Reviews Section

This page is for reviews of arts and culture activities in and around Darlington, from exhibitions to theatre shows, live music, places of interest, family-friendly events, comedy clubs etc. If you’d like to send a review for consideration, please email

Index (click on titles to see reviews):

A Murder is Announced
Stones in His Pockets
Darlington Orchestra Summer Concert 2019
Death and the Maiden
Jeremy and James Chen’s piano recital
Darlington Orchestra Winter Concert 2019
Aladdin 2018
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
‘Night, Mother

Please note that opinions here are those of the reviewers and not DfC.

A Murder is Announced

Review by Julie Vickerman, 10th September 2019

Well, I didn’t guess ‘who did it’ until the intriguing ending. This well-acted production will especially appeal to Agatha Christie enthusiasts. It is set during the 1950s in the village of Chipping Cleghorn, where it turns out a lot of the characters have lived for just a short time.

When a murder is announced via an advert in the local paper, the villagers assume it is a game and all gather at Letitia Blackstock’s home as instructed, and then a murder actually occurs. Can any of those villagers be trusted and are any of them who they seem to be?

Luckily, Miss Marple (played by Sarah Thomas) is staying in the area and with her usual quiet observation helps Inspector Craddock unravel the deadly plot.

Particular praise goes to the main character Letitia (played by Kazia Pelka) and her old friend Bunny who suffers with her memory but remembers valuable pieces of information along the way. In a further twist, there is a second murder to add to the intrigue.

This is a very well-acted piece of traditional Agatha Christie, played out to a large audience at the Darlington Hippodrome tonight.

Go see it to figure out whodunit!

Venue: Darlington Hippodrome
Dates and times: 10-14 September 2019 7.30pm

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Review by Helen Devonshire, 24th July 2019

Is it possible to condense all those favourite and familiar elements from 10 series of Friends into two hours?

The format has worked with other long-running TV series transferring to the stage, such as The Vicar of Dibley, ’Allo ’Allo or Only Fools and Horses. They usually appeal to long-term fans and newcomers alike by recycling a story from a few popular episodes… but Friendsical doesn’t even try that approach.

The actors very ably imitate the popular characters and the famous actors who played them for those 10 lucrative years. Here, the six main friends are played by Jordan Fox (Joey), Sarah Goggin (Monica), Jamie Lee-Morgan (Ross), Thomas Mitchells (Chandler), Ally Retberg (Phoebe) and Charlotte Elisabeth Yorke (Rachel), with Duncan Burt and Rebecca Withers as support. And they gallop through 236 episodes of the iconic series with an affectionate and anarchic nod to most things associated with Friends. Think of your top-10 scenarios and you’ll find them in the show somewhere… but definitely not where/when you’d expect.

The timelines are warped or just ignored in this show but that is all part of the parody. The characters step out of character occasionally to explain that there really is no explanation for the story! All the essentials of the Friends series have been lifted out of context, thrown up in the air and reassembled on a colourful stage with smooth scene changes that pay homage to two Manhattan apartments and a coffee shop.

You don’t need to be a Friends superfan but if you’ve never seen the show you might be baffled by random references to lobsters, the recurring Janice, triplets, Richard’s moustache, Rachel’s nose, games night, Chloe-the-copy-girl, English Emily, multiple marriages and more. But embrace the confusion and there’s plenty to enjoy with original songs that push the story along or skate over it (as applicable). The cast belt out the tunes with energy and enthusiasm and the dance routines are enjoyable to watch even if you don’t catch every Friends reference flying past.

In answer to the original question here ‘is it possible…?’ the answer is ‘yes’. Does it make sense? Not at all! However, if you leave any cravings for plot or logic in the foyer, this manic musical is fun, fast, and Friend-ly.

Venue: Darlington Hippodrome
Dates and times: 24-27 July 2019 at 7.30pm (matinee Saturday 2.30pm)
Age guidance: 10+
Running time: approx. 140 minutes including 20-minute interval

Friendsical is written and directed by Miranda Larson. Design is by Anthony Lamble, lighting by Dom Jeffery, sound by Julian Butler. Composer is Barrie Bignold, choreographer Darren Carnall, associate choreographer Michael Vinsen and it’s produced by Birdbrooke Entertainment Ltd.

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Stones in His Pockets

Review by Helen Devonshire, 15th July 2019

When Hollywood sets up in rural Ireland to make a historical-romance movie, it brings with it dreams and despair. Most of the locals are swept along in the film-making frenzy, from those cast as earthy-looking extras to the bar staff, or they want to be involved but aren’t and that leads to tragedy.

We’re introduced to an array of characters through the eyes of cheeky chancer Charlie Conlon (Kevin Trainor) and more cynical Jake Quinn (Owen Sharpe), including the movie’s director, voice coach, security guard, a local old-timer whose claim to fame is being the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man. And along the way we meet Jake’s teenage drug-using cousin Sean Harkin who was thrown out of the pub for hassling the spoilt American movie star Caroline Giovanni.

Jake and Charlie are each on the run from failures of their own and want their chance of fame and fortune, but mostly just the 40 quid a day paid to extras.

One of the main features of this play is that two actors perform all the roles, just by changing movement and voices, some exaggerated mannerisms, and the audience’s imagination. The stage design by Peter McKintosh is simple but atmospheric, with sound (Paul Groothius) enhancing the visuals while the actors effortlessly conjure up characters with a flick of non-existent hair, a spin while walking across the stage, or by swigging invisible pints in the pub. The lighting (Howard Harrison) also helps with scene setting as the audience are drawn in when Aisling – the ambitious third assistant director – barks instructions at unruly extras.

But the novelty doesn’t detract from the tragicomedy moving forward at a pace. Lindsay Posner’s direction swaps from comedy to tragedy and back to laugh-out-loud moments via the script’s witty one-liners and deeper political comment. As Tinseltown and the failing rural economy collide, the locals who’ve grown up dreaming of the American dream are exposed to the reality behind the glitz. They discover that moviemakers have struggles of their own, from financial pressure following a death that has an impact on the whole community, to unpredictable weather and actors’ accents and allergies.

The award-winning play was written by Marie Jones in 1996 for DubbleJoint Theatre Company in Dublin, at the start of the film-making boom in Ireland. It tackles some hefty issues of expectation, exploitation, mental health and suicide, but the tragic side is sensitively handled and optimism and humour shine through.

Go for the quick-change characters, stay for the heartwarming storyline – and that Irish-dancing scene.

Venue: Darlington Hippodrome
Dates and times: 15-20 July 2019 at 7.30pm (matinees Thursday 2pm and Saturday 2.30pm)
Produced by: Rose Theatre Kingston and Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Age recommendation: 14+ (mentions of suicide)
Running time: approx. 110 minutes including 20-minute interval

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Darlington Orchestra Summer Concert 2019

Review by Ryan Humphrey

On Saturday 6th July, Darlington Orchestra invited audiences to enjoy a night of incredible live music at their annual summer concert. The orchestra has been running since the late 1950s and for this concert it had about 55 players which, as conductor David Plews explained, allows the orchestra to push their boundaries and try more complex pieces. This event was an excellent example of that.

Beginning with a selection from Die Meistersinger, composed by well-known music theorist Richard Wagner, the orchestra handled twisting melodies and different sections with ease. Next, the orchestra played Carl Friedmann’s lively Slavonic Rhapsody which highlighted individual talents of some players. For example, Sarah Plews’ clarinet solos floated beautifully above the orchestra.

Other pieces in the varied programme included children’s dances by Kodály, a selection of Irish folk tunes by WH Myddleton, and Purcell’s Trumpet Tune and Air. Jim Hall did a standout job of playing solos in the latter piece, showcasing the true timbre of the trumpet.

Any audience member who was at the January 2018 concert will remember the delightful voice of Sophia Nikolaiets. This year’s summer concert provided another opportunity to hear her as she performed O Mio Babbino Caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi, accompanied by the orchestra. In the aria, the character Lauretta begs her father Gianni to let her marry the love of her life but her father has other plans. Sophia brought emotion to the music in a way that brought the story to life.

A mention must also go to St. Herbert’s Singers who were special guests for the evening. The choir were undertaking their first public performance and provided a real vocal treat for audiences. One highlight was the traditional South African hymn Siyahmabe that showed the singers’ skills and had audience members clapping and swaying along.

