Our Favourite Productions of 2016

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With all of the big Christmas shows in full swing, it feels like a good time to look back at the highlights of a busy year for theatre in Manchester. Here are Upstaged Manchester’s theatrical highlights of 2016. Which shows would make your list?

 Wit at The Royal Exchange

Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Dr Vivian Bearing, an American Professor who finds herself diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, was striking and raw – nothing short of magnificent. Cancer is a hard subject matter to tackle on stage, especially in a performance as honest as this. Wit had everything. Powerful enough to make some cry and poignant enough to make everyone laugh, think and discuss.

The Girls at The Lowry Theatre

The Girls at The Lowry, Salford © John Swannell
© John Swannell

 

I am just so pleased that The Girls is on its way to the West End and is set to open at London’s Phoenix Theatre from January 2017. The collaboration between Gary Barlow and Tim Firth is a perfect recipe for success. Hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time, I spent most of Act 2 looking through a blur because my eyes were so teary from laughing and crying at the same time. Just fabulous.

Husbands & Sons at The Royal Exchange

Husband’s & Sons had the perfect line-up of creatives and performers – all of the best in the field working together on one show. Director Marianne Elliott, of War Horse and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at the helm of a truly phenomenal cast – including Ann-Marie Duff and Louise Brealey. Fused with Bunny Christie’s ingenious design, Husband’s & Sons was heartfelt and gritty. So good, I wanted to watch it all over again.

The Encounter at HOME

A strikingly different theatre experience to anything that I have witnessed before. Every member of the audience is issued with a set of headphones and using cutting edge audio technology  is transported to the Amazonian rainforest and into the head of Loren McIntyre, a stranded photojournalist. The Encounter is gripping,  an adventure story which gets inside your head. Literally.

Parade at Hope Mill Theatre

I always enjoy James Baker’s productions massively – with every show he raises the bar of the Manchester Fringe Theatre scene a little higher. Parade was nothing short of a triumph. The dimly lit, eerie walls of Manchester’s newest performance space, Hope Mill Theatre added a further dimension to the production – intimate and powerful, something quite special.

Origins at The Lowry Theatre

Origins by Animikii Theatre. Developed with The Lowry.
Origins by Animikii Theatre.
Developed with The Lowry.

An intense new piece of physical theatre by Animikii Theatre Company exploring the story of the world’s first murderer: the killing of Cain by his brother Abel. Captivating storytelling communicated only through movement and sound. Adam Davies and Charles Sandford are highly skilled performers and with every detail loaded to perfection, Animikii Theatre Company are certainly ones I’ll be watching out for in the future.

 

Rambert: A Linha Curva at The Lowry

Now in their 90th year and still leading the dance world with their innovative and exhilarating dance works. A Linha Curva is sensual, witty and terribly good. The dancers are faultless, moving alongside each other in a truly intoxicating display. Rambert may be 90 this year but they show no sign of standing still.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes at The Lowry

Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes ~Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page~
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes
~Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page~

The Red Shoes is a breathtaking balletic display – a beautifully tragic tale poignantly told. Terry Davies’ musical score, using the music of golden-age Hollywood, and Lez Brotherston’s ornate set and dazzling costumes ooze 1940’s glamour. Following it’s sell out run in 2016, it returns again to The Lowry in July 2017. So if you didn’t catch it this time round, get your ticket booked for next year!

Sweet Charity at The Royal Exchange

Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity © Richard Davenport
Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity
© Richard Davenport

With its irresistible Cy Coleman musical score, supervised by Nigel Lilley and directed by Mark Aspinall, played superbly by a live band; an ensemble that dazzle and a top-notch central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund – Derek Bond’s Sweet Charity is an absolute must-see. At the Royal Exchange until 28th January 2018 – there is still plenty of time to bag a ticket. You’re welcome.

REVIEWER: CIARAN WARD

A Streetcar Named Desire at The Royal Exchange

Sarah Frankcom’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’  modern domestic tragedy, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, was an exhilarating piece of theatre that warranted much more than a five-week run. Maxine Peake’s effortless performance as the fallen Blanche DuBois was every bit as riveting and worthy of acclaim as her predecessors, Vivien Leigh and Gillian Anderson.

REVIEWER: DEMI WEST

GM Fringe 2016: Fast Fringe at The Dancehouse Theatre

The ‘GM Fringe 2016: Fast Fringe’ show was by far the most memorable comedy that I have enjoyed this year. The selection box of comedians kept the show fresh, each offering a diverse style of comedy that was sure to please all audience members. The Fast Fringe is a brilliant way to sample and discover different comedians, along with guaranteed laughs.

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you – thank you for all of your support this year. 

Wishing you all the best in 2017.

-Kristy Stott

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REVIEW: I, Myself and Me (The Lowry Theatre, Salford)

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reviewer: Ciaran ward
upstaged rating: 

For anybody who is not accustomed to solo shows, I, Myself and Me (created, written and performed by Rachael Young), serves as a delightful introduction to the form, one that is as entertaining and captivating as any other genre of theatre. With generous and well-interspersed portions of humour, paired with the thoughtful inclusion of audience participation, Young’s autobiographical material is expressed in a medium that encapsulates the struggles any single woman in their late thirties can encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Standing on a set (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) that comprises of a neglected garden, a palm tree, various plant pots and two microphone stands, Rachael Young gives the audience an insight into her life. Learning that she is someone with Caribbean lineage and a working class background allows everyone to engage with her, creating a rapport that engenders an honest and comfortable atmosphere. Through this, she imparts some personal recollections, ranging from the comical anecdote that details her using said palm tree in the absence of a real partner at a school dance, all the way to the heartfelt confession that she didn’t visit her mother’s grave for eleven years.

This sentimentally is explored further in Young’s building up of the garden: an emotional endeavour that is revealed to be an homage to the garden her mother took pride in maintaining. In the background, video footage (edited by Lucy Skilbeck) is projected onto a pull-out screen as she does this, presenting a journey of her buying flowers and finally visiting her mother’s grave.

A dramatic shift in the format of the piece (metamorphosing into one that is reminiscent of a television game show) is introduced when a member of the audience, named Kash, joins Young on stage. Here, the former attempts to help the latter with two challenges, the first entailing the both of them running a lap ‘faster than Usain Bolt’ on the floor, with the second involving Kash navigating the blindfolded Young around a series of mini cacti. The contrast in lighting (designed by Alyssa Watts and Eva G Alonso) aids this transformation, with a spotlight on Young being replaced by stark floodlighting in moments of physical activity.

I, Myself and Me may be a solo show, but it is in no way uniform in nature. The unique performance offered by Young and the unconventional dramatic techniques featured makes for a diverse and compelling interactive monologue.

-Ciaran Ward

You can see Rachael Young performing a work in progress of her new show OUT at the  Steakhouse Live Festival in  Richmix, London on Friday 14th October 2016.

 

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: 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 – In The Vice Like Grip Of It (The Lowry Studio, Salford)

in the vice
In The Vice Like Grip Of It

REVIEWER: CIARAN WARD

Upstaged Rating: 

With In the Vice Like Grip of It, IVO and Routes North have created a powerful piece of theatre that explores the strained relationship which both the state and the citizens share. Through the medium of ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, we realise that contemporary surveillance may not be as beneficial as it first seems, despite the dependence of it that has arisen from a post-9/11 world. After watching this play, we come to ask ourselves ‘Is constant observation an infringement of our privacy, and most importantly, our human rights?’

 Leigh Kelly and Jo Tyabji portray a couple who have just moved into their new house and are anticipating the arrival of a baby. Life is good, that is, until things are seen for how they really are: ‘Him’ is revealed to be an overzealous safety fanatic, choosing to install CCTV equipment to monitor his home. In this scenario, we see how ‘Him’ abuses this power to spy on ‘Her’, paralleling the methods that the state uses to maintain security, whilst also learning how this negatively affects the life of ‘Her’.

 The contrast between a normal day for the couple and the moments in which ‘Her’ shares her innermost thoughts and feelings is effectively achieved through use of careful lighting techniques, specifically designed by Hannah Blamire and aided by Ivan Mack. Bright lights during the main narrative of the play suppose everything is innocent, whilst the spotlight on the table during the monologues of ‘Her’ eradicate this – nothing is as it seems. The eerie atmosphere already established is complemented by the ubiquitous presence of a buzzing noise; moments of tension appear to be fuelled by it and the audience are immersed in the intensity too.

 Despite the edgy mood that prevails throughout, there are interspersed moments of humour that manage to break it and even induce the most stubborn of people to laugh. Physical theatre is also performed several times too: a testament to the proficiency of the actors who evidently display a natural chemistry during their performance.

 For a play that evokes a feeling of uncertainty in this age of ever-advancing technology and regular surveillance, it is still able to equip you with many intriguing thoughts and provide you with a good deal of entertainment, especially for something you may not usually consider watching.

 -Ciaran Ward

 Click here  to find out more about IVO theatre.