Lowry Salford Quays

HMS Pinafore

HMS Pinafore, UK Tour 2016_17 -® Roy Tan


I had better come clean here and admit that my knowledge of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan is scant to say the very least, extending to viewings of Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy (1999) and The Pirate Movie (1982), both of which I enjoyed. So the opportunity to review this visiting production at the Lowry theatre left me feeling slightly apprehensive, aware as I was that fans of the Victorian composers are a devoted crew who would instantly sense if I don’t really know what I’m talking about. To add to the potential pitfalls, Sasha Regan’s adaptation of the musical is not exactly a straightforward one. No petticoats and bonnets here. The gimmick – and I think it’s fair to call it that – is that every role is portrayed by a male performer. Yes, even Buttercup!

The setting is that of a World War II battleship and the action takes place almost entirely below decks, with rows of metal bunk beds as a backdrop. The intimation here is of the crewmen putting on an impromptu performance to keep themselves amused on a long voyage. Costume changes are achieved merely by ‘tweaking’ the sailor’s uniforms, by the actor’s body language and by the pitch of the voices. Ben Irish (Josephine) affects a startling soprano, while David McKechnie is totally convincing in the pivotal role of Buttercup. By contrast, Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran is blusteringly macho (the physical exercise routine he leads as he croons I Am The Captain of the Pinafore is a particular highlight while in the second half, a mostly acapella rendition of A Many Years Ago is actually breathtakingly lovely.

There’s no orchestra here, just a highly skilled piano player, who must qualify as the hardest working member of the cast. If not every word of every song is audible that’s more a problem of the venue’s acoustics and the fact that as far as I can see, nobody is wearing a microphone. The elderly lady sitting next to me, who introduces herself as a G & S fanatic, tells me it helps to know all the songs by heart, but she thinks the idea of an all-male cast is ‘a delightful concept.’ I tend to agree with her. Clearly, the audience loves what they hear and applauds heartily at the conclusion. Admirers of Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan will need to get themselves along to the Lowry pretty smartly if they wish to enjoy this as HMS Pinafore is only there until the 16th of July after which it sets sail in the direction of Salisbury.

All aboard!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps 2016 tour - Olivia Greene as Pamela & Richard Ede as Hannay (c) Dan Tsantilis


Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

Poor Richard Hannay – framed for the murder of a mysterious young woman  he’s only recently met, he’s had to go on the run to a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands in order to prove his innocence. But danger lies in wait for him at every step…

Hannay is of course the great British hero of The 39 Steps. John Buchan’s classic novel was first published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. This touring production, originally adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006 comes direct from the West End and it’s easy to see the qualities that have pulled in packed audiences ever since. With a cast of just four actors, this is played primarily for laughs and conducted at breakneck pace with plenty of lightning-fast costume changes and a repeated motif of effects that go slightly wrong. It’s clear too that this is much more Hitchcock’s version of the story than Buchan’s – film fans will spot plenty of references to Hitch’s best known movies thrown into the mix. (In a shadow puppet sequence depicting a chase across the hills, keep an eye out for one particularly recognisable silhouette.)

Richard Ede makes an appealing pipe-smoking, Harris tweed-wearing  hero, while his three fellow actors virtually run themselves into the ground providing a whole wealth of supporting characters for him to interact with. In the cavernous setting of the Lyric theatre, it was sometimes a struggle to make out every line of dialogue (I would have loved to see this in the more intimate setting of the studio theatre, but you can’t fault the producers for wanting to pitch this to the biggest possible audiences) and there’s no doubting the consummate professionalism on show here, nor the wit of Barlow’s script. It’s probably also true to say that when this production first aired many of the staging techniques on show would have seemed ground-breaking – now, they are part of the everyday language of contemporary theatre.

That said, this offers a fun and entertaining night out for lovers of adventure and comedy alike. It’s on untilSaturday 25th June.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Richard Herring: Happy Now?



