Thursday, 5 May 2016

Avenue Q @ The Palace, 3.5.16

Being a Twentysomething isn't short of ironies; you hate coffee but it’s your favourite beverage to drink in copious daily amounts. You’re in unpayable debt after getting a degree for a job you hoped would leave you never needing for anything, and there’s everyone’s favourite; already having the experience where you’re not experienced. Ultimately, you’re stuck somewhere between an adult and a child, working the gap between your big dream and the current pays-the-bills job. What can be said of the Twentysomething of today, is that we are adaptable and persistently know the only way to survive this quarter life crisis is to keep making new plans; hopefully ones that make us as happy as we were as kids. Can you remember how happy you were watching weekend cartoons, or Seasame Street? What if you could feel like that again?

At the Palace theatre, sitting in front of fresh faced musical theatre students the lights went down and two screens flicked into life, depicting a sickeningly happy cartoon sunshine as the company flourished into the opening number of Avenue Q.


The abundantly talented cast made it easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief and fall in love with the 11 puppet characters. The actors themselves become essentially invisible; it is the puppets that carry the identity and the spotlight. You may expect to find Big Bird, but we are not on Seaseme Street anymore. Instead we meet Princeton (Richard Lowe), a recent college graduate who finds himself wandering onto Avenue Q with a BA in English and eager to find his 'purpose’. There he meets the colourful (literally) and exceptionally funny characters that live there. All the residents are finding life to be a bit disappointing, but come to accept that this feeling of loss is “only for now” while they journey to their aspirations. 
A huge hat tip goes to Sarah Harlington who played the role of Kate Monster and the infamous Lucy the Slut, for her impeccable vocal ability. Other credit goes to my forever favourite characters, Gary Coleman (Etisyai Philip) and the deliciously devious Bad Idea Bears (Jessica Paker). 


The UK tour cast have brought back the essence intended by music and lyric writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, which deserves huge congratulations. The production is ultimately a 'coming of age’ story and uses the Seasame Street metaphor as a device to satirize the anxieties felt going from childhood to adulthood. As children we are encouraged by such characters that we can be anything we want to be and build high aspirations, but fail to be told how disappointing life can be and that in life sometimes our options are limited. This is a sign of the times, and it is something every person in the theatre has felt or is still feeling - actors included. This point really hit home for me listening to the undergrad musical theatre students behind me, imagining that “one of us could be in this programme one day. Such and such, Arden school of theatre.” Unbeknownst to them I am already a graduate and it took me 3 years to land my first paid acting job with a longer wait for a second. But who am I to tell them life isn't that easy?  This powerhouse of a musical was doing a fine job of it, and by the same token the entire cast and creative team endured the same difficulties, but now have this success.

Avenue Q is bright, bold and ballsy. Funny where it needs to be, with a heart that is accessible to everyone. It can be easy to undermine musical theatre as just a sing-a-long 'isn’t everything great’ two-hour experience, but if you dig a little deeper and listen to what the writers, directors and actors have placed in front of you, you will see that this show is made of better fluff…I mean stuff 
 


Words: Kate Morris 

Photos: Matt Martin Photography 




Friday, 8 April 2016

JB Shorts 15 @ Josuha Brooks, 7.4.16

 
Audiences for theatre are a bit like church goers. They feel they ought to go but rarely feel enthused enough to actually attend. Maybe it's too expensive, too time consuming, hard to follow or just plain boring. Not so for JB Shorts however. JB is the perfect evening for people who want to dip a toe back into live theatre, or even engage with it for the first time. Six 15 minute, stand alone pieces – a smorgasbord of drama featuring a range of characters and mini tales. If you don't find yourself getting into a particular piece, fret not, there's a whole new story coming along shortly. It isn't easy to write a 15 minute piece; you have to hit the ground running to grab the audience’s attention, lay out a scenario and quickly establish characters but, the writers of JB Shorts 15 by and large, made an impression with every piece.

The Intruder (Diane Whitley) tells of a break-in that causes two elderly sisters to reminisce about a past event. It's left to our imagination to decide what happened but the main focus of the play centres on the effects of Dementia. Thanks to the engaging performances of Joan Kempson and Melissa Sinden and the warm humour in the writing, this piece manages to make the audience smile despite the subject matter. 

Two women meet for a reunion with their 'wild child' school friend in A Different Time by Lia Holdsworth. There's clearly no love lost here, as the former class mates exchange fantastically awful remarks and opinions on each others lives. This is where the piece is at its funniest, as Linda and Amanda viciously chip away at each other, expertly displaying the competitive nature of school reunions. When wild child Samantha does appear, she is a reformed character who forces them to re-evaluate what actually went on in the past. 


Office life can be a battery hen existence, punctuated by pointless and boring meetings. This gathering is attended by characters that we can all recognise; the timid woman who somehow became a manager, the disenchanted go-getter getting nowhere, the skiver and the unbearably smug know-it-all (a hilarious Will Travis). Peter Kerry’s Humble at times gets a little too OTT, and even though we know the pay off from the outset, it's a journey of belly laughs getting there. 

If the scene from the Last Supper had happened up North; False Prophet is how it might have played out. Jesus, a fading star with wannabes snapping at his heels and his disciples of fans worshipping a new kid in town. It's a clever and funny idea written by Paul Coates, that the enthusiastic cast wring every last laugh out of. 


