Contributor Alan Povey offers a personal view on his first experience of seeing a show at Storyhouse:
Having visited Storyhouse several times since it opened back at the start of May, I have been able to enjoy the relaxed daytime nature of the building, utilising the cafe/bar, the children’s library; better known at “the den”, with my little boy, or just having a wander round and taking in the brilliance of what has gone into creating the space everybody is invited to enjoy.
So, after being sat in Storyhouse earlier in the week, I noticed tickets for the stage performance of Alice in Wonderland were on sale for just £15 each; this was a half-term offer that everybody could take advantage of. So, with babysitter arranged (mother-in-law), the wife and I were booked in for our first ever show in Chester’s newest and biggest public space. We also decided to book a table for a pre-theatre meal in the cafe/bar, to really get the full Storyhouse experience.
Our reservation wasn’t until 6.30, but having popped into one of Chester’s many fine watering holes; in this case Commonhall Street Social, for a quick 2/3 pint of cider (how very Shoreditch), we decided to make our way over to reservation a little earlier, if they weren’t ready for us, we could at least go and have read or a coffee. As it turned out they were ready, and by 6pm we were seated. The tables in Storyhouse range from long stainless steel type, where you could end up sitting next to a stranger, on one of the busier nights, or there are also smaller, more intimate tables too. Whilst we were on one of the longer tables, we had nobody next to us anyway.
We were quickly acknowledged and our drinks order was taken. As I was driving, and the wife isn’t a big drinker, we sadly only took in a lime and soda each, so unfortunately I didn’t get to sample the £4.40, 330ml bottles of beer that had recently caused some social media “fake-rage”.
We were soon ready to order and we both agreed to share a starter of bread, olive oil, za’atar and Hummus (£4.00). It was very quickly brought out to us and was a really nice start to a meal. It came with two large brown rolls and a large portion of Hummus. A bottle of olive oil is left at the table, so you can have as little or as much as you want from this. For those wandering what za’atar is, it’s basically a small dish of spices, which was also very tasty without being overpowering. We both finished up and a member of staff was over to clear it away for us. For main, my wife opted for the halloumi flatbread that came topped with pea shoots, pomegranate and molasses (£4.50). I opted for the salmon topped with salsa and hazelnut (£9.50). Again, the food was served very quickly and attentively. When placed down, you could see real care had been put into the presentation of both plates. The flatbread in particular looked fantastic value at just £4.50. Both dishes were polished off, with salmon being cooked to perfection; a nice crispy skin with a melt in the mouth salmon. The feedback from the wife about her flatbread was really positive too, with empty plates telling you everything. Given I literally had a piece of salmon, I was still a little peckish and so desert was ordered. I opted for the vanilla slice (£3.50) and my wife went for crème brûlée (£4.50). Again the food was brought to is in good time and both dishes were devoured. The crème brûlée was perfectly cooked with a really good caramel top that cracked with a nice tap of the spoon, and the vanilla slice was a good pallet cleanser.
In conclusion, we would definitely have a meal again in Storyhouse. The service was excellent and prompt, yet without feeling rushed and the relaxed nature of the area means you can be as formal or informal as you wish. The one gripe some may have is that the menu is a little limited at the moment. As it is very Mediterranean inspired, don’t expect to see burgers on the menu. Again, if your looking to indulge on a whole load of unhealthiness, it’s probably not for you either. A table of ten actually left as I think the menu didn’t appear to appeal to their pallets – I’m not sure why you would book a table for 10, without first checking the menu, but there you go. The staff were apologetic to the guests, but I suppose if nothing appeals to you, then there is not much that can be done. All in all, it was a pleasurable experience and as we had finished our meal with around 50 minutes before “curtains up”, we did what anybody else would do in Storyhouse. I had yet another wander around and my wife went upstairs and carried on reading a book she is currently reading at home – This is brilliance of Storyhouse…
And so here it was. The moment I had been looking forward too for basically two years. I already have tickets booked for Jon Richardson in September, but I was also really keen to see how the local rep perform their shows on the more intimate Storyhouse stage. Jon Richardson and the rest of the Autumn touring shows will be utilising the 800 capacity touring stage. So hopefully the intimacy of the 500 seats currently in use would offer a unique experience.
The one thing I find amazing about Storyhouse, is how when not in use, the theatre is almost tucked away and you wouldn’t know it was there. The only evidence of a theatre otherwise existing is evidence of a few numbered doors and signs that say “Storyhouse Staff Only”. During a performance though that changes. Suddenly blue polo wearing members of staff appear to provide you with guidance on which door to take; this is important as it depends on which half of the row you are on, and said doors are now wide open welcoming everybody in. I had purposely booked tickets in the circle as I felt the pit may seem to close, and given this was my first experience of a show, I didn’t want to sit looking down from the gallery. For anybody who is curious, the two seats we had were in row B and seats 22 and 23. They weren’t quite dead centre, but the view was clear and unobstructed.
The moment I walked into the theatre it really took my breath away. It didn’t feel like there was 500 seats in there and to be as close to the stage as we were was amazing. Now, my wife is not afraid to express a criticism and she too was blown away by it, even considering going along to one of the touring shows in the Autumn with her Mum I was sat like a little fan boy explaining all the little features of the theatre I had read about during its development. The vision that was outlined two years previous was here for me to finally see. Upon sitting down, it was great to be sat down in theatre where a) I could see over the person in front and b) my knees didn’t touch the seat in front. I am six feet, so not overly big, but not small either, and there was still a good few inches in front of me. The seats are very comfortable in their distinct and vibrant red colour.
The stage itself was close enough without imposing, and I would imagine even those in the gallery felt close enough to feel part of it. For Alice in Wonderland, there is a very unassuming faux brick façade in a dark grey type of colour as the backdrop. There was no sign of a dramatic curtain nor heavily financed stage props, so l was curious as to how this would play out. Bang on 7.30 the show started and the lights dimmed. After the best part of 15 years of personally having last watched one, I was now sat watching a professional stage show in Chester. Wonderful.
Now, many of you will have already read various reviews and synopsis of the show, so I am not going to bore you all with the same information. What I will say though, is that this adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is as bonkers as you would expect. Many of the cast play a couple of different roles throughout and each one plays them out with perfect aplomb, honestly these guys are sensational. The two Alice’s play their roles very differently, but with this adaptation implementing both the Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass stories, across two halves, it works so well. Apart from the madness, the only thing used on stage to identify “Wonderland” is an array of large letters dotted around. For me though, this works perfectly, as the focus becomes the actors on stage, not elaborate light effects or staging. There are also some clever local references in there, particularly from the Cheshire Cat. You will also hear and see some genuinely funny moments throughout. The second half of the performance brings the two Alice stories together and whilst it last for only around 45 minutes compared to the hour of the first part, it doesn’t feel rushed and it perfectly ties in everything together to make for a wonderful finale. The simple staging is also clearly to allow for simple moving of it to the open air theatre in the summer. Wonderfully ingenious.
As this is a write up on the experience, I must also mention the interval. Many members of the audience made their way to the bar. What amazed me as walked down the distinct red staircase was how many people were still milling around the building. This was 8.30pm in Chester, the city that apparently lacked a night-time culture for many years. There were people just enjoying a book, doing some studying, having a catch-up with friends or enjoying a coffee or glass of wine. This was the vision and here it was, working as it should; theatre, cinema, library and cafe/bar all working in unison. The break lasted 15 minutes, and while I believe most people got served, when the theatre is in full 800 seat mode, I would assume the plan will be to increase staffing numbers. Those behind the bar are very good, work with confidence and a smile, but when you are pouring wine and making hot drinks at the same time for a couple of 100 people, it can all become time consuming. Looking on the Storyhouse website, they have realised this already as they are looking for 5 members of staff to join the team.
At the conclusion of the show, my wife and I walked back to the car and spoke about how we felt about the evening. The fact is, we only ever got to see a show if we went to London, and that was because we were there for the weekend. Even the idea of travelling over to Liverpool felt like a chore, but now instead, we can travel 15 minutes and experience it in our home city. It was a wonderful evening and a pleasure to experience. In the day Storyhouse is a place for everybody to experience, but in the evening, it just effortlessly moves into a really proper evening out for the grown ups, able to get away from the stresses of day to day life and enjoy a good old fashioned night at the theatre in amazing surroundings.
Thanks to writer Alan Povey