Friends Fest

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The One Where Opening Night Goes to Friends Fest

It is while we sit – gridlocked in traffic and debating whether Jennifer Aniston herself may put in a surprise appearance – that I first realise my expectations of Friends Fest may be set (slightly) high.

Little wonder when the show itself is chiefly responsible for every misplaced fantasy about adulthood I have been nurturing since it first aired in September 1994. Approaching 40 (could I BE any older?), I am sadly neither living in New York, nor working as an executive at Ralph Lauren, but at least I’m not sitting in a boat with only a chick and a duck for company yet

Heady with the promise of unfettered access to replicas of the iconic sets and original costumes from the show, as well as ‘Smelly Cat Karaoke’ and the chance to recreate the ‘umbrella’ title sequence, we have set out for Heaton Park.

Once there, it is no easy task to find the festival itself, which is signposted with a single A4 sheet taped to a lamppost. Therefore, my first tip is: follow the steady flow of people clutching ‘Friends’ merchandise bags, of which there are A LOT.

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The outdoor festival site is a bit of a mud bath thanks to the frankly appalling weather and the lack of any matting/straw/sawdust under foot. Tip number two: don’t wear your fanciest clothes or footwear; raincoats and boots or wellies will be your best ‘friends’. (You can always, if you wish, purchase a branded ‘Friends’ umbrella for £15 from the merch shop.)

Tip number three: head straight to the Chick & Duck Bar and get on the cocktails. The fun menu is (naturally) ‘Friends’ themed, with ‘The One with Rum/Vodka/No Hangover etc.’ options available, as well as a good selection of wines, beers and spirits. Suitably lubricated, we then head out in search of entertainment.

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‘Friends’ episodes play on a continual loop on the giant cinema screen that dominates the main open-air arena. With the rain pelting down, sadly the plentiful rainbow-coloured chairs and tables are universally empty. (On a warm summer’s day, this will no doubt be an idyllic place to sit and chill – especially with the bar and plenty of food stands close to hand.)

As it is, we head to the nearest covered stand, which just so happens to be the Central Perk set! We plonk ourselves straight down on the giant orange sofa for our first official ‘Friends’ selfie before wandering round – marvelling at being ‘on location’. If you wish, you can pick up a guitar and perch on Phoebe’s stool for a blast of ‘Smelly Cat’, and even take Gunther’s spot behind the counter.

A coffee bar overlooks the Central Perk set, where you can purchase a beverage for around £3.50 and sit and marvel at the attention to detail involved in recreating Comedy Central’s most beloved coffee house. (Thankfully – unlike Rachel – the pleasant staff will get your order right!)

We then head off to sit on another giant orange sofa in front of a fountain backdrop… Twirling our umbrellas, it’s a real thrill to pose for a title sequence photo. (Tip number four: set your phone to your Boomerang app for added fun!)

Then there’s a lull while we wait for our turn to visit Joey and Chandler’s apartment set, and Monica and Rachel’s apartment set. In sunnier weather, we’d have filled this time with fun photos in the outdoor ‘Vegas Chapel of Love’ and ‘Highschool Prom’ booths, which have their own dress-up wardrobes. As it is, we check out the ‘Moondance Diner’, ‘My Sandwich’ and ‘Mockolate’ food stalls, which provide plenty of ‘Friends’ themed culinary experiences for prices of around £5 and up.

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Before entering the apartment sets, there’s an amazing opportunity to see show costumes ‘in the flesh’, which is not only a genuine thrill, but confirms that Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox are as teeny tiny as you would expect! Our hands-down favourite is the ‘Holiday Armadillo’ costume Ross wore to surprise his son Ben when he couldn’t hire a Santa suit. Equally fun are the never-seen-before memorabilia and props from the show, which include ‘Smelly Cat’ cat litter, Joey’s VD poster and the ‘Geller Cup’ – a Troll-adorned trophy Monica and Ross fought to win during family touch ball games.

Next, Joey and Chandler’s apartment… This is the show-stopping moment we have been waiting for, and it is with the biggest, silliest of smiles that I seat myself in the Lazy Boy chair – ready to ‘draw’, twiddle with the foosball table and acquaint myself with The Boat. Opening the apartment door, we find ourselves in the familiar hallway before circling the set to enter Monica and Rachel’s apartment.

