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Karen Ryder
(163 Reviews)

Twelve Angry Men

Twelve Angry Men - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 27th February 2024


Twelve Angry Men is no ordinary court room drama, the brilliance being that it shifts the focus from the court room into the jury deliberation room.  This means that as well as us watching the jurors bring their own narratives, prejudices and experiences to the evidence and facts of the case, we as the audience are forced into a similar position because we are unable to make our own unbiased decisions on whether the boy on charge is guilty or not.  We are unable to do this because we do not hear the evidence first hand, we hear it filtered down through the lens of these characters so it has already been infiltrated, misremembered and manipulated depending on their viewpoint.  Add into that the fact that as human beings we are already doing exactly the same thing and forming personal opinions on the jurors.  Do we like them?  Do we trust them?  Do find them calm or aggressive?  Trustworthy or biased?  All of these things will help us conclude whose ‘side’ we are on, and who we believe.  As humans, it is hard not to fall prey to such instincts, but as jurors, these are exactly the things we must avoid at all costs.  And so we too find ourselves at the heart of a court system that is full of complexities, one that is able to manipulate heightened stereotypes and make questionable evidence ring true, that is able to gloss over compelling details that contradict said evidence if the Lawyer for the defence is state appointed and resentful to his client, perhaps because of his own prejudices, perhaps because he isn’t making any money.  So many things are able to influence our bias and manipulate our perceived free will along a path of breadcrumbs laid out for us, and lead us straight into the sweaty hands of a dominant Lawyer. 

This is exactly what is at play in this jury room.  Except for one juror.  Juror 8.  He is not so willing to blindly accept what is affectively being spelt out to him.  He doesn’t necessarily have full conviction that the boy on trial is innocent, but he also remembers one vital fact.  Beyond reasonable doubt.  One of the highest standards of proof in criminal law, ensuring no one, including this boy on trial, can be convicted unless their guilt has been proven beyond any possible question.  Juror 8 has questions.  He is not willing to submit to herd mentality.  He will not simply go with the majority for his own end, so he can get out the hot, suffocating jury room, or so he can get home to his sick child, or to make sure that heavens forbid – he doesn’t miss a ball game of his beloved team!  He has integrity, his own mind, and empathy.  So as juror 8 stands alone in voting ‘not guilty’ based upon his reasonable doubt, our story begins as bit by bit he questions the evidence given by the Lawyers, and he casts doubt upon the reliability of the witnesses.  In short, he does the job the defence Lawyer should have done.

What follows is compelling.  Juror 8 exposes the bias and prejudice of the other jurors and challenges their assumptions.  He calmly goads the volatile juror 3 into attacking him, forcing him to shout out “I’m gonna kill you,” a statement also used as evidence, for the boy on trial was overheard shouting the same thing to his father who he is accused of murdering.  Up until this point, juror 3 has declared this hard evidence to the boys guilt for “no one would say that unless they meant it.”  His theory is proved wrong.  Juror 8 is played by Jason Merrells (The Girl On The Train, Emmerdale, Finding Alice) and juror 3 by Tristan Gemmill (Coronation Street, Casualty, The Bodyguard) and the contrasting personalities of their characters makes for a thrilling performance.  Between them they create plenty of intriguing clashes, both feeling their way through them in opposing manners, and just as we are starting to have little, if any patience for juror 8 and his belligerent, bullying ways, we are hit with our own judgements right at the end of the play, where we are given a heart wrenching insight and understanding as to why he is the way he is.  This is finished off with the most simple and touching of gestures by juror 8, showing that empathy and understanding can always be on the table, despite our own slighted feelings.  Only this way, can change ever stand a chance.  Together, Merrells and Gemmill are captivating.

Gray O’ Brien (Educating Rita, The Loch, Coronation Street) is powerful as the racist juror 10.  He drip feeds his poisonous prejudices throughout, and cannot understand why no one else sees what he sees.  This culminates in a stand out monologue and a turning point in the whole show as his racist outburst, intended to convince others that he is right and so therefore the boy on trial must be guilty, in fact has the opposite effect, and makes the other jurors wake up to what has been at play here on a subconscious level in many of their own minds.  As jurors 5 and 11 purposefully get up and walk out into the bathroom, slamming the door behind them, one by one, the other jurors remove themselves from 10’s stratosphere placing distance between them and turning their backs on him.  Juror 10 is left alone and he realises he has just lost any credibility he may have had.  As an audience member, you could hear a pin drop during this uncomfortable tirade of racist abuse and that is a good thing for we should feel uncomfortable.  This script is written so intelligently, for the natural instinct would be for someone to argue back, for someone to point out how disgustingly wrong he is.  Instead, he is left to keeping talking, digging a bigger and bigger grave for his own views, as the lack of response and support speaks volumes in the lingering silence.  It is powerful.    

The energetic jokester juror 10 is brilliantly performed by Michael Greco (Hatfields &McCoys, Eastenders, Chicago).  He brings humour to this tense situation and loves his baseball team so much, he is willing to find the boy guilty for a quick result so they can be excused and he can make the game.  His detail to character, whether it be chewing gum, messing with his hat, walking with the exact kind of confident jaunt you would expect, this is the type of character we all know or have met and Greco brings him truly alive.  He is able to provide quick one liners and provide comedic moments in such a natural and realistic manner that he equally never threatens the drama involved or belittles the overall theme.  Ben Nealon (Witness For The Prosecution, Dial M For Murder, Soldier Soldier) also gives the audience those moments that allow us to relax and breath from the undeniable tension as Juror 12, for he cannot keep up with the overwhelming arguments for both cases of guilty and not guilty, and so keeps changing his mind.  He is the perfect representation of someone who feels the pressure of stronger personalities and so relents more easily than others.  However, through the depths of Nealon’s performance, we can also see how this does not sit well with him, and the uncomfortable inner turmoil he is grappling with shines through.

Gary Webster (Minder, Family Affairs, Macbeth) as juror 6 takes some convincing to switch to a not guilty vote, as he blindly stands by his gut feelings.  He gives us another angle to consider as he focuses on the motive for murder rather than the evidence, but this is also the downfall to his beliefs in a brilliantly dramatic and mesmerising moment.  As we see him quick to defend juror 9, played by the wonderful Paul Beech (King Lear, The Rivals, David Copperfield), we see chinks of compassion and a protective kindness.  Webster plays these contrasting elements of his character with such believability that we don’t initially see what is right under our noses – we are not simple creatures who are all good or all bad and so to make quick and rash summations will not provide us with accuracy.  Paul Beech’s calm and gentle nature may be dismissed in a room of larger personalities and hot heads to begin with, but his fairness, and empathy are a leading light in being able to put ourselves in the shoes of those involved in the case.  He understands the potential motives of one of the witnesses for embellishing his testament when it is proved to be impossible.  He doesn’t project anger and mistrust, instead, he offers explanation using his own experiences and feelings as a reason to defend the boy rather than convict him as most others are quick to do.  Beech brings a serene wisdom to the proceedings.

Samarge Hamilton (The Shawshank Redemption, Abandon, Holby) and Kenneth Jay (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Shawshank Redemption) are jurors 5 and 11 respectively.  They are treated with hostility by some of the others from the off because of race and ethnicity.  Both reflect this struggle and injustice with a graceful demeanour, Hamilton through his contained and controlled feelings speaking to us through expressive yet subtle body language and facial expressions, and Jay through the charismatic and charming delivery of powerful responses, particularly to the racist juror 10 when he asks, “What are you so goddam polite about?”  He beautifully responds with such powerful simplicity, “For the same reason you’re not.  It’s the way I was brought up.”  The delicate aura of both these characters are pitched perfectly to give a profound grace to the marginalised, whilst the prejudice lose power with their volume and brash approach.  Mark Heenehan (The Shawshank Redemption, Evita, Patient Zero) is the privileged juror 4 who has a genuine belief that he is from a better class than the defendant and that class automatically equates to honesty and decency.  He has a powerful presence throughout and his measured and composed approach to the entire room holds up against any evidence to suggest he may be wrong.  He has an aura about him that is hard to define but gives him an authority that many turn to and look up to.  He does not raise his voice, he does not need to because his presence is such that you will pay attention to him just because he is there.  It is an almost hypnotic performance and brilliantly executed.

Paul Lavers (The Sound Of Music, Catch Me If You Can, Doctor Who) and Owen Oldroyd (The Shawshank Redemption, Blithe Spirit, The Scarifyers) play juror 2 and juror 1 – the foreman.  Both portray a brilliant performance of frustrated restraint as they are talked over, dismissed, belittled, and on the receiving end of aggression.  They still make their characters shine in a play full of large personalities and fantastically highlight how acting, as in life, is just as much about what you don’t say than what you do.  Completing the cast onstage tonight was Jeffrey Harmer (An Inspector Calls, Shadowlands, Diana: Her True Story) as the guard, who despite having little involvement with the jurors, is still onstage throughout and not once breaks character.  It is rare I talk through every single cast member in a production, but Twelve Angry Men has to be an exception as it is an ensemble piece in its truest form.  No single performance could achieve its potential without the brilliance detailed by every single cast member.  Therefore, I cannot in all fairness talk about some and not others.

This cast do not leave the stage.  They have to give a true performance and be tuned into their characters reactions and responses.  They have to portray the human nature of their minds wandering to irrelevant places, and then find a way back into the present.  They have to know what their character is thinking and feeling at every given moment, and it shows.  It shows on each and every one of them and it creates an effortless flow.  It is so believable, so realistic that you are swept away and the time flies by.  You are so enraptured by the performances that you can be forgiven for not noticing certain effects, such as the slowly rotating table, until of course, like me, you suddenly realise it has changed positions and wonder how and when it happened.  The only thing that some audience members struggled with was hearing the quieter characters when they spoke.  There of course had to be a contrast in dynamics and making you strain to listen does have a certain effect of really drawing the audience in and making us focus on your every word, but I do wonder if we sometimes struggled in the stalls, how would those in the seats higher up and further away manage?

Directed by Christopher Haydon, Twelve Angry Men has not lost anything in its transfer from the epic film many know and love, to this production.  In fact, it has gained momentum, because we are not guided by camera angles as to who we should be watching or focusing on, we are free for our eyes to continually roam across all of the characters.  Therefore, the direction had to be engaging and thorough throughout, which it truly was.  The creative team of Michael Pavelka (set and costume), Chris Davey (lighting) and Andy Graham (sound) does an outstanding job of capturing the suffocation of the temperature, the storm (with water that splashes down across the windows), the stifling irritation of the outside noise, the fan, and the claustrophobia of the room they are all locked in. 

This production of Twelve Angry Men honours the late, great Bill Kenwright with its dedication to outstanding theatre and its ability to make an entire audience sit on the edge of their seats, question themselves, and leave wondering what on earth they would do given the same circumstances.  There is no easy answer as you can’t help but face the fact that juror 8 not only made all his fellow jurors question their reasoning, but undeniably, made the entire audience do so too.  And it showed that anger and hate does not have to win.  Compassion, empathy, control, understanding, and listening are far more powerful resources to possess, and when held with nerve, pride and unbiased conviction, have the ability to change even the most hardened of minds. 



Watch our "In Conversation with Tristan Gemmill" video discussing the show

Gypsy - The Musical in Concert

Gypsy The Musical In The Concert - Opera House, Manchester - Sunday 25th February 2024


In my world, a night at the theatre is always something special, but every so often it is sprinkled with a little bit of extra magic, something that epitomises all that theatre is about, and tonight was one of those nights.  Hope Mill Theatre have produced a one night only experience in order to raise essential funds for their Hope For The Future Campaign to secure their wonderful venue, their work, the livelihoods of many in the arts, not to mention continuing to produce top notch work for us adoring fans to enjoy.  Tonight, all the stars aligned for what can only be described as a sensational performance of Gypsy.  They brought the whole show together in about 6 days and this is kudos to the love and respect everyone feels towards their directors William Whelton and Joseph Houston that this was at all possible.  It was also a great thing to experience our theatres supporting each other, so a huge shout out to ATG and the Manchester Opera House team who hosted this event without ever taking any of the spotlight off Hope Mill.

tells the story of the original momager, mamma Rose, whose brings out all the stops to make her children stars.  But when her favourite child Baby June runs off, she is left with Lousie who she has never considered to have any talent.  Still, the show must go on right, and so Rose reinvents the stale act around Louise until one day they find themselves in a Burlesque show.  As one of the burlesque acts is arrested, Louise offers to stand in as the money is good.  And that, folks, is how Gypsy Rose Lee was born.  Gypsy finds she has a natural born talent for her stripping technique of less is more and becomes the kind of star that Rose had always dreamed one of her children, and perhaps even she would be.  But once Gypsy has made it, where does that leave Rose?  What is her purpose then?  She is left facing some tough demons as to why she did what she did, but maybe, just maybe, there is hope for her yet…

This ‘Musical In Concert’ turned out to be a full production!  Something that I was not expecting, and it makes the mind boggle even more as to how this whole thing was pulled off in such a short time.  The fabulous orchestra were nestled onto the stage, split down the middle, with a central ‘stage door’ arch behind them.  Several iconic spotlight style lamps flood the stage as dry ice smoked around, creating a glorious glow, and showbiz heaven.  Curtains draped across the sides and the back of the stage, which were projected onto with maps and locations to keep track of Mamma Rose’s circuit tours.  The whole vibe was stylish and utterly fabulous.  The orchestra struck up the opening notes of that infamous overture and there was a collective intake of breath as magic resonated throughout the theatre.

We all knew we were in for a treat.  Then the children burst onto the stage with a fizz, pizazz, and razzamatazz that took us all by surprise for these singing, dancing mini’s were complete professionals!  Many were even from Hope Mills own performing arts school, which gives us even more proof that this evening is worth every penny!  Halle Brady as Baby June and Amelia Munshi as Baby Louise were flawless, high kicking, doing splits, and both nailing their respective characters with ease. 

As for the rest of the cast – I mean wow!  It was explained to us at the end of the performance that a meeting with the late, great, Paul O’ Grady had him announcing that he would love to see Jodie Prenger play Rose in Gypsy, and what an outstanding call that was!  I mean, if ever anyone was born to play a role!  I simply am lost for words as to how incredible she was.  Prenger absolutely embodied the role whilst equally making it entirely her own, and the result was phenomenal.  She played Rose with a subtle charisma, charm, and vulnerability that I have never seen before, and it took the character to a whole new level.  I fully understood Rose’s drive, her persistence, and how despite her pushy tunnel vision, why those in her life stood it for as long as they did.   Rose sings “I had a dream..” in musical snippets throughout, but tonight, I fully understood the intricacies of Rose’s bigger dream because of Prenger’s interpretation – the dreams Rose had for herself that she pushed aside when she had children.  And dare I say, for the first time ever, I even felt sympathy for Rose, because I understood that in her eyes, she was only ever doing the best for everyone, and at some point, her best always made them leave her. 

Her performance was full of passion and when she sang Rose’s turn – I mean, come on!  The place erupted and everyone jumped to their feet.  A standing ovation mid show is a rare thing.  I have only witnessed it twice before, so it is a small club to be in, and tonight Jodie Prenger became it’s newest and well deserving member.  I’m aware I’m gushing, but sometimes, you’ve just gotta gush it out!  Tom Lister as Herbie also brought a new side out of this character which was fantastic to see.  He played Herbie as less of a push over than I have previously seen and more as an equal comrade, so in turn this changed the dynamic of his relationship with Rose.  Therefore, when he did finally leave her, the stakes were so much higher and the emotion was much more raw.  He actual broke my heart and I was entirely hooked into his every word.  His scenes with Jodie Prenger were so natural and full of that extra special something, and his vocals were spot on.

Grace Mouat
as Louise wowed us with her transformation of the quite shy girl who lived in the shadows, to this confident and strong woman.  Every nuance from her voice, facial expressions, vocal delivery, right down to the way she would extend her arms during a dance scene had progression as she evolved Louise into the world’s biggest star!  There was no jolting big bang moment here.  Instead, she expertly accomplished the revolution so slickly that it realistically crept up on us in the most marvellous way.  Her vocals were crystal clear and it is no wonder she has an army of fans that have stayed with her from her time in ‘Six’ and ‘& Juliet’May Tether as June gave us a fabulously funny performance, showing us the flip sides of the showbiz performer Baby June who is all jazz hands, teeth and squeaky smiles, verses the frustrated and ignored real person behind it all.  Her brilliant comic timing meant every possible moment landed for an appreciative audience, and we lapped it up.

Divina De Campo, Harriet Thorpe, and Liz Fletcher
brought the house down as the tantalising trio of strippers Miss Mazeppa, Tessie Tura and Electra.  Each one graced the stage to applause as the anticipation for one of musical theatres favourite numbers inched closer.  I am of course talking about ‘You gotta have a gimmick,’ which incidentally was famously performed at The Royal Variety Performance in 2001 by the aforementioned Paul O’ Grady, alongside his wonderful pals Cilla Black and Barbara Windsor.  Our trio tonight did the showbiz legends in the sky so proud.  It was everything you’d want it to be, and then some.  Full of sass, attitude, confidence, powerful and striking vocals, and jam packed with rip roaring comedy, they made this number the stand out moment in the show that it is meant to be.  It comes with so much expectation attached to it, but all three took that expectation, gave it their own unique stamp, and served it back to us with a side dish of kaboom!  Idriss Kargbo as Tulsa was so light on his feet during his solo ‘All I Need Is The Girl,’ it was almost hypnotic to watch.  Peter Gunn as both Pop and Mr. Goldstone brought joy, comedy gold, and outstanding acting, as did Angela Lonsdale as Miss Cratchit.

I think the whole audience would agree that the only down side to this entire production was that it only gets one night.  I, for one, would grab tickets to watch this a second time…..and a third……and a……..well you get the idea as to how fabulous it was.  Usually when a show ends, many audience members rush out and do not stay to listen to the orchestra complete the evening, but tonight, not only did everyone stay, longing to soak in every moment of this special evening, they were still entirely enraptured and agog, the level of applause when the orchestra finished playing saying all that needed to be said.  Congratulations to Hope Mill Theatre and everyone involved for a truly wonderful evening.  Baby June started the evening by exclaiming “Let me entertain you.  Let me make you smile.”  Mission well and truly accomplished.  Thank you.    



Photo credits - Grant Archer

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 23rd February 2024


Ursula is back in town and this powerful, progressive, and purple sea witch means business!  Her tentacles will try to tantalise, tease and tame you and she will throw a tidal wave of doubt upon the story you thought you knew.  Ariel the little who now?!  Please!  Two legs and two hands are so 1990!  This cephalopod has eight feelers and has no issue in slapping you down with each and every one of them until she has reduced you the sucker that you are.  So swim yourself down to The Lowry and let Ursula tell you the story of what really happened under the sea.  She will strangle the Disney out of Disney, give it a 2024 swagger, adult up the whole concept and leave many of you soaking wet! 

Fat Rascal Theatre have once again proven their musical theatre magnificence with Unfortunate, having done the rounds at festivals, nationwide tours, and solidifying its smash hit sex appeal with a critically acclaimed run in London.  It is now back on tour bigger, bolder and brassier than ever!  With a fierce and filthy sense of humour throughout, this is no fairytale of a Princess who needs to change and adapt, or to be rescued by her Prince.  This is the stuff of legends where the marginalised break through to put their stamp on the world, and where icons are born.  So, is Unfortunate’s Ursula really full of black, repulsive and repellent ink, or is she simply creating a defence mechanism as the one who was truly wrong all those years ago?  Dive into her world, swim around in her waters, and see if you would have reacted differently.  Gruesome and guilty, or glamourous and gaslit?  Ursula had her heart broken, was fitted up for murder, banished from Atlantica, and treated as an unworthy outcast.  Then out of the blue, the very man who let her down turns up asking for help with his daughter Ariel (or Anal, or Ariola as she may sometimes also be called!)  I mean really, under those circumstances, what’s a gal to do right?  Ursula hooks us into her world and we wait with baited breath to discover just how deliciously devilish this diva can be when it comes to setting the story straight.  Her smut, fierce rebut and hypnotic strut will beguile your senses, entice your dark side to come out and play, and liberate your mind.  Inspired one liners reveal insight into Ursula’s loves, life, and aspirations and you’ll be made privy to the inner workings of her heart, her brain, and her libido!  Ursula rules this fabulously fishy tale and have no doubt, the entire spectacle is on her terms.

There is no camouflaging the irresistible music of Tim Gilvin in this musical.  The songs command your attention and deliver not only cracking tunes befitting of an endorphin fuelled party, but brilliantly interspersed parody, humour and a good dollop of mickey taking fun at the expense of Disney, and political correctness.  Melodic lines, phrases, lyrics and licks from songs and shows such as The Little Mermaid, Ratatouille, and other Disney classics are cajoled into new music, providing a familiar platform of recognition to poke fun at in brilliantly new ways.  ‘Ask The Girl,’ instead of ‘Kiss The Girl,’ should give you an inkling as to the jibing, banter and modernised approach that Unfortunate embodies through song and with a never ending reel of sarcastic, satisfying and scintillating tunes coming your way, you won’t be disappointed.  If you’re not convinced, don’t take my word for it, book yourself a ticket and listen to these hilarious songs yourself.  But I must warn you, they are not for the faint hearted, and with beautiful songs such as “Part Of Your World” being replaced with the more adult “Where The Dicks Are,” please do take heed of the 16+ age restriction on this show, because Disney it is not!

In fact, picture Book Of Mormon having a horny drunken affair with RuPaul’s Drag Race, whilst trying to tell a bedtime story to the children they resent for spoiling their fun!  The innuendo is riotous but sometimes, no innuendo is needed for they just spell it out to you in clear, thrusting terms.  Popular culture references are everywhere, making this show relevant, tuned in, and turned on.  ‘Pretty Little Things,’ ‘Etsy,’ and ‘Only Fans,’ are just a few of these drops and do a subtle job of breaking audience walls, because we are watching this larger than life musical, yet our real world is peppered throughout.  Numbers such as “We Didn’t Make It To Disney,” give endless scope and food for thought at those cast outside the perfect illusion of the Disney bubble.  I am a huge Disney fan and often crave their wonderful bubble for the joy of escapism, so I can honestly say that Unfortunate is playing and having fun, throwing a shade of reality on Disney and does not insult die hard Disney nuts in any way, shape, or form…….well no more than it insults and pokes fun at everyone else who gets in Ursulas way!

Shawna Hamic
(Orange Is The New Black, Les Mis) is simply sensational as Ursula.  Commanding, captivating and charismatic, she has a delicious twinkle in her eyes throughout and validates the villain in all of us.  A glamorous and wickedly powerful performance, her humour shines through and her vocals reverberate with a diva dynamic!  River Medway (RuPaul’s Drag Race, Death Drop: Back In The Habit) is insanely funny as Ariel, or speechless girl as Eric likes to call her.  A constant vacant smile on her face, her Ariel had love in her heart but not much in her head.  Her voice is comedy gold on its own, yet this doesn’t stop an absolutely rip roaring comedy performance when Ursula steals it.  Her facial expressions and communication are so wildly winsome that you can’t help falling in love with this innocently infectious mermaid.

Thomas Lowe
(Les Mis, Cats, North & South) is brilliantly bold, and buoyant as Triton.  He brings a posh, privilege and dim nature to this usually macho role, and flips it entirely upside down with his fabulous characterisation.  His performance is purposefully over the top, making Triton hilarious and perfectly cheesy as he delivers this serious character amidst theatrical flare, and he tops it all off with insanely outstanding vocals.  What a voice!   

Allie Dart (2:22, Cinderella) as Sebastian and many other roles was jaw dropping to watch.  The energy, switching of accents, characters and costumes, including one scene where she literally played Sebastian and the chef at the same time were mind blowing!  Whether dancing, voguing, singing, seducing, or trying to control Ariel, each moment, each character was spot on and filled with what can only be described as a genuine and infectious love of performance.

Jamie Mawson
(Fat Rascal associate artist, Macbeth) wonderfully gives us an Eric who is so ridiculously simple, spoiled and in love with himself that you cannot hold the laughter in at any point he is on stage.  He gives such a naive and petulant quality to Eric which he matches entirely with an unstoppable energy as he effortlessly throws himself – literally – around the stage.  Jack Gray as Grimsby and a thousand other characters, including a rip roaring Vanessa is just perfection.  They mesmerise with incredible dance moves, sing the hell out of everything, and provide fantastically honed character after character.  Their Vanessa is something else and I almost feel deserves a spin off all of their own!  Hard working and multi talent doesn’t even come close!  This show is an epic showcase for the entire cast.  It is completed with the nonstop ensemble cast of Corinna Buchan, Jamie McKillop, and Milly Willows who create so many different characters, and are each given their moment in the spotlight for you to truly appreciate their talent.  I have no idea how this cast don’t collapse every night because their commitment, energy and enthusiasm is relentless and palpable.   

Puppetry is used throughout Unfortunate creating endless opportunities for inspired storytelling, characters galore, and a fabulous and unique style all of its own, which epitomises this whole show.  With puppets, set and costume designed by Abby Clarke, she has challenged all usual conventions and created something so perfectly bespoke that it is fascinating to discover the new, exciting and endless species of puppets on offer and gag at the spectacular costumes.   Whether the cast be manipulating simple sock puppets, manipulating huge creatures that each have a unique way of being operated, or they are mixing conventions, half wearing a costume at the back and using puppetry at the front, the creations on offer are inspired and so seamlessly a part of the show that anything seems possible!

will octopi your heart and tantalise your tentacles!  It will delve into the shady segments of your heart and discover your own inner diva dancing on the fake pretences of someone who has perhaps wronged you in life, and boy will it feel good!  You will be thrown into the heart of this sassy show and there are no life preservers here, so make sure you can swim and handle the temperature of the water!  But this show isn’t just about shade.  It is powerful, strong, and urges you to love yourself.  It empowers anyone who has ever felt marginalised, judged, and treated unfairly.  Ariel may have had her voice stolen, but every underdog out there is given theirs back and it packs a punch.  The energy in the theatre tonight was more electric than Ursula’s electric eel best friends and this spark definitely lit up Salford on a cold February evening.  Unfortunate is anything but unfortunate and all I can say is, ‘How Unfortunate’ for you if you miss it.


Watch our "In Conversation with Tom Lowe" video discussing the show.

In The Time Of Dragons

In The Time Of Dragons - The Edge Theatre, Chorlton - Wednesday 21st February 2024


Discovering new plays and musicals, particularly in local venues, holds a special kind of excitement and anticipation for me, and when they turn out to be as warm and witty as In The Time Of Dragons, then I’m laughing – quite literally – all the way home!  This new musical, written and directed by Janine Waters, with music by Alec and Simon Waters is clever, humble and feels like home.  With the ambitious idea of simultaneously setting a story in two different eras, what could have the potential to be complicated and confusing is instead infectiously easy to follow and handled with loving care.  A small cast of four bring us the story of Sheelagh and Jack, two souls, and two stories from two different decades.  Sheelagh is a cabaret singer who dreams of conquering the world.  But for now, she is resident in the Blue Angel, Manchester in 1965, where her number 1 fan is club regular Harry!  Jack is a musician floating through life in 2024, in a lost sea of teaching jobs and finds himself stuck in a high school with a bunch of teenagers who pay no attention to a word he says.

Both introduce themselves through song and set the Northern humour and tone for the evening.  But as Sheelagh leaves her cheating husband and needs to find a place of her own in 1965, Jack also moves into his new digs in 2024 after his girlfriend runs off with her new beau.  There may be nearly 60 years between these seemingly unrelated events, but unrelated they are not for both are about to make the exact same Salford flat their home, with just the small detail of time separating them.  But what if that time difference could be removed and they could somehow live in their own year, yet exist together at the same time?  One stormy night following a freak electrocution of sorts, this is the inexplicable way that Sheelagh and Jacks worlds intertwine.  As they embrace the impossibility of their situation, a unique and wonderful friendship is born where two strangers quite literally end up changing each other’s world.

The theatre space welcomes you into The Blue Angel club.  A single microphone awaits a singer centre stage, a visible dressing room area is detailed at the back, a piano nestles in the corner, and tables set out along the side await customers, aka the audience.  It immediately casts an immersive vibe to the evening, and with the venue flooded in a blue neon light via poles of strip lights and with a hanging bar sign announcing the clubs name, the illusion is complete.  Effective lighting changes (Kay Haynes) quickly establish 1965 from 2024, and a series of dramatic and dynamic flashes, blackouts and a reawakening of light once again entangles the two eras, taking away the idea of ‘now’.  The two beds that had been brought on to represent the flats of Sheelagh and Jack are pushed together, and their timelines are brought together as one.  A complicated notion is achieved so cleanly and with such intelligent simplicity that you can’t help but be wowed.  Big budget plays and musicals can be spectacular, we all know this, but In The Time Of Dragons reminds us that great material, clever storytelling, and small venue magic can hold your attention just as intensely and blind you with brilliance of an entirely different kind.  Kudos to set designer David Haworth.

Rupert Hill (Coronation Street, The Bill) and Megan Keaveny (professional stage debut) play Jack and Sheelagh.  Megan Keaveny packs a punch from the off with her brilliant vocals and bubbly character being instantly charming and likeable.  She effortlessly portrays a strong Northern woman who may be hurting but keeps calm and carries on.  That Mancunian steely fire we all know and love so well is evident throughout and her no nonsense manner of speaking, with just a hint of hidden feelings, is so instantly recognisable, you feel Sheelagh is someone you already know.  In contrast, we watch Rupert Hill take his character on a downward spiral as he is unable to compartmentalise feelings in the same way.  It is a brilliantly gentle, yet equally abrupt transition, piquing each moment at exactly the right time.  He starts out a tad fed up, stuck in a job he didn’t envision as his dreams seem to slip away.  But things only get worse and Hill not only makes Jack visually look more lost and hopeless with each appearance, but his physicality totally transforms with every movement and slur telling us of his dependence on alcohol without us having to witness his drinking at every moment.  Their scenes together are handled brilliantly and their focus on not focusing on each other is amazing.

Tom Guest and Hannah Nuttall play the nightclub owner and assistant Anne, as well as multi rolling every other part needed.  They both have stunning vocals, and when all four actors harmonise together, it is liltingly beautiful.  Tom Guest has the quick wit and authenticity of a cabaret club owner and compere and delivers some cracking lines.  Again, his authenticity of this character is so palpable, you feel you perhaps know him already.  A standout moment is when he is playing Frank, Sheelagh’s cheating husband, and sings the ironic and sarcastic song “That’s My Job.”  His comic timing to sing one thing but mean the opposite, and have that understood is superb.  Hannah Nuttall truly creates her multiple roles with fabulous distinction, and her kind hearted and loyal Anne will have you rooting for her all the way.  She takes a character that likes to be in the wings, in the dark and allow her friends to shine, and performs this with such truth, however there is nothing about her performance that hides in the wings, and I absolutely love this concept.  This takes a stand out performer to take a hidden shy character and make them shine.

The music by Alec and Simon Waters is catchy and what really hooked me was its story telling.  It is used to deliver inner thoughts of the characters, but whilst they are supposed to be singing something else perhaps, and instead we get to see what thoughts are streaming through their head.  The songs also like to use irony and satire to deliver powerful messages, such as misogyny and homophobia.  And they are brilliantly delivered through happy, cheerful tunes, with deeper messages.  It is really clever, and I have to say, and this is the highest compliment I can give, they felt like Victoria Wood songs, and for me to dare say that someone else has achieved what Vic Wood did, is something I never thought I’d say.  The music is witty, punchy and includes cracking one liners that catch you unawares and make you laugh that spluttering kind of laugh you have no way of holding in.

The references to the 1960’s and 1965 in particular are lovingly sprinkled throughout, as are ones to 2024 that make you think, wow, what kind of world are we living through right now?  The script has so much fun when Sheelagh and Jack meet and she asks questions about the future and we recognise how insane our world has become and how reliant on technology it is, in a way that couldn’t even be comprehended in the 60’s.  There are also fantastic local references in there too, such as a sparkly eyed Irish footballer who likes to have a drink in the local club.  Of course, George Best lived in Chorlton so touches such as these are wonderful nods to our own history and will make you smile.  The show seems to end all of a sudden, but take your time to think about the lyrics in the song you have just heard, and things that have been said earlier by Jack about not giving away any spoilers, and a few lies he may have had to tell Sheelagh, and the whole thing does tie up with a heartfelt and content sigh and happy smile. 

In The Time Of Dragons is about 80 minutes long with no interval, and no pun intended, but the time flies.  This new show has been thoroughly thought through and is allows its audience to follow the complexities of time with a relaxed ease.  It is set in the stunning venue of The Edge and somehow, on a wet and cold February night, I felt like I was in spring or summer for this show, this venue holds that special something that makes you feel anything can be possible.


The 100 Story Hotel

The 100 Story Hotel - Z-arts, Manchester - Tuesday 20th February 2024


The 100 Story Hotel is an interactive world of play and storytelling for children……….or is it?  Because this grown up had just as much fun as the wildly excited minis running all around me!  Created for Z Arts, this immersive experience wraps you up in an exciting flurry of imagination via the multi award winning stories of author and illustrator Rob Biddulph.  We are greeted in the hotel gardens by Gertie the gardener who welcomes us with open arms and a dinosaur spray that shrinks the scary critters to a manageable size.  We are told to expect bears, monkeys, and of course Clive the concierge, a ginormous fluffy polar bear!  Following a disruptive clanging banging kaboomsky kind of noise, guests are then taken through to the hotel lobby to find out what just happened, and eyes light up everywhere as the room has books hanging from the ceiling, a trolley stacked with suitcases, a squishy sofa, penguin porters, a luggage rack, reception desk complete with a telephone that you can actually use to speak to other guests in the other rooms………and a huge hole in the wall!

It seems that someone has stolen one of the books, demoting the hotel from The 100 Story Hotel to the 99 story hotel.  Gertie asks for our help.  He needs detectives to snoop their way through the hotel, follow the clues and discover who has blown a hole in the wall and who has stolen the book so we can fix things.  Everyone is donned with a magnifying glass to hunt for clues, and a clipboard.  We must find the missing letters that have been scattered throughout the hotel, then unjumble them to spell out who the culprit is.

This element ensures that this beautifully thought out experience caters for all ages, for it becomes so much more than an interactive play centre, and engages the older children on an entirely different level.  I was there with my just turned four year old godson, and the most magical of things took place.  The older children (none of whom we knew by the way) relished the opportunity to help him search for letters, and help him unscramble the letters to make a word.  They took him hunting, they even took on the role of entertainer, and were able to take great joy themselves by working some of the trickier elements on behalf of the younger children.  I watched on in awe as a wonderful young person of around 9 years old delighted my 4 year old godson by making a rabbit come alive in a hat!  This world has brought children of all ages together and allowed them to learn from each other in the purest of ways.  It truly allows children to be children.

The space is jigsawed together by winding corridors, complete with numerous red herring doors, and a multitude of interactive rooms in the hotel.  There is the laundrette, hotel guest rooms, security room, the swimming pool, the restaurant, the Grrr lounge, and the hotel gift shop.  But here’s the really clever bit.  Each room is themed with characters, illustrations and elements from Rob Biddulph’s bestselling books.  The book Grrrrr becomes the entertainments lounge where children can do karaoke, learn magic, dress up, and perform on a stage.  The book Sunk becomes the swimming pool complete with fishing hooks, a basket ball hoop, ring toss, a pirate ship, and an actual treasure map drawn on the floor so you can find your way to the treasure chest which is full of more fabulous dress up items. 

Wide Awake is the theme for one of the bedrooms, boasting a glow up dinosaur egg, dinosaur toys, and dino dress ups, with another room being themed from Peanut Jones, and the opportunity and encouragement for children to draw their own characters and ideas, and stick them on the walls.  A laundry room has so many play items such as a vacuum cleaner, shopping trolley, washing machine, sink, and washing up items, that don’t be surprised if you see a vacuum cleaner whizzing past you down the corridor in a shopping trolley on its way to the swimming pool for a wash!  A staff only security room is super vigilant with its CCTV cameras, radios, safe lockers and security equipment, whilst Zorg’s emporium shop offers up display cabinets with whacky glasses children can try on, a till and incredible bursts of colour.  The sushi restaurant has place settings with toy sushi food where you can practise using chopsticks, dress up, and help the polar bears and the penguins with their ice ball pit!  Then there’s the hotels outside space, with gardens, a beach, palm trees, a tennis court, and a bar area.  The design of this space will set your mind alight with possibilities and imaginative play.    

Towards the end of the hour, Gertie, who has been on hand throughout and I have to say was entirely patient, wonderful and generous with his time and his play, calls us all back together to see if we have managed to crack the riddle and find out who stole the 100th story.  I am pleased to say that we were a brilliant team of detectives and figured it out!  Gertie reflects back to the children all they have done and taken part in, cementing the adventure in their minds.  And it is an adventure worthy of its own story, so he proudly includes it in the hotels make up, renaming this the 101 Story Hotel.  It is an effective ending to a wonderful adventure, allowing children to recognise the strength and power of their own imaginations.

The 100 Story Hotel is a wonderful activity to engage, challenge and awake the child in all of us.  It is a glorious way to celebrate stories, and in particular the stories and illustrations of Rob Biddulph, whose puzzles, colours, drawalongs, learning resources, and enthusiasm have become a staple of families everywhere.  You don’t need any travel websites for this hotel, and there will always be a welcoming room for you to visit.  So grab your pals, your mini’s, your bears, dinosaurs, penguins, polar bears and hot dogs, and head over to The 100 Story Hotel, where every day is an adventure.


Visit Z-arts, Manchester with the family and enjoy The 100 Story Hotel


Blue Beard - HOME, Manchester - Saturday 17th February 2024


A play about rage, grief and heartbreak doesn’t sound like a play that can also make you belly laugh and bop along to upbeat and catchy tunes, yet that’s exactly what Emma Rice has achieved with Blue Beard.  Taking a centuries old French folktale of a magician who marries a girl named Lucky and lures her away from her loving family to live in his castle, only to test her and ultimately punish her, Rice flips the focus off the coercive, controlling magician, and instead gives the story back to the women he tries to silence, even making the rescuing brothers into female relatives.  Our evening kicks off by meeting a group of women known as the three F’s (fierce, f**ked and furious) when a young man stumbles upon their solace, seeking help.  Immediately suspicious of him, he is pinned to the ground until they are satisfied he means no harm.  The leader of the group, Mother Superior, starts to tell the story of Blue Beard, as an explanation as to why this group of women have no reason to trust men.  Lucky marries the magician, she is given the freedom of his castle, except for one room.  Curiosity wins and Lucky enters the room, only to find the butchered remains of the magician’s past six wives. 

Upon the magicians return, he is livid that his wife didn’t follow his instructions, and behave exactly as he told her to, so he tries to kill her.  But Lucky’s sister and mum turn up to rescue her and fight for their lives, resulting in the death of the magician.  The emphasis is on the lives of the women in the story, showing them to be vibrant, alive and loved.  They don’t simply become the forgotten victims in the story of a misogynistic, bullying, intimidating male figure who believes they should do and say exactly as he pleases.  Interspersed with this story, is the one of the young man who stumbled upon the home of the 3 F’s at the start.  He is told by the Mother Superior that he too must tell a story, and so he does.  His story is about his sister, who he brings alive with details and memories only a loved one can.  The conclusion to her story ends the entire show with an all too real, relevant and recent reminder.  An additional character twist brings the audience to an eerie and heartbreakingly uncomfortable silence as the emotion portrayed on stage is visceral, raw and stripped bare.  It is a stark reminder of the unequal and unsafe world women can find themselves living in, and perhaps the length our own heart and mind will go to in order to cope.

Blue Beard has music blended throughout, which is to be expected of an Emma Rice show.  All the cast not only act but sing and seemingly pick up a variety of instruments for fun to become a part of the band, such is their talent!  The songs (Stu Barker) have a folksy vibe to them, mashed up with a pop style, making them fresh, fabulous and genuinely catchy.  Music is also used to create ambiance and heighten our senses and emotions to wonderful effect.  The script is wildly funny with a dry sarcasm and brutal truth telling elements that cut straight through the proverbial to bluntly and brilliantly tell it exactly how it is.  Modern pop culture references are cleverly dotted throughout, stitching together a supposedly old folktale that should no longer be of relevance in our modern world, right to the here and now, showing parallel themes and similarities.  The set (Vicki Mortimer) gives us a subtle split level so we can see the narration verses the story unfolding.  On the raised level, a curtain hangs, allowing set pieces to be revealed throughout, including pianos, various sized wardrobes, a magician’s staging, and a coffin.  This reveal status ties in with the magician element of the story, and along with lighting, gives the entire staging a vaudeville, music hall feel.  With an acrobatic contortionist, and an actual magic trick of sawing a girl in half both presented, we are whisked between an age gone by and our own modern world, yet still somehow they both land in the same dark, heartbreaking place.

The story telling uses a variety of techniques to deliver this complex combination of stories, including a slow motion scene to portray the violence between the magician, Lucy, Trouble and their mother.  It is so detailed, controlled, and stylised that the impact is far stronger than if they had just gone for each other in real time.  Equally, fight scenes between the magician and Lucky were actually carried out via a series of timed reactions with them being entirely separate, rather than him laying a hand on her – a brilliant and respectful way to depict a story about male violence on women, without resorting to a vivid representation of it, and refusing to give these images any airtime.  Another storytelling choice was the use of stylised dance and movement from the women, with an almost Fosse feel to it.

The cast were clearly a strong team with infinite trust in one another.  Katy Owen as Mother Superior is outstanding and steals the show.  Rarely off stage, she never stops with her quirky and zany performance, ensuring movement and connection throughout.  She lands jokes brilliantly, has the best vocal deliverance for her storytelling elements, and then becomes an entirely different performer at the end, with such raw emotion that it takes great restraint not to rush onto the stage and give her a hug.   Robyn Sinclair plays Lucky, the sister who marries the magician Blue Beard and is both impassioned and playful in the role.  She is strong, fiery, and full of fun.  Stephanie Hockley plays the second sister Trouble, and gives us an amazing piano and song solo, full of sass, jazz, and pizazz.  Patrycja Kujawska is their mum Treasure, and gives a heartfelt monologue on how her husband was a good man, how he gave her love, trust, and freedom, showing us that this isn’t a play to simply bash men.  Blue Beard is performed by Tristan Sturrock, who instils a dominating, and intimidating figure, dripping with a suave sardonic demeanour.  It is a powerful performance.  Adam Mirksy contrasts this entirely with his performance of the lost and innocent boy looking for help.  His entire performance is open, honest, and innocent, until he has to switch it up at the end, where he shows a beautiful tenderness towards his mum.  The boys sister is played by Mirabelle Gremaud, who has a hauntingly beautiful and unique singing voice.  I could have listened to her all day.

Blue Beard ends in the present day.  Silence grips the theatre as CCTV cameras show the final moments of a young woman who is followed home.  Theatre meets reality.  We have seen this played out far too often in recent times on the news.  Emma Rice’s Wise Children company left many audience members paralysed with emotion, moved and perhaps genuinely involved in their own various stories of what we had just watched.  From a theatre perspective, I found the delivery of the combined elements of folktale and reality a tad confusing at times and with a few unanswered questions.  Perhaps making the reality element clear early on might have reduced its impact at the end, I’m not sure, but it would personally have helped solidify the message for me, which would have made the message stronger.  However, there is no denying there was a huge impact, so that might just have been my own preferential way of processing, and I thoroughly applaud and respect the ingenuity of what has been achieved.  Half the population of women do not feel safe walking home alone at night, even in busy places.  Walking alone without fear is a right we should all have, and yet the emphasis that has come out of recent news stories is focused on what women should be doing to help protect ourselves rather than the things that should be done to educate these particular men to alter their mind set, believes and misogyny.  Wise Children have given a voice to an important topic, one that continued to be discussed openly and with importance by everyone as they exited the theatre.


Blue Beard is on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 24th February 2024.


The Gap

The Gap - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 14th February 2024


There are some moments in life that you simply don’t allow to pass you by, and for me, having the opportunity to go and watch a new play by the multi award winning Jim Cartwright is one of them.  And by ‘ecky thump, he’s only gone and done it again for The Gap is a beautiful slice of real life, all wrapped up in a tapestry of Northern humour.   The dialogue plays with dialect in an almost poetic manner, elegantly switching formats between monologues & duologues, often intertwining two separate singular conversations effortlessly into one.  It is intelligent, illuminating, and immaculate.  And it celebrates life.  Real, hapless, risky, chaotic, rousing, unfiltered, and unpredictable life.  It also celebrates friendship, the kind of friendship that means despite a lot of water under the bridge, one simple phone call after 50 years will have you returning to that friendship and picking up exactly where you left off.  The Gap has a very real and vulnerable heart beating in its soul, and I am honoured to have witnessed it, so watch out world because Corral and Walter are a force to be reckoned with!

The Gap starts in the recent past of Corral and Walter.  They both talk to us, the audience independently, yet clearly two sides of the same coin.  But the role we are playing as the audience, what they are talking about, and why, is only teased at, leaving us deliciously hooked in on the one thing that is made clear.  The deep rooted, immeasurable friendship of Walter and Corral.  So, we are whisked back over 50 years to the beginning of the rest of their lives, landing firmly in the 60s.  Dusty Springfield floods the senses, iconic black and white images of 1960’s celebrities flicker into focus before our eyes, and Walter and Corral reappear from behind a screen on a slightly raised platform donning the decades latest fashions.  Immediately we are immersed in their world, one where Corral dreams of being in magazines, and Walter dreams of being right there for the ride and to support her.  They bounce off each other’s energy as delightful colloquialisms deliciously drip off their tongues and capture the raw and pure beauty of our Northern native tongue.

There is a playful rhythm to Jim Cartwright’s work that director Anthony Banks has expertly encapsulated, and it propels these characters into a realm that we not only fully understand, but respect and appreciate.  As Corral convinces an unsure Walter that they must be where life is happening, they hop onboard a train to London, taking plenty of Northern soul with them.  But daydreams rarely become reality and the wistful pair discover that the only solid thing in their lives is a good old steaming mug of ‘typhoo up you’ tea!  Young Walter works dead end job after dead end job with a fierce pride and determination to support Carrol who has an entirely different outlook on life.  One knows and respects honest hard work, the other expects to simply reap the benefits of it.

But with a beauty like Carrol's, it isn’t long before Soho sits up and pays attention to the new girl in town, and she discovers that this is her currency.  A free drink here and there leads to a free meal, free clothes and free access to a better life.  Except nothing in life is ever really free is it?  Carrols admirers want something in return.  And as she falls on her feet with a wealthy and harmless gentleman, his proposition seems too good to be true.  With meticulous and steadfast Walter by her side, they enter a new phase of their lives and Carrol is finally able to live the lifestyle she always dreamed she was worthy of.  But one day, the unexpected happens.  Love.  It whisks up a frenzy, leaving our inseparable duo splintered apart and desperately trying to piece one fragmented jigsaw into two pictures.  But they have and always will be each other’s missing jigsaw piece, and as a chance phone call finally pulls them back together again after 50 years apart, their picture can finally be completed.

We are taken on a whirlwind ride throughout the decades with Walter and Corral, diving into their stories, and meeting a multitude of characters, in every sense of the word, along the way.  Matthew Kelly and Denise Welch are sublime.  They give the best kind of an untouchable performance because they wholeheartedly make you care about their characters.  They gently take you by the hand, softly coaxing you into their world and then quick as a flash, they yank you right in, fully immersing you, but never letting go.  You don’t just witness them, you feel them.  Their performances are open and honest, allowing you to soak up every nuance they offer.  A multitude of characters are played by both actors, switched up by a skilled change of accent, a facial expression, body posture or costume.  The flips are effortless in appearance, and mesmerising to behold.

And their impersonations of cult figures of the time are hilarious, respectful and fill you with a fuzzy warm feeling of joyous nostalgia. They bring icons such as The Beatles and The Carry On team alive through brilliantly timed jokes, accents, and even a mimicked laugh famed by the much loved and missed Barbara Windsor or Sid James. Make no mistake, this is a play with larger than life characters, life events and stories to tell, yet the whole thing is stunningly controlled, classy and centred.  They aren’t trying to play for comic effect, they are playing real life, real people, and that delicate detail is exactly what brings the humour alive.  Matthew Kelly and Denise Welch are exceptionally talented and skilled actors and capturing this is a Jim Cartwright play, in the stunningly intimate setting of Hope Mill Theatre, with the ludicrously talented Anthony Banks directing with his sixth sense of all things theatre, The Gap is one of those nights at the theatre you will never forget.

Act two opens with both characters opening up their hearts to us through exquisite monologues.  They allow us to empathise and reflect on how hard life can be, without ever getting too saccharine, and to laugh at their predicaments without ever being cruel.  As the story brings us back to the recent past where we started out in the play, we continue on with Walter and Corral’s story until we are all in the same space and time, with an ending that will simply take your breath away.  The Gap will borrow your heart and return it to you full of love for Walter, for Corral, for friendship.  It will leave you pondering the gaps in your own life and how you can fill them, for The Gap is not simple enough to be defined as one thing.  It is about finding out for yourself.  For Walter and Carrol it is the gap between the North and South, the gap between the decades, the gap between when you last saw your best friend, the gap between illusion and reality, a generational gap, and the gap between your stockings and your knicker rim!  The gaps for Walter and Carrol are presented throughout their story, but I must stress, it is their story, not mine, so you must go and allow them to tell it to you.

As with any Jim Cartwright play, music plays a vital role.  Songs are expertly chosen to dictate the era, but more than that, they melodically and lyrically encapsulate mood, memory and melancholy.  From songs that will pump up your spirits and notch the fun factor up to another level, flooding you with endorphins, to songs that will gently pull on your heart strings and make it ache with emotion.  Add to this a sophisticated, sleek and simple set design that can whisk us from Manchester to Soho, Malta to a cake factory in the blink of an eye by a split level design with a narrowing dimension, sliding panels and hidden cubby holes.  Video projections not only create atmosphere with skylines, celebrities and various pictures of Walter and Corral throughout the ages, but they also brilliantly put us onboard a moving train, and a dangerous car ride.

Hope Mill Theatre have once again produced a masterpiece and have done so with integrity and impeccable taste.  There is something wonderfully special about any show you watch at Hope Mill and I think it lies in the heart and genuine vision of Directors William Whelton and Joseph Houston.  Whilst they clearly know exactly what they are doing and have the expertise to back it up, they are also in it for all the right reasons and have a fierce passion, dedication, and loyalty to supporting and creating theatre that is inclusive and welcoming for all.  And this authenticity is something no amount of money can buy.  You feel it the moment you step inside the building, and you are instantly welcomed and made a part of the Hope Mill Theatre Family.  With patron Denise Welch performing alongside the fabulous Matthew Kelly in the new Jim Cartwright, this is a winning formula and feels like all the stars have aligned to create a perfect and untouchable night at the theatre.     



Watch our "In Conversation with Denise Welch" video discussing the show.

Drop the Dead Donkey - The Reawakening

Drop The Dead Donkey - The Reawakening - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 13th February 2024


Whether you avidly watched the BAFTA and Emmy award winning TV show Drop The Dead Donkey in the 1990’s or not, you will rejoice in this hilariously intelligent, quick witted and topical reawakening that has taken itself on tour.  Penned by original writers and creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, it proudly sticks to its award winning formula, delights us with original cast members, all the while being bang up to date, entirely relevant and playfully mocking of the technological ‘advances’ the past 30 years have brought us.  I absolutely loved this show and by the interval had already stated that I simply didn’t want it to end.

We last saw The GlobeLink News team scattered, shattered and splattered around the world as the station was shut down under dubious circumstances so I was curious to discover how they would be reunited.  The show opens with the stage set up as a news room, with ‘Truth News’ blazing at out at us.  A screen is dropped and we are treated to a clip from series one (to much delight from the audience) where we see George, Damien and Dimbles the Teddy Bear.  If you know, you know, and if you don’t then I promise you aren’t excluded, all does become clear.  Chief Editor George then stumbles onto the stage and the love from the audience cannot be contained.  In fact, each original cast member was greeted with applause as they entered the stage one by one.  It transpires that some unknown business tycoon has funded a shiny new News broadcasting station, and recruited Gus to get the team back together.

As they reminisce and catch up, we discover what each of the characters has been up to for the last 30 years, and how that has led them all to accept this questionable job offer.  But when this team get together, chaos is never far away, and despite their initial enthusiasm…….even if that is for the sizable pay packet……..things never run smoothly.  As the team try to navigate their way around a world of news broadcasting that has advanced from the one they left behind, little do they realise that perhaps they are about to become the headlines themselves rather than simply reading them.  Social media, AI, voice activated coffee machines, and supposedly superior algorithms are seemingly the way forward.  But in a world where scandals, lies, and fake news are currency, and no one will tell you who your boss is, can we ever really trust that the truth in the world of broadcasting is ever really the truth at all?

The joy of Drop The Dead Donkey The Reawakening! doesn’t just lie in nostalgia, nor does it rely on it.  The joy is to be found in every layer, every nuance, and every cleverly thought-out concept.  Of course, the nostalgia plays a huge part for those who hold the show dear to their hearts, and there is something beautifully special in reuniting the original cast and seeing a genuine bond between them all.  But this isn’t a show simply trying to live off its past glories.  It looks itself in the eye, accepts its own challenge, and smashes it.  The script is jam packed with current news topics and nothing or no one is off limits.  With jibes and jokes at politics, politicians, the Royal family, TV presenters, generation X, all of the ‘isms including wokeism, and a lovely dollop of recent media stories, you will find yourself belly laughing at the sheer volume of one liners, gallows humour and the freedom it brings.

The algorithm system is called out and renamed Harvey Weinstein for suggesting viewers might like to see a little more from its broadcasters, Holly Willoughby’s “Are you Ok?” speech becomes fair game as does Fujitsu, and even Sir Trevor McDonald makes a brief but electrifying appearance.  In its day, the show was groundbreaking for including genuine news stories that had appeared that week, and to see this ingenious and challenging concept unfolding flawlessly, live, in front of you makes you appreciate just how special this entire thing was, is, and always will be.  

Not only is it remarkable to reunite the original cast, but it is also a privilege to see such a wealth of talent all on stage together.  Jeff Rawle as George, Neil Pearson as Dave, Ingrid Lacey as Helen, Robert Duncan as Gus, Victoria Wicks as Sally Smedley, Susannah Doyle as Joy, and of course Stephen Tompkinson as Damien.  Completing the cast are two new characters, namely Julia Hills as Mairead and Kerena Jagpal as Rita.  This is an ensemble piece in its truest form, for all share the limelight in equal terms.  They are rarely off stage, and every cast member is generously treated to an ample amount of side-splitting jokes.  The comic timing is something to behold, whether it be the deliverance of script, a physical gag, or simply a look.  But what makes the comedy so effective is the undeniable knowledge each cast member has of their own character, enabling a tumultuous tornado of contrasting emotions to play out.  This ensures that the comedy is rooted in something real, whether it be heartache, jealousy, bitterness, shame, hope, or redemption.  Jeff Rawle has the most beautiful physical comedy as the clumsy and hopeless George.  His stumbling both vocally and physically never fade and he is everything you wanted him to be and more.

Neil Pearson’s dry, quick wit and Daveisms are timed to perfection, and he also offers us a new side to Dave which is endearing to watch and highlights his sheer talent.  Ingrid Lacey as Helen allows us to not only rejoice in the Helen we know and love but be wowed by the person life has carved her into, seamlessly blending these character transitions with ease.  Robert Duncan works at an impressive pace as a slightly stressed Gus.  He teases us with perfect moments of a smarmy Gus of old, then effortlessly flips into new ways to patronise, cajole and undermine George and company.  Victoria Wicks as Sally Smedley boldly and bravely takes on a lot of the more ‘close to the bone’ jokes and somehow manages to make Sally more Sally with each one.  It is brilliantly done and her strong characterisation allows this to work.  Susannah Doyle as Joy is excellent at revelling in the demise of her colleagues and cuts a strong figure on stage.  Her walk alone is genius, for she doesn’t walk, she struts.  Brilliant!  I have to confess, Stephen Tompkinson is one of my favourite actors and seeing him perform live was unbelievable.  He brought exceptional comedy, slapstick, and character, and delivered an impassioned speech at the end of the show that was thought provoking, emotive, enlightening, and yet he still managed to pull off a comedic twist.

Julia Hills as Mairead and Kerena Jagpal as Rita both slotted into this cast as if they have always been a part of the show.  Julia Hills portrayed a confident Mairead who hilariously gave the team the runaround, and allowed us to welcome this new character with ease, and Kerena Jagpal brought a fizz of fabulous eager energy to the stage through her character, which she contrasted perfectly against the jaded and cynical seasoned news team.  Derek Bond has directed this play with the utter most respect to the writers, the actors, and the audiences’ love affair with the original show.  He has also demanded that these characters do not become caricatures of themselves by ensuring we see hints of how 30 years of life after the end of a high flying career in broadcasting can shape and mould you in new and unexpected ways.     

Drop The Dead Donkey The Reawakening! is absolutely worth the 30 year wait!  It raises important questions, challenges the reliability of those we are supposed to be able to trust, and encourages us to look at ourselves and our society.  When does banter become a not so cleverly disguised excuse to simply insult someone?  And when does political correctness become so correct that humour is obsolete?  It’s a tap dance on a thread bare tightrope.  In a world where everyone has an opinion, and those opinions are pushed into territories that blur free speech with trolling, and leave cracks for plenty to abuse their public power for self interest, Drop The Dead Donkey The Reawakening! places it all under the microscope for everyone to see.  And it does so with the sharpest tool, the most instinctive and effective way it can.  It unites its audience as one against the ludicrousness through its uniquely witty and satirical brand of comedy, making us pay attention whilst entertaining us, and giving us permission to laugh at this crazy thing we call life.  I would go and watch this show again in a heartbeat and I am sure I am not the only one who left the theatre feeling exactly the same way.


Watch our "In Conversation with Andy Hamilton" video discussing the show.


The Time Machine - A Comedy - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 24th January 2024


Tonight is my second night of an Original Theatre take over at the Lowry Theatre and I’m going from psychological thriller to side splitting comedy.  I am of course talking about the corker of a show that is The Time Machine – A Comedy.  I saw this brilliantly indescribable production last year, and it is still a knock out, unique night of the best kind of bonkers out there.  You’ll never look at time the same way again.  In fact, there are plenty of things you’ll never look at the same way again after watching this show!  It is so fast paced that you may just meet yourself coming back, unless of course that would squish some time travel continuum, paradoxy kind of thing.  But never fear, for The Time Machine – A Comedy will not only explain all that science stuff to you via popular culture references and Eastenders style duff duff cliffhangers, it will also give you a mini taster of The Importance Of being Ernest, fiercely funny farcical moments, and a chance to be a part of the show for yourself!

This cast of three, comprised of George Kemp, Michael Dylan and Amy Revelle, have to be amongst the hardest working performers out there.  Their dedication and love of the show shines through with every detail, every move, and every moment, making it so easy for us to sit back, relax, and howl with uncensored laughter.  Anyone watching this show is in for a treat.  But how to describe it……….ermmmmmmmm, I mean I’ll give it a go.  Three friends have formed a theatre company and are in rehearsals for The Importance Of being Ernest, but George discovers family heirlooms that belonged to his Great Great Grandad HG Wells.  He claims they provide proof that his novel, The Time Machine was based on fact, not fiction, and he sets out to prove it via a new play that he has written.  He cajoles his somewhat unwilling friends to switch plays, but it all goes a little bit wrong and George finds himself in the future where something so bad happens that they have to find a way to break the paradoxes of the past.  If only they had been more careful with the stage props, if only they’d let Amy sing Cher, and if only they’d had that light PAT tested, then maybe the friends wouldn’t find themselves Irish Dancing to Bewitched in the middle of Salford!  Who knows?  Only time will tell.     

A large clock dominates the otherwise blank stage, which invites a plethora of props, scenery, and costumes to join the madness throughout the show.  A velvet chaise long, flip charts, a drinks cabinets, a time travelling chair, muppets, Morlocks, a pizza delivery, and Harry The Duke Of Sussex are some of the more sane things you’ll find randomly popping up in this production!  Throw in explosions, dry ice, hypnotic flashes, dodgy broken scenery that creates its own jokes, and you’re still only getting the tip of the iceberg as to the depth of creativity behind this show.  Even the interval music is thought out in its entirety, with fitting songs that not only play a part in the entire theme, but will have you humming and bopping along too.

The chaotically brilliant cast is made up of George Kemp (Bridgerton, One Man Two Guvnors), Michael Dylan (Wilf, One Man Two Guvnors, Outlander), and Amy Revelle (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, When Women Wee).  What a triumphant trio they are.  I have no idea where their unwavering energy comes from but if we could just bottle it and have a drop each day, well the world would be a much happier place.  Instantly aimable, you feel a part of their world.  You are wrapped in a big squishy hug that could equally turn into a conga at any given moment!  The camaraderie is palpable and generously shared with us as the audience, so that when we are invited to join in, you feel entirely safe to do so.  The entire cast multi roles, delivering a cacophony of characters from juicy and goofy parodies, to the heartfelt and classic period roles.  This is The Time Machine after all so no character is out of bounds as a possibility, meaning that what starts out as three friends wanting to perform a show can welcome folk from Victorian times, to Miss Piggy, Royalty, soap stars, and Morlocks!  And who knew that Oprah herself had a time machine too!  Amidst the chaos, there are equally beautiful moments, such as the one where we are called upon as an audience to help make it rain.  It is a simple yet stunning moment of theatre at its best. 

George Kemp
charms the audience from the off and presents his character as an all round theatre hero who does every job possible from writing to directing, acting and producing, believing he is just that little bit better than everyone else.  His ability to speak directly to the audience in character and connect with us is a driving force of the show and proves to be of vital importance.  It is done with such a natural ease that you are hooked.  Brilliant timing, physical comedy and a little bit of cheeky charm warm us to his character, even when we should probably want to shake him!  And his realisations right at the end towards Michael are touchingly beautiful.

Michael Dylan brings us a character who is an actor trapped in a wannabe scientist’s body.  He is passionately excitable about scientific facts and is so bouncy and enthusiastic to share his love with his best friends.  He is side splittingly funny with the capability to make you belly laugh and uncontrollably cry with laughter one minute, then take your breath away and shed an emotional and genuinely heart felt tear the next.  Dylan will make you feel all the feels, leave you in awe with his comic genius, and blow your mind with his goosebump rendition of the Hamlet soliloquy.  He can talk to you or land a joke without saying a word for his reactions alone are priceless.  Amy Revelle is a force to be reckoned with and presents us with a character who is strong, zany, creatively intelligent and won’t be pushed around.  Her character work is so on pointe that I’m sure she must have been an impersonator in a previous timeline.  She is fast paced, a fabulous singer, and brilliantly bonkers, whilst somehow managing to maintain an element of authority.  In the midst of all this, her talent is such that she still manages to land important messages regarding friendship, loyalty and determination.  And her Cher is more Cher than Cher!!         

Directed by the irrepressible Orla O’Loughlin, this challenging play taken from a serious classic work of fiction and turned into a comedic farce, was never in any danger of ever becoming anything than the delight it is.  She has deliciously soaked up every intricate nuance of the intelligent and witty script by Steven Canny and John Nicholson and presented a giddy, whirlwind of a show without ever being disrespectful to the original source.  The entire creative team of Original Theatre should be applauded for their vision in taking on an existential narrative and paying homage to it whilst simultaneously standing up to gloom, despair and misery with an infectious optimism and fabulous flair.  She has placed such respectful trust in the cast, who pay it forward and put their trust in us as an audience, making the whole show ironically tick along like the perfect clock.  There is a solidarity and reassurance in the unknown and she sets the whole production alight with a fizz of joie de vivre.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Steven Canny and John Nicholson have put an Original Theatre Company stamp on yet another classic and created an entirely new hybrid of theatre.  Their ideas truly are original and challenge everyone involved, resulting in the most enjoyable entertainment there is.  This is the kind of show for everyone, that you can watch and enjoy with family, friends, and just have an evening of bonding through laughter.  What a gift.  And yet through the unadulterated humour, they still manage to retain subtle echoes of Wells’ explorations, such as the downsides to pushing the boundaries of technology which is so relevant even today with the debates surrounding AI. 

The Time Machine – A Comedy is a night at the theatre that won’t disappoint.  And if by some remote chance it were to disappoint you, then you’re not the kind of person it is aimed at and probably won’t have read this far anyway, so won’t even be thinking of going along, ergo you couldn’t therefore be disappointed, so we’re all still on the same page anyway.  That logic makes sense to me and fits right into this mad cap world of time travel.  But what is so wonderful about this show is that it understands how to balance the fun with heart, and really packs a punch with its message about friendship, loyalty, and living life to your own truth.  It stares mortality in the face and takes it on with a song, some breadsticks, and a plan of action.  It tells us that we don’t have to give up, we can be presented with the worst of situations and still have a choice in how we face it.  Do we wait for the inevitable, or do we dance?  I choose to dance, so thank you to all at The Time Machine – A Comedy for reminding us that even when life can be a bit pants, there’s always room for laughter.  



Murder in the Dark

Murder In The Dark - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 23rd January 2024


How far are you prepared to push your fear?  Are you willing to go to the edge of your boundaries and look it in the eye?  Murder In The Dark, the latest play by Torben Betts, invites you to come and play hide and seek with your primal instincts, count to ten, and be ready for whatever is lurking in the dark, because they are coming for you, ready or not.  A psychological twist on no ordinary ghost story asks the thrilling question, “what happens when the lights go out?”  I’m really not going to tell you what is lurking in the dark, you’ll have to discover that one for yourself, but it will make you question everything you thought you knew about your own mind.  This exceptional theatrical experience will leave you with so many thoughts and questions, that it really doesn’t leave you at all.  Twists, turns, tensions and terrors creep up on you in the midst of side-splitting humour, drama, and irrepressible characters, dismantling any chance you have of avoiding the unavoidable.  It is brilliant, quick witted, terrifying, and deliciously daring.

A deserted road, a car crash, a desolate country cottage and a famous singer whose personal ghosts haunt him daily are the set up for this highly anticipated production.  You are being lulled into a sense of false security if you think you’ve seen, heard, and read this kind of story before.  In short, you are easy pickings, just as I was.  This eerie cottage unearths inexplicable happenings, as pop star Danny simultaneously reveals his own hidden demons, from addiction to sacrifice, and the resulting overpowering fame.  An estranged brother, a resentful son, an unsuitable girlfriend and an ex wife all close in on him, but he arrogantly sees a glimmer of light when the eccentric farmer Mrs. Bateman offers shelter and safety.  Alarmingly quirky, with a bizarre and wild humour, can we ever really know what her truth is and which bits, if any, we can trust?      

And then the lights go out.

Adrenaline floods the audience, nervous laughter is soon replaced by the fear to breathe or make a sound.  The set teases you.  A television flickers.  A door slams.  Shadows dance around the stage and the set.  This show has its audience in the palm of its chilling hands and it has only just begun.  Max Pappenheim knows how to build tension as the sound designer and composer.  Fractured melodies of jagged violins accumulate to a palpable climax, leading us to something we know we should steer clear of, just like a trail of bread crumbs to a witches house.  An atmospheric orchestra is at play here, using every day sounds to heighten our senses and mess with our mind.  They are used with a playful yet creepy incongruence, so expect the unexpected.  A desolate cabin that has seen better days is the location, and designed by Simon Kenny it becomes a playground for the fear hiding inside you.  Everything is just a little creepy and a little dishevelled, where interior and exterior scenes are revealed with chilling ease.  Lighting by Paul Pyant plays with shadows, light and dark, offering phone lights, candles and electrical glares as its only solace.  

What makes this show stand out from other thrillers is its pandora’s box of surprises.  It refuses to play by the rules and so is above merely trying to scare the bejesus out of you, but offers impeccable humour, poignant songs, relationships, and the heart wrenching search for understanding, acceptance, and inner peace.  It challenges your wits, your thoughts, your observations and makes you question how much we sleepwalk through life and simply do not notice.  It is intelligent, hilarious, petrifying, and thought provoking all wrapped up in one fast paced, have to see it to appreciate it, experience.   The symbolism is fascinatingly subtle yet genius, with uncomfortable yet shamefully truthful parallels being woven throughout.  But to say anymore would be a risk, so as requested, I’m spreading the word, not the spoilers.

Directed by Philip Franks, acting alumni of Original Theatre and horror fan extraordinaire, Murder In The Dark couldn’t have been in safer hands.  He has truly found the nuances and intricacies in this Torben Betts play that make it stand alone from anything else out there.  He has used the strengths of his cast to flip us upside out and inside down before leaving us alone and wondering what on earth just happened. Tom Chambers (Holby, Father Brown, Dial M For Murder) is the agitated and once famous singer Danny.  Perfectly on edge throughout, he plays with pause for humour, tension, and self torture as we witness a brilliant portrayal of someone in turmoil.  He stunningly adjusts Dannys interactions with the various characters according to his relationship with them, and the result is a multi-faceted, fascinatingly flawed character that will knock your socks off.  Susie Blake (Coronation Street, Victoria Wood As Seen On Tv, Not Going Out) is the gift that keeps on giving as Mrs. Bateman.  What a privilege to watch comedic royalty at work.  Her timing is so precise that she can’t put a foot wrong, and the traits she brings to this mind altering character are, quite simply put, genius.  Her one liners are delivered so effortlessly that you are powerless to her charm, and she somehow manages to keep you belly laughing in the middle of a psychological thriller.  What a talent.  Life goal achieved.

Rebecca Charles (The Dresser, Abigails Party, An Ideal Husband) is Rebecca, the ex-wife and beautifully bounces between her confused feelings of love and resentment for Danny.  A bubbling pot of fire ready to explode, you can see her struggle as she tipples between honesty and keeping the peace.  Jonny Green (It’s A Sin, Digging Deep) is powerful as Jake the son.  A moving monologue to his father shows his vulnerability and is an emotional highlight of the evening.  Other moments see him disguising this through toxic and pent up outbursts, showing a great emotive performance.  Owen Oakeshott (Witness For The Prosecution, Outlander) provides us with Will, the estranged and bittersweet brother.  He brings utter belief to this heart torn character, betrayed yet beloved, and so unsure of how to process his feelings.  Again, comedy splinters through his performance to create electrifying moments.  Laura White (The Play That Goes Wrong, Doctors) is Sarah the girlfriend and she performs with hauntingly beautiful movement, creating incredible isolations and broken shapes.  This is juxtaposed against a naturalism in other moments of her performance and therefore she keeps us well and truly on our toes.

Murder In The Dark is a puzzle just waiting to be solved, and even when you think you have cracked it, think again.  The expert writing will tie your mind in knots and leave you with little time to catch your breath before you are torpedoed into the next enigma.  The characters and performances are blindingly brilliant and the whole thing somehow manages to balance humour, drama, tension, and a psychological crack right through your core.  One slight tip in the wrong direction and the whole thing could topple, and with a different cast, this would be a very different play.  The genius of this show is that it lets you think you are winning.  My advice?  Don’t get too comfortable with that thought for you never know what demons are lurking in the dark.  Come out come out where ever you are!


Watch our "In Conversation with Tom Chambers" video discussing the show.

Calendar Girls the Musical

Calendar Girls The Muslcal - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 16th January 2024


Sometimes in life, the most humble of people are the ones to make the world unintentionally sit up and take note.  This is exactly what the ladies of the WI did from their village in Yorkshire.  Their idea for the now famous nude calendar was born out of love for a member of their close-knit community, John Baker.  It was only ever intended as a way to make John smile and to raise some funds for the Leukaemia Research Fund along the way.  But love has a power and a momentum all of its own, and little did these ladies know that what had started as a personal venture, would end up supporting families across the globe.  Their story is remarkable, and a simple calendar grew into a global news phenomenon, a blockbusting movie, an awarding winning play and a musical.  This is the story of the best of humanity, and just like the sunflower, how looking towards the light can make you grow and bloom in ways you never imagined.

One by one we see the ladies of the WI enter the stage, set out as a village hall, awaiting its monthly meeting.  There is an immediate warmth and truth to the show, as heartfelt and real characters greet us with the trials and tribulations of their imperfect and messy lives.  A Northern gritty humour is hard wired and rooted in the backbone of these characters, and it is beautifully reflected in the show throughout.  As they each bring their craft activity in and giggle at the various attempts to reflect October through a craft, from Corn Dolly Parton to homemade wine, which they playfully ponder the suitability of in a Methodist Church Hall, we learn that John, a clearly popular and well-loved member of the community, is ill.  But the “Keep Calm And Carry On,” mantra is strong here and any niggling concerns as to just how ill he may be are sprinkled with gallows humour and a rousing attempt to keep spirits high.  As we start to learn a little more about the lives of each of these women through the passing of seasons and the various WI activities, John’s hospital visits become more frequent and his health deteriorates, though his humour does not.  His passing is dealt with in a gentle and respectful way.  It is not glossed over and we are able to feel the pain of losing someone, but it also allows that grief to be shared out through the community, including us as the audience, so that it makes just enough space for the power of friendship, loyalty and courage to shine through.  That is what Calendar Girls The Musical is about, and as the seed of an idea takes place, we are taken on one heck of a story as these inspirational women face their own fears to not only create a calendar, but a legacy that the world will never forget.

Long term friends Gary Barlow and Tim Firth had a long-standing agreement that they would one day write a musical together.  They created a corker that is full of love, life, truth and hope.  It is emotive without being schmaltzy, funny without being disrespectful, and has captured an honesty that is so relatable, you cannot help but recognise and love the wealth of characters in yourself and your own loved ones.  With songs such as Sunflower, Yorkshire, and Kilimanjaro nestled in amongst fantastic one liners and raw messages, the combination is divine and effortlessly flows.  The driving force may come from characters Chris and Annie, but each respective character is given their own platform to shine, their own song, their own life.  It is a true ensemble musical, which beautifully echoes the spirit of this Yorkshire community.  As such, Jonathan O’Boyle has directed the production with a deep understanding and generosity of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and never undermines the importance of what each character offers.

To say this cast is a strong unit would be an understatement.  They unify as one yet are equally able to stand alone and hold the spotlight.  A wealth of talent with endless experience between them, they beautifully blend to delight and present a true masterpiece.  Samantha Seager (Only Fools & Horses The Musical, Into The Woods, Coronation Street) alights the stage as Chris.  A fun and feisty driving force, her energy is infectious and her strength of will is tangible.  Her rousing spirit urged the audience on and during her speech to the big wigs at the WI about sticking two fingers up to cancer, it was so on point and moving that the applause from the audience was momentarily halted as we all had to catch our breath.  Chris’ bestie is the lovely Annie, brought to life with remarkable strength and spirit by Laurie Brett (Eastenders, Waterloo Road, Les Mis).  The humanity in Brett’s performance is beyond words.  It is something you feel.  She evokes such truth that she turns sympathy into empathy and produces an unfiltered rawness of life after loss, with both its highs and its lows.  It is incredibly relatable and touched many people in the audience.  Maureen Nolan (The Nolans, Blood Brothers, Footloose) as Ruth superbly shows us how trying to project perfection can leave you with private demons.  She expertly manages to present various layers of her character, to her friends, to herself, and to us as the audience, resulting in a remarkable performance and juxtaposing moments of humour and heartache.  Her solo My Russian Friend And I is not only testament to her acting range, but vocally reminds us why she is a member of one of the biggest selling girl bands of all time.  Honeysuckle Weeks (Foyles War, The Five, The Best Man) plays Cora, a vicars daughter who feels trapped between the expectations this brings, and flying solo as her true self.  She brings a vivacious energy and strength to the stage yet equally allows us to witness her inner doubts and personal struggles.  She allows her character to be very approachable and recognisable, so we actually feel like we might know her.  It is mesmerising watching her.

Lyn Paul (The New Seekers, Blood Brothers, Taboo) is fabulously matriarchal and stern as Jessie, yet we discover that Jessie’s outward appearance is a role she has played in life, and it possibly hides a deliciously wicked interior.  Paul creates a commanding character, without ever being unwelcoming and the respect others have for her is apparent in both performance and reality.  She blows us away with her solo.  It holds a powerful message and is delivered by powerful vocals that give you goosebumps and extracted involuntary “wows” from around the theatre.  Liz Carney (Our Gracie, Blithe Spirit, Mount Pleasant) does such a convincing job as the fussy, rule abiding, perfectionist leader of the WI Marie, that not only will she have you laughing along at her antics, but she will lull you into the weaknesses of prejudging someone.  For when her hurt at being excluded and prejudged spills out, and we see things through her eyes, the guilt you feel is real.  It is an extraordinary scene and utterly compelling.  Helen Pearson (Hollyoaks, Eastenders, Educating Rita) is glorious as Celia.  A woman who is at one with herself, she exudes a comfortable confidence and delivers some important and valuable messages.  She has a lightness about her that is refreshing and engaging.  It is an honest performance of an honest character and I loved her.  Our beloved John is cheekily performed by Colin R Campbell (To Kill A Mockingbird, Twelfth Night, The Diplomat) with a vivacious energy and lust for life.  It is a heck of a part to take on when you think about it, and Campbell stunningly gave us a character who is brave, brimming with love, passionate about his job, his hobby, his wife and his friends.  Andrew Tuton (professional debut) was excellent as Rod, fun, tender, supportive without ever being corny.  He could summarise his feelings with a simple look on his face and it was delightful to watch.  The whole cast were stunning, with a touching honesty woven right into the heart of everything they did.

Designed by Gary McCann and lighting by Nick Richings, this production of Calendar Girls The Musical was subtly clever with an appreciation in its seemingly simple design.  A grand design of the church hall dominated, with a three dimensional feel, with areas that went off to a believable kitchen and the glorious scenery of Yorkshire.  This scenery outside the hall changed with the seasons, as did the lighting, and somehow managed to match the tone of the scene each time.  Scene changes to the hospital were smoothly achieved by the addition of the battered couch in the relatives room and signage being lowered from above, akin to any hospital.  And the calendar scene itself?  Artistic, fun, no fuss, just gorgeous women with gorgeous props doing something gorgeous for their beloved friend.  Each lady received a round of applause after their “picture had been taken.”  The support physically rippled throughout the theatre, so that by the end, when they all came on in full song, laden with vases of luscious sunflowers, I was a wreck.  I was a melting pot of admiration, grief, awe, loss and hope.  Definitely hope.  An emotive, earnest and ebullient show, Calendar Girls The Musical is a class act.  It will reach out and embrace everyone in their own unique way and reassure you that you do not have to face the unimaginable alone.  It is witty, tender and beautiful.  And it all came about because a community wanted to remember one of their own.  So, if you take one thing away from watching Calendar Girls The Musical, let it be the name John Baker.


Watch our "In Conversation with Maureen Nolan" video discussing the show.

The King and I

The King and I - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 9th January 2024


The King and I was last in Manchester less than a year ago, but as it makes it return to Salford, I know that it is never too soon to indulge in this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.  They are musical legends, and the swelling evidence of rich, emotive, layered melodies and lyrics are present in every song they write.  I have found myself whistling a happy tune since New Years Day in anticipation of the greatest musical from the golden age of musicals making its way back to us, and despite my ridiculously high expectations, this production by Tony award winning director Barlett Sher, did not disappoint and delivered everything I wanted and more. 

Featuring one of the finest scores ever written (and with an overture!), their melodies have found a home in many a heart.  The King and I continues to astound audiences with its brilliance, its historically difficult storylines, and its outstanding music.  Slavery, misogyny, polygamy, sexism, racism, human trafficking, and multiple children make this book a constant debate between it being a timeless classic or a dated relic.  This Bartlett Sher production does not try to rewrite history by shying away from these elements but focuses more on accuracy than on a glamourous infused idyllic view of the Far East during this time.  It means sets and costumes are more period appropriate to 1860’s Siam, and simpler rather than portraying a dreamlike Hollywood vision of what Siam may have been like.  It means that whilst Anna clearly has confused feeling for The King, she does not simply “love” him in the smitten romantic way she is accustomed to but is engulfed by a whirlwind of paradoxical emotions that have her admiring and respecting The King whilst simultaneously despising many of his values.  She is intrigued, infuriated and curious.  Anna can see the hope of change in him and admires that he is trying to learn and make changes through the acceptance of another way. 

The King of Siam invites recently widowed British school teacher Anna Leonowens to Siam to educate his children and wives in the ways of the Western World.  With such huge cultural differences and heated opinions, it is apparent it is just as difficult for Anna to agree as for The King to have asked in the first place.  But The King fears for the future of his country and the perception the rest of the world has of him and his Kingdom.  Cultures and beliefs clash between Anna and The King, with both believing themselves to be the ones who are correct and proper.  Anna finds herself in the predicament of opposing The Kings misogynistic and humanistic views, whilst equally being a guest in his country and trying to respect his traditions.  When The King receives a gift in the form of a woman slave named Tuptim and sees nothing wrong with this, Anna can hold her tongue no more.  Nor can she stand by and witness Tuptim’s chance of true love pass by and so endeavours to help her.  The King is furious and as they clash, it is ultimately Tuptim who pays the price.  It raises questions of tradition and honour versus humanity and equity, a very relevant question in today’s world.  The King discovers that Britain have declared him a barbarian due to these traditions, and it is Anna herself who defends him, stating he is trying to marry his traditions with Western beliefs and there is far more going on than what their report sees.  Anna suggests inviting The British to witness for themselves that Siam is a country full of culture, passion, beauty and love.  She of course has to allow The King to believe it is his own idea to host the event, and even though she was employed to educate the children and wives, Anna possibly finds her biggest student in The King himself.  Theirs is a tumultuous relationship for they disagree on almost everything, apart from the desire to serve and protect their people.  They observe and respect this objective in each other, even if they do not understand the opposing deliveries.  After a period of not talking to one another, Anna finally agrees to visit The King one last time, where he offers permission of hope for the future of his beloved country.  Their deeply conflicted, complicated and combusting friendship is felt deeply in these final moments, as a new era is born.

The King & I will evoke iconic moments for anyone who has seen it, and tease newcomers with mind blowing routines and all-encompassing music.  An audience favourite is, and will forever be “Shall We Dance,” and tonight was no exception.  There is a magnetic joy in this centre piece of the show for is offers release, it offers a moment of peace in the tension, and it offers hope.  You see all of this and more not only through the dance itself, but through the performers playing The King and Anna (Darren Lee and Helen George) as they polka around the stage with unabashed delight.  The energy is contagious, and the audience feel their abandonment.  Uncle Toms cabin also steals the show, where choreographer Christopher Gattelli has impeccably captured the embodiment of its intention with East meets West.  A traditional Siamese ballet is at the heart of this piece, and traditions are honoured with respect.  The entire showcase is stunningly beautiful and delicately demonstrates the beauty and talent overlooked by politics.  There is so much to love about this production, whether it be a particular song that holds dear memories, the delightful humour, the important messages, the outstanding performers, the spectacular dancing or the seamless flow the production has, you won’t be disappointed.  Many of tonights audience concurred that even though they had seen the show less than a year ago, its brilliance captivated them afresh.  That is true testament to a royal performance.

A moment that drew me in and held me captive once again was the soliloquy “puzzlement” by The King, performed by the flawlessly outstanding Darren Lee (Chicago, Allegiance, Miss Saigon).  I have previously seen Lee perform as The King and was bowled over by the humanistic edge of vulnerability he brought to the role, making this a very real character, with flaws, with questions, with inner tensions between what tradition dictates and what he feels may be right.  It was outstanding then, and yet tonight, he somehow made his performance even better.  Untouchable.  He is commanding, powerful, intimidating, yet cheeky, charming, and humorous, and it is intoxicating.  We see him instruct the most despicable of acts, cringe as he unflinchingly accepts a human being as a gift, yet we smile as he teases Anna with his rule of always being the highest in the room, and share in his joy as he dances around the palace with a childlike innocence.  It is such a clever performance because his views are unthinkable to many, yet you can’t help but like him, and that is the quandary and dilemma of the entire situation.  The story is always bigger than the surface cover.  A man who is ruled by pride yet knows he has more to learn creates such an interesting dynamic and it is these complexities that Darren Lee brings to the role in a way I have ever seen before.  He is so sure of himself, yet so full of questions at the same time.  This paradox explodes in “Puzzlement,” and shows us a human being struggling with his own mind.  It is outstanding.

Helen George
(Call The Midwife, Nativity Rocks, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is strong, stunning and formidable as Anna and proves she is a defiant match for The King.  There is a heady mix of a tender loving care coupled with ferocious mamma bear vibes and it is achieved with such ease that George presents Anna as someone who has a genuine desire to bring simplicity to complicated matters.  She loves with all her heart and she brings Anna to life in such a way that you innately trust, respect and warm to her.  It is rare to feel such real trust in a character, but that is the beauty of George’s talent.  That is not to say George plays Anna as someone who is perfect and has nothing to learn herself.  Far from it, and she allows a vulnerable humility to surface, highlighting a lack of understanding of things beyond her own world.  These moments offered by George are of vital importance, as they have the potential to indicate and affect an audience reaction too.  George is not afraid to have Anna put in her place and it allows us to feel the growing discomfort too.  The chemistry, friction and tumbled emotions between George and Lee is palpable and during their moments of peace with each other, they can bring you to tears. 

Much of this cast are the same as the previous performance I saw, and whilst it would be easy to say I reiterate everything I said last time, that is not quite true, for they all seem to be evolving with the show and getting better and better.  Lady Thiang is portrayed by Cezarah Bonner and as before, her rendition of “Something Wonderful” moved me to tears.  The depth of feeling and understanding she brings to this song is mesmerising and beautifully explores the complications of love.  She plays the role with a dignified strength, making both her love and fear of the King present in equal measures.  Bonner exudes a radiance and a power entirely of her own.  Dean John-Wilson and Marienella Phillips continue as the forbidden lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim.  John Wilson’s vocals in “We Kiss In A Shadow” are so tender and delicate that they permeate his love for Tuptim.  The gentleness with which he sings is stunning and harshly contrasts to how The King is with Tuptim.  Phillips vocals soar and leave you with goosebumps.  Her defiance of The King in Uncle Toms Cabin is so striking and believable, you find yourself holding your breath during her performance.  Together they have such a wonderful connection on stage. 

The last time I saw this production I was utterly blown away by the performance of Caleb Lagayan as Prince Chulalongkorn and I confess to immediately flicking through my programme to ascertain if he was in tonights show.  I am thrilled to have witnessed this outstanding actor once again and still believe he has captured this role like no one else.  A spectacular blend of innocence, arrogance, and an internal tension between the new and the old, he layers his character with so many nuances that you feel his confusion, his fear, his desire to be the best he can be.  Lagayan’s powerful reprise of “Puzzlement” is like a work of art as you see every thought, every emotion cross his expressive face.  It would be easy for his character to dominate in this scene, but he beautifully shares the moment with Louis Levy as the strong willed, strong minded son of Anna, Louis.  Their scenes together are full of fierce loyalty to their parents, sprinkled with doubt as their own views surface and they see a different way into the future.

Sam Jenkins – Shaw, Kok-Hwa Lie and Chi Chan complete the main cast as Sir Edward Ramsey, Kralahome, and Phra Alack.  Respectively they bring superbly contrasting qualities of suave sophistication, intimidating strength and power, and humour in the detail.  And no review of The King And I is complete without mentioning the children.  They were flawless, professional mini adults, each with their own character clearly brought to life and didn’t miss a single beat.

Directed by the unquestionable genius of multiple Tony award winner Bartlett Sher, the indulgence of The King and I has been stripped back.  Yes, there is glamour and opulence, but it is simplistic in its approach and streamlined so the desired impact isn’t about the spectacle, but the story itself.  Its stripped back nature compared to previous shows, films and productions, represents a more sparse nature that reflects the truth of the people of Siam, rather than the perception of an exotic enchantment.  Elements of this impressively clever set (Michael Yeargan) are striking in stature, such as the boat or the Buddha, yet their design allows for swift entry and exists.  Scenes are able to change in a heartbeat, from a dockside to a palace, and the visual result is one of colour, simplistic detail, and ambience.  Flowers are lowered in from above to depict the palace gardens, silhouetted homes are raised on legs out of the water, and gilded columns and textured curtains place us right in the heart of the palace itself.  This beautiful approach of simplicity is also seen in the costumes (Catherine Zuber).  Make though mistake though, for creating a simple approach to costumes does not mean they are basic.  Far from it.  They are stunningly beautiful and so intelligent too, representing the contrasting cultures so well that they even allow for a moment of mockery as the Siamese do not understand the British prim and proper attire for ladies.  This scene allows our Western clothes to be worn in any number of ways and highlights that what seems traditionally obvious to us, seems ridiculous to someone else.  Zuber manages to make an important statement of forcing our beliefs on someone because we assume they are correct and obvious to all. 

The King and I is a classic and always raises important debates on cultural appropriation.  It has been given a fresh approach but equally dares to retain the uncomfortable topics at the heart of the story, and does so through the very best musical theatre has to offer.  Bartlett Sher has honed in on the characters development, giving us more understanding of their predicaments, in place of trying to push an agenda of what is wrong and what is right, or more importantly perhaps, who is wrong and who is right.  He has made the most difficult of storylines something to behold, to engage with, and has equally honoured and respected the role of musical theatre and the iconic original score.  The result is moving, breathtaking, staggeringly emotional, and memorable.  The King and I is pure golden musical theatre.


Lost and Found

Lost and Found - Aviva Studios, Manchester - Thursday 14th December 2023


What a treat to be invited along to the world premiere stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ awarding winning book Lost and Found at the stunning new venue Aviva Studios.  Children fill the venue chattering with excitement, anticipation is in the air, and as you enter the theatre space you are welcomed into a magical new world where large seagull puppets fly around all levels of the venue, teasing unexpected guests.  Everyone is included and everyone is willingly immersed and immediately engaged.  I even had my programme lifted by a seagull!  It made an appearance again later in the play at the lost and found office!  It was safely returned to me of course.  From the impressive set, full of sea faring details of netting, life boys, shells and rubbish washed up in the ocean, to the large projection of the ocean that dominates the back of the stage, all bathed in a calming blue, there is so much to take in.  With this production, the experience begins the second you enter.  It is wonderful.

Lost and Found is adapted and directed for stage by BAFTA award winning director Will Brenton (CBeebies, Coronation Street).  Will has been able to take the important messages of loneliness, friendship, and kindness from this picture book and add a simple yet heart-warming script.  A penguin knocks on a boys door, seemingly lost.  The boy is unsure what you’re supposed to do when a penguin turns up at your door, and so tells it to go away.  The penguin persists though, and the boy takes the bait, trying to find who the penguin belongs to.  He asks everyone he meets if they’ve lost a penguin, but to no prevail, and so he takes it to the lost and found office.  No one there has reported a lost penguin either.  The boy tries to leave the penguin there, waiting for its owner to come and claim it, but instead, ends up sailing a boat to the south pole to take it home.  Parting is harder than it seems though, and we soon discover that the penguin was never lost at all.  It was searching for something, and though the boy didn’t realise it at first, so was he.  They found that something in each other.

The brilliant set design by Jean Chan is echoed in the costumes worn by the cast, who are dressed in varying shades of blue, with wonderful netting draped around their bodies, each again containing different sea related elements.  The impact is inspiring, and perfectly keeps the younger audience in the heart of the story.  But this set is like a huge playground, with hidden doors, secret passage ways and nooks and crannies.  When the first reveal is done via a curtain to present the boys house, this young audience quite literally gasped in awe and wonderment.  The reveals kept coming, with sections of the set opening up entirely to bring out boats, icebergs and a whole variety of exciting possibilities.  A mini ramp and slope up and around the back of the stage allowed for cute chase scenes between the penguin and the boy to the delight of the children, and with a wooden fence at the front of the stage, moveable poles across the stage, and a pandoras box for a set, there were also plenty of options for the seagulls to land and perch after a good flit and fly around.  

Music has been introduced to the production courtesy of Gruff Rhys.  Not only does it have live musicians on stage, with many instruments streamlined into the set itself, but we have songs that know how to engage because all of the children instantly started clapping along and involving themselves in any way they could.  The music (and the sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite) cleverly incorporates sounds inspired by the story, such as boatbuilding.  The rhythms and sounds of sawing, hammering and such like can be detected and again give an overall connection to the location of the story, fully immersing its audience on every level possible.  The final song has hope, heart and sums up the story beautifully.

The puppets are designed by Olly Taylor and vary from the aforementioned seagulls, to mini versions of the penguin and boy, to the penguin costume itself, which is beyond cute!  There are combinations of rod puppets, hand puppets and full costumes so there is always a surprise around every corner.  The puppets of the penguin and boy are used to help show dimensions, highlighting how small they are to be setting off on such a huge adventure, and their journey across the sea during a storm is beautifully done.  The penguin costume is so fluffy and cute, the audience “awed” and fell in love on sight.  Lydia Baksh, who brought the penguin to life, somehow managed to inject personality even though we could see no part of her.  The penguin was adorable, cheeky, funny and brilliantly paced with movements to understand everything it felt.

Richard Hay was the boy and pitched it perfectly.  He managed to engage children and adults alike with his energy, singing, and storytelling.  The rest of the cast played various roles, including the seagulls, the lost and found officer, and members of the public.  Their work as the seagulls was particularly impressive, even creating convincing sounds, and again managing to inject personality and humour into the puppets.  This fantastic cast were Susie Barrett, Gus Barry, Ronan Cullen, Pena Iiyambo, Gemma Khawaja, and Rayo Patel.  They pulled the whole show together and didn’t stop working from beginning to end.

This is a gorgeous family show for children of all ages, with plenty of stand out moments to enjoy.  After the fun interaction with the seagulls at the start, they fly onto the stage, music kicks in, and they all start bopping their heads along in time.  This instantly set the layout out of giggles and fun ahead, and plenty more were to come.  The manager in the lost and found shop was a huge puppet with extendable arms and a brilliant quirky personality.  The way they made the boat move, whilst clear to adults, filled the children with a sense of magic as I heard many of them trying to figure out how it moved with no water.  The building of the boat in the first place invited a tantalizing opportunity for the audience to get involved, and for cast members to run into the audience searching for missing pieces.

Children are invited up onto stage to help build the boat and then to try and move it.  Huge inflatable trees descend from above, mirroring those on the screen behind, and this idea is replicated as the penguin and boy create numerous poses during their song, and they are animated on the screen behind them.  Lost and Found has a magical aura, igniting the joy of connection, friendship and imagination.  It would make a special memory for the whole family, so if you can, go along and watch. 



Little Women

Little Women - HOME, Manchester - Tuesday 12th December 2023


Little Women has arrived at Home for the festive period, filling lovers of the novel with a warmth and nostalgia as they see one of their all-time favourites brought to life.  Written by Louisa May Alcott and adapted for stage by Anne – Marie Casey, this production captures the unique personalities of each of the four sisters.  Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are the March sisters and we watch them as they navigate their way through the joys, struggles and pitfalls of being a young woman in New England during the civil war.  It is a coming of age story where each sister has a goal and must learn from trial and error how to achieve it.  Ahead of its time regarding women’s independence, it is a moving and beautiful story that highlights a multitude of desires, barriers, obligations, and truths that women faced, and how these women never gave up hope on finding their own way in the world.

Whether you are a lover of the novel, the film or entirely new to the story, this production of Little Women throws its arms open to welcome you into the fold.  A small cast delivers this cleverly streamlined adaptation, meaning that many of the characters are mentioned in passing but never seen.  This puts the focus wholly back on the women as they dominate the performance.  Rachael McAllister gifts us with the feisty and independent Jo.  She portrays the relationship with Laurie as true friendship, with never a hint of anything more, which is entirely as it should be, and even upon meeting Prof Bhaer, she retains her identity and doesn’t suddenly fawn or become anything other than who she has always been.  She plays the character with an authenticity throughout.

Meg March is performed by Jessica Brydges.  The vanity of Meg has been softened in this version and Brydges has done a wonderful job of keeping the essence of Meg whilst allowing us to see a more dutiful side too.  She gives us an understanding and reason for her vanity and plays it with humour, particularly when trying to tame Jo at the ball with nothing but a raised eyebrow.  Meg Chaplin brings us the quieter and shy Beth, who gives us a stunningly moving and beautiful scene in the tragic end to her story.  We see her transform from someone hiding in the background on the piano, to someone who exudes love, and these moments of acting are so pure that they brought a tear to many an audience member.  The youngest sister Amy March is petulant, spoilt and often immature, trying to will herself older and into the world of her sisters.  These characteristics are fantastically reflected by Julia Brown, from an exploding tantrum to a demure faint at the start of the play.  Brown leaves us in no doubt that, even though Amy has a lot of growing up to do for she may go about things the wrong way, she always knows who she is and that she will get there in the end.

Kacey Ainsworth brings a glorious warmth and safety as Marmee, truly allowing you to believe in her stability and acceptance of all her daughters various traits.  She exudes mamma hen vibes, providing quite the performance because it excels the words she speaks, and becomes about the way she makes you feel simply by being in the presence of Marmee.  Laurie is brought to life by Daniel Francis-Swaby and his relationship with McAllister onstage is punchy, equal, and bursting with life.  He subtly allows us to watch his unrequited love for Jo blossom with delicate nuances to his performance and you feel his pain.  Tom Richardson multi roles as Prof Bhaer and John Brooke, showing us his versatility between these different characters.  As Brooke he shows us someone who is initially quiet and demure yet in control, become someone unstuck by love as he meets Meg and falls instantly in love.  This contrasts to his somewhat harassed and less polished Prof Bhaer who says what is on his mind and is free from societal appearances.  Richardson captures both characters.  Completing the cast is Susan Twist as Aunt March who was just brilliant.  She is entirely believable as the wealthy and opinionated Aunt, delivering her lines with such zest that their cutting nature became humorous, and whilst no one would want to be on the receiving end, from the outside she was fantastic to watch.  A single look could cut through ice, let alone the delivery of her speeches, it was deliciously delightful.      

A multitude of locations are easily managed by easily sectioning your focus to various areas of the stage, and letting your imagination do the rest.  You know they are supposed to be on a huge lake skating because they have told you.  You know they are supposed to be at a train station in New York, or a party in Paris or Rome, because they have told you.  Nothing more is needed.  This is a play about story, content, and the delivery of that.  It doesn’t rely on huge fancy set pieces to do the work for it.  Wooden beams or trunks that represent New England’s nature are the main feature to give us a grounding location of The March’s home.  The full width and depth of the stage is made use of, with tables, a piano, a writing desk and a chaise long carefully scattered around, leaving free central space for the sisters to dance, fight, form friendships, and fall in love.

The second half opens with the addition of stunning bookcases to introduce Jo’s new home where she meets Professor Bhaer, but her family home is still surrounding her on stage, beautifully representing the wrap around love and hub of the March home.  A lavish red velvet curtain is equally used to affect to create the various parties and balls in Europe and of course, the initial ball where Jo and Laurie meet for the first time.  Little Women has so many locations that to put this on stage may seem overwhelming, but I fully applaud the approach taken by set designer Ruari Murchison for it compliments and supports the story rather than trying to spell the story out.  There is a freedom gifted to the actors, with every element of design there to support and be used in various ways.  This is also apparent in the way the stage is used by the performers, directed by Brigid Lamour.  There was a clear understanding from the actors of various areas on the stage and where they represented.  A boarding house in New York was down stage left, whilst various locations across Europe were down stage right.  

Elements of this beloved story have been edited out due to its length and done so cleverly as it didn’t affect the themes, or characters in my opinion.  However, it did still feel like quite a long show, and the pacing seemed to lag at times.  For someone coming to this story with no previous knowledge, the passing of time over the years could have been confusing and could possibly have been made clearer to follow as no overt mention is made of it.  You kind of have to pick up on clues.  With the story being so iconic, maybe it assumes that everyone already knows it.  It is testament to the story that there are so many facets to understand, so if you don’t already know it, then I’d advice a quick synopsis read before attending the show for ease.  However, this production does cut right to the heart of the story – the March sisters.  By editing out so many incidental characters, it beautifully places our Little Women centre stage and allows us to follow their growth, their motivations, and their quirks with an uninterrupted vantage point.  With some stunning moments, moving harmonies as the cast unit to sing Silent Night, and a fresh edge of humour injected into the story, this production of Little Women has stood the test of time and will leave you with plenty to think about, identify with, and continue to love for many years to come.


All photos are credited to Chris Payne


We're Going on a Bear Hunt

We're Going On A Bear Hunt - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 8th December 2023


“What a beautiful day” it became after watching We’re Going On A Bear Hunt in the cosy Quays Theatre at The Lowry.  The theatre was completely alive with the excitement, curiosity, and the wonderment of children, and to be honest, adults alike.  This hard working, fun, and talented cast intrigued everyone from the off by entering from the back of the auditorium on their search for a bear, making everyone swivel round in their seats, and preparing us to always expect the unexpected.  Audience participation, music, and a knowledge of how to engage children are at the heart of this show, meaning it is fast paced, zany, and just a little bit cheeky.  The famous rhyme of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is turned into a song, which is purposefully simple so that we can all quickly learn it and join in.  The latter part of the rhyme “We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  We’ve got to go…” and the end hangs in the air so that all the audience can shout it out and join in “through it!”  This isn’t a show that expects its young audience to sit quietly in their seats passively watching.  It relishes the opportunity to allow the children to dive right in and be totally immersed in the wonder of theatre.  With this in mind, the show allows for numerous pantomime style approaches, including splitting the audience in half to sing different bits of the song, and the bear tapping someone’s shoulder but moving the other way so when the boy turns round, no one is there, and the children are screaming out “He’s behind you!!” 

Of course, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is the insanely popular award winning children’s book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.  It tells the tale of a family who decide to go on a bear hunt, but they meet obstacles to overcome on route.  They have to find a way to conquer long wavy grass, a deep cold river, thick oozy mud, a big dark forest, and a swirling, whirling snowstorm.  They achieve all of this and finally enter a narrow gloomy cave and come face to face with a bear.  Fear and panic rise, and the family run back through all the obstacles until they are home.  They lock the door, shutting the bear out, and hide under their duvet declaring they are never going on bear hunt again!  The repetitive rhymes, glorious descriptions, and hero’s journey have ensured this book is a staple in any household with children, and this was evident from todays audience.

Each of the obstacles was staged in a creative and engaging way, many of which could be recreated at home to continue the imagination and magical journey.  The long wavy grass were swathes of green material hanging down from sticks of wood that the characters could weave in and out of.  The deep cold river brought about the best kind of giddy hysteria as buckets of water were lined up, and the characters had to walk through them.  But as I’ve said, this show likes to involve its audience, and so it wasn’t long before the water pistols and super soakers were out, with cast members running into the audience to make sure everyone got a piece of the watery action.  Honestly, the laughter and squeals of delight from the children was priceless, and I truly hope the cast realised just how much joy they were bringing.  The thick oozy mud was courtesy of brown paint, where the cast covered their hands and freestyled hand painting on large sheets of paper.  But it wasn’t too long before their cheekiness emerged and they started painting each other, complete with hand prints on the derriere, which of course, the children loved!  It was the best kind of organised chaos and so the children were in their element as it was all just a little bit mischievous.  The big dark forest was easily represented by towers of cardboard boxes that the cast could run through, and then came the swirling whirling snowstorm.  It was just magical.  Lighting created falling snow throughout the entire theatre, the cast came on with white, swirling ribbons, and throwing glitter into the air, a vast white sheet covered the stage, and then……it snowed!  Honestly, if you could bottle the reactions from the children, it would be a bottle of innocent wonderment and glee to open every time you felt a bit rubbish, and it would lift your spirit in a heartbeat.

This cast and creative team are quite simple children whisperers.  They knew how to whisk them up into a frenzy of excitement, but equally, there was a moment when they sung a song “What A Beautiful Day,” and everything became serene, calm, with warm sunshine colours flooding the theatre, and I have never seen anything like it.  The children all became zen!  It was impressive to say the least.  The music throughout was live, and a fabulous mix of instruments being introduced from a guitar to a kazoo to a harmonica. 


The adaptation to stage has been directed by Sally Cookson, designed by Katie Sykes, with music composed by Benji Bower.  Together, this creative team clearly understand children.  They have used music to create atmosphere, allowing the children to feel content, scared, excited, and sleepy.  The use of items that they can play with at home, school or nursery, and can indulge imagination is key to this production, and keeps it in the realm of our young audiences experiences, allowing them to accept it without question.  Items such as buckets, towels, boxes, paint, and paper can easily be accessed, and reiterate the idea that children don’t need big fancy expensive items, they already have the biggest gift of all in their unfiltered and uninhibited imaginations. 

Tim Hibberd played the dad and was not only funny in the eyes of the children, but to us grown ups too with his off the cuff and witty ad libs.  His performance felt like a fluffy warm hug, and with an instant likeability he created a safe and stable environment for the children to relax and enjoy the show.  Neha Eapen was the girl and was funny, quirky, and created some brilliant physical movement and shapes that had the children rip roaring with laughter.  Her facial expressions were engaging and told a thousand tales.  Benedict Hastings as the boy brings a cheeky charm, and a little bit of mischief.  He connected instantly with the children’s humour and could reduce them to hilarity with a wiggle of his bootie in an instant.  Benjamin Hills was not only the dog but provided the majority of the music too.  Full of endless energy, he bounded across the stage as the dog much to the delight of the audience, and equally calmed them with the power of music.


We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is a show with children as its beating heart.  And I will happily confess that I initially went with my adult mind whirring with all the other things I could be doing in this hour rather than watching a children’s show, BUT I was wrong!  So wrong!  It completely won me over, and so I now say this show is not just for children.  It is for anyone who wants to feel happiness, who wants to remember and reignite their carefree world, and who wants to marvel in the untouched and unspoilt magic of being a child.  It was truly a tonic, and I would go again and invite all the children in my world to join me in a heartbeat.



Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk - Opera House, Manchester - Thursday 7th December 2023


‘Tis the season for merriment, family, Christmas traditions, and all that jazz.  The panto at the Manchester Opera House ticks all of these boxes!  You will laugh till you pickle, share a brilliantly bonding time with your family, get all of those Christmassy vibes, and be wowed by the big musical theatre numbers.  A Christmas panto at The Opera House has been a personal tradition for countless years now, and every year I think, “How will they top this next year?”  But every year they do, and Jack And The Beanstalk is no exception.  It opens with a fizz of energy, neon colours flashing everywhere, and a song and dance routine that gave me the Disney feels.  It was magical, and immediately demanded your full attention.  Butterflies fill the stage, and who doesn’t love a butterfly, especially when they sing, dance, and glow like this lot!  Don’t expect to catch your breath though, for you are plunged straight into another number from Jason Manford who is sounding better than ever, and he then dives headfirst into a stand-up routine.  It’s not too long before he is joined on stage by our own panto tradition – Ben Nickless, and the friendship and bromance they formed last year is ignited once again to the delight of the entire audience.  I’m sure there is a script in there somewhere, but these two together are so natural, so authentic, that it feels entirely in the moment, fuelling audience giddiness even further, for you feel you are a part of this special thing.  Sounds cheesy I know, but what can I say, that’s how it was.  They give us all the usual things to shout out when they appear on stage, and after they have self mocked (Jason Manford poking fun that he is playing a boy called Jack in his 40’s, and Ben Nickless laughing that he is the same character as always, just with a different name – Silly Simon this year) they explain the simple plot line, and we’re off.

Myra Dubois enters as the giant's wife Myra Blunderbore and immediately hones in on the audience, taking audience participation in a panto to a whole new level!  This is a panto that cleverly balances the content for adults and children alike.  As it teases and teeters on the edge of the line of adult humour, the children simply delight in the atmosphere and the laughter they are surrounded by and in turn laugh at that!  I remember this feeling as a child myself.  It makes you feel safe and happy and a part of something special.

So, what is the Mancunian panto infused version of this story?  Well, Jack and Simon are brothers and live on a farm.  Jack wants to marry Princess Jill, meanwhile Jill is absorbed in showing the giant they won’t live in fear of him and so decides to put on a Royal Variety performance to bring joy to all.  Jack determines he will perform at the show and woo her that way.  In other news, Myra wants to put a feast on for her giant husband but doesn’t have enough food to satisfy him.  The giant is annoyed with Jill's attempts to live without fear and so captures her. 

Jack makes it his mission to rescue her but has no idea how.  They decide they need a rocket or a flying car or something but have no money.  There is nothing for it but to sell all the animals, who come out and protest with brilliantly topical signs full of puns and comedy.  As Jack takes his cow Pat (take a second with that one) to market to sell, Myra tries to trick him into selling all the animals to her for the feast.  The spirit of the beans appears though and sprinkles the beans with a little magic.  The beanstalk grows, and as Jack and Simon finally arrive in giant land to rescue Jill, they discover that this is 2023 and she doesn’t need a man to rescue her, she can rescue herself!  Everything works out with the happily ever afters and Jack and Jill have their wedding.  I think that’s about right, but with this panto, and the comedy moments and hilarity over taking everything, it may be slightly different on any given night!

Jason Manford was just born to be on stage!  A complete natural, and even when he is interrupted by giggles or heckles, he relishes in this and somehow makes things even better.  Funny, charismatic, natural, and a great rapport with his audience, no matter whether he is telling jokes, acting daft, or belting out some banging tunes, he is captivating, and I really hope this isn’t his last year in panto as it fits him like a glove.  There’s a charm in ‘what you see is what you get’ with his performance, and what you get is bloomin’ brilliant.  And that voice!  It just gets better and better!  Manford shows what a true all-round performer he is, and as one of the hardest working people in showbiz, he thoroughly deserves the love and admiration he received.  His opening stand-up routine had us crying with laughter in complete recognition of his observational humour, reminding everyone of his generation what it was like to be a kid in the summer holidays – “You’re either out, or you’re in!”  He knows how to connect completely with an audience and welcomes you into his world with generosity.    

Ben Nickless is Mr. Manchester Panto!  They should name a dressing room or something after him at the very least!  He is not only insanely talented with his comedy routines, singing, impersonations and natural charm and affability, but you can sense his genuine love for what he does by the bucketful.  His appearance on stage had a little touch of illusion and magic about it, setting the scene for an impressive evening.  His Manchester rap was not only witty and a crowd pleaser, but impressively mastered and delivered without a single beat, borough or breath being skipped.  To go from that, to impersonating Ed Sheeran, to being convincingly battered and bashed about by boxing gloves, baseball bats, and frying pans, then jumping up and engaging with children, singing a song, and goodness knows what else – I mean come on!  Talk about all round entertainer, and all of it with such modesty that makes him even more brilliant.  Long may Manchester’s love affair with Ben Nickless continue.  Our panto truly wouldn’t be the same without him.    

Myra Dubois brings a whole new feisty dynamic to our panto this year and delivers humour in such a dry and on point way, that you will wonder how we managed so long without her.  She has an insatiable ability to throw out quick comebacks and has the most fabulous costumes in the whole show.  An air of defiance sparkles around everything she says and does, and her engagement with the audience is just brilliant.  You have the vibe of never knowing quite what to expect, only that you know it will be fabulous.  She holds the stage as her own time and time again, then perfectly forms first a trio, then a quartet to provide us with some of the most rip roaring moments of the show.  Quick witted, she is able to play around with the script and have fun, engaging not only other cast members, but the audience alike.

West End superstar Emma Williams shines on stage and treats us to that liquid gold voice of hers.  She bounces off the other cast members with joy and really gets stuck into the panto routines, making us belly laugh with her antics, particularly in the “If I were not from the farm” routine.  My only complaint is that she was not in the show enough because she is a true talent.  This is echoed for Samara Casteallo, who we were thrilled to see retuning to our panto once again.  She is so full of energy, joy and sparkle that she genuinely lights up the stage with each appearance.

Jack And The Beanstalk has everything you’d want from a panto, and then some!  Unless you have visited an Opera House panto before, believe me, you have no idea what to expect!  And even if you have, I’ll be honest, you’ll still end up surprised, taken aback, and wowed, because they never fail to impress or amaze with the ingenuity, creativity and boundary pushing elements that make the theatre come alive in such a magical way.  A musical theatre theme from Joseph and his technicoloured doo dah coat runs throughout, with opportunity to join in, and then you are also dazzled with a twist on classics such as “I’ve got rhythm.”

You will be indulged with top notch stand-up comedy routines, wicked impersonations, audience participation, a mesmerising giant, a flying car, cast members dancing through the aisles, talking boobies, traditional panto routines with a twist, children given the opportunity to go on stage – even the big kids, the audience getting a soaking, a rave version of Old McDonald had a farm, glitterball magic, and they even make it snow!  Seriously, what is not to love?  You will smile till your face sticks like that and leave sighing a happy sigh of contentment.  The set is full of sparkle and glitter, from a farm to the giants lair, and the comedy even extends to the scenery, with some cracking named shops.  Keep an eye out for these as they will make you giggle.  A huge bed dominates during one scene, for Jack and Simon’s bedtime, and with this comedy duo, it is gloriously reminiscent of Morecombe and Wise, with gags galore and some oldies but goodies thrown in too.

The build up to the end of act one, as always with our Opera House panto, is something special to behold and no matter what your age, will fill you with a child like wonder and awe that I intend to keep hold of.  It is spectacular, and all the children (and some adults) spent the whole interval trying to figure out how it was done.  There is so much going on that every part of you is fit to burst with excitement at the spectacle on offer.  The second half sees the return of bringing children up onto the stage which always proves to be a beautifully funny moment as kids will be kids and there is no predicting what they will do or say at any given performance.  Both Jason and Ben talk to these young people with such respect, patience, and humour that you can feel the entire audience willing the children on.  Then of course, there is the old panto favourite “If I were not upon a……..”  This year, it is “If I were not from the farm,” and the comedy is brought to us by Manford, Nickless, Dubois and Williams, in an eye watering, side splitting, riotous routine.  The comic timing is spot on, and you can see the cast having as much of a giggle as us – even though I accept they are far more knackered by the end than we are!  It is so daft, so slapstick, so perfect.  And what about the giant?  Impressive!  Wish we could have seen a little more of him it was that spectacular, but always leave us wanting more I guess.      

Basically, if you haven’t already got your tickets – grab them now because Jack And The Beanstalk is one of those rare shows that really is for the whole family.  It ticks just about every box and its selling point is that it never takes itself too seriously.  Its ability to laugh at itself is a huge bonus to the show, allowing you to relax, feel involved, and for it to just be a really fun place of escapism and joy.  It does a superb job of balancing the best of panto with musical theatre, stand-up, and family variety, making it clear why audiences return year after year to the brilliant Crossroads Pantomimes.  And even though there were no acrobats, or circus style acts included this year, it didn’t need it.  Besides, it had dancing poultry!  I mean, seriously, where else can you find that and howl with delight at a giant hen wearing a glittery top hat?!  The glitz, glamour, the juggernaut of jokes, the illuminous ensemble, and the all star main cast, who can all headline their own solo shows, came together to give Manchester a night to remember.  So, whether you’re a French bean, runner bean, has bean or baked bean, just make sure you’ve been (or bean) to Jack And The Beanstalk this Christmas.  Seeing is beanleaving! 



Watch our "In Conversation with JASON MANFORD, BEN NICKLESS & MYRA DUBOIS discussing Jack and the Beanstalk" video

Life of Pi

Life Of Pi - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 6th December 2023


Life Of Pi is a story that at first glance seems impossible to transfer onto a stage.  It is full of wild animals, half of it is set at sea, it involves a huge cargo ship and a small lifeboat, and the rest of it flits between India, a hospital room and a zoo!  Not only has it successfully transferred onto stage, but it has also come alive in such a stunning and brutal way, it is no wonder it won numerous Olivier and Tony Awards.  This show is so rooted in its desire to present the magic of imagination, spirit and philosophy as equal partners with darkness, loss, loneliness, and struggle, that the audience are able to suspend their disbelief with ease and connect not only with the human characters, but the animals too.

Lolita Chakrabarti has adapted the Yann Martel novel for stage with a transparent honesty of the stark realities of survival, yet it is still peppered with the beauty of the will and strength of the human mind and soul.  This is a story being told back to us by Pi, and the layout of this, going backwards and forwards in time as elements of it are recalled to us, is some of the clearest storytelling I have seen.  There is no uncertainty in what could potentially be a confusing story.  You are clearly guided through each memory, each trial and tribulation, each challenge, and each joy with complete clarity.  This is of course complemented without a shadow of a doubt by a clever and precise set design by Tim Hatley, but it is all guided by such a streamlined adaptation.

For those who don’t know, Life Of Pi tells the story of Pi, a young boy (or girl in tonight’s production) who lives an idyllic life in India with her family, and they reside in a zoo!  Pi and her brother are smart, do well in school, have a good family, and get to look after impressive animals in their spare time.  The issue is with mounting social unrest in India, so when the zoo falls victim to vandalism and threat, with elephants being fed apples containing razor blades, they make the difficult decision to leave their beloved home behind, pack up their entire zoo, and migrate to Canada to start afresh.  But an unexpected storm hits the cargo ship they are travelling on, and Pi finds herself stranded on a lifeboat alone, apart from a hyena, an orangutan, oh yes – and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker!  She has to face ferocious realities and challenge her own beliefs and morals in order to stay alive and survive.  The real intrigue of the story comes through officials not believing her story of survival when she is eventually found on dry land.  She battles with their beliefs, contests their philosophies as they state they can only believe what they see.  When she presents an alternate version of the story, we are left wondering which one is the truth.  Both are ferocious but one seems tempered by the idea that it is wild animals behaving in such a manner.  To believe that humans could do the same seems too ruthless to digest, and so we are left with a conundrum.  Do we believe the near impossible version to temper our psyche into coping, or do we deal with the unbearable trauma of the human version?  It was the question on everyone’s lips after the show had finished, and one I am still pondering today.  The mind is such a powerful thing.  Did Pi’s mind create the animal version to protect her?  Is it entirely real to her?  Or did it really happen?  Such an interesting concept.  Can impossible journeys really happen?  Every part of me screams YES to that question.  The transfer of Life Of Pi onto the stage must surely have seemed like an impossible journey in itself at the start, but put the best creative minds together, and anything becomes possible. 

The design of this show is encaptivating.  It is so detailed and well thought out that it looks simple.  I know it is not simple in the least, but that is its joy.  It easily takes us from a stark hospital room to the ocean.  First, the plain white wall behind Pi comes alive and starts rippling, echoing the water, as a boat comes on in two pieces from either side of the stage and forms together, using the hospital bed as its elevated feature.  Back to the hospital room before its previously invisible windows open up and trees, birds and nature are welcomed in, and giraffes pop their heads through.  Moving shadows are projected of trees, butterflies and free standing railings with vines are brought on that are playfully moved around to create the various cages for the animals in the zoo.  Then, again from the bland hospital room, the walls open up this time, revealing vibrancy, colours, market stalls and we are transported into the heart of India on market day.  The colour and accessories are then stripped away to reveal stark scaffolding and rigging that form the belly of the cargo ship.  The windows are use as loading bays at the docks, and put all of these scene changes together with atmospheric music and sound (Andrew T. Macay & Carolyn Downing), the subtle yet consuming video design (Andrzej Goulding) and immersive lighting, that even had the whole theatre rippling in waves, and drenched in starlight (Tim Lutkin & Tim Deiling), and you are fully immersed into Pi’s story, from the love to the fear, the joy to the grief, and the impossible choices she has to make in order to survive.

The brilliance of this show is that nothing is hidden.  Everything is there in plain sight, yet your mind still filters it out, a willing participant in the joy of theatre, creativity and make believe.  The raft which Pi makes to initially avoid Richard Parker is a perfect example.  It floats aimlessly across the sea.  We can overtly see this is done via a rope on each end that gently pulls it back and forth, side to side, yet even though your mind acknowledges this, it chooses to ignore it, instead, just seeing a raft on the water, moving in the current.  And this approach is the magic of the show.  It trusts its audience.  It trusts that because we aren’t spending our time looking for the tricks and illusions, we will instead suspend our disbelief and go with the magic of imagination.  And we do.  It trusts that we still have that in us, even as adults, and it is brilliant.   

Then, of course, there are the puppets.  To call them puppets is a risk to understating and underselling what these creations are, because they are beyond the traditional idea of a piece of wood moved by string, or your hand stuck inside a body making it talk.  Life Of Pi puppets, designed by and brought to life by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell use the skills of the actors movement, bodies, emotions, and reactions to bring these animals to life in a visual, visceral and powerful way.  Actors voice them, so you hear a Bengal tiger breathing, you hear a zebra in pain, you hear and feel these guttural and animalistic sounds and you believe them.  Actors sit inside the structure of the puppets so they have real movement, but they also work around them on the outside, being its head, or its tail, meaning every part of the animals have an actor who is able to connect and portray meaning through every nuance.  Nothing is by chance.  I have been up close to Richard Parker, and even though I knew it was a puppet and I was aware it was being moved by actors as I could see them, my brain ignored all of that because this Bengal tiger was in front of me, prowling, angry, and very real.  I shrunk away from it, and you saw audience members near the front of the stage having exactly the same reaction.  This is equally a brilliant choice of direction by Max Webster because at no point are these animals made to be cute.  They are beautiful and majestic yes, but cute?  No.  They are powerful, realistic creatures, whose instinct is survival at any cost, and it is a mistake to think that because you once fed them in a zoo, that they won’t lash out when under threat.  The ferociousness of the animal world is not shied away from, and is savage to witness at times, especially when they are slaughtered, killed, and feasted upon, with swatches of red material flooding out of them as blood, guts, and intestines. 

Tanvi Virmani played Pi at tonight's performance and was an exceptional alternate Pi.  Rarely off the stage, she needed to be engaging, believable, and take our hand and lead us into this story with a willingness to believe.  Right from the start, it was never in question as to whether this was possible, because Virmani WAS Pi.  A flawless mix of likeability, physicality, and an endless range of emotions allowed us to see Pi stripped of her idyllic life and tested and tortured beyond any acceptable form of endurance.  She interacted with the puppets so strongly that she left no room for doubt, and her movement and agility was seamless.  Whether she was being lifted in the air and bobbed around on her raft, or diving from the lifeboat with the aid of other actors lifting her into the air, to truly create the arc of a dive, it was phenomenal. Akash Heer, Romina Hytten, and Katie Kennedy-Rose combine talents to bring Richard Parker to life in a stunningly fearsome yet beautiful way.  Every tilt of the head, paw move, swish of the tail is readable.  They have created a dominated life force that will genuinely make you hold you breath and feel authentic fear as Pi has to fight to survive.  This is something you simply have to see to believe, for my words won’t do it justice.  And you won’t believe me until you experience being in the presence of Richard Parker for yourself.  Goldy Notay as Amma, Ralph Birtwell as the father, and Vinesh Veerasami as Rani, complete Pi’s immediate family, and establish a brilliant dynamic of love, security, authority, and complexities that all families behold.

Life Of Pi is a work of art, and glorious evidence as to what theatre and creativity can achieve.  It challenges, yet trusts its audience, and doesn’t attempt to dampen any of the unpleasant moments of life, giving it to us full throttle.  Therefore, it treats us, the audience, as equals and this is a breath of fresh air.  We are presented with a tale of struggle, endurance, and impossible circumstances, yet we are captivated by the resilience, spirit, and endurance that overcomes all of it.  It gives us hope to never give up, never give in, and in a world full of unpredictability, to never say never.


Watch our "In Conversation with playwright LOLITA CHAKRABARTI discussing Life Of Pi coming to The Lowry" video

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 29th November 2023


Matthew Bourne
and New Adventures production of Edward Scissorhands may have had its last major revival in 2014, and the Tim Burton film may have been way back in 1990, but this deliciously gothic love story has not aged, shrivelled, or diminished under the duress of time.  If anything, it is more relevant than ever and has returned with an abundance of heart, hope and a headstrong approach of favouring the intricacies of the characters, to plunge us into this fantasy world and question the idea of acceptance where being different is feared.  It hits home in a tragic yet stunning way.  This production even features the compellingly beautiful music of Danny Elfman and Terry Davies.  It is touring right through till June next year, but I have to say that watching it at The Lowry in the run up to Christmas feels like the perfect time to watch this production, with its themes of love, family, acceptance, and the magical spirit of all things connected with snow and ice.

Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands tells the story of Edward, a humanoid product born out of love by a grieving inventor, desperate to honour his son.  But as the inventor is tormented by local youths, he has a heart attack and passes away before completing Edward, leaving him without hands.  Enter all the scissors and blades.  Edwards need to survive sees him entering the local town searching for food.  Local mum Peg innocently approaches him, and her initial fear is replaced with the necessity to nurture and protect him.  Peg connects with Edwards vulnerable nature, takes him home and introduces him to her family and community.  He is welcomed by all at first, and he impresses by cutting topiaries, grooming dogs, and giving the local women fancy hair styles.  But as Edward falls in love with Peg’s daughter Kim, jealousy sets in from her boyfriend Jim, and Edwards trusting nature is tested in the cruellest of ways.  Unintentional cuts from Edward are repackaged as vicious and purposeful attacks, and as his trusting nature and yearning to fit in is manipulated by Jim, he is set up to take the blame for ruining the Christmas party.  As things spiral further out of control courtesy of Jim's jealousy, Edward finds himself in an impossible position with a disastrous outcome. 

Bourne is a master at storytelling through dance and movement, and with this production of Edward Scissorhands, I have no idea how he has excelled himself, but excelled he has.  This is more than just the retelling of someone else’s story.  It is a production that lives, breathes and feels every moment of each character, wrapping the audience up in a big blanket of emotion and teaching you what empathy really is.  It is incredible and Bourne has been so generous with his interpretation.  I mean, it’s a humanoid with scissors for hands at the end of the day.  We shouldn’t be able to understand what that would feel like.  Yet the arc of this show is so deeply rooted in all those infinite complex human qualities that allow us to feel, connect, emote, trust, love, and fear, that somehow, you do.  You feel Edwards pain, his vulnerability, his confusion, naivety, innocence, whilst hovering above at the same time and seeing how that kind of pure soul can be equally embraced or abused.  And he does so with snippets of different dance styles, or nods to other classics, whilst playing around with the fun idea of an idyllic suburban America amidst the gothic elements that Edwards eccentricity brings.

Lez Brotherston has designed this make-believe world with such loving care, imagination, and magic, that it no longer feels make believe, but a living wonderland right in front of you.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I was dying to jump up and explore.  1950’s suburban America is captured in a light-hearted, fun and picture perfect manner, with rows of matchbox houses, complete with letterbox stands, grey metal bins, and of course, topiaries.   The larger topiaries bring an elevated grandeur to the set, which exquisitely transform from the beauty of Christmas where they are decorated with twinkling fairy lights, to the more sinister cemetery where they are fixed with red, unnerving eyes.  Juxtaposed against this we see the dark and gothic wrought iron cemetery that houses Edwards original home.  Reflected against the fantasy elements such as the ice sculpture or dancing topiary, the contrast is gripping, stunning and jaw dropping. 

Scene changes are so swift, dramatic and all-encompassing that each transformation feels like a magical reveal akin to walking through the wardrobe to Narnia time and time again. The finite detail makes the whole thing a spectacle to behold, right down to the slashed and jagged lines of Edwards costume against the 1950’s themed clothes and Halloween costumes, complete with a giant pumpkin!  Glamour is on offer courtesy of the Christmas party where we see nifty suits, pretty net dresses, and sparkling attire.  And still the costumes changes keep coming, from fun cheerleading outfits, to stiff and serious, right through to bathing costumes for a scene at the local swimming pool.

The combination of lighting (Howard Harrison) and video projections (Duncan McLean) add a spectacular element to the performance.  With projections igniting screens at both the front and the back of the stage, the effect is three dimensional, encompassing the entire stage in a snow fall or a rain pour.  And when the projected falling snow flies around to form words that help tell the story, wow.  It is straight out of a fairy tale and lights up your inner child with a pure form of glee.

Liam Mower is so authentic and incredible as Edward Scissorhands, that with no disrespect meant in any way, he will make you say Johnny who?  His walk, a head tilt, the way he somehow emotes through his scissors, his imitations of other characters, his jerky isolations, his drunken movements, right through to his stunning lyrical solos and partner work, he will entrance you.  He is not only an outrageously talented dancer, but the acting is second to none.  Mower delivers wit and comic timing one moment, has your heart racing with pride the next and surfaces an instinctual need to protect him from the worst of the world.  He is a true character performer and he will steal your heart.  Katrina Lyndon is transformative as Kim.  Starting out as the typical high school girl with the jock boyfriend, we see her mature as she allows herself to understand and accept Edward.  Lyndon takes us on this discovery with an open and honest heart, and a flawless energy.  Kerry Biggin, Dominic North, and Xavier Andriambolanoro Sotiya complete the Boggs family as mum Peg, dad Bill and brother Kevin, with fantastic personality and such connection that you easily believe they are a genuine family.  Each has their moment to shine, as do this entire dance company.  New Adventures rejoice in their ability to bring a story to life and I promise you will find a surprise around every corner with this hard working and joyous team.

There is so much to admire, respect and fall in love with throughout this production.  The array of characters on display is sublime.  There are no throw away characters, with as much thought and detail placed in the smaller or passing roles as the titular one.  The scenes where the town come together are a masterclass in acting, each with their own story to tell that you could watch these scenes numerous times and still find plot twists afresh as each character has their own storyline going on.  We are graced with working dads placing themselves as the head of the household with their fuzzy warmth of self-importance.  Housewives fill their days outwardly glowing, or perhaps trying to entice all the local males into adulterous affairs.  Jocks and cheerleaders rule the teenage cohort with a self imposed popularity.  Devoted church goers spread their word with the utter conviction that actually they are the higher power in this suburb and politicians canvas for votes.

Everyone thinks they are perfect in their own way, and these characters are all brought to life with a gentle humour, wit, and clever movement, such as two dads trying to outdo each other with their exercise warm up routine.  The detail and ownership of each character is truly exquisite, that you are spoilt for choice.  For instance, during the big dance routine at the Christmas party, characters opt in and out at certain times, allowing their individual stories to subtly unfold on the edges of the limelight.  I saw one character give another a kiss on her dark and gothic cheek.  She wiped it off with her hand, looked at him in disgust, then promptly licked the kiss off her hand!  Genius detail!  All the while, a huge dance routine is taking place centre stage.

The partner work between Edward and Kim is inventive, unique and exquisite, particularly as he can’t hold her in the usual dance positions due to all his scissors!  It is a challenge that has been overcome with such triumph that it is only afterwards you kind of think – hang on – how did they manage that?!  And then, amidst all the outstanding talent, creative perfection, and the seamless blending of grace and gothic, you have imagination at its best with a scene that brings the topiaries to life and is mesmerising to say the least.  It is like a fairy tale, a secret garden just for Edward and Kim, with twisting patterns forming a magical maze of mystery for the duo to dance through.

I have friends who, for a long time now, have hailed Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands as their favourite show and after being lucky enough to see it myself tonight, I can understand why and concur completely.  Pure magical beauty is my overwhelming feeling.  I feel a strange peace, and the ending is something that will catch your emotions unawares and perhaps have you as one of the many audience members wiping away a tear or two.  I may have just fallen a little in love with Edward Scissorhands.  I think you might too. 


Hamilton - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 21st November 2023


The Hamilton Hype is here and will have you hooked!  Whatever you’ve heard, whatever you’ve seen of the recording on Disney+, dial up your expectations tenfold and you will still be blown away, mesmerised and in complete awe of this groundbreaking musical.  This is not a show that people went gaga for simply because it dared to rebel and break the mould with hip hop and rap – if that were the case, it would have grown old already.  No, this is a show that intelligently blends the best of a multitude of genres from musical theatre, to R&B, hip hop, rap, jazz funk, and hypnotically uses each and every breath, syllable and nuance to heighten it’s storytelling, pull you in, dangle it’s carrot, and leave you gasping for breath with ecstatic wonderment and overwhelming emotion. Hamilton knows exactly who it is as a show and understands how to wrap you around it’s trigger finger.  So, I’m just going to call it, Lin Manuel Miranda is a living legend and a genius.  He has successfully created a lifelong relationship between the emotive nature of musical theatre and the gripping drama and intensity of hip hop.  Neither genre bows to the other.  Instead, they support, cajole, and intertwine like old friends.

This show already has a huge fan base, and interestingly for many, it is from the music alone as they haven’t been able to make a trip to London to see it.  Therefore, the fact that this UK tour has chosen Manchester as it first British home outside of London is an honour, and had the theatre packed out with VIP’s, celebrities, and fans alike, and when you hear a rumour that Sir Cameron Macintosh himself is in the building, you can only hope and wish it is true and appreciate just what a big deal this is.

Miranda has truly created a masterpiece, with momentum building and pulsating with every adrenaline fuelled beat of your heart.  The best tip I was given before I saw it for the first time was to read up on the story before you watch it, and I am passing it on because it was invaluable advice.  It is not that the story is over complicated, but is kudos to the amount of information packed in due to the immaculate speed of delivery from the hip hop and rap elements.  It is a powerful art form that is utilised to maximum effect, and knowing what is going on beforehand takes the pressure off your brains ability to keep up, allowing you to be in the moment and enjoy.  As the show opens, we are introduced to key historical characters telling us who Hamilton was, and their part in his story.  It is a formidable opening and demands your respect and admiration.  The theatre erupted after just one number and there was a magnitude of electricity in the air.  This was the first of my emotional responses, and believe me, it didn’t end there.

So who was Alexander Hamilton and why was he so intriguing that Miranda decided to write an entire musical about him?  Well, in short, he emigrated to America in 1772 from the Caribbean as an orphaned teenager with nothing to his name but his intelligence, beliefs, and the gift of the gab that made people listen to what he had to say.  He embarked upon a journey that led him to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States Of America.  It’s the platinum version of a real-life rags to riches story.  Upon arriving in New York, Hamilton meets Aaron Burr, Hercules Mulligan, Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens.  It isn’t long before Hamilton ignites a jealousy in his comrade Burr, when he is asked to be General George Washington’s secretary – a role that Burr had requested for himself.  Then one night, Hamilton meets the Schuyler sisters.  He has an instant connection with Angelica, but as Eliza confesses her own feelings for Hamilton to her sister, Angelica backs away as best she can, leaving Hamilton free to marry Eliza.  As Eliza falls pregnant, Hamilton finds himself dismissed from Washington’s inner circle due to aiding a duel in his name. 

Hamilton and Burr become Lawyers where Hamilton is prominent in writing some papers to convince people that a new constitution is needed.  Now President, Washington hires him again, this time to be in charge of the Governments money but Jefferson questions Hamilton, accusing him of spending too much.  As deals are done, decisions about the country’s new capital are made, and new banks are agreed upon, Burr rages with jealousy as Hamilton is yet again given privileges he isn’t.  Burr will go to any lengths to get “in the room where it happens,” and so joins the emerging Democratic-Republican group.  Washington is famously the only US President not to belong to a political group and it was around this time that divisions started to creep in.  With family tragedy’s awaiting him, and accusations blinding him from every angle, Hamilton is left desolate and bereft.    

In a twist of fate, Burr and Jefferson campaign against each other to be president and ask Hamilton who he pledges his allegiance with.  He states neither are worthy but that even though he doesn’t agree with Jefferson’s beliefs, at least he HAS beliefs.  Jefferson is made President and whilst he is supposed to have the runner up, Burr, as his Vice President, he doesn’t want him and so asks Hamilton.  Yet again, Burr is made to feel second best to Hamilton and so challenges him to a duel.  And that is where I end the story.  I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.

The costumes and staging of Hamilton are amongst the many things that give this show its own style and character.  Minimalistic, with stylised movement where a bullet is depicted by a performer creating its path visually out of thin air, and chairs, tables and barrels are an integral part of the choreography.  It is purposeful and creates something iconically modern out of history.  Costumes are period based, but again, often with a modern twist, allowing undergarments such as breeches, waistcoats, and corsets to create iconic looks.  These choices make this entangling, historical story accessible.  We listen to what we see, allowing us to understand, immediately taking this show out of the classroom and into our hearts.  Lighting resonates with the beats of the music and the detail of the story, drenching the stage red in the blood of the fallen one minute, then playfully joking and turning it blue to match lyrics the next.  The set is carved out of wood, with a balcony etching its way along the back and around the side of the stage, opening up into pathways where actors come to listen, join in, and utilise every curve available to them.  This additional level is utilised throughout and integrated into choreography, so for instance the delivery of a letter can be swung up, passed across via a dancer poised in mid-air courtesy of a suspended lift, and styled across its winding pathways in a variety of methods.  Speaking of the choreography, it is charged, kinetic, and so extra that I am struggling to do it justice.  The dancers speak through dance, they breathe through each movement and they are the bridge we need.  This is some of the best choreo I have ever seen, that can start with solo zapping isolations and end with an entire cast belting out the tightest synchronised beats, flips, jumps, and the most balletic form of hip hop I have ever seen.  Everything compliments everything else, with the music building to dizzying crescendos as the lights zap your mind.  The dance achieves the impossible and the words from the actors just keep tumbling out without ever dropping a single sound.  It is like nothing else out there.  It really does stand alone and the authentic and palpable reactions from the audience after each outstanding number is testament to what I am trying to express.  Sometimes, you just have to experience it because it has an indescribable life force of its own.     

How to even start talking about this unstoppable cast and creative team?  It is other worldly in its achievements.  They are just so damn sleek and cool that you kind of get a little taste of Burrs jealousy when he says he wants to be in the room where it happens, because you want to be a part of their vibe.  Shaq Taylor (Beauty & The Beast, Hex, JCS) as Hamilton has the crisp clean clarity and articulation to fire the rapid, rhymical beats off of his tongue with enviable ease.  It is hypnotic and utterly spellbinding.  He shows us exactly who Hamilton is, flaws and all, with his portrayal of a gritty determination served with a side of intellectual arrogance, and enough charm to win over any doubters.  He is jaw droppingly sensational, and is evenly matched by Sam Oladeinde (Assassins, Come From Away, The Prince Of Egypt) as Aaron Burr.  What is even more incredible is that Oladeinde is a Bonafede qualified solicitor in real life too!  Some people are just too talented.  He rips the stage to pieces as Burr, leaving no beat unturned, no emotion untapped, and we see his dismay and envy of Hamilton increase to a tumultuous conclusion.  Both scatter a multitude of emotions across the stage like confetti, from a testosterone fuelled debate, to vulnerability.

Charles Simmons as George Washington exudes power from the moment he steps onto the stage and you know this is a President in the making.  He is commanding, collected and has a beautiful voice to ensure his messages are heard and understood.  Billy Nevers as Lafayette and Jefferson sets the stage alight with his personality, energy and swagger.  He is an explosion of energy and his vocal battles with Hamilton as Jefferson are something to behold.  KM Drew Boateng as Mulligan and Madison is equally solid in both roles and delivers everything from humour to honour with a performance chiselled to perfection. Daniel Boys as King George gets an eruption of anticipation from the audience simply by stepping onto the stage, and he does not disappoint.  Spoilt, petulant, tyrannical, his big musical theatre belter is deliciously kept on his own tight reign of restraint, just long enough to keep the audience almost begging for those “dah da dah da diyyyyyyy’s” and lapping up every ounce of his superb comic timing.  The delivery was devilishly perfect. DeAngelo Jones as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton is vivacious and vibrant, particularly as Philip, where moments later, he is able to reduce you to tears.

Maya Britto flies as Eliza, taking her from a young and naive rich girl to a broken woman who suffers more heartache than one should ever endure.  Britto pushes further still to wholly impact us with a maturity and strength that she brings to Eliza at the end of the show, guiding us through her story with clarity and skilled acting every step of the way.  Aisha Jawando as Angelica is feisty, fierce and wow she has a set of pipes, then completely flips style and does some immense rap at breakneck speed.  She quite simply takes your breath away.  Gabriela Benedetti as Peggy Schuyler has some cracking facial expressions and deadpan deliveries to carve out her own unique and illuminating Schuyler sister.  Her vocals are really stunning when she reappears as Maria Reynolds.

Hamilton is not only informative, smart, and sassy, it is funny too.  Lin Manuel Miranda has ticked every box, so whether you like to laugh, cry, be intellectual stimulated, educated, or just be entertained, Hamilton will do all the above and then some.  Gut wrenching ballads, such as ‘It’s Quiet Uptown,’ nestle against the funk jazz sounds of ‘The Room Where It Happened.’  The adrenaline fuelled ‘My Shot’ couldn’t be further away in style from the brilliantly over the top ‘You’ll Be Back,’ and songs such as ‘Alexander Hamilton’ educate whilst ‘Helpless’ emotes.  It is fascinating to behold and keeps you entirely besotted.  The show finishes with a bittersweet poignancy, asking how will we be remembered when we are gone, that’s if we are remembered at all.  Who will tell our story and will they do it justice?  We see how grief and death enabled Eliza to emerge from the shadow of her unstoppable husband and be unstoppable herself, but did anyone ever get taught her story in their history lessons?  And our parting shot from Mr. Aaron Burr is that the world was actually wide enough for both for them.  It needn’t have ended this way.  This message needs to be heard.  The world is big enough for both sides of the story, of every story.  With a show that holds immigrants place, worth, and culture at its heart, it felt more powerful than ever tonight, with a huge explosion of support for the dynamic line “Immigrants – we get the job done.”  The amount of detail and genius in this show can be revisited time and time again for there is so much to sink your teeth into, it really is the gift that keeps on giving.  There is no doubt about why Hamilton is such a hit, and it isn’t one of those things that people say just because it's the latest fashion.  Hamilton is the real deal, so believe me when I say, you’ve gotta be in the room where it happens.  Click boom!


I Should Be So Lucky

I Should Be So Lucky - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 14th November 2023


Thank you!  There is no other way to start this review than by saying thank you.  Thank you to Debbie Isitt for writing a show full of hilarity, hope and heart, and thank you to Stock Aitkin and Waterman for not only writing these timeless songs in the first place, but for allowing them to enter the world of musical theatre.  They will be forever cherished by a whole new genre of audience and by generations to come, appreciating the undeniable storytelling that these songs have always had and forming the soundtrack to many more lives.  I Should Be So Lucky The Musical will burst through the exterior of just about anyone who wants to feel joy, and will fill you with all the feels, sparkle and sunshine.  I already want to come and see it again, and I want to tell anyone who loves happiness, banging tunes, laughing till you cry, then ugly laughing because you just can’t stop, getting your groove on, recognising yourself and your own family and friends in the array of exceptional characters, observational humour, holiday vibes, and just a little bit of the good cheese – then I want to tell you to BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW!!  I think it’s safe to say that I found my spiritual home with this show and am so proud that it chose Manchester to make its world premiere!

So, what’s it all about?  What has got me so animated?  Other than it being such a breath of fresh air amidst all the doom and gloom of the world, and oh yes, the small fact that Kylie (yes!  I did say Kylie) is in the show as a digital character throughout, it is also clever, fast paced, engaging, and modern.  “The wedding is off but the honeymoon is on,” is the tagline for this show, and it is perfect.  Ella and Nathan are supposed to be getting married, but they both have last minute wobbles.  Ella deals with hers by talking to a manifestation of her idol Kylie (yes many of us have also been here) whilst Nathan talks to his dear Grandad.  Kylie calms Ellas jitters, but Nathans Grandad upgrades Nathans wobbles to earthquake status, resulting in a jilted bride, her furious family and friends, and a bemused but bonkers best man.  Team Bride decide that there is only one thing for it – to go on the honeymoon anyway!  They intend to help Ella heal through some tried and tested, sun, sea, sand, sangrias and sparkling songs!  What they didn’t anticipate was a tall, dark stranger named Nadeem or the arrival of Nathan and best friend Ash incognito, after Nathan realises his mistake and wants to win Ella back.  As the pursuit for true love or simply getting your leg over continues, deeper truths are revealed about this zany cast of characters, making every moment of this effervescent musical count.  It loudly and proudly shows that love is love, subtly deals with the hidden anguishes and demons we may all face, whilst keeping the spirit of the show fresh and alive without minimising the fragility of real human troubles.  The chase is on to win back the bride, so will the wedding ever be on again?  And if so – with Turkey bewitching all at the resort with its Eastern Turkish delight – whose wedding will it be?  How many of the characters will have their I Should Be So Lucky happy ending?  You’ll have to BOOK TICKETS to find out!

Lucy – Mae Sumner (Titanic, Mary Poppins, Barnum) delights in the role of Ella.  Ella takes us on a journey of self-discovery beautifully, warmly welcoming us in and showing us all how to channel our inner diva.  She is powerful, yet vulnerable at the same time and it is a delicious mix that ensures we are team bride from the off.  Billy Roberts (Titanic, Nativity The Musical, Rock Of Ages) partners Lucy-Mae Sumner to perfection as Nathan.  He too shows a gorgeous sense of vulnerability, allowing us to not only like the man who jilted someone at the alter but even root for him to win her back!  Roberts has a breath-taking moment involving a hot air balloon that I won’t ruin here for you, but it is impressive to say the least.  Together they treat us to some of our all time favourite Stock Aitkin & Waterman songs, and when they join forces to sing Especially For You, a heartfelt wave of nostalgia floods the theatre, leaving an audible sigh of contentment from us all, encouraging our goosebumps to happily sway along in time to the music with us.  It is just stunning.

Giovanni Spanò (The Wizard Of Oz, Cinderella, Bat Out Of Hell) is cheeky, charming, and cheerful as Nathans best friend Ash.   Spanò is a force of nature to be reckoned with and not only does he pack an almighty punch vocally, he too can pull it back to show us a more tender side, and a friend who would go to the ends of the earth for you.  We all need an Ash in our lives that much is for sure!  He brings the fierce, fun, friendship factor and absolutely smashes it.  Kayla Carter (The Color Purple, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Rent) and Scott Paige (The Great British Bake Off The Musical, The Addams Family, Nativity! The Musical) play Ellas best friends Bonnie and Michael.  Deadpan humour is delivered to perfection with these two and the banter-esque vibe they create is palpable, making you feel like you are part of their gang.  And their vocal pipes! Woah!  God, I just love this show.  Jamie Chapman (Nativity! The Musical, The Mousetrap, Nativity Rocks!) is the absolutely adorable Spencer, owner of the Turkish Paradise Resort, and I promise you will fall in love with him.  He plays Spencer with whispers of the delectable Larry Grayson, mixed in with his own undeniable charm and you cannot help but smile with genuine warmth every time he is on stage.  Jemma Churchill (Nativity! The Musical, Nativity Rocks!, Guya & Dolls) as Nana Ivy is brilliantly risqué, pushing typical nana boundaries with her party vibe, dancing shoes and her vajazzle!  Then we see her tip everything we thought we knew about her entirely on its head towards the end of the show and presents us with a touching openness that you never saw coming.  The acting is exceptional and everyone will leave wanting a nana Ivy.  Melissa Jaques (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia) as Ella’s mum Shelley is dynamic, strong and a great tribute to mums everywhere.  And when she sings Telltale signs – oh my goodness.  Just when you thought you were all out of shivers of delight, you get more!  It’s breath taking.  Matthew Croke (Aladdin, Hair, Singin’ In The Rain) as Nadeem provides a brilliant performance that offers up some interesting discussions as to his intentions.  Is he genuine and falls in love easily, or is he a smooth talker who promises the earth?  I love the robust and invested discussions he evoked, showing a realness to his character as the discussions were so passionate they clearly came from real life experience.  Everyone has met a Nadeem on holiday after all.

Jessica Daley (The Wizard Of Oz, White Christmas, Billy Elliot) as Britney is fierce, feisty and fun, belting out some outstanding renditions and again surprising us with a hidden story that allows her to display an epic range of emotions and traits.  Her scene in the casino, dancing across tables is exhilarating and a beautiful confidence shines through.  Dominic Andersen, Anna Unwin, Ralph Bogard, Gary Davis, and Sydney Isitt-Ager complete this exemplary main cast with ease.  From Andersen’s suave cad about town, to Unwin’s flamboyance, Bogard’s neck cracking performance, Davis’ protective bruteness and desire to get it right, to Isitt-Ager’s quirkiness and individuality.  Each character is so full of possibility, each with their own story to tell, that this essence could easily provide ample opportunity for spin off musicals that cater to the whole heap of Stock Aitkin & Waterman hits that couldn’t fit into this particular show.  Just saying!!!    

And then there’s Kylie!  When it was first announced that she would be making an appearance in the show in a digital form, I assumed it would be a brilliant but short cameo.  Nope!  I am thrilled to say that digital Kylie is in the show as her own character and so makes several appearances throughout.  She looks utterly fabulous and gifts us with many words of wisdom, including a mantra that personifies herself to perfection.  Strong, Beautiful, Fabulous.  Yes you are Miss Minogue.  Yes you are!

What is so extraordinarily impressive with this cast is that every single one of them has the magnetism to hold the entire show and the audience in the palm of their hands independently, and manoeuvre us from one emotion to the next, yet collectively, they hold the upmost respect for each other, so when they are together, they do not try to outshine each other, but actively do all they can to promote each other.  A sense of love and loyalty to each other shines through and so consequently, it heightens our enjoyment of the whole show.

This harmony comes from the leadership of the creative team.  Debbie Isitt not only wrote this corker of a show, but directed it too, and her passion, warmth and sense of fun are emulated on stage.  The humour is so current, routed in realness, observational, quick, and so close to the bone that when you’re not grinning like an idiot at the songs, you are quite literally belly laughing at the script.  The jokes are thick and fast, with lines that are so Northern in their essence at times, it really could have been taken from any of our homes.  Cliched lines are given a cheeky twist, such as “When Life gives you lemons, make nanna’s lemon drizzle cake.”  The script is full of fierce come backs, real people having real chats, and it has been directed as such, so much so that you honestly want to jump up on stage and join in.  These characters are identifiable and that’s what is so clever.  You laugh because you know these people.  You ARE these people, and the language is so real and natural that it hits the spot.

Then we get to the music of Stock Aitkin & Waterman.  I mean how do you even start to review such iconic tunes?  Well, you kind of don’t.  You just sit back and let the music do the talking because they are legendary.  I mean this is the music that defined an entire generation, and you only have to look at music festivals today to see the likes of Rick Astley stealing the show to understand its reach.  The score includes over 30 songs from the Hit Factory, with no less than 10 number 1s!  They produced music like no one else and created a phenomenon, and it is justly hero worshipped in I Should Be So Lucky The Musical.  The songs are name drop after name drop, from the likes of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Bananarama, Mel & Kim, Jason Donovan, Sonia and Dead or Alive.  It is a celebration and salute of the highest order to our puppeteers of happiness.

Our Musical Director and orchestrator is the irrepressible George Dyer.  Wow!  This is not a jukebox musical where pre-existing songs are shoehorned into a story.  These songs ARE the story and they tell it beautifully.  The musical theatre make over these songs have been given is so respectful to the originals, yet equally allow themselves to stand alone in this emotive genre.  It is glorious to hear pop songs brought to life with such meaning and evoke such authenticity in their response.  Having a rocking band sets them alight and alive in a brilliant way that, had you never heard a Stock Aitkin and Waterman song before in your life, you would easily believe they had been written anew specifically for this musical.  An incredible example of this is You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) that is reimagined with a Greek  / Turkish flavour and it is phenomenal.  It is one of the showstopping pieces where everything comes together just so.  And the contextualisation of songs is impressive to say the least.  Each character is gifted their moment to shine through a solo or duet, and each has their own song that teases you with motifs throughout.

The stage is blazing with a pulsing passion, magnetic energy, and contagious choreography thanks to Jason Gilkison’s uniquely outstanding work.  He has created a party atmosphere so tantalising that you feel the rhythms throughout your entire body and unwittingly find various parts of your anatomy jigging along in response.  It would be easy to say that it is everything we would expect from a Jason Gilkison choreographed show, but it isn’t – it’s more, so much more, and the sheer joy it brings is dynamic.  There is a jaw dropping disco scene at the end of act one that will leave you unable to speak for a good few minutes, and the end of the show is where you can finally let it all out, jump up, join in and set your inner dancer free.

Set and costume design are by the impressive Tom Rogers.  Never have I seen such a motif themed set and costume design pulled together so beautifully.  Everything is aligned to the theme of a heart, whether it be the arching scenery, the shape of a house, chairs, a boat, the lights, or any of the gloriously detailed elements in the holiday resort.  It becomes a genuinely fun element of the show, looking out for all the different heart themes, and the costume pallet is of course equally themed with an overwhelming amount of pink and red.  It keeps everything feeling summery, fresh and fantastic.  The set itself is so slick that it makes it possible to go from a wedding, to the airport, a resort in Turkey, to the beach, in a hot air balloon, to a casino, a care home, and Ellas parents house.  With a backdrop of digital scenery also on offer (Andrzej Goulding) that transports us from beach to up in the air with delectable ease, the entire design will whisk you away to a warmer climate.      

If you want to laugh, to feel empowered, and to smile until your jaw aches then you simply must BOOK TICKETS to watch I Should Be So Lucky The Musical.  It’s everything I never knew I needed and now can’t live without!  So, I will end as I started and say thank you.  Christmas has definitely come early and Santa brought me everything I needed wrapped up to perfection in I Should Be So Lucky The Musical.    


Go to our YouTube channel to see all our "In Conversations" videos with the I Should Be So Lucky cast and an interview with Debbie Isitt and Pete Waterman.

2:22 A Ghost Story

2:22 A Ghost Story - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 31st October 2023


I must be completely out of my mind!  I am a total wuss when it comes to the frights, and yet I’m at 2:22 A Ghost Story on Halloween?!  But this irrational game that we all tend to play with our own fear is exactly what has drawn me in, and bang on cue I jumped out of my seat within the first five minutes of the show starting.  Thankfully, I wasn’t on my own.

It has to be said that the psychology around a show like this is remarkable.  Everyone is on edge and primed to be scared before anything has even happened.  Heck – I’ve been freaked out all day!  Firstly, it has the whole “Ssshhhh!  Keep it a secret” thing going on, adding an air of mystery and trepidation as to what will forsake us, but also, quite simply, it has the word “ghost” in the title – a divisive and heated topic to say the least.  Everyone has an opinion on ghosts.  Everyone is full of conviction that their opinion is the correct one.  But we can’t all be right, can we?  2:22 A Ghost Story delves into these powerful beliefs from every angle.  Jenny (played by Louisa Lytton) is a new mum, exhausted and overwhelmed by the enormity of her new life and her new house.  After a few nights alone with husband Sam (played by Nathaniel Curtis) away for work, she starts to hear things, things that simply can’t be.  At 2:22am precisely, it starts.  Is it the ghost of the previous owner, someone trying to reach out, or simply the local foxes who like to screech and scare the bejesus out of you at any given moment.

Jenny has spent the last few nights terrified enough to believe that a spirit is trapped in the house, so when Sam returns home and his old university friend Lauren (played by Charlene Boyd), and her new boyfriend Ben (played by Joe Absolom) come over for dinner, her fear has escalated enough to make her share her theory, even though she knows Sam will mock her.  Sam believes in science, not spirits, and his pretentious, know all attitude offers up no support to his terrified wife, instead supplying her with endless explanations and probabilities.  He is not only a sceptic but a cynical one at that and belittles anyone who doesn’t agree with his logic.  As things start to happen around them, Jenny invites everyone to stay with her until 2:22am to see for themselves exactly what she is talking about.  Sam thinks it’s a terrible idea and just wants to get some sleep, reluctant to indulge Jenny’s stories any longer, but Ben, a believer with his own tales to tell and the self-declaration of being a little bit psychic, is fully on board, leaving Lauren to sit on the fence and instead live in a little bit of denial, hiding what she thinks she believes for fear of being laughed at.  As the clock ticks on, lights flicker, black outs plunge, sounds intensify, and tensions rise to the point of no return – 2:22am. 

My preconceptions of 2:22 A Ghost Story envisaged me attending a play where my friend went home with nail marks in her arm from me gripping her in the terrifying moments.  Well, yes  - that happened, but what I hadn’t envisaged or been aware of was just how funny this play is.  I mean, really funny.  It has some of the best one liners I have heard.  Maybe it just matched my own sense of sardonic humour but I was genuinely belly laughing and not only was this a pleasant surprise, but a clever trick too because the laughter made you relax, then……!!  I also found myself gasping open mouthed at the ”sshhh” bit that we aren’t allowed to talk about!  It’s brilliant!  And even as I am writing, bits keep coming back to mind, making me realise the complex layers and lengths this show has gone to in a way that will make you want to see it again through a different lens.  That’s all I’m saying.  My lips are……..zipped.   

The story takes place all in one location, Sam and Jennys fixer-upper house (set design - Anna Fleischle).  It is detailed to say the least, right down to the peeling wallpaper and working dishwasher!  Plenty of warnings are given prior to the show regarding the effects used in the performance, but many of the frights are provided by your own psychological responses.  As well as gaining a better understanding of your own fear factor levels, you’ll also learn about the lives of foxes, why asparagus makes your wee smell weird, and learn a new drinking game.  You’ll hear various ghost stories, see impressive special effects and lighting, and feel a palpable tension in the audience throughout.  I have to say, one of my favourite things was the feeling of “we’re all in this together” and that was felt every time we all screamed, then laughed that hesitant follow up laugh that mixes embarrassment with relief. 

Louisa Lytton, Nathaniel Curtis, Joe Absolom and Charlene Boyd truly are a wonderful quartet.  They bounce off of each other beautifully and continually layer their characters throughout the entire story.  This enables them to create multiple dynamics between each possible pairing, from Jenny and Sam, to Lauren and Ben, Ben and Sam, Lauren and Sam, Jenny and Ben, Lauren and Jenny – you get the picture.  The quick fire banter when the four of them are together is a delight to watch and underpins the inward verses outward relationships they are wrapped up in.  But it is when we get to see snippets of the multiple pairings that we really start to learn the truth of who these characters are and it is people watching at its best.  Lytton allows Jenny to grow in strength and in conviction of her own mind.  It is done so naturally and wonderfully that we perhaps find ourselves placed in Jennys shoes, with a shock realisation that this change needed to happen.  Curtis is brilliantly funny and has excellent delivery of his wise cracking, “I think you’ll find” smugness over everyone else in the room.  He plays the character with affection so we actually like Sam despite his pretentious, look down his nose at others nature.

Absolom is also fantastically funny and the pair bounce off each other with a natural, believable ease.  He has moments where you see Ben trying to control his inward feelings, towards Sam and equally Lauren, and he does so without words needing to be spoken, yet you can see his tension.  Boyd goes on quite the journey with Lauren, seemingly the most together of them all outwardly, yet perhaps the one who is struggling with inner feelings the most.  Through a combination of alcohol, fear and frustration, we see these erupt in unexpected ways, suggesting a volatile and unpredictable nature.  I love that each character has so many nuances hinted at, that leave you asking questions and wanting to explore them further.  It is clear to see why this play by Danny Robins has earned such critical acclaim and won awards for it is far more than a quick fright night.  It is a dynamic and textured character driven play that delves into our primal fears and instincts.  It illuminates a topic that can shut down a room or the closest friendships within minutes, for how do you recover from not being believed if you have seen a ghost or from feeling lied to if you don’t believe, from those we are supposed to trust the most?  This cast, under the direction of our own local legend Matthew Dunster and from Isabel Marr, will pose these intriguing questions to you through an evening of psychological, supernatural and striking screams, sarcasm and savvy know how.   

So, whether you believe in ghosts or not, 2:22 A Ghost Story has got you covered.  It manages to unify opposing views through that one word – ghost – because no matter whether you are team Jenny, Sam, Lauren or Ben, one thing is for certain – your response will be a strong and unwavering one.  And that right there is what makes this play so interesting.  It delves into our responses as much as our opinions.  It investigates how the different parts of our brain process things that go bump in the night, and that it is our physical and mental response to this process that is really the key to our determined beliefs.  They say that ghosts fill the gaps in our world, whether we believe this is in a spiritual, physical form or simply in our memories of loved ones, ghosts are never too far away.  Some find this comforting whilst others find it disturbing or creepy.  But regardless of how everyone in tonight's audience individually interpret and view ghosts, one thing is for sure – no one wants to be woken at 2:22am!    



Quiz - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 24th October 2023


Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, and when there are multiple choice theories on offer about a quiz show that serves up multiple choice answers, then the irony is just too delicious to ignore.  So, when a British Army Major is accused of cheating on one of the biggest quiz shows on the planet via a code of coughing, a play, a book and a TV drama seemed inevitable.  This story really grasped an entire nation and it seems we still haven’t grown weary of its intrigue, drama, and mystery, as the adrenaline fuelled audience for tonights performance were happy to chat with complete strangers in order to share their own ideas and theories.

The infamous circular lights that loom over the contestants heads on the TV show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ dominate the stage when you walk into the auditorium, providing a sense of excitable familiarity and setting the scene.  Rory Bremner makes his way onto stage as Chris Tarrant, and there is an audible gasp at the uncanny resemblance, followed by laughter of joy and sheer disbelief as he smiles, utters a few words and makes you believe entirely that he IS Chris Tarrant!  A fully fledged fan of Bremner, I knew this impersonation would be unparalleled, but to witness it live is another thing altogether.  Not only is an exceptional impersonation on offer, but to do so in its entirety, we cannot blur over the acting skills of Bremner.  He beautifully blends impersonation with comedic and naturalistic acting, so you feel you are dipping in and out of a play and reality.  It is astonishing and to be honest, took my breath away at the layers of talent on display.

Charles Ingram is explored and brought to life with a tender loving care by Lewis Reeves (My Night With Reg, Unforgotten, The Sandman).  We are introduced to the real person behind the media frenzy, a family man, someone who served his country, and perhaps someone who tried to save his family.  We’ll never really know, but Reeves made Ingram likeable which I wasn’t expecting.  I even felt sorry for him at one point, particularly when we witnessed what his family were subjected to.  Diana Ingram was portrayed by Charley Webb (Emmerdale, The Long Shadow) and the transformation from Debbie Dingle to a home counties, perfect appearance wife was incredible, displaying what a true talent Webb is.  She seemed unflappable, and almost a less murderous version of Lady Macbeth, perhaps pushing and guiding Charles to her own desired outcome.  Who knows! 

This play by James Graham is written so well that it continually throws up new ideas and theories around every corner.  It lends itself beautifully into the new age we find ourselves in, trial by social  media, where mob opinion and often brutality, seems to have the power to evoke change, cancel culture and find someone guilty without them ever stepping foot inside a court of Law.  Mark Benton was not in last night's performance, but his many roles were in the dedicated and brilliant hands of Dean Graham who had us belly laughing at his varied and riotous characters.  He introduced us all to The Syndicate – an underground quiz team who apparently worked tirelessly to beat the system and ensure their people got on the TV show, for a cut of any winnings.  Who knew quizzing had such a dark side?!  It was fascinating and Graham was incredible.


Marc Antolin
played the renowned cougher Tecwen Whittock and through his brilliant portrayal, offered us an alternative version to digest.  He was so good that you didn’t dismiss this version immediately, but instead, allowed it space to be pondered.  Leo Wringer and Danielle Henry were phenomenal as the defence and prosecution QC’s.  They spoke directly to us, engaging us in their world so much that you could be forgiven for forgetting you were not an actual jury and did not have to make an important decision.  They were both so convincingly persuasive that I bought into their performance in its entirety.  The entire cast were sublime and it really was an ensemble piece of work.   

Cameras were used with live feeds to screens that helped give us a television studio vibe, but equally worked when the media interest was whipped up into a frenzy.  We saw close up interviews with a whole host of characters that were never really considered in the version of the story presented at the time.  We saw close ups of Charles and Diana being hounded via the media and in court, and of course, the screens also doubled to the studio screens projecting the questions of the quiz show itself.  The whole thing was very slick and worked incredibly well.  Another great moment was the inclusion of the song Endless Love via a karaoke style sing along.  It used humour to its best, playing it alongside some difficult moments, and the impact was brilliant.     

Quiz teases you with multiple threads weaved in and out of a non linear time line.  From the show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, to the court case, and snippets into the lives of Charles and Diana Ingram - namely a local pub quiz and the army.  Our role as the audience continually shifts making it an exciting piece of theatre.  We are cast as the TV show audience, the jury in the court case and on both occasions given the opportunity to voice our opinions via an electronic vote.  Time flips forwards, backwards, sideways and even questions time itself by placing doubt upon our own memories.  Yet despite all of these time and location transitions, the jigsaw of the story all fits together perfectly, without ever leaving you confused as to what is going on.  

The story poaches the infamous format of the TV show to draw parallels with the court case.  As previously mentioned, audiences and jurors alike are asked to vote on questions placed before them.  “What is Audrey’s daughter called In Coronation Street?” “Are the Ingram’s guilty or not guilty?” In a quiz, we use reasoning, but also instinct, and pure guess work if we don’t know the answer.  Can we apply that same approach in court?  The answer of course should be no, but when the court is based around evidence from a TV show that by its very nature edits and presents a certain version of events to its audience in order to get the desired outcome, can we really say this is a million miles away from what Lawyers do in court?  It’s a very interesting question that is posed to us.

This is not only a vividly funny play in its own right, with a talented cast bringing a multitude of characters to life, it also has the added bonus of intrigue brought about by delving into a true life story that happened within our life time.  On top of that, it is clever.  It uses its own format to highlight the flaws in the whole system and raises questionable issues regarding the duty of care TV shows should perhaps have for their contestants and reality stars.

The Ingrams may have been found guilty in a court of Law and you may attend Quiz convinced that this is the case.  But the real million pound question is, “Will you leave the theatre, without a shadow of a doubt, believing the same thing you thought when you arrived?”  You can’t phone a friend.  You can’t go 50/50 or ask the audience.  You have to decide for yourself.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Quiz illuminates a whole world of conspiracies and an entire cast of characters we were unaware of.  It will bend your mind, leave you laughing, and will place a doubt in your mind as to who the real cheats were – the ones who won the money or the ones who didn’t want to give it away?    


Watch our "In Conversation with Charley Webb" video discuss the show

Noises Off

Noises Off - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 17th October 2023

Noises Off is wildly bonkers and is guaranteed to make you laugh all the possible laughs in your repertoire!

“To take the sardines, or to not take the sardines?  That is the question!”  And it is a varied question that may seem bizarre and pointless right now, but it will make perfect insane sense if you have just witnessed the madcap world of Noises off as I haveIf you know, then you knowOpening night of the play ‘Nothing On’ is just hours away, and no one seems to know their entrances / exits / positions / lines / motivation / cues – (tick all that apply).  They can’t even agree whether this is the technical rehearsal, the dress rehearsal, or just an opportunity to sit on the comfy sofa that is actually the set and have a cheeky swig of their secret stash of booze!  Will the ensemble for ‘Nothing On’ battle through and ever make it to Stockton – On - Tees?  Or will their artistic and personal differences leave them searching elsewhere for their moment in the spotlight as often as Brooke has everyone looking for her misplaced contact lenses?

With a star cast heading up this unpredictable and riotous play, it was no surprise to see such a grand attendance.  The cast on stage are to the power of nine and this gift of a play by Michael Frayn allows each of them to shine.  Liza Goddard as Dotty brilliantly introduces us into the rehearsals for the play ‘Nothing On,’ as she attempts to get her lines right, manage a phone, a tray of sardines, and a newspaper all at the same time.  Her immediate and clumsy amalgamation of different sayings instantaneously set the topsy turvy world we are now a part of, and it is gloriously risible.  She makes her character feel like someone you could know and therefore you warm to her in an instant.  Simon Shepherd appears from the audience as frustrated director Lloyd to pacify his highly strung and stressed out actors.  His quick fire switches from wanting to strangle his incapable actors to trying to pacify them sets the tone for madness and mayhem and Shepherd expertly plays around with the comedic effect of this.  It is fascinating watching him develop his character from a director who can’t believe he has been stuck with this lot when he could be directing Richard III, to a two timing cad, to a bunny in the headlights when thrust upon the stage himself.

Each cast member beautifully introduces us to their character through their rehearsal process for ‘Nothing On’ and we get to quickly learn their quirks and quibbles.  Matthew Kelly’s character Selsdon, for instance, has gone missing.  As the cast come together to try and find him and support one of their own, he turns up blissfully unaware in the audience, an inebriated smile on his face and a wobble in his walk.  His favour for the bottle is mingled with his selective hearing and the way in which Kelly plays around with pause, facial reactions and mannerisms has the audience belly laughing throughout.  Dan Fredenburgh as Garry is the smug but harmless, never quite finishes his sentences……”you know,” self-assured team member, and the skilful observation of his delivery led to everyone at the interval declaring that “they knew a Garry too!”  Fredenburgh’s physical comedy was outstanding and quite literally left many of us crying tears of laughter.  Whether he was trying to negotiate the set with his shoelaces tied together, keep his sanity as the woman he had feelings for was seemingly at it with every other cast member behind the scenes as he was on and off stage, or having his own personal hell battle with the disappearance and reappearance of sardines, you were laughing! 

Simon Coates as Frederick represented the self-deprecating, self-apologising actor who has endless questions for the director.  What is the motivation for carrying this box?  Why do I leave at this point?  But he delivered this through the guise of such a gentle character that it had none of the stereotypical indulgence that is so often paired with this choice.  His instantaneous nosebleeds at the mere thought of the word stress, and then his inability to deal with the sight of said blood was again such a rib tickling joy to behold.  Lucy Robinson as Belinda played the cast member desperately trying to be peace maker and hold it all together, but with a surprising feisty side when the gloves needed to come off and the nails needed to come out.  There is a scene where Belinda is left on stage alone in their play and has to fill in and improvise until it gets back on track.  Robinson is so brilliantly ‘tra la la – everything is perfect – nothing to see here’ fantastic that she is able to simply prance across the stage, twirl and pose like a star struck teenager, and we love it.

Lisa Ambalavanar as the ‘paint by numbers actress’ Brooke is genius.  Brooke carries on oblivious to all the chaos around her, making sure she delivers her lines in order, incapable of improvising to help her fellow cast members out even if that means pointing to bags that aren’t there when they should be and referencing them as if nothing is wrong.  Ambalavanar’s dramatic over the top reactions as Brooke in the play are brilliantly executed and had us all in stitches.  Nikhita Lesler plays the hard working, love forlorn Poppy, who we see flip from stressed mode to calm and collected stage manager tannoy voice in a heartbeat.  Her emotional outbursts and habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time require excellent timing and Lesler has this by the bucket full (or should that be fire bucket and mop full).  Daniel Rainford as Tim the technician and all round runner, plays his subservient, people pleasing role without ever being dismissed himself.  He flies around at break neck speed, and delivers some side splitting moments such as when he has to speak to the audience of ‘Nothing On’ to keep us updated on the slight delay, or when he is ready and prepared to under study any role necessary to ensure the show goes on. 

Noises Off may have an excellent cast but it also has another hard working team member in the set.  Fabulously designed by Simon Higlett, it enables us to watch the play ‘Nothing On’ from both the audience viewpoint but also from backstage.  The layout of the many doors, the stairs, the sofa, the bay window, and the landing all align in perfect synchronicity to ironically cause all manner of disarray.  This inverted viewing opportunity is a huge element to the play, and brings back the rehearsal we have previously seen but from a whole new perspective with additional backstage antics.  These backstage antics become the focus now, but with a play supposedly going on, the challenge is that the actors in ‘Nothing On’ can no longer speak out loud to each other, and so arguments, resentments, jealousies, and misunderstandings have to be communicated through a lot of larger than life gestures and gesticulations.  Pandemonium follows with an axe, lots of trousers falling down, a bottle of whiskey, flowers, practical jokes, 3 burglars instead of one, and of course sardines and doors!  There is one moment part way through the second half that, without giving too much away, left half of the audience wondering if the play had simply finished and we were to go home.  But it hasn’t so stick around.  This was the only part of the whole evening that was a bit confusing, and whilst all is revealed and you understand the need for the pause in its entirety, it could possibly have been filled with something such as backstage voice overs from the ‘Nothing On’ cast, or ‘panicked house announcements’ or an immersive experience as cast members found their way into the audience, to keep our focus and not break that connection in the interim.       

Noises Off is wildly bonkers as all the best things are!  It is guaranteed to make you laugh all the possible laughs in your repertoire, and make you feel so much lighter.  There is no deep or hidden meaning in this one.  It is all about the fun, the giggles, and in case you hadn’t been paying attention – the sardines and the doors!    


42nd Street

42nd Street - Manchester Opera House - Monday 16th October 2023


Come and meet those dancing feet!  No really!  I’m not just quoting song lyrics – you really need to come and meet the inspired, talented and quickest tapping feet in town as 42nd Street is not only sensational, it will fill your heart with showbiz pizazz!  This production is the epitome of spectacular musical theatre, wrapped up in a huge sequined bow, and is the perfect salute to anyone who ever had a theatrical dream.  You can’t help but fall in love with Peggy Sawyer, our fresh faced, enthusiastic, and innocent leading lady, who arrives from Allen Town with nothing more than a suitcase, her lucky handkerchief and hopes of getting into a Broadway show.  After a somewhat ropey start in NYC, she catches the eye of big shot director Julian Marsh, who takes a chance on her to lead his whole show after his star name is injured in an accident.  But Julian Marsh is not known for his delicate approach and his tactics push Peggy to breaking point.  Though her love interest Billy encourages her every step of the way, the jealous and bitter Dorothy Brock refuses to make life easy for her.  After all, Peggy is playing her part in a Julian Marsh show!  As Peggy helps Dorothy out with a personal matter, Dorothy soon relents, and they share a moment of understanding.  So, the question is - will the show go on?  And will Peggy win over the demanding Julian Marsh and Broadway audiences to become the star she was destined to be?  Of course she will!  The whole show is built around the idea of work hard and your dreams may just come true, that there is such a thing as that one in a million chance.  It is full of hope, happiness, and the hottest heels in town!   

This cast will make you think that Christmas has come early!  Nicole-Lily Baisden (Book Of Mormon, Anything Goes) as Peggy Sawyer is a wonder to behold.  Charming, exuberant, and mystifying, she whizzes around the stage and makes a million steps per second seem effortless.  Oh yeah, she’s usually belting out some of the biggest Broadway numbers ever written with a spectacular voice at the same time, and then goes straight into a scene without so much as a hair or breath out of place!  I genuinely could not be more in awe of Baisden’s talent.  What a powerhouse!  Michael Praed (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Emmerdale) is breath taking as Julian Marsh. He exudes a commanding presence and has the aura of someone you want to impress whilst equally wanting to scream at.  As his voice rings out those spine-tingling opening notes from the titular song, you know exactly why you came to the theatre.  Praed provides everything you were looking for in Julian Marsh and then treats you to a little bit more, just because he can.

Samantha Womack (Eastenders, The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe) creates the perfect diva in Dorothy Brock and pitches this against comedy allowing us to laugh at her antics with love.  It is a tricky blend to achieve but one that Womack owns with full throttle to provide us with a rounded and more complex character than perhaps Dorothy has ever been in other productions over the years.  Les Dennis (Spring & Port Wine, Coronation Street) as Bert Barry and Faye Tozer (Steps, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) as Maggie Jones are just sunshine on stage in their comedic partnership.  They light up the theatre and clearly have a mutual respect for each other as the ease of their partnership is clear to see.  They are relaxed and having fun, and therefore so are we.  I could honestly have had far more of their appearances.  Tozer was outstanding with her motherly presence as Maggie and left us in no doubt as to her singing ability.  Dennis easily reminded us all why he is one of our nations most loved performers, for whatever IT is, Les Dennis has IT.  He is endearing, charming and perfect in this role. 

The energetic and perky Billy Lawlor is brought to life by the fabulous Sam Lips (Singin’ In The Rain, Strictly Ballroom).  He allows his character to exude confidence and self-belief, all the while keeping Billy likeable and steering clear of the pitfalls of arrogance that could entrap such a character.  With toes that never stop tapping and a singing voice that could charm Craig Revel Horwood to give 10’s every week, Lips may just make you fall in love with Billy a little bit.  Oliver Farnworth (Fatal Attraction tour, Coronation Street) is excellent as Dorothy’s love interest Pat Denning and poses a complete opposite option to her other suitor – Abner.  Farnworth displays a tender and sincere relationship with Peggy too which is lovely to see.  Anthony Ofoegbu (My Children My Africa, RSC) just has funny bones as Abner Dillon, Dorothy’s sugar daddy.  He plays the rich tycoon with such an oblivious and innocent vigor that you can’t help but feel sorry for him even though in real terms he is otherwise controlling and entitled, throwing money around to get his own way, and basically his own end!  Yet Ofoegbu brings such skilled comedy and empathy to the role that it blurs lines and allows us to view Abner afresh.  

Directed by Jonathan Church, this dream cast are given the grace to offer their characters a breath of fresh air.  The wheel hasn’t been reinvented, but it has been topped up with air and perhaps given some spanking new alloys.  Church clearly loves this show and has managed to pay homage to its history whilst equally bringing his own vision to a whole new generation of Broadway loving fans.  It takes a brave director to touch a show such as 42nd Street but with Church in charge, we clearly have our very own Julian Marsh masterpiece.

Bill Deamer’s choreography lit the stage on fire!  And I’m not sure anyone could ever put this kind of fire out!  Or would want to.  Number after number you are brought to the edge of your seat, grinning like the Cheshire cat as the very essence of everything that is wonderful about dance elates you, and a surge of happiness takes over your soul.  There is something special about tap dancing that fills you with inexplicable emotion, but this is beyond!  It is beyond Allen Town, beyond The Great White Way, and beyond your shoe shuffling dreams!  Partner this with shimmering costumes and a clever set designed by Robert Jones and 42nd Street makes sure that every single one of your senses are catered for.

With timeless songs, (that I have personally been singing along to since I was around four years old), such as Lullaby Of Broadway, We’re In The Money, About A Quarter To Nine, and of course 42nd Street, you are never more than a few minutes away from some of musical theatres finest and most iconic melodies. And every single one lives up to its own phenomenon.  I could write realms on each number, but that would be for my own indulgence, so I’ll settle for a couple that simply cannot go unmentioned, such as the epic ensemble piece We’re In The Money.  It starts small, it builds, there’s costume changes, tap dancing, props, stairs, sequins and just about everything else you could possibly wish for.  I wish everyone could experience this number and feel the way it makes me feel.  It’s a tonic and the adrenaline rush it provides, even just sat in the audience is something very special.  And of course, there’s the infamous 42nd Street.  This simply has to be seen to be believed.  It is glorious and will have anyone who ever had even an inkling of wanting to be on stage reaching out to connect with their inner starlet in order to let them loose!

There is absolutely nothing about 42nd Street that disappoints because holy mother of tap shoes, this cast redefine the word talent!  What ever you are hoping this production will be, think bigger and dream bigger.  Only then will you have any hope of touching the tips of what is on offer.  It is naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, 42nd Street!  If you want a showbiz show then 42nd Street is the one for you.  It deserves its own name in lights!


Ailey 2 - Mixed Programme

Ailey 2 - Mixed Programme at The Lowry, Salford - Saturday 14th October 2023


Alvin Ailey is a name renowned with dance enthusiasts and for good reason.  He took the dance world by storm and arguably changed it forever.  With a strong and unapologetic vision to build an extended cultural community, he wanted to make dance performances, training, and education accessible for everyone, regardless of social status, race, gender or any other obstacles that too often block equal access to the arts.  With a strong emphasis on community programs and outreach, his vision would prove to engage a wealth of talent and provide unity.  Utilising African-American heritage to positively portray beauty, humanity, peace and inspiration, Ailey expanded the company to include Ailey 2 in 1974– a universally respected dance company that provides training and opportunity to new and emerging dancers and choreographers.  Blending their fresh passion, spirit and energy, Ailey 2 have become a driving force in the dance world, ensuring that its young members have a voice, have their values respected, and can practise their passion in a safe and creative company.

Tonights show by Ailey 2 is a celebration 50 years in the making.  It includes exquisite excepts from four different dance shows, specifically chosen by Artistic Director Francesca Harper.  Having trained at Ailey herself, Francesca understands first hand the difference that this nurturing and creative company can make, and endeavours to continue its legacy.

The first excerpt is from Enemy In The Figure (William Forsythe).  It was originally choreographed in 1989 for the Frankfurt Ballet, where Francesca Harper was a dancer herself.  She brought the piece to Ailey 2 in her first year, and so it seems fitting to be revisiting it in tonights 50 years celebration.  It is driven by a rhythmically pulsating percussive score and brings an intense and exciting vibe.  Influenced by the ideas of light, darkness and shadows, we can see this being played out by the dancers as they erupt from the darkness with disjointed and angled shapes, yet equally offer up a liquid fluidity in other moments.  Corkscrew style movements juxtapose against sharp isolations and bold freezes, showing the strength of the dancers and their versatility.  The amount of detail and movements to each beat is hypnotic and its speed is akin to the dance version of rap.  The electronic score may come as an unexpected surprise, but it soon becomes clear that mixed with the dance style, the costumes and the storytelling, it is perfectly placed.  It makes you question what shadows are, what they mean, and how we might find them hiding in the corners of our lives and even within our own being.  The ideas of connection, isolation and loneliness have never been more endured or relevant in our modern history than they are now, and so this piece drew the audience in with a shared understanding.  This in itself showed the piece had surpassed its aim as it connected us all in a shared experience of unspoken and internalised feelings.

Freedom Series (Francesca Harper) was the second excerpt on offer tonight and was created by Francesca in 2021 as part of her inauguration.  It travels through a world of memories, which form a series of vignettes.  We are plunged into an intriguing and eclectic world where our memories try to influence our future.  In creating this piece, Francesca was inspired by afro futurism, allowing her to dream big and imagine a way in which we could project who we might be into the future in order to influence it.  Themes of identity and community, the very backbone of Ailey 2, are cleverly intertwined and make this piece the perfect inclusion in tonights mixed programme.  The first vignette offers unique partner work in which fascinating shapes are created, and imaginative lifts are executed.  The second is a jazz blues style solo and is stunningly beautiful and heartfelt.  The third is an ensemble piece with a featured solo dancer with a contemporary feel that exudes emotion.  The dancers intertwine spheres of light into their storytelling, which drifts into the last vignette.  A quartet start in atmospheric silence, and the classical style music lends itself to the stunning ballet, with attitudes, pirouettes, arabesque’s and so much more.   

The Hunt (Robert Battles – Artistic Director Alvin Ailey Company) is an athletic piece, originally choreographed for an all male cast.  Tonight saw three females and one male (due to a fourth female injury) and it felt like an important moment in history.  It is a predatory and primitive piece depicting an instinctual hunt.  The power and strength on display was inspiring and empowering.  The percussive score was used to maximum effect, reverberating an explosive energy throughout.  The intricacy of dancers weaving in and out of each other, particularly at the start was hypnotic.  Powerful and strong beats of the body matched the percussive sounds, and when the hunted were slayed, there was an audible gasp from the audience at the sheer strength and command on display.  This was equally true when the dance depicted the slayed being devoured through precision and a stage stained in red lighting.  The whole piece was energetic and relentless, and somehow made me feel stronger watching it.  I could feel my muscles twitching to the pounding percussive beat, and as it neared its finale, the tension built into a dizzying peak. 

Revelations (Alvin Ailey) is the Ailey dance company’s signature masterpiece, and its inclusion in tonights programme would be reason enough for many of the audience to be here, such is its strength.  Created in 1960 by Alvin Ailey himself, he shares his blood memories and sends an incredibly strong message about identity and intent.  Revelations consistently marvels audiences for it has a delicate and stunning blend of grace, spiritual revelation, and beauty.  It is a love letter to the cultural heritage of the Afro-American community, and whilst it doesn’t shy away from the distressing periods of its history, it also celebrates its triumphs with jubilant pride.  The over riding feeling is one of hope.  Hope for the future for all of us.  The Gospel music is stunning and presents opportunity for sorrow, joy, inspiration, love and connection.  It guides the dancers throughout, it will hold your heart in its hand and allow it to beat with authenticity as you feel every feel that Ailey poured into this immersive showstopper.  Intense, graceful, balletic, lyrical, it is inventive and was clearly ahead of its time for it feels like it could have been choreographed today.  This is of course presented through the dancers, from slow and sustained partner work that bewilders with the level of control and trust, to African influenced ensemble work where rhythm pulsates and ripples through their entire bodies.  Solo work wows with core strength and seems to defy the human body with every move.  It really is a masterpiece and it is no surprise that this is the longest of tonights excerpts.

I was told in advance that a night watching Ailey 2 would leave me on the edge of my seat, riveted, and impassioned, and whilst I knew it would be an evening to remember, I admit I took these words too lightly.  It is an experience to behold and whilst I have written a review, I freely admit that Ailey 2 transcends words.  It is about connection, being in the audience, engaging with the music, the movement, the costumes, the lights, the emotions that well up inside of you and leave you with a solidified understanding of the true essence and vision that is Ailey 2


Watch our video "In Conversation with Francesca Harper (Artistic Director)" discussing the show


The Drifters Girl

The Drifters Girl - Manchester Opera House - Wednesday 11th October 2023


Sometimes, a ‘jukebox’ musical comes along with so many hits that you kind of don’t care whether or not the story is any good, you just know you have to go and experience these songs in all their live glory, especially as they have been given a dazzling musical theatre make-over.  But with The Drifters Girl, you are lucky enough to be treated to one of the most interesting and unique music industry stories of all time.  We are talking grass roots music becomes Hall Of Fame icons, and with a move never seen before, the licencing of the name of the band, ensuring that The Drifters will remain no matter who comes and goes.  It will always be bigger than, and endure the sum of its many parts.  With so many band members able to come and go, we are bound to see some drama along the way.  Legal battles, bust ups, love, betrayals, all for the love of music.  But this is Faye Treadwell’s story.  Faye took the band to dizzying new heights and never stopped believing in the power of their music and their name in a ruthless industry that told her she could not achieve any of this.  She even did so at the expense of her own personal life.  We see how she fought stereotypes, made impossible personal decisions and put The Drifters above and beyond everything and everyone in order to anchor their potential and success.  With The Drifters still performing across the world today, it is safe to say that Faye accomplished her mission.  So this musical is not just about the songs.  It is also an incredible and true story of how one woman took on a world of men, and reigned supreme.

Formed in 1953, The Drifters released stunning songs that live in our hearts and minds, whilst stimulating our memories.  Even if you were not around at the height of their hits, you will know their music.  Saturday Night At The Movies, Up On The Roof, Under The Boardwalk are just a drop in the ocean of timeless hits that will leave you smiling, and with such talented members going on to have careers of their own, such as Ben E King, you will be treated to additional hits such as Stand By Me.  Seriously, what’s not to love?  With over 60 members of the group coming and going over the years, there is plenty of scope for intrigue, but Faye and George focused on the brand and the music, ensuring that The Drifters became the global phenomenon that we all know today.

The Drifters Girl, Faye Treadwell is usually played by Carly Mercedes Dyer (Assassins, Anything Goes, The Colour Purple) but tonight we were introduced to the fierce acting of 1st cover Loren Anderson (Book Of Mormon)Anderson brought all of the determination, unwavering belief, bravery and fight to the part, ensuring we all understood the barriers Faye faced in her world.  Strong vocals awakened complex emotions and breathed new life and meaning into familiar classics.  Jaydah Bell-Ricketts (School Of Rock, Bugsy) as Faye’s daughter helped keep the story on track, and beautifully blended the various eras together with ease.  She was the only one able to pose tough questions to Faye, and the only one who would get any answers.  Bell-Rickets had a tricky role for she needed to be present yet often invisible to the cast at the same time, and this was achieved with clarity.  The remaining four actors were multi rolling throughout and I find I am at a loss for words to describe how brilliant they were.  They simply have to be seen to be believed.  I am in awe.  Each performer slipped from character to character with such ease and absolute distinction that not once were you confused at the amount of parts they played, and who was supposed to be who in any given moment.  The fantastic singing and dancing aside, this in itself was a masterclass to behold.

Miles Anthony Daley (The Voice, Thriller Live, Choir Of Man) grabs your attention as George Treadwell from the off as an undeniable presence, and multi roles the heck out of all his other characters.  Daley’s vocals will leave you wide eyed with disbelief at his range, and agog at the luscious tone.  Ashford Campbell (9-5, Dreamgirls, Beautiful) reels you in with heart and soul as Ben E King and Rudy Lewis.  Taking on iconic songs such as Stand By Me and Under The Boardwalk, Campbell somehow manages to pay homage whilst making them entirely his own.  His final scenes as Rudy Lewis are some of the most moving in the whole show and he held the entire theatre in the palm of his hand.  Dalton Harris (X Factor winner) and Tarik Frimpong (The Wiz, Aladdin, Coming To England) complete this insanely talented multi rolling cast as Drifters, music moguls and everything in between.  Frimpong shows off his crazy dance skills with effortless jazz splits, and astounds with the sheer spectrum of his characters from the egotistical Clyde McPhatter to the sleezy Lover Paterson.  Harris takes on Nat King Cole – I mean, need I say more as to how delicious his vocals are?  He gives sensational performances from the laid back cool vibe, to the fizzing with energy and vocal runs that would make Mariah Carey herself bow down.  Daley, Campbell, Frimpong and Harris could sell out arenas with their charisma, striking harmonies, tight synchronised dance moves, spine tingling a cappellas and effervescent energy.  It is a true joy to watch them and they make it look so easy that it would be a disservice not to appreciate just how much they actually do.

Directed by the outstanding Jonathan Church, it is clear to see why The Drifters Girl was nominated for Best New musical at the 2022 Olivier Awards.  Using a small cast has enforced the show to represent the hard work and dedication that individuals pursue to be the best in their field.  This ethos beautifully echoes the journey undertaken by Faye herself, who never stopped, never gave in, and faced the hard work that had to be done.  With such a vibrant story comes endless locations, but this is easily managed by the excellent set design of Anthony Ward.  Simple flats and slats magically slide on and off the stage, each time with ingenious touches that take us from a train station, to recording studio, TV studio, theatre, backstage, or offices in the blink of an eye.  Digital images play out across the back of the stage to enhance location or mood further, from dancing silhouettes to National flags moving us geographically. 

As the second half starts, it feels like the audience temperature has risen a notch and the atmosphere builds as we are treated to a wonderful Drifters Medley.  One of the funniest parts of this half is The Drifters move to England.  We are treated to some great character acting, fun ribbing of our quintessential British ways, our obsession with the weather, and the inclusion of many regional accents, which have the audience howling.  For some reason, everyone in Britain is called Rodger, yet with the pip pip tally ho accent, it makes perfect sense.  One of the highlights is when The Drifters appear on Sunday Night At The London Palladium.  A figure comes on stages, strikes up a certain pose, and the audience erupt for we know it is our beloved Brucey.  He starts his catchphrase, and bang on cue, the audience play along with the call and response, “Nice to see you, to see you – nice!”  It is a touching tribute to the legend that is Sir Bruce Forsyth.

The Drifters Girl will entertain, enlighten and embrace your heart with its luscious melodies, witty humour, and powerful messages regarding race, gender, discrimination and dedication.  The dancing will lift your soul and mesmerise you with immaculate routines.  And of course, no musical about a real life band is complete without a medley at the end that we can all get up and boogie along with. This audience was just about fit to burst from holding themselves back, so we didn’t need much encouragement to jump up and join in.  So, listen really carefully, because you’ll hear The Manchester Opera House and The Drifters Girl calling you to “Come On Over To My Place!” Go if you can because they really are having a party.  They’ll be swinging, dancing and singing, so go on over tonight.


Watch our video "In Conversation with Ashford Campbell" discussing the show.

Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder

Kathy & Stella Solve A Murder - HOME, Manchester - Tuesday 10th October 2023


If you want a musical with a difference and a quirky edge to it, then Kathy & Stella Solve A Murder is the show for you.  Best friends since they first met in the sandpit at primary school, Kathy and Stella bond over their love for true crime, realising they understand each other in a way no one else does.  As their friendship grew, so did their obsession for all things murder and as Kathy faces a difficult time in her life, Stella suggests they start a true crime podcast in order to cheer her up.  Do they have any listeners?  Not really.  Do they care?  Not so long as they can carry on indulging in what they love, but when an opportunity to meet their favourite true crime author presents itself, they dash along to meet her with the aim of becoming a part of her own podcast series.  Of course, Felicia Taylor is a superstar and not in the least bit interested in two nobody’s from Beverly in Hull.  Felicia cracked the case of the Hull Decapitator after all so imagine the irony when she herself is murdered via decapitation and Kathy and Stella find themselves right in the middle of the story.  Surely now is their chance to take their podcast to the next level by solving the murder………… but at what cost?

Bronté Barbé (Newsies, Oklahoma, Beautiful) and Rebekah Hinds (Oklahoma, Billy Liar, The Syndicate) are rip roaring as the best friend duo of Kathy and Stella. Barbé as Kathy is able to make us feel empathy, joy, connection, and always bring us back to laughter with such natural ability that, her niche obsession with murder aside, she truly feels like someone you might know. Barbé has a beautiful gift of making the audience feel like the show is just for them.  Hinds as Stella has funny bones in just about everything she does, from an eye roll, to playing with the Hull accent as a comedic tool, to vocal acrobatics.  She has an undeniable presence on stage and when you can belly laugh till you ache just by the way she sits down on a bean bag without saying a word, you know you are in the presence of a genuinely brilliant performer.  Together, Barbé and Hinds know exactly how to bounce each other, and how to utilise the others strengths to join as an unstoppable force that will leave you bursting out the kind of unexpected and unrestrained laughter that makes you sound like a batty seal!  

Jodie Jacobs (Rock Of Ages, WWRY, Evita) is utterly malleable as she transforms from Felicia, to Felicia’s sister, then brother, and a Police DS.  An enviable powerhouse voice, she blows the theatre apart with charisma, and a fierce strength in each character she portrays.  Her detail is fantastic, from the various accents to the over the top laughs, we get just about every emotion on offer.  Imelda Warren-Green (Little Miss Sunshine, Bad Girls, support artist for Tom Jones & Lionel Ritchie) is equally versatile, playing numerous characters, but non so scene stealing as her fan girl Erica.  The physicality on display, the facial expressions, the little nuggets of brilliance from the voice to the awkward yet thrilling speed of some speeches, down to her over excitement and eagerness are hilarious.  TJ Lloyd (Guys & Dolls, Aladdin, Merrily We Roll Along) is another performer to play multiple roles, including Justin the mortuary worker, a dodgy barman and Kathy’s mum.  Each is as different as they sound and Lloyd easily morphs from one to the other with a slick and swift brilliance.  Whether it’s a cheeky smile or a groove in the hips, another solid performance is on offer.  Jacob Kohli and Sarah Pearson complete the on stage cast with endless energy, charm and seem to be everywhere all at once.  The multi rolling is so seamless that you can easily forget this is actually only a cast of seven performers.

Cecilia Carey’s set is simple yet versatile and everything it needs to be.  Side units double up as pub bars, huge Murder Con signs drop down to dominate the stage, replacing the otherwise ever present clue board.  Incidentals such as beanbags, office chairs and morgue tables complete with bodies are whisked on and off and the whole set seems to deliver whatever is needed with ease.

Kathy & Stella Solve A Murder is full of blinding one liners, two liners and ten liners!  It has funny jack hammered into every crease and corner, every lyric, and every plot twisting opportunity there is.  The humour is dark, current, observational, and everything in between, which is why nobody in the audience can escape going home full of those happy vibes – even though the show is murderous!  It is so current that our reference points throughout are Netflix, Line Of Duty, Costa Coffee, Twitter, and hashtags, with the odd Jonathan Creek thrown in for good measure.  The lines come so thick and fast that you could easily watch this show again and again and still be finding new things to giggle about.  Songs are dedicated to the love of all things dead, happy places are found in the mortuary, as Kathy sings of her new safe haven. We watch agog as she high fives the corpse and joyfully swings the cartilage knife around with glee.  Meanwhile, Stella sings about validation through the adoration of strangers and pokes great fun at the craziness of social media. 

Matthew Floyd Jones and Jon Brittain have written something special and with the producers of shows such as Fleabag, Baby Reindeer and A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) behind them, it only serves as evidence as to the magnitude of their talent. Kathy & Stella Solve A Murder has a unique brand of enviable comedy that is intelligent yet entirely daft all at the same time.  And the songs!  The show has an epic score of belters.  Each as strong as the last, each as anthemic in nature, whether they be ringing out with such power that you can literally feel your chair vibrating, or whether they hit you hard in an entirely different way with their tenderness, before flooring you again with a deadpan one liner.  This music and its lyrics keep you on your toes throughout and I loved it.

Fresh from The Edinburgh Fringe, this show knows its audience inside out and knows its own mind.  It is so confident in its own ability that it is able to remain excessively funny throughout, whilst gently dropping in moments of tough truths regarding unsolved crimes, police corruption and the heartless side of murder podcasters who profit from someone else’s worst nightmare.  And what is fantastically refreshing is the two lead characters relationship being about friendship rather than a romantic one.  It will make you grab your bestie, give them a squish and wonder what on earth you can create for your own podcast, because as this show reminds you, when you’ve got that buddy who hates everything you hate and loves the same weird and wonderful things that you do, every conversation, every joke, every code word seems like a potential podcast just waiting in the wings.  And you won’t care if you have no listeners, for just like Kathy and Stella, it’s all about spending time with your pal – just avoid anything to do with murder and you should be ok.      


Jeeves & Wooster in perfect nonsense

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense - The Octagon, Bolton - Friday 6th October 2023


The names Jeeves and Wooster are so intrinsically linked and rooted in iconic British comedy, that it’s impossible to think of one without the other.  Their unique pairing and paradoxical relationship allows them to reach their dizzying potential, keeping them as fresh and exciting today as when P. D Wodehouse first created them back in 1915.  A BAFTA award winning TV show starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie brought these beloved characters to a wider audience in 1990, and having never grown weary of the baffling antics of one Bertie Wooster and the ingenious and inventive ways that his valet Jeeves rescues him time and time again, thankfully the Goodale brothers picked up the baton.  With the blessing of the Wodehouse Estate, they created Jeeves & Wooster In Perfect Nonsense, ensuring Bertie’s mad cap antics continue to delight audiences far and wide. 

Of course, the entire evening is commenced by one Bertie Wooster, an over excited and infectiously charming cad about town.  Bertie explains that the recent events of his life are so brilliantly entertaining that he has decided to put on a play about them and we are to be his audience.  Bertie delights with an adorable childlike innocence as Jeeves beguiles him with quirky scenery tricks, such as a fireplace with fire (courtesy of an orange flame on a stick), and decides that this old acting thing, is really rather easy.  As Bertie begins his tale, we soon discover that it all began with an antique cow creamer!  He finds himself on the receiving end of blackmail time and time again, and the lengths he must go to in order to untangle his expanding web of mayhem are growing more complex by the minute.  One good innocent deed breeds a thousand more disasters in Bertie’s world, hence he finds himself a guest at Totleigh Towers where he must rescue a note book from the wrong hands, fake propose to Stiffy, play along that he is in also in love with Madeline Bassett, hide yet another policeman’s hat, learn how to tie knots in bed sheets and avoid being pummelled to jelly!

Bertie’s story involve a whole host of familiar and formidable larger than life characters such as Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Aunt Dahlia, Jeeves, Stepping, Roderick Spode, and Watkyn Bassett.  But he is putting on a play to tell us his tale remember, and, well – his problem lies in the fact that he only has himself, Jeeves and Seppings at his disposal to do so.  There’s only one thing for it.  Jeeves must rescue him again, this time by playing all the necessary characters for Bertie’s tale, and roping in his Valet pal Seppings to do the same.  Sounds straight forward enough – ish – until you add in that many of their multiple characters need to be on stage together at the same time!  Chaos ensues, and quick yet brilliant costume changes will dazzle your eyes in the blink of a newt.  Step ladders, bath tubs, hiding under the bed, lamp shade hats, lace curtain dresses and anything else readily available will be utilised by Jeeves and Seppings to ensure that for Bertie, his show will go on.  Theatre techniques and tricks are used to the level of silly that crosses over to genius comedy choices, and the frivolity that builds is delicious.

The set itself presents many of the punch lines, and whilst you may walk into a stunningly classy art deco design, do not be fooled as it holds more secrets than Jeeves’ secret Valet members only club!  Designed by Olivia Du Monceau, its transformations from Berties pad, to an antique shop or to a variety of rooms in Totleigh towers, and they are all hidden in plain sight.  Its brilliance lies is in how we see the magic of set design taking place right in front of us, and we see it through the wonder of Bertie’s enchanted eyes.  The audience gladly suspend their disbelief, and a most glorious moment was the transformation of some chairs, a few sticks and dinner plates, into a car!  The affection of Jeeves and Seppings for Bertie in this scene is wonderful, seeing the lengths they go to in order to indulge his play.  We are even treated to a foley soundstage, complete with a railway crossing.  It is theatre skills at their best.  Director Marieke Audsley has to be applauded for the playfulness, resourcefulness, and inventive imagination when making such known characters feel fresh and new.   

Luke Barton (Frankenstein, Sherlock, The Hound Of The Baskervilles) will steal your heart as Bertie Wooster.  Filled with a sense of childlike wonder, enthusiasm, innocence, and loyalty, he brings Bertie to life in a way that is so endearing, daft, and believable, you will be rooting for him throughout.  Barton is exceptional at wearing Berties heart on his sleeve for he hides nothing.  Every thought, feeling and inner voice is written all over his face, and is presented in its entirety through every nuance, expression, smile and movement.  It is exceptional acting and it never faulters once.  How he keeps a straight face in certain moments when presented with the slapstick comedy and physicality of Patrick Warner (one man 2 guvnors, The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Gies wrong) or Alistair Cope (A Gallop Through History, Motherland, Judy) as Jeeves and Seppings respectively, and their multi verse of additional characters, I’ll never know.  Warner bounces across his numerous characters with sheer brilliance.  His Jeeves is dry and all knowing, in complete contrast to his Gussie Fink – Nottle, who I could have listened to all night just for the voice!  It was fantastic and his vocal delivery alone had me belly laughing, as did his one man / two person monologue / duologue moment!  Cope excels in his physical comedy, whether he is gliding across the stage as Seppings or delivering the irate Snode on a multitude of platforms from chairs to stepladders as his supposed height is exaggerated with each retelling by Bertie. His ability to flit from one persona to the next is incredible and allows for endless hilarity.  Barton, Warner, and Cope are clearly highly skilled performers and genuinely seem to be having the time of their lives, which only enhances the audiences enjoyment.

There are so many elements that make Jeeves & Wooster In Perfect Nonsense a daft and dashing delight to behold, whether it be the subline scene and character changes, the charming and unique language, the detailed music choice prior to the play beginning and at the interval, the references to previous stories seen in the television show, or the outstanding performers.  You will laugh, you will smile, you will be won over the eccentric, colourful and bemusing language.  So don’t be a bally dingbat and miss out on a spiffing night of golly good greatness.  To miss out would be utter balderdash after all, and you don’t want to be the rummy that is pipped to the post now do you!  So what-ho are you waiting for?  Pop along to watch Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense and you’ll have a tra-la-la kind of evening old chums.  Toodle-oo!  


Watch our video "In Conversation with Luke Barton" discussing the show.

TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera)

TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera) - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 2nd October 2023



Where to start?  Even the title of the show is a string of words I never thought I’d say, and I guess that’s what happens when Harry Hill writes a musical!  The show has Hill’s own brand of silliness, surreal and slapstick pulsing throughout every microscopic detail, and in a show that describes itself as “Yes Prime Minister meets The Rocky Horror Show,” it may be something you simply have to see to believe.  

Whilst politics are of obvious importance in the real world, the spin doctor, storytelling, playground tactics of he said, she said, they said this, and all parties focusing on what their opposition does wrong rather than what they plan on doing right is irksome, predictable and draining.  Therefore, it was with a little trepidation that I set foot into the glorious Quays Theatre to watch Tony!  (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) in case I was met with these real world scenarios, and equally unsure of how this could ever work, despite knowing it has had huge success and a sold out run in both London and The Edinburgh Fringe.|

A neon red light blazing the name Tony greets you upon entering the theatre, and immediately shines a little showbiz pizazz into the mix.  A deafening thunder clap opens the show, catching me unawares and scaring the stuffing out of me.  Tony Blair is surrounded by onlookers as he lies on his death bed and reminisces about his life, the good, the bad, the questionable.  And so, through cheesy, brain worm songs, we rewind back to when Tony is born, a fete theatrically achieved with hilarity.  We get our first true reveal of Tony Blair, and are greeted with a daft naivety of baby Blair.  In the blink of an eye, he turns eight, then eighteen, and is suddenly off to university.  His portrayal of a youthful, innocent dreamer who wants to be a rock star and meet Mick Jaggers (as he calls him) is established and it is like the calm before the storm, the promise of a life that could have been instead of the one that was.  We look on as Tony meets Cherie and dances a very agile tango, negotiates over who will get the top bunk in his uni dorms with Gordon Brown, becomes entangled with the likes of Peter Mandelson, charms a nation through times of devastation such as the death of Princess Diana, and makes an ally in George Bush before taking our country to war.  And all the while, Blair remains a champion of charm, smiling throughout as he is puppeteered by those around him.  Cherie is graced with a Lady Macbeth vibe, Mendelson is given gravitas as an other worldly witch doctor, Brown is a jealous rival, and Bush is the older brother he wants praise, recognition and adoration from.  Every character is larger than life, almost caricature in status, allowing a vaudeville humour, alongside physical comedy and patter routines.  For the most part, this truly works and is probably the main reason why this show is somehow able to appeal to an audience regardless of their political allegiance and beliefs.  Saddam Hussein is spoofed as Groucho Marx, Neil Kinnocks politic speech is a parody of the flag flying, marching formation highs of Les Mis’ ‘One Day More’, Blair and Bush’s partnership is little short of the staple showbiz friendship choreography found in legendary numbers such as ‘Friendship’ from Anything Goes and Hairsprays ‘You’re Timeless To Me’, and all of these choices serve to truly take the sting out of any political alignment and instead focus on the shows main point, that all leaders share an overriding sense of self importance and self indulgence. 

There were equally some moments where I felt a little uncomfortable, or just plain lost.  Ballon modelling from Peter Mandelson, a split second appearance of Gordon Brown as The Hulk before he disappears running out through the audience, and continually random bursts of dry ice that mostly just blocked our vision of the actors left me a tad bemused and broke the spell of the otherwise clever juxtaposition of a serious subject matter being examined through a palatable lense.  My moments of discomfort were obviously personal to me and reflective of my own tastes, so elements that left me a bit squirmy, were equally met with raucous laughter by others, so it really is a matter of preference, and not one of what makes good or bad theatre.  At times, the portrayals of David Blunkett and Princess Diana had me shrinking down in my chair with uneasiness, as did the Osama bin Laden song ‘Kill The Infidels.’  Yet the satire of Saddam Husseins song ‘I Never Done Anything Wrong,’ may have also been close to the bone, but it worked for me.  Maybe it was the further removal from difficult truths with the Groucho Marx delivery, who knows. 

This cast are to be applauded for their quick, slick metamorphosis from one pantomime style character to another through an array of props, wigs, walks, accents, mannerisms and talent.  They simply don’t pause for breath and every persona was easily identifiable, delivered with confidence, and ease.  Dressed in suit and red tie, a cast of nine somehow bring to life an ensemble of infinitely more.  It’s like a who’s who of the 1990’s and the early noughties!  Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Kinnock, Prescott, Cook, Diana, Bin Laden, Hussein, Bush, Dick Cheney, and even one of the Gallagher brothers, to name a few, grace the stage and take us on a journey of political satire and the life of one Tony Blair.     

Jack Whittle (Mischief Theatre, inc The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and  The Play That Goes Wrong) is exceptional as Tony Blair and one of the reasons this show works.  He is charm personified with a flawless smile that never falters, never twitches with muscle ache, or even a glint of fakeness.  He plays the role as an innocent, privileged, excitable puppy who just wants to meet his hero Mick Jaggers and so almost accidentally ends up in the cut throat world of politics.  His energy, agility, and enthusiasm are quite infectious and yet he can switch instantly to deliver one of Blairs real political speeches, complete with accurate mannerisms and tonality.  Whittle made the show for me.  Howard Samuels (Rocky Horror, Sound Of Music, The Nativity) as Mandelson opened the show as our narrator and set the tone of cheesy frivolity and mayhem about to be unleashed.  He always had a tantalising element of impish charm, and devilish mischief about him, making him an audience favourite.

Tori Burgess (Pride & Prejudice *sort of, Beryl) brought the house down with her characteristics and detail as Cherie Blair.  The smile, the delicious vixen vibe, and danced an impressive tango whilst singing, acting, and performing comedy all at the same time.  She was thrown in the air, flung around, and still managed to keep her political feet on the ground.  Phil Sealey was our Gordon Brown and brilliantly sung a complex and real speech about macroeconomics with his pants slung round his ankles and left us to do the laughing as he never broke once!  Martin Johnston portrayed both Neil Kinnock and George Bush, highlighting an effortless switch between accents, culture and mannerisms, whilst Rosie Strobel, Sally Cheng, Emma Jay Thomas, William Hazell created a memorable host of characters between them, truly displaying the strength and skill of a very talented cast.

With a script written by Harry Hill, music by Steve Brown and directed by Peter Rowe, Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) was always going to be a show to dance to the beat of its own drum and only use the rules if they suited.  Other than that, they could be ripped up and replaced by their own vision, and create a complete jigsaw using different elements of opera, panto, slapstick, and just about every other theatrical genre you can think of.  It confines itself to nothing yet invited everything in, resulting in a manic, memorable musical that doesn’t have words like subtle or serious in its vocabulary.  That, however doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of packing a punch, and uses its brand of over the top comedy to its advantage when it momentarily withholds it, leaving you lost in a theatre full of flashing lights, smoke, and the eerie echo of a cacophony of bombs being dropped.  It is chilling and it is remarkable.  This show may dress itself up as silliness, but have no doubt that it is also clever. 

Harry Hill is of course a comedian, but he is also an intelligent academic who has a lot to say and uses comedy as his tool to deliver the opportunity for his audience to examine the world and question it.  As we see Mandelson using a carrot and stick to control Blair in the show, Hill uses comedy and laughter as the carrot and stick to allure this audience into thinking about the world we live in and whether we should accept any of the leaders we are controlled by.  Speaking of the carrot, those in the first few rows may get, erm, well, carrotted!  I’m aware that’s not a word, yet it will make perfect sense to you when you have seen the show.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!  Tony!  (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) was certainly enjoyed by last nights packed theatre, and whilst it may have elements to it that divide opinion on taste, it will definitely keep you talking!


Watch our video "In Conversation with Tori Burgess" discussing the show.

The Crown Jewels

The Crown Jewels - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 20th September 2023



It’s not often such a star-studded cast tour a show around the UK but that’s exactly what is on offer with The Crown Jewels and it certainly has some pulling power.  With an eclectic mix of fans in the audience to see the likes of Al Murray (The Pub Landlord), Mel Giedroyc (Mel & Sue, Great British Bake Off), Carrie Hope Fletcher (West End Leading Lady - Les Mis, Heathers), Aiden McArdle (RSC associate artist, Endeavour), Neil Morrissey (Men Behaving Badly, Line Of Duty) and Joe Thomas (Inbetweeners, Fresh Meat), it was intriguing to see how everyone would get what they came for, and this is the unique selling point of the show.  Of course, it is possible to find out in advance what the story is about – a retelling of the attempted theft of The Crown Jewels by Colonel Blood in 1671.  A time when King Charles II ruled as the merry monarch and where mince pies, bananas, creamed ice and Oliver Cromwell’s head on a pike were things to behold.

But how would this history lesson fare in the hands of iconic comics, musical theatre stars, and TV giants?  This question is easy to answer – it fares with organised chaos and frantic hilarity from a cast of seasoned professionals that live deliciously on the edge so may just take the script in any direction at any given moment, leaving you the audience, and indeed the cast themselves, never quite sure what might happen next.  It is Black Adder, meets Monty Python, meets stand up comedy, and although the historical story and plenty of accurate facts are indeed jam packed into this production, there is also ample time and opportunity for a more creative slant on things. 

An element I hadn’t considered was the style of speech and language used.  It is kept mostly authentic of the historical time, ensuring that even though there are similar comedic approaches such as the aforementioned comparisons, The Crown Jewels does indeed stand alone and apart from what has gone before.  This tale from our history is too ridiculous to be dealt with in anything but zany comedic terms, so it does seem to have found its righteous home.  I mean, as its writer Simon Nye describes it:

“A character called Colonel Blood?  Taking on the most engaging and high-wigged of all monarchs, Charles II?  The Crown Jewels of England were guarded only by a 77-year-old ex solider who kept them basically in a cupboard?  There’s more.  Blood, an already celebrated wanted felon did the robbery dressed as a priest, wearing a false beard, assisted by an actress playing his wife.  So we’re talking Ronald Biggs assisted by a plucky young Judy Dench.” 

The show opens with Carrie Hope Fletcher belting out a song and reminding us in an instant of her undeniable talent.  It is laden with historical quips and personality, and even introduces a splash zone for the first few rows, who indeed folks – may get wet!  As the story unfolds, we realise that all the main cast multi role, enabling their varied skills to shine.  Al Murray creates two clear cut and perfectly over the top characters in Charles II and Talbot Edwards.  His Charles is spoken with the most brilliantly ridiculous over the top British accent and this alone is enough to make everyone corpse, but then when he demands an audience with his court (us), he really starts to shine and effortlessly blends script with stand up comedy, audience interaction and improvisation.  The audience are made his subjects and as we are introduced to a few unsuspecting guests, a nervous excitement and energy starts to build, knowing that at any moment we could be next, only serves to fuel Murray and he is in his element.  He flawlessly dips in and out of the script to make the whole thing so smooth, and this was possibly one of the highlights of the show for me.

Mel Giedroyc is a joy to behold and should definitely add more theatre to her successful career.  Engaging, so at ease, and with the ability to make her fellow performers corpse with a mere laugh or raise of her eyebrow, it feels that the stage is truly where she belongs.  From trying to sell her yeasty crown as Mrs. Edwards, to her genius comic timing as the French Noblewoman, where she is clearly in command.  The combination of the flawless accent and the infectious laugh ensure you will be giggling along too and it turns into that kind of laughter when you can no longer even remember what you’re laughing at, you just know that you can’t stop.  Aiden McArdle as Colonel Blood alongside Joe Thomas as his son and Neil Morrissey as Captain Perrot form a talented trio of tittering thieves.  Their scenes together show a mutual respect and trust, and are filled with physical comedy such as bounding on and off tables, mis-timed sword fights, and the befuddlement and entanglement of their chains once in prison.  Morrissey is clearly a mischievous performer and does his best to make his fellow cast member corpse at any given moment.  This is apparent when he comes on and introduces himself as Mike Litorous – a name that leaves Murray trying his hardest to suppress his laughter and continue with the show, but failing miserably, which only serves to make the audience laugh harder.

The main cast is completed by Manchester’s own Adonis Siddique and last but not least, Tanvi Virmani.  Siddique has comedy in his bones and has the audience laughing way before he has spoken a word, with his characterisation, mannerisms and physical comedy by merely changing the scenery.  You find yourself awaiting his return and these moments are like gold dust.  As his character is expanded, he excels at playing the slightly nervous, excited and eager to please footman of King Charles, with a brilliant smile that is making me smile now even recollecting it.  Virmani is excellent at capturing Jenny Blaine, an actress who thinks she is much better than she is and creates this with a joyous daftness.  Why walk from A to B when you can showcase your perceived talent as a dancer and prance from A to B.  It is silliness at its best and carried out with great effect.

There are a few moments in the show that seem confusing, or the odd scene that seems unnecessary and out of place and left me wondering if I’d missed the punch line.  These moments felt a little jumbled, bewildering and lost in translation and at times felt slightly awkward as no response was forth coming from the audience.  But they were far and few between and the majority of the night was met with raucous laughter at a play that mocks its own history and our colonial past.  A standing ovation at the end of the evening summed up the overall view of the audience and this hard working, quick witted, and playful cast deserved it.  I was pleasantly surprised by The Crown Jewels and have come away with an endorsed and deeper respect for what is undoubtedly, a star studded cast. 


The Crown Jewels is on at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 23rd September 2023.



Annie - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 19th September 2023


When you think about it, Annie is a musical set in the American Great Depression in which an orphaned child is mistreated by her carer, manipulated by criminals, lied to, sold for cash, and ordered to go and live with a strange man she never met!  Yet it is also somehow one of the most nurturing, uplifting, optimistic stories, of innocent and unconditional love you are ever likely to behold.  Wrongs are righted, justice prevails, and there’s even the opportunity to give a stray dog his forever home!  Throw in some humour, unruly children and absolutely belting songs and there is no surprise that it has not only stood the test of time, but it is open to reinvention and reimagining whilst embracing its audience both loyal and new every step of the way.  In short, it is a classic.

First came Harold Gray’s New York Times comic strip of Little Orphaned Annie in the 1930’s.  As these were slotted together to form a book, none other than lyricist-director, Martin Charnin received a copy for Christmas in 1971, and his mind started whirring with the possibility of a musical.  He pitched the idea to colleagues Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan, a Tony-winning composer and a short story writer for The New Yorker respectively.  Fourteen months later, Annie was completed, but it would take a good few years more to convince producers to give it a chance.  But convince them they did, and Annie eventually got her name in lights in 1976 and walked the great white way of Broadway in 1977.  The movie of 1982 brought Annie to a whole new audience and secured her place in popular culture and the hearts of every child who ever dreamed the glittery dreams of showbiz.  A remake was born in 1999 and again in 2014, pulling in A list movie stars and music moguls.  So why the brief history lesson?  Well, the Annie presented on stage varies slightly to any of the movies you may have seen, with additional songs, expanded sub plots, and a definite nod to Christmas as a reminder to where, for Martin Charnin, it all began.

This evenings production not only presented an undeniably brilliant cast, but was testament to the magnitude and heartbeat of our theatre world - understudies, alternates, and swings.  Rooster was played by Lukin Simmonds, which meant Lukin’s roles needed to be covered.  In steps swing Matthew Sweet to play Bundles, Bert Healy and Ikes, as does swing Belle Kizzy Green to play Sophie, Mrs. Pugh and Frances Perkins.  All three performers were absolutely flawless.  Simmonds brought down the house with a mixture of charm, showmanship and pizazz in Easy Street, Sweet effortlessly flipped from character to character with fancy flair and conviction, and Green took centre stage to introduce us to the homeless and reinvent herself as Mrs. Pugh!

