The Lowry Theatre

Dick Tracy

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24/03/16

The Lowry, Salford Quays

Dick Tracy was, of course, the yellow-raincoat wearing star of the classic 1930s cartoon strip by Chester Gould. Over the years, the story has been adapted into many forms -it’s been a popular, long-running radio serial, it’s been filmed (most famously by Warren Beatty and Madonna) and now  the physical comedy team, Le Navet Bete offer us their take on the story, a whip-smart, endearingly funny slice of full-on slapstick that soon has the audience at the Lowry laughing at every turn. This is irresistibly silly stuff with enough jokes and pratfalls to keep everyone royally entertained.

It’s hard to believe that there are only four actors in the cast, such is the dizzying range of characters they portray, using costume, songs, masks and a whole variety of accents. At the story’s start, Alphonse ‘Big Boy’ Caprice has been slammed in the cooler after a failed attempt to kidnap Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart. When he is finally released, however, he announces that he is going ‘legit’ along with his henchmen, Flattop and Cueball. Pretty soon he has them selling lemonade and kittens. But of course, it’s all part of a fiendishly cunning plan. Caprice enlists his girlfriend, Careless Whisper (yes, really!) to frame Tracy for setting fire to an orphanage, leaving the bad guys free to weave their wicked plans for the city of Detroit.

There’s so much here to enjoy. The script, written collaboratively by the cast, contains enough zippy one liners and full-on groan-makers to please the most exacting of audiences – and the ingenious use of props never fails to delight. I particularly enjoyed the motor cycle which appeared to be made from a wheel, a pair of handlebars and a hair dryer on full blast! Annoyingly, we chanced upon Le Navet Bete towards the end of a long run of Dick Tracy – there’s just one last performance at Luton Library Theatre on the 26th March (if you’re in the area, don’t dare miss it!) and they will present a new show, their own take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth on the 7th, 8th and 9th of April. If it’s anything like as good as DT, it will be well worth seeking out..

We arrived at the theatre tonight feeling pretty sorry for ourselves and left with great big smiles on our faces. You really can’t ask for more than that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Merry Wives

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15/03/16

The Lowry, Salford Quays

The Merry Wives of Windsor must be one of Shakespeare’s most rumbustious comedies. Northern Broadsides, as the name might suggest, have their own unique take on the play. Set somewhere in the north of England, complete with regional accents (not a spot of RP in sight) and with a delightful 20s setting, this is like the immortal bard crossed with a Brian Rix farce. It’s fast, furious and laugh-out-loud funny – indeed, as an object lesson in making Shakespeare accessible to a contemporary audience, it’s hard to imagine how it could be bettered.

There’s surely little need to explain the plot. Suffice to say that lascivious blowhard, Sir John Falstaff, sets his amorous gaze on a couple of married ladies and they decide to exact a complicated revenge on him. There are a few small adjustments to the script. The fat woman of Brentford becomes the fat woman of Ilkley and I swear I heard mention of a marriage in Skipton, but otherwise this is pretty much the text, as written.

Broadsides veteran Barrie Rutter takes on the role of Falstaff with great relish, managing to make him a buffoon, but also evoking sympathy for his ultimate humiliation. As the wives themselves, Beckly Hindley and Nicola Sanderson are delightfully mischievous, while as Mistress Quickly, Helen Sheals seems to be channelling the late, great Hylda Baker. A word too about Jos Vantyler, who manages to portray feckless ninny, Abraham Slender in a style that would have made Rix suitably envious.

But it’s important to note that there are no weak links here. The eighteen strong cast are rock solid as they move smoothly from scene to scene and the play’s running time seems to just fly by. In what is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here is a cracking example of why his work still speaks so eloquently across the ages. If you think you’ve seen every possible variation on Shakespearian comedy, think again.

This really is an absolute delight.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Girls

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

19/01/15

The Lowry, Salford Quays

I’ll be honest. I didn’t have high expectations for this. After all, I thought, Calendar Girls had already been a hit film and a successful stage play. The news that author Tim Firth had spent the last couple of years turning it into a musical with his friend, Gary Barlow, suggested that this particular idea had been taken just about as far as it could possibly go. So I’m surprised and delighted to say that The Girls, from its jaunty opening chords onwards, is an unqualified delight, a production that has the word ‘hit’ written all over it. Nor is it the kind of cheesy nonsense that often qualifies a show for such a description.

It’s a  very familiar true life story – how a group of Women’s Institute members in an obscure Yorkshire town, decided to raise money for a local cancer hospital by appearing in a nude calendar. But Firth has opened up the story to give it a wider scope and the wry, witty lyrics seem to have so much to say about the everyday life of ordinary people that you can’t help admiring them. This show surprised me. I hadn’t expected to laugh as hard as I did, nor had I expected to cry quite so much – there are moments here that will wring tears from the coolest people in the audience.

It’s an ensemble piece with an eighteen strong cast, all of whom deliver faultless performances. The main story focuses on the friendship between Annie (Joanna Riding) and Chris (Claire Moore), but every character has a story arc and each one is fully explored. If I have an issue, it’s with the title – the six lead protagonists aren’t ‘girls’ at all but mature women; and when was the last time you saw a musical that offered major roles to so many of them? Roles, more importantly, that treat their subjects with respect even when the women are stripping off for charity. The nudity, by the way, is handled with consummate skill, so it never feels exploitive – you are laughing with the women, not at them and that’s an important distinction.

A word too about Robert Jones’s ingenious set design. What appears at first to be haphazard heaps of painted cupboards and lockers becomes a whole variety of locations, including the hill that overlooks the village of Cracoe where the story is set and, in one memorable driving sequence, the outline of a city at night.

Gary Barlow knows a thing or two about writing a decent pop tune and here’s the proof that he can write show tunes too – you’ll most likely come out of the Lowry humming, whistling or singing one of them. The real life ‘Calendar Girls’ were in the audience for tonight’s performance and I’d say they must have been delighted with the latest incarnation of their remarkable story. Indeed, if this show doesn’t get a West End transfer soon, then I’ll be very surprised. For once, an enthusiastic standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

Who saw that coming?

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Sound of Music

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The Lowry Lyric Theatre, Salford Quays

There’s no other option but to own up on this one – I have always hated this musical. I appreciate that I’m in a minority here, because as blockbusters go, it’s one of the most successful of all time, with an ardent following of die hard fans, the kind of people who will happily camp out for weeks in order to secure a ticket – but I’ve always found its uneasy mix of syrupy songs, precocious children and the most unthreatening Nazis ever seen on stage or screen, somewhat hard to stomach. Just a few bars of ‘The Hills Are Alive…’ and I’m a kid again, trapped at home on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, with my parents watching the film on television and commenting on how ‘nice’ Julie Andrews seems.

So naturally, I approached this assignment with some trepidation. The Lyric theatre was packed with eager punters as the overture began and then the curtain rose and we were in a (pretty convincing) nunnery where four ladies in black habits were asking us how they could possibly solve a problem like Maria (The Voice finalist, Lucy O Byrne). The next thing we know, she’s been enlisted as governess to the seven children of war hero Captain Von Trapp (Gray O’ Brian) and is teaching them that doe is a female deer and ray, a drop of golden sun…

It’s pointless to go over the plot because unless you’ve lived as a hermit all your life, you’ll surely already know exactly what happens. And here’s the thing. Though I can appreciate how professionally this production is delivered – perfectly judged harmonies, elaborate sets that glide effortlessly into place, faultless choreography, this isn’t going to change my mind about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest success. It still feels like treacle pudding with extra treacle. But neither can I reasonably criticise the way its been done (other than to observe that Mr O’ Brian was having a bit of a bad night of it in the vocal department) and neither can I deny the warmth of the standing ovation enjoyed by the cast at the end, with a particularly enthusiastic response given to Jan Hartley as the Mother Abbess, whose climactic rendition of Climb Every Mountain was delivered with enough energy to power the National Grid.

So I’ll simply say this. If The Sound of Music is already a favourite of yours, you’re unlikely to feel shortchanged by this production. If you’re coming to it with no expectations whatsoever, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Shooting With Light

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22/03/15

Lowry Theatre, Salford

At the Edinburgh Fringe 2013, one of our happiest discoveries was the physical theatre group, Idle Motion. We saw two productions – Borges and I (based around the life of writer and librarian, Jorge Borges) and That Is All You Need To Know (inspired by the story of Bletchley Park and the breaking of the Enigma Code.) Both pieces were extraordinary and we were disappointed to discover that they weren’t back at the Fringe in 2014.

Now here’s a touring production of their latest offering, Shooting With Light, which we caught at the beginning of it’s short tour. It’s the story of famous war photographer, Robert Capa (or to give him his real name, Andre Friedman) and his partner, Gerda Taro, who shared his passion for such dangerous work and in many cases, actually took some of the photographs with which he was credited. What I love about this group is their simplicity. A basic set of centrally placed translucent white boxes becomes a whole variety of locations – doors, windows, a cinema screen (presciently showing Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night), wardrobes, phone booths, you name it. As always with Idle Motion, this is an ensemble piece with just five performers taking on a multiplicity of roles. In a mixture of acting and movement they lead us into the dark heart of the Spanish Civil War and, intriguingly, place  a mystery at the centre of the story – the search for a box of lost negatives that includes the picture that Capa considered the most important of all.

If I have a minor criticism with the piece, it’s simply that, so early in the tour, the movement isn’t quite as slickly choreographed as it will be as it settles in. There were a couple of clumsy missteps tonight and a slightly shonky moment where a rug was flung out of a window for Capa and Tarot to ‘lie’ on – the resulting effect, beneath a starry sky, was magical, mind you, but the transition, rather less so. I’m quibbling here. This is a splendid performance piece, engaging, atmospheric and ultimately rather emotional – both Capa and Taro paid the ultimate price for their undoubted courage and I’m not embarrassed to say that at one point I was watching through tear-filled eyes.

Shooting With Light continues at the Lowry until the 24th of April and then heads out to a series of locations around the UK until the 9th of May. (You’ll find full details on the group’s website.) If you love physical theatre and want to see it brilliantly performed, then I urge you to catch this show. It really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney