REVIEW: The Emperor (HOME, Manchester)

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor © Simon Annand
Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor
© Simon Annand
reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

The Emperor tells the story of the fall of the infamous Haile Selassie, Ethiopian Emperor between the years of 1930 and 1974. The play is based on Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s book, in which he interviewed the servants of Selassie after his downfall. It is a glimpse into a world of corruption, poverty and absolute power, through the eyes of those who worked under the Emperor throughout his tyrannical reign.

The shapeshifting Kathryn Hunter plays each character with such spirited passion and vigour, with no crossover in between, each character is a personality in their own right. Her voices and mannerisms bring the characters to life in an inspiring and vast performance, transforming herself completely. The limited costume and props leave the characterisation to fall into Hunter’s very capable hands, and she does not disappoint. Every character has their own tone, and she switches effortlessly between the emotionally raw and vulnerable to the closed off and political. Through every character, we were able to build our own image of the Emperor, making him almost as big of a presence as the characters on stage.

The combination of Hunter’s masterful character acting and Temesgen Zeleke’s beautifully haunting live music created the sombre yet heartfelt tale that ran alongside the Emperor’s dictation and downfall – the loyalty and love of his servants. Although the Emperor was the main focus of the production, you can’t help as an audience member to feel drawn to Hunter’s characters. She plays them with such vitality that it becomes difficult not to become immersed in their world. And although the story itself was deeply interesting, especially since it is so little known, the production itself was held up by Hunter’s incredible talent. Her performance was pivotal to the success of the play, as any other attempt at such a bold and demanding role possibly would have caused the whole production to fall flat.

Mike Gunning’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound combined with Walter Meierjohann’s poignant directing created an intense, albeit slightly bizarre show that is not to be missed. The quick changes in tone left audiences reeling, never quite sure whether they should be laughing or crying, but Hunter made it flow naturally. Temesgen Zeleke’s music and the inclusion of the Amharic language of Ethiopia in his side characters added a subtle authenticity to the piece, making it all the more credible.

The Emperor is an honest and engaging piece about a part of history that many people know little about, creating a lot of discussion. However, what stands out for many is Kathryn Hunter’s faultless performance and energy that carries the piece throughout.

-Megan Hyland

The Emperor is at HOME, Manchester until Friday 30th September 2016.

For a taster of this FIVE STAR show, please watch HOME‘s trailer…

REVIEW: Birmingham Royal Ballet: Shakespeare Dream Bill (The Lowry, Salford)

Wink Birmingham Royal Ballet © Andrew Ross
Wink
Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Andrew Ross
upstaged rating:      

2016 marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare and Birmingham Royal Ballet continue their celebration of the world’s most prolific dramatist with Shakespeare Dream Bill. The production presents three contrasting works, from contemporary to classical, in a Shakespeare-themed feast of balletic brilliance.

American choreographer Jessica Lang’s Wink serves an elegant entree inspired by the language of The Bard’s sonnets. Set to Jakob Ciupinski’s new score, both the music and the movement echo the structure of the sonnets. Surreal and captivating, the piece takes its title from the first line of sonnet 43, ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see.’ The graceful performance is framed by Mimi Lien’s set of rotating boards which switch from black to white representing the blink of an eye. Stylish and contemporary, Peter Teigan’s lighting design and Alfie Jones’ voiceover add further clarity to this faultless display.

José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane subtitled ‘Variations on the theme of Othello’, distils the tangled tragedy of Othello into a tightly knit and thrilling one-act piece. The four dancers: Tyrone Singleton (Othello), Iain Mackay (Iago) , Delia Mathews (Desdemona) and Samara Downs (Emilia) sweep and glide in Pauline Lawrence’s medieval inspired gowns. Moving in a circular motion about a dark stage, they are enmeshed. Othello’s white handkerchief is passed between them to Henry Purcell’s baroque score.

The Dream concludes the triple bill with a good dose of magic and wit as the company revive Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1964 interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With Peter Farmer’s leafy woodland setting and John B Read’s dramatic lighting design, the company fill the stage with elegance and jest.  

I was very surprised to see a few empty seats on the night I attended as the Birmingham Royal Ballet usually, and rightfully, attract a full house. Perhaps the idea of Shakespeare fused with ballet felt quite daunting for some, which is quite a shame as The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill is pure perfection- a stunning display of agility, beauty and technical wisdom. This production is a superb evening out for all ages and whether you are a seasoned theatre-goer or on your first trip to the ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill is a dazzling visual feast.

-Kristy Stott

The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare’s Dream Bill is on at The Lowry Theatre, Salford until Saturday 17th September 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

 

 

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: 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: 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: GM Fringe 2016: Fast Fringe with Justin Moorhouse (The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester)

Justin Moorhouse's Fast Fringe opened the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016
Justin Moorhouse’s Fast Fringe opened the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016
reviewer: demi west
upstaged rating: 

The Manchester Fast Fringe festival at the Dancehouse was a visual montage of the best jokes and gags from up and coming comedians due to perform at the festival, all comically led on from one another by Manchester’s own Justin Moorhouse. The show was to kick off the Manchester Fringe and consisted of twenty comedians, who each had three minutes to barrage you with a taster of their best material so that you could get a flavour of what they are offering at the Manchester and Edinburgh fringe. This offered a ‘selection box’ of comedy, which had a wide range of acts from puppets, to bearded men in dresses, keeping everyone’s eyes on the stage.

The acts, on the whole, were all very entertaining, with acts such as Brennan Reece offering anecdotal humour on the struggle of masculinity, and Andy Field who did a quirky take on the classic impersonation, including Elton John, and ‘Poprah’. All of these acts thought out their jokes and executed them to a good standard gaining a good response from the audience. Some acts broke the generic anecdotal formula of humour and offered more interesting approaches that worked well yet sometimes fell short, as the three minutes provided was sometimes too narrow of a time frame to sample their whole act.

Acts like Harriet Dyer offered an eccentric performance centred around nineties music and growing up in Cornwall, in which she performed an acapella singing dance routine with unusual body movements, catching the audience completely off-guard, yet still provoking the desired response. Other acts like Daniel Nichols simply picked out members of the audience and made them attempt to try and remove his jumper, but due to the short time slot, the audience wasn’t able to grasp what the whole act consisted of, which was one of the main problems with the show.

The show was all brought together and well-rounded by Justin Moorhouse, who worked the audience very well and connected with them through jokes on topical subjects, such as what it’s like to be from Manchester and the EU referendum. After attending the Fast Fringe, I’d definitely consider seeing some of the acts in their full-length solo shows, and thought it was a great way of sampling the best comedy that Manchester has to offer.

-Demi West

 

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2016 runs from 1st July – 31st July and with an eclectic collection of shows and events, we recommend you check out the website and full festival listings by clicking here.

REVIEW: The Night Watch (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

The Night Watch at the Royal Exchange until 18th June 2016. © Richard Davenport
The Night Watch at the Royal Exchange until 18th June 2016.
© Richard Davenport
UPSTAGED RATING: 

Adapted for the stage by Hattie Naylor, The Night Watch is Sarah Waters’ thrilling novel of the same name. Shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes for fiction, the narrative is set against the backdrop of 1940’s London and spirals back from the post-war devastation of 1947 to the Blitz of 1941. 

“People’s pasts are so much more interesting than their futures.”

 

As the fragmented stories of five people unfold we begin to understand the secrets, regrets and shame that have bound all of them together. With each life intertwined, so skilfully and softly layered, they are all detonated by war, but more so, by love.  

It’s a tricky narrative to present on stage but Naylor cuts right to the chase and avoids any extraneous period detail – the story is presented to us powerfully, each scene juxtaposed perfectly allowing each characters experience to weave smoothly into the next. The fusion of Georgia Lowe’s stark stage design and Rebecca Gatward’s intelligent direction ensures that scene changes and shifts in time are handled beautifully. The sweet and dream-like sound of a piano accompanies the circular movement of the stage as we are transported to another point in time. 

Flooding the stage with soft warm lighting, Elliot Griggs’ lighting design compliments perfectly, transforming an office desk to a summer roof terrace, switching through the darkness of war and devastation to the warm light of love and hope.

With such a pleasingly simple set design, there is absolutely no room for error on stage and the cast deliver a stunningly captivating production. Flawless and intricate, the characters are developed throughout the play – their emotions stripped back as we get to know, and love, them. Led by Jodie McNee, playing the troubled and endearing Kay Langrish, there are no weak links here. Kelly Hotten captures the vulnerability of secretary Helen – wearing her heart on her sleeve, it’s easy to understand her attraction to Julia, the feisty and flamboyant writer played by Lucy Briggs-Owen.

The Night Watch is a gripping adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel – beautifully realised and faultlessly performed.

 

-Kristy Stott

The Night Watch runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until Saturday 18th June 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

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.