Of course, the name on everybody’s lips tonight though was the gorgeous and fab-u-lous (insert your impersonation of these words here) Craig Revel Horwood.  A household name, CRH is best known for being our glamourously grumpy Strictly Come Dancing judge and has appeared in every single series.  Those who were unaware of his theatrical background (Miss Saigon, Crazy For You, & a director & choreographer on hit shows), got the shock of their lives as his sensational singing voice rang throughout the theatre.  CRH is showbiz personified.  It runs through his veins and bursts out of him like sunshine.  He staggers across the stage as an inebriated Miss Hannigan, being positively gruesome to the children, whilst attempting to seduce every male adult!  Little Girls and Easy Street are CRH big numbers and what numbers they are!  I have seen CRH perform a few times before so knew the talent on offer, but even I was blown away by the strength of charisma, his intoxicating voice, humour, power, and all round showbiz brilliance.  What a performance.

Olivier Award and TMA nominee Alex Bourne (Hairspray, Mamma Mia, Chicago) is our Daddy Warbucks.  A stern business fighting machine trillionaire, he carves out a beautiful softness and vulnerability whenever Annie is around, making his performance appear honest and rounded.  The partnership with Annie seems genuinely filled with affection, yet Bourne is also able to make us belly laugh with his tiny nuances, such as his stint at the radio station and lack of understanding on how a microphone works.  Amelia Adams (Kiss Me Kate, Jersey Boys, Hairspray) sparkles as Grace Farrell, and as her characters name, performs with an elegant grace and a timeless class.  Adams brings a confidence to this character that sits well and allows Grace to always be equal.  David Burrows (An Officer & A Gentleman, Half A Sixpence, My Fair Lady) multi roles as Lt Ward, President Roosevelt and Jimmy Johnson and each role couldn’t be more different.  Burrows switches from comedy to command, leaving many in the audiences unaware that these roles were actually played by the same actor. 

And of course there is a cast full of vivacious young people too - a rotation of three teams, so I wouldn’t want to name and get it wrong as we aren’t told who performs on each day.  Make no mistake that these performers are professional and mean business.  They prove their worth and lay out their talent within the first few minutes by owning the entire show and raising the roof with the much loved ensemble piece ‘It’s A Hard Knock Life’.  It was like a giant cup of coffee to wake everyone up and spoke directly to any doubters of the quality and standard that our young generation can bring.  Their confidence was infectious and never once trickled into pretentious or old school ‘showbiz’ sickly smiles and so forth.  Quite the opposite, this cast of young people were fierce, full of personality and character and offered some of the best facial expressions I have ever witnessed.  They weren’t to be fobbed off with mere reactions of ‘ahh’ and ‘aww’ from their audience but demanded the same standing ovation and respect as everyone else.  Instead, the instinctual ‘ahh’s’ were reserved for Amber who played Sandy the dog, and – not that I’m used to reviewing animals - but Amber was perfect, hitting every cue to perfection and with lots of tail wags to boot.     

Now there is just the little matter of the titular character Annie.  Who can carry off those huge numbers, be on stage for almost the entire show, charm the audience the way she charms Daddy Warbucks, have a self assured attitude that never spills over into arrogance, show a caring nature beyond her years, bring hope and life to a bunch of disparate business people and politicians, have an infectious personality that lights up the entire stage, and on top of being a sensational performer yourself, ensuring you remember all your lines, lyrics, choreography, blocking, and mannerisms, also be in command of a dog at the same time, ensuring they do everything they are supposed to do as well!  I’ll tell you who achieved all of that tonight - Sharangi Gnanavarathan.  What a star, and so worthy of the headline bow and standing ovation.  Absolutely incredible.

The stage is visible from the moment you enter the auditorium, displaying the orphanage with its wrought iron beds.  It is framed and backdropped with an impressive collage of jigsaw pieces.  Some pieces of the puzzle are missing and light up in various colours throughout the show, whilst the rest are a black and white street map of NYC, with sporadic red scribbles showing the whereabouts of runaway Annie.  This design by Colin Richmond is quite mesmerising and grabbed my full attention way before the show had begun.  The thought and detail throughout this show is so subtle that it may even be subliminal, but it works its magic.

The show is sprinkled with little nuggets that ensure we are placed firmly in the right era, whether it be historical quotes from Roosevelt “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” references to the notorious gangster of the time Al Capone, famous art work such as The Mona Lisa, right down to the Broadway show the characters are watching.  Even though it isn’t named, the show is represented with sailors costumes and Anything Goes was the big show at the time of The Great Depression so is subtly implied.  It seems everything has been thought of.  This scene where Daddy Warbucks takes Annie to Broadway is luminous.  We have glamourous moving spotlights flooding not only the stage, but the audience, a song and dance routine that raises the endorphins, and finishes so cleverly by the cast transposing their positions to create a horse and carriage ride around central park from a theatre seat.  Costumes alight the stage with creativity, such as the infamous NYC yellow taxi, including flashing taxi lights, and no you’ve not read that wrong – this is indeed a costume! 

The musical score in Annie is timeless and so perfectly rousing, emotive and full of hooks that will leave you humming your own Annie medley for the next week or so.  Tomorrow is reprised throughout the show and with good reason for it does what it says on the tin and fills you with an overwhelming sense of hope and positivity, and when the acapella harmonies kick in on one of the reprises, you will be left brimming with tears at its sheer beauty and power.  The second act opens with ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’ and the audience are encouraged to join in, as the cast interact with us directly and also set the scene by using the neon applause signs to firmly place us in a radio station.  Humour at play, we get to witness a foley artist, have a little tap dance to entertain us, and indulge in the fun, merriment and beautiful harmonies of this wonderful cast.

The second act also treats us to the showstopping number ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You.’  It takes us into Christmas and is so magical and full of feel good vibes that you don’t care that in reality we’ve not even had Halloween.  Instead, you are ready to join in, hang the holly and swig the eggnog.  As the show comes to a close, the audience are encouraged to join in with the cast in singing a rendition of ‘Tomorrow’ and nobody needed asking twice as it wraps itself around you and lifts you up in a way that is impossible to resist.  To be a part of a huge theatre all belting out a song of euphoric positivity was a moment that will stay with me for quite some time.

Well let me tell you, it seems I was fully dressed tonight, as I wore a smile throughout the entire evening as the glorious performers unleashed their effervescent talent amidst our soggy Manchester skies.  This is exactly what I love about musical theatre, the ability to take us away from reality and feel all the feels.  Annie may have its dark side with a bundle of baddies trying to sell a child for their own gain, but it is ultimately wholesome, family friendly, and so jam packed with some of the biggest musical theatre belters you’re ever likely to hear that I have no doubt you’ll be humming them all the way home.  And next time you face that annoying co-worker, or realise your report or homework is overdue, and the hum drum of life feels too much, you’ll remember those words from Annie with hope and relax a little; ”Tomorrow!  You’re only a day away.”


Heathers the Musical

Heathers The Musical - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 8th August 2023


This is a show with a dedicated set of fans whose enthusiasm fills the theatre with a certain kind of anticipation, and they do not leave disappointed.  Having seen the show once before, I thought I was prepared for Heathers mania, but nope!  I was bowled over yet again by the electric atmosphere, which is entirely contagious and will have you whooping and cheering along whether you’re 17, 70 or undecided and lying about your age.  No one will care, for despite the mean girl trio, this is actually a show about learning tolerance and acceptance.  Well, ok – that’s just part of it, as it packs a punch with many themes throughout, but everything it touches is done with a clever, indescribable, dark and unique sense of humour, meaning pretty much nothing is of limits.

On the surface, Heathers may appear to be just another teen story of mean girls ruling the school whilst the other kids hang on their every word, terrified to make a wrong move and be doomed to the cortex of a high school tornado.  But whilst other stories may leave it there, Heathers delves much deeper and manages to incorporate suicide, bullying, assault, sexuality and acceptance.  However, neither is this a teenage drama, so mix this altogether, throw in a sense of humour that operates at break neck speed and is not for the easily offended, then you might just about be getting close to the unique phenomenon that has this audience whipped up into a frenzy.  The Heathers are three teenagers who are the most popular, and most feared girls in their school.  Heathers Chandler, Duke, and McNamara are about to be given detention when the unpopular Veronica saves their bacon by forging a hall pass.  All she asks in return is to sit at their table, but they decide to allow her into their group in return for more forged letters, passes and homework.  Veronica is breezing through high school for the first time ever, despite her reservations, then she meets the new kid – J.D.  He is deep, brooding, and intense, and when he beats up the two jock kids Ram and Kurt, who were giving her a hard time, little does she know that her future has just been rewritten.  As Veronica and J.D become close, she learns he has a dark side, a side that she unwittingly becomes embroiled in.  Heather Chandler is the first to learn just how deep J.D’s darkness burns, but as death breeds a temporary tolerance and a desire for attention, things quickly spiral out of control and Veronica learns that having a blast in high school, means something else entirely with J.D around.

Heathers has grit, depth and a darkness that is explored through its harsh yet hilarious brand of humour.  With lines such as ‘the lipstick Gestapo,’ F**k me gently with a chainsaw’ or ‘I’m on the bus again because all my rides to school are dead!’ you never quite know what vicious quip is ready to roll off the tongue.  It’s brutal but it’s brilliant.  And it lends its followers the tricky question of, “Who is your favourite Heather?”  With distinctive outfits, they are easy to emulate, as many audience members did.  But then again, each character in this show is given a chance to shine, so maybe your favourite character isn’t a Heather at all, but Veronica, J.D, or maybe even Martha, Veronica’s true best friend.  This is actually one of the shows strengths.  Every character is given a moment to shine, with solo’s, fantastic one liners, and a genuine strength in working as an ensemble cast.  The detail each cast member provides is quite simply outstanding.  Freeze frames, slow motion, ad-libbing, facial expressions, each element is jam packed with nuances in every corner of the stage.  During one freeze frame – a frozen punch to the face between J.D (Jacob Fowler) and Ram (Morgan Jackson), Jackson seemingly froze in entirety and didn’t blink at all.  Meanwhile, you have snippets of genius taking place between cast members such as Liam Dean and Maeve Byrne or Heather Duke (Elise Zavou) telling a petrified class mate (Eliza Bowden) to chill out and smile during a school assembly TV broadcast.  This cast know their stuff, and then some.

Jenna Innes (Les Mis) displays a dry sense of humour with ease as Veronica, and convincingly switches from sarcasm, to fear, to love in a heartbeat.  She is a strong lead, giving a voice to anyone who feels they don’t quite fit in.  Jacob Fowler (Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella) is brilliantly warped and intense as J.D.  He starts out as the mysterious stranger but is able to take his character on quite the transformation in a short space of time.  He plays it cool and calm which makes for an even more disturbed result.  Verity Thompson (Old Friends) is our chief Heather, Heather Candler.  Her comic timing and delivery of lines is so spot on that it leaves you in that conundrum of laughing at the stuff you’re not supposed to laugh at in real life, and even though she is the mean girl, you can’t help but admire her tenacity.  She most definitely has a stage presence that draws your eye every time she is on stage.  Elise Zavou (Red Riding Hood) is our Heather Duke, and again we see a fabulous transformation from follower to fearsome leader and head Heather.  She knows how to command an audience.  Billie Bowman (But I’m A Cheerleader) plays her humour is a totally different way as Heather McNamara, and offers up a naivety that allows us to laugh at her antics.  Even her timing of spitting out tablets is not to be under estimated, and was done just right.  She also gave a thoroughly emotive and incredible performance of her solo Lifeboat.  Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson were a brilliant comedic duo as Kurt and Ram, bouncing off each other – quite literally – with excellent partner work.  The entire cast was irresistible and my lack of mentioning each and every one is meant as no disrespect, but to stop myself from gushing. 

There are strong themes and adult references throughout the show, giving it a 14+ age guidance, and I think this is wise.  Heathers raises tough issues that are openly discussed and explored through a sharp humour.  But this is why it has such a cult following of teenagers, because it doesn’t shy away from, or downplay the subjects at hand.  It doesn’t patronise and allows the topics to be explored in a way that is approachable and comfortable, and I know first hand that it has opened up the opportunity for young people to freely discuss such things that are difficult to broach.  It is a truly clever show.  You bathe in the glory of the sassy, fierce and complex characters.  You soak up the memorable songs and bop along with the dances, revelling in the infamous Heather poses.  You stop dead in your tracks at the cutting reality behind the laughter, and struggle through the intense scenes of suicide, homophobia, and date rape, before howling with laughter again as Ram and Kurt slide around the stage in little more than a pair of socks, or as the choreography is hammed up for comedic purposes.  This is an audience reaction like no other, and with opportunity to join in and cheer along, or become Ms. Flemings ex boyfriend (be careful where you sit,) even the cast looked humbled by the out pouring of love from the Palace Theatre audience tonight.  The character clique of Heathers Chandler, Duke and McNamara may be about excluding anyone they don’t deem popular enough, but the beauty of them is that they have created an end result of inclusivity, and a theatre full of beautiful.





Zog - The Lowry, Salford - Friday 4th August 2023


I know I am someone that could be described as being in touch with their child like sense of wonder and imagination and I own that, but I never thought for a moment I would enjoy a show designed purely for children quite as much as I just have.  Zog is zesty, zippy and full of zing.  With full on musical theatre numbers written by Joe Stilgoe, they transcend the usual nursery rhyme type song associated with shows for younger children and appeal to the masses with their upbeat, catchy melodies and glorious messages.

But back to the story.  Zog is a clumsy dragon who just wants to achieve the best in life and tries super hard so that he can win an elusive golden star in school.  Try as he might, it never seems to happen, and as their teacher encourages her dragon students to practice, practice, practice, he never gives up even when he thinks he can’t do it.  Helped along the way by his friend Princess Pearl, who believes in him every step of the way, he is determined to succeed, and after his flying lesson sees him crash into a tree, his fire breathing lesson sees him set his own wing alight, and his rescuing a Princess lesson sees him losing out whilst his friend rescues two, Princess Pearl steps in and offers to be the Princess that Zog can rescue.  Their friendship is sealed and as we discover that Pearl is not happy with her Princess status and instead dreams of being a doctor, a new and exciting alliance is born – The Flying Doctors.  Zog still has one more lesson to pass though - to learn to battle a knight.  Enter Sir Gadabout, who tries to take Pearl away.  Zog fights for his friend and finally wins his elusive golden star!

The audience are included in this beautiful show right from the start.  When the actors enter the stage with puppet birds on sticks, they immediately have us laughing as one of the crows settles on an adult audience members shoulder and poops!  Zog enters from an unlikely place (scaring me half to death) and immediately wins the hearts of everyone.  There is a genuine feeling of warmth in the theatre and a family aura, where children roar along with the dragons, adults clap along, and everyone gets up to join in with the invitation to dance on our feet at the end of the show.  The actors take their time to chat directly with the audience, making the whole thing feel very inclusive.  As the actors effortlessly bound around the scaffolding set, it is visually exciting, energetic and full of surprises.  The use of puppets was superb, and the attention to detail is mesmerising, such as when the dragons have been flying around and then settle down, the dragons can be seen panting for breath!  They matched the movements of their actors fantastically, so that even when the puppets were ‘rested’ and it was just the actor as the dragon, it all made perfect sense.  There was no confusion and the multiple role playing was seamless.  It was flawless, and I left the theatre wondering if it was too weird for me to go and buy a Zog toy because this feisty dragon stole my heart.

Danny Hendrix
played Zog with joy, heart and portrayed his level of determination perfectly.  He had every single person in the audience rooting for him, to the point that when he didn’t get a golden star on the third lesson, meaning another dragon got two, someone nearby shouted out “That’s not fair!  Zog works hard!”  Lois Glenister is delightful as Princess Pearl, showing the themes of kindness, loyalty and independence to a tee.  They display a great friendship on stage and both deserve acknowledgement for the positivity they sent out to the youngsters in the audience, and to us adults too!  Ben Locke plays both Sir Gadabout and one of the Zog’s dragon classmates.  He is great in both roles, but hails respect, laughter and hilarity as Sir Gadabout, making everyone belly laugh.  He has a song about wanting to be a dancer and he busts many a comical move, and provides some brilliant mime too, with his ‘invisible’ horse (that he asks an audience member to look after and feed for him).  Louise Grayford and Etta Williams complete the cast as Madam Dragon and the final dragon classmate and are equally as brilliant.  Grayford has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand when she tries to teach us all some tongue twisters and Williams has everyone giggling along with her cheeky antics.  This cast genuinely give off a family vibe and not only is it lovely to see, but it fits with the ethos of the show wonderfully too.

The story is taken right off the page so those who know the story can join in, but it is also fleshed out with additional script, brilliant songs and physical theatre moments.  Back to the songs for a moment as they are catchy, and would slot right into any West End show, with some giving off Matilda and Mary Poppins feelings.  Golden Star, I Can Do It, and Practice are amongst the ones that have stayed in my mind for various reasons, with Practice incorporating synchronised movements with letters creating funny moments.

is a brilliant show for kids of all ages, and with the Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler exhibition also on, it combines to makes an excellent day out at The Lowry, and believe me, many people have the same idea as the place was heaving and buzzing with excitement, energy and anticipation.  These are memories worth making and with such a positive energy and message being brought to life, I thoroughly recommend going along, enjoying and letting your heart fall in love with an orange dragon called Zog.


You deserve all 5 of them stars Zog, well done!


Shrek The Musical

Shrek The Musical - Manchester Opera House - Wednesday 2nd August 2023


has to be one of the most quotable animated films of its time, and one of those rare nuggets that engages everyone in equal measure, regardless of age.  It pokes fun at fairy tales, whilst kind of being one itself, finds a way to make toilet humour appealing to everyone, and even manages to pack a punch with its messages of acceptance, tolerance, friendship and loyalty.  Its secret to success is to have an unlikely hero and an even more unlikely Princess.  It’s a fairy tale that filters and flips the rules to fit with reality, and not pander to an airbrushed, fake existence.  In short, it is a breath of fresh air – well as fresh as the air can be when there are ogres around!  Shrek The Musical stays faithful and loyal to the film, yet equally manages to squeeze in a few extra nuggets of gold for you.  It is optimistic, uplifting, and defiant.  We first see Shrek as a mere ogre of seven, being sent on his not so merry way by his parents, and soon discover that he has been told what life will hold for him, and watch as he defends before he can be hurt.  Many years later, the isolated Shrek is aghast as a whole bunch of fairy tale folk are unceremoniously dumped on his swamp by Lord Farquaad who can’t abide them being in his Kingdom a second longer.  Shrek doesn’t give a fig what Lord Farquaad wants and so sets off to demand their removal with immediate effect.  On route, he quite literally runs into Donkey, the only one who has never balked at Shrek’s obtrusive behaviour or ghastly roar.  They become unlikely companions on a quest to save Shrek’s swamp.  They arrive in Duloc to find Lord Farquuad holding a competition, upon which the winner will go and rescue a Princess for him to marry.  Enter Shrek.  If he rescues Princess Fiona, he can have his swamp back.  A new quest begins for Shrek and Donkey, but Fiona is not what she appears to be. “By night one way, by day another. This shall be the norm. Until you find true love's first kiss. And then take love's true form.” 

Antony Lawrence (The Lion King, Matilda, We Will Rock You) brings out the best in Shrek.  Instantly loveable, you cannot help but warm to his humour, his vulnerability, and peel back those onion layers to reveal the biggest heart ever.  Lawrence somehow makes Shrek’s complexity simple, possibly because he makes this green ogre so relatable and honest.  With a cracking set of pipes, his voice easily reverberates around the theatre and makes you take notice more than any roar will.  An outstanding relationship is developed with Joanne Clifton (Strictly Come Dancing, The Addams Family, Rocky Horror) as Princess Fiona, with the joy and camaraderie beaming from both.  Clifton redefines what it is to be a Princess and I utterly adored her portrayal.  Fiesty, funny, sassy, strong willed, scrappy, and full of genuine spirit, what a positive force to send out into the world about how we can be independent yet connected at the same time.  She has a natural warmth on stage that extends to her undeniable talent as not only a dancer, but singer and actress too.  Brandon Lee Sears (Dreamgirls, Come From Away, Heathers) as Donkey is everything you hope he will be, and then some.  Hyper active, funny, and adorable, he is equally solid enough that when he holds a mirror up to Shrek and calls him out on his world views, you take him seriously.  It was great to see him bust some of his dance moves – who ever knew a Donkey could jazz splits?!  Throw in some impressive vocal riffs and Donkey had the audience eating out of the palm of his hoof.  James Gillan (Tommy, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Little Shop Of Horrors) was our much loved villain Lord Farquaad.  Flamboyance, extravagance and petulance are brought to the role by Gillan and it makes it difficult for you to dislike Farquaad in quite the same way you do in the film, which is a brilliant choice.  Make no mistake though, this is no pantomime villain but a fully fleshed out character, who is even given a clever and witty back story so we gain a little insight into his diva mind set.  Gillan makes the role seem effortless and takes his curtain call boo’s with good nature.  Cherece Richards as the dragon, Georgie Buckland as Gingy, and Mark D’arcy as Pinocchio have opportunity to share their undeniable vocal talents, and it goes to show what a crazy talented cast this really is.

is given a sprinkling of fairy tale magic by its wonderful creative team who vividly bring the animated film to life before our very eyes.  The costumes by Philip Whitcomb instantly pop off the stage and dazzle with detail and colour.  They are simply put, gorgeous.  From the White Rabbit to The Big Bad Wolf, The Three Little Pigs to Peter Pan and Tink, our beloved childhood story books burst onto the stage unapologetically and demand to be noticed.  Pleasure could be gained simply by drinking in the array of fabulously donned characters.  Combine this with the softness of a cartoon-esque set (also designed by Whitcomb), with every setting you could possibly wish for from the film, and you won’t be disappointed.  With a perfectly aligned partnership between tangible and digital (Nina Dunn – Pixil Ltd) we are taken to every corner or this make believe world, from Shrek’s swamp to the fiery depths of the dragon protected castle.  With a pit stop in Duloc and the odd torture chamber along the way, Shrek and Donkey guide us with humour, heart, and hum dinging farts through this fabulously fun family musical.

If you have seen Shrek The Musical before, then you may notice a few changes.  There are no child actors playing younger versions of the characters, Lord Farquuad is no longer reduced to appearing short by walking round on his knees, the mirror is missing, and the dragon has been reimagined.  I’m sure different audience members will have different opinions on all of these changes, but for me, it took nothing away from the show at all, and if anything, gave it more freedom.  The new dragon was the only thing that took a bit of getting used to for me personally, for as fabulous as the puppet creation was – and it really was, Cherece Richards - the performer voicing it was not part of the puppetry.  She was dressed to impress in an epic costume all of her own.  Add in her stage presence and incredible vocals and all of my attention was drawn to Richards, making the puppet seem redundant as I just couldn’t focus on it.

The inclusion of rolling scenery to take us on the different quests was brilliant and even allowed for a fun inclusion of Puss In Boots on route.  There were humorous and subtle nods to motifs from other musicals, such as Rose’s Turn from Gypsy, Defying Gravity from Wicked, and You’re Gonna Love Me from Dreamgirls.  This was a clever extension of the initial subtle  banter and nods in the original film to Disneyworld and It’s  A Small World, which I’m thrilled to say, also appear in this stage show.  One of my favourite moments was the duet I Think I Got You Beat between Shrek and Fiona.  It was a masterclass in how to develop an entire relationship in one song.  The characters start by disliking each other, yet in the space of one song, bond, become friends, and develop feelings for each other.  And the best part of it all is that they bond through gas!  Burping and farting!  Yes I am a grown adult saying that this works and is fun, but it really does and it really is.  You see the fun, the relaxed nature and you want to share in it (not by burping and farting of course), but it just makes you warm to the characters and the show as a whole.  The giggles from the children, and even adults is infectious and on top of that – it’s a really raucous, showbiz and brilliant tune. And with famous lines from Donkey such as “Man, you gotta warn somebody before you crack one like that. My mouth was open and everything,” thrown in, you can’t help but go with the flow.  Another great song of celebration was Freak Flag that filled the auditorium with positivity and a place where being different was safe and welcomed.

Shrek The Musical is a green, sheen, musical machine that offers joy, hope, happiness, and reconnects you with your inner child whilst giving your adult self a reminder about what is actually important in life.  Imperfections are what make us our own kind of perfect, not glossy, shiny perceived portrayals of beauty.  It’s a show that has a big green, ogre beating heart at its core, and shows you it’s ok to be a little more Shrek, Fiona and Donkey.  You will not be disappointed, and with a rip roaring finale of I’m A Believer, we couldn’t help but jump to our feet and join in the fun.



The Hallé - Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein

The Hallé - Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - Saturday 29th July 2023


Photo credit to Bill Lam, The Hallé

The glorious sound of The Hallé reverberated around the stunning Bridgewater Hall last night as we were emersed in the timeless music of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  Under the baton of Martin Yates, this was going to be an evening to remember and with sensational West End singers Lucy May Barker, Alice Fearn, Rob Houchen and Scott Davies, the treats just kept coming and coming.  With fascinating anecdotes regarding the history of this golden age of musical theatre, these shows have won countless Tonys, academy awards, Pulitzer Prizes and Grammys.  With constant revivals, the popularity of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s music has never waned, and from the full capacity audience tonight, it shows no signs of losing it any time soon either. 

We were treated to a mixture of overtures and classic songs from the big five – Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King & I, and The Sound Of Music, as well as another of their musicals The Flower Drum Song.  The applause and enthusiasm for the vibrance of the music and the quality filled your senses and you could literally feel it as it entered your body and your soul.  The songs were shared out between The Hallé and the sensational singers, evoking so many memories that for the entire evening, I felt like I had been wrapped in a tender warm hug.

Listening to Rob Houchen singing from South Pacific again after his UK tour was a wonderful treat I feel honoured to have heard for a second time, and hearing Scott Davies again after my first introduction to his stunning voice as Phantom 20 odd years ago was fantastic and just as spine tingling.  Lucy May Barker brought not only an incredible voice but such a bubbly and infectious personality, and finishing off the quartet, Alice Fearn proved why she is a West End leading lady with such an incredible vocal range.

Each song was a highlight and a special moment in time, and even as You’ll Never Walk Alone was announced and some United fans behind us joked it was time to nip out for a beer, by the end, the sumptuous harmonies of our singers had converted them and reduced their jaunty words to a simple – wow!  It was ethereal.  The King & I proved a particular favourite for me as it holds personal memories, but equally listening to Scott Davies fill the room with his luscious rendition of Some Enchanted Evening was an experience I never knew I needed.  Rob Houchen and Lucy May Barker brought Carousel to life with the full repertoire of If I Loved You, submerging us effortlessly into their world, and Alice Fearn vivaciously brought Ado Annie to life in the rip-roaring favourite I Cain’t Say No.

And of course, not forgetting the impressive, world-class Hallé who were always going to be at the heart of tonight's show.  Comprising of players from over 14 countries, these multi-talented and gifted instrumentalists create a sound like no other.  They have an intangible presence, a spirit that is swept around any arena they play in, particularly the glorious Bridgewater Hall.  This may have been a one night concert, but The Hallé offer a varied and impressive year round calander, so I urge you to allow yourself the beauty and encompassing sound of our very own Hallé.




Message In A Bottle

Message In A Bottle - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 27th July 2023


The music of Sting and The Police have seemingly always been a part of my subconscious and have danced through my own little corner of the world.  I can reminisce on those early memories of innocence, fascinated by the idea that an alien had landed in New York and nobody seemed to mind.  Or the naivety that endeared me to believe Every Breath You Take was a song about love, and Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic was about a powerful witch!  The songs have always been there storytelling, and even though I had their narratives muddled as a child, they still engaged me in my own way, and I had the joy of reimagining them all over again as I got older (though discovering the actual story of Every Breath She Takes was a little like discovering Santa wasn’t real!)  These songs excel in storytelling and so naturally lend themselves to a bigger piece of art.  Dance has a life force of its own and bewitches your heart in a unique way, therefore, to bring the songs fresh life and interpretation through Kate Prince’s ZooNation seems to be the perfect combination. 

Message In A Bottle brings us the emotive tale of one family, living in blissful harmony with their community and rejoicing their idyllic being.   Their peaceful lives are turned upside down as the village falls to civil war and the family are faced with impossible choices and stare down harrowing sacrifices for the ones they love.  With no option left but to flee, siblings Leto, Mati and Tana are forced to begin a new chapter, one of survival.  Despite the desperate and dangerous path they now find themselves on, we also glimpse hope and humanity against a backdrop of hate and hostility.  Each sibling is forced down a different road and we witness the repercussions of displacement.   The story tackles many prominent issues such as the refugee crisis, civil war, people trafficking, detention centres, and the loss of life at sea in an attempt to simply secure a safe existence void of fear.  Some will find it, some will not, but all will still carry the trauma with them alongside a paradoxical hope and bond with the family they lost along the way.  Lolita Chakrabarti has worked her dramaturg magic to produce a narrative that will leave you feeling all the feels, and then some!  Add into that the force of life that are the ZooNation dancers, and you won’t know what has hit you.  This is not a tale of politics.  It is an acknowledgment of the real people caught in the crossfire of politics.  The ones who, once upon a time lived a regular life, just like you and I.  It is a stunning piece of art that hands back the dignity of humanity to displaced families.

I honestly don’t know if I can do justice to Message In A Bottle through a written review.  This after all, is a passionate story told through dance, where verbal communication is made entirely redundant to a physical art form that speaks volumes without uttering a single word.  You are absorbed into the pulsating heartbeat and rhythm of the characters through jaw droppingly talented dancers, and willingly immersed into a new dimension of art that defies everything you thought you knew.  This is unlike anything else I have ever seen and my mind is in overdrive trying to process it.  Ninja dancers, wizards of beat, mystical movers relentlessly present agility, flips, grace, twists, acrobatics, lyrical, hip hop, krumping, breakdancing, ballet.  You name it, they do it, and then some.  Breath taking moves I have never seen before appear effortlessly, and with a seamlessly blended flow of solo, partner work, small group and cast ensemble pieces, this adds further testament to the power of ZooNation.

It is no wonder director and choreographer Kate Prince is an MBE.  Her vision, commitment, desire to break boundaries and to inspire the next generation of theatre goers is beyond evident in Message In A Bottle through the inspiring, relevant, and passionate performances.  Using the multi award-winning music of Sting as your score is genius, and with outstanding new arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (The Greatest Showman, Hamilton) these songs have been given a new lease of life and are both instantly recognisable yet entirely fresh and exciting.  They are given new flavours, including soul, jazz, theatrical, and reggae, and some are echoed throughout, each time with a subtle new twist to entice your heart to adapt to the current of the story.  With Sting himself singing the majority of songs, and Beverley Knight and Lynval Golding as guest vocalists, these haunting melodies will evoke just about every emotion you can imagine.

Andrzej Goulding (video designer), Natasha Chivers (lighting designer) and Anna Fleischle (costume designer) beautifully blend their own talents to offer stunning visuals, such as the interactive effects of shadowed silhouettes that whisp on the edge of the siblings memories with both hope and trauma.  Dancers jump and create a shadow that remains mid pose, or the shadows pose as the ghosts of troubled minds.  Images of their past appear on a screen, which is also projected as a bed, so that they represent dreams and nightmares tormenting the soul.  Elsewhere, rippling lights combine with sheet projections of rain and costumes that have the bottom half coloured blue and waved, suddenly mean more than community colours, as they also become the waves in a devastating scene at sea.  And as time runs out, so does the large over head sun, which doubles as an egg timer and pours sand down onto the stage as the dancers are helpless to stop it. 

The company of dancers defy superlatives!  They set their own standard, and then even smash that!  They are dancers, actors, storytellers and possibly even alchemists!  This ensures that the interpretation of songs is not only easy to follow, but feels like they were written for this show alone.  Desert Rose is a joyful and uplifting celebration of community, Every Little Thing She Does Is magic plays out a relationship from first sight to marriage.  Don’t Stand So Close To Me depicts soldiers intimidating and abusing women through their insidious power, Every Breath You Take represents the oppressive guards of the detention centre as we watch the siblings desperately trying to reach out for each other whilst being torturously kept apart.  I honestly could go on and on as an impressive 27 songs make an appearance, but I appreciate I’ve got to keep something back for everyone to discover for themselves. 

Message In A Bottle will take you on an emotional journey and make you catch your breath, often at surprising moments.  It will evoke joy, passion, loss, grief, love, sacrifice, heartache, unfairness, belonging, community, trauma, and hope.  Hope opens the show and closes it too.  Hope that life can go on, that love can be the most powerful of forces, and hope that no matter whatever else can be taken from us at the hands of other humans, our bonds, our love and our memories cannot.  



Cruise - HOME, Manchester - Tuesday 25th July 2023


When an Olivier Award nominated production for ‘Best New Play’ pops into town, you sit up, pay attention, grab your pals, and get yourself down to the theatre, especially when it has chosen Manchester for its regional premiere.  I mean, it would be rude not to go right?!  Cruise seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, for after its initial opening to rave reviews straight out of lockdown, it made a few tweaks and took the spotlight once more at the Apollo, where it was described as ‘unmissable’, ‘life-affirming’, and ‘joyful’.  It is now stepping out of ‘that there London’ and sharing its brilliance with the rest of us, and I have to say thank you because what a powerhouse of a show!

Cruise is the incredible creation of Jack Holden, who has brought a true story to life before our eyes and immersed us into the world of Michael Spencer.  So, if you’re expecting a Jane McDonald style documentary or a certain Tom shaking cocktails or flying navel planes, then think again (though Tom Cruise does make an appearance of sorts funnily enough).  This Cruise may serve up a few hangovers, and be as explosive as a fighter jet engine, but it is brilliantly unique, will tingle your spine and goose your bumps with its raw honesty and mesmerising delivery.  We soon discover that it only takes one phone call to change someone’s world.  Enter Michael.  His devastating diagnosis plots out what he has been told will be the rest of his life.  With just four years to live, he sets out to do just that.  He sells up, breaks free and turns the world into one big party with his partner Dave.  When Dave passes away two years later, Michaels actions and decisions get larger, more reckless, and with little care for any looming consequences.  After all, his clock is ticking, and so when he reaches the final day of his four year prognosis, it is a heartbreaking moment.  What would you do if you thought it were your last day on earth?  I can’t imagine the resonance of conflicting emotions it would bring.   Michael decides to dress the part, then spend the evening saying farewell.  Farewell to those he has loved and loathed, to places of importance and familiarity.  And when that is done, the only thing left to do it party.  Literally party like it is the last night of your world.

But what if it isn’t?  What if, somehow, you were that one in a million who defied the odds? 

The set is a playground of opportunity and creativity, using scaffolding type rigging, and a revolving steel framed piece, offering the elusive doorway to all of Soho’s night life with a little imagination.  Combined with a balcony dedicated to the musician providing a pulsating soundtrack (John Patrick Elliott), live music and atmospheric sound effects effortlessly merge into the heartbeat of the story and heighten moments of emotion.  This is a clever design.  Lighting only adds to the shift of locations, from the dazzling nightclubs, raves, the help switchboard room, and even to the intangible location of utter oblivion.  We are guided through Jacks retelling of Michael’s story with ease.

And can we now talk about Jack Holden?  What a talent! Written and performed by the man himself, he is charming, engaging, brutally honest, intelligent, funny and enlightening without ever making you feel preached at.  His technique of gliding from one vivid character to the next through varying accents and physicality is genuinely jaw dropping and mesmerising.  Each character is as lovingly brought to life as the next, and you are submerged into a world full of larger than life characters, with all their brilliance, their flaws, their quirks.  They were real.  These are characters you recognise, and the variety of them is insatiable!  From Cat the bar maid with a big heart and a high ponytail face lift, to Fingers the Mancunian with a passion for music, to the fabulously Northern drag Queen whose set will leave you crying with laughter.  Jack also sings!  And his voice is stunning, leaving a spine tingling moment after his rendition of Elvis’ ‘Can’t help falling in love.’  How can one person be so talented?  I cannot emphasise enough just how crystal clear all of the cast of characters he created were.  You will be submerged full throttle into the 1980’s and experience Soho life for yourself.  It’s remarkable.

John Patrick Elliott is the composer of the original music in tonight’s show, including a mind-blowing rave.  He is also the sound designer and performs in the show too, playing multiple instruments, singing and never stopping for a heartbeat.  He enters the stage solo, ending the perpetual ringing of phones in the call centre, and slowly fills our senses with his music, setting the scene and musically teasing us for what is to come.  It is absolutely no surprise to learn that John is an award-winning composer, music producer and songwriter for film and theatre, and with a new album and tour coming up, I’d recommend checking it out.

Jack Holden has paid tribute to an era, a legacy, a heartbreaking time in history, and to his lead characters of Michael and Dave, who thanks to Jack, will be forever remembered.  What a stunningly beautiful gift to offer.  This is not only a brilliant show, it is an important show, and one that will leave a handprint on your heart.  


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - The Musical

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 12th July 2023


I am a self-confessed book worm and my passion developed very early on in life as I was lucky enough to attend a primary school whose teachers not only believed in the power of offering children a magical escapism of pure imagination but believed in encouraging it too.  I was inspired every day, and author names such as Hazel Townsend, Richmal Crompton, our very own Headteacher David Webb, and of course Roald Dahl, were just as common as the student register.  Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, and Grandpa Joe were as real to me as anyone I could touch, and the chocolate factory was vividly clear to me.  I could visit it any time I liked, and I have to confess, I still do, and this authentic, unspoilt and cherished ability to dream, imagine and create is something I hold so dear to my heart, so I have to start by saying thank you Roald Dahl.  Thank you for your ability to ‘watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.’

I’d like to think that everyone knows the story of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, but we don’t want anyone left locked outside those factory gates, so just incase, here it goes.  Charlie and his family have very little in terms of money and possessions, but he does have an insatiable appetite to dream and make something out of nothing.  He is an inventor at heart, and so mix that with a love for chocolate and it is no wonder that the myth and legend of Willy Wonka has become a hero to him.  Living with his mum and four grandparents, the house is filled with love and whilst Charlie is grateful for his lot in life, he still can’t help but wish for his birthday and the elusive Wonka bar he hopes will come his way.  This desire is only propelled forward by the announcement that Wonka is opening his factory to the five lucky people who find a golden ticket hidden in their chocolate bar.  Just as Charlie thinks all hope is lost, he finds himself holding the fifth golden ticket!  Elated, he enters the factory with the other winners, and discovers a world of pure imagination, a world where no one leaves quite the same way they went in.  Wonka promises a prize to the winner, and as Charlie finds he is the only one left, he finds that all his dreams might just come true.

You will enter a world of pure delight from the moment you enter the building for the air is pumped full of the sweet fragrance of chocolate and sweets, giving your inner child free reign to come out to play.  It is magical, and with the staff playing along stating, “of course you can smell chocolate, there’s a chocolate factory downstairs!” it set the scene for a place where the real world is left outside, and creation and fantasy are a must.  As you enter the auditorium, a metal dumping ground dominates the stage, a playground of opportunity for Charlie, where old things can be reinvented and given a new life.  The piece expertly slides apart to reveal the sweet shop, and just as easily transitions into the Bucket family home, a two levelled design full of intricate details, and props seemingly hidden in every nook and cranny.  As the story unfolds, we have break out moments from the Bucket household, to across the globe where we meet the winners of the golden tickets.  Each character brings a burst of colour, vibrance, and contrast to the thread bare and gloomy Bucket home.  These moments expertly switch up the pace, the vibe, and the flavour of the show to keep you on your toes.

We are first introduced to Augustus Gloop (performed with a brilliant and quirky humour by Robin Simões  Da Silva) via an energetic yodelling song, complete with lederhosen, sausages, and a pigs head!  And if you think that’s bizarre, you ain’t seen nothing yet!  Violet Beauregarde (the enigmatic Marisha Morgan) treats us to a basketball inspired pop music reel, whilst Veruca Salt (brilliantly portrayed by Kazmin Borrer) creates a new blend of ballet meets explosive tantrum!  Mike Teavee (the fabulous Teddy Hinde) is introduced via a hip hop style mash up with toy laser guns and as the songs keep coming, it is finally time for Charlie to find his ticket.  As he does so, the audience erupt with love, support and joy for this gorgeous character as he finally gets his chance in life, and we all know what awaits him.  I don’t know if this happens at every show, but it was quite emotional.  The sheer love throughout the theatre for this fictional character, the underdog, was phenomenal and spoke volumes as to just how meaningful this story is to so many.  Then it was time to meet Mr. Willy Wonka.  The show had been brilliant up to this point, and you could feel the anticipation, tension, and expectation rising.  The reveal of Willy Wonka is one of the story’s huge moments and I won’t give the magical entrance itself away, but I will shout from the top of the glass elevator that Gareth Snook typhooning onto the stage as Wonka, caused a wonderful whirlwind I never knew I needed!  The show suddenly transcended into an entirely different stratosphere!  I have no words to fully do his entrance justice, but majestical, demanding, captivating and with a beautifully precise hyperactive energy, it felt like the show had now truly begun.

The second half danced to the beat of its own drum and our tour around the chocolate factory stood perfectly apart from the real world of the first half.  Magic, illusion, technology, and showmanship combine to dazzle you and make any scepticism succumb to the fantasy world unfurling before your very eyes (credit to Chris Fisher - illusions, Tim Mitchell - lighting, Mike Walker - sound and Simon Wainwright - video design.)  Sweets appear out of thin air, stardust fills the skies, rollercoasters with tracks made out of Wonka bars are merely a regular mode of transportation, and a new invention is just around every corner.  But fear not, you will also discover everything you know and love about the chocolate factory.  You will laugh without limits as Violet turns into a blueberry, squeal with delight as giant squirrels dominate the stage ready to spot a good nut from a bad one, smile a chocolatey and wistful smile as the famous chocolate waterfall and river flows before your very eyes, and gasp in wonder as a human is transported through the air and into a tv screen!  And just in case you are wondering, yes there is a glass elevator, and yes it really does fly!    

New and varied songs have been penned for this musical by Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, from the rousing song from Grandpa Joe, culminating in the stunningly moving ‘The View From Here.’  Every song is so individual because they have allowed the characters to lead and dictate their own style, instead of trying to make them all fit the same genre.  It is incredibly respectful of Roald Dahl's wonderful writing.  Emily Jane Boyle echoes this sentiment with individual and unique choreography for each character and segments of the story as it unfolds.  Simon Higlett has designed the set and costumes with such detail, precision, and humour that there is a giggle to be found in every moment, such as Grandpa Joe’s uniform being that of a bus conductor, and the fact that he is still wearing his slippers, or the countless surplus stuffed animals decorating Veruca’s ballet bar!  And even the appearance and reappearance of the modernised silver Oompah Loompa’s are accessorised to match each character, from basketball shirts to tutus! 

James Brining has brought this children’s classic to life by directing with a tender loving care that somehow also free to break the rules, live a little, and keep you on the edge of your seat despite knowing the story back to front.  Charlie Bucket does not come across as saccharine, as is the risk, but instead, a strong and feisty child with a good heart and a belief in making the impossible possible.  Performed tonight by Haydn Court (Newsies, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Matilda), an undeniable talent who may have been the youngest cast member on stage, but who earned every moment of applause and standing ovations received at the end of the show for this was a flawless performance.  This was Charlie Bucket!  No question of it.  An incredible achievement.  Michael D’Cruze (West Side Story, The Quartered Man, JCS) as Grandpa Joe was alive with energy, bringing a protective yet dare devil quality to the surface that made his relationship with Charlie so natural and exciting.

The inclusion of sign language from the characters was brilliant and it was even better to hear some young audience members stating they understood some of it from learning it at school.  Another great directing choice was the dual roles (Christopher HowellGrandpa George and Mr. Salt, Kate Milner EvansGrandma Josephine and Mrs. Gloop, Emily WinterGrandma Georgina and Mrs. B, and Leonie SpilsburyMrs. Bucket, Mrs. Teavee).  They were so strong and clear, that with all honesty it was only looking at the programme that I even realised this was the case!  And once again I come back to Gareth Snook (Phantom, Les Mis, My Fair Lady) as Willy Wonka, who was so zany, unpredictable, and utterly bonkers, with an addictive quality which is so uniquely personal to him that I am wasting my time even trying to name it!  People always ask the question when referencing this character, who is your favourite Wonka, Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp?  I can now truthly answer, neither.  It’s Gareth Snook!

Reignite with your childhood and offer the gift of imagination to those still in theirs, with a trip to The Palace Theatre to watch Charlie And The Chocolate Factory The Musical.  There was a passion, a delight, and an innocent wonder dancing in the eyes of the audience, both old and young, and as I stood waiting to leave, I couldn’t help but listen to a teacher talking to her group of students.  She asked them to give an on-the-spot review.  Each child gave it five stars, apart from one who quite magnificently said the only stars that mattered were the ones we had just watched on the stage!  Their favourite parts seemed to vary from “a bouncing blueberry”, to “the wicked light creations”, to “seeing the factory come alive better than I dared to ever believe.”  So as you can see, I really wouldn’t bother grabbing your golden ticket to watch the show…….Wait!  Strike that!  Reverse!  Grab your ticket now, and remember, as the song says, “It must be believed to be seen!”



Titanic The Musical

Titanic The Musical - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 4th July 2023


It is fair to say that musicals based on historical events carry an additional, sometimes unspoken burden to prove themselves. Not only must they jump through all the usual hoops to stand a chance of survival, let alone longevity, but they must do so with a weighty sense of accountability, tact, and decorum.  And with recent events in the news surrounding The Titanic, it feels a timely sensitive topic.  Five-time Tony Award winning Titanic The Musical handles this responsibility with class, dignity and humanity.  It chooses to base the characters on real people who were onboard, telling their story, their hopes, their dreams, and allowing them to live on in the hearts of everyone who watches the show.  This gives added poignancy and impact to the tragic ending we all know is coming and gives the story authenticity.

The Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage on 10th April 1912 with a dream of becoming a legendary cruise ship, a dream that was so big and carried so much interest that it became fulfilled in the most sad and ironic manner.  As Captains, designers and investors (played by Martin Allanson, Graham Bickley, Ian McLaren, Billy Roberts) boast and congratulate themselves on the success that is about to bestowed upon them as the ship prepares to launch, we are introduced to its passengers, each with their own dreams just waiting to be followed.  Third class passengers dream of a better life in America, second class reveal a mixture of contentment and longing for a taste of the first-class passengers, who seemingly don’t have a care in the world.  But there are cross overs too such as the first-class passenger who is running away from her life to be free to marry beneath her class.  The crew are brought to life from the bellboys to the Communications Officer and we are pulled right into the beating heart of the dockside in Southampton as cast members swiftly move in and out of the audience from the stage, loading the ship with a variety of foods.  It is busy, it is bustling, it is ironically buoyant. 


The first half of the show moves at a calm and steady pace, feeding us various facts and figures about The Titanic, including its capacity and prestigious unsinkable features.  Alongside this we get to know a little more about the characters, from the self-indulgent investor to the out of wedlock pregnant third-class passenger Kate who manages to find herself a new husband pretty sharpish.  There is no big plot reveal, we all know what is going to happen, and the tension is allowed to build very slowly as warning after warning is ignored regarding the looming iceberg.  The purpose of this first half seems to be to engage us with the characters, remind us that these were real people, so when the inevitable happens, we are invested.  This is not an easy thing to do as we all know the outcome long before we even arrived at the theatre, so the production has to hook us in another way.  Already knowing the outcome offers a different slant on conversations spoken in innocence, as they take on a desolating parallel, such as when The Captain states he is retiring so this will be his last ever voyage.  We know something he doesn’t know, we already know his fate, so everything that is said opens itself up for a deeper meaning.  It is an unusual position to be in as an audience member, and so much of the first act is simply allowing us into the private lives of characters whose outcome we already know.  It means there is no huge shocking plot development, which is both a blessing and a curse as it feels strange, like you are just waiting for the inevitable, but on the other hand, it would feel stranger if liberties were taken with the truth of the story for the sake of a traditional first act plot arc.  Just as the ship hits the iceberg, we are plunged into darkness and act one closes.

Act two for me is the beating heartbeat of the show where we begin to realise the human connections we have made with the characters in the first act.  We have to watch helpless, knowing how this will play out, that this was real, and face the stark realities and decisions that had to be made.  It was wrenching to witness the different responses to the tragedy as it unfolded, from anger, to blame, panic, selfishness, selflessness, love, helpless hope, resignment, and suicide.  Each person onboard was facing the same situation but each had their own response to it.  The audible gasp from the audience as we learned of the stoic and brave loyalty of the bellboys, who turned out to be no older than 15, the elderly Ida Straus who refused to take her seat on the lifeboat because she didn’t want to live without her husband, the contrast to them giving their life jackets away to give two young maids hope of survival against the entitled first class who refused to give a seat to another human being so there was room for their luggage.  As those who were granted a space on a lifeboat were separated from their loved ones with their chance to live, they joined us in the audience, putting a physical distance between themselves and their last goodbyes.  The beautifully haunting “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” rung throughout the theatre, and the brutal truth hit hard.  This, for me, was the perfect paradoxical moment of the show, where its purpose of human connection made sense, but the tragedy of the real-life facts made no sense, as pointless death never does.  The sinking of the ship was tasteful, powerful, and avoided a big smoke and mirrors effect which would possibly have seemed tactless for the sake of impact.  Instead, it was delicately stylised and for me, it was pitched just right.

The vocal power of this company is moving, and with more score than book, it cleverly accommodates nuances such as traditional Irish sounds and morse code rhythms.  There is a clear difference in the melodies for each of the passenger classes, and a touching reprise to honour the legacy of the souls lost at sea.  Graham Bickley as Captain Edward Smith commands with power and pompousness.  But he makes someone who is never really represented favourably for obvious reasons, someone flawed yes, but someone real.  He was also someone’s husband, son, friend and he made questionable choices but he made them out of impossible options.  Valda Aviks and David Delve as Ida and Isidor Straus broke my heart.  They represented love.  True love.  The kind you would rather die for than face the world without.  They both played this with a gentle and subtle nature that had the audience gasping for air at their personal sacrifice and strength.  Matthew McDonald as Charles Clarke was the first to make me cry with his gut-wrenching solo in “We’ll Meet Tomorrow.”  The pain of his goodbye was etched in every fibre of his being and he made me feel it too.  Bree Smith as Alice Beane brought a breath of fresh air and humour to a tragic story, with her preference for societal gossip, and her ambitions to quite literally be a cut above.  Her constant attempts to break into the first-class areas and ‘be one of them’ was something we have all tried on our own level at some point, whether it be calmly trying to cut a line in a nightclub, mosey on up to the VIP area at the airport, or just dreaming of something more.

I didn’t know what to expect with Titanic The Musical.  I obviously knew the true life events of what happened, but I didn’t know the approach that a musical would take.  Would it try and use modern technology to simulate the ship sinking?  Would we see the iceberg?  Would it mix fictional with fact like the blockbuster movie?  It was less chaotic than I was expecting, less dramatic, and more humanistic.  Audience members who I spoke to who had a historical interest were impressed by the accuracy and inclusion of so many facts, and judging by the standing ovation at the end, others were just impressed full stop.  As the survivors bring the show to a close, they do so against a Titanic memorial wall baring the names of the 1517 men, women and children whose lives were lost at seat upon the legendary ‘unsinkable ship.’  A tasteful and tearful tribute to the tragic tale of The Titanic.


Leaves of Glass

Leaves of Glass - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester - Monday 3rd July 2023


Sometimes, very rarely, you witness something that transcends words, lives in its own universe, and has no sense of comparison to anything that went before or is likely to come after.  It becomes your story to try and relay because you were the one that observed it.  No one else saw what you saw.  It was intimately revealed to you, and to you alone.  Leaves Of Glass at Hope Mill Theatre has pulled me into this mystical web of confusion, for I now have the challenge of unravelling the very real sensation that I was watching four actual people, and not four actors perform a play.  Their truths, their lies, their realities, their distorted and fractured manifestations were presented with such authenticity that it became real.  And I was eavesdropping on their intensely private family secrets. 


Photo Credit - Mark Senior

Steven has the upper hand with the audience from the off because he is the first person we meet and so it is his truth that guides us.  He is presentable, calm, has his own graffiti cleaning business, he is successful and in control.  He opens up just enough to allow us insight of his troubled heart regarding his late father, but soon has to swallow his own grief to deal with his younger brother Barry, whose own answer to bereavement presents itself in a state of deep drug and alcohol fuelled intoxication.  Steven hasn’t had the luxury of grief as he had to look after his troubled brother.  Barry therefore offers a polar opposite response to Steven, for he is wired, violent, and unpredictable with an air of danger about him.   We then meet Debbie, Steven’s wife, and his mum Liz as they jovially join forces to wind him up through a sense of mutual love.  Through naturalistic family conversation that overlaps, goes off at tangents, and has at least three entirely different topics intertwined into a seamless exchange that doesn’t miss a beat, the observational humour here sets the scene for many a family home across the world.

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

From Debbie’s pregnancy to the barking dog next door, from double glazing to war, and from pulling teeth out, to holidays and who takes sugar in their tea!  Barry is very much painted as the black sheep of the family, dealing with the unspoken loss of their father in all the darkest ways.  But hold onto your hats for one heck of a rollercoaster ride, for perception is a strange thing.  Our minds can be manipulated. One person’s memory is another person’s torture, and trusting instinctual first impressions can take you to the point of no return.  You will think you know where the story is going.  You will be proved wrong time and time again.  You will think you know these characters.  You will learn not to trust this.  You will think you know who is telling the truth.  You will never truly know, because even when you leave the theatre and discuss it with people around you, you will quickly learn that the story they have just watched has been filtered in an entirely different way to the same story you have just watched, leaving you believing different things and interpreting individually unique truths.  In a family where secrets thrive on secrets and where mental health is hushed up as a “fluey bug type thing,” how long before the cracks start to show and the glass shatters?  As I said, Leaves Of Glass will become YOUR story, because you are the only one who will see it in the exact way that you do.  It is a mind-blowing concept and one that has left me feeling brilliantly dazed and confused.

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

Set in the round, you are instantly, almost voyeuristically placed in whichever room the characters are in, strengthening the sense of investment you have in the truth and the outcome.  With just a staple of four benches as the set, and additional purposeful props smoothly brought in when needed for a location change, the starkness deliberately pulls your focus to the phenomenal acting and storytelling.  Everything that is there is there for a reason and not simply to dress the set, whether it be a hanging lamp, a piece of art, a remote control, or a baby monitor.  The thought that has gone into minute detail is breath taking, and this extends to every creative element.  Lighting will mess with your mind, taking you from a plunging darkness to feeling almost naked and vulnerable in the sudden and glaring strip lights.  A particularly gut-wrenching scene is played out via candlelight, offering up yet another story telling filter where just like the characters, you are forced to listen, because you don’t have easily accessible visual clues.  Costumes are designed to lead us into snap judgements.  Barry first appears with impeccable detail, chunks of vomit on his top, and later with holes in his t-shirt and jeans with an unwashed grime in them.  Even the make up on his wrists shows of his struggle with self-harming.  In contrast, Steven wears a crisp white shirt, expensive and trendy trousers, smooth, tailored, immaculate, with not a hair out of place.  We think we have seen the truth based solely on their appearances before we have even bothered to listen.

This is a smart creative team (Kit Hinchcliffe – set and costume, Alex Lewer – lighting, Sam Glossop – sound) who understand how our minds can sadly work.  Sounds are filtered in with such discretion that whilst you may notice the barking dog or the telephone ring, you may be forgiven for feeling rather than hearing the building hum of tension, the power of silence, and the gloomy external weather.

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

Director Max Harrison has created an exemplary piece of theatre that encourages you to ask more questions than it answers.  His clear approach of collaborating with cast and creatives in an open and malleable manner ensures the feeling of real life rather than a staged production.  These characters are real.  They are in the moment, they are alive, they are living breathing spontaneous beings that burst open that fourth wall leaving nothing but dust in its wake and the mind mangling belief that you have actually stumbled into someone’s reality and not the theatre.  The actors will make eye contact with you, and hold it, because they are telling you their truth, and they need you to believe them.  No one else.  Them.  I set out tonight to watch a staged play in the theatre, but I didn’t see one, and I mean that as a raw and honest compliment.  Instead, I saw four real people trying to navigate their way through trauma and the alternate paths it has taken them down.  Never have performances been so convincing. 

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

Ned Costello
(The Clothes They Stood Up In, Britannicus, Capture 2) doesn’t leave the acting space as Steven and is captivating from beginning to end.  He expertly unravels his seemingly perfect life into a split and fraying turmoil, before desperately trying to gather it all back up and supress the darkness of the truth he is hiding from himself.  There is something there, dangerously bubbling away beneath the calm waters, and each twist and turn is delved into with such a self-assured sanity that you don’t want to believe what you hear.  Costello invades your mind and your emotions leaving you wrung out, confused and doubting your own gatekeepers of the truth.  Joseph Potter (Salt Water Moon, The Poltergeist, Romeo & Juliet) almost takes the reverse journey as Barry, starting with nothing but a vomit bucket and a hyperactive, unstoppable, manic energy that pings off immediate untrustworthy vibes in your mind.  His vivid and palpable agitation places you on edge and he will hold you in the palm of his hand in an equal, yet entirely different way.  Such is his believability that his capable turnaround and obvious passion and talent for art, catches you out.  But Potter is nothing less than captivating, exhilarating, and heartbreaking when he finally reveals his truth in the cellar with Steven.  You will see a lost boy, a broken man, and a pleading brother in each and every word spoken.

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

It is remarkable.  Kacey Ainsworth (Eastenders, Grantchester, Calander Girls) wows us with her brash, thick cockney accent and unique phrases as Liz.  Funny, frustrated, and frightened, her truth is not told with the words she says, but in every word that she doesn’t say, won’t say, and can’t say.  What a masterclass.  Her obviously altered recollection of the truth at the end of the story regarding Barry’s artwork highlights to us all how we can take liberties with the truth, not in order to lie, but in order to be able to live.  Again, this is delivered with such skill that the pleading heart of a broken mother to please accept her false memories as facts is heard far louder than the words she speaks.  Katie Buchholz (understudy in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, The Seagull, Mary Poppins) completes this stellar cast with her exceptional performance as Debbie.  As the only member of the family we meet who is not a blood relative and so hasn’t experienced the past with the others, we gain yet another perspective.  As audience members, we are privy to more of their history than possibly she is, but she knows something is wrong and so is left to draw her own conclusions, which in all honesty don’t even touch the sides of the family’s pandora’s box.  Buchholz brings a bubbly and larger than life warmth to the story, yet it is grounded in a solid and deeply complex character of her own, ensuring that Debbie isn’t superfluous or trivial against the others.  Far from it, instead we gain an immaculate character that guides us through the impact and ripple effects of trauma.  The timing of her overlapping dialogue delivery is so truthful and natural that it raised a few giggles as we each recognised ourselves or a loved one. 

Photo Credit - Mark Senior

This sensational cast deliver Philip Ridley’s outstanding play with a frank and fabulous finesse.  It will make you stop and think.  It will challenge your own perceptions on memory, and it will have you gasping for breath as you try to keep up with the plentiful twists and turns, that believe me, you will not see coming.  When the truth of our memories is so open to debate, it opens up a black hole of possible endings, inscrutable outcomes, and an intangible definitive.  My memory of tonight’s production of Leaves Of Glass may be entirely different to someone else’s, but I know that my truth will remember it as one of the most thought-provoking and believable shows I have ever seen. 


Leaves of Glass is on at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 8th July.



Photo Credit - Mark Senior

Hallé & Hallé Children’s Choir - Celebrating Victoria Wood

A Northern Song - Celebrating the genius of Victoria Wood - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - Saturday 24th June 2023


mcr:classical is the launch of a new collaboration between the ensembles and orchestras of Manchester and The Bridgewater Hall.  It sees the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata, Manchester Collective and a host of world class artists come together for the weekend, spreading the joy of music through concerts, free music, crafts, hands on experience with instruments, entertainment, food, drink, and merriment. 

I attended the opening event performed by The Hallé - A Northern Song.  Celebrating the genius of Victoria Wood.  I was intuitively drawn to this particular concert for my love of everything Victoria Wood, and her music is no exception to her undeniable talent.  With superb actors Josie Lawrence and Alex Jennings guiding us through the concert as composer Sir Henry Purcell and a dinner lady (or Lady Dinner as Sir Henry refers to her) and based around a script coined together from Victoria Woods iconic sketches, it was always going to be a winner.  But before any of this joy can start, mcr:classical welcomes us all as their guests, with The Hallé, conducted by Stephen Bell, ringing out Disney’s Be Our Guest.  Josie Lawrence enters the stage dressed as a dinner lady and she is looking for her friend, when Alex Jennings enters as Sir Henry Purcell, who has lost the sheer joy that music can bring because he states that music is a serious business.  It becomes Lady Dinner’s mission to help him find it, and with a little help from the Hallé Children’s Choir, a celebration of Victoria Wood’s music begins.  We are treated to some classics, such as At The Chippy, Happiness Street (That Day We Sang), Count Your Blessings, and Northern Song, before we get the uplifting Nymphs and Shepherds by Purcell, which was the launching block for That Day We Sang and Victoria’s association with the Hallé Children’s Choir.  Sir Henry finds the joy in music again, and after this thoroughly rousing concert, so did the audience.

Photo credit - Alex Burn

The script, written by Beth and Emma Kilcoyne, is based on the works of Victoria Wood, and includes some corkers such as Two Soups, Red Cabbage - How Much, Let’s Do It, I want To Be Fourteen Again, and of course her beloved Acorn Antiques, complete with mistimed ringing phones, out of sync script delivery, and cued entrances and exits happening all at the wrong moment.  There are moments of reflection, respect and awe which are accompanied by a series of images projected of Victoria, and alongside the wholesome voices of the Hallé Children’s Choir, I found the whole thing quite emotional at times.  One such moment was the accumulation of all these efforts with the song When You Belong, which echoed with the ambience of angels around the glorious concert hall.  Howard Goodall CBE and Victoria’s long long-term Musical Director and friend, Nigel Lilley have re-orchestrated the songs especially for the occasion, and the collaboration with the Hallé Children’s Choir is the perfect choice as they hold particular poignance.  It was widely known that Victoria passionately believed in the integration of music and the arts as a staple to every child’s education, and seeing so many children on stage and in the audience today, would no doubt have filled her with joy and hope. 

Photo credit - Alex Burn

Hallé Children’s Choir
offer children the chance to have the very best possible introduction to singing at the highest level in a range of singing styles and are made up of over 90 members from across Greater Manchester.  They performed in That Day We Sang and Victoria became their Patron.  They have dedicated their rehearsal base in the Oglesby Centre at Hallé St Peter’s to her.  And wow!  What a choir!  I was not the only one blown away by their standard, professionalism, talent, and stunning harmonies.  This may be a children’s choir, but do not let that mislead you as to what they bring to the table.  Every song was choreographed to an outstanding level, and this choir not only sang to the highest standards, they performed to them too.  I was honestly blown away and was not expecting such a force to be reckoned with.  I know if I had been a child in that audience, I would already be driving my parents insane asking how and when I could join them.  They were inspirational and I may have been lured to this concert for my love of Victoria Wood, but I left with a new love for the Hallé Children’s Choir, who I will definitely go and watch again.  Thank you to The Victoria Wood Foundation for commissioning this show and honouring Victoria’s legacy in such a perfect way, in what would have been her 70th year.  My only sadness is that this was a one off concert, for the amount of work that has clearly been put in by the choir should be celebrated again and again.

As we left the concert, we immediately happened upon the RNCM Olias Saxophone Quartet playing upbeat and funky music to a growing crowd.  The atmosphere was so intoxicating that we decided to stay and explore.  We headed up to the circle area and found family crafts, and a brilliant zone set up by Music Makers named the Musical Petting Zoo, where an array of instruments were available to be picked up, played and loved, with expert supervision.  Children of all ages – and even some adults – were forging new relationships with violins, clarinets, xylophones, trumpets, and so much more.  We bumped into friends, colleagues, and enjoyed the company of other music lovers, quite literally from age 1 – 84!  mcr: classical definitely has an air of something special about it, and I truly hope it becomes an annual thing, as I for one will be spreading the word and attending again if so.


Photo credit - Alex Burn

Royal Shakespeare Company - Julius Caesar

RSC'S Julius Caesar at The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 20th June 2023


I feel there has been a glint of magic in the air regarding this production of Julius Caesar, for not only are the poster and media images intriguing, glossy, and current, but who better to watch perform Shakespeare than The Royal Shakespeare Company!  After chatting with company member and Salford actor Robert Jackson last week, my enthusiasm and energy for this offering was lifted even further.  The story, one of a Roman General and Dictator from neon’s of years ago that caused vast political unrest and divisive opinions, ironically seems so relatable today.  Caesar has immense power and many start to feel that he is abusing it, for his whims and orders are a real threat to their democracy.  As whispers fill the streets of opposing views, the conspirators are born and the idea to assassinate Caesar takes hold.  But can such an idea ever be simple to implement or languish without consequence, especially when Caesar still has faithful followers? 

What follows is a whirlwind of chaos, ruthless desire, brutality, ego, betrayal, jealousy, and murder.  Strong beliefs, superstitions and manifestations of guilt evoke responses along the way that ultimately lead to a civil war.  Caesar is dead, Mark Anthony is in command, but the conspirators are still not appeased.  As the battle takes place, the conspirator leaders Cassius and Brutus – once Caesars friends – take their own lives and Mark Anthony returns to Rome to rule, along with Octavius, Caesars great nephew.  The conspirators gained their new leader, but someone who was loyal to Caesar, and at what cost?  It raises important, uncomfortable, and illuminating questions.  Just how far is someone prepared to go for their political principles? 

Directed by award winning director Atri Banerjee, this RSC production of Julius Caesar cleverly draws parallels to current universal political unrest across the globe and reminds us that time nor wisdom has managed to loosen the contentious relationship between powerful leaders and civilians.  A vividly striking minimalistic staging approach, engages you to concentrate on the actors, highlighting that the people and their stories are the focus, not the politics.  The inclusive and exciting choice of including a local community chorus from each stop on the tour clearly keeps this production fresh and alive.  It instinctively supports the backbone of this production being about the people by giving the real people in our communities, opportunity, a voice, and a platform.  Hints of new relationships are explored and touched upon as well, such as the honest and tender one between Brutus and Lucius, ensuring again that it is person focused.

The show opens with a mesmerising stylised movement piece from the cast (Jennifer Jackson is Movement Director), depicting their unrest and their strength in numbers as a force to be reconned with.  This is visually reiterated with images of uneasy crowds and the combination builds a palpable tension which is both heightened and shattered by the ringing out of musicians.  Performed in front of a powerfully striking and dominating revolving cube, you immediately get the sense that this RSC production is pushing boundaries.  The cube itself is a masterpiece. Designed by Rosanna Vize, it provides multiple uses including a projection screen, a space for the deceased to inhabit, a home, and symbolically alters according to the plot, breaking apart until it is just a shell of its former self.  It is a huge talking point at both the interval and the end of the performance, as is the use of black blood and the lack of daggers and swords for the killings.  Instead, they are carried out by symbolic touches with hands, though the effect is somehow just as startlingly dark, brutal and impactful.  With modern dress enhancing the modern approach to this historical classic instead of toga’s, the audience discussion was plentiful, and many theories were given to the symbolism of the black blood.  Interpretations varied from “a representation on the political corruption surrounding oil”, to “being representative of the spilling of darkness within”, to “it just looks really good and it’s making us talk!”  Lighting embellishes the themes, from stark red lights to shady corners for the conspirators.  Silhouettes and shadows are reflected in the words spoken and a projected countdown provides us with a vital tension ticking away to Caesars death.

Thalissa Teixeira as Brutus exudes ownership of the character and portrays the internal civil war going on in the heart between loyalty and love for Caesar and wanting more for Rome and its people, with an air of class.  We are presented with a very real, relatable human who we can connect with.  Graceful yet turbulent, controlled yet unpredictable, Brutus is given real depth in the hands of TeixeriaAnnabel Baldwin brings Cassius to life with a driving force of the cold, dark edge of jealousy for Caesar.  The result is striking, intense, and keeps you very much on the edge of your seat, as they bring an edge of unpredictability and mounting tension.  Nigel Barrett as Julius Caesar delivers a plentiful mix of power, playfulness, pompousness and yet a personable attribute.  He creates a complex character that solidifies the confusion felt by his loyal followers, who despite their love for him, can no longer respect him.  He even manages to create humour, especially during the song “I’m Alive.”

William Robinson is fantastic in his persuasive monologue as Mark Anthony at Caesars funeral, and truly brought to life the confusing tactics favoured by many politicians, with a flavour of gaslighting and manipulation.  He spoke of the conspirators with such verve and slickness that you would be forgiven for succumbing to such underhand methods of his disguised intention of savagely undoing them.  It is during this scene that Niamh Finlay excels, playing all the different members of the crowd and bringing a little light humour to the mix with an energetic, varied, and audience engaging performance.  Ella Dacres offers a different leadership style again as Octavius, proving to be detached and full of hateful revenge.  Then right at the end, we are surprised by a heartfelt gesture towards Lucius that flips what you thought you knew about the character.  I have nothing but admiration for this entire cast, for their intrinsic and detailed delivery of a lengthy and wordy script, made it not only possible to follow and understand, but was a privilege to behold.  And we can’t finish without giving a shout out to Salford’s own Robert Jackson as Cinna, who not only performed fantastically, but was a great testament and inspiration to all the local students in the audience who dream of one day following in his footsteps, for he proved it can be achieved.

There were plenty of quirky moments in tonights production, which may be something unexpected of an RSC Shakespeare play, but I gravitate towards such choices as they bring fresh life, interpretation, and vigour to stories of old that are still at their heart, untouchable stories.  Actors appearing in the audience was one such choice, and actors making direct eye contact with audience members was another.  Both choices not only broke the conventional fourth wall but offered you the bricks to rebuild it yourself.  A highlight for me was the inclusivity of the production.  Of course, there was the aforementioned local community chorus which included youth workers, educators, anaesthetists, community and charity volunteers, and local residents.  In addition, traditional male roles were played by women and non-binary performers, and the role of Lucius was performed by deaf actor Jamal Ajala, and so sign language was included as his means of communication.  There was one humbling moment where I realised, I had been concentrating hard on following the extravagant Shakesperean language so that I could understand, but that there was another language on offer too in BSL that I didn’t speak, and I absolutely should be able to.  It was eye opening for me. 

Traditionalists may simper at this new vision of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but I for one champion it.  Shakespeare can be hard to follow and so even if there are moments when your brain glosses over the language, the strength of committed performance by the entire cast and the visual attributes offered by the RSC creative team mean that you remain engaged, interested, and involved.  The show looks cool, and so offers a way in for our younger generation of theatre goers who may instinctively balk at the idea of a night of Shakespeare.  Add in the local community chorus element and it really does make The Bard more accessible for all, equally encouraging family and friends of the chorus to come along and watch something that some may never have considered under other circumstances.  This political thriller offers a dramatic night filled with history, excellent acting, and exciting possibilities of securing Shakespeare into the hearts of a whole new generation.    




Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 - The Octagon, Bolton - Tuesday 13th June 2023


Stories based around WW1 & WW2 are so often focused on the efforts of the men - the soldiers, Officers and so forth.  But not Blonde Bombshells Of 1943.  This is a beautifully funny, powerful, and refreshing take on this period of our history, for it showcases the women and their experiences.  It is their story and theirs alone.  As we are taken on a journey to the past by one of the bands Granddaughters (Liz), we are quickly enveloped into a world of quick wit, sarcasm, fierce friendship, and solidarity and find ourselves crash landing into a “once upon a one helluvah day!”.  The Blonde Bombshells, a brilliantly bolshy band, have an important gig that night for the BBC (though they can’t tell you where it is in case Hitler finds out!).  Sounds great!  The only trouble is, half the band have absconded with American G.I’s at their last performance, leaving them a few musicians short of a picnic and a gaping hole as big as the bombed out floor of their rehearsal room in their line-up.  As band leader Betty keeps calm and carry’s on by organising replacement auditions, remaining members May, Vera and Grace set the tone of their group with a deep-rooted Northern humour, grit, determination, and brutal honesty. 

Liz is the first auditionee to arrive, a fresh faced, innocent and daft school girl who has been sent along by her sixth form teacher.  It soon becomes clear that whilst Liz knows music, she knows very little of the real, grown-up world she is about to enter, and it offers opportunity for the others to have some fun.  Next to audition is “the one outside wearing funny clothes,” who turns out to be Lily – a bubbly and enthusiastic ukulele player and singer.  Oh yes, and she’s also a nun.  Her love of life and music is infectious, and she soon becomes firm friends with Liz.  Miranda Ineligible (nicknamed so because they can’t read her writing) sashays her way in next, an officer who is only here because her Commanding Officer instructed her to be, probably as she keeps crashing into things when driving him around.  Miranda is about as Northern as black puddings wearing flat caps are Southern, and her contrasting accent, and privileged life are cause for some golden moments of hilarity.  Her heightened self-regard and total lack of awareness of things outside of her world deliciously oppose the realities faced by the rest of the group.  Last, but not least is Patrick, who has avoided joining up as a soldier, much to the disgust of a couple of the Bombshells.  He persuades Betty to take him on with some kick ass drumming and the promise to don a red dress and a blonde wig to get into the band!  Just as it seems that everything is in place to rehearse now that the band is complete, the air raid sirens go off and everyone has to take cover.  But The Blonde Bombshells are a band whose mission is to rouse spirits, beat the odds, and put on a cracking show, so it will take more than an unexploded bomb to stop them in their tracks.

Written by CBE Alan Plater, The Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 in a masterclass in every day, humanistic humour.  It is playful, observant, and so slick and clever that the next giggle is only ever a contented sigh away.  The characters are rounded, real and razor-sharp with their insights, quips, and put downs.  Conversations are so real that they don’t follow a linear path but jump from A to W to C and back to A as characters put their two penn’orth in.  This conversational approach will be such a familiar pattern to almost everyone in the audience, recognising their own ability to go off on tangents, yet safely end up back where they started.  Recurring jokes, such as Liz, Lily and Miranda’s responses to every question asked of yes, yes, no respectively, are delivered with such ease that they never become dull, and tales of Miranda’s never ending love life sprinkled with Dukes, Earls and goodness knows who else are awaited with bated breath. 

Of course, all of this is before we have even gotten around to mentioning the music.  Not only is everything played live and sung live, it is all done so by the insanely multi-talented cast!  Many of them play more than one instrument and they bring the house down – quite literally!  This era of music is just stunning.  It is heartfelt, emotive, jolly, and everything in between.  The audience were toe tapping, humming, ahhing, and when given the opportunity to, joined in with a war time wild abandonment like their tomorrow’s were a privilege, not a promise.  Union Jacks were brought out during the BBC concert section of the show, and at the mere offer of standing up to dance along by the cast, everyone was up on their feet, swinging and swaying 1940’s style.  Camaraderie was alive in the Octagon, and I have to say that director Zoë Waterman has blended a past era of music, stiff upper lips, stoicism and survival humour tenderly alongside the tragic realism of its truth without ever going too far in either direction to be regarded as disrespectful or mournful.  It was spot on, and in the moments of stark reality, such as when Grace and Vera share their stories of how the war has brutally impacted their husbands, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.

In order of appearance, Lauren Chinery (Dreamcoats & Petticoats, Gatsby) as Liz is splendidly loveable and naive.  She speaks so innocently uninhibited that her delivery is one of gentle humour at her youthful ways.  She couples this with such tremendous facial expressions that you can almost see the cogs whirring as her character tries to figure out what the others are talking about.  Georgina Field (The Great Gatsby, Noises Off) is brash, ballsy and brilliant as Betty.  She is a powerhouse but never comes across as unlikeable, yet still manages to be the dominant driving force.  Her change in accent and spoken delivery from Northern to fake posh upon meeting Miranda was one of the highlights.  Verity Bajoria (Tales Of A Thousand & One Nights, The Lights Burn Blue) is delightfully dry as May, a lady who takes no messing and tells it like it is.  She has a great moment when recalling a joke to the others and is so animated that it is a wonderful contrast to Mays alternate deadpan humour delivery.  Alice McKenna (Robin Hood, Generation 20) as Grace effortlessly switches from a seemingly youthful, fun loving member of the band, to a shock twist as she reveals her actual reality to us.  The flip in her personality is dramatic and pulls the audience to their knees.

The same can be said of Sarah Groarke (The Bay, Macbeth) as Vera, who shares this critical moment in the show.  Together, they are able to remind us of why all this banter has become necessary and it makes you hold your breath.  Gleanne Purcell-Brown (Curtains, Spamalot) is sunshine on stage as Lily.  She brings optimism, and a few surprises, particularly with her song choices and deliveries and so does a beautiful job of reminding us that we should take people as we find them, rather than what we think we see or know.  Her enthusiasm and energy is catching.  Stacey Ghent (Crazy For You, Tommy) is divine as Miranda.  With echoes of Margo from The Good Life, the delivery of her lines is absolutely spot on every time and you find yourself wanting to hear more and more.  Even when she doesn’t speak, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand, such as when she comes on, defuses a bomb, and simply raises an eyebrow in response before sitting on it and reapplying her lipstick.  She was cool, calm, collected, and so sure of herself.  I loved Miranda!  Rory Gradon (The Snow Queen, Julius Caesar) took Patrick on a lovely journey, from a slightly too smooth crooner to an honest and frightened boy, to a man facing his fears with courage and pride.  An excellent drummer and in a cast full of strong sassy women, didn’t allow himself to be swallowed up. 

The Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 is a fantastic night at the theatre with a wealth of talent on offer, where you will laugh, feel sentimental, feel proud, and even let your hair down with a singing nun!  The comedy style felt very familiar in the sense that I am a huge Victoria Wood fan, and it had the same intelligence, buoyance, and relaxed ease about it that made you feel a part of the laughter and not an observer of it.  It is a play with warmth, heart, and a little bit of something extra special that defies words.  Keep calm and carry on watching The Blonde Bombshells of 1943.  Over and out. 




The Commitments

The Commitments - Manchester Opera House - Monday 5th June 2023


“I chose ‘60’s music – Motown and Memphis soul – because, at the time, it felt timeless.  Thirty-five years later, I was right.” - Roddy Doyle, The Commitments creator & writer never spoke a truer word because, yes Roddy - you were spectacularly right!  This music evokes a vibe, a pulsating rhythm in your gut and connects us all universally as it escapes from your fingertips into a collective joy that has you instinctively clapping along.  And when this music is the basis of a musical, then you know you’re in for a good night. 

As the cast haphazardly enter the stage to join their office Christmas party, house lights are still up, audience members are still chitter chattering away, and it clearly confuses some entering the theatre at the last minute into thinking that the show has started, but nobody is actually sure if it has or hasn’t.  Then the office karaoke starts, signalling that the show has officially begun.  It is a brilliant yet bizarre way to kick things off but as the first notes of the show ring out, which just so happen to be the epic “Proud Mary,” the party tempo is set and a brilliantly relatable Christmas office party unfolds with fabulous little nuggets of detail from everyone on stage.  It is this party that brings the vocal gymnastics of Deco to the attention of Jimmy, who bored and frustrated with his job in a sweet factory, wants to create a band with music that speaks to the ordinary, working-class folk in Dublin.  Starting out with just his two pals, Jimmy decides to hold auditions to put together “the hardest working band” there is.  Lots of dodgy auditions later, The Commitments are born.

But what successful band ever had a smooth path to stardom?  Add in a few egos, a few girls who all fall for the same guy, and then all the guys falling for the same girl, clashing personalities, and opposing priorities from sitting exams, to religion, to Eurovision, then the inevitable split is only ever a headbutt and a broken nose away.  As Deco’s behaviour causes more and more tensions, not even the promise of a record deal can save this turbulent band and the raw inexperience that made them so fresh, unique, and brilliant, also becomes their undoing.  But this is a musical, so even when The Commitments are no more, we can still enjoy a mini concert at the end of the show for old times sake!

The pacing of the story has moments of cleverly interwoven scenes, such as the auditions.  Instead of making us sit through a long drawn out scene that resembles the X Factor, bursts of comical auditions are merged against another scene, almost like a game of table tennis, as the two separate ideas ping back and forth.  Other times, scenes play with one too many pauses or static energy so that the momentum that has been built up starts to fade slightly, such as during one of the rehearsal scenes.  And even though the music is constantly changing here due to the nature of it being a rehearsal, you don’t get the chance to grasp on to any one song before it has bluntly ended to be replaced by script, so you can’t even clap or show appreciation for the fantastic job they are doing, leaving you feeling a bit lost at times.

As fresh characters are introduced, new energies are ignited, and this is certainly the case when we meet Mickah – the bands security.  Played by Ronnie Yorke, he sets the stage alive with such comedic characterisation that you find yourself waiting for his next appearance.  Yorke was definitely an audience favourite as his attention to detail was hilarious.  Ben Morris as Deco has a sensational voice that should surely put him on first name terms with the gods of soul and rock n’ roll, for he brought the house down.  I have to give him huge credit for his handling of an audience member too.  During the final encore of Try A Little Tenderness, that we all know starts deliciously slow, tender, and soulful, someone decided to sing along quite loudly.  Before the audience could turn on her, Morris started laughing, stopped the song, and in character, went in search of her, found her, and told her to shut up as it was his f*&!ng song!  Brilliant!  Job done, crisis averted, and he did it with such playfulness that he was still giggling away as he started singing again.

James Killeen as Jimmy is a natural.  He provides us with a dry delivery, ensuring that Jimmy is rooted in realism.  You can see the dreams and aspirations pouring out of him, and as such, it provides a touching moment towards the end of the show with Nigel Pivaro who plays his Da.  As Jimmy’s dreams are shredded in more ways than one, Pivaro creates a tender moment in the script by showing us that Da is proud of his son, and all he has achieved.  They make a great partnership and each allows the other to shine.  

It seems wrong to label Ciara Mackey, Sarah Gardiner and Eve Kitchingman as the backing singers because they were anything but!  Sassy, strong, and sensational, they belted their hearts out and acted their socks off, and their harmonies were phenomenal.  This entire cast are all fantastic, multi-talented, and its brilliant to see how they have each honed such individual and clearly defined characters.  Stuart Reid as Joey The Lips for instance is an enigma, as a seasoned musician who has played with the greats and clearly lived a rock n’ roll lifestyle for years.  Yet he is only ever a bible quote away from preaching to the rest of the band, and even though he is steeped in religion, is the one who easily sleeps his way through the backing singers!  Yet Reid still offers us a fully rounded character that steers entirely clear of any kind of caricature.

Tim Blazdell has designed a fascinating set.  At first, it appears to be a simple base line with a mezzanine, but it is anything but.  Multiple doors on the lower level open to reveal Jimmy and Da’s living room, complete with stairs that lead up to Jimmy’s bedroom – at least it is Jimmy’s bedroom for now.  A subtle shift in lights allows it to become a club balcony, a walk way outside a high rise set off flats, and the doors below reveal multiple locations including Joey's garage where the band rehearse, a bar, and even a butchers!  With the ease of small props such as the sweet factory canteen table, or a butcher’s uniform, we can even have numerous locations all on stage at the same time, to help move the story along as the band members all rehearse on their own.

The script is raw, funny, and so colloquial that it really does feel like a bunch of mates down the pub teasing each other relentlessly, with the ever-present threat of it spilling over into something more or crossing the line.  It’s pumped full of testosterone, paving the way for some grimy humour, such as Deco rearranging his junk whilst stood in nothing but his Y-Fronts, or swirling his finger around his belly button then sniffing his finger.  Maybe not everyone’s cup of humour tea on the surface, but these moments certainly evoked a huge knowing groan from the audience, followed by nothing but laughter at the icky realism of it all. 

But the big hook of the show is its music.  These songs are the stuff of legends.  They have a life force of their own and you willingly play host to their invasion of your mind, body and soul.  Knock On Wood, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Think, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Signed Sealed, Delivered, Mustang Sally, River Deep Mountain High – these songs didn’t come to play – they came to slay!  I mean, come on!  With The Commitments, you get to spend your evening in the echoes of Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Mack Rice, Jimmy Ruffin, and I am certain that everyone of these superstars would have been the first to applaud the actors, singers and musicians on stage tonight, because the only thing that left me disappointed is that this cast isn’t a real band as I would love to be at a full concert of theirs.  And judging by the electric response from tonight's audience, I’m not on my own. 


Wish You Were Dead

Wish You Were Dead - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 23rd May 2023

Wish You Were Dead will make you think twice before booking your next holiday!

Since watching Peter James’ Looking Good Dead at The Lowry about eighteen months ago, I have become a hardened fan of The Roy Grace series, purchasing countless book, and binge watching the TV series Grace.   Peter James is a UK number one crime author with countless number one books under his belt, the most successful crime stage franchise since Agatha Christie, and with good reason.  These books are brilliant, and so it went without saying that I cut short my trip away to get back in time to watch his latest offering for the stage – Wish You Were Dead.  This sixth page to stage offering is slightly different to his other Roy Grace books, firstly because it’s a quick read rather than a full crime novel, but secondly because we see Grace in an environment other than his usual setting of Brighton and Hove.  Grace is in fact stepping away from his consuming job as Detective Superintendent, to enjoy a well deserved break in France with his wife Cleo, baby Noah, their nanny Kaitlynn and her partner Jack who also happens to be Roy’s police colleague and friend.  At least that was the plan.

As we join Roy, Cleo, Noah and Kaitlynn at the end of their track across France to a remote villa in their hire car, the scene is set for what proves to be a crossing of genres within this story, for they battle a horrendous storm with a sat nav system from the dark ages and no mobile phone signal.  Our heightened senses tell us that this is not just a crime story, but one drenched in the cobwebs of a spooky, horror vibe.  As they somehow reach their destination, Kaitlynn fears as to why Jack is not there to meet them as arranged, and why he is not answering his phone.  No one has seen or heard from him since he left his post and alarm bells start ringing.  Upon entering their chateau, little is done to reassure them for rather than the warm, cosy accommodation they had anticipated from their online booking, they are faced with a cold, stark, dismal reality, no Wi-Fi, and a host that makes Bates motel seem like a summer cottage in the Algarve!  Something is not right, and as events unfold Roy, Cleo and Kaitlynn realise that their hosts are not entirely who they claim to be.  As a case from Roy’s past catches up with him, it seems the only amenities on offer from their holiday home is premeditated revenge.  In a house steeped with dark crevices, and dangerous decorative furniture such as suits of armour and mounted animal heads, can Roy unravel the mystery in time to save his family, friends, and himself to see that justice is finally done once and for all?   

Ever since reading Wish You Were Dead, I have been intrigued as to how this would be transposed onto stage, for the chateau in which the story takes place is as much a character as anyone else in this story, and so its sprawling setting surely had to be recreated in such a way that it was central to the story.  Michael Holt’s vision is brilliant and lifted the dreary, mysterious chateau straight off the page.  He has designed a complex and detailed setting with succinct visual ease, encompassing everything we need in an impressive two storey treat.  All the details are there, including the stuffed animal heads, disturbing paintings, and the much talked about suit of armour.  Secret reveals using cleverly lit screens depict a hidden cellar, and exit points from the visible set realistically blend into the unseen extensions of this creaking world.  But the set is not the only thing that intrigues and engages within this production, for full use is made of Jason Taylor’s and Max Pappenhein’s sound and lighting design, beguiling and intriguing us with atmospheric nuances that give an almost cinematic feel at times.  Directional voices and sounds from the baby, car headlights, ominous rain, lightening, thunder, gun shots, and music all combine to ignite a psychological response from the audience.  There is an occasional moment to make you jump, and the use of blackouts not only allow for the passing of time, but play with your mind too.

George Rainsford (Casualty, Holby, Call The Midwife) and Katie McGlynn (Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, Waterloo Road) take on the respective roles of Roy Grace and Cleo, forming a smooth and natural partnership.  They perform together with ease and really show us the intimate shorthand of this couple in a way that we don’t usually get to see.  Rainsford offers us a well rounded Grace, taking him from a playful husband on holiday full of charm and wit, to vulnerable when he fears for his family, to cool, calm and in command when his detective skills kick in.  McGlynn brings Cleo into a central character in her own right, rather than just Roy Graces’ wife.  She allows us to get to know Cleo better and see how she too is strong, determined and not to be messed with.

Rebecca McKinnis (Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) as Madame L’Eveque and Clive Mantle (Vicar Of Dibley, Casualty, Of Mice &Men) as Curtis bring an unexpected humour to the story, with their criminal sarcasm, dry delivery and disguises. Their deadpan timing was spot on, switching it up for emotive responses as their agenda became clear.  McKinnis evoked many a giggle with her French accent whilst Mantle’s cheeky chappy chit chat rounded off the variety of characters on offer.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle has gone for a different approach rather than the full on, hard hitting crime thriller we are used to with the TV series Grace, but if you have read the book, this makes perfect sense.  The actors are not microphoned and whilst this is impressive work to be applauded, there are moments when it is difficult to hear them in such a large venue.  You do get used to it and adjust accordingly, but I was sat mid stalls and I wonder if I would feel the same if I were to be sat higher up and further back.   

After facing his own holiday from hell, Peter James did the only thing he could possibly do - he turned his nightmarish tale into a novel, and Wish You Were Dead was born.  Not a bad reward for surviving a stop over during your tour of France, where the best review you can give is, “At least they didn’t murder us in our sleep!”  This catalogue of disasters is recreated on stage, and though some audience members were saying the series of misfortunes were a little far-fetched, it seems perhaps not as they really are based on James’ personal experiences (well, ok not the revenge killing / kidnap / murder part, but the freakishly spooky house, yes!)  There are a few plot twists along the way as you’d expect in any Roy Grace story, and whilst the odd tweak has been made from the novel, the transition onto stage is respectful to the book.  You don’t need to be an avid fan of the Roy Grace series, or even know there is one to understand and follow Wish You Were Dead, for it stands on its own, though for those fans out there, you will understand perhaps a few more of the subtleties on offer.  This plot isn’t as dark or spinechilling as most Roy Grace stories and so doesn’t churn your stomach or leave you gripping your seat quite the same.  But maybe it doesn’t need to, and it is interesting to see this beloved character taken out of his usual environment to see what happens.  It certainly offers scope for further exploration, but one thing is for certain, as much as you may trust him with your life, NEVER let Roy Grace choose your holiday destination for you!     


Watch our "In Conversation with Katie McGlynn" video discussing the show

The SpongeBob Musical

The SpongeBob Musical - Manchester Opera House - Tuesday 16th May 2023


It’s not every day you get to see a cartoon brought to life on stage, and who would have thought that it was even possible?  Especially when these cartoon characters all live under the sea and are a unique set of individuals from a sponge to plankton!  I have been intrigued as to how this will happen for quite some time, and I have to say that what I found not only pleasantly surprised me but made my inner creative nerd shout yesss!  It is clever, inspired and so far removed from what I expected that I found myself grinning from the off.

SpongeBob SquarePants and his pals live a happy, contented life in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, that is until they discover a volcano is about to erupt!  With the impending doom of Bikini Bottom looming close at hand, its residents all have different ideas regarding what to do.  Should they evacuate in Plankton and Karen’s escape pod, use science to help them, or stay put to try and save their town?  The town vote for the escape pod, but can Plankton and Karen be trusted?  Of course not!  Their pod is actually a ploy to hypnotise everyone into eating at their restaurant so they will become rich!  The unsuspecting residents of Bikini Bottom decide to hold a concert to raise money to build the pod, all the while dismissing Sandy’s plea’s that science can help.  She is laughed at and mocked for being a land mammal. 

Meanwhile, SpongeBob refuses to simply let his town be destroyed.  He teams up with Sandy on a dangerous mission.  Can they save the day, or will Bikini Bottom be lost to the volcano forever?  With the ever present threat of disaster hanging over the town, it starts to feel awfully familiar, and so a few jokes are thrown in there for the older members of the audience that allow us to relish the shared experience of living with a world facing gloom and dread, including the over stocking of toilet rolls!  We see those in charge bumbling around, making promises they can’t keep, and telling everyone to stay home and stay safe.  Of course, it takes a simple sponge to save the day, not their Government, which at this stage in our own lives is surely worth a try right?

Even if you’ve never watched a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon in your life, most will know he lives in a pineapple under the sea and has a best friend who is a starfish called Patrick.  But if you don’t even know that much, it doesn’t matter because this musical doesn’t presume anything.  Kyle Jarrow has written it for everyone, whether you are a die hard fan or entering this much loved whacky world for the first time.  The cartoon first swam onto our TV in 1999 and has developed a bit of a cult following of children and adults ever since.  Now, it has swum across the pond from Broadway to set sail on its UK tour, and as SpongeBob himself would say, “Aye aye Captain!  I’m ready!”   

Patchy the Pirate welcomes us all aboard this family fun show with a little make believe pre “official show” entertainment, before he is hauled out by security for trying to record a pirate version of the performance!  This is a great way to build the excitement, engage the audience and settle down the visibly eager children.  And they are eager with good reason, for the moment you step into the theatre, you are emersed by the epic stage design of Steve Howells.  Firstly, pay attention and you will notice brilliant details that filter through from the set to the costumes of human rubbish that wrongly makes its way into the sea, such as building a volcano out of plastic bottles.  The back of the stage represents an old ship with alcoves to house the live musicians throughout. 

Digital screens are placed in this piece with constant moving jellyfish and other sea life, creating those details that complete the ambience.  The front of the stage housed two more screens, where news reports were continually brought to us regarding the impending doom.  Keep your eye on these screens too as they are ever changing and bring some great moments, such as the line up of musicians to appear at the concert, including Cod Stewart, Tuna Turner, Billy Eifish, and The Spice Gills.  Simplistic yet effective props are utilised such as giant jellyfish made out of umbrellas and glittery material, which look just fabulous.

Then, of course, there are the characters themselves.  I was almost expecting some cutesy over sized dress up costumes akin to those you would find of characters in a theme park, but not at all.  Sarah Mercade’s costumes allow these much loved characters to come to life symbolically so you know exactly who they are, without ever having to resort to cumbersome attire.  Squidwards costume in particular was brilliantly clever, with additional legs sewn to the back of his costume, moving as one with the body. 

Lewis Cornay (Book Of Mormon, Whistle Down The Wind) as SpongeBob is completely charismatic and adorable!  Funny, charming, quirky, and a belter of a voice, he is everything you’d hope SpongeBob would be!  Even more so, because his delight is tangible throughout, particularly when interacting with other cast members and playing around in character.  No SpongeBob fan could possibly be disappointed with this performance.  Quite the contrary!  I think he will have converted a few reluctant adults who had taken their children!  Irfan Damani The New Musketeers, Billionaire Boy, Eastenders) plays Patrick with such love that you often want to join him in his own star shaped world and live by his random nuggets of wisdom.  After all, life does smell weird!  Cornay and Damani make the perfect partnership and steal the hearts of everyone, with both children and adults alike delighting in their comradery.    

With star names such as Tom Read Wilson (TV presenter, actor, Celebs Go Dating client co-ordinator, Celebrity Juice) as Squidward and Divina De Campo (RuPaul’s Drag Race Chicago, Hedwig & The Angry Itch) as Plankton, SpongeBob drew a beautiful mixed audience of adults and young people who all celebrated joy and friendship together.  Each had a solo number, but they couldn’t have been more different, and this well rounded musical approach is just one of the successes of this show.  Tom Read Wilson as Squidward was finally permitted a full scale jazz hands, tap dancing, showbiz number with “I’m Not A Loser,” during which we all burst into rapturous applause for the undeniable joy given to us, whilst Divina De Campo wowed us with her hip hopping beats and an impressively fast delivery with not a single word dropped! 

Chrissie Bhima as Sandy and Sarah Freer as Pearl both treated us to powerhouse solo’s and the audience quite rightly erupted as their voices reverberated around the entire theatre.  Richard James Hunt as Krabs brought an excellent vibe with his comedic faces and wonderful musical number too.  In fact, this is an impenetrable and solid cast whose energy is relentless.  Some may be on stage more than others, but you engage and watch every one of them with equal amazement at what they are creating.  Directed by Tara Overfield Wilkinson, this production certainly brings the essence of SpongeBob to life and spreads the feel good vibes of friendship throughout the entire theatre.  A perfect balance has been found of emulating these adored characters without ever caricaturing them to their two-dimensional roots.  Add to this the most gloriously showbiz choreography from Fabian Aloise and you’ll be floating in a bubble of happiness.  Completing the atmosphere is lighting and video design by Ben Bull, which just adds to the delight felt by all.

And the music!  Its like the rock n’ roll hall of fame got together and created a musical!  Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic At The Disco! Just a few clunking name drops there of artists who have written original songs for this show, and believe me, there are many more too.  It is fun guessing which artist wrote which song just from listening to them, and then when the likes of a David Bowie song is also thrown in there for good measure, then it is understandable why a part of this story weaves in a rock concert.   No matter what your musical taste, SpongeBob has you covered.  Rock, to hip hop, to gospel, to pop, to full scale musical theatre – it’s all on offer, and each number only serves to increase your smile bigger than you ever dreamed possible.  The opening number sets out it’s stall for the serotonin levels and leaves you grinning like the Cheshire cat, and you never really stop!  And yes, you will get a huge burst of the beloved theme song too right at the end, so fear not.

Blacked out scenes allow for fluorescent sponges to float and be choreographed into SpongeBobs epic solo of “Just A Simple Sponge.”  Physical humour paves the way for a giggley vibe with daft humour such as night falls (you’ll have to watch it to get the joke, I’ll say no more here).  The band break out of their usual separated stalls to become a part of the cast – rock n’ roll!  Sound effects are created on stage in front of us, and really remind us of the shows cartoon roots, with noises for Krabs and Planktons walk, and visible voice overs for Gary the snail.  The list of reasons to love this show is endless and I genuinely loved it so much that I immediately booked tickets to go and watch it again later in the week!  So does SpongeBob The Musical work?  YES!!!!!!!!!!  It is a splashing show full of joy, cracking jokes that will have you belly laughing, expertly delivered visual, slapstick comedy, incredible songs, and all the showbiz glamour of a family musical.  It is a beauty of a show that finds sanity in the insanity and will have you ringing out forever more, without any care to your street cred – “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?  SpongeBob SquarePants!”


Watch our "In Conversation with Richard J Hunt" video discussing the show

Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined

Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined - The Lowry, Salford - Saturday 13th May 2023

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling has received many adaptations, inspired numerous new works, and had huge commercial success through Disney, but at the heart of each of these works is a story about abandonment, fostering, love, making your own family, and respecting different forms of life.  Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined not only does this but takes things a step further to remind us that we should also be fostering our planet, the one we seem to have abandoned.  All the familiar characters are there but they have had a modern day make over and come with a backstory that packs a powerful punch.  



“We have forgotten our connection to our home, our planet. We all inhabit it, we all take from it, and we all build on it, but we have forgotten to return our respect for it.”
– Akram Khan


This sums up the vision of this immensely moving version of The Jungle Book.  We are placed in a future world that has been decimated by climate change and our planet is flooded.  A child is separated from her family amidst the chaos and finds herself stranded with a group of animals.  But unlike the original, this story places the animals in a man-made world rather than the jungle, and as we discover the stories that brought them here, such as animal testing, capture, questionable zoo’s, enforced performers and such like, it forces the question, who here is truly the animal?  Mowgli causes ructions of trust within the animal community as she is an outsider and a human too, who they have all learnt can’t be trusted.  However, it is finally agreed that they will take her into their care.  But she meets an unpredictable group of lab tested monkeys who have been surrounded by human kind for so long that they have almost become brainwashed into a desire to become one, rehashing snippets of jingles they have heard in laboratories.  To them, Mowgli is the missing link who can finally teach them all they need to know to fully behave like humans, including the elusive power of fire.  Mowgli is rescued from the clutches of the monkeys, but peace is not resumed as a hunter breaches their territory with little understanding or acceptance of this new formed alliance.  He is about to disrupt the harmony they have created and so Mowgli must decide where her priorities lie if our world is to have a future.  With the humans driven away, there are scenes of the animals claiming this human world as their own, taking over libraries, supermarkets, places of worship and government buildings.  It is eerily reminiscent of what happened during Covid, when humans were forced to stay indoors and we saw animals take to the streets in unprecedented and surprising ways.  It is a stark reminder that this is happening now.  We are, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, killing our natural world and forcing animals out of their natural habitats in the name of growth and progress.   



This production welcomes an exciting and eclectic mix of creative art forms to enhance, challenge, and inspire the dance.  With the combined script writing and dramaturgy talents of Tariq Jordan and Sharon Clark, the idea of dancers moving to spoken word is something I have never seen before and is an interesting concept in developing dance as a language and form of communication that really works.  The music by Jocelyn Pook takes you from hauntingly beautiful and moving to reverberating beats that vibrate your entire body with their power.  It blends with glorious ease into the spoken word, and swells with the story just as the rising waters do.  Gareth Fry has generated an immersive sound design that submerges and surrounds you from every possible angle, placing you right in the heart of the action.  The detail is stunning, from the thunderous elephants right down to the delicate flapping of birds wings.  But the piece de resistance is the projection of animation on two screens – one at the front and one at the back of the stage.  This style of design and the way it was achieved is something I have never seen and it was superb.  YeastCulture have created something special and it was clear from the start that the use of animation would play a strong role in the show.  The opening sequence of the planet being flooded was emotive, powerful, and humbling.  The storytelling was able to glide between the front projection screen where we saw Mowgli fall off her water raft into the sea.  The back screen then saw a huge whale appearing, and dive further into the water, to swim back up on the front screen, catching a drowning Mowgli and pushing her up to the surface, which flipped to live action as Mowgli appeared on stage.  The projected animations were also used to portray flashbacks or memories, giving a whole new element to the story. 


The combination of movement, sequence and interplay between the dancers and the animated projections was incredible and I was completely awestruck.  It enabled space to be reimagined, designing an immersive world quite literally around the dancers and played with depths and dimensions in an exciting way.  It also meant that the dancers were able to interact with the animations, making this cast bigger than the ten incredible dancers on stage.  And what dancers they were.  Synchronised, sharp, fluid, balletic, powerful, strong, and gentle, their moves were hypnotic, intricate, and so uniquely stylised that it is clear to see why choreographer and director Akram Khan was made an MBE.  These dancers are not only masters of their craft, but are masters of storytelling, entertaining, and of holding an audience in the palm of their hand.  The multitude of animals were portrayed through emblematic shaping, thorough commitment to symbolic movement, and honed pacing through sheer body control and the perfect placement of every muscle.  They emitted strength, hope, humour, and loss, making us feel every moment of their stories.


The character of Baloo was an audience favourite, with a fun nature and captivating dance moves.  In contrast, we witness the head of the Bandar-log monkeys suffering an almost PTSD episode with distorted and jerky movements as he has flashbacks of the human voices who held him down whilst they experimented on him in the laboratories.  During this section, we hear a mixture of jingles and broken news reports from the real world that include snippets of Greta Thunberg speeches and those all too familiar statements of washing our hands to kill off disease and avoid disaster.  Kaa the python is emulated through a series of cardboard boxes descending in size and rhythmically controlled by the dancers, with the box representing the head glowing green from within.  Again, this allows for dimensions to be explored when Kaa tries to constrict Baloo.  The individual dancers are able to envelop Baloo in varying combinations to repeatedly show the python trying to restrict its prey.            


The hope for this work of art, is that it will inspire and teach our younger generation so that they can take the reins and start to make the changes needed for our future, their future, and the future of our planet.  Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined is a truly inventive performance that will entrance you and hold you in the moment, but also leave you with plenty to take away and think about.  It is eye opening, captivating, and unique.  A wonderful team of creatives holds hands with an equally wonderful team of dancers, as they reach out to us all with a message of hope for the future.



The King and I

The King and I - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 9th May 2023


Whenever the words The King And I are uttered to me, I produce an involuntary sigh of genuine love, for this musical holds a special place in my heart.  I saw the production at The London Palladium in 2018, and watched as it transformed the opinion of a couple of friends whose preference is more modern musicals.  I had been dubious as to whether they would enjoy such a “golden oldie.”  But they did, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised because it has some of the most glorious music ever written, a love story that breaks barriers, and it holds a mirror up to some pretty big topics such as prejudice and misogyny, so that we may learn from history.  Add in a wry sense of humour, breath taking costumes and some of the most uplifting and iconic choreography there is, and it’s no wonder that this musical with a difficult political storyline, has stood the test of time, and continues to flourish under the multiple Tony Award winning eye of Bartlett Sher.   

As the story takes us way back to the 1860’s, British school teacher, Anna Leonowens is invited by The King of Siam to educate his numerous wives and children.  He fears for the future of his country and so wants to his people to understand Western ways.  However, when Anna’s cultures and beliefs clash drastically with those of his own and his country, things become rather more complicated.  Anna struggles with his misogynistic views and his use of slavery, and so vows to help Tuptim, a young woman who has been presented to The King as a gift.  As The King and Anna clash between cultural beliefs, traditions and interpretations of honour verses humanity, Anna finds her most difficult student in The King himself.  Yet they both hold an admiration, love and respect for each other, for beyond their differences, they can see a desire to serve, protect and to be the best version of themselves, even if they do not agree on how this should be achieved. 

Alongside this, the British have been reporting The King to be a barbarian.  Anna defends him, proclaiming there is far more to him than they see, and he truly believes he is ruling his country for the good of his people.   She agrees to assist in hosting The British, including Sir Edward Ramsey in Siam, highlighting that this is a country full of culture, passion, beauty and love.  But The King discovers Tuptim has been disobeying his orders and things take a turn for the worst.  As The King falls ill, Anna returns to his side just in time to see “something wonderful” as he offers permission of hope for the future of his beloved country.  Their deeply conflicted, complicated and combusting friendship is felt deeply in these final moments, as a new era is born.

Under the direction of the unquestionable genius of Bartlett Sher, the wow factor of this production has somehow been achieved through a simplistic opulence, which I’m aware contradicts itself, yet that’s exactly what has been achieved.  The flow of the production has been streamlined in such a way that scene and set changes don’t become long and clunky, and everything that is desired is achievable within moments.  Michael Yeargan has excelled in bringing this to fruition, with a set that is not only in keeping with the story as it unfolds, but dazzles with colour, stunning detail, and creates atmosphere via subtle but perfect touches such as hanging flowers from above or the lowering of a giant Buddha.  From the start, a ship melts away with effortless ease, to transport us to Siam, with silhouetted homes raised on legs out of the water, whilst the Palace itself is beautiful in its simplistic design of gilded columns and textured curtains. 

The King is accomplished with mesmerising brilliance by Darren Lee (Chicago, Allegience, Miss Saigon) who without a doubt was born to play this role.  Powerful, commanding, yet with that chink of vulnerability, he epitomises everything The King is meant to be.  He portrays a character, that on the surface to a modern Western world, is vile and unspeakable.  Yet he injects the character with an unquantifiable charm and cheeky humour, meaning that despite his sometimes unpalatable views, you can’t help but like him.  He portrays The King as a man who is still learning, who wants to learn, but is full of pride.  This gives him a playful child like quality that has so often only been hinted at before, and never fully explored.  It really works, and so he manages to confuse the bejesus out of your feelings, which is kind of the whole point.  His performance of “Puzzlement” was a masterclass.

Partnered up with Annalene Beechey (Les Mis, A Little Night Music, Into The Woods) as Anna, we see a love blossom that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Their chemistry on stage is undeniable and as they sway into the iconic “Shall We Dance,” I found myself inexplicably emotional.  Beechey brings Anna to life with a fizzing vivacity, and a fierce and stubborn nature to match any King.  She tempers this with an equally gentle and tender side when interacting with the children and Tuptim.  Her ability to make us feel Anna’s humility in her scenes with Lady Thiang is vital, and she does this so believably that there were a few audience members shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they realised their own presumptions and self-righteous beliefs. 

Cezarah Bonner (Miss Saigon, Peter Pan,) as Lady Thiang was sublime.  The song “Something Wonderful” has been known to bring me to tears in the past, so I am always hyper alert when this song comes on, trying to fight the rush of emotion that overtakes me whilst in the company of thousands of strangers.  I could not.  Bonner’s rendition stands out as possibly the best I’ve heard, but more than that, she made me understand the song on a new level that I never have before.  Following the frenzied audience response, at least I knew I wasn’t the only one struggling to control the tsunami of emotions she released.

Dean John-Wilson (Passion, Aladdin, From Here To Eternity) as Lun Tha and Marienella Phillips (To Henry With Love, Ashes, The Shoemaker) as Tuptim have such a tangible and tender connection on stage.  Their voices blended in such a way that it submerged you into their world completely.  Caleb Lagayan (Les Mis, Spring Awakening, Newsies) was the talk of everyone around me as Prince Chulalongkorn.  He played this man child with such a ferocious blend of arrogance meets innocence that he made the character utterly convincing, and his voice was impeccable.  His rendition of “Puzzlement” was also an impressive moment, and he played well against the talented, articulate, and charming Max Ivemey as Louis.  And of course, we cannot talk about the cast of The King & I without referencing the magnificent children!  Each portrayed unique clear-cut characteristics, each was profoundly talented, and each produced a wave of instinctual response from the audience, resulting in audible “ooh’s” and “awws.”  Make no mistake though, these future stars were not chosen merely on their cute factor and are all fierce performers in their own right. 

There are many iconic moments in The King & I, and many involve dance.  From the gloriously unbridled polka of “Shall We Dance” to the Uncle Tom’s Cabin traditional Siamese ballet, East meets West in a diverse, stunning showcase.  Christopher Gattelli has choreographed a musical tapestry, ensuring traditions are honoured through grace, soul, and beauty.  Rousing numbers nestle alongside delicate storytelling and every beat, every step counts.  Stunning.  Adding to the beauty of the dance is the costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber.  To say they are spectacular seems like a ridiculous understatement.  They are breath taking and are designed to represent the contrasting cultures so well that they even allow for a moment of mockery as the Siamese do not understand the British prim and proper attire for ladies. 

Rodgers & Hammerstein are musical legends, and the rich, emotive, layered, and swelling evidence is in every song they write.  They write music that connects to your brain, your heart, your mind, so that you are left humming it long after the show has finished.  But more than that, their songs hold you in the moment too, and manipulate you into feeling whatever it is they intended you to feel.  I have such fond memories of being in this show myself as a youngster, and listening to what was my song of “Getting To Know You,” made my heart sing.  Ask fans of the show what their favourite song is and you’ll get several different answers, and even though you think you have your own favourite, you’ll equally find yourself agreeing with every answer provided because they are all just pieces of art.  So whether you’re team “Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” or that brilliant soliloquy “Puzzlement,” you really can’t go wrong.

As time has gone on and we all evolve, become more educated, and become more understanding of each other, The King & I has sometimes fallen prey to critique regarding it’s outdated and troubling political, cultural, misogynistic prejudices, with suggestions that these should be addressed and corrected within the story.  But to do this would be to rewrite history and surely history is what serves to teach us about where we have gone wrong.  You cannot forge change if you do not know where the mistakes lie.  It is not the job of this musical to make the change for us.  That is our role as members of our society.  The King & I simply highlights that change should always be welcomed, points us in the right direction, and shows us that it is possible if we allow it.  And it does it with a truly timeless and beautiful score, outstanding performers, and a healthy dollop of humour.  By Royal Command, go and watch The King & I.  


Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist

Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 2nd May 2023


When you hear that a story written by Michael Rosen has been adapted for the stage by Roy Williams then you sit up, pay attention, and grab your tickets fast!  Rosen is our much loved children’s author of over 200 books, former children’s laureate, and all round superstar that has families everywhere going on a bear hunt.  Williams, arguably one of the country’s leading dramatist’s is not only an OBE but a BAFTA winning writer whose work dominates every medium possible.  So yeah, when you hear that they have collaborated to create a new and modern musical that not only includes beat boxing for the cool factor, but explores the themes of child poverty from the Charles Dicken’s classic Oliver Twist, and cleverly frames them in today’s world, then it is sensible to ensure you have a seat to park your bum on when the show comes to town. 

Produced by Children’s Theatre Partnership, it soon became clear that all involved have young people at the heart of their show.  It is a production that speaks to our younger theatre goers in a way that they can not only understand, but that they will listen to, for it speaks to them, not at them.  Engaging them from the off (and equally engaging us adults too), the excitement is stirred up by informing us all music tonight is live, and will include no instruments, no soundtracks, nothing but voice.  It immediately set a tone of anticipation, teasing us that something unique and special is about to happen and you could feel the electricity in the air.

So, what is Unexpected Twist about, and where does Charles Dickens come into it?  Well, Rosen has used his genius to hold a mirror up to child poverty in today’s world and the spiralling effects that it can have on young people.  As a group of school children study Oliver Twist at school, we start to learn more about one student in particular named Shona, who has lost her mother in recent years and whose father is struggling financially.  Things are hard for Shona, and so when she is offered a free mobile phone by someone, unaware of the actual price attached to it, she thinks her luck is changing and so takes it.  But if something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and Shona soon discovers that in return for the ‘free’ phone, she must start working for those who gave it her.  Oliver had to pick a pocket or two to pay his way, Shona has to work as a runner, collecting and dropping off things that no child should be involved in.  At first, she thinks life is great as the money comes pouring in but things never stay sweet for long and the demands get higher and more risky.  This is the world we live in, where the vulnerable are exploited and before they know it, just like Shona, they are in way over their heads.  Luckily, Shona has some good people in her corner who clue her up as to what is going on and help free her from the trappings of gang life before it is too late.     

As the students continue to read Oliver Twist in class with their teacher Miss Cavani, interesting discussions take place about the novel which I hope are welcomed in actual classrooms, but the students also start to draw comparisons between themselves and the characters in the story.  We interestingly see the actors double up as these characters which solidifies the message that the methods of gang trappings may be different, but the existence of it is not, which is a shocking realisation.  It is hopefully a subtle and overt way to reach out to any youngster watching the show who may find themselves in a similar situation and recognise the dangerous path it exposes them to. 

Set this against a well thought out design by Frankie Bradshaw, where a classroom full of lockers convincingly nestles amongst the dark and miserable streets of Victorian London, and the effect is complete.  The Dickensian characters emerge ghost like, from the hidden nooks and crannies whilst the school children read about them, generating further eerie links between past and present.  One reveal even had the Dickens character attached to some unseen device that had them leaning almost parallel with the stage in another worldly manner.  The different levels were used to the casts advantage, allowing them to bound on and off with effortless slickness and impressive choreography.  Complimented by Rory Beaton’s light design, which not only cast intriguing shadows in the dark and dismal Victorian world but made room for contrast in our modern one with club like vibes in upbeat numbers.  Spotlights created tension and an ever present smog filled the stage, really bringing this underworld to life.

Prior to the show, I’d been hearing lots of whispers via the theatrical grapevine regarding the superstar power of Drew Hylton (Meet Me In St. Louis, Annie) as Shona.  I can concur that everything I heard is indeed true and she is outstanding.  Performance, check!  Voice, check!  Believability, check!  Credibility, check!  From powerful, to sass, to fierce, to vulnerable, with touches of strength, humour and tenderness.  As her voice rang out with her very first note, my friend and I intuitively looked at each other and mouthed “wow.”  The partnership with Thomas Vernal (The Book Of Mormon, One Love – The Bob Marley Musical) as dad in particular encapsulates the tornado of complicated emotions teenagers face.  The show navigates this with a respectful honesty, moving touchingly between that love – loathe dynamic and wrapping it up with the glorious duet “No More Chips” which strips away all the teenage bravado and parental white lies, and allows us to see what is truly going on for both of them underneath the armour they present to each other.  It is a reminder that what we so often mistake as surliness from teenagers, is actually just the workings out of complex and pure feelings.  Vernal has an undeniably beautiful voice and portrays the dad very well.  It is a delicate balancing act of a character to show him as lost rather than loathsome, and he achieves this impeccably. 

Rosie Hilal (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Brideshead Revisited) as Miss Cavani is really natural and gives an honest performance.  She underplays the part in a positive way so that the students in the show weren’t patronised and she is seen as a figure to be trusted, a vital choice when many real life students were making up tonights audience.  Polly Lister (One Man Two Govners, Abigail’s Party) as nan was strong, funny, and vulnerable all at the same time, and brilliantly almost unrecognisable when she came back out as Lorraine.  This was fantastic character acting and provided some really moving moments.

Nadine Rose Johnson as Rosie, Kate Donnachie as Desree, and Liyah Summers as Rasheda not only play Shona’s class mates with an unruly realism that can be found in many a senior school across the country, but equally double up as various Dickensian roles throughout.  In short, they never stop working and pull the show together with a slick yet bountiful energy that engages the audience and encourages you to invest.  Their combined skills are off the scale, with stunning voices, impressive moves, and a particularly mind boggling energy from Donnachie at the end of the show!  Alexander Lobo Moreno as Tino/Artful Dodger gives a powerfully emotive performance.  He is cool, full of showmanship and busts some incredible moves.  He is charming with a dangerous edge and performs entirely from the heart.  His solo “This Is Who I Am” blew me away and was so full of passion I could feel myself screaming internally at how unfair life can be.  He really got me.  Alex Hardie notches up the cool factor tenfold with his role as Gazz, but more so with his flawless beatboxing.  He seamlessly continued dropping beats and making music throughout, even when his character was being pummelled.  He was hilarious when explaining the plot of Oliver Twist to Shona at the start of the show and interpreted the ‘roadman’ style character to perfection, right down to his clipped words, his swagger, and his inserts of ‘yeah’ in every breathable gap!  James Meteyard as Pops / Bill Sykes also kept the beat going with his incredible beat boxing and made his presence felt with a gritty realism.  He was confident, scary, and intimidating – everything that Bill Sykes is meant to be, but allowed us just a brief moment of trying to understand how he ended up where he was before his defence went back up.  A brilliant performance.

This is a youthful cast, which it really had to be for its message to be heard by younger audience members.  With an unexpected twist on costumes (see what I did there), there really are surprises around every corner with this production and the direction by James Dacre will certainly keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat – no mean feat for a story that we kind of already know thanks to Oliver.  Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray have turned musicals upside down and twisted them inside out with their fascinating and flippin’ brilliant modern day score.  A blend of soul, R&B, hip hop, rap, and beat boxing all intertwine to create a new flavour that feels cool, current, and communicates with its audience perfectly.  As I stated earlier, no instruments are used at all in this show other than the voice, and I am reiterating this point because it will blow your mind!  These original songs are catchy, funny, heartfelt, and brilliant.  From the opening number of “School School School,” it becomes clear that this is a musical like no other, and as we move to the soulful and beautiful “I remember The Beach,” to the catchy and bouncing finale of “Unexpected Twist,” you will remain in awe at what is being achieved, live and (yes I’m saying it again) with no instruments.  What makes this even more impressive is that it means the singers start singing each and every time with no chords, nothing to pitch them, yet they are never off key, always in harmony, and always flawless.

Unexpected Twist is creative, modern, youthful theatre that speaks directly to its intended audience.  Yet, it has been written and produced so well that it is not exclusive of us older audience members either.  Far from it.  It educates us on how things truly are for teenagers in this topsy turvy world and the truths they face and how they try to navigate them.  It is enlightening, engaging, and exciting in equal measures.  An experience to be shared by all from fledgling to fossil.  Be entertained by the brilliant story, be beguiled by the enticing characters and be bamboozled by the trailblazing beat boxing.  And just as you think the surprise treats are over, right at the end of the show, you’ll find just one more unexpected twist lying in wait for you.  It’s one that will leave you asking, “Please Sir, can I have some more.”




Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 25th April 2023


Shortlisted for The International Booker Prize in 2019, Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead has been growing a dedicated audience for quite some time, and has gained literary rave reviews since its publication.  An award-winning film adaptation followed, and it has now made its way to The Lowry in its latest offering to the theatre world courtesy of the ground breaking theatre company Complicité.  Written by Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk, this supernatural style thriller is in the best of hands with Complicité, who have an outstanding reputation for staging the unstageable and delivering their own special kind of magic.  Directed by Simon McBurney, this production will plough its way through your mind as it offer thrills, suspense, and a masterclass in acing and stagecraft.

Janina Duszejko lives a simple life in a rural Polish village, where she enjoys translating poetry into English and studying astrology.  She has a neighbour, Big Foot, of whom she is not a fan as he is a hunter, and after her two dogs went missing, she has never quite trusted him.  But one day, he is discovered dead in his home.  As Janina’s mind starts to try and solve the mystery, she convinces herself that perhaps the animals killed him out of revenge.  The police understandably don’t agree with her theory, but when their Commandant, who is also a hunter, turns up dead, Janina is more convinced than ever.  As more and more people who treat animals disrespectfully turn up dead, all eyes start to turn towards Janina, especially as she has an outburst at a Priest who condones hunting in his sermon, who – yes you guessed it, later turns up dead.  But a hidden mystery within a photograph discovered at Big Foot's house holds more clues than anyone realised, and with an unexpected outcome at the end of the story, you will be left questioning who is right, who is wrong, and how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in?

This show is overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word.  It truly is a spectacle, and the production value evokes an emotional response that arises just from the sheer wow factor.  It isn’t one element that impresses, but rather a stunning dance and marriage between everyone involved, from design, to light, sound, visuals, actors, costume, all of it.  Simple structures appear seemingly from thin air through the slow and controlled grace of the actors.  Digital /video scenery by Dick Straker is incredible and with the use of a back screen that has a clear wall in front of it which is surrounded by a proscenium arch, these projections are able to be played around with in a way I have never seen before, creating an almost 3D effect.  Even the actors themselves are projected onto and so as they slowly and purposefully move forward, it seems they are bringing the wall of images with them.  It’s outstanding.  Nightmares are relived and ghosts haunt us, yet the most serene night skies envelop not only the cast but us as well. 

Lighting by Paule Constable manipulates the atmosphere from fearsome thrills and quick fire, shock lighting, to playing with our fear of the unknown by allowing the action to play out in a not quite darkness.  Even the lights in the auditorium are controlled to unimaginable effect, plunging us into darkness at will and fuelling the adrenaline of this primed audience.  The sound created by Christopher Shutt is so cinematic, strong, and evocative that it felt like a new form of digital foley artist has almost been invented for the theatre.  Gun shots, screams, echoes, and creaking doors, sit happily alongside the booming base of a party, which is so perfectly pitched it even diminishes as the action moves outside of the room.  The set by Rae Smith masters simplicity with its multiple and convincing use of every day items such as chairs, coats, tables, and pillows, to create everything needed in this play with numerous and diverse locations.  Everything about this creative team is expertly executed.

The main character Janina is brought to life by Olivier award winner Kathryn Hunter.  Wow.  The entire play is basically built around this character, with monologues galore and her leading the entire story.  She embodies this complex and paradoxical character with such natural vigour, that we become fully invested in her grief, her plight, her anger, her charm, her humour, so much so that we do not see the truth of what lies behind it.  She brilliantly captures the essence of humanity, that we are not all good or bad, but instead portrays how it could be so easy to walk a fine line of somewhere in between for what we believe to be the greater good.  Her eccentricity is bountiful and captured through such physical detail that you forget you are watching an actor and not just someone on stage chatting to you.  The amount of script she remembers is remarkable and makes me question how I can’t even remember what I went in the kitchen for!

Alexander Uzoka and César Sarachu play Janina’s friends Dizzy and Oddball and create such opposing quirky characters that have you belly laughing, cringing, and empathising with in equal measure.  But the entire cast are a brilliant unit and as awe inspiring as Kathryn Hunter unquestionably is, this show would not work without them.  They allow the show to have a natural ebb and flow, enable it to breathe flawlessly and maintain the smoothness that we feel throughout.  Acting almost as a traditional Greek chorus, they represent everyone, and everything needed, from animal to mineral.  Yet they merge this old theatre style with such a modern agility that it feels entirely fresh and as if this was how theatre was always meant to be.  They often appear as a tribe of hooded figures, hiding in the dark shadows of the world, keeping secrets, emitting an ever present uncertainty and fear, never knowing when they might pounce.   

Actors break the fourth wall by talking directly to us, jumping in and out of the story as they do so.  They even join us in the audience!  Time takes us back and forth between past, present, and memory, and actors portray the animals with inventive and intriguing clarity, mixing physicality with digital imagery.  The use of the human form rather than puppets to portray the animals mirrors Janinas vision of a world of equality and of animal rights being equal to human rights.  Coats are lifted up into the air, submersed in digital imagery of crows taking flight, making it seem like they are actually taking flight.  Books are manipulated so that their pages flap and become a host of birds.  Poetic quotes are projected onto the screen like gun shots for emphasis, with piercing and heart thumping sound effects to accompany it.  Humour is woven into the dark corners of the story through witty dry one liners and recognisable observations such as TS (testosterone Syndrome, to which a detailed description is given and recognised by many females in the audience!)  Humour is also used for tension relief such as the stoned scene where the three characters hopelessly try to remember the words and sing along to their favourite song.  Then you are whipped back again to the serious underlying messages of the story through the irony and shielded guise of a politician trying to get himself elected.

It is no wonder that Complicité have won over 50 major theatre awards worldwide.  Their work redefines theatre and shifts the traditional dynamic between audience and performer in a way I have never experienced before.  Artistic director and co-founder Simon McBurney’s direction has ensured the themes of animal rights, misogyny, religion, and climate control are explored in a non-preachy, quirky manner, and invite you to listen, absorb, and digest without choking on the bones.  I had no idea what to expect from Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead, yet I got far more than I ever imagined was on offer.  It has a style and energy all of its own and all I could hear on the way out from the audience was superlatives, and a sense that whether you viewed this as a creepy gothic tale, a political call to arms, a quirky and witty outlook on extreme activists, or just a tale about a lonely and damaged old lady, everyone agreed with every malleable interpretation on offer because it is one and all of these things.  This is a production that we will all still be happily mulling over for the foreseeable.    


Korea National Contemporary Dance Company

Kontemporary Korea - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 24th April 2023


The thing I love about my job is being introduced to a wealth of talented performers, companies, and art forms that I may otherwise have skipped over.  Korea National Contemporary Dance Company is a show that I may have missed out on in a previous life, and this would have been such a shame for it was so unique.  I hope I can encourage people who think that a dance show isn’t for them to try it out, give it a chance and revel in the kind of love and joy that it clearly brought tonight's audience.

Firstly, this is not an unknown company. They have been around since 2010 and are Korea’s only National dance company, expertly telling relevant stories of the past, the present and ones of hope for the future. The combination of how these stories are told, along with their messages, ensure that they can be appreciated by any generation in any location. Their contemporary and diverse approach allows for collaboration with multiple choreographers, ensuring authenticity and free expression. Their desire is to enrich our lives through their storytelling and dance, and this new generation of Korean talent do just that.  Mechanism has a score written by MC Bluechan and is choreographed by Lee Jaeyong (leading choreographer and founding member if the SIGA Dance Collective). Everything Falls Dramatic has a score written by electro-acoustic duo Husk Husk and is choreographed by Sung Im Her(Ballet C de la B and Needcompany). Husk Husk have created a score with a strong beat and clever sampling.  It crosses multiple complex rhythms with a heavy string instrument influence.  The result is electric and produces a score that builds to make you feel alive and glad to be so.

The show covers two stories; Mechanism and Everything Falls Dramatic.  Mechanism starts on a sparse, clinically white stage, with six dancers.  Through isolations, staccato movements and the development of canons, they build up a synchronised and intricate pattern that symbolises the inner workings of a machine. The movement, story and choreography are so intrinsically clever, that it allows the story to shift into a strong tribal style choral dance, before segueing into juxtaposing individuals.  These changes aren’t as random as they sound.  Nothing about this performance is random.  It is all thought out with minute detail, and these seemingly disconnected ideas ultimately forge an arc as to how we see ourselves and others as humans.  How do we operate?  How do we connect?  And how do we thrive?  As the tension of the piece builds up to a dramatic climax, we see the release of human emotion through expression, in a club like scene where everybody lets loose and the repetitive frenzied swinging of arms becomes hypnotic.  The timing of this piece is outstanding.  I have no idea how the dancers match each other so perfectly, and their spatial awareness of each other is incredible.  They really do operate as one, even when moving entirely alone.  It is mesmerising to watch.  Due to the nature of the piece showing of the intricate workings of mechanisms, there is a lot of repetition and certain sections or rhythms are continued for quite some time, which does work as the company do not miss a beat, but equally it can become a little less engaging the more we see of the same.  There were a few moments when I wasn’t entirely sure what I was watching but I also couldn’t fail to be in awe of it, such was the talent and energy on display.

The second piece tells the story of Everything Falls Dramatic.  It is an emotional and powerful retrospect of our own paradoxical features as humans such as fragility versus resilience and loneliness versus solidarity.  The six dancers take us on a journey through our complex and contrasting existence as humans, exploring free and casual abandon, right through to defiant energy and loving care.  It focused on the things we continually lose in life, whether that is quickly, slowly, and whether we are expecting the loss or not.  It is an inevitable part of life, and so the patterns repeat, but do we ever learn how to handle them any better?  Memories fade too and so we almost lose the thing we lost all over again with the decline of its presence and importance in our mind.  It’s a fascinating and confusing parallel to wrap your head around and it really made me think.  Yet even though we are constantly losing things, whether these things be objects, memories, or people, we somehow carry on.  Therefore, it also explores our resilience in the face of loss, resilience we all too often feel we don’t possess.  But with this pattern of loss on continual repeat, it makes us question, at what point do we run out of resilience?  This idea was born out of Sung Im Her’s personal story following her father suffering a stroke, and so it inevitably raised the questions of death within her.  What is it exactly?  How do we approach it?  View it?  Can we understand it differently, treat it and approach it differently so it’s impact can be handled from an alternate meaning?  Understandably, we witness the dancers falling down and getting back up a lot, but it is choreographed into unbelievable sequences that will blow your mind.  Whether you know dance or not doesn’t matter, because you do understand the topic of this story.  We all do.  It is the one guarantee in life after all, and therefore it resonates and oddly makes you keen to grasp life by its dangly bits and embrace what we do have rather than allow what we have lost to hold us back.  The opening of this piece is done in utter silence, yet the dancers are able to move on beat with each other, timed to perfection.  I have no idea how they do this with no audible cue, and they are not looking at each other either, so have no visual cue.  It is quite remarkable and fascinating to see a company so in tune with each other that it felt like they were breathing as one.  The end of this piece was beautiful.  There were a few moments when we thought it had finished and then realised it hadn’t, and there was also some post show audience debate as to what it actually symbolised, it was wholly agreed that it left an imprint.

I have been to many kinds of shows in my work, including dance shows, but I have never seen anything quite like this one.  It is energetic, repetitive, moving, beautiful, curious, and calming all at the same time.  Come with an open mind and come with the knowledge that it will stay with you and have you thinking about it long after the show has finished.  I do wish that there had been a programme or something available to inform us about the story and to learn a little about the dancers as I think this would have helped.  I did read up on the pieces a little online prior to the show but this information would have been useful and potentially encourage more people to attend and feel included.  Yet even if you don’t fully understand what you have seen, you do feel that it is enriching you and challenging you in ways you may not even be conscious of.  Any art form that can do that is worth opening our hearts to because you will be rewarded.