Moments / Empty Bed ~ Hope Theatre, Islington

Book tickets here (booking until 17th February 2018)The Hope Theatre

Reviewed by G. Wood

Star rating: ****

Pennyworth Productions present two bite size plays at The Hope Theatre this spring, both featuring the writing and acting talent of Julia Cranney, and together they make for an engaging and insightful evening. Interestingly, both titles would work for either play, as themes of isolation, mental health (and cake) echo throughout the performance and, though they differ in form and narrative structure, they make for perfect bedfellows.

The first time we meet Ava and Daniel in Moments they are both asleep, ready to start their day working in dreary jobs within the empty heart of the big city, each narrating for us the life of the other as we meander through their daily routine. Ava appears to be searching for her place in the world (there are hints of aspergers as well as a deep hunger for connection) whereas Daniel, despite his own painful history, seems to know where and who he is, their shared loneliness quite palpable. There are moments when their separate voices become one, evoking a powerful reminder of the pain of being alone in the city, before we carry on our journey through their separate eyes. Strangely, this structural device of each recording the movement of the other is both the play’s strength and weakness; there are a few points where it edges dangerously close to becoming wearisome but the pay off, whenever these two lost souls finally start to make some connection, is actually made more welcome and stronger for what has come before. As Ava, Julia Cranney delivers her written words with aplomb, drawing us gradually into the world of a fragile young woman and Simon Mattacks brings warmth, humour and an endearing awkwardness to his Security Guard Daniel, helping us forgive him his bluntness and a sometimes archaic take on the world.

Post interval is Empty Beds, Anna Reid’s simple but effective design shifting from arena to traverse as we are now staring at a train carriage; here the writer plays the eldest of three sisters, heading off to visit their brother Michael on his birthday. Immediately accessible, the play weaves neatly in real time through the strains of the sibling dynamic, bouncing from joy to anger to pain with the deftness of a truly gifted writer. Although she is sometimes hampered by the need to get characters off stage for dramatic purpose, what Cranney really nails is how no family moment ever happens without being imbued by a sense of history, how an argument is never wholly about the matter in hand, but always stained by what has come before. And director Kate Treadell guides us carefully through it all, drawing strong performances from all three actors to create a convincing picture of siblings and all the baggage that this brings. Completely unrecognisable from the first play, Cranney plays the hard edged but loving Catherine, alongside Carys Wright (beautifully ethereal as Emily) and Debbie Brannan (sensational as Michael’s twin sister Jo). There is a moment where we hear (almost imperceptibly) the train that they are on grind to a halt: perhaps a metaphor for how impossible it is for any family to move forward, especially when there is still pain and reprisal to be dealt with.

Cranney is exceptionally adept at bringing her simple observations of the world to life, be it the mass production of eggs in London or finding those hidden plug sockets on a train, and throughout the evening the truth of these smaller moments help the larger ones resonate more powerfully, helped along by an excellent cast of five (wait, four), effective design all round and Treadell’s assured direction. The Hope continues to programme top rate fringe theatre and these two bijou theatrical nuggets from Pennyworth are no exception.

 

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Happy New Year!

2018 – a new year to embrace new shows and experiences in the theatrical bubble I often find myself mooching around in. As I’ve said in my previous more personal blog posts, I rarely take to my own blog to have a chat – but it’s a new year and I felt an update was long overdue. So, put the heating on (it’s freezing out there innit?!), put your pjs on (I certainly have!) and I’ll let you in on all things Break A Leg for the mighty 2018.

Regional Theatre ~ Break A Leg started life as a Midlands based blog where I could share my reviews of local shows and promote local theatres. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to venture further afield to review and I LOVE it. Pantomime season saw me welcomed to more regional theatres and I’d like to grow that this year. It means you won’t see as much of me in London, because I’m handing reviews for most shows in the big smoke over to a couple of guest reviewers who I’m delighted to have on board. In the meantime, I’ll be based in and around the midlands more often and visiting other regions and cities to find out what they have to offer.

Guest Reviewers ~ I’d like to welcome Francesca Mepham and G Wood to the team as my London based Guest Reviewers. They are a god-send and will enable Break A Leg to keep an eye on what’s going on in London when I can’t be there personally. Both are talented writers and what they don’t know about the arts ain’t worth knowing.

Blood Brothers ~ It’s no secret that Blood Brothers is one of my all-time favourite shows and this year I’m aiming to see the show as many times as I can in as many different theatres as I can. It’s a challenge and one I’m looking forward to having a crack at! I know there’s a couple out there who have seen the show zillions of times – I doubt I’ll ever catch them up but I’ll happily follow in their footsteps!

More Pantomimes ~ My pantomime/festive season for 2017/2018 consisted of 8 x pantomimes at a variety of different theatres and 101 Dalmatians at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Next season I’m aiming for double figures – oh yes I am! I might also try and see my favourite shows more than once…

TV & Movie Scene ~ If you haven’t visited my sister blog yet hop on over and take a butchers at it. I felt it was time to move my television and movie reviews over to a separate website and I’m in the midst of working on it to increase content. Loads coming up this year including National Television Awards towards the end of this month. Exciting times! TV & Movie Scene

Break A Leg Awards ~ It’s back and this year we’re separating the Television and Theatre awards. Break A Leg Awards will be awarded to all Theatre nominees and Television & Movie Scene Awards for the Television nominees. There’s a chance we’ll include movie-related nominees – watch this space!

What’s next? ~ In 2017 you may have been aware that I left my job at the NHS and took to more creative work on a permanent basis. I learned loads, ended up in all sorts of different areas of the arts which was fascinating and overwhelming all at once. Saying no to an opportunity to be involved in something that I have a passion for is not in my nature – but, as we’ve established with my guest reviewer section, there’s only one of me and a work/life balance is what everybody strives for.

There are so many projects I’d like to get involved in and opportunities cropping up for this year which are all really exciting. Some of the options I have to consider will actually enhance the blogs and networking further. It’s time to take a deep breath and dive in to see where it will all take me. I might not always be my own boss on a full time basis – but I don’t know if I like me as a boss, haha! I’m too bossy…. (pauses for groans from the audience)…

I’d like to say a huge thanks to everyone who drops in to read my reviews and interviews and to anyone who’s paid this article some attention. It does mean a lot, which is easily said, but definitely meant – more than you all know.

I’ll close with a collage of my little boy loving Pantomime life, because if I ever needed a reminder as to why I keep up with this crazy blogging career, these images give me a reason!

 

 

 

Top 5 Pantomimes – 2017/2018

It’s been a busy festive and indeed Pantomime season and there are a few amazing shows enjoying their final audience this weekend. Choosing my favourites from amongst the eight Pantomimes I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of watching has been really easy! Here they are…. of yes they are…. (I need to stop that, until the end of this year at the very least!!):

Sleeping Beauty – Rhyl Pavilion Theatre: The only show I have ever bitten the bullet with and cheekily given six stars to! I LOVED Sleeping Beauty at Rhyl Pavilion Theatre, it had everything you could wish for from a pantomime and worked on every audience level. Sean Jones (who I’ve always rated in Blood Brothers) was outstanding in the comedy lead, Amy Thompson was her usual fantastic self in the title role (one of the best female leads I’ve seen – I saw her last year at Malvern Theatres). Vicky Entwistle impressed me as Carabosse, I didn’t realise how superb her vocal ability is and Sarah-Jane Buckley makes the role of the Fairy her own – she’s incredible, I can’t fault her at all. Add the glorious set, excellent mixture of songs and plentiful opportunities for audience participation to the mix and you have one of the best pantomimes of the season for Break A Leg.

Cinderella – Liverpool Empire Theatre: I loved everything about our unexpected trip to see Cinderella at Liverpool Empire Theatre. A beautiful setting with one of QDOS’s best pantomimes ably filling the auditorium with pantomime magic and a stellar cast. Jodie Prenger as Fairy Godmother is a moment that will last until the next pantomime season. Daniel Taylor, knocked his performance out of the park as one of the truly awful (in the best possible way) Ugly Sisters. He was assisted by James Templeton who is a performer I’ve not seen before, another exceptional Dame! The set was stunning and I couldn’t stop admiring it, it was akin to a wonderland. One of the best!

 

Sleeping Beauty – Worcester Repertory Theatre: One of the most exceptional efforts this season and from one of Break A Leg’s local theatres. It was my debut at Worcester Rep and a splendid show to make my debut with. This pantomime is one of the best family pantomimes I’ve seen this season, a warm, friendly feel and a cast de force. Liz Grand as Carabosse as Ben Humphrey as Dame Ginny were both exceptional. A massive high five to all involved, can’t wait for your next show.

Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood – Stafford Gatehouse Theatre: The Rock ‘N’ Roll pantomime which really changed my perspective of pantomime with a fresh new take. What a talented group of performers who sing, dance, characterise and play instruments! This is one I’d have happily paid a return visit to see. Guaranteed to have you dancing in the aisles.

Cinderella – Malvern Theatres: Malvern always have a superb pantomime and this season’s show has been no different. This version of Cinderella was packed with a variety of musical numbers, excellent up to date banter and audience interaction was at its best. Alison Hammond was a Fairy Godmother to be reckoned with and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance from the Ugly Sisters too. There aren’t many pantomimes I would recommend fellow theatre-goers to travel for, but this one would certainly have been worth making an effort to get to.

My Top 10 Performers ~ 2017

Performers on stage… I’ve seen a few, but then again… no I’ve definitely seen a few and I’m full of admiration for so many of them. So, who made my top ten this year? Well I’ve had a difficult time whittling the list down but the top ten have each impressed me in ways that have continued to resonate as the year has worn on. Here we go, in no particular order!

Claire Machin ~ I think that The Girls has to be my favourite West End show of 2017 and although it didn’t make my top 5 shows list, it’s still up there as one of the highlights of my theatre-going calendar. I think Claire Machin was one of the crowning glories in that show and she’s also one of my favourite interviewees ever. I urge you to see this amazing lady on stage if you can, her voice, her tenacity and her energy are all infectious. She’s a star.

Daniel Taylor ~ I’ve seen this man in three different guises this year and excels in each of them. Whether he’s imitating Tommy Cooper, spitting and whining as Sammy in Blood Brothers are donning a pair of high heels and mocking Cinderella – he’s an actor de force and will always have my support. Amazing performer and one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, not just in 2017.

Michele Dotrice ~ She’s been one of my favourite on screen actors for years and years, however seeing her in The Girls (twice!) has cemented her as one of my stage favourites too. She can sing, she has comic timing in abundance and she whipped her kit off live on stage too – my hero! I would say I’d like to see more of Michele on stage, however….!

 

Graham Martin ~  I’ve always admired Graham’s ability to play multiple roles in Blood Brothers to an extremely high standard (to the point where I feel the show wouldn’t be the same without him), but he also impressed me in The Hollow at Stoke Repertory Theatre. I’m only sorry to have missed his performance as the King in pantomime this year. Graham’s one of the finest triple threats in my humble opinion.

Sarah Jane Buckley ~ Sarah Jane was my first ever favourite soap star, I’d not really had a favourite character in any of the soaps prior to Kathy Barnes rocking up in Hollyoaks and stirring things up. Sarah Jane is my favourite Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers too, however this year I also had the chance to see her play Mrs Johnstone when she stepped in for Lyn Paul. She was absolutely sensational, I could wax lyrical forever. I’ve also finally seen her in pantomime this season, which was another amazing experience. There’s nothing Sarah Jane can’t do, she’s a natural in every genre of performance.

Tim Churchill ~ Another Blood Brothers star who is my favourite Mr Lyons for sure, but who also starred in Stoke Repertory Theatre’s The Hollow and showed another element to his acting talent. It’s given me a taste of what other roles he would lend himself to, a very talented actor.

Cathy O’Reilly ~ I was really impressed by Cathy’s performance in The Hollow at Stoke Repertory Theatre, she can convey so much without words and the movement and fluidity she put into the role has stuck with me. She’s a talented actor who I’m keen to see perform in other roles in the future. I believe she would be able to play a variety of characters, this introduction has been the tip of the iceberg.

Sean Jones ~ I’ve watched Sean as Mickey in Blood Brothers many, many times and he is inspirational in the role. I feel every nuance of emotion in his performance. So he most definitely makes it to my list because he’s the best Mickey in my favourite musical. I also saw him in as Silly Billy at in Sleeping Beauty Rhyl Pavilion Theatre and he was amazing. Completely reminiscent of my favourite comedy stars whom I grew up watching with comic timing to rival any stand up comedian.

Amy Thompson ~ Amy was on my radar on Channel 5 as a Presenter on Milkshake! because I have a three year old, however last year I was blown away by her performance as Sleeping Beauty at Malvern Theatres. This year, I’ve watched her in the role again and she wowed me all over again, so for her sheer triple threat ability – she’s one of my top performers of 2017.

Robert Daws ~ I’ve always rated Robert Daws, another actor who began as an on-screen favourite then blew me away with his stage roles. How The Other Half Loves was an excellent fit for him, he conveys so much without words and embodies every character he portrays. I highly recommend catching him in a theatre production, I was only sorry not to have been able to have seen How The Other Half Loves again.

 

 

My Top 5 Productions ~ 2017

2017 has been a bumper year for Break A Leg, we’ve literally been all over the place in as many theatres as possible and loving every minute. There’s been some new links made which we’ll be taking forward to 2018 and a couple of new reviewers are joining the team to cover London theatre. Thanks also go to Chloe Buckles who has guest blogged for us and hopefully she’ll carry on doing so for the new sister blog TV & Movie Scene

Anyway, without further ado – here are my top five favourite theatre productions of the year.

  1. Blood Brothers ~ My ultimate favourite musical and they have one of the best casts ever at the moment. I have managed to get along to see the show three times this year. At Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and at Nottingham Theatre Royal with Lyn Paul in the role of Mrs Johnstone, but also at De Montfort Hall where the added bonus was that Sarah Jane Buckley was playing the role of Mrs J while Lyn Paul was off – one of my most unforgettable moments of this year is definitely having the opportunity to see Sarah Jane in the lead role. I’m already planning a number of return visits for next year. From the score to the exceptional performances to the story and setting itself – this is my musical of choice every time.
  2. How The Other Half Loves ~ I saw this production last year when it was in the West End and I loved it. This year it toured and I managed to catch it at Malvern Theatres, it’s one of my favourite farces and even with some cast changes from West End to touring, this one has still stood out as a highlight of the year. Robert Daws was a fantastic addition to the cast as was Sara Crowe – I’d have loved to have seen it a few more times before the tour finished. Such a watchable piece and belly-laugh-inducing.
  3. 9 to 5 The Musical ~ This piece never fails to bring a smile to my face and the incarnation performed at Upstairs at the Gatehouse will forever be a happy memory. To be able to watch the show in such an intimate space with a strong cast was a pleasure and a privilege. Thanks to Joe Hodges and the cast and crew for an experience like no other.
  4. The Hollow ~ I made a concerted effort to see more locally-based theatre towards the end of this year and fully intend on keeping to the same path next year. Especially as so many fantastic companies and theatres in the midlands and surrounding areas have embraced my little blog. The Hollow was the first of two Agatha Christie plays I saw at Stoke Repertory Theatre and I loved it. A strong cast, some of whom were familiar to me and others who I’m so pleased to have discovered. I’m looking forward to seeing more of United National Theatre Company’s work in the new year. They do great theatre and they are doing the Midlands proud.
  5. All Our Children ~ My first trip to Jermyn Street Theatre and to see my lovely Rebecca Johnson being her amazing self on stage, too – a real treat. The play was a debut piece by Stephen Unwin who I am mostly familiar with as a Director. It was and remains one of the most intensely moving theatrical experiences of my reviewing career to date. I enjoy theatre that challenges the way I think and this play offered the chance for that and much more. The easiest five stars I’ve ever pulled out of my bag of stars!

Cinderella ~ Liverpool Empire Theatre

Cinderella runs until 7 January 2018, book your tickets here: Liverpool Empire Theatre

Star rating: *****

QDOS are renowned for their lavish, special effects-laden productions and Cinderella at Liverpool Empire Theatre is no exception. With a small cast of lead roles, an extremely able ensemble and a set to rival most of the pantomimes I’ve seen this season – it’s one to bag a ticket for if you can.

What was notable about this incarnation of the popular fairy story was that the lead roles were minimal, leaving the show in the hands of just seven lead characters. All of whom were more than capable of moulding the show into a stand-out spectacle in the best sense of the word. The pace of the production was quick, sharp and ideal for young audience members, capturing the attention of my three year old son and holding his interest for the entire show. Not one of the scenes dragged on, there was a slickness to every nuance.

Olivia Sloyan was a fantastic choice to take the title role, stunning vocals and she acted the role beautifully. Duncan James made for one of the best Princes I’ve seen particularly as he lacked the ‘cheese’ factor as is often associated with the so called hero of the piece. Of course with a singer from Blue at the helm, every song he featured in was exceptional. James Templeton and Daniel Taylor were hilarious as the Ugly Sisters, their partnership was one to be reckoned with and they were mean, cackling disaster areas with quick changes to rival most Dames! Add John Evans to the ensemble as Buttons and the element of comedy sky rocketed, his comedy background shone through and my face ached from laughing at his cornucopia of jokes. What a gem to add to an already sparkling cast. To top it off, Jodie Prenger as Fairy Godmother is a moment I will never forget, motherly, caring and ditzy with those trademark powerhouse vocals and a cheeky glint in her eye. She was my son’s favourite and she truly set the stage alight in every way!

Liverpool have the best production of Cinderella I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this festive season and I cant recommend it highly enough – it’s got all of the traditions expected from a Pantomime with a whole lot of wow to go with it!

Spotlight On… Star of Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – Samuel Townsend

Samuel Townsend plays Numbskull (and he makes a cameo appearance as Friar Tuck in Stafford Gatehouse Theatre’s pantomime, Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – here, he tells Break A Leg all about it… oh yes he does!

Thanks for talking to Break A Leg, tell us about your character.

I play Numbskull and basically I’m the silly character, although this time around there’s a lot of heart in the role and a lot of Numbskull’s motivations are down to his love for Maid Marian. He’s blind-sighted and makes silly mistakes throughout the show because of his love for Maid Marian. People can expect lots of slapstick from me and I’ll probably end up with lots of bruises!

Why do you think audiences love the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime format so much? 

I think they’re different to things that people have seen before because it’s rare that you’ll see quadruple threats in one show. It’s a talented company. This time you get to see it all as it happens, it’s part rock gig and part panto –  a big family concert for everyone.

What’s your favourite thing about pantomime season? 

As we get closer to Christmas it’s normally the first thing on many people’s lists, my parents will watch a panto and that’s the beginning of Christmas for them. It’s nice to see everyone relax and sink into the start of Christmas.

Why do you think that pantomime is still an important part of Great British culture?

I think for a lot of people it’s their first experience in the theatre, we have lots of school shows and that is the first time these kids will have seen anything live on stage. It’s a British tradition and I think it’s something that is very staple British format. British humour, great songs, very much a celebration.

Who are your pantomime idols?

Steve Simmonds! I didn’t see that many pantomimes when I was younger but my Uncle watched a lot of Laurel and Hardy and I think that they’ve been an inspiration.

Finally, sell the show – why should everybody buy a ticket to see Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood? 

If you’ve seen it before you know what you’re getting, it’s a rock concert with something for everybody and all the family. If you haven’t seen it before it’s really quite a spectacle.

Spotlight On… Star of Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – Rachel Nottingham

Rachel Nottingham plays Britney in Stafford Gatehouse Theatre’s pantomime, Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – here, she tells Break A Leg all about it… oh yes she does!

Thanks for talking to Break A Leg, tell us about your character.

