The Entertainer

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s often said that role of Archie Rice is a dream role for any actor; it’s an actor’s role, a role filled with pathos, a real rollercoaster of emotions. The likes of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Lindsey and Michael Gambon have all played this iconic character, either on stage or screen, and now it’s the turn of one of the nation’s favourite song-and-dance men, Shane Richie.

The original production was set during the 1950’s in the shadow of the Suez crisis, however director Sean O’ Connor has shifted the action to 1982: Britain has just gone to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and comic Archie Rice is working the club scene, with diminishing success. His act is a string of sexist gags and mother-in-law jokes, think a cross between Bernard Manning and David Brent and you’re on the right track. Rice is struggling to adapt to a changing world of alternative comedy and so-called political correctness.

As Rice’s routine is in the gutter, his home life isn’t fairing much better: he is unhappily married to his second wife, Phoebe (played tonight by Alice Osmanski), his father Billy (Pip Donaghy) holds some pretty extreme views about their neighbours and the state of the country, his daughter, Jean (Diana Vickers) has come back home after splitting with her fiancé, and finally his son Mick, has been captured whilst serving in the Falklands.

The majority of the action takes place in the Rice’s flat as the family bicker about the current state of the country, argue about Archie’s womanising, Phoebe’s desire to move Canada, and Jean’s moralistic view of the world, which strongly differs from that of her family. This is all done with the support of copious amounts of gin, as all of the family struggle with their own alcoholism. This is punctured with brief snapshots of Archie’s faltering act, some 1980’s bangers, and some genuine/fictious tabloid headlines of the day. As the Rice’s situation becomes more desperate, the already fractured family begins to come apart at the seams.

This is a challenging, gritty piece of work, there is a great deal to admire about the production. Despite being well over 60 years old, the themes Osbourne was addressing back then are just as relevant today. The setting of Thatcher’s Britain gives the production a gritty realism: the club spots and the scenes at the flat are quite grimy, so much so that you want to jump in the shower as soon as you get home.

The excellent performances are what make this production that little bit special. All five actors do a solid job throughout and it’s the dynamic between Shane Richie and Diana Vickers that is the real heartbeat of this production. Richie does a fantastic of job making you care about Archie. He knows his best days are behind him,  he knows he’s made mistakes yet despite his many flaws, you cannot but help but want him to succeed, and it’s purely down to the strength of Richie’s performance: if you don’t have that connection then it doesn’t work.

In Diana Vickers you have the moral compass of the family, someone that has yet to be tainted by her environment, and someone who has a chance of making a difference, it’s the conflict between the two of them that drives the narrative along and it’s a credit to both actors that this works so well.

It is a tough watch and one that is short on laughter, unless you like your comedy uncomfortable and cringy, however this is a production that is certainly worth a watch and one that will split audiences and more importantly spark debate and that is always good in my book.

The Entertainer is on at the Manchester Opera House until Saturday 2nd November. Tickets available here.

On Your Feet

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Music legend Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame certainly didn’t come without its challenges. Her childhood was spent caring for her bed-ridden father and younger sister while her demanding mother laid down strict rules and strong academic expectations. Add to this a natural shyness, a music industry rife with prejudice and a life-changing tour bus crash and you can see why success may have at times felt an impossible dream for the Queen of Latin Pop.

On Your Feet tells the real-life love story of both Gloria and Emilio Estefan, their rise from humble Cuban beginnings to Gloria, with the support of husband Emilio becoming one of the most successful female recording artists of the 20th Century selling over 100 million records globally.

Taking on the role of Gloria, Phillipa Stefani demonstrates the talent and fighting spirit of Miss Estefan with style and class. Her voice is perfection as she delivers each number with warmth and passion. George Ioannides makes for an excellent Emilio, capturing both his drive for success and his devotion to his wife with a believable sincerity, while the two together have a beautiful chemistry. Madalena Alberto convinces as Gloria’s stubborn mother while Karen Mann brings the laughs as witty Grandmother Consuelo.

Effectively a jukebox musical On Your Feet is a fun and feel-good reminder of Estefan’s incredible back-catalogue. Writer Alexander Dinelaris and director Jerry Mitchell largely succeed in delivering an entertaining piece of theatre however the decision to gloss over key events such as the marriage of Gloria and Emilio, the birth of their son and the death of her beloved father and grandmother do feel noticeably absent and would have added the emotional depth that’s missing at times. While the story doesn’t shy away from the challenges the couple faced during their rise to the top the dramatic tension you’d hope for is never quite reached.

David Rockwell’s set design feels a little repetitive and at time it feels like the sliding panels never stop but luckily the talented cast manage to draw you in, you may even get invited to conga around the stalls if you’re lucky!

Despite these quibbles the sensational ensemble pieces really do turn up the heat with the talented cast delivering every inch of Sergio Trujillo’s sizzling choreography with perfect precision while Emilio Sosa’s glittering costumes really do add to the spectacle of the piece. The on-stage ten-strong band brilliantly recreate the Miami Sound Machine’s vibrant sound ensuring that flaws aside the rhythm will without doubt get you.

Featuring songs such as Dr Beat, 1-2-3, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You and of course, Conga: On Your Feet is a celebratory evening with enough charm and musical treats to ensure you conga your way out of the theatre and feel a little warmer for all that Latino spice.

On Your Feet is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 2nd November tickets available here.

Broadway & West End Star Marisha Wallace heads to Sale!

In what must surely be considered a bit of a coup for the Waterside in Sale, spring 2020 brings a mouth-watering chance to see one of the biggest voices in musical theatre up close and personal.Broadway and West End Star Marisha Wallace,who recently starred in the original London cast of Waitress and will be seen next summer alongside Michael Ball in Hairspray, is a genuine diva in all the right senses of the word.

Other credits to her name include Effie White in Dreamgirls, The Book of Mormon, and a crowd-pleasing cameo in the recent live action remake of Disney’s Aladdin (“still I think he’s raaaaaather tasty!”). Now Marisha is heading out on her first-ever UK tour, which opens at the Waterside on Sunday 8 March 2020. Fans can expect to hear the South Carolina-born performer belt out some of her best-loved songs.

She says: “I’m so excited to be heading out on my first ever UK Tour. I fell in love with the UK from the moment I first I stepped on stage here. The warmth and love I’ve received from audiences has been really special and I cannot wait to head out to play theatres around the UK – it’s going to be amazing.”

Following her debut UK tour Marisha will take on the iconic role of Motormouth Maybelle in the eagerly-awaited West End return of Hairspray alongside Michael Ball. Tickets go on sale at 10am on Friday 1 November at 10am further info can be found here.

The Exorcist

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When it it was announced that the stage version of The Exorcist was coming to Manchester I freely admit I was more than a little excited for a couple of reasons. The first being that this is one of my favourite films, when growing up the film had mystic about it mainly due to it being unavailable for some 11 years, to get hold of a copy was seen as a right of passage when growing up and when you finally did get to see it it did not disappoint. The second is that the film seldom out of your consciousness if like me you’re a fan of film critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode (Hello to Jason). There is seldom a week that goes by where the good Dr doesn’t manage to shoehorn an ‘exorcist story’ into his radio programmes and podcasts.

The stage adaptation from writer John Pielmeier, draws more from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty more so then William Fredkin’s film. It tells the story, of Hollywood actor Christine MacNeil (Susan Ward) and her daughter Regan (Susannah Edgley), they’re staying in a big creepy house, in Georgetown, Washington whilst Christine shoots her latest movie. However, with Regan’s birthday coming up and anxiety of her estranged father not contacting Regan along with the strange noises coming from the attic not all is well at home.

Regan soon begins speaking of an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, who she claims to have encountered her whilst playing with a Ouija board. Her behaviour becomes more erratic, as she self harms, uses profanity, urinates on the floor, and more disturbingly predicts the death of Christine’s friend the movie director Burke Dennis (Tristram Wymark).

As Regan’s behaviour worsens, her health deteriorates and with doctors, medication and psychologists providing no cure Christine is running out of time to save her daughter. In the meantime, a Father, Damien Karras (Ben Caplan) is having a crisis of faith, having lost his mother, feelings of resentment, regret and remorse surround the priest, as he comes to terms with his own guilt at her passing. A meeting between Karras and Christine prompts the desperate mother to enquire about an exorcism; Karras acquiesces to Christine’s proposal and so begins a battle to save not just the life of a little girl but also the souls of those around her.

Director Sean Mathias has done a great job of bringing this classic of the silver screen to life. From the moment you enter the theatre there was a sense of trepidation in the air, right from the the get go, there are some big jump scares to get you in the mood. However, these are soon dispensed with in favour of the more shocking elements of the text: vomiting, foul language, murder and the ordeal that this girl and her family are going through.  All the key elements that caused and still cause outrage to this day are there, of which I will not spoil, yet they still manage to shock even now, and I knew what was coming.

The performances are solid throughout, Susannah Edgley has the difficult job of an adult playing a child, which she manages to do brilliantly, she fully captures the sweet innocence and absolute horror of Regan. Sophie Ward is equally as good in her role, its one you could easily go OTT with, yet she refrains from doing so giving a measured but heartfelt turn.

If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, Paul Nicholas would get the ‘and’ or ‘with’ billing on the poster, but here he gets top billing for what is essentially supporting role, however Nicholas brings a real presence to his role as Father Merrin, an experienced priest drafted into help with exorcism ritual. It is a restrained, understated but no less vital performance.  Finally, there is the un-credited performance of Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of the demon, the potty-mouthed thesp, pretty much steals every scene he’s in without being even being there! If there is filmed footage of this being recorded, then get it online quick because it would look fantastic. A huge amount of praise must be heaped on Edgley who does an excellent job of lip-syncing with McKellen’s fruity dialogue.

However, for me the most impressive aspect of the production is its look, the team have created a haunting, atmospheric and terrifying space, from the iconic window, Regan’s bedroom, to the creepy house, complete with exploding lights, through to the pews and confessional boxes of the church this is lynch pin of the production. The scene transitions weren’t as smooth as they could be, with sliding panels but it really didn’t matter. To create the big scares and the more shocking elements of the play the lighting, sound, and projection team have done some fantastic work here.

This is a creepy, tense production that will have enough to please fans of the film/book but is also fine introduction to this controversial, yet entertaining piece of work, I would say that the more controversial elements will still create debate and polarise people’s opinion, but that for me mean’s it’s done its job.

The Exorcist is on at the Manchester Opera House until 26th October. Tickets available here.

Avenue Q

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Today’s review for Avenue Q is brought to you by the letter X, F and the number 4!

Avenue Q makes a much welcome return to Manchester this week like an old friend you haven’t seen in while, it’s reassuring to see that it hasn’t lost any of its charm, shock factor and ability to make you smile.

Avenue Q is the tale of a group of friends just trying to get by in the world, that fact that the group are made up of humans, puppets, and monsters is irrelevant, they all have the same problems, including relationship issues, unemployment and in one case an over reliance on internet porn! This is the version of life that the likes of Sesame Street don’t prepare you for when growing up.

The show set in New York, introduces us to Princeton, a fresh faced graduate armed with an English degree, ready to take on the world, however having limited funds and no job has seen him arrive on Avenue Q: a rough part of town that makes skid row look like Madison Avenue. Also living on Avenue Q, are a young couple, Brian and Christmas Eve, Brian an inspiring stand-up comic, whilst Christmas Eve dreams of being a therapist but cannot hang onto her clients. There is also Nicky and Rod, a pair of best friends who live together, however Rod has feelings for Nicky that are more than plutonic.

In addition, there is also Trekkie Monster, a reclusive monster, who seemingly just stays at home watching porn, and Gary Coleman, former child star who has fell on hard times and is now landlord of the street. Finally, there is Kate Monster, a teaching assistant, who dreams of opening her own school for monsters, who is also Smitten by Princeton and it looks like the feeling is mutual. However, as we know the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly at the best of times, but when you have  a couple of mischievous forces at work in the shape of the Bad News Bears, then it would be fair to say life is pretty tough for the residents of Avenue Q.

Jeff Whitty has taken the world of Sesame Street stuck it through a meat grinder and what has come out the other end is a script that is sharp, witty and pulls no punches.  There is the right mix of sentimentality and near-the-knuckle humour. Add to that the songs of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx that include the bang on point Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, the heart-breaking There’s A Fine, Fine Line. The firm favourite of the audience this evening was The Internet is for Porn, which could have dated, but still hasn’t lost its sense of fun, and with a little help from our cuddly puppets its shock value.

The small ensemble cast is superb with many of them pulling double duty performing as various puppets. Cecily Redman is outstanding in her duel role of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, crisscrossing seamlessly from upbeat optimistic heroine to trashy vamp Lucy the Slut.  Equally impressive is Lawrence Smith, as the idealistic, well-meaning Princeton as well as the uptight repressed Rod. There is also excellent support from Chole Gentles and Tom Steedon who bring life into a plethora of furry creatures Bad Idea Bears, Nicky and crowd favourite Trekkie Monster.  It’s a credit to the actors/puppeteers, that you forget they’re on stage and lose yourself in the cute, yet foul-mouthed creatures.

It’s not just the exceptionally talented puppeteers and actors who deserve praise, but the human characters are exceptional as well. Ellis Dackombe and Saori Oda, are equally impressive as engaged couple Brian and his Asian American partner, Christmas Eve. Oda is a tour-de -force, in a scene stealing turn, whilst Dackombe is perfect as laid-back Brian, very much in a Seth Rogen, ‘stoner’ role. Finally, we have Nicholas Mclean as Gary Coleman, who lights up the stage with every scene he’s in and gets some huge laughs mainly down to the absurdity of his characters appearance

Director Cressida Carré has done a tremendous job making this a memorable production. Some very funny song and dance number, with some hilarious set pieces, including a pot of puppet on puppet bedroom gymnastics that will live long in the memory. I loved the video screen cartoons used throughout the production which are glorious nod to Sesame Street and certainly add an anarchic touch to proceedings.

The production touches on race, depression, sexuality and plays with our own prejudices and how we see the world, genuinely having something to say, and if that can be done with a song and in such bad taste then count me in.

Today’s review was brought to you by the letters, X and F, the X is for X-rated, and the F is for funny, funny, funny! Whilst the 4 well that’s 4 stars, all the way, so take a stroll down Avenue Q you won’t be disappointed!

Avenue Q is on at the Palace Theatre until the 26th October. Tickets available here.

 

 

 

Sleeping Beauty

Reviewed by Kate Goerner

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Theatre Royal in St Helens and Regal Entertainments continues with its welcome tradition of producing pantomines outside of the festive season with Sleeping Beauty for the October Half Term.

A much-loved tale of beautiful princess Aurora cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel by evil fairy Carabosse and sleep for a hundred years is brought to life by a hard-working cast – with all the requisite panto elements like glitter, songs and bags of audience participation.

Familiar faces in the cast include St Helens resident dame Si Foster. With a ‘You Hoo’ he is a good humoured figure who the audience clearly has real affection for.

As always Foster has great rapport with comic Lewis Devine (Chester the Jester) – a now familiar face in Theatre Royal pantos a clear audience favourite. His scene with the children from the audience on stage was as funny as you’d hope.

Samantha Palin is an impressive baddie Carabosse – striding about the stage and delivering some one-liners as wicked as her character. Clearly having bags of fun being the baddie, she almost made you root for Team Carabosse!

Mia Molloy and James Lacey play it straight as Love’s Young Dream Aurora and The Prince, both bringing like ability and great vocals to the stage.

Making up the principle cast is Warren Donnelly as The King and Abigail Middleton as Fairy Sparkle, who got to enjoy the spotlight at the end of of Act 1 with a powerhouse rendition of When You Believe.

A good panto in my eyes is one where I spend quite a bit of the show watching my little boy’s reaction to the on-stage action! And he was fully immersed in this show – booing, cheering, singing and laughing. His favourite bit? The “rude” nursery rhymes had him and the other young audience members in hysterics.

It’s a cheerful, crowd pleasing affair performed and received with warmth. And as ever the ticket prices are commendably affordable – starting at just £13.

Up next for Christmas at the Theatre Royal is Aladdin starring Strictly professional dancer Robin Windsor – we are looking forward to it already.

Just one cautionary note for parents of younger children – you can no longer borrow free booster seats at the theatre – instead having to purchase an inflatable one (which you get to take away with you) for £5 – a cost which could add up for larger groups. Just something to perhaps consider when deciding where to sit if you are with younger children and don’t want to shell out for a seat.

Sleeping Beauty is on at the St Helens Theatre Royal until Saturday 29th October. Tickets available here.

 

ENB – Cinderella

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

From the moment the curtain rises on Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Cinderella, you are transported into a fairytale world, rich with colour, majestic decadence, and lashings of magic and wonder.

The production opens with the young Cinderella dancing joyfully with her parents, however happiness soon turns to tragedy as Cinderella’s Mother becomes ill and sadly dies. Heartbroken, Cinderella’s tears fall to the ground, thus sprouting a mighty tree, which will have a huge impact on our heroine as the story unfolds.

As time passes by Cinderella’s father remarries a cruel woman: in disgust at her father’s supposed betrayal of her mother, she decides to act as servant rather than join the family. In the meantime, a young Prince called Guillaume, is being pressured into finding a wife by his father, King Albert. In order to facilitate this, a ball is arranged with invitations to be handed out across the Kingdom. However, Guillaume and his friend Benjamin decide to have a little fun and swap roles with each other. A chance meeting between Cinderella and the disguised Prince ignites a passion between the two; however, with a wicked stepmother, an ambitious stepsister, and other factors standing in their way, will they get there happy ever after?

This is a three-pronged assault on the senses that creates something quite special. First, we have the iconic score of Sergei Prokofiev, filled with joy, woe, grandeur and more than a nod to his Soviet roots.

The second is the story telling and choreography of the piece. Cinderella, is one of those stories most of us are hugely familiar with however Wheeldon has spiced things up: gone is the fairy godmother, replaced by four fates who watch over Cinderella from the moment her Mother dies. The ugly sisters aren’t particularly ugly, instead one is truly mean of spirit, whilst the other is a meek timid creature, also put down by her mother. The big change is in Cinderella herself, she is a strong, independent women.

The English National Ballet, has some absolute gems in their ranks, Joseph Caley as Prince Guillaume commands the stage throughout, an excellent leading man, with a performance of power and strength, whilst Erina Takahashi is graceful, light and fluid, yet feisty. They were supported by some fantastic comedic turns from Tamera Rojo, (stepmother Hortensia) Alison McWhinney stepsister Edwina) and Katja Khaniukova (stepsister Clementine), as well as a solid, yet fun performance from Jeffrey Cirico as Benjamin, you get two Prince’s for the price of one!

For me the aesthetic of the production really sets it apart from anything you’ll see anywhere else.  From floating chandeliers, dangling chairs, enchanted forest, to beautiful flowing ball gowns, the piece manages to marry fairytale magic and royal splendour seamlessly. Set and costume designer Julian Crouch, deserves a huge amount of credit, as do the rest of the production team, they have created something truly magical.

This a production filled with spectacular set-pieces, which include a mesmerising scene where Cinderella is readied for the ball and an enormously fun scene where Guillaume and Benjamin hold a shoe fitting for every woman in the Kingdom in order to find Cinderella. However, the real jewel in the crown is the spectacular palace ballroom scene, packed full humour and romance, we have shenanigans aplenty including drunken dance floor escapades, failed courting dances, and a spot of dance floor chunder, behaviour which regularly occurs in nightclubs the land!

As part of English National Ballet’s 70th anniversary the company are celebrating and thanking its touring communities by giving away 70 tickets during each run of performances in every city they tour to. In addition to this the ballet company has gifted tickets to staff from local charities and organisations including Talbot House, Mustard Tree, Frost Foundation, Lifeshare and Teenage Cancer Trust/Christie Hospital. English National Ballet will also give a ‘Golden Ticket’ for a special English National Ballet experience or piece of merchandise to one audience member per performance in Manchester.

Accessible, beautiful, light-hearted and magical this is a production that will cast a spell over you, an absolute treat for the whole family!

Cinderella is at the Palace Theatre until the 19th October. Tickets available here.