Category Archives: Uncategorized

Cinematic experience on stage

The Bodyguard, the Musical. Manchester Palace Theatre

The Bodyguard – The Musical returns to the Manchester Palace Theatre, based on the 1992 blockbuster film which starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.

For those who’ve not seen the film, its narrative surrounds superstar Rachel Marron (Alexandra Burke) who is under threat from a celebrity stalker. Frank Farmer (Ben Lewis), a former agent turned bodyguard, reluctantly accepts the offer to protect Marron but as their relationship progresses it takes a romantic turn.

The Bodyguard – The Musical is truly a cinematic experience on stage. The lighting design, by Mark Henderson, achieves a whole array of special FX including slow motion sequences and combinations of projected video (designed by Duncan McLean). The set is striking and simple, but extremely effective with a movable front screen that ‘frames’ the action on stage much like we were watching the film come to life before our eyes.

As with any jukebox musical, songs are used to both complement the narrative and used diegetically (for instance when Rachel Marron herself is performing on stage or in rehearsal). It is certainly the later production numbers that really get the atmosphere pumping with exhilarating choreography by Karen Bruce delivered exquisitely by the ensemble cast, matching any arena concert for production value.

The musical makes a few narrative decisions to enhance this show. For instance, we see ‘the stalker’ played by the menacing Phil Atkinson from the outset. This allows the tension to build when he appears out of the blue in certain scenes. Denman, a silent character for the most part, is certainly a foreboding figure and plays the part well. His striking good looks did not go unnoticed by audience members, as overheard at the interval bar – “I wouldn’t mind being stalked by him!”

While the film is set in the pre-cyber age of 1992, the musical is slightly modernised, with social media such as Instagram referenced in the plot. In one way, this magnifies our current celebrity obsession with social media, but I feel it would have been just fine keeping it in the early 90s and a little of the nostalgia is lost.

A more prominent role in the narrative is given to Marron’s sister Nicki who struggles to live in the shadow of her celebrity sister, played by Emmy Willow whose excellent vocal prowess is anything but living in Burke’s shadow. She is a superb match opposite Alexandra Burke who also does an incredible job pinning the show together with not just her stunning, soulful voice but a sensitive acting approach. The chemistry between the bodyguard (Lewis) and Burke is strong and there is also delightful performance from young Fletcher (played by Caleb Williams in this performance).

The final few musical numbers certainly lead towards a fantastic climax which is the highlight of the night. With every member of the audience on their feet all pretences of character are dropped and we are treated to a jaw-dropping performance from the full company with one of Whitney’s most loved songs. For fans of Whitney’s music, the film, or for those just looking for a night of great entertainment, this is certainly a show not to be missed.

The Bodyguard – The Musical runs until January 4 at the Manchester Palace Theatre. Details and tickets: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-bodyguard/palace-theatre-manchester/

Rob Owen

Strictly Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Manchester Opera House

This year’s Opera House pantomime is the enchanting fairy-tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This latest offering from Qdos Entertainment promises an ‘abundance of jaw-dropping dance, side-splitting comedy, sensational special effects and plenty of festive magic’ and it does not disappoint.

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It stars Craig Revel Horwood as the wicked Queen Lucretia who wants Prince Harry (the delightful Joshua St Clair) all to himself. She launches an elaborate plot to dispose of Snow White (the incredibly talented Zoe George) in order to have her wicked way with Prince Harry [of Hulme]. Harry, with the help of The Magnificent Seven (a very Mancunian set of dwarfs), manages to thwart the Queen’s wicked plan in the happy ending we all know and expect. Horwood has a fantastic presence as the evil queen, and delights the audience with his usual cutting jibes.

The show is linked together by veteran panto dame Eric Potts as Nora Crumble, whose glorious frocks get more outrageous with each scene. Potts masterfully lands gags with just the right dose of double entendre, the highlight being a tit-for-tat, tongue-twisting sequence with the Queen herself via poor side-kick Muddles, which leads to a good deal of ‘corpsing’ – much to the delight of the audience.

Muddles, played by the returning Ben Nickless – fresh from his show-stealing performance in last year’s Cinderella – delights kids and adults alike with his slap-stick comedy, brilliant impressions, and improvised gags. There is a fantastic feeling of spontaneity about this show, and more than a nod to shows such as The Play That Goes Wrong which leave the audience crying with laughter, not least in The Twelve Days of Christmas which (almost literally) brings the house down.

There is a Mancunian spirit about the show, with a few in-jokes to natives of the city and some friendly banter. There is also an acute sense of the political climate, with some jibes thrown at both Boris and Trump, and even a Prince Andrew gag thrown in which receives a round of applause.

With plenty of catchy songs, some old favourites and some new, there is something for everyone. Of course, with a Strictly Come Dancing headliner, you can also expect some brilliantly executed choreography that will have you up on your feet by the show’s finale. Combined with some truly spectacular special effects, from flying dragons to CGI Magic Mirrors, this has something for all ages looking for that dose of family Christmas entertainment.

Rob Owen

Snow White runs until December 29 with a signed performance on December 17.

https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/snow-white/opera-house-manchester/

The ultimate showbiz, Mama

Gypsy, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 

Even the most die-hard Sondheim fan will agree that Gypsy is, well, a bit strange. Though Sondheim DOES go for strange, of course.

But here we have the overwhelmingly, overpoweringly pushy mother determined to get her kids on stage at all costs, irrespective of their feelings, or anyone else’s.  It’s a period piece: why, today, she’d be lining them up for the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

Not an obvious Christmas production choice, then, but in the hands of the team at the Royal Exchange, magic happens. Gypsy is turned into a boisterous romp, strong on theatricality, with big bows to pantomime, terrific dancing and, of course, a stunningly powerful performance all round from Ria Jones leading the cast as Rose.

There’s a tap-dancing pantomime  cow, a miniature steam train chugging round the stage just below the first level seats, acrobatics, dancing in Dutch clogs, lots of balloons. All of this is made possible by the way that this very special space is used – once again – to ultimate effect. It’s surely the most exquisitely-designed theatre in the country, and the Royal Exchange lends itself so well to this kind of extravaganza.

Baby June and Baby Louise (Marley Quinlan-Gardner and Maddison Arnold) grow up into their delectable “older” selves (Melissa Lowe and Melissa James) in spite of Mama Rose’s efforts to keep them young forever. (Louise always gets ten candles on her birthday cake, in Rose’s attempts to stop the passage of time.)

The other attempts, to keep tough, manipulative Rose grounded in the real world, are made by the long suffering Herbie (Dale Rapley). Above all, what we loved, was the dancing, exuberant, joyful routines, with an outstanding performance by Louis Gaunt as Tulsa.

Gypsy is full of odd concepts, slightly surreal at times, but performed here throughout full of good heart and good humour. All credit to  director Jo Davies, MD Leo Munby, and to  choreographer Andrew Wright.

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Photo by Johan Persson

This production has design by Francis O’Connor, choreography by Andrew Wright, musical supervision by Joel Fram, costume design by Gabrielle Dalton, sound design by Carolyn Downing, lighting design by Colin Grenfell and casting by Jerry Knight-Smith, Vicky Richardson and Claire Bleasdale.

 

Gypsy runs at the Royal Exchange till Jan 25. Details and tickets: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/gypsy

Life at the edge

A BENCH AT THE EDGE: Tristan Bates Theatre
First staged back in 1981, Luigi Jannuzzi’s A Bench at the Edge – now brought to London by Off The Cliff Theatre – draws inspiration from Theatre of the Absurd and surrealism. Though not as conceptual as some Pinter-y plays, it does what absurd theatre does best – it reconcile contradictions. In this very case – life and death.
Number One (Meg Lake) has seen it all. Seated on her bench for 25 years, she saw “bullets” – people “diving” into the “abyss” within a blink of an eye, doubtless – but she also saw those who thought long and hard before the “heroic dive”, and even saved few others before “diving”. Whatever is driving her to observe these people and her part of the “abyss” is not exactly clear – but she does have her own motives, as revealed in one particularly intense moment of dialogue with Number Two (Harriet Main), when the edge (pun intended) surprisingly shifts towards her. Number Two, on the other hand, has some much clearer storyline – which, abysmal (pun intended again) as it is, leads her to a surprising conclusion.
It is nigh on impossible to tell this story without spoiling it, although what the “abyss” and the “edge” really are, becomes very clear pretty early on. It is, though, a source of certain satisfaction, to watch two heroines fighting with themselves over said edge, when one finally realize what are the stakes in this fight.
Directing by Kasia Różycki is more than decent throughout most of the play and sublime at times – especially during Number Two’s heart-wrenching backstory. With bench and rope (marking the “abyss”) as the only elements of stage-design and a single cello (played on by Samuel Creer) as the “soundtrack”, the entire story relies heavily on pure acting talent. Originally staged with two male actors, Różycki chose two actresses to play Number One and Number Two. It is, by all means, pretty much irrelevant – the roles are genderfluid, so to speak. Both Meg Lake and Harriet Main, though, are stunning in their roles, with Lake being particularly exquisite – hidden behind a curtain of cynics, Number One’s vulnerability, when revealed, hits strong.
A Bench at the Edge is a brilliant little play. Staged with wit and ingenuity and masterfully played, it is pure pleasure to watch what it shows – and pure agony to think what it implies.
1 hour
26-30 November
Tristan Bates Theatre at The Actors Centrebox office: 02038416611

Dominika Fleszar

Dazzling high camp in the desert

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Palace Theatre, Manchester

This fresh reworking of Priscilla Queen of the Desert is produced by Jason Donovan who starred in the original West End production and two subsequent UK tours, and established theatre producer Mark Goucher.

Based on the 1994 camp, cult film, the show stars Strictly Come Dancing winner and Holby City actor, Joe McFadden, who plays Tick, (AKA Mitzi) a seasoned drag queen, who persuades two of his drag chums to board a battered old bus called ‘Priscilla’ and take an epic journey to Alice Springs where they plan to put on ‘the show of a lifetime’. It is later (rather shockingly) revealed that Tick has an ulterior agenda involving a reunion with his ex-wife and an emotional, first time meeting with his six year old son.

This juxtaposition of dazzling high camp and heart-warming emotional truth characterises the show as each character faces not only the arduous trek across the Australian outback but also their own emotional odysseys. Along the way they meet with aggressive hostility and genuine kindness and each character matures and blossoms in their own way.

McFadden’s performance is wonderfully cheeky and sincere with great timing, comic flair and surprisingly good vocal ability – although he doesn’t always match up to the outrageous flamboyance of his fellow cast mates.

The fabulously acerbic, recently widowed old trouper, Bernadette, is beautifully played by Olivier Award Winner, Miles Western. He truthfully portrays the pain, wisdom and stoic dignity that lie beneath Bernadette’s rapier wit and stunningly delivered barbed one-liners and watching the unlikely love story unfold between her and blokey mechanic Bob (Daniel Fletcher) is simply joyful.

The third road trip buddy on this adventure is Adam (AKA Felicia) played by Nick Hayes who throws himself into the role with spectacular vivacity and stunning energy. Felicia is camp, outrageous and bitchy and Hayes delivers this in spades whilst playing Adam’s fragile vulnerability with heart-breaking authenticity.

This jukebox musical spills over with iconic pop songs from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s most of which are belted out by the sensational Divas played by Rosie Glossop, Aiesha Pease and Claudia Kariuki . These fierce women are a vocal tour de force who keep the high octane energy of the show at a consistent 100% throughout.

Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is truly stunning throughout. It is complex, witty and gloriously theatrical and impressively executed by a cast working in outrageously flamboyant costumes, designed along with the clever multifunctional set by Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels.

Interestingly, despite the retro songs, this is not a nostalgia piece and I don’t think Priscilla has dated. Some aspects and references have been contemporised and it is essentially an LGBTQ story but the themes are universal and wide-reaching and absolutely relevant today.

This is a fabulous crowd pleaser with real heart that’s absolutely bursting with catchy disco classics and cheesy but heartfelt ballads and this short run (Nov 25 – 30) at The Palace Theatre Manchester is not to be missed.

 

Vincent Pemberley

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect way to stage Christmas

A Christmas Carol, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Charles Dickens had no idea what he was unleashing with his seasonal tale of ghosts and redemption.
And the penitence and transformation of parsimonious Ebeneezer Scrooge has never been seen quite like this before, in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of our Christmas favourite.
Director Gemma Fairlie presents a rumbustious, imaginative and playful version, with hilarious sound effects, clever staging and even some makeshift puppetry. No use trying to explain that Tiny Tim is played by items of crockery and cutlery; this simply has to be seen to be believed.
There are elements of panto, with the closest that the Ghost of Christmas Present has ever come to a pantomime dame, and a most glorious seasonal finale with snow falling on the audience.
But ultimately the success of this utterly joyous production is due to the frenetic talent of the ever-present cast of just five players. To say this is a busy show is an understatement; Dickens meets the 39 Steps comes closer.

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Only Darren Lawrence as Scrooge says in part throughout, morphing from miserable miser to beatific benefactor with great gusto. The other four actors – Pete Ashmore, Sally Cheng, Max Gallagher and Claire Storey – do all the rest. And we mean ALL: doors, seats, coat hangers included.
They also sing, dance and play a range of instruments, to provide us with both a series of Christmas carols and some of those wonderful sound effects. There are zany costume changes and marvellous voice switches, most notably when two of Bob Cratchit’s children appear as dinner plates. (Cousin Frederick’s five children are played by concertina’d paper cutouts but, again, only seeing is truly believing.)
The three ghosts are not really scary, in case you were wondering if this is a show for all the family. In fact, schools from all over Cumbria will be coming to see matinees. Young children will miss some of the nuances of what is, after all, a rather serious message, but as an introduction to theatre – and to Dickens – this is close to perfect. And a splendid way for the Theatre by the Lake company to wish a first happy Christmas to new artistic director Liz Stevenson.

A Christmas Carol plays until January 11. Tickets and details: https://www.theatrebythelake.com/whats-on

Time to forgive your friend?

Book review: A Forgiven Friend

It’s the dark days. That time of the year when we need reviving rather than uplifting. The time of year when film makers have a gut instinct that what we need is the frivolity of Last Christmas rather than a classic like The Godfather. And when our reading habits cosy down from Middlemarch to… well, to something classically frivolous like A Forgiven Friend.
Yes, they’re back, the feuding friends Lee and Terri, in this third in the trilogy by Susan Pape and Sue Featherstone. With complications this time, including a baby on the way, and a coffin on the way out.
But we’re not here to spoil the plot. The girls….well, grown women who ought to know better…. are still bitching about each other, still feuding over fellas, still getting their designer heels stuck in the mud.
For one of them at least, the Sauvignon Blanc has to be replaced with Guatemalan Elephant Slow Roast, though of course we’re not going to spill the beans and divulge who is having the pregnancy.
As before, the reader gets the impression that media and academic types in the north spend more time making frenetic love on bleached wood floors than they do at work. Hey ho, maybe this IS all part of the job?
It’s a world the two writers know well and pastiche well. There must be several egos around newsrooms and TV studios wondering, is this supposed to be based on me?
All other readers will titter and then laugh out loud. This is chick lit with attitude, and Mesdames Pape and Featherstone know how to create characters and keep the dialogue rolling along.
It’s an unusual partnership, of course, to have co-writers who share the work and write alternate chapters. And as before those alternate chapters are narrated by the protagonists, Lee and Terri, themselves. It’s not classic literature, but the sort of fun reading to brighten up a dark winter night, and the perfect Christmas present for your favourite female friend, of course.

A Forgiven Friend, by Sue Featherstone and Susan Pape is published by Lakewater Press http://lakewaterpress.com/index.php/our-books/a-forgiven-friend-by-sue-featherstone-and-susan-pape/