REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz (Stockport Plaza, Stockport)

The Wizard of Oz (Stockport Plaza) © Regal Entertainment Ltd
The Wizard of Oz (Stockport Plaza)
© Regal Entertainment Ltd
Guest Reviewer: Ciaran Ward
Upstaged Rating: 

The Wizard of Oz gains a fresh reinterpretation with Regal Entertainment Ltd’s production of the classic musical, whilst retaining many of the theatrical characteristics that have made it a much-loved family tale for almost eighty years. The intermingling of recent pop music, such as Pitbull’s ‘Timber’, with original numbers, such as ‘Over the Rainbow’, maintains the appeal for younger members of the audience, whilst ensuring that they experience the tale as it was intended in the 1939 film.

From the play’s inception, the awe of the audience is assured owing to the surprise performance of ‘Pure Imagination’ by Fiyero (played by Richard Hazlewood) – a song that, whilst not belonging to this play, ultimately epitomises the sense of wonder that befalls both the characters and the audience as the narrative progresses. Hence, the genre is defined as being equally a musical, as it is a pantomime; the catchy refrains go hand-in-hand with the myriad boos and hisses whenever Cheryl Fergison’s antagonistic, Wicked Witch of the West, graces the stage.

 The ability for children to comprehend the plot and action throughout is upheld. Many sat giggling at the Scarecrow’s (portrayed by David Heath) bumbling antics, with some even cowering at the sight of the Flying Monkey (performed also, by Richard Hazlewood) as he snatches away the play’s three other principal characters: Maddie Hope Coelho’s Dorothy, Phillip McGuinness’ robotic Tin Man and Simon Foster’s Cowardly Lion.

 Adults too, share the ability to comprehend, with lurid innuendos, at times, distracting from the principal scene action, along with tiresome allusions to Fergison’s portrayal of EastEnders’ Heather Trott. One reference was to be expected, with the Wicked Witch being named Eva (pronounced ‘Eather), but the predictable hints soon cheapened the enchanting, artistic direction that Chantelle Nolan applied. A few ill-timed sound effects, and low-resolution CGI during the tornado scene, also negated the theatricality, with the latter being a perfect opportunity for Lighting Designer, Darren Paine, and Sound Technician, Conrad Kemp, to provide a staged alternative requisite for the medium.

 However, given that a pantomime is fundamentally a children’s genre, the production’s shortcomings are starkly disregarded in the face of this being a delightful introduction to the world of theatre for the next generation, whilst a lyrically-altered rendition of Little Mix’s ‘Black Magic’, performed by a former soap-star in a booming contralto, is sure to remain in the consciousness of the older generations for the foreseeable future.

-Ciaran Ward

The Wizard of Oz runs at Stockport Plaza until Saturday 12th August 2017.

REVIEW: Derren Brown (The Lowry, Salford)

Derren Brown returns to The Lowry with Underground
Derren Brown returns to The Lowry with Underground
guest reviewer: Elise Gallagher
upstaged rating: 

Fresh from a sell-out London bill, Derren Brown returns to Manchester with Underground his latest stage show which brings together a collection of Brown’s previous and favourite stage work. However, do not let this put you off, for I would strongly predict that there is something new to be seen for even the most die-hard fan.

I have seen Derren Brown once before and it would seem Derren’s charm and showman ship has only grown. Underground exhibits the ingredients needed to make a world class show. Brown oozes class, charm, intelligence and just a glint of cheekiness. However, I feel Underground highlights a much more sensitive and sentimental quality to not only the show but the man himself.

As you may imagine, audience participation is key to the show, especially for the utterly jaw dropping moments. It takes genuine skill to carry a show of such ferocity alone, with only the slightest help from a gorilla and a kangaroo. The show expertly mixed culture, emotion, grief and sheer exhilaration into a perfect cocktail which we gulped down unconsciously, craving more.

I feel quite torn when considering the wonder of the mind. Half of me wants to know exactly how he does it, every unconscious clue we give on a day to day basis. However, the other half of me thinks that this would only ruin its attraction. Some things should just remain shrouded in mystery instead of being examined for all to see.

Someone remarked that this being a showcase show may as well be his goodbye tour, I sincerely hope not. The world needs a bit more magic at the moment and I’m sure he has much more up his sleeve.

It is quite hard to write a review for a one man show whose thrill factor relies solely on secrets and surprise, my lips are sealed. But I leave you with this, Underground is a true masterclass in showmanship and psychological genius. A must see.

-Elise Gallagher

Derren Brown’s Underground is at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 5th August 2017 and continues at The Playhouse Theatre, London in September 2017.

REVIEW: The Mikado (The Lowry Theatre, Salford)

© McPHERSON PHOTOGRAPHY
© McPHERSON PHOTOGRAPHY
upstaged reviewer: Elise Gallagher
upstaged rating: 

The Mikado or ‘The Town of Titipu’ was first produced in 1885 and first ran for a mammoth 672 nights making it one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular plays. Set in the rather bizarre world of Titipu our protagonist Nanki-Poo (Richard Munday) falls in love with a girl named Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson) but both are tragically betrothed to others. One is bound to the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (David McKenchnie) whilst Nanki-Poo is entrapped by the formidable Katisha (Alex Weatherhill).

 The adaption is set in a private school camping trip which I must admit, I did not realise until I read it in the programme. I feel the production was supposed to be contextualised within a certain setting, however, I felt it was staged rather randomly in a wood far away from any towns or villages. However, the ambience that the set created was a success as it only heightened the hilarity on stage.

Director Sasha Regan stated that ultimately the tale was written as a way to poke fun at the establishment. She felt that Gilbert and Sullivan put their very English society on the stage to take the mickey in their original version of The Mikado, a sentiment which reverberates in Sasha Regan’s all-male production.

Alan Richardson shocked the audience with his vocal range, I was in complete disbelief when he first hit his high note. His performance easily stole laughter from the audience. David McKechnie played a magnificent Ko-Ko, who seemed to toy with physical comedy with ease. His performance in ‘As Some Day It May Happen’ was a show highlight. Alex Weatherhill also did a fantastic job in his role as Katisha.

However, it was Jamie Jukes who played Pitti-Sing who was the stand out performer for me. His performance was effortless and I found my eye would wander to him and Richard Russell Edwards (Peep-Bo) whenever they were on stage. The two bounced off one another and make a perfect double act.

This was my first time going into a Gilbert and Sullivan production and I would say that it is an acquired taste. It took me a little longer than usual to truly settle down into the performance. This is the perfect show for anyone who wants to leave their worries at the stage door and truly have fun, although it may be a step too silly for some.

I was seated next to an older gentleman who sang and danced throughout the entire performance with a huge grin on his face. He wasn’t alone in his glee.

-Elise Gallagher

The Mikado runs in The Quays Theatre at The Lowry until Saturday 29 July 2017.

REVIEW: Sister Act (The Palace Theatre, Manchester)

Sister Act at The Palace Theatre, Manchester
Sister Act at The Palace Theatre, Manchester
guest reviewer: Ciaran WArd
upstaged rating: 

Craig Revel Horwood’s adaptation of Sister Act remains faithful to the previous Broadway and West End productions of the show. The musical, taken away from the varying locations of Las Vegas and San Francisco in the 1992 film, is instead set solely in Philadelphia, USA – heightening the danger and the limitations that the play’s protagonist, Deloris Van Cartier (portrayed by Alexandra Burke, winner of The X Factor in 2008) feels in her every moment at the convent where she must remain undercover, posing as a nun.

 The transition from dialogue and stage action, to the scheduled musical numbers, is entirely seamless throughout. Alan Menken’s music, accompanied by Glenn Slater’s lyrics, are interspersed aptly, along with Horwood’s additional choreography that is executed effortlessly from the play’s ensemble cast. What defies expectations here, is the cast’s subsequent ability to concurrently hold and play string, woodwind and brass instruments; these provide the instrumental justification for the spontaneous singing that can sometimes feel forced and unrealistic in other musicals.

Throughout the narrative, the pacing is maintained at a rate that engages the audience’s attention instantly – a feat achieved through the play’s exposition beginning in medias res, with Deloris’ nightclub performance quickly developing into her witness of a brutal gang murder. Frequent alterations in set dressing contribute to this effect, with the play’s visual aesthetic comprising a gothic church that is visible in the background of every scene: a symbol of the sanctuary that the convent offers Van Cartier.

 Stand out moments, such as Burke’s magnifying vocals and ad-libs, are not limited to the show’s lead. Joe Vetch’s performance as Eddie often ascends into a virtuoso falsetto, whilst Liz Kitchen’s Sister Mary Lazarus at one point descends into a Will Smith rap that is both anachronistic of the play’s setting in 1978, and of her perceived status as a pious Catholic nun. Consequently, Lighting Designer Richard G Jones’ spotlights often drift from the show’s acclaimed star onto other members of the cast who contribute sparks of creativity, individual to this version of the musical.

 Considering this is the second time the Palace Theatre has played host to the Curve, Leicester production of Sister Act, none of the theatricality of the extended year-long tour has diminished. Indeed, Burke’s performance retains its spark and vigour throughout, resulting in a play worthy of a premature standing ovation during the encore, and its title as a ‘Divine Musical Comedy’.

-Ciaran Ward

Sister Act runs at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 29th July 2017.

REVIEW: Dirty Dancing (The Palace Theatre, Manchester)

The cast of Dirty Dancing at The Palace Theatre, Manchester
The cast of Dirty Dancing at The Palace Theatre, Manchester
GUest Reviewer: Karen Clough
upstaged rating: 

I’ll open in the same way as the show – straight to it, from curtain-up. Eleanor Bergstein’s Dirty Dancing is a triumph. A fun, energetic, uplifting and entertaining piece of well-executed theatre magic. I wondered if I could be objective of such an iconic story that
holds a place in the heart of those who grew up with the original.

With enormous shoes to fill for the cast, Johnny (Lewis Griffiths) and Baby (Katie Eccles) especially, the show won over the audience. Whilst honouring the story many know so well, ambitious and successful, they manage to make it their own.

Not everyone knows the story… Set in the 60s, Dirty Dancing is the all-American tale of an unlikely union between sultry, unattainable, cool and misunderstood Johnny and awkward, naïve and eternally optimistic Baby. It takes place at Kellerman’s holiday resort which privileged Baby visits with her family for the summer and where she meets dancer Johnny, whose background fits more with the school of hard knocks. Baby volunteers to step in to cover Johnny’s partner for the end-of-season performance, Johnny has his work cut out teaching her to dance. They practise at every opportunity and not only does Baby learn to dance, they fall in love. For Baby, it’s a story of awakening and coming of age, for Johnny a story of finding something in life which is virtuous and sincere.

The all-important music (Conrad Helfich) does not disappoint, featuring the soundtrack hits you’d expect to hear, accompanied by faultlessly fantastic choreography (Gillian Bruce) and delivery of legendary dance scenes.

A visually busy and exciting production, which relentlessly makes great use of the stage (Federico Bellone). Clever set design (Roberto Comotti) enables the smooth recreation of a range of scenes and locations, coupled with summery lighting (Valerio Tiberi) and vibrant costume (Jennifer Irwin) to transport the audience into the holiday season at Kellerman’s.

In addition to the outstanding dancing and excellent all round presentation from the entire cast, first class vocal performances come from Michael Kent (as Billy Kostecki), Sophia Mackay (as Elizabeth) and Jo Servi (as Tito Suarez). Goofy comedic brilliance is offered up by Greg Fossard and Lizzie Ottley (as Neil Kellerman and Lisa Houseman). These features combine to make Dirty Dancing a show full of talent, humour, laughter, romance, flirtation and non-stop engagement.

A whistle-stop tour of the Dirty Dancing many know – an audience of smiling faces cheering the show to a close said it works.

-Karen Clough

Dirty Dancing runs at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 22nd July and continues to tour until September 2017. For further dates and tickets click here.

REVIEW: Fatherland (Royal Exchange, Manchester)- Manchester International Festival

Fatherland at Manchester's Royal Exchange. Performed as part of Manchester International Festival. © Manuel Harlan
Fatherland at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
Performed as part of Manchester International Festival.
© Manuel Harlan
upstaged rating: ⭐⭐

Fatherland is one of the central performance pieces at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Staged in Manchester’s monumental Royal Exchange Theatre, Fatherland is the product of an impressive creative team and seeks to explore themes around fatherhood and men’s relationships with their fathers.

Co-created by Olivier Award-winning Simon Stephens (Writer), Scott Graham of physical theatre giants Frantic Assembly (Director) and founding member of Underworld Karl Hyde (Composer)- Fatherland has been described as a verbatim piece, though it is unclear how much the stories have been edited to fit the trio’s own agenda. Fatherland is inspired by conversations with fathers and sons from the creative team’s hometowns of Stockport, Kidderminster and Corby.  So, there’s an overwhelming sense of each of the co-creators relationship with their old stomping ground. 

As the play opens we meet the three interviewers, played admirably by Emun Elliott, Bryan Dick and Ferdy Roberts, who are ready to make their show. As they explain the premise behind their interviews with real men, there is a sense that we are watching a frame story – the ground is being laid before the show digs deeper. Sadly, Fatherland never really gets to the good stuff.

Along the way, the interviewers meet an array of characters with stories to tell – some aim for humour, some try to shock while other tales are warm, familiar and comforting. A range of subjects and experiences are tackled including alcoholism, violence, childhood experiences and their love of football. We hear tales surrounding fatherhood from single dads, men who have never known their fathers and those who are yet to father; we meet men who are firefighters, jolly pensioners and those battling mental health issues.

I’m just not sure why the creators choose to punctuate these stories with an intermittent reminder of the fact that they are making a show? Is there an element of self-indulgence? Is it a show to tell us more about the creators (who now reside in London) and the industrial towns from which they hail? One potential interviewee called Luke (Ryan Fletcher) shares the scepticism and questions the integrity of the interviewers, “Do you think this is going to be in any way interesting to anybody?” Funnily enough, I asked myself the same question frequently throughout the dull 90 minutes duration.

-Kristy Stott

Fatherland runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 22nd July 2017 as part of Manchester International Festival 2017.

Review: Returning to Reims (HOME, Manchester) – Manchester International Festival

Bush Moukarzel & Ali Gadema in Returning to Reims Performed as part of Manchester International Festival 2017 © Jonathan-Keenan
Bush Moukarzel & Ali Gadema in Returning to Reims
Performed as part of Manchester International Festival 2017
© Jonathan-Keenan
guest reviewer: Elise Gallagher
upstaged rating: 

Returning to Reims marks a new chapter for director Thomas Ostermeier. Differing from his previous interpretations including A Dolls House (2003) and Hamlet (2007), Returning to Reims is the first time the German director has adapted a text which was not originally intended for performance.

The book, Returning to Reims, was published in 2009 by author Didier Eribon. Here, he looks back on his life in the wake of his father’s death in order to observe the working-class identity he rejected as an intellect, and as a gay man. His book is a memoir and a sociological study and one in which he tries to understand the wider working class culture, and its shift from the far left of the political spectrum to the far right. However, the production itself is not weighed down with heavy political jargon and knowledge.

Returning to Reims successfully tackles the resurgence of populist nationalism in Europe and class struggle through live action performance, video, sound, and narration. Ostermeier routinely chops and changes classic texts by a means of forcing them into the current day, he mockingly references this in the production through Bush Moukarzel who proclaims, “it’s multi-layered filmmaking – it’s my style!”

The play takes place in a dated recording studio where Homeland’s Nina Hoss reads a voiceover of Eribon’s memoirs for a documentary which observes the oppression of the working class and their struggle for a political voice. In doing so, Hoss also begins to reflect on her own background as the daughter of a union leader and activist. Her performance is breath-taking. I found the use of the recording of a documentary a beautiful way to tell someone else’s story. I also found that despite the lines being diegetically scripted in the scene, they were expressed thoughtfully and effortlessly, further captivating the audience.

The use of such a multi-layered approach to the production creates a simple narrative rooted in current, topical themes surrounding notions of tolerance and social justice. The production becomes even more relevant especially when taking into account the last 12-18 months.

Light relief to the production came in the form of Ali Gadema who played the disgruntled recording studio worker. Alongside the banter he shared with Moukarzel, Gadema also delivered a rap/spoken word performance with the audience. Although it contrasted greatly with the soft and arguably lucid narration delivered by Hoss, the rap itself was used to interact with the audience. Moukarzel acknowledged that there was an audience and even joined and sat with his audience below the stage, again, adding yet another layer to the production.

I felt the addition of the spoken word piece was cleverly done as today the rise of genres such as grime give artists the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings towards many things such as the government. Grime is also commonly heralded as a voice for the working class, did Moukarzel deliberately adopt this sentiment to further drive home his message?

Returning to Reims is a highly watchable, lucid, and intriguing play which pitched the past and present day against each other and in turn, highlighted that the stage can still be a venue for political and living debate. The German directed English-language dramatisation of the memoirs of a French sociologist makes a perfect addition to the Manchester International Festival.

-Elise Gallagher

Returning to Reims is being performed until 14th July 2017 at HOME, Manchester as part of Manchester International Festival.

REVIEW: The B Word (The King’s Arms, Salford) – GM Fringe

The B Word at The KIngs Arms, Salford as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2017
The B Word at The King’s Arms, Salford as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2017
upstaged rating: 

Only this morning has a precautionary evacuation taken place at Manchester Airport. Triggered by a ‘potential issue with a bag’ in terminal three, the bomb disposal team were called on reports of the suspicious package.

Airport security, and indeed national security couldn’t be a more relevant theme and forms the basis of Big Liars Theatre Co‘s debut production, The B Word.

In this new immersive one-man show, the audience are encouraged to get to know Dan, a Manchester Airport security officer, while he eats his butties and shares his doughnuts on his tea break. Under Grace Cordell‘s perceptive directorial debut, The B Word is interactive from the outset. On entering the intimate studio space, audience members are frisked and sternly directed to their seats, before assuming the role of Dan’s trainee security coworkers. An atmospheric soundscape by Mikey Ridley incorporates an airport style PA announcement asking us to ensure that all liquids are placed in clear plastic bags.

Writer and performer Ryan Gilmartin is confident and charismatic as security officer Dan, a 22-year-old university drop-out, trainee Jedi – he cares for his mother who has MS, doesn’t like mushrooms and has vivid dreams about a girl called Asia. He talks about his co-worker and friend Good Cop fondly although we never meet him.

A promising writing debut, Gilmartin’s monologue is carefully crafted and well paced – as the layers are ripped away, it becomes evident that not everything is as it first appears. What starts out as a series of playful musings over doughnuts in a staff room, soon takes a darkly disturbing confessional turn. Left with a big decision to make and a limited amount of time, will Dan do the right thing? And how do the audience, his trainee coworkers feel now that they hold his sinister secret and are complicit in his decision?

-Kristy Stott

The B Word runs at The King’s Head, Salford on 5th, 6th and 8th July 2017 as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2017.

 

 

REVIEW: Taha (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

TAHA
Reviewer: Karen Clough
upstaged rating: 

Taha follows the inspiring story of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali (Amer Hlehel) – a story of humanity and hardship, hope and devastation, opportunity and misfortune, discovery and challenge, achievement and survival. The story is told from the perspective of Taha, recounting his life journey in a nostalgic, fireside storyteller style.

