Review: Persuasion at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and is set most definitely in the counties of Avon and Somerset in the early part of the 19th century. It is a tragi-romance, and although there is some humour to be found in the novel, it is essentially written in earnestness. In the main, the story concerns the 27-year-old daughter of an impoverished noble wanting, nay needing, to marry; and the travails this entails as she watches in horror and amusement her relatives’ follies and dalliances. Her life changes forever though, when she encounters the man she had been engaged to more than seven years ago, and has not seen in as many years.

“Other people will try to persuade you. You must listen to your heart.”

A classic British novel which tells of a time passed; when morals, ideologies, customs, behaviours and habits were all so very different from the present. Perhaps the appeal here is that this evokes a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for change; or perhaps we just like to look at and laugh at the folly of our ancestors knowing that our lives are infinitely changed. Whatever the case, we expect to see a production that mirrors and compliments the author’s intent… and thereby lies the rub.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

On walking into Manchester’s celebrated in-the-round theatre we are greeted with a huge, looming cream-coloured rectangle, taking up most of the stage area. Around this are positioned multifarious sound and lighting paraphernalia, and the whole is lit with a cold blueish wash. A body is lying face down on top of this oblong. It’s female, she has dreadlocks, in modern dress, and seems dead. The cast are seated on the front row of the audience, in costume, and even change their costumes in full view of us all. It’s all a little strange.

First, it was obvious where the budget for this show went. On this rectangle. The omnipresent block is on two levels and the top half is a turntable which moves round at various points in the play. There is no set, no props, and nothing else is ever brought on for a scene. The scenes change fast and furiously, completely seamlessly, and we are expected to keep up with this without being given any visual stimulae to aid us. There is even a point where one character finishes speaking in one scene, stays exactly where she is and continues speaking for the start of the second scene as a different character, without so much as voice or body language change. The costumes are modern, but really rather strange. None of the costumes really seem to signify the character in any way, and are obviously not meant to be completely realistic.

“The problem is it is impossible to know what will happen in the future.”

The only thing to change this monotony is towards the end of the first act, when the action moves to the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The cast strip off revealing sexy swimsuits underneath, and a seemingly never-ending flow of foam cascades from above onto this rectangular block. The cast slip and slide in it and across it much to the laughter and approbation of the audience. This is followed immediately by Louisa, who slips once too often and has ketchup poured over her by Anne, again to much laughter since this is funny. It is only afterwards that we learn that it was in fact tragic, and she fell over the edge of a cliff!

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The language of the play is also at odds with this highly modern vision from director Jeff James. It’s very similar to watching a Shakespeare play in modern costumes whereby the language and business (such as sending letters etc) simply do not befit the updating. And yet – out of nowhere – Anne suddenly half-way through the second act screams the line, “Shut the f&$! up!” It jars and is out of place with the rest of the dialogue. However, if all the dialogue had been modernised in this way, I may well have enjoyed the play more.

Basically, I think what I am trying to say is that I do not believe that this adaptation is true to the author, nor is it at all clear. A mixed production at best. It is at one and the same time ultra-contemporary in concept and execution, and yet firmly fixed in the early 1800s with the language and references.

Fortunately the saving grace of this play is that the acting is really very good. All the cast invested a huge amount into their roles and this paid its dividends. Lara Rossi is a rather moody and sullen Anne, whilst her more frivolous female peers are played excellently by Cassie Layton (Elizabeth and Louise) and Caroline Moroney (Mrs. Clay/Henrietta). In fact, there has been – and still is – much bemoaning that there are so few plays with strong female leads. This play is quite the opposite; there are many strong female characters here.

The male roles do seem less defined than the female ones, but Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth is true and grounded throughout and very believable.

“Love can save your life. But love is the problem.”

Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24th June.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Bridewell Theatre

The Tower Theatre Company begins each performance with an announcement of their next production – which is usually only a week or two (if that) in the future; in addition to this week’s Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve got four more plays lined up between now and mid-July. Yet even with such a hectic schedule, the quality of each production remains consistently high.

Perhaps it helps in this case that the Tower Theatre are no strangers to Much Ado About Nothing; in fact this is their eighth production (the first was way back in 1933). On this occasion, the play is directed by Jean Carr and John Morton with an Austen-esque vibe. This feels rather fitting since all the romantic misunderstandings in the story wouldn’t be out of place in one of Austen’s novels – though I suspect she might have had something to say about Shakespeare’s depiction of Hero; I can’t imagine Elizabeth Bennet forgiving her fiancé quite so easily for publicly shaming and dumping her at the altar.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

The story revolves around two main plots – that of Beatrice (Sarah Evans) and Benedick (Shane Sweeney), whose constant bickering hides from nobody but themselves the fact that they’re madly in love, and that of Hero (Asma Mani) and Claudio (Paul Isaacs), who fall in love at first sight but whose engagement comes to a swift and unhappy end on the wedding day after Claudio’s tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful. Somehow, in true Shakespeare comedy style, everything still ends happily – thanks largely to the intervention of local constable Dogberry (John Chapman) and his nice but dim band of minions.

In a strong cast, Sarah Evans and Shane Sweeney stand out with excellent comic performances as Beatrice and Benedick; taking obvious delight in their characters’ “merry war” when on stage together, they also have fun individually in the physical scenes as they dive behind screens and pillars to eavesdrop on their friends. Paul Isaacs and Asma Mani are equally well matched as the far too trusting lovers Claudio and Hero, and natural comedian John Chapman is a joy as Dogberry, whose good intentions are matched only by his hilariously terrible vocabulary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow, and this straightforward production is extremely accessible and thoroughly entertaining throughout. And if it all gets a bit ridiculous towards the end – well, we can blame Shakespeare for that. The show also looks great and has an infectious energy, the sun-kissed Mediterranean courtyard of Leonato’s home filled with ladies in colourful gowns and gentlemen in military uniform with nothing more pressing to do than sing, dance, fall in love and play matchmaker for their friends. As problematic as some of the gender roles undoubtedly are, and whether or not we subscribe to the view that the solution to all life’s unhappiness is to “get thee a wife”, this is at its heart a feel-good play, and another excellent and highly recommended production from the Tower Theatre.

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Review: Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

You know in The BFG (stay with me) how he makes dreams for people by taking all the different elements and blending them together? Well, this is essentially what Liam O’Rafferty, Daniel Jarvis and Tania Azevedo have done in Paper Hearts. Musical? Check. Books? Check. Love story? Check. Folksy score performed live on stage by actor-musicians with gorgeous harmonies and catchy choruses? Check, check, check, check, check. Long story short – this is my dream show, and I’m a little bit in love.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

After proving a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s been developed into a full-length musical set in The Final Chapter bookshop, where aspiring writer Atticus (Adam Small) is trying to finish his epic novel of romance and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia. When the shop’s threatened with closure at the hands of a large online retailer, Atticus finds himself with only one option – finish the novel in time for the upcoming young writers competition, win top prize, save the bookshop. Simple, right? Well no, actually, because his girlfriend (Sinéad Wall) could hardly be less supportive, he’s got history to work out with his dad (Alasdair Baker) and he’s just met a girl (Gabriella Margulies), who may just be his soulmate – but for one fairly major complication…

Fact and fiction are effortlessly interwoven as we slip into the snowy Russia of Atticus’ main characters Yanna and Isaak, and follow their story – which seems to bear some striking parallels to their creator’s own life. And as the characters develop, it becomes clear they’re shaping his destiny just as much as he is theirs.

Liam O’Rafferty was inspired to write Paper Hearts by his passion for bookshops, and the show overflows from the start with that love for the written word. From Anna Driftmier’s set – built largely from books, and full of delightful details like the floating book light (which is something I never knew I wanted until I saw it, and now it’s all I can think about) – to the brilliant “book-off” where Atticus and new shop manager Lilly challenge each other’s literary knowledge, it’s a thrill for anyone who loves to read.

The cast of actor-musicians are sensational and work seamlessly as an ensemble to bring the score to life. And what a score it is, taking in a range of genres but always feeling very natural, like it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to play – and did I mention the gorgeous harmonies? There are some really beautiful songs here, with two of many highlights the heart-wrenching duet Stand Up and the title number Paper Hearts, which closes the show on a soaring high.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Perhaps one of my favourite things about the show is, despite its frequent forays into Stalin’s Russia, how very British it is; you can totally imagine it on screen as a Richard Curtis rom-com in the vein of Notting Hill. The dusty old bookshop is quintessentially British, the script has a wry, self-deprecating humour – particularly from Matthew Atkins’ gloriously camp shop owner Norman – and when things go wrong, everyone’s immediate response is to put the kettle on. This gives the production a very cosy, homely feel, and makes the characters and everything that happens to them incredibly relatable.

The show does get a bit dark and tense at times (gun alert) and there’s no shortage of emotion either. But overall Paper Hearts is uplifting, heartwarming and basically just a joy from start to finish. It’s got everything you could want from a West End show at a fraction of the ticket price – so see it now before it gets snapped up for a transfer. And then go again, because it’s worth it.

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Review: Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

Her Aching Heart is the Hope Theatre’s third and final in-house production of 2016, billed as “a bodice-ripping musical full of gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery!” Who could say no to that?

