase “the green-eyed monster” comes from when we refer to someone who is jealous. Lots of other stabbing later, Othello is consumed by Iago’s lies until they torture his mind so deeply that he murders Desdemona. Iago’s wife has a light bulb moment where she realises everything that Iago has been doing and so spills the beans. Iago doesn’t take that too well and so kills her too. Othello then kills himself as he can’t live with his mistakes. Sorry – no spoilers intended there, but it is Shakespeare – of course they all end up dead! If it helps, Cassio survives!
Michael Akinsulire (Foundation, Trigger Point, Stephen) is magnificent at portraying every single one of Othello’s steely undercurrents. He encapsulates an incredible range of not only emotions, but states of being, from rage, jealously, lover, loner, violent, and remorseful to name just a few. His physicality is mesmerising, moving and masterful. Capable of instilling fear, capable of delivering love, his multifaceted performance brings the paradox of Othello to life in a way that allows you to understand this complex character more than ever before. He enables you to understand that Iago’s psychological abuse and the injustice he faces, bruise deeper than any of the attacks that take place.
Joe Layton (Marvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, Tatau, Casualty) is beautifully vile as Iago, so convincingly so that a few audience members around me were talking about him as if he were a real person at the interval. This is the true mark of an actor. His ability to switch from sincerity to sneer is captivating, and his abundance of monologues were a highlight of the show.
Chanel Waddock (Rock, Paper, Scissors, Hamlet, This Is Going To Hurt) is fantastically innocent as Desdemona, freeing her to be loving, flirtatious and heighten all the deceit around her. She has some excellent moments, and makes you pay attention to her early on, with one particular scene on top of a pool table. Some of the teenagers didn’t know where to look! Desire, loyalty, passion, confusion, trust, and pure devotion are her strengths, and sadly become her downfall. She is able to deliver chemistry with both the Othello and Cassio actors, but in completely different ways and it is stunning to watch.
Tom Gill (The New Tomorrow, Growing Pains, Dunsinane) as Cassio is excellent at playing a hot head, physically showing his unpredictability and ability to boil over at any given second. This makes everything he does exciting to watch for you know to expect the unexpected.
Oliver Baines as Montano, Felipe Pacheco as Roderigo, Hannah Sinclair Robinson as Bianca, Kirsty Stuart as Emilia, and Matthew Trevannion as Brabantion / Lodvico complete the cast and as Frantic Assembly work as a living breathing collaborative, it is fair to say that this is amplified by their cohesive work. They create and establish the scenes, ignite the set with all its possibilities, and ensure that physical theatre is ever present in this production. They are energetic, enigmatic, and create endless mind-blowing opportunities from the most ordinary of situations and objects. I promised I would give a special shout out to Oliver Baines who apparently is friends with and studied at college with two of my graduate drama students, which also means he studied at the same college as all of us at Manchester Theatres, so whoop whoop! Thrilled to see a local lad achieving remarkable work.
Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have adapted Othello into a thrilling and fearsome tale of the 21st century, enrapturing an entire new audience and eliciting fresh appreciation for our beloved Shakespeare. Once upon a time, it was only Shakespeare himself who could have managed such a task, so full kudos to our modern masters of storytelling. Pulsate this captivating re-telling with rejuvenating and funky music by Gareth Fry and Hybrid, let Natasha Chivers and Andy Purves loose with intoxicating lighting that subtly and psychologically sets the mood long before you are even aware of what is going on, give Laura Hopkins licence to design a fabulous set that keeps pace and almost dances along with the cast, and Frantic Assembly have done it again.
From moving with snooker canes, leaping on and off tables, sofas and tables, back flipping, front flipping, side flipping – you name it, they flip it – this cast are relentless with their physical ability. I can’t say it’s dance, because it is also gymnastics, and I can’t say it is gymnastics because it is also parkour, ariel and a little bit of magic. How Frantic Assembly do what they do is beyond me, and how they then have the breathing capacity to deliver Shakespeare with such control should surely be impossible. The trust involved is exemplary to us all and this element of teamwork alone is worth teaching on any National Curriculum. Every single nuance and second of this performance must be planned and rehearsed until it becomes as natural as breathing for otherwise, there would be several broken limbs. I am not exaggerating the superhuman powers involved I promise. Someone literally steps backwards off a table trusting that the others will be there in time to catch them!
Another brilliant choice was allowing all the actors to speak in their own reginal accents, many of which were Northern. This choice immediately broke down barriers of Shakespeare’s language as the sounds were familiar to us, and again were of this world in the here and now. In short, it made Shakespeare accessible. The final scene is the real showstopper in this production with some disturbing and graphic special effects during the fight scenes. The young audience were enraptured, audibly shocked and completely locked into the moment. I was also caught unawares and so am taking this opportunity to class myself as a young member of the audience! However, the update of the fighting to the use of baseball bats and people being glassed was clearly something that was believable and in the stratosphere of a modern audience, so this very clever update got the message across and truly ensured every set of eyes were glued to the stage. It was shocking, it was upsetting, it was brilliant.
This production of Othello is striking, powerful, and right up there with the best of any modern-day drama. I could genuinely go and watch it again tomorrow, and that’s a huge statement because even the biggest of Shakespeare lovers would be hard pushed to watch his demanding work two consecutive nights, yet Frantic Assembly somehow manage to respect Shakespeare whilst making it entirely their own. It is the perfect way to enjoy, understand and marvel at arguably one of the greatest writers that ever lived, as his work is rejoiced by the uber talented Frantic Assembly.
WE SCORE FRANTIC ASSEMBLY - OTHELLO...
Bugsy Malone - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 8th November 2022
ENTER THE WORLD OF BUGSY MALONE - IT'S EVERYTHING THAT WE WANTED IT TO BE!
The splurge guns are in town, fully loaded and with a delicious back up of a cream pie for your face! What child of the 80’s didn’t dream of settling an argument with a little splurging? Heck, what adult doesn’t? Fast forward to 2022 and a whole new generation are getting ready to learn the joys of the best kind of innocent and messy fun ever invented! Add to that some crackin’ top tunes that even your musical theatre hater will know, weave in some youthful and naïve gangsters, and sprinkle a rose-tinted tale of a bygone era where prohibition ruled, and rules were made to be broken! Then, my friend, you have Bugsy Malone!
The speakeasy bar reigns supreme in New York during prohibition and is the perfect cover for anyone who may have a few side-lines in racketeering. So rival bar owners Fat Sam and Dandy Dan must make it clear to each other and everyone else, which one of them runs this town, and which bar will succeed. Each has its loyal customers, showgirls, and workers, and woe betide anyone who dares to cross over – they’ll face the splurging of a lifetime! These bars house gangsters, and gangsters ain’t afraid of getting their hands dirty after all. As we meet all the brilliant characters, a whole new world unfolds, but be careful who you talk to else you may just find yourself being pulled further and further into a dark and dangerous underworld. Bugsy Malone is just a driver after all, but with his Italian connections, charm, and aspirations to be a boxing promoter, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay out of trouble. As he falls for hopeful Hollywood actress Blousey during a visit to the bar, he does everything he can to ensure Fat Sam hires her, but as he becomes distracted by surprise attacks, and unwanted attention from Fat Sam’s girlfriend Tallulah, it’s fair to say that his path to true love certainly does not run smoothly. As Dandy Dans attacks increase, Bugsy helps Fat Sam to end this turf war once and for all. As a riotous cast of characters emerge, New York reveals the best and the worst of its mobsters, down and outs, showgirls, and boxers. But be in no doubt, for even though these gangsters are mini, they’re marvellously musical and mighty.
You can’t help but be drawn into the world of Bugsy Malone because Jon Bauser’s design ignites every spark, flame, and flurry of your imagination until you surrender and accept that you are now in downtown New York. Fat Sam’s speakeasy is a pulsing, living, breathing club, made even more believable by its realistic dingy outward surroundings of fire escapes, and alleyways. Inside, however, colour, vibrance, sequins and a rainbow glow bar welcome you with wilful abandonment of the rules. Props appear so flamboyantly yet with an equal subtlety, so intrinsically magical yet natural, that you feel alive with adrenalin. The clever use of contrast makes everything of importance pop right off the stage, with colourful scenery set against dark backdrops. It becomes a guessing game as to where the next piece of scenery or prop may appear from, because it is interwoven so seamlessly into the heart of the play and even the choreography itself, that it can quite literally appear from anywhere, including tables appearing from the sky! Add in dazzling costumes that shimmer yet also provide comedy as kids are dressed in pinstriped gangster suits, and you begin to realise that Bauser has cemented the design into the very heart of this show.
Bugsy Malone is famous for having a full cast of young actors playing grown-ups. That’s the whole point of the story – taking a very adult world and poking fun at it through the eyes of youth. We all remember certain performances from the film, and it’s a little like marmite – you either loved the concept or hated it. The idea of kids dressed up as adults and pretending to be in an adult world freaks the bejesus out of some people, but I think that this production has found a very simple and genius fix to this potential problem – cast both children and adults! The children are there to keep the story idea firmly in its routes by filling the main roles, but for the more adult moments, such as sexy showgirl dancing – adults take over. As a certain meercat would say, “It’s simples!” That is not to say that choreographer Drew McOnie has slunk away from difficulty – on the contrary! These are challenging routines that the children more than meet, just the appropriateness has been handled with care. There are those who would also argue that children cannot carry a production of this size. These people need to be splurged! These children are professionals, end of. The infamous music by Paul Williams is brought to life by a stella cast of all ages and they will charm you, warm your wintery heart, and give you the feel good factor.
Bugsy is brought to life in a charming and persuasive manner by Gabriel Payne. He is funny, loveable and cheeky, and leads a fantastic dance routine with ‘Down & Outs’. Payne is not only incredibly talented and knows how to play with his voice for comic effect, but he just has the ‘it’ factor too. Albie Snelson steals the show as Fat Sam. It is an absolutely stella performance by any standard, let alone from a young actor. Everything he does is spot on, with impeccable comedic timing, the ability to ad-lib hilariously and hold an entire theatre audience in the palm of his hand. Snelson is a star! Blousy is played by Delilah Bennett-Cardy and has a stunning voice. Her solo ‘I’m Feeling Fine’ makes it hard to believe that she is still a youngster for it is not only beautifully sung, but so emotive that you may find you leak a tear or two. Fayth Ifil opens the show as Tallulah and immediately lets the audience know that these kids aren’t messing around and that we need to take them seriously as she is commanding, elegant and full of sass. Dandy Dan is brought to us courtesy of Desmond Cole and he is brilliant at portraying the laid back, dangerous mobster. He provides Dan with a subtle air of arrogance that allows all to know just who is in charge of this town. Aidan Oti and Cherry Mitra play Fizzy and Lena / Babyface and whilst they both bring the cute factor by being the smallest members of the cast, they equally prove they are both more than capable of holding the stage on their own and create gorgeously memorable moments. Every member of this young cast has the most outstanding and convincing New York accents, and not once is a single word or sound dropped. It’s remarkable.
Director Sean Holmes has done a wonderful job of blending a cast of two halves, ensuring a cohesive team and performance throughout. The comedy asides and timing are just brilliant and for children to have mastered this skill is credit to his leadership. Before watching this production, I kept hearing on the musical grapevine that an impressive car chase scene takes place. This scene is not the typical smash ‘em up style piece I was envisaging though, but a rather ingenious method of storytelling that will leave you buzzing as it draws a close to the first half. Strobe lighting, stop motion, choreography, humour, mime, and physicality fuel the chase, guaranteeing you cannot wait for the second half to begin. Another wow moment is ‘So you wanna be a boxer?’. All I will say is that it’s an absolute “What the?!? How are they keeping that going?!” piece. Ensemble pieces are always showstoppers if done well but saying this was ’done well’ is like saying Lowry liked to scribble a bit! I’ll be honest, I’m exhausted just remembering the high impact energy of this number and feel I need a sit down and a bar of chocolate just to continue writing! Punchbags, sparring in canon, acrobatic flips, skipping routines, formations spiralling around the whole stage, and creative lighting casting means there is most definitely power in numbers. Mohamed Bangura leads the routine as Leroy and is not only funny, but entirely convincing as a light footed, quick thinking boxer who wants to be anything but a boxer!
‘Bad Guys’ is literally everything I love about musical theatre and the audience couldn’t wait to join in clapping. The build up of the canon song is tingling with anticipation and comedy brilliance until you have a full blown showstopping number on your hands. Lights, dance, detailed facial expressions, pizazz, and sheer xdcjksdhfuvhnsvcchdcao – because I just can’t find the words to relay the joy, so I made one up! There are wonderful moments throughout the whole production, and one that kept me on my toes and jumping like a baby was every time knuckles cracked his knuckles! Eeek! That sound will haunt me, but it did make me laugh, and made a few people around me laugh too as I freaked out. It’s my nails down a blackboard sound unfortunately for me, but brilliant for comedy.
Bugsy Malone has been done before and it will be done again, but right here, right now, this cast and production fills the theatre with fun, energy, and a cool vibe that is fitting for all ages. I am taking 40 of my drama students to watch the show tomorrow night and I was a little ‘eehhh’ about watching it two nights on the run, but I can honestly say that I am now raring to go and do it all again. The finale alone will ensure that your toes are a tapping, your head is a bopping, and your hands are a clapping, and give you an uncontrollable urge to be a part of the fun on stage. It will make you feel ten years younger just by being there and leave any young audience members feeling they can conquer the world. So, grab your spats, your pinstriped suits, your trilbys and feather boas and mosey on down to The Opera House. Expect a revival of water pistols or soak blasters this week though but stay out of range for you may just find they aren’t filled with water! To splurge or not to splurge – that is the question!
WE SCORE BUGSY MALONE...
The Lion King
Disney's The Lion King - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 1st November 2022
MANCHESTER IS FEELING THE LOVE OF THE LION KING - LONG LIVE THE KING!
“Nannnnnsss igonnnniyaaaa! Baggabitinaaahhhh, sita ummmmm benya bahhh”
If those garbled bunch of letters above, which I can assure you bear no actual resemblance to the real lyrics, mean anything to you at all, then right now you will be picturing a glorious sun rise, deers tilting their heads in the morning glow and birds soaring across a flame lit horizon. That is the power of The Lion King! That is what will give you goosebumps on your goosebumps within the first few seconds of the show starting, and that is why you simply have to be a part of the Disney magic. I go to the theatre A LOT, for both work and pleasure, and I cannot think of another show where just one song in I have tears rolling down my cheeks at the sheer abundance of joy, and the overwhelming nature of my emotions at the spectacular experience I have just encountered. It is incomparable and as you reconnect with that excited inner child as your imagination is ignited, you simply will not know where to look or fathom how to take in everything presented before you. It is the most joyous encounter where nature meets theatre magic, and it is right here in Manchester! No wonder it was announced earlier this week that The Lion King has extended its already epic run till the 11th March 2023, making Manchester it’s home for a whopping 19 weeks! I don’t need to eat right? Or heat my house? I can just keep returning to watch it time and time again!
So, unless you have been living under Pride Rock then you will know the story of The Lion King, and if you’re anything like my family, will have re-enacted its scenes with the younger members countless times. Mufasa is King of the Pride Lands and as he announces the birth of his son and future King Simba at a ceremony, the animals rejoice. Mufasa rules with a respectful command and adheres to the balance of nature and the circle of life, ensuring he is admired by all. All except his brother Scar that is, who has suppressed his bitter jealousy for years in the hope that one day he will take over as King, but now Simba has been born, that day will never come. As Simba playfully practises his hunting with friend Nala, Scar is plotting his death. Time after time Scar tries and fails to make Simba disappear, so when Mufasa runs to rescue Simba from a stampede created by Scar, he grasps the opportunity to kill Mufasa. A traumatised Simba believes Scar when he is told it’s his fault the King is dead and he must run. Run and never return. Enter Timone and Pumba who unknowingly raise the future King, until one day Nala shows up looking for help as Scar has over hunted and decimated the Pride Lands. As they fall in love, this loyal and quirky army head back to claim what is rightfully Simba’s. Lots of roaring later, Simba wins, has a son of his own, and the circle of life continues. It’s all a bit Hamlet and it’s all a bit brilliant.
The stage production of The Lion King was ground breaking when it was first staged and there is still little that can touch its genius today. With exemplary design by Julie Taymour, animals are brought to life in a unique and credible way, ensuring that we believe completely in the character and accept their stories, rather than being reluctant to cheer on a cutesy fluffy lion cub. The brilliance is that nothing is hidden. The mechanics of the puppets, the masks, the set and the movement of the animals is unashamedly on view for all to witness, adding a brilliant new element for audiences everywhere and engaging even those who are reluctant to admit that they love this Disney classic. But we all know that Disney is genuinely for any age and the production and message (and some of the adult only jokes) behind this show prove that tenfold. I know I gained a whole new perspective watching it this evening than when I first watched it in my early twenties. It is a show that grows old with you, presenting new messages and meaning depending on where you find yourself in life. I have never wiped away so many sneaky tears as I did tonight for example in the beautifully bonding father and son song by Mufasa of “He Lives In You.”
There are endless moments to gush about in The Lion King, from the mesmerising “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” where an impressive curtain drops down and provides plenty of reveals, including moving floats and giraffes that bow down into the audience, to the mesmerising “He Lives In You Reprise,” where lights are used to truly create beautiful art and collect together in waves to produce Mufasa’s reflection in the water. I was in awe at the sheer brilliance of how this was put together, and it’s really hard trying to review something when you want to talk incessantly about every detail but equally want to allow others to savour the moment and the magic for themselves. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, inflatables are introduced, shadow puppets astound, cast members continually surprise you with their entrances. There’s flying, dazzling colour, and the intrinsically genius use of size and perspective to create a stampede and show the wildebeest getting closer. Heck, even Bury market gets a mention - I kid you not! This show is a spectacle, and each number brings a new level of magic, excitement and wonder to the stage. It will blow your winter socks off. “Be Prepared” by Scar is one of my favourites for it is such a pivotal moment and you feel this deep in your core from the shivers down your spine, to the hairs on your arms standing to attention. It’s difficult to explain as the whole show ignites all of your senses, and then a few more you didn’t even know you had!
Jean-Luc Guizonne (international Lion King tours, Chicago, Moana) is thoroughly stunning, commanding, and regal as Mufasa. His rich deep voice grasps you by the heart and his stage presence is definitely fit for a King. Its hard to take your eyes off him. Richard Hurst (The Bodyguard, Sunny Afternoon, Eastenders) is outstanding as Scar and his dry, dark cynicism drips deliciously from his every word and move. He embodies the character with every nuance of his being. They make for a thrilling combination during their scenes together, complimenting each other through their contrasting character qualities. Thandazile Soni (international Lion King tours) is incredible as Rafiki. The click language used (Xhosa - a Nguni Bantu language and one of the official languages of South Africa) is hypnotic in quality and I could have listened to far more. Loveable, wise, funny and with an air of something that quite frankly transcends words, you can’t take your eyes off her either. Matthew Forbes (War Horse, The Good Life, The Wizard Of Oz) blew my mind with his utterly convincing puppetry as Zazu and his relentless energy throughout. His voice alone draws you in, and a British humour shone through. Alan McHale (The Clockmakers Daughter, Oliver With A Twist, Macbeth) and Carl Sanderson (Sweet Charity, That Day We Sang, 42nd Street) are comedy gold as Timon and Pumbaa. Again, their puppetry was phenomenal. They know exactly how to work an audience and gained the most giggles from the children in the audience. Stephenson Ardern-Sodjet (Hamilton, As You Like It, Macbeth) is enchanting as Simba and Nokwanda Khuzwayo (The Lion King international, How Long Musical) is mesmerising and powerful as Nala. The duo are playful and powerful, gentle and fierce, and their cat like moves are purrfect (sorry!). Their duets are sublime, their solos stunning. They leap across the stage with such ease, making it look so easy you start to believe you can do it yourself – until reality kicks in and you trip over your merchandise bag just standing up to applaud! Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder, and Owain Rhys Davies blend brilliantly to create the hilarious hyenas and will have you belly laughing at their escapades. This costume, more than any other, had me transfixed and their agility in making it so believable should be applauded. The young Simba and Nala matched the professional standard of every adult on the stage and it was a pleasure to witness our future West end leads in the making. The entire ensemble is out of this world, and if you ever needed proof – their acapella opening of the second act will leave you in no doubt.
And even with all of that - I’m still not finished! Throw in acrobatics, stilt walking, incredible costumes - each entirely unique and a work of art in itself, African drums played within the theatre itself creating a surround sound feel, humour, heartache, pathos, acceptance, and you’ll come out feeling inspired, invigorated and like you’ve had the best free therapy ever because the show is jam packed with so much awe, so much life that it not only entertains to the highest standards, but it offers a gentle and safe way to deal with some of lifes biggest heartaches such as grief, self-doubt, betrayal, responsibility, values and strength during adversity. The Lion King encourages you to find strength and belief in yourself and your abilities. What a gift of a show.
I am thrilled and honoured that I have been lucky enough to watch The Lion King this evening and am beside myself that I am coming again with my family in December. But with an extended run till 11th March 2023, I make absolutely no promise that this will be my last visit to the African pride lands, and feel a rebirth of my nephews favourite game returning as we recreate the numerous scenes! I am certainly feeling the love tonight, so Long live the King!
WE SCORE DISNEY'S THE LION KING...
A big thank you to @kimptonclocktower, @thelionkinguk and @palaceandopera for making the evening so special.
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 31st October 2022
GET BUSY LIVIN' AND SEE THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION!
The Shawshank Redemption may initially appear to be a story just about convicts, deceiving you into believing that you have nothing in common with its characters and no way to relate to them, but anyone who has seen the film or read the Stephen King novella will strongly disagree. For this is a story about the human spirit, what can and cannot be taken from us, and how different ways of responding to the same situation will lead to very different outcomes.
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
The story follows a group of convicts inside Shawshank prison, with a particular focus on two men – one guilty, one innocent. They form a strong friendship during their life imprisonment and grow to respect each other for the person they are, not the crime they did or did not commit. They pit the ideas of hope against resignment, free will against institutionalisation, and the belief in change versus acceptance. Andy is quiet, reserved, and takes his beatings from the prison bullies with dignity in order to maintain a low profile which inevitably serves his end game. Red is the man you go to when you need something and has a respect and authority from the other inmates that serves him well. Andy, an ex-banker, is brainy, ballsy and looks out for his friends, so when the opportunity to help the brutal prison guard with a financial issue presents itself, despite warnings from his pals, he takes it – not to gain favour with the guards but in order to get his buddies some beers in return and allow them to feel human again. More than anything, this is the change we see Andy bring to Shawshank – that the prisoners still be recognised as living breathing humans who can believe in hope. He writes letters every week for years to get funding to build a library, and it finally pays off. He starts to use this to educate other prisoners, his financial expertise is extended to other prison workers and eventually he becomes the corrupt accountant for the prison warden. After a disagreement with the warden leaves him in solitary confinement, it appears Andy is a broken man, but little does everyone else realise that Andy has been planning his escape since his first day inside. He does not want to end up like Brooksie – the lifer who has no idea how to adjust to the outside world when he is released and so commits suicide. Andy escapes in a legendary manner, ensuring that the prison warden’s illegal activities are bust wide open, and that upon his release, Red has a friend and a place to go. The story highlights that even though life tends to split us into the good guys and the bad guys, that this is a generalisation and the good guys can have bad people in them and the bad guys can have good people. Hope, loss, unconditional friendship, revenge, humour, sadness, and the complexity of humanity are all here in abundance. It is understandable why it is held up as one of the best stories ever told.
The show starts with Red introducing us to his world as he stands inside Shawshank, and we witness the arrival of the new prisoners, naked, deloused, and vulnerable. One of them is Andy Dufresne. The prison set is cleverly constructed, with the cells running along the side of the stage, arches along the back, and a walkway above, with lighting setting the dark and dingy atmosphere. Tables, beds, and bookshelves are brought on to depict the minimal scene changes needed. An eerie and effective notion of the oppressing prison is captured through background noise and sound effects, such as the chilling clanking shut of prison cells, the screams of a beaten inmate, and distant sirens warning of who knows what. Music is played at intervals throughout the play, with songs matching the year of the story - a simple yet brilliant way to show the passing of time. Tonight’s production seemed to adopt a more gentle re-enactment of the violent elements of the story than the film, such as the brutal beatings, weapon attacks and gang rape. Don’t get me wrong, they are there, but are handled with more sensitivity. At first I was surprised by this (not that I’m a twisted individual who wanted to watch these things in more gruesome detail) but as time passed, I soon realised that this approach worked as it allowed you to focus on the way the inmates dealt with these attacks rather than focusing on the attack itself, hence once again engaging you with Andy’s possibility of hope and life even through the darkest situations. There is surprising humour to be found throughout the play, whether it be dark, cynical, sarcastic, or an out and out joke. It brings great light and shade and helps once again to paint the inmates as more than stereotypical criminals who are only the sum of their crime. It is remarkable how you end up liking these characters, even as you are listening to each of them admit their guilt to murder, you find it hard to match their crime with the character you have been watching.
I always wonder if it must be intimidating or exciting to take on a role that is so huge, so well known, and played by a Hollywood legend. Well, that is exactly what Ben Onwukwe (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, The 47th, London’s Burning) has done in recreating Morgan Freemans Red, and what a fantastic job he has done. Onwukwe has an incredible presence on stage and you can’t help but watch him, and follow his every move. This is exactly what his character needs to be. He is able to elicit humour, empathy, kindness and respect. This is never more present than when he forms his friendship with Andy and shows us that even after all he has lived, witnessed and become during his time in Shawshank, he is still capable of learning, still capable of human growth in a way that even the prison guards aren’t.
The minute I heard that BAFTA nominated Joe Absolom (A Confession, The Bay, Doc Martin, Eastenders) was taking on the role of Andy, I could already see it! What fantastic casting! Absolom portrays Andy’s aloofness and awkwardness brilliantly, whilst still managing to be the only prisoner to elicit a true friendship. With his educational background setting him aside as a quiet but assertive leader who persists in his goals for change, Absolom provides us with a gentle humour and gives the prisoners a reason for hope. He tackles Andy’s quietly superior role with subtlety and creates his own character rather than just producing a carbon copy of Tim Robbins in the film, which pays off in bucketfuls.
Mark Heenehan (Evita, Of Mice & Men, Jersey Boys) plays the warden Stammas with a skin crawling excellence. He is brutally convincing at playing the creepy disciplinarian who is all kinds of evil. Exploitation, manipulation, violence, and fear permeate everything he does through his calm and controlling manner, and it is deliciously delightful to watch such acting up close and personal – not too close and personal though as Heenehan is really good at it and I scare too easy.
The most loveable inmate has to be Kenneth Jay (Witness For The Prosecution, The Woman In Black, Doctor Who) as Brooksie. He truly packs a punch with the emotional heart of the show and brought about a few tears from those around us, really bringing home the question of what rehabilitation really is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. His final scenes are a case of “I’m not crying – you’re crying!”
Joe Reisig, Owen Oldroyd, Jay Marsh, Leigh Jones, Jules Brown, Kieran Garland, Coulter Dittman and Samarge Hamilton complete the cast as a mixture of inmates and prison officers, each with a completely individual and believable character. Whether it be a fixed stare, a distinct laugh, a particular walk, a flex of a muscle, a nervous nature, or an authoritative stance, this cast are strong and it is clear that they are all equally important as each other in order to create a slice of anything that resembles the dark truth about prison life. Directed by David Esbjornson and Tim Welton, Shawshank is brought alive within the safety of The Lyric Theatre, and it is a comfort to know that we all get to go home tonight.
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the film for this production has its own adaptation to work off anyway (Owen O’Neill & Dave Johns) and brings the Stephen King story to life through its plentiful and colourful characters. The ending is emotional and the visual contrast provided through colour with a stunning beach backdrop that appears to be bathed in a warm sunshine glow lit from both behind and in front, certainly has the desired impact on the audience. The Shawshank Redemption does its job in reminding us that, as Andy says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” This production of The Shawshank Redemption dutifully ensures that no good thing ever dies, as it captures one of the best stories ever told for a new generation.
WE SCORE THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION...
Let The Right One In - Royal Exchange Theatre - Thursday 27th October 2022
LET THE RIGHT ON IN - EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE!
Arriving at The Royal Exchange involved a walk past the numerous buildings taking part in the Manchester Monster trail – a collection of large inflatable monsters adorning our skyline. St. Annes Square was alive with pumpkins hanging from its trees and The Royal Exchange welcomed us with green inflatable monster legs spewing out of its roof, immediately setting the scene for the Halloween spooky vibes before we’d even set foot in the theatre for this vampire themed play. Anticipation and excitement at the thought of being spooked flooded the theatre and as we took our seats, we were warned – there was going to be a lot of blood!
I have somehow been oblivious to the phenomenon of Let The Right One In. A fairly modern novel written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, it has already seen multiple adaptations to screen, with more in the making. It has been adapted for stage by the irrepressible Jack Thorne (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child) and has flown into Manchester under the cover of darkness with sublime timing, ready to pack a powerful bite out of its Halloween audiences.
Oskar is alone. Bullied at school, a mum who drinks, a dad who isn’t really present, no friends, and a teacher who is aware, but who ignores all of this, it is no wonder that his vulnerable world is turned upside down when he meets the intriguing Eli, his new next-door neighbour. Despite Oskar’s challenges in life, he has beautifully kept hold of the honest and accepting innocence of childhood, so the fact that his new friend Eli smells like damp dead dog, or infected bandages hold no significance to him. He likes Eli because Eli is kind and accepting of him. But around this blossoming friendship is a world of darkness. Murder seems to be around every corner, and the trail of victims seem to be getting ever closer to Oskar. As he asks questions of Eli, their friendship is tested, until Oskar witnesses something he can’t escape. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, he realises that Eli is not entirely who he believed her to be, yet he can’t escape that she is still the same person he became friends with. Through Eli, Oskar learns to stand up for himself, but the disastrous consequences pummel a path of no return, cementing a precarious future for the moonlit crossed couple. We are left wondering is this the happy ending Oskar deserves or does his future happiness with Eli have a sell by date like his predecessor?
Let The Right One In is so much more than another vampire story. I’m not a huge fan of vampire stories to be honest, but I LOVED this production because its heart is actually in its multiple human themes that we all connect with, from isolation, vulnerability, friendship, love, family, acceptance and identity. There is a truly tender and innocent love in the dark depths of this story, instead of the usual predictably passionate and sexual other vampire stories, so much so that you could argue the vampire part becomes secondary to the lesson of acceptance.
This story is quite a complex one to stage with many potential problems. Vampires fly, jump, and bound around for a start, and this has to be achieved without any film magic. On top of that, the story demands the weather plays a large part in the story, depicting an icy cold Sweden. Numerous locations have to be created, including a swimming pool, the woods, a hospital, sweet shop, bedroom and even a train carriage, and it also has to encompass the brutality of the murders alongside the beauty of Oskar and Eli’s friendship. Designer Amelia Jane Hankin somehow managed to crack the code and solve every single puzzle, creating a believable urban world that juxtaposes darkness and light. The cast seamlessly transition us from one location to the next by transporting the various set pieces, such as boxes, climbing frames, beds, and even the woods. Lighting, dry ice, impeccable acting, and a team who know exactly how to elicit a psychological response of fear, anxiety and trepidation in an audience, complete the impressive world in which we are submerged.
The jump factor is present from the off. There is no gentle build up, you are thrown into murder in a way I have never seen in a theatre before. Then, you are lulled into a more relaxed state – making the shock surprises along the way a fantastic reminder of the power of live performance. The Royal Exchange is a brilliant theatre to house this play. As a ‘theatre in the round’ it means actors appear from anywhere and everywhere, and this sense of suspense only adds to the adrenalin. Even in the serene parts of the play, you always have the sense that something is coming, and you won’t be disappointed. From the shock of the opening make up at the start of the second act, to the penultimate scene in the swimming pool, where the audience is plunged into darkness, making you a prime target for the wrath of Eli. Flashes of light allow us to see what she is doing to protect Oskar from the darkest kind of bullying that would have led to his death, and it is equally brilliant and terrifying at the same time.
Every detail of Let The Right One In is mesmerising. The special effects and make up, the fight scenes, the direction, costumes, scenery, lighting, sound – all of it harmonise so well that it is only afterwards you kind of think – I’ve just watched something that was so realistic I recoiled, jumped, hid behind my programme, but it was done right in front of me – how was it not real? I’ve never seen stage fighting like it! One scene in particular shows a teacher getting headbutted and beaten up. Right down to the crack sound, it was utterly believable. It's impossible to understand how they didn’t actually make contact, and the sounds of discomfort from the audience at this moment showed I wasn’t alone in this thought. A similar moment occurred when Hakin has his neck broken and his first victim is hung upside down from a wire to drain his blood. But despite my ramblings, don’t be fooled into thinking this production is all about the gore – I’m a wuss who would have left the theatre if that were the case! It is also sweet, quirky, funny and provided just as many giggles as gasps. The heart of this is the relationship between Oskar and Eli which has been directed so beautifully by Bryony Shanahan. Well thought out details such as Eli climbing and jumping so effortlessly around the set, is contrasted with the awkward, clumsy and funny demounting of Oskar from a simple climbing frame, leaving the audience giggling and falling in love with this sweet boy in equal measures. It’s also wonderful to see Eli with a shy, gentle, and curious side, showing that none of us are just one thing. She is this other worldly vampire who has lived for a thousand or so years, yet she is still able to learn so much from the lonely boy next door. Lessons in acceptance are also hinted towards with Eli telling Oskar they are not a girl, neither young or old, boy or girl, human or vampire – they are just Eli. Oskar accepts this for it doesn’t change the foundations of their friendship and what connects them in any way.
Rhian Blundell is fantastic as Eli. Capable of warming your heart or ripping it out to feed upon, there is such a fully rounded character that every nuance is etched in every detail. Whether it be the grappling with emotions on her face, the character quirks such a wiping her mouth and nose to ensure there is no blood, her defensive position or her more vulnerable ones, Blundell clearly knows her character inside out and therefore we are fully able to believe in whatever she does. Remarkable. Pete MacHale is heart melting as Oskar and has again created such a well-rounded character that his twitchy moves, simple and honest delivery of lines, and his character hesitations ensure you are completely on his side. You feel his vulnerability, and many left the theatre hoping he would be ok, such was the power of his performance that it stayed with you even when the show was over. Darren Kuppan played numerous roles and each with utter conviction. The range of accents, personalities and physicality from one actor was impressive to say the least. Stefan Race as Jonny was so realistic as the bully that as he exited past me at one point, I found I wanted to grab him and have a quiet word about his behaviour!! I of course didn’t, but my point is he gave a completely convincing performance, and brilliantly switched to fear and shame at the end with the introduction of his brother, showing us in a heartbeat why he was the way he was. Anthony Aje, Daon Broni, Mercé Ribot, Kyle Rowe, Andrew Sheridan were all remarkable too, creating an unbreakable cast that have all clearly mastered their craft. Everyone, including The Royal Exchanges Young Company, brought light and shade to this production and made it something I wasn’t expecting but equally delighted I found.
Let The Right One In is a play that shocks on many levels, from its blood soaked moments that will have you grappling for protection off the stranger sat next to you, to its unexpected tender, sweet and loving side, and just for good measure will provide you with many surprising giggles along the way. Expect the unexpected in more ways than one, and remember to close your windows and sleep with the light on!
WE SCORE LET THE RIGHT ONE IN...
REVIEW - Brief Encounter - Octagon Theatre, Bolton - Friday 21st October 2022
THIS GLORIOUS CLASSIC HAS BEEN GIVEN THE ATTENTION, UNDERSTANDING AND ADMIRATION IT DESERVES
Whoever thought that a railway station could cause so much drama, passion, and intrigue?! One day, you’re just waiting for your train, minding your own business, the next – you meet someone who impacts your world with such force, you know that it will never be the same again. Brief Encounter is not just a classic, it’s a piece of art, put on a pedestal for good reason. Written by Noel Coward, nominated for three Oscars, winner of the Palme D’Or, and with a stella cast of stars, the film embraced its adoring audience, and set itself up in history as one of those untouchable, perfect examples of cinematic gold.
The creative team behind this adaptation to stage have therefore got to be some of the bravest individuals out there. Adapted by Emma Rice for stage, the introduction of songs by Simon Slater, directed by Paul Robinson and produced via the collaboration of Bolton Octagon, Theatre By The Lake, and Stephen Joseph Theatre, this glorious classic has been given the attention, understanding and admiration it deserves. The story has not been changed, the production of theatre verses film has simply enhanced the storytelling through new and exciting methods, resulting in a stunning and tender new lease of life. This production holds Brief Encounter with a comparable amount of loving respect as you would use modern technology to touch up an old but adored family photograph, ensuring new generations can still enjoy its story for years to come.
Laura and Alec are both respectable members of their community, both married, and both with children. Laura’s routine sees her taking a train every Thursday to the local town for a bit of ‘me’ time, whilst Alec, a doctor, travels to work in the local hospital. So, who better to help you out when you have a piece of grit stuck in your eye than a doctor right? It seems after this chance meeting, their paths are destined to cross for they accidentally bump into each other again, and from there it expands into a lunch, a matinee, a relationship. What started out as innocent quickly develops into something more, shocking them both but seemingly powerless to resist. A mirror is held up to their truth when they bump into friends and instead of being able to offer a truthful explanation of innocent friendship, they find themselves lying about their connection. This lie implodes their values, their essence of wrong and right, and the invisible line that they believe is uncrossable, until Laura and Alec find themselves alone with purpose in Stephens flat – a doctor friend of Alec’s. Stephen returns home earlier than expected though and provides Alec with a diagnosis of judgment resulting in symptoms of shame and humiliation in Laura. She flees the apartment and finds herself back in the café where she met Alec, working out her inner turmoil. Both Laura and Alec conclude that a life together, either through affair or honesty, is impossible and agree to never meet again as their temptation for each other is one they aren’t sure they can resist. Their final meeting place is the railway café – the same place they met, and whilst they had planned a heartfelt and poignant goodbye, life intervenes once again as a friend of Laura’s casually joins them. Oblivious to the fact she is stealing their final goodbye, Dolly chatters on. As Alec leaves Laura life forever, they are unable to express the ache this causes them and cannot even hug because Dolly won’t leave. As the train steals Alec away from Laura forever, she is bereft. She briefly contemplates ending it all by throwing herself on the tracks, but her conscience wins out and she takes herself home to her husband and children, where her husband Fred thanks her for coming home to him.
Anne-Marie Piazza (Christmas Carol, Prince & The Pauper, Swallows & Amazons) takes us on the most honest and human emotional journey. Whether you identify with her situation or not becomes irrelevant as her strength lies in her ability to draw you in to such a wide range of emotions to which we all can identify, from feeling trapped to exhilarated, love and passion to despair and hopelessness, anger to joy and promise to loss. Piazza must be completely drained after performing because she leaves everything on the stage with her generous performance and will leave you reaching for your sleeve when you realise you’ve used up all your tissues. Pete Ashmore (Zorro, Jungle Book, Christmas Carol) is open, honest, and persuasive as Alec. He too works his way through his feelings, surprised by the speed and overwhelming nature in which they arrive, with words tumbling out quicker than a runaway train. He drives the relationship forward, and expresses his love beautifully with every emotion etched onto his face.
Lara Lewis, Joey Hickman, Natasha Lewis, Robert Jackson and Rishi Manuel create a delightful and hugely valued cast of characters between them, supporting, strengthening and spurring the story on, giving us chance to catch our breath, digest and understand. This is particularly true of the other romances that are seamlessly threaded throughout the story, but which provide light relief and comfort against the harrowing tale of Laura and Alec. There may be two main roles in this story, but this cast beautifully provide the foundations to support and allow them to flourish with such solidarity. Jackson is able to portray opposing characters in love with utter clarity and believability, Lara Lewis gives us a more tender and carefree youthful love, making your heart sigh with content. Natasha Lewis is comedy gold as Mrs. Bagot and her timing ensured she was quite capable of creating moments in the spotlight for herself. Hickman convincingly switched from young love, to imposing bully with such impressive ease and Manuel seemed to be every all at once, and convincingly played a child so well that even I wanted to hug him when he wasn’t well. Oh, and add in to their amazing acting the fact that this cast all sing and all play instruments too, from the trombone to the accordion! So much talent in one small cast.
Now can we just stop to take a moment and appreciate the music please. Firstly, I am pleased to say that there are nods to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 provided in this production, arguably one of the most well-known classical concertos there is thanks to the film, but also there is the brilliant addition of further songs arranged by (Mad About The Boy) or music written to Cowards lyrics by Simon Slater (No Good At Love). The use of such timely Coward songs is a clever and welcome addition. Music is known to drive emotion, so it is a brilliant way to heighten our already tender emotions even further and push focus in the intended direction.
The staging somehow manages to fully immerse you in the various locations, from a railway café to a park, an apartment, a living room, a dance floor and of course the train station itself – each with infinite details such as steam coming out of a stairwell to represent an approaching train, scones in the café as well as crumbs on the table, an aga, milk for the missing cat, boats, and record players. You are drawn into the performance from the second you set foot in the theatre, with actors dressed as old cinema ushers, guiding you to your seats, and the introduction of Beryl and Mrs. Bagot as they open their cafe to us all, welcoming us into their world. A pianist nestles in the corner, tinkling out some well-known songs for which the audience join in, truly making you a part of the story in a way that will be subtly unknown to you until you are breaking your heart at the end. Beyond the story itself are little nuggets sprinkled throughout the performance that remind you of the joy of live performance. For instance, when Laura and Alec first meet and he is trying to get the grit out of her eye. As Alec gives her instructions such as look up, hold still and so on, the other actors on the stage are so engrossed in watching a doctor at work, they instinctively join in his instructions, providing the audience with a giggle as we have fallen prey to such moments ourselves. Or the moment when Beryl and Mrs. Bagot settle down for their tea break on the theatre steps next to audience members and share their scones with the unsuspecting guests. Then there is the serene dance between Laura and Alec that allows rose petals to gently float down from above as lights simultaneously drop into position, and the unexpected live music that floods our senses.
This is a sublime production of Brief Encounter and observes the impact of love from many different vantage points. It shares its passion, its comfort, its unconditional nature, its ability to break you, to heal you and to make you lose sight of everything that you thought you believed in. Love is fundamental to all of us. It continually surprises with its shapeshifting ability and can wrap you up in safety, expose you, and trip you up at its whim. It is to be admired, embraced, respected and explored. So whenever love surprises you, acknowledge it, even if you don’t act on it, because to know love, even if it’s just for a Brief Encounter, is to be alive.
WE SCORE BRIEF ENCOUNTER...
Blood Brothers - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 18th October 2022
NO MATTER WHAT YOUR BLOOD TYPE, DONATE TO THE CAUSE AND WATCH BLOOD BROTHERS - IT'S INCREDIBLE!
It isn’t even a year since Blood Brothers was last in Manchester, breaking hearts and entertaining audiences all at the same time. Yet I find that everyone I speak to has rebooked to go and watch it again, this time in Salford, because they simply cannot get enough of this deeply moving story with its heartfelt music, funny bones, and Northern humour. So, I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again;
“Did you ever hear the story of the Johnstone twins?”
It seems everyone has a personal connection or story to share regarding Blood Brothers, whether they’ve read it at school like the many school groups in tonight, know the music, know parts of the script, or have gone to watch it for the star turn who happened to be performing. People will recall and share with delight the first time they saw it and how they are still moved by it now. So why all the fuss? Because this is one of the most popular and accessible musicals out there. People who proclaim they hate musical theatre will happily sell their own kidney to get a ticket to see this show (well, ok, maybe not – but you get what I mean. NB – Other organs are available!) It is a musical that represents different walks of life, allows us to engage in the same story but from different characters viewpoints and different ages, and shows us just how fragile life can be depending on the choices we make. It has humanity at its very core, exploring class division, love, life, friendship, and family.
Blood Brothers takes place in 1960’s Liverpool. Life is tough, jobs are scarce, and community is everything. When Mrs. Johnstone falls pregnant again, and her husband leaves her for a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, she knows that she simply cannot make ends meet. As she is cleaning for wealthy homeowner Mrs. Lyons, she listens to her grief at not being able to have children. The answer seems obvious when you are desperate. Mrs. Johnstone has too many children to feed, Mrs. Lyons has none. In a contemporary tale of nature versus nurture, we watch as twin brothers Mickey and Eddie are separated at birth, one brought up with wealth, the other without. When they meet as children, an instant bond is formed, though they have little idea of who they truly are to each other. Sealing their friendship with a blood pact, they become blood brothers and set in motion a series of events that intertwines their lives forever. As Mrs. Johnstone discovers who Mickey’s new friend really is, she is torn between keeping them apart and welcoming her long lost son with open arms. But Mrs. Lyons has no such issue and does everything she can to destroy any chance of the happiness they may bring each other. Guilt, anger, loss, and love form a dangerous cocktail of emotions and one bad choice, or one bad lie can set you on a path of self-destruction. We watch helplessly as Mickey is ground down into a deep depression, whilst Eddie seems to thrive. Does fate rule our lives, or are we the epitome of our own choices? The young Mickey and Eddie that we meet, so full of life and joy, have no idea that their past will determine their future and end in tragedy. It is heart-breaking.
The show dramatically opens drenched in red light, symbolic of the blood pact, the blood spilt, and the looming danger. Echoes of the songs to come whisper and crescendo throughout the theatre, building momentum via a spine tingling orchestra. Electric drums match your own heartbeat as the actors solemnly make their way on stage to ‘begin at the end’. We are forewarned that this show will end in tragedy, but it does nothing to ease its impact when it occurs. Mickey and Eddie are lain out, respectfully covered by a sheet, whilst Mrs. Johnstone and the Narrator guide us through the opening of the show, setting the scene of her circumstances and edging ever closer to the moment that seven-year-old Mickey bursts onto the stage playing Cowboys and Indians. This sudden gear change gives you a false sense of security that the show won’t really go there. Surely it can’t take away this young boy fizzing with imagination, energy and the pure innocence of youth? Surely it can’t allow anything bad to happen to these children? But they are not children when it happens and the fact that we see their story from them being youngsters is an interesting psychological insight into why is breaks you so much. If we had merely picked the story up from Mickey and Eddie being adults, would we feel as distraught? Would we offer judgement instead of empathy? Would we blame them instead of routing for them?
There is so much to love about Blood Brothers that it’s hard to pick out best bits, because that implies that there are bits that aren’t as good, and every second of this musical has been cleverly planned out so that none of it is wasted, secondary, or worthy of being called anything less than a best bit. There are moments which always seem to stick in my mind though, moments of detail, such as Mickey hiding under his oversized and over stretched sweater vest, crying at the cruelty of his older brother humiliating him in front of their friends. A washing line strung across the stage with several baby grows to represent Mrs. Johnstone’s expanding family, or Mickey feeding his pretend horse to make sure he doesn’t go hungry before he is dragged by his ear for a telling off. Hilarious and unexpected one liners delivered by Mickey and Eddie as children, key moments of letting the audience in on the joke such as when the milkman doubles up to play the doctor and references this fact with a joke, and the energy provided in numbers such as ‘Kids Game’ that all ages can relate to as we follow the bizarre but serious rules that kids make up for their street games, and the eerie parallels that seem to have followed through into our adult lives. The ‘Our Sammy’ monologue, which was performed superbly, and again drew the audience in as Mickey came and sat right on the edge of the stage, and the emotion inducing moments such as ‘Easy Terms’ and ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’. Blood Brothers doesn’t politely try to invite you into its story, it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shouts in your face. It delivers humanity at its best and worst and holds a mirror up to all of us. You will laugh, you will cry, you will jump, you may even scream, but you will not forget the night you went to watch Blood Brothers.
After seeing Niki Colwell Evans (X Factor, Kinky Boots, previous Blood Brothers production, Legally Blonde) perform as Mrs. Johnstone early this year, and still not being over the experience, I was thrilled to see her in the role again this evening. I honestly didn’t think it possible, but she has got even better! Her portrayal of grief broke me. It truly broke me. I felt everything I was supposed to feel through her performance, and it was so realistic the girl next to me turned to her partner and asked him, “Is she actually ok?” A raw and moving portrayal of a mum who loves her kids so desperately that the worst answer seems like the only answer to make sure they are all provided for.
Richard Munday (Mamma Mia, The Mikado, Phantom) is a strong presence as the Narrator. Intimidating, threatening, and brutally honest, this is one of the best portrayals I have seen. Audiences often giggle at the Narrator as they try and work out the purpose of the role, but tonight Munday kept us all well within his grasp and guided us throughout, ensuring the darkness of what had happened was never to be lost in the fun and frivolity. He holds a mirror up to Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons, ensuring they can never escape their actions, and therefore ensuring that we never forget. He commands with a look, a sneer, a hand held out, a body block. It is an impressive performance.
Mickey was performed by the amazing Sean Jones (The Turnip Field, Macbeth, resident comic at The Floral Pavilion New Brighton). It truly struck me tonight what a demanding part Mickey really is. From an impish seven-year-old boy full of enthusiasm and verve, right through to the chronically depressed, drug dependent adult he becomes, Jones makes Mickey accessible and understandable every step of the way. You can’t help but fall in love with the cheeky rogue that bursts onto the stage on the back of an invisible horse, and through his carefully crafted and detailed storytelling, Jones keeps our loyalty with Mickey throughout his whole harrowing journey. His is such a talent that you can be forgiven for forgetting that the tragic figure by the end is the same actor who started out spitting in the air then rolling it around in his jumper. Fantastically believable.
Eddie was brought to adorable life by Jay Worley (Jack & The Beanstalk, The Santa Trap, Casualty). He was endearing, charming, and full of youthful innocence. He was able to flip from humour, to tears, to compassion, and your heart broke for him just as much as it did for Mickey. Worley found the ying to Jones’ yang and their creative partnership underpinned the entire show. Carly Burns (Hairspray, Tommy, Cinderella) completed the complicated love triangle as Linda. Funny, light-hearted, serious, and sassy, Burns was a strong female presence who distinguished her different relationships with Mickey and Eddie beautifully. Paula Tappenden as Mrs. Lyons bravely showed us an honest descent into the loss of her mind, while Tim Churchill as Mr. Lyons juxtaposed this with a detached and dismissive nature. They made a great team. Timothy Lucas as Sammy was wild, untamed and a little scary – even as a youngster, which is exactly what Sammy is supposed to be, and this had to be believable to allow us to buy into how Mickey ended up in the position he did. Lucas certainly made this believable from the get-go.
The set is a piece of art, truly placing you in those Liverpool streets, with terraced houses lining the side of the stage, the warm glow of lights beaming out from an extremely busy working family home. The contrast to detail given to the Lyons home is brilliant – even the space it is afforded on stage, captures the difference in class and helps guide our thought process. Backdrops are layered in through the opening sequence, with graffitied walls, wrought iron bridges, over a Liverpool skyline that slowly wakes up. Blue flashing lights depict a police presence. The empty and derelict area highlights the life that Mrs. Johnstone and Mickey have. Multiple levels are used as balconies, drawing our eyes in every direction and as the timeline unfolds, sets are dropped in which take us to the fair, the country, prison and the council. It is quick, effective and helps guide the story.
I have seen Blood Brothers four times now, and every time it has been to a busy and enthusiastic audience. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is a British institution. I implore you to watch Blood Brothers because if nothing else, it will highlight that even if life throws a pile of doo dah at you, it is the choice that you make in response to the doo dah that seals your fate, not the doo dah itself. Had Mickey have made a different choice regarding helping Sammy, the story would have ended differently. Had Mrs. Johnstone made a different choice regarding her circumstances, or Mrs. Lyons chosen not to voice her maternal needs, we may not all be left sat in the audience ugly crying at the ending. Sometimes, life sucks, there is no escaping that. Blood Brothers allows you to question how our response to that suckiness can alter our path and impact our lives. The injustice involved leaves you reeling so much that it is impossible to overlook the questions running round your head, and the various alternative ways your mind is probably screaming out that things could have been handled. I’ve never viewed the show this way before which just goes to show that Blood Brothers always has something to say, always has something to teach you, and will always provide you with a different experience depending on your own current circumstances or mind set at the time of watching. I’d say that is why audiences return time and time again to watch this beautifully penned show by the incomparable Willy Russell. It never fails to deliver, it never fails to entertain and it never fails to make you appreciate everything you have in life.
WE SCORE BLOOD BROTHERS...
The Color Purple
The Color Purple - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 11th October 2022
THE COLOR PURPLE IS A LIFE-AFFIRMING PRODUCTION THAT WILL HOLD YOUR HEART IN ITS HANDS!
From the Alice Walker novel to the 1985 Whoopi Goldberg movie, to now; The Color Purple is a story that keeps being retold because, quite frankly, it can’t be told enough. The long awaited arrival of the UK tour has created a palpable buzz for some time and to be invited along to watch such a pivotal musical has resulted in a whirlwind of emotions that have left me in awe at the strength of the human spirit, the importance of self-worth, and the power behind rewriting your own story.
Celie, our protagonist, goes on one hell of a transformative journey in The Color Purple. From an early age, her world is one of abuse, lies, fear, silence and oppression. Abused by her so call stepfather, him marrying her off to a stranger when he becomes bored, abused by the new husband, reduced to a slave, children torn away from her, and diminished to a nonexistence which results in her not even knowing the name of her husband. Set in the deep South of America during the first half of the 20th century, Celie faces external prejudice, internal mistreatment, and somehow still finds the inner strength to face it all down and finally live a life of contentment and joy. As her sister is ripped away from her, the one person who she feels upon whom she can rely, she fears Nettie dead, but it turns out to be just another result of her husbands abuse and control. The day he moves in his mistress Shug Avery, is another attempted means of humiliation and empowerment over Celie, but Mister underestimates the solidarity of sisterhood, of empathy, and of the capabilities of the human spirit. As a beautiful bond blossoms between Shug and Celie, the truth of her past is set free. No longer a prisoner of the mysteries which have engulfed her life, Celie is given the gift of enlightenment. Shug enables her to see that her story can change. She can be her own author, and she still has the future of her own story to write, but make no mistake, it is now very much Celie’s story to write, and no one else’s. As Celie’s eyes are opened to a world beyond the one her circumstances have so far trapped her in, exciting new ideas, possibilities and mindsets manifest themselves in a gloriously empowering ownership, enlightening Celie to the strength of her own voice. A beautiful independence emerges, ensuring Celie can choose to be successful, happy, expressive, and content and highlights that love, in all its forms, can be found in the most surprising of places.
Me’sha Bryan (Romantics Anonymous, Caroline, or Change, The Lion King) is phenomenal as Celie. Her performance is from the heart, reaching into your soul and speaking directly to you as if no one else were even in the audience. As I say, phenomenal. She takes you on the difficult journey of her character, all the while holding your hand, and reassuring you that everything will somehow be ok. In the hands of the wrong person, this role could elicit only sympathy, yet Bryan propels beyond expectations, ensuring we have hope even in the darkest of times. I know this essence was felt in the other audience members for she is quite literally cheered on throughout, and with showstopping moments such as ‘What About Love’, ‘I’m Here’ and ‘The Colour Purple’, it would take a robot to respond in any other way. If Me’sha Bryan doesn’t receive an Olivier, I shall………well I don’t quite know what I shall do, but I shall do it!
Bree Smith (The Wiz, Coming To England, West Side Story) is sensational as Shug Avery and makes it crystal clear that everyone should have a Shug in their life. Her performance of ‘Push Da Button’ (no not the Sugababes song) alone will leave you in no doubt that Smith is a force to be reckoned with. Her ability to fill the theatre with individuality, compassion, and inner strength, whilst reducing you to lip wobbling emotions, is a true skill. Unafraid to show her vulnerable side, she is sassy, sensual and sensitive, reminding us we can be all of these paradoxical states and do not ever have to pigeonhole ourselves to a one dimensional role that society expects of us.
Ako Mitchell has the ability to dominate with a ferocity that is so believable, you find yourself either recoiling or wanting to jump up and fight him whenever he is on the stage. That is meant as a compliment for he is so believable with his performance that you forget that is IS a performance. We are also given insight into why his character behaves as he does and this revelation is delivered so strikingly by Mitchell that it allows the edges of distaste for him soften, confusing the bejesus out of you, leading to a lot of internal questions about where the lines of acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding lay. An exceptionally powerful performer, with a heightened sense of attention to detail ensure Ako Mitchell is a name you will google and won’t forget.
Ahmed Hamad (The Addams Family, Rumi) and Anelisa Lamola (The Wiz, Sunset Boulevard) provide a touching partnership as Harpo and Sofia, defying stereotypes, and providing us with a contrast to Celie and Misters relationship. Their connection is feisty yet gentle, passionate yet calming, highlighting their talents with crystal clear clarity. Sofia was one of my favourite characters, and Lamola’s performance of ‘Hell No!’ brought the house down. The attitude was insane and I think many of us probably left making a promise to ourselves to channel our inner Sofia when the world tries to extract the urine!
The entire cast are undoubtedly brilliant, and I wish I could simply sit here and name check every single one of them, but instead I urge you to go and see for yourself, for you will not be disappointed. And every exceptional cast always have an equally exceptional creative team behind the scenes, providing the magic which whisks us away into another world. The Colour Purple is directed by Tinuke Craig and Lakesha Arie Angelo, choreographed by Mark Smith, designed by Alex Lowde, and lit and visualised by Joshua Pharo. The immense Lyric Theatre stage becomes the host for wonderful theatre illusions, whether it be secret reveals from the stupendously brilliant set, luminating backdrops, transformative video production, or the subtle background sound effects subconsciously dripping into your brain. But let’s just go back to the set for a second. Huge walls host sliding openings that are like the door Mr. Ben found himself walking through, for you never knew where they could lead. As they opened up, almost like an advent calendar, new sets within the set were revealed, meaning with no visible fuss, you could be taken from a shop front, to church, to a bar, to a prison. It was brilliant and I was in awe of the sprinkling of magic theatre dust once again.
The book by Marsha Norman truly makes use of its theatre artform, thrusting the storytelling right into the palm of our hands via it’s complex and contradictory characters, giving us more insight into why people are the way they are and highlighting important themes, such as community, trauma and abuse as an inherited and learnt behaviour, and love in every adaption possible, from romantic, to platonic, to parental, sibling, community, and most importantly, self-love. Music and lyrics stand equal in driving this production. Written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the songs blend into the familiar story with such honesty and emotion that it almost becomes impossible to imagine the The Color Purple without them. They are used in an exemplary manner for musical theatre in that they take you places words cannot always express, allowing you to understand by feeling the emotion. Musically, they are genius. Inspired by flavours of the South, you will have your taste buds ignited by hints of jazz, ragtime, blues, R&B, gospel, African, and even a little bit of rock n’ roll. The impact is mesmerising. And when a show is opened up with such joyous gospel music, it’s all you can do to remain seated and let the professionals do their job, such is the inspirational power of music.
A stroke of storytelling genius were the three ‘gossips’ who fill us in on what is going on, share their opinions, and generally keep us informed. The gossip style is delivered through brilliant singing canons, that are so quick, articulate, and hilarious, that the trio built up their own fan club as the show went on. This element ensured that the shows dark and heart wrenching themes didn’t pull down the mood to such a level that it became difficult to enjoy the recovery and the survival.
The Color Purple is a stunning story, and despite it sounding potentially depressing with such hard hitting themes, instead, you are actually left with an overwhelming feeling of joy. It is inspirational, and even though you may or may not directly identify with the themes of the play, I guarantee you will find yourself reflecting on elements of your own life because it connects with everyone on their own personal level in a way that will inspire, hearten and enlighten you to have courage, have hope, and have an unshakeable belief that you do matter and you can absolutely take ownership of your own story. Whatever life you are living, The Color Purple, if nothing else, reminds us that it is YOUR life.
WE SCORE THE COLOR PURPLE...
English National Ballet - Swan Lake
English National Ballet's Swan Lake - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 5th October 2022
The words ‘Swan Lake’ immediately evokes the senses, from its infamous visual routines to its gloriously soaring music by Tchaikovsky. It has been performed all around the globe, parodied, re-imagined, and even been performed on ice. It is quite simply a stunning piece of art, and I feel privileged to have been invited along to watch The English National Ballet breathe life into this iconic and stunning dance phenomenon.
Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday, and what a lavish celebration it is. Gifted with a crossbow, he decides to go hunting alongside the lake, where he happens upon a flock of swans. It transcends that these swans are in fact enchanted Princesses who have been kidnapped by the evil half man, half bird sorcerer Rothbart and transformed into swans. Princess Odette leads the flock and as Siegfried’s eyes fall upon her, he becomes enraptured by her beauty. Siegfried is charmed and captivated by Odette, and proclaims his undying love for her, pledging himself to her for the rest of his life. Siegfried returns to his palace, full of love, and ready to fulfil his promise, starting by informing his mother. She, however, already has a perfectly pretty parade of women lined up for Siegfried to choose from for his future bride. One of these women is none other than Rothbart’s daughter Odile, but he has disguised her as Odette, knowing that it is she who Siegfried will choose. He does so, failing to spot the real Odette outside begging him to remain faithful, instead pledging himself to Odile, who he believes is Odette. Odette is heartbroken and returns to the lake. Odile and Rothbart reveal themselves, leaving Siegfried painfully aware of Rothbart’s manipulation. He runs to Odette by the lake, explains the situation and begs her forgiveness, which is granted, leading to a showdown between himself and the dark and dangerous Rothbart. I won’t give away the ending just in case you don’t know the story, but it’s emotional.
I’m just going to jump straight into the most iconic routines of Swan Lake, including the swans' entrance, the dance of the little swans, the black swan and the finale. But first, my theatre tingles began before the show had even started when I saw the layout in the orchestra pit and realised this was a full orchestra, ready to fill the air with rich and emotive music. As a violin and oboe ring out, Odette introduces herself and everything is sublime. Then Rothbart appears in a swathe of magnificence, dominating the stage with his powerful wings, and a magical transformation takes place, replacing Princess Odette with the infamous swan right before your very eyes. It is impressive.
The swans' entrance made everyone in the audience sit up a little straighter, made their pupils dilate a little more and made you grasp just how lucky you were to be at this stunning and spectacular classic ballet. It’s quite impossible to describe the impact of this moment as numerous dancers dressed as beautiful, elegant and graceful swans cascade onto the stage. As their arms gently ripple, whilst extended on full pointe in sous-sus, the effect is hypnotic. The power, strength, grace and beauty of so many ballerinas moving as one, is everything I hoped it would be. Set against a dark lake, their pristine white costumes thrive, and the escapism provided is priceless. The dance of the little swans is possibly one of the most iconic numbers associated with Swan Lake, which was evident in the ripple of recognition that filtered through the audience. Seeing this routine live in its full intended glory was akin to seeing one of your idols perform live. You’ve seen it before in part, recognise it, are familiar with its work, but to see it up close and personal takes you to a whole new level of appreciation. The unison, strength, discipline and coordination required is exceptional. These stunning four dancers must dance as one, in a line, whilst holding hands, and dance technical and impressive ballet moves. Like many others, I have seen this routine parodied many times before, most famously by Morecombe & Wise, and somehow this only added to the enjoyment.
The appearance of the black swan was also a moment to behold, producing the first cries of ‘brava’ from the audience. It is known as one of the most technically challenging dances for a ballerina, and I’m not surprised! I lost count of the amount of turns on pointe (apparently there are 32!). Can we just pause to catch our breath here though. 32 turns – on one leg - whilst whipping yourself around with the other – all on pointe!! All without travelling, losing balance, or losing focus for even a millisecond. I add my own Manchester version of ‘brava’ here - ‘Top banana our kid!’
The finale between Odette, Siefgried and Rothbart is dramatic, emotive and will have you on the edge of your seat, torn halfway between biting your nails and breaking your heart. To see the trust between these dancers as Odette is ripped between two dance partners is sensational.
Add glorious sets to the immaculate dancing, costumes and music and the effect is complete. The show is in four acts, allowing scene changes to be substantial and fitting. The lake is dark and gloomy, yet bewitching, and opens the third act bathed in mist, providing a protective and beguiling camouflage for the swans. It is stunning. A little detail I loved was when the swans stood up to dance, the mist came with them, whispering out from their tutus like a cry for help. Siegfried’s lavish home was given two sets, both portraying opulence, and making use of the full depth of the large stage for fantastic ensemble routines, such as his party when different national dances were performed.
Derek Deane’s Swan Lake utilises not only his own creative genius, but that of his dancers, and in particular his principals. Lead Principal, Fernanda Oliveira (Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet) is a sight to behold as Odette and Odile. She floated as if on air as Odette, then seduced with a fiery passion as Odile, appealing to every essence of the human psyche. First soloist Ken Saruhashi (Giselle, Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet) is relentlessly energetic and flawless as Prince Siegfield. He bounded across the stage with such ease, he created the impression of defying gravity itself. First soloist Junor Souza (Romeo & Juliet, Nutcracker, Giselle) is a powerful force to be reckoned with as the mysterious Rothbart. Commanding, and in complete control, with delicious acting accompanying his every move.
Along with Derek Deane, additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, design by Peter Farmer, lighting by Howard Harrison and The English National Ballet Philharmonic led by Musical Director and Conductor Gavin Sutherland, this creative team have ensured that their production of Swan Lake stands the test of time and fills the theatre with magic and beauty, both of which are needed in our outwardly grey world right now.
There is nothing that screams ballet more than the stunning sight of numerous ballerinas, all dressed in delicate white tutus, moving as one in utter unison. Swan Lake has beauty, drama, tension, heartache, and music that will make your soul take flight, moving you and connecting you to some internal need you didn’t know needed fulfilling. It is without a doubt one of the highlights of my life seeing this ballet – something I have been waiting to see since I first donned my own first black and white tutu as a mere cygnet. That’s a lot of expectation and not only did it fly through, but it also surpassed, leaving me with streams of tears and gulping sobs. No wonder it is the worlds most popular ballet. It has already been performed for over 140 years, and I am certain it will still be being performed in another 140! It’s fairy tale style story, immaculate costumes, magically emotive music, and exceptional dance ensure that Swan Lake is easily one of the most accessible ballets for dance experts, dance lovers, newbies, and everyone in between. It is powerful yet graceful, innocent yet dark, passionate yet polite. It is a perfectly split personality of a show, a true reflection of the white and black swan in all of us. We all resonate with swans, gliding through life outwardly to the world, yet paddling like hell in private beneath the surface just to survive, so paddle those exhausted legs to the theatre and give yourself a well-deserved treat in the form of the mesmerising Swan Lake.
WE SCORE SWAN LAKE – 9/10
Saturday Night Fever
Saturday Night Fever - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 27th September 2022
Saturday Night Fever on a Tuesday night was just the tonic needed for that start of week dip we are all prone to feeling. I’m equally invigorated and exhausted from watching this electrifying cast boogie their flares off, and I know that those iconic Bee Gees tunes will be happily bouncing through my mind for the foreseeable. For a show that has delinquent darkness, illuminating light, and a sprinkling of the everyday in between, Saturday Night Fever favours the feel-good factor as the takeaway treat, because the outstanding dancing and legendary music hustle their way into the spotlight and claim the leading roles as their own.
Meet Tony Manero, a young New Yorker who lives for the weekend where he can come alive through his dancing. Trapped in a mundane existence with a family who instead of offering understanding and support, provide a few fists and a blind eye, Tony’s true home is at the nightclub. His gang of friends often provide more trouble than he can handle, throwing him further into his rhythmical escape. Tony may be worshipped as King of the dance floor, ensuring he can strut his stuff, get the girls and be admired by all who inhabit clubland, but his private turmoil never truly leaves him. Upon entering a dance competition, his desperation to prove his worth and be told he is good at something in life leads to true friendship, honesty, and ends with a night that turns everything upside down. In a world fuelled by aggression, abuse, gangs, suicide, and drugs, can dance be the answer? Well, if you listen to our very own Manchester brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice, they will happily answer. It’s quite simple - you should be dancing, yeah!
Disco fever explodes across the stage through its rainbow lighting, thematic costumes and glitter balls to end all glitter balls. Wow! Situated not only across the stage but through the audience, the entire theatre is dazzled with the ultimate disco vibe and a beauty that made me want to readdress my lighting situation at home! The main staple set is a trio of pieces that represent fire escapes, creating that New York feel, and also cleverly double as everything else you may need. With a projected backdrop moving us from a street to a bridge, and beyond, flat sets that are manoeuvred on stage or slip on from above, the speed at which these changes occur, sometimes for the sake of a few minutes, is pretty impressive to say the least. As the curtain rises to a familiar frozen Saturday Night Fever dance formation, a note rings out, the audience go wild, and the dancing begins. And what dancing it is! It was all anyone in the audience could talk about. This cast is relentless and never seem to tire out. From iconic moves built into ensemble sequences that are repeated or rippled through dance canons, to utterly emotive partner work and solo magic, we are privy to disco, Latin, ballet, contemporary and pure class.
Jack Wilcox (Anything Goes, White Christmas, Joseph) is a beacon of dance as Tony Manero. I think he is literally unstoppable and has mastered the strut to perfection. He takes Tony on a believable journey through both acting and dance and connects with the audience immediately. Oh, and cue lots of whooping when he whips his top and pants off to change into the iconic white suit - which of course is what people were so happy to see! His solo dance to Immortality was so stunning, his partner work so tender yet strong, and he led the disco ensemble moments with exemplary style, it was clear to all that Tony Manero may have been born to dance, but so was Jack Wilcox!
Rebekah Bryant (9-5, The Brits, Carnival Cruises) as the fiery Stephanie Mangano was a beautifully sleek, effortless dancer. She had a gorgeous solo, created an amazing mixture of sass, sexy, and sensitive, as she portrayed a girl who was just trying to make a better life for herself. Bryant made everything look so easy, a true sign of talent and years of dedication. Billie Hardy (Chicago, Bat Out Of Hell, Cilla) played the underdog Annette and she took us from a fun loved up girl who made you giggle, to a broken, beaten shell with amazing acting. In the scene where she took drugs, even when the focus wasn’t on her character, she never stopped, and I kept looking over just waiting for her to collapse or pass out it was so real. Faizal Jaye (Bad Girls, Seussical, Made In Dagenham) deserves a mention as DJ Monty for the commitment, energy and party vibes. Most of his part was isolated on top of one of the fire escapes, but he matched the ensemble dancers move for move and just did not stop for breath! Then he sang – epic!! More of the Jaye singing needed for sure! He was amazing.
Harry Goodson-Bevan, Dominic Gore, Liam Morris and James Brice are a strong force as Tony’s pals, and their dance numbers, particularly a choreographed fight scene, are powerful, exciting and mesmerising. Each has their own distinctive character, which is great to see, and Goodson-Bevan has a heart-breaking moment with his solo Tragedy, ensuring we all just wanted to give him a hug.
Melody E Jones plays the devout Flo Manero – Tony’s mum, Phillip Aiden as Frank – Tony’s abusive dad, Marios Nicolaides as Tony’s brother Frank Junior, and Emily Bolland as his sister Linda, and together they create great dramatic scenes which capture why Tony ends where he ends. There are some touching scenes between Wilcox and Nicolaides that actually left me wanting more of Frank Jnr’s story too.
AJ Jenks, Drew Ferry, and Oliver Thomson as Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb loom high above the action and sing the majority of the shows numbers, leaving the cast to dance to with the highest energy, fearless of belting out a breathless note. It allows the songs to be used in numerous ways too, and not just shoehorned in to feed an emotion of a particular character at a poignant moment, meaning they can just be enjoyed in their purest disco form as a soundtrack to swig those hips to. The trio are impeccable and their falsetto harmonies are just so alluring that I really hope Barry Gibb has heard them sing for they emulate the spirit of the Bee Gees with a goosebumpy clarity.
Saturday Night Fever captures the spirit of disco in all its glory, right down to the disco chequered floor reflected in the mirror for all to behold. The dancing is most definitely the star of this show, and given centre stage time and time again, and deservedly so. The nightclub atmosphere created is so contagious that it creates my only dilemma with the production as a whole – that you couldn’t jump up on stage and join in the party! The string of hit songs from the Bee Gees provide the perfect playlist and it’s a humble reminder not only of just how many songs they recorded, but how many songs they wrote for others which were also chart-topping hits. What a privilege it must be to dance every night to such a phenomenal back catalogue of songs that form such a huge part of people’s lives, memories, and hearts. So, unless you have been living under a rock, you will most definitely know the music from Saturday Night Fever and unless your funky bones are broken, you’ll be hard pushed to sit still throughout the show. Whether it be a cheeky foot tapping along to the beat, or a subtle shoulder shimmy gathering momentum to the disco inferno, you’ll find yourself master of the chair dancing until you can take it no more and your own escape through dance just has to be let loose! Grab those flares, flex those muscles, shake what your mamma gave you, and hustle your way down to The Palace Theatre with the absolute knowledge that no matter what night of the week it is, a little bit of Saturday Night Fever will be waiting for you. And as they say, now – we strut!
WE SCORE SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER – 10/10
Girl from the North Country
Girl From The North Country - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 20th September 2022
From first seeing Girl From The North Country advertised at The Lowry pre covid, and hearing some its songs being given a musical make over on Magic At The Musicals, I have been anticipating the arrival of this show with a growing excitement for quite some time. A story written around the already emotive and storytelling music of Bob Dylan holds a kind of promise to do it justice, for Dylan’s music as we know was always written with far more than a catchy tune in mind. Political, thought provoking, philosophical, and continually trying to establish social change, these songs have stood the test of time, with modern power houses like Adele covering them, so even if you think you’re not aux fait with Bob Dylan’s music, you will know and enjoy it more than you realise for it has been threaded through our culture and has been blowing through our subconscious minds, just like the answers have been blowing in the wind.
Set in 1934 Minnesota America, during their Great Depression, Girl From The North Country takes a powerful and poignant look at love, life and family. Nick Laine runs a guesthouse on the edge of Lake Superior which has seen better days, much like its current guests have, all of whom seem to be drawn to the comfort of shared living with other tortured souls. Nicks own family are too struggling, with his wife Elizabeth living with an illness of the mind, son Gene in the grips of addiction and heartbreak, and adoptive daughter Marianne pregnant and unmarried (more of a big deal then than it is now). His once grand guest house is on the verge of collapse and foreclosure, with the suffocation of the bank always hanging over him. Nick tries to find solace himself by becoming entangled in a love affair with the recently widowed guest Mrs. Neilson, but far from helping his addled mind, complicates things further. The Burke family are equally trapped in their own turmoil, losing their business in the financial crash and trying to adjust to their new living arrangements, whilst the arrival of Joe, a boxer come convict freshly released from prison, and Marlowe, a preacher come crook, throw the guest house dynamics, lives and futures into a fresh kind of hurricane, ensuring Dylan’s own words were never truer – The Times, They Are A-Changin’.
The show opens with instruments placed sparsely across the stage, an actor comes out, takes a microphone and a song rings out. Other cast members emerge onto the stage and through the audience, wrapping us in the centre of their glorious harmonies as the band join in. It is a magnificent opening. The story begins to unfold immediately, and it becomes clear that Conor McPherson is an exceptional playwright, captivating us with the array of intriguing, brutal and dark backgrounds of the characters. There is always a hint of more to come, something being held back and as the play continues, these elements hit with perfect timing, creating ripples of shock throughout the theatre yet delighting us in the reveal at the same time. There are live musicians onstage throughout, forming an incredible band rather than a full-blown orchestra, giving a more intimate feel to the whole thing. The actors are multi-talented and share their skills in the piano, drums and harmonica. It seems everyone does everything in this cast and it really does provide you with a unique sense of intimacy and unity. There is superb and humourous attention to detail via the use of props where a mattress is thrown onto the floor as a guest bed for the night and a wave of dust bellows out of it before Joe is asked to pay up for the privilege. Despite the emotional stories of the characters, there is clever and dry humour throughout, with corkers in the middle of an argument such as “Don’t ambush me with my own double standards,” and Elizabeth telling the Reverend during his preaching to f@&* off! On that note, Girl From The North Country does have its fair share of swearing in it, so bear that in mind when booking as it may not be for the ears of younger audience members.
The set is simple in design, which only adds to its ability to create a wraparound feel, that the audience are just as much a part of the guest house as the characters are. This is embodied further by the use of lighting, which is something I have never seen before. The audience were bathed in the same light as the stage. If it went dark on stage, it went dark in the audience, if lights were brought up on stage, so too were they brought up in the audience. I have to say I was fascinated by this feature and it created a vibe that I have never experienced. The whole thing felt comfortable somehow, which sounds weird considering some of the heart-breaking stories, but it did. I felt welcomed into the guest house.
This is a different kind of musical, as it is not led by song, but guided by it. Most musicals use their songs to tell part of the story and so would be lost without them. Girl From The North Country uses song in a very different way. Firstly, they are often sung through a stand alone microphone that has been brought on, so the singer become an observer, narrators, or storytellers as the ensemble continue to act out the narrative, rather than always singing about themselves as is usually the case. The songs set a tone, a vibe, an essence, rather than being literal, and they are not always sung in full, but snippets of Dylan’s works are blended to exemplary use. This again is a new way of working, ensuring that this is definitely not a juke box musical, and it took me a while to get used to it, but once I had, I cannot say how much it impressed me. The interesting thing is that this show works so well yet could equally be split into two shows – the play and a concert, and both would work perfectly well independently. Dylan’s songs have been given a new flavour and I have to say were performed to perfection by this outstanding cast. My favourite moments were the ensemble numbers such as Like A Rolling Stone, Hurricane, and Forever Young because this cast singing together was like a hug I didn’t know I needed. It was glorious. They were glorious.
Colin Connor (War Horse, Our Country’s Good, To Kill A Mocking Bird) played the overwhelmed Nick Laine. Torn between love, duty, heart and head, Connor portrayed his internal conflicts beautifully, so the audience could feel both anger and sympathy towards him. It takes a skilled actor to portray a man having an affair right under his wife’s nose and still be likeable. Frances McNamee (A Lady Of Little Sense, The Last Ship, Royal Shakespeare Company) is wonderful as Elizabeth Laine. She simply didn’t stop, ensuring every nuance of her characters illness was portrayed at all times. Her singing grabbed my soul and took it on a journey, particularly in Forever Young. McNamee played Elizabeth so touchingly that even though she had an illness of the mind, she often made more sense than most other characters around her, and her ability to deliver killer lines was diva worthy.
Gregor Milne (professional debut – wow!) as Gene Laine is brilliant. He has a scene that is so uncomfortable in his treatment of Joe, yet he has such tender scenes with Katherine or his mother that again you can’t help but see the good as well as the bad. He swaggers around with a believable arrogance and drunkenness, equally portraying an underlying vulnerability. Brilliant. Justina Kehinde (Best Of Enemies, Hot In Here, Around The World in 80 Days) as Marianne is immediately likeable, warm, approachable, but tough and strong. Her voice is liquid gold and she has such a natural stage presence that you find yourself continually pulled into her performance. Understudy Nichola MacEvilly (The Odd Couple, The Wake, Constance, Snapshot) is a powerhouse as Mrs. Neilson. With some stunning vocals, tender acting, and comedic moments. I am thrilled we were treated to her performance this evening and long may the light continue to shine on her. Understudy Neil Stewart (Mrs. Henderson Presents, Spring Awakening, Jersey Boys) as Mr. Burke was so believable as the over the top salesman that I immediately brought a few real life characters I may know to mind. His brashness made the tender moments with his son all the more moving, and honest.
Rebecca Thornhill (Matilda, Hairspray, Gypsy) as Mrs. Burke was so versatile, switching from her heart wrenching reaction to her sons tragedy, to singing with such grace, to playing the drums! You name it, she did it. What a talent. Ross Carswell (another professional debut – incredible!) as Elias Burke was touchingly tender and terrifying in equal measures, taking his moment in the spotlight to lead a cracking musical number and commanding the stage. Joshua C Jackson (Caliban, Showstoppers the improvised musical, Black Mirror) as Joe Scott was powerful, gentle, subtle, and kept you guessing right up to the end as to the true nature of his character. Again, another outstanding singer, performer and demander of your attention. Understudy Owen Lloyd (Another professional debut – impressive!) as Rev, Marlowe was controlled, calm and gave an air of danger and mistrust, all of which were completely intriguing and engaging. Teddy Kempner as Mr. Perry, Frankie Hart as Katherine Draper (understudy) and Chris McHallem as Dr. Walker completed the main named cast. Each were simply outstanding. I know I keep saying this, but this cast was something special, each playing an integral part and shared their extraordinary talent.
Girl From The North Country is an exemplary piece of theatre, challenging the realms of musical theatre, and creating a play within it that feels like one of the classics! I started out a little unsure but I have to say it completely won me over and I would watch it again in a heartbeat. Emotive, witty, engaging and thematic, it likes to lean on your discomfort levels by making you face some harsh truths of social injustice, mental illness, prejudice, love, family, and grief, but it handles you with care, making sure you arrive back to your modern life a little wiser and with a little more patience and understanding for those we love.
WE SCORE THE GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – 9/10
Dreamgirls - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 14th September 2022
Dreamgirls immediately evokes images of glamour, glitz, and gorgeous vocals. I was lucky enough to see Amber Riley play Effie White in London a few years ago and was so fundamentally moved by her performance that even now I find it difficult to express the sheer power of that big showstopping moment “And I am Telling You.” It quite literally transcends lexicon. My emotive experience with Dreamgirls left me thrilled to see it again this evening, but equally nervous as hell that I wouldn’t be able to provide enough descriptive justice to the primal, instinctual, gut exposing emotion it pulls out of you. Be prepared to go from thinking life couldn’t get any better, to streaming with snot and having a stomach ache from crying so much – all at the speed of glittering lights. It is a remarkable show that provides an emotional work out and leaves you speechless.
Dreamgirls is a musical tale as old as time of a young talented act starting out and taking on the world, gaining phenomenal success, only to be plagued by rifts in the band due to ego, favouritism, evil showbiz managers, and meddling from those who are supposed to have their best interests at heart. It is the sad tale of too many real bands to mention, and is brought to life in glorious technicoloured, shimmering, soulful magnificence through the sensational highs and excruciating lows of our Dreamgirls.
Effie, Deena and Lorrell have stardust in their eyes. An incredibly talented powerhouse trio, they enter a singing competition in 1962 Harlem, which there is no doubt they should win, enabling them to start their journey to success. However, other forces are at play, and as crazed singer Jimmy Early loses his backing singers due to his outlandish behaviour, chancer Curtis sees an opportunity and rigs the competition ensuring The Dreamgirls don’t win, conveniently leaving them available to take up his offer of becoming Jimmy’s new backing singers. With time, they find their own spotlight, Effie and Curtis fall in love, Effie’s brother C.C writes hit song after hit song and life is sweet. That is until, Curtis strays – but not far enough – falling in love with Effie’s friend and band member Deena. Lorrell is trapped in an endless cycle of love and despair with Jimmy, and Effie is completely estranged from everything and everyone she ever knew, leaving her alone and vulnerable at a time when she needs her girls more than ever. As life moves on, Curtis uses every influence he has to not control only Deena but ensure that Effie’s light may never shine again. But Curtis underestimates the shared love and history of the sisterhood. Be utterly dazzled as the Dreamgirls rekindle their bond one last time in the comeback to end all comebacks – all you’ve got to do is dream.
Themes such as racism, coercive abuse, parenthood, friendship, the power of celebrity, the pitfalls of success, betrayal, beauty, feminism, and the darker side of showbiz, all lie on top of a stoic determination to ultimately remain true to who you are and the freedom and power that can bring. Dreamgirls has a lot going on and has been created to tickle every single emotion possible, leaving you enraged, engrossed, enlightened and entirely at the whim of the incredible and perfectly formed dream team of cast and creatives.
Dreamgirls tops the charts when it comes to ‘best bits,’ but I won’t divulge too much as I need to leave something for you to get excited about, because judging by tonight’s vocally involved audience, and friends telling me they are struggling to get a seat, I’m guessing if you’re reading this review, then you’re already halfway to booking those sparkling tickets! ‘Steppin’ To The Bad Side,’ provides an incredible dance routine, with a red and black backlit stage reminiscent of Chicago meets Jailhouse Rock, meets West Side Story.
The choreography team of Casey Nicholaw (also director) and Sean Parkins set this scene aside as something special. Dancers slowly, seductively and stealthily appear on stage, creating stunning silhouettes. They effortlessly leap and fly off blocks, somersault, dance in unison, dance in canon, and present a strong, stylish routine that oozes a kind of cool rebellion, making you want to step into the bad side for sure! In contrast, there is the beautifully empowering scene where Deena stands up to the abusive and coercive Curtis.
The acting here is outstanding, and so real that as we see Deena struggling to follow through with what she knows must be done, the audience start shouting out, willing her on, supporting her! And it’s a genuine response, there is no panto style audience participation here but an absolute desire to see Deena get to where she needs and wants to be. Lorrell wins over the audience’s respect when she gets her sass on and gives Jimmy the dressing down of a lifetime, making everyone fall in love with this hilarious and loveable character even more. Then of course there is THE moment. I’d say prepare yourself, but it wouldn’t do you any good, because ‘And I Am Telling You,’ surely created the term ‘showstopper’. This is why music is so important because it quite literally rendered everyone in the audience powerless. Honestly, I can tell you how things went down, that it was affecting people so much they were unable to stop applause, cheers and cries in the many climatic pauses, that mouths were agog, that people were on their feet before it had ended, that many were crying, many were visibly shaking, and quite literally speechless, but you’ll think I’m exaggerating, think I’m a little OTT. If anything, I’m UTT – under the top – I promise you’ll agree when you have lived it for yourself, because living every single word is precisely what happens.
So, I have to move straight on to the award-winning Nicole Raquel Dennis (Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress, Book Of Mormon, The Voice) who delivered this other worldly performance as Effie White. It’s an utter privilege to have experienced such talent. Just when you think that we have had all there is to give, out comes ‘I Am Changing’ and ‘One Night Only’. My lungs want to pop just thinking about the power in those songs, yet Nicole Raquel Dennis just kept going. Raw, moving, truthful, and heartfelt, every nuance was felt, leaving us in no doubt that she gave absolutely everything to the performance, and to us. Wow. Thank you Vienna! Goodnight!
Natalie Kassanga (Motown The Musical, Dear Evan Hansen, Oliver) is stunning as Deena Jones. Another powerhouse, with licks and riffs as smooth and effortless as Mariah herself, she takes her character on an incredible transformation. Kassanga layers the inner conflicts of self-belief so subtly throughout her performance, from her overprotective mother, to submitting to Effie’s talent, to Curtis’ controlling her, that the audience find themselves walking in her shoes too, wondering – how did we get here? With achingly difficult moments juxtaposed against the beauty of her reunion with Effie, it was a performance that hooked the audience.
Paige Peddie (The Lion King, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World) as Lorrell Robinson was outstanding with her comic timing, non-verbal acting, and impeccable voice that just seemed to get stronger as the show went on. Peddie never switched off and it was difficult to take your eyes off her, for her facial expressions were second to none. Starting out as an innocent lovestruck fan of Jimmy Early’s, her journey into womanhood (her words), and her developing diva status, reclaiming her self-worth as she tells Jimmy they’re through, enabled every moment to be etched on her face with both hilarious and touching clarity. Possibly my favourite character.
Matt Mills (Tina The Musical, Motown The Musical, Beautiful) as Curtis Taylor Jr. was domineering, convincing and full of humility as he took his pantomime style boo’s during curtain calls with the detached meaning in which they were intended. This character had to be believable as a tyrannous, yet charismatic charmer for the show to work. And there was no doubt that he was. Another exceptional piece of acting, with a voice that could melt butter, and a dark streak that initially appears innocent enough to be intriguing, there is never any question of his command on stage. Brandon Lee Sears (Be More Chill, Come From Away, Heathers) as Jimmy Early ignites the show! Frenzied, untamed and wild, his moves shouldn’t even be possible! They surely defy the laws of gravity, as he effortlessly slides into the splits, then just as effortlessly slides back up again as if the rewind button has just been hit. Meanwhile, the majority of us mere mortals are creaking as we push ourselves out of our seats, willingly accepting the arm of our companions for that last haul. I have no idea how he does what he does but it was mesmerising, and he undoubtedly sets the energy levels for the show, making it impossible not be drawn into his infectious personality.
Shem Omari James (Vanara, Songs For A New World, On The Town) as C.C.White, Jo Servi (The Colour Purple, The Lion King, Chess) as Marty, and Brianna Ogunbawo (The Book Of Mormon, Hairspray, Motown The Musical) as Michelle Morris are the most generous of supporting cast, and sing their socks off throughout. They each shine as individuals and again bring a touch of class to this exciting and truly talented ensemble.
Music, book, and lyrics are the brainchild of Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen. The success of Dreamgirls was cemented in 2006 with the feature film version starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles, ensuring many of its songs took on a life force of their own. With hits such as ‘And I Am Telling You’, ‘I Am Changing,’ ‘One Night Only,’ and ‘Listen,’ it is fair to say that those mystical creatures I’ve heard of who don’t like musicals, like Dreamgirls because its music cleverly bridges the two worlds of popular music and theatre music, creating a show for the masses.
If you hate crying or having your emotions exposed in public spaces, avoid Dreamgirls because it floors you. However, I strongly suggest you face this fear and go with it because it also picks you back up too, lifting you to places higher than you ever dreamed possible. Dreamgirls has an aura, an unseen addition to the show which gives you permission to believe in yourself, to trust your own authenticity, and to know that you can break free from the negative energy trying to dim your light. It is entertaining, inspirational, and igniting. I cannot recommend enough, nor feel that words can enlighten you enough. This show is an experience, something that needs to be felt, so allow yourself some sparkle, allow yourself to rediscover your own spotlight and never be afraid to shine.
WE SCORE DREAMGIRLS – 10/10
Photo credits: Matt Crockett
The Glass Menagerie - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - Saturday 10th September 2022
Stepping into The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester is an experience to behold before you have even had the privilege of watching one of their productions. An impressive theatre in the round, with stunning architecture and beautiful glass domes, it is the perfect home for The Glass Menagerie and the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. This production has waited in the wings long enough though. Another theatrical covid casualty, it has finally been given its well deserved moment in the spotlight, and delivers with a fresh interpretation which is witty, wonderful, and capable of making your bottom lip wobble too.
The play starts with the character Tom, a lighter, a huge neon sign ironically stating ‘Paradise’, and a sense that we are about to be taken on a unique journey. He talks to the audience directly, informing us we are about to watch a play, a play that is based on Tom’s memories of his suffocating upbringing. As he takes us back in time, the neon sign obeys and spins in an anti-clockwork direction, with other characters slowly manoeuvring themselves around the performance space in a backwards direction too. This technique is used throughout the production allowing time hops, and false memory recall to be played back with accuracy instead of the way individual characters may wish to remember events.
Siblings Tom and Laura are stifled by their mother Amanda, who tries to control every aspect of their past, present, and future. Constantly comparing her own memories to her children’s present, she always seems to find them lacking, and whilst she believes her desires for them are in their best interests, she is blindly oblivious of the unhappiness and unease this causes. Tom finds escape through poetry, cigarettes and all nighters at the movies, facts his mother refuses to accept as the truth. Laura’s haven is found through her music and collection of glass animals, and as Laura’s absence from her business school is discovered by her overbearing mother, we begin to understand why such escape is necessary. Laura suffers with illness and an overwhelming shyness, a trait her mother seems to have no concept of, resulting in stomach churning social situations for Laura that make her physically sick with anxiety. These are escalated when Amanda insists that Tom bring home a friend from work to ensure Laura starts to receive gentlemen callers (just as she did when she was young even when she was ill with malaria fever – the implication being, “If I can do it darling daughter, then so can you.”)
Amanda’s reasons may have the best intentions, but she fails to listen to what her children tell her, and Laura is left in the most cringe worthy of situations when the friend Tom brings home is her old crush. As they get along beautifully, with Jim showing her an understanding and new level of kind acceptance that is lacking in her life, she believes they have a future. But this story does not have a happy ending for anyone involved, and as Tom fights just to dream of his ambitions, Amanda is equally as forceful about keeping them from him, deeming him selfish for daring to dream. There is a lot going on with this story, with deeper, more untold truths than I can lay out in a simple synopsis.
The cast is four strong with Geraldine Somerville as Amanda, Rhiannon Clements as Laura, Joshua James as Tom, and Eloka Ivo as Jim. This Tennessee Williams play introduces four strongly contrasting characters, and each actor portrays these distinctions with stunning ease and clarity. Somerville gives us an Amanda that we love to hate. She is unbearable, manipulative, yet utterly captivating and you can’t get enough of her sweet tone and sing song memories, as they bleed into utter venomous outbursts at her perception of Tom’s selfish tendencies. Her emotional range and class are available at the flick of a switch and are quite remarkable to watch. Clements is endearing, and delightful as Laura. Completely believable as someone who is crippled with shyness, there were genuine moments in the play where I wanted to rush on stage and give her a much-needed comforting hug because her vulnerability was so real. There was a section when she was facing me head on, utterly distraught by Jim’s announcement, and she did not break character for a second, her face and body physically hurting with emotion. Extraordinary.
James was commanding as Tom and had a wickedly dry sense of humour and style of delivery that hit the mark every time. Again, he was able to portray his anguish through heart wrenching emotional outbursts, then reign everything back in to deliver a killer one liner. Remarkable. Ivo was utterly charming as Jim. He truly came to life in the second act and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand with his energy, his swagger and completely natural approach to his role. The audience seemed to physically lean into his performance and his gentle approach to kindness left your heart smiling. This cast flows. Their characters were so defined and strong that you could go away and imagine how any conversation between any combination might play out.
Director Atri Banjerjee is no stranger to The Royal Exchange, holding the position of Associate Director since 2017. The Glass Menagerie is his directorial debut, and it is exciting to witness such a fresh perspective on a classic play. The use of time, memory, and a soundtrack worthy of any diva, frame this 1944 play in a new light that will no doubt attract both loyal theatre goers and new ones alike.
Set design and lighting are provided by Rosanna Vize and Lee Curran. Aesthetically streamlined, clean and simple, with the upmost thought to detail, they combine to provide intrinsically clever features such as the floor lit to give the impression it is made of glass, the paradise sign not only capable of spinning at different speeds and in different directions to align with the frenzied grasp of memories, but its structure being used by the cast in numerous ways. Candles and bright flowers grace the stage to give a calm serene atmosphere for the scenes of acceptance between Laura and Jim.
This production is not afraid to take its time, enlisting the first half to a feeling of drifting on by with nowhere in particular to go. This sense of drifting is echoed in the physical space between characters during pivotal moments, which match the growing fractures of their relationships. It is metaphor heaven, but sadly, overhearing a few conversations during the interval, some it was lost in translation, instead simply leaving a feeling the story could have been told much quicker.
The Glass Menagerie is a classic, and as such, audiences who know the play will always come to it with strong opinions and views of what its themes are and how it should be presented. But it is quite simple; glass reflects, and the clear reflection I saw this afternoon was a virtually full Royal Exchange, an engaged audience, and a standing ovation. What more can you ask for?
WE SCORE THE GLASS MENAGERIE - 8/10
Photo credits: Mark Brenner
Wayne Steven Jackson: And Here I Find Myself
And Here I Find Myself - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 9th September 2022
By their very nature, smaller studio shows do not always attract the same amount of attention as the larger, all singing, dancing, glittering big budget productions, but I desperately urge you to never be fooled into thinking that makes them any less of an experience. Some of the most emotive work I have ever had the pleasure of crying buckets at, being educated at, and learning a little more about myself at, all the while being thoroughly entertained, have been in the Lowry’s Studio Theatre, so with that in mind, I cheekily invited myself along to tonight’s showing of Wayne Steven Jacksons latest venture – And Here I Find Myself.
The show is immediately captivating, with Wayne entering the performance space, speechless, but following a series of instructions that appear on a luminated piece of paper hanging from above. He has to hide. But where? He cautiously breaks into our audience space, but the instructions and messages tell him this isn’t good enough. We can see him. He must do better. He tries again, fails again. Now he must jump. But how high? He is told. Higher. He must jump higher. And so, the scene is set, instructions on a piece of paper simulating a society full of rules that we unquestioningly follow with no real understanding as to why, other than that’s just what you do. As the demands become more obscure and unfathomable, from instructions to perform pelvic thrusts or handstands, and as Wayne’s discomfort grows, the responsive giggles from the audience to this almost Derren Brown style psychological opening die down as we start to realise that this is all a metaphor of how trying to follow societal rules, laws and expectations can leave you lost, stuck, or on a never-ending loop to nowhere.
As the show unfolds, a rhythm emerges. Flashbacks through time to Wayne’s childhood home, where every year everything has changed, yet nothing has changed but the matching duvet, lampshade, and matching curtains. Rules that Wayne must follow, boxes he must tick, that somehow stay unticked, portrayed through the inventive use of a step ladder. The monologues pushing on through his history, memories, half forgotten, half remembered, his touching and moving truth of trying to become a parent. Questions are dropped in, questions that I doubt anyone had an answer to, creating spellbinding and thought-provoking moments. Do we really want the things we aim for, or are we just programmed from a young age to think we want them? What happens if things don’t work out the way we’d planned? How did we all end up here in this theatre together tonight? What led each of us here? Different outcomes of different paths, plans or choices may well have meant that I wasn’t experiencing this show tonight. But I am, and I’m glad, so how can I regret the circumstances that made it happen? Even if those circumstances mean things haven’t worked out the way that I’d planned either?
All this brilliant, philosophical, internal debate is divulged through exceptional new and innovative modes of storytelling, combining digital media, original music, physical theatre and performance. There are truly wonderful moments, such as black and white moving images brought to colourful life with a sweep of a hand, and the paper slatted scenery being shredded before your eyes.
And Here I Find Myself is funny, poignant, intriguing and delivered by an instantly likeable performer. You want to listen, and even when Wayne is not speaking, you want to hear. He shares his story of trying to become a father as a single gay man, and even when the world catches up and Laws are amended to make this possible, somehow, it is still out of reach. Things don’t always work out the way we planned. It’s a harsh but honest truth and one that each of us can relate to in our own way.
Wayne Steven Jackson has multiple strings to his professional bow. As well as being a captivating performer, he is innovative in his work as an artist, lecturer, workshop facilitator, writer, and collaborator. Starting out as a co-founder of Escape, he has since produced critically acclaimed show Now/Then, become a published academic, Head of TaP at Manchester’s own Arden School Of Theatre, and is collaborative founder and senior lecturer for performance practice at Sheffield Hallam University. He is known for his innovative work regarding memory, developing exciting explorations through performance of its vulnerabilities, reliability and its power to hinder or elicit change, both personal and social. Much of his work, and certainly tonight’s performance, comes from a personal and truthful place, evoking genuine emotion in both performer and audience alike.
There are some beautiful, poetic, heartfelt sentiments in the play, such as, “True love is not wanting to fall asleep because your reality is better than ever dream could ever be,” and I admire any performance that can equally make my heart melt, engage my brain, make me ponder some of the big stuff, and simultaneously make me giggle like a naughty kid at the back of the class. And Here I Find Myself is entertaining and intriguing, and at just an hour long, it’s a show that holds your hand as it takes you to the metaphorical funfair, then leaves you on your own to figure out what ride you want to go on. Whichever one you choose; you might just find it leads you to exactly where you’re meant to be.
Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
Unfortunate - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 7th September 2022
Unfortunate has been creating a lot of buzz in the theatre world, and many have been eager to see this rebellious take on The Little Mermaid. Take the Disney out of Disney, tell the story from a different character’s point of view and you have yourselves a fresh, fierce, and fabulous show that has more pulling power than Ursula’s sea witchy octopus tentacles. Make no mistake, this is Ursula’s story and Ariel is merely bait.
Unfortunate is the new offering from Fat Rascal Theatre, a company set up by graduates of East 15 and run entirely by women. They have produced 7 brand new musicals to date, winning numerous awards, and pride themselves on challenging the constraints and stereotypes of being a woman in the biz we call show. Their aim is to create theatre that not only entertains but evokes a sense of empowerment, inspiration and liberation. So, have they achieved this, and what is their show all about? Ursula has always been seen as a villain, but really, she ain’t so bad – she’s just misunderstood. She has had her heart broken, and honestly – we’ve all been there and done some crazy things ourselves in that position. She just needs a little understanding and then maybe even she can have her own happily ever after, right? Ariel is so last year, so let’s find out what really happened under the sea all those years ago through the filthy, smutty mind of a delicious diva.
We follow Ursula from when Atlantica banished her after she was framed for murdering Kirsty the sea cucumber, to her years living in the corpse of a sea creature with her two gay best friends, to the deal she makes with King Triton in which she is to prepare Ariel for the throne. As her story unfolds through catchy new music written by Tim Galvin, cleverly interspersed with musical phrases from The Little Mermaid and nods towards other musical favourites such Wicked and numerous other Disney films such as The Lion King, we are treated to some brilliant one liners which divulge more information (sometimes more filth than we needed to know) about Ursula’s lifestyle, love life and aspirations. Interestingly, her story arc is about falling in love, losing love then finding it again, and whilst this may seem at odds with the objectives Fat Rascal have of empowering women, it is enlightening to see things happen on HER terms, right down to making her man give birth instead of her!
Think Book Of Mormon, meets Wicked, meets Drag Race, meets Disney and you’ll still only have an inkling of what to expect in this unique smutty, slutty, shake your coconutty kind of show. The audience were wild! Unfortunate has clearly already accrued a fan base who had turned up in full force tonight, helping Triton and Ursula whisk up a frenzied storm in the aptly named Quays theatre. The jokes, one liners and innuendo are so thick and fast (ooh err missus) that you hardly dare breathe for fear of missing a gag or ten, and the references to popular culture are dripping throughout, with a ‘Free Shamu’ campaign even being shoehorned in.
Song lyrics are sharp, sarcastic yet with genuine messages, and aren’t afraid to sick two fingers up to outdated Disney messages. A strong example of this is when the song ‘Kiss The Girl’ from The Little Mermaid is parodied into ‘Ask For Consent Before You Kiss The Girl.’ The great thing about new musicals is new songs, and Unfortunate has a varied, fun collection, with title track Unfortunate being my personal favourite. Coupled with satirical, tongue in cheek lyrics that poke fun, they don’t hold back on language, so don’t assume that a show about Ursula is one for your younger children, with songs such as “I Wanna Be Where The Boys With Dicks Are,” parodying the infamous Disney song “Part Of Your World.” “We Didn’t Make It To Disney”, is another brilliant number that allows for more fun poking, showing all the characters that fall outside of their perfect world and gives endless scope for imagination.
Due to cast illness, Allie Dart stepped in at the last minute to play Ursula – what a phenomenal performance! Commanding, engaging, and down right fabulous from the tip of her bouffant wig, to the last scale on her tentacle! Her timing and gift for a filthy one liner had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand and I’m sure her fan base multiplied with every nuance. Danni Payne also stepped in to play a different role, Sebastian, amongst many others. The energy, the switching of accents, switching of roles, from crabs to puppetry, was non stop and portrayed a huge range of talent. Miracle Chance gave us Ariel as you’ve never seen her before – a TOWIE, meets Love Island, meets X Factor wannabe, whose head is so filled with salt water that she doesn’t know her backside from her elbow.
The voice is hilarious, the facial expressions even more so, which are just sublime when Ariel has lost her voice and so has to communicate in a whole different way. It’s brilliant. Jack Gray, Jamie Mawson, and George Whitty play every other character between them and work tirelessly and beyond the expectations of anyone. I literally don’t know how they kept it up without collapsing. Each character was completely different from their last, whether that be through style, puppetry, dance, or how much they sent themselves up. George Whitty in particular had a cracking voice as Triton. In short, they are all brilliant, and possible one of the tightest casts I have ever seen. They are relentless with their performing and it pays off in tidal waves.
As mentioned, puppetry is used throughout Unfortunate and is a fantastic addition to the show, creating endless opportunities for hilarity, creativity, and uniqueness. Hugh Purves has designed these perfectly for the style of the show and each one has its own way of being operated which is equally interesting to witness. The lighting synchronises nicely with music and also sets the scene and mood changes throughout. Costumes are comically brilliant, ensuring there is a clear nod to their Disney characters, but still with a new and fabulous twist. Ursula’s tentacles protrude and penetrate all she encounters with such authority that you often find yourself mesmerised as they seem to have a life force of their own, particularly in the second act when Wicked is parodied as Elphaba sings ‘Defying Gravity.’ It would be very much at home on a RuPaul runway that’s for sure!
Unfortunate is brash and crass, with musical theatre class. It is an immersive experience, using everything in sight to its advantage and beguiling its audience into the heart of the show. It is empowering, with strong messages of ‘love yourself’ and speaks to anyone who has ever felt powerless, unheard, judged, marginalised or insignificant because of who they are. This is a new breed of musical theatre which some will love, some will hate, and some won’t have a clue what’s going on, but whichever camp you fall into, there is no denying the energy in the theatre tonight, the catchy songs and the sprinkling of individual positivity we all left with. If you want to try something different, have a good old giggle, and learn more about octopus sex than you ever needed to know – this is the show for you! Don’t be the Unfortunate soul who misses out because this show is destined to go down in cult history.
WE SCORE UNFORTUNATE – 9/10
We Will Rock You
We Will Rock You - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Monday 5th September 2022
Let’s start by saying “Happy Birthday” on what would have been Freddie’s 76th birthday, and what a way to celebrate! We Will Rock You pulsates through every fibre of your being, leaving the hairs on your arms standing to attention and adrenaline flooding flirtatiously through your veins. Queen's music is epic to listen to in its recorded form, but LIVE?! Insane! Tie your mother down because We Will Rock You will have you dancing the fandango with Figaro and Scaramouche will make your rockin’ world go round!
Queen are undoubtedly one of the best rock band to have ever graced our planet – hell – any planet! – and Ben Elton has created a quirky, camp and over the top story which utilises their music to perfection and embodies everything that Queen were, and are known for. Instruments and real music have been banned in our future world (iplanet – formally known as Earth), and the only music available is pre-programmed mulch from the giant corporation Globalsoft. It is a world where all must conform, all must live their life through technology and the internet, and all must obey the tyrant leader Killer Queen. Enter Galileo Figaro, a rebellious bohemian who refuses to conform to a world that makes no sense to him. Galileo hears voices, dreams profound sentiments and is plighted by questions in desperate need of answers which randomly pop into his head. Dubbed The Dreamer, he finds himself on the run from the Killer Queen with another free spirit who he names Scaramouche (or Scary Bush). Their cause truly begins when they discover there are still some rebels left - The Bohemians- who fight for truth, friendship, and rock n’ roll. Galileo must guide them to follow the star and take them to the place of living legends in order to preserve real music and free will. With razor sharp humour, word play, and characters named after some of the biggest / popular music legends ever, the intellectual trademark of Ben Elton’s writing is unleashed in full force. Ironically, the story was dubbed as weak, untruthful and unbelievable by those harsh critics when it first came out (not – me – I get pulled for being too positive and nice!) yet today we live in a world obsessed with social media, who do everything via their phones, and are also in a position of loss and fear from greedy corporations – oh the irony! Elton has composed a story dripping with music nostalgia, lyrics, song titles, and legacy. Those of us old enough will remember recording TOTP’s on VHS, then playing it back over and over to watch your favourite band or artist. But what if technology has advanced so much that not only are VHS tapes obsolete, but a whole generation don’t even know how to pronounce it?! What if you have been so brainwashed that you can no longer match your heart to a musical beat? And what if you had never heard of Queen?
Don’t! I can’t even go there!
The opening chord of Innuendo reverberates through the entire theatre, your entire body and your entire being. Drums, lights, special effects and Freddie. The show could have ended after that first few minutes and it would still have scored a perfect ten. The hits just keep coming one after the other, and with a live band smashing it, it’s impossible to stop yourself from clapping along, tapping your foot and cheering like a banshee. This is a different production to the last tour. Everything is a little more understated, but this fact is humourously written into the script as, for instance, Sir Cliff pokes fun at the motorbike of previous shows being reduced to just handle bars claiming it is the only part that passed the clean air emissions thing-I-ma-jig-I-bob. Some songs have been cut such as Play The Game, but others have been added such as The Show Must Go On and best news ever is that Don’t Stop Me Now (which was irritatingly always cut short in previous shows just as it was getting going) is now given it’s deserved and unapologetic full moment in the spotlight. The second half opens with “One Vision” and a reprise of Freddie’s voice. It’s so cool to see nods to the band throughout, especially the “Day Oh” sing back section. The audience all knew exactly what to do, bang on cue. Lit to a back drop of Wembley, it’s the closest many of us will ever get to that historical time.
The set (Tim Blazdell) is simple, unpretentious and works succinctly for a show wired in technology. Moving imagery, amazing lighting, and an archway of scaffolding form the continual set, with smaller elements brought on as and when they are needed. This is enough to transport you through this futuristic world. Mashed together with the raw and basic elements of the bohemian’s hideout, it does a great job of allowing the cast to shine. The rock concert vibe is met head on, throwing flashing lights and strobes across a pumped up audience who are well and truly ready to rock.
As we are informed from the very start by a Ben Elton voice over, this is a cast of impressive professionals, and WWRY never fail to amaze me with the talent they bring to the stage. Galileo was the alternative - Damien Walsh (MYTH, Sunny Afternoon, Dreamcoats & Petticoats) and ripped the stage to shreds. A powerful, igniting performance full of charm and rebellion. Elena Skye (Les Mis, Kinky Boots) as Scaramouche is the kind of laid back cool, sarcastic and in control kind of character I’m sure we all wish we could sometimes be. A calm and collected wit that had the audience in stitches. Michael McKell (10cc, Doctors, Kavanagh QC, Tonight’s The Night) is brilliantly zany as Sir Cliff, with cracking physical acting honed to perfection, truly making you belly laugh. Jenny O’Leary (Heathers, Rent, Groundhog Day) as Killer Queen has killer pipes! What a powerhouse performance and duets brilliantly with Adam Strong (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph, The Barricade Boys) as Khashoggi, who is able to switch from playing quiet and intense, to rock god faster than Flash Gordon can save the earth! Martina Ciabatti Mennell (Pretty Woman, TriOperas, The Voice) pulls at your heartstrings with her raw and honest rendition of No One But You then flings herself across the stage with an untamed rock energy and Edward Leigh (Blues Brothers, Clockwork Orange) stepped into the role of Brit tonight, providing a strong, believable rebel with a very real cause.
We Will Rock You continues to work it’s kind of magic throughout, building its audience of fans, new and loyal, to a Wembley like frenzie. It accelerates from allegro to prestissimo, whilst still allowing moving moments of reflection, emotion and serenity. The show crescendos to its climax collaboration from the Bohemians – their rhapsody. If ever you wanted to feel the beating heart of the arts – this is it. Theatre, rock n’ roll, lighting, design, costume, you name it, it all explodes together at just the right time in perfect harmony to create a living legacy of Queen. Cast and audience become one as the theatre pulses and throbs with an eclectic, electric energy of thunderbolts and lightening – except they are far from very very frightening! So ask yourself – is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Who the hell knows, but I do know that Freddie would have had a blast at this birthday celebration tonight and be proud that his light hasn’t dimmed, not even a little. Happy Birthday Freddie – Manchester salutes you.
WE SCORE WE WILL ROCK YOU – 10/10
Identical - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 23rd August 2022
For anyone who is a twin, ever wanted to be a twin, or pairs up with a mate to pretend you ARE a twin - twin fever is in the Salford air and has found its home at the Lowry. Identical is a brand new musical based on Erich Kästner’s original novel that was subsequently turned into the film - The Parent Trap – known to multiple generations thanks to its Disney remake. It prepares to dazzle us with brand new songs, twinsicle mischief, and with legendary director Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables, Starlight Express, Cats and Sunset Boulevard) at the helm, I for one can’t wait! Identical is a beautifully faithful version to its original story, and with the addition of fantastic new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, it will win itself into the hearts of yet another generation of children and adults alike.
We follow ten-year-old twins Lottie and Lisa in 1950’s Vienna and Munich, twins who were separated at birth and brought up not knowing about each other. A chance meeting at their summer camp ensures questions galore and that the unique bond of twins is finally ignited. Curious as to the life ‘they could have had’ and both wanting to get to know their other parent, Lottie and Lisa come up with a plan to swap lives with each other. These girls may be completely different in many ways, both due to personality and upbringing, but they also share many traits, especially their hope of reuniting their parent in order to make them one big happy family. With a few bumps along the road, including school bullies, witches, and illness, Lottie and Lisa find their plan isn’t necessarily as simple as they first imagined. However, there really is no doubt from start to finish that the show promises the happy ending everyone expects.
Identical has a fairy tale charm to it, luxuriating in a light and fluffy world, where wrongs are righted, witches are overcome and happy ever afters are par for the course. The opening ensemble number from the compelling kids cast was phenomenal and set the bar, the energy and the expectation high. I could immediately see this number being added to performing arts schools summer shows up and down the country! It instantly became clear that comedy, quick witted one liners and sassiness would play a huge part in this show, and with corkers such as, “Your father needs an equal,” “He’s been married before – you’re the sequel!” tripping off the tongue as a battle of wills between adults and kids, the show most definitely has huge appeal to all ages. The children in this cast are not belittled or patronised in any way, and their talent is given an even and respectful billing, and quite rightly too. They are outstanding and professional throughout. The show is well thought out, and the insertion of the darker Hansel & Gretel Ballet in the middle of the first half helps to break up the sweet sentimentality just enough that you don’t barf unicorns, but equally not too much that you lose any of the heart the show has built up. The same can be said for the nightmare sequence, which visually looks like a Tim Burton film and is absolutely fantastic.
The design of Identical is a modern masterpiece. Created by Robert Jones, video designer Douglas O'Connell and lighting designer Johanna Town, this tremendous trinity are undeniably at the visual heart of the show. It is unique, clever, stunning and mesmerising. The attention to realistic detail is unparalleled and offers gorgeous touches such as leaves actually rustling on trees, butterflies, smoke coming out of chimneys, steam from a train, moving cars, rain and so much more. Set, digital technology, and panoramic video screens which move, contract and expand, flawlessly combine to create an experience that washes over you, leaving you utterly convinced you have travelled to several locations in the space of one show. You are seamlessly taken from the countryside to the opera, Vienna to Munich, and a train station to a hotel. The projected images expertly fade in and out of each other, as small additions are added to complete the mirage. It is possibly the most spectacular and unique scenery I have ever seen. It felt so immersive that I didn’t know if I was watching theatre, a film, or if we had somehow been transported by moonbeams and pixie dust!
Trevor Nunn has succeeded yet again with his artistry and creative brilliance. The whole show is slick, smooth and professional throughout. It is hopeful to see such a big deal of a director working in regional and touring theatre, and long may it continue. Choreography by Matt Cole extends from sassy kids commercial dance to a glorious ballet and everything inbetween.
Kyla and Nicole Fox were the outstanding real life twins playing Lottie and Lisa tonight, and wow – I am at a loss for words. They were exceptional, talented, likeable - no loveable, and will have provided inspiration for so many children in the audience who now want to do what they do. They truly held their own against the adult cast and were believable every step of the way, clearly bring their twin power and magic onto stage with them. In the previous film versions, it was obviously possible to use one actress through filming and editing techniques, but somewhat more difficult in live theatre. So finding real life twins that are identical, of the right age, who can sing, act, dance, and to such a high standard must have been a hard find, but find them they have. I have no doubt that the other two sets of twins Eden & Emme Patrick and Savannah & Sienna Robinson are just as good and provide enough reason for people to come and watch the show more than once!
Emily Tierney (Club Tropicana, Eugenius, Ghost) has that wonderful mum aura as Lisalotte. She is a warm and safe place, but also offers just a hint of fun rebellion, which comes to life in the scene where she is defending her daughter to the teacher, and when she rejoices in her breaking out of her shell by doing something unexpected. Her emotion upon discovering her long lost daughter Lisa is moving and gives the moment genuine credibility.
James Darch (Rocky Horror, Mamma Mia, Wicked) as Johan portrays a cool, engaging and loving father, who may get lost in his work but not so much that he forgets what is important to him. He switches from his passion with music to a tenderness with his daughter with ease.
Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson (Pippin, The Boyfriend, 42nd Street) as Miss Gerlach hits the stage as a powerful and incredible ballet dancer, then reveals she has a singing voice to match! Her duet with Lottie (pretending to be Lisa) “What he doesn’t need,” is brilliantly fun, and she has some great facial expressions to express her lack of enthusiasm at becoming a stepmum.
Louise Gold (Mary Poppins, Mamma Mia, and puppeteer on Dark Crystal & The Muppets) as Rosa / Miss Muthesius and Michael Smith – Stewart (The Lion King, Holby, Hollyoaks) as Dr. Strobl make a brilliant team, each bringing a subtle humour, which is displayed brilliantly in their duet, “It’s not for me to say”. They provide the outside eyes to this segregated family of four and when they eventually join forces, it is with a hilarious practicality and simplicity – “Will you marry me?” “Yes. You have a nice dog!”
Identical is a feel good show that brings out the schmaltz in the most cynical of viewers. It may have some moments wrapped in a perfect bow a little too tightly, leading to a couple of groans from audience members, but on the other side of the coin were many more people who were happy to sit back, enjoy and take such moments for the simple offering that they were – the aww factor. It would have been interesting to learn a little more as to why, when the parents decided to take a child each because they ‘couldn’t cope’, that this also meant the decision was to remain a secret and that each parent would have no contact with their other child ever. The twins never questioned this either, and instead were just happy to discover a parent and a sister they never knew they had. This element left me a little unsettled and wanting some offering of comfort or justice for the twins, but I guess that just goes to show how much I actually bought into the show, the cast, and this fabulous family show. Give your heart some happy, some hope and some hilarity by twinning it with Identical. Double vision has never been more on trend!
WE SCORE IDENTICAL – 9/10
Sarah and Duck
Sarah and Duck - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 23rd August 2022
Sarah and Duck may be a show on CBeebies for younger children, but judging by online reviews and todays audience, it has truly captured the hearts of us big kids and developed its own adult following too! Many parents deem it the only show they will allow their children to watch on repeat, so what is it about this animated series that has captured the hearts of a new generation?
Co-created by Tim O’ Sullivan and Sarah Gomes Harris, Creative Director and designer / writer from Karrot Entertainment, it is a sweet and gentle programme that explores friendships, social skills and encourages imagination. Whilst there are academic educational elements to it, its success lies in the more social education it provides, proudly celebrating that children can just be children and learn through human (or animal) interaction. It doesn’t preach, it just flows and there is something infinitely touching in the pure and innocent friendship between Sarah and Duck. It is no wonder therefore that it has a big-kids grown up following too, for it takes us back to a time when life was all about being in the moment and our hearts were unburdened enough that we could glean immense pleasure from the smallest things in life, such as planting seeds, fun with scarves, shopping, rainbows, bouncy balls or baking! It is a pin up poster to remind us that all children really need is our time, our imaginations and our care-free abandonment. The beautiful bond between Sarah and Duck has been created with such genuine affection, that your adult brain doesn’t allow you to stop and think – “hang, on, a duck and a kid are best mates? Are you for real?” – you just willingly accept that it is so, because it is so. Duck is adorable, with a wide-eyed innocence that makes his funny and daft actions pull on your heart strings, and Sarah is so kind, caring and patient that her soft voice washes over you, almost like a cartoon form of mindfulness!
Sarah and Duck has been brought to life by the team behind The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show and Twirlywoos Live, for a tour that proves to be popular for all ages. Its first stop is the Lowry in a 55 minute magical experience, where we are all invited to The Big Top Soiree Birthday! It is Scarf Lady’s birthday and all of Sarah and Ducks friends will be there, including The Ribbon Sisters, The Shallots, Flamingo, John, Umbrella, plus a few more. As plans get underway to have the best circus party ever, everyone keeps a beady eye on the weather, hoping that poor umbrella won’t have to face the rain, or that the whole thing isn’t a wash out. Then again, so long as you have your friends around you, you can always have fun! As the whole gang get in on the action and pull together to create a splendid circus for Scarf Lady’s birthday, we are treated to acrobating shallots, a tight rope walking Flamingo, the magical disappearing buns from Umbrella (with a little help from Duck), jokes from Sarah, street dancing from John, Duck is shot out of a cannon and even Moon makes an appearance! But as the windy weather threatens to blow the whole birthday apart, will the party be able to continue? With such a great team of friends – of course it can! And it even finishes in style with its very own firework party, which delights the audience no end.
Puppetry is used for the main characters, with some costumes too, and this is a great way to ensure that the characters are instantly recognisable for the children, and that the adults don’t cringe at adult actors trying to play kids and ducks. This also opens up the perfect avenue to use the actual voices from the show, pre-recorded, so that everything is completely authentic. With a cast of five actors working hard with puppets, props, dress setting, scene changing, and continuing with an undeniable calmness through a lively and noisy audience, they do an incredible job of holding attention throughout. Songs are sprinkled throughout the show and a highlight is when the theatre is filled with bubbles – making every kid – young and old- unable to fight the urge to jump up and pop them!
This show is one of the purest things I have seen or felt in a while. My mini guest took ill at the last minute (as mini guests are prone to do) and so I found myself as a solo adult at a kids show, which could have felt odd and a little weird, but it didn’t. Maybe it’s because I work with children of all ages so was already in a familiar comfort zone. Maybe it was because my inner mini me was alive and kicking, or maybe it’s because there was a fizz of something intangible was in the air and as the entire audience breathed it in, Sarah and Duck just became a safe space, free from judgment, free from woes and full of possibility.
Sarah and Duck will leave you with a squishy, squashy soft spot in your adult hardened heart, as this BAFTA award-winning CBeebies show squirms its way into your affections. Don’t take my word for it though, go along with your little ones, your ducks and your ribbons to see for yourself, and let them show you how good it is. Kids are the biggest critic anyone can ever face, for they have no filter. They say it how it is and have no interest in politely sitting through something that doesn’t engage or interest them. This audience was completely captivated from beginning to end and I just know that their day will have ended with Sarah and Duck on loop, and many innocent sweet dreams about friendships and ducks. So ladies, lentilmen and Umbrella’s, quack your way along to the Lowry for the swimmingly sweet Sarah and Duck.
WE SCORE SARAH AND DUCK - 8/10
The Osmonds - A New Musical
The Osmonds - A New Musical - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 9th August 2022
A standing ovation in the middle of the show is not something you often see, but that’s the Osmonds for you!
Back in the day, when all my friends were singing along to NKOTB, I wasn’t. I had my own boyband, handed down from endless tunes played in the car by my mum. I was an Osmond girl, trapped in the wrong generation, but happy to be there. Fast forward a few years and I remember feeling more than a little smug as peers, who had mocked me for liking The Osmonds, fawned over the ‘new song’ (snigger) - Love Me For A Reason - by the freshly formed Boyzone. Cassette tapes, CD’s, rewinding my VHS video tape of Joseph and the technicolour doo dah coat and pausing on Donny in a loin cloth, to literally losing my mind in Blackpool one summer when watching a musical starring Jimmy Osmond, when out of nowhere, Donny jumps on the stage and joins him!
I am of course a more refined version of myself now I am older and wiser (hmmfff!!) so have only rocked out to Crazy Horses once today in preparation for tonight’s show – much to the delight of my neighbours. A little bit of digging around whilst humming to One Bad Apple informed me that this musical was Jay Osmond’s story. Would it be twee? Would it be an all American apple pie with a cherry on top retelling of their days on the Andy Williams show, with sparkling eyes and shiny teeth aglow? Or would we see another side to The Book Of Mormon with their devout religious upbringing?
Narrated by the character Jay, the Osmond’s rise to fame is presented through those larger than life moments experienced before even reaching adulthood, such as meeting Walt Disney, selling 100’s of millions of records, and their residency on The Andy Williams show. Here we are introduced to the most charismatic and talented children ever, whose harmonies and synchronicity challenge and rival the real Osmonds! Osian Salter, Jack Jones, Alfie Jones, Harrison Skinner, Tom Walsh and Fraser Fowkes are phenomenal and were a true highlight of tonights show. I hope and pray that there is a serendipity for these young actors portraying the fresh young talent who started out on The Andy Williams Show and going on to have a sensational career. Hopefully The Osmonds Musical is paying it forward for them in a beautiful reflective repeated history. But behind those famous harmonies was a childhood different to any that you or I may know.
With an Army trained father waking them up at 4.30am to drill their routines, and a mother who stood by his side, military discipline was a way of life. With mantra’s such as “Don’t be sorry, be better than last night”, and “It doesn’t matter who is in front, as long as it’s an Osmond,” it was only a matter of time before this unsustainable lifestyle started to show its cracks, its resentments and its rebellion. Things get a little edgier music wise, The Donny & Marie show feeds a nation with entertainment but a family with tension, marrying is forbidden to ensure fans still have the illusion of hope and to stop a few million hearts from breaking, business overtakes music with the development of their own studios, bankruptcy looms and the group pull further and further away from their father and each other. But in true Osmond style, the musical deals with any resentments swiftly, allowing us to move on to happier times and feed our souls with back to back hits in a tantalising taste of an Osmond’s concert.
It is safe to say that Osmond Mania was out in full force once again this evening, and I even found myself chatting along to some lovely folk on the walk from the carpark to the theatre. Inside, the colour and life of the 70’s sing to you, with the rainbow themed Osmond colour scheme everywhere, and a glorious theatre curtain in the auditorium, inspiring many selfies. It is framed to look like an old-fashioned television set, and this is carried through to the set design itself (designed by Lucy Osborne), with an interchangeable staircase, 60’s style TV camera’s whizzed on and off, and even the occasional Christmas tree. The design and flow are everything you’d want them to be and are simple enough to easily transform from television studio, to recording studio, to Madison Square Gardens. The lights, colours and costumes are just sublime, energising and delightful all at the same time, creating a happy buzz and exactly the right vibe for this excited audience.
The show starts with the infamous chant of “Bring on the Osmond’s,” with which the audience quickly and happily join in, before the stage bursts into life and the cheers start. There were many stand out moments in this evening's performance, but with recent events, an incredibly touching one was when Olivia Newton John was mentioned in the script as an artist the band had worked with and the whole show came to a halt as the audience applauded with genuine heart and respect. Mini Donny also stole as many hearts tonight as the real Donny did when he first appeared on The Andy Williams Show, aged just five years old. Osian Slater emulated this appearance to perfection and had us all oohing and ahhing at his cuteness, and grinning in disbelief at his talent. The applause was so strong that it actually overpowered the continuation of his duet with Andy Williams! Of course, when we saw a more grown-up Donny singing ‘Puppy Love’ – the audience went wild. It was insane and I can only begin to imagine what it must have actually been like back in the day! Don’t get me wrong, the audience loved playing along, screaming in all the right places and waving their scarves in the air, but the atmosphere was palpable and even had security dealing with a few more excitable audience members!
A standing ovation in the middle of the show is not something you often see, but that’s the Osmonds for you! There was also one at the end of the first half and two at the end of the show (fake finish – so don’t leave too early!) A concert vibe can be felt throughout the entire show, with many moments taking this format, but the real treat is the megamix concert at the end, especially for tonight’s audience as THE REAL LIFE JAY OSMOND, who had been happily watching the show all night and grinning from ear to ear, jumped up on stage and rocked out with the cast to Crazy Horses! What a brilliant moment! It just goes to show, there are so many Osmonds, you simply never know where or when one of them might pop up!
The darker scenes, such as the family meeting that exposed their financial ruin, were brilliantly acted and could have easily been expanded and built upon, for these were gripping scenes, however, with the show already running at almost three hours and a story to tell spanning 6 decades and numerous family members, it becomes impossible to give enough airtime to every element of their lives. The story makes it clear that there were problems, but chooses to focus more on their solutions, which ultimately always comes down to family first.
This cast were beyond energetic and would make the Duracell bunny look like a wet tea towel. I hadn’t really thought it through, but I guess if you’re playing the part of the “one take Osmonds” who can do anything and everything, then you have to be incredible, but still – I wouldn’t have expected this much energy in one room. Now if it could somehow be converted, we may just have found the solution to the current energy crisis! Seriously though, I don’t know how this cast breathe, particularly the Osmond troupe. They don’t just sing and dance – they sing and bounce around like Tigger! They are a pretty special bunch. Alex Lodge (tick, tick…BOOM!, Bat Out Of Hell, Saturday Night Fever) is the anchor as Jay and is rarely off stage. Kudos to Lodge as it must have been intimidating, or weird at the very least to play Jay Osmond with Jay Osmond sat watching you, but he was natural, charming and exuberant., ensuring it was clear to see why he was the glue who held everyone together. Jamie Chatterton (Professional debut – whaaaattt???!!!!) is commanding as eldest brother Alan and does an excellent job of showing the internal struggle between doing what is wanted and what is needed, whilst trying to lead his siblings.
Ryan Anderson (Pippin, West Side Story, Grease) plays Merrill and has some cracking solo’s, showcasing his rockier side, whilst delicately portraying the personal struggles he faced. Danny Nattrass (Pantoland, Joseph, Mamma Mia) provides perfect harmony as Wayne, and depicts the weight of carrying his family’s legacy to dust with a gentle and touching humility. He also has a stunning solo. Joseph Peacock (Bat Out Of Hell, Joseph, Grease) come into his own as Donny whilst singing Puppy Love and whilst he looks in genuine shock at the audience reaction, he also knows how to play them and keeping upping the stakes. Georgia Lennon (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Beauty & The Beast, Jack & The Beanstalk) has a stunning voice and plays Marie with a cheeky charm and strength that is to be applauded amongst all those brothers! Charlie Allen (Eastenders, Home I’m Darling, Taming Of The Shrew) has a potentially difficult role to play as their father George, but does so convincingly well. He is completely believable as this looming authoritative figure with whom you would simply not argue, yet he still manages to display the compassion he had for his family, as did Nicola Bryan (Me & The Girls, Sweet Charity, Dreamcoats & Petticoats) as mum Olive. Alex Cardall (The Wind In The Willows, Evita, Putting It Together) played numerous roles, but his Andy Williams is worth a mention as his mannerisms were eerily spot on. An audience favourite was Sophie Hirst (Cabaret, We Will Rock You, Cinderella) as Wendy, or to use her full title ‘Wendy from Manchester – your number one fan’ (obviously I don’t mean YOUR number one fan dear reader, but Jay’s) for she brought a little bit of home to this worldwide phenomenon.
Even if you think The Osmonds aren’t your cup of tea – remember they sold over 100 million records worldwide and have won an insane amount of awards, so there will be plenty of tunes that you recognise and possibly even have on your guilty pleasures playlist! A touchingly true story, written by middle sibling Jay Osmond and co-written by Shaun Kerrison, it favours the squeakier cleaner image they spent many years perfecting, and paints a few rainbows and sparkles over some of the grittier, harsher elements of their upbringing, but I understand why. Whilst it would no doubt make for a grittier story, and offer more truth and connection, do their life long, die hard fans, who let’s face it this musical is aimed at, want their illusions of perfection shattered, or do they want to drown in nostalgia? Reminisce as they boogie down memory lane and playfully cheer on their favourite brother? After all, you hear Osmonds and you think floppy wigs, flares, sparkles, rainbows and lots and lots of smiling.
About half an hour in, I started to try and find reasons to give this show anything but a 10/10 score because I have awarded this an awful lot recently and I don’t want to throw these 10s around for fun, but I just couldn’t do it. There is simply no denying the hysteria, the love and happiness in the theatre tonight and the energy and hard work that was clearly visible. There was only positivity and a sense of elevated kindness. How can a show that literally alters the mental state of its audience and connects them all to each other with the purest of joys be awarded anything less than a 10? Tonight I learnt that even though I class myself as a fan, I am simply not in the same league as the majority of tonight’s dedicated followers, but then again, I didn’t grow up with the Osmonds – I wasn’t even born, so I guess this speaks testimony to their pulling power (that, and I was already googling the merchandise prior to tonight’s show) that someone from the wrong decade, who also grew up listening to Queen and Meatloaf, can also fall in love with (to quote Jay) The Mormon Von Trapps! Bring on the Osmonds!
WE SCORE THE OSMONDS – THE NEW MUSICAL – 10/10
SIX The Musical - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 2nd August 2022
This has got to be the hottest ticket in town! I’ve waited years to see SIX – though not through choice or lack of trying! It has always sold out faster than ‘five, four, three, two, one more minute’, but it’s finally my turn and it’s pointless saying ‘Don’t lose your head’ because the excitement levels are several years in the making! With a jam-packed theatre, a mix of newbies and hard core fans, the Lyric theatre was alive and I’m “Sorry, not sorry” for being one of the lucky ones invited along to this evening's performance.
Six is the sensational, multiple award winning, ground-breaking creation of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and with well over 100 million streams of its music alone, it is safe to say that the popularity of this homegrown musical is going nowhere fast. Children who have little experience of musical theatre can sing every lyric of every SIX song for you and adults who normally cringe at musical theatre will happily throw you under the bus to secure their own ticket. Why? Because its brilliance captures the imagination of every generation through mixing history with modern culture in an outstanding and transitional way. It takes something we all learnt at school and ignites it, shoving a rocket up its you know what, to create exciting, empowering, and ebullient explosions of energy. Yes, Henry VIII is important to our history, and yes, he established the Church Of England and The Royal Navy, but if recent events have taught us anything (Come on you Lionesses!) it’s that we should never whitewash the part women have played in a seemingly male story.
Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Katherine Parr. SIX wives with SIX stories of their own to tell. Each Queen had a rough ride being married to Henry, but who had it worse? They take it in turns to present their version of events through rip roaring, top tunes with the goal of winning the role of lead singer in their band, resulting in a music concert come festival that blows away a few thousand years’ worth of cobwebs. It expertly balances references to historical Tudor facts and culture, with modern-day twists, embodying a blend of female power houses for each of the Queens. Catherine Of Aragon represents an era of modern divas such as Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez, Anne Boleyn features elements of Avril Lavigne and Lily Allen, Jane Seymour symbolises the big ballad beauties such as Adele and Sia, Anne Of Cleves clocks up the cool rankings via her inner Nicki Minaj, whilst Katherine Howard personifies the pop princesses such as Ariana Grande and Brittney Spears, and Catherine Parr is influenced by the stunning Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé. The blending of so many influential musical styles, equally interwoven with Tudor motifs such as Greensleeves, is testament to the popularity and brilliance of SIX. Each Queen performs a solo, pleading their case as to why they suffered most by being married to Henry. These are woven together with interactions between the characters, creating moments of comedy, tension, sarcasm and sympathy. As we soar towards the shows finale, the Queens continue to fight over who has the worst Henry story, until sole survivor Catherine Parr imparts us with the brilliant ka-bam moment and message of empowerment for all females, everywhere, ensuring they are defined as individuals and not through their relationships. She sings of her own independent accomplishments, resulting in a mic drop moment of sisterly solidarity from the other Queens. I just love it!
Chlöe Hart (Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Girlfriends) is incredible as Catherine of Aragon. She is fun, feisty and fierce and smashes the neck ruffles off those high notes. After her solo, I turned to my plus one and shouted over the roar of the audience – “I love her!” convinced I had just found my favourite Queen. Then Jennifer Caldwell (American Idiot, Shrek, Mamma Mia) steps up as Anne Boleyn and the inner teenage turmoil of having to pick a favourite in a band begins, because she is sassy, scrappy and sensational, with a bad ass attitude to die for. How am I supposed to pick my favourite when they are equally brilliant?! It didn’t get any easier. Casey Al-Shaqsy (Prince Of Egypt, Joseph, Newsies) is epic as Jane Seymour, delivering the first ballad of the evening, with the ultimate diva star power bright enough to control a pumped up audience and have us all in the palm of her heartbroken hand. Jessica Niles (Madagascar The Musical, Our House, Cinderella) knocks it out of the park as Anna Of Cleves and brings a cool, current edginess to the stage and leads a brilliant and funky dance routine that younger members all around the theatre were trying to emulate. Leesa Tully is captivating as Katherine Howard and has a gut-wrenching solo that took me completely unawares. Her acting ability shone through, and I felt genuine emotion as we watched her determination of a better life ebb away through a brutal betrayal. This was a bittersweet, beautifully directed number by Lucy Moss & Jamie Armitage. Last but by no means least was another favourite (because I refuse to pick any one over another – teenage me will just have to deal with that). Alana M Robinson (professional debut – again, if this is the start of her journey - wow) is sizzling as Catherine Parr. She is moving, motivational and marvellous, leading our sensational SIX to their rightful conclusion with her fantastic speech and solo.
The triumphantly talented band (Ladies In Waiting – best name ever!) are onstage throughout and consist of Musical Director/Keys: Jenny Deacon, Guitar: Laura Browne, Bass: Ashley Young, Drums: Migdalia Van Der Hoven and Phij Adams provides music technology. They truly create a concert vibe, and with the accompaniment of lighting by Tim Deiling, you will be wowed till you can be wowed no more. Lazers, flashing colours, bulbs lighting up sections of a backdrop to create scenery, such as the hilarious swipe left and right dating app phone element for Anna Of Cleves, not to mention the shows opening which literally set the agenda for the whole evening. A shimmer of light breaks through the stage, SIX Queens enter silhouetted by the back light, the audience erupts with anticipation, which is heightened by a blackout before our divas are spotlighted one by one. I mean, come on! It’s superstar status! Brilliant!
Gabriella Slade has created the coolest costumes ever. Not only are they stunning to look at (and provided us with lots of conversation about which one we liked best, and which one had the most bling), but impressively capture both the Tudor style and the modern-day diva their character is influence by – right down to the long high ponytail of Ariana Grande. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard even had chokers, presumably representing the loss of their noggin’.
Famously imagined and written during their final year of university for The Edinburgh Fringe, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss have gone on to deservedly win pretty much every award worth winning, culminating in their recent and colossal Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre. Toby Marlow even made history at the 75th annual awards by becoming the first non-binary Tony-winner. SIX has an extensive showcase around the world; UK tours, West End residency, North American tours, residencies in New Zealand, Sydney and Broadway, and is literally making its way around the world onboard NCL cruises! Even with all of these showings, the tickets can still be like gold dust because this production has a life force of its own that is consistently pulling in audiences of all ages, genders, races, cultures and everything in between. It is serotonin in a show and its crowning glory is that, not only is SIX brilliantly entertaining, but its lyrics are so witty and clever, they pull you in and beguile you into listening to every single word with a heady anticipation.
Is the historical content of this 80 minute show 100% accurate? Well of course not, unless you choose to believe that Henry’s wives were all in a girl group together, wearing rock inspired, glitter and rhinestone studded costumes and had harmonies tighter than Henrys codpiece! I do actually choose to believe this as it’s so much better! And even though the aim of the show was never to convey history with 100% accuracy, it does an excellent job of delving more deeply into the individual stories of the six wives, making them real historical figures in their own rights and not just a reduction to a name in that infamous rhyme. So do whatever you have to do to get a ticket. No one will judge, they’ll only applaud your efforts, and as they’re giving you a congratulatory hug – will steal your ticket with the stealth of a SIX fan who refuses to miss out on this award winning, historemix helluvah show. It’s safe to say that SIX has gone viral, so mark my words – this is one virus you’ll be happy to come down with! Queens unite!! We’re SIX!
Derren Brown - The Lowry, Salford Quays - Tuesday 5th July 2022
One of the best shows you'll see in your lifetime, and maybe the next!
The word ‘genius’ should be sparingly used to describe the likes of Einstein, Aristotle and Mozart. However, the X Factor generation has used and abused its true meaning, often leading to the judges rising to their feet after an incredibly average audition and announcing to the masses, “That was utterly genius!” But surely a modern-day genius list would be more along the lines of Stephen Fry, a dash of Bob Dylan, a sprinkle of Willard Wigan (Google him!), and even a spray of Banksy. And let’s not leave one of the greatest showmen ever to grace this earth off that list – drum roll please… no, not Hugh Jackman… We present to you... Mr Derren Brown.
The anticipation that fills the air at a Derren Brown show is palpable even from outside the theatre. An eclectic mix of faithful fans permeate fascination, fear and favour towards this fastidious performer. Whether you’ve attended a live show before or not, you will hear snippets of conversations from those who have, flooding your body with adrenalin. I’d like to say that whether you choose to use that adrenalin as fight or flight is up to you, but the truth is, it probably isn’t. Nothing at a Derren Brown show is ever really up to you, for he is a genius of mind manipulation, misdirection, illusion and psychology. You can be sceptical all you like but there will be a moment when you realise that he is in charge and always will be. The harder you try to fight it, the easier it becomes for him, so my advice is just sit back, and allow yourself to be marvelled by the master.
Since Derren’s first TV series Mind Control, he has won Olivier’s (Something Wicked This Way Comes – 2006, and Svengali - 2012) and has received more awards and Olivier nominations than any other one-man show in theatre history. He has had the nation stuck to their chairs, manipulated a member of the public to assassinate Stephen Fry and created a zombie apocalypse! And this is just the tip of the iceberg into the varied CV of his work. He is also an established and reputable painter, an author, photographer and goodness knows what else. A truly talented man who is the real deal. He doesn’t claim to have psychic powers – infact, he emphatically denies it. He doesn’t use stooges, he doesn’t need to – he is that good. The one thing he always says which makes me smile and speaks volumes as to the paradox you will find yourself in, is “I’m always honest about my dishonesty.”
All of the ManchesterTheatres team are true Derren fans. From the moment we watched the controversial Russian Roulette episode back on our TV screens nearly two decades ago, right up to tonight’s incredible show, Derren Brown is one of our heroes. Between us, we’ve probably got everything he’s ever done on DVD, read his books, we’ve seen him live a number of times and some of us have even been tempted to purchase his artwork. He would definitely grab pride of place at our “Five celebs you’d invite to dinner” game.
Showman is a perfect name for this tour, as that’s exactly what Derren Brown is. His suave sophistication, charisma and charm could have anyone eating out of the palm of his hand regardless of his trickery for he has an aura, and a hypnotic presence about him. He is endearing with just a hint of danger. It’s kind of irresistible. Add into this a razor sharp wit, insane intelligence, and a humility that resonates with everyone, it’s no wonder he has complete control. There’s a reassurance and a terror in that, and that’s the absolute joy of Derren Brown – he can make you feel opposing emotions in equal measures at exactly the same time, and you never know which one to trust. He composes his art form with a beautiful flare, we are simply the notes he uses to complete his symphony.
What to tell you about Showman in this review? Are you kidding me? I’m telling you absolutely nothing! When Mr. Brown asks you to keep schtum – you do exactly what he says! Just like J K Rowling’s Harry Potter in the West End, Derren has asked us to keep the secret so that future audiences can love his work as much. No spoilers, no forewarning and no heads up will be given here my friends. I can however reveal that Showman will wow you, make you laugh, make you cry and make you appreciate life and love in a lip wobbling kind of way. One thing that runs strong through any of Derren’s productions, whether it be his live shows, TV specials, or his television series, is an overriding positive life lesson or affirmation, and Showman is no exception. He is known for sometimes teaching these in drastic and questionable ways, such as compassion in Sacrifice, or self-belief in Hero at 30’000 Feet, but the outcome is always an overwhelming emotionally charged education on humanity. To date, my personal favourite is the stage show Miracle. It’s so life affirming that a quick dose of that when I’m feeling blue, and my endorphins are off on a jolly, flooding my entire body with a blissful blend of ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhhs’ and ‘whoop whoops!’ However, Showman may now just have taken pride of place as the number one Derren Brown feel good experience.
It's a very personal show, for both Derren and the audience, with a huge emphasis on emotional wellbeing. At a time when the world is living through experiences that we may not be mentally or emotionally equipped to deal with, Derren provides an incredible tonic, brings everyone together, and encourages you to connect with yourself in a way you never knew you could. It is the most euphoric experience and one I urge you to be a part of. Showman has heart. It is that simple. Yes, it will leave you baffled, leave you questioning yourself, your memory and your sanity, but the overriding feeling you will leave with is hope. What a beautiful, and unexpected offering. It has made me want to live my tomorrows with more kindness, more belief and more worth. Showman is a night you’ll never forget and entertainment of the highest order. It’s right up there with Cirque du Soleil for its wow factor and undeniable and unique skill set. This is a genuine thank you to Derren Brown for such an incredible gift and for giving me so much more than a night of brilliant entertainment. If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, we promise you, it will not just be your favourite show of the year, it’ll be one of the best things you have ever witnessed live.
WE SCORE DERREN BROWN – 10/10 (obviously!)
Sister Act - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Monday 4th July 2022
If we ever needed a sign that on the 6th day God created Manchester, then here it is!
The Palace Theatre Manchester is the only venue on the Sister Act tour to see the addition of Jennifer Saunders and Keala Settle to an already angelic cast! Hallelu and glory be to the musical theatre Gods! Having seen Sister Act in London many years ago at The Palladium, I still remember how it generously fed my soul with a blissful euphoria and left me smiling for days. The music is joyous, the harmonies heavenly, and the story triumphant. Add to that a cast that can rock the rafters and Sister Act is heaven sent!
Fabulous nightclub singer Deloris has a not so fabulous boyfriend, and when this leads to her witnessing a murder, the safest option is for her to go into police protection and take on a new identity. So where is safer to hide out than in a convent right? As Deloris takes on a new persona as Sister Mary Clarence, her daily life becomes less about hiding out and more about helping the convents failing choir. She takes the nuns into her heart and fills theirs with a love of music and a newfound self-belief. As we get to know these beautiful characters souls, a paradox of evil is closing in on the purity of the convent as Curtis and his gang uncover Deloris’ hiding place. But with a dream come true opportunity to perform for The Pope at risk, Deloris refuses to hide away, leaving the nuns to defend their sister in ways they never knew possible!
Sister Act is hilarious! From the one liners, the lyrics, the actors movements and facial expressions – it has comedy running through each and every one of its rosary beads. The audience are laughing from the get-go when the nuns appear on stage, singing so out of tune with each other, that your funny bone is immediately tickled, and it doesn’t ever get a rest. A blue fur coat is presented, followed by the line – “You killed a smurf!” Mother Superior is told, “You took a vow of charity.” She replies deadpan, “I give it back!” Song lyrics see our disco dancing nuns singing about shaking their booties, a love song from gangster Curtis proposes disembowelling your girlfriend, whilst his gang dance along to the death threats with the perfectly cheesy 1970’s boy band groove moves. This number is superbly performed by Jeremy Secomb, Bradley Judge, Damian Buhagiar, and Tom Hopcroft. These kinds of juxtapositions can be found throughout and are brilliantly clever and never fail to have the audience in stitches. I can guarantee you will laugh from beginning to end and find your jaw is genuinely aching from smiling and laughing so much. Nightclub singers, nuns, police, gangsters and drag queens fill the stage with glitz, glamour, and godliness, making Sister Act a hard Act to follow.
The set is magnificent in its apparent simplicity, but this eloquence has clearly been well thought out. It doesn’t over complicate but enhances and completely encompasses every scene, whether it be the sanctity of the Church, a shimmering disco ball nightclub, a police station, or an apartment with many secret hiding places for nuns who you can’t shake from your mind. It switches to each location with a slick speed and ease, enhancing everything and everyone on stage. Morgan Large not only designed an engaging set but brilliant costumes, particularly for the finale, which will take you breath away.
Throughout the show I kept thinking “Ooh – this is my favourite song……no…..this is my favourite song!” There are just so many to chose from that elevate your endorphins that it’s a little bit like being a kid in a sweet shop. Do I pick the grand choral opener Take Me To Heaven, the fierce and fabulous, Fabulous Baby, the hilarious How I Got The Calling, or the sensational Raise Your Voice? Many audience members were wise enough to go and grab the CD at the interval so they can listen again and again to help them decide. The music is brand new and is not the music you will have heard in the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, but I beg of you, don’t let this put you off or feel disappointed because I promise you will not feel that way by the end. You’re more likely to feel disappointed that it’s taken you till now to discover such a wonderful new score!
Multiple award winner Jennifer Saunders plays Mother Superior. Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous, French & Saunders, Shrek & BAFTA Fellowship) literally left me crying with laughter. It is the first time I have seen her live, but I swear it was worth the wait. She is pure comedy gold and it is clear why she is a national treasure. From the moment she came on stage, the whooping and cheering told of the respect and love the audience had for her and not for a nano second did she falter. Every nuance, every breath she takes has purpose. She has truly made this part her own, and her comic timing, ad libs and details make for a comedy masterclass. She shushes herself, it’s funny. She pulls her habit away from her ears, it’s funny. She looks shocked – yes it’s funny. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. From her opening monologue, where she addresses the audience directly, to her musical solos, to her self-deprecation at the end where she claims the other singer is “a little pitchy”, this was a very special performance I shall never forget.
Olivier award nominated Lesley Joseph (Birds Of A Feather, Young Frankenstein, Annie) is possibly the other funniest nun I have ever seen, as Sister Mary Lazarus. Hearing her rap (in Latin!), and watching her street dance dressed as a nun, in a posh voice, has made my life! She is quite capable of stealing this whole show, yet she allows herself to blend into the ensemble of sisters with a humble generosity that makes me love her even more. Her stamina is beyond words, her facial expressions crease you with laughter one moment, then make you want to hug her the next. Joseph is an absolute legend and I can’t believe I got to watch two strong, empowering female comedians in one show!
Keala Settle (The Greatest Showman, Les Mis, & Juliet) is sensational as Sister Mary Patrick. I wasn’t the only one to feel I was in the presence of greatness, and the moment she lets rip with that incredible voice, I wanted to cry happy tears. Her acting was just gorgeous as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick and it became harder and harder to tear your eyes away from her as she embodied the character throughout, meaning that even when she wasn’t singing or speaking, she was still always doing something and so was engaging to watch. The start of act two proved to be a fan girl moment when she walked right past our seats! Eeeekk! I’ve just watched Keala Settle sing live people!!! Sister Act truly is the show that keeps on giving!
Sandra Marvin (Waitress, Emmerdale, City Of Angels) rocks the Palace Theatre to its rafters as Deloris Van Cartier. She has some huge shoes to fill playing the role that Whoopi created, but she not only fills them, she’ll make you go out and buy them in every colour! What an absolute star! Marvin commands the stage with her high energy, her soulful voice, and I think the best compliment I can give and what hopefully sums up the outrageous talent of Marvin is that after her performance, and in no disrespectful terms, you’ll forget all about Whoopi, because it will seem that the part was created entirely for Marvin.
Manchester welcomes back Lizzie Bea (Heathers, Hairspray, Kinky Boots) as Sister Mary Roberts. Boy can this girl sing. Still the best Tracy Turnblad I have ever seen, Bea once again created a moment for herself in her solo The Life I Never Led, wowing Manchester for the second time. I just love her and her magical singing pipes. To carve a standout moment for yourself in such a huge cast is testament to her talent. The audience went wild for her solo, and her comedy moments too and I can’t wait to follow her career.
Olivier Award winning Clive Rowe (Guys & Dolls, Sweet Charity, Carousel) is endearing as Eddie Souther. He starts out as a quiet character, but explodes into this Barry White-esque love god, with his luxurious deep, soulful voice and his triple costume reveal that any drag queen would be proud of. You find yourself routing for him throughout and he has a brilliant solo I Could Be That Guy, where he certainly knows how to win over a crowd. Graham Macduff (Singing In The Rain, Anything Goes, Phantom) as Monsignor O’ Hara goes from serious to silly with great comedic progression, and other cast members such as Tricia Deighton and Lori Haley Fox create the brilliance of ensemble that makes the show so illuminating.
Sister Act is a celebration of the joy that music brings! Whether you have any form of faith or not, this music by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, Little Shop Of Horrors) and fantastic lyrics by Glenn Slater, will make your soul soar with serotonin, and dopamine will disco through your entire body. A celestial blend of gospel, soul, and disco, I would seriously get yourself to the doctors if your spirits aren’t raised by this glorious music. There is just something inexplicably and inherently funny about disco dancing nuns. Maybe it’s the joy of the unexpected, maybe it’s the habits highlighting their faces for comedic magnificence, or maybe it’s just that we are all a little weird, but tonight, Manchester certainly loved a divine disco diva named Deloris. Leave your confessions at the door, worship at the Palace Theatre, and bask in the higher power that is Sister Act!
WE SCORE SISTER ACT – 10/10
Cluedo - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 27th June 2022
Cluedo is a wonderful world of innocent family friendly fun that left the audience giggling with glee!
So which Cluedo character are you? Anyone who ever played will have a player preference, maybe chosen because of the name, or maybe simply because of the colour. After seeing each familiar suspect brought to life tonight, you may now also choose based on their personality, because the joy of watching these memorable names ignite on stage as walking, talking, and hilariously flawed real-life people is a game changer!
You know you are in for a night of delightful daftness when Mischief Theatre director Mark Bell is in charge of rolling the dice and his comedy genius is stamped all over this production. Mishaps, jokes, slapstick, humour, farce, and spoof all jigsaw together into an ensemble piece of theatre that had the audience giggling throughout. We are treated to Bell’s brilliant inclusion of the set almost as an additional character, and always with the potential to steal the show. Created by David Farley, this set is outstanding. You are never in any doubt that you are exploring the full extent of the Cluedo mansion. Rooms appear from nowhere, the walls slickly open to reveal different rooms, doors connect, secret passageways emerge, and every nook and cranny is explored by the doomed dinner guests. The set becomes a vital part of delivering good old fashioned comedy theatre techniques. Whether the characters are on their constant near miss chases of in one door, out of another, reacting in slow motion, grappling with chandeliers or being smacked in the face with doors, the set is just as demanding of your attention as they are, and put to use with brilliant skill.
Cluedo is based on the film Clue (with much of the dialogue lifted directly from it), which in turn is based on the original 1949 boardgame. In a nice nod to this, the play is set in 1949, but unlike the film, is set in England. As a group of seemingly unconnected guests arrive via invitation to a dinner party at Boddy Manor, the mystery and intrigue begin. They are provided with an alias for the evening and strict instructions not to reveal who they truly are. Their alias’ of course are the infamous boardgame characters - Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, Mrs. Peacock, Reverend Green, Mrs. White and Colonel Mustard. As well as a new identity, they are handed a box. Each box contains a potential murder weapon raising the intrigue, mystery, and audience glee as the familiar weapons are revealed. It doesn’t take long to discover that each guest has deep dark secrets they would rather stay that way, but when murder is on the menu, it is only a matter of time before your secrets are served up as motive. After all, a single death could be explained away as an accident, but multiple deaths in a manor full of secrets, blackmail, and weapons? Then, my friend, you have an intriguing murder mystery to solve, for if you don’t – you could be next! As the evening progresses, the guests reveal clues, secrets, motives and hints to their real lives behind their alias. Miss Scarlett is actually the owner of an escort agency, Professor Plum is a psychologist for you know who, (sorry – that’s U.N.O.W.H.O – United Nations Organisation for World Health Organisation), Mrs. Peacock is a politicians wife who likes a tipple or ten, Reverend Green is an accident prone member of the Conservative Party, Mrs. White is a socialite, and Colonel Mustard works for the War Office. But that’s all you’re getting! I’ll leave you to figure the rest out yourself and guess who dunnit. You’ll keep changing your mind. You may even discuss it at the interval, but as with all farces, never say never because the plot twists and potential different outcomes are played out right till the very end. It’s a lovely nod to the fact that this is based on a boardgame, which by its very nature provides a different outcome each time you play.
The play scores high in the silliness stakes, and this element makes for a family friendly kind of murder mystery. It means the acting style is over the top, and whilst I initially wondered what on earth was going on, I quickly cottoned on and settled into the obviously chosen farcical, over acting approach and appreciated it for what it was. There can be a fine line between funny and annoying when it comes to actors over acting for comedy purposes, and I found the balance fell on the funny side, as did the majority of the audience due to the constant sound of laughter which filled the theatre. This allowed for the cast to have moments of asides with the audience, not vocally, but a subtle raised eyebrow here or there let us in on the joke.
Emmy award winning Michelle Collins (Coronation Street, Eastenders, Calendar Girls) plays sultry Miss Scarlett and makes her characters presence known with commanding moments of stillness when all around her is chaotic. She is striking on stage and carries through the subtle hints we learn of her characters true persona by making it clear she can make men bend to her will. Daniel Casey (Midsummer Murders, Eastenders, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time) plays Professor Plum with a beautiful ego and arrogance, who ultimately ends up with more on his mind than murder! He flings himself around the stage with pizazz and great timing.
Wadsworth is arguably the audience favourite. Played by Jean-Luke Worrell (The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Cinderella). Worrell is responsible for the majority of the scenery changes and makes this a fun and engaging part of the show with his marvellous movements, funny facial expressions and elongated walks. He has a great monologue in the second half and his pacing is perfection. Laura Kirman (The Play That Goes Wrong, 39 Steps, Peter an Goes Wrong) plays the maid Yvette with the best worst French accent since ‘Allo ‘Allo. A great vocal actor, sliding from a Northern accent into French and back again, all within one sentence. She is funny to listen to.
Mrs. White is portrayed by Etisyai Philip (Member of the Windmill Players, Book Of Mormon) and has some strange moments to deal with, such as repeating “Mrs. Peacock” many, many, times in a row, but she does this so well that she not only keeps the audience with her, but has them laughing over and over again and just two words! Wesley Griffith (Romeo & Juliet, The Importance Of Being Ernest) brings Colonel Mustard to life and is full of brilliant British pomp and circumstance. His character quirk of taking everything that is said quite literally is acted with such a genuine innocence that he was the cause of many of tonight’s jokes and played the humour beautifully.
Mrs. Peacock is created by Judith Amsenga (Mixed Up North, Soup & Salad) and is really strong as her character, from her slightly hunched walk, to some of the best and flexible fainting I have ever seen. She takes her character from stuffy to, well…. being stuffed to put it bluntly! And watch out for her hilarious attempts to steal a little tipple at every opportunity. She never switches off and I love that. Tom Babbage (The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong) is the misfortunate, calamity prone Reverend Green and provides most of the slapstick, physical comedy. Whether he is being smacked in the face by a door, squashed by a corpse, or striving to survive a chandelier incident that ALW would be proud of, you can guarantee he is just one more murder away from raising the roof with his comic timing.
Meg Travers and Harry Bradley complete the ensemble on stage, playing multiple roles from a cook to a cop, a driver to a doorman, and having fun with this every step of the way. It becomes a part of the amusement waiting to see who they’ll turn up as next, and they blend into the controlled chaos so well that I could have happily seen more of them.
Each character had their own quirk, and each quirk had its own moment to shine. The second half ran at a faster pace and had more stand out moments in it, such as the raucous parties involving the corpse’s in order to hide them in plain sight, and the whole show ran with great comedic language such as malapropisms, silly jokes, rhetorical questions that are mistakenly answered and the literal interpretation of phrases and sayings. Another nice touch was the transitions between scenes, where the actors would dance the chairs, props and coat stand off stage.
There were a few moments in the show where I didn’t quite follow its purpose, but it truly didn’t matter for I enjoyed myself and thoroughly appreciated sitting in a theatre filled with so much carefree laughter. Cluedo may not be the deepest of plots. It may not be the most challenging or provide the fanciest of arcs, but neither is it meant to and so this becomes its strength. I enjoyed that it didn’t take itself too seriously, that there wasn’t a deep dark message hidden within it, and that it wasn’t trying to change the world, just entertain it for a couple of hours. After a long day, I appreciated that. So, I invite you all to attend Boddy Manor and submerge yourself via the brilliance of theatre in nostalgia, wit, and a little bit of murder. Test your noggin’ as you try to answer those infamous Cluedo questions, who dunnit? Where? And with what weapon? Was it Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the lead pipe? I’m not telling! You’ll have to come and discover that for yourself!
WE SCORE CLUEDO - 8/10
Anything Goes - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Thursday 9th June 2022
ANYTHING GOES HAS EVERYTHING - THE BEST THAT MUSICAL THEATRE HAS TO OFFER - YOU SIMPLY HAVE TO SEE IT!
Now that’s how you put on a show! I mean, come on! If Carlsberg made musicals………! Anything Goes absolutely smashed it tonight and I will be living off this high for many months to come. It is fair to say that as one of my all time favourite shows with some of my all time favourite performers, I may have been a little loco with excitement these past few months and I am so happy that my expectations were not only met, but were sailed past at the speed of knots courtesy of the SS America! Cole Porter’s score delivers hit after epic hit, so even if you think you’re going into this show blind, I promise you will know many of its tunes and find yourself singing along, clapping those infectious rhythms, and ready to take up tap dancing, even attempting a few hop-step shuffles on the way for your interval drinks!!
Not only is Anything Goes so full of life, love, joy, fun, energy and happiness, it also impresses with its vulnerability, its emotion and its sensationally talented cast. This madcap story follows the antics of some larger than life characters onboard the SS America as it sails from New York to London. Billy Crocker is supposed to stay on dry land to manage stocks for his boss Elisha Whitney who is onboard the cruise ship. But just as Billy is bidding Elisha farewell, he spots Hope Harcourt who he has fallen madly in love with. Of course, just to make things a little trickier, Hope is there with her mother Evangeline and fiancé Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Billy simply has no other choice but to stow away, try to break up her relationship and win her hand in marriage, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid his boss Elisha and convince the Captain that he is a genuine passenger. Enter his nightclub singer pal Reno Sweeney, Moonface Martin the number thirteen gangster in all of New York (or number two, depending on who you listen to - though what his actual crimes are we never find out, and you get the hilarious impression that even Moonface isn’t too sure either!) and his assistant Erma.
Moonface maybe a debatable gangster but is definitely a number one conman and quickly gets to work on disguising Billy, first as a sailor, then a pastor, Lord Evelyn himself and finally as the number one gangster Snake Eyes! Reno works on seducing Evelyn away from Hope, whilst Erma works on seducing everyone just for fun! Old friendships are rekindled between Reno and Moonface, who provide a refreshingly brilliant leading couple who are not romantically involved but are simply the best of friends who have loyalty, love and respect for each other. As the plans to help Billy get his girl reach dizzying heights, a stint in the ships prison, evangelism, seductive tangos, threesomes and Evangeline’s dog being shaved, thrown overboard and worn as a beard begin to seem like perfectly normal everyday occurrences. After all, in the pursuit of love – anything goes!
An impressive set dominates the stage throughout most of the show, welcoming us onboard the SS America. The stature of the cruise ship is impressive to say the least and used to maximum effect with its large and talented all singing all dancing cast. Combined with stunning lighting that creates mesmerising effects such as the reflection of water rippling across the ship, and romantic moonlight, this creative team have left nothing to chance.
This is an all star cast and multiple Award winning musical theatre royalty Kerry Ellis (Wicked, We Will Rock You, Les Mis) was born to play Reno Sweeney. Wowing us from the off, she sings hit after hit, each of which is delivered with her undeniable voice, reducing the audience to whoops, hollers and whistles time and time again. How she belts out those notes after such frantic dance routines is other worldly and thoroughly deserving of the standing ovations she obtained. Ellis leads some of the shows biggest numbers, such as Anything Goes and Blow Gabriel Blow with a heavenly authority and it's hard to take your eyes off her, making it clear how and why she earned her place as one of musical theatres leading ladies. She is commanding, warm, comical and everything inbetween - a performance I shall never forget.
Olivier Award winner Denis Lawson (Star Wars, Bleak House, Mr. Cinders) is the best worst gangster as Moonface. He continually makes the audience laugh and develops some brilliant catchphrases and quirks with his character, ensuring that half the time we were laughing with anticipation before he had even delivered his lines! That is a skill only an accomplished actor such as Lawson could achieve. His timing is so spot on that you really feel you are watching a master at work. Lawson’s solo ‘Be Like The Bluebird’ shows off his amazing singing voice and again his brilliance is able to engage the audience with the fact that he is ultimately singing to a blue spotlight. Yet the number is so full of charm and whim that you just roll with it, allowing yourself to be guided by him and follow the spotlight as if it really were the bluebird!
Olivier Award winning Simon Callow (Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Mystery Of Charles Dickens, The Woman In White) is wonderful as Elisha Whitney. He is full of fun and again knows exactly how to engage the audience and have us laughing at his misdemeanours. His physical comedy is an honour to watch, from him blindly trying to find his way across the ship without his glasses, to trying to bend down (and more importantly get up again), to his Yale bulldog moves. Callow is the perfect companion, no matter who is partnering on stage. All it needs is one look from him, one raised eyebrow, and you are hooked by a master.
Multiple award winner Bonnie Langford (Eastenders, Cats, 42nd Street) does not age! I swear, she is better than ever, and still high kicking across that stage right until the bitter end! Her character acting is just phenomenal. She is able to switch from her crocodile tears to ecstatically happy and back again quicker than you can blink. She makes her gold digging, mother controlling character so funny that you just want more and more of her outrageous behaviour. Langford is a showbiz legend and so was born for this production. She has a brilliant moment where she bursts onto stage in a life jacket dripping with jewels, and its clear that her movement is enhanced by her impressive and famous dance talent. At this point I just need to take a moment to recap – Kerry Ellis, Denis Lawson, Simon Callow and Bonnie Langford! Whoever cast this show – THANK YOU!!
Samuel Edwards (Les Mis, On The Town, Ghost) oozes a cheeky charm as Billy Crocker, and he flits between his characters different friendships and relationships with smooth waters. He has great repartee with Ellis as Reno, fantastic comedy with both Lawson & Callow as Moonface and Elisha, and a more tender and loving side with Baisden as Hope. Edwards again has so many wonderful moments, it’s hard to not gush! He is phenomenal and showbiz perfection in the previously mentioned ‘You’re The Top,’ with Ellis, yet shows a contrasting more delicate side in ‘De-lovely’ with Baisden, where he is equally able to show off his amazing dance skills. An absolute all rounder and leading man who makes the show so much richer.
Whatsonstage award winner Carly Mercedes Dyer (A Chorus Line, The Colour Purple, West Side Story) is fantastically fun, fabulous and flirty as Erma. She is so stylish, subtle and in control on stage that Erma becomes a character of female empowerment! Her timing is flawless and her delivery of detail is impeccable, making each word, gesture and movement count. I just love her. Dyer’s solo ‘Buddie, Beware’ gives her the opportunity to shine and share her god given talent with everyone, mastering a perplexing combination of comedy and sensuality. Add into that incredible singing and dancing and it’s no wonder why Dyer is winning awards and being nominated for Olivier’s!
Haydn Oakley (The Book Of Mormon, An American In Paris, Sunset Boulevard) is an unequivocal genius as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. He plays the role of the posh cad with such a loveable approach that you can’t help but embrace all his pomp and circumstance and celebrate his enthusiasm for life. Oakley’s smile, charisma and talent are captivating and he has seriously funny bones, none more so than when he is doing his hilarious tango or is reacting with such glee at the Americanisms he learns from Reno. He is brilliant at portraying such innocence, yet equally conveying that he most definitely has a colourful past with his gypsy connections. You can’t help but smile every time he comes onto the stage.
Hope Harcourt is brought to life by the delightful Nicole-Lily Baisden (The Book Of Mormon, Newsies, Let’s Face The Music). Baisden is brilliant at showing us the multitude of sides to Hope, from the unapproachable debutant, the cautious girl trying to protect her heart, to the carefree and totally in love abandonment she experiences. Hope may not be as ‘out there’ as the other female characters, but Baisden makes sure that she doesn’t fade into the background. With some beautifully tender moments, gorgeous singing and touching partner work, Baisden shines bright in a strong cast and plays Hope to such a standard that it is abundantly clear why Billy has upended half a cruise ship for her.
Cole Porter has written hit after hit, and waves of familiar, brilliant and irresistible melodies lap and crash their way throughout the entire performance. Friendship sang by Ellis and Lawson created an immense ripple of appreciation, love and warmth, with their performance spilling over into elements of natural joy, improvisation and giggles galore. It’s fabulous when you see the cast having so much fun as it engages an audience on a much more personal level somehow, breaking down any showbiz barriers or fourth walls. You feel a part of the gang, a part of the joke and its very clever. There are glorious ensemble moments (and this is an impressively sized cast, making these numbers spectacular beyond belief) such as Bon Voyage, Blow Gabriel Blow and the showstopper to end all showstoppers Anything Goes! Wow! At about nine minutes long, this all encompassing tap number is worth going to watch the show for alone! It fills you with an intoxicating euphoria and personally left me so pumped with endorphins and adrenaline that my eyes sprung a leak of sheer joy at its brilliance. It makes use of a three-tiered set and relies on nothing but talent. It really is one of those moments you’ll never forget, and quite rightly provoked a standing ovation! What a way to end act one!
Anything Goes has everything! Humour, beautiful and unique relationships, vulnerabilities, farce, tenderness, intriguing and brilliant characters and the best that musical theatre has to offer. Buoy oh Buoy is it good (sorry – couldn’t resist!) With a family friendly plotline, dazzling costumes, thrilling songs, indulgent dancing, shimmering sets and quirky, contagious characters, you’d be hard pushed to find a more exuberant and exhilarating show! To quote its own song, It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely. It is intellectually goofy and silly and try as I might, I feel my review cannot do Anything Goes justice for there don’t seem to be enough ways I can express the joy it brings. It really is a case of actions speaking louder than words – a show you simply have to see! Anything Goes has sailed into town and it’s a sure hit of a show so grab your tickets before it’s bon voyage and anchors away! I know I’ll be going again!
WE SCORE ANYTHING GOES – 10/10
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 6th June 2022
THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE IS TENDER AND TOUCHING - TRULY TREMENDOUS THEATRE!
It’s award winning, comedic, dramatic, showbiz, and Northern! What’s not to love? The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice is back in its cultural home, with many a Northern cast member and a few adopted ones along the way. This show has been creating a bit of a buzz amongst many of my family, friends, and colleagues - and for good reason! We have all seen the Olivier award winning film by Bolton born Jim Cartwright, starring Rawtenstall actress Jane Horrocks and legendary film star Michael Caine. It blew our minds when it came out, for it gave a Cinderella-eqsue story new life, modern and more adult themes and an absolutely cracking musical soundtrack from some of the all-time greats. With a dream cast touring Little Voice across the country, the anticipation surrounding this production has been real and a topic of conversation for quite some time.
Little Voice is a shy, unassuming kind of girl who is happiest when she goes unnoticed, and it is abundantly clear why when you meet her overbearing mother - Mari Hoff. Mari is never going to win any mother of the year awards for she is far happier indulging in her favourite past times of dodgy men, booze and partying than paying any attention to her daughter. She is verbally abusive to LV, her only friend and neighbour Sadie, and people in general. However, Mari thinks all her dreams have come true at once when she meets club owner Ray Say and starts dating him. But Ray is far more interested in Mari’s daughter LV to cultivate some fame, fortune and finances for himself! When he discovers LV’s talent for impersonating the great singers such as Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, he immediately insists that LV performs in his club. He has big plans for her, whether she likes it or not.
But LV has not spent years locked away practising her skills for anyone but herself and as a terrified and timid talent, the thought of being thrust into the spotlight fills her with a fear beyond her worst nightmares. LV finds solace and companionship in her musical idols, her impersonations are merely an extension of this and were never meant for anyone outside of her bedroom. As Ray pushes both mother and daughter into new unchartered and unwanted paths, LV is left traumatised and Mari is left with the harsh reality that neglect can lead to disastrous consequences. Often described as a Northern fairy-tale, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice delves into the highs and lows of small town life, self-esteem, family resentments and rivalries. It illustrates how a little voice can very often make the most noise. It will pull on your heartstrings, ensuring you leave with a sense of strength to stay true to who you are and follow your own voice. After all, a little voice is still a voice.
So, who on earth do you get to play such an iconic character, especially when the role was specifically written for Jane Horrocks and she set the bar so incredibly high? It has to be someone who can act, who can also sing to soul soaring levels, and also convincingly impersonate a million different singing icons without risking immediate judgement from the audience of “Ooh she doesn’t sound much like Judy now does she?” When I saw that Christina Bianco had secured the role, I leapt with joy because just as this role was worked around the unique talents of Horrocks, it 100% could have been created for Bianco! Having witnessed Bianco first hand in her one woman show at The Lowry a few years back, I have followed her insane talent on socials ever since and she has most definitely continued the success and legitimacy of this show. Bianco (Funny Girl, Joseph, Rent) plays LV beautifully.
She has the most subtle moves, gestures and nuances to communicate without words which are so delicately fragile, her character is instantly believable. A simple tilt of her head, a half-smile or a gentle nod speaks volumes about LV’s inner frozen fear and her inability to always articulate her feelings. She initially teases us with small snippets of impersonations of Judy, Lulu and Shirley, setting the scene for what is to come, and when it comes it is so worth the wait. Bianco finds freedom in her voice, just like LV, and her performance sections are out of this world. It was like we had just been transported to a different show – an evening with showbiz legends! Her voice and impersonations are simply outstanding and I found myself wanting more, but then the spoken play continued and I found myself wanting more of that, and so this loop continued. I guess I just didn’t want any of it to end!
Anything that Shobna Gulati is in, gives the show immediate credibility as far as I’m concerned. Gulati (Coronation Street, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, Dinnerladies) is perfectly atrocious and hilarious as Mari Hoff. I adore how much she throws herself into this part and her comedic ability is just incredible. Victoria Wood is my idol and watching Gulati last night, I felt her spirit live on with the details she delivered into everything she did and her dedication to putting the comedy and character first and foremost, abandoning any care for how she looked. This was always at the heart of Woods performances too and Gulati took this show to the next level. She bellowed onto the stage screaming, eye make up running down her face, holes in her leggings, ripped lace on her dressing gown, with a drunken stance and stagger as she battled to stay up right. Her delivery of this brilliantly northern script was so delicious, the audience laughter and appreciation rang throughout the entire theatre. She had everyone in the palm of her hand and commanded attention. Gulati had her own way of speaking as Mari, with the misuse of words, made up words, extending words and the most theatrically funny use of swear words I have ever heard. She blended Northern slang with her telephone voice and just made my inner geek fall in love with the genius of language and of Cartwright's brilliant script.
Gulati’s scenes with Fiona Mulvaney (The Ferryman, Keeping Up Appearances, Silent Witness) as Sadie were brilliant. Their partnership created so many detailed moments that just made the entire play burst into believable life, such as the mistiming of Sadie passing a drink every time Mari moved her hand out of the way, their scenes dancing to The Jacksons, and the bittersweet moments of Sadie being so happy to have a friend, only for it to be dashed in moments by a cutting insult from Mari. Mulvaney had few actual lines to speak, most of which consisted of the repetition of the word “Okay,” and this was the genius of her part. She created an entire quirky character through physical acting and had some of the best moments in the play. I didn’t want to take my eyes off her because I knew I’d be missing some little gem of a nugget she was performing, and this was exactly the case. Her face alone acted its socks off and whether she be eating green cornflakes, slowly throwing up some foamy white liquid, drinking tea with her sugar, or wondering around the stage with just one shoe, she was brilliantly barmy and bemusing!
Ian Kelsey (Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Chicago) is the seedy Ray Say and shows us many sides to his shady character. He is a sleezy boyfriend, a compassionate listener (or so we are led to believe), a light hearted jack the lad, an excitable agent, an abusive, dangerous and selfish bully, a vile and degrading tormentor, manipulative, and a broken and beaten shell. Yet Kelsey threads all these elements convincingly into one person and not once does it feel fractured or stilted as we go from one aspect to the next. He believably brings Cartwrights brilliant character writing to life, showing humans with all their complex personalities and flaws. He also likes to goof around in character and has many a funny moment such as using his shoe as his ding dong!
The cast is complete with wonderful supporting cast members, with Billy tenderly played by Akshay Gulati (The Family Way, East Is East, My Version Of Events). He provides us with beautiful shade in comparison to the crazy characters surrounding him. His performance is like an oasis of calm. William Ilkley as Mr. Boo is great at portraying the typical brash and crass Northern night club owner and even has his “wayhey’s” in all the right places and James Robert Moore as the poor unsuspecting phone man gives some hilarious reactions to Mari’s unwanted advances.
Walking into the theatre, the house of Little Voice is immediately visible, and I enjoyed taking time soaking in all the details, from the pictures on the walls in LV’s bedroom, to the unwashed dishes in the kitchen and the basket of dirty laundry. I can’t stress enough the attention to detail this play has, so huge congratulations to all the creative team. From the moment Gulati entered the stage howling like a banshee, it became clear that this cast were microphone free and using the power and strength of their training to deliver tonight’s performance – so impressive! The noise and chaos of the plays stronger characters is contrasted with a simple beauty against the gentle and honest blossoming friendship between LV and Billy, as they both learn to find their voice because they are actually being listened to for the first time ever. Setting this at a window with a set of stairs outside gave it a Romeo & Juliet feel, making them the star-crossed lovers who just wanted to be free from their overbearing families. I felt this was a nice touch. There is a scene where the house catches fire from the reoccurring fusing lights, and as special effects work their magic through a combination of lights, sounds, smoke and atmosphere, the scene becomes quite intense and realistic. This is heartbreakingly set against LV trapped in her room, blocking out the fear by rapidly singing different snippets of icons. It is a moving scene. The second half of the show is more dramatic, with venomous hate pouring out of Mari towards LV, from Ray towards Mari, and finally from LV towards Mari as her inner turmoil explodes as she discovers her voice upon realising her mother has destroyed her beloved records through spite and jealousy. Moments later, LV is with Billy and singing “Over The Rainbow” in the most refined and delicate manner, creating a real moment.
The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice is a truly endearing piece of theatre. There are so many brilliant lines, I wish I could share them, but they were so plentiful and forthcoming that as I was trying to remember one, another one was already queuing up for my attention, so I decided to just be in the moment and appreciate the play in its entirety. We are treated to some pure showbiz moments, utter heart wrenching and uncomfortable scenes where you seriously want to jump up and intervene, and the most tender and touching moments in sublime contrast. This fusion of life provokes a genuine response from its audience because it reflects the tumultuous rollercoaster of emotions of our truth. We may not have faced these particular situations presented in tonight’s show, but we instantly recognise the feelings they provoke and are able to mirror them against our own, very real stories. As the play gifts us a life-affirming and uplifting message of over coming and rising above those who try to pull you down, use you, or provide you with anything less than the support and belief you have earned, it is no wonder that the audience seemed to be propelled into their standing ovation by a force bigger than choice. It was a desire to support the underdog, because we have all felt that way in life. It was a desire to acknowledge that bullies can be stood up to and it was a desire to celebrate the abundance of hard work, talent and joy that the cast and creatives of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice brought to The Lowry stage this evening. This show has reaffirmed that kindness, encouragement and belief can make a person soar.
WE SCORE THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE – 10/10
One Man Two Guvnors
One Man, Two Guvnors - The Octagon, Bolton - Tuesday 31st May 2022
WITH LARGER THAN LIFE CHARACTERS, QUICK WIT, FANTASTIC MUSIC AND SLAPSTICK COMEDY, ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS IS A BRILLIANT NIGHT OUT!
Anyone got a cheese sandwich? If so, can you get yourself down to the Bolton Octagon and deliver it to Francis Henshall please before he starts eating floor food! Francis is broke. He has been fired from his skittle band and is willing to feed himself by any means possible. He’s not eaten since lunchtime after all! So, when two paid opportunities present themselves at the same time, what’s a man to do? Francis grabs them both by their meat and two veg meaning he not only works for local criminal Roscoe Crabbe but also for Stanley Stubbers who is currently hiding from the police. Sound simple? Well, what if I tell you that Roscoe Crabbe is dead and is actually being impersonated by his sister Rachel Crabbe so she can collect the £6k he is due? Add to that the fact that Roscoe was killed by Rachel’s boyfriend, who - yep! You guessed it - is none other than Stanley Stubbers! Enter Francis Henshall who finds himself in the middle of the criminal underworld, a family feud, an engagement, and an exhausting existence of keeping his two Guvnors apart so they don’t attempt to kill him too as he plays them off against each other! And all of this because he fancies an extra helping of haddock, chips, and mushy peas!
I first saw One Man Two Guvnors courtesy of The National Theatre during lockdown. It was the perfect play to keep spirits high, for its farcical and fun comedic plotline provides the perfect tonic to cheer anyone up. As soon as I heard it was coming to The Bolton Octagon, I secured my ticket, and prepared myself for an evening of fraudulent characters, police pursuits, and one man trying to ensure that his two demanding bosses never meet! Walking into the theatre was so much fun as the audience were greeted with a live skittle band playing under a multi bulb lit sky, creating the perfect holiday vibe. I already felt like I was on a night out, with everyone clapping along and enjoying the atmosphere – and the play hadn’t even begun. This fantastic band are used to maximum effect throughout the performance, providing entertainment for set changes, and even sharing its members to double up as characters in the play. It also offers ample opportunity for remaining cast members to each have a solo spot too, whether that be singing, playing the body as an instrument or playing the kazoo! Tony Award Nominee and Drama Desk Award winning composer and lyricist Grant Olding has created an amazing array of tunes that uplift your spirits, allowing you to join in the performance by singing and clapping along to his breezy songs. They are very reminiscent of Lonnie Donegan and the audience absolutely lapped it up.
Award winning writer Richard Bean has penned an incredible play with One Man Two Guvnors. It’s quick wit, multiple one liners, and constant split use of internal verses external fourth wall breaking dialogue ensures this play keeps the audience on its toes throughout. We are constantly treated to asides from the characters as they talk to us directly, explaining what they’re actually thinking as opposed to what they’re saying, or sometimes simply asking us for advice – like where is a good place to take someone on a first date! It also makes use of the fact it is set in the past by characters predicting things they think will happen in the future, such as phones you can carry around with you, or a female Prime Minister! It is able to mock the downfalls of its own predictions too so as an audience in know of the future, this becomes an ingenious method of ridicule and poking fun. There are repetition jokes throughout which create the essence of you being in on the shared jokes and very cleverly engulf you as part of the group. It’s that feeling of a shared history with your pals as you laugh time and time again over certain stories. It is such a simple but effective skill that truly submerges the audience even further into the evening. We become part of the existence of what happens at Dartmoor, learn time and time again that Alans knife is from Woolies, and laugh with expectation at the reoccurring dilemma from Francis, “I’ve gotta be very careful what I say here.” The one liners are delivered in abundance, and hit the mark every time. Some are fun and silly such as “I’m dangerous and unpredictable, like a bee trapped in a shop window,” and some are groaningly grosse and great, extracting nonstop laughter such as, “Cor blimey, I smell like a doctor’s finger!”
However, the best script only works with the best team and the best actors to do it justice. There is such strength in this cast and such a relaxed ease within their performance, that they honestly made you feel like you were hanging out with your mates. Jordan Pearson (This Is The Winter, Ladhood, Coronation Street) knocks it out of the park as Francis Henshall. He is cheeky, loveable, energetic and you are routing for him throughout. He is great with improvisation as he heads into the audience looking for food, comfortable with pulling poor unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage, and brilliant during his inner turmoil when he argues with, and even has a fight with himself. Siobhan Athwal (& Juliet, Wasted, Eastenders) slides with a smooth ease between playing Roscoe and Rachel Crabbe. From almost street dance popping moves as Roscoe to flailing and emotive as Rachel, Athwal maintains two strong physicality’s throughout and matches this with her vocal ability to glissando from the deep, dark and gruff Roscoe to the feminine Rachel at the drop of her trilby hat. Qasim Mahmood (Aladdin, Trojan Horse, Doctors) is the perfect portrayal of Alan the wanna be actor darhling! He spoofs up his role to an excitable extreme and has the audience roaring with laughter time and time again. His physicality is used to maximum effect as he bounces and takes flight across the stage. Laurie Jamieson (Romeo & Juliet, Thor & Loki, Call The Midwife) is hilarious as the obnoxiously pampered Stanley Stubbers. He plays the boarding schoolboy graduate with frivolous pomp and plenty of circumstance, delivering his own brand of inappropriate language and observations unapologetically. He seems to be having the time of his life in this fabulous role and the audience loved him. Rodney Matthew (The Pillowman, The Tempest, The Seagull) embodies the perfect East End rogue. He is Sean Bean meets Mr. Bean and it is just wonderful. This talented individual continually switches from character to playing in the band throughout the evening and with his del boy like moves and guarantee of tears at the mention of his wife, he is a joy to watch.
Alexander Bean (Summer Holiday, The Wizard Of Oz, The Crucible), Lauren Sturgess (An Enemy Of The People, Wuthering heights, Heart To Heart), and Matthew Ganley (The Wizard Of Oz, Oliver Twist, Waterloo Road) complete the fantastic skittle band and also play their roles with excellent ease. Bean is the master of the short aside, so much so, that his last one in the play just becomes a look – no words are needed. Sturgess is wonderful and charming as the confused Pauline and a beautiful singer, and Ganley seems to be everywhere all at once. One minute he is wowing us with his vocals, the next he is a policeman, or a waiter. Incredible. Karl Seth (Annie Get Your Gun, The kite Runner, East Is East) does the same, and though his main role is Harry Dangle, in which he is so swarve, the next moment he is stood beside you in the audience dressed as a policeman looking for his hat! Polly Lister (The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Abigails Party, The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence) is full of fun throughout, and not afraid to let loose as she uses her leg to air guitar riff her way across the stage. She shares her dating life with you so dryly that she instantly makes you her best mate. That leaves the brilliant Javier Marzan (Peepolykus, Benidorm, Paddington 1&2 – where he was also the physical comedy creator). I mean, come on! Marzan is someone I think we all could have watched on loop all night. He is a master of his physical comedy craft, free falling off the stage, bumping downstairs, knocking himself out with doors or cricket bats, and diving off railings! He makes everything funny whether he be stepping off a step or eating a banana – Marzan just has brilliantly funny bones.
The audience love One Man Two Guvnors, not only because it is simply brilliant, but because they become a part of the show. Hide your snacks, don’t show off your muscles and stay alert else you might jut find yourself on stage like Joe and Simon, moving a trunk and being banned from The Cricketers Arms pub! This play is a master of the farce and a fantastic highlight of this is none more so than the scene where Francis has to serve a meal to each of his respective Guvnors at the same time, who are in opposing rooms, without letting each of them find out about the other, and whilst trying to include his own belly in the distribution of food as it appears. Add in an 86-year-old waiter with a pacemaker who is at his first day of work and it is farcical, slapstick heaven. It is a lengthy play that held the attention of its audience throughout and I thoroughly recommend.
WE SCORE ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS – 9/10
The Play That Goes Wrong
The Play That Goes Wrong - Opera House, Manchester - Monday 30th May 2022
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG - PURE COMEDY GOLD!!!
Mic drop! Boom! That’s how you put on a play! (Mischief that is and NOT Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society). What an evening of absolute chaos, mania and brilliance. The name of the company says it all – Mischief! – meaning that even if I didn’t know anything about them, I would immediately love them. Luckily for me, I do know a little and they have become my go to indulgence on days when you just need a good giggle and a pick me up. I first became aware of Mischief and The Play That Goes Wrong in 2015 when they made an appearance on The Royal Variety Performance. I have never howled and ugly laughed so hard in my life! I knew that I just had to see the play in its entirety and so I jumped at the opportunity a few years later to watch it in London. I was hooked, and as their popularity quite rightly grew, television shows appeared, and I tuned in to every single one. Peter Pan Goes Wrong, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong and their television series The Goes Wrong Show.
So, who are Mischief? Well, they’re a group of actors who upon graduating LAMDA in 2008, created an improvisational group and started performing across the UK. They started developing scripted work and have since created numerous shows which are performed all over the world including The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Groan-Up’s and Magic Goes Wrong. Their winning formula of being serious about silliness ensures their plight of providing everyone with the opportunity to break free from their everyday shackles of life are not only met, but are smashed, cracked and tripped over along the way! Mischief is essential escapism (or ridiculous escapism as they like to call it) through humour, mishaps and that innate and questionable instinct we all have to laugh at others accidental misfortunes.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a beautifully constructed play within a play that immediately gives free license to break the fourth wall, allowing the cast to brilliantly present two characters- their amateur dramatic persona who is a member of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, and the part that this character is playing within the murder mystery ‘Murder At Haversham Manor’. But the Cornley Drama Society are ill prepared, accident prone, and dealing with internal thespian problems, relationships and a director who insists the show must go on - even when it is quite literally falling down around them!
If I can give you any advice for this show it’s to arrive early because even though the show formally begins at 19.30, the entertainment begins way before that at around 19.00. The Cornley members make appearances on the stage trying to dress the set, mingle with the audience looking for vital personal items such as a missing Duran Duran CD and involve the audience with brilliant improvisational moments that will have you rejoicing before the show has officially begun. The actual start of the show is just about the most pumped up I have seen an audience and when Henry Shields arrived on stage and delivered his now famous catch phrase – “I’m the Directoooorrrrr” – the theatre erupted with electric applause. This respect was rightly repeated every time a much-loved cast member appeared for the first time, making it abundantly clear that Manchester loves Mischief! I don’t think any of us could quite believe we were lucky enough to be watching the original cast, and the television cast who are now all so instantly recognisable.
The training, time, skill and effort that Mischief members must invest into their performances blows my mind every time I watch their work and tonight was no exception. These are stunt, slapstick and comedy geniuses. How they batter themselves each night without getting hurt is incredible. I love that they turn a disaster into the most positive form of entertainment and reduce their audience to streaming tears of laughter every night. You will laugh so hard it will make you question if you ever really knew what real laughter was before! Everything is a gag from doors that won’t close and won’t open, props being mixed up and misused, set that won’t stay still, and everything breaking such as the head of a hammer flying off. The Cornley Drama Society strongly believe that the show must go on, mostly to their own detriment! The one thing you can guarantee that they will get right is getting it wrong and this knowledge puts the audience in a constant state of heightened and eager anticipation. You will see masters of slapstick, physical theatre, stage fighting, stunt artists, and witness improvisational legends. Actors are literally dragged through open windows by a single arm and leg, walk into and are consistently smashed by doors, fall through and off gurneys, drop off platforms and even balance a bureau, a drinks cabinet, a chair and a pot plant all at the same time! The script is sublime, succulent, and silly and is so sure of its own brilliance that undermining it with further comedic chaos takes it to the next level. The cast are joyfully able to take the script out of sync so questions are answered before they’ve been asked, allow it to be stuck in a loop, read stage directions as important and dramatic lines, and mispronounce words with such hilarity that they will replace the originals in your everyday language for the are so much better! I mean, why on earth would you every say cyanide again when you can pronounce it Kai-a-niddi! Simple, surreal and spot on! The Play That Goes Wrong is like a beautiful jigsaw. It’s not just one piece that makes it a masterpiece, but so many individual and equally important bits all joining together to create the complete package. Each character has its own ‘bit’, from exiting with their arms crossed over their chest, to forgetting they’re in the play and joining in clapping with the audience. There are playful ‘digs’ at some of the less fortunate am dram societies out there too in the form of overacting, including a child like action to every word spoken, waving to the audience, and cast members fighting over who gets the part. Place all of this alongside flashes of brilliance that are in a world of their own virtuoso imagination. I mean, I never thought I’d be able to say that I have seen a Grandfather clock faint, but there you go!
The Play That Goes Wrong is the perfect family show, engaging and entertaining every possible age. The Opera House was streaming tears of laughter and with experts in improvisation before us, it was only a matter of time before this keen audience got the opportunity to join in. Cue a pantomime style back and forth between this enthusiastic crowd and Henry Shields, who egged us all on with a practiced ease. This was a great moment for his character to lose that fiery temper of his as Chris Bean and we all just revelled in the joy and the palpable energy he created through his immense and impressive improvisation. Henry Lewis has the vocal ability to bring any audience to its roaring knees. His delivery of words is gymnastic, and his physical comedy and strength during a scene on a ledge was brilliant. Dave Hearn is chortle-tastic as his loveable, childlike and endearing character. His ability to act so daft, so free and without any inhibition wins the hearts of audience time and time again. Rob Falconer plays the technically rubbish technician with such authenticity that you sometimes genuinely forget he is actually a part of the play. He amusingly switches things up throughout and finds himself in many a compromising position! Charlie Russell and Nancy Zamit deserve such respect for their partner work and how much they batter the potatoes out of each other! It is superbly timed, and they never miss a beat. Jonathan Sayer had us all chuckling at his ability to act like he can’t act, can’t remember lines and can’t understand the basics of reading a script. His daft approach is brilliant throughout. Greg Tannahill is the funniest corpse I have ever seen. He doesn’t speak any lines for a long time, yet his stage presence and acting are so good that he makes everyone wait for delivery of his physical gags time and time again. This truly is the dream team cast and I know for certain that, like many others in the audience, my Christmas wish this year is to become a member of Mischief. The timing of The Play That Goes Wrong is everything, and this cast are leading experts in comedic timing, delivery and merging every element of stagecraft together as one. I have to say, it’s so wrong, it’s right! I’m begging you, for your own good, go and watch this show! I know I’m saying this about a great deal of productions lately, but I promise that you will not regret it. Don’t miss out and make it The Decision That Goes Wrong.
WE SCORE THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG - 10/10
Rambert - Dance
Rambert - Dance - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 25th May 2022
Rambert Dance Company have been on my wish list for a while so tonight I was thrilled to be getting three performances for the price of one. The evening is divided into a trio of dances; Eye candy, Cerberus and Following The Subtle Current Upstream. Each programme has its own choreographer and its own definitive style and story, ensuring not only is there something for everyone, but that the company of dancers are challenged and we see the full extent of their incredible repertoire. Why have I been longing to see Rambert for so long? Because Rambert are a company that push boundaries, explore life through dance and tackle tricky and taboo subjects through a powerful and emotive art form. They are renowned for their approach to storytelling, diversity and the igniting blend of different styles of dance.
The first of the three pieces Eye Candy explores the human body and what it may mean to inhabit one. It can be a wonderful experience, full of love, joy and possibility. But for others, it can be torture, cruelty, abuse and an impossible feat to manage. The ever-increasing pressure of perfection looms at the heart of this challenging dance and questions the pedestal that it becomes harder and harder to achieve. Choreographed by Imre Van Opstal and Marne Van Opstal, the piece opens with a single dancer lying strewn across the stage. As others enter, we see them trying to mould one human into perfection, but each has a different view on what that should be, so every touch brings change. Eye Candy reflects the worlds broken view of body image through broken, jerky and glitching movements throughout, creating awkward angles and refracted lines. There is incredible partner work, with four couples turning their bodies inside out, balancing on their heads and redefining the human body in more ways than one. There are powerful moments when the dancers come together against the backdrop of a grey rough wall, accompanied by percussion and dripping water. The piece becomes primeval, instinctive, as the characters discover their bodies. It is a conceptual piece and during the interval encouraged a lot of discussion and interpretation. Amos Ben-Tal has scored abstract music to create atmosphere, encourage the senses and challenge the dancers. This is a compelling dance confronting body image. It is enhanced by the dancers wearing nude body suits, complete with drawn on muscles and breast moulds portraying the impression of a naked body as a canvas.
Cerberus, the second dance, is wonderfully choreographed by Ben Duke who has engaged dance, acting, music, song, comedy and tragedy into one short and impressive piece. A collection of spoken word, voice recordings, live percussion, live strings and singing, recorded dance music and echoed poetry all combine to create an impressive and popular segment of Rambert's collection. Cerberus is the Greek mythological guard dog at the gates of the underworld, preventing the dead from trying to leave or escape. It explores mortality through contemporary dance, and uses humour to deliver the unspoken thoughts surrounding death, the afterlife and humanity. The use of humour is an intrinsic tool used by Duke and is executed with brilliant darkness, such as the couture funeral scene which is interrupted by the arrival of a theatre technician who refuses to accept his friend has passed on and thinks this is some elaborate joke. Breaking the fourth wall by speaking to the audience directly, albeit it in Italian, a translator is on hand to ensure that we understand the show isn’t real, his friend isn’t dead, and she’s just hanging out in the dressing room. This segment is mortally funny but is also the heart of the story, highlighting how death is just as much about the living who are left behind and refuse to let go, than it is about those who have travelled to the underworld. It is about acceptance. The piece opens with a dancer travelling from one side of the stage to the other, attached to a rope, that may be symbolic of the umbilical chord as we are told that entering from one side of the stage means birth and exiting the at other side represents death. This rope is a feature throughout and is cleverly executed in unique ways time and time again, such as when the ensemble are all attached to the rope at equal distances, travelling to their death, each using dance to represent how their journey ended. One dancer is seen swimming across the stage, gulping for air as he is drowning. Another highlight is the conveyor belt of dancers walking across the stage to the underworld, which speeds up, getting more and more frantic, with dancers breaking out of the line with incredible solos, all trying to avoid death. There was so much going on in Cerberus that the excitement and energy became palpable. The costumes were the perfect gothic match to the story and the inclusion of live musicians added an undeniable atmosphere. As the piece ended, there was an audible gasp of emotion from the audience, which I don’t think any of us were expecting to feel after such humour. I love being caught out so this was a powerful end to an incredible piece.
Lastly is Following The Subtle Current Upstream choreographed by Alonzo King. King has created an interesting tale upon the thought that “Everything that exists in nature is seeking to return to its source. The child runs to it parents and the river seeks the ocean.” This bleeds into the notion that the human race is always searching for happiness, for the ultimate state of joy and euphoria and that we do everything possible to avoid pain and suffering in order to sustain and fulfil the goal of joy. A mix of dance styles compose this finale performance, with lyrical featuring heavily. However, it is juxtaposed against eclectic flashes of traditional ballet, African dance, and contemporary. Following The Subtle Current Upstream focuses on featuring the tremendous and diverse talent of Rambert through solos, partner work and small group work. Ensemble work is rare in this piece, so when it does come, its presence is felt with stunning beauty. This piece is not afraid of stillness and it speaks volumes. It is not afraid of silence, and some of the most powerful moments occur in these moments, where dancers move in perfect unison with no sound but their hearts, their breathing and the whisk of air as their bodies extend and perform. They move as individuals, as one, in canon and with fluidity through rainstorms. It is a tranquil piece that feels like it has its roots in nature, with costumes in earth tones. King has created a beautiful piece showing how we can all return to our own joy and live the life we want.
My personal favourite tonight was Cerberus. I enjoyed the unique storytelling, the blending of the different art forms and the quirky use of rope as an intrinsic member of the ensemble. But please take genuine note when I say this is nothing to do with it being any better than the others. It is simply an insight into what makes me tick, (who would have thought it was humour surrounding death?!) and if anyone is able to ever figure out what that says about me then please feel free to let me know!
I am so glad I have finally been able to enjoy the brilliance that is Rambert Dance Company. It was incredible to see these athletes create such different styles within one evening and I cannot wait for their Peaky Blinders dance tour next year. Rambert have a strong following, with a standing ovation, numerous curtain calls and lots of screaming fans, and it is abundantly clear why. I don’t think I have ever seen such gentle lifts and transitions between dancers, and such a showcase of dance in one evening. The three separate shows are not connected to each other, and with each approximating 25 minutes, it does not feel overwhelming either, so the perfect introduction to any newbies out there. As the audience left the theatre, it was encouraging to hear the next generation of dancers full of adrenalin, enthusiasm and motivation. As I left the building, one particular line has stayed with me, “When I grow up, all I want is for my arabesques to look like that!” So - to all involved with Rambert - congratulations for inspiring and reinforcing the future of dance.
WE SCORE RAMBERT - 8/10
*Rambert Dancers - Adél Bálint, Archie White, Dylan Tedaldi, Jacob O’Connell, Jonathan Wade, Joseph Kudra, Max Day, Naya Lovell, Aishwarya Raut, Alex Soulliere, Antonello Sangiradi, Caití Carpenter, Cali Hollister, Comfort Kondehson, Daniel Davidson, Seren Williams, Simone Damberg Würtz*
Chicago - Opera House, Manchester - Monday 23rd May 2022
The first time I saw Chicago, my mind was blown, altering my perception of the role women could play in a musical forever. Strong, powerful, villainous, sexy, uncouth, controlling and domineering. Chicago offered a form of female empowerment light years away from the old school Hollywood MGM roles, and I fell in love with the gritty nature of characters available. Match this with some of the best musical songs ever written and throw in Bob Fosse as choreographer (I’m such a fan I’ve even named my car Fosse) and you quite literally have a stage show that will never go out of style, for it has a unique and eclectic style all of its own. The silhouettes, the lines, the skidoo, hotcha and whoopie (yes Chicago even has its own language that makes perfect sense in the middle of its musical jazz numbers) create a dark and delicious dynamic that is so particular, every isolation of the body is mesmerising and musical theatre heaven.
This Fred Ebb and John Kander masterpiece focuses on our flawed protagonist Roxie Hart, who after murdering her lover, finds that in this town, murder guarantees you fame and fortune. Roxie dreams of being a celebrity vaudeville act and with the help of prison warden Matron Mama Morton and her newly appointed sweet-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, it looks like her dreams may come true. But first she has to convince the jury that she is not guilty. Roxie quickly learns from Billy the best way to do just that is to play fast and loose with the truth. The court system is just a circus after all, another means of entertaining the crowds, and those with the best stories come out on top. So what if she has to blame her long suffering husband Amos? So what if she has to make up a sob story about her past? It’s all part of the game right? With the best people on her side, what could go wrong? Enter cell mate Velma Kelly, an existing and jealous diva client of Billy’s, who wants her rightful place back as the centre of attention. Everything was going to plan for Velma - that was until Roxie turned up and stole her limelight. With both ladies prepared to do whatever it takes to be the biggest celebrity in a 1920’s gangster heavy Chicago, can there ever be a happy ending? After all, no matter what lengths they are willing to achieve to outshine the other, the next murder is only ever one aggrieved woman away. And that folks, is Chicago.
Walking into the theatre, the stage is set with a solitary chair, framed in spotlight and dressed with the infamous Fosse bowler hat. Already I am awed at the style and sophistication of this show and judging by the number of pictures being taken of a simple chair, so are the rest of the audience. The show continues with minimal set and is designed around the central staging area which plays home to the orchestra. With jazz musicals, ballads and showstopping tunes unashamedly ringing through the theatre one after the other, it is quite right that this ostentatious orchestra takes centre stage. The musical director Andrew Hilton was clearly living his best life and played his own part in the show throughout. This joyous orchestra, lead by a superstar, literally had the audience bouncing, clapping and joining in even after the show had finished and the cast had left the stage. This orchestra were showstopping all by themselves, so makes sure you pay attention and wait till the very end because the applause spoke volumes as to how much they make Chicago such a huge success.
Back to the set. The cast use the orchestra stand to make dramatic entrances and exits, including sliding down its long edge from quite a height with glamour and ease. Other than that, this is a show that relies on its talented cast. The only other set or props are chairs, ladders that are swung onto the side of the stage, bowler hats and large ostrich feathers. In a show which portrays a court room full of smoke and mirrors, it relies on none whatsoever itself to create this epic tale of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. Impressively, the cast never really leave the stage. Instead, they sit lined up on chairs along the sides, always just one jazz hand away from creating their numerous roles and sublime dance routines. It highlights that the true success of this show always lies in the ensemble as a whole team. There are obviously lead roles, but no role leads for this cast are clearly a strong and united team. Roxie Hart was brought to delicious life by Faye Brookes (Coronation Street, Shrek, That Day We Sang, Grease, DOI). Brookes played Roxie with a quirky, endearing comedic and mischievous lilt, showing us exactly why any jury would find her innocent of a murder she actually admitted to carrying out! She was poised, classy and drew you in with her charm, wit, and talent. A loveable rogue, Brookes enchanted the audience with her numerous song and dance routines throughout, with We Both Reached For The Gun being a showstopping highlight. Michelle Andrews (Annie, Joseph, Cats, Trapped) was the vivacious Velma Kelly and knocked everyone’s socks off (or should that be rolled their stockings down?!) Chicago and anything Fosse related is notorious for being hard core musical theatre, with its intricate isolations and synchronised and syncopated moves, but Michelle Andrew's talent is so polished that she made it look easy. She was cool, calm and collected throughout, whether she was kicking her legs repeatedly over chairs, cartwheeling, belting out lung busting numbers or balancing on a chair six foot in the air! She miraculously did not seem to ever even consider being out of breath.
Another star name in the cast is Shelia Ferguson (The Three Degrees, numerous UK and USA television shows, Fame, Thoroughly Modern Millie). Ferguson immediately makes her presence known with her first solo When You’re Good To Mama as Matron Mama Morton, making the song her own, with some soul soaring runs. She brings a cool, realistic vibe to the role and has a brilliant way of delivering her lines with a no nonsense mix of attitude and credibility. Ferguson was given a round of applause before she had even done anything, just for stepping on to the stage. Now that’s what you call a showbiz legend! Jamie Baughan (The Wind In The Willows, Kinky Boots, King John, Breeders) was anything but invisible as the long suffering Amos. He played the downtrodden, belittled and ignored character with a heart melting charm that aroused plenty of audible notes of sympathy from the audience. His Mr. Cellophane was pitched to perfection, gaining the backing of the entire Opera House in his plight to simply be noticed. Great acting, great singing and great jazz hands.
B E Wong (The Pleasure Garden, The King & I, Measure for Measure, Into The Woods) hit all the impeccable high notes as Mary Sunshine, both literally and metaphorically. This performance was mesmerising, and for anyone who is seeing Chicago for the first time, holds wonderful surprises too. You will not be disappointed for Wong most definitely brings the sunshine. Understudy Liam Marcellino (Les Mis, Strictly Ballroom, Cabaret, Miss Saigon) played tonight’s Billy Flynn with a cheeky, chipper charm that oozed proficient persuasion. His vocals were like smooth, warm chocolate, insisting you indulge and enjoy. Marcellino was every bit the flashy, fast talking, razzle dazzling, lawyer who absolutely threw sequins in our eyes and was splendiferous!
Every song in Chicago is a hit, but special mention has to go to All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango, for not only do they epitomise the essence of the show, but they come with their own fan clubs! Yes! The songs themselves seem to have their own following, for they both received authentic and abundant applause from the off. And rightly so. The power of ensemble Fosse moves, sleek, sexy, sparse shimmery costumes, spotlights, isolations, shapes, angular poses, strong and sultry singing, chairs, bowler hats, clicks, sighs, rippling muscles, energised empowerment and grace all happily hypnotise the audience, bending us to their will.
Any musical that starts its second act with a cast member wolf whistling the audience as a signal to stop talking, settle down and let the show begin, gets my vote! This production has plenty of mischievous quirks such as this throughout, and it loves breaking that fourth wall, or more to the point, smashing it down with purpose and invigorating intention. Chicago just has something special about it, that je ne sais quoi, that va va voom. It will make you shimmy till your garters break, make you demand your own exit music, and make you paint the town and all that jazz. So 5,6,7,8 your way down to The Manchester Opera House because tonight they were queuing out of the door for tickets, and nobody wants to be a Mr. Cellophane and miss out! After being lucky enough to review one of my all time favourite shows, I can legitimately sign off with “Oh I love my life, and all…..that…..jazz!”
WE SCORE CHICAGO - 10/10
Northern Ballet - Casanova
Northern Ballet's Casanova - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 18th May 2022
You hear the name Casanova, and you immediately think love, seduction and a bit of the other! Tonight, the Northern Ballet definitely lived up to the name for they made their audience fall in love with and be seduced by dance as a storytelling art form (and gave us a bit of the other through beautifully stylised ballet). I’ve always been moved by dance, right from my first ‘Good toes, naughty toes’ ballet classes, and tonight’s performance made me relish in the body’s ability with a new respect. I was advised to have a little look ahead at the plot of Casanova, provided on The Northern Ballet’s website, so that I could follow the performance with greater ease and enjoyment. This does help you appreciate the luminous expression that the dancers must deliver to tell a complex and lengthy narrative. Casanova has multiple plotlines that do not always intertwine with each other. It makes the story perfect for film, where scenes can visually show various storylines without confusion, so for a ballet to try and achieve this is phenomenal - and achieve it they do.
The story opens with a mass honouring the new Ambassador Barnis. Casanova is one of the clerics in attendance, though he arrives late after tutoring his pupils, the Savorgnan sisters. Whilst there, he is asked by Father Balbi to look after a book forbidden by the church. After mass, Casanova is found in a compromising position with the Savorgnan sisters, so he is immediately released from the church and leaves with nothing but his violin and the book given to him by Father Balbi. To make ends meet, Casanova joins an orchestra formed for Senator Bragadin’s Masquerade Ball. The Senator takes a shine to Casanova, who is more intrigued by Balletti – the cellist in the orchestra - and they leave together. However, the pair are attacked by thieves and whilst Balletti escapes, Casanova does not. He is robbed and badly beaten, but they do not take the book. The Senator finds Casanova and takes him home to look after him, and well, to try and seduce him. But his plans are cut short when he instead suffers a stroke! Bad timing or what!
Casanova uses the forbidden to book to help save the Senators life, who is so grateful, he names him his heir. But there are people looking for this book, and this news does not go unnoticed by them. Things are made worse when Father Balbi admits, under torture, that it is Casanova who now has the forbidden book, so the Inquisition start to hunt him down. Casanova is handed a secret note advising him to go into hiding at Cardinals apartments. Once there, he discovers that this is actually nothing to do with the book and instead finds himself in some weird sexual game of voyeuristic seduction. Just as he’s getting his jollies, the Senator turns up to warn him that the Inquisition are on their way. He tries to escape but fails and ends up in prison.
Act two sees Casanova working in a casino, where he boasts of his escape from prison. The wealthy Madame de Pompadour is intrigued by him and whisks him away to become his benefactor, (or sugar mummy- whichever term you prefer!) Rich, free and impetuous, Casanova sets about Paris to share the love! He throws a huge party where he reacquaints with a few blasts from the past and becomes intrigued by new friends and opportunities. As Casanova longs to be appreciated by the upper crust as more than sex on legs, he starts to write, but to much avail. He finds himself falling in love twice, first with Bellino and then with Henriette, a woman abused by her husband, who he tries to help. Through circumstance, he loses both women. Casanova is at a loss. He falls into a deep despair. All his past demons come back to haunt him and he questions his existence. Just as he is on the verge of no return, we see a single page flutter onto the stage, representing the moment when he is saved by his notion to write and share his story rather than be ashamed of it. As happier memories dance through his mind, we see the creation of his novel; History Of My Life.
The Northern Ballet are luckily known for being somewhat of a specialist when it comes to narrative dance, so you are in safe hands. They make this rather complicated and complex story flow, jump and leap right off the page. Even if you do struggle to follow the story, the performance is so breath takingly stunning that you are able to simply sit back and enjoy the dance for what it is. Principal dancer Joseph Taylor is athletic, elegant, and a more than convincing seducer as Casanova. It is utterly mesmerising to watch him bound endlessly around the stage with such grace, commitment, strength and stunning physique. He rarely leaves the stage and is captivating throughout. If he ever gives up dancing, I’m sure he could have a career change to long jumping or the hurdles because he just flew! His partner’s work was equally remarkable. No matter who he partnered, his ease was palpable as he moved them around, lifted them and ran around the stage suspending them in air with such fluent poise and beauty. The energy of all the dancers is insane and their fitness level is incomparable. This ensemble is so delicate and stealthy, they barely make a sound upon landing their incredible leaps and jumps. Their synchronicity, flexibility and use of skidding across the stage with controlled perfection is astounding. Elsewhere, in the real world, I had to stop and catch my breath just by running from the carpark to the theatre and the only skidding I did was on the trail of water left by the open water swimmers of Salford Quays!
Ashley Dixon as Father Balbi was powerful in his torture scene, creating some incredible images and gut wrenching acting. Sean Bates was our lustful Senator Bragadin, and moved around the stage with perfect pomp and circumstance, insisting his will be met. This was matched by Heather Lehan as Madame de Pompadour. Sena Kitano is quick, light and playful as Manon Balletti, truly bringing a playful nature to dance. Saeka Shirai is incredibly moving and tragically beautifully as Henriette.
This was certainly an emotive and moving performance, and specific moments will stay with me. The scene where Father Balbi is being tortured packed a powerful punch. The ceiling was lowered, (a ceiling whose design created an incredible optical illusion), lights were cast from its edges to create the impression of walls. These were lit from behind and filled with dry ice. Dancers then appeared as atmospheric faces and hands grasping into the prison cell before they could be fully seen. They emerged from the mist and began their abstract torture. The duet between Casanova and Bellino (performed by Minju Kang) in the second half surpassed storytelling and simply took my heart. Sometimes we have no explanation as to why a particular sequence may move us so, but I didn’t need an explanation. I simply enjoyed the moment for what it was – pure, exhilarating dance. The finale was outstanding and again I felt my heart bursting to explode with unadulterated emotion.
As Casanova struggles with his own tortured mind, flashes of his dark past hurl across the stage as he becomes undone. This is where you realise the importance and brilliance of the costume designs (Christopher Oram), for each character is so distinctly dressed, it is easy to follow the story re-enacted in Casanova's mind by their mere presence on stage. As he is inspired to write his life story, both good and bad, again the ghosts of his past are easily represented across the stage by their costumes. As the entire cast connect on stage, a blaze of dance, colour, costume, music, scenery and lights concludes this epic performance, and as pages from Casanova's book symbolically shower the stage, you are left with a feeling of hope, joy and amazement. A standing ovation and many curtain calls later, Casanova was complete.
Kerry Muzzey has created an incredibly emotive score for The Northern Ballet’s Casanova which is brought to life by the harmonious talent of conductor Daniel Parkinson and The Northern Sinfonia Orchestra. The rousing, anthemic music enhanced and enlightened, with timpani echoing each tortured soul, tubular bells creating atmosphere and French horns encouraging your heart to sing. Christopher Oram (Frozen) has designed this show to be visually impressive, opulent and stunning. His inspiring use of basic columns, whose versatility compliment the story rather than further complicating it with continuous lavish set changes, allow the audience to understand the story rather than being overloaded. This means that the columns can take us from a church to a casino with a simple and efficient change of prop or set dressing. They continually surprise you with their secrets too and are decorated beautifully. They are capable of change, supporting powerful lighting designs and moving. Yes, I am still just talking about columns, but just wait till you see them! All I’m saying is, if Oram ever wants to decorate my house then he would be more than welcome!
The succulent and saucy choreography will have your heart pounding, your pulse racing and your temperature climbing throughout. But Kenneth Tindall provides so much more than the raunchy expectations with his choreography. He treats the seduction scenes with taste, class and expectation, whilst still maintaining heat and passion. Every dancer is clearly respected and allowed to shine, with every step having a purpose. They even dance the props and sets on and off stage with choreographed delight! Tables, chairs, violin bows and costumes are all a mere extension of the dance. Tindall’s vision and construction is classical yet modern and the result is a beguiling and intriguingly genius piece of work. I’m thrilled he came on stage for his thoroughly deserved applause at the end. The creatives, complete with lighting design by Alastair West and wigs and make up by Richard Mawbey, combine to excel in their portrayal of this timely tale of sex and politics from the 18th century. Maybe this is because they expertly collaborated with Ian Kelly, Casanova's biographer.
I can’t applaud dance enough. I despair and grunt at anyone who is willing to dismiss it as something light and fluffy. Are you kidding me?! It takes years of discipline, dedication, willpower, inner and physical strength, sacrifice, teamwork, rehearsals, missed social lives, injuries, shredded feet, aches, pains, blood, sweat and tears – and that’s before you’ve even become a teenager!
This production is the perfect way to relax, be entertained, moved and astounded. The very name Casanova holds a multitude of expectation. The audience's expectations were not only met, but surpassed. It was a wonderful evening at The Lowry and though I now fancy myself as the next Darcey Bussell, and had every intention of making my way back to the car with a series of cabrioles’, chassé’s and ciseaux’s, instead I tripped over my water bottle exiting my seat! I guess I’ll stick to the YMCA and leave the beauty and grace to the wonderful Northern Ballet!
WE SCORE NORTHERN BALLET'S CASANOVA - 10/10
IT'S TRULY A SHOW YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS!
BOOK YOUR TICKETS TO SEE NORTHERN BALLET'S CASANOVA
The Cher Show
The Cher Show - Manchester Opera House - Tuesday 17th May 2022
With over 80 singles, almost 30 featured songs, endless movies, TV shows and goodness knows what else spanning seven decades, if you don’t know the name Cher – then you need to “Snap Out Of It!” Cher is a true superstar and her iconic looks have cemented her as a hero in the hearts of many fans across the globe. Whether your era is ‘Bang Bang (my baby shot me down)’, ‘Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves’, ‘Dead Ringer For Love’, ‘If I could Turn Back Time’, ‘Shoop Shoop Song’, ‘Believe’, or ‘Fernando’ from Mamma Mia 2, Cher will demand your attention at some point in your life. So in true Cher style, why settle for one actor to play you in a musical when you can have three?! I love this idea for it allows us to grasp the different stages of Cher’s life from teenage wannabe, to new rising star, and idol extraordinaire, highlighting the distinct versions of herself with an intrinsic and unique insight into her true self. These various stages each bring their own nuances and inner saboteurs to Cher’s life and are delivered through a beautifully moving and uplifting story that doesn’t shy away from what is on occasion, the savage truth.
Cher’s story and rise to success is no secret. It has been explored in film, documentaries and books numerous times over the years and remains one of fascination to us all. It is a true-life rags to riches tale, with many plot twists, set backs, heartaches, and controversies along the way, all matched in equal strength with endless awards, accolades and inspirational survival instincts that prove exactly why Cher is to be admired and indeed have her very own musical. She has overcome impossible situations with a steely determination that marks her success as a human far more than any award could ever do. We follow the young Cherilyn Sarkisian from southern California, and see the inner struggles of talent versus confidence, love versus loathing and control versus truth that all need to be conquered for our superstar Cher to emerge. The show is dripping with other famous names such as controlling boyfriend Sonny Bono, costume designer and friend Bob Mackie, and husband number two Greg Allman, each playing a vital role in moulding Cher into the icon we know and love. Throw in a few extra quirky characters, such as her fabulous mother, and the stage is set for wonderful one liners from Rick Elice’s book, fabulous costumes from Gabriella Slade, and an eclectic mix of sequins, songs, sass and spectacular showbiz salutations.
Teenage Cher (named Babe in the show) is played by Millie O’ Connell (Rent, Hair, Be More Chill, Six) and she nails the Cher-ism’s to a T. She is magnetic and enigmatic, making it quite clear why this young Cher was destined to be a star. The same can be said for O’ Connell. Her performance is incredible and she immediately won over the audience full of die hard Cher fans within seconds.
Rising star Cher (named Lady in the show) is played by Danielle Steers (Six, Bat Out Of Hell, Sweet Charity, Beautiful). Steers has some difficult and emotional elements to portray, from the break up of her marriage, and the struggle of family life and self doubt. Her performance is emotive and her vocals moved many to tears on more than one occasion. Steers was an expert at driving home Cher’s dry sense of humour with ease.
Lastly, our revival icon Cher (named Star in the show) was played by Debbie Kurup (Bonnie & Clyde, Sweet Charity, The Prince Of Egypt, Anything Goes, The Bodyguard) who dazzled us in the role. Kurup is mesmerising and indicative as the superstar. She raises the roof off the theatre with her performance and there is the definite feeling that this is what the fans came for.
Lucas Rush (Evita, Rock Of Ages, Ameican Idiot) is the love to hate to love Sonny Bono. They take us on an intense journey from loveable rogue to hard and bitter Manager, as we see Sonny’s soul being stolen by the devil that is showbiz. Rush’s vocals are insanely good and their portrayal of Sonny was spot on – even down to the way they holds their physique. They matched all three Cher’s with quick wit and banter, and together recreated that unique relationship known worldwide. Another great support is Sam Ferriday (Heathers, The Wedding Singer, Rock Of Ages) who multi roles throughout, each as convincing as the last, but none more so than his portrayal of Cher’s second husband.
Jake Mitchell (Snow White & The Happy Ever After Beauty Salon, The Tailor Of Gloucester, Alice In Wonderland) was every bit as fabulous as you’d expect Bob Mackie to be, and was instantly likeable. His dance routine was simply gorgeous and again his characterisation was impeccable. Tori Scott (Edinburgh Fringe, Better Nate Than Never, Sesame Street) was brilliant casting as Cher’s mum Georgia, for she was able to blend the love, banter, and support with each version of Cher in equal measures and belt out some cracking vocals too.
I was particularly keen to feast my eyes on the dance numbers as there has been a lot of publicity around the outstanding Oti Mabuse choreographing the show and Dame Arlene Phillips directing. I have to say, it was a feast! I picked up on a buffet of dance styles from Fosse, to Latin, to street, to jazz, to ballroom and musical. The styles flowed into one with a gorgeous ease and the overall impact was the pure class that is Mabuse.
What stands out for me in this show is how Cher’s infamous dry sense of humour, banter and quick wit have been captured so perfectly. She is the Queen of the comebacks – not just with her never ending Farewell Tours - but with her sense of humour too. The story is funny, playful and hosts not only new and unique jokes, but all the best lines that Cher has ever spoken – either as quotes from films or just her own little nuggets of advice on this thing we call life. “I think that the longer I look good, the better gay men feel.” “I called my dog six miles so I can say I walk six miles every day.” If you know and love Cher (which tonight’s audience clearly did) then you will not be disappointed by the amount they throw in. Another fun moment is during the song, “All I Ever Need Is You,” where Sonny and Cher are having a life changing, divorce making argument, and at the same time are on live television. They argue like cat and dog and the second the cameras roll, they switch into their happy, showbiz song, then switch back to arguing again. Creative storytelling moments such as these are scattered throughout the show and it really adds to its overall impact. In contrast, the show also knows how to pull on your heartstrings with powerful and empowering vocal performances such as “Song For The Lonely,” and “Strong Enough.” The show isn’t afraid to have moments where it strips back either and relies solely on the undeniable talent of its three Cher’s, leaving the audience with nothing but an empty stage, a spotlight and their voice. These moments are spine-tinglingly incredible.
Tom Rogers’ set is a clever way of supporting the story by inviting us to explore the real Cher rather than the celebrity and public persona. This is achieved by creating a backstage set where Cher is herself and not performing, with the main backdrop being rows and rows of floor to ceiling Cher wigs and zipped up costumes. Dressing tables, mirrors and wonderfully selected props are alternated to represent each year and decade of her impressive career. They even guide you to the exact year, by a New York subway having the current year the story is set in emblazed on it, or the back of dancers costumes, or a bed. This is all enhanced with creative and often spectacular lighting from Ben Cracknell, particularly so in the Bob Mackie fashion parade and the dazzling finale where the lighting illuminates everyone from the inside out. Slade’s costumes are possibly one of the features most anticipated in a show about Cher, and they do not disappoint. Respectfully saluting some of the most iconic costumes of our time, Slade delights the audience with an eclectic mix of rhinestones, glitter, leather, chains, fringing, high heeled boots, and beauty. The result is eye popping!
The finale is an epic hit parade sing-a-long designed to satisfy and to celebrate Cher in an illuminating and invigorating way. What a great party and acknowledgment of a back catalogue that has brought all of us together here tonight. The audience are encouraged to jump up, join in, film, take pictures and generally create a concert vibe, which is exactly what we did. Music is most definitely a gift, and Cher has chered (sorry – I had to at least once) that gift with the world. So, throw your head back, laugh, sing, dance, shimmy and simply give in to the party vibe. Dress up, don’t dress up but do turn up, and turn up with abandonment, for as the wise lady herself once said, “Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.”
WE SCORE THE CHER SHOW - 9/10
Snatched - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 13th May 2022
Melissa Johns (Coronation Street, Life, Granchester, Celebrity Masterchef, Henry V) takes us on an incredibly personal journey of her life, with humour, heartache and dignity. Snatched came about after Melissa’s icloud account was hacked and explicit photos of her were released online in 2018. As a young disabled woman with a history of body dysmorphia, Melissa now had to come to terms with the fact that her body had been made public property without her say so. The strength of heart, mind, soul and character it must take to turn such an experience into a positive, uplifting and empowering play is nothing short of remarkable. It makes no apologies for championing female sexuality, tearing down body shaming, or for throwing the spotlight on the ridiculous taboo that ‘shock horror’ – people with disabilities have sex too! Snatched is a fast paced, witty, wry and wonderful piece of theatre, with a very real human story at its heart. I had no idea what to expect of tonight’s show or if it was going to be my cup of tea, but instead I found myself connecting on a deep personal level with elements of Melissa’s journey, found myself laughing out loud, and found the biggest admiration for the wonderful human that is Melissa Johns.
Performed in the Lowry’s intimate Studio theatre, Snatched welcomes us with musician Imogen Halsey, who guides us through the play with a multitude of songs that form the playlist to Melissa’s life. Songs from the 90’s and 00’s are reimagined throughout and enhance the storytelling with poignancy, pathos and perfect dark humour. The music is all played and sung live by the incredibly talented Imogen Halsey on a multitude of instruments and the song choices are sometimes so subtle, it’s only when you stop and listen completely that you realise even these are clearly and intentionally thought out to maximise humour, such as “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” or to pull at the heart strings such as the melancholy version of “Dirtbag.”
Melissa tells her story with the aid of numerous characters along the way, such as the irrepressible Mia Sporgan on Good Morning TV, whose interviewing technique and language is patronising and belittling to anyone with a disability (Brave, brave, brave, brave, brave, brave poor little Melissa). These segments hilariously highlight the marginalised and often condescending way that disabilities are portrayed in the media and in life, such as ‘poor brave Melissa’ being on the front page of the news for learning to ride a bike at six years old, or for getting a job, or dare we say a boyfriend ‘even though she only has one arm’. Her portrayal of the interview when she landed the job on Coronation Street was brilliant, with Mia asking if she was surprised she was on such a show, to which Melissa’s response was along the lines of, “Yeah, people thought I’d only play shark attack victims, or any role in medical drama where there’s been a horrific accident really!” The dry humour is a tonic throughout and possibly the only way to survive in a world which is sometimes so ridiculously lacking with its understanding of both visible and invisible disabilities, and the thoughtless manner in which many people speak.
There are also the ‘Humanitarian Over Achiever Awards’ sprinkled throughout the show – a genius and comical salute to the self-appreciation of those who claim they are raising awareness and doing good but are actually belittling because they are more interested in self praise than the cause they are supposedly fighting for. Honestly, Snatched is so clever and highlights the insane prejudices that many do not even realise they present on a daily basis.
As we are taken through each milestone in Melissa’s life, with stories from primary school, to boyfriends, to prom, to first job, it is interspersed with snippets of the harrowing period in her life when the photos were leaked. These two elements smash and clash into each other with a mix of the hilarious to the horrific heartache. Every story becomes more and more humbling as our eyes are opened wide into what it means to live with a missing limb, or Wiggy as her Grandad named it. Primary school – Melissa’s voice is not heard when she says she knows how to recharge the battery on her prosthetic arm. Instead, she is separated from the whole class so she can be ‘plugged into the wall’, whilst they all enjoy story time together on the carpet. Boyfriends – how she learnt to hide her missing limb so that boys would even look at her, and the cutting phone message from a date when he did find out that stated freaks like her shouldn’t be allowed out. Jobs – where she isn’t trusted to carry plates whilst waiting on and instead is continually put at the back with just a serving jug of gravy or custard. The bullying, the hate, the exclusion, the harassment, the abuse, the incomprehension and yet Melissa has found a way to deal with it all and make the negative of her narrative into the most positive and proud elements of who she is. And so she should, for she is clearly a extraordinary woman. When the photos were leaked, Melissa learnt very quickly who stood with her and who ran away. Melissa had worked in education between acting jobs and they were one of the systems who ran a mile. In the Q&A after the show, Melissa highlighted that explicit photos being taken or shared without consent is not reserved just for those in the public eye. It is happening in every walk of life, and is increasingly apparent in schools, particularly upskirting. And there in lies the irony because far from being removed from education – Melissa Johns is EXACTLY the kind of positive role model that is in perfect position to give talks and educate students! She has lived life in a way that is unique and has a wealth of experience and insight to share from living with a disability, body dysmorphia and has lived through explicit pictures being shared without permission. Her mind set, her uplifting humour, her strength and her choice of where the power lies and how to take control of who she is, is a story that every student should hear. Infact, everyone should hear it.
Melissa’s story telling, devised alongside amazing director and friend Lily Levin is motivating, moving and marvellous. This one woman show is interjected with family photos, family videos and voice interviews with her parents, recording their thoughts on the leaked photos. As the show comes to a head, we are plunged into darkness and reminded that yes we have laughed throughout tonight’s show, but this is someone’s life, a very real life of a normal girl that could be your friend, sister, daughter or partner. We see a reel of home videos and photos rewinding back to the beginning when Melissa was born, and as the show finishes, she defies all the hate by standing up for exactly who she is. Her final message left me so choked that as I joined in the standing ovation, I could not cheer or whoop or whistle. I desperately wanted to, but my throat was so constricted with emotion I found it impossible. As I said at the start, I didn’t know what to expect from tonight’s show, but I can tell you all now that this is so much more than a piece of theatre. It is possibly the best life affirming and motivational speech I have ever heard.
WE SCORE SNATCHED - 10/10
Passion - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 11th May 2022
You only have to say the name Stephen Sondheim and I’m there faster than the wit and intricacy of his lyrics! Add Ruthie Henshall into the mix as the leading lady and this show promises to be the stuff of musical theatre legends for years to come, and with the beautifully intimate Hope Mill Theatre as its home, I feel genuinely honoured to be up close and personal to such theatre royalty.
Set in Italy, Passion is inspired by the novel Fosca and the 1981 film Passione d’Amore. Fosca, played by Henshall, is an obsessive, emotive and sometimes questionable woman in love with soldier Giorgio. She is driven by deep desires and we bare witness to how unconditional her love is. The question has to be asked though, where does love end and obsession begin? Giorgio - performed by Dean John-Wilson – is already in love with Clara, who he bids farewell to as he sets off to join his new regiment. Clara, it seems, is already married to someone else but they agree to keep in touch via letters. As the secluded Fosca and Giorgio meet when he lends her some books for companionship, Fosca develops an unhealthy attachment and dependency on Giorgio, and many dangerous warning signs start to appear. As Giorgio continues to write to Clara, he speaks of Fosca, and Clara warns him of the potential dangers that such an unstable relationship may hold. But is seems it is too late, for Fosca’s fixation with Giorgio is stronger than ever. Unsure of what to do, Giorigo asks for leave to put some distance between them but is persuaded to write to Fosca in his absence. She learns of his companionship with the married Clara and if affects her so deeply, many fear for her wellbeing and sanity. Her doctor is concerned that the only thing to ease her suffering is the return of Giorgio. He obliges and discovers the cause of her ailing state of mind – a cruel and humiliating failed marriage to a fraudulent Count. Following a mix up over a love letter written by Fosca but assumed to be written by Giorgio to Fosca, things come to a head as her cousin tries to protect her honour. Giorgio and her cousin duel as Fosca struggles to cling to life itself. Can Giorgio get to Fosca in time to declare the discovery of his love for her? Is his mind strong enough to take on the strength and passion of such a love? Fosca, Giorgio and Clare weave us into their tumultuous love triangle of obsession, power, manipulation, and of course, passion. Heralded as one of the few projects Sondheim personally conceived, and with the book by regular collaborator James Lapine, Passion certainly lives up to its name.
Upon walking into the theatre at Hope Mill Theatre, a translucent white sheet disguises two actors whose intimate movements are captured through their shadows and silhouettes. This build up is ever present long before the show begins and engages the audience into immediately asking questions. The show officially starts when the sheet drops to reveal Giorgio and Clara entwined in an impassioned embrace and we instantly grasp the physical intensity of their relationship. Swift and simple movements from both actors and moving stage slats allow the passing of time in a clear and fathomable manner and pave way for an uncomplicated and efficient journey from a battlefield to a bedroom. The lighting subtly plays its part too, delicately enhancing the scenes with a mixture of naturalism and symbolic moods. Lastly there is the use of a drum and trumpet played on stage by the actors, which mark the passing of time with a notable rhythmic beat.
In addition to our three main characters, we also have a small cast of soldiers, Colonels, Sergeants and Doctors completing the military company. Ray Shell (Starlight Express, The Bodyguard, Miss Saigon), Tim Walton (Matilda, Mamma Mia, Love Never Dies), Juan Jackson (Cats, HMS Pinafore, West Side Story), Steve Watts (As You Like It, The Pleasure Garden, classical / choral experience), Charlie Waddell (Half a sixpence, Cats, South Pacific), Danny Whitehead (Wicked, Phantom, South Pacific), Adam Robert Lewis (Phantom, Guys & Dolls, Witches Of Eastwick) are possibly the best supporting cast I have ever heard! Their harmonies were testimony to the level of these performers – all leading roles in their own rights. Their solo elements only offered further proof to the quality of their vocal abilities. It was like having the lead of every West End show up there all at once. Their scenes offered a sprinkling of light humour and a clever carefree contrast to the intense emotive nature of our love triangle. These scenes are not only vital in delivering important segments of the story, but in allowing the audience time to digest the powerful and sometimes uncomfortable themes of love throughout. They break the tension for the audience but just enough to allow you to breathe and catch your breath without ever pulling you out of the passion.
This ensemble also provide creative and exciting roles when we learn of Fosca’s harrowing past, with gender neutral casting. It was moving and inspiring to see these strong male identifying soldiers suddenly switching to playing the young female Fosca, or her mother, and for the audience to utterly accept that these two male soldiers are now in love with each other as a Count and a young Fosca. This was a modern and welcome piece of direction from Sondheim specialist Michael Strassen.
In a typical Sondheim manner, his glorious melodies and lyrics are echoed by different characters at different times throughout the performance, permitting an ebb and flow to the production but equally providing new interpretations of the same song by character circumstance and perspective. After all, that’s what Passion is ultimately about – different perspectives on love. Depending on who you are, your values, your past, your present, your appearance, your will and desire, you will view love and all it encapsulates with a unique and sometimes biased view. The psychology of what it is to love becomes intoxicating, it completely messes with your mind, manipulating your thoughts, questioning what you believe to be right and condemning you to the realisation that ultimately, love is intangible. It is not a fixed form that you can easily explain because love is different with everyone, for everyone and because of everyone you will ever meet. These things subconsciously shape your view of love, have the power to alter its very existence, and this is what we see Fosca do to Giorgio. Is hers a true unconditional love or pure manipulation? Is it freely given or does it come with a hefty price? I don’t know! I can’t answer! It has infiltrated my own mind, so everything feels a little upside down and what I thought I knew I realise is only a part of the full story that is love.
What I am 100% sure of though is that the theatre gods have delivered in abundance with the casting of this show. Ruthie Henshall (Olivier winner and 5 times nominee, She Loves Me, Crazy For You, Chicago, Cats, Woman In White and mainstream is known for her time on I’m A Celebrity) is just outstanding as Fosca. I know I am privileged to have watched a class act in such close quarters and this is why I love Hope Mill. I sincerely felt a shimmer and a warm glow run through me when she appeared, and her first notes rang out. Henshall’s ability is unfathomable, with the skill and technique to caress you with the most tender and heartfelt whisper, to scorching your soul through her powerhouse capabilities within one musical phrase. The animalistic haunting howls she dug from the depths of her soul were so terrifically torturous that her pain reverberated throughout the audience, leaving some genuinely worried as to whether Henshall was indeed acting or not. She blows my mind and I am officially at a loss for words!
Dean John-Wilson (Originating the role of Aladdin in Disney’s Aladdin, The King & I and more recently appeared on The Voice) is charismatic as Giorgio and so skilful that is easy to understand how he finds himself the object of so much attention. He is a beautifully controlled and generous performer, allowing everyone he shares the stage with to shine. He instinctively knows when to step back and when to step up. This is a rare humble and moving value. John-Wilson’s final scene was so bravely raw that it broke the few remaining members of the audience who were just about managing to stay in control of their emotions. He was unbelievable and it was even more moving to see him wipe away his own very real tears from performing this scene, as the audience were addressed at the end of the show regarding the Hope Mill’s wonderful charity.
Kelly Price (Olivier nominee, What’s New Pussycat, Peter Pan, Othello, Aspects Of Love) is a force to be reckoned with as Clara. Strong yet delicate, her complicated entanglement with Giorgio was played with a rousing and engaging energy that was infectious. An incredible actress, she was unafraid to make eye contact with the audience and pulled us willingly along on her journey and version of love. As Giorgio started to question what he wanted and needed rather than just giving way to Clara’s needs, we saw a brilliant transformation by Price which personally left me questioning whether to feel sorry for Clara or whether I had been hoodwinked by her. It takes a remarkable actress to take you on such a journey and her vocals were capable of seducing you or shredding you. Incredible.
Passion is an intense blend of those deep, visceral and instinctual feelings that drive our truth. Everyone is driven by passion, by magnetic values and unavoidable thoughts that flow through our very cores. This is what it is to be human after all. But Passion exposes the very fine crossroads between what is deemed a respectable and admirable pursuit of all that matters to you, and an unhinged, dark and obsessive slight in your heart and soul. When does Passion become poison? When does virtue become venomous and morality merge into malicious? Prepare to feel exhausted as this exemplary cast expose your nerves to their raw hearts, and their passions in this outstanding piece of theatre. Passion celebrates the sophistication and spectacular work of Sondheim with abundance and it is an evening I will remember for a long time. What an honour Mr. Sondheim. Thank you, and goodnight. x
WE SCORE PASSION – 10/10
Singin' In The Rain
Singin' In The Rain - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 10th May 2022
To say I’ve been excited about watching Singin’ In The Rain this evening is somewhat of an understatement. The smash hit 1952 film is one of my all-time favourites, Gene Kelly is one of my idols, and when I saw the stage version around thirty odd years ago with Tommy Steele I was blown away. Then discovering that dancer and choreographer extraordinaire Adam Cooper was part of the cast, and the anticipation of seeing such classics as “Singin’ in the rain”, “Make ‘em laugh”, “Good morning”, “Broadway melody ballet” – I knew that this production would shower us with the best of the best, and that for once, we would all be happy to welcome the rain in Manchester!
Set in 1920’s Hollywood, Singin’ In The Rain introduces us to silent movie star Don Lockwood. Lockwood is a Hollywood legend and happily makes hit movie after hit movie with his on-screen romantic partner Lina Lamont. Together they are cinema gold, celebrated by all. But nothing lasts forever, and as technology moves on, films start to introduce sound. As a new era of Hollywood is born with the introduction of the ‘Talkies’, can Lockwood and Lamont retain their Hollywood glamour status as the golden couple? Well, it appears maybe not, for Lina may look like a goddess but it turns out she sounds like a strangled cat! As Producers transition their silent film into a musical, it is decided that Lina must be dubbed for the good of the film. Lockwood takes control and introduces aspiring chorus girl Kathy for the job, who he ultimately falls in love with. This brings its own brand of feisty friction from Lina as jealousy and envy rampage through her blood. It also seems that no one at the studio actually knows anything about this new technology or indeed music, so Lockwood gets his best friend and musician Cosmo hired. With the perfect trio of Don, Cosmo and Kathy now complete, momentum takes over, talent shines through, and movie magic is made.
So where to start? Because this production transcends words! Talent, magic, euphoria, and jubilation wash over an awe-struck audience with the sophistication of a by-gone era and the celebration of a tangible Hollywood Glamour. Visually the show is simple but stunning, with Hollywood style bright lights, spotlights and the famous streetlight. A basic set of a soundstage is openly transformed to meet the requirements of each scene, with a subtle touch of fresh lighting and furniture, such as red lights and street signs for outside the Hollywood Chinese theatre, a park bench and dimmed lights, or the fall of a curtain accompanied by a flurry of naked bulb lights to represent a stage. The sets are clear, and clutter free, allowing all the necessary space needed for the epic dance routines. The show starts as any Hollywood musical should with an opulent overture, teasing our tastebuds for what is to come. The overture is partnered with the ensemble dancing their way through the different musical snippets, with exquisite attention to storytelling. Watch each dancer closely as they portray movie crew staff members, such as the cleaner or the costume girl using every opportunity to try and audition for the big wigs. This opening is sharp and clever, forming a feel for the fame hungry Hollywood way of life.
The whole production is so slick, joyous and oozing with perfection that all I can do is briefly mention the different numbers and moments, because given half a chance I would recreate the show in its entirety and quote lyrics, jokes and choreo combinations to my hearts content. The Moses Supposes number was phenomenal. Not only were the audience blown away by the comic timing and speed of the impressive tongue twisters that led into the number, but the tap routine that followed was toe tappin’ heaven! Alastair Crosswell joined Adam Cooper and Ross McLaren for this number and he was so phenomenal he was hard to keep your eyes off. I’m sure this could be an alternative meaning to a triple threat because these three tore up that floor and tapped their way into my top treats of the entire show!
Good morning was obviously one of those numbers that myself and the audience had been waiting for and it didn’t disappoint. I have to say, the rapport and camaraderie between Cooper, McLaren and Gooch as Don, Cosmo and Kathy was palpable and it added to the experience, making you extra happy to see them so happy. Their timing, trust and humour shines through every step, every nuance and every note sung, culminating in the famous walk over the sofa (or in this case a park bench). I can’t express enough how much joy these numbers bring. It should honestly be prescribed on the NHS!
The Broadway Melody Ballet number was everything I wanted it to be and then some. I initially wondered if the scale of this number from the film would be lost on stage, but then I quickly became embarrassed at my own stupidity because what unfolded was nothing short of amazing. It had everything recognisable from the epic film number, right down to the colourful costumes, the geeky glasses, hat and suitcase of Lockwood’s Broadway character. There were neon lights a plenty, tap, ballet, swing, sass and the glorious seduction of what was Cyd Charisse’s sensational dance, this time performed with a wickedly lavish ease by Harriet Samuel-Gray, who delivered a performance to behold.
An old fashioned cinema screen was lowered for moments in the story when Monumental Pictures were assessing their film making of ‘The Dancing Cavalier’. This was a sublime method of allowing us to laugh at the technical sound issues such as a huge time lag - meaning the wrong words ended up syncing to the wrong actor, or when the rustling of jewellery overtook the performance, or the microphones picking up Lina’s heartbeat and indeed when Lina only spoke every other word into the microphone!
There were other favourite moments from the film that were honoured such as Lina’s “I cayn’t Staynd eet” line, famous dance moves and silhouettes, and beautiful nods to the costumes by head of wardrobe Abigail Morgan. Anyone who holds the film close to their heart will not be disappointed.
Neither will any Gene Kelly fans be disappointed with tonight’s counterpart Don Lockwood – Olivier and Tony Award nominated Adam Cooper (Royal Ballet, The Red Shoes, choreographer for Sunny Afternoon which won 4 Olivier Awards, and director). Cooper’s Lockwood is simply sensational. I feel privileged to have witnessed his performance this evening and in no way shape or form ever felt the need to compare him to either Gene Kelly or Tommy Steele, for he is Adam Cooper and believe me, that name holds the same kudos and talent, and I do not say that lightly. Cooper floats on air when he dances. He transfixes you whether it be tap, ballet, modern, solo, partner work, trio work, ensemble work – he just has that intrinsic “it factor.” He was born to dance and seemingly belongs in this era of movie romance. His performance makes you swoon, and I have never used the word swoon in any review, or in any part of my life before really, but there you go! I swooned! Cooper is never more alive when he performs the shows title number of Singin’ In The Rain, and seems to take great personal joy in the number, particularly engaging the first few rows with his splashing and kicking of water. It’s brilliant! He’s brilliant!
Ross McLaren (Sleepless, Guys and Dolls, Big, Elf, Top Hat, Luca McIntyre in Doctors) is the perfect Cosmo Brown. His natural stage presence and congeniality allow him to be an instant audience hit from the moment he steps onto the stage. He always appears to be on the verge of laughing, corpsing or winding up his cast members, and his clear comradeship immediately confirms you are in a safe pair of hands. McLaren proves his talent time and time again, but never more so than in the classic Make ‘Em Laugh. What a performance! There is so much going on! Slapstick, tumbles, tricks, dancing, singing, physical theatre, comedy – it’s never ending! McLaren delivers his parting shot to the number with the famous ‘walking the wall’ moment, which deservedly receives a spontaneous applause from a flabbergasted and impressed audience.
Kathy Selden is given life by the outstanding Charlotte Gooch (Flashdance, Strictly Ballroom, Top Hat, Dirty Dancing, Legally Blonde). Gooch is a natural and it’s impossible not to be swept away by her stunning voice, delightful dancing and feisty acting. The perfect partner for Cooper, Gooch is his equal and holds court on more than one occasion, with mesmerising performances such as Lucky Star and Would You. She seems genuinely at home in this role and I kept forgetting I was watching three performers, and not three friends goofing around for real, particularly in Good Morning. An incredibly believable and genuine performance. Her rival Lina Lemont is played by the irrepressible Jenny Gayner. Gayner was a clear audience favourite. Her skill at sounding so dreadful and acting so badly was simply so good! As one audience member said, “You’ve got to be so good to play someone that bad!” She was hilarious and consistently provided the biggest laughs of the night with her high pitched nasal voice, mispronunciation of words, narcissistic self-belief and own brand of style and sophistication. Gayner took a pie in the face with class and walked away from it with sass. Her solo “What’s Wrong With Me?” was purposefully sung out of tune and yet a song has never sounded better. Her talent for comedy is abundantly clear and she justly received one of the most rapturous audience applauses.
It was a wonderful surprise to see Sandra Dickinson (extensive tv, film & teatre work including Ready Player One, Superman 3, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Casualty, Holby, A Streetcar Named Desire, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Wedding Singer) as part of the cast as I didn’t know she was in the show. Dickinson created a couple of different roles, so we were treated to the breadth of her mighty character work. It’s incredible to watch her live. What a joy! With such a strong cast and ensemble, which also includes the incomparable Michael Matus and Dale Rapley, it’s no wonder that Singin’ In The Rain is continually wowing audiences up and down the country and receiving top rating reviews. This particular rain cloud shows no sign of stopping or slowing down either, and thank goodness because on this occasion, to quote (or slightly misquote) Peter Kay “It’s spitting! Everybody into the theatre!” Trust me! You don’t want to be the one to miss out.
However, the star turn of this production has to be the rain! I challenge anyone to ignore the child in their hearts that is simply dying to jump up and splash, kick and frolic in the puddles along with the cast in this phenomenal piece of theatre. The anticipation that comes with this number is not in vain and you will roar with sheer laughter and disbelief as the number unfolds. Even if you think you know what’s coming – you have no idea!!
To use the name of film company in the show, this revamp of the 2012 Chichester Festival and West End production of Singin’ In The Rain is ‘Monumental!’ This is a happy, feel good sensational splash of a show that will leave you soaked with joy, dripping with happiness and wanting to dance in the rain! Throw caution to the wind, leave your umbrella at home and beware – those in the first few rows may get wet!! So, ‘Come on with the rain’ because I’ve definitely been left with ‘a smile on my face!’
WE SCORE SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – 10/10
Wuthering Heights - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 3rd May 2022
“It’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home now!”
I’m sure that the high-pitched infamous line from the Kate Bush song would not have been what Emily Bronte intended to run through our minds whenever Wuthering Heights was mentioned, but it does go to show how the power of her exceptional novel has transcended into a more modern popular culture, and I have to confess, it has been swimming around my head since I was invited along to tonight’s show. I think I may be in the right frame of mind for this particular production though, for director Emma Rice is not known for simply recreating traditional portrayals of novels. On the contrary, Rice threads every artistic form possible into her productions, and Wuthering Heights is no exception. Expect this epic and wild love story of revenge and redemption to encounter dance, music, special effects, technology, puppetry and an unexpected humour. Expect the unexpected and allow yourself to be swept away to the Yorkshire Moors for this wildly supernatural experience.
Wuthering Heights is a dark love story, with tumultuous themes throughout such as love and passion, ghosts and spirits, revenge and redemption, obsession, class, gender, and upbringing. Heathcliff is alone in the world, that is until he is rescued and adopted by the wealthy Earnshaw family. He is taken to live with them at Wuthering Heights where he quickly finds a kindred spirit in Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine. But a straightforward love story would have ended this novel rather quickly. Instead, their love is torn and ripped apart by forces from both within and without, with the same brutality as the gorging weather that rampages those eery Yorkshire moors. A dangerous power is unleashed within Heathcliff and his obsessive love grows and his desire for revenge on those who took it away from him engulfs his heart. His twisted torment becomes deadly and transcends into the next generation. Can peace ever be found in the wild hearts of all who inhabit Wuthering Heights?
This is Wuthering Heights as it has never been seen before. This truly theatrical experience untwists and unfurls the trickier elements of the novel, keeping it true to the story but making it equally accessible for anyone who has wanted to read it but has been put off by the ‘heaviness’ and length of the literature. Emma Rice (Romantics Anonymous, Wise Children, Brief Encounter) has created a modern masterpiece from a classic and her unique, creative and daring choices wowed me from beginning to end.
One of the first things to stand out was arguably the lead character in the story – the Yorkshire Moors themselves. Magnificently created by the actors as a chorus, their frantic movement quite literally brought the moors to life, allowing everything they represent to be personified. The cast vocally emerges you into the wild weather that rampages the landscape with a chilling soundscape of screams, screeches and shrieks. It raises goosebumps as if you were wrapped in the turbulent scene for real. Nandi Bhebhe (Bagdad Café, A Monster Calls, A Midsummer Nights Dream) leads this wonderfully wild chorus of Moors actors with a raw and relishing authority. She is strong, funny, captivating and has a beautiful singing voice. Minimal sets are used to maximum effect and create everything that is needed. The sparse stage is the perfect echo of the sparse moors, uncluttered, baron and with nowhere to hide.
This production of Wuthering Heights, which is co-produced by The National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal, begins at the end. We are treated to a comedic breakdown of the complicated and entwined characters in the story, with an intimate approach by simply breaking the fourth wall. The cast makes themselves “one of us” by relating their own confusion, asking, “Why is it so difficult to follow?” and “Why do all the characters have to have the same name?” This is in no way a slight on the brilliance of Bronte’s work, but a clever choice to assure the audience that we will be guided throughout the performance, and they thankfully stay faithful to their word, allowing for break out moments where the plot is recapped, the cast ask the questions we are all thinking so that we may receive and answer, and the numerous deaths are tallied and continuously made obvious by a chosen method of chalking them up on a board. Once this has been established and Lockwood has visited Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw, we travel back in time to see how we got to this point.
The young Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw are all portrayed by puppets, but with their counterpart older actor self, providing the voice besides them. This beautifully allows the same actor to play the character from children to adults. We immediately see the crackling relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, and how this leads to Hindley feeling pushed out. The untamed nature of these children is quickly established through superb acting and teases us of the storm that is brewing.
These open sequences are complemented with the rest of the cast reading books around the edge of the stage, as words and sentences of the novel are projected onto the back screen in exquisite scroll. These books are duplicated throughout the production on sticks that flap and fly as the birds on the moors. Nothing in this production is by chance, every single detail has clearly been thought out, reworked, then planned a thousand more times until the genius that is this show was born.
The show is sleek and satisfying with its ability to mix Bronte’s literature with new script, so we have a true Wuthering Heights but one that is interjected with modern asides to keep the audience engaged and enlightened. It is a remarkable achievement as the two scripts flow into each other without a single crack or crumble. This allows for such honourable nods to Yorkshire such as their hospitality, their love of tea, and even a Christmas song sung to the tune of “On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at (where the ducks play football).” This this leads me into my next point, because whilst this may have been a small and fun song, the singing and music in this production is insanely good! It is on the verge of being a musical as the use of song is present throughout. However, it doesn’t rely on the songs to tell the story as a musical would. Instead, they enhance it and create atmosphere, and the live band throughout submerge us into the Yorkshire moors and the lives of these mixed up characters with an anthemic score usually found in big block buster films. The effect is incredible.
Lucy McCormick (Triple Threat, Post Popular, Life: LIVE!, Artist in resident at the Soho Theatre) powerfully leads the cast as Catherine and is made for this production. Her performance is feral, fierce and feisty as she twitches, growls and laughs with untamed abandonment throughout. McCormick is given flight to be at her best when she breaks into her rebellious rock song and dance routine “I Am The Earth”, accompanied by a band that unleash prayer to all the rock gods! She recreates the electric intensity she is known for in her solo shows, injecting it into Catherine with all the untamed savagery needed for this tormented character. Her passion is so penetrating that you feel helpless watching the demise of Catherine. When McCormick spurges those famous words from the core of her being, “He’s more myself than I am,” I can honestly say that for the first time ever, I felt and understood the true depth of what they mean. She was incredible.
Liam Tamne (The Prince Of Egypt, Bonnie & Clyde, Spamilton, The Rocky Horror Show, Phantom, Les Mis) is brilliantly brooding as the wilful Heathcliff. His performance resonates as he meshes together the relevance of his hatred towards polite society, with issues of exclusion and prejudice that are still relevant today. Watching the transformation that Tamne takes Heathcliff on was so believable, it was terrifying. He took it so slowly, so subtly, that you suddenly found yourself watching a version of Heathcliff in the second act and wondered when did brooding become brutish? When did uncontrolled become uncontrollable? Tamne really drove home the dark and dangerous side of Heathcliff and between him and McCormick, their relationship was palpable.
Sam Archer (Bagdad Café, Wise Children, An Ideal Husband, La Boheme, numerous Matthew Bourne productions) springs onto the stage as both Lockwood and Edgar Linton. His Linton, particularly when first introduced and paired with Katy Owen as Isabella Linton was absolute comedy gold. The audience were belly laughing at his prancing, dancing and attempts at romancing. He was the posh, clueless, cad who had no idea of the world beyond wealth and servants and honestly had us all roaring. Equally, when things became ever more difficult and real for him upon marrying Catherine, you realised what a remarkable and well-rounded actor Archer is. As mentioned, Katy Owen (Wise Children, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rebecca) was Isabella and also young Linton. I have to say, Owen was on the verge of stealing the whole show and was an absolute audience favourite! Her physical comedy was in one word outstanding. She held the audience in the palm of her hand and one twirl across the stage, one attempt at standing up but being too weak to do so, one look, and one word with her hilariously upper class accent had us all appreciating her performance more and more. I cannot praise Owen enough. She knows her own strengths as a performer and uses them to maximum effect time and time again.
Tama Phethean (Grow Up, Be A Good Parent, Macbeth, Night Of The Living Dead Live! Manmuck) Hindley and Hareton Earnshaw and Stephanie Hockley (Malory Towers, Robin Hood, The Show Must Go On, Return To The Forbidden Planet) as Frances Earnshaw and Catherine Linton are wonderful at creating different roles and making their presence known on stage with their engaging and strong performances. They work together with an exciting energy as Hareton and Cathy and again have simply gorgeous singing voices.
Completing the ensemble are T J Holmes, Craig Johnson, Jordan Laviniere who set the cast alight by working none stop in numerous different roles, all as perfectly created as the last. Each of them stand out in their own rights and for their own reasons, whether it be as a multi-tasking musician, a wonderful comic, or a sublime dancer. They are by no means secondary members or characters of this production and their performance speaks volumes to this testimony.
Ian Ross has created an epic and atmospheric new score for this production and the combination of percussion, screeching strings and heavy rock capture the immense sense of foreboding rolling over the moors and into the lives of everyone entangled in Wuthering Heights.
If you are still reading this review, thank you. I know it’s a long one, but it is a long show and it is all worthy of a mention. The first act alone is 95 minutes so if your bladder is of a weak disposition then it’s advisable to tinkle before you ticket so to speak. Go and watch this production without expectation but with an open mind and heart. It is wonderful to see how a classic can be interpreted and delivered into a new world and live, thrive and survive within that world comfortably. The story has not been tampered with but it has been re-imagined and given a bold and audacious revamp, making many of its themes seem entirely relatable for todays audience. The injection of satire and humour into an otherwise dark and gothic story is one that is risqué and one that I applaud. Unique interpretation is key to this production of Wuthering Heights and tears down the old-fashioned class barriers associated with traditional and classic literature and theatre audiences, welcoming a new wave into the fold. There is still a place for such traditional pieces of course, but what this production does is recognise a much wider audience and encourages theatre for all. It cleverly pulls on themes from the book and mocks the silent hierarchy of those who still believe that classic literature and theatre are to be exclusively enjoyed by certain classes. So instead of saying “Bravo!” I will say “A Woo Hoo!” “Whoop Whoop!” and “It was reyt good kid!”
WE SCORE WUTHERING HEIGHTS - 9/10
Habibti Driver - Octagon Theatre, Bolton - Monday 25th April 2022
Born from a desire to create roles that writer Shamia Chalabi could identify with, Habibti Driver emerged in all its Northern glory! It follows the story of Shazia, a young woman who is of mixed heritage – half Egyptian, half Wigan – as she tries to break the news of her upcoming nuptials with white British boyfriend Chris, to her Muslim dad who encourages a more traditional outlook for her life. But Shazia has to find him first! After going AWOL, her dad Ashraf returns from Egypt a married man and with the impending arrival of new wife Yasmin, Shazia is encouraged to become more respectfully Muslim by covering her hair, dressing more appropriately, to stop swearing, stop drinking and stop being so embarrassingly Northern! This doesn’t exactly work out the way Ashraf intended as Shazia airs her own views on what is ultimately HER life. It also doesn’t go quite as intended when she eventually introduces her fiancé Chris to her dad. Chris is so nervous and desperate to connect that his banter and jokes unintentionally slide into racist slurs about bacon butties and Christmas hams! Shazia ends up torn between two worlds, and as her mum points out that her ex-husbands views are not entirely his own and may be influenced by his brother, we begin to realise the complicated web of family pressure, community, honour and loyalty. But there is now new life in this tangle of traditions and Yasmin is not only a breath of fresh air that surprises everyone, but a beautiful example of how to stay true to who you are whilst embracing and accepting the beliefs and traditions of all around you. Her strength, determination, love and support during times of need shine strong, and she is able to clear away everyone’s cobwebs to reveal the importance of what lies beneath all of the mess – family.
Habibti Driver deals with tradition, cultures, mixed heritage, racism, love, hate and family. It navigates such heavy topics through a wonderful form of objective and observational humour, making everything accessible and palatable. The messages are there loud and clear, but where this play is so clever is its delivery. Shazia’s family and friends are every day, likable, warm, loving, funny, flawed, quirky, and genuine people. We know them, we may even be them, and race, religion and culture are not the first thing you identify or label these characters with. You identify with the goat videos, the Aldi super buys, the times you go into Asda for a pint of milk and come out with an inflatable hot tub! You identify with the ridiculously random and riotous references of Mr. Blobby, the taxi to Aspull, having a chippy tea, collecting pogs, singing along with the wrong words to the car radio. It is brilliantly normal, instantly recognisable and if we recognise the fun bits of ourselves on stage, then we kind of have to recognise the bits that could do with more of an open mind and understanding too.
The play gently teases the traditions of both White British and Muslim cultures in order to educate, but it brilliantly also mocks those shared inbetween faux pas’ that makes us all part of the same race – the human race. This is hilariously highlighted when Yasmin arrives in England with little English, so Shazia who doesn’t speak much Arabic, instead continues to talk to her in English but very slowly and loudly – as if this will suddenly help with the translation! There is the British boy trying to learn Arabic who can’t even get an every day greeting correct (As-salamu alaykum comes out as Ala-ka-zam!), pitted against Yasmin who learns to speak English, how to drive and passes her Citizenship test respectively. Chris’ attempts to embrace his fiancé’s culture see him outing Lawrence of Arabi and watching The Mummy! A firm favourite throughout the play was the gorgeous use of language and malapropisms as British phrases were constantly given an Arabic uplift, such as those famous dunking biscuits (or bisquits) being rebranded as hob-i-knobs and “Keeping the calm and carry it on.”
With every word I write, I think of another moment worthy of a mention such as the stylised and delicate moment that Ashraf is racial attacked in his taxi, the creation of fake-on (facon?!) butties instead of bacon butties, the random fancy dress costumes including a poo emoji, an alien and a gorilla, or the exuberant wedding party with its intoxicating dancing. If I am speaking of worthy moments then I have to mention this hard working, aimable and talented cast. Shamia Chalabi (Force Majeure, Burkas And Bacon Butties, Coronation Street, Doctors and also co-wrote Habibti Driver) shares Shazia’s world with us and is feisty, honest and relatable. Chalabi has a natural rapport with all other cast members and with the audience. She is incredibly relaxed and natural on stage so it is easy to engage in her struggle to keep her independence whilst absorbing both of her cultures. Oh yeah, and she also happened to write this incredibly quick witted and intelligent play with her friend Sarah Henley.
Dana Haqjoo (The Boy With Two Hearts, The Ipcress Files, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, United We Fall) is heart-warmingly hilarious as Ashraf. Haqjoo is simply loveable and an instant hit with the audience from the moment he steps into the performance space. He makes you laugh, makes you question yourself, and delves into difficult emotional topics with such truth and realness that you listen and take note. Haqjoo takes his character on a sensitive journey and has challenging situations to face, but he performs in such an accessible way that we are able to learn something and gain a deeper understanding of the choices people can be faced with that we know nothing about.
Timothy O’ Hara (The Shark Is Broken, Little Mermaid, Burkas And Bacon Butties, The Mousetrap, Shakespeare In Love, Casualty) is comedy gold as good hearted Chris. His physical expression is outstanding and had me belly laughing on more than one occasion. His face alone spoke a thousand words as he reacted to everything being said around him, and his portrayal as the nervous boyfriend meeting his future father-in-law for the first time was sublime. O’ Hara, like the rest of the cast, had such a raw truth about his performance that it worked wonders in making the audience listen and pay attention, highlighting how one persons ‘joke’ is another person’s casual racism.
Helen Sheals (Shirley Valentine,Brassed Off, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Judy & Liza, The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice, Coronation Street, Last Tango In Halifax) doesn’t hold back as bingo fanatic Jean – Shazia’s mum. She is bold, brassy and brilliant. Sheals demands your attention, and you willingly give it for you wouldn’t want to miss a second of her performance. Sheals flips from begrudging to best friend in one beautiful scene with Echouafni as Yasmin – her ex husbands new wife, and has such control that her ever changing roles from mum, to ex wife, to defender, to party girl, flow with a natural and rapidly believable ease.
Houda Echouafni (A Museum In Baghdad, King John, The Things I Would Tell You, Doctors, Green Wing, Hotel Babylon) hoodwinks us all as the delightful Yasmin. We are set up to believe that Yasmin will be a seen but not heard, stay at home, and devout religious wife. But she proves to be the spark that was needed in everyone’s life to unite a family being torn apart by religion, tradition, culture and expectation. Echouafni is so charismatic, intriguing and comical that you can understand how she is able to work her magic.
Hemi Yeroham (Berberian Sound Studio, Arabian Nights, Romeo & Juliet, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Benidorm) is a wonderful catalyst as Ashraf’s brother Yusuf. A devout traditionalist, he manipulates his brother to his own beliefs time and time again. Yeroham cleverly plays Yusuf with a charm and likeability though, meaning we listen to his views and gain insight and a new perspective. He is funny, strong and his energy in his fight scene with Haqjoo is brilliant.
Habibti Driver is a great night out and will leave you wanting more, and you’ll never see car seats being used in so many ways anywhere else! The brilliantly upbeat and rhythmic ending was a fantastic finale, but I found I wasn’t ready for any kind of an ending. I had truly bought into these characters, liked them and found I wasn’t ready to say goodbye – a bit like when you finish reading a really good book and you feel sad that you have to say goodbye to the characters (please say this isn’t just me?!) Well, I’m just putting it out there that I’d love to see a Habibti Driver 2! I want to know if Ashraf ever gets to sell his sauce on Wigan market, if Yasmin becomes the fully fledged entrepreneur she was born to be. Do Shazia and Chris honeymoon in Egypt and have a cup of tea with Auntie Nadia? Does Jean ever win at the bingo and does Yusuf ever get fed up of goat videos?! Seriously, the characters are so beautifully written, that I am hooked into wanting to know more. As the saying goes, “always leave them wanting more” – and I certainly do! So, get yourself down the Bolton Octagon and if you get a taxi – if you’re offered some secret sauce or catch the faint aroma of Joop, then tell Ashraf I said “As-salamu alaykum.”
WE SCORE HABIBTI DRIVER - 9/10
The Addams Family
The Addams Family - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 19th April 2022
Du du du dun ‘click click!’ What an amazing round off to a wonderful Easter break – an instantly recognisable theme tune, all the nostalgia of happy childhood family memories, and iconic characters that everyone knows and loves, wrapped up in a stonkingly eery fangtastic new story that thrills, thrives and enthrals. I am still agog that I’ve been able to see our favourite frightful family brought to life right before my eyes. Let’s face it, we all know an Uncle Fester, have a friend who looks like Lurch and occasionally wish we could get away with the antics of the dark and delightful Wednesday when someone has pushed our buttons one too many times.
Your inner Addams geek is quenched right from the off, with a magnificent set dominating the stage, welcoming you to The Addams Family home. A gloriously goth grandeur grips the stage with its opulent pillared balconies and imposing gate, entwined with the family logo. Dripping with atmosphere, the theatre is lit to twilight perfection, with delightfully devilish technics throughout such as creaking floorboards, spattered screams and secret shadows lurking around every corner.
So please, come along and meet The Addams Family. They are just like any other family really, well that’s if your family poisons family members just to get a ride in the ambulance, kills animals at the petting zoo with a bow and arrow for dinner or sets Jehovah’s witnesses on fire for fun! But this is why we know and love The Addams Family – their kooky quirks have cranked their way into our crazy hearts, and because they’re Addams, they will absolutely not rest there in peace.
You know the show has started when that infectious and infamous Addams Family melody starts, Thing appears as a solitary hand through a letter box ready to take on the leading role of the ‘clicks’ and the whole audience, without prompt or pre-arrangement join in. It’s quite a statement to the popularity of this fictional family. But don’t get too lost in nostalgia or else you’ll miss your date with darkness for Wednesday is in love! She wants to marry Lucas, the son of a normal family, which as you can imagine throws quite the curve ball when the two families meet and try to find common ground. It’s kooky verses quaint, terrifying verses twee and this forms the basis of many a humorous moment in the show. The whole episode questions “what is normal?” a revealing question as you find yourself identifying more and more with The Addams Family’s values above and beyond the so called picture perfect family. Gomez is just a dad after all, like any other dad, who is overprotective of his only daughter, and when you look past their unique tastes, you find a family that’s heart and soul is love, loyalty and longevity – after all, ‘When You’re An Addams’ you’re an Addams through and through. This sentiment is held dear when we see them celebrating their ancestors at the start of the show (for family is family whether alive or dead) and of course a little resurrection every now and then is the key to any successful party right?! Fester won’t allow the dead ancestors to return to their afterlife until they have helped him guide Wednesday to her happy ever after though, or as happy as an Addams knows how to be at least. But as Wednesday wants to keep her impending marriage to Lucas a secret from her mother, the secret slowly devours her family from the inside out, resulting in Morticia leaving Gomez, Lucas leaving Wednesday and Fester singing love songs to the moon! Will the two families learn from each other and discover common ground? Will they accept, as Morticia so eloquently puts it, that “normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is devastating for the fly,” and will they ever discover just whose mum Granny truly is?!
Joanne Clifton (Strictly Come Dancing, The Rocky Horror Show, Flashdance, Thoroughly Modern Millie) is spellbinding as Morticia. She has absolutely nailed Morticia’s hip wiggling walk and embodies the fascinating combination of dark gothic goddess and nurturing mumsie mum. She has an incredible set of pipes on her and I was thrilled to witness her dance skills in her tango / paso dance duet with Gomez – it was like a two for one night out! Gomez was indeed portrayed by Cameron Blakely (Les Mis, Rock of Ages, Into The Woods, Oliver) and was the perfect blend of charm, schmooze, humour and danger. I imagine he is how every father feels inside when his first born child brings a partner home! Clifton and Blakely pay homage to their respective characters with dutiful respect, love and brilliance.
Scott Paige (Cinderella, Nativity, The Wedding Singer, Eugenius) is insanely talented and born to play Uncle Fester. His quirks are plentiful, he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand and just when you think he is the ultimate class clown, he breaks open this incredibly moving, and equally gentle and thunderous singing voice that wowed everyone. I will be searching for YouTube clips of Paige as soon as I have finished this review because I want to hear more of his voice. It was beautiful. His character work as Fester is second to none and he was definitely one of the audience favourites.
Wednesday Addams was created by Kingsley Morton (Freaky Friday, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Jerry Springer The Opera) and her husband to be Lucas by understudy Matthew Ives (The Boyfriend, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, La Cage Aux Folles). The duo were magnificent together and Morton had some amazing solo’s where her voice was really able to shine. Her long suffering brother Pugsley is played by Grant McIntyre (We are Here, Bugsy Malone, Click & Collect) who is able to be both sinister and adorable at the same time – quite the acting achievement. Acting legend Carol Ball (National Theatre, 42nd Street, Chicago, Hello Dolly, The Muppets Most Wanted) plays Grandma, and is always ready with her pet dragon to bite your hand off and make sure you are paying attention. She has delicious attentive detail to her performance, and no move or breath is wasted. A joy to watch.
Sean Kingsley (Les Mis, Billy Elliot, Scrooge, We Will Rock You – it’s easier to say what he hasn’t done!) and Kara Lane (classically trained, Phantom Of The Opera, The Sound Of Music, Mary Poppins, Home & Away) play the in-laws- to be Mal and Alice Beineke. Their character transformation throughout the show is brilliant, funny, and reminiscent of watching Brad and Janet finally letting their true selves show in Rocky Horror. Lane’s voice is outstanding and is another I shall be searching for further music of. There were many none spooky, and utterly pleasurable goosebumps during her vocal performances. Last but by no means least (and his Lurch character traits of being so amazingly slow at everything means it’s fitting that we put him last) is Ryan Bennett (The Importance Of Being Ernest, Cinderella, Comedy Of Errors, Jersey Boys). Bennett is another audience favourite as Lurch and is a performance I wish many a young drama student who counts the amount of lines they have in any given performance, could watch. Bennett truly demonstrates how you can steal the show with no words at all. He is controlled, makes the audience wait for him time and time again, and not only do they wait, they love it! His language of grunts and groans, along with his precise and hilarious movements convey everything he needs to. So be prepared for an incredible surprise towards the end of the show, that will leave you knowing what a true showstopper Bennett really is.
All of the cast are dressed to impress, with a wardrobe to die for. The ensemble have the most eclectic costumes with a shredded historical wardrobe metamorphosized into zombie figures and Halloween heaven for all to enjoy. I LOVED them! The main cast have instantly recognisable clothing which is exactly what you would want, with a shock or two along the way, particularly from Wednesday!
There are amazing original songs throughout the show, but the two I have left humming and are imprinted on my brain are Full Disclosure – an epic musical theatre full company number - and Crazier Than You – a beautifully blended upbeat duo that transcends into a catchy quartet. All of the music is great and it was musical theatre heaven to be indulged and immerged into a whole new soundtrack and see audience members being swept along. And boy was this audience swept along! The laughter simply did not stop from every age and the humour was pitched just right to appeal to both young and old. The Addams Family really do have family at the heart of everything they do! It is spooky without being too spooky, dark without being too dark and most importantly, full of love, heart and a hair-raising home life that we can all relate to no matter if you’re goth, full of glitter or somewhere inbetween. Everything in The Addams Family is a paradox. We can be happy and sad, we can be evil and good, we can love and hate all at the same time. We can be two equal things, seemingly pulling us in opposite directions, but actually the absolute best of us is accepting that we aren’t just one thing, we don’t have to be labelled, and that the perfect version of ourselves can be that very parody hiding inside pandoras box. So celebrate your quirky, embrace your spooky and kooky, be mysterious and spooky and go and watch The Addams Family ‘click click!’
WE SCORE THE ADDAMS FAMILY – 9/10
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 7th April 2022
Who rules the world? Girls!! What a fantastical, feisty show of female flourishment! The thrilling and aspiring new musical, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is an exhilarating blend of rip-roaring poptastic fun, and incredible historical women who positively influenced our world through hard work, hardship and adversity. This show is destined to whisper in the ears of all who watch it, encouraging future generations to reach for the stars and reject limitations.
I had no idea what to expect from this musical and was equally intrigued and apprehensive. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt a superb idea, as the award-winning picture book it is based on proves. Written by suffragette descendent Kate Pankhurst, the concept has immediate kudos, but would staging it and mixing that with original pop songs diminish its authority? The answer is a resounding no. Quite the opposite. It brings history to life in a modern and engaging way, making the stories of our wonder women such as Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks and Jane Austen easily accessible and memorable.
Female empowerment is felt before the show has even started with an array of female music stars being piped through the auditorium as we sit and wait with anticipation.
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World follows our eleven year old heroine Jade who fears she has been forgotten and left behind on a school trip to a local gallery. As she hides out in the Gallery of Greatness, Jade is propelled into a series of exciting escapades, led by some of the most prominent women in history. These women empower Jade, allowing her to make sense of her own home life, where she is struggling to deal with her parent’s divorce. Jade learns about choice, control, influence and mind set – an incredibly strong combination – which enables her to make her own way in the world and be proud of who she is.
But this show is about so much more than historical figures, or indeed the equality of women. It reaches out to everyone and challenges the inner saboteur hiding in all of us. Its core message is empowerment, self-belief and self-worth. With an audience full of children, many of whom may have been affected with wellbeing issues following the pandemic, I urge anyone struggling to go and watch Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World.
The show opens with the cast of four female performers running through the audience as teachers, trying to round up their flock so they can get back to school safely and on time. We are immediately treated to a belting number that tells us how teachers truly feel about their students, which is funny, fast and jam packed with girl group attitude. This opening most definitely has SIX vibes about it, which becomes clear when you discover that it is produced by Kenny Wax (producer of the original girl power show Six).
As Jade starts to meet the great women who have influenced the world, we are treated to song after song, each with its own flavour. Stand outs are Deeds Not Words by Emmeline Pankhurst, which could easily be a Little Mix Song, The Four Mary’s song, Frida Kahlo’s colourful song which has a brilliant break out percussion section, and Rosa Parks emotional and brilliant lullaby that delivers the most beautiful of messages. The songs are energetic, moving and modern, captivating audiences young and old.
The all female cast do not relent for a second, and are rarely off stage. These women are a credit to their art form, as they switch seamlessly between roles, encapsulating the fantastic women. They have endless energy and should be applauded for their own message of hard work and dedication. They blend historical facts with humour, song, dance, and so much fun. Jade Kennedy (The Snow Queen, Billy Elliott), Christina Modestou (Carousel, The Boy In The Dress, Little Shop Of Horrors), Renee Lamb (original cast of Six, Little Shop Of Horrors, Ain’t Misbehavin’) and Kirstie Skivington (& Juliet, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Jesus Christ Superstar) most definitely have this show safely in their back pocket and their combined talent, charm, energy and amiability will ensure it continues to go from strength to strength. I am genuinely in awe at what they have just achieved and how they maintained the pace and the numerous different roles they created.
Of course, the absolute smash of the show is Kudzai Mangombe as Jade. What an absolute natural superstar. Her acting was outstanding, and she literally did not leave the stage from beginning to end. She had many monologues, all performed with such a raw truth, beauty and charm all of her own, that I simply know I just witnessed a young lady who will change the world herself one day. In fact, I’m sure she already has because I can guarantee that her performance will have ignited a spark in other young performers who will have been given the encouragement to follow their dream.
The female band are small but mighty and occasionally join in the action themselves, creating a truly team effort of a show. One of the productions strong messages is that nobody changes the world alone, and this sentiment can be seen throughout the success of this show for it truly is a huge team effort.
The production is colourful in every way, from its characters, to is performers, costumes, set and lighting design. A bright tapestry a colour floods the stage in an eye catching array of wonder, particularly during Frida Kahlo’s song where neon day of the dead masks illuminate, floral head pieces dominate and whisking skirts and wings take flight. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone towards captivating a younger audience just as much as an adult one and I was thrilled to see an older gentleman on the front row bopping his head along to a rap number, full of neon sweats and swag. Equally there are hilariously quirky lines such as “Does a Wednesday ever smell like feet and disappointment?” to the more poignant “No one can see the world in the way that you do.” It is a show that seems masterfully aware of its cross over audience and caters for all.
With a show that is only approximately 80-90 minutes long with no interval, it becomes a fete to include so many fantastic women and give a rounded explanation as to who they are and what they achieved. However, if you are learning about them for the first time, be encouraged to do some googling when you get home, for there is so much inspiration to be found. The show does a remarkable job of sharing short and sweet synopsis’ of each great woman we encounter, wetting the appetite of many younger audience members, who were clearly keen to know and learn more about these wonderous figures.
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World has given rise to a female dominated show in a time when diversity and equality are being examined and championed more than ever before. With original music from Miranda Cooper (Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue) and and Jennifer Decilveo (Miley Cyrus, Beth Ditto), direction by Amy Hodge (Mr. Gum and the dancing bear – National Theatre) and of course written by Kate Pankhurst, it is no surprise that Wax comments, "What a thrill to have assembled our own team of fantastically great women to create this incredible show.”
I champion any show that uses performing arts to engage and educate students. It is a brilliant platform to provide equality in learning styles and truly make a topic come to life, making it relevant, accessible and successful. This is a show that educational leaders should sit up and take notice of. Performing arts are not to be dismissed, we should not retrain. Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World makes me so proud to stand up to such outdated views and prove what we knew all along! The world would be lost without a drama queen!
WE SCORE FANTASTICALLY GREAT WOMEN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD – 9/10
Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Disney's Beauty and the Beast - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 6th April 2022
When Disney invited me to the Palace to be their guest to see the magical Beauty And The Beast, I lit up as if I’d been sprinkled with pixie dust! The RSVP was returned quicker than I could ‘tie a napkin 'round my neck Cherie!’ Oui! Absolument! I would love to ‘Relax and pull up a chair’. I couldn’t wait to feast my eyes on one of Disney’s finest musicals as it is brought back live on stage. So ‘it is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that we welcome you tonight’ to The Palace Theatre Manchester.
The theatre was buzzing with anticipation from the entrance of the Palace, right through to the main stage itself. Whether positioned on the front row in the stalls, or sat at the back of the gallery, it appeared that everyone attending felt something special was about to happen – after all, Disney always reaches for the stars and goes that extra mile. Having seen The Lion King, Frozen, Mary Poppins, Aladdin and Bedknobs and Broomsticks on previous theatre trips, I was confident Belle and friends would maintain Disney’s high standards. How could I even question a company whose priority it is to make dreams come true? And I can tell you right now that dreams, wishes and magic did come true in the theatre tonight. What an incredible dish of a show!
This Olivier and Tony award winning Disney musical serves up a two-and-a-half-hour spectacle of dazzling costumes, shimmering scenery, heart-warming, sensational songs and a powerful message of hope, love and acceptance. Even if you think you know and love Beauty And The Beast, from the animated film, live action film or the previous live stage musical, this production has been re-imagined and re-designed into a completely new experience. Staged by members of the original award-winning creative team, the result is c'est magnifique!
Based on the 1991 animated film (the first animated feature ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture), Beauty And The Beast follows the story of a village girl named Belle, who wants more than her current future seems to hold for her. She dreams big, wants adventure, and wishes to escape the pursuit of Gaston, a brutish bully who the other villagers seem to swoon for and look up to, but not Belle. She is independent, has her own mind, and will not be Gaston’s “little woman”. When her father does not return home from a trip, Belle sets off to find him, only to discover he has been imprisoned by a beast in a mysterious, magical and spellbound castle. Nothing is what is seems in this castle, and as Belle strikes a deal to be imprisoned in her father place, she soon learns not to judge a book by its cover – a strong message for a bookworm like Belle. As Belle’s father rushes back to the village to raise help, Belle starts out on a rocky and tempestuous relationship with the Beast, but when he sees her concern over her father, he gives Belle her freedom. Belle immediately runs into trouble in the forest and the Beast saves her. Belle starts to realise that there is more to the Beast than his intimidating appearance and foul temper. But can she save him and all who reside in the castle in time? Can Belle break the spell? For who could learn to love a Beast?
Seriously, where do I start to do justice to the epic proportions and majestic ambience of this show? We are treated to Disney magic right from the start as rose petals appear to float and flourish across the stage – and this is before the show has officially begun! The use of illusion, magic, lighting and innovative technology are apparent throughout. Spellbinding effects make this production utterly immersive, making it sound like the Beast is right behind you, creating 3D style scenery on stage, using silhouettes and shadows of wolves rather than actors in the forest, shooting stars appear, proscenium arches dazzle and forge part of the scenery, Chip is a floating head with no body and I have no idea even now how that was achieved – combine this with most outstanding cast of actors, singers and dancers and the impact is jaw droppingly mesmerising, demanding the audiences lavish and eager applause.
To talk in too much detail about tonight’s show would be to rob you of what could arguably be described as one of the most memorable moments of your theatre going life. There are highlights and best bits sprinkled throughout. In fact, it would be a lot quicker to talk about what didn’t work – which is NOTHING! Beauty And The Beast encapsulates the best of Disney, the best of musical theatre, and the best of everything that is pure magic. What sets this production apart from its previous show is the incredible new design, which excitingly blends innovative technology with a tale as old as time and classic storytelling
Whilst Belle's solo Home and The Beast's solo If I Can’t Love Her are utterly heart wrenching, with some of the best emotive singing ever, it is impossible to compare them to the huge ensemble numbers such as Gaston and Be Our Guest and that is the absolute joy of this show. You don’t need to compare because it covers every element, every type of number, and every number is outstanding in its own right.
However, I absolutely cannot and will not write a review without talking at least a little about Be Our Guest. Tonight’s audience would never forgive me, for the anticipation around this showstopping number was palpable and Lumiere plays on this beautifully. As the song is about to start, a pink glittery curtain falls down to cover the stage and the audience go wild, bursting with spontaneous applause. It is just a curtain at this stage, but we all know it is symbolic of what is about to come. The irony was, we actually had no idea what was about to come, because even in your wildest creative imagination, (which believe me is an ongoing feature in my head), nothing could have prepared you for the sensational, scintillating, and stupendous shimmering stimulation that unfolded before our eyes. I thought I knew Disney’s highest standards but believe me when I say this smashes its own bar, leaving you with nothing but a wobbly smile, because the overwhelming emotions this stunning piece of theatre evokes spill out in tears of complete and utter joy. Archways light up, champagne bottles fizz, plates dance, feathered props seduce, a mirrored turn table creates synchronised dancing that strike stunning shapes and poses, lights flare and are accented in time to the music, and the dancing! It is like a world showcase of dance with everything from ballet, to the can can, to the most outstanding tap routine led by Lumiere. I want to go on and on because my excitement demands it, but I must stop because you simply have to see it for yourself. Believe me when I say that the ticket price is worth it for Be our Guest alone! The audience response at the end was so electric that it could have lit up all of Manchester!
And so, to the cast. Belle is played by the exceptionally talented Courtney Stapleton (Dear Evan Hansen, Six, Les Mise?rables and Bat Out of Hell). She is genuinely perfect casting – enchanting, gentle yet powerful, and as mentioned her rendition of Home was true goosebumps dancing on the end of the tingly hairs raising, in awe of her out pouring. Incredible.
Shaq Taylor (Girl from the North Country, Hadestown and Hex) is the perfect blend of brute, brawn and beauty as The Beast. He depicts The Beasts journey from a spoilt Prince to a gentleman with a humble humour and powerful presence. His voice is sublime and delicious (don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!) His characterisation is impeccable.
Tom Senior (The Pirates of Penzance, School Of Rock, Eugenius!) – born in Manchester, is the narcissistic Gaston. He is the villain we all love to hate, and Senior accomplishes this to great effect. He is hilariously chauvinistic, played in such a comedic over the top parody way, that you actually find yourself willing him to be more and more vile, because he comes alive with every look, every muscle flex and every raised eyebrow or pose he strikes.
Sam Bailey (The X-Factor winner 2013, Blood Brothers, Fat Friends, Chicago) plays the legendary role of Mrs Potts, and is a warm and homely presence throughout. I couldn’t wait for her to sing the title song of Beauty And The Beast, and she didn’t disappoint, with a stunning and moving version of our song as old as time.
Lumiere is charmingly portrayed by Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins, SpongeBob SquarePants, the Broadway Musical, Les Mise?rables) and Nigel Richards (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Mise?rables) is the long suffering, grumpy but loveable Cogsworth. Together they were comedy gold and helped to elevate this production to new levels. Lee was just perfect and I found my eyes were constantly drawn to him whenever he was on stage because he didn’t stop performing ever. He was always doing some fantastic little character nugget and he just had natural likeability, talent and instinct. I believe that the tap routine in Be Our Guest was actually created especially for Lee as he is recognised as one of the greatest tappers on either side of the Atlantic. After seeing it, I can whole heartedly agree.
Completing the main cast are Martin Ball (Les Mise?rables, Wicked, Top Hat) who takes the role of Maurice, Samantha Bingley (Martha In The Secret Garden) as Madame, Emma Caffrey (Curtains, 42nd Street, Funny Girl) is Babette and Louis Stockil (Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia!) plays Le Fou (a physical comedy superstar with the way he flings himself around the stage as Gaston constantly whacks him about). The ensemble are the essence of every superlative you could think of, completing this exceptional cast. They create moments of glee throughout, none more so than in Gaston when they bounce off hidden trampolines to land on the bar, create percussion type dancing with their beer mugs and literally do not stop for breath.
It is no wonder that Beauty and the Beast remains amongst the top ten longest running shows in Broadway history and has won award after award. It will forever be a family favourite and continue to touch the hearts of everyone. The ooh’s, ahh’s and aww’s from tonight’s audience gave rise to a swell in my heart. It was a reminder of the magical gift of hope. Children were swept away and captivated, and my heart melted at the little girl behind whose breath was literally taken away when Belle came out in her famous gold ball gown. Tonight I have been reminded of the true beauty of humanity through a singing teapot, a randy candlestick and a Beast who can learn to love and be loved in return. Yes I’m a sucker for a Disney happy ending, but I’m not sure I could fully trust someone who isn’t!
With Disney’s Beauty and The Beast making the Palace Theatre its home for the next two months, there are plenty of sittings for you to choose from. However, if you want seats at the top table, reserve your place today as you may end up missing out on the best fine dining experience dished up in 2022. It’s simply stunning and I encourage everyone to embrace this feel-good family musical. It’s time to begin your fairy tale story, be pampered, be their guest, and let Disney do the rest!
WE SCORE DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – 10/10
Les Miserables - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 1st April 2022
Where on earth do you even start reviewing what is possibly one of the greatest musicals ever written? “We’re not worthy” springs to mind because surely by now it goes without saying that you are simply not going to see a bad production of what is arguably one of the worlds biggest musicals? It’s insane to think that when the show opened in 1985, it was to notoriously bad reviews. But the audience disagreed and argued back, with the show selling out, and it has continued to do so ever since with its numerous productions right across the globe. This audience revolution against those early critics echoes the students in Les Mis who stand up for what they believe in, and the rest of the world will be forever grateful.
Now if you’ve never seen the show, giving you a synopsis of the story is a tricky one because on paper it sounds pretty grim yet it is possibly the best thing you will ever see. Based on the epic novel by Victor Hugo, convict Jean Valjean breaks parole and goes on the run. Through honest work and his new found faith, he works his way up to be Mayor and pledges his life to raising the daughter of a dying factory girl he allowed to be dismissed without good reason. But his arch enemy Police Officer Javert is hunting him down, and as their paths constantly cross throughout the years, it is a battle of strength, will and sheer determination that seals the fate for both of their futures. As we see the years pass, his child Cosette grows up and falls in love with student Marius, who is part of a group of young students leading a revolution. Valjean learns of their love through Marius’ friend Éponine, and heads to the barricades to help the students fight and keep an eye on Marius. Following a tragic defeat, Valjean pulls Marius to safety through the sewers, with Javert close on his trail. As time heals Marius’ wounds, age catches up with Valjean. He finally confesses his true identity to Marius, swearing he must never tell Cosette. On their wedding day, Marius learns it was Valjean who saved his life that night and they rush to his side, just in time to be with him as he passes away. As Cosette reads her fathers last confession, we see Valjean being welcomed to his afterlife by all the people who have passed away during the show (which is pretty much the entire cast). It sounds dark, grim, sad and heartbreaking and it is but, oh it is also incredible. People flock back to this show year after year because at its heart, it is about people, true emotion, life, death and humanity. Every character is shown with flaws and every character is shown with good. The archetypical villains Javert, Thénardier and Madame Thénardier are given the opportunities for the audience to understand an insight into their actions, permitting them to portray kindness. The heroes are equally shown to carry demons that are very capable of unleashing themselves. Add into that an outstanding score, songs that blow not only your mind but your heart, and it becomes clear why those early audiences fought back. This is definitely a show about people and for the people.
This version of the production was actually conceived in 2009 to celebrate the 25th Anniversary, and it’s no surprise it smashed box office records in the UK and globally! It has been dusted off and now has set the country alight yet again with its current tour. It is a much grittier, epic and overwhelming production than previous versions I have seen, with an almost cinematic feel to it. The scenery is so large, so impressive that it takes your breath away. The streets of France are created with imposing three storey town houses, with characters performing in the top balconies, meaning for the first time ever, I saw a production that has actors simultaneously engaging their audience from the stage right to the rafters! But let me go back to the opening which is reminiscent of the film and true to the novel. Different to previous productions, we see the convict chain gang as they are on a boat and we get our first demonstration of the use of projections to enhance the scenery as waves splash all around them. It is a strong and powerful opening, accompanied with those infamous deep and delicious notes which belt out to the world that Les Mis has arrived.
As we see Valjean trying to make an honest life for himself as a branded convict, the character is allowed to be flawed as previously mentioned. He doesn’t accept his fate as easily as he does in previous productions, and we see the mental anguish of nineteen years of brutality in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sisters dying child, take their toll. Valjean is on edge, unpredictable and violent. He doesn’t steal from the Bishop with a heavy heart, he does it with glee. It is really refreshing to see the Hero not painted as a perfect man, but a real man lashing out at the world for the wrong doings he perceives he has faced. To me, these choices make an already perfect musical more believable and it made me invest more than ever in the heart of the characters. The same can be said of the treatment of Fantine. She is brutally beaten and abused, with acting so incredibly realistic, it is difficult not to jump out of your seat and help her.
The whole production also felt more intimate, possibly because we get to know the characters truth more than ever but also because there are many beautiful moments where the actors engage directly with the audience, make eye contact, reach out for help, sympathy, and understanding. These subtle changes to previous productions make a world of difference and I simply loved it. It is also funnier in places than before, for example the hand over scene of Cosette from the Thénardiers to Valjean. This is in essence a vile scene with its content, and the elevated level of humour makes it palatable without taking away the seriousness of what is unfolding. It is quite remarkable how the balance has been struck.
Dean Chisnall (Les Mis West End Concert, Blood Brothers, Mamma Mia, Shrek) is simply perfection as Valjean. He portrays the character with a blind truth and such strength yet such vulnerability that every human element can be reflected in his performance. His powerful voice rings out through the theatre with the respect it deserves and he has the ability to bend the audiences emotions at will. Bring Him Home was an obvious show stopping moment for him but his talent in switching from his aggression with Javert to a beautiful tenderness with Fantine or Cosette is pure class. Outstanding.
Nic Greenshields (Les Mis The Staged Concert, Young Frankenstein, Guys and Dolls, Billy Elliot, Phantom) as Javert is incredible. He is strong, intimidating and powerful, but yet again he has the capacity to flip all of that and actually make your heart go out to him as we see his utter confusion as everything he thought he knew about order and law, right and wrong is brought into question by Valjean saving his life, and in this particular production, Greenshields reaction to Gavroche being killed allowed us to see a new layer to the seemingly emotionless character. His rendition of both Stars and his Soliloquy were stunning and tragic. A brilliant performance that has stayed with me. It was beautifully haunting.
Katie Hall (Oklahoma, Fiddler On The Roof, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Phantom) as Fantine was a fantastic actress. Her believability, as mentioned, when being beaten and abused was frighteningly good. She quite literally threw herself into this part and this take on her character allowed her story to be even more tragic so by the time we reached I Dreamed A Dream she had already managed to make me feel the emotions that it usually takes the song itself to bring out of me. By the time she had poured her very soul into the song, I was a dithering wreck!
Ian Hughes (Award winning actor, Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, The Lion King) was hilarious as Thénardier. He brought an entirely fresh approach to the character, with every comedy choice being new. His subtle moves, winks, nods, and jaunty dance moves were comedy gold and his relationship with Helen Walsh (The Wedding Singer, Man Of La Mancha, Wicked, The Wizard Of Oz) as Madame Thénardier was second to none. Walsh was equally as quirky and unique and their synchronicity as a couple was just sublime. These characters are foul. We should hate them, but in such a dark show a little bit of comedy relief is needed and is provided by the vilest of the characters – an opportunist couple who are always on the make with no morals whatsoever. Hughes and Walsh are the perfect pairing and absolutely own the audience favourite number Master Of The House. Their comic timing and intricacy during this number is remarkable.
The love triangle of Marius, Cosette and Éponine is played by Will Callan (Les Mis marks his professional debut) as Marius, Paige Blankson (Les Mis marks her professional debut) as Cosette and Nathania Ong (Be More Chill) as Éponine. It’s incredible to believe that these three are new and almost new to the professional stage. What a trio! Charming, delightful, engaging and undeniably talented, they blend into a seasoned cast of professionals with the respect they deserve. Each brings something new to their performance from previous productions and their vocals blow your mind. Samuel Wyn-Morris (Wyn-Morris has worked extensively in various Les Mis roles since 2019) as Enjolras has clearly found his musical home in Les Mis and it is understandable because he plays his role with conviction. He is a robust leader of the revolution, and commands the stage when he appears.
The biggest transformation with this production is the utterly incredible creative team. James Powell and Laurence Connor direct, Matt Kinley is set and image design with Finn Ross as projections realisation, Paule Constable is lighting design, Mick Potter sound design and Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland costume design. The reimagined scenery is dazzling, innovative and spectacular. As well as the incredible impact of the set, the scenery is just as magnificent. Movingly taking inspiration from Victor Hugo’s own paintings, the backdrops create a romantic impression of France and its ever-changing ambiguity between figure and form. The effect is mesmerising and magnetic, as is the entire show. The staging was a wonderment in itself. A trinity of lighting, set and scenery created a magical illusion of theatre before our very eyes. The lighting design is something I do not always notice, but this was so exquisite that it was impossible not to. The gradual diminishing of light to blackness upstage whilst actors performed downstage, allowed entire scenes to be alternated as if by magic. Light would slowly be reintroduced and hey presto – an entirely new scene had emerged without you noticing it had happened. Javerts suicide was a remarkable combination of lights, imagery and staging. I have never seen it done this way before and the element of surprise to a show I have seen possible over ten times before, is testament to the labour of love that has clearly gone into this production to keep audiences returning time and time again. The same can be said for the scenes in the sewers where Valjean rescues Marius. With its use of moving imagery, this is an ideal illustration of this production carrying Les Mis safely towards future audiences. All of these elements combine to spectacular effect in the barricades during the fighting. Add in the sound, which quite literally surrounds you so it sounds like bullets are whizzing past your head in every direction, you feel the tragedy not only in your heart but also in the vibrations its presence creates. It felt eerily real and given the current world situation with war, was a poignant moment that left many audience members like me, silently crying at the unnecessary tragedy and feeling that uneasy lack of control which breaks into sheer helplessness.
Les Misérables is one of the best musicals in the world for a reason and this production reminds everyone why. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg are beyond doubt musical theatre geniuses and thank goodness they had faith, belief and conviction in their work. It unites musical theatre with an opera style approach, blends a tragic story with humour, hope and heart, and touches its audience time and time again with its genuine love, passion and desire to connect with us in a story about the spirit, strength and possibilities of humanity. It is no wonder that the entire audience were on their feet applauding before the final note had ended. It was an instinctive response to something that moves you beyond words. The audience were crying regardless of age, gender or anything else that tries to differentiate us, because that is the power of Les Misérables. Make this show your first visit, your tenth visit or your hundredth visit, but wherever you score on the Les Mis visiting scale, I can assure you that it won’t be your last.
WE SCORE LES MIS - 10/10
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Joseph - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 29th March 2022
In a week that celebrates National Theatre Week I think it is a fitting time to welcome Jason Donovan, Alexandra Burke, Jac Yarrow and the cast of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat back to Manchester!
In my theatre bubble I imagine everyone must have grown up singing the tunes from this epic musical. For many youngsters, it is their pathway into musical theatre, and for good reason. Originally written by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice at the request of a family friend for a school chorus, the creation met with such huge success that it was consequently expanded and eventually took on a life force of its own, growing into the production we know and love today. I have so many happy memories of singing the shows songs at primary school, at friends houses and even trying (and failing) to create our own playground version of it! Yes, the story may originate from The Book Of Genesis in the Bible, but you don’t need to be religious to follow or enjoy the story. The over riding success of the show comes from its familiar, catchy and colourful songs.
If you know the music but not the story, basically it follows Joseph who lives in Canaan with his eleven brothers and dad Jacob. Joseph is by far Jacob’s favourite son and all the other brothers, as you can imagine, aren’t exactly thrilled by this. Sibling rivalry means they may accidentally (or not) sell him into slavery. Things deteriorate, and whilst the family Joseph has been separated from struggle to make ends meet, Joseph himself ensures that he makes good of every opportunity and uses his gifts of hard work and interpreting dreams to climb to the very top of Egyptian society. Once there, his family, who are now starving and desperate, come to visit the Pharoah to beg for food and help. They do not recognise their brother Joseph who is stood by the Pharoah’s side, so he decides to play a trick on them. He plants a golden cup in his youngest brother’s sack to accuse him of stealing. When Joseph witnesses how the other brothers leap to Benjamin’s defence, his heart melts and he comes clean and forgives them all. We just love a happy family reunion at Manchester Theatres!
Now onto this sensational, revived production. Go Go Go Joseph! Come on! It’s brimming with everything that British music is often categorised for – an array of musical sounds and influences from pop to gospel, to rock n’ roll and even in this case – calypso! Mix that with musical theatre, combine the model with Joann M Hunter’s incredibly varied choreography from street dance, jazz, line-dancing, tap, pop, classic musical theatre, and even a glimpse of the can-can and your endorphins are elevated, your serotonin is shimmying, your dopamine is dancing! I had goosebumps three times in the first ten minutes from the sheer power of the music from the incredible orchestra and cast. I literally felt each note as it reverberated through my entire body. The children burst onto the stage with Alexandra Burke (Aladdin, The Bodyguard, Sister Act, Chess, Chicago, winner of The X Factor, sold over five million records in the UK) as their teacher and set a scene recognisable to any primary teacher. It was busy, alive, vibrant and full of sass as the “students” mimicked Burkes vocal runs by channelling their inner Mariah Carey-isms. It quickly became clear that the revival of this show opened opportunities for The Narrator to play multiple roles, including Jacob, Potiphar’s wife, jailbirds and many more quirky and quintessential Joseph characters. Burke achieved this with ease and it was great to see her embrace the humour and playfulness required of this newly amalgamated role. She sashayed from character to character with subtle moves, looks, accents, and costumes, never once dropping the elevated standard of her outstanding performance. Burke seemed to be totally at home in this role, performing with an engaging and relaxed ease of someone who has found their safe space and it was a delight to watch just how funny she truly is.
The cast of eight incredible children also played multiple roles, including Joseph’s brothers, Potiphar, and the goat sacrificed to stain Joseph’s coat with blood, though this fantastic actress – fresh from being held in the splits mid-air – stopped the show to announce she wasn’t up for being sacrificed! She’d been told it was only a bit of dress up! There are many fast and furious quips such as this sprinkled throughout the entire production and it has permitted Joseph to pull on any lose threads where the old coat may have been a tad twee and upcycle to a coat worthy of a 2022 audience.
The Joseph’s Coat number unleashed the power of the rainbow into the theatre. Its colours blazed so brightly that I’m sure half of Manchester wouldn’t be surprised to find a pot of gold. It was incredible! Every time a colour was sung in the song, it was echoed in lighting and with swathes of matching materials expanding across the stage. Add the fantastical costumes into this too and the overall effect was mesmerising. I didn’t know colour could make you so happy.
The first half was just bam! Bam! Bam! with joyous song after joyous song, making the arrival of the more heartfelt Close Every Door even more poignant – not that Jac Yarrow (Glow & Darkness, In My Skin, Pantoland At The Palladium, Olivier award nominated for his debut theatre role in Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) needed any assistance whatsoever. His rendition of this famous song was spectacular, with vocal choices I have never heard before. He made it entirely his own. Starting out a cappella with a spine-tingling echo to his voice, he created a stunning and moving piece of theatre. He raised the roof with his stella performance and most definitely earned his place in the Joseph Hall Of Fame (if such a thing existed). He was strong, natural, energetic and captivating throughout.
The second act opened with the entr’acte in which the MD John Rigby deserves an applaudable mention. It was fantastic to see a conductor with such enthusiasm who entertained us, encouraged us to join in with the music and led the audience as much as he did his orchestra. He included us and it was brilliant! Then my thirty-six-year wait was finally over! Years of posters on walls, buying tape cassettes, LP’s, recording the top ten and pausing it to scribble down the words to songs yet STILL I never got to see my childhood pin up live………until now!!!! I can solidly say it has absolutely been worth the wait! Jason Donovan (Neighbours, pop star, Rocky Horror Show, Chitty Bang Bang, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Sweeney Todd, Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds) had entered the building people!! And as his Pharoah was akin to Elvis meets Frank-N-Furter, meets Felicia from Priscilla, it felt very apt so say “Thank you very much uh huh.” I could write a review just on this Pharoah section alone because there was so much going on. The stage transformed into a glittering golden oasis of shimmer, complete with singing statues of Egyptian Gods whom all acquired rock n roll guitars for the Pharoah’s Story, and a backwall full of hieroglyphics! But look closely for even these are hilariously mischievous. Mixed into these familiar symbols were hamburgers, musical notes and even the cheeky touch of a Phantom Of The Opera mask! Donovan’s performance was incorrigible, irresistible and self-depreciating, making light of his pop star age when he struggled to stand up. He played Pharoah as a lover not a hater and he didn’t care who he loved! Again, there was such a freedom with his performance that he just oozed personality, wit and charm.
The set design is courtesy of Morgan Large and is as dazzling as the dreamcoat itself! Ethnic prints, a glorious sun and a stage with a kaleidoscope of changing colours, mirroring the multiple colours of the infamous coat (lighting by Ben Cracknell) reflect the thought and follow through detail this production encapsulates. When we leave Canaan behind and transport ourselves into Egypt, a transformation of glittery wealth unfolds before our eyes, allowing your heart to shimmer along with the sensational set. Camels appear as amusing and cleverly designed floats, constructed with a bicycle base, supporting freedom of movement and a distinctive blend of puppetry and engineering.
Laurence Connor has directed an unapologetic updated revival of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The sense of occasion at tonight’s performance was without a shadow of a doubt, unrivalled. It was like the first night of theatre’s reopening after lockdown, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. Every song received an unprecedented rapture of applause, wolf whistles, cheers and genuine love. It was a very special evening for a very special show and the love we clearly have for Joseph in our hearts shone through as a matter of pride. It is still most definitely a family favourite, but an equally jubilant show for groups of friends, celebrations and for revisiting your childhood. No matter what your reason for attending, find one! Go and watch simply because it’s a Tuesday, it doesn’t matter, but go and watch because I promise this production will be the talk of the playground, the office, and the pub for many weeks to come, and if you don’t hear such talk, I can guarantee you will hear its many tunes hummed somewhere on your travels. Come on, you know you can’t resist joining in……. “I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain….AHH AHHAAAAA.” As the song “Any dream will do,” instructs, “Pull back the curtain and see for certain, what I thought I knew.” The Opera House did indeed pull back the curtain to reveal what we all knew – possibly the most nostalgic and loved show Britain has to offer.
WE SCORE JOSEPH - 10/10
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 16th March 2022
I was lucky enough to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks when it visited Manchester not so long ago, so why am I going back again so soon? Because it’s just that good! No flying bed or evil lions could keep me away if they tried! Bedknobs and Broomsticks truly is a show for the whole family. It transcends age and allows you to revel in the sheer joy, hope and magic that Disney create. Allow your inner child to lead you with the characters on their journey, from the reality of living in their war-torn country, to the impossible land of Nopeepo, where you can swim with and talk to the animals under water, duel with a Lion, and dance with a watery world of ballroom champions! Believe in the impossible, hold your family tight, and embrace the message of love, hope and family.
Charlie, Carrie and Paul have been evacuated to the country and are not happy about it. They are missing their parents who were tragically caught up in the action, missing their friends and missing the bright lights of the city. How can the country possibly compare to all they know and love? But things are never as they seem, and the three children are about to learn a very important lesson that you should never judge a book by its cover. Upon meeting their Guardian Miss Price, the children think she is dull and gloomy. Little do they know that Miss Price has more tricks up her sleeve than they ever dreamed possible. When they see her flying through the night, they begin on a journey that will change the way in which they think, feel and believe forever. The children take on the brave task of helping Miss Price fight the ever ascending army, and with a little bit of magic on their side, they set off to find the missing pages of the spell book to make the impossible, well – possible! Some of the children find it easier than others to believe unflinchingly, whilst others immediately accept that Miss Price is a witch, they are flying to magical lands on a bed, and Mr. Browne who they thought was Miss Prices magic teacher actually needs to be taught a thing or two from Miss Price herself! But they soon learn that they all have unique and impressive skills, that when combined, can achieve anything!
The musical stage show is based on Disney’s 1971 film. It was a huge success in its day, and once again included their ground-breaking thrill of crossing live action with animation. Starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson, and songs penned by the famous Sherman brothers, it won five academy awards and wowed audiences for many years to come. The stage musical includes the wonderful songs by The Sherman Brothers and includes some brilliant new ones by Neil Bartram, who has done an incredible job of making them blend beautifully so there is no obvious join between composers.
How to explain the impact of this show? To quote Tinkerbell “All you need is faith and trust and a little bit of pixie dust.” Disney often leaves me lost for words, because they blow your mind, they leave you awestruck and they make you alive with feelings. Watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks absorbs your power of speech as you are left with part finished sentences and thoughts all blazing into one enchanting aura. “What the?……did you see?…….this is……..how did they?……is that?………I can’t even…..”. It is the type of show that builds an overwhelming bubble of energy inside you and leaves you crying tears of wonderment and happiness because you simply have no other way to express what you are feeling.
The show opens to a stylised and heart wrenching flee from London as we watch it being bombed, with the set literally being blown apart. Moving scenery, lights, and music all combine to unleash the danger facing the children. Their little faces are etched with fear, worry and loss as they make their way through the rubble to the train station and are torn apart from their parents, left scared and alone in the world. It was a poignant opening more than ever right now and broke my heart.
The songs are glorious. A Step In The Right Direction is the first time we get to indulge in Miss Price’s magic and it is fantastic! For a few seconds the inquisitive and rational adult in me wanted to know how they achieved it but I soon escaped these confines to embrace the joy and wonder the illusions delivered. I just felt so content to be surrounded by the happiness that Disney was bringing to all ages in the audience. The Age Of Disbelieving is a gentle and lulling song which pulls on the heart strings. For anyone who has visited Disney world, it also has a ring of “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” about it from The Carousel Of progress, which gave me even more Disney vibes.
Last time I saw the show, Portobello Road was one of my favourite pieces for it was classic ensemble musical theatre at it’s best. I have to say, my memory (for once) has done me justice, for it was every bit as theatrical as I remembered it. There is so much going on that I noticed details and nuance this time that escaped me previously, such as the scenery continually building up and over lapping at the back of the stage, performers climbing up onto the moving stalls, and the intricacy of the timing from the ensemble. One step in the wrong direction or a beat out of time could have brought the whole thing crashing down, so their ability to know each and every nuance around them was impressive to say the least.
I was so happy to revisit Nopeepo Lagoon (not No Poo poo). My childhood is forever entwined with the Bedknobs and Broomsticks film, and Nopeepo is its crowning glory. Last time I saw the show, I wondered how on earth they were going to recreate animation V live action on stage, whilst maintaining the juxtaposed elements between them, allowing the two worlds to combine. This time, I was beside myself with anticipation to see if what I remembered actually happened! I can’t express enough how magical the whole thing is, and when we are finally treated to the infamous Bobbin’ Along song, I was grinning from ear to ear.
Diane Pilkington (Young Frankenstein, Mamma Mia, 39 Steps, Wicked) is the lucky actress stepping into Angela Lansbury’s shoes to play Miss Price. I loved her the first time I her and I still loved her tonight. Pilkington is multi-faceted in the role, and a character to be reckoned with. She is strong, commanding, engaging, quirky, funny and tender. She is a vocal genius, not just with her incredible singing voice, but her understanding and knowledge of how to use her voice to create comical subtleties such as slides, volumes, pitches and play around with vowel sounds to instil humour wherever she wants.
Charles Brunton (Oliver, Scrooge, Beauty & The Beast, Chess) plays Mr. Browne (and don’t forget the E!). Last time I saw the show, it drove me mad who he reminded me of and tonight it came to me. It is like watching old footage of Bruce Forsythe back in the day when he was master of absolutely everything. He can do it all, sing, dance, comedy, magic, and is a true all round entertainer. He is outstanding in Emelius The Great and his energy throughout is not only impressive – it should be impossible! But this is a show all about believing in the impossible so I really should slap my own wrists.
Conor O’ Hara (debut professional performance) plays Charlie and has grown into this part fantastically. He plays the eldest child, but is not a child in real life, and has been cast to perfection for he emulates that inbetween world of child and adult. As an actor he is so accessible that you can’t help but love him. He is charming, talented and one to watch for the future. What a debut!
Paul was played by Aidan Oli and Carrie by Evie Lightman. These children are so talented and professional, but as Bedknobs and Broomsticks teaches us, never under estimate the ability of a child, never forget their possibilities and never write them off as just children.
The ensemble cast epitomises the Disney Dream. They are magical, believable, engaging, enticing, and I’m sure their hard work is making everyone’s dreams come true because they, without a shadow of a doubt, complete the show. They not only act as a chorus in the showbiz sense, but in the original sense too and provide some spine-tingling moments when they collaborate to prepare us for the magic that is about to take place. They are soothing dream whisperers who provide the core of the show.
In a production where scenery appears from nowhere, illusions are around every corner and puppetry is so realistic and immersive that even the fish manage to have facial expressions and reactions, it is impossible to leave without a smile on your face and hope in your heart. So, as Charlie would say, “Let’s look at the facts.” The fact is, everyone should be Bobbin’ Along to Bedknobs and Broomsticks for it is a true Disney Delight that will be wowing audiences for many years to come. Treat yourself to the purest form of escapism and be whisked away to a fantastical fantasy world where dreams really can come true.
We score Bedknobs and Broomsticks - 10/10
A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale Of Two Cities - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 15th March 2022
A Tale Of Two Cities isn’t a stand-off between Salford and Manchester, it isn’t written by Shakespeare no I didn’t get to choose which two cities I was going to visit and neither is it a grown up version of the children’s classic City Mouse Country Mouse. These were my “hilarious” (coughs) family and friend’s comments and queries before visiting the theatre for tonight’s show. I must admit, I didn’t read all the small print of tonight’s show. What I thought I was getting was a stage adaptation of the book and was a little wary as to how long that may take and how heavy it would be. What I actually got was an incredibly clever and engaging synopsis of the story retold in a dynamic, modern and refreshing way.
Charles Dicken’s novel is set against the French revolution and deals with extreme gestures of love, the possibility of resurrection, duality, sacrifice, violence, oppression, class and justice but to name a few. So, it’s not really your cheery toe tapping escapism kind of show. However, this production uses the focal characters daughter (also named Lucie) to retell us the story as she is trying to find out her family history. Think of the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” meets Dickens characters and this is the approach used for the re-telling of a heavy novel. This method of direction allows for humour as we see a modern day family with petty squabbles that are quite frankly hilarious as we see ourselves in them, as they try and recall parts of their past for Lucie, but remember the same story slightly differently. We’ve all been there, and its funny to watch the character of Darney as he learns that his wife doesn’t remember him from the first time they met!
Regardless of whether you’ve read the novel or not, this show has a strong message to deliver and achieves it through a fascinating blend of techniques and styles, all blended together as one.
Those who know the novel well may question the information that has been left out but Director Ben Duke –(Juliet & Romeo, Paradise Lost and extensive work with Lost Dog) has been smart in opting for a brief family history approach. It would take us till next week to include the book in its entirety, so the question of what to leave out becomes one that is impossible to appease. However, Dickens himself left details out of his own book, particularly with the central female character Lucie. Her psychological complexity is one that can be studied to much better effect in todays world with the understanding we now have based around mental health and this is where tonight’s show unleashed its creative collaboration with the original work. This allows those familiar with the novel to re-experience the characters psyche from a new perspective. Placing A Tale Of Two Cities in the 21st Century supports this new outlook and permits us to embrace Lucie and Darney through new and enlightened eyes.
In a nutshell, A Tale Of Two Cities tells the story of Doctor Manette who was assumed dead but had actually been in the Bastille for the past eighteen years. His daughter Lucie, assumed to be an orphan and living in London, is brought to meet her Father as he is discovered alive in France. Father and daughter are reunited. A few years later, Lucie meets Darney who has just been acquitted of treason. They form a bond, and Darney renounces his French aristocracy heritage but keep his identity a secret from Lucies dad. When Darney propose he promises to reveal his true identity, but someone else is after Lucies hand in marriage. With the start of the revolution, Darney, Manette and Lucie have some impossible decisions and sacrifices to make in the name of love, honour and justice.
This re-staging of A Tale Of Two Cities is a fusion of dance, theatre, documentary and film. It uses the novel as a leaping board, giving the themes and characters the wings to fly into unchartered territories. It is beyond a re-imagining, it is a re-awakening of elements we know understand far more than when the novel was born. The play opens with Lucie and Darney’s daughter, also called Lucie, talking directly to the audience, explaining that she is making a documentary of her family tree and that we might want to write things down as it will get complicated. With this format, she is able to talk directly to the audience throughout and keep recapping, ensuring we are fully aware of what is going on at all times, which is a nice touch. The staging is a dilapidated house that we actually can’t see into, so they use the documentary making process to send a live feed onto two screens for us to watch. This means that half the show feels like a tv drama, even though you know the action is literally happening at the same time. Its effective and the cameras in the room sometimes give the feel of a police interview room, creating a whole new dimension. It also allows them to mix the live feed with super imposed CGI, generating moments of unbelievable theatre, allowing the ghosts of characters to appear on the screen at the same time as the live actors, until the memories blend into one and the live actors actually embody the ghosts. It’s so cool and really hard to explain but simply brilliant. This effect of imposed CGI on the live feed is also used to include fire to show the house being burnt down.
The dance elements are phenomenal. They are beautifully stylised and mix dance and physical theatre into the most sublime story telling. The trust that these performers must have in each other is insane for the moves they make, the way they fall, use each others body weight and twist together is just incredible. Dance is used to express many pivotal moments, such as the riots during the revolution. This is done through a slow motion movement sequence and the control each dancer has over their body is mesmerising. Another significant piece is the hanging, A countdown is projected onto the screens and we watch as we know how long it will take him to die with a fantastically choreographed / free style piece as the panic hits when his life is ebbing away. A dance showing Sydney drugging Darney was my favourite. I couldn’t steal my eyes away. This creative piece between two strong men was brutal yet tender, lyrical yet athletic. I loved it. The partner work was flawless. The production was naturalistic one minute, like you were watching the family next door, then completely stylised the next. The manipulation of mind this creates means as an audience member you never know what is coming next, and what an exciting and alluring possibility that is!
The cast is 6 strong (five performers and an interpreter - Hannes Langolf - collaboration with world class artists and companies such as William Forsythe, Angelin Preljocaj, Akram Khan and DV8, John Kendall - Edge, balletLORENT, Café Fuerte, Joan Cleville Dance), Nina Madelaine - La Parenthese / Christophe Garcia, Erika Tremblay-Roy, Ze Crumpettes, Temitope Ajose-Cutting - staged and created works for The Royal Opera House and ROH2, Ekckhard Thiemann - Punchdrunk, Protein Dance Company, Valentina Formenti - Requardt& Rosenberg, New Adventures,, H2 Dance, Simon Vincenzi, Vincent Dance Theatre. This cast were outstanding. Each had a central role they portrayed but also represented the numerous other characters in the story. They were all clearly dance trained and have worked as a collective within Lost Dog Dance to create this innovative production. They were all outstanding actors too, and their combination of other qualifications such as street dance and yoga shone through effortlessly. It was a true gem of a show. Clare Edwards interpreted the entire show with BSL and was a fantastic storyteller too. I was mesmerised.
This production of A Tale Of Two Cities was not the best of times and the worst of times, it was simply the best of times. Period. I love discovering new ways of storytelling and Lost Dog have not only broken the mould, they have taken all the different possible moulds, melted them down, and mixed them together to create something entirely new. I thoroughly recommend. NB – The show is 90 minutes with no interval so take that toilet trip before the show starts as you won’t want to miss a beat.
WE SCORE A TALE OF TWO CITIES - 9/10
Dreamboats & Petticoats
Dreamboats & Petticoats - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Monday 14th March 2022
A few days ago, I was asked if I could travel back in time, where would I go? I said I would like to go to the sixties for the music and after what has just gone down in The Palace Theatre with Dreamboats and Petticoats tonight, I know I gave the right answer! What a corker of a show! As it says on the front of the programme, “Dreamboats & Petticoats is bringing on back the good times!”
Dreamcoats & Petticoats Bringing On Back The Good Times is the follow on musical inspired by the million selling albums. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the previous two musicals or indeed heard any of the albums, for the show stands on its own two feet. The plot is (as I expected) a fairly straight forward simple narrative which follows the story of young couple Bobby and Laura. Laura starts to see success in her music career just as Bobby finds himself held back by his own nerves. As his band The Conquests are packing out audiences at their local youth club, Laura is appearing as a regular on The Mark and Bernie Wynter’s Show! When Laura persuades her manager Larry to give The Conquests a summer season at Butlins, she is miles away performing with Frankie Howard in Torquay. But love always finds a way and Bobby and Laura find themselves representing the UK in the Eurovision and winning! (The UK getting anything other than nil poi in Eurovision reminds us that this is of course a fictional story!) As Bobby, Laura and friends find true happiness, sixties music charts their story, taking us to a swinging sixties finale and providing us with a jewel of a jukebox musical.
I have to say, the script took me surprise and in the best way possible. It was quick, witty, packed with one liners and had just the right amount of innuendo and smut to make you belly laugh without the risk of offense. It is of course cheesy at times, but for me, that is part of its charm, and it makes full use of this knowledge, setting up cues for songs that are so beautifully obvious, it becomes a fun and quirky element of the show that allows the audience to be in on the joke. Some of the gags may be old school but it’s a show set in the sixties so anything else would have felt out of place. And I have to say their delivery by the cast was always sublime, such as when Sue was explaining to the Butlins Manager that Norman was her husband. She tells Norman, “Norman, show him your ring,” to which he replies after a comedic pause, “I really don’t know him that well.” The script is inundated with real life references such as Butlins (which is actually where the two writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran truly became friends), Frankie Howard, Mark and Bernie Wynters, the BBC, Eurovision and Kenneth Williams (but more on him later). This gives the make-believe, feel-good fun some roots of realness and allows some breathing space for anyone who finds themselves allergic to cheesiness.
The set is a homage to popular culture from the sixties, with floor to ceiling slats collaged in everything from Tony Tigers breakfast Ricicles, to the Carry On Films, to Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. The band is set up at the back of the stage but equally move around throughout joining the cast. Locations are changed by neon red signs announcing we are in Butlins, St. Mungo’s Youth Club, the BBC studios or a hotel in Torquay. It is simple, effective and catchy, instantly setting the vibe and vigour.
It was obvious from the first song that this show was an instant hit with the audience, for everyone – including myself – immediately cast themselves in the role of back up singer, wobbling their heads, tapping their toes and curling their lips to “C’mon everybody.” With hit after brilliant bopping hit peeling out, such as Lipstick On Your Collar, Happy Together, Save The Last Dance For Me, and You Don’t Own Me, it would have been some kind of impossible torture not to join in! The number one in the hit parade for the first half (yes all these songs and we haven’t even reached the interval yet) was Blue Moon. Now as many people know, in Manchester Blue Moon = Manchester City, so as a Red, when I heard that first “Bom-ba-ba-bom bu dang a dang dang” start up I thought of blocking it out with an internal “We’ll drink a drink a drink to Eric The King…” But thank Ferguson I didn’t because it was by far the breakout moment of the first half. Sung by the full cast, including all the musicians entirely a cappella, it was goosebump good, jaw dropping genius, and Tony The Tiger Terrrifffficccc! Honestly, it was a moment to behold and quite rightfully received the ultimate round of applause.
The second half whipped up even more sizzling sixties songs such as Pretty Woman, Take It Easy On Yourself, and a couple of my favourites – Mony Mony and To Sir With Love. With every hit that came our way, the audience response got bigger and better and it became more and more difficult to stay seated and not just burst into a little bit of a twist or a mashed potato! The second half, as brilliant as it was in its entirety, was defined by three elements, one of which stole the entire show. First was the finale megamix – the perfect tribute to a trailblazing musical era. Next was the Mark Wynter Medley - because yes! It was THE Mark Wynter!! (As well as being a sixties pop star, he has also been in 38 play and 23 musicals including the lead role in Phantom). In addition to playing himself, Wynter also played Larry – Laura’s Manager. Not only was his voice as polished, lush and strong as ever, his energy was insane! Bounding about the stage like a snippet of a kid, he was incredible. Last but not least was the Eurovision section when David Benson (Goodnight Sweetheart playing Noel Coward, One Man Two Guvnors, Dad’s Army Radio Show) came out as the host Kenneth Williams! Not only was it instantly recognisable who he was playing by his voice, movement and mannerisms, but he transcended Williams in the most incredible way, because let’s face it - Kenneth Williams was a one off. Yet here he was on stage in front of us. But it wasn’t just Benson’s uncanny impersonation that stole the show, it was his entire act. He was offbeat, quirky, funny, and always one step ahead, just like Williams. His song, filled with random French words and phrases was side splittingly daft and deliriously delicious. It is no wonder to discover that Benson actually has a one-man Kenneth Williams show for he has certainly studied his muse, and of course – ‘ere, he’s not messing about.
The entire cast and musicians (which were one and the same) were fizzing with energy, ease and charm that it is no wonder this popular show played to a full theatre. Elizabeth Carter (Rain Man UK Tour, Save The Last Dance For Me, The Wizard Of Oz) was so sweet and likeable as Laura and had a smile that lit up the entire theatre. She was bubbly and brilliant with belting pipes. David Ribi (Presenter on kids TV show Milkshake, Mamma Mia, Rocky Horror, Hairspray) is her perfect match as Bobby. Again, he was sweet, shy and sang like an angel. He took his character on a lovely journey and you couldn’t help but cheer him on. Alastair Hill (Saturday Night Fever, Around The World In 80Days and he has now been in all three Dreamboats & Petticoats shows) is Norman. Norm is on the charm offensive from the off, wooing the ladies with his rock n’ roll moves, forgetting he is married occasionally and realising his flaws before it is all too late. Hill plays the part to perfection for he does it all with such a light heartedness, rather than making the character too heavy, ensuring an ideal fit for the feel of the show. Lauren Anderson-Oakley (Follies, The Addams Family, Friday Night Is Music Night) is Sue, Normans wife. She is sassy and strong, full of life and a powerful force on stage. Samara Clarke (How To Succeed In Business, Les Mis) plays Donna and David Luke (all three Dreamboats & Petticoats shows, Peter Pan, and is backing vocalist and lead guitarist for Sir Cliff Richard) plays her other half Ray. Together they are a strong partnership, apart they are entertaining and vivacious. Luke’s style of humour is wonderful. Mike Lloyd (This Is Elvis, Saturday Night Fever, Buddy, Jailhouse Rock) doubles as Frank and Percy. He is agile, likeable and effortless.
Dreamboats and Petticoats has captured the free spirit of a feel-good decade, providing a night of escapism. It made me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t even alive in and extremely lucky and grateful to have had an excellent musical education from my parents, with many a childhood car journey immersed in the sound of the sixties, guaranteeing I knew nearly every lyric to every song in tonight’s show. What a gift I have been given! So, thank you to my parents and thank you to all involved in Dreamboats and Petticoats for ensuring the music of their generation lives on!
We score Dreamboats and Petticoats – 10/10
Billionaire Boy - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 9th March 2022
David Walliams has done it again! After being lucky enough to watch Gangsta Granny late last year, I knew I was in for an entertaining, fun and fabulous night out, with a few belly laughs along the way. As someone who teaches children, I know that Walliams is a legend in their story telling lives, a little like Roald Dahl was (and still is) to my generation. He has succeeded in engaging a nation in reading, sharing books and delving into the literary world and for that I applaud him with all the enthusiasm that a self-confessed book worm can give. The theatre was alive with excitement and the chatter of the mini Walliams experts, all eager to ensure their grown ups were prepped and prepared for the story before it unfolded. Kids don’t care about spoilers, they want you to know that they know and that they understand. Their eagerness is infectious and provided the theatre with a youthful energy making it impossible to do anything but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Billionaire Boy introduces us to Joe Spud – the richest twelve-year-old in the country! It seems Joe has everything – his own sports car, exotic pets and a mere million pounds for his birthday. But Joe doesn’t have the thing that all twelve-year-olds truly want and need – a friend to call his own. Joe thinks the answer to this lies in leaving his expensive fee-paying school for the local comp, but there are many things Joe, in his haste, hasn’t thought through. Joe is about to learn a life lesson that money isn’t everything, can’t buy everything and doesn’t solve everything. Sometimes, there are more important things in life, and like money, those things need investment in order to receive the biggest return. Joe’s dad Len has made his money by creating BumFresh – toilet roll that is moist on one side and dry on the other. He throws his money around like he is TP-ing and even though Joe hates the embarrassment this causes him, it seems that he has picked up a bad lesson or two from his dad along the way. Both Joe and Len need to learn about the things that can’t be bought before it is too late.
The cast is nine strong and work relentlessly, playing multiple roles to create an ensemble of many more memorable characters such as the mean bullies The Grubbs (who visually reminded me of The Krankies), the school cook Mrs. Trafe, Sapphire the gold-digging girlfriend of Len, school children, teachers, factory workers and not forgetting Raj – the loveable and reoccurring shop keeper in Walliam’s novels. The characterisation is strong, enabling each role to be distinctive from it’s last, and though it sometimes relies on the more obvious symbolic choices to do so, with so many roles for the actors to constantly create, it is an understandable and logical choice, allowing the audience, particularly its younger members, to accept rather than question why Joe’s dad is also Joe’s bully. One of the funnier songs that both the teachers in the audience and the children all related to, was the teacher’s song, consisting of all those well-known teacher phrases we all know and love such as “The bell is there for me, not you.” “Walk! Don’t run!” “Would you do that at home?” I actually used this last one three days ago in a drama class. I won’t tell you why I used it because it wasn’t pretty but needless to say the child in question didn’t do that at home and will never do it in my class again either!
Matthew Gordon (Doctors, Tom Gates Live On Stage, Macbeth) is Joe Spud and is instantly likeable. He owns the part and the entire audience find themselves completely engaged in his plight, even when he steers off course, you can’t help but cheer him on. Matthew Mellalieu (Holby, The Rise and Fall Of The Krays, Suspicion) is primarily Joes dad Len but equally knuckles down to support the ensemble by playing other roles, including one of the Grubb bullies. He flits from one to the other with a joyus ease and impresses us all when he arrives on stage in a helicopter! He pumps up the audience here a little like a pantomime, encouraging us to shout out and cheer that we too would like a private helicopter. The children lap it up, and to be honest, the adults enter into the spirit of things and lap it up too. Jake Lomas (Seussical, The Dreaming, Cabaret) plays Bob – Joes best friend, then not best friend, then best friend again. He was a very natural actor and brought the emotional heart to the show in many ways. Rosie Cole (Dick Whittington, Nell Gwynn, The Wind In The Willows) had an absolutely cracking set of pipes (yes Billionaire Boy is a musical! Who knew?!) She pinged from role to role like a ball in a pinball machine, hitting the target every time and wowing us all. Her voice was incredible and I’m glad she got a solo so she had the chance to show it off. Emma Matthews (The Bay, Billionaire Boy West End, Gangsta Granny) made me do a double take when she came out as Mrs. Trafe – the school cook, for she was the epitome of a Vic Wood character in Dinnerladies! It was like watching Victoria Wood play one of her fantastic characters and actually made me quite emotional as Vic Wood is my idol, so I really am giving the gold star of praise here. She was just so visually and vocally funny, it really wouldn’t have mattered if she was just reciting the alphabet, she still would have got the rapturous applause she deserved. Her Food Glorious Food solo had the audience, particularly the children ewwing and fake vomiting at her concoctions with glee, and it was all topped off with a showbiz finish………but when you don’t have a top hat and cane to hand then you do the only thing a cook can possibly do and grab your colander and big spoon instead!
I had told my friend that I was excited to see the set as the one for Gangsta Granny was an Aladdins cave, meets Pandoras box, meets rubik’s cube, with the entire thing opening up to reveal something new and surprises hidden in every nook and cranny. Billionaire Boys set matched it in equal measures and the creative thought that went into every detail was impressive to say the least. Joes’ house – The BumFresh Manors Mansion, is built from toilet rolls, but each section opens up to evolve into a new set, the school toilets have toilet rolls built into the walls, Raj’s shop advertises BumFresh, Chandeliers are hidden inside walls you didn’t even know opened up, you could have hours of fun just discovering all the hidden secrets of this set alone, so huge praise for set designer Jacqueline Trousdale.
Billionaire Boy was a surprisingly good night out, and only surprising because I am obviously not the age range of the target audience, though clearly I am with my humour! I found it highly entertaining, endearing and left me wishing I lived near Raj’s shop because he sold Joe a huge bar of a popular chocolate for £1.50!!!!! With them selling for £3.99 in most supermarket chains, no wonder that Raj has not made his fortune yet, but that he lives in hope of one day becoming the Billionaire Boy! As the play ended, the audience burst into spontaneous and raucous applause, whooping and hollering to show their appreciation of a billionaire of a show. The musical encore had everyone clapping along and losing themselves to the sheer escapism enveloping us all. I felt quite emotional at the end because with all that has gone on in the last two years and the current monstrosities, children have had to live in a very adult world. Tonight, they did not. Us adults were invited into their world, and it was a wonderful place to be.
We score Billionaire Boy - 9/10
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 8th March 2022
Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Olivier and Tony Award winning The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is back by popular demand and with its life affirming, compassionate and gripping story, it is plain to see why. Mark Haddon’s novel is the story every writer wishes they had written for it encompasses a diverse and infinite audience. It may have started life as a book for children and teenagers, but it has long surpassed this limitation, transcending its age barrier to become one of the bestselling, and most loved books out there.
Christopher doesn’t like to be touched. He doesn’t like strangers and he doesn’t like it when he is accused of killing Mrs. Shears dog. All Christopher wants to do is solve the mystery as to who did brutally spear Wellington with a garden fork. Christopher has been taking notes, recording everything he sees to help him make sense of the world. But can these notes help him solve the murder mystery or will they lead to more questions than answers? Whilst he certainly has an extraordinary brain with such things as maths and the universe, everyday life and social niceties present Christopher with obstacles which often constrain his world. Christopher must stare his challenges in the face as his ordered life is turned upside down. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time takes us on an emotional journey and delicately allows us to see the world from a very different, very real perspective. It is enlightening, educational and epic.
The production itself is like nothing I have ever seen and was breath taking. As Christopher is challenged in the story, this show too challenges the rules of theatre to conceive a brilliantly stylised, artful and mind-blowing result. It seems to beautifully mirror Christopher's alternate way of seeing things and welcomes us into his world, all the time staying loyally true to the narrative of the book. The set multiverses projections, drawings, and scenery, skilfully blending a box from one object into another. Bunny Christie (set), Paule Constable (lighting), Finn Ross (video) and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (movement) join forces to ignite our senses and imaginations in a unique and exciting way. This was achieved superbly when Christopher was distressed for example. Flashes of confusing lights, echoes of sound whispering prime numbers and the screens flooded with the never-ending swirling array of said numbers depicted Christopher's anxiety through their synchronicity. Movement was equally vital to the production, excelling in many moments throughout the play, with the astronaut sequence defying acting by crossing over into something that would look just as at home in a Matthew Bourne piece. Another moment in the second half seemed to transcend gravity itself as Christopher walks across the full length of the walls of the set horizontally! It has to be seen to be believed! These elements are just as important to the production as the amazing actors and incredible award winning director Marianne Elliott.
The play unapologetically opens with a bang and expletives as we get our first glimpse of Wellington, the dead dog. It is immediately clear that this production is different and that, as we learn throughout the play, different can be a pathway to the extraordinary brilliance and bravery of any individual. As the story unfolds, we recognise that we are watching a play within a play – a performance of Christopher's book, detailing his journey since that fateful night of discovering Wellington. Rebecca Root (Sex Education, Finding Alice, Trans Scripts, The Proposal), skilfully guides us as both the narrator and Siobhan, Christopher's teacher. She provides a direct link between Christopher and the audience, inviting us into his world. Root beautifully demonstrates through her acting the understanding and patience she has for Christopher who is living with neurodiversity and is categorically believable. I genuinely expected to open up the programme and discover she wasn’t actually an actor but a real life SEND trained educationalist. I have to say the entire cast create magic. They played multiple roles with such slick, speedy and sensational transitions that I wouldn’t have questioned anyone who told me there were twenty cast members. They continually changed roles, even altering themselves into props and becoming beds, turnstiles and doors. They created an acting illusion Derren Brown would be proud of.
David Breeds (Dear Evan Hansen, The Girls, Thunderdome) is stunning as Christopher. He is intriguing, sensitive, complex, and endearing. His emotional range is multi-faceted and despite the exhausting journey he has to take his character on both mentally and physically, not for one second does he wane. The stylised approach of this production puts some pretty heavy demands on Breeds physically, including being flipped over forwards and backwards, using core strength to balance in a plank position on a continually changing arrangement of boxes and he does it all with the utter grace of a seasoned professional dancer. At one point he is running around the stage opening different cupboards to take out props and it is done with such speed, I have no idea how he remembered which cupboard to go at any given point. I can’t even remember why I walked into the kitchen most days, let alone what he achieved in this segment. It was mind bogglingly impressive. His last question to Siobhan at the end of the play is heart breaking and I could have wept for his unobtainable hopefulness. Who am I kidding “could have wept” - I did weep! With the Olivier nominations being decided today, I hope Breeds is one of them.
Tom Peters (Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, Girl From The North Country, The Crucible), partnered Breeds wonderfully as his dad Ed. There were such contrasting moments between them throughout the play, illustrating their complex relationship. There were tender moments as we saw Peters portray a father desperately trying to find the best way to communicate with his son, challenging moments as we struggled to understand some of Ed's choices and perfect partner work between Peters and Breeds when Ed hits his son – brilliant because it was shockingly believable even though the two actors were stood at least a couple of metres apart when it happened, yet their react and response partnership along with the sound of the slap made you believe Christopher had just been struck with complete faith.
The second half was even stronger than the first and as the actors, sound, light, set, and movement all collaborated again, the utter chaos and over stimulation of a train station was realised with a claustrophobic quality, allowing us to understand just a little of what Christopher has to navigate every single day. The impact was felt and made me respect Christopher even more. His whole journey to London was theatre brilliance for it breathed new and exciting life into storytelling, creating moment after moment.
Kate Kordel (Perspectives, Northern Lights, A Midsummer Nights Dream) plays Judy, Christopher's mum and has to deliver some of her dialogue whilst balancing on the shoulders of her cast members, yet she looks as relaxed as if she were having a duvet day. Kordel is strong throughout, taking us through her own emotional narrative and delicately exploring the idea that her choices do not negate the love she feels for her son. The other cast member I have to mention (largely because they got the biggest reaction by far) is the adorable puppy played by either Oreo or Biscoff. This puppy proved that once again we are a nation whose heart is ruled by dogs, for this pup stole the scene and fair play to the actors who allowed this gorgeous fluff ball to have their moment.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is a beautiful piece of theatre and is literally the gift that keeps on giving. Don’t leave too early because just like a Marvel film, even when you think it is over, it isn’t. You will learn so much about yourself, about the human spirit, and even about maths! I implore you to watch this show, practise kindness and show compassion because the ease with which one person may take something for granted, could very well be someone else’s Everest.
WE SCORE THIS AMAZING PRODUCTION – 10/10
Footloose - Opera House, Manchester - Wednesday 2nd March 2022
“Tonight I gotta cut loose, footloose, kick off my Sunday shoes.” Ok so I don’t own Sunday shoes whatever they may be, but I absolutely did kick up my heels and have an absolute blast of an evening at Footloose! What a show! I’m pumped with adrenaline, high on endorphins and buzzing with excitement. Footloose is a fantastical, flippin’ feel good excuse to just let go with your besties, boof up your 80’s perm, pull on those leg warmers and indulge in the right to fight for your dancing shoes!
Footloose invites us into the world of teenager Ren – a vibrant city boy whose unwelcomed move to the middle of rural nowhere leaves him frustrated and missing his former life. Just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, he discovers that rock n’ roll and dancing are actually banned!! Angered and rebellious, Ren refuses to accept the limitations his new home town are imposing and sets about showing the powers that be exactly how things SHOULD be. A rebel with a cause and armed with the best 80’s soundtrack and dance moves, it isn’t long before Ren has everyone Holding Out For A Hero – he just doesn’t realise that he is their hero!
Footloose is based on the 1980’s film of the same name and it absolutely captures the spirit, fun and nostalgia to a tee. Jam packed with familiar songs, characters, costumes and references, only the boring Mayor of backwater Bomont himself could object to such a toe tappin’ top night out! Footloose provides the audience with what they want right from the off, kicking that famous Kevin Bacon quirky kick onto the stage with the title track. The audience responded immediately, and the party began. The following scene where Ren and Willard meet is so slick and funny with its perfectly timed choreographed moves, it sets the tone for the clear comradery between the cast and puts you at ease.
The scenery is changed frequently to take us to numerous locations, all identifiable from the film, and is done with such speed and welcomed distraction from the musicians that you don’t always notice it happening. I particularly loved the set up for the burger joint, with car seats, neon signs and roller-skating waiting staff taking me right back to my childhood. I wanted that diner food, I wanted those roller skates and I wanted to dance!! My head was swimming with all things 80’s and this was indulged further with the choreography in Heaven Help Me that screamed 80’s dance moves. The detail was spot on and everything just took me back with a heartfelt sigh of contentment. There were so many audience appreciation moments it’s hard to choose which ones to mention, but I think the biggest cheer went out to Quickenden during Holding Out For A Hero when he is stripped down to nothing but a pair of gold hot pants! That pulled me out of my childhood daydream I can tell you!
Jake Quickenden (Dancing on Ice Winner, Hollyoaks, Dreamboys, Hair, Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure) is an instant hit with the audience as loveable cowboy Willard and I have to say he is an absolute star. Pure soulful vocals, an impressive accent, incorrigible dance moves and a cheeky charm that is hard to resist, I truly think that Quickenden was made for musical theatre leading man material. He clearly has a huge fan base – most of whom I think were in the audience tonight judging by the response his every move got, but it is plain to see why. One of my favourite parts of the whole show was his solo Mama Says – and it was so good it even came with its own built in encore!
Darren Day (TV personality and star of numerous West End and National tours including Mame, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Grease and Summer Holiday) is moving as the Rev. Shaw Moore. We know that we are in safe musical hands with Day but I have to say it was his acting that really impressed me tonight. Towards the end of the second act, his scenes with Ren were so raw, open and honest that I was genuinely swallowing my emotions amid an otherwise pumped up show, so to create this moment speaks volumes.
Joshua Hawkins (Jesus Christ Superstar Regent’s Park Open Air and Barbican, Twelfth Night, Choir of Man (Norwegian Cruise Line) is outstanding as Ren. Hawkins is relentless and doesn’t pause for breath, ensuring everything you could possibly want is delivered tenfold. He is charismatic, engaging and a live wire.
Unbelievably, this is the professional debut of Lucy Munden (Return To The Forbidden Planet, Tipping The Velvet whilst training). Munden plays Ariel and takes us on a rollercoaster of a journey. From rebellion to heart ache to defiance and loss, she brings a complex depth to the character, making her more than just the girl next door who is trying to stand up to her dad.
Oonagh Cox (Cinderella, The Holiday, Matilda) plays Rusty and is vivacious throughout. Her passion for what she does shines through her and makes her a joy to watch. She belts out some of the more popular songs, including Let’s Hear It For The Boy and is a true driving force of the whole show.
The second half brings some snazzy ensemble line dancing and some fabulous break out moments for Quickenden. When we see his character failing in the dance department, he refuses to quit until practice makes perfect and we are treated to some cool moves and shapes, including a beat boxing rap section.
The entire cast are amazing and literally do everything. I’ve heard of a triple threat before, but the Footloose cast challenge this concept and redefine it into a platinum threat of a show! They sing, act, dance, change scenery, oh yes – and they are also the band!! They switch from one discipline to another with the ease of breathing and literally become one with their instruments. I mean it! At one point one cast member was even doing press ups with his guitar balanced on his back!
Just when you think you’ve had all the fun one show can deliver – the finale starts! It’s what I imagine everyone envisaged when buying a Footloose ticket – the school disco to end all school discos! But this is more than a finale……….all I’ll say is “If Carling did finales………..” It doesn’t end! I mean, come on – this is the 80’s so it wouldn’t be complete without a megamix right?! There is encore after encore and it becomes harder to see where the cast ends and the audience begins. What an absolute buzz! I’ve definitely embraced the mini me child of the 80’s because my mind kept racing with “This is my favourite bit of the show……….no this is my favourite bit………..oooh no it’s this bit!” But I have to conclude that my final call of favourite bits is seeing how much the cast absolutely loved what they were doing. Right up until the end, they were still on stage, whooping the audience up into a frenzy and it seemed they didn’t want to leave. Well, what they did they did so well, it makes me wanna yell – let’s hear it for Footloose!
WE SCORE FOOTLOOSE – 10/10
9 to 5 the Musical
9 to 5 The Musical - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 1st March 2022
Kidnapping, colluding, and a kiss ass soundtrack! What’s not to love? Dolly is the Queen of Country and tonight Matthew, she will be honoured by a devoted audience whether they are fully signed up to Dollywood or dipping their toes into her world for the first time. Age, ability, gender – none of it matters because a tale as old as time about a group of workers dealing with a boss who treats them unfairly is something that everyone can relate to. Even those appalling bosses started as someone’s minion right?! You think it would make them know better but as 9 -5 The Musical shows us, this isn’t always the case.
Everything about this show works. It’s relatable, rebellious, riotous, and leaves your heart racing, begging for more. As we engage with work friends Violet, Judy, and Doralee, you can’t help but identify yourself a little bit in each of them. They do what we could only dream about and form an anarchy army of absolute hilarity to stick it to the man. Quite literally!
Add in a crazy brilliant soundtrack, one of the most famous songs ever being it’s title song and it’s no wonder why this audience couldn’t wait to tumble out of bed today and head to the theatre. Even the lyrics of the songs are genius in their subliminal empowerment. “Pour myself a cup of ambition” is a fantastic one line lyric that could be a mantra for any one of us out there struggling with self belief or who feels weary after a day of being unappreciated.
Of course, 9 – 5 The Musical is based around the cult 1980’s film in which Dolly Parton stars. There are delightful Dollyisms sprinkled throughout the musical and brilliant surprise appearances from the gal herself through the delights of technology so fear not – your country gal is never far from your mind. It is a simple yet excellent choice to include Dolly in the show, giving it genuine credibility and a big thumbs up of approval.
The show starts with the title song sung by the cast (and Dolly!!) who unapologetically burst onto the stage with the energy of a Duracell bunny. Immediately there are laughs as we are introduced to the characters and witness their early morning routine and, erm………bodies in all their morning glory! When our three main characters Violet, Doralee and Judy sing together as a trio it is sublime, intoxicating and goosebumpy good, preparing us for their powerful journey throughout the show.<