The Wiz

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As The Wiz fast approaches it’s 50th anniversary, Hope Mill Theatre together with Ameena Hamid Productions and Chuchu Nwagu Productions have reimagined this multi award-winning musical, based on the much loved classic, The Wizard of Oz.

As Dorothy struggles with her identity a storm whips up, whisking her away to the magical land of Oz where she embarks on an unforgettable journey of self discovery, realising its not magic but self-belief that will bring her home.

Cherelle Williams takes on the role of Dorothy, slipping into silver sparkly trainers as she eases on down the yellow brick road. Her characterisation is superb while her voice is simply stunning, her rendition of Home is absolute perfection.

Tarik Frimpong is exceptional as the Scarecrow, using his whole body to tell the story he perfectly embodies the role while his skill in delivering Leah Hill’s impressive choreography is jaw-dropping.

Llewellyn Graham makes an incredible professional debut as the seriously soulful Tinman, he is an absolute joy and brings such fun to the role.

Jonathan Andre completes the quartet as the cowardly Lion & has the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he arrives on stage. His playfulness and fun shining throughout.

Special mention must also go to Cameron Bernard Jones who is super sassy as The Wiz plus Ashh Blackwood, Anelisa Lamola and Bree Smith who all bring buckets of personality to the witches of Oz.

The Wiz is a true ensemble show, each and every member of the cast give their all. They exude joy and it’s infectious, I smiled all the way through this pacy show & would happily have stayed in my seat to watch it immediately again. Kudos to casting director Ryan Carter who has put together this outstanding cast.

Simon Kenny’s set & costume design are bright & bold, setting the tone of this vibrant piece from the start while Sean Green’s orchestrations are magnificent.

The original Broadway musical was written at a time when the civil rights of black people were still being hard fought and today almost 50 years later the importance of the Black Lives Matter campaign could never be underestimated. The Wiz celebrates loudly and proudly Black voices while choreographer Leah Hill gifts us with a rich feast of genres from across the African Diaspora.

Director Matthew Xia has created something truly magical with this talented cast. It’s joyful, soulful and bursting with pure heart, a must see!

The Wiz is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 16th January tickets available here.

The Wiz – Full casting revealed

Hope Mill Theatre, Ameena Hamid Productions & Chuchu Nwagu Productions today announces the cast for a radical new version of the award-winning Broadway musical The Wiz, which will be this year’s festive offering.

Directed by Matthew Xia (‘Into the Woods’, Royal Exchange), The Wiz is a joyous retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ reflecting contemporary African-American culture. Its 1975 Broadway premiere production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Matthew Xia said: “The Wiz is approaching its 50th anniversary, it now exists within the canon of mainstream musicals and it’s due time for some bold reinvention. Originally a funk and soul-based analogy for the African-American experience, in 2021 Manchester we’re offering a contemporary take
on the discovery of self-determination and Black joy with this celebration of Black culture across the
African diaspora.”

The cast is made up of Cherelle Wiliams is Dorothy; Tarik Frimpong, Scarecrow; Llewellyn Graham, Tin Man; Jonathan Andre, Lion; Cameron Bernard Jones, The Wiz; Anelisa Lamola, Addaperle; Bree Smith,
Aunt Em & Glinda; Kofi Dennis, Lord High; Ashh Blackwood, Evillene. Ensemble: Andile Mabhena,
Shayna McPherson, Dylan Gordon-Jones, Samantha Shuma, Marisha Morgan.

The show is produced by Hope Mill Theatre, Ameena Hamid Productions & Chuchu Nwagu Productions.
Creative team: Director Matthew Xia; Musical Supervisor and Orchestrations Sean Green; Musical
Director Ehsaan Shivarani; Choreographer Leah Hill; Design Simon Kenny; Associate Costume Design
Maybelle Laye; Lighting Design Simisola Majekodunmi; Sound Design Tony Gayle; Casting Director
Ryan Carter; Casting Mentor Anne Vosser.

Musical Supervisor Sean Green has created new orchestrations. “In thinking about how much the music is loved, I had the thought What if the music was a love letter to black music? I started hearing all sorts of music within the DNA of the score. This exploration has allowed me to incorporate various genres from across the African Diaspora in the new orchestrations which, alongside the funk and soul in the original, really adds depth and colour to the world that we’re creating with this production.”

The Wiz will run from Wednesday 24 November 2021 to Sunday 16 January 2022 tickets are available here.

RENT

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

9 months after its original opening night which heartbreakingly coincided with the eve of the 2nd national lockdown it’s fair to say the cast, crew and creatives of Rent have never given up hope that their show would be seen by live audiences; cue a weekend of sell-out previews followed by a spectacular gala night, confirming that Rent is back, with renewed passion, urgency, and an overwhelming sense of triumph.

This gritty rock musical, set in New York’s East Village introduces us to a group of bohemian artists who despite their daily struggles, battle through life with determination and heart, strengthened by a deep-seated love and genuine friendship which connects them wholeheartedly. They too are living through unprecedented times as the AIDS epidemic sweeps through their streets and the elite want them cleared out of the neighbourhood.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team have created a truly mesmerising production, adding depth and energy to characters many musical theatre fans feel they know so well. The passion and thrill at being back on stage radiates from each performer with Tom Jackson Greaves’ punchy choreography offering a physical outlet for their frustrations as they fiercely defend their right to be heard. Similarly Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson and Musical Director Chris Poon ensure that familiar pounding score is note perfect while David Woodhead’s set and costume design paired with Howard Hudson’s lighting transports us to the atmospheric streets of New York.

Luke Bayer sets the tone right from the start as Mark, and angst filled filmmaker whose energy never wanes. Kooky and complex his video camera acting as a safety blanket protecting him from connecting too deeply and exposing his lonely reality.

Tom Francis is sensational as Roger, his rock God-like swagger draws you in while his brooding vulnerability catches you completely off-guard. His scenes with Maiya Quansah-Breed are simply beautiful, the two manage to make you feel like you’re observing a couple’s private moments; so in tune with each other are they. They draw out every ounce of emotion from their scenes, taking you along on their impassioned journey.

The deeply moving relationship between Angel and Collins which weaves through the storyline is both joyful and devastating in equal measure. Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is breathtakingly beautiful while Alex Thomas-Smith’s Angel is pure perfection.

Cutting through the intensity is Millie O’Connell’s, Maureen who bickers and squabbles with girlfriend Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) throughout, her delivery of Over The Moon is hilarious. Both O’Connell and Almgill give their characters real strength, authenticity and bucketloads of personality while their rich vocals deliver some killer harmonies.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay ensures Benny is seen as more than just a former friend turned landlord as his connection to the group warms and solidifies. Completing the casting is the featured ensemble who add bite and pure passion to the production; Issac Hesketh, Alison Driver, Iona Fraser, Joe Foster and Karl Lankester’s versatility and skill really authenticates this production as a true ensemble piece.

There is a strong sense of coming together in the face of adversity which drives the show, something we can all relate to given recent testing times. The poignancy of the piece truly connecting with the audience in the intimacy of the former cotton mill. The full ensemble pieces are thrilling, intimate and bursting with life while the stripped back moments are spine-tinglingly perfect.

At a time when theatre needs as much support as possible Rent is leading the charge for Hope Mill Theatre’s Covid recovery proving entirely that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of live theatre. Proud, punchy and powerful, Rent has it all!

Rent is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 19th September, tickets available now https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent

HopeFest

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

The sunshine has arrived just in time to herald the start of Hope Fest, a 3-week program of outdoor arts and cultural events located in the heart of trendy Ancoats.

The festival takes place from the 16th July through to 8th August and promises a mix of comedy, music, theatre and special events that will cater to all tastes!

Events include various shows from Matt & Phred’s music sessions, a celebration of Jazz, Funk and Soul. There is also Dog Fest, a family friendly event, showcasing some talented, paw-fect pooches, hosted by Hope Mill Patron Hayley Tamaddon. In addition,there is a tip of the hat to some iconic mega stars, including Dolly Parton, with The Dolly Show, performed by one of the best Dolly impersonators around; as well as a musical extravaganza in the form of Judy & Liza, which looks at Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli’s 1964 London Palladium show.

The festival kicked off with a huge statement of intent, in the guise of Jason Manford’s Comedy Club: a comedy showcase highlighting the cream of British stand up, and an opportunity to unearth some undiscovered comedic gems.

Tonight’s show featured four comics Matt Rees, James Allen, Julian Deane and our MC for the evening Sally-Anne Hayward. Hayward offers a mix of razor sharp observations on feminism, along with a scathing critic of clap-for-carers, which is bang on point. This, interspersed with lewd gags, and the tried-and-tested audience ‘banter’ sees Hayward do a solid job of setting the tone for the evening.

First on is Matt Rees, whose sardonic routine mainly centres on his battle with alcoholism and his continued sobriety. In addition, there are some set pieces focusing on a Mega Bus journey and his stint working at Poundland that are good fun. However, it is Rees’ darker material that is his main strength, with gags about dwarf sex and dementia, which are as funny as they are smart. It is a low-key, droll, but welcome offering from Rees.

