REVIEW: My Country; A Work in Progress (HOME, Manchester)

© Sarah Lee
© Sarah Lee
reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

In the wake of the political chaos of Brexit and the overhanging general election, My Country; a work in progress offered an insightful look at the divided opinions of our society. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver. Written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the play centres around six regions of Great Britain coming together to form a meeting in anticipation of the vote to leave or remain in the European Union. They bring with them the views and opinions of several people from their respective regions, in the hope that their voices will be heard. Taken from real interviews, these voices range from a 13-year-old boy from Wales to an 88-year-old immigrant in the East Midlands.

Penny Layden stars as Britannia, our disheartened and shaken country struggling to cope with the disconnections that divide it. Representing Westminster, Layden effortlessly portrays the politicians that lead us through Brexit and the aftermath of the vote. However, it is Christian Patterson that offers the most engaging performance as Cymru. His remarkable transitions between various characters are the most noteworthy, with each one coming to life individually. The enthusiasm with which he plays each character is admirable, although, the cast as a whole still gives a commendable performance. They work in tandem together to create a seamless and often astonishingly humorous performance. Their incredible effort and ability does not go unnoticed in this production, with their dynamic being a testament to the unity that the play aims to promote.

However, it seemed that perhaps an additional cast member was lacking, as although the play promotes itself as representing the views of the country as a whole, there was a lack of representation on stage for the North West. Particularly as the performance took place in this region, it seemed unusual not to have it mentioned.

Nevertheless, it is the unbiased and relatively diverse presentation of views in the play that make it particularly appealing. It offers the unfiltered, unflinching opinions of the general public on perhaps the most widely discussed topic of the past year. And although some of the words spoken are particularly hard-hitting and heavy in nature, Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful wit and dry humour lighten the tone perfectly.

Unfortunately, as a whole, My Country fell short of expectations. There was an overhanging sense that it could have gone further with certain aspects, and disappointingly, there was no overall message to be taken away, giving the play as a whole no sense of closure. However, the talent of the cast is undoubtable, as is the incredible writing of Carol Ann Duffy.

-Megan Hyland

My Country runs at home until Saturday 22nd April 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: Jane Eyre (The Lowry Theatre, Salford)

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
reviewer: Elise Gallagher
upstaged rating: 

Following a critically acclaimed run at London’s National Theatre, Wednesday the 12th April saw Salford’s Lowry Theatre fling open its doors to the Bristol Old Vic’s stage adaptation of Jane Eyre.

2017 marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous piece, a tale of passion, justice and madness set against the backdrop of Yorkshire’s haunting moors. Director Sally Cookson’s adaptation is set amongst a bare wooden frame, with platforms on varying levels used throughout the performance. Adapting a novel for the stage is a challenging prospect, especially such a timeless classic – however, Cookson states that by not approaching the piece as a costume drama, allowed the company to explore the themes and get the heart of both the story and the characters in a theatrical way. Choosing to adopt an authentic set and period costume would have suffocated the story Cookson says, and in doing so would have killed the magic.

One thing must not go without note, the production is a mammoth one, a total of three hours, plus a 15-minute interval. Initially, the adaptation was presented in two parts when performed at the Bristol Old Vic, however shifting to London and beginning a UK tour has seen the production travel as a single performance.

Although I would say that this running time could have been cut down, I’m quite glad it wasn’t. The story didn’t seem rushed or forced in any way but flowed just as naturally as the icy winds that haunt the place.

The cast are outstanding. Nadia Clifford played a phenomenal Jane, I particularly admired how she seamlessly progressed from the loud and defiant girl to the calm yet highly ambitious Governess, craving more for herself in life. The shift was subtle and expertly done.

Tim Delap takes on the role of Mr Rochester and does an incredibly successful job portraying the infamously complicated and troubled character. The chemistry between Delap and Clifford is incredible, both played their parts to the standard of any die-hard Brontë fan.

Evelyn Miller deserves a lot of praise rotating between the characters of Bessie, Blanche Ingram and St. John; such versatility should be applauded. Of course, Ben Cutler as Mr Rochester’s dog Pilot granted the audience much needed light comedic moments to punctuate the brooding of his owner.

Even now, whilst I sit writing this I have the almost unfathomable voice of Melanie Marshall dancing around my head. She is present throughout the show, either singing from one of the bare platforms or lurking towards the back, always watching. In all honesty, I was surprised when I realised she was playing the role of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s estranged wife. Her omnipresent voice sent chills down the audience but also left us with mouths wide in awe. Performing songs such as Noël Coward’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy in such a haunting way, enabled the modern pieces to blend perfectly with the classic tale. Her recurring presence only heightened the anticipation for the clash between her and our protagonist.

On taking my seat I noticed that there was a small set up for musicians included on the stage. My heart fell initially, dreading that this adaptation would include Disney-like songs for our characters. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. The band was made up of three musicians (Matthew Churcher, Alex Heane, and David Ridley) who did an exceptional job in supplying a score to the piece, as well as taking on characters such as school children and coach passengers. The first coach journey threw me at first with the abrupt change in tone but then continued to work incredibly well – not distracting from the drama of the stage at all, only heightening it.

Charlotte Brontë did long for the story’s narrative to play out from the book, and although it sadly did not replicate her own life, it certainly deserves its place on the stage. The production received a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd, I suggest you see it.

-Elise Gallagher

Jane Eyre runs at the Lowry Theatre, Salford until Saturday 15th April 2017. The tour continues at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre from 18th – 22nd April. More tour dates/ venues can be found here.

REVIEW: Silver Lining (The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays)

Silver Lining - A new comedy by Sandi Toksvig © Mark Douet
Silver Lining – A new comedy by Sandi Toksvig
© Mark Douet
upstaged rating: 

Storm Vera is battering the UK and people are being evacuated from their riverside homes following the imminent threat of severe flooding. With the promise that emergency services are on their way, five older age ladies wait patiently on the first floor of the Silver Retirement Home in Gravesend for help to arrive. As time ticks on and the water level rises it becomes apparent that the women have been forgotten about.

Silver Lining is a new comedy by the writer, actor, presenter and political activist Sandi Toksvig which explores the lives of five extraordinary yet forgotten older women. With only one young agency carer Hope Daley (Keziah Joseph) to assist them, the ladies realise their only chance of survival is to pull together and forge their own ‘sink or swim’ escape.

Sandi Toksvig took her inspiration for the play from the observation that there are many hugely talented older age female artists competing for very few interesting roles. The play really is a celebration of older women taking to the stage. However, despite the pressing, current and liberating subject matter, in a time of a social care crisis, Silver Lining still manages to limit itself with stereotypes of older age women. And certainly, the first Act feels mechanical, propelled by gags about death and bowels.

It isn’t really until Act Two that we really begin to get under the skin of the characters with the fruition of their ‘Great Escape’ mission. Sheila Reid gives a sparkling performance as leopard print wearing, selfie taking Gloria. Reid is suggestive of the colourful and indulgent life that the ex-barmaid has lived – boldly cracking sexual taboo’s not normally spoken about by older women. Perhaps most notably there is a beautiful monologue given by Amanda Walker as St Michael which gives a poignant description of life from the perception of somebody with dementia.

There is plenty of charm and warmth to be found in the chemistry between each of the performers. Michael Taylor’s intricate residential home set design sums up the functional, oppressive environment that the women inhabit; Mark Doubleday’s lighting design works with Mic Pool’s clever sound design to create the illusion of a storm wreaking havoc outside. Aside from this, Silver Lining isn’t quite watertight and lacks the lustre that the title promises.

-Kristy Stott

Silver Lining runs at The Lowry until Saturday 8th April 2017 and tickets are available here.

REVIEW: The Commitments (The Palace Theatre, Manchester)

The Commitments © Johan Persson
The Commitments
© Johan Persson
upstaged rating: 

Based on the 1991 film and Roddy Doyle book of the same name, The Commitments is an outstanding must-see musical like no other. For those unfamiliar with the much-loved story, the plot follows a dysfunctional soul band from Dublin, Ireland – by the name of The Commitments – and their journey to become “the world’s hardest working band”. Live on stage, the cast performs several classics from the film – such as ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ – as well as other soul songs that weren’t featured in the film.

Deco (Brian Gilligan), in The Commitments © Johan Persson
Deco (Brian Gilligan), in The Commitments
© Johan Persson

Brian Gilligan stars as the lead singer of the Commitments, Deco Cuffe. Both Gilligan’s vocal talent and stage presence are striking, and he brings great likability to the infamous Deco. As the frontman, he is perfectly cast – Gilligan steals every scene that he appears in. However, the rest of the cast offer equally faultless performances. As a group, they work together as a boundlessly energetic network, overloaded with enthusiasm.

Stand-out performances are delivered by Gilligan, Sam Fordham and the girls – Amy Penston, Leah Penston and Christina Tedders. Sam Fordham is the confrontational and paranoid bodyguard (and backup drummer) Mickah, whose performance provides a lot of laughs. And although the girls are intended to be backing singers, their incredible voices are rightfully paraded, with the characters often stealing the limelight from the arrogant Deco and letting their voices be heard. Their performances are perfectly synchronised, and they bring glamour to the otherwise charmingly unrefined group. Even Kevin Kennedy, better known for his role as Curly Watts in Coronation Street was unrecognisable as Jimmy’s dad and the caretaker.

And while the musical is a terrific nod to the iconic film and book, it also stands alone as an astounding production in its own right. Director and choreographer Caroline Jay Ranger has put together a spectacular blend of meticulously choreographed performances and quick-witted, engaging scenes. With Soutra Gilmour using both skilful set design and simplistic costuming to bring 1986 Dublin to life on stage.

Although the Commitments has a particularly large cast and crew, their efforts are all reflected in the sheer brilliance of the production. On its opening night in Manchester, the performance received a standing ovation, and it’s not difficult to see why. Within the cast, there is not a single weak link, with each of them putting an astonishing amount of enthusiasm and effort into their performance. The atmosphere is electric, and the musical is a credit to, what are perhaps, theatre’s hardest working cast and crew.

-Megan Hyland

The Commitments runs at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until 8th April 2017. The production continues at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking from 17th-22nd April 2017.

The Woman in Black (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

A scene from The Woman In Black by Susan Hill @ Fortune Theatre. Directed by Robin Herford (Taken 26-07-16) ©Tristram Kenton 07/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
©Tristram Kenton 

upstaged rating:

Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, The Woman in Black is a chilling horror story that was adapted for the stage over 27 years ago. And yet, the late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation remains as poignant and terrifying as it has for many years. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the play follows former lawyer Arthur Kipps, an elderly man haunted by the past and desperate to have his story told. He seeks the help of an actor, who agrees to play Kipps in a re-telling for his family and friends. Together, they perform Kipps’ tale of a secluded manor, a town struck by terror, and the reoccurring appearance of a mysterious woman in black with a wasted face.

Matthew Spencer stars as the dynamic and keen young actor, who plays Arthur Kipps in their re-telling of Kipps’ story. Despite the history of the play, Spencer breathes new life into the character and offers immense likability. As the actor, he is bold and theatrical, as Kipps, reserved and distressed. Through him, we are able to share Kipps’ trepidation and horror. However, David Acton, who plays an elderly, tormented Arthur Kipps, offers an equally exceptional performance. He brings a remarkable fragility to the character and displays some skilful character acting with the roles that Kipps plays within the story, such as the tortured land agent, Mr Jerome and the rather unforthcoming trap driver, Keckwick. The shared narration between him and Spencer was both thoroughly detailed and thrillingly suspenseful.

However, it was the interactions between Acton and Spencer on stage that were most noteworthy. Despite the suspense of the play, there were interludes of charming humour in the scenes that they shared, whichever characters they were playing. Which in part is due to the captivating writing. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation is a great testament to the remarkable quality of his writing and paired with the direction of Robin Herford, they have created a heart-pounding and terrifying spectacle.

Although it takes a little while for the story itself to begin, this re-telling of the classic novel is both timeless and imaginative. And despite the simplicity of the set and costumes, the creative uses of lighting by Kevin Sleep and the reliance upon audience imagination create the horrifying scenes that Acton and Spencer describe. And while the use of a play-within-a-play can often fall flat, this unsettling tale does anything but.

-Megan Hyland

The Woman in Black runs at The Lowry Theatre, Salford until Saturday 25th March and you can click here for tickets.

REVIEW: The Suppliant Women (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

The Suppliant Women at Manchester's Royal Exchange © Stephen Cummiskey
The Suppliant Women at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
© Stephen Cummiskey
upstaged rating: 

With the sweet smell of incense wafting through the air, a chorus of thirty-five women take to the Royal Exchange’s stage to present David Greig’s new adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women. I use ‘new’ adaptation loosely – I mean that Greig has not stripped back and brought The Suppliant Women to a twentieth-century audience in a direct contemporary fashion. Working alongside director Ramon Gray, Greig has embraced the ritual and structure surrounding Ancient Greek performance and in doing so has set the wonderfully poetic language ablaze for a modern audience. We just need to take our seats and listen. Debating ideas of identity and asylum, it’s a story that resounds as deeply now, in our current migrant crisis, as it did over two thousand years ago.

The Suppliant Women is one of the world’s oldest plays and the only section in Aeschylus’s trilogy to have survived. Written around 463BC, The Suppliant Women tells the story of fifty young women who have fled their homeland, in a bid to escape forced marriage, in order to seek asylum in Greece.

The most striking aspect of this show is the chorus, which is made up of thirty-five girls aged between 16 and 26. Led by Chorus Leader Gemma May, the young women are at the very heart of the production – dressed in colourful batik and floral print, they chant, sing and create soundscapes alongside Ben Burton on Percussion and Callum Armstrong on the ancient Greek aulos. Ramin Gray’s direction is key here- managing to cultivate the raw passion and determination of the chorus alongside Sasha Milavic Davies’s compact but expressive choreography, results in an honest, vulnerable and fearless performance.

The Suppliant Women is certainly one of the most extraordinary theatrical events that I have ever seen. Although written over two millennia ago, the dramatic themes manage to strike a shrill chord with current world events. We are warned at the beginning when we are told that we will “find ourselves reflected in this strange and ancient mirror”. Thrilling, shocking and painfully good.

-Kristy Stott

The Suppliant Women runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until April 1st, 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: Yank! (Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester)

Yank! at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester © Anthony Robling
Yank! at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
© Anthony Robling
guest reviewer: Elise Gallagher
upstaged rating: 

Hope Mill Theatre swung open its doors to the European premiere of Yank! – a love story set during the second world war between two soldiers, Mitch and our protagonist Stu.

Stu (Scott Hunter) is a 19-year-old who is drafted into the army and immediately becomes the outsider. Stu is soon whisked away from the front line when he has a chance encounter with a photographer from Yank, the forces’ weekly magazine, a gay man’s haven and the production’s namesake. The photographer Artie, played brilliantly by Chris Kiely, exudes charm and sass – the tap dance number between him and Stu stole the first half for me.

Having been nominated for seven Drama Desk awards for the original in 2010, the play tackles notions of institutionalised homophobia expertly, especially through the character of Mitch (Barnaby Hughes). The story’s success hinges itself on the stark contrast between our two leads, Stu’s wide-eyed naivety and the worldly Mitch with his Hollywood charm. It is Stu’s personal journey that is the most effective device in the narrative, growing from the scared and confused 19-year-old to the brave and open reporter.

The lighting and set design which was incorporated in the second half is worthy of note, especially when done on a budget. My only criticism of the performance would be that the songs seemed to be arrived at rather suddenly; the transitions could have been delivered much less abruptly.

The hero of the night has to be Sarah-Louise Young, who didn’t just portray one character but several throughout the performance. Personifying each and every mother or wife, Young illustrated great strength and versatility in both performance and vocal style. It seemed her various appearances bookmarked a new chapter in Stu’s journey. Chris Cuming and James Baker must be applauded for their direction and choreography.

For a production to almost scream Broadway, you’d be forgiven to think that the cast and crew have arrived at the wrong venue. This was my first visit to Hope Mill and I found myself completely blown away by the quality of the fringe. The production was made all the more special by being held at Hope Mill Theatre. The theatre, barely a year old, has already resurrected once controversial productions long thought lost. Productions that tackle antisemitism in the US with Parade and now with the triumph that is Yank!.

Reaching a genuinely moving conclusion, Yank! received a well-deserved standing ovation. Running until the 8th April, the production is polished, genuine and full of class.

– Elise Gallagher

Yank! runs at Hope Mill Theatre until April 8th 2017 and you can book tickets here.

REVIEW: Andrew Lawrence: The Hate Speech Tour (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

 ANDREW-LAWRENCE-THE-HATE-SPEECH-TOUR
upstaged rating: 

Andrew Lawrence’s The Hate Speech Tour mocks the obsession with political correctness, whilst dealing with the difficulties of fatherhood, as well as everyday life. The show is not for the easily offended – with the comedian delivering jokes that insult people from all walks of life. It was made clear in the show’s introduction that the comedian’s material offered a dark alternative to pre-watershed comedy, requesting all sensitive ‘idiots’ to leave the room.

The overall tone was set in the first half of the show, with Andrew working the audience with some classic front row interaction, in which he declared his hatred for those who don’t turn up for his shows. He didn’t beat around the bush in regards to the fact that comedy is his main source of income, addressing the point that the audience makes up his pay check, and that he sees ‘pound signs’ as seats fill up. This gave off the impression that Andrew’s comedy was genuine, rather than a built up illusion of perfectly rehearsed jokes, as well as breaking the cliché’s of performers in the entertainment industry.

This was followed by Andrew’s opinions on being a comedian, parenting stories, which were met with a dark twist, and issues with the obsession over political correctness. This backlash against P.C was an ongoing feature throughout the show, which was driven by crude humour and unpopular stereotypes, which offered a different angle to the typical “special snowflake” orientated material that dominates the media. Andrew’s resentments towards P.C culture was developed with an anecdote of his own personal experiences of being boycotted from inner comedy circles, as he has often been shunned and even banned from performing at venues due to his unusually anti-left views.

The only noticeable downsides to the act were the stumbles between gags, which were unexpected due to Andrew’s 14-year career. These stumbles were filled with stutters and re-hashed phrases that took away from the flow of the show and the comedic effect. However, this wasn’t detrimental to the act, as his care-free attitude and relaxed demeanour gave of an air of confidence and experience.

Overall, despite giving the audience “68%”, as opposed to the “110%” given by baby-faced comedians, Andrew Lawrence gave a well performed, alternative night of comedy, which offered a refreshing change of pace.

-Demi West

Andrew Lawrence continues The Hate Speech Tour throughout April and May 2017. You can find dates, information and tickets by clicking here.

REVIEW: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella (The Lowry Theatre, Salford)

Birmingham Royal Ballet - Cinderella ©BILL COOPER
Birmingham Royal Ballet – Cinderella ©BILL COOPER

 

upstaged rating: 

Conjuring up all of the charm, magic and celebration of the fairytale, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella is an absolute delight. With David Bintley at the helm, the enchanting story of Cinderella is brought to the stage in a celebration of ballet, childhood stories and the idea that our wildest dreams can come true.

