Review: Miss Littlewood, Swan Theatre

A hugely fascinating new musical from the RSC, Miss Littlewood impresses at the Swan Theatre – might we see it London before too long?

“I’ve come about the theatre”

The last musical to come out of the RSC is a little know thing that is still kicking around somewhere, Matilda I think it’s called… So Miss Littlewood might have a little expectation carrying on its shoulders, although it is clearly a completely different kettle of fish.

In the Swan Theatre, Sam Kenyon (book, music and lyrics) tells us the story of Joan Littlewood. Or rather, given the format of the show, hands the reins over to Joan to tell her story. Clare Burt stars as an older Littlewood who acts as a narrator, a maestro, as she directs six other performers, all of whom take turns in donning the blue cap to embody this most totemic figure of British theatre.  Continue reading “Review: Miss Littlewood, Swan Theatre”

DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)

“The whole situation’s been really quite dreadful”

Based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, Testament of Youth hit cinemas in late 2014, perfect timing to capitalise on the rising star of Alicia Vikander whose moment would culminate in winning an Academy Award for The Danish Girl. Her work here in this film is equally spectacular though, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, an elegiac beauty washes through the whole production as Vera’s determination first to study at Oxford and then to help with the war effort plays out.
We first meet Vera in the good company of three good-looking men and as the film progresses, it’s refreshing to see that her journey isn’t defined by them, merely informed. Kit Harington’s poet Roland, Colin Morgan’s shyly besotted Victor, Taron Egerton’s faithful brother (who shares his sister’s eye for a good-looking chap and when it’s Jonny Bailey, who wouldn’t!). And as war plucks each of them from their country idyll, her relationship with each has to bend and reshape.

Continue reading “DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)”

DVD Review: Cinderella

“Perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take is to be seen as we really are”

Who knew what the world needed was a live-action version of Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh. It oughtn’t be as good as it is but somehow the fusion of Disney magic and folktale wonder comes together most effectively, thoroughly traditional in its outlook yet somehow still feeling fresh. Chris Weitz’s screenplay is based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon but both he and Branagh take lots of inspiration from the Disney version of the story too and the resulting confection is really rather bibbity-bobbity-beguiling.

There’s a cleverness too about what it does in spinning new details like giving us a reason that her step-family don’t recognise her at the ball and weaving much humour into the magic spells that get her to said ball. Ella herself is well pitched by Lily James, not quite too perfect to be true but still hugely appealing. It’s no wonder Richard Madden’s Prince Charming tumbles instantly for her (and she for him, those breeches…those boots!) and their chemistry is palpable, one can see why Branagh has cast them as Juliet and Romeo in his upcoming theatre residency in London.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Cinderella”

Review: The Skriker, Royal Exchange

“No mistake no mister no missed her no mist no miss no”

As my dear Aunty Mary used to say, by the crin! Sarah Frankcom’s production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is a properly gobsmacking piece of work, the kind of theatre that leaves you reeling from its sheer audacity, its free-wheeling inventiveness and a general sense of what-the-fuckery. Maxine Peake’s acting career has been far too varied for a peak to ever be declared (though for me, Twinkle ftw) but it is hard to imagine her any more hauntingly, viscerally, intense than she is here, wrapping every sinew of her body around the often bafflingly complex wordplay and utterly owning it with an authoritative otherworldliness.
There’s a plot. Kind of. Though it is literally, and physically, hard to follow. Frankcom has lavished huge amounts of creativity onto the show and empowered her creatives to be daring, so that it becomes akin to an art installation in how densely visual it becomes. Imogen Knight’s choreography haunts every scene as an ensemble of 12 keep a strange and kinetic energy coursing through the theatre, Jack Knowles’ artistically inspired lighting playfully pulls the perspective one way then the other, and Lizzie Clachan’s reinvention of the physical space of the auditorium has to be seen to really be believed (book the stalls, seriously) as it rewrites the rules of engagement.

For what it’s worth, the Skriker is an ancient faerie, a shapeshifter who toys with the lives of human as it longs for what it cannot have. It has alighted on friends Josie and Lily, the one locked away in an asylum for killing a baby and the other, pregnant herself, trying to rescue her. Sat around tables instead of the traditional stalls, we’re thrust right into the world of the institutionalised in all its horror but in the hands of the Skriker, we soon ricochet between locations, between promises, between realities, as she manipulates both girls to a glorious, climactic, banquet sequence in the deevil’s native underworld, whereupon the table-dwellers are dispatched to the sides and an ethereal choir arrives.
Lavish being the keyword, the music is composed by Nico Muhly and Antony (Hegarty, he of the supplementary Johnsons) and delivered beautifully by the community choir to  enhance the specialness of the whole affair. It’s not the kind of theatre to visit in search of narrative, or clarity, or any easily-discernible measure of meaning, in the conventional sense at least. The predictions of apocalyptic doom (of the environmental kind, rather than the Harry Potter play kind…) have a pressing power to them which could perhaps resonate a little stronger but there’s something just beautiful about the verbal and visual cacophony here that is genuinely breath-taking. Never mind Peake’s Hamlet, this is the production, the theatrical experience, that ought to be screened far and wide for all to share in, not that it could ever hope to capture the uniqueness, the difference, of its very being.  
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Jonathan Keenan
Booking until 1st August

Review: Our Town, Almeida

“The morning star always get wonderful bright the minute before it has to go”

Some images sear themselves into the mind, never to be forgotten and for me, the staging of the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was such a one – something so simply done yet achingly powerful in effect, all the more so given it isn’t immediately apparent. And after Mr Burns, it is the second time in three plays that the Almeida has delivered a doozy of a third act – one can’t help but feel sorry (or laugh) at the doofuses that left at any of the intervals.

It is interesting to see the strength of the reactions to David Cromer’s version of this show – in the Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford decries it as glib, desultory and that final act as smug(!) and Jake Orr dismissed it thus


which just goes to show different strokes for different silly folks eh (I was part of that audience…)

The 2013 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations

Best Actor
David Birrell, Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange
Kenneth Branagh, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Nigel Cooke, To Kill A Mockingbird, Royal Exchange
Paul Webster, Sugar Daddies, Oldham Coliseum
Jack Wilkinson, David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress
Marianne Benedict, Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Cush Jumbo, A Doll’s House, Royal Exchange
Gillian Kearney, Educating Rita, Library at The Lowry
Alex Kingston, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Maxine Peake, Masque Of Anarchy, Manchester International Festival, Albert Hall
Shannon Tarbet, To Kill A Mockingbird, Royal Exchange

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ray Fearon, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Kieran Hill, The Glass Menagerie, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Robin Simpson, David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Bankes, That Day We Sang, Royal Exchange
Shirley Darroch, Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Heather Phoenix, Sugar Daddies, Oldham Coliseum
Kelly Price, That Day We Sang, Royal Exchange

Best Actor in a Visiting Production
Paul Michael Glaser, Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Julian Glover, Maurice’s Jubilee, Opera House
Louis Maskell, West Side Story, Palace
Barrie Rutter, Rutherford and Son, The Lowry
Tim Treloar, Birdsong, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress in a Visiting Production
Michele Dotrice, The Ladykillers, The Lowry
Katie Hall, West Side Story, Palace
Catherine Kinsella, Rutherford and Son, The Lowry
Karen Mann, Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Sian Phillips, People, The Lowry

Best Production
Of Mice and Men, directed by David Thacker, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Macbeth, directed by Rob Ashford, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
The Accrington Pals, directed by James Dacre, Royal Exchange
The Glass Menagerie, directed by David Thacker, Octagon Theatre Bolton
The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson, Manchester International Festival, Palace
To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Max Webster, Royal Exchange

