Friday, 17 August 2018

REVIEW: The Tempest - Abraham Moss School, Crumpsall.

Not content with using their home base at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, the Young Company have gone 'on location' to bring you a promenade production of a very youthful and zestful version of Shakespeare's Tempest.

Attention, I am now going to have a moan! Not just at this version, but at most modern productions of Shakespeare. I get extremely angry and irritated that producers and directors all over seem to think that Shakespeare's texts are anybodies to bastardise, rewrite, update, and arrange at will, without so much as a by your leave! No other author, dead or living, is subjected to this mistreatment of his writings; nor would any author or authors' representative permit such changes! So why is Shakespeare always treated so?! I have absolutely no objection to anyone anywhere changing Shakespeare - in this instance it happened to be The Tempest - but PLEASE, don't call it the same name as the Bard's original work... call it something completely different with a subheading reading something along the lines of:  'Based on the work of William Shakespeare'!! It is enough that purists have to suffer almost every Shakespeare production in modern dress and transported into outer-space or some such nonsense without having the text rewritten too! - Ok, rant over! Apologies.

So, back to The Royal Exchange Young Company and their version at Abraham Moss School. This was vibrant, modern, relevant, easy to follow, and darkly humorous. Using several locations throughout the school, including the main theatre space, the canteen, the atrium, the quad and various corridors, it was excellently thought out and directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin, although some areas did work better than others, and one of the tiny corridor areas when we were asked to squat down was particularly uncomfortable.

Continuing with The Royal Exchange's policy of inclusiveness and gender-blindness when casting, the roles of Prospero, Caliban, Antonio and Adrian were given to actresses. All the roles though were excellently cast, and each performer gave their all to this show making it exciting and vivid. A promenade production needs to keep the audience continually engaged and a part of the action, and this was achieved this afternoon with the use of several 'devices'. Printed and hand-written notes all over the walls, excellent and eerie sound effects, the omnipresence of 'spirits' observing us from behind office windows, or 'controlling' and ;monitoring' us with their 'technological instruments'. We were never left unattended or apart from the action for even one second, and this was a major accolade to all involved.

The sincerity of the actors in the lead roles meant that those playing 'spirits' could be a little more sardonic, and that is exactly what happened. Their malevolent omnipresence and their conspiratorial mischief-making was a wonderful touch, as was the idea of having several Ariels. The movement and use of space throughout was innovative and interesting, and with the running time of 85 minutes without interval, it was just about right in length too.

Despite my above comment, I did enjoy this presentation; there was much to like and admire, in a play which had a tap-dancing spirit with the most sinister of grins, Miranda and Ferdinand playing Twister, and a drunken threesome in a paddling-pool full of balls! [It all makes sense in context!] These are talented and committed young individuals who have responded excellently to a difficult challenge, and together have produced a piece of enjoyable, relatable and contemporary theatre of which they can all be proud.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/8/18 

Thursday, 16 August 2018

REVIEW: The Railway Children - Ordsall Hall, Salford.

Heartbreak Productions specialise in open-air performances for children and young people, and this afternoon they produced their version of Edith Nesbit's dated classic, The Railway Children.

In a nutshell, the story tells of three young children, who are accustomed to the fineries of life, find themselves along with their mother, having to move away and live in the countryside in a poor village close to a railway. Their father has been imprisoned, falsely, for treason, and so they must muddle through until he is released. The children find amusement and unlikely friendships at the station and watching the passing trains. A kindly old man, a Russian novelist, Mr. Perks, and a young boy called Jim, among others, all enter the narrative. Eventually their father is found not-guilty, and he comes to their rural retreat to reunite himself with his family.

Not making things easy for themselves they chose to perform this in a thrust format [ie.. the audience being on two sides and the acting taking place in a thin oblong in the centre] although I have to say that they coped with this perhaps misjudged staging decision adroitly. What did work excellently though was the amplification. An outdoor performance, which takes into consideration all possible background noises such as passing traffic, passers-by, aeroplanes etc, is apt to ask the actors to simply project their voices more, or, as I have seen on a couple of occasions, actors actually shouting at the tops of their voices to try and make themselves understood and heard above the noise of British Gas drilling nearby! Here, there was no such concern. Not only had all the actors had the appropriate vocal training and were naturally pitching their voices correctly, there were also 4 peripheral microphones which went to speakers on the sides of the audience. The result was that even when backs were turned, as they had to be to utilise the stage configuration, we were still able to hear everything. The volume was not too loud either, and was a little louder than a normal speaking voice. This was highly laudable.

Their version of the story started in the present day, as a group of people waiting on Giggleswick station platform for a delayed train. In order to keep themselves and the fellow passengers (us) amused while we waited patiently for the train they would act out a story for us. This resulted in a lightning change of costume [they removed their hi-viz waistcoats!], and the tale of The Railway Children of 1905 started with a song. {why couldn't the story have been updated to the present day?}

All boded well, and indeed the acting and audience interaction was beyond reproach. They told the story sensibly and sympathetically with characterisations which were neither patronising or mono-dimensional, but were nevertheless caricatures primarily. Their target audience was engaged, and our anticipation was high.

Sadly, at least for most this afternoon I imagine, is that it never went any further than that. What they did was very good, that is without question, but the dialogue was very wordy, there were too many similar characters played by the same actors, and so the story-line would have been lost on most of their target audience members. There were very few moments of comedy (not that it is a story that easily lends itself to humour) but that notwithstanding there was little there for the kids to engage in in a humorous context. There were no songs except right at the very beginning and end, and no dancing. Therefore it became very much a period play, and as the performance progressed I could see those youngsters around me becoming more and more fidgety or disengaged. There was, after about 70 minutes, a short interval. This was the company's biggest mistake. The second half, with the exception of the fast-forward recap of act 1 at the beginning, was boring.

For this play to truly engage and captivate, I would most sincerely suggest cutting down the number of characters, making those characters hugely different and comedic wherever possible [Miller's Ruth was the only example here], keeping the story to essential plot developing moments only, putting in more music, movement and more audience participation and acknowledgement, and the whole show lasting an hour straight through without interval. That would be my advise to any company in the TIE or Children's Theatre game. What was presented to us this afternoon was a kind of half-way house between that and a 'teenie weepie'; a different kind of play altogether and geared for a slightly older child. The show is advertised as 'suitable for all' which on a profanity level I cannot argue with, however, this show belonged neither in the primary school camp nor in the middle school camp; it seemed unable to make its mind up. This I do believe was the root of the problem. The Railway Children is not a story for pre-primary and primary children; and yet that was the majority of the audience this afternoon.

The set I found rather confusing - even for me! I understand the need to sometimes mime objects but the 'pump trolley' was unrecognisable and beyond your target audience. And I simply didn't understand the sudden transformation from the brightly lit station platform dais to a very dark and forbidding railway tunnel. I doubt that would have been recognised by most of the children either.

The costumes were good, the dialects / accents sounded authentic, and the company of 5 were obviously talented and their chemistry onstage working together was lovely. Their ad-libbed audience preamble at the start of the show and the jamming of pop songs on ukeleles during the interval though, not only showcased their talents to their better advantage, these moments were also the more entertaining for some of the youngsters!

Ashleigh Aston played the younger sister of Bobby (Roberta) with ease; her facial expressions and body language making us believe in her minor years. Faye Lord was older sister Phil (Phyllis) who again made good use of voice and body. George Naylor was Peter, the third child, and his petulance and naivety made his character quite charming. Bryony Tebbutt played their mother (with a couple of other cameos thrown in for good measure!) and everything else (9 roles in fact) was played by Shaun Miller.  The whole was directed by Miriam Higgins.

What started out with huge promise, and indeed had a cast that could have delivered so much more, the end result was an overlong, samey, and rather pedestrian piece of theatre which although had moments of pure beauty and genius in there, were sandwiched between lengthy periods of wordy mediocrity which failed to truly engage.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/8/18

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

REVIEW: Peppa Pig's Adventure - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Although I don’t have children of my own, I’m still somewhat of a Peppa Pig expert - having three young nieces (8, 5 and 3), who have all been huge Peppa fans since the moment they were first introduced to the television around the time of their first birthdays. My youngest niece, being the biggest fan of the three, has had me sitting through back-to-back episodes on YouTube, eating Peppa Pig themed birthday cake and playing with various Peppa Pig toys, making me recreate various TV episodes, from adventures in a camper van to Peppa and George’s classroom and family home. 

Today however was a totally new experience for me - getting to see the well-loved characters brought to life on stage in a live action feature length story of Peppa and George’s adventures with their classmates. Whilst unfortunately my youngest niece wasn’t available to travel the 30-some miles to Salford’s The Lowry Theatre, I was able to bring along a friend and her three-year-old son, another avid Peppa fan and what was his first ever visit to a theatre. Having little memory of any events which took place before my tenth birthday, I was unsure what to expect, given the target audience of Peppa Pig being pre-school children, and whilst I see on average six to ten theatrical performances per month, I’d yet to be a part of something that is suitable for pre-school children.

However from the moment we sat in our comfortable seats, the relaxed atmosphere and several pre-show starter warnings (along with the shows TV theme tune snippets), made the excited hundreds of pre-school kids both relaxed yet excited at the same time as the fervour built up in the auditorium. 

Soon we met Daisy, (Bronte Tadman), a young girl about to start her first day at Peppa’s school who introduced herself to the young audience and soon had them joining in as we helped search for Peppa in a game of hide and seek. Once Peppa was found we were introduced to the rest of the gang - George; Peppa’s younger brother and the youngest class member, Suzy Sheep, Gerald Giraffe, Daddy Pig and Mummy Pig and class teacher Madame Gazelle. The audience took part in class registration and learnt that not only was today Daisy’s first day at school but it was also the day the class were taking a camping trip!

With Daddy Pig driving the school bus we were soon heading into the woods, ready to watch for all the animals which “only come out at night”.  

The puppets, set against a bold bright colourful set which was a perfect replica of the cartoon scenes, from the school to the woodlands, made the production both magical and easy viewing for the very young audience. The three year old boy (my friends son) became engrossed in the atmosphere and story telling within the first sixty seconds, and loved the constant audience participation moments from singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes and counting, there was a real emphasis on team work, a theme that was reinforced and discussed throughout in a way a three year old could easily grasp the concept of. There was rain whilst camping and myself and the surrounding pre-school kids revelled in getting soaked with real water and were encouraged to get up and dance in “muddy puddles”. The only downside to this is that when the 50 minute production (plus an interval) was over, my newly found three year old theatre convert companion was wanting to go find real muddy puddles to play in!  Luckily there weren't any to be found in Salford!

I always say how much I look forward to my three nieces growing up so that I can introduce them to my love of theatre, but after today I now know I don’t have to wait anymore, and look forward to the next live production featuring Peppa Pig. I was disappointed to find out today was just a two show day with no further dates in Salford, so now I eagerly await another opportunity so that hopefully I can get the same satisfaction that I did today, seeing a pre-school child light up as they experienced theatre for the first, but certainly not the last time. A must for Peppa fans old and young!

Number 9 do not give star ratings, but if they did then this would be 5 stars without question!

Reviewer - Lottie Davis-Browne
on - 15/8/18

REVIEW: Madagascar: The Musical - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

Madagascar:The Musical had its UK premiere only a few weeks' ago in London and had its first night in Manchester at the Palace Theatre last night to an almost full house. There was much anticipation for this show in the audience, which was largely made up of children, and they were not disappointed. The two halves moved along quickly and it was hard not to smile for the duration of the show.

There is always some difficulty in trying to represent cartoon characters on stage through actors and in Madagascar, the main characters were costumed convincingly and were able to show the quirkiness and cuddliness of each character through movement, facial expressions and the costumes themselves. The lead role of Alex The Lion was warmly played by X Factor winner Matt Terry and this was no weak choice of casting; he is a skilful dancer and his character had instant charm. He lent his voice well to the character, which showed off his vocal skill not only in range but also in timbral variety. Marty The Zebra, played by Antoine Murray-Straughan was the star of the show for me. He was immediately lovable and obviously a very talented dancer and singer. Here he was able to combine a committed and convincing facial expression to his character, which brought every movement, word, and note to life. Timmika Ramsay and Jamie Lee-Morgan who played the parts of Gloria The Hippo and Melman The Giraffe respectively were also really warm and three-dimensional. There were potentially restrictions for these characters due to the oversized costumes but the actors were clearly comfortable in their own skins, so to speak, and so hip-hop dancing hippos and giraffes were as elegant and graceful as could be expected and certainly comical and entertaining. King Julien, played by Jo Parsons, appears in the second act and although it is a truly comic role, it was played with authority and immediate command of the audience. Parsons had easily the most and loudest laughs of the evening and deservedly so.

The secondary characters were puppets with the puppet handler clearly visible and costumed but I was unsure about the lack of facial expression among the puppeteers here. The actors tended to stare at the back of the head of their puppet as they spoke, manipulating the face of the puppet. In theory this makes you concentrate on the puppet itself but the near dead pan faces of the puppeteers were unsettling. In other puppet shows I have seen, the puppet and the puppeteer are both animated facially with success. This would have made sense here as the puppeteers changed costumes appropriately and were certainly animated in their dance and movement. For the most part, the puppets were easily identifiable but some of the lemur characters did not look like lemurs and while they were meant to resemble the cartoon characters from the original film, they looked bulky and stiff and not cuddly. The same can be said for the costumed evil Foosa cats whose facial features were disappointingly difficult to make out. Nevertheless, the acting from the 10 person cast was full of energy and all the characters were brought to life to the delight of all watching. All cast members were responsible for scene changes and the show moved in a very slick manner.

The musical presented a variety of song types and styles from hip hop to reggae to jazz and dance. Familiar songs from the film were Born Free and I Like To Move It which was used several times to hilarious effect – there really is something about Lemurs doing The Floss that gets hundreds of children on their feet and dancing as only children can! There was no live band or orchestra, apart from the singing, and the vocals in the ensemble numbers were enhanced at times with pre-recorded vocals. I had not seen a musical set to backing tracks before but I must say that it was very effective for this type of show. From a technical point of view the balance of the backing track and live vocals, and the mix between recorded and live vocals was flawless. The solo parts and cameos were all sung live and the cast were really talented in their vocal ability. The duet Best Friends, which is also from the original film, was really beautifully sung by lion Alex and Marty, his Zebra buddy. I preferred their version to the original recording from the soundtrack of the film by a mile.

The story itself was lacking in narrative direction at times, but for a younger audience it was easy to make leaps and use the imagination to carry the story and perhaps it would have been too fussy to try to explain why their zoo transfer was on a boat (where was the destination?) or how some of the animals ended up in Madagascar while others got to the Antarctic. While the lack of narrative detail here did not confuse the young audience it firmly placed this musical in the genre of children’s stage show rather than a musical that can truly enthral and engage adults and children alike. It would not have taken much to elevate this show to beyond an intended audience of primary school aged children. Maybe a future revision will allow this, but as it is, Madagascar The Musical moves the story along very quickly and is immediately gratifying.

I left the Palace Theatre with a grin and I could see many happy children and adults on the way out.  Madagascar is a funny, warm and colourful show that will delight any child young or old.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 14/8/18

NEWS: 'National Treasure' Cilla celebrated in Musical at The Lowry

Cilla Black famously collected LS Lowry artworks during her life, and now, the musical inspired by her life and career comes to the stage of the arts centre that bears his name.

Running at The Lowry in Salford from Tue 28 August – Sat 1 September, ‘Cilla The Musical’ follows the extraordinary life of the ordinary teenage girl from Liverpool and her rocky, yet incredible, rise to fame.

By the age of just 25 she was an international star and by 30 had become Britain’s favorite television entertainer, fronting TV hits including Blind Date and Surprise Surprise.

Her success allowed Cilla to amass a £700,000 LS Lowry collection including the works ‘Family Group,’ ‘The Black Church’ and ‘The Spire’ – which were sold by her family at Sotheby’s after her death in 2015.

Claire Stewart, curator of The Lowry collection, said; “By the time Cilla came to purchase LS Lowry’s works in the 1970s he was already a household name. LS Lowry painted a lot of scenes from Liverpool and so the settings would have been very familiar to her. The three paintings that she owned were classic examples of his work.”

Cilla The Musical is the stage adaptation of the critically acclaimed ITV television series ‘Cilla by BAFTA Award-winner Jeff Pope. It features some of the star’s greatest hits including ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart,’ ‘Alfie’ and ‘Something Tells Me,’ alongside a backdrop of the legendary ‘Liverpool Sound’ including the Beatles’ Twist and Shout, and American influences like ‘California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas.

Continuing with her phenomenal portrayal of the nation’s sweetheart is Kara Lily Hayworth as Cilla, who beat thousands of hopefuls in the nationwide open auditions for the coveted role. Andrew Lancel will also be returning with his unrivalled depiction of the iconic Brain Epstein. They’ll be welcoming Alexander Patmore in the role of the devoted Bobby Willis.

The cast includes Alex Harford from Stockport, who plays a guitarist in Cilla’s band. Alex attended The Lowry’s Contemporary Training in Dance (CAT) scheme before going on to train at Mountview Academy Of Theatre Arts. He has appeared on Waterloo Road (BBC) and stage appearances whilst training include Lockhart (Gilbert Worthy); Into The Woods (The Steward); Urinetown (Robby the Stockfish).

Cilla The Musical’ is produced by Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, alongside Executive Producer Robert Willis.

Listings Information 
Cilla The Musical 
Date: Tue 28 August – Sat 1 September
Times: 7.30pm. Wed, Thu & Sat 2pm.
Tickets: £20 - £43.50

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

NEWS: Today we are 6 months' old!

I apologise for the rather self-congratulatory nature of this post, but am indeed extremely happy, grateful, and proud!

Number 9 is now officially the fastest growing Arts website in Greater Manchester!

With over 400 individual reviews / articles and almost 58,000 individual page views we are becoming more well known, trusted and respected as a serious and informative source of what is happening within the worlds of theatre, music and film not just in Greater Manchester, but also in Liverpool, Chester, West Yorkshire, Sheffield and Lancaster!

A massive thank you to all the venues, companies, individuals, promoters, PR agencies, producers, directors, actors, etc etc etc who have allowed us to come and cover your productions, and a big thank you also to all the reviewers who have given their time and critical analysis to review your shows.

Thank you all for a wonderful 6 months - here's to the future!! 

Matthew Dougall
Editor - Number 9.

NEWS: Mischief Theatre return to the Lowry with their latest hit A Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Following the phenomenal sell-out success of its multi award-winning comedy The Play That Goes WrongMischief Theatre's first UK tour of The Comedy About A Bank Robbery will visit The Lowry from Tue 11 - Sat 15 September.

Now booking into its third year at the Criterion Theatre in London, Mischief Theatre’s smash-and-grab hit, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, is a fast and fabulous comedy caper hailed the funniest show in the West End!

Summer 1958. Minneapolis City Bank has been entrusted with a priceless diamond. An escaped convict is dead set on pocketing the gem with the help of his screwball sidekick, trickster girlfriend… and the maintenance man. With mistaken identities, love triangles and hidden agendas, even the most reputable can’t be trusted. In a town where everyone’s a crook, who will end up bagging the jewel?

The touring cast presents: Seán Carey as ‘Sam Monaghan’, David Coomber as ‘Neil Cooper’, Julia Frith as ‘Caprice Freeboys’, George Hannigan as ‘Everyone Else’, Liam Jeavons as ‘Mitch Ruscitti’, Damian Lynch as ‘Robin Freeboys’, Killian Macardle as ‘Officer Randal Shuck’, Yolanda Ovide as ‘Ruth Monaghan’, and Jon Trenchard as ‘Warren Slax’. With Understudies: Charlotte Duffy, Tom Hopcroft, Ashley Tucker, Ross Virgo and Eddy Westbury.

Producer Kenny Wax said: “We are delighted with the cast for this UK tour of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery and we are thrilled that this production follows hard on the heels of the sold out tour of The Play That Goes Wrong. Audiences are in for another hilarious treat and we salute Mischief for having written another wonderfully funny play.”

Mischief Theatre was founded in 2008 by a group of graduates of The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).  Starting as an improvised theatre group on the London and Edinburgh fringes, they have grown into one of the UK’s leading theatre companies, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for The Play That Goes Wrong, and licensing their productions worldwide. Mischief Theatre have two shows playing concurrently in the West End: The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre - also playing on Broadway and touring the UK - and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre. In December 2016, Mischief made their television debut on the BBC with Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Olivier Award Nominee 2016), which has also enjoyed two sell-out West End seasons. Mischief returned to BBC One in 2017 with a new Christmas special, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. The company is led by Artistic Director Henry Lewis and Company Director Jonathan Sayer.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. The tour is directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. Originally directed by Mark Bell with Nancy Zamit for Mischief Theatre; Designer: David Farley; Costume Designer: Roberto Surace; Lighting Designer: David Howe; Sound Design: Jon Fiber for JollyGoodTunes; Musical Director and Arranger: Joey Hickman; Associate Musical Director: Barbara Hockaday; Resident Director: Katie-Ann McDonough. Produced by Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence, in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre presenting a Mischief Theatre Production.

Listings Information 
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery
Date: Tue 11 - Sat 15 September
Times: 7.30pm. Wed, Thu & Sat 2pm.
Tickets: £23 - £35

REVIEW: An Officer And A Gentleman - Opera House, Manchester

An Officer and a Gentleman is a film I've never seen but certainly know of. I am aware of the famous ending, when Zach finally finds his inner Gentleman and lifts Paula up into his arms. An iconic cinematic moment engraved in my subconscious. Now the film has been transformed into a musical, with the implementation of well-known 80s songs.

Zack Mayo desires to become a US Navy Pilot. However, he arrives into a boot camp too much on the cocky side, and Drill Sergeant Foley doesn’t make his time there easy for him. Zack's life takes off drastically, he falls for local girl Paula Pokrifki, and the tragic death of one of his friends unfortunately takes place. These varying life experiences guide him to realise what is important: love, friendship, and being yourself. It’s only when he realises this, he can truly earn the special titles of Officer and Gentleman.

