Behind the Scenes with the cast of The Band – Part 1

LtoR Jayne McKenna, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg, Alison Fitzjohn credit ...

(Left to Right) Jayne McKenna, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg, Alison Fitzjohn

Last week we were privileged to get a sneak preview of new musical The Band, penned by Tim Firth and jam-packed with Take That tunes. It’s currently proving to be one of the hottest tickets in town and wowing audiences in Manchester, where it has had its UK premiere.

Press night isn’t until next week so we can’t give away any secrets until after that but we can tell you we are counting down the days until we see it again.

Opening Night was treated to meeting the stars of the show after the curtain fell and over the next few days we will be posting some of our interviews with the cast and production team, sharing some of the secrets to putting the musical together.

First up we chatted to a couple of the incredibly talented ladies at the forefront of The Band. Emily Joyce who plays grown up Heather and Jayne McKenna the grown up Zoe…

Emily Joyce as Heather, Alison Fitzjohn as Claire & Jayne McKenna as Zoe in rehearsals for The Band, credit Matt Crockett

Emily Joyce as Heather, Alison Fitzjohn as Claire & Jayne McKenna as Zoe in rehearsals for The Band, credit Matt Crockett

(Opening Night) ON: You all look like you are having a ball up there…

(Emily Joyce) EJ: We really are. I’ve not enjoyed anything like this for a long time!

ON: How excited are you about the potential of this show?

EJ: Very excited. A lot of people come expecting the story of Take That and it’s not. It’s about the women, friendship, tenderness and the boys (Five To Five) provide this beautiful soundtrack to their lives which is quite filmic. It’s wonderful taking the audience through the highs and lows and an absolute joy to play.

ON: Did you have any idea you were auditioning for The Band or was it all cloak and dagger at the start?

EJ: We hadn’t seen the script but were told it was off the back of a BBC TV programme and then when the programme came out (Let It Shine) we had already had second auditions by then and had to be recorded to sing…for Gary Barlow, Robbie and everyone else…no pressure there then!

ON: Did you get the parts you went for?

EJ: No

(Jayne McKenna) JM: We both went up for Heather or Zoe…

EJ: It was during my second interview that they said actually would you mind reading Heather…

JM: I’m a mother of three boys and I think they saw in me something that clicked with the character and interestingly then Tim (Firth) started to adapt the characters around us. I had actually wanted to go to Uni in real life but didn’t because I had kids, like Zoe.

EJ: And I sow and make clothes like my character Heather…

JM: It’s like the parts have been tailored made for us.

ON: Now you obviously play the girls 25 years on, what’s your relationship with the actresses who play the younger versions of you (as 16 year olds)?

EJ: We are quite protective over them

JM: I call them our mini-me’s. It’s great because they all embrace what they are doing. There was a day during the run throughs that they were so good we were all like ‘god we are gonna have to up our game here!’

LtoR Curtis T Johns, Nick Carsberg, AJ Bentley, Yazdan Qafouri, Sario So...

(Left to Right) Five To Five: Curtis T Johns, Nick Carsberg, AJ Bentley, Yazdan Qafouri, Sario Solomon

ON: What about the boys Five To Five? Obviously there was a lot of focus on them after winning Let It Shine…

JM: They are the hardest working boys and lovely people – what a find! Plus the first day we all rehearsed together Tim described the boys as a greek chorus and all of a sudden it made sense how they fit into the show. They are part of everything and not just singing at the back like you might think – they are integral to the story.

ON: Talking of the boys…if we switch to the real ones behind the show – aka Take That, who is your favourite member?

EJ: Now or then?

ON: It’s changed?

EJ: Back then I liked Mark, I still do he’s absolutely gorgeous but Howard now, he is lovely. I do think they get better with age.

(We are joined by Alison Fitzjohn who plays Claire)

AF: …Mark! I just love him, although I really did like Howard when he had his dreadlocks. I’m exactly the right age for my character and I absolutely loved Take That when I was growing up. Now meeting them has been unbelievably insane, I keep crying every now and then because I can’t quite believe it. At the end when we sing the lyrics ‘this is the life we’ve been given’ I’m like this really IS the life I’ve been given and it makes me very emotional to be standing there.

Runs at Manchesters’ Opera House until 30th September 2017

Tickets available: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-band/opera-house-manchester/

http://www.thebandmusical.com/tour

 

 

 

 

Cover My Tracks

CF

Charlie Fink, formerly of Noah and the Whale brings his latest album Cover My Tracks to the Lowry: however the evening promises something a little different. It is billed as a piece of ‘gig theatre’ and Fink shares the stage with actress Rona Morison to tell the tale of a singer song writer, a lover, a masterpiece, heartbreak and loss.

Armed with a stool, acoustic guitar and a dimly lit spotlight, Fink arrives on stage followed by Morison and between Fink’s songs and Morison we learn about two unnamed lovers torn apart by the apparent suicide of one, leaving their partner to cope with the loss and a chance to unravel the mystery as to what really happened.

The story is filled with highs and lows as we see how the couple met, their life on the road, the moment they write a huge hit record and finally the breakdown in their relationship as one desperately wants to escape from the trappings of modern life and eventually make the ultimate sacrifice…or do they?

CF 1

This is a fascinating piece of work. Fink may be the star attraction on the poster, but his is a low-key, restrained performance and certainly the delivery of his songs was reminiscent of the late Leonard Cohen. This is in stark contrast to the ball of energy that is Morison, who is excellent as our narrator conveying the joy, misery and raw emotion of someone desperate for answers. Morison also gives Fink a run for his money in the vocal department, demonstrating a fine singing voice.

The story is told through some truly beautiful songs with standout tracks being Firecracker and I Was Born to Be A Cowboy. The plot is riddled with intrigue as we know very little about our protagonist including their names and their gender further enhancing our engagement with the drama.

The production isn’t without flaws, taking a rather romanticised view of grief and mental health issues in some parts but on the whole this an innovative and engaging piece, a unique and hugely enjoyable way to listen to an album with a context.

On at The Lowry until Saturday 16th September, for tickets head to http://www.thelowry.com/events/cover-my-tracks

 

Beginners Burlesque!

Bella

World renowned burlesque performer Bella Besame, is launching a new burlesque class at the Ape and Apple on Deansgate next month, in what is billed as a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Burlesque’.

Having run the hugely popular classes for years for private clients and hen parties, Bella – who is one of the UK’s most well-respected names in the burlesque world, is opening up the classes to individuals and smaller groups who are interested learning the basics of burlesque.

The course, ‘Beginner’s Guide to Burlesque’ is made up of 5 x 1 hour classes, involves NO nudity and is suitable for all ages, shapes and sizes. It will cover the basic moves of burlesque, how to move on stage, glove striptease, posing and how to create your unique burlesque stage name!

Bella’s students reap huge rewards from taking part in the classes – some have had massive boosts in their body confidence levels and self-esteem, while others have gone on to having careers in performance outside of burlesque and many have become fully fledged performers.

No previous experience is needed to take part in the classes nor is participation restricted by height, weight or age. You simply need to be healthy enough to take part in low impact movement, make all the class dates and be ready to have some fun! And if that wasn’t enough, the intermediate and advanced courses are then open to all who attend the beginner’s course, should you find yourself hooked on the mid-week sassy glamour and giggles!

Bella, who is also the producer of the popular ‘Slippery Belle’ burlesque theatre shows in Manchester and Leeds, said: “Burlesque injects fun, personality and a sprinkling of glamour into everyday life, with a tonne of body positivity thrown in for good measure!

“It goes without saying that it’s a difficult time to be a woman; the constant barrage of ‘picture perfect’ models and the pressure to airbrush our so-called ‘imperfections’. Not to mention we are expected to do and juggle so much, but these classes are a great way to have fun, get your sassy back, feel gorgeous and tap into your self-expression.

The classes are being held at the Ape and Apple on John Dalton Street, Manchester, from 6-7pm every Tuesday from 3 to 31 October. Each class costs £7.50 with a £20 deposit to secure your place on the 5-week course.

Please note pre booking is essential as places are strictly limited. Private tuition also available. For more information head to www.bellabesame.co.uk

 

Pippin

Pippin 1

First premiered on Broadway an incredible 45 years ago, Katy Lipson, Guy James and Hope Mill Theatre’s revival of Tony award winning Pippin shows no signs of age and is as magical and enchanting as we hoped it would be.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin tells the tale of a young man in search of something to believe in, a path to follow, ultimately, he is in search of himself. Loosely based on ‘Pepin’ the son of 8th Century King Charlemange, Pippin sets about trying out life and all it has to offer via different careers and different directions in order to find his corner of the sky. Maeve Black’s stunning Victorian Vaudeville setting paired with stunning lighting design from Aaron J. Dootson allows the players to truly tell this tale in the most theatrical and immersive of ways, making Pippin a remarkably bold and striking production.

