Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Joe O'Byrne (as Grady), and Dan Thackeray (Vincent)
Photo: Shay Rowan

Written & directed by Joe O’Byrne

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Reviewed on 10th April 2016
Future performances 16th to 20th August at The King’s Arms, Salford

Review by Brian Gorman

You know the great gag in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, where the amps go “up to eleven”? Well, I wish the standard five star system went up to six, because this stunning cracker of a show would get the full set of pointy things from me.
Imagine the great Martin Scorcese suddenly popping up at Cannes with a good old-fashioned twisty-turny, Hitchcockian haunted house comedy-thriller. A renowned director, known primarily for his hard-hitting, near-the knuckle, often controversial, and grittily realistic dramas. Bit of a shock to the system, right? Well, local hero Joe O’Byrne (Greater Manchester’s finest chronicler of the modern day social conscience) is our very own Scorcese; justifiably critically acclaimed for his bruising series of plays and films set on the fictional Paradise Heights housing estate, and he’s done just that.
‘The Haunting Of Blaine Manor’ is a gloriously written rollercoaster of a play, chockful of golden era Hollywood in-jokes, nods to classic movies featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Humphrey Bogart et al. There’s a great Ed Wood vibe (the ‘worst director in Hollywood History’, wonderfully portrayed in Tim Burton’s best movie ‘Ed Wood’), but where Mr Wood was a truly awful writer (hugely optimistic, but ultimately excruitiatingly untalented), Mr Byrne is an absolute master of his dark arts.  
It’s England, 1953, and there’s some rum goings-on up at the creepy old Blaine Manor. Proto X-Files investigator, Dr Roy Earle (superbly played by a laconic, and aptly Bogartian, Peter Slater) arrives to attend a séance, and is keen to debunk anything remotely supernatural. Joining him are a rather colourful bunch of brilliantly realised characters, including the camp, eye-liner worrying, ferret-like medium, ‘Cairo’ (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Andrew Yates), and the far more domineering, supremely confident, fellow spirit mitherer Scarabus (Ian Curley, suitably dynamic). The seductive, muck-raking journalist Vivian (a prowling, man-eating Jo Haydock), genial and enigmatic manservant Grady (O’Byrne himself in slick, Kevin Spacey-esque mode), and the obviously dodgy keeper of Blaine Manor, Vincent (Daniel Thackeray, managing to be both subtle and melodramatic at the same time; harking at the man himself, Vincent Price in ‘Witchfinder General’). When the motley ensemble are told the planned séance is cancelled (due to the untimely death of a fellow guest psychic), the game is afoot when bad weather maroons our sinister six on the windswept moors.
Set in a single, elegantly decorated room, with the bare brick walls, high ceiling, and atmospheric backdrop of the suitably spooky, and dilapidated, Victorian Hope Mill, the action is beautifully claustrophobic. Our dirty half dozen are crammed together, and it’s only a matter of time before booze and blood are spilled, secrets come tumbling out, and twist upon twist revealed. I honestly thought I’d guessed where it was all heading, but O’Byrne pulled the metaphorical rug right out from under us with a cracking final scene. I can’t begin to reveal any of the secrets of Blaine Manor, but Joe O’Byrne must have sold (or at least pawned for a few weeks) his very soul to write this. It’s all perfectly paced by O’Byrne’s directing, and when the shocks come, they are never telegraphed, keeping the audience on their toes throughout. Mix in a nerve-jangling soundscape by Justin Wetherill, throbbing menacingly throughout, and helping to shred nerves already barely held together by a thread, and you have a perfect recipe for one hell of an entertaining evening.

The full six out of five stars it is!

Monday, November 23, 2015


Written & directed by Craig Hepworth
The King’s Arms, Salford
Until 24th November 2015


Ascension is the latest production from Manchester fringe trailblazers Vertigo Productions, and is not for the faint of heart. Or those averse to full frontal nudity. Or BDSM. Or S & M. Or murder. Or blood. Or sex. Or animal cruelty. Or bottoms. Or…, actually, I think I’d better stop there, as I’m guessing that you’ve got the picture by now. Yes, this one’s got it all, folks. Something to offend everybody. Well, those who delight in being offended, that is. Craig Hepworth has set his new stage play in modern day America, but takes his inspiration from the notorious Leopold and Loeb case of 1924. Described as ‘The crime of the century’, the infamous murder of a teenage boy, by a pair of self-obsessed, rich young things with superiority complexes (they actually considered themselves ‘Supermen’, after overdosing on Nietzche) became an international sensation. Leopold and Loeb considered themselves above the law, and set out to prove how clever they were by meticulously planning and executing the murder of an innocent 14 year old (they failed. Spectacularly). Hepworth’s script takes the basic theme of deluded personalities seeking to impose their will on others, and fashions a quite terrifying tale of two souls descending into madness, and destroying everybody they come into contact with.
The two central performances are flawless. Richard Allen and Ryan McMyler play a gay couple, Richard and Nathan, superglued together in a violent, depraved, and mutually destructive sadomasochistic relationship. Nathan is the dominant partner; portrayed with frightening intensity by the livewire McMyler. His adoring, and supremely subservient lover, Richard (a deceptively controlled Allen) gets the brown end of the stick whilst suffering an endless barrage of slaps, punches, cigarette burns, and rough sexual assaults. From the very beginning, it is Richard who is the stronger man, and Nathan who we see gradually losing his mind. Noir-ish flashbacks detail the characters’ individual backstories – Nathan is a spoilt rich boy, delighting in abusing animals, while Richard is the mild-mannered kid suffering bullying at school. Video excerpts of the men’s’ lives are shot in a beautifully noir style, reminiscent of the nightmare imagery of film-maker David Lynch. The whole story zips by in a pacey, movie-esque style, with no fat to be trimmed. I’m not entirely convinced we needed to have the story set in the US, but maybe that’s just a personal thing (it could have been even more terrifying, particularly for a Salford audience, to have it set in the north of England). Director Hepworth indulges writer Hepworth, and has an ensemble of mask-wearing, supporting characters play out a variety of scene-setting pieces utilising dance, mime, and physical theatre. Almost every character is semi-naked throughout, which gives the play a raw, edgy atmosphere, particularly when the actors lend their bodies for use as tables and chairs by the two leads.

As I said, not for the faint hearted.

Monday, November 02, 2015



Written by Sean Mason
Directed by Peter M George
The Seven Oaks pub, Manchester

Until Wed 4th Nov

Reviewed on 28.10.15

Humpty’s Bones is the latest production from the always intriguing, always entertaining, and always adventurous Sytheplays Ltd. Local legend Sean Mason has adapted Simon Clark’s creepy short story for the stage, and the relatively small upstairs room at the Seven Oaks pub is the perfect venue to frighten the collective pants off any punter venturing there on a misty Autumnal evening. Claustrophobic, wood-panelled, ancient-looking décor, and a truly foreboding atmosphere. Perfect for a Halloween treat. It’s a very Nigel Kneale-esque story of inquisitive folk messing around with ancient and still-bearing-a-grudge supernatural entities. On this occasion, a grave is disturbed in a back garden, and a collection of bones are being examined by a dim-witted amateur archaeologist, Heather Laird (played by an impish Lauron Stirrup). The skeleton’s head is missing, and things just don’t add up. Enter our young heroine, the wonderfully-monikered Eden Page (a delightful Catryn Philbin) to stir things up, annoy the locals, and provide some much-needed distraction for Heather’s cranky, sexually frustrated, and boorish husband Curtis (Andrew Marsden). There’s a League Of Gentlemen aspect to this gruesome little piece, and, at one point, I half expected Pat Brocklehurst’s mad old bat Ada Hezzle to be unmasked as Steve Pemberton in drag. The old hag’s cryptic warnings and crazed mutterings fail to deter our lovely Eden from getting involved with stuff she shouldn’t get involved with, and so events spiral towards an eruption of murder, ghoulish activities, and eventual blood-chilling horror. Marsden’s Curtis is a frightening creation, like a psycho scarecrow lashing out at all and sundry, desperate for the touch of a good woman (or any woman, really), and batshit crazy enough to ignore the werewolf-like creature literally at his front door, preferring instead to focus his narrow-sighted attentions on the less than impressed Eden. Full marks to Greg Hulme’s moody and unsettling music, and Peter M George’s full-bloodied direction and sound design (with Sytheplay’s Daniel Thackeray). Be warned – don’t mess with the dead, ‘cos dem bones is gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


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Sunday, July 19, 2015


Written by Norris and Parker
Directed by Lucia Cox
The King’s Arms, Salford
Rating: 5 stars
Review by Brian Gorman

“Why aren’t you famous, yet?” I asked them in the bar after the show. Katie Norris and Sinead Parker are a truly formidable double act, with shades of French & Saunders, Reeves & Mortimer, and (dare I suggest?) the mighty Cannon & Ball. On a bare stage containing just a couple of chairs, our two lycra-clad heroines performed a series of surreal, dark, deliciously twisted comedy sketches featuring a gallery of perfectly-realised, often grotesque  characters. Opening with the glorious ‘Twat’ song, the stage was set for a marvellous evening of superbly delirious character comedy, delivered by the best double act who aren’t yet famous. Expertly-aimed pot shots eviscerated the evil Tories, overly saccharine West End musicals (the song ‘Meat’ is delivered with lung-busting, tonsil-straining ferocity by Parker – the ‘blonde one’), and hipper-than-thou Mancunian punk poets (yes, there’s more than one). Norris (the ‘brunette one’) plays the slightly tougher, more commanding of the pair, with Parker the more submissive (revealing her Sapphic passion for her on-stage partner at hilariously inappropriate moments). As two rather attractive female performers, clad primarily in figure-hugging leotards, the more side-splitting moments came when the pair went all out to be as unattractive as possible; one prime example being the sight of David Cameron having his nether regions scratched by a fawning Nick Clegg. There was much mickey-taking at the whole ‘female comic’ aspect of the show, with both women often undermining their onstage personas, and making cringe-worthy attempts at chatting up various men in the audience (including one chap on the front row being more than happy to play ball).
Running for just an hour, All Our Friends Are Dead certainly left one wishing for more. There wasn’t a weak moment to be had, with each sketch packed with innumerable fantastic one-liners, and beautifully observed characters. These are two very talented performers, and I cannot recommend them highly enough. See them now, live on stage, before they’re snapped up for the telly, playing arenas, and retiring far too early.

Reviewed 16.07.15

Tags: Sinead Parker, Katie Norris, Lucia Cox, King’s Arms, Salford, All Our Friends Are Dead

Originally published (with bizarre edits) at www.thepublicreviews.com

Friday, July 17, 2015


Written by Philip Martin
Directed by Michael Whittaker
3MT Theatre, Manchester (until 19th June)
Salford Arts Theatre (24/25th June)

Review by Brian Gorman

A full house is always a very welcome sight for a relatively unknown play. ‘East Of Heysham’ is written by Philip Martin, legendary creator of the 1970s BBC tv series ‘Gangsters’, plus a couple of 80s Doctor Who. Producer Gareth Kavanagh (of Manchester’s renowned Lass Productions, purveyors of many a ‘lost classic’, cult tv/film adaptation, etc.) discovered this little-known script, and has mounted it at the intimate, rather eccentrically decorated 3MT Theatre (think the TARDIS with Salvador Dali as interior designer). This is a gently humorous story of 3 sad, aging, and deeply flawed individuals bonded by their love of 50s icon James Dean (hence the title reference to the 1955 epic ‘East Of Eden’), whose character deficiencies and inner demons are teased out, and simultaneously exorcised by a newcomer to their dwindling ranks. David Slack plays the seventy-something Vince, leader of the pack, and somewhat decrepit lothario, resplendent in his snuggly-fitting, bright red windcheater (echoing Dean’s character in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’), and desperate to keep his idol’s memory alive. Slack carries the part well, and his towering bulk suits Vince’s weathered swagger, whilst hinting at the clay feet and Ozymandian fate. The downtrodden, deluded Walter (a superb performance by Pete Gibson) cowers in Vince’s shadow in a distressing, symbiotic, Clarkson/Hammond Top Gear style, whilst looking as though he will fall apart at any moment due to the stress of trying to coax into life an equally gutless and past-its-sell-by-date 16mm film projector. This pitifully undynamic duo are kept in check by the icy Bel (Wendy McCormack), a hard-nosed businesswoman making a small fortune flogging cheap anti-aging remedies to her unsuspecting customers. McCormack cuts a formidable figure, and deftly portrays a character literally held together by vanity and guilt. The themes of keeping the past alive, defying the ravages of time, and allowing past mistakes to haunt the present are communicated well by Martin’s tight, unfussy script, and Michael Whittaker’s no-nonsense direction. Energetic Roisin McCusker plays the young, enigmatic stranger in town, Sarah, and soon has the hapless Vince going all Jack Duckworth on her. You can guess how that plays out.
‘East Of Heysham’ has a clever mix of light and shade, with the gentle, morphine drip of ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ mixed with the spice of a J B Priestly morality play. No-one is wholly innocent, everybody has secrets, and all are prisoners of their own making. Beckettian? Perhaps. Pinteresque? A little. At around 90 minutes (plus interval), it certainly never drags or outstays its welcome. For a first night, this was old-fashioned, entertaining stuff, but there’s a lot to work with, and a solid cast that will grow in confidence. There’s certainly life in this Martian Chronicle.

Tags: East Of Heysham, Philip Martin, Lass Productions, David Slack, Pete Gibson, Wendy McCormack, Roisin McCusker, Michael Whittaker, Three Minute Theatre, Manchester, Salford Arts Theatre

Originally published by www.thepublicreviews.com


Written & directed by Daniel Thackeray
Albert’s Chop House, Manchester

Review by Brian Gorman

As the title suggests, we are in the 1980s, and disco king Giorgio Moroder’s song (with vocals by The Human League’s Phil Oakey) perfectly evokes the spirit of the era. Personal computers have become a reality, and two of the industry’s entrepreneurial giants are meeting to discuss the future. Based on real-life events, Daniel Thackeray’s play (based on an idea by Lass Productions’ Gareth Kavanagh) brings us the eccentric Sir Clive Sinclair (inventor of the first pocket calculator, the first mass-market home computer, and the revolutionary-yet-ultimately-doomed C5 motor vehicle) reeling from a series of body blows to his business. Under financial pressure, Sir Clive arranges to meet his arch rival, Alan Sugar, with a view to selling the sharp-suited ex London barrow boy the Sinclair trademark and computer business. It’s a great premise for a play; two completely contrasting personalities meeting for dinner in a Chinese restaurant, with the future of the home computer market at stake. Thackeray is ideally cast as the gangly, awkward, prim and proper Sinclair, and the sparks really fly when Matthew O’Neill’s bullish, lowbrow, no-nonsense Sugar arrives to pick over the bones of the great man’s empire. With his slick-backed hair, crumpled pinstriped suit, and unshaven appearance, O’Neill plays the oafish, yet sharp-minded future business guru (and knight of the realm) perfectly.
The action is contained at the restaurant table, with a few snippets of hilarious 1980s tv ads on a projection screen. Thackeray’s direction concentrates almost entirely on the two businessmen’s conversation, eschewing any temptation for histrionics or broad theatrics. This works well, as the men engage in a mental battle for supremacy, with Sugar’s clear-sightedness and bulldozer approach gradually wearing down the rather old-fashioned and hopelessly out-of-touch Sinclair. There is a sprinkling of nice comic moments, mainly at the expense of Sugar’s table manners and lack of sophistication in contrast to Sinclair’s gentlemanly demeanour. A delightful Jess Lee’s tiny, bustling waitress serves to further highlight the men’s distinctive characters; Sugar’s laddish, cheeky chappie and Sinclair’s old school charm. There’s much here for computer geeks, with plenty of in jokes about the home computer industry (much of which, I confess, went over my head, but had many of the audience giggling), and the two lead actors make for a great double act.

Reviewed on 14.07.15
At Buxton Fringe Festival until 22nd July

Tags: Together In Electric Dreams, Daniel Thackeray, Matthew O’Neill, Jess Lee, Gareth Kavanagh, Lass Productions, Sytheplays, Clive Sinclair, Alan Sugar, Albert’s Chop House, Manchester

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Matthew Howard-Norman & Lee Joseph
(Photo by Shay Rowan)

A Double Bill with 'Naked Old Man'

Theatre Review

Taurus, Manchester
Written by George Gunby/Murray Schisgal
Directed by Paul Blinkhorn

4.5 Stars (John And Mark)/3.5 Stars (Naked Old Man)

A somewhat curious double bill; one part disturbing reflections on murder and celebrity, and the other a gentle rumination on old age, this was, overall, a beautifully entertaining evening.

Richard Sails
(Photo by Shay Rowan)

First up was ‘Naked Old Man’, by the multi award-winning Murray Schisgal (co-writer of the film ‘Tootsie’), and starring Richard Sails. This autobiographical 45 minute piece had Schisgal ruminating about his 82 years of life, in the company of several deceased friends and ex colleagues. There isn’t a lot of plot, and it was thanks to Sails’ genial characterisation that ‘Naked Old Man’ didn’t fall apart at the seams. It was effectively and efficiently done, but pretty throwaway, and more than a little self indulgent (on the part of the writer). A lot of Hollywood names are dropped, a few gently amusing anecdotes, and a lot of first-hand observations about old age. Sails is perfectly cast (though about 20 years too young), and does his best to make the material work, but there just isn’t enough to get his teeth into. A pleasant, undemanding piece, and something of a light starter for the more filling main course to come.

 Controversial, and apparently too much for Liverpool audiences (earlier performances in the city were sparsely attended, partly thanks to the negative attitude of the local press, and some narrow-minded Beatles fans). Northern Outlet Theatre Company’s latest production, ‘John And Mark’, takes a chilling look into the mind of John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, by way of the ghost of Lennon visiting the prison cell of his assassin. This new work by George Gunby was riveting, humorous, dramatic, chilling, and gut-wrenchingly emotional. Playing to a capacity audience at Manchester’s Canal Street bar, Taurus, in a claustrophobic underground theatre space, this hour long piece worked superbly well.
Matthew Howard-Norman as Chapman, portrayed a shuffling mess of a character; a repressed man-child calmly attributing his actions to the will of God, and the seeming hypocrisy of his celebrity victim. The portly, pale-skinned Howard-Norman, clad only in a pair of ill-fitting, baggy, and supremely unattractive underpants, opened the play, and physically summed up the pathetic, self-loathing Chapman in an instant. A short scene, set the night before the killing in December 1980, had Chapman begging for some human contact from a brassy, and impatient New York prostitute (Tracy Gabbitas), and being coldly rejected. Fast forward a few years, and Chapman is now living out his days in a maximum security prison, still protesting his moral innocence and remaining irritatingly uncooperative with psychiatrists and doctors. Enter John Lennon, in the wiry, virile form of actor Lee Joseph; sloping nonchalantly into view with the signature swagger and arrogant devil-may-care attitude of the scouse icon himself. Joseph embodied the man perfectly, and the scenes between Lennon and Chapman were riveting. We learned that Chapman had all the makings of a good man, that he did a lot of charity work with Vietnamese refugees, and had firm religious convictions. His obsession with J D Salinger’s novel, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, led to him viewing the wealthy and successful Lennon as a fake, and the former Beatle as a disgusting hypocrite for preaching about peace, love, and the dismissal of material wealth whilst living the life of a millionaire celebrity. Whether Chapman had a point is up for debate, and this stage version of Lennon certainly hit back against the accusations with a compelling argument (namely, that he was only an ordinary man trying to make a difference, and that he’d have been a fool just to simply give his money away). The remarkable Tracy Gabbitas appeared again as Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, in a supremely moving scene suggesting what might have been if John had returned home to Liverpool.
The central question, of exactly why did Chapman shoot Lennon, can never be answered; the problem is with the question. For the pathetically deluded Chapman it was absolutely the right thing to do, and it was destined to happen, but for the rest of us it was an outrage for which the pain will never end.
Director Paul Blinkhorn kept a tight reign on the material, and never fell into the trap of simple black & white ethics. Chapman can be viewed as a sad, fundamentally flawed human being, who might have taken a different path in life but for a loveless childhood, and an abusive father. He could be seen as a victim, but the target of his anger and delusion just happened to be a beloved messianic figure to millions, and Chapman’s demonisation must continue, it seems. Thanks to this provocative and disturbing production, the other side of the coin spins into view. For a change.

Reviewed on 13.11.14

Tags: John And Mark, George Gunby, Lee Joseph, Tracy Gabbitas, Matthew Howard-Norman, Naked Old Man, Richard Sails, Paul Blinkhorn, Northern Outlet Theatre Company, Taurus, Manchester