Review: West Side Story, Royal Exchange

Aletta Collins’ new choreography is just one of the highlights of a most successful West Side Story at the Royal Exchange

“Sleep well and when you dream
Dream of me”

For an undoubted classic of the musical theatre, West Side Story really isn’t revived all that often but 2019 seems determined to rectify that. The Curve have announced it as their Christmas show, Ivo van Hove is reimagining it on Broadway, and Steven Spielberg is remaking the film for good measure. But getting the (beautifully balletic) jump on all of them is Manchester’s Royal Exchange, whose revival is the first to be performed with new choreography replacing the iconic moves of original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

And only naturally, Sarah Frankcom’s production soars when it puts Aletta Collins’ new moves front and centre. They are certainly recognisably inspired by Robbins but there’s an unmistakeable freshness that is just beautiful to watch and there’s something great about the fact they’re all doing it in Converse. The repeated ronds de jambe are iconic in their own way, an emotional grace is suffused throughout, and hints of contemporary nod to the physicality of two warring gangs, coiled bodies poised on Anna Fleischle’s climbing frame design. Fleischle has also maximised the floor space of the Exchange to great effect, the aesthetic is pure dance and it works. Continue reading “Review: West Side Story, Royal Exchange”

20 shows to look forward to in 2019

So many of the recommendations for shows to see next year focus on the West End. And for sure, I’m excited to catch big ticket numbers like All About Eve, Come From Away, and Waitress but I wanted to cast my eye a little further afield, so here’s my top tips for shows on the London fringe (plus one from the Barbican) and across the UK.

1 Medea, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican
Simon Stone’s sleekly contemporary recasting of Euripides is straight up amazing. Anchored by a storming performance from Marieke Heebink, it is as beautiful and brutal as they come. It’s also one of the few plays that has legit made me go ‘oh no’ out loud once a particular penny dropped. My review from 2014 is here but do yourself a favour and don’t read it until you’ve seen it.

Macbeth, Watermill Theatre
2018 saw some disappointing Macbeths and I was thus ready to swear off the play for 2019. But the Watermill Ensemble’s decision to tackle the play will certainly break that resolve, Paul Hart’s innovative direction of this spectacular actor-musician team will surely break the hoodoo…

3 Noughts and Crosses, Derby Theatre, and touring
Pilot Theatre follow on from their strong Brighton Rock with this Malory Blackman adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz, a Young Adult story but one which promises to speak to us all. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2019”

Full list of 2018 UK Theatre Awards winners

The UK Theatre Awards are the only nationwide Awards to honour and celebrate outstanding achievements in regional theatre throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and they have just announced the winners for the 2018 awards, which include a well-deserved Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre for Maxine Peake – take a look at her acceptance speech here. 

Continue reading “Full list of 2018 UK Theatre Awards winners”

Casting news aplenty!

I round up some of the recent casting news, including Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange, Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse, Measure for Measure at the Donmar and The Woods at the Royal Court.

Shakespeare wrote more lines for Queen Margaret than he did for King Lear yet we know very little of her. Jeanie O’Hare re-acquaints us with one of Shakespeare’s major but rarely performed characters in her new play Queen Margaret. In a production that draws on original language from Shakespeare, director Elizabeth Freestone and Jade Anouka as Margaret, retell an iconic moment in British History through the eyes of the extraordinary Margaret of Anjou. This captivating exploration of The Wars of the Roses seen through the eyes of this astonishing, dangerous and thrilling woman opens the Royal Exchange’s Autumn Winter 2018/19 Season.

Anouka is joined by Islam Bouakkaz (Prince Edward/Rutland), Lorraine Bruce (York), Samuel Edward-Cook (Suffolk/Clifford), Dexter Flanders (Edward IV), Helena Lymbery (Hume), Lucy Mangan (Joan of Arc), Roger Morlidge (Gloucester), Kwami Odoom (Somerset/Richard), Bridgitta Roy (Warwick) and Max Runham (Henry VI). Continue reading “Casting news aplenty!”

Review: Frankenstein, Royal Exchange

Frankenstein gets taken around the block one more time at the Royal Exchange in Manchester – Sun readers need not apply

“What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?”

