Tuesday, 26 March 2019

REVIEW: Annie - The Storyhouse, Chester.

Direct from the West End, this evening’s performance of the musical “Annie” at Chester Storyhouse was a vibrant night of family entertainment, wise-cracking humour, sassy little girls, and showstopping numbers that had some audience members standing to applaud during the curtain call. My Assistant Reviewer, age eleven, was one of them! She had a wonderful time.

Set in 1930s New York during the time of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, designer Colin Richmond took delight in every grimy detail present in the lives of the many characters living in hardship. The orphanage was an avenue of harsh metal overhead lights above iron beds; the homeless living under a bridge were interrupted by angry red police headlights against the walls, via Ben Cracknell’s lighting design; and smudged faces were everywhere. In contrast, the Warbucks mansion was the height of art deco elegance, streamlined and clean, and dominated by a huge gold door in the shape of a “W.” These were the two worlds that our eleven-year-old orphaned heroine Annie interacted with, performed with rough-edged elfin charm by Ava Smith. Her rendition of “Tomorrow” was simple and soulful, but with a singing voice full of power.

Six other orphans possessed the stage with cheeky panache, ranging from Drew Phoebe Hylton as chippy teenager Pepper to Tia Grace Isaac as cute cherub Molly. They noisily filled every corner of every space, stimulating a very heartfelt performance of “Little Girls” by their alcoholic matron, Miss Hannigan. This role, to be played by several famous actors over the course of the tour, was last night filled by Anita Dobson. Spending half the performance in some rather elderly bloomers and a sad-looking wrap, Dobson sashayed, glugged, drooled and smarmed her way through her efforts to improve her life, and displayed an impressively long and dexterous tongue in some of her more grotesquely desirous moments. (“Eugh!” was my Assistant Reviewer’s reaction.)

Daddy Warbucks was performed by Alex Bourne with crisp alpha male masculinity and a lovely layer of vulnerability just beneath. His personal assistant Grace was the warm and graceful Carolyn Maitland, who has an especially sweet and beautiful singing voice. Having brought Annie to spend the Christmas fortnight with them in their mansion, they were surrounded by a vivacious ensemble of smartly turned-out servants that each managed to keep their own individual character, leading to a lively “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”, and some very spritely choreography from Nick Winston. The scene where Warbucks almost announced to Annie that he wanted to adopt her, until he found out about her locket and note, was particularly touching.

Nikolai Foster’s detailed direction and sense of fun was extra apparent in the radio station scene, and the ensemble made the most of their cameo characters. From three sardonic and glamourous sisters singing around their drinks flasks and pregnancy bumps, to the sulky top-hatted man who declared himself as “Radio’s only Masked Announcer” while holding his “Applause” sign back-to-front in disinterest, a perfect little universe was created; and George Rae’s jolly-faced radio host Bert Healy led the stage in “Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile.”

Back at the orphanage, Miss Hannigan’s wily brother Rooster, deviously played by Richard Meek, and his peroxide-haired moll Lily, the smirking and sultry Jenny Gayner, were slithering their way into Miss Hannigan’s knowledge of Annie: it having been announced that Warbucks will give $50,000 to anyone who could prove they were Annie’s parents. The trio’s performance of “Easy Street” was of scheming slyness, and Meek’s and Gayner’s performances as the yokel Mr and Mrs Mudge was in delightful contrast.

All ended happily, and with Annie joyously clutching her dog Sandy for the finale – amiably played by labradoodle Amber.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpischore
on - 25/3/19

REVIEW: The Full Monty - The Grand Theatre, Leeds.

There’s some “Hot Stuff” just landed at Leeds Grand Theatre.....! Ask any woman over a certain age an I’m sure they will remember the hype of the 1997 Sheffield-based movie of the same name, set amongst the cold hard backdrop of 1980s steelworks which were once a huge part of employment within the Sheffield district.

When Gaz (Gary Lucy) and his mates, including best mate Dave aka “Fat Dave” (Kai Owen) are struggling with unemployment following the closure of the steelworks (having been born into the era when a job for life meant just that) faced with signing on the dole plus regular visits to the Job Club; after seeing the local Working Men’s Club becoming a women’s only club for one night when the touring group The Chippendales - a group of muscly six-pack owning male strippers give the Sheffield ladies a treat for their money, Gaz gets the brainwave to put on his own strip group for the evening, desperate to raise much needed income. Gaz is currently at risk of losing contact with his teenage son Nathan (Fraser Kelly), his wife having a Court Summons against him following unpaid Child Maintenance, and when attempts “nicking” (that’s “stealing” to non Northern readers!) steel girders from the run-down derelict steelworks in order to raise a few quid, Gaz sees getting his kit off as the best way to get some cold hard cash.