It is a surreal experience to be in a kitchen that feels somehow more familiar than your own, and it is with real affection that I run a loving hand over the surfaces and furniture – reminiscing about the 85 hours of bona fide belly laughs the show delivered. Sadly, there is no Ugly Naked Guy to poke through the window, but – that aside – it really is all credit to the Friends Fest organisers that they are bringing such a unique, nostalgic full-scale set experience to fans across our country.

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With the sets visited, all that remains is to head to the merchandise shop. You can buy branded everything, from aprons and door mats to T-shirts, notebooks and wall art. A Central Perk mug will set you back around £12 to £15, while a beer glass is a tenner.

We were able to cover most of what the festival has to offer in under an hour, as it is, essentially, a series of photo opportunities; however, when it’s open to the public, expect queues and take note of the allotted timeslots available to visit the sets.

Is Friends Fest the ‘ultimate ‘Friends’ experience’? For some superfans, in the right weather conditions, it will be, but others may find it more ‘mockolate’ – a synthetic substitute of something truly beloved that somehow misses the mark.

Friends Fest Manchester is on at Heaton Park until Sunday, 13 August. Tickets are now sold out, but dates are available in Essex between 1-10 September. Visit http://www.friendsfest.co.uk to book.

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen

 

 

 

The Wizard of Oz

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It may be August (although looking out the window you’d never know) but that hasn’t stopped Regal Entertainment Limited returning to Stockport Plaza with their sparkling summer panto, fan favourite, The Wizard of Oz.

Starring the much loved Cheryl Fergison of Eastenders fame, The Wizard of Oz is a high energy, action packed, family fun show which delivers first class entertainment for all ages. The traditional panto booing and shouts of ‘it’s behind you’ that we all know and love feature, as well as some brilliantly choreographed routines and hilarious performances. There’s just the right amount of cheeky jokes for the Mum’s and Dad’s in the audience as well as lots of giggles for the little ones and plenty of opportunities to sing along to much loved classics and have a boogie to lots of recent favourites too.

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Cheryl Fergison leads a fine cast firstly as Miss Windy Bottom (much to the hilarity of the audience) and secondly as Eva the Witch. She portrays the perfect baddie, bad tempered, witty and of course totally wicked! Fergison is joined by a very strong cast who each deliver great performances. The casting particularly of Scarecrow (David Heath), Tin Man (Philip Shaun McGuinness) and Lion (Si Foster) is perfect, each give keenly observed performances and are immediately likeable, engaging with their audience and making great fun companions to Dorothy (Maddie Hope Coelho). Coelho delivers a fine performance as Dorothy, firmly doing justice to Somewhere Over The Rainbow with her incredibly beautiful voice she is most certainly a worthy wearer of the ruby slippers.

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As our cast follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City they’re guided along the way by the glamorous Glinda (Olivia Sloyan) who speaks in rhyme and isn’t afraid to get messy with the rest of this wonderfully talented cast.

This great production will have you wishing it was panto season all year round, laugh out loud funny, highly entertaining and most of all jolly good fun!

On at the Stockport Plaza until Saturday 12th August

 

Family Fun this Summer at The Lowry

Room on the Broom

credit: KW & NB Ltd

Throughout August The Lowry are running a ‘Non-stop Summer of activities’ and Opening Night thought we would head along with our mini-reviewer Daisy to spend the day experiencing all they had to offer.

First stop for us was Room on the Broom, a wonderful family show from Tall Stories theatre company. It is a musical adaptation of the worldwide bestselling children’s novel by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and its arrival at The Lowry follows on from the company’s successful run with their version of The Gruffalo last year.

Fans of the book will be familiar with the tale being told in rhyme and it works perfectly here, with a number of original songs added for extra entertainment. With the duration being just over an hour it also suits the age it caters for (which is 3 years up) keeping them enthralled from start to finish.

For those uninitiated with the tale it follows a jolly witch and her cat on their ‘broom’ adventures. Directed by Olivia Jacobs and designed by Morgan Large every box is ticked in bringing this novel from the page to the stage.

The Witch, played brilliantly by Amy Harris, and her cute cat (Emma Crowley Bennett) are travelling on their broomstick when they pick up some friends along the way – an excitable dog, a green bird and a crazy singing frog. But the broomstick is not meant for five, let alone one, and it snaps in two with hilarious consequences just as a fire breathing dragon appears!

David Garrud and David Bloom add the main comedy and energy to the show, as the extra puppet characters who sing and bound around the set at every opportunity, much to the hilarity of the young audience.

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‘Mini-reviewer’ Daisy has her pen and paper at the ready for Room on the Broom!

Mini-reviewer Daisy (7) was enthralled from start to finish and she loved singing and clapping along to the audience participation songs. The whole show is good family fun full of laughs and surprises as the energetic cast of four produce larger than life characters and perform with all the puppet characters seamlessly.

Following on from Room on a Broom we checked out the dining experience in The Lowry’s ultra-modern restaurant, Pier 8. Throughout the summer children eat free with a paying adult as long as there is a children’s show on at the theatre at the time. It’s the perfect place for a pre or post show meal and the staff were lovely, in particular Rob our waiter.

We ordered the 6oz burger with the added extra of garstang blue cheese and Daisy opted for fish and chips with an ice cream sundae to follow and us, a dreamy rhubarb creme brûlée. It was a great meal and ticked the boxes for choice for adults and children in the perfect setting.

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One very excited child at her free kids meal in Pier 8

If you want to make a full day of it, the fun doesn’t stop there, The Lowry has lots of activities running throughout August for families, from storytelling to drawing and dressing up. We walked off our lunch by visiting the art gallery upstairs and seeing some of the LS Lowry paintings along with getting involved with some of the free creative workshops on offer.

If you are looking for somewhere where the whole family can enjoy a day out then you can’t go wrong this summer with paying a visit to The Lowry.

www.thelowry.com

Room on the Broom runs until 27th August at The Lowry

 

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

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Judith Kerr’s children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea has been delighting youngsters since it was first published in 1968 and now the story has been brought to life on stage. Following a successful West End season the Olivier Award nominated production is on a UK tour providing a summer holiday treat for families up and down the country.

The three strong cast, who look like they have just popped out of the storybook itself, ignite the excitement of the mini theatre goers from the start by walking down the aisles past them waving and saying ‘hello’ before taking their places on stage. Children in the audience from age 3 upwards were totally mesmerised by Mummy (Ashley Tucker), Daddy (Harry Howle) and their little girl Sophie (Abby Norman) as they re-enacted the tale of The Tiger Who Came to Tea complete with a number of jolly sing-along songs.

Adapted and directed by David Wood this production doesn’t disappoint the small fans of the book, who have either read it with parents or at school, and at 55 minutes long (without interval) it’s just enough time to keep them all engaged.

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The energy levels are at a maximum from the cast and they are rewarded with squeals of glee from the youngsters for their performances. The show stealer of course has to be the Tiger (also played by Harry Howle) and the excitement definitely goes up a number of levels when he sets his paws on stage. The Tiger is naughty, funny, cuddly AND he wiggles his bum when he dances – who could not love him!

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Great fun for all the family this tale of teatime mayhem is a sure fire hit with kids and adults alike. I defy you not to come out of there smiling!

Runs at The Lowry until 30TH July.

https://www.thelowry.com/events/the-tiger-who-came-to-tea

 

Mini Reviewer’s Verdict – Daisy aged (just) 7

Daisy Reviewer

My favourite bit was when the Tiger ate all the food and my favourite song was the ‘sausage, chips and ice cream’! I would recommend the show as it was very good and so funny, all the other children loved it too. I think people aged 5 to 8 years old should watch it as it is so enjoyable to shout out and join in the action. At the end of the show I was sad because it was over but then the Tiger came back out and made me laugh again.

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Sasha Regan’s All Male The Mikado

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Set in the 1950s on a private school camping trip Sasha Regan’s All Male The Mikado presents us with a new twist on an old classic. The famous Gilbert & Sullivan musical is freshened up in this touring production which makes Salford’s Lowry Theatre its last stop, running until July 29.

 

As with her previous all-male Gilbert & Sullivan productions, such as HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Regan delights in ramping up the cheekiness and playful tone of the show with antics which wouldn’t be amiss in a Monty Python film. The show starts with a balletic overture to set the scene for what is to come with boys who wouldn’t look out of place in a Famous Five novel playing pranks on each other, perfectly choreographed by Holly Hughes.

 

For those unfamiliar with The Mikado it follows the story of travelling musician Nanki-Poo (Richard Munday)who is searching for the love of his life Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson) who is betrothed and about to marry her cousin Ko-Ko (David McKechnie). Ko-Ko however has just been saved from a beheading for flirting and in a crazy turn of events has appointed Lord High Executioner. When Nanki-Poo arrives in the town of Titipu to claim Yum-Yum he has not only has Ko-Ko to face but also has a secret to reveal.

 

Admittedly this Gilbert and Sullivan has a number of twists and turns which make it hard to keep up but with Regan’s additional changes to boot it proves a tricky first watch for newcomers to G & S. Regan’s switch from the standard Japan setting and kimono wearing cast to a quintessentially English woods with a group of ‘jolly hockey sticks’ boys in vests and shorts takes a while to get used to but by Act Two you are able to just sit back and enjoy the thoroughly entertaining action. Yes, Regan’s move is brave but it works. It’s camp, clever and extremely witty.

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There’s some simple devices used to full effect- those in the cast playing female roles rolling up their shorts to turn them into girls and ramping up their feminine mannerisms. Playing on the ‘twee’ English theme there’s also the use of cricket bats to symbolise an axe and straw hats loaded on top of each other to display a persons’ rank. It may tick lots of school boy boxes but by no means does it have the feel of a school production, this version of The Mikado is polished and well thought out. The frequent use of innuendo has the audience tittering away with the hanging of signs outside the boys’ tents saying phrases like ‘no ball games’ and the ‘nod-nod wink-wink’ timing of the bicycle pumping from Alex Weatherhill’s Katisha.

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The cast are made up of a variety of voices from baritones, to sopranoes, working in unison to produce a lovely sound. Alan Richardson has a glass shattering falsetto which beggars belief that it comes out of a male body. His facial expressions as Yum-Yum are hilarious and Richardson makes the most of every line adding an extra bit of comedy on to each one.

 

David McKechnie is also brilliant as the scheming Ko Ko, his cockney wise guy act has a real feel of Fagin about it which makes you think he might burst into You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two at any minute. McKechnie commands the stage and makes it hard for you not to adore the loveable rogue by the end.

 

Elsewhere Richard Russell Edwards as Peep-Bo and Jamie Jukes as Pitti-Sing raise the camp levels with their fabulous portrayals of Yum-Yum’s friends and a special mention must go to Musical Director Richard Baker who does a sterling job playing the solo piano throughout, tinkling the ivories through a massive 26 Gilbert & Sullivan songs whilst also conducting the cast.

 

A rapturous applause at the jovial finale showed the seal of approval from the audience, made up of what looked to be a number of G & S devotees, proving Sasha Regan’s latest offering is yet another success to add to her list.

If you want a Gilbert and Sullivan for 2017 then you should definitely give Sasha Regan’s All Male The Mikado a try.

 

Runs at The Lowry until 29th July

http://www.thelowry.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Railway Children

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Exeter Northcott Theatre’s charming production of E. Nesbit’s much loved classic The Railway Children arrives at the Lowry Theatre this week.

Directed by Paul Jepson, the play brings together a well-adapted screenplay, outstanding acting and technical wizardry to create a highly atmospheric and snappily-paced adaptation of the children’s novel.

The production is mostly true to the original story of a mother and three children forced to abandon their comfortable London home for a small cottage in the country following the wrongful conviction of their father. The twists and turns in the plot are cleverly adapted from the original to suit the stage with Perks (the excellent Stewart Wright) as the omnipotent observer who fills in the gaps of the lengthy novel without ever losing an opportunity to show off his excellent comic timing.

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The quality of the directing is clear in the naturalness of the dialogue, particularly between the three children Phyllis (Katherine Carlton), Roberta (an outstanding Millie Turner) and Peter (Vinay Lad). Callum Goulden as young John Perks is an excellent comic foil to his more earnest peers; it was a shame not to see a bit more of a highly amiable Andrea Davy as Mrs. Perks. Joy Brook as Mother gives an emotional performance, and the excellent portrayal of family drama is lightened and enlivened by the visits of an increasingly frayed Andrew Josh as the family doctor.

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The stage is often transformed into a sepia-toned 19th century by the beautiful semi-transparent backdrops and there are also very effective video projections which give the big moments a cinematic immediacy. There was some evidence of first-night nerves (a banner went up at the wrong time, and the show started somewhat late) but these could not distract a rapt audience. This excellent production runs until Sunday, July 30th and is not to be missed.

Tickets can be found at http://www.thelowry.com/events/the-railway-children

 

Reviewed by Deirdre Warr

White is the new Black

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Last seen at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in the hilarious self-penned ‘The Community Centre’ Nicola Gardner returns to Manchester with fellow actress Jennifer Banks to deliver two very different yet hugely poignant plays, in the double bill, White is the new Black.

Piece one, The Last Appointment, written by Nicola as a commission for Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre sees black middle class GP Jo (Nicola Gardner) confronted by white Black Lives Matter activist Aretha (Jennifer Banks) who arrives at her surgery for the last appointment of the day. Things quickly become heated and increasingly personal as Aretha struggles to understand why Jo would not want to protest and take up the front line at rallies like Aretha, she tells her to “Get with the programme” and challenges Jo’s position of privilege, aghast that being the only black girl in her school didn’t leave her traumatised and angry at the injustice Aretha feels Jo faced. Whereas Jo wants to forget the struggles and the strife and aspires to succeed, holding people like the Obamas in high esteem and admiring their achievements in life, she wants to look forward not back.

There are some highly entertaining moments delivered beautifully by both actresses, Aretha strives to make Jo believe she too has lived a persecuted life due to being a Scouser, she knows how it feels to be targeted and treated badly, resulting in dramatic and hilarious eye rolls from Jo. Aretha challenges Jo’s attitude just as much as Jo challenges Aretha’s motives, ultimately boiling down to that fact that both just want what they feel is right and is fair despite going about things in dramatically different ways, both ladies show how ultimately despite our choices and actions we aren’t so very different after all.

Piece two in contrast to The Last Appointment reverses the roles of our two actresses, in Florence – The Fight of her Life written by Maurice Bessman, we meet African asylum seeker Florence (Nicola Gardner) as she comes face to face with seemingly cold-hearted Immigration Officer Mrs Lewis (Jennifer Banks). Florence is literally pleading for her life during the cold and demeaning immigration test as Mrs Lewis digs for detail despite the deeply upsetting and heartbreakingly sad reality of the life Florence has escaped from, boxes are ticked and devastating accounts disregarded as Florence fails to provide hard, factual evidence of the stories that she tells. The immigration office want physical proof explains Mrs Lewis and without that she must simply press on and get her job done, detaching herself from the emotion of the story, she simply sees herself as a woman just doing a job. The coldness and reality of the test is hard-hitting and sensitively delivered by both actresses, our characters have a task to complete and both are driven by achieving the best outcome, for Florence it is a life-changing and potentially devastating outcome should she be refused, for Mrs Lewis it’s just another work-placed task that she needs to complete efficiently. Florence has to relive painful and devastating memories, which are cruelly brushed away by Mrs Lewis due to not being documented anywhere as proof they ever happened.

While the two pieces are very different, they both ultimately highlight the same themes, despite colour and differences in race, we are essentially all one, we share so much in life that ties us together and bonds us, we love, we live and we all strive to succeed. While we may differ in our attitudes, choices and approaches, there are many more similarities that draw us together. The two plays both powerfully demonstrate how deep down we really are one, our diversities should be embraced and celebrated as the melting pot we come together in grows in richness and diversity. Emotive, powerful, and beautifully delivered theatre, highly recommended.

White is the new Black has one final performance tonight at the Anthony Burgees Foundation, tickets available here; http://www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk