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

REVIEW: Meek - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

I wasn’t completely oblivious to the themes and the story of ‘Meek’ as I had seen it advertised at the Edinburgh Festival and had read comparisons being made with the hit television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (which I have never seen). So although the comparisons were lost on me, the haunting reality of the dystopian world in which this story is set had hints of a very sinister, medieval yet modern world; one where women still have to ask permission from their husbands to leave the home but can still listen to music online. Comparisons to well-known stories do not end at The Handmaid’s Tale, as we follow the unmarried Irene who has been imprisoned for singing a song in a coffee shop and accused of deviating from the righteous path set out by the disciples of the law of their world. The parallels with the bible are so deeply wound in this story, that any sense of twist is very clear to see, very early on.

Max Jones’ design of the production was bold yet simplistic, with just one change of set during the latter part of the play, which was beautiful to see. The earlier, minimalist cell, with its concrete walls and the oversized cross overshadowing Irene’s prison bed was extremely effective. But what most impressed me about the production design was the lighting designed by Zoe Spur. From the slick transitions, representative of the passing of time, to the heavenly down lighting on the cast against the misty atmosphere, creating a sense of dystopia, everything was timed and executed with perfect precision and was so visually engaging.

The three actresses playing the roles in ‘Meek’ were fiercely talented. Despite the simplicity of their dialogue, their delivery was dynamic and the pace of their duologues were captivating. In the heated discussions, Irene argued with both her best friend and her lawyer and the overlapping dialogue which took place was mesmerising. Scarlett Brookes, in the role of Anna, Irene’s best friend, was strong yet repressed, nervous yet feisty. Amanda Wright was utterly compelling in her role as the strong-headed, stoic Gudrun, a female lawyer trying to defend Irene from the accusations being made against her.

The protagonist of the story, Irene was portrayed by Shvorne Marks, who so tactfully played with her dialogue, that the audience was made to question whether or not she was rightly accused of her crimes. A question that lingered right until the bitter end. From her opening announcement of ‘God is Dead’ to her final monologue, there wasn’t anything more this actress could have given to the part and she was a joy to watch perform.

Headlong Theatre Company are leaders in innovative theatre and ground-breaking productions (People, Places & Things, 2017 was a huge success in collaboration with the National Theatre) and so I was really excited about this production of ‘Meek’, this time in collaboration with Birmingham Rep. Despite my praise for the design and the acting prowess of the performers, I was underwhelmed by the direction by Amy Hodge. The writing by the award winning Penelope Skinner was wonderful and full of engaging dialogue in a very still setting, but it lacked something that I cannot quite put my finger on. Perhaps the physical theatre and energy of ‘People, Places & Things’ set my expectations for this production too high. I did enjoy ‘Meek’, but left feeling slightly disappointed as it did not deliver the innovation from Headlong that I have come to expect and this production left me wanting more. 

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 19/9/18

REVIEW: How You Love Me - 53Two, Manchester

Unheard Theatre, a newly formed Manchester company of young creatives wanting to bring to life stories yet untold and unheard. In their first production, How You Love Me, they perform a three-hander based on the true love story of lesbians in the repressed, male-dominated society of 1960's England.

Written by Chloe McLaughlin, the narrative suffers somewhat from the very disjointed 'television soap' style of writing. We were continually ping-ponging from A to B and back again with alarming speed. A rather alarming trend in new theatrical writing sadly is that it is taking the TV path and viewpoint that no-one is capable of watching anything in the same setting for more than 2 minutes. Moreover the very first thing to happen on stage gives away far too much of the plot, and consequently spoils the anticipation and build of the following exposition.

However, once you get over this writing style, the play is actually quite powerful. Given the youthfulness and therefore obvious lack of experience these three performers have, their acting ability and the truthfulness they gave to their roles was extremely real and natural.

