Saturday, 29 September 2018

REVIEW: The Northern Chamber Orchestra with Freddy Kempf - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra kicked off their 2018/19 season with a wonderful programme including Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony to an almost full Stoller Hall.

The Hebrides Overture was inspired when Mendelssohn visited the isle of Staffa in the Hebrides and indeed this very pleasing work invokes both the peace and the storm of the ocean. The NCO clearly relished playing this piece and took us on a voyage across the ocean and right in to Fingal’s Cave – the exact location that inspired it’s creation. Nevertheless I wondered if at times energy was lacking in this performance – an increased pace and dynamic contrast could have lifted it. This made me consider whether this performance could have benefited from a conductor, although for the most part it was stirring and simply beautiful.

My concerns about the lack of conductor (which I had noted to be a good thing in a previous review) were soon to be unfounded once the two mighty Beethoven pieces  - his third piano concerto and his third symphony - were performed. There is indeed something special about watching a good orchestra perform without a conductor – the interaction between musicians is evident and I suppose that the performers are more aware of each other and their need to respond to subtle hints and cues in bringing the music to life, rather than depend on someone else to tell them constantly what to do. They are much more part of the creative process and the interpretation of the piece in the moment.

                                          Freddy Kempf

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Freddy Kempf as soloist, was astounding. The energy and dynamic expression of both pianist and orchestra was exhilarating from start to finish. This piece shows very clearly how Beethoven straddled the Classical and Romantic periods and Kempf's interpretation balanced the technical, rigorous classical approach with a deeply expressive and meaningful interpretation. The Classical period, with Haydn and Mozart as its most important composers, was a high point in the history of western art music and it is fascinating to think that Beethoven took this highly elevated form and raised it again and again. The performance of this concerto clearly demonstrated this. Kempf interpreted Beethoven as if he knew him as a good friend, and really lived the deep emotions that this piece brings up. I am not ashamed to admit I had to wipe a tear at the start of the second movement – it was transcending and deeply touching.

The applause for Kempf and the NCO after the concerto brought him back on to stage at least three times and Kempf indulged us in an encore of a Chopin Waltz – No. 9 in A Flat – L’Adieu.  While this piece indeed has enough flourishes and runs to show off, it is also a very emotive piece and was highly appropriate after such a touching performance of the piano concerto – it continued an introspective mood and gave an insight to the inner process of a musician who, on the one hand, must be technically proficient and highly skilled, but on the other hand, must be a storyteller, and touch the hearts of the listener with emotions that may not even have a name.

It is hard to describe all of the processes that are necessary to interpret music, particularly when a large group of musicians are to perform together without a conductor. Performances should not be machine-like renditions of what is printed on a page – they should be alive and be able to change in the moment. Accuracy isn’t everything. This was clearly the case for the NCO last night – their performance was alive, it was a work of art crafted by all on stage AND it was technically stunning – accuracy serving a deeply emotive connection to the music and the audience. As in the previous NCO concert I reviewed, it was clear that the musicians thoroughly enjoyed performing these pieces and that too added to the performance, giving a humble and human dimension to an art that some people may think of as stuffy or pompous.

Beethoven’s epic third symphony – the Heroic symphony, originally inspired by Napoleon’s revolution, is full of motifs and ideas related to war, heroism, mourning and victory and a certain victory it was for the NCO with a wonderfully interpreted performance. The final movement was exhilarating and performed at a pace that really caught your breath and had your heart pulsing, yet it was beautifully controlled and no detail or fragment of melody was lost, no emotion un-played. Every word, if you like, of the narrative that this symphony contains was performed perfectly.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 28/9/18

REVIEW: One Act Play Double Bill - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

Shown as part of an initiative ['Main House Takeover'] which puts Fringe theatre productions - those that would normally be showcased in a smaller or studio theatre space - onto the Coliseum's main stage, in order to highlight the quality and diversity of work which is happening in Greater Manchester and to show audiences the kind of thing they might expect in the new Studio theatre when the Coliseum transfers to its new building on Union Street.

Pop - presented by Eventhorizon Theatre Company.

The first of the two one-act plays this evening was Oldham Coliseum's own Pick Of The Fringe 2018 award-winner, Pop.

