REVIEW: Little Sister (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

Little Sister at Manchester's Royal Exchange
Little Sister at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
reviewer: Ciaran ward
upstaged rating: 

Manchester’s Royal Exchange receives the world premiere of Little Sister, a ninety-minute adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Six Swans. Created in collaboration with The Company, Little Sister has finally brought to life Lead Artist Mark Storer’s wish to develop such an intricate and profound piece of theatre, following a lengthy eighteen-year absence to do so. As such, no aspect of the play faltered throughout its course, making Little Sister’s quest to help return her brothers to their true human form an enchanting display of love and affection, one that entertained the audience from the very inception to the final curtain.

Despite occasional cries from characters and sporadic sound effects (contributed by Ben Almond, Dave Norton and Sorcha Williams), the prevalence of silence throughout heightened the courage and determination Little Sister offered, given the sacrifice she made to not make a sound for seven years so as to break her brothers’ curse. As a result, there was a dependence on the motion of the different characters to tell the story, one which, although an unconventional approach, made for an enjoyable and quirky experience.

One notable element of the performance was the inclusion of acrobatics in it. A rope that spanned the height of the theatre and was attached to the ceiling was artistically utilised by the skilled performer and aerialist, Alice Ellerby, providing an awe-inspiring and majestic display that was especially appropriate considering the fact the 2016 Olympic Games are due to commence. The graceful movements also proved the play to be visually profuse and thus a stunning spectacle to watch.

In particular, the rich architectural designs of the Royal Exchange Theatre meant that it was the most suitable venue in Manchester to house the play. The round theatre allowed for the entire audience, regardless of which seat they were in, to see what was happening on stage – extremely convenient as a multitude of actions, performed by different characters, were occurring in conjunction with each other for the majority of the show. In turn, this literally kept you on the edge of your seat as you attempted to spot everything going on in all corners of the stage.

A play with scarcely any lines may be perceived as boring to some, but this definitely wasn’t the case with the Little Sister. Through its accomplished choreography, aptly used props and effective use of silence, this greater emphasis on stage direction resulted in a play that entirely warranted two separate bouts of applause at the end.

-Ciaran Ward

Little Sister runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre until Sunday 7th August 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

 

REVIEW: You Boy (Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester)

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Reviewer: demi west
upstaged rating: 

You Boy is the latest piece by SeeGold Productions, co-directed by Zach Slater of The Sketch Men, starring Oliver Burkill and Scott Harrison. The story follows two adoptive brothers in their last year of secondary school. The narrative is told through a non-linear structure, which allows the audience to learn about the present, whilst also learning about the past through flashbacks of the two brothers. The acts are centred around the gravestone of one the brothers, which is the centrepiece of the two timelines, creating an almost circular narrative that gives two satisfying ‘book-ends’ to an otherwise expansive story line.

The play begins with the deceased brother lingering around his gravestone, contemplating the lonely realities of death, which sets a sombre tone for the play. Shortly after this, his brother visits the gravestone, and thus begins the tale of the two brothers in their trials and tribulations of becoming men. This is where the flashbacks begin, elaborating on the close relationship between the two brothers which continue after death, making the bond between the pair believable, giving depth to the present storyline. This also displays how as well as their relationship, the roles of both brothers remain unchanged, which works well to convey the unconditional love that the brothers share. Throughout the play, there was unexpected humour which was well received by the audience, which helped to take the dramatic edge off things, working well to create a balance between the positive and negative.

The actors performed to a high standard, which was impressive due to the small size of the venue and the lack of set design, although at times their performance during the flashbacks seemed overly dramatic, almost destroying the illusion of them being teenage boys. However, the minimalistic set meant that their performance was the focal point, meaning that the performance itself was the main story teller, and created a mental set design in which the audience could set the scene themselves. This was echoed further when the actors would interact with non-present characters, aiming their dialogue towards the audience and making them feel more involved, strengthening the effectiveness of key scenes.

Overall, the storyline flowed well, with all the events from the past and the present coming together in a way that made conversations from earlier on in the play begin to make sense. The non-linear narrative structure was a large factor of what made the play flow so well, as it was an effective alternative of telling an otherwise standardised drama, in a way that constantly gripped the attention of the audience. The audience were left with a comically sad ending, which tied everything together in a way that didn’t dampen the mood. I would highly recommend this play to anyone who gets the chance to see it.

