The Way Old Friends Do

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ok, I’ll confess, I’m not ready to move on from the glorious bubble that was Eurovison just yet so when I spotted that The Way Old Friends Do, a new comedy with a heavy emphasis on everyone’s favourite Dancing Queens, Abba, was heading to The Lowry I jumped at the chance.

Penned by and starring Ian Hallard, The Way Old Friends Do introduces us to Peter (Hallard) a self-confessed Abba superfan and his former school friend, the filthy and fabulous Edward (James Bradshaw).

After a chance reunion via Grindr, their friendship is reignited when Edward ropes Peter into forming an Abba tribute band with a twist…they’ll be portraying Agnetha and Frida while wannabe actress Jodie (Rose Shalloo) takes on the role of Björn and rehearsal pianist Mrs. Campbell (Tariyé Peterside at tonight’s performance) is enrolled as a rather bemused and bearded Benny.

The story focuses on Peter and Edward’s friendship and the complexities of navigating suddenly being thrust together after many years, albeit wearing a wig and platform boots. At school both came out to each other, but while Edward announced he was gay, Peter unsure then about his sexuality declared himself a devoted Abba fan. Fast-forward to adulthood and Edward is living his authentic life while Peter is still struggling to share his truth with his beloved nan (voiced by Miriam Margolyes).

Halland’s touching portrayal of sweet-natured Peter is a beautiful watch, as he explores both this rekindled friendship and the lessons, he can learn from it. Culminating in a touching coming out scene as he calls his Nan to finally confide in her.

Bradshaw’s Edward in contrast is full on, flamboyant and seemingly fearless making his character not just entertaining but hugely endearing as we see the layers unpeel a little, revealing much more than meets the eye.

Tariyé Peterside is hilarious as Mrs Campbell, she makes the most of every witty line she’s gifted & seems happy to go with the flow as long of course as she’s having fun. Rose Shalloo gives us lots of laughs as struggling actor Jodie, Donna Berlin shines as Peter’s no nonsense BFF Sally, while Andrew Horton as the Aussie hunk with questionable intentions adds an unexpected layer to the story.

Hallard’s script is laugh out loud funny, he excels at witty one liners while there are meaningful moments littered throughout. Each character goes on their own journey, growing and developing as their friendships build. Bursts of Abba during the scene changes whet your appetite for a full cast performance which never fully materialises, something I can’t help but think would be the icing on the cake of this super fun production, however the fun facts delivered by super-fan Peter throughout will leave you hoping there’s an Abba round at your next pub quiz.

Janet Bird’s rotating set design is simple yet hugely effective, becoming a rehearsal room one moment and a sophisticated spa the next. This is complimented perfectly by her wonderful costumes which get progressively more fabulous as the band develops. Director Mark Gatiss has ensured the pace never drops while the more emotional scenes are given just the right amount of time to breathe. There’s a welcome sigh of affection as we hear Paul O’Grady’s voice as the radio DJ setting the year for each Act, adding to the sentimentality of this production .

The Way Old Friends Do will entertain you enormously, reward you with some inspired character development and remind you of the importance of true friendship. Uplifting, joyous theatre packed with plenty of heart.

The Way Old Friends Do is on at The Lowry until Saturday 27th May tickets available here.

Greatest Days

Reviewed by Jodie Crawford

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Quite surprisingly this jukebox musical is not the actual story of Take That, nor is it the story of “The Band” which feature as a background soundtrack to this production. But, this is a glorious, heartwarming story of friendship, loss, love, fear and how it feels to love a boy band more than any thing else in the world.

Now – disclaimer- I am not a huge Take That fan. I’m more of a New Kids on the Block girl, but after tonight I realised how the sound track of this musical has in fact been the sound track of so much of my late teenage years. A bit like: I’m not a fan of Angels by Robbie, yet I know all the words! What I also categorically know is that the Manchester audience tonight were absolutely gagging to see this Bobby Dazzler of a show.

Putting Greatest Days in on Manchester is a Take That fans version of a United fan watching United in a premier league title match at Old Trafford. There is no better place for this show to be. It’s a wonderful homecoming.