Pippin 3

Pippin’s search and the different paths it leads him down illustrates clearly that with all its craziness and drama the world is indeed a stage, as the players perform and indulge Pippin his desires, we realise everything we see is an act. Leading player Genevieve Nicole is a wholly commanding presence, she steers and controls her fellow players who perform beautifully on her instruction, she shines in the role and bursts with sass and dangerous charisma as she steers Pippin through his search for fulfilment.

Jonathan Carlton is brilliantly cast as Pippin, he perfectly portrays the young Prince’s naivety and frustrations, the development in his character is wonderful to see as each experience leaves its mark and changes his outlook on life. Carlton’s delivery of Corner Of The Sky is especially beautiful, full of emotion and wonderfully displays the hopelesness he feels with his inability to fit in and understand his path in life.

The whole ensemble are superb, hardworking and utterly captivating. Director Jonathan O’Boyle has created a tight and incredibly slick team who are entirely in sync with each other. William Whelton’s choreography is sharp and precise and really adds to the beauty of this special piece while musical director Zach Flis delivers the sublime score to perfection.

Pippn 2

High praise must also go to Mari Barclay who plays both Fastrada and Berthe, her characterisation is exceptional, with brilliant comic timing and larger than life delivery she excels in both roles and also as a member of the superb ensemble.

The quality and delivery of Pippin is top class, the pairing of Katy Lipson and Hope Mill Theatre is a true gift to Manchester. Engaging, captivating and entirely magical, Pippin convincingly worked its magic and enchanted completely. A real gem of a show delivered with real style and sass.

On at Hope Mill Theatre until 23rd September tickets£20, concessions £18 available via the following link http://www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk/whats-on/

Pippin

Friends Fest

Set 2

The One Where Opening Night Goes to Friends Fest

It is while we sit – gridlocked in traffic and debating whether Jennifer Aniston herself may put in a surprise appearance – that I first realise my expectations of Friends Fest may be set (slightly) high.

Little wonder when the show itself is chiefly responsible for every misplaced fantasy about adulthood I have been nurturing since it first aired in September 1994. Approaching 40 (could I BE any older?), I am sadly neither living in New York, nor working as an executive at Ralph Lauren, but at least I’m not sitting in a boat with only a chick and a duck for company yet

Heady with the promise of unfettered access to replicas of the iconic sets and original costumes from the show, as well as ‘Smelly Cat Karaoke’ and the chance to recreate the ‘umbrella’ title sequence, we have set out for Heaton Park.

Once there, it is no easy task to find the festival itself, which is signposted with a single A4 sheet taped to a lamppost. Therefore, my first tip is: follow the steady flow of people clutching ‘Friends’ merchandise bags, of which there are A LOT.

Set 3

The outdoor festival site is a bit of a mud bath thanks to the frankly appalling weather and the lack of any matting/straw/sawdust under foot. Tip number two: don’t wear your fanciest clothes or footwear; raincoats and boots or wellies will be your best ‘friends’. (You can always, if you wish, purchase a branded ‘Friends’ umbrella for £15 from the merch shop.)

Tip number three: head straight to the Chick & Duck Bar and get on the cocktails. The fun menu is (naturally) ‘Friends’ themed, with ‘The One with Rum/Vodka/No Hangover etc.’ options available, as well as a good selection of wines, beers and spirits. Suitably lubricated, we then head out in search of entertainment.

Sofa

‘Friends’ episodes play on a continual loop on the giant cinema screen that dominates the main open-air arena. With the rain pelting down, sadly the plentiful rainbow-coloured chairs and tables are universally empty. (On a warm summer’s day, this will no doubt be an idyllic place to sit and chill – especially with the bar and plenty of food stands close to hand.)

As it is, we head to the nearest covered stand, which just so happens to be the Central Perk set! We plonk ourselves straight down on the giant orange sofa for our first official ‘Friends’ selfie before wandering round – marvelling at being ‘on location’. If you wish, you can pick up a guitar and perch on Phoebe’s stool for a blast of ‘Smelly Cat’, and even take Gunther’s spot behind the counter.

A coffee bar overlooks the Central Perk set, where you can purchase a beverage for around £3.50 and sit and marvel at the attention to detail involved in recreating Comedy Central’s most beloved coffee house. (Thankfully – unlike Rachel – the pleasant staff will get your order right!)

We then head off to sit on another giant orange sofa in front of a fountain backdrop… Twirling our umbrellas, it’s a real thrill to pose for a title sequence photo. (Tip number four: set your phone to your Boomerang app for added fun!)

Then there’s a lull while we wait for our turn to visit Joey and Chandler’s apartment set, and Monica and Rachel’s apartment set. In sunnier weather, we’d have filled this time with fun photos in the outdoor ‘Vegas Chapel of Love’ and ‘Highschool Prom’ booths, which have their own dress-up wardrobes. As it is, we check out the ‘Moondance Diner’, ‘My Sandwich’ and ‘Mockolate’ food stalls, which provide plenty of ‘Friends’ themed culinary experiences for prices of around £5 and up.

Set 1

Before entering the apartment sets, there’s an amazing opportunity to see show costumes ‘in the flesh’, which is not only a genuine thrill, but confirms that Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox are as teeny tiny as you would expect! Our hands-down favourite is the ‘Holiday Armadillo’ costume Ross wore to surprise his son Ben when he couldn’t hire a Santa suit. Equally fun are the never-seen-before memorabilia and props from the show, which include ‘Smelly Cat’ cat litter, Joey’s VD poster and the ‘Geller Cup’ – a Troll-adorned trophy Monica and Ross fought to win during family touch ball games.

Next, Joey and Chandler’s apartment… This is the show-stopping moment we have been waiting for, and it is with the biggest, silliest of smiles that I seat myself in the Lazy Boy chair – ready to ‘draw’, twiddle with the foosball table and acquaint myself with The Boat. Opening the apartment door, we find ourselves in the familiar hallway before circling the set to enter Monica and Rachel’s apartment.

It is a surreal experience to be in a kitchen that feels somehow more familiar than your own, and it is with real affection that I run a loving hand over the surfaces and furniture – reminiscing about the 85 hours of bona fide belly laughs the show delivered. Sadly, there is no Ugly Naked Guy to poke through the window, but – that aside – it really is all credit to the Friends Fest organisers that they are bringing such a unique, nostalgic full-scale set experience to fans across our country.

Costume

With the sets visited, all that remains is to head to the merchandise shop. You can buy branded everything, from aprons and door mats to T-shirts, notebooks and wall art. A Central Perk mug will set you back around £12 to £15, while a beer glass is a tenner.

We were able to cover most of what the festival has to offer in under an hour, as it is, essentially, a series of photo opportunities; however, when it’s open to the public, expect queues and take note of the allotted timeslots available to visit the sets.

Is Friends Fest the ‘ultimate ‘Friends’ experience’? For some superfans, in the right weather conditions, it will be, but others may find it more ‘mockolate’ – a synthetic substitute of something truly beloved that somehow misses the mark.

Friends Fest Manchester is on at Heaton Park until Sunday, 13 August. Tickets are now sold out, but dates are available in Essex between 1-10 September. Visit http://www.friendsfest.co.uk to book.

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen

 

 

 

White is the new Black

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Last seen at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in the hilarious self-penned ‘The Community Centre’ Nicola Gardner returns to Manchester with fellow actress Jennifer Banks to deliver two very different yet hugely poignant plays, in the double bill, White is the new Black.

Piece one, The Last Appointment, written by Nicola as a commission for Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre sees black middle class GP Jo (Nicola Gardner) confronted by white Black Lives Matter activist Aretha (Jennifer Banks) who arrives at her surgery for the last appointment of the day. Things quickly become heated and increasingly personal as Aretha struggles to understand why Jo would not want to protest and take up the front line at rallies like Aretha, she tells her to “Get with the programme” and challenges Jo’s position of privilege, aghast that being the only black girl in her school didn’t leave her traumatised and angry at the injustice Aretha feels Jo faced. Whereas Jo wants to forget the struggles and the strife and aspires to succeed, holding people like the Obamas in high esteem and admiring their achievements in life, she wants to look forward not back.

There are some highly entertaining moments delivered beautifully by both actresses, Aretha strives to make Jo believe she too has lived a persecuted life due to being a Scouser, she knows how it feels to be targeted and treated badly, resulting in dramatic and hilarious eye rolls from Jo. Aretha challenges Jo’s attitude just as much as Jo challenges Aretha’s motives, ultimately boiling down to that fact that both just want what they feel is right and is fair despite going about things in dramatically different ways, both ladies show how ultimately despite our choices and actions we aren’t so very different after all.

Piece two in contrast to The Last Appointment reverses the roles of our two actresses, in Florence – The Fight of her Life written by Maurice Bessman, we meet African asylum seeker Florence (Nicola Gardner) as she comes face to face with seemingly cold-hearted Immigration Officer Mrs Lewis (Jennifer Banks). Florence is literally pleading for her life during the cold and demeaning immigration test as Mrs Lewis digs for detail despite the deeply upsetting and heartbreakingly sad reality of the life Florence has escaped from, boxes are ticked and devastating accounts disregarded as Florence fails to provide hard, factual evidence of the stories that she tells. The immigration office want physical proof explains Mrs Lewis and without that she must simply press on and get her job done, detaching herself from the emotion of the story, she simply sees herself as a woman just doing a job. The coldness and reality of the test is hard-hitting and sensitively delivered by both actresses, our characters have a task to complete and both are driven by achieving the best outcome, for Florence it is a life-changing and potentially devastating outcome should she be refused, for Mrs Lewis it’s just another work-placed task that she needs to complete efficiently. Florence has to relive painful and devastating memories, which are cruelly brushed away by Mrs Lewis due to not being documented anywhere as proof they ever happened.

While the two pieces are very different, they both ultimately highlight the same themes, despite colour and differences in race, we are essentially all one, we share so much in life that ties us together and bonds us, we love, we live and we all strive to succeed. While we may differ in our attitudes, choices and approaches, there are many more similarities that draw us together. The two plays both powerfully demonstrate how deep down we really are one, our diversities should be embraced and celebrated as the melting pot we come together in grows in richness and diversity. Emotive, powerful, and beautifully delivered theatre, highly recommended.

White is the new Black has one final performance tonight at the Anthony Burgees Foundation, tickets available here; http://www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk

 

The Loves of Others


We’ve all been there, that awkward moment when you witness a couple have blazing row, it could be  friends of yours, or complete strangers, I once saw a couple verbally massacre each other in the snacks and nibbles isle at Tesco  the night before Christmas Eve, it was embarrassing, crass, but most of all entertaining. Well imagine that multiplied by three and the genesis of the latest offering from play write Alex Keelan, The Loves of Others.

Set during two separate dinner parties held a year apart, we are treated to an insight in the lives of 3 couple’s lives: we have the host and hostess of the party Max (Dan Jefferies) Leanne (Alexandra Maxwell), he’s a boozy hangover from the ‘Loaded’ generation, and she’s Hyacinth Bucket only on Facebook. There are Tina (Amy Forrest) and her partner Dave (William J Holstead), she has a few confidence issues, and he’s a bit laid back to deal with them. Finally there is Vic (Alice Proctor) and Ike (Kyle Walker), she’s strong willed and feisty, he’s a people pleaser. As both dinner parties continue, relationships become more fractured, friendships and boundaries are pushed to the limit.


The script is a fine blend of acerbic put downs, and on point observations, whilst at times dealing with dark subjects including abuse, grief and prejudice Whilst some may feel dissatisfied with the rather abrupt ending, I rather enjoyed that the play left it’s characters dealing with their issues as opposed to resolving them: like a snapshot into their world.

There are fine solid performances throughout from all 6 actors: however I find that none of their characters were particular likeable, just as you begin warming to one of them, they’ll do or say something that will just grate on you. Director Kayleigh Hawkins certainly works her cast hard; with full costume and scene changes throughout neither which detract from the story. There is no interval either so the play never loses momentum allowing the lighter moments to shine through, whilst enabling the tension build and the mood to darken.


The promotional material claims The Loves of Others to be “A Modern Northern Abigail’s Party”, which will certainly draw in the punters, but may also mean that the two could be unfairly compared. This is a funny, brave, ambitious, and at times miserable look at modern British life, a hark back to the Great British kitchen sink dramas, only replacing the kitchen sink with a selfie, and a bottle of vino!