The last piece of the evening was The Dam Busters March by Eric Coates. Its familiar rhythm and theme definitely stuck with many people after the concert because they could be heard whistling the tune while leaving the Dolphin Centre! The orchestra played the interweaving melodies and exhilarating finale at a pace that left the audience wanting more – and we’re all beginning the countdown to the next concert.

  • Darlington Orchestra Winter Concert is on Saturday 25th January 2020 in Central Hall 7.30pm

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Death and the Maiden

Review by Helen Devonshire, 13 June 2019

The story unfolds in the beach house of Paulina and Gerardo Escobar in an unnamed country that is in the early stages of trying to establish a democracy after years of dictatorship rule. This tense thriller explores what happens when feelings are repressed and then forced into the open by unwanted events.

Paulina (Claire Bibby) is at home and becomes distressed when she hears an unfamiliar car draw up at the house and she grabs a gun to protect herself. The explanation seems innocent enough when her husband Gerardo (Andrew Fettes) tells Paulina that a stranger gave him a lift home because his car broke down at the roadside.

After some discussion between the couple about Gerardo being offered a job by the president on a new commission to bring to justice people who caused numerous deaths in the previous regime, it becomes apparent that Paulina lives in constant fear having been raped and tortured years earlier. Her argument is that there is still no justice for survivors, the government is interested only in those cases where captives were killed.

The stranger returns at midnight, which unsettles Paulina and Escobar, to offer to help Gerardo the next day with collecting his car. As the men talk, Paulina is not in the room but hears them and is convinced she recognises the doctor’s voice as someone complicit in her torture.

Paulina becomes further convinced of the doctor’s identity when she finds a recording of Schubert’s quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’ in his car. This was the piece of music played while she was abused in captivity.

The following day, Paulina decides to take control and make the doctor (played by Keith Hill) confess his crimes. Gerardo is shocked by her actions, and his emotions are torn between his charming new friend and his vengeful wife; but he agrees to defend the doctor in this ‘trial’.

The three characters (pictured, photo credit William Walsh Photography) represent one case in a huge number of kidnapping, torture, rape and murder cases being exposed across the country. Paulina believes that the government will not pursue them all, so she needs to get justice her own way. And in the domestic setting, the political tension mounts as they circle the ‘reality’ of the situation, and the balance of power shifts between them. Who is the victim and who is in charge? Is the person in authority always the one armed with a gun or someone armed with the truth, or at least a desire to find the truth?

This intense and thought-provoking tale is not an easy watch at times, but the compelling performances help the audience care about what happened to the characters and what will become of them. With its violent themes and language, it raises many disturbing questions about memory, manipulation, perception and even the definition of right and wrong in different situations.

  • Baroque Theatre Company’s production of ‘Death and the Maiden’ – written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman in the early 1990s – is directed by Sarah Gain. Artistic director Adam Morley, producer Claire Bibby.
  • Reviewed performance was at The Majestic, Darlington
  • National tour May to July 2019

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Jeremy and James Chen’s piano recital

Review by Janet Evans, Sunday 19 May 2019

It was thrilling to hear the young pianists, Jeremy (13) and James (15) Chen performing to a sizeable audience in Darlington as part of the Darlington Arts Festival 2019. They both announced their pieces and this was well received.

The opening work in Jeremy’s recital, Haydn’s Sonata in C major Hob XVl:50 is tricky at the best of times but notes and rhythms were produced with ease in this rhythmic, shapely performance. Jeremy followed this with Bach’s C sharp major prelude and fugue. The prelude, at a very lively tempo flowed beautifully with even touch, with the main elements of the fugue style well enunciated. The Chopin scherzo in B minor op.20 was played with musicality and confidence, as was his fluid rendering of Liszt’s “Au bord d’une source” and though not fully conveying the menacing character of his final piece, Prokofiev’s “Suggestion Diabolique”, the performance had considerable drive and produced a rousing finish to a polished recital.

James was secure and committed in his rendering of Beethoven’s D major Sonata Op.10 no.3 and the tempo of the slow movement was particularly apt, providing some repose between the presto first movement and lively minuet but also projecting depth of tone and mood such is rarely heard in such a young player. The humour of the final two movements was well projected too. It was easy to imagine the activity of Debussy’s “Poison d’or” from Images book 2 in this dexterous, imaginative, poised and colourful performance and the melody was well-projected in Liszt’s challenging F minor Transcendental Etude. The final work, Chopin’s Scherzo no.4, demonstrated to the full James’s ability to communicate with the audience. This performance had breadth, a firm grasp of finger technique; excellent, subtle use of pedal and considerable musical maturity.

Their piano-duet encore, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no 3 in F, provided a charming finish to this delightful recital, a worthy addition to the Arts Festival and to Darlington Piano Society‘s season.

  • Recital took place on Sunday 19 May 3pm in Central Hall, Darlington

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Darlington Orchestra Winter Concert 2019

Review by Elaine Barnett, Saturday 26 January 2019

Things went with a swing on Saturday night as Darlington Orchestra performed its Winter Concert before a packed house in the town’s Central Hall.

In a programme spanning three centuries and two continents the orchestra, under the baton of David Plews, set off on an engaging European journey taking in waltzes, a polka and a spot of marching along the way before going transatlantic to showcase Henry Mancini and legendary Hollywood crooner Bing Crosby.

The mood was set with Johann Strauss the Younger’s Waldmeister Overture, by turns lively and lilting, followed by the melodic Slavonic Serenade by British bandleader and conductor Charles Shadwell.

Famous names filled the programme: Bedrich Smetana’s Bartered Bride festive polka upped the tempo beautifully; Mozart featured through one of his best-known tunes the energetic Turkish March; Haydn with the Minuet and Trio from his so-called “Surprise” Symphony; and there was a lovely selection of Tchaikovsky waltzes, including those from Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty ballets.

Some less-familiar pieces thrown into the mix added further layers of interest for both performers and audience. Caprice Hongrois, or Hungarian Caprice, by Italian-born composer Ferraris is a stirring folk-influenced work that made technical demands in the violin solos, to which orchestra leader Iryna Zagorna was more than equal.

Another unexpected delight was the rumbunctious Banditenstreiche Tours de Bandits, or Jolly Robbers Overture, by Franz von Suppé, which more than lived up to its name, painting pictures of the sometimes swaggering, sometimes furtive, but decidedly jolly robbers.

As always, the concert featured guest performers, in this case the Cockerton Prize Silver Band, who demonstrated their skill and versatility with pieces as diverse as the haunting Benedictus and the smile-inducing theme from The Muppet Show.

Rounding off another successful concert was Mancini’s Charade, written for the movie thriller of that name and wonderfully evocative of a lonely walk through empty Paris streets where part of the story was set, before the orchestra signed off on a cheerful note with a Crosby medley, going out with a Bing.

  • Summer Concert 2019 was on Saturday 6th July
  • Ticket prices £7/£5
  • Next concert is 25th January 2020

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Review by Hannah Roberts, December 2018

Darlington Hippodrome’s pantomime Aladdin is full to the brim with magic, music and laughs. The show stars the spirited Louie Spence, festive favourites Eric Potts, Zoe Birkett and comic Liam Mellor.

Based on the Disney film classic, this fairytale fantasy provides plenty of pantomime splendour. The cast understand what makes a memorable pantomime and they deliver some truly unforgettable moments including the original song ‘Darlo’. The show is wonderfully supported by enthusiastic dancers and a live orchestra, meeting the demands of those who dislike recorded music.

Louie Spence excels as Genie of the Ring as he brings all the mischief to the role that a family audience would expect. Some of his jokes were a little risqué but they will fly over the heads of children and land firmly in the ears of eager adult audiences. Louie is ably assisted by Robin Askwith as evil mastermind Abanazar, and he delivers the role with all the delightful deviousness you could want as his dastardly master plan for world domination plays out.

Other supporting characters were easily knitted into the two-hour timeframe, including Zoe Birkett who shines in both musical and acting talent as Princess Jasmine. There is plenty of laughter throughout, with no fillers or messy scenes, and the story flows well and reaches the closing scene before anyone fidgets in their seats.

Qdos Entertainment, the production company, provided some great tricks to pull off the stunts in this year’s offering. One stand-out element is when Aladdin flies over the orchestra without it being obvious in the stalls how it is done, which was similar to a stunt that was done last year. However, the giant Genie clearly was worn out from all those wishes he had been granting because he had trouble staying in sync with the rest of the play. Despite this technical difficulty, it was great fun as we all know that all good pantos need those magical moments that make the audience laugh spontaneously.

Aladdin is definitely one for your Christmas list this season.

Venue: Darlington Hippodrome
Date and time: From 8th December 2018 to 6th January 2019, see venue website for times
Running time: about 120 minutes

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Review by Helen Devonshire, 13th October 2018
(preview seen at Nottingham Theatre Royal)

Prepare yourself for a terrifying trip as the deceptively simple monochrome staging transports you through a colourful vampire tale. The set travels from wild and windy Whitby, via the local asylum, across Europe to a Transylvanian castle, transforming between those three main locations for most of the play’s action. And what a lot of action there is.

Based on Bram Stoker’s novel published in 1897, the epic narrative has been adapted for the stage by Jenny King and directed by Eduard Lewis. It is packed with all essential elements of the Count Dracula legend – including the madness of Renfield (Cheryl Campbell) and her gruesome eating habits, the initial innocence of Mina and Lucy, plus the men who try to save them. All the characters’ lives intertwine around the vampire’s search for pure souls to corrupt.

Jonathan Harker (Andrew Horton) leaves his loyal fiancée Mina Murray (Olivia Swann) at home in Whitby as he travels to Transylvania to visit the count on what should be a dull clerical errand.

Back in Whitby, Mina and her friend Lucy (Jessica Webber) are left vulnerable to the attentions of Dracula. Lucy’s behaviour changes dramatically and her friends believe she is suffering from an ‘infection’ that makes her as cold as the grave. When Jonathan returns, and in an attempt to help discover what happened to Lucy, he recounts his visit to the castle and describes activities undertaken by the vampire and his undead supporters who prowl through the story in well-choreographed menace that contrasts with formal buttoned-up Victorian society.

Lucy’s hapless suitor Doctor Seward (Evan Milton) also attempts to discover what ails her by drawing on the experience of madwoman Lady Renfield, who thinks she has a hotline to the vampirical count. Finally, vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing (Philip Bretherton) is called upon to challenge the powerful and seemingly irresistible Dracula (Glen Fox) in a classic spine-chilling battle between good and evil.

Dracula is a dark feast for the senses, with supernatural happenings, super visual effects, love, loss and longing. What more could you want from a Gothic horror story? All human life – and death – is here.

Venue: Darlington Hippodrome
To book, visit Darlington Hippodrome website
Dates and times: 6th to 10th November 7.30pm (matinees Thursday 2pm and Saturday 2.30pm)
Age recommendation: 16 years and over
Short clip of the production on

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‘Night, Mother

Review by Madeleine Sutcliffe, 9 June 2018

Applause Theatre produced an abridged version of ‘Night, Mother by American playwright, Marsha Norman, as part of the Darlington Arts Festival 2018 – and the final performance was on Saturday 16th June 2018 in Gainford.

Directed by Alan Anderson, the play revolves around two members of the dysfunctional Cates family living in small-town southern America. Mama Thelma (played by Samantha Bradshaw) and her daughter Jessie (played by Emma Simpson) begin an ordinary Saturday evening at home as Mama awaits her weekly manicure from Jessie, who suffers from epilepsy, depression and self-doubt. Jessie’s marriage has failed, and she is estranged from her troubled son Ricky.

What happens when, instead of providing a manicure, Jessie informs Mama about her plans for a life-changing event that would have a profound effect on Thelma? Can Thelma persuade her daughter to wait a little longer before taking action? The evening descends into an edge-of-seat and grippingly dark drama where no one can predict the end with certainty.

Both Samantha and Emma give outstanding and emotionally searing performances. They have also mastered the challenge of acquiring a Deep Southern accent.

The last performance of the play will be held on Saturday, June 16th at the Gainford Academy Theatre. Absolutely not to be missed!

Venue: Academy Theatre, High Green, Gainford DL2 3DL
Date and time: Saturday 16th June 7.30pm
Running time: about 60 minutes
Tickets: £8 on the door

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