Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Legally Blonde - The Palace Theatre, Manchester

OMG you guys, the totally pink-tastic Musical (inspired by the film of the same name) is in town for one week only.

Legally Blonde tells the story of Elle Woods, a pink-loving, fun-time having, spoilt rich kid from Malibu. Her hobbies include shopping, socialising and dressing in pink. No-one would ever have thought that underneath that stereotypical blonde bimbo exterior lay a deeply passionate and extremely intelligent young lady.

On receiving the news that her long-term boyfriend is splitting up with her because he needs to get serious about his life and career, as he has been offered a place at Harvard Law School, Elle decides that she will also apply and follow him there. No-one expects her to get in to Harvard, but she is nevertheless accepted and proves her worth and wins the highest accolade of becoming the valedictorian of her graduating year.

Of course, she wouldn't have got there without a little help and encouragement from Emmet Forrest, also a student at Harvard, but a couple of years senior. Of course, they fall in love and Warner, her original boyfriend gets a suitable come-uppance and finds himself work as a fashion model! (a lovely little role reversal!)

A live 7-piece band, directed by Andy Batty,supported this high energy and full-throttle production superbly. Whilst the direction and choreography by Anthony Williams was slick, creative and imaginative, I did feel a little let down by the choice of cast.

Despite all the principal roles putting in excellent and very relatable performances, I had great difficulty in believing their supposed on-stage ages. I am fully aware that there is a large difference between an actor's actual age and their playing age range, and maybe, had I been sitting further back, I wouldn't have picked up on this quite as much. However, when the pupils look older than the professors, and none- of those who should have looked early 20s actually did, this was a huge pity.

Bill Ward's interpretation of Professor Callahan had more in common with Billy Flynn; Liam Doyle's warner was somewhat mono-dimensional, and Elle Woods (Lucie Jones) was sporting a very visible and large tattoo on her right arm. (don't think that looked right - not in keeping with the era and the style). However, Rita Simons provided us with a superb comedy hairdresser with a heart, Paulette Bonafonte, David Barrett was a humble and secure Emmett Forrest, Laura Harrison. looking like she had walked straight out of the sitcom 'Suits', gave a stern interpretation to Vivienne Kensington, but the most pleasing role in the show for me was by far that of jailbird Brooke played by Helena Petrovna. Everything about this interpretation was spot-on and her singing control whilst skipping energetically was superb.

Of course the show has a couple of  'AH' factors too in the shape of dogs, Bruiser and Rufus. If you are a fan of pantomime-style sets, cheesy choruses, insubstantial storylines, but hugely feel-good, all-American honest as apple-pie entertainment; totally upbeat and fun, then this is most certainly the show for you!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 26/6/18   

Romeo And Juliet - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

Way back when Shakespeare's plays were originally performed at The Globe Theatre, men played women's parts. Now, in this modern day interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, women play men's parts in this all female production by Girl Gang Manchester.
There has always been a bitter feud between the Montague and the Capulet family, it's continued for so long nobody knows the reason behind it. Lord Capulet explains to Count Paris he must not marry his daughter Juliet until she is old enough. Romeo and his friends receive the news that there will be a party at the Capulet house. They go, knowing they won't be identified wearing a mask. Amongst the lively atmosphere of dancing and socialising, a gentle and private moment of interaction occurs between Romeo and Juliet. They fall in love at sight, and so their tragic story takes off from there.

A plethora of concepts were investigated during the performance, as a result of the artistic decision to cast an all female cast. There was a comment on patriarchy in the theatre, in the past and perhaps now, with regard to the wealth of male parts, writers, and producers. You can then make a link to the representation of women on stage, determined by the male theatrical elite. The production challenged notions surrounding femininity by allowing the cast to perform activities usually associated with men: the actresses smoked, drank beer, and pigged out (so to speak) by eating a massive bag of crisps.
The cast explored masculinity and femininity, and the performing of gender. This included the deconstruction of laddish behaviour, the male gaze, and men's rough perception of sexual intercourse. When the Nurse was referred to as an "ancient woman", what once was perhaps a comedic line, turned into an example of the insulting and belittling of women. The production really did make light of the sexist proverbs, idioms, and expressions littered in Shakespeare's play text. On the flip side, moments of humour could be found as a result of the all-female casting. There was a funny but brief metatheatrical moment where after the line, "draw if you be men", the cast just knowingly looked at the audience.

Romeo and Juliet were played by Emily Dowson and Amy Lesson, and there was an infectious and dynamic chemistry between them onstage. Interestingly, Juliet seemed to have the higher status over Romeo in this production. Both of them were charismatic and assured performers. I loved the characterisation of Maria Major's Nurse, who always repeated the same stories over and over again. Her comedic performance possessed warmth and heart.
Kaitlin Howard, was the fight director, the fights were well choreographed and outstandingly executed by the cast. There was a playful look at the modern ways Shakespeare's lines could be spoken, however quite often some of the lines were delivered rather quickly, which affected articulation. For example, I felt Romeo and Juliet's shared sonnet was spoken a little too fast. Charlotte McAdam's prepossessing, hippie inspired design included multi-purpose platforms, hanging leaves, a flower printed chair and fairy lights. Although, the iconic balcony felt a little cramped into the corner of the room.

To conclude, this production allowed you to come to your own conclusions about the themes and issues surrounding the performance. Director, Kayleigh Hawkins, made sure to bring out the underlying passion and Feminist spirit of Girl Gang Manchester in the performance. It was a fresh interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe   
on - 26/6/18

The Play That Goes Wrong - The Opera House, Manchester.

This could be said to be a play within a play within a play. Incredibly cleverly crafted with skilled timing and implacable acting, this is one of the cleverest and most entertaining of this genre of play I think I have ever seen.

The first 'play' is the stage management team of the second 'play' interacting with the audience. They have lost both a dog and a Duran Duran CD. The capers and capabilities of the set are given a nice little preview of the greater disasters to come; and excellent use of an audience member was a lovely touch.

This over, and the 'director' of the second 'play' came forward to say a few words to the audience who have come to watch their amateur dramatic society's presentation of 'Murder At Haversham Manor'.

The set is for this 'play', and is a Regency decorated splendorous manor house with a plot and cast of characters very much in the style of Agatha Christie.. We see a two-level interior complete with elevator.

Of course the third and final 'play' is the acting of 'Murder At Haversham Manor' by the society but with the old adage that anything that can go wrong, will. - and instead of the intended play we see the play of the title, a play that goes terribly wrong. The cast are constantly having to improvise and adapt to continue with their play as if nothing was going wrong, carrying on regardless of everything literally falling apart around them.

And so, as the cast endure knocks, falls, missed lines, insufficient lighting, not to mention falling scenery and last minute cast replacements, this murder mystery very quickly turns into a farce of farcical proportion.

All the cast are superb, from the adroit Chris Bean (Jake Curran) to the inept and ineffectual stage manager Annie (Catherine Dryden) who, once she gets a taste for the limelight does everything in her power to make sure she stays there!

Directed by Mark Bell, this is definitely one of the slickest and silliest farces I have seen in a very long time. Superbly acted, times, and choreographed. A laugh-a-second sure-fire hit!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 25/6/18

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The Grange Theatre, Oldham.

This afternoon, I saw a youth theatre production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. This musical was originally written for schools and to be performed by pupils, before its transformation into the West End mega hit it has become. It's wonderful to watch this musical in its original context. Children of various ages, ethnicities, and abilities were joined together by the power of theatre.
Based on the story in the Book of Genesis, Joseph was born into a family of twelve boys, all the sons of Jacob. Joseph becomes Jacob’s favourite son and as such he gives him a gift, a multicoloured coat to wear. Joseph has a special power to interpret dreams. When it appears Joseph will rule over his brothers one day, the eleven brothers become jealous and come up with a plan to get rid of him. After the brothers throw Joseph down a well, a group of Ishmaelites pass by, traveling to Egypt. Their plan changes and the brothers sell Joseph as a slave instead. What follows is an epic story of jealousy, growing up, morality, love, and forgiveness.
he girl who played the narrator composed herself well onstage and had a sweet singing voice. Joseph's brothers were played by a mixture of boys and girls and they demonstrated great ensemble work. They kept the energy up throughout, listened and responded to each other effectively, and there was a charming chemistry between them all. The boy who acted out the part of the Pharaoh of Egypt captured his sense of coolness brilliantly. As for the boy in the role of Joseph, he did a superb job. He was confident, comfortable onstage, and sung well. As his voice is currently transitioning, he smartly thought about where best his voice needed to go. Sometimes it was appropriate to sing higher, other times lower, and his belting ability was commendable too.

Linzi McCoy and Darcey McCoy directed and choreographed the show. The blocking and movement choices made full use of the big stage and allowed for the transitions to run smoothly. It's clear the joyfully spirited choreography had been influenced by previous productions of Joseph and it wasn't too complicated or too easy for the children to pick up, it was just right. I particularly loved the reference to Les Miserables in Those Canaan Days.
Another successful production element was the set. The cartoon style projected backdrop provided context for the story. In a positive sense, the set looked like a DIY school play set; it was like they had raided the backstage area to find the appropriate set pieces. We saw: palm trees, a posh chair and table, a well, and some pyramids.

In their own words, the North Stars Theatre Company wish to create a rehearsal and performance environment where children of all theatrical abilities can unashamedly be themselves. Their ethos promotes diversity and inclusivity. They clearly want to develop young people in a personal way and as performers. This is what theatre is about. It's moving to witness. Watching this show brought back memories from when I was Joseph in a youth theatre production. Lots of hard work and effort had gone into this production, not just from the children but from the artistic team as well. With more time, projects, and performances, all of the young performers have the potential to create a bright future for themselves. Well done to all.

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 24/6/18

Bread And Roses - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

Bread and Roses is the much anticipated production at Oldham Coliseum directed by Amanda Huxtable.  The Coliseum asked local writer Ian Kershaw to create “a play about the things that are going on right now – a state of the nation play”.  Based on this brief it may surprise you that Kershaw decided to write about a pay dispute between mill workers and owners in Lawrence, Massachusetts back in 1912.
The setting was created by Kate Unwin’s design and consisted of the interior of a wooden construct home, the entrance to the mill that much of the story revolves around, cotton bales dotted around the stage and turning cogs against a smoke filled sky – the set worked perfectly and gives you a real feel what 1912 Massachusetts was like.

The production opened with the whole cast slowly filling the stage, each of them joining in with the rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” as they walked on and straight away the audience knew that this was going to be a night filled with top quality musical arrangement.

The story was focused mainly on Lucy-Rose Atkins (Emma Raomi) who is one of the mill workers and a single parent working very long hours for very little money.  She is finding it almost impossible to put food on the table for her and her daughter Ruby.

The mill workers union (the IWW or ‘Wobblies’ as they are more commonly referred to) have managed to get new legislation introduced to slightly reduce their working week to 54 hours (from 56 hours) but in response mill owner William Dukes (Matthew Ganley) speeds up the machines and reduced their wages.  This introduced us to local activist Joe Ettor (Rupert Hill) who is desperately campaigning for the mill workers and Cal Jackson (Oliver Wellington), a newly recruited machine mechanic who we later found out was also spying for Dukes.

The arrival of national activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Tupele Dorgu) to help the cause was when the fight really went into full force as she convinced Lucy-Rose to take a more active role in the battle against the mill owners.  Lucy-Rose also found herself in a relationship with Jackson, one of the many people taking money from Dukes as he controls the mayor, the local press and the local police – he always gets his own way.  Ultimately this control gave Lucy-Rose the inspiration for her master plan to defeat Dukes and his fellow mill owners.

The storyline was complimented by a brilliant soundtrack of acoustic songs – many of whom were written by Joe Hill who was a member of the IWW during this period.  The arrangement from Musical Director Howard Gray is superb.  He is also well assisted by a very talented cast of actor/musicians who seamlessly step into the background to play guitar, banjo, piano and even harmonica to provide the music and firmly put the spotlight on some stunning vocal performances.

The fight between mill workers and owners from 1912 is not one that we are very familiar with in the UK, but the parallels with modern day life are incredible – workers on zero hour contracts with very little rights, workers having to rely on handouts and charity despite having jobs, people being exploited and not paid a living wage.  This is something Kershaw clearly spotted very early and he has exploited this brilliantly in his script.  In the end the audience didn’t need the speech at the end from Claire Burns (who played worker Anna LoPizza) to connect New England in 1912 and Britain in 2018 – we all saw it for ourselves.

Bread and Roses is a story of hope and inspiration – it is based on a true life story and therefore has some credibility but most of all it is a really entertaining production with some amazing vocal performances (most notably from Claire Burns and Sophie Mercell) and a very well written script by an accomplished writer.  It continues to play at the Oldham Coliseum for the next 2 weeks and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.

Reviewer - John Fish
on – 22/6/18

Friday, 22 June 2018

The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival starts in July for a whole month

The seventh Greater Manchester Fringe opens on Sunday 1 July with Story Time with Mama G at 1pm and 2.30pm at Tribeca in the heart of Manchester's gay community.

Combining panto, drag and the traditional art of story-telling: Mama G will be sharing tales with children and their families.

Petite Pantos is a theatre company that specialises in pantomimes with a social conscience - championing LGBTQ+ issues, feminism and positive representation of race and gender. 

Story Time with Mama G stars Robert Pearce, who played Bungle in Rainbow Live, shared the stage with Tommy Steele and memorably played a tree on a rural tour of Scotland.

Maisie Adam will be presenting her show Vague on Sunday 1 and Monday 2 July at 7.30pm at the King's Arms in Salford. 

Within a year of starting stand up she won the biggest stand-up comedy newcomer competition, So You Think You're Funnyonly the fourth woman to have done so in its 30 years. 

Since then she has opened for major comedians and claimed a Best New Comedy nomination at Brighton Fringe.

In Vague, a preview for this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival's Gilded Balloon, Maisie navigates the recklessness of youth whilst dealing with epilepsy - a medical condition that requires her to be a "Sensible Susan".

Maisie recently appeared in the latest series of Urban Myths from Sky Arts, playing Siouxsie Sioux in The Filth & The Fury alongside Danny Mays, Steve Pemberton and Kayvan Novak.

A Surgeon's Photograph, Sunday 1, Monday 2 and Tuesday 3 July at Footlights in Media City, is a PREMIERE of a new LGBT musical.

In 1956 Robert’s father disappeared after a storm ravaged Loch Ness, 20 years later he is seeking answers. 

Haunted by the myth of the monster and facing questions of faith, sexuality and trust, A Surgeon's PhotographRising Shadows Productions, is a coming-of-age story set in 1980s Scotland.

With a haunting original score by Jacob Dufton, from Bury, directed and produced by his sister Ella Dufton, who has created work for the Octagon Theatre (What Matters), alongside training with the Royal Exchange.

Ella has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe (An Unexpected Electric Nativity and Macbeth) and Jacob in Not the End of the World.

They seek to challenge the stagnant nature of regional musicals. Starring Christian Fuchs, Sophie Rush and Joe Davies.

On Behalf of the People by Ray Castleton is being staged at three venues during Greater Manchester Fringe - People's History Museum (1 July), International Anthony Burgess Foundation (3 & 4 July) and Waterside arts centre in Sale (10 July).

Set in a Yorkshire mining town, the play follows miner George Mason, his wife Connie, their son - returning solider Tom - and Tom's fiancée Liz; from the immediate aftermath of the war to Coronation year, 1953. 

Tom Mason returns from the war to the arms of his grateful mother and fiancée - and to the bosom of the pit. George fights his own battles and an election. 

Connie mourns, loves and unites as Liz sees a new world brim-full of opportunity. In a new Britain, will their hopes and dreams be reconciled? Read more here

Getting Out of Your Own Way on Sunday 1 July at 4pm at the King's Arms in Salford is staged by Dancing the Blues Research Group - a joint project involving Edge Hill UniversityUniversity of Salford and Cambridge University.
This duet explores four key concepts in the work of dance movement psychotherapy with people with depression: embodiment, relationality, movement metaphor and narrative. 
Developing out of improvisations between a dancer/choreographer and a poet, the aim is to translate dance movement psychotherapy concepts into movement, text and sound and back.

Cheaters: A Play About Infidelity (Sunday 1, Sunday 8 and Sunday 22 July at 7.30pm, at King's Arms in Salford) is a fast-paced, and dynamic comedy. Echoing the classic farces by the likes of Noel Coward, but updated for modern audiences. It’s a frantic, silly and raunchy take on marriage, monogamy, and infidelity.

From the writer and performer of GM Fringe's 2016 show - The Book of Northern: The entire history of the North West, told in under one hour. 

King of The WorldSunday 1 and Monday 2 July at 9.15pm, at the King's Arms in Salford, reunites writer Brian Coyle and director Emma Bird.

They won Best Play and Best Director awards with their previous collaboration Welcome to Paradise Road (Liverpool Page to Stage Festival 2016). 

King of the World, a satirical/political comment on despotic power, was nominated for Best Director, Best Actor, Best New Writing and Best Overall Production at Liverpool Fringe Festival 2018. 

The play stars Pea Lee, Keith Hyland and Manchester actor Sean McGlynnn.

Emma is also directing the great classic Northern play, Two by Jim Cartwright, at Footlights Theatre in Media City, on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 July at 7.30pm. 

Jim asked two of his students at his academy to perform it and asked them to find a director. 

Emma Bird's most recent production New Dawn Fades: A Play about Joy Division and Manchester, performed at Manchester's Dancehouse Theatre (April 2018), sold out every night, received standing ovations and excellent reviews.

To see the full programme for Greater Manchester Fringe 1-31 July 2018 click here:

Trailers, interviews, auditions and other videos

Debbie Manley PR

Liverpool Pride 2018 Launch - Avenue HQ, Liverpool

With the ninth official Liverpool Pride festival on the horizon this July, and current affairs both in our own country and around the world demonstrating ever more the need for the LGBTQ+ community and their allies to stand together in the face of adversity and hate, the city is preparing to don its rainbow flag and get its dancing shoes on once more in both remembrance and solidarity. This year’s event marks a decade since the passing of teenager Michael Causer, who lost his life on 2 August 2008 after a vicious homophobic attack and of whom the festival is dedicated to each year.

Having moved proposed venues four times, the festival is returning to its historic roots at the Tithebarn Street in the city centre, the site of the city’s first pride celebration at Pownall Square in 1995, and is expected to prove popular with festival-goers due to the close proximity to the city’s Gay Quarter. This year’s theme, #AllTogetherNow, was chosen to incite unity and also to compliment the tenth anniversary of Liverpool being named the European Capital of Culture in 2008 and the cultural events occurring throughout the city to mark this occasion.

Having been invited to attend the VIP Press Launch yesterday evening, 21 June, at Avenue HQ, I was able to exclusively get my hands on a copy of the 2018 Liverpool Pride programme whilst the festival’s organisers informed the attendees of the event’s exciting announcements. Hosted by Clare Simmo from Radio City, we also witnessed talks from The Michael Causer Foundation, DC Tracy OHara representing Liverpool Police, and also a sensational performance of ‘Rise like a phoenix’ and ‘This is me’ by Velma Celli who will be playing at the Liverpool Epstein Theatre 29 July with her show ‘Iconic: A Brief History of Drag’. The evening itself was colourful and lively, aided by the rainbow décor and the aptly named ‘Proud as Punch’ cocktail available from the helpful bar staff, and as I settled down, complimentary canapé and in-house beer in hand, I couldn’t help but become immensely proud, and, I must admit, a tad emotional, about what the Organisation and its wonderful sponsors, Barclays, Manchester Airport and the Mayor of Liverpool himself, manage to pull off year after year to show that love is love and that hate will never win in this city.

Liverpool Pride 2018 is set out to be the biggest and most vibrant year yet, with a range of events and activities going on throughout the city on the weekend of 28-29 July. Saturday marks the annual pride march from Queen’s Square through to Stanley Street followed by performances from talented local and international acts such as Ellis Bextor, international drag star and winner of Celebrity Big Brother 2018, Courtney Act; the cast of Kinky Boots; Rogue Minogue; and House of Suarez amongst many others. Sunday is “All about getting over the hangover from the day before” with cultural and family events at The Bluecoat, the Liverpool Museum and LJMU. All in all, if last night’s press launch was anything to go off, this year’s festival will be an explosive event not to be missed.

Reportage - Neve Francis
on - 21/6/18

The Path To Heaven - RNCM, Manchester

Written by composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye, The Path to Heaven is an opera (written and sung in English) which recounts the experiences of the Holocaust as seen through a survivor, Magda (played by Lucy Vallis), and her cousins Sara (Caroline Taylor) and Hanna (Fiona Finsbury). The performance at the Royal Northern College of Music made use of a minimal set (a table and some chairs) with a Nazi flag hanging in the background as a grim reminder of the horrors committed by that regime which was present throughout the evening’s presentation. While the performance took place stage left, stage right of the performance space was taken up by the relatively small but tight musical orchestra drawn from the students of the RNCM itself and the Psappha ensemble.

The opera began with the figure of Esther (Lorna Day), dressed in white, stood at the back of the performance space singing a Jewish song. This character, symbolising the faith of the Jewish people, remained silently onstage throughout the performance before returning near the end. Day began by singing acapella but the orchestra soon began to play a disconcerting underscore to the lullaby. This contrast of Day’s delicate singing and the more abrasive music, which at times drowned her vocals out, set the scene for the rest of the opera: happiness and life were about to be replaced by misery and death. As Esther repeated her song, Magda began to reminiscence about how her and her cousins “were once a family before they came.” After her introductory performance, which Vallis delivered with sincerity, the scene moved back to when Magda was young as she and Sara, Hanna, their friend Hans, and Dieter, Sara’s boyfriend, return home from a night of dancing and singing. As Hans, David Crane possessed a strong baritone voice and impressed both in this role and in his later role as a Prisoner. Michael Jones offered strong support as Dieter but Taylor and Finsbury truly shone as Sara and Hanna respectively. Taylor was able to give a strong vocal performance against the often overpowering musical accompaniment. Finsbury performed a wonderful lullaby at the end of this opening scene which would have broken even the stoniest of hearts.
From this joyous opening, with light and bouncing music, things soon turned bleaker. The family are instructed to evacuate the city and Dieter believes that his position in the German army can protect Sara, but this turns out to not be the case. A Nazi Officer arrives and forces the family out onto a packed train heading east. As the Officer, Einar Stefansson certainly looked imposing but he did seem to struggle to get his bass baritone voice across against the music which, in places, was similar to Bernard Hermmann’s theme from the film Taxi Driver – jagged blasts of brass and thundering percussion. The two percussionists, Tim Williams and Abigail Flood, were certainly kept busy throughout the performance!

The brief scene which presented the women’s journey to the concentration camp contained what was perhaps the most distressing song of the opera, where Sara recounts how people cramped around her in the train carriage were literally dying on top of her. This sombre scene was then juxtaposed with a couple of moments which skirted close to venturing into the grotesque, given the nature of the piece. A song recounting how the deported Jews were treated well while cameras were there to film was performed while the three male cast members (dressed in their camp clothes for the following scene) wore clown masks and danced. While this may have been because of logistics, the sight of a man in a Nazi guard uniform and one dressed as a Jewish prisoner from a concentration camp wearing clown masks was somewhat incongruous. The following song, when the women have arrived at the camp (denoted by a light projection on the background of barbed wire, simple but effective), performed by the Camp Doctor (Stefansson), was incredibly jaunty but took on a chilling hue as he sang of “Life or death” being all the same in the camp.
The subject matter of the opera meant that the ending was never going to be an entirely happy one and Magda is the only one who survives. But the ending of the opera, where she is reunited with the ghosts of those she loved and knew, comes after a stirring song where she sings her warning of sitting in silence against injustice and division, which was undoubtedly given extra weight by the recent furore over the treatment of families of illegal immigrants in America this very week. This coincidence adds to how important it is that we remember the lessons of the Holocaust and The Path to Heaven does provide some insight into those dark days and carries an emotional weight because of it. It did feel perhaps slightly too long and may have benefitted in places from a tighter focus on the emotional trauma the Holocaust engendered. Nonetheless, it was a quality production, with the orchestra expertly conducted by Mark Heron and exceptional vocal work from Taylor, Finsbury, and Vallis as the leads.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 21/6/18


Awful Auntie - The Opera House, Manchester

Following on from the successful stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, Horrible Histories’ writer Neal Foster has turned Awful Auntie – the biggest selling children’s book of 2014 into a marvelling stage adventure.

I have never read any David Walliams books least of all Awful Auntie but my 10 year old co-reviewer informed me I was in for an “orrible treat”, the auditorium was packed with eager children awaiting David Walliams seventh book adventures of the Saxby aristocrats’ tale.

The story based in 1933 revolves around an old English heritage abode Saxby House where Lady Stella Saxby (Georgina Leonidas) a 12 year-old girl awakes from a coma 3 days before her birthday wrapped in bandages from head to foot, She is quickly greeted by her absolutely awful Aunt Alberta (Timothy Speyer) who informs her she has been in the coma for 3 months. After insisting on a game of tiddlywinks Alberta casually announces the death of both Stella’s parents following a tragic car accident when they were on their way to London to see the bank manager in which Stella was a passenger and sole survivor.

Stella is quick to realise that this was a not-so-accidental car crash and that her truly awful, murderous and conniving Aunt does not have her best interests at heart, but is rather intent on inheriting the great Saxby Hall for herself and will do anything in her power accompanied by a Great Bavarian Mountain Owl called Wagner to find the deeds and have Stella sign them over to her to become the sole heir.
In her efforts to escape and bring her Aunt to justice she is caught by Alberta’s really rather violent and vicious pet owl Wagner (Roberta Bellekom) and thrown into the dark cold coal cellar seemingly alone and trapped. Like all villainous stories there’s a hero and Stella meets hers in the character Soot (Ashley Cousins) the ghost of a young orphan boy killed in the mansion house many years before whilst a chimney sweep and with his help they partner up as detective and escapees.

The set was the mastermind of Designer Jacqueline Trousdale’s with her four cylindrical towers that converted into every room you might imagine existing within the Saxby mansion; the towers were a magnificent and ingenious integral part of the show with it spinning staircases and endless secret passages that left you marvelling at her construction.
Alberta is undeniably the star of the show, and embodies what we know Walliams for best over the top characters with some fantastic scenes and dialogue. Timothy Speyer's performance as the awful Aunt Alberta managed to be intimidating without being too scary for any little ones in the audience and my little co-reviewer particularly enjoyed the scene where Alberta wakes to find her bedroom booby-trapped by Stella and Soot repeatedly slipping on marbles, washing her face with soap filled with boot polish, suffering 'splashback' when a clear glass sheet is placed under the toilet seat, exploding pipes and bubble bath toothpaste had her chuckling with delight.

Stella, played by Georgina Leonidas, was the perfect blend of innocence and mischief to keep us all rooting for her as she fights for her life against her devious and unscrupulous aunt.
Soot’s played by Ashley Cousins, brings warmth to the stage with his cheeky character and cockney phrases throughout such as ‘donkeys ears’, ‘dog and bone’ and making us all fell a little sad that he is actually 'brown bread'.

Richard James as the doddery ancient butler Gibbon brings humour to the story with his hilarious random entrances onto the stage, abstract conversations and confused scenes of bat catching and roasting slippers which went down a treat with the young audience.
Roberta Bellekom the puppeteer behind Wagner the huge owl and henchman of evil Alberta does a fantastic job of making sure the audience notices the bird and not her, displaying a tremendous and remarkable skill of puppetry.

Verdict: A terrific 2 hours of escapism for all the family to see which I would highly recommend to anyone whose has children or are young at heart themselves.
Reviewer - Katie Leicester
on - 20/6/18


The Crucible - Storyhouse Theatre, Chester

A theatre experience does not begin when the house lights go down. One could argue that the house lights need not necessarily go down in any case but for the purposes of this review that’s a totally irrelevant point. I'd argue that the theatrical experience for an audience member begins at least on the street outside. I mention this because it’s my first time at the Storyhouse in Chester and that the element of excitement of checking out a new venue imparts a particular edge onto the actual production I’ve come to review.

Walking towards the entrance my first thought was “crikey, this place is big!” On entering the Storyhouse my next thought was “crikey, this place is big!” Substitute whatever words your imagination allows in place of crikey. I then saw books (which are lendable) and a decent sized tapas restaurant/bar/coffee shop before you even get near the Theatre space. It was all pretty busy too although of course you might expect this on press night for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The Crucible, first performed in New York in 1953 is a tale of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 with modern day (at the very least to a fifties audience) parallels which reflect the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the tactics used by the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities to root out communist sympathies within American society. These are tactics which are echoed by Deputy Governor Danforth in the play. Miller himself was called before the committee and by refusing to name his known liberal associates risked being found in contempt of the committee and therefore Congress. It’s this parallel with Millers own gallant experience with authority which leads to John Procter being led to the gallows after pleading to restore his name. This similar theme of maintaining a mans good name runs throughout Millers other work too including Eddie in a View From a Bridge where an identical plea is made. It’s beautiful writing and delivered with heart and truthfulness by Matthew Flynn playing Procter, making one sit up and listen. It’s truly fine acting from Flynn. 

From the ensemble, one sees a performance style which lends a distinctly Shakespearean tone to the language of the play and is an impressive artistic direction taken by the company. This results in some remarkable performances by several of the lead actors.

Set in thrust with a range of door options in a wall under the proscenium it isn’t a complicated set but well thought out even if the blocking doesn’t quite compliment as well as it might do. There’s money been put into this production and a fine balance has been found between design and company.

Remarkably you can hardly realise it’s part of a rep season. It allows the writing and performance to take its place as a focal point for the production and this is one of several fine decisions for this play. The challenges of casting and designing for a rep season have been met well.

One regrettable decision was the use of regional accents. Here, a cliché is maintained that the “uneducated” small folk sport regional northern accents whilst the educated and powerful maintain neutral or more prestigious accents which re-enforces an unfortunate myth which must be objected to. Perhaps one day a production of the Crucible can be done in authentic Massachusetts accents. One can dream…

The ambition of the Storyhouse is admirable. The artistic team have presented an ambitious production of the Crucible for their summer repertoire working with a well formed ensemble yet allowing some first rate performances to shine through here. As the team learn more about the capabilities of the venue in the coming years I’m expecting further amazing work to come through

Reviewer - Karl Barnsley
on - 21/6/18