Wonder.land: a new musical by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini

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Welcome to wonder.land, where you can be exactly who you want to be.

A brand new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s iconic
Alice in Wonderland, with music by Damon Albarn and
book and lyrics by Moira Buffini.

The adventure will start here.

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When I found out I was going to see wonder.land, (which was approximately 35 minutes before the show started courtesy of a brilliant birthday surprise from my dear friend Gem), I was super excited, but didn’t know quite what to expect.

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“Meet me at The Palace Theatre at 7pm …”

I hadn’t heard much about it but the hot pink, semi faced Cheshire Cat on the billboard astride the Palace Theatre told me that I could expect some Alice and Wonderland type shenanigans with a modern twist. Sold. After the obligatory purchase of  showtime sustenance (giant buttons, obvs) we descended into our seats in the rafters (seriously, there should be parachutes or some kind of safety apparatus provided in those seats. I felt very much like a seagull coming to roost on a steep cliff face. But without the wings. I’m quite sure I developed vertigo.)

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View of the stage from the rafters at the Palace Theatre

The show began with our modern day Alice (Aly) in her rather drab bedroom, introducing us to her life and the other life in the game Wonder.land that is about to swallow Aly and the audience whole.  Aly uses wonder.land to escape her world, in which she is struggling to fit in at a new school that she has moved to due to a breakdown in her family. The drabness of her room is soon replaced by a psychedelic array of colours, textures, special effects and sounds that appear to filter from her imagination as she begins to play the game. Here, she creates an avatar that looks like the classic image of Alice that we all know and love.

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The White Rabbit and Aly’s avatar, Alice (theskinny.co.uk)

There is a wonderful amalgamation of real actors and visual effects on stage which creates a very other-worldly feel.  The Cheshire Cat is a little bit creepy, gliding across the stage in his ethereal, projected form, while the mad hatter (a real humanoid) pops up every so often throughout the musical in various locations, guiding the characters into ever mischievous adventures.

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The Cheshire Cat

I enjoyed the modern back story, which depicted the adolescent Alice’s attempt to survive a new school environment and wove together with Lewis Carroll’s original characters. As Aly guides Alice through Wonder.land, she meets these other characters, such as an egg and a lizard who are fellow students of Aly’s. We also meet the Caterpillar and of course the ominous White Rabbit who must be followed!  I thought some of the scenes were a little inconsequential and didn’t really add to the story. Some of the scenes with Aly’s errant dad felt a little forced like they were trying to eke out the story.

My absolute favourite character (I think possibly of all time) is Alice Manxome, the slightly delusional and very hilarious head teacher at Aly’s new school. She was just brilliant. She provided the most laughs, had the best voice by far and gave the musical a bit more oomph for the adults in the audience, the rest of the show being aimed more at teenagers. A particular favourite line was during a conversation between Ms Manxome and an errant student, which went a little something like this:

Student:

But Miss, I have dyslexia!

Ms Manxome:

We didn’t have dyslexia in my day. We had a condition                                called Thick.

Controversial, perhaps but that got the biggest laugh/ applause of the evening. This one line essentially sums her up. I love her.

Alice Manxome and her manipulated version of Alice with Aly watching helplessly on. (scscircle.com)

Alice Manxome is also a very cleverly placed, pivotal character that links the two worlds together. After confiscating Aly’s phone and placing her in detention (Ms Manxome delights in the habitual humiliation and incarceration of her students) the cruel head teacher provides our villain as she develops from simple Alice to a rather vicious Queen of Hearts character. She does this by assuming Alice’s avatar, making her as manipulative and malignant as she is. This of course causes problems for Aly who has to fight to save her character from the judging eyes of the other players (i.e. her fellow students at her new school) and worse, complete deletion from wonder.land.

While at times I did feel that I had stumbled into a show for the young ‘uns, I did enjoy it very much, weirdness and all. As well as being very entertaining, the show provided many good messages for the audience, young and old alike. There is a strong emphasis on “being yourself” and accepting yourself when others maybe don’t. Another message is to stand up to bullies, whether they be your peers or your superiors. There is also a strong commentary on the overwhelming use of technology in every day life. We’re all guilty of obsessively starting into our smartphones while dismissively grunting at the people in the real world who want to talk to us. When did it become socially acceptable to reach for your phone before saying “good morning” or playing games in lieu of having a conversation of an evening? It’s just rude, people. Look up and get a life. But read this blog first because its really good, then get a life.

