& Juliet

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some jukebox musicals come and go faster than you can say Hit Me Baby One More Time others like Mamma Mia really hit the spot becoming staples of the theatre scene; enter new kid on the block & Juliet a magnificent mash-up of legendary songwriter Max Martin’s biggest hits which judging by tonight’s thunderous standing ovation is without doubt here to stay.

Bursting into vibrant life with opening number ‘Larger Than Life’ & Juliet directed by Luke Sheppard gives an absolute masterclass in musical theatre. Visually stunning and with a cast that reads like a who’s who of theatre royalty & Juliet takes you on a joyous ride of empowerment, uplifting fun and star quality sass.

Forget what you know about Romeo & Juliet, this fresh production transforms the Bard’s tragic tale as Anne Hathaway (played spectacularly by Cassidy Janson) tells husband William Shakespeare (an impressive Oliver Tompsett) that his ending for the star-crossed lovers is…well basically shit; thus opening the gates for Juliet’s journey of sensational self-discovery as she explores for the first time what it means to truly get a life!

Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson take on part narrator part player roles as the two inventively weave themselves into the narrative, influencing and entertaining throughout. Tompsett makes for a determined, unwavering Shakespeare that is until wife Anne (Cassidy Janson) takes his quill and sets about influencing not only Juliet’s but her own story. Both are perfectly cast, they spark wonderfully off each other with razor sharp comedic timing and genuinely warm wit.

Miriam-Teak Lee is simply outstanding as Juliet, giving an absolutely world-class performance, delivering powerhouse vocals with ease while her warm charisma combined with instant likability gets the audience immediately on side. It’s a thrill to join her on this fabulous ride as we will this fine heroine to find her own happy ending.

Best friend May is played beautifully by Arun Blair-Mangat his raw fragility when delivering Britney’s much-loved ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ is packed with genuine heart and gut-wrenching emotion while Tim Mahendran is excellent as love interest Francois adding a perfect twist to proceedings while taking the story to another unexpected level.

Special mention must go to David Badella and Melanie La Barrie as Lance and Nurse who are quite simply a joy to watch, bringing the house down during their outrageously funny duet Teenage Dream/Break Free. Jordan Luke Gage introduces us to a very different kind of Romeo, an empty-headed heartthrob who may not be quite as innocent as he seems, Gage thrills with his spectacular arrival while his hilarious doe-eyed dorkish delivery is lapped up by the audience.

No review of the show would be complete without heaping praise on the insanely talented ensemble who look like they are having the time of their lives on stage. They deliver Jennifer Weber’s slick choreography with precision and a sass Beyoncé would be proud of just when you think they couldn’t get any better they crank it up a notch more, absolutely stunning.

Set designer Soutra Gilmour has created something epic here as the constantly evolving set continues to surprise while Paloma Young’s stunning costume design is a glorious meeting of period mixed with modern, think intricately detailed corsets teamed with sumptuous sports luxe and you’re halfway there.

It’s hard to believe the songs featured weren’t specifically written for the show Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro’s arrangements of Max Martin’s mega hits fit the show like a glove while David West Read’s script finds a measured balance between hilariously funny and touchingly tender.

& Juliet is the musical we need right now, the ultimate in feel-good fun offering a joyous night of escapism while tackling modern themes with positivity and truth. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll dance your socks off before leaving with the biggest smile on your face with a heart well and truly warmed. Sensational fun from the first beat, we absolutely want Shakespeare that way!

& Juliet is on at the Manchester Opera House until Saturday 12th October before it moves to London’s Shaftesbury Theatre tickers available here.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

One things us Brits love is a bit of Pride and Prejudice, from BBC dramas to cinematic adaptations there’s a whopping appetite for Jane Austen’s iconic novel. However, it’s time for Colin Firth and his soggy shirt to step aside as this fabulous all-female cast prepare to retell events in their own unique and hilarious style.

Taking on the role of servants this five-strong company deliver their inventive spin on Austen’s work complete with befitting karaoke classics as they play the part of each character in this fast and furious homage. A little bit miffed that they never get to play characters with any depth or complexity, let alone enjoy a much longed for happy ending they set about righting this wrong to hilarious effect.

The fast-paced production is razor sharp from the off, there’s quick changes a plenty as the comedic chaos unfolds.

Directors Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey never allow the pace to drop resulting in a hugely entertaining and surprisingly accurate piece of theatre. It’s daft, dynamic and oozes cheeky charm.

The cast complement each other perfectly, never once losing their stride, their comic timing is exceptional while their delivery of the multiple karaoke classics will make you wish you were heading to the nearest bar after the curtain call. Some of the song choices are an absolute stroke of genius making me wish there were a few more bangers to enjoy.

Each of the five cast are superb, taking on multiple characters with apparent ease. Dannie Harris’ fizz guzzling potty mouthed Mrs Bennet is a scream while her dashing Mr Darcy is every bit the mysterious and misunderstood man of the hour. Emmy Stonelake makes for a superb Elizabeth Bennet, her strong Welsh accent adding to her brilliant comedic delivery, she’s a no nonsense, tell it like it is kind of girl who certainly isn’t wasting her time holding out for a hero.

Megan Louise Wilson is super sweet as lovesick Jane in complete constant to imposing her Lady Catherine De Bourgh who gets one of the biggest laughs of the night. Lucy Gray shows incredible versatility as the lonely and longing Charlotte Lucas one moment followed by snide, spoil Caroline Bingley the next, while Leah Jamieson ramps the humour to another level with her ingenious characterisation of Mr Collins, drab, dull and desperate highlighting just how utterly absurd the minimal rights of women back then were.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is a joy: clever, current and absolutely hilarious. It takes the traditional and tips it on its head. This reinvented classic will no doubt become a firm favourite on the theatre scene as this new tour and talented cast enjoy standing ovations night after night. Perfect escapism that will leave you with a smile on your face and a strong urge to head to the nearest karaoke bar.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is on at The Lowry until Saturday 21st January, tickets available here.

Dick Whittington

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The last mince pie may be long gone but the festive spirit continues at Warrington’s Parr Hall with this season’s panto offering, Dick Whittington.

Taking on the titular role of Dick is a hugely likeable and charismatic Amy Thompson from Channel 5’s Milkshake, who has walked from Gloucester to London with faithful cat Tommy in a bid to discover if the streets truly are paved with gold. Once there, Dick meets and falls in love with Alice (Amy Leek), however the course of true love never did run smooth as evil Queen Rat (Natalie Walton) is keen to try all she can to frame Dick as a thief, allowing her and her loyal mischief of rodent friends to take over the capital.

This Tony Peers Production gives exactly what you want from a traditional panto, there’s sparkly costumes, silly slapstick, plenty of opportunities to boo the baddie and a fabulously flamboyant dame in the form of the wonderful Mark Newell.

Jam-packed with witty one-liners and those traditional panto elements we all love – the doomed cookery scene, a hilarious take on the 12 Days of Christmas as well as a classic ghost and ghoulies scene, Dick Whittington delivers entirely.

This talented cast are clearly having great fun on stage and together with support from dancers from the Felicia Burns School of Dance offer a wonderful night of family entertainment.

Amy Thompson is brilliantly cast as Dick, engaging and entertaining with a strong voice to boot. The scenes between her and Amy Leek (Alice) work wonderfully with their voices complimenting each other beautifully. Leo Atkin and Daniel Dean keep the laughs coming as brilliant comedy duo Captain and Mate while Mark Newell makes for the perfect pantomime dame, sarcastic and dry he delivers a pitch perfect comedy performance.

Freya Ebbrell gives us a sparkling performance as the good fairy while Natalie Walton is the shade to Ebrell’s light as the evil Queen Rat, giving the audience as good as she gets and displaying her own incredible vocals when she gets her moment in the spotlight

Running at just over 2 hours including an interval, Dick Whittington is paced perfectly for families. Little ones were kept engaged throughout while there were plenty of cheeky jokes for the grownups to enjoy.

If you’re wanting to banish those January blues then get yourselves down to Warrington’s Parr Hall where this wonderful cast will treat you to a terrific time, oh yes they will!

Dick Whittington is on at the Parr Hall until Sunday 15th January tickets available here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

At the festive time, The Lowry, has always made some bold choices for their big Christmas show. Past shows have seen family favourites and classic works of literature brought to the Lyric Theatre stage with great success. Well, this Christmas the Lowry has made their boldest choice to date, with the National Theatre production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and boy does it pay off. If the old saying of, “fortune favours the brave” is anything to go by then those rewards go to the audience members who will be treated to a gripping, powerful, fantasy, brought to life in truly jaw dropping fashion, with spectacular visuals and performances that will live long in the memory.

Based on the 2013 novel by Neil Gaiman and adapted by Joel Horwood, the production opens in the present day, as a nameless man (Trevor Fox), buries his father, he comes across a place familiar to him from his childhood, where he encounters a rather eccentric, yet familiar old lady. It is here that man is transported back to his 12th birthday where his world would change forever. 

Set in the early 1980’s the nameless boy (Keir Ogilvy) has stumbled on a truly shocking incident, his father (Fox in a dual role) attempts to shield him from this, fortunately a young woman, Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikassa) offers to take the boy to her family farm until the incident is cleared up.

It’s down on the farm that the boy meets Lettie’s family: her mum Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and her granny, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams), the eccentric lady we met at the start. Through his friendship with Lettie that the boy witnesses a series of pretty freaky occurrences such as lifeless fish, dead from swallowing a 50 pence piece, Lettie and her family’s ability to predict the future right before it happens, talk of creatures that regularly infiltrate our world, and finally a puddle of water that is a portal to alternate reality.

Back at home the boy struggles with recent events, in addition there is a far from perfect homelife: he is motherless, has clashes and petty squabbles with his sister (Laurie Ogden), and an inability to communicate with a father trying to do the best he can with his children.

The situation becomes all the worse, when the eponymous young man and Lettie do battle with one of these invading beasts and unwittingly unleash another creature. The being infiltrates the boy’s home in the guise of glamorous lodger, Ursula (Charlie Brooks) who morphs into exactly what the family crave, a mother figure to the children and a companion and lover to the father.  Along with Lettie, and her family of strong-willed mystics, the boy must confront his fears in order to save his family, and himself from a monster that knows his every fear and every desire.

As productions go this is truly EPIC, and one that will astound, amaze and exhilarate its audience. After an initial gentle start where you try to figure out what’s going on, and what’s going to happen (I know all the fun stuff!) the action kicks off with a stunning and beautifully choreographed battle that begins a series of mind-blowing set pieces, which will enthral as they will send a shiver down the spine!

The performances are fantastic: Keir Ogilvy and Millie Hikasa are wonderful as the misfit, best friends, it’s a beautiful partnership filled with warmth, quirkiness and genuine friendship. The pair bounce off each other throughout and are the beating heart of the show. EastEnders Charlie Brooks, complete with Glen Close hair from Fatal Attraction is brilliant as wicked seductress, Ursula. Sometimes you wish Brookes would get to play a nice character for a change, but why should she when she does evil so well.

There are strong supporting performances throughout from Trevor Fox in a measured, restrained turn as the tired, beleaguered Dad, whilst Finty Williams and Laurie Ogden between them have the lion’s share of comedic lines.

Director Katy Rudd has masterfully brought this much cherished book to the stage using talent at the top of their game. The set design by Fly Davis is eerie, and intimidating, bringing the woods to life where most of the drama unfolds. Whilst the scenes in the Hampstock kitchen resemble that of a painting or a Peter Greenaway film.

The lighting and sound design by Paule Constable and Ian Dickinson respectively are pretty much perfect, atmospheric, and a proper shock to the senses when they need to be.

For older people like myself this is a hark back to fantasy adventure films of the 1980’s from Never Ending Story, Legend and The Return to Oz (the Wheelers I’m thinking of you!). Whilst younger audience members will associate this with Stranger Things. For fans of this genre, you’ll absolutely love this. However, it’s all that and so much more tackling issues such as loss, grief and the importance of talking to our loved ones.

It’s an unsettling, magical piece of theatre, which will blow you away and fully demonstrates just how good live theatre can be. I cannot urge you enough to go see this production this holiday season, so what you are waiting for go book your tickets NOW!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the Lowry until 8th January, tickets available here.

The Snow Queen

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Chester Storyhouse are offering audiences a fabulously festive alternative to panto this year with an imaginative retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Snow Queen.

Writer Charles Wray has adapted and opened up the story ensuring all four seasons get their moment in the spotlight while it’s themes of kindness and friendship remain a strong constant throughout as we see Gerda on her journey to find her best friend Cei who has been taken under the spell of the evil Snow Queen.

This modernised version feels bright and inventive with a strong cast who play multiple roles with an easy versatility. Rosemarie Akwafo gives us a loyal and determined Gerda who despite the odds never loses hope of finding her best friend again. Taona Matope displays strong versatility as carefree schoolboy Cei whose life is completely turned around by the evil Snow Queen.

Lucy Tuck makes for a super sinister baddie and in true Snow Queen fashion is sparklier than the Strictly Mirrorball but colder than ice. Special mention also to Chloe Wade, her comic timing as each of her various characters is superb. The supporting cast who each take on multiple roles are a joy, clearly having great fun in this heart-warming, inventive production. There’s a tap dancing reindeer, an almost homage to Barbie and Ken and a fabulous dance off.

Director Hannah Noone has really brought the fun to this story while singer-songwriter Mared Williams heads up a fantastic live band who add enormously to this musical adventure. They play some stunning music with equally as impressive vocals all while perched within the set above the audience.

Designer Jacob Hughes has transformed the Storyhouse theatre into a stunning winter scene, it’s visually beautiful and hugely atmospheric. The raised staging offers a fantastic view from every seat in this beautiful theatre, so important when there’s little ones in many of the seats.

The Snow Queen offers something for all, from young children to seniors every single member of the audience enjoyed getting swept away on this magical adventure. The small section of audience interaction was so much fun and made me wish there had been a little bit more but this is a really minor point amidst many, many positives. This exploration of good versus evil is adventurous as well as entertaining and will warm you from the tip of your toes to the top of your head.

The Snow Queen is on at Chester’s Storyhouse until Sunday 15th January tickets available here.

Claus – The Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Based on the children’s book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum; (who famously wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), comes a new, festive family show in the form of Claus – The Musical.

This new musical takes us right back to the days when Claus was a baby, abandoned in the magical forest of Burzee. Wood nymph Necile takes him in, despite the fact he is a human baby and is committed to love him as her own. With the helping hands of the other mystical forest inhabitants, fairies, knooks and ryls, Claus is taught all about the importance of kindness and love.

As Claus grows up he realises there is life beyond the immortals of the forest but sadly the human world in which he’s yet to fully explore is often a cruel and unforgiving place. Claus believes he has the ability to make a difference to the darkness in the human world and sets up home complete with his lioness guardian Shiegra by his side as his protector.

Claus starts spreading joy by gifting local children with carved wooden toys however the evil Awgwas are lurking nearby. Masters of disguise & adept at using their wicked influence to make children do naughty things; as soon as they discover the joy Claus is spreading they’re determined to put an end to his gifting and loving ways.

There are some lovely elements to this production, the cast sing the score beautifully and commit wholeheartedly to the storytelling which begins from the minute you enter the theatre. The set designed by Stuart J. Charlesworth is impressive using both the full height and width of the Lowry’s Quays theatre. The source material however is complex leaving the narrative at times tricky to follow. Narrator Alwyne Taylor guides us through as best she can but there’s such complexity involved even with her wonderful narration things just don’t quite make sense at times. It’s also fairly heavy in parts, laughs are few and the lightheartedness of a festive family show never really materialises.

The cast however shine & work their socks off throughout, Georgie Buckland gives us beautiful vocals as Necile while Harry Winchester is a wonderfully likeable Claus. Jazz Evans gives strong baddie vibes as King Awgwa lighting up each scene he is part of and inching us towards the audience interaction so many of us enjoy at Christmas.

Adapter Simon Warne has packed an awful lot in here confirming that sometimes less is definitely more. The message of kindness and love however is developed clearly enough for us all to take away & spread some for ourselves. Developing a new musical is no mean feat and praise must be given to the producers for offering audiences an alternative to the typical festive fayre even if it doesn’t quite fully hit that Christmas spot.

Claus – The Musical is on at The Lowry until Sunday 8th January tickets available here.

The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan

Reviewed by Jodie Crawford

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 2022

Crossroads Pantomimes brings us The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan. Based (loosely) on the book by JM Barrie, about the boy who could fly and never grows up. 

As the glittery curtain rises we meet Tink (Samara Casteallo), a flying fairy who can produce pixie dust, which allows other characters in Neverland to fly. Tink enrols the help of Wendy (Jessica Croll) to come to Neverland to help save Peter Pan (Ross Carpenter) and make him fly once more. Arch nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Manford) has other plans and aims to steal all of the pixie dust and get his revenge on Peter Pan.

At least I think that is the plot. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter what the plot is, this show is way bigger than the plot. The plot gets stretched and bent and twisted and we get distracted and we laugh and we clap and we dance and then we return to the plot for a moment and then off we go again.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 2022

This is hands down THE best pantomime I have ever seen. I was worried that it was missing a “pop star” but that didn’t matter. I was worried that it was missing a “dame” but that didn’t matter. What really mattered was the astonishing partnership between Captain Hook (Jason Manford) and the incredibly talented Ben Nickless as Smee. From the minute the two are together on stage there are explosions of comic fireworks, which had us crying with laughter time and time again. 

Nickless returns to the Opera House for his fourth panto, but this year it’s different, this year he is a big star. He has had an incredible year on Britain’s Got Talented, and it’s given him the platform to take command of the stage. I loved him last year and didn’t think he could get any better, but somehow he has. Having two hilarious comedians in the show has made it doubly funny. They don’t compete with each other, the fit perfectly together.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 2022

Manchester loves a northerner, so Manford is an excellent casting choice. The crowd absolutely love him, and for good reason: he can act, he can sing, and he is super funny. The way in which he breaks character every so often, works really well at engaging the audience. He has the crowd participation element of panto spot on!

Both Manford and Nickless were born to star together on stage in pantomime. The mermaid scene and the 12 days of Christmas had me in absolute stitches. I really hope we get to see them collaborate again in the future.

The whole cast are tremendous, I can’t imagine it’s an easy feat sharing a stage with the huge personalities of Manford and Nickless, but it doesn’t phase them at all. Ross Carpenter is a beautiful Peter. I found him to be gentle and kind in character, with a spritely energy about him. 

I loved the addition of The Acromaniacs, like many elements of this production, their inclusion brings nothing to the plot, but it doesn’t matter because they’re fabulous. They bring a variety hall feel to the production and I loved it!

The ensemble are exemplary, they are seamlessly woven into the scenes, so much incredible talent and they keep us entertained throughout.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 2022

Ian Westbrook’s set design is exquisite. The sound design, the special fx, the choreography, the costumes, the props, the lighting: all of it, is utter perfection. 

You don’t need to like panto to love this; this is modern panto – genuinely clever and very funny. It’s a panto for the young and the old. It’s for the northerners, the southerners and even the Aussies (hiya Jordan!). Life feels very heavy at the moment for so many people, there are so many things to be worried about and who knows what next year will bring, but spend two hours in the Opera House this festive season and somehow things will feel just a little bit lighter and brighter. The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan is exactly what we all need this Christmas, superb!

The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan is on at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 31st December tickets available here.

Goldilocks and The Three Bears

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

There are certain things in this country that we are renowned for throughout the land: the traditional Sunday roast, the England men’s football team crash out of major tournaments via a missed penalty kick, and of course, celebrating Christmas with a panto! This year the Epstein Theatre is putting on a show, suitable for kids from one to ninety-two!

Goldilocks and the Three Bears sees circus owner, Dame Gertie (Mama G), and her beautiful daughter (Olivia Sloyan) struggling to keep their ‘Big Top’ open. They have a loyal band of employees ready to muck in and go above and beyond to save the circus which include Silly Billy (Brandon McCaffery) and The Ringmaster (David Tag), who both have fallen in love with Goldilocks.

To make matters worse, there is a rival circus in town, headed by the evil Baron Von Vippenall (Timothy Lucas), who has a penchant for animal whips and cruelty. The rival shows are in need of a knockout act that will bring the crowds in, and with rumour of some bears living in the woods nearby, maybe they can become the star attraction both circuses need, but who will get to them in time?

This has everything you want from a panto, spectacular song and dance numbers, stunning acrobatics, visual gags a plenty, some jokes for the kids and a few for the adults too! Add into the mix some super soakers, some fire juggling and an adorable children’s sing-along to close the show and you have the perfect festive family night out.

The show is anchored by two outstanding performances. Timothy Lucas is clearly having a ball as the villainous Baron Von Vippenall, I’ve not heard a more outrageous German accent since the late great Alan Rickman fell from the Nakatomi Plaza! He goads and taunts the audience throughout and his appearance never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Whilst Britain’s Got Talent star Mama G is in fine form as our traditional panto dame. It’s a charismatic performance filled with sass while Mama G displays some wonderful comic timing to match the spectacular outfits.

Olivia Sloyan and Hollyoaks star David Tag are the perfect pairing, both in fine voice, making a lovely couple and a pair of heroes you can’t help but root for. 

Brandon McCaffery does a grand job of getting kids involved as Silly Billy – he had the kids hollering in all the right places; it’s a performance as daft as it is fun. The supporting cast worked their socks off throughout, with some great routines and some nice bits of ‘improv’ when some cast members hilariously went off script.

There are numerous big song and dance numbers with the highlights being a dark and brooding version of Queen’s The Show Must Go On,which features some stunning visuals, whilst a near full cast rendition of There’s No Business Like Show Business is just one of many highlights.

With this being Liverpool, there are plenty of cheeky local gags and a few marking this year’s political upheaval for you to enjoy, which go down a treat with the older members of the audience. It’s a hilarious, silly, and thoroughly entertaining production from start to finish, the perfect antidote to World Cup disappointment and Christmas reruns on the telly!

Goldilocks and The Three Bears is on at The Epstein Theatre until 1st January tickets available here.

Cinderella

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When it comes to festive family fun you can always rely on Regal Entertainments to deliver the goods. There’s no expense is spared in this year’s panto, giving us not one but two stars of Britain’s Got Talent (three including Chuck), Corrie’s Kimberley Hart-Simpson and St Helen’s panto favourite Lewis Devine. Add to this a fabulous Prince Charming in the form of Joe Sleight, a magical Fairy Godmother played by Rachael Wood and two glorious ugly sisters, Kristopher Bosch and Richard Aucott and you’ve certainly got all the ingredients for a whole heap of fun.

This glittering production is everything you’d want from a panto from lavish sets to elaborate costumes, Cinderella ticks every box. The witty script is littered with local references, stuffed with silliness and there’s even a TikTok dance thrown into the mix. There’s audience participation a-go-go as well as a perfect mix of much-loved chart hits from recent No.1’s to musical theatre favourites.

Kimberley Hart-Simpson makes for a wonderful Cinderella, she’s extremely likeable with great comic timing and a superb singing voice. Lewis Devine is brilliant fun as Buttons, the two of them have some fantastic scenes together made even funnier with the addition of love rival Prince Charming (Joe Sleight) thrown into the mix. All three seriously impress on the vocal front and are clearly loving every manic minute on stage.

Britain’s Got Talent stars Jon Courtenay, Jamie Leahay and Chuck are used to great effect both as characters within the storyline then entertainers at the palace ball where both are given the opportunity to let their talent shine. The ugly sisters Borisina (Richard Aucott) and Trussiana (Kristopher Bosch) are wicked fun with some of the best pantomime dame costumes I’ve ever seen.

Director Chantelle Nolan has thrown in some really magical moments which are greeted with gasps of delight, plus of course some mischievous surprises to keep us on our toes. Choreographer Nazene Langfield has gifted both the adult and juvenile dancers with some beautiful routines which lift the already sparkling ensemble scenes. Special mention must go to Lewis Devine, Jon Courtenay and Rachael Wood who somehow manage to get through a hilariously chaotic 12 Days of Christmas, a real highlight of the show and exactly what panto is all about.

This is a real family friendly show, suitable for all ages with plenty to keep little ones engaged as well as the cheeky gags us older theatre goers like to listen out for. The final transformation scene is as special and as sparkly as it gets, giving us the happy ending we’d all hoped for. If you’re in need of some Christmas cheer then get yourself down to St Helens Theatre Royal where they’re dishing it out daily!

Cinderella is on at St Helens Theatre Royal until Sunday 8th January tickets available here.

Betty! A sort of Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In their local village hall, The Dewsbury Players: a unique blend of am-dram performers, have come together to celebrate their finest export and local hero, Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and arguably one of politics most fascinating characters.

With their individual visions on how best to do Miss Boothroyd justice, not to mention their wildly varied beliefs, the players are committed to uniting artistically to create a musical Dewsbury will never forget. The problem is, director Meredith (Maxine Peake) has falsely informed the BBC that the group offer a tad more diversity and community value than in reality; so, when BBC exec Adrita (Lena Kaur) turns up to rehearsals things take a rather creative and chaotic turn.

This play-within-a-play created by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies (who also stars as Calvin) is a riot. It’s bonkers, brilliant fun with a gorgeous message of love and acceptance at its heart. There’s laugh out loud political parody and some absolute genius lines while the script touchingly shines a light on each of the wonderful characters making up the group. Their observations on life are spot on, sharp, witty and entirely relatable.

The musical numbers are where the creative team have really had some fun, poking a gentle ribbing at traditional musicals; there’s enthusiastic choreography, musical theatre clichés and heart-warming solos all delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. Musical director Sarah Dyer leads a slick four-piece band who demonstrate an incredible range as they deliver both rousing ballads and rock-tastic numbers with precision.

Maxine Peake leads this ensemble cast brilliantly, firstly as demanding director Meredith, sniping constantly at her cast despite desperately needing them to fulfil her dramatic ambitions. Then second act she is transformed into the straight-talking, charismatic Boothroyd ready to take on the House in the challenges that befall her.

Co-writer Davies is a treat as Calvin, bursting with enthusiasm and a mediator to all, he delivers some of the shows most memorable and outrageously over the top moments brilliantly. Eva Scott portrays Angela, Meredith’s subdued and self-conscious daughter beautifully, showing her versatility throughout as she channels her inner confidence spurred on by the arrival of former friend Adrita.

Joan Kempson displays sharp comic timing as Hazel, the salt of the earth grandma who blasts out the one-liners and is poles apart from condescending Meredith. Carla Henry is a joy as Tracy, a former West End star who’s light still shines in Dewsbury despite her issues with her hubby at home and her weak ankle. I cried laughing at her Ian Paisley, no spoilers here but I’ll never hear Riverdance and not think of her performance. Lena Kaur’s take on BBC exec is spot on whilst her second act transformation is inspired.

Betty! A sort of Musical does exactly what it says on the tin, gives you a belly full of laughs and leaves you with a smile on your face. There are musical numbers which could maybe benefit from a little trimming, but this is a minor quibble on what’s a brilliantly entertaining show. This heady reminder of days when politicians stood for decency and duty is a whirlwind of hilarious, heart-warming fun. A welcome and well observed reminder of the importance of community and common ground.

Betty! A sort of Musical is on at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 14th January tickets available here.

Images Johan Persson

The Night the Frost Fell

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Oldham Theatre Workshop’s Christmas show is always a highlight of the festive season and this year is no exception. The Night The Frost Fell is a beautiful production which will warm even the coldest of hearts.

This magical family musical is set in a town living under a curse when one night Jack Frost arrives and as the frost falls, time too is frozen. The curse which was due to man’s greed has resulted in a loss of balance within the seasons, affecting the lives of all the townsfolk. There’s only Bobbi who can save the day and lift the curse so off she goes with some gingerbread in her pocket and her trusty friend Mala for company.

Writer Sarah Nelson and composer James Atherton have produced a magical piece of theatre with a wonderful message which is gently interwoven into the narrative. The songs and music are beautiful while the multiple surprises drew gasps of delight from the little ones (and some big ones) in the audience. The intimate setting at Oldham Library’s Performance Space makes this show feel super special while the talented cast of seven whisk you away on this wintry adventure.

Hope Yolanda is superb as Bobbi, her storytelling is clear while her beautiful voice is note perfect. Naomi Bynon is a joy in each of her roles and has a real warmth with the audience as well as stunning vocals. Ella Lovelady’s characterisation as Aunt Truda especially is fantastic while the addition of Farhaan Shah playing the violin alongside his multiple parts adds a real richness to James Atherton’s melodic score.

This original story is engaging and uplifting. The talented cast slip into different roles with ease while the simplicity of the set is used to great effect allowing the storytelling to really shine. With magical surprises and a heroine to truly believe in The Night the Frost fell will charm young and old alike. Enchanting family theatre.

The Night the Frost Fell is on at Oldham Library Performance Space, from Saturday 3rd to Saturday 24th December tickets available here.

Neil Gaiman | The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Interview

The forthcoming tour of the National Theatre’s adaptation of the award-winning book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is coming to The Lowry in Salford. Author Neil Gaiman answers our questions.

The book is loosely based on your childhood. What was the starting point?

The book began with me wanting to try and explain to my wife where I grew up and what that world was like. She could take me to her childhood home because it’s still the same, but I couldn’t take her to where I grew up [in East Grinstead] because the place had long since been demolished; lots of lovely neat little housing estates covered the gardens and the fields and lanes. So for me it was kind of an effort to try and evoke a past and a sense of place.  An interesting side of it for me too was that I realised that I hadn’t heard, for a very long time, the Sussex accent of my childhood. Mrs Weller came in and cleaned once a week and Mr Weller came in and did the gardens. They were probably in their 80s and they had proper Sussex accents – almost like a West Country burr. I resolved to write a novel with that in too.

How did you create the Hempstocks?

I was told by my mother – quite erroneously, I discovered, when I did my research – that the farm half-way down our lane was in the Doomsday Book. And that was the start of the Hempstocks in my head; who they were and what I wanted to do with them.

Do you find writing about family especially fascinating?

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to avoid writing about family, even when I thought I was writing about something else. Whether it’s biological family or the family we make. In the novel I created a semi-fictional family for myself, and in the play version it was one step further away from my family, which I think looking back on is incredibly healthy! But the boy is definitely me.

Neil Gaiman

The play received amazing reviews when it premiered. Without any spoilers, do you have any favourite moments?

There is something astounding about the moment when they enter the ocean. That completely fascinates me. And you’re going to see miracles made out of bits of rubbish and old plastic bags and nightmarish birds beyond your imagination. It still takes me by surprise every time I watch.

Is it true that you were so moved by the play when you saw it in rehearsals that you cried?

I saw the first full run through. About ten minutes from the end I had tears running down my face. I thought that this was terribly embarrassing and I was discreetly trying to flick them away.

You describe yourself as a storyteller. What inspired you to be a writer?

I’m not sure that all writers are frustrated performers, but for me it was the joy in getting to be all of the characters. As a writer you get to do that. Being a kid who loved books I could think of nothing cooler than giving people the pleasure that I got.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens at The Lowry on Monday 12th December and runs until Sunday 8th January tickets available here.

A Christmas Carol

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

On the 1st Day of Christmas Shakespeare North gave to me…a fabulous, festive, fun adaptation of Dickens iconic A Christmas Carol filled with heart, and heaps of humour!

This being their 1st ever Christmas season Shakespeare North Playhouse have pulled out all the stops to ensure their version of A Christmas Carol is one theatre goers won’t forget in a hurry. It’s fast-paced, laugh out loud funny and wonderfully entertaining as four talented actor-musicians take on multiple roles and multiple instruments, spreading more than a little Christmas cheer as they go.

Nick Lane’s creative adaptation directed wonderfully by Ellie Hurt takes the original story and gives it a real Prescot feel with the addition of localised references and regional jokes all of which are lapped up by the invested audience. Add a little music, melodic songs plus plenty of audience participation (yes we even get to shout ‘It’s behind you!’) and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a real Christmas cracker!

This cast of four go all-out in ensuring no one will leave the Cockpit theatre without a smile on their face as they act, sing, dance and play their way through this super slick production.

We begin in Scrooge’s house where his staff (well most of them) are keen to tell his story; with a little encouragement from each other as well as the audience the storytelling begins.

Zoe West is superb as Ebeneezer Scrooge, snarling and sarky living up to every inch of the name. Her characterisation is wonderful, embodying the miserable miser to perfection ensuring Scrooge’s journey resonates entirely.

Jessica Dives creeps us all out as the ghost of Christmas past, weird and wacky in her haunting, complete with a horror homage, red ballon. Abigail Middleton as the Ghost of Christmas Present ensures we all absolutely get the joke while Eddy Westbury as the Ghost of Christmas yet-to-come has a little problem with autocorrect which has the audience howling.

In addition to the ghosts this versatile cast play Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim to name but a few, each is as creative and hilarious as the last. Their musicianship is a joy as they effortlessly pick up multiple instruments throughout & play them with ease.

It’s uplifting and silly but also offers a thought provoking focus on the plight of those in need bringing us bang up to date with voices from local residents affected by the cost of living crisis. This element is so cleverly interwoven that its poignancy feels strongly effective.

Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting design adds just the right amount of atmosphere while designer Hannah Sibai makes wonderful use of the Playhouse’s versatile space, no mean feat when working in the round.

The cast do an excellent job of sweeping us up and taking us along on Scrooge’s life-changing journey, involving us wholeheartedly in the witty telling of the beloved tale.

This is feel-good festive theatre that strikes a perfect balance between professional and accessible. It is theatre for all in a stunning new regional space that feels exciting and inviting. If this is what Shakespeare North Playhouse do in year one I can’t wait to see what lies ahead!

A Christmas Carol is on at Shakespeare North Playhouse until Saturday 7th Jan tickets available here.

Images by Patch Dolan