Monday, 30 December 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Resist: Stories Of Uprising.

Resist: Stories Of Uprising
A selection of short stories of British political unrest edited by Ra Page.
Published by Comma Press.

In this follow up to Protest: Stories of Resistance, Comma Press has produced a timely and urgent collection of twenty short stories, each rendering an instance of protest in the UK and spanning 2000 years of class struggle. Starting with Bidisha’s potent story on Boudica and culminating in a tale about the Grenfell tragedy, incidents covered range from the death of Blair Peach to The Battle of Cable Street to The Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Peterloo Massacre to the Liverpool Dockers’ Strike. The diverse styles of writers such as Kamila Shamsie and Lucy Caldwell and Eley Williams keep the anthology lively and engaging. Even if you think you know the history of some of these chapters, the fleshing out of contemporaneous characters humanises and passionately fuels the narratives. All is suddenly vivid and alive.

The not-for-profit publisher’s founder Ra Page states in his foreword that rather than establishing a radical agenda, these protests were a reaction to circumstances that had become so dire than ordinary people had to stand up against the erosion of their rights. The book also illustrates how British security forces have harshly dealt with resistance with an armoury of oppressive and highly questionable methods and weapons, from torture to kettling, and how whole sections of society are scapegoated, from asylum seekers to benefit claimants, to justify the status quo.

Authors were allowed to choose a struggle and to write a creative piece around it: each story has been paired with a contextualising mini-essay from either an academic or an eyewitness/active participant from the struggle, with footnotes and recommendations for further reading

Beautifully curated and emotive yet scholarly – but not polemical, didactic or dry – this is an anthology to weep over and to galvanise the spirit. The book acknowledges that social and political progress is not inevitable and that these protest movements and reactions were desperate attempts to hold onto progress made & not slip backwards; people felt they had no choice but to say ‘no’.

As a through-line of pivotal reactions to retrograde and cruel political forces, this collection of stories and factual accompaniments are eye-opening, consciousness-raising, accessible and moving. I would urge anyone with an interest in social justice to read this book and, given the current government taking Britain further to the right, we need this book now more than ever. As Ra Page states, “A rising should never be dismissed as a mere act of criminality.”

Reviewer - Tracy Ryan

Sunday, 29 December 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Book Of Sheffield

The Book Of Sheffield
A selection of short fiction stories edited by Catherine Taylor
Published by Comma Press

Sheffield; an area that many think of as a city of steel and heavy industrialisation. But in reality, Sheffield has become in recent years a powerhouse for the arts, culture and for its public gardens (the Peak District is, after all, merely a stone’s throw away). This reality is reflected in this collection of short stories, all based in and around Sheffield. As outlined in the book's introduction by its editor, Catherine Taylor, Sheffield was wrongly called the ‘ugliest town in the world’ by famous author George Orwell. And I would have to also disagree with Orwell, having lived in the above-mentioned beautiful city for three years whilst studying. I found myself coming across many familiar places within the short stories, such as Meadowhall, the Botanical Gardens and Ponds Forge. For me, and I am sure for other visitors of Sheffield, this provided a friendly anchoring that allowed me to feel at home whilst reading these stories.

All ten of these short stories in this collection highlight, in some way, Sheffield’s beauty and culture. This assortment of miniature tales could not be more different in tone and style, but all with Sheffield at its heart. Helen Mort explores the loss of identity, questioning her belonging within the city of Sheffield in her sombre and almost poetic tale, ‘Weaning'. Margaret Drabble explores the idea of returning home to Sheffield, as she ‘could never resist an invitation to Sheffield' in ‘The Avenue', a descriptive narrative. Johny Pitts’ comical story in which he incorporates the local dialect of Sheffield in ‘Like A Night Out In Sheffield' brings a needed lighter tone following the two previous short stories. Followed by ‘Visiting The Radicals’, in which Philip Hensher brings to light that love will always prevail in his dystopic tale. Reynolds’ narrative, ‘BornOon Sunday, Silent' looks at Sheffield as a foreign land and uses disjointed language to reflect the character’s isolation and confusion. In ‘The Father Figure', Geoff Nicholson uses a colloquial and conversational tone, inviting the reader in as a friend. Norminton uses relevant and current themes in ‘How To Love What Dies'. Naomi Frisby's ‘The Time Is Now' tells a story in reverse order in which she opts to swap her heart for one made of Sheffield steel. Riordan conveys a humble tale of two men working hard to earn a basic living from ‘Scrap’. The final story in this collection is by far the most complex and in many ways most interesting; ‘Long Fainting/Try Saving Again’ by Tim Etchells blends narrative styles and indeed time periods with his king-and-ogre-filled fairytale merged with modern tales of technology, perhaps explaining the two titles Etchells gives the tale.

With all stories in this collection being so different, it is likely that a reader will not enjoy all ten, and will certainly have favourites. Mine here being Pitts’ ‘Like A Night Out In Sheffield’ and Frisby’s ‘The Time Is Now’. This is perhaps as both tales speak from a younger perspective and were more identifiable to me. Frisby’s creative choice to give her readers the story’s end first and to work backwards was a breath of fresh air in terms of style, making her reader hungry to discover the reasons for her key character’s choice to wear a steel heart. And Pitts’ ultimately hopeful tale of modern, blossoming love was spotted with humour and honesty.

However, the choice to incorporate ten such different narratives allows a reader to experience genres of storytelling that they would never chose for themselves. It also shows how one subject, in this case the city of Sheffield, can provoke such different thoughts, feelings and ideas. With this being the case, I believe all readers, whether novice or expert, can find something within this collection to both empathise with and to simply enjoy, especially if they are familiar with the city that binds them all together. (Quite literally when placed inside a book!)

Reviewer - Megan Relph.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

FILM REVIEW: The Band Wagon - HOME, Manchester

If there were ever to be a competition to find the perfect film musical, then the band Wagon (1953) would probably win. It's one of those Musicals that has never tried to be a stage show, and was written for the film medium in the first place. There have been many of these, some more successful than others, but then you consider that this film musical was written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Alan J. Lerner, with a team of composers writing the songs, most notably Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, whilst starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant and Jack Buchanan, and directed with flair by Liza Minelli's father, (and husband of Judy Garland), Vincente Minelli.

It is one of the best 'back stage in the business' musicals ever written, and although it is just a little disjointed at times, the music is more mature, the songs are better sung, the choreography better, the direction tighter and more imaginative, and all-told a much more entertaining show that that of a close relative of The Band Wagon which has seemingly stood the test of time and popularity much better, Singin' In The Rain.

The plot is short on drama, despite there being an air of melancholy in the air at times, [but that was the era in which the show was written... they didn't go in for the darkness of Stephen Sondheim or the pathos of Boublil and Schonberg!] - but it has some of the best musical acting of the era, and tells the story of an aging movie star whose career is all but over and wants to find a way of re-kindling the flame by way of a big comeback. I've never really rated Astaire as much of a dramatic actor, but some of the scenes he shares in this flick as the 54 year-old Tony Hunter, are in my opinion some of his most thougthful and truthful. The Broadway vehicle they choose is, of course, a new Musical... and his beautiful co-star (Cyd Charisse) plays the role of young starlet Gabrielle Gerard with typical suavity and charm. That is, until she finds out who her co-star is going to be, and how old he is! The hatred is mutual though as they cannot get along, and all kinds of hilarity (some great one-liners) ensues, until of course, the show must go on.....That's Entertainment!

There is a control to Minelli's directing in this film which is quite masterful, and one cannot help but compare him to the greatest ever film musical director, Busby Berkeley, in the way that he sees the whole screen in many dimensions at the same time, and yet skillfully allows the viewer to focus on only one at a time. Whilst the chemistry between Charisse and Astaire is perhaps not quite as romantic as it was with his more well known partner Ginger Rogers, it is true that Charisse was the better dancer. Sadly though her voice was dubbed and an uncredited lady takes the credit for the beautiful voice you hear on screen.

It is hard to understand why this film has been (almost) forgotten, and maybe, just maybe, someone out there is thinking of a stage version, or a film remake..... that would be a grand idea! In the meantime however let us not forget that this 1953 gem has been nominated for no less than 7 Academy Awards, and ranks as number 17 in the American Film Institute's List Of Best Musicals!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/12/19

Friday, 27 December 2019

PODCAST REVIEW: CALM Podcast with guest Sarah Keyworth

UK TV Channel Dave have teamed up with The Campain Against Living Miserably (CALM), and have come up with a whole series of podcasts, cleverl;y named Conversations Against Living Miserably, in which co-hosts Aaron Gillies and Lauren Pattison chat each week with a different comedian / comedienne, in a light-hearted way about mental health, friendship, and their coping strategies, in order to help anyone struggling with anxiety issues or other unseen mental health issues, and to highlight that they are most certainly not alone, and both laughter and talking to people about it, are the best medicines.

This particular podcast featured Sarah Keyworth, who is an award-winning stand-up comedienne who performs live regularly across the UK. She has performed stand-up on The Now Show (BBC Radio 4) and has featured on the BBC, Comedy Central and has done tour support for incredible acts such as Stewart Francis, Dane Baptiste, Kerry Godliman, Jan Ravens and Abandoman. In 2018 she performed her debut hour, Dark Horse, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival drawing much critical acclaim, including a Herald Angel Award, a Pleasance Theatre award and a nomination for Best Newcomer in the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

Chatty, bright, and openly gay (her girlfriend being also a comedienne, Catherine Bohart), she was bombared at the start of the podcast with the first question that is asked to every guest, "When was the last time you felt calm?" It took a little explaining and deciding on what being calm actually meant, since, as she explained, calm means different things for different people; but for her, the last time she had a truly extented period of feeling unstressed and relaxed was when she was living with her parents some ten years' ago. Her adult life has been a bit of a rollercoaster. First was university, when she tried to change herself in order to fit into the pigeonholes and expectations of  'norm' and what was expected. And now, as a stand-up with a partner, her life is so busy that she rarely if ever manages to 'switch off'. Her brain is constantly whirring, and although she is very happy and content she is rarely if ever truly calm.

Keyworth talked about her grandma dying when she was 14, her 'coming-out', her experiences on reality TV, and weirdly, the fact that in order for her to get to sleep at night she has to think about death and dying. (apparently more common than one would imagine!).

The one thing we took away from the chat more than anything was Keyworth's insistence that we should be who we want to be, and not give in to social norms or mores. Don't let other people influence who you are. Her advice to her younger self would be to take the dress off, wear the trousers, keep the hair short, and don't date just for the sake of it!

The podcasts are kept quite light despite the material being perhaps sometimes dark and maudlin. And if you still have any anxieties or concerns then there is always the free CALM helpline. More details of which can be found at

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 27/12/19

PANTOMIME REVIEW: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs - The Grange Theatre, Oldham.

This year, Oldham has a brand new pantomime to add to one of the genre’s busiest regions - the latest addition to Anton Benson’s (who also do the Rochdale’s Gracie Fields theatre’s) repertoire - and it’s rather good! (Oh, yes it is!). It is...Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Upon hearing of the venue for the show - Oldham College’s Grange Theatre - I wrongly assumed it to be a student show, not to their detriment, but I was pleasantly impressed at the cast on offer - a mix of professionals, ‘celebs’ and local legends. With Edele Lynch (of band B*witched fame) playing the super sparkly Wicked Queen Morgana, we are welcomed to settle in by fairy Trixie the Pixie (the sensational Kate Salmon) who did her very best to get the energy of the crowds up from the start. The same goes for comedy lead, Wally (Christopher Jeffries), who had great charm and chemistry with the audience, alongside local lad/legend Jeffrey Longmore as Vera Duckworth-esque Dame Dolly (Wally’s mother) who has great wit, experience and charisma.

Completing the principal line-up is Phil Mealey (known for Early Doors) as Horace the (Northern/Manc) Henchman; leading lady Enola Dyer (of BGT fame, apparently as part of a Disney inspired girl band called Misstasia'. The band reached the semi-finals in 2015) playing the show’s namesake; and the real stunning star of the show, Ronan Parke (Norfolk-born singer who came runner-up on Britain's Got Talent back in 2011 when he was 12 despite being the bookies' favourite to win, now 21) and we are extremely lucky to have him here, if not only for his aesthetic beauty, but that of his voice, personality and fun-loving nature. Affirming his affinity with Christmas, he released a Christmas single in 2012 (Not Alone This Christmas) and debuted another (Cheers) last year at Stockport’s festive lights switch on. He is a lovely yet somewhat shy Prince Charming, returning to pantomime after his nomination for Best Newcomer by The Great British Pantomime Awards for his theatre debut in Anton Benson’s Aladdin in 2017. “National treasure” astrologist Russell Grant provided the ‘edited’ pre-recorded projection of The Man In The Mirror, and we mustn’t forget the seven dwarfs whose names are unknown.

With great choreography by Beth Portman, executed by the talented dancers, there were plenty of musical theatre showtunes throughout the soundtrack, played by one-man band…(unknown due to there being no programme or reference to him on the flyer) - well done that man though! Opening with Leona Lewis’ ‘One More Sleep’, we are treated to ‘Naughty’ from Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, ‘Shallow’ from the blockbuster film A Star Is Born, ‘Morning Person’ from Shrek, ‘Come Alive’ from The Greatest Showman, and the title song from the show ‘Anything Goes’ as well as ‘Dear Future Husband’ by Meghan Trainor, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’, the ‘Monster Mash’, LunchMoney Lewis’ ‘(I Got) Bills’ and a slight reference to B*witched’s hit, ‘C’est La Vie’. We finished with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. We even witnessed ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ by Conchita Worst, performed on an impressive ‘flying’ broomstick!

With clever gags in the script, great soundtrack and brilliant cast, make for a great night of festive entertainment and a worthy pantomime of choice and welcome addition to the calendar...just take your waterproofs!

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 23/12/19

Sunday, 22 December 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Slightly Annoying Elephant - HOME, Manchester

Doing the editor a huge favour (he was supposed to have come this afternoon but is streaming with a seasonal cold!) I came along to HOME's Theatre 2 space with my 7 year old son to catch Little Angel Theatre's production of The Slightly Annoying Elephant; a stage adaptation of a David Walliams animated book.

The production is advertised for children 3 - 8, and so Daniel (my son), I thought, would quite like to get up close and personal with a moody elephant whose manners and behaviour are disrespectful, slouching, bossy, and basically behaving as if he owns the place. This might be something he could 'relate' to and enjoy, but also understand that such behaviour is not partciularly acceptable or welcome at home from him... this could be a good 'lesson' for him..... [I'm not saying my son is a monster, far from it, but I think we have all experienced moody children going through certain phases of their growing up, and can relate to this].

However, how wrong was I?! When the elephant finally did arrive.... much anticipation in the audience and a good build-up from Sam (Heidi Goldsmith)..... all my son could say was... "that's ridiculous! That's a person dressed up as an elephant!" There's no fooling young Daniel it seemed, and as this 50 minute play progressed, he got more and more annoyed that the 'elephant' became more and more human... riding a bicycle, losing body parts (ears), and even speaking like a human! No, this was not the slightly annoying elephant for him, but much more of a hugely annoying and very disappointing elephant, well, elephants to be more precise.. as he had invited all of his friends to come and stay too, and so there are various elephant puppets used all handled by the same lady (Alex Bloomer), which just really added to the confusion.

There are a couple of nice effects, and the toilet / shower scene caused much hilarity, and the set design is good as it seems to transform before your eyes quite seemlessly from Sam's house, to the zoo to an aeroplane and back again, but the elephant's catchphrase of 'Silly Boy!' grated after a while.

That's not to say that the younger children didn't enjoy it.... looking around the room, most seemed to be engaged and entertained. And although the play offers no audience interaction, they seemed to be having a better time of it that my co-reviewer.

HOME's Theatre space is no more than a studio theatre with uncomfortable raised bench seating, so 50 minutes was plenty long enough to be sat on there with a numb bum! But the youngsters didn't seem to mind this discomfort either. Presented by Little Angel Theatre, the set was very bright, perhaps too bright; and the characterisations very bold and monodimensional; perhaps too much so; it all seemed, for me at any rate, to have been taken straight out of the pages of the book (perhaps that was intentional) rather than trying to make a welcoming, subdued and more individualistic interpretation which would work on stage.

I think all told, the younger children would have had a better experience since they bought in to the elephant more, but would not have understood the whole narrative of the story - that Sam had signed up for an "adopt an elephant" scheme and the 'moral' at the end of the play was that you should always read the small print! It's inoffensive and quite humorous. However co-reviewer Daniel and myself left feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.

Guest Reviewer - Sue English
on - 22/12/19

FILM REVIEW: On The Town - HOME, Manchester

The town, the town,
We're On The Town!
We've got 100 minutes
To see the famous sites.
We find romance and danger waiting in it
On HOME's screen tonight
The town, the town,
We're On The Town!
The Bronx is up and The Battery's down
This Musical's the best thing I found
It's a helluva sound!

One of the best ever film Muscials. Good film musicals are those that work better in the medium of film than they did / do on the stage, and this is one of them. There aren't many, so it's easy to spot a gem when you do!

And with this one we are in august and esteemed company as the writing team behind this musical is one of the strongest and most successful ever.. Betty Comden and Adolph Green on book and lyrics from ideas by Jerome Robbins (from his ballet 'Fancy Free' also with music by Bernstein), whilst the music is served up by the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. And as if that wasn't enough the stars of this film are Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and others.

3 young sailors have 24 hours leave in New York city, and one of them has never seen the city before... What do they do? Where do they go? How do they spend their time? Sightseeing or getting drunk and laid?!... Gene Kelly (Gabey), Frank Sinatra (Chip) and Jules Munshin (Ozzie) are the three likely lads. They all cannot agree on what to do so they split up. One goes to The Carnegie Hall, one to the Art Museum, and the last goes in search of life and ends up finding the "subway people". The amazing Betty Garrett plays a down-on-her-luck cab driver who finds herself in trouble with her boss. She needs a fare, and Chip (Sinatra) is that fare... and yes, you've guessed it, it's love at first sight! Chip wants to sight-see, but Hilde wants to take him back to her place!.. and so it goes on.....!

The book / plot may not be the best that Green and Comden have come up with but the musical score and the dance numbers are fantastic! 'New York, New York', 'Lonely Town', 'Carried Away', 'I Understand' 'The Real Coney Island'. etc.

The film ends with the three sailors 'older and wiser' going back on board, and we watch as three new wide-eyed and innocent sailors walk down the gangplank to spend their 24 hours in the city!

It's a great, feel-good, toe-tapping, easy watch. There are few demands made on the viewer in this movie musical, except to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!

Reviewer - Chris Benchley
on - 22/12/19

MUSIC REVIEW: The Syd Lawrence Orchestra: Mistletoe And Miller - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

The well-known and loved under the name The Syd Lawrence Orchestra,  but in reality a Big Band and under the leadership of Chris Dean, came to Manchester's Stoller Hall this evening with their latest tour, 'Mistletoe And Miller'; a title which indicates the two greatest influences of the evening's repertoire... Christmas and Glenn Miller.

Originally from Manchester, The Syd Lawrence Orchestra has gone on to become one of Briatin's best loved Big Bands, and there is no denying that from the sounds they produced this evening, that is no empty boast.

Leader Chris Dean was multi-tasking with ease this evening as he segued between compere, trombone, and even singing a couple of the songs too.  In true Big Band tradition all of the band members got their names credited at some point as well as giving each member the chance to shine with a solo or riff. This evening there was also a guest appearance from Sarah Eyden who sang along with the band on several of the numbers.

We started in festive mode with the Mistletoe And Miller Overture, a compilation of several Christmas tunes played in the style of Glenn Miller, and staying with Miller we heard Little Brown Jug, The St Louis Blues, American Patrol, Pennsylvania 6-5000, and of course both The Moonlight Serenade and In The Mood. The band always stayed in known territory and the chartered waters of the great Big Band era, never once playing any of the much more modern fayre being written for this ensemble, and this was a wise choice as these were the kind of tunes that the vast majority of the audience (made up of majority pensioners) had come along to hear.

Sarah Eyden gave us renditions of (among others) Santa Baby, Say Si Si,  and Blue Moon, whilst Chris Dean crooned his way through (among others) Almost Like Being In Love and Story Of A Starry Night. My favourite song of the evening came from Eyden as she sang 'Sentimental Journey', but my two favourite pieces the whole evening were orchestral ones. First was a rather interesting experiment, which saw Arty Shaw and his band playing 'Begin The Beguine' on a screen above the band, and half way through they took the sound out of the video and replaced it with the live SLO band - very clever. My other favourite piece was a faithful rendition of Mancini's classic theme tune to The Pink Panther; a series of films I adore, starring the one and only Peter Sellers.

Another highlight was an experiment in polyphony when the band came down into the audience playing either side of us, behind and in front of us during 'Tuxedo Junction'.

An evening of back-to-back Big Band favourites played effortlessly and masterfully by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. One not to miss for fans of this genre!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/12/19


FILM REVIEW: Cabin In The Sky - HOME, Manchester.

Even in 2019, Cabin In The Sky remains something of a rarity.. a film with an all black cast. It isn't unique, not at all, but it is still quite unusual. Maybe it is more surprising then that the film was made in the USA in 1943, based on the Broadway Musical of the same name, hitting the theatres in 1940.

As Musicals go it is unmemorable, but given director Vincente Minelli's darkly comedic humour and eye for detail, this allegory on the power of love, and the battle between good and evil, is a surprisingly entertaining watch.  And if you ignore the obvious studio sets, and the stilted, almost stagey, entrances and exits in and out of shot from the cast and extras, it is a rather fun throwback to a lost era.

The story follows "Little" Joe, (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson), a gambler, heavy in debt, but determined to reform for the sake of his highly religious wife, Petunia. (Ethel Waters). He sneaks out of a Sunday service to go to a game, only to find he gets embroiled in a fight and is shot by gangster Domino Johnson (Bubbles). Lying on his death bed, and despite Petunia praying so hard and strongly for him, he dies. In his delerious fever-induced state of limbo however he sees both Lucifer Jr (Rex Ingram) the son of The Devil himself, and God's messenger angel, The 'General' (Kenneth Spencer), who are battling for his soul. God grants Joe a 6 month reprieve, in which time he must repent all his sins and reform in order to win his place in heaven. During that time, The General becomes his spirit guide and he devotes time and energy on looking after Petunia, whom he had previously somewhat neglected. Things are looking up until Lucifer Jr starts poking his nose in, and arranges for Joe to win a huge amount of money on the sweepstakes and introduces him to the sweetest and most beautiful girl in town, Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). His wife, not waiting for an explanation, misinterpets all of this and sends him packing. He opts for a hedonistic lifestyle, lavishing his new found fortune on himself, his now "moll" Brown and the gambling club he now regularly frequents. Petunia, however wants her revenge and her share of the winnings once she finds out about all of this - and despite everything she still loves him dearly - and so goes to the club to confront him. She finds herself dancing with Joe's killer, Domino, and it seems, with just 5 minutes to go before the 6 months is up, that the devil is going to win. It's Petunia's power of prayer and love though that turn events around, and we are presented with the first of two false endings. Not to spoil it for those wishing to watch the film fresh, then that's as far as I will go.

Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram reprise their stage roles in this film, whilst the rest of the cast are new. But for me the two most enjoyable performances come from Spencer's General, a role he seemed very much at ease with and his calmness and stillness throughout was the perfect juxtaposition with the rest of the cast's high enery and stagey performances; and Lena Horne's dulcet tones when singing were by far the most tuneful and melodic. Although the full chorus songs with deep resonant harmonies, making sounds that only black people can, were beautifully mellow and pleasing. What is interesting about this film is that there are a few celebrity cameos. Louis Armstrong plays a trunpet-playing minion to Lucifer, whilst Duke Ellington and his orchestra have a featured spot in the gambling club, and the original Bill Bailey has a spot doing what he did best - dancing - in one of the numbers. 

Despite the film being a Musical and based on the Broadway show, the songs are few and far between, and the only one which I recongnised was the song Waters sang to Bill Bailey's dancing "Takin' A Chance On Love". It seems that Vernon Duke and John La Touche's music has been consigned to the annals of Musical history.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/12/19

THEATRE REVIEW: Ducklings - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Children's theatre seems to come very much to the fore at this time of year, with many companies producing work as alternatives to the more rowdy and participatory traditional pantomimes. Sometimes I am very glad I don't have children myself, as I simply wouldn't know which ones to go to, and you do get overwhelmed by it all in December!

Herd Theatre's 'Ducklings' was, like many other productions have I seen recently, very 'nice'. It's an adjective I normally avoid like the plague, but so many productions over the last couple of months have been average, fair, perfectly acceptable but nothing special... just 'nice'... and this play was no different. To be fair I was a lone adult without any youngster, and so I saw the show from perhaps a slightly different perspective, but the young children (advertised suitable for ages 4 - 7) all sat on cushions on the front row and were quietly engaged in the show throughout. There was very little auidence interaction, except at the very end, and they all were surprisingly quiet and attentive the whole time, and enjoyed the snowball fight at the end.

Ducklings tells the story of perhaps Hans Christian Andersen's most famous tale, The Ugly Duckling, by first reading the pertinent poem from a book, and then by taking just one idea from that story and developing it into a short show for the children. The idea that aspiring to beauty and conformity isn't always what is required... but instead, never lose the child within you, and always be the best you can be, or indeed just being the best 'you' is all that matters. It's a lovely little moral, and a very prescient message for our age; but perhaps one which would have gone straight over the youngsters' heads.

I liked the stage design (Natalie Pryce) with a feel of a real pond's edge with bark, leaves and tree stumps etc.... but I had absolutely no idea what the large orange grand-piano-shaped structure in the centre was representing.

Two ducklings are seen playing on stage as we enter. We learn that they are Sidney (Verity Mullan) and Spruce (Xsara-Shenielle Pryce), and as they play we soon realise that Spruce is the "good" duckling and Sidney is the more tomboyish and mischievous. It was Mullan who was responsible for all the mild comedy and the few laughs that were in the production, and she got the biggest reaction from the children when she was messing about in the water (using dance ribbon sticks was a lovely idea that worked well). Reading the Andersen text was Sophie Clay, and from where I was seated it looked like she was dressed in the high fashion of the 1920s, when women of money liked to wear kaftans and turbans. It wasn't until she became the character of the very narcissistic swan Coach Spring that it was clear the costume was meant to represent a swan. Her haughty, high-handed manner and her balletic arm movements were at times overmuch and distracting... almost as if it wasn't the character but the actress herself who was momentarily showing off.

The story follows these two ducklings who now have to take part in the annual Swan Show which will demonstrate to all the other pond life just how beautiful, graceful, and indeed elite the swans are. They are put through various tests such as flying, swimming without causing a wake, and graceful movements. Spruce learns more and more and as she does distances herself more from Sidney, who just wants to be a duckling and splash and play!

There is a nice reversal of character for Coach Spring, and the older children certainly will have understood the play and not the moral whilst the younger ones will just have been enthralled by the experience.

A few short unmemorable songs, and a couple of games [mirrored superbly in the auditorium with a game of  'find the acorns'] and good lighting and sound effects completed this 50 minute show. Yes, it was all very 'nice'.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/12/19

Friday, 20 December 2019

BURLESQUE REVIEW: Cherie Bebe's Burlesque Revue - The Richmond Tea Rooms, Manchester.

As a venue for a glossy, burlesque show in an intimate environment, the Richmond Tea Rooms could almost have been purpose-built. With a small, central performance area, no member of the audience was not at some point be in close contact with one of the performers and correspondingly, no one was out of reach of flamboyant, roving host Titsalina Bumsquash (which it is suspected, may not be her real name). Performers were able to slip on stage from a nearby side-door but in most cases made a more dramatic entrance by swirling down the great spiral staircase which leads from the street level to the basement auditorium, complete with its own bar.

The event was a sell-out with an enthusiastic audience requiring little warming up Miss Bumsquash. It was notable that something in excess of half the audience appeared to be female, demonstrating the wide appeal commanded by Burlesque. The lavish decoration of the Richmond Tea Rooms gave an almost fairy-tale appearance and the atmosphere was exuberant without any of the excesses of say a major football match on TV in a pub; this was just meant to be a fun night where anyone was welcome. The air of sophistication was somewhat marred during the introduction when Miss Bumsquash asked the audience ‘Is everyone ready to see some titties and asses?’ and by and large, the tone was not that of a Working Men’s Club.

Four Burlesque artists each gave two performances. The variety of costumes was complemented by considerable variation of moods in the accompanying music, ranging from a jazz version of ‘Roxanne’ to the Darkness’s ‘Don’t Let The Bells End’. It was clear the routines had all been carefully rehearsed with all movements in perfect timing with each track played and thought had been put into putting together a combination of acts which worked together. This included interesting range of themes including a Bad Santa (all black with white trimmings) and a Goddess of Love (more with the look of an Art Deco-era film star than anything from mythology). The pure white look of Swan Lake Ballerina act was complemented by a dazzling black costume in a slot called ‘Raven’ and other outfits were essentially just pure burlesque; exotic and sophisticated. The evening culminated with Miss Bumsquash singing as her alter ego Fanny Trump whilst dressed as a snowman prior to Cherie Bebe giving a performance in a vibrant red outfit; a fitting finale for a Christmas show.

The evening provided a bit of escapist glamour and a respite from the care of daily life. Miss Bumsquash mentioned the word ‘Brexit’ in passing on two occasions but avoided the temptation to go into any kind of political rant or digs, keeping all the comedy focussed just on everyone just having fun, with the event frequently having the feel of a pantomime as audience member’s names were called out and volunteers brought on for party games with prizes given.

Cherie Bebe’s Burlesque Revue was an evening of variety and style, with slick presentation and performers who clearly take their art form seriously. It was interesting to see burlesque presented in the more intimate surroundings of a tea room basement rather than on the larger stage of a venue such at Matt And Phred’s and whilst this meant there was little in the way of theatrical props, this was amply compensated for by a closer engagement with the audience. A very entertaining night out.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 19/12/19

Thursday, 19 December 2019

DANCE REVIEW: The Little Match Girl -Sadler's Wells, London.

The Little Match Girl. The Lilian Baylis Studio Sadlers Wells Theatre London

Cast for the performance of 18th December were Corey Annand,The Little Matchgirl, Stefanos Dimoulas, Hanna Nusbaumer, Ashley Morgan Davies,The Donnarumma Family and also playing the other parts in the performance and finally the charismatic live musician Phil King.

Why it was still possible to obtain a few seats (albeit in the back row) for last night's performance is beyond this reviewer's comprehension. Arthur Pita, the Choreographer and Director's reinterpetation of the Hans Christian Andersen story ia a tour-de-force. It remains faithful to the heart and soul of Andersen's story, without being engulfed by the essential tragedy of the fate of the Little Matchgirl, with its indictment of a society where abject poverty went cheek by jowl with wealth and security in the case of so many Victorian cities and towns.

How is this alchemy wrought? Pita transports us to Italy, to the Nineteenth Century, to a small town. The performance begins with the Little Matchgirl herself, a joyous creation wonderfully brought to life by Corey Annand, joined quickly by friends and foes, the lampman Ashley Morgan Davies, her rival matchsellers, and the obnoxious Donnarumma Family. The overwhelming vividness of the characters, and their depiction in dance and song is a triumph of interpretation and engages the audience instantly and overwhelmingly.

This is Commedia del Arte meeting Marcel Marceau delivered at a pace, and with a delicacy and coordination of dance that is quite exquisite. The facial expressions of the characters are an endless stream of vignettes that endlessly reinforce the message of the story. There are moments of almost unbearable cruelty – when the rival matchsellers tie up the Little Matchgirl to the lamp post and steal her shoes, the mindless, thoughtless casual cruelty of the child of the Donnarumma family who strike all her matches and deprive her in one second of a living, of warmth, and ultimately of life itself. The taunting of her even with a piece of cooked meat, the slamming of the door against her, so she could only peer in at the warmth and plenty, tore at the heartstrings. Nor was the audience spared the shunning of the Little Matchgirl depicted at its most extreme when the Mother of the family, comes into physical contact with her, and almost faints. This is the point at which the audience is jolted into real discomfort. For here is an attitude which brings shame to the beholder, and yet an uncomfortable self-questioning too perhaps.

So how does Pita avoid having an audience of adults and children alike overhelmed by the tragedy of it all? Partly it is the pace of the performance. The audience is swept forward from memorable scene to memorable scene. This is a rich and colour-filled confection, that entertains at every moment, but entertains in the fullest sense of that word. The audience do not have time to freeze frame their emotions before the story moves on. Yet every one is full to the brim with significance. The graveyard scene when the Little Matchgirl dies is but one, for every scene has it. At every turn the dancing and singing never fail. The music composed by Frank Moon is eery, evocative, and powerful.
At its finale, Pita does that creative conjuring trick that marks out greatness...The Little Matchgirl is transported to The Moon, where, robed in simple yet beautiful garments, she entertains the astronauts of the 1969 Moon Landing.

The theatrical device enabling this tranportation is consummate: On earth, the Little Matchgirl gazes at The Moon. She then rotates its great disc to reveal The Earth. She reminds the audience that behind the circumstance of her poverty, she was valuable, special and unique. Leaving the theatre, this critic wondered if this might translate into audience awareness. Remembering the rain-soaked street-sleeper at the nearby Angel Underground Station I hoped so. A joyful Christmas to you all. But if you can, go and see this before it ends on 29th December.

Reviewer - Raymond Armstrong
on - 18/12/19

THEATRE REVIEW: The Secret Of Christmas Eve - The Library Theatre, Oldham.

Oldham Theatre Workshop is a company I have been following for a few years now, and have always been a huge advocate of their work with children and young people, and the productions they do with them are amazing. I think this though will only be the second year running that I have seen a production from their Adult Professional Acting Company.

This original musical was produced in cooperation with Oldham Libraries, and was written by Associate Writer for OTW, Sarah Nelson, with music composed by OTW's director, James Atherton. It's a very Christmassy story, and one that seems to come right out of a Victorian children's fairystory book. It's very twee, and certainly it appeals to young girls, but I can't imagine this story being something young lads would sit through quite the same. In this evening's audience I was sitting close to a whole bunch of Brownies, and even they were very restless and fidgety after about the first 40 minutes of the first act.

It tells the story of a young orphaned girl born on Christmas Eve, who goes to live with a childless couple. They call her Eve, and it is the eve of Eve's eighth birthday. That evening an elf, named Brian, makes himself known to her and tells her that she has a very important mission to complete and she is the only one who can do it. None of the wish-letters from the young children have arrived in the North Pole yet, and she has to help Brian to find them and get them there because without the letters the elves cannot make the presents, Father Christmas can't deliver them, and Christmas will have to be cancelled! So, with the help of Digby the dog (a rather endearing puppet and sometime star of the show), and her best friend Nisha, they go on a journey to find the letters and restore the Christmas status quo. It's a very heartwarming story and does touch upon certain contemporary themes such as homelessness, identity and family values, but I do think the show was somewhat too long (especially since it is advertised as suitable from age 4 upwards, and the whole thing - including a 15 minute interval - ran for 95 minutes).

The small stage at Oldham Library always presents set design issues, but this evening OTW had excelled themselves. The stage looked cluttered and filled with bric-a-brac as the family were eclectic collectors of antiquities and strange objects (which the cast used well throughout as part of the story), but there was still plenty of space to move around and each area was clearly definied. There was even a couple of Christmassy touches too. On one side a piano with a pianist providing live accompaniment throughout. The lighting at the theatre is quite limited but what they had was used to good effect and the overall production values of this show were excellent.

A cast of five (four of which we saw last year in Hamsel And Gretel) all played a variety of roles throughout the show. Purvi Palmer is as well as other things, Eve's best friend Nisha, (a very convincing young girl), and the puppeteer most of the time for the dog. Laura England gives a sterling performance as she changes effortlessly between the kindly mother and the nasty Scrooge-like Mrs Grimble. Madeleine Edmundson takes on a few smaller roles as well as the Dream Collector Nula Nu, and Natasha Davidson is our protagonist, Eve. Davidson gives a delighful and very real performance, and is a very natural actress, although for me, I did find it very difficult at times to buy into her being only eight years old. Stealing the show completely was Jabez Sykes as both the father and Brian the Elf. His high energy performance was what kept the show moving - without it I fear the whole might all have ground to a halt. His comedy timing and ability at physical and facial contortions brought laughter and smiles to all.

The cast was completed by three young elves from the OTW. Six names are mentioned in the programme and so pictured here are the three which performed delightfully this evening. They only had small roles, but they were excellent, especially the youngest / smallest.

In conclusion, the Musical was original and certainly not boring, but it was played very much on a similar level throughout. There were few dynamic changes and the storyline did go exactly where you'd expect it to. The singing - especially the harmonies - were all lovely, but again, musically there were very few upbeat, jazzy moments, and the show even started with a very solemn rendition of  'In The Bleak Midwinter'! The ending also seemed to drag, as we were presented with a couple of false endings before we actually got to the curtain call. However, all told it was very well presented / acted,  but a little backward-looking... it was the kind of show that children would have been enthralled by in the 1950s.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/12/19

FILM REVIEW: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker - Vue Cinema, Middlebrook. Bolton.

J.J. Abrams returns to the director’s chair for the last instalment of the new sequel trilogy, The Rise Of Skywalker; a film so convoluted in plot and crammed full to the brim with references to the original trilogy that it leaves the future of the Star Wars film franchise in doubt, dangling precariously off a cliff. Whilst this new trilogy has been divisive, controversial and ultimately lacklustre, I have found myself going to see each one with a diminished sense of excitement which over the last four years has manifested itself into an almost morbid curiosity. Unfortunately for me, the curiosity was not worth it.

Episode IX continues the story of Rey, Finn, Poe and the Resistance in their struggles against the First Order sometime after the events of The Last Jedi. Certain people make a return... the Millennium Falcon shoots some TIE fighters... Carrie Fisher lies under a sheet for some of the story. Honestly I’m struggling here to effectively condense the absolute nonsense that went on in the film into a concise synopsis.

However, before I give my honest opinion on this film, let me take you through some of the positives that I came away from the film with. C3PO has a greatly expanded role in this film as opposed to the last two films and for the first time since Return Of The Jedi, he feels like one of the gang again. Kudos to Anthony Daniels for bringing the character back to life and making his presence felt and one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film. Secondly, there is a great use of practical puppets displaying a vast range of creatures from the small (Babu Frik and D-O especially, you’ll know what I mean when you see them) to the tall. I found myself grinning inanely at some of the new creations, they were that charming. I am a massive fan of practical effects of any kind and if there is one thing that this trilogy has done right, it is the practical effects. You’ll hear from my inner luddite/ Rebecca’s daughter later. Finally the set designs were good as were the cinematography for the most part of course you have that annoying Abrams lens flare from time to time, but luckily it was toned down for this film

Unfortunately the cons outweigh these pros. The story makes no sense, it is devoid of logic or plot. Although I initially put up with the vignettes to-ing and fro-ing from one person to another, believing it to be an attempt to set up the story and get it rolling; it soon became apparent to me that in the writing of this screenplay the writers rolled a die and went with whatever it landed on regardless of whether it made sense or not. Furthermore the dialogue is clumsy and clunky and the delivery from some actors was equally awkward. Daisy Ridley has progressed from a tailor’s mannequin to a shop window dummy, as her wooden performance means that Rey lacks charisma and any chance of a screen presence is drowned out by everything else around her. The scenes which recycled unused Carrie Fisher footage, who of course died three years ago now, seemed out of place and obvious. On top of that a number of references and gimmicks made myself and many others in the screen snigger uncontrollably at the cringy-ness that was projected before us.

While I praised the practical effects, the computer generated imagery and effects looked rough, drawing you away from any realism that was in the scenes. The film leaned towards the whole Marvel thing of big CGI scenes and battles where you as a viewer really couldn’t care less about what is going on on the screen in front of you. I have always been of the opinion that practical models and effects are 100x times better than CGI. I don’t care if it’s obvious that the models and miniatures matted on the screen clip each other. I’ll pick that honest, wholesome, blood sweat and tears craftsmanship over some guy sat at a computer wearing a wrist brace.

This film was always going to be a tough one to make, especially after the backlash of The Last Jedi. For me personally, this trilogy has not been amazing, and I get the feeling that Disney are starting to realise that these films have not really gone the way they had been expecting for them. Their caution is so obviously apparent, I have only seen trailers for The Rise Of Skywalker on Youtube and Facebook, I haven’t seen any trailers or promotional stuff on the television; likewise the toy aisles in supermarkets show no sign of Star Wars, even at this time of year. The anthology series is on hold, the writers for the next trilogy have left, God knows when or if the green light will be given for Rian Johnson’s own trilogy. It’s a somewhat sad reality, but this latest film shows that Star Wars has had its run. Baby Yoda looks cute though? Right?

To conclude, The Rise Of Skywalker is not worth watching. It absconds into the absurd and ridiculous, and it feels more like a Harry Potter/ generic action film at times than Star Wars. You really get the impression that the story was made based upon some cool concept drawings and nothing else. One could argue that these are the ultimate fan made films, but Episode IX in particular lends itself at parts to something you’d find on the internet. It is disappointing, it is underwhelming, it feels lazy, it doesn’t tie all the loose ends which is infuriating. It shows that the characters were underdeveloped and that along with a lack of overarching narrative structure never had any chance of being something great.

Reviewer - Daryl Griffin
on - 18/12/19

THEATRE REVIEW: A Christmas Carol - Theatr Clwyd, Mold.

Christmas isn’t complete without watching A Christmas Carol, or certainly not in our household. The classic tale of the transformation of Mr Scrooge not wanting any part of Christmas then, after being visited by three ghosts, turning into a man who wishes goodwill to all and promises to keep the spirit of Christmas in his heart the whole year round. It’s a story that can be seen in many incarnations from film, to pantomime to the original text. I have to say the performance I saw at Theatr Clwyd tops them all.

The show was performed as promenade, so once you step into the studio you are instantly transported to 19th Century, Victorian Britain. You are greeted by all manner of street sellers. You are given a token and can exchange this for a variety of treats, lollipops, ginger bread, mistletoe. My favourite, however, were the Christmas wishes which were then placed on the Christmas tree. A lovely touch that really gave you sense of being a part of the performance. All the actors interacted with you and the carol singers even invited you to join them. It was a wonderful start and such great fun.

Scrooge makes a rather abrupt entrance which sets the tone for his character. Steven Elliott was a joy in this role. His Shakespearean background most definitely coming into play. His booming voice created the archetypal scrooge witha performance full of gravitas. It also made his transformation and softening all the more profound.

The voice of the Ghost of Marley soon led us into the Emelyn Williams auditorium and it was here the ghosts visited Scrooge. Multiple entrances were used to keep you involved and direct audience address also kept you immersed in the show.

A single bed in the corner of the stage and a rickety wardrobe were the only set on stage bar some wires that had pages crumpled up and strewn on it. The pages representing the pages of Scrooge's life and the debts he’d acquired both through his job and the debts to humanity he owed. It was a well thought out and interesting set. The sparsity of it reminding you of the loneliness in Scrooge's life. The bed was functional and most of the acting centred around it. The wardrobe was used for the entrances of the ghosts and coupled with the heavy amounts of dry ice and ambient lighting, it proved most effective.

The best entrance however was that of the Ghost of Christmas Future. The whole theatre was lit with flashing lighting, eerie music, scrooge shouting and then a black out. After the blackout the ghost stood on stage. The actor who played Tiny Tim dressed in a white shroud. His face hidden, a truly terrifying sight. The ghost did not speak which added to his terror. This ghost certainly brought the fear.

Even though the performance had some scary bits it is very much family friendly. The comedy was innocent such as Tiny Tim singing a song about farts! The performances big enough to provide humour in the reactions of the characters. The children in the audience were also used throughout the performance to go on stage and become a part of the performance. They were used in a game of hit the frog, as dance partners, as bell ringers and constantly asked questions by the actors. With a run time of one and a quarter hours this also made the performance a family friendly one.

It was such an immersive experience and one I would happily repeat. The show left me with a sense of well being and Christmas spirit. A definite must-see for the festive period.

Reviewer - Francesca Eager
on - 18/12/19

PANTOMIME REVIEW: Peter Pan - The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

One of my earliest memories is of being stood in a theatre and Peter Pan telling an enrapt audience that for Tinkerbell to live, we all had to believe in fairies. Suddenly the entire room was lit with a million little lights that I truly believed were the fairies that all of us children had sworn we believed in and it was such a magical moment.

Fast forward around 30 years or so and I find myself back in my seat preparing to watch Peter Pan again and this time with my daughter at my side. Was it as magical? Not quite. But it was pretty darn good.

Marti Pellow lead this band of actors as the villainous Captain James Hook and what a villain he did make. His opening number with his pirate dancers was quite fantastic and when he breached the front of the stage to sail his ship into the audience, we were more than impressed.

However, the true star of this show was Darren Day. From his incredible, yet completely unrelated impressions to his musical number with 6 crocodiles wearing pink tutus he was incredible from start to finish as Mr Smee and what really kept the pantomime going.

It was nice to see that all of the cast had incredible voices and the rendition of “Voice Within” from Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Wendy and Tiger Lily really did blow my socks off; some major power-house voices.

I loved the way in which they had brought Tink into the 21st century by giving her sparkly Converse shoes and a mobile phone.

This wasn’t the story of Peter Pan I was expecting – it had definitely been altered a lot from J.M Barrie’s original version or in fact any version I have seen on stage. As well as the dog Nana, who was fantastic but sadly only appeared for a brief few minutes, the first half did seem a little slow.

There were lots of static dialogue which personally for me has no huge place in a pantomime as the words tend to usually be for jokes and to lead from one song to another. Whilst hilariously funny, particularly in the second half, The Grumbleweeds were particularly redundant characters who used up time and seemed to be there just as fillers whilst set or costume was changed.

The staging was incredible; WARNING if you have young children, the crocodile scenes are pretty scary, especially if you’re in the front few rows. It was at that point alone that I was glad we were up in the balcony as I am not sure that my four-year-old would have been quite so brave in the front rows.

As I said the staging and scenery were incredible as were the costumes or lack thereof…. I won’t spoil it but you’ll get quite an eyeful at one point in the show.

Again, whilst Tiger Lily was incredible, her role was so far removed from the original story, she appeared to be there to incorporate the amazing tumblers whose tricks were jaw dropping, especially when they dared to incorporate fire.

Overall, I thought the show was fantastic, but considering it is a story J M Barrie wrote about Wendy, Michael and John and their adventures in Neverland with Peter Pan, these characters probably spent less time on stage than the supporting cast. The story primarily revolves around Mr Smee and Captain Hook.

If you’re looking for a laugh and great entertainment then this show should definitely be on your watchlist this Christmas, but I’d advise for children around 7+ not only because of the crocodile but because of the amount of dialogue and downtime between musical numbers. My four-year-old sadly got bored in between numbers, so not one I’d say for the little ones but one I would definitely watch again.

Reviewer - Katie Davis
on - 17/12/19

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

SCHOOL CONCERT REVIEW: An Evening Of Festive Cheer - The Sackville Theatre, Sheena Simon Campus, The Manchester College, Manchester

HNC and Level 3 Musical Theatre students at The Manchester College gave their last concert of the year this evening to a packed Sackville Theatre, the school's own on-site studio theatre space.

The first half of the concert was a selection of songs from the Musical Theatre repertoire, whilst in the shorter second half they donned Christmas jumpers and tinsel whilst singing and dancing their way through festive songs both traditional and pop.

Considering I class myself as a Musical Theatre lover - indeed that has always been my first love and a genre in which I was gainfully employed, several of this evening's songs in the first half were unknown to me! [quickly jotting down the lyrics and then coming home to 'Google' them and find I had been listening to songs from shows such as Hamilton, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Kinky Boots and Waitress... all Musicals I have yet to see!]

My overriding criticisms in a negative vein from this evening are twofold, neither of which have anything to do with the students themselves, but are instead technical aspects of the presentation. Firstly many of the soloists this evening were quite quiet, and so either needed more tuition in projection or microphones; and secondly the girls' modern fashion make-up did not work on stage at all, and needed a more neutral non-high-gloss look.

However, other than that this was a hugely enjoyable concert, given by some very high-spirited and talented youths. Without a programme (or indeed an MC or a screen to announce the names, items etc) I have no idea of anyone's name, sorry. However, I still would like to mention the evening's highlights. I did have a couple of favourites.. and this in no way denigrates or lessens the other singers / songs I don't mention, all were of an equally high standard... these were just my personal favourites from the evening.

First came a highly powerful and sassy rendition of The Mad Hatter's song from 'Wonderland'. The young lady singing this captivated and had my full attention throughout the song, and it was superbly interpreted and she had a powerful belt voice which was used well. Next to impress over and above came a female solo singing the song 'Burn' from Hamilton. Although this young lady started too quietly and she was inaudible at the beginning, the song swells and gains power and intensity, and she went with it bringing about a highly emotional piece of singing. In act two, a young man sang a solo, which I have been reliably informed was called 'River' by Joni Mitchell. The song was new to me, but both the lyrics of the song and the young man's vocal and emotive power blew me away!

I enjoyed the choreography to most of the songs and it was a varied and well-thought-through selection. The whole concert finished in a very upbeat mood with them a-whooping and a-clapping their way through Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody.

With a change of theatre venue happening only a few hours before curtain (they were due to perform at the Waterside Theatre), the stage was bedecked beautifully in lush red velvet curtains, gold stars and a lighted Christmas tree to one side, and watching the show, one would have had no idea that they were performing in a different space from the one advertised, and so that in itself is very meritorious.

Congratulations to all involved.. just what I needed to take me out of my maudlin state of mind!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/12/19

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

SCHOOL CONCERT REVIEW: Winter Wonderland - The Co-op Academy, Higher Blackley. Manchester.

The Co-op Academy in North Manchester encourages every student in the Arts. All have the opportunity of leaning musical instruments and they have a thriving Big Band, String Orchestra and Rock Band (who all performed this evening); they have The CAM Choir (pictured), as well as individual tuition in instruments. They also have a large drama department, where creativity and confidence is developed. Again, we watched some sketches performed by the drama students this evening. In February, the school will be presenting the junior version of the hit show, We Will Rock You, and a couple of the songs were also previewed this evening too.

The Academy Theatre is perhaps a little off the beaten track, but still within very easy reach of the city centre, and is a large and well -equipped theatre space ideal for both school use and outside hire.

The Co-op Academy is a non-selective, mixed secondary school and the students who performed this evening were all in their early teens or perhaps even a year or so younger. Starting with a couple of MCs, who took us through the items on the programme we watched and listened to a broad cross-section of the school's Art department. Whilst on display on either side of the stage were some of the school's fine art work, with a TV monitor in the foyer on continual loop showing some of the students' photography.

It was the two MCs who made this concert both unique and so delightful. A young lad with a cheeky grin on his face continually saying "Wow!" after every item, and losing his place on the prompt sheets, whilst a slightly older girl helped him and this became something of a comedy double-act which could easily have been developed into a whole routine. It was both charming and lovely!

14 seperate items in total took us through the evening, and the rear screen was also utilised to aid us in our understanding of the pupils' names and the music etc they were playing. Two brave young soloists performed for us: Alessia Codres on ukelele [apparently an instument which is now overtaking popularity from the recorder in schools] and Amber Foulkes on piano, playing an Einaudi favourite, 'I Giorni,. Both deserving a special mention here.

The drama items were self-devised, and the first was a festive remake of the classic sketch "The Four Yorkshiremen" [Monty Python], whilst the girls in the second act read a poem about The Stickman, and scurried around trying to finish The 12 Days Of Christmas with only 5 people! My only slight criticism would be that vocally the students were rather quiet, and so it would have been preferable to have brought them nearer the front of the stage (or maybe even given them mics).

Of all the items on offer this evening though, there were two favourites. First was a lovely acapella two-part harmony Christmas song called 'Mary Did You Know', which was beautifully interpreted by the CAM Choir; and the second was one of the songs which is to be in the musical We Will Rock You in February. Parly because the lyrics to this song are so wonderful; partly because it is a lesser known song; but mostly because the soloist, Harriet Robinson gave a tear-jerking and heartfelt rendition of it this evening. The song was 'No One But You'.

This is not to deride or lessen the quality and acheivement of any of the other items this evening; far from it. All were of an equally high standard. Those two were just my personal favourites!

Thank you for allowing me to come and share your evening, and for bringing seasonal joy to us all.  The concert finished in jocular mood with three girls either side of the stage doing over-the-top and ridiculous mime movements to the song 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer'! Another hilarious highlight, and I left the theatre with a huge grin on my face.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/12/19

Monday, 16 December 2019

PANTOMIME REVIEW : Goldilocks - The Dancehouse, Manchester.

Roll up! Roll up! Come and see the greatest pantomime in Manchester this season! Eight-Freestyle in association with The Dancehouse celebrated their seventh year of panto this year bringing a new show 'Goldilocks: The Panto' and it didn't disappoint.

The story followed aerialist 'Goldie' and her crazy circus family as they try to create the greatest show on earth to beat the evil 'Baron Von Schtinkenfurter' in a competition to be the only circus in 'Minchester'. Chaos and hilarity ensue as we meet a vast array of characters along the way including some very talented Mancunian bears, werewolves and even three very cute little pigs.

The cast for this show was huge with ten principal characters. Helena Frances took the role of leading lady 'Goldie' and was the perfect princess character. Goldilocks is usually the main character of this well known tale however I feel it wasn't the case this time. There were so many strong characters that I would arguably say there was no one lead in this show, however saying that if I were to choose a lead it would have to be Silly Billy. David Allen as 'Silly Billy' completely stole the show. He had excellent comic timing, great stage presence and fantastic banter with the audience. He had both adults and children in stitches. His tightrope scene in particular was fabulously funny and well done. Red Redmond took on the role of Red Ridinghood and played a spot on whiny teenager with a particularly hilarious 'Teenage Dirtbag' scene that had me cracking up with laughter. Matthew Chappell was the classic panto dame and delivered a fantastic performance. Adam Urey played the villainous 'Baron Von Schtinkenfurter', he provided a good balance of villain, enough to make the audience boo but not too much to scare the children. His rendition of Billie Eilish's 'Bad Guy' was incredibly entertaining, I just wish there was a bit more of the villain as I feel he was slightly lost in the many storylines of the show. The three bears (Kate Mitchell, Kieran Lee and Shane Hurst) were a smaller element of the show but in no means any less talented, I enjoyed their chemistry and their comical entrances.

Rosie Astbury did a great job with the costumes, I loved 'Bertha's' wardrobe in particular. The set was a great mix of both classic panto-esque style and modern technology. There were some great moments created with projection on the tabs and a split stage with dancers doing ballet behind a see-through screen. I loved the onstage presence of the musicians, this really added to the show however on some occasions throughout the show I felt the music was a bit too loud and I struggled to hear some of the actors singing which was a shame.

The big dance numbers were spectacular with excellent choreography. The dancers are exceptionally talented and showed some amazing technical moves especially in the slower more balletic songs. The children's ensemble were fantastic, dancing for this show we had the blue team. There were some little stars among this group, I was particularly impressed by the many flips and tricks sprinkled through the show.

My only small gripe would have to be that it was maybe too long, with a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes lots of children were getting quite restless with some families leaving slightly early. I think maybe some of the numbers could've been cut as some of them weren't always relevant or necessary. Some of the gags were a little drawn out at times and could've been a bit more punchier but other than that I don't have much to say in terms of negatives as the show was next level. The Dancehouse theatre is on the same road as the Palace theatre and I would go to the lengths of saying the show is as good as if not better than some of the big shows that are put on at the Palace.

I always find it such a shame that pantomime gets mocked and disregarded in the acting world. People don't realise the amount of hard work and graft that goes in to creating a pantomime. There's so many elements to it; acting, comedy, singing, dancing, special effects. It takes an incredibly talented bunch of people to create such a show and the cast/crew of 'Goldilocks' are no different. It's easy to see that everyone involved in creating this show has worked incredibly hard and it's definitely paid off. I've seen a few pantos this Christmas season and I can easily say this is the best.

Reviewer - Bethany Suthers
on - 15/12/19

AMATEUR PANTOMIME REVIEW: Jack And The Beanstalk - The New Adelphi Theatre, Salford.

Debut Academy are a dance and performance arts academy based in Stockport and are one of only a handful of dancing / theatre schools in the Greater Manchester area which have my undying support. The quality is always very high, and their production values and training ethics are second to none.

This will be the second time I have seen their school perform at the New Adelphi Theatre, a new theatre in a new building, in the Peel Park campus of Salford University, and hopefully they will continue to perform there (it's easier and quicker for me to get there than it is to Stockport!)

However, this evening the pantomime was much more of something I like to call a 'dancomime'. A combining of art forms in order to showcase the whole school and their differing classes and disciplines as well as provide a thread of a narrative that brings them all together and makes a show.. in this case a panto!

Not all the school was involved in this show (although there were still over 150 children on stage!), as the more seasoned and longer-standing students of Debut has been lucky enough to gain employment in professional pantos up and down the country, nevertheless the standard was still extremely high and every single dancer on stage, some as young as only three years old, were all 'in the zone' and working thier little socks off. The discipline is amazing, and the obvious respect and love of the teaching staff that these youngsters have is also quite obvious. The cheering, whooping and crying from behind the curtain at the end of the day's second and final show was deafening, but a huge testament to the hard work and dedication put in by those responsible for their training.

A simple black-curtained stage with just a few stage props to help us in our understanding such as a giant beanstalk, a giant's foot, or the Trot's wood cabin were presented, ameliorated by lighting and sound effects including a voice-over for the giant himself [although this could have been louder and scarier in my opinion]. The principals were all cast from the academy's students except Dame Trot her/ himself as this role was performed by the school's cafe chef, Jed! And in all fairness to him, once he had got a little warmed up and more happy with the character, he was actually quite good, playing with the audience and even coming down into the audience at one point, joking around. It would have been nice if there had been more audience maipulation and participation, not just from him, but all the cast, but when they are so young themselves, it was perhaps wise not to do so. The script was written and devised by the tutors, and there were plenty of laughs, one-liners and very corny jokes in there. Some didn't quite land, perhaps due to the age and experience of those speaking them, but nevertheless, the idea of Jack selling a toilet plunger at market was something I haven't seen in this panto before!

Jack, Dame Trot's son was played excellently with cheeky charm, and a lovely clear speaking voice, by Madison Browne. His best friend, Jill, (Poppy Hall) didn't really have such a large part to play, but her stage presence and characterisation were excellent. As with all pantomimes there is a battle between good and evil (and of course the good always wins the day!); and in this case the evil was catered for by the Giant's Guard, played superbly with more than a touch of malevolence and an easy stage presence by Josie Counter. I loved her ad lib put-downs to the sudience {"shut yer face!"}. Entering stage right as is tradition was the good Fairy Beanbag (Sophie Osborne), who spoke clearly and precisely in rhyme and both looked and acted extremely well in the role of a rather strong-willed fairy.

The dances were very varied, but each time they were performed by a different age group and showcasing a different discipline from street dance, through commercial and tap, to contemporary ballet. I have to admit that it was a new experience for me to see a tap routine to 'Beat It'! - but it worked! My favourite dances though - the ones where the 'pictures' and groupings were for me the most pleasing, and the ones with best overall use of the space were, 'Castles' and 'Timber' where some gymnastic skills were ably showcased. The costumes were all generally very good, and I especially liked the black and gold costumes for the opening dance of act 2; however, if I may, just for a moment be a little critical, then I would have prefereed all the dancers in the 'Country Roads' dance to have worn denim shorts. A couple had long denim jeans and a couple dungarees, and this looked rather odd.

One thing which is becoming something of a mini-tradition with me now when watching dancing shows of this nature is to find the non-principal dancer who deserves a special mention. This evening, the young girl in question caught my eye as soon as she entered the stage, her posture, poise, and presence shone and I was immediately captivated. She continued to dance and sing with a huge smile, and her naturalness, but obvious ability is most definitely worth my commenting on. She appeared in a couple of the dances, but she caught my eye for the first time in the 'Reach For The Stars' dance which finished the first act. I have been reliably informed that her name was Rosie Hitchen.

Huge congratulations to all involved, it did not disappoint and lived up to my now very high expectations from the Debut team. I look forward to coming along again to see your next show.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/12/19

PANTOMIME REVIEW: Cinderella - The Opera House, Buxton

As all of the news articles suggest, veteran entertainer and comedian James Holmes has once again returned to Buxton Opera House, since being here recently with Eastendless, to reprise his usual role, as Dame, in the theatre’s annual pantomime; this year, Cinderella (by Philip Dart), where he is playing ugly Northern stepsister, Ivana. He is, as far as having the most laughs, likeability and chemistry with the audience, in my view, the star of the show and a brilliant performer, playing alongside fellow Stepsister, Melania (Jamie Barwood).

Cinders’ best friend and butler, Buttons, is second but sadly some of his gags did get lost - nothing to do with his, initially surprisingly cast native Glaswegian dialect, which we warmed to. Played by looker Ross Barbour, who recently graduated from Italia Conti Academy, with great cheeky charm and charisma, it is surprising to discover that it is his debut of the genre. His evident passion for comedy and fun is contagious and very welcome - none more so than during the variety decorating sketch, originally between Sir Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom - not to mention his energy and stamina. The show’s namesake, played by Shannon Flynn, hoped (according to the show’s programme) to have “loads of fun” but, it appears, she had the smallest part (not utilising her CBBC presenting background). Nonetheless, her triple-threat talents were used effectively throughout.

Anyway, to start at the beginning...we are welcomed by the usual sparkly curtain, before we meet the Strictly-obsessed Fairy Godmother (Emily Juler) who, with a look of Aardman studios’ Wallace and Gromit character with the hair of Frenchie from Grease, acts as narrator - sometimes with the briefest of entrance and lines. Her Strictly references do fit in with the theme of the plot and her dancing skills are great. Her happiness, too, is infectious. She later takes a shine to Cinderella’s father, Baron Hardup (the seasoned Alasdair Baker), whilst at the Palace/Pavilion Dance Contest, called to find the secret girl who the Prince (extensive-careered Ryan Bennett, who has a look of Eastenders (and stage) actor John Partridge) danced with in the Palace (modelled on the Pavilion) Gardens - to the upbeat song ‘This Is What It Feels Like’ by ‘Armin van Buuren feat. Trevor Guthrie.. Upon failing to get the girl’s name, he is determined to find her and invites every girl in the town to the Dance Competition, facilitated by Miss Trotwell (Urdang Academy graduate Hannah Shackell).

Ably accompanied by his handsome man-servant Dandini (Bird College graduate Connor Hignell), they tour the town of Stoneybroke to seek out the owner of the slipper that was apparently left at the dance competition and magically made its way into his possession. They find the owner and they all live happily every after.

With well-executed choreography (by Tracey Illiffe), the dancers from various training schools and academies completed this spectacle to music provided by the live band (Daniel Looseley on keys and Greg Pringle on percussion), under the leadership of Adam Gerber. With such songs as 'Owl City' & Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘(It’s Always A) Good Time’, Michael Bublé’s ‘I Just Haven’t Met You Yet’, Taylor Swift’s (You’ll Never Find Another Like) ME!, Bruno Mars’ ‘You Can Count On Me’, Justin Bieber’s ‘Despasito’ and Lewis Capaldi’s ‘Someone You Loved’ and the occasional pantomime addition of musical theatre songs: ‘You Will Be Found’ from Dear Evan Hansen to close the first half, the tango ‘Hernando's Hideaway’ from The Pajama Game and ‘The Nicest Kids In Town’ from Hairspray, as well as a finale medley of Christmas songs.

With the spooky scene and songsheet completing the full-house on the panto checklist, this show is brilliant and my criticisms are minor and do not really detract from the enjoyment of it overall (apart from maybe the obvious difference in tights and tan shoes of one single dancer at the start - was she Becky?).

Nonetheless, if you are in the North West, make a point to go and see this pantomime this year.

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 14/12/19