Wednesday, 31 October 2018

REVIEW: Calendar Girls - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

It’s 2018 and the #MeToo movement is in full swing, so it feels like the time is right for a musical about female empowerment. Many people will know the original film based on a true story of a group of Yorkshire women from the Women’s Institute (WI) who pose naked to raise funds for charity. It’s a story of acceptance and feeling empowered no matter what gender, size or age you are. The Full Monty has been delighting audiences for years, isn’t it time there was a female equivalent? 

Given the high profile names and faces behind the new Calendar Girls musical, expectations are sky high. The music is written by Take That frontman Gary Barlow who has collaborates with the writer of the original film Tim Firth to compose a score for this new musical; and a host of famous faces feature in the cast including; TV Presenter Fern Britton and Denise Welch, who is a regular on Loose Women.

In terms of plot the musical doesn't stray far from the film. So fans of the film will not be disappointed. However it's inevitable that comparisons will be made even though they're completely different. The set is very representative of the rural landscape. The backdrop is of a Yorkshire Dale. There's a gate and a wall and a bit of greenery - very typical of a rural village. Set in the Yorkshire Dales, the plot is based on a group of women in a WI group. Sadly one of the group’s members, Annie (Anna-Jane Casey) becomes a widow. Her childhood best friend of 40 years, Chris (Rebecca Storm) suggests they raise money for a new settee for the hospital’s family room. Chris is inspired by a calendar she receives from the Netherlands of women posing nude behind flowers. She suggests the WI group do a nude calendar to raise funds for the settee. It's a story about finding hope in the worst days of your life. When tragedy strikes do you sit back and cry or do you fight?

The women in the WI group are a diverse bunch. We have the mousy Ruth who is superbly played by Sara Rowe. There's Jessie (Ruth Madoc) who doesn't want her age to slow her down. Karen Dunbar plays Cora who's slightly more tomboyish than the rest of the girls. Given that this is a musical one may be expecting high notes and jazzy dance routines. Sadly that is not the case in Calendar Girls. In fact none of the singing was particularly strong in my opinion - Welch practically spoke her way through her solo song. Britton doesn’t sing a note during the whole evening, not even in the ensemble pieces. However, what the ladies lacked in vocal power they made up for in charm and humour.

Between all the calendar madness there a subplot between a group of school children. Jenny (Isabel Caswell) is new to the school and catches the attention of Danny (Danny Howker). This provides some comic relief from some of the more dramatic scenes in the main plot. As the plot reaches its climax we see each girl stripping off and posing for the calendar. This was well done and each girl received a round of applause for it. However for me it signified each character overcoming their own personal struggle and their hard work paying off. Throughout the story we see that each girl has something they need to overcome.

During the curtain call on Press Night there was a nice moment when the original calendar girls were brought on stage. It was nice to hear how their story went on to raise millions for charity.

Reviewer - Brian Madden
on -30/10/18

REVIEW: Rebus: Long Shadows - The Opera House, Manchester

This evening I went to see a play at Manchester's Opera House, for the first time (I think) completely blind in my foreknowledge or expectation of what I was about to witness. I went to be entertained and enlightened. I thought I might learn something about a series of hugely popular novels and possibly be inspired to read them. No more than that.

As I took my seat and stared at the open-plan set (no curtain) I was immediately entranced. It looked very Shakespearean or perhaps like one of the interiors for Game Of Thrones. A large mostly empty forestage (save a comfy chair and a few filing cabinets) gave way to a long, sweeping, grey stone staircase and a higher platform above. The two outer walls had doorways cut in them and with the use of haze and continual cross-switching from amber to steel lights became rather foreboding and 'Gothic'.

However, what followed was a rather slow-paced piece of theatre. I enjoyed watching the acting from the three protagonists. Charles Lawson played John Rebus, a Scottish retired detective with a drink problem and a gammy leg with the tenacity and charm of Taggart and the slow deliberations and an alcohol dependency to rival another Scottish fictional detective, Bruce Robertson. Sometimes he was slow and sluggish, and others there was the younger Rebus shining through as he used old school methods to procure information. His character was flawed and complicated, and perhaps, if I had known him from the novels, I may not have liked his portrayal as much since I would already have had a preconceived idea of what to expect. This was a new character for me, and his every move was a new move. His seemingly only ally still working on the force is Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), an English detective who continually teeters between despair and veneration of Rebus. Always professional, always keeping her distance, her mannerisms and dialogue seemed sometimes clipped, but it was this that alerts you to the fact that she is trying to remain aloof as much as possible.

However, for me, what made this play was the performance of Edinburgh's self-confessed Godfather, Cafferty (John Stahl). His affected gentlemanliness and largesse pitched perfectly, and in his longer scene at the end of the play we see him start to crumble little by little and he measured this performance superbly.

What worked less well for me was the appearances of the female victims who pop up in Rebus' drink-fuelled hallucinations. (Dani Heron and Eleanor House). They stare accusingly, and their tones and mannerisms demanding justice for them and mocking Rebus for failing them, seemed forced and out of kilter with the reality of the play itself. At one point they walked out of a cupboard in the police Records Dept. Emotionally bland and similar, with little or no change to their characters it was very hard to sympathise with them - their whining tones just simply became annoying. No wonder someone bumped them off!

The murder story-line is a new one written especially for this stage adaptation and although it starts extremely fragmentedly all the dots joined together by the end but you really needed to watch and listen intently throughout - especially since Rebus' accent was far more West Coast than East - and the set (designed by Ti Green) failed to impress and really didn't work very well, despite my initial liking of it. In places it becomes rather 'Noiresque' looking like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in the design. Robin Lefevre has directed this play - the first time Rebus has been seen on stage - with an obvious need to try and recreate the feel and timbre of the novels as much as possible; however for a first-timer like myself, I found it difficult to access as the deference to conventionality took precedence over originality and artistic licence.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/10/18

REVIEW: Fagin's Twist - Northern Stage - Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

The story of Oliver Twist is beloved and well-known, but what happens when you re-tell it through the eyes of the scheming, allusive commander-in-chief, Fagin? Avant Garde Dance Company’s ‘Fagin’s Twist’ is a dynamic re-imagining of Dickins’ classic tale, colliding theatre with contemporary-infused hip-hop dance as it takes the audience on a journey through the life of Fagin, meeting the familiar faces of Nancy, Bill Sykes and, of course, the Artful Dodger along the way. Armed with only seven cast members, Avant Garde Dance Company succeed in making the stage vibrant and electrifying through Tony Adigun’s choreography and directing.

The set itself was minimalist, the pre-set being only what seemed to be a long wooden fence-like structure, which later would break into three and reveal metal bars and scaffolding on its interior, allowing the performers to effortlessly glide and swing through them and even jump from one to another without missing a step. There was little need for more other than the occasional use of chairs and brooms, keeping the piece feeling somehow new and modern in contrast to its Victorian roots.

The piece began with an explosive opening number, captivating the audience as the performers danced sharply with top hats in an almost physical-theatre-esque way; each member in perfect unison with one another as they turned, jumped and lunged, making use of all the space the stage had to offer and giving the impression of a much larger ensemble than that of just over half a dozen. The cast throughout did not miss a beat and worked above and beyond, moving their own set and props from start to end despite, as I discovered during the post-show Q & A session, having dropped a cast member during this tour. The small-sizing choice lent itself to multi-roling, allowing the cast to show off their chameleon skills of melting from one character to the next with impeccable skill.

Aaron Nuttall, The Artful Dodger, acted as the narrator, peppering the action throughout with well- delivered wit and intrigue which left the audience ready to delve in deeper whilst Stefano A. Addae, playing an elusive character later to be defined as a young Bill Sykes, showed a wonderful character arc from a sweet-natured workhouse boy whose only dream being to “have a girlfriend and a family” to the cold-blooded villain we know from the novel and film.

The stand-out role of Fagin was played by company newcomer, Arran Green, a statuesque, elegant performer with sleek and flowing movements accompanying his flawless performance throughout. A particular stand-out moment being his act two maddened monologue in which he cries how everyone always wants “more”, a subtle nod to the original’s infamous line. Green gives a powerful performance, showing the inner-most parts of Fagin’s mind, stripping away the cunningness and giving him an, albeit deranged, raw humanity.

A refreshing gender-blind casting of Oliver Twist himself was highlighted with Sia Gbmoi, a compact powerhouse performer, portraying stunningly Oliver’s change from innocence to deceitful experience, full of unexpected twists and turns along the way, turning on its head what you thought you knew. The boisterous Nancy, Ellis Saul, showed a refreshing, softer side as she shared a sentimental scene between herself and Oliver whilst lifting and moving a table around him, perfectly choreographed, without a mention. My only criticism would be that I ached to be given more from Saul’s portrayal, having been a strong, stand-out role in the original, she seemed to almost fade into the background, even within dialogue.

Peppered with scenes of dialogue and merging the line between dance and theatre, Avant Garde Dance Company’s confident production of ‘Fagin’s Twist’ played with boundaries and made old things feel new. It truly managed to, as their motto states, “go against the grain” and “innovate, never replicate” in this strong, diverse piece of theatre/dance infusion.

Reviewer - Neve Francis
on - 30/10/18

REVIEW: A Hundred Different Words For Love - HOME, Manchester.

'A Hundred Different Words For Love', written by and starring James Rowland and produced by Tangram Theatre, is a solo show exploring love, loss, friendship, and the stories they leave behind. There’s no set, just Rowland and a keyboard and amplifier onstage for one hour. As the performance begins, Rowland informs the audience that, “I’m going to tell a story and none of it is true.” This may be the case or it may actually have some root in lived truth (as all the best stories do); the fact that the character narrating this story is also called James leaves open the question that it may, indeed, be based on real-life events.

The narrative of the show intercuts between James (the character) preparing to be the ‘Best Man of Honour’ at the wedding of his best friend Sarah to her fiancée Emma and recounting how he met and began a relationship with the woman who may have been the love of his life. The wedding sections are backed by fragments of a song played on the keyboard and then looped through an effects pedal, which frees Rowland up to move away from the keyboard and perform getting on and off the tube, going up to his flat, grabbing carrier bags of Viennetta out of the freezer, calling a taxi, and slumping in front of the freezer in order to segue into the story of how he met ‘the woman.’ James states that he isn’t going to tell the audience her name or describe how she looks. Instead he encourages the audience to take a moment to close their eyes and imagine her, presumably to make the story more personally involving; the audience will have more of a feeling of ownership if ‘the woman’ is someone they have imagined.

After recounting his clumsy attempts at trying to get the woman to go out with him, eventually succeeding, he moves the narrative forward to six months into the relationship where the woman tells him she loves him; James, however, leaves it too long to return the sentiment and admits that he never told her he loved her. The next narrative leap is two years on and they have split up – and this moment leads to some of Rowland’s more affecting lines as he remarks that, “There’s no joy like making someone you love happy,” and stated, with an air of mournful regret, that he didn’t even cry after the break-up, leaving his “heart drowning in the tears I couldn’t shed.” In between these two poetic statements, Rowland brings some levity to the situation by explaining that they broke up because he never looks to the future and demonstrating how ‘Future James’ hates ‘Past James’ because ‘Past James’ is too busy enjoying the moment. To provide a concrete example, Rowland proceeded to empty a bottle of water over his head and said he was enjoying it, until after the bottle was empty and a few beats had passed, at which point he was now “cold, wet, and thirsty.”

As the narrative catches up to the present of the wedding, Rowland introduces some other characters into the story, namely his best friend Sarah’s father, Giles, who doesn’t agree with his daughter’s lifestyle choices, and Sarah’s Nan, who is in her eighties, has had hip replacements, gets the best lines, and sounds like a fantastic person (if she is real, and even if she isn’t, that assertion still holds true). Rowland is given the chance to take off his soaking suit and dons a dress, as James does in the narrative, as Sarah’s ‘Best Man of Honour’ which he spends the remainder of the show in. With ‘the woman’ being a mutual friend of Sarah’s, she appears at the wedding and James and her share a few civil words with one another, James finally admitting to her that he loved her and her replying simply, “I know.” The story ends there, no happy ending but no tragedy, either. Rowland performs the song he wrote for the wedding and had been playing fragments of throughout the show and brings the performance to a conclusion.

As a performer, Rowland is engaging but doesn’t take himself too seriously; with his verbosity, he does come across as a more amiable Boris Johnson crossed with any of the characters portrayed by Hugh Grant in those rom-com movies written by Richard Curtis. The structure of the piece is tight and the story, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is universal enough to strike a chord with most viewers. 'A Hundred Different Words For Love' may not be the most radical, convention-shaking piece of theatre, but it is certainly the most human. Funny and bittersweet, it is well worth investing an hour in.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on -  30/10/18

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

REVIEW: Rain Man - Grand Theatre, Leeds.

Bill Kenwright presents the Classic Screen To Stage Theatre Company’s production of the classic Rain Main - based on the 1988 Oscar winning film of the same name (which starred Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman), which scored several Oscars including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Hoffman.

Whilst I remember the film well and have fond memories of watching it on VHS with my family, it is now somewhat dated, as is the people's view towards autism and learning disabilities (thank goodness!). I had my doubts as to how it would transform to stage but it was the casting of the two Babbit brothers I particularly wanted to see.

Whilst it had the chance to be something brilliant, there were several parts of it which left me feeling deflated and rather disappointed. However Horne’s performance as the savant Raymond outweighed the negatives of this production.

The story starts at Babbit Collectables - where we meet the self-centred Charlie Babbit (‘Downton Abbey’s’ Ed Speleers in his stage debut) closing in on some business deals when he learns the news that his father has passed away. Charlie shows little sign of empathy or grief at the news and continues about his business but on hearing that a mystery beneficiary has inherited the family multi-million dollar fortune, Charlie is seething and sets out to get “his half”. It isn’t long until Charlie discovers that he has a secret brother - Raymond - an autistic savant - and that this is the person the family fortune was left to. Determined to get his hands on what he believes is rightfully his, Charlie “borrows” Raymond from the institution that has been Raymond's secure home for most of his life. The pair set off on an epic adventure travelling across America but soon Charlie discovers that Raymond has a remarkable memory - being able to memorise an entire phone book in a short space of time and having a particular skill for numbers - Charlie’s plan of action takes a twist when he realises that Raymond is worth more than he ever could have imagined.

Whilst the film focuses on the road journey, with the pair in their fathers classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster (the only thing that Charlie inherited, other than his dad's rose bushes, ironic because as a teen he would argue with his father over the car and was never allowed to drive it), we do not get to see the car in this stage adaptation. Whilst it gets a mention as Charlie learns his fate from his father's will and the pair decide to travel by car over Raymond's reluctance to fly (after he lists off all the different types of aeroplane and the dates of crashes and casualties stating they are unsafe), the majority of the production is set in hotels and motels as the pair travel across the States before arriving in Las Vegas where Charlie comes up with a cunning plan to get the $80,000 he needs to bail him out of a failed deal at work.

The stage set sadly is rather unimaginative and we only get to see Las Vegas after they have made their winnings. I say Las Vegas but in reality it was a wrinkled painted backdrop of the Vegas lights. (The lighting was so bright I could count the wrinkles in the skyline….)

Similar disappointment can be said for the lighting design - which has two features - blinding floodlights or pitch black (during a screen change). There also appeared to be a distinct lack of microphones and despite being towards the front of the stalls, the cast only had to turn their backs to the audience slightly and we lost what was being said. This wasn’t helped by a clearly faulty speaker which had a deafening buzzing noise throughout the majority of the performance.

However, Horne gave an outstanding performance as the autistic Raymond. Whilst he didn’t particularly put his own spin on the role and I got the impression that Mathew had sat down and watched Hoffman in the role on DVD for months on end to perfect the autistic characteristics he portrayed in the original film - from the constant rocking back and forth gently or the unique way in which he shuffled rather than walks to the tics and self harming slaps when he became stressed or over stimulated, Horne really had all the traits down to perfection to the point where I kept having to squint to make sure it really was Horne on stage. To have been doing this role since the 21st August when this tour started, Mathew must surely have a stiff neck and headache at the end of the night from the way he holds his head whilst in character and the real, heavy whacks to the head and face he gives himself when Raymond is over stimulated.

Whilst I wasn’t taken with Speleers portrayal of Charlie at first and found him somewhat wooden, I soon warmed up to him, particularly when the more emotionally stirring parts came up such as the moving scene where Charlie is teaching Raymond how to dance. The audience were cooing as if they had just seen a new born baby or a cute puppy at this stage, and whilst Charlie’s character is meant to be cold-hearted and self-centred at first, I still found it difficult to warm to Speleers in the role but as the story progressed so did my views towards him in the role.

Resurrecting a thirty year old film and transforming to stage is never going to be an easy task and there’s plenty of other 80s classics which probably would have worked better than Rain Man, but granted I loved the film in the 80s I was keen to see the story on stage. Whilst I wasn’t blown away I would say the production was made worthwhile for Horne’s outstanding portrayal as Raymond Babbit. The tour continues until 24th November where it comes to an end in Northampton.

Reviewer - Lottie Davis-Browne
on - 29/10/18

NEWS: Manchester's Bridgewater Hall hosts STEPHEN FRY as he talks about his new book, Heroes.

David Johnson & John Mackay in association with Penguin present

In a live event to mark the publication of his brand new book Heroes
 Manchester The Bridgewater Hall 7th Nov 2018
London Hammersmith Eventim Apollo 11th & 13th Nov 2018

Heroes continues Stephen Fry’s vivid retelling of the Greek myths, which began with his bestselling book Mythos. These thrilling and racy tales of war, debauchery, revenge, love and jealousy have inspired artists and writers from Shakespeare to Michelangelo to  Marvel Comics.

Few mere mortals have ever embarked on such bold and heart-stirring adventures, overcome myriad monstrous perils, or outwitted scheming vengeful gods, quite as stylishly and triumphantly as Greek heroes. In this companion to his bestselling Mythos, Stephen Fry brilliantly retells the dramatic, funny, tragic and timeless tales of these heroic men and women in all their grit and glory.

Join Jason aboard the Argo as he quests for the Golden Fleece. See Atalanta - who was raised by bears - outrun any man, before being tricked with golden apples. Soldier through the twelve Labours of Heracles, shiver in terror under the stone-cold gaze of the dreaded Gorgon, Medusa, and witness wily Oedipus solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Filled with white-knuckle chases and twisted labyrinths, impossible puzzles and blood-curdling monsters, acts of base cowardice and genuine bravery, Heroes is the story of what we mortals are truly capable of - at our worst and at our very best.

Don't miss this rare opportunity to see the multi-award-winning comedian, actor, broadcaster, writer and raconteur live on stage in a one-man tour-de-force.

Each ticket includes a hardback copy of the new book (RRP £20.00) to be collected on the night. Stephen will be signing copies after the show. 

Much loved by the public and his peers, Stephen Fry is one of the most famous and influential cultural forces in the country, this is an opportunity to see the multi-award-winning comedian, actor, presenter, writer and raconteur on stage live in a one-man tour-de-force.

Heroes will be published on 1st November 2018 (Penguin/Michael Joseph).

NOV 2018
WED 7, 7.30pm,                MANCHESTER,  The Bridgewater Hall, 0161 907 9000
SUN 11, 7.30pm                LONDON, Hammersmith, Eventim Apollo, 0844 249 4300*,
TUE 13, 7.30pm,               LONDON, Hammersmith, Eventim Apollo, 0844 249 4300*,

REVIEWS: Countess - The Eagle Inn, Salford

TWO SHORTER REVIEWS OF THE SAME PLAY AT THE SAME VENUE ON THE SAME NIGHT BY TWO REVIEWERS!! Will their viewpoints coincide??? Read them both here......!!

'Countess' is a new play written and directed by Amanda Fleming and is billed as a Gothic Horror based on the true story of the Hungarian Contess Elizabeth Bathory. The play had previously been performed within the 'Gothic' structures of Littleborough Church, but knowing the size and limitations of Salford's Fringe venue, The Eagle Inn, I was more than curious to see how this play would work here.

Fleming's creative and imaginative use of space worked extremely well, with some of the audience seated on what would normally have been the stage and the tiny auditorium area turned into a small in-the-round configuration with some scenes even taking place on the spectators' gallery above. [I loved the use of silhouette!]

The story follows the 'legend' of the mad Countess Bathory closely, as she descends from being the aristocratic daughter of the King to a woman possessed and obsessed which finally lead her to being condemned and bricked into one of her own castle rooms until she died. Taking this challenging role was Alexis Tuttle whose characterisation took inspiration from both Lady MacBeth and Ophelia with a little 'Hammer House Of Horror' thrown in for good measure. There was a playfulness about her character which made you like her despite of knowing the horrors she was performing. The proximity of the actors to the audience helped in this regard as she leant on one audience member at one point as if she were the back of a chair, and toyed with another's hair abstractedly. This, mixed with her almost sexual blood-lust to be young and beautiful (which for her represented power and recognition) ["who will take notice of an old hag?!"] brought about a multi-layered complex character which could quite easily have descended into 'Carry On' territory, but was restrained and real to the end. "I would sell my soul to be young again" she admits - and there are those who thought that that was exactly what she had done.

The play was presented as a series of 'flashbacks' - as we entered and were greeted by our 'Guide' (Edward Darling) who told us that we were about to witness 'memories of the past' and they 'cannot harm [us]'. We sat watching the horrors of the Countess' descent into madness whilst the Guide would interject pertinent information between each scene whilst also playing a priest within the scenes. It was role in which Darling was well suited and his mock gentility worked very much in his favour.

The quality of the acting in this play (80 minutes without interval) was overall of a very high standard and the cast worked excellently with each other bringing about some lovely moments of acknowledgement or conspiracy. Lindasy Eavis played Darvulia, the countess' right-hand woman who aided and abetted her in her Machiavellian 'games' of torture and killing with glee, whilst the poor wretches who fell foul of the Countess' wrath and scheming were Madam Vazi (Liliane Taylor), various young maidens (Hannah Torbitt), and her longest serving and most trusted handmaid Theresa (Lauren Hickin), whose changes from obedient servant to complicit evil-doer, to whistleblower with a conscience, were superbly placed. And with a tall and imposing Bond-villain-esque King (John Doull) this Gothic horror story was complete.

The pace of the play was set deliberately quite slow and although this was creating the correct atmosphere (especially with the candles and well chosen music) it did lack pace at times and became rather 'samey' and predictable because of it. If the time between scenes had been shortened and the urgency of the whole upped it would have made for a much more cohesive and compelling piece. Despite it being essentially a horror melodrama, there were also a few instances where a glimpse of humour was trying to break through. It would have been interesting to see these developed a little more and brought forward in order for the horror and tragedy to have had more impact.

However, nit-picking notwithstanding, this was a very enjoyable and also quite instructive play that could quite easily be developed further. Fleming has utilised her minimal resources to the max and it paid dividends in this atmospheric and stylised 'Gothic' horror.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/10/18

...and now for the second review....

'Countess' is based on the true story of the 16th Century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory who is believed to have tortured, maimed and murdered hundreds of young women, believing their blood could preserve her own youthful looks. Along with Vlad Dracul of Romania, she was one of Bram Stoker’s two main influences for the fictional Count Dracula and the Countess’s own story was famously told by Hammer Films in the 1971 film ‘Countess Dracula’, starring Ingrid Pit.

Amanda Fleming’s telling of the story takes the form of a shocking character study of an ageing woman, desperate not to grow old whose bizarre fantasies and psychopathic appetites towards sadism and killing are given full vent through the absolute control she has over the peasantry. The compelling question is whether she is truly evil, desperately mad or some twisted combination of the two. The in-the-thrust setting of the Eagle Pub provided the perfect setting of a private room in a castle or dungeon, complete with balcony, which was used to great dramatic effect.

Edward Darling opens the show as the Guide playing a curious Monk-like figure, reminiscent of Ralph Richardson’s crypt keeper in ‘Tales from the Crypt’; a useful device for setting a scenario before horrors unfold. With a surprising entrance, Alexis Tuttle gives a convincingly menacing performance as the deranged Countess, surrounded by weak underlings. An evil delight in her absolute control of others is evident through a frighteningly understated intensity and the audience at the Eagle was clearly captivated. Lindsay Eavis as Darvulia, the Countess’s one true friend, is only a few shades less evil and arguably more culpable since she seems to possess a greater grip on sanity and reality. Laura Hickin as the servant Theresa, clearly knows what’s going on but her level of actual complicity is ambiguous giving an interesting dynamic to the character. Set against these villainous women are Hannah Torbitt, playing several of the Countess’s innocent victims with a helpless terror whilst Lilaine Taylor as the college mistress Madam Vazi is elegant and composed but her intellect and respectable position in society are no match for the Countess’s machinations. John F Doull as the King cuts an imposingly powerful figure who is oblivious to what is secretly going on.

Countess is a well-crafted mix of horror and psychological observation, grounded in the history of another country nearly five hundred years ago but in the light of modern horror stories like Fred and Rose West startlingly relevant.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 29/10/18

Monday, 29 October 2018

REVIEW: Bullish - HOME, Manchester

'Bullish', from Milk Presents, seeks to recast the myth of the Cretan Minotaur into an exploration of gender-identity in the modern world. Four performers (Krishna Istha, Cairo Nevitt, Lucy Jane Parkinson, and Amelia Stubberfield) portray Asterion (‘Starry One’), the Minotaur – ‘a bull, a sort of bull, bullish’ – who is part man and part bull, but who is also a daughter who wants to be a boy (the parallels between the figure of classical myth and modern day discussions around gender fluidity are clear from the start). The performers often don bull heads throughout the performance to reiterate the ‘otherness’ of Asterion. Asterion is trapped in a labyrinth which isn’t always a physical one – the feeling that you do not know who you really are, when you are trapped in a different gender, is like a labyrinth where the exit into liberation can seem to be impossible to find. Furthermore, Asterion is aware that Theseus is coming, and Theseus is to kill them, for ‘it is written’; another theme of the show is about the power of words and storytelling (as one of the sparkling lines of dialogue from Lucy J. Skilbeck’s script puts it: “Legend has more currency than gold”).

The production mixed together monologues, dialogues, and songs. Sometimes Asterion directly addresses the audience, sometimes the performers respond to one another’s words as Asterion’s thoughts. At other times, Stubberfield throws on a cardigan to portray Asterion’s mother, Pasiphae, whom Asterion has rowed with over her desire to be a boy. Pasiphae’s monologues are often reflective and poetic, particularly in the one where she reminisces about ‘that time’ when they were both happy on a day out and Stubberfield brings a gentle touch to her deliver which fits the character well. Following the row with Pasiphae, Asterion goes onto a bus to go to the doctors to follow-up on an appointment about gender reassignment surgery. The section on the bus saw Istha step beyond the fourth wall and into the audience, using the steps of the auditorium as the steps onto the top deck of the bus. Other people on the bus see the Minotaur and do not know how to react, much like the audience members Istha sat between! Istha really came to the fore when performing Phobos, the god of fear, who is recast as a frustrating receptionist at a GP’s surgery, encapsulating the nightmare of bureaucracy for those awaiting the appointment for the reassignment surgery.

Parkinson was a strong performer throughout (and had a superb singing voice) and shone in the role of Daedalus, the inventor, decked out in high-visibility jacket and goggles. In the original myths, Daedalus constructed the labyrinth with the Minotaur at its centre, in 'Bullish', Daedalus constructs a special skin for Asterion which makes her a man. Now, newly confident, and settling in to her new skin, Asterion goes to a club to engage in their new-found freedom and it is here that Theseus appears. Emerging from the audience, Theseus (played with aplomb by Adam Robertson) has ‘perfectly coiffured hair’ and is as big an Alpha-male as you can imagine, spouting humble-brag platitudes like an Apprentice contestant, or overpaid life-coach, Theseus has arguably the best song of the night: a disco-rock mash-up which only goes on to highlight his ‘toxic masculinity.’ Theseus wants to be the biggest man in the room and fights Asterion. It is during this section that Nevitt drives home the vulnerability of Asterion, who has only just been given the freedom he longed for, and who lashes out in anger against Theseus.

As 'Bullish' heads into its conclusion, it adds an element from the myth of Icarus (son of Daedalus), as Asterion realises that the exit from the labyrinth is up, towards the sky. As the performers describe Asterion’s ‘wings of wax’ starting to melt as they soar high into the sky, Stubberfield returns as Pasiphae, having followed the thread of Asterion’s clothes which was trapped in the door as Asterion slammed it on the way out. In a touching finale, Pasiphae admits that she now sees Asterion for who e wanted to be – as Stubberfield said “I see you,” a female voice from the audience echoed the words, and then another voice did, and another, and then a fourth echoed the phrase before four women came onto stage and stood next to the performers – they were very obviously the mothers of the performers and seeing them together onstage was a genuinely moving moment.

'Bullish' was an interesting mix of the mythological and the contemporary. Its mixture of styles helped the production move along and the performances were enjoyable. It did seem to meander slightly in places but regained a sense of focus with the arrival of Theseus and the poignant climax as the performers were joined onstage by their parents. 'Bullish' is a fascinating and ultimately moving piece of theatre.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden 
on - 29/10/18

REVIEW: Hound Of The Baskervilles - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

With Halloween almost showing its terrifying face, this was our opportunity to indulge in this classic, mysterious, and horrifying Sherlock Holmes tale.

We shadow Sherlock Holmes and his close friend/sidekick, Doctor Jane Watson on their journey from the streets of London to the Devonshire Moors as they attempt to solve the mystery of… The Hound of the Baskervilles. Two showman-like and brave actors, from What A Farce Theatre, played every role in this fast paced farce.

If you cross The Play That Goes Wrong with The Woman in Black, you could interpret that as the basic theatrical underline for the whole show. They were two actors struggling to tell a complex story with lots of characters, this is where the humour came from. Everything became playful: intending to lovingly mock Sherlock Holmes and his adventurous world.

There was a small cut out style set on the large Quays Theatre stage, which looked rather odd. I’m guessing it must have been in a smaller venue prior to this particular run. The 221B Baker Street set design had an eccentric Victorian visual aesthetic. It looked like something out of a cartoon pop-up book.

One significant question is: have What A Farce considered who their target audience is? Much of the audience demographic were teenagers or young people, presumably going to see it in hope it might help with their English Literature studies, or maybe they are watching it for an educative experience. The issue was, there were a lot of sexual innuendos and British smut comedy throughout. This was clearly aimed at an older audience. On reflection, it felt forced in to the production, it was like the sexual jokes were there to acquire cheap laughs.

I’m all for a clowning show and a play that is intentionally below-par. However, I argue there is such a thing as a poor version of an intentionally below-par play. Sadly, this was the case here. The reason why was because the underlying concept for the whole show appeared more central than the Sherlock Holmes story itself. There was no even balance. This fast paced production didn’t pause for breath. The complex story was narrated too quickly and there was more talking than visual elements, which could have assisted in communicating the narrative. Unfortunately, the world of Sherlock Holmes got lost in the story’s moor fog.  

Saying that, occasionally this production got big laughs, but that wasn’t enough to make it an overall success. For example: the desperate plea for the audience to come back after the interval was placed at just the right time to uproarious effect. The high energy and melodramatic performance from the actors works in the context. It was funny watching them struggle to play all the characters and tell the story in the circumstance surrounding the performance.

But, other audience members said, leaving the theatre, they just couldn’t follow the original story. I looked at the poster and thought we would be willingly suspending our disbelief to the world of Sherlock Holmes and his story, instead it didn’t turn out that way. I just hope the audience around me didn’t do the same as I did.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
On – 28/10/18   

REVIEW: An Evening With Eric Cantona - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

An evening with Eric Cantona, former Manchester United footballer is just about as good as it gets for many fans that had the privilege of watching him pull on the United shirt for the 5 years he was at the club. He has been described as an enigma, a genius, the catalyst for Alex Ferguson becoming the most successful manager in English football history but the one thing that is undeniable is his popularity and admiration – a hero to many fans.

Before we got to meet the great man himself, there was a support act. A stand-up comedian by the name of Aaron James who arrived to the stage to polite applause – most of the fans were there just to see Cantona. However, James was an accomplished comedian and he most definitely knew his audience. He made references to local areas around Manchester, rival football clubs and sports related topics even throwing in some sporting impressions during his routine. His comedy wasn’t sophisticated but he was funny, with mostly throw away gags no doubt from a much longer list he had in his locker.

After a short interval the main man himself arrived onto the stage to a thunderous reception, with a standing ovation followed by Cantona chants that lasted for several minutes. Eric stood to the front of the stage and just took everything in – I have to admit that I have never seen a personality greeted in a theatre with so much love. This reception was very special and you could tell from Eric’s reaction that he loved every second of it.

The format of the evening was a relaxed style of interview with some pre-prepared questions that allow him to talk about his days as a Manchester United player and his work as an accomplished actor since he retired – he has in fact been an actor longer than he was a footballer making 30 films. Whilst this is an understandable approach, this led to some frustrations in the audience as they wanted to ask Cantona more searching and detailed questions, often shouting these out but being ignored.

Despite the limitations of the questions, some of the insights that Cantona was able to provide were quite remarkable, not just about his love of Manchester United and his great relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson but also how he came to England having been banned by the French Football Association for 3 months for a red card he received in a game – the initial ban was 2 months but he called them “a bunch of idiots” during his tribunal hearing. The mention of his first club Leeds United drew a humorous chorus of disapproval from the audience but as Cantona pointed out they won the league during the season he was at the club.

Cantona also talked about his love of art and in particular Banksy, a man he described as the perfect artist with his hidden identity being a key part of this. His admiration for Banksy came through very clearly as he spoke very eloquently about him and in great detail about his works.

Cantona has charisma in bucket-loads and his style is very engaging – when he speaks people listen. He tells the story of his famous quote about seagulls following the trawler, he had been forced to give a press statement by the club at that time and he just made up the quote on the spot and it meant nothing; speaking of his delight as he watched journalists try to pick out key parts of his statement in an attempt to uncover what he truly meant – he laughed even now when he spoke of this all those years later.

For the vast majority of the Manchester United fans in attendance at The Lowry just seeing Cantona speak for about an hour meant we went home happy, but I cannot help feeling that the show could have been so much better. The use of some key photographs or video clips in between sections of the show would have definitely enhanced the experience. I also think that having some type of Q&A would have satisfied the demand in the audience, it all seemed unnecessarily guarded and cautious.

Reviewer – John Fish
on – 28/10/18

Sunday, 28 October 2018

REVIEW: Paul Foot: Image Conscious - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

For those of you who don’t know Paul Foot, you should imagine Noel Fielding but with extra lunacy and madness – he was a regular panellist on the TV show Never Mind The Buzzcocks but has been a stand-up comedian for many years. His latest show, titled “Image Conscious” was written for the Edinburgh festival earlier this year but don’t read much into the title – they are meaningless in terms of the show content.

Tonight’s show had a support act which Foot introduced himself from backstage – an introduction that was just the first taste of the lunacy we could expect from him later in the show. His introduction lasted several minutes, and included a full explanation of the facilities available at The Lowry complex. The support act was Malcolm Head, someone who has seemingly been supporting Foot for quite a few years – Foot announcing that we were very lucky to see him again as the support act because “Head’s career had stood still for quite some time and he hadn’t progressed to bigger and better things”.

Malcolm Head had a slow and considered approach to comedy, almost announcing the jokes before he delivered them – an agenda of comedy he told us about before he started with his 20 minute slot. He used very subtle observations in his act which were very well delivered in his laid back style, he also shared some of his witty poems with us. I liked Malcolm Head, his style is original and in particular the way he sets up his jokes but the laughs he generated were unfortunately a little bit like his act – understated and restrained.

Paul Foot arrived on stage after a short interval dressed in his familiar jacket with full shoulder pads, padlock hanging from his belt loop and full mullet. He immediately went into his show which involved several subjects that annoyed him, which you may think is standard practice for a stand-up comedian but Paul Foot does not deliver comedy much like anyone else. He ranted and raved about subjects such as Greg Wallace on Masterchef, the Falkland Islands conflict of the 1980s, former snooker champion Steve Davis and Match Of The Day presenter Gary Lineker. Whenever he mentioned a subject that made him mad, he would arch himself forward and move his body up and down as though he was having some kind of breakdown – this saw the audience in fits of laughter each time he performed this move.

Foot’s routine then took a bizarre twist even for his standards as he approach a member of the audience on the front row and rambled through a scenario of the urban orgy that took things to a new level. This involved mostly talking about the strife and troubles of being the host of an urban orgy and the effort that goes into the organisation of such an event. At one point he mounted the audience member in question which for any other comedian might be a step too far but for Paul Foot this seemed completely inoffensive and almost normal. There was a point in the show where someone on the second row had to pay a visit to the toilet which caused Foot to approach those sat in the area around him – asking if he had some kind of medical issue or whether he had simply miscalculated the time from the interval to the end of the show. This was absolutely hilarious and he continued this as the guy came back to his seat – this was all improvised comedy and for me it was his best work of the night.

All in all I think Paul Foot is a massively talented comedian and I admire his work. He is a little too ‘off the wall’ and anarchic for my own personal taste but I suspect a lot of his rants and quirks are scripted almost down to each word. I do wonder whether he could leave a little more to improvisation as this part of his act tonight was simply brilliant.

Reviewer – John Fish
on  – 27/10/18

REVIEW: Murder At Cadberry Manor - The Brindley Theatre, Runcorn.

Soup Productions invite you to Cadberry Manor, home of rich eccentric Sir Toby Le Rone, who ends up dead soon after the start. The setting for this murder mystery is an open stage with a fairly minimal set; not quite the luxurious setting for a manor but the backdrop of flats, incorporating a large fireplace and a bay window, there is at least the suggestion of a large country house. What the plays lacks in staging however, it certainly makes up in cast numbers, with one character even asking at one point ‘can we get any more people onto this stage?’ The answer was probably not without some difficulty but the writers would have been well advised not to have had so many of the cast always on stage at the same time (rarely ever less than ten!).

In keeping with the title, all the characters have names related to chocolate bars which gives a clue to this being a farce. Unfortunately, the pace is rarely more than that of a plodding comedy and there are a number of reasons for this. With a cast of fifteen, it is almost as if they take it in turns to let just one or two of their number leave the stage and when characters do return, it is usually not with much dramatic effect. One of the hallmarks of farce, is regular fast-moving entrances and exits. Another factor with this play is that with everyone almost invariably speaking in front of an audience around ten people, it is hard for pace to develop or serious engagement with individual characters to develop. A lot of the comedy is also very forced, having more in common with pantomime than farce or comedy/thrillers. Real farce requires a level of sophistication that is lacking in the script of Murder At Cadberry Manor. There are also several long speeches, even soliloquies, which slow down the pace (and the comedy).

Let it not be said that this production of Murder At Cadberry Manor is not without some great redeeming qualities. The eclectic and energetic cast did all they could to breathe life into a largely dull and unsophisticated script. The costuming was generally of a high standard and characterisations distinctive, including some standout performances. Teresa Anderton was excellent as Felicity Flake, giving a master-class in dippy-headed obliviousness to everything going on around her. Louise Rayner gave a vibrant representation of a French waitress and Matt Orrillard was superbly deadpan as Captain Robert Lerone. Lucas Dockerty was funny as Dr Wilbur Wispa, largely because he’s ridiculously young to be cast as a crippled old man and Jay Timms as Friar Tuckshop was superbly nonchalant as a Friar with more under his cassock than you might expect. Special mention must be made of Danny Boardman who excelled as the aptly named Louis ‘the Fruit’ Pastille, as camp as Mr Humphries in ‘Are you being Served’, making an entrance worthy of Frank N Furter.

Soup Productions clearly have a lot of talent and work well as a team. The show was written by two of the cast members, who both gave creditable performances and it is in acting rather than writing that the talents of this company are most evident. With several cast members having singing and dancing talents, it would perhaps be good if some of this is used more in future productions rather just relying on weighty dialogue. That said, Murder At Cadberry Manor does have a very original and unexpected twist at the end.

Reviewers - John Waterhouse and Tony Collier
on - 26/10/18

REVIEW: Private Parts Live - Waterside, Sale. Manchester.

Having acquired a certain amount of fame and gained celebrity status for their turns on the reality TV show Made In Chelsea, Francis Boulle and Jamie Laing have now teamed up to broadcast what is becoming a highly successful and popular podcast titled Private Parts. This evening as part of a nationwide tour, at Sale's Waterside theatre, they presented their first stage show based on the first podcast they made together in 2014 whilst in the south of France.

The stage show follows the same format as the podcast, and sees straightman and pseudo-intellect Boulle despairing at Laing's highly charged antics and lewdness. Indeed the whole show starts with an apology from Boulle that his partner has not yet turned up at the theatre, only to be shown video footage - supposedly from a live video feed on his mobile phone - of Laing still lying on his couch, completely naked, and hung-over from the night before's party. He 'dresses' in a small towel and runs to the theatre, running down the central aisle of the auditorium onto the stage completely naked, an spends the next few minutes on stage standing there with just a hand covering his modesty! Something you wouldn't get to 'see' in a podcast!

It is clear that these two have a good rapport with each other and spark off and from each other well. Boulle completely unable to keep straight-faced the whole time ends up smiling and smirking a lot, which is all part of the comedy [think of Peter Cook's deliberate efforts to make Dudley Moore corpse!] and the live show still includes the favourite regular slots from the podcast such as reading from their diaries and 'Question Of The Week'.

Where this show falls down somewhat though is in the timing. Comedy relies on split-second reactions and responses, and far too much time on stage this evening was spent building up to a joke which when it finally came didn't quite find its mark. Smut, lewdness and crudeness seemed to take precedence over humour, and certainly Laing seemed to be living completely off his latent celebrity status and contributing little or nothing else to the team effort other than this and his naked backside!

Both unashamedly talk about their rather dubious pasts, again, especially Laing who was caught shoplifting in Leeds as a student and had a hair transplant when he perhaps didn't really need one. Both talked of their childhood aspirations to be pop stars; Laing wanted to play Sandy in 'Grease' whilst Boulle wanted to play guitar for the pop-rock band 'Hanson'. Their finale was just this - they donned silly wigs and using the screen at the back played out their pre-pubescent fantasies milking and manufacturing applause to end on a high! 

Disappointingly short of laughs and unappealing to anyone who isn't already a huge fan of Made In Chelsea or Private Parts Podcast. The stage show will do nothing to bring them new fans.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/10/18

REVIEW: Fat Penguin Improvised Comedy - Tribeca, Manchester.

As part of Manchester's 'Women In Comedy Festival' curated by The Frog And Bucket, Midlands impro comedy troupe 'Fat Penguin' came to Manchester today to delight a disappointingly small audience in Tribeca's basement performance venue.

Sadly the venue didn't really help the performance as the stage was set at a rather odd angle with vastly insufficient lighting, meaning that faces and in some cases whole bodies performed unlit or poorly lit throughout. The venue and capacity was very small and so there was no need of a microphone at all; simply speaking articulately and projecting properly was really all that was required. However, again, sorry to report, but there were a couple amongst the troupe who needed to up their volume somewhat.

For those unfamiliar with an improvisational comedy format, then this troupe's repertoire and routine would be an ideal starting point for you to understand how it, in its simplest form, works. Today's troupe consisted of 8 performers, - oddly 2 of which were male, in a Women In Comedy festival.. however glossing over that for now.... -  and they started by asking the audience for two nouns.

In this case they were given 'bus' and 'fruit'. These two words were then taken on board and they would take turns in small groups of two, three or sometimes more [the lead improviser choosing which people he / she wanted to work with] and when that single idea had run its course, another person would stand forward, tap one on the shoulder to return to the group whilst they then took the improvisation in another but related direction - using a trigger word or sentence from what has just been happening. After a while, this becomes a little stagnant, and so one person comes forward to 'tell a story / anecdote' which changes the subject completely. Once the subject is clear, the whole process starts again with the smaller impros sparking off each other. No more further audience involvement was called for in this scenario.

To be honest, it was a format / formula that I learned in my first improvisation lesson at drama school; and so I can only assume that this troupe is either very new on the scene and learning by doing, or they have a very fast turnover of improvisers and this is the first stepping off and up ground for them. The whole hour was taken up with this rather boring and tired formula, and unsurprisingly really, the laughs were somewhat thin on the ground. [this wasn't helped by the lack of audience admittedly].

There were some clever ideas brought to the table - Pedants Anonymous, The Drink Association, and Watermelons Have Rights being among them - but using this format none of the ideas were ever allowed to develop, and I would have liked to have seen where some of these thoughts were going. Once again, I assume the impros were cut off very quickly because the troupe was inexperienced. This is not a negative criticism since we all have to start somewhere and we all need to learn the craft as we go along; it is merely an observation. For this type of comedy you have to have not just a razor sharp wit but be highly intelligent and knowledgeable too, as well as knowing the basics of stage acting!

A pleasant hour's diversion, and I wish the troupe much luck and success in growing and developing.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/10/18

REVIEW: Northern Chamber Orchestra with Julian Bliss - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra continued their current concert season with a collection of pieces that are not often performed for one reason or another. The opening Sinfonietta No. 1 by Malcolm Arnold was originally composed for an English baroque revival string orchestra – the Boyd Neel Orchestra. Its three short movements displayed a variety of stylistic elements from the first part of the 20th century, the orchestra director, and founder, Nicolas Ward, was right to comment that parts of it were similar to Shostakovich’s compositional style. While the Sinfonietta is distinctly not baroque in its harmonic or melodic content, it was in structure and mood. Arnold really exploits the sonority of the string orchestra, along with with oboe and horns, and the NCO were able to maximise all of these colours to great effect. At times, though, the rhythmical challenges of this piece were not met – particularly in the oboes and horns, with a few small flourishes slightly off the mark. This type of music must be difficult to perform without a conductor, but certainly not impossible and the NCO for the most part delivered a wonderfully expressive and playful performance.

It must have been truly exciting to witness the first performance of Carl Maria Von Weber’s clarinet work. He was tasked with writing three pieces on the reinvention of the clarinet in the early 19th century. This was a period in music history when many instruments went through a massive upgrade – in the clarinet’s case, this meant that it could play many more notes with an improved chromatic ability. It also improved the overall timbre of the instrument. His second clarinet concerto is a real showstopper and Julian Bliss gave the audience at the Stoller Hall a masterclass in clarinet performance. While a piece like this is demanding in regards to accuracy – and not a note was missed by Bliss – often virtuosity can be at the cost of emotional value. Passages with many, many notes were presented to us with emotional value by Bliss, and those passages that were more lyrical, such as the second movement, were truly sung out from the heart. Bliss looked at ease with the orchestra around him and clearly was connected to the music when he wasn’t playing. Again, the NCO seemed to be having a lot of fun with this piece and that is truly infectious. Watching this orchestra perform is a real treat – you get a strong feeling that there is great team spirit and true enjoyment in making music. Apart from this, of course, they are a truly wonderful orchestra to hear both in it’s interpretation of stylistic approaches, and also in its musical capabilities. The third movement finale was truly magical and exciting and it is no wonder that this piece is still a staple exhibition of clarinet technique that any aspiring clarinettist aims to master.

As an encore, Bliss performed the premiere of a fiery arrangement of the Hungarian folk dance Czardas. While he did not name the arranger, you could presume that it was written specifically for Bliss in more ways than one. While typically performed on violin, it translated to clarinet very well and again a sound timbral variety was displayed. This was a real crowd-pleaser and a good choice to pair with the preceding clarinet concerto. Goodness knows where Bliss got the energy to perform both of these back to back, but he did not miss a note nor a beat.

Moving back to the 20th century, the NCO performed a short piece by the composer Suk, a son-in-law of Dvorak. Originally composed on the outbreak of world war one, this piece was a prayer of hope for the future of Suk’s homeland – Czechia. In the classical period, much music was created with no real meaning behind it. Pure music, as it is called, was music for music’s sake. As time went on, meaning began to creep in – the programme music of the romantic period often explored emotional aspects with great imagination. In the 20th century, perhaps because of the terrible violence of each of the world wars, emotional context was sometimes placed on the things that occurred in daily life – this seemed to be the case with Suk’s Meditation. While it certainly is a prayer for the future, its music really seemed to portray the emotions of what people were experiencing at that time. It is like an emotional photograph of that time. The NCO wanted to mark the anniversaries around the centenary of the end of world war one with this performance, and it was a performance that really touched the audience. Again, the NCO, as a string orchestra for this piece, were able to show off their fantastic talent colouring this piece with great warmth and expression. There were many moments in this performance which were sheer bliss, with the strings giving a deep pathos and delicate expression.

Haydn’s symphony 102 in B flat major is not performed often, but is a perfect example of his latter style. Haydn at this time was commissioned to write pieces for a very eager London audience. Most of his life he had been composing for the royal court at Esterhazy, in Hungary, and freedom to compose as and for whom he wished certainly pleased Haydn, who as the most famous musician of his time, was increasingly concerned with his musical legacy as he got older. This symphony displays the many structural and compositional techniques he developed over the years but it also has a unique character through a variety of solo parts – sometimes only for a moment. You can easily imagine the audience mesmerised by the orchestra and enjoying these cameos. The NCO certainly excels  in music from this period – indeed most classical period music was originally performed without a conductor and lends itself to conductor-less performance today. This was a very enjoyable performance and the various soloists relished the chance to shine out in an already shining orchestra!

It was great to listen to a repertoire of less familiar music by the NCO, they are really a pleasure to listen to and the Stoller Hall, with whom the NCO has a residential collaboration, is a fantastically welcoming venue. Introductions and notes from the orchestra director, Nicolas Ward, also add to the welcoming feel and give an insight into the music we are about to hear.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 27/10/18

REVIEW: Nima Séne Beige B*tch - Z-Arts, Manchester.

Before I begin, I have to comment on how undeniably fantastic the set was. We had arrived at a remote, fantasy island with piles of sand all around the stage. There were mini palm trees, weights on the ground for a workout, bottles of water, and a gold painted treadmill. This was the kind of luxury treatment Séne’s sassy TV alter-ego deserved.

Nima Sene's 'Beige B*tch', presented and produced by The Contact Theatre Company was a fabulously fiery fusion of live art, movement, and film that told the story of a black woman’s quest for cultural and aesthetic belonging. Expressing herself through her alter-ego with a pony tail longer than Ariana Grande, she asked what it means to be both ‘beige’ and black, deconstructing and challenging conventional ideals of beauty throughout.

The underlying themes pointed towards the idea that a lot of what we understand about and how we perceive other cultures comes from a white person’s perspective. This performance examined the representation (perhaps lack of representation) of people from other races and cultures in the media, news, and fashion industry. In the process, the show looked at conservative models of beauty.
Present in the performance were society’s misconceptions of various races and cultures. The show was about Séne’s journey for cultural and aesthetic belonging in a “white privileged” world. There was a monologue which referred to the notion of “cultural ambiguity”, the scenario presented someone’s confusion regarding which country a person came from. An anecdote explained how a woman chooses to wear her Hijab by her own free will. Finally, there was a story about how a white woman patronisingly commented on how delicious Séne’s caramel skin was.

We never really get to know the real Nima Séne: most of the time she performed as her alter-ego and we never got the chance to look into her eyes because she wore sun glasses. This appeared to be an intentional artistic decision relating to the representation of ethnic groups. How many times have particular groups of people been represented as a collective or as a number, rather than been characterised as individuals each with a vivid and comprehensive story to tell?

I liked the metatheatrical speech, which made reference to the devising process of the show. Séne spoke of the fragmented nature of the narrative and putting her life onto the conveyer belt on the treadmill. Slowly but surely, she took off parts of her character’s costume and dropped them onto the conveyer belt, revealing more of her personality each time, but not completely. When Séne walked forward on the treadmill it became her effortful journey towards her sense of belonging. The times she walked backwards on the treadmill could easily be symbolic of the world going backwards to the racist attitudes of the past.

Breaking up the performance was a series of spoken word pieces, unfortunately the writing was metaphorical to the point where it was rather difficult to make sense of it in the context of the show. It was only the very last poem which made a clear link to the performance narrative. These dark, lonely, and colder scenes effectively felt worlds apart from the glitz and glamour of her reality TV show. 

Verdict: an eye opening performance, leaving the audience with lots to think about.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
On – 26/10/2018   

REVIEW: The Damned United - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

I first read the book “The Damned United” back in 2006 when it was first published and I quickly realised that David Peace had created something quite special. It chronicles the legendary 44 days that Brian Clough spent at Leeds United, taking the reader into the mind of the brilliant football manager and bringing the whole journey to life.

It was no surprise when the book was turned into a film some years later starring Michael Sheen, nor was it a surprise when Red Ladder created a 65 minute play based on the same book. The film was something of a disappointment for me, having read the book. I didn’t think it quite did justice to the flawed genius that was Brian Clough – who along with Shankly and Ferguson is widely regarded as the greatest ever British managers. Something this play addresses without question.

Luke Dickson’s portrayal of Clough was without doubt the most intelligently portrayed version of a real life character that I have seen in recent years; he captures all of the brilliance of the man but does an equally stunning job in capturing his flaws. There is a special moment in the play where Clough is a broken man and weeps uncontrollably as he realises he has lost control of the situation.

The story itself is centred around Brian Clough and his decision to leave a relatively successful position at Derby County to accept the job of replacing the legend that was Don Revie at Leeds United. A big part of the reason Clough failed at Leeds was down to the lack of respect shown to him by his predecessor, who was now the England Manager, Don Revie and also the players he inherited who made his life a misery.

Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor (David Chafer) was also brilliant as the supporting role, very believable as the man who is credited as being the sensible side of Brian Clough through all of his years of success. His relationship with ‘Cloughie’ can probably be best described as a marriage – opposite ends of the personality spectrum that just worked when they were brought together. The heart attack that Taylor suffered during this time at Leeds United was probably the final nail in the coffin that was Clough’s tenure.

I was prepared to be somewhat disappointed with “The Damned United” play given my love of the book but this was far from the outcome, I have nothing but praise for Red Ladder for bringing this to theatres around the country. The whole cast are exceptional but Luke Dickson deserves special mention for how he captured the whole personality of Brian Clough, and not just an impersonation which often happens in this kind of production.

Reviewer – John Fish
on  – 25/10/18