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.

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.

Review: Shirley Valentine at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, welcomes national treasure Shirley Valentine to the stage, as Willy Russell’s favourite approaches its final curtain for this UK-wide 30th anniversary run.

Shirley Valentine is a loveable Liverpudlian, forty-something housewife. With her children now off hand, she feels that her life is stuck in a rut and overtaken with preparing chips and eggs for her husband Joe, while relaying tales of the antics of children Melandra and Brian and a variety of friends and neighbours to her confidant, the kitchen wall.

Shirley is played by Nicky Swift in this one woman show. Nicky, from Merseyside herself, trained at Birmingham University and The Royal Academy of Music, where she received the Ian Fleming Musical Theatre Award. Nicky’s recent accolades include a lead role in Footloose and the formidable Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables.

Nicky brings the role of Shirley to life wonderfully. As the downtrodden housewife in the first half, her character quickly urges you to feel for her plight, a touch of humour in the right places draws you in further wanting her to snatch the opportunity presented, spread her wings, untie her apron strings and escape the confines of her comforting kitchen walls.

In the second half we are transported to a Greek island, where a fulfilled Shirley is transformed into a beautiful sun kissed goddess, with a new zest for life and keen to live life to the full. Shirley’s new confidant is rock, with whom she shares tales of her escapades on the island, including a brief fling with taverna owner Costas.

The show does a great job of raising your spirits and has you leaving the theatre smiling and laughing at comic quotes cleverly thrown in to a brilliant script. Holding an audience captivated for two hours on your own takes some skill and practice, not to mention the astounding number of lines Nicky has to remember.

Shirley Valentine is at The Orchard until Saturday 11th November. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, you really don’t want to miss this.

Review: Our Town at The Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Of all twentieth century classics, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town must be one of the most difficult to produce and hardest to understand plays for both cast and audience alike. In fact, ever since its first performance in 1938, it has continued to be misunderstood and misrepresented. However, there is some theatrical irony in this, since the play itself deals with misunderstanding and misrepresentation on a human scale.

It’s a very odd play, there’s no denying that, and in 1930s America would have been considered ground-breaking too.

It uses the device of it being a play within a play, the play being set in the theatre where the play is taking place, if you see what I mean. The cast are on stage and the Stage Manager enters and mediates between being the actual Stage Manager of the one play whilst narrating the story of the play to the audience of the other play. And if you’re not confused by that, you might just “get it”.

The play is very Brechtian in feel. There is no set, no scenery, miming is the order of the day, as well as speaking directly to and questioning the audience, and all the cast are wearing modern contemporary informal clothes. The Stage Manager sets the scene… Our Town is the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, USA, and at the start of the play it is 1901. The play is in three acts and the first act is nothing more than a scene-setting scene, setting the scene and seeing the set-up (apologies to Mr. Bennett). However this first scene is not only necessary to allow us to understand the two acts that follow, it is also this act that has made directors and producers of productions past think that the play is a lyrical pastiche and a yearning on the part of the writer for simpler and happier times. But the play is darker, so much darker than that, and with the second act, despite the play’s upbeat documentary nature, we get a hint of what is to come. It is the third act which acts like a wake-up call to us all. Live our every moment to its fullest and feel, and see as hard and as long as possible, because there is beauty in the little things, and it is the little things that matter.

It’s also a very brave choice of play for any theatre company to attempt, and so kudos to The Royal Exchange for grabbing the challenge firmly and squarely and giving it their best shot. The only question is; did they score a goal? And the answer to that is, I am uncertain. I am not sufficiently learned on Wilder’s oeuvre to know whether or not this production ticked all the boxes for him; I can only go off my own reaction to the play, and of those around me in the theatre. Did I enjoy the play? I am again uncertain, since enjoyment seems the wrong terminology for what I witnessed. Although I wasn’t bored, and there was plenty of humour and bonhomie within the play, or at least the first two acts. But did the play stand up and grab me by the throat to leave a lasting impression on me? No, sadly it didn’t.

I think this is perhaps due to two things which I simply didn’t like about this production. I can only think these were directorial choices rather than scripted, and I must admit was somewhat put off the play because of them. The first is that some of the audience are invited to sit on plastic chairs on the stage, and become a part of the play for those not on the stage. I really liked the idea at first when I took my seat, as the stage was full of people sitting at desks crowded together and chatting. It looked like a school canteen. I understood the relevance for using audience in this way, as the director Sarah Frankcom is using every trick in the book to make this play relevant for our multi-cultural 21st century ‘town’ and therefore inviting audience to become a part of a play that challenges and distorts reality brings much more a community feel to the whole. It almost works in the first act, but in the second and third acts it’s odd and seems wholly inappropriate for them to be on stage.

And the second choice made by Frankcom is that only the Stage Manager should use an American accent. I think I understand what she’s trying to do here too, and say that this town, these people, these situations transcend time and place, but nevertheless, as a personal choice at least, they should all be speaking with the correct accent.

Frankcom’s directing, however, is consistent and intelligent. She realises that this play is about community and celebrating (the brevity of ?) life; and this doesn’t stop in the theatre, but continues in the auditorium too where each evening a community choir serenades patrons with a repertoire that includes the hymn sung several times over in the play itself, Blessed Be The Ties That Bind.

Youssef Kerkour, despite his stature, is a very gentle character, and his demeanour – as well as his New Hampshire accent and lumberjack style checked shirt – fit perfectly. Easy to watch and understand. However, his performance is somewhat eclipsed by the stunning and superbly simple and naturalistic acting style of Norah Lopez Holden as Emily. In a play which requires a certain approach to the acting in order for it to work, Holden hits the nail firmly and squarely on the head, balancing her every emotion to perfection. 

It is a large cast play, 15 characters in total, and these are augmented further by Frankcom using members of both the Royal Exchange Young Company and The Royal Exchange Company Of Elders, so the stage need never be bare and this somehow negates the idea of adding audience members to the throng. However, the main protagonists in the play are well cast, and Patrick Elue works excellently opposite Holden as a wide-eyed innocent turning into a more mature farmer widower, with Nicholas Khan pitching his role as Emily’s doctor father with aplomb.

The production as a whole does work, but on leaving I had the feeling that it could have worked better. Just don’t ask me how or why. However, that is just my own reaction to the production and the curtain call was warmly received, so do go along and judge it for yourselves. It’s a rarely performed piece of classic 20th century literature, waiting and ready for you to take whatever you can from it.

Our Town is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 14th October.