Review: The Cherry Orchard at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

Few plays have arguably resonated at the Royal Exchange Theatre more profoundly than those by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. His plays benefit enormously from being performed in the round and this superb production is no exception.

This version of The Cherry Orchard, co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, comes to the Exchange garlanded with four and five star reviews. Directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a production that shows off Chekhov’s naturalistic masterpiece to great effect. The setting for the production appears to have been updated to a period that is placed somewhere between the mid 1930s and the lead up to the Second World War. It features a multinational cast that clearly delight in Boyd’s assured, fresh and modern interpretation.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

Facing financial ruin, Luba Ranyevskaya, a beautiful and spirited widow, returns home after a self-imposed exile brought on by the deaths of her husband and young son. At her family estate she is welcomed back by Lopakhin, a wealthy local businessman who offers to buy it and her beloved cherry orchard.

This being Chekhov, social, personal and political concerns collide and although Lopakhin, the son of a former family servant, believes that the old aristocratic order must change, his unrequited love for Ranyesvskaya and gratitude for her family’s past kindnesses makes it hard for him to contemplate splitting up the estate. Whilst Ranyevskaya agonises over the sale, disaffected servants, for which Boyd has interestingly chosen to cast BAME actors, look forward to the demise of the gentry, anticipating changes that in time will have unparalleled consequences not only for Russia but all of the Western World.

Boyd’s production is stripped bare of any artifice. For the whole performance the auditorium lights are dimmed, making the audience clearly visible, and only essential period props and furniture are used. The wooden panelled floor makes the actors appear as if they are performing on a concert stage and there is indeed something operatic about this production. As Ranyevskaya, Kirsty Bushell is captivating and hauntingly moving; it is impossible not to share in her grief and pain. She is oblivious to all the change around her and only wakens out of her dreamlike state when she briefly sees the spirit of her dead child come alive in front of her eyes.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

The relationship between Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin is at the very heart of the play; it drives the narrative, creates tension and as Boyd points out in a fascinating programme interview, serves to underline the gulf that exists between their respective classes. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is excellent; his performance is nuanced and highly detailed. The scenes between him and Bushell are compelling and gripping.

Rory Mullarkey’s new and very modern translation helps to make Chekhov’s sub text clearer. Even though a century separates Mullarkey and the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, one senses that he keenly shares Chekhov’s view of the world and some of his sentiment. With this production, the Royal Exchange once again takes an important classic and makes it wonderfully accessible and relevant to the modern age. It is highly recommended.

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.

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!

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.

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.