& Juliet

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some jukebox musicals come and go faster than you can say Hit Me Baby One More Time others like Mamma Mia really hit the spot becoming staples of the theatre scene; enter new kid on the block & Juliet a magnificent mash-up of legendary songwriter Max Martin’s biggest hits which judging by tonight’s thunderous standing ovation is without doubt here to stay.

Bursting into vibrant life with opening number ‘Larger Than Life’ & Juliet directed by Luke Sheppard gives an absolute masterclass in musical theatre. Visually stunning and with a cast that reads like a who’s who of theatre royalty & Juliet takes you on a joyous ride of empowerment, uplifting fun and star quality sass.

Forget what you know about Romeo & Juliet, this fresh production transforms the Bard’s tragic tale as Anne Hathaway (played spectacularly by Cassidy Janson) tells husband William Shakespeare (an impressive Oliver Tompsett) that his ending for the star-crossed lovers is…well basically shit; thus opening the gates for Juliet’s journey of sensational self-discovery as she explores for the first time what it means to truly get a life!

Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson take on part narrator part player roles as the two inventively weave themselves into the narrative, influencing and entertaining throughout. Tompsett makes for a determined, unwavering Shakespeare that is until wife Anne (Cassidy Janson) takes his quill and sets about influencing not only Juliet’s but her own story. Both are perfectly cast, they spark wonderfully off each other with razor sharp comedic timing and genuinely warm wit.

Miriam-Teak Lee is simply outstanding as Juliet, giving an absolutely world-class performance, delivering powerhouse vocals with ease while her warm charisma combined with instant likability gets the audience immediately on side. It’s a thrill to join her on this fabulous ride as we will this fine heroine to find her own happy ending.

Best friend May is played beautifully by Arun Blair-Mangat his raw fragility when delivering Britney’s much-loved ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ is packed with genuine heart and gut-wrenching emotion while Tim Mahendran is excellent as love interest Francois adding a perfect twist to proceedings while taking the story to another unexpected level.

Special mention must go to David Badella and Melanie La Barrie as Lance and Nurse who are quite simply a joy to watch, bringing the house down during their outrageously funny duet Teenage Dream/Break Free. Jordan Luke Gage introduces us to a very different kind of Romeo, an empty-headed heartthrob who may not be quite as innocent as he seems, Gage thrills with his spectacular arrival while his hilarious doe-eyed dorkish delivery is lapped up by the audience.

No review of the show would be complete without heaping praise on the insanely talented ensemble who look like they are having the time of their lives on stage. They deliver Jennifer Weber’s slick choreography with precision and a sass Beyoncé would be proud of just when you think they couldn’t get any better they crank it up a notch more, absolutely stunning.

Set designer Soutra Gilmour has created something epic here as the constantly evolving set continues to surprise while Paloma Young’s stunning costume design is a glorious meeting of period mixed with modern, think intricately detailed corsets teamed with sumptuous sports luxe and you’re halfway there.

It’s hard to believe the songs featured weren’t specifically written for the show Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro’s arrangements of Max Martin’s mega hits fit the show like a glove while David West Read’s script finds a measured balance between hilariously funny and touchingly tender.

& Juliet is the musical we need right now, the ultimate in feel-good fun offering a joyous night of escapism while tackling modern themes with positivity and truth. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll dance your socks off before leaving with the biggest smile on your face with a heart well and truly warmed. Sensational fun from the first beat, we absolutely want Shakespeare that way!

& Juliet is on at the Manchester Opera House until Saturday 12th October before it moves to London’s Shaftesbury Theatre tickers available here.

Preview | Disney on Ice

D20b_002

Writer Kate Goerner

The ever-popular Disney on Ice spectacular returns to the rink at Manchester Arena next month – offering a timely opportunity to get a bit of Disney magic in your life in these unsettled times!
So why not grab those Mickey Ears and prepare to celebrate 100 Years of Magic in this all-new arena show that’s led by the Mouse-ter of Ceremonies (ahem, sorry!) Mickey Mouse with Minnie and lots of other pals and princesses alongside him.
D20b_014
The family friendly production will be skating into Manchester from the 9th to 13th October and features more than 50 performers, a sing-along score of Disney musical masterpieces, exhilarating choreography and beautiful costumes and sets.
The show is packed with iconic Disney characters from much-loved films that Disney fans young and old will love seeing in the flesh – with added ice theatrics!
Audiences will travel to the heart of Africa with Disney’s The Lion King, come along for an adventure in friendship with the gang from DisneyPixar’s Toy Story, and watch as Belle breaks the Beast’s curse in the tale of Beauty & The Beast.
D20b_017
And OR COURSE no Disney on Ice show would be complete without a trip to the kingdom of Arendelle from Disney’s Frozen and journey up the North Mountain with adorable snowman Olaf and hunky Kristoff, as they help royal sisters Anna and Elsa discover that true love conquers all.
Over 14 tales are featured, with some absolute classic songs like Hakuna Matata, You’ve Got A Friend in Me, Let It Go, At Last I See The Light, A Whole New World and loads more.
D20b_012
Producer Kenneth Feld said: “This is a show, more than any other, which is truly for everybody. When I sit with the audience, I see those that are grandparents, like I am, enjoying a lot of the classic Disney stories, while young kids and parents really respond to modern day favourites like Frozen.”

Disney on Ice: 100 Years of Magic is produced by live family entertainment specialists Feld Entertainment.

Tickets and more information are available here.

Beryl

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The sport of cycling is currently in the midst of a golden age here in the UK.  Through their exploits at the Olympics and the Tour du France, cyclists such as Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Laura Kenny (was Trott) have become household names and an  inspiration to thousands of people across the land. However, way before any of these came along, Britain had Beryl Burton and Beryl was every bit a hero as these fine riders.

Beryl is the fascinating true story of a strong independent Yorkshire lass, who  refused to be beaten and did things her way. She won countless championships, set records, broke records, and managed to stay at the top of her game for 25 years. 

Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Vicky Binns bring Beryl to life, with Longhurst as the child Beryl who contracts St Vitus’s Dance aged 10. The illness caused a weakening of the heart and a loss of control of the limbs. The infection saw the young girl confined to hospital for nine months, as well as having a huge impact on her confidence. 

When she leaves school, Beryl meets Charlie Burton (Chris Jack), a local lad with an interest in cycling. Charlie’s passion becomes Beryl’s obsession and soon she is competing in races, first at county level,  then nationally, and inevitablycompeting at the cycling world championships, all this whilst holding down a full time job and raising a family. 

At first glance this is the classic underdog story we are so familiar with, but dig a little deeper and you couldn’t be further from the truth. This woman was always going to be a success through hard work, guts, determination and sheer bloody mindedness: success was never in doubt.  Maxine Peake’s script is a love letter to this unique, amazing lady filled with warmth, humour and plenty of charm. It ditches the usual sporting clichés in favour of celebrating its subject and having fun.

Under the excellent direction of Kimberley Sykes, the cast of four are in fine form, injecting plenty of spirit into the production and all showing a gift for comedy. Vicky Binns puts in a strong, feisty turn as the adult Beryl  she really gets to the heart of what spurs her on. 

Chris Jack is equally fine as Charlie, turning in a warm, heartfelt performance as the devoted Charlie. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is clearly having fun as the young Beryl and later Beryl’s daughter Denise: her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. Finally, Matthew Heywood plays pretty much every other character in the play including an overzealous German fan and a rather dour Yorkshire copper. Heywood like his fellow cast members puts a great comedic performance.

All four should be commended for their work as this is a physically demanding show, with lots (and I do mean lots) of cycling, think a spin class with a plot and you’re on the right track! As each cast member dart about the theatre and hop on the strategic placed bikes around the theatre you become immersed in their world.

There is very much a ‘punk’ vibe to the production, cast members often break the fourth wall, coming out of character to address the audience and each other. The use of contemporary pop songs despite not being of that era, and the cast’s DIY approach to special effects creating their own inclement weather using a leather blower and some water pistols give the production a carefree, easy going charm.

This is an inspirational story delivered in a funny, touching but never sentimental fashion. Old and young alike will find something to admire about the show which will certainly leave you wanting to find out more about Beryl and her extraordinary achievements, whilst it may inspire you to dig out your Raleigh Chopper from the shed. Beryl’s story is ripe for a silver screen adaptation so catch it Bolton whilst you can.

Beryl is at the Bolton Library and Museum till the 19thOctober. Tickets available here.

A Taste of Honey

Reviewed by Michelle Eagleton

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When one of Salford’s most iconic plays comes back home to its birthplace, there’s bound to be a huge weight on the company performing it to get it right. The National Theatre set itself the challenge of doing just that by making one of the first stops on its UK Tour of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, The Lowry. 

Director Bijan Sheibani, who is at the helm of this production, has managed to rise to the challenge though, as it received an encouraging reaction from the audience on press night.

Sheibani takes the play back to its roots in this bold incarnation, which echoes how it was originally performed, adding the incorporation of music. There’s a live band onstage throughout, which accompanies the characters in solo numbers and plays underneath some of the dialogue, which helps evoke the mood of the piece.

For those who are unaware of the story behind the Shelagh Delaney classic, A Taste of Honey is essentially a gritty norther tale of the love-hate relationship between a working-class single mother Helen and her  daughter Jo, set against the stark backdrop of 1950s Salford. The play was penned by 19-year-old Shelagh back in 1958 and it’s hard to believe that at such a young age the local girl, who had very little experience of seeing shows let alone writing them, could produce such prolific work which would resonate with generations to come. 

Lancashire born theatre and TV star Jodie Prenger puts in a solid performance as northern matriarch Helen making the most of the acid tongue humour gifted  from Delaney and her natural comedic delivery, prompting huge amounts of  laughter from the audience. We also get the chance to see Prenger put her impressive  vocal chords to good use as she packs  a punch with the opening number ‘A Good Man’ (a soulful track reminiscent of some of the late Amy Winehouse’s repertoire).

Gemma Dobson’s portrayal of Jo creates a character that’s like marmite  you love her vulnerability one minute but want to throttle her for her outbursts the next. Dobson’s whining edge to Jo gets a little tedious in the second half of the play but overall her sweet scenes with Jimmie (her sailor love interest) and Geof make up for it and we see her performance of the troubled teen really come into its own.

Despite the play being primarily focused around the two main female roles, Jo and Helen, the stand out performance comes from one of the males in the cast, Stuart Thompson as Geof. Thompson is a delight to watch and displays a natural  sensitivity  as Jo’s gay best friend. Thompson manages to find a balance of campness and caring in the role of Geof, who struggles with his worries of being an outcast in the 1950s society whilst looking after his pregnant friend.

Elsewhere, Hildegard Bechtler’s contemporary design of the production  adds to the bleakness of the piece with a minimalist set complete with stark and dingy lighting. Everything seems shabby and in need of TLC, except for Helen’s brash and glam outfits which extenuate her desire to appear better than she is in reality – which you could say epitomises  the phrase ‘all fur coat and no knickers’.

There have been numerous productions of A Taste of Honey since it opened on stage over 60 years ago and the National present a good version here, which really highlights the comedy and pathos of Delaney’s work.

A Taste of Honey is on at The Lowry until Saturday 21st September then begins a UK tour, further information can be found here.

Macbeth

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Double, double toil and trouble…”

In an era when the mere suggestion of a female Bond is enough to break the Internet, the Royal Exchange enters the fray with possibly the first ever mixed-gender professional production of MACBETH to have cast a woman in the lead.

That’s right, hang on to your coronets… Shakespeare’s titular character is played by a FEMALE. And what a woman she is! Dressed in combats, shaven-headed and brandishing assorted weaponry, Lucy Ellinson’s Macbeth is decorated for her valour; gripped by murderous ambition; and then strung up for her sins.

She parties in a blood-red ballgown, assassinates her Queen and shares her bed with a strong woman of colour, who prays: “Unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty”. (It’s enough to make your average Daily Mail reader’s head spin!)

In a further gender reversal, Duncan is played by Alexandra Mathie. It is an arresting moment when she enters the stage – a sharp bob framing a face that would usually bristle with whiskers.

Let us be clear, however… this is not about watching an inclusive ‘woke’ production. Every actor has earned their place and, with gender politics swept off the table, you’re free to focus on characterisation.

Macbeth is presented as an ambitious, conniving and deceitful person – not a woman breaking stereotypical convention – and in a major departure from classic portrayals, Lady Macbeth (Ony Uhiara) relies on scorn and reason instead of her womanly wiles.

They are part of an ensemble that is a tour de force. Each character is carefully etched and singularly memorable – delivering classic scenes with admirable gusto.

As brave and noble Banquo, Theo Ogundipe makes for a tender father and terrifying ghost, whilst Nima Taleghani and Rachel Denning bring comic relief as Lennox and the Porter/Lady Macduff.

Witches Nicola May-Taylor, Charlotte Merriam and Bryony Davies are scene-stealers whenever they appear – as “foul and fair” a motley crew as you could ever hope to encounter.

Christopher Haydon’s direction is spectacular, with the arrival of Banquo’s ghost at the feast his pièce de résistance. (Playful and sinister, think heads on platters, giant teddy bears and a malevolent game of musical chairs!)

Here, a special mention also to Designer Oli Townsend, Lighting Designer Colin Grenfell and Sound Designer Elena Pena, who infuse the whole production with a post-modern, industrial and militaristic feel.

Balloons, gunshots and strobe lights puncture the interior of ‘the round’ as – under the tutelage of Movement Director Lucy Hind – the players hurtle in through doors, drop down on ropes and swing from ladders with knife blades pointing venomously.

With no seat no more than 9m from the stage, MACBETH makes full use of the 360-degree performance space, which is a feat of engineering in itself. Suspended in the Grade II listed building, it is the perfect metaphor for this thrillingly entertaining show – a thoroughly modern offering rooted in the classic tradition of the theatre.

MACBETH is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 19 October. Ticket information can be found here.

9 to 5 the Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As Dolly Parton bursts onto a screen introducing us to the musical adaptation of the hit 80’s movie she starred in it’s clear that this Manchester audience is up for fun and lots of it, lucky for them that’s exactly what this new touring production delivers.

As a song 9 to 5 has gained a life of its own, no party is complete without a blast of it so it comes as no surprise that the film in which it originated would be given the musical treatment. Writer Patricia Resnick along with music and lyric writer Dolly Parton prove that 9 to 5 the musical is much more than one killer song, it’s witty, cheeky and isn’t afraid to tackle important themes in its own unique and hugely entertaining style.

Our three leads Violet (Louise Redknapp), Judy (Amber Davies) and Doralee (Georgina Castle) are living in a hideously sexist world, there’s gender politics, not a hope of equal pay not to mention their overbearing, oversexed boss Mr Hart (Sean Needham). Continually overlooked for and undermined by most of their male colleagues the trio soon realise that it’s time for these sassy sisters to start doing it for themselves resulting in a comical revenge plot which will hopefully lead them to the illusive equality they so richly deserve.

Louise Redknapp is perfectly cast as Violet, strong and assured she has a commanding presence on stage, Georgina Castle captures Doralee’s genuine likeability to perfection while Love Island winner Amber Davies absolutely shines on stage; her delivery of Get Out and Stay Out brings the house down, quickly silencing any casting sceptics. The three each bring something uniquely special to the stage while their harmonies are heavenly.

The subplot about spinster Roz although delivered to great comedic effect by Lucinda Lawrence seems a little at odds with the rest of the fabulous female empowerment playing out on stage nevertheless the audience lap up her show-stealing number and she receives some of the biggest laughs of the night.

With slick staging and costume design from Tom Rogers as well as vibrant ensemble choreography from Lisa Stevens 9 to 5 has the audience toe-tapping from the start. Add to this superb performances, lots of laughs and a timely uplifting tale you’d be mad not to tumble out of bed and head to Manchester’s Palace Theatre to catch this Dolly good show! Fabulous, feel-good fun.

Catch 9 to 5 the Musical at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 21st September tickets available here.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written in 1984 by John Patrick Stanley, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a intensely compelling study of two lonely lives, both trapped in desperate and destructive spirals of self-loathing who come together in search of both companionship and redemption.

Volatile Danny (Danny Solomon) speaks with his fists, lashing out at anyone and everyone in a bid to protect his fractured self. He is unpredictable and alarming yet somehow Roberta (Hannah Ellis Ryan) is not afraid. Burdened by her own trauma she is riddled with self-hatred and a warped sense of a need for punishment for her abusive past.

A simple set of scattered bar furniture and an old mattress complete with crumpled bedclothes make to the set. A glimmer of moonlight seeps in from above while a porcelain doll dressed in white offers a hint of Roberta’s past.

As the barbed bickering deepens into aggressive exchanges a sharing of secrets begins allowing both characters to develop unpredictably. Danny’s vulnerability begins to show as his defences slip while their fleeting post-coital redemption shows their shared desperation for elusive love and happiness. They are messed up, bad, burdened and bruised yet touchingly real and heart-achingly raw.

Both Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan convince entirely in their roles. As an audience member you are in that bar in the Bronx with them, you feel every moment of heartache in the bedroom and share in their despair and awkward humour. Director Daniel Bradford ensures the emotional charge of both performances slaps you in the face keeping you guessing throughout, never knowing where these tormented souls will take you next. Drowning in despair one moment while gleefully flinging arms around each other the next. Powerful and affecting theatre once again from Play With Fire Productions.

Catch Danny and the Deep Blue Sea until Thursday 12th September at Hope Mill Theatre tickets available here.