Les Misérables

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Les Misérables is one of those few tour de force musicals that need no introduction; the buzz surrounding its arrival in Manchester a rare phenomenon. Performances sold out within days while the shows return to the region in May 2020 at the Lowry was announced even before Jean Valjean had uttered ‘24601’ on this current visit; within minutes of the curtain raising at tonight’s performance it becomes abundantly clear why.

While the West End production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s masterpiece has been running at the Queens Theatre since 1985 it is a newly conceived touring version that has been taking the country by storm since opening in Leicester in November 2018. 

This stunning production first conceived by producer Cameron Mackintosh in 2009 in celebration of the shows 25th anniversary offers a fresh vibrancy which will no doubt recruit a new generation of theatre fans while making devoted fans fall in love with Les Misérables all over again.

Laurence Connor and James Powell’s inspired direction ensures that the almost three-hour duration whizzes by; keeping the audience fully engaged throughout this epic spectacle. There is not one drop in pace nor lull in action. Act I ending with the rousing One Day More perhaps the most epic way to lead into an interval ever.

The biggest change from the current production running in the West end is Matt Kinley’s striking design. Gone is the famous revolve and in its place come vibrant and visually stunning projections; this new design still triggering the heartfelt emotion of the traditional show whilst adding the thrill of a cinematic feel to proceedings.

Kinley’s designs (expertly animated by 59 Productions) are based on Victor Hugo’s original paintings, and offer a new depth and authenticity to the material while Paule Constable lights each scene with atmospheric perfection. Benefitting from this design creativity the scenes in the underground sewers of Paris are outstanding while Javert’s demise is quite simply jaw-dropping.

The journey Killian Donnelly takes us on as Jean Valjean is bursting with gut-wrenching emotion; from embittered convict through to tired elder nearing ultimate redemption his commitment to the role never wavers. His voice is perfection, from the gentle soothing tones during the opening of Bring Him Home to the full-out goosebump-inducing Who Am I? Nic Greenshields is equally convincing as the brooding Javert, commanding in his presence and convincing in his delivery, his stunning performance during Stars receiving one of the biggest applause of the evening.

The Thénardier’s (Sophie-Louise Dann and Martin Ball) comical interludes are an absolute joy, both clearly delighting in their roles and cementing themselves as audience favourites.

Both Katie Hall as Fantine and Tegan Bannister as Eponine break audience hearts with their moving performances while Harry Apps’ emotional delivery of Empty Chairs At Empty Tables convinces further that this is a company for who nothing less than perfection will do.

The inevitable and well-deserved standing ovation confirms the power of this enduring story; combine that with the beauty of its soaring score and the astonishing quality of talent on stage and you quite literally have the perfect piece of theatre. Every person in the ensemble gives their heart and soul to this production and the result is sensational. Epic in its scale and breath-taking in its brilliance. If you only ever see one piece of theatre make it Les Misérables.

On at the Palace theatre until Saturday 30th March, currently sold out but check here for returns otherwise tickets go on general sale for The Lowry on Friday 1st March and can can be purchased here.

 

 

Macbeth

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Double, double toil and trouble…”

In an era when the mere suggestion of a female Bond is enough to break the Internet, the Royal Exchange enters the fray with possibly the first ever mixed-gender professional production of MACBETH to have cast a woman in the lead.

That’s right, hang on to your coronets… Shakespeare’s titular character is played by a FEMALE. And what a woman she is! Dressed in combats, shaven-headed and brandishing assorted weaponry, Lucy Ellinson’s Macbeth is decorated for her valour; gripped by murderous ambition; and then strung up for her sins.

She parties in a blood-red ballgown, assassinates her Queen and shares her bed with a strong woman of colour, who prays: “Unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty”. (It’s enough to make your average Daily Mail reader’s head spin!)

In a further gender reversal, Duncan is played by Alexandra Mathie. It is an arresting moment when she enters the stage – a sharp bob framing a face that would usually bristle with whiskers.

Let us be clear, however… this is not about watching an inclusive ‘woke’ production. Every actor has earned their place and, with gender politics swept off the table, you’re free to focus on characterisation.

Macbeth is presented as an ambitious, conniving and deceitful person – not a woman breaking stereotypical convention – and in a major departure from classic portrayals, Lady Macbeth (Ony Uhiara) relies on scorn and reason instead of her womanly wiles.

They are part of an ensemble that is a tour de force. Each character is carefully etched and singularly memorable – delivering classic scenes with admirable gusto.

As brave and noble Banquo, Theo Ogundipe makes for a tender father and terrifying ghost, whilst Nima Taleghani and Rachel Denning bring comic relief as Lennox and the Porter/Lady Macduff.

Witches Nicola May-Taylor, Charlotte Merriam and Bryony Davies are scene-stealers whenever they appear – as “foul and fair” a motley crew as you could ever hope to encounter.

Christopher Haydon’s direction is spectacular, with the arrival of Banquo’s ghost at the feast his pièce de résistance. (Playful and sinister, think heads on platters, giant teddy bears and a malevolent game of musical chairs!)

Here, a special mention also to Designer Oli Townsend, Lighting Designer Colin Grenfell and Sound Designer Elena Pena, who infuse the whole production with a post-modern, industrial and militaristic feel.

Balloons, gunshots and strobe lights puncture the interior of ‘the round’ as – under the tutelage of Movement Director Lucy Hind – the players hurtle in through doors, drop down on ropes and swing from ladders with knife blades pointing venomously.

With no seat no more than 9m from the stage, MACBETH makes full use of the 360-degree performance space, which is a feat of engineering in itself. Suspended in the Grade II listed building, it is the perfect metaphor for this thrillingly entertaining show – a thoroughly modern offering rooted in the classic tradition of the theatre.

MACBETH is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 19 October. Ticket information can be found here.

9 to 5 the Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As Dolly Parton bursts onto a screen introducing us to the musical adaptation of the hit 80’s movie she starred in it’s clear that this Manchester audience is up for fun and lots of it, lucky for them that’s exactly what this new touring production delivers.

As a song 9 to 5 has gained a life of its own, no party is complete without a blast of it so it comes as no surprise that the film in which it originated would be given the musical treatment. Writer Patricia Resnick along with music and lyric writer Dolly Parton prove that 9 to 5 the musical is much more than one killer song, it’s witty, cheeky and isn’t afraid to tackle important themes in its own unique and hugely entertaining style.

Our three leads Violet (Louise Redknapp), Judy (Amber Davies) and Doralee (Georgina Castle) are living in a hideously sexist world, there’s gender politics, not a hope of equal pay not to mention their overbearing, oversexed boss Mr Hart (Sean Needham). Continually overlooked for and undermined by most of their male colleagues the trio soon realise that it’s time for these sassy sisters to start doing it for themselves resulting in a comical revenge plot which will hopefully lead them to the illusive equality they so richly deserve.

Louise Redknapp is perfectly cast as Violet, strong and assured she has a commanding presence on stage, Georgina Castle captures Doralee’s genuine likeability to perfection while Love Island winner Amber Davies absolutely shines on stage; her delivery of Get Out and Stay Out brings the house down, quickly silencing any casting sceptics. The three each bring something uniquely special to the stage while their harmonies are heavenly.

The subplot about spinster Roz although delivered to great comedic effect by Lucinda Lawrence seems a little at odds with the rest of the fabulous female empowerment playing out on stage nevertheless the audience lap up her show-stealing number and she receives some of the biggest laughs of the night.

With slick staging and costume design from Tom Rogers as well as vibrant ensemble choreography from Lisa Stevens 9 to 5 has the audience toe-tapping from the start. Add to this superb performances, lots of laughs and a timely uplifting tale you’d be mad not to tumble out of bed and head to Manchester’s Palace Theatre to catch this Dolly good show! Fabulous, feel-good fun.

Catch 9 to 5 the Musical at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 21st September tickets available here.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written in 1984 by John Patrick Stanley, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a intensely compelling study of two lonely lives, both trapped in desperate and destructive spirals of self-loathing who come together in search of both companionship and redemption.

Volatile Danny (Danny Solomon) speaks with his fists, lashing out at anyone and everyone in a bid to protect his fractured self. He is unpredictable and alarming yet somehow Roberta (Hannah Ellis Ryan) is not afraid. Burdened by her own trauma she is riddled with self-hatred and a warped sense of a need for punishment for her abusive past.

A simple set of scattered bar furniture and an old mattress complete with crumpled bedclothes make to the set. A glimmer of moonlight seeps in from above while a porcelain doll dressed in white offers a hint of Roberta’s past.

As the barbed bickering deepens into aggressive exchanges a sharing of secrets begins allowing both characters to develop unpredictably. Danny’s vulnerability begins to show as his defences slip while their fleeting post-coital redemption shows their shared desperation for elusive love and happiness. They are messed up, bad, burdened and bruised yet touchingly real and heart-achingly raw.

Both Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan convince entirely in their roles. As an audience member you are in that bar in the Bronx with them, you feel every moment of heartache in the bedroom and share in their despair and awkward humour. Director Daniel Bradford ensures the emotional charge of both performances slaps you in the face keeping you guessing throughout, never knowing where these tormented souls will take you next. Drowning in despair one moment while gleefully flinging arms around each other the next. Powerful and affecting theatre once again from Play With Fire Productions.

Catch Danny and the Deep Blue Sea until Thursday 12th September at Hope Mill Theatre tickets available here.

Interview |Bo Jackson |Manchester Gala Night

Z Bo Jackson Company. Photo Garry Lake @theaboutstudio

The UK’s most exciting new dance company Z Bo Jackson Company are heading to Manchester with a star-studded gala hosted by Got to Dance judge and Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt. The gala evening will include performances from guest artists Flawless (Britain’s Got Talent, Street Dance 2) and ITV’s Dance, Dance, Dance winner Chrissy Brooke.

We spoke to Choreographer Bo Jackson about her new dance fusion venture ahead of its gala night launch at Manchester’s Palace Theatre on Tuesday 10th September.

Can you tell us more about Z Bo Jackson and where the idea came from?

“I really became interested by today’s obsession with visual storytelling on Youtube, instagram and in video games. There seemed to be a gap in the market for a theatrical experience that satisfies this appetite both on screen and with live performances so I started to develop the concept for TV and stage. In February we had the opportunity to explain our vision of the live dance fusion theatre company to the Palace Theatre and Opera House in Manchester. They understood and embraced our concept and agreed to support the gala night to launch the brand.”

Bo Jackson Photo

What makes Z Bo Jackson different from other dance companies out there?

“We are the UK’s first dance fusion theatre company. Each production contains unique and diverse choreography, alongside a narrative structure dramatized by dance and creating a new kinetic language. The Z brand will break down the walls of dance to create a new kind of dance experience, as free runners mix with elite dancers, and ballet cross-pollinates with hip hop. Since the birth of the internet there has been an explosion of dance and we want to showcase the sort of talent and choreographic innovation displayed online. Z Bo Jackson will smash down the walls of the dance conventions and allow these ‘athletes of God’ to inhabit the stage! (‘Dancers are the Athletes of God’ is a quote from Einstein that I feel is very apt!)”

How has your career experience to date influenced the formation and direction of the new company?

“My choreographic career reflects the broad spectrum and eclectic vision of the Z Bo Jackson Company. Moving from the choreographic challenges of circus choreography to the movement restrictions of a comedy musical extended my creative expectations of myself and my performers and also pushed the boundaries of my theatrical taste. Directing was life changing for me as you need to see the bigger picture and have a distinct tone for the work while also problem solving and working towards opening a show!

“We want to become a platform for dancer, dancers and choreographers and hope to fill the gap between the elite dance companies and the commercial musical theatre productions giving dancers the chance to exploit their range and talents within an emotionally resonating piece of narrative theatre. I’m totally happy to be artistic AND commercial without any compromises or apologies.”

Z Bo Jackson Researsals1 Photo Credit Jack Walker

What kind of dance will be represented in the company and the gala night?

“We will move beyond the dance genres in some numbers and employ free running, acrobatic and aerial performers alongside the elite dancers. The Z Bo performances in the gala are primarily using jazz ballet, commercial fusion and acrobatic choreography. Our high profile guests are experts in their field with Kimberly and Chrissy trained as professional jazz dancers, alongside the urban hip hop locking talents of Flawless sharing the stage with the aesthetic beauty of ballet’s exceptional principal Brandon Lawrence.”

You are launching in Manchester – was launching in the north important to you and the company?

“It is personal and emotional and something I could never have dreamt of when I came to watch Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Opera House all those years ago!  The Greater Manchester borough of Wigan and Leigh paid for my professional training at a time when the funding system was more generous and the net was spread wider. This feels like coming home (the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham was previously my local MP) and that life has come full circle, back to the most vibrant cultural city in the UK. Manchester gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and this Northern Powerhouse is giving birth to the Z Bo Jackson company. This is the city of the worker bee and if you’ve been through professional dance training then you understand hard work!”

Kimberley Wyatt

You have some really big names appearing in the launch gala night. Why did you pick these performers to be involved and what will they bring to the Z Bo Jackson experience?

“They are all extremely talented and honed professionals but they also represent the dual aspect of the Z brand. We are going to showcase celebrity performers alongside unknown new talent, to create a viable commercial dance company.

“I had directed Flawless in Peter Pan and admired their work ethic and fabulous choreography and Kimberly is great friends with the boys having worked together in the past. I taught Chrissy at and I met Brandon at the Move It convention. It’s exciting that they all will be sharing the stage at the iconic Palace Theatre.”

Z Bo Jackson Company 5. Photo Garry Lake @theaboutstudio

What next for the Company?

“We hope that Z will be the go-to brand for dance across all platforms as we will bring in specialised assistants and choreographers in key areas and avoid the limitations of a solo named creative . Continuing script work on the TV series will be the main priority in the weeks following the gala. It’s a big world that needs big ideas to generate new audiences, new revenue streams and potential employment opportunities for the dancers of tomorrow.

“Dance is a universal and international language.”

Book your tickets now for an explosive night of entertainment at the Manchester Palace Theatre on Tuesday 10th September at 7.30pm. Tickets from £13 can be found here.

Interview | Jodie Prenger | A Taste of Honey

The National Theatre brings Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play A Taste of Honey to The Lowry this month as part of a new autumn UK tour. Returning the northern classic back to its roots, Bijan Sheibani’s production takes an enthralling look at working-class life in post-war Salford.

Jodie Prenger takes on the iconic role of Helen, a single mother who takes off with a car salesman leaving her feisty teenager Jo to fend for herself. Jo’s relationship with a sailor comes unstuck when after promising to marry her he heads off back to sea leaving art student Geoff to take on the role of surrogate parent. Things get even more interesting when Geoff innocently calls on Helen to help, opening the doors for this unconventional set up to unravel.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Jodie Prenger during rehearsals to hear a little more about the production and what it means to be tackling such an exciting role written by Delaney when she was just 19.

I first watched it about 8 years ago now, a dear friend of mine Bobby Delaney (no relation) gave it to me to read and I absolutely fell in love with it.” Jodie explains “…it was so real, so honest and so tender. It was the mother and daughter relationship that really got me, for me, my Nan and all that side of the family were all from Manchester so it was just like hearing my Nan’s voice. The feistiness and the fight that my Nan had I saw a lot of that in Helen.”

