Review: Hot Brown Honey (HOME, Manchester)

© Dylan Evans
© Dylan Evans
UPstaged Reviewer: Megan Hyland
UPstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

From the moment the women of Hot Brown Honey take to the stage, they immediately command your attention and awe. This award-winning show is an explosion of female rage against the systems that have held them back for so long and it is entirely unapologetic about it. It combines an eclectic range of dance, circus, striptease and song to deliver a truly powerful message that holds nothing back.

Kim Bowers a.k.a. Busty Beatz is the queen bee, here to educate and liberate us all. Armed to the teeth with striking quotes from fellow artists and activists, a pair of comedy breasts and some impressive rhymes, she does just that. From her position atop the hive, she fills the room with a volcanic energy and takes no prisoners. And as creator, musical director, composer and sound designer, she and fellow creator, director, choreographer and designer Lisa Fa’alafi have created a truly ground-breaking production unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – but will definitely want to see again.

However, beyond the colourful creativity and fun of the performance, there are some particularly poignant moments such as Crystal Stacey’s beautifully heart-stopping aerial piece about sexual assault. In another powerful piece, we see each of the women bring their cultures to life on stage, embracing their heritage through costume, dance and music. This show pushes all the boundaries and smashes every stereotype, fighting for the place of women of colour on stage and within society. It is a fierce, political battle cry that creates discussion and evokes feeling. It talks openly about every issue that it raises and teaches you that if you’re not angry already then you should be.

Hot Brown Honey is an independent feminist masterpiece that will make you think and leave you buzzing. The talent and confidence of these women is mesmerising, from Ofa Fotu’s stunningly soulful voice to Hope Hammi’s blazing beatboxing skills. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, Hot Brown Honey is selling merchandise, the proceeds from which go towards funding childcare for the working mothers of the cast. It is an empowering must-see performance full of laughter, joy and truth that is entirely faultless and will have you out of your seat joining in. In the words of the mother – fighting the power never tasted so sweet.

-Megan Hyland

Hot Brown Honey runs at HOME, Manchester until 23 December 2017. 

Review: Dick Whittington (Opera House, Manchester)

Dick-Whittington-Opera-House-Manchester-
GUest REviewer: Ciaran Ward
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

From the initial curtain rise, the Manchester Opera House’s production of Dick Whittington had all the makings of a classic pantomime. With colourful costumes and rudimentary set designs (designed by Mike Coltman and Ian Westbrook/3D Creations, respectively), along with several esteemed faces from the entertainment industry in starring roles (Doctor Who star John Barrowman, and veteran comedians The Krankies), everything seemed to align with the conventions of the medium. However, a couple of scenes into the play, what could have been a fantastic show for children soon transformed into a smutty production for the attention of adults, with a series of sexual innuendos plaguing the subsequent dialogue for the remaining two hours.

 Whilst double entendres are a notable feature of pantomimes, anything filtered for the understanding of adults in this production became thinly-veiled upon the addition of lewd gestures, often on the part of Barrowman or Jimmy Krankie. What may have served as a form of entertainment in the 1980s, with The Krankies’ double act as a father and son, quickly developed into an uncomfortable experience for anyone with young children, as many references to their marital relations slipped out during moments when real-life husband and wife Ian and Janette Trough broke character.

 Despite disregarding its younger audiences with its adult content, the production redeemed itself through remaining fundamentally entertaining. Slapstick elements were rife in various scenes – particularly during a lyrically updated rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, where the main characters each threw away items of rubbish from under the sea whilst playfully hitting each other with the objects. An abundance of pyrotechnics (produced by Le Maitre) and a 3D video projection (supplied by Blue-i Technology Ltd) composed a greater visual aesthetic, forming the enchanting aspects of the show and conveying the wonder of the theatre for the younger audiences.

 The entertainment factor of the show, heightened by Tommy the Tabby Cat’s (portrayed by Ryan Kayode) Mancunian accent and Whittington’s inability to comprehend it, is sadly compromised by several cultural references to the real world. Allusions to Barrowman having had plastic surgery, and the listing of his television credits spanning from Torchwood to Arrow, instead of being apt improvisations, ultimately detract from the relatively undiscernible plot. Though Barrowman’s remains a great performer, exemplified through his frequent musical solos, his stage presence and charisma does little to rectify the transgressions the pantomime makes throughout its runtime.

-Ciaran Ward

Dick Whittington runs at Manchester’s Opera House until 7th January 2018.

REVIEW: Evita (Palace Theatre, Manchester)

 © Keith Pattison
© Keith Pattison
Guest REviewer: Karen Clough
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, who grew up in poverty in Argentina and found fame and adoration as an actress. She used her notoriety to highlight the struggles of less fortunate Argentinians, married a powerful military figure and went on to lead beside him as first lady when he was made President.

It’s suggested this role served her own need for love and adoration as much as it served the people’s need for hope and change. The significance of Eva’s appearance and her yearning for affection and validation from the people are themes which re-emerge throughout the show.

Set against the surrounding political unrest in Argentina in the 1940s-50s, many topics, such as sexism, objectification of women, social division and corruption are touched upon, and no doubt hold current relevance for a modern audience. Eva knows too well that her physical appeal can be used as a vehicle, to propel herself into a position of influence, as the face and heart of her country. 

Visually, this is a sophisticated production. The combined efforts of the set design (Matthew Wright), wardrobe team (Caroline Hannam, Caroline Heppell, Katie Bell, Billie Sanger, Hannah Forbes), choreographers (Bill Deamer, Kylie Anne Cruickshanks), orchestra (David Cullen) and lighting design (Tim Oliver, Mark Howett), ensure the audience are treated to a real ‘show’ experience. Under Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright‘s direction, everyone and everything looks and sounds the part for a high-end stage musical.

As would be expected from a Lloyd -Webber & Rice production, the musical numbers keep on coming – 28 in total. If you struggle to stay with back-to-back singing, bear with it in the first half, it’s quite full-on. Helpfully, narration by Che (Gian Marco Schiaretti) joins things up very nicely. Often Eva’s biggest critic, he mingles smoothly between scenes and invites us to look beneath her polished, altruistic exterior. 

Madalena Alberto is a captivating and expressive Eva Peron, from ambitious teenager to passionate leader through to Eva’s ultimate frailty. Jeremy Secomb is strong as her militarised husband, Juan Peron. Their duet ‘You Must Love Me’ is a touching moment, where Secomb lets the more vulnerable side of the President show through.

‘Rainbow High’ provides a great example of the skilful choreography and visual appeal of the show. Alberto holds the audience in goose-bumped silence during her powerful and glamorous balcony performance of Evita hit, ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’.

This is a good, well put together and entertaining Evita with convincing performances which do not disappoint. 

-Karen Clough

Evita continues to tour the UK through 2018. Further tour dates can be found here.

REVIEW: Guys and Dolls (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

© Manuel Harlan
© Manuel Harlan
Upstaged Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Royal Exchange have pulled a Christmas cracker of a show this festive season with their lively and glamorous interpretation of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. With Michael Buffong at the helm, the action is set in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, encapsulating the vigour of Black America at this time – this is feel-good, toe-tappingly fabulous theatre from beginning to end.

The action centres around the gambling world – where a roll of the dice can settle even the most awkward of arguments. With every new day comes a new hustle – but will their luck stick when they try to gamble with love?

With arguably the most beautiful cast that I have seen on stage in some time, vibrant musical numbers and slick scene changes – Talawa Theatre Co’s Guys and Dolls is charming, witty and packed with sentiment. Capturing the swing and soul of Harlem in the late 1930’s and the sensual, eclectic vibe of Havana – Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy’s choreography is a delight. With a roll of the dice, ‘Luck Be A Lady’ is a swinging, clicking sensation and a gospel style ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ exudes energy and fun, led with vigour by Ako Mitchell, as a towering Nicely-Nicely Johnson.

In a suit as blue as his name, Ashley Zhangazha is hugely charismatic as the infamous Sky Masterson – exuding boyish charm, holding the audiences gaze from the very start. Abiona Omonua shows versatility in her voice and gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown – demonstrating control in her mission to convert the gambling sinners of Harlem while also revealing her adventurous side in Havana.

Ray Fearon as Nathan Detroit and Lucy Vandi as cabaret singer Miss Adelaide, who has been waiting 14 years for a marriage proposal – share some poignant comic moments. Vandi’s ‘A Person Could Develop a Cold’ is a highlight – revealing the humour behind the tragic realisation of her situation in love.   

Michael Buffong’s Guys and Dolls is the perfect celebratory Christmas production.  Playing out in-the-round on the Royal Exchange’s iconic stage, you’ll be left with a spring in your step and a smile on your face long after leaving the theatre. This is a performance that should not be missed.    

-Kristy Stott

Guys and Dolls HAS NOW BEEN EXTENDED and runs until 3rd February 2018.

 

REVIEW: Forced Entertainment – Real Magic (HOME, Manchester)

©Hugo Glendenning
©Hugo Glendenning
Guest Reviewer: Daniel Shipman
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

As with much of Forced Entertainment’s work, Real Magic at HOME revolves around a set of established (but unspoken) rules. Here, these rules take the form of a game show that seems to be taking place in limbo – the three performers take it in turns to play a host, a contestant and a third role you could roughly describe as an expert. The expert thinks of a word and shows it to the audience on a piece of cardboard, whilst the host encourages the contestant to take three guesses at what that word might be. Their three guesses are always the same words in the same order, and they are never correct. This continues for the duration.

The problem with Real Magic is that it spends far too long establishing those rules and not nearly enough time playing within them, or having fun breaking them. There are well observed caricatures of all the archetypal game show characters; the contestant who acts as if they are performing an exorcism rather than a simple task, the host who has been in the job far too long and makes no attempt to hide their fatigue, the expert who gleefully expresses incredulity at the limitless stupidity of the contestant.

Whilst these crude characters can be fun to watch for a while, they make up the bulk of the show’s 90-minute running time and in my opinion, this is an over-estimation of how entertaining it is to watch. This is a shame because the moments when the cast really begin to have fun breaking the rules are the highlights of the show – Richard Lowdon illegitimately whispering the word ‘sausage’ across the stage got the laugh of the evening, despite the audience knowing that the contestant was doomed to failure anyway.

The show can be thought provoking. The contestant’s third guess is always money and when you see them shouting that word with increasing desperation, you begin to examine the ethics behind game shows – inviting people on TV to entertain the masses by humiliating themselves for the vague possibility of a cash prize.

An entertaining night in purgatory, but a night in purgatory all the same.

-Daniel Shipman

Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic runs at HOME, Manchester until Friday 1st December 2017.

REVIEW: Elf the Musical (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Photo credit: James Everett
Photo credit: James Everett
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell – many will already be familiar with the Christmas family favourite, the story of the orphan child, Buddy who ends up being transported back to the North Pole after unknowingly crawling into Santa’s bag of presents. Buddy then ends up living back at Santa HQ where he is brought up by Santa and his elves, completely unaware that he is actually a human.

Now in his thirties, towering over his fellow toy-makers and lacking the innate toy-making ability of a real elf – Buddy realises the truth and sets off on a mission, with Santa’s full backing, to find his birth father in New York City.

Starring Ben Forster as Buddy, this show is visually very impressive – lavish scenery, video footage of cityscapes and superb 3D flying effects with a sledge that manages to hover over the front stalls – everything looks very slick. However, it’s the human element that really adds a true Christmas sparkle – the chorus of dancing elves and the delivery of the familiar comedy from the film. Ben Forster gives a strong performance as Buddy, showcasing a wonderful singing voice and perfectly capturing the innocence, charm and silliness of his character. Liz McClarnon shines brightly as Jovie, with a beautiful singing voice, it’s a shame she doesn’t feature a little bit more.

Billed as a family show suitable for ages five and up, Thing One and Thing Two (and myself if I’m honest) were fidgeting a little towards the back end of Act One. The show is really quite lengthy and would benefit from some cuts.

The score is pleasant but quite generic Broadway – but the band, headed up by Musical Director Jeremy Wootton is a complete triumph and makes some ground in delivering Christmas cheer.

This is a high quality, no-expense-spared production with a strong central performance, some wonderful comic moments and some superb tap-dancing sequences from the company. However, the lack of sentiment, which is often considered a staple ingredient for successful Christmas shows, left me feeling quite cold.

-Kristy Stott

REVIEW: Dick Whittington (Oldham Coliseum, Oldham)

Simeon Truby as King Rat at the Oldham Coliseum. © Joel C Fildes
Simeon Truby as King Rat at the Oldham Coliseum.
© Joel C Fildes
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The team at Oldham Coliseum always deliver a Christmas cracker with their traditional, cheeky pantomime fun and this year is no exception. The talented team of familiar faces are back to showcase all of the traditional elements of pantomime. With plenty of audience engagement, hilariously messy slapstick, innuendo for the grown-ups and sweeties for the little ones – there is plenty for the whole family to enjoy this festive season at Oldham Coliseum.

Penned by director Kevin Shaw and Fine Time Fontayne, Dick Whittington (Nina Shadi) follows a simple narrative about a young man from Oldham who travels South to seek his fortune. Driven by the belief that the streets of London are paved with gold – he soon finds out that they are overrun with rats but tries to make the best of it when he meets Alice (Shorelle Hepkin), the daughter of bumbling Sir Ivo Fitzwarren (Ralph Birtwell).

It’s great to see Fine Time Fontayne back as the pantomime dame, following his injury last year – he is truly entertaining and strikes a real chord with the audience. With an array of fabulous food-themed costumes and vibrant Doc Martens, designer Celia Perkins has really excelled herself this year. In fact, the whole show looks as though it has been peeled from the pages of a children’s picture-book, providing a pleasing backdrop for the pantomime mayhem and magic to play out. 

Alongside Fine Time Fontayne there is a host of fabulous Oldham Coliseum panto favourites – Richard J Fletcher is a comical success as Silly Billy Suet and is always a hit with the young crowd; Liz Carney takes on three larger-than-life roles – showcasing her ability to slip between costumes and accents, she is a triumph as Fairy Godmother Nell, Captain Bonny and the Sultana of Morocco. Simeon Truby gets the crowd going as evil baddie King Rat – his Rat Out Of Hell Meatloaf cover is definitely a highlight of the night and gets a pleasing cheer from the audience before they remember to boo and hiss. Miley Rose impresses as somersaulting Tom the Cat.

Oldham Coliseum’s Dick Whittington is everything that a pantomime should be. With plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, David Bintley’s lively musical score and the opportunity to interact with the performance – all taking place in an ideal sized theatre, where everyone feels part of the action. Dick Whittington is packed with festive magic, mischief and good old-fashioned fun – the perfect production to share with all of the family this Christmas.

-Kristy Stott

Dick Whittington runs at Oldham Coliseum until  13th January 2018 and you can get your tickets here.

Review: Kate O’Donnell: You’ve Changed (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Kate O'Donnell in You've Changed at The Lowry, Salford Quays.
Kate O’Donnell in You’ve Changed at The Lowry, Salford Quays.
Reviewer: Megan Hyland
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Kate O’Donnell quite literally bares all in her new show, You’ve Changed, a hilarious and honest account of her transition in 2003. Using the backdrop of the 1930s to add a unique twist, O’Donnell explores how transitioning fourteen years ago felt a lot more like transitioning in the 1930s. And although the show itself is only an hour long, there isn’t a topic left untouched in this unapologetic story of what being transgender and transitioning is really like.

You’ve Changed combines some truly transfixing dance routines skilfully choreographed by Lea Anderson, the music of the 1930s and O’Donnell’s effortless sense of humour and sincerity to create an entertaining and insightful performance. In collaboration with her trans-led theatre company Trans Creative, the show aims to both encourage and empower other members of the trans community, whilst also educating cisgender audiences – and it does exactly that. O’Donnell takes us through every step of her transition, beginning with the moment that she said it out loud for the first time in her friend’s living room to name change documents and the cost of her surgery.

However, it is O’Donnell’s dazzling personality and humour that is the real heart of the show. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand, keeping you on the verge of tears or uncontrollable laughter at any giving moment. She commands effortless control, drawing the audience in from the moment she steps onstage dressed as Fred Astaire to the very last moment where she remerges as Ginger Rodgers. And although there are parts that may feel slightly disjointed and perhaps rough around the edges, O’Donnell’s intelligent and witty storytelling ultimately distracts and leaves you with a smile.

All in all, You’ve Changed delivers some truly powerful messages about what it’s really like to be trans and transitioning, which despite O’Donnell’s transition being almost fourteen years ago, still remain relevant today. It will make you laugh, think and maybe even cry. But the main takeaway is the question that O’Donnell herself asks – she’s changed, but have you? I certainly have.

-Megan Hyland

You’ve Changed runs at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 11th November 2017 and continues the tour to Birmingham’s SHOUT Festival on 17th November and Lancaster Arts Centre on 1st December 2017.

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (HOME, Manchester)

 © Jonathan Keenan
© Jonathan Keenan
Upstaged Rating: 

Taking inspiration from the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, HOME Manchester present Andrew Upton’s beautifully touching translation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

Over one hundred and fifty years have passed since Chekov’s birth and his plays have become almost as much part of British theatre’s repertoire as Shakespeare. Uncle Vanya is a complete masterpiece – portraying a society on the brink of change and an uncertain political climate – it was a revolutionary play for its time, written twenty years before the Russian Revolution. Most startlingly, to a modern audience, Uncle Vanya offers a timely commentary about the world we inhabit right now.

Director Walter Meierjohann has brought this deeply layered and finely nuanced production to complete fruition. Fascinating and truly absorbing, every word resonates and strikes new meaning – Meierjohann has teased and provoked to create a stunning theatrical feast which resonates powerfully with a contemporary audience.

Nick Holder’s Uncle Vanya straddles the tragicomic, playing the title role in a way Chekov would have applauded. Emerging as a yawning buffoon, then doe-eyed and needy, as he fawns over the Professor’s beautiful wife, Yelena. Holder interweaves comedy and anguish perfectly giving the best Vanya that I have ever seen.

Chekhov’s work is always about the ensemble and there is a host of top-notch performances in this production. Katie West gives us a gentle, diligent and honest Sonya against Hara Yannas’ beautifully elegant but idle Yelena. David Fleeshman’s gout-ridden Professor is suitably embittered by the onset of old age; Jason Merrells is brilliant as Astrov, a character who was viewed as a visionary and radical outsider at the time the play was first written; now, Astrov and his passionate appeals to plant seeds, nurture our environment and take responsibility for our society, strikes a resounding chord.

A self-playing piano haunts the characters from the back of the stage and provides a melancholic musical score composed by Marc Tritschler. The unkempt estate that the characters inhabit is suggested perfectly by Steffi Wuster’s minimalist though effective set design.

This production is completely consuming. Like a beautiful meal, I leave HOME feeling content and full with no bitter aftertaste.

-Kristy Stott

Uncle Vanya runs at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 25th November 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

 

 

Review: Spamalot ( Palace Theatre, Manchester)

Spamalot at The Palace Theatre, Manchester until 11th November 2017
Spamalot at The Palace Theatre, Manchester until 11th November 2017
Guest Reviewer: karen Clough
Upstaged Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Eric Idle’s stage adaptation of the 1975 film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ offers all the satire, ridiculousness, mockery and hilarity you might bargain for, and then some.

Whether you’re an existing fan of Monty Python or not, this show makes for a laugh-out-loud night of ingeniously perceptive slapstick entertainment. Eric Idle has captured the essence of Monty Python in this superbly constructed musical version, demonstrating the most natural understanding of what really does make people laugh. First appearing on stage in 2004, Spamalot stands the test of time by combining classic comedy with currently themed script tweaks, which connect it with the present.

Spamalot is the calamitous tale of King Arthur (Bob Harm) and his incompetent knights (Steven Arden, Jonathan Tweedie, Norton James, Marc Akinfolarin) in their search for the Holy Grail. Struggling to command the respect of his subjects as a credible king, Arthur recruits the knights of the round table on his travels, each of them possessing a unique ineptness and comedic appeal.

Fans of Monty Python and the newly-acquainted alike will appreciate the embedded fun-poking at the ‘terribly Britishness’ of it all, the coconut shell horses, the set, props and the genre of musical theatre itself. All of this is accompanied by an equally amusing song list (John du Prez & Eric Idle) including the quintessential Monty Python anthem ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (music directed by Dean McDermott).

This production is not just intelligently written (Eric Idle), it is slickly directed (Daniel Buckroyd), choreographed (Ashley Nottingham) and designed (Sara Perks) – it’s as good as musical comedy pandemonium gets. This is enabled by outstanding casting, their chemistry and a shared sense of fun literally radiating from the stage. The performances of each are of such a high and comparable standard that favouritism proves a struggle. Whilst there is too much brilliance to justly mention, I doubt the comic-timing of Bob Harms’ (King Arthur) imaginary horse-handling paired with Rhys Owen’s (Patsy) command of coconut shell hooves could be bettered! Vocal performances are also of great quality across the cast, with Sarah Harlington as the divaesque Lady of the Lake leading the way.

Prepare for audience interaction, high jinks, ad-lib, more irony than you can shake a stick at and a revolving door of laughter and thoroughly enjoyable idiocy.

I agree with John Cleese, it really is “the silliest thing I’ve ever seen”. It’s also ridiculously brilliant. I left the show with a warmed, laughter-aching face, I’m smiling as I write this review. Don’t let this humour masterpiece pass you by.

-Karen Clough

Spamalot runs at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 11th November 2017.