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”

Album Review: Sheridan Smith – Sheridan

“Feels like we could go on for forever this way”

Over the past decade, Sheridan Smith has established herself as one of the UK’s finest actresses. From comedies such as The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin & Stacey, she has graduated to BAFTA-winning success in Mrs Biggs, Cilla and this year’s exceptional The Moorside. And onstage, she’s a 4-time Olivier Award nominee and 2-time winner, being recognised for her work in both plays – Flare Path – and musicals – Legally Blonde. Now she has the music world in her sights as she releases her debut album Sheridan.

There’s returns to the material that has justly made her reputation. Her impassioned take on Cilla Black’s swinging ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ remains an absolute joy and a full-throated rendition of Funny Girl’s ‘My Man’ recalls the energy of her Fanny Brice. It feels she is most at home in the torch song arena though, and whether in the oldies (Timi Yuro’s ‘Hurt’, The Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’) or newer tracks (Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’), the tone of her lower register glows with charismatic warmth. With producer Tris Penna and co-producer, arranger and musical director Steve Sidwell, there’s a real appreciation for the collation of music that suits Smith and really does create a harmonious whole.

This restrained approach suits her well with the pair of Pasek and Paul compositions featured here. The more famous (in the UK at least) is La La Land’s ‘City of Stars’, her subtle vocal contrasted with the big band arrangement to beautiful effect but for me it’s the driving emotion of ‘For Forever’ from hit Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen that emerges as a real highlight in all its gorgeous yearning hope. Jazz standard ‘I Smell a Rat’ offers a welcome change of pace, and subtle humour comes from efficient takes on Noël Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’ and Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’. 
But there’s a bold statement too coming from the song choices that bookend Sheridan. There’s a wry knowingness to putting a song called ‘Crazy’ at the top of the record but the rearrangement of Gnarls Barkley’s pop hit works beautifully. And then to round things off is a dramatically stark reinterpretation of Dreamgirls‘ showstopper ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, stripped of all its showboating and consequently raw as a nerve. Every quiver in Smith’s voice is left in, in this deeply personal piano-led version, reminding us how emotional a performer she is and what power that brings to her work. A stunning debut.

2017 Tour dates – book tickets here:
Tuesday 10th April – Sage Gateshead
Friday 13th April – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Monday 16th April – Manchester The Bridgewater Hall
Tuesday 17th April – Blackpool Opera House
Thursday 19th April – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
Sunday 22nd April – Norwich Theatre Royal
Tuesday 24th April – London Royal Albert Hall
Thursday 26th April – Edinburgh The Playhouse
Sunday 29th April – Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre

2017 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations

Best New Play 
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Palace
Elegy – Donmar Warehouse
The Flick – National Theatre Dorfman
One Night in Miami – Donmar Warehouse

Best New Musical
Groundhog Day – The Old Vic
Dreamgirls – Savoy
The Girls – Phoenix
School of Rock – New London

Best Revival 
Yerma – Young Vic
The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s
This House – Garrick
Travesties – Apollo Continue reading “2017 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations”

TV Review: The Moorside Episode 2

“You haven’t lost your faith in people, have you?”

