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.

 

RAGS

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Aria Entertainment and Hope Mill Theatre are never ones to shy away from a challenge; turning a former cotton mill into an award-winning producing house a clear testament to their drive and determination; so it comes as no surprise that not only have they taken on the challenge of reimaging lesser known musical RAGS but have the added coup of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Schartz’s invaluable presence in the rehearsal rooms.

With a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler On The Roof) music by Charles Strouse (Annie) and lyrics from Stephen Schwarz (Wicked) RAGS seems like it should have always been a hit yet the success never quite came. This UK premiere of a new version with a revised book by David Thompson directed by Hope Mill regular Bronagh Lagan sets about altering the destiny of RAGS and ensuring this relatively unknown musical is given the platform it deserves.

The joyful wit and melodic dialogue of Joseph Stein remain however David Thompson’s revisions allow the story to be told anew as we follow Jewish immigrant Rebecca (Rebecca Trehearn) as she bids to find a new life and a secure future for her and son David (Lochlan White) in America. Their penniless arrival at Ellis Island looks set to dictate their fate until kind-hearted Bella (Lydia White) whom Rebecca strikes up a friendship with on the journey convinces her father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) to vouch for the desperate pair. Rebecca and David are given a place to stay and her skills as a seamstress soon secure her employment however she is never far from rough seas as although the American dream may seem within reach it certainly won’t be without sacrifice leading to a battle of identity amidst a struggle of cultural assimilation.

The subject matter may sound heavy but it is treated with such love and warmth that light and dark marry beautifully with comedic and heart-warming moments shining through the emotional and poignant.

Rebecca Trehearn is pure star quality; she captures the gut-wrenching anguish of Rebecca with perfection and her determination to succeed in this hostile new world is profoundly moving. Her vocals are pitch perfect throughout while her stunning rendition of Children Of The Wind would melt the coldest of hearts, to see it delivered in such an intimate setting as Hope Mill is breath-taking.

Lydia White is superbly cast as Bella, her friendship with Rebecca feels believable and pure while her thrill at the prospect of the new life within her grasp is inspiring. Sam Peggs plays Bella’s love interest Ben with an innocent joy while Robert Tripolino as Italian trade unionist Sal makes for a wonderfully dramatic and entirely committed champion of both workers and human rights.

Heartening comedy is injected by the pairing of savvy widow Rachel (Valda Aviks) and Bella’s world-weary father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) the duo making for a wonderful comic double act. Special mention must also go to Lochlan White who at this evening’s performance played Rebecca’s son David, confident and charismatic as the young Jewish boy.

This is a real ensemble piece with praise being deserved by each and every member of the cast who bring this story to vibrant life with their stunning vocals and heartfelt performances, several doubling up as on stage musicians. Stephen Schwartz’s soaring score offers a real feast of fusion, in effect a melting pot of styles just like New York City both then and now.

Gregor Donnelly’s suitcase stacked set design and Derek Anderson’s atmospheric lighting combine perfectly to further bring this emotional story to life.

RAGS is beautifully executed theatre which will sweep you away with its gritty and poignant storytelling. The themes feel current and entirely relatable, the cast could easily be singing Make America Great Again rather than Take Our Country Back as the characters battle for acceptance and a sense of belonging in a hostile and at times cruel new world.  The team have got this new version just right with the talented cast doing total justice to the cleverly crafted piece. Important and affecting theatre delivered with genuine heart.

RAGS is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 6th April tickets available here.

 

 

Stephen Schwartz Q&A at Hope Mill Theatre

Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment and Joseph Houston and William Whelton of Hope Mill Theatre today announce An Evening With Stephen Schwartz, which will take place in Manchester on Sunday 17th February.

A drinks and finger buffet will begin at 6pm followed by a showcase of the multi-award winning lyricist and composer’s best loved works as well as Schwartz’s first ever UK panel discussion about his life and his work.

With a back catalogue which includes the critically acclaimed shows Wicked, Pippin and Godspell as well as contributing to the lyrics for the films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as songs from The Prince of Egypt this will be a night not to be missed!

All proceeds from ticket sales will go towards Hope Aria’s 2019 season which opens with Schwartz’s RAGS from 2nd March until 6th April.

Tickets for the Hope Mill Theatre event which include a drinks reception and buffet are priced at £45 and can be purchased here.

 

 

 

Putting It Together

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

While the West End enjoys a triumphant Sondheim revival in the form of Marianne Elliot’s gender-swap Company, us Northerners can also delight in a Sondheim sensation as Hope Mill Theatre, Aria Entertainment & Neil Eckersley bring us a fabulous festive treat with the cleverly constructed and enormously entertaining Putting It Together.

Set at a festive cocktail party in a Manhattan loft apartment, two couples socialise together while Andrew Gallo acting as narrator observes their interactions & anticipates their unraveling with a knowledgable word to the audience as the story develops.

The very first scene, Invocations and Instructions to the Audience from The Frogs clearly lays this out as a night of pure enjoyment, so sit back, relax & let the remarkable talent of this fine cast paired with the music and lyrics of the mighty Stephen Sondheim entertain you.

The construction of this show taking numbers from several different productions is absolute genius, as songs we know and love are given new meaning while some of the lesser known tracks are given a platform to be heard.

As the lives of the characters mixed with their human complexities intertwine songs are used to great effect to portray the emotional longing of each character.

Hello Little Girl from Into The Woods is given a whole new twist as Gavin Jones lusts after Simbi Akande in a daring attempt at seduction while Pretty Women (also from Sweeny Todd) becomes a gentle, tender and touching love song, delivered beautifully by Alex Cardall and Gavin James.

Described as a ‘musical review’ created to showcase Sondheim’s work the plot is never intended to thicken much but this really feels unimportant when you have the opportunity to sit and listen to five stunning actors at the absolute top of their game deliver the most brilliant, beautiful lyrics accompanied by sublime music played on-stage by the enormously talented Michael Webborn.

The pace is fast & once we start we gallop through, each piece thrilling in equal measure. Bronagh Lagan’s confident direction paired with William Whelton’s impressive choreography drives the piece from start to finish; Bang from A Little Night Music performed by Andrew Gallo, Simbi Akande and Alex Cardall perfectly illustrating this, punchy and powerful.

Special mention must go to Lauren James Ray whose delivery of Getting Married Today absolutely brings the house down, impressive throughout her wit and acting are both superb, she is a joy to watch.

Every member of this small cast delivers and then some as they work their way through each musical number; each track feels real, authentic and is honestly delivered. Sondheim’s lyrics so slick and witty ensuring we travel each emotional step with the characters.

Putting It Together is the festive treat you didn’t quite realise you needed but once you’ve sat and enjoyed a sublime evening in the company of this stellar cast you’ll be without doubt wanting to come back for more.

Joyfully entertaining from start to finish.

Putting It Together is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 24th November tickets available here.

The Return of The Soldier

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Writer Nikki Cotter

Based on the 1918 novella of the same name by Rebecca West, The Return of The Soldier is an emotive new British musical brought to atmospheric and achingly beautiful life in Hope Mill Theatre’s intimate space.

The fourth of this year’s five in-house musicals from the award-winning pairing of Hope Mill Theatre and Katy Lipson tells the story of a soldier returning from WWI who is suffering from memory loss, or as we now know it a symptom of PTSD. Rather than returning to the wife he no longer remembers he returns to his first love who now married herself has never quite forgotten the joyful days they shared. What follows is a tender and fascinating story as the pain of unexpressed emotion has far-reaching and heart-wrenching effects.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Tim Sanders’ beautifully crafted book and lyrics are delicately directed by Charlotte Westenra, paired with Charles Miller’s stunning score, The Return of The Soldier is quite simply, beautiful.

The simplicity of the piano and cello ensure this new chamber musical packs and emotional punch delivered in the most exquisitely affecting of ways, highlighted magnificently by Aaron J Dootson’s lighting design.

Chris Jenkins gives a commanding performance as returning soldier Christopher Baldry, lost in what he remembers as his idyllic past, he convincingly switches from harsh and abrasive in his confused present to playful and mellow in his reignited past, illustrating the complexity and tragedy of the effects of war perfectly.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Tessa Kadler impresses greatly as Chris’ forgotten wife Kitty, last seen at Hope Mill Theatre in Pippin, Kadler’s portrayal of a wife grieving for a husband who is still very much alive is both powerful and impassioned, her despair at the rejection she feels channelled into a determination to fix this desperately sad situation. Kadler sings beautifully with warmth and emotion, a contrast to her seemingly cold nature and a hint of what is to come.

Naomi Slights is perfectly cast as Margaret Grey, the working class first love of Captain Baldry. She delicately manoeuvres between being a loyal and committed wife to Mr Grey (Marc Pickering) and embracing the opportunity to feel alive again with Christopher Baldry. Her characterisation is impressively strong and draws you in entirely as she journeys from ecstatic highs to guilt ridden lows with just the right amount of measured energy for the demands of this complex and emotional role.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

Marc Pickering gives a masterclass in acting in his character portrayals of both William Gray the loveable, dependable, safe, pickle-making husband of Margaret and Dr Gilbert Anderson the eccentric, highly animated and incredibly amusing Freudian-esque psychoanalyst, his performance as both characters is utterly joyful to watch.

Esme Sears shines in the role of Christopher’s dedicated cousin Jenny, the story dictates she is more an observer than a character who drives the story but her emotional connection to the other characters adds depths and richness to the emotion of this fascinating story in which she ultimately plays an important part. Sears portrayal is delicate and gently determined delivered with striking style.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 28.08.18

The Return of The Soldier demonstrates perfectly how compelling quality storytelling can be, there is no need for flashy chorus numbers here as the superb acting, sublime score and delicate direction combine to create a cleverly constructed, tender and absorbing story. Kudos to producers Hope Mill Theatre, Aria Entertainment and Guy James Theatrical Ltd for once again bringing bold and inspiring new work to the forefront.

Full of heart and achingly beautiful, The Return of The Soldier is a simply stunning must-see.

The Return of The Soldier is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 29th September, tickets can be found here.

*Photo credits Phil Tragen

The Return of the Solider |Rehearsal Pics

Soldier 3

Rehearsal images have been released for The Return of the Soldier, the fourth in-house production of 2018 from the award-winning pairing of Joseph Houston and William Whelton, co-founders of Hope Mill Theatre and producer Katy Lipson, from Aria Entertainment. The successful trio who will be teaming up once again with producer Guy James.

The much anticipated musical, an adaptation of Rebecca West’s remarkable novella written at the end of World War One, with music by Charles Miller and a book & lyrics by Tim Sanders will open at the Ancoats venue on Thursday 6th September and run until Saturday 29th September before transferring to New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from Monday 1st until Saturday 8th October.

The talented cast will bring this compelling story of war to a whole new generation. The cast of five is made up of Chris Jenkins (tick, tick…BOOM! and Billy Elliot the Musical) will play Christopher, Tessa Kadler (Pippin, Carousel) as Kitty, Marc Pickering (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Universal Pictures’ Les Misérables) as William/ Dr Anderson, Esme Sears (A Little Night Music, Parade) will play Jenny and Naomi Slights (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mamma Mia!) takes on the role of Margaret.

Set in Harrow during the summer of 1916, The Return of the Soldier is an intensely bitter-sweet tale, dissecting the very different love of three women for one man. When Christopher returns from the front, shell-shocked and with memory loss, there are profound consequences for all three women and their love. In the end, only an extraordinary sacrifice will restore the fragile status quo.

Soldier

The Return of the Solder will be directed by Charlotte Westenra, musical direction by Daniel Jarvis, choreography by Matthew Cole, lighting design by Aaron J Dootson, sound design by Findlay Claydon, set and costume design by Simon Anthony Wells/Leah Sams with casting by Jane Deitch.

Tickets for The Return of the Soldier are available here.

 

Interview | Jonathan O’Boyle | Aspects of Love

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, Aspects of Love has been wowing audiences at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre. Now as it approaches its final week of performances we caught up with Director Jonathan O’Boyle to hear a little more about his experience directing his third production at the award-winning Ancoats theatre.

Opening Night: How familiar with Aspects of Love were you before joining this production? Is it a show you’ve always wanted to work on?

Jonathan O’Boyle: I’ve always loved the score of Aspects, but I’ve never seen it on stage. I grew up listening to mix tapes of musicals, several being Andrew Lloyd Webber compilations. So invariably Love Changes Everything was on there. I grew up seeing his work and when I trained as an actor, I wanted desperately to be in one of his shows. Now, as a director, it’s an honour to be working on one of his shows. Aspects has a fantastic story and a brilliant score. To me, it’s his most narrative, actor driven show and this really appealed to me. We treated it like a play, where the characters just happened to be singing rather than speaking.

ON: How do you approach directing a new and reimagined production of a classic show like Aspects of Love?

Jonathan: I wanted it to be intimate. Now, I know everyone always says ‘intimate and stripped back’ but that’s really what I wanted and how I saw the show. The audience at the Hope Mill is so close to the action they can touch the actors. This influenced the design. I wanted the audience to be on stage with actors. Many of the locations in Aspects happen to be in cafes, so we decided to have a couple of the front rows of seats at cafe tables as if they were part of the action.

We then approached the rehearsals as if we were working on a play. We looked at character, character backstories, timelines and what the characters wanted and how they went about achieving this. This really deepened the actors connection to the material.

ON: Did the intimate space the production would be presented in play a major part in your directing decisions?

Jonathan: Absolutely. You have to respond to the space you’re directing in, and the Hope Mill is a very specific space with its own unique challenges. I think about the space at every stage of the process, from the casting to the design to the lighting rig to the sound design. Every choice I make has to be for the theatre.

ON: The reviews have been absolutely phenomenal, people are really responding to the show, this must be very gratifying to the cast and creative team?

Jonathan: It’s been incredible yes. We’re all thrilled with how it’s gone down. I’m so proud of the brilliant cast and creative team. We had a joyous rehearsal process (one of my favourite so far) and we said – if no one gets it, at least we had a great time rehearsing it! Thankfully, the audiences are responding to it in the way I’d hoped. I’m in constant awe of the cast and their talent.

We never presume it’s going to be good. In fact, I never know what the audiences are going to make of it or how it’s going to be received until we get an audience in the room. I trust my instinct and hope it resonates with people.

ON: This is your third production at Hope Mill Theatre – what makes this space/team so appealing to direct in?

Jonathan: I love the theatre and the team there. They’re all so welcoming and it’s always a pleasure being back. I’m from Derbyshire myself but my parents grew up in Salford and Rochdale, so I’ve been going to Manchester all my life. I love the vibe and the people there, so Manchester feels like my second home.

ON: Your previous shows at Hope Mill – Hair and Pippin – have both transferred to London. How much of a challenge was restaging them for London? Do you have a favourite of the three?

Jonathan: It is challenging re-staging for a different venue, primarily because the space is never the same and there are often idiosyncrasies that pop up here and there. What’s so brilliant though, is revisiting the material with the company and developing the show even further. You’re able to improve on things from the first time and the actors often find a deeper connection with the show and their characters.

They’re all so different! They had different challenges and were very different in tone. It’s hard to pick between them because I loved all three companies.

ON: What’s next for you?

Jonathan: I’m currently directing the UK Tour of Rain Man starring Mathew Horne and Ed Speleers. Then later in the year I’ll be directing the UK premiere of Ken Urban’s A Guide for the Homesick at Trafalgar Studios and Peter Pan at The Park this Christmas.

Catch Aspects of Love at Hope Mill Theatre until 9th August tickets available here.