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.

Interview: Emma Bentley, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors

Emma Bentley is co-artistic director of Joue le Genre, an emerging theatre company based in London and Lille. Her last show, one-woman play To She Or Not To She, addressed gender equality within the theatre; her latest project, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, addresses a different but equally weighty topic: homelessness. Following a successful run in Edinburgh last summer, in February the show embarks on a spring tour that will take it to venues including Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and the King’s Head in Islington.

Closed Doors is about Molly Brentwood, a young woman who is feisty and argumentative and gets on better with boys than girls,” explains Emma, who plays Molly. “We meet her in her bedroom in a homeless hostel, and she tells us about all the moments that she thinks might have led her to that point. That’s what she’s trying to figure out, anyway.”

 

The play, written by Calum Finlay, began life as a small scratch piece for Pleasance in June 2016. “Calum and I wanted to tell the story of how homelessness can happen to anyone – although I’m very cautious about using the word ‘homeless’ when talking about the show, because I think people get a very specific vision of the type of scenes it’s going to explore,” says Emma. “So that’s why it was important to show it from the perspective of a young woman. To break that expectation. Plus because that makes me happy as an artist and a feminist to make work about women. And women in situations that we don’t get to see very often on stage – not being glamorous, not in a relationship, from a working class background.

“Since I moved to London, homelessness has been on the forefront of my brain and I would always try to learn more about people’s stories. Then in 2016 I started volunteering at St Mungo’s. The amazing work they do to give people a home inspires me a lot. People that come and see the play will probably have an interest in the homelessness sector, but if they’ve been dragged along and they don’t, I hope that it allows them to empathise more with people living on the streets. The way that people who beg or sleep rough are treated is horrendous and people don’t realise you don’t have to give money every time – just say ‘Sorry I don’t have anything,’ instead of just ignoring them or getting angry. People complain that they’ll just spend it on drugs when they don’t know the first thing about being an addict; it makes me really angry. Although I think part of it is fear as well.”

Emma wrote a first draft of the script, which was staged at Pleasance in February 2017. “Then after that Calum said, ‘I’ve got this idea for the script,’ and he sent me the first couple of pages in this new style – a lot more lyrical, weird and mysterious and I said ‘I love it, do it to the whole thing please.’ So he did and it’s a beautiful, haunting script.

“We’ve worked with Anna Beecher on the dramaturgy of the piece, and for Edinburgh Anna Souter did our set design. For this spring tour of the show I’m working with Katharina Reinthaller, who directed me in To She Or Not To She for the Lyric Hammersmith, and a designer she works with called Rasa Selemonavičiūtė. It’s fantastic to work with Katharina again because we have a shared language, and I think Calum and I both knew that we needed someone’s fresh perspective on the script. Plus Calum is in Mary Stuart at the mo so he’s a bit busy!”

Closed Doors has been significantly re-worked since Emma last performed it in Edinburgh in 2017 – though she admits it can be difficult to make big changes to material she’s personally invested in: “When you change things you think, ‘Hold on wait, was there anything wrong with it in the first place? I can’t even remember now’, and that’s why it’s useful to work with a bigger team.

“We started with the script. We didn’t have a video of the show post Edinburgh so we couldn’t look back on it. I’d like to say we went on gut feelings. We met up and talked a lot about the main framing device, which now we’ve completely changed. As it’s such a tech heavy show this framing device needed to be simplified so that the complexity could lie in the language and images on stage.”

With this new tour, Emma’s looking forward to meeting more audiences, hopefully sharing the play with some young people who have or are experiencing homelessness themselves, and hearing what they think about it. “In Edinburgh, quite a lot of people who I spoke to after the show thought it was about me, which I guess is a massive compliment – it was also sad though as they looked worried about saying goodbye at the end. The best response though was that some teenagers were heard on a bus in Edinburgh talking about the show and about what they could do individually to help people who are homeless.

“The dream would be if someone came after seeing the show on tour and said something like, ‘I never really thought about how it actually could happen to someone – I thought they were just lazy, and now I realise they’ve just taken a few wrong turns.’

“Maybe the show will even help people from ever getting into a situation like Molly’s themselves. Through making the show, I’ve learnt what to do if I were to ever be in that position; if I didn’t have a supportive group of family and friends to help me, then I would know where to look for help. It’s useful information. We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness, especially in the theatre industry. Who knows if it might help someone spot the signs, before they or a friend become close to sleeping rough.”

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors opens at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 9th February. For full tour dates and venues, visit the Joue le Genre website.

Review: Crazy For You at the Orchard Theatre

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical Crazy For You has everything: singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, romance, mistaken identities… and – as if all that weren’t enough – former Strictly winner, and now well established stage star, Tom Chambers as main character Bobby Child.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Bobby wants to be on the stage, but his wealthy mother’s bullied him into working at the family bank instead, and demands he go to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on an old theatre. Thrilled to get away from Irene, the fiancée he acquired five years ago seemingly by accident, Bobby arrives in Deadrock and falls immediately in love with Polly – whose dad, unfortunately, happens to be the owner of the theatre. Desperate to save the theatre and win Polly’s love, Bobby comes up with a half-baked plan to pretend he’s theatre impresario Bela Zangler, and chaos, predictably enough, ensues.

Tom Chambers lives up to his leading man credentials from the moment the curtain rises, tapping and twinkling his way through the first couple of New York-set numbers. Then the action moves to Deadrock, and any concerns that this might just be the Tom Chambers show are put quickly to rest as an exceptional company of actor-musicians step into the spotlight. Claire Sweeney is great as the bitchy Irene, who (naturally) follows her man across the country and messes with his plan – as does a confused Zangler, in an entertaining comedic turn by Neil Ditt. But biggest shout-out of the night has to go to Seren Sandham-Davis, who stepped confidently into the role of Polly in the unexpected absence of regular star Charlotte Wakefield, and smashed it.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

The score is largely familiar, with classic tunes like I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Embraceable You and Someone To Watch Over Me. But there are also plenty that were new to me, with highlights including Stiff Upper Lip, an enjoyably silly celebration of all things British led by Eugene and Patricia Fodor (who just happen to stumble into town doing research for their latest travel guide), and the irresistible toe-tapper Slap That Bass. The immaculate choreography from Nathan M. Wright is particularly impressive given that most of the cast are also playing a variety of instruments at the same time.

Full of charisma and glamour, Crazy For You is a perfect evening’s entertainment, full of laughs, romance and catchy tunes. Tom Chambers excels in the spotlight, but even he can’t outshine a ridiculously multi-talented ensemble cast who seem able to do pretty much anything. The story is all very silly, and I still don’t quite understand how it all came together at the end – but when a show is this much fun, who cares if it makes sense?

Crazy For You is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 27th January then continuing on tour.

Review: Cilla – The Musical at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford welcomes one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers Cilla to the stage in the opening of this run of the musical for anyone who had a heart: Cilla – The Musical.  

Willy Russell and Laurie Mansfield present a spectacular and heart-warming adaptation of BAFTA Award winner Jeff Pope’s critically acclaimed hit TV series.

Cilla -The Musical tells the story of teenage Liverpudlian Priscilla White, whose dreams of stardom lead her to become one of the best-loved entertainers of all time, Cilla Black. 

Cilla is played by Kara Lily Hayworth in her first starring role. Kara performed in Annie alongside Cilla’s friend Paul O’Grady as one of the child actors. Whilst on break, out with her mother, Kara spotted Cilla in a shop and recalls, “I just went up to her and said I wanted her autograph and that I was going to be a singer and an actress when I was older.” Well, it looks like Cilla has been watching over this fantastic young artist and has had a guiding hand in making her dreams come true, as did Cilla’s. 

Kara does Cilla proud with a powerhouse of a voice hitting those high notes and singing with charisma and tenderness. 

Cilla the teenager is the pride of her parents Big Cilla and John White; through hard work and ambition she has earned herself a prestigious place in the typing pool at British Insulated Callender’s Cables, and Big Cilla is proud to boast this fact to anyone who will listen!

Cilla’s heart really belongs to music though, and we are treated to scenes of her performing with her hairbrush into her mirror at home and regularly popping on stage at Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club, encouraged by friends the Beatles to join them for a number or two. 

