Friday, 8 September 2017

Pippin, Hope Mill Theatre 2/9/17

Once again Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment have come together to bring us a fabulous revival of one of the less high profile musicals, and it's an absolute treat.

Pippin concerns a young prince's search for his place in the world and in his society, with a band of travelling players leading us through his quest for meaning. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, its core message is ambiguous and all the more interesting for it, making you think about what it is to find your own 'corner of the sky' and whether the journey to it is all it seems.

Productions at Hope Mill never fail to surprise me with their high production values in such an intimate space. I've no idea how the economics of theatre with this ambition, yet with an audience capacity of around 150 (by my dodgy interval estimation) works, but I am very happy that it does. For this production a thrust stage has been created with the audience on three sides, a dusty faded theatre archway is at one end, hay bales are frequently used as props, the players costumes have a slightly worn and ragtag feel, which all combines perfectly to suggest a travelling troupe that has descended on a town to spread a little twisted morality, magic and mayhem.

The extremely talented cast of ten, plus full band, deliver a corker of a show. In a production this intimate there is no place to hide, but every performance is detailed and complex, every voice superb, and the wonderful music fills the space. The cast interact with the audience making it feel even more special and unique, and it's great fun from start to finish.

Whilst this is a true ensemble piece with no weak links I will call out a few of its players for special mention. Johnathan Carlton as Pippin is a fine voiced lead who portrays the comedy and complexity of the character well. However, it is the ladies that tend to rule the roost in this production. Genevieve Nicole as Leading Player effortlessly commands the stage with a knowing wit, Tessa Kadler as Catherine balances light and shade well. But it is the wonderful Mairi Barclay as Fastrada / Berthe who threatens to steal the show, combining perfectly judged comic and clever characterisations with a fabulous voice.

Naughty, edgy, magical, frequently hilarious but with a dark undercurrent, this is an absolute treat of a show that I would happily see again (and again). A wonderful revival which I suspect may have a life beyond Hope Mill, which has deservedly become one of the most exciting and welcoming theatre spaces in the North if not the country.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Welcoming Party, Manchester International Festival July 2017

Blogging has taken a backseat of late. The first half of this year has been a bit of a whirlwind with various volunteering activities, work and studying, but Manchester International Festival's superb The Welcoming Party from Theatre-Rites demands a write up!

First of all I have to declare an interest. I was lucky enough to be a volunteer team leader

on this show, part of which involved me seeing every show I was scheduled on. My role in the show was basically a glorified doorstop but it was good fun, and fascinating to see tiny developments in the show as it ran. In total I saw the show 17 times, and I never got bored of it. But from the very first time I saw it, as an audience member at a closed dress rehearsal, I knew that this was a beautiful, important show and likely to be a festival hit once word got out. Friends, family and fellow volunteers then had to cope with me bullying them to get tickets, but all who did loved it!

The show itself was a promenade performance using the atmospheric location of the
Museum of Science and Industry's 1830s Warehouse, on Liverpool Road in Manchester. Set over three floors of this beautiful building, the show takes the audience on a journey, both literally and figuratively via a cleverly conceived mix of theatrics, puppetry, dance, music, and even a bit of martial arts. We meet a group of friends gathering together a 'welcoming party' for new arrivals to this country. As the show progresses we learn more about various members of the group's paths to these shores, experience the cold hearted and confusing bureaucracy of the faceless authority, touch on the reasons that drove them from their homes, but end in a feeling of hope that maybe we can make things betters those that come after them.

The show is so well crafted, blending the various styles of story telling, and moods of the
scenes perfectly. The cast of seven, Carl Harrison, Amed Hashimi, Michal Keyamo, Mohsen Nouri, Mohamed Sarrar, Clementine Telesfort and Emmanuela Yogolelo do an amazing job. The transitions between scenes are so smooth and the story telling so natural that the audience feels they are sharing the experience rather than just observing. The music used throughout is beautifully evocative and the set and staging is clever and very effective.

It's almost impossible to pick a favourite moment, all the elements were so well balanced and beautifully delivered. But the puppetry was a real standout for me. Even though I lurked at the back of the audience you would often find me edging forward for  Michal's story as there was so much detail put in to the movement of 'little Michal' , and even though the rooms were warm, the simple but effective way the horrors the Syrian refugee may have experienced were conjured never failed to send a chill down my spine. And the way that Amed's story was told via a series of gorgeous models contained within file boxes was just exquisite.

The show was billed by MIF in its programme as being for those over 8 and their families, which whilst true I think initially did it a bit of a disservice, as you may have assumed as an adult that it was not for you. But it worked on so many levels and was as suitable for adults without children, as it was for children and families. It was pitched at an appropriate level for children, stopping short of the graphic horrors, but it was thought provoking, moving, challenging stuff for all ages. And there was a good balance of light and dark, you never felt preached to, there were fun elements, but also elements that made you challenge your assumptions, threaten  tears, and widen your understanding. Younger audiences were engaged throughout and were ready to discuss the themes at the end, many of the adults left in tears (free hugs were available from the MIF volunteer!)

As the audience leaves they are encouraged to pen a message for people arriving to this
country that will be passed on to child refugees. The departing audiences, especially the younger ones, put so much thought and love into these messages, that were gathered on a wall, it was very humbling to see. I personally could barely look at the 'welcoming wall' as it kept setting me off crying (not a good look when you are supposed to be saying thank you and goodbye to departing guests and stopping them falling over the huge step on the exit door!)

It's hard to imagine this show in another location as the 1830s Warehouse suited it so
perfectly. However, I really hope that it finds a life beyond Manchester as the messages it contains are so important and the piece is so beautifully realised that I would like

many more people to experience it. Theatre like this is important, relevant, powerful, and changes people. I feel so lucky to have been a very small part of it.

(all photos: Jonathon Keenan)

Friday, 14 April 2017

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London 8/4/17

When the film of 42nd Street first came out in 1933 America was experiencing the Great Depression, with stock markets depressed, millions out of work and businesses closing. The film itself was a huge success, with its optimistic feel good tone, it allowed people to escape their troubles and revel in a world where the good guys succeed. Of course the world has moved on and we've all become wiser with no need to worry, but if for some strange reason one feels the need for a night of unashamed feel good glitz, glamour and full on showbiz, where you can forget all the troubles of the world for a couple of hours, then 42nd Street will definitely deliver.

This latest revival makes its intentions clear from the start. The curtain of the huge stage at the Theatre Royal starts to rise, and then pauses, revealing a stage full of feet energetically tapping away and filling the theatre with sound (helped by the clever tactic of lead dancers legs being miked! ) 

The story itself is well known, a new musical is being prepared, the livelihoods of many people depend on its success, a star (but not much of a hoofer) has been chosen, mainly to bring in the backing money of her paramour, but is incapacitated and at the last minute. Step forward a plucky and talented chorus girl who is thrust into the spotlight to save the show. But to be honest this show isn't about the story, it's about the songs, the spectacle, and the total dazzling glamour. Subtle it ain't, but who cares when the entertainment factor is this good. 

The stage version is packed full of familiar songs (surprisingly the film actually only had four), and additional ones have I believe been added to show off the powerful voice of Sheena Easton playing the diva Dorothy Brock. Easton was excellent in the part, really nailing the comedic aspects of the role, and what a fantastic voice. Claire Hulse, as the out of town hopeful Peggy Sawyer, had a lovely eager innocence, and boy can that girl dance! 

The huge stage at the Theatre Royal is used to full effect, the cast is almost 50 strong and in the many big numbers it is chock full of energetic and talented performers, coupled with beautiful and breathtaking costumes, and oh so much sparkle! Each big set piece seems to be trying to outdo those that have gone before. Particular highlights included a Busby Berkeley style number where a huge mirror reflected the overhead view of the dancers to the audience, and the largest and most glamorous staircase I have ever seen (also one of the only shows I've been to where the set got a gasp and a round of delighted applause from the audience) 

This is a show that is unapologetic about its intentions to entertain and dazzle, and sometimes in life that is exactly what is required. It's toe tapping, outrageously sparkly and totally feel good and I imagine sign ups to tap classes will be soaring as a direct result of this revival. Glamour with a capital G and so much fun. Pure escapism. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Half a sixpence, 7/4/17, Noel Coward Theatre London

One of my favourite film musicals is Half a Sixpence. Many a rainy Sunday growing up was spent watching it, and I had a definite soft spot for Tommy Steele, so I was very excited to see this latest staging which had transferred to London from the renowned Chichester Festival Theatre.

In creating this new production, the writers revisited the original HG Wells novel, Kipps,  on which the show was based. This allowed them develop some of the characters further, and add new songs, adding depth to the show without losing its charm.

A massively hard working and talented cast work exceptionally well together to bring the story to life. In the big set pieces such as early number Look Alive, and old favourite Flash Bang Wallop, the lively and complex choreography is deftly delivered and joyous to behold. There is so much detail built in to the set pieces it could easily take multiple viewings, with each cast member really individualising their characters. In fact the only down side to this is the stage at the Noel Coward feels a little too small for such a lively, detailed and exuberant production. I would love to see it somewhere bigger like the Crucible in Sheffield.

The clever set quickly and effectively transforms into the various settings of the production, with extremely skilful but unobtrusive use of back projection blending seamlessly into the 'physical' set. 

Of an excellent ensemble, Bethany Huckle, as Flo, particularly shone with a comedic and warm hearted portrayal. Devon-Elise Johnson, was wonderful as Ann, but I did feel her character had room to be developed a little more in the writing.

Taking on the lead role of Arthur Kipps was the simply amazing relative newcomer Charlie Stemp. In the programme his biography was tiny compared to every other cast member, but his talent was huge. So athletic and energetic in the big numbers, a layered and engaging characterisation, incredible timing and a fantastic voice. He reminded me a little of Lee Evans in a way, which I know is a bit of a strange comparison. The posters had used phrases like 'a star is born' and it really was deserved here. An absolute privilege to witness this star turn from start to finish, yet he never overshadowed the production as a whole.

I would defy anyone not to have a smile on their face and a 'simple tune' in their heart after watching this joyful production, with a final hurrah ending that had the whole audience on their feet clapping and dancing along. Just wonderful stuff, and dare I say it, much better than my beloved film (sorry Tommy!) 

Monday, 2 January 2017

Failed Resolutions and a round up of my year!

Every year I start off with good intentions when it comes to my theatre adventures – I ­will do a blog for everything I see. Every year these good intentions fall by the wayside. 

There are many reasons for this, lack of time being the main one, but also others. If I found a production just OK its sometimes a bit hard to think of anything to say. If it was downright awful, as a blogger rather than a paid critic I can choose to say nothing at all. If I’ve left it a while after seeing a show it is hard to get started, no matter how good the show was. And sometimes it can begin to feel distracting when you fall into the mindset of ‘what can I say about this’ during the performance rather than enjoying in the moment. 

I do tend to put more effort into smaller productions, as it is sometimes harder for them to get the publicity from the ‘proper’ critics. Although the Manchester Fringe scene seems to be getting better at this, particularly Hope Mill Theatre, which is getting some well-deserved attention from the big names, and has an exciting programme to look forward to in 2017. 

2016 has been an extremely poor year for blogging, I’ve personally had a lot on my plate, but I’ve also been a bit lazy with it. I've had a gradually increasing pile of theatre programmes and tickets scattered by my bedside trying to shame me in to pulling my finger out, but it hasn't worked!

But I do regret the ‘ones that got away’ because this blog serves as a useful reminder to me of the theatre jaunts I experienced. So I’m going to attempt a whistle stop tour of the year  in the next few posts, with links to those that actually got ‘properly written up’ (some of which I’m only now getting round to pressing ‘publish’ on) and maybe a line or two on others.

So here goes - read on for

2016 Round Up Part Four - September to December


A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange was another star vehicle for Maxine Peake in her portrayal of the complex but fragile Blanche Dubois on a very minimalist set. I wrote about it here.

Later in the month I had to go down to London for a work trip so extended the stay by a night so I could shoehorn in some theatre. On the Friday on a whim I decided to go and see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it closed. Not my normal type of thing for a solo visit, but I did enjoy it and my hearing has just about recovered from the over amplification. I wrote a post about it here.

Then the next day, I was walking past the Theatre Royal and noticed that they did tours. They were very cheap; I think it was about £10, and excellent value. An actor took us round many areas of the theatre, gave us loads of history, folklore and backstage secrets – a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable hour.

Before I travelled home that day I managed to fit in a second visit to The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. I saw this in 2015 originally, just before it won all its awards and before Mischief theatre embarked on their world domination plan (currently three shows in the west end, one on Broadway, one due to tour next year and Christmas shows on Radio 2 and BBC1!) It was just as funny second tie round with a different cast, even knowing what disasters were about to befall the ‘amateur production’.


I don’t appear to have gone to the theatre in October – how unexpected!


Another trip to Hope Mill Theatre in November to see writer / performer Laura Lindsay’s latest work Parallel.  Superb three hander that I discussed in full here. I Would have loved to have seen that show more than once.

I also experienced an excellent work in central Manchester that was put on in conjunction with the Contact Theatre, Lookout. Such an interesting and thought provoking concept that is hard to describe but I had a go here

Breaking the Code at the Royal Exchange theatre was seen that same afternoon. Focussing on elements of the life of Professor Alan Turing this was an interesting show. Daniel Rigby was excellent in the role of Alan, with a strong supporting cast. The set was very inventive and worked well to keep the pace engaging. The narrative was structured as a number of snapshots of Turing’s life; his introduction to Bletchley, his relationship with his mother and colleagues, elements of his post Bletchley life and the impact of his death on his mother. But each just felt like a fleeting glimpse and I longed for it to explore one or more of the themes in more depth. 

Finally in November a new play from two first time playwrights Jackie Thompson and Anna Wood, Fallout, at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. This was an interesting, moving, funny but at times unsettling play about the relationships between a group of women who have gathered for the hen night of one of them. The first half covers a drunken night of partying, revelations and resentments, the second half deals with the fallout from the night before, and then a threat of a very different kind that draws them all together. It was a really strong cast and an interesting premise, which had been devised and delivered by an all Northern, all female cast, crew and creative team.


I rounded off the year with a trip over to Sheffield to see this year’s offering at the Crucible, Annie Get Your Gun.  Sheffield always put on a great Christmas musical and this year was no exception. The fantastic sets, wonderful music and talented, hard working cast combined to deliver a barnstormer of a show telling the tale of sharp shooter Annie Oakley’s rise to stardom and her rivalry and romance with showman Frank Butler. It’s one of those musicals that, even if you’ve never seen it, like me, you know most of the songs. Anna Jane Casey was wonderful in the role of the gunslinger Annie, playing nicely off the somewhat pompous Frank (Ben Lewis). A true festive treat that rounded off my theatre year nicely.

2016 Round Up Part Three - July and August


The Mighty Walzer at the Royal Exchange was a fun adaptation of Howard Jacobson’s novel about growing up in the Jewish community in Manchester in the 1950s that billed itself as a ‘riotous tale of growing up, sex and ping pong’. There were some lovely performances in this production, especially from Elliot Levey as Oliver Walzer and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Sadie Walzer.


August proved a bumper month, mainly because I used my birthday as an excuse for a few treats which started with a trip to London for a whole weekend of theatre shenanigans.

First up was the new Tim Minchin musical, Groundhog Day at the Old Vic which I loved! I really wished I’d written up my thoughts about this at the time (actually I did but I can’t find them so a longer blog may follow one day!) I wondered how they would adapt the film for stage, if anything they made it better. The story is the same, albeit darker at times when weatherman Phil Connors realises his predicament and goes from confusion, to exploitation, despair and finally acceptance and learning. The writing is as clever as you would expect from Minchin, and the cast worked so well together with such clever choreography to portray the repetition. The staging and set were excellent, there was some very impressive sleight of hand, and what appeared to be one of the most complex revolves I’ve ever seen (I was below stage level, but people seemed to be going in all kinds of directions!)

Andy Karl in the lead role as Phil was charismatic and hilarious; the whole cast so hard working and tightly rehearsed. I saw it at preview and had a minor quibble about the sound balance as the words were a bit drowned out in some of the livelier numbers, and Minchin’s lyrics should never be drowned out, but I’m sure they would have sorted that for opening. I’d really love to see it again so here’s hoping it returns to the UK again. 

Next on the London list was a 'booked on the day at half price' visit to see Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville. The lead actor Martin Shaw was indisposed, but his part was more than adequately taken by John Vernon. This was a funny, unchallenging play and I particularly enjoyed Bryan Dick as Willie Mossop.

Next up to round off the trip a Sunday matinee to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see the Fiasco Theatre production of Into The Woods which had come over from New York. The Menier is a very intimate space and this production suited it perfectly. It was a perfectly pared back production, the set was like the backstage area at a theatre, or an attic, and the small cast of ten brought the story to life, including providing all the music, quite magically and inventively. Of all the versions of Into The Woods that I have seen this was the funniest, most moving and delightful and the cast were so talented and totally broke down the wall between performers and audience. Very special indeed.

Away from London, the last of my birthday excuse trips was over to Sheffield to see Magneto and Xavier (ok McKellen and Stewart) do Pinter in No Man’s Land at the Lyceum. I wrote it up here. I did enjoy this masterclass in acting, but I’m afraid I hadn’t a clue what was going on at times. Maybe you have to be a certain type of educated person to ‘get’ Pinter!

Part Four here