The problem with using superlatives is that it is so easy to get carried away. And having declared the second series of Unforgotten to be sure of being one of the best pieces of television we’ll see this year, I’m now having to add The Moorside to that same category. The first episode blew me away and the second, directed by Paul Whittington and written by Neil McKay, confirmed the show as a devastating tour de force.
Occupying the slightly hazy ground of docudrama, where real-life events are augmented with highly researched dramatised scenes, The Moorside nevertheless smacks of the ring of truth from start to finish. The second instalment picks up with Shannon Matthews having been found by the police and whilst the community who came together so dramatically to search for her celebrate, questions about Karen Matthews’ involvement in the disappearance of her daughter hang ominously in the air.
You can’t really understate how phenomenal the lead performances are here – Sheridan Smith’s deeply compassionate Julie leading the community effort and warily accepting her place as Karen’s new best friend since Siân Brooke’s sceptical Natalie won’t stop asking questions about all the inconsistencies in the case. And Gemma Whelan’s Karen is a blankly haunting presence, wisely steering clear of offering any answers to what might have driven this woman to such action, instead just hinting at a life that failed her and her 6 other children.
The climactic scene featuring Natalie and Julie exhorting Karen to come clean in a car, assisted by Siobhan Finneran’s detective, is – and I apologise again – simply sensational. Brooke and Smith pushing Whelan’s Karen to the brink and then shattering whatever bubble she’d constructed for herself to release a chillingly tortured confession. Whelan should win the awards for acting, Brooke and Smith should win awards for reacting, somehow these should all be shared with Nicola Walker! 
The overall feel of the episode can’t help but be somewhat dispiriting, seeing the emotion that brought a community together in such closeness being fractured into sour anger, stoked by the careless negativity of the tabloid media and even David Cameron himself. And even with Julie’s innate brighter nature persisting, it’s a tough ask to remain as positive as she did in real life, visiting Karen all through her prison sentence. But as with the beautifully written and achingly sensitive scene of quiet revelation on a park bench shared between Brooke and Smith, you can so rarely ever really know the truth about a person.

The Moorside will be released on DVD on 27th February

TV Review: The Moorside Episode 1

“Anyone tells you you’re not a good mother, you can tell them to shove it up their arse”

Coming from the same creative team as the extraordinary Appropriate Adult, it is no surprise that the first episode of new BBC two-parter The Moorside was a superlative hour of TV, leaving me eagerly awaiting the second instalment next week (just like the good old days, none of your stripping a show across consecutive days here). And as they did by looking at the deeds of Fred and Rosemary West through the experience of the social worker drafted in to assist him, the 2008 case of missing Dewsbury schoolgirl Shannon Matthews is retold here largely through the eyes of Julie Bushby, a friend of Shannon’s mother, who was instrumental in leading the community effort to find the young girl. 
Where Appropriate Adult excelled was in its first-rate casting, securing the services of Emily Watson, Dominic West and a truly fearsome Monica Dolan to lend the work real gravitas. And if The Moorside doesn’t necessarily have an Oscar nominee in its company, it has a no less sensational trio at its core (all with sterling theatrical credits too). Sheridan Smith is the highest profile as Julie Bushby but Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones’ Yara Greyjoy) more than matches her with a frankly terrifying performance of blankness curdling into disturbing strangeness as Shannon’s mother Karen. And following on from her recent high profile turn in Sherlock, Siân Brooke also excels as her increasingly sceptical friend Natalie.
It is no spoiler (surely?!) that the kidnapping of the 9 year old was actually staged by the mother and her partner, and that knowledge is excruciating as the three week period of Shannon’s disappearance is docu-dramatised here from research, interviews and published accounts. From the urgent panic of the first few hours, to the remarkable community effort galvanised by Bushby, to the quietly meticulous police work probing away at the inconsistencies (Siobhan Finneran in great form as the lead DC), this was a thoroughly gripping hour of television – sensitive to its subject (though it should be noted that it isn’t endorsed by the Matthews family) and just superbly performed.

TV Review: Cilla

“The Black bird has landed”

It’s only taken me a couple of years to get round to watching Cilla, a 2014 ITV miniseries written by Jeff Pope, in which time the small matter of Cilla Black’s passing has made it a more poignant piece. My main reason for watching though, its arrival on Netflix aside, was to finally catch up with Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of the Liverpudlian light entertainment behemoth, back in the days when she was just a scouse lass called Priscilla White.
Pope’s script definitely has a touch of the rose-tinted about it but there’s no denying the amazing energy of Liverpool’s music scene in the 1960s that comes across in the first two episodes. Though she has a job as a typist – her mother proudly proclaims “the first in the family to be considered suitable for office work” – Cilla dreams of being a singer and is making quite the name for herself on the club circuit, building a following through club performances with upcoming bands such as a quartet called The Beatles.
The drama covers most of Black’s career in the 60s – from those days in the Cavern to being signed up by Brian Epstein and beginning a hugely successful UK music career. And it is hugely elevated by a stunning performance from Smith, who sings all of Cilla’s songs with pitch-perfect passion but also thoroughly embodies the thrill of being on the edge of breaking through, the despair of thinking everything has been ruined, the life-changing exuberance of becoming a star.
It’s the perfect reminder of just how good an actress Sheridan Smith is, away from recent difficulties that have sadly dominated coverage of her, and she is hugely, thoroughly, likable here. She’s given great support by Aneurin Barnard as the ever-faithful Bobby, the songwriter, road manager and would-be love interest by her side, and Ed Stoppard as Epstein, the insightful manager guiding her career to ever-higher heights even as the closeted dalliances of his private life take a serious toll. A most enjoyable watch.

2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations

Best Actor in a Play, sponsored by Radisson Blu Edwardian
Ian Hallard for The Boys in the Band
Ian McKellen for No Man’s Land
Jamie Parker for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child 
Kenneth Branagh for The Entertainer
Ralph Fiennes for Richard III

Best Actress in a Play, sponsored by Live at Zédel 
Billie Piper for Yerma 
Helen McCrory for The Deep Blue Sea
Lily James for Romeo and Juliet
Michelle Terry for Henry V
Pixie Lott for Breakfast at Tiffany’s Continue reading “2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

The 2016 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

Best actor

Sir Kenneth Branagh The Entertainer, Garrick Theatre
O-T Fagbenle Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – Ralph Fiennes The Master Builder/Richard III, Old Vic/Almeida Theatre
James McArdle
Platonov, Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre, Olivier
Ian McKellen No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre

Natasha Richardson Award for best actress

Noma Dumezweni Linda, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs
Helen McCrory The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre, Lyttelton
Sophie Melville Iphigenia In Splott, National Theatre, Temporary Theatre (a Sherman Theatre production)
WINNER – Billie Piper Yerma, Young Vic
Glenn Close
in Sunset Boulevard

Best musical performance

WINNER – Glenn Close Sunset Boulevard, Coliseum
Andy Karl Groundhog Day, Old Vic
Sheridan Smith Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory/Savoy Theatre

Best play with Hiscox, official arts partner of the Evening Standard

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs
The Flick by Annie Baker, National Theatre, Dorfman
WINNER – Harry Potter And The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, J K Rowling and John Tiffany, Palace Theatre

Evening Standard Radio 2 Audience Award for best musical

Funny Girl Menier Chocolate Factory/Savoy Theatre
Groundhog Day Old Vic
Guys And Dolls Savoy Theatre/Phoenix Theatre
WINNER – Jesus Christ Superstar Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour National Theatre, Dorfman
Sunset Boulevard Coliseum

Milton Shulman Award for best director

Dominic Cooke Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – John Malkovich Good Canary, Rose Theatre Kingston
John Tiffany
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, Palace Theatre

Best design

Jon Bausor You For Me For You, Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs
WINNER – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin (sound design) The Encounter, Complicite/Edinburgh International Festival/Barbican
Rob Howell
The Master Builder/Groundhog Day, Old Vic

Best revival

Les Blancs National Theatre, Olivier
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – No Man’s Land Wyndham’s Theatre
Young Chekhov: Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull
Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre, Olivier

Charles Wintour Award for most promising playwright

WINNER – Charlene James Cuttin’ It Young Vic/Royal Court Theatre 
Jon Brittain Rotterdam, Theatre 503/Trafalgar Studios
David Ireland Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs
Aoife Duffin in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Francis Loney)

Emerging talent award in partnership with Burberry

Jaygann Ayeh The Flick, National Theatre, Dorfman
Anthony Boyle Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, Palace Theatre
Aoife Duffin A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing/The Taming Of The Shrew, The Corn Exchange, Dublin and Young Vic/Shakespeare’s Globe 

WINNER – Tyrone Huntley Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

CD Review: Funny Girl (2016 London Cast Recording)

“So ‘stead of just kicking me why don’t they give me a lift?”

The Menier Chocolate Factory’s extremely well-received production of Funny Girl has been as much beleaguered as blessed as it wound its way into the West End, garnering acres of extra publicity that the show barely needed given its impressive ticket sales and subsequently announced UK tour. But so relentless has the focus been on leading lady Sheridan Smith and her absences from the show whilst looking after her mental health, that you begin to doubt the maxim that all publicity is good publicity.

Doubtless, a conversation needs to happen about the expectations that are raised when a show is sold on the name of its star. You can argue convincingly that a production is always bigger than its star name, and understudy Natasha J Barnes deservedly got much acclaim for filling in for Fanny but the case is undermined somewhat when the producers put that name above even the show’s title on the publicity (on Broadway, you’re entitled to a refund or exchange if an above-the-title star is off…).

Which is a rather long-winded way of getting round to saying that if you missed Sheridan Smith and aren’t able to catch her before Funny Girl’s limited engagement at the Savoy ends in October, you’ll be pleased to know that a cast recording has now been released. As the first major revival of the show in London for 50 years, it’s a canny choice but even with the tinkering that has been done here to beef up some of the supporting roles, to my mind there’s no escaping the fact that it’s not necessarily the greatest of shows.

You can read more of my thoughts in my review of the show at the Menier here but much of it still stands. Sheridan Smith is very good, sometimes excellent, as Fanny, forging her own path into the role made nearly untouchably famous by Barbra Streisand but the recording doesn’t always capture the physicality of Smith’s turn which was its key strength – here, you tend to notice just a little bit that she isn’t consistently stand-out amazing vocally, which is ultimately unfair to the subtlety of the full scope of her performance. 

And as beguiling vocally as Darius Campbell is as her erstwhile companion Nick, you’re left wishing the show gave him more to do for he is really very good indeed. Chris Walker’s orchestrations and Alan Williams’ arrangements for his band make the score sound fresh and there’s no denying the quality of Jules Styne’s music – ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, ‘People’, You Are Woman, I Am Man’, ‘Henry Street’, such songs! – but I’m still left wondering what I’m missing in not loving this Funny Girl as others do.

Review: Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory

“I guess we’re both happy, but maybe…we ain’t”

As recently demonstrated with Adele’s 25, there comes a point where commercial success just trumps critical response even before the reviews have been published and digested. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Funny Girl broke box office records in selling out its entire run in mere moments, announcing its transfer to the West End and then selling a vast majority of tickets for the Savoy all before the show had even opened, such is the draw of star Sheridan Smith.

So in some ways it doesn’t matter that Funny Girl really isn’t a great show, one unseen in the West End for nearly 50 years. Musically, Jule Styne’s score front-loads its hits fatally and dramatically, Isobel Lennart’s rather insipid book runs out of steam well before the end, even with Harvey Fierstein’s newly introduced revisions. And for all of the strengths of Michael Mayer’s production, there’s little it manages to do paper over these cracks.

It helps that Smith really is possessed of that elusive star quality that (almost) justifies such advance sales. As Fanny Brice, whose journey from backstreet bars in Brooklyn to top billing in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway made a legend out of original star Barbra Streisand, she has the emotional range to cover the hilarious heights of this singer and comedian at work and also the heartbreaking lows as her personal life suffers considerable strain.

Vocally though, there’s a lot to live up with La Streisand and I would say Smith was strong rather than sensational, she doesn’t quite seem to have the innate confidence yet to really transcend the material, played beautifully by Alan Williams’ band. She connects well with Darius Campbell as her errant husband though, despite the role’s underwritten shortcomings, and there’s vivid work from Marilyn Cutts, Gay Soper and Valda Aviks as Fanny’s mother and friends. 

There’s something frustrating too about the all-too-palpable sense that Mayer clearly has had his eye on the Savoy from the outset. Michael Pavelka’s elegant design with its reflective surfaces and ingenious travelators and Lynne Page’s expansive choreography both push at the seams of the intimate Menier but at these ticket prices and for a 3 and a half month run, it doesn’t feel like too much to ask for a show perfectly designed for this space, which is then latterly adapted for the transfer.

Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade but this really did feel like a good show rather than a great one despite Smith’s efforts, a strong production that will likely take flight once rehoused in the Savoy.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 5th March – a few last tickets now available at the Menier if you move quickly, then playing the Savoy 9th April – 2nd July