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Feb 3rd

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun is the best thing the Royal Exchange has put on in ages. 

Three generations of the Younger family are cramped into the shabby rented rooms on Chicago’s Southside which god-fearing matriarch, Lena, first moved into as a new bride full of hopes and dreams. 

But Lena’s husband worked himself into an early grave, and although her son Walter fantasises about making a quick buck by investing in a series of shady schemes, and her daughter Beneatha bubbles with exciting ideals and ambitions, reality means that Lena and her daughter-in-law Ruth are skivvying for rich white people and her grandson has to sleep on the sofa.

However the imminent arrival of a cheque for $10,000 - the life insurance on Lena’s late husband - could transform all their lives.

Superficially A Raisin in the Sun appears to be staple Royal Exchange fare like Wesker’s Roots or Osborne’s The Entertainer, a naturalistic drama from exactly the same era which tells its tale via a highly detailed depiction of domestic life: the opening blow-by-blow account of the Youngers’ early morning routine, down to breakfast being cooked live on stage, leads one to expect nothing more.

But this poor, black family’s frames of reference aren’t provincial and miniaturist but global and historical: Lena traces her ancestors back six generations to when they were brought to America as slaves, and sees her own life as part of their progression; aspiring medical student Beneatha looks both backwards and forwards when she becomes fascinated by African culture.  The gender politics are intriguing, too.  Has Walter been emasculated by his nagging wife and infantilised by his all-powerful mother?  Are Beneatha’s hopes realistic, or should she settle down with a man who isn’t her intellectual equal but who can offer material security?  The story becomes increasingly powerful and moving, culminating in a nail-biting choice for one of the characters that will materially and morally affect them all.  And Lorraine Hansberry’s writing has a fundamental optimism and belief in a better future which is absent from her English contemporaries.

The whole cast is excellent, down to the smallest cameo.  Ray Fearon’s ne’er-do-well Walter is charming and sulky, and Tracy Ifeachor as his student sister is sassy, sophisticated and shy by turns.  Starletta DuPois plays the magnificently upholstered matriarch Lena with authority, while Jenny Jules as Ruth quietly conveys the loneliness of a disappointed wife trying to hold things together.

Director Michael Buffong has given this great play a fantastic production that entertains and emotionally engages throughout.  The whole experience is so uplifting that it’s little wonder some members of the audience were on their feet at the end.


A Raisin in the Sun is on until Saturday 20 February 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2.30

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

Dec 16th

Blithe Spirit at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
blithe spirit 2.jpg

As so many theatres seem to believe that “Christmas is for children”, thank goodness Manchester Royal Exchange always keeps something special in reserve for the grown-ups.  This year’s classic show is Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward’s “improbable farce” about a séance which goes horribly wrong.

As well relishing the sophisticated drawing-room comedy we associate with Coward, Sarah Frankcom’s production goes at a cracking pace and sets up a series of slap-stick sequences which are eventually topped by a genuinely impressive coup-de-théâtre, courtesy of designer Liz Ascroft.

When the Royal Exchange are looking for suavity and sophistication the first person they call is Milo Twomey, whose debonair manner and raffish charm suit Charles Condomine perfectly.  Ex-Coronation Street actor Suranne Jones plays his second wife Ruth with style and conviction, while Nelly Harker strops about admirably as the late lamented Elivira.  And Peter Temple and Wendy Nottingham demonstrate how two first-rate actors can flesh out the comparatively small parts of Dr and Mrs Bradman and turn them into fully-rounded characters.

However scene after scene is stolen by Annette Badland in the plumb role of Madame Arcati.  Ms Badland leaves her dignity at the door to play the medium as an overgrown schoolgirl who scuttles about the Condomines’ house gobbling sandwiches, snuffling like a dog, and eventually falling into a dead faint with her skirts around her ears.  Madame Arcati is probably the closest the Royal Exchange will get to a pantomime dame this season, only with a much better line in wit and repartee.


Blithe Spirit is on until Saturday 23 January 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

Dec 6th

Oliver Twist at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

If you think you’ve seen the definitive musical version of Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, think again.  Like Lionel Bart's classic version, the production at Bolton this festive season is laced throughout with catchy songs and dances.  However the Octagon’s new adaptation, with a cast playing multiple roles as well as all the instruments, is very much in the Northern Broadsides tradition - hardly surprising, as writer Deborah McAndrew and composer Conrad Nelson are both veterans of that company.


The narrative is stripped down to about two hours, so out go various sub-plots, but the old favourites are all present and correct.  Robert Pickavance is an oleaginous and sycophantic Fagin; Tim Frances is excellent comic value as Mr Bumble, the cruel and cowardly beadle; Esther Ruth Elliott is Nancy, the tart with a heart; and a rotating cast of talented and enthusiastic children play Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger and all the assorted urchins.


Dawn Allsopp’s impressive set, an imposing urban sprawl of brick walls, rackety bridges and dirty cobbles, spans the whole width of the auditorium and soars to the ceiling.  Director Josette Bushell-Mingo’s production makes the most of the huge playing area, with great choreography and energetic ensembles.


This version of Oliver Twist is sweet without being saccharine, and addresses the iniquities of Victorian England without being too scary for a younger audience.  Judging by the reaction from the stalls on Friday night, this is a really excellent Christmas show for the whole family.


Oliver Twist is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 23 January 2010

Tickets: £8.50 - £15.95

Shows: Mon-Sat at 10.15am, 2.15pm & 7.15pm (performance schedule varies - see website)

Box Office: 01204 520661

Nov 11th

The Entertainer at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

The Entertainer is John Osborne’s famous depiction of post-war Britain in crisis, shown through the microcosm of a family of music hall performers eking out a meagre living in a dying industry. 

The Rice family’s domestic circumstances have drifted downhill in line with the decline of the halls, but no matter how urgent the threat from their creditors or the tax-man there is always enough money for gin and cigarettes.

The play is over fifty years old but the sense of national decline, the looming presence of a war abroad, and the binge drinking all strike a contemporary note.  However the most obvious reason to revive this play is the spectacular role of Archie Rice, originally played by Laurence Olivier in a performance said to have reignited his career.

Archie Rice is Falstaff cut from utility suit cloth, a huge personality with a voracious appetite for women, alcohol and life.  Despite the frequently cited private education and boater-and-blazer costume he is Not Quite a Gentleman, though his bluff and bravado carry him along.  Even in the privacy of his own home he continues to give a performance, but while Archie’s on-stage persona is superficially warm and charming there is a sense of menace lying below the surface.  Keith Floyd would have made a great Archie Rice.

The Entertainer is set in the living area of the family’s shabby rented rooms in some god-forsaken provincial town, but with a sudden switch of lighting Archie is on stage and performing his old-fashioned comedy turn and uninspired song-and-dance routine.  To an audience accustomed to a diet of drawing-room dramas à la Terrence Rattigan this technique must have seemed daring and innovative.  Today these interludes merge almost unobtrusively into the whole, which is perhaps why sound designer Steve Brown creates a feeling of dislocation by miking up Archie so his voice eerily seems to come from a distant place.

David Schofield as Archie has totally mastered playing in-the-round, and in the music hall interludes he involves the whole audience with his cheeky appeals and frequent asides.  Laura Rees as his disillusioned daughter Jean shows flashes of real passion when her mid-century angst mixes with large quantities of gin, and  Roberta Taylor playing Archie’s long-suffering wife creates genuine pathos with her terrified vision of a comfortless old age.

Although superficially in tune with our times The Entertainer is emotionally unengaging and the characters are all shot through with John Osborne’s very special brand of bile.  However there is clearly some entertainment value to be had from the seedy life of a down-at-heel 1950s comedian, as Hancock’s Half Hour proves every Wednesday on Radio 7.


The Entertainer is on until Saturday 5 December 2009

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2.30

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

Nov 4th

The Good Soul of Szechuan at Manchester Library Theatre

By Caroline May


This will be the final year of Manchester Library Theatre Company’s residence at the Library Theatre, partly due to the redevelopment of the building, and partly as they go in search of more spacious and modern surroundings.  As if to prove that they have outgrown their home of fifty-odd years, artistic director Chris Honer has mounted a production of Shakespearian proportions featuring singing, dancing, live music, new media and a cast of fifteen actors.

The Good Soul of Szechuan is one of Bertolt Brecht’s parables for the theatre.  Three gods come down to earth in an apparently fruitless search for a good person, and having finally found one - the prostitute Shen Te - reward her appropriately.  But the warm-hearted girl discovers that wealth makes it harder for her to be good, while her benefactors become increasingly disillusioned on their jaunt among the mortals.

Poppy Miller doesn’t seem especially vulnerable as Shen Te, but when she introduces us to her tough (male) cousin Shui Ta, rendered with convincing bravado and swagger, the contrast is entirely effective.