The plot takes us back to the 90s, where we were wearing knee high socks and pleated tartan mini skirts or adidas trackies, where we were recording our favourite hits on our ghetto blasters on a Sunday afternoon while listening to the charts, where we were making up dances with our mates so that we could dance along when the Smash Hits poll winners party was on the telly. Here, we meet five friends, as different as the spice girls to one another. Who, thanks to the beautiful, talented Debbie (played by the magnificent Mary Moore) have the chance to go and see their favourite band play in Manchester. A treat like no other; all they have to do is tell a few lies to their parents and make their way to the concert. Their aim is to finally meet the boys, face to face. The night however doesn’t go as planned and their lives are never the same again.

The events of that night breaks the bond the girls have, until the once in a lifetime chance brings them together 25 years later.

I don’t mind admitting it, I did shed quite a few tears at various moments of the show. And judging by the sniffing sounds around the auditorium, I wasn’t the only one.

The entire cast were incredible. The connections between the friends as their younger selves and then older selves was electric. And the scene where the younger version comes together with the older one was so enchantingly beautiful.

Special mention goes to the wonderful Jamie-Rose Monk for her hilarious and touching portrayal of older Claire. Never have I laughed more than at the line “I like to sleep with a man and then eat him”. Rachel Marwood is a brilliant older Heather; I am not surprised that Rachel has been awarded a “funny woman” award previously – she is a great comic actress.

Holly Aston, Hannah Brown, Emilie Cunliffe, Kitty Harris and Mari McGinley, were all outstanding in their performances. They work well together on stage and deserve every moment of the standing ovation given. While Kym Marsh was dazzling: she can sing, she can dance and Manchester love her, she’s one of ours and Mancunians couldn’t be prouder.

The “boys” did exactly what their role asks of them, they gave us a sound track, they didn’t take the limelight, they let the women shine in all their glory. And they did so with so much talent and humbleness. They help to tell the story, they know it’s not all about them and they take that with grace. And they also lead a fabulous finale!

It’s also worth the ticket price to see Alan Price in his many roles, a true legend of the stage in every sense of the word.

The music is what ties everything together in this production, the goosebumps on the back of my neck when “Never Forget” started up. You could feel the electricity sweep through the audience. Most people will go and see this show because they love Take That, but it’s more than a homage to a boy band-it’s a tribute to those of us who bonded with our ill fitting friends over our love of pop music. It’s a dedication to the girls who queued for hours for tickets or at stage door at the end of the night for a glimpse of their favourite member of the band. It’s a reflection of lives lived, and those not lived fully. It’s a chance to reminisce of how we saw ourselves 25 years ago and be proud of the women we became. It is nostalgic, but it’s also insightful and moving, a perfect night out.

Greatest Days is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 27th May tickets available here.

The SpongeBob Musical

Opening Night Verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Opera House in Manchester has been transformed into Bikini Bottom for the week with the arrival of SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical, the hit Broadway show currently on its first outing in the U.K.

For those living under a …pineapple? SpongeBob Squarepants is a hit/cult cartoon series that launched on Nickelodeon in 1999. While it probably isn’t the most obvious source material for a musical, nevertheless it opened in New York in 2017 and was nominated for a dazzling 12 Tony Awards.

It isn’t a jukebox musical – the show has original songs written by some of the biggest names in music including Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and Sara Barellis.

The result is a veritable smorgasbord of eclectic musical styles, each one different from the next with everything steered in shipshape fashion by director Tara Overfield Wilkinson.

And there’s some real bangers in there there – from the opening number Bikini Bottom Day (Jonathan Coulton) to SpongBob’s uplifting Hero is My Middle Name (by Cyndi Lauper).

The plot really doesn’t matter – but it centres around a volcano that’s due to erupt putting Bikini Bottom at risk – and there’s some nice messaging in there like sticking together, being a good friend and how family is more important than money.

As the titular sponge Lewis Cornay (Book of Morman) puts in a charismatic lead performance. Not only does he nail SpongeBob’s trademark squeaky voice but the fact he makes it all look so easy is testament to the skill involved by him.

Tom Read Wilson – four-legged Squidward – is best known for his role as ‘client co-ordinator’ in Celebs Go Dating, but he trained in musical theatre and boy does it show! He gets one of the best numbers on of the night in the They Might Be Giants-penned I’m Not a Loser – a full on company tap number that is pure joy. 

Clear local favourite Divina De Campo is having lots of fun as the dastardly Shelton J Plankton, who doesn’t let his small stature (and the fact he’s a one cell organism) stop his scheming.

The principles are complimented by a hard-working supporting cast including Irfan Damani as the sweet starfish Patrick, Tik Tok & Heathers favourite Hannah Lowther as Karen, Chrissi Bhima as Sandy Cheeks, Sarah Freer as Pearl and Richard J Hunt as Eugene Krabs. The company is terrific and it looks like genuine fun is being had by all.

Sarah Mercade’s witty and wonderful costumes help bring the characters to life and there’s lots of in-jokes to spot during proceedings (we loved that the Mayor of Bikini Bottom lives at 10 Drowning Street…. and that Tuna Turner and Cod Stewart were in the band!)

Theres much fun to be had for die hard SpongeBob fans but if you’re new to the phenomenon then just sit back and let the madness wash over you!

A few opening night sound gremlins didn’t detract too much from the fantastic vocals on display, and while a delayed start for technical reasons meant a bit of a later than planned finish for little ones, at the end everyone was up on their feet singing the TV theme tune.

Fabulous, fluorescent fun for SpongeBob devotees or newbies alike – trust us, you’ve got to ‘sea’ it!

The SpongeBob Musical is on at Manchester’s Opera House until Sunday 21st May tickets available here.

Strictly Come Dancing -The Professional 2023

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Not to be out sequinned by the small matter of the Eurovision Song Contest happening at the opposite end of the M62 this week, Strictly Come Dancing – The Professionals hits the Lowry stage with a promise of stunning choreography and lavish costumes all delivered by everyone’s favourite pros from the show.

The huge success of the stadium tour which sees celebrities and their professional partners recreating the most popular routines from the BBC show has birthed another welcome opportunity for fans to get their FAB-U-LOUS fix with a celebration of all things Strictly, bridging the gap until the new series starts in September.

Boasting 10 of SCD’s most popular dancers this show quite literally has it all from Charlestons to Cha Cha Chas and everything else in between. The pros burst onto the Lowry stage delivering high energy routines which thrill the delighted audience, introducing each other as they go, not that this audience of Strictly superfans need any introductions! The highly polished routines come thick and fast showcasing the sheer talent of the multi award-winning dancers on stage.

Strictly’s Creative Director Jason Gilkison has directed the show perfectly, balancing show-stopping group routines with slower paced sensual numbers giving both the audience and the dancers a moment to catch their breath. The level of skill on display is incredible it feels like a real privilege to see such talent up close in this intimate show. While the large screen behind the band gifts the audience with an opportunity to learn a little more about the dancers’ journeys from childhood to being here on the Lowry stage.

Backed by a superb six-piece live band, vocalists Tara McDonald and Patrick Smyth showcase their incredible talent as they take on the likes of Duran Duran, Shania Twain and Beyonce with ease. There’s a fantastic Disney tribute which sees MacDonald and Smyth deliver note perfect renditions of multiple Disney favourites including I Just Can’t Wait To be King and Be Our Guest, all while the pros perform fantastic accompanying routines.

Vicky Gill’s stunning costumes compliment Jason Gilkinson’s choreography wonderfully with costumes changes coming thick and fast throughout. There are feathers, sequins, capes and corsets, each costume perfectly in keeping with the style of that particular dance.

Special mention must go to the beautiful tribute to former Head Judge Len Goodman, which sees the pros deliver a stunning routine to John Farnham’s You’re the Voice performed perfectly by Patrick Smyth and Tara McDonald. Another super fun highlight is a dance off between the pros who have split into two teams, one in support of Beyonce the other Barry Manilow. It’s the mash up you never knew you needed!

Strictly Come Dancing – The Professionals gives dance fans exactly what they want, it’s feelgood, fabulous, fun and will appeal to young and old alike. With 10’s across the board it’s the perfect Strictly fix!

Strictly Come Dancing – The Professionals 2023 is on at the Lowry until Wednesday 10th May tickets available

The King and I

Reviewed by Jodie Crawford

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Credit: Johan Persson

The King and I is a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, based on Margaret Landon’s book Anna and the King. This production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is true to the original stage version and script which first premiered on Broadway in 1951. You have to accept this and take the show for what it is, and while at times there cliches and prejudices displayed, if you dig a bit deeper you will see a tale of love and loyalty, and a journey of self-discovery, where it is least expected.

The King and I tells the tale of a British widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechley) who travels to Thailand from Singapore, for the role of teacher to the many children of the King of Siam (Darren Lee). Anna discovers that she isn’t seen as an equal to the King or in fact any man and must battle to have her voice heard.

Credit: Johan Persson

Anna is adored by the many wives and children of the King. She is committed to educating the children in the way she knows how, which isn’t always in line with the views and beliefs of the Thai King.

Anna however soon develops a strong bond and friendship with the King, where he values her thoughts and advice, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it out loud. With the impending visit of a British visitor, Anna makes it her mission to bring some western values and traditions to the palace, to expel the rumour in Britain of the King being a Barbarian.

While the plot doesn’t sit easily with me, the performances are exceptional. Beechley and Lee have an electric chemistry, they bring much laughter and joy to the production. They set such a high standard of performance and are enchantingly captivating throughout.

Credit: Johan Persson

Cezarah Bonner is impeccable as Lady Thiang, torn between her love of the King and her admiration for Anna. Marienella Phillips is sublime as TupTim, her vocals are glorious.

Special mention goes to the ensemble of children, so much talent and energy is shown throughout the production.

It is a large cast with an excellent senior ensemble also, the musicality and dancing are perfectly delivered, making the performances truly captivating.

Catherine Zuber has done an incredible job of the costumes, they are vibrant and splendid in every way, from the large European style dresses of Anna – to the most majestical tradition Thai outfits. The Thai theatre costumes are just spectacular and show great respect for the Thai culture and puppetry used in traditional Thai theatre. These were a huge highlight for me.

Credit: Johan Persson

Michael Yeargan’s set is well designed and along with the clever lighting design by Donald Holder, helps to transform us to another era in imperial times in Thailand.

The Manchester audience were on their feet at the end, awarding the cast with highly deserved standing ovation and that is testament to the great talent on the stage tonight.

The message of love and hope and the ability for things to change are the key central themes of this classic tale – and the music is truly wonderful.

The King and I is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 13th May, tickets available here.

Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

You have to wonder what Charles Dickens would make of modern day Britain, poverty, child exploitation, these were issues the author highlighted some 200 years ago with his undoubted classic Oliver Twist which are sadly still very prominent today. 

In 2018 the author Michael Rosen took Dickens’ story and weaved it into his own novel Unexpected Twist! An Oliver Twisted Tale, which has now been adapted for the stage with a freshness and energy that demands your full attention.

This is the story of Shona (Drew Hylton), a young teenager, who along with her father (Thomas Vernal) are constantly on the move to avoid their creditors while attempting to keep their heads above water. In addition, Shona also has the added anxiety of going to a new school, where she is desperate to hide her impoverished background and the  death of her mother.

It’s during English lessons with Miss Carvani (Rosie Hilal) that Shona begins to draw on the parallels between her own life and that of Oliver Twist. It’s also in English class where Shona meets Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno), a young man who models himself on the Artful Dodger, and like his idol is a recruiter for a criminal gang of pickpockets, and mules, carrying cash, and stolen goods for its leader, Pops ( Jame Meteyard).

With Shona desperate to shake off the shackles of poverty and with the lure of easy money and a new phone, will she join the gang to help her family and most of all prove she is nothing like the 19th century orphan boy who just wanted more.

Despite an initial slow start, this is a bold, unique take on a familiar classic, told featuring beat-box, rap, ballards, and well-choreographed set pieces  all performed by a super talented, young cast, some of whom are recording artists in their own right.  We are told at the start of the performance that there is no accompanying band and that everything you hear during the performance will be done by the cast, which is an incredible achievement. I absolutely loved the beatboxing, it sounded fantastic and was enormously effective.

Drew Hyland is brilliant, perfectly encapsulating the struggle between what is right and that desire to escape her perceived destiny of a life of poverty. In addition, Rosie Hilal is in fine form as Miss Carvani, a Nancy-esque character who although full of good intentions towards her pupils, also has her own troubles to deal with.

It’s important that a piece of theatre can shine a spotlight on issues such as child poverty, the cost of living crisis, child exploitation, knife crime and domestic abuse. Whilst this is a sanitised version aimed at a younger audience it sometimes lacks a real edge and sense of menace, however, it by no means diminishes the strong message the show is trying to convey.

Despite its tough subject matter the production is also a great deal of fun. This is a vibrant, engaging production, performed  by an exceptionally talented cast full of energy and humour telling a story that is all too real and sadly one that is a reality for so many young people today.

Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist is at the Lowry, Lyric Theatre until the 7th May. Tickets available here.