Monday, 28 February 2011

The Mikado - English National Opera at The London Coliseum

Writer: Gilbert & Sullivan
Director: Jonathan Kent
Conductor: Peter Robinson
Reviewer: Jeffrey Mayhew

It is not in any way to denigrate the multitude of Mikados performed at many different levels (all with love and enthusiasm) to say that a flawlessly sung and acted version is not merely a wonderful experience but almost a new perspective on such a well known piece.  

This jewel of a production with Sue Clane's beautifully characterised costumes in Stefan Lazarides stunning surrealist deco set is entertainment of the highest order from beginning to end.  This is a production which seems to be permanently on its toes; tripping exquisitely from set piece to set piece with a whiff of inter-war campery adding discreet spice to the convolutions of the plot.  The corps de ballet (original choreographer Anthony van Laast, revival choreographer Stephen Speed) punctuate and support the wonderful singing and pacy action with deft, witty flourishes as the baggage bearing and feather duster wielding staff of some Hotel Splendide where the (very British)  "gentlemen of Japan" and the equally British schoolgirls gather to see through the suitably comica opera machinations.

The bill boards talk in terms of a stellar cast and they are not wrong.  Alfie Boe is a brilliant Nankie-Poo; a preppy Bertie Wooster meeting Algernon with perfect comedic touches and wonderful movement.  All this is so good that had he Rex Harrisoned his way through the role he would have been loved but, of course, he has a beautiful tenor voice so cue audience rapture!There are no howevers and caveats in the rest of the cast either.  Pooh-Bah's quintessentially Ealing vicar is an inspired piece of characterisation sung with delicacy and refinement by William Robert Allenby.  Donald Maxwell allows the Scot in him full rein to truly great effect as the completely corrupt, grasping and cheerfully unrepentant Pooh-Bah.  It is no surprise that Sophie Bevan (Yum-Yum) has a repertoire featuring many baroque roles and that Pamina is soon to be performed by her.  She brings a truly beautiful voice to this role as well as wit and verve.  "The Sun Whose Rays..." surely has rarely been better sung and performed.  Fiona Canfield (Peep-Bo) and Claudia Huckle (Pitti-Sing) complete a delicious and irresistible trio.  Claudia Huckle made particularly charming work of trying to deceive the Mikado.  Richard Suart's Ko-Ko has to be a classic take on a fabulous role.  Skittering between refeened and Fools and Horses his diminutive, perky chancer is a heart stealer as well as a scene stealer.  All the time, of course, particularly in a fine production, those in the know eagerly await the coming of Katisha.  Just how Katisha-like will she be.  Expectations here were fulfilled to the brim and over.  Anne Marie Owens was Katisha and the vision of her suffocating Ko-Ko in her bosom will remain with me for a long time.  Again, also beautiful singing.  But then it all is.   

All the audience could possibly have hoped for was a second half as good but this was not to be.  The second half exceeded any expectations we could have had when the cast was joined by the Mikado himself.  and what subtle artistry Richard Angas brought to the role.  Stylish, amusing and deeply disturbing his inflated Robert Morley of a Mikado was a supreme element in an already supreme production.  Jonathan Miller come forward and be thanked for it all!  And he did - with Peter Robinson who conducted with both tact and bravura - and the audience were loathe to let any of them go.  A magnificent night!

Runs until 10th March

10cc at The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer:  Helen Jones

“Old men of rock and roll came bearing music” and boy did they rock the Lowry!   10cc have hit Salford and left it reeling in the aftermath.

Although only Graham Gouldman remains of the four known members, both lead guitarist Rick Fenn and drummer Paul Burgess have been with the band both in the studio and live since the 70s.  The other two current members, although with a shorter membership, have been there many years and this closeness shines through the whole concert.

The show opened with a half hour acoustic set on guitars alone. Gouldman and his companions performed a number of songs from his back catalogue including The Hollies (Bus Stop) and Herman's Hermits (No Milk Today), finishing with the little known gem “Love is Not For Me”,
which one he wrote for the animated film “Animalympics”.

After a break, the full 10cc sound is unleashed, opening with The Wall Street Shuffle and seguing through all the old favourites and a few lesser known ones as well.   The tracks everyone wanted to hear were there: Art For Art's Sake; Oh Donna; I'm Mandy, Fly Me; and of course
I'm Not In Love.

Having grown up through my teenage years with all these tracks, I was unsure as to how they'd come over with mainly different musicians, but I was not disappointed.  Gouldman's bass guitar  still tied the whole thing together, and the rest of the band were more than competent to
follow him. He sang some songs, but most were voiced with complete panache by Mick Wilson, sounding so much like Eric Stewart that  he was hardly missed.  In fact watching Wilson play acoustic guitar, keyboards, percussion and sing lead vocals in the same track left me
boggling at his abilities.

However some of the most spine-tingling moments came from Rick Fenn's lead guitar, which provided all those well-remembered 10cc licks and then went off into Pink Floyd-like solos which somehow fitted each track perfectly. The man made most other professional guitarists
look like amateurs.

The 10cc numbers were all hugely enjoyable, with a fullness of sound that should be impossible with only five men on stage.  The energy remained high throughout and kept the audience enthralled.

Finishing the show with Rubber Bullets and the audience on their feet, these may be 'old wild men' but they can still rock and long may they continue.

Reviewed on the 27th Feb 2011

Peter and the Wolf - The Lowry, Salford

Writer: Sergei Prokofiev

Adaptor: Stephen Smart and Leigh McCalister

Reviewer: Laura Stimpson


Peter and the Wolf is a story we have all heard of, written by the renowned Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1936.  It has been adapted numerous times including by Walt Disney in the 1940’s.  This adaptation is the work of Stephen Smart and Leigh McCalister both original members of Clydebuilt Puppet Theatre, a 55 minute performance aimed at 4-10 year old children.

At the beginning of the play the audience are introduced to the main characters, one by one.  The puppets are cute and used well by the two actors Stephen Smart and Leigh McCalister, working with the puppets as if an extension of their own body.

The story itself is not interesting in the slightest, leading me to wonder why this one was chosen.  The original Peter and the Wolf was written by a composer, it was a musical piece with each instrument representing a character, the actual plot being secondary to the music. Music in this performance was not a feature, it was just played in the background under the puppets performance, it would have been nice to have incorporated some of the original music in the piece.  

However, the cast did manage to make the story interesting in parts through their acting skills and excellent puppetry techniques.  Both actors are good, however Stephen Smart really stands out, he seems natural in all of his roles and very versatile.  Especially impressive is his ability to play the masked character of Grandad, who he portrays through bodily expression alone.

All in all a strong performance, let down by a story that at times seemed not to go anywhere.

Runs nationally throughout the year for information can be found on their website:

Reviewed on the 27th Feb 2011

Shakespeare's Mistress - The Lowry, Salford

Writer: William Shakepeare

Adaptor/Performer: Louise Jameson

Reviewer: Malcolm Wallace


Accurately dexcribed as Desert Island Discs of Shakespeare's speeches, Louise Jameson's one woman show is a delight from start to finish.

At only 45 minutes long Jameson gives a whistle stop tour through some of her favourite speeches from several of the Bard’s plays performing each one with a depth of character and understanding one would expect from a seasoned Shakespeare performer.

Along the way she also regales the audience with several amusing anecdotes and stories drawn from her extensive and varied career in both the theatre and on television. She fondly remembers her time on Doctor Who and Bergerac, and is particularly complimentary about working with John Nettles.

Jameson adds further interest to the evening by inviting an audience member to share her stage and perform an exchange between characters with her.  This could have gone disastrously wrong but on the night I attended the volunteer was very game indeed and gave Jameson a real run for her money in the acting stakes.

An enjoyable and informative evening.

Reviewed on 27th Feb 2011

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Simply Big Band - Sheffield City Hall

Conductor: Steve Parr

Reviwer: Audrey Pointer


Simply Big Band is more than simply big band. It is a flashy two hour mix of music, song and dance, complimented by archive big screen footage, which promises the audience “a dazzling roller coaster ride through the golden age of the American big band”. The production features an energetic dance troupe alongside a 26-piece orchestra and female vocalist SuEyo, and is compered by singer, Iain McKenzie. The show is touring the UK throughout 2010 and 2011 with upcoming dates in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The band consists of three sections. The rhythm section sits centre stage, featuring five talented performers on piano, electric guitar, percussion, double bass and drums. Each gets the chance to do impressive solos during the show. This is very much the musical engine of the band. On the right is the thirteen piece brass section, the section that gives the music its warmth, attitude, sexiness and flare. Many of these players get the chance to solo too and they do so with aplomb, rising to the challenge well. On the left is an eight piece string section who are not employed quite as much as the other sections and sometimes seem like part of the audience, gazing in awe at the nimble bravado of their fellow blowers, strikers and pluckers. Band leader Steve Parry also deserves a mention, both for his conducting and his stunning virtuoso trumpet playing.

The six dancers, four girls and two boys ably choreographed by one of the dancers, Lizzie Sianni, wear a colourful range of costumes to suit several different numbers from different time periods ranging from the thirties through to the sixties. The sound balance is pretty good in the main, although kinder to the strings when the brass boys are tacet. Lighting, at least in Sheffield's City Hall, seemed fairly basic, with no follow-spots on the singers, and occasions where some dance action was in relative darkness, although this may well vary at different venues.

Singer Iain McKenzie and Sueyo, his female counterpart, croon their way through a broad range of standards, individually and together with duets, including "A Tisket A Tasket", "Let's Face the Music and Dance", "Georgia", "Fever", "Minnie the Moocher", "Mercy" and "It Don't Mean a Thing". The show paints a musical tapestry of several decades, taking in Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and The Beatles, amongst others.

Michael Parkinson complained recently that there wasn't much big band on TV or radio any more. This appreciative Sheffield audience had paid large ticket prices for tonight's show and although there were many empty seats in this beautiful venue (The Irwin Mitchell Oval Hall), those who came certainly did not seem disappointed. This tour will help to fill a need for those who enjoy big band, or are simply curious to widen their musical horizons, but a spectacle like this is expensive to produce and therefore tickets are pricier. Certainly the contemporary music CD played in the interval and pre-show seemed bland in comparison with the remarkable, thrilling, multi-dimensional sound of Simply Big Band. Well worth catching if you can.

Reviewed on 26th Feb 2011 - Runs until: Tour continues in July

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Water Still Remains - The Lowry, Salford

Writer: John Hoggarth
Director: Trevor MacFarlane 
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

‘The Water Still Remains’ is a community-led project organised by the Lowry Theatre as part of their 10th Anniversary Local Heritage Project. Ambitiously it explores the history of the former docklands in which the theatre is located and acts as a practical demonstration of community participation.

The latter, however, results in some distortions as the need to give each member of the 34-strong cast something to do and say generates a script that is over-long and too wordy. The script, by John Hoggarth, is inspired by the recollections and memories of people who lived and worked in the docklands area. It takes us from the development of the Manchester Ship Canal that facilitated the birth of the Manchester Docks through to the growth of containerisation that resulted in their closure. In-between are more intimate tales of children in 1950’s Ordsall and a courting couple in the 1960s. Hoggarth conveys a great amount of detail in an economical manner but struggles to create a sense of time or place. The more personal stories lack originality and could have taken place anywhere. The writer occasionally resorts to listing street names and local landmarks to generate audience recognition.

Trevor MacFarlane directs with sympathy and imagination. The enthusiasm of the large cast is channelled into energetic sequences that ensure statistical information is communicated without slowing the pace of the play and that even the less-confident members of the cast are audible. The action of the play spills from the stage with workers constructing the Ship Canal in the aisles of the theatre and boxes being used to represent cargo and to build the walls of the canal.
It is hard, however, to decide the purpose of the play. The issuing of a four-page questionnaire asking about the extent to which audience perceptions of The Lowry and Salford Quays have been changed by the play gives the impression of a marketing exercise as much as an evening’s entertainment.

The Water Still Remains  is at the Lowry in Manchester on 25th and 26th February 2011 

A Doll's House - Manchester Library Company at The Lowry, Salford

Writer: Henrik Ibsen
Adaptor: Bryony Lavery
Director: Chris Honer
Reviewer: Poppy Helm

Often regarded as one of the very first feminist plays, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House was truly controversial in it's time. Although the subject matter has certainly lost it's sensationalism in the intervening years, the Library Theatre Company's current production still packs a punch for the modern audience.

On the surface, Nora appears to enjoy a comfortable life with her husband, Torvald, and their three children. However, the reappearance of her childhood friend prompts a confession about the measures she has taken to protect this cosy existence. As the full social and moral implications of her actions become clear, and the threat of discovery looms, she is forced into making a life-changing decision: whether to honour her marital obligations or to pursue a greater duty to herself.

In keeping with the naturalistic style of theatre (of which A Dolls House was also a forerunner), the stage is transformed into a lavishly furnished living room, complete with wood burning stove and piano. This attention to detail in the set makes it easy for the audience to adopt the role of 'fourth wall' to the room and believe they are observing someone else's house.

The first act progresses at a reasonably relaxed pace, gradually revealing the back story and introducing us to the relationships between the characters. Nora (Emma Cunniffe) is naïve and insensitive, deliberately playing the child to the paternal yet patronising Torvald (Ken Bradshaw), while Paul Barnhill's Krogstad evokes both sympathy and disdain in equal measures. Tension builds throughout the second act as Cunniffe skillfully shifts between Nora's increasing agitation and the cheery facade she presents to her husband. Bradshaw's outburst in the final scene is intense, and a stark contrast to the lighthearted Torvald we've seen earlier. The chemistry between the two lead actors is clear, and although admiring of Nora's courage in leaving to find herself, we also feel a certain empathy for a clueless yet likeable Torvald.

Whilst nineteenth century drama may not be to everyone's tastes, this landmark play carries a contemporary message that is executed with emotion and passion. It may have been ahead of it's time when first published, but don't miss the opportunity to see it now.

Runs at the Lowry until 12th March 2011

Trollope in Barsetshire - Riverside Studios, London

Writer/Director Richard Digby Day
Reviewer: James Higgins

Well it seems that time travel was possible after all, or was it the excellent Meantime London Ale that they serve in the Bar at Riverside studios? As I gazed out from the stalls it did look like I had been transported to an era when the Monarch was often not amused. Before me was a distinguished Victorian gentleman dressed neatly and sporting a huge bushy beard. The set upon which he stood consisted of two well made period leather armchairs upon a large rug. In the background a bookcase and in front a simple table. 

Richard Digby Day's decision to cast Edward Fox in the role of Trollope was genius and what we see over two halves of 45 minutes each is an acting masterclass in the art of the monologue, pure and simple. Fox brings the much loved characters of Trollope to life as we enter the magical world of Barsetshire. 

Trollope is probably the best loved of the Victorian novelists and during the course of the play we meet multiple characters from six of his texts as well as his autobiography. These range from Dr. Harding, the gentle Warden, to Mrs. Proudie, the domineering Bishop's wife and many more in between.

We hear many fascinating stories ranging from helping an Earl to fight an angry English Bull to plotting murder and the possible associated guilt that accompanies the deed. If you have not met the works of Trollope before then you may struggle to grasp quite what is happening before you. Fox's Trollope moves slowly from bookcase to chair and from old lady to Bishop, and it is sometimes hard to keep up with play. However Trollope in Barsetshire is still worth seeing just to hear the wonderful Edward Fox deliver the old stories with such verve.

Runs until 2nd April.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Temp Home

Due to the fantastic customer service of Hostgator - who have kindly without any warning or help pulled our hosting from them for using too much CPU - we will be temporarily hosting latest reviews on here.

We are currently in talks with new hosts and hope to be up and running as normal very soon!

Please accept our sincere apologies for having to take a step back to the old days once again.

Thanks for your support and encouragement

John Roberts - Editor
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