West Side Story

07RET WestSideStory - Andy Coxon (Tony) & Gabriela Garcia (Maria) - image Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Expectation has been at an almighty high since West Side Story was announced as part of the Royal Exchanges Spring/Summer 2019 season. So successful of late has the theatre been at reimagining classic musicals the run had almost sold-out before the first preview even took place.

This epic tale based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet sees star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria fighting to be together in 1950’s Manhattan where warring gangs make the rules and stepping into enemy territory is strictly taboo. As a story there is everything from love and conflict to hope and heartbreak as the Sharks and Jets fierce rivalry shapes their very existence.

011RET WestSideStory -The Jets - image Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

Since it first premiered in 1955 Jerome Robbins choreography is something that’s always come as part and parcel of any West Side Story production. So iconic in its style it’s hard to imagine the Sharks and the Jets moving in any other way. Step forward Aletta Collins who not only takes on the challenge of reimagining the instantly recognisable choreography but does so in the most beautifully inspired way.

There are still enough elements of the original choreography to keep the traditionalists amongst us happy but these elements are now combined with a pulsating fusion of Latin, street, lindy hop, jazz and even a touch of northern soul to create the most vibrant melting pot of movement.

05RET WestSideStory - Gabriela Garcia (Maria) & Andy Coxon (Tony) - image Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

Director Sarah Frankom ensures this new choreography is allowed to take centre stage as moments of breath-taking beauty unfold; highlighted perfectly during the switch from punchy ensemble piece to the stillness of Tony and Maria’s first meeting which bursts with joyful innocence. A genuine moment of calm & purity during the heady tension of the dancehall scene.

The cast are outstanding and as an ensemble work together to perfection, fuelled by hatred, fear, anger, love and loss, they fizz with pent up emotion. The era is unspecific making it feel just as relevant today as it did 62 years ago as we seemingly are once again in the midst of a swathe of violent knife crime.

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Andy Coxon finds the true heart of Tony, delivering a powerful and emotive performance; his rendition of Maria a real highlight while fellow lead Gabriela García is completely captivating as Maria. Her operatic vocals are note perfect and pure. Their duets are sublime while the innocence of their love is blissfully uplifting.

Jocasta Almgill is superb and sassy as streetwise Anita, Fernando Mariano makes for a passionate and proud Bernardo while Michael Duke as Riff is convincing and committed.

The cast make full use of Anna Fleischle’s innovative design which is skilfully lit by Lee Curran. They weave, jump and balance on Fleischle’s vertical geometric sets, one minute gone, the next high up emerging from the shadows. The balcony scenes in particular during Tonight really showing off the impressive staging of this piece as each character vies for the audience’s attention, from all sides of the theatre’s intimate space.

West Side Story ©The Other Richard

The eleven piece orchestra powerfully deliver Leonard Bernstein’s classic score with new arrangements by Jason Carr giving it a modern and fresh feel. Led by Tom Chester the score is packed with emotion and fundamental to the impact of this piece.

The Royal Exchange have created something truly special here, the standing ovation a clear indicator that this production marks another success for the innovative Manchester theatre makers. Bold, inspired theatre at its best.

West Side Story is on at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 25th May tickets can be found here.

Hamlet

Hamlet Production Photos Photo Credit : The Other Richard

Opening Night Verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Often described as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Director David Thacker’s Hamlet is relocated to a gently suggested Soviet Block with it’s marbled walls and leaders portraits, a nod also perhaps to the troubled political times we find ourselves living today.

Upon entering the theatre James Cotterill and Ciaran Bagnall’s impressive set and lighting design looms large; making use of the full height of the Octagon it is dominant, multi-levelled and imposing. In the opening scenes at the funeral of Hamlet’s father we quickly get an idea of the style of this production, beautifully and dramatically lit, scenes change at a pace from bright and bold to soft and brooding.

Hamlet Production PhotosPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Hamlet Production Photos Photo Credit : The Other Richard

Taking on the title role is the hugely impressive David Ricardo-Pearce, the tragic Prince, torn away from his studies abroad to a kingdom in turmoil, his Uncle taking not only the throne from Hamlet’s dead father but also Hamlet’s own mother to be his new bride. Overcome with confusion and grief the haunting sight of his dead father’s ghost sends Hamlet further into the depths of despair as he strives to find clarity in a world he feels increasingly uncertain.

Ricardo-Pearce delivers the multi-layered prince with conviction, playful yet proud, intense and sardonic. He takes of the task of avenging his father’s murder with fervour as he struggles to find an outlet for his grief, he is unflinching in his quest for retribution. At times addressing the audience directly, Ricardo-Pearce’s commitment to the role is exceptional as he questions, considers and confirms his plans.

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The supporting cast are equally as impressive. Jessica Baglow captivates entirely as the broken and grief-stricken Ophelia, singing gently as she weeps for the loss of her love Hamlet and her father, her mind turns to madness. Eric Potts injects great humour amidst the intensity as the trusted Polonius while Brian Protheroe is impressive as the cold and composed Claudius. Marc Small makes for a loyal and committed Horatio while Michael Peavoy is a charismatic and dignified Laertes.

Thacker’s emphasis on the family tragedy of Hamlet reaps dramatic rewards, with the delivery of the script some of the clearest I’ve seen, this Hamlet is accessible and gripping, it feels fresh and inspired with the cast working together perfectly to deliver and engaging and enormously entertaining piece of theatre.

Hamlet Production Photos Photo Credit : The Other Richard

A great Hamlet of course rests enormously on the lead, Ricardo –Pearce succeeds entirely in involving the audience in his journey as we experience and feel not only Hamlet’s broken and disillusioned heart but his manic and mesmerising mind. Fast-paced, gripping and utterly compelling.

On at the Octagon Theatre until Saturday 10th March tickets available here.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

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A wonderful additional to this years offerings celebrating 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, The RSC bring not one but two of the Bard’s works to Manchester this Christmas time. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, argued by some that the latter is another name for Shakespeare’s missing play, Love’s Labour’s Won, the similarities between the two are plentiful, both being set on a large county estate, sparring couples, masked encounters, mistaken identities and of course hilarious high jinx including overheard and secretly observed sonnets. Playing back to back at Manchester’s Opera House before heading to the Theatre Royal Haymarket , both productions are an absolute triumph.

Opening with the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and his three Lords, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers), and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), swearing an oath  which includes avoiding contact with women for a lengthy three years, shortly followed by the arrival of the beautiful Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingworth) and Maria (Paige Carter) it soon becomes clear this was an oath that was never going to easily run it’s course. Cue much merriment and classic Shakespearean rhyme while completly against their oath the Lords fall in love with the ladies and of course the King with the Princess.

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Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), a Spaniard visiting the King’s court, is also hit by Cupid’s bow, but rather than with a Lady of the court he is taken by Jaquenetta, (Emma Manton) a local dairymaid who has recently been found cavorting with Costard (Nick Haverson) the gardner. So ensues the writing of love notes, delivered of course to the wrong recipient. The unconventional courtships continue with a wonderful scene where we see the King and his Lords disguising themselves as travelling Muscovites which leads to hilarious scenes of Russian dancing and the ladies switching identities themselves through the swapping of favours received by the Lords and the use of elegant masks.

Working with the same company of actors and setting both plays either side of the Great War adds real poignancy to the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost, sometimes described at the ‘unfinished play’ the merriment and frivolity of the play comes to an abrupt end when the King and his Lord’s head off to war, much as life for many must have been as their young men suddenly headed off to the battlefields of Northern France.

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The cast are exceptional, the talent on stage an absolute joy to watch, from Edward Bennett’s brilliant Berowne to John Hodgkinson’s hilarious Don Armado the comic timing and delivering of the Bard’s script is just perfection. Special mention to Peter McGovern whose Moth was magnificent, not to mention his Hercules in the ‘Nine Worthies’ which had the audience in hysterics.

Visually stunning, Simon Higlet’s set is outstanding, with scene changes flowing beautifully due to the ingenious use of a large sliding truck and sub-stage trap. Where Much Ado is festive and twinkling, Love’s Labour’s Lost takes place in the summertime of 1914 when skies are blue and poppies, in a nod to the impending Great War are plentiful. Melody Wood’s luxurious costumes are delightful, perfectly encapsulating the period. The use of music by Nigel Hess, directed by Bob Broad, further enhances this production, filmically underscoring certain moments and offering some challenging vocal pieces which the cast embrace wonderfully.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost is an absolute joy, highly entertaining and wonderfully acted. Playing at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 3rd December.

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/loves-labours-lost/opera-house-manchester/

Much Ado About Nothing – Opera House

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Now that we have witnessed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Edward Bennett electrocuted inside a giant Christmas tree, the festive season can officially begin!
What better way to mark the conclusion of 2016 – and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – than with two of the Bard’s best-loved comedies, played on consecutive nights at the Opera House Manchester, with the same cast?
Director Christopher Luscombe and production manager Paul Hennessey’s grand experiment examines the long-rumoured synergies between Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – setting them in the same country estate (modelled on Charlecote Park, near Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon) and bookmarking them in summer and winter, before and after the Great War. 
Both deliver a witty, sparring couple; a supporting cast of characters that include a policeman, a curate and many domestic servants; masked encounters between lovers; and – one of Shakespeare’s favourite devices – endless cases of mistaken identity. 
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Associate director Guy Unsworth concludes that Shakespeare ‘deliberately shows us two sides of the same coin’ and ‘does indeed want us to view them as an extended double-bill’… Mark thee well!
Anon – immersing ourselves in Much Ado About Nothing’s wintry scenes on a cold Mancunian night – we encounter fast-talking, resolutely single bachelorette Beatrice (Lisa Dillon), who declares: ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me’. The equally marriage-adverse Benedick (Edward Bennett) has just returned from the war, yet it is Beatrice’s quick-fire degradations of his character – spoken at a masked dance – that leave him mortally wounded. 
Their union seems doomed until their eavesdropping antics reveal a surprising fact… they are each madly in love with the other. These revelatory conversations – staged by Benedick and Beatrice’s family and friends, for their benefit – are some of the funniest scenes in the production. Bennett’s comedic antics inside the family Christmas tree solicit great guffaws of appreciation from the audience; it feels inevitable when he breaks the fourth wall – dissolving into barely suppressed laughter himself.  
In another plot, Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Rebecca Collingwood), who radiates chastity and goodness, is due to be married to besotted Claudio (Tunji Kasim); however, he jilts her at the altar when her name is sullied by an accusation of infidelity. With Beatrice and Benedict’s – and Hero and Claudio’s – unions both hanging in the balance, could it be that all hopes rest on hapless constable Dogberry (Nick Haverson) riding to the rescue?
Gripped in a fit of body spasms and crashing around the set, it feels as though he is perilously close to tumbling from the stage; Haverson gives every fibre of his being to the slapstick comedic stylings of Dogberry. Along with Lisa Dillon, his performance is a highlight among the sublime cast – assembled by Gabrielle Dawes and Helena Palmer.  
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Designer Simon Higlett has created a sumptuous Christmas card-style stage – rich, festive and twinkling. His team seamlessly interchange between the house and its grounds by virtue of a large sliding truck and the sub-stage trap. It’s as ingenious as it is beautiful – complemented by Melody Wood’s sumptuous period costumes that brilliantly encapsulate fashion on the cusp of the 1920s. 
This is the second time that composer Nigel Hess has scored the two plays for the RSC, but with exception of a couple of affection quotes, he has revisited them again with completely new music. To further explore the cohesion between the comedies, he uses musical cross-references between the two productions. It’s a triumph, with nuances that complement the on-stage gusto and frivolity to perfection. 
Christmas is a season of laughter and good cheer – and you will find both in these sparkling, immaculate productions by one of our nation’s greatest treasures: the Royal Shakespeare Company. 
Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are on at Opera House Manchester until Saturday, 3 December.

King Lear, Opera House, Manchester

An exciting addition to the current offerings celebrating 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare is Director Max Webster’s touring production of King Lear with the mighty Michael Pennington wearing the tragic Kings crown.

Pennington gives an absolute masterclass in classical acting, he is utterly mesmerising, angry and fierce one moment, fragile and vulnerable the next, he draws the audience in and you quickly forget there are a few hundred other theatre goers around you.

The transition from powerful tyrant at the start of the play where Lear wrongly disowns adoring daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) to the final scenes where we see him broken and maddened by sorrow is enormous, captivating and totally heart-breaking. Misjudging his two eldest daughters loyalty, Lear finds himself increasingly desperate, stripped of his wealth and majesty, the respect he was once shown is now forgotten and he is left to live with the past mistakes he has made.

In addition to Pennington’s fine performance is a very strong cast who each in turn deliver fantastic performances. Lear’s two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan are played expertly by Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, an evil duo who grow increasingly twisted with the power bestowed upon them. Similarly the warped relationship between brothers Edgar (Gavin Fowler) and Edmund (Scott Karim) is played out perfectly, the villainy of Edmund leading to the brutal demise of his own father Gloucester (Pip Donaghy) offers Edgar the opportunity to secretly nurse and care for the Father he was forced through the evils of his brother to flee.

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Adrian Linford’s set is sparse but effective, allowing the actors to be the firm focus of this production. At just under three hours including an interval it is not a short production by any means but Director Max Webster maintains a great pace and flow which combined with the fine performances on stage keep you totally engaged.

Although one of Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty tragedies, this excellent production offers wit, humour and many moving moments, it is beautifully accessible Shakespeare, unpretentious, poignant and totally gripping.

On at the Opera House until Saturday 4th June, tickets available here; http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/king-lear-2016/opera-house-manchester/