Review: Fat Friends the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

On paper, Fat Friends the Musical ticks all the boxes: a nostalgic revival of a much-loved TV series, written by the show’s original creator Kay Mellor; a heart-warming story about loving yourself and your body no matter what you weigh; and a starry cast featuring stage and screen favourites that include Jodie Prenger, Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy.

The show condenses some of the main plotlines from the first series of Fat Friends into one story, primarily focused on Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who’s about to marry the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Montague), and would be the happiest woman in the world if only she could fit into her dream wedding dress. But that’s not so easy when your parents (Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy) own a fish and chip shop, your skinny sister (Rachael Wooding) won’t stop teasing you about your weight, and you’re hungry all the time. Encouraged – for different reasons – by best friend Lauren (Natalie Anderson) and dieting queen Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton), Kelly sets out to lose those extra pounds… but will being slimmer actually make her happy?

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

It’s great to see Kelly, Betty and co again, thirteen years after Fat Friends left our screens, and the show’s script sparkles with Kay Mellor’s trademark Yorkshire wit and warmth. Just as we remember them, the characters are loveable and easy for real people to relate to; some of the biggest laughs are ones of recognition as the slimmers shed as much clothing as possible before their weigh-in, or battle with themselves over whether or not to have that bag of chips. We’ve all been there, and that’s why it works. (And if you don’t leave the theatre craving fish and chips, you’re a lot stronger than I am.)

Jodie Prenger is well cast as the irrepressible Kelly, and soon has us on side with her down to earth humour and unflinching honesty. Sam Bailey – just a couple of years older in real life – seems an unlikely choice to play her mother, but the two pull off a convincing on-stage relationship, with shy, nervous Betty the very opposite of her outgoing daughter. Meanwhile, Rachael Wooding doubles up so effectively as Kelly’s sister Joanne and Julia’s downtrodden assistant Pippa that I didn’t even realise it was the same person, and Natalie Anderson throws herself with seemingly limitless energy into her one character Lauren’s multiple roles as dress shop owner, slimming class leader and Zumba instructor (not to mention hopeless romantic).

Unfortunately, the music – composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Mellor – doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the evening. Despite a few stand-out numbers, and the undeniable vocal talents of Sam Bailey, Jodie Prenger, Natalie Anderson and others, the songs on the whole add little to the plot and, though well performed, are not particularly memorable. Given that its strength lies in the characters, story and dialogue, you have to wonder if the show, which runs at over two and a half hours, might not have worked better as a play.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Although as a musical it doesn’t quite work for me, Fat Friends is still a good night out, with a talented cast and a strong message about body image. By updating the story to the present day, Mellor is also able to cover both the opportunities and the dangers posed by social media, and the many ways in which we allow others – both people we know and complete strangers – to dictate how we should feel about ourselves. A feel-good show with a heart as big as its appetite, this revival of a TV favourite is a lot of fun for old and new friends, of all shapes and sizes.

Fat Friends the Musical is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th April.

Review: Tango Moderno at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

They are back! Strictly dance superstars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone return to wow audiences with their fourth production – Tango Moderno – and they do not disappoint! Previous sell out shows have included Midnight Tango, Dance till Dawn and The Last Tango; very much an audience favourite, they have danced together for over two decades. The production, with the help of director and choreographer Karen Bruce, cleverly gives a modern twist to a 19th century traditional Argentinian dance. It works superbly well.


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The story tells of “Cupids of Tango” – Flavia and Vincent – who encourage the singleton characters in the show to go out and find love. It reflects, in its prose and through the dance, the perils of modern day society who are reliant on mobile phones and social media dating sites such as Tinder, and addresses the issues of commuting, loneliness and even a world which includes Donald Trump.

The scene of the story is set through the medium of a narrator – the talented Tom Parsons – whose prose and poetry is sublime and whose renditions of modern day pop songs excellent. Any performance which includes an Ed Sheeran classic – Shape of You – is bound to excite an audience of any age and persuasion! Other songs not necessarily expected from a tango-inspired show, yet which work well, include popular hits Human by Rag n Bone Man, Seven Years by Lukas Graham and The Lazy Song by Bruno Mars, and are a hit amongst younger viewers.

Vincent and Flavia’s chemistry and professionalism during the duos is an absolute pleasure to watch. Vincent had not been able to perform in last year’s shows due to an injury but now he returns to top form thankfully, as he does what he does best. Flavia’s performance is particularly breathtaking and the intensity of the kicks and movement is spine tingling with the pair fusing together ballroom, Latin and Argentinian tango.

The pair are supported by a talented cast of dancers who mix street, hip hop, jive and contemporary to produce an energetic and entertaining story for the audience. If you are expecting to just see tango then this isn’t the show for you – you get so so much more. This is a show that showcases the talents of the written word through Tom Parsons, the incredible voice of Rebecca Lisewski who truly is a highlight of the show, the talent of accomplished violinist Oliver Lewis whose performance of the Flight of the Bumblebee drew gasps of surprise and received lengthy applause, many different genres of dance and of course the reason for this show – Flavia and Vincent.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

There are a couple of moments in the show that some may class as cheesy perhaps – the dancers coming out in wheelbarrows, shopping trollies and lawnmowers as an example – but the enthusiasm and talent make up for this and the point of their reflections are well understood and appreciated by the audience. I’m not sure it’s purely a show on tango – perhaps naming the performance Cupid’s Dance Moderno would be more apt?

Saying that, the classical tango finale is definitely purely tango in its truest form and worth the anticipation. A haunting and mesmerising dance showcasing our main stars’ phenomenal talent. The lighting is just right, the music is just right and the dancing and chemistry as they perform the classical tango has the audience up on their feet.

A wonderful show and great performances by a strong cast. Highly recommended.

Tango Moderno is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th March.

Review: Frankenstein at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this production with some if it promising “on-stage depictions of murder gore and dismembered body parts”, and in a recent interview, director Matthew Xia openly stated that he wanted to present “a nightmarish, fractious dream state … and scare the audience”. Over a longish two and half hours what emerges is less of a horror show and more a faithful realisation of the Gothic and Romantic elements of Shelly’s novel, first published 200 years ago when the author was just nineteen. Although the production does contain some fleeting moments of shock horror, they are for the most part muted and lack any real power and intensity to have a disturbing or unnerving effect.

As with the novel, April De Angelis’ new adaptation starts with a naval officer, Captain Walton, recounting the story in the form of letters written to his sister, whilst he and his crew are trapped in a mountain of ice near the North Pole. De Angelis’ intelligent adaptation cleverly combines the novel’s epistolary form with multi layered flashbacks which act as a perfect framing device for the production.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Discovered wandering out of his mind in the frozen wilderness, Victor Frankenstein is rescued by Walton and with no one on board that he can confide in, he sees the disturbed young doctor as someone he can befriend. Walton cajoles Frankenstein into telling his story and for the most part he watches silently in horror as the Doctor relates how from an early obsession with death he succeeded in creating and bringing to life a monstrous being. This monster it transpires is responsible for the death of those that Frankenstein has loved and held dear in his life, including his best friend, wife and younger brother.

Essential to any successful production of Frankenstein – and there have been a few notable ones in recent years, memorably Danny Boyle’s 2015 production at the National Theatre – is the casting of the two lead roles. Victor Frankenstein is a role that cries out for an actor that can bring to it bags of charisma and energy but Shane Zaza, a highly experienced and respected stage actor, sadly fails to convince in the role, looks uncomfortable and gives a one note performance that is mannered and limited in both dramatic and vocal range.

As the monster, Harry Attwell fares much better and the over long first half only bursts into life when he appears. Although I am sure the look of the monster has been thoroughly researched and designed to be true to the spirit of the novel, unfortunately a badly fitting wig/head piece and billowing costume makes Attwell’s monster look more like an absurd cross between the veteran actor and comedian Max Wall and the beast in Disney’s classic animated fairy tale. Despite this however, Attwell gives undoubtedly the finest performance of the evening and in denouncing Frankenstein and his manipulation of science and the natural order, he voices both 19th and 21st century concerns about wealth, poverty, injustice and the plight of the downtrodden. Although guilty of many heinous acts against Frankenstein and his family, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy and a degree of empathy for Attwell’s monster.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Led by Ryan Gage’s excellent and assiduous Captain Walton, a hard working cast play multiple roles as the story of Frankenstein’s adventures slowly unfold and are played out in a number of settings including Geneva, the remote Scottish Isles and much to the amusement of the first night audience, Derby. It is difficult to pin point why this production does not work in the way that Xia and the surrounding hype had intended. Although the Royal Exchange employs the full range of special effects in its armoury, including real rain water and pyrotechnics, the overall feeling is of a somewhat subdued, lacklustre production that looks great but contains little tension to drive the drama forward.

There is however still much to enjoy in this production, especially Ben Stones’ sparse but effective and innovative set, Mark Melville’s pulsating and thrilling sound design and Johanna Town’s stark and atmospheric lighting – but for genuine theatrical shocks and thrills, a visit to see Susan Hill’s masterly The Woman In Black either in the West End or on tour is recommended instead.

Frankenstein is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 14th April.

Review: Moments That Changed Our World at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Elders, a group of keen theatre-going amateurs over the age of 60 who attend weekly sessions at The Royal Exchange, have put together this quite extraordinary and quirky piece of theatre which celebrates age. With some pathos each of the 11 strong cast – including a couple of recorded stories from other members – tells us the moments in their lives which shaped them, changed them and made them the person they are today.

The stories intertwine, and the chronology is lost after the first sentence, but somehow this doesn’t matter. There is humour, bonhomie, and a sense of fellowship amongst the cast that one seldom sees, or at least is aware of, amongst professional actors.

Though entitled rather grandiosely as Moments That Changed Our World, the large global political or geographical events which can and do shape many peoples’ lives are in short supply in this one hour long celebration of the third age of mankind. Instead it focuses on the smaller and more personal instances which affect the individuals in their own special ways. Becoming an actress and receiving her first applause; being homosexual at a time when it was illegal and offensive; turning 60; the joys and dangers of computer technology; a divorce.

The stage is set with audience on two opposing sides whilst the other sides of the rectangle are used as a screen to project film, photos and other footage to exemplify and augment the narrative. The space is intimate, and when not acting, the cast sit on the front row; but the staging is far from optimal. End on would have worked much better.

There are darker and more serious moments aplenty too. A young black lady coming over to work for the NHS, and finding our island cold, unwelcoming, insular and above all, intolerant and racist (so, nothing has changed then??!!); another lady in her youth fighting for Women’s Lib and equality (and still nothing has changed!); whilst an ardent CND campaigner tells of his moments in rallies, and asks if in reality, his campaigning has actually amounted to anything changing on a global scale.

With group hugs and plenty of friendly encouragement, these tales are spoken about with a hint of nostalgia, but with a huge zeal and zest for life. And hooray to that!

As the final lines of the play ring out… “Time is not on our side, so let’s live for today; and tomorrow I will… tomorrow I will wake with a smile and be grateful. I WILL!”

Directed by The Elders’ Company leader Andrew Barry, and created by him and the company through workshops and devising, the 11 members telling their moments on stage are Sheila Colman, Christine Connor, Gordon Emerson, Graham Gillis, Brenda Hickey, Christopher Littler, Jacquie Lang, Estelle Longmore, Don McGregor, Glyn Treharne, and Kenneth Walker. Well done to all of you, it’s a wonderful idea, bravely and sensitively told, and since “it’s easy to stop playing as you get older” – please, don’t stop!

Moments That Changed Our World is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 25th February.

Review: The Almighty Sometimes at The Royal Exchange

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange over recent years has certainly changed its ethos in how they produce their main house productions; moving away from the comfortable, ‘bums-on-seats’ plays and musicals which were so much a part of this theatre company’s repertoire to a much more eclectic, boundary-pushing, rule-breaking, and therefore esoteric choice of productions. Even those that would traditionally be crowd-pullers, the Royal Exchange have chosen to go against the norm and challenge by cross-gender or colour-blind casting etc. So it was no surprise at all when they announced that the next play in their season was to be a Bruntwood Prize winner which tackles adolescent mental health.

The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver is a beautifully written and superbly observed piece of writing. It is honest, no punches are pulled, and yet there is great humour in there too, which serves to heighten and highlight the tensions and problems that mental health raises, especially when it concerns minors. Director Katy Rudd is right; it is one of those scripts which once you have read it you simply know you have to direct it!

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

In the world premiere production of this powerful and challenging four-hander, we see not only the inner struggles of a now 18 year old girl coming out of adolescence into adulthood, continually questioning her own mental state, caught between the perhaps unanswerable question of “what is me and what is my medication” syndrome, but we also see how her relationship and trust in both her mother, her boyfriend and her psychiatrist changes and develops over time. Her now rather fragile relationship with her mother begs questions like “Could she have done differently for me?”, “Why did she have to tell the doctors everything?”, “Was my mum or doctor always acting in my best interest?”; “What will happen if I don’t take my medication?”, “What will happen if I don’t take the doctor’s advice?”, “Did I even have a mental illness in the first place?” Indeed these same questions are being asked by her mother too, and the see-saw of their relationship is played with great passion and skill. She has been seeing the same psychiatrist since the age of 7, and they have built up a bond that could perhaps under other circumstances be called friendship; the compassion and understanding versus professionalism and correctness is played again with great understanding.

Norah Lopez Holden, no stranger to The Royal Exchange, is utterly superb as Anna, the teenager with hundreds of questions and no answers, her mood swings and her demeanour superbly measured. Another familiar face on the local circuit is Julie Hesmondhalgh playing Renee, Anna’s mother, whilst Mike Noble plays Oliver, Anna’s only real boyfriend / friend, and psychiatrist Vivienne is Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

To be honest, and without trying to sound sycophantic and gushing, the acting from all four is excellent; the chemistry between them is real, and their emotions and responses, electric.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

I do have something less positive to say though. Obviously this is only a personal reaction, but I did find that the lighting and sound detracted and misled, rather than adding and complementing. I felt very much as if I were watching a suspense thriller or similar where the background music in the film draws you in and conditions your emotional response. It was the same here, both the sound and lighting used throughout the play conditioned our emotions and told us exactly how we should be feeling and emoting at any particular point, rather than letting the wonderful words and acting affect us, each in our own way and in our own time.

The play doesn’t try to give answers or solutions to this ever-growing and contemporary issue; nor does it try to understand the problems, but with much humour and honesty simply lays the facts bare and leaves it up to the performers, director and audience to grapple with the issues in their own way. I am certain every audience member will have left the auditorium this evening with a different understanding and response to what they had just witnessed; however, what was abundantly clear was that we were all in agreement of the fact that it was exceptionally well presented by four consummate performers, and the subject was intelligently, sensitively and sensibly treated .

Certainly one of the best plays I have seen at The Royal Exchange for a long time, and a real gem of a play with a story that absolutely needs to be told.

The Almighty Sometimes is at The Royal Exchange until 24th February.