Matilda

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Nikki Cotter

Much anticipation has surrounded the arrival of Matilda to Manchester’s Palace Theatre as part of its first ever UK tour. Based on the much-loved story by arguably the world’s greatest children’s writer, Roald Dahl, the show has been seen by over 8 million people worldwide; within minutes of the opening number starting it is abundantly clear why.

Upon entering the theatre the set immediately impresses, blocks of wooden and coloured letters with shelf after shelf of books adorn the stage as the cast burst into life with opening number Miracle. Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are packed with witty cynicism, sharp observation and glorious mischief from first note to last as this fast paced, addictive musical draws you in.

Tonight Sophie Ally takes on the role of Matilda, the unfortunate child saddled with the dimmest and least loving parents in the world. While Matilda wows with her brilliance the woeful Wormwoods are too busy scratching their stupid heads to notice. It is at school she finds her outlet as Miss Honey attempts to cultivate her clever little mind despite the fearsome Miss Trunchbull’s attempts to thwart them.

Sophie Ally makes for a magnificent Matilda, quietly confident and bursting with talent she is the perfect blend of mischief, magic and fearsome might. Her full standing ovation at the finale entirely deserved.

Craig Els reprises his West End role as the towering Miss Trunchbull to great comedic effect. His physical comedy is sensational, embodying the gargantuan villain entirely evoking roars of laughter as well as teeny, tiny, terrified nervous giggles from the audience as he struts menacingly round the stage. He looms large over his students, suspicious about everything and everyone, his insults stinging with hilarious outrage.

As Matilda’s parents the Wormwoods, Rebecca Thornhill and Sebastien Torkia the larger than life cartoonish characters are as grotesquely gaudy as Roald Dahl imagined them, selfish and simple but enormously entertaining they both give a star turn in demonstrating everything a parent shouldn’t be via their hilariously outlandish actions.

The true starts of the show are of course the ensemble of incredibly talented children who deliver Peter Darlings choreography with punchy precision. Their joyful enthusiasm is soaked up by every member of the audience, hitting a magnificent climax in the final number, the utterly addictive Revolting Children. Through scene after scene the sheer talent on stage renders you speechless, enthralled and desperate for more. The now iconic swing scene during When I Grow Up is heart-warming and beautifully effective in its childlike innocence and impressive staging.

Matilda is one of those uniquely brilliant shows which don’t come around very often. Every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly together from Tim Minchin’s magnificent music and lyrics to Dennis Kelly’s razor-sharp book. Matilda captures the hope and joy in celebrating and embracing difference, being who you want to be even and standing up for what you believe in…even if that means you have to be a little bit naughty. This RSC production evokes wonderfully one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes, ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce’.

Powerful, punchy and utterly perfect, grab a ticket immediately!

Matilda is on at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 24th November, tickets available here.

The Return of The Soldier

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Nikki Cotter

Based on the 1918 novella of the same name by Rebecca West, The Return of The Soldier is an emotive new British musical brought to atmospheric and achingly beautiful life in Hope Mill Theatre’s intimate space.

The fourth of this year’s five in-house musicals from the award-winning pairing of Hope Mill Theatre and Katy Lipson tells the story of a soldier returning from WWI who is suffering from memory loss, or as we now know it a symptom of PTSD. Rather than returning to the wife he no longer remembers he returns to his first love who now married herself has never quite forgotten the joyful days they shared. What follows is a tender and fascinating story as the pain of unexpressed emotion has far-reaching and heart-wrenching effects.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Tim Sanders’ beautifully crafted book and lyrics are delicately directed by Charlotte Westenra, paired with Charles Miller’s stunning score, The Return of The Soldier is quite simply, beautiful.

The simplicity of the piano and cello ensure this new chamber musical packs and emotional punch delivered in the most exquisitely affecting of ways, highlighted magnificently by Aaron J Dootson’s lighting design.

