Everything is Absolutely Fine

HOB

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

While talking about anxiety is thankfully receiving more positive media attention than ever before we still have a long way to go before we truly stamp out the stigma many people attach to mental health discussion. With their new musical comedy Everything is Absolutely Fine, Lowry Developed With artists House of Blakewell approach the topic of anxiety in an exploratory and wonderfully witty way.

Alice (played by book & lyric writer Alice Keedwell) is making a fresh start, smaller town, job at a smaller hospital & hopefully smaller problems. While a new situation is scary for most it’s made worse by the fact that Alice’s old friend anxiety (portrayed by musician and lyricist Harry Blake)has made the move with her too; constantly there in the background reminding Alice of her insecurities, drip-feeding doubt into every situation. “You’re too loud, you’re so embarrassing, your voice is annoying, you’re so awkward”.

While the subject matter may sound heavy House of Blakewell tackle this important topic in a creative and incredibly entertaining way. The snapshot of Alice’s life is delivered in various melodic, funny and extremely relatable songs. From small incidents like a trip to Waitrose where the choice of courgettes becomes overwhelming to the enormity of deciding you completely embarrassed yourself after one to many at the pub this inspired piece highlights just how all-consuming anxiety can be.

Every thought is questioned as anxiety attempts to drown Alice in negativity and destroy her self-esteem. The feeling of being the only one who doesn’t have their shit together looms large, amplified by the deadpan delivery from Harry Blakes while Alice attempts to soldier on regardless.

The lyrics are contemporary and clever, never before have I heard the words ‘garmin’ or ‘wingardium leviosa’ worked into songs and the genius of ‘shiter-er’ rhyming with ‘lighter’ certainly raised a smile. All delivered with great charm by both Keedwell and Blake.

House of Blakewell succeed in creating not only an entertaining piece of theatre but an enormously accessible piece which gently invites discussions about anxiety in a relaxed and innovative way. The performance is pitched just right allowing plenty of opportunities for relatable humour while reminding us of the importance of speaking out and seeking support from one another. Engaging and entertaining theatre.

Everything is Absolutely Fine has one more performance at The Lowry this evening Friday 28th June tickets available here.

Rotterdam

 

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Every once in while a play comes along that really strikes the right chord, one that you would encourage as many people as possible to go and see, writer Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is that play!

First performed in 2015, this Olivier Award winning play offers an honest, raw portrayal of gender dysphoria and the impact that it can have not just on the individual but their loved ones as well.

Set in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a vibrant port town where people come and go as much as the cargo that passes through its docks; however, this isn’t the case for Alice (Rebecca Banatvala) and her partner Fiona (Lucy Jane Parkinson).

The pair have been living there for seven years now, with both trying to come to terms with who they are. It’s New Years Eve and Alice has finally decided to come out as gay to her parents, with much encouragement from Fiona. However, before Alice undertakes this brave step, Fiona also has a confession to make that she wishes to be recognised as a man and would like to be called Adrian from now on.

This revelation has a huge impact on the pair and their relationship as Adrian seeks acknowledgement from a world that he sees will not accept him as a man, whilst Alice questions her own sexuality. Through their journey of discovery, the pair are supported by Lelani, (Stella Taylor) Alice’s free-spirited work colleague, who has more than friendship on her mind as it pertains to Alice. Making up the quartet, is Josh (Paul Heath) Fiona/Adrian’s brother who is also the former boyfriend of Alice.

This could so easily fall into a ‘preachy’ message driven play about transgender issues, instead focusing on the impact Adrian’s decision to transition impacts on those around him. The script handles its subject intelligently and sensitively, whilst pulling no punches. There are moments of levity throughout with some sharp, funny throw away lines.

The cast under Donnacadh O’ Brian, skilful direction are superb, with Parkinson giving a raw at times feral turn as Adrian: filled with conflict and heartbreak. Whilst Banatvala is also outstanding giving a more restrained but no less gut-wrenching turn as Alice. Both Taylor and Heath are on good form in their supporting roles, with the pair turning in great comedic performances, demonstrating a gift for timing and delivery.

There are some plot contrivances that test plausibility, such as Josh’s decision to stick around despite losing the women he loves to his sibling, but this is a minor quibble on what is a weighty, heartfelt, powerful piece of theatre that will make you laugh and may even cause you to get the odd bit of sand in your eye too.

Transgender issues despite having some media coverage are still hugely unrepresented. Productions like Rotterdam are much needed and important to help educate and hopefully create more positive conversations. This however is not the shows key drawing power, that comes because it is a beautifully told story about the struggles of relationships and real life that will resonate with us all.

Rotterdam is at the Manchester Opera House till 15th June. Tickets available here.

 

 

 

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

ROMEO AND JULIET

Credit: Johan Persson

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s a little past 9PM and I’m sat watching a modern-day masterpiece, to many the greatest love story ever told… that’s right Love Island is on ITV 2! I jest of course; I am referring to Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet.

There have been many productions of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, but few will match the innovative, bold and daring narrative choices Bourne has made in creating his latest ballet.

This is very much a Romeo and Juliet for 2019 with the action taking place in the Verona institute: an asylum packed full of young men and women, made to live separately by a team of guards who have no qualms abusing their power or those in their care.

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Head guard Tybalt, (Dan Wright) has his sights fixed on young inmate Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) however she only has eyes for the Verona Institute’s latest arrival Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), a young man sent away by his politically ambitious parents. Romeo and Juliet, as we all know, fall in love but at a fatal cost to them both. This is of course a story most of us are as familiar with as we are our own faces, however this production subverts the narrative keeping it fresh, exciting and engaging.

Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick are outstanding as the titular leads: a mixture of grace, vulnerability and passion, fully exemplified by the pair’s penultimate dance. However all cast, including the six local dancers (local dancers will join the tour at local venues) are outstanding and fully deserve the plaudits that will undoubtedly come their way. What strikes you about any Matthew Bourne production is that every person on that stage is a fully fleshed out character and each character shines through. The masked ball sequence has been transformed into a mash up between a school disco and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and beautifully typifies the production’s narrative.

ROMEO AND JULIET

Bourne’s choreography marries perfectly with Sergei Prokofiev’s emotive and powerful score expertly conducted by Dan Jackson. In addition, the use of all white costumes and the white tiled interior gives the production a virginal and surgical quality, which is further intensified when colour is introduced into the narrative.

Bourne has done it again, taking a traditional story and giving it a contemporary twist with references to current politics and a reliance on institutionalising people rather than treating them. However more than any of that, this is a production celebrating youth: a ballet starring young people, for young people, an absolute must-see!

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is on at the Lowry till 15th June. Tickets available here.

 

The Book of Mormon

10-The-cast-of-The-Book-of-Mormon-Manchester-Palace-Theatre-Credit-Paul-Coltas

The cast of Book Of Mormon Manchester – Credit Paul Coltas

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ever since those first whispers  of “The Mormons are coming” way back in November, excitement levels have been sky high for the multi-award winning, (Tony’s, Olivier’s and Grammy’s to name but a few) smash-hit Broadway musical’s Manchester arrival.

Penned by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with Robert Lopez co-creator of Avenue Q as well co-writer for songs from Disney’s Frozen and Coco you quickly get the idea that this is going to be one seriously creative and wildly outrageous piece of theatre…and you wouldn’t be far wrong.

From the minute the bright-eyed, Colgate smiling, super-positive Mormons take to the stage with witty opening number Hello! you know you’re in for quite the ride, so buckle up, embrace the outlandish and leave the easily-offended at home.

M-Jae – Cleopatra, Issac – Kevin Clay, Conner Peirson in The Book Of Mormom, Manchester, Palace Theatre Credit Paul Coltas

The story introduces us to Elders Price (Kevin Clay) and Cunningham (Conner Peirson) a mismatched pair thrust together on their Mormon mission to convert the natives of a country far flung from Salt Lake City (no spoilers here), despite knowing nothing about the country nor the traditions or beliefs of the locals who live there. While Elder Price feels his mission is to “Blow God’s freakin’ mind” Elder Cunningham lies…a lot; what could possible go wrong?

From the off The Book Of Mormon pokes wicked and downright profane fun at every stereotype imaginable; nothing is off-limits in this all-out comedy assault and the audience lap up every close to the bone second of it.

The bouncy, infectious score with lyrics to make your toes curl is as outrageous as it is brilliant. There’s a genius borrowing from several other musicals: hilarious hints of The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence’ can be heard during ‘I Believe’ while ‘Joseph Smith American Moses” is a riotous, profanity laden homage to ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ from The King and I; as for the jaw-droppingly offensive yet hysterically funny Hasa Diga Eebowai, The Lion King’s Mufasa would be turning in his buffalo trodden grave.

Nicole-Lily Baisden and Conner Peirson Book of Mormon, Manchester, Credit Paul Coltas

This ‘borrowing’ sends up other musicals so brilliantly yet feels incredibly original; at one point during ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me) you are almost prepared for Elder Price to rise up Elphaba style a la Wicked.

Kevin Clay is outstanding as Elder Price, full of ego and bursting with confidence his self belief seemingly unshakable. Conner Peirson makes for a perfect sidekick as Elder Cunningham so desperate is he to please that his wild exaggerations and implausible bending of the truth brings its own type of bedlam to proceedings. The two together are an absolute joy, their love/hate relationship being the backbone of the story and they deliver it with heart-warming conviction, ultimately teaching both characters a generous life lesson.

Nicole-Lily Baisden shines as Nabulungi, sweet yet sassy she brings a wide-eyed innocence to the role making her duet with Peirson during ‘Baptize Me’ all the more entertaining.

The cast of The Book of Mormon Manchester – Palace Theatre, credit Paul Coltas

Special mention must also go to Will Hawksworth and his outstanding troop of Mormons, every scene they feature in is perfection with Turn It Off and I Am Africa being two of the standout moments of the night, camp, completely over the top and laugh out loud funny.

There is not one weak link in this entire company, with many cast members taking on several parts and delivering each to the highest of standards with the vocal arrangements and choreography taking this production to the next level.

While the show happily tears through taboos with all the subtlety of Satan at a baptism its ultimate message is one of faith. Yes it’s outlandish, yes it’s irreverent but the core message is that it really doesn’t matter what you believe in just as long as you believe in something, be that yourself, your community or each other. While it pokes fun at organised religion it makes clear the message that faith is no bad thing once you see past the bonkers constraints that surround it.

The cast of The Book of Mormon Manchester – Palace Theatre, credit Paul Coltas

Rarely do you see a whole theatre leap to their feet but judging by tonight’s thunderous standing ovation The Book of Mormon is without doubt the hottest ticket in town. Riotous fun from start to finish, believe the hype this is without doubt a little piece of heaven on earth.

Outrageous and original this sensational production will leave you desperate to convert to that marvellous Mormon tribe!

The Book Of Mormon is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 24th August, tickets available here.

📷 Paul Coltas

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

While the Octagon Theatre undergoes an extensive refurbishment the company are performing in various venues across the town, one of the most impressive and merely a stones throw from the theatre itself is the beautiful Albert Halls. Part of the Town Hall the impressive Albert Halls acts as a perfectly fitting backdrop for Oscar Wilde’s much-loved Victorian comedy.

Our two protagonists, the dashing upper class cad Algernon (Jack Hardwick) and the seemingly more upstanding Jack Worthing (Dean Fagan) lead double lives in a bid to have some fun away from the strict social constraints of Victorian Britain whilst attempting to court the affections of headstrong City girl Gwendolen (Elizabeth Twells) and pouting country princess Cecily (Melissa Lowe) all of course to the distasteful displeasure of the domineering Lady Bracknell (Sarah Ball).

The play moves at a good pace once you get used to the slightly echoey acoustics within the lofty Albert Halls; Director Suba Das and designer David Woodhead have injected a real sense of style into this production. The stage resembles a photographer’s studio giving the cast opportunities to strike a pose and wink knowingly at the audience during some of the most quotable lines while the production opens with catwalk style vogueing from the cast by way of introduction.

Confusion and deception are the order of the day as we romp from the city to the countryside in this stylish interpretation. Jack Hardwick is exceptional as a flirty and flouncing Algernon. Hugely charismatic and convincingly charming you can’t help but root for this idle scamp. Dean Fagan’s contrastingly sensible Jack compliments Hardwick’s Algernon perfectly and the two bounce off each other offering some great comedy highlights.

Elizabeth Twells is in fine form as the determined Gwendolen. Strong and sassy she is a force to be reckoned with, the engagement scene is an absolute comedic delight while Melissa Lowe embraces the opportunity to play the brattish but ballsy Cecily with gusto.

There’s a slowing of pace during some of the scenes with Lady Bracknell, despite Sarah Balls’ authoritative performance some of her dialogue is lost due to the wordier nature of her lines in the expanse of the Albert Halls. The classic “A handbag?” however is delivered to perfection and gets the generous reaction it deserves.

david-cardy-jack-hardwick-and-vicky-entwistle

Vicky Entwistle and David Cardy as Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble bring an endearing frivolity to proceedings while Dan Shearer happily carries out his instructions as the put upon butler in various stages of undress.

Act I at more than an hour and a half does have the audience shifting in their seats a little while Act II at 35 minutes absolutely sails by, something a tweak or two could easily remedy.

sarah-ball

This stylish piece of theatre works and works well; it is fun, frivolous and delivered with a playful conviction. Another success for the Octagon Theatre in this faithful production dusted with a sprinkling of creative surprises.

Catch The Importance of Being Earnest at the Albert Hall until Saturday 15th June here.

 

 

 

The Exonerated

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Since its premiere off-Broadway in 2002 Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s The Exonerated has been performed all over the world picking up multiple awards along the way and even making it onto the big screen in the 2005 film starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.

This ambitious adaptation embraces the nation’s current obsession with binge-worthy true-crime Netflix style documentaries by cleverly combining recorded first person accounts with live theatrical flashbacks of interrogations, murders, court scenes and the grim reality of life on death row.

Jessica Stanton’s innovative design places audiences as central observers as a Netflix style menu dominates the large screen above the stage. The click of a remote control can be heard as this evening’s viewing selection is made. Audiences sit either side of a central stage which is surrounded by prison style wire fencing and rough barbed wire, only glimpsing sight of each other when the stark interrogation lighting illuminates the space.

Grant Archer’s documentary style film feels authentic and grips from the start as the lives of the wrongly convicted play out before us. The fusion of film and live action works exceptionally well as the six extraordinary stories of those wrongfully sentenced to death unfold.

Joseph Houston has directed the pre-recorded interviews in such a way that they feel entirely genuine, the pain, the emotion and most touchingly the hope expressed by each character is as fascinating as it is moving.

The live action scenes work superbly well, adding depth and authenticity to the harrowing accounts of injustice, exposing the corruption of the authorities and their manipulation of these damaged individuals. The shattering and lasting impact of their lost years on Death Row bringing devastation not only to themselves but to the lives of their friends and families also.

Charles Angiama as Delbert takes on a measured narrator style role, the Texan who spent many years on death row for a rape and a murder he did not commit guides the audience throughout, observing with us the injustices and manipulation taking place. He weaves together the other five stories as the rest of the small cast take on several roles bringing life and vision to the harrowing real-life stories.

Though the subject matter is intense and the corruption utterly horrifying the production is delivered in a way which allows for a heart-warming portrayal of the human ability for hope even in the most desperate of situations. Sunny Jacobs being the most perfect example of this: a gentle mother of two who lost not only 16 years of her life to Death Row but even more tragically her beloved husband whose wrongful execution was made all the more horrific when the electric chair malfunctioned. Pippa Winslow’s performance as the good-natured hippie is exceptional, portraying her class and composure to perfection.

The Exonerated directed by Joseph Houston. Hope Mill Theatre Manchester. Photo Shay Rowan

This inspired and impressive adaptation telling six interwoven stories marks a bold innovation in story-telling theatre. The decision to mix live theatre with pre-recorded footage pays off adding an element of authenticity to proceedings. The second half feels a little screen heavy compared to the first but this does not take away from the power of the piece. While you go into the production expecting to hear about harrowing miscarriages of justice you don’t quite anticipate the impact these stories of survival and hope will have, a true testament to the quality and care that’s been put into this inspired and innovative production.

The Exonerated is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 16th June, tickets available here.

Images by Shay Rowan Photography

Interview | Matthew Bourne talks Romeo & Juliet

ROMEO AND JULIET

Shakespeare’s much-loved tale of star cross’d lovers has inspired the creative community for generations. The tragic and passionate story set against the conflict of two divided families has spawned countless plays, musicals, operas and songs. Now it’s the turn of world-renowned, award-winning choreography Matthew Bourne to interpret this timeless classic in an all new contemporary reimagining of the familiar tale.

We spoke to Matthew Bourne who revealed that Romeo and Juliet was actually inspired by who he would work with rather than just the story. He explained: “I avoided doing it for years as I think it was something everyone expected me to do and it had been done in so many different ways in so many different mediums. I thought it would be hard to find a new way into it which is something I always search for.”

“The thing that really made me want to do it was the opportunity to work with young people. It is a story about them and young love. I got even more excited when it was suggested we cast it with young people and work with young creative associates in all the different departments of the show alongside my usual world-class team. It is all about nurturing them and telling the story.”

ROMEO AND JULIET

Romeo and Juliet’s plot also lends itself to choreography because of its themes. Matthew said: “Dance is very good at extreme emotions, and Romeo and Juliet as a story is certainly full of those. It has passion, love against the odds, and several extremes of murder and violence. It is all those big emotions. Shakespeare captured it very well. Young people are very hot headed and react very quickly to things.”

“One thing I have tried to bring out is that when young people first fall in love and feel that passion, they really go overboard in many ways. I often think about how classical ballet handles this and how the young girl gets very excited by a kiss on the cheek. Young people today, if they are into each other, are kissing until their mouths are sore. I have tried to capture that intensity.”

“It is also set a little way into the future, but it is not futuristic. It is a time when society is frowning on young people having an excess of feeling and emotion which sends them off on the wrong tracks as far as society is concerned. I got the idea from Arthur Laurents, the co-creator of West Side Story, who was asked why the young people in it are violent and act the way they do? He said they have too much feeling and they need to find a way to release it. I thought that was an interesting way into the story and very true. It made me go in the direction I went in.”

ROMEO AND JULIET

One of this country’s best-known directors and choreographers, Matthew has been creating dance for over 30 years for musicals, theatres and film as well as his own New Adventures company which boasts a list of hugely successful productions including the iconic Swan Lake, Edward Scissorhands, Red Shoes and Play Without Words.

For Romeo and Juliet, Matthew has once again gathered his trusted creative team around him including associate artistic director Etta Murfitt, set and costume designer Lez Brotherston and lighting designer Paule Constable to add their skill, knowledge and talent to the production to both cushion and push him as he brings his interpretation of the Bard’s work to life. Matthew said: “They know me well enough to question me on what we are doing, whether it works, and they will suggest things too. Sometimes a new creative team are a bit nervous about coming forward with their suggestions when they are working with someone like me who has been in the business for a long time. It is nice to work with a team who don’t have a problem with that.”

Also, part of the team is the composer Terry Davies, another long-term collaborator of Matthew’s who had the job of adapting Prokofiev’s music for this production. He said: “While it is wonderful and big and lush for big opera-house productions and suits that style of production, I wanted something a bit more earthy and a bit more quirky. We nervously went to the Prokofiev Estate and asked them if we could do a new arrangement. It would be very faithful to it and it is only 15 musicians who multi-task and play lots of different instruments. It is quite rare for us to take an orchestra out on tour with us. It is sounding wonderful and I hope the Prokofiev Estate are happy. It is a very recognisable score and that is really the script that we work with.”

ROMEO AND JULIET

But that ability to feature and engage with young people is as key to this production as the Montagues and the Capulets. At each venue, six fast-emerging dancers (three male and three female) have been chosen to perform on stage alongside the professional company. After a series of auditions around the country, this highly-talented half-dozen gets the opportunity to be part of a world premiere tour surrounded by the professional company. “They are an integral part of the show. They are not token appearances. They’re part of the main company,” he said.

In addition, a team of young associates have been appointed to work within each creative arm of the project including lighting, sound, orchestration and costume. It is happening with the choreography too, with Matthew being joined by Arielle Smith. “She is wonderful. Not only is she a great up and coming talent but I get on with her very well. We have a laugh. With such an enormous age difference between us of around 30 years, she is like a mate and she is incredibly mature for her years in terms of the way she has handled the whole process and there is a lot of her and her work in it. She is not standing by my side watching me work. She is taking rehearsals, creating movement for the show and she has been great. I hear from the other creatives that they are enjoying working with their associates as well. We have all been getting together and thriving with this opportunity,” he said.

It is a similar model to the Lord of the Flies tour where Matthew and his team gave the opportunity for young men who were interested in dance to be part of the professional production alongside his New Adventures company of professional performers which has generated its own success stories. Three of the young Lord of the Flies were cast for Romeo and Juliet, while others are part of his Swan Lake 2019 company. “They have gone through several programmes that we have to nurture young British-trained dancers. We are very proud of those young guys and we hope that this time we will bring some women into the fray that we have nurtured so there will be even more people who started in Lord of the Flies or Romeo and Juliet that will hopefully come back into the company,” said Matthew.

And with four major productions this year plus a Special Award at the Olivier’s for services to dance, 2019 is proving to be quite a year for Matthew. He recalled: “It has been amazing. Swan Lake coming back is always a thrill because it does introduce so many more people to dance and to our company. It always has an incredible effect on audiences around the country and our casts are so devoted to it.”

“In the middle of all that, getting the Olivier Special Award right in the middle of creating a new show was rather good because the award can feel a bit like it is the end of your career and people are saying ‘Thank you, Please Stop.’ It felt great to be in the middle of a new creation like Romeo and Juliet. It was about the past and about the future at the same time.”

And he is feeling very positive about his Shakespeare-inspired production. He admitted: “What started out as being quite a scary project involving so much untested talent and young people that I didn’t know very well has ended up being rather an exciting new show.”

For Matthew and all the team connected with it, the passion and excitement are every bit as strong as the passion that binds the two young characters at the heart of these exciting and explosive performances.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet will be at The Lowry from Tuesday 11 – Saturday 15 June tickets available here.