Billy Elliot – The Musical

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Billy is from a place where the men don’t dance, end of story, but, with a gritty determination, and an undeniable charm plus more talent than most of us have in our little fingers, he sets out to prove his doubters wrong by breaking the mould and going all the way.

Billy Elliot the Musical is a total phenomenon which has been seen by almost 11 million people across five continents and has won over 80 awards internationally, including an almighty 10 Tony Awards and a hugely impressive 5 Olivier Awards. Based on Lee Hall’s 2000 film, set in a northern mining town against the background of the 1984/’85 miners’ strike, the story revolves around Billy, who trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes and soon discovers a passion for dance that ultimately changes not just his but the lives of his family and community forever.

So ingrained was life in the pits that son’s followed in their father’s footsteps, proud to do so and loyal to their communities. The impact of Maggie Thatcher and her Conservative Government on these communities is something that will never be forgotten and for most certainly not forgiven. Billy Elliot tells the story of a boy with a talent who wants out of the hardships of life in a mining town but needs the support and the backing of the proud men he adores yet watches become more and more broken by the oppressions of the state.

Billy Elliot does not shy away from the reality of the hardship and ill-treatment of the working classes during the miners’ strike of ‘84/85 and this only makes it more powerful and spellbinding. The contrast of the softness and innocence of the children in tutu’s dancing amongst the striking miners and heavy handed baton-wielding Police is powerful and emotive, reminding me of days in the 80’s when my sisters and I would help my Father seal envelops to send for job after job after first striking then being made redundant, unsuccessful time after time, yet never giving up.

Billy Elliot Tour

Billy Elliot is a story of hope, with emotional highs and heart-breaking lows, it is utterly absorbing. it will make you laugh out loud as well as pause an take The talent on stage is simply mind-blowing. With four Billy’s cast on the tour, tonight is the turn of Lewis Smallman to show us he truly was born to boogie. I don’t think any words could do justice to just how incredibly talented this young actor is, the challenges of the role are immense, not only do the boys need to have excellent contemporary dance, tap and ballet skills, but they’ve got to be able to sing and act and all with a Geordie accent! Lewis is totally mesmerising, his sheer talent and commitment to the role brought me to tears as I watched him move, he made for the perfect Billy.

As well as Lewis all the children in the cast are magnificent, with special mention going to Samuel Torpey Billy’s cross-dressing best friend Michael, whose duet with Lewis Smallman on Expressing Yourself is just perfection, funny, fabulous and full of razzle-dazzle, no doubt we will be seeing much more of this incredible talent, a true star in the making, he has the x-factor in bucket loads! Evie Martin takes on the role of Debbie with all the cheeky wit you’d hope for, she is fantastic, sassy and witty with just the right amount of attitude. The adult cast are exceptional too, lump in the throat moments between Billy and his dead Mum are at juxtapose with the scenes of violence and intimidation on the picket line. Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson is outstanding, firm and feisty she truly believes in Billy, the scenes between the two are incredibly powerful as she offers a little of the Mother’s touch missing from Billy’s life. Martin Walsh as Billy’s Dad and Scott Garnham as Tony, Billy’s brother are real and believable, hardened by life and the rough hand they have been dealt yet when it comes down to it their love for both Billy and each other shines through.

Billy Elliot Tour

Everything about this production for me was perfection, from Elton John’s sublime score, to the incredible lighting design from Rick Fisher, and as for Peter Darling’s choreography, wow! Totally awe-inspiring, complex and compelling, expressive and moving, I barely blinked for fear of missing anything it just is that good.

Billy Elliot is an absolute triumph of a show, heart-warming, inspiring and utterly mesmerising, it’s very rare you see a whole audience leap up in appreciation but I absolutely guarantee by the time the curtain falls you will be on your feet roaring for more!

On at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 28th January tickets available here;

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/billy-elliot/palace-theatre-manchester/

The Peony Pavilion

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In heading to The Lowry for The National Ballet of China’s production of The Peony Pavilion , I knew could expect excellence but had no other preconceived idea. I guess the introduction to the evening prepared for something different, the choreographer introducing his cast and the story was quite different, enigmatic and totally charming. I felt closer to the story already. Often described at the Chinese Romeo and Juliet, The Peony Pavilion tells the story of a young girl, Du Liniang who falls into a slumber and dreams of falling in love with a young scholar, Liu Mengmei.

The opening solo dance was effortless and quite beautifully abstract, stunning choreography from Fei Bo . A central square which changed throughout the play as dreamspace or prison or a solitary confinement was a minimalist design which made the lines across the stage so clean.

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The set was stunning, for most of the play there was a huge branch which embodied the back half of the stage sitting on a high diagonal which gave a poetic presence of absence, confirming the nature of seasonal change when leaves leave before new buds can grow.

The costumes were stunning especially the chinese opera singer Jia Pengfei who moved like a geisha and gave the most interesting performance of the evening, she dressed and undressed seamlessly describing time or drawing a warning. They were jaw dropping with elaborate, finely detailed embroidery of classical chinese flowers at times she took shape of rose through the movement of her material. The tiny chiffon layers of the ensemble followed the whipping of pirouettes or lame duck sequenced complex choreography.

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There’s a sense the company is moving with this piece into a modern classical style, a mixture of classical contemporary techniques interwoven into the ballet, the theme of marrying pointe work with bare feet wasn’t as interesting choreographically as it may have tried to be.

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The second half gave rewarding performances in a lead male solo and ghost duets . The huge cast gave a warm performance, the stage rained with peony petals, changed into a forest environment where the ensemble played with trailing green neon light in a poi like chained ball which left resonance in the space as they moved.

It was a charming portrayal of the story, striking and utterly captivating.

 

Love’s Labour’s Lost

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A wonderful additional to this years offerings celebrating 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, The RSC bring not one but two of the Bard’s works to Manchester this Christmas time. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, argued by some that the latter is another name for Shakespeare’s missing play, Love’s Labour’s Won, the similarities between the two are plentiful, both being set on a large county estate, sparring couples, masked encounters, mistaken identities and of course hilarious high jinx including overheard and secretly observed sonnets. Playing back to back at Manchester’s Opera House before heading to the Theatre Royal Haymarket , both productions are an absolute triumph.

Opening with the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and his three Lords, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers), and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), swearing an oath  which includes avoiding contact with women for a lengthy three years, shortly followed by the arrival of the beautiful Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingworth) and Maria (Paige Carter) it soon becomes clear this was an oath that was never going to easily run it’s course. Cue much merriment and classic Shakespearean rhyme while completly against their oath the Lords fall in love with the ladies and of course the King with the Princess.

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Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), a Spaniard visiting the King’s court, is also hit by Cupid’s bow, but rather than with a Lady of the court he is taken by Jaquenetta, (Emma Manton) a local dairymaid who has recently been found cavorting with Costard (Nick Haverson) the gardner. So ensues the writing of love notes, delivered of course to the wrong recipient. The unconventional courtships continue with a wonderful scene where we see the King and his Lords disguising themselves as travelling Muscovites which leads to hilarious scenes of Russian dancing and the ladies switching identities themselves through the swapping of favours received by the Lords and the use of elegant masks.

Working with the same company of actors and setting both plays either side of the Great War adds real poignancy to the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost, sometimes described at the ‘unfinished play’ the merriment and frivolity of the play comes to an abrupt end when the King and his Lord’s head off to war, much as life for many must have been as their young men suddenly headed off to the battlefields of Northern France.

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The cast are exceptional, the talent on stage an absolute joy to watch, from Edward Bennett’s brilliant Berowne to John Hodgkinson’s hilarious Don Armado the comic timing and delivering of the Bard’s script is just perfection. Special mention to Peter McGovern whose Moth was magnificent, not to mention his Hercules in the ‘Nine Worthies’ which had the audience in hysterics.

Visually stunning, Simon Higlet’s set is outstanding, with scene changes flowing beautifully due to the ingenious use of a large sliding truck and sub-stage trap. Where Much Ado is festive and twinkling, Love’s Labour’s Lost takes place in the summertime of 1914 when skies are blue and poppies, in a nod to the impending Great War are plentiful. Melody Wood’s luxurious costumes are delightful, perfectly encapsulating the period. The use of music by Nigel Hess, directed by Bob Broad, further enhances this production, filmically underscoring certain moments and offering some challenging vocal pieces which the cast embrace wonderfully.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost is an absolute joy, highly entertaining and wonderfully acted. Playing at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 3rd December.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/loves-labours-lost/opera-house-manchester/

Much Ado About Nothing – Opera House

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Now that we have witnessed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Edward Bennett electrocuted inside a giant Christmas tree, the festive season can officially begin!
What better way to mark the conclusion of 2016 – and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – than with two of the Bard’s best-loved comedies, played on consecutive nights at the Opera House Manchester, with the same cast?
Director Christopher Luscombe and production manager Paul Hennessey’s grand experiment examines the long-rumoured synergies between Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – setting them in the same country estate (modelled on Charlecote Park, near Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon) and bookmarking them in summer and winter, before and after the Great War. 
Both deliver a witty, sparring couple; a supporting cast of characters that include a policeman, a curate and many domestic servants; masked encounters between lovers; and – one of Shakespeare’s favourite devices – endless cases of mistaken identity. 
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Associate director Guy Unsworth concludes that Shakespeare ‘deliberately shows us two sides of the same coin’ and ‘does indeed want us to view them as an extended double-bill’… Mark thee well!
Anon – immersing ourselves in Much Ado About Nothing’s wintry scenes on a cold Mancunian night – we encounter fast-talking, resolutely single bachelorette Beatrice (Lisa Dillon), who declares: ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me’. The equally marriage-adverse Benedick (Edward Bennett) has just returned from the war, yet it is Beatrice’s quick-fire degradations of his character – spoken at a masked dance – that leave him mortally wounded. 
Their union seems doomed until their eavesdropping antics reveal a surprising fact… they are each madly in love with the other. These revelatory conversations – staged by Benedick and Beatrice’s family and friends, for their benefit – are some of the funniest scenes in the production. Bennett’s comedic antics inside the family Christmas tree solicit great guffaws of appreciation from the audience; it feels inevitable when he breaks the fourth wall – dissolving into barely suppressed laughter himself.  
In another plot, Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Rebecca Collingwood), who radiates chastity and goodness, is due to be married to besotted Claudio (Tunji Kasim); however, he jilts her at the altar when her name is sullied by an accusation of infidelity. With Beatrice and Benedict’s – and Hero and Claudio’s – unions both hanging in the balance, could it be that all hopes rest on hapless constable Dogberry (Nick Haverson) riding to the rescue?
Gripped in a fit of body spasms and crashing around the set, it feels as though he is perilously close to tumbling from the stage; Haverson gives every fibre of his being to the slapstick comedic stylings of Dogberry. Along with Lisa Dillon, his performance is a highlight among the sublime cast – assembled by Gabrielle Dawes and Helena Palmer.  
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Designer Simon Higlett has created a sumptuous Christmas card-style stage – rich, festive and twinkling. His team seamlessly interchange between the house and its grounds by virtue of a large sliding truck and the sub-stage trap. It’s as ingenious as it is beautiful – complemented by Melody Wood’s sumptuous period costumes that brilliantly encapsulate fashion on the cusp of the 1920s. 
This is the second time that composer Nigel Hess has scored the two plays for the RSC, but with exception of a couple of affection quotes, he has revisited them again with completely new music. To further explore the cohesion between the comedies, he uses musical cross-references between the two productions. It’s a triumph, with nuances that complement the on-stage gusto and frivolity to perfection. 
Christmas is a season of laughter and good cheer – and you will find both in these sparkling, immaculate productions by one of our nation’s greatest treasures: the Royal Shakespeare Company. 
Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are on at Opera House Manchester until Saturday, 3 December.

Cinderella

Cinderella at The Bolton Octagon

photo credit: Richard Davenport

Hats off to the Bolton Octagon for always trying to push the boundaries when it comes to their Christmas shows. From Alice in Wonderland to last year’s BFG the northern theatre has shunned the traditional panto and instead presented their audiences with contemporary productions to delight them over the festive season. You’d be forgiven for thinking they had changed tact this year with Cinderella being their production of choice for 2016 but, as ever with the Octagon, it has a clever twist!

Told through the eyes of five charismatic rats;  Whiskers (Alexander Bean), Claws (Alicia McKenzie), Teeth (Anne O’Riordan), Tail (Felicity Sparks) and Ears (Tomas Wolstenholme) this is a modern day version of the fairy-tale classic, jam-packed with live music and audience participation.

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photo credit: Richard Davenport

The show starts with the rats lamenting over the fact that Cinderella has left them to go and live a new life at the Palace. One by one the energetic rodents don costumes to take on different roles and explain just how Cinders went from rags to riches.

All five actors excel at creating some well-rounded characters but the leader of the pack has to be Anne O’Riordan who puts in a sparkling performance as Teeth. ‘Pocket rocket’ O’Riordan is delightful as she exudes cheekiness and has both the children and adults laughing along at her facial expressions and ‘dodgy’ dancing.

The cast of six is completed by Lucy Faint as Cinderella whose northern accent brings a down to earth charm to the role and she manages to make her both vulnerable and straight-talking. There’s some great moments when Faint journeys into the audience sitting next to them to sing a song, making the children’s jaws drop as a result.

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photo credit: Richard Davenport

Don’t be fooled by Ellen Nabarro’s set design, (which at first glance looks like a cluttered space filled with a centrepiece of musical instruments from piano to xylophone), everything used to dress the stage cleverly doubles up as a prop or a costume and can be returned back to the set when it’s finished with. The lighting is one of the true stars of this production though as the stage transforms into a magical space filled with hundreds of lightbulbs, topped off by a huge glitterball hanging from the ceiling and even lights in Cinders ballgown!

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photo credit: Richard Davenport

If you are looking for something a bit different this Christmas then look no further, the Bolton Octagon’s blown the cobwebs off an old fashioned fairy-tale and produced a great offering for all the family.

Cinderella runs at the Bolton Octagon until 14th January 2017

www.octagonbolton.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Hair The Musical

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Following on from the phenomenal success of Parade earlier this year, Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment have teamed up once again to bring to cult classic and perhaps the most iconic of all rock musicals Hair to Manchester.

Set in New York’s East Village in the 6o’s at a time when the counter culture of a freedom and peace loving youth was emerging, Hair remains as current and relevant today as it was back in 1967 when it burst onto the New York theatre scene with its message of love, peace and a rejection of conservative America, in particular the controversial Vietnam war. Through Hair we meet a tribe of hippies who passionately believe in a ‘Make Love, Not War’ way of life, turning their backs on the expectations of their families and society and creating their own free love and liberal environment in which to belong. At the heart of the story is Claude and his battle to resist his draft to the army, does he do as his friends have done and live the life he chooses or does he succumb to society’s expectations, rejecting his beliefs of pacifism and freedom by serving for his Country in Vietnam.

The intimate staging of Hope Mill Theatre is perfect for this innovative production. Bold, bright and brilliant Hair is an absolute triumph, each and every member of the cast is exceptional, from the opening number, the much loved Aquarius the cast draw you in and immediately you wish you were part of their tribe. Engaging and totally absorbing Director Jonathan O’Boyle and Choreographer William Whelton have guided this talented cast in the most delightful way, each individual member is given the opportunity to shine, showcasing their incredible talent and then together as an ensemble the impact of the cast as a whole is mesmerising. The staging perfectly sets the scene for this great production, upon entering you are immediately immersed into a colourful, safe and relaxed space, with blankets scattered about in a nod the the original productions be-in. Add to this a stunning score from Galt MacDermot delivered superbly by a small band of five led wonderfully by Musical Director Gareth Bretherton.

It seems almost unfair to single anyone out for special praise from this unbelievably talented tribe but Ryan AndersonBerger, Liam Ross-MillsWoof, Robert MetsonClaude, Laura JohnsonSheila and Natalie GreenMom deliver their roles with a passion thats so wonderful to see. Special mention must also go to Hope Mill Theatre owners Joseph Houston and William Whelton, their drive and determination to bring such quality and innovative theatre to Manchester must be commended, making theatre accessible and more affordable is hugely admirable and they are truly deserving of all the success that has come and no doubt will continue to come their way. The announcement of 2017’s musical theatre programme again in partnership with the wonderful Aria Entertainment has us counting down the days until their next opening night! (Yank! On 9th March in case you’re wondering!)

Hair is an absolute must see, a triumphant piece of theatre, uplifting, absorbing and beautifully symbolic, a timely reminder that love is way more powerful than hate, and ultimately we are all one tribe who really should just love each other.

Hair runs at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 3rd December, tickets available here;

HAIR the musical

George’s Marvellous Medicine

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Photo by Mark Douet

Since 1992 The Birmingham Stage Company have produced more Dahl shows than any other company in the world. Their recent hit shows have included Horrible Histories and the world premiere of Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. Now the company brings George’s Marvellous Medicine to audiences across the UK, stopping at Manchester’s Opera house for 5 dates, running until 19th November.

Olivier award-winning David Wood’s adaptation of this Ronald Dahl classic is perfect in every way, ensuring fans of the original book are not disappointed and children can happily join in reciting the many humorous lines at every stage of the production. Dubbed the ‘National children’s dramatist’ by The Times it is clear that the task of bringing Dahl’s eccentric characters to life is in very safe hands with Woods.

The story centres around likable lad George, played energetically here by Ed Thorpe, and his desire to turn his grumpy and mean Grandma into a much lovelier relative who treats him with love and showers him in kindness. There are some hilarious dream sequences which bring George’s inner thoughts to life and even see Grandma twerking!

Deborah Vale is Grandma and plays the role very much in the mould of 90s sitcom favourite Hyacinth Bucket. Not only is there a strong resemblance to Hyacinth but the likeness between George’s Mum and Grandma is uncanny until you realise it goes deeper than that – the actresses are actually identical twin sisters in real life – perfect casting!

The packed house of children and parents lap up the slapstick action as George is left alone to give Grandma her medicine and he systematically goes from room to room in the house filling a huge pan with crazy ingredients to replace it with his own special potion.

“Grandma, if you only knew what George has in store for you” is met with screams of delight and derision.

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Photo by Mark Douet

 

Grandma’s transformation is worth the price of a ticket alone as she gulps down George’s marvellous medicine and grows 30 foot tall in the blink of an eye. The children in the audience are amazed and enthralled at the sight, with wide eyes and open mouths as Grandma’s head crashes through the roof of the house. Hats off, or should we say roof’s off, to Jaqueline Trousdale who has designed a very clever set which enables the magic of this book to make an effortless transition from page to stage.

George’s Marvellous Medicine is everything a children’s show should be, with its eccentric humour and larger than life characters providing 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment for all the family.

George’s Marvellous Medicine runs at the Opera House, Manchester until Sat 19 Nov

www.atgtickets.com/manchester