Sunday, 25 March 2018

Frankenstein, Royal Exchange Manchester 24/3/18


I’m not good with horror or frights of any kind. I’m often scared of my own shadow and on heading for the Royal Exchange’s latest production, Frankenstein, I was a little concerned that I might have to hide behind one of the banquettes if it all got a bit too much for me. I needn’t have worried.

Whilst the dark design of this latest production is effective, especially the blocking of the walls of the theatre space to allow for regular ‘blackouts’ in an attempt to ramp up the tension, and a simple but effective staging, I found this show to be strangely unmoving .

There were some good performances, Ryan Gage as Captain Waldran had great stage presence and gave a nicely balanced performance. Harry Attwell as the Creature conjured sympathy for his plight, the most memorable scene being his time observing and learning from a family in the woods and his eventual rejection. Whilst he played the victim well, I found this character less convincing when he took his revenge having been betrayed. And Colin Ryan (Henry / Felix / Prosecutor) seemed like an actor to watch in the future. 

The choices made in the portrayal of Victor Frankenstein made him almost seem weak. I found myself not really caring one way or the other about what happened to him or his loved ones (just occasionally wishing that they would happen a bit faster!) 

All in all I found this a bit of an underwhelming performance. Little tension, not at all scary, and not very engaging or memorable.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, Buxton Opera House 10/3/18


I managed to win tickets to see this touring production from the Globe Theatre and Bristol Old Vic at the gorgeous Buxton Opera House. What a piece of luck that turned out to be because this production was truly special, totally memorable and I’m so thankful that I got a chance to experience it.



Witten by Joel Hopwood, this production is directed by Emma Rice, the outgoing Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre and formerly of the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre. It certainly has the feel of some of the Kneehigh productions that I have seen as it magically blends, music, puppetry and enthralling storytelling. Whilst the tales it tells are traditional, they bring modern relevance and a sometimes dark edge to the narrative and the talented cast deliver the complex piece deftly, cleverly balancing the various moods.


The main ‘stories’ covered are Thumbelina, the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the Princess and the Pea, all held together by the Match Girl paying for each tale told by the strike of a match and then observing and sometimes being part of the ensuing tales. Edie Edmundon’s puppetry of the Matchgirl is totally mesmerising and you invest in her character fully, making her final fate even more heartbreaking.



Whilst there is plenty of comedy, most overt in the Emperor’s New Clothes which is an absolute hoot, darker themes are referenced throughout of poverty and discrimination, war and abuse, which could have caused upset for the youngest of audience members, although it was subtly done so perhaps more likely to be go over really little one’s heads. For anyone over say 8 it may provoke conversations but it’s well balanced and for the older audience members these darker overtones really draw you in and are very moving.



The mutli-disciplined cast are fantastically talented and work together so well in their various roles. My particular favourites were Niall Ashdown with his incredible comic timing and engaging way with the audience, and Katy Owen who was such a versatile performer. But the whole cast, and on stage musicians really were superb.



The design is beautiful. A cleverly adaptable set with almost magical transformations and reflects both the worlds of the tales being told and the modern day contrasts between those who have, and those who can only look on and dream. The final scenes were incredibly poignant and moving and I’m not ashamed to say I did have a bit of a blub at the end.



Beautiful storytelling, magically told. In turns thought provoking and fun. Such a fantastic production and highly recommended.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

2017 Round Up



2017 was another year of broken blog resolutions. Many shows seen, many shows not written up. Anyone looking at the blog would think I’d had a light theatre year, but no it was just life getting in the way of writing about the shows I saw. Here is the full (I think) list of what theatrical shenanigans got up to in 2017 with links to the actual blogs I got round to writing

January


  • Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange Theatre – fun show and Kaisa Hammarlund was an amazing Charity





February


  • Everyone’s Talking About Jaime, Sheffield Crucible – this new musical is amazing, you laugh, cry and dance. It’s now open in the West End, winning awards by the bucket load and is a must see. I’ve already seen it once in London and I will go again!
  • The House of Bernard Alba, Royal Exchange Theatre – interesting and inclusive production from Graeae Theatre Company whose work looks to break down barriers, challenge preconceptions and open up opportunities for disabled artists
March
 
  • The Suppliant Women, Royal Exchange Theatre – fantastic use of a community cast and chorus to deliver a mesmerising and memorable new version of an ancient Greek tale.


April

  • London jaunt to see two shows that I actually wrote about – the ridiculously glitzy 42nd Street and the joyful Half a Sixpence


May


  • Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange Theatre – great cast. I especially enjoyed Kate O’Donnell as Feste.







June


  • Persuasion, Royal Exchange Theatre – modern and fun take on the tale. There was even a foam party! A few of the audience seemed to be expecting something a little more traditional, but I loved it and thought it was really accessible. I’ve since read the book and the play was actually really true to it.


July

  • Fatherland, Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the Manchester International Festival. Really interesting and moving production exploring the father / son dynamic. The movement aspect was very striking.
  •  Welcoming Party at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry – which I worked on as a volunteer. Truly wonderful show and a great thing to be part of.


August


  • We Were Told there Was Dancing – really amazing site specific work by the Royal Exchange’s young company which took place in the partially disused space beneath the Royal Exchange building. They took us on a figurative and literal journey looking at changing attitudes to gay rights and we experienced very moving tales of love, discrimination, violence and heartbreak which ended on a hopeful note. 


September


  • Lovely revival of Pippin at the gorgeous Hope Mill Theatre
  • Daniel Kitson’s latest magical creation Something Other Than Everything at the Royal Exchange. It’s hard to describe how amazing Kitson’s shows are. He’s a totally masterful storyteller who observes the minute detail in life and weaves seemingly disconnected observations into a wonderful whole. Two hours of a man, a microphone and a brew and possibly one of the best things I have ever seen in the theatre.
  • A visit to the Norfolk Coast on holiday gave me chance to visit the good old Cromer Pier Show – proper traditional variety in the last remaining end of the pier show. It’s been going 40 years, I’ve seen it quite a few times over the years, (even saw Bradley Walsh in it many years ago when he was a young comedian) and I hope it carries on for many more years. Just up the coast is the Sheringham Little Theatre which every summer hosts proper Rep, probably one of the last places that does. We were there at the end of the season and saw a great show called Noel and Gertie, a mixture of song and comedy telling the story of the friendship of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.
  • Not a theatre show, but a theatre trip – as part of a birthday gift from my parents I went on a fascinating back stage tour of the beautiful Buxton Opera House. Incredible value, £10 for a really detailed and interesting insight into the theatre and its history.
  • Our Town at the Royal Exchange was an interesting beast. The first two acts seemed to be full of slow and inconsequential detail, and then the last act pulled it all together in quite heart breaking fashion. I loved the interesting staging too, with part of the audience mingled with the cast.


October


  • Armistead Maupin in conversation at the Royal Northern College of Music. My favourite author, I can read his Tales of the City books again and again, they feel like family, and he was just as warm and engaging as I expected him to be.
  • Parliament Square at the Royal Exchange was a simply staged but incredibly powerful production that had me virtually holding my breath at times. A definite stand out of my theatre year.


November


  • Jubilee at the Royal Exchange which didn’t fully win me over if I’m honest
  • An American in Paris at the Dominion in London. Much more complex and balletic production than I was expecting and really quite beautiful.
  • Follies at the National Theatre which was simply fantastic. Amazing cast, brilliant staging and set, just wonderful.
  • I also did a backstage tour at the National. You have to book these in advance, tickets go on sale about six weeks before, but it’s really worth it. A good two hours with a great guide seeing everything from front of house to workshops.
  • Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre. Third time I’ve seen this, I make no apologies. It’s funny, touching, cleverly written and the cast are great. Plus it’s one of the few Sunday shows in London and a nice way to round off a trip. 


December


  •  Beautiful the Carole King Musical at the Palace Theatre. Whilst it was a bit of a whistle stop tour of the song writing of King and her contemporaries, and didn’t dwell as much as it could have done on the emotional side of her story, this was a great show that highlighted what an incredible body of work she has been responsible for and Bronte Barbie in the lead role was an absolute powerhouse.
  • Wizard of Oz at Sheffield Crucible was a great seasonal treat with an amazing set, imaginative casting and clever staging. Thoroughly enjoyable.
  • And finally, Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange. Great show, well casted and felt fresh and energetic. Loved it.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Almighty Sometimes, 24/2/18, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester



This production at the Royal Exchange is a world premiere of a play that won a Judges award at the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Written by Kendall Feaver it proves a powerful exploration of some of the issues associated with the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in young people. Whilst that sounds somewhat dark, and there are very moving scenes and complex issues explored, the play is also at times very witty and the characters are interesting, believable and excellently portrayed.

Anna (Norah Lopez Holden) was diagnosed as a seven year old and has been medicated since, but as she enters adulthood she begins to question her treatment and the motives of those who care for her. Looking back at some of the writing she produced as a child, with its powerful imagery and disturbing themes, she is keen to explore her talents and suspects that the drugs inhibit her imagination and what it is to be her.


Mother Renee (Julie Hesmondhalgh) has fought fiercely to protect and get treatment for her daughter, and struggles with Anna’s desire to take control of her own choices. New boyfriend Oliver (Mike Noble) falls for her bravery, originality and randomness, but then finds it difficult to deal with both her manic behaviour and Renee’s desire to bring him onto her ‘team’ to protect Anna.


And then there is psychiatrist Vivienne, who has been treating Anna since childhood but also used her story to further her own reputation, calling into question whether care for Anna was always her primary driver, as she has proved a fascinating case study.

It’s a well-constructed piece, heart-breaking at times but with a wit and spirit that runs through the story. It highlights the complexities of diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and how much we really don’t yet know. One of the most thought provoking exchanges for me was when Renee, beginning to question whether the treatment she fought so hard for was the right thing is told by Vivienne that the drugs they used to potentially save Anna will have changed her for ever, so there is no way they can rewind the clock and try again.

Performances from all are excellent but Norah Lopez Holden blew me away with her agility as an actress and the depth she was able to bring to this complex character. You totally connected with her, making her journey during the play so moving and compelling.

I thought this was an excellent piece of work and a pity it had such a short run on the main stage at the Exchange, but hopefully it will have a life ‘beyond the pod’ as it deserves to be seen, and discussed, more widely.