“If music be the food of love, play on” and certainly the production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is full of music, mirth and mischief, particularly during one particular night of mayhem when encouraged by Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Harry Attwell), a drunken Sir Toby (Simon Armstrong) wakes up the household with his electric guitar.
Following a terrible storm, Viola has found herself shipwrecked and washed up on the sandy and unfamiliar shores of Illyria. In her only bid for survival, Viola (Faith Omole) disguises herself as male, changes her name to Cesario, and goes to work in the household of Duke Orsino (Kevin Harvey). With powerful waves of unrequited love, gender and sexual identity guiding Shakespeare’s verse – this production at the Royal Exchange is a complete success and arguably one of the best Shakespeare adaptations that I have seen.
Quirky casting by Vicky Richardson teamed with Jo Davies’ intelligent direction makes for a refreshing interpretation of a play that was written over 400 years ago. Kate Kennedy’s striking Olivia towers over Faith Omole’s diminutive Cesario; confidante Cesario holds the punch bag gingerly while Orsino bolsters and pummels. Our Malvolio, played by Anthony Calf, gives a perfect portrayal of the party-pooper and prissy steward. Davies and Designer Leslie Travers substitute Malvolio’s traditional yellow stockings and cross-gartered look in favour of gaudy lycra MAMIL attire.
Kate O’Donnell steals the show as a witty, lively and self-assured Feste. Giving a whole new perspective to the character, O’Donnell exudes elegance and foolery. Dressed in a luminous turquoise get up and feathered head-dress, she reminds me of a glamorous Statue of Liberty. Suggestive of freedom in regards to gender and sexual identity and almost definitely reminding us of the lack of trans actors on the professional stage.
Alex Baranowski’s Eastern European musical score of fiddler, harpsichord and folk vocalist Kate Young provide a pleasing backdrop to the romantic entanglements, frivolous comedy and disguises in love. In a poignant framing, the Eastern tones lay the sombre tone for Viola’s shipwreck at the very start and then return for The Wind and The Rain ditty delivered by Feste at the end of the performance. As the lights fade and the melancholy returns O’Donnell feeds new life and meaning into Shakespeare’s poetry, singing the final line “When I was a little boy.” Absolutely captivating.
The wonderful and hilarious Man Booker Prize winner, The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson, bounces into the Royal Exchange in a world premiere stage adaptation by Simon Bent. Bent’s adaptation of The Mighty Walzer is a real scream, giving the Royal Exchange’s audience an uplifting dose of superb theatre to close the season on.
The Mighty Walzer is a lively semi-autobiographical story charting Jacobson’s experience of growing up in Prestwich. It’s a coming-of-age story about a quiet Jewish boy who moves into the slightly odd and passionate world of ping-pong, alongside discovering girls and applying for a place to study at Cambridge University.
Elliot Levey leads the cast perfectly, bearded with a smart suit, he projects the Jewish teen Oliver Walzer as well as providing the humorous mature tone of Jacobson’s narrator. Levey engages warmly with his audience, looking at members of the crowd directly – his performance feels personal. Jonathan Humphrey’s impressive direction is pacey and playful, reminding me of ‘Kevin Arnold’ and ‘The Wonder Years’ from my youth. The Mighty Walzer is feel-good theatre, intelligently executed.
Tracy-Ann Obermann shines as Sadie, Oliver’s extravagant but caring mother – her half empty glass contrasts comically with dad, Joel Walzer played by Jonathan Tafler – forever the optimist, selling odd bits and bobs out of the back of his van. There are strong performances throughout from Ann Marcuson as Sadie’s eccentric twin sisters Dolly and Dora; Daniel Abelson, Joe Coen and David Crellin also impress as big influencers during Oliver’s formative teenage years.
The Mighty Walzer will leave you smiling from ear to ear and possibly reflecting on your own awkward teenage memories. The laughter from the audience filled the Royal Exchange’s Great Hall on the night that I attended – a certain testament to how fine this production is. Don’t just take my word for it – go and see for yourselves.
