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Review: Shangri-la at Hope Mill Theatre

The press release promised a run-down B&B which doubled as a swinger’s club, a gambling man, a fortune teller and an elderly deviant.

My immediate thoughts turned to Benidorm. It’ll be leopard print, ‘bosoms’, nudge nudge wink winks, Carry On Abroad (at home), that glorious feature length film that took the cast of Are You Being Served abroad (but again, at home) and so on and so forth.

Full disclosure – I actually love all those things when all’s said and done.

So I’d definitely get something from this play but perhaps it would be as a kind of tribute? Homage?

Wow, it was so much more. The release also promised a dark comedy and as the narrative moved forward, boy did it bring the dark.

Said it before, many times, will say it again. Fringe theatre has nothing to hide behind – no elaborate sets, special effects, ‘big name’ draws or anything else that hides weak scripts, cliched narratives or lazy acting in seemingly plain sight.

And that’s what makes it so special and even more so when you’re blown away by a production.

Written by BAFTA ‘breakthrough Brit’ Gemma Langford and directed by Joel Parry, the lines were both funny but often poignant, pitched perfectly by the cast who delivered an engaging performance throughout. But the themes, messaging all the way upto the final uttered line

Keep your eyes closed

clearly came from a place of deep understanding of the workings of life and human behaviours, and how ‘normal life’ – ‘spag bol’ and all, can sometimes deeply and dangerously mask the inner truth of who someone truly is and what they actually want.

I grew up in a village just a couple of miles outside of Blackpool (hence the ‘honorary), and so have a deep, genuine affection for proms, tower ballrooms, 2pence slot machines and the deep melancholic feel of a seaside town in the depths of winter.

Therefore as the play progressed and turned a darker shade of flashing neon, I was already fully immersed in the environment. Oh, not the swinging I hasten to heavily add…

As some characters covered up and some laid bare, both metaphorically and practically physically, the old adage ‘things aren’t always what they seem,’ never rang more true.

I genuinely encourage you to see this play so whilst I always steer clear of a spoiler anyway, I’m being even more cryptic than ever.

But head along to the wonderful Hope Mill Theatre, and all its charms, and catch a performance of Shangri-la from Broken Biscuits Theatre Company, whilst you can (you have until 20 February).

Do watch out for the soul-searching on the tram journey home though…

For full details including cast, creatives and booking details, head to https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/welcome-to-shangri-la

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Culture Manchester preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

Review: Hamlet at Hope Mill Theatre

Forgive me, Manchester theatre world and community, for I have sinned.

Despite being a fairly frequent theatre-goer and the space being in operation since 2015, this week was the first time I entered the wonderful world that is Hope Mill Theatre.

Forgive me further, Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women, if I take a moment to talk about the venue as well as the show which drew me there in the first place, Hamlet.

Like most fringe venues, Hope Mill is delightfully tucked away, leaving the visitor with a sense of discovery when rounding that corner to see the fairy light lit entrance, inviting you in to experience an evening (or indeed afternoon), of wonderful theatre.

The candle-lit bar with its glorious (yes, glorious) pizzas, acts as the perfect warm-up for the performances on offer as you step through the curtains and take your seat.

And so, my seat was taken for the all female Shakespeare production of Hamlet.

A quick summary of the long-told tale of tragedy as gifted to us by the Bard himself, Hamlet returns from University to Denmark, only to discover that not only is his father dead, but that his mother has now married his Uncle and is the new King.

I wondered how an all female cast would manifest itself – whether it would form a distraction, a detraction (either positively or negatively) from the performance – was it a novelty? Of course it wasn’t. It was a cast of actors who happen to be women…who also happen to be hugely talented and engaging.

In fact, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not about male vs female actors. It’s about removing ‘tradition’ and barriers. In this case, female characters written to accommodate male domination. Indeed, as the programme to the play lays bare – ‘themes of fragility and weakness run rampant’ (in Hamlet).

It’s a leveling up.

As often the case with fringe theatre, the set is simple, allowing the performances to play out in the spotlight, allowing no distractions or indeed back-ups to the acting.

Indeed, none needed.

In the title role, Eve Shotton, commands attention not only when the performance demands overt physicality, declaration and swagger, but in the sensitive moments and aspects of the play.

Hamlet would never have struck me as one of Shakespeare’s most comedic of texts, yet the humorous lines and situations were grasped firmly by the scruff of the neck by all involved.

With great timing and delivery, not to mention facial expressions (nothing can beat the intimacy of fringe theatre between cast and audience), this aspect of proceedings landed perfectly, providing much mirth and, dare I say it, laugh out loud moments.

As matters moved from the comedy to the more tragic, the cast join the shift in mood, providing the shade to the injections of light, and deliver a resounding production, which in the round, is all about balance.

Balancing the comedy and tragedy in the performances.

Balancing the aesthetic between historic and modernity in the costume.

But more importantly, a rebalancing of gender contribution to one of the most famous texts in the world of literature and theatre. Not only in its performing cast, but in its entire cast of creatives.

The late, great Richard Griffiths, as Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, proclaimed,

It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane’…

This wonderful all female outfit shows that while not every young woman can play the Dane as well as Eve Shotton, it needn’t carry the extra layer of this being for reasons of gender.

For all details, visit Hamlet at the Hope Mill Theatre

The play runs until Saturday 11 May.

Photography credit: Lucy Ridge Photography