A Taste of Honey

Reviewed by Michelle Eagleton

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When one of Salford’s most iconic plays comes back home to its birthplace, there’s bound to be a huge weight on the company performing it to get it right. The National Theatre set itself the challenge of doing just that by making one of the first stops on its UK Tour of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, The Lowry. 

Director Bijan Sheibani, who is at the helm of this production, has managed to rise to the challenge though, as it received an encouraging reaction from the audience on press night.

Sheibani takes the play back to its roots in this bold incarnation, which echoes how it was originally performed, adding the incorporation of music. There’s a live band onstage throughout, which accompanies the characters in solo numbers and plays underneath some of the dialogue, which helps evoke the mood of the piece.

For those who are unaware of the story behind the Shelagh Delaney classic, A Taste of Honey is essentially a gritty norther tale of the love-hate relationship between a working-class single mother Helen and her  daughter Jo, set against the stark backdrop of 1950s Salford. The play was penned by 19-year-old Shelagh back in 1958 and it’s hard to believe that at such a young age the local girl, who had very little experience of seeing shows let alone writing them, could produce such prolific work which would resonate with generations to come. 

Lancashire born theatre and TV star Jodie Prenger puts in a solid performance as northern matriarch Helen making the most of the acid tongue humour gifted  from Delaney and her natural comedic delivery, prompting huge amounts of  laughter from the audience. We also get the chance to see Prenger put her impressive  vocal chords to good use as she packs  a punch with the opening number ‘A Good Man’ (a soulful track reminiscent of some of the late Amy Winehouse’s repertoire).

Gemma Dobson’s portrayal of Jo creates a character that’s like marmite  you love her vulnerability one minute but want to throttle her for her outbursts the next. Dobson’s whining edge to Jo gets a little tedious in the second half of the play but overall her sweet scenes with Jimmie (her sailor love interest) and Geof make up for it and we see her performance of the troubled teen really come into its own.

Despite the play being primarily focused around the two main female roles, Jo and Helen, the stand out performance comes from one of the males in the cast, Stuart Thompson as Geof. Thompson is a delight to watch and displays a natural  sensitivity  as Jo’s gay best friend. Thompson manages to find a balance of campness and caring in the role of Geof, who struggles with his worries of being an outcast in the 1950s society whilst looking after his pregnant friend.

Elsewhere, Hildegard Bechtler’s contemporary design of the production  adds to the bleakness of the piece with a minimalist set complete with stark and dingy lighting. Everything seems shabby and in need of TLC, except for Helen’s brash and glam outfits which extenuate her desire to appear better than she is in reality – which you could say epitomises  the phrase ‘all fur coat and no knickers’.

There have been numerous productions of A Taste of Honey since it opened on stage over 60 years ago and the National present a good version here, which really highlights the comedy and pathos of Delaney’s work.

A Taste of Honey is on at The Lowry until Saturday 21st September then begins a UK tour, further information can be found here.

Interview | Jodie Prenger | A Taste of Honey

The National Theatre brings Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play A Taste of Honey to The Lowry this month as part of a new autumn UK tour. Returning the northern classic back to its roots, Bijan Sheibani’s production takes an enthralling look at working-class life in post-war Salford.

Jodie Prenger takes on the iconic role of Helen, a single mother who takes off with a car salesman leaving her feisty teenager Jo to fend for herself. Jo’s relationship with a sailor comes unstuck when after promising to marry her he heads off back to sea leaving art student Geoff to take on the role of surrogate parent. Things get even more interesting when Geoff innocently calls on Helen to help, opening the doors for this unconventional set up to unravel.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Jodie Prenger during rehearsals to hear a little more about the production and what it means to be tackling such an exciting role written by Delaney when she was just 19.

I first watched it about 8 years ago now, a dear friend of mine Bobby Delaney (no relation) gave it to me to read and I absolutely fell in love with it.” Jodie explains “…it was so real, so honest and so tender. It was the mother and daughter relationship that really got me, for me, my Nan and all that side of the family were all from Manchester so it was just like hearing my Nan’s voice. The feistiness and the fight that my Nan had I saw a lot of that in Helen.”

Prenger has played many strong women on stage including the ultimate Scouse independent woman Shirley Valentine; we asked Jodie what is was about northern writing that makes for such a memorable and original piece. “Northern writing just has a real warmth…it’s witty, it’s tender, there’s a zest and spiciness to these strong female characters who I think are always interesting to watch in theatre, in film and TV. The way Shelagh Delaney wrote is just so great that the story comes to life and I just love reading it and watching it.” Explaining what makes the North so special Jodie said, “There’s a beating heart within the North, in Manchester and Salford and within the play itself. Even though people are up against so much they still fight and strive and still have that warm genuine humour. It’s like me and my Mum we can be battling royal but then one of us will say ‘oh have you finished then’ it’s a type of humour that you don’t often find in every corner of the UK.”

The play was famously seen a very taboo when it first premiered due to the themes and characters, “We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go, the cast were told they may have to evacuate the theatre when it was first put on, you’d not have that happen now, that wouldn’t even be entertained today but back then it was. I think we’re getting better well at least I hope we are. Yes back then it was taboo and although not so much now it’s still very, very poignant”.

Aged just 19 when she wrote this debut piece, Prenger sees Delaney as a courageous writer, “I think she unleashed a really strong genuine female voice which around that period was unknown. It was very brave, I think it’s the same kind of woman’s voice we’d hear today but then it seemed shocking and taboo.”

The role of Helen has famously been played by several incredible actresses including Angela Landsbury and Avis Bunnage, Jodie explained how she goes about making a character people know so well her own. “You do feel the pressure of those who have gone before you but that’s what gives you the drive to work hard and gives you the confidence to decide how you are going to create your character. It’s about my Nan’s ethic almost of rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in. It’s important you develop the character how you want to develop her and that comes from working with your fellow cast members. I think she’s real; the only way you can play a character like her is by playing the truth.” 

Drawing on her experiences with her own family when it comes to the mother daughter scenes Jodie states “Making the mother daughter relationship believable I think comes from taking your experiences and using them. Taking experience and inspiration from characters you’ve met along the way. Definitely the relationship you have yourself with your mother, sometimes I find although Helen and Jo are polar opposites they are also so similar I think that’s why they come up against each other so much.”

Set famously in the 1950’s Prenger explained how those elements will still very much be present but with some additional styling from designer Hildegard Bechtler. “It’s the same production team who worked on the 2014 production at the National, but what they are really, really set on is keeping those elements of the 1950’s but making it poignant for today. There’s music like Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse, there’s live jazz, there’s folk music. The aesthetic of Amy Winehouse really influences the design, her style, look and music. The costumes will be 1950’s but not so much starched dresses etc that it couldn’t be any other time but will hint at modern day as well, same with the props and set too.”

Launching the tour in Salford the birthplace of Shelagh Delaney feels appropriate; we were interested to hear Jodie’s thoughts on what her character Helen would make of 2019 Salford. “My brother Marco lives nearby and I can’t believe how much it’s changed, perhaps she’d find the nearest gin bar, she’d have a great choice. I’m sure she’d love it; you always love home don’t you. That’s what Shelagh Delaney was like, she says there’s not many places she’d like to live, maybe London but then she’d always come back home. Home is home.”

A Taste of Honey opens at The Lowry on Friday 13th September and runs until Saturday 21st September, tickets available https://thelowry.com/whats-on/nt-a-taste-of-honey/

 

 

 

 

Mythos: A Trilogy

📷 David Cooper

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Fresh from taking the Edinburgh Fringe by storm, Stephen Fry brings his one-man trilogy to the Lowry as part of his first UK tour in almost 40 years.

Mythos: A Trilogy based on his best selling books Mythos and Heroes allows Fry to focus on a different subject matter in each of the three shows starting firstly with Gods, then secondly Heroes before thirdly and finally taking on Men.

Effortlessly charming and unquestionably entertaining Fry weaves through the history of Greek mythology right from the origins of the Ancient Greek Gods all the way through to the realisation that mortal man had progressed so far that perhaps the glorious Gods who’d ruled with such majestic power were no longer needed. Each and every story is packed with brilliant and witty observations as the Great Gods are brought to splendid and spectacular life.

Sitting centre stage on a throne-like leather armchair, Fry, a natural storyteller draws his audience in as though huddled round a campfire: his knowledge and enthusiasm bursting to be shared. Large screens surround him as projections of animations and classical paintings play out.

Stories roll off Fry’s tongue captivating the audience while delving deep into the origins of the Greek Gods. The names of the Original 12 Gods, their children, their cousins, heroes, creatures and mortals are reeled off effortlessly as Fry adds depth to his delivery with witty anecdotes and entertaining ad libs.

Stories are made accessible with Fry designating regional accents to the various individuals and comparing their personalities to modern day references, Heracles for example is a Brummie while Titan is described as being a “bit of an emo”.

As well as Fry’s captivating storytelling he adds various interactive elements to each show firstly in the form of the ancient version of trivial pursuit, in this case ‘mythical pursuit’. Audience members are invited to pick a subject from which Fry regales the listeners with interesting facts about said subject. In addition to this Fry opens up his oracle during the interval giving audience members an opportunity to email their burning questions in the hope of Mr Fry selecting theirs for discussion at the start of Act II. Sadly on this occasion even the oracle was stumped when the word Brexit emerged.

Wonderfully this Herculean sharing of what can only be described as an encyclopaedic knowledge never feels overwhelming or inaccessible. Fry’s warm and playful nature ensures every audience member feels part of this mythological ride and will leave the theatre armed with both a huge respect for the ancient Greeks and plenty of interesting facts to wow their friends and family with thus achieving Fry’s aim of returning to a storytelling society.

Mythos: A Trilogy covers all bases, there is love, war, heroism and devilment, with each and every story told with passion and joyful delight. The ancient is brought to wondrous life in this epic trilogy of olympic storytelling we have just one request: please Mr Fry don’t leave it another 40 years.

Mythos: A Trilogy can be seen at various locations across the country further information can be found here.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

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Reviewed by Kate Goerner

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Micheal Rosen’s 1989 picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is rightly considered a children’s classic – it’s been a bedroom staple in our house since my son was a baby.

It has all the necessary ingredients – beautiful illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, fun repetitive rhyming language to read-along to, and not forgetting a dash of mild peril!

So how would it translate to the stage? Thankfully, brilliantly (phew!). This is up there with the best kids book-to-stage adaptations we’ve seen (an opinion confirmed by my 4-year-old, who said it was “as good as What The Ladybird Heard” – which is the highest of praise, believe me!)

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The staging is ingenious. Set against a backdrop of am evocative watercolour paint splodge, the much-loved elements of the book (Mud! Grass! Snow storm!) are brought to life by the cast using stuff you’d find at home – washing up bowls, bed sheets, paint and paper. Using familiar elements of messy play that the little ones in the audience will recognise, and indeed be able to recreate at home was very clever, and incredibly effective.

The brilliant cast of four (well technically 5 if we include the titular bear!) show fantastic energy throughout, individually and as an ensemble.

Tim Hibberd’s sardonic dad has just the right amount of wry humour to get the adults in the audience on board, but with boundless energy and warmth to get the kids on side too.

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Hannah Donelon and Artie Godden as the young girl and boy display great comic timing and physical comedy and Benjamin Hills as the family dog is great fun! He only says the occasion,y ‘woof’ but plays a multitude of instruments, bringing Benji Bower’s score to life.

My little co-reviewer’s favourite bit? Obviously the obligatory waterpistols that brought the splashy-sploshy river to life and to the audience! But he laughed out loud throughout, clutched my arm whenever he heard the bear ‘roar’ and said it was a “nice” surprise when the eventually-found bear didn’t turn out to be scary AT ALL.

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is at The Lowry, Salford Quays, until August 31st and is the perfect summer holiday treat for your little bear cub. (And if you want to prolong the fun there’s an accompanying bear hunt themed trail across the Lowry and the neighbouring outlet mall – collect a fun sheet from the customer service desk in the mall).

In a word, roarsome!

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is on at The Lowry until Saturday 31st August, tickets available here.

Early Doors

Early Doors 2

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some 14 years ago, Stockport’s most famous pub The Grapes closed its doors for the last time. This was the setting of the much-cherished Craig Cash and Phil Mealey penned sitcom. While only spanning 12 episodes, the show garnered huge critical success and developed a loyal fan base. When the show wasn’t recommisioned in 2004 it came as a bit of a shock.

Last year saw The Grapes fling its doors open again for a series of live theatre and arena shows, which started with a sell-out residency at the Quays theatre at the Lowry. Such was the strength of the production; the show won the best theatre production at the City Life awards.

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Well the live show has returned to the Lowry this time with a 10-night run in the Lyric theatre. This is very much a continuation of the TV series as we are reacquainted with much-loved characters and introduced to some new, albeit familiar characters. It is to the show’s credit that many of the original cast have returned to the show; however, I doubt that they needed much persuading.

This is not just a nostalgia trip trotting out old gags and catchphrases. Cash and Mealey have created a new show which see’s Grapes landlord Ken (John Henshaw) plucking up the courage to propose to part-time barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson). However, things don’t go to plan, with the intervention of Ken’s mum: Jean (Judith Barker), and also some big-mouthed if well meaning locals, newcomers Freddie and June (Vicky Binns and Neil Hurst) who upset Ken’s plan. In addition, best friends Duffy (Mealey) and Joe (Cash), have their own problems, with the former delving into the world of online dating, and the latter having a few family issues. In addition, local bent coppers: Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight) are struggling with rules and regulations like “evidence” getting in the way of good honest coppering!

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If you are a diehard fan, or coming to Early Doors Live fresh, this show will leave you entertained and with a huge grin on your face. Packed full of stingy one-liners, pathos and a great deal of heart the show continues to focus on the same themes that made the series a success: love, loneliness, friendship and family, because no mistake the regulars in the Grapes are one big family not to dissimilar to another Cash and Mealey project: The Royale Family.

The cast are on great form: Melissa Sinden as the sharp tongued Winnie, instantly makes you forget about the shows 14 year absence while newcomers Vicky Binns, Neil Hurst, and Nick Birkinshaw as skinflint Tommy, fit in like Grapes regulars. Cash and Mealy don’t miss the chance to poke fun at our new PM; each gag had them and the audience in stitches.

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The surprising sing-along finale is an unexpected treat and a fittingly joyous end to a highly entertaining evening. As the show closed, the cast are given a well-deserved standing ovation. Get yourself down to the Lowry and join the regiment, you won’t be disappointed.

Early Doors is on the Lowry until Saturday 3rd August then heads out on a nationwide tour; tickets are available here.

 

Everything is Absolutely Fine

HOB

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

While talking about anxiety is thankfully receiving more positive media attention than ever before we still have a long way to go before we truly stamp out the stigma many people attach to mental health discussion. With their new musical comedy Everything is Absolutely Fine, Lowry Developed With artists House of Blakewell approach the topic of anxiety in an exploratory and wonderfully witty way.

Alice (played by book & lyric writer Alice Keedwell) is making a fresh start, smaller town, job at a smaller hospital & hopefully smaller problems. While a new situation is scary for most it’s made worse by the fact that Alice’s old friend anxiety (portrayed by musician and lyricist Harry Blake)has made the move with her too; constantly there in the background reminding Alice of her insecurities, drip-feeding doubt into every situation. “You’re too loud, you’re so embarrassing, your voice is annoying, you’re so awkward”.

While the subject matter may sound heavy House of Blakewell tackle this important topic in a creative and incredibly entertaining way. The snapshot of Alice’s life is delivered in various melodic, funny and extremely relatable songs. From small incidents like a trip to Waitrose where the choice of courgettes becomes overwhelming to the enormity of deciding you completely embarrassed yourself after one to many at the pub this inspired piece highlights just how all-consuming anxiety can be.

Every thought is questioned as anxiety attempts to drown Alice in negativity and destroy her self-esteem. The feeling of being the only one who doesn’t have their shit together looms large, amplified by the deadpan delivery from Harry Blakes while Alice attempts to soldier on regardless.

The lyrics are contemporary and clever, never before have I heard the words ‘garmin’ or ‘wingardium leviosa’ worked into songs and the genius of ‘shiter-er’ rhyming with ‘lighter’ certainly raised a smile. All delivered with great charm by both Keedwell and Blake.

House of Blakewell succeed in creating not only an entertaining piece of theatre but an enormously accessible piece which gently invites discussions about anxiety in a relaxed and innovative way. The performance is pitched just right allowing plenty of opportunities for relatable humour while reminding us of the importance of speaking out and seeking support from one another. Engaging and entertaining theatre.

Everything is Absolutely Fine has one more performance at The Lowry this evening Friday 28th June tickets available here.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

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Credit: Johan Persson

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s a little past 9PM and I’m sat watching a modern-day masterpiece, to many the greatest love story ever told… that’s right Love Island is on ITV 2! I jest of course; I am referring to Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet.

There have been many productions of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, but few will match the innovative, bold and daring narrative choices Bourne has made in creating his latest ballet.

This is very much a Romeo and Juliet for 2019 with the action taking place in the Verona institute: an asylum packed full of young men and women, made to live separately by a team of guards who have no qualms abusing their power or those in their care.

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Head guard Tybalt, (Dan Wright) has his sights fixed on young inmate Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) however she only has eyes for the Verona Institute’s latest arrival Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), a young man sent away by his politically ambitious parents. Romeo and Juliet, as we all know, fall in love but at a fatal cost to them both. This is of course a story most of us are as familiar with as we are our own faces, however this production subverts the narrative keeping it fresh, exciting and engaging.

Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick are outstanding as the titular leads: a mixture of grace, vulnerability and passion, fully exemplified by the pair’s penultimate dance. However all cast, including the six local dancers (local dancers will join the tour at local venues) are outstanding and fully deserve the plaudits that will undoubtedly come their way. What strikes you about any Matthew Bourne production is that every person on that stage is a fully fleshed out character and each character shines through. The masked ball sequence has been transformed into a mash up between a school disco and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and beautifully typifies the production’s narrative.

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Bourne’s choreography marries perfectly with Sergei Prokofiev’s emotive and powerful score expertly conducted by Dan Jackson. In addition, the use of all white costumes and the white tiled interior gives the production a virginal and surgical quality, which is further intensified when colour is introduced into the narrative.

Bourne has done it again, taking a traditional story and giving it a contemporary twist with references to current politics and a reliance on institutionalising people rather than treating them. However more than any of that, this is a production celebrating youth: a ballet starring young people, for young people, an absolute must-see!

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is on at the Lowry till 15th June. Tickets available here.