Hairspray

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ever popular audience favourite Hairspray burst into Manchester last night for a fun, feisty and feel-good two week stop at the city’s Opera House theatre.

Multi-coloured and multi-layered this is an uplifting and vibrant production with a serious and important message at its heart. Based on the 1988 John Waters film, Hairspray follows Baltimore teenager, Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show. Tracy isn’t as conventionally looking as the show’s usual crew and faces an uphill battle from the start. What begins as a burning ambition to win a role on her favourite teen show soon becomes a campaign for social change which sees Tracy crusade to promote racial integration as she battles not only bigots but body shamers too.

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Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza makes her professional debut and as the bright, bold and beautiful Tracy Turnblad with a big voice and personality to match her buoyant bouffant she perfectly embodies the impassioned teen. Her comedic acting really raises her performance from excellent to exceptional and she puff and pants to perfection every time teen idol Link Larkin (Edward Chitticks) comes near.

Annalise Liard-Bailey smashes her professional debut as Penny Pingleton, the stunning pairing of Liard-Bailey and Layton Williams being a real highlight of the show, Williams shines as Seaweed, ensuring all eyes are upon him as he twists and flips across the stage, both are an absolute joy to watch.

Brenda Edwards returns as the mighty Motormouth Maybelle and raises the roof with her soulful and emotional rendition of I know where I’ve been. While theatre has a job to entertain it also has important role in educating audiences, which Edwards and cast do so with gusto.

Matt Rixton (Edna) and Graham MacDuff (tonight covering the role of Wilbur) solidify their status as audience favourites with each outrageous and hilarious scene, they’re clearly having just as much fun on stage as the audience off stage as they delight and deliver in style.

While it promotes a message of equality and inclusion Hairspray does it with such wit and charm it is anything but preachy. Drew McOnie’s punchy choreography ensures the pace always remains high while Takis’ sets and costumes are bright, blingy and whisk us straight back to the sixties.

With a vibrant and memorable score including numbers such as You Can’t Stop the Beat, Welcome to the Sixities and Good Morning Baltimore Hairspray never fails to entertain as the audience leapt to their feet in approval. Empowering, uplifting and most of all enormously entertaining!

On at the Opera House until Saturday 7th April tickets available here.

The Importance of Being Earnest

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

It has to be said I was approaching The Importance of Being Earnest with some degree of in trepidation: my only other encounter with the play occurred some 25 years previous with a rather tepid class reading by 9J at St Gregory’s Roman Catholic High School: It would be fair to say that it was a lack-lustre affair, and my Algernon Moncrieff was poor by anyone standards. To be told by our English teacher that this was a ‘comedy’ was an insult – we didn’t laugh once.

I’m happy to say Director Alastair Whatley’s take on the Oscar Wilde’s classic lays that ghost firmly to rest: this adaptation is bold, bright and full of life which will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear.

The plot focuses on two-men-about town, Algernon Moncrieff (Thomas Howes) and Jack Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) both have created a fictional double life for themselves which allows them to get out of social occasions on a whim, and visit the country/city whenever they fancy. However both men’s double-lives land them in hot-water as affections of two ladies come into play, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax (Kerry Ellis) and Cecily Cardew (Louise Coulthard), have both fallen for Earnest Worthing, the fictional alter ego/brother created by Jack.

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Howes is on great form playing the devilishly mischievous Moncrieff, lapping it up as he gets to eat lot of muffins and use the stage as his own sofa: the dream job! He is the perfect foil for Sandys-Clarke who’s up-tight Jack, attempts to keep his dignity whilst his world crashes in around him.

Coulthard is excellent in the role of exceedingly clever if slightly unhinged Cecily, Coulthard plays the part with comedic perfection. West End and Broadway favourite Kerry Ellis is equally as good in the somewhat less ‘showy’ role of Gwendolen, (her first straight play in this her 20th year in the business). There is more than a hint of Blackadder’s Queenie in both performances which is high praise indeed. A scene between the two where a slice of cake, is used as a weapon is an absolute treat and is surely the most passive-aggressive afternoon tea I’ve ever seen.

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Gwen Taylor puts a unique spin on the arrogant, seemingly omnipotent but ignorant Lady Bracknell giving the character a hint of warmth and humanity, which makes some of her more unique lines of dialogue all the more absurd.

The Costumes and set design by Gabriella Slade are full bright colours which really stand out, that coupled with the gusto of the performances give the production a burst of energy.

Wilde’s writing certainly has stood the test of time, with a play about social etiquettes and living a double life who knows what he would make of today’s social media obsessed world.

With a great deal of relevance today this is a fun entertaining night out, that will leave you with a smile on your face and the sudden urge to go get a muffin! Suitably spiffing!

The Importance of Being Earnest is on at the Manchester Opera House till the 17th March tickets available here.

 

Interview | Kerry Ellis | The Importance of Being Earnest

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Broadway and West End star Kerry Ellis arrives in Manchester next week with Oscar Wilde’s brilliant and hugely funny The Importance of Being Earnest in which she takes on the role of Gwendolen.

Starring alongside the legendary Gwen Taylor as the formidable Lady Bracknell, Susan Penhaligon as the luckless Miss Prism plus Downton Abbey favourite Thomas Howes as Algernon this will be Kerry’s first role in a straight play after an impressive and enormously successful 20 years in musical theatre.

We caught up with Kerry ahead of the show opening at Manchester’s Opera House on Tuesday 13th March to hear all about the play, her impressive career and her thoughts on taking on this new challenge.

ON: This is a real change for you, are you enjoying the experience?

KE: It’s the first play I’ve ever done really, I did do a short play with Trevor Nunn as a bit of a try out, but this is the first major play I’ve done and I’m really proud of it, I’m with a team of people who are just wonderful. Gwen Taylor is just a dream, the whole cast are great. To get to do an Oscar Wilde and a comedy as my first play has just been wonderful, I just love it. The audiences have been brilliant, it’s been very special so far, I’m absolutely loving it.

ON: Are you finding much difference between working on a straight play compared to a musical?

KE: Of course there’s the obvious with no music but yes it is quite different, with musicals there’s always so much going on, big sets and big ensembles, lots of music, songs to learn but with a play it’s literally you and your voice, your dialogue and just a few other people on stage with you. Essentially we’re doing the same thing and telling a story but it does feel quite different, we have different scenes which of course happens in both plays and musicals so the essence is the same but there’s definitely a difference.

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ON: From the production shots it appears the play will be traditionally staged are you enjoying wearing the costumes?

KE: They are stunning, they were made by Camden Costumes, they’ve all been tailor-made to us, the fabrics are amazing, the productions shots look great and show just how beautiful they are, I just feel very fortunate to wear them, the last time I wore costumes of this style was back when I was in My Fair Lady. My character Gwendolen is from a very well-to-do- family so they fit just perfectly with her character. The two dresses that I have are incredible and the hats, just phenomenal. Earnest does take me back to my My Fair Lady days as there definitely are some similar themes. What I love about this production is just how funny it is, the class system and the ridiculous things we do are to be laughed at, sitting in corsets drinking tea, it’s so silly really.

ON: You’re working with a hugely talented cast, have they offered any advice?

KE: Just watching them has been incredible, particularly Gwen who has just had her 79th birthday, I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing that information. To watch her work and be in a rehearsal room with somebody of such talent and experience and to watch her go through the same kind of things we all go through, the developments, the confidence on one night, the self-doubt on another night, seeing how she reacts to an audience, how much she cares about the show, watching her work has been very educational and I feel privledged to be in her presence. I know that probably sounds a bit cheesy but it really has been an incredible privilege to work with her.

ON: You’re celebrating 20 years what are you career highlights?

KE: There are so many, what’s interesting about doing this 20th anniversary tour is I didn’t even realise it had been 20 years, it was my manager who suggested calling it my 20th anniversary tour and I said ‘don’t be so ridiculous it can’t even be close to that’. Looking back over things I’ve done and asking audiences what they’ve seen me in and enjoyed it’s amazing what people come out with, things I’ve forgotten I’ve even done, I don’t know how I fitted everything in. I feel very fortunate that I’m still doing what I love doing and this anniversary tour is to celebrate that and to give something back to the people who have supported me over the years, I’m loving it. To do it alongside the play is wonderful.

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ON: What can audiences expect from your concert?

KE: A little bit of a trip down memory lane, there are some classics in there I can’t not sing Gravity and songs from We Will Rock You, but I am essentially singing lots of new things from my new Golden Days album. I’m also working on some new music with Frank Wildhorn who worked with Whitney Houston so there’s some of that in there so it’s really a celebration of then and what I’m doing now as well. I like to bring people new things and take them on a bit of a journey.

ON: After such an incredible 20 years in the industry do you have any advice for young performers?

KE: I feel very fortunate that I love doing what I do, I’ve made a passion for it and you have to as there are times like now when you’re touring and are away from your family, I’ve got two young boys so I’m away from them and my husband and I do have to make those sacrifices, you do have to love it and you have to make sacrifices for it, you have to have drive for it because it’s tough and it’s brutal and competitive and all of those things but it is the best job in the world. I don’t think you ever tire from hearing an audience reaction, people say it’s in your blood and I really do believe that. I was speaking to Brian May recently, we often talk when we’re on tour as we both understand how it feels, we were emailing the other night while he’s away in Australia and asking the silly little things like ‘how’s your hotel room?’ but it’s those things that really help when you’re away from your family.

ON: Are you looking forward to coming to Manchester?

Yes, I love Manchester, I was there not too long ago with Wonderland, I always have a great time there, the city is great, the people are wonderful and the theatres are fabulous, the shopping too of course is wonderful!

Tue 13 – Sat 17 March, Opera House tickets available here.

 

The Rat Pack – Live From Las Vegas

THE RAT PACK - LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS 4 Garrett Phillips (Frank Sinatra) Nigel Casey (Dean Martin) Photo Betty Zapata

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

The last time I witnessed a Frank Sinatra tribute act was on a boozy night at the Edinburgh Fringe: it was an unorthodox interpretation of Ol’ Blue Eyes as on that occasion Sinatra had been crossed with Adolf Hitler, to give us Frank Sanazi… not the normal interpretation you’re used to seeing but one that left a lasting impression, believe you me. With that in mind, The Rat Pak – Live from Las Vegas would have to go along away to leave its mark, and by and large it succeeds.

The premise is a simple one: a recreation of the legendary Rat Pack shows from The Sand Hotel. In addition to Sinatra, we have Dean Martin (Nigel Casey) and Sammy Davis Junior (David Hayes). However to ensure that this isn’t an all ‘boys club’, we have the addition of the fictional Burrelli Sisters, (Amelia Adams-Pearce, Rebecca Parker, and Joanna Walters) and the welcome addition of The First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald (Nicola Emmanuel).

THE RAT PACK - LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS 2 Garrett Phillips (Frank Sinatra) Photo Betty Zapata

Opening with a cheeky dig at Sinatra’s alleged links to organised crime, we are introduced to Matthew Freeman and his 12 piece band, followed by Garret Philips as Sinatra. Instantly you can’t help but notice how Philips not only sounds like but also looks like him. Opening with versions of several Sinatra standards which include I’ve Got You Under My Skin and Goody Goody, Philips is in fine voice and commands every inch of the stage. What struck me was how clinical and cold his performance was, and I mean that as compliment because throughout the evening we see his persona begin to thaw as he begins to interact with his fellow ‘rat-packers’ and get into the swing of things, reminiscent of some of the concert footage I have seen of Sinatra.

Throughout the show, the cast all get their moment in the spotlight: Hayes does a remarkable job of Mr Bojangles, which drew audible approval from the audience, whilst Casey’s introduction as Martin adds some needed mirth and merriment to proceedings with a suitably laid back version of That’s Amore.

Both Hayes and Casey have difficult tasks for two different reasons: Hayes has to try and capture the energy and spirit of Davis Junior, whilst Casey has to embody the seemingly shambolic, slapstick side of Martin. Both achieve this perfectly, especially Casey who never fails to raise a smile every time he arrives on stage.

THE RAT PACK - LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS 3 David Hayes (Sammy Davis Jr) Photo Betty Zapata

Following the interval the show certainly takes a lighter turn, with more focus on humour and variety as the ‘rat pack’ boys perform duets with one another, as well as pull pranks and lark about. One area in which the show does have a few issues is that some of the humour, despite being of that time is certainly outdated: it could be argued that if you are going bring these shows to life then some of these childish, slightly racist and sexist ‘quips’ are needed, however the show would benefit if it found a different way of projecting humour into the show.

We are soon introduced to Emmanuel, as Fitzgerald who raised the roof off the Opera House with a fantastic rendition of Night and Day, followed up by a glorious rendition of The Lady Is A Tramp. Emmanuel has a cracking voice and certainly lights up the stage. The only real complaint I have is that more could have been made of her part in the show.

The show concludes with all the cast belting out Mack The Knife which is fabulous, somewhat inevitably it is left to Phillips to have the final world with a spine tingling version of My Way, which brings the house down and has everyone on their feet.

Overall a fun and hugely entertaining night out which will have you tapping your feet and clicking your fingers; alas upon leaving the theatre I wasn’t stepping out into the hot Las Vegas heat, but the cold Manchester air.

The Rat Pack-Live From Las Vegas is on at Manchester Opera House until 24th February, tickets available here.

 

Strangers on a Train

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When two men meet by chance on a train journey, little do they know the impact this life-changing encounter will have. As they relax into their journey, the drinks begin to flow and stories of their lives are shared. As hopes, dreams and life’s troubles are discussed an idea emerges which will have an untold impact on both their lives.

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith which was adapted for the cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Craig Warner’s Strangers on a Train is a sinister tale of persuasion. Smiling psychopath Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) charms architect Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) into revealing his innermost thoughts then hatches a plan to commit what he thinks are the perfect murders, clever and calculated in a way the truth could never be uncovered. Of course something as dark as murder could never be so simple, the plan quickly begins to unravel & suffocate Guy as a manipulative and unhinged Charles becomes ever-present and looms large in all aspects of Guy’s life.

Chris Harper and Jack Ashton are entirely convincing in their individual roles. Harper is commanding and brash as Charles, obnoxious, obsessive and chillingly intense, he perfectly embodies a man on the edge of madness. Perfectly paired with Ashton’s calm and relaxed presence which becomes increasingly strained as the horror off his characters situation takes over, pushed past the point of no return by a tormentor he barely knows, he takes on the role of cornered victim well, keeping up appearances believably whilst battling with an increasingly manic oppressor.

While both leads and the ensemble deliver strong performances the pace of the play lets the production down, leaving a feeling that a good chunk could have been edited in order to allow the chilling tension the cast are so clearly capable of delivering to florish.

David Woodhead’s set while wonderfully intricate with sliding panels revealling hidden rooms at times muffles conversations & in several scenes blocks cast members from view for audience members sitting anything but bang central.

While some scenes are drawn out others feel rushed, with only fleeting appearances from Helen Anderson and John Middleton as Helen Anderson and Arthur Gerrard, both are excellent and draw attention each time they are on stage.

While there are some excellent performances which hold your attention for the duration of the production, the promised chill is never quite felt. Trimmed down this could be an excellent and gripping piece of drama.

On at the Opera House until Saturday 10th February tickets available here.

Peter Pan

 

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Promising to be a ‘musical adventure’ Selladoor Worldwide bring J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan to Blackpool’s Opera House this festive season.

Starring X Factor, I’m A Celeb and soon to be Dancing On Ice favourite Jake Quickenden as Pan with Liverpool legend Jennifer Ellison as the villainous Hook and Maureen Nolan as Mrs Darling, Peter Pan is a magical, feel-good, re-telling of an all time classic.

Designer Jessica Curtis sets the action beneath a large eye catching & atmospheric draped tipi, a simple but effective set which lends itself well to scene changes and captivates audiences imaginations as we fly with Pan, Wendy, John and Michael through their bedroom window to Neverland.

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Quickenden is on fine form as he makes his stage debut, he is hugely likeable and makes for a charismatic Pan, showcasing his vocal talents beautifully in each of the crowd pleasing musical numbers which include Uptown Funk, Can’t Stop The Feeling and We Are Family.

Ellison’s Hook perfectly compliments Quickenden’s Pan, she is fierce, feisty and boy does she know how to play a baddie……oh yes she does! She has the audience in the palm of her hand from the off as she revels in the boos and delights in the hisses, a glint of devilment in her eyes, she’s all about having fun with this role and giving the audience the great time they came for.

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The strong supporting cast work incredibly hard doubling up as both the Lost Boys and Hook’s motley crew to great effect. Director Kirstie Davis ensures each character is clearly defined as they work together seamlessly, each and every cast member full of energy and enthusiasm, engaging the audience entirely. With an additional creative element of puppets taking on the role of Nanny the Dog and the ticking crocodile, both really add to the magic of the piece. Special mention must also go to Grace Osborn as Wendy, strong and sassy, her duet of Breakaway with Quickenden is a real highlight of the show.

The promise of a musical adventure is entirely accurate, while there are some of the fun elements of panto with audience interaction and great humour delivered by local Radio favourite Scott Gallagher as Smee, Robert Marsden’s adaptation of Peter Pan is a step up from the cheeky gags of panto and is more a musical dramatisation of a classic tale. Act One allows the audience to settle into the production before a fast paced all action second act keeps everyone engaged as they will Pan to win the day as he battles to save Wendy, John and Michael from walking Hook’s plank.

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The production has something for everyone, an engaging story, well chosen musical numbers, lots of humour as well as strong individual performances. Let your heart be warmed by this magical adventure, highly entertaining, well delivered and jolly good family fun.

On at Blackpool’s Opera House until Saturday 7th January tickets available here.

Dick Whittington

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Opening Night verdict 🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼🎅🏼

Qdos Entertainment, the worlds biggest pantomime producer bring their magical production of Dick Whittington to Manchester’s Opera House this festive season.

Starring the hugely popular John Barrowman, an absolute  panto pro he has the audience in the palm of his hand from the off, whipping off his trousers to reveal the tightest pair of pants to ever grace the panto stage! Joining Barrowman are legendary double act, The Krankies, stalwarts of the cabaret circuit since the 70’s, Dick Whittington marks their seventh season alongside Barrowman and their on stage chemistry is electric.

Sprinkled with lots of adult humour Dick Whittington is high on audience interaction and chock-full of laughs as Dick (Barrowman) falls in love with Councillor Krankie’s (Ian Tough) daughter Alice (Lauren Hampton). dastardly King Rat (Phil Corbitt) however has other ideas as he tries his best to come between our lovebirds.

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Fun and frolics are high on the agenda as Barrowman greets the Manchester audience with an “Ey up chuck!” he is a highly entertaining, hugely charismatic, singing, dancing, innuendo spouting machine! Pair this with an outrageous performance from the Krankies and you really have got a match made in double entendre heaven. Lots to keep little ones and Mum & Dad highly amused with a few jokes perhaps a little too close to the bone for older children, who Mum and Dad may be desperately hoping don’t get certain jokes, let’s just say there could be some interesting conversations on the way home!

The rest of the sparkling cast compliment our leads perfectly with special mention to Jacqueline Hughes who delights as The Spirit of Bow Bells and Ryan Kayode as Tommy the Manc Tabby Cat who judging by the applause received was clearly an audience favourite too.

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As you’d expect there are ad libs galore particularly between the hilarious Krankies who remain sharp as a tack. Jeanette Tough, now aged 70 could give Debbie McGee a run for her money as she’s flung around the stage, barely stopping for breath and even ending up inside a giant sharks mouth!

The choreography is executed perfectly by the Company who are joined on stage by local children from the Stalder Academy of Dance.

Many of the usual panto traditions are here, there’s ghosts & ghoulies, silly songs and sparkly sets plus a surprise soaking for some audience members, however this is as Dick with no Dame which for me seemed an odd choice, please Qdos can we have our Dame back next year? Preferably Manchester favourite Eric Potts. The 3D section is enormously impressive but scared my young guests to the point of having to cover their faces, much too frightening for young children.

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The cast have undeniable chemistry, particularly evident during an underwater version of 12 Days of Christmas, which has the audience in hysterics from start to finish.  The storyline is secondary to the madcap mayhem playing out before us as Dick Whittington entertains and delivers a highly memorable night, for some this may be classic ‘British humour’ that needs a little updating, there was no doubt however that Dick Whittington brought a lot of laughter and festive cheer to Manchester last night, it’s a cheeky, festive treat!

On at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 7th January, tickets available here.