While Gentleman is in the title, one of the musical's underlying themes looked at gender inequality. It picked apart the role of women in the Navy and examined how the women were spoken about by the men; mainly talked about like sex objects. On the contrary, the main story line had it's positive moments, where the man respected and loved the woman. Fundamentally, all this was the reason why, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" was such a sensational number. Performed with oozing passion and soul by the actresses on the factory set. The fact that the number was cut off at the end by a man telling them to get back to work, served as a reminder of the walls women still face today in the world of work. Additionally, the story rhetorically asked, what is a Gentleman? What does it mean to be masculine? At what point does masculinity become toxic?

Jonny Fines played the outgoing lead character, Zack. The changes to his character, shaped by the plotline, were clearly shown. While Fines had strong resonance in his singing voice and a great range, his tone was sometimes nasally. With James Darch, who understudied the role of Sid for that performance, his voice wasn't always loud enough. But, in act two and the number "Family Man", Darch's acting through song shined through. Similarly, Jessica Daley's vocal rendition of "Alone" was a stand-out performance. In the role of Lynette, her acting was raw and dynamic, and her vocal control was commendable. Emil Foley (Ray Shell) provided moments of humour, also drama too, especially in moments where his character was patriotic and full of spirit.

The set kind of resembled the design of the National Theatre's 2013 production of Othello. Michael Taylor's design mainly compromised of concrete walls and sliding doors. Projected onto the set were various images of locations, which provided context. The video projection design was rather lively at times, distracting us away from the action on stage. When the design was simple, it was at its best. The dramatic flashback moment, incorporating projection, was a memorable scene indeed. Tom Marshall's sound design did not slip under the radar, and provided atmospheric points in time during the show.

Upon hearing 80s music would be featured in this performance, I did wonder whether it would work. The "Rubiks cube" colourful and upbeat pop music of the 1980s put side by side with a drama about a young man training to be in the Navy; both elements seemed worlds apart from one another. Saying that, it worked. Credit to George Dyer, who orchestrated and arranged the beautiful music. Thanks to Dyer, the 80s music sounded totally different and fitted into the musical like a glove. The songs were cleverly re-contextualised to fit the story-line and themes in the musical. Overall verdict: an entertaining night out at the theatre.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
On - 13/8/18

Saturday, 11 August 2018

REVIEW: Shoot The Pianist (film) - HOME, Manchester

Tirez Sur Le Pianiste, to give the film its original title, is a 1960 French classic which defines the 'Noir' genre. Directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Charles Aznavour as the titular pianist, this was a ground-breaking film in its day, and still packs a sizeable punch today, using cinematic techniques such as long voice-overs, snap-cuts from one scene to the next, angular shots and even out-of-sequence editing of the scenes.

In order to follow this bleak melodrama you have to watch it carefully, there are no plot spoilers along the way in the film, which makes for compelling viewing.

Charlie Kohler is a piano-player in a seedy bar in the wrong part of town. He doesn't say much and keeps his head down. The waitress Lena is in love with him, but he pretends not to notice. A man running down an unlit street being chased by two hoodlums staggers into the bar and announces that the pianist is his brother. He then tells him that the hoodlums intend to kill him and, whether he likes it or not Charlie is now unwittingly an accessory.

Flashback to an earlier, happier time. Charlie Kohler is not Charlie at all, but his real name is Edouard Saroyan, an international concert pianist of some renown. His marriage is on the rocks however, and after yet another tiff his wife throws herself out of the 5th floor window killing herself almost immediately. It is Saroyan's way of forgetting that he thus reinvented himself.

We then further learn that he has a young son, and once his son is kidnapped by these two hoodlums, things start to get serious. Saroyan's family are all crooks and thieves and have fallen foul of an even fouler gang who want revenge. To add further complications to the story, he has a brawl with the bar owner over Lena, who is now his girlfriend and his boss, Plyne, doesn't like that. During the brawl he accidentally kills Plyne to save his own life, and so becomes a fugitive himself. This all ends with them hiding out in their parent's house in the alps and a shoot-out which sees Lena, the innocent in all of this, the only one to take a direct bullet hit.

Filmed in black and white, the images are stark and bleak, which superbly mirrors the mood of the film in general. Aznavour plays the part with an air of nonchalance and diffidence until it becomes too personal even for his aloofness and then we see how he really is the brother of those who operate on the wrong side of the law. Marie Dubois plays a rather sultry role at first as waitress Lena, but her aloofness withers much quicker than Aznavour's and despite her being killed at the end, the film shows the roles of the women (Lena and Clarisse) to be in many ways much stronger than the male roles. Quite avant-garde thinking for 1960 perhaps. Clarisse (Michele Mercier) is a prostitute living next door to Kohler / Saroyan, and their relationship is not only sexual but she is something like a surrogate mother for the young boy too.

They simply don't make films like this anymore, and that's a pity! Gripping, moody, and superbly acted and directed. In French with English subtitles (which were not always the best or most accurate.. but they were sufficient!)

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 10/8/18

REVIEW: Apostasy (film) - HOME, Manchester.

Writer / director Daniel Kokotajlo has brought an astounding cinematic debut to our screens. Starting slowly and keeping this pace throughout, Kokotajlo uses naturalism, realism and real-time drama to stunning effect, as there are no extraneous background music sequences, and not a second of film time is 'padding'. The film attempts to make the observer a part of the film's action, and we aren't simply bystanders but we are embroiled and complicit in the film whether we like it or not.

The film tells the story of a family of three women. Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is a single mother (we never find out what happened to the father), and is a staunch and devout Jehovah's Witness, bringing her two daughters up in the faith.  The elder daughter, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is at college and although still firmly a believer, she is exposed to so many other opposing beliefs at her college that she quite naturally starts to question. She is also holding a secret, which, once she tells her mother about, causes untold problems for her. Luisa is pregnant, the father is not a Witness, and she intends to keep the baby. This is enough for her to be 'disfellowshipped' and her mother is ordered to disassociate herself from her own daughter and only communicate when absolutely necessary, otherwise she too might face being thrown out of the church.

There is also a 'problem' with her younger daughter too. Alex (Molly Wright) was given a blood transfusion by the hospital at birth in order to save her (despite the efforts of the Elders to stop this), as Alex suffers from anaemia. Alex, religiously fervent and naive, at 18, tells the doctors that she is now old enough to decide for herself how her life shall be lived and reading a book with images and chapters about many other children who have 'died for their faith' she finally succumbs and dies a needless death refusing medical help, as her mum holds her hand.

Much has already been written about this film and how Kokotajlo's sensitive and yet damning portrayal of how three lives can be completely ruined and torn apart because of rigid and sometimes nonsensical rules of your faith. Kokotajlo himself a disfellowshipped Witness has often remarked that leaving the faith was for him a very liberating experience, and now, in this film, he has very cleverly, brought us back into the closeted and claustrophobic sect non-judgmentally. He portrays the Witness community with realism and doesn't try at any point to sway the viewer one way or the other. He simply presents the facts to us, and we, just as Ivanna at the end of the film, are left emotionally wrought, torn between her love of the community to which she belongs, her faith, her beliefs and her entire life, and something else... the unknown, the world beyond her own. We are left to make our own minds up.

The acting from all the cast is real and totally believable. Never for one second do you feel that there is anything sensationalist or over the top. It's all low-key and underplayed, but perfectly measured. Wright's portrayal of anaemic Alex, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, is captivating. She narrates the story up until her death too, and all the emotion is bottled up, her voice hardly betraying her true feelings, but her eyes give away everything. Very clever. Parkinson's role as older sister is no less astounding, allowing her emotions to overflow and embarrass the Witnesses as she shows her human and motherly side. One of her final lines saying that she doesn't blame her mother for any of this was one of the hardest for her to say, and we see this. It's a fleeting moment, but it's there, and Kokotajlo captured it. The most interesting role, their mother Ivanna shows Finneran as a woman in personal emotional turmoil. She travels from the security and knowledge that her faith is right and true and that she is doing only the best for her two children, to nagging self doubts and a state of total insecurity as the film closes. It is a truthful and astonishing piece of acting.

What makes this film even more interesting for me too is that it is a local exposé, having been filmed in Oldham using mostly local actors and those who have knowledge of Jehovah's Witnesses. Further, this is real. This disturbing insight into this religious 'cult' has been acknowledged by several Jehovah's Witnesses to be an accurate representation of their code of behaviour and lifestyle.

There is no denying it is a bleak film with little respite, and little hope; although Luisa does offer her mother a 'get out of jail' card at the end, despite her irrational attempt at kidnapping her baby daughter. The film packs a powerful punch and manages within the 95 minute running time to involve you in a truly moving story that few modern directors / films completely are able to do. This is no Hollywood 'cheese'; this is hard-hitting Northern grit and is, despite everything, a family drama, one in which religion tears the family unit apart, for ever.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 10/8/18

Friday, 10 August 2018

REVIEW: Thursday Night Live - The Frog And Bucket, Manchester.

Thursday Night Live at the Frog and Bucket can be a little bit of a lottery sometimes. Often there are some household names that perform and other times there are local comedians who have been on the circuit for many years, but the one constant is that there are always some new performers that you have perhaps never seen before and this occasion was no exception.
Our MC was Dominic Woodward, a local comedian from Ramsbottom although he is originally from Oldham. He has been in comedy since 2001 and his experience makes him the perfect host. Very quickly Woodward established himself with his cheeky persona, chatting to a young couple on the front row and complimenting the view of the girl’s low cut vest top from the stage! Most of Woodward’s material was local-based which felt like a good option given his local accent – running down his hometown of Oldham a lot and at one stage referring to it as a “horrible place where people’s only ambition is working out how to leave”.
Our first act for the evening was Phil Walker, another veteran comedian who in 2002 was voted the ‘City Life Comedian of the Year’ – an accolade that was very prestigious in its time and was won by both Peter Kay and Steve Coogan. Walker began a little slowly, appearing to struggle to make some of his material work with this audience but his experience started to show through as he moved through the gears to produce some very well received gags late in his set. With hindsight it may well be that Walker is a little too similar to Dominic Woodward and therefore he needed to dig deeper in his collection of material to get the laughs he deserved.
Next on the bill was Lindsey Davies who is a very interesting character. She has a day job as a sales representative in her home town of Leigh, a published author, a sitcom writer and of course a stand-up comedienne. The majority of Davies’ set focused on her life on the dating scene as a 41 year old single mother and the punchlines were very funny but the delivery isn’t something that she has yet managed to perfect. She clearly is very talented at writing comedy but in the world of stand-up the delivery of the jokes is as, if not more important. I hope this is something she continues to work on though as she has some very funny material.
Before getting our next comedian, our host Dominic Woodward was back on stage but this time with a whiteboard and a pen. He recounted the story of doing some drama workshops at a local school and took the opportunity to do some brilliant impressions of local Mancunian teenagers who were less than enthusiastic during those lessons. Woodward then gave us his party trick of doing “speed maths” which involved taking 2 numbers at random from the audience and creating a completed Sudoku board from scratch within 20 seconds - very impressive.
Next to the stage was Phil Pagett, a one-liner comedian who has been talked-up by the likes of Gary Delaney (of Mock the Week fame). Pagett appeared somewhat nervous when taking to the stage at the Frog and Bucket and this showed throughout his performance. He definitely has the talent to be very good and I thought the gags where he used music on his iPhone stood out, but tonight he just didn’t click with the audience.
Our headliner for the evening was Steve Shanyaski, another local comedian who has been doing the local pubs and clubs for the last 15 years or more. The way he delivered his material from the moment he arrived on stage, it was clear he had been doing this for some time. He is a larger than life character and he bounced around the stage for the next half an hour as he told stories about his life as a 40 year old bloke who is recently married and now trying to start a family. His comparison of the male role in procreation to bringing in the supermarket bags from the car was simply genius. 
Overall, I don’t think Shanyaski’s material was much better than Lindsey Davies or Phil Pagett but his delivery was infinitely better. This is what changed the audience reaction from polite chuckles to roaring belly laughs.
Thursday Night Live takes place every week at the Frog and Bucket and despite it being a bit of a lottery in terms of act, it is also brilliant value for two and a half hours of comedy in this historic venue.
Reviewer – John Fishpn  – 9/8/18

REVIEW: Wind In The Willows - Pennington Flash Country Park, Leigh.

I’d never heard of Stolen Thread Productions, so it was with some trepidation that I arrived at Pennington Flash Country Park with two children in tow aged 9 and 5, to watch their adaptation of ‘Wind in the Willows’.  As a regular visitor of the park I could see how the setting and backdrop could enhance and bring the performance to life and I was not let down.

‘Wind in the Willows’ tells the story of Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger and the friendships and adventures that they go on in the countryside. Mole wishes to meet the gregarious and lively Toad, and Ratty, somewhat unwillingly, proceeds in doing this. Being a promenade performance I really felt that I was following them on these adventures as we walked around the delightful countryside and watched the performance amidst the glorious sun setting,surrounded by the sights and smells, and sometimes passing dogs who wanted to contribute to the performance! This only added to the atmosphere and it was a total immersive piece of theatre.  

On arrival, we were greeted by some of the cast as the weasels and stouts in masks. I thought they may have slightly scared my children, but they absolutely loved them. Their Mancunian drawl and physical attributes certainly laughable. This was backed up by live music from Craig Hodgkinson playing the music of Oasis. At this point I was intrigued as this obviously wasn’t going to be the traditional telling of the tale! These characters took the audience on their adventure ad-libbing and joking and making the audience feel at ease. Then the performance began. The entrance of Ratty on his boat, rowing down a small canal was mesmerising and I suddenly felt like a child again.  The first scene set on the embankment grabbed me instantly and the actors had me hooked. Looking at the programme I queried what role the set designer Mark Blatchford had in helping to create the ‘sets’ as they were already there, but his choice of location for each scene was intelligent and impressive, from the opening scene on the embankment, to the scene at the prison, to the woods, but most spectacularly the scene between Ratty and Toad with the backdrop of the lake behind.  Each scene framed superbly.

The costumes designed by Charlotte Vinsen were inventive and interesting. Each symbolically representing the attitudes of the characters. Ratty with a nautical feel, navy, stripes and a captains hat. Mole as being very motherly in nature in browns and yellows. Badger in his black and white striped army blazer with his army medals adorned and Toad in the very traditional yellow and green suit. Every aspect of the costumes had been well thought out, even the Judges’s wig, cleverly made out of rolls of children’s colouring pads, which I loved!  Additional songs were well performed, the start of Act 2 and Toad singing a rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ was amusing, as well as the cast singing a parody of Wonderwall by Oasis, referencing Toad of Toad Hall. The added live music during the interval and the serving of drinks from a horse box all adding to the overall ambience of the evening.

The acting was excellent. The energy and camaraderie between all the actors was fantastic. Martin Green portrayed Ratty brilliantly, both physically through his use of gesture and expression to his voice. Tony Beswick as Badger depicted his authoritarian nature effortlessly and added in his own mannerisms, such as the quivering chin to define the character's age. Kevin Dewsbury captured Toad’s playfulness and bravado colourfully, his comic timing and characterisation providing great pace to the show. He used his mask to his advantage and created some great comic moments with it. I was most impressed with Susan McArdle as Mole. The choice of an actress to play this role was creative and juxtaposed well against the other characters. The motherly interpretation of the character played out well, her gait and physicality of character splendid. The moment that sealed it for me was a rambling monologue regarding her exploit to Toad Hall, which by this point had been taken over by the weasels and toads.  In this monologue she convincingly used three accents, in quick succession! From her motherly Lancashire, to Mancunian, to Somerset. Stunning! The ensemble provided some excellent characterisations, most notably Callum Jones as the scheming and conniving Clerk. The only negative I can comment upon is although the masks were aesthetically pleasing, in fact fabulous, some of them did hinder the actors vocally, which was a shame as it affected their projection and diction. If only some of he lower sections had been removed this may have helped, in particular Ratty as the actor had so many lines and had to really push his voice.

The show lasted two and a quarter hours with an interval which I felt was a little long, I think they could have edited the production down a little, particularly as there were a number of very young children in the audience.  Saying that, my two were completely engrossed and rated it 10/10.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production.  A real treat and a delight to watch.  Will Travis’s  interpretation of the play is fresh and innovative.  I just wish it was better advertised as I wouldn’t have known about it unless I was reviewing it, and I don’t live that far away!  Stolen Thread Productions are a company to watch and I wish them all the best in the future. 

Reviewer - Catherine Owen
on - 9/8/18

Thursday, 9 August 2018

REVIEW: The Princess And The Giant - Ordsall Hall Gardens, Salford.

Folksy Theatre, a company specialising in touring outdoor productions for children, visited Ordsall Hall in Salford today to present an adaptation of Caryl Hart's 'The Princess And The Giant'. Hart's story takes inspiration from other already famous fairy tales, and cleverly amalgamates the ideas into her own narrative.

A village presided over by a King and Queen are unable to get any peace, especially at night, since high above them at the top of a beanstalk lives a very noisy giant.  The Princess, a plucky young lady called Sophie, decides to take matters into her own hands, and climbs the beanstalk to ask the giant to stop making so much noise so the villagers can live in peace. First she brings him some porridge to eat (Goldilocks), and then a teddy bear for him to cuddle, and then a pillow for him to be comfy, but all to no avail. Finally, after threats of army intervention, she decides to try one last time and reads him a bedtime story. He sleeps soundly and the town is at peace. Suddenly the giant starts to bellow again and comes after Sophie. All he wants is for her to read her another story, and so she asks for a huge book to be printed so that she can teach the giant to read the stories himself. All ends happily ever after.

Folksy Theatre advertise that the production is for age 3 years and upward, and some of the dialogue, especially at the start of the show was most definitely pitched too high for the youngest audience members, but the three-strong cast did slow their speech down and speak louder as the play went along, obviously judging correctly that they were losing their audience.

The performance was acted on a small circular dais erected in the Hall's garden, and we brought our own seating and eating. The set included a large beanstalk, an even larger giant (puppeteered by one of the cast) and various musical instruments and small props. All of this worked very well indeed, and the changes were swift. What didn't work so well sadly was that no-one really bought into their clothing. I say 'clothing' since one could hardly call them costumes! The youngsters wanted to be transported to a magical mythical kingdom where Kings and Princesses wore regal fairy-tale costumes and unfortunately we were given a King wearing jeans, trainers, and a battered old jumper, whilst the princess wore a rather plain yellow dress with a pink cardigan and pink trainers. Very much a let down I'm afraid. 

The songs were good and the audience interaction and participation excellent. Very little at first building this more and more the further they went into the play and having all the audience standing and doing simple movements to the songs and cheering along by the end. The use of repetition was also excellent as the youngsters soon were able to understand the moves and the melodies. The water pistols also was a fun and well-received idea.

Vocally though the three cast were weak. Without microphones projection and enunciation are paramount, and sadly much of the dialogue was lost on the wind especially from the two actresses.

Darren Thorpe played various roles within the play, and he was the only one of the three I was able to hear consistently throughout. His Welsh soldier was a joy. Bringing in just the right amount of physical comedy for the children to laugh at. Pity it came a little too late, before this there was no comedy at all, and one young girl was frightened and screamed at the sight of the giant, despite it being presented in a child-friendly way.

Kathryn Louise played the Queen (and sometime narrator), whilst the role of the Princess Sophie was taken by Tayla Buck, the quietest of the three and even close up I was straining to hear her singing above the instrumental accompaniment.

The show lasted an hour, and amazingly the vast majority of youngsters stayed and were attentive until the end. That in itself speaks volumes. With just a little more thought about bringing the vocal volume up and making the characters a little more larger than life and funny / entertaining, this would be a first rate children's outdoor show.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 9/8/18

NEWS: cast announced for the next Hope Mill Musical, The Return Of The Soldier.





The cast has been announced for musical The Return of the Soldier which has its regional premiere at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester next month, following its critically-acclaimed London run in 2014.

The show, the fourth in-house production at the award-winning Ancoats theatre, is a musical adaptation of Rebecca West’s remarkable novella written at the end of World War One, with music by Charles Miller and a book & lyrics by Tim Sanders.

It comes to Manchester following its critically-acclaimed premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in 2014.

A five-strong cast has now been announced for The Return of the Soldier. Chris Jenkins (tick, tick…BOOM! and Billy Elliot the Musical) will play Christopher, Tessa Kadler (Pippin, Carousel) as Kitty, Marc Pickering (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Universal Pictures’ Les Misérables) as William/ Dr Anderson, Esme Sears (A Little Night Music, Parade) will play Jenny and Naomi Slights (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mamma Mia!) as Margaret.

Set in Harrow during the summer of 1916, The Return of the Soldier is an intensely bitter-sweet tale, dissecting the very different love of three women for one man. When Christopher returns from the front, shell-shocked and with memory loss, there are profound consequences for all three women and their love. In the end, only an extraordinary sacrifice will restore the fragile status quo.

Composer Charles Miller puts a unique and contemporary twist on several English music styles from the period in his evocative score. Tim Sanders’ script aims to capture West’s sardonic and contemporary humour as well as her painfully accurate insights into human folly. This exciting new musical adaptation will bring a compelling story of war to a whole new generation.

The Return of the Soldier runs from Thursday 6 September to Saturday 29 September 2018 and is the fourth of five in-house musicals in 2018 from the successful and ambitious collaboration between Joseph Houston and William Whelton, co-founders of Hope Mill Theatre and producer Katy Lipson, from Aria Entertainment, resident producer and co-Artistic director of Hope Mill theatreIt follows the five star revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, which closes this week.

Katy Lipson said: “It couldn’t feel more perfect to bring a new British chamber musical The Return of the Soldier to the beautiful Hope Mill Theatre four years after its first London workshop to coincide with the centenary of World War One. We are incredibly lucky and excited to be working with yet another wonderful group of performers to bring this powerful and emotional story to life.”
The Return of the Solder is directed by Charlotte Westenra, musical direction by Daniel Jarvis, choreography by Matthew Cole, lighting design by Aaron J Dootson, sound design by Findlay Claydon, set and costume design by Simon Anthony Wells/Leah Sams and casting by Jane Deitch.
Aspects of Love is produced by Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment, William Whelton and Joseph Houston of Hope Mill Theatre and Guy James.
Following Aspects of Love at Hope Mill Theatre is Putting it Together that runs from Wednesday 24 October to Saturday 24 November 2018

The Return of the Soldier
Thursday 6 – Saturday 29 September
Hope Mill Theatre
Tickets from £16. Visit

FACEBOOK: Hope Mill Theatre
TWITTER: @Hopemilltheatr1 @soldiermusical