Interview | Joseph Houston | The Exonerated

The Exonerated Hope Mill Theatre

Hope Mill Theatre’s 2nd in-house play directed by the theatre’s co-founder and artistic director Joseph Houston is set to open its doors this week. The Exonerated takes inspiration from the true crime documentary genre and will blend live theatre with filmed footage to create a unique, fully integrated multimedia experience.

Written in 2002 by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen The Exonerated uses material from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and the public record tells the true stories of six wrongfully-convicted survivors of death row in their own words.

The innovative production which moves between first-person monologues, courtrooms and prisons promises audiences a uniquely different theatrical experience.

We caught up with director Joseph Houston to hear a little more about what audiences can expect from this bold production.

The Exonerated in rehearsal 3. Director Joseph Houston Hope Mill Theatre

Tell us about The Exonerated, and how you first became familiar with the piece?

Over a year ago I was recommended by a friend to read The Exonerated. This particular friend, for as long as I have known them, has always been an advocate and supporter of abolishing the death sentence in the U.S. When I first read it, I was immediately captivated and moved by these real life stories. At the same time I was also watching some popular true crime documentaries and felt that there was a new and exciting way of reimagining the piece for Hope Mill Theatre.

What about it made you think it would be perfect for a fresh adaptation at Hope Mill?

This will be the Northern Premiere of The Exonerated, which in itself is extremely exciting for the city. To date we haven’t had anything of this scale which merges both film and live theatre in such an integrated way – so it’s very exciting for us to be bringing something new to our audiences. Due to the nature of incorporating the true crime documentary style we are also hoping to attract new audiences to the venue who aren’t necessarily theatregoers.

Are you fan of the ‘true crime’ genre that’s currently very popular on TV streaming services? What made you think it could be the inspiration for a new piece of theatre?

I am a huge fan of true crime documentaries. Firstly, I find them completely fascinating and so far removed from anything that our culture and country is familiar with. There is so much that inspires me and moves me to share these incredible stories of Injustice and wrong-doing. I think the most important thing is that these are human stories of perseverance and human strength and resilience. I feel that with the popularity of these sorts of documentaries there was an opportunity to merge this with live theatre.

As a director, what are you most looking forward to re bringing The Exonerated to the stage in Manchester?

I am really looking forward to bringing a whole new theatrical experience to Manchester audiences. The staging of this piece means that audiences who like true crime but don’t necessarily go to theatre can also enjoy the play. Audiences will also get to hear these passionate real stories come to life.

And what might be the challenges?

I have never worked with film before and also with actors on film – so this will be a new challenge for me. It will also be very challenging merging live theatrical flashbacks with filmed footage and making sure that these important stories are still portrayed with care and thought. I am working with Grant Archer – a fabulous filmographer – so i have a great team around me.

Tell us about the cast who will be bringing these stories to life?

“I am so thrilled with the amazingly diverse cast we have found for The Exonerated. Many of our filmed actors have incredible experience and I know they will really capture the documentary style filming as well as make these heart-wrenching stories very real. We have also managed to assemble an exciting group of actors who will play live in the production and multi-role many different characters to help bring these stories to life.”

Hope Mill has become renowned for its critically-acclaimed musicals. How different is putting on a straight play?

To date we have been producing musicals in-house and this will be our second in-house play. Musicals are much bigger beasts and there are a lot more factors and elements involved in putting it all together- so it is nice to focus mainly on the story and narrative of the piece without having to worry about mics, bands, choreography etc. However, this will still be a visual spectacle and the production values are just the same as one of our large musicals.

Can you tell us a bit more about what audiences to The Exonerated might be able to expect?

This is 6 real life stories, from 6 people who spent time living on death row for crimes they did not commit. These are heartbreaking stories told in a completely unique way. I want audiences to feel that they are in the comfort of their own homes simply watching their T.V but with all of the drama and intensity of live theatre.

The Exonerated (1)

The Exonerated, directed by Joseph Houston, runs at Hope Mill Theatre from Thursday 6 June to Sunday 16 June 2019. Tickets, from £10, available here.

 

Club Tropicana

 

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

The cheesy, cheery and oh so cheeky Club Tropicana sashayed its way into Manchester this week taking audiences right back to the 80’s with an outrageously camp night of good natured theatre escapism.

Bride Lorraine’s (Karina Hind) hair may be big but her doubts are even bigger as with a little help from her friends she decides to play runaway bride and head to her honeymoon with the girls for some sun, sea and soul searching.

Heartbroken groom Olly doesn’t need much convincing that a little break in the sunshine could be what he needs to forget being jilted at the alter and you guessed it, heads with his pals to the same hotel! Add to this their arrival coincides with that of a mystery hotel inspector, hotel owners who are secretly in love and an ill-tempered Spanish housekeeper and you’ve got a great recipe for a night of hilarious mischief and raucous mayhem.

Fan favourite Joe McElderry is at the helm of the production as entertainment host Garry; camp, colourful and absolutely chockfull of charisma he is every inch a star performer. From teaching the audience a Macarena style dance routine at the start of Act I to leading the cast in an 80’s singalong he more than rises to the occasion. Oozing charm and bursting with talent his panto style interaction is lapped up while he takes every opportunity to prove what a vocal talent he is in the multiple 80’s classics which come thick and fast in this jukebox jape.

Club Trop 2

Kate Robbins is hilarious as Spanish housekeeper Consuela, full of sarcasm and dry wit she proves what a talented character actress she is, her scene stealing performance is lapped up by the audience who are treated to several of her most loved impersonations.

Former Sugababe Amelle Berrabah is in fine voice as hotel owner Serena, her strong vocals if anything are a little underused while Nye Rees does a fine job of covering for Neil McDermott who is unable to perform tonight.

Club Trop 1

Nick Winston’s choreography adds sass to the production and offers something visually solid when the paper thin plot needs a boost. The ensemble scenes are high energy and delivered with enthusiasm and precision by the incredibly talented cast.

Shakespeare is it not, nor is it trying to be and judging by the riotous standing ovation Club Tropicana will keep audiences entertained even when the drinks aren’t free. While the plot may be as shallow as a paddling pool and as predictable as Brits abroad tucking into a full English the audience are getting exactly what they came for, feel-good, frivolous fun and are loving every minute of it.

Club Tropicana is on at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 8th June, tickets available here.

 

Little Miss Sunshine

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Based on the Oscar-winning film of the same title, Little Miss Sunshine has been given the musical treatment and the result will undoubtedly be warming audience’s hearts on its UK tour. The musical is written by Tony Award-winning team James Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and William Finn (Falsettos, 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee).

We follow the Hoover family on an across state journey from New Mexico to California as they allow seven-year-old Olive to follow her dream of winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

However, all is not well in the Hoover camp, who like most families have a few ‘issues’: Dad Richard (Gabriel Vick) has lost his job and is pinning his hopes on a potential book deal. Grandpa Hoover (Mark Moraghan) is living life to the full, sex, drugs and rock and roll! Then there is Uncle Frank (Paul Keating) a disgraced college professor who after a failed relationship has tried to commit suicide. Also, there is Olive’s brother Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian) is on a self-imposed speaking ban until he fulfils his dream of becoming a pilot. Attempting to hold this band of misfits together is downtrodden Mum Sheryl (Lucy O’Byrne).

Finally, we get to the gorgeous and determined Olive (played tonight by Evie Gibson): Olive is the innocent and adored baby of the family, full of joie de vivre. The Hoover tribe begin the stressful journey to the competition, opting to use their old VW camper van, but a series of obstacles and tragic events ensure the trip doesn’t go as smoothly as they would like.

Director Mehmet Ergen’s production is a fun, darkly comic drama that despite having a hard shell, has a soft centre. The ensemble cast have great chemistry and you fully invest in this dysfunctional family dynamic. The performance of Gibson as the adorable Olive anchors the show and its through her portrayal that you will her to succeed, and by the same token the rest of the family too.

Despite this being billed as “a road musical” there are no stand out musical numbers, nothing that you’ll be humming or toe-tapping any time soon. The songs are perfectly fine, if unspectacular: they have a quirky side to them which is in keeping with the tone of the show.

Despite a slightly slow first act, the show really kicks in after the interval to give us a warm, touching, and funny show that will leave you with a smile on your face and glad you spent your evening with the Hoovers and you might even pick up some new dance moves!

Little Miss Sunshine is on at The Lowry until Saturday 1st June tickets available here.

 

Little Shop of Horrors

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Little Shop of Horrors – Storyhouse, Chester

Director: Stephen Mear

Music and Lyrics: Howard Ashman

Music: Alan Menken

Reviewer: Matt Forrest

Star rating: ****

Little Shop of Horrors has all the ingredients of a great story: a love story between two beautiful souls who life has constantly mistreated. Throw into the mix themes of greed, fame and lust, and of course a giant man-eating plant!

The much-loved musical arrives at the Storyhouse for a spring run that is filled with toe-tapping tunes, absurd comedy and a hefty splattering of blood-soaked gore.

Based on the original film by B-movie maestro Roger Corman, we meet timid florist Seymour, the much put-upon assistant shop for Mr Mushnik. Seymour has a lot to deal with; Mushnik’s flower shop is going under fast due to its location on Skid Row, the wrong part of town. He is head-over-heels in love with his co-worker, Audrey and to cap it all off Seymour has discovered a new strange and unusual plant, which he has named the Audrey II. The trouble is, Audrey II is wilting away before his eyes. Following an accident with a rose bush, Seymour soon learns that Audrey II has an appetite for something a little stronger than Miracle Grow. However, as the plant grows bigger, Mushnik rakes in more and more money. Could this little botanic marvel be Seymour’s ticket to winning the girl of his dreams and the chance to leave behind Skid Row for ever, and if so, at what cost?

Little Shop of Horrors at Storyhouse, Chester, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors is an absolute treat and well worth catching. Some great catchy numbers from Alan Menken and lyrists Howards Ashman, stand out songs being the company ensemble sung Skid Row (Downtown) and the up tempo yet sinister Feed Me (Get it).

The cast are on great form with Joshua Lay and Michelle Bishop showing great chemistry as Seymour and Audrey: their rendition of the musical’s signature tune Suddenly Seymour brought the house down. The supporting cast are also great. Cindy Belliot, Tanisha Spring and Emily-Mae, are in fine voice as the sassy residents of Skid Row, Chiffon Crystal, and Ronette. Tony Timberlake is equally impressive as the devious Mr Mushnik, whilst Stephane Anelli, puts in a hilarious and scene-stealing turn as Orin, Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend.

Ryan O’ Gorman and Brett Sheils do an amazing job bringing Audrey II to life, with Gorman giving the plant attitude and menace, Audrey II gets all the best lines and Gorman makes the most of them.

Tonight’s performance was not without its flaws, there were a few timing issues but these are minor quibbles for what is a fun enjoyable, heartfelt darkly comic night at the theatre. If you don’t enjoy this then maybe you need to take a closer look inside Audrey II, she’ll take all of those reservations away!

 

Little Shop of Horrors is at the Storyhouse, Chester till the June 2nd tickets available at:

https://www.storyhouse.com/event/little-shop-of-horrors

 

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The Mousetrap

The Mousetrap,

The Mousetrap: The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry.

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Reviewed13/05/19

Opening Night star rating: ****

About 25 years back I was watching a TV programme staring Paul Kaye as comic creation Dennis Pennis, a rogue TV presenter who pranked the great and good of the 90’s celebrity world. It wasn’t just famous people who Pennis targeted, but everyday folk too. On one occasion he accosted some old ladies as they were about to see The Mousetrap and committed the cardinal sin of revealing who the killer was!  As a teenager it was hilarious, if slightly mean spirited yet little did I realise that many years later I’d be going to see probably the world’s most famous “whodunit” already knowing the ending. (Shame on you Paul Kaye).

You see despite a near 70 year run and smashing a whole host of records, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has one of the best kept secrets in theatreland. The fact that it still has the ability to shock and surprise in the modern world shows just how revered the play is and on the basis of tonight’s production it’s easy to see why.

It begins at Monkswell Manor, a converted guest house in the country ran by a young couple, Mollie and Giles Ralston (Harriet Hare and Nick Biadon). They are preparing for the arrival of their first guests to the house, but a nasty snowstorm is hampering their preparations. At the very start of the performance we hear the news through the radio that a woman named Maureen Lyon has been murdered in London. This broadcast is repeated as the guests been to arrive: who include Major Metcalf (John Griffiths), a mischievous architect named  Christopher Wren (Lewis Chandler), a no nonsense battle-axe of a women in Mrs Boyle (Gwyneth Strong), the private and guarded Miss Casewell (Saskia Vagncourt-Strallen), and finally the Mr Paravicini (David Alcock) a mysterious traveller who is caught up in the snow storm.

As the weather worsens word reaches the house that the police are sending an officer, a Sergeant Trotter (Geoff Arnold). When Trotter arrives, he explains that there is a link between the recently diseased Mrs Lyons and Monkswell Manor, his theory is later proven when one of the guests is strangled. The big question is will Trotter be able to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again?

The Mousetrap,

What instantly strikes you about this production is just how much fun it is and that’s down to the direction of Gareth Armstrong: he allows the cast to play it straight when required but also to poke fun at the genre, never really taking itself too seriously. The ensemble cast are superb, traversing the tightrope between ‘hamming it up’ and paying respect to this well-established theatrical institution.

As one might expect with an Agatha Christie, the script is littered with clues, red herrings and the key element of suspense that will keep you guessing throughout. There is some rather clunky and at times dated dialogue which the cast play for laughs, albeit with dead pan seriousness, which again only adds the enjoyment.

Because the murder mystery genre is one, we are so familiar with, it’s easy to forget that Christie is arguably the main reason we know its troupes so well, however director Gareth Armstrong has manged to keep it fresh, entertaining and certainly well worth catching. Despite knowing the identity of the villain, it still managed to come as a surprise which is of course down to Christie’s criminal mind. Based on this production The Mousetrap still has plenty of life in the old girl yet, unlike the late Mrs Lyons!

The Mousetrap is on at the Lyric Theatre, the Lowry till 18th May. Tickets available here:

https://thelowry.com/whats-on/the-mousetrap/

 

 

 

 

The Great Gatsby

The Great gatsby, NORTHERN BALLET:Jay Gatsby; TOBIAS BATLEY,Daisy Buchanan; MARTHA LEEBOLT, Myrtle Wilson; VICTORIA SIBSON, Tom Buchanan; KENNETH TINDALL,Nick Carraway; GIULIANO CONTADINI, Jodan Baker; HANNAH BATEMAN, George Wilson; BENJAMIN MITCHELL, You

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet bring the roaring twenties to the Lowry’s lyric stage this week in all it’s seductive, extravagant glory.

David Nixon OBE’s ballet which first premiered in 2013 uses all the ingredients of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lively novel to tell this vibrant narrative through impressive and expressive choreography. One thing Northern Ballet do exceptionally well it is tell a story & this exhilarating production further rubber stamps their status as dynamic and creative storytellers.

The Great gatsby, NORTHERN BALLET:Jay Gatsby; TOBIAS BATLEY,Daisy Buchanan; MARTHA LEEBOLT, Myrtle Wilson; VICTORIA SIBSON, Tom Buchanan; KENNETH TINDALL,Nick Carraway; GIULIANO CONTADINI, Jodan Baker; HANNAH BATEMAN, George Wilson; BENJAMIN MITCHELL, You

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE’s musical score adds a cinematic feel to this piece offering a rich variety of sounds and styles which the Northern Ballet sinfonia deliver to perfection under the expert guidance of conductor John Pryce-Jones. So sublime is this score it feels like the dancers float from scene to scene as one delicious arrangement rolls into another.

Jérôme Kaplan’s minimalist set is lit to atmospheric perfection by Tim Mitchell as shafts of light cast dancing shadows across the stage.

This fast paced & vibrant piece does not scrimp on the spectacular, Gatsby’s soirées are the ultimate in elegance with slick delivery of tangos and charlestons from the company while the intimate pas de deux’s between Daisy and Gatsby are delivered with precision and passion by Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Ashley Dixon.

The Great gatsby, NORTHERN BALLET:Jay Gatsby; TOBIAS BATLEY,Daisy Buchanan; MARTHA LEEBOLT, Myrtle Wilson; VICTORIA SIBSON, Tom Buchanan; KENNETH TINDALL,Nick Carraway; GIULIANO CONTADINI, Jodan Baker; HANNAH BATEMAN, George Wilson; BENJAMIN MITCHELL, You

Minju Kang and Mlindi Kulashe also impress as Myrtle and her husband George while Abigail Cockrell and Harris Beattie bring a genuine poignancy to proceedings as young Daisy and young Gatsby respectively.

Northern Ballet succeed beautifully in capturing the emotion and passion of the determined Gatsby all set against a backdrop of whirling jazz, bubbling corruption and sizzling encounters. A triumphant, emotive retelling of an American classic.

The Great Gatsby is on at The Lowry until Saturday 11th May tickets available here.

There will be a post-show talk in the theatre on Fri 10 May

The King and I

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Bartlett Sher’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic which wowed both New York and London audiences opened at Manchester’s Opera House this week; its first stop on an extensive UK and Ireland tour which sees the multi-award winning production hitting the road until May 2020.

Starring Jose Llana direct from Broadway as The King of Siam and Annalene Beechey from the West End production as Anna, The King and I remains without doubt one of the all-time greats from the golden age of musicals.

Featuring a company of over 50 as well as a full-scale orchestra no expense has been spared in ensuring this lavish production impresses from the moment the overture begins.

Following the death of her beloved husband, English widow Anna takes on the job as teacher to the King of Siam’s children. She soon discovers however that the job isn’t entirely what she expected as she ends up teaching not only the King’s many children but several of his wives too. Further complications arise when the house she was promised fails to materialise and conflict begins with the stubborn King: a dictator whose command all must obediently obey.

Although set in the 1860’s the story is still surprisingly relevant as we see Anna set about changing the King’s old fashioned and out dated views on women. While there is an element of civilised Westerner going to the East to teach what is decent and right the context here feels more like a meeting of minds proving both can learn from and benefit each other.

Michael Yeargan’s exquisite set design combined with Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes mark this production out from the start as a lavish and beautifully enthralling revival.

Christopher Gattelli’s additional choreography breathes new life into Jerome Robbins original 1950’s choreography adding a fresh vibrancy which the strong ensemble deliver with impressive precision.

Annalene Beechey is everything you’d wish for as Anna: wonderfully engaging, gracious and warm, with a strong sense of self while gifted with the most sublime voice she embodies to perfection the compassionate teacher.

Jose Llana equally impresses as the King of Siam. Brilliantly sharp and incredibly witty he has a playful, cheeky charisma winning the audience over in an instant despite his characters archaic opinions on women.

The connection between the two feels genuine and well developed cementing the climactic scene as they waltz around the stage during Shall We Dance? as one of the most joyful moments you’re likely to witness in the theatre.

They are supported by a superbly talented supporting cast with special mention going to both Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, Aaron Teoh as Prince Chulalongkorn and Kamm Kunaree as Tipton.

High praise must also go to the incredibly talented children in the show who together with Beechey deliver a delightfully endearing version of audience favourite Getting To Know You while Billy Marlow impresses enormously as young Louis Leonowens.

The pace of this rich production is consistent throughout with the significance of the story convincingly expressed. The King and I proves there is no puzzlement in its status as a timeless classic: this is a truly epic and joyous production both visually and musically. Thrilling in its scale and spectacular in its delivery, the King and I is a dazzling must-see.

The King and I is on at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 11th May here.