Quay Theatre, Lowry, Salford

Any fears that Richard Herring’s newfound domesticity might have blunted his comic edge are soon allayed as he strides out on stage and takes command of the packed and very enthusiastic audience at the Quay Theatre. This new show is distilled from the various things that have happened to him since Lord of the Dance Settee and it’s clearly been a tumultuous time. I don’t know quite how he does it, but Happy Now? takes a look at a whole series of common experiences and gives them that distinctive edge. His description of his new daughter arriving screaming from his wife’s vagina is quite frankly hilarious and his contemplation of how it would be if you were introduced to somebody at a party in similar circumstances is even funnier. Laugh? I nearly wet myself.

Yes, of course there’s a vein of sentimentality here, it would be odd if there wasn’t but he continually undercuts that to remind us that comedy can be mined from the most unexpected places. A routine where he’s left in charge of his baby daughter and begins to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen to her is a great example of this – we’re laughing uncontrollably whilst telling yourself you shouldn’t really be finding this funny at all.

His interpretation of the popular nursery rhyme about five little monkeys jumping on a bed was a high spot for me, as he imagines the simian-doctor repeatedly visiting the scene of yet another monkey mortality and asking, ‘you remember what I told you yesterday? About no more monkeys jumping on the bed?’

It’s gratifying to see so many people turning out for one of the hardest working and original comedians currently treading the boards. Happy Now? Is midway through a nationwide tour. He’s at the Epstein theatre in Liverpool tonight (20th Feb) and there’s a whole host of venues to follow through March and April, one of which must surely be somewhere near you. If you can get hold of a ticket, (and hurry, most venues are close to sold out) do so.

You will laugh long and you will laugh hard. In these troubled times that’s something to be cherished.

5 stars


Richard Herring – Interview

Richard Herring is clearly in a good mood. He’s well into his nationwide tour of Happy Now? and in a couple of hours is due to play the sold out Quay theatre at Salford’s Lowry. With all that going on, he’s nevertheless agreed to put aside twenty minutes or so to talk to us. The setting is his less than salubrious dressing room, somewhere behind the stage and as we set up our little recorder he’s pleasant and relaxed.

We begin with a jokey question, one that will be familiar to followers of his RHLSTP podcasts: where does he get all his crazy ideas?

‘I don’t really know,’ he admits. ‘I suppose a lot comes from my own experience, true stories that I’ve ‘found the funny’ in. It comes from the state of mind where I question things too much. It’s pedantry, really. Not good for life but good for comedy.’

So does he see himself more as a raconteur than as a man who tells jokes?

‘The show is certainly becoming more story-based. It’s probably because of the blog.’

As his followers will know, Herring writes a daily blog and never misses, even when his life is at its most frantic. It makes for interesting and informative reading about the day-to-day experiences of one of the country’s finest comics. I ask him if there’s a compulsive-obsessive side to his personality. There’s surely no other comedian who goes to such lengths to document every aspect of his life.

‘Yes, definitely. You’ve got to be careful when you talk about these things, because there are people with much more serious compulsive-obsessive disorders but there is an element of that in me. There have been times when I’ve thought about giving up the blog, when I’ve not been enjoying it so much but somehow I can never bring myself to do it, and it is such a fertile place for finding new material. Mind you, I’m getting better. The other day I broke the Ferrero Rocher thing…’

This is a reference to the fact that every Valentine’s day for the past nine years, Herring has bought the infamous chocolates for his wife, beginning with one and doubling the amount purchased each year, with the intention of building a huge pyramid of the things. This year he uncharacteristically forgot. Not that it mattered too much. ‘She doesn’t even like Ferraro Rocher that much,’ he admits. ‘She said she’d prefer a new bag.’

It’s been a year of huge changes for Richard. He’s become a parent, and for the first time in years he didn’t go to the Edinburgh Festival but what, we wonder has been the biggest change for him personally?

‘Well, certainly becoming a father has been the biggest change – and this show is all about whether I have finally found contentment and peace, which I think I have, to an extent. I think I’ve found contentment now, that I’m happy with my place in comedy and where I am. Ten years ago, I’d have been wanting more fame, but I’ve realised that where I am now is more rewarding, more creative and importantly, more anonymous. I can go to the park with my child and not be pestered by the paps, unlike say David Mitchell and Victoria Coren, who seem to be endlessly bothered by them.’

