Jack and the Beanstalk

Reviewed by Daisy Eagleton and Mum Michelle Eagleton

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Daisy’s verdict, aged 10:

With phenomenal outfits and magical sets, this Jack and the Beanstalk Pantomime brought the excitement of the theatre to our family home.

Things such as: close-up shots and virtual interaction made this pantomime morespectacular than ever! Who would have thought a virtual pantomime would be better than a pantomime at the theatre?

The story opens with Fairy Mary (Jenna Sian O’ Hara) hilariously narrating about the life of Jack Trott and his family. As soon as the show started I was amazed by the beautiful and bright costumes worn by the cast, especially evil Mrs Fleshcreep’s glittering red gown and Princess Jill’s first intricate gold dress.

My favourite character was Simple Simon, Jack’s brother, played by Reece Sibbald. His jokes were so funny and his silly humourmade me and my 6 year old brother laught out loud – Mum and Dad were even laughing at some of them too. 

I loved the part when Jack Trott and Princess Jill went to school in Act 1 it was hilarious plus it featured the song: ‘Naughty Children’ from Matilda and ‘Savage Love’ which got my family dancing. Jack (Timothy Lucas) was a great singer and I also though his Mum Dame Trott (Jamie Greer) was brilliant and very cheeky!

This show was all-round amazing and I wouldn’t change anything about it.


Mum’s verdict:

St Helen’s have put on a great Easter panto here which we thoroughly enjoyed. The sound and visual quality was top class and despite us not being in the theatre watching it, it managed to capture the essence and still have us interacting with the characters at full voice.

There were some fab performances by all the cast, especially Simple Simon (Reece Sibbald) who my kids adored. A moment of pure escapism where we could laugh at toilet humour and regional one liners, plus listen to music from an array of eras – Tom Jones to Rick Astley!

If you are after just under 2 hours of entertainment over the Easter break then give this show a go, It is guaranteed to get you excited for when the Theatre Royal re opens its doors, which fingers crossed could be in the near future.

Jack at the Beanstalk is available online until Sunday 11th April tickets available https://www.sthelenstheatreroyal.com

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Queen’s sashay into Manchester!

Join the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK for an evening of endless eleganza extravaganza as this brand-new tour takes in 19 theatres and venues across England, Scotland and Wales including a date at Manchester Opera House on February 12.

Acclaimed for their amazing production values, expect the unexpected in this glittering tour featuring UK Season 2 Finalists Tayce, Bimini Bon Boulash, Dundee’s Ellie Diamond and WINNER Lawrence Chaney from Glasgow, along with stars from Drag Race UK.

Ben Hatton, Director of Theatre Touring for Cuffe and Taylor, said: “We are thrilled to be working with the Voss Events Team for what will be Drag Race’s biggest ever UK theatre tour.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race is an exciting show and is always a huge hit so we look forward to presenting a series of outrageously entertaining shows.”

Tickets start at £35 and there are exclusive VIP options where guests can enjoy a private meet and greet with the queens before the show!

Tickets go on general sale 10am Friday 26th March RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Tickets | Opera House Manchester in Manchester | ATG Tickets

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Created by the same team behind the recent reimagining of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! which quickly became a standout piece of 2020, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an impressive retelling of Oscar Wilde’s famously tragic tale.

In this modern take, gone is the classic portrait in favour of the ultimate smartphone filter, wholly irresistible to wannabee influencer, Dorian Gray; whose obsession with social media adoration becomes his all-consuming downfall.

Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett’s decision to reimagine Gray as a snapchatting, insta-loving, subscriber-hungry, Youtuber is inspired, tapping into a digital world so many of us spend far more time transfixed by than we would care to admit. The guarantee of popularity, opportunity, and a seemingly endless stream of likes is just too much to resist.

Interviewer Stephen Fry attempts to piece together how Gray’s untimely demise came about via detailed Zoom interviews paired with atmospheric staged flashbacks, while Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) largely navigates us through the story.

In addition to Fry and Lumley the all-star cast of Alfred Enoch, Emma McDonald, Russell Tovey and Fionn Whitehead add depth and quality to this haunting production.

The dark side of social media becomes a strong thread as the stark reality of internet trolling and cancel culture claims the life of Sibyl Vane, while the pandemic is cleverly weaved through the narrative as Gray’s life behind his screen begins to spiral so does his need to hide his face from the real world via a mask, an attempt to hide the physical manifestations of his ugly actions.

Gray’s declining mental health dangerously threatening to leak through his picture-perfect profile. Gray’s transition from fresh-faced blogger to anxiety ridden sunken-eyed social media monster is both exceptional and utterly terrifying.

Inspired and chillingly brilliant this production captivates entirely.

You can stream The Picture of Dorian Gray until 31 March tickets available via Barn Digital | Visit The Barn Theatre Today in Cirencester

The Lollipop Man

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Over the last year, the majority of us have had spare time on our hands. Some of us have got fitter, some of us have tackled the bookshelves that feature prominently on our zoom quiz backgrounds, and some of us have done sweet FA. However, one thing I can pretty much guarantee, is that at some point over the last 12 months most of us will have been sucked into a good TV murder mystery. It may have been one of Netflix’s countless true crime documentaries, the BBC’s Line of Duty, or ITV’s The Bay; at some point we’ll have been shocked or screaming at the telly, uttering that immortal line, “I knew it was him!”

Well the good people at Unsolved Online Creations, have tapped into our blood lust with their first offering, The Lollipop Man? The brainchild of Stacey Harcourt and John O’Neill, this interactive, online murder mystery, provides something a little different to ease the lock down blues while putting our newly found amateur sleuthing skills to good use.

Set at the turn of the millennium in Salford, local lollipop man Martin Morris, is found brutally murdered by the Irwell, with a list of subjects as long as his luminous stick. Suspects include, the dead man’s daughter, Kayla Morris (Stacey Harcourt), or maybe local thug, Paul Cheadle, (John O’Neill) or could it be a lifelong friend of Martin’s, Mandy Newton (Fiona Boylan)?  These are just three of the eight suspects.

Each suspect gives their accounts of this fateful night, spread over several nights on the Unsolved Online Creations, Youtube channel, (https://bit.ly/3bsOWYj) these come in the form of short police interrogation interviews. In addition, new evidence is also released containing clues (or red herrings) as to whom the culprit might be.

This is a fun, innovative way to spend some time each week. Like any good murder-mystery, it keeps you on your toes. We’re three weeks in and I’m still non the wiser. You can pick it up any time, as all videos are on Youtube: I only started last week and am hooked.

It is a bold attempt to do something fresh. The performances are solid throughout, nothing fancy or OTT, just believable and intriguing enough to draw you in. The police questions that move the action forward can be a little jarring at times, and I wish more time and care had been spent on how they are delivered, but this is a minor quibble for what is an ambitious project, which on the whole wants to create conversation, debate and, most of all, a community and the chance to use the internet for something other than a zoom quiz!

The Lollipop Man? is online and can be found at: https://unsolvedonline.blogspot.com

Hope Mill Theatre’s Play Reading Club celebrates 3rd Birthday

Hope Mill Theatre’s Play Reading Club has celebrated its third birthday having gone from strength to strength during the past year providing a way for theatre-lovers to connect during the ongoing pandemic.

Established in early 2017 the drop-in group, which meets from 11am to 1pm on the last Friday of every month, now has over 40 participants, who enjoy reading aloud a play together.

Participants read a wide variety of different plays by different playwrights, from William Shakespeare to Arthur Miller and anything from adaptions to new plays by Manchester-based writers. 

Open to professional performers and non-professionals alike, the group is a positive way for people to come together socialise, enjoy culture and make friends.

Prior to the current Covid-19 pandemic the group would meet at the theatre and enjoy tea and coffee before sitting down and reading a play. When Hope Mill was forced to close its doors in March 2020, the theatre took the group online and since last March has been meeting monthly via Zoom. 

In 2020 the Ancoats venue also took their Play Reading Club out into the wider community and hosted a session with charities Mood Swings and Mary and Joseph House allowing their users to participate in, in a safe and fun way – something the venue plans to repeat in the future with other local charities.

Originally the venue charged a small fee for the session, but thanks to a grant from I Love Manchester as well as funding from the Culture Recovery Fund, the group is now free of charge with participants invited to make a voluntary donation if they wish.

Hope Mill has just appointed a new group facilitator to run the sessions, Janelle Thompson, a Manchester-based actress, who said: “I am absolutely delighted to be joining the team and facilitating this wonderful, long standing project. I’m really looking forward to reading new works and seeing old favourites in a different light.”

Joseph Houston, Artistic Director, of Hope Mill Theatre, said: “It has been incredible to see how our Play Reading Club has grown since opening Hope Mill. It has always been, and continues to be, a great asset to our organisation and our charitable aims to inspire, connect and challenge the local community. I am glad that we have managed to maintain the group though the pandemic and have received much-needed funding to make it free for participants.