The episodic nature of the story introduces Shen Te to a wide range of comic characters, allowing for some memorable acting by the diverse and talented company.  Susan Twist is droll and dead-pan as Mrs Shin, China’s answer to Hilda Ogden; James Foster delivers a wonderful pantomime turn as the one-eyed, sartorially-challenged Mr Shu Fu; and Josh Moran’s Policeman gives some indication of how a gun-toting version of Z-Cars might have looked.  Nor will I soon forget the spectacle of the three gods (Olwen May, Natasha Bain and John Cummins) reduced to raggedy straw-stuffed scarecrows by the end of their world tour.

Michael Pavelka’s clever design with its moving corrugated-iron walls allows for slick scene changes, and the projected film of the gods’ heads (despite the image briefly summoning up memories of Superman’s parents in the Christopher Reeve film) is a fully-justified example of new media in a theatrical context.

The Library Theatre is famed for its interpretations of Brecht, and Chris Honer’s energetic production of David Harrower’s easy and colloquial translation fully does justice to this reputation.


The Good Soul of Szechuan is on until Saturday 28 November 2009

Prices: £10.00-£17.50 (concessions available)

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30pm

Matinees: Sats @ 2.30pm; Thurs 12 & 19 @ 2.30pm; Wed 25 @ 2pm

Box Office: 0161 236 7110


Nov 1st

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

David Thacker’s artistic directorship at Bolton Octagon continues with Ghosts, featuring four actors from his previous production of All My Sons.

Ibsen’s 1881 play, with its themes of adultery, incest, venereal infection and moral hypocrisy was considered scandalous in its day, and is still pretty hot stuff over a century later.

Wealthy widow Mrs Alving has built an orphanage in memory of her late husband, and old family friend Pastor Manders has come to finalise the arrangements before the grand opening.  With the Alvings’ artist son Oswald just returned from Paris, the scene is set for a happy domestic interlude.  However Mrs Alving’s apparently comfortable home-life is about to be revealed as a whited sepulchre, hiding secrets which have the power to destroy all that is dearest to her.

The programme records the great lengths director David Thacker, translator Erik Skuggevik and the whole cast and have gone to in order to develop the script for a freshly minted “Lancashire version” of Ghosts.  However anyone expecting some resemblance to a Blake Morrison/Northern Broadsides collaboration will be disappointed, with not much specifically localised apart from a servant remarking “bloody hell” and “bugger”; nevertheless it is an admirably clear reading of the text.

I don’t think I have ever seen anyone look as at home or relaxed on stage as Margot Leicester, whose Mrs Alving practically curls up like a kitten and purrs at Pastor Manders, her frisky youth still all too evident to the straight-laced priest.

George Irving as Pastor Manders, a man who has ever but slenderly known himself let alone anybody else, convincingly portrays the gullible cleric and subtly mines the character’s inadvertent comedy in Act 2. 

Oscar Pearce’s bohemian Oswald makes an astonishing impact on his first entrance, the crumpled white linen suit and red waistcoat a huge contrast with the dark repressed world of his northern homeland, and the character’s gradual decline through the play is deeply touching.

If there is a flaw in this production it is the large table which sits in the middle of the tiny in-the-round space, creating a barrier between the actors as they play out powerful confrontations, dramatic confessions and heartbreaking revelations.  But overall the intimacy of the venue and the intensity of the piece overcome this obstacle to create a unique theatrical experience.


Ghosts is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 21 November 2009

Tickets: from £9.00

Evenings: Mon-Sat at 7.30pm

Matinees: Fri 30 and Sat 31 October, Mon 2, Wed 11 and Sat 14 Nov @ 2pm

Box Office: 01204 520661


Special event on Sat 14 November @ 10am - Investigate: Who Needs Translators?

The process of translating plays is investigated by director David Thacker, translator Erik Skuggevik and the actors from Ghosts, alongside playwrights working today and scholars including Brid Andrews of the University of Bolton.

Tickets: £5 for workshop, £15 including matinee ticket

Oct 14th

Punk Rock by Simon Stephens at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

Simon Stephens’ latest play arrives in Manchester after opening in London last month.  Punk Rock is set in the upper-school library of a Stockport Grammar School where the sixth-formers are suffering from the pressures of mock A’ Levels, looming university applications and a surfeit of hormones.  In the ancient library’s hermetically-sealed environment, the long-established pecking order is challenged by the arrival of new girl Lilly (Jessica Raine).  Resident odd-ball William (Tom Sturridge) takes a shine to her, but when golden boy Nicholas (Nicholas Banks) wins her heart William’s sense of betrayal proves a tipping point.

The entire young cast excels, but Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of the borderline autistic William is particularly convincing, managing to be funny, charming and sweet in spite of his total lack of social skills. 

Simon Stephens describes Punk Rock as “The History Boys on crack”, but with its posh-vs.-poor tensions and stock suave bully (Bennett, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes) it strongly reminded me of Porterhouse Blue, and with a similar body-count by the end.

In an audience stuffed with school parties, who were clearly enjoying themselves very much, I occasionally felt as if I’d crashed a private end-of-term party.  The playwright’s sharp first-hand observations of contemporary education and pupil-teacher relationships strike home again and again, and Sarah Frankcom’s production provides two hours of tense but entertaining drama.


Punk Rock is on until Saturday 31 October 2009

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

Oct 4th

All My Sons at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May



Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece All My Sons begins as a family drama, turns into a detective story, and ends as a Greek tragedy.

We’re in the back yard of a typical middle-American home a couple of years after the Second World War.  For the prosperous householder and paterfamilias, Joe Keller, the conflict was merely an opportunity to grow his small manufacturing business into a little gold-mine supplying engine parts for the army’s aeroplanes.  For his sons Chris and Larry, who piloted those planes, the war was about making the kind of self-sacrifice that would build a better world.  Now Chris is suffering an existentialist angst, realising that for most of his countrymen the war had no meaning and nothing has changed; while Larry is missing presumed dead, his plane having disappeared off the Chinese coast three years before. 

The uneasy status quo is shaken with the arrival of their former neighbour, Ann, Larry’s one-time girlfriend and now Chris’s intended bride; but his mother Kate opposes what would amount to the final acknowledgement of her other son’s death.  Over three acts and less than 24 hours the play peels back the half-buried war-time scandal surrounding the family firm and its link with Ann’s father and Larry’s accident.

David Thacker, the Octagon’s incoming artistic director, has chosen to open the new regime in Bolton with his specialist subject, Arthur Miller.  Thacker’s personal relationship with the playwright is well-documented, and his record for producing Miller’s plays in this country is second to none - indeed my own first exposure to professional theatre was his production of A View from the Bridge at The Young Vic, a space very similar to the Octagon. 

Although I’ve seen the Octagon in-the-round before, the playing area has never felt so close and immediate.  The tiny stage is denuded bar the most basic of props (in the way of a handful of tables and chairs), but in Patrick Connellan’s stunning design the floor is transparent colourless glass which reveals a forest of wooden joists buried in sand, representing the shaky foundations of the Keller home.

George Irving returns to the Octagon after his blinding performance in Shining City two years ago.  He remains faithful to Miller’s description of Joe Keller as “stolid”, but although superficially impassive and unemotional, below the surface there fizzes a James Cagney-esque nervous energy which eventually explodes to shattering effect.   

Margot Leicester, who was so brilliant as the grieving mother in A Conversation at the Royal Exchange, gives a wonderful performance here as a mother in denial about her grief, clucking and fussing around the neighbours in an apparently unselfconscious manner, but constantly on her guard.

Oscar Pearce (Chris) and Vanessa Kirby (Ann) are a fine pairing as the sad but wise young lovers, and Mark Letheren has a great turn as Ann’s flaky brother George, in the typical Elisha Cook Jr role of a little man in a too-big suit.

The four lead members of the cast are returning next month in David Thacker’s Lancashire-set production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, again with Patrick Connellan designing, so it will be fascinating to watch this talented team take on another classic domestic tragedy.


All My Sons is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 24 October 2009

Tickets: from £9.00

Evenings: Mon-Sat at 7.30pm

Matinees: Friday 2, Saturday 3, Monday 5, Wednesday 7 October and Sat 17 Oct @ 2pm

Box Office: 01204 520661


Other Octagon events exploring All My Sons:


5 October, 5.30-7pm - Les Smith talks to David Thacker about his relationship and work with Arthur Miller (tickets free).


14 October, 10am-1pm - David Thacker leads cast members in an investigation of the play (£5).


17 October, 10am-1pm - Christopher Bigsby, academic and biographer of Arthur Miller, discusses the playwright (£5).


24 October, 2-6pm - Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children will be performed alongside an extract from All My Sons followed by a discussion (tickets free - donations to Medical Aid Gaza).



Sep 12th

Mixed Up North at Octagon Theatre, Bolton

By Caroline May


Mixed Up North,
a co-production between Bolton Octagon and Out Of Joint, is set in Burnley and is about attempts to heal the rift between the town’s communities in the wake of the 2001 disturbances. 

Trish (Celia Imrie) is an experienced youth arts worker who has set up a theatre group with the aim of fostering social cohesion among Burnley’s British Asian and white British teenagers.  What we see is a fictional account of a play being staged by the group - we spectators are having a privileged preview of the dress rehearsal.  Of course the real drama lies in the complicated inter-racial relationships between the young actors and the conflicting political agendas of the assorted youth workers: even referring to the 2001 events as “riots” is an incendiary act.

Director Max Stafford-Clark and writer Robin Soans visited Burnley with students from LAMDA, and together they conducted numerous interviews to create this unusual example of verbatim theatre - nearly all the words spoken on stage originate from these interviews, or from the work done with the LAMDA students while the piece was being developed.

One of the most beguiling and involving aspects of the staging is the way the audience and auditorium are weaved into the narrative: Colin the technician (Matthew Wait) does the lighting from the back, tea and cake are handed around by Jen (Mia Soteriou), the fire exit at the rear of the stage is opened so a van (in full view) can be loaded.  In some ways with its site-specific nods and attempts at creating a totally immersive experience it resembles Everybody Loves a Winner at the Royal Exchange last July, but with less audience participation and a far less naturalistic feel.

However the traditional verbatim theatre moments, where characters tells their stories directly to the audience in their own words, are easily the most compelling.  Tamsin (Lorna Stuart) explains how she was deceived by a charming married Asian boy and how her young sister was groomed and prostituted by another; Wendy (Rose Leslie) confesses that she was recently raped but her past experience of sexual abuse has prevented her from seeking help; Uday (Muzz Khan) describes a violent attack that led to a prison sentence. 

A large number of the original LAMDA students who worked on the piece are in the current cast and give very convincing performances as street-wise northern working-class teens with shocking tales to tell.  Max Stafford-Clark directs the 13-strong ensemble with his customary verve and energy, making for an entertaining and thought provoking evening of theatre.


Mixed Up North is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 26 September 2009, then touring

Tickets: from £9.00

Evenings: Mon-Sat at 7.30pm

Matinees: Sat 12 & 19 & Wednesday 23 @ 2pm

Box Office: 01204 520661


Sep 9th

The Miser by Moliere at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

the miser pic.jpg

Molière’s ever popular comedy returns to Manchester in a new version by Robert Cogo-Fawcett and Royal Exchange Artistic Director Braham Murray.  While famed as a study of avarice, The Miser is also a hideous portrait of abusive relationships in a dysfunctional family.

The aged Harpagon - wealthy, covetous, and determined not to spend a single penny of his fortune - thinks of his grown-up children not merely as chattels but as long-term gilt-edged investments, and plans to marry them off for his own profitable ends.  Cléante and Elise however have already fallen in love with, respectively, their impoverished neighbour Mariane, and Harpagon’s insinuating steward Valère.  But there’s little hope for a happy ending because their father has arranged to marry Elise to a rich elderly widower that very evening, and he intends to wed Mariane himself.

The play is set in a ruined mansion, and the dilapidated interior contains nothing but bleached bare floorboards, plastic sheeting suspended from the collapsing ceiling, and a litter of dust sheets, step ladders and buckets.  The dress is early 80s New Romantic, allowing the costume department to flaunt their best frocks and frock-coats - but then designer Ashley Martin-Davis rips them up in a post-punk down-at-heel gesture totally in keeping with the stately hovel’s faded glamour, while wigs are all teased bleached tresses or over-gelled spikes, and the young men sport Adam Ant-style makeup.

Helena Kaut-Howson’s production contains two really special elements.  One is Derek Griffiths as Harpagon, a bedraggled tyrant whose frail frame is frequently shaken by monstrous and unjust passions, but who nevertheless has the audience laughing with him as well as at him.  The other cherishable ingredient is the clowning, particularly the physical comedy of Simon Gregor as a frenetic valet, and a beautifully judged turn by Julian Chagrin as Jacques, the put-upon cook-cum-coachman. 

In spite of its overtly depressing themes of thwarted love, impoverished lives, wasted youth, and a father metaphorically consuming his own children’s flesh, there is a bounce and energy underlying this show which is truly life-enhancing.


The Miser is on until Saturday 3 October 2009

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833