An Interview with Thomas Manson

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The riotous Riddlestick Theatre are winging into Brighton…


Hello Tom, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I’m was born and brought up in and around Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire. I am now based in Bristol.

When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
I first developed a passion for theatre when I was about seventeen whilst studying Theatre Studies at A-Level. I had always loved performing and when I was ten years old I had the illuminating experience of playing the crocodile in a local production of Peter Pan which was great fun. But I only really fell in love with it once a dog-eared copy of Equus was thrust into my unworldly hands.

Can you tell us about your training?
I studied Drama: Theatre, Film, Television at the University of Bristol. There was a great balance there between practical work and theory. You’re making theatre and films, but also thinking critically about the craft. I enjoyed studying everything from documentaries to Jacobean tragedies, and of course all of these things inform one another in very exciting, inspiring ways. The fact that Bristol is such a wonderful city also helps. Most of the Riddlestick troupe met whilst studying there.

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In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
I think the act of physically travelling to a space to watch something is very important in this day and age. It reframes and disrupts the pattern of everything being at our fingertips. And of course the inherent liveness of theatre is one of the things that makes it so magical. I remember hearing Complicite Artistic Director Simon McBurney quote Blaise Pascal in an interview with the Edinburgh International Festival: “The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” McBurney applies this rather sombre observation to the theatre by arguing that “in a way, the intensity of the moment of theatre in the present is about living.” It is a rare moment where, if the performance engages us, we collectively live in the present. These days, we need as much of that as we can get!

What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Beer in hand, looking at the Championship league table and seeing Leeds United in the top two.

You are a co-founder of Riddlestick Theatre; where, when & with whom was the company founded?
I founded the company with Kate Stokes back in 2016 in Bristol. However, the idea came a couple of years earlier when we were still at university. Kate and I write the shows together and Kate also plays the enchanting Madame Fanny. She is the company mastermind.

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What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create?
That’s an important question, because creating an atmosphere is such a vital part of what we do on stage with Riddlestick. Echoing the minstrels and performers of bygone eras, we want to revitalise the tradition of travelling actor/musicians popping up in all sorts of different spaces and entertaining all sorts of diverse audiences. In a Riddlestick show, music fills the space. Stepping into a room with us should be like stepping into a secret carnivalesque party full of friends. A bit like in the film Titanic when Jack takes Rose down to the Irish party in third class. There’s a real sense of fun. There can be a lot of pretentiousness and snobbery in theatre. Shows that aim to make people laugh and have a good time are sometimes dismissed as being silly and somehow worth less. We’re certainly trying to cut through that. The simple act of bringing people together to share a story is hugely valuable in its own right.

You know a good show when its happened, what are the special ingredients?
As I’ve just mentioned, atmosphere is a really important part of it. There’s an elusive, ineffable aura that comes with some shows. Sometimes it hits you immediately, and sometimes it crawls up on you weeks later. Fascination. I like to feel fascinated. Whether it be a West End musical or a verbatim play about toxic masculinity, it’s always nice to be left with a mind full of fascination. In the immortal words of Danish pop group Alphabeat: “we live on fascination.”

Can you tell us about The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé?
The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé invites the audience to meet the eccentric 18th century explorer, Madame Fanny, and to take their pick from her cabinet of curiosities. For whichever curio they choose, we perform the elaborate tale behind it. Amongst other crazy events, she battles with pirates and parties with Marie Antoinette. But while we’re all revelling in her outrageous stories, somebody far more serious is on the way to bring her down to earth. It’s a celebration of curiosity and story-telling, with lots of live original music, and we allow the audience to hand-pick the tall tales they are told.

Can you tell us about the musical side of ‘The Cabinet’.
Music is a huge part of the show! For starters, there are lots of songs. We draw inspiration from a different genre for each of the different stories we tell, Django Reinhardt hot jazz and Kraftwerk-inspired surreal techno to name but a couple; all woven together with our folky sound. Pretty much the entire show is underscored. I guess if I had to pick one primary influence, it would be Balkan folk music. You can head to our Spotify and Vimeo pages to get a taste of the music we like listening to. On stage with us we have a guitar, cello, piano-accordion and six voices that help conjure up Fanny’s world of adventure. Most of the time, we’re performing in very intimate spaces which really allows us to fill the room with sound whilst creating a real spectacle in the process.

Being a pop-up theatre, you must have to make certain sacrifices in stagecraft – can you give us an example or two of what is affected, & how as a troupe you adapt to the situation?
We love it! Aside from making technical rehearsals a hell of a lot easier, it is actually very freeing. It’s about stripping theatre back to its storytelling essence. There’s no hiding place. We create this array of worlds on stage with only our words, bodies, instruments and a little basket of props. And most importantly, it means we can be truly accessible and take the show everywhere and anywhere. One of my favourite memories of doing this show was when we performed it in a forest at Brainchild Festival (just up the road from Brighton), peeping out from behind trees, the audience all huddled together in blankets, the sun peeking through the branches, with only the distant sound of kids wailing at the nearby Go Ape to compete with.

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You are bringing ‘The Cabinet’ to this year’s Brighton Fringe, what are your thoughts on that romantic, seagirt city?
I love coming to Brighton (usually on a replacement bus). It’s an incredibly vibrant, welcoming and creative place. Plus it’s often sunny when I’ve been there. Long may that continue.

You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
Come to our riotous musical comedy and choose the curious tales we tell! Action, romance, comedy, tragedy, brilliant live music, a fabulous and fierce leading lady and a bunch of men in dresses. One of the Guardian’s Best Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe 2018!

What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
We have a couple of other festival dates cropping up later this year, and I’m delighted to say that Fanny will be going on another summertime jaunt to the Scottish capital in August. Beyond that, there may well be a new show lurking up our collective sleeves.


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The Cabinet of Madame Fanny…

The Warren

May 4-6 (20:30)

www.riddlestick.co.uk

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Jospeh And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

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Edinburgh Playhouse
Until the 23rd March

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Sir Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Loydd Webber’s first outing together, created in the olden days and a firm favourite of Musical Lovers Worldwide. An all-singing, all-dancing exploration of the Old Testament. Fusing contemporary style’s and religious mysticism with sibling rivalry being rife, all 11 brothers hated Joseph because of his prophetic dreams revealing that one day his brothers would all bow down to him. The final straw was his Dad giving Joseph the only Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat in existence. Exacerbated with fashion envy, Joseph is sold into slavery at an early age by his 11 brothers, preventing him from becoming their father’s favourite. Joseph’s new career as a slave to a Pharaoh in Egypt sees him become The Pharaoh’s fave slave, with his dreams become even more prophetic, ensuring a career as a Psychic in Egypt. Reconciling 20 years later, Joseph forgives his brothers and they all take turns with the coat. And everyone lives happily ever after.

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Being a Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Virgin, I wanted the performance to tell the tale. The enthusiastic opening night audience knew every lyric word perfect; indeed, most were on their feet dancing and singing by the end of the performance – and of course, the songs from the production have become famous classics. The Opener, Joseph’s Coat, always makes me cry, & with a supporting choir of children and amazing orchestration, the amazing reproduction of the Playhouse sound system, along with a cast of very enthusiastic dancers this production was a beautiful sensory overload. Fantastically choreographed and given a contemporary take by Gary Lloyd.

The performance didn’t work for me because I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I gave up trying in the end and enjoyed the spectacle of each individual song, it was all song and no dialogue. Had I not have been given a review programme, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I had just seen. The Pharaonic Elvis was just a little too much for my head to take in, but saying that I was probably the only person in the house who didn’t own the soundtrack and had never seen this musical before. On the whole though, both my beautiful companion and myself thoroughly enjoyed tonight’s Mumble outing. I’m not sure if it made for a cohesive whole, but it was very pretty and the songs were lovely.

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The Cast.
Joseph. Jaymi Hensley
Narrator. Trina Hill.
Jacob, Henry Metcalf.
Pharoe. Andrew Geater.
Benjamin. Alex Hetherington.
Mrs Potiphar. Amber Kennedy.
Reuben. Arthur Bone.
Issachar. (The Baker) Ed Tunningley.
Simeon. Lewis Asquith.
Napthali. George Best.
Judah. Mikey Jay-Heath.
Gad. Matt Jolly.
Levi . Corey Mitchel.
Zebulan. Joshua Robinson.
Dan. Callum Connolly.

Jersey Boys

 

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Edinburgh Playhouse
Feb 19-Mar 2, 2019

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The Edinburgh Playhouse, 2019, let the games begin! I was one of an almost full house for this one, tho’ admittedly I knew very little about what I was going to see. I like it that way, keeps an unbiased mind free to review. But now I am biased, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons are wicked! The true test of a musical is to be humming & the whistling & singing snatches of half-remembered lyrics, constantly seeing after seeing the show. Yes, that’s what happened with Jersey Boys – their tunes are proper cheeky, proper fun – while I’m Working My Way Back to you girl is on my tongue as I type.

“Trios are out, quartets are in.”
Tommy DeVito

For me Jersey Boys was of course, top-notch entertainment, but it was more, much more, it was an education into Jerseybeat – a unique corner of 60s pop music obscured the British devotion to The Beatles etc. But OMG, Franki Valli & his boys have a wonderful oeuvre of classic tunes, they kept coming like rainbows on the Gulf Stream & a cool biopic to back ’em up. This biopic, then, was slick, snappy, & based upon interviews with the four lads themselves. “How much better does it get,” remark’d the bands main hit-writer, Bob Gaudio, “than to see your life pass before you, with a twenty-minute intermission, & never having to break sweat?”

In the hands of the four brilliant gallants on stage before us – Michael Watson (Frankie), Simon Bailey (Tommy DeVito), Declan Egan (Bob Gaudio) & Nick Massi (Dayle Hodge) – we were completely & relentlessly immured in the reality of the Four Seasons, so amazing were the performance levels. Band tensions bristl’d with energy; Mobsters meandered in & out of the action, as did the young Joe Peschi thirty years before his oscar; genuine streetwise New Jersey gags bubbl’d with comedy, & the music, the music was bangin.’
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To hear the original songs sung with such precision is what you want from such a genre, & of the many I’ve seen in recent years, it feels like Jersey Boys is the best!

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Kinky Boots

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Edinburgh Playhouse
Until Saturday 5th January

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My Editor phoned me on Monday to ask me if I would review tonight’s performance of Kinky Boots. I quickly did a bit of research and discovered it is a musical with the songs of Cindy Lauper. OOOOOOoooo I like her.Good Time! So I phoned my editor back and said sure, Divine would love this scoop. I had two tickets, so invited my lovely friend Maggie Cheyne.

I arrived early at The Playhouse and made my way to The Boards to pick up my tickets and Goodie Bag !!!!!!! A Goodie Bag That included, Two tickets, a program, some rather lovely bindis and a velvet Kinky Boot bauble – a very festive bribe. I turned around to see two very beautiful trannies doing a photo shoot. Such beauty and power; masculine femininity, classically beautiful femme faces. I was stunned by such beau, & felt a touch under dressed. Even though my freshly purple hair  looked nice, I got the glitter girl to tart me up a bit – sparkly glitter. ‘Hmmm,‘ I thought as I skipped down the steps to meet my lovely friend Maggie and the beautiful creatures followed me outside, ‘this is becoming more and more appealing by the moment.’ I was all a fluster. Maggie looked lovely and we made our way into the Playhouse. Our seats in the stalls, gave a perfect view of the stage, center stalls row P. Good Time! ❤

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The Plot: A son inherits a shoe factory in Northampton and it is faced with closure due to a slump in the market. Our hero has to travel from London to the shoe factory in Northampton, leaving his hot girlfriend behind. Hot girlfriend wants to close the factory and turn the building into flats. Our hero wants nothing to do with the plan. Instead, he turns the shoe factory’s fortunes around with an all-singing, all-dancing cast of extremely convincing Trannies. Creating a range of high-heeled thigh boots that form a high-brow fashion show in Milan (tasty). Successfully turning the factory’s fortunes around. Saving the jobs of the people employed there. Hot girlfriend moves back to London. Hot boyfriend wants to stay with his shoe factory, so moves on to a blonde chick who had a better voice, but was the exact opposite of what he had before. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘Its a rebound.’

The Performance: The Playhouse was full, right up to the gods, every seat was taken. The capacity audience were up for it the lights went down and a spectacular performance struck us all, fresh from a sell-out run in the West End of London. It totally kicked off in Edinburgh tonight. Productions of this caliber are few and far between, and everything about it set my creative juices on fire with a clever script brilliantly directed. Romance, passion, romantic tragedy, rebounds, superbly convincing transvestites, high-heeled boots with a happy ending – and the songs of Cindy Lauper telling the tale. The stage sets and lighting were just as spectacular. Possibly the greatest cabaret I have ever seen and been delighted by. Lola the lead tranny’s vocal performance brought the house down. Divine’s favourite line was, “Ladies and Gentlemen and for the ones that are nae sure”. This was a performance that reached out to everyone’s inner She-Male. Every heart in the Playhouse shone tonight, to the delight of Kinky Boots.

Absolutely Fantastic
5 Stars All Round
Bravo
❤ Divinexx

Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert

five-stars

The Producers

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The Pleasance Theatre
Edinburgh
27th November – Saturday 1st December


It was a mild wet and windy night as I cut across the city, not too dissimilar to August Fringe time. The last time I had been at the Pleasance was for a Fringe Production. Tonight was like a step back into August. Having never seen Mel Brooks’ film The Producers before, tonight’s brilliant and very clever cast were going to have to sell it to me. My beautiful companion Natalie was well versed in tonight’s proceedings. The theatre was comfortable. And with a full orchestra warming up, it set the tone for this all singing, all dancing romp through the Third Reich.

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A producer (Max Mclaughlin) and an accountant (Rob Merriam) have set out to create a musical in as bad taste as possible, Creating a Broadway smash when it was intended to be a flop at the box office, for dodgy accounting purposes. A musical within a musical. Titled Springtime For Hitler. Just to piss off any real Nazis, the SS were all camp queens. With a very clever use of a few props and stage lighting, the scene changes were very convincing. Each of the characters was faithfully portrayed, this is dark comedy indeed. Reproduced beautifully and with the perfect song. The accountant’s neurosis was a touch unconvincing, the shouty bits were the only reminder that this was a Fringe show. That all changed once he fell in love with Ulla (Georgie Rodgers). Ullas’s singing voice was fantastic.

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On the whole the subject matter is too disturbing to be light-hearted entertainment. How Mel Brooks got away with it in the first place bewilders me. In equally bad taste as Theresa May The Musical would be. The ironic thing is, Mel Brooks was a Jew. Interestingly, male homosexuality had just been made legal in 1967. The Producers was released in 1968 to a British audience. I wonder how well it went down? In 2019, however, all the cast members and orchestra involved in this Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group production put in maximum effort and gave 100%. Well done everyone.

Review: Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert

Photos: Gav Smart

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Motown the Musical

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Edinburgh Playhouse
Until December 8th

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Motown the musical is a jukebox jamboree, with superslick set changes which painted a picture of the era to perfection. Berry Gordy was the mastermind behind the Motown explosion, with this retrospective being based on his own book, To Be Loved: the Music. The Magic. The Memories of Motown. He is played by the wondrously voiced Edward Baruwa, whose drive, motivation & precise ear for what sells is retold with a series of lyrical & poetic vignettes. His love affair with Diana Ross is a major subplot, with Karis Anderson pulling off a stella & Diva performance. Add these to an extremely strong supporting cast, & of course those hit-hit songs, then we have a consummate mix.

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This is a tale of dreams & ambition replaced by a Shakespearean finale tilted on power & money. All the greats are present; Nathan Lewis depicts Smokey Robinson with youthful cheeriness. Shak Gabbidon-Williams was a marvel as Marvin Gaye, while the boy who played the young Michael Jackson, altho’ not quite to the levels of the original, which made one realise just how brilliant Michael Jackson was in his pre-teen pomp. With its iconic costumes & that eternal soundtrack, one revels in the former glories of superstars, & enjoys a real foot-tappy sing-alonga joy-ride.

Damo

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