The Exonerated comes to Hope Mill Theatre

The Exonerated Hope Mill Theatre

Hope Mill Theatre will stage the Northern Premiere of gripping death row drama The Exonerated this June.

The play written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen will be reimagined in the style of a television true crime documentary and will be directed by Hope Mill Artistic Director and co-founder Joseph Houston.

Taken from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and the public record, The Exonerated tells true stories of six wrongfully-convicted survivors of death row in their own words.

Moving between first-person monologues, courtrooms and prisons; six interwoven stories paint a picture of an American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong – and of six brave souls who persevered to survive it.

Artistic Director Joseph Houston, said: “I want this to be a unique theatrical experience that integrates documentary-style filmed footage, but without losing the impact of live theatre.”

The production which will be Hope Mill Theatre’s second in-house play directed by Houston will blend live theatre and filmed footage to create a unique, fully integrated multimedia experience.

The Exonerated runs at Hope Mill Theatre from Thursday 6 June to Sunday 16 June 2019. Tickets, from £10 are available www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

Take That – Greatest Hits LIVE

Writer Kate Goerner

Regular readers of Opening Night will know that we’re pretty big fans of The Band, the musical based around the songs of Take That.

Combining a moving coming-of-age story of acceptance and loving yourself with the many hits of Gary, Robbie, Howard, Mark and Jason was a recipe for theatre magic in our (often tear-filled) eyes.

But disclaimer, we were fans of the group itself first – so as such here at Opening Night we were looking forward to going back to The Band’s roots thanks to Take That’s current Greatest Hits 2019 tour. Always theatrical, always dramatic – what would the group have in store this time?

The tour, which is in Manchester all this week, followed their recent album Odyssey – itself a tribute to those hits, reimagined.

Looming over proceedings is a giant orb, recreated from the from the Odyssey album cover, in spectacular fashion. Part stage, part projections, it really is a spectacular backdrop to the show.

And what a show! It’s as nostalgic as you’d expect – but with dazzling hi-tech staging that means the material and performances never feel old hat.

In fact it feels like the freshest tour in a while – while being a genuine love letter to a 30 year career.

There’s a feeling of the passing of the decades that’s reflected throughout the evening in the staging – from the Seventies-style Evel Knievel jumpsuits the lads wear to open the show (to the uplifting Greatest Day) to the monochrome Sixties section, the Eighties hair metal motorcycle tribute and a nice nod to the Nineties.

The hits are all there – with some real ‘lump in the throat’ moments on the big screen like a video of Robbie performing Everything Changes, or the Bee Gees in How Deep is Your Love.

We even got Mark singing Babe, a beautifully stripped back version of Pray with sign language (although we did miss the Pray dance!) and Lulu – YES LULU – joining Gary, Mark and Howard for Relight My Fire.

The evening ended in magical fashion with Rule The World complete with fireworks.

So while Opening Night hopes to see The Band hit our stages again some day, Take That prove that the original is usually the best!

Further tour information can be found here.

Equus

Equus Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Back in 1973 Equus premiered to huge commercial and critical success, and thus a modern classic was born. Back then the story of a teenage boy with a troubled mind shocked, captivated and enthralled and here in 2019 it still manages to do so and more.

Psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) is charged with finding out why a stable boy, Alan Stang (Ethan Kai) would commit the repugnant act of blinding six horses with a spike.

What follows is journey into the fragile mind of a young man who is confused by an overbearing father (Robert Fitch) and devoutly religious mother (Syeeta Kumar). Their bruised, repressed relationship with each other, seeps into the soul of their son with devastating consequences.

Equus Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Dysart uses a great many tricks and techniques to discover the root of Stang’s illness and builds a strong relationship with the boy but at what cost? For Dysart has his own demons to concquer: trapped in a loveless marriage and constantly questioning his chosen profession. Can Dysart get to the bottom of what happened that horrific night in the stable, and if so at what personal cost to him?

Director Ned Bennett has done an outstanding job creating an intense, intimate psychological drama, that focuses on the reasons why, rather than the act itself. The two leads are exceptional: Varla shows the frailty of Dysart, smoking constantly, somewhat nervous, his interactions with Stang flip the doctor/patient dynamic on its head. He plays the world-weary shrink with humanity and warmth whilst still unsure of his place in the world.

Equus Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Ethan Kai is equally impressive turning a brave, physical performance filled with nervous energy, anger and fragility. The interactions between the two are leads are what anchors the productions. They are supported by a fantastic cast who have dual roles as humans and horses, it sounds ridiculous but under Bennett’s direction is effective and with clear use of lighting and stage design works fantastically well. The cast should be commended for their hard work and dedication to the craft.