Sitting on stage as we entered and staring accusingly at us were Beth and Abbi. In amidst a jumble of cables, neon lights and clothes, this pair take us on a dizzying journey crisscrossing several decades in flashback at lightning speed. I was uncertain where the play started but it seemed to end in an imagined future when they were both a lot older and life and careers had taken their toll. For the majority of the play though it centred around their preteen and teenage years - the 1990s and early 2000s - and their life in their 20s after school when other events had torn them apart.

Beth (Lauren Foster) and Abbi (Martha Godber) are best friends and always tell each other the truth. They are fashion concious, trend-loving, top 10 pop music listening, girls who once they start growing up start looking at boys who start looking at them!  They go through their teenage years experimenting with alcohol, sex, parties, sex, fashion, and sex.

When one of them has a seemingly drunken fling with the other's boyfriend, and then cries 'rape' - things turn extremely sour between them as the police are involved and they become separated. One goes off to live in New York with her 'shrink' lover, the other stays here and makes the best of it. Communication is never truly lost however as their bond of friendship is so strong they still 'watch' each other via Facebook and often think of each other.

Years later, a meeting, a reconciliation, and although they probably will never be as close as they were; 'closure' has been made and all is well.

The narrative is punctuated by pertinent music of the era, and the scene changes / flashbacks are excellently executed by a simple single noise and lighting change each time which was most effective.

Godber was certainly the stronger performer of the two, and I felt that she was, at times 'carrying' Foster a little. I was also having difficulty hearing Foster this evening too, her projection to the rear of the theatre was not particularly good.

Narcissist In The Mirror - presented by Nothing To Declare Productions

The second play this evening was a one-woman show performed by Rosie Fleeshman, which has already won several awards and has returned to Manchester now after a hugely successful sell-out run at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. It is Narcissist In The Mirror.

Using naturalistic monologue as well as poetry this was quite a unique piece of writing which started well and only got better. Just going to prove that Fleeshman is not only an outstanding actress, but has a huge talent in the writing department too.

This is a darkly comic and comically dark piece of writing which addresses current issues such as self-worth and self-identity, obviously close to Fleeshman's heart with sincerity, inoffensively and unobtrusively. She starts, seated at the mirror of a theatre dressing room, and she expounds on the highs and lows of her acting career and her sexual exploits holding the audience exactly where she wants them. Fleeshman is an enigmatic actress who has the power to hold our attention even when she is essentially not doing anything, and that is quite an accomplishment.

Directed by her mother, Sue Jenkins, this may seem a little nepotistic, but after all, who knows her better than her own mother; and since this is a very personal piece for her, it did make sense, and Jenkins' direction was tight, creative and cohesive.

I don't want to give away much of the story, if any, since if you haven't yet seen it, you really must, and there is a wonderful bitter-sweet twist towards the end.

Fleeshman is the narcissist in her own mirror, as she lives on others' adulation and recognition, and yet, is she really exactly what we perceive her to be?! With humour, frankness, poignant and realistic acting, there is absolutely nothing I can add to this review except to say that it is simply one of the best pieces of (Fringe) theatre and monologue performances I have seen, ever!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 28/9/18

Friday, 28 September 2018

REVIEW: Jamie Raven: Making Magic - The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester.

Jamie Raven is the guy who made Simon Cowell say, “I now believe in magic”. Jamie Raven is the guy who has now made me (a fellow illusionist myself) say, “That’s how you make a magic show”.

Raven’s new family show, 'Making Magic' is currently embarking on a theatre tour across the UK, and you would be a fool to miss it and not have the chance to be fooled. The content appeals to children, adults, friends, parents, couples, and grandparents. Basically, anyone can watch this show.
What tied all of his tricks together was the journey through his own magical world, which he took you on. If the show was a recipe it would contain the following ingredients: autobiographical performance mixed with stage and close-up magic in a theatrical cauldron. The journey deconstructed how and why magic works, explaining that our hearts are made to believe in something that our brains tell us can’t be true.

Before the show, we were encouraged to use social media to volunteer ourselves to come up on stage. I’ve not seen this been done before and it was a refreshing idea – good for his own publicity too. The video introduction, showing “Jamie from the past”, provided an effective build-up to when we saw “Jamie in the present”. It was also a theme for the first stage illusion he performed. In the video, I particularly liked the school playground style calculator trick, great for the younger audience especially.

The patter for his tricks was focused, rehearsed, and flexible to allow for any witty ad-libbing. His performance of the patter was nicely varied: sometimes speaking quickly, slowly, dramatically, emotionally, or comically. Sometimes he didn’t speak at all, because after all: “the most powerful thing you can say is nothing at all”. The show was full of beautiful one-liners like this. When he talked about things like his own definition of magic, the seven principles of magic, or the limitations of magic, he would sit down on a chair in the spot light - similar to what Derren Brown did at the start of 'Infamous'. These scenes were moving and mesmerising.

He put his own unique twist on magic tricks that had been done before, and he showcased his own tricks too. As a fellow illusionist, I have to say I appreciate this notion. I recognised how refined and polished his “magical powers” were as well: so many hours of practice had gone into that performance. He adapted his magic and performance style for children and adults alike. Most of the time, Raven performed illusions on a one to one basis with volunteers up on stage, although occasionally he performed tricks which got everyone involved; he made sure no one felt left out.
Echoing what was said in the show, the real magic was seeing the reactions from the children to the magic tricks. They were in a state of pure awe and wonder. Whether you are completely fooled or fooled for a second it’s still the best feeling. He literally turned a puzzle into something that people cared about.

With the bang of a spectacular firework, the show drew to a close. All I can think about is one of the first lines in the show: “For those who don’t believe in magic, they will never see it”. Sad but true. However, judging from the audience’s reaction, I absolutely think he succeeded in turning the most cynical and sceptical in the room into believers of magic. Raven’s magic is full of heart, sincerity, wisdom, and elegance. A class act.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
On – 27/9/18  

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

Brit Theatre is a new Oldham-based semi-professional theatre company which aim to create a field of equality for new work and established work for both amateur and professional local actors and creatives in quality productions locally. They produce both professional and amateur shows, and this evening's 50th anniversary celebratory production of the perennial favourite by Rice and Lloyd-Webber was an amateur one, but a highly polished and proficient one nevertheless!

From the moment we walked into the auditorium we knew that this was something out of the ordinary. A large stage area had been set up with an impressive and very busy set - that of a middle-eastern style Bazaar with clothes, lamps, trinkets, jewelry, and goodness knows what else surrounding the stage's perimeter, as well as a set of steps at the back still ostensibly part of the bazaar and a large screen behind that upon which images pertinent to each scene were shown. The cast were already on stage mingling and interacting with the audience trying to get us to buy their wares etc. It was a truly lovely opening and one I had not seen before for this musical [which, incidentally, I have seen more times than I have had breakfasts!]

With excellent costumes throughout {a lovely balance between the 'traditional' and modern ideas}, effective lighting and a solid and secure band, this was proving to be a very good production indeed.

For the opening song however the band had been mic'd too loud and we had feedback and they were drowning out the song. Fortunately this was quickly rectified and didn't continue. I also thought that the choir would take position on the rear steps, but they didn't, preferring instead to hide away in an alcove unseen by majority of the audience. That was a shame - since those steps were hardly used throughout the show they would have been an ideal place to have showcased the choir, the local award-winning Chorus Choir.

It was a large and strong cast, with some lovely cameo appearances, including a fire-eater for the entrance of the Pharaoh! Joseph was played by Matthew Corrigan who played the role with a slight disdain and an air of nonchalance. A characterisation I have not seen before. It was an interesting slant and worked better at times than others. A very pleasing voice and a nice stage presence made his performance though. Surprisingly, he was also the Musical Director of the show - which would account for the fact that he was continually looking at the monitor to watch the main keyboardist.

The narrator this evening was Laura Purdey who gave us a lovely balance between being the story-teller and also a part of the show. It's a difficult balance to find and here the interaction and complicity with the cast was stronger than  usual, and this worked in her and the show's favour. And with a lovely high soprano voice she was unafraid of bluesing some of the vocals.

Amazingly the company amassed 11 male singer / dancer / actors to play the brothers and they worked excellently as an ensemble and also shone during their solo moments. Redressing the gender balance was a chorus of 8 young dancers, and although the choreography (Amy Mason) was far from adventurous it was easily within the dancers' capabilities and there were some lovely pictures created. I absolutely loved the camels! Hilarious!

The whole show was directed by Dave Benson. There were some lovely personal directorial touches to this show which made it stand out from all the other million versions out there, and in general it was a colourful and light-hearted romp through a well-known biblical story. A couple of things in this show worked less well though. Both 'One More Angel In Heaven' and 'Benjamin Calypso' were given the wrong emphasis. These are essentially down-beat pieces, the first being mock tragedy whilst the second is indeed real and incredulous as the brother's fear for their youngest brother; therefore an element of pathos and realism would have been most welcome at both instances. Instead this evening they were both treated as happy holiday songs with a glint in the eye and no hint of sadness at all. That was unfortunate. Also, I simply didn't understand why Joseph was not on stage when the brothers pleaded for Benjamin - in this version to the narrator!

However, overall this was a colourful and busy show which was professionally executed and hugely enjoyable to watch. I have never come across Brit Theatre Company before - I shall keep my eyes peeled for future productions!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on -  27/9/18

Thursday, 27 September 2018

REVIEW: Pink Floyd's The Wall - Forum Theatre, Romiley.

Continuing NK Theatre Arts’ 30th anniversary celebrations and season they have now produced this concept rock musical based on the iconic 70s album of the same name by Pink Floyd. I’d only ever heard the title track from my childhood and was therefore unsure of the content, themes and the music. The show is a surreal narrative, almost entirely music with snatches of dialogue and depicts the troubled life and experiences of the fictitious character ‘Pink’ whose trials and ordeals construct ‘The Wall’.  Each brick in the wall being a representation of a tragedy or momentous event or period.  The physical wall on stage is completed by the end of Act 1. The plot is a looking back on Pink’s troubled existence through flashbacks showing his difficult upbringing, overbearing mother, his father’s death, his negative experiences at school, his rise to fame, alcohol and substance abuse and then his abusive relationships with women.  

NK Theatre Arts originally performed this show in 2014 to capacity audiences which resulted in an invitation to perform a one night only performance at the Palace Theatre in May 2015 receiving rave reviews and critical acclaim. 

A simple and yet stunning staging of a live band atop ‘The Wall’ on scaffolding was visually impressive and the lighting was very effective and well used with the rock colours of blues and deep purples and reds. The band was outstanding throughout. I did not expect to be able to hear the score through a six piece rock group but the balance of the sound and the vocals was super.  The singing and sound was clear and the lyrics came through clear and strong. What a joy to hear a live rock band. You could feel the vibrations at times.  

Excellent performances all round from the leads and from the ensemble who supported fabulously with passion, great singing and enthusiasm and love for the piece. Chris Saxon as ‘Pink’ lived and breathed the tortured and agonised character and the hallucinating asylum sequence of ‘Comfortably Numb’  was very powerful.  His overbearing and controlling mother was Louise Shufflebottom and what a powerhouse set of vocals she had! Another big shout-out to Hannah Gorst who has a fine set of pipes also on her, as the Dr in the mental institution.   
The bedroom scene where Pink took a seductive groupie home – played beautifully by Emily Tushingham- just didn’t work for me. I really do think it needs a rethink – chiefly the setting of the bedroom furniture and guitars. It was messy and jarred the whole scene. I think there should have been a cross fade from the front with more vamping to mask the changes. Maybe it was just first night glitches but it clattered against what was otherwise a very slick show.  

The show was a delight to watch as an audience member if you love avant garde and contemporary theatre – realism it wasn’t.  I am really happy that I didn’t bring my son as the show is littered with violence towards women – plot driven – but was an uncomfortable watch.  The themes are violent and aggressive. As we watched Pink’s wife commit adultery with a lover which was well choreographed and stylised until the poetic dance turned to threat, violence and abuse.   

Every incident that caused Pink pain is yet another brick in his ever-growing, metaphorical ‘wall’.  This number, in three parts, was really well done and a joy to watch where the young Pink rebels against the educational system. A fabulous musical number by the whole cast. 

In act 2 we see Pink work his way through his demons, eventually putting himself on ‘trial’. Pink's tale ended with a message of a hopeful journey of metaphorical death and rebirth that finally breaks down his wall. The trial scene was my absolute favourite scene. The stylised puppetry dance and reactions in the court scene were so well executed again by all the ensemble as the marionetted I’ll bet that took some rehearsing!  

I loved the show - clumsy set change aside- as it was overflowing with talent, energy, enthusiasm and ensemble work which is a key signature of this group’s work. Congratulations to the director Kerry Day and her vision for such a unique concept.  The band and MD and their wonderful energy playing all night was overwhelmingly good.  I might even download some Pink Floyd music now!   

Reviewer - Kathryn Gorton
on - 26/9/18 

REVIEW: The Lovely Bones - The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of American writer Alice Sebold’s novel has its first outing at Liverpool for a two-week run following its Northampton premiere. Liverpool’s own theatre royalty was out in force for this much anticipated joint production in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. The Lovely Bones is, of course, also a successful film so there is much to both live up to and challenge in producing a live performance.

A seemingly unassuming neighbour Mr Harvey (Keith Dunphy) is loitering. The play opens with his latest victim, carefree fourteen-year old Susie Salmon (Charlotte Beaumont), being brutally raped and murdered. Her only previous sexual experience is a consensual kiss from a school classmate in the early throes of first love. Robbed of her life, a furious Susie can’t move on to a successful afterlife until her killer is uncovered so she hovers in a strange place named heaven that can give her anything she wants but life itself. 

Lavery conveys the story with conviction while leaving space for the audience to fill in their own gaps and draw their own parallels and conclusions much like reading a book. Never overwritten, there is a freshness to both the script and the ensemble cast, led by Charlotte Beaumont, in an extraordinarily accomplished performance, playing Susie Salmon.

Set in small town, rural Pennsylvania in the 1970’s, the play is accompanied by a period sound track of retro songs such as Bowie’s Major Tom, original music composed by Dave Price and some very loud sound effects. The songs give a strong sense of time and mood with music adding to the, at times, thriller-like suspense.

On stage throughout, though unseen by her family and friends, Susie tries to identify her murderer and halt his crimes. She attempts to communicate clues to her grieving parents, siblings, friends and even the family dog (Holiday) played by a scampering Karan Gill. It sounds absurd, but you can feel yourself willing the characters to see and hear Susie. They are mostly too self-involved in their own initial grief and lives to feel her presence and Susie grows more and more frustrated as she witnesses them (remarkably quickly) growing up and moving on without her. Susie’s dad, Jack Salmon (Jack Sandle) on the other hand feels Susie’s presence and searches for the truth to the point of exhaustion while trying to hold his family together. Two black actors play younger sister Lindsey (Ayoola Smart) and brother Buckley (Natasha Cottriall) challenging racial and gender stereotypes that were only emerging in theatre in the 1970s. Smart is a believable Lindsey providing future hope as she becomes a young confident woman despite the loss of her sister. At times painful, Susie’s frustration (a teenager who feels no one listens) also allows for some comedy moments, providing relief from what is essentially a very dark tale.

Susie’s mother, Abigail (Emily Bevan), seems so detached throughout that we never really feel her grief so when she finally uses sex to rebel it seems a bit gratuitous. This is where the play is flawed for me. We never see her inner rage and she never really finds her voice. Perhaps that is the point. A 1970’s woman’s life is so humdrum and confined to cooking and cleaning, that Abigail becomes almost as unseen as she is unheard.

The play is emotional and does connect in other ways. Although the story is told (to an engrossed audience), from the point of view of Susie, the play is very subjective with much to ponder in the main themes of; life after death, family relationships, teenage coming of age, gender stereotyping and sexuality. This is a sexual play without being at all sexy.

Although too much unnecessary back-of-stage action at times confuses and distracts, the mirrored wall and (tilted) ceiling set (designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita) is impressive and together with low-tech props, the sounds of the 70s and some lovely stage movement creates a unique theatrical experience.

This is a quality production with good ensemble support including Susan Bovell playing Abigail’s boozy mother, and Keith Dunphy menaces as an un-remorseful killer Mr Harvey. The writing emphasises and gives voice to the victims and does not glorify the killer in any way.

At 100 minutes without an interval the energy remained high, but more time could have been spent on exploring family relationships and the grieving process for The Lovely Bones to truly work. Love or hate it - people were talking about it long after the curtain came down.

Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 27/9/18

REVIEW: David Bolton's Hypnosis Show - The Frog And Bucket, Manchester.

As you read these words, you will start to go into trance. All you will be able to think about is how mesmerising this review is and how fascinating David Bolton’s Hypnosis Show is. Yes, last night was a thoroughly entertaining demonstration of hypnosis and the creative possibilities that can come from it.

In a serious manner, Bolton walked into the performance space, immediately setting the mood of anticipation. He explained what hypnosis is: the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction. The key word here is “apparently”, as Bolton explains hypnosis is actually a “two way process”. The notion that the hypnotist is fully in control of the subject is a classic myth.

Bolton had a relaxed but authoritative performance style, which meant he could easily put people at ease. He exclaimed that if you came up on stage, you would be safe, you would only be doing silly or harmless things, and at worst you’ll fall asleep. Brilliantly, he set up a safe, welcoming, and encouraging environment for the hypnosis to take place. I loved some of the dry humoured asides he delivered too.

To begin with, he performed a common suggestion trick with everyone in the audience. As you would expect, some audience members were more responsive to the suggestion than others. We extended both arms out, for the left hand we were to imagine a huge book was resting on it, the right hand had a giant helium balloon attached to it. For most people, the result was their left hand had lowered significantly, while their right hand had floated up. This trick was a lovely way to involve everyone in the show.

Afterwards, the volunteers that came up onstage went through a relaxing, induction process. Bolton likened the procedure to being at the movies and becoming absorbed in a film; willingly suspending your disbelief. What’s great is that he explained how hypnosis works but didn’t reveal too much. Consequently, the show was still wrapped up in mystery.  

Music helped the subjects to arrive in the hypnotic state, but it also created a sense of atmosphere and tension. From a practical point of view, I think the bar staff could have been quieter in some moments, because after all the show requires a lot of focus from its participants.

As the show progressed, it was extremely fascinating to watch how people reacted to the hypnosis. Especially when people were in a trance and they acted out a scenario but did they genuinely believe it was happening to them, or perhaps they were playing along, or maybe they were in a state of consciousness somewhere in between? Either way, it’s still very interesting. Skilfully, Bolton handled each subject carefully through the different stages of hypnosis. Throughout the show, audience members were eliminated until the most suggestible ones were left.

This show was educative too. I didn’t realise some people were better at responding to physical suggestions and some were stronger at responding to verbal suggestions. Lots of creative suggestions were given to the audience members by Bolton to act out – making the show playful. When speaking to the audience, Bolton always maintained his status as a performer, important in this context, and varied the volume of his voice to great effect.

If you want to see something that is entertaining, fascinating, and mysterious, then go and see this show. “Go and see this show” will now be engraved permanently in your mind, as you stop reading this and come out of your trance in: 3, 2, 1. Awake.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
On – 26/9/18  

REVIEW: Salad Days - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

For a show that was a phenomenal hit some 60 years ago, it felt such a shame that this evening the Lowry's Quays Theatre was only half full, and majority of the audience were of the generation which would have fond memories of its original success. Yes, that's a crying shame really, since there is a place in the modern theatre repertoire for these book-style Musicals which were the staple diet of musical fans for many years. A joyous score, a comedy storyline which is easy to follow and not too complicated, great choreography, and of course a happy ending!

Despite this current tour being its fourth revival since 1954, it still remains a mostly unheard of entity. I knew the Musical quite well as I saw a university student production of it some years ago and subsequently bought the London cast recording album; but most of my generation, even if they were Musical Theatre fans, would be hard-pressed to whistle one of the many memorable and delightful ditties that abound in this piece.

Written by Julian Slade with help from Dorothy Reynolds, the story tells of two good friends who, after graduating from university together suddenly realise that they will now be going their separate ways and probably never see each other again. Neither have any idea of what they want to do in life but neither like the prospect of parting. Enter a tramp with a piano! They are asked to look after this piano for him for a whole month (their purpose) and they will be paid (their income) and in accepting so to do they not only turn their own lives around but their respective families' lives too and make the whole community a much livelier an happier place! Oh how jolly! And if this description sounds a little twee, forgive me, it isn't particularly too saccharine, but it certainly doesn't have the depth or layers that modern musicals take as de riguer.

In this production the two graduates of Timothy and Jane are played by Mark Anderson and Jessica Croll respectively. They made a lovely duo complementing each other nicely. Their voices didn't particularly blend at times with Croll have the louder and more powerful voice, but their chemistry on stage was lovely. The tramp, who was also the Musical Director and pianist in the show too was a very likeable Dan Smith, and the whole, actually rather large cast / ensemble for such a touring production, were excellent. Love her or hate her, Wendi Peters did give a very blustery and characterful performance, owing much to both Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge in her interpretation, and Valerie Cutko made an ideal choice as her opposite, since their physical appearances were so obviously different.

Maeve Byrne overplayed her hand completely with her solo song 'The Sand In My Eyes' as Asphynxia. What should have been an hilarious and clever piece was hampered by a restrictive costume and being allowed too much leeway with it. Whilst Callum Evans gave a stunning performance in mime as the mute Troppo, and the rest of the cast gave us mad uncles, dancing policemen, and even a female alien!

This is a touring production obviously on a tight budget, and so it was a one-set-fits-all show, using a bandstand centre stage upon which the pianist took residence. The band was actually a trio, and with the addition of bass and drums, the music sounded a lot fuller than it actually was. The bandstand doubled as a spaceship (this was the weakest design idea) but with an imaginative lighting design, this made up for the lack of set.

Director Bryan Hodgson missed several opportunities to heighten the comedy, but overall, this was a terrifically entertaining and joyous show which had me humming and bopping along to the lovely Slade melodies. A feel-good factor of 10 imbues this production throughout, and thankfully Hodgson kept the show very true to its original concept without finding a need to update or alter, and that in itself is hugely credit-worthy.

For anyone who enjoys traditional Musicals and needs a little escape - this is the perfect show for you! 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 26/9/18

REVIEW: Strangeways Here We Come (film) - The New Adelphi Theatre, University, Salford.

Although 'Strangeways Here We Come' shares a title with the final, bold, album by The Smiths, this film has no connection to the 1980s indie band (except for the use of the Salford Lads Club building in one shot). This film is a comedy-drama set amongst the high rises near the Salford Precinct around Pendleton. 'Strangeways Here We Come' looks at the lives of several residents in the high rises and the people around them, showing us the funny side of life in Salford as well as the more dangerous part, as the spectre of Strangeways prison (nowadays known simply as ‘HMP Manchester'), looms large. There’s an unfortunate postman whom never seems to be able to catch a break, former boxer Brian (James Foster) whose career was ended by a stroke, single mother Jean (Ania Swoinski) whose teenage son Ollie loves to act like a ‘gangsta’ with his ball-bearing gun, university friends Demi (Michelle Keegan), Sian (Saffron Hocking), and Becki (Chanel Cresswell), Walter White wannabe Marvin (Perry Fitzpatrick), convinced he can cook up a killer batch of crystal meth to sell, and his girlfriend Shelly (Lauren Socha), Aaron (Oliver Coopersmith) who spends the opening part of the film dressed as a superhero after doing a deal with God so his dying mother could have one more day, taxi driver and pill-pusher Max (Mark Sheals), and window-cleaner and sexually needy Lucy (Nina Wadia).

The film’s mix of comedy and drama, as well as its working-class milieu, recalled the early film work of Shane Meadows (especially 'A Room For Romeo Brass'), and writer-director Chris Green has scripted and overseen the final product with considerable skill. The film’s plot revolves around the residents coming together to deal with local loan shark and all-round bully Danny Nolan (Stephen Lord). When he torments several residents, they turn the tables on him and soon they face the prospect of a life without Nolan harassing them but having to keep a secret about what is buried under a patch of grass in the estate’s communal garden (aside from the residents’ dead pets, that is). When Nolan’s wife (Elaine Cassidy) appears on the scene to find out what has happened to her husband, friendships are strained, and misunderstandings ensue.

All the performances are brilliant, with Keegan’s studious, quiet Demi being a world away from the performances she gave in 'Coronation Street' and 'Our Girl' and Hoxking and Cresswell give believable performances as her friends, both demonstrating superb comic touches. Swoinski brings a real sense of pathos as Jean and Foster’s weather-beaten face perfectly encapsulates the sense of resignation which Brian has, as he continues to adjust to his life after his stroke. As Aaron, Coopersmith has a suitable air of naivety about him, although he is far from innocent as Lucy is thrilled to find out after his party to celebrate his final day of wearing his superhero costume. The funniest performance, however, comes from Sheals who gets all the best lines and has an incredibly expressive face. On the other side of the scale, Lord is terrifying and unsettling as Nolan – his piercing stare bringing forth a real sense that Nolan is liable to fly off the handle in a fit of rage at any given moment. Likewise, Cassidy is intensely stern in her initial appearance and there is the very real sense that Nolan’s wife is worse than the man himself was.

The film straddles the line between portraying a gritty slice of life in Salford and some often-absurdist comedic moments, especially when Marvin’s home-cooked crystal meth turns out to have an aphrodisiac effect. If one scene were to sum-up the film, it would have to be the scene following the residents getting their revenge on Nolan. As they sit there, coming to terms with what they’ve done, Aaron brings in a tray with tea and biscuits on. It’s a black comedic moment but one that is emblematic of the film, indeed life itself for many people who live similar lives to those of the film’s protagonists: the mix of the mundane with the extraordinary. If there is one part where the film misjudges its juggling of tones, then it is during the section where Nolan’s wife goes from being a sinister presence searching for her husband and to a horny, almost zombie-like, figure courtesy of Marvin’s meth – in amongst the growing tension of whether our avenged residents will get away with what they have done, the cutting back to what is, essentially, something from a sex comedy does feel somewhat jarring.

Aside from that one element, and a purely personally subjective criticism at that, 'Strangeways Here We Come' is a solidly made, consistently hilarious film which deserves support on its limited cinema release and is a reminder of the passion and energy that independent cinema has, and tells a story with true Northern heart and soul.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 26/9/18

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

REVIEW: The Effect - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

'The Effect' is the result of a partnership between the Coliseum Theatre and emerging Manchester-based company ‘Play With Fire’, giving a taste of what to expect when the new 170-seat Studio theatre on Union Street opens in 2020, allowing more opportunities for smaller theatre companies to present challenging and daring pieces of writing.

Writer Lucy Prebble has certainly found an interesting premise with 'The Effect', suggesting that love is a naturally occurring chemical phenomenon and asking if  it could be created artificially. This taps into a very modern mind-set that seemingly everything that occurs or however people act and re-act have specific, identifiable causes. A child is no longer lazy; they have ‘attention deficit syndrome’, a man is no longer a reckless and foolish gambler; he has a ‘predisposition to taking risks’ and so it goes on. If all actions are on this argument, just the effect of subtle chemical imbalances in the brain, can everything not be rectified by artificially manipulating the brain with other chemicals? With the above mind-set, two doctors set out to prove the point by trialling a new kind of anti-depressant on two young volunteers.

The set of two white low-beds surrounded by neon-blue lights and flanked by monitoring screens excellently provides a cold, clinical backdrop to the experiment, with the guinea pigs dressed in white track suits and attended to by ‘people in white coats’. There is a possible sinister under-current to the apparent care of the medical staff (think of Malcolm McDowell at the end of ‘A Clockwork Orange’) and we do not expect everything to work out without casualties.

There is good on-stage chemistry (aside from the drugs being administered!) between Elaine McNicol as Connie and Daniel Bradford as Tristan, the volunteers for the test, each going on personal journeys which diverge from the intended manipulation of their mind-sets. We see both characters undergo emotional challenges, as the ideas behind the experiment are tested to destruction. Robert Kingsland presents a strong-image as Dr Toby, who at times has an almost Frankenstein-like self-assurance, believing he is the man who will take medical science on a giant leap forward. Karren Winchester as his associate Lorna, brings over a very different medical persona, with her humanity progressively coming to the fore from beneath a clinical exterior.

There are several great set-pieces in 'The Effect'. Dr Toby gave a memorable speech in which he took out a brain and addressed it as if he was Hamlet speaking to Horatio. Connie’s attempts to challenge the doctors were at times reminiscent of scenes from ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and Tristan underwent a moving emotional transformation from his bed. In another bed scene, Dr Toby is forced to challenge his own ideas about what constitutes feelings of love and in another scene we saw Lorna strip down emotionally.

With so many of the plays at Oldham Coliseum over the last few years having had a local and left-wing political emphasis, ‘The Effect’ is the kind of play which it would be great to see a lot of at this theatre. The issues are powerful, real and relevant, without being located in any geographical or political centre. It is a play which genuinely sets the audience questioning their own feeling towards others.

It's also very encouraging to see a small, emerging theatre company given the opportunity to shine on the big stage and hopefully this will lead not just to other new companies getting the chance to mount productions at Oldham Coliseum but also more new writing being staged as well.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 25/9/18