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

My Night with Reg

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

First premiered at The Royal Court in 1997, Kevin Elyot’s ground-breaking play My Night with Reg was loved by critics and audiences alike. A transfer to the West End followed as well as Olivier and Evening Standard awards, a successful Broadway run and even a feature film so it comes as no surprise that Manchester-based Green Carnation should choose this moving play as their first touring production.

Set in Guy’s apartment over various years the story focuses upon the relationships of a group of gay men, all have in some form a connection with the eponymous Reg. What initially seems like a light-hearted look into the lives and loves of the group soon develops into a perceptive exploration or love and friendship as secrets and betrayals are exposed while the ever-present threat of the 1980’s AIDS crisis looms large.

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Guy (Simon Hallman) is hopelessly in love with John (Nicholas Anscombe) yet doesn’t have the courage to tell him. Eager to please he puts everyone else’s needs before his own while his hesitancy to put himself out there results in a life unfulfilled and free from any real intimacy.

Old mates John (Nicholas Anscombe) and Daniel (David Gregan-Jones) joke and jostle while never actually having an honest conversation. Interestingly it’s primarily the youngest character in the play Eric (Alan Lewis) who speak freely, unafraid of sharing his thoughts and feelings about the way he sees the world while couple Bernie and Benny bicker and bark at each other by way of communication.

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As Guy, Simon Hallman perfectly captures the frustration of a man thwarted by his own niceness, hopelessly in love yet lacking in the courage to do anything about it. He endears himself to the audience as he flusters and fusses around his friends making the final part of the play all the more affecting.

David Gregan-Jones flounces spectacularly as charismatic Daniel while showing great skill in his ability to switch from carefree to devastated with ease. Nicholas Anscombe plays John as a cool and composed figure who becomes increasingly lost as the piece develops.

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Steve Connolly and Marc Geoffrey as Benny and Bernie play off each other brilliantly offering some of the most cutting humour in the piece while Alan Lewis is refreshingly real as the much lusted after Eric.

Co-directors Dan Jarvis and Dan Ellis has succeeded in creating a piece that’s as funny as it is moving. This dark comedy doesn’t sugar-coat nor should it, Green Carnation’s affecting revival will resonate with many. Designer George Johnson-Leigh’s set is simplistic yet effective with neon lighting pulsating as the intensity rises.

A well-crafted, well-acted piece which will leave you more than happy you’ve spent the night with Reg.

My Night with Reg is on at The Lowry until Saturday 25th January tickets available here.

Further information about regional tour dates can be found here.

 

 

Preview | Marvel Universe LIVE!

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If you have a little Captain America or Black Widow who loves all things Marvel – then Manchester Arena is the place to be this week!

Marvel Universe LIVE! Is an action packed arena stunt show, where audiences can enjoy seeing all their favourite heroes and villains do battle live!

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The brand new show – from the team behind Disney on Ice – is at the Arena from Thursday 28th November to Sunday 1st December and features aerial stunts, martial arts, daring motorcycle skills, pyrotechnics, special effects, 3D video projection and much more.

From Spider-Man to The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, this really sounds like a must-see show for any comic book-mad little (and big!) kids.

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Called on by Doctor Strange, the Guardians of the Galaxy join the Avengers on a momentous crusade against the scheming Nebula who teams up with the conniving and loathsome villains Loki and Green Goblin.

The incredible superhuman forces of Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, Hulk and Black Widow will unite in clashes that pit student against mentor, sister against sister and brother against brother.

Marvel Live

“Our tremendously talented creative team and a nearly super human cast, have created a show that brings Marvel to life,” said Juliette Feld, producer of Marvel Universe LIVE! “The show creates an experience that immerses families in non-stop action, creating movie-style thrills and jaw-dropping stunts that showcase the powers of your favourite Super Heroes right before your eyes.”

For tickets and more information visit www.marveluniverselive.co.uk

 

Preview | A swift half? | New play by Grace O’Leary opens at The Bridge Street Tavern this week

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Foraois Productions return this week with a new play capturing a slice of Manchester life in and out of the pub. Running from 21st to 23rd November at The Bridge Street Tavern, Grace O’Leary’s latest play A swift half? sees sisters Maria and Clara try to make sense of their lives and the choices they have made. The pub becomes more than just a backdrop as moments of clarity come served with a swift half. Old friend and pub landlord Bobby is often the dispenser of that wisdom but he too has his own hopes and plans. Whether they will be realised with a pint in hand remains to be seen.

A swift half? Is award-winning playwright and director Grace O’Leary’s 5th play and marks 10 years since she started writing and producing her own theatre. Her works include the critically acclaimed Letter Headed Paper which toured Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Preston in 2013.  Grace’s first play What Colour Was Her Blood? was short-listed for ‘Best Original New Play’ by North West Playwrights.

A swift half? asks the question, how important is the pub and what place does it have in everyday life? Some hidden truths are threatened to be revealed when sisters Maria and Clara have one too many vinos at friend’s Bobby popular pub, Haven’s Sake, and things could have been much easier if they just stayed in. Bobby, proud pub owner and overall charismatic bloke has dreams of being the next big pub promoter and nothing, he hopes, is going to stop him.

Ahead of opening night, Grace O’Leary said; ‘With it being 10 years since my first play was launched in Manchester, I felt it was right to do a new piece for my decade anniversary. I’ve spent many a happy, and the odd unhappy hour in pubs, and it made me think about the affect the atmosphere these wonderful establishments can have on people. I’ve been lucky to work with a fantastic cast on this production and am really looking forward to sharing it.’

Maria Quinn is played by Julie Burrows, Clara Quinn is played by Sarah E Maher and Bobby Braithwaite is played by Daryn Gates.

A swift half? Is on at The Bridge Street Tavern, 58 Bridge St, Manchester, M3 3BW 7.30pm, on 21, 22 & 23 October Duration 60mins approx. Tickets: £9 plus booking fee can be found here.

A Question of Sport LIVE comes to Manchester

Matt Dawson, Sue Barker and Phil Tufnell

The BBC’s A Question of Sport – the world’s longest running TV sports quiz – will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020 with an all-new live stage show which comes to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Saturday May 2, 2020.

This will be the hit show’s first live stage tour in nine years starring host Sue Barker and resident team captains Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell, along with big-name guests from across the sporting world and will be the perfect way for fans to see the hit show up close in a thrilling live environment; a host of special guest star panellists will soon be revealed.

As well as Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall his unmissable stage show will visit 9 other cities across the UK in April and May 2020:

  • FRI APRIL 17 Glasgow          SEC Armadillo
  • FRI APRIL 24 Liverpool         M&S Bank Arena
  • MON APRIL 27 Birmingham    Symphony Hall
  • TUE APRIL 28 Newcastle       City Hall
  • FRI MAY 1 Nottingham     Royal Concert Hall
  • SAT MAY 2 Manchester     Bridgewater Hall
  • SUN MAY 3 Sheffield          City Hall
  • TUE MAY 12 London            The London Palladium
  • SAT MAY 23 Plymouth         Pavilions
  • SUN MAY 24 Southampton Mayflower Theatre

Tickets go on sale at 10am on Friday November 15th via ticketmaster.co.uk

A Question of Sport Live will follow the small-screen format featuring many of the rounds and challenges fans of the hit show know and love. It is also truly interactive as audience members will be able to participate by directly posing questions to the teams and getting involved in some rounds before the traditional ‘Sprint Finish’ climax.

Sue Barker said: “2020 is a landmark year for A Question of Sport. It’s the show’s 50th anniversary and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this Golden Anniversary than to take the show around the country. We had such a brilliant time on the last tour so I can’t wait to do it again!”

This all-new live tour is brought to you by Cuffe and Taylor, Live Nation and Simon Fielder Productions in association with BBC Studios.

Hope Mill Theatre to stage UK premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Manchester’s award-winning Hope Mill Theatre is to stage the UK theatrical premiere of the Broadway version of Rodgers +Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 2020.

Cinderella will be the first musical produced by A Factory of Creativity – the charity recently formed to take over the running of Hope Mill Theatre. Co-founders of Hope Mill Theatre Joseph Houston and William Whelton will direct and choreograph Cinderella, respectively.

The production will run at Hope Mill Theatre from Saturday 9th May to Saturday 6th June 2020 and then at Clonter Opera Theatre, Cheshire from Tuesday 9th to Sunday 14th June.

This will be the first time a fully-staged version of the show has been performed in the UK (following a recent one-night concert version in London).

Hope Mill Theatre will be holding open auditions in its search for the title role of Cinderella. The venue is committed to finding new and emerging talent across the regions and will be sharing details very soon of how to register interest in auditioning. 

Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, said: “I am thrilled that the modern Broadway version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella will be getting its U.K. theatrical premiere at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. When this version opened on Broadway in 2013, its tagline was “Glass slippers are so back.”  With a wink to the Cinderella traditions of the past – except pantos! – and a solid foot in a world where people take more control over their own lives, Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella has already charmed new generations of musical theatre enthusiasts.”

Joseph Houston, Artistic Director, said: The first ever show I watched as a boy was the story of Cinderella and so to be able to work on the UK premiere of the most recent Broadway version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s story is a dream come true. Having the opportunity to also collaborate alongside Will, who is both my business partner and life partner – and of whose work I have long admired – makes this journey even more special. I want this unique version of Cinderella to captivate audiences young and old, just as the timeless story did for me. This is the perfect spring treat and I cannot wait to see this story come to life at Hope Mill Theatre.”

William Whelton, Executive Director and Choreographer, said: “For many years I have wanted to produce  Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, so for this to be the first musical to be brought to life by Hope Mill Theatre’s new charity is very special. It is a more modern take on the classic fairy tale that everyone is familiar with, add to the story the musical and lyrical genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein and you have real musical theatre magic. We are also thrilled to announce that as part of our casting process we will be holding open auditions in our search for Cinderella. As a regional venue we are passionate about finding and nurturing professional talent from all over the country so find this really exciting and we can’t wait to meet new artists.”

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella runs at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre from Saturday 9th May to Saturday 6th June 2020

The production then moved to Clonter Opera Theatre, Trap Road, Congleton from Tuesday 9th to Sunday 14th June 2020

Tickets on sale soon!

http://www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

 

 

The Entertainer

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s often said that role of Archie Rice is a dream role for any actor; it’s an actor’s role, a role filled with pathos, a real rollercoaster of emotions. The likes of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Lindsey and Michael Gambon have all played this iconic character, either on stage or screen, and now it’s the turn of one of the nation’s favourite song-and-dance men, Shane Richie.

The original production was set during the 1950’s in the shadow of the Suez crisis, however director Sean O’ Connor has shifted the action to 1982: Britain has just gone to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and comic Archie Rice is working the club scene, with diminishing success. His act is a string of sexist gags and mother-in-law jokes, think a cross between Bernard Manning and David Brent and you’re on the right track. Rice is struggling to adapt to a changing world of alternative comedy and so-called political correctness.

As Rice’s routine is in the gutter, his home life isn’t fairing much better: he is unhappily married to his second wife, Phoebe (played tonight by Alice Osmanski), his father Billy (Pip Donaghy) holds some pretty extreme views about their neighbours and the state of the country, his daughter, Jean (Diana Vickers) has come back home after splitting with her fiancé, and finally his son Mick, has been captured whilst serving in the Falklands.

The majority of the action takes place in the Rice’s flat as the family bicker about the current state of the country, argue about Archie’s womanising, Phoebe’s desire to move Canada, and Jean’s moralistic view of the world, which strongly differs from that of her family. This is all done with the support of copious amounts of gin, as all of the family struggle with their own alcoholism. This is punctured with brief snapshots of Archie’s faltering act, some 1980’s bangers, and some genuine/fictious tabloid headlines of the day. As the Rice’s situation becomes more desperate, the already fractured family begins to come apart at the seams.

This is a challenging, gritty piece of work, there is a great deal to admire about the production. Despite being well over 60 years old, the themes Osbourne was addressing back then are just as relevant today. The setting of Thatcher’s Britain gives the production a gritty realism: the club spots and the scenes at the flat are quite grimy, so much so that you want to jump in the shower as soon as you get home.

The excellent performances are what make this production that little bit special. All five actors do a solid job throughout and it’s the dynamic between Shane Richie and Diana Vickers that is the real heartbeat of this production. Richie does a fantastic of job making you care about Archie. He knows his best days are behind him,  he knows he’s made mistakes yet despite his many flaws, you cannot but help but want him to succeed, and it’s purely down to the strength of Richie’s performance: if you don’t have that connection then it doesn’t work.

In Diana Vickers you have the moral compass of the family, someone that has yet to be tainted by her environment, and someone who has a chance of making a difference, it’s the conflict between the two of them that drives the narrative along and it’s a credit to both actors that this works so well.

It is a tough watch and one that is short on laughter, unless you like your comedy uncomfortable and cringy, however this is a production that is certainly worth a watch and one that will split audiences and more importantly spark debate and that is always good in my book.

The Entertainer is on at the Manchester Opera House until Saturday 2nd November. Tickets available here.

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.

 

 

 

ENB – Cinderella

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

From the moment the curtain rises on Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Cinderella, you are transported into a fairytale world, rich with colour, majestic decadence, and lashings of magic and wonder.

The production opens with the young Cinderella dancing joyfully with her parents, however happiness soon turns to tragedy as Cinderella’s Mother becomes ill and sadly dies. Heartbroken, Cinderella’s tears fall to the ground, thus sprouting a mighty tree, which will have a huge impact on our heroine as the story unfolds.

As time passes by Cinderella’s father remarries a cruel woman: in disgust at her father’s supposed betrayal of her mother, she decides to act as servant rather than join the family. In the meantime, a young Prince called Guillaume, is being pressured into finding a wife by his father, King Albert. In order to facilitate this, a ball is arranged with invitations to be handed out across the Kingdom. However, Guillaume and his friend Benjamin decide to have a little fun and swap roles with each other. A chance meeting between Cinderella and the disguised Prince ignites a passion between the two; however, with a wicked stepmother, an ambitious stepsister, and other factors standing in their way, will they get there happy ever after?

This is a three-pronged assault on the senses that creates something quite special. First, we have the iconic score of Sergei Prokofiev, filled with joy, woe, grandeur and more than a nod to his Soviet roots.

The second is the story telling and choreography of the piece. Cinderella, is one of those stories most of us are hugely familiar with however Wheeldon has spiced things up: gone is the fairy godmother, replaced by four fates who watch over Cinderella from the moment her Mother dies. The ugly sisters aren’t particularly ugly, instead one is truly mean of spirit, whilst the other is a meek timid creature, also put down by her mother. The big change is in Cinderella herself, she is a strong, independent women.

The English National Ballet, has some absolute gems in their ranks, Joseph Caley as Prince Guillaume commands the stage throughout, an excellent leading man, with a performance of power and strength, whilst Erina Takahashi is graceful, light and fluid, yet feisty. They were supported by some fantastic comedic turns from Tamera Rojo, (stepmother Hortensia) Alison McWhinney stepsister Edwina) and Katja Khaniukova (stepsister Clementine), as well as a solid, yet fun performance from Jeffrey Cirico as Benjamin, you get two Prince’s for the price of one!

For me the aesthetic of the production really sets it apart from anything you’ll see anywhere else.  From floating chandeliers, dangling chairs, enchanted forest, to beautiful flowing ball gowns, the piece manages to marry fairytale magic and royal splendour seamlessly. Set and costume designer Julian Crouch, deserves a huge amount of credit, as do the rest of the production team, they have created something truly magical.

This a production filled with spectacular set-pieces, which include a mesmerising scene where Cinderella is readied for the ball and an enormously fun scene where Guillaume and Benjamin hold a shoe fitting for every woman in the Kingdom in order to find Cinderella. However, the real jewel in the crown is the spectacular palace ballroom scene, packed full humour and romance, we have shenanigans aplenty including drunken dance floor escapades, failed courting dances, and a spot of dance floor chunder, behaviour which regularly occurs in nightclubs the land!

As part of English National Ballet’s 70th anniversary the company are celebrating and thanking its touring communities by giving away 70 tickets during each run of performances in every city they tour to. In addition to this the ballet company has gifted tickets to staff from local charities and organisations including Talbot House, Mustard Tree, Frost Foundation, Lifeshare and Teenage Cancer Trust/Christie Hospital. English National Ballet will also give a ‘Golden Ticket’ for a special English National Ballet experience or piece of merchandise to one audience member per performance in Manchester.

Accessible, beautiful, light-hearted and magical this is a production that will cast a spell over you, an absolute treat for the whole family!

Cinderella is at the Palace Theatre until the 19th 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. 

MAME

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the same week they celebrate their 4th birthday Hope Mill Theatre open their biggest and most ambitious show to date. Tony award-winning Broadway musical Mame hasn’t been seen in the UK since it’s original 1969 West End production starring the late, great Ginger Rodgers, but Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment don’t do things by halves. Teaming up with Ray Rackham Theatrical collectively they have created quite simply their most impressive and jaw-droppingly brilliant production since opening their doors in 2014.

Beginning in 1920’s New York City Mame Dennis really is the belle of every ball. Life truly is a banquet for Mame and her party loving friends so when her deceased brother’s 10 year old son Patrick is thrust into her care you may think the party may be over but then you haven’t met the magnificent Mame.

Even when she loses her fortune in the Wall St crash she perseveres with irrepressible positivity and her own unique sense of style, whoever let getting repeatedly fired get in the way of living their life anyway? Spanning several years through relationships, love and loss Mame captivates entirely, her exuberant soul is addictive, she thrills, delights, excites and entertains along the way.

Hope Mill Theatre has been transformed for this enchanting revival. Philip Witcomb’s design ensures that the intimate space seems to open up before your eyes as the jaw-dropping first number begins. Nick Winston’s choreography is sublime; transporting the audience from a rainy Manchester to a glittering Broadway with each full-out and fabulous number. Winston who also directed the piece leaves the audience open-mouthed at the sheer scale and brilliant of the production, it feels lavish, luxurious and deliciously decadent.

Tracie Bennett is entirely mesmerising as Mame she absolutely gives her everything to the role and is truly brilliant. Hilariously comedic one moment and utterly gut-wrenching the next her delivery of If He Walked Into My Life is spellbinding.

The pairing of Bennett and Harriet Thorpe who takes on the role of bosom buddy Vera is nothing short of iconic. They are a joy to watch as they barb off each other with booze fuelled brilliance. Tim Flavin is a suave and sophisticated Beauregard, the connection between Flavin and Bennett feels warm and genuine.

Special mention must also go to junior cast member Lochlan White who at tonight’s performance played Young Patrick. Demonstrating fine acting skills, a pitch perfect voice and the kind of charisma Mame would be proud of.

Every member of this talented cast deserves high praise. They work together in such slick harmony that each scene flows seamlessly into the next yet feels full of surprises. They deliver Nick Winston’s choreography to dazzling perfection, teamed with Tim Mitchell’s impressive lighting design and strong musical direction from Alex Parker each ensemble number packs a powerful and perfect punch.

The boldness and bravery shown by Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment and Joseph Houston and William Whelton of Hope Mill Theatre in bringing this all-new revival to such vibrant life must be commended. How lucky we are in a Manchester to have such committed and passionate theatre makers.

Mame is an absolute triumph, dazzling, daring and utterly delightful, world-class theatre right on our doorstep. A perfectly peachy slice of theatrical heaven. Mame feels like the start of something very, very special and I for one am here for the ride!

Catch MAME at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 9th November tickets available here.