29 May 2021

Am Dram - A Musical Comedy Review

The lights are back on, the curtain is up, theatre's are alive again in Leicester and beyond. A joy to see my first musical since the re-opening and it being the joyous new British musical Am Dram. 

Am Dram: A Musical Comedy is written by duo Alex Parker and Katie Lamb and tells the story of the people of the Great Osterford North Amateur Dramatics Society or GONADS for short as they prepare for their next production, a staging of The Golden Empress - a musical about Catherine The Great. 

The company of Am Dram. Photo by Pamela Raith

It begins as the actors gather ahead of auditions for the productions, the regulars are there but with some new faces too including former professional actress Rose who upsets the apple cart by auditioning for the leading role much to the dismay of Diana who is the companies established leading lady. With Rose taking the part of Catherine and Diana the role of her mother there's a showdown of character as rehearsals begin. One day Rose receives a call from her old agent offering her a part in a regional tour, an offer she can't refuse. This leave the GONADS in a mess with a show to still stage.

The heart of this production is its outstanding cast all of whom have an important role to play. Each magnificently characterises their roles. Janie Dee is a top form as Diana, she slowly succumbs to realising how much the show needs Rose, especially once she's gone, even after her resentment at first. Laura Pitt-Pulford showcases magnificent vocals as well as more than a glint of star quality as Rose. Wendy Ferguson emotes Honoria with great skill, the maddening rage as she watches a terrible the dress rehearsal but also captures the underlying softness of the fear of losing all her cast to the Great Osterford South company. Jordan Lee Davies brings so much energy and joy to Ian, the companies musical director. Raj Ghatak is professional director Max that's brought in to helm the production is just about in control of the unravelling chaos. Sharan Phull marvellously pulls off playing numerous people all called Karen, she manages to establish each one and their own characteristics with ease.

The delightful Debbie Chazen is exceptional as Elaine. She's effortlessly hilarious as the sweet natured character who would do anything for anyone. There's a brilliant scene on Rose's birthday where mid rehearsal she brings in a Colin The Caterpillar cake. Debbie brings Elaine to life with such warmth and class that you wish could give her a big hug.

Debbie Chazen as Elaine. Photo by Pamela Raith

Musically the show is fabulous too, there's great numbers throughout. I particularly loved 'Out in the  Light' sung by Laura's character Rose as she returns to the stage after having children. The final two numbers as showtime approaches left me in a swell of emotion, I didn't know if I was going to burst out laughing or burst into tears. It gave me great happiness to hear a 8 piece live band too and what a fabulous sound they made, under the musical direction of show writer Alex Parker.

The show takes place in the round set up of Curve, with the revolving stage in the centre, this means a bare set bar for props and it works so well. It allows for the characters to shine in the spotlight, this is a show about the people not about extravagant sets. There's great lighting design from Jack Weir, using the lighting all around the space to wonderful effect. This bare staging also allows Joanna Goodwin's choreography to stand out and the cast move with ease around the space, making sure to play to all four sides.

The piece is a love letter to the amateur dramatic societies up and down the land as well as the PTA, book clubs, parish councils. It's a celebration of the characters and the the community of putting on a show. With only a short 4 performance run at Curve, I hope the show goes on to a future life like it deserves. A well written story with a well fleshed out band of characters and lovely musical numbers, a delight from start to finish.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ a dazzlingly joyous musical with an amazing cast.

Am Dram: A Musical Comedy ran at Curve between 27th and 29th May 2021. Visit Quick Fantastic's website to learn more about the show and the companies other shows.

The cast of Am Dram. Photo by Pamela Raith

28 May 2021

Othello - National Youth Theatre Review

Following last weeks 5 star triumph of the National Youth Theatre's production of Animal Farm, the same rep company return with their second production, an abridged version of Shakespeare's Othello running all week at Royal and Derngate before both productions go on a short tour.

Once again before I dive into the production I must again heap praise on the safety measures in place at Royal and Derngate. Being the press performance it was a bit busier than the matinee I attended the week prior but the stringent safety procedures made me feel safe from the get go. Arriving at the theatre you check in on the NHS Track and Trace App before following a one way system to the auditorium. The staff are great and so welcoming and that instantly puts you at ease with everything. I was particularly impressed with the way people were navigated out afterwards. Much credit to the front of house team and all the staff at the theatre who have put these smoothly running safety measures in place.

The company of Othello. Photo by Helen Murray

On to Othello, as I mentioned it's an abridged production, or Othello Remixed as it's described in the programme. This is Shakespeare at its most contemporary. This production finds its setting in the 90s rave scene with much of the action taking place in and around the nightclub, Club Cyprus. I didn't know the play before or it's plot and I do wish I'd at least looked the synopsis up as the opening 30 minutes or so of the production that ran 100 minutes straight through was a bit lost on me - I found it a little hard to keep pace with who was who, how they were connected and why things were as they were. Things got a little lost in the language and the noise of the setting.

I did enjoy did enjoy much of Miranda Cromwell's production though. The nightclub setting - although the background music did sometimes drown out what the actors were saying and I think that contributed to me being a bit lost with the plot at the beginning. It's sometimes hard enough to follow Shakespeare's language without actors fighting against club music in the background. Visually that design has been well thought out though, Rose Revitt's stage design is great, with the use of mirrors and white sheets being really effective - if you were missing a proper night out with your mates this will make you even more nostalgic for one. Zoe Spurr's stunning lighting is the chef's kiss on the design front. The use of bright vibrant colour and the use of silhouette's throughout is really clever.

Casting Othello as a female adds a real layer of modernity and is a key decision in the success of this production. It makes the piece feel relevant, fresh and important and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers is superb as the title character, she pitches her performance superbly, so self-assured and confident. She's matched by Alexandra Hannant's fantastic Desdemona. Connor Crawford's delivery of Iago is tremendous, much like he's menacing performance as Farmer Jones in Animal Farm he's on top form again, his frantic meddling has him on edge the whole time. Julia Kass's Emilia is magnificent, she captures the character with real skill even as she knows how her husband is behaving. Ishmel Bridgeman's calculating Cassio is both streetwise but with a bit of youthful brashness. This company of young actors from the National Youth Rep are as strong as they come.

Alexandra Hannant (Desdemona) and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (Othello). Photo by Helen Murray

The use of a chorus I really enjoyed, most of these actors seemed to be on stage throughout dancing and looming like spirits voicing suspicions throughout. These whispering voices became a key player in the mind of Othello and she gets lost in the jealousy that ultimately undoes Desdemona. Adeola Yemitan stands out from these, she's a mesmerising presence particularly as she looms during the latter scenes of the play. 

Dzifa Benson's script keeps the language of Shakespeare and adds in the occasional swear word along the way - not always necessary but in fitting I guess with the setting. I think in hindsight had I known the play beforehand I'd have connected to more of what was going on initially but I thought there could have been a little more time establishing the characters at the beginning although maybe that was lost in the language or the music drowning some key points (it's certainly where I missed having a physical programme - although you can get a digital copy from Royal and Derngate's website).

All in all though, this is a production that will split people, some will love it and some will hate it. I fully applaud the risks that the company have taken with the piece and the work they've done on both productions. Here are a strong set of young actors who will be destined for big things going off their work in both shows. I sided it with thoroughly enjoying it once the production settled down. One things for sure it'll certainly create good conversation on the way home! 

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐- a fresh lyrical remixing of Othello with outstanding performances that is a little muddled in places.

Othello continues at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 29th May 2021 (click here for tickets). Both Othello and Animal Farm then go on a short tour - check here for details

Connor Crawford outstanding as Iago. Photo by Helen Murray

24 May 2021

Monday Night At The Apollo Review

With audiences returning to theatre it's great to see a concert series which is both welcoming audiences into the theatre and is also streaming for a virtual audience via Thespie. Wild Mountain Productions present their first of three Monday Night at the Apollo concerts. 

The line up for the first concert featured Aimie Atkinson, Lucie Jones, Cedric Neal, Cassidy Janson and Julian Ovenden with the evening hosted by Greg Barnett and joined with a fantastic 4 piece band.

Host Greg opened the evening with a performance of 'Revival' by Gregory Porter. You instantly warm the Greg's infectious and energetic personality - a great host throughout the evening. 

The evening features each performer singing numbers as well as a few duets, these are interspersed with conversation with the performers - there was a certain story from Julian Ovenden about what they called the corner of the stage he entered from when he was in My Night With Reg that made me laugh.

The first half featured a good variety of pop numbers with numbers from artists including Adele, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel. With the calibre of performers on show each delivered every number with great skill and wonderful vocal quality. Both of Julian's numbers, 'San Diego Serenade' and 'Here You Come Again', were particularly delightful, what a gorgeous voice he has. 

Into the second half and out came the razzle dazzle of some show tunes. A particular highlight of the night for me was Cedric Neal's touching rendition of 'Hold Me In Your Heart' from Kinky Boots, a show that he explained he narrowly missed out on appearing in both on Broadway and in the West End.

Second half highlights included Lucie Jones belting out 'She Used To Be Mine' from Waitress in which she'll tour in as Jenna later this year. Aimie Atkinson 'Don't Rain On My Parade' showcased her powerful voice excellently. Cassidy Janson perfectly executed a rendition of 'Nobody's Side' from Chess. Julian Ovenden and Cassidy shared a lovely duet 'All The Wasted Time' from Jason Robert Brown's Parade.

There was more great chat in the second half too, it felt like the performers had loosened up a little and the conversation and that made it more fun, light and natural. 

The night closed with Aimie, Lucie and Cassidy performing 'Over The Rainbow', a song that ended a highly enjoyable night. It's so wonderful to see the West End back, to see audiences back and for great shows to be delighting people. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐⭐ a fabulous virtual return to the West End with a lovely evening of music and conversation.

To purchase this first episode of Monday Night At The Apollo visit https://thespie.com/digital/monday-night-at-the-apollo-24th-may-2021-thespie/2712. The stream is available for 72 hours after purchasing. You can purchase a bundle of all 3 episodes.

22 May 2021

Returning to Curve - Season Preview

The beating heart of the Arts scene here in Leicester is undoubtedly Curve and after 14 months with it's doors closed the theatre finally welcomed it's first audience again for it's season launch event and what a pleasure it was to be there.

I want to assure anyone who reads this and is feeling nervous or anxious about returning to a theatre that the measures that both Curve and Royal and Derngate which I visited on the same day have put in superb systems that run smoothly and feel really safe. 

Before the show you receive your tickets with the confirmation e-mail, you can print these off or show them on your phone, you also receive information about attending the theatre again. On the tickets it included your arrival time and your route for once you arrive - at Curve there is two routes, blue and red. The information was clear and really useful - masks to be worn, you can order drinks to your seat amongst other things.

The stunning in-the-round staging at Curve.

Outside Curve there was a steward helping and guiding people to the right queues and once in these queues they moved fairly slowly at first (this was the first night back after all) but once they got moving it was like a well oiled machine. Entering the building and unbeknownst to us all we had our temperatures checked. Curve's Chief Executive, Chris Stafford explained that you wouldn't notice but once you enter there's a check on everyone's temperature and it would flag to a staff member if anyone entered and theirs's was raised.

