22 August 2021

Rent - Hope Mill Theatre

Like every theatre, it's been a turbulent time for Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre. This production of Rent was due to play last year and did open very briefly to a socially distanced audience before the second lockdown halted the production, that shutdown meant the show chose to film and stream the production to huge critical acclaim. Fast forward to this summer and the theatre is finally playing to full houses at the venue.

Yesterday (August 21st, 2021) a group of friends and me went up to see the show and we were all blown away. Here are 5 reasons you should consider grabbing a ticket for the production that only runs until September 19th, 2021.

1 - The Hope Mill Theatre
The theatre itself is such a wonderfully intimate space. The vision of Joseph Houston and William Whelton the theatre opened in 2015 and won Fringe Venue of the Year at the 2018 Stage Awards. It seats 120 people and works particularly well for a production like this one of Rent. The intimate setting means even if you're further back, like me and the group was (back but one row) you don't feel too detached from the performance.

The only downside of it being such a small space is that it was rather warm in there, so maybe bear that in mind before you visit. Again this could be because we were at the back but it was scorching in there, it's not often you leave a theatre feeling as sweaty and the performers!

The full Rent company. Photo by Pamela Raith

2 - The Direction by Luke Sheppard and the creative team.
Luke Sheppard's production of Rent allows for the power of Jonathan Larson's book and music to come to the fore. As I mentioned above the intimate setting allows for the performance to feel more intense and moving. The use of the stage and having the company sat around it the whole time is so clever and adds a lovely layer to the piece - it's so fun to watch the reaction of the cast to the piece, especially Millie O'Connell who looks like she's having the time of her life with the show.

Sheppard's slick direction hits the heart of the story, a story in 1980s America where a group of friends tries to battle AIDS and the legacy they'll leave behind. The design team of David Woodhead (sets and costume), Howard Hudson (lighting design), Paul Gatehouse (sound design), and George Reeve (projection design) all contribute superbly. The brick of the Hope Mill itself becomes the Manhattan walls with protest posters adorned over them. The use of the imagery from Mark's camera is cleverly projected on the backdrop which is a white partially see-through curtain.

Perhaps the shows most striking imagery lies in the candle symbolising the loss this group of friends, and many of those around them would have been going through. This isn't a flashy over-the-top production but raw and real staging that will both break your heart and ultimately leave you uplifted.

Tom Francis and Maiya Quansah-Breed. Photo by Pamela Raith

3 - The Choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves
Two words immediately come to mind - 'Tango Maureen'.  The fluidity of the movement by Greaves is magic to watch when performed by the cast. The number is staged in a ring which is shaped by a red rope held by the company sat around the stage. Jocasta Almgill (Joanne) and Luke Bayer (Mark) nail every beat of tricky movement especially with the rope.

There's some lovely symbolic work, with socially distancing largely still in place throughout. This is most noticeable when the lovers remain with their hands kept slightly apart. The movement and dance become even more striking with this imagery.

There's lots of fabulous dance by Alison Driver, she effortlessly contorts her body into various shapes with real skill.

Alison Driver (centre). Photo by Pamela Raith

4 - The Music and the Band.
For anyone who with an interest in musical theatre you'll know how iconic Jonathan Larson's music and lyric is - lines like "no day but today" or simple the whole of 'Seasons of Love'. With musical supervision and orchestral fixing by the brilliant Katy Richardson, this production feels in safe hands. has Rent ever sounded this good?

Musical director Chris Poon and the band make the music come to life in the most extraordinary way. The goosebumps I felt as soon as the opening number 'Rent' began is something you can only feel with live theatre. The sheer swell of a joyous sound. 

Alex Thomas-Smith and Dom Hartley-Harris. Photo by Pamela Raith

5 - The hugely talented cast.
It's hard to know where to begin with the cast. Each member of the company is exceptional. Many of the 2020 company return with a few new cast members joining too.

Tom Francis is perfectly cast as Roger. He captures the heart of the down and out character who is trying to write one song that will be his lasting legacy. His powerful voice is thrilling to listen to. His relationship with Maiya Quansah-Breed's Mimi is lovely. The desolation he feels in the final scene is very moving. 

Luke Bayer does a fantastic job as Mark. Throughout everything that going on around him he keeps on going and you sense that the supporting nature Bayer brings to his Mark keeps the other characters going through love, loss, and heartbreak.

For me, the heart of Rent comes from the relationship between Collins and Angel. Here played by Dom Hartley-Harris and Alex Thomas-Smith. The two are outstanding and are fantastic to watch. The energy Thomas-Smith brings to their angel is stunning. Even if you know what's coming you're still rocked to the core by Angel's fate. I defy anyone to not be deeply moved by the power that Hartley-Harris emits during 'I'll Cover You (Reprise)'.

Millie O'Connell, as mentioned above, is clearly having SO much fun as Maureen. Her boundless energy is delightful. She glides around with real flow. Whilst I normally can't abide 'Over The Moon', what O'Connell does with it makes it really enjoyable. The comedy and wide expressions she brings are fabulous to watch. O'Connell bounces off Jocasta Almgill's Joanne well, and the pair serve up 'Take Me or Leave Me' superbly.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay makes Benny feel more likeable than in previous incarnations of the show I've seen - which given he is the one who trying to get the Rent money and forcing the characters out on the street once they can't pay - is no mean feat.

The featured ensemble, Isaac Hesketh, Iona Fraser, Alison Driver, Karl Lankester (and Joe Foster who was indisposed for the performance we attended) does great work playing numerous characters throughout as well as fleshing out the extra layers of movement. Fraser and Lankester both get stand-out solo moments in the iconic 'Seasons of Love'

The company of Rent. Photo by Pamela Raith

As you can probably tell from this post I LOVED this production. It's right up there with the best pieces of theatre you could see. Rent is a masterpiece of a musical as is this Hope Mill Theatre production. Make your "no day but today" and book yourself a trip.

Rent runs at the Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 19th September 2021 - for booking details visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/

20 August 2021

Kilworth's Memories of the Musicals Review

In a leafy corner of Leicestershire, the gorgeous Kilworth House Theatre is welcoming audiences back to its beautiful outdoor theatre for the first time in nearly 2 years. 

The beautiful theatre is set in the woods in the ground of Kilworth House in South West Leicestershire has had to twice cancel its planned summer seasons production of Carousel and Half A Sixpence (both are now due to play the venue in 2022). To compensate the theatre has come up with a tremendous musical theatre celebration where it re-visits numbers from its past productions. This serves up an evening of marvelous musical theatre. 

Julia Imbach, Matthew Goodgame, Emma Williams, Oscar Conlon Morrey, Carole Stennett and Owen McHugh

The great thing is that the wide variety of productions that the theatre has produced, from classics such as Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, West Side Story there is also get more recent shows like Sister Act and Legally Blonde. There really is something for everyone in this show - gorgeous music, hilarious moments, dazzling choreography, and high-class performers. With Kilworth's beautiful setting, what more could you wish for?
The show flies through nearly 50 numbers in its 2 hours and 20 minutes (including interval) run time beginning with some lovely nods to the venue itself, 'A Weekend at Hereford' from Me and My Girl has been adapted to 'A Weekend at Kilworth' and through to a sensational finale of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' from Carousel.

Owen McHugh and Julia Imbach

The show stars 6 superb performers all of whom come with the highest quality credentials. Matthew Goodgame, who also directs, oozes charm and leading man quality. He has a great vocal quality, numbers like 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'Luck Be A Lady' fall perfectly into this range. Owen McHugh is quite the dancer, he glides with real fluidity.

Julia Imbach too dances with real skill and ability. Her voice packs a punch too, she has two numbers which are right up there with the evening's best - 'The Life I Never Led' from Sister Act and 'So In Love' from Kiss Me Kate. You can picture her leading the biggest productions in the near future. Carole Stennett's divine soulful vocals and stage presence carry through various songs. Anyone who knows me knows my feelings about the musical Cats but Stennett's rendition of 'Memory' is truly special. She lands every note with feeling. 

Emma Williams, who never disappoints, offers supreme vocals and charisma. Williams once again proves whilst she is one of the brightest stars of her generation. Every number she's in she enhances with her vocals and terrific acting through song. Oscar Conlon-Morrey delights in every moment, he is so assured, utterly hilarious, and with a stonking good voice. I defy you not to smile at any occasion watching him. The enjoyment he has for the craft is clearly written all over his face. Watching him ever tiring and getting more and more frustrated during 'Lambeth Walk' is a treat as is the hilarity of 'Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat' that closes act one

Owen McHugh, Oscar Conlon Morrey and Matthew Goodgame

With an outstanding cast comes an equally superb band. George Dyer has done a splendid job of orchestrating the production, the second act opens with 'The Kilworth Overture' which takes us through a short snippet of each of the past productions. George also serves as musical director and he and the other 7 musicians make a fabulous sound. Ryan Webber, Rebecca Gibson Swift, Carolyn Lawford, Russell Swift, Steve Fawbert, Elaine Ambridge, and Nathan Bray all deserve naming for their work.

Jason Taylor does an effective job with his lighting design, filling the space and the trees behind with colour. Choreographer Melanie Cripps creates impressive movement which is performed with great skill - this including some great spoonography!

As the night ends with a richly deserved standing ovation you can see the emotion written on the faces of the performers. My dad remarked on the journey home how much it was apparent the cast were enjoying themselves and playing to an audience again. Theatre is back at Kilworth and we're richer for it.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - pure musical theatre happiness.

Kilworth's Memories of the Musical runs until Sunday 29th August 2021. To book tickets visit https://www.kilworthhousetheatre.co.uk/

Emma Williams, Owen McHugh, Carole Stennett, Julia Imbach, and Matthew Goodgame.

11 August 2021

Rocky Horror Show Review

The Rocky Horror Show has been delighting audiences for 48 years and now the production has arrived at The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham for the week as part of the show's latest World Tour.

Richard O'Brien's cult classic show continues to fill the auditoria with people dressed up as their favourite characters in the show - the dedication people go-to is a joy and creates such a buzz in the theatre before the performance has even begun. The genius is with the material, even after all those years it's not tired, it feels alive still and will for many many years to come.

The Rocky Horror cast. Photo by Dave Freeman.

For those unfamiliar with the story (where have you been!), we follow a freshly engaged virgin couple, Brad and Janet, who on their way to see their old Science Tutor, suffer their car breaking down. They seek solace in "a castle they passed down the road a few miles" but that castle just happens to belong to Transsexual Transylvanian Frank 'N' Furter and his maniacal gang of servants. They arrive on a rather special night as Frank's new creature is about to be born. Throughout the night Brad and Janet both end up tasting "forbidden fruit" before things take a drastic turn as Act Two reaches its climax. It's as joyously bonkers as I've probably just made it sound.

Chris Luscombe returns to helm the show as director, as he has been for some 15 years now. Much is unchanged in terms of the design from the last few UK incarnations. The set is still the same design as previously with Hugh Durrant's cinematic feel with the use of various props to filling the stage. Sue Blane's costumes are instantly recognisable and continue to add to the sexiness of the show. 

Nick Richings's lighting design is thrilling, especially in the front row (although at times from our seats it was very in your face bright!). There are some gorgeous lighting choices, with a particular highlight for me being in 'Superheroes' towards the latter end of Act Two. The sound design by Gareth Owen is pitched perfectly - it's LOUD on the front row with one of the speakers directly in front of us in our seats. Greg Arrowsmith and the other 4 members of the band make a wonderful sound throughout.

The company is led by Stephen Webb who returns to don the heels of Frank 'N' Furter. Right from his unforgettable entrance with the number "Sweet Transvestite" he delights as the iconic character. He has such a wonderful vocal tone too and makes Frank both wild and heartfelt especially as he sings "I'm Going Home". Webb enthusiastically captures the exuberant sex appeal of the role as he strides confidently around the stage.

Ore Oduba will surprise some with his charming vocal range as his stage career continues to flourish as Brad. He captures that geeky awkward side of the role really well. Haley Flaherty is another who returns to the production once again playing Janet. It's been some 12 years since I first saw her perform this part and she continues to be so perfectly cast. She nails every beat of the character's arc throughout and with such a strong vocal range too. The pair together capture the relationship of the two to great effect.

Lauren Ingram, Suzie McAdam, Haley Flaherty, Ore Oduba, and Kristian Lavercombe. Photo by Dave Freeman.

One of the things that makes Rocky Horror a unique experience is the audience participation (those who attend for the first time may find this a bit daunting or unusual but it adds to the thrill of the show), much of that participation comes through the Narrator, here played by an outstanding Philip Franks. Franks right from his first scene is hilarious and he quips back to the audience's shout-outs to uproarious laughter. I have seen Rocky Horror over the years some 60 + times and of all the narrators I've seen I think he is probably the best. He looks like he's relishing every moment of being back on stage again too.

Kristian Lavercombe also returns to the show and the role of Riff Raff - a role he's played more than anyone in the show's history and you can see why. He IS this character on stage. His manner and the way he moves are fabulous right from his first entrance. He sings up a storm, his verse in "Over at the Frankenstein's Place" is always a treat to hear and he leads "The Time Warp" with pure unbridled joy. Lauren Ingram as Columbia moves with great ability and emotes the feeling of the role with such sweetness and light, and she gets a cracking moment in the second act after she's gassed by Riff Raff prior to the floor show. Suzie McAdam's outstanding voice and presence as Magenta, her voice is powerful. She plays the sexiness really well too (as do all the cast). McAdam also plays the Usherette who bookends the show with "Science Fiction Double Feature" and its reprise. Both Ingram and McAdam sing with real power.

Joe Allen really only gets a minimum time to shine but he takes those opportunities and makes them unforgettable with first his rock and rolling Eddie in the first act and then as science tutor Dr. Scott in the second act. Ben Westhead's Rocky is the typically perfect action man type, he instantly has the women whooping and cheering as the creature is born in "The Sword of Damocles", he captures that freshly made lostness of the role well considering how he's joined the company late due to an unfortunate injury to Callum Evans. 

Completing the company are Reece Budin, Darcy Finden, Jordan Fox, and Rachel Grundy, all of whom play Phantoms - who are more background characters but this doesn't mean they don't stand out. You just have to watch them for all they bring to the production, further enhancing the whole feel and the setting. They are all in fine voice which adds a great texture to the sound of the numbers. 

Nathan M Wright's energetic choreography is performed with flair and ability by all the company - obviously, The Time Warp and subsequent curtain call reprises have the audience out their seats and joining in the much adored number. Andrew Ahern has done a sterling job of getting Nathan's vision back on stage for this tour.

Rocky Horror continues to be a hot ticket, it's as fresh as ever, it's sexy, wild, uplifting, bonkers and truly perfect escapism. If you need a show to get completely lost in after the last 17 months or so then Rocky Horror couldn't be a better one to choose. 2 hours of pure joy.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ an astonishing production, grab your outfit and your tickets for an unmissable night at the theatre.

Rocky Horror continues at The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham until Sunday 15th August - for tickets visit here. The productions tours the UK and Ireland and internationally thereafter - for full tour dates visit here.

The Rocky Horror Company. Photo by Dave Freeman.

3 August 2021

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert - Royal and Derngate Review

The party bus Priscilla rolls into Northampton for a week and it well and truly blows off any cobwebs that could be left after the theatre's 16 month closure.

The jukebox musical features some of the biggest disco hits, songs like 'It's Raining Men' get the crowd going right from the beginning. There's a sense of the atmosphere before the show but once the lights went down that got ramped up further. 

'Colour My World'. Photo by Darren Bell.

The show is based on the 1994 cult classic film of the same title and sees us follow three drag queens as the unite for a performance in the Australian outback travelling all the way an old battered bus they've christened Priscilla.

Tick (drag alter ego Mitzi) is the reason for the trip to Alice Springs as he is due to be re-united with his 6 year old son whom he's never met. Tick brings the trio together with old Les Girls star and recently widowed Bernadette and the young energetic Adam (alter ego Felicia).

The road across the outback has more than a few bumps along the way but ultimately the show is about family. The family the trio make - albeit a fairly dysfunctional one, and the family Tick gets re-united with. 

The music is the thumping heart of the show with brilliant numbers filling the auditoria with light and joy. Numbers like 'Colour My World' which comes after Priscilla has been painted with homophobic slurs and bursts the place and the bus back into life with a rainbow of colour. Musical director Richard Atkinson and the Priscilla band create a wonderful sound from the orchestra pit. The music delights the full capacity crowd in the Derngate.

'Go West'. Photo by Darren Bell.

That colour is also created by dazzling lighting designed by Ben Cracknell and the stunning costumes by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith. The costumes are so well thought out and designed that it creates this whole world of drag on the stage. The design could easily topple over the top into being gaudy but it never feels that way. It's bright, colourful and a delight to the senses. 

Tom Jackson Greaves exuberant choreography is performed with real skill by the company, the movement is fluid and fits in to each style of the characters on the stage - whether that be in the Outback drinking establishments in 'Thank God I'm A Country Boy' or to the more extravagant company numbers like 'Go West' which features great flagography.

Edwin Ray is superb as Tick/Mitzi. He makes the character believable and with real heart, especially when the character is re-united with his son. Ray does a fantastic job as the one of the trio who holds everything together as the other two constantly bicker and bitch about each other. Nick Hayes has boundless energy and charm as Adam/Felicia. He is endlessly confident and fits the role tremendously and he sings up a storm too with a powerful vocal range which soars in 'Hot Stuff'.

Miles Western (Bernadette), Edwin Ray (Mitzi) and Nick Hayes (Felicia). Photo by Darren Bell

The show hasn't been without backlash with the character of Bernadette being trans. Back in March the show put out a casting call looking for trans actors and in the end only one has been cast in and ensemble role and to understudy the trans part in the show (see here for further reading). I have nothing against Miles Western who does do a fabulous job in characterising the role, he sings with real confidence and captures the slightly washed up diva really well but it does feel a shame that a cis male is still playing the role.

There's star turns from the three divas played by Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease - they enhance the musical numbers with soaring vocals. Daniel Fletcher does a lovely job of fleshing out mechanic Bob. Gracie Lai gives a memorable turn as Cynthia - it'll certainly make you look at table tennis balls differently! Kevin Yates begins the show with real warmth and humour as Miss Understanding, they do a fine job of delivering some early comedy to the performance.

The show completely dazzles from the beginning through till it's crowd pleasing curtain call reprise of 'I Will Survive'. The show is an explosion of glitter, rainbows and the purest of joys. It is a perfect show for people to return to a theatre with. You will leave with a song in your heart and sequins in your soul. Delightful

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ one bus ride you won't want to miss. Upbeat, joyous and celebratory theatre.

Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert continues at Royal and Derngate in Northampton until Saturday 7th August 2021 and tours the UK and Ireland. Visit https://priscillauktour.com/ for full tour dates.

The full Priscilla company. Photo by Darren Bell.

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