Any regrets about not doing Edinburgh?

‘No. I actually enjoyed not going, not losing money, not having all the pressure of doing it. I realised that I’d actually been quite unhappy doing it for much of the time. Last year really wasn’t a happy experience.’

He’s referring to the double whammy of the 2014 fringe where he had two shows – Lord of the Dance Settee and a semi-serious play, I Killed Rasputin. We saw and enjoyed them both, but clearly not enough people did. Herring had anticipated losing twenty thousand pounds (everyone loses money at Edinburgh) but in the event, he actually lost considerably more. Little wonder that he decided that a series of gigs in London’s Leicester Square Theatre – where he recreated all twelve of his Edinburgh shows over one month, was a more viable alternative and one that would allow him to stay closer to home.

People say that the best humour comes from anxiety. Can real comedy come from a place of contentment?

‘I think comedy is essentially laughter in the face of horrible things, which is why I will do comedy about the worst parts of life. It’s a way of confronting those things and thereby overcoming them. But parenthood comes with its own particular set of anxieties and I exploit those to the full in the new show.’

Our last query comes courtesy of our twelve year old niece, Esme, who has provided us with an ‘emergency question’ . So we ask it.

‘If you had to choose, would you rather be a unicorn or a vampire?’

Herring laughs. ‘That’s a very good question, ‘ he says. ‘I would definitely be a vampire. It’s sexier. A unicorn is a kind of sexless thing.’ He grins. ‘I know vampires are not very nice, but I’d say they have a more exciting life.’

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield



Shrek – The Musical



Lowry, Salford Quays

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years or so, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the runaway franchise that is Shrek. Originally an illustrated novel by William Steig, it became a hit animation for Dreamworks in 2001. It went on to spawn several (inferior) sequels and of course, in 2008, a Broadway musical. This is the original London production, which comes to the end of a two year tour in Salford, so this may be your last chance to see it for a while.

Obviously it’s a family show, aimed very much at the youngsters in the audience, but it’s slick and sharp enough to entrance their parents too and it was clear from the word go that the packed audience at the Lowry was having an absolute ball with it. The film’s wry twist on the classic fairy tale is faithfully preserved, there are eye-popping costumes and witty songs. You have to admire Dean Chisnall’s performance as the titular ogre as he performs in what looks like half a ton of latex without ever breaking stride. The supporting cast are uniformly good but I particularly enjoyed Gerard Carey’s tour de force as pint-sized villain Lord Farquaad. I’ve seen this kind of stunt done before but rarely with such exuberance and never with such laugh-out-loud chutzpah.

Fans of puppetry will be entranced by the show’s huge dragon, which swoops convincingly around the stage (whilst singing!) and had younger members of the audience gasping with wonder. Shrek – The Musical is a magical presentation in every respect and the long touring schedule means that every detail has been drilled to perfection, so despite a lengthy running time, it never loses momentum. Oh and don’t feel you have to have children in tow, because there really is something here for everyone.

Please note that the show starts at 7 pm, not 7.30 (a fact that was clearly lost on large members of last night’s audience). It’s at the Lowry until February 20th. Go, enjoy. Trust me, you’ll love it.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney


Lord of the Flies



The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays

Lord of the Flies is one of my all time favourite novels, so I was excited to see this production, first shown in the open air at London’s Regent’s Park. How, I wondered, would director, Anthony Sheader, stage a story that is set in a variety of locations on a remote jungle-covered island? Well, as it turned out, quite brilliantly.

The set bears some description as it is instrumental to the success of this production. The stage is dominated by the fuselage of a crashed plane. One of its wings forms a ramp along which characters can enter and exit. The tailplane provides an upper level from which characters can stand to survey ‘the island.’ In the foreground, the detritus of the crash extends right to the feet of the audience in the front row of the stalls, almost including them in the scene. As the story unfolds, trapdoors are opened and closed to provide yet more levels in Souvenir Scenic’s ingenious set.

The script has cleverly updated the story to contemporary times – there are aborted selfie-stick moments, and even an allusion to a ‘new war’ from which the children were fleeing. Unlike the source novel, the pupils come from a variety of backgrounds – Jack and his choristers clearly hail from a top flight public school, Ralph from a mid range one and Piggy, a bluff Northerner, from a comprehensive. This all helps to emphasise the cruelty of the bullying suffered by Piggy and the other, weaker boys and makes their ultimate fate all the more compelling.

It’s pointless to single out individual actors for praise as this is a true ensemble piece, but plaudits must go to choreographer, Jonathan Holby, who manages to co-ordinate the movements of his large cast flawlessly, regularly cutting between normal speed and slo-motion to display simultaneous events. The final ‘hunting’ of Ralph, builds steadily to a thrilling climax and the sense of shame at the play’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking.

This is a superb adaptation of a literary masterpiece. We saw it on it’s final date at the Lowry, but the show will be touring the country in 2016. If it lands anywhere near you, please ensure you grab the opportunity to see it. It’s too good to miss.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Odyssey



As theatrical events go, this is unusual. I’m wearing a set of goggles, a plastic poncho and a sparkly shower cap. I’m stumbling across a stage while the cast spray me with water pistols and throw ping pong balls at my head and I’m trying to get Odysseus (who is depicted by a wooden spoon with a smily face drawn on it) to the safety of a rubber ring. And I can’t complain, because I volunteered for this.

Welcome to The Odyssey as presented by Splendid Productions. When it comes to making a hoary old legend accessible for a wider audience, this team are hard to beat. The three-strong cast (Kerry Frampton, Genevieve Day and Cordelia Stevenson) depict a multitude of characters between them, switching effortlessly from role to role with aplomb and utilising  a selection of simple but ingenious costumes. Watching Kerry Frampton switch from a swaggering warrior to Penelope simply by the application of a white headscarf is an extraordinary thing, so accomplished it elicits gasps of astonishment. Meanwhile members of the predominantly young audience are enlisted to help out – a ‘storm orchestra’ periodically kicks up a rumpus, a young man in a poncho runs up and down telling the audience they’re all going to die and somebody else is called upon to keep a running tally of the carnage.  Odysseus’s epic voyage is depicted by a series of titles pegged out on a washing line. And it all works brilliantly.

I’ve rarely seen a better example of how to involve an audience in a production and I generally don’t laugh this loud when called upon to watch a Greek myth. Splendid are an appropriately named company. Catch this show at The Lowry, Salford Quays, before it sets sail for new horizons. It’s legendary.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Stewart Lee – A Room With A Stew



The Lyric Theatre, Lowry, Salford Quays

In the cavernous environs of the Lyric Theatre , Stewart Lee cut a lonely (and somewhat distant) figure on a massive stage. Stand up comedy always works better in a more intimate venue, so he had his work cut out to get  his unique and cynical brand of humour across to an audience of sixteen hundred people. The fact that he was doing four nights here testified to the fact that, largely thanks to his enduring ‘Comedy Vehicle’ slot, he’s somewhat better known than other comedians of his ilk, but he’s yet to step up to the Michael Mcintyre arena-sized venues that have become the norm for so many comedians, most of whom have neither the intelligence nor the edginess of Mr Lee.

As ever, he was quick to mock the middle-class audience, imagining the reactions of people who’d been taken along to see him and were ‘waiting for the jokes to start.’ Tonight, his subjects ranged from UKIP (OK, an easy target but one that he demolished with characteristic glee) Norris McWhirter (!!!) and Rod Liddle, who came in for undreamed of levels of venom. Lee wheeled out all of most familiar tropes and devices. His use of repetition is by now legendary and he always manages to walk that difficult tightrope between the hilarious and the downright irritating. I was kept laughing constantly throughout the two sets and let’s face it, that is pretty much the object of the exercise.

I’d love to see his act in a smaller venue, but experience over the past few years has told me, that acquiring tickets to his slots at the Edinburgh Festival is an almost impossible task.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney