Avenue Q

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Today’s review for Avenue Q is brought to you by the letter X, F and the number 4!

Avenue Q makes a much welcome return to Manchester this week like an old friend you haven’t seen in while, it’s reassuring to see that it hasn’t lost any of its charm, shock factor and ability to make you smile.

Avenue Q is the tale of a group of friends just trying to get by in the world, that fact that the group are made up of humans, puppets, and monsters is irrelevant, they all have the same problems, including relationship issues, unemployment and in one case an over reliance on internet porn! This is the version of life that the likes of Sesame Street don’t prepare you for when growing up.

The show set in New York, introduces us to Princeton, a fresh faced graduate armed with an English degree, ready to take on the world, however having limited funds and no job has seen him arrive on Avenue Q: a rough part of town that makes skid row look like Madison Avenue. Also living on Avenue Q, are a young couple, Brian and Christmas Eve, Brian an inspiring stand-up comic, whilst Christmas Eve dreams of being a therapist but cannot hang onto her clients. There is also Nicky and Rod, a pair of best friends who live together, however Rod has feelings for Nicky that are more than plutonic.

In addition, there is also Trekkie Monster, a reclusive monster, who seemingly just stays at home watching porn, and Gary Coleman, former child star who has fell on hard times and is now landlord of the street. Finally, there is Kate Monster, a teaching assistant, who dreams of opening her own school for monsters, who is also Smitten by Princeton and it looks like the feeling is mutual. However, as we know the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly at the best of times, but when you have  a couple of mischievous forces at work in the shape of the Bad News Bears, then it would be fair to say life is pretty tough for the residents of Avenue Q.

Jeff Whitty has taken the world of Sesame Street stuck it through a meat grinder and what has come out the other end is a script that is sharp, witty and pulls no punches.  There is the right mix of sentimentality and near-the-knuckle humour. Add to that the songs of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx that include the bang on point Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, the heart-breaking There’s A Fine, Fine Line. The firm favourite of the audience this evening was The Internet is for Porn, which could have dated, but still hasn’t lost its sense of fun, and with a little help from our cuddly puppets its shock value.

The small ensemble cast is superb with many of them pulling double duty performing as various puppets. Cecily Redman is outstanding in her duel role of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, crisscrossing seamlessly from upbeat optimistic heroine to trashy vamp Lucy the Slut.  Equally impressive is Lawrence Smith, as the idealistic, well-meaning Princeton as well as the uptight repressed Rod. There is also excellent support from Chole Gentles and Tom Steedon who bring life into a plethora of furry creatures Bad Idea Bears, Nicky and crowd favourite Trekkie Monster.  It’s a credit to the actors/puppeteers, that you forget they’re on stage and lose yourself in the cute, yet foul-mouthed creatures.

It’s not just the exceptionally talented puppeteers and actors who deserve praise, but the human characters are exceptional as well. Ellis Dackombe and Saori Oda, are equally impressive as engaged couple Brian and his Asian American partner, Christmas Eve. Oda is a tour-de -force, in a scene stealing turn, whilst Dackombe is perfect as laid-back Brian, very much in a Seth Rogen, ‘stoner’ role. Finally, we have Nicholas Mclean as Gary Coleman, who lights up the stage with every scene he’s in and gets some huge laughs mainly down to the absurdity of his characters appearance

Director Cressida Carré has done a tremendous job making this a memorable production. Some very funny song and dance number, with some hilarious set pieces, including a pot of puppet on puppet bedroom gymnastics that will live long in the memory. I loved the video screen cartoons used throughout the production which are glorious nod to Sesame Street and certainly add an anarchic touch to proceedings.

The production touches on race, depression, sexuality and plays with our own prejudices and how we see the world, genuinely having something to say, and if that can be done with a song and in such bad taste then count me in.

Today’s review was brought to you by the letters, X and F, the X is for X-rated, and the F is for funny, funny, funny! Whilst the 4 well that’s 4 stars, all the way, so take a stroll down Avenue Q you won’t be disappointed!

Avenue Q is on at the Palace Theatre until the 26th October. Tickets available here.

 

 

 

Curtains

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

We’ve all heard of opening night disasters when it comes to the theatre, from forgotten lines to sickly cast members, I’m certain actors and directors will have their fair share of horror stories. However, I’m sure none will match having their leading lady bumped off during the final curtain!

This is the premise for musical whodunit,  Curtains. This Tony Awarding winning  production is from the song writing duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, who  also wrote Chicago and Cabaret.

Set in 1950’s Boston we are backstage on the set oftroubled Broadway hopeful  Robbin Hood.  Leading lady Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jermin) is murdered on opening night and, due to her rather shambolic performance, everyone is a suspect. Luckily, Boston’s finest, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford), who happens to be a theatre super-fan, is on hand to crack the case.

Placing the theatre on lock down, Cioffi begins to work his way through the list of suspects that include estranged couple and writing partners Georgia Hendricks (Carley Stenson) and Aaron Fox (Ore Oduba). Then there are show producers Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock) and shady Sidney Bernstein (Mark Sangster) and flamboyant director Christopher Belling (Samuel Holmes). In addition, we have ambitious rising stars, Bambi Barnét (Emma Caffrey) and Niki Harris (Leah West), with the latter catching the eye of Lieutenant Cioffi. Everyone is a suspect with cast and crew beginning to drop like flies, can Cioffi catch the killer and save the show?

On the surface, this is a classic murder mystery, very much in the Agatha Christie mould, but on the other hand this is both a love letter to, and a critique of showbusiness, in particular the  theatre. 

There are caricatures aplenty from over-the-top directors, to ruthless money grabbing producers and mean-spirited critiques. Despite a few minor issues, this is an enjoyable, entertaining romp, filled with neat one liners, catchy tunes and some plot red herrings that will keep you engaged throughout.

The cast are at the top of their game, Jason Manford is a likeable leading man, whose comic timing is matched perfectly with a fine singing voice. Carley Stenson and Ore Oduba are also on good form as the warring writing partnership, with Stenson really given the opportunity to flex her vocal cords. There are scene stealing turns from Rebecca Lock and Samuel Holmes who between them get the lions share of the best lines and certainly make the most of them.

They are supported buy an exceptionally hard working cast who put in tremendous effort throughout which are exemplified in the company numbers The Women’s Dead, He Did It, and In the Same Boat III, which are the undoubted highlights of the show, and showcase Paul Foster’s exceptional direction and Alistair David’s intricate choreography.

The production is not without flaws; it’s a bit flabby in parts and there seems to be a bit of filler, it doesn’t quite hold your attention throughout its entire running time, in fairness the show gets off to such an intriguing start that it would be difficult to maintain that level of interest throughout. 

On the whole this is an entertaining, clever, production packed with solid performances, great tunes and some fantastic set pieces, which despite its darkly comic narrative has a heart of gold at its core and is a slice of fun, feel-good musical theatre!

Curtains is on the Place Theatre till 12th October tickets available here. 

Letter To Boddah

64441462_496479654454538_5024441734306725888_n

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the song Hey, Hey, My My (Out of the Blue) Godfather of grunge Neil Young muses the statement: “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away”.  Sadly, this was a question posed in Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter, tragically titled Letter to Boddah.

Writer Sarah Nelson has used this desperately heart-breaking event as the inspiration behind her play, also titled Letter to Boddah. Set entirely in the disabled toilet of a Tesco store, we find childhood friends Billy (Sam Glen) and Neil (Jordan Reece): the pair are dressed in full military combats, armed to the teeth and carrying a ruck sack packed full of explosives ready to blow up the supermarket, its customers, and if necessary themselves.  What has brought these two to this point? Is there any going back for the pair?

Nelson has written a pitch-black comedy drama which explores themes of friendship, grief, domestic abuse and lost potential. Taking a setting more associated with that of a British ‘sitcom’, we are treated to some razor-sharp one-liners and darkly comedic dialogue, mixed with moments of heartbreak, as well as a few twists that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Both leads are excellent. Sam Glen puts in an intense, gut-wrenching turn as grief-stricken Billy, whilst Jordan Reece plays Neil to perfection, striking the right balance between comedy sidekick and unhinged psychopath.  The chemistry between the two is outstanding and fully believable, which makes their actions seem all the more desperate. The two manage to captivate and entirely hold your attention throughout.

This is an important production that addresses issues of male depression and suicide, as well as containing strong political themes of globalisation, and commentary on a lost generation without a voice. Powerful, dark, shocking and packed full of humour, with a finale filled with tension. This is an outstanding piece of work that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, and on the strength of the quality on display tonight, will surely find an audience.

Letter to Boddha is on at the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August at C CUBED (Venue 50) daily at 1:15pm tickets available here.

 

Early Doors

Early Doors 2

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some 14 years ago, Stockport’s most famous pub The Grapes closed its doors for the last time. This was the setting of the much-cherished Craig Cash and Phil Mealey penned sitcom. While only spanning 12 episodes, the show garnered huge critical success and developed a loyal fan base. When the show wasn’t recommisioned in 2004 it came as a bit of a shock.

Last year saw The Grapes fling its doors open again for a series of live theatre and arena shows, which started with a sell-out residency at the Quays theatre at the Lowry. Such was the strength of the production; the show won the best theatre production at the City Life awards.

Early Doors 3

Well the live show has returned to the Lowry this time with a 10-night run in the Lyric theatre. This is very much a continuation of the TV series as we are reacquainted with much-loved characters and introduced to some new, albeit familiar characters. It is to the show’s credit that many of the original cast have returned to the show; however, I doubt that they needed much persuading.

This is not just a nostalgia trip trotting out old gags and catchphrases. Cash and Mealey have created a new show which see’s Grapes landlord Ken (John Henshaw) plucking up the courage to propose to part-time barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson). However, things don’t go to plan, with the intervention of Ken’s mum: Jean (Judith Barker), and also some big-mouthed if well meaning locals, newcomers Freddie and June (Vicky Binns and Neil Hurst) who upset Ken’s plan. In addition, best friends Duffy (Mealey) and Joe (Cash), have their own problems, with the former delving into the world of online dating, and the latter having a few family issues. In addition, local bent coppers: Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight) are struggling with rules and regulations like “evidence” getting in the way of good honest coppering!

Early Doors 1

If you are a diehard fan, or coming to Early Doors Live fresh, this show will leave you entertained and with a huge grin on your face. Packed full of stingy one-liners, pathos and a great deal of heart the show continues to focus on the same themes that made the series a success: love, loneliness, friendship and family, because no mistake the regulars in the Grapes are one big family not to dissimilar to another Cash and Mealey project: The Royale Family.

The cast are on great form: Melissa Sinden as the sharp tongued Winnie, instantly makes you forget about the shows 14 year absence while newcomers Vicky Binns, Neil Hurst, and Nick Birkinshaw as skinflint Tommy, fit in like Grapes regulars. Cash and Mealy don’t miss the chance to poke fun at our new PM; each gag had them and the audience in stitches.

Early Doors

The surprising sing-along finale is an unexpected treat and a fittingly joyous end to a highly entertaining evening. As the show closed, the cast are given a well-deserved standing ovation. Get yourself down to the Lowry and join the regiment, you won’t be disappointed.

Early Doors is on the Lowry until Saturday 3rd August then heads out on a nationwide tour; tickets are available here.

 

Twelfth Night

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Twelfth Night has long been known as one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies; in celebration of their 10th birthday Grosvenor Open Air Theatre are happy to prove why.

Locating the action in the Bohemian Balkans the celebratory festival vibe is strong, there’s flowers in hair while the drink is free flowing. The abundance of music and laughter indicate that Director Julia Thomas is prepared embrace the fun of this comedic and jubilant production.

This is an ode to the joyful and silly; there’s mistaken identities, unrequited love, a shipwreck, subterfuge as well as a whole host of entertaining characters.

The talented cast deliver Shakespeare’s verse with clear conviction while their enthusiasm and wit gives the piece both a light and accessible feel.

Separated twins Viola (Whitney Kehinde) and Sebastian (Marc Benga) each arrive on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck; Viola first, allowing her 3 days of getting acquainted with the locals, enough time for two to fall in love with her while another two attempt to fight her albeit while she’s now dressed as as a man (Cesario) in a bid to keep the spirit of the brother she believes to be dead alive.

Kehinde is excellent as Viola/Cesario, cool and commanding she handles the confusion and complexities of life in Illyria with sass and style.

Sarah-Jane Potts shines as Olivia, hot in pursuit of her happy ending while Samuel Collings brings the house down as the put upon Malvolio whose transformation from stiff upper lipped steward to stocking wearing, downward dog facing smiler is pure genius.

Mitesh Soni is an absolute joy as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. His physical comedy, facial expressions and nice but dim personality really bringing this piece to life. Kudos to Soni for successfully delivering Shakespeare’s prose whilst flossing, impressive!

Jessica Dives as Feste takes on the form of a modern day wandering minstrel, offering an almost narrator like musical accompaniment while adding a wonderfully melodic energy to proceedings.

Director Julia Thomas isn’t afraid to embrace the silly or the slapstick and is greatly rewarded for her choices. Her cast embrace the opportunity, having a lot of fun with the piece while the audience reap the benefits.

A stand out moment which really embodies the playful nature of the production is the hilarious fight scene, outrageously farcical and absolute comedy perfection. The frequent witty exchanges between cast and audience further add to the playfulness and accessibility of this piece.

A highlight of Chester’s summer season for ten years now with productions as strong as this there is no doubt the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre will be celebrating birthdays for many years to come.

Outrageously good fun for all the family.

Twelfth Night is being performed at various dates over the summer further information and tickets can be found here.

Everything is Absolutely Fine

HOB

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

While talking about anxiety is thankfully receiving more positive media attention than ever before we still have a long way to go before we truly stamp out the stigma many people attach to mental health discussion. With their new musical comedy Everything is Absolutely Fine, Lowry Developed With artists House of Blakewell approach the topic of anxiety in an exploratory and wonderfully witty way.

Alice (played by book & lyric writer Alice Keedwell) is making a fresh start, smaller town, job at a smaller hospital & hopefully smaller problems. While a new situation is scary for most it’s made worse by the fact that Alice’s old friend anxiety (portrayed by musician and lyricist Harry Blake)has made the move with her too; constantly there in the background reminding Alice of her insecurities, drip-feeding doubt into every situation. “You’re too loud, you’re so embarrassing, your voice is annoying, you’re so awkward”.

While the subject matter may sound heavy House of Blakewell tackle this important topic in a creative and incredibly entertaining way. The snapshot of Alice’s life is delivered in various melodic, funny and extremely relatable songs. From small incidents like a trip to Waitrose where the choice of courgettes becomes overwhelming to the enormity of deciding you completely embarrassed yourself after one to many at the pub this inspired piece highlights just how all-consuming anxiety can be.

Every thought is questioned as anxiety attempts to drown Alice in negativity and destroy her self-esteem. The feeling of being the only one who doesn’t have their shit together looms large, amplified by the deadpan delivery from Harry Blakes while Alice attempts to soldier on regardless.

The lyrics are contemporary and clever, never before have I heard the words ‘garmin’ or ‘wingardium leviosa’ worked into songs and the genius of ‘shiter-er’ rhyming with ‘lighter’ certainly raised a smile. All delivered with great charm by both Keedwell and Blake.

House of Blakewell succeed in creating not only an entertaining piece of theatre but an enormously accessible piece which gently invites discussions about anxiety in a relaxed and innovative way. The performance is pitched just right allowing plenty of opportunities for relatable humour while reminding us of the importance of speaking out and seeking support from one another. Engaging and entertaining theatre.

Everything is Absolutely Fine has one more performance at The Lowry this evening Friday 28th June tickets available here.

The Book of Mormon

10-The-cast-of-The-Book-of-Mormon-Manchester-Palace-Theatre-Credit-Paul-Coltas

The cast of Book Of Mormon Manchester – Credit Paul Coltas

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ever since those first whispers  of “The Mormons are coming” way back in November, excitement levels have been sky high for the multi-award winning, (Tony’s, Olivier’s and Grammy’s to name but a few) smash-hit Broadway musical’s Manchester arrival.

Penned by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with Robert Lopez co-creator of Avenue Q as well co-writer for songs from Disney’s Frozen and Coco you quickly get the idea that this is going to be one seriously creative and wildly outrageous piece of theatre…and you wouldn’t be far wrong.

From the minute the bright-eyed, Colgate smiling, super-positive Mormons take to the stage with witty opening number Hello! you know you’re in for quite the ride, so buckle up, embrace the outlandish and leave the easily-offended at home.

M-Jae – Cleopatra, Issac – Kevin Clay, Conner Peirson in The Book Of Mormom, Manchester, Palace Theatre Credit Paul Coltas

The story introduces us to Elders Price (Kevin Clay) and Cunningham (Conner Peirson) a mismatched pair thrust together on their Mormon mission to convert the natives of a country far flung from Salt Lake City (no spoilers here), despite knowing nothing about the country nor the traditions or beliefs of the locals who live there. While Elder Price feels his mission is to “Blow God’s freakin’ mind” Elder Cunningham lies…a lot; what could possible go wrong?

From the off The Book Of Mormon pokes wicked and downright profane fun at every stereotype imaginable; nothing is off-limits in this all-out comedy assault and the audience lap up every close to the bone second of it.

The bouncy, infectious score with lyrics to make your toes curl is as outrageous as it is brilliant. There’s a genius borrowing from several other musicals: hilarious hints of The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence’ can be heard during ‘I Believe’ while ‘Joseph Smith American Moses” is a riotous, profanity laden homage to ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ from The King and I; as for the jaw-droppingly offensive yet hysterically funny Hasa Diga Eebowai, The Lion King’s Mufasa would be turning in his buffalo trodden grave.

Nicole-Lily Baisden and Conner Peirson Book of Mormon, Manchester, Credit Paul Coltas

This ‘borrowing’ sends up other musicals so brilliantly yet feels incredibly original; at one point during ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me) you are almost prepared for Elder Price to rise up Elphaba style a la Wicked.

Kevin Clay is outstanding as Elder Price, full of ego and bursting with confidence his self belief seemingly unshakable. Conner Peirson makes for a perfect sidekick as Elder Cunningham so desperate is he to please that his wild exaggerations and implausible bending of the truth brings its own type of bedlam to proceedings. The two together are an absolute joy, their love/hate relationship being the backbone of the story and they deliver it with heart-warming conviction, ultimately teaching both characters a generous life lesson.

Nicole-Lily Baisden shines as Nabulungi, sweet yet sassy she brings a wide-eyed innocence to the role making her duet with Peirson during ‘Baptize Me’ all the more entertaining.

The cast of The Book of Mormon Manchester – Palace Theatre, credit Paul Coltas

Special mention must also go to Will Hawksworth and his outstanding troop of Mormons, every scene they feature in is perfection with Turn It Off and I Am Africa being two of the standout moments of the night, camp, completely over the top and laugh out loud funny.

There is not one weak link in this entire company, with many cast members taking on several parts and delivering each to the highest of standards with the vocal arrangements and choreography taking this production to the next level.

While the show happily tears through taboos with all the subtlety of Satan at a baptism its ultimate message is one of faith. Yes it’s outlandish, yes it’s irreverent but the core message is that it really doesn’t matter what you believe in just as long as you believe in something, be that yourself, your community or each other. While it pokes fun at organised religion it makes clear the message that faith is no bad thing once you see past the bonkers constraints that surround it.

The cast of The Book of Mormon Manchester – Palace Theatre, credit Paul Coltas

Rarely do you see a whole theatre leap to their feet but judging by tonight’s thunderous standing ovation The Book of Mormon is without doubt the hottest ticket in town. Riotous fun from start to finish, believe the hype this is without doubt a little piece of heaven on earth.

Outrageous and original this sensational production will leave you desperate to convert to that marvellous Mormon tribe!

The Book Of Mormon is on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 24th August, tickets available here.

📷 Paul Coltas