It is here that Cilla catches the eye of young Bobby Willis, played by Carl Au, who’s determined to win her heart so encourages her to take him on as her manager. Cilla also catches the eye of big shot music mogul Brian Epstein, played by Andrew Lancel.

In the first half we are quickly transported back to the 60s with hit after hit by the up and coming bands of the day The Big Three, Gerry and The Pacemakers, and of course The Beatles. The costumes, choreography and lighting add atmosphere to the fantastic performances by the live band and wonderful singers; the entire cast take a turn at treating us to the hits of yesteryear such as Roll over Beethoven, Twist and Shout and You Really Got A Hold On Me. 

The second act focuses on the on-off love story of Bobby and Cilla, and her rise to stardom. 

The entire cast transports us in time and makes the audience forget which era we are now in, but supporting actors Carl Au (Bobby Willis), formerly Bad Barry in Waterloo Road, and Andrew Lancel (Brian Epstein), formerly Frank Foster in Corrie, deserve special mentions. Both actors portray their characters extremely well and treat us to unexpected musical numbers themselves. 

Cilla – The Musical is at the Orchard until Saturday 20th January. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, this show is too good to miss!

Review: Guys and Dolls at Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Company develops its ongoing collaboration with all-black theatre company Talawa for this, their latest offering, the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, we are well and truly in the golden age of Broadway musicals. In other words, an age when musicals were perhaps a little more fanciful and comedic than some of today’s through-sung rock opera musicals are. This one is no exception, and traditionally set in Times Square, it is a mickey take of persons perhaps real or imagined that peopled that neighbourhood at that time, based on the Damon Runyon stories of 1930s New York.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen Guys and Dolls before, then the story follows two would-be couples. Two of the area’s most notorious gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, finally get hitched (to Adelaide and Sarah respectively). It is a comedy love story set in this Noir-esque underbelly of NYC.

This version saw the action shift to Harlem, New York’s black neighbourhood, and the directing (Michael Buffong) and feel of the show was much more real and much darker than I have ever seen it before. It suited the cast, as they played their characters with much more truth and realism than the normal mono-dimensional musical theatre caricatures, and the interpretations of some of the leads was totally different from any other time I have seen this show.

Musically too, the orchestra (led by Mark Aspinall) was given leeway to jazz-up many of the songs, giving them much more authenticity in the new setting of the show.

Overall this idea worked and worked well, but it was flawed. I didn’t like the new song that Adelaide sung in the night club in act one – I had never heard that in a theatre performance before, and only realised later that it came from the film; and her very serious and heart-wrenching rendition of her lament was pitched wrongly, finding no comedy in there at all, and with absolutely no hint of her actually having a cold either before it or during it.

There were several other things too which didn’t quite sit right with me, but I’ll just put those down to personal choice, and leave it at that.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen the show before, then you will absolutely love this re-working, and not have anything with which to compare it. Myself, I had mixed reactions to it, but overall did enjoy it immensely, especially Kenrick Sandy’s choreography to Luck Be A Lady and the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.

Ray Fearon is a very likeable Nathan Detroit, and he plays his role with charm and ease, whilst the object of his desires, Adelaide, played here by Lucy Vandi, to whom he has been engaged for 12 years, is given a completely new make-over and the strong, sassy side of this new characterisation really did not work at all. Couple number two came in the form of a more nervous and less confident Sky Masterson than I have previously seen, but this suited actor Ashley Zhangazha well, and was the perfect foil for the more tight-lipped and upright Sarah Brown, played wonderfully by Abiona Omonua.

It is clear that this is a musical however, and so vocally one would expect it to be superb. Sadly it wasn’t. Undeniably all the cast could sing but it felt weak in places and the voices seemed much more at home with the bluesy, jazzy, crooning style, instead of Broadway musical numbers. They were also drowned out too a couple of times by the orchestrations.

Happily, my favourite song in the show was sung superbly and so a special mention should be given to Trevor Toussaint, who plays the often understated part of Abernathy excellently.

Guys and Dolls is not perhaps the sure-fire hit that the Royal Exchange were hoping for, but an all black version, as far as I can tell, is a UK first, and it certainly makes it a most interesting and unusual show. There is certainly much to like and enjoy within it, and the cast play it for all its worth with truth and sincerity, which reaps dividends, but running at 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) it is a little too long.

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th January.