Well not me, as it turns out, because I loved it. Bryony Lavery’s lively comedy, in the expert hands of the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, transports us into the pages of a gothic romance novel – with all the flowery language, heaving bosoms and melodramatic sighs you might expect.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

In modern day London, Harriet and Molly are taking their first tentative, awkward steps into a relationship, while simultaneously in 18th century Cornwall, the fictional Lady Harriet Helstone, an aristocrat with an unfortunate habit of killing innocent wildlife, meets Molly Penhallow, a kind-hearted country girl who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie. Despite having nothing in common, not to mention clashing on their first encounter over the grisly fate of one of Molly’s fox friends, the two women find themselves unexpectedly drawn together, in an irresistible love story guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart.

From the moment the first chapter, “A Nun has a Nightmare”, is introduced, we know we’re in for a fun evening. Collette Eaton and Naomi Todd throw themselves into their roles with infectious enthusiasm, not only playing both versions of Harriet and Molly but an assortment of other characters too, and doing it all to perfection. Making creative use of a cramped space that offers barely enough room to swing a – er – fox, the two performers manage to wring every last drop of comic potential out of the most unlikely scenes – who would have thought a roe deer being trampled by a horse could result in such howls of laughter?

That said, there’s also a genuine chemistry between the two that makes the fledgling relationship of their modern counterparts both moving and believable. The present day story of Harriet and Molly, to which we return at various points throughout the evening, marks a clear and occasionally jarring change in tone that takes a bit of getting used to. Each time the red velvet curtain swishes closed and the actors break into one of Ian Brandon’s musical numbers, we’re thrown into an altogether more contemplative mood, and reminded that love is far more complex than cheesy romance novels would have us believe. These scenes, though they may seem like an afterthought to the comedy action, we ultimately realise are the true emotional heart of the show. Real life can be painful and difficult – but it can also at times be infinitely more rewarding than fiction.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

Her Aching Heart is a laugh out loud comedy and touching romance, which simultaneously pays tribute to and affectionately pokes fun at the Mills and Boon genre by which it’s inspired. An unexpected delight, in which all the elements – great writing, fantastic performances and quality production – come together to produce a magnificent whole, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this show.

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Review: R(ex)ception at The Bread and Roses Theatre

With 1 in 5 of us reportedly now meeting our other halves in the workplace, what happens when a relationship between colleagues breaks down? R(ex)ception, a comedy about two exes working together on an NHS reception desk, is a short but entertaining portrayal of a situation many of us will be able to identify with.

Written by Francesca Mepham and directed by Adam Morley, the play gets its first full-length performance this weekend as part of the Clapham Fringe at the Bread and Roses Theatre. Hannah (Charlotte Hunt) and Mark (Glyn Manfo) recently broke up – but they still have to see each other every day at work. The stage is set for arguments and awkwardness… and we certainly get plenty of both, as they deal not only with their relationship issues but also with the demands of their job.


Following its debut outing at the first Actor Awareness scratch night late last year, the extended play takes us outside the office, as the couple attempt to rekindle their romance by going to the cinema and out for dinner. As they argue over everything from broccoli to The Danish Girl to Hannah’s overly friendly relationship with Mark’s dad, they’re interrupted by an array of characters. These are all played by Rachael Hilton, who adopts a variety of accents and accessories as she revels in the role of mischief maker.

R(ex)ception draws an insightful picture of a couple who can’t live with or without each other, and who deal with their problems in different ways. Charlotte Hunt’s attention-seeker Hannah is all about in-your-face conflict, constantly throwing around revelations and accusations to try and provoke an argument, while Glyn Manfo’s Mark is master of the muttered retort (which can mean it’s sometimes hard to catch what he’s saying, particularly during the restaurant scene where he’s facing away from us) and seems to enjoy playing the victim in the whole situation. Yet while neither of them is showing their best side, there’s a certain charm and relatability to the characters that makes us feel for them and wish they could figure things out.

The play is also good fun for anyone who’s ever worked for the NHS – like writer Fran Mepham – who’ll recognise the eccentric patients and bureaucratic red tape (I particularly enjoyed the health and safety scene, which reminded me of the time I sat through a whole day of training even though as admin, all I had to do in an emergency was “get out”), as well as the implied hierarchy that places Mark, as the son of a doctor, on a slightly more elevated footing than Hannah.

It’s very early days for R(ex)ception, so perhaps it’s no surprise that while what’s there is enjoyable, it feels there could be more of it. The ending comes abruptly and catches the audience off guard, so we never get to see how the ex-partners’ story ends. Do they get back together, or do they finally learn how to move on? There’s lots of potential here for a more developed story, and all the delicious awkwardness that comes with it.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