Staged over three acts, the Birmingham Royal Ballet present the timeless tale of Cinderella in their traditional but nonetheless awe-inspiring fashion. Poor Cinderella spends most of her days in the scullery answering to her cruel stepmother and her ugly step-sisters. Marion Tait as the Stepmother, flanked by the two ugly stepsisters, is suitably prickly and unkind to Cinderella. Samara Downs gives an admirable comic performance as Skinny alongside Laura Purkiss as cake-scoffing Dumpy. With impeccable timing, the three characters add some wonderful slapstick moments – their wit and foolery providing a striking contrast against the elegance and poise of the pas de deux between Cinderella, danced faultlessly by Jenna Roberts, and The Prince played with charisma and athleticism by William Bracewell

Set design by John F. MacFarlane complements each section of the ballet perfectly – the grey, dank kitchen where Cinderella serves her stepfamily contrasts with the picture book beauty and infinity of the starry sky on the night she meets The Prince. MacFarlane’s costume design is imaginative – frogs, lizards and mice grace the stage, tutu’s twinkle in the ensemble under David A. Finn’s clever lighting design.

Birmingham’s Royal Ballet’s Cinderella was well received, by an audience of all ages, on the night that I attended. The familiar and charming tale of Cinderella and her Prince make this show more accessible to younger ballet lovers or those attending the ballet for the very first time. This enchanting production is a balletic feast of technical brilliance, striking scenery and scintillating costume. Set to Prokofiev’s spellbinding score, stunningly played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, there is much to enjoy in this breathtaking production.

-Kristy Stott

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella is at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 4th March 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

The tour continues at Theatre Royal Plymouth from 8th-11th March and Sunderland Empire from 16th -18th March.

REVIEW: The House of Bernarda Alba (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

© Jonathan Keenan
© Jonathan Keenan
upstaged rating: 

The House of Bernarda Alba is a wholly unique performance for a number of reasons. Federico Garcia Lorca’s formidable text, in a wonderfully uncompromising translation by Jo Clifford which is set within the distinctive confines of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Perhaps what makes this performance so special is that it is a co-production with Graeae, an all-female disabled-led theatre company.  Director Jenny Sealey weaves British Sign Language, captions and audio description into the performance adding further meaning to Lorca’s rich text, while the cast of Deaf and disabled actors take centre stage to showcase their extraordinary talents and challenge cultural preconceptions.

In The House of Bernarda Alba, the Royal Exchange have peeled away the walls on a house during a period of mourning. Kathryn Hunter takes the central role of Bernarda Alba, an old widow who rules her household and wields absolute control over the lives of her five unmarried daughters. Hunter is dangerously deceptive as Bernarda Alba, her diminutive and fragile frame purely a distraction – she exudes dominance from the beginning to end of this performance. Ruling with a silver topped cane she instils fear in her daughters and those who serve her. At her most dangerous when she is resting in her chair – latent, unpredictable and deeply frustrated. Kathryn Hunter is extraordinary, exuding matriarchal power at the helm of a phenomenal cast.

Liz Ascroft’s heptagonal stage is set with seven chairs, providing a simple backdrop for the action as it unfolds. The Royal Exchange’s in-the-round performance space further fuels the enclosed world that the Alba daughters inhabit. The captions are shown on screens around the theatre; Jenny Sealey and Jo Clifford have moulded the text admirably to fully incorporate British Sign Language and audio description into the performance. This must have been quite a challenge but adds a further dimension to Lorca’s poetry. The mechanics of communication, or the lack of, becomes a striking theme.

There were strong performances all around with some beautiful moments shared between Kathryn Hunter as Bernarda Alba and Nadia Nadarajah as the soon to be married and eldest daughter, Angustias. Hermon Berhane gives an emotive performance as Adela, adding a sense of hope, sexuality and mischief.   

At times, some of the captioning seemed like more of a distraction than a help – as the screens were quickly shuffled through in a bid to catch up with the action on stage. However, I believe that these small issues will be tackled and resolved by Jenny Sealey and the team. Despite this, The House of Bernarda Alba is a hugely successful production – captivating and unique – a useful and expressive reworking of Lorca’s classic.

 

-Kristy Stott

The House of Bernarda Alba runs until 25th February 2017 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and You can buy your tickets here