Interview | William Whelton & Joseph Houston talk RENT

Earlier this month Hope Mill Theatre celebrated the bittersweet opening – and closing – of its sold-out production of RENT on the same night. The venue had become one of the first venues in England to stage an indoor theatre production since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theatres back in March.

This new production of the show – initially scheduled for August then moved to Autumn – was due to run at the Grade II-listed former cotton mill from Friday 30th October to Sunday 6th December, following all recommended Covid-secure measures.

The entire run sold out in 48-hours following the announcement of an exciting and diverse young cast, with Hope Mill being granted permission by the rights holders to make up the shortfall in capacity (a result of the necessary social distancing measures) by filming the production and broadcasting it online over four weekends. The filmed version was something that Hope Mill founders William Whelton and Joseph Houston say was crucial in terms of the viability of the production – and even more so when the live run was cut short due to the new national lockdown.

Ahead of the first streamed performance this evening we caught up with William Whelton and Joseph Houston to reflect on the challenges of 2020 and their excitement at bringing RENT to audiences online.


Opening Night: Tell us about RENT and why you wanted to bring it to Hope Mill Theatre and Manchester?
WILL – “RENT is a rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. The story evolves around a group of struggling artists living in New York City and dealing with issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic, regeneration, drug abuse and homelessness. It is also a celebration of diversity, individuality and creativity at its core. All of these themes are so relevant not only to our current climate but to the city of Manchester and we feel that this show has never felt more poignant and important.”

ON: What about the show makes you think it will be the perfect fit for the venue?
JOE: “It’s always very exciting reimagining musicals for a smaller scale and RENT is no exception. The music in RENT and the relationships between characters are so beautifully told and it really lends itself to a more intimate setting. The show is also set in an old apartment block in New York with exposed brick and feels very bohemian. I think aesthetically Hope Mill fits this setting perfectly.”

ON: The cast is incredibly exciting – and extremely diverse. Why is presenting a diverse cast important to you as producers?
WILL: “It is always so important to us as an organisation to celebrate diversity in all of its forms and we are always very proud of the casts we assemble. Especially for a show like RENT, it was even more important that we put together a cast which celebrates individuality and inclusivity. The cast and wider team that we have assembled is so exciting and all of these amazingly talented unique individuals brought so much heart and hope to this production.”

ON: The director Luke Sheppard directed Spring Awakening at Hope Mill – were you excited to have him back at the venue?
JOE: “We loved working with Luke on our production of Spring Awakening, which was such a success for our venue. After seeing &Juliet when it premiered at the Opera House we knew that Luke was the perfect choice to reimagine RENT for a new age. He brings together the most incredible creative team and always gets the best out of his cast members. His vision and creativity is spectacular and RENT was also a musical which is very close to him and was a real inspiration for him pursuing a career in this industry.”

ON: There must have been times this year when you felt RENT wouldn’t be possible in 2020 – what made you so determined to stage the production this year if you could?
WILL: “The past 6 months have been a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, especially in the arts sector. We postponed RENT from the summer, not knowing if it would be at all possible for us to produce this year, but as more guidance was released around inside performances we started planning on trying to make it possible and safe. RENT has really never felt so relevant to now and this time and in our hearts we knew that it was the right time to tell this story. It was also so important to us to give all of the amazing actors and freelancers involved in this production the opportunity of working and earning in a time when many have been badly affected by the pandemic.”

ON: Just how challenging was it making the production and venue ‘covid-secure’?
JOE: “It has been extremely challenging trying to navigate opening and producing in a covid-secure world. The main issue has been the financial impact on making the venue and process of making and running the show. Obviously we have had zero income since we closed our doors in March and along with high production values and the equipment needed to make the venue fully covid-secure we have had to spend a lot of money that we don’t currently have to spend. However, we were always determined to only progress with the production and opening if we felt we could deliver it in the safest possible way for everyone involved. We have made a significant investment in PPE equipment, safety screens, hand sanitising stations, signage, fogging systems and testing for the team which gave us the confidence to be able to open our doors once again.”

ON: How important was being able to offer a digital streaming version of the show for audiences who are unable to attend for whatever reason?
WILL: “We were operating the run of RENT at 50% capacity, which is only 70 seats per performance. This meant that the production would have had a deficit of around £100,000, which made it completely unviable. Having the extraordinary option to offer an online viewing of the show has allowed us to take our lost capacity and offer it as a digital ticket, and helping us make up lost income. It is also important for us that audiences could not attend or still didn’t feel ready to return to the theatre can still enjoy RENT from the comfort of their own homes. The digital version obviously took on even greater significance when we were forced to close the show early due to the second national lockdown.”

ON: Opening and closing RENT on the same night must have been a bittersweet experience – what was the evening like?
JOE: “We heard the news that we would be entering a second lockdown half an hour before curtain up on our second preview and it was very upsetting for everyone involved. We were so glad that we could at least make it to our official opening and press night on Wednesday 4th November which allowed us to invite press to review the show. The reviews have been incredible and we are so proud of the hard work from everyone involved. The final performance was very emotionally charged but it was really electric and showed Just how special this production is.”

ON: RENT has been a long time in the planning, especially given the situation this year. What was it like finally getting to see the show and the cast come to the stage?
WILL: “Working towards opening our doors and staging RENT is what really got us through the last year and gave us the hope and drive to push on, when times became very difficult. I know that this feeling echoed with the whole team involved and it was a beacon of light in a dark time for the arts. I knew that the show had the recipe to be exceptional from the amazing creative team to the cast and it really lived up to expectations and then some. The whole experience of the show, the design, the band, the performances, it was worth only 5 performances to feel that energy and watch.”

ON: Now it has been filmed, what can you tell us about the filmed version of RENT and what can audiences expect?
JOE: “This production was created for the stage and to be experienced live and although in the current climate that can’t be, we have worked so hard to film the show for online, whilst trying to keep that live theatrical experience. Having seen some of the initial footage, the film company have managed to capture the whole essence, heart and overall look of what was experienced live in the venue. It really is the next best thing!”

ON: Hope Mill has recently celebrated its 5th birthday – looking back what have been the highlights during this time?
JOE: “We can’t believe we have reached 5 years since opening Hope Mill Theatre, it’s incredible. There have been so many highlights since opening our doors, from winning awards to transferring shows. But believe it or not the biggest highlight has got to be working on RENT, yes it’s been tough and difficult to navigate and there is the constant fear that anything could happen and it all comes crashing down, but the level of positivity, hard work, passion and hope that has come from everyone involved is truly why we do what we do and what gives us the drive to keep going.”

ON: What next for Hope Mill in 2021?
WILL: “Once again we will work hard towards opening our doors and welcome back audiences. We won’t be opening this year, however, we have our queer arts festival: Turn On Fest launching again in January 2021 and we also have an incredible programme lined up and of course we will he doing everything within our power to bring back RENT.”

• Online streamed performances of RENT are available on selected dates from Friday 27th Nov until Sunday 20th December.

More information and online tickets can be found www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

Marry Me A Little

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Offering a glimmer of hope that theatre was finally returning, Marry Me A Little directed by Kirk Jameson opened at Cirencester’s Barn theatre on 16th October to rave reviews. Thankfully the piece was filmed ahead of lockdown allowing audiences to watch limited streamed performances online.

Starring Celinde Schoenmaker and Rob Houchen, two of musical theatre’s most loved voices; this musical revue from Sondeheim’s back catalogue is an emotive observation on what was and what could have been for two now single New Yorkers.

Played out side by side yet never physically touching, their history together is illustrated via Benjamin Collins’ projections of social media screen grabs which light up Sam Spencer-Lane’s atmospheric stage, while their uncertain future is examined and considered through Sondeheim’s thinking out loud, melodic vocal commentary.

The song list bursts with gems culled from final productions of Follies, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle and A Little Night Music breathing new life into this intimite piece first seen off Broadway in the 1980’s.

Each piece is an absolute gift for these two talented performers resulting in an hour of musical theatre heaven as they take you on an emotional journey of lost love and their individual search for happiness. Circling each other with their tender delivery whilst wowing with their extrodinary talents throughout.

Bittersweet in its beauty this revamped storyline offers enough background via the couples online communication to retell this story as a relationship gone sour rather than strangers yearning for their own happy ending. Houchen swipes through Tinder while Schoenmaker responds to a booty call as their desperate need to fill the void of loneliness rings out.

Accompanied by Arlene McNaught on the piano Schoenmaker and Houchen perfectly deliver the nuances that make Sondeheim’s lyrics so special, open and ecstatic one moment, cynical and closed off the next they ensure this journey is both an unforgettable and heartbreaking hour of note-perfect escapism.

This relatable piece at a time when social media continually reminds us of the fun we’ve previously had will take you on a familiar Sondeheim rollercoaster of emotions, enthralling from the start through honest and effecting storytelling and leaving you yearning to watch again. If there was a theatrical treat like this on offer every weekend lockdown would be an absolute breeze!

Catch Marry Me a Little until Sunday 22nd Nov tickets at £13.50 are available here

What A Carve Up!

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

You may think that a scathing critique of Thatcher’s Britain is that last thing you need in the midst of ‘Lock Down 2’, but writer Henry Filloux-Bennett’s retelling of Jonathan Coe’s 1994 novel, What A Carve Up! will provide just the tonic for the winter nights ahead, whilst demonstrating how theatre companies are thinking outside the box in order to get their productions in front of an audience.

This collaboration between The Barn Theatre, The Lawrence Batley Theatre and The New Wolsey Theatre, under the sharp, slick direction of Tamara Harvey, sees Coe’s murder mystery reimagined as an investigative crime documentary.

The plot revolves around the gruesome murder at Winshaw Towers: the home of one the UK’s most powerful, wealthiest (and loathsome) families. On a cold, dark winters night in 1991, the family gather for the reading of a will. At the end of the night, six family members lay dead with their own previous evil deeds instrumental in their departures. The prime suspect for this macabre atrocity is Michael Owen (sadly not that one), a celebrated novelist brought in as biographer to reveal the Winshaw’s dirty secrets.

Told 30 years after the shocking events of that fateful evening, we get the case for the prosecution and the defence. For the defence: Owen’s son Raymond (Alfred Enoch) undertakes a spot of investigative journalism to not just prove his father’s innocence, but also to highlight the levels of corruption and wickedness at the heart of the Winshaw’s numerous business ventures: from the arms trade, to pension fraud, gutter journalism to public health scandals, they were involved in them all, and whilst many suffered, the family thrived, all under the stewardship of a Thatcher government.

The case for the prosecution, is the family’s sole surviving heir: Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button),  a vile, right-wing blogger, who has opinions on everything from Trump, to the Chancellor’s furlough scheme. Imagine a ‘roided’ up version of your least favourite talk radio host, and you’re near the mark. The Winshaw heiress is stating her case for Owen’s guilt in the form of a television interview, not too dissimilar to one of a grand old Duke that was on our TV screens a while back.

This is a fresh, bold, blackly comic look back at 1980’s Britain, which highlights just how little we’ve actually moved on. Despite a slightly slow start and at times convoluted plot, this an engaging whodunit, where its great pleasure derives from not finding out who the killer is, but more the motive for their actions, as we hear about each of the Winshaw’s shady deals, and the gruesome, yet original way they meet their maker, a crushed skull by a stack of newspapers, being just one to choose from.

The onscreen performances are superb. Enoch is an engaging, presence throughout; it’s a measured, understated turn. Button gives a suitably vile, comedic performance which anchors the production and really gets to the heart of what makes the Winshaw’s tick. Tamzin Outhwaite is equally impressive as the unnamed TV interviewer, whose sly glances and snide smile, make her the perfect inquisitor.

Like many big screen Agatha Christie adaptations, and even the 1961 British comedy-horror film from which the production takes its name, they always had an impressive ensemble cast and this production is no different; with the likes of  Robert Bathurst, Stephen Fry, Rebecca Front, Celia Imrie, Dervla Kirwan, Griff Rhys Jones, and Sir Derek Jacobi providing their vocal talents and breathing life into some of the story’s key players. It does provide a fun distraction as you try to work out who it is, however more than that, it gives the performance more weight, and a clear indication that what you’re watching is a big deal.

Original, ambitious, and most of all highly entertaining, What A Carve Up! is a fine example of how the theatre industry, like us all, is having to adapt to the Covid-19 landscape we find ourselves in, and whilst nothing beats the experience of a live theatrical experience, it sure is a bloody good understudy!

What a Carve Up! is available online at https://www.whatacarveup.com/ until the 29th November 2020

RENT

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

When Hope Mill Theatre announced their summer revival of RENT back in January the buzz about the show quickly engulfed social media; this felt like the most perfect choice for the boundary-pushing, award-winning theatre. Punchy, loud, proud and fuelled by hope, RENT was swiftly propelled into many a ‘must-see list’; billed as the show we all needed in our lives, then…well we all know what happened next.

While the pandemic closed theatres across the country, devastating the Arts, Hope Mill Theatre never lost faith that their much-anticipated production would play to audiences this year. Safeguards were made to film the production should the worst-case scenario of a second lockdown happen and so unbelievably we find ourselves at the show’s official opening which heartbreakingly is also its closing.

The exposed brickwork and anti-Reagan graffiti of David Woodhead’s set transports us to Manhattan’s East Village where a group of young, penniless bohemians strive to live, love and create underneath the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the devastation and desperation increases so does their sense of family and the ultimate need to make a lasting mark on the world before their lights are extinguished.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team of creatives have truly embraced this piece resulting in a bold, dynamic and meticulously crafted production. The love bursts from each character while their palpable desperation combined with a spirit of defiance is as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming. There is an undeniable sense of urgency; these are stories that need to be told, experiences that need to be shared and a love that needs to be felt.

The cast sit around the stage throughout, feeling and experiencing the heartache, pain and joy of each other’s stories. Touch is infrequent, marked by a fizz of electricity as Howard Hudson’s light design flickers in reaction, making those infrequent yet delicious moments all the more powerful.

Tom Francis makes an incredible stage debut as Roger, his strong swagger is ripped away as his fear of dying takes hold, cradled collectively by the soothing ensemble of resolute voices. Blake Patrick Anderson’s Mark has a quirky sweetness, hiding behind his camcorder in a bid to save him from connecting too deeply thus exposing him to ultimate loneliness while ex-housemate Benny (Ahmed Hamad) plays a strong enemy to the bohemian life he once embraced.

Mimi’s (Maiya Quansah-Breed) strutting and sass is replaced by a heart-breaking vulnerability while Maureen (Millie O’Connell) and Joanne’s (Jocasta Almgill) fractious relationship bubbles and simmers throughout. Deeply entwined in the story is the moving relationship between HIV positive Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) and older lover Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) their purity and commitment to each other brings heartening joy to the piece while Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is gut-wrenchingly brilliant.

RENT is truly an ensemble piece and is at it’s most powerful when this talented cast together with outstanding featured ensemble members Kayla Carter, Allie Daniel, Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry unite to deliver Larson’s anthemic score. From the iconic Seasons of Love to the stirring No Day But Today the sheer brilliance of this production envelopes you entirely. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography adds an edgy punch while Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson ensures the pounding score will long echo after the curtain comes down

While 2020 has been a year of unprecedented heartbreak and bitter disappointments this incredible piece stands proud, shouting from the rooftop for all to hear, not only is RENT viable it is vital; it’s pounding energy combined with gut-wrenching optimism confirming to all that the show most definitely MUST go on.

Rent is available to view online on selected dates from Friday 27th November until Sunday 20th December booking is essential tickets available via https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online

Rapunzel – The Lockdown Panto – Live!


This Easter, despite the lock-down, Regal Entertainments Ltd have created a free online Pantomime for all the family to enjoy, and what story could be more appropriate for the current situation than that of a young girl locked up in a tower?

Families disappointed to be missing out on the traditional Easter pantomime at St Helens Theatre Royal have consolation in the form of a special virtual show.

Rapunzel: The Lockdown Panto will live stream daily on St Helens Theatre Royal’s Facebook and Instagram accounts fromSunday 12 – Saturday 18 April 2020 at 1.30pm.

The special filmed production will star a host of the regular stars that appear at St Helens Theatre Royal. Olivia Sloyan will play Rapunzel, James Lacey as the Witch, Lewis Devine as Daft Dave, Samantha Palin as the Queen, Warren Donnelly as the King, Andrew Geater as the Prince, Abby Middleton as Fairy Anna(logue) and Jenna Sian O’Hara as Pixel The Pixie.

Each member has recorded their own section of the pantomime at home and, through careful editing, the story is brought together to create a fun online pantomime that the whole family can sit down and enjoy together.

The pantomime is written and directed by James Lacey and choreographed by Sarah Walker. Regal Entertainments had to reschedule their usual Easter Pantomime at St Helens Theatre Royal, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which will now take place in the autumn. Producer and Director at Regal Entertainments, Chantelle Nolansays:“During the national lockdown we wanted to reward and entertain families for being responsible and isolating. So many of our customers were disappointed not to be able to come and see our Easter pantomime in St Helens, so we thought that, this year, we would bring the panto to them.

“We have an incredibly talented cast, who are more than up to the challenge of creating a unique, new show and we’re going to put on a fantastic online show that all ages can enjoy.”

Rapunzel tells the tale of a young girl stolen from her family and locked away from the world in a tower by a wicked witch. Unable to leave, she must let down her golden hair for the witch to climb to bring her food. One day a handsome prince discovers the tower and sees the beautiful girl. Will Rapunzel and the Prince find their freedom? Will they live happily ever after? Or will the wicked witch catch them?

To watch the show, viewers will need to become a fan of the St Helens Theatre Royal Facebook or Instagram accountswhere information to view will be posted, the show will launch daily at 1.30pm from Easter Sunday.

Back To The Future The Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Ever since it was announced that Back To The Future would be receiving a musical makeover the buzz online has been immense, with fans eager to see just how their beloved film would be recreated on stage while some theatre fans a little sniffy at the possibility of a remake.

With the film’s original creative team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis bringing this project from screen to stage it’s certainly fair to say Back To The Future is in very safe hands. Add to the mix Tony award-winning director John Rando and a new score from multiple Grammy-winning Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, alongside classics from the film’s original soundtrack and any pre-nerves about the quality of the show should disappear, for anyone still unsure, strap yourself in and get yourselves down to Manchester’s Opera House for one hell of a fun ride!

This inventive production stays true to the source material with all the classic lines fans know and love making an appearance with the addition of some welcome creative surprises. Upon entering the theatre what immediately strikes you is Tim Hayley’s bold design lit spectacularly by Hugh Vanstone and Tim Lutkun, illuminating the Opera House stage, sides and ceiling which has the already excited audience positively fizzing.

Recreating such an iconic film means the stakes are unquestionably high, one thing that absolutely had to be right was the casting and boy did they get it right!

Olly Dobson is superb as Marty McFly, perfectly embodying the character fans know so well he sounds so unbelievably like Michael J Fox it’s incredible. Bursting with charisma and bucket-loads of Marty charm this hugely talented actor carries the role off with an effortless ease.

Roger Bart is sensational as Doc Brown, it’s clear to see he’s having a hell of a lot of fun with the role and takes the audience along for the ride. This is not so much an impression more his own eccentric interpretation which die-hard fans will be more than happy giving them even more reason to love the legend that is Doc Brown.

The chemistry between Dobson and Bart is an absolute joy, they bounce of each other brilliantly; their friendship entirely convincing, bringing an enormous amount of fun to this well-crafted piece.

There is strong support from the rest of the cast most notably Hugh Coles, Rosanna Hyland and Cedric Neal who play George McFly, Rosanna Hyland and Cedric Neal respectively.

Hugh Coles is absolutely adored by the audience, receiving a huge roar of approval the moment he utters his first line. So convincing is his portrayal it’s almost as if someone went back in time and grabbed him from the 1985 film. Unbelievable to think this is his professional stage debut as he has the audience rooting for him from the off.

Similarly, Rosanna Hyland convinces entirely as Lorraine Baines, a strong actress with a stunning voice her impressive Lorraine would be hard to top.

Adding a little sass to the production Cedric Neal makes the absolute most of his two roles, he’s a born entertainer and has the audience well and truly in the palm of his hand.

The strong ensemble delivers Chris Bailey’s choreography with precision whilst doubling up in various supporting roles adding some hilarious twists to famous scenes.

Then of course there is the DeLorean, WOW! When these big scenes come my goodness do they impress. The effects are nothing short of spectacular, there’s a feeling from the audience that lifelong dreams are being fulfilled with every activation of the flux capacitor, seeing really is believing, it really is an absolute must-see.

While music favourites from the original film score are greeted with affectionate applause some of the new songs do feel a little unnecessary, while they all work well and fit the story at times it feels like the drama of the piece is interrupted by the introduction of a musical number, shaving a couple wouldn’t do any harm and would allow for the dramatic tension that’s built to grow further. This is a minor quibble however on what really is a hugely impressive production.

Back To The Future The Musical feels like a theatrical event, which has West End written all over it; you know the story yet it continually surprises you, never taking itself too seriously the show delivers everything fans would expect and so much more. State-of-the-art in its delivery the show must be celebrated for bringing many new theatre goers through the doors at the Opera House, such it the appeal of this cultural phenomenon.

No fan could ever come away disappointed and new audiences will marvel at the spectacle while having a whole heap of fun along the way. It’s pure theatrical escapism which you’ll want to return to again and again, spectacular!

Catch Back To The Future The Musicalat Manchester’s Opera House until Sunday 17th May before it’s planned transfer to the West End, further information for London can be found here.

 

Marisha Wallace | Live

 

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Hot on the heels of her final Waitress performance and ahead of opening as Motormouth Maybelle in the London Coliseum production of Hairspray this April, Marisha Wallace has embarked on her first ever UK tour; launching with a bang last night at Sale’s Waterside Arts venue.

Bursting onto the stage looking spectacular in silver sequins and white marabou feathers Marisha proves she means business opening with a stunning rendition of Etta James’ Something’s Got A Hold on Me.

Accompanied by a four-piece band led by musical director Ross Stanley and two soulful backing singers, Marisha’s warm personality and magnetic charisma shine through as she opens up to her audience through frequent heartfelt exchanges between songs. Announcing that when she first performed in public aged just 5 years old she forgot all the words, it’s safe to say she had no such problem last night as she promptly treated the excited audience to a superb rendition of Stevie Wonder’s I Was Made To Love Her.

It’s clear to see that soul runs through her veins and the music she listened to growing up as a child in North Carolina has really shaped her as an incredibly expressive performer who communicates not only with her voice but with her whole being. She is an absolute natural on stage, incredible to think at aged just 17 she was told she may never sing again due to a cyst on her vocal chords which following the prayers of her parents miraculously disappeared when she went for surgery leaving scar tissue in its place.

The varied set list has been lovingly created catering perfectly for all tastes, Act 1 is made up largely of soul classics with a lively rendition of Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High ensuring this party gets well and truly started while Marisha’s version of The Bee Gee’s How Deep Is Your Love is as emotional as it is pure.

There’s well-chosen tracks from musical theatre with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance of Heart of Stone from musical theatre phenomenon SIX which is given a goose-bump inducing gospel spin while Marisha explains to the audience how the lyrics speak to her, “A heart of stone to me means that love is resilient, that I have loved before and I truly believe my resilient heart means I have the capacity as we all do to love again”. This level of honesty combined with her unquestionable talent endear her to her audience so completely they literally hang on her every word.

She closes Act 1 will a sensational Aretha Franklin medley, a tribute to the legendary singer whom she met backstage when the star came to watch Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway, you can’t help but think how much joy her performance would bring to the late great Aretha.

Act 2 opens with Marisha’s catchy new single Fight Like A Woman, a sassy, strong pop anthem entirely fitting for International Women’s Day; she then continues her celebration of iconic performers with a high-energy tribute to the woman she describes as ‘The Voice’ the one and only Whitney Houston. Lapping up this upbeat medley the audience leap to their feet in approval before Marisha silences the room with a powerhouse performance of I Will Always Love You, nothing short of phenomenal, the audience once again up on their feet.

A rousing rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been from Hairspray gives the audience a hint of what they can expect from the forthcoming West End production while Marisha gives us an insight into just how much of a life changer her roles in the West End have been. As her career soared, she faced heart-breaking times in her personal life and through the roles she’s undertaken has developed an optimistic resilience which leads her beautifully into a special version of Tomorrow from Annie blended with Chaka Chan’s moving Love Me Still.

Inviting children from Stagecoach Salford and Manchester Contemporary Youth Choir to join her in an empowering performance of This Is Me from The Greatest Showman allows an opportunity for another inspiring reminder that, “anything is possible, if you just believe in yourself” and of course another standing ovation, the forth or fifth of the show at least, we lost count!

Of course, no performance would be complete without Marisha treating the audience to her jaw-droppingly perfect delivery of And I Am Telling You from smash-hit musical Dreamgirls, this one song is without doubt worth the ticket price alone, stunning from start to finish.

As cries of ‘More’ ring out from the audience Marisha returns to the stage treating us to one final classic, ending the night on the most joyful of highs with a fabulous rendition of Proud Mary, there’s strutting, sass and even an opportunity for some great fun audience participation.

Marisha Wallace’s genuine warmth and incredible talent ensure this is an unforgettable night. Her voice is sublime, smooth as honey and strong as hell. She takes you on an emotional journey with her refreshing honestly while her note perfect delivery will completely blow you away. Talent like hers is rare, so grab your opportunity to witness it while you can!

Tour dates for Marisha Wallace can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the Waters of Liverpool

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

By the Waters of Liverpool the follow up go the hugely successful Twopence to cross the Mersey is a continuation of the fascinating life story of Merseyside novelist Helen Forrester. The eldest of seven children Helen and her family were forced to leave behind the luxuries of their middle-class lives after their father went bankrupt due to the Great Depression.

Life without the privileges they were used to was hard, not only faced with the fight to survive but also the increasing rise in fascism which meant war was looming large.

Set pre and early World War II Helen’s is a fascinating, emotional and honest story about the realities of growing up at a time when everything you know has changed, money is tight and tensions within a strained household run high. The family who were once affluent enough to employ their own servants now struggle to keep the creditors from their door with Helen as the eldest child seemingly taking the brunt of her parents shame and frustration.

Using the ‘story theatre’ device characters both narrate and address directly the audience with all cast members aside from Helen (Lucy Dixon) taking on multiple roles. This style of storytelling works incredibly well as characters are brought to life convincingly and with sensitivity by this talented cast.

Mark Moraghan and Sian Reeves convince as Helen’s parents, struggling to adapt to their new lives the tension created in the household feels authentic and adds dramatic tension to the piece. Like the other cast members they skilfully switch between roles with apparent ease.

Dixon is superb as Helen, she really gets to the heart of the character, quietly determined despite the obstacles both life and her family have put in her way. Her sensitive portrayal of a young woman who had to fight hard for the right to make her own choices is both believable and moving.

Eric Potts is a delight in his various roles from zealous ARP warden to enthusiastic dance teacher, he brings great warmth and genuine fun to each role.

Lynn Francis proves what a talented actress she is bringing a real wit and creativity to each character she portrays while Danny O’Brien adds a heartwarming emotional depth to the piece as Helen’s fiancé Harry and Parry Glasspool impresses in multiple clearly defined & strongly delivered roles.

Richard Foxton’s simple set design is evocative and atmospheric beautifully lit by Ian Scott while Kate Harvey’s sound design transports you from scene to scene against the iconic Liverpool backdrop.

Writer Rob Fenah and director Gareth Tudor Price have worked together wonderfully to bring this well-paced and satisfying production to the stage.

This is a celebration of Forrester’s determination and drive to succeed against the odds delivered truthfully.

By the Waters of Liverpool will leave both your heart warmed and your eyes a little misty as this bitter-sweet story leaves its loving mark.

By the Waters of Liverpool will tour until 13th May further information and tickets can be found via the following link http://www.bythewatersofliverpool.com

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Insane Animals

Insane Animals press pic 4 (2026). Photo by Drew Forsyth

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Back in 2017 HOME launched it’s T1 project, the idea was to commission new projects and bring them to the art houses 500 seat theatre. The first of these commissions went to the writing duo of George Heyworth and Liv Morris, better known as comedy double-act, Bourgeois & Maurice. What they’ve come up with is Bourgeois & Maurice’s Insane Animals.

This is an epic sci-fi, comedy journey takes us right from the dawn of civilisation through to a bleak looking future for humanity, along the way there are catchy tunes, biting gags, costume changes and sequins… lots of sequins!

Bourgeois & Maurice are a pair of alien gods who have arrived on earth in the present to see what a mess human are making of the world and to bear witness to our inevitable destruction. However, the pair decide to offer humanity a chance of salvation, by looking at the story Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is believed to have formed the basis of the world’s first every recorded story. He is an arrogant, cruel ruler, who persecutes his people. However, with the help of our extra-terrestrial visitors, we will see Gilgamesh, fall in love, suffer and learn what it is to be human, but will it be enough to save humanity?

Insane Animals press pic 9 (2323). Photo by Drew Forsyth

If Bourgeois & Maurice’s Insane Animals is an indicator HOME’s future output then we are in for a treat: this is a silly, surreal, and smart musical, filled with great tunes, cracking one-liners, and great gags. Any show that has references to Ru Paul’s Drag Race and the British Museum’s questionable attitude to how it acquired its collection is of course going to be quite special.

As well as Heyworth and Morris, that cast includes great comic turns from Emer Dineen and Kay Mohamed-Mason playing multiple roles, with the remaining cast double us the backing band, The Forgettables. The songs are catchy, with some great, cutting lyrics with standout numbers being Brink of Extinction and the hilarious, self-aggrandising Thank God.

Michael Hankin’s set design is clearly a love letter to to the B movies of the 1950’s with the set during the first act resembling an unopened buffet at a labour club, there’s lots of silver foil which is by no mean a criticism, it adds to the shows charm.  Julian Smith’s costumes are OTT and look absolutely fabulous, perfect for the production.

Insane Animals press pic 5 (2054). Photo by Drew Forsyth

The show isn’t without its flaws at times the choreography is a bit all over the place whilst adding to the sense of fun can become a little distracting.

With Bourgeois & Maurice’s Insane Animals the writing team of Heyworth, Morris and director Philip McMahon have created the natural successor to Rocky Horror Picture Show (no one really remembers 1981 follow up Shock Treatment), knowingly kitsch, often camp and occasionally crude, this is an original, fun, entertaining romp where nothing is off limits and everything is fair game!

Bourgeois & Maurice’s Insane Animals is at HOME till the 14th March 2020 tickets available here.

 

BRB | Swan Lake

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Birmingham Royal Ballet brings ballets greatest love story to the Lowry’s lyric stage this week and it is as breathtakingly beautiful as ever.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s instantly recognisable score, played to perfection by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Swan Lake offers an unforgettable night of theatre. From the opening of Act I it’s clear to see why this classic production first created in 1981 by Sir Peter Wright and Galina Samsova remains a firm audience favourite. From stunningly intricate choreography to lavish sets, sumptuous costumes to sensational performances this magnificent production has it all.

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Split into four acts Swan Lake tells the dramatic love story of Prince Siegfried and Odette; impeccably danced by César Morales and Momoko Hirata. Opening with a funeral scene following the death of The King, Prince Siegfried’s fear of a forced marriage is realised. With no desire to marry he distracts himself by heading off to the Lake with faithful equerry Benno (danced wonderfully by Tzu-Chao Chou) for a spot of hunting. It is here by the moonlit waters he witnesses the majestic Odette, a stunning Swan Princess who has been cursed to live as a Swan by evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart. The spark is immediate, and the Prince falls hopelessly in love. From here their dramatic story unfolds, exquisitely told by this highly skilled company.

César Morales excels as Prince Siegfried, athletic yet gentle his bewitching by the glittering Odette feels entirely believable. Momoko Hirata captivates entirely, her elegance as the delicate Odette in complete contrast to the determined and devious Odile. She performs the complex choreography with such graceful ease appearing at times to almost float on air. The pairing of Morales and Hirata works beautifully every intricate movement appears effortless with each moving pas de deux receiving rapturous applause.

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One thing which really stands out in this production is BRB’s ability to consistently deliver complex choreography while still ensuring the storytelling is both clear and well defined. There is never any confusion as to what is happening on stage as the company have wholeheartedly mastered the art of storytelling through dance. The addition of Phillip Prowse’s grand sets and lavish costumes adding depth and richness.

This is truly a company production and no Swan Lake is complete without the iconic cygnets whose presence on stage for the opening of Act IIIV drew gasps of delight prompting a spontaneous applause so impressive was the sight. Their perfectly in-sync delivery is a genuine moment of unforgettable joy.

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This thrilling production really is a ballet for all; young , old, long standing ballet fans and first timers alike will fall in love with BRB’s Swan Lake, epic in scale and exceptional in delivery, if you only ever see one ballet make sure it’s this one.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake is on at The Lowry until Saturday 7th March tickets available here.

*Images used are 2020 touring cast

 

A Monster Calls

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Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s not very often I’ll go into review a show cold: I’ll usually have some idea of plot, cast, etc before going into the the theatre. In the case of A Monster Calls I knew it was based on a book, and there was something in the back of mind telling me that there had been a film adaptation too. In terms of plot I knew very little, had I known I could have prepared for the tsunami of emotions that hit me.

This is the story of Conor (Ammar Duffus), a lonely 13-year-old boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders: harassment from the school’s bully, a father living on the other side of the world, his mother (Maria Omakinwa) is seriously ill. Understandably, it’s his mum’s illness that is of most concern to Conor, confused by what he is seeing and his mother’s reassurance that “everything with be fine” he has no outlet for emotions.

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Conor’s life soon becomes even more complicated when he receives a visit from a monstrous creature. Located in his garden is a giant yew tree, which comes to life at the same time each evening. The yew tree has been on the earth for hundreds of years and informs the boy that he will tell him three tales and in exchange Conor will tell him one in return.

Each night the tree returns with a brutal fable, involving, kings, queens and apothecaries, all with a dark heart to them, there is no happy ever after with these stories. But, what do they mean and how do they help Conor?

Sally Cookson has created a powerful, visceral and devastating adaptation of Patrick Ness’ international bestseller.  This is a fairy-tale that deals with grief, anger and the importance of expressing our emotions, this is an unflinching, unsentimental view of the world through the eyes of teenager, complete with all his frustrations and heartache.

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The production looks and sounds amazing. The haunting score by Benji Bower, is both beautiful and haunting, played masterfully by musicians Seamas Carey and Luke Potter. There use of electronica and voice distortion gives the production a fantasy, other worldly quality.  The staging is simple but affective, just a white floor, with a white back drop where, looking not to dissimilar to a padded cell, adding an element of claustrophobia, despite the vast openness of the stage. Visuals are projected on the wall throughout, and the ensemble cast when not playing their part will double up as visible stagehands handing out props as and when required.

However it’s the recreation of the woodland behemoth that is most impressive: using a series of  giant ropes which cascade onto the stage throughout, the ensemble cast gather them together to form the tree, this coupled with Keith Gilmore’s physical and menacing delivery as the monster, make for an impressive visual spectacle creating a truly intimidating protagonist.

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The production isn’t without it’s flaws, despite a solid showing from the cast, with strong physical and emotional performances throughout they are occasionally let down by some stilted dialogue which is a little distracting, however this is a minor quibble for what is an innovative, powerful piece of theatre.

Having quite recently lost my father, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional sucker punch the production provided during its final moments and judging by the amount of people clearing the sand from their eyes (least that’s what I think it was) at the end of the performance nor was anyone else. Powerful, intelligent and emotional, when this monster calls you had best answer as you won’t be disappointed.

A Monster Calls is on at at the Lowry until Saturday 29th February, tickets are available here.

Cabaret

Cabaret

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Set in Berlin in 1931 during the chilling rise of the Nazi’s, Cabaret introduces us to the unconventional love story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw and English performance artist Sally Bowles, who entertains nightly at the city’s decadent and debauched Kit Kat Klub.

An additional and deeply moving sub-plot detailing the ill-fated romance between elderly Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz and German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider ensures that Cabaret is as intricate as it is entertaining, with its own Master of Ceremonies Emcee, ominously overseeing the action.

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Amidst the razzle dazzle of the big numbers which are delivered spectacularly by an impressive ensemble the story is firmly anchored in the drama of the period as a much darker landscape emerges and the reality of the changing political climate is realised in everyday life.

Kara Lily Hayworth excels as good time girl Sally Bowles, with soaring vocals delicately delivered she finds the genuine vulnerability of this troubled soul. Charles Hagerty makes for a strong Cliff Bradshaw, wide-eyed in wonder initially he leaps headfirst into the decadence of the city until the stark reality of what is happening to Belin is realised.

James Paterson and Anita Harris are a real joy as Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider making the inevitable outcome of their doomed love story all the more heart-breaking to watch.

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John Partridge makes for a commanding and charismatic Emcee, strutting and strong initially his journey from start to finish is the most humbling of all as we see the reality of this crushing regime played out. His transition from fearlessly flamboyant to painfully oppressed a bleak reminder of the grim history of the period. Director Rufus Norris gives us a stark and honest climax to the show which Partridge and the ensemble deliver with an unspoken sensitivity.

Designer Katrina Lindsay has ensured this complex piece engages from the off, the vibrancy of the Kit Kat Klub lures you in with it’s flashing lights and twirling staircases which in turn gives the gut-wrenching final scenes the impact they deserve.

The whole show is beautifully lit by Tim Olivier giving it a somewhat cinematic feel while Dan Samson’s sound design is superb. Javier De Frutos gives the ensemble cast some incredibly complex choreography which they deliver with ease bringing the Kit Kat Klub to vivid life.

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Just as Kara Lily Hayworth sings during titular number “What good is sitting, alone in your room? Come hear the music play!” we can’t help but agree, with impressive staging, strong performances and superb choreography this is a Cabaret which will long stay with you.

Cabaret is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 29th February tickets are available here.