Fisherman’s Friends

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The acapella group Fisherman’s Friends rise is nothing short of remarkable. From humble beginnings in the Cornish village of Port Isaac through to playing the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Along the way there is a gold selling album, numerous national and international tours, two feature films and now Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, a fantastic, feel-good production, that will see your emotions bob up and down like a buoy on a choppy night in the North Sea.

Based on a true story, the story begins showing the two passions of our protagonists, fishing and singing, as the group bring in the catch of the day, during some pretty hazardous conditions, all done with a song in their hearts. It’s a neat introduction to Lucy Osborne’s fabulous looking set that manages to fill the huge stage of the Lyric theatre. Fishing boat, local pub and even a Soho night club, the staging is top draw.

Back on dry land we meet the gang, led by Jim, his father, Jago, as well numerous villagers and salty sea dogs where loyalty, and friendship is as important as keeping their traditions alive and having a well-earned pint. They are all kept in check by Jim’s daughter, Alwyn, who is also a great singer in her own right. The arrival of Danny, a former A & R executive at Island Records will see the seafaring folk enter uncharted territory; Danny who is blown away by the group’s harmonies and just a little smitten with Alwyn hatches a plan.

Danny hopes to have the group record a demo, land them a record deal and hopefully save his own flagging career. However, it’s not all plain sailing and Danny must gain the trust of the group and Alwyn; and that’s just the start of his problems.

Whilst the plot isn’t the most original or ground-breaking story telling you’re ever likely to see, with its fish-out-of-water meets rags to riches familiar tropes, the production has plenty of a heart, soul and a huge sense of fun, it’s certainly one of the most up lifting nights at the theatre I’ve had in quite some time. Fantastic musicians, stirring vocal blends and powerful solo’s, this production more than delivers when honouring the legacy of the band.

As you might expect there are a great number of sea shanties featured including Blow the Man Down and (What Shall We Do with the) Drunken Sailor and songs that the band have made their own, Keep Hauling and the absolute banger that is No Hopers, Jokers & Rogues.

The performances are outstanding throughout, Jason Langley’s Danny is often the comic foil throughout the show. Langley turns in a fine comedy performance and has a great singing voice to match. Parisa Shahmir as the feisty Alwyn is the perfect match for Langley and the chemistry between the two is the driving force of the whole production. Her stunning vocal performance on The Tidal Pool is absolutely gorgeous.

There is strong support from Hedrian Delacey, as Jim the band’s unofficial leader who expresses his mistrust over unfolding events. Delacey walks the tightrope between caring father figure and cynical patriarch exceptionally well.  In addition, we have Robert Duncan and Susan Penhaligon as Jim’s parents Jago and Maggie, the beating heart of the community, both clearly having a ball as the mischief makers in chief, who have been around the block enough times to know that you shouldn’t squander life’s opportunities.

The music is performed by cast members, who are ever present on stage throughout giving the production a feel of authenticity. I’ve been to enough folk nights to see people getting up and joining in. There is some outstanding musicianship on display throughout the show.

You don’t have to be familiar with the story of the Fisherman’s Friends or even know the music, to enjoy this rousing, upbeat story, just get comfy and let it wash over you. Watching it made me think of hot chocolate, an open log fire, and a cosy night on the couch under a blanket, just some life’s little joys and treasures that offer comfort and are good for the soul, and Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is no exception to this.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is on at The Lowry until Saturday 1st October, tickets available here.

OutStagedUs

Reviewed by Jodie Crawford

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to review this “fearlessly bold celebratory night of theatre addressing and exploring issues of sexuality and gender identity.” But I certainly wasn’t expecting to laugh and cry as much as I did.

Hive North theatre company (formerly Hope Theatre Company) has selected eleven very different pieces written by various writers and performed by an exceptional cast.

All pieces are centred around issues of gender identity and sexuality. As I was leaving the auditorium I overheard someone say “there are so many voices that need to be heard” and that’s it – that’s the essence of this performance as a whole.

Within each piece there is a story that many can identify with. There is a struggle that so many people have faced and so many people continue to face. There are issues that I would never have considered that people are confronted with and grapple with daily. There is also great humour and real honesty.

I was incredibly moved by the first piece “Behind Enemy Lines” by Bobbie Warner; the honesty and raw emotion in the writing when exploring the issue of the loss of a pregnancy for a trans masculine person was so incredibly moving and thought provoking.

Spark by Caitlin Magnall-Kearns was an absolute highlight. It was so warm and fragile and the performances from Ralph Bogard and Sam Goodchild were heartlifting and heartbreaking all at the same time. I have never ever wanted two people to end up together more than I did these two!

There was also so much humour in so many of the pieces, even where the subject matter was serious and hard hitting.

The entire cast is to be congratulated on their performances – there was so much talent on stage and nowhere for anyone to hide in this intimate setting of the studio at the Lowry.

All eleven pieces were extraordinary – I feel like my perspective, my empathy, my understanding and my insight have all been changed for the better thanks to these very important pieces of theatre. I felt so incredibly proud of all the writers for sharing such insight into issues that we just don’t explore and discuss enough.

Hive North have done an incredible job of finding these writers and telling their stories. I left wanting to see more and more from these writers, these actors, these directors and these stories in all theatres across the country. I will 100% be back for more, but next time I will remember to pack my tissues!

OutStageUs is on at The Lowry until Thursday 29th September tickets available here.

The Book Thief

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Originally programmed for Spring 2021 before Covid was even a word in our vocabulary, The Book Thief has finally had its world premiere at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and gosh was it worth the wait.

Set in Nazi Germany during WWII, The Book Thief tells the powerful tale of Liesel Meminger who we first meet as a young child, sent to live with a foster family in a desperate bid by her parents to protect her from the creeping evil taking over the country. Liesel’s lower social class means the only way she can get her hands on the literary escapism she yearns for is by stealing it, she is a child without words but through love they will come. Her first opportunity presents itself from the pocket of a gravedigger as her brother is buried, and so the Book Thief is born.

Markus Zusak’s global best-seller is such a beautiful story it feels like it was always destined to make the leap from page to stage especially after being given the Hollywood treatment back in 2013. It is such a beloved book this new musical had to be treated with the utmost care and respect, something director Lotte Wakeham and the creative team have done with abundance, it is quite simply, stunning.

Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald have adapted Zusak’s work faithfully doing absolute justice to the globally adored novel while Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson have gifted the piece with stunning melodies and exquisite songs that gently entwine themselves into the narrative.

Every inch of this production feels of the highest quality from Nic Farman’s atmospheric lighting design to Samuel Wilde’s exquisite puppetry, every detail has been crafted to perfection.

Narrating the piece and guiding us through is ‘Death’, portrayed wonderfully by Ryan O’Donnell. Full of warmth, wit, wisdom and warnings, Death reminds us he’ll visit us all one day but the living we do before he arrives is what really counts. O’Donnell is entirely convincing in the role, commanding our attention yet generously guiding our focus to the story unfolding before us.

The role of Liesel is tonight played by Niamh Palmer who is outstanding. On stage for almost the entirety of the evening she embodies the Liesel millions of readers have fallen in love with. Her voice is superb while her acting convinces entirely. The scenes between those she grows to love are meaningful and heartfelt making the themes of love, language and mortality all the more poignant.

This evening’s Rudy is a wonderful Charlie Murphy, he is pure joy on stage & bursts with charisma. His scenes with Niamh Palmer are both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Jack Lord and Danielle Henry as Hans and Rosa Humbermann bring wonderful wit and warmth while Daniel Krikler as Max Vandenberg adds a genuine depth to the piece as the stark reality of life in Nazi Germany plays out. His poignant delivery of ‘Hello, Stars’ offering a whole new meaning to the words since we first heard them at the start of the piece sung so sweetly by Liesel.

While the leads are outstanding this is a true ensemble production, each and every member of the cast give their all. They deliver Tom Jackson Greaves’ stunning choreography with precision; at times it’s joyful, light and celebratory, others, each and every motion portrays the gut-wrenching pain of persecution and loss. The storytelling through movement combined with the powerful script and score make for a perfect marriage, communicating to the audience clearly and carefully.

While there is an ever present feeling that mortality may never be too far away this is a truly beautiful story of hope and the power we all have through the words we use & the choices we make. Words of love not hate, seeds of kindness, a reminder to look to the stars and to never let evil win.

The Book Thief is a total triumph, full of heart, humour and hope. There was laughter, tears and a swelling of genuine emotion as the thundering standing ovation was received. Everything about this show says West End transfer, it’s a truly special piece of theatre which deserves to be seen far and wide. Superb.

The Book Thief is on at Bolton’s Octagon theatre until Saturday 15th October tickets available here.

Girl from the North Country

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To many Robert Zimmerman, or Bob Dylan to use his stage name is the greatest songwriters of all time. With a career spanning six decades and spawning well over 40 albums, Dylan undoubtedly deserves his spot in the conversation for who is the GOAT. Either love his music or loathe it you can’t deny the volume and quality of his work.

With that in mind there is something of the inevitable about Dylan’s music, being turned into a musical; however, the result isn’t quite what you had in mind and that’s down to writer/director Conor McPherson (The Weir, Port Authority).

McPherson’s Girl from the North County takes place in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, some seven years before the singer was born. It’s 1934 and Duluth, like the rest of America, is still suffering from the impact of the Wall Street crash and the great depression.

Guest house proprietor, Nick Laine, (Colin Connor), has a great number of problems. Along with trying to keep the business afloat, he must care for his dementia riddled wife, Elizabeth (Frances McNamee), help his son, Gene (Gregor Milne) stay sober long enough to hold down a steady job, appease his mistress, the good natured Mrs Neilsen (Nichola MacEvilly), and see that his pregnant, adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is wed to a local ageing business man, Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner), in a bid to secure a stable future for the young women.

In addition to his immediate family, the guest house must remain open in order to keep a roof over the head of the various hard-on-their-luck waifs and strays the lodgings has collected, including an ex-con boxer, a sinister priest, and a family with a troubled son. Under the watchful eye of the local GP and morphine addict, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) their stories intertwine with one another leading to a fateful Thanksgiving dinner that will change their lives forever.

Those expecting a jukebox musical of Dylan’s greatest hits are in for a rude awakening. For sure there are some crowd pleasers, Hurricane, I Want You, and Like a Rolling Stone to name but a few, but the music chosen spans Dylan’s career up to 2012, with the song Duquesne Whistle. Whilst most musicals use their songs to drive the narrative along, the song choice here is to show a shared connection between the characters.

McPherson’s bleak script tackles some meaty subject matter, with dementia, mental illness, financial hardship, and racism (all so very relevant to this day), which in lesser hands could stray into melodrama, however, Girl From The North Country treads that line very carefully aided by a fantastic, hardworking ensemble cast, some powerful central performances, great song-and-dance routines, and a script punctured with a enough humour to keep it entertaining for all the right reasons.

Despite the rather grim setting and subject matter, the production has a great deal of energy to it, with the 20 strong cast frequently on stage together joining in backing vocals, playing various musical instruments, or dancing, whilst the production’s band The Howlin’ Winds expertly delve through Dylan’s back catalogue.

The production values are right out of the top draw, with Rae Smith’s scene and costume design, marrying perfectly with Mark Henderson’s lighting design and Simon Baker’s sound design to create an authentic dreary, dank claustrophobic setting with shoots of colour throughout. At times some of the set pieces resemble a painting in scale composition. The authenticity of the production helped by the use of instruments only around in the 1930’s.

My only real criticism is that at times there are too many narratives, and not enough time devoted to them, so some plot strands don’t quite reach a satisfying conclusion which is a little disappointing.

Girl From The North Country, is a satisfying night at the theatre, and one not just for fans of Dylan’s music. It’s a well-crafted piece of work anchored by some of the best songs of the last century.

Girl From The North Country is at the Lyric Theatre Lowry until 24th September 2022. Tickets available here.

Something’s Coming (to Tameside), Something Good…

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical, ‘West Side Story’ is coming to Tameside from 29th March to 1st April 2023. Presented by Hyde Musical Theatre Society the classic love story will take to the stage at Hyde’s Festival Theatre.

Following their sell out production of the Elvis juke box musical ‘All Shook Up’ earlier this year, Hyde Musical Theatre Society return to the stage next year with the romantic and tragic musical ‘West Side Story’.

Recently released in it’s second film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, ‘West Side Story’ takes the well-known Shakespeare play ‘Romeo & Juliet’ into the 1950’s streets of New York. Exploring the fierce rivalry of gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the young, forbidden love between Tony and Maria. The musical features songs such as Somewhere, America and I Feel Pretty.

Chair of Hyde Musical Society, Julie Wilkinson Said “We chose this musical not only because is it one of the greats from the fantastic pairing of Bernstein and Sondheim, but it has themes that are so important in the current climate. It’s a tragic but beautiful story that teaches us to love without hate.”

She continues, “The 2021 film was a massive hit, there is still an appetite for this to be brought to the stage. The last time it came to Manchester was in 2020 at The Royal Exchange, so we thought its time to bring the Jets and the Sharks back to Greater Manchester!”

The company, like many other local theatre societies, were pulled from the stage during the dress rehearsals of their 2020 musical ‘All Shook Up’ due to the Covid-19 outbreak. They took to the stage with the production more than 2 years later.

Hyde Musical Society celebrated their 80th year in 2020, and are hoping to bring theatre audiences back into their local theatres following the two years of closures.

Daniel Oliver-Grant, Director of this production of West Side Story said “I’m so excited to be working with Hyde Musical Society, their last show ‘All Shook Up’ was brilliant, well received by audiences and had a phenomenal cast. I think ‘West Side Story’ can be even bigger and better.”

He continues “We’ve got a fantastic group of dancers, and an incredible principal cast that I have no doubt will bring this much-loved musical to life. I’ve got big plans and some great ideas to make this production feel fresh, but keep the charm that audiences know and love.”

Rehearsals start in Hyde this October, and the cast take to the stage for a weeklong run at Hyde Festival Theatre, from 29th March to 1st April.

Tickets are available from Sparks Theatre Management or head to hydemusicalsociety.org.uk for more information.

Dreamgirls

Reviewed by Jodie Crawford

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Dream girls is a roller coaster of a story that introduces us to three talented young singers, who are starting out singing in a world where not everyone wants to hear them and not everyone has their best interests at heart.

The girls enter a singing competition, but they don’t stand a chance when small time star “Jimmy Early” (Brandon Lee Jones) loses his backing singers s and his manager Marty (Jo Servi) fails to entice the girls to go on tour with Jimmy. Enter Curtis Taylor Jr (Matt Mills) the man who will stop at nothing to convince the Dreamettes to do the tour and let him be their new manager. And he has big plans, which don’t always include everyone.

Curtis Taylor and songwriter C.C White (Shem Omari James) begin their dream to get the girls to the top of the charts, and in Curtis’ case, at all costs. The story tells the tale of fames, fortune and heartbreak. And most of all friendship.

And I am telling you , I am not going to ever stop raving about this show. 

Wow, wow, wow. I have never seen a show with such power and strength, in storyline, cast and music. This show is something else.

The casting are incredible: each and every cast member plays their part perfectly and with immense talent and emotion. The hits just keep coming. One after another. The staging is clever and functional. We are told the story through seeing, not by being told. We feel the emotions of the characters because the actors show us and pull us along for the ride.

The Dreamettes have a bond, both in script and onstage. Their performances as a group are electric and note perfect. Paige Peddie, who plays Lorrell, works the audience perfectly and we adore her within seconds. She starts of as a timid young girl, and we see her grow into a strong woman. Natalie Kassandra, who plays Deena, is excellent in her portrayal of a young woman who is manipulated by a man who is controlling and coercive. That is until she absolutely comes into her own in Act two in her duet of Listen, with Effie White (Nicole Raquel Dennis). I was mesmerised and moved by this number. These women are incredible.

Now I knew that Nicole Raquel Dennis was going to be good, because I follow her on Twitter and I’ve seen what she can do, but I was not prepared to see her live. This woman is something else. I have no idea how it is humanly possibly to do what she does, day in and day out. I have never, ever seen an audience jump to its feet in the middle of a song in Act One. “And I am telling you I’m not going”, was the single greatest performance I have ever seen. Nothing could have prepared me for how I would feel during that performance. I’ve heard Nicole compared to Jennifer Hudson, she doesn’t need comparing to anyone. She is exceptional in every single way, she’s beautiful, majestic and talented.  I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Now, while it may seem that the women dominate this show, their talent is matched by the male leads also. Brandon Lee Sears performance as Jimmy is energetic, humorous and at times heart wrenching. And boy can that man move his hips! Shem Omari James is beautiful in his role of Effie’s brother C.C, he is a great talent, and I’m sure we are going to see him in the West End over and over again in the coming years.

Matt Mills, who plays Curtis Taylor is multi talented and plays the greedy, desperate manager fantastically. Another excellently cast performer, who delivers in every scene.

The entire cast deserves a mention, they are slick and powerful and deserve every standing ovation that they receive. This show is big, bold, loud and full to the brim with talent. 

The music, oh the music, I grew up with my parents listening to Motown, so I was always going to love the music. I wanted to get up and dance many a time during the show. Tom Eyen and Harry Krieger deserve every accolade they receive, they know how to write a hit.

This show is everything it should be- glitzy, glamorous and oozing with talent. It’s not to be missed. I want to go back again and again and again.

Dreamgirls is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 24th September tickets available here.

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Usual the Sea Witch

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

There is a famous Monty Python sketch called The Fish Slapping Dance, whereby Michael Palin slaps John Cleese in the face with two tiny fish, whilst performing an absurd little jig, only for Cleese to retaliate with a massive slap to Palin’s face with a huge trout! Now I know this isn’t the normal way to begin a review but after watching Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch, you’ll feel like you’ve been walloped over the head by something bigger than a giant trout! Vulgar, absurd, and hilarious, this in-your-face musical parody is as crude as it is fun and I loved it, and dare I say so would the Python team too!

With cinematic releases from Disney such Maleficent and Cruella, told from the point of the villain proving to be a huge commercial successes, Fat Rascal Theatre’s march on the Mouse-eared media Megalodon with their alternative take on everyone’s favourite sea witch, is also proving to be a huge audience favourite.

In this retelling, the action rewinds 20 years:  Ursula, is a sassy, no nonsense strong woman, who heads to Atlantica in the hope that a marriage with the Kings son, Triton will save the kingdom. However the course, of true love doesn’t run smoothly, first some body shaming aimed at our straight talking heroine, followed by being framed for murder, sees  Ursula exiled from Atlantica

Fast Forward 20 years, Triton returns to his former lover, in need of her help with his daughter, Ariel. Ariel is his only living heir and will inherit the kingdom, however it’s fair to say Ariel isn’t quite ready to be a reigning monarch, more interested in men, and what they have between their legs than ruling the sea. Will Ursula’s plan work and make Ariel, become the princess those Disney bigwigs want her to be?

This production is an absolute riot from start to finish: catchy, no nonsense show tunes with big laughs, not just there because they have to be but there because they enhance the plot. Stand out numbers include the crude, but hilarious, Where the Dicks Are, the scene setting Nasty, and my personal favourite, We Didn’t Make it to Disney.

The cast more than matches the excellent written material.  Allie Dart-Munro as Ursula, gets the balance of sass and vulnerability just right. Whilst George Whitty as Triton, has a tremendous singing voice, hitting all the right notes. His is a dead-pan performance when compared to his co-stars. Miracle Chance is exceptional as Ariel, a gift at comedy, a real ‘jesters’ performance. Whilst Jamie Mawson as Eric, the handsome prince of the story is as OTT as he is ridiculous.

There is great support from Danni Payne and Jack Grey who play multiple characters and puppets including Sebastian the lobster, now sporting an Irish descent.

My only gripe really is the sound mix seemed off during the first half, with some of the lyrics lost in the mix, it was rectified following the interval, but I’m sure there were more laughs to be had if I could hear the gags.

With strong messages about body positivity, water pollution, the environment and #MeToo blended with a great deal of risque songs, and more ‘knob’, gags then the average Graham Norton monologue, this is highly entertaining and fun night at the theatre, just leave the kids at home with a babysitter and the subscription to a popular child friendly streaming platform would be my advice.

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch is at the Lowry till Saturday 10th September, tickets available here.