Next up is James Allen, a Salford University Graduate, who packs a great deal into his short set. Focusing on Allen’s awkwardness. This is a set filled self-deprecating gags, about awkward first sexual encounters and his time as a drama student. It’s a silly, light routine from Allen, and because of its short running time leaves you wanting more from his awkward adventures.


Following the interval is the show’s headline act Julian Deane. The gags come thick and fast, with Deane working through a-near-the-knuckle routine focusing on relationships, and fatherhood. Some punch lines are as brutal as they are funny, helped along by Deane’s deadpan delivery. What is appealing about his routine is that despite the confidence with which it is delivered Deane is often the butt of his own jokes, which is somewhat refreshing. This was a great headline set from a comic who I’d definitely be interested in seeing again.

The opening night of Hope Fest was an absolute triumph, a great indicator of what lies ahead for this bold, innovative festival and a wonderful addition to Manchester’s vibrant cultural scene.

More information on Hope Fest as well as tickets can be found at https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/hope-fest

Vignettes

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Following a hugely successful run back in February of 2020, HER Productions in conjunction with Alex Keenlan, return to Hope Mill Theatre with a new set of Vignettes: a series of short plays from some of Manchester’s finest writers.

With six stories showcased, there is something for everyone, from family drama to sci-fi, kitchen sink to sitcom, all sharing the common theme of humanity. All have something to say about the world we live in.

It’s a smart choice to open with Fresh Meat: a sharp, fun story of empowerment as Abbi (Carrie Crookall) takes the plunge to visit a strip club, where she meets sassy dancer Frankie (Shireen Ashton). Despite their initial difference, the two ladies have more in common than they think. The script is packed with some punchy dialogue and two really fun performances.

The next offering  is Wildfires, a story looking at discovery and being out of your comfort zone. Niamh (Amy Gavin) reluctantly joins a retreat in the hope of making new friends and seeking out some answers, but things don’t quite pan out as they should. Again, a sharp, witty script with some solid work from the ensemble cast.

Closing the first act is XYV, a dystopian science fiction drama, which explores themes of gender, power, and the consequences of our actions. Performed by Elaine McNicol and Emily Dowson, with terrific sound design from Andrew Glassford, this bold, daring piece attempts to pack a great deal into its short running time.

First up following the interval is To Have and to Hold, a beautifully written, directed and performed piece focusing on the relationship between Ange (Joanne Heywood) and Barry (Shaun Hennessy), a pair of championship winning ballroom dancers stopped from doing the thing they love by an oh so familiar enemy. Containing some great gags and more laugh-out-loud one-liners, this is the perfect way to start act two.

The penultimate offering is, It’s a Pea Picking Privilege, a bitter sweet slice of social realism, as Aggie (Sophie Ellicott) and her daughter, Alice (Carla Rowe) discuss identity, and life’s struggles in a not-too-distant past. With a script filled with humour and pathos, it certainly leaves you wanting to learn more about this fractured mother and daughter unit.

The show closes with Signs, a look at loss, grief and forgiveness. Spiritualist Eileen (Wendy Albiston) works with sisters Amanda (Francesca White) and Jess ( Liz Simmonds) as they both deal with their sister’s illness in very different ways. Packed with emotion and a sprinkling of humour, this dark comedy seems the fitting finale to bring the production to a close.

Vignettes will have something for everyone, containing a tale or two that we can all relate to and a timely reminder that whilst live entertainment has been decimated throughout this pandemic, there are still stories to be told, with talented creative’s ready to tell them by whatever means they can.  

Vignettes is on at Hope Mill Theatre till 3rd July

Tickets available from: https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/vignettes

Hushabye Mountain

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

First performed at the Crewe Lyceum in 1999, Hope Mill Theatre’s streamed revival of Hushabye Mountain brings the Jonathan Harvey penned play to a new audience at a time when living through a pandemic is something we can all relate to.

The strong opening where we see Danny pass from his earthly life to the sounds of his mother Beryl singing one of his childhood favourites ‘Feed The Birds’ sets the scene for this heartfelt piece where the brutality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic rips through the very heart of each character, leaving its unflinching and tragic mark.

As Danny sits in limbo waiting for confirmation that he can officially ‘pass on’; his friends and family left behind reflect and reforge their relationships and lives without him.

Though the timeline moves about considerably from Danny’s life pre-diagnosis to after his passing Nick Bagnall’s strong direction ensures clarity allowing the audience to closely follow events as they unfold and reflect in real time with the characters.

Despite the heavy subject matter Harvey’s wit and skill for creating characters with true grit and huge heart shines through. This stellar cast pour themselves into this piece and the reward for the audience is deeply moving.

Nathan McMullen floods Danny with life, making his diagnosis all the more tragic. He draws you in & quickly establishes the character as someone you’d always have at the top of any guest list, fun, flirty and bursting with heart. His fears are displayed openly and honestly as reality hits and his dreams fade.

The scene between McMullen & Layton Williams where Danny makes plans for his funeral is devastating in its impact. Beautifully delivered by both and although heartbreaking is peppered with wit, genuine affection and buckets of love. Williams gives a superb performance as Connor, a role very different from what we’ve seen him in before, he convinces entirely.

Similarly the hospital scene between Matt Henry as Lee and McMullen as Connor is powerful in its poignancy as the reality of what is to come hits home.

Jodie Prenger as Beryl, Connor’s Mum gives a truly memorable performance. Through her seemingly manic ramblings we see a mother searching for atonement from the guilt she feels after Connor’s farther forced her to cut ties with Connor when he came out. Her mind has been destroyed by the overwhelming guilt she feels as she appears as Mary Poppins and Judy Garland, two of Connor’s favourite icons, we’re transported to a happier time for them both where we imagine them watching Hollywood classics accompanied by snuggles on the sofa. Not physically able to protect her baby anymore her song now gently sends him peacefully to sleep.

This strong cast lift Harvey’s words and deliver them with heartfelt commitment shining a light on the complexities of love and loss. There is also hope as combination therapies begin to make an impact while Jonathan Harvey’s wit is never far away, shining through the tension and tragedy.

Powerful theatre bursting with heaps of heart.

Streaming until 20th June tickets available https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/hushabye-mountain

Meet Me at Dawn

Reviewed by Alison Ruck


Indoor theatre is back! And where better to see your first live piece of theatre in over a year than at the beautiful Hope Mill Theatre. 

There’s honestly no better feeling than being back sat in a theatre waiting for the lights to go down and in HER Production’s ‘Meet Me At Dawn’, once the lights went down I was engrossed from start to finish. 

With it being a relatively small theatre, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of Covid restrictions and audience numbers but was pleasantly surprised to see how much the theatre has done to ensure the seating can be socially distanced whist not affecting the full audience atmosphere too much. With added Perspex screens and wider rows, I felt I could enjoy the fulltheatre-feel safely. 

The stage is set rather sparsely with minimal set and lighting. We’re immediately thrown into the action and introduced to Robyn (played by Helen O’Hara) and Helen (played by Susan Jayne-Robinson), a young couple who find themselves washed up on a distant shore, following a boating accident. It’s clear from the offset that something is amiss, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what until much later in the piece.

Some key themes are introduced briefly early on and later revisited more in depth; this gives the piece a nice flow and allows it space to grow.

I found myself initially wondering where the story would go and how much could be explored on what seemed to be a simple, static set, located on an island beach.

However, as the piece went on, emotions rose and the actors really hit their stride and I was pleasantly surprised with the range and depth the actors displayed during some of the more emotional moments of the piece. Sound and lighting enhanced the emotional moments of the piece in the most subtle way, which truly draws you in at those times. 

HER Productions produce a range of work with a female voice at the core, and this is clear to see through the pure and honest connections that actors Helen, Susan and director Ellie Rose bring to life throughout this production. As a woman watching this show, it is so easy to see your own relationships through the characters, be that friendships, mother/daughter, or romantic. This adds to the emotion at the end of the piece (without giving too much away) when the plot resolves.

The production, which is 1 hour 20 minutes straight through, is a touching story about love and grief and all the emotions that come with it: sadness, anger and eventually peace. The production really takes you with it on its journey through these emotions and by the end leaves you with a real sense of heartbreak and considering your own relationships and their importance.

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2


Meet Me At Dawn is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 29th May. Tickets are available at: hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/meet-me-at-dawn

Interview | Layton Williams | Hushabye Mountain

Hope Mill Theatre recently announced it will be working with Stream.Theatre to stream a new online production worldwide of Hushabye Mountain by acclaimed writer Jonathan Harvey.

Directed by Nick Bagnall, this online production stars Layton Williams as Connor, Matt Henry as Lee, Jodie Prenger as Beryl, Nathan McMullen as Danny, Amy Dunn as Lana and Harrison Scott-Smith as Ben.

We caught up with Layton Williams during rehearsals to hear a little more about this innovative production which will be streamed live on Saturday 5th June, and then available online on 11th, 12th and 13th June 2021 (7:30pm) and 18th, 19th and 20th June 2021 (7:30pm with a 2:30pm Saturday Matinee).

ON) Can you tell us about Hushabye Mountain, and how you became involved with the piece?

LW) It’s a show about relationships, it’s about pain, it’s about love, it’s about loss and we’ve all got these experiences we can tap into. I worked with Jonathan Harvey many, many years ago on Beautiful People which was a TV show we did when I was a kid so it’s really fab that Johnathan was my fist TV experience and now he’s giving me my first play experience.

I have always known I’d jump at the chance to work with Jonathan again, it’s been about 14 years since I first did, and I really wanted to push myself and do something different, so people see me in a way they’ve never seen me before. Especially in this current climate, to have the opportunity to be creative again got me really excited and honestly this was a no brainer for me, I was absolutely buzzin’ when they gave me the job.

ON) How does it feel to be back in a rehearsal room after such a difficult year for the industry?

LW) Amazing! Being in a rehearsal room, starting with a read through, then getting scenes up on their feet to getting our voice recorders out and doing some singing, some harmonies it feels like I’m back by popular demand and I love it! Honestly, it’s just so nice to be creating and it feels like we’ve got such a free reign to be creative with what we’re doing, although the play has obviously been done before it really feels like we can put our own artistic stamp on it. I’m really having a fab time.

ON) Director Nick Bagnall appeared in the original production, which we imagine is of huge benefit for the cast in really getting to the heart of the piece?

LW) It’s brilliant, what’s so good is that he’s really generous with the whole cast and how we do things plus we’ve had Jonathan in the room for a few days too so between the two we’re really in good hands. We’ve really got such a good team here, who we can really be vulnerable with which is just great. I just can’t wait to get out there and give it my all.

ON) The play focuses on the absence left by Danny following his death from AIDS, while you play Connor his partner left trying to navigate life, this feels a timely piece on many levels.

LW) There’s been so much heartbreak and so much loss, friends, family everywhere you look there’s been loss. So to go through that journey creatively could be overwhelming but the great thing about Jonathan is that he does bring that humour to the piece, one minute we’ll be in intense high emotion the next someone will come in pretending to be Mary Poppins, cracking one liners, and that’s what real life is, you’re laughing, then you’re crying.

Although I wasn’t around when the AIDS crisis happened, I’ve made sure I’ve educated myself, I played Angel in RENT previously who dies from AIDS and this is the other side of things taking on a completely different viewpoint. Hopefully, we’re on the other side of this pandemic now, and how lucky we are to be moving towards the other side.

Being aware, educating ourselves more, getting tested, spreading the word and knowing the hardship people went through and remembering those who were lost. This feels like a really beautiful way to both respect and remember the lives that were lost.

ON) This new adaptation from Hope Mill theatre will premiere as a live streamed event, for you as an actor does that pose different challenges to performing in front of a live audience?

LW) It’s quite nerve wracking when you start thinking about it, but I’m trying to think if this was a normal situation it would be live in front of an audience so not really dissimilar to what we’re used to. In just one sitting we can reach many people, that’s a real plus, we’re really gonna knuckle down and give the audiences the best piece we can. Also I’m from just down the road so to bring something so close to my heart to my hometown does feel really special. I feel like all the stars have aligned to be honest.

ON) After several postponements due to the pandemic things seem increasingly hopeful that the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tour will resume at The Lowry later this year, how will you feel being back in Jamie’s red heels and in front of a home crowd?

LW) We’re gonna be back, hopefully in September, it’s a whole different show to Hushabye Mountain but one which I think people in Manchester and Salford will love. I feel like I’ve warmed up the muscles now with this piece and I’m just itching to go, it’s a show that’s really close to my heart and I’ve got unfinished business with, it’s time to wrap this tour and go out with a bang!

Hushabye Mountain runs 5th-20th June online tickets £15-£17 (+£1.50 booking fee)

There will also be an opportunity for audiences to watch a screening at Hope Mill Theatre on Saturday 12th June. Tickets are £25 and include a drink on arrival, popcorn, a post-show Q&A and a seat at Hope Mill Theatre to watch Hushabye Mountain in the very space it was created.

Tickets can be booked via https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/hushabye-mountain

Hope Mill Theatre’s Play Reading Club celebrates 3rd Birthday

Hope Mill Theatre’s Play Reading Club has celebrated its third birthday having gone from strength to strength during the past year providing a way for theatre-lovers to connect during the ongoing pandemic.

Established in early 2017 the drop-in group, which meets from 11am to 1pm on the last Friday of every month, now has over 40 participants, who enjoy reading aloud a play together.

Participants read a wide variety of different plays by different playwrights, from William Shakespeare to Arthur Miller and anything from adaptions to new plays by Manchester-based writers. 

Open to professional performers and non-professionals alike, the group is a positive way for people to come together socialise, enjoy culture and make friends.

Prior to the current Covid-19 pandemic the group would meet at the theatre and enjoy tea and coffee before sitting down and reading a play. When Hope Mill was forced to close its doors in March 2020, the theatre took the group online and since last March has been meeting monthly via Zoom. 

In 2020 the Ancoats venue also took their Play Reading Club out into the wider community and hosted a session with charities Mood Swings and Mary and Joseph House allowing their users to participate in, in a safe and fun way – something the venue plans to repeat in the future with other local charities.

Originally the venue charged a small fee for the session, but thanks to a grant from I Love Manchester as well as funding from the Culture Recovery Fund, the group is now free of charge with participants invited to make a voluntary donation if they wish.

Hope Mill has just appointed a new group facilitator to run the sessions, Janelle Thompson, a Manchester-based actress, who said: “I am absolutely delighted to be joining the team and facilitating this wonderful, long standing project. I’m really looking forward to reading new works and seeing old favourites in a different light.”

Joseph Houston, Artistic Director, of Hope Mill Theatre, said: “It has been incredible to see how our Play Reading Club has grown since opening Hope Mill. It has always been, and continues to be, a great asset to our organisation and our charitable aims to inspire, connect and challenge the local community. I am glad that we have managed to maintain the group though the pandemic and have received much-needed funding to make it free for participants.

“Of course there are challenges, and not all of our users are able to access the group online. As soon as it is possible and safe to do so we will be hosting our Play Reading Group live again from the venue. 

“It’s amazing to see such an amazing group of people from a range of different backgrounds, ages, races, genders and localities coming together to read a range of works from the world of plays – it is truly inspiring. You don’t have to be a professional actor to attend, although some participants are. It’s about the reading and listening and exploring plays, rather than the performance.”

Members of the Play Reading Club explain its appeal; says Kathy Holland: “It’s a wonderful opportunity to read outside the box and try something new, whilst also celebrating and supporting the arts” while first-timer Charlotte Bennett added: “I’ve not tried anything like this during any of the lockdowns but I’m not sure why I haven’t as that was brilliant. More funding needs to be put into groups like this – they are amazing for people’s mental health, socialisation and confidence.”

The next Play Reading Club is on Friday 26th February at 11am (over Zoom) and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. For more information on Hope Mill Theatre and the Play Reading Club visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/hope-mill-theatres-play-reading-club.

Interview | William Whelton & Joseph Houston talk RENT

Earlier this month Hope Mill Theatre celebrated the bittersweet opening – and closing – of its sold-out production of RENT on the same night. The venue had become one of the first venues in England to stage an indoor theatre production since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theatres back in March.

This new production of the show – initially scheduled for August then moved to Autumn – was due to run at the Grade II-listed former cotton mill from Friday 30th October to Sunday 6th December, following all recommended Covid-secure measures.

The entire run sold out in 48-hours following the announcement of an exciting and diverse young cast, with Hope Mill being granted permission by the rights holders to make up the shortfall in capacity (a result of the necessary social distancing measures) by filming the production and broadcasting it online over four weekends. The filmed version was something that Hope Mill founders William Whelton and Joseph Houston say was crucial in terms of the viability of the production – and even more so when the live run was cut short due to the new national lockdown.

Ahead of the first streamed performance this evening we caught up with William Whelton and Joseph Houston to reflect on the challenges of 2020 and their excitement at bringing RENT to audiences online.


Opening Night: Tell us about RENT and why you wanted to bring it to Hope Mill Theatre and Manchester?
WILL – “RENT is a rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. The story evolves around a group of struggling artists living in New York City and dealing with issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic, regeneration, drug abuse and homelessness. It is also a celebration of diversity, individuality and creativity at its core. All of these themes are so relevant not only to our current climate but to the city of Manchester and we feel that this show has never felt more poignant and important.”

ON: What about the show makes you think it will be the perfect fit for the venue?
JOE: “It’s always very exciting reimagining musicals for a smaller scale and RENT is no exception. The music in RENT and the relationships between characters are so beautifully told and it really lends itself to a more intimate setting. The show is also set in an old apartment block in New York with exposed brick and feels very bohemian. I think aesthetically Hope Mill fits this setting perfectly.”

ON: The cast is incredibly exciting – and extremely diverse. Why is presenting a diverse cast important to you as producers?
WILL: “It is always so important to us as an organisation to celebrate diversity in all of its forms and we are always very proud of the casts we assemble. Especially for a show like RENT, it was even more important that we put together a cast which celebrates individuality and inclusivity. The cast and wider team that we have assembled is so exciting and all of these amazingly talented unique individuals brought so much heart and hope to this production.”

ON: The director Luke Sheppard directed Spring Awakening at Hope Mill – were you excited to have him back at the venue?
JOE: “We loved working with Luke on our production of Spring Awakening, which was such a success for our venue. After seeing &Juliet when it premiered at the Opera House we knew that Luke was the perfect choice to reimagine RENT for a new age. He brings together the most incredible creative team and always gets the best out of his cast members. His vision and creativity is spectacular and RENT was also a musical which is very close to him and was a real inspiration for him pursuing a career in this industry.”

ON: There must have been times this year when you felt RENT wouldn’t be possible in 2020 – what made you so determined to stage the production this year if you could?
WILL: “The past 6 months have been a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, especially in the arts sector. We postponed RENT from the summer, not knowing if it would be at all possible for us to produce this year, but as more guidance was released around inside performances we started planning on trying to make it possible and safe. RENT has really never felt so relevant to now and this time and in our hearts we knew that it was the right time to tell this story. It was also so important to us to give all of the amazing actors and freelancers involved in this production the opportunity of working and earning in a time when many have been badly affected by the pandemic.”

ON: Just how challenging was it making the production and venue ‘covid-secure’?
JOE: “It has been extremely challenging trying to navigate opening and producing in a covid-secure world. The main issue has been the financial impact on making the venue and process of making and running the show. Obviously we have had zero income since we closed our doors in March and along with high production values and the equipment needed to make the venue fully covid-secure we have had to spend a lot of money that we don’t currently have to spend. However, we were always determined to only progress with the production and opening if we felt we could deliver it in the safest possible way for everyone involved. We have made a significant investment in PPE equipment, safety screens, hand sanitising stations, signage, fogging systems and testing for the team which gave us the confidence to be able to open our doors once again.”

ON: How important was being able to offer a digital streaming version of the show for audiences who are unable to attend for whatever reason?
WILL: “We were operating the run of RENT at 50% capacity, which is only 70 seats per performance. This meant that the production would have had a deficit of around £100,000, which made it completely unviable. Having the extraordinary option to offer an online viewing of the show has allowed us to take our lost capacity and offer it as a digital ticket, and helping us make up lost income. It is also important for us that audiences could not attend or still didn’t feel ready to return to the theatre can still enjoy RENT from the comfort of their own homes. The digital version obviously took on even greater significance when we were forced to close the show early due to the second national lockdown.”

ON: Opening and closing RENT on the same night must have been a bittersweet experience – what was the evening like?
JOE: “We heard the news that we would be entering a second lockdown half an hour before curtain up on our second preview and it was very upsetting for everyone involved. We were so glad that we could at least make it to our official opening and press night on Wednesday 4th November which allowed us to invite press to review the show. The reviews have been incredible and we are so proud of the hard work from everyone involved. The final performance was very emotionally charged but it was really electric and showed Just how special this production is.”

ON: RENT has been a long time in the planning, especially given the situation this year. What was it like finally getting to see the show and the cast come to the stage?
WILL: “Working towards opening our doors and staging RENT is what really got us through the last year and gave us the hope and drive to push on, when times became very difficult. I know that this feeling echoed with the whole team involved and it was a beacon of light in a dark time for the arts. I knew that the show had the recipe to be exceptional from the amazing creative team to the cast and it really lived up to expectations and then some. The whole experience of the show, the design, the band, the performances, it was worth only 5 performances to feel that energy and watch.”

ON: Now it has been filmed, what can you tell us about the filmed version of RENT and what can audiences expect?
JOE: “This production was created for the stage and to be experienced live and although in the current climate that can’t be, we have worked so hard to film the show for online, whilst trying to keep that live theatrical experience. Having seen some of the initial footage, the film company have managed to capture the whole essence, heart and overall look of what was experienced live in the venue. It really is the next best thing!”

ON: Hope Mill has recently celebrated its 5th birthday – looking back what have been the highlights during this time?
JOE: “We can’t believe we have reached 5 years since opening Hope Mill Theatre, it’s incredible. There have been so many highlights since opening our doors, from winning awards to transferring shows. But believe it or not the biggest highlight has got to be working on RENT, yes it’s been tough and difficult to navigate and there is the constant fear that anything could happen and it all comes crashing down, but the level of positivity, hard work, passion and hope that has come from everyone involved is truly why we do what we do and what gives us the drive to keep going.”

ON: What next for Hope Mill in 2021?
WILL: “Once again we will work hard towards opening our doors and welcome back audiences. We won’t be opening this year, however, we have our queer arts festival: Turn On Fest launching again in January 2021 and we also have an incredible programme lined up and of course we will he doing everything within our power to bring back RENT.”

• Online streamed performances of RENT are available on selected dates from Friday 27th Nov until Sunday 20th December.

More information and online tickets can be found www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

RENT

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

When Hope Mill Theatre announced their summer revival of RENT back in January the buzz about the show quickly engulfed social media; this felt like the most perfect choice for the boundary-pushing, award-winning theatre. Punchy, loud, proud and fuelled by hope, RENT was swiftly propelled into many a ‘must-see list’; billed as the show we all needed in our lives, then…well we all know what happened next.

While the pandemic closed theatres across the country, devastating the Arts, Hope Mill Theatre never lost faith that their much-anticipated production would play to audiences this year. Safeguards were made to film the production should the worst-case scenario of a second lockdown happen and so unbelievably we find ourselves at the show’s official opening which heartbreakingly is also its closing.

The exposed brickwork and anti-Reagan graffiti of David Woodhead’s set transports us to Manhattan’s East Village where a group of young, penniless bohemians strive to live, love and create underneath the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the devastation and desperation increases so does their sense of family and the ultimate need to make a lasting mark on the world before their lights are extinguished.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team of creatives have truly embraced this piece resulting in a bold, dynamic and meticulously crafted production. The love bursts from each character while their palpable desperation combined with a spirit of defiance is as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming. There is an undeniable sense of urgency; these are stories that need to be told, experiences that need to be shared and a love that needs to be felt.

The cast sit around the stage throughout, feeling and experiencing the heartache, pain and joy of each other’s stories. Touch is infrequent, marked by a fizz of electricity as Howard Hudson’s light design flickers in reaction, making those infrequent yet delicious moments all the more powerful.

Tom Francis makes an incredible stage debut as Roger, his strong swagger is ripped away as his fear of dying takes hold, cradled collectively by the soothing ensemble of resolute voices. Blake Patrick Anderson’s Mark has a quirky sweetness, hiding behind his camcorder in a bid to save him from connecting too deeply thus exposing him to ultimate loneliness while ex-housemate Benny (Ahmed Hamad) plays a strong enemy to the bohemian life he once embraced.

Mimi’s (Maiya Quansah-Breed) strutting and sass is replaced by a heart-breaking vulnerability while Maureen (Millie O’Connell) and Joanne’s (Jocasta Almgill) fractious relationship bubbles and simmers throughout. Deeply entwined in the story is the moving relationship between HIV positive Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) and older lover Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) their purity and commitment to each other brings heartening joy to the piece while Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is gut-wrenchingly brilliant.

RENT is truly an ensemble piece and is at it’s most powerful when this talented cast together with outstanding featured ensemble members Kayla Carter, Allie Daniel, Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry unite to deliver Larson’s anthemic score. From the iconic Seasons of Love to the stirring No Day But Today the sheer brilliance of this production envelopes you entirely. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography adds an edgy punch while Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson ensures the pounding score will long echo after the curtain comes down

While 2020 has been a year of unprecedented heartbreak and bitter disappointments this incredible piece stands proud, shouting from the rooftop for all to hear, not only is RENT viable it is vital; it’s pounding energy combined with gut-wrenching optimism confirming to all that the show most definitely MUST go on.

Rent is available to view online on selected dates from Friday 27th November until Sunday 20th December booking is essential tickets available via https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online

Premiere of One Good Night comes to Hope Mill Theatre this February

BANNER AD

‘It makes you lose your mind…it sits in your head and it grows…it’s like that ivy…it starts small but it feeds off everything’

Following an Arts Council funded R&D at Hope Mill Theatre in 2017 One Good Night is back at the same venue for its highly anticipated full-length premiere.

The piece is a comic drama about the effects of female sexual assault and centres around the story of Amelia (Sammy Winward) who has been raped by her boyfriend Pete (Oliver Devoti)…or has she?

Between her goody two shoes friend May (Misha Duncan-Barry) and their nosy next-door neighbour Julie (Susan McArdle), Amelia is lost and confused with a blurred sense of reality. With friendship, laugher and belief, can they overcome and have just one good night?

Led by a female core creative team, writer Aisling Caffrey, director Alyx Tole and producer Alexandra Maxwell One Good Night is an entertaining production full of dark humour. It is designed to educate and enlighten about rape plus the effects of trauma on survivors’ psyche and their relationships and to empower survivors of sexual assault.

With rehearsals aptly starting during Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week this week (3rd-9th February) it is all the more important that this production is seen and its message heard.

One Good Nightwill run for 5 evenings from 25th February – 29th February. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here.

Ticket info £12 full / £10 concession (+ £1.50 booking fee) / £5 DSA & Income Support (Proof Required)