-Demi West

REVIEW: King Lear (GM Fringe – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester)

King Lear by Purplecoat Productions at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre
King Lear by PurpleCoat Productions at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre
reviewer: Ciaran ward
upstaged rating: 

PurpleCoat Productions’ interpretation of William Shakespeare’s infamous tragedy, King Lear, has asserted itself as a befitting homage to the playwright’s life and career in wake of the 400th anniversary of his death back in April. The emotional turmoil inherent in the many of the play’s round characters is emphasised through the skilled creative direction of Karl Falconer: a single set compounds the intense feeling and impending sense of enclosure experience by all, be that by death, imprisonment or loss.

Through the evident proficiency of the actors, the despair of Lear (Paul Carmichael) over his deteriorating authority, the anguish of Edmund (Stephen Michael Turner) from being the bastard son of the nobleman Gloucester (Karl Falconer) and, in turn, his own worries of being guilty of treason after aiding the King in escaping the wrath of his vengeful daughters (Natasha Ryan and Evangeline Murphy King) is greatly achieved, making for a riveting piece of theatre which stirs a desire for more than a three hour show.

Given the immersive nature of the performance, the audience began engaging with the drama from the exposition. Immediately, your sight informs you that the characters are dressed in modern attire but your hearing confuses you when you realise they are speaking the traditional lines that were crafted by the Bard himself. The anachronism, in itself, complements Lear’s descent into madness, but is also suggestive of the fact that the themes of human cruelty and justice are just as relevant today as they were in the Renaissance era.

The technical aspects of the play effectively contribute to the various atmospheres produced throughout, with the highly commendable lighting and sound effects being offered by Alisha Johnson and Mel Wells. Scenes of sinister plotting are aided by the stark reduction of light; a paradoxical approach to how you would generally discover a character’s ‘true colours’. Moments of truth and reconciliation, however, are embellished with mellow lighting, superficially indicating a sense of ease and tranquillity, before the tragic events in the dénouement become apparent.

Considering that this showing in Manchester is the last stop of the PurpleCoat Productions’ UK and Ireland Tour, it is impressive that the quality and high standards of the cast and crew have been so well preserved throughout the show’s run. Every aspect of the production, from the incongruous costuming to the raw talents of the actors dealing with such an acclaimed piece of drama, engenders it to be a mesmerising performance that enchants any Shakespeare fan, young or old.

-Ciaran Ward

REVIEW: National Killing Day (GM Fringe 2016 – The King’s Arms, Salford)

 

National Killing Day at Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016
National Killing Day at Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016
reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

Lee Clotworthy’s writing debut, National Killing Day is a thrilling and fast-paced hour of entertainment. The play follows James, a young man struggling to come to terms with the breakdown of his marriage on the country’s first National Killing Day. For the next 24 hours, murder is legal. James finds himself purchasing a train ticket to his ex-wife’s house – with a knife and her death certificate in his bag. But it’s the people that he meets along the way and the glimpses of media coverage that make the play so exceptional.

With an animated cast of nine, the play explores and tests dynamics between brothers, friends and even couples on the tensest day of the year.  The narrative switches between the media coverage, which paints National Killing Day as a vitally important day in the country’s history in order to control the population, and also the violent reality that James witnesses on his journey.

Although simplistic, the staging and lighting only emphasise the outstanding acting talent of the cast. Dean Brammel delivers an engaging and raw performance as James, as we watch his developing struggle to “open up” emotionally to his ex-wife, Jenny. Whereas Hayley Thompson and Mike Howl expertly handle multirole, with Thompson, in particular, showcasing her diverse acting ability as both patronizing and propaganda-pushing broadcaster Phillipa Phillipson and bumbling yet unruly shopkeeper Phyllis.

The play’s individual selling point is its complete control of building and diffusing tension. National Killing Day deals with some uncomfortable subjects, such as affairs, unhappy marriages and social barriers, all brought to a head with the idea of legal murder. The tension in the scenes often rises to points where they become quite difficult to watch, as the characters are driven to hysterics by the reality of National Killing Day. But just as quickly as the tension is built, it is ultimately diffused by the clever and quick satirical humour of Clotworthy’s writing.

Overall, National Killing Day is incredibly tense and exciting to watch, with the last five minutes particularly bringing the play to a surprising and shocking climax. Music is used sparingly throughout, but its ironic and unexpected uses only adds to the satirical tone of the play. And while this may be Clotworthy’s first stint as a script writer and director, it’s certainly an encouraging and promising start.

-Megan Hyland

National Killing Day shows at The King’s Arms until Friday 22nd July 2016 and you can get your tickets here. 

For further information and complete listings for Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016 click here.

REVIEW: Cyril the Squirrel (The Lowry, Salford)

Cyril the Squirrel is so sq-exciting
Cyril the Squirrel
thingstars: 

Theatre maker Cathy Shiel’s background in early years teaching really shines through in this delightful and touching new piece of children’s theatre, Cyril the Squirrel. This charming tale is pitched perfectly for children aged 3 and up and is packed to the brim with bright visual storytelling and amusing interaction. With clowning, puppetry and performance, Cyril the Squirrel has plenty to keep those inquisitive minds engaged for the full 45 minute running time.

The tale unfolds within Woody Woodland when Cyril (Jennifer Birch), a grey squirrel, meets Rosie Red (Cathy Shiel), a red squirrel.The heartwarming tale explores themes around friendship and diversity as the two become best friends despite sneaky Willy the Weasel and his best efforts to divide them.

With their little eyes wide, many children in the audience were gripped from the very start of the show. This production has interaction at its core, inviting children to engage with the performers throughout – it’s a sure way to get theatres toughest critics on your side from the outset. The narrative is simple and pitched at a perfect level for younger children; the clever use of instruments, highly visual tricks and puppetry succeed in feeding their excitable minds and imaginations.

Fresh from The Royal Exchange’s The Crucible, Alastair Gilles shows his versatility as a performer in doubling up as the crafty Weasel and the calming and knowledgeable Owl. Cathy Shiel and Jennifer Birch are dynamic, suitably animated and fun, working alongside each other as Rosie Red and Cyril.

Lara Booth’s set design provides the ideal balance between simplicity and woodland magic – complete with hidey holes and vines. Will Hague’s squirrel tail design is the perfect visual for younger children to understand the difference between the two characters on stage.

FullSizeRenderCyril the Squirrel is a superb piece of children’s theatre – smart and well pitched. Thing 2 laughed along with many of the jokes throughout the show and took away the important message that it is interesting to be different, change can be good and that diversity makes the world go round.

 

 

-Kristy Stott

Cyril the Squirrel continues to tour throughout July 2016: The Dogs Trust, Denton 26th July 2016 (plus and post-show doggy themed workshop) and The Atkinson, Southport 30th July 2016.

REVIEW: Beyond Caring (HOME, Manchester)

Beyond Caring © Graeme Braidwood
Beyond Caring
© Graeme Braidwood
upstaged rating: 

Beyond Caring pulls the filthy wall away to reveal the reality of working life for the night shift workers on zero-hours contracts in a meat factory. Employed as cleaners on agency contracts, their work is physically demanding and repetitive and they don’t always get paid on time. Alexander Zeldin’s perception of life on the lowest rung of the employment ladder is precise, darkly comic and painstakingly accurate.

Beyond Caring © Graeme Braidwood
Beyond Caring
© Graeme Braidwood

Designer Natasha Jenkins has managed to make Theatre 2 at HOME feel just like an industrial warehouse. Harshly lit by bright white strip lights from above, there is the smell of cleaning products and pungent damp mops in the air. We learn snippets about the characters lives during their 15-minute lunch breaks before they continue with the arduous task of cleaning the meat factory.

The whole piece has been devised by the company through investigation and talking to those who have experienced zero-hours contracts. The show centres around the introduction of three new agency workers to the soul-destroying and dingy walls of the factory: Grace (Janet Etuk), Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) and Becky (Victoria Moseley). Led by factory taskmaster Ian (Luke Clarke), the three women join with permanent employee Phil (James Doherty) to work the night shift. Hints are threaded throughout the script to indicate why the three are so desperate for the job – it’s authentic, real and at times, difficult to watch.

Beyond Caring © Graeme Braidwood
Beyond Caring
© Graeme Braidwood

Luke Clarke’s supervisor Ian has a ‘David Brent’ air about him, conducting pointless team meetings and describing his self-indulgent spiritual beliefs; though despite the shades of black comedy, the piece takes the subject matter seriously. As somebody who has worked in a zero-hours environment, I could relate to the way he treated his workers, which made for uncomfortable but achingly real viewing.

-Kristy Stott

Beyond Caring runs at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 16th July 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: The Mighty Walzer (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Elliot Levey, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Jonathan Tafler in The Mighty Walzer at Manchester's Royal Exchange © Jonathan Keenan
Elliot Levey, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Jonathan Tafler in The Mighty Walzer at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
© Jonathan Keenan

 

upstaged rating:  

The wonderful and hilarious Man Booker Prize winner, The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson, bounces into the Royal Exchange in a world premiere stage adaptation by Simon Bent. Bent’s adaptation of The Mighty Walzer is a real scream, giving the Royal Exchange’s audience an uplifting dose of superb theatre to close the season on.

The Mighty Walzer is a lively semi-autobiographical story charting Jacobson’s experience of growing up in Prestwich. It’s a coming-of-age story about a quiet Jewish boy who moves into the slightly odd and passionate world of ping-pong, alongside discovering girls and applying for a place to study at Cambridge University.

Elliot Levey leads the cast perfectly, bearded with a smart suit, he projects the Jewish teen Oliver Walzer as well as providing the humorous mature tone of Jacobson’s narrator. Levey engages warmly with his audience, looking at members of the crowd directly – his performance feels personal. Jonathan Humphrey’s impressive direction is pacey and playful, reminding me of ‘Kevin Arnold’ and ‘The Wonder Years’ from my youth. The Mighty Walzer is feel-good theatre, intelligently executed.

Tracy-Ann Obermann shines as Sadie, Oliver’s extravagant but caring mother – her half empty glass contrasts comically with dad, Joel Walzer played by Jonathan Tafler – forever the optimist, selling odd bits and bobs out of the back of his van. There are strong performances throughout from Ann Marcuson as Sadie’s eccentric twin sisters Dolly and Dora; Daniel Abelson, Joe Coen and David Crellin also impress as big influencers during Oliver’s formative teenage years.

The Mighty Walzer will leave you smiling from ear to ear and possibly reflecting on your own awkward teenage memories. The laughter from the audience filled the Royal Exchange’s Great Hall on the night that I attended – a certain testament to how fine this production is. Don’t just take my word for it – go and see for yourselves.

-Kristy Stott

The Mighty Walzer runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until Saturday 30th July 2016 and you can click here to get your tickets.

REVIEW: Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher (Oldham Coliseum)

Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher by Gerundagula Productions
Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher
by Gerundagula Productions
upstaged rating: 

During the last few months we have been bombarded with referendum discourse and despite it being three years since the Iron Lady’s death, her name still manages to find itself firmly woven into the Brexit headlines. Considering the current political climate, it feels quite apt to watch Mike Francis Carvalho’s intriguing one-man show which is based on conversations with real people about Margaret Thatcher.

It must be difficult to write and perform a piece about one of the most discussed and loathed (or loved) politicians of all time but Mike Francis Carvalho manages to create an extraordinarily refreshing piece of theatre. Thoughtful and commanding, Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher refuses to bow down to any of the well-worn cliches that have gone before.

Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher puts a range of different opinions and truths forward through a collection of different characters. The through-line seems to take an anti-Thatcher stance but all of the characters are measured, fully realised and perceptive. Mike Francis Carvalho gives a finely nuanced, highly compelling and passionate  performance – he presents the characters and their opinions to his audience and leaves them to find their own conclusions.

A series of voices create a richly layered landscape depicting the turbulent years under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. There’s a softly spoken policeman, a striking miner, a Chelsea football fan and a teacher who struggles to find sense in the sinister and ridiculous Section 28, which thankfully was never enforced. Francis Carvalho plays the roles with a range of different accents and physicality, fully showcasing his versatility and conviction as a performer.

There’s a cracking opener from Francis Carvalho, which I have promised to keep shtum about and there is also a thoughtful and emotive soundtrack which links fluidly through from one monologue to the next.

Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher is a powerful piece of theatre which manages to evoke strong emotion while also leaving space for the audience to reflect. A pleasing piece of theatre for those who remember and were affected by Margaret Thatcher’s rule, but also highly compelling and educational for those who weren’t.

Meet The Real Maggie Thatcher stops in next at The Quarry Theatre, Bedford on the 22nd July 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

 

REVIEW: The Sketch Men – Attempted Jokes (GM Fringe Festival – Joshua Brooks, Manchester)

thesketchmen

reviewer: demi west
upstaged rating: 

‘Failed’ actors Jack and Zach returned to Manchester as The Sketch Men, attempting to woo the crowd of the Joshua Brooks with their comical scenarios, accompanied by aspiring comedian Johnny Molyneux. Despite being nervous, Johnny’s classic stand-up style helped warm the crowd up for The Sketch Men, making cliché but effective jokes about his weight, and where he comes from. The Sketch Men got a good reaction from the audience, acting out skits that were relevant to everyday life- as well as some that definitely weren’t.

The show starts out with an almost pantomime-esque song about how ‘one shouldn’t be offended’ by controversial jokes, which set the overall tone for the show and prepared people for what types of jokes they would be seeing. As the show went on, sketches ranged from all types of topics, built around simple everyday situations, from cold calling to gap ‘yahs’, to more eccentric ideas such as Picasso and his muse, a failed magician, and an Art-Attack style show helmed by ‘Banksy’.

All in all, most of the sketches were humorous due to the outstanding acting skills showcased by the pair. This kind of humour is reliant on the comedic acting ability, in order to generate effective sketches, however, Zach and Jack seemed to possess more than the average comedic acting ability, performing at a level seen in theatre productions. This was the main reason for the effectiveness of the sketches, as they were able to keep up the suspension of disbelief, despite only having a small crowd with limited props, and had to utilise their acting prowess in order to transport the audience to the weird and wacky world of The Sketch Men.

Although able to perform well in a small venue with a crowd of less than forty, The Sketch Men would benefit from larger venues as their abilities would allow them to work a larger crowd and create a better atmosphere. Despite this, the venue size allowed the performance to be more intimate, enabling them to connect better with the audience, giving the show a more personal feel.

Overall, The Sketch Men created a night of comical fantasy that was successful, due to their ability as actors, and obvious strong rapport shared by the pair, which allowed the night to flow nicely. I would highly recommend The Sketch Men, even if sketch comedy isn’t your first choice.

-Demi West

 

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival runs until 31st July 2016 and you can visit their website for full listings here.

 

REVIEW: Declaration (The Lowry, Salford)

Declaration by Art With Heart ~ Developed With The Lowry ~ © Sam Ryley
Declaration by Art With Heart ~ Developed With The Lowry ~
© Sam Ryley

 

upstaged rating: 

Back in the late eighties, I remember my mum taking my brother to the GP because he was so hard to manage – highly intelligent, bursting with questions and the ability to stop a whole shopping centre with his tantrums. The GP’s advice was cut the sugar and watch out for those E numbers, and my mum and my brother were sent on their way.

Created by Rachel Moorhouse and Sarah Emmott, Declaration is a bold and insightful new play by award-winning arts adventurers and theatre-makers, Art With Heart, exploring Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Using autobiographical material, animated storytelling, humour and audience interaction, Sarah Emmott presents her experience of living with ADHD. Chatting with the audience prior to the show, Sarah breaks down any barriers – there is no sense of us and them – and the audience is encouraged to join in at various points during the 70 minute running time.

Staged in the round, Sarah’s effervescent presence fills the performance space; animated but vulnerable; brave and funny. Describing her mind whizzing ‘like a water wheel’, there’s a refreshing sense of spontaneity, as she guides us through her experience of growing up and trying to fit in, coming to terms with a diagnosis and a ‘label’ and trying to find some sense through all of the noise and opinions around medication.

A mish-mash of ‘things’ are pegged to a washing line above our heads – bright childlike artwork, cheerleading pom-poms and dolls amongst other items. There’s a wooden trunk, containing necessary props, which Sarah wheels around and film projection by People Staring which shows candid interviews with Sarah’s mother, her partner and medical professionals.

Sarah’s ability to interact with her audience and the frequency with which she does so really makes Declaration quite extraordinary. Directing questions to members of the audience, she demonstrates her thirst for knowledge and her need to feel the same as everybody else. She joins a conversation with a parent called Val and asks her about her parenting experience and coping strategies and encourages the audience to ring bells in a clever demonstration of how overwhelmed she feels sometimes.

Declaration is an intelligent, entertaining and thoughtful piece of theatre which is sure to prompt discussion around mental health and the complex issues faced by those adults living with a condition like ADHD. Brilliantly executed and refreshing, Declaration challenges stigma and raises awareness, paving the way for further discussion and understanding around mental health.

-Kristy Stott

To find out more about Art With Heart‘s brilliant work, click here to visit their website.