Talawa Theatre Company has been making theatre since 1986 and to mark their 30th anniversary year, and to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death artistic director Michael Buffong returns to the play he first directed in 1994, King Lear.
In this co-production between Talawa Theatre, Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Birmingham Rep, Don Warrington steps into the royal breaches and takes on the title role. William Shakespeare’s story of a kingdom divided with devastating political and personal repercussions still remains highly pertinent to a modern audience. Striking a chord with a contemporary crowd particularly in the wake of Scottish Independence and the looming EU opt in or opt out discussion. Perhaps most poignantly, this production explores ideas around our aging society and dementia.
Entering to the single steady beat of the drum, Warrington appears wearing a heavy cloak and furs, every inch the look of a formidable leader. He traces the dominant character’s slow descent from greatness to confusion and shame.
“I have, so to speak, lost myself.”
Fists clenched desperately holding on to the sleeve of his robes indicative of his struggle to retain clarity in an increasingly murky world. There is some well-observed physicality from Warrington – his awkward gait and empty stare are all suggestive of a man battling with dementia. However, Warrington’s delivery of the text is lacking in fluidity which means that some of Shakespeare’s powerful rhetoric is lost at times and most particularly during the famous storm in the wilderness scene.
Signe Beckmann’s design is completely stripped back to an empty performance space with the characters dressed in period costumes, and the danger is that it all feels very habitual RSC and old fashioned. The combination of Johanna Tom’s atmospheric lighting design and Tayo Akinbode’s ethereal soundscape is a match made in heaven, especially during the apocalyptic downpour at the end of the first half.
The ensemble cast are all impressive and fearless throughout and all give remarkable performances. Miltos Yerolemou gives a well-balanced performance as The Fool, both humorous and touching; Alfred Enoch gives a mesmerising performance as Edgar – compassionate and honest, much in contrast to his brother Edmund, an ambitious opportunist, again played strongly by Fraser Ayres. Pepter Lunkuse shines as the good-hearted, youngest daughter Cordelia and Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley give fully realised performances as bloodthirsty sisters, Goneril and Regan.
Philip Whitchurch as The Earl of Gloucester is outstanding with his gory ocular fate prompting the most audible response from the audience during the lengthy 3 and a half hour running time.
King Lear is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 7 May 2015.
The Royal Exchange Theatre provides the perfect performance space for this compelling drama about a mining community living in a small village in Nottinghamshire in 1911. Following the lives of three different families over a period of three weeks, Husbands & Sons interweaves three of DH Lawrence’s masterpieces into one new play – and the result is nothing short of an absolute triumph.
From the minute the lighting rig is hoisted up, Husbands and Sons reveals a working class community surviving as best they can in the shadow of a miners strike. It’s a powerful depiction of three desperate households – The Holroyds, The Lamberts and The Gascoignes. While husbands and sons battle at the coalface, the focus lies on the women in this community. Despite the title, it is the wives, mothers and daughters stories which are subject to excavation.
Each household is separated in the performance space by a gridded iron walkway, although many of the characters are on stage in their respective homes at the same time. As the drama unfolds within each family, the audience can follow the goings-on in each household. This intelligent juxtaposition aids the narrative, building up tension and making it easy to follow, ensuring that each scene moves smoothly through to the next.
Husband’s & Sons has the perfect line-up of creatives and performers – it’s like getting all of the best in their field working together on one show. Olivier-Award winning Bunny Christie has designed the detailed set for the three households, complete with fire, running water and a caged sense of impending doom. Director Marianne Elliott, of War Horse and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is at the helm of a truly phenomenal cast.
Anne-Marie Duff is astounding as Lizzie Holroyd, the downtrodden wife of an alcoholic miner – arresting, believable and entirely gripping. Julia Ford masterfully plays frustrated Lydia Lambert, tolerating her obnoxious husband – she is a controlling mother who just wants a better future for her children. Louise Brealey shines as newly-wed, house proud Minnie Gascoigne, bringing a sense of spontaneity and innocence to the stage as she struggles to deal with the dark secrets in her marriage.
This production makes for 3 hours of heartfelt and gritty viewing, though not without humour. With an outstanding cast and ingenious design, Husbands & Sons is an absolute must-see – bold, beautiful and perfectly staged in the Great Hall of Manchester’s Royal Exchange. And when that lighting rig falls, you wish that you could watch it all over again.
Husbands & Sons is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 19 March 2016.
Wit is Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a humorous, emotional and ultimately devastating story set in the final few hours of Dr Vivian Bearing’s life.
Dr Vivian Bearing is an American Professor of 17th-century poetry specialising in the metaphysical works of John Donne. A brilliant university lecturer and scholar, she now finds herself diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. While in university she was the tough teacher; now as an inpatient in a university teaching hospital she is the one being examined and studied.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is magnificent in the title role of Dr Vivian Bearing, playing out the final hours of Vivian’s life and also flashbacks to her past. Despite tackling the a subject as harrowing as cancer, Wit is delivered with a brittle humour resisting any kind of sentimentality – with Vivian realising, towards the end, that she prefers kindness to intellectualism. Her slim frame is covered by 2 hospital gowns and she wears a pink baseball cap on her hairless head – she is articulate and chooses the words she uses with care. Brutally announcing ‘I will never forget the time that I found out I had cancer’ the stage turns and we are transported back to when she first received the prognosis from Dr Kelekian (Tom Hodgkins).
Hannah Clark’s set design of a revolving stage and blue-green walkway and swing doors is perfectly suggestive of a sterile hospital environment. Chairs, hospital beds and IV poles are wheeled and passed urgently about the stage as clinical observation is pitted against the raw human emotion of Hesmondhalgh’s shattering performance.
Raz Shaw‘s direction is paced and perceptive and the supportive cast are also strong – EshAlladi is superb as purposeful clinical fellow Dr Jason Possner MD, lacking empathy and communication skills – he brands the bedside manner course at med school ‘a colossal waste of time’. In contrast, Jenny Platt as Nurse Susie Monahan offers an alternative presence – finding time to moisturise Vivian’s hands when talking becomes difficult. Julie Legrand is impressive as the university academic who first taught Vivian about Donne and the power of punctuation.
Manchester’s Royal Exchange has certainly started the new year with a cracking show and Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a striking performance at the centre of it. Cancer is a hard subject matter to tackle on stage, especially in a performance as honest as this – Wit may make some cry but it will definitely make everyone laugh, think and discuss.
Manchester’s Royal Exchange Christmas production is always a welcomed alternative to the traditional festive fare and this year Artistic Director Matthew Xia has taken on the Stephen Sondheim spectacular, Into The Woods. With a notoriously challenging musical score that makes even highly accomplished musicians run for the hills, Manchester’s Royal Exchange makes Into the Woods look like a walk in the park. Laden with wit, plenty of trees and stellar performances throughout – the execution and delivery of this contemporary fairytale adventure is superb.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, Into The Woods takes the main characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella and intertwines each of their fairytale quests. The musical is tied together with an original story about a baker, his wife and their wish to start a family. As the result of a witch’s curse, the couple are childless and their only hope is to reverse the evil spell by venturing into the forest to track down a list of ingredients.
The show runs at a lengthy three hours – the first act is a complete joy ending on a high with every character getting their wish. The second act sees a darker evaluation and the arrival of a giant, with booming voiceover by Maxine Peake, who threatens to undo all of the good work.
Puppeteer Rachel Goodwin moves the emaciated Milky White perfectly with David Moorst playing foolish Jack. Prepare yourself for Natasha Cottriall’s Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with Michael Peavoy’s Wolf which is hilariously funny – with a clever illusion that will keep you guessing.
Award-winning actress Gillian Bevan becomes The Witch and intelligent costume design means she carries an impressive vegetable patch around with her too. Note-perfect performances from Francesca Zoutewelle as Cinderella and Isabelle Peters as the disturbed but angelic-voiced Rapunzel. The show is packed with laughs throughout but comic highlights are definitely reached during the ‘Agony’ duet between Rapunzel’s Prince, Marc Elliott and Cinderella’s Prince, Michael Peavoy.
Suitable for ages 10 and up, Matthew Xia’s Into The Woods is a triumph – with its glorious Sondheim musical score, arranged by Julian Kelly and played superbly by a live band, with top-notch performances all round – it should certainly be on your must-see list this Christmas.
Into The Woods is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 16 January 2016.
Alastair McDowall’s Pomona was first performed in the round at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2014 before transferring to the National Theatre in 2015. Now, it plays in the main stage at Manchester’s Royal Exchange which is a stone throw away from Pomona island where the play is set.
The play opens with a peculiar parka and pants wearing character called Zeppo giving a comically long-winded account of a famous scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark’ to Ollie, a young woman who is searching for her missing twin sister. With a mouthful of chicken nugget Zeppo (Guy Rhys) tells Ollie (Nadia Clifford) that he owns the whole city but doesn’t get involved with anything and offers the scene from Indiana Jones to highlight why some things should just be left well alone.
Under Ned Bennett’s stylish direction, what follows is a series of scenes leading up to the disappearance of Ollie’s sister. This whole narrative is segmented and does not follow a simple linear structure – it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle which the audience have to try and piece together. Exploring themes around sub-culture, gaming and the sinister underworld, Pomona is a brutal and gritty sci-fi thriller.
Georgia Lowe’s stripped set design complements McDowall’s dark story thread which charts flashbacks to Ollie’s sister meeting Fay (Rebecca Humphries) when she gets a job in a brothel; we also encounter Gale ( Rochenda Sandall) a seemingly powerful presence in the criminal underworld and two security guards Charlie (Sam Swann) and Moe (Sean Rigby). Alongside this we meet squeaky and mouse-like Keaton (Sarah Middleton) who meets with Charlie regularly for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Sam Swann is particularly impressive as oddball Charlie and provides some very funny moments amidst the hopelessness.
Some theatre goers may find Pomona hard going – there is frequent strong language and the characters inhabit a place which some of the audience may prefer not to visit. As the play progresses the outlook for the characters becomes bleaker and the line between fantasy and reality more blurred. There is a sense of confusion and a lot of questions still remain unanswered by the end of the play. Ultimately, Pomona is a powerful, menacing and intelligent piece of work by Alastair McDowall.
Pomona is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Sunday 21 November 2015.
There is the eerie flickering of candlelight and the faint sound of Edwardian music hall as we walk into Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio and take our seats. Barber Owain Sawyers (Gary Lagden) is tending to his client – he’s comfortable with using a cut-throat razor as he spruces up his latest victim customer and it soon becomes apparent that Sawyers doesn’t shy away from a spot of dentistry either…
“If you’re sure that Ghosts aren’t real,
If your Nerves are made of Steel,
If you’re brave and if you dare,
Come sit upon the Barber’s Chair.”
Written and directed by Lewis Gibson, The Chair is set in a barber shop in an creepy Cardiff port called Tiger Bay. Our barber and accomplished storyteller Sawyers is assisted by his aide Hans (Christopher Preece) and together they animate stories of mermaids, ancient Egypt and mysterious tales of wonder and suspense.
Gary Lagden keeps the diverse audience captivated with his skilfull storytelling – he moves through from Sawyers’ Welsh lilt to take on a range of different accents and physicalities as each twisted and chilling tale unfolds before us. The poetic and haunting performance is heightened by Louie Whitmore’s ghostly set and the macabre musical score played by versatile performer Christopher Preece. The shadowy set doubles up to provide a spooky soundscape – an upright piano howls unconventional chords to build suspense before it transforms into a ship’s sail and a large drum provides the uneasy beat of a blue moon.
Director Gibson folds the audience into the action as a few willing members step up to take a seat in the barber’s chair – there’s the offer of a trim and even a dram of whisky for some enthusiastic volunteer. Lagden’s Sawyers often looks out into the crowd and refers to us as sailors or ancient skeletons; sometimes he holds our gaze for a millisecond longer than is comfortable and it all adds to the unsettling atmosphere. My son, Thing 1 looked curious but equally terrified when Sawyers made his way over to him and my other son, Thing 2 averted his gaze for fear that he would be next. Both Things, aged 9 and 6, were compelled by the performance of The Chair from start to finish.
The pace of the production is pleasing too – there is a humorous ditty about anatomy and surgery just before the mirror takes centre stage for the grand finale. No spoilers here.
The Chair is a thrilling hour long journey of creepy magic, adventure and storytelling that is suitable for all ages from 7 upwards.
The Chair is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Sunday 18 October 2015.
Your car is starting to get iced up in the morning, you’ve turned your central heating on and your local shop has made room on the shelves for fiery orange pumpkins, massive tubs of jelly sweets and…mince pies???
It can only mean one thing…
We’ve rounded up the best theatrical events happening for families across Manchester this October…
As always The Lowry, Salford have a fantastic offering this October, especially during the half term week which runs from Sunday 25th October – Saturday 31st October.
Hurricane Boyis first up with 2 showings, on Sunday 18th October. Running at just under an hour and recommended for ages 5 and upwards – Hurricane Boy features physical storytelling alongside live music and it has received some great reviews so far from little ones and their families.
There’s all round entertainment from your TV favourites Milkshake Live! on Monday 26th October at 2pm. If your children are a little older, Morgan & West at 7pm may be more up their street – with a combination of illusion and all-round silliness, they guarantee a magic show that is suitable for all of the family, ages 5 and up.
Elsa and Anna glide in on Wednesday 28th October for ANOTHER Singalong Frozen. Do we ever tire of singing along to Frozen?? On the same day we have a Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler classic flying in – The Scarecrows Wedding. Now, we’ve been to see a number of these Donaldson classics transferred from page to stage and they are always a hit with young audiences. The Scarecrows Wedding runs from 28th October until 1st November and is recommended for those aged 3 and up.
Now, who loves dinosaurs?
Dinosaur Zoois fabulous, it really is. I took my Thing 2 when he was 3 and he was gripped throughout. Fresh from attacking the West End, Dinosaur Zoo stomps into TheLowry from the 30th October until the 1st November.Read our last review here…
You need to be quick for this one…on 10th October Flyaway Katie, suitable for ages 2-7, is at Z-Arts in Hulme. Based on the popular children’s book by Polly Dunbar and presented by Long Nose Puppets and Manchester Literature Festival – it’s been described as ‘magical and beautiful’ (The Guardian). Also, Bear and Butterfly zooms in on Wednesday 28th October, suitable for ages 4-7, it explores themes around love, loss and friendship when a bear and a caterpillar become friends. Flyaway Katie and Bear & Butterfly are showing as part of the UK wide GetCreative Family Arts Festival. Hit the link to find out more about events happening around Greater Manchester and beyond…
We’re Stuck is being presented as part of Manchester Science Festival 2015 on the Wednesday 28th and Friday 30th October. It’s your chance to get involved in shaping and developing this interactive new show which focuses on how great and how utterly rubbish our brains are at maths. It’s free and suitable for children aged 7-11 and their grown-ups.
Now Forced Entertainment are one of my favourite theatre companies, at the forefront of contemporary theatre and I am thrilled that they are presenting a children’s show on Halloween. The ACTUAL All Hallows Eve – 31st October – at Z-Arts. It’s called The Possible Impossible Houseand it’s their first children’s show – suitable for ages 6 and up. You also get a free ticket to Z-Arts Halloween Party if you book for the show.
The Royal Exchange
On Monday 12th October at 1pm the Royal Exchange are host to Michael Rosen: Children’s Poetry Event. It’s part of the Manchester Literature Festival event and tickets are only £4. Michael Rosen is one of the well known figures in the children’s book world, publications include: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and This is Our House. Sadly, my children are in school on this day – however, the event may be of interest to my home ed friends.
The Chair creeps into the Royal Exchange from the 14th October to the 18th October -recommended for ‘brave souls’ over the age of 7. With live music, songs and a cut-throat razor…book at your own peril.
The Edge Theatre & Arts Centre, Chorlton
A good selection of children’s theatre as always at The Edge. Rosie’s Magic Horse gallops in on the 17th October and is recommended for ages 3-8 years of age. Strictly Balti is suitable for older children over the age of 11, exploring ideas of identity on 23rd October. Next up we have the The Toothy Adventures of Davy Denture (for ages 3-7) on the 27th October and The Adventures of Pom ( for ages 0-4) on the 28th October.
Waterside Arts Centre, Sale
And in case you can’t make those dates above…Waterside Artsgives us another chance to catch Rosie’s Magic Horse on the 11th October and Strictly Balti on the 21st October.
In addition to this, Little Angel Theatre presents family favourite, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt from the 17th October until the 20th October. With a super running time of 45 minutes, it’s just perfect for those little fidgets aged 2 and over.
The ‘Half Term Show’ at Waterside Arts is The Elves & The Shoemakerrunning from 29th October until the 1st November, recommended for those aged over 3. And for those little pickles aged 0-18 months there is 16 Singerson the 30th October – its a combination of music and signing woven into a sparkling little show for babies.
The Met in Bury
For ages 12 and up Gulliversails into The Met in Bury on Tuesday 27th October. Followed by We Are Bronte on the 28th October, which is again suitable for ages 12+.
Inspired by the Salem witch hunts of the seventeenth century, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible offered a commentary on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee when it first premiered in 1953 on Broadway. Now, playing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange it is remarkable how much these themes still resonate loudly within our society today. Aside from modern-day witch hunts on social media for the latest shamed celebrity or the fear of terrorism and National Security, The Crucible also raises ideas surrounding the cuts to Legal Aid and those perceived as vulnerable, having to represent themselves in court.
Director Caroline Steinbeis has set the story somewhere in the UK, at no particular time in history and the characters talk with a range of different accents – it all makes for an ominous atmosphere and a strong sense of displacement. The heptagon stage is stark, the action punctuated by Richard Hammarton’s unnerving, apocalyptic soundscape.
The female cast wear long, loose-fitting dresses buttoned up to the neck, to cloak their sexuality – the first time we see them they are sprinting across the performance space to reach the woods where they will dance naked. ‘Naked’ – Reverend Samuel Parris can barely spit out the word. Donning their denim and smart suits, the men in this town are terrified by women.
The cast of nineteen are so universally strong that it feels like a masterclass in acting – Jonjo O’Neill gives a stand out performance as John Proctor supported by his wife Elizabeth Proctor, admirably played by Matti Houghton. Ria Zmitrowicz shines as troubled and scared Mary Warren and Tim Steed gives a fully realised performance as the honest academic Reverend John Hale; Sam Cox also gives a noteworthy performance, balancing intensity with wit, as the courageous Giles Corey.
Max Jones’ clever set design sees the shallow bowl-like set symbolically filled with water for the final act. The sound of thunder and the flash of lightning which has built throughout the play, finally catches up with the characters as the deafening storm sweeps through the theatre.
This visionary production of this Arthur Miller classic, certainly blows the cobwebs off the familiar text that I studied at secondary school. With characters that are boiled down to their core and themes that are still as relevant today as they were in the 1950’s, The Royal Exchange’s The Crucible makes for a production of electrifying intensity.
The Crucible is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 24 October 2015.