A Monster Calls

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Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s not very often I’ll go into review a show cold: I’ll usually have some idea of plot, cast, etc before going into the the theatre. In the case of A Monster Calls I knew it was based on a book, and there was something in the back of mind telling me that there had been a film adaptation too. In terms of plot I knew very little, had I known I could have prepared for the tsunami of emotions that hit me.

This is the story of Conor (Ammar Duffus), a lonely 13-year-old boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders: harassment from the school’s bully, a father living on the other side of the world, his mother (Maria Omakinwa) is seriously ill. Understandably, it’s his mum’s illness that is of most concern to Conor, confused by what he is seeing and his mother’s reassurance that “everything with be fine” he has no outlet for emotions.

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Conor’s life soon becomes even more complicated when he receives a visit from a monstrous creature. Located in his garden is a giant yew tree, which comes to life at the same time each evening. The yew tree has been on the earth for hundreds of years and informs the boy that he will tell him three tales and in exchange Conor will tell him one in return.

Each night the tree returns with a brutal fable, involving, kings, queens and apothecaries, all with a dark heart to them, there is no happy ever after with these stories. But, what do they mean and how do they help Conor?

Sally Cookson has created a powerful, visceral and devastating adaptation of Patrick Ness’ international bestseller.  This is a fairy-tale that deals with grief, anger and the importance of expressing our emotions, this is an unflinching, unsentimental view of the world through the eyes of teenager, complete with all his frustrations and heartache.

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The production looks and sounds amazing. The haunting score by Benji Bower, is both beautiful and haunting, played masterfully by musicians Seamas Carey and Luke Potter. There use of electronica and voice distortion gives the production a fantasy, other worldly quality.  The staging is simple but affective, just a white floor, with a white back drop where, looking not to dissimilar to a padded cell, adding an element of claustrophobia, despite the vast openness of the stage. Visuals are projected on the wall throughout, and the ensemble cast when not playing their part will double up as visible stagehands handing out props as and when required.

However it’s the recreation of the woodland behemoth that is most impressive: using a series of  giant ropes which cascade onto the stage throughout, the ensemble cast gather them together to form the tree, this coupled with Keith Gilmore’s physical and menacing delivery as the monster, make for an impressive visual spectacle creating a truly intimidating protagonist.

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The production isn’t without it’s flaws, despite a solid showing from the cast, with strong physical and emotional performances throughout they are occasionally let down by some stilted dialogue which is a little distracting, however this is a minor quibble for what is an innovative, powerful piece of theatre.

Having quite recently lost my father, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional sucker punch the production provided during its final moments and judging by the amount of people clearing the sand from their eyes (least that’s what I think it was) at the end of the performance nor was anyone else. Powerful, intelligent and emotional, when this monster calls you had best answer as you won’t be disappointed.

A Monster Calls is on at at the Lowry until Saturday 29th February, tickets are available here.

Ghost Stories

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Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Finally, a decade after it’s theatrical premiere at Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre, Ghost Stories is embarking on a full national tour, and trust me it was well worth the wait!

From the twisted minds of childhood friends Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, comes the ultimate scary theatrical experience, that will chill to your core.

Both Dyson and Nyman are no strangers to horror and the supernatural: Dyson is arguably best known for his work with, The League of Gentleman. Whilst Nyman is an actor and writer, who recently starred opposite Renée Zellweger in the Oscar winning film Judy. However, it’s his previous work with Derren Brown, which undoubtedly feeds into this production.

It would do the show a disservice to offer a review complete with plot synopsis and spoilers, the less you know going in beforehand the better. So, this review like a government investigation into Russian donors to the Conservative Party will be heavily redacted.

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Beginning with a lecture from Professor Goodman (Joshua Higgott), Goodman specialises in the study of the supernatural, especially debunking people’s stories, or exposing fakers and frauds. However, of all the cases that he has investigated there have been three that have stuck with him.

The first is that of security guard, Tony Matthews (Paul Hawkyard), and his unsettling final shift. The second is that of teenager, Simon Rifkind (Gus Gordon) and the strife his troublesome car gets him into. Finally, businessman, Mike Priddle (Richard Sutton) and the events that lead up to a family tragedy.

Can Professor Goodman offer up a rational explanation behind each of these stories, if so what can be?

If the aim of Ghost Stories is to have you jumping out of your skin then it achieves its goal ten times over, like a rollercoaster the thrills come thick and fast, just when you think you’re safe there’s another scare right around the corner. It’s not all shocks, there are several laughs too, with a pitch-black script and lots of fun gags, horror and comedy have often made strange bed fellows, Ghost Stories undoubtedly have got the balance spot on.

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With a production of this nature it of course relies hugely on its creative team and high production values and what they have created is something quite special. With James Farncombe’s lighting design, sound design by Nick Manning, then add into the mix Jon Bausor’s impressive set design and you have an atmospheric, gasp-inducing full-on sensory experience.

The cast are on fine form, Higgot has an engaging stage presence as our guide to the paranormal, whilst the three storytellers each bring something different to their tale. There’s comedy, drama, and terror from each turn but all done very differently, which is a credit to all three actors as well the sublime writing and direction.

This is so much more than a fright-fest: it’s smart, innovative and most of all an enormously fun piece of theatre that pulls out all the stops to give you a night out that will live long in the memory.

Ghost Stories is at the Lowry until the 22nd February 2020 tickets available here.

 

 

 

My Night with Reg

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further information about regional tour dates can be found here.

 

 

An Inspector Calls

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Having been seen by over 5 million people since its premiere at the National Theatre in 1992 Stephen Daldry’s ground-breaking production of J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller comes to the Lowry this week as part of a UK wide tour.

Celebrated by audiences and critics alike its dramatic edge and clever theatricality remains. Set amidst a bleak, ominous backdrop we see a strange almost doll-like house, claustrophobic and precariously balanced. The laughter and chattering of the family within rings out, they are as yet unaware of whom lies within the wings waiting to unravel and expose their harmonious gathering.

A young working-class girl has committed suicide and it is Inspector Goole’s belief that each and every member of this loathsome family has played some influential part in her tragic demise. Daldry’s radical reimagining of this theatre heavyweight is strong in its impact and stirring in its message, the theatre packed with GCSE pupils, a clear sign of the continued relevance of this captivating piece.

Liam Brennan takes on the role of Inspector Goole, initially calm yet commanding he both examines and exposes each member of the elitist Birling family meticulously. Cocooned by their privilege he draws them out one by one rocking their very foundations and exposing their cruel entitled behaviours.

Each character is developed fully and delivered convincingly by an incredibly strong cast with special mention going to Chloe Orrock as daughter Sheila Birling whose journey from spoilt and materialistic to unravelled, ashamed yet reflective offers real hope for change.

Daldry’s exceptional direction clearly illustrates that the change Priestley wishes to see in the world must come from the younger generation, where they repent and reflect, their parents scrabble round in the gutter grabbing at their silverware polishing it in the mud, still grappling for their place at the top of the social ladder. Silent character Edna, (Linda Beckett) maid to the Birling family observes the fall-out while becoming more and more relaxed in her manner as the family fall from grace.

Designer Ian MacNeil’s intricate set design is strikingly impressive while Rick Fisher’s lighting adds to the atmosphere and intensity pairing wonderfully with Stephen Warbeck’s ominous soundtrack.

Whilst socialist Priestley wrote the play as a blistering criticism of capitalist society it very much remains a play for today with its message of social responsibility and consequence strikingly relevant. The piece illustrates perfectly how everything is connected and how our own individual actions impact others while using its platform to call for a kinder, fairer and more compassionate world. This thrilling adaptation is both slick and stylish, delivering a message that will stay with you long after the curtain call.

An Inspector Calls is on at The Lowry until Saturday 18th January tickets available here.

 

The Red Shoes

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures premiered The Red Shoes in 2016 it stunned audiences and critics alike, winning two Olivier Awards as well as the LA Critics’ Award for both choreography and set and costume design. Returning for 2019 this breathtakingly beautiful piece of theatre proves to be as timeless a classic as ever.

Based on the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film which drew it’s inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Red Shoes this perfectly paced production is rich in indulgent theatricality, sweeping you up on a joyous, heart-wrenching, mesmerising journey from the moment Benard Herrmann’s stunning score with orchestrations from Terry Davies begins.

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The Red Shoes tells the powerful story of young ballerina Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) who swiftly rises to the position of principal dancer after her recent arrival at an established ballet company. Her success brings her to the attention of both composer Julain Craster (Dominic North) and also that of the dance company’s powerful impresario Boris Lermontov (Adam Cooper). With the first there is a genuine truth and innocence with the second the lure of higher artistic achievement pulls like a magnet, which ignites a battle between ambition and true love.

Ashley Shaw makes a welcome return to the role of Victoria Page a role she originated in 2016; her performance feels entirely authentic as she weaves her way through a whole spectrum of emotions capturing euphoria and bliss just as convincingly as she portrays terror and furious anger. This authentic emotion paired with her exquisite technique and precise delivery is nothing short of magnificent, embodying the young dancer to perfection. Her performance during The Ballet of The Red Shoes is mesmerising as she is firstly enthralled by then ultimately captured by the shoes, she tells the story movingly and with her whole being.

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Adam Cooper’s Boris Lermontov is strong and domineering, seductive in both his power and precision, he stalks the stage bringing an ever-present feeling of temptation and danger while Dominic North’s portrayal of struggling composer Julian Craster is a joy to watch, his solo piece in Act One develops a strong characterisation which he maintains superbly throughout

Bourne’s skilful storytelling and his unbeatable attention to detail matched with a company of dancers at the absolute top of their game ensures that this production enthrals entirely. From playful scenes on the French Riviera to intensely passionate duets every element of choreography is slick, masterful and exciting while every single person on stage gives an impressive and fully developed performance. It is such a visual treat almost cinematic at times that one viewing doesn’t feel like enough, every scene could stand alone and happily satisfy any theatre goer.

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Lez Brotherston award-winning set design is immediately striking and wonderfully effective. Allowing the audience access to both onstage and off-stage scenes via a grand revolving sumptuously curtained frame which almost feels like it pirouette’s before your eyes, drawing you into the very heart of the drama, lit beautifully by Paule Constable.

The Red Shoes is a unique piece of theatre in which every element has been crafted with such love and care that the end result is an unquestionably perfect piece of theatrical magic. Bourne’s wonderfully clear storytelling ensures that anyone dipping their toe into the dance world would find the show accessible while seasoned fans of his work will revel in the thrill of having another dazzling piece to enjoy, a masterpiece!

The Red Shoes is on at The Lowry until Saturday 30th November, tickets available here.

 

 

 

 

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.

Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett talks TOAST

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When Nigel Slater released his 2004 autobiography TOAST: The Story of a Boys Hunger, it’s doubtful he ever imagined it would be made into a BBC film let alone become a critically-award winning play which after wowing the West End is now touring the country to packed audiences every night.

Here at Opening Night we were lucky enough to catch up with writer Henry Filloux-Bennett ahead of the shows return to The Lowry to hear a little more about the process of taking the book from page to stage as well as what audiences can expect from this heart-warming adaptation which critics have described as ‘delicious’.

Opening Night: “How did you first become aware of the autobiography and did you read it with the intention of adapting it for the stage?”

Henry Felloux-Bennett: “I was a cook working in London, weirdly in the same hotel that Nigel works in at the end of the book, I was knackered as kitchen hours are stupidly long and I didn’t have any money so I had to live outside of London and commute in. To keep me awake, I would read a book. I was given TOAST one Christmas and it was the first book I picked up as I left one day. I just started reading it on the bus back and forth from the kitchen not only did the story resonate because he has an interesting upbringing and then goes into cooking and I thought – ‘Oh that’s like me’, but also I didn’t have anything to do with theatre but I sort of wanted to do something in theatre, and I thought: ah, that could be the show.”

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ON: “Once you’d decided to create the piece was it an instant yes from Nigel?”

HFB: “I tried originally to get the rights for a show in Edinburgh but Nigel said no, thank God because ten years later, the play became much more of a considered thing. Back then, I would have just done it in two hours and hoped for the best. It would have been rubbish so thank God he did say no.”

ON: “Your perseverance clearly paid of as 10 years later Nigel finally gave his backing to the adaptation.”

HFB: “Yes, the Lowry was doing a festival called Week 53 and it was about coming-of-age, Nigel also turned 60 the year it started so I think that had something to do with it. I think also it was something to do with this festival because it wasn’t a big glamorous West End show. We were trying to create this small experience for a very limited number of people that I hoped showed I genuinely wanted to do it. I think a lot of adaptations happen because it’s going to make money – I think he worried about that, not that it would be a big cash cow but that it was cynical. I just thought, oh we can get some foodies to come and see this.”

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ON: “What is the starting point when taking a book from page to stage?”

HFB: “I think one of the big challenges of adapting any book to stage is how you a make it interesting to watch. Obviously if you’re reading a book you can be totally absorbed in it. You can enjoy the characters and you can enjoy the plot, but actually when you’re faced with watching something that sort of takes it in a different direction. The challenge with TOAST is that it’s not a narrative-based book, it skips around quite a lot. Finding a journey to go on, from start to finish, was a massive challenge because it doesn’t flow in a linear way. But that’s what made it more fun as well because I didn’t have to stick to normal storytelling rules.”

ON: “Did Nigel have an absolute veto on anything?”

HFB: “Mainly language. There is a bit where they go to Bournemouth on holiday and there is a line about looking out on the sea and the guy who used to play Nigel once said ocean instead of sea. Apparently, that is a massive no-no because Nigel would never have said ocean in the 60s. It’s the details – like making the labels for the damson jam props. He made a lot of props. The general shape of the play he’s always been quite happy with because he understands that you send a book out into the world and it’s up to everyone else how they deal with it”.

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ON: “Were you worried about Nigel Slater’s reaction to what you had produced?”

HFB: “I was terrified about Nigel’s response. I think you always think that what you’re doing you quite like but then you have to present it to people who’ve never read it before and you have to present it to the person who it’s about, who wrote the thing itself – that’s terrifying. He was very nice about it. He said he wouldn’t read it until I was happy with it, which was a massive bonus because we didn’t know each other. I might’ve massacred his memoir, which would’ve been awful. Touch wood, I haven’t done that. But he was very generous in saying do whatever you need to do. When I was writing it, I read an interview with Lee Hall, who wrote the screen play for the film. And Lee Hall basically said that you can’t care the person is still alive and you can’t care about the person reading it. You have to write the thing you need to write. If the person hates it you can change it, which he did a little bit, but you have to write the thing that you want to write and don’t worry that there’s a real-life Nigel Slater who will be there at some point. It was great advice, which I followed.”

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ON: “Why do you think the tastes and smells are so important in both the autobiography and the play?”

HFB: “If you read the book, which you absolutely should, you’ll know that all the chapters are named after food, like Apple Pie, Marshmallows or Digestive Biscuits. Angel Delight was what I responded to when I read it. Butterscotch Angel Delight is probably the best thing ever invented, it’s an amazing pudding and it takes five minutes to make – who wouldn’t love it? It’s those memories – and the smells. Everyone knows the smell of certain things. If you open a packet of digestives, you know that smell. The same with toast. If you think about it, everyone can tell what toast smells like, just when it’s just starting to burn a little bit. All of those things are in his chapters so we had to respond to that in the play.”

ON: “How involved has Nigel been in the process?”

HFB: “He was literally involved from day one. He was there for the workshop week with The Lowry six months before we made the show and then he was there for every step of the way with the food. I think the tech period for him was the most exciting bit because he works in TV so he’s not used to being involved with how the sets get made. At The Lowry, he made half the props with us. He was literally in the dressing room making labels. I’ve still got the label he made for the Damson Jam bottle, it’s my favourite thing. Oliver, who is the Executive Chef at The Lowry’s Pier Eight, worked very closely with Nigel and James [Thompson], our Food Director, to create things that everyone would get to taste. Nigel came up for tastings and was like ‘this bit needs this’ and ‘it needs a bit more sharpness in the lemon meringue tarts’ so he was really involved.”

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ON: “Does any cooking take place on stage?”

HFB: “Yes, I’m not going to tell you what. But there is a scene when we cook on stage. Have you ever seen Billy Elliot? In the script I wanted to copy the bit where he does the angry dance and he can’t express himself any other way. There’s a moment in the play when Nigel gets told something and he doesn’t know how to respond. In my head the only way he could’ve responded was to cook and so it’s meant to be the angry dance for Nigel. It’s a really interesting thing because there is no talking for nearly five minutes. It’s quite intense and Giles had to learn how to cook that dish perfectly. Hopefully it resonates and you’ll find it interesting, but for some people it’s the only bit that I didn’t write and it’s the bit that people cry at. That bit certainly gets people because they can smell and see. The sound of food cooking in a frying pan is amazing, especially in a theatre”.

TOAST returns to The Lowry where it first premiered in 2018 on Monday 11th November for a limited one week run until Saturday 16th November. Tickets available here.