Sunday, 18 November 2018

REPORTAGE: An Hour With Michael Parkinson - The Lowther Pavilion, Lytham St. Anne's.

Sir Michael Parkinson CBE is probably the most famous and beloved of British chat show hosts. This tour is dedicated to promote a book, 'George Best, A Memoir'. It’s a fantastic opportunity to not only spend some time with a legend but to hear his perspective on probably one of the most talented yet troubled footballers of our time. 

Now at 83 years old it is still a pleasure to hear the voice and enjoy the keenness of the mind shown by the ex -chat show host. The format is Parkinson being interviewed by his own son Michael jnr. and this works well, there is clearly a warmth between them and a joint love of the subject matter, George Best. 

A lifelong Manchester United fan, Parkinson talks with authority of how Sir Matt Busby had always searched for one person to lead his team to success. Having been robbed of Duncan Edwards so tragically because of the Munich air disaster, the arrival of Best allowed Busby to fulfil his dream of wining the European Cup in 1968. Interspersed with conversation and family anecdotes, there is footage of not only George Best, but other famous Manchester United Legends, Sir Matt Busby, Bobby Charlton and most poignantly footage of Best alongside David Beckham on the Parkinson Show. The interview with Beckham is particularly significant. These days’ footballing superstars are shielded by an array of agents and security guards, however this was not the case for Best. In 1963 this shy lad left home in Belfast and arrived in Manchester right into the maelstrom of the swinging 60’s. Receiving five thousand fan mail letters a week, Bests only shield was the landlady of the digs he lived in in Manchester and an agent based in Huddersfield. Clearly there is a deep respect, love and sense of loss between Parkinson and Best. From his arrival at Manchester United as a 17 year old boy, there was a bond between Best and Parkinson, who was working at Granada Television at the time, that continued for all the years of Best’s life. 

Speaking honestly Parkinson reveals how he has written this memoir as a way of saying goodbye to his lifelong friend. At the time of Best’s death, Parkinson was living in Australia, so didn’t get to formally say goodbye. The honesty continues when Parkinson reveals that he too suffered a drinking problem, and so ultimately felt unable to help his friend as he was suffering from dependency on alcohol. There is something here for everyone, love Parkinson, love football, love Manchester United and the realisation that even with the greatest footballing talent, in life we are all just human, and sometimes our weaknesses prevent the full realisation of our potential.

Reportage - Jen O'Bierne
on - 15/11/18

Saturday, 17 November 2018

REVIEW: Gals Aloud: Not The Tucking Kind - Cruz 101, Manchester.

Gals Aloud, the ultimate drag tribute to the girl band Girls Aloud consisting of Nadine, Cheryl, Kimberley, Nicola and Sarah like you’ve never seen them before came to one of Manchester’s favourite gay club Cruz 101 for one night only, with their new show, Not The Tucking Kind.

The talented cast of Gals Aloud are made up of London drag queens Cheryl Hole as Cheryl, Kitty Scott Claus as Kimberley, Margo Marshall as Sarah, Herr as Nadine, Ophelia Love as Nicola and Trayce as Javine. Managed by Christopher D Clegg, who founded Tuckshop (the UK’s first drag management and production company) originally from Preston Chris announced “I’m beyond thrilled to bring the Gals to Manchester”.

The Gals graced the stage to be greeted by a packed audience in the buzzing night club of Cruz 101, wearing stunning black leotards with sexy black boots and looking larger than life and absolutely stunning as they lip-synced to a classic Girls Aloud song followed quickly by the infamous ‘Sound Of The Underground’ that had everyone dancing and singing along.

The Gals took you through the talent show ‘Popstars’ where the original girl band was formed with an hilarious delivery of Javine who missed out on a place in the group singing ‘It Should Have Been Me’!. Each Gal gave stunning solos; Margo Marshall as Sarah fabulously interacted with her hungry audience whilst Cheryl Hole gave renditions of ‘Call My Name’ and ‘Fight For This Love’ much to the audiences delight. Herr as Nadine hilariously took you through the whole debate on her date of birth declaration during Popstars due to her being only 16 and the minimum age requirement was in-fact 18 followed by Kitty Scott Claus as Kimberley coming on stage dressed as Princess Fiona from 'Shrek: The Musical' the role she played in the West End in 2011 and graced us with her unique version of ‘Love Machine’. The Gals closed the first act dressed in dazzling orange and black outfits with their routine to ‘Biology’ Girls Aloud's 2005 hit.

After a 20 minute break the second half commenced and the Gals took you through another set of hits from Girls Aloud including TV appearances, career changes and Musical Theatre roles that they have done throughout the years. The highlight of the evening for me personally was Margo Marshall’s rendition of Fanny Brice in the Funny Girl Musical's soundtrack of ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’.

The whole evening was packed with razzle dazzle, glitz and glamour making it a perfect night of entertainment, if you want to see a drag show this is the one to see as it has you belly-laughing, up on your feet and singing along to the fabulous familiar tunes.

Verdict: A great night had by all and a must see.

Reviewer -Katie Leicester
on - 16/11/18

REVIEW: Pierrot Lunaire - The RNCM, Manchester.

Arnold Schoenberg’s melodrama (in the truest sense of being a ‘play with music’) Pierrot Lunaire is, at 106 years old, just as disturbing and radical as it was when Schoenberg wrote it. A cycle of twenty-one songs, in three groups of seven, Pierre Lunaire marries a selection of poems from the collection of the same name written by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud to short, abrasive, atonal pieces of music written by Schoenberg. Pierrot Lunaire occupies liminal spaces in terms of its form (theatrically, the work doesn’t fit the mould of a traditional concert performance but neither does it fit in with a grander theatrical staging of an opera and the vocal performance style is ‘Sprechstimme’ -a halfway place between singing and speech) and content (the setting of the piece is a nightmarish night-time hinterland between sleep and wakefulness or sanity and insanity). The presentation of Pierrot Lunaire by the Manchester Collective at the Royal Northern College of Music made for a striking night of uneasy listening (in the best possible sense of the term).

The presentation was a night of two halves: the first half was an exploration of the background and themes of Pierrot Lunaire, akin to a behind the scenes documentary on a DVD release, presented by BBC Radio 6 broadcaster Elizabeth Alker who guided the audience back to Vienna in 1912 and the state of the world in which Schoenberg lived in at the time of composing (which sounded similar to the state of the UK in 2018; plus ca change) and, through discussion with director Emma Doherty and conductor Tim Burke, examined the piece’s themes of darkness, violence, and mental fragility, and the musical atonality for which Schoenberg became known and which provided a musical counterpoint to the thematic concerns. Doherty talked the audience through the artistic decisions she had made regarding the performance of the piece – it is written for a solo singer (with Lotte Betts-Dean taking on the Sprechstimme duties for the Manchester Collective) but the poems presented numerous characters, including an ‘anaemic washerwoman’, Columbina, and the eponymous Pierrot (a character-type from commedia dell’arte, famed for being the ‘sad clown’) and that Doherty had chosen to present the various characters as the different personalities of the song cycle’s narrator – here called ‘Character A’ – who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Burke touched upon Schoenberg’s composition of the music and how it reflected the growing exploration of the unconscious which was emerging at the beginning of the 20th century with the growing influence of Freud’s establishment of modern psychoanalysis and tied into the text’s concerns with desire and mental fragility. In between the discussions, the ensemble of piano, violin/viola, cello, flute, and clarinets performed brief excerpts of music from the song cycle to present how Schoenberg used radical (for the time) atonality to echo the chaos of the text but still structured his music around counterpoints and motifs to give audiences something familiar to latch on to. The discussion was informative and was ably guided by Alker and was useful for preparing the audience for what was to come; were the audience to have been thrown in at the deep end of the full performance it may have proved to have been too overwhelming.

After a brief interval, it was time for the full performance of Pierrot Lunaire. The set was minimal, with a double bed occupying centre stage, above it was a light with a white spherical lightshade around it, clearly intended to represent the moon, the celestial object which holds sway over the despondent Pierrot, nursing unrequited love for Columbia. Around the bed, the ensemble was arranged, a piano positioned stage right, the violin positioned next to it, stage left was where the cello, flutes, and clarinets were. Betts-Dean took her place in the bed before the ensemble and Burke emerged onto the stage, leafing through a book, looking like someone struggling to settle down and go to sleep. As the frantic opening piano lines of the first song, ‘Moondrunk’ began, Betts-Dean intoned of “The wine you drink in through your eyes…” and it was soon apparent that the poetic imagery, made understandable through an English translation by David Poutney, was a heady mix of Symbolism and proto-Surrealism. Throughout the performance, Betts-Dean’s Sprechstimme performance clearly defined the piece’s protagonist as someone who was on the edge – on the edge of that subconscious realm between sleep and wakefulness, on the edge of sanity itself – and her performance was made all the more remarkable by her direct stares out to the audience, hardly blinking; the way she clambered over and around the bed and frame, full of restless energy; and how she was able to change her tone and intonation depending on which character was speaking: her anaemic washerwoman genuinely sounded weary. The lighting was superb as well, with the light above the bed changing colour as the piece progressed: as Pierrot sung-spoke of ‘red rubies’ the lighting shifted from white to ruby red and would change to blue as depression and despair took hold of the protagonist towards the end of the second, bleaker part of the song cycle’s triptych. Musically, the ensemble were tight and played with passion: special mention should go to violinist and viola player Rakhi Singh doing incredible work with the tension-filled string screeches as madness enveloped Pierrot and pianist Chad Vindin carried much of the piece (it is highly dependent on the piano) with flourishes of frantic, discordant musical lines shooting through each of the twenty-one songs, each one providing a short, sharp shock. The text’s violent imagery, speaking of “lacerated arms” and “swarms of black insects” blotting out the sun, mirrored the turbulent waves of atonality in the music; listeners familiar with the later works of singer Scott Walker, in particular his bleak, brutal 2006 album The Drift, would find common musical and vocal bedfellows within Schoenberg’s work, a fact which attests to the composition’s modernity.

The Manchester Collective should be proud of what was an informative and provocative performance. While Pierrot Lunaire is a highly distressing, disturbing marriage of intense music and haunting poetry, there is something strangely comforting about it. While one cannot help but wonder if the piece would have worked better had it been presented in its original German (given the more aggressive tones of the Germanic language, the poems would have sounded even more unsettling), this presentation of Schoenberg’s work is full-bloodied and, in these turbulent times of Brexit and Trump, is perhaps the ultimate soundtrack to the world of 2018.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden 
on - 16/11/18

REVIEW: Fool Proof - The Theatre, Students' Union Building, Manchester.

Manchester Musical Revue (MMR for short!), an offshoot of The University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society (UMMTS) performed their self-written comedy revue 'Fool Proof' at the newly refurbished Council Chambers in the Manchester Students' Union building on Oxford Road, which has now been upgraded to and renamed unimaginatively, 'Theatre'!

However that was the only thing which was unimaginative about this evening. During this hour-long non-stop cabaret revue we were introduced to 7 arch villains, who sit around a table playing cards and boasting about their exploits, whilst a further villain acts as an MC to introduce them all to us one by one. They are bored of waiting for orders and want to go out and start murdering people - or whatever it is they do for kicks! When their two inept and drunken agents do finally arrive back, it's totally unclear whose side they are on and who is working for who, and so it's payback time and the comedy ending is totally justified.

Yes it's not much of a plot-line, I'll grant you - but that wasn't the aim of the show. What this flimsy storyline did do however was knit the well-chosen songs together and give reign to these 8 talented performers to unleash their inhibitions and become almost caricatures of cartoon-style evil-doers. I say 'almost' because they never did become completely mono-dimensional thankfully. All of them knew exactly how far they could push their silliness before it became a cardboard cut-out. All were fantastic, and managed to be rounded characters despite the silliness of the premise, and it was a wonderfully entertaining and rather camp, but tastefully so, show. Director James Ward-Mallinson obviously knew his cast well and could trust them with these OTT characters, which all worked excellently with each other.

Each of the 8 villains was given a solo song, as I said, all excellently chosen, showcasing their voices superbly. Starting with the MC singing about villains, to an ensemble piece from 'Beauty And The Beast', 'Kill The Beast' - excellently executed (pun intended!), through 'Broadway Baby', 'T-T-T-Touch Me', 'I Am The Greatest Star', an hilarious re-working of 'Edelweiss', to the incredible rendition of 'Being Alive'.  I think my favourite song of the evening though came from again, a slight bastardising of the original, so instead of 'Suddenly Seymour' from 'Little Shop Of Horrors' it became a gay love duet between the two most unlikely of the 8 to find happiness together!

The pace was slick, the idea fun, the costumes ridiculous (in a positive sense of the word), and the mood high. Not only that but there was a live 12-piece band - yes, that's right TWELVE piece band! And under Daniele Anderle's direction they sounded utterly superb - I could easily have listened to them playing big band and show tunes all night!

The one thing that did let the side down just a little was the lighting. There were times when cast were semi or unlit - [Broadway Baby number and the band assassin especially], but at other times too, the lighting could have been a little more focused. I liked the idea of the 'James Bond' opening sequence circle of light on the back wall.. but that idea was never developed sadly... no James Bond music was played and n-one made anything of it, and so it seemed unnecessary.

Thank you Esme Wade, Harry Newman-Walley, Megan Shone, Carol-Ann McConnellogue, Flo Crompton, Kiera Battersby, Hugh Summers, and Scarlett Gorman for putting a huge smile on my face and sending me home humming songs and thinking silly things!! I can't wait to come back to see Chicago in December!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/11/18

Friday, 16 November 2018

REVIEW: The Merry Widow - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

This season for Opera North revolves around the theme of “Before War, and After” to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War. The Merry Widow was first performed back in 1905 and is one of the most popular of the operettas composed by Franz Lehár and based on Leo Stein’s French book L’Attaché d’Ambassade.

The story revolves around the extremely wealthy and newly widowed Hanna Glawari (Katie Bird) who had married only a week before her extremely wealthy husband died. All of the money now controlled by Hanna was invested in Pontevedrian, a very small Balkan country with very little means of survival without this. Baron Mirko Zeta (Geoffrey Dolton) is the Ambassador of Pontevedro and fears that if she remarries this will immediately mean her new husband is in full control of her finances. With this in mind he attempts to find a more suitable candidate in his godson, Count Danilo Danilovitch (Quirijn de Lang) who is a drunken womanising bachelor who spends most of his time at the infamous Maxim’s in Paris – he is the standout performer in this production.

The plot predictably unfolds over the course of the evening with many of the characters having complicated relationships both past and present with others who are now potential suitors for Hanna, albeit with motives on the money. Danilo remains a distant character initially, although we soon realised that he was previously engaged to Hanna and this could only end up going his way later in the script.

This is my first encounter of The Merry Widow and although I had done some research on the plot I was not expecting the level of slapstick comedy and almost show tune numbers that were in evidence throughout. The plot was light to say the least and none of the characters were particularly memorable but I don’t think this is unusual in an operetta.

The whole production is conducted in English which made the subtitles on the screens on either side of the stage a little unnecessary for me – I found them a little distracting if anything given that it wasn’t hard to follow the dialogue on stage. I can very much understand the use of screens where opera is being sung in a different language but not for tonight’s performance.

Having said all of that, you can’t help but be impressed by the wonderful staging by Leslie Travers. The set was breath-taking, from the moment the curtain was raised to reveal the ballroom scene, to the recreation of Maxim’s in the third act – simply stunning. The period costumes too were extravagant and imposing, not just the lavish ball gowns but the attention to detail with jewellery made it so visually pleasing. The military costumes were just as glamorous and again the attention to detail was notable.

The story continues to unfold to a predicable but nevertheless satisfactory ending, but not before we navigate through illicit affairs, secret liaisons and mistaken identities. The cast do a very good job in keeping the entertainment factor high but special mention has to go to Quirijn de Lang who was stood out with his impeccable comic timing and mannerisms that John Cleese would be proud of. It was well worth seeing this production just for him.

I think many hard-core opera fan may have been disappointed with The Merry Widow but if you simply look at this production as a piece of theatre and entertainment then you would have enjoyed it just as much as I did. It is operetta, a genre that sits much closer to Musical Theatre and therefore is meant to be one dimensional and inconsequential which is exactly what Opera North’s production was.

Reviewer – John Fish
on – 15/11/18

REVIEW: Closer - Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool.

Patrick Marber’s much performed drama ‘Closer’ is a sensible choice for the first in-house production of The Hope Street Theatre, ‘the first in a series of thrilling revivals’. ‘Closer’ has been around for over twenty years, winning the 1998 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for Best New Play of 1997 and named as Best Comedy of The Year at the 1997 Evening Standard Drama awards. Comedy may not be the most obvious category for this very British, four-hander play about love, sex and betrayal and was certainly not the focus of this production, but it was not without humour. The elegant styling offers a minimalist set with three broad white vertical stripes that drop from the ceiling and run along the floor. Intermittent images of London landmarks and venues are effectively projected onto the stripes, as are months of the year to reflect the passage of time of around three years. Costume and background music set the production firmly in the dying days of 90s Thatcherite Britain where ‘yuppies’ counted their money, mobile phones the size of bricks were reduced to tiny devices and internet was accessed on desktop computers. There is a restlessness to the characters that reflects the age and the cast capture this well. Low square black stools provide movable furniture arrangements. Only three rows back my sight was annoyingly obscured which is an easy fix by simply moving the action further down stage.

Marber puts everything on the page including some very funny moments which Jake Norton seizes as dermatologist Larry, who first meets the young and beautiful Alice (Amber Blease) when she is brought into A&E by obituary writer Dan (Sam Donovan). Dan has ‘rescued’ stripper Alice, after she is hit by a London taxi. A year later, Dan is in a relationship with a needy (still stripping) Alice but begins an affair with the more mature, independent and equally beautiful photographer Anna (Ariana Fravel). Dan stumbles on Dr Larry in a sex chat room, pretends to be Anna, and sets up a meeting. Anna marries Larry despite Dan’s pleading, but their affair continues. The intense Dan is played by Donovan initially as a twitchy geek wearing spectacles and an unfortunate ‘flasher’ mac, typical of the time. When he makes his play for Anna, we see him much more self-confident. Despite this unlikely sexual success, he’s still an obituary writer and remains the more sensitive of the two, a trait not lost on an increasingly vicious Larry who exacts his revenge on the cheating Dan with only a little hesitation.

The plot explores a male sexual fantasy world of willing strippers, damsels in and out of distress and explicit sex, or rather talk about sex. There’s plenty of sexual tension but it’s very middle class and frightfully British. ‘Closer’ is from the male gaze and a bit dated, which could have been an opportunity to have fun with it, but first-time director Adam McCoy takes it very seriously and sets a ponderously slow pace. Every line is overthought, searching for hidden meaning in an explicit script where the language tells it all. The online chat scene, played out hilariously by Dan and Larry, could have been done in half the time. There was opportunity for more ‘banter’ in the exchanges although I did enjoy Dan’s well timed, ‘this is going to hurt’ remark to Alice before confessing to his affair with Anna, conveying insight to Alice and himself with his careful delivery.

The two women’s roles are written with commendable female insight that sustains the story of dysfunctional relationships. It is through the interconnected couples, and couplings, that the characters uncover their baser human instincts and their darker sides, feeding off one another’s weaknesses to love and hurt in equal measure. Amber Blease plays a convincing stripper-on-her-own-terms, teasing one minute and showing her vulnerability the next. Her rival, the very cool Anna is surprisingly apologetic to Alice for ‘stealing’ Dan but ultimately no-one comes out unscathed. Fravel plays Anna as sophisticated with a low voice that was a little hard to hear at times. It’s a tense play, not as shocking as when first performed in 1997 but still powerful and with a relevant message. I’d like to see more, natural charm captured from the start to provide greater contrast, but this is only the second performance of its first already sold-out run and I’m sure it will come. The Hope Street Theatre is on its way to becoming Liverpool’s first choice for new theatre attracting both local and world-wide performers and audiences and it is a credit to them that they provide a supportive space for new and emerging performing and technical talent to explore their craft.

Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 15/11/18

REVIEW: Carpe Vitam - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

A disappointingly small turn-out this evening at Manchester's wonderful Stoller Hall, deep in the bowels of one of the UK's most prestigious music schools, Chethams. I had gone to listen to two new choral works, one of which being a world premiere and the whole evening dedicated to, about, and indeed written by women. In fact it was the first concert in a series of performances and conversations under the title #ThisWomansWork which will bring wonen's musical voices to the fore. Celebrating women, their power and their genius, and their absolute equality with men, is something being promoted and shouted about all over at the moment, especially since we are in the centenary year of The Representation Of The People Act (1918), giving women the right to vote.

The first half of tonight's concert saw Chetham's Vocal Ensemble performing 10 songs, only one of these was the complete ensemble, as they sang unaccompanied the hauntingly beautiful hymn, 'Jesus Christ The Apple Tree' with music by Elizabeth Poston. The other 9 songs were taken by 9 different soloists and accompanied on the piano. Each soloists gave a brief introduction to the song before they performed them. All were 20th century composers except for one Baroque piece which found its way in there; Barbara Strozzi's operatic 'Che Si Puo Fare' (1664), beautifully sung by Alisa McTernan. This section ended with the wonderful Music Hall song of Liza Lehmann declaring that 'There Are Fairies At The Bottom Of My Garden', a delightfully interpreted story-telling by Charlotte Potter.

Each of the soloists from Chetham's Vocal Ensemble were absolutely superb. Their control, dexterity, sonority, and indeed insight into the texts was something to behold; their voices sounding much more mature than their young ages belied. Their introductions were somewhat quiet and would have benefited from a microphone, but once they started to sing, their resonant projection filled the auditorium superbly.  I think my favourite piece in this section simply had to be Saffron Doherty singing Shakespeare with music composed by Elizabeth Machoncy for 'Ophelia's Song'.

Before the interval we then listened to the first of two new choral works. With music by Lucy Pankhurst and text by Helen Pankhurst. The family of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst are keeping her spirit and memory alive with their choral work, 'The Pankhurst Anthem'. The work is in two parts which are sung continuously. The first takes parts of a speech made by Emmeline Pankhusrt in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913 which gives way to 'Anthem', which speaks for itself. Conducted a capella by the highly animated Tammas Slater this was an interesting piece but in some places it was impossible to hear the lyrics, especially when some members of the choir - The Chetham's Chorale - were tasked into stage-whispering certain words underneath the melody. A little confusing and hard to distinguish. The second part of this anthem however was much more comprehensible and despite its brevity, very enjoyable and excellently sung.

After the interval and we reassembled to hear the title piece of this concert, the world premiere performance of Carpe Vitam [Seize Life], by Laura Rossi with a ten-minute ending called The DerbyshOramCoda by electronic 'sound-sculptor' Henry Dagg.

From the programme..."Carope Vitam goes on a journey documenting women making their own way in he world, including footage of 100 years ago, women working during WW1, the struggle for women's rights to work and votes for women, through to present day with video / projection art created from new and archive footage of great female role models".

The piece was performed by The Chetham's Chamber Choir (and despite their name, they were a large choir!), along with speakers (2 from the choir and two tutors), violin (Sophie Langdon), cello (Miriam Lowbury), electric guitar (Mike Outram), piano (Laura Rossi), and a table full of electronic gubbins operated by Henry Dagg. There was also a live camera operator who filmed the ensemble and choir and overlayed over-exposed black and white 'ghost' images of them performing on top of the multitudinous images already being shown on the large screen behind the choir.

It was a lofty and pompous work, which, trying to accomplish too much and trying ultimately to be too clever, didn't really cohere. The images on the screen were far too busy, unfocused and unclear, whilst the electronic side of Rossi's composition was kept to a minimum and the majority of her music was surprisingly lyrical and harmonic it lacked focus. Singing, speaking, video footage with live overlay, placards with women's names on them, simply diffused the music and the message each time. The text was once again very hard to distinguish in this melee of sensual overload, except when they were spoken. I am informed that the entire lyrics of this piece are taken from quotes and poems from the inspirational women from the names on the placards - which unfortunately I couldn't see at all since the lady camera operator was standing in front of her the whole time.

The final 10 minutes of this piece got even weirder. I am unable to critically analyse this section of the piece since it is beyond my musical understanding and interest. It started with what sounded like bird song on 'oscillators'  which turned into screeching and catawauling which then gave way to an electronically produced choir and a rather jointy jolly melody, before changing again into what sounded like the opening music to Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds, then more screeching, more manipulation, a hand held megaphone-shaped gong, and diminuendo to finish. It was all extremely weird, extremely experimental, and undoubtedly highly proficient and clever, but completely out of my sphere!

Sadly Carpe Vitam failed to impress, and after a hugely enjoyable first half, this was at least for me, a let down. I left feeling unfulfilled by this new work, but gladdened that I had been present at its premiere, and knowing that the students of Chethams would have given this work its definitive performance! There are many more concerts at The Stoller Hall in the #ThisWomansWork festival, which runs until mid March next year, and there truly is something for everyone, so if tonight;'s concert wasn't your thing, the next concert may well be!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/11/18 

Thursday, 15 November 2018

REVIEW: The Addams Family - The Art Theatre, New Mills

The Addams Family stage show is based on the cranky, undead Addams family of the 1960s TV shows and opened on Broadway in 2010. It tells the crazy, ghoulish tale of the oddest family on the block who live in a mysterious mansion set in the middle of Central Park, New York. The stage show revolves around the Addams’ children growing up and their daughter Wednesday – she of the unsunny disposition – meeting and falling in love with a smart, young and ‘normal’ man. She has become secretly engaged to him but is afraid to tell her family due to her domineering, matriarchal mother Morticia’s reaction. She confides in her father and the young man’s family are invited round for dinner for an evening of secrets and full disclosures during a traditional Addams’ family game. During the evening, the entire family realises that change is afoot and must happen despite generations of their traditions and values or risk losing their daughter to a life with normal people.

The opening scene in the graveyard was spectacular with the gravestones, spooky lighting and great sound and singing. The ancestors were all suitably dead, each one unique and acted the zombie undead with convincing effect. The cloths were impressive and well painted to depict the graveyard and the park and the inside of the Addams’ home. The set was a huge, impressive, rotational piece of double stair casing which formed a balcony and mezzanine but mostly was staircasing butted together as an up and down effect or to create a landing outside the bedrooms. Here I struggled a little as I didn’t think it worked effectively for some scenes. It appeared that some scenes were set to fit in with the stairs and things like draping the ancestors on it whilst they watched the proceedings of the evening looked a little deliberate. Morticia and Gomez had a scene where they walked up and down and in her heels it was precarious to watch as was Alice and Mal arguing on the landing where there was no rail. It detracted at times from the acting as I watched expecting a fall or a stumble. I do hope that no one does fall this week! Also, when Fester sang is his first song in front of the curtain, the cast and scene striking behind the curtain drowned him out so quieter feet are definitely needed. That’s my grumbles over.

This was a well thought out and directed piece of musical theatre and the cast ably assisted all the scene shifting and setting and the use of the frames in the house with the ancestors forming oil paintings with white lighting and poses was terrific. The director had added lots of extras which he’d thought of to the piece such as a huge spider, a terrifying tentacled octopus, a Donald Trump reference and Fester’s rocket to the moon in the final scene with a little sparkler for the ignition was genius!

The cast supplied us with the expected style of Addams’ characters. Gomez was a fabulous actor , with great audience interaction and was played by Ian Tyler who showed just the right amount of confident-suave , mixed with under the thumb, adoring and yet highly-manipulated husband. He was well matched by his Morticia , played by Emma Taylor who wheedled, dominated and sashayed through the show in a magnificent gown and sky high heels. I particularly enjoyed her scene with the ancestors of death is ‘just around the corner’. She completely looked the part too. Emma commanded the stage with her presences and oozed seduction. Fester was well played with good comic timing by Robbie Carnegie and the moon song was one of the audience’s favourites. Fester has some of the best lines in the show and Robbie exploited them to their full potential. 

Wednesday the vehicle for the plot was played by Harlie Farmer who gave us an older characterisation with contemporary sass, lots of sadism and appropriate levels of teenage angst and eye rolling. She sang well in her number ‘Pulled’ but really came into her own in the duet, ‘Crazier Than You ‘with Lucas in act 2; where he proves his love by allowing her to shoot an apple off his head, blindfolded! Lucas ably matched Harlie with his contemporary, American, clean cut high school boy, played by Harry Bloor who showed he was a fine singer too. Mal and Alice (Lucas’ parents) are the spanners in the works for the evening but through the disastrous dinner party they fall apart then fall in love again by the end of the show. Jane Eastwood made great fun of the drunken mother and the table top crawling and cavorting before passing out was very impressive. Her shrieking voice was enough to set your teeth on edge but suited the role to a tee. Her husband played by Stewart Bowden was a capable foil and they worked and played well together. In the duets at the end of the show, he too showed he had a fine set of pipes. Grandma Addams (or maybe she isn’t even one of the family – no-one knows) was played with energy and lots of comedy by Beverley Eaves who made great business of a caricature old lady with sass. It is really difficult to act old when you’re not and she did well, holding back the edge until the finale. Lurch – the semi mute, zombie butler bumbled through and got lots of laughs until he burst into a huge, booming and resonant singing voice for the finale. Grant Quigley had huge presence physically and really added to the proceedings on stage. Lastly, by no means least, Pugsley (Wednesday’s younger brother) who loves to be tortured, smokes like a chimney, can’t sleep without a monster in his closet and desperately tries to end his sister’s relationship with Lucas was played brilliantly by Connor Wyse. A terrific characterisation. Like his sister’s modern take, slightly edgy teenage boy, Connor made the role his own and left a lasting impression.

What a pleasure to attend such a beautiful theatre in a lovely part of the North West. Thank you for a great performance of the Addams family. Click, click.

Reviewer - Kathryn Gorton
on - 14/11/18

REVIEW: Tosca - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Opera North opened its tour at the Lowry Theatre, Salford after an extremely popular run at Leeds Grand Theatre. As soon as the curtain lifted there was an audible gasp from the audience, Angelotti makes a daring entrance in an impressive structural setting and sets the tone for what will be an exhilarating, fast paced performance.

The sumptuous setting for each of the three acts by set designer Tom Schutt reflects a high level of detail and creativity. He successfully combines a dramatic realism with elements of the abstract in the set, giving it a strong dramatic presence beyond serving the story. In act two for example, Scarpia’s apartment is contemporary and lush, yet visible rigs of lighting on stage, which is a constant in every act, are lit or dimmed according to the emotional intensity at certain moments. This may or may not be a representation of Tosca’s own theatricality as a singer – vissi d’arte she tells us, - I lived for art – but it is highly effective. The set had meaning and impact from the very start.

Opera North’s current vision of Tosca is set in contemporary times, and corresponding imagery in the set, the costumes and props is used very well. Originally, Tosca hears Cavaradossi being tortured in the antechamber adjacent to Scarpia’s apartment – in this version she watches it live-streamed through a laptop computer. These adjustments for a contemporary setting do not distract and are not a gimmick – the setting in contemporary times works really well given the rise of popularism, nationalism and indeed fascism in the politics of our day. These political fears were important to the original Tosca, first performed in 1900 and set then in Napoleonic times, and are as relevant to a contemporary audience today as it was then.

I wondered, though, if a few subtle changes to the libretto could have reflected a contemporary setting without being unfaithful to the original – Cavaradossi recognises Angelotti and conveniently tells the audience who he is – the Consul of the former Roman Republic! This could have been easily re-worded to something more relevant to the contemporary audience. Purists would disagree, but I think if license is being taken with the setting of any opera, and one seeks to resonate with a contemporary audience, then an occasional change of text, in my opinion, is wholly appropriate.

Opera can easily be portrayed solely through its own clichés and rely on the intensity of the lyricism or the melodramatics of the style. Not so with the Opera North. While these conventions were used in a beautifully authentic way last night, the principals were thoroughly three-dimensional. Tosca, played by the Belfast born Giselle Allen, was visually, vocally and viscerally stunning. We all know a woman like Allen’s Tosca and I am not sure that I have ever witnessed a more believable characterisation of an opera character on stage. This was aided by the fantastic wardrobe provided by costume designer, Fotini Dimou. Scarpia, played by Robert Hayward, was truly scary and menacing without the trappings of a moustache twirling villain. His vocal delivery was on point, being able to provide us with a clarity of word and depth of menace. The Tosca/Scarpia scenes had wonderful pace and were nuanced with various shades of terror and toxicity. Tosca with Cavaradossi really shone together in act three where the love between the two characters was brought to life and underlined by the impending tragedy.

The three acts moved along with fantastic pace and focused at times on the story of Tosca as a gripping thriller, and not solely a tragic opera.

The music, under the baton of Jonathan Santagada, was authentic in style and paired perfectly with the interpretations of the singers on stage while also colouring the emotions of the various scenes effectively. The various soloists in the orchestra did a fantastic job – there were a few very tender moments that were delicately performed here, you could see the musicians themselves react to the sentiments that were needed.

When the curtain went up for act three, I could tell immediately from the start how it would all end. I already knew the story, but the wheres and hows were made evident from the set. Yet, nothing would prepare me for that final moment – my eyes suddenly dilated, my heart accelerated with such intensity, tears in both eyes. This is what live theatre is all about, this is what opera is all about. There are moments in art history which you wish you could have witnessed – the premiere of The Rite Of Spring, Aino Ackte in Salome. This version of Opera North’s Tosca must be one of those performances that will be talked about for years to come. Stylish, fierce, relevant, beautiful and unforgettable, Opera North have created a world-class performance that is worth seeing again and again.

Reviewer – Aaron Loughreyon - 15/11/18

NEWS: Craig Charles comes to Salford's Lowry Theatre in December


Legendary actor, broadcaster and DJ, Craig Charles, comes to Manchester this December.
The Red DwarfCoronation Street and Robot Wars star and BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music presenter brings two very different nights of live music, DJ sets and entertainment to The Lowry in Salford on 4 & 5 December.
The ultimate funk and soul party, Craig Charles Funks Up Christmas commences the two-night residency on Tue 4 December featuring an exclusive Craig Charles DJ set and a fantastic bill of special guest performances.
Then on Wed 5 December he joins the BBC Philharmonic and acclaimed singer Curtis Stigers for BBC Philharmonic Christmas. The concert & performance is being recorded for BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night show.
Craig Charles Funks Up Christmas celebrates the 10-year anniversary of his successful funk and soul club that has seen him perform DJ sets around the globe at some of the world’s biggest festivals and events.
In what promises to be the funkiest party of the year, the evening will include performances from soul legends The Real Thing performing their multi-million selling number one singles: You To Me Are Everything, Can't Get By Without You and Feel the Force.
Plus, direct from the USA, disco stars Odyssey will play a hit filled set including: Use it Up and Wear It Out, Native New Yorker, Inside Out and the iconic disco anthem Going Back to My Roots.
Also on the bill, original Northern Soul singer Lorraine Silver, who shot to fame performing in the iconic Soul Clubs like Wigan Casino and theTwisted Wheel, will be performing her northern soul classics: Long After Tonight Is All Over and Lost Summer Love.
Following rousing performances in front of thousands of festival goers in London's Hyde Park, Glastonbury and The Big Chill Festival, The Craig Charles Fantasy Funk Band complete the special guest line up.
The following evening on 5 Dec audiences can enjoy the highly anticipated world premiere of Scary Fairy Saves Christmas  the latest instalment in Craig Charles’ series of fairy tales as part of the line-up for BBC Philharmonic Christmas.
In conjunction with composer Iain Farrington, (Horrible HistoriesWallace and Gromit, 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony) Scary Fairy features a larger than life cinematic score as Craig presents the third instalment of his modern-day series of fables.
This ingenious fable in rhyme takes audiences on a whirlwind adventure full of humour and childhood nostalgia with many twists and turns, reflecting the world in which we live in today and tackling modern day taboos with Craig Charles’ customary razor-sharp wit.
The evening, hosted by Angelica Bell, will also include BBC Philharmonic, conductor Clark Rundell and special guest Curtis Stigersperform a select programme featuring wintry delights including Stigers hits: I Wonder Why and Never Saw A Miracle, combined with the festive groove of seasonal classics such as Let It Snow and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
The concert will be recorded for future broadcast in BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night on Friday 7 December at 8pm.

Craig Charles Funks Up Christmas
Lyric Theatre, The Lowry - Pier 8, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ
Tue 4 December
Tickets from £29.50*

Craig Charles’ Scary Fairy Saves Christmas Premiere
Lyric Theatre, The Lowry - Pier 8, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ
Wed 5 December
Tickets from £24.50*

To book tickets go online at  call 0843 208 6000 or in person at The Lowry Box Office from 10am – 6pm Monday – Sunday (8pm on performance nights).

*Prices are subject to per ticket fees.

REVIEW: The Script - King's Arms Theatre, Salford.

A young Muslim mother has been arrested by the authorities on the Turkish / Syrian border and been detained under the terrorism act. She is now in England and still detained under police investigation. The play centres around just three key players in this tense drama; the woman herself, her lawyer, and the police officer detailed to interview her.

Robert Pegg's script is very realistic and shows the true machinations of the justice system in this country. A tight-lipped suspect who appears to know more than she is saying, being advised by a world-weary, ageing lawyer to keep saying 'no comment' until the police actually charge her with anything, and the police officer whose interview technique ping-pongs between 'good cop' and 'bad cop' with alarming ease. Her relationship with the lawyer during interview completely frosty, and yet when they meet at the coffee machine they are congenial and as open as the system allows them to be with each other.

Directed by Mike Heath the pace is really quite slow throughout, and the 'feel' of the play is almost like the theatrical version of watching a Wallander episode. Much time is allowed for the audience to absorb what is happening and see nuances of body language and facial expressions more clearly. I like this technique for such a drama - it makes for rather compelling viewing, especially if the three cast members were well chosen actors / actresses which they were. Where the directing falls down however is in the scene changes. These too are handled with the same laissez-faire take-your-time attitude. The set in fact doesn't change at all - just our suspension of disbelief as to the exact location (the interview room, an ante-room, the coffee machine). The scene changes therefore took far to long to execute - a simple 'dim and up' would have been preferable; and I didn't like the choice of music made to accompany these changes. Different music each time, none of which felt appropriate. It was too loud, too pop-ish, too brash.

The play was performed with a short interval between two sections of about 45 minutes each half. It would have been tighter and more suspenseful had the interval had been omitted and performed straight through. We didn't need the interval, and neither did the play in terms of scene or theme changes. The play centres around the Muslim lady suspect and during the course of the play we learn quite a bit about her situation and her background. If the play were to be lengthened into a two act play [it is a good one act play as it stands] then it would be nice to learn something of the back stories of both the lawyer and the police officer. In both instances the script gives us a tiny tantalising glimpse, but never develops these.

Zoe Iqbal played Rehana, a young mother denied access to her son and seemingly unaware of what has happened to her husband, with a certain arrogant assuredness which started gently and inconspicuously building to a very strong and surprisingly passionate denouement. Ian Curley is the lawyer assigned to her, and his almost detached interest [an interesting oxymoron] is well-placed and although the character doesn't really have any development within the play, Curley found a nice pace  within minimal changes of dynamic. The play's dynamics changed considerably however with the entrance of Leni Murphy, playing the interrogating officer. One moment highly professional, the next inwardly flustered; one moment soothing and coaxing, the next knife-edge sharp and caustic; using all her wiles to elicit the information she needed, without success.

The play ends (don't worry, I won't give anything away) on a question mark, and I liked that. Compelling and thought-provoking throughout, the audience are challenged to question just as much as - or maybe even more than - the police officer.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/11/18

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

REVIEW: Kinky Boots - The Opera House, Manchester

As a great lover of all things musical, and the fact I had never seen this particular one, I was ecstatic to find myself at the Opera House, Manchester to watch ‘Kinky Boots’ the musical, book by Harvey Weinstein, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. For those of you unaware, this is an adaptation of the 2005 British film bearing the same name.

‘Kinky Boots’ tells the story of Charlie Price, a young man who has inherited his father’s struggling shoe factory and the exploits that ensue once he decides, after meeting the marvellous Lola, to change direction and design boots for drag queens. As you can imagine, this does not go down well with some of his more ‘traditional’ factory workers such as Don, who questions this decision and hereby our story is set.

The set design was multi-purpose, with the internal architecture of the factory as the main visual scenery. The set designer David Rockwell added in levels through the use of a truck that could be manoeuvred around the stage, doubling as lockers on one side, and toilets on the other with the factory office placed on top. Set changes were moved around with ease by the cast which kept the pace and momentum of the production moving.

I found the costumes designed by Greg Barnes to be quite amazing, particularly the outrageous drag queen outfits. The structure and fitting of these were outstanding and the quality was obvious for all to see. I also loved the way he cleverly used symbolism through the juxtaposition of the factory workers in earthy work wear, with the bright and colourful drag queens. The moment that Lola reveals himself as ‘Simon’, clearly highlighted this as he transforms to conform with the factory in beige shirt, brown trousers and orange jersey sweater, also when the other ‘Angels’ arrive, they do so in beige trench coats.

As a fan of Cyndi Lauper’s music, I was intrigued as to how her song writing skills would translate on to stage and I was not disappointed. I found the music to be powerful, from the rousing intro, ‘The Most Beautiful Thing In The World’ to ‘Sex Is In The Heel’ and the finale ‘Raise You Up’. It was a dance anthem spectacular! The 80’s pop inspired ‘The History Of Wrong Guys’ showed Lauper’s comic side and her storytelling ability, which was brilliantly sung by Paula Lane portraying the role of Lauren. Special mention has to go to the two ballads ‘Not My Father’s Son’ and ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ which showed Lauper’s class as a songwriter, exquisitely written and beautifully sung by Callum Francis. Lighting was effective and served its purpose, no particular moment wowed me, but it did its job and cues were slick and well rehearsed.

So to the main event, the acting. What can I say? Callum Francis was astounding as Lola. From his entrance, to his comic timing and neutral facial expressions whilst delivering some of the funniest lines, to moments of real intimacy with the audience whilst as ‘Simon’, revealing another depth to his characterisation. Jealous? Yes I was, of that voice, those legs! Spectacular. Joel Harper- Jackson portrayed Charlie very well; he had a warmth and likeability factor that put the audience at ease. The rapport that Joel and Callum had on stage was heart-warming and infectious and they were a delight to watch together. Demitri Lampra as ‘Don’ played the chauvinistic male to a tea, but also added multiple layers to the role therefore he remained a likeable character. Paula Lane was hugely successful as Lauren, she played the comic love interest of Charlie nicely, her facial expressions and reactions were laughable and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. The ensemble as a whole performed brilliantly and the ‘Angels’ dancing was superb, all credit to Jerry Mitchell’s choreography.

There were some fantastic moments in the show, too many to describe in great detail, and also I do not want to give everything away, but the slow motion fight sequence between Don and Lola is comic gold. The use of slow motion and heightened body language and facial expression was superb. The solo song ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ performed by Callum Francis towards the end of the show was reminiscent of Whitney Houston and the finale definitely had undertones of Beyonce in it.

‘Kinky Boots’ was a stunning show, from start to finish, I want to go and watch it again. It was fun and flirty but also had a valuable life lesson. This was clearly delivered in the lyrics of the last song with the Price and Simon six steps to success, the final one having the most resonance “ You change your world when you change your mind” which, funnily enough was sung by Don, having undergone a transformation and realisation of what was important in life.

Please go and watch this show, it is joyous and poptastic!!

Reviewer - Cathy Owen
on - 13/11/18

REVIEW: Shakespeare Schools Festival - Z-Arts Theatre, Manchester.

Now in its 18th year, and growing in strength year on year, this charity works with youngsters all over the UK from every walk of life, all children, no-one is excluded, and all gain invaluable life skills from the experience, from confidence building, team work, speaking, etc, as well as a basic understanding of acting and how theatre works.

I first came across this event two years ago, and now try and make sure I see at least one evening each year. The Festival is spread over a couple of weeks in November and there are hundreds of performances happening across the country in theatres and arts centres simultaneously. Make no mistake, The Schools Shakespeare Festival is a major event in the Theatre-In-Education calendar, and with its policy of all-inclusiveness it provides those who would otherwise be excluded from such activities to work alongside other children and this must be something quite special for teachers, parents and children alike.

The school is assigned a Coordinator who will then help the teachers decide which play to perform, and then the teacher who will be directing the play is given some help and training themselves by theatre professionals. The children are then also workshopped with the assigned actor / actress, before handing things back over to the teacher and watching the students grow. The groups then have a dress and tech rehearsal in the venue prior to the evening's performance. The process can start a early as the beginning of the school year and so sometimes these productions are over 12 months' in the planning and rehearsing.

This evening - the only evening I had free this year! - I went along to Manchester's Z-Arts Theatre, a theatre which is ideal for these events since it is Manchester's premier children's and young people's venue. This evening there were three schools performing and it was an evening of bloody murder and tragedy and bloodthirsty children were seen killing each other in every scene!! Each performance lasts approximately 30 minutes.

First we watched Our Lady's RC Primary School perform Romeo And Juliet. Their use of narration to move the story forward and for their ease of understanding was a lovely idea, but they still kept in much of the original Shakespeare dialogue too. Using black costumes with just a different coloured neck-scarf to denote Montague, Capulet, or other was simple but striking and worked excellently. After this came Cardinal Langley's RC High School's MacBeth. Again, basic black costumes were favoured, but it was the use of music in this play which really helped to move the story along. A plaintive MacBeth being pushed into his destiny by a screaming and ambitious wife and three dancing weird sisters. Finally it was time for the third and final tragedy of the evening, Othello, performed by Beaumont Collegiate Academy. This time it was dance / choreography which was the most surprising and compelling element in this story. Dressed all in quasi-military garb with the principals having their names emblazoned on the fronts of their t-shirts, the contemporary dance feel to the whole play was a very interesting interpretation, and I liked the idea very much.

These cut-down versions of the plays are superb introductions to the story for those who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's oeuvre, and if, like me, you know the story's well, it is surprising how clear and clinical the storylines are when performed in their barest form like these.

More information about The Shakespeare Schools Festival can be found on their website

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/11/18 

REVIEW: Proof - The Garrick Theatre, Stockport.

I have a slight vested interest in watching this play for two reasons: First, I studied maths at university and second, I took part in an acting class last year when 2 other actors worked on and presented the last scene.

The play was performed in the theatre's studio space (the bar), which has seating on 3 sides, room for an audience of around 40 or so. Hence, it's a very intimate venue, ideal for a play with just four actors such as this.

There was a bare set other than 2 wicker chairs and matching table plus a pouffe and the whole piece takes place in this area. The action starts late at night in a house in Chicago with Catherine on her own. She is joined by her university professor father and it quickly transpires that it's her birthday, he is dead and it's the night before his funeral. There is an obvious closeness between them, particularly from the father's point of view. He has brought her a bottle of champagne which she proceeds to drink quite a lot of!

Catherine was brilliantly portrayed by Emma Yates, a real tour de force. Her American accent was flawless and you felt sympathy for her right from the start.

Unfortunately I was less enamoured with her father Robert (Robert Talbot) whose accent was rather shaky. It is not easy to play someone tortured and who is clearly ill but he came across as too nervous at times. Aside from his nervousness and despite the fact that Proof is a very wordy play, it flowed well and the scene changes were slick.

The accompanying music was very evocative and the lighting levels gave a good, appropriate atmosphere to the piece.

We are introduced to the other two actors later in Act 1, Catherine's older sister Claire (Jess Nichols) and her fellow mathematician and eventual love interest, Hal (Josh Holden). Claire has moved to New York and Catherine has been left to look after her father. This has led to a definite antagonism between the two siblings and was well played out, although Claire clearly does care for her younger sister; later in the play Catherine offers Claire the chance for a new start, to live in the Big Apple with her and her husband to be.

Hal is a nice guy, a bit of a geek who is not as academically gifted as Catherine and he plays drums in a college based rock band. He is instantly attracted to Catherine but mindful of who her father is; we see Hal and Catherine's burgeoning relationship ebb and flow nicely as the performance unfolded.
One of the more unusual aspects of this theatrical drama are the time shifts in the second half between what was the present day (2000) and a few years earlier when Robert was still alive, though seriously ill. I'm not a big fan of this device (which is used regularly in TV and film) but it was cleverly woven into the overall piece. It did mean several fairly quick off stage costume changes for Catherine but she handled them well.

I'm not going to give away the ending but it is neatly wrapped up in a low key, but effective conclusion.

This production of Proof runs every evening until November the 17th, starting at 7:30pm.

Reviewer - David Swift
on - 13/11/18

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

REVIEW: The Habit Of Art - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

What IS the habit of art?? Is it the routine, the regular, daily regimes that actors put themselves through? the boredom of leaning lines and rehearsing plays? or is it simply art repeating itself, or art for art's sake? Does it apply solely to artists / creatives? or can this phrase be extended to include everybody? Certainly it's a curious title, and the phrase itself is used twice within the play, both times by the same character, an ageing disgracefully actor playing the role of W H Auden. It's very hard to tell whether the phrase is meant to represent Auden's, the actor's or Bennett's viewpoint here.

Certainly the habit of art can be ascribed to the rehearsal process of a play, especially a play that has the writer in attendance and writing new script for it as they go along. That is exactly what is happening in this play. Instead of writing a play called  'Caliban's Boy', Bennett writes a play about the rehearsing of the play called 'Caliban's Boy'. There is a certain conceit in this technique, but one which lends itself to some witty and caustic typically Bennett back-biting. It also gives the actors opportunity to offer two points of view - one as themselves (the actor) and the other as the character they are playing (in 'Caliban's Boy') and this leads to some lovely moments of self-exposition and gives us, the real audience, an insight not only into the machinations of the theatrical process, but also of those who commit themselves to a profession of doing the habit of art.

The stage set is extremely detailed and realistic (Adrian Linford). We are in a church hall or similar and the theatre company who are rehearsing this play are quite clearly on the bottom rungs of small-scale perhaps touring theatre. The lines blurred between what we could accept as suspension of disbelief and reality when we are met with such circumstances as the director not being present at a rehearsal [I have never known that happen in all my time in the profession], two cast members are also absent, [the rehearsal would undoubtedly have been cancelled or postponed] and no-one has thought to inform the playwright that they would like to cut certain chunks of dialogue from his script - and seem to have already made the decision to do so without his knowledge or acceptance. [a highly dubious pretext - but I assume possible since Bennett himself is a playwright and has undoubtedly sat in on many rehearsals of his own works].

The play within the play despite being highly clever - an imagined meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten in their twilight years - fails to capture our imagination. Perhaps that is why Bennett felt it necessary to put it rehearsal stages and make a play around it. we do learn quite a bit about both Auden and Britten though (mind you whether the anecdotes and references are true or not is another matter). We do know though that both were homosexuals, and both lived at a time when this was illegal in this country - and the Caliban play is set in the early 1970s, very shortly before their respective deaths and only a few years after the decriminalisation of this act; but even so, to be so open about rent boys, sitting naked on the side of the baths of bathing young choir boys, being in love with a 14 year old boy, and sucking off, did seem to be both stretching and over-doing a point.

There are places in the script where the dialogue does seem somewhat laboured, but am uncertain as to whether that is the intention - to make the playwright of the play within the play different from Bennett. Overall it is a very congenial play (not a comedy - but certainly with some very clever one-liners and put-downs worthy only of Bennett) but a play, I assume, that would undoubtedly appeal more to those who have knowledge of or interest in the habit of theatrical art more than those who know nothing about theatre and how it works.

Matthew Kelly is wonderfully cantankerous and suitably scruffy as Fitz / W H Auden, whilst David Yelland's beautifully timed subtle gestures and eye movements and perfectly measured effeminate gait made Henry / Benjamin Britten come alive. Kelly had the largest part and occupied our attention, but it was Yelland's understated 'less is more' technique which captivated. Funnily I could also hear Bennett speaking both of their lines!

John Wark, Alexander Guelff, Veronica Roberts, Benjamin Chandler and Robert Mountford completed this cast of actors playing actors, playwrights, and stage managers. Highly skilled and enjoyable to a man. 

It is an entertaining and pleasurable watch, but I do worry that Bennett is perhaps trying to be just a little too clever with this play.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/11/18

Monday, 12 November 2018

REVIEW: Carl Hutchinson: I Know I Shouldn't Behave Like This But... - The Frog And Bucket, Manchester.

The scene is The Frog and Bucket in Manchester and the time is 5 o’clock – not the normal slot for stand-up comedy at this historic club but the more I think about it the more I like this time – a couple of hours of comedy and still time to grab a bite to eat around town or get home for a very reasonable time before Monday morning work. It might just catch on.

The comedian in question is Carl Hutchinson, complete with Geordie accent and laddish attitude. This isn’t the first time I have seen Hutchinson this year, he supported Chris Ramsey on his tour a few months ago and I was a little concerned that there would be a lot of the same material in this show – I shouldn’t have been as Hutchinson addressed this very early on and mentioned a very small part of overlap but it was pleasing that he had considered this in his preparation. The biggest criticism I had of the show with Ramsey at the time is that they were too similar in terms of style but this was Hutchinson’s show alone and therefore I am able to judge him as such.

I was half expecting a support act but as the lights dimmed we were introduced to Hutchinson himself. He did a half hour slot of pretty much improvised comedy where he chatted to the audience and talked about the time he lived in Manchester when he was making his way as a young comedian. He was able to reference some local areas with a high degree of knowledge and he spoke about local drug dealers who prided themselves on customer service and his Sainsbury scam where we was able to buy (or steal – depending on your definition) cookies!

A 20 minute break followed before Hutchinson came back on stage for the main one hour show and this is where he really started to show what he can do. He talked much of becoming older and more responsible as an adult, whilst sharing some stories that essentially proved he was still very much a lad at heart. The story of his experience on a stag do and the photograph he shared with us was just one hilarious example of this.

The one storyline he overlapped with his prior Lowry show covered his new status as a homeowner and some brilliantly delivered material that involved him using the toilet at ASDA while he was having a new bathroom installed – Christmas Eve 2017 providing the exception where an 8 minute walk to said supermarket was not an option given the previous day’s extra hot curry.

Hutchinson has a very friendly stand-up style and is very easily distracted by the audience, on more than one occasion stopping to question people on their reactions or the odd polite heckle he received – this only enhanced the show. He is clearly a very experienced comedian in his own right and not just the regular support slot for Chris Ramsey – his show is both very well written and extremely well delivered. I sincerely hope that Hutchinson goes on to get some well-deserved recognition of his own very soon.

Reviewer – John Fish 
on - 11/11/18

REVIEW: English Touring Opera Triple Bill - The Opera House, Buxton.

English Touring Opera brought not one, but three musical pieces from the multi-faceted 17th century to Buxton Opera House last night. The star piece was Purcell’s famed one-act opera “Dido And Aeneas”. In support were Carissimi’s oratorio “Jonas”, and a selection of madrigals, motets and other short works from Gesualdo under the title “I Will Not Speak”. Three different theatre directors; eight exquisite singers; and the deft conducting of Jonathan Peter Kenny for all three acts.

The jewel of the evening was “Dido & Aeneas”, and not just because of the music. Designer Adam Wiltshire and lighting designer Rory Beaton ought to have taken a bow at the end along with the performers. Their contribution was so cleverly integral to the production, and yet so beautiful in its own right. Supporting director Seb Harcombe’s vision of telling the story entirely from Dido’s point of view, the set was the interior of an Elizabethan mansion, skewed crazily at a downward angle to the corner where Dido’s chair was.

Picking up on the moon/ sun – Artemis/ Apollo imagery within the libretto, Dido (delicately sung by Sky Ingram in a performance incorporating everything from girlish flippancy to a queen’s dignity) was identified with the moon, in a deep blue gown and stars in her hair, and much of the opera was performed at night, with dark shadows and a large luminous full moon in the sky. Aeneas (warmly sung by Nicholas Mogg) was identified with the sun, initially through strong shafts of sunlight shining through gloomy windows, then in person in golden-toned clothing, and further added to by his exchange with the messenger Spirit from the gods (the very pure voice of Benjamin Williamson) wearing a sun-shaped headdress. Sunlight, in the end, could not overcome darkness, but even Dido’s well-known unhappy ending had a little twist to it. It was very lovely.

Frederick Long’s dark-toned voice led a coven of gleefully malevolent witches, and he physically writhed his way around the stage as he plotted his revenge on the lovers. Susanna Fairbairn gave a sympathetic performance as the handmaiden Belinda. The ensemble of sailors greatly relished explaining to us why their “nymphs” were begging them to stay on shore – with accompanying physical gestures.

In the first half were presented the other two pieces. “Jonas” was given a quiet, thoughtful presentation on a stripped-back stage, in modern dark-coloured clothing that was still vaguely reminiscent of an olden-days fishing village. The eight singers took turns to sing in narration the familiar Biblical story, with Jorge Navarro-Colorado beautifully performing Jonas in calmness and soft detail. Bernadette Iglich’s direction was very interesting: the performers continuously slowly moved and transitioned into various states of physical tension, always individualised, and completely integral to the music.

“I Will Not Speak” was a bit more jumbled, and though the singing was beautiful, overall I was not sure what director James Conway was getting at. A plain black set was cut up with shelves of amber-coloured candles and two dark mirrors. At times the black-clad singers were only illuminated by tiny orange flames cupped in their own hands. As the singers interjected the songs with speeches about Gesualdo’s life, and spoken performances of poems by other poets of the period, we learnt that Gesualdo was a cruel prince who murdered his first wife, was vile to his second wife and his children, and wrote religious music to soothe his personal demons. Yet the singers remained carefully ambivalent about their material throughout, even when performing the prose parts, and that dispassion did seem strange.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 10/11/18