Thursday, 13 December 2018

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol - The Playhouse, Liverpool.

There’s a festive choice of Christmas shows in Liverpool this year from Scouse Panto to Rock and Roll so the Liverpool Playhouse commendably doesn’t even to try to compete but brings instead the silliest of the lot. Billed as ‘A Funny Flight of Theatrical Fancy’, physical comedy theatre company Spymonkey bring their own take on the classic Dickensian tale with uproarious results. 

Opening, front of curtain, with the immediately recognisable Dickens, apparently to the surprise of Aitor Basauri (who was otherwise hilarious in the role) after asking the audience ‘Do you know who I am?’. Audience participation is instantly established with a resounding ‘Charles Dickens’ from a Liverpool audience who were ready to play. Just as well as the following Tom Foolery and general slapstick isn’t for everyone. 

The stage within a stage set the production firmly in the realms of entertainment with no pretence at reality as doors wobble and curtain walls are frequently breached. Designed by Alice Power, the simple set is used to maximum advantage and easily transforms from Scrooge’s office to his bedroom and Bob Cratchit’s house without missing a beat. The well know story of a very un-festive Ebenezer Scrooge and hard-done-by Bob Cratchit working on Christmas Eve before Cratchit goes home to his family and Scrooge to his bed is maintained with a Victorian feel. The four cast gave the appearance of many more with swift costume adaptations and changes allowing scenes to move swiftly enough to keep the audience focused. 

Costumes are also designed by Power and make an integral part of the performance with a great deal of emphasis on hats to represent characters. The opening scene is by far the best in terms of physical comedy with Scrooge hilariously being helped by Cratchit to climb up and down a vertiginous chair and desk with high reaching rungs that also appear to be on wheels. Toby Park excels as Scrooge with an equally balanced performance from Sophie Russell as Cratchit, amongst others, but the chemistry between the whole cast would indicate they know each other well and each play to and off their strengths. 

The cast are supported by a live trio of fantastic musicians, lead by musical director Ross Hughes, who perform throughout from a ceiling-height gallery suspended at the back of the stage. Heavy on drums but with keyboard and strings, music is an integral part of the show and lifts the production with some surprisingly rousing numbers including Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’. This is sung with obvious irony by a choir who appear at the end of the first Act.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future adhere to the original message on Scrooge’s journey to find his Christmas spirit, however his first employer Mr Fezziwig appears as a Cuban drug Lord in a pink Cadillac with a huge cigar and there is a strange, albeit fabulous, ice-skating segment that defies explanation. Spymonkey attempt a great deal and mostly pull it off. There are a couple of hat changing items too many for my liking and at two hours twenty they can afford to cut back a little. The second half is a tad slow and repetitious, although the energy is high throughout. 

It’s an irreverent take on an old favourite that will have people talking for some time afterwards and a refreshing performance style that will be new to many in the audience. It’s energetic adult entertainment with just enough audience participation and political references to satisfy the festive seeking crowd without descending into pantomime. A great alternative to tempt theatregoers seeking a fun experience without having to ‘Look behind you’.

Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 12/12/18

REPORTAGE: Lightwaves 2018 - Media City, Salford.

Lightwaves is a free, and mostly outdoor installation which is a combination of science and artistry, displaying 19 exhibits which can be found inside and between The Lowry Theatre and Outlet Mall to inside and between Media City. According to the map there were two installations inside one of the buildings at media City - between ITV and The Studios, but I was unable to locate them.

Of the ones I did see, then some of them were pretty - but most had a real scientific application to them as well, and a few were even interactive. One of the simplest but also clearest to understand and to teach children about electric current was the heart - by 2 people holding hands and passing an electric current through their bodies it lit a large red heart of lights. The other sculpture which I thought noteworthy was The Spectrum, a series of hollow identical circles placed equidistant from each other in a straight line. The lights inside are voice-activated, and so by making a noise at one end it sets off a chain-reaction of light along the whole 'tube'.

Try as I might, I did not understand the Youth Culture statue - a large man of coloured lights and video cameras / screens. I assume it must be highly clever, but sadly it evaded both me and the three people I met at the statue, who also didn't understand the point of it. I didn't understand the large squirrel either - but it was certainly one of the more interesting and eye-catching of the exhibits, as it changed colour from almost pure white to a varying degree of hues and pixels.