After checking in on the NHS Track and Trace App it was inside the building, you follow a one-way system around to the correct door into the auditorium. At the door you have your ticket checked and in you are, and I can't really describe that feeling of seeing the space again and that amazing set up Curve have done. For those unaware and whilst social distancing is in place, Curve are using their two performances spaces superbly. In the middle of both is the stage which is in the round. The stage is on a revolve that was kindly donated by Cameron Mackintosh

There was a slightly extended interval of around 30 minutes which allows for audience to stretch their legs or go to the loo or order refreshments from their seat. This again was managed brilliantly by all the Curve staff.

The season preview events are basically a way to tell audiences more about the productions and companies that are going to be visiting Curve in the coming months and for audiences to get a snippet of performances from those shows. The evening was hosted by Chris Stafford, Matt Hemley and Geeta Pendse with Artistic Director Nikolai Foster sadly unable to attend as he was in hospital - I'd like to wish him a speedy recovery.

There's a whole host of brilliant productions coming to Curve. The re-opening socially distanced season includes Welcome Back!, an evening of work from local artists (21st and 22nd May), Rising from Aakash Odedra Company (24th and 25th May), AMDRAM: A Musical Comedy by Quick Fantastic (27th to 29th May) and The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (7th to 19th June 2021).

Serendipity are bringing an exhibition, Colonisation in Reverse: Jean-Léon Destiné Exhibition to Curve. The free exhibition will allow visitors to see archival materials from choreographer Jean-Léon Destiné's career. Jean-Léon (1918 – 2013) is known for his choreography that addresses Haiti’s history of resistance against colonialism and slavery. The exhibition will run between 27th May and 30th June with free timed entry tickets available from Curve's website. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford performing a number from AMDRAM.

There's two streaming events taking place with Curve first partnering with De Montfort University in their latest co-production Blood WeddingBlood Wedding is a gripping Spanish tragedy from the writer of Yerma and The House of Bernarda AlbaFederico García Lorca. Inspired by a true story and first performed in 1933, the play will be creatively reimagined for the digital stage. Blood Wedding streams between 27th and 31st May. The second stream is a family show from The Gramophones Theatre Company and their production of Aidy The Awesome. It tells of a normal 8 year old girl, Aidy, or so she thinks, one day she discovers a family secret that changes everything. Aidy and her granny embark on an adventure that turns their world upside down. They even begin to question what normal is. After all, who wants to be normal when you can be SUPER! Aidy The Awesome Stream on 31st May and 1st June.

There's plenty of visiting companies coming to Curve throughout the year. Peter James' Looking Good Dead which will star Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye will run between 1st and 3rd July (subject to government guidance easing restrictions). Strictly Come Dancing stars Anton Du Beke and Giovanni Pernice bring their show Him and Me on 4th July. Mischief Theatre's touring production of Magic Goes Wrong will begin it's tour at Curve between 16th and 24th July. The Made at Curve production of Grease will also begin it's tour at Curve running for two nights on 30th and 31st July

The big summer production will see Curve return to in-the-round with a concert staging of the musical Rent. Directed by Nikolai Foster the show will run between 10th and 21st August 2020

Further productions include Dial M For Murder (31st August - 4th September), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof directed by Anthony Almeida running in the Studio (3rd - 18th September), Priscilla Queen of the Desert (13-18th September), Everybody's Talking About Jamie (20th - 25th September), Six The Musical (28th Sept - 3rd October), What The Ladybird Heard (30th September - 3rd October), Hairspray (4th - 9th October), Matthew Bourne's new production The Midnight Bell (11th - 16th October), Tell Me On A Sunday (12th - 16th October), Derren Brown: Showman (19th - 23rd October), The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2nd - 13th November).

The Christmas production will be a new production of A Chorus Line again directed by Nikolai Foster. The musical that is described as a "love letter to theatre" will bring some real spectacle to the festive season. The production will run from 3rd to 31st December 2020. The original 2020 Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz has been pushed back to Christmas 2022 before it heads out on a national tour.

Emma Williams performing 'Seasons of Love' from Rent

At the season preview there were guests talking about some of the above mentioned productions as well as some fabulous performances including Jessica Daley performing the title song from Love Never Dies and Tim Rogers performed 'Gethsemane' from Jesus Christ Superstar - both of whom will star in The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. There was excellent dance from the Curve Resident Creative Company Wayward Theatre who performed at the new work showcase. Laura Pitt-Pulford performed a number from AMDRAM which she will star in (and I've booked for). Sheep Soup, associate artists of Curve performed a song from Hording. Melanie La Barrie performed a spellbinding rendition of 'What I Did for Love' from A Chorus Line. Emma Williams closed the evening with a solo rendition of 'Seasons of Love' from Rent. All the musical performances were with Alex Parker on the piano.

All in all it was such a superb evening, just being back in this gorgeous theatre and having such a lovely time. Seeing familiar faces in the audience and previewing some of the great work that lies ahead. Attending Curve felt safe and I can assure you from first hand experience the whole team at Curve have done an amazing job to make everyone feel comfortable in returning to the theatre.

To find out more about the Curve season or to book tickets to any of the productions that I've mentioned please visit www.curveonline.co.uk

21 May 2021

Lydia Interview with Director Saulius Kovalskas

Chalk Roots Theatre have produced their first audio piece, Lydia, which has been streaming online. The drama was chosen from over a hundred submissions. 

Drawing on a unique, semi-childish perspective, it tells the story of a young woman growing up entirely through perspectives outside her own. These voices are all in one way or another unfulfilled, lost, seeking to re-evaluate their lives, as plenty of us have been doing in the recent lockdowns: what they once desired, strived for, and where instead their lives have led. As Lydia grows older and her world expands, that inner voice gets quieter, and she finds herself increasingly relegated to smaller and smaller parts within her own story. But finally, she re-asserts herself – and, perhaps, her story begins again.

I spoke with director Saulius Kovalskas about the piece.

BTC: Can you please tell me about the production?

Saulius: Lydia is an audio drama of a young woman searching for her way through life. We are first introduced to her as a child and from then on accompany her throughout the years, experiencing all the joys and sorrows that growing up brings.

In its essence, it’s a story about losing one’s way and a desperate longing for what stayed behind in childhood outgrown. About towering shopping malls and a voice of certain someone – or something, whose importance becomes clear only after it falls silent.

BTC: How did you go about selecting this production?

Saulius: It all started with a feeling, something I noticed firstly within myself and then slowly began seeing in others around me. Lockdowns have both blessed and cursed us with time and space. The grip that all usual businesses and distractions had on us loosened, revealing a fertile ground for introspection.

Before long, a scary realisation crept in: that I’m not living the life I wanted. That certain sensibilities, qualities and feelings I held dear as a child were long gone. What remained was this empty husk of a stranger, whom I didn’t understand, whose thoughts and behaviours a five-year-old me would have found alien if not outright pitiable.

But was this change permanent, with no way of rediscovering the path forgotten? And, more importantly, was this feeling plaguing only myself and a few others - or was it a more widespread condition caused by the new normal and only now beginning to show its symptoms?

That led to the launch of a worldwide callout for audio scripts - to which we received over 170 submissions. But despite there being so many plays, many of which I would have loved to experience as an audience member, I was looking for something I myself couldn’t have explained at the time. Something that would take me by a storm, make me feverish with desire to bring that material to life.

Perhaps underneath it all there was just a very selfish desire to submerge myself and experience that unique world created by the playwright. To see characters – who on paper exist only as phantoms, a distant dream – becoming alive and tangible. Perhaps that’s all it was? A longing for different world, born out of dissatisfaction with the imperfect reality?

Difficult to say. All I know is that when I’ve read Simina Pitur’s Lydia, the very first lines brought me back to my childhood – they echoed that deep desperate longing for the times when the simplicity and destitution of external life was compensated by incredible richness of inner world. Before floor plans, procedural guidelines, regulations and rules – what I call the shopping centre culture encroached offering answers unwanted and engaging us in bright trivialities that no one asked for.

As I found out later, it was heavily inspired by American poet Kenneth Koch - and how he taught children to write poetry – doing away with the dull techniques of teaching meters and analysing rhyming methods but instead engaging them in the wildest flights of imagination, challenging them to question the usual order of things and see everything in their own unique way.

But, at the same time, somewhere in between the lines, the play was permeated with that same nagging question that started this whole journey for me: when and where did I stray off the path? It was absolutely perfect. 

BTC: The show is of a young woman re-evaluating her life. Quite relevant with how
we've all felt over the last year. Has that experience impacted how you worked
on the production?

Saulius: It could not not have. 

The main goal and the only reason for us all coming together to expend our time and energies is bringing the play to life. And the pursuit of it calls for every single resource at our disposal: from lived and observed experience to every single book, film, piece of music we ever came into contact with – everything that left a burning emotional impression. It all resurfaces and informs the artistic choices. And sometimes even all of that isn’t enough.

I think there may have been fewer discussions about spiritual and philosophical matters than usually. Every single person who worked on Lydia is an incredibly sensitive artist, observing, experiencing and reacting to the world around them in the fullest. Working with them, it felt like there wasn’t any need to talk about things everyone knows and feels already. But perhaps I’m wrong – really, this question is better suited for everyone else in the team.

BTC: Do you think the relevance will make the piece hit home differently to a

Saulius: I think that for the longest time we were in a rush to get somewhere. And then suddenly the pandemic hit, forcing everyone and everything to come to an unexpected halt. It’s only natural that this brief pause unearthed a lot of questions that were previously suppressed or simply couldn’t have been addressed due to the lack of time. And one of them was perhaps the most important question of all: does the destination we’re heading towards align with who we were, are and want to be?

But while the importance of this has been briefly amplified by the pandemic, it’s by no means a novel occurrence. Simina, the playwright, wrote Lydia long before there were any hints of the pandemic. To her, these themes and questions were relevant then. For me – and countless others – it was the pandemic that highlighted this spiritual crisis. Then there were countless others who explored these themes before us, just as there’ll be just many more after us. I think that as long as there are people travelling through life, there will be plenty of stops - sometimes dictated by inner turmoil, sometimes by outward circumstances - to pause, look around and re-examine where we’re going and why.

BTC: The production is Chalk Roots's first audio piece. How has it been to produce
and what challenges does it bring working in audio form?

Saulius: Our sound designer, Raimundas Paulauskas and myself have successfully collaborated on audio dramas before. Most of the cast were also experienced in doing audio work, so it wasn’t an unfamiliar undertaking in that sense.

The biggest challenge was creating the world of Lydia solely through sound. In majority of mediums that have a visual element to them, sound and music often exist as a supporting element to a much larger whole. The sound is dictated by the image and is usually used as a vehicle for emotion, an emotional amplifier of sorts. Sound and music evoke feelings - tell audiences how to feel about something they’re seeing. But in audio drama sound is the main and only tool we had at our disposal.

In many ways, audio dramas can be equated to animation - particularly in terms of world building. In the beginning there’s nothing, just an empty page and every single detail has to be hand-painted in by the artist as a result of their conscious decision.

It’s precisely the same with the soundscape in audio dramas. And then there’s the paradox: while we’re attempting to represent life truthfully, we can’t just faithfully reproduce reality. If we were to include every single noise that one would expect to hear realistically - it’d result in a meaningless chaos. 

Reproducing realistic soundscape is impossible. In life, we’re very selective about what noises we pay attention to – single out – and what passes through unnoticed. All of that is determined subjectively, depending on one’s personality, their inner world and the precise mood and external circumstances they find themselves in. And so, you must strive to represent the emotional truth of the characters and their individual perception of the world by artificially selecting, tampering and combining certain sounds.
It may not be possible to successfully fulfil these theoretical demands each and every time - there are constraints of time and budget, and sometimes – even despite all your best efforts you end up short of the goal envisioned. But to not try at all…

We’re already under siege by generic sounds that are blasting at us from every single screen and speaker, tirelessly attempting to convince us that we’re not only living a shopping centre, but that this shopping centre is all that exists.

One of the first decisions Raimundas and I made, was to go against this current, to seek soundscape that’d be unique to Lydia and her world.

BTC: Did the COVID restrictions make the challenge harder?

Saulius: I wouldn’t say so. The biggest challenge, as always, was the time constraints. As a child you always wanted just five more minutes outside before the inevitable call for dinner came, and it’s exactly the same now. You always desire just one more hour, day or week. Just one more small detail to add or fine-tune. But sooner or later that ‘dinner call’ inevitably comes and you have to say “This is it. This is the best we could achieve within the time we had” and bravely go forth to meet the audiences.

The restrictions, if anything, made this challenge slightly easier. Working remotely, over Zoom, eliminated most of overhead costs, enabling us to be more flexible with the schedules and spend more time (some would say unusually long time) rehearsing. Which, considering the size of the cast & crew, would have been significantly more difficult to pull off when working in person. But that was one of the reasons why we chose the audio drama medium - so we could avoid making compromises forced upon other theatre forms.

BTC: Why should audiences listen to the piece?

Saulius: I think that if there’s turmoil within oneself, a desperate longing for something inexplicable, a person will naturally turn to art in search for something that’d reflect their inner struggles and inspire hope. Whether that something will be Lydia or something else - that’ll depend on the person embarking on the search and what they’re searching for.

For me, personally, Lydia embodies the idea that while time is a constraining factor in all matters, it holds no power over the life of the soul. And that gives me hope.
Perhaps it will do the same for others too.

To find out more about Chalk Roots Theatre please follow their social media, either on Twitter, InstagramFacebook or YouTube.

Animal Farm - National Youth Theatre Review

435 days after I was in the Royal Theatre in Northampton and the last performance I saw before lockdown one in March 2020, I touched back down on a seat in this gorgeous theatre again for an utterly magical afternoon of theatre.

Before I talk about the performance itself I must heap praise on the team at Royal and Derngate. The entry process was easy and there was a great one-way system in place. At the door there was the process of checking your ticket and scanning checking in on the NHS Track and Trace App. Following the entry time on the ticket I made my way into the auditorium and found my seat. The front of house team were excellent throughout with their information and guidance in the building. I was quite anxious about the whole thing but as soon as I was inside I felt safe and that's credit to all the measures that are in place.

Photo by Ali Wright

After waiting so long I can't begin to word the emotions that stirred inside me as the lights went down and the performance of Animal Farm began. Forgive me if this review is a full of those emotions.

The Made in Northampton production is a collaboration between the theatre and the National Youth Theatre (their alumni includes Matt Smith, Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Day Lewis!) and I was completely transfixed by this production.

Directed by Ed Stambollouain, Tatty Hennessy's adaptation captured every powerful beat of George Orwell's original story. The grit, the corruption, the revolution and the power has been superbly caught and by the script and feels very relevant to the current political climate we live in.

For those unfamiliar with the story, we meet the animals on Mr Jones's Manor Farm who decide to over throw the farmer and run the place themselves. What they imagine will be the beginning of a new life quickly turns sour as amongst them is the ruthless pigs who establish themselves and take over control. The animals soon realise that everyone is not as equal as they hoped and find themselves ensnared as tyranny is replaced with another and independence isn't what they hoped or were promised. 

Photo by Ali Wright.

The design team have done a beautiful job of rooting the perfect feel to the production. Jasmine Swan's set design is tremendous. It captures the perfect setting for the farm and it's gritty nature as the performance moves along. The use of the sheet curtains, like you'd see in the back of a butcher's is a constant reminder of the danger these animals can find themselves in. Jasmine's costume design's are equally as impressive, it's whole thing has a dystopian and almost steampunk feel. The colour palate for this design allows each set of animals to be distinctive in their own way so as to not confuse you who is what. 

That visual design is completed by Zoe Spurr and her talented eye for lighting design. Zoe's paints a picture with her lighting in this show. The use of shadows and back lighting especially for those in power, be that the farmers or the pigs is particularly striking. The sound design is as effective, Xana's soundscape adds an underlying layer of emotion. I really enjoyed John Elliott's music too.

The company of 16 from the National Youth Theatre Rep Company, all of whom are making their professional debuts, are nothing short of outstanding. Stars of the future who have the potential and skill to go far. The great choreography by Vicky Igbokwe and fight direction Enric Ortuno allows for the actors to capture the movement of each animal.

Adeola Yemitan stood out for me with her performance as horse Clover. Her character arc particularly in the second half, whilst I don't want to spoil the ending, but the power of her releasing so much passionate energy and emotion really struck me. Note her name down, she will go on to big things.

Adeola Yemitan as Clover. Photo by Ali Wright.

Connor Crawford revels in the deliciously monstrous Farmer Jones, his entrance is on that would give a few kids sleepless nights. Jack Humphrey's Minty the Sheep has given me a found sheep respect. James-Eden Hutchinson delights in bringing some laughter as pigeon Milo. Not knowing the story before hand I didn't see the change in Jack Matthew's Napoleon coming but it's something he did with great skill. I could simply list each cast member for their tremendous characterisations and performances, each one perfectly brought to life.

As you can probably tell I was totally spellbound by this performance. What a way to bring performance back on to the stage at Royal and Derngate and for me to experience live performance again. Everything you could want from a piece of theatre when you've been away for so long, storytelling captured and executed in a way that is nothing short of brilliance.

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ a moving return to the theatre with an extraordinary production.

Animal Farm runs at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 22nd May. Another co-production between the theatre and the National Youth Theatre, Othello, runs at Royal and Derngate from 25th to 29th May 2020. Both production will then tour playing at the Workshop Theatre in Islington, Soulton Hall in Shropshire and Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire. You can find out more about the two productions at https://www.nyt.org.uk/whats-on/nyt-rep-season-2021 

17 May 2021

FA Cup Final

On Saturday (15th May 2021) I was fortunate enough to attend The FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium as part of the latest government test event to help ease us out of COVID restrictions. I wanted to share my experience so it might give others a little more confidence about attending events in the future, though as a life long Leicester City fan I'll struggle to capture every emotion I felt on the day and since. 

The yearly show piece final of one of sports premier competitions was selected as a test event allowing  for up to 22,000 spectators to be in the stadium. 6250 from Leicester City, 6250 from the opposition Chelsea and 9000, from local people/key workers. This followed from the FA Cup semi final which had just 4000 spectators from the local area in attendance. 

Once it was announced about the tickets I was unsure if I had enough points on my season ticket to qualify but thankfully I did. Anyone who has booked a ticket for a big event will know the stress of the moments leading up to the minute those tickets are on sale but luckily Leicester had put a great queuing system in place on their website which meant there was no problem with the website crashing. It was actually pretty easy to get the tickets booked.

Wembley Stadium Pre-Match.

One of the 'mandatory' things that was put in place was that anyone attending the game with an LE postcode (so anyone from Leicestershire) would have to travel on the clubs supporters coaches with a choice of two destinations (The King Power Stadium or Enderby Park and Ride). This certainly put a few put off initially as fans wanted to be able to make their own way to the stadium, be that by train, car or however. 

Another condition of attending the game was from 48 hours prior to the kick off every supporter had to go for a lateral flow COVID test and receive proof of a negative test. The whole process of the test was superbly run, getting in and registering the test and taking the test to then receive notification around 30 minutes later of the result - superb. Obviously I tested negative for COVID so I was good to go.

The day itself it came and off we went to the King Power to catch the coach. We decided to aim to arrive at the ground around 10.15/30am and it was very well organised at the ground from what I was. You had barriers up with stewards there checking people's bus confirmation, their negative COVID test results as well as checking bags. One of the concourses was open allowing for people to go to the toilet before boarding the coach. The boarding of the coaches was a very smooth process, people were put into different pens with each bus taking a maximum of 23 people. 

I was probably more anxious at the coach than I was about being in the stadium or even the match! On the bus we all had to wear masks and people were spread out allowing for distancing. The journey down was pretty smooth and we actually arrived at Wembley at 1.15pm - some 4 hours before kick off!

Once we got off the coach at Wembley we were free to do as we please. We walked around for a couple of hours taking in the atmosphere up Wembley Way and the surrounding area. As you can imagine there were lots of people drinking, be that in a pub garden or having brought some alcohol from a local shop. 

On Wembley Way

The next bit was getting into the ground, the stadium itself opened up at 3.15pm ahead of the 5.15pm kick off. To get in we again had to show proof of our negative lateral flow test and show ID, and with that we scanned our tickets, put our masks back on and we were in the stadium.

Once in our seats, which regardless of being in a bubble or anything were all spaced out so that there was an empty seat in-between each person.  The pre-match entertainment was good as the atmosphere built. The Coldstream Guards performed a few numbers before the players came out to warm up. There was rapturous applause from both sets of fans for their own set of players, after all for most of us we'd not been at a match for 15 months. As is tradition for the FA Cup Final the hymn 'Abide With Me' is sung pre-match, for this the Coldstream Guards performed with the B-Positive Choir (a group of singers who suffer with sickle cell disease or who close friends/family suffering with it). 

With 5.15pm approaching, the teams entered to pitch and the atmosphere was fantastic. There stadium may have been around a quarter of it's capacity but the noise levels were amazing. Fireworks and fire were set off the greet the players before Becky Hill performed the National Anthem with Prince William being introduced to both sets of players. Then it was kick off.

The first half was almost a non-event of tense nervous play. Chelsea had the best opportunity with Cesar Azpilicueta just unable to get his head to a cross. For the first half most people seemed to keep masks on around me, with stewards on the stairs reminding people to keep them on and people kept fairly apart. Half time came with the score at 0-0.

Into the second half went and up stepped Youri Tielemans. Picking up the ball about 35 yards out after a pass from Luke Thomas and not being closed down Tielemans strolled forwards and unleashed a rocket that flew past the Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and into the top corner. Cue scenes of total bedlam. Bodies were all over the place, people flying down the stairs to the front, strangers hugging, a few blokes fell over (one went down about 5 steps - unharmed I must add). I know it probably wasn't in keeping with all the restrictions but if people just had such a release, especially after such a tough year. 

The clock was ticking, we were 1-0 up and then up steps another heroic performance on the pitch, this time goalkeeper and captain Kasper Schmeichel, first he just pushed Ben Chilwell's headed onto the post then he made one of the greatest saves I've ever seen after a thunderous strike by Mason Mount. He got down to his left and somehow palmed the shot wide. Sheer disbelief around me again. The bloke on the row in front kept turning around saying "I can't cope with this".

The drama wasn't finished as in the final couple of minutes a ball was played over the top of our defence where Chilwell picked it up and after a scramble the ball was turned in to our net and Chelsea had a dramatic late equaliser. Cue VAR (Video Assistant Referee) who looked at the goal and it turns out Chilwell was offside, only just mind you, and it was back to 1-0 and we were 5 minutes of stoppage time away from winning the trophy for the first time in the club's history. The scenes as the goal was chalked off were more bedlam than the earlier Tielemans screamer. This was OUR day.

The five minutes played out with heavy Chelsea pressure but after lobbed ball was headed out by Wes Morgan and Chelsea played it to the win referee Michael Oliver blew the full time whistle. We'd done it. Leicester City had won the FA Cup. I'll never forget that feeling as the whilst blew. Strangers were hugging, grown men were in pieces, people jump all over the place. There was such joy in our end as the players raced down to celebrate before lifting the trophy itself. 

After the trophy lift our owner Khun Top joined the celebrations with the players, manager and the backroom staff. It was a beautiful moment. Our late great chairmen Khun Vichai, who sadly died in a tragic helicopter crash in 2018, was certainly looking down on us all and smiling. At Leicester City we're blessed to have arguably the best owners in the country. With all the turmoil in football in recent weeks with the European Super League, the scenes after the final whistle felt not just a victory for us but a victory for football. 

After 30 minutes or so fans began to trickle out as the players returned to the dressing room. Euphoric joy was in the air as we all headed back towards the car park where the coaches were parked. With masks back on we were back on the coach and heading back to Leicester. The coach journey back was fairly subdued, I think we all left our voices and our energy in the stadium. 

We arrived back in Leicester just after 11pm. There was a party atmosphere about the city that you could just feel in the air. We returned home and I instantly put the highlight on to relieve the moments. 2 days on and I can still see that ball leaving Tielemans foot and flying in. 2 days on my voice isn't fully recovered!

Overall from my perspective the event was well run and organised by the FA, Wembley and it's staff and the two clubs. Sure the celebrations probably weren't COVID safe but who can deny anyone that moment of joy? It was truly a special day, one I shall never ever forget. Priceless and precious memories. It's made me feel a bit more confident about any anxieties with returning to a theatre or going on public transport again.

Me celebrating after the game

14 May 2021

There Will Be Light Review

Sarah Drake, an American performer who moved to the UK in October 2020 after the sad loss of her father brings us a magnificent online concert, There Will Be Light in aid of Acting For Others. 

Sarah opens the concert with a lovely introduction, she's instantly likeable with her upbeat and great energy. She then belts out "Don't Rain On My Parade" from the musical Funny Girl. Sarah has a lovely vocal tone and the song fits perfectly for her voice.

I watched the concert with a few pals and fellow theatre bloggers over Zoom and they were particularly taken by Michael Tacconi' and his acoustic performance of "Hope She Will Be Happier".

Becca Stenhouse, who I adored when I saw her understudying as Elle Woods in the UK Tour of Legally Blonde back in 2018, gave a great performance of "Maybe This Time" from the musical Cabaret. Becca has such an warm tone to her voice. 

Alex Lodge sang "Moving Too Fast" and Sarah followed with a touching rendition of "I Can't Make You Love Me" which she dedicated to the number of relationships which may have not worked out during the past year. 

The poster for There Will Be Light

The party then got started with Tavia Revée who sang the Whitney Houston classic "I Wanna Dance With Somebody". The upbeat joy of this song and Tavia's rendition got us all dancing on our Zoom. 

Rebecca Gilhooley sang 'Moving The Line' and Tiffany Chalothorn sang 'Other Side of the Tracks' before Sarah and Becca duetted 'Apex Predator' from Mean Girls. 

The brilliant Emma Salvo sang 'Times Like These' before Nick Hayes sang 'Beautiful City' which Sarah dedicated to all the people who we've sadly lost during the pandemic. 

The final number came from Soloman Jaye performing "Through Heaven's Eyes" from The Prince of Egypt. A tremendous performance to wrap up a brilliant concert.

Sarah did a fantastic job putting together this concert, it features a diverse cast performing a good range of songs in differing styles. It's both a lovely celebration of wonderful talent and of the theatre's re-opening which is on the horizon. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert, one of the most enjoyable online concerts that I've seen during this past year. 

You can watch There Will Be Light on YouTube for free, and you can donate to Acting For Others through this page

1 May 2021

Theatre's Coming Back - May Show Picks.

We're officially in May and that means we're just over a couple of weeks away from the next step on the UK government's road map out of the lockdown. From the 17th May (hopefully!) theatres will be allowed to open with social distances measures in place. Regional theatres that haven't opened since last March are currently preparing for their doors to open again.

As a blogger, reviewer but firstly a theatre lover I've tried not to allow myself to get overly excited about the thought of being able to go to the theatre again, simply cause I'm a little anxious if it all gets moved back again. I'm not sure it'll feel real for me until that first night where I'm back sat in a theatre seat and a show is about to begin. 

Here I've compiled a list of shows that you should consider booking for the coming weeks.

Amelie - Criterion Theatre, London
I could hardly start anywhere else. I instantly fell in love with this gorgeous show in 2019 when I went to review it at the Haymarket Theatre here in Leicester. I loved it so much that I went back again the next night and ended up traveling to various cities to see it on tour and a further 3 visits once it transferred to The Other Palace. To me, it's my favourite show I've ever seen so I urge you not to miss your chance to see it this time.

After picking up 3 Olivier Nominations and also a Grammy Nomination the show is transferring to The Criterion Theatre in London's West End where it opens for a limited season from May 20th. Tickets are on sale now https://ameliethemusical.com/

Many of the original London cast return once again with the production led by Olivier Nominated Audrey Brisson as the title character, Amelie Poulain. Chris Jared as Nino, Oliver Grant as Lucien/Mysterious Man, Johnson Willis as Collignon/Dufayel, Jez Unwin as Raphael/Bretodeau, Rachel Dawson as Amandine/Philomene, Samuel Morgan-Grahame as Joseph/Fluffy, Caolan McCarthy as Hippolito/Elton John, Kate Robson Stuart as Suzanne, Nuwan Hugh-Perera as Jean-Yves, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Georgette/Sylvie, Jack Quarton as Blind Beggar, Sioned Saunders as Gina, Matthew James Hinchliffe as Raymond, Miiya Alexandra as Delphine and Robyn Sinclair as Cecile. 

The original cast of Amelie. Photo by Pamela Raith.

AMDRAM: A Musical Comedy - Curve
This new comedy musical written by Alex Parker and Katie Lam is coming to Curve for four performances this May. It tells of the Great Osterley North Amateur Dramatic Society, or GONADS, as they face the challenge of a professional director and leading lady joining their forthcoming production of The Golden Empress. Cast, crew, and committee are forced to explore friendships, theatre, and community with hilarious consequences but with so much drama happening off the stage will the production even make it to opening night?

The new musical boasts a fantastic cast including Janie Dee, Laura Pitt-PulfordRaj GhatakDebbie ChazenSharan PhullJordan Lee Davies, and Wendy Ferguson.

AMDRAM will run Thurs 27th May, Fri 28th May at 7.30pm, and Saturday 29th May at 1.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets are on sale now from www.curveonline.co.uk

Curve's May re-opening season also includes Residents Creative New Work (Fri 21st and Sat 22nd May), Rising from Aakash Odedra Company (Mon 24th and Tues 25th May).

Animal Farm and Othello - Royal And Derngate, Northampton
When I saw The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in The Royal Theatre back in March 2020 I didn't suspect that it'd be my last night in the theatre for 15 months but excitingly Royal and Derngate are opening with a couple of productions in collaboration with National Youth Theatre. 

Animal Farm has been adapted by Award-winning Political Playwright Tatty Hennessy who adapts George Orwell's classic novel as an allegory for our own times exploring themes of revolution, the price of sovereignty, and power with humour and sharp wit.

Othello receives a thrilling and lyrical retelling, with Francesca Amewudah-Rivers in the title role, and sees the company explore themes of love, jealousy, systemic racism, and misogyny through the lens of crime and power.

Animal Farm runs from Monday 17th - Saturday 22nd May and Othello runs from Tues 25th May - Sat 29th May 2021. Tickets are on sale now from https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

The artwork for Animal Farm.

Neville's Island - Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
This fresh new production of Tim Firth's critically acclaimed comedy will run re-open Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch. 

This hilarious farce about four out-of-condition middle managers who are forced out on the outdoor awayday from hell. When they're shipwrecked, wrapped in fog, and cut off from civilisation, Gordon, Angus, Roy, and the hapless Neville are about the experience the misadventure of their lives.

The new production is directed by Emma Baggott and will star Beruce Khan as Angus, Philip Cairns as Gordon, Sean Michael Verey as Neville, and Stephen Leask as Roy.

The show will run from May 20th - June 12th and from 22nd June - 3rd July 2021. Tickets are on sale now from https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/

A Russian Doll - Barn Theatre, Cirencester
Few theatres have created so much amazing original content than the Barn has during the past year. Through streams, a summer outdoor season, and more, The Barn has done so much amazing work, now thankfully the theatre is due to welcome audiences back with a world premiere co-production with Arcola Theatre of Cat Goscovitch’s new play, A Russian Doll

The play, which is based on a true story, follows twenty-something Masha as she becomes embroiled in the world of data and deceit as a member of Russia’s disinformation campaigns during the EU referendum.

A Russian Doll, which will be directed by Nicolas Kent (All The President’s Men?Another World) and will star Rachel Redford, will run in Cirencester from 18 May – 13 June 2021. Following the run in the Cotswolds, the production will run at the Arcola Theatre in London. Ticket's for the Barn run are available from https://barntheatre.org.uk/

Cruise - Duchess Theatre, London
Following a successful and critically acclaimed online run, Cruise will play to audiences at The Duchess Theatre in London for a limited run.

The new drama written and performed by Jack Holden. It tells of Michael in 1988's Soho who has is heading towards the last day of his life as he was given four years to live after being diagnosed with HIV. 

Cruise is a celebration of queer culture; a kaleidoscopic musical and spoken word tribute to the veterans of the AIDs crisis; an urgent piece of theatre, with an irresistible 80s soundtrack, which will make you laugh, make you cry, and which inspires us all to live every day as if it’s our last.

The production will run from May 18th - June 13th 2021. Tickets are available from https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/cruise/

These shows are just a handful of brilliant productions that will be re-opening up and down the country. I personally can't wait for each and every venue, regardless of size to re-open. Come back in a few weeks to see my June recommendations.

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