Spring Awakening @ Hope Mill Theatre – Review

4 Star

A play about a group of German teenagers going through puberty in sexually oppressive 1800s Germany doesn’t sound like the source material for one of the most groundbreaking and popular musicals of recent time, but Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater‘s Spring Awakening has become just that. Instantly becoming a hit with audiences after its 2006 Broadway premiere, the musical won 8 Tony Awards and has now returned to the UK in a new production at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.

Sheik and Sater have taken Frank Wedekind’s 1881 play and turned it into a hugely relevant and contemporary story about how dangerous miscommunication between youths and adults can be. The direction by Luke Sheppard and choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves helps the show’s contemporary feel, the choreography being particularly impressive. Gabriella Slade‘s set and costumes are also brilliant, along with very strong and impressive lighting by Nic Farman and sound by Leigh Davies. Considering the size of the venue, I was pleasantly surprised by how strong the production values were and considering the success of previous Hope Mill productions Hair and Pippin in their respective London transfers, it would not at all surprise me if this followed suit as it is extremely deserving of it.

The extremely young cast made up of mostly recent, or even some soon-to-be, graduates were insanely talented and gave this already vibrant and youthful show an even more punchy and rambunctious feel. Future graduate of Guildford School of Acting, Darragh Cowley played Melchior with a playful smirk and a blend of both cockiness and naivety, ideal for this role. Nikita Johal played female lead Wendla with the perfect amount of wide-eyed wonder and a longing to understand and experience the world. Closing up the leading trio as Moritz was Jabez Sykes who had the necessary intensity and vulnerability that has become synonymous with the role. The three also gave exquisite vocal performances, coming together for the heartbreaking penultimate number, Those You’ve Known.

Teleri Hughes as Ilse gave a lovely performance showing off a beautiful voice, leading the company in the rousing finale, The Song of Purple Summer, and being joined by Seyi Omooba as Martha in what was an arresting rendition of The Dark I Know Well, which proved to be my highlight of the show. Omooba was particularly powerful in her role and I came away needing to know where her career goes from here on. Alongside Hughes and Omooba were Beth Hinton-Lever as Thea and Sophia Simões da Silva as Anna who both performed with gravitas and strength, as well as Gillian Kirkpatrick who was quite frankly hilarious as Adult Woman in a multitude of different characters.

Adam Dawson played Hänschen with the typical sardonic wit and deadpan looks alongside Luke Latchman’s innocent and unassuming Ernst. The pair had great chemistry and their beautiful version of Act 2 duet, The Word of Your Body (Reprise), was a sign of this. Alongside them were Christian Tyler-Wood as Georg and Tim Mahendran as Otto, who both had small moments to shine, Tyler-Wood‘s involving an electric guitar, and Neil Stewart as Adult Man, who was as strong as his female counterpart in a variety of different roles.

With a hardworking young cast and very strong production values for what is such as small theatre, this production of Spring Awakening has a lot of merit and will no doubt go on to have a brilliant life elsewhere in the country. This production runs at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester until 3rd May. Visit their website for tickets and more information: https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/ 

For more updates on this production, visit https://twitter.com/Spring_Mcr, or for further updates from producer Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment, visit http://aria-entertainment.com/ or https://twitter.com/AriaEnts


Girl from the North Country @ Noël Coward Theatre – Review

4 Star

Play? Musical? That’s one thing no one can agree on with one of London’s newest transfers from a critically acclaimed run at the Old Vic Theatre, Girl from the North Country, featuring an array of Bob Dylan’s hit songs but not in the way you know them. They have been weaved into a story of longing, sadness, and missed opportunities but not in the usual ‘jukebox musical’ fashion: in this show, a lot of the songs don’t serve to advance the plot; Conor McPherson, the playwright, has said that instead, the show is ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’. This is at times deeply affecting but at others, rather confusing, leaving the audience wondering what a certain song was supposed to be showing. The story also had elements of this: it was very emotional and moving at times, almost reducing me to tears, but some of the plot threads just didn’t seem as though they were going anywhere.

This is not to detract from any of the performances which are absolutely fantastic across the board. Sheila Atim plays Marianne Laine, the adopted daughter who is black, pregnant and unmarried in a time of great prejudice, capturing brilliantly the innocence of youth, constantly hoping for a better life. She sings beautifully, particularly with a rendition of Tight Connection to the Heart which was the first moment in the show to start making me emotional. Also particularly impressing me with their singing were Emmanuel Kojo who was on as Joe Scott when I saw the show, giving Slow Train Coming and Hurricane a new twist with his smooth and velvety voice, and Claudia Jolly as Katherine Draper who sings I Want You gorgeously.

Bronagh Gallagher is absolutely heartbreaking as Mrs. Burke, in what was one of the most emotional plot threads of the whole show. Her rich and gravelly voice is also lovely to listen to and I loved her rendition of Sweetheart Like You. Playing her disabled son, Elias, and husband, Mr. Burke, were Jack Shalloo and David Ganly respectively, who also both gave beautiful performances, again showcasing extremely powerful voices and playing their emotional scenes with grace and respect. Sam Reid gets to show off his raspy and gravelly voice as Gene Laine, the aspiring writer struggling to find meaning in his life.

Notable West End actress Debbie Kurup (known for performances in such shows as RentAnything Goes, and Chicago) plays Mrs. Neilson, the disgruntled mistress of Ciarán Hinds’ character, Nick LaineKurup‘s character wants more from life, showing her sarcastic side with some great one-liners and reactions, and singing Went to See the Gypsy and True Love Tends to Forget with her signature rasp and gravelly tones. Hinds plays Nick Laine impeccably well, really showing his skill as an actor in a difficult role that he plays with strength, vulnerability and compassion, relating to the audience a sense of desperation and wanting the best for the people he cares about but not being quite sure how to go about this. His performance is deeply compelling and its a joy to watch him play a difficult role so effortlessly.

The show only belongs to one person, however, and that is Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth LaineNick’s wife and Gene and Marianne’s mother, suffering from dementia. Henderson (best known for her role of Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series) is the epitome of phenomenal in this role, beginning the show as little more than being portrayed as mad before growing to show that she is far more aware of goings on than people realised. Her performance is deeply emotional and moving, but she is also very funny, getting some great one-liners, and shows off what is a phenomenal voice, which surprised me when I first heard her: her performance of Like a Rolling Stone gave me chills!

Rae Smith’s set and costume design serve the show well, fitting the bleak world very well, with Mark Henderson’s lighting also fitting this, definitely adding a great deal of ambience to the show. Simon Baker’s sound design gives the musical numbers a great deal of power and oomph, adding to the joy of hearing them.

If you want to hear some amazing singing and see some extremely strong performances in a show that is well put together, but a bit muddled at times, visit https://www.girlfromthenorthcountry.london/ for more information. Emmanuel Kojo takes over from Arinzé Kene from 10th March and plays all matinée performances until then. The show closes on 24th March but will transfer to the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in February 2019 – visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/girl-from-the-north-country for more information. Casting for the transfer is to be announced.

Million Dollar Quartet – UK Tour – Review

4 Star

On 1st June, I visited my local theatre to see the current UK Tour of Million Dollar Quartet, a musical based on the events of the night of December 4th 1956, when Sun Records founder Sam Phillips brought together Elvis PresleyCarl PerkinsJohnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis by complete chance for an impromptu jam session which would become one of the most famous events of music history, especially in the world of rock and roll. The musical was first seen on Broadway in 2010, before transferring Off-Broadway in 2011, and to the West End in the same year, where it ran for a year.

The show was conceived by Floyd Mutrux, who also co-wrote the book with Colin Escott, and they have managed to create a jukebox musical that doesn’t feel tacky or cheap, or as though it’s just an easy money grab. While the action is limited (although it does get heated at several occasions in the second act), what can be expected when the show is based on a one night recording session? Although the first act felt clunky and slightly repetitive at times due to the way it is presented (first half of a song is done, then interrupted by Sam Phillips describing how he met the artist, then the song continues – still very entertaining, I must add, just repetitive and clunky to me), the second act felt much more coherent and well thought out, with some quite moving moments which I must say I wasn’t expecting in the slightest (the final moment before the curtain call being particularly powerful).

The headliner of the tour so far has been TV, music and stage star Jason Donovan in the role of Sam PhillipsDonovan doesn’t sing in this show, meaning his acting skills are on full show and he doesn’t disappoint. He shows off a consistent American accent and shines in the second act when things start to go downhill for him with some quite powerful acting. The “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley, is played by Ross William Wild who emulates his voice and persona perfectly, getting a huge response from the audience for his amazing performance. Alongside him as the influential “King of Rockabilly”, Carl Perkins, is ex-Jersey Boy Matthew Wycliffe who, similarly to Wild, emulates Perkins to a tee, showing off his amazing voice and great guitar skills, resulting in another thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Robbie Durham plays icon Johnny Cash and he does it brilliantly, portraying Cash’s calm demeanour extremely well, in addition to his iconic bass-baritone voice. Durham in particular has some stand-out acting moments when his calm demeanour drops and lashes out at Jerry Lee Lewis. Speaking of the loud and brash pianist from Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis is played by Ashley Carruthers, who gets the majority of the humorous moments with his well-timed delivery and exuberant nature, whilst showing off excellent piano skills and his great voice. WildWycliffeDurham and Carruthers all deserve huge amounts of praise for the outstanding performances they give, playing their instruments live and paying homage to the real life stars they are portraying.

Standing out amongst the male-dominated show is Katie Ray who plays the fictional DyanneElvis’ girlfriend (a stand-in for the real life Marilyn Evans). Her voice is absolutely stunning and she blew myself and the rest of the audience away with her renditions of Fever and I Hear You Knocking. Joining the 6 actors onstage are Ben Cullingworth as Fluke, the drummer, and James Swinnerton as Jay Perkins, the bassist and brother of Carl Perkins, who are also thoroughly entertaining throughout.

This production has been directed by Ian Talbot and he has done a brilliant job. It seems easy for this show to turn into a tribute concert to the artists involved and Talbot does a great job of making sure this doesn’t happen, keeping it realistic and natural. Lizzi Gee, credited as the Movement Director, does the best with what she can, the small amounts of natural choreography being very well done. The set and costumes have been designed by David Farley and they are great, the static set being especially effective, as is the lighting, designed by David Howe, which during the dialogue is completely natural but becomes concert-like during the songs which I personally loved. The sound designer, Ben Harrison, also deserves credit as the songs sound absolutely brilliant, very much like what they would’ve sounded like back in the day, even though some of the dialogue was at times underpowered.

Million Dollar Quartet is a thoroughly enjoyable musical that is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face. The performances are brilliant and deserve huge amounts of praise. The tour will take a break over the summer but returns at the of September, travelling to York (19th – 23rd September), Hornchurch (25th – 30th September), Cheltenham (2nd – 7th October), High Wycombe (9th – 14th October), Inverness (16th – 21st October), Edinburgh (24th – 28th Ocotber), Eastbourne (30th October – 4th November), Poole (14th – 18th November) and Ipswich (20th – 25th November). Be sure to check the website for updates on cast information – http://milliondollarquartetlive.co.uk/

The Life @ Southwark Playhouse – Review

4 Star

On 22nd April, I visited one of my favourite venues, the Southwark Playhouse, to see the first UK production of Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman and David Newman’s musical The Life. The Life first hit the Broadway stage 20 years ago in 1997 with direction from Michael Blakemore, starring Pamela Isaacs, Lillias White and Chuck Cooper, and proved to be a huge hit, offering a stark look at prostitution in New York City in the time before Disneyfication (the clean up of the city and the commercialisation it soon saw afterwards). The production ran for over a year and garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, with wins for White’s and Cooper’s stellar performances as Sonja and Memphis respectively. I didn’t know a huge deal about the show going in but the casting of Sharon D. Clarke and Cornell S. John intrigued me enough to book a ticket.

The show itself was a mixed bag for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it (even if the first act felt like it was about 20 minutes too long, especially sat on the not-so-comfortable seats of the Southwark Playhouse) but there was something off to me. At times, it was dark and chilling, where you genuinely felt terrified for the women (in particular, Memphis’ act 1 solo, Don’t Take Much, in which he sang about being able to turn any woman into a prostitute for his use) but at others, it was jaunty and jolly as though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the world they lived in. This may have been a deliberate choice by ColemanGasman and Newman to show how the city carried on despite the plights of many of it’s residents but regardless, there was something that felt off about it. This didn’t hurt my enjoyment in the slightest though, and at multiple moments, I was truly moved by what I was seeing.

The cast were brilliant and each and every one of them deserve great praise for the stellar work they did. T’Shan Williams led the company as Queen, the hopeful young woman looking for an escape with her boyfriend FleetwoodT’Shan acted the role brilliantly, breathing such life into this complex character, and had a gorgeous voice to match. I see great things ahead for her. Another member of the cast with a great career ahead of them is David Albury who played Queen’s boyfriend, Fleetwood, the Vietnam War veteran struggling to get rid of his drug addiction that eases his PTSD-style flashbacks. David showed off his lovely voice and strong acting throughout the show and had such wonderful chemistry with T’Shan.

Playing the role of Sonja, the aging hooker who has seen better days, is Olivier Award winner Sharon D. Clarke who showed why she is such a sought after actress in the UK with her multi-faceted and heartbreaking portrayal of this woman who knew there was nothing left for her. Her rendition of The Oldest Profession got the largest audience response of the whole show, and her stellar acting during My Friend and the scene that followed moved me to tears. Cornell S. John was the perfect antagonist, showing such subtlety as Memphis. His chilling, calm speaking voice, deep baritone, and icy glare only added to his menace and visibly terrified a lot of the audience. Other stand outs include John Addison as Jojo, the scheming, manipulative hustler, and Joanna Woodward as Mary, the small town country girl who wasn’t as innocent and wide-eyed as she originally seemed.

The show was filled out by an extremely talented ensemble of people who each got their chance to shine in their individual featured roles. Jalisa AndrewsAisha JawandoCharlotte Reavey and Lucinda Shaw played the other prostitutes we meet during the show, each with a thrilling belt on them and great levels of sass, and were joined by Jo Servi as Lacy, the charming barman, Johnathan Tweedie as Theodore, the smarmy adult film director, and Matthew CaputoLawrence CarmichaelOmari Douglas (who made a cameo as a transgender prostitute in the act 2 number, ‘Someday’ is for Suckers) and Thomas-Lee Kidd, and an 11-piece band led by musical director Tamara Saringer which sounded brilliant and was the perfect backing to this cast of extremely strong singers.

This production was in fact directed by the original Broadway director, Michael Blakemore, and it definitely showed. It was slick and well thought out, Blakemore clearly knows what he is doing with the piece. Whilst I enjoyed the choreography by Tom Jackson-Greaves, I thought some bits were unnecessary and felt shoehorned in but it didn’t ruin the show at all. The production showed a new light to the Southwark Playhouse for me, with the usual static set replaced by automated pieces emerging from behind a sliding metal gate (which surrounded the entire space, adding a fully realised feel to the show), designed by Justin Nardella, and projections to show the multiple different locations the show took place in, designed by Nina Dunn, both of which I thought fit the piece and venue extremely well. Nardella also designed the costumes which were probably the best I’ve seen at the venue, perfectly suiting each individual character and the feel of the late 70s/early 80s. The lighting was designed by David Howe and I thought it was brilliantly atmospheric, representing the mood of each individual moment extremely well, and a special shout out has to go to Sebastian Frost who designed the sound in a venue that is notoriously hard to get sound balance right in.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show despite a couple small misgivings, with excellent performances all around and if it were still running, I would definitely recommend it to any theatre fan who wanted to see something a little bit out of the ordinary.