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: 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: Parade ( Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester)

Parade at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester © Anthony Robling
Parade at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
© Anthony Robling

UPSTAGED RATING: 

Everything about James Baker’s Parade is a triumph and if you are in or around Manchester, you really should get a ticket. Just go.

The dimly lit, eerie walls of Manchester’s newest performance space, Hope Mill Theatre stand with pride to present the harrowing true story about the trial of Leo Frank. Frank was a Jewish pencil factory manager in Atlanta who was tried for raping and murdering Mary Phagan in 1913. The intimate performance space in the old cotton mill provides the perfect backdrop for this emotionally charged and troubling narrative driven by the murder of the thirteen-year-old girl in the factory where she worked.

The super talented cast of 15 manage to cover 38 roles between them and all give stand-out performances. There is a beautiful balance between heartfelt, raw emotion and technical brilliance from Tom Lloyd as the accused Leo Frank; Laura Harrison gives a breathtaking vocal performance as his doting and determined wife, Lucille Frank. James Baker’s ensemble pieces are always a highlight too – under William Whelton’s stylish choreography, wielding their confederate flags and clicking their heels, the dynamic cast deliver to Jason Robert Brown’s finely crafted score. There is no weak link here.

There are memorable performances throughout from Matt Mills and Shekinah McFarlane, particularly during their second act opener – playing two of the Governor’s African American employees, they deliver a soulful and spirited ‘A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’, showing that racial tensions were still running high fifty years after the American Civil War had ended. James Wolstenholme proves his versatility as a performer – slipping into the ruthless shoes of desperate hack Britt Craig to deliver an outstanding rendition of Real Big News before stepping up as the authoritative Governor of Georgia, John Slaton.

Victoria Hinton’s stripped back set is split into 3 simple sections to aid the fluidity of the narrative with adaptable wooden pallets giving a constant reminder of the factory environment.

There’s a lot to be said about bringing musical theatre to an intimate setting like Hope Mill Theatre. Watching the performers emerge from within the audience, so close that you can see the beads of sweat on their foreheads and the tears rolling down their cheeks, is really something special. Add to this a wonderful 9 piece live band under the superb direction of Tom Chester and Mancunian producer Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment, and Mr James Baker has raised the bar for Fringe theatre once again.

I urge you to get a ticket for Parade. Just go.

-Kristy Stott

Parade is on at Hope Mill Theatre, 113 Pollard Street, Manchester M4 7JA until Sunday 5th June 2016. NOW EXTENDED UNTIL 11th June 2016! Please click here to get your tickets.