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Feb 19th

Saturday Night Fever

By Kirstie Niland

The Grand Theatre Blackpool

Every night’s a Saturday night in Blackpool, and this week every night is Saturday Night Fever at The Grand Theatre as the iconic 70s musical hits the town.

Brought to life on stage by Theatre Royal Bath Productions in association with the Robert Stigwood Organisation, this explosion of glitter, disco lights and flares is one show that’s Stayin’ Alive throughout its UK tour.

Set in 1976 New York, Tony Manero spends his days squabbling with his family over food and religion and his nights tripping the light fantastic in his bid to become disco king.

Who on earth could follow in John Travolta’s footsteps as Tony, as he struts his stuff through Brooklyn’s streets in the stage version you wonder? And then Danny Bayne bursts into action.

No way is this man going to be dismissed, in Stephanie’s words, as a “nobody going to no place.” Danny Bayne and the rest of the 20 strong cast are about take us on “a stairway to the stars.”

The background story of Tony’s troubled family and friends is well played out, emphasising his need for escapism on the dance floor and ambition to secure first prize in a prestigious contest. In his bid to win, Tony reluctantly teams up with the eager Annette (Bethany Linsdell) before casting her aside for his dream partner Stephanie (Naomi Slights).

Each of the three in this love triangle are highly accomplished triple threats and make you warm to their characters and understand the passion behind their moves, as you remain transfixed by the routines which are beautifully choreographed. You Should Be Dancing is a fabulous, high energy display of disco dancing, accompanied by trumpet and saxophone players. More Than A Woman is mesmerising, with Danny Bayne and Naomi Slights perfectly in tune.

Tony and his gang manage to make you forget the Bee Gees with their own alternative version of Jive Talkin’, using a basketball and a wooden box as percussion. Meanwhile CiCi Howells provides powerful punctuation throughout as the Club Singer.

The 70s fashion flashback is spot on: jumpsuits, fur coats, Lycra leggings - and A-line skirts just like the ones we made in my Home Economics class at school. The set is authentic too - booths double up for the diner and disco scenes, and above them a platform houses the Odyssey’s DJ box, then becomes a bridge for the boys’ antics which finally lead to tragedy. A slide-on lounge and bedroom provide clever scene changes for the Manero family’s home, with the excact same embossed wallpaper my Mum used to have.

Each of the main characters performs powerful and emotive solos. Danny Bayne reveals his frustration and lessons learnt about women. Bethany Linsdell pours her heart and soul into the lovelorn Annette’s lyrics. Most moving of all is Naomi Slights’ song, where the feisty Stephanie allows us to see the vulnerability beneath her frosty veneer.

Tony and Stephanie’s duet of How Deep is Your Love is lovely, bringing us smoothly to the finale, which we didn’t realise had arrived! Thankfully we were able to redeem ourselves and provide this excellent, upbeat cast with some well-earned hand-clapping and appreciation as they performed an enthusiastic compilation as an encore.

There are just 3 days left to catch this classic in Blackpool. Saturday Night Fever runs until Saturday 21st February, so book it while you can.

Photographs by Nobby Clarke

Evenings (7:30pm and 8:30pm perfs) - £26.50 to £39.50
Matinees (2:00pm perfs) - All seats £30.50
Matinee (5:00pm perfs) - £16.50 to £26.50

Concessions £3:00 off all performances

Groups discounts available
Call Box the Office on 01253 74 33 39 or visit blackpoolgrand.co.uk

Feb 13th

SCUTTLERS

By Kirstie Niland

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

SCUTTLERS erupts with a riot of raw energy as the Bengal Tigers mete out brutal revenge on a “kiddy fiddler”, kicking him into submission before egging on his victim to spit in his face.

As the angry gang members stamp their clogs, celebrating the man’s beating, the noise of this combined with the cotton mill is both deafening and menacing.

And so we are introduced to the young men and women of Manchester known as SCUTTLERS - fierce, straining to eliminate their prey and mark their territory, battling to be top dog.

But then the noise dies down when the mill runs out of cotton and the Bengal Tigers declare war on the Prussians. In moments of quiet, the tightly gripped masks of bravado slip to reveal the real boys and girls, shaped by the damage they have suffered.

Award-winning playwright Rona Munro has based SCUTTLERS on Manchester’s original gangs; recreating 1885 Ancoats on a bleak set which revolves, as the young mill workers lives do, around a huge weavers loom which doubles up as a jail cell.

As the youths wreak havoc on each other with fist fights and belts and in the end, fatally, with knives, we learn about their broken down relationships and good versus evil.

Centering on nine characters, supported by a community cast of 32, we see nurse Susan (Anna Krippa) and her son’s father, Soldier Joe (Tachia Newall) trying to stay free of the gangs. Both attempt to guide her brother George (Kieran Urquhart) away from trouble. Meanwhile the likeable and naive Thomas Clayton goes looking for it, along with “Tiger Cub” tomboy Polly.  Friends then foes, Sean (Bryan Parry) and Jimmy (Dan Parr) are the most ferocious whilst little Margaret (Caitriona Ennis) is the softest. But by far the leader of the pack is the feisty "mother" Tiger, Theresa (Rona Morison).

Wils Wilson’s direction brings a real taste of anarchy and clever use of the round. One minute we are surrounded by gang members baying for blood, the next everyone has scattered leaving two young men dying as the play reaches its bloody conclusion – and fittingly the rain (it wouldn’t be Manchester without it) pelts down.

We leave the Victorian gangs behind as the past blends into the present and the ghost of Polly remains rooted to the spot where blood has been spilt, and will be again and again and again – echoing Joe’s warning at the outset: “You can’t ever win a fight in this town. You win one, you start another.”

SCUTTLERS' extremely talented and energetic young cast work hard to bring the story of Manchester’s gangs to life, eliciting a range of reactions from the audience, from gasps to laughter. Entertaining and educational for today’s youth this is an ideal theatre trip for half term.

Go and see it if you think you’re hard enough!

Photographs by Jonathan Keenan

On until Saturday 7 March.

PERFORMANCE TIMES: Monday – Friday evenings: 7.30pm / Tuesday & Wednesday matinees: 2.30pm / Saturdays: 3.30pm and 8.00pm / Extra Matinee Tuesday 17 February at 2.30pm

TICKET PRICES: Standard tickets from £15.00 / Half Price Previews from £7.50 / Banquette tickets: £10

BOOK TICKETS: Box Office: 0161 833 9833 / online

AGE GUIDANCE: 12+

Jan 28th

A View From The Bridge, The Octagon Theatre, Bolton

By Kirstie Niland
By the time we reach the climax of A View From the Bridge we are all emotionally exhausted.

When I say “we” I mean all of us in the audience joining Eddie Carbone and his family as we sit, helpless, unable to stop him from hurtling headlong into the tragedy that tears them apart.

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This is the sheer brilliance of Arthur Miller’s writing and David Thacker’s direction. Before you know it you are wrapped up in the intimacy of a close-knit family's little front room in Brooklyn. First experiencing the loving warmth of their togetherness, and then the increasing heat of Eddie’s simmering emotions and eventual eruption.

If only Eddie’s head hadn't turned away from his loyal wife...if only his niece Catherine wasn't so naive about her effect on him...if only Beatrice had been able to get through to them...

So many “if onlys” and all of them so painfully predictable that the resulting pathos is almost too gut-wrenching to bear.

Colin Connor, recently so powerful in his dual actor/narrator role in Early One Morning, performs with such explosive anguish you pity him, even though his possessive love makes him the author of his own disaster.

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Barbara Drennan portrays his level-headed wife Beatrice with such wisdom and perception you never see her steadfast support as foolish. She is well aware of the mounting tension and its cause but chooses to conquer jealousy with loyalty and love, and tries to keep her family on track.

In her bid to find a solution and ride the storm, this strong and fair woman brings tears to your eyes when she fails to succeed. If only.

Natasha Davidson (Catherine) and Tristan Brooke (Rudolpho) convey their confusion and obstinance in the face of Eddie's opposition to their love perfectly, as they remain oblivious to the unstoppable chain of events their love will set in motion.

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Although the two couples central to the story are most prominent, the supporting cast, including the brooding David Nabil Stuart as Rudolpho's brother Marco, are equally excellent. As are the students playing the onlookers, whose mere presence in the round condemns Eddie. You can actually feel the weight of their judgement as he allows his raging emotions to eclipse the kindness which allowed him to provide a haven for Beatrice’s illegal immigrant cousins in the first place.

Without giving the plot away further, suffice to say this is one magnificent performance that may leave you drained but definitely not disappointed.

A View From The Bridge is at the Octagon until Saturday 14 February 2015. Tickets are from £26.50 - £10 on 01204 520661, or at www.octagonbolton.co.uk.

Dec 27th

Ian Kershaw's Adaptation of Cinderella is Totes Reem!

By Kirstie Niland

The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

This year’s festive show at The Dukes is sure to have delighted two young girls in particular, as well as the many theatregoers who’ve been enjoying Ian Kershaw’s novel re-working of Cinderella.

For the award-winning writer and actor wrote it for his daughters, aged 13 and 10, transforming “Ella” into a gutsy character who likes climbing trees, just like his own girls.

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And you can’t help but think that the catchy theme tune and moral to his modern day version - Live Life to the Toe Top Full – must be the family motto promoted by both Ian and his wife, Julie Hesmondhalgh, well known for playing the equally gutsy and positive Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street.

Ella’s world is a Northern farm, where she lives with her Dad. She misses her Mum who’s passed away but nothing comes between her little family and their daily chores on the farm. Until her Dad remarries the Essex equivalent of Cinderella’s wicked Stepmother who brings her stroppy daughters Greta and Grizelda to live with them.

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Performed in the round, with the pretty farmyard set populated by animals brought to life with some fantastic puppetry, Ella’s world begins to fall apart when the “ high end” trio arrive with demands of jewels and other “stuff” they want. Taking advantage of her new husband’s kind and gentle nature, the wicked stepmother rides roughshod over him and his beloved Ella, played by the likeable Rachael Garnett.

Amidst a blackmail plot and the arrival of Ella’s Prince Charming, good conquers evil as even the ugly sisters realise the error of their money-grabbing mother’s ways, finally leaving her to begin a sentence as a cleaner at the palace rather than face jail.

The cast of six double up on roles and all perform with enthusiasm and aplomb. However special mention must go to Josie Cerise, whose expressions and dance moves as the posturing little Grizelda are hilarious.

Meanwhile the wannabe Princesses' costumes, from the peach velour Lispy tracksuits to the ballgowns with fascinators, (brilliantly reminiscent of the ones worn by Beatrice and Eugenie at William and Kate's wedding) are genius.

The story is punctuated with lovely songs accompanied by a range of instruments, including a trumpet and ukulele, as tomboy Ella falls for the Prince and rescues her Dad from his greedy wife’s clutches.

Cinderella’s missing shoe is replaced by a pair of patent Doc Martens, and a touching and thought-provoking scene set in the haven of Ella’s late Mum’s tree, whose branches wrap around her and keep her safe, reminds us what real family is all about.

The story is told by a Grandfather to his Grandaughters, as a diversion for the girls who are anxiously awaiting news from Mum and Dad about their poorly pet dog. At first they are put off by the idea that Cinderella is a baby story, before being assured by the appearance of Ella, who says: “this one is a little bit different.”

Which it is, and all the more wonderful for it. What a magical gift Ian Kershaw has given his daughters and lots of other delighted children this Christmas.

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There’s still time to see this enchanting adaptation of Cinderella with its poignant message to take with you into 2015 – Live Life to the Toe Top Full.

Cinderella runs until January 10. To book tickets ring The Dukes box office on 01524 598500 or visit www.dukes-lancaster.org

Photographs by Darren Andrews
Dec 16th

Little Shop of Horrors

By Kirstie Niland

The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Until Saturday January 31st 2015

Director Derek Bond promised us “a gory, scary, glitter and sequins treat” and he delivers exactly that and more.

Little Shop of Horrors at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a masterpiece of superb performance and puppetry starring an outstanding cast. A macabre yet feel-good, foot-tapping show that has you grinning right from the start.

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The cult rock musical, featuring Alan Menken’s mixture of 50s rock ‘n’ roll and 60s girl group harmony with lashings of R&B and soul, continues to prove as perennial as the carnivorous Audrey II herself.

The Exchange arena is the perfect platform for us to be engulfed in both the story and the “strange and interesting” plant that becomes a monster.

Nuno Silva is genius as the voice and puppeteer of Audrey II. He sounds and looks a little like the hapless Ross in Friends, so there is enough vulnerability to make Seymour, played endearingly by Gunnar Cauthery, give in to the “Feed Me” pleas for blood...and more!

He and his fellow puppeteers, CJ Johnson and James Charlton from the ensemble, operate Audrey II with such expertise and expression that they virtually merge into her tentacles, making her incredibly lifelike.

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The costumes, make-up and performance are so faultless that at times you feel like you’re watching a soft focus all-American movie, and you are treated to close-ups of all the cast as they change positions in the round throughout.

We were blown away by the powerful singing, from the very beginning when the girl group commentators Crystal (Ellena Vincent) Chiffon (Ibinabo Jack) and Ronnette (Joelle Moss) burst into Little Shop of Horrors in an explosion of gold sequin.

Gunnar Cauthery is brilliantly funny and touching in his duets as the geeky Seymour. His flower shop colleague and crush Audrey (Kelly Price) falls convincingly in love with him during Suddenly Seymour, when she realises he can see the real girl “beneath the bruises and the handcuffs.”  Meanwhile his match with the marvellous Sévan Stephan as Mr Mushnik is pure Jewish comedy, as they waltz around the stage as well as the issue of him adopting the increasingly famous Seymour as his son.

More brilliance comes from Ako Mitchell, aka Orin Scrivello DDS the sadistic dentist - bullying boyfriend and self-proclaimed “leader of the plaque” who makes death by laughing gas extra funny.

Kelly Price is funny and heart-warming as the down-trodden Skid Row girl, whose yearning for happiness as a perfect pie-baking housewife almost comes true. Until she utters the immortal words: “something’s very wrong here.”

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The finale is a spectacular surprise and a befitting end to a show that seriously rocks. In fact tickets sales and standing ovations have been so plentiful that the run has been extended until January 31st .

Book your tickets now, before they get up snapped up quicker than Audrey II can shout Feed Me!

Photographs by Jonathan Keenan

Ticket Prices: Standard tickets from £15 (Concessions Available). Contact the Box Office: 0161 833 9833, or book online at: www.royalexchange.co.uk/bookonline  www.royalexchange.co.uk

Nov 30th

Alice In Wonderland

By Kirstie Niland

The Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice in Wonderland is supposed to be a little bit mad but in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s sweet and clever adaptation for the Octagon things get curiouser and curiouser.

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Director Elizabeth Newman has teamed up with Michael Vale, best known for his wondrous designs for ‘Kneehigh’ and ‘Told by an Idiot’ to create this funny and magical Christmas show that has children of all ages smiling. Even the two adolescent rugby players and Dad who came to see the show with me.

The Octagon’s production is set in a classroom populated by the seven brilliant cast members who play all of the characters in the story, in between changing props which are inventively used: for example a stool doubles up as a drum and multi-coloured hoopla hoops become a butterfly’s wings.

Sarah Vezmar puts in a touching performance as Alice, who at first is too shy to speak up as she thinks she doesn’t know much and is too silly to be trusted with the class pet. And so begins the story, as Alice hurtles through a hoola hoop hole to find the school’s lost rabbit and ends up finding her voice.

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This performance takes fantastic advantage of the Octagon’s arena stage. Floor tiles come up to plant the flowers who don’t want to be picked, and to create a beach for the Caribbean Turtle who tells us his teacher was called Tortoise because he “taught us”. The hoola hoop hole swings down for Alice to use as a trapeze before falling through it, and the rabbit’s fur coat comes dangling down from the ceiling on a coat hanger. The cast pop in and out of doors all around and scurry up ladders to disappear behind the racing clock. They sit with the audience, much to the delight of the children, and there’s lots of audience participation with everyone keen to join in. “I’m Alice! Who are you?” sings Sarah Vezmar, pointing to a bloke in his 30s, who happily replies he’s Tom.

The multi-talented cast are incredibly agile. If they’re not swimming on a skateboard through Alice’s sea of tears, they’re switching instruments, singing a cappella, making sound effects, or creating a noisy bustle as they set up a tea party complete with clinking crockery and fairy lights.

There are catchy tunes and plenty of laughs and lessons as Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, and the Dormouse, along with Dum and Dee portrayed as rappers in red tracksuits!

The original songs are perfectly performed, and I defy anyone not to smile at the uplifting Metamorphosis and its message that it’s always possible to find a brand new me or you.

This is a beautiful interpretation of the classic Alice in Wonderland. It manages to bring the unexpected to a story already full of surprises. As Alice begins to bloom an important moral is revealed that all of us parents want our children to believe. That just like the white rose who was bullied by the Queen of Hearts into thinking it had to be red, you don’t have to be like everyone else to be accepted. You are meant to be unique and special.

So get your tickets booked at the Octagon Theatre and find your own real colours with this heart-warming tale for Christmas.

 Photographs by Ian Tilton

Alice in Wonderland will be at the Octagon from Friday 14 November 2014 – Saturday 10 January 2015. Tickets are on sale now, from £23 - £9.50 with family tickets (minimum 2 children, aged 16 years and under) available from £50. There are morning, afternoon and evening performances – find out more from the Octagon Box Office on 01204 520661, or online at www.octagonbolton.co.uk/Alice. Suitable for ages five years and over.

Oct 26th

A Farewell to Arms

By Kirstie Niland
The Dukes Lancaster

“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others ... But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”

Frederic Henry, an American Lieutenant and ambulance driver for the Italian army, and English VAD nurse Catherine Barkley lie entangled in the safety of each other’s arms on the stage at The Dukes, unaware of the tragedy that awaits them. The chemistry between them is palpable.

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Imitating the Dog’s first UK adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, based on the writer’s own experiences of the First World War, is both beautiful and brutal. The innovative use of video projection and geographical mapping breathes life into the set, featuring real WW1 footage, text from the novel and close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions to bring extra depth to the performance.

This clever projection combined with the ghostly, almost transparent set and evocative music draws the audience tightly into the drama. At times the sound effects are loud and violent, so the sound of mortar bombs as the Italians retreat jolts you in your seat. And when the rain pelts down you are reminded of Catherine’s fear of the rain and of losing Frederic’s love.

The play begins with the cast climbing through a hole in the wall of a disused hospital, as Jude Monk McGowan and Laura Atherton take their places to begin the story of Frederic and Catherine’s love affair. The other four cast members watch or operate cameras, filming scenes in between joining the set as the other main characters.

As in the novel, the perfectly groomed Frederic narrates, except here he does it to camera. McGowan is spell-binding as he tells the story objectively, then goes back into the action, allowing other cast members to continue the narration. This reflects Hemingway’s shift to other absent narrators within the novel.

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The cast members move effortlessly between their roles and stay with us every step of the way. Even costume changes take place on stage, and the documentary style technique is extremely powerful. This production is like a pop-up book, the characters springing up amidst the sights and sounds of the text as they are brought achingly to life. In the final scene Frederic asks the camera operators to leave. They cover their cameras up and close the hole they originally entered, leaving an intact hospital wall in its place. It’s almost as though we are now watching the ghost of Frederic as he spends his final agonising moments with Catherine after she has given birth to their stillborn son before dying herself.

Every scene brings the unexpected, and the Italian chapters are explosively delivered with passion and subtitles. Each of the cast is so adept at switching characters, accents and languages you are mesmerised throughout. However the most compulsive part for me is the chemistry between McGowan and Atherton. From their flirtation that begins as a distraction - Catherine from the death of her fiancé, Frederic from the war - to the all consuming, obsessive love that binds them, it is all so raw and realistic.

When Frederic deserts to Switzerland, and Catherine, by then pregnant, goes with him, their strong portrayal of a couple’s loss of innocence and their total reliance upon each other feels at times too intimate to watch. Atherton’s performance in labour is frighteningly real, and the final scenes between them are incredibly emotional as the impending doom that haunts them is realised. In Frederic’s words: “This was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other.”

Adapted and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brook, A Farewell to Arms is a brilliant fusion of digital and theatrical techniques which does justice to Hemingway’s novel and pulls you urgently into its pages.

This is a highly emotional depiction of the contrasting experiences of men and women during the First World War, with Frederic and Catherine at its heart, becoming completely as one before tragedy tears them apart.

Not for the faint-hearted but an absolute must-see.

Photographs courtesy of Ed Waring

A Farewell to Arms premiered at The Dukes in Lancaster and continues its tour at Cast, Doncaster from October 29-November 1; the New Wolsey, Ipswich from November 4-8; the Lowry, Salford Quays from November 13-15; Birmingham Repertory Theatre from November 19-22 and The Old Market, Brighton from November 26-29. The production tours Italy from December 2-11.

Oct 14th

Early One Morning

By Kirstie Niland
Octagon Theatre Bolton

The PR said tissues would be needed and she was right. Early One Morning is an enormously moving and thought-provoking play. What makes it so heart-breaking is that this story of a soldier who fought bravely for his country in the First World War, yet was shot for desertion when he mentally broke down, is a true one.

Private James Smith (Jim) from Bolton, was just 26 when he was executed at dawn on 22nd August 1917 by his fellow soldiers. There was no medical evidence and no one to say goodbye to. He wasn’t even allowed to write a letter to his girlfriend, Lizzie, before he was tied to the post.

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As the audience take their seats to the sound of gunfire and bombs falling all around the Octagon arena, we are quickly enveloped into Jim’s nightmare, powerfully and sensitively recreated by Bolton playwright, Les Smith.

“Describe Hell,” orders the narrator, Sergeant Fielding. Well this would definitely be it. A broken solider, shaking and suffering from flashbacks, desperate for the warmth and safety of home, being sentenced to death.

Michael Shelford’s portrayal of this terrified young man is so stirring that even though you know he’s just playing the part, you want to reach out and help him. Sitting just feet away as he trembles, unable to speak in his own defence, I feel angry. Why aren’t they helping him instead of killing him?

And so “the dance before death at dawn begins,” Sergeant Fielding tells us. Colin Connor plays the narrator with a hypnotic Irish accent and a commanding presence, keeping us painfully at attention to the horror Jim and his mates are faced with, and the pragmatism they must adopt in order to cope.

Privates Webster and McKinney along with Lance Corporal Bradley are horrified at being offered 10 days leave as a reward for erecting the post Jim will be tied to, and then digging a hole for his body. “Fuck off, order me to do it!” shouts McKinnel, with James Dutton putting in another compelling performance following his lead role as Stanhope in the Octagon’s last production, A Journey’s End.

Also from the previous cast is Ciaran Kellgren, equally engaging in this role as the frightened and bewildered Webster, whose civilian job was a bus conductor. His shock and vulnerability is tangible as he fails miserably to support Jim as the hour of his execution approaches; and when he falls flat on his face in the mud after being tied to the post as a guinea pig. “I shouldn’t be here," he cries, “I should be on my bus.” Like Jim Smith he is not emotionally equipped to deal with this. Who would be?

Artistic Director David Thacker has staged another military coup with Early One Morning. Using some of the cast from A Journey’s End, who also double up on their roles, has strengthened their ability to identify with the era, giving their performances extra depth. Meanwhile the dark set features wet muddy mounds which make the soldiers’ movements realistic; whilst enforcing an appropriately unsteady gait for the dreamlike sequence where they waltz with their guns, accompanied by eerie Wurlitzer-style music.

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The “dance to death at dawn” contains heart-wrenching moments, one of the most tear-jerking being the declaration of love by Lizzie Cartwright, played by Bolton actress Jessica Baglow. She brings a touching reality to the no-nonsense nurse who promises to stand by Jim no matter what. And stand by him she does, in Jim Smith’s fractured mind, right to the end as he asks for news of home. Bolton Wanderers? “Still losing,” laughs Lizzie. 

You know it’s going to happen but even as Jim is manhandled by his own comrades, struggling and begging for his life as they tie him to the post, you somehow pray that it won’t. But it does.

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Private Jim Smith was finally shot at dawn by six men who missed the target - a little white disc placed over his heart - on purpose. One of them, Private Richard Blundell, was ordered to finish him off, and it haunted him until his own death 70 years later, when his final request was to seek forgiveness from Jim Smith’s family.

This play begs so many questions. How could these men turn on their fellow soliders when there were already so many atrocities around them? “What can anyone do for a soldier who cries in the dark?” asks Major Watson as Jim Smith’s life hangs in the balance.

The very least that could be done. Thanks to the former MP for Bolton South, Dr Brian Iddon, and campaigners Charles Sandbach and Bill Miles, Private Jim Smith’s name has finally been added to the Bolton Roll of Honour in Bolton Town Hall. And thanks to Les Smith his story has been told, and his family can rest in the knowledge that their loved one is now forever commended for what he truly was. A good soldier.

In honour of Private James Smith, a brave young man from Bolton, go and see Early One Morning - and don’t forget the tissues!

Early One Morning is at the Octagon until Saturday 1 November 2014. Tickets are from £26.50 - £10 on 01204 520661, or at www.octagonbolton.co.uk

Photographs by Ian Tilton

Oct 3rd

Let It Be

By Kirstie Niland

Blackpool Opera House

Let It Be has been winging its away around the world and has finally stopped off in Blackpool, and if you’re partial to a bit of Beatlemania then this show is definitely for you.

The Fab Four (or Five if you count the excellent keyboard player) provide non-stop hits and an extremely authentic take on the iconic band that started off in Liverpool and became an international sensation.

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Like the real Beatles before them, the boys from Let It Be have travelled the world, stopping off in Germany and Monaco, and playing everywhere from Broadway to the West End, before returning to the Winter Gardens where The Beatles once played themselves.

Let It Be takes us on The Beatles’ musical journey through the years, while retro televisions show old footage to set the time-frame with adverts for shampoo and cigarettes, festival/flower power type scenes, a Twiggy fashion shoot, and best of all, some hysteria from real screaming Beatles fans as the boys sing Help. There was a small technical hitch when one of the TV screens stopped working but the main set more than made up for it, especially when the entire stage was transformed into a kaleidoscope for Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, complete with red stars and flying horses.

The show kicks off with a collection of early classics, such as Please Please Me and She Loves You, followed by Twist and Shout and Day Tripper which had the audience up out of their seats dancing.

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James Fox as Paul McCartney sings a lovely, haunting version of Yesterday, which was originally filmed in Blackpool. “The B side to the A side, written by the seaside” says John, played by Paul Canning. As well as having John Lennon down to a T with both his singing and movements, Paul Canning raises the most laughs. When he asks the audience what they’d like to hear next and someone asks for Imagine he replies that they haven’t been paying attention, joking: “I haven’t written that one yet.” The second half of the show has more rapport and this works well. However, as revealed in my interview with James and Paul, Let It Be is supposed to make the audience feel like they've stepped back in time, so the show is a compilation of excerpts from several Beatles concerts, right down to them shaking hands with a few lucky people in the audience at the end.

The backdrop is a cyclorama featuring pop art and images telling the songs’ stories, which proves a dramatic accompaniment to atmospheric tracks such as Eleanor Rigby and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which warrants lots of psychedelic colour. My favourite set is the acoustic one, where the band sit down to play We Can Work it Out, Norwegian Wood and Here Comes the Sun.

You can’t fault the musical performance, all of the band members are talented musicians and perform their respective Beatle character’s songs perfectly. The costumes and wigs have clearly been meticulously researched, and the mimicry is so good that they look more and more like the real Beatles as the show progresses.

The finale, as expected, is rousing, with virtually the entire audience standing up to sing, waving their arms and using mobile phones as torches to Hey Jude. This is The Beatles, 2014, Blackpool-style.

Let It Be is a fantastic family show and it’s only in Blackpool until the 12th October, so get your Ticket to Ride now!

Ticket Prices: Stalls - £20.50 - £31.50; Circle - £15.00 - £31.50. Available from Ticketmaster (booking fees apply), or from the Blackpool Opera House box office at Church Street, FY1 1HL, tel:  0844 856 1111 

Oct 3rd

1984

By Kirstie Niland
The Grand Theatre, Blackpool

George Orwell’s novel set in Oceania - a totalitarian state which is permanently at war under the rule of Big Brother - had me gripped as a student in the days before mobile phones and webcams existed. Imagine a place where everyone is under surveillance, where people can be deleted, where you are never alone, not even in your head.

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I was excited to see how this could be brought to life on stage and still do George Orwell justice and I wasn’t disappointed. This is an incredible performance, which violently brings home the fact that Orwell's fearful predictions when he wrote Nineteen-Eighty Four 65 years ago have become very real indeed. We may not have the Thought Police on our case just yet but one thing is for certain...freedom is most definitely close to slavery in 2014. 

“Doublethink” is exactly how I feel about today’s Big Brother, and how it has become the norm for our private lives to be exposed, both voluntarily and unwillingly. I hate it but it’s horribly compelling. Whilst today’s all-consuming desire is to give public narrations of our life on social media, I’m sure most of us are uncomfortable with being monitored in ways we know about, like CCTV and Google, and in many we’re probably not even aware of. So much contradition.

Contemporary doublethink, terrifyingly two-faced. Just like the nightmarish scene where O’Brian, brilliantly orchestrated by Tim Dutton, exposes Winston for his willingness to commit heinous acts for the Inner Party in order to bring Big Brother down. Winston has been unknowingly filmed confirming he would throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face, admitting he is willing to do anything except be separated from his lover and partner in crime Julia. Both hero and anti-hero. Dutton conducts the audience with aplomb during the dramatic crescendo, where the lights come up and he breaks the fourth wall to include us in condemning Winston. As he cowers in the spotlight of shame, you feel not only Winston's humiliation but also revulsion that he is prepared to maim a child yet woud fulfil his own needs. You also feel like a voyeur, like you shouldn’t be involved at all.

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This hard-hitting scene alone is worthy of the critical acclaim received for Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. That, and the cast of Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre. The eight adults and one child create nail-biting suspense and tension amidst the confusion of flashing lights, black-outs and dreamlike scenes. Matthew Spencer is entirely credible as Winston in his blend of bravery and cowardice, and Janine Harouni as Julia manages to display detachment and neediness without it seeming contradictory. In Winston's words: "only a rebel from the waist downwards."

As for the set – pure genius. The play begins in a deliberately dreary archives office filled with books, and Winston and Julia’s scenes in the back room they believe is private are played on the backdrop like an old movie from a projector. Their sudden exposure and capture surrounded by the loud confusion of white noise and blinding lights is accompanied by a jolting set transformation. Winston reappears strapped to a seat in the stark white Room 101 where he is tortured into betraying Julia, his blood a bright red splash on the set, like the scarlet dress Julia wears after she becomes his lover. Big Brother finally succeeds in deleting their bond when he threatens to let rats eat Winston’s face and he shouts: “Do it to Julia!”. As Julia says when they meet, brainwashed, after their mutual betrayal and surrender: "And after that, you don't feel the same towards the person any longer."

This production of 1984 is more than just a masterpiece of theatre, it also poses a chilling question about our own society. Is freedom slavery? Was George Orwell right in his predictions? I think he probably was. DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER!

1984 is on at the Grand Theatre Blackpool until Saturday 4 October

Tickets from £18.50 (£1.50 booking fee is applies)

Call the Box Office on 01253 74 33 39 or visit blackpoolgrand.co.uk