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: 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 Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The Lowry, Salford)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time© Brinkoff - Moegenburg
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time© Brinkoff – Moegenburg
guest reviewer: megan hyland
upstaged rating: 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is Simon Stephens’ charming adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name. The story of Christopher Boone is one that has touched many people over the years, telling of an intelligent and inquisitive 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. The play begins with the murder of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. Upset by Wellington’s death, Christopher vows to find the murderer, but on the way ends up uncovering more secrets than he set out to.

Scott Reid (Still Game, Line of Duty) stars as Christopher in his most challenging role yet, delivering an authentic and emotional performance. His incredible capability is undeniable in this stunning piece, bringing new life to the much-loved character. There are some particularly beautiful scenes in which Reid acts alongside the supporting cast in a series of physical theatre routines that show the audience what the world is like in the mind of somebody with Asperger’s Syndrome.  And despite the limited space of the stage, the cast are able to create a truthful and open world that explores family, mathematics, the universe and everything in between. David Michaels stars as Christopher’s father, Ed, giving a poignant and genuine performance that displays the struggles of a single parent. Supported by the delightful ensemble cast, this is a seamless production, with the cast working together to create an original and extraordinary piece.

Director Marianne Elliot has helped to create a heart-warming and moving production, with skilful use of a seemingly simplistic set. The music of Adrian Sutton and lighting design of Paule Constable also masters communication of both intensity and warmth, resulting in an exciting piece. But despite some sensitive and emotional scenes, Stephens’ dialogue is often incredibly humorous, breathing life into the well-known characters.

Despite having seen the play before, the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time still offered a new and sensational execution of the critically acclaimed novel. And as a widely loved story, it is recommendable to anyone that is looking for a production that is both intelligent and surprising.

-Megan Hyland

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is on at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 4th February 2017 and you can get your tickets here. The production continues to tour throughout 2017 and you can click here for the full UK tour details.

REVIEW: The Trial (HOME, Manchester)

people-zoo-the-trial-image

reviewer: megan hyland
upstaged rating: 

The Trial is a thrillingly absurd adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name, adapted by People Zoo Productions. Josef K, honourable citizen and profoundly innocent man, is told on the morning of his birthday that he has been arrested. The audience follows K as he tries to prove his innocence to the unjust and strange legal system that he finds himself entangled in. But not knowing what he stands accused of, and fighting against an unidentified, immeasurable power, how much is his innocence really worth?

William J Holstead stars as the protagonist, displaying remarkable physicality and masterful control, telling the story of one man’s desperation in an emotional and thoroughly committed performance. Holstead acts as a guide for the audience through this peculiar situation that K has found himself in, and as quickly as Holstead has built up the character in the opening scenes, he begins to tear him down, as we see just how far one man will go to prove his innocence. In such a dark and disturbing narrative, however, the rest of the cast provide some much-needed comic relief, all acting in multirole, with Adrian Palmer and Sarah Legg standing out in particular. Palmer’s excellent character acting and Legg’s performance as K’s moralistic and over-sexed landlady are outstanding.

The play itself can only be described as bizarrely entertaining, with well-written and clever dialogue that keeps the audience engaged even despite the nonsensicalness of the plot. The remarkable humour and intrigue that the first act creates outweigh the unusualness of the storyline, and instead supply it with a strange charm. The second act, however, is incredibly intense, with some exceptional performances and gripping scenes that send some powerful messages that are still relevant today.

Director Craig Sanders has created a wonderfully offbeat dark comedy, managing to portray both the nostalgia and relevance of Kafka’s work on the stage. Paired with the intense music of Dennis Tjoik and the simplistic but expressive set design, the effect is a thought-provoking combination of surrealism and farce. These are two things that the play combines effortlessly, transitioning frequently between slapstick humour and highly intense scenes with ease and fluidity. And although the storyline itself is quite non-traditional and perplexing, once the eccentricity of the production itself is embraced, it makes for a captivating and unusually amusing watch.

-Megan Hyland

The Trial is performed as part of PUSH Festival at HOME, Manchester. PUSH Festival runs from 14th January – 28th January 2017 and the full festival brochure is available by clicking here.

REVIEW: Wind in the Willows (The Lowry Theatre, Salford)

Neil McDermott and the cast of Wind in the Willows © Marc Brennan
Neil McDermott and the cast of Wind in the Willows
© Marc Brennan
 Reviewer: megan hyland
upstaged rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Wind in the Willows is a heart-warming and colourful musical based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame, produced by Jamie Hendry. It stars comedian and actor Rufus Hound as the sparky and bold speed enthusiast Mr Toad, alongside other familiar faces such as David Birrell (Midsomer Murders and Buried) as Mr Badger and Fra Fee (Les Miserables) as Mole. The musical tells the renowned story of friendship and adventure through beautifully orchestrated live music and the incredible dynamics of the cast. When Mr Toad is arrested and thrown in prison for the theft of a motor car, his lavish mansion is seized by the Wild Wooders, a fiendish band of woodland animals.

As Mr Toad, Hound steals the show with his quick humour and physicality. His boundless energy brings new life to the well-loved character, making him charming and likable despite his endless scheming. Although Hound may seem an usual choice for the role, none could have played it better. That being said, the rest of the cast fell far from short. Their command of the stage was masterful, and the singing in particular was captivating. Every harmony was perfectly blended and the actors seemed constantly in-tune with one another, working together to create a mesmerising production.

Other stand out performances were that of Neil McDermott and Sophia Nomvete. McDermott played the Chief Weasel, a cunning and cruel Wild Wooder. He was as menacing as he was exciting, and he brought up the energy of the other woodland creatures. As the strong and gutsy Mrs Otter, Nomvete delivered an amusing and engaging performance, playing the worried but protective mother who is no doubt familiar and lovable to us all.