“Of course there are challenges, and not all of our users are able to access the group online. As soon as it is possible and safe to do so we will be hosting our Play Reading Group live again from the venue. 

“It’s amazing to see such an amazing group of people from a range of different backgrounds, ages, races, genders and localities coming together to read a range of works from the world of plays – it is truly inspiring. You don’t have to be a professional actor to attend, although some participants are. It’s about the reading and listening and exploring plays, rather than the performance.”

Members of the Play Reading Club explain its appeal; says Kathy Holland: “It’s a wonderful opportunity to read outside the box and try something new, whilst also celebrating and supporting the arts” while first-timer Charlotte Bennett added: “I’ve not tried anything like this during any of the lockdowns but I’m not sure why I haven’t as that was brilliant. More funding needs to be put into groups like this – they are amazing for people’s mental health, socialisation and confidence.”

The next Play Reading Club is on Friday 26th February at 11am (over Zoom) and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. For more information on Hope Mill Theatre and the Play Reading Club visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/hope-mill-theatres-play-reading-club.

The Secret Society of Leading Ladies

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Almost a year since theatres went dark due to the Coronavirus pandemic the innovation and commitment to making art for audiences continues to shine.

Using online platforms, theatres across the country have been creating incredible and varied content offering theatregoers access to performances despite the current challenges.

The Barn Theatre have taken this online streaming approach a step further with their latest offering, ‘The Secret Society of Leading Ladies’. This impressive piece of theatre marries an online concert with ‘Choose Your Player’ computer game style technology allowing audiences to curate their very own theatre experience.

Conceived and directed by the Barn Theatre’s Ryan Carter, the concert offers a showcase for the archetypes of Female Musical Character, one moment you are in blissful harmony with princesses and dreamers the next divas and infamous villains demand your attention, the choice is entirely yours.

I chose to begin my experience with the sublime voice of Jarnéia Richard-Noel singing a defiant and celebratory version of ‘I Didin’t Plan It’ from Waitress, next up was a note perfect performance of the beautiful ‘Journey To The Past’ from Anastasia by Lauren Byrne. After Byrne’s emotive number I decided to introduce some sass with Ellie Mitchelle’s delicious performance of When You’re Good to Mama’ from Chicago.

Next came a real highlight of the experience for me with Jocasta Almgill’s personality packed performance of ‘Everybody’s Girl’ from Steel Pier, hugely entertaining and fantastically delivered. My final selection was Emma Kingston’s stunning version of ‘Dyin Aint So Bad’ from Bonnie and Clyde, her striking vocals left me wanting more, thankfully the finale of ‘Big Finish’ gave me just that with a superb ensemble number where each of the leading ladies had the chance to take centre stage, uplifting, joyous and entirely fitting to bring this glittering showcase to a close.

The performances alone are knockout, the variety a joy but in addition to this the ladies interact with each other in between numbers cementing this format as one of the most innovative you’re likely to see. A truly unique and hugely entertaining offering.

The Secret Society of Leading Ladies is running online from Monday 22 February until Sunday 7th March, tickets available via https://barntheatre.org.uk/barn-at-home

Beauty and The Beast

Beauty and the Beast Production Image (8) - credit David Munn Photography

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Regal Entertainments and St Helens Theatre Royal’s usual run of family-favourite pantomimes throughout the year came to an abrupt halt when the Coronavirus pandemic closed theatres across the country back in March. The creatives rallied together producing an innovative virtual show: Rapunzel: The Lockdown Panto, back in April and now through lots of hard work, commitment and Covid compliance bring Beauty and The Beast to the stage, opening the doors of the Theatre Royal to audiences once again.

Directed by Chantelle Nolan and written by Liam Mellor, Beauty and The Beast tells the famous fairy-tale of a prince cursed to live as a monstrous beast, the only thing that can break the curse is…of course true-loves kiss! But just how does a furry monster find true love, especially when we are all social distancing!

Beauty and the Beast Production Image (1) - credit David Munn Photography

Regal Entertainments have well and truly pulled out all the stops to ensure their first live show in a long 9 months is an unforgettable one. The script is positively jam-packed with Covid gags with Boris Johnson getting a hilarious ribbing while Joe Wicks, Chris Witty and even the track and trace app all feature.

French Frank and Pretty Polly played by Scott Gallagher and Jamie Greer respectively are a perfect comedy duo, guiding us through the ups and downs of life in the village of Petit Pois as they try and save their master (Andrew Geater) from a hairy ending. They bounce off each other brilliantly, the quick-witted pair are clearly having a ball being back in front of an audience, throwing themselves full throttle into the slapstick silliness as well as offering plenty of cheeky gags for the grownups.

Beauty and the Beast Production Image (5) - credit David Munn Photography

Timothy Lucas as a scene stealing Gaston is an absolute joy, self-obsessed, pumped up and completely outrageous he has the audience in the palm of his hand from his first swivel-hipped lunge onto stage. His mother the Cruella De Ville-esque Madam Botox (Abigail Middleton) is as detestable as her air-head son, the two make a perfectly ghastly pair of pantomime villains.

Olivia Sloyan makes for a superbly sassy Belle while Andrew Geater’s charm shines through as the reclusive Beast. Jenna Sian O’Hara acts as narrator in her role as Fairy Rose, her no nonsense Northern attitude sees her giving as good as she gets in an unforgettable 12 Days of Covid which leaves the audience roaring with laughter (behind our Covid compliant masks of course).

Beauty and the Beast Production Image (2) - credit David Munn Photography

Choreographer Nazene Langfield has created some beautiful numbers for the talented senior dancers, sadly no juvenile dancers this year due to Covid restrictions but the seniors do a wonderful job of filling the stage adding real depth to the musical numbers. There’s some great song choices this year, many with a Covid twist which are an absolute stroke of genius and while the audience can’t participate in the usual way a TikTok dance off fills the gaps perfectly.

By the time of the final transformation scene, you’ll be wishing you could stay in your seat and watch it all over again. This hilarious production at a time when theatre making is more challenging than ever before is an utter treat, just what’s needed to lift spirits, create magical memories and remind us all just how precious the arts are. Kudos to all at St Helen’s Theatre Royal for creating a perfectly safe environment for families to enjoy some much-needed escapism.

Beauty and the Beast Production Image (9) - credit David Munn Photography

Beauty and the Beast is an absolute Christmas cracker, in the words of my Godson Freddie “The best one we’ve ever seen”

Beauty and The Beast is on at St Helens Theatre Royal until Sunday 3rd Jan tickets from £16 available via Ticketsolve – St Helens Theatre Royal

Interview | Rebecca Ledgard talks Noah Bear and Singing Medicine loop

SB

In a year where arts organisations and charities have been hit extraordinarily hard by lockdowns and restrictions on social interaction, new innovative approaches have been put in place to ensure their vital work continues.

No-one knows this more than the team at Singing Medicine who have created a limited-edition singing teddy bear to raise vital funds for their work supporting the health and wellbeing of ill children.  The bear, named Noah because of its meaning rest and comfort, plays the team’s signature song ‘Music Inside’ when the jacket button is pressed providing comfort to children while encouraging them to sing and play.

We spoke to Rebecca Ledgard, Director of Education, about how the pandemic has impacted and reshaped their approach helping vulnerable children in hospital.

Tell us about Singing Medicine and how it started?

We (Ex Cathedra) were running our Singing Playgrounds project for primary schools which is all about playing through singing. Sally Spencer, one of the singers in Ex Cathedra choir, was working on our community programme and had been involved in some of our Singing Playgrounds work. She was, and still is, a nurse in Birmingham Children’s Hospital. She said, ‘The children I work with need this too!’. We began to explore how we could include the children in the hospital in the Symphony Hall Singing Playgrounds workshops and soon decided actually we should create a special project where we took the singing play to them in their hospital beds.

Why is Singing Medicine important? How do we benefit from singing?

We think singing, and singing-play is really important! Sally describes singing in Ex Cathedra choir as her own singing medicine. We are all really passionate that all children should play and develop through singing and have the chance to enjoy singing. When we sing cortisol is reduced (stress) and feel-good hormones are released. It’s the body’s natural pain killer, all areas of the brain are stimulated, the deeper breathing aids healing and fights infection. And it’s just wonderful to sing with other people. It makes us feel good. When we started Singing Medicine we just wanted not to leave out children in hospital from our education and participation work, but we soon realised how enormously beneficial it was for them for being distracted, soothed and calmed, or stimulated and having fun, and being able to use their imaginations and make decisions through the singing games we create.

The choir has been visiting sick children weekly at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital for the past 16 years, how has the pandemic affected these visits?

The whole team (or nearly) happened to be together on Friday 13th March 2019 celebrating team birthdays when we found out we would not be able to go back on the wards for a very long time. Together there and then we discussed how the children would need Singing Medicine even more so now that they were about to become even more isolated – and we should not stop. We decided there and then that Singing Medicine mission, aims and values didn’t need to change, only how we got Singing Medicine to the children. We started to plan how we could make interactive singing films for the children as though we were still sat next to them.

