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.

 

 

Into The Light

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Hijinx Theatre and Teatro la Ribalta’s international collaboration Into the Light directed by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Krista Vuori, is a joyful, physical & visual exploration of performance & what it means to be seen, heard and importantly understood.

In an age where we strive for validation from those who observe us via clicks and likes the importance of physical human connection can never be underestimated. Into The Light brings together a group of individual performers some with and some without a learning disability and fuses their energies into a collaborative and visually dynamic piece.

Performers are thrust into the limelight, relishing the feeling of centre stage adoration, one moment stealing the spotlight from one another then the next insecurities threaten as they are pulled back into the darkness.

Being in the ‘light’ represents interaction, connection and validation. The spotlight offers an opportunity for freedom of expression in this inventive and delicately crafted piece of theatre.

There is very little spoken word from the actors on stage instead interview style recordings are played out during the performances detailing individuals hopes, dreams, fears, how performing makes them feel and their thoughts on how they are perceived when they’re both on and off the stage. This audio adds depth and personality to the piece as each individual voice rings out through the theatre.

The storytelling is done so cleverly through movement with each performer clearly finely tuned in their art, at times they toy with the audience, the slightest of movements decides what we see and what we don’t see.

Andy Purves’ atmospheric lighting is excellent and could almost be classed as a member of the cast while Ian Barnard’s music adds to the pace and flow of the piece with some perfectly chosen tracks ranging from The Mamas And The Papas, Dream A Little Dream Of Me to The Beastie Boys, Sabotage.

The inclusivity of this piece is refreshing to see, each actor with a learning disability plays a genuine and meaningful part in the production and is rightfully treated as an equal to every other member of the company. Each performance is thoughtfully considered and beautifully delivered.

Hijinx Theatre and Teatro la Ribalta’s succeed wonderfully in delivering dynamic and innovative theatre. The partnering with Frantic Assembly ensures there is humour as well as intensity in this lovingly crafted piece. Bold and inspiring theatre.

Further information can be found here.

 

 

Rain Man

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Based on the Oscar winning 80’s movie starring Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise, Rain Man introduces us to Brothers Charlie and Raymond Babbitt who are returned to each other’s lives following the death of their father.

Hard-nosed hustler Charlie is unaffected by the loss of his Dad, a cold-hearted man he fell out with years ago; he is however disturbed to discover the sizeable estate left behind has not been gifted to him but an unknown benefactor. Upon investigation he discovers this mystery trustee sitting on a cool $3 million is actually the institution which houses his older brother Raymond, an autistic savant sibling he has no knowledge nor memory of.

Determined to get what he deems as his half of the estate Charlie takes Raymond from the institution on what begins as a quest for his own gain but actually becomes an unexpected journey of self-discovery and brotherly bonding as Charlie starts to realise just how special and unique his forgotten sibling is.

Adam Lilley’s portrayal of Raymond is committed and convincing, complete with awkward shuffle, avoidance of eye contact and frequent ticks he remains consistently strong both physically and vocally. Chris Fountain proves what a talented actor he is as he journeys from loathsome self-centred brat to emotionally affected & touchingly tender sibling. The chemistry between the two is outstanding and becomes increasingly moving as their relationship deepens.

It’s clear Dan Gordon’s stage adaptation of Barry Morrow’s screenplay is intended to please fans of the original film and that it absolutely does, there is however no updating nor reworking of the 1988 movie which was made at a time when understanding and knowledge of autism was very different to what it is now.

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While both actors give superb performances as Raymond and Charlie the story feels outdated and at times is uncomfortable to watch. There are moments particularly in Act I when Raymond’s disability is used for nothing more than to give the audience a cheap laugh, most glaringly during the hotel scene where Raymond hears brother Charlie and girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Carter) having sex. It does nothing to drive the story forward in any way & would benefit from being cut all together. I found this scene in particular an unpleasant reminder of the narrow-minded attitudes disability rights campaigners and people with autism have worked so hard to overcome, to sit in a packed audience & hear gleeful laughter at the characters expense felt like a massive backwards step.

Delivering this show in a large theatre like the lyric is also a challenge in itself; a smaller theatre may have offered the opportunity for a more subtle intimate production, albeit with a hefty reworking of the outdated script.

There are moments of brilliance as we see the genuine connection develop between the two leads most notably when Charlie teaches Raymond to dance; both actors execute this poignant moment beautifully however the script dictates that these joyful moments are few and far between.

At a time where difference and diversity is increasingly celebrated Rain Main feels like it missed the 2019 memo. Although the cast deliver excellent performances the script is just too outdated to guarantee another decade of success and unfortunately displays an enormously out-dated depiction of autism which should be left in the eighties.

Rain Man is on at The Lowry until Saturday 16th March tickets available here.

The Stretch

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Following on from its success as part of JB Shorts 19, MAP Productions have reworked and extended The Stretch from its original 15 minutes into an hour-long piece as they examine the lasting & devastating impact one moment of madness can have.

We follow Lee (James Lewis) through his long 10 years in prison, joining him on a brutal and soul-destroying journey as he visually charges before us from strong self-assured new kid on the block to defeated & destroyed shadow of his former self, broken by the brutality of life on the inside.

Through atmospheric lighting & inspired design the arches of 53Two have been transformed into a menacing & moody environment adding an almost immersive feel to proceedings. The cast make full use of the multi-layered set, lurking in the shadows as new boy Lee is led in to serve his time before powerfully making their presence known.

Joe Ainsworth’s script is melodic and pacy as with each year that passes hope fades and survival instinct takes hold before the reality of abandonment & isolation takes over.

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James Lewis gives a superb performance as Lee, honest and real in his portrayal he takes us on an incredibly raw and deeply poignant journey. His measured performance transitions from witty and light to heartbreakingly raw as he becomes increasingly broken by the failing prison system.

The ensemble add depth and authenticity to this production, taking on various roles depicting individuals on both the inside and outside of the prison walls and the impact Lee’s one monumental mistake has on them.

Simon Naylor’s fluid direction creates pace and adds poignancy to the quieter more emotional moments allowing them the impact they deserve.

The Stretch offers powerful performances which movingly highlight the tragic repetitive cycles happening daily in prisons around the country if not the world. A brave and honest account of one man’s devastating descent into hopeless institutionalisation. Affecting and important theatre.

The Stretch is on at 53Two until Friday 15th March, tickets available here

Tickets £10 with unwaged tickets available for every performance. Please bring proof of being in receipt of Universal Credit, Job Seekers Allowance or Income Support to the box office when collecting tickets.
Tuesday 12th March performance is BSL interpreted

 

 

 

 

RAGS

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Aria Entertainment and Hope Mill Theatre are never ones to shy away from a challenge; turning a former cotton mill into an award-winning producing house a clear testament to their drive and determination; so it comes as no surprise that not only have they taken on the challenge of reimaging lesser known musical RAGS but have the added coup of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Schartz’s invaluable presence in the rehearsal rooms.

With a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler On The Roof) music by Charles Strouse (Annie) and lyrics from Stephen Schwarz (Wicked) RAGS seems like it should have always been a hit yet the success never quite came. This UK premiere of a new version with a revised book by David Thompson directed by Hope Mill regular Bronagh Lagan sets about altering the destiny of RAGS and ensuring this relatively unknown musical is given the platform it deserves.

The joyful wit and melodic dialogue of Joseph Stein remain however David Thompson’s revisions allow the story to be told anew as we follow Jewish immigrant Rebecca (Rebecca Trehearn) as she bids to find a new life and a secure future for her and son David (Lochlan White) in America. Their penniless arrival at Ellis Island looks set to dictate their fate until kind-hearted Bella (Lydia White) whom Rebecca strikes up a friendship with on the journey convinces her father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) to vouch for the desperate pair. Rebecca and David are given a place to stay and her skills as a seamstress soon secure her employment however she is never far from rough seas as although the American dream may seem within reach it certainly won’t be without sacrifice leading to a battle of identity amidst a struggle of cultural assimilation.

The subject matter may sound heavy but it is treated with such love and warmth that light and dark marry beautifully with comedic and heart-warming moments shining through the emotional and poignant.

Rebecca Trehearn is pure star quality; she captures the gut-wrenching anguish of Rebecca with perfection and her determination to succeed in this hostile new world is profoundly moving. Her vocals are pitch perfect throughout while her stunning rendition of Children Of The Wind would melt the coldest of hearts, to see it delivered in such an intimate setting as Hope Mill is breath-taking.

Lydia White is superbly cast as Bella, her friendship with Rebecca feels believable and pure while her thrill at the prospect of the new life within her grasp is inspiring. Sam Peggs plays Bella’s love interest Ben with an innocent joy while Robert Tripolino as Italian trade unionist Sal makes for a wonderfully dramatic and entirely committed champion of both workers and human rights.

Heartening comedy is injected by the pairing of savvy widow Rachel (Valda Aviks) and Bella’s world-weary father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) the duo making for a wonderful comic double act. Special mention must also go to Lochlan White who at this evening’s performance played Rebecca’s son David, confident and charismatic as the young Jewish boy.

This is a real ensemble piece with praise being deserved by each and every member of the cast who bring this story to vibrant life with their stunning vocals and heartfelt performances, several doubling up as on stage musicians. Stephen Schwartz’s soaring score offers a real feast of fusion, in effect a melting pot of styles just like New York City both then and now.

Gregor Donnelly’s suitcase stacked set design and Derek Anderson’s atmospheric lighting combine perfectly to further bring this emotional story to life.

RAGS is beautifully executed theatre which will sweep you away with its gritty and poignant storytelling. The themes feel current and entirely relatable, the cast could easily be singing Make America Great Again rather than Take Our Country Back as the characters battle for acceptance and a sense of belonging in a hostile and at times cruel new world.  The team have got this new version just right with the talented cast doing total justice to the cleverly crafted piece. Important and affecting theatre delivered with genuine heart.

RAGS is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 6th April tickets available here.

 

 

The Last Yankee

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

UK theatre goers have seemingly been having an affair with the works of American writer Arthur Miller for decades now. The National Theatre has staged more productions of Miller’s plays than any other writer apart from Shakespeare, which is an impressive feat indeed.

Director David Thacker during his time as the Director of the Young Vic in London staged nine Arthur Miller plays seven of which he directed himself: one of these works The Last Yankee, was a huge commercial and critical success and now 26 years later Thacker reprises his role bringing the play to the impressive Bolton Library Theatre.

Set in an American psychiatric hospital, we are introduced to two married couples: Patty Hamilton (Juliet Aubrey) and her carpenter husband, Leroy Hamilton (David Ricardo-Pearce). We also have successful business man John Frick (Patrick Poletti) and his wife Karen (Annie Tyson). The two couples are polar opposites: the Hamilton’s have seven children and are just financially struggling to keep their heads above water. Whilst the Frick’s have no children yet a vast wealth at the disposal. Despite their differences the two couples have one thing in common, depression, anxiety and a self-loathing that threatens to not just wreck their marriages but destroy them individually as well.

Miller has crafted a near perfect fable of the chase for the American dream and how quickly it can go sour, whilst raising some important issues about mental health and its treatment. The script is measured and refreshingly low-key, the dialogue is terse and pulls no punches: there is nothing ‘showy’ or flash just an honest, gut wrenching account of a struggle that is becoming more and more prevalent in modern society with each passing day. Despite its weighty subject there is also a great deal of black humour adding a touch and of warmth and a much-needed respite from the drama.

The four leads are superb, the interactions between Poletti and Ricardo-Pearce in the first act sets the tone for the production, Poletti is solid as the snobbish know-it-all, yet clueless, Frick, whilst Ricardo-Pearce gives subtle, weathered performance as the blue collar all American.

Aubrey and Tyson are equally good as Patty and Karen, who’s unlikely friendship is the heartbeat of the production. Aubrey is captivating, filled with nervous energy, that is at times unsettling, whilst Tyson cuts a tragic figure and as the loveable Karen, a performance filled with whimsy and heartbreak in equal measure.

Thacker’s simple but effective directions works beautifully with Ciaran Bagnall’s intriguing set design: throughout performance we see a patient lying motionless in hospital bed, never mentioned or referred to, the proverbial elephant in the room and a damning critique of how we treat mental illness and our attitudes to mental health. This marries perfectly with the wall of mirrors back drop, distorting both perception and reality.

This is a thought-provoking essential production that despite its weighty subject is engaging and accessible, with the time flying by. A production that is superbly acted, powerful, and certainly a relevant message for our times: everything dramatic theatre should be.

The Last Yankee is at Bolton Library Theatre until 16th March tickets available here.

 

 

 

 

 

In The Night Garden Live

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In The Night Garden Live has been enchanting children since its very first tour in 2010; there’s nothing quite like seeing the faces of little ones light up when they realise their favourite characters are right there in front of them. For 2019 the show is even bigger and better as it moves out of the purpose built showdomes and into theatres across the country in an all-new & completely charming adventure; Igglepiggle’s Busy Day!

The much-loved characters Igglepiggle, Upsy Daisy, Makka Pakka, The Tombliboo’s and The Pontipines all feature in this wonderful celebration of the original CBeebies show brought to vivid life by an outstanding team of actor/puppeteers.

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The story written by Helen Eastman is told beautifully through song, dance and gentle music as Igglepiggle goes about his busy day bumping into his friends along the way. With the helpful addition of narration from Derek Jacobi, (the voice of the TV show); the story flows at a gentle pace ensuring even the youngest of audience members can follow the action in this joyful show.

The life-size versions of each character particularly captivate the little ones. There are both squeals of delight and frantic waves as one by one they each take to the stage. The whole experience feels magical, the perfect opportunity for little ones to have their first experience of the theatre. There are no loud bangs or unexpected surprises here just an enchanting & professionally executed show which will no doubt become a regular fixture in theatre schedules across the country.

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The set features familiar animations & bold visuals which further add to the immersive feel of this show as the much-loved characters whisk us along on their colourful ride. At around an hour long this is just the right about of time for the little ones who lap up every bit of the action.

My youngest guest who is 3 and a half announced upon entering the theatre & seeing the stage “I am so happy” I can confirm his smile was even wider by the end of the show. His Mum who has been to the shows at the showdome many times really enjoyed the experience of seeing the characters take to the stage in the theatre while her older son (age 5) really enjoyed the experience of going to the theatre with his baby brother and said of the move into the theatre “It’s not just for babies now but boys and girls too”

In The Night Garden Live is a huge hug of a show, joyous, magical family fun.

Further ticket and tour information can be found here.

 

Motown The Musical

10. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Company. Photo Tristram Kenton

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Motown the Musical is not your average jukebox production, while of course it’s jam-packed with sensational Motown classics it goes much deeper educating audiences in the history of this ground-breaking musical movement and doing so with real heart and soul along the way.

The story is told in a flashbacks by Motown creator Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa) who started the label with just $800 and went on to launch the careers of icons such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye  to name but a few. The show begins as the 25th anniversary celebration is looming but Gordy is in no mood to party.

23. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Company. Photo Tristram Kenton

With such an incredible back catalogue to pick from it would be easy to fall into the tribute concert category but Mowton the Musical offers so much more as personal relationships and professional struggles play out. We begin with Gordy’s childhood where he dreams of being somebody. Through his founding of the Motown label not only does he become somebody but changes the face of not just music but popular culture forever.

The music is joyfully allowed to take centre stage, at times it moves the story on and on other occasions is there for pure enjoyment & boy does it do its job. With hits including ABC, Baby Love, My Girl, Dancing In The Street, What’s Going On and Stop In The Name Of Love delivered by the most talented of casts Motown is an absolute thrill from start to finish.

16. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Reece Richards 'Jackie Wilson'. Photo Tristram Kenton

Edward Baruwa is entirely convincing as label boss Berry Gordy, his journey from optimistic youngster through to disillusioned & disappointed record label boss is committed & believable. Karis Anderson as Diana Ross goes on an incredible journey; maturing before our eyes from wide/eyed schoolgirl to ultimate Vegas diva she is sensational.

Nathan Lewis shines as Smokey Robinson on what is his professional theatre debut while Shak Ganbbidon-Williams is superb as Marvin Gaye. Special mention must also go to the talented ensemble cast who take on multiple roles with incredible skill.

22. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Jackson Five. Photo Tristram Kenton 2500

The real genius about this production is that it manages to effectively portray the way in which the political & social climate influenced the sounds of the time whilst still entertaining enormously; the Vietnam war, assassinations of both JFK & Martin Luther King each taking the story in a new direction, adding authenticity and richness.

In addition to this absorbing story & unforgettable music is a stunning use of projection. Scenic designer David Korins & projection designer Daniel Brodie have effectively managed to recreate houses, TV studios, theatres & offices with their intricate & dynamic designs. Panels sweep in & out adding multiple layers to the bold visuals.

Motown is a show which will appeal to all & will without doubt gain a whole new generation of fans. From its world-class soundtrack to its stunning design this high-energy, super slick production is told with genuine heart & heaps of soul; if you’re not dancing in the streets of Manchester afterwards we’d have to ask What’s Going On?

On at the Opera House until Saturday 23rd March tickets available here.