Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

If you told me before the performance of Beginning, that I’d be emotionally invested in two people dancing around a kitchen to I Owe You Nothing by Bros, then I’d have called you a liar. However, two hours later I’d owe you an apology, and then would have chewed your ear off demanding a ‘chat’ about what we’d just witnessed!  Taken in isolation, this 10-minute sequence demonstrates all that is great about the David Eldridge penned production; playful, tender, at times desperate, an emotional rollercoaster, more than worth jumping onboard.

Beginning starts at the dying embers of a housewarming party in the leafy suburb of West Didsbury. All that’s left is Laura (Erin Shanagher), the party hostess, and Danny, (Gerard Kearns) a-friend-of-a friend of Laura’s, unsure why he’s still there. We soon learn that the pair have caught each other’s eye as the party has progressed and now it’s all about how the night will end.

Set in real time, we learn how these two very different characters share some striking similarities. Laura is a sexually confident, managing director, laser focused on a romantic encounter with her guest, whilst Danny is a confidence starved 42-year-old man, who lives with his mum, sceptical about why Laura is so keen for them to spend the night together.

As the night progresses, the pair peel away layers of their character to see if this potential union could work: a mutual love of scotch eggs being a plus point, their choice of football teams a potential roadblock, Laura’s chosen team, being one of the more shocking and funnier revelations for the Manchester audience. However, it’s their past heartbreaks that are shaping their present anxieties, holding them both back and keeping them very much alone.

Bryony Shanahan’s direction is flawless throughout. This is very much an extended version of a mating ritual you’d see on one of David Attenbrough’s Sunday night wildlife documentaries, as the would-be-lovers circle each other using the glorious in-the-round setting of the Royal Exchange. There are even hints of those extended dance sequences you get in many period dramas.  The play is allowed to breathe, throughout there are long moments where more is said in a silence than could ever be by any dialogue. It gives it a more real life, naturalistic quality.

The two leads are fantastic, with both Kearns and Shanagher giving layered, nuanced performances – both drifting seamlessly from comedic to heartbreak within the blink of an eye. The aforementioned Bros sequence will have you grinning from ear-to-ear as a result of Shanager’s fantastic dance routine, and equally devastated by Kearn’s reaction. The chemistry between the pair is off the chart – the production lives or dies on whether you believe in the pair of them, and you absolutely do.

David Eldridge’s script is bang on point, warm, funny and poignant. It has a great deal to say about the human condition, and our desire for meaningful human connection, something we all can empathise with post-pandemic. It takes a seemingly mundane everyday occurrence, and makes it the most important thing in the world for its near 2 hour running time. The fact that you’re never really sure how you want it to end, or indeed how it will end, is a major strength.

This is a production that sees everyone at the top of their game, a witty, thought provoking, relatable and unashamedly honest script, anchored by two strong, enjoyable central performances who bring to life characters you actually care about. This is surely what good storytelling is all about.

Beginning is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre till 11th March tickets available here.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Demi Franks

Sitting inside one of Manchester’s most beautiful buildings, the excitement and anticipation for what is for many the first time back inside a theatre in over fifteen months cannot be underplayed.

From front of house, to centre stage, you could see the effort, love and pure joy that has gone into this re-opening. The atmosphere was palpable, and that wasn’t because England had just beaten Germany in a knockout game of football for the first time in over fifty-five years (although that might have just added a little extra something). Being in the audience, for the Royal Exchange and Rebel Productions’ world premiere in the current climate felt like a secret special treat.

Bloody Elle isn’t like your usual Royal Exchange offering, immediately the audience barrier is not only broken but well and truly smashed, as Elle addresses the audience directly from the off, refreshingly introducing the sound and lighting operating team as if it were part of the set of her gig.

‘Bloody Elle – A gig Musical,’ is a one-woman-show, set to an original score, written and performed by the astonishing Lauryn Redding. The story is of self-professed ‘potty mouth’ Danielle (Elle) who has been brought up on ‘cloud rise,’ by her widowed mother. Elle or ‘Gobshiiiite’ as her mother calls her, works at Chips and Dips which is ‘pretty good craic…and you get free chips.’ Here she meets newbie Eve, and the rest as they say is…. a two and a half hour, hilarious, uncompromising, fresh, original, genre-breaking, ‘gig musical.’

Redding is a force of nature and you can’t take your eyes off her. Not only does she fully command the auditorium for two and a half hours, she has the audience firmly in the palm of her hand. Full of witty, punchy one-liners, and hard-hitting truths that make you laugh out loud, and your insides squirm simultaneously, Redding’s writing is sensational, and the audience not only clings on to Elle’s every word, but we feel it deeper than maybe we are comfortable admitting. The way the piece takes a free-flowing route in and out of spoken word, prose and song is remarkable and as if performing a one-woman-show, playing an acoustic and an electric guitar whilst cleverly looping your whole set isn’t enough, Redding’s singing voice is equally sublime, effortlessly moving from northern busker vibes to more soulfully fueled riffs that really show off her excellent vocal capabilities. This original score is raw and current, yet also feels long-established and familiar as you find yourself nodding in enjoyment.

Bloody Elle’ is directed by the Royal Exchange’s joint Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan, who does a wonderful job here of bringing all the elements together seamlessly. Stoodley’s stripped back design, together with Webster’s atmospheric lighting, are both extremely effective. It makes the whole evening feel really intimate, almost like you’ve cheated your way inside a live gig and a theatre show all in the one ticket and it’s almost too good to be true.

Towards the end you can see Redding shedding her character’s layers and allowing the rawness and truth of the story to surface. Coming out isnt easy it cuts you open from the inside,’ this is a story of love, heartbreak, acceptance and everything in between and the poignancy of watching Elle’s story unfold whilst Pride is being celebrated throughout the world is certainly not lost.

The entire experience is a cathartic and hugely uplifting one at the same time.

Yes, ‘the gig’ could quite possibly have been condensed a little, but your eyes are never left wandering, aand your attention doesn’t stray for that matter, either.

Shanahan admits in her Director’s note that without Covid this piece may not have even been written and it’s no mistaking that a piece like this would possibly never have been programmed on the main stage at the Royal Exchange; certainly a little nugget of joy to come out of this past year.

Bold, bright and brash, the Royal Exchange’s first socially distanced, re-opening offering certainly packs a hefty punch.

‘Bloody Elle- A Gig Musical’ runs until the 17th July tickets available via » Bloody Elle (

Wuthering Heights

09 RET Wuthering Heights - Samantha Power (Nelly) - image Helen Murray

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Emily Brontë’s one and only novel is a curious beast indeed, beloved by so many, this tale of passion and obsession has captivated and engrossed audiences for nearly 175 years. Wuthering Heights has spawned numerous film, television and theatrical adaptations, with mixed results. Step up director Bryony Shanahan and writer Andrew Sheridan, to give their take on this timeless tale.

With the windy moors as backdrop, we find the spirited, Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) and her brother; Hindley (Gujeet Singh) at play, the harsh, landscape is their playground. However, when their father (David Crellin) returns from a business trip, he has with him Heathcliff (Alex Austin), a street urchin who has been beaten and abused.

015 RET Wuthering Heights - L-R Rakhee Sharma (Cathy) & Alex Austin (Heathcliff) - image Helen Murray

Heathcliff’s introduction to the family unit stirs up very different emotions in the siblings, for Hindley, jealousy and rejection as the new arrival has displaced him in his father’s affection. Whilst Cathy has found a fellow kindred spirit, someone, who like her, is at one with her brutal surroundings. The pair soon forge an intense bond, filled with passion and rage that will eventually spiral out of control and affect all around them

This is a bold, daring adaptation, that doesn’t always hit the mark. Sheridan’s script does not pull any punches, there is some dialogue in the script that is more akin to an episode of Peaky Blinders, than a period drama, this however is not the problem, the tone of the production is somewhat all over the place trying to blend high-drama and comedic elements and it doesn’t quite work. References to Star Wars, and Cathy Come Home, are out of place and do nothing but take you away from the drama.

01 RET Wuthering Heights - Alex Austin (Heathcliff), image Helen Murray

Where Sheridan’s script does succeed is in its examination of trauma, and the impact it can have on mental health. In addition, the development of Hindley adds an extra dimension.

Key to any production of Wuthering Heights is the relationship between, Heathcliff and Cathy, and whilst Austin and Sharma give strong individual performances: Austin is a cross between John Lydon at his most obnoxious and a feral cat, it’s a unique, refreshing take on one of literatures best loved anti-heroes. Whilst Sharma is feisty as the free-spirited Cathy, who’s decent into madness is believably brought to life. The main issue is the passion and toxicity of their relationship does not grip you nor captivate, as it needs too.

014 RET Wuthering Heights - Dean Fagon (Edgar) - image Helen Murray

The production team have done a fantastic job of bringing the rugged, unforgiving landscape to life during the first half of the play: the Yorkshire backdrop is an integral character brought to life by Cécile Trémolières set design and Zoe Spurr’s atmospheric lighting design. In addition, this mixed with Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s folk/metal score and haunting sound design, give the production an extra layer and a supernatural feel.

Whilst the Brontë purists may need convincing of the alterations, you cannot help but admire the risks that have been taken, it is not perfect and it does have its faults but it is always better to try something new, than play it safe, and make no mistake this adaptation is far from safe!

Wuthering Heights is at the Royal Exchange until the 7th March tickets available here.