However, it is the music, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe which makes this performance truly special. The songs are both uplifting and catchy, with a perfect combination of emotion and humour. They are heartfelt and sincere, without bringing down the general light mood of the production. Combined with the stunning sets and costumes designed by Peter McKintosh and Howard Harrison’s striking light design, it creates an enchanting atmosphere that is matchless.

With the Wind in the Willows, Julian Fellowes has expertly crafted a magical tale of the power of friendship. It is perfect for families and children, although I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a few hours of lighthearted fun and music. Without a doubt, this is the musical production of the year.

– Megan Hyland

Wind in the Willows is at The Lowry, Salford until Sunday 6th November 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

 img_0392

Showing as part of Family Arts Festival. Please click here for more information.

 

 

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: The Shawshank Redemption (The Lowry, Salford)

The Shawshank Redemption © Mark Yeoman
The Shawshank Redemption
© Mark Yeoman
reviewer: megan hyland
upstaged rating: 

Adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Jones from Stephen King’s critically acclaimed novel and the iconic 1994 film, the Shawshank Redemption tells the familiar story of Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary. Whether you know the story or not, this production is accessible for all audience members, with its hard-hitting and emotional performances drawing you in from the beginning.

thumbnail_Paul NichollsThe play follows Andy Dufresne, (played by Paul Nicholls) an intelligent and charismatic banker imprisoned for the double murder of his wife and her lover. The story is beautifully narrated throughout by his fellow prisoner Red – played by Ben Onwukwe who brings brilliant animation and magnetism to the well-loved character. Throughout the twenty years in which the play is set, we see Andy interact and develop relationships with his fellow prisoners – played by an outstanding supporting cast – all the while forming a rather resourceful plan.

The all-male cast offer a range of powerful and gripping performances, from the quiet and bumbling but lovable librarian ‘Brooksie’, played by Andrew Boyer to the terrifying and sinister prison tormenters Rooster and Bogs, played by Jeff Alexander and Sean Croke, whose performances were exceptional and uncomfortably convincing. The entire cast had incredible physicality and great chemistry, particularly between Nicholls and Onwukwe, who bring both humour and charm to their characters. Nicholls gave a charming and likable performance as Andy, effortlessly transitioning from Andy’s distanced and quiet personality to bold, raw performances with Jack Ellis’ performance as Waden Stammas being the perfect menacing contrast. Each scene was thick with tension, but the hard topics especially were handled effortlessly and tension was quickly diffused with wonderfully dry humour.

Gary McCann’s set and costume design although simplistic added greater authenticity to the story, and allowed it not to distract or take away from the incredible acting performances. Although the costumes and set design were reminiscent of the 1994 film of the same name, they were magnificent in their own right. Paired with Dan Samson’s eloquent sound design, they create a genuine and intimidating prison atmosphere.

Transferring this story to the stage can’t have been an easy task, but director David Esbjornson has done a faultless and beautiful job. The cast bring a new life to the familiar roles, without leaving behind the story we’re familiar with. And although not a light-hearted watch, the play tells a riveting and heartfelt story of friendship, strength and hope that resonates with the audience.

-Megan Hyland

The Shawshank Redemption runs at The Lowry Theatre, Salford until Saturday 10th September 2016 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW: Petrification (The Lowry, Salford)

Petrification by Telltale Theatre Company
Petrification by Telltale Theatre Company in association with LittleMighty
Reviewer: Megan Hyland
upstaged rating: 

In Petrification, Zoe Cooper’s dynamic writing boldly explores the strains of family relationships, and how these relationships form who we are. Set in a local pub in the North East, it tells the story of two brothers – Sean and Simon – meeting up the night before their father’s funeral. However, after having been away in London at university, Simon is surprised to be meeting Sean’s boyfriend, Aidan. Uncomfortable with Sean’s new relationship and how close Aidan has become to his family, Simon struggles with the changes that have developed in his absence, and we begin to understand the significance of a family holiday to Whitby when the brothers were young.

The opening scenes of the performance are unusually honest, with Cooper’s expertly crafted dialogue and Mark Maughan’s direction combining to create a familiar and compelling narrative. The physicality of the actors and their increasing use of the limited space available begin to make the piece more animated and intense, creating momentum, as the details of the Whitby holiday are slowly revealed.  As the play progresses, the tension between the three becomes more difficult to watch, built up by the dramatic combination of lighting and sound designed by Joshua Pharo and Guy Connelly. James Baxter delivers a particularly riveting and emotionally engaging performance as Sean, portraying a challenging yet heartfelt brotherly relationship in his chemistry with Neil Grainger as Simon. The two have a natural, energetic humour, whereas interactions between Grainger and Jamie Quinn as Aidan are perfectly awkward, reinforcing Aidan’s inability to become a part of the family.

 

However, as the details of the holiday and the different relationships the three men had with Sean and Simon’s father begin to spill into the story through imaginative techniques such as rewinds and multirole, the impact is slowly lost. It becomes near impossible to recognise who the actor is speaking as, and where we are in the story. The dizzying cuts between the past and present soon become far too confusing, and without answering some of the questions raised throughout the play, present a rather unsatisfying ending.

Nonetheless, Petrification is a captivating and meaningful representation of family dynamics and relationships that although confusing, is unbelievably refreshing. Zoe Cooper’s writing is clever, witty and shocking, and although seemingly simplistic in its summary, Petrification is a seamless and gripping spectacle.

– Megan Hyland
Find out more about LittleMighty here. Petrification continues the tour at the Mitre Inn, Knaresborough on 20 June 2016 with further shows in Ripon, Harrogate, Leeds and London through June and July. Click here for tickets and more information.