The fun really starts when Gaz, Dave along with their former foreman Gerald (Andrew Dunn) and a few others (and son Nathan roped in to being their Manager) hold open auditions for additional blokes to join their strip troupe. Amongst the selected there’s Horse (Louis Emerick) - who’s “more Shetland than Shire” if you get my drift...an ageing arthritic guy who may not be so stable on his feet but sure has the hip action to a tee (partly due to his shaky troublesome hip!), loner and suicidal Lomper (Joe Gill) and Guy (“Gentleman....the lunchbox has landed!”) - an openly gay young male who’s trade secret his his more-than-adequate anatomy.

What I love about Simon Beaufoy’s award winning play is that it stays true to the original 1997 movie, set in the 1980s, rather than the Americanised Musical. This is no surprise however since Beaufoy also wrote the film screenplay. But having seen both the musical version and the play version, I much prefer the play - The Full Monty wouldn’t be The Full Monty without it being set in Sheffield!

Robert Jones' stunning stage set features as the production's frame - perfectly recapturing the derelict steelworks set amongst the backdrop of 1980s industrial city of Sheffield - complete with broken windows, “Margaret” (the nickname given by the workers to the cold heavy crane used to move steel) - there were so many intricate details to this stunning set I often found my eyes wondered from the cast to the steel backdrop - but don’t worry ladies I was soon brought back round whenever the guys started to take any items of clothing off!

The six guys - who later really do go all the way ie The Full Monty - work perfectly in sync with each other, it’s impossible to single out an individual performer however I found I had a certain soft spot for Louis Emerick as the lovable Horse. I struggled with Gary Lucy’s so-called Sheffield accent which kept slipping throughout - at times so much so I struggled to tell what he was saying, but then again who goes to see this show for the dialect?! Maybe when the tour hits Sheffield Lucy needs to come live with me for the weeks' run (in Sheffield obviously) so that I can teach him the lingo?! Eye-candy-wise there’s a guy for women of all ages - with the diamonds in the rough being Lucy and Redmond for me.

With a host of well-loved 80s tunes featuring in the background plus the hit tunes featured in the original movie - from Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”, to Irene Cara’s “Flashdance” and of course Tom Jones’ “You Can Leave Your Hat On” plus recreating the iconic film scenes beautifully (my ultimate favourite scene - other than the final scene of course - being the impromptu dance rehearsal in the dole queue!) - The Full Monty is the ultimate girls night out! Not surprising that ticket sales do so well - be sure to capture this cult classic on tour!

Reviewer - Lottie Davis-Browne
on - 25/3/19

REVIEW: Glengarry, Glen Ross - The Opera House, Manchester.

Celebrated American contemporary playwright David Mamet's seminal 'Glengarry, Glen Ross', although somehow rather dated now, is still able to pack a fair punch when given rein to do so.

For my money, Manchester's grandiose and large-capacity theatre was perhaps not the wisest choice of venue for this touring production to have chosen. I find the play, which I have seen several times before, works better when in a more intimiate space. The whole becomes edgier and you are automatically more involved in these characters' quasi-nefarious doings. Staged as it was between the Opera House's plush velvet curtains and gilted prosc. arch frame, we were distanced and alienated, meaning the actors had to work all that much harder to bring us on side.

There was much to admire from the seven actors in this evening's production. Their individual characters excellently defined and even though this play is somewhat infamous for the amount of shouting and profanity throughout, none of it seemed gratuitous or out of place in this production, and we really were able to relate to and sympathise with some of the characters.

The story follows the exploits of four property salesmen and thier boss in a Real Estate office in Chicago in the 1980s. Since Mamet himself worked for a time in such an environment, these characters have been drawn from his real-life experiences; and so even if we think that their work ethics and the lengths they go to to make closure on a sale are a little exaggerated or extreme, we can believe that they are cerainly based on reality. The play's title coming from two Real Estate developments - Glengarry, a modern, highly desirable Grade A sell, whilst Glen Ross, was something similar a year or do ago, and has now lost its glow and desirability. A nice title which mirrors nicely the four salesmen's own ages, achievements and aspirations.

Mark Benton played the older, and perhaps a little 'waashed-up' salesman Shelley Levine with grit and determination right from the start; and although the play concerns itself with only a part of two consecutive days, we get a lovely insight into Levine's life of slogging and pitching for sales. We understood completely that in his prime he was 'hot property' (if you'll excuse the terrible pun), but now he is past his sell-by date. Nigel Harman's smooth Ricky Roma, looking suave and sophisticated (as far as a real estate saleaman is able) remained for the most part cool, even in the face of losing a large sale and being humiliated in front of his client. Denis Conway and Wil Johnson provided excellent support and lovely contrasting characteristions (one running hot and the other running cold) making the four salesmen, when they were onstage, pull and push in different directions building up tensions between them and making it interesting for the audience.

The dialogue for the most part needs to be kept moving and at quite a decent speed, but in the first act (set in a Chinese Restaurant) this sadly was not the case. What we were presented with were three seperate duologues - each one performed superbly (although the third one did dip somewhat in energy levels) but it was the time wasted between each of these which was very pedestrian. Incongruous sound effects including train noises were played between whilst the cast sauntered out of and in to position. And despite them being in a Chinese restaurant there was never any sign of any other punters, waitress or staff, food or even menus! Although the set design for both the restaurant and the second act's office were absolutely brilliant and the attention to detail was quite unerring. (Chiara Stephenson). I don't think I have ever before seen an office set which even had a ceiling, and such a realistic one at that!   

On the whole Sam Yates' direction was high energy and punchy, but the second act was far superior in terms of dynamic and rhythm as well as being far less static. Perhaps some of that can be the 'fault' with the way the play is written, but there was a distinct lack of business and busy-ness in the first act, again making the actors work all the more hard to keep our attention. Perhaps that is why when it came to the third vignette, it lacked energy and pace, since they were unable to top what had been done before, and there was nothing else on stage to help them or us.

Verdict: Generally superbly acted, with some nice 'anti-chemistry' between sales rivals, sensible directing, and a well-appointed set for the actors to work in, adding to the realism.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/3/19

REVIEW: Creditors - Theatre By The Lake - Keswick

An early review of Joe Orton’s 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane' was headlined ‘Three repulsive folk. Well acted’. On the surface, at least, the same heading might apply to Strindberg’s 'Creditors', here revived by Theatre By The Lake in Howard Brenton’s recent and very convincing adaptation.

Strindberg was a wildly inconsistent dramatist, prone to using the drama as a vehicle for working out his own hang-ups, and there’s probably a good reason that only four (at most) of his plays receive productions outside his native Sweden. Another factor to be taken into account is his tendentious view of the battle of the sexes, which today would invite the charge of misogyny. But in a production as carefully nuanced as Tom Littler’s, we see the three protagonists as hopelessly damaged yet relatable and so we can become involved and interested in their fate - so much so, that by the end, we feel they’re all people we know and care about.

Adolf, a sculptor and Tekla, an author, have been married for ten years: it is her second marriage and his first. Although ostensibly happy, Adolf, an invalid, feels anguish over the level of his dependency on the carefree, somewhat amoral Tekla and confesses this to a new friend he has made on holiday, Gustaf, a lecturer who - unbeknownst to Adolf - is Tekla’s first husband. As Adolf enlarges upon his confessions, Gustaf takes the opportunity to undermine him - suggesting that he is on the verge of epilepsy and that, for his own good, he should refrain from sexual relations with Tekla for a period of ‘at lest six months’. He has an agenda, of course, but it is not revealed until his own engineered encounter with Tekla results in tragedy.

This three-handed drama, played without an interval, gathers incremental force during its ninety minutes, from its deceptively tranquil beginning to its torrid, if slightly contrived, conclusion. The gradual revelation of Adolf’s (James Sheldon) weakness and his conflicted feelings for Tekla are skilfully teased out by David Sturzaker’s Machiavellian Gustaf, who exploits the younger man’s emotional issues to drive a wedge between him and his wife. With the appearance of Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Tekla, a very recognisable type of energy vampire, the tension rises up a notch and director and actors achieve a little miracle of concision when Gustaf and Tekla meet again, go over their history and (very briefly but fatally) rekindle their old desire for each other. It’s the kind of moment that may look unconvincing on the page but can be pulled off when acted with the kind of conviction and verisimilitude it was here. Myer-Bennett, in particular, managed to evoke sympathy as well as abhorrence in a fiendishly difficult role.

Louie Whitemore has created a handsome set, where the calm ivory-white of the walls and furniture contrasts sharply with the emotional turbulence of the characters, and the sound design (Max Pappenheim) helped us to imagine the seaside resort world outside, with its boat-horns and seabird cries. With Adolf’s mobility restricted for much of the play (for the first forty minutes he is confined to his work-desk, stage rigth), the action was a little too concentrated to one side of the studio stage, so the ‘explosion’ of the action once Tekla arrived made a welcome change to a somewhat static picture. Johanna Town’s lighting was appropriately subdued.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 25/3/19

REVIEW: Circus Of Horrors: Asylum 2 - City Varieties, Leeds.

The world renowned steampunk sensation that is the Circus Of Horrors has stormed its way back to Leeds in its 24th year, bringing with it a smorgasbord of show-stopping, edge-of-your-seat entertainment in their latest show, Asylum 2.

Featuring a cabaret of horror, comedy and rock 'n' roll, there really is nothing like this on the market and that’s what makes it so appealing. Following the structure of a classic Victorian freak show and drawing on it’s gothic roots, ringmaster Doktor Haze takes his audiences through the depths of ‘The Asylum’ – the dark and twisted home of cringe-inducing acts, reminiscent of ancient torture chambers and referred to throughout as ‘the depths of hell’ – and they’re certainly not far wrong. While the asylum theme could be seen as a little on the off side in terms of political correctness, each acts' in-depth back-stories create a well rounded storyline followed throughout and brought to life in a gory, gothic fashion that keeps you on the edge of your seat and leaves you cringing, but desperate for more.

As the circus states, their show is not for the faint-hearted; featuring blood, nudity and a whole heap of debauchery, it bases itself on the twisted side of human nature and the limits of the body and psyche, from the sword-swallowing Hannibal Hermento to the Mongolian Laughing Boy shoving 8-inch spikes through his skin, the majority of the circus’ acts feed on the audience’s morbid curiosity; it’s so hard to watch, but absolutely impossible to look away. It’s not every night you take a trip to the theatre and wind up seeing a dwarf attaching a Henry hoover to his appendages, but Captain Dan’s comedy relief is anything but conventional. They’re also right on the mark when they say that the production isn’t suitable for those of a nervous disposition – asylum inmates and killer-clowns clambering through the crowd in the most terrifying audience participation I’ve ever witnessed definitely amps up the scare factor.

Although they are certainly the most tame aspects of the production the dance numbers were something to be marvelled at. The ‘Sinister Sisters’ created an eerie sense of awe with a stunning aerial acrobatics routine; a long, stunning dance-and-acrobatics piece between a nurse and a patient – I have been an avid theatregoer for many years and it is almost unheard of to see an amputee on the stage, let alone without a wheelchair so it was remarkable to see someone with a visible disability as such an integral part of the show and performing what was arguably the most beautiful scene in the production.

Overall the production was a complete assault on the senses – the flashing light and extremely loud and extremely talented live rock band and musical numbers, paired with the constant smoke and the visual spectacle unfolding on the stage in front of you really is something that will stick with you. If you’re looking for a quiet night out then this most certainly isn’t for you – but if you’re looking for blood, horror and gothic gore then look no further. Circus of Horrors is a remarkable example of modern day Variety, and I can’t wait to head back for their 25th anniversary shows.

Reviewer - Hazel Kaye
on - 24/3/19

Monday, 25 March 2019

REVIEW: Shiva Feshareki - The Lowry Theatre, Salfrod

Award-winning composer, DJ, and turntablist, Shiva Feshareki took to the stage of the Lowry’s Quays Theatre and announced, “I’ve never played in a theatre before.” Feshareki’s first performance in a theatre was also the first performance she has done with the accompanying visuals of Helena Hamilton, projected on a screen at the back of the stage. At the front of the stage was Feshareki’s turntables and electronic effects equipment. Over the next fifty or so minutes, Feshareki would proceed to create a shifting, at times minimalist soundscape, deconstructing some recognisable pop songs into something else altogether different.

To try and place Feshareki’s work in some form of musical context, the performance at the Lowry certainly owed a little to Lou Reed’s infamous 1975 album Metal Machine Music. Reed’s album was a double album of guitar feedback which Reed had manipulated and mixed at varying speeds resulting in work which was for the most part a punishing listen but, with some close attention, revealed repeated melodies buried within the surrounding wall of noise. While Feshareki’s performance was not as extreme as Reed’s work (which was recorded as a joke in reaction to the more commercial, pop music of his Sally Can’t Dance album), it did certainly contain the element of creating melodies within repeated noises. Likewise, Feshareki’s performance owed much to the turntable skills of hip-hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy’s Terminator X, and DJ Shadow, who took samples from existing songs and reworked and blended them into new works, as well as adding a dash of inspiration from the 1981 collaborative album from Brian Eno and David Byrne (of Talking Heads) My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

As Feshareki began, sounds from the records on her turntable rang out, at times sounding like a sonar radar, at other times sounds from the vocals on the records where distorted into noises, played backwards, or looped around. What made these sonic excursions even more thrilling was in the moments when Feshareki would let small sections run uninterrupted and the audience could clearly make out that what they had just heard came from Stevie Wonder’s Another Star or Madonna’s Like A Prayer. Realising that the clipped, repeated staccato sounds were extrapolated from Wonder’s “la la la”’s or the synthesiser beats of the chorus of Madonna’s pop classic, certainly brought home how skilled Feshareki’s sonic manipulations and turntabling was, especially as she was clearly getting into her stride as the performance went on, bobbing her head up and down.

The visuals from Hamilton made the performance even more striking as they altered on the screen in time to Feshareki’s turntabling and looping providing a visual comparison to the aural experimentation: the visuals broke up, rearranged themselves, switched from images taken from filmed footage and computer-generated shapes and constructs. As the sounds broke up into looped noises, so did the visual images on the screen. Some of the visuals had a MC Escher quality to them which echoed the musical performances use of repetition and loops of sounds.

Feshareki’s performance was undoubtedly on the more avant-garde side of turntabling and electronic manipulation and would not be suitable for anyone suffering from tinnitus. While her work will not appeal to everyone, there is still much to find of interest within the fragments of sound and loops for those prepared to go in to one of her performances with open ears and minds. An astonishing, fascinating, and at times sonically turbulent experience.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 24/3/19

Sunday, 24 March 2019

REVIEW: The Swings (film) - Hope Youth Theatre, Broadbottom, Greater Manchester.

Hope Youth Theatre is the junior division of celebrated local LGBTQ Hope Theatre Company whose production of Be More Martyn ran at Hope Mill Theatre to rave reviews last year and their new production of Jock Night comes to the same venue next month.

This film - a short, running at just less than 9 and a half minutes - appeared as a link on my Facebook feed. More out of curiosity than anything I clicked 'play', and I have to be honest, not expecting very much at all. However, after watching it, I was very pleasantly surprised. The young actors and actresses in this film are all from the Friday evening Over 11s group, although most can't be very much older than 11 unless I am a very bad judge of age! Further the film was even written by them too, and as such is huge credit to them, as the script is clear, precise, well judged and packs the punches in exactly the right places.

The story tells of a class of children at the same school whose teacher asks them to do a project by using their cameras on their mobiles. One young boy has only an out-dated mobile phone with no camera, and so is victimised and picked on by the rest of the children. He is ostracised and alienated - not a part of the 'clique' because of it. He then gets work as a paperboy and earns enough to buy himself the very latest i-phone, (a Mark 6) and suddenly becomes the envy of all the class, and finds he is now the most popular person in the school. That is until another child comes along with the even newer up-dated model, (yes, you've guessed... the Mark 7), and again he finds himself ignored.

It is a wonderful film with a clear message; that material wealth does not make friendship; however it also shows quite intelligibly exactly how children - and sometimes even adults - so often behave (soemtimes unintentionally) and therefore as such the film is a wake-up call to all, that 'keeping up with the Jones's' is not something to aspire to, and that friendship, cameraderie, and relationships are built on much more than simply material goods. And although the end is very 'cheesy' - it put a huge smile on my face!

Congratualtions to all the young actors involved in this film, and thank you for allowing me to be able to watch it. For anyone else curious out there then the link to the film is here - https://vimeo.com/326147315?ref=fb-share&1&fbclid=IwAR3pxGG7Di5hOez2vmQcLsu1fQCfEFLl-KZ3ZuyytcEc7axMirZ3ldqwfpw

For more information about Hope Theatre Company or Youth Company then their website is https://www.hopetheatrecompany.com/

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24/3/19