The Exonerated

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Since its premiere off-Broadway in 2002 Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s The Exonerated has been performed all over the world picking up multiple awards along the way and even making it onto the big screen in the 2005 film starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.

This ambitious adaptation embraces the nation’s current obsession with binge-worthy true-crime Netflix style documentaries by cleverly combining recorded first person accounts with live theatrical flashbacks of interrogations, murders, court scenes and the grim reality of life on death row.

Jessica Stanton’s innovative design places audiences as central observers as a Netflix style menu dominates the large screen above the stage. The click of a remote control can be heard as this evening’s viewing selection is made. Audiences sit either side of a central stage which is surrounded by prison style wire fencing and rough barbed wire, only glimpsing sight of each other when the stark interrogation lighting illuminates the space.

Grant Archer’s documentary style film feels authentic and grips from the start as the lives of the wrongly convicted play out before us. The fusion of film and live action works exceptionally well as the six extraordinary stories of those wrongfully sentenced to death unfold.

Joseph Houston has directed the pre-recorded interviews in such a way that they feel entirely genuine, the pain, the emotion and most touchingly the hope expressed by each character is as fascinating as it is moving.

The live action scenes work superbly well, adding depth and authenticity to the harrowing accounts of injustice, exposing the corruption of the authorities and their manipulation of these damaged individuals. The shattering and lasting impact of their lost years on Death Row bringing devastation not only to themselves but to the lives of their friends and families also.

Charles Angiama as Delbert takes on a measured narrator style role, the Texan who spent many years on death row for a rape and a murder he did not commit guides the audience throughout, observing with us the injustices and manipulation taking place. He weaves together the other five stories as the rest of the small cast take on several roles bringing life and vision to the harrowing real-life stories.

Though the subject matter is intense and the corruption utterly horrifying the production is delivered in a way which allows for a heart-warming portrayal of the human ability for hope even in the most desperate of situations. Sunny Jacobs being the most perfect example of this: a gentle mother of two who lost not only 16 years of her life to Death Row but even more tragically her beloved husband whose wrongful execution was made all the more horrific when the electric chair malfunctioned. Pippa Winslow’s performance as the good-natured hippie is exceptional, portraying her class and composure to perfection.

The Exonerated directed by Joseph Houston. Hope Mill Theatre Manchester. Photo Shay Rowan

This inspired and impressive adaptation telling six interwoven stories marks a bold innovation in story-telling theatre. The decision to mix live theatre with pre-recorded footage pays off adding an element of authenticity to proceedings. The second half feels a little screen heavy compared to the first but this does not take away from the power of the piece. While you go into the production expecting to hear about harrowing miscarriages of justice you don’t quite anticipate the impact these stories of survival and hope will have, a true testament to the quality and care that’s been put into this inspired and innovative production.

The Exonerated is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 16th June, tickets available here.

Images by Shay Rowan Photography

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.

 

 

Jerry Springer – The Opera heads to Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre

Newly formed production company Northern Ricochet today announced their first project, bringing an all new production of the award-winning musical Jerry Springer – The Opera to Manchester; almost 15 years since it was last performed in the UK.

This new revival will entertain audiences over a four-week run this summer from Thursday 8th until Saturday 31st August with tickets going on sale today at 10am.

Jerry Springer – The Opera proves nothing is off limits with its tap-dancing KKK members, provocative dancing stripper as well as the ultimate battle of good versus evil between God and the Devil.

The original show caused a storm when it first opened in the UK back in 2002 with this new revival promising the same raucous energy not to mention chaos and debauchery.

The show will be the first from new production company Northern Ricochet formed by James Baker (Parade, Yank), Tom Chester (Parade, Mamma Mia) and Bill Elms (Epstein The Man Who Made The Beatles, Twopence To Cross The Mersey). The trio aspire to passionately produce quality theatre in the north, for the north whilst using northern creatives, actors and voices.

James Baker said: “Jerry was ground-breaking and placed a mirror up to the audience. A mirror of reflection and a possibility for us to learn something. The big question is, have we learned anything? Sadly not, and I’d argue we’re even more divided than before. Prejudice still remains within race, sexuality and equality. Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I think we’ve just got better at pretending all is more harmonious. We’ve become even better actors than those in the Jerry show. Reality has become even more blurred. It’s time to hold that mirror back up. We are bringing you a fresh version of Jerry. One that is again a provocation but also a reflection of our times. We aim to create a movement.” 

Tickets for Jerry Springer The Opera are on sale now and can be booked here.

Facebook: /JerrySpringerManchester

Twitter: @JSTOMANC #JERRYJERRY

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.

Nothing but the Roof

NothingButTheRoof-HopeMill-2

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewer: Matt Forrest

Writer: Adam Colclough

Director: Adam Colclough

Back in 1962, the Drifters sang about heading to the roof to get away from the cares and troubles of the world: alas, the same cannot be said of three characters at the heart of Adam Colclough’s latest play Nothing but the Roof.

The action opens with Warren (JP Smith) clutching a letter standing near the edge of a rooftop on a rundown block of flats, he is coincidentally joined by childhood friends Step (David Hyde) and Millsy (Peter Thompson). The pair are dressed as Fred and Barney from The Flintstones: Step has roped Millsy into a father’s for justice protest; however, a mix up with the sign puts paid to that.

As the three friends get reacquainted with each other, they laugh, they fight, they reminisce as they discuss what hand life has dealt them: grief, unemployment, debt, and abuse are some of the hardships the three pals have faced, but can they come out of it the other side?

Despite the weighty subjects covered, the script is exceptionally funny indeed, with some stingy one-liners: it certainly has that lad’s night at the pub feel, as the friends point out each other’s faults, failings and generally just ‘rib’ each other to huge comic affect.

The production does however try to pack too much in with our three friends facing just about every disaster you could possibly think of; the play bounces from one tragedy to another, skimming the surface of these subjects rather than tackling them. Sometimes less is more and the play would certainly benefit from a trim, and as well as a few pauses here and there as the dialogue is delivered at such a breakneck speed that it could do with allowing the audience time to breathe.

The cast despite a few early missteps are on great form, you firmly believe friendship and the chemistry between all three is fantastic. The setting of the rooftop looks the part and allows the actors to fully express themselves.

This is an important play which raises some interesting points about modern Britain and one that should be seen by as many people as possible, it will certainly make you laugh and offer some food for thought, it just needs to iron out it’s kinks and it’ll be a great piece of work.

Tags: Nothing but the Roof, Hope Mill Theatre, Adam Colclough, JP Smith, David Hyde, Peter Thompson, Drama, Theatre