It may have been 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s magnum opus but let’s face it, no-one has ever needed an excuse to stage it before. A programme note for April De Angelis’ new version of Frankenstein for the Royal Exchange suggests there have been well over 50 adaptations and so there’s a job to make yours be the one to stand out.

Directed skillfully by Matthew Xia, De Angelis’ main superficial difference is to play up the storytelling device that frames the novel, using Captain Walton’s discovery of a bedraggled Victor Frankenstein on his expedition to the North Pole to be the mechanism through which scarcely believable events are described. And it’s a format that offers much potential – in emphasising the parallels (or differences) between the two, in exploring the role of an unreliable narrator, in making this version stand out. Continue reading “Review: Frankenstein, Royal Exchange”

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. Continue reading “Review: Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange”

Cast for the Royal Exchange’s Guys and Dolls announced

The Royal Exchange in Manchester have really been upping the ante as far as their Christmas musicals are concerned. Last year’s Sweet Charity was a stonker, their Into the Woods was something special, and 2014/15’s Little Shop of Horrors was basically perfection. This year see them tackle Broadway classic Guys and Dolls in a co-production with Talawa Theatre Company and by the crin (as my Aunty Mary would say – a bit of Wigan dialect for you there…) just take a look at this bushel and a peck’s worth of beauties!  Continue reading “Cast for the Royal Exchange’s Guys and Dolls announced”

Review: Persuasion, Royal Exchange

“We cannot all live in a fairytale”

 
I’ve been looking forward to Jeff James’ reinterpretation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion ever since it was announced, James having worked with Ivo van Hove as an associate director and the evidence of his work that I’ve seen thus far (in La Musica) really impressing. The influence from the Belgian master is palpable but it is manifesting itself in fascinating ways, interrogating notions of adaptation and theatrical experience in ways that we too rarely see in the UK.

You see it in the ways that he uses the relatively inflexible space of the Royal Exchange (IMHO van Hove rarely gets the credit he deserves for the way in which he reinvents theatrical space) and the way he positions his actors, saying so much about relationships and their dynamics without a word. And Alex Lowde’s supremely contemporary design boldly situates this Regency drama in the here and now, shifting even within itself in showing us Anne Elliot’s world. Continue reading “Review: Persuasion, Royal Exchange”

Review: Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange

“When that I was a little boy”

Even with the best of intentions, it can be a little too easy to forget that there’s more to LGBT+ than just the G. Representations of gay men are increasingly common in our theatres but pickings are slim if we look towards the lesbian, bi, and transgender characters and stories. So it’s interesting to see directors turning to Shakespeare, and specifically Twelfth Night, to address that in a couple of high profile productions this year. Simon Godwin shifted the nature of Malvolio’s illicit passion by casting Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, and now Jo Davies has moved along the acronym by casting transgender performer, writer and activist Kate O’Donnell as Feste at the Royal Exchange.

And far from any suggestion of a gimmick, it’s a deeply sensitive, nuanced take on the role that breathes a real sense of contemporary life into the show. Her experience on the cabaret circuit shows in the ease with which she entertains her audience, whether onstage with the text or bantering off-book with the stalls crowd in the interval, but as funny as she is, there’s a depth to her stage presence too. An extra-textual moment where she clocks the cross-dressed Viola in the dark with a hint of recognition, the gorgeous melancholy with which the resonance of her final song grabs you – “when I came to man’s estate…”, this is the verse sprung to life anew. Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange”

Review: Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange

“Life will be frozen peaches and cream”

 
I’ve seen a couple of comments questioning whether Sweet Charity is an appropriate choice for the Royal Exchange’s festive musical – I assume they avoided last year’s Into the Woods and the year before’s Little Shop of Horrors, neither show hardly known for their jazz hands and perma-smiles. For the joy of great musical theatre, of any theatre, is when it can find shades of darkness and light in its storytelling, finding a way to reflect the richness of life in its downs as well as its ups.

Director Derek Bond (whose Little Shop… remains a stunning high point) acknowledges all of the problems inherent in Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ tale of a dancer, the titular Charity Hope Valentine, and her repeated, desperate lack of luck in her romantic life and through his interpretation and the directness of Aletta Collins’ choreography, also takes it seriously. Anchored by a properly star-making and heart-breaking performance from Kaisa Hammarlund, it just works. Continue reading “Review: Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange”