Sunday, 30 December 2018

REVIEW: Nureyev: All The World's His Stage (film) - HOME, Manchester

Considered by many to be the world's greatest ever male ballet dancer, and certainly the most celebrated, I was looking forward greatly to watching this documentary film about his life. I knew of his public image and of his defection from the then USSR to The West, and have seen numerous televised recordings of his dancing over the years. What I didn't know was much, if anything at all, about the private Nureyev, and what drove him to become the great dancer and star that he undoubtedly was.

I was therefore rather disappointed with this film. It hardly even scratched the surface of his life at all, and instead focused far more on hard facts and dates, showing archive footage of him through the years. There were some scenes of a more intimate and private Nureyev, but these seemed to be very much second or even third hand recollections rather than certainties. Perhaps there is nothing, perhaps Nureyev was an enigma and a closed book, never telling anyone his innermost thoughts. Certainly he wasn't able to tell anyone of his true thoughts of his home country, since he was a wanted man there after defecting, and had to be extremely careful not to put those he loved who were still living in the USSR in any more danger by him being 'too outspoken'.

In fact, the one thing that the documentarian completely took for granted from his audience was their historical knowledge. It would have been very difficult for the younger viewer to have understood much of the film in terms of politics - which played a hugely important role in the film, whether it did in Nureyev's life or not - since the whole idea of Communism and a State Controlled country such as The USSR and their 'powers' and the fear that they wielded were taken for granted. Therefore comparing Nureyev to Yuri Gagarin as a model for Russian excellence, and the significance of his returning to Russia to work there within a few days of the Berlin Wall coming down as well as much more would have been totally lost on anyone under 50.

The documentary was also very fragmented and disjointed. Far too many ideas in documentary filming employed alongside each other to make a confusing collage of info-bites. Quotations from various sources and pertinent information typed onto a white screen was one idea; using modern dancers to recreate a ballet on a studio stage set was another; voice-overs, actual TV interviews, archive newsreel footage, archive footage of Nureyev dancing,  an actress and an actor miming scenes from his childhood dance teaching; and music - too loud really to be background music playing and cutting out and starting immediately with a totally unrelated piece without any segue, all made for a very mismatched and unsatisfying watch.

The voice-overs were related by family, friends, colleagues, almost anyone who had known him or had some contact with him that was still alive. And to make matters worse, when it was Nureyev himself who was supposedly speaking on the voice-overs it was more often than not Sian Phillips instead. Very odd!

We were told of his poverty and being brought up in a small rural Southern Ural community, to him taking dancing lessons against his parent's wishes, to him leaving to train in Leningrad, to him touring and his time in Paris, to his defection, to his meeting with and falling in love with the great ballet dancer Erik Bruhn, his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, and their subsequent deaths. But all of this is readily available in the first chapter of any of the many sources of information about Nureyev whether it be in a 'Who's Who' book, a cyclopedia or even an online search; and so nothing new, surprising or revelatory even came to the fore in this two hour long documentathon! 

For those who know nothing of Rudolph Nureyev, then this documentary is as good a starting place as any. However, if what you were after was an intelligent, thoughtful and informative documentary, delving deeper into the man and his craft, pass it by. 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/12/18

REVIEW: Viennese Christmas By Candlelight - The Cathedral, Manchester.

The London Concertante, as the name suggests is a chamber ensemble based in London, and I went along to Manchester Cathedral this evening to catch them play their penultimate concert of the year, and send a maximum capacity audience (squashed like sardines some with very restricted views) away and into the evening with Viennese waltzes spinning in their minds and huge smiles on their faces.

The 'candlelight' part of the concert's title was a bit of a misnomer, since although candles in large candelabra were lit at the front of the stage, the concert can hardly be said to have been played by candlelight as the stage was fully lit from above throughout, thus nullifying any effect the candles may have produced.

The Concertante's sense of humour was apparent right from the start, as I opened the programme and the first words I read were, "During this evening's performance we may be performing some, all, or none of the pieces below!"  Fortunately, the cellist also doubled as our announcer / MC, and his brand of raconteur-ing mixed announcement with anecdote and humour. It was a lovely balance and I thought his announcing excellent [even if one or two of his jokes went unappreciated by the majority] In the end they played MOST from the programme's list.

The London Concertante consisted of 12 musicians: 4 violinists, 2 violists, 1 cellist, 1 bassist, 1 brass player, 1 wind player, 1 reed player, and an accordionist. It was an odd combination which worked very well for most of the music they performed but sounded distinctly odd and bare when they played arrangements of full orchestral scores. It would also, for me at least, have been an extremely interesting 'experiment' perhaps to add a zither player into the mix for the more traditional Viennese music.

This bare, rather exposed sound was the most noticeable in both their opening piece, Strauss's overture to Die Fledermaus, and Tchaikovsky's Waltz from Sleeping Beauty. Here both pieces were crying out for lush orchestration and of course that was simply not going to happen this evening. For the majority of the concert however this combination worked well, and dressed as they were in tails and white bow-ties the whole was very evocative of the suave coffeehouse society of a bygone Vienna when live music ensembles would serenade their customers.

The Concertante played un-conducted, but the first violinist was obviously the leader, Oliver Heath, and he also played the solo violin part in Schubert's little known Rondo for Violin and Strings. A lovely piece, and excellently played, which ended the first half of the concert.

With music not just from Vienna or even from the correct era of musical composition, the concert took in more contemporary compositions from Argentina and Russia, but of course finished with the only thing a concert of Viennese music could finish with, Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz.

My favourite pieces this evening were Shostakovich's Waltz No 2 from his Jazz Suite (played superbly with perfectly interpreted dynamic changes), Sibelius's Valse Triste (which sounded even more sad and longing when played with such a minimalist orchestration - just beautiful), and Astor Piazzolla's slow yet somehow rather majestic 'Oblivion'.

The London Concertante played with skill and passion and their music (unamplified - the Cathedral's high vaulted ceiling providing all the acoustic boost necessary) sounded joyous and delightful. Just exactly what one needed after a Christmas of excess and sloth, and, since we more than probably were not going to be in Vienna for their famed and traditional New Year's Day concert, we can now say that we have had our very own miniature version right here in Manchester!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/12/18

Sunday, 23 December 2018

REVIEW: Polina (film) - HOME, Manchester.

The story-line of this film can be summed up in just a few sentences... a young girl from a poor family in Russia follows her parent's dream and studies ballet at a local academy. Her father, a good man, does some dodgy dealing with the local mafia in order to pay for her tuition and she auditions for and receives tuition from The Bolshoi. After leaving the Bolshoi she moves to the South of France with her then boyfriend and continue their training together at a Contemporary Ballet School. She finds that the training here is different from her classical roots, despite enjoying it more, but whilst rehearsing for a production of Snow White she hurts her ankle and has to drop out. Her understudy then begins an affair with her boyfriend and her teacher tells her that she is not yet emotionally recovered to rejoin the troupe. She packs up and leaves and ends up in Antwerp. After failing  a couple of auditions there and sleeping rough, trying to find work and being pushed from pillar to post, she ends up as a barmaid in a dive night club, but finds a magnetic connection with a young dance teacher and they embark upon a relationship which sees them working together on a new improvised piece in which his modern training and her classical training have much to learn from each other and the end result is something quite special. After the death of her father, she returns to Antwerp and successfully auditions for a promoter and they live their dream dancing their own choreography on stage.

The emotional journey of the film however takes much more, and cannot be summed up in any words. Like many modern European films the zeitgeist is certainly to allow the viewer long periods to reflect on what emotional state the protagonists are in as well as be manipulated cleverly through music, juxtaposition of image and location to emote the way the director wants you to. Minimal dialogue, maximum screen time. The question here though is, what effect does this have on the viewer and what impact does it have on the film's narrative flow?

Perhaps the most impressive part of the film for me was the casting of the lead role of Polina, played in her young adult form by Anastasia Shevtsova (and as a young girl at the start of the film by Veronika Zhovnytska). since the role required a multi-talented and multi-lingual ability [classically trained and contemporary biased dancer with a pleasing visage, good acting ability, and fluent in both Russian and French.] Shevtsova proved a worthy leading lady in all regards.

The directing though by Valerie Mueller is very indulgent and deliberately moody, which further slows the pace of the film down. The choreography is by co-director Anjelin Preljocaj, and if you are a dancer or a choreographer then the film should be seen for his work in this regard. Otherwise it is a hugely predictable film which falls into the same trap as many others of its ilk, in that it doesn't say anything new, it doesn't take you to places emotionally or cinematographically that we haven't been to many times before, and despite it trying to seem more 'hard' and 'grown-up' with a mafia scene and a gun, the film never really gets out of second gear the whole 100+ minutes of running time. If it's a film about a young dancer making good you want, then watch Billy Elliott; if it's a film about a rising star ballerina you want then watch Black Swan.

A rather uninspiring watch, which diverted my attention for a while but ultimately did not sustain my interest.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 23/12/18 

Saturday, 22 December 2018

REVIEW: An Evening of Eric And Ern - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

It seems I have arrived a little late to the party on this show, and, as a reviewer, trying to find something new and original to comment on this particular evening is simply impossible. All the reviews are already in, from celebrity endorsements to serious critical appraisal, and one thing everyone is agreed upon is that this duo of 'Eric' and 'Ern' are just about as close to the reincarnations of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise as you are ever going to get.

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stevens, both graduates of The Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, have been performing as a tribute double-act for quite some time, and formed their friendship when still at drama school. I have never had the privilege or pleasure of seeing Morecombe and Wise live, although I have seen many of their TV shows, and have long been an admirer of their brand of comedy. This evening was therefore really quite special. Some of the routines and repartee had been updated to reflect 2018, but all were consistent with their trademark style, and many of the old favourite gags, routines and jokes were in there too.

The 2 hour show (including interval) whizzed by, and I  and I imagine many more, could have stayed much longer. This was comedy of a sadly bygone era, when simple fun-poking, silly gags, daft dancing, and innuendo were all the rage - unlike today where comedians shout a lot, swear a lot, and basically abuse their gift and their position all in the name of 'humour'.

Routines included 'This Is Your Life', 'Positive Thinking', 'When You're Smiling', 'Mr. Memory', as well as Morecombe's paper bag trick and yes, they even included the most famous line ever, albeit without Andre Previn; but they did play all the right notes...!!

There was also a special guest appearing with them too, and this was the songstress Rebecca Neale. Her first song was, of course, interrupted by, and upstage completely by Messrs M+W as she sang 'Send In The Clowns' and they, dressed in clown suits, blew up balloons behind her. She did sing a song unadulterated in the second half though and helped them out with a couple of their sketches.

And of course, no Morecombe And Wise evening would be complete without their signature song, 'Bring Me Sunshine', which they finaled with dressed in white top hat and tails, and exited with their famous dance move.

These two actors, who also have other non-M+W credits to their CVs, not only spoke and acted like the famous duo, but amazingly also managed to look very similar too, including the respective height ratio between them. It is full credit to the team behind this show to have created a superb recreation of one of the UK's best loved and most endurable comedy partnerships, and I take my hat off to both Ashpitel and Stevens for their dedication in replicating such a nuanced and utterly believable performance.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/12/18

REVIEW: The Unthanks Sing Emily Bronte - The Town Hall, Leeds

The Unthanks are difficult to categorise. Nominally a folk act from Northumberland (where vocalists Becky and Rachel originate, though keyboardist and musical director Adrian McNally hails from Barnsley), they arguably left folk behind several albums ago, when covers by the likes of Robert Wyatt and (even) King Crimson began to interrupt the ‘Trad. Arr’ flow. And when the band (if we can call them that, though ‘aggregation’ might be more appropriate) moved on to concept albums about the decline of the shipping industry and the Hull trawler boat tragedy of 1968, it became even harder to decide what variant of folk we were dealing with - progressive folk? Post-folk? Ah, well, for ease of reference, ‘folk’ will still have to do….

More recent projects have been similarly unpredictable - an album that combined the songs of Wyatt with those of Anthony and the Johnsons and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, two albums that mined the obscure (by choice) songwriting legacy of Molly Drake, mother of the now-legendary singer-songwriter Nick.

So, the current Unthank project may at first sight seem a little less startling than its immediate forebears - a song cycle based on the poetry of Emily Bronte, composed with the co-operation of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. The author’s verse is hardly obscure, though inevitably overshadowed by her one magnum opus Wuthering Heights. Add this to the fact that Victorian poetry is a decidedly mixed bag - for every Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning there are multiple Algernon Charles Swinburnes and Arthur Symonses - and you might feel justified in approaching this evening with a degree of advised trepidation.

Because The Unthanks are uncompromising: their way is not to slip in a few crowd-winning old favourites in-between the forbidding ‘new stuff’ to keep their audiences happy. Every Unthanks tour features the current album and related material, with few backward glances at the back catalogue. In this, they resemble no-one so much as Neil Young, who once notoriously played nothing but his (the new) Tonight’s The Night before it had been released to an audience completely unfamiliar with its songs, before encore-ing with another version of the title track.

At Leeds Town Hall, The Unthanks wrapped up a short pre-Christmas tour with a presentation of the new song cycle and you have to give them credit for thinking big - the Town Hall is a venue better-suited to symphony concerts or rock gigs, not the less extroverted sound of two voices accompanied by a piano. Add in the ‘unfamiliar material’ factor and you’re looking at a distinctly risky proposition - would Bronte’s delicate words and McNally’s intricate melodies get lost in the vast spaces?

They needn’t have worried, the cycle was well-received by a fairly full house, though doubts remained as to whether it wouldn’t have been a better idea to perform it Liederabend style as a continuous piece rather than breaking it up to introduce individual numbers, particularly as some of the songs are set to very brief lyrics. The focus for the most part was on the voices of sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank, with their fresh-air purity and inflection of innocent, sometimes naive menace. Although the Bronte lyrics are somewhat oblique, the blending of the sisters’ voices has its own magic and McNally’s insistent, ostinato accompaniment at the piano gave them all the support they needed.

The mood lightened somewhat with the encores - old favourite The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, lifted verbatim from a statement by an 1840s female mine operative and, to finish, a ‘round’ number called The Tar Barrel which invited audience participation. More can be expected from The Unthanks very soon - but no-one can easily guess what direction they’ll travel in.

Support was from a new duo called You Tell Me, who hail from the same part of the world as The Unthanks but veer more towards folk-pop of the Juliet Lawson variety. They performed a good half hour set and showed lots of potential.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 21/12/18

Friday, 21 December 2018

REVIEW: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs - The Civic Centre, Heywood, Greater Manchester.

Opening night. Enter into Heywood Civic Centre - another venue at which I have made my debut in the audience. The show? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The ‘stars’? Hollyoaks and Doctors’ Ali Bastian (who was also on Strictly) and (not present physically) Steven Arnold who you will remember as on-screen nephew of Coronation Street’s butcher Fred Elliott, Ashley Peacock. The company behind it? Trio Entertainment. The story? Different.

Different as in, instead of meeting the villain and usually a fairy, we were met with Prince Lorenzo (Sam Emmerson) singing n Elvis-esque rendition of ‘I’m A Believer’ (which, along with some of the show’s gags, also featured in the pantomime down the road in Middleton), as if it were matching the one in the film Shrek. Although it had a lot of energy and support from the dancers, this then became a duet with Snow White (director and choreographer Bessie McMillan) and oddly they already knew one another from a previous acquaintance. The aforementioned ‘celebrities’ play Evil Queen Cruella (original) and The Man In The Mirror, respectively, with the latter appearing on a screen wheeled on by the character who had just exited before the cue. This, and the sight-lines at the left of the stage, were a bit odd albeit a technicality.

Enter Nurse Nelly (Mike Smith) to the Donna Summer tune ‘Hot Stuff’. His timing was very good, specially for the sit that held the show up - even if dressed up, literally, like a Christmas tree. In contrast to the ‘settling in’ of Muddles (Jordan Kennedy) whose entrance felt a bit like an audition, due to the lack of engagement from and with the audience. This got better when a younger member of the audience ad-libbed, in order for him to react and gain their trust. Evil Queen Cruella entered rather robotically, sporting a Raven-like outfit with her legs fully on show, although her acting was fine. Her costume for the remainder of the show was much better and suited the more traditional and usual that you would see for the character of a family show. 

The song choices were upbeat, including a random routine of Elton John and Kiki Dee’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ which featured the prince, Snow White and Muddles executing a very clever comedic display involving a wall. Other songs were Walk The Moon’s ‘Shut Up And Dance With Me’, Lady Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory’, Jess Glynn’s ‘Hold My Hand’, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle On The Hill’ (which was also randomly placed), Queen’s ‘A Kind of Magic’ and Little Mix’s ‘Black Magic’ (sing spoke by Evil Queen which was reasonably bearable). The finale was ‘Come Alive’ from The Greatest Showman. There was also a song about chasing the clouds away and whistling a whistling song which, as expected, included the presence of the seven dwarfs (made up of Sophie Brierley, Mia Manning, Martha Wilberforce, Charlotte Crook, Emily Salisbury, Riley Welsby Dickson and Alex Schofield) who were very good.

Overall the show was good but lacked a lot, technically, as well as in direction and in characterisation - the leading lady has the smallest part(!). Nonetheless for a local show it was pleasant and well-attended and I hope that is the case throughout the remainder of its run until 28th December. Well done to the dancers of the Anita Tymcyshyn School of Dancing, the production team and the venue for their efforts and clear hard work.

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 19/12/18

REVIEW: Fight Like A Girl - The King's Arms, Salford

Andy Pilkington had set himself one massive challenge - to organise and produce an evening of new writing in aid of a charity which is very close to his heart, Cancer Research, since the evening was dedicated to both a close friend of his who is still fighting but now thankfully on the upward spiral, and his Auntie Val, who sadly lost her fight last month. But it was their inspiration and courage which empowered Pilkington, and to his absolute credit produced an amazing evening of diverse and interesting pieces and performances.

Not only did he produce all of this but he also took on the role of MC for the evening. His patter and manner were delightful, pitching his voice and his repartee just right. Information given in a very self-effacing manner, and kept the jokes short and sweet, meaning in short, he was a perfect host.

The show itself saw 8 short plays and one (or two, if you count Pilkington's hilarious rendition of 'The Handshake') performance poetry, and still managed to be over by 10:00pm.

In all, the evening employed 8 directors, 8 writers, 1 poet, and 23 actor / actresses. The plays ranged from the deeply moving and tragic, dealing with infant death, to the utterly bizarre world of a Blind Date game in a brothel, with a whole mix of generally more light-hearted material in between, and finishing on a Christmas-themed piece which saw Father Christmas take a break from delivering presents to take the time to bring love and harmony into a somewhat dysfunctional family.

One of the short plays even brought a very dystopian view to life after Brexit. A comedy which saw guerrilla style warfare (on a very British housewife kind of scale) between The Remainers (who now wanted to leave) and The Leavers (who were now remaining). I last saw this play performed in the same venue as part of this year's G M Fringe, and thought then, as I still do, that it has the potential to be developed further, although it does work well as a short.

Over the course of the three nights Fight Like A Girl is being performed at The King's Arms, a different poet is asked to perform a short set. This evening it was the turn of Robert Stevenson, and his rather political and satirical look at Manchester through 'The Jobseekers' Blues' and 'An Ode To Abduls' were well observed and funny. It was his very clever univocal poem 'Cashback' (a poem which uses only one vowel - in this case 'a') which was most interesting though.

Of the plays this evening, my two favourites were without question the plays which started both acts. To begin with we saw 'Flirty Dancing', a play written and directed by Aileen Quinn, which saw three finalists in a new TV show 'Flirty Dancing' perform their final audition to camera, whilst one of the show's directors gives them instructions on how to act, speak, react, working solely on racial stereotype and looks. A biting satire on the fashion / entertainment industry in general, cleverly observed and excellently acted by Brianna Douglas, Rachael Gill-Davis, Lizzie Lawrence and Abey Bradbury. Opening the second act was Andy Pilkington in yet another guise, as writer and director; and his anarchic, off the wall comedy writing gained the best belly laughs and the biggest applause of the evening. This was in no small part due to the excellent acting of those taking part in the 'Brothel Blind Date'. Andy Avery played a 35-year-old virgin who needed to 'get it over with', and was given the choice between three contestants, a young drug-addict soaring on a high (Kathryn Stirton), A 70 year old sex-addicted, in-between knitting and sleeping of course!, woman (Hilly Barber) and an overtly OTT homosexual (Craig Thompson), or indeed he could always choose the brothel Madame herself, (Julie Root). Hilarious, and needs to be seen to be believed!

That is not to say that the other plays were poor or uninteresting - far from it. The evening was a delight from start to finish, but I simply cannot find room to write about and credit all. From what I understand this event is hopefully the first of many which Pilkington hopes to produce in the future to continue raining funds for Cancer Research. If this trend does continue then it will not only do that but hopefully raise the profile of many up-coming writers, directors, and actors living in the city too.

Bravo signor Pilkington, I look forward to your next endeavour.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/12/18

Thursday, 20 December 2018

REVIEW: Cinderella - The Garrick Playhouse, Altrincham

The story of Cinderella has been around for a long, long time. But, I didn’t realise how much of a rich and in depth history it had. The programme was informative. Once upon a time, the Cinderella story had its origins in China, more than 1,100 years ago, then there was an Egyptian version, an Italian and French interpretation, finally an English portrayal of the tale.

Details of the story may have transfigured over the years but the “rags to riches” story model has remained. At its essence a young girl loses her mother, is bullied by her new stepmother and stepsisters, however with the collective assistance of her own strength and support from her mother’s memory, she triumphs over adversity and achieves what she thoroughly deserves.

This is the annual, traditional pantomime at the Garrick Playhouse and overall it was very good. The cast of eight and chorus of children thrilled the audience of little ones. Beverley Stuart-Cole played The Fairy Godmother and cast a cheerful spell over the room. But for me her acting lacked spontaneity, she didn’t naturally respond to the crowd, her performance appeared very much set in stone. Kate Perkins’ Cinderella exuded kindness and innocence – her solo number mid-way through the first act showed off her strong singing voice and stage presence.

Buttons (Liam Dodd) was the bell boy to Baron Hardup (Johnny Temple) – he hadn’t had his wages paid to him in five years! Dodd showed he is clearly a growing performer, capturing Buttons’ inner kid and tender need to make people happy. His interaction with the audience had a lovely energy. The two ugly sisters were Trafford and Etihad, portrayed by Phil Edwards and Max Fone. They played on the theme of Manchester United versus Manchester City throughout, which indeed brought lots of engagement from the Mancunian crowd. Both of them brought a belly of laughs, especially in moments of perpetual bickering. Edwards was undoubtedly easy going up on stage, not afraid to ad-lib a little bit and have a laugh.

Sadly and surprisingly, Danielle Chester’s Price Charming was rather one dimensional, for the most part it felt like she read, rather than performed, the script. Her performance lacked the energy and oomph for a pantomime. Dandini (Charlotte Foden) made a notable, faithful servant to his Royal highness. Alan Clements’ traditional direction and writing emphasised the story and the morals woven into its fabric, balancing classic and contemporary jokes and sketches. Of course, “Baby Shark” was going to swim its way into the narrative somehow. I admired the local community theatre ambience throughout my visit.

An aesthetically pleasing handmade, hand-drawn and painted set added to the fun experience of watching the panto – as designed by Laura McKie. I thoroughly enjoyed this production’s interpretation of the Cinderella transformation scene. The simplicity of the special effects worked beautifully. The whole thing was clever, magical, and spectacular. Definitely the core highlight of the show.

A local community theatre atmosphere tied together with the classic pantomime presentation reminded me of when I was growing up with my local theatre. Nostalgic, indeed. I don’t think anything will ever beat lots of children screaming frantically at the actors to watch out for the ghost that’s behind them. “We’ll have to sing it again then?” We shall.

Reviewer – Sam Lowe
on – 19/12/18

REVIEWS: From The Cradle To The Bin / Welcome To Paradise - 3MT, Manchester.

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......!!

A Ship Of Fools Theatre Company are in Manchester's eclectic Three Minute Theatre this week, presenting a double-bill of alternative Christmas spirit. The company specialise in an art-from known as Bouffon, which has derived from the clowning and physical theatre practices of Jacques LeCoq, and although it includes elements of other genres, such as Commedia Dell'Arte, slapstick, black humour, and Theatre of the Absurd; Bouffon is set apart inasmuch as they are a 'gang' - in this company's 'turned on its head' interpretation as the underdogs or dregs of society rather than the ones wearing the gorgeous flowing frocks and powdered wigs - and although their primary intention is not to mock that is invariably what happens through parodying or farcical situation and association, and whether that be self-mockery or mockery of others - and this is done through 'games' which on the face of it wouldn't be out of place in a party hosted by The Marquis De Sade. If you are still unsure, then mix 'The Mighty Boosh' and 'The League Of Gentlemen' with the works of Samuel Beckett, and you're pretty much there! This company's interpretation of Bouffon is a little different from what I have seen in the past - for me there is more Theatre Of The Grotesque here than my previous experiences. Much less playful, far darker, and more audience interaction make this company's work somewhat unique I would imagine. Something that was (and maybe still is) called 'Provokationstheater'.

In the first piece, 'From The Cradle To The Bin' we are in Happy Valley Care Home. A very dark, biting tale satirising with some skill the current care system for the elderly. Since both my parents are receiving care from the Adult Care /Social services network this piece was rather near the knuckle but both clever and poignant.  Happy Valley Care Home is your worst nightmare; a place where the owner is so entrenched in her own filth that she wallows in it, whilst a singing care worker - also completely dirty from head to foot - looks after one of his residents, who seems very grateful to be living his days out squeezed into a small wheely-bin and force-fed stodgy porridge. His daughter decided it was time for him to be placed in care after he dropped a plate whilst washing up, and her daughter's birthday visit is superbly parodied. And as the Home's owner sings karaoke he finally dies, unnoticed and un-cared for behind her. The final scene in heaven with him giving a thank-you speech was heartbreaking.

This was a work-in-progress piece and certainly a few sections did not work as well as they could have done or seemed forced (eg: the milk delivery), but the piece was very much more in a recognisable play format than the second, and did remind me at times very much of Beckett's oeuvre.

Following this, we were welcomed into Paradise - or maybe Lapland - with an almost one-man piece in which the creepiest Father Christmas ever showers you with sweets, asks you if you have been naughty or nice, plays games with you, all before he introduces us to one of his elves who enters thin, emaciated, wearing a striped t-shirt top very reminiscent of the Nazi POW camp uniform (was this intentional?) and the domination games and humiliation process began. You thought you knew Santa?? Think again!

What is remarkable about this company is that we, the audience, are always made to be complicit in their actions, we too are willingly led by the nose into their sordid and cruel world; their audience interaction being a large and important part of their show. We are weeing ourselves with laughter one second and shocked and crying the next. We find ourselves laughing at things which we ought not to be laughing at. We find ourselves enjoying their sadistic 'games' - but then check ourselves suddenly in self-realisation and find it shocking and horrific. The company's ability to control and manipulate an audience's feelings and reactions in this way is incredible and absolute credit to the cast (three for the first piece and two of them for the second) who have taken Bouffon from out of the closet - puffed up their cheeks in readiness - and proudly show it off as a credible art-form which will have you enthralled and shying away at almost the exact same moment. Perfectly timed and perfectly pitched, this style of comedy is certainly not for everyone, that much is clear - but if you are looking for something a little more challenging than the banal and puerile usual comedy fayre and don't mind challenging yourself, then this company's works are an absolute must!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/12/18

and the second review........

A Ship of Fools Theatre company returns to 3MT thirteen months after bringing 'Welcome To Paradise' now revamped and part of a double-bill with 'From The Cradle To The Bin'. Although the script of the former has hardly changed, it felt like a different show this time around, largely because the mad-cap buffoonery is now measured with a lot more pregnant pauses, giving the audience time to reflect on the pathos and consider what they are witnessing from a more human perspective. The genre of Bouffon Theatre, which is the principal inspiration for A ship of Fools, is a curious mix of recurring light and dark in which the audience is variously made to laugh or feel uncomfortable, (or sometimes both at the same time).

'From The Cradle To The Bin' is an interesting take on how the most dispossessed can feel strangely lucky and the audience is left wondering whether this is due to genuine appreciation or mental illness. The pace is for the most part very slow but this would appear to be deliberate because the audience is given much to ponder from the perspective of life inside a wheeley-bin. 'Welcome To Paradise' is a pacier, more dynamic show and is frequently very funny until sudden changes make the onlooker wonder if this is something they should really be laughing at. This is ‘in-yer-face’ theatre of the most literal sort where any member of the audience is at constant risk of being victimised but this gives the experience an unusual degree of edginess.

There is a kind of parallel here to the old Norman Wisdom films where mad-cap comedy would suddenly give way to seeing a put-down little man hitherto viewed very funny now as a victim, be that of big business or society at large (and this is precisely what made the film palatable to the communist Albanian government). A Ship of Fools can hardly be described as a political theatre company but their offerings certainly cause the audience to think of the homeless, the mentally ill and other disadvantaged individuals who have fallen through the net which at the same time provides much excellent comedy.

This a daring and at times disturbing double-bill of anarchic, mad-cap comedy which also gives food for thought, providing a rare and unusual theatrical experience.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 19/12/18

Welcome To Paradise & From The Cradle To The Bin are on at 3MT until Saturday 22nd December. For more details, log on to

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

REPORTAGE: Santa's Tales At Twilight - Ashton Canal Basin, Ashton-u-Lyne.

After an awful journey on the M60 from Manchester to the hard to find canal-side at Ashton under Lyne, Santa's Tales At Twilight allowed me and my 6 year old mini co-reviewer to settle down, relax and snuggle up with a hot drink and a blanket for songs and stories with Father Christmas.

Santa's Tales At Twilight, an event organised and produced by 2 Boards And A Passion Theatre Company, based in Ashton, took place on board the very cosy Community Spirit 2 canal boat, however the boat didn’t sail (thank goodness as I have awful sea legs), and remained moored throughout, due to insurance regulations that apparently prevent sailing after dark. However this does not in any way reduce the magical experience that takes place on board.

With drinks and snacks for everyone, and a present for every child, this was a truly great way to get in the festive spirit on a dark and very wet December evening.

The canal boat was decked with plenty of sparkly Christmas trimmings and coupled with the warm and friendly welcome from the crew this set the perfect atmosphere for the little ones as they eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa.

The journey was completely worth it when we finally met the wonderfully theatrical Santa, who mesmerised the children (and the adults) with his story of Pip and his Christmas poems of snow ball friends, not to mention the fantastic rendition of jingle bells strummed out by Santa and accompanied by 4 very enthusiastic little ones playing the bells. Each child got the opportunity to tell Santa what they wished for and even the accompanying adults got to announce their Christmas wish (a great opportunity to get the kids to 'pinkie promise' to Santa they would behave, not fight, tidy up and sleep in their own beds). Santa was a wonderfully animated storyteller and answered each childs' questions with kindness and patience and to my delight reminded each of them that what is truly important at Christmas is not what’s under the Christmas tree but what is around it.

This certainly was a lovely evening watching my little co reviewer giggle and squeal as Santa was perfectly pitched in silliness and seriousness as he captivated the imaginations and hearts of the tiny crew members. To quote my little co-reviewer as we drove home “mummy that was awesome!”….. and I would definitely agree.

Reviewer - Victoria Wilmot
on - 18/12/18

REVIEW: Aladdin - The Arena, Middleton, Manchester.

Shone Productions’ pantomime at Middleton Arena this year was the famous story of Aladdin. Although the effects do contribute to the spectacle, the choice of ‘celebrity’ was rather poor, TOWIE’s James Argent -  this evening he even sported joggers and trainers and lacked the traditional Abanazar headdress. The comedy leads - Ruby Murray’s Widow Twankey and her on-stage son, Ben Coles’ Wishee Washee - held the show together, along with Slave of the Ring, Emily Portch. The story was also a bit flimsier than the usual pantomime version but it was at least enjoyable, despite the occasional lack of articulation by the ‘big name’, leading to confusion for the many younger members of the audience, I am sure.

Negatives aside - other than the lack of composure and musicality of leading man Sam Retford (from Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge), which may have been contributed to by the odd sound settings at the start of songs, not just the imbalance between music and voice - the wit of the script is very good, the inclusion of panto checklist components is welcome and the quality of the live band (of three!?) is brilliant. The other ‘big name’ (as well as panto dame Ruby Murray who was on Britain’s Got Talent) is Kelsey Beth Crossley who is probably most memorably known as Scarlett from ITV’s Emmerdale but has an evident wealth in the art of pantomime and her beautifully powerful singing voice is no surprise she had two of the judges turning for her on 2014’s The Voice UK. She recently played the part of Lynn in the feature film 'Born In The Eighties'.

Coles’ Wishee Washee is Mr Tumble-esque and has the enthusiasm of any comedy lead. Partnered with Ruby Murray whose wit is almost instantly reactive, the pair are a real force and an honour to witness. Paul Flanagan’s Emperor is well-performed but I suspect tame compared to the recent setting himself on fire and drowning he did in a music video, although he has been in over 44 productions. The music was well-chosen and included ‘Welcome To The [60s] City’ from Hairspray, ‘Part Of That World’ from The Little Mermaid, ‘I’ve Got Life’, ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, Clean Bandit’s ‘Rather Be’, ‘Could It Be Magic’, ‘The Old Bamboo’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ from Mary Poppins, ‘Nessun Dorma’, ‘Rewrite The Stars’ from The Greatest Showman, ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked, Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ and The Monkees’ ‘I’m A Believer’. The expected ‘A Whole New World’ was included but only during The Bows and now for the ‘amazing’ ‘magic’ carpet. I did have a job making out the start of the songs because of the sound.

The dancing, under choreographer James Wilson, was nice, performed by the ensemble of dancers Lilly Marsden, Ben Maddison, Emily-Jade Littlechild and James Corlett and the Anita Tymcyshyn School of Dance.

The show, although structured and within the lines of pantomime entertainment left me feeling like something was missing, prompted more by the questioning reactions of people sat around me. Nonetheless I am sure that everyone who has seen it and who is yet to do so during the remainder of its run until 30th, has and will enjoy this bit of fun-filled festive entertainment, in shelter from the cold.

Reviewer - John Kristof

on - 16/12/18

REVIEW: This Is Spinal Tap (film) - HOME, Manchester

'This Is Spinal Tap' was released in 1984 to rather indifferent reviews and box office. Penned by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKeen, using a now staple device of improvised comedy (Scenes are outlined with start and end points, with significant beats identified, before the cast then improvise the dialogue within the framework) it became the film which introduced most of us to the phrase ‘mockumentary’. The timing of the film’s release not only coincided with the rock & roll zeitgeist, with ageing 60s bands becoming self-parodying whilst glam-metal was enjoying its ‘first wave’, but it was also distributed during the home video boom, which is where 'This Is Spinal Tap' really found its audience. The antics of these rock and roll buffoons are best enjoyed on repeat viewings, so it naturally gained traction as a cult favourite on VHS where each nuance of dialogue or awkward glance emerged like a magic eye drawing you’ve been staring at again and again.

The film is on offer as part of Home’s ‘At Home in the 80s’ season, which also features ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (Wed 19th Dec), ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (Thu 20th Dec), ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (Sat 22nd Dec) and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (Sun 23rd Dec). Home have had a good run of seasons and special screenings which feature popular, mainstream classics that we might not have seen on the big screen and long may they continue to do so. The venue is brilliant, with great restaurant and bar facilities, a vibrant theatre calendar and of course, five well equipped cinema screens. To enjoy a cult film, with documentary aesthetics, which found its place in audience’s hearts on the small screen, here at Home is an exciting experience. The cinema screen really brings out the moments, either in capturing someone in the background, or the detail in the band’s performance sequences.

It is often part of the cinema-going experience that BBFC certificate card is used to adjust the projection but here the aged card remained grainy and somewhat blurry. As the company logos played and the MGM lion roared abrasively, it became clear that this was no restoration, but a reassuringly weathered, standard definition projection. This is no criticism of the copy or the screening, it was all the more wonderful to watch a film with the depleted sheen of an aged VHS copy, because it was how many of the large enthusiastic crowd would have first encountered the film.

The self-categorised “Rockumentary” follows the fortunes of Spinal Tap, a famous and successful rock band who are embarking on a tour of America. The film quickly establishes that the band’s status has waned much more than they realise and the tour, which coincides with the album ‘Smell The Glove’, is beset with increasingly ridiculous problems; least of which is how puerile their album title is and their inability to appreciate that the intended cover artwork is offensively sexist. Another problem arises in the contentious arrival of the lead singer’s horoscope-obsessed girlfriend, a brilliantly observed nod to Yoko Ono/Linda McCartney figures in popular music mythos.

'This Is Spinal Tap' bears a heavy burden of its cult status and critical recognition as one of the funniest films of all time, because it is a film which does not rely on big belly laughs or major set pieces, so audiences approaching it for the first time most likely wonder what all the fuss is about. The real pleasure of the film as that upon repeat viewing, each nuance and witty line of dialogue somehow gets funnier and the hit rate for gags is remarkably high. Great moments include getting lost backstage whilst the crowd grow impatient at their own gig, the reveal of an impressive piece of set design being lowered onto the stage and the dismally inappropriate lyrics to the song ‘Sex Farm’ at an army-base social event. But the real joy of Spinal Tap is in the quick-fire utterances of the befuddled band mates, for which no written quotation can do credit. In this screening the audience were kept gleefully chuckling throughout the lean 85 minute running time.

The big screen also offers one more pleasure that home viewing could not. The performances by Guest, McKean and Shearer are excellent. They play these emotionally & intellectually stunted characters with such conviction that when the documentary-style close ups hold on their faces during any of the absurd situations, we see an unflinching refusal in these characters to recognise their own failings or foolishness. We relish in their steadfast pursuit of artistic and intellectual pretentions in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even the ordinariness of their names; David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls offsets their delusions of musical grandeur. The supporting cast are all excellent, with great lines and comical characterisation firing from all directions.

This is Spinal Tap is a comedy classic and sharing the experience with a big crowd in Home was an absolute delight. As Home’s season of 80s classics continues, try to catch your favourite.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 17/12/18

REVIEW: Hansel And Gretel - Library Theatre, Oldham.

For an alternative to pantomime, and for something a little more low-key and intimate, then Oldham Theatre Workshop's production of the well-known tale of Hansel And Gretel is most definitely worth a look.

Using the small and limited theatre space to its absolute max, a cast of 8 take you through their version of this classic tale with accomplished skill. Their innovative and clever use and re-use of props and space to define areas and locations was excellently thought-through, especially when the stage's playing area had been reduced further by utilising live music throughout. It was this live music though which made this show more special. Written by accomplished duo Sarah Nelson (book) and James Atherton (music) with Atherton playing the piano through the show, the music was always appropriate and up-beat. It sounded lovely with some really catchy melodies which I could see the young children in the audience latching on to. Even I was tapping my feet on various occasions. Augmenting this sound from time to time were cymbal, beat-box and guitar, and when this fuller sound appeared one really could imagine what these tunes would sound like fully orchestrated.

The story, which was told clearly, precisely but at no point condescendingly, was very much the original German fairy story. Except here the moon talked, and three small nocturnal forest animals tried to help, but in the end could only offer friendship.

The play was only 70 minutes long, and so could quite easily have been played through without interval. This would have been preferable for me, but maybe the company thought that since the show is aimed at infant school children, a break would be better.

Hansel (Sam Winterbottom) and Gretel (Natasha Davidson) worked very well together and convincingly played younger. There was a nice difference in character between the two but at the same time, keeping that brotherly / sisterly love for each other, making their well-measured portrayals very real and sympathetic. Daniel Hartshead played a down-trodden and hen-pecked husband with an easy sigh of resignation. He didn't really seem to be too upset at losing his children in the woods, and didn't take much persuading from his evil wife either. A very easy to watch actor though, and by and large I enjoyed his interpretation. Sophie Ellicott had the hardest job of all since she not only played two characters but both were evil, and so trying to find two differing evil caricatures within the same play cannot have been an easy ask. Perhaps this is why I found her step mother rather too bland. I didn't believe her to be capable of plotting to and leaving her children in the woods, she was too 'meek'. However, once she became the old witch of the gingerbread cottage she was an absolute delight. Her switching from niceties to nastiness was straight out of the Witches' Handbook! This was a role in which she truly revelled and even the youngsters on the front row were frightened.

Madeleine Edmondson played a rather laconic and forgetful sleepy moon, an interesting characterisation but contrasted well with the worrisomeness and anxiousness of the rest of the cast. Whilst three young girls from the junior OTW group played a fox, a hedgehog and a mouse. (2 different casts on a rotation basis). 

Using and challenging the theatre's lighting department to its full, this talented bunch brought this traditional German folk story to life in a very creative and surprising way. The young children - the chow's target audience - enjoyed themselves greatly, as attested by their smiling faces on exiting the theatre, and it was indeed a most pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Story-telling theatre is an art, lying somewhere between Jackanory and pantomime. I think OTW have got the balance just right in this piece.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/12/18 

Monday, 17 December 2018

REVIEW: Ben Ottewell - The Wardrobe, Leeds.

I have been a fan of Ben Ottewell’s for 20 years and when this short tour was announced, I was eager to get to the nearest venue to review him for any potential new converts to this great singer/songwriter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Ottewell began his musical career with the band Gomez, whose precocious debut album won the Mercury Music Prize in 1998. Their unique blend of indie-rock with blues and Americana influences managed to differentiate them from the crowded brit-pop market, whilst their up-tempo “manc-swagger” anthem ‘Whippin’ Piccadilly’ garnered them a mainstream hit that was a staple of student union bars across the country. The band had three lead singers, but it was ‘Big Ben’s’ rugged, bluesy tones that would define Gomez’s sound. Six Gomez albums and three solo efforts later, his voice is as uniquely powerful as ever.

In a triumphant anniversary gig of Gomez’s debut album in Manchester’s Albert Hall in spring this year, I could only describe his presence on stage as “a force of nature”, booming out his vocals with expert pitch and gravitas. But on a December Sunday night in an intimate venue in Leeds, armed only with his acoustic guitar, the audience were treated to another side of Ottewell’s musicianship. The Wardrobe’s venue is located under its trendy-but-friendly bar and fits about 400 standing punters, although for this seated gig, the audience was considerably smaller than this (perhaps due to his website inexplicably failing to promote his live dates). This is a good opportunity to stand atop my soap box to implore readers to seek out small music venues and watch artists playing in their ideal surroundings, such as The Wardrobe, which has unrestricted views, a decent bar, an audience of real music fans and perfect sound design to bring out the best of its acts. Even better, Ben was on hand after the gig to sign merchandise, chat and take selfies with fans. You don’t get that at festivals or stadium gigs!

The set opened with a few songs from his third album ‘A Man Apart’. Playing his ukulele Ben cuts an imposing figure that is somewhere between ‘has just finished marking a history assignment’ and ‘has been uprooting trees with his own bare hands’. His first couple of songs reveal his vocal skill, able to find a soft, warm timbre to notes in his ballads before effortlessly loosening the reigns and filling the room like rolling thunder.

By now you have probably guessed that Ottewell has a distinct voice that sets him apart from other singer/songwriters and it would be remiss of me to downplay his skill as a guitarist. He wields two acoustic guitars and the ukulele over the course of the set and regardless of his chosen instrument, he effortlessly blends complex, delicate finger picking riffs with flowing, full blooded strumming to construct songs that evolve in such a way that, unlike the output of many acoustic artists, you can never assume you’ve got the gist of them within the first minute, because there might be more to come.

As usual with a music gig, there were instances of people loudly chatting, as though the performer was rudely interrupting their evening, but my companions needed only stern looks to silence them. The culprit later apologised unreservedly, explaining that they were (loudly) agreeing to miss their last bus home because this was worth staying for. Hats off to The Wardrobe, even your noisy clientele are decent folk.

Another quibble might be the occasional mistimed use of reverb and echo on Ben’s mic, because it did distract a few times. However, it is the use of these effects that really brings out the best in Ottewell’s music. The encore demonstrated the range to his singing prowess, beginning with ‘Walking On Air’, a soft ballad sung with a real sense of fragility and then ending with the Gomez classic ‘Tijuana Lady’. This tex-mex infused ballad used the echo on the mic to create a mythic quality to the song, as though we were catching Ben’s voice on a desert sirocco. It was a finale that summed up the entire set and as my stunned companion put it, we were mesmerised.

Ben Ottewell still has upcoming dates in Birmingham, Newton Abbott and Liverpool and he is well worth catching before his planned hiatus to record new material.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 16/12/18

REVIEW: Aladdin - The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester.

Eight-Freestyle in association with The Dancehouse produce their now yearly tradition of panto, and this year it is the ever-popular story of Aladdin. I must thank the company for using my quote on their publicity - however the quote relates to last year's panto (Cinderella) and an organisation which I no longer represent.

Cinderella was indeed, a superb pantomime, with all the boxes ticked, thus leaving the bar extremely high for this year. I was very much looking forward to seeing Aladdin this year, and was hoping the standard would have been maintained. I have to say I was slightly disappointed, but only slightly.

There were two things which for me, let this show down a little. The first was the fact that it was too long. Finishing 2 hours and 40 minutes after it started might not be too long for an adult show, or indeed The Palace's 'Wicked' - but this show 'felt' too long, and the children were getting restless. Some of the sequences could either have been shortened or cut, especially the 'overture', and brought the running time down to a more manageable length. The second thing which was not as good as last year was the set design. Aladdin's set had to be content with, by and large, computer generated projections and tabs. Some of these projections were, where I was seated, blurred and out of focus, and thus failed to have the impact desired. I enjoyed the flying magic carpet sequence the first time it was shown, however, the second time round made the whole contraption and its mechanism visible to the audience thus losing all suspension of disbelief and 'magic'.

There was however, still a very good balance and mix between the traditional elements of pantomime [audience responses, talking in rhyme, mummy sequence etc] and a more modern twist, which this year was provided by not only modern technology-speak, popular TV catchphrases, and slang idioms coming into the show, but also with the choice of music. We had an Abba tribute, a Queen tribute, a Madness tribute, and goodness knows what else, all appropriately costumed and, for the Queen songs - excellently lit. Things like The Genieration Game though felt very awkward and dated.

All the songs and dances were taken from the pop repertoire, with only two slower, more ballad type songs all evening. This meant that the music pulsed through the whole show, which should have kept the show flowing and pacey. In the main this was the case, but there were a couple of very 'eggy' instances, which I am hoping were 'one-offs'.  Complementing all the songs this evening, as well as adding tiny cameos throughout, were a group of 5 youthful looking ensemble dancers. [Heather Dunwoodie, Courtney Leigh-Gibbons, Heather Davies, Katie Marie-Carter, Lara Howarth Scales].  Further dancers were provided for by youngsters from The Dance Academy. Two groups alternating performances [I saw Magic Of The Lamp group], and each group split into two smaller groups of older and younger dancers. All the dancing throughout the show was good, age and ability appropriate, and professionally executed.

There were many familiar faces amongst the principal casting. Red Remond's Juilan Clary-esque Genie of the Lamp was a funny idea and worked well for him. Perhaps he could have pushed this characterisation a little further to garner a few more laughs from the children though. Matthew Chappell was a very butch and forthright Widow Twankey, and Steven Jackson a friendly and put-upon Emperor. Helena Frances reprised her role as leading lady, this time as the Princess Jasmine. I had the feeling that she was capable of much more than she was giving this evening, and kept holding herself back. I am uncertain why this was or why I was getting this vibe. Her singing voice was beautiful and pure, and had a great stage presence. Completing the cast of those I recognised from previous occasions was Adam Urey, whose unique interpretation of Abanazer took me somewhat by surprise  Childish and petulant from the start, quasi-comedic, and never really truly evil. It was an interesting characterisation which seemed to work well for him, but one which seemed to sit on the fence somewhat and the audience only really booed him because that is the tradition. His solo, 'I'm Lonely' as good as it was, was actually far more comedic than anything, and obviously wouldn't win him an 'Ah!' from the audience due to him being Abanazer.

New-to-me cast came in the form of Tony Wright as Aladdin, who played it as normal and as straight as he could, even commenting on things to the audience as he went along. His performance reminded me very much of Richard Ayoade. Amy Gledhill was the northern lass styled Slave of the Ring, and gave us a solidly enjoyable and lovely interpretation of this character. Whilst the comedy policemen were Scousers Nik (Laurence Kelly) and Nak (David Allen).

Once again, pre-recorded music tracks were used throughout which leaves no room at all for cast fluidity and was also a little on the loud side too. However, written and directed by Sean Canning this was still a very enjoyable pantomime, and still maintained a high standard with excellent production values.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/12/18 

Sunday, 16 December 2018

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

Advertised the way it was, I was a little disappointed upon arrival at The Stoller Hall this afternoon, to find that this would be a music concert and not a theatrical performance. Rather than the actors performing scenes on stage as I had imagined they would, instead they simply stood in one long straight line at the front of the stage and read sections of Dickens' novel at the appropriate and appointed times in the score. The 'thrill' and 'excitement' factor for this being far less than it would have been had the actors at least have worn Victorian costume, learned their lines, and strutted about the stage interacting in some way or other.

My disappointment was further added to on hearing that the role of Ebenezer Scrooge would not be played by the advertised actor, Timothy West. Sadly he was 'unavailable' (I hope nothing too serious!), and a worthy last minute replacement in the form of Robert Daws had been found.

Speaking the required sections of the novel with Daws were 6 students of Manchester School Of Theatre, under the tutelage of David Shirley, who gave creditable variation to the London accented poor characters, with the upper class and straight narration being spoken in RP. It was a small concession to the 'acting' that I was expecting, and appreciated. It was however very difficult to keep up with the characters since each speaker played many roles as well as narrators and their changes sometimes were too quick for me.  Daws' Scrooge too took a lovely character-arc from the miser and anti-Christmas persona through to his jolly and changed alter-ego.

Playing the music was The Chester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Threlfall. Musically it was very classical [quasi-Romantic] and although very emotive and at times quite thrilling, it was not music that one would normally associate with either Christmas or The Scrooge story. Instead it was the kind of music one would expect to hear played by the Halle Orchestra on a Thursday Series concert. The orchestra is no stranger to the Stoller Hall, and they played brilliantly this afternoon.

The soundscape was further ameliorated by The Manchester Chamber Choir sitting in the choir gallery above the orchestra and numbering 9 men and 13 women. The musical was lyrical and harmonic, and their singing of it sounded lovely. Their enunciation and articulation superb.

Taking the whole event for what it was, a concert for orchestra, chamber choir and speakers by Neil Brand, it was excellently performed and, once I had got over my initial disappointments, I did actually enjoy the presentation greatly.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/12/18

REVIEW: Lizzie (film) - HOME, Manchester

Premiered at The Sundance Film Festival this year, Lizzie is a biographical film of the trial of Lizzie Borden, accused of killing both her father and step mother brutally with an ax. The year is 1892, and the small and puritanical community in Massachusetts in which she lives is stifling her, and she is unable to do and feel things for herself. Her father is strict, even when, at 32 she is an adult and indeed able to please herself, the community frown upon her, since she is a spinster and most possibly 'passed it'. That is, until a young maid, desperate for employment knocks on their door, and this changes her life forever.

Borden, played by Chloe Sevigny, forms an illicit and what would certainly be considered at that time, a very unhealthy and unnatural relationship with the maid, Bridget (Kirsten Stewart), and this only provokes her father's (Jamey Sheridan) overbearing puritanical ire all the more as he makes his will in favour of her uncle, an evil and lascivious John Morse (Denis O'Hare). Both her father's and her uncle's evil doings, and her feelings for kindred spirit Bridget, take her to the edge as she hatches a plot to save her inheritance, her name and her freedom with Bridget the willing accomplice.

Billed as a psychological thriller, this film, directed by Craig William McNeill, is a mix of genres and really cannot decide where to lay its hat. It starts very slowly and gently, a history biopic; it moves into romance; before dabbling with Hammer House Horror, melodrama, and Noir. The more you watch though, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes, and so maybe this was the director's intention. It does take a long time to find its feet, and when it does it comes as shock as the violence, the Scorsese-esque blood, guts and gore, and the nudity seem completely at odds with the gentle and nuanced build-up.

That being said though, there are some stunning performances in this film. Both Sevigny and Stewart play their roles with an understated complicity which we see as the camera is very fond of close-up and short distant shots. In fact, when the footage of the train journey comes towards the end of the film, it is the first time we have been shown anything outside of the house and gardens and interior shots. Sevigny's character being a closed book at times, almost impossible to read her intellectual thought process and her emotions, like those expected of her and her society at that time, remained bottled up for the most part. The cinematography mirroring this and adding to the claustrophobic nature of the film.

Where this film falls down is that we really have no idea why she murdered her step mother. It is clear that Lizzie hates her, but on several occasions we see her step mother speak up on her defence and even try to make their relationship amenable, and we never know of what in-built hatred Lizzie might have or even why. Lizzie's sister is also a 'non-character'. Her presence is there seemingly for historical accuracy but otherwise is totally insignificant and is not a part of the story in any way.

The film also seems to place much emphasis on the the sexual orientation of Lizzie, pushing this forward as a motive and even excuse for her terrible acts; but this somehow seems forced. So little is actually known of the truth behind the real case, that majority of this film is conjecture. It's worth watching though, since the performances of both Sevigny and a surprisingly excellent, dark and layered portrayal by Stewart make this film and draw you in to their web of deceit and complicity.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/12/18

REVIEW: RNCM Big Band Concert - The RNCM, Manchester.

The RNCM - Royal Northern College of Music - has long become synonymous with quality and churning out high-class talent and tonight’s pre-festive performance by its Big Band matched and proved this in volumes.

Led by special guest Pete Long - of BBC Radio 2’s Big Band Special fame, as well as front man for Echoes of Ellington, after starting in a bank and touring with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra playing a multitude of wind and reed powered instruments and bass guitar, and many forms of ensemble on-board the QE2 cruise ship - whose welcome wit and talents are exceptional, shown especially on the clarinet and when leading this outstanding group, the programme was brilliant and the members showcased so worthy made for an excellent night’s entertainment for the present, mostly more mature audience, and helped to bring forward the Christmas mood for sure, even without the inclusion of any songs of that genre.

Set in the college’s theatre space, the stage was moodily set in readiness for a sophisticated yet relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable evening, complete with anecdotes of the life of Benny Goodman - of whom Pete is a keen admirer - including a time when he employed a lady by the name Peggy Lee to join him and his pianist at his apartment for a rehearsal where, between practising his clarinet in the kitchen for 20-minute periods, he returned to the room with a jumper on when they expected him to have put the heating on with it being January in New York!

The treat-ridden programme featured ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Don’t Be That Way’, ‘Clarinet a la King’, Down South Camp Meeting', cruise-ship/lounge-esque ‘Jersey Bounce’, Fats Waller’s ‘Stealin Apples’, the famously reworked ‘Christopher Columbus’, ‘Life Goes To A Party’ which is a triumphant test for the fingers of the brass section, before taking us into the interval with ‘Bugle Call Rag’.

The second half included: ‘Swingtime In The Rockies’, ‘King Porter Stomp’, ‘Clarinade’ and the tribute to the deli owner who fed New York big band players who couldn’t afford much; the ‘Big John Special’. Then came ‘Paganini Caprice’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and a change to the programme to include a Duke Ellington number featuring baritone player Simeon Evans. The great ‘Loch Lomond’ followed, before ‘One O’clock Jump’ and the ever impressive ‘Sing Sing Sing’ which was originally written for, sent to and turned down by Bing Crosby. The finale of the night was ‘Goodbye’ which was commonly used to end various radio shows back in the Bebop era.

Throughout the night there was a feeling of being transported to the 1940s but it was also evident that we were in the presence of some huge talents on stage, some of whom even played one-handed! With the inclusion of a performance by a smaller band which meant that drummer Joshua Savage took to the vibraphone whilst guitarist Louis Campbell took up the drum kit alongside pianist Ali Roocroft and solos throughout from Saxophonists Lily Wilson-Caines, Martha Cullen and Trumpeter Liam Orr, the stellar cast was completed by sax players Tasuku Noguchi, Rebecca Corbett; trumpet players William Dakin, Cameron Lockett and Zoe Kundu; trombone players Ethan McKnight, Christian Dow and Miriam Wallich; and double bassist Callum Cronin. The effect provided through the use of various mutes and even bowler hats was great and the rapid movements of drummer Josh should also be mentioned.

This is by far the best Big Band concert I have been to and I cannot wait to return again soon…perhaps for the college-hosted Big Band Festival in January. Thank you to all involved for a brilliant night and to the performers who train so hard for their competency. Well done!

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 14/12/18

Saturday, 15 December 2018

REVIEW: MUMS Festive Concert - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester

For their final concert of 2018, The Manchester University Music Society (MUMS), gave a festive concert in the university's Martin Harris Centre this evening.

The concert started with a new work by Manchester University's own Kevin Malone called 'Postcards From St. Nick'. The work called for chamber choir, child speaker and piano. The chamber choir in question this evening were Ad Solem and the young speaker Phoebe Moore. It's a rather convoluted piece and somewhat disjointed and I found it difficult to follow and relate to. The speaker is reading postcards sent to her from the 3rd Century bishop, St. Nicholas. Moore (who was probably 10 or 11 years old) had a lovely clear and articulate delivery and I am sure this will have been a wonderful opportunity and learning curve for her.

The second piece again called for Chamber choir (again Ad Solem) with piano accompaniment, and again, composed by someone connected to the university, this time as a composition student, David Onac. The piece was called simply 'Noel' and the choir's lush harmonies and pitch perfect rendition made it an interesting if instantly forgettable listen.

Both the above pieces were interesting curiosity pieces but would perhaps have worked better in a different context; a concert of Christmastime modern / experimental music. They did seem somewhat out of place in a family oriented end-of-season festive 'do'!

The first half ended with something much more familiar and much more Christmassy. The orchestra - in reduced form - came on, the choir stayed put, and we listened to a election of choruses and arias from J S Bach's Christmas Oratorio. For the arias, four soloists from the main body of Ad Solem came forward; Alex Bloomfield (soprano), Tabitha Smart (alto), Harry Dichmont (tenor) and Alex Hopkins (bass). I didn't understand why three of these simply stood a little to the side of the choir but Bloomfield walked all the way to the front of the stage by the conductor. This looked distinctly odd. All four had lovely voices, that much was clear, but sadly Hopkins' diction / enunciation let him down. I speak German fluently and I had difficulty understanding what he was singing. Shame.

With a rousing a brass / drum heavy opening and finale this was a lovely finish to the first half and put us all in the mood to hear the full orchestra when coming back after the break.

The second half started with a little known (I knew nothing of it, despite knowing the composer and other works by him) oratorio for male voice and string orchestra. The work was Gerald Finzi's 'Dies Natalis'.  The strings have long melodic passages with sweeping legatos whilst the tenor soloist is put through his paces with difficult passages, recitative, and soaring notes higher than a normal tenor register. The best person for the job was undoubtedly found;  Zahid Siddiqui. I have had the privilege and pleasure of listening to Siddiqui several times over the course of the last couple of years, and he just gets better and better. Such a beautiful, rich, light and yet mellow voice with stunning articulatory prowess and expressiveness. He will certainly go far!

His deserved encore was 'Down By The Sally Gardens', and left the stage to rapturous applause.

Finally the audience were energised. Finally it was time for some recognisable festive music! Two movements from Tchaikovsky's orchestral suite from the ballet 'The Nutcracker' followed. The well known and loved Marche and Danse Russe (Trepak). For these of course the entire symphony orchestra was required and, after hearing only chamber works or reduced orchestras so far, the noise took me a little by surprise, but it was a good surprise, as the 'noise' was actually highly tuneful and lyrical, and I soon had my toes tapping!

The concert ended with two seasonal pieces by American composer Leroy Anderson.  First his 'Christmas Festival Overture' which fuses just about every carol imaginable into a medley of jollity, and finally, his 'Sleigh Ride' which I think has now become de rigeur, the must-play piece of music for any Christmastide concert or gathering. With the famous whip-cracking and horse neighing, this piece finished with a flourish and was a hugely fitting way to end not just the concert but the MUMS season. It has been a very ambitious season, and I have been fortunate enough to have been able to witness much of it. Congratulations all, and I look forward to coming back in 2019 to see what you have in store then.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/12/18

REVIEW: Sleepyhead - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Little Angel Theatre presented their 45 minute long play for the pre-school (2 - 5) age bracket this afternoon in the Exchange's Studio Theatre.

Two men (David Burchhardt and Nicholas Anscombe) - dressed in black - (the Kabuki Theatre tradition of being 'invisible') - entered the stage and immediately made themselves visible by smiling and interacting with the audience. This very soon changed though as they then became two very skilful and diligent puppeteers, and their puppets' voices too, for the rest of the show.

A well designed set which placed a bedroom centre stage with a garden to the front and door and window behind, all raised so that the performers could crouch behind blending in as much as possible. A sensible lighting design and well chosen music also helped to create the moods throughout.

A baby boy is trying to sleep, his father [think Lionel Jeffries in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] is a magician and the baby finds his box of tricks. This leads the baby, after he has magic-wanded his father to sleep in the dirty linen basket, on an adventure with a large rabbit which comes out of the box too. Of course everything goes wrong, but magician father wakes up and manages to put everything back in the right order so that they both can fall asleep in each others' arms.

Written, directed and designed by Michael Fowkes, everything is extremely well placed and timed, and I loved the voices used for baby and father. My only slight concern, after watching the reaction of the youngsters on the mats at the front, was that the sequence with the barking dog went on too long and the barking was perhaps too loud and protracted.

Otherwise, this was a delightful puppet play which worked very well, even some of the grown-ups joining in with vocal approbation to some of the funnier moments. Two very skilled performers brought a magical tale to life to the joy of all.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/12/18 

REVIEW: Släpstick - HOME, Manchester

Släpstick (with an extraneous umlaut!) is not only the name of the show, but gives the audience a very good idea of what to expect from the content.

Five men, one stage, and more instruments than you can shake a stick at! This is farce in the age old tradition of the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin et al where everything that can go wrong invariably does including the large rear flat falling down at the end - if you've seen, 'The Play That Goes Wrong' you'll know what happens. But that isn't all that this show is. It is slick, clever, intelligent, and heartwarming. It is essentially a series of vignettes which sees one or more of these performers pay homage to slapstick actors of the past by either hilariously recreating their routines or by presenting a more modern take on famous film scenes. There is also a good deal of more modern references in the show too, with the Barbershop chorus appearing at different intervals lessening in number each time, singing transliterations of famous songs in German. Watch out for the very Python-esque boxing match too!

They work the audience exceptionally well, starting the show with them interacting through the auditorium. They are mostly on stage and playing with the audience during the interval and make them feel very much an integral and necessary part of the show throughout. There is never an us/them scenario.

What makes these performers stand out from the crowd however is their absolute multi-talented skill. Not only are they able to play any instrument that is thrown their way, but they are fine singers, actors and their physicality knows no bounds!

It's completely family friendly, in fact the young boy in front of me was laughing, shouting and whooping away all the way through. Hilarious, precarious, infectious and utterly delightful. A throw-back to a forgotten era with  a very modern twist which absolutely needs to be seen to be appreciated.

If Christmas shows aren't your thing, but you crave for a good belly laugh or two; this show is most definitely for you. If you are a fan of the old silent comedy films or enjoy more modern slapstick derivative comedians, then this show is most definitely for you. If you are a musician of any instrument and like comedy, then this show is most definitely for you. In fact, unless your name is Ebenezer Scrooge, just buy a ticket for this show... you won't be disappointed!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/12/18

photo credit - Jaap Reedijk