THE PRODUCERS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks

Directed by Raz Shaw

A Riot of colour sequins and spangly frocks. A cluster of corny jokes that the audience know by heart. A bonkers evil anti-hero. A dame in drag. A warm-hearted gentleman thief. A beautiful young ingénue. An innocent abroad in an unknown world. Catchy songs and madcap dance routines. Lights, sequins, laughter….It’s Christmas and this must be Pantomime?

Thankfully this is bad taste theatre at its very best and aimed at entertaining the grown ups. Raz Shaw brings the Mel Brooks classic The Producers to the stage of The Royal Exchange Theatre. Joyful and irreverent, this is a production that both delights and appalls in equal measure. Filled with bad taste jokes and bawdy humour which could/should repel, it manages to triumph with a heart of gold as glittering as the show girls costumes and as gleaming as the coiffeur of Roger de Bris.

The Producers dating from the 1960s, pokes fun at the Nazis, and although the jokes might be old, the message remains current – we need humour and parody to diminish the power of extremism. It might be a foppish Hitler being mocked on stage but replace the black moustache with an orange wig and the central message remains the same.

This is a genuinely top notch Broadway affair with a superb cast who whole heartedly embrace this production with verve and skill. Julius D’Silva is excellent as Max Bialystock, adding his own flair to a role made so iconic by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. He is every inch the shabby King of Old Broadway with his wild eyes and strands of over-black hair pasted across a sweaty, shiny pate. The cynical theatrical ham who can woo old ladies for cash and command a stage with sheer class and dignity while singing in a prison cell toilet in Sing Sing.

Stuart Neal as Leo Bloom is utterly believable as the baby-faced accountant with big dreams. His nasal twang and youthful inexperience perhaps takes more from the Matthew Broderick performance than the Gene Wilder. His big number with the showgirls is pure old school Broadway glamour. Swedish Ulla is played with Monroesque allure by a wigglicious Emily-Mae. Charles Brunton is outrageously camp as director Roger de Bris channelling a Rita Hayworth any drag queen would be proud off. Hammed Animashaun steps out of the chorus and shines in the office scene then goes on to do a star turn as Carmen Ghia.

Designer Ben Stones creates a perfect Broadway experience and captures a moment in history with flair and drama. Lighting designer Jack Knowles may have taken down the National Grid with his use of yellow bulbs; but to great effect. From the bulb illuminated orchestra to the outrageous spangly Swastika signs and Hitler descending from the ceiling the visual impact is high octane throughout. The costumes are utterly fabulous with an array of spectacle that would not look amiss on a McQueen or Westwood catwalk.

The Producers is a gobsmacking riot of glitz, glamour and chutzpah. If someone at The Royal Exchange raised funds for this production betting on it being a first night flop and aiming on a flight to Rio, then right now they must be eating the account books and bedding in for Christmas in Strangeways!!

Royal Exchange Theatre 30 Nov – 26 Jan

All images by Johan Perrson

Off the Grid

Waterside, Sale

Written by David Lane

Directed by Chris Elwell

Off the Grid is an immersive play written by David Lane for children’s theatre specialists Half Moon. It looks at the very real issue of what happens when our children and young people fall outside of the social care system and find themselves living “off the grid”.

The stage design by Chris Elwell does an effective job of immersing the audience in this story and ensures none of us stay comfortable and settled in our seats of choice. Like the two main protagonists in this story we are never quite certain of a place to be. The metal grids ensure stark minimalism but also store the props that help drive the narrative. The constant shifts in this piece work well and never create confusion for an audience who may not all be familiar with immersive theatre.

The story of abandoned children, Connor and his little sister Kelly, exactly 10 years younger could be unrelentingly bleak. Sensitive writing and strong performances from Bradley Connor and Jesse Bateson ensure there is plenty of shades in this production. The blend of pathos and desperation is balanced by the children’s capacity for magical thinking. Connor creates a rich internal world that cloaks them both in safer, more hopeful existence as a buffer between them and the harsh reality of their plight.

Bradley Connor gives an intense and impassioned performance. He has a capacity to both enthrall with his storytelling and to petrify as his little sister becomes an obstacle to his own burgeoning needs. He is adept at moving through the space and connecting with the audience in a very potent manner. Jesse Bateson rises to the challenge of conveying her character as a very young child and as a teenager. There is skill and confidence in her performance and she brings real charm and innocence to the role of Kelly.

Running a psychotherapy practice I have encountered a number of adults who have had not too similar childhoods to Kelly and Connor. This production tells an important story that unfortunately is only too true in our current Society. Half Moon have produced a work that is socially and politically relevant and which resonates on a personal level. This is the kind of storytelling in Theatre that makes funding for the Arts so important, and makes attending theatre so rewarding and informing.

On tour

Images by Stephen Beeny

The Maids

HOME

Written by Jean Genet

Translation by Martin Crimp

Directed by Lily Sykes

My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds says Solange and this defines this production of The Maids. Director Lily Sykes has taken her directorial experience in Germany and employed it to excellent use with this darkly erotic and uncomfortably sinister game of charades between two sisters and their Mistress. The slow trickle of sand from the ceiling signalling hope ebbing away is echoed in the drip, drip, drip of poisonous words and actions that pervades the performance. Toxicity is everywhere, not just lurking in the contents of a dainty china cup. The Maids is decadent and delicious in its insoucuant disregard for conventional morality.

The main stage at HOME has been transformed by designer Ruari Murchison to create a round central stage that perfectly captures the psychological boxing ring that is this play. Like a Coliseum of gladiators the cast fling barbed words and even the flowers strewn around the stage are pointed weapons that gaily puncture the floor like poison darts. Seated in the round the audience become props for the cast as they interact with us like blank eyed smiling sociopaths.

Screens project quotes from Genet and images of iconic faces such as Hitler and Mary Berry with provocative statements such as good/bad, bon/mal invite reflection on how we perceive our society. These screens also act like surveillance cameras and project close ups of the performers as they obsessively examine their own ever changing and increasingly unsettling images. Like our obsession with celebrity and our own appearance, the characters seem trapped by their own reflections.

In keeping with the duality in Genet’s work, the maids and their Mistress are all played by men. All three are perfectly cast as foils for each other’s capricious natures and are mecurial in their capacity to move in and out of Dom/Sub roles. They share make up and fashion while trading blows and insults like prize bitches in a nightclub toilet or naughty children in their mother’s bedroom. Jake Fairbrother as Claire brings vulnerability and wistfulness to his character while maintaining a sense of powerful sexuality when needed. His beautifully modulated delivery gives a real emotional depth to his performance. Luke Mullins is enthralling as the brittle, desperate and yet imperious Solange. Danny Lee Wynter relishes his role as Mistress, giving her a tender affection for her maids coupled with a chilling disregard for their plight.

Jean Genet experienced life as an outsider and his work relishes and glorifies the adsurdity of life that makes one man an outcast and another revered or one woman a maid while the other is the Mistress. This production of The Maids celebrates his sense of the absurd and pokes fun at our own ways of coping in an increasingly nightmarish world.

HOME 16th Nov – 1st Dec

Images by Jonathan Keenan

Cinderella

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Fine Time Fontayne and Kevin Shaw

Directed by Kevin Shaw

It’s pantomime season once again and Cinderella breezes into Oldham Coliseum in a glittering pumpkin coach. Normally I wince at the word pantomime but last year the Coliseum converted my cynical heart to embrace the froth, frolics and sequins. This is good old fashioned slapstick peppered with plenty of modern references, catchy tunes and strong performances from seasoned panto professionals. Designer Celia Perkins has created a picture perfect storybook set which is incredibly detailed and enticingly colourful. The overall effect is as full of charm as a proverbial pantomime Prince .

The younger members of the cast deliver some good vocals and lots of energy, with Shorelle Hepkin as a warm and winsome Cinderella. Nisha Anil doubles as Dandini and Fairy Godmother bringing something special to both roles. Richard J Fletcher as Buttons gives his all throughout the show, and the pathos in his delivery of Emily Sandé’s Clown is really touching.

There are lots of amusing current cultural references in this production including recent royal weddings, Ubers and Google Alexi, however the wittiest is undoubtedly at the expense of The Kardashians. The Ugly Sisters, Fine Time Fontayne and Simeon Truby and mommie dearest Countessa Vyella Squeezepocket Sue Devaney do a deliciously mean take on those big bottomed girls and their socially ambitious mother.

Sue Devaney is in her element here producing a performance that blends a touch of Elphaba from Wicked with the Kardashians and a dollop of Celia Imrie circa Dinnerladies. She milks every moment on stage as the pantomime villain but with so much wit and flair that she rightfully steals the show.

There are the usual panto ghost scenes that whip the children up into a frenzy of excitement. A pre-Ball spa session is the perfect excuse for lots of slapstick fun and messy chaos. A well choreographed slow motion scene effectively highlights the Prince’s glass slipper hunt. The transformation of Cinderella is lit with a magical rosy glow and really does deliver whimsy and wonder.

This is good old fashioned pantomime with a big Northern heart. Oldham Coliseum deliver family fun for Christmas that scores high on the genuine feel good factor.

Oldham Coliseum 10 Nov – 12 Jan 2019

THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

REBUS: LONG SHADOWS

OPERA HOUSE

Written by Ian Rankin

Adapted by Rona Munro

Directed by Robin Lefevre

It is just over thirty years since Ian Rankin published the first of a long series of crime books set in Edinburgh and featuring John Rebus as the dour detective. Although successfully adapted for television this is the first time the character has stepped on to a stage. Rankin created this new story for the now retired detective and opted to develop it for the stage with award winning Scottish playwright Rona Munro. The result is an entertaining play that is low on action and gore but delivers a beautifully reflective insight into the mind of a retired detective who is adrift without his career and who is haunted by the victims of unsolved crimes.

Charles Lawson delivers a strong performance as Rebus. He truly embodies the crumpled, slightly arthritic aging man whose curmudgeonly nature ensures his best friend is his whisky bottle. This is a performance which is a slow burner, opening with a weary, brow beaten man and culminating in a powerhouse performance when he is challenged by his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. The scenes between the two men are the standout moments in this performance. John Stahl steals the show when the action shifts to his penthouse apartment near The Meadows. Monarch of all he surveys. He exudes suave cunning and all the smugness of a crime boss who believes himself untouchable by the law. It is a fascinating moment watchin them try to outwit each other as they square up like aging prize fighters The interplay between the two men is nuanced and well crafted highlighting the grit and the vulnerabilities of both men.

Sadly the character development of the female lead is not as satisfying. Cathy Tyson is a gifted actress and seems well cast in the part of detective Siobhan, yet it feels frustrating that so much of her dialogue is process driven and rather dull. The writing needs to reveal more of who she is and what has established her strong relationship with Rebus for her character to have the relevance it has in the books and television series. The other female characters portray the ghostly reminders of crime that haunt the misty Edinburgh streets and the whisky addled dark reaches of Rebus’ memory. As a plot device they perhaps too often but do evoke a tangible sense of tragic loss and wasted lives.

Ti Green has designed a suitably gloomy set with creepy archways and soaring walkways that would look equally at home on the stage of the current National Theatre production of Macbeth. Deceptively simple it smartly shifts from dank flat to gleaming penthouse via a police evidence room filled with ghosts. Although the staging does not clearly evoke Rankin’s beloved Edinburgh it is a successful backdrop to the production. The lighting also serves to further the gloomy and spectral feel that ensures the aging Rebus seems suspended between his twilight years and a netherworld of dead victims with stories to tell.

The central story feels slightly tentative, as though a work in progress feeling out what a theatre audience might expect of Rebus. The most powerful aspects of this production are the cerebral and emotional connections which Director Robin Lefevre draws out between the two complex male leads. This is a big, wordy play with some exciting and engaging speeches and well paced exchanges, reminding me why I so loved Monro’s The James Plays. Given the rather open ending to this story, I suspect Rebus will be returning to thread the boards and solve more crimes.

Opera House 30th Oct – 3rd Nov

Touring production

Images by Robert Day

Death Of A Salesman

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.

The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.

Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.

Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.

Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.

This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov

Production images by Johan Persson