Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics


Book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Aria Entertainment & Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre
13 May 2016 to 11 June 2016

It's an ambitious move: this brand new fringe theatre in an old mill in Ancoats has programmed a full production of this Jason Robert Brown musical from 1998, so far only previously produced professionally in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 and Southwark Playhouse in 2011.

The theatre has paired up with Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment, who has been behind a number of London musicals at smaller venues such as Southwark Playhouse, Greenwich Theatre and St James Studio, so it certainly means business. The result is pretty impressive for a regional fringe venue, but it would seem the theatre is aspiring to be seen as more than this.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, the musical centres on the case of Leo Frank (Tom Lloyd), a Jewish pencil factory superintendent from Brooklyn. When 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan (Megan Ormiston) is raped and murdered, the police arrest Frank and black night watchman Newt Lee (Matt Mills), but they decide to focus on the Yankee Jew as, "hanging another nigger ain't enough this time. We gotta do better."

The police do a good job of bribing and intimidating witnesses to gain a conviction, and reporter Britt Craig (James Wolstenholme) is equally effective at turning public opinion against Frank, but his wife Lucille (Laura Harrison) keeps campaigning on his behalf, eventually getting the party-loving Governor Slaton (also James Wolstenholme) to take his job seriously for once, even if it won't be popular with the electorate.

It's an intriguing tale of racism and injustice with shades of To Kill A Mockingbird that draws an audience to indignantly sympathise with the powerless protagonist, despite him not being particularly likeable.

While there is an impressive and varied score and lyrics from Brown, Uhry's book tries to mix the domestic tale of the Franks' growing love and devotion with the trial and the political climate. It's all just too much, and the result is that the issues are dealt with superficially and many of the characters are just ciphers.

James Baker has a few odd staging choices, sometimes placing significant action in the middle or behind some of the audience, but the production scores highly on the musical side.

With a cast of 15 singing together in harmony and a live 10-piece band—in an old mill in Ancoats—the sound is terrific at times. Unfortunately it is let down a bit technically by a sound balance that has vocals from singers who don't really need mics in a place this size driven to distortion and very little other than drums and piano audible through the PA unless you are seated near to the band.

Lloyd is a very honest and dignified Leo Frank, with great support from Harrison as his wife. There are stand-out performances from Wolstenholme in three separate roles, but especially in his big number as Craig, "Real Big News", and Matt Mills as janitor and ex-con Jim Conley, whose "That's What He Said" that almost closes act I is a real showstopper.

This is a very bold experiment, bringing a full-scale production of a show that isn't easy to stage to a brand new small theatre off the beaten track for a 3-week run. While neither the show nor the production are without flaws, it's a spectacular and entertaining night at an impressive new theatre, hopefully the first of many.

Reviewer: David Chadderton


Comment by Alan Hulme

Yes, entirely agree with David's astute summary of the evening.

I too am very impressed with the ambition of the venture and the overall quality of the production, I just wish I liked the actual piece a little more. There's almost always good reasons why musicals don't hit the spot and the basic one here, as David points out, is the book, which is a mash-up of oft told tales of Deep South injustice and a quirky love story that too often verges on the boring rather than involving.

When even theatrical legend Hal Prince, as co-conceiver and original director, couldn't make a success of things on Broadway, warning bells should ring, as of course they have. So those who venture here despite all can't sensibly expect to right all the wrongs. 

Sound operators are by definition deaf and should follow the mantra that they first set the levels to ones they think appropriate and then reduce them by at least 25 per cent. The company, on the whole, can sing but thanks to too high volumes I felt I was being shouted at far too often. It's an easy matter to correct.

The band is very good by the way, Tom Chester is musical director, and with volumes turned down to a level at which it is easier to appreciate it, I suspect the score is at least in part worth a hearing.

To the cast David singles out above I would also add Aidan Banyard, whose opening solo massively raises expectations. He's a very good looking lad who seems to have it all, even managing to cry real tears at one point. He reminds me very much of a young Michael Ball, who got his big break in Manchester just across town from here...



Comment by Robert Beale

I'd echo most of the above. By the time I got to it, the actual sound level may have been turned down a bit, but the balance was still wrong because the instrumentals are an important part of the score. Of course I wasn't seated as near to the band as some people were, so the geography of the house is an issue, too.

I found it a powerful and moving show, and I'm sure the main reason Americans don't like it is that the truth about what lurks beneath some stones there is not nice at all. All the more reason to tell it.

Outstanding performances for me were those of Tom Lloyd (Leo) and Laura Harrison (Lucille): of course they are the heart of the story and there are 23 other named roles shared by 13 other cast members, so they're the only ones who get much chance to develop character - but both are intense and absorbing performers. A good mark for William Whelton's choreography, too, well adapted to the differing abilities of the company members (and for the professional debut of Arden School trained Evie Blackstock, as Iola and dance captain). Personally I don't think Aidan Banyard should let Alan's comparison go to his head, though (as if ...!).