18 September 2019

Toast - Northern Stage

I read cook and food writer Nigel Slater's well-loved memoir Toast when it came out years ago, and despite not being able to remember much of the story, I definitely remembered the warm, cosy feeling it left me with and the way that he brings food to life on the page.

The stage production did all of that and more, with the excellent Giles Cooper playing Nigel who compellingly tells the story of his childhood through food, which went from idyllic (his love of cooking stems from cooking with his mother) to tragic (she suffered from bad asthma - her decline is portrayed tenderly by Katy Federman).

Toast Northern Stage
A mother's love - Mum (Katy Federman) and Nigel (Giles Cooper)
Upon entering the cinema, you're hit with the familiar smell of burnt toast and reminded of just how much food and smells act as markers in our memory. Fittingly, the set is the Slater family's 60s kitchen, with the clever addition of moveable cabinets and the cast pitching in to move props around. 
Nigel and his mum bake their way through family favourites jam tarts, mince pies and Christmas cake (my mouth was watering throughout). The loving relationship with his mum was in stark contrast to the lack of affection from his stern dad (Blair Plant), a factory owner and a typical father of that time who struggled to show his emotion. 

Obsessing about sweets 
I loved the way lists are used to tell us about Nigel's favourite foods, and the family rules at restaurants (where politeness is more important than the actual eating). Music and movement is used to great effect too, with great scenes including a game show-like sweet shop, a special visit to the grocery store at Christmas and mother and son dancing together on the kitchen worktops. There are plenty of funny moments (including Mrs Slater's coquettish behaviour around the gardener (Stefan Edwards) and his burgeoning interest in sex) to balance out the sadness that comes with losing a parent at a young age. The cast play a variety of roles which works really well and shows off their incredible versatility.

Nigel making himself sick on Strawberry Sundaes
The second half sees Nigel's dad getting remarried and a house move, and Nigel getting into a food war with his new step mum Joan (Samantha Hopkins). Family tragedy strikes again, but luckily food and cooking continue to be a passion for him, and leads to a job at a hotel and exploring his sexuality before he heads to the bright lights of London and The Savoy. The scene where Nigel actually cooks is beautiful and brings everything together - the sounds, ingredients, smells and simplicity of a dish made with love. If you sit in the front row you might be lucky enough to be handed some flapjack, but everyone is guaranteed sweets and yes, walnut whips are involved as well! Be prepared to want to head to a restaurant afterwards. 

Toast is at Northern Stage until 21st September - get your tickets here 

14 September 2019

PREVIEW - Pride and Prejudice (*Sort Of) at Northern Stage

Everybody loves Pride & Prejudice, right? I still remember for some reason refusing to go on holiday with my family when I was fifteen, getting scared when they left for the airport at 2am and watching  the entire BBC series on video. It gave us wet-through Colin Firth and inspired Helen Fielding to write Bridget Jones, for crying out loud (THAT Mr Darcy was no coincidence). 

This time the much-loved novel has been given an all-female makeover by writer and performer Isobel McArthur, in conjunction with Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre Company. Why sort of? This adaptation focusses on the servants, six female servants to be precise who are playing ALL the roles. The adaptation draws on two hundred years of pop history and heavily features one of my favourite hobbies - karaoke! (Didn't expect that, did you)?

Expect plenty of laughs, a killer pop soundtrack, microphones and even to be moved! 

Catch Pride and Prejudice (*Sort Of) at Northern Stage from October 2nd to 12th. Tickets from £10. To book click here

10 September 2019

PREVIEW - Reasons To Stay Alive at Northern Stage

Matt Haig is one of my favourite writers. I read Reasons To Stay Alive a few years ago after suffering from depression and loved it (it inspired me to write my own story of recovery from mental health issues, Awakened). I really enjoy his writing style, humour and always learn a lot from his books. Then I started on his fiction, with the excellent How To Stop Time and The Humans. I'm yet to read Notes on a Nervous Planet, his latest musings on the effects of anxiety on society and how to cope in a chaotic world but it's in my Amazon wish list. So I was excited when I read that Reasons To Stay Alive had been adapted for the stage.

The book starts with Matt's breakdown in Ibiza (where he was close to throwing himself off a cliff) and charts his return to the UK, living with his parents and not being able to do simple things like go to the corner shop without having a panic attack. Luckily he has the support of his girlfriend (now wife). It's like a guidebook where he shares lots of insights and advice regarding recovery from depression alongside moments of humour and hope, proving that you can still live a great life despite having mental health issues.

Reasons To Stay Alive Northern Stage

Adapted for the stage and directed by Jonathan Watkins, and written by April de Angelis the play features Phil Cheadle as Older Matt, Mike Noble as Younger Matt and a strong supporting cast. Expect plenty of music and movement, as well as strong language (well, we are talking about life and death). And Matt's thoughts on the book becoming a play?

It’s wonderful to see a book take on other life forms, especially one as exciting and radically different as this one. I think this production will provide a fascinating way to look at depression and mental health. I’m so pleased it’s happening."

The production opens on 18 September (previews from 13 September) and runs at Sheffield Theatres until 28 September before touring to Bristol, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Manchester, York and Leeds.

To buy tickets for the Northern Stage from Tuesday 15th October to Saturday 19th October click here 

31 August 2019

Les Miserables - Theatre Royal

I can't believe I've never seen a production of Les Mis. I feel a bit embarrassed, being a bit of a theatre buff. Of course I've seen Tom Hooper's 2012 film and watched half of the recent BBC production (must watch the rest) and love the goosebump-inducing soundtrack. But last night eclipsed both of these (and the clips of Gaten Matarazzo from Stranger Things playing Gavroche on Broadway - actually they were pretty great)! 

Les Miserables Theatre Royal
Revolutionary - the Les Mis cast
It's hard to believe that the first performance was in 1980 in Paris, and its the the longest running musical in the West End (1985 to 2019). Victor Hugo's epic 1862 novel (which took him two decades to write) captured the imagination of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil/Jean-Marc Natal. The lyrics were rewritten in English by Herbert Kretzmer, super producer Cameron Mackintosh adapted it in English and the rest in history. Initially scorned by critics, the audiences fell in love with the brilliant score, Jean Valjean's journey from embittered convict to respected Mayor and saviour of Cosette and the tragic revolutionary battle of the second Act.

The Thenardiers and company
The score! What can I say! From the comedy and slapstick of "Master of the House" by the cheating, low-life Thenardiers, "Lovely Ladies," a surprisingly catchy tale of prostitution and the weirdly upbeat pessimism of factory workers "At The End Of The Day" to the haunting solo "I Dreamed A Dream" by poor, destitute Fantine daughter and Eponine's heartbreaking "On My Own," it's certainly a rollercoaster of emotion and amazing storytelling by the writers. The cast's voices were incredible, especially Katie Hall (Fantine), Tegan Bannister (Eponine) and of course Killian Donnelly (Jean Valjean) and Nic Greenshields (villain Javert). Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, played by Martin Ball and Sophie-Louise Dann) are the much needed comic relief that balance out the heavier moments and do a great job.

The set (by Matt Kinley) was amazing, with so many moving parts created with stunning detail, scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself and hyperrealistic special effects (the smoke and gunfire was particularly effective). It goes without saying that the costumes (by Andreane Neofitou) were exceptional and play a huge part in transporting you back to 1830s France.

After nearly three hours of completely engrossing action and a rollercoaster of emotions, a standing ovation was inevitable. I laughed, I cried (prepare yourself for Act II), I got goosebumps, I marvelled the scale of the whole thing and my friends and I were singing the songs for a good few weeks afterwards. Ne le manque pas! (Don't miss it)!

Five stars, no question! 

Les Mis is at Theatre Royal Newcastle until Saturday 5th October - get tickets here

*I received a ticket in exchange for a review