Tale of American Civil War at Hope Mill Theatre

New fringe venue in Manchester hosts epic musical

Winner of the 1990 Tony Award for Best Score, Jason Robert Brown’s heart-rending musical is done immense justice in Manchester’s newest fringe venue, the Hope Mill Theatre.

Opening at the Confederate Memorial Day Parade in Atlanta, commemorating the loss of the American Civil War 50 years earlier. Parade tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man and superintendent of a pencil factory who was accused of abusing and killing his 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan. With the city of Atlanta demanding justice for this young girl, Leo is put on trial and framed for her murder.

Jason Robert Brown’s exceptionally crafted score is the emotional centre of the show, his music is mind-blowingly poignant and it is truly done justice by the phenomenal cast of Parade. Manchester’s newest fringe venue the Hope Mill Theatre is the perfect place to stage such an emotionally challenging show, the intimacy of the thrust staging allows the audience to connect deeply with the characters and their stories and emotions.

Aidan Banyard opens the show with his outstanding vocals during the triumphant Old Red Hill Of Home, as the song progresses and the ensemble join him on stage, the phenomenal vocal power is spine tingling. Banyard similarly conveys his compelling connection to his character during Mary Phagan’s funeral and the tragic number There Is A Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Leo Frank’s character is a tough musical theatre role to tackle but Tom Lloyd masters the role. His characterisation is utterly convincing as his character progresses during the show. Opening the show as a very proud and self-assured man, it is painful to watch his diminish in character as he reveals his lack of strength when the citizens of Atlanta turn against him. His emotionally moving solo It’s Hard To Speak My Heart will make your heart ache as you see an innocent man’s desperation.

The chemistry with his wife Lucille, played by Laura Harrison, is beautifully subtle until their duet All This Wasted Time which seriously pulls on the heart strings. Although Lucille maintains optimistic throughout, this is the real moment of hope as Leo displays his love for Lucille and restores his faith in her attempts to re-open the case.

Harrison exceeds expectations, she is a fine actor and her interpretation of the role is impeccable. She is a formidable woman and her determination is admirable, beneath the focus on the trial and injustice, the core of the musical is the story about love against all odds. Harrison’s solo You Don’t Know This Man is a highlight of the production; it is a breath-taking performance.

Racism is a theme explored in the show, Matt Mills who multi-roles as Jim Conley, Newt Lee and Riley provides a highly commanding performance. His versatility as an actor is evident as he switches between the arrogance of Jim Conley the factory cleaner and timid Newt Lee, the night watchman. His soulful duet with the maid Angela, played by Shekinah McFarlane is vocally outstanding.

Parade takes fringe performance to a whole new level, making you question why the remarkable Jason Robert Brown musical is rarely staged? Director James Baker took on this challenge and Manchester will be thankful that he did. His direction shows thorough research and an undeniable adoration for the show and it’s potential.

It’s rare to see a production so emotionally engaging, with musical theatre becoming so commercialised, Parade is a breath of fresh air and a truly astounding piece of theatre. With the gripping score, intense themes and masterly staging. Parade is a production that is entirely consuming, the intensity of the actor’s passion and dedication to their roles is unmissable.