Prenger has played many strong women on stage including the ultimate Scouse independent woman Shirley Valentine; we asked Jodie what is was about northern writing that makes for such a memorable and original piece. “Northern writing just has a real warmth…it’s witty, it’s tender, there’s a zest and spiciness to these strong female characters who I think are always interesting to watch in theatre, in film and TV. The way Shelagh Delaney wrote is just so great that the story comes to life and I just love reading it and watching it.” Explaining what makes the North so special Jodie said, “There’s a beating heart within the North, in Manchester and Salford and within the play itself. Even though people are up against so much they still fight and strive and still have that warm genuine humour. It’s like me and my Mum we can be battling royal but then one of us will say ‘oh have you finished then’ it’s a type of humour that you don’t often find in every corner of the UK.”

The play was famously seen a very taboo when it first premiered due to the themes and characters, “We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go, the cast were told they may have to evacuate the theatre when it was first put on, you’d not have that happen now, that wouldn’t even be entertained today but back then it was. I think we’re getting better well at least I hope we are. Yes back then it was taboo and although not so much now it’s still very, very poignant”.

Aged just 19 when she wrote this debut piece, Prenger sees Delaney as a courageous writer, “I think she unleashed a really strong genuine female voice which around that period was unknown. It was very brave, I think it’s the same kind of woman’s voice we’d hear today but then it seemed shocking and taboo.”

The role of Helen has famously been played by several incredible actresses including Angela Landsbury and Avis Bunnage, Jodie explained how she goes about making a character people know so well her own. “You do feel the pressure of those who have gone before you but that’s what gives you the drive to work hard and gives you the confidence to decide how you are going to create your character. It’s about my Nan’s ethic almost of rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in. It’s important you develop the character how you want to develop her and that comes from working with your fellow cast members. I think she’s real; the only way you can play a character like her is by playing the truth.” 

Drawing on her experiences with her own family when it comes to the mother daughter scenes Jodie states “Making the mother daughter relationship believable I think comes from taking your experiences and using them. Taking experience and inspiration from characters you’ve met along the way. Definitely the relationship you have yourself with your mother, sometimes I find although Helen and Jo are polar opposites they are also so similar I think that’s why they come up against each other so much.”

Set famously in the 1950’s Prenger explained how those elements will still very much be present but with some additional styling from designer Hildegard Bechtler. “It’s the same production team who worked on the 2014 production at the National, but what they are really, really set on is keeping those elements of the 1950’s but making it poignant for today. There’s music like Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse, there’s live jazz, there’s folk music. The aesthetic of Amy Winehouse really influences the design, her style, look and music. The costumes will be 1950’s but not so much starched dresses etc that it couldn’t be any other time but will hint at modern day as well, same with the props and set too.”

Launching the tour in Salford the birthplace of Shelagh Delaney feels appropriate; we were interested to hear Jodie’s thoughts on what her character Helen would make of 2019 Salford. “My brother Marco lives nearby and I can’t believe how much it’s changed, perhaps she’d find the nearest gin bar, she’d have a great choice. I’m sure she’d love it; you always love home don’t you. That’s what Shelagh Delaney was like, she says there’s not many places she’d like to live, maybe London but then she’d always come back home. Home is home.”

A Taste of Honey opens at The Lowry on Friday 13th September and runs until Saturday 21st September, tickets available https://thelowry.com/whats-on/nt-a-taste-of-honey/

 

 

 

 

Mythos: A Trilogy

📷 David Cooper

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Fresh from taking the Edinburgh Fringe by storm, Stephen Fry brings his one-man trilogy to the Lowry as part of his first UK tour in almost 40 years.

Mythos: A Trilogy based on his best selling books Mythos and Heroes allows Fry to focus on a different subject matter in each of the three shows starting firstly with Gods, then secondly Heroes before thirdly and finally taking on Men.

Effortlessly charming and unquestionably entertaining Fry weaves through the history of Greek mythology right from the origins of the Ancient Greek Gods all the way through to the realisation that mortal man had progressed so far that perhaps the glorious Gods who’d ruled with such majestic power were no longer needed. Each and every story is packed with brilliant and witty observations as the Great Gods are brought to splendid and spectacular life.

Sitting centre stage on a throne-like leather armchair, Fry, a natural storyteller draws his audience in as though huddled round a campfire: his knowledge and enthusiasm bursting to be shared. Large screens surround him as projections of animations and classical paintings play out.

Stories roll off Fry’s tongue captivating the audience while delving deep into the origins of the Greek Gods. The names of the Original 12 Gods, their children, their cousins, heroes, creatures and mortals are reeled off effortlessly as Fry adds depth to his delivery with witty anecdotes and entertaining ad libs.

Stories are made accessible with Fry designating regional accents to the various individuals and comparing their personalities to modern day references, Heracles for example is a Brummie while Titan is described as being a “bit of an emo”.

As well as Fry’s captivating storytelling he adds various interactive elements to each show firstly in the form of the ancient version of trivial pursuit, in this case ‘mythical pursuit’. Audience members are invited to pick a subject from which Fry regales the listeners with interesting facts about said subject. In addition to this Fry opens up his oracle during the interval giving audience members an opportunity to email their burning questions in the hope of Mr Fry selecting theirs for discussion at the start of Act II. Sadly on this occasion even the oracle was stumped when the word Brexit emerged.

Wonderfully this Herculean sharing of what can only be described as an encyclopaedic knowledge never feels overwhelming or inaccessible. Fry’s warm and playful nature ensures every audience member feels part of this mythological ride and will leave the theatre armed with both a huge respect for the ancient Greeks and plenty of interesting facts to wow their friends and family with thus achieving Fry’s aim of returning to a storytelling society.

Mythos: A Trilogy covers all bases, there is love, war, heroism and devilment, with each and every story told with passion and joyful delight. The ancient is brought to wondrous life in this epic trilogy of olympic storytelling we have just one request: please Mr Fry don’t leave it another 40 years.

Mythos: A Trilogy can be seen at various locations across the country further information can be found here.

Mrs Lowry & Son

LOWRY 2

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Mention Salford to anyone and it’s highly likely that legendary local artist L.S. Lowry will soon get a mention; so ingrained in the city is he that not only is there an award-winning arts venue (in which tonight’s Gala Premiere is fittingly held) but also a luxury hotel and even an outlet mall all named in his honour.

Such an important figure in British art history it’s astonishing really to learn that Lowry didn’t receive any form of recognition until he was in his early fifties; interestingly the very same year his overbearing mother with whom he lived passed away.

Low

It is this intriguing relationship that Mrs Lowry & Son focuses on, detailing the daily fights and frustrations which ultimately defined the industrial impressionist.

Adapted from a 2013 stage play by Martin Hesford, Mrs Lowry & Son is a moving, at times wonderfully witty, often deeply dark yet beautifully crafted two-hander acted to perfection by Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall.

Mostly set within a two-up-two-down terraced house in Pendlbury in 1934, the relationship is intricately explored and examined by director Adrian Noble. The majority of the action takes place within Elizabeth Lowry’s (Vanessa Redgrave) bedroom, well versed is she in using her illness to secure the attention of her son whose escape from the daily tyranny is found within the attic of the house where he paints into the small hours. Bitterness and resentment have long since taken hold of Elizabeth Lowry, she loathes living in Salford yearning to be back in the leafy suburbs of Manchester’s Victoria Park. The smog of the factory chimneys and the sights and sounds of Salford’s textile mills do not fit in with her middleclass aspirations.

MrsLowrySon_QUAD_MR-640x480

Resolutely loyal to his controlling mother Lowry (Timothy Spall) battles with her beliefs as he sees beauty in the things she hates the most, the mill workers dashing home at the end of the day, the smoke that billows across the industrial landscape and the working class neighbours he mixed with daily in his job as a rent collector. He absorbs himself in life documenting his observations on canvas in the sanctity of his attic, a space his bed-ridden mother is unable to infiltrate.

This simmering observation of the brittle but vital relationship between the two is punctuated with sharp humour and delightful moments as both Spall and Redgrave give a masterclass in acting. Both successfully portraying the importance of Lowry’s desperation to make his mother happy in ultimately securing himself as one of the most iconic artists of all time.

Mrs Lowry & Son opens at cinemas across the UK on Friday 30th August further information can be found here.