The Royal Exchange

Theatre Bouquets 2016

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We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

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An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

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This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

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Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester

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Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

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Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh

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This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

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The Mighty Walzer

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05/06/16

Royal Exchange Manchester

It’s entirely unplanned but bumping into Howard Jacobson minutes before the press show of The Mighty Walzer, proves fortuitous. I can’t resist asking him how he feels right now. Excited? Elated? Nervous? He confesses that he doesn’t really know how he feels. Apart from an early read-through by the cast, this is the first time he will be seeing this adaptation of his 1999 novel, a World Premiere at the Royal Exchange. But he tells me, this isn’t really his baby, all credit must go to his collaborator Simon Bent. When I tell him I’m there to review the show, he says he hopes I’ll ‘go easy on it.’

He needn’t have worried. This is a sprightly, occasionally very funny play, set against the austere backdrop of Manchester in the 1950s and as the posters proudly proclaim, it’s ‘a riotous tale of growing up, sex and ping-pong.’ Semi-autobiographical in tone (Jacobson really was a table-tennis aficionado in his youth) it relates how the teenage Oliver Walzer (Elliot Levy) escapes the clutches of his over protective mother, Sadie (Tracey-Ann Oberman) and his market-trader father, Joel (Jonathan Tafler), by joining a local ping-pong team. It turns out that he has a natural flair for the game, one that brings him success in the local leagues and into the orbit of the widely-admired Lorna Peachly (Lily Sacofsky) with whom he embarks on a doomed romance.

If the story is whimsical, it nevertheless delivers an evening of assured entertainment. There are some very funny moments here and the device of having the adult Walzer looking back on events and commenting on them, works an absolute treat (I particularly liked a recurring motif which has him arguing with Sheeny Waxman (Joe Coen) as to whether he was actually present for some of the events in which he repeatedly appears). If there’s a slight criticism of the story, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of progression in there – the second half relates pretty much the same events as the first – but luckily, it’s all done with such sure-footedness, it hardly matters.

Fans of ping pong should make sure they arrive early for the show, because there’s a table set up around the back of the theatre where interested parties can actually play a few games while they’re waiting. There’s even a couple of resident experts on hand to offer tips and advice. I managed to get in a few shots myself and was summarily slaughtered.

The Mighty Walzer is at the Royal Exchange until the 30th of July. It’s well worth a visit.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Rolling Stone

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24/04/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Receiving its World Premiere at the Exchange, The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch has a short run here before transferring to the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a story torn straight from the headlines. In the opening scene, two young men recline beside a lake on their first date – they chat, flirt and eventually kiss. Nothing at all out of the ordinary – except this is Uganda where homosexuality is expressly forbidden and transgressors face life imprisonment and ostracisation. Dembe (Sule Rimi) has fallen in love with young doctor, Sam (Robert Gilbert) who has an Irish father and a Ugandan mother. They both know that their relationship must be kept under wraps – particularly since Dembe’s older brother, Joe has recently been ordained as a church minister for their small community. But the local newspaper, ‘The Rolling Stone’ is always on the lookout for those people it likes to tag as ‘deviants’… and there’s a terrible price to pay if your name appears on their list…

There’s a great play to be written about this subject, but sadly, The Rolling Stone isn’t quite it. Despite excellent acting from the six-strong cast and some rousing acapella singing, the play’s characters are rarely allowed to rise above the two-dimensional; it’s hard to believe that they have another life outside of the story and everything we learn about them, seems designed merely to power the narrative. There are, however, some good scenes along the way. The playful opening hints at depths hidden beneath the surface, even if it never actually uncovers them; Joe’s vitriolic sermon condemning homosexuality makes for uncomfortable viewing and the play ends on a moment of high tension, where we realise the full implications of Dembe’s situation – but I wanted to know so much more about his family relationships and that didn’t really come across.

The Rolling Stone tells an important story, one that deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience and I’m glad that it has been written, (glad too that The Exchange deemed it worthy of production) but this must count only as a partial success. It continues here until the 1st of May.

3 stars

Philip Caveney