Best Visiting Production
Birdsong, The Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions Ltd, Oldham Coliseum
The Full Monty, Sheffield Theatres, The Lowry
The Ladykillers, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse / Fiery Angel, The Lowry
The Pirates Of Penzance, Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte, Opera House
Twelfth Night, Propeller, The Lowry
War Horse, National Theatre, The Lowry

Best Musical
Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Paradise Moscow, Royal Northern College Of Music
Singin’ In The Rain, Opera House
Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange
Wicked, Palace

Festival of Britten (Peter Grimes / A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Death In Venice), Opera North, The Lowry
La Finta Giardiniera, Buxton Festival
L’Elisir d’Amore, Royal Northern College Of Music
La Voix Humaine, Buxton Festival
Otello, Opera North, The Lowry

Aladdin, Birmingham Royal Ballet, The Lowry
Michael Clark Triple Bill, The Lowry
Rambert, The Lowry
Richard Alston Dance Company, The Lowry
The Chelsea Hotel, Earthfall, The Lowry

La Colombe/La Princesse Jaune, design Lez Brotherston; light John Bishop, Buxton Festival
Macbeth, design Christopher Oram; light Neil Austin; sound Christopher Shutt, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Of Mice and Men, design and light Ciaran Bagnall; sound Andy Smith; costume designer Mary Horan, Octagon Theatre Bolton
The Accrington Pals, design Jonathan Fensom; light Charles Balfour; sound Emma Laxton, Royal Exchange
The Old Woman, designer/director Robert Wilson; sound Marco Oilvieri; light A J Weissbard, Manchester International Festival, Palace
The Machine, design Lucy Osborne; light Mark Henderson; sound Ian Dickinson/Autograph; video Andrzej Goulding, Manchester International Festival, Upper Campfield Market

Best Newcomer
Marcus Collins, Hairspray, The Lowry
Laura Elsworthy, The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange
Nathan Ives-Moiba, Tull, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Freya Sutton, Hairspray, The Lowry
Nathan Wiley, The Glass Menagerie, Octagon Theatre Bolton

Best New Play
Away From Home, by Rob Ward and Martin Jameson, 24:7 Festival
Brilliant Adventures, by Alistair McDowall, Royal Exchange Studio
Cannibals, by Rory Mullarkey, Royal Exchange
Flesh, by Sarah McDonald Hughes, Royal Exchange Studio

Best Studio Production
A Wondrous Place, Royal Exchange Studio
Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
That Is All You Need To Know, The Lowry Studio

Best Fringe Production
Away From Home, Working Progress Theatre, 24:7 Festival
Little Shop of Horrors, Kings Arms
Mary Bell by Mary Bell, Studio Salford
The Best, Lass O’Gowrie
Word:Play, Box Of Tricks, various venues
Withnail and I, Shred Productions, Lass O’Gowrie

Best Studio Performance
Joseph Arkley, Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
David Judge, Pages From My Songbook, Royal Exchange Studio
Robert Lonsdale, Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
Gerry McLaughlin, Mugabeland!, The Lowry Studio

Best Fringe Performance
Rebecca Fenwick, Spoonface Steinberg, The Swan, Dobcross and tour
Stella Grundy, The Rise and Fall Of A Northern Star, Studio Salford
Dickie Patterson, The Best, Lass O’Gowrie
David Slack, Withnail and I, Lass O’Gowrie
Rob Ward, Away From Home, 24:7 Theatre Festival

Best Ensemble
Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum
Duck!, Z-Arts Manchester
Manchester Sound: The Massacre, Library
Of Mice and Men, Octagon Theatre Bolton

Best Special Entertainment
Dick Whittington, Opera House
Jack and the Beanstalk, Oldham Coliseum
Strictly Confidential, The Lowry
Sutra, The Lowry

Review: Macbeth, St Peter’s Church Manchester

“Thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell”

One of the big ticket numbers in the Manchester International Festival this year has to be the return of Kenneth Branagh to Shakespeare, with him taking on the role of Macbeth in a production that was surrounded in secrecy and full of advisory warnings to the lucky few with tickets such as “don’t wear any dry-clean only outfits”, “you may not leave your seat once it has started” and possibly the toughest given its 2 hour interval-free running time, “no toilets in the venue”. That venue has now been revealed to be St Peter’s Church in Ancoats, a deconsecrated space used by the Hallé orchestra to rehearse in and whilst the toilets may be five minutes away at Murray’s Mill where tickets are collected from, any fears of emerging from the show drenched in mud and/or blood were left unfounded.

One can see straightaway though why the warnings have been made. The audience is placed in traverse either side of an earth-covered aisle and within moments of the start, a huge battle rages just inches from the audience with rain pouring, mud churning and sparks flying as swords clash. It’s an incredibly visceral start to a frequently breath-taking production – co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford – which successfully marries tradition with innovation, reinvigorating rather than reinventing Shakespeare’s timeless tale of the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Ashford’s eye for theatrical spectacle is combined with Branagh’s acute Shakespearean expertise and together, create something uniquely special.

This is a Macbeth unafraid to show us everything. So that opening battle is fought in front of us rather than just reported, we see an actual dagger floating in the air (courtesy of Paul Kieve’s illusion work and neatly attributed here to the weird sisters), Duncan’s bloody gruesome murder is presented for our delectation, necks are broken, children gutted, nothing spared. The staging of the cauldron scene has to be seen to be believed with its fiery heat and impressively long line of future kings but there’s subtlety too in amongst the bombast. The way in which Duncan’s funeral procession merges seamlessly into Macbeth’s coronation epitomises the maxim ‘the King is dead, long life the King’ – the endless cycle of power ever-revolving.

But along with the headlong rush of events, something the removal of the interval really helps with, is the beautiful detail of a simply great lead performance. It was a genuine privilege to see Branagh work so brilliantly, to get the chance to see just why his reputation as one of the pre-eminent Shakespearean actors of our time is so well deserved. His interpretation shimmers with the freshness of something genuinely new, an insight into Macbeth’s psyche that illuminates just as much as it entertains. This is as power-hungry a man as we’ve ever seen, but what really chills is the way that guilt corrodes him from the inside out, his certainty marked by a slight hesitance over key words, his conscience unable to be assuaged as he retreats into the foetal position. Branagh never leaves us in any doubt as to the bleakness of Macbeth’s world or the turmoil that wracks his very soul. 

Against such a performance, it would be easy for an ensemble to coast by on the merits of its star, but a weightily impressive array of actors ensure that this is not the case. Not everyone is as successful of course – Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo is incongruously old, Ray Fearon overeggs Macduff’s grief whilst remaining strong elsewhere and Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth starts off with an exaggerated almost-campness but fortunately calms down with a chilling sense of control. John Shrapnel’s Duncan is an all-too-short fierce delight though and the murderers stand out with some vivid characterisation, again in the briefest of moments that they are allowed. And Alexander Vlahos makes as compelling a Malcolm as I’ve ever seen, giving us a clearly defined maturing process so that his final elevation feels just natural.

The logistics of converting a found space does mean that there are some challenges to the experience though, not least the faff of being seated. The business of allocating numbered seats on the order of purchase means that some lucky people get in the front row but others, who have also paid the flat fee of £65, end up behind pillars in what would be sold as restricted view seats in any regular theatre. A cushion is highly advised as the seating is on wooden blocks and take a bottle of water, it got uncomfortably hot on the evening we were there. 

But make no mistake, this was a unique experience and one to be treasured. As about as exciting as Shakespeare can get and anchored by a performance that will live long in the memory. The run is sold out but will be screened via NT Live on 20th July – as with Frankenstein, I suspect much of the intensity and immediacy of the production will be lost in the transfer to film, but it will be a fabulous opportunity to witness Branagh at work. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £3
Booking until 20th July