What is the inspiration behind Noah Bear?

For years we dreamed of having a singing teddy to leave with the children when we left them but this seemed an impossibility. During lockdown Joanna Harrison (The Snowman) imagined and drew us a bear. Vada Recording Studios helped us with the recording to put inside and Louis Kennedy offered to make the singing bear in support of Singing Medicine. Noah Bear has been a real boost to us (we have also felt the impact of these difficult times) and he has inspired our creativity – he now has his own youtube playlist of singing games for the little children!

When you squeeze him Noah Bear sings and then says, ‘Will you sing with me?’ and then continues to sing. We were sent a film of a little girl singing with Noah Bear which was wonderful!

Noah Bear sings a beautiful song. Did the Singing Medicine team compose it?

I composed it to use in one of our SingMaker workshops and Rob Challinor added his magic and brought it alive. We filmed children in the hospital singing the song, coincidentally and amazingly the week before lockdown working with the chaplaincy team.

When we were thinking what song we should put inside the teddy bear Music Inside seemed fitting because the lyrics are ‘Music in me bubbles inside. Music in me makes me smile. Music in me makes my heart sing. I’ve got music inside.’

What is your favourite thing about being a part of  ‘Singing Medicine’?

Everything! I get to work with a special group of people, who are joyous and creative and want to make a difference to children. The teamwork is wonderful.

What is one of your most unforgettable ‘Singing Medicine’ moments of the last 16 years?

Each team member has their own special memory that stays with them. I can’t forget how three of us were brought into a room where a large family had gathered, to sing to a child because the grandfather wanted Singing Medicine to be the last thing his grandchild experienced. He sang with us while his daughter rocked her child.

One of the last sessions before lockdown was a little boy sat in his leather jacket on his bed. He was very sick. He was from Syria and neither of us spoke each other’s language, although I attempted thank you at the end. We played a singing game and played some percussion and we laughed together too. He grinned and waved when we left.

Singing Medicine member Gemma always recalls the time we were asked to sing with a patient who had not spoken for 2 weeks after undergoing surgery. The patient was scared of hospital and everything that was going on there. The nurses explained that we would probably not get much response from them. However, we sang and played a jungle game and dad did an Oscar-winning performance of a monkey. The child’s tummy moved as though they were laughing. We then moved on to a picnic song and each adult took a turn as though they were all playing together and including the child.  When it came to their turn in the song, mum sang as though helping her, “have you brought the” and she got interrupted by the child at the top of her voice shouting “bananas!”. Other than one whispered “Daddy'” it was the first word she had uttered in 2 weeks.

There are also so many wonderful moments every visit though where a child sings and smiles and we laugh together. The others in the team talk of situations where they were able to distract a child with singing-play when something perhaps painful or horrible was happening to them, or the first time a child spoke after being in a coma and the joy and laughter and happy tears from parents and nurses dancing. It’s not uncommon for a child to sing even though they are not talking. There are so many I couldn’t single out just one.

SB 1

You’re based in the West Midlands but your work reaches far beyond this location. Can you give us some examples of this?

Birmingham Children’s Hospital is like our home but we have also delivered Singing Medicine to Great Ormond Street, Warwick, and Heartlands. We’ve also presented it in Auckland and Singapore.

And we are now online and so everyone can get involved around the world. Our interactive films are free to access and easily accessed via our YouTube channel Ex Cathedra Singing Medicine – YouTube

We also host a Facebook Live session every Friday at 10:30am (pandemic restrictions permitting) (1) Ex Cathedra – Singing Medicine and Singing Pathways | Facebook

Where can you buy Noah Bear? How can people get involved and support the work you do?

There are multiple ways people can get involved and support us. We would be really grateful if people bought their own Noah Bear for a child they know. Every child can benefit from singing with Noah Bear – singing through play. And the sale of every Noah Bear will bring financial support to enable us to keep bringing Singing Medicine to children in hospital – at the moment through our interactive singing films, and one day soon when we can go back onto the wards.

You can also find lots more merchandise to purchase and Christmas gifts to browse at www.bekindsingwithnoah.com

You can also make a donation to the project here: https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/9566#!/DonationDetails

Or Text: SING, followed the by the amount you wish to donate e.g. SING5 to donate £5 to 70470

What would Noah Bear’s wish for Christmas be?

That everyone realises how important singing is for children – all children, and just gets singing.

Website
www.bekindsingwithnoah.com

Facebook: /singingmedicine
Twitter: @singingmed & @RebeccaLedgard
Instagram: @excathedrasingingmedicine

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