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Karen Ryder
(183 Reviews)

Burlesque The Musical

Burlesque The Musical - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 26th June 2024


Manchester!!!!!!  This is not a drill!  Burlesque – A Big New Musical - is in town for its World Premiere and it has shaken the new façade of our beloved Quay Street Opera House to its heady and historic foundations!  Talk about bringing Broadway to Manchester!  Burlesque has that sparkling je ne sais quoi quality, that tantalisingly untouchable excellence, making it the most glamorously sought after ticket in town.  Beg, steal, borrow, grab some glitter and a corset to high kick your way backstage if you have to, but get yourself a ticket because musical theatre has just been redefined!  Talk about go big or go home!  Burlesque is unapologetic, yet flawlessly caressing.  It is spectacularly innovative yet classic in its roots.  It is fizzing with ferocity yet touchingly tender and is a magnificent production to behold.  It is so BIG it is coming back again in October so my advice?  Make sure you go!

Enter a world of heady sequins, sparkles, and sensational sass.  Embrace your warm welcome from none other than global superstar Todrick Hall, who has the audience in the palm of his hand and whipped up into a frenzy just by being there!  Within seconds, the electricity is palpable, and the phenomenal standard of this masterpiece is set as Todrick invites us into this intoxicating world, leading the company and by extension, the entire audience into Burlesque.  It is immediately clear that this is a next level production, and even as the showbiz world of New York fades away to reveal Ali in her family-owned diner in Iowa, the first-class production design will firmly place you wherever it intends you to be.

A combination of an intrinsically slick set of balletic scaffolding and the most immersive video design I have ever seen on stage mesmerizingly guide you through the story of Ali, a stunningly talented waitress who embarks upon a journey of self-discovery after recently losing her mum.  Ali’s mum leaves her a letter encouraging her to seek out her birth mum, complete with a name and address.  Ali finds herself face to face with Tess, a fierce and fabulous Burlesque club owner, who has so much going on herself with the threat of the club closing, a drunk star, and a slime of an ex husband who consistently tries to hustle her for money, that she pays Ali no attention and treats her like an irritant.  Bar worker Jackson takes pity on Ali and offers her his couch.  As romance blossoms and opportunity presents itself, Ali grasps both and shows the world just who she is and what she is capable of.  For as they say in Burlesque, “Life’s not fair.  It’s fabulous!”      

Writer and producer Steven Antin has taken his beloved film starring the likes of global sensations Christina Aguilera, Cher, and Kristen Bell, and made it even better!  This show has found its spiritual home on stage, and it finally has the freedom to come alive and breathe exactly how it was meant to.  It has been given a modern make over ensuring it is bang up to date, and is full of heart, passion, humour, family and warmth.  The writing is beautifully quick, sharp, and authentic, and the shape of the production effortlessly blends the story with showstoppers in the perfect showbiz sandwich.  Nick Winston has directed and choreographed the bejesus out of this show, and again I have to use the word authentic.  You truly feel you are in NYC as the audience in this club, and that you are watching the events unfold before you.  The choreography beautifully pays homage to just about every Burlesque influence out there, from Vaudeville to Voguing, via Fosse and feather dances.  It is so brilliantly clever as each of these interwoven club routines offer up the sheer breadth of talent that makes up the world of Burlesque.

We see nods to lip syncing, cabaret, striptease, drag, comedy routines, showgirls, acrobatics, jazz, Broadway, hip hop, bohemian, singing, dancing, comperes, flamboyance, set pieces with larger than life props such as giant airborne shoes or huge handbags that have the element of surprise!  It is a spectacular, sizzing sensation of a show.  The ensemble never ceases to amaze as they are the living, breathing heartbeat of the show.  Never stopping, continually pulsing, they effortlessly backflip, front flip, leap into the air from push ups, side split, and spin until you are sure they will corkscrew right through the stage!     

Costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight will blind you with brilliance as you behold the classy, cool, and sophisticated Burlesque on offer.  He blends this classic world of sequins and feathers with a modern urban edge, and the impact hits you with a whoomph!  He even manages to make Ali’s sweats look cool!  The fashion on display is an absolute work of art, as is the set design by Soutra Gilmour and the video design by Nina Dunn.  As previously mentioned, the centrepieces are two impressive malleable scaffolding sets, designed with such versatility and precision that they dance around as additional ensemble when they are moved, creating different spaces.  Their stature allows for cast members to continually be present, watching the story unfold before their eyes, just as we are, which is partly why we feel like an extension of the show. It is very subtle and very brilliant.  A rotating section of stage allows for the passing of time, fancy set pieces, and even doubles up as a stage in the club when it raises up creating an entirely different space yet again.  Combined with outstanding video design by Nina Dunn, it also gives us a 360-degree view of Jacksons apartment and view of the neighbourhood outside as the graphics move around with the stage.  These video designs are beyond anything I have ever seen before.

The detail is exceptional, meaning rather than simply having a backdrop of the neighbourhood from outside the window, you can actually see into these neighbouring apartments, see the tables, the décor.  Somehow, you can even see the lights on in the different homes!  The video designs all have depth and dimensions, making it all 3D, 4D – however many D’s it takes to make it entirely real.  It places you in the heart of New York, and then – the brilliance is, it will play with graphics for the Burlesque routines, giving you iconic music videos, world stage concert vibes, artistic images, and will blow your mind at just about every turn!  Combined with superb lighting by Jack Knowles, this show can take you from an Ohio diner to NYC’S alleyways, to Burlesque, to the dressing rooms, the stage, backstage, the club floor, Jacksons apartment, and to the best corners of your mind.  It’s urban meets glitz in this effervescent world.

And can we just stop and hold our breath as we take in the spellbinding talented cast!  I mean come on!  How to begin?  Jess Folley (Songwriter, Winner of The Voice Kids & X Factor – The Band) as Ali not only takes on a role made famous by the vocal powerhouse that is Christina Aguilera (who does that?) but makes you forget all about Christina Aguilera! (who does THAT?!)  Folley is the kind of brilliance that leaves you smiling agog, lost for words and crying unexpected emotional tears of unfiltered joy at her other worldly talent!  I am lost for words, and yet she portrays this humble dream chaser who clearly doesn’t know just how good she is.  This is the kind of performance that you just have to experience, for the vocal register alone will leave you spell bound, let alone the riffs, the emotional engagement and the fierceness.  Folley is such a natural and spectacular performer, and we must remember that she also wrote many of the songs in the show too!  What a talent!

As is the global sensation that is Todrick Hall (Choreographer, singer, actor, dancer, songwriter for the superstars such as Beyonce, Chicago, MTV show Todrick,) as Sean, who also wrote many of the shows songs!  People often ask what makes a superstar?  I’d tell them to watch Todrick Hall because he is as intoxicating as he is talented!  It is a larger than life performance that is full of heart, humanity, passion and love.  You cannot help but be drawn in and be hypnotised by his sheer talent and likeability.  The singing, dancing, acting, showmanship, presence, and even improv is world class and I genuinely feel entirely spoilt and privileged that I have seen such a professional, yet accessible performer who somehow manages to be a superstar yet feel like your best bud at the same time.  Jackie Burns (Wicked, Titanique, If/Then, Rock Of Ages) soars as Tess and sets the stage alight with her insane vocals and spectacular performance.  She will move you, make you laugh, and make you wish you had a Tess on your own team!  She really brings this character to life and her ability to emotionally connect with a song and make you feel everything she is feeling is a true gift, so be prepared for her to own your heart for much of the show.  A true Broadway legend and I felt every second of it.  What an honour. 

Michael Mather
(It’s A Sin, But I’m A Cheerleader, Flashdance) as Jackson is heartwarming, charming, cheeky, playful and fabulous.  He is the perfect example of how a male lead can be strong and tender, macho and vulnerable all at the same time and it is refreshing to see.  Brilliant vocals, and an outstanding relationship with FolleyGeorge Maguire (Sunny Afternoon, Bonnie & Clyde, Rent) brings out a different side to Vince, Tess’s ex-husband, which I found was spot on.  He really makes this character believable and portrays the sneaky, desperate snake in the grass side of Vince, bringing fresh clarity to this part.  He is always there, acting by reacting, and excuse the pun but his solo ‘Ammo’ will blow your socks off!  Nina Ann Nelson (Citizen Queen, Love Actually Live, One Day, Songwriter) is excellent as the somewhat entitled Nikki, and knows exactly where to draw the line so that she still has redeeming features and she doesn’t become the villain of the piece.  It is a superb balancing act of a performance and one that isn’t easy but is executed flawlessly.  We see spiralling and self-sabotaging behaviour nestling against Nikki’s professional stage persona and it is an eye opener to remember that the performers we see on stage have very real lives off of it too.

is a spectacle of a show and one that will not disappoint.  With a mix of songs you will recognise from the film such as the showstopping ‘Show Me How You Burlesque’ (Christina Aguilera) to the emotive ‘You Haven’t See The Last Of Me’ (Diane Warren), down to the sizzling new songs such as ‘Big’, ‘Ammo’ and ‘What Are Clothes’ by Todrick Hall or ‘Got It All From You’ or ‘Home’ from Jess Folley, you cannot fail to be entertained, engulfed and fall in love with everything this show has to offer, and everything that it represents.  Acceptance, forgiveness, family, love, determination, and never giving in to your own self-doubt.  Of course, we all went to Burlesque expecting fabulousness, but you soon realise there are levels of fabulousness, and this succeeds any level you even knew existed!  What I hadn’t expected was to be so hooked in emotionally, and I found exactly what I didn’t even know I needed in this show. 

Listening to ‘You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me’ gave me back my own spirited and scrappy fire in my belly, a precious gift during a personal difficult time, so I have to thank the show for that.  And on a tricky day, watching this spectacular show Burlesque, that chose The Opera House Manchester to premiere, gave me and many others a fabulous evening and exquisite memories that can’t ever be taken away.  Memories that will bind us and bond us.  And even as the standing ovation erupted before the show had reached its conclusion, and the glitter rained down from above, we all knew that this was something extra.  Something special.  And the magic didn’t end there!  As if this show hadn’t already proven it is all about heart, love, and pulling together no matter who you are, who do I find helping my dad up the stairs and chatting away with like they’re long lost buddies?  The writer and producer Steven Antin himself!  What an absolute legend!  And as if that’s not enough, Robin Antin (Creative co-producer & associate choreographer) was right behind cheering my dad on!  They stayed and had a chat, loving that their show is for everyone.  I couldn’t agree more and think that this, above anything, else rings true for the heart of the show and answers one of its own songs – “That’s what Burlesque is!”



Watch our "In Conversation with Todrick Hall" video


2:22 A Ghost Story

2:22 A Ghost Story - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 4th June 2024


I have braved 2:22 A Ghost Story once before, on Halloween no less, and I survived – just!  I have kept the secret this whole time, but now I know it, I have to confess I was even more excited to go back and rewatch this show because I had a feeling it was going to blow my mind all over again!  I am usually a bit of a wuss in the spooky stakes so a part of me is asking why I am putting myself through this a second time, but 2:22 is so intelligent and witty, and plays the best game of hide and seek with your psychological primal fears that it’s beyond things that go bump in the night, opening its doors to all kinds of believers.  Basically, 2:22 A Ghost Story is impossible to resist, luring you in with a teasing, tantalising temptation that will cause your spine to tingle, your seat to be gripped and your senses to be woken up in ways you never imagined!  And this is my obsession with 2:22 – the unique ways that our brains are manipulated, derailed and impacted by fear, and how that fear is personal to each and every one of us, just as ghosts are.  It means that there is a shared camaraderie in the audience and a sense of ‘we are all in this together’ before anything has even happened, bringing a heightened anticipation and tangible excitement.  Adding an additional layer of mystery and intrigue is the secrecy surrounding the show, dangling the carrot of wanting to become a part of the club, to be in the know and have inside information that the poor unfortunates who haven’t seen it are inflicted with.  Then of course there is the unknown.  What is 2:22?  Is it a time?  And if so, why is it so important?  What forsakes the unsuspecting mortals at such a time?  Knowing this is a ghost story paves the way for our imaginations to run riot, and no avenue is left unexplored, leading us to the dark and twisty crossroads of divisive opinions. 


And so it is we meet Jenny (Fiona WadeEmmerdale, Waterloo Road), an exhausted and wiped out new mum who is juggling too much life whilst trying to adjust to a new home as well as a new role.  Husband Sam (George RainsfordCasualty, Call The Midwife, Wish You Were Dead) has been away with work, leaving her to not only deal solo with the baby and the troublesome foxes that keep setting security lights off, but to host a dinner for his old friend Lauren (Vera ChokHollyoaks, Chewing Gum, Chimamerica) and her new partner Ben (Jay McGuinessThe Wanted, Strictly, Big The Musical).  Therefore, when Sam returns, things are already a little tense, particularly as Jenny has been spooked out by certain goings on in their new home.  But Sam is way too practical and scientific to believe in any of Jenny’s ramblings, undermining her accounts with what he believes is irrevocable proof that her mind is simply playing tricks on her.  As the evening goes on, tensions surface, both old and new, with opinions clashing and frustrations growing more intense.  The existence or fable of ghosts is the topic on everyone’s lips and as Jenny feels increasingly mocked by the one person she needs to believe in her, she conjures up an idea.  An idea that leaves four adults waiting for the clock to strike 2:22 precisely.  And what will happen when it does?  Give over! As if I’m going to be the cause of that spoiler!!

Fiona Wade
perfectly pulls us into her ghost story from the second she appears on stage.  She weaves a tapestry of emotive responses as we are able to empathise, sympathise, believe and doubt in her convictions.  She keeps us on our toes and intrigued throughout.  Wade can appear both strong and determined whilst longing for compassion and support from the one person who is supposed to believe her.  You can see her mind at play as she tries to figure out how you continue when your husband doesn’t believe you.  Her performance is incredible, covering so many of the big emotions in a truthful and just way.  George Rainsford excels as the smug Sam, allowing a character that has the potential to be overbearing and obnoxious infectiously likeable at the same time. He is confident, self-assured and owns the stage with a certain charm.  He ignites the stage with a captivating energy and is so quick with his comic timing that just like his character, he is always one step ahead.  His explosive frustrations when others don’t agree with him nestle impressively alongside his ability to show Sam’s love in his own unique way.

Jay McGuiness
brings us Ben, a character who believes in his own psychic abilities and is the polar opposite of Sam in every way.  He believes Sam to be a privileged snob and subtly displays his resentments and jealousies over Sams relationship with Lauren with a palpable fury that he persistently tries to supress.  He is also extremely funny and down to earth, yet other worldly at the same time.  McGuiness plays all these opposing traits to a tee, and captures these moments with a perfectly timed look, raised eyebrow or nod of the head.  He equally brings us a little bit of menace when sparring with Sam in an eerily controlled manner and these gear changes really do engage and keep you locked in.  We see the emotional spiral of Lauren courtesy of Vera Chok, whose loyalty to Sam denies her own truth as she goes to extremes to prove herself.  But you can only deny your truth for so long before it threatens to erupt, and once that happens, there is nowhere to hide.  She is excellent at portraying hidden feelings and as the alcohol takes hold, we see Chok develop Lauren further still in unexpected ways.  The intensity of restrained crying speaks volumes to the whirlwind going on inside this character and you see everything that is never said through those tears.  A wonderfully hypnotic performance.  Individually the cast are great but together they are superb, bouncing off each other with expert timing and nuanced precision.

Directed by Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr, the interplay between the characters and their array of varying relationships is explored with a thirst for intrigue and truth, highlighting that the concept of truth is so personal and subjective.  The honest and naturalistic performances make the whole thing entirely believable, allowing you to picture yourself right in the thick of the discussion.  It continually messes with your mind.   Anna Fleischle’s set brings Jenny and Sams fixer-upper house alive in more ways than one.  Peeling wallpaper, trinkets, a working kitchen, and of course, a working clock that announces the passing of time.  2:20…….2:21…..2:22! 

I cannot stress enough how sharp, quick and finely tuned the humour is in 2:22 A Ghost Story.  Of course you can expect the jump factor through flickering lights, black outs, screams, and unexpected noises alongside the psychological thrill of suspense, but what caught me even more unawares was the sensationally funny sarcasm, roasting, and one liners.  You will belly laugh as much as you will jump and scream, perhaps even more so.  Writer Danny Robins is a master at observing human nature.  He has captured complex and beguiling relationships, intertwined with delicate histories, and clashed personalities, beliefs, and social backgrounds, all against the heated and taboo subject of ghosts.  This enables 2:22 A Ghost Story to appeal to all, because it beautifully blends it all, creating so much more than a scary play.  And this is why it has won so any awards.  It focuses on character first, people first, and these characters are so well written that for everything they tell you, there is equally something that they hide.  The complexities at play are stunning.  

Watching this show for the second time is just as rewarding as the first, if not more so because I get to view it through an entirely new lens and my goodness, the detail that presents itself when you know the secret is fantastic!  As realisation of so many things clanged into my consciousness, I wanted to scream out at the sheer brilliance of it all.  So my genuine advice is that 2:22 A Ghost Story is a show you need to watch at least twice because the first time offers suspense, secrets and thrill, whilst the second showing offers amazement, reveals and an overwhelming, awe inspiring sense of consciousness.  Plus, you will still jump just as much the second time round if you’re anything like me!  There are many effects used throughout the show to assist you with those jumps.  But for me, this game of sleeping lions or Grandma’s footsteps with my own imagination is the true fear factor of the show, fear triggered by the mere suggestion of what is to come, of facing the unknown, our primal instincts triggered by our own doing.  The show makes you play hide and seek with your own limits, makes you jump out of your seat the next, then belly laugh as you discover random facts, such as why asparagus makes your wee smell weird!  Then of course, there are the ghost stories.  Everyone has one.  Hold your breath.  Don’t blink.  Always question.  Be wary of who you trust.  And don’t move.  Then, if all else fails - scream!  

2:22 A Ghost Story
plays with your mind, making you question everything you thought you knew.  It provides twists and turns that quite literally emote gasps of shock, surprise and awe from this responsive audience.  It respectfully unifies the beliefs surrounding ghosts from a variety of angles by representing them all, but it does so by simply lighting a fuse with the word ghost, then sitting back and letting the explosion happen.  It is a topic that continues to have pulling power and perhaps always will, and so whether you find yourself aligned with Jenny, Sam, Lauren or Ben, the mere whisper of the word ghost can animate even the most tempered of souls.  So, whether talk of ghosts evokes the need for you to call ghostbusters, a spiritualist, or a psychologist, 2:22 A Ghost Story will get you talking, will float amongst the darkest corridors of your own subconscious, and will keep dropping questions into your mind long after the show has finished.


Watch our "In Conversation with Fiona Wade and George Rainsford" video


Watch our "In Conversation with Jay McGuiness and Vera Chok" video



Birthmarked - The Lowry, Salford - Wednesday 29th May 2024


Sometimes in life, you meet the right people at the right time, and earlier this week I was lucky enough to chat with the generous Brook Tate - writer and composer of Birthmarked, a show that is described as a concept gig and is performed by Brook and their merry ol’ band of pals!  After chatting with Brook I knew that I was in for an emotional yet fabulous ride tonight, and even though I thought I was coming in with my eyes wide open, there was so much more I simply wasn’t prepared for.  We are told the authentic and deeply personal story of Brook’s life, one that starts with an upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness and ends with a tap dancing zebra!  And as zany and fun as that may sound, which it is, it has come with an unthinkable cost.  Because what are you supposed to do when who you are costs you everything you have known?  What do you do when love costs you love?  And what do you do when you have no one to ask because you are left alone, shunned from the only community you have ever known? 

Brook takes us right back to the origin of his family’s Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, when their Grandmother had someone knock on her door in the 1950’s and was converted.  The religion was passed down through the generations and this community became their life, their family.  But when Brook confessed to being gay, beliefs and rules demanded he would be disfellowshipped, affectively shunning Brook from his entire world.  Friends and family were no longer allowed to talk with him.  They had to cut all ties.  As the details of what truly happens, how it happens, and those who deem themselves with the authority to do it are shared, your mind will start to tailspin at the brutality of it all.  What follows is a tale of tenacity, spirit, understanding and hope as Brook makes a new life, discovers new friends and finds the beast within, reclaiming it with a positive life force.  Beautifully and creatively spun alongside the story of Jonah and the whale, we meet Gail the whale who helps Brook discover a freedom and pride in exactly who they are and everything they were ever meant to be.

So, what is a concept gig you may be wondering?  Well, it turns out, it’s something really quite special.  A real, heartbreaking, yet equally uplifting true story is told through a series of incredible songs, through intimate and affable chats with the audience, creative conversations with Gail the whale, and moments of improvisation and audience connections.  The songs are brilliantly moving, catchy, and vary in style from those with a Celtic lilt, to the spine tingling acapella hold your breath songs, to the fabulously flamboyant musical theatre showstoppers.  One moment you have nothing but the echoing sighs of the band whispering notes across the waves as Brook bares his soul with a dignified poise, the next you are clapping along to the rhythmic frenzy as you belt out your support with every fibre you have.  Not only are the songs stunning individually, together their ripples create an emotive swell that will carry you along and crash and splash your emotions all over the place – in the best way possible.

Brooks real life pals form the band, and the comradery between them is evident.  You could feel the support and strength emanating from each and everyone of them, because believe me, when you see this show, you will understand.  How anyone finds the strength to go there night after night is not only admirable, it’s inspiring.  Eva Redman (Gail the whale) Tom Bonson, Samuel Fox, Sam Fox (yes there really are two Sam Fox’s – and neither of them were there to sing about any kids from America) & Eddie Benfield form this highly talented band and are happily onboard the Tate train as they join in the jokes, swim around the stage and dress up or shed costumes as desired.  Gail the whale, by the way, impressively swims through the audience and is apparently made from some old tarpaulin!  Who knew!  Directed by Olivier award winning Sally Cookson, Birthmarked has been allowed to flow and grow organically, with a naturalism about it so we are clearly meeting the very real Brook Tate and not a characterised version.  This makes the story being told all the more shocking for we cannot hide behind a manuscript, a play that goes to bed when we leave the theatre.  This is very real and has happened to the person right in front of our eyes.  It is powerful, impactful and possibly one of the bravest things I have ever seen.  Trust me, this is a traumatic tale to behold and one that so could easily be fuelled by hate, resentment, rage, and revenge.  But there isn’t a single drop of any of that in Brooks ocean.

Birthmarked is not there to stir up trouble.  It is there to show up.  It is there to say this is who I am and who I am is not wrong.  It is there to offer a life line to anyone in a similar situation, and it is there to voice a different way and offer understanding through pizazz and personality.  What strikes me more than anything about Birthmarked and Brook Tate is the dignified, classy, and educated approach this show takes.  It doesn’t judge.  Not once.  And believe me, when you hear some of the stories, this is not only impressive but noble.  My friend thanked me for asking her along saying it was a privilege to have watched, and I couldn’t agree more.  It was a privilege to watch someone who would have every right to be filled with a compelling and confused rage, instead guide us with understanding, tolerance and patience.  It was quite outstanding.  It was brave, bold, and a real masterclass in vulnerability.  And of course, it was also fiercely fabulous, with high heeled tap shoes, a celebration of queer culture, and a spirit of overcoming adversity and the utter pants that life can throw at you.

Brook Tate is a charismatic performer and is instantly loveable.  Birthmarked is most definitely a one-of-a-kind show that defies being labelled as any one genre.  It breaks boundaries, and it connects with its audience on so many levels with a dignified grace and humility.  A standing ovation led Brook to come into the audience after the show and the queue of people wanting to say thank you, or simply say hello, was testimony to the authenticity and bravery on display.  Sometimes a show is bigger than the production itself could ever be.  And sometimes, you stumble across the right person at the right time.  Brook Tate is a name I will never forget.   



Watch our "In Conversation with Brook Tate" video discussing the show


Testmatch - The Octagon Theatre, Bolton - Friday 24th May 2024

“It’s not cricket,” could be said about so much in the world at large right now, and Testmatch, the new Kate Attwell play, wickets together a fresh and funny comedy with feminism, racism and history, topped off with a sprinkling of the game itself.  Testmatch may have its roots in the sport of cricket but as they say in football, it’s definitely a game of two halves, with each act seemingly as different as rugby and ballet.  Scratch the surface though and you’ll definitely find commonalities of strength, stamina, teamwork and agility.  With Act 1 set in the here and now as we wait out the rain in the women’s World Cup tournament between England and India, rivalries bubble away.  Casual grumblings and bickering about the weather, partners, and the semantics of the phrase “too little too late” are soon gazumped by the larger and more impassioned topic of match fixing and underlying casual racisms.  The second Act bats us right back to the colonial 18th century!  We find ourselves in Calcutta where conversations are very different and the women who try to share their opinions are drugged into silence with opium’s.  Here, the talk is of trade agreements, business, rules, and cricket.  It is full of British pomp, misogyny and discrimination.  We can make direct comparisons about how women today are free to mess around, gossip and have fun compared to the perceived abilities of women back then.   And even though it uses humour to make its point, we are able to witness the brutality of taking ownership of someone else’s land.  What both acts do have in common is a blind ignorance of privilege, corruption and exploitation.



Each act has its own presentation style too.  Act 1 is very naturalistic and poignantly free, whereas act 2 is deliberately delivered through a stylised satire, with an over emphasised farcical approach.  This is a very clever choice for it highlights the disturbing and unsettling nature of colonialism in a palatable way so that you pay attention and absorb the message.  When these pompous men (the women multi role as different characters in the second act) are more bothered about writing down the rules of their new game so nobody can rip them off (even though they are blatantly ripping off the women’s ideas regarding overarm bowling) than they are about the starving people outside, it beggars disbelief!  Even more so when they even seem oblivious to their existence!    We see an inherited English arrogance of those in authority, particularly when it comes to rules and how they apply to anyone but themselves.  You only have to switch on the news or look back over the last few years to see some things have not changed at all and it is infuriating.



The show opens with the players running into the performance space dripping wet after their match is halted due to the atypical British weather.  As these six players wait it out, the intensity and potential for eruption rises with each caged prowl.  The dynamics are interesting, with the England team feeling empowered enough to rage whilst the cooler India team are made to feel they are guests in someone elses land.  The natural conversation tone of this act makes the back and forth nature of conversation bounce around in plenty of directions, fall down witty rabbit holes, and brilliant tangents.  Then supressed rage will take over and halt everything with the surprise breakage of the sacred cricket bat.  These characters are all painted so differently that it is a brilliant piece of human nature at play, fuelled by finding the humour in our British small talk and our solution that a cup of tea will fix everything!



The seconds Act begins before it has actually begun, with the two British representatives and their assistant coming out to, well – have a game of cricket, inviting audience members up to join them!  It is great improvisation and a lot of fun.  As the act truly starts, and the British desperately try to take ownership of everything, the larger than life characters develop further.  The explanations of cricket rules are infrequent but quite lengthy when they do appear, and I have to confess my brain glazed over a little as it either couldn’t take them in or didn’t want to.  Yet interestingly I did find some of the historical tit bits of the game both interesting and enraging as I learned how women’s influence has all but been erased!



Aarushi Rita Ganju plays India 1 (Captain) in the first act and The Messenger in the second act.  As India one she brings a controlled strength, and example of self-belief, and some vulnerable and tender moments as she reveals a secret she has been holding on to.  She plays India 1 with a strong intelligence and passion, with the ability to make you belly laugh at her sense of humour.  As The Messenger, Ganju delivers a stunning monologue that is from the heart and grasped the hearts of the audience.  She allowed her performance the space to breathe and it had full ownership.  Aiyana Bartlett performs as India 2 and then Daanya.  As India 2 she is the master of the deadpan response, and subtly uses sarcasm to maximum effect to get her point across.  She is quick to defend both her own teammates and also England one, until that is she discovers the indefensible and is thrown into an impossible position.  Bartlett played this section with a composed restraint, showing the hurt and frustration through a tension she has learned to keep locked away.  I was close enough to see this spill out through silent tears and it was quite moving.  As Daanya, Bartlett was excellent at testing the patience of the British by proving their beliefs about women wrong and did so with poise.  Tanya Katyal firstly plays India 3 and then Abhi – the British assistant.  As India 3, we see an optimist who is a joy to watch and who will captivate you.  Katyal’s facial expressions are priceless, and at one moment are the epitome of wide eyed innocence.  She provides us with great physical comedy.  As Abhi, again, the movement is brilliant physical theatre and will make you giggle.  The running and off stage to the petulant demands of One and Two is priceless and yet Katyal equally proves how capable she is of switching it up towards the end of the play with a dramatic and powerful scene.



Bea Svistunenko plays England 1 (Captain) with a fierce and not entirely ’cricket’ determination that beguiles and pushes everyone to ask questions as to where her aggression comes from.  She is genuinely scary when she explodes and brilliantly believable when she then tries to regain her composure with demons that are bigger than she is able to hold.  In the second act she is One and so fabulously frivolous that just her tonality will make you giggle.  Svistunenko nails the British pomp and circumstance.  Mia Turner has us laughing as England 2, with her seemingly raucous obsession and comparisons of cricket lovers verses rugby ones.  But Turner’s random outbursts are also tinged with a heartache she is trying to understand and the conflicting emotions she displays are fantastic.  As Memsahib she brings us a wild and wayward character who is seemingly in her own world, perhaps a result of the opium’s she takes, but perhaps because no one in the real world pays her any real attention.  Haylie Jones is England 3 and Two.  As England 3 she seems to have been handed the role of peacemaker, a role which England 3 is not comfortable with, and so her frustrations are acted out so realistically that you never quite knew what she was capable of doing next, because she was a coiled spring ready to pounce.  As two, Jones also delivered the pomp and circumstance with excellence and allowed us to shake our head in disbelief at the self-indulgence and self importance they placed upon themselves.



These detailed character motivations and nuances are where director Diane Page really shines.  These performers are able to create a platform that displays how each and every one of them feels, and in act one, how they have had to work hard against their obstacles, whether that be through their history, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, social background, or gender.  It brings together those who have been pushed aside, and it does so through sport.  This makes winning all the more important because perhaps they all have a deep-rooted belief that they have something to prove.  Kate Attwell’s writing is so full of complex layers that it’s only afterwards it all kind of seeps properly into your conscious.  Cat Fuller’s design sees an off-white set surrounded by gravel.  The cricket costumes of red and blue stand out against the bleak landscape.  The attention to detail here is impressive, with trainers stained around the edges with grass, as well as grass stains on their kits.  The switch to the colonial second act sees an excellent costume transformation with full 18th century clothing, including wigs.  Lighting by Rajiv Pattani and sound by Simon Slater encapsulates elements of nature beautifully from a blazing sun to the torrential rain.



As Testmatch continues, the message becomes clearer and clearer.  Throughout history, England do not have a clean score sheet when it comes to playing fair.  The show looks at Nations through the lens of sport and the idea that perhaps those in power, and in fact all of us, should refocus and strive to win the accolade of good sportsmanship instead of claiming the prize by any means necessary.  There is so much going on and so many points trying to be made that I did get a little confused during some moments of the second act.  I also found that I wanted to know more than was told about the characters in the first act, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as they do say “leave them wanting more.”  But for instance, I wanted to know the root cause of the decision that resulted in Svistunenko’s secret.  Attwell’s writing is busting with so much life, so much humour, so much tension and complexity to explore, that each idea deserves the chance to fully shine.  Testmatch will take you on a story from the serious to the surreal.  It is sardonic and ironic, taking us from present day, to back in history, all leading to a captivating collision at the end.  It raises uncomfortable but vitally important issues and hopefully points out the flaws in our history so that we may one day soon, learn from them, instead of repeating them.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 21st May 2024


All someone needs to do is say the title of this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, and most people will start humming the titular tune in their heads on loop, probably for days!  It has been going for a whopping 50 plus years and shows no signs of slowing down.  The first rock opera, it is a groundbreaking piece of musical theatre, and even started out by doing things a little differently with a concept album to drum up interest before the show had even been produced!  Songs even entered the charts – almost unheard of for musical theatre – and has gone on to break boundaries yet again by introducing musical theatre into arena tours!  In short, Jesus Christ Superstar is a phenomenon that you simply have to see.  And don’t worry about your religious beliefs either, because this show may tell the story of a religious figure, but it is done through the eyes of his best friend Judas, making the story focus heavily on what it must have felt like at the time to have your buddy believe he was the son of God, and how bizarre that must have sounded.  It focuses on the people involved and explores their stories and their reactions to Jesus and his claims.  So, we follow Jesus in the last week or two of his life as he makes some extraordinary statements and garners a huge following.

But Judas worries for his sanity and so, as the hysteria builds, we are plunged headfirst into the psychology of cults, followers, and with social media and celebrity perhaps ruling many modern lives in a similar way, it is enticing and gripping to watch the comparisons as to how we all simply want to believe and belong to something and how far that can take us.  The relationships between the characters massively tell the story, from Jesus to Mary Magdalene, Jesus to Judas, and King Herod to everyone who he feels threatened by.  This is by no means a simple retelling of the Gospel, but an intimate, whirlwind, and chaotic glimpse into the tale of how an ordinary man believed in something so strongly, he was able to make infinite more people believe too.  And there are some very real, very poignant moments in their too that sadly reflect the current state of affairs and how vile humans can be to each other for simply believing different things.

And so, the show begins with that infectious guitar lick that had me beaming in an instant and feeling the electricity being poured into the theatre.  Within seconds you fully understand why this show has won many accolades including an Olivier for best revival.  For this production has absolutely been brought bang up to date under Timothy Sheader’s direction, Tom Scutt’s design, and Tom Deering and Michael Riley’s musical direction.  You will feel like you are at a rock concert.  The adrenaline is palpable and the visuals and drive of the show, flashing lights, copious amounts of glitter, and performers switching to hand held microphones for maximum impact, will blow your mind.  It is most definitely a concert that tells a story rather than a story told through theatre, which alters the entire performance and dynamic to epic proportions.  The performers may sometimes be in the literal spotlight but are often lit artistically too, leaving them in silhouette or enveloped in hazy, atmospheric smoke. 

Jesus Christ Superstar
has always played by different rules, and so I applaud them are proudly sticking to their original routes and making this a rock concert first and foremost.  The set is very urban, with rusting steel girders, rigging, and scaffolding, providing a great aesthetic for the mood and dynamic of the show.  It is used beautifully by the cast as they make it their own, climbing, suspending, entwining, and owning every inch of it.  A huge fallen cross dominates the floor and is used as a stage throughout, superbly giving a platform to the different characters.  The lighting by Lee Curran will whisk you into a rock frenzy, pulse your emotional state to the heights, and leave you agog at the final climax of the show.  A single beam of light before the sun seemingly sets on the reunion of Jesus and Judas.  The choreography by Drew Mconie expertly blends rock concert with musical theatre, making it powerful, slick, energised to a new level, and athletic to say the least.  It is mesmerising and hypnotic.  Canons are used throughout which not only looks amazing in this highly talented ensemble, but it reinforces the idea of this crowd all following one another blindly.  The dancing is so frenzied, it is almost ritualistic in its portrayal, showing the obsession of the group to belong.  There are symbolic moments of baptism, and washing themselves clean throughout, and one dancer in particular was so frantically brilliant that it can only be equated to the dance equivalent of speaking in tongues.  During ‘Everything’s Alright’ the backing singers and dancers moved like sirens, or mermaids, beguiling their prey.  Every detail of the choreography was so thought out that it truly told the story in its own right.

As for the cast, I mean, jaw drop!  The vocal demands on this show are insane, as is the emotional investment.  I can only image how spent each and every one of them is at the end of a performance for they give it everything they have.  This score ranges from the highest falsetto to the deepest bass, with everything in between being belted out to raise the rafters.  The story is told through the eyes of Judas, played by Shem Omari James (Dreamgirls) and he brings every emotion available to the table.  He thrusts us into his story and he forces us to feel everything he feels.  It is quite unbelievable, and his guilt will rip through you.  Then, to finish you off, his vocals will rip through you too, from his powerful command to his gentle falsetto.  Ian McIntosh (Beautiful, We Will Rock You) is enthralling as Jesus, taking us on a highly emotive journey from a seemingly humble man to a troubled one who feels he no longer has autonomy of his own path.  He performs with intelligence, keeping us on our emotional toes as we are whisked into excitement by him one moment, feel his pain the next, and desperately try to understand the perceived stubbornness the next.  It is a raw, eclectic, and passionate performance, and don’t even get me started on Gethsemane!  I just don’t have the words.  This was a moment to feel, and it will remain in my treasured memories for ever.  There is a certain sweet spot in it where I felt like I was hit with a whomph of something celestial. 

Hannah Richardson
 as Mary Magdalene was enticingly sultry, seductive and sensational.  She didn’t shy away from her characters profession but also allowed us to see that this didn’t make her any less of a person with feelings, and as those two things crossed over for Mary, Richardson came alive with the tensions it caused.  Timo Tatzber makes quite the entrance as Herod, with a flamboyance befitting a diva reclaiming their stage, complete with a glitzy gold costume and extensive cape.  It is a deliciously diva-esque performance blending a dark and twisty combination of danger and sardonic humour.  It was a crowd pleasing moment for even though the intentions of Herod weren’t great, the deliverance through fabulous comedic skills provided a perfectly timed emotional respite.  It was pure showbiz heaven and executed to perfection.  Ryan O’Donnell as Pilate is utterly phenomenal.  The anguish as he changes in the wake of mob mentality is outstanding and I felt his desperation as the broken world around him closed in.  It was quite the transformation from his initial disgust, to fear as the stakes were raised around him.  It was uncomfortable, as it should be, and his performance was captivating.

Jad Habchi
is a vocal magician as Caiaphas!  How he maintained those gorgeous, deep notes with such power and volume is so impressive.  His performance was a stunning cathartic moment amidst all the heavy emotions, as he erupted into boy band moments with a jaw dropping vocal range. Stephen Lewis-Johnston as Annas sounded like a rock god and belted out unbelievable notes that just left you shaking your head in blissful disbelief, as did Luke Street as Simon.  And can I just say, I thought I was hallucinating at one point, having 42 Balloon withdrawals if you will, but I was not!  Charlie McCullagh is back in Jesus Christ Superstar already!  Tonight, he was one of the fantastic ensemble but he is also the alternative Jesus, so watch out for that performance too!

The entire ensemble cast are an epic unit.  Energetic, enthusiastic, electric – they hit every note, every beat, every breath of this spectacular show.  They are excessive to say the least, and in a larger-than-life production, this has to be the case else they would become entirely lost on stage.  They ensure the pace, the mood and the impact of the show doesn’t sit still for a moment, always evolving, always challenging, always impressing.  The use of symbolism in the show is worth looking out for, from the silver liquid on Judas’ hands representing his betrayal with the pieces of silver, to the eruptions of gold glitter during the whips that Jesus receives, representing the spilling of his blood.  This moment is brutal and you may find yourself squirming in your seat at the inhumanity.  Another intuitively clever moment is the apostles at the last supper as they all freeze as the famous Last Supper painting.  It is actually quite moving to see.  Judas’ end is equally symbolic with him using the microphone cable and leaving it to drop and swing lifelessly in place of himself.  There are so many genius moments in this production of Jesus Christ Superstar that I believe you could watch it again and again and keep finding new nuances to appreciate.

Jesus Christ Superstar
will claw at your emotions, ripping them apart until you are left with a rawness that you don’t quite know what to do with.  It sounds brutal, and it is, but it is so unbelievably brilliant too.  It can be an overwhelming environment as your senses are stimulated to the extreme by music, lights, sound, atmosphere, and an unexpected passionate response.  But this contemporary and artistic original rock opera is an experience not to be missed.  Jesus Christ Superstar is intense, evocative and still trailblazing 50 years later, and after what I’ve just witnessed, will still be trailblazing in another 50!



Watch our "In Conversation with Shem Omari James" video


Kay Mellor's The Syndicate

The Syndicate - The Lowry, Salford - Saturday 18th May 2024


What would you do if you won a life changing amount of money?  How would it impact your life?  It’s a mind game many of us play with ourselves time and time again, dreaming how our lives could be different, easier, happier, if only we had that windfall.  But would this really be the case?  Can money really have the power to change the things that matter most?  The Syndicate by BAFTA award winning writer Kay Mellor introduces us to a group of everyday people, grafting hard to make ends meet, and working their way through the challenges life throws at them.  As this group work their way through to the end of their shift via a series of daft jokes, humorous observations and sharing the tit bits of their lives, we see their easy friendships.  But when their syndicate comes through and they discover a ridiculous amount of money will be coming their way, we await with baited breath as to whether this will strengthen or sever what are perhaps threadbare bonds rather than true loyalties.  After all, each has their own story to deal with.  Dog lover Denise has stuff going on at home with her husband, brothers Jamie and Stuart have a whole host of family drama to deal with plus a few sly hustles on the side to manage, single parent Leanne is harbouring a secret, and the Manager Bob, who works so hard at making sure everyone is happy, perhaps neglects his own struggles with his sons and has a few health issues to sort out.


Kay Mellor is known for her writing making you cry with laughter one moment and cry with heartache the next.  This stage adaptation of the television series (based on series one) not only captures this beautifully but allows the realness of humans to shine through with the brilliantly bonkers back and forth conversations that often go off at seemingly random tangents, before always finding their way back to the plot, all the while being beautifully sprinkled with impromptu thoughts or opinions.  It is refreshing real and solidifies these characters as people you know, recognise, or even chat aimlessly with in your own local shop!


Samantha Giles is Denise and the mother hen of the group, bringing us a tangible warmth and character you instantly warm to.  She is quirky and brilliant with character work, and a spontaneous laugh one minute to sadness the next.  It was so different to any role I’ve seen her in before and was a joy to watch how talented she is at just about everything.  Oliver Anthony and Benedict Shaw as brothers Jamie and Stuart are full of electric tension with their bickering, and really capture the loving closeness, yet often sparring nature of siblings.  Anthony plays his character with man child perfection, wanting to be one of the big boys, yet stropping like a teenager, complete with eye rolls when things don’t go his way.  His characters arrogance is palpable.  Between them, they create an impressive duo and bring us some excellent comedy moments.  Shaw plays the tormented brother, trying to juggle all life throws at him with building tension, and is so believable and natural in the role.  He blends his anguish with ample laughs and never misses a beat. 


William Ilkley is the heartwarming Bob who will steal your heart and really is a good egg.  He is so Northern and stoic in his approach to everything and his ability to convey this is exceptional.  Rosa Coduri – Fulford portrays Leanne who balances the role of playing someone with a secret really well, drip feeding us delicious clues throughout without it ever feeling obvious.  She has some tender moments with Shaw and between them, they create a star crossed lovers feel.  Detective Newall is performed by Jerome Ngonadi and has that whole good cop bad cop thing going on all on his own.  He presents a wary charm that hides his truth and with a dazzling smile, he allows us to not hate the character trying to rip apart the lives of one or two of the syndicate.  Brooke Vincent as the demanding Amy is absolutely hilarious, from her high pitched voice, to her hair flicks, mean girl vibes and her often quick changes in personality from anger and disgust at Stuart, to happiness in the shape of pound signs.  She really masters the timing of her delivery and nails the intonation, meaning lines such as offering everyone a can-ape as opposed to a canape or telling Alexa to boil the kettle and make a cup of tea, land beautifully.


Gaynor Faye is Kay, the publicity seeking lottery rep.  In a beautiful legacy moment, Faye also directs her late mothers last play and I cannot think of anyone more perfect for the role.  As Kay, her comedic skills are legendary, a quick look here, a perfectly timed comment there show us all how larger than life doesn’t always win the comedy lottery.  As director, Faye has allowed her cast the freedom to breathe and develop their characters from pre to post lottery win, hence bringing out the best of her mums work.  I can only imagine how emotional this whole process has been, and it is a stunning gift to share this play with us all.


These characters are amplified by the brilliant costume design of Bretta Gerecke, who notably alters their appearance after the big win.  It really does highlight how each of them deals with money and is subtly clever and enhances the narrative.  Gerecke’s set lays out the beating heart of the story for us, the main shop floor with a staff room and the managers office sandwiching it at either side of the stage.  These rooms are able to double up as other spaces as and when needed, such as the hospital, with a clever flip down of a coat rail into a bed, making the overall impact clean and effective.  The second act sees an entirely fresh set to match the change in circumstances and the development of the characters stories, whisking us away into the newly transformed lives of our now wealthy syndicate members.


The story has elements of crime, comedy, real life, domestic, and a desire for something more out of life.  They are all elements that somehow fit together just as these group of characters do, perhaps in another world they wouldn’t coexist, but here, it becomes the perfect syndicate.  From idle gossip between Denise and Leanne, to tender moments between Bob and Stuart where you start to feel that Stuart is the son he always wanted.  The robbery scene is brilliant tense and funny at the same time, and even the opening will take you unawares as Faye talks directly to the audience apologising, for what we believe will be a delay to the show.  But this is theatre, and anything can happen.  As The Syndicate comes to an end, we are reminded of the nougats of wisdom that money does not always equal happiness, and because the characters have been so palatable throughout, it does not feel like a preachy, or faded message.  The second act takes place in Stuart and Amy’s new mansion, bringing a new lavish set and a new pace, where the one liners seem to get quicker and slicker, as a couple of new plot twists develop.  This is a different and new story from what you may have seen in the TV series.  It does bring us the same characters and is loosely based on series one, but do not come expecting a replica.  I personally appreciated this because I felt I was getting even more of The Syndicate and felt honoured to be watching Kay Mellor’s final play.  I was surprised by how emotional this made me feel, and I will remember this one for some time.    



Mind Mangler - Member of the Tragic Circle

Mind Mangler - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 15th May 2024


I love Mischief Theatre and I love Magic, especially the mentaism Derren Brown style, so from the moment Mind Mangler: Member Of The Tragic Circle was conceived, I have been dying to see it!  And with Peter Pan Goes Wrong barely out of town, there are many of us eagerly awaiting to be treated by this award-winning company all over again.  A spin off from Magic Goes Wrong, the Mind Mangler truly believes in his own brand of genius and was always going to be too big to be sharing a show with others!  So off on the road he goes with his stooge by his side and his tricks up his sleeve, ready to beguile audiences across the country with his mystique.  But as he is bursting to surprise the audience with his mysteries, he gets a few surprises of his own as we uncover his personal secrets, ones that were never meant to be a part of the show.  As the Mind Manglers private life is revealed one bit at a time, there is no illusion big enough to cover it up.  And so on with the show he goes in typical Mischief style, with tricks going wrong, his stooge firstly getting things wrong by accident, then perhaps on purpose, he ends up revealing he too has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve.  The daft, warm and pure silly humour we know and love from Mischief Theatre is alive and well, but this show finds new ways to explore things that go wrong, cleverly separating itself just enough from its ‘Goes Wrong’ relatives.  We see the Mind Mangler battle with broken sound effects (mind, mind mind) and pyrotechnics being mixed up, before we belly laugh as his mind reading fails, gigglw as his (never met before!!!???!!!!) audience members mess up the Ouija board and howl as hypnosis alludes him.  But his showbiz desire and egocentric state do not allude him, ensuring hilarity as he tries to pass it all off as the intended outcome with his fabulously flamboyant gift of the gab!  And just as you think he will explode with frustration at his stooge, or the very vocal audience, and give in to the inevitable disasters, to the surprise of everyone, his tricks start working, and we are not only treated to the unbelievable brand of Mischief Theatre, but also genuinely bewildering and impressive magic and illusion! 

For anyone who loves magic and illusion, you will recognise many set pieces, such as the suspended box, the glass bowl of audience secrets, or even a gorilla running across the stage (makes more sense if you’ve ever seen a Derren Brown or other mentalist show before).  Well, I say you will recognise them, but of course, this is a Mischief version of the trick so you learn quickly to always expect the unexpected and don’t assume you know how things will play out.  The joy of this show is that you genuinely are kept in the dark and on the edge of your seat as to whether each magic piece will be a gag that goes wrong, form part of the comedy genius of the characters and allow a joke or set piece to land with hilarity, or whether you will be amazed by true magic!

There is a huge element of audience participation in this show, and no one is exempt from their brand of quick wit, loving insults, and frayed tempers!  This becomes an integral and quite frankly highly skilled part of the show, as we witness improvisation and sharp responses at their finest.  This cast have no idea who they are going to chat with, what will be fed back to them, or what challenge they might meet, yet they turn it into the finest and most unique brand of five star comedy time and time again!  This element also means that no two shows can be identical and therefore offers a perfect excuse (as if you needed one) to watch this show multiple times.  In tonights show, we met a hospital directors assistant, someone who once had a meeting with a man named John, and someone who had a dark secret about revenge on his ex that involved fish!   The spontaneity is so impressive, and then, as if that’s not enough, they somehow manage to hark back at things that have been said during the audience interactions and use them as pay offs for jokes later on!  It truly makes you all feel part of a one off experience, which is exactly what you are, and the skill and likeability it takes to achieve this is off the scale talent. 

This talent comes in the form of Mischief Theatre original members, and writers of the show (along with Henry Shields) in Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer.  Henry Lewis plays the newly divorced Mind Mangler, whose career is finally taking off thanks to his new manager Bob Kojax.  Bob has booked him on a whirlwind tour across the UK, finally ending with the big one, a stint in Vegas!  Lewis plays this character only as Lewis can, with a renowned personality, and exceptional wit blended with truly tender and touching moments.  He handles the few audience members who try to make themselves stand out with a respectful and good natured humour, clearly having heard it all before.   He never leaves the stage (or does he?!) and carries the show having learnt a phenomenal amount of script, numerous tricks, skills, and improvisations.  He is utterly convincing as a magician who is perhaps on the verge of having a break down, for he blends genuine magic and mentalism with Mischiefs own brand of theatre.  Jonathan Sayer is superb at playing Steve the stooge, (as well as many different audience members), fabulously showing us his ability to play the daft, innocent and naïve fall guy.  But he also brings moments of magic and illusion, alongside his true magical gift of just what a good friend he genuinely is to the Mind Mangler, in some lovely moments and exchanges.  And he gets everywhere!  He works so hard at running quite literally around the theatre, and makes us laugh with a look alone, and his great t-shirt costume changes and disguises.  Sayer had a beautiful moment at the end of the show where he shared his story of how he used to be an usher at The Palace Theatre Manchester and gave a shout out to all the hard working and dedicated ushers out there.  It clearly meant a lot to him to be back home, and we were thrilled to have him!

Directed by Hannah Sharkey, the Mischief Theatre brand of “Serious About Silliness” is absolutely at the heart of this show and with lost props, mangled sound cues, dodgy lighting rigs, and messed up projections, we get the clear branding of Mischief Theatre.  However, Mind Mangler is a show in its own right and so does not stick solely to their tried and tested amazing antics, proudly and impressively including bonafide magic!  Magic consultant Ben Hart has brought authenticity to the show, and many were surprised and impressed by the genuine illusions and mind reading that took place.  No spoilers here but you may just have your mind (mind mind) blown!  Mix that together with the outrageously silly, from the night time terror predictions, to tasting names, smelling jobs, and the random outbursts of (very impressive) Jesus magic, the results are an audience that are left in a heightened state of euphoria and bewilderment.  Expect to be involved from the moment you arrive, as you are invited to write your name and your secrets on a piece of paper for the Mind Mangler to perhaps guess later.  It’s up to you to decide whether you think he can do it or if this is just a Mischief gag!  Mind Mangler is a magical, magnetic and madcap night out that will leave you questioning how they did it but knowing that you’re just really thrilled that they did!



Mind Mangler is on at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 18th May 2024.

Watch our "In Conversation with Jonathan Sayer" video discussing the show

Bonnie & Clyde

Bonnie & Clyde - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Tuesday 7th May 2024


Bonnie & Clyde!  A hell raising, whirlwind tale of trauma, murder, and love.  It’s quite the heady mix of ammunition for a spectacular musical that will blast your bloomers into next week!  Based on the true lives of this infamous criminal couple, Bonnie & Clyde were glamourised in the 1967 film and a strange love affair with learning about criminals was heightened and romanticised.  They lived for the allure of adventure and for taking revenge on a system that changed their lives forever.  Travelling across America during The Great Depression with The Barrow gang, they robbed gas stations, stores and banks, with no qualms about murdering anyone who got in their way.  Many saw their adventures as a rebellion against the state and they garnered quite the following.  This fascinating, felonious folk tale is fabulous as a musical.  It takes us from Bonnie & Clyde’s first meeting into their passionate and all-encompassing love story, down their dangerous and corrupt path, into their inevitable and harrowing end.  The question is, when your two leading characters are murdering criminals, how do we as an audience get on board?  Quite simply because Ivan Menchell who wrote the book, makes us empathise with them, feel for them, and not only grow to understand them, but root for them too.  It’s a strange feeling, but with their genuine love at the heart of it, and real life dialogue and facts sprinkled throughout, you begin to understand how they ended up on the path that they did, and that’s the part that is heartbreaking and allows us to feel for them.

I am a huge fan of Frank Wildhorn’s music, with shows such as Jekyll & Hyde, Wonderland: Alice’s New Musical Adventure, and writer for stars such as Whitney Houston, and along with lyrics by award winning Don Black, he has done it again!  Sublime storytelling with music that fits the era and the location whilst still encompasses the best of musical theatre, resulting in catchy, glorious and heartfelt songs that you will fall in love with.  From the rootin’ tootin’ You’re Goin’ Back To Jail, to the huge and showstopping This World Will Remember Me, and the sultry and stunning How ‘Bout A Dance?  The celestial God’s Arms Are Always Open will give you chills and fill your heart with something that is just dying to burst out.  Then there’s the beautiful and gentle You Love Who You Love before we are railroaded into the guitar riffed rock legend Raise A Little Hell that could fill stadiums!  It’s almost like Bonnie & Clyde have robbed The musical Hall Of Fame, and dipped into every music genre on route and brought them back to form a show that covers everything, yet is still entirely coherent.  Don Black’s lyrics as always are stunning, clever, and delve into the political depression at the time, offering insight into why crime was such an enticing option in songs such as Made In America.  And the genuine love between Bonnie & Clyde is heart wrenching in Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.    

Katie Tonkinson (Bat Out Of Hell, Tarantino Live, Snow White) shines as Bonnie and her transformation from an innocent to being hooked into the dark side through unwavering love, and then becoming a criminal in her own right, is so convincing that you understand exactly how it can happen, and that is beautifully terrifying.  The nuances and depth she has given to her character and performance give this show authenticity and a wake up call too, as to how quickly young people can be pulled down a dangerous path.  Tonkinson will make you laugh, will willingly pull you into her world, and will break your heart.  She makes it so clear as to how Clyde would have fallen head over heels for her, and this is vital for us to see.  Her vocals are anything but criminal and they not only fill your entire being, but the interpretation, storytelling and emotion is electrifying.  Alex James-Hatton (Newsies, Book Of Mormon, Heathers) has the perfect swagger, charm and confidence for Clyde, enabling us all to love him, despite his misgivings.  His performance is magnetic, and again pulls us into his stratosphere with ease, meaning that we feel all the more when his tortured side is displayed.  When he sings Raise A Little Hell, believe me – you’ll want to!  It alights every fibre of your being and sets the theatre alight!  Alex James - Hatton is one heck of a performer and with every pun intended, I was blown away! 

Catherine Tyldesley (Coronation Street, Scarborough, Good Ship Murder) wows as Blanche with her rendition of Now That’s What You Call A Dream and really makes you stop and think, bringing a balanced and reasoned edge to the show.  Her acting is outstanding and brought genuine moments of awe to the show as well as the highest form of comedic skills, from her opening moment of jittering with nerves right down to her tell all looks.  Coupled with her ability to wrench your heart out with emotions as her husband dies in her arms, it is a spellbinding performance.  Sam Ferriday (Treason, Rock Of Ages, Heathers) as Buck provides us with excellent flair between the comedic and serious and has a brilliant partnership with both Catherine Tyldesley and Alex James – Hatton.  His duet with Hatton When I Drive was full of energy, and as the lyrics say, “it just feels great!”  He really showed us a different side to being a criminal, even a former one, and how when you have a loyalty to your family and the Law won’t leave you alone even when you try to do the right things, that can take its toll.  AJ Lewis as the preacher and Daniel Reid-Walters as Ted both brought power house vocals with songs such as God’s Arms Are Always Open, where Lewis took us on a glorious Gospel journey, and the heartfelt reprise of You Can Do Better Than Him was incredible from Walters.

With the show choreographed and directed by Nick Winston, you will be agog at the musical numbers and the sheer energy, intricacy, and balance of the scenes as they play out with humour and heartache.  One minute you are watching a bank being held up by gunpoint, the next, Bonnie & Clyde start arguing as to which way round their names should be, requiring a terrified bank clerk to answer with a gun pointed at his head.  The next, anger spills over as they come to realise the bank they are robbing has no money, and the tension is broken with a superbly delivered line.  “We’re robbing a bank with no money?”  “Yes.  The complaint forms are over there!”  There is room for both humour, fear, glamourised crime, and the brutality of it under Winstons direction, and he never resorts to relying on big fight scenes or shoot outs to tell the story.  He makes Bonnie & Clyde and all who form their story bigger than the guns, bigger than the crimes, and focuses on the why they ended up there and on their love.

Set and costume design by Philip Witcomb is detailed, woven together by the inclusion of bullet holes in every piece of scenery.  It is kept simple, and a row of layered slats, each diminishing in size the further back they go, offer dimensions and allow for various scenes to be played out at the same time, from church to prison to the outside world.  This does sometimes mean that you lose some visuals from the back of the stage if you are sat towards the side of the theatre, for the front slats effectively block out the view towards the back, but there is so much going on at anytime, you do not lose the story.  Lighting by Zoe Spurr offers superb ambience and with effective use of multiple quick fire spotlights, a shoot out is easily represented without the actors even needing to be on stage.  Another moment that caught my eye was the video design by Nina Dunn.  From lifelike woods, to silhouetted moments of trauma and abuse, and the inclusion of real images from the era, a unique, stylised and authentic feel was created.  I was also in awe of the symbolism during Made In America as the National flag was projected, only for the red stripes to turn into blood dripping down as its people were losing their lives in bloody crimes as their best means of hope and survival.  It was a clever and poignant moment.

The show literally opens with a bang, several actually, and even as you sit waiting for the show to begin, you will marvel at the screen portraying a huge bullet hole with smoke whispering through it.  With actual images of Bonnie & Clyde projected throughout, Bonnie’s poetry read out, and subtle nods to the era and actual letters read out and projected too, we are always reminded that this is based on a true story.  The vocal talents of this cast are second to none and the harmonies on offer are divine.  We all know that the story doesn’t end well for Bonnie & Clyde, so no spoilers there, but the show did manage to surprise me with how this was represented and how it wrapped itself up.  It was a pleasant surprise and I have to say it was tastefully done.  Bonnie & Clyde are glamourised crime personified and whilst you definitely shouldn’t try this at home, you should absolutely try watching it at The Palace Theatre Manchester because it tells you their tale, the people they were before, during, and after their crimes.  As Bonnie wrote in her poem,  “You’ve read the story of Jesse James, of how he lived and died.  If you're still in need; of something to read, here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.”


42 Balloons

42 Balloons - The Lowry, Salford - Thursday 2nd May 2024


Holy helium!  I have seen a lot of musical theatre in my life but I have never seen anything like 42 Balloons!  From the heart and with genuine admiration – what have I just witnessed?  It has a look, a vibe, and a future all of its own.  One thing I’m sure of is that no one will be bursting their weather balloon bubble any time soon.  And so it is we meet Larry Walters, unassumingly nestled away in America with a dream.  A dream he has harboured since childhood to fly above Los Angeles.  As his dream grows stronger by the day, he meets Carol, who lovingly tries to steer him away from the most bizarre plan she may ever have heard.  But dreams don’t go away just because someone else doesn’t hold them in the same way you do.  And so eventually Carol supports him, finding a way to fund this $15’000 flight.  With the additional help of his friend Ron and Carol’s mum, a plan is formulated that on 2nd July 1982, Larry Walters will fly above the skies of Los Angeles in a lawn chair and 42 weather balloons.  If you think this is all a bit far fetched and that musical theatre folk have finally 5,6,7,8’d themselves into delirium – think again!  As we are wittingly reminded throughout the show – this is a very true story.  Look it up!  But even with all the meticulous planning in the world, we discover that dreams can cost a lot of money, they can surprise you with unexpected details and throw things a little off course – 9’000 ft off course to be precise!  We are left asking, what happens after you achieve your dream?  What do you do with yourself then?  Carol is left with huge debts to pay, Larry is left bewildered and misunderstood, and a kid in Long Beach is left with a story to tell that no one will believe in school on Monday!   

42 Balloons
is a new musical that most definitely looks up and views things from every angle possible.  Right from the start I was hooked, with the show quite literally opening up in a way I have never seen before, revealing something I have never seen before!  We are teased to glimpses of the floating chair and balloons before revelling in a panoramic 180 stage, sloped up from stage to sky, creating curves, slopes, and new dimensions.  It has footwells that allow performers to climb, sit, or just hang out, totally engrossed in this true story as it unfolds before everyone’s eyes.  This set up means the stage becomes one huge projector screen, but even these video designs are not the obvious that you may be imagining.  Award winning Andrzej Goulding has done it again!  Whether the animations are taking inspiration from the decade of music videos, blinding us with science, following Larrys altitude, or transporting us to the David Letterman Late show and infusing live feeds, you will be blown away at the unique and exciting design of this show.  And just when you think you have been amazed enough, Milla Clarke’s set design turns into a set reveal!  But I’m giving no more away.  With a neon sign dropping in and out to help feed us juicy details, no more is needed in this slick production, with just the odd table, sofa and lawn chair completing the story. 

Sung throughout, Jack Godfrey has boldly written book, music and lyrics using a tapestry of classic, Brechtian, and modern styles to present us with this true tale of following your dreams.  Signs give us information, the V effect is used often to distance the actor from the character they are playing, so they present their story and talk about them in the third person, before absorbing the character once again.  This subconsciously forces the audience to witness the actions of the character objectively rather than judging them, a decision which you ultimately come to realise is so beautifully respectful to the real Larry’s story after the humiliation he faced at the hands of the media.  Its presentation is such a breath of fresh air, giving a deep clean and modern musical make over to so many loved and traditional theatre methods.  The ensemble are the modern day equivalent to a Greek Chorus, working together to comment on the story, usher it along through questions, storytelling and through playing different characters as and when needed.  They are watching the story unfold just as we are, and share in our delight, our befuddlement and our disbelief, as is evident on their faces at all times.  In short, this musical is clever and screams its love of theatre.  It is full of respect, love, humour, honour, and dreams.

As mentioned, 42 Balloons is sung throughout, a whole heap of fantastic songs blending together to create this one of a kind musical.  There is an eclectic whirlwind of styles that effortlessly come together as one.  Heavily influenced by the 80’s with power ballads, pop, rock, synth pop, it also has very smart influences and homage paid to the best and most successful musicals including Hamilton, Six, and Les MisJack Godfrey has an impressive, and I would even go as far to say ‘genius’ skill of bringing the best together, even if it seems they don’t belong together.  Who would have thought that Hamilton, The Fresh Prince Of Belair and Lynryd Skynyrd could all meet up in one song without clashing?  Jack Godfrey – that’s who, because it’s exactly what we get in the epic song 1982Blow gives us synth pop and Six vibes, Helium offers up pure musical theatre power ballad heaven and I am sure is going to be sung by many an auditionee in the future, whilst Somebody’s story gives us a soulful, sultry and blues delight.  There are moments of pure a capella and the result is glorious, emotional, and displays the unwavering talent of this cast.  Returning musical motifs are sprinkled throughout, ensuring you will leave with this music firmly lodged in your inner playlist.

Charlie McCullagh
(JCS, Annie Get Your Gun, Dr ZhivargoIn Concert) is the perfect casting for this geeky, spaceman, dreamer, bringing a warmth, humbleness and compassion to the role.  He makes Larry so instantly likeable with his quirky ways, ensuring that we laugh with him and never at him.  In fact, director Ellie Coote has beautifully ensured this is the case throughout.  McCullagh brings Larry’s dream to life before our eyes and allows us to understand his drive.  He evokes empathy, has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, and absolutely soars with his vocals.  This is a performance to behold and I know I have seen something very special.  Alongside Larry is his partner of ten years Carol, performed by the outstanding Evelyn Hoskins (Gypsy, Waitress, Assassins).  This is a divine partnership as Hoskins knows exactly how and when to bring humour and when to bring heartache.  Her rendition of Helium will make your spine tingle, yet she will also leave you belly laughing in her reactions to Larry, whilst still always displaying adoration and love for him.  The balance is so spot on, it allows for fun, self mocking, and hard realities. 

Gillian Hardie
(Mamma Mia, Kinky Boots, Blood Brothers) is wonderful as Carol’s mum, expertly pulling off the tricky Somebody’s Story that has brilliantly witty lyrics but with a serious message, set against an emotive and blues style melody.  She is always on the look out for Carol and manages to provide that delicate balance between being a mother bear and letting your child be free.  It is a heady mix of humour, maternal love, and loyalty that we see in Carol’s mum and it’s great.  Lejaun Sheppard (Hansel And Gretel, Come From Away, The Book Of Mormon) is Larry’s friend Ron, who is brought on board as ground crew because, well, he has a camera, and Larry needs this entire thing evidencing.  Sheppard is cool, full of fun, enthusiastic, and unwaveringly supportive as Ron, resulting in an addictive performance and has the audience in stitches with his mannerisms, the cheeky ‘side eyes’ he gives us to let us know exactly what he is thinking, and does a brilliant job in the aforementioned song 1982.  The entire cast are so in unison, so tight and clearly all on the same page and proud of their show.  It completely shines through that they are not just ging through the motions, and in turn, we all became fans in an instant.

There is so much to rave about 42 Balloons.  From the opening Prologue that makes you feel like you have been thrown into a 1980’s film fuelled with optimism, hope and potential, to the strong themes and messages throughout of having a dream, of chasing them, and encouraging them in others.  It really does make you think and have a mini life assessment!  42 Balloons is so proudly the dream of Jack Godfrey and I am genuinely honoured to have watched this dream come true, because in turn, I can guarantee it will have encouraged so many watching to chase their dreams too.  I also have to mention the Larry dance, as I have been personally referring to it, for he has these couple of moves that had everyone in stiches and are so iconic.  The Larry dance has the potential to be one of those things that has a spin off life of its own, with t-shirts, and people ‘doing the Larry!’  It’s brilliant.  I also loved that the programme fully included the creatives with the same exposure as the cast, including pictures and putting them front and centre.  I have never seen this before and it is a very respectful and classy touch.    I cannot stress it enough – GO AND WATCH 42 BALLOONS whilst you still can because this musical is going to be the next big thing and tickets will be impossible to get.  We have its premiere right here right now and I will be going again for sure.  On the surface, this may seem like a strange story for a musical, or just a strange story full stop, but it isn’t.  It is about the courage to follow your dreams and to have the conviction that they can and will come true.  The ending packs a powerful punch that even though I knew the facts of the story, I was so not ready for the delivery and the tears and wobbling lip that appeared from nowhere.  It gets you.  Really gets you and offers a huge wake up call to how we treat ourselves and others for thinking differently.  Well Larry, no one is laughing at you now, so keep looking up and dream big. 


Watch our "In Conversation with Charlie McCullagh & Evelyn Hoskins" video



Sweat - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - Wenesday 1st May 2024


A parole officer.  Two youths.  Two separate interviews.  But they are linked by the events that led them here.  But what are these events?  What has happened?  What has derailed the friendship of these two young men and clearly torn their lives apart?  And that is the hook.  That’s what reels you in from the off.  As the Pulitzer Prize winning drama from Lynn Nottage gets underway, we are welcomed into the world of best friends Cynthia and Tracey as they hang out at Stans bar.  It’s a simple but fulfilling life.  Everyone in the community longs to work in the local factory for the pay is good and the work is steady.  There is a comforting reassurance that nothing ever changes, it makes it reliable and rocksteady.  It is a badge of honour to work there, generations of workers pass through their doors and it seems the only way to get a job there is to know someone and be invited.  It is a source of pride, a pedestal, an identity.  So what happens when things do start to change?  When cracks start to show?  And what happens when best friends Tracey and Cynthia both apply for the same promotion, taking them off the union workers floor and into management?  Cynthia gets the job and suddenly resentments, jealousies, and feelings of betrayals surface.  Cynthia is trying to fight the system from within, but everyone else thinks she has abandoned them for a better life.  So, when it is left to Cynthia to reveal the factory’s plans asking the workers to take a 60% pay cut in order to save the plant, Tracey and everyone else takes the betrayal on a personal level, and Tracey starts spreading stories that Cynthia only got the job in the first place because she is black and it ticked a minority box.  As the workers are locked out, tensions rise, friendships are tested, and this once solid community is shattered.  Anger, fear and alcohol don’t mix, and as people start to find scapegoats to blame, we can only watch on with heartache and frustration. 

Lynn Nottage
has not only captured a slice of a working class town in Reading, Pennsylvania, she has captured the voices of an entire class of people worldwide.  Her ability to dramatise the everyday, to find the humour in it as well as the heartache is spectacular.  She unapologetically puts class, race, prejudice, and the pride of wanting nothing more from life than to go to work and have a drink with your friends in your local bar after work, in the spotlight.  And she does so with dignity, without ever reducing the characters to simple stereotypes.  What we discover is a community full of pride, where working in solidarity offers acceptance.  And when that is shaken and taken away in a brutal and disorienting way, the path of destruction it leaves is eye wateringly scary.  It should be a wake up call to everyone, no matter what class you consider yourself to be.

Set between 2000 and 2008, Nottage extensively researched communities, spoke to everyone possible from every angle after being shocked by a friends personal experience.  Sweat continually flips forwards and backwards in time to reveal the stories of this community, entirely reliant on its industry for work and their survival.  This allows us to see both how a community designed in this way can both thrive and crumble by the hands of its industry.  All it takes is for the work, the factory to close up and move on to a cheaper location, cheaper outsourcing, cheaper workers, and what was once home, becomes a ghost town, with far more than a lack of work left to haunt them.  But Nottage clearly has the upmost respect for these characters, showing a variety of outcomes from the bleak to the resilient, and even in their cruellest moments, she ensures they are portrayed in such an understanding way that we can empathise instead of judge.   

Carla Henry
as Cynthia is strong, powerful, and shines with her multi layered character.  She enables so many nuances to be brought to light from determination, pride, empathy, fear, humour, and being torn apart by loyalties, friendships, and pressure.  It means we are presented with a character that is so real you will instantly recognise elements of her in yourself or the people that you know, and Henry’s ability to show vulnerability one moment, and be prepared to fight someone the next is outstanding.  Pooky Quesnel as Tracey is fierce, commanding, loyal and someone you do not want to get on the wrong side of because when her world is tipped upside down, those character traits get tipped upside down with it.  Quesnel is a master at portraying a cauldron of emotions that she is desperately trying to keep a lid on, and when they do boil over, the results are explosively incredible to behold.  Whether you personally agree with Tracey’s opinions or not, Quesnel’s conviction is so authentically brilliant that you feel her pain.

Abdul Sessay
as Chris and Lewis Gribben as Jason will make your heart break as you see their optimism and their sheer belief in their community and life force of their factory be shattered around them.  As time flips backwards and forwards, they make it so easy to follow by their demeanour, for the before, during and after of their characters are so distinctive.  Sessay brings such maturity to his role and his acting, highlighting with clarity how potential and opportunity can be in conflict with loyalty and expectations.  Gribben’s brings a blind loyalty and naivety to the factory for which he works and shows a heartbreaking internal struggle as generations worth of history and beliefs are thrown at him like grenades, until he can’t think for himself.  His actions are those of his mums anger, showing how prejudices spread.  These actions lead to a highly charged and electric fight scene, directed by fight and intimacy director Kaitlin Howard.  It is so realistic that you’d be forgiven for squirming in your seat.  There is so much going on, and watching how the fight slowly builds from a few shoves and pushes into devastating punches, kicks, baseball bat beatings, heads being smashed into tables as we see teeth and blood fly across the stage, and the part that made everyone recoil and wince out loud at its realistic nature was the head butt, complete with a sickening skull crack echoing around the theatre.  It was so slick and so multi layered that I applaud Kaitlin Howard and the cast for their impressive trust and team work with each other.  

Jonathan Kerrigan
is Stan, the glue that often holds the tensions at bay.  A calm and respected presence throughout, Kerrigan makes it clear that Stan clearly has a history and a thousand stories to tell.  He offers a calm reassurance, and an irony that he is a living breathing embodiment that there can be life after the factory.  And that equally, when something goes wrong with the factory, they won’t be there to support you.  But nobody seems to recognise that this is staring them in the face.  Kerrigan is brilliant at giving a little of his character away, then pulling it right back, leaving you intrigued and hooked as to what his full story is.  He stands up for equity over equality, recognising that each persons circumstances are unique to them.  Chris Jack brings such a believable and detailed physicality as the addictive Brucie.  Even his eyes seemed lit, and yet he also countered this by trying to tame it all, hide his inebriation, so it was painfully real to witness.  He gave Bruce a certain swagger and charm which I felt was an important inclusion so that Cynthias periods of taking him back through their history, before kicking him out again, allowed her to maintain her strength, if not her tropical fish!  Jack equally showed us Brucie’s demons and flickers of compassion for his son.  A versatile and impressive performance.

Kate Kennedy
as Jessie reduced us to belly laughter with her sporadically timed input as her drunken words rang out every so often.  It was her follow throughs after these moments too, where she would slowly melt into the set, entirely inebriated, as if made without bones.  She also allowed us to see Jessies dreams in the most tender and delicate scenes that really made you lean in and listen.  Marcello Cruz as Oscar allows his character to build throughout the show and his presence at the start, rarely speaking but always working, was unknowingly planting the seeds in our mind as to what was to come.  He so cleverly allowed his character to be hidden in plain sight, the others dismissing his presence, refusing to help him, so when they expected support and loyalty in return, you understood exactly why he put himself first.  And despite his treatment, his ending in the play juxtaposed his optimistic future being brought face to face with his past, and showed what a difference a positive influence can make.  He followed Stans example and has the future no one else does.  Aaron Cobham as Evan opens the show and pulls us into the intrigue immediately.  He sets the entire tone of the show with a natural, believable, fully rounded and detailed character.  As the parole officer of Chris and Jason, he has information we don’t at this point.  We don’t know what they’ve done, but Cobham dangles that carrot beautifully, ensuring we are hooked.

Director Jade Lewis has taken a play set in middle America and made it so relevant and accessible to us.  She has allowed these characters to be so unequivocally human, with all their flaws, stories, histories, opinions, learned beliefs, confusing friendships and loyalties, their passions, dreams, desires, traits, skills, quirks and uniqueness.  For me, that is what made this play so interesting, the people in it and I truly believe there is not a single thing that each actor does not know about their character.  Lynn Nottage’s script is made far more interesting because she doesn’t focus on the politics of the unions or the economic downfall of the working class, she makes it about the people.  The people who are living and breathing these nightmare situations.  She grabs that spotlight and thrusts it on the truth, the real life consequences.  It is a play many politicians and leaders of industry should perhaps watch so they can get a clue.

is playing till 25th May and is your opportunity to see what a Pulitzer Prize winning play looks like.  I was unsure whether I was in the mood for an evening of such heavy material and political messages, but that is not what Sweat is or how it is approached at all.  It is full of humour, real belly laugh out loud humour, as these characters just say what’s on their mind, often at inopportune moments. It is full of passion, hope, decency and the best and worst of humanity.  It shows us we cannot always choose what happens around us, but we will always have a choice in how we respond to it.  It shows we are not weak if we do not fight, especially when it isn’t a fair fight to begin with.  It raises a lot of interesting questions, relatable and relevant questions, questions that will make you sweat


Sweat is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 25th May 2024.

Watch our "In Conversation with Chris Jack" video


Little Shop of Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors - Octagon Theatre, Bolton - Wednesday 24th April 2024


That famous opening drum roll goosed my bumps, those glorious three descending notes rang out tingling my spine, and by the time the deeply delicious voice had kicked in warning us about events on the 23rd day of the month of September, I was already mentally planning when I could come and watch this production of Little Shop Of Horrors again!  And if the audience reaction was anything to go by on this opening night, I know I won’t be the only one!  What a show.  I mean, seriously!  What.  A.  Show!

If you are a Little Shop newbie, then welcome to Skid Row, a dark, dismal and grey corner of New York that shows how hard work and dedication can turn your life around………..ok so that’s not entirely true.  But, if you do happen to be in possession of an alien life form disguised as a plant that lives entirely off fresh blood, then fame and fortune can absolutely be yours!  Seymour works alongside Audrey in Mr. Mushnik’s failing flower shop.  He has no money, no prospects, and no life.  He is also hopelessly in love with co worker Audrey, who is dating a semi sadist dentist named Orin, and gets his kicks inflicting pain on people, including Audrey.  But Audrey thinks so little of herself and feels so trapped that she believes Orin is all she deserves.  Seymour discovers a solution to it all in a strange and mysterious plant he discovered after a total eclipse of the sun, which he named Audrey II after the love of his life.

Twoey, as he affectionately calls the plant, is so unique looking that it starts pulling in paying customers, so the fear is real when it starts wilting.  Plant food, water - nothing seems to work, until it shows interest in Seymour’s pricked finger.  A few drops of blood are rewarded with a growth spurt, and as Twoey’s appetite grows bigger by the day, Seymour realises he can solve many problems with one teensy tiny murder.  Kill Orin and not only is Audrey safe and free, but Twoey continues to grow and bring him all the wonderful things he desires.  How does he know this?  Twoey told him so.  Oh yeah, did I forget to mention?  The plant can talk!  Of course, the path of true love never did run smoothly, especially when a human eating, wise cracking, bad ass alien plant is pulling all the strings.  And so the only question left is, how far will you go to fulfil your dreams? 

Little Shop Of Horrors
, regardless of its killing spree, is a fast paced, witty, upbeat, and fun filled show of the highest order.  The set design by TK Hay immediately drops you in the heart of Skid Row, with trash cans, abandoned shopping trolleys, alleyways, metal stair fire escapes, and Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop in the heart of it, set back on a slightly raised platform.  This works wonders in multiple ways, for it separates the shop from the rest of the performance space, making it clear where the alley way, street or dentist room are.  It also has slated grills at its base that look like New York drains, but which double up as a clever lighting source and outlet for dry ice, aka the famous New York steam.  And it also provides the perfect platform for when Audrey II has grown to astronomical proportions, making the plant the main focal point.  Nic Farman’s lighting design hooks you into this juxtaposed feel good, frenzied blood bath by flooding us with greens, reds, and creating his own rainbow palate to take the good, the bad, and the alien of this world and perfectly place us and our emotions exactly where they need to be.  Blended into this incredible creative team is the sound design by James Cook, that is so seamless, you will forget that much of what you hear isn’t actually real!

There’s nothing downtown or skid row about this outstanding cast either.  From the moment you see any of them, they draw you in, with the homeless skid rowians nestling under their blankets on the stairs next to the audience, our three power houses Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon blowing your minds with their vocals, Seymour and Audrey flapping around a stressed and angry Mr. Mushnik, and Orin strutting his danger across the stage.  The accents, particularly in Seymour, Audrey and Mr. Mushnik are specifically New York American and the detail that each and every cast member has gifted is a work of art in itself. 

Oliver Mawdsley
is simply outstanding as Seymour.  He is so animated, so fully invested in the character.  From his nervous hunched shoulders to his twitchy face as he stresses about what is the right thing to do.  It’s really hard to tear your eyes off him for he embodies everything that Seymour is, and then some.  You can see a multitude of thoughts per second flash across his face and he truly wears this character’s heart on his sleeve.  Nothing is hidden from us.  This means you completely and utterly believe and invest in his performance.  Whether he is reaching out the audience pleading for help by his facial expressions alone as Orin flings him around the stage, or using his physicality to portray his uncertainty as he tries to make himself disappear into the folds of the dentist chair, or climb it to its peak to escape, he truly is one of the most generous and detailed performers I have seen.  Vocally he is a dream to listen to and his believable partnership with what is ultimately a puppet, with Audrey II is mind blowing. 

Laura Jane Matthewson
will blow your socks off as Audrey and is a breath of fresh air with her interpretation of the character.  Gone is the ditsy, air headed side of Audrey, and instead she is a stronger, more capable woman.  This gives so much licence to reinterpret her lines, her songs, and it is a joy to behold.  In the talented hands of Matthewson, Audrey is recognised as being trapped by circumstance, believing her past must dictate her future, and it leaves her with little self worth.  This is her downfall, not her intellect.  This is why she stays with Orin and not because she doesn’t know any better as seen in previous interpretations.  This version of Audrey absolutely knows better, she just doesn’t believe she deserves it.  Matthewson therefore transformed Somewhere That’s Green into a message of hope for an uncomplicated future, and it made her love story with Seymour seem so much more about genuine love, than simply the need to be with someone, anyone, who paid her attention.  Again, this meant that another song, Suddenly Seymour, was seen through fresh eyes, and genuinely moved me in a way I haven’t experienced before with this song.

Zweyla Mitchell Dos Santos, Chardai Shaw
, and Janna May are sensational as Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon.  They own the stage whenever they appear with their sass, their strut, and their stupendous vocals.  They take it in turns to fill the theatre with the powerhouse voices and harmonise together like they’ve been a trio all their lives.  Their energy is relentless and I want them to form a group!  Andrew Whitehead is a force to be reckoned with as Mr. Mushnik.  He plays the stressed out, down on his luck shop owner with exceptional comedic timing and seems to instinctively know when to play with the light and shade of his character.  His detailed responses as to what’s going on are worth looking out for too.  Matthew Ganley is so multi-talented, portraying not only Orin the dentist, but a whole host of characters, from a derelict to his quick character changes during The Meek Shall Inherit.  As Orin, he has absolutely nailed the slightly unhinged and it is delightfully disturbing.  He can be insanely laughing one minute, full of confident swagger the next, before he flips on a knife edge into threatening, just before he reverses and starts flirting!  He is mesmerising to watch and had the audience in nervous stitches at his unpredictability. 

Matthew Heywood
beautifully supports the cast as a derelict, and even appears slaying it on guitar!  But most of his work sees him hidden away as puppeteer of Audrey II, designed and directed by the phenomenal Michael Fowkes.  His puppeteering is so good that more than one person, myself included, questioned whether there was a real person living inside of Audrey II, or whether it was done by mechanics or something else, and the joy of it is, we left none the wiser.  The magic and mystery of Audrey II was epic and with roots, leaves, and teeth flailing around with such passion, speed and intricacy, I won’t be turning to a plant based diet any time soon.  I mean, the puppet skills were so on point, that I sat entirely engrossed as the plants mouth and throat even reverberated with vibrato when singing!  I mean, come on!  These are incredibly special and awe inspiring details and talent.  Lastly, but by no means least is Anton Stephans.  What a whirlwind, all encompassing, iconic and commanding performance.  Stephans does appear on stage as a few different characters, but he is the genius that gives Audrey II its mood and ‘tude, its sass and brass.

It is a voice I promise you will not forget, utterly dripping with personality, he creates an eclectic mix of rock, gospel, Motown and hits heights you didn’t even know existed.  Nothing I can say will do him, or any of this team justice.  Just like Audrey II, you really do have to see it, and hear it, to believe it.  I also have to give a shout out to Migdalia Van Der Hoven, the award-winning drummer who made my gooses bump right from the off.  I was equally blown away when I realised this star was also producing numerous sound effects throughout, such as the ominous clock ticking time away.  Oh yeah, I’ve not even mentioned yet that this cast are also interchangeable as the band!  One minute they’re belting out a number, blending in with sublime harmonies, or giving their all in a scene, the next, they’re up on the balcony, or at the sides of the stage hammering away at the keys, rocking a guitar, or goodness knows what else.  I truly couldn’t keep up with their endless skills.

Lotte Wakeham
has done it again!  What a director.  She has somehow taken a much loved and well-known musical and not only given it a brand new lease of life, but has equally kept it respectfully familiar, ensuring that everyone will fall in love with this musical by the award winning Howard Ashman and Alan Menken over and over again.  By the end, the cast, who clearly love this show as both performers and fans, completely set the Octagon Theatre alight!  The audience were on their feet, dancing, singing, soaking up this beautifully perfect moment.  Glitter canons, balloons, and a theatre full of serotonin, this is a night I will never forget, and I know that this mean green mother from outta space has willingly taken the humans of Bolton into an entirely different realm!  Grab a ticket however you can for Little Shop Of Horrors will feed your soul, but remember, whatever they offer you – DON’T FEED THE PLANTS!   


Clinton Baptiste

Clinton Baptiste - RollerGhoster Tour - Albert Halls, Bolton - Saturday 20th April 2024

Clinton Baptiste, clairvoyant, psychic, medium and purveyor of the third eye is back on tour in his spectacular sparkling suit and his new show RollerGhoster.  It has everything any Clinton fan would anticipate, with a few new surprises thrown in to keep us all dancing on our celestial toes.  But before we arrive at the pearly gates to sneak a peek around Gods velvety curtains, we are treated to brilliant local comedian Adam Anwar who goes down a storm with this, his home crowd.   Hailing from Farnworth Bolton, he talks our language and effortlessly throws in local references that need no explanation whatsoever.  As we are told about his unique place in the world being born of a Pakistani father and Polish mother, he has us in stitches as he confirms his heritage is UKIPs worst nightmare.  Anwar self mocks and delivers his material like he is chatting to his mates, making his whole set relaxed and intimate.  His material is really unique, personal, and sharp.  He wowed the comedy scene in 2018 by winning Manchester’s ‘Beat the Frog’ competition in his 1st ever gig!  He has gone on to be awarded Leicester Comedy Festival Circuit Breaker 2022 and is definitely one to watch, with his down to earth approach, quick wit, and flawlessly executed humour.

After the interval, Clinton Baptiste almost floats onto stage with his deliciously over the top, sensationally showbiz entrance.  Multi coloured spotlights dance across the stage as he arrives in a larger than life white robe, with arms extended on sticks that he swishes around like angel wings.  He wafts from one side of the stage to the other, without uttering a word, yet whipping this eager audience into a frenzy with his presence alone.  The love in the room is clear and so when Clinton finally squarks out his infamous “Ya alright?” – that’s all it takes to make the venue explode into riotous laughter and applause.  Anticipation is built, there is a palpable fizzing energy and this is clearly a true and dedicated fan base.  He starts out by explaining the trouble’s he’s been having on tour, getting to venues, being mistaken for Pat Butcher on route, and discovering that somebody, possibly his stage hand, has it in for him and is defacing his tour posters across the country with images that suggest he likes to eat his fair share of, how shall we put it?  Meat and two veg!  His vocal gymnastics with that fabulous voice not only ensures that Clinton Baptiste has immediate distinction, but it’s unpredictable arrival at random places in his speech patterns never fail to raise a giggle as it catches you unawares time and time again. 

As Baptiste makes a bedazzled beeline to chat with audience members, he quickly susses out the more vocal ones and gloriously streamlines their heckling into part of his routine.  He is so at home with the quick retorts, the come backs and the battle of the banter that you can be forgiven for thinking he quite relishes these moments of disruption, perhaps even intentionally seeking them out to create even more material for this omniscient character.  Of course, there’s also the gentle innuendo and smut we’ve all come to know and love, whether it be his all-seeing third eye that likes to stand to attention, or him calling out people as a nonce!  And no Clinton Baptiste show would be complete without his infamous greetings of “Namaste, Shalamah, Shackattack” with a few “halloumi’s” and “Chaka Demus & Pliers” thrown in for good measure too.  As he starts to relate to the audience what the spirit world is telling him, we have classic moments of him knowing someone’s name (as they say it) and simply pulling the microphone away from them, down to trying to guess their star sign, and just reeling them all off until he strikes lucky.  This is all interlaced with the remnants of his own experience with a hypnotist that he swears hasn’t worked but sees him bursting into rogue moments of impersonating Benny Hill!  The rapport with the fans is fantastic and even the most nervous succumb to his bizarrely charming spell as he even managed to entice a nervous participant on stage who of course, once there, was looked after and had a brilliant time.  Some fans even came dressed up as Clinton Baptiste themselves and got a great cheer from the audience before the show had even started!  As always, each message he delivers from beyond the grave produces a white feather for the receiver, and in this show we are contacted by a whole host of celebs too, as well as a Victorian child who made her intentions quite clear for one particular audience member.  No one is off limits for Clinton Baptiste, so with references to a vast array of folk from Gregg Wallace to Gary Glitter, the show is sprinkled with one liners, stories that have huge pay offs, to the down right bonkers and even a rogue confetti canon!

The man behind the character is of course the extremely talented Alex Lowe.  Alex Lowe may have begun his journey with Clinton Baptise on Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, but he actually started out in showbiz at the tender age of fourteen in the original West End production of Another Country.  He went on to appear in films such as Haunted, Peter’s Friends and Much Ado About Nothing with the likes of Kenneth Brannagh, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.  His comedy skills have led him to perform on shows such as Bremner, Bird and Fortune, The Fast Show, Grass, The 11 O’ Clock Show and he of course also created the brilliant Barry from Watford for Steve Wrights show on Radio 2.  Alex Lowe has written for and worked with some of the most iconic names out there, and so it is no surprise that he has taken this larger than life character of Clinton Baptiste to the next level, where he has grown an army of fans in both this world and the next.  With podcasts, tours, and even his own merchandise, Clinton Baptiste has definitely created a life force in his very own stratosphere!  As an actor, Alex Lowe is to be thoroughly commended to the detail he has embodied into our psychic chum.  There is no mention of the name Alex Lowe amongst the audience tonight, just Clinton Baptiste, for he has truly suspended the disbelief in all of us.  The voice, the costume, the accessories, the back story of his marriage his childhood, his career path, and the mannerisms, the coined phrases and even his breaking points.  We all know how far we can push Clinton before he gets annoyed, before his showbiz armour starts to slip, and it is quite brilliant.  The comic timing, the facial expressions, the delivery, with no fear of a lengthy pause for maximum impact – this is more than a comedy genius, it is an acting one too. 

Don’t be put off if you are new to the world of Baptiste either for you are quickly welcomed into the cult, with details of his life and in jokes being shared and of course we are updated on his marriage to the elderly Maureen, and the benefits of a sex life with an older partner!  And when you are completely hooked into the madcap world of Clinton, you can quench your thirst on his many podcasts.  The thing about RollerGhoster is that you will end up giggling like a naughty school kid.  And once you start, you really can’t stop.  It is ludicrously laudable, brilliantly bonkers, and dances with the devilish side of you that perhaps the spirits would try to steer you clear of, but that is never gonna happen whilst Clint is around!  The humour is a blend of clever, sophisticated and intelligent, right down to schmoozy smut and tongue in cheek (and everywhere else!) humour.  Insults are flung left right and centre, and they don’t discriminate – everyone is fair game, so you might want to hide your shovel hands, your haircut or your whole self, because you never know when it might be your turn to be judged by the spirits.  But just remember, you can’t get mad – it’s not Clinton saying these things after all, so “don’t shoot the messenger!”  There are plenty of further opportunities to catch the Clinton Baptiste RollerGhoster Tour across the North West, so blow off your cobwebs, grab your tickets, and let the spirits guide you to your nearest venue because it is possibly one of the best comedy shows you will see in this world or the next!

The Mousetrap

The Mousetrap - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 8th April 2024


The world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, has sleuthed its way into Salford for its 70th anniversary tour.  It not only holds the Guiness World Record for the longest running play, but Agatha Christie is also the world’s bestselling author!  Quite the spectacular combination and a powerful aphrodisiac that ensures audiences both new and old are still falling in love with its secrets, mystery, and intrigue.  Over 70 venues are being gifted a visit from this iconic play on its celebratory tour, symbolically including all cities to which it originally played!  The Mousetrap still plays in the West End today, with record breaking performances, selling over 10 million tickets!  

So why is it so popular?  What is its secret?  Well, the fact that the show itself holds a secret, a secret which the audience are welcomed into via the exclusive Mousetrap club and asked to keep, is an undeniably clever twist, and one that many other shows are starting to catch on to.  It gives its audience a sense of belonging, and a delightful kick at knowing something other people don’t know.  As Monkswell Manor is grandly revealed, news spreads of a murder in London.  One by one, guests arrive at this remote countryside estate looking for shelter from the raging storm.  Guarded pleasantries drift through the firelit guesthouse, keeping an uneasy peace, that is until a police sergeant arrives and shatters all illusions.  For there is a killer amongst them.  But who could it be?  What motive could they possibly have?  And how many are they prepared to kill?  Everyone is a suspect, and with good reason, for as we start to learn the truth about each of the guests, it seems everyone has something to hide.

Therein lies the hook of this play.  Whodunnit?  Was it Giles or Mollie Ralston, a seemingly honest couple who inherited Monkswell Manor?  Yet they are evidently hiding something, immediately arousing suspicion.  Or was it Christopher Wren, an enthusiastic and energetic architect who enjoys the beauty of the house and whistling nursery rhymes?  How about the irritable, uncompromising Mrs. Boyle who takes no prisoners with her strong opinions, or retired Major Metcalf who has an affinity for detail, helping others, and optimism?  Maybe it was the dry, aloof business woman Miss Casewell whose sharp and direct manner takes many by surprise.  Could it even be Mr. Paravicini, the unexpected guest whose humour seems so close to the bone that anything is possible?  As police sergeant Trotter arrives on snow ski’s to investigate the murder, the house is full.  But how long will it stay that way?  Is anybody really safe from the storm at Monkswell Manor?

The Mousetrap
is played out in one room, adding an air of murderous mystery.  It arouses suspicions each time a character exits, begging the questions, what they are doing?  Where they have gone?  What are they are talking about?  And will they ever return alive?!  Keeping in with the original 1950’s time frame of the play, this striking set places us in the drawing room of Monkswell Manor.  Imposing wooden panelling adorns every surface, including a large ornate fireplace.  Pictures are scattered across the walls and furniture, with dim lights suppressing the atmosphere further.  A writing desk complete with a wireless and telephone play their part, and the remaining furniture is situated throughout and used to great effect.  The biggest success of the set is the inclusion of six slick and often surprising entrance and exit points.  These drive the story, the intrigue, and the thrill.  Ian Talbot and Denise Silvey’s direction creates the perfect misdirection, with actors swifty manoeuvring between these entrances and exits in the blink of an eye, ensuring that perhaps our attention is not always focused on the right character at the right time.  It is so clever, and leaves you in a heightened state of “What on earth is going on?”  Add into this a lighting design that manages to control your emotional state by the gradual dimming and flickering of lights into cold, hard blackouts.

Holly Sullivan
(Barefoot In The Park, Private Lives) understudied for Neerja Naik as Mollie Ralston and created a multi layered character, who was warm and nurturing.  Her relationships with the various characters each had their unique stance from frustrated to maternal.  She gave a strong and believable transformation from a gentle newly wed to someone capable of asserting strength and determination.  Barnaby Jago (The Beast Of Blue Yonder) as Giles Ralston was fantastic as the stereotypical 1950’s middle class husband.  He was proud of himself and his own importance, yet still gave us a genuine likeability and reason to root for him.  It was a beautifully balanced performance.  Shaun McCourt (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, War Horse) as Christopher Wren was a joy to watch with his physical humour, exquisitely readable facial expressions, and infectious energy.  He really allowed the audience to laugh at his over enthusiastic caddish approach, and his likeability was palpable.  He also showed a delicacy to his character via his relationship with Mollie.  A glorious labrador puppy fuelled by Duracell batteries! 

Gwyneth Strong
(Ladies Of Letters, Only Fools & Horses, Eastenders) as Mrs. Boyle had perfectly pitched sarcasm, disapproval and deplorable detest of everything and everyone.  Her voice was dripping with the most gloriously pompous tonality.  It was wonderful to watch and even though you dislike Mrs. Boyle’s unrelenting standards, you kind of can’t help loving her directness too.  Todd Carty (Eastenders, The Bill, Spamalot) as Major Metcalf had the most brilliant character voice that brought the Major to life in an instant.  His bumbling presence, throaty laugh, and his characters intricacies were a true delight to watch and made him an audience favourite every time he came on stage.  He was able to continually surprise and keep you on your toes with a tremendous performance.  Amy Spinks (Shakespeare Nation, Bab’s Big Show) as Miss Casewell portrayed this private, brisk and stand-offish character with ease.  An inner confidence poured out of her, making us believe that Miss Casewell was carrying an intriguing secret.  She oozed a certain kind of charisma and I enjoyed her scenes very much.  Steven Elliot (Frankenstein, The Crown, numerous RSC) as Mr. Paravicini was a joy to behold.  His outlandishness and unpredictability are a force to be reckoned with, and allowed him to hold the audience in the palm of his charming hand.  Whether it be his corrupt sense of humour, a brilliantly timed one liner, a wink and a nudge to the audience, or his physicality, it was a treat every time he was on stage.  Elliot knows how to milk the most out of each word, each phrase, each look, and he draws the audience into his fun world time and time again with energetic ease.  Michael Ayiotis (Teechers, The Mountain & Me) as Detective Sgt. Trotter had a fantastic authoritative presence with his stature, vocal delivery, and presence.  He made you want to give him the information he demanded – even if you didn’t know it yourself!  He was commanding, clear and concise and drove the narrative perfectly.

The first half of the show flew by and we were surprised to find ourselves stumbling into the interval, for it really does draw you in.  There is a twee nostalgia to the play, for it has kept its roots in its time frame.  The Mousetrap is positively aware of this and allows us to giggle at some things that seem absurd in todays world.  In that sense, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and enjoys the flexibility the different array of characters brings.  Speaking of which, this is the riding force of the show for me.  The cast have excelled in producing such varying and unique characters, each with their own life force.  The first half of the second act drives along in a similar vein, keeping us hooked into the plot as we try to figure it all out.  The remainder of the show in comparison felt a little jarred, like it was in a rush to finish, or it had run out of time.  I can’t really say too much without risking slipping up and giving secrets away, but I kind of wanted more.  Maybe that’s a good thing – always leave them wanting more right?  That aside, this is no doubt the mothership of all whodunnits and I could absolutely see how many other shows have tried to replicate its formula.  I am thrilled to have finally seen this trend setting show and promise to uphold its secrets.  Here’s to the next 70 years.  Happy Anniversary to The Mousetrap.


Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 26th March 2024


Mischief are back in Manchester, creating chaos in our fabulous Opera House!  And we wouldn’t have it any other way, for anytime this award-winning company fly in to greet us with their fabulous presence, is a time we are guaranteed to love life once again.  The treat on offer is the Olivier award-nominated West End and Broadway smash hit Comedy Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  Written by Mischief Theatre originals, Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer, it has everything you’ve come to expect from this world renowned company.  They still manage to keep you guessing though, taking you by surprise and blowing your mind with outstanding slapstick theatre that teeters on the brink of impressive and dangerous stunt work!

As with any Mischief Theatre ‘goes wrong’ show, make sure you arrive early, for the entertainment starts way before the curtain goes up, and it would be such a shame to miss a second of what they have on offer.  The cast usually arrive in the audience from around 7ish, involving us in their mishaps, chaos, and teasing us with a taste of what’s to come.  We start to understand their characters relationship dynamics, and as stagehands feed electrical wiring through the audience, others look for a missing hammer, Peter Pan is wandering around offering selfies and as the director tries to locate a runaway cast member, you will be fizzed into a frenzy of glee before the show has even officially begun!

Mischief Theatre
describe themselves with the beautiful and fitting statement that they are serious about silliness.  Celebrating ten years of shows in the West End, they have grown into a global sensation and created award-winning comedy for stage, screen and beyond.  Upon graduating, a group of friends created an improvisational group, started performing across the UK, and have never stopped since.  Their winning formula provides essential escapism (or ridiculous escapism as they like to call it) through humour, mishaps, and that innate and questionable instinct we all have to laugh at others accidental misfortunes.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, as with all the ‘goes wrong’ shows, is a brilliantly constructed world that follows the characters from Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they attempt to produce shows for stage or screen.  Their complicated dynamics and backstage relationships often interfere with the show in question, and so we are privy to a play within a play and all the backstage hilarity that goes with it!  Each performer therefore presents us with their ‘real character’ who is an actor with Cornley, and the role they have been given in the particular play.

It is a wonderful concept because if you follow the ‘goes wrong’ shows, then you already know and understand the dynamics between the Cornley group members, and we continually get to see them in various different settings, roles, and become hooked on the jealousies, resentments, and egos that come with this.  It really is brilliant!  It also provides permission to break the fourth wall as the director can speak to the audience and include us in the evenings proceedings.  And so as Cornley attempt to put on Peter Pan, we quickly learn that perhaps they are slightly over ambitious, accident prone, and ill prepared.  Add alter egos and a director in denial into the mix, and it appears that Cornley are prepared to live and die by the motto ‘The Show Must Go On’ - even when flying mishaps, cast disputes, tumbling windows and technical nightmares mean it is quite literally falling down around them!

One of the many highlights of Mischief Theatres ‘Goes Wrong’ shows are the phenomenally designed sets.  They continually reveal surprises, make you hold your breath with anticipation, and keep both audience and cast alike on our toes throughout!  Designed by Simon Scullion, Peter Pan Goes Wrong delights with a revolving set that transports us from the various locations of Neverland, to the Darlings house, and a few more obscure and unexpected treats along the way.  What else would you expect from Cornley after all?  A revolving set has so many perfect opportunities for disaster and they all deliver.  A revolving stage that doesn’t revolve, to one that won’t stop revolving, to it revolving at the wrong time, exposing the cast in some precarious positions!  As this blindly determined troupe desperately attempt to continue, they slowly but surely lose cast members along the way to electrocution, a plummeting fall from the rafters, others get squished by collapsing bunk beds, the narrator has an ongoing feud with his chair, the pirate ship has a mind of its own, and that’s before we even get started on the flying and all the accidents that creates!  These elements of disaster are also immersive, treating us to lights that constantly flicker on and off in the theatre itself.  Mischief really have thought of everything!

Directed by Adam Meggido, the pace is perfect, the comedy ingeniously allowed to thrive to its full potential, and the comradery is palpable.  Jack Michael Stacey gifts us with his performance of the frazzled director Chris Bean.  Of course, Chris Bean has also cast himself in the play and so we see him attempt to take on the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook with a deluded grandeur.  His hilarity comes from his desire to take himself so seriously, even when everything around is screaming for him to loosen up and go with the flow.  His melt downs are legendary and his direct improvisation and frustration with the audience when he refuses to accept that this show is a pantomime is side splittingly fantastic!  Matthew Howell is our Robert, an envious wanna be director whose self belief shines brighter than the second star on your right!  He dazzles us by continually switching character from Nana the dog, to the side-splitting shadow of Peter Pan, and Starkey the posh pirate!  But it is his unrivalled resentment as Robert that truly brings everything he does to life in such a side-splitting way, making his role even funnier to witness.  He tries to smooth everything over with a cheeky smile and sheer determination, including the early demise of a child from Oliver!

Gareth Tempest’s
as Jonathan plays Peter Pan as someone who most definitely loves the spotlight, and he likes to dazzle with a winning smile.  He is brilliant at switching from panic when his flying goes wrong, to turning on the showbiz charm in a heartbeat.  Ciara Morris as Sandra plays Wendy with a brilliant seriousness of her art, and her outbursts of interpretive dance are hilarious.  She is so determined to take her moment in the spotlight that she desperately tries to ignore the chaos surrounding her.  Clark Devlin is Dennis, who brings us John and Smee, all through a set of headphones as he can’t remember his lines.  His wooden delivery is just superb, and his timing of lines to create comedy is spot on.  He doesn’t blink an eye when switching from his lines, to delivering radio updates or unknowingly reiterating a marriage break up!  Jean-Luke Worrell’s as Francis is our brilliant narrator who provides rip roaring squeals at his ongoing battle with his chair.  He has a brilliant moment in the second act as a pirate when he has to ‘fill’ and leads the entire audience in a 90’s boy band sing song!  The energy in the theatre at this point is just fabulous.

Theo Toksvig-Stewart’s
had the entire theatre rooting for him as Max.  He won everyone over with his endearing nature, loveable yet gormless smiles and waves to the audience, and his caddish crocodile who even came with his own cute catchphrase!  He could melt your heart with a look, and played the character to perfection.  Jamie Birkett as Annie plays so many roles and makes this a fantastic fete with quick changes, singing, light up costumes, various accents, and goodness knows what else.  Every time someone opens a door it seems she is there as a different character and I have to give a special mention to her singing!  What a voice!  Rosemarie Akwafo is Lucy and introduces herself before the show has officially started by being our terrified and runaway actress, forced into the spotlight by her overbearing uncle Robert.  She is like a bunny in headlights and gives an amazing performance as the terrified actress, who finally finds her voice in a strange turn of events.  Jake Burgum as Trevor the stagehand is brilliant, far more interested in his phone than the job at hand and it creates some epic moments, which result in him learning how to fly!!  He is the opposite of every lovie on stage, with his down to earth and unimpressed attitude and it works so well.

The audience are allowed to take their moment too with the inclusion of panto style responses being encouraged of “it’s behind you,” and no one hesitates at joining in.  Peter Pan Goes Wrong is quick, slick and full of slapstick!  Never has getting it wrong been so right.  A masterclass in physical theatre, comedy, stage combat, improvisation and teamwork, that will leave you with a heightened state of adrenalin and uncontrollable tears of joy.  Character driven gags mingle with running gags, chaos and crossed wires, resulting in a comic spectacle that is uniquely Mischief Theatre.  Brilliantly bonkers!


The Boy at The Back of The Class

The Boy at The Back of The Class - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 26th March 2024


The Boy At The Back Of The Class is a multi-award winning children’s book that I personally adore and often reread so I can experience falling in love with it all over again. Author Onjali Q. Raúf is able to connect with the audience so beautifully because she writes with a higher purpose, an authenticity and a passion that shines through on every page. Awarded an MBE, Raúf is also the founder of two NGO’s – Making Herstory (tackling the abuse and trafficking of women and girls in the UK) and O’S Refugee Aid Team (which raises awareness and funds for frontline refugee aid organisations).  The Boy At The Back Of The Class draws on her personal experience of delivering emergency aid convoys for refugee families in Calais and Dunkirk.  It is full of humanity, genuine heart, wit, and tear-jerking moments, all of which culminate to grant us hope and faith for future generations.

This glorious children’s book deservedly won the Blue Peter Best Story Award and The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for its truthful and age appropriate approach to themes that many adults struggle to process.  It didn’t patronise its young readers by trying to hide the harsh elements of the world, or by glossing over them.  Instead, it recognised that our younger members of society are faced with exactly the same situations that we are as adults, and The Boy At The Back Of The Class helps them navigate this chaos through the open and optimistic eyes of a child in an honest and uplifting way.  As our narrator Alexa merrily guides us through the joys of the first day back of her school term and her friendship group, it’s not long before something is different.  The empty chair at the back of the class has been filled.  No one knows who this stranger is.  More mystifying to the class is that this stranger named Ahmet doesn’t speak English, he seemingly gets special treatment by being pulled out of class, and he never smiles.

But Alexa’s curiosity grows the better of her, and as she discovers the truth behind this stranger, and works hard to create a connection with the isolated Ahmet, she soon discovers that not everyone feels the same.  Alexa is lucky as she has three best friends in Tom, Josie, and Michael, and it seems unfair that Ahmet has none.  Not even a family.  For Ahmet is a Syrian refugee who has fled a very real war and been separated from everyone he knows.  Alexa is determined to help Ahmet reunite with his family and so ‘The greatest idea in the world’ is born, which takes a band of enthusiastic and pure hearted children on the journey of a lifetime.  They teach us the importance of friendship, kindness, acceptance and tolerance, and how simple things could actually be, in a messy world that doesn’t always make sense.  We all deserve a safe place we can call home, and The Boy At The Back Of The Class reminds us that this is something most of us simply take for granted.  

Adapted for stage by Nick Ahad, and directed by Monique Touko, we are taken from the carefree world of the classroom and the playground to the hauntingly heartbreaking scenes at sea where Ahmet’s childhood is stolen and his world is turned upside down.  Swelling sheets waft with vigour across the stage to bring us the turmoil of his journey, whilst back at school, we see Ahmet start to reclaim his childhood through games of football.  These are performed without a ball, we simply imagine its presence, and details like this stunningly reflect the powerful magic of childhood and our ability to dream, imagine, and believe that things can be whatever we wish them to be.  This was reflected in the young audience, who pretended to catch the invisible ball when it was kicked out into the audience.  Impromptu moments of magic include bursts of dance, music, and glee from the youthful classmates.  Bus journeys and taxi rides are brought to life with nothing more than a chair or the existing scenery, and a gorgeous moment comes into play where Alexa dances a happy dance with the memory of her dad via a silhouette. 

Monique Touko
keeps the element of the narrator (Alexa) telling the audience the story, as is done in the book.  I applaud this keepsake for the whole success of the novel is that it is presented to us through the eyes of a child, and this ensured that my adult brain stayed on track with this pure perspective.  Then, in a tender twist, Alexa stops the narration when Ahmet finds his voice, ultimately handing him back ownership of his story.  Ahmet speaks directly to us, for we are the ones he embraces as those who can listen to him and understand his story.  The decision was also made to have adults playing the children.  Understandable from a logistical viewpoint, but it did fill me with a little trepidation for a few reasons.  Adults playing children can often become cringe worthy as they often turn them into stereotyped bundles of youthfulness, with fake baby voices and exaggerated movements and facial expressions.  Also, as already mentioned in my praise of keeping the narration element to ensure we view this from the child’s viewpoint, we risk losing that and taking away the child’s vantage point by having an adult playing them and doing the performance on their behalf.

As the show started, I did become a little disappointed as the children were played very young, far younger than their intended age and it felt patronising to this young audience.  You could feel the squirming from the school children in the audience and understandably so because nine-year-olds simply don’t talk in the manner they were presented.  It seemed to be a large lapse in judgement.  However, we soon learnt that Ahmet wasn’t presented like this at all, and as the story developed, the other performers subtly reduced this exaggeration too.  It was actually quite a clever choice because what it did was present a world where children can be children, and so were childlike, verses the horrors Ahmet had faced, and slowly but surely, as their understanding of Ahmets world grew and Ahmet was starting to experience friendship and learn how to play again, they all met in the middle.

This production is full of beautiful moments that seek to melt our heart.  Watching a group of friends support Alexa on her mission to help another child as they wander the unfamiliar streets of London is stunning to watch as an adult, and probably full of wonder and adventure for the younger audience members, who let’s face it, is who this production is truly aimed. And Alexa’s determination to find a pomegranate for Ahmet as a gift just serves to remind us that what seems ridiculous to adults is the most important thing in the world to children, and perhaps it is us who has it wrong and we should take heed.

The set is designed by Lily Arnold and has an uncomplicated and functional feel to it.  This allows us to engage our imagination and switch with ease from Alexa’s house, to the school gym, to Buckingham Palace, without ever stealing spotlight from the story itself.  The main stage is that of the PE apparatus found in every primary school when I was growing up, and still in a few schools today.  The big metal frame that included ropes, hoops, metal bars and rope ladders to climb may fill you with a fuzzy nostalgia and encourage your brain back to a time before the harshness of the outside world impacted it.  It moved and folded to create new spaces, and the young audience bought into every element of its design.   

Farshid Rokey
as Ahmet was incredibly powerful.  His initial reluctance gave way to suppressed fear, rage, anger and hurt, then found its way to trust, friendship and hope.  It was pitched just right and you felt everything he felt, right down to his disgust at being offered a sherbet lemon covered in fuzz and fluff!  Sasha Desouza-Willock as Alexa was great at flipping between her child like status with her friends, and sharing the grown up feelings she had had to face regarding losing her dad.  Her speeches direct to the audience drew us in as she took her time and allowed her words the space to breathe and sink in.  Gordon Miller, Petra Joan-Athene, and Abdul-Malik Janneh were friends Tom, Josie and Michael and their work together created a great energy that kept the audiences attention throughout.  Priya Davdra as Alexa’s mum and Mrs. Khan gave us two gorgeous characters, showing that adults can be a safe space, can listen, and will support even the craziest of ideas.  Joe McNamara as Brendan the bully was clever as he wasn’t so vile with his performance that it became about him, but he still managed to get the point across and appear intimidating.  Zoe Zak, Megan Grech and Adam Seridji complete this united cast and seamlessly switch between the various other roles needed.

We only have to switch on the news, flick through social media, or listen to snippets of conversation wherever we go to be aware of turmoil and war.  Children across the world are being displaced from their homes every day through no fault of their own, and so it is naïve to think our own children are blissfully unaware of this and that it doesn’t impact their world.  It does.  The Boy At The Back Of The Class not only gives them a voice, but it makes adults listen too.  It celebrates courage, friendship, understanding and tolerance.  It demonstrates that we can move forward by searching for the things that we have in common instead of fearing the things we don’t, and it does it all through a brilliantly charming, funny and endearing adventure, with just the right amount of mischief and cheekiness.  Instead of avoiding tricky conversations with children, it welcomes them and highlights that like or it not, this is the reality of their world.  Even though I knew how this story ended, I found myself caught unawares with the sudden emotion I felt by the way it was presented, and I will admit to shedding a tear or two.  The audience were reeled in, and I hadn’t realised the collective built up tension until it was released in the final moments with cheers, gasps of relief and a couple of sobs from this admiring young audience.  The Boy At The Back Of The Class reminds us that sometimes, we need to remember to view the world through the eyes of our children because we may just find that they can probably teach us a thing or two.    



A Taste of Honey

A Taste Of Honey - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - Wednesday 20th March 2024


How do you attempt to write a review about a production that has been so mesmerisingly perfect you just want to leave it suspended in a protected prism of your mind?  A Taste Of Honey at The Royal Exchange completely absorbed me.  It was one of those nights at the theatre where everything aligned, taking you beyond watching actors in a production, leaving you with the sense that you are simply watching people.  Real people having real conversations.  The flow of language, delivery, and direction was superbly gripping and dripping with the good, the bad, the ugly, the confused, the insecure, and the desperate refractions of humanity.  Nothing was forced.  Everything felt entirely natural, so there was no sense of trying to ‘portray’ the unique banter, strength and struggles of Salford life in the 1950’s as has often been seen before.  This felt authentic with a far deeper understanding of the text’s nuances than ever before.

Set in 1950’s Salford, a 19 year old Shelagh Delaney wrote a slice of living history, leaving future generations with a tangible telescope into real people.  The play starts with a weary Helen moving house again, dragging her teenage daughter along with her.  As they settle into their latest dump, this one facing the slaughter house, a unique and fiery relationship is quickly established between mother and daughter.  Jo calls her mum Helen, Helen calls her daughter every name under the sun, and both have a lot to say.  The complicated dynamics between Helen and Jo are palpable with every glance, every breath, every word.  You feel their despair towards life and one another, yet you also feel their innate bond and understanding of each other.  Maybe this is not conventional love between a mother and daughter, but there is also a freedom in their total acceptance of who the other person is, warts and all.  Director Emma Baggott has explored this relationship afresh and looked beyond the easy answer of simple contempt for one another, layering it with years of moments of their relationship.  None of us feels just one thing at one time, that’s not how life is, and this production feeds off this concept showing that is it entirely possible to love someone yet strongly dislike them at the same time.  

As Helen's latest boyfriend Peter turns up, Jo knows by instinct and experience that this has signalled the beginning of the end of her current chapter with Helen.  Jo knows the drill – new boyfriend not long before Christmas and Jo is left alone again as mum moves out, leaving Jo to fend for herself.  She is resigned to the carousel of life with Helen.  It’s all about cycles, rhythms, patterns and she knows that the next one will eventually come back round, where Helen is booted out of the latest boyfriends life and returns home with a bottle in hand.  But this time, Jo too believes she has found love, but that love results in her being left alone and pregnant.  She finds a new friend in Geoff who shows unconditional love and Jo has no idea what to do with it.  Subtle and insightfully clever parallels are drawn in the scenes when Geoff moves in with Jo from when we see Helen and Jo first move into this flat. 

Jo, despite her lack of receiving maternal care, does cares for Helen in her own way and we see her delicately trying to gain approval through subservient detail such as fetching and carrying for Helens every whim.  Helen needs Jo to need her for her own self worth but equally doesn’t want the responsibility that comes with it.  This production intelligently echoes these details between Jo and Geoff.  He just wants her approval, for her to notice him, and she needs him to need that for her own self worth but has nothing to give him back in return.  She has learnt this behaviour from her mum.  This production is exceptional at these details, looking not just at what we say, but also what we don’t say, and spotlighting what we do instead.  And it’s one of the many features giving it authenticity.  Over half of our communication is nonverbal and Emma Baggot’s direction embraces this to perfection.

As the story continues, it weaves in themes of race, homosexuality, independence, marriage, and acceptance, until Geoff falls on his own sword out of love for Jo.  But even his unconditional and unselfish love still results in Jo being left alone, leaving us with a complicated mess of emotions in our own heads and hearts as to whether anyone can ever get love right.  And that, is real life.

What I loved about this production is that it seamlessly blends contradictory elements together.  I keep saying how authentic, how real this production felt, for it did.  Yet I must mention that there are also moments of utter surrealism, stylised interpretations, and a bonkers energy running right through it.  So how can that be described as authentic and real?  I guess this is the brilliance of the creative team and cast working in collaboration.  It shows that nothing in life is just one thing.  It is always an amalgamation of ideas, energies, and interpretations, but we don’t even have to cast the net that wide.  Just stop for a moment and poke at your own mind.  It never stops!  It can process around 45 different thoughts each minute, and they can overlap, oppose, align, pull in different directions, agree, and disagree with each other all at the same time.

They can vary on a theme or be totally unrelated, and so this chaotic, whirling universe inside each and every one of us can contradict yet be unified at the same time and that is exactly why these moments blend effortlessly throughout the play.  For instance, wrought iron girders with lighting hang low at the start of the play, then are raised as the action begins.  Now firstly, these girders are so recognisable in any industrial city so feel authentic and immediately cast us into the heart of Salford in the 1950’s.  Iron girders don’t move in reality, but they do in this production and are used to excellent effect.  They slowly come down during a very heated scene, oppressing everyone in the room, trapping them in their own lives, yet they gently bob up and down when Jo and her Prince leave the carnival, echoing the funfair carousel.  Authentic yet surreal and it works.  It is a brilliant design by Peter Butler and ties up the whirlwind of chaos and unpredictability of the characters and their lives.  The details in costumes, set dressing, even flooring are so perceptive and culminate a series of different patterns to represent different places from the dingy flat, to the path outside and the world beyond.        

Jill Halfpenny
and Rowan Robinson are outstanding as Helen and Jo.  Sometimes you watch something so brilliant that you want to leave it untouched and don’t want to dissect it, and this is exactly what they achieved.  They absolutely brought Shelah Delaney’s text to life in such an honest and recognisable way that had the audience both shocked and giggling at their exchanges.  Their relationship and their way of talking to each other wasn’t a 2D flat representation of hard Northern life where the characters were just spiteful towards each other as has often been the case, but it also reflected that actually, this chosen way of talking to each other is also a form of love and just the way we do things here.  It’s about tonality and not what we say but the way in which we say it, which when looked at through this lens, can present an entirely different outlook.

Jill Halfpenny
and Rowan Robinson have created a beautiful partnership and a dance between them with their back and forth banter.  If you hear someone from these parts call their friend a knob or worse, listen to how they say it, for they are most likely showing affection in the only way they know how.  I am honestly blown away by this pairing and personally thank both actresses for such a jaw droppingly, iconic performance.  It was a masterclass.  From the confusion, pain, mischief, or contempt etched on the face of Robinson, she conveyed so much more than was spoken and wore her heart on her sleeve.  It was raw and such a generous performance.  I am honestly blown away.  Halfpenny took us on an unapologetic acceptance of her character and again it was so brilliant that she took us on a minefield of emotional responses to Helen.  I think the difference is that Halfpenny found reasons to actually admire and understand elements of Helen, so in turn, we did too.

Andrew Sheridan, Obadiah
and David Moorst superbly depict the different roles and relationships that men play in the lives of these two women and between them offer levels of intimidation, misogyny, sleaze, swarve, manipulation, lies, charm, uncomplicated and unconditional love.  Sheridan struts around with an unfiltered self confidence and speaks volumes with his presence and body language.  He fills the space whenever he is on stage and subtly displays a hint of danger behind his swag.  In contrast, Obadiah approaches the same end goal with charm, with a tender temptation and a gentle honesty that he will not be sticking around.  His intentions may or may not be more honest that Peters, but his approach is poles apart and you feel a sense of calmness and of possibility when he is on stage which can be equally as dangerous.

is different yet again, with a nervous energy, a charmingly chaotic presence, and always on the backfoot.  His comedic timing is gorgeous, a perfectly placed pause, a deadpan delivery, or simply a twinkle in his eye as he dances with a mop sets his heart on a pedestal to everyone else.  Nishla Smith beguiles us with her hauntingly beautiful vocals throughout and has a natural holistic presence, even when singing to portray a lack of hope or opportunity.  She sings the same song and lyrics “Dirty Old Town” throughout yet listen carefully for each time has a delicately nuanced delivery so that again, its meaning and landscape can be altered to represent the mood.

This production of A Taste Of Honey for me is the definitive version.  It feels like it has finally been understood in its entirety and that it isn’t just a portrayal of angry Northern women.  It is also full of its own kind of warmth, chaos, hope, acceptance, love, disgust, longing, dreams, realism, flavour, and honesty.  It is gorgeously honest and it is understood.  There are no stereotyped interpretations of women, of the North or of class.  It has been given freedom at last and Salford is finally seen for the beauty of its language and its unique way of communicating.  We see strengths as well as flaws, and that is why this production by Emma Baggot will forever be my taste of honey.


Watch our "In Conversation with Jill Halfpenny and Rowan Robinson" video

Sister Act

Sister Act - Palace Theatre, Manchester - Monday 18th March 2024


The rockin’, boppin, diva Deloris is back in Manchester and is still fabulous baby!  And more than that, this show will leave you feeling fabulous too for it raises your spirits as well as the rafters with its high energy, soul soaring songs, and cracking comedy.  Sister Act knows exactly how and when to pull you into its heavenly arms, but also has a little shimmy with the devil along the way, ensuring that this musical blesses everyone who is fortunate enough to secure a ticket!  So, glory be to the musical theatre Gods for answering all my prayers with such an incredible night of theatre!

Our whirlwind nightclub singer Deloris storms the stage in a fabulous frenzy of electricity, but her thunderous boyfriend strikes lightening bolts into the hearts of anyone who crosses him.  When Deloris witnesses him commit murder, it’s time to exit stage right.  But these are dangerous people and so it isn’t enough to simply tuck herself away in the wings.  Besides, Deloris isn’t exactly someone who easily blends into a crowd with her larger than life personality.  And so it is that she finds herself under police protection with a new identity.  Where is safer to hide out than in a convent right?  As Deloris begrudgingly takes on a new persona as Sister Mary Clarence, she starts to discover she is capable of so much more than her old life was offering her.  Charged with putting her skills to use and leading the convents struggling choir, Deloris learns just as much as she teaches.  She takes the nuns quirks, their loyalties, their love into her heart and in return fills theirs with a passion for music and a newfound self-belief.  But Deloris once danced with the devil Curtis, and he is coming back to stake his claim on her soul.  As he discovers her hiding place in the convent and tries to bring darkness to the purity of their sanctuary, Deloris learns the power of unconditional love from her Sisters.  Throw in the opportunity to perform for The Pope being risked by Curtis, and you’ll see a side to nuns you never dreamed possible!

The stage will take your breath away with a mirage of the most glorious stained glass window designs, mesmerising you with a wealth of dazzling colour.  It’s like a rainbow has come alive and dressed the set!  The design, created by the expertise of Morgan Large is not only magnificent and full of stature with its arches, but is equally minimalistic so that it never complicates, only ever enhances each scene.  These slick features make it entirely possible to be taken from the sanctity of Church to a riotous nightclub, a police station, or an apartment (with many secret hiding places for nuns) in a heartbeat.  Morgan Large’s costumes are brilliant too and he manages to balance the simplicity of the nuns habits, with the flamboyancy of Deloris’ world, and the alter ego of Curtis and his team of gangsters.  Watch out for the finale too!  It’s an explosion of sequined delight that celebrates fashion and puts the show in showbiz!

And all of that is before I even mention that the sensational music is penned by none other than multi award winning Alan Menken!  I mean, come on!  What’s not to love here?  With lyrics by Glenn Slater, this score will show you exactly how its done when it comes to the feel good factor.  It is pure joy and will raise your spirits to the heavens and beyond.  When a show opens with a belter like Take Me To Heaven, it sets its own standard, and it doesn’t disappoint once.  Whether you are moving and shaking along to Fabulous Baby, belly laughing at the hilarious It’s Good To Be A Nun, or listening in utter amazement at the sensational Raise Your Voice, you will fall in love with these songs and be humming them for the foreseeable.

Sue Cleaver
(Coronation Street, Dinner Ladies) has the perfect humour to play Mother Superior and delivers it with eye watering impact.  I was genuinely crying with laughter for she has absolutely nailed the character whilst equally bringing her own unique twist to it.  The technique of humour at play is mesmerising, ensuring you laugh at things you didn’t even think could be funny!  And the detail is brilliant, such as when she hitches her habit up and we see one sock is pulled up and the other one has given up hope and fallen down.  She is able to speak a thousand words with one raised eyebrow, one prolonged breath or one eye roll.  Sue Cleaver had this entire Manchester audience on her side tonight, and deservedly so.  

Landi Oshinowo (Matilda, The Colour Purple) is insanely talented as Deloris.  What a voice!  Her energy is not only relentless but also contagious for her performance makes you believe that you too can move mountains, take on the bad guys and win!  She plays Deloris with a fresh kind of sass that is uniquely her own, a charming humour and a hint of vulnerability.  She redefines what a diva can be, and relaces the negative connotations of this word with a powerful positivity.  Eloise Runnette (Professional debut) is sublime as Sister Mary Roberts.  Be prepared to drop your jaw and be so stunned at her brilliance that you forget to pick it back up again during her solo ‘The Life I Never Led.’  Talk about being wowed.  It was heartfelt, humbling and will give you goosebumps.  And her range!  Mariah eat your heart out!  Alfie Parker (Fat Friends, Kinky Boots) as Eddie is someone else who you can’t help rooting for.  A seemingly reserved and shy character, we get a true sense of the real person lurking underneath when he dazzles us with a solo performance you won’t forget!  Costume reveals, charisma, charm, and a sultry voice make you fall in love with Eddie.  He has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as the show goes on and I am living for it!  He knows how to control his voice, when to hold back, and when to let loose for maximum impact and the result is special.

Ian Gareth-Jones (Mary Poppins, Only Fools & Horses) plays the villainous Curtis with a demanding strength and power.  You never doubt he is in charge or that he could turn on a knife edge at any moment.  His solo When I Find My Baby is so good that you find yourself bopping along to his murderous plans, and it is testimony to his skills for it’s a song of duplex meanings.  Isabel Canning (White Christmas, The Witches Of Eastwick) is superb as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick.  You feel her energy and her performance is filled with such detailed nuances that you kind of feel like you wish you knew her and you are rooting for her throughout.  She is like an adorable puppy who you can’t help but love and she never stops performing.  Her dancing in their first church performance under Deloris immediately grabbed the audience’s attention and had us in stiches.  Julie Stark (We Will Rock You, Head Over Heels) is brilliant as the rapping nun - Sister Mary Lazarus.  This moment is always a highlight of the show, and Stark absolutely kills it.  She is brilliant at portraying the comedic contradictions and watching her street dance in a habit one minute, and being a devout nun the next makes her a legend!  I could sit here and happily write glorious things about every cast member, from Phillip Arran who allows his rigid character to let loose and rock his Elton John glasses, to Kate Powell and Wendy-Lee Purdy as daydreaming and rockin’ nuns, or Elliot Gooch, Michalis Antoniou and Callum Martin as the brilliantly gormless and delusional members of Curtis’ gang.

Sister Act
has hilarity, halos and happiness running through each and every one of its rosary beads.  With quick wit, deadpan deliveries and observational humour woven through a glorious musical theatre hymn book of songs, the feelings of elation rise higher and higher until you realise you have jaw ache from the grin that is emblazoned across your face.  As the nuns enter singing perilously out of tune with each other, you instinctively know this show just has that magical ‘it.’  Besides, it takes some real skill for a cast this good to sound that bad, before they sound so good again.  One of my favourite ‘blink and you miss it’ lines of all time is in this show when referring to a bold fashion choice of a blue coat, “You killed a smurf.”  The script is quick, fierce, and fabulous, and there is something inherently funny about taking nuns and making them disco dance and shake their tush!  It’s the joy of the unexpected I guess, and the brilliant way it challenges preconceived notions of who nuns are.  Sister Act is a comedy master at playing with perception, colluding with contradictions and igniting irony.  A perfect example of this, as well as nuns in a nightclub, are the death threats from Curtis, dressed up in a love song and performed with all the cheerful cheesiness of a heart throb boy band!  Throw in a drag queen, plenty of sparkles, and showbiz glamour and you’ve got yourself a party my friend!  Sister Act has fed my soul with a blissful euphoria that will leave me smiling for days.  The music is joyous, the harmonies heavenly, and the story triumphant.  Sister Act is heaven sent!



Frankenstein - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 12th March 2024


So what do we know about Frankenstein?  Well, it kind of doesn’t matter because this is Imitating The Dogs interpretation, so be prepared to think outside of the box, draw parallels with today's world and have your mind blown by immersive and spectacular technology.  In this version of Frankenstein, inspired from Mary Shelley’s novel and in co-production with Leeds Playhouse, we meet a young couple who live in a bland flat, pondering their next stage in life.  To have a baby or not to have a baby?  It seems that, is the question.  The radio ear worms a broadcast of Frankenstein in the background as the couple ultimately decide the fate of their unborn child.  Yet both go through stages of self doubt and question bringing a new and innocent life into such a corrupt and dangerous world.  As their lives become more embroiled in arguments, indecisiveness, and a homeless stranger living outside, we can start to draw links between their story and that of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

This production is a two hander and so as the radio story is aired and consequently acted out, the couple listening to it take on multiple roles from Frankenstein too, further enhancing the similarities being hinted at between their modern day characters and those in Shelley’s story.  It takes a little getting used to as characters are switched around in the blink of an eye and so you can’t let your mind rest for a moment.  However, the undeniable skills of Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia are unapologetically brilliant.  The range of what they achieve is breathtaking and seemingly effortless for them.  This is physical theatre at its finest, and the way they contort, twist and manipulate themselves into entirely different beings is phenomenal.  The trust they have in each other is outstanding, for they stand on each other, walk around each others bodies like climbing frames, and freeze in precarious positions, where the only thing stopping them from injury is the other person.  They never leave the stage and not only have to master the physicality of their performance, but deliver a mixture of dialogue styles, and interact with the set and technology. 

Imitating The Dog are a celebrated and renowned company for their eclectic storytelling approach. Their ground-breaking work has cemented a reputation for making the impossible possible across the UK, Europe and the world.  Approaching every project with originality, they ensure stories continue to be told in refreshing and exciting ways.  Audiences are challenged to embrace different perspectives of known stories and incorporate technology in ways you will never have seen before.  ITD co-artistic directors Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright have reimagined and created a unique adaptation of a beloved story.  Hayley Grindle has designed the bold set as well as the costumes, with Andrew Crofts as lighting designer and Davi Callanan as video associate and video system designer.   Shadows dance around the set in both pleasant and threatening manners, whilst the interaction between actors and technology is made all the more real as they touch a screen and it responds accordingly.  The whole experience has been staged to keep the audience in a state of high alert and is achieved through subtle and not so subtle methods.  This production breaks from ITD’s tradition of using live camera feeds as seen in the past, and whilst I came expecting that, I also kind of like that I didn’t get it.  No matter how innovative and exceptional the technology, if you already know what to expect then it loses its edge, so I like that this broke with its own tradition.  The level of technology on display is fascinating.  It can sometimes be overwhelming but perhaps that is a personal feeling.  As an audience member, you are pulled into a friction of unrest as your senses are assaulted and stimulated by the amount of technology.  It keeps you on high alert and forces you to keep your eyes and ears open at all times for you never know where something might appear.  ITD have certainly proven that art comes in all different form, as does storytelling, and they do not promote one over the other, but use them in collaboration.

Those wanting the horror or fear factor associated with Frankenstein will be deliciously treated to freakishly unexpected and twisted visuals, including growing foetuses, encapsulating snowstorms and suffocating ice.  Lights will disappear plunging you into darkness before coming back on to reveal things anew, and with clever trickery, you might even feel like you are being injected with bolts of electricity yourself!  Every day objects are reimagined into a ship stuck in a storm at sea, glaciers, or a burning house, whilst sound (James Hamilton) infiltrates every nook and cranny of the theatre.  It seems different speakers are used for different sound impacts throughout the space, for you feel and hear the background hum of electricity, or waves, or traffic outside a window, and its direction is separated from the music or radio playing on stage.  It surrounds you and is very clever.  The music itself, also by Hamilton, has moments of purity and utter beauty capable of evoking both tender and powerful emotions.  However, those expecting a pure retelling of Frankenstein may be disappointed for this is most definitely not that. 

Imitating The Dog have once again succeeded in blending the enormity of film with the live power of theatre.  The result won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly as the overall effect can become quite intense and dominating, but love it or loathe it, it is hard to deny that what they have achieved is unique, world class, and pushes boundaries of what theatre can be.  As mentioned, those expecting a traditional retelling of Frankenstein will be in for a shock, for this story shares its stage time with the story of our young couple and uses bold and innovative techniques.  This is sometimes blended so beautifully that the comparisons are utterly striking, but on the odd occasion, it seems a little fractured and confusing to follow.  Sometimes the actors are engaged in physical fights and it is not always clear if it is the young couple or Frankenstein and the monster who are fighting, or if indeed, it is both.  However, you could argue that this confusion adds to the unsettlement of the psychological thriller on offer, for once you start to question your own mind and feel overwhelmed by what is before you, then the games can truly begin.  And so, as we are forced to face the question, “What is it to be human?”  It is interesting to discover your own individual answer.  Imitating The Dog’s Frankenstein may you leave you unsure as to what you have just witnessed, and even unsure how you feel about it, but the one thing that is for sure is that it is a show you won’t forget.  It will play on your mind, creep into your psyche and perhaps make you appreciate the creature lurking inside all of us.



Work It Out

Work It Out - HOME, Manchester - Wednesday 6th March 2024


Us human folk are a complex, confusing and compelling bunch aren’t we?!  We are uniquely wired, resulting in different features, personalities, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, abilities, hopes and dreams.  These differences are all encapsulated in varying forms of the same fundamental design, the human body, which often brings its own set of challenges.  Yet despite all these differences, they emerge from the same, deep routed and innate place.  Humanity and our ability to feel.  The circumstances surrounding these overwhelming feelings may be worlds apart in each of us.  We may feel them with different strengths and have various ways of coping with them, but those feelings of failure, loneliness, worthlessness, being different, not being understood, self loathing, frustration, love, despair, hate, and anything else you care to throw in the mix, are universal to all of us at some point.  They unite us in a powerful way that is often left unexplored because it’s scary to be that open and honest.  And so we hide, thinking we are the only ones.  Work It Out, a fabulous new play written by Eve Steele provides a safe space for these humans, not only in the play, but us in the audience too, to start to peek around that closed door and see if there’s anyone like us on the other side.

As we enter the theatre, a huge and empty stage dominates, set up as a community hall.  You have that shared feeling of, “Are we the first one here?” and this is exactly how the performance starts too, with each character making their solo entrance into the exposing emptiness.  It is already too much for some, and they leave, whilst others shrink so far back into the wall, trying to make themselves invisible, that their discomfort is palpable.  So much happens in these opening moments, without a word being spoken, that we all connect with.  And it shows in the giggles and recognition in the audience.  As the story unfold, we discover that this is an exercise class that has been funded for people who are struggling with their mental health and have their personal demons to work through.  So when perky, bouncy, shiny instructor Alice bounds in with an enthusiasm and dance moves that are in a different stratosphere to their own world, it takes a new kind of strength to even stay in the room, for what could she possibly know about life’s struggles?  As the play develops, we learn that surface impressions are only what we want everyone to see, and the truth of how deep the waters actually run can drown you.  Yet something keeps pulling everyone back into the class, perhaps that recognition of themselves in others, perhaps because they simply have nowhere better to be, but return they do and a whole new world is opened up for them all.  They start to trust, to share, to accept help.  They start to listen, to learn, to hope.  They start to connect through dance, and just as a chink of light starts to seep through, it is announced funding for the class is being cut.  What follows is beautiful for their new found connection gives them a reason to fight for the first time.  Previously, when that fight has only ever been for themselves, mental states can tell them they are not worth it, and so it is easy to give in, but with connection, you are fighting for others, not just yourself, and it is a much harder path to resist.  Believe in that connection enough, and you might just create your own chosen family.  You might even achieve what you believed to be impossible.  And when life throws you another, tragic curve ball, you just might find a way through because you decided to stay at that dance class with the perky, bouncy, shiny instructor.

Work It Out
bravely voices so many suppressed complex emotions and has the ability to do so without words.  So much is said in the silence.  It trusts that we recognise the discomforts, the feelings, the paranoias, and we do, for we too have felt them.  The story takes us through these characters lives one week at a time, with the passing weeks being clearly projected.  Early tensions spill out through mistrust, default settings, and defence mechanisms, but as week one chasses into week 3, then 7, then 15 and so on, these early tensions slowly melt away and are replaced with patience, understanding, and empathy.  Each character is given their moment in the spotlight where they are able to share a little more of their story with us the audience, they do not share these moments with each other.  It is a stark reminder that you never really know what someone is going through.  Even more wonderful is that each solo spot is delivered as uniquely as each of the characters. 

Colette (Eva Scott) unleashes her internal dementors via a stylised movement piece which is powerful and striking.  The stage is flooded in red as the dance class around her freezes and we become privy to her thoughts.  She has a complicated relationship with food and consequently battles self-image issues.  As Colette breaks out of the here and now and into her mind, she approaches the pert, stunning dance instructor Alice.  She starts with admiration, but uncontrollable rage and jealousy take over and we see her brutally attacking this image of perfection.  It is choreographed so well that you can see the moment the switch is flipped in Colette, so that when the moment is over and we are left with this sweet, shy person, the message sinks in as to just how much self-loathing she is hiding.  It is impactful and makes you pay attention.

Photo credit - Chris Payne

Marie (Eithne Browne) presents a moving and gut wrenching monologue about her hoarding disorder and addiction to prescribed medication.  She explains the cycle and how isolating it can be.  Her desperation for help and support whilst not being able to let go is visibly tying her in knots before our eyes.  My heart went out to her.  Yet when she is with the group and hiding the extent of her problems, she is a wise cracking, sharp tongued humorous lady who has a way of getting exactly what she wants.  She is brilliant to watch, always switched on, and even when she is sat in the far throws of the stage, you can still catch her character secretly bopping along to the music, or clutching her bag so tight that her mistrust of others shows, or being pinned down by her grand daughter who refuses to let her give in and leave.

Maries Granddaughter is Rebecca (Raffie Julien) who is initially only there to ensure her Grandnanna doesn’t bolt.  Rebecca is clearly strong willed, caring, feisty, and has a lot to say.  The trouble is, no one makes any effort to listen to what she has to say because she speaks through sign language and they don’t understand.  Through a stunningly moving and intelligent piece of theatre, Rebecca tells us her story.  As she signs the whole thing in silence, it becomes clear just how much this teenager has to say, how expressive she is, and how frustrated she is.  A voice over gives us a few snippets of what she is saying, but only moments.  Unless you sign, you are only able to pick up on the emotions she is feeling, and a vague idea of how girls at school are being vile to her, but that’s it.  You can’t follow her full story.  And I heard someone at the interval pointing this out as a negative, and my head wanted to explode.  That was the whole point!  We were placed in Rebecca’s shoes.  We were in a world where we were unable to fully follow the communication.  Those who don’t have to think about hearing talk so quickly, overlap conversations, make false starts, mumble, turn away when speaking, cover mouths, do a million different things that make it virtually impossible for full speech conversation to be followed or lip read.  Those with full hearing who do not sign were given a taste of Rebecca’s world and what it is like and how hard you have to constantly work to try and follow what is being said.  For me, it was a very eye opening and humbling experience.

Rob (Aaron McCusker) gave a heartbreaking monologue about his characters alcohol addiction, where he spoke about the family he had lost, the life he had lost to the illness.  It was delivered so truthfully, and with so much pain, yet it was never delivered in a way that discounted the feelings of his family either and the impact it had on them.  But it challenged the perception of addicts not caring about anyone but themselves, and gave us insight into how it strips the person of everything they hold dear to them.  How their actions bring them embarrassment and humiliation where they don’t recognise themselves, and so it becomes a spiral of trying to numb those unbearable feelings.  It offers a brutally honest insight, and is delivered with such rawness that you see the person, not the addiction.

In contrast to these emotively driven monologues, Siobhan (Eve Steele) presents a detached account of her characters heart wrenching life of every kind of abuse possible to a panel of strangers.  This matter of fact delivery drives home how dehumanised Siobhan has become, how ripped apart her world has been, until there is nothing there but numbness.  It is her survival technique and brilliantly represents an alternative response to trauma.  Her delivery is so deadpan it verges on funny, evoking unsure giggles in the audience, potentially making us listen but not really hear her cry for help amidst the disturbing details of her life.  These prove to be costly giggles in which we are all complicit and it is only afterwards that the significance of how we allow ourselves to be swayed by peoples walls of armour for our own comfort levels, sinks in.   

Photo credit - Chris Payne

Alice (Elizabeth Twells) seemingly breezes through the play as a happy go lucky, self-assured and excitable character, who hasn’t a care or trouble in the world.  But just as we are encouraged not to judge those who have addictions, demons, mental health issues, disabilities, or health conditions, a simple off the cuff comment from Siobhan to Alice about something that she thinks is so natural, so easy, reminds us that no one is immune from suffering, or from assuming things about others and making judgments.  Siobhan is showing Alice numerous pictures of her young child who has been taken into care, and as Alice’s discomfort grows, it is mistaken as disinterest, until Siobhan asks the seemingly innocent but loaded question, “Have you got kids?”  And we see Alice’s heart shatter.  Her world isn’t perfect.  Women get asked it all the time, but if you are someone who hasn’t got children and who desperately wants them, it makes for a difficult situation, for as it is inevitably followed up with, “Aw, did you not want them?”  This maternal side of Alice breaks through at the end when we realise just how much this class is where she expels her instinctual nurturing.  These are her babies, and so when something happens, she takes it in the most unbearable way.  Her pain is felt so deeply that she carries us all with her into the bittersweet conclusion.       

Then there is Shaq’s (Dominic Coffey) solo moment where we are invited into his inner world.  Shaq has ticks but loves to express himself, and he comes out and opens the second half with one of the most passionate, inspired and brilliant pieces of dance I have ever seen.  It was beautifully clever, empowering, and mesmerising.  It genuinely moved me to tears.  We see Shaq stood alone, trying to control his ticks as he just wants to dance to the music, for it sets him free.  And so this superb choreography by Jenni Jackson makes his ticks a strength by incorporating them into the style, the movement, the dance.  She uses their beat, their unpredictability as a form of expression until this fantastically unique, quirky, and thrilling dance explodes across the stage and Shaq becomes so lost in the moment, his ticks no longer control him, but he controls them, and is free to be exactly who he is.  It is utterly compelling and was a highlight of the entire show for me.

These may all be problems you have no experience of but as Alice points out, mental health touches everyone in some way.  We have all collectively gone through a few years of the most bizarre way of living where we weren’t allowed to touch each other.  We were separated from our loved ones, lost them in horrific circumstances.  We were unable to connect and it impacts you.  Like it or not.  It impacts you.  You could hear a pin drop as everyone had a shared experience and a way to relate.  And the fabulous thing is, Work It Out offers help to us all because it shows you the answer is connection, and that anyone can make them.  We just have to allow ourselves to do so.  In this instance, it is through a dance class.  Many of us were bopping away in the audience, loving the song choices and giggling in recognition at the challenge of co ordinating arms, legs and hands into one seamless movement.  Even at the interval, the theatre was piped with some proper bangers that won out over going to the bar and grabbing another drink!

Work It Out
is filled with hilarity, heartache, and hope.  You will recognise elements of yourself in characters you thought you had nothing in common with.  This element brings to mind the wonderful poem by Maya Angelou entitled Human Family.  It is a contemporary and progressive showcase of not forgetting the human behind the inner demon, and of recognising that no matter how differently we present them, we all have the shared experience and complexity of humanity to navigate.  It is a play about stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself in ways you didn’t even know needed challenging.  It encourages the benefits of shared experiences, of patience, of acceptance.  As heavy as all this may sound, Eve Steele has brilliantly woven the entire thing into a beautifully touching and funny story, because people are at the heart of it.  And when we recognise the peopleness of people, it is undeniably and innately funny.  That observation, that detail, makes this play soar, it makes you laugh, and it makes you think.  Yet it is not preachy, and it is not woke.  Instead, it is subtle, kind and puts the person above and beyond their demons.  It hands them back their identity and makes them matter.  That is empowering and that is kindness. 


Watch our "In Conversation with Eve Steele" video discussing the show

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey - The Octagon, Bolton - Tuesday 5th March 2024


How can an existing story be told in an entirely new way?  Well, it all depends on who is doing the telling.  And it also depends on how they tell it.  By having the central character of Cath divulge her story to the audience, with close friends Iz and Hen helping her out, we see how recollections, memory and bias can sway the same story in any direction when being retold.  Northanger Abbey by Zoe Cooper from the novel by Jane Austen not only adapts this classic with a modern twist and feisty flare, but it cleverly plays with the themes of the book whereby Cath blurs reality with fiction, by having the three characters presented to us as real people, who are re-enacting their story for our audience, consequently blurring reality and fiction in a whole new way.  This instantly paves the way for fresh interpretation and is really rather clever.

Zoe Cooper’s Northanger Abbey starts with the characters appearing one by one and immediately creating a warm and humorous atmosphere as they awkwardly acknowledge us, the audience.  Cath explains that she wants to tell us her story, and so we are plunged back in time to the day of her birth, where the unique identity of this play is instantly and brilliantly set, for her friend Henry is instructed to play her mum giving birth to her!  A bit of smutty innuendo is thrown in which serves to relax the audience and as we jump forward in time to see one of her brothers being born, Iz plays Cath’s dad and the idea of any gender playing any role is solidified.  This allows the characters to offer up contradictions, opposing viewpoints, and opinions dripping with sarcasm as to how they perceive the situations, characters and scenes.  This is evident early on for we see Iz as Cath’s dad, instruct Henry as Cath’s mum to crack on with her chores even though she is in the throws of childbirth, poking fun at the typically male dominance of the period. 

But living in a house with so many brothers, and a head full of fiction and imagination, Cath jumps at the chance to go and stay with her relatives The Allens in order to see what Balls are like (of the dancing kind - yes, I told you there was innuendo) and to hopefully meet someone and become the heroine of her own romantic story.  She meets Henry, and the fantasist in her may exaggerate her own background a little to make her seem wealthier than she is so that she may appeal to him.  After all, he lives in an Abbey and she has always wanted to visit a Abbey.  A Gothic one at that!  But she also meets Iz, and in this version, they are more than just friends.  Iz beautifully points out that although she reads and reads, she never sees herself in any of the pages of any of the books and it would be nice to have that.  Cooper has given Iz her wish.  As Cath’s imagination gets the better of her at Northanger Abbey, her worlds of reality and fantasy swirl together until she finds it increasingly difficult to differentiate where one ends and the other begins.  This is perhaps a reflection of the truths she has been trying to deny within herself about who it is she truly loves.  The ending of this play is not one I will ruin but I found it full of hope, beauty, and a love full of respect at listening to someone and giving them a place of representation in the world, in a classy and dignified way.

Directed by Tessa Walker, this play is no mean feat.  It not only requires the small cast of three to multi role and switch between genders, it often happens within the same scene, and then they could all switch roles with each other like pass the parcel!  The text overlaps, over lays, has multiple characters but only three actors who all require their own definition.  Therefore accents, tones, walks, movements and every nuanced detail is up for grabs at any given moment, and this production does not miss a beat.  It is wonderfully exhausting to watch.  With a bare set aside from numerous chandeliers hanging overhead, scenes are created from little but a table, some boxes and chests, a chaise long and a bucket full of imagination.  We allow the cast to make us believe they are on a horse and carriage, at a ball, or in a bedroom from their mere suggestions and they have so much fun with it, allowing us in on the joke. 

These details inject a self-mocking humour into the world of period dramas, with brilliantly twee dancing, a delay in the jigging on the horse and carriage, and moments of intentional over the top drama and shouting, pulled back in an instant to be polite and charming.  These moments of extreme light and shade made me belly laugh, as did the loving mockery of the class divide between society and, well – anybody Northern, such as the utter shock at Cath’s Northern pronunciation of the word “buckets,” as she is “corrected” with the supposed correct pronunciation of “barkets!”  Elements of their world that now seem bizarre to us, yet equally still exist (but are perhaps just hidden better in plain sight) are subtly challenged throughout and many of them are only finding their way into my consciousness after the show, for there is a lot to take in.

Rebecca Banatvala as Cath, AK Golding as Iz and Sam Newton as Hen work together as a solid unit and effortlessly flit between an array of characters, all the while supporting each other with clear respect.  They perform the whole show with no microphones, and whilst this is admirable, it sometimes leave their hard work lost to audience members, particularly when there are sound effects or background music competing against them.  Rebecca Banatvala did not stop and maintained the pace of the show throughout.  I don’t think she really left the stage and did not miss a single beat of her lengthy lexicon, nor of her perfectly timed emotive changes.  It was a really impressive performance.  AK Golding was the bees knees of accents and vocal changes, taking us from societal wealth to a Northern class dad in mere moments.  With tender and loving moments as Iz, to brutal and misogynistic moments as the men at the ball the next, any transformation was quick, clear and crisp.  Sam Newton was fabulous at creating an entire cast of hilarious characters and the quick whip changes from opposing deliveries was excellent.  Within the same breath, he is shouting at Cath, then sitting down to breakfast all sweetness and like.  The whole cast made sure to include all audience members and play to everyone in this octagonal theatre space. 

Northanger Abbey is not what I was expecting it to be.  I am not the biggest fan of works from this era as I get wound up by the notions and depictions of women.  I equally get wound up by being told what the novel represents, what it means and what I should understand from it, instead of being free to view it through my own lense and deciding what it means for me.  In short, dare I say it, I find there is often an unspoken snobbery with such works.  But this is exactly what Zoe Cooper challenges, changes and pokes fun at.  Every reason I was expecting to not enjoy this performance is actually every reason I did, for Cooper highlights humour, injects a playful mockery, and reworks with a keen, sharp eye.  It is Austen for our era.    


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 - 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.