The stage design (Ashraf Hanna) was starkly minimal, a successful means for Taha’s story to hold the stage alone, supported by the thoughtful use of simplistic lighting (Muaz Jubeh) and carefully considered musical interjections (Shehadeh Habib Hanna) to punctuate the production. Deliberately unattractive bursts of strings accompanied the tone of adversity well. Even Taha’s wardrobe was understated and modest, a reflection of the title character and also a non-distraction from the story’s message.

Born to parents who had suffered tragic losses and were cautious to celebrate him, Taha was a curious and creative boy, who recognised at a young age there was a role for him in taking care of his family. Keen to develop himself and provide, the audience followed Taha’s transition from inquisitive boy to proud and resourceful young man, who grew to earn celebration by others. Taha’s love of culture, learning and poetry was portrayed beautifully by Hlehel. Poetry marked a range of poignant hopeful to crushing life events and was translated and projected onto a screen behind Taha, recited simultaneously. The use of language in this way was powerful and gave Taha credibility and integrity whilst reaching across the audience.

Against a backdrop of adversity, religion, politics, war and loss, the story of Taha and his poetry is more concerned with the emotions and fortitude of his human experience and is told in a heart-warming and self-deprecating style. Like Taha’s poetry, the story gives the modest and relevant message that our focus should be drawn to humanity, informed but not dominated by surrounding politics. Looking around at the audience, they watched with an air of respect and endearment. Amer Hlehel delivered his solo performance as Taha with an honesty and authenticity which engaged the audience throughout, demonstrating a true talent for conveying human experience and emotion, generating empathy for Taha with ease. Hlehel deserved his enthusiastic applause from an audience entirely on their feet at the end.

A thoughtful production with superb acting and direction (Amir Mizar Zuabli), though as a solo performance, for me, it was just a little too lengthy.

-Karen Clough

Taha continues at London’s Young Vic from 5th July to 15th July 2017 and tickets are available here.

REVIEW: Party Skills for the End of the World (Manchester International Festival – Centenary Building, Salford)

Party Skills for the End of the World. Manchester International Festival 2017 © Donald Christie
Party Skills for the End of the World.
Manchester International Festival 2017
© Donald Christie
upstaged rating:

If the world was close to its end -how would you spend your final hours?

Storm clouds are gathering as the world teeters on the edge. It’s time to look at all the good things in life – and the fear that stops us enjoying them…

Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari of Shunt Theatre have created this immersive, chaotic and high-spirited performance to help you get by when the end of the world is nigh. Party Skills for the End of the World asks us to celebrate our experiences and our individuality and resist the fear that stifles our enjoyment of living.

Party Skills for the End of the World is a site-specific show, set in the corridors, labs and vaults of Salford’s Centenary Building, which blurs the boundaries between performance and spectatorship. Who are the performers here and who are the audience? And arguably, one of the strengths of this show – is that you never really know.

Learn how to make a gas mask at Party Skills for the End of the World © Donald Christie
Learn how to make a gas mask at Party Skills for the End of the World
© Donald Christie

Strike up a conversation with a fellow party-goer as you learn the art of making the perfect martini; follow the lively crowd as you are ushered through corridors to the sound of the Latino beat. You’ve never hit a piñata? Well now is your chance. Learn how to stitch using a surgical needle. But don’t get too comfortable – it won’t be long until you transported further through the wild, vibrant but volatile performance space.

You might want to learn how to make a light bulb, throw a punch or navigate your way using the night sky. For well-being and relaxation, you may prefer to create a bouquet of paper flowers or indulge in a spot of balloon modelling. There’s a thought-provoking sermon flanked by drummers and dancing. This is intelligent, immersive performance on a grand scale.

Party Skills for the End of the World is an innovative experience and as a member of the audience – the more you contribute to the performance, the more you get out. The performance stays with you long after you have left the wild confines of the Centenary Building and certainly fuels a conversation that carries on long after the dancing has ended.

-Kristy Stott

Party Skills for the End of the World runs until 16th July 2017 and is being performed as part of Manchester International Festival 2017. Full listings for the festival can be found by clicking here.