Chris Jenkins gives a commanding performance as returning soldier Christopher Baldry, lost in what he remembers as his idyllic past, he convincingly switches from harsh and abrasive in his confused present to playful and mellow in his reignited past, illustrating the complexity and tragedy of the effects of war perfectly.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Tessa Kadler impresses greatly as Chris’ forgotten wife Kitty, last seen at Hope Mill Theatre in Pippin, Kadler’s portrayal of a wife grieving for a husband who is still very much alive is both powerful and impassioned, her despair at the rejection she feels channelled into a determination to fix this desperately sad situation. Kadler sings beautifully with warmth and emotion, a contrast to her seemingly cold nature and a hint of what is to come.

Naomi Slights is perfectly cast as Margaret Grey, the working class first love of Captain Baldry. She delicately manoeuvres between being a loyal and committed wife to Mr Grey (Marc Pickering) and embracing the opportunity to feel alive again with Christopher Baldry. Her characterisation is impressively strong and draws you in entirely as she journeys from ecstatic highs to guilt ridden lows with just the right amount of measured energy for the demands of this complex and emotional role.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Marc Pickering gives a masterclass in acting in his character portrayals of both William Gray the loveable, dependable, safe, pickle-making husband of Margaret and Dr Gilbert Anderson the eccentric, highly animated and incredibly amusing Freudian-esque psychoanalyst, his performance as both characters is utterly joyful to watch.

Esme Sears shines in the role of Christopher’s dedicated cousin Jenny, the story dictates she is more an observer than a character who drives the story but her emotional connection to the other characters adds depths and richness to the emotion of this fascinating story in which she ultimately plays an important part. Sears portrayal is delicate and gently determined delivered with striking style.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

The Return of The Soldier demonstrates perfectly how compelling quality storytelling can be, there is no need for flashy chorus numbers here as the superb acting, sublime score and delicate direction combine to create a cleverly constructed, tender and absorbing story. Kudos to producers Hope Mill Theatre, Aria Entertainment and Guy James Theatrical Ltd for once again bringing bold and inspiring new work to the forefront.

Full of heart and achingly beautiful, The Return of The Soldier is a simply stunning must-see.

The Return of The Soldier is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 29th September, tickets can be found here.

*Photo credits Phil Tragen

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Bank 1

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Matt Forrest

It would appear that anything Mischief Theatre touch turns to gold; maybe they should rename themselves the Midas Theatre instead. First, there was the enormously popular The Play That Goes Wrong, which is a huge West End and Broadway smash. This was followed up by Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which although did not perform quite as well still proved immensely popular. Now the company return to the Lowry with their third offering: The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Set in 1958, we are transported too Minneapolis, a city ravaged by crime, where no one is to be trusted: in addition, the city is blighted by a seagull problem that seems to be getting out of hand. Despite Minneapolis becoming the crime capital of the USA, Prince Ludvig of Hungary is bringing the Hungarian royal family’s crown jewels over to Minneapolis for a state visit, and everyone wants a piece of them!

Bank 3

The list of suspects include: shady bank manager Robin Freeboys (Damian Lynch), his manipulative daughter, (Julia Frith), local street hustler Sam, (Sean Carey), escaped convict Mitch Ruscitti (Liam Jeavons), and his hapless sidekick, Cooper, (David Coomber). As plans are forged and alliances formed just who will walk away with the centrepiece of the crown jewels, the Maguvin Diamond: a 300-carat stone with a huge value.

I am not ashamed to say I loved The Play That Goes Wrong and was looking forward to this show immensely: I’m glad to say it did not disappoint. Heavily influenced by the films of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who brought us the Naked Gun and Airplane series, this smart, innovative and ridiculous comedy will have you grinning like a Cheshire cat. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery draws heavily from the ‘Teen Exploitation’ films of the 1950’s and is more a love letter to them than it is to the heist/bank robbery genre, which is a welcome surprise.

Bank

Getting off to a slow start by Mischief’s standards, the first act is packed full gags around word play, who knew the name Robin Freeboys could be such resource for material? However, following the interval, the production leaps from one set piece to another showcasing the physical comedy the company have become famed for; highlights include a three-man fight performed by one man (the super talented George Hannigan playing as credited Everyone Else) and the trademark ‘dangle from a rope sequence’ with a twist. The undoubted highlight is the jaw dropping and innovative sequence as the would-be bank robbers view the bank from inside the ventilation ducts plotting their approach: spectacular and visually brilliant this scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Bank 2

With this production we are treated to something a little different with a few songs and dance routines which showcase the fantastic voice of Ashley Tucker, these again are firmly in keeping with the absurd nature of the show.

There are a few minor issues: some of the scene changes could be a bit slicker, and there is a slight pacing issue, however these are minor quibbles. This is a show so packed full of visual and verbal gags that there is something for everyone. Unlike most major banks following the crash of 2008 I cannot see the stock on this production diminishing anytime soon!

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is at the Lowry until 15th September tickets available here.

 

Madagascar the Musical

img_2076

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Nikki Cotter

Based on the smash-hit animated film which took the world by storm in 2005, Madagascar the Musical succeeds entirely in bringing the much-loved family favourite from screen to stage in a bold, bright and brilliant way.

For those not in the know, Madagascar tells the story of four animal friends from New York’s Central Park Zoo, Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the Giraffe. Marty dreams of a life in the wild and on his 10th birthday decides it’s time to take action, making a bid for freedom, or in this case the open plains of Connecticut. Things however don’t quite go according to plan as all four friends find themselves unexpectedly stranded on the far-flung island of Madagascar, battling with both Alex’s killer instincts and King Julien’s killer dance moves!

img_2072

The colourful characters and distinctive design we know and love from the film are all there, Max Humphries exceptional puppetry design ensures young and old are instantly captivated as this fast-paced and punchy production quickly whips the audience in to a feel-good frenzy.

2016 X-Factor winner Matt Terry makes a confident stage debut as Alex the Lion, he is charismatic and extremely likeable, belting out the big notes with apparent ease and cheeky charm. His trusty pals too are perfectly cast. Antoine Murray-Straughan impresses enormously as Alex’s best friend Marty delivering Fabian Aloise’s choreography with style, Jamie Lee-Morgan brings in the humour as hypochondriac Melman while Timmika Ramsay ramps up the sass as hippo Gloria.

img_2075-2

Elsewhere Jo Parsons gives a hugely comical performance as party animal King Julien. His brilliantly bonkers take on the Lemur monarch coming close to stealing the show. Special mention must also go to Shane McDaid who gives a stand-out performance in his dual roles of Skipper and Maurice.

Kevin Del Aguila’s script is tight and crammed full of fun, a lot of care and attention has been taken to ensure this production remains true to the film ensuring fans will not be disappointed. The energy and enthusiasm of the hard-working cast is infectious, their command on Max Humphries puppetry design via Emma Brunton’s puppetry direction brings each and every character to fun and furry life, captivating even the youngest of children. The musical numbers entertain although competing with the anthemic I Like To Move It is never going to be easy.

Madagascar is entertaining and uncomplicated fun for all the family; with an incredibly talented cast, impressive bold design and a joyful message of friendship at its heart. Madagascar will charm you entirely, a roarsome treat from start to finish!

Madagascar the Musical is on at Blackpool’s Opera House until Saturday 15th September tickets can be found here.

Early Doors

Early Doors 2

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Matt Forrest

Some 14 years ago, Stockport’s most famous pub, The Grapes closed its doors for the last time; the setting of the much cherished Craig Cash and Phil Mealey penned sitcom, whilst only spanning 12 episodes the show garnered huge critical success, and developed an enormous fan base. When the show wasn’t recommisioned in 2004 it came as a bit of shock.

Fast forward to 2018 and it’s great to see that The Grapes has flung its doors open once more for a series of live theatre and arena shows, starting with a sell-out residency at the Lowry.

Early Doors 1

The live show is very much a continuation of the TV series as we are reacquainted with much-loved characters and introduced to some new, all be it familiar characters. It is to the shows credit that most of the original cast have returned to the show; however, I doubt that they needed much persuading.

This is not just a nostalgia trip trotting out old gags and catchphrases. Cash and Mealey have created a new show which see’s Grapes landlord Ken (John Henshaw) plucking up the courage to propose to part-time barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson). However things don’t go to plan, with the intervention of Ken’s mum Jean (Judith Barker), and also some big-mouthed if well-meaning locals, newcomers Freddie and June (Vicky Binns and Neil Hurst) who also upset Ken’s plan.

In addition best friends Duffy (Mealey) and Joe (Cash), have their own issues: The former delving into the world of online dating, and the latter having some family strife. In addition, there are several appearances from local bent coppers: Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight) who struggle with rules and regulations like “evidence” getting in the way of good honest coppering!

Early Doors 3

Whether you’re a diehard fan or coming to Early Doors Live fresh, this show will leave you entertained and with a huge grin on your face. Packed full of stingy one-liners, pathos and a great deal of heart the show continues to focus on the same themes that made the series a success: love, loneliness, friendship and family, the regulars in the Grapes are undoubtedly one big although often dysfunctional family not to dissimilar to another Cash and Mealey project: The Royale Family.

The cast are on great form: those returning to the fold like Henshaw and Joan Kempson, as the sharp-tongued Winnie, instantly make you forget about their 14 year absence. Whilst newcomers Vicky Binns, Neil Hurst, and Nick Birkinshaw as skinflint Tommy, fit in like Grapes regulars.

Early Doors

There was such anticipation about the show tonight that the theatre was literally buzzing, however at times some audience members tried to interact and call out during the show which was not only distracting for the cast but a little frustrating for the audience, perhaps they’d had one or two ales too many in the Grapes earlier.

The surprising sing-along finale is an unexpected treat and a fitting joyous end to a highly entertaining evening. As the show closed, the cast are given a well-deserved standing ovation, with people hoping for a legendary Grapes lock in, however this was not to be.

I can guarantee that in the theatre and arena bars across the land crowds will be raising a glass and toasting “To the regiment! I wish I was there!” Well I was and it was an absolute treat.

Early Doors continues at the Lowry until 22nd September click here for more information.

 

Interview | Circa Tsuica | Now or Never

Circus 5

The circus is coming to town! Well more accurately, fabulous French circus company Circa Tsuica will be setting up camp in The Lowry Plaza ahead of their new show Now or Never with the MAPAS Jazz Band, Salford.

Watch the performers fly through the air, bounce around the big top and cycle on trick bikes all while belting out funky brass music!

First performance is Thursday 30th August and here at Opening Night we got the chance to talk to co-director and performer Tom Neal and workshop leader and performer Baptiste Bouquin to find out a little more about this spectacular show.

Circus 2

First of all, what is Now or Never all about? What are you trying to achieve with the show?
Tom: Our first aim is to create a really great link between us and the audience – but also among the audience themselves. Everyone is individually welcomed and invited to share something to eat and drink. One way or another, we want everyone to become part of the show.

We perform a lot on bicycles because they are universal objects that everyone uses or sees on a daily basis. A bike is less abstract than a trapeze or teeterboard – though we perform on those too – and it’s great to show people just what can be done on one!

Live music, composed by Guillaume Dutrieux, is also very central in Now or Never. It’s not just as an accompaniment – we all play our instruments and do circus tricks at the same time. Blending the acrobatics and the music really enhances the way we reach the audience.

In the end what people usually remember is how close to us they feel – and that is reciprocal, we feel the same way too. This show is an ode to tolerance, sharing and living together in peace.

Circus 6

The young musicians of the MAPAS Jazz Band, Salford are performing with you in the show, how have you worked together?

Baptiste:  Before the Circus arrives, we have had two sessions where we rehearse the sections of the show that they will play with us. We help them with the usual musical parameters – rhythm, sound, playing together etc – but also with the specific skills that they will need to be part of the show. They’ll need to know all the music by heart so they can interact with the others, they will have to move on stage, they will have to be characters (for example, they’ll be guests in a wedding scene). Some of the bands are surprised that they need performance as well as music skills!

When the circus arrives, we do the dress rehearsals in the Big Top with all the team. We want the young musicians to really make the most of the whole experience, not just be focussed on notes or sheets of music.

Maybe that’s what we want to share with them, that music is huge and there are so many different ways to perform it. In Now or Never, it’s linked to circus, to a relationship with others, to joy and risk. It’s not just about playing notes – even if I would prefer them to play the right ones!

Circus 4

Now or Never takes place in Circa Tsuica’s travelling Big Top rather than a theatre. What difference does that make for you as performers? And what about for the audience?

Tom: Performing in a circus ring is very, very different to performing on a stage. There is no ‘cheating’ in a ring, the audience is all around you and there is nowhere to hide. All the action is in the centre so the the focus is greater. For the audience, every point of view is unique and close-up. For us, it is a challenge because we have to make every perspective interesting. At the same time, we can really feel the closeness of the audience which is a great pleasure. The audience can see each other and we like to play with that in the show. We change people’s perspective, get people talking to each other while eating some crepes, we want everyone to feel that they are invited to a giant party.

Baptiste: When the audience arrives they expect to just go and find their seats but, actually, it’s already like a party, or the main square of a village. There’s a buffet right in the middle of the track, people are offered drinks by the artists, they are welcomed. It’s a very warm atmosphere, the opposite of the pomp and circumstance of some theatres.

How do you work together to set up the tent – and the camp around it which you will live in while you are in town?

Tom: Well, setting up the tent and everything inside takes us about a day. It is usually a collaboration between us and a group of local people provided by the venue. I am the tent master and I explain to the locals how things should be done. In our group everyone knows what to do so it’s quite organic. If the location allows it we then place the caravans in which we live all around the Big Top to recreate a tiny village. Before and after the show the audience is invited to walk along them to share a glimpse of what our lives can be, since in “real life”, back in France, we live in the same village (but in houses now) and run our company together collectively.

Circus 1

How does daily life work while you are there? Who does the shopping, the cooking, the washing? Do the kids go to school?

Tom: We have a very long preparation day before the show, we need to prepare the food and drinks we offer to the audience, clean the stage, wash the costumes, check the props, instruments and the bicycles, warm up, rehearse the music and the circus and so on… We also have our own showers and laundry in a semi-trailer, we have a cook preparing nice meals, a nanny, a teacher, with a mini-circus-tent-school, in order to be as autonomous as possible, so when I say we’re recreating a real village it is not a joke…

Is it true that once the tent is up, that there will be music rehearsals during the day that passerbys can come along and watch and listen to?

Tom: Sure, we’re always happy to welcome people to have a peep when we rehearse, so come along if you hear noises in the Big Top…

Now or Never opens on Thursday 30 August and runs until Saturday 1 September tickets are available here.

Adults £16, Under 16’s £13 – Family tickets sold in 4’s (minimum 1 adult) £12.25

 

The Return of the Solider |Rehearsal Pics

Soldier 3

Rehearsal images have been released for The Return of the Soldier, the fourth in-house production of 2018 from the award-winning pairing of Joseph Houston and William Whelton, co-founders of Hope Mill Theatre and producer Katy Lipson, from Aria Entertainment. The successful trio who will be teaming up once again with producer Guy James.

The much anticipated musical, an adaptation of Rebecca West’s remarkable novella written at the end of World War One, with music by Charles Miller and a book & lyrics by Tim Sanders will open at the Ancoats venue on Thursday 6th September and run until Saturday 29th September before transferring to New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from Monday 1st until Saturday 8th October.

The talented cast will bring this compelling story of war to a whole new generation. The cast of five is made up of Chris Jenkins (tick, tick…BOOM! and Billy Elliot the Musical) will play Christopher, Tessa Kadler (Pippin, Carousel) as Kitty, Marc Pickering (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Universal Pictures’ Les Misérables) as William/ Dr Anderson, Esme Sears (A Little Night Music, Parade) will play Jenny and Naomi Slights (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mamma Mia!) takes on the role of Margaret.

Set in Harrow during the summer of 1916, The Return of the Soldier is an intensely bitter-sweet tale, dissecting the very different love of three women for one man. When Christopher returns from the front, shell-shocked and with memory loss, there are profound consequences for all three women and their love. In the end, only an extraordinary sacrifice will restore the fragile status quo.

Soldier

The Return of the Solder will be directed by Charlotte Westenra, musical direction by Daniel Jarvis, choreography by Matthew Cole, lighting design by Aaron J Dootson, sound design by Findlay Claydon, set and costume design by Simon Anthony Wells/Leah Sams with casting by Jane Deitch.

Tickets for The Return of the Soldier are available here.