Other exhibits came from Blackpool illuminations, including what will undoubtedly prove to be the star attraction of this installation - 4 daleks and Dr. Who's tardis.

These exhibits are open daily from 4pm until 10:30pm until 16 December. If you are in the vicinity then they are certainly worth checking out, but I wouldn't advise making a special journey for them.

Reportage - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/12/18

REVIEW: There But For The Grace... - The Sackville Theatre, UCEN, Manchester College, Manchester.

Students on the Performing Arts course at Manchester College performed a 90-minute non-stop self-devised dance and physical theatre performance piece titled, 'There But For The Grace...'. The piece's title being a direct quotation from the longer 'There but for the grace of God, Go I' attributed to John Bradford. The themes of the piece are indeed hard-hitting and emotive; homelessness, prostitution, the sex industry, paedophilia, lack of work and poor wages. These are presented through a series of unconnected vignettes, either through interpretive dance, spoken word, physical theatre or a combination of them all.

It was a hard watch. The stage area was littered with waste and the audience were asked to sit on the floor without cushions for the entire length of the performance. The atmosphere was heavy, there was no lightness and no air in the theatre adding to the claustrophobic nature of the piece. We were made further uncomfortable by loud throbbing pulsating music (noises) which increased in volume as the performers gained intensity. Several instances within the piece reminded me very much of my time at drama school and trying to find theatrical applications for what we learned in class... here we saw Theatre Of The Grotesque, Theatre Of The Absurd, Grotowski's paratheatrical ideas, and more being brought forward as ways to shock and provoke. Interestingly it was the moments of 'alienation' between audience and performer which were the stronger in this performance. Their audience interaction was at best limpid.

The choreographed movement [either dance or physical theatre] was very good indeed, and some of the moves slick and dynamic. The feel of the piece was apt, but had very little in variation. The cast were angry and downtrodden with little variation from this throughout, and so, after a while it all became rather 'samey' and therefore lost a lot of its impact and power. The filmed sections were blurred vocally and they felt unnecessary. There is a phrase known as over-gilding the lily which is very apt here. The real-time stage show was more than enough to convey the message. The play was also too long. Running at half the time it did run at (or thereabouts) would have been sufficient. As worthy as the play was, there was nothing new to say and indeed didn't say anything new after the first 40 minutes. Had it been cut down to this length, the play would also have packed a much stronger punch and the message would have hit home a lot stronger.

For students so young I think that it was not only extremely brave but incredibly credit-worthy of them to be so 'real' about their depiction of sex on stage. Semi-nudity and graphic imagery such as these are not the normal preserve of drama college students. However these were handled very realistically and maturely. I have to admit to having a tear in my eye during at least one of these very brutal and emotionally charged scenelets.

The ideas brought to the table for this piece were excellent, and the commitment the students gave to it highly laudable. Unfortunately it lacked cohesion and variation, and was too long. I wrote copious notes during the presentation, but can only write so much in a review. The commitment from all involved was  more than 100% and would love to see them perform again in a contrasting piece.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/12/18

REVIEW: Dr. Dolittle - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

With the promise of magic and enchantment galore, The Lowry Theatre's big Christmas bonanza of a show this year is Leslie Bricusse's musical of the familiar 'talk to the animals' Doctor Dolittle.

The original 1967 film for which Bricusse wrote the score was awash with problems and financial hardship, but eventually won the hearts of viewers, and sees Musical Theatre star Rex Harrison play the doctor, whilst Anthony Newley, Bricusse's protege, played the cockney Matthew, and a wonderful cameo for Richard Attenborough as the Circus Master. There is now even talk of Robert Downey Jr starring in a  new film version in 2019, so well-loved and known has this creation become.

However, back to this evening, and the eagerly anticipated stage show. The show follows the original film very closely. The fusing of three of the Dolittle books to make just the one story (as per the film) and the stage design (Tom Piper) paid homage to the fact that these stories were originally novels with a multi-functional book design with the changing scenery being the picture pages torn from the books. It worked, but was clever rather than aesthetic and functional rather than spectacular. Either side of the stage were two metal  2-levelled platforms on which the band played and the cast utilised, but I didn't see the need for them on practical terms or indeed how they fit in with the 'book' theme. I would have preferred the band to have been hidden, seeing their music-stand lights continually - even in blackouts - was infuriating.

The musical itself took a long time to get going. The first half was rather sluggish, lacking pace, and failing to keep majority of the audience fully entertained. Indeed, I did notice that several seats around me had been vacated when I came back after the interval! However, if they had only have stayed, the second act was much better, and the cast seemed to have found their missing pace and purpose. It was also the more visually spectacular of the two acts, with the Giant Pink Sea-slug even gaining a round of applause (quite justifiably!)

So, yes, let's talk about the animals. There were many and varied representations of animals this evening, some working better than others. They were, for the majority, puppets, but some of the larger creatures used a body inside a skeletal skin, such as the sabre-toothed tiger, which, for me, was the most realistic representation of all of them. The dog, the pig, the monkey, and his other constant companions throughout worked well with their handlers. It was obvious that a great deal of time and rehearsal had gone into trying to create movement and expression in these creatures some with much more success than others. Vicky Entwistle was the voice and co-puppeteer of the parrot, Polynesia, which for reasons best known to the parrot community spoke in a broad Lancashire accent.

Some of the images / tableaux were very well thought through and worked excellently. The two seals swimming in the water for example was a nice image; others though just seemed to lack inspiration or focus, and since the scenes were very swift, it was almost as if the thought process was. 'oh never mind, no-one will notice!' The circus ring was just a light projection of red and white on the back wall, whilst the picture book flowers for Sea-Star Island were very underwhelming for example.

The doctor was played by Mark Williams, who, very much like the rest of the show, only seemed to get into the correct gear for the second act. A friendly and personable persona but lacked a certain 'oomph' in the characterisation. More animated was Patrick Sullivan as Matthew Mugg. Placing his character half-way between a pantomime Buttons and a Romantic hero, this seemed like a lovely characterisation, and his onstage chemistry with both Williams and Mollie Melia-Redgrave as Emma Fairfax was a joy. Melia-Redgrave proved to have a beautiful and mellow soprano voice, and was very easy to watch. The young boy Tommy Stubbins [six boys alternate this role throughout the run and I don't know which one I saw this evening], was indeed excellent, for one so young his stagecraft and ability shone. He has a pet duck and goes to see Dr. Dolittle to see if he can help and ends up travelling with him on his adventure.

The cast of principals completes with Adele Anderson playing the dual role of Lady Bellowes and Poison Arrow, both roles requiring her to be pantomimically nasty, (her poor singing voice very much her downfall for Poison Arrow), and Brian Capron, again playing two roles as both the circus owner Albert Blossom and Dolittle's correspondence-friend and ally Straight Arrow. His clipped upper-class accent for Straight Arrow nicely contrasting with his more gruff and common money-orientated Blossom.

The whole show was nowhere near as colourful or as thrilling as I had hoped it might have been, nor did it really enchant in the way other children's novels' adaptations for the stage have done. It was a hugely ambitious undertaking, requiring so many animals and so many different locations - one of the original film's downfalls - and although solutions were found, there was not enough difference between them and certainly no 'WOW factor, except for the entrance of the snail. Even Dolittle returning home on a giant moth failed to elicit even the slightest gasp of appreciation this evening.

Final verdict: as one member of the audience was heard to mutter to their companion on the way out; 'That was nice, dear, but nice is about the only word I can find for it'.  Certainly child friendly, age appropriate and, yes, very 'nice'.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/12/18

REVIEW: Modern Times (film) - HOME, Manchester

In 1927, when Al Jolson finished singing ‘Dirty Hands, Dirty Face’ in The Jazz Singer, he uttered the words that sent shockwaves through the industry. “Wait a minute; You ain’t heard nothing yet!”. What I’d give to be in a movie palace in 1927 to witness the audience lose their mind over this line! The shockwaves caused by the invention of “the talkie” are well documented, and best parodied by Lockwood and Lamont famously struggling to come to terms with the new medium in those hilarious scenes from 'Singin’ In The Rain'.

Sound was to bring about the ruin of most silent film stars, who were unable to find their voice, or adapt their performance style to the more naturalistic aesthetic of talking pictures. In 1931, Chaplin remarked “For years I have specialised in one type of comedy - strictly pantomime. I have measured it, gauged it, studied it. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait upon words.”

In 1936, Chaplin was still unable to find the dialogue to suit his style, or the voice for his onscreen ‘Little Tramp’ persona, so Modern Times was a silent film in an era of sound; a film seemingly out of place, out of step and out of time. But digitally projected on the big screen at Home, as part of their slapstick festival, it is clear to see why it struck a chord with audiences then, and still does to this day.

The opening intertitle introduces the films themes; “Modern Times. A story of industry, individual enterprise – of humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”. Here Chaplin is bemoaning modernity and capitalism, whilst also championing ‘The American Dream’ through a nod to the declaration of independence. It is in the first 20 minutes or so that Modern Times is at its best, with an outstanding sequence on a factory floor and featuring an automated feeding machine. The dystopian depiction of modern America is Orwellian long before the term had been coined, with surveillance and de-humanising workloads driving our hero into a mental breakdown. Chaplin’s physicality and charm in the factory sequence notably won over the audience, who chortled affectionately to every comic beat.

As the film’s narrative moves away from the factory, it becomes increasingly episodic, with set-pieces that offer diminishing returns. Skits range from Chaplin trying to get arrested, almost destroying the shack they call home and finding work as a mechanic’s assistant and all end with a comment on how the poor cannot escape their social status, or cannot escape the cycle of crime that their desperation forces them into.

Midway through the film, Chaplin and his love interest (played with wild-eyed rabidity by Chaplin’s then wife, Paulette Goddard) find their selves in a department store overnight and once again, the film takes off. Some brilliant clowning featuring roller-skates and would-be robbers brought the house down with laughter again. Proof that his comedy had indeed established “exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences”.

The film uses sound sparingly, with the only voices heard being those on electronic devices (the big-brother style screens, radio announcers etc), but the final act of the film has one last surprise in store for fans of the little tramp. In a musical sequence we finally hear him sing… in French!! It is an awkward vaudevillian routine, which seems a little antiquated and the French language perhaps a barrier. Has Chaplin swerved the opportunity to give his character a voice again?

Overall, the chance to see a silent classic on the big screen in the exquisite surroundings of Home was a real treat, but whilst his contemporaries like Keaton and Lloyd were finding more coherent, singular narrative strands in their features, it feels like Chaplin cannot escape his one-reeler days in this bitty and disjointed comedy. It remains a prescient and insightful comic masterpiece, but the whole can feel less than the sum of its parts.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 12/12/18

REVIEW: Cinderella - The Opera House, Manchester

A blue carpet, blue background posters, blue lights, blue curtains, and some blue costumes - there was a lot of blue incorporated into this pantomime’s design. However, nobody appeared to be feeling blue as the Opera House’s annual pantomime never fails to entertain the young and old; parents and children alike.

Pretty much everyone knows the story. Cinderella is the classic “rags to riches” story model. Cinders tries to outsmart her very Ugly Sisters (who constantly make demands of her), and, with the help of her best friend Buttons and one very magical Fairy Godmother, hopes to win the heart of the dashing Prince Charming. However, rather oddly, Cinders’ iconic step mother is non-existent in this production. I think it was meant to be set in Manchester in the 17th Century, because of the constant script references to Manchester. Confusingly, the set didn’t include any visual references to Manchester as we know it, in its traditional fairytale-inspired design.

Qdos Entertainment, who refer to themselves as the world’s biggest pantomime producer, produced this production of Cinderella. The typical stylistic elements of a pantomime were present. You had a zealous cast, music, comedy, eye catching scenery, spectacular special effects, good-looking costumes and plenty of opportunities for boos, hisses, and shouting out.

In the title role was Shannon Flynn, who brought a subtle hint of sweetness to the role. When Cinders stood up to her bullying Ugly Sisters, the audience got to experience her strength and resilience. Gareth Gates played Prince Charming, I liked his effeminate and gentle voice adding to his charm, albeit he lacked authority when executing his Royal duties. Sadly, his performance of Unchained Melody at the Royal Ball was underwhelming, considering he was meant to be singing to the love of his life. Gates’ singing voice was effortless but lacked tonal variety.

The Ugly Sisters (Connor McIntyre and Les Dennis) combined with the multi-talented Ben Nickless’ Buttons brought a carriage full of laughs. The whole show was littered with prop comedy and trendy, “down with the kids” humour. It was especially hilarious when they trailed off script and ad-libbed. It was as if “the naughty kid in class” got his hands on the script. The ensemble’s performance of Fabian Aloise’s clear-cut and dynamic choreography enhanced the “feel good” nature of the show. Great to see the local Stalder Academy of Dance get involved as well.

On reflection, there was an effective balance between humour, games, and story. The pacing and two hour running time was just right for the little ones in the audience. The reason why this was only just a good pantomime however was because the morals of the fairytale looked to be pushed aside in favour of the entertainment. The lack of acknowledgement on the personal messages learnt by the characters meant I couldn’t enjoy it for its meanings, I could only enjoy it as entertainment. In summary, this was an entertaining panto for all the family with dazzling lights, spectacular special effects, and plenty of glitter and laughs.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
on – 11/12/18

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

REVIEW: Snow White - The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

There was very much a party atmosphere at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre for the launch of this year’s pantomime brought once again by LHK Productions under the guidance of their managing director and executive producer, Liverpool born Lee Kelly. The audience didn’t need too much encouragement to join in as Snow White flees the Kingdom to escape her step-mother, the Wicked Queen’s evil plans to kill her so that she can become ‘the fairest of them all’ and marry the Prince. Snow White seeks refuge with seven dwarfs living in a crumbling cottage in the forest. There are big song and dance routines with wonderful choreography, a magic mirror and fabulous costumes all brought together with a little bit of magic.

A warm welcome from the Epstein front of house staff sets the scene for this is very much Liverpool production, with mainly local talent and with a script aimed at a local audience. All of which went down well with the enthusiastic locals who rose to the challenge of audience participation; not an easy task from the high, proscenium arch stage. Writer/director and Dame Debbie, Michael Chapman, in his tenth pantomime script, quickly managed to whip up audience support, from screaming ‘it’s behind you’ to being sprayed by water pistols. Lewis Pryor as Magic Muddles worked the crowd with likeable charm throughout and soon had them on side with both child friendly and adult humour landing thick and fast. The first half closed with the cast positioned front of stage for an uproarious rendition of ‘Twelve Days Of Christmas’ (involving two blow-up dolls and eight beer cans) that had the mixed crowd of adults and some very small children in hysterics before jumping down and running through the theatre amongst the somewhat startled audience.

Love her or loath her Kim Woodburn, of reality television fame, brings self-deprecating humour as pantomime baddie, The Wicked Queen. Sumptuously dressed, in sparkling show-stopping sequins, she takes all the boos and hisses she can get, ‘I don’t care Dear’, and finds her niche in the role. Mia Molloy makes an excellent leading lady as Snow White with a strong singing voice as she sings and dances her way through adversity. Her scenes with the cartoon-like enormous Scouse dwarfs ‘with great big heads’, provide some great highlights with ‘Snotty’ and ‘Scally’ being particular favourites. Daryl Holden provides a deliciously creepy ‘Henchman’ to The Wicked Queen in a cross between Richard O’Brien and Gollum that has him locking up prisoners and attempting murder one minute to whimpering the next. Scenes are short and move quickly enough to hold attention, linked with some beautifully choreographed dancing that sees the adult troop mix with well-rehearsed children’s groups from a variety of local dance schools. 

All in all, it’s an entertaining production that is held together by the fabulous Dame Debbie, who steals the show in a staggering amount of costume changes and brightly coloured wigs. The audience ‘asides’, ad-libbing and plain scene stealing is hilarious as he takes pantomime to the limit while always being mindful of the very mixed audience. Adapting at every turn, it’s quite a skill and Chapman pulls it off with a talented supporting cast who are there to make sure everyone has a good time. The very experienced Claire Simmo delights throughout bringing every bit of sparkle to The Fairy. Live music under the musical direction of Tom Thorpe provides a loud and lively score that really adds to the performance and Alexander Patmore as The Prince does justice to a rousing version of The Greatest Showman’s ‘Eyes Wide Open’. Heavy on drums and percussion, with ample opportunity for punctuating a punchline, it all adds to the utter chaos that summarises a very British but very Scouse pantomime with the spectacular finale enjoying a full house standing ovation.

Reviewer: Barbara Sherlock
on - 10/12/18