This is visceral, unsettling look at mental health and raises some interesting points about it’s treatment and the ethics that go into getting the results, add into the mix a superb cast and a creative production team at the top of there game, and you get a powerful, brutal piece of theatre that looks fantastic and pulls no punches.

Equus is on at the Lowry until Saturday 27th April tickets available here.

 

 

 

Home, I’m Darling

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Fresh from its Olivier Award success Laura Wade’s new play Home, I’m Darling arrives at the Lowry this week as part of a limited UK tour.

Co-produced by The National Theatre and Theatr Clwyd, Home, I’m Darling takes us into the perfectly stylised 1950’s home of Judy & Johnny; their bliss seemingly as bright as their primrose kitchen. Their marmalade is homemade while their gin gimlets are freshly poured as life in their 50’s bubble bounces along; that is until the rose tinted glasses begin to slip as this cleverly crafted comedy moves into choppier waters as the subtle analysis of gender divide and nostalgic perfection begins.

Judy’s made her choice: rebelling against her upbringing in a feminist commune eating lentil lasagne she now likes things shipshape, living a life of domestic bliss as a picture perfect housewife complete with pastel prom dress & devilled eggs on tap. While her mother argues against this misguided nostalgia insisting that the only people who were truly happy in the 1950’s where white, straight, men as choice, tolerance and acceptance were in very short supply.

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Designer Anna Fleischle has created a magnificent 1950’s haven. The two level set a perfect home with living room and kitchen downstairs neatly topped by a bedroom and bathroom all connected by a central staircase. Director Tamara Harvey ensures the cast make full use of the visually stunning set as each corner of the house is explored and inhabited. The genius scene changes where cast members jive their way around the house add immensely to the charm of this initially playful piece.

Katherine Parkinson is excellent as the insecure domestic goddess Judy, insisting that her feminism is evidenced in the life choices she makes while she attempts to live harmoniously in an inaccurately imagined era.

Jo Stone-Fewings gives a strong performance as husband Johnny, increasingly frustrated with this nostalgic domesticity and what it means for their marriage.

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Susan Brown shines as Judy’s Mum Sylvia, exasperated by her daughters life choices and desperate for her to start living life in the here and now, her scalpel-sharp monologue in Act II is sublime.

The strong cast work together wonderfully keeping the audience guessing throughout as to where this fascinating story will take us. Laura Wade’s script is both generous in its humour and sharp in its observations. Once the saccharine surface has been scratched the grit and relevance of this black comedy effectively take hold. Judy of course insists she is happy but the cracks in her gingham palace quickly show as money begins to run out while the fantasy lifestyle becomes a prison of her own making.

Judy’s indulgence for her ‘hobby’ which she clings onto for far too long impacts not only on her own but the life of husband Johnny who feels emasculated and embittered by his wife’s endless care and devotion. The constantly shifting perspectives engage as well as entertain; add to this a hefty dose of humour, superb cast and stunning set and you have a uniquely brilliant production.

Home I’m Darling is on at The Lowry until Saturday 27th April tickets available here.

Blackpool Tower Circus

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Writer Kate Goerner

Blackpool Tower Circus has been running for an incredible 125 years, dating back to 1894 – the world’s oldest circus based in a permanent arena.

It’s a rich history that the Circus is rightly proud of, as evidenced by the old posters and memorabilia on display to audience members as they they make their way from the entrance of the Tower to their seats ringside.

It’s impressive how the feel of a traditional big top is replicated in a permanent structure (designed by legendary theatre designer Frank Matchem no less) you do feel like you’re in a ‘proper’ circus setting!

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The circus has been led for the past 25 years by ‘Mr Boo’ and ‘Mooky’, who act as clowns and ringmasters combined.

The new Bollywood-themed show, Circus Carnival, has recently launched, just in time for the Easter.

The two-hour running time (including an interval) is filled with comedy, daring trapeze and gravity-defying stunts and circus skills, all accompanied by the in-house live band.

We loved the clever quick change act, the very definition of “how did they do that” plus the traditional circus balancing skills like juggling hula hoops.

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I was actually unaware that every Blackpool Tower Circus performance concludes with a water performance. The Arena’s unique design features a hydraulic floor which sinks and fills with 42,000 gallons of water in less than a minute. I wouldn’t want to give away any of the surprises of the finale – but it’s a wonderful way to end the show, with design, lighting, music and performance uniting to help audience members leave with a smile on their faces.

More information on the Blackpool Tower Circus can be found here.

 

Heart of Darkness

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ll be honest when I heard that Heart of Darkness was being brought to the stage my interest was massively piqued for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is this particular novella is the inspiration behind two of my favourite films: Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola and Heart of Darkness, a documentary which looked at the chaotic production of the Coppola masterpiece. However the Joseph Conrad penned story is today viewed somewhat differently from when it was first published in 1899. The story of captain Marlow being sent to the Congo Free State to retrieve an Ivory trader, Kurtz is considered by many academics to be offensively racist because of its apparent defence of colonialism, it’s portrayal of African natives as being primitive and savage by nature. Clearly this is an ambitious project and as far from “safe” theatre as you can get.

Fortunately Leeds based Theatre Company: Imitating the Dog are up to the task. The company have subverted Conrad’s text and created a unique production. There are two stories at play here on the surface there is the Conrad intended only the action has shifted from the Congo to Europe following a World War Two, which has a different outcome. As well as the change in location, there are also numerous character changes and other tweaks. In addition to this narrative, are numerous breaks where we drop into production meetings where the production team attempt to not just delve into the soul of Conrad as well as examine what impact the work has today.

Initially the jumps between plots and use of a small cast seem a little confusing but once you adapt you can fully immerse yourself in this ambitious project. Using cameras and projectors and green screen imagery the company has created a visual feast that is part classic Hollywood, part graphic novel. This marries perfectly with the reading of script directions and as well references oral and visual references to Casablanca, Blade Runner, and aforementioned Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

This production does offer it’s take on just how fractured a nation we are over Brexit and for this it should be commended however one sequence which showed footage of drunken girls on a night out lumped in with the likes of Boris Johnson and remain protestors was for me no better than a sneering article in the Daily Mail.

This bold, innovative and powerful performance will be up for interpretation amongst its audience and create a great deal of debate which is what original theatre should do.

Heart of Darkness is on at the Lowry until Thursday 18th April tickets available here.

Ghost

 

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Although it seems like five minutes ago it’s actually an incredible 8 years since Ghost the Musical first premiered in Manchester before opening in London’s West End ahead of a successful Broadway transfer and judging by audience responses at the Palace Theatre the love for this classic story shows no sign of waning.

Based on Bruce Joel Rubin’s iconic 1990 film, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost tells the tragic love story of Brooklyn residents Sam (Niall Sheehy) and Molly (Rebekah Lowings) whose lives are cruelly torn apart when Sam is heartbreakingly murdered in a street robbery gone wrong. As Sam watches the scene of his death from a distance, stuck between two worlds he realises what at first seemed like a tragic accident is anything but and his beloved Molly is now in danger too. In order to find his own peace he must find a way to connect with and ultimately protect his love from beyond the grave, cue Oda Mae Brown an outrageous and questionable psychic who has made a living off receiving messages from the dead and passing them onto their living relatives for a fee of course; Problem is she’s never actually connected to anyone from the afterlife until now.

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Rebekah Lowings is hugely endearing as Molly, tentatively attempting to navigate life after the loss of her soulmate she skilfully takes us along for the turbulent ride. Her voice is beautiful; she delivers each solo with fabulous control. The chemistry between Lowings and Niall Sheehy feels genuinely convincingly further adding to the emotion and impact of this production. Sheehy is lively and charismatic as Sam, his commitment to protecting Molly from danger genuinely touching.

Jacqui Dubois is brass, bold and boisterous as Oda Mae Brown, her razor sharp comedic timing is a joy to watch and her hilarious interactions with Sheehy are a real highlight. The scene where we first meet her and her two abetting sisters Louise (Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy) and Clara (Sadie-Jean Shirley) is hilarious with their exaggerated gestures and punchy harmonies.

Special mention must also go to Sergio Pasquariello and Jules Brown who both impress as evil duo Carl and Willie.

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Impressive set and costume design from Mark Bailey adds to the slickness and authenticity of this production while Dan Samson’s sound design although vibrant occasionally overpowers the vocals of the performers. Nick Richings lighting design really makes this piece stand out visually, particularly impressive is the way Sam is lit once he passes from the real world.

The production translates exceptionally well from screen to stage with the addition of some great illusions from Richard Pinner delivered convincingly by an excellent cast.

Ghost will please fans of the original film and is also strong enough as a standalone production for those coming to the show with fresh eyes. It’s heavy on both emotion and humour while the dramatic and engaging story unfolds. There’s love, hope, comedy, deception and drama all neatly packed into this impressive production and while Dave Stewart’s  songs may not be the most memorable they are enjoyable and beautifully delivered.

This reworked incarnation directed by Bob Tomson feels faithful and impressive. Gone is the celebrity casting allowing this production the delivery it deserves ensuring Ghost once again cements itself as a modern theatre classic. Hugely entertaining theatre which engages on every level and will leave you with more than a little tear in your eye.

Ghost the Musical is at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 20th April tickets available here.