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The master chameleon of the stage

Ian McKellen, Theatre by the Lake

When Ian McKellen comes to town the audience expects to be in for a good show. So much so that the ballots for Sir Ian’s tour of UK theatres was overrun in minutes and the lucky 400 audience members tonight were holding the hottest tickets around.

What one might not expect is 2 1/2 hours packed with theatricality when this mischievous chameleon takes the stage. Celebrating his 80th year, one feels age has only made this consummate performer more master of his craft, this evening a stand-alone play in itself; a humorous, poignant self portrait of an artist.

The first half chronicles McKellen’s journey from a young boy falling in love with the theatre, growing up on the boards of his home town in Bolton, to footlights at Cambridge and into taking steps into repertory theatre. The pace is phenomenal, McKellen’s timing is flawless and his energy fills the stage. He takes a tongue in cheek turn as a pantomime dame and segues seamlessly to hold a more serious note: his own regrets of spending too many years “in the closet” and later triumphantly leading campaigns for gay rights.

But not too much self indulgence. McKellen already knows he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. The second half includes a comprehensive actor’s guide to Shakespeare (with audience assistance). The man famed for wizardry wields words in a fabulous feat of memory (“how does he do it” – he snatches even our own musings to make the joke) and from parts deeply inhabited, each character thoroughly understood by this scholar of English.

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It’s hard not to suspend one’s disbelief watching one octogenarian hold court on a main stage: one moment a sad conflicted Hamlet, the next wielding the wand of power against the dark lord as the wizard Gandalf, then self-reflective as Shakespeare’s autobiographical Prospero in the Tempest.

On a tour of the country entirely to the monetary benefit of the hosting theatres, McKellen endeared himself to the Cumbrian audience, serendipitously visiting on the Theatre’s twentieth birthday, “It’s a great joy to me, when I’m far away, to know there is this wonderful theatre in this wonderful place.”

Sir Ian, we do so agree…and no better 20th Birthday party for TBTL than a full house packed so tight with the rich history of theatre and one man’s extraordinary homage to the art form that captured his heart as a child. Fitting that this evening’s takings will benefit the Theatre’s work for young people (including a collection bucket enthusiastically swung by Sir Ian toward every single departing audience member – also a magical chance for each to spend a moment with the star). New artistic director Liz Stephenson might do well to watch the fortunes of this lad from Lancashire: he was born to act.



Don’t look now….

Guards at the Taj: Theatre by the Lake

It’s always fascinating to ponder what inspires playwrights to create dramatic stories. Who would have thought an obscure American historical figure called Alexander Hamilton would be centre-stage for the most successful musical of modern times?

And so why was this story, perhaps part myth, about the building of the Taj Mahal, so captivating that writer Rajiv Joseph was able to turn it into a piece of compelling theatre?

Guards at the Taj, the final component of Theatre by the Lake’s summer season, takes a legend as its starting point and in a dark and very bloody comedy prompts audiences to consider art and privilege, beauty, power, and the powerless. Joseph won awards when this was premiered in New York; audiences here can now see why.

Joseph uses the two guards, Humayun (Devesh Kishore) and Babur (Luke Murphy) appointed to protect the Taj Mahal on the morning of its completion to view what happened…perhaps happened……through their eyes.

It’s 1648. Agra, India. Imperial guards and best mates Humayun and Babur are keeping watch as the final touches are put to the mighty Taj Mahal behind them.

The emperor has decreed that no one, except the masons, labourers and slaves who exist within those walls, shall turn to look at the building until it is complete. Now, as the building nears completion and the first light catches on the pure white domes behind them, the temptation to steal a glance at the most beautiful monument the world has ever seen grows stronger. But beauty has a price and Humayun and Babur are about to learn its true cost.

This production, directed by Kash Arshad, is a mini-masterpiece with more than just undertones of Beckett, unfolding the affectionate relationship of the two protagonists with warm and wicked humour as a prelude to brutal, disturbing developments.Their timing, and their genuine relationship, are both impeccable. It’s a performance of severe intensity.

Guards is both physically raw and existential at the same time. Be careful, if you are of a delicate disposition, not to sit on the front row. It’s a bold choice by the Keswick team, who have new artistic director Liz Stevenson at the helm now, and brought in Kash, the trainee artistic director at Freedom Studios, Bradford.

The night we were there, in the main house Sir Ian McKellen was raising the roof with his one man show, designed to draw attention to the brilliance of regional theatre. A perfect dramatic juxtaposition to highlight the standards here in the Lakes.

Guards at the Taj plays until November. Tickets and details:





Dipping a toe in Deep Water

As a Cumbrian sitting down to watch Deep Water, it was a natural to wonder how far the local villagers had inspired the novels by Paula Daly, who like the character Roz, was a physiotherapist in a previous career: a job that often allows close scrutiny of the lives of others. Might someone I know end up fifty fathoms deep?

From the opening moments small town life is set against a mighty natural backdrop: the scenic setting is breathtaking. In episode one, most action takes place between the plush lakeside residence of the Eleazers whose lives on the surface appear placid -apart from some sisterly bickering -and the homes of Lisa (Friel) and Roz (Sinead Keenan), contrastingly chaotic and cramped.

Friel and Keenan’s characters are harassed working mothers single handedly raising the children and struggling to earn, whilst the males of the series are so far, the drones or downright deplorable. The opening episode introduces a panoply of leading players and packs in a lot of action: a betrayal, an impending scandal, a disappearance, but at the expense of character development.

Slowing it down, adding a shade more colour early on might help us like them enough to care more about their fate. But there are 6 episodes and there’s time. Spoiler alert: it’s episode three before we see Liz and Roz take a country stroll together and as we’re drawn in to gentle bitching and banter, it’s clear they’re close friends. We, the audience want to be in on this closeness.

Despite three (almost) nuclear families with (almost) 2.4 children apiece, there’s a hard edge to the main characters on screen and a lack of humour that makes them harder to empathise with: not a very Northern trait. Even if we’re going deep and dark, we need a hook.

The accents are left well outwith Cumbria, one imagines the edict “just sound like you’re from the North” as a little bit of Liverpool, a Glaswegian lilt and a touch of Welsh threaten to disinvest us in the realness of Cumbrian community. Friel’s Liz- inwardly conflicted or lost?- is the character we’re drawn to most. Losing both her knickers and her friend’s child seems awfully careless and it’s an accomplished performance albeit not clear whether the haunting lack of expression is intentional; could it be a harbinger?

Scriptwriter Anna Symon described the dramatic landscape’s role as bringing an “epic quality to (the characters’) stories, rather than making them feel kind of small.” But perhaps Daly’s novels are the greater for unmasking the trouble beneath the surface of paradise and recognising what happens to the small people of the small towns matters, and keeps us on the edge of our seats. Verdict: Episode one allowed us to dip a toe, it’s anticipated we’ll soon all be in very deep water.


Eclipsing what bigger theatres do

Jerry Springer the Opera, Hope Mill, Manchester
THE other theatres in Manchester must be scratching their heads as to how the ‘Johnny Come Lately’ team at Hope Mill keep knocking the ball clean out of the park.

That’s just what this revived production of Jerry Springer the Opera does. And having seen it play previously in Manchester, we were bowled over that a small venue could eclipse anything the bigger theatres could do…. and then some.

As director James Baker explains: “As we move into another period of political unrest, oh just call it lunacy, Jerry Springer has never been more relevant. With the likes of shows such as Jeremy Kyle being axed and Love Island rightly under scrutiny, it seemed the perfect time to re-evaluate how far we’d come since the original production in 2004.”

The setting at Hope is perfect and much closer to the TV studio I remember going to in Chicago to watch a couple of recordings of Springer back in the late 1990s.

The audience at Hope is partially made up of actors and that works on so many levels because the howling and the baying for blood is all done with good humour and at the same time it makes everybody feel part of what is a raucous yet very funny show.

My experience of the ‘real show’ in Chicago involved a ‘hillbilly court’, which included a separated couple arguing over a pig, which the husband claimed he had fallen in love with and we saw the poor animal being kissed and cuddled on the set, all overseen by Mr Springer. In the end the pig went to the husband!

Ditto at Hope, where there are scenes of Baby Jane (Emily Chesterton) pandering to a grown nappy clad man Montel (David Burilin), who is desperate to be a baby. Then there is Shawntel, played by Cici Howells who wants to take up pole dancing much to the annoyance of her hillbilly husband Chucky (Robin Waugh).

Without giving too much away, the second half is played out in a more spiritual sense and included scenes of a Jesus, also played by Burilin, arguing with his heavenly father (Matt Bond), with Springer (Michael Howe) facing eternal damnation for the perceived consequences of him publicly outing guests for their failings.

There were also outstanding performances from Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Chadwick,  Kai Jolley, Georgina James, Andrew Patrick Walker and the whole choir.

And in an appeal to his audience Mr Baker adds: “I ask you to embrace love and celebrate our differences and come together. We all cry. We all want to be loved. We all feel pain. We are all the same.”

Hope Mill you smashed it again!
Jerry Springer the Opera plays until August 31
Tickets online from or from 0333012 4963

This IS the greatest show…

It’s taken 34 years to perfect the world’s greatest musical.

There have been many fine productions of Les Miserables, around the world, many fine performers brought together to perpetuate the reality and the legend of this masterpiece of musical storytelling.

But this is the ultimate dream cast in a staged concert version which lacks nothing in dramatic presentation. There’s no actual barricade, no death of Gavroche, no cart crash, and yet such is the genius of this production – and of the score and lyrics which contain all the drama within every line of every number – that you barely notice the distinction.

The stage at the Gielgud Theatre, just next door to where the show has run for decades at the Queens ( now Sondheim ) has been used technically and imaginatively to splendid effect. Lighting takes on greater importance. The distillation of Hugo’s epic tale into just a few hours of stage fantasy remains a source of wonder at the genius of the creators, Boublil, Schonberg, Kretzmer.

But above all, the cast , THIS cast. Alongside delightful new faces – Shan Ako as Eponine, and Lily Kerhoas as Cosette – are those singer/actors who have become part of the Les Mis family. There’s the former Eponine, Carrie Hope-Fletcher, who has carved a fascinating and varied West End career, returning as Fantine.

There’s a couple of former Valjeans in an ensemble of remarkable talent: Simon Bowman as the Bishop, Adam Bayjou as Montparnasse, in Thenardier’s gang. Katy Secombe reprises her role as Madame Thenardier; Earl Carpenter – a one-time Javert – is here as  Bamatabois. Matt Lucas, who made his musical theatre debut in the 25th anniversary production,  brings his comic talent again to a less sinister Thenardier. And what about Rob Houchen playing Marius with all the freshness and passion of a new lover?

Is it their familiarity with, and love for, the show that adds intensity and passion to their performances? Along with the recognition that this truly is the ultimate masterpiece of musical theatre? That is so true of Bradley Jaden (another who has also played Javert) who has grown magnificently here into the role of Enjolras, both his voice and stage presence a joy to behold for all who have followed his career.


This night, too, gave us our most magnificent-ever Valjean, John Owen Jones, who is sharing the role with Alfie Boe. He commands the stage, a masterful presence in a company of masters. Bring Him Home was truly a prayer, every fibre of his body, soul and voice beseeching and pleading and soaring to the heavens.

And finally, perhaps the greatest actor among them all on this stage, Michael Ball, who was there at the very beginning of the Les Mis journey as Marius, waiting to grow old enough to play Javert. He brings so much more dimension to this complex character. Yes, Stars is exquisitely sung, but more impressive and imposing still is Javert’s final, tortured and despairing abandonment of a life spent in pursuit of his own truth. We have long recognised Ball’s ability to reinvent himself time and again as an actor, quite apart from his appeal as a musical theatre star, and this performance confirms his mastery.


It’s a precious gem of a show, a treasure which will be held in the hearts of all those fortunate enough to experience this moment in musical history, before Les Mis resumes normal service. We knew it was going to be good, of course. Just how good, no words can quite express.


A captivating new musical

Amelie the musical, Manchester Opera House

If a show has shades of Brecht and Sondheim and Glen Hansard as well as a cameo Elton John, can it be said to be groundbreaking?

Well Amelie certainly is, in her new incarnation as a musical. This UK premiere production of the eponymous film,  book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Messe and Nathan Tyson, is fresh and original, occasionally startling, and let down only by an un-necessarily schmaltzy ending. Of which more later.

The score is a delight, and so is this accomplished cast who (in the spirit of Once) play their own instruments on stage, like travelling troubadours. Apart from Danny Mac as the bewildered , bewitched Nino, there are no big star names (though hello Jez Unwin, were you not the bank manager in the original West End production of Once ). 

And both set and lighting are delightful too, capturing the spirit and style of Paris, and placing the tiny bedsit of our protagonist high above the action, to be reached by the loveliest of circus ascents.

But above all, this is about Amelie herself, a new star in the firmament of musical theatre. The gamine ingenue Audrey Brisson – with a background in the Cirque du Soleil – enchants and bewitches everyone in the theatre, just as her character does with the players around her on stage. She is utterly our ideal Parisienne, down to the perfect accent ( as with all the cast. There is a truly consistent authenticity throughout.)

It’s a love story within the wider narrative of the quirky, imaginative young woman’s desire to bring happiness to the lives of those around her, but with the wittiest of lyrics that never allow the story to slip into the cliche of stagey romance. Until the end. There’s really no need for the last, will they live happily ever after, Hollywood style number. In which even Brisson’s accent slips to shades of Disney.

But in all other respects this is a real gem, a new musical which truly isn’t like anything else. The tour continues after this week in Manchester, and then opens at The Other Palace in London at the end of November for a short season. We promise you will be captivated.

Details and tickets:

Ayckbourn and Chekov in the Lakes

Dear Uncle, Theatre by the Lake

Two of the greatest names in the history of drama, eight outstanding performers, one inspired director, one perfect and natural setting: Dear Uncle makes an unforgettable impact here in Keswick.

This final main-house production in this riveting summer-season is Alan Ayckbourn’s revision of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, transposed to the Lake District in the 1930s, the decade when the middle classes were searching ineffectually for the meaning of life, and a very small minority was concerned about the environment.

So here, just a few miles from the setting at an estate in Ennerdale, there’s a special poignancy in the concerns of Dr Ash (Chris Porter) about mass afforestation, “the rape of the natural landscape”, the need to protect native woodland, and to “save the planet”. There’s laughter among this local audience at the notion of having to go and live in Carlisle (but also widespread audible correcting of the one topographical faux-pas. It’s Crummock Water, not “lake”).

The estate is owned by Cedric, Sir, Professor, a tediously verbose retired academic (Patrick Driver) whose concerns are restricted to his own life, ill-health and writings. Onto this stage of pastoral tranquility, heralded by Beethoven’s eponymous symphony, steps his beautiful young second wife Helena (Asha Kingsley) whose effect on the passions of the protagonists is mirrored by thunder storms beyond the window.

Both the doctor and the “uncle”, Marcus (Dominic Gately) are transfixed by her beauty and infected by her inertia, while 16 year old Sonya  (played on this occasion by Joelle Brabban) is touchingly infatuated with the doctor, who sees her only as a schoolgirl (teenagers not having been invented back then).

Observing all this search for the truth of the human condition as seen through a glass of sherry are the acerbic matriarch Veronica (Maggie O’Brien) and the sadly moralistic family friend Julian (Eric Potts) whose belief in traditional values extends to paying the school fees of the children his ex-wife had by the man she left him for. They all crave the solid, down to earth  nurturing of the Nanny (Rachel Laurence), for whom a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches can be the solution to most of life’s problems.

Each of the characters is exquisitely drawn, and drawn out, in this fluidly directed production, another great triumph for Tom Littler. Even the choreographed scene changes have a beauty of their own. And the final scene, the calm after the storm, is a gem in itself, a quietly reflective finale while the audience is waiting for an explosive denouement.

It might be not only recommended but even necessary to see this production more than once; as with all great drama, further layers will be peeled and revealed.

Dear Uncle runs until November 2. Details and bookings: