Sunday, 23 September 2018

REVIEW: Thor And Loki - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Direct from a successful run at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, this new comedy musical by The House Of Blakewell and commissioned, developed and produced by Vicky Graham Productions is an hilarious, camp and cheeky romp of a show, based very loosely on Nordic mythology!

The cast of six multi-talented performers [they act, dance, sing, play instruments and generally strut their stuff throughout] tell the story of the destruction of the world and the gods as we know it. A prophecy is foretold and the world will end and the gods will die. Odin, the god of gods, tells his son, Thor (pronounced 'Tooerr' ) that he must use his strength to defeat the giants and save the world - not forgetting the golden apple tree of eternal life - BUT, he is a pacifist weakling, he loves poetry, music and vegan cooking! Fortunately all is not lost, as the half-giant Loki is deemed unfit to join the army against the gods, she learns from her mother that things were and still could be different and helps the gods in their fight. But what has the giant Viasi (spelling unknown and no programme!) and his magical horse to do with it all?!

The company parody different musical theatre styles in this energetic and tongue-in-cheek show, with excellent and fun ways of involving audience members in the show too. Semi-costumed with items obviously bought from the local joke shop, this show doesn't take itself seriously. It is however a highly polished and clever 75 minute-long nonstop comedy deftly executed.

This is obviously a low-budget production which has found much success as a fringe show. The talented team behind the show; composer Harry Blake, director Eleanor Rhode, Musical Director Harrison White and choreographer Jennifer Fletcher have much to be proud of. I would love to see this show developed into a full-length show with a decent-sized budget. With ideas taken shamelessly from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but using Norse mythology instead, this is a show that has appeal, and judging from this evening's reaction and standing ovation, it needs developing.

The company used both pre-recorded backing tracks and augmented this with live music too. I didn't see the need for this personally. Admittedly the cor anglais joke and the nice moment with the recorders would be lost, but I would have preferred to have dispensed with the live playing and used only tracks. I am not at all fond of shows where the characters play the music too - leave that for the band, and let the actors get on with the acting! 

The cast were (only don't ask me who played what - sadly my only real gripe this evening was that there was no programme or cast list available! ) Harry Blake, Bob Harms, Laurie Jamieson, Julie Jupp, Alice Keedwell and the enigmatically named Boadicea Ricketts.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/9/18

REVIEW: The Greatest Play In The History Of The World - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Having returned from its run at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival this show comes to the studio at the Royal Exchange and almost immediately sold out all but one evening show. As a result they have now added an additional matinee on Tuesday 25th September.  

As we enter the studio Julie Hesmondhalgh, best known for her role as ‘Hayley’ in Coronation Street,  is chatting easily with the audience. This is a one woman show and Hesmondhalgh narrates the story of the inhabitants of Preston Road, effortlessly and beautifully bringing to life this imaginary setting so that we are fully immersed from the outset. This show wonderfully exhibits the concept that the ‘audience will go with you’ and that the trappings of conventional theatre are not always necessary as Hesmondhalgh describes the characters from her story using only their shoes, which she sometimes has to hand and sometimes borrows from the unsuspecting audience. It is testament to her ability to communicate with her audience as they willingly hand over their own shoes to ‘play’ a role within the piece. This has its ups and downs as some people take longer to take off their shoes than others and Hesmondhalgh fills the dead air with witty quips to ensure we don’t lose interest, this serves to add to the piece and fosters a camaraderie within the room. 

It is a cold December night on Preston Road when, at precisely 4.40am time stands still for the protagonists Tom and Sara who have, until now been romantically unsuccessful. It is a story of love, of hope, of life and ensuring we live it all to the full and “cram it all in”. It is like a masterclass in storytelling as Hasmondhalgh performs with ease and warmth, making every one of us feel like she is telling the story to us, she makes direct eye contact with the audience and we, in turn, sit attentively drinking it all in, hanging on her every word. She commands the space with skill, clearing enjoying the language and narrative exquisitely written by her husband Ian Kershaw. It veers from observational humour reminiscent of Victoria Wood to the pathos of Talking Heads. It is a joyful theatrical experience which moved me and many others to tears in its final few minutes as we are asked to imagine what would define our time on this earth. 

I have no doubt the few tickets left will go very quickly and so I urge you to act quickly as this is a piece which is not to be missed.

Reviewer - Kerry Kawai
on - 21/9/18

Friday, 21 September 2018

REVIEW; Matilda, The Musical - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

I have to admit to having felt a little like a young child again in anticipation of this renowned and popular musical based on the famous story by Roald Dahl. It is difficult to believe that this musical has been around for the past 8 years, and I had never seen it before, but did know two of the songs from the show, as they have been made popular in their own right as stand-alone songs for theatre / dance school showcases. I also was very interested in hearing more of Mr Tim Minchin's music. This is a modern Musical theatre phenomenon, and I wanted a small part of it!

Therefore, when presented with the fact that a technical problem with the machinery allowing parts of the set to run smoothly on and off stage was making the show run about 20 minutes late, I was not overly bothered; especially when a young man (part of the RSC company) stood on stage and explained in clear layman's terms what the issue was, and apologised for the delay. I simply felt sorry for all the youngsters in the audience and behind the stage waiting to go on.

I knew the story-line (don't ask me how I knew it, I don't know myself) I have never read the book nor seen the film; and so what was unfolding before me was just about as new as it was ever going to be. Dahl was a brilliant writer, and his vivid characterisations of people old and young, accentuating character traits and putting his unique spin on the world around him (us), is second to none. I was therefore a little confused this evening by the style of this show. Realism seemed to have been thrown out of the window completely in favour of a dizzying and jazzy set design, Tim Burton-esque directorial ideas, influences drawn from The St. Trinian's films, and on the whole a cast that relied far more on caricature than character. The silly, fun, chaotic, child-like side of Dahl was captured perfectly - but that isn't all that Dahl is.

Basically, Matilda tells the story of a 5 year old girl who is quite exceptionally gifted. She can read adult literature, and converse on adult terms about most things. This however does not make her precocious, but endearing and precious. Unfortunately however her parents don't seem to think so. Both of them, including her elder. layabout brother, seem to find her annoying, useless, and a brat. The same goes for the headmistress of the school she is sent to, Miss Trunchbull (played this evening in drag, by Craig Els, owning every movement and perhaps the nearest incarnation on stage to Dahl's original concept - a great performance!). Indeed, all children are evil, nasty and ugly imps to be beaten, punished and humiliated in her view. Matilda has a dream which she turns into a story about a pair of circus performers, a young child born from disaster and an evil aunt. The kindly school teacher Miss Honey (Carly Thoms) is the only person to see any worth in Matilda and is kindly and friendly towards her. And just in case you don't already know the story, I am stopping here......!

All the cast are strong and talented performers, that much is clear. I didn't feel the mono-dimensionality of it all worked particularly well though. Mr. Worwood (Sebastian Torkia) was a fine comedian / joker / spiv, but precious little was made of either his malevolent or his tender sides, of which he has both, for example. Of course though, it is the children in the show which truly make this musical. A large group of talented youngsters take these roles on a rotation system, with the leading role of Matilda herself being played by 4 different girls throughout the run. This evening it was Sophia Ally who captivated the audience with her prodigious talent, and all the children this evening were sensational. If only schools in reality were able to discipline their classes that way, ha ha!!

This was a hugely polished and slick production. The lighting design (Hugh Vanstone) was interesting and visually stimulating, but while it was undoubtedly creative, it only really worked if seated above the stage, and so all those sitting in the stalls would have missed a large proportion of Vanstone's design. Highly stylised choreography by Jeroen Luiten was very much in keeping with the overall 'feel' of the show and was executed with split-second timing. Matthew Warchus has obviously had loads of fun with directing this musical, and his creations were clever, frivolous and precise. He did seem somewhat afraid though of embracing the darker side of Dahl's vision. No-one was truly scared of anyone on stage, we just found them comedic, with Chokey being more of a jokey, and the moody lighting and sound was not enough to make us afraid - the letter-block set was still there and the element of 'fun' and 'adventure' never really truly brought to bear in a way that say, The Famous Five stories did. I really loved the use of alphabet blocks at the gates of the school though. 

Act 2 is definitely the stronger of the two halves, (despite a rather odd start which basically breaks theatrical convention and starts more like a stand-up comedy routine talking directly to the audience!), and some of the special effects used within the production are indeed extremely clever and 'magical', but running at 2 hours 40 minutes, it is somewhat long for what is basically a children's show. This musical already has a huge following from youngsters who have either already read the book or seen the film, and long may this continue... we need the young in our theatres!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/9/18

PS.  I have to say that I have found this one of the most difficult reviews to write ever, as I seem to be at odds with more or less everyone else's opinion of this show. I was disappointed by it and didn't particularly like it, that is true; but I sincerely hope that I have been able to be objective enough to show you that this is indeed a highly professional and proficient production - flawless in its production values.


REVIEW: Blue Remembered Hills - Salford Arts Theatre, Salford.

An unusual play where all the characters are children, played by adults. 'Blue Remembered Hills' by Dennis Potter was originally a television play, broadcast nearly forty years ago and set in England during the Second World War. There is in some ways a timeless quality about the way the children interact but the absence of electronic distractions meant this was a time when children to a large extent had to make their own entertainments. This is further emphasised by the setting of a rural location.

Against the idyllic rural backdrop, as children while away a summer with frolicking and chit chat, there are some dark undercurrents. Aside from usual childish squabbles and bullying, there is a war going on and the absence of their fathers is clearly a big factor in these young people’s lives. Mothers don’t seem to be discussed much and there is a sense of children growing up with little adult influence. The play is very much an observation of suppressed fears and anxieties, sometimes coming to the fore, but this is mixed with sprinklings of playful innocence. There is no attempt to place the action against any particular episode of the war; all that matters to the children is that their fathers are away, in one case ‘missing’.

A strong cast brings over vivid characterisations; the rough and tumble played of John played by Scott Berry, the  energy and bravado of Peter, played by Ross McCormack the boyishly playful Will played by Steve Hester and the more passive Raymond played by Steve Cain. Then there is the feisty Audrey played by Helena Coates and the more thoughtful Angela played by Roni Ellis. Finally, special mention must be made of Donald Duck, the outsider who is put down by almost everyone, sensitively played by Christopher Wollaton.

Director Jess Cummings uses the whole auditorium to good effect for the action, creating the impression of no boundaries. The actual set is very impressive, with piled bales of hay, rustic fencing and high foliage surrounding a straw-strewn stage. This is enhanced by skilful lighting, alternating between full stage illumination and small areas being picked out in black out, emphasising both space and different locations. South Western twangs complete the feeling of country life and the period costumes are well observed. There also some excellent special effects, without giving any spoilers.

'Blue Remembered Hills' is an interesting and thought-provoking play which has been given a superb rendition by Salford Theatre Company.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 20/9/18

Thursday, 20 September 2018

REVIEW: Othellomacbeth - HOME, Manchester

It is an ambitious but exciting feat to simultaneously take on two of Shakespeare’s most well known and loved plays, Othello and Macbeth, and condense them into a single production. To play out both in their entirety would make for a mammoth 6 hour journey. Rest assured this is not the case.

Unfortunately what could've been a fascinating modern fusion of two intimately connected but contrasting tragedies instead descended into a frantic and rather characterless race against time. The plays are performed back to back, mercilessly stripped back with really only the most tenuous of connections.

In both plays the plot moves at such a pace that, without a sound prior knowledge of either plays' narratives, one is only just about able to sustain a basic understanding of the plays’ most simplistic story arcs.The subtleties and nuances are lost in both, by no real fault of the actors on stage, just because of the sheer pace and rash ambition of the production. Huge chunks of the script are scrapped including much of Iago’s iconic soliloquies, leaving most characters on stage seeming very shallow and unrelatable. Without Iago’s whisperings, Othello’s jealous turmoil seems entirely irrational. Without the subtle and manipulative uncertainties of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s bedside conversations, Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness seems completely unwarranted.

The choice of editing is unusual. Whilst lots of the key speeches are missing, Desdemona and Emelia’s characters from Othello are left largely untouched, leaving them now glaringly prominent, where they are usually overlooked. Melissa Johns and Kirsten Foster put in a stellar performance with what little they have to work with here, however the obvious intended message of female empowerment does not ultimately shine through.

Although like watching a play in fast-forward, Othello in isolation does hold some promise. The set design is simple and effective and the approach is different enough to provoke intrigue. However none of this is satisfied in Macbeth, which contains some embarrassingly amateurish moments and the audience is left with nothing but questions. Why is there a sword fight in a modern adaptation? Why is Macbeth wearing armour? Why is Lady Macbeth cradling what looks like a baby? Why has Banquo become a bizarre comedy zombie?

If it is intended as a radical feminist perspective on a familiar Shakespearean story, this premise does not deliver. Whilst it does have its moments, particularly in the first half, there is nothing particularly radical about representations of distressed and abused vulnerable young women. And irrelevant of this, these moments are lingered on for only a moment and create what can only be described as a confusing yet promising prequel to an overwhelmingly disappointing anticlimax.

Reviewer - Oscar Lister
on - 19/9/18

REVIEW: Queen Margaret - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Queen Margaret, a new play by Jeanie O’Hare, combines the work of William Shakespeare with the teachings of history and places it firmly in the 21st Century. It is, essentially, the story of Margaret of Anjou who was married to King Henry VI in what was possibly the worst Anglo-French trade deal of its time.

There was no formal dimming of lights at the start of this play, just a loud crash and an announcement that ‘Margaret Remembers France’! This is done by Queen Margaret (Jade Anouka) talking to the ghost of Joan of Arc (Lucy Mangan), who is not only the ‘spirit of France’ but a spiritual companion and inner voice to Queen Margaret throughout the play. We are soon chuckling as Joan of Arc bemoans the British weather, lack of vineyards and appalling cheese!

Despite taking place in the 15th Century, dialogue, costumes and staging are all modern in feel with a variety of Royal Blue attire for Queen Margaret, and Joan of Arc mixes ripped jeans with an ancient tunic. Suits replaced gowns, army boots and fatigues replaced heavy armour and a black leather office chair replaced a throne.

Armed with Shakespeare’s war plays and the words of Margaret’s surviving letters, O’Hare skilfully relates history in a way that exposes current political issues facing Brexit, whilst being rooted to the North via the Wars of the Roses. It is a play about Identity highlighted through austerity and the voice of the people, played through the character of Hume (Helena Lymbery). Borders and free trade are touched upon as we are taken from France to England, Scotland to Ireland and back again.

By casting female actors in the traditionally male roles of York (Lorraine Bruce) and Warwick (Bridgitta Roy), I found myself ‘listening’ intently to the words of the characters as their complex politics and selfish pursuits unfolded before me. These messages were less about gender and more about human psychology.

With the staging being ‘in the round’, Designer, Amanda Stoodley, takes advantage by segmenting the floor like a clock. With lights surrounding the rim and criss-crossing to create dartboard-like sections. It feels like the passing of time on a sundial one minute then plain with circles within circles, as if stepping into an inner sanctum, the next.

To the Shakespeare purists, this is not a Shakespeare play but a wonderful re-telling of history aided by The Bard. Text is modern and interlaced with iconic ‘Henry speeches’ that sit beautifully within the realms of highly charged and energetic scenes.

Anouka’s Queen Margaret is a very informed and confident performance as she negotiates  this intelligent teenager who confronts loneliness, isolation, political ineptitude, alongside the issues of being an expat, wife, mother and savvy warmonger.

Henry VI (Max Runham), historically written as a weak individual, gives Runham the opportunity to play the faltering strengths of this conflicted King who teeters between mental health issues and regal expectations. Ultimately deferring to God for spiritual guidance.

In truth, Lymbery steals the show as Hume. This is a gift of a role that oozes wit as she steps from narrator to villain to broken-hearted loyal servant when she accidentally kills her father.

Finally, if you like a bit of blood and gore, Kenan Ali’s fight direction is truly evident. Body bags of blood and bloody throat cuttings abound. Hurrah!

Reviewer - Alexis Tuttle
on - 19/9/18

REVIEW: Stop!...The Play - Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool.

First performed in June 2017, this new production of Stop!... The Play is set within the flexible space at Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre. The space is ideal, becoming a studio with tiered seating on one side looking down on a bare rehearsal room. The play was performed by Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) students, graduates and professional actors.

David Spicer, the writer of this farcical comedy play is well known as a TV panellist and BBC Radio comedy series writer. He should know a funny line when he hears it. The friendly audience appeared to enjoy it even if they failed, as I did, to fully keep up with the deliberately deranged and ever-changing storyline of the play-within-a-play. Part satire, part farce with a little physical theatre thrown in, this play provides opportunity for caricatures of every stereotype in the business and Spicer hams this up to the full.

The play opens with actors struggling to rehearse a terrible new play with an inexperienced director Evelyn (Michael Wolf) hanging on to every word and stage direction in the script. Leading man Hugh (Nicolai Suphammer) and leading lady Gemma (Katie Hargreaves) struggle with the director, as much as the obvious plot and staging errors, as opening night draws ever closer. Hildred, an unseen writer (aren’t they always?), repeatedly sends not so much changes as complete script rewrites, slashing parts along with Hugh’s hopes and dreams of stardom as he cries, “I have read the play, Evelyn! I keep reading the play but the play keeps on changing!”

The overworked stage manager (Chrissie) played straight throughout by Ane Skarvøy holds this production together, succeeding in setting up and gaining laughs in her own right. Skarvøy displays the most potential for comedy, letting the lines do their work and making the most of her petite physicality and facial expressions. Suphammer and Hargreaves are their funniest in Act II, where the performance of the new play takes up the entire second half, as they switch from neurotic in rehearsal to overconfident performance mode. Mark Sebastian D'lacey (Walter) convinces as an ageing lothario harking back to his youth (much to the irritation of Hargreaves playing Gemma-playing his daughter Linda) while trying to remember his lines. Gilda Possibile (Linda) underplays a little too much in Act I as an experienced, if jaded actor with a racy past but hits her stride in Act II.

The cast did remarkably well in steering through the comedy minefield of inappropriate material including a black, American rapper Kriston (Kai Jolley) replacing a monkey, homosexuality, 70s-type sexism and trans-gender references. It’s worth going just to see professional Canadian actor, Jolley perform as he gloriously raps, acts (straight and gay) and eventually becomes white in a costume that is a cross between the Village People and Dr Who. Confused? You will be. There’s even reference to a Meerkat.

The joint direction by Michael Wolf (who also plays director Evelyn) and Matthew Khan adds to the chaos leaving the audience wondering if, as within the play-within-the-play, ‘It’s in the stage directions’ actually applies to this production too. The direction of the tricky voice overlapping speaking scenes worked well but there was too much anticipation and a lack of surprise from the cast for the comedy to always successfully land. The inevitable farcical cast entrances and exits pay homage to the late genre and there is a whole new audience, that has never experienced (or heard of) the master of farce, Brian Rix, who find this hilarious. There are as they say no new ideas only new audiences.

With 5 performances from 19 - 22 September, this opening night performance brought by Peridot Productions would have been better billed as a preview. The pace and energy will undoubtedly pick up through this short run. It’s a fun play brought to life with lively characters and hilarious moments
Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 19/9/18