Wonder.land has finished its run at The Palace Theatre in Manchester but it will be continuing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 150th anniversary celebrations in London from November 2015. You can watch the trailer here and read more about the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here and here.

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Romeo and Juliet by Chester Performs

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This is my second trip to Chester Performs in as many years. For those of you who are unindoctrinated, Chester Performs is an outdoor theatre event that springs up for the summer months in Grosvenor Park in the middle of Chester. Its a risky business, weather wise what with the gaping hole atop the auditorium. Allow me to illustrate further: on Sunday we started with torrential downpours, which progressed onto a light chill/ drizzle which then blossomed into eye squinting, sunstroke inducing hot sun.

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Awaiting the performance in the rain.

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A kindly Chester Performs worker fighting against soggy bottoms


The initial deluge saw the performance delayed a little but we didn’t mind. This was helped by inhaling the poshest picnic ever which consisted of sandwiches, cheese, olives and prosecco. Good times.

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Slightly bedraggled but happy with our prosecco!

It was a struggle to choose between the three plays but in the end we went for Romeo and Juliet because its a classic and it just happened to be on my birthday (happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to Alicia, happy birthday to me). Ahem.

You can never see Romeo and Juliet too many times. This is not possible. I last saw it in September 2014 at the Victoria Baths in Manchester, which you can read all about here. I love how each interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is so original while retaining the authenticity of the story. Chester Performs version is the most refreshingly “authentic” version I’ve seen to date. I think a lot of theatre companies try to modernise, sexualise and americanise this play (just like wordpress is doing now as I write. NO, wordpress there is no “Z” in modernise and you do not spell “theatre” as “theater”. No offense to any American readers. But you’re wrong.) But here, we have a rustic, Italian setting, a young and petulant teenage Juliet, an excitable and somewhat immature Romeo and a historically accurate ending (read, no guns. Luhrmann, I’m looking at you).

The costumes were pretty and practical. Juliet had some great costume changes; a sage green play/ work dress; innocent, bridal white bed clothes; a stunning golden wedding robe. My only gripe is that the wedding guests arrived in black (bit depressing) but then again, the wedding day does immediately morph into a period of mourning so I’ll let that one slide. At least the guests didn’t turn up to the wedding in white and/ or cream. That would have been v. embarrassing for all involved, I’m sure we all agree.

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Awaiting drama in the rain!

Juliet was my favourite Juliet to date. She was a young, bouncy, conflicted, petulant, bright, passionate, beautiful angst ridden teenager. I enjoyed seeing a Juliet with a tousled blonde bob as opposed to the usual long, sleek, brunette locks. Romeo wasn’t my favourite, but again he was refreshingly different. He wasn’t stylish or devastatingly handsome or particularity suave but he was Juliet’s perfection, and that’s all that mattered. They played the relationship in such a believable way. They were hysterical in each other’s company and desolate when apart. They conversed at a remarkable speed,infusing as much emotion as possible into their last days. At one point I could not reconcile the soaring energy of the first half with the inevitable tragic end. It just didn’t seem possible that the world could continue without these two ecstatic lovebirds within it. But the whole cast were brilliant and the energy levels remained constant, if the happy mood did not.

One of my favourite things about Chester Performs is the use of music in their performances. They always have cracking singers and this time we were even treated to a singalong sesh pre-show with two ukulele clad minstrels. We had to sing in Italian, so I have no idea what they tricked us into saying. Everyone seemed to enjoy it anyway.

All in all, a very fun day out, which comes very highly recommended.

I’m hoping to get to some more performances this year to see the other shows on offer, but if not I’ll definitely be back next year!

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And the sun came out! See you soon Chester!

 

 

 

Off the Hook – Dylan Moran

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Hello comedy fans! I just wanted to tell you all about a cracking night at Leeds Town Hall last night with one of my all time faves, Mr Dylan Moran. Now, those of you who know me understand that I am a slightly huge fan of this man. I even named my kitten after his cantankerous alter ego, Bernard Ludwig Black. And behold, here we have a photo of little Bernard …

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I know; the resemblance is uncanny isn’t it. He even loves books. What a dude.

Being such a huge Black Books fan, I was a little reticent about seeing Moran in a stand up capacity lest I be thoroughly disappointed and become disillusioned with the world. I can now confirm that I was not disappointed and Moran’s performance was the perfect balance of cutting irritability and raucous hilarity.

Very like his character in Black Books, Moran would be ranting about one particular nuisance of life when a distraction would intervene and send him off on a rant tangent, for example in the direction of late-comers to the show or audience members in the possession of flashing cameras and telephonic devices. I suspect these distractions led to a bit of off-roading script-wise but this added to the fun of the show. I suppose it provided a nice bit of audience participation – apart from those audience members being thoroughly scolded, head teacher style, for taking photos or using their phones. And quite rightly so; isn’t it common knowledge, common courtesy and common sense to not take photos of live performances? Come on people.

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Leeds Town Hall

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The stage!

Moran made a good point about this actually; about cherishing the moment rather than being bogged down by technology. Its so much nicer to experience a moment live rather than through the lens of a camera. Wise words.

Awaiting entertainment with Ian

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Pretty ceiling of Leeds Town Hall

Just a little bit on Leeds Town Hall; what a lovely venue! It’s my second trip here, having visited to see Caitlin Moran last year. I would definitely recommend checking out their what’s on list. I’ve only ever seen stand up here so not sure what its like for music gigs etc. but definitely worth a look.

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Leeds Town Hall

Dylan Moran can be found wandering around the UK and elsewhere for the rest of 2015 here.

Storytime with Joanne Harris at Huddersfield Literature Festival

Joanne Harris HLF2015 image c. Kyte

Photo by Kyte Photography

Its Huddersfield Literature Festival time again! Yay! On Friday 6th March my excellent friend Ben and I visited the cellar of the Lawrence Batley Theatre where  Joanne Harris made her contribution to the festival with a new and exciting project, which she called Storytime.

Joanne began the evening by introducing the concept of her Storytime. She had joined Twitter a few years ago and started telling stories on it because that’s what she does; tells stories. If you are a twitterer I’m sure you’ve experienced these bursts of stories of a slow day at work, while “researching” that important thing you were supposed to be working on ….

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 Joanne was not alone on her stage in the cellar of the LBT. As well as a range of lighting and colourful projections to accompany each story, she had a band of helpers. Literally. Her stories were accompanied by a drum set, guitar, keyboard, bass, a flute and other miscellaneous percussive instruments.

Following Joanne’s introduction, we were treated to a musical introduction from the band. They played a beautiful song including the lyrics ‘There is a story the bees used to tell, long ago, long ago…’. This is how Joanne begins each of her twitter stories. The music, composed I believe by Joanne’s husband, was rather haunting. The melody was calm and lilting but with a dark edge to it. It was almost like accepting a warm invitation but once inside, a minor sequential cadence tinged with a sceptical coolness wrapped around the room, trapping us all inside. ‘…long ago, long ago, which makes it hard to disbelieve.’

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Photo by @Cat_Lumb

Each story once told was summarised in musical form by a song or an instrumental. Who knew that Joanne Harris was such a talented flautist? As a writer and flautist myself (show off) I have never considered putting the two together. But that’s what the whole evening was about; challenging storytelling norms. There was one point when Joanne leaned towards the mic without her flute where I was worried that she was going to sing. Then she did. And I was pleasantly surprised. What a beautiful voice. But writers aren’t supposed to be singers. Writers are solitary creatures who only surface once in a while to sign a few books and push the boundaries of blood to caffeine ratio.

I think there’s often a supposition about what people should be and how we identify with them. This is a philosophy that Joanne is trying to dispel. A lady in the audience asked the question “In your short stories tonight and actually in many of your novels, there is a feeling of ‘seize the day’. Would you agree?” Joanne did agree and she talked about this at some length.

When I saw her at the Huddersfield lit fest last year (where she was talking about her excellent book The Gospel of Loki) she made the point of saying that she didn’t subscribe her writing to any particular genre, preferring instead to tell her stories and letting them land where they land.  So it is with her Storytime on Twitter. The stories had been ephemeral in nature, flying through the twittersphere and being sporadically caught by readers. Now the stories are being saved and collated and are even being published soon in a book titled Honeycomb. But that all came from sitting down and telling a story in a different way.

The stories themselves were often quite dark, again belying the apparently safe, cosy nature of ‘Storytime’. My favourite was about a toymaker (I think he was a toymaker. Or a carpenter. He was a handsy sort of person anyway) who one day, noticing that his once lovely wife is no longer perfect, sets about fixing her to his satisfaction. A poignant parable about the struggle for unattainable perfection and (as my friend Ben surmised) the throwaway, consumeristic way that many of us live our lives. Thought provoking stuff.

All in all, Storytime was a magical evening. It was very refreshing to see a writer not only thinking outside the box, but dispelling said box altogether. An amalgamation of stories, music and theatre, Storytime with Joanne Harris and friends is something that I would certainly like to see more of.

There are still many fun events to get involved with in the Huddersfield Literature Festival. You can find out about it here.

 

P.S. Joanne, it was very lovely to meet you again. Thank you for signing one of your books for me. Should you need an additional flautist and/ or keyboardist for your future projects, I am always available. I’m really good. And sometimes modest.

P.P.S It was also very lovely to meet Jennifer and Lynne of Kyte Photography. You should check out their book of famous people from Yorkshire ‘Yorkshire Made Me‘.

Bouncers by John Godber

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Directed by its writer John Godber and featuring a frightening array of northern talent, the definitive production of multi award-winning hit comedy BOUNCERS follows 2014 revival of Teechers to the LBT stage.

Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph are the original men in black, portraying an astonishing range of characters over the course of one eventful night in a Yorkshire disco in the 80s. All the gang are out on the town: the boys, the girls, the cheesy DJ, the late-night kebab man and the taxi home, all under the watchful eyes of the bouncers.

Sad, hilarious and full of humanity, BOUNCERS won the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award an amazing seven times, and was named as one of the top 100 plays of the 20thcentury by the National Theatre.

http://www.thelbt.org

On Wednesday evening I visited my beloved Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for to watch a performance of John Godber’s Bouncers. Having watched Teechers last year I was very excited to see another of Godber’s plays. I can confirm that I was not disappointed!

The four main characters, Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph, are played by four very talented actors. We duck and weave with them as they become the various groups of intoxicated clubbers of a Saturday eve. The whole play is very fun and chuckle worthy, but particular hilarity ensues when the fellas don their sparkly handbags and became the  young girls out for Rosie’s 21st. Tres amusement.

As the play is set in the 80s the music is obviously amazing. You’ve got your thriller, you’ve got you spin me round, round baby right round like a record baby …. Plus other classics that will be firmly lodged in your head until the very moment that you need to remember them for when you’re writing a review about them. *severe eye roll*

As previously stated, this play is v funny. However, before I recommend that you immediately purchase tickets for this play I feel it is my duty to warn you of one very disturbing toilet scene. Now, as a former bar attendant (Lloyds No.1 Bar, Huddersfield circa 2005-2007 before the indoors smoking ban. I smelled just wonderful after those shifts) I am under no illusions as to the thoroughly disgusting nature of the men’s toilets. It is only now that I have witnessed this particular scene in Bouncers, along with acknowledging sniggers from male members of the audience, that the full picture has been revealed to me. I have learned how truly grotesque men can be. I fear I can never unlearn this. There. You have been warned.

If you haven’t seen Bouncers, don’t panic! There is a list of remaining tour dates here.

‘The Beautiful Warmth’ by Adam Gilmour

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‘The Beautiful Warmth’ is Adam Gilmour‘s debut play as writer and performer. Gilmour won a commission through To The Stage in March 2014 to produce and perform this play at Sale’s Waterside Arts Centre.

Set in Whitworth, Lancashire in 1989, we follow TK as he struggles to make a crucial sale for his uncle’s fireplace company.

Here’s a little taster off of YouTube. (You will be convinced to buy tickets. Do not buy tickets. It happened 3 days ago. If you have a time machine however that is a whole different kettle of fish and you should indeed buy tickets. But I digress. Watch the video).

I first heard about this play in March 2014, when I popped along to The Waterside Arts Centre in Sale for an evening of new theatre. There were not one, not two but FIVE writers all there with some original works in tow. Oh, the tension! The competition! The many many wines …  Each writer had ten minutes to showcase their work. Some writers literally showed the first ten minutes of their play, others gave a very condensed version of their play and one (Gilmour) sold their play in the form of a presentation.  I have to say that I had gone along to support brilliant writer and script-writing guru, Emma Hill. Her play was very brilliant FYI. You should check her out. Not in a pervy way. In a look-how-very-talented-she-is kind of way. (You’re welcome Emma. I usually settle these transactions with cake).

If you’re a Lancashire Lass (and/or Lad) like myself, there isn’t much to complain about with this play. I do love to hear our beautiful regional utterances on stage for a change. But aside from that, it was also very darkly comedic. My favourite kind. TK (Gilmour) is a happy-go-lucky chap. Yes, he’s somewhat deluded in his selling abilities but he sure has pluck, ambition and determination. And powerpoint slides. Lots of powerpoint slides. My favourite thing about TK is his opening mantra, which sees him through most things; “Hello! Bonjourno! Mais Oui!” (pronounced “Mez Wee” obviously).

Then we have TK’s uncle. Slightly scary chap; brandishes a suitcase, likes short shorts and a bandana, you know the type. Then there’s the office rival, Lucky. At first glance, Lucky is just your run-of-the-mill over confident salesman. We learn some interesting things about him later on, particularly with reference to past liaisons with Rena. Along with Tom, Rena lives in the only house in Whitworth without one of ‘The Beautiful Warmth’s product. Tom has recently been made redundant and fills his days proofreading newspapers, until a certain salesman comes a-knockin’. The unravelling of Lucky and Rena’s relationship and the formation of Rena and Tom’s relationship is explored with some surprising twists along the way. In and amongst, we have a sliver of the surreal with Kylie, an actress hired for an advert gone wrong. Very wrong.

I was two in 1989 so I’m not at liberty to comment on the authenticity of the play. However, I did enjoy the realistic relationships portrayed under the dark dome of the all powerful fireplace business. The one house, marked in blue in a town of red dots, filled with such drama and history! Very exciting. I also very much enjoyed the stylish changeovers in between scenes. 80s music, hooded stage hands with questionable dance moves, sunglasses indoors. Very good.

I was intrigued to see the end product of ‘The Beautiful Warmth’ after seeing the initial “sell”. I was not disappointed. Lets have more events that celebrate new writers in the North! We have so many amazing theatres and venues here that should really be filled with local talent. (As well as a classic musical or two obvs.)

I look forward to Check Shirt Theatre‘s next production. Keep writing Mr Gilmour.

 

Romeo and Juliet at the Victoria Baths in Manchester

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I witnessed a deeply brilliant new production of Romeo and Juliet the other night. The show, as interpreted and performed by Home, an amalgamation of the Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse of Manchester, is unlike any I have seen before. It wasn’t just the vibrant cast, but their “stage” which volleyed their efforts above the rest.

The play took place at Victoria Baths in Manchester. Walter Meierjohann, director, has described the baths as having “a sense of faded beauty, of kitsch, of emptiness, of death.” Added to this the impressive set design by Ti Green, it is not difficult to see why this space is so perfect for Shakespeare’s most tragic love story.

Unlike a traditional theatre visit, the audience is invited to travel the journey figuratively and physically with the cast. The action takes place in three “pools” in Victoria Baths. The first was in the intricately mosaiced Ladies Pool, lined with old fashioned, curtained changing closets. Petra-Jane Tauscher, Dramaturg, tells us how the building influenced the edit of the play, most prominently the opening chorus scene between the Montagues and the Capulets.

“We were inspired by the two sides of cubicles in the Ladies Pool to make the opening a chorus scene between the Capulets and Montagues, rather than a dialogue as it is written.”

The pool of course was empty of water and filled instead with some audience members, floating around a large walkway in the middle. And so the play began. We had been warned to wear comfortable shoes and warm clothing being as the building we were in had no heating. Being a sensible sort, of course, I had complied but quickly became flustered at being too warm. I soon learned however that the extra layers were a necessity, if not for the anticipated cold but for the goosebumps that gripped my flesh as the action unfolded. Being seated as I was in the upper seating area, I could only see one side of the action, as the Capulets exited their cubicles. “Do you bite your thumb at me sir?” A rejoining “No sir” from the Montagues emanated from beneath my seat. As the tension grew between the warring families, I had to choke back tears. This is what theatre should be. The pretentious, wealthy Capulets verses the ragged, streetwise Montagues inhabit a “fantasy criminal underworld in an unnamed city somewhere in post-communist Eastern Europe” says Meierjohann.

I’ll be honest, I have always found the premise of this tragic story a little far fetched. Two teenagers so deeply in love that they cannot and will not live without one another. Having known each other for a matter of days. And one of them being only 14 years of age. But any doubts were quickly brushed aside. The chemistry between Romeo and Juliet was palpable. This isn’t lust or a hormone imbalance. This is true love. Their love is not only believable, it’s necessary. Their very survival is dependent on one another from the moment that their eyes lock for the first time.

Meierjohann’s use of the space added so much to the performance. The use of a trapeze swing to portray Romeo and Juliet’s first night of marriage was breathtaking, and such a beautiful way to emulate that which has the potential to be a rather uncomfortable scene.

With Romeo on the brink of banishment and Juliet’s imminent “engagement” to Paris, the stage is transformed into Juliet’s bedchamber. This part of the play onwards allowed the audience to play a more pivotal role as we travelled with the characters. As Juliet’s lifeless body was cradled above the heads of black-clad pall bearers, the audience shuffled silently behind as if in deep mourning. In the next room we found banished Romeo alone in the dark, atop a picture of Juliet’s beaming face. His world is empty but for her. Had we been allowed to take photos, this scene would have provided the ultimate arty snap. Romeo’s black jeans and white torso, against the black and white of Juliet’s face; the black of the room almost blanketing the love that shines from Romeo for his Juliet. Learning of his lover’s ‘death’, Romeo flees, poison in hand, to her final resting place. Again the audience follows the action into a third chamber.

I will try to express in words what I saw. Even a picture could not do justice to the live spectacle. Everything was so sombre and yet so desperately enchanting. In this room, the pool was filled deeply with turquoise water, which lapped silently at the gigantic cross that lay across it. This was Juliet’s chapel. She lay peacefully in the centre of the cross, swaddled in her wedding gown.  The lighting was impeccable; tea lights floated among red flowers on the water’s surface. Incense filled the room. The sobering image of Juliet lying there was so moving that again it was a struggle not to break down.

No matter how many times I see Romeo and Juliet, the inevitable end never fails to break my heart. The terrible finality, the tragic timing is all too much. If only she had woken up seconds earlier! If only teenagers in love were not such passionate creatures! If only the Montagues and Capulets were friends! If only if only if only! Seeing the eponymous heroes laying there together, both still warm but growing colder in each other’s arms, there was no stopping the tears this time.

It is difficult to comprehend that this play was written over 400 years ago and is still performed and loved to this day. Shakespeare shines a light into the future, revealing human nature as it has always been. And yet through the tragedy of the story, there is hope. Good can grow out of bad; Juliet’s love for Romeo (“My only love sprung from my only hate”); Romeo’s love for Juliet; following the tragic deaths, a truce between the two families.

I’m quite sure that the Bard would have been quite as blown away by this production as I. The use of a building such as the Victoria Baths is a stroke of genius. The building allows for an experience that can never be achieved in a theatre. I love theatres. They are beautiful buildings. But no amount of scaffolding, props or setting can detract from the fact that it is a theatre. At Victoria Baths, the audience is truly drawn into the story because we are not in a theatre; we are in the Capulet’s house; in Friar Lawrence’s chapel; in Juliet’s bedchamber; in Romeo’s banishment.

I hope to see many more productions like this one. I cried, I laughed, I got cramp. Such a magical time. Bravo Home Theatre and Victoria Baths of Manchester. You are all very brilliant and amazing.

I believe Romeo and Juliet is all sold out, but for future projects by Home Theatre, click here. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out.

*All quotes taken from the programme produced by Home Theatre, purchased on the night.

*Picture taken from homemcr.org

*Special thanks to Wikipedia.org for its unending wisdom and one link that I used