It is the mid-sixties, and of course women's emancipation was still a thing of the future and the misogynistic male dominated marriages, home life, and more or less everything. A woman's place was in the home to look after her husband and make sure he was kept well fed and content. A man's job was to go out to work to provide for his family. It was all very simplistic and 'neat'. And so when, seven years ago, Marie (Josie Connor) is forced into wedlock at 18 due to her pregnancy, and her husband-to-be Ernie (Daniel Allen) does the decent thing, they live a life of 'married bliss' until Marie starts to ask for a little more freedom to do things she wants to do. She misses work, she misses leaving the house, and finally her husband relents and allows her to go to a keep-fit class. It is there that she meets the instructress of the class, the chocolate eclaire-eating hard-core lesbian Liz (Sam Murphy), and her love and her life change forever.   

The play does suffer a little from being somewhat drawn out and lengthy. I also thought that the play ended twice before it actually did, but the final ending actually was a lovely idea fast-forwarding to 2005. Olivia Neilsen's directing concentrates more on character and character development than finding solutions for very awkward entrances, exits and  overlong scene changes, but the work she did paid dividends, as the characters were real, believable, and excellently drawn. Connor, Allen and Murphy made an excellent threesome and the standing ovation at the end was indeed deserved.

A story of forbidden lesbian love told with sincerity. An impressive debut!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/9/18

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

REVIEW: Little Women - The Brindley Theatre, Runcorn

Little Women, first written in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, has had many adaptations over the years making it one of our timeless classics.

The play by Emma Reeves opened up in the beautiful Brindley Theatre in Runcorn by the talented Centenary Theatre Company telling the story of the four March sisters growing up during the American Civil War, their father a pastor is away with union troops and their mother or ‘Marmee’ as they call her must do her best with very little money.

The staging was simplistic but very effective as the actors utilised the space well throughout their storytelling, credit to the set design by Mike Hall and Dan Grimes.

Although the story is set in the nineteenth century the basic factors are timeless with siblings growing up together all with their own characteristics and personalities that not only compliment each other but at times clash as sisters so often do. Also in the core of every family there is a loving and doting mother who would do anything for her children with her unconditional love.

Meg March was played by Ria Hall the eldest of the sisters is sweet natured, dutiful, calming and feminine. Whilst Jo March, played by Robyn Murphy, the second oldest is a tomboy, hotheaded, blunt and most definitely unladylike in her behaviour and cursing.
Beth, played by Rachael Benfield, is shy, generous, kind and a musically gifted young woman. Beth is the key to this family as she is the most vulnerable and innocent spirit who gels the girls together with her captivating character. Amy, played by Maria Ames, is the baby of the family and fits the stereotype of the spoilt youngest child, she is very egocentric, vain and looks only to her own gains in life.

Of course with any group of young girls growing up comes love, sadness and troubles ahead until the passage of time where we find our place in this world and become the adults we are destined to be.

In this production there were some strong performers during this very difficult script, so all credit to the Director Dan Grimes who cast brilliantly the 14 characters involved in this play.
It’s clear the cast have worked extremely hard on their accents and their interpretation of the characters they were cast in. Some minor hiccoughs when a character forgot her lines but this is forgivable in such a busy and wordy play on the first night.

The costumes were outstanding in this production; total credit to the wardrobe department as they were perfectly authentic for the era.

Standout performances for me personally was Sara Worton as Mrs March who captured perfectly the essence of a caring, loyal, loving and beautiful mother and Kit Phillips who played Laurie Laurence who delivered a magnificent interpretation of the loyal and love-struck friend and neighbour.

Little Women isn’t the easiest play to deliver to a modern audience but Dan Grimes and his team have done themselves proud in their 2018 production of a nineteenth-century story.
Well done to all involved, Little Women runs until the 22nd of September at the Brindley Theatre Runcorn.

Reviewer - Victoria Wilmot
on - 18/9/18        

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

NEWS: The RSC's MATILDA finally arrives in Manchester!

The widely-anticipated Matilda The Musical has finally arrived in Manchester for an incredible 11-week run at the Palace Theatre and to mark the occasion, Scarlett Cecil who is one of the four young actresses sharing the title role, popped down to Manchester Central Library to strike the iconic Matilda pose in front of the landmark city-centre building. Matilda The Musical’s first show in the city will be tonightTuesday 18th September.

Sophia AllyAnnalise Bradbury, Scarlett Cecil and Nicola Turner will share the title role of Matilda in Manchester. The adult cast includes Craige Els who, having played Miss Trunchbull in the West End for three years from 2014 to 2017, has returned to the role for the UK and Ireland tour. Carly Thoms plays Miss Honey alongside Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill as Mr and Mrs Wormwood.
The full adult cast includes Joe AtkinsonRichard Astbury, Nina Bell, Peter Bindloss, Oliver Bingham, Emily Bull, Samara Casteallo, Matthew Caputo, Craige Els, Matt Gillett, Michelle Chantelle Hopewell, Sam Lathwood, Katie Lee, Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Charlie Martin, Rachel Moran, Anu OgunmefunCarly Thoms, Rebecca ThornhillSebastien Torkia,Adam Vaughan and Dawn Williams.

The full child cast who play the roles of Bruce, Lavender, Amanda and the rest of the pupils at Crunchem Hall are Evie Allen, Louella Asante-Owusu, Joseph Black, Georgia Mae Brown, Isobelle Chalmers, Jessica Chalmers, Oliver Crouch, Madeline Gilby, Sheldon Golding, Dylan HughesCuba Kamanu, Tom Lomas, Adam Lord, Maddison Lowe, Ilan Miller, Felicity Mitson, Toby Mocrei, Ashton Murphy, Joely Robertson, Ruaridh Sinnott, Kit Swaddling, Chantelle Tonolete Harry Wilson and Harrison Wilding.

Matilda The Musical has now been seen by 8 million people worldwide, having toured to over 65 cities and played more than 6000 performances in the West End, on Broadway and on tour across North America, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Matilda The Musical now has its first non-English language production at the LG Arts Centre in Seoul, South Korea which opened earlier this month.

Winner of over 85 international awards, including 16 for Best Musical, Matilda The Musical opened at Leicester Curve in March 2018 to rave reviews. The tour will play at Manchester Palace until 24 November before playing at Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre (4 December – 12 January 2019), Theatre Royal Plymouth (15 January – 16 February 2019), the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (19 February – 23 March 2019), Edinburgh Playhouse (2 – 27 April 2019), The Bristol Hippodrome (7 May – 8 June 2019), Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (11 June – 6 July 2019) and Norwich Theatre Royal (16 July – 17 August 2019).  

The West End production will continue to play at the Cambridge Theatre, where it is now in its seventh year and is booking until 20 October 2019.

Matilda The Musical is written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and direction by Matthew Warchus. The production is designed by Rob Howell, with choreography by Peter Darling, orchestrations, additional music and musical supervision by Christopher Nightingale, lighting by Hugh Vanstone, sound by Simon Baker and the special effects and illusions are by Paul Kieve.

Inspired by the incomparable Roald Dahl’s beloved book, Matilda The Musical was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered at the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon home in November 2010, before transferring to London’s West End in October 2011, where it opened to rave reviews. The New York production of Matilda The Musical opened in April 2013 at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre and was celebrated on 10 “Top Ten” lists for 2013, including TIME Magazine’s #1 Show of the Year.

Matilda The Musical swept the board at the 2012 Olivier Awards, with a record-breaking seven awards, and won four Tony Awards and a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theater for the four girls sharing the title role on Broadway.

The North America production toured 52 cities. The Australian and New Zealand production won a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Musical in 2015, and played sold-out seasons in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Auckland. The show broke further records in July 2016 by winning all 13 Helpmann Awards for which it was nominated.

Matilda The Musical is produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company with André Ptaszynski and Denise Wood as Executive Producers. The production was developed with the support of Jeanie O’Hare and the RSC Literary Department.

REVIEW: Blood Brothers - The Charter Theatre, Preston.

Blood Brothers, both as a stage play and a musical, has become firmly embedded in popular British theatre, a favourite of theatre goers, students and scholars alike - and, as the opening show in Preston this evening proved, for a good reason.

The musical follows Mrs Johnstone (Linzi Hateley), a struggling mother living in Liverpool in the early 1960s. Faced with unruly children, an absentee husband and two more babies on the way, she is forced to make a difficult decision when her wealthy boss, Mrs Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley), who offers to take one of the children and raise it as her own - giving them a life that Mrs Johnstone would never be able to provide. The deal is made, and the boys, Mickey and Eddie (played by Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson respectively), are separated as babies - only to find their paths crossing again and again, almost as though fate (or perhaps something stronger) wills them together.

Whilst both the music and book for the show are excellent in their own right, praise is well deserved upon all members of the cast, from the leading roles to the multi-rolling ensemble who came together to present a truly heartfelt, engaging performance. Hateley portrayed her role with charm and passion, making for a strangely endearing Mrs Johnstone. She was nicely mirrored by Buckley, who portrayed Mrs Lyons in a way I have not seen before - whilst the role typically has ‘antagonist’ written all over it, Mrs Lyons here was not so much cruel as she was paranoid, making for a much more sympathetic character.

Jones and Hutchinson are no strangers to the Blood Brothers stage, having each played their respective roles multiple times. This experience allows them to truly demonstrate the depth of their skill and understanding of their characters. Nobody knows Mickey and Eddie more than these performers. Their chemistry is undeniable as they flit from excited 7 (nearly eight) year olds, to boisterous teenagers to distanced adults. Special mention must be given to Jones, whose portrayal of the adult Mickey is truly harrowing to watch.

Danielle Corlass, in the role of Linda, again demonstrates the power that comes with knowing the role inside and out, moving from the excitable Linda as a child to an adult who has known hardship with ease and comfort. Blood Brothers, however, relies just as much on the strength as the ensemble as it does on the leading roles and the casting here was superb. The ensemble, particularly in the childhood scenes, were full of energy, making the performance as exciting as it was comedic and as a member of the audience, it was clear that they were all enjoying what they were doing.

I struggled to find anything wrong with the performance and, aside from a few technical blips, the reason for this is that there wasn't anything wrong with it to begin with. Blood Brothers at Charter Theatre, Preston, is a fresh, engaging and dynamic production, one which I would definitely recommend seeing.

Reviewer - Abbie Grundy
on - 17/9/18

REVIEW: OutStageUs - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Tonight was a vibrant and celebratory evening of new writing for / by the LGBTQ+ community. Through a variety of mediums including: short plays, monologues, spoken word, film, and dance -  Hope Theatre Company promoted their ethos of diversity and equality.

This important evening allowed for a range of writer's voices to be heard and a plethora of themes and topics to be deconstructed, leading to the overall success of the evening. Each showing brought new ideas to consider and elicited a different response from the audience. Events like this are vital in trying to reflect Manchester's rich LGBTQ+ community and make the world a safer and better place.

I will now write about a few programme works that stood out.

Kings of Idle Land by Connor Hunt was about two school friends hanging out at a park, one afternoon. One friend accepted he was gay, the other did not. This was about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, and he learnt that accepting and loving himself was essential. To quote the play, "You are you, and you don't need to apologise for that."

The Verbatim monologues, performed throughout the evening, were written utilising the words of real people. Without question, it was a strong directorial choice to incorporate this into the evening: making it all the more real and resonating.

His Hands, a short film by Little Deer Films was intriguing and captivating. Due to the metaphorical nature of the film, it could have been about a lot of things, but I liked that because each person would have had a slightly different interpretation. The film was about an elderly man and a young man, who may or may not have been a younger version of himself. The young men appeared determined to ruin the life of the elderly man. Perhaps, it was about confronting your inner demons or a homophobia related hate crime. The sound design was fantastic, every slam of a door to the movement of a cup on a saucer was intense and impactful. You could also read the film to be about inner dark sexual energy or male dominance and aggression; the notion that pain is pleasure. The ambiguity of the film made it completely engrossing. The eerily evocative imagery made the film memorable. Visually poetic.

Keaton Lansley gave an engaging performance in a monologue called Convert. It was from the perspective of someone who didn't like gay people but then changed his mind. This mini-performance explored the influence of a religious upbringing and what is stereotypically masculine.

MJ Manning not only danced but acted well  too in, I Know Why The Gay Man Dances. This was the title and main focus point for the dance. While the spoken word that played alongside the dance was inspiring and well structured, I can't help feel it wasn't needed. For the most part, it felt like the monologue was there to justify what the dance was about. I think you could have got the story from the dance itself. There were themes of personal restriction and release: seen in the twisted and contorted movements and the more open and fluid gestures. The beautifully subtle lighting design (at times cold and claustrophobic, other times warm and tender) enhanced the quality of Manning's movement and shaping. It was a feel good, self-expressive dance piece. 

One more thing to quickly note, Sue McCormick's one liners in the comedy, There's Something I Need To Say, were a total knockout. An thoroughly hilarious actress.

While some actors were stronger than others, and a couple of show pieces felt like their story was not complete, it was a good evening of theatre advocating a wonderful cause. I hope it will continue in the future. The diverse programme of works were very well put together. It was just as much a celebration of the arts as it was of people.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
On - 17/9/18

INTERVIEW: Holly Williams chats to Bryony Lavery about 'The Lovely Bones'

As the world premiere of Bryony Lavery's adaptation of The Lovely Bones heads for Liverpool at the end of this month, here we share a syndicated interview by Holly Williams.

The Lovely Bones comes to The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool 25 September - 5 October.

“Your characters never really go away – of course you feel a fondness towards them.” Novelist Alice Sebold has recently had reason to revisit the characters of The Lovely Bones, her 2002 globally best-selling novel about a young girl, Susie Salmon, who watches her family from heaven after she’s raped and murdered by a serial killer.
For those who’ve never encountered the novel, it might sound like grim reading. In fact, The Lovely Bones found a huge audience due to its tenderly drawn portrait of a family coming to terms with grief. Millions of readers felt a fondness of their own for Susie and the Salmon family.
Now, they’re coming to life onstage. Bryony Lavery has adapted the novel, for the first theatrical version of The Lovely Bones anywhere in the world.
What was her initial reaction to being asked to turn this smash hit book into a stage play?
“I think it was ‘yikes!’” laughs Lavery. “It’s not a straight narrative – it’s like loads of paths through a rather beautiful and disturbing forest. Which doesn’t make it easy to adapt at all…”
Still, the playwright is no stranger to crafting stage versions of classic novels, from Brighton Rock to A Christmas Carol to 101 Dalmatians – and she’d add The Lovely Bones to their rank. “It is a classic. It always brings us comfort, because of its strength and its honesty and its toughness, actually.”
But what did the American writer think of her novel being turned into a play?
“I liked the idea – I think there are things you can do onstage that you can’t do in any other medium,” says Sebold. She’s been reading drafts and offering feedback, but she’s happy to cede control of the material. “I just trust the people who are performing it and directing it – they know what happens to words when you put them on stage, and I don’t.”
Plus, part of the appeal was that Sebold couldn’t imagine quite how the story, which moves seamlessly between heaven and earth, could actually be realised on stage.
“For me, it’s going to be amazing to see: how do they have different levels, heaven and earth, and the various places that are in the novel? How do they make it real, but not too real? That’s one of the reasons why I think theatre can be fascinating: there are lots of imaginative recesses for the audience to fill.”
The process of adaptation is something Lavery gets great satisfaction from – partly because of the need to solve these challenges. “I love it. I get to be the junior writer to great writers. But the main thrill is to make it a theatrical-shaped piece of work rather than a novel, and each one has different problems and different joys.”
Lavery’s initial idea for staging this story was to have very defined heaven and earth spaces on different physical levels. But after workshops with actors and the show’s director, Melly Still, they discovered that heaven could be everywhere – because “that’s the magic of theatre.”
“The most wonderful thing about it is our Susie wanders through her family [on earth], but of course they can’t see her,” explains Lavery. “So one feels incredible empathy with her, because she’s this child that’s being ignored.”
This adds a degree of poignancy – but also, a degree of humour. This Susie has a very familiar teenage stroppy exasperation with her situation in the afterlife, and at her family not listening to her.
“That yields a lot of comedy and texture, because she’s so furious about it; she’s a wonderful pouty teenager at times,” Lavery says. And she adds that laughter is really necessary in this often dark story.
“You can’t hold your breath for two hours; you need to open a steam valve and let something out.”
Working on dark material can be harrowing – but the process here has, in fact, proved to be really rather good fun. Because of this, Sebold has ended up being rather more involved in the production than she had expected.
Speaking warmly of pinging emails back and forth across the Atlantic with Lavery, she says; “One of my favourite words is ‘moxie’, and she seems to have quite a bit of it…”
For Lavery, it’s not so common to be adapting material where the original writer is still with us. But working with Sebold has been wonderful, she says. “I was quite daunted at first, because Dickens and Graham Green and people don’t send notes…  but a writer’s notes to another writer are always thrilling and challenging.”
Is she looking forward to Sebold seeing it? “Of course – because she sounds fun. But I’ll be as nervous as anything.”
How does it feel for Sebold, handing over her much-loved characters to someone else?
“There are some authors who like a sense of control where those things are concerned, but I really enjoy seeing what other people do with my stuff,” she says sanguinely.
Still, in revisiting The Lovely Bones Sebold must also revisit a very real trauma of her own. In 1981, when she was a student, she was raped and beaten while walking home one evening.
The novel is certainly not about her, but the attack was a spur.
“When people say ‘it’s autobiographical’ the first thing I say is ‘but I’m not dead’,” she comments dryly. And while she acknowledges that, without that experience, she might not have written The Lovely Bones, she says that her true inspiration was “all of those girls who never had a voice because they died, unlike myself.”
She recalls how, in the Seventies – when the story is set – there seemed to be “so many serial killers”, and so many young female victims. “And we were fascinated by serial killers like Ted Bundy, but we didn’t really know anything about the women he killed. I was very aware of this voiceless mass of women – that was pretty much the inspiration for me,” she says.
Sexual violence is certainly not something we’ve done away in the intervening decades. But The Lovely Bones has also proved a timeless story, and one worth revisiting for altogether more hopeful reasons.
There is something comforting in the balanced structure of the story: not only do the family on earth slowly come to some acceptance of their grief – a process anyone who’s lost anyone will recognise - but in heaven, too, Susie must go on the same journey of letting go.
“It’s not about murder; it’s about redemption,” agrees Lavery. “’The lovely bones’ refers to the lovely new bones that grow around this reconfigured family. It’s a tough book – it doesn’t do ‘oh the murderer’s going to get caught and everybody’s going to be happy’ – but it's about reconstruction after terrible disasters.
“And it’s about family – even if one of them is in heaven.”
Sebold still often hears from readers that the book provided solace when trying to come to terms with a death in the family, even if in very different circumstances.
“That was a wonderfully unexpected result of writing the book,” she says. “It’s like a play being written: you just can't predict where your work is going to go.”

                                     Bryony Lavery

Alice Sebold