Build A Bonfire by Trevor Suthers suffered a little by being the only straight play in a collection of comedies, but it did raise an interesting point about art and censorship. Should the crimes of the creative prevent their work from being displayed? However, the characters and their middle class world were a little clichéd and difficult to sympathise with. 

A Labour Party Spin Doctor ends up in a coma after Ed Milliband fails at the Polls. Fedora wakes up weeks later, only to discover Jeremy Corbyn is the new Labour leader. Paul Mason and James Quinn’s Party Animals is the strongest and funniest play of the evening. Fedora is an appalling, outrageous yet fantastic creation thanks to the combination of sharp, topical writing and a magnificent performance from Sally Carman who quite rightly got the best reception of the night. 

A thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre in a wonderfully intimate venue. 

Words: Drew Tosh 

Photos: Courtesy of JB Shorts
 





Friday, 26 February 2016

Preview: Extra Love Album Launch gig @ Band on the Wall, 26.02.16

Building on the success of their EP, Big Man, Extra Love serve up more helpings of feelgood, conscious music with their debut album, Out Of The Dark.



With their signature brand high on energy and positivity, they bring their unique flavour to create a fresh style of reggae.


Highlights of the album include the easy, atmospheric sprawl of 'Rubadub Soldier', the soaring vocals and jazzy horns of 'Freedom', and the infectious bounciness of 'Be Ready'. 'Ruff Out There' has a slightly darker edge, but still boasts a nice, laidback swagger.


The deep tones of singer Angelos, coupled with the rhythmic chants of Kuntriranks is the perfect vehicle to express the band's message.


Out Of The Dark brings a touch of sunshine to the rainy Manchester streets, makes your body get up and puts a great big smile on your face.

Words: Anna Tuck

Monday, 8 February 2016

Cats @ The Opera House, 2.2.16


Much like the first album I bought, I will always remember the first musical I saw on stage. Musicals, or music in general for me, had been restricted to VHS, music channels or CD before then. Everything suddenly become so much bigger, and that is what resonates most in my memory. How could it not, with a cacophony of voices and choreography that was explosively elegant and soft; all under a low hanging full moon?

Cats was other worldly, and certainly set the motion for my own stage aspirations. Now, over a decade later, “let the memory live again”. Yet, this wasn’t the show I remembered. The same déjà vu moon had me convinced I had been here before, so why was everything so strange?

Based on T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s ‘Book of Practical Cats’, the show is set on a junkyard playground where the annual Jellicle ball takes place. We are introduced to each feline friend and their personalities through song; lyrics from the 1930’s poems of Eliot and melodies of composer Andrew Llyod Web’ber. The show has had an impressive life span of over 30 years. Considered as ‘ground-breaking’ when it opened in 1981, Cats went on to be crowned the longest-running musical in the history of the West End in 1996. It then scooped up the same accolade in Broadway the following year. Translated into ten languages, performed in over 20 countries, while continuing to sell out tours; the longevity of a cat’s life holds true.   

 
There are still glimmers of this shining success story during the performance at The Opera House. Sadly, an irresistible curiosity to update the show well and truly killed the cat. One moment in particular being the infamous Rum Tum Tugger scene where we are introduced to the cocky and charismatic Tom Cat of the show. Oozing confidence and sexiness, Tugger satirises the ‘bad boy’ of a given generation, so earlier performances used Elvis Presley as a model. The instinct to update this is the right one, but the result was oh so wrong and laden with stereotypes that came off almost cartoonish! Dressed with a backwards cap, gold chains and baggy pants, Tugger is updated into our 21st Century bad boy from the streets. Though, give him a slingshot and go back 15 years you’ve got Bart Simpson. Maybe Mr Webber is trying to relate to the Topshop generation, who are also stuck in the 90s.  
 

 
Despite the tone given off so far, the cast are all evidently talented; both the choreography and the score are notoriously difficult. A phenomenal range is required from it’s singers and a fierce precision from the dancers, but above all, a collective ability to work as an ensemble. This, for the most part, the company did do well. On occasion, performers were in it for themselves rather than as a group, sending key moments out of sync. To be picky, in the opening song ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, you really can’t have a lyric boasting the ability that all cats can begin a scale in high C, to then only have one cat demonstrate. Each cat has their opportunity to have their own moment, so I was disappointed that the ensemble scenes were not joint. 
 
 
The most famous song of the show, ‘Memory’, is easily the best thing about this production, and thankfully went untouched. Grizabella (Anita Louise Combe), the Glamour Cat, sings this beautiful nostalgic song of remembrance of her glorious past, and declares her wish for a new life. To dominate a song of such magnitude is an astonishing accomplishment, and one that Combe’s performance was nothing short of. 

Cats has one more of it’s nine lives left to live, and one I feel would be the thriving if it stayed true to what it does best. The rebirth of this classic was understandable but evidently unnecessary. This musical is one that has been passed through generations, and has done so with fond memories from the audience’s first experience. Like Grease or The Sound of Music, you can’t change the originals. Some memories last forever, it’s our job not to forget them.



Words by Kate Morris
 
Images courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group