I’m playing Britney who is one of the Babes in the Wood and I’m very lucky to be working with Celia who plays my sister. We’ve got a good rapport going on hopefully. Britney and her sister Whitney are the typical ‘It’ girls so rather than being babes as in children we are Babes as in eye candy. We’re all about image and the way we come across, looking the best, getting the guys, I imagine they’re the sorts of people who have very expensive handbags and shoes. They’re quite cocky but they are goodies, I want them to be likeable, they’re a bit silly, they do fall in love in the show with the Merry Men.

Why do you think audiences love the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime format so much? 

I think the great thing about the Rock ‘n’ Roll panto is that you’ve got the Dame and the silly gags, you’ve also got all the basics then you add into it a load of amazing songs that everybody knows, classic rock ‘n’ roll songs and you can’t really go wrong with performing those. The fact that it’s all played live on stage, I think audiences love that, I know when I go and see a show – to see the instruments played live on stage makes it come alive.

What’s your favourite thing about pantomime season? 

Genuinely the audiences, when you do a show normally, audiences can be great but when you do a pantomime the audiences are high on life, they all seem to really love it, they throw themselves into it. It’s a different kind of atmosphere, they’re completely on your side and they’re there to have a really good time. If you have fun with the show, the audience will have fun – it’s more a collaborative experience for audience and performers. It’s interactive and every show is different because an audience member might say something or do something that changes the scene.

Why do you think that pantomime is still an important part of Great British culture?

It’s been around for so long hasn’t it and everyone remembers going to the pantomime as a kid. I went to the Stevenage pantomime every year and it was so magical growing up and as an adult you get something completely different from it. That’s the great things about pantomime, it suits all ages. It’s magical for the kids but for the adults it’s hilarious and ridiculous. It’s so inclusive, non theatre goers come to the theatre which is great.

Who are your pantomime idols?

My friend Clare Halse, I saw her in The Babes In The Wood when I was 10 years old, she started off in pantomime and she’s done amazingly well as a dancer and performer. She’s playing Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street in the West End at the moment, she’s always inspired me to be a better performer. She’s an incredible dancer, dancing is her forte and it’s great to have seen her go all the way from panto to the West End.

Finally, sell the show – why should everybody buy a ticket to see Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood? 

It’s for everyone, it’s a really fun night out and there are some banging tunes in there too.

Spotlight On… Star of Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – Robert Wade

Robert Wade plays Will Scarlet and Blondel in Stafford Gatehouse Theatre’s pantomime, Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood – here, he tells Break A Leg all about it… oh yes he does!

Thanks for talking to Break A Leg, tell us about your characters.

I play two characters, Will Scarlet and Blondel. Will Scarlet is a famous Merry Man, he’s full of himself, he’s a ladies man but he’s equally got a silly side I would say. The character of Blondel is the story teller and narrator-type figure, he’s high energy and a bit of a rock star. They’re both quite similar characters in a way.

Why do you think audiences love the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime format so much? 

It’s the fusion of live music and acting/performance which is quite a cool thing as a visual, to watch actors who play really well and then sing all in one show. Rather than having the defined line between musician and the actor.

What’s your favourite thing about pantomime season? 

This is my second pantomime and I like the camaraderie between the cast members, you’re all in it together, you’re all doing two shows a day. You’re rushing back for Christmas, you’re rushing back for new year and everyone is doing the same.

Why do you think that pantomime is still an important part of Great British culture?

It grew from the Music Hall era, the late Victoria twenties/thirties vibe and audiences have always enjoyed songs and acts. Panto has slapstick acts, songs and music. Theatres rely so much on panto as a crowd pleaser. Some people’s only experience at the theatre is watching pantomime. So if there’s a combination of comedy, music and romance then there’s nothing more British.

Who are your pantomime idols?

I don’t really have pantomime idols, I suppose I’m doing what I’m doing because of musical theatre – I played Oliver at the age of seven and it went from there.

Finally, sell the show – why should everybody buy a ticket to see Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood? 

It’s got men in tights! It’s got songs, rock n roll songs from across the decades and genres, it’s got arrows, sword fights, greenery, puppets, an amazing set, amazing music and you’ll be up on your feet to dance. There’s jokes, a good story and everything, there’s nothing not to like!

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