Saturday, 29 April 2017

I Capture the Castle, Bolton Octagon

When I was younger, I loved Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', so the news it was being turned into a musical was very welcome.

On Thursday evening, I took my first trip to the Bolton Octagon and was transported right back into that world my imagination had loved.

This adaptation is a beautiful one - whimsical, innovative and performed by a highly accomplished cast.

It was always going to be a challenge to transfer to the stage a story that plays out largely in the head and diary or 17 year-old Cassandra, but this play handles that obstacle well.

Early scenes saw her writing in her diary, with the rest of the cast pausing in freeze frame as she added extra commentary and asides. This went on for just long enough to let audiences realise we were viewing events through her eyes, and set up the idea that what we were seeing maybe wasn't 100% truth, but a truth through the eyes of a young woman.

Adding well to this effect was Cassandra's very 'realistic' character set alongside the rest of the cast, who were really more like caricatures. They were real people, but we were viewing them as characters in her story. The set, too, with a castle created out of piled up old chairs, enhanced this recurring idea of reality, truth and storytelling, adding a childlike, playful layer to the very real struggles of life living in this dilapidated frame.

It's rare that I see a show I know nothing about, and musicals in particular I usually know the music of inside out before attending, so it was a lovely experience to let this one wash over me, and be introduced to the music in its proper form, on stage with live musicians (a band of three - I think - who were brilliant). Composer Steven Edis has done a superb job with the music of this show, to the point there didn't even feel like there was a transition between the spoken word and song, because it blended seamlessly. There were mixed influences, including folksong and American swing, and song after song I thoroughly enjoyed. My particular favourites were the opening song, for its scene-setting prowess, Aunt Leda's song about making Steven a star, and the quartet between Cassandra, Rose, Simon and Neil.

When presenting a brand new musical based on a much-loved novel, it's important to get your casting right. I Capture the Castle has done just that.

I could write an entire piece about Lowri Izzard, who took on the lead role of Cassandra. In my opinion, nobody could have played this role better. She occupied that in between space of girl and woman so well, taking us on a journey of her own discovery, and I truly felt I was watching Cassandra, not an actress playing her. In addition to that, her vocals were spot on, with songs like 'Words Words Words' in Act 2 really demonstrating her range and control.

Topaz was played by Suzanne Ahmet, and was a personal favourite. It's a dramatic, flamboyant role, but a woman who clearly does have issues and depth. Ahmer rose to the challenge, and I particularly enjoyed the rich, low tones of her voice. Ben Watson took on the part of her husband, James, and I thought he embodied the tortured novelist well, really coming to life in Act 2.

Simon (Theo Boyce) and Neil (Luke Dale) were a believable double act, with their presence always very clearly felt on stage, representing the overwhelming impact their arrival had on the lives of the central family. I did at times want a little more from them in their quieter moments, maybe more reaction to the activity unfolding around them, but they fulfilled the role well. Isaac Stanmore's Stephen - although I did struggle to decide what his accent was supposed to be as it appeared to alter throughout - was the lovable 'boy next door', truly doting on Cassandra. His enthusiasm was infectious and you really found yourself rooting for him.

The women, though, were the real stars of the show, and joining Izzard and Ahmet were Kate Batter (Rose), Julia St John (Mrs Cotton) and Shona White (Leda). Rose is a tricky one, as at first glance she could come across shallow, but Batter played out her story well, blossoming on her own journey of finding herself and realising her true wants and needs. St John and White had the audience in the palm of their hands during their duet about men and their shortcomings, and both women confidently dominated their scenes in the way such women clearly would have done. Shona White's voice was really brilliant, and I could happily have listened to her sing for much longer.

I could continue, but really my message is that you need to get out there and see this show. It's a highly accomplished new musical, with slick direction and choreography, a strong cast and beautiful music. At its centre is an actress (Lowri Izzard) who will keep audience after audience captivated, and I hope to see this show continue for a good time.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Ghost, The Lowry

Post update: Since publishing this review, Carolyn Maitland has let me know she was unwell and didn't perform the role last night. Frustratingly, we were not told this. Maybe this was part of the answer as to why the show didn't feel at its full energy. Hopefully Carolyn feels much better soon and can return to the role!

After having first seen Ghost performed at GSA a couple of years ago and being wowed, I was so excited to see the touring production was coming to The Lowry.

As we took our seats last night, I was ready to be swept along again in the emotion and pace of the show, which is packed with great songs.

Unfortunately, I came away so, so disappointed.

I'm not sure if everyone was having a bit of an off night, but it was one of the most disappointing professional productions I've seen for a long time.

I'm not going to spend a long time tearing it apart as that just feels negative and unnecessary, but I just wanted to share the five things where I felt the show could really have been lifted.

I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has seen the production whilst on tour, because looking at the calibre of the cast and team involved I'm struggling to believe the whole tour was presented in the way the show was last night.

1) Sam (Andy Moss) and Mollie seemed to be struggling with some of their vocals. It felt like they were straining for the big notes and that their voices were tired, and 'Here Right Now' in particular was very pitchy.

2) The American accents were very hit and miss for most characters, apart from Jacqui Dubois as Ode Mae Brown, who offered the most confident and polished performance of the night.

3) The choreography wasn't particularly innovative, and felt quite flat throughout. When I've seen the show before, songs like 'More and More' have been much more high energy and exciting.

4) The special effects, which I'd previously heard were very impressive, were very simple and it was clear how they were being achieved. Maybe this is because special effects on stage have come on leaps and bounds since Ghost first began, but I think a lot more could have been done for that 'wow' factor.

5) The combination of these factors and others meant I just didn't feel much emotion at all. It's a highly charged show, a brilliant story and has some beautiful songs, and last time I saw it I was an emotional wreck. I do get moved to tears fairly often (it's a running joke among my friends), but last night I felt none of that. I just let it wash over me.

I'm going to leave this here as there's not much more to say; I was just really sad to come away feeling so differently to the way I expected.

I'm usually incredibly lucky with theatre. I go to an awful lot of shows and do seem to pick brilliant ones, but last night reminded me that, sometimes, things can't all just be fantastic!

Hopefully, last night was a bit of an off night and I just got unlucky. The cast clearly have a lot of experience between them, so I don't doubt they could pull off a great show. Unfortunately, last night was just not the night for that.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Chain hotels in Central London: Travelodge vs. Premier Inn

A few weeks ago, we spent a weekend in London, and trying to keep costs down we opted for a Travelodge night (we had a voucher) and a Premier Inn night. Usually, we spend a long time hunting and often stay in independent hotels in London as it can work out cheaper, but this weekend we needed easy and functional!

I've stayed in hotels of both chains many times, all over the country, and do quite like the fact you always know what you're going to get. Travelodges tend to be more simple and very functional, whereas Premier Inns feel that little bit more comfy, so it just depends on the reason for your stay.

Travelodge, London Central Kings Cross

This was not my first stay in this particular hotel. When I used to live in Macclesfield and have regular work trips to London, this was often where I stayed as it was so close to both the train station and the London office. It was always exactly what I needed, and I never had any issues.

But I've never stayed there on a Saturday night before.

Two quick disclaimers before I continue:

1) We had a voucher covering part of our stay as an apology for a very poor stay late last year at a different (Central London) Travelodge.

2) Whilst I haven't stayed in this hotel on a Saturday night before, I've stayed at plenty of other London hotels at weekends, so I'm not naïve to the fact there are likely to be lots of large groups and probably drunk parties going on.

Unfortunately, our Saturday night stay was awful, probably one of the worst hotel nights I've ever had.

The room was absolutely fine, very clean, with a comfy bed and a desk fan, which definitely came in handy as we were in London on the weekend temperatures were in the high twenties. The bathroom was a little dated, but everything worked and the shower was very powerful, which always get s thumbs up.

The noise, however, was unbelievable. Our room seemed to be underneath a corridor, and even the quietest walker would sound like an elephant about to come through the ceiling. We were also right next to the door onto our corridor, which was slammed all night and everyone had to walk through to get to their rooms.

There was drunken group after loud group returning to the hotel throughout the night, waking us at least eight or nine times through the night. These groups wouldn't then go straight to their room, there would be shouting, screaming and loud laughter. Multiple times I reached to the phone to call reception, but when you're warm in bed and already exhausted you don't necessarily want to have to do that.

I completely understand people are going to want to go out, but I think it's the responsibility of the hotel to make sure guests who are not there for that purpose are also able to have a good stay. Maybe there should be a system where 10 minutes after a loud group returns to the hotel, a member of staff does a quick circuit of the corridors, to make sure the noise hasn't continued.

I don't know what the answer is, but we got about two hours (maximum) or broken sleep. On our way out the next morning, there was no member of staff on reception, so we just left feeling like no one was at all bothered about our stay or our custom.

Unfortunately, this stay got a big thumbs down.

Premier Inn, Leicester Square

My gut instinct going in was that we would prefer the Premier Inn night, because they do pitch themselves as having that little extra bit of comfort, and I've always found their hotels to be far more consistent across the chain. After Saturday at the Travelodge, I hoped a Central London Premier Inn would deliver that same experience and let us have a good night's sleep after a day of watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Luckily, this Premier Inn was exactly what we needed.

It's situated right in the middle of Leicester Square, so if you want to be in the thick of it for a touristy weekend in London, it's pretty perfect. It's surrounded by restaurants, and also has its own bar and restaurant in the hotel.

You head inside and up to the reception area and it feels so calm and quiet in contrast to the outside. We were able to drop off our bags early, which is handy if you're going to be out and about in the city, and the welcome was friendly.

The room was much, much nicer than the night before. It was very spacious, nicely laid out and the bed was huge and comfortable. The bathroom was also more modern, with another good shower. The hotel was so quiet, despite it being incredibly busy in Leicester Square and being next door to a club - you'd never have guessed you were anywhere near the city centre once you were inside.

The Verdict

I think this one is obvious!

The Premier Inn offered the better stay in every sense. It was quiet, the staff cared, the room was nicer and they offered exactly what I've come to expect from the brand.

The Travelodge stay was frustrating and noisy, and we left without even seeing a member of staff, so it was easy to feel like nobody cared.

If you're a hotel breakfast fan, Travelodge only offers a continental option, but it's served in a nice, bright reception room. Premier Inn offers the full works, and a cooked breakfast was very much enjoyed the following morning!

As I said at the beginning, I tend to search all over the place when it comes to hotels in London, because the prices get so huge, but it was interesting to be able to compare two chains with which I've always been perfectly happy outside of the city centre.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Recipe Post #11: Spiced Chickpea Burgers

Earlier this week, I tried out a new recipe on my family which went down an absolute treat.

After a failed chickpea burger attempt the week before (a Jamie recipe calling for FAR too much sweetcorn), I wanted to redeem myself and offer up a good burger.

The winning recipe came from the 'Homemade By You' section on the Sainsbury's recipes website.

You'll need:

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1.5tsp each of ground cumin, chilli powder and garam masala
  • 2tsp ground coriander
  • 2tsp grated root ginger
  • 2 cans chickpeas, drained
  • 2 slices wholemeal bread, in breadcrumbs
To serve:
  • Whatever you like! We went for chunky sweet potato and normal potato wedges with a simple salad - and ketchup of course.

 Pop some oil into a pan and gently cook the onion and garlic for a minute, before adding in the ginger, dried spices, salt and 50ml water. Cook until the mixture is dry. Add in the chickpeas, and again cook until any moisture has evaporated. This happens fairly quickly.

Pour about three-quarters of the mixture into a food processor and blend until smooth, then use a potato masher to crush the mixture left over in the pan. When you add the food processor contents back into the pan this should give a good burger consistency - mainly smooth with some good texture left over.

Once cooled slightly, shape the mixture into 6 burgers, and add to an oil. Cook over  medium heat for 6-8mins, turning in the middle, until lightly browned.

Serve with your sides of choice, and enjoy!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

My sister is running the marathon!

Tomorrow, on the 23rd April 2017, my younger sister is running the London Marathon.

About 8 months ago, she had never been on a run.

Tomorrow, she will run 26.2 miles as a part of Team NSPCC, and I could not be more proud if I tried.

Anyone who knows my sister will know she is stubborn, determined, fiercely independent and highly ambitious.

If she puts her mind to something, she will do it, even if she has to alter the plans a little along the way.

Interviewed yesterday on BBC Radio Newcastle, Kitty recalled watching the London Marathon on TV with our dad last year, saying she couldn't think of anything she would want to do less than go and run a marathon.

Two months later, she was a member of Team NSPCC.

Eight months of training later, the day is almost here.

Kate being Kate, taking on the challenge of going from non-runner to marathon runner was not enough, so she decided to combine it with a complete lifestyle change, adopting a plant-based diet, and removing gluten and refined sugars.

When she first told us of these plans, I have to admit we thought it was a passing idea.

But then the months went on and the training miles mounted.

She started a blog tracking her training and the reasons she was running, she had a new daily routine, her fitness levels were on the up and her new way of eating became not just a fad, but a new way of life she had fallen in love with.

Over the last eight months, she's transformed into someone who loves running, who learns about food and uses it to fuel her body.

She's done all the training alongside her usual hectic schedule whilst at university in Durham, and hasn't let her eyes drift from the end goal.

That goal is nearly here.

Tomorrow, she will run 26.2 miles.

Kitty's determination and independence always impresses me, but this year has undoubtedly seen some of her biggest changes and challenges yet, and I'm not sure anyone around her could fail to be inspired by the changes she's made and commitment she's shown.

Whatever her time tomorrow, whether she sprints or crawls over that finish line, she's left all of us in awe, and we are so, so proud.

If you'd like to help her along the way and support the incredible work of the NSPCC, her JustGiving page is right here.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Spoiler free: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Earlier this month, 18 months after the day I purchased the tickets, the time finally came for us to take our seats at the Palace Theatre, London, to experience five hours of theatre set in the wizarding world.

It's been a long wait.

One of the things I think has been truly wonderful about this play is that people really have been sticking to the 'rules', following that principle of '#keepthesecrets'.

Even since the release of the script in book form, I've heard no spoilers whatsoever, and was able to head into the theatre having no idea what to expect.

For that reason, this will be nothing like my normal theatre reviews, and will instead focus on my feelings about the day and the experience.

Like many people around my age, I grew up with Harry Potter. I read every book eagerly on release, have reread the whole series multiple times and have seen all of the films more than once.

I've visited the Warner Brothers' Studio Tour, and marvelled at J K Rowling's creativity and storytelling for years.

I'm also a huge fan of theatre, so the news that the world of Harry Potter was to grow a step further and the new story would take a different format was exciting.

One of the best things about being there on the day was that shared sense of anticipation. We had all waited for so long to see the show, and there was a real sense of companionship among those in the auditorium.

Everyone there was completely invested in the story and its characters and everyone spent the intervals and time between the two parts excitedly discussing what they had seen.

Visually, the show is fantastic. The special effects, lighting, choreography and direction deserve all the attention they have been getting, and there are still moments where we're wondering how on earth certain effects were achieved.

The cast, too, is a highly skilled one, and let me just say that Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy) was the absolute stand-out star, in my eyes.

Was it perfect? For me, no. I do have some pretty big issues with elements of the plot, and the way a couple of the characters were portrayed, but I'll save those to talk about with those who've already experienced the show.

What was truly brilliant, though, was the whole package. The excitement, the anticipation, the special effects, and the whole 'Harry Potter day out' that comes from watching two full length plays on a single Sunday.

We had the most brilliant day, around which we built a brilliant long weekend, and I'll hold it in my memory for a very long time.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Made in Dagenham, NK Theatre Arts

I had been told before seeing last week's production of Made in Dagenham that NK Theatre Arts is not just another amateur theatre group. I was told 'the production is professional in every respect apart from the fact the actors are unpaid'.

After watching that show, I'd chime into that discussion and say it was one of the best 'amateur' productions I've seen, and NK Theatre Arts has definitely got something special going on.

The Romiley Forum is a great home for productions, with a roomy auditorium, tiered seating and a large raised stage. There's a small bar area and those that work around the theatre clearly love what they're producing.

I saw Made in Dagenham when it was on in London and already knew I loved the musical, but was aware that timing is everything and it's a very strong ensemble show, so would demand a lot of the cast.

NK Theatre Arts well and truly rose to the challenge.

I'll start with that ensemble element, because Made in Dagenham is a group show. Yes, there are named parts and fantastic solos, but without a strong cast overall the show falls apart. Numbers like 'Everybody Out' and 'This is What We Want' demand feisty characters, strong vocals and slick choreography. The women in this production delivered these things confidently and to great effect, with those rousing numbers creating that same sense of excitement and solidarity among the audience as was achieved in the professional production I saw.

One of the things that often separates amateur and professional performances is the chorus. In a professional production, you can choose to focus in on any chorus member, whether or not they have a named part, and they will be completely absorbed in the scene and the role being created. In some amateur shows, you get the people that are there to make up the numbers, who are acting half-heartedly, or who aren't quite sure what they're doing.

In last week's show, you could have picked on any chorus member and seen they were completely lost in the moment. They all had a character, they all had a purpose, and they were all giving the show everything they could. By the end of 'Busy Woman' (the opening number), when I realised this was the case, I knew for sure we were in for an evening of great entertainment.

I also want to mention the strength of the male cast members. Another recurring issue for amateur productions is not having enough men who want to be involved, or certainly enough men with the confidence and ability needed to pull off some of the roles required. This show didn't face that issue. Yes, there weren't as many men as women, but the men who were there were strong. Most played multiple roles with seeming ease and brought plenty of laughs. A particular mention goes to Jay Dodd, who pulled of each of his roles brilliantly and prompted so much of our laughter! While we're on the subject of the male roles, too Callum Stretton was strong across his parts and had a stunning voice, and Michael Granby's Harold Wilson prompted a lot of laughter due to his confident delivery and excellent characterisation.

When it comes to the female characters, I've chosen just three to focus on, because I could easily write a paragraph about every cast member and we'd all be here all day.

Firstly, Gemma Glenncross was a perfect Beryl. She was absolutely hilarious, and it's a role that requires great timing. Her delivery was always spot on, and she wasn't 'acting' as Beryl; she truly became Beryl in every moment of every scene.

Secondly, Louise Shufflebotham as Barbara Castle. Castle was a larger than life character and it's a task to be able to play this role, deliver all the comedy value, but not turn her into a caricature. Shufflebotham's accent was consistent and her scenes all delivered well, but where she really blew me away was in 'An Ideal World'. It's a wordy song and tough to sing, but she delivered it with absolute ease, hitting those huge notes like she does it every day. It really was fantastic.

Finally, I can't end this review without talking about Dawn Wrigley's Rita O'Grady. While it's a big ensemble show, the woman at the centre of it has to be believable. She's real, she's strong, she doubts herself and she dusts herself off to become the mouthpiece for all of the other women. It's a demanding role, in terms of the songs, the sheer amount of lines to be remembered, and the challenge of entering into the body of a Dagenham housewife of the late 1960s. Her accent was spot on, her timing never failed, and she confidently led an incredibly strong cast throughout the entirety of the show.

As I've said, I could go on, but I think it's very clear how impressed I was by this show.

NK Theatre Arts deserve the praise I've heard about them, and here I am adding some more.

It was a superb production, and all involved should be incredibly pleased with themselves! I'll definitely be back to see more.

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