Home, I’m Darling

Darling 1

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Fresh from its Olivier Award success Laura Wade’s new play Home, I’m Darling arrives at the Lowry this week as part of a limited UK tour.

Co-produced by The National Theatre and Theatr Clwyd, Home, I’m Darling takes us into the perfectly stylised 1950’s home of Judy & Johnny; their bliss seemingly as bright as their primrose kitchen. Their marmalade is homemade while their gin gimlets are freshly poured as life in their 50’s bubble bounces along; that is until the rose tinted glasses begin to slip as this cleverly crafted comedy moves into choppier waters as the subtle analysis of gender divide and nostalgic perfection begins.

Judy’s made her choice: rebelling against her upbringing in a feminist commune eating lentil lasagne she now likes things shipshape, living a life of domestic bliss as a picture perfect housewife complete with pastel prom dress & devilled eggs on tap. While her mother argues against this misguided nostalgia insisting that the only people who were truly happy in the 1950’s where white, straight, men as choice, tolerance and acceptance were in very short supply.

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Designer Anna Fleischle has created a magnificent 1950’s haven. The two level set a perfect home with living room and kitchen downstairs neatly topped by a bedroom and bathroom all connected by a central staircase. Director Tamara Harvey ensures the cast make full use of the visually stunning set as each corner of the house is explored and inhabited. The genius scene changes where cast members jive their way around the house add immensely to the charm of this initially playful piece.

Katherine Parkinson is excellent as the insecure domestic goddess Judy, insisting that her feminism is evidenced in the life choices she makes while she attempts to live harmoniously in an inaccurately imagined era.

Jo Stone-Fewings gives a strong performance as husband Johnny, increasingly frustrated with this nostalgic domesticity and what it means for their marriage.

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Susan Brown shines as Judy’s Mum Sylvia, exasperated by her daughters life choices and desperate for her to start living life in the here and now, her scalpel-sharp monologue in Act II is sublime.

The strong cast work together wonderfully keeping the audience guessing throughout as to where this fascinating story will take us. Laura Wade’s script is both generous in its humour and sharp in its observations. Once the saccharine surface has been scratched the grit and relevance of this black comedy effectively take hold. Judy of course insists she is happy but the cracks in her gingham palace quickly show as money begins to run out while the fantasy lifestyle becomes a prison of her own making.

Judy’s indulgence for her ‘hobby’ which she clings onto for far too long impacts not only on her own but the life of husband Johnny who feels emasculated and embittered by his wife’s endless care and devotion. The constantly shifting perspectives engage as well as entertain; add to this a hefty dose of humour, superb cast and stunning set and you have a uniquely brilliant production.

Home I’m Darling is on at The Lowry until Saturday 27th April tickets available here.

Blackpool Tower Circus

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Writer Kate Goerner

Blackpool Tower Circus has been running for an incredible 125 years, dating back to 1894 – the world’s oldest circus based in a permanent arena.

It’s a rich history that the Circus is rightly proud of, as evidenced by the old posters and memorabilia on display to audience members as they they make their way from the entrance of the Tower to their seats ringside.

It’s impressive how the feel of a traditional big top is replicated in a permanent structure (designed by legendary theatre designer Frank Matchem no less) you do feel like you’re in a ‘proper’ circus setting!

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The circus has been led for the past 25 years by ‘Mr Boo’ and ‘Mooky’, who act as clowns and ringmasters combined.

The new Bollywood-themed show, Circus Carnival, has recently launched, just in time for the Easter.

The two-hour running time (including an interval) is filled with comedy, daring trapeze and gravity-defying stunts and circus skills, all accompanied by the in-house live band.

We loved the clever quick change act, the very definition of “how did they do that” plus the traditional circus balancing skills like juggling hula hoops.

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I was actually unaware that every Blackpool Tower Circus performance concludes with a water performance. The Arena’s unique design features a hydraulic floor which sinks and fills with 42,000 gallons of water in less than a minute. I wouldn’t want to give away any of the surprises of the finale – but it’s a wonderful way to end the show, with design, lighting, music and performance uniting to help audience members leave with a smile on their faces.

More information on the Blackpool Tower Circus can be found here.

 

Heart of Darkness

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ll be honest when I heard that Heart of Darkness was being brought to the stage my interest was massively piqued for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is this particular novella is the inspiration behind two of my favourite films: Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola and Heart of Darkness, a documentary which looked at the chaotic production of the Coppola masterpiece. However the Joseph Conrad penned story is today viewed somewhat differently from when it was first published in 1899. The story of captain Marlow being sent to the Congo Free State to retrieve an Ivory trader, Kurtz is considered by many academics to be offensively racist because of its apparent defence of colonialism, it’s portrayal of African natives as being primitive and savage by nature. Clearly this is an ambitious project and as far from “safe” theatre as you can get.

Fortunately Leeds based Theatre Company: Imitating the Dog are up to the task. The company have subverted Conrad’s text and created a unique production. There are two stories at play here on the surface there is the Conrad intended only the action has shifted from the Congo to Europe following a World War Two, which has a different outcome. As well as the change in location, there are also numerous character changes and other tweaks. In addition to this narrative, are numerous breaks where we drop into production meetings where the production team attempt to not just delve into the soul of Conrad as well as examine what impact the work has today.

Initially the jumps between plots and use of a small cast seem a little confusing but once you adapt you can fully immerse yourself in this ambitious project. Using cameras and projectors and green screen imagery the company has created a visual feast that is part classic Hollywood, part graphic novel. This marries perfectly with the reading of script directions and as well references oral and visual references to Casablanca, Blade Runner, and aforementioned Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

This production does offer it’s take on just how fractured a nation we are over Brexit and for this it should be commended however one sequence which showed footage of drunken girls on a night out lumped in with the likes of Boris Johnson and remain protestors was for me no better than a sneering article in the Daily Mail.

This bold, innovative and powerful performance will be up for interpretation amongst its audience and create a great deal of debate which is what original theatre should do.

Heart of Darkness is on at the Lowry until Thursday 18th April tickets available here.

Ghost

 

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Although it seems like five minutes ago it’s actually an incredible 8 years since Ghost the Musical first premiered in Manchester before opening in London’s West End ahead of a successful Broadway transfer and judging by audience responses at the Palace Theatre the love for this classic story shows no sign of waning.

Based on Bruce Joel Rubin’s iconic 1990 film, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost tells the tragic love story of Brooklyn residents Sam (Niall Sheehy) and Molly (Rebekah Lowings) whose lives are cruelly torn apart when Sam is heartbreakingly murdered in a street robbery gone wrong. As Sam watches the scene of his death from a distance, stuck between two worlds he realises what at first seemed like a tragic accident is anything but and his beloved Molly is now in danger too. In order to find his own peace he must find a way to connect with and ultimately protect his love from beyond the grave, cue Oda Mae Brown an outrageous and questionable psychic who has made a living off receiving messages from the dead and passing them onto their living relatives for a fee of course; Problem is she’s never actually connected to anyone from the afterlife until now.

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Rebekah Lowings is hugely endearing as Molly, tentatively attempting to navigate life after the loss of her soulmate she skilfully takes us along for the turbulent ride. Her voice is beautiful; she delivers each solo with fabulous control. The chemistry between Lowings and Niall Sheehy feels genuinely convincingly further adding to the emotion and impact of this production. Sheehy is lively and charismatic as Sam, his commitment to protecting Molly from danger genuinely touching.

Jacqui Dubois is brass, bold and boisterous as Oda Mae Brown, her razor sharp comedic timing is a joy to watch and her hilarious interactions with Sheehy are a real highlight. The scene where we first meet her and her two abetting sisters Louise (Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy) and Clara (Sadie-Jean Shirley) is hilarious with their exaggerated gestures and punchy harmonies.

Special mention must also go to Sergio Pasquariello and Jules Brown who both impress as evil duo Carl and Willie.

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Impressive set and costume design from Mark Bailey adds to the slickness and authenticity of this production while Dan Samson’s sound design although vibrant occasionally overpowers the vocals of the performers. Nick Richings lighting design really makes this piece stand out visually, particularly impressive is the way Sam is lit once he passes from the real world.

The production translates exceptionally well from screen to stage with the addition of some great illusions from Richard Pinner delivered convincingly by an excellent cast.

Ghost will please fans of the original film and is also strong enough as a standalone production for those coming to the show with fresh eyes. It’s heavy on both emotion and humour while the dramatic and engaging story unfolds. There’s love, hope, comedy, deception and drama all neatly packed into this impressive production and while Dave Stewart’s  songs may not be the most memorable they are enjoyable and beautifully delivered.

This reworked incarnation directed by Bob Tomson feels faithful and impressive. Gone is the celebrity casting allowing this production the delivery it deserves ensuring Ghost once again cements itself as a modern theatre classic. Hugely entertaining theatre which engages on every level and will leave you with more than a little tear in your eye.

Ghost the Musical is at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 20th April tickets available here.

West Side Story

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Expectation has been at an almighty high since West Side Story was announced as part of the Royal Exchanges Spring/Summer 2019 season. So successful of late has the theatre been at reimagining classic musicals the run had almost sold-out before the first preview even took place.

This epic tale based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet sees star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria fighting to be together in 1950’s Manhattan where warring gangs make the rules and stepping into enemy territory is strictly taboo. As a story there is everything from love and conflict to hope and heartbreak as the Sharks and Jets fierce rivalry shapes their very existence.

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Since it first premiered in 1955 Jerome Robbins choreography is something that’s always come as part and parcel of any West Side Story production. So iconic in its style it’s hard to imagine the Sharks and the Jets moving in any other way. Step forward Aletta Collins who not only takes on the challenge of reimagining the instantly recognisable choreography but does so in the most beautifully inspired way.

There are still enough elements of the original choreography to keep the traditionalists amongst us happy but these elements are now combined with a pulsating fusion of Latin, street, lindy hop, jazz and even a touch of northern soul to create the most vibrant melting pot of movement.

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Director Sarah Frankom ensures this new choreography is allowed to take centre stage as moments of breath-taking beauty unfold; highlighted perfectly during the switch from punchy ensemble piece to the stillness of Tony and Maria’s first meeting which bursts with joyful innocence. A genuine moment of calm & purity during the heady tension of the dancehall scene.

The cast are outstanding and as an ensemble work together to perfection, fuelled by hatred, fear, anger, love and loss, they fizz with pent up emotion. The era is unspecific making it feel just as relevant today as it did 62 years ago as we seemingly are once again in the midst of a swathe of violent knife crime.

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Andy Coxon finds the true heart of Tony, delivering a powerful and emotive performance; his rendition of Maria a real highlight while fellow lead Gabriela García is completely captivating as Maria. Her operatic vocals are note perfect and pure. Their duets are sublime while the innocence of their love is blissfully uplifting.

Jocasta Almgill is superb and sassy as streetwise Anita, Fernando Mariano makes for a passionate and proud Bernardo while Michael Duke as Riff is convincing and committed.

The cast make full use of Anna Fleischle’s innovative design which is skilfully lit by Lee Curran. They weave, jump and balance on Fleischle’s vertical geometric sets, one minute gone, the next high up emerging from the shadows. The balcony scenes in particular during Tonight really showing off the impressive staging of this piece as each character vies for the audience’s attention, from all sides of the theatre’s intimate space.

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The eleven piece orchestra powerfully deliver Leonard Bernstein’s classic score with new arrangements by Jason Carr giving it a modern and fresh feel. Led by Tom Chester the score is packed with emotion and fundamental to the impact of this piece.

The Royal Exchange have created something truly special here, the standing ovation a clear indicator that this production marks another success for the innovative Manchester theatre makers. Bold, inspired theatre at its best.

West Side Story is on at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 25th May tickets can be found here.

Blood Brothers

 

Reviewed by Alex Broadley

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Blood Brothers is one of those shows which some might think is a standard touring musical, a staple for theatre-goers everywhere. However, Blood Brothers is embarking on its 30th Anniversary tour for a reason, it has stood the test of time for over 3 decades and its themes of class, money and love are as relevant as ever.

Written and composed by Willy Russell the man behind Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers’ first audiences were school children. He wanted to make sure that he hooked the children sitting in the back row of the class and Blood Brothers certainly does that. The show was soon picked up for a short run in the West End and thus began its epic journey to becoming the theatrical juggernaut it is today.

Blood Brothers tells the tragic tale of the Johnstone twins, two brothers separated at birth. Their mother Mrs Johnstone (Linzi Hateley) struggling with mounting debt and the need to feed seven growing children, simply cannot afford to keep both of her babies. Enter Mrs Johnstone’s employer Mrs Lyons (played convincingly by Paula Tappenden); Mrs Lyons cannot have children and the pain is etched on her face. In a fateful deal, Mrs Johnstone gives away one child (Joel Benedict as Edward) and keeps the other (Mickey, played by Alexander Patmore).

The play opens, as many great plays do (think Phantom of the Opera), with the ending. From the beginning, we know how it will play out and this adds to the sense of foreboding and tragedy. Narrator (Robbie Scotcher) asks us to make up our own minds – does Mrs Johnstone have a stone in place of her heart? Scotcher is ever present; he is our slightly menacing moral compass, questioning the characters’ decisions and reminding us of their inevitable fates.

The brothers continue to meet, drawn together by fate and across the class divide which will eventually tear them apart. Time is moved swiftly and effectively on by Scotcher and we see Mickey and Eddie grow up and become young men, albeit with very different lives and opportunities.

Russell’s aim was for the music to be woven into the story and the songs and musical patterns weave themselves throughout the narrative. The soundscape is dramatic and occasionally builds up to a crescendo loud enough to make the audience wince along with the drama. Stand out songs include Tell me it’s not true and Marilyn Monroe.

Andy Walmsley’s set design is simple but effective. The claustrophobic feel of the Liverpool slums and the contrasting bright feel of the Lyons’ living room take us back to the 1950s/60s but also show the class divide which runs throughout Blood Brothers.

The cast is fantastic and extremely hard working. Alexander Patmore’s Mickey is full of cheeky humour and grit. The scenes when Mickey (Patmore) and Eddie (Benedict) are children are stand out moments and take you back to playing out after school and not having a care in the world. Benedict is likeable as the naïve and privileged Eddie Lyons and the relationship between Mickey and Eddie is affectionate and deep. Linzi Hateley is strong as Mrs Johnstone; full of gumption and humour, you feel for the tough hand life has dealt her. Her character is the lynchpin of the play. Danielle Corlass’ character of Linda is caught in the middle of the class and brotherly divide; she is funny and well meaning.

Blood Brothers is a staple of musical theatre. Everyone should see it. It offers you an evening (or afternoon) filled with humour, tragedy, grit and will leave you feeling as though you’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster. Bring a handkerchief for those inevitable sniffles.

Blood Brothers is on at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 13th April.here.

 

Hair

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This inventive production of Hair The Musical has been on quite a journey these past few years, from first opening at the intimate Hope Mill Theatre back in 2016 to a sell-out London run winning a WhatsOnStage Award along the way; it now makes its return to Manchester opening at the city’s Palace Theatre as part of an extensive 50th anniversary UK tour.

Set in New York’s East Village at a time when the emerging youth counterculture was rejecting mainstream America and growing increasingly disenfranchised by the controversial war in Vietnam, Hair still remains one of the most iconic rock musicals of all time. A tribe of free thinkers who turned their backs on convention creating their own family in which to belong, advocates of peace, love and liberal thinking. Central to the story is the plight of Claude (portrayed brilliantly by Paul Wilkins) torn between rejecting his military drafting and embracing this non-violent, peace loving tribe.

Very much an ensemble production Hair showcases a cast of incredible talent. Opening number Aquarius vibrantly and powerfully sets the scene, drawing the audience into this joyous celebration of love, freedom and pacifism right from the start. Maeve Black’s beautiful set design and costumes transforming the Palace Theatre into a psychedelic heaven lit to perfection by Ben M Rogers.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle ensures the audience are taken along for the ride involving them in this exuberant trip on multiple occasions. Jake Quickenden as Berger confidently leaps into the stalls in little more than a thong while Tom Bates takes great delight in perching on an audience members knee during his hilarious performance as Margaret Mead.

Paul Wilkins heads up the strong cast proving what a talent he is in the role of Claude. Thrown into turmoil at the life changing decision he faces, his anguish and torment delivered with passionate energy. Jake Quickenden makes for a confident and flamboyant Berger, athletically strutting around the stage dishing out powerful vocals along the way. Daisy Wood-Davis shines in the role of Sheila, her voice as powerful as it is beautiful.

Tom Bates has the audience in the palm of his hand as Margaret Mead while Natalie Green as soulful Cassie is a joy. Other notable performances in this excellent ensemble are Alison Arnopp as the enigmatic Jeanie, Aiesha Pease whose rich tones warm the soul and Bradley Judge who is enormously entertaining as Woof.

The cast work together superbly and all deserve praise, they deliver William Whelton’s inspired choreography to perfection, often moving as one, pulsing together in perfect harmony. Musical Director Gareth Bretherton leads the small group of on stage musicians confidently ensuring this electrifying score is given the platform it deserves.

While the themes may not be so shocking to audiences now in more free-thinking, accepting times its message still remains enormously relevant; the despicable quote from Donald Trump heard ringing through the auditorium at the very start proving this point entirely.

Hair gives a touchingly symbolic reminder of the fact that we really are just one tribe. Its hippie, trippy vibe is deliciously infectious bringing every audience member to their feet in celebration of this triumphant piece of theatre while the power of final song Let The Sun Shine In offers hope and proves just how powerfully emotive theatre can be. Hair’s transition from Hope Mill Theatre to the much larger stage of the Palace theatre is seamless as this beautifully crafted and joyously affecting theatre absolutely lets the sun shine in.

On at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 13th April tickets available here.