The 2017 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations

New play
Gypsy Queen by Rob Ward, Hope Mill
How My Light Is Spent by Alan Harris, Royal Exchange
Narcissist in the Mirror by Rosie Fleeshman, Greater Manchester Fringe Festival
Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery, Home

Cendrillon, Royal Northern College of Music, RNCM
La Cenerentola, Opera North, the Lowry
The Little Greats, Opera North, the Lowry
The Snow Maiden, Opera North, the Lowry

Karen Henthorn, Spring and Port Wine, Oldham Coliseum
Lisa Dwyer Hogg, People, Places and Things, Home
Nina Hoss, Returning to Reims, Manchester International Festival
Janet Suzman, Rose, Home Continue reading “The 2017 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations”

Review: Elf, Lowry

The Lowry Theatre's 2017/8 production of Christmas show Elf

“Make it Sparklejollytwinklejingley”

First things first, it’s a really poor show on behalf of those in charge of this production at the Lowry that there was no announcement or any mention of the fact that the understudy for the main part was on. Not for any sniffy reason about wanting to see Ben Forster but rather that it denied Colin Burnicle his spot in the limelight on the first occasion that he got to play the role of Buddy the Elf.

I don’t think Burnicle will mind me saying he had an understandably slightly nervy beginning but he soon settled into the green felt boots of Buddy, working a slightly more frantic Jim Carrey-esque vibe than one might expect from a role originated on screen by Will Ferrell but it was one that worked. And he connected well with former Atomic Kitten Liz McLarnon as his putative love interest Juvie, as under-developed a part it is.

Elf premiered in the UK a couple of years ago and when it made it to the West End’s Dominion, I saw it (review here) and I have to say that its rather old-school charms won me over. So I was happy to revisit it en famille this winter with three-quarters of its leading cast still intact – Forster joined by Joe McGann as Walter and Jessica Martin as Emily once again – and the latter two clearly having a ball once again.

Of the newer cast members, Lori Haley Fox is hilarious as charismatic office worker Deb and Graham Lappin does well as the Store Manager but Brookside’s Louis Emerick didn’t quite nail his comic timing as the narrating Santa Claus. And Morgan Young’s direction suffers from an over-long first half (a good 80 minutes) with perhaps too much of the festive magic packed into the second half, though properly magic it is with snowfalls and sleigh rides to wonder at. Good fun but hardly essential.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th January


Review: Little Women the Musical, Hope Mill

“Somethings are meant to be”

Finally made my first trip to the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester’s fringe powerhouse which has been firing transfers down to London with quite the regularity. I wanted to experience the theatre for itself though and having heard great things about Little Women the Musical, didn’t want to miss out in case this is the one that doesn’t actually make its way south (although it should, it really should!).
With a book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, this musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved novel is a wonderful piece of adaptation. Streamlining plot whilst simultaneously enriching character, it translates the travails of the four March sisters into a warm and witty couple of hours and naturally makes you cry just as much it gladdens the heart.
Bronagh Lagan’s production brims with playful inventiveness, much aided by Nik Corrall’s design, but the ace up its sleeve is its casting (big credit to casting director Jane Deitch). Between them, Amie Giselle-Ward’s Jo, Katie Marie-Carter’s Amy, Cathy Read’s Beth and Jemima Watling’s Meg make up a beautiful affecting quartet, respecting the characters as written but imbuing them with fresh energy too.
So Giselle-Ward is unafraid to push Jo right to the limits of her frankly often intolerable behaviour, and locates a real pathos in learning to deal with the consequences of her impulsiveness, a beautiful study in the complexities of discovering your true self. It makes you quite understand Marie-Carter’s Amy is so spiteful and why Read’s excellent Beth has learned to become quite the peacemaker. Meanwhile Watling’s Meg is a step removed as the eldest, especially once her swoon-worthy connection with Joel Harper-Jackson’s Mr Brooke is made.
They’re ably assisted by a tuneful and emotionally direct score from Howland (well musically directed by Rickey Long from the piano with an all-female string quartet) and considered lyrics from Dickstein that pay perfect tribute to the source material. Jo’s Act 1 closer ‘Astonishing’ is a belter of a tune in which Giselle-Ward soars and her duet with Read’s Beth, when she, you know…does what Beth does, is wonderfully played and consequently a huge tear jerker. I also adored Tony Stansfield’s Mr Laurence as Beth melts his heart with the chirpiness of ‘Off To Massachusetts’. Lovely stuff all round and underscored with the kind of feminist message that never grows old.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Anthony Robling
Booking until 16th December

Review: Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange

“The passengers were bound to resist”


Michael Buffong’s reinterpretation of Guys and Dolls, a co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre, is just that, a bold re-envisioning of the classic musical that consequently comes up with something different. That’s the point. So it may take a second to recalibrate, to adjust to these portrayals of familiar characters but in doing so you get to embrace something fresh and new and really rather exciting.

Moving the show from Times Square to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in 1939 allows Buffong to employ an all-black cast, infuse Frank Loesser’s score with jazz and gospel (new orchestrations by Simon Hale) and introduce a vibrant choreographic vision (by Kenrick Sandy) that draws on several decades of dance history. The result is less-concept heavy than you might expect and often, explosively good fun.

So though it a Broadway fantasy, THE Broadway fantasy some might say, notes of realism percolate throughout. Ashley Zhangazha’s cocky demeanour as Sky is underlaid with nerviness that exposes it as bravado rather than god-like suaveness and Lucy Vandi’s Miss Adelaide is played for real pathos rather than easy comedy, perhaps appropriately for a woman who has clung on, seemingly hopelessly, to an engagement for 12 years.

It all means we engage more with these characters as people rather than archetypes – the heart genuinely warms as laughter escapes from Vandi in finally discovering the depths of Nathan’s love for her. And Zhangazha just makes you invest that much more in Sky and Sarah’s relationship as he peels back the cocksure persona to reveal a man you’d quite happily to go Havana with but actually stay there.
Ray Fearon is brilliant as a physically imposing Detroit and a sweet-voiced Abiona Omonua does her best with Sarah, who’s apparently a bit of wet blanket wherever she’s set. In the talented company, Danielle Kassaraté draws the eye as a smooth Angie the Ox, Fela Lufadeju pops with character as Benny and the too-charismatic-for-words Ako Mitchell is a delight as he leads them all in a joyous ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.

Soutra Gilmour’s design successfully makes the transfer from Times Square, even if the neon signage isn’t quite as salubrious but the rainbow brights of her costumes keep us from ever getting too gritty. And it is a balance that the production as a whole gets right – Lord knows we won’t have to wait too long for the next traditional version of Guys and Dolls to appear so we should be welcoming this level of innovation, this opportunity for actors of colour to put roles like this on their CV, with bemoaning what the show ‘should’ be.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 3rd February


Review: The Norman Conquests, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I’ve learned though bitter experience that the last thing to do with Norman is take him seriously. That’s exactly what he wants.”

What to do with theatre vouchers? Trying to find the kind of theatrical experience that I might not normally have splashed out on isn’t always the easiest, so Chichester Festival Theatre’s announcement that their staging of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests would be in the round, and that onstage ‘terrace’ seating would be available, a plan fell into place. And so for two of the three plays, I was up onstage (in different seats) and for the third, down in the stalls.
Seeing the plays from different perspectives felt appropriate as that is the nature of Ayckbourn’s trilogy written in 1973. Three times we visit the same group of six characters over the same weekend but based in a different part of the house. So (in the order I saw them on this trilogy day, a couple of days before press night I should add), Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden is in the attic*.
So as we meet Annie, her brother and sister Reg and Ruth and their respective partners Sarah and Norman, plus her neighbour Tom, the circumstances that prevail to force them into spending the weekend together, there’s huge amounts of bittersweet humour – and sometimes just bitterness – that pours out between them, the familial bonds and unexpected ties that bind them revealed piecemeal as we cycle through each slightly different version of events. 
And directed as they are by the ever-growing talent that is Blanche McIntyre, they sparkle with a freshness that belies their 44 years of age, proving to be a far more emotionally involving day of theatre than I was at all expecting. Despite the epicness of the scale, Ayckbourn’s skill is to keep things really quite intimate between this sextet and McIntyre’s gift is to cut through much of the naffness to really zone in on this emotion, and intensify it to blistering effect.
She brushes efficiently through some of the more hackneyed devices – woman is blind without glasses she won’t wear, the diatribes against salad – so that their humour doesn’t get worn out and instead focuses on character. Sarah Hadland’s tightly-wound Sarah is exceptional here – running her finger along the radiator for dust as soon as she enters the house, repolishing a bit of crockery she dropped whilst setting the table (whether impromptu or not), a phenomenal level of commitment to her finer details of her character that justifies the decision to spend this much time watching
But it really is an ensemble piece, and one with the time and room to let various different permutations play out to beautiful effect. So Hadland and Jonathan Broadbent’s seemingly hapless Reg hold Table Manners hostage with a confrontation of heart-stopping potency before a dinner party where the tensions between all six boil over. Living Together (my least favourite of three tbh) is at its best when the three siblings come together for a beautifully understated scene full of shared history, acted superlatively by Broadbent with Jemima Rooper (in a career best performance) as Annie and a wonderfully fruity Hattie Ladbury as Ruth.
John Hollingworth gets his chance to shine best in the slapstick nature of Round and Round the Garden and threatening to steal the show in them all in Trystan Gravelle’s Norman. Hints of Brian Blessed shine through in his outrageous showmanship but real charm too as we delve deeper into the havoc he causes in each of the women’s lives and his own emotional shortcomings too. Layered up across the three shows, it really is a fantastic achievement by all. 
Simon Higlett’s design makes the most of the reconfiguration of the space with a brilliant attention to detail from the Women’s Weeklies to the battered ‘biscuits for cheese’ tin to brilliant costumes in any number of shades of brown. Johanna Town’s lighting and George Dennis’ sound are resplendent in naturalistic detail and I really do urge you to splash out for at least one show on the terrace, as it gives you a Donmar-like intensity being that close. As an all-day experience that never felt like a slog (the camaraderie between those of you in for the long-haul is always an added bonus), this was an unexpected real treat, especially as I’m no real fan of Ayckbourn – does this mean I’m getting middle-aged now?!
Running time: Table Manners – 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval); Living Together – 2 hours (with interval); Round and Round the Garden – 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)

Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 28th October

Review: King Lear, Minerva

“He hath always but slightly, known himself”

As I wrote when the full cast was first announced, “the world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting”. And now that the time has come to trek over to Chichester Festival Theatre to catch Ian McKellen revisiting a role he has already been most renowned for playing, you’re left in awe once again at the luxuries casting director Anne McNulty has brought to bear in Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress and modern-spirited production.
Chief among them is Sinéad Cusack’s Kent. It’s a casting decision that deserves the emphasis for Chichester has long been a venue where female representation has struggled across the board and though it is still early days yet for Daniel Evans’ tenure here, any steps are welcome. Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is another example and a powerful contrast too. Where Cusack brings all her experience to bear as a superbly nuanced Kent (whose disguising gains real resonance), Lawrance brings a freshness of spirit to her most compassionate reading of Lear’s youngest daughter.
Dervla Kirwan and the superlative Kirsty Bushell once again make me wish that the play were in fact called Goneril and Regan, such is the biting glee of the latter’s vindictiveness, set against the chilling froideur of the former who clearly sees herself entirely as a queen-in-waiting. Jonathan Bailey’s troubled Edgar and Damien Molony’s manipulative Edmund pique all sorts of interests and I was also impressed with Michael Matus’s vivid take on Oswald.
And at the heart of them all, and truly a part of an ensemble rather than its leading light, is McKellen’s breathtaking take on Lear. A role he has played before, a play he has acted in several times, there’s a clear sense of him relishing the (relative) intimacy of the Minerva as he inhabits every breath of the mental fragility afflicting his monarch. As carpet turns to chalk, crowns to knotted handkerchiefs, you feel every year of Lear’s (and McKellen’s) age as his disintegration leads to belated insight. Tremendous and tragic, thoughtful and thorough, a profoundly excellent piece of theatre.  
Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 28th October

Review: Sunset Boulevard Curve, Leicester

“Smile a rented smile, fill someone’s glass
Kiss someone’s wife, kiss someone’s ass”

Ria Jones’ extraordinary history with Sunset Boulevard might well be entitled The Norma Conquests – from originally workshopping the role of Norma Desmond for Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton (book and lyrics) in 1991 to her headline-grabbing stint as Glenn Close’s understudy in last year’s ENO staged concert version of the show to finally getting to play the leading role in her own right on this UK tour, premiering at Leicester’s Curve, some 26 years later.
And was it worth the wait? Jones certainly is making the most of her well-deserved moment, offering a different skillset for her markedly different interpretation. Jones is undoubtedly the better singer, the lushness of her voice soaring effortlessly to the impassioned heights of the score. And she’s a different kind of actress, offering a brasher, more manic kind of energy to this former movie star caught up in a fantasy world when a young screenwriter (Danny Mac) accidentally offers hope to her faded career. 
As for the rest of the production though, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps it is having seen the show so recently, that itch has been well and truly scratched for me and it doesn’t necessarily feel so strong a piece of theatre that will tempt people back which is what a classic musical needs to succeed on the road. So I wonder how the show will fare on its extensive tour without a name like Close to draw people (you sense producers releasing pics of Mac in his trunks recognises the work already underway).
There’s good work in the company from the likes of Molly Lynch as script editor Betty and long-time Lloyd Webber collaborator Adam Pearce as the loyal Max. And Nikolai Foster’s production works hard to look (Colin Richmond’s design) and sound (Adrian Kirk’s musical direction) a cut above your average touring musical. The main issue for me lies in a score overly reliant on pastiche and a book that has never heard of the term subtlety. I’m glad I’ve seen Sunset Boulevard, and in particular Ria Jones, but it’s hard not shake the feeling that I don’t think I want to see it again anytime soon.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 30th September then touring to…
THEATRE ROYAL, Newcastle – 09 OCTOBER – 14 OCTOBER 2017
PALACE THEATRE, Manchester – 23 OCTOBER – 04 NOVEMBER 2017
HIPPODROME, Birmingham – 13 NOVEMBER – 18 NOVEMBER 2017
HIPPODROME, Bristol – 09 JANUARY – 13 JANUARY 2018
REGENT THEATRE, Ipswich – 5 MARCH – 10 MARCH 2018
THEATRE ROYAL, Plymouth – 12 MARCH – 17 MARCH 2018
NEW THEATRE, Wimbledon – 09 APRIL – 14 APRIL 2018
MARLOWE THEATRE, Canterbury – 16 APRIL – 21 APRIL 2018
LYCEUM THEATRE